Review: ‘Aline’ (2021), starring Valérie Lemercier

May 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Valérie Lemercier in “Aline” (Photo by Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Aline” (2021)

Directed by Valérie Lemercier

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Canadian province of Québec and various other parts of the world, the drama “Aline” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this dramatic film inspired by the life of French Canadian pop singer Céline Dion, fictional singer Aline Dieu overcomes childhood shyness to become a music superstar, but as an adult, she struggles with fame, infertility issues and her husband’s cancer diagnosis.

Culture Audience: “Aline” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Céline Dion and melodramatic movies about famous singers where the movies’ cinematic quality is questionable at best.

Valérie Lemercier and Silvain Marcel in “Aline” (Photo by Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Aline” is less of a Céline Dion tribute and more of a mishandled vanity project from director/writer/star Valérie Lemercier. In this frequently tacky drama, Lemercier portrays a superstar fictional singer named Aline Dieu (a character based on the real-life Céline Dion), from the ages of 5 to 50. Very few middle-aged people can convincingly depict a pre-teen child on camera. Unfortunately for the movie, Lemercier is not one of them.

It’s not a complete train wreck, but “Aline” is not very convincing as an “inspired by” biopic or as a work of fiction. And it has a lot to do with Lemercier’s often-cringeworthy performance of Aline as a child. Lemercier co-wrote the “Aline” screenplay with Brigitte Buc. And as the movie’s director, Lemercier had the bad judgment to cast herself in the role of Aline as a child. This directorial decision reeks of egotism and wanting to have as much screen time as possible, instead of casting a capable child actress in an age-appropriate role for the underage part of Aline’s life.

People who know Dion’s story already will find no surprises in “Aline.” The movie follows a “Behind the Music” format, by chronicling the rise of Aline from obscurity in Québec, to Canadian fame, to eventual international superstardom. Nearly one-third of the movie (which is told in chronological order) is about Aline under the age of 18. The movie shows Aline (just like the real Dion) growing up as a shy and introverted child in a loving and opinionated family that included her butcher father Anglomard Dieu (played by Roc Lafortune); her homemaker mother Sylvette Dieu (played by Danielle Fichaud); and eight sisters and five brothers.

Aline, the youngest child in her immediate family, first sings in front of an audience at the age of 5, at the wedding of one of her brothers. She instantly wows the crowd, of course. Aline and some of her siblings begin performing in the Dieu Family Band. (When she was a child, Dion also was in a singing group with some of her siblings.) The “Aline” movie also shows how—just like Dion in real life—Aline disliked school because other students bullied and teased her for her physical appearance of being very thin and having crooked teeth.

By the age of 12, Aline is co-writing songs and singing on Canadian television. And she catches the attention of a talent manager named Guy-Claude Kamar (played by Sylvain Marcel), who’s old enough to be Aline’s father. There are some “I can make this kid a star” scenarios, which lead to Guy-Claude signing on as Aline’s manager. But his feelings for her aren’t fatherly at all.

The movie is deliberately murky on some of the details (probably for legal reasons), but Guy-Claude (a very married man with adult children) and Aline eventually fall in love with each other when she’s in her mid-teens. “Aline” depicts it as a chaste romance, where Aline and Guy-Claude would just look at each other lovingly and occasionally hug and hold hands. According to this movie, when Aline and Guy-Claude would travel together, he would just tuck her into bed at various hotels, and there would be no sexual contact between them when she was an underage child.

If you believe this movie, Guy-Claude’s personality was so charming, Aline was the one who wanted the relationship to turn sexual, but Guy-Claude turned down her “advances” until she was at the legal age of consent for a sexual relationship. (In Canada, 16 is the minimum legal age of consent for sexual activities.) Viewers can make up their own minds about how realistic or unrealistic the movie’s scenarios are of this underage and sheltered child pushing to have a sexual relationship with an adult who is not only old enough to be the child’s parent but also has a position of authority and power over the child.

Aline’s protective mother Sylvette is very suspicious of Guy-Claude’s intentions to become more than Aline’s manager, so Sylvette threatens to harm him if he ever touches Aline inappropriately. Despite these threats, the fact is that Sylvette can’t be with Aline all the time. Aline and Guy-Claude spend a lot of time alone together behind closed doors, as he guides her career to more fame and fortune. Because of the creepy nature of Guy-Claude “falling in love” with underage Aline, it’s another reason why the scenes of Aline as a child make the movie look very awkward.

After a number of years, Aline becomes a legal adult. Guy-Claude announces that he’s getting divorced, and he eventually marries Aline. Her parents and siblings give begrudging approval, and they eventually accept Guy-Claude into the Dieu family. This acceptance probably had a lot to do with the fact that Guy-Claude was making Aline rich and famous.

The movie gets a little more interesting during this celebrity part of Aline’s life, but Lemercier’s performance as the adult Aline is still tainted by all the icky earlier scenes of her portraying a child who was seduced (and some would say exploited) by a man old enough to be her father. Marcel’s actor interpretation of Guy-Claude is as someone who was “misunderstood” and protective of Aline, while other people might see Guy-Claude’s attitude toward Aline as obsessive and controlling. The rest of the cast members’ performances are mediocre at best.

Every “inspired by” biopic about a famous entertainer has to include some tragedy and heartbreak, with the entertainer usually finding some way to recover on the road to a comeback. Unlike most famous singers, Dion (who was born in 1968) has not had a public battle with drug addiction or failed romances as the darkest moments in her life. Her most challenging personal experiences have to do with the deaths of her husband/manager and her brother within a short period of time. On January 14, 2016, Dion’s husband/manager Rene Angélil’s died of throat cancer, at the age of 73, just two days before he would have turned 74. On what would have been his birthday in 2016, Dion’s brother Daniel died of cancer.

Less tragic but still emotionally painful was her struggle to conceive children, which she eventually was able to do with the help of in vitro fertilization. In real life, Dion has three children, all sons: René-Charles (born in 2001) and fraternal twins Eddy and Nelson, born in 2010. The movie includes the expected emotional tug of war she felt when she had to leave her children behind during rigorous touring schedules, or when she couldn’t spend enough time with them as she wanted, because of the demands of her Las Vegas residency.

It’s all recreated in “Aline.” And because Dion’s life has been so public, none of this is spoiler information for the “Aline” movie. What makes it so hard to take is that this movie has a lot of cliché and hokey dialogue. And therefore, no further insight can be gained into what Dion’s life might have been really like behind the scenes, when so many of the movie’s conversations sound fake and too contrived. People can read Dion’s 2001 memoir “My Story, My Dream” for better insight into her early life, instead of the very bland version presented in this movie. And with a total running time of 126 minutes, “Aline” is just a little too long (with uneven pacing that sometimes drags) for what amounts to a scripted movie version of Dion’s Wikipedia page.

One of the ways that the movie badly falters is how it skimps on Aline’s performances, which include just snippets of Dion’s real-life songs. It’s an obvious sign that the movie couldn’t afford or were denied the rights to have renditions of Dion’s songs for longer than a minute. Most of the performances are less than a minute each, and they breeze by like a choppy music video. Victoria Sio, who provides the singing voice of Aline in this movie, does a fairly good impression of the real-life Dion, but this vocal talent can barely be appreciated when the songs aren’t played long enough in “Aline.”

And that’s not a good sign, when the performances are supposed to be the best part of this movie. The concert scenes of superstar Aline have faithful recreations of many of Dion’s real-life costumes and stage moves, but they are all superficial when the music is cut off so abruptly in many of these live performance scenes. Dion’s most famous hit—”My Heart Will Go On,” the Oscar-winning theme from 1997’s “Titanic”—is merely a blip in this assembly-line approach to showing Aline doing what she does best: sing. And a life as full of highs and lows as Dion’s deserves better than being treated as a formula that hits a lot of wrong notes.

Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Aline” in select U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022, with a wider expansion on April 8, 2022. The movie was released in Canada, France and other countries in 2021.

Review: ‘The Wolf and the Lion,’ starring Molly Kunz, Graham Greene, Derek Johns, Charlie Carrick, Evan Buliung, Rhys Slack and Rebecca Croll

March 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Molly Kunz in “The Wolf and the Lion” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“The Wolf and the Lion”

Directed by Gilles de Maistre

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in unnamed cities in Canada and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “The Wolf and the Lion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few indigenous people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring classical pianist illegally raises a wolf and a lion in her home, and she has conflicts with people who want to take these wild animals away from her.

Culture Audience: “The Wolf and the Lion” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching ridiculous and extremely corny movies about people’s interactions with wild animals.

Graham Greene and Molly Kunz in “The Wolf and the Lion” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

Extremely vapid on every level, “The Wolf and the Lion” is a poorly made drama that irresponsibly advocates for untrained people to raise large wild animals, such as a wolf and a lion, inside their homes. This amateurish-looking movie foolishly makes it look like people with enough love in their hearts for animals are automatically qualified to raise wild animals as if they’re domesticated pets. And according to “The Wolf and the Lion,” anyone who tries to take these animals out of these dangerous situations is automatically a villain.

That’s the entire story presented in “The Wolf and the Lion,” a horrendously cornball movie filled with the worst possible stereotypes of family-oriented animal movies, in order to warp reality and make it look like wolves and lions can be cuddly pets in the household. While “The Wolf and the Lion” has heavy-handed preaching about animal abuse in circuses, most of the movie hypocritically ignores the fact that keeping large wild animals cooped up in a house, instead of letting them roam free in their natural habitats, is another form of animal abuse. That’s one of many examples of how tone-deaf and idiotic this subpar film is.

Even though the titular wolf and lion in the movie were raised together in real life and actually are in the movie (as opposed to be being entirely created by visual effects), everything else about this story is very phony. The animals aren’t real in every scene though. There are some obvious cheap-looking CGI effects when the animals do unrealistic stunts.

In this world created in “The Wolf and the Lion,” viewers are supposed to believe that it should be perfectly normal to let these wild animals wander around unchecked and unsupervised in places where people and domesticated pets could genuinely be hurt or killed by these predatory animals. It might be acceptable if “The Wolf and the Lion” were a movie in the fantasy genre, but this movie was created to simulate the real world and to depict how wild animals should be handled by humans. Unfortunately, everything in this worthless movie is mishandled.

“The Wolf and the Lion” was directed by Gilles de Maistre and written by his wife Prune de Maistre. This husband-and-wife filmmaking duo can be blamed for unleashing (no pun intended) other low-quality, irresponsibly depicted animal movies on the public. Their other film credits include 2018’s “Mia and the White Lion” and “Jaguar My Love,” whose release date is to be announced.

In “The Wolf and the Lion,” which takes place in unnamed cities in Canada and briefly in New York City, the central human character is Alma (played by Emily Kunz), an aspiring classical pianist who’s in her early 20s. Alma was raised by her widower grandfather because her parents died when she was a very young child. In the beginning of the movie, viewers find out that Alma’s reclusive grandfather (her last living relative) has died, and she has inherited his small house in a remote wooded area in Canada, where she grew up with her grandfather.

Alma travels from New York City, where she’s been living for an untold period of time, to check out the house and deal with some legal affairs related to her modest inheritance. When she arrives back in her hometown, she’s greeted by her godfather Joe (played by Graham Greene), who lives nearby and encourages her to stay at the house where her grandfather lived. Alma agrees because she’s reluctant to go back to New York City, where she has an important music competition that has made her nervous because she’s afraid of failing.

Soon after arriving at the house, Alma sees home videos made by her grandfather, where he mentions that he made a new friend: a female snow wolf that he has not named. The wolf is shown in the videos roaming free in the nearby wooded area. And it’s at this point you know exactly who will be the mother of the wolf cub that Alma encounters later in the movie.

Around the time that Alma has settled into her new home, the same snow wolf is seen being tracked by two men who’ve been looking for a rare snow wolf. They are a scientist named Eli (played by Charlie Carrick) and an expert hunter/tracker named Charles (played by Derek Johns), who was hired by Eli for this trip in the woods. Eli runs a program where wild animals can be studied and re-introduced into the wild. Charles and Eli know there’s a snow wolf in the area and have set a trap.

And what about the lion in this movie? The movie’s opening scene shows a hunter (played by Frank Schorpion) shooting and killing a lioness, in order to take her cub. This male cub is going to be sold to a circus. The hunter takes the cub on a small private plane that he is piloting. He’s the only human on the plane. The plane crashes and the pilot is injured but unconscious, while the cub survives and falls into a tree.

Meanwhile, the trap that Charles and Eli have set has caught the snow wolf. Alma happens to see the trapped wolf when she’s walking in the woods, so she sets the wolf free by using a pocket knife. Alma also encounters Charles and Eli, who admit that they are looking for a snow wolf. She yells at them for illegally trapping the wolf, and she orders them to leave because they’re trespassing on private property.

Almost as soon as Charles and Eli leave, something happens that looks like it could only be in a movie: The orphaned lion cub literally falls from the tree right into Alma’s arms. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Of course, Alma loves animals, so she decides to take the cub home with her, where she feeds meals to the cub, such as meat and bottled milk.

Soon after finding the cub, another “only in a movie” moment happens: The snow wolf that Alma rescued shows up at her door with her male cub. And so, Alma takes in these two other animals too, as if her home is suddenly the local menagerie. Alma knows what she’s doing is illegal, but she doesn’t care, because misguided heroines in badly written animal movies cannot be stopped.

Eventually, mountain rangers come knocking on Alma’s door, because the circus that was expecting the cub has reported the cub missing, and the rangers want to know if Alma has seen the cub. The pilot was taken to a hospital and has told authorities about the general area where he thinks the lion cub could be. The lion cub was already microchipped by the pilot as a way to identify the cub if it’s found.

Alma was raised by her grandfather to be an animal advocate opposed to circuses. And so, when she finds out that the cub was captured to go to a circus, she lies to the mountain rangers and says that she hasn’t seen the cub. However, Alma’s godfather Joe eventually finds out that Alma is illegally keeping three wild animals in her home. He doesn’t approve, but he doesn’t report what he knows either.

The movie has an unnecessary subplot about how one of the mountain rangers, whose name is Ysae (played by Rebecca Croll), is an ex-girlfriend of Joe’s. Ysae broke up with Joe (it’s hinted that he cheated on her), and she’s very bitter about the breakup. And guess who’s going to be the ranger who’s the most fired-up about finding this lion and turning it over to the circus? It’s all just so contrived, in order for these two ex-lovers to be on opposite sides of this inevitable battle over the lion.

While Alma acts like she thinks she’s Dr. Dolittle, Alma reluctantly has to go to New York City for the music competition that she’s dreading at St. Mary’s Academy of Music Fest. The competition is essentially an audition for a job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. And so, Alma leaves all three of the animals alone in the house with enough food and water while she goes away for a few days. Viewers will be cringing at this horrible decision to leave these animals in the house unsupervised.

And it should come as no surprise that something terrible does happen: While Alma is away on her trip, the mother wolf escapes from the house and gets captured by Eli and Charles in the woods. The two cubs, left to their own devices, end up trashing the house. When Alma comes back, she’s shocked to find out that the mother wolf is missing and that these wild cubs have destroyed many things in her home. Alma tries to find the mother wolf but can’t because Alma has no idea at the time that the wolf has been taken somewhere else.

Knowing that she’s in way over her head, Alma calls a rescue group, whose specialty is wild animals, to see if the group can take these unruly cubs. However, the rescue group tells her that the animal sanctuary it works with in South Africa is no longer accepting cubs. Of course, because this movie is all about an untrained Alma raising this wolf and lion by herself, she gives up on finding any rescue groups that can take these animals. Alma decides to permanently keep the wolf (whom she names Mozart) and the lion (whom she names Dreamer) so that they can all live happily ever after.

Alma did well in the music competition, but she decides not to take the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra job that was offered to her. She tells Joe that although she still loves music, she no longer wants to be in an orchestra. After all, if Alma had an orchestra job, that would ruin the movie’s narrative of Alma having the time to be the saintly rescuer of wild animals. Somehow, she raises Mozart and Dreamer to young adulthood and manages it to keep it a secret, because the only person who visits her is Joe, who has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude about this secret. (In real life, the wolf’s name is Paddington, and the lion’s name is Walter.)

But since this movie has to pile on some melodrama, there comes a point in time when the secret is revealed. Alma lives fairly close to a lake, where one day a mother and underage daughter (played by “The Wolf and the Lion” screenwriter Prune de Maistre and her real-life daughter Neige de Maistre) are in a boat by themselves on the lake. At this point in time, Mozart and Dreamer are young adults (about one or two years old), who frolic together unleashed in the woods.

Alma sees these two strangers in the boat, and she panics because she knows that Mozart and Dreamer are running wild nearby. And sure enough, the mother and daughter see the wild animals on the land, just as Alma is running to try to prevent the animals from being seen. Alma is so panicked that she falls, hits her head on a rock, and loses consciousness.

Alma wakes up to find out that the authorities have arrived and taken the animals away. Mozart is taken to Eli’s science observation place where Mozart’s mother is, because scientist Eli gets involved and convinces the authorities that Mozart is better off being with his mother. Dreamer is taken to the circus that had purchased Dreamer and has a legal right to own the lion. Luckily for Alma, she’s not arrested, but she’s told that she will be arrested if she tries to keep wild animals on her property again.

But do you think this threat of arrest will stop Alma? Of course not. The rest of the movie is about her trying to find Dreamer and trying to convince Eli to give her custody of Mozart. Eli thinks Alma is crazy. For obvious reasons, the authorities don’t tell Alma the name of the circus that has Dreamer. And so, there’s a long stretch of the movie where Alma plays detective, by making phone calls and eventually taking a road trip, going from circus to circus to try to find Dreamer.

The name of the circus that has Dreamer is Allan Elreve Circus, named after its predictably villainous owner Allan Elreve (played by Evan Buliung), who cruelly abuses the animals that he trains for the circus. Allan is also teaching his son Rapha (played by Rhys Slack), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, that this violent and sadistic way of training animals is the correct and only way. Rapha is very uncomfortable with this animal cruelty, and he feels especially protective of the young male lion that has recently been brought to the circus.

Alma isn’t the only one looking for Dreamer. Mozart is too. “The Wolf and the Lion” is so laughably bad, there are some things that happen in the movie that are almost cartoonish. This wolf suddenly becomes a detective too and somehow can plan a rescue mission all by himself. And so-called professional animal handlers and authorities are made to look like bungling and flaky morons.

“The Wolf and the Lion” would be easier to take if the movie had been intended to be a comedic adventure story. Instead, it’s a continuous and irritating pile-on of sappy and sloppily filmed melodrama (including embarrassing performances by the entire cast), as if the filmmakers think that “The Wolf and the Lion” is important family-oriented cinematic art. The reality is that “The Wolf and the Lion” endorses actions that are dangerous to people, and this terrible film is an insult to people’s intelligence, no matter what age you are.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “The Wolf and the Lion” in U.S. cinemas on February 4, 2022. The movie was released in Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘The Alpinist,’ starring Marc-André Leclerc

November 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Marc-André Leclerc in “The Alpinist” (Photo by Jonathan Griffith/Red Bull Media House/Roadside Attractions)

“The Alpinist”

Directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen

Culture Representation: Filmed from 2016 to 2018 in various parts of North America and South America, the documentary “The Alpinist” features an all-white group of people talking about Canadian alpinist Marc-André Leclerc.

Culture Clash: Leclerc was a daredevil mountain climber/adventurer who ignored warnings about his dangerous mountain climbing.

Culture Audience: “The Alpinist” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction movies about people who are compelled to engage in extreme, life-threatening physical activities.

Marc-André Leclerc in “The Alpinist” (Photo courtesy of Red Bull Media House/Roadside Attractions)

“The Alpinist” can get inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” because each movie is a profile of a daredevil mountain climber who doesn’t use wires, ropes or other safety equipment when climbing. (This practice is known as “free soloing.”) Marc-André Leclerc is the subject of “The Alpinist” (directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen), while Alex Honnold is the subject of “Free Solo,” directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. “The Alpinist” is more of an underdog film than “Free Solo” is, because “The Alpinist” is about a mountain climber known for not seeking out any media attention, even though he engaged in stunts that blew away even the boldest of risk-taking mountain climbers.

Leclerc had such a daredevil reputation that many of the well-known mountain climbers (including Honnold) who are interviewed in “The Alpinist” marvel, as well as show alarm, at all of Leclerc’s hazardous mountain-climbing accomplishments that he achieved, often in record-breaking times. And he did so in a few years (from 2015 to 2018), all by the age of 25. However, unlike most of his peers, Leclerc did not like to call attention to himself by putting his exploits on social media. He also rarely did interviews. Most people (including “The Alpinist” directors) who found out about Leclerc heard about him through word of mouth.

Leclerc (who was born in 1992 in Nanaimo, British Columbia) had occasional sponsors to help pay for his excurisions, but he never got rich off of these sponsorships or other deals that he could have made. In fact, “The Alpinist” shows that Leclerc’s life as a mountain climber was one in which he lived near poverty level, and he was frequently homeless. He often camped outdoors or lived in hostels as a way of life.

Because he wasn’t a media star, many people watching “The Alpinist” might not have heard about Leclerc before seeing this movie and won’t know what happens at the end of the documentary. Therefore, that information won’t be revealed in this review. However, it’s enough to say that the massive summits that Leclerc is shown climbing in “The Alpinist” include Torre Egger in Patagonia and the Mendenhall Towers near Juneau, Alaska.

Needless to say, the documentary’s mountain-climbing cinematography (by Jonathan Griffith, Brett Lowell and Austin Siadak) is absolutely stunning. This movie should be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the best sense of how breathtaking (and dangerous) these alpinist activities are. However, this isn’t just a movie about mountain climbing, because “The Alpinist” also presents an emotionally moving portrait of a young man with an unquenchable thirst for extreme mountain-climbing adventures.

In the production notes for “The Alpinist,” co-director Mortimer says that Leclerc’s appeal was precisely because Leclerc didn’t want to call attention to himself: “Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to punk rock and I’ve always been fascinated by people who stay true to an ideal and refuse to sell out. But as soon as I heard about him, I really wanted to get to know him.”

In order to get this documentary made, the filmmakers had to gain Leclerc’s trust. You can see that over time (“The Alpinist” was filmed from 2016 to 2018), Leclerc felt more comfortable in front of the camera. In his initial interviews for the movie, he seems shy and uneasy when talking on camera.

Through his own words and through interviews with his loved ones—including Leclerc’s mother Michelle Kuipers and Leclerc’s girlfriend/fellow mountain climber Brette Harrington—a picture emerges of a once-troubled kid who dedicated his life to his greatest passion, even if it came a life-threatening cost. Leclerc’s parents split up when he was young; he was raised primarily by his mother, who worked as a restaurant server. His father Serge Leclerc worked in construction.

Kuipers says that her son (her only child) was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He liked kindergarten, but he hated first grade, so he was homeschooled for a while.” As a child, Leclerc was “a voracious reader,” especially in reading adventure books. At the age of 8, he was introduced to rock climbing to by his maternal grandfather.

Kuipers said that when her son went from being homeschooled to going to a regular high school, he had a difficult time adjusting: “It [high school] was like a form of incarceration for him.” Leclerc describes his childhood as being a resteless rebel, including his teenage years when he began using drugs. After graduating from high school, he moved to Squamish, British Columbia, and had an aimless life. During his early 20s, Leclerc said he was still heavily into the drug scene (frequently taking hallucinogenics such LSD) because he liked the idea of going on mind-altering trips.

Harrington says of Leclerc’s drug-fueled lifestyle: “I could see where Marc could’ve easily slid down that life.” However, Lerclerc says he decided to stop abusing psychedelics and instead get his highs from something that required a certain amount of athleticism and enormous amounts of bravery: extreme, free solo mountain climbing. That doesn’t mean Leclerc completely gave up drugs, since a few scenes in “The Alpinist” shows that he and his mountain-climbing pals indulged in marijuana and hashish when they partied.

Leclerc says taking psychedelics had some mind-expanding effects on him that he implies might have had something to do with his lack of fear in climbing mountains and cliffs, literally without any safety nets. He describes not feeling any anxiety during his climbs—only incredible peace, calmness and the intense focus to get to the next level of the climb. Leclerc often wouldn’t wear gloves during his climbs, since gloves can interfere with a hand’s natural grip. To climb ice-covered terrain, Leclerc would use ice axes.

In the documentary, Harrington describes Leclerc as a “brash” and “broke” (as in financially broke) mountain climber. However, Leclerc’s brashness in this documentary only comes out in his fearlnessness when he climbs. Off of the mountain, he’s mild-mannered and unassuming.

Harrington and Leclerc met in 2012, and they bonded over ther love of free solo mountain climbing and other extreme sports. Harrington says of Leclerc: “He was different from anyone I ever met. He’s socially awkward, but that’s what I like about him.”

And this was no fairy-tale romance: Harrington says that she knew from the start that being with Leclerc would mean not living in regular dwellings. She describes how early on in their relationship, they lived in a tent and were often starving for food. But more than having a food-deprived, nomadic lifestyle, the bigger threat to their existence was knowing that their mountain climbing could result in death.

Several well-known alpinists interviewed in the documentary essentially say the same thing: To be a free solo mountain climber, you have to be a little bit crazy and you have to prepare for the likelihood that you could die while climbing. Among the climbers interviewed are Honnold, Will Stanhope, Jason Kruk, Alan “Hevy Duty” Stevenson, Will Gadd, Bernadette McDonald, Raphael Slawinski, Barry Blanchard, Ryan Johnson, Hugo Acosta, Jon Walsh, Jim Elzinga and Reinhold Messner. “If death is not a possibility,” says Messner, “then the adventure would be nothing.”

Honnold remarks that Leclerc is one of the alpinists he admires the most because Leclerc wasn’t motivated by getting accolades: “He cares about the experience in the mountains and the journey. I really respect that.” Hevy Duty comments on Leclerc’s extraordinary boldness in mountain climbing: “He belongs in the ’70s and the ’80s [decades], when it was wild. He’s a breath of fresh air.”

Although Leclerc allowed this documentary to be made about him, the movie shows that he still had mixed feelings about it. During the documentary’s production, Leclerc broke a record by doing a first-ever solo climb of the Infinite Patience route on the Emperor Face of Canada’s 13,000-foot Mount Robson. However, this achievement was never filmed because Leclerc kept this climb a secret from the filmmakers until after the fact.

To make up for this exclusion, Leclerc let the filmmakers document his journey to Argentina, to climb Patagonia’s Torre Egger during a brutal winter. Only one camera operator was allowed: Leclerc’s friend Siadak. And the trip wasn’t easy, since snowstorms caused some problems. In the lead-up before the climb and after the climb, Leclerc shows how friendly he is in his interactions with hostel owner Hugo Acosta and Acosta’s young son, who seems to look up to Leclerc as a hero.

The final climb in the documentary is when Leclerc, accompanied by experienced climber Ryan Johnson, went to the Main Tower of the Mendenhall Towers in Juneau, Alaska. This trip also took place during snowy weather. It was one of the few times that Leclerc uploaded videos of his progress on the Internet, since he generally shied away from social media.

The takeway from watching Leclerc in this documentary is how determined and focused (some would say obsessed) he is on his mountain-climbing goals. He’s also very humble and self-aware that his obsession with mountain climbing comes at a heavy cost to his personal life. Harrington and Leclerc share the same passion for mountain climbing, but they admit that trips away from each other, as well the very real possibility of death while mountain climbing, can put a strain on even the strongest of relationships.

Viewers will immediately notice that every time Leclerc conquers one of his mountain goals, he doesn’t rest on his laurels and is eager to go on to the next goal. It’s like he’s in a race against time and against himself to accomplish as many of these goals as possible and try to surpass himself and others with these goals. After all, mountain climbing this extreme is not an elderly person’s game. If there’s anything to be learned from “The Alpinist,” it’s that Leclerc’s choice to dedicate his life to free solo mountain climbing came not from having a death wish but from being motivated to live his life to the fullest and in the most authentic way possible.

Universal Pictures Content Group and Roadside Attractions released “The Alpinist” for one night only for a sneak preview (via Fathom Events) in select U.S. cinemas on September 7, 2021, followed by a limited release in select U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD was November 2, 2021.

Review: ‘The Retreat’ (2021), starring Sarah Allen and Tommie-Amber Pirie

October 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sarah Allen and Tommie-Amber Pirie in “The Retreat” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Retreat” (2021)

Directed by Pat Mills

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Canadian province of Ontario, the horror film “The Retreat” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two women in a lesbian relationship go to a retreat at a remote house in the woods, where they encounter some homophobic serial killers. 

Culture Audience: “The Retreat” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in tension-filled horror stories with LGBTQ people who happen to be at the center of the story.

Sarah Allen and Tommie-Amber Pirie in “The Retreat” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

Even though “The Retreat” is completely predictable in how the story unfolds, it’s a horror movie that’s very effective in creating suspense and conveying “race against time” terror. One way that “The Retreat” sets itself apart from most other horror flicks that have killers on the loose is that the protagonists of “The Retreat” happen to be members of the LGTBQ community. The movie intends to show the horrors of homophobic hate crimes taken to extreme levels.

Directed by Pat Mills and written by Alyson Richards, “The Retreat” has a relatively small number of people in the movie’s cast. The movie also keeps it simple when it comes to the plot. However, that doesn’t mean this movie is simple-minded. One of the reasons why the movie is so gripping is that everything in it could realistically happen. This is not a horror movie where supernatural forces are the reason for the mayhem. The heinous acts committed in the movie are all from humans consumed by hatred and evil.

“The Retreat,” which takes place in the Canadian province of Ontario (and was filmed in the Ontario cities of Toronto and Mono Mills), doesn’t waste time in showing viewers that it’s a slasher flick. The beginning of the movie is set in a remote wooded area where gay couple Connor (played by Chad Connell) and Scott (played by Munro Chambers) have recently arrived at a bed-and-breakfast house rental at night. They hear strange noises coming from the woods. Scott goes to investigate, and Connor soon follows. And then, someone or something startles Connor and he’s attacked. The movie later reveals what happened to Connor and Scott.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, lesbian couple Renee (played by Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (played by Sarah Allen) are in a fairly new relationship. Their romance has reached a point where Valerie wants to know from Renee where the relationship is headed: Are they going to settle down together or are they going to keep it casual? However, Renee avoids answering the question because she appears to be commitment-phobic.

Valerie seems frustrated by Renee’s noncommittal answers, because it’s obvious that Valerie eventually wants to live with Renee, but Valerie doesn’t push the issue too much, so as not to alienate Renee. Later in the movie, Valerie tells Renee when the issue of their relationship brought up again: “If this isn’t going anywhere, let me know.” Except for this unresolved issue of where this relationship is going, Valerie and Renee seem happy and content with each other.

In the meantime, Renee and Valerie (who are both in their early 30s) are looking forward to their first big getaway trip together. It’s for a wedding planning retreat organized by Valerie’s friends Connor and Scott, who are engaged to be married. The bed-and-breakfast house where the retreat is taking place is owned by another gay couple, who have advertised the retreat as being a queer-friendly place. The house’s owners won’t be there, but Renee (who is driving for this road trip) looked up the lodging on the Internet and is satisfied that it will be a comfortable place to stay.

On the way to the bed-and-breakfast, Renee and Valerie stop at a convenience store because Renee needs to use the restroom. As Valerie waits near the cashier counter while Renee is in the restroom, a man in his late 30s or early 40s comes into the convenience store and immediately starts flirting with Valerie. He finds out that Valerie isn’t from the area and tells her, “I’d like to get to know you,” and he offers to show her around the area.

Valerie is polite but makes it clear she’s not interested. And when Renee comes out of the restroom, Valerie introduces Renee as her girlfriend. Once the man sees that they’re in a lesbian relationship, he backs off. But this is the type of movie where you know this won’t be the last time that Renee and Valerie will see this stranger.

Almost as soon as Valerie and Renee arrive at the bed-and-breakfast house, they can sense that something is wrong. For starters, Connor and Scott were supposed to be there already and their car is parked outside, but Connor and Scott are nowhere in sight. And then, Valerie sees someone lurking in the woods who seems to be spying on her and Renee.

At first, Renee thinks Valerie is imagining things. They go for a hike in the woods when Renee discovers something eerie: A cigarette filter that is still burning. It’s enough to convince Renee that someone has been watching them. Valerie and Renee run back to the safety of the house and see that Renee’s car is now missing.

As panic starts to set in, they go inside the house and find out that Valerie’s phone has been stolen from her room. Renee left her phone in the car. The house does not appear to have a landline phone. If viewers think it’s unrealistic that Renee and Valerie didn’t have their phones with them on their hike in the woods, it’s actually not unusual for people to go hiking without their phones and IDs. It’s not the smartest thing to do, but it happens.

Needless to say, all hell soon breaks loose after Renee and Valerie find out that they have been stalked and targeted for something sinister. The rest of the movie ramps up the tension-filled action. The trailer for “The Retreat” gives away a lot of what happens in the movie, including how Valerie gets her foot caught in an animal trap while she and Renee are running through the woods.

The movie’s trailer also reveals that there’s more than one villain involved who have eventually captured Renee and Valerie and are documenting this kidnapping for an audience. One of the villains is the man from the convenience store. His name is James (played by Aaron Ashmore), and his accomplices are Layna (played by Celina Sinden) and Huck (played by Patrick Garrow). Their motive for the deadly mayhem is revealed in the last third of the movie, although it’s a motive that’s not surprising at all.

Some of what happens is more predictable than other things. Just like a lot of violent horror movies, “The Retreat” is not for overly sensitive viewers, because some of the scenes are quite bloody and gruesome. Mills’ direction of “The Retreat” makes it a taut thriller where everything that’s depicted takes place within a 48-hour period. Everything is well-paced, and the musical score from Steph Copeland enhances all the terror that occurs in the story.

All of the acting is believable in how ordinary people react to being in similar horrific circumstances. Renee and Valerie do not have special training in combat skills, so much of what they do involves trying to use their wits to survive. “The Retreat” is not a horror movie with a mask-wearing killer who seems to come out of nowhere and has a superhuman ability of not being able to be killed. Whoever is reponsible for the evil in “The Retreat” represents the worst of humanity that looks “normal” and is living among us in plain sight.

Quiver Distribution released “The Retreat” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021. The movie is also available on Showtime and The Movie Channel.

Review: ‘Bloodthirsty’ (2021), starring Lauren Beatty, Greg Bryk, Katharine King So, Judith Buchan and Michael Ironside

October 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lauren Beatty in “Bloodthirsty” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“Bloodthirsty” (2021)

Directed by Amelia Moses

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Canada, the horror film “Bloodthirsty” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one biracial/Asian person) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A semi-famous singer-songwriter is invited to work on her second album with a mysterious producer at his home studio in a remote wooded area, when she finds out that she is a werewolf. 

Culture Audience: “Bloodthirsty” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in low-budget, “slow burn” horror movies that don’t do anything groundbreaking but can convey a creepy and foreboding atmosphere.

Lauren Beatty in “Bloodthirsty” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

Simple yet effective, the werewolf horror movie “Bloodthirsty” takes its time to build to the inevitable transformation scene. This movie is not for impatient viewers, but it offers an interesting allegory about how the quest for fame and fortune can consume people. With only a handful of people in the movie’s principal cast, “Bloodthirsty” won’t satisfy horror fans who are looking for a movie where a werewolf goes on a massive killing spree. Instead, “Bloodthirsty” is more of a psychological portrait of how a woman slowly comes to terms with the reality that she’s turning into a werewolf.

Directed by Amelia Moss, “Bloodthirsty” is a Canadian film that was written by mother-and-daughter duo Wendy Hill-Tout and Lowell. The movie has some parallels to real life, because main character Grey Kessler (played by Lauren Beatty) is a semi-famous, piano-playing pop singer/songwriter in her 20s who’s under pressure to follow up her hit debut album with a second album that’s a even bigger hit. In real life, Lowell is a pop singer/songwriter (she wrote and co-wrote some of the original songs in “Bloodthirsty”) whose first album wasn’t a hit, but she used her anxiety-ridden experiences of recording her second album as a basis for the angst that Grey feels in “Bloodthirsty.”

In the beginning of “Bloodthirsty,” which takes place in an unnamed part of Canada (the movie was actually filmed in Edmonton, Alberta), Grey comes home to her live-in girlfriend Charlie (played by Katharine King So) after doing a photo shoot. Charlie is a painter who is completely supportive of Grey and her career. Grey is openly queer and isn’t hiding her relationship with Charlie, but she’s careful about not exposing too much about her relationship to the world. At the photo shoot, a reporter (played by Jesse Gervais) asked Grey when she and Charlie plan to get married. Before cutting the interview short, Grey’s response was: “We want to keep our relationship private.”

Grey has other things on her mind besides questions about her private life from a nosy journalist. She’s been having nightmares about turning into an animal and eating other animals that she has killed. In these nightmares, she savagely eats these animals raw, as she tears at their flesh, and her mouth is covered with blood. Grey is also a vegan, so these nightmares have an extra layer of terror for her.

Grey’s psychiatrist Dr. Swan (played by Michael Ironside) has tried different treatments for her, but none seem to have worked so far. At a recent session with Dr. Swan, he suggests that they try cognitive behavior therapy next. In the meantime, Grey is on medication to treat her nightmarish hallucinations. An early scene in the movie shows Grey looking into a mirror and briefly eeing that her eyes’ irises have turned yellow, like a wolf’s eyes. Later in the movie, she has visions of her nails turning into long, yellow canine nails.

After coming home from the photo shoot, Grey tells Charlie that a famous but reclusive middle-aged music producer named Vaughn Daniels (played by Greg Bryk) has invited her to his mansion, where he has a home recording studio, because he wants to record Grey’s second album with her. Charlie looks up Vaughn on the Internet and sees that more than 20 years ago, he was acquitted of the murder of a singer in her 20s named Greta Sturgis, who had been working with Vaughn in his home on her album. Vaughn was Greta’s mentor.

Charlie expresses her concern to Grey about Grey working with Vaughn , but Grey dismisses her concerns by saying that Vaughn was found not guilty, and he’s too important of a producer for Grey to pass up a chance to work with him. And so, Grey and Charlie drive to Vaughn’s spooky mansion that’s in a remote wooded area. (Aren’t they all in horror movies?)

This trip takes place during the winter when there’s snow outside, which means that there will be an inevitable scene later in the movie when someone’s car gets stuck in the snow. On the way to Vaughn’s mansion, Grey (who is driving her SUV) accidentally hits and kills a rabbit on the road. Grey is mortified, but there’s nothing she can do about it.

And why is Charlie on this trip? As Grey tells Vaughn when they show up to stay at his place at his invitation, Charlie hopes to get some inspiration for her artwork. Vaughn is a bachelor who lives in the mansion with his loyal housekeeper/cook Vera (played by Judith Buchan), who seems to be his only servant. In other words, this is a low-budget movie, so don’t expect to see any other servants on the property.

Vaughn is every bit as creepy as you would expect him to be, but Grey is eager to impress him. When she plays him a song that she’s been working on, he tells her: “I think your writing is good. It could be better.”

Most of the movie is about Vaughn and Charlie working on the album (the songs are solemn piano-based ballads) while he tests her limits on what she’s willing to do for him. In the first test, Vaughn tells Charlie to run outside in the snow and cold temperatures as fast as she can until she can’t move anymore. She doesn’t go far before she runs out of breath.

Vaughn catches up to her quickly, without showing any signs of physical exertion. He doesn’t answer Grey’s question on how he could move so fast without being winded. It’s the first of many obvious clues that Vaughn might not be who he first appears to be. Eventually, Vaughn (who says he’ll never give up eating meat) pushes vegan Charlie’s boundaries when it comes to dead animals.

Later in the movie, when Grey is playing the piano, Vaughn sidles up next to her and starts sniffing. He says, “I can smell it all over you—something animal. You need to use that. It’s what makes you special.” This movie is not subtle at all.

Grey grew up in foster homes and had a fairly unhappy childhood. Not much is said about Grey’s family background except that her mother abandoned her when she was a baby. Vaughn knows this information and uses it to emotionally manipulate Grey.

Meanwhile, Charlie grows increasingly uncomfortable with being in Vaughn’s mansion. Charlie and Grey argue about it because Charlie wants to leave, while Grey wants to stay. Charlie says to Grey about Vaughn: “He’s a psycho!” Grey responds, “He’s an eccentric!” Charlie says, “He scares me!” Grey replies, “You know what scares me? My second album flopping!”

And what about the mystery over the death of Vaughn’s former protégée singer Greta? Vaughn tells Grey that he witnessed Greta shoot herself, and that was his defense that got him acquitted. However, is that what really happened? Secrets are eventually revealed which aren’t too surprising to people who’ve seen enough horror/thriller movies.

“Bloodthirsty” has visual effects and sound editing that are convincing, consdering the movie’s low budget. All of the performances are better than some of the simplistic dialogue in the screenplay. If you don’t like movies where people have a tendency to talk and move slowly, then “Bloodthirsty” isn’t the film for you.

The movie’s original songs written or co-written by Lowell are actually quite good and sound like music that moody pop divas would be recording. The songs are “Lemonade,” “No Talk,” “Psycho” and “God Is a Fascist.” People who like music from singers such as Billie Eilish, Lorde or Fiona Apple would probably enjoy Grey’s music.

The creation of Grey’s second album runs parallel to Grey’s transformation, so it can be seen as a metaphor for her metamorphosis of her identity as an artist as well as a sinister creature. The story is more than about the creative process though, because Grey could’ve created these songs on her own. Through a horror movie context, “Bloodthirsty” puts forth an incisive commentary about artists’ pursuit of being rich and famous to validate themselves, no matter what the cost.

Grey sees warning signs that Vaughn is evil, but she wants to keep working with him anyway. In that sense, “Bloodthirsty” doesn’t just apply to someone who turns into a werewolf. It’s also about someone who loses humanity when there’s an unquenchable hunger for fame, even if it means destroying other people in the process.

Brainstorm Media released “Bloodthirsty” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 23, 2021. The movie is also available for free streaming on Tubi and Vudu.

Review: ‘Stealing School,’ starring Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz

April 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz in “Stealing School” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Stealing School”  

Directed by Li Dong

Some language in Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the comedy/drama “Stealing School” features a racially diverse cast (white, Asian and black) representing people connected in some way to the well-known (but fictional) Dupont University.

Culture Clash: At the university, a white teaching assistant/Ph.D. student faces off with an Asian undergraduate accused of plagiarism in a tribunal hearing, which will determine if the student will be allowed to graduate or not.

Culture Audience: “Stealing School” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dark satires of how social justice issues have an effect on how universities want to be perceived.

A scene from “Stealing School.” Pictured from left to right, facing the camera: Celine Tsai, Mpho Koaho, Kayleigh Shikanai, Jonathan Keltz and Matthew Edison. Pictured from left to right, with backs toward the camera: Jonathan Malen, Michelle Monteith and Darrin Baker. (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The astutely written “Stealing School” takes an incisive look what can happen when race, class, gender and political correctness collide in a Canadian university that wants to project an image of being progressive and inclusive. The true nature of the movie, just like some of the characters in the story, won’t always match a first impression. “Stealing School” appears to be a straightforward drama, but it’s really a dark satire about the lengths that people will go to to keep up appearances. The story (which takes place at the fictional Dupont University in an unnamed Canadian city) unfolds in layers. Viewers will be kept in riveted suspense to see if the whole truth will eventually be revealed in an investigation over a student accused of committing plagiarism.

Written and directed by Li Dong, “Stealing School” centers on an academic tribunal to determine if Dupont undergraduate student April Chen (played by Celine Tsai) will be able to pass her political science class. April is a computer science major who is a week away from graduating from Dupont. The reason for the tribunal is because April has been accused of plagiarism in an important political science assignment. The political science class is one of the liberal-arts classes that April is required to take in order to graduate. If the three-person judging panel at the tribunal decides that April is guilty of plagiarism, she’ll fail the class and won’t be able to graduate.

The class’ ambitious teaching assistant Keith Ward (played by Jonathan Keltz), who is a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s political science department, brought the suspected plagiarism to the attention of the university and filed the formal complaint against April. Keith is also the one who has appointed himself the lead person to present the case against April. He’s taking this responsibility as seriously as a prosecutor in a criminal trial. Meanwhile, April has vehemently declared that she is not guilty and she’s going to vigorously defend herself.

Sitting next to Keith during the tribunal is his reluctant supervisor Professor Alan Thornton (played by Matthew Edison), who doesn’t really want to be there. Professor Thornton is annoyed with Keith because Keith went behind Professor Thornton’s back to file the complaint against April. Professor Thornton went along and signed off on the complaint because he didn’t want to look ignorant about what was going on with April’s assignment, which Professor Thornton had tasked Keith to look over and grade.

At the tribunal, April has someone on her side who definitely wants to be there. Sitting next to her at is undergraduate student Micah Shaw (played by Mpho Koaho), who is a volunteer in the student advocacy department. Micah has aspirations to go to law school. And based on what he says in the movie’s conversations, he’s more inclined to become a defense attorney than to work for plaintiffs. Just like Keith, Micah has the type of personality where he wants to be the one to stand up in front of a room and take the lead in presenting a case.

The three people on the judging panel who will decide April’s fate are Josh Bertier (played by Jonathan Malen), an undergraduate student in the computer science department; recently hired Dupont University bureaucrat Deborah Lewis (played by Michelle Monteith), whose title is academic integrity officer; and Professor Richard Gould (played by Darrin Baker) from the political science department. Because the tribunal is being held so close to the end of the academic school year, the three panelists are a little restless and want to get these proceedings over with as soon as possible. It also doesn’t help that the air conditioner in the room doesn’t seem to be working on this sweltering day.

Bit by bit, several things are revealed about all of the people in this tension-filled room. Many of the people have personal agendas that affect the way that they act and what they say in public and private. For example (and this isn’t spoiler information), Professor Gould and Professor Thornton have known each other since they attended the same grad school together. But they have a distant relationship because Professor Gould suspects that Professor Thornton wrote an insulting letter to university officials about Professor Gould to urge the university not to give tenure to Professor Gould. Whoever wrote the letter failed in the attempt to smear Professor Gould, because he ended up getting tenure.

During a break in the tribunal proceedings, Professor Gould (who is normally mild-mannered) angrily confronts Professor Thornton in the hallway about that letter. All of his pent-up anger comes out, but Professor Thornton denies that he wrote the letter. Is Professor Gould being paranoid? Or is he correct in assuming that Professor Thornton wrote the letter? And how will this grudge affect Professor Gould’s decision in April’s case?

Meanwhile, during certain breaks in the proceedings, April (who comes from a Chinese immigrant family) talks to her mother (voiced by Celest Chong) on the phone because her mother keeps calling in excitement over April’s graduation. It’s revealed that 12 people in April’s family will be traveling to the university for her graduation. April has a very promising future. She’s a computer science whiz who created a publishing platform that was bought by a company called Snakeskin. And she already has a job lined up at an unnamed Silicon Valley company.

A series of flashbacks tell more of the story. These flashbacks go as far back as two years before the tribunal and as recently as three days before the tribunal. Private conversations with some of the characters reveal some of their conscious and unconscious biases. For example, Josh (the computer science student on the tribunal judging panel) tells someone that there’s no shortage of Asian people in the computer science department, with his tone of voice suggesting that by “no shortage,” he really means “too many.” Josh also tells the same person that April is a “unicorn” because not she’s a good-looking woman who works in computer science.

In another flashback, academic integrity officer Deborah is seen in her first day on the job having a nervous and awkward conversation with her immediate supervisor Irene McDonnell (played by Adrienne Wilson), who is the assistant vice president of academic operations. Irene invites Deborah to an upcoming dinner that will be attended by potential donors. It’s implied but not said out loud that these potential donors are from non-Western countries.

Irene tells Deborah that American universities aren’t as welcoming of non-Westerners as Canadian universities are. “We’re better than that,” Irene says haughtily of what she thinks is American universities’ bigotry. Irene also tells Deborah that it’s important that the potential donors get the impression that Dupont is welcoming to people from non-Western countries.

Several witnesses are called during the tribunal, which takes place in one day. The witnesses include April’s roommate Kelly Nakashima (played by Kayleigh Shikanai); computer science professor Tim Mistry (played by Sugith Varughese); April’s writing coach Mark Lin (played by Andy Yu); and professional essay writer Elisha Sinclair (played by Clare McConnell), who freely admits that students pay her to write their school assignments. They all provide some level of comic relief when they say things that the judging panel doesn’t expect.

“Stealing School” has some sly commentary on the perceived value of a college degree. When university official Deborah asks essay writer-for-hire Elisha at the end of Elisha’s testimony: “Why do you help students cheat? Is it because you need the money?” Elisha has this snappy response: “No, we’re both shilling overpriced pieces of paper to kids too. Yours just happens to say ‘diploma’ at the top.”

One of the flashbacks reveals that a Dupont student named Russ Kasdan (played by Vas Saranga), a journalist for the university’s student newspaper, has heard about this confidential tribunal. Russ has been snooping around to try to get information about the tribunal for a potentially damaging exposé article that he plans to write for the newspaper. Someone in that tribunal ends up leaking valuable information to Russ, and this leak might or might not affect the outcome of the panel’s decision. In addition, there’s a room in the building with a ventilator where conversations can be heard from the nearby restrooms, unbeknownst to the people in the restrooms. And yes, there are are some interesting eavesdropping scenes in this movie.

“Stealing School” has some subtle and not-so-subtle depictions of power dynamics that have to do with race and gender. When Micah advises April to not testify on her own behalf and that he will speak for her, April angrily responds: “Can you please stop coddling me? I’m not a victim. I’m simply innocent.” It’s left open to interpretation if Micah would be that patronizing if April were a man.

Likewise, Adam is aggressive in his “prosecution” of April. He openly expresses hostility toward April and appears to resent that she has a cushy job lined up while he’s a low-paid grad student whose employment future is less certain. There are times when Adam acts like he thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s left open to interpretation if Adam feels emboldened in acting like an “angry white man” because he knows it’s more socially accepted than if a woman or person of color acted in the same combative and arrogant way that he does.

Although all the characters in the movie play some role in the outcome of the tribunal, the biggest power struggle is between April and Adam. Their showdown is fascinating to watch because it’s clear that this battle is more than about who wins or who loses. It’s also about how they each feel that the outcome is a reflection of how the university treats students like them. Therefore, their racial and gender identities can’t help but be part of the equation in how April and Adam feel that they will be judged.

Because the showdown between these two students is essentially the heart of the story’s conflict, much of “Stealing School” relies on Tsai’s and Keltz’s performances to keep viewers interested. Keltz’s acting at times can be a little too over-the-top, but not excessive enough to ruin the movie. Tsai has the more interesting role and performance, which she handles capably, because April goes through a wider range of emotions than Adam does.

The supporting actors all have performances that range from good to mediocre. The movie’s original screenplay and wise editing choices elevate this movie, whose flashbacks could have made it a messy film if handled incorrectly. “Stealing School” writer/director Dong and cinematographer Jack Yan Chen also bring the right balance between a “bird’s eye”/observant view in some of the scenes that are in public and the “voyeur”/intimate view for the scenes that are in private. Overall, “Stealing School” is an impressive feature-film debut from Dong.

Up to a certain point in the movie, viewers will be kept guessing if April is guilty of what’s she’s been accused of doing. Although she’s the one being judged, “Stealing School” is really a clever and somewhat snarky indictment of academic institutions and how “political correctness” can be used as a weapon to cut both ways. And the movie sends a message that first impressions aren’t always the correct impressions.

Vertical Entertainment released “Stealing School” on U.S. digital and VOD platforms on February 26, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in 2020.

Review: ‘Hunter Hunter,’ starring Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Summer H. Howell and Nick Stahl

January 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Camille Sullivan in “Hunter Hunter” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Hunter Hunter”

Directed by Shawn Linden

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed rural area of Canada, the horror flick “Hunter Hunter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (and one indigenous person) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A husband, wife and their 12-year-old daughter, who live together in a remote area, have to deal with a suspected killer wolf and encounter some surprises.

Culture Audience: “Hunter Hunter” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “slow burn” horror films that have unexpected twists.

Devon Sawa and Summer H. Howell in “Hunter Hunter” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

The horror flick “Hunter Hunter” has a relatively small cast, but the movie is big on gradually building suspense, which culminates in a shocking and very gruesome ending. This is not a movie for people who get easily squeamish at the sight of blood. But if you can tolerate blood-drenched scenes in a movie, then “Hunter Hunter” might make you curious enough to see what’s going to happen in the movie’s much-talked-about ending.

Written and directed by Shawn Linden, “Hunter Hunter” starts off as more of a psychological thriller before it turns into a gorefest. And it takes a long time (the first third of the movie) before any real action takes place. It’s a “slow burn” movie that might trick viewers into thinking that it’s going to be a predictable horror flick. It’s not a typical horror film, but the ending of the movie has such an abrupt switch in tone that it’s a climax that will no doubt confuse or anger some viewers.

“Hunter Hunter” takes place in an unnamed remote, wooded area of Canada, where a family of three people live in a modest wood house and get most of their food from hunting or growing food on their land. (The movie was actually filmed in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Alberta.) Joseph “Joe” Mersault (played by Devon Sawa) and his wife Anne (played by Camille Sullivan) live as quiet recluses with their homeschooled 12-year-old daughter Renee (played by Summer H. Howell), who is a very inquisitive and perceptive child. The family has also has a male dog named Tova.

Although the Mersaults live in a very primitive way (they don’t have electricity or phone service), they aren’t completely cut off from the world. They have a truck, which is the main way that they can make money for their fur trappings or get any needed help. Joe and Anne mostly have contact with the nearest general store, where they drive to get supplies and sell fur or other animal products.

This farming season hasn’t been a good one for the family. The harsh winter weather has yielded a smaller number of crops than usual. And money is tight. When Anne goes to the general store, she doesn’t have enough cash to buy what she needs. She offers to do a trade deal with the store’s manager, but it’s still not enough to get all the items that she wants.

To make matters worse, there are signs that there’s a wolf on the loose that’s been eating the rabbits, racoons and other animals that the family depends on for meat. While out hunting, Joe and Renee find a racoon’s paw in a trap, with the paw showing signs that the rest of the body was chewed off.

When Anne is at the general store, she notices a real-estate flyer on the bulletin board. The flyer is advertising a house for sale in the suburban city of Kearney. Anne takes the flyer. Astute viewers will also notice that the bulletin board also has a missing-person flyer for a brunette woman in her 30s named Lynne Petit.

While the family is having dinner, the topic of the nuisance wolf comes up. Anne and Joe suspect it’s the same elusive wolf that they’ve been trying to catch for a while. (The movie never goes into details of how Anne and Joe have been trying to get the wolf.)

Joe says of the wolf: “Something’s bringing it back. Either it’s food or it’s a female. If I could figure out what it’s attracted to, I could bait it.” Anne says, “It’s attracted to us. I already know. We’re a steady food supply.”

Whatever is attracting the wolf, Joe makes it clear that he wants to be the only one to handle trapping the wolf. He insists that it’s too dangerous for Anne and Renee. However, Renee persistently begs to tag along with her father, until he eventually relents later in the story. Joe teaches Renee how to look for signs of wolves and bears, how to lay animal traps, and how to skin animals. He also instructs Renee that if she ever encounters a wild animal that can kill humans, she should not run but instead she should calmly walk away.

Anne shows Joe the real-estate flyer for the house in Kearney and mentions that it might be a good idea to buy the home. Joe thinks it’s a crazy idea, since they can barely afford to feed themselves. Anne is insistent that they at least think about moving to a more modern home in a more populated area.

Sensing that they’re going to have an argument about this topic, Joe asks Renee to temporarily leave the table so he can Anne can have the rest of their conversation in private. It’s a tense discussion that Joe really doesn’t want to have. But in order to avoid a major argument, he tells Renee that he’ll at least think about moving, and they can discuss it later.

In another scene in the movie, it’s revealed that Joe and Anne use to have a modern life somewhere else, and it was entirely Joe’s idea to move in a remote area, where they could live off of the land. Anne is really starting to regret that decision. She also thinks that Renee should be raised in an environment where Renee can be around other children.

Anne says to Joe: “It feels like the world has left us behind. There isn’t another generation left.” Joe replies, “There is if we make one. Nothing pushes us out of our life. Not even you.” Anne says the only reason why she chose the life they’re living now is because she chose Joe.

This marital friction is later put on the backburner when strange things start happening. While looking to trap the wolf in the woods, Joe makes a horrifying discovery, which won’t be described in this review, but it’s something that most people would immediately report to police. Oddly, Joe does not tell anyone what he found. When he goes home, he pretends that everything is normal.

And then, the family dog Tova goes missing. Renee is very upset and fears that the wolf might have killed the dog. Anne suspects the same thing, which is why she won’t let Renee accompany her when looking for the Tova in the woods. When Anne goes to look for the dog, she makes a discovery that she also keeps a secret.

Later, Joe goes in the woods again to look for the wolf. And he doesn’t come back when he was expected. After waiting several hours and there’s still no sign of Joe, Anne goes out in the woods to look for him. She can’t find him.

A worried Anne then goes to the nearest place of authority to get help: the Municipal Conservation Department, which mostly responds to complaints about wild animals on people’s property and takes care of cleaning up any roadkill. The two employees on duty are named Barthes (played by Gabriel Daniels) and Lucy (played by Lauren Cochrane), who are both in their 30s.

Barthes and Lucy have a wisecracking banter with each other. They like to sarcastically tease each other with mild insults. But underneath the joking, it’s clear that these co-workers respect each other in a platonic way. When Anne shows up to report that Joe has been missing, she’s disappointed and frustrated when Barthes tells her that there’s nothing that this department can do because the Marsaults live on federal land, which is out of the department’s jurisdiction.

This is where there’s a noticeable plot hole in “Hunter Hunter,” because most worried spouses would then find out which authorities would handle this missing-person case and file the missing-person report there. But Anne doesn’t do that. She just goes home and continues to look for Joe in the woods. She might have been reluctant to go to other authorities because Barthes questioned if the Marsault family had a right to live on federal land, and Anne had a defensive reaction to that line of questioning.

One night, Anne hears some noises coming from the woods. She thinks it might be Joe calling for help, so she takes a risk and goes outside to find out who or what is causing these noises. Instead of finding Joe, she finds an unknown man with an injured leg. He’s barely conscious.

Anne doesn’t hesitate to help this stranger. She brings him into her house and treats the bleeding gash on his leg while he’s passed out. When he regains consciousness, it’s revealed that his name is Lou (played by Nick Stahl), and he says he’s a photographer who foolishly got lost in the woods. It seems as if his legs got tangled in some thorny bushes. When Anne asks Lou if he saw anyone fitting her husband’s description, he says no.

Anne tells Lou that she can drive him to the nearest hospital because he needs professional medical care. Anne mentions that she has limited medical supplies and she doesn’t want his wound to get infected. However, Lou is very reluctant to go to the hospital. Renee wonders why Anne is going to all this trouble to help a stranger, and Anne tells her that it’s what good people are supposed to do. But will this act of kindness be a mistake?

“Hunter Hunter” keeps people guessing on whether or not there’s a supernatural element to the story. Viewers won’t get a clear answer until the last third of the film, where most of the horror takes place. Linden’s twist-filled writing and direction make “Hunter Hunter” a true mystery where the clues aren’t obvious, but they make sense in hindsight to viewers who are really paying attention.

The cast members all do good jobs with their performances, but Sullivan is the clear standout. It’s not just because she has the most screen time, but it’s mainly because her Anne character goes through a metamorphosis from being a dutiful wife to taking charge of the household once her husband goes missing. Because of something extreme that happens at the end of the movie, some viewers will have trouble reconciling it with the rest of the story. However, it’s clear that “Hunter Hunter” doesn’t want to offer easy answers on issues relating to morality or death.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Hunter Hunter” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 18, 2020.

Review: ‘The Twentieth Century,’ starring Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St-Laurent, Mikhaïl Ahooja, Brent Skagford, Seán Cullen and Louis Negin

November 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sarianne Cormier and Dan Beirne in “The Twentieth Century” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“The Twentieth Century”

Directed by Matthew Rankin

Culture Representation: Taking place in in Canada in the late 1910s to early 1920s, the comedic film “The Twentieth Century” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: William Lyon Mackenzie King encounters several personal and professional obstacles in his eventual rise to power as prime minister of Canada.

Culture Audience: “The Twentieth Century” will appeal primarily to people who would be interested in very offbeat films that have satirical commentary about Canadian culture and politics.

Catherine St-Laurent and Mikhaïl Ahooja in “The Twentieth Century” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The unconventional satire “The Twentieth Century” takes a madcap, sometimes gender-bending look at the rise of the political career of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served as the 10th prime minister of Canada for three non-consecutive terms, from 1921 to 1926; 1926 to 1930; and 1935 to 1948. Viewers don’t have to know any Canadian history to enjoy the movie, although this type of historical knowledge does help. “The Twentieth Century” is not recommended for anyone who isn’t interested in any movie that can be described as “weird.” But for people who are open to seeing a very original and sometimes bizarre retelling of King’s political origins, buckle up for a wild and wooly ride.

Written and directed by Matthew Rankin, “The Twentieth Century” is his feature-film debut, and it makes a bold statement that Rankin doesn’t want to conform to the usual expectations of first-time independent filmmakers. The movie is structured and designed to almost look like a play. Cinematically, “The Twentieth Century” pays homage to the “soft glow” look of movies that were released during the 1910s and 1920s, the era when this story takes place. And the screenplay, which is divided into 10 chapters, goes off in some unexpected tangents that don’t always land well when it comes to comedy, but they’re at least memorable and attempt to show originality.

Dan Beirne portrays King, who goes by the name Mackenzie, as someone who’s not only very ambitious but also a sad sack who’s browbeaten by his domineering mother (played by Louis Negin, in one of several gender-bending roles in the film) into fulfilling her prediction of Mackenzie becoming prime minister of Canada, or at least having a high-ranking position in the Canadian government. In the movie, Beirne looks under the age of 40, when in reality, King (who was a member of the Liberal Party) first became prime minister of Canada at the age of 47. The real King died in 1950, at the age of 75.

Mackenzie’s father (played by Richard Jutras), who is somewhat of an outcast in his own home, lives downstairs while his bedridden, cranky wife lives upstairs. The father’s only companion is a white cockatoo named Giggles, which is an obvious puppet in the movie. Mackenzie has promised his father a prestigious position in the government if Mackenzie rises to a leadership position as planned.

Canada’s colonial histories with the United Kingdom and France are exemplified by the two “loves” of Mackenzie’s life in the story. He falls for a British beauty named Ruby Elliott (played by Catherine St-Laurent), when he first sees her. She’s playing a harp, and Mackenzie has never heard music before. There’s a running joke in the movie that Mackenzie keeps mistakenly calling a harp a “trumpet” because he doesn’t know the difference between the two musical instruments.

Ruby is the daughter of Lord Muto (played by Seán Cullen), the new autocratic governor general of the land. No sooner does Mackenzie try to court Ruby and try to gain clout with Lord Muto, Ruby goes away to fight in the war, which is not named but is presumably World War I. Mackenzie is disappointed that he won’t get to woo Ruby, but he’s got other things that occupy his time until Ruby can return home to Canada.

Although Mackenzie has Ruby very much on his mind, another woman comes into his life who could also become his love interest: a French nurse named Ernestine Lapointe (played by Sarianne Cormier), who works for Mackenzie’s mother but is fired when his mother gets very irritated with Nurse Lapointe for a petty mistake. Ernestine Lapointe is a character that is an obvious nod to King’s real-life political aide Ernest Lapointe. Ernestine is immediately smitten with Mackenzie, but it takes a while for him to warm up to her.

Throughout the story, Mackenzie checks in with a sick, bedridden child named Charlotte (played by Satine Scarlett Montaz), who is in a large hospital room with other sick, bedridden children. At the beginning of the movie, Charlotte asks Mackenzie if he will outlaw tuberculosis when he becomes the leader of Canada. He promises her that he will. Although it’s not stated in the movie, these hospital patients could be part of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was going on at the time this movie takes place.

While Ruby is away at war, Mackenzie enters a political competition for a “test of leadership.” The challenges include ribbon cutting; leg wrestling; waiting your turn; being blindfolded and identifying smells; urinating in snow and spelling out your name in the snow while urinating; endurance tickling; and clubbing of baby seals. (Real animals are not used in the movie.)

Mackenzie ends up tied for second place with Arthur Meighen (played by Brent Skagford), who becomes his political rival for the rest of the movie, as Meighen (another former Canadian prime minister) was a rival to King in real life. The person who won the competition is Henry Albert “Bert” Harper (played by Mikhaïl Ahooja), who cedes his candidacy and recommends that Mackenzie be declared the winner, but the judge in charge refuses this request. In real life, Harper was a journalist who became an ally of King’s.

And now for the really weird stuff: Mackenzie has a shoe fetish. There are some scenes where he masturbates while inhaling into a shoe. For whatever reason, every shoe that he masturbates to looks like a woman’s work ankle boot.

Mackenzie hates seeing shoes that are randomly placed somewhere. When a female neighbor places her work shoes in the hallway, he complains about it being “unsanitary.” And in another scene, when a female construction worker drops one of her shoes near Mackenzie and asks him to return the shoe by tossing it back up to her, he instead runs away with the shoe and masturbates to it.

There’s a character named Dr. Milton Wakefield (played by Kee Chan), who gives Mackenzie a cactus plant. This cactus eventually grows so large that it almost reaches the ceiling of Mackenzie’s bedroom. And every time Mackenzie masturbates and climaxes, the cactus erupts with liquid substances that won’t be described in this review.

In real life, there’s a Canadian politician named Milton Wakefield, who was the Saskatchewan Party member of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan for the constituency of Lloydminster from 1999 to 2007, long after King died. There seems to be no plausible explanation for why there’s a character named Milton Wakefield in the story and why this character is interacting with King, because in real life, King died when Wakefield (who was born in 1939 or 1940) was a child.

One of the more memorable characters in the movie is Lady Violet (played by Emmanuel Schwartz), who is Lord Muto’s eldest daughter and Ruby’s sister. There’s a scene at a dinner party where Lord Muto attempts to play matchmaker with Violet and Mackenzie. Violet is brutally sarcastic and very jaded. She says lines like, “Canada is just one failed orgasm after another.”

Throughout the movie, Rankin keeps a very off-kilter tone that will thrill viewers who like unique wackiness but will turn off viewers who just don’t see the point of many of the movie’s scenes. Beirne carries the movie with a lot of admirable gusto, while the rest of the cast members give fairly good performances. “The Twentieth Century” is not a satire that makes any meaningful political statements about Canada. However, it does have enough oddball unpredictability, sly metaphors and eye-catching visuals that make it hard to look away.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “The Twentieth Century” in select U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Most Wanted,’ starring Antoine Olivier Pilon, Jim Gaffigan and Josh Hartnett

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Antoine Olivier Pilon and Jim Gaffigan in “Most Wanted” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Most Wanted”

Directed by Daniel Roby

Culture Representation: Taking place in Canada and Thailand, the dramatic film “Most Wanted” features a cast of white people and Asians representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash:  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police target a young male heroin addict to set up a major drug sting in Thailand, but the botched sting lands the addict in a Thai prison, while a Canadian investigative journalist works to uncover police corruption and to help exonerate the prisoner.

Culture Audience: “Most Wanted” will appeal primarily to people who like heavy-handed dramas about international investigative journalism and the war on drugs.

Antoine Olivier Pilon and Josh Hartnett in “Most Wanted” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Most Wanted” (formerly titled “Target Number One”) is one of those “crusading journalist” movies “inspired by a true story” that gives the impression that it inflates the importance of the journalist, who just happens to be a paid consultant for the film in real life. Written and directed in a choppy and disjointed manner by Daniel Roby, “Most Wanted” is elevated by an emotionally impactful performance by Antoine Olivier Pilon. But the film is too long (a little more than two hours) and a paint-by-numbers drama about a journalist determined to uncover police corruption while trying to free a wrongly imprisoned inmate.

The movie’s several flashbacks are not shown in chronological order. People unfamiliar with the “true story” before seeing this film might be confused by all of these flashbacks. It’s mentioned in the film’s epilogue that there were several scenes that did not happen in real life but were in the film for dramatic purposes.

Essentially, the purpose of the movie is to make real-life Canadian journalist Victor Malarek (played by Josh Hartnett) look like a hero, while almost everyone he’s investigating is involved in enough sleazy and corrupt activities that the movie makes it look like they all deserved to be exposed by Victor. The movie has Victor jumping back and forth between the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, and later Thailand, for his investigations.

Victor is portrayed as a cocky workaholic who’s obsessed with being the first journalist to scoop everyone else on major investigative stories. The beginning of the movie takes place in 1989, when Victor worked as a reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and as a part-time TV journalist at a local Toronto station. Victor’s TV interviewing style is the epitome of “gotcha journalism,” since he loves to make his interview subjects squirm when he catches them off-guard with tough questions.

It’s also shown in the movie that Victor isn’t just doing these investigations for the greater good of humanity. He also wants fame and glory for his investigations. He loves being on camera. And he doesn’t just want to get news scoops. He expects his stories for the newspaper to be on the front page.

In the Globe and Mail newsroom, Victor argues with his long-suffering editor Arthur (played by JC MacKenzie), who tells this narcissistic journalist that Victor is on the verge of being fired because Victor hasn’t turned in an assignment in two months. Victor says that his investigations often take months to complete. Arthur tells Victor that he will be demoted to being a stringer/freelancer unless he delivers one article a week, and it doesn’t matter if the articles cover easy topics. Victor shouts back, “It’s not about money! It’s about my process!”

Being an abrasive and aggressive journalist has made Victor some enemies, so he’s used to getting death threats or other threats to his safety. However, something has changed in Victor’s life that has made him think twice about how his work might affect his personal life. His wife Anna (played by Amanda Crew) has recently given birth to their first child, a daughter. Like a lot of cliché wife roles in this kind of movie, Anna’s only purpose is to sit around looking worried and scold her husband when he lets his work obsessions negatively affect their life at home.

Meanwhile, a French Canadian recovering heroin addict in his mid-20s named Daniel Léger (played by Pilon) has just completed a work program in a British Columbia forest. He’s been paid by check, but he doesn’t have a bank account to cash it, and there are no banks or check-cashing places nearby. When he goes to a convenience store near the forest, Daniel buys some things, but he has no cash with him.

Daniel calls his mother to ask him to read his credit card number over the phone so that he can pay for the items. His mother refuses, and Daniel promises her that he’s not buying drugs. Daniel tells the store clerk that he’ll be right back to get some cash. Instead, Daniel steals the items and takes off on his motorcycle, with the clerk chasing after him to no avail.

Needless to say, Daniel falls right back into drug addiction after he was clean and sober for six months. One of his junkie friends named Michael (played by Frédéric Millaire Zouvi) introduces Daniel to another drug addict named Glen Picker (played by Jim Gaffigan), who has a houseboat that Glen uses for commercial fishing and tourist excursions. But how Glen really makes most of his money is through drug dealing and by being a confidential informant for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Seeing that Daniel is broke, homeless and desperate, Glen offers a grateful Daniel a job as his apprentice.

“Most Wanted” takes a long, convoluted time to get to the heart of the story, including an unnecessary detour that shows Daniel dating a pawn-shop clerk named Mary (played by Rose-Marie Perreault), in a drug-fueled relationship that ends up going nowhere. When Glen finds out that Daniel was arrested in Thailand for a drug deal, Glen foolishly believes Michael’s exaggeration that Daniel has major drug connections in Thailand. Michael even has a nickname for Daniel: Thailand Party Guy. Daniel doesn’t really correct this exaggerated perception of his clout in the drug-dealing world.

Glen passes along this information to an overzealous RCMP federal agent named Barry Cooper (played by Stephen McHattie), who’s close to retirement and eager to make one last major drug bust before he retires. Under Barry’s direction, Canada’s federal police pressure Daniel to set up a major drug deal in Thailand. Glen also has high expectations for Daniel to deliver a big drug deal to the feds.

In reality, Daniel only knows one small-time drug dealer in Thailand. Even though Daniel’s passport was confiscated due to his previous drug bust in Thailand, he’s able to get his passport returned to him, now that he’s secretly working with the Canadian government. Barry and other Canadian federal agents—including Barry’s ambitious son Al Cooper (played by Cory Lipman), who’s still a trainee—arrange to take a trip to Thailand with Daniel to set up what the feds think will be a major drug bust.

But things go horribly wrong. Daniel and some local Thai drug dealers are arrested by Thai police. During Daniel’s court hearings in Thailand, the Canadian government misleads the judge into thinking that Daniel is someone else with the same last name who has an arrest record in Canada. In reality, Daniel does not have an arrest record in Canada, but he’s been advised to plead guilty or else he will get the death penalty.

Daniel is sentenced to 100 years in prison. And somewhere in the jumbled way that this story is told in the movie, investigative journalist Victor takes it upon himself to try to get justice for Daniel. “Most Wanted” takes too long (about two-thirds of the film) showing how Daniel ended up wrongly imprisoned in Thailand. By the time the prison scenes are shown, they look rushed and shoved in as an after-thought.

And it’s too bad, because the best scenes in the movie are of Daniel’s plight in the Thai prison and what he does to survive. As Daniel, Pilon does a particularly credible performance in portraying the terror yet self-preservation that Daniel experiences while in the custody of Thai law enforcement.

Gaffigan, who usually has comedic roles, is also quite impressive in his performance as greedy confidential informant Glen, but this character is written in such a one-dimensional, sleazy way that Gaffigan doesn’t have much to do to go beyond this shallowness. Hartnett, who isn’t very remarkable in his role as Victor, has played this type of swaggering egomaniac before in other movies, so it’s not much of an acting stretch for him. And the Canadian federal agents are written as bumbling fools, so the actors in those roles are confined to playing these stereotypes.

“Most Wanted” would have been improved by cutting out a lot of the filler scenes leading up to Daniel’s imprisonment and giving audiences more insightful views of how he suffered and persevered while he spent years in a Thai prison. For example, there could have been more shown of the relationships that Daniel had inside the Thai prison system that helped him with his daunting task of appealing his case.

There’s only a hint of the type of allies that Daniel must have had in the prison, as exemplified by a Thai prisoner named Sin (played by Konglar Kanchanahoti), who helps Daniel with some important favors. “Most Wanted” didn’t have to be a “Midnight Express” type of movie, but the prison scenes are so late in the film, that it defeats the purpose of making this wrongful imprisonment the center of the story.

“Most Wanted” also erases anyone besides Victor who helped Daniel outside of the Thai prison system. For example, the movie doesn’t show any attorneys who would have been necessary for Daniel’s quest to get released from prison. The movie is so hell-bent on making Victor look like the only hero who can save Daniel, that it cheapens the story by giving an unrealistic portrayal of the legal process in Daniel’s case.

And what does the movie show Victor doing during Daniel’s prison ordeal? Visiting/interviewing Daniel once in the Thai prison and writing an article published in Canada about Daniel’s wrongful imprisonment. Victor also puts his wife and daughter into hiding in the home of a fellow journalist friend named Norm (played by Don McKellar), while Victor experiences more threats from government types who tell him to stop snooping around.

In one scene that will make people roll their eyes, Victor tells Emma that she has to be patient while “I save the world.” It’s too bad that it’s too late to save this movie from its hokey melodrama that clutters the story with unnecessary gibberish and leaves out a lot of important details.

Saban Films released “Most Wanted” on VOD on July 24, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment will release “Most Wanted” on digital and Blu-ray on September 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Game of Death,’ starring Sam Earle, Victoria Diamond, Emelia Hellman, Erniel Baez Duenas, Thomas Vallieres and Catherine Saindon

July 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Erniel Baez Duenas, Sam Earle, Emelia Hellman and Victoria Diamond in “Game of Death” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Game of Death” (2020)

Directed by Sebastien Landry and Laurence Baz Morais

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian area, the horror flick “Game of Death” has an almost all-white cast (with one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a house party, seven teenagers find a sinister portable electronic game that will make their heads explode unless they kill people.

Culture Audience: “Game of Death” will appeal primarily to people who want the lowest-common denominator type of horror film that places more emphasis on gross-out bloody scenes than having a coherent plot.

Thomas Vallieres, Catherine Saindon and Nick Serino in “Game of Death” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

If the sight of blood makes you squeamish, then you probably won’t be able to watch the “Game of Death,” which is essentially a repetitive, mindless bloodbath. The movie is only 73 minutes long, but it feels longer since the acting is so bad and the moronic story is even worse. Directed by Sebastien Landry and Laurence Baz Morais, who both wrote the screenplay with Edouard Bond, “Game of Death” makes a feeble attempt at being a dark comedy. But that angle to the story is essentially blown to bits, just like the exploding heads of some people in this movie.

There’s not much that can be said about “Game of Death,” because there really isn’t much of a plot. The movie, which takes place in an unidentified area of Canada, starts off at a house party attended by seven teenagers. They’re all various degrees of drunk, stoned and/or horny.

Ashley (played by Emelia Hellman) is a sarcastic “mean girl” type. Ashley’s boyfriend Matthew (played by Thomas Vallieres) is her male counterpart, because he’s equally obnoxious and cruel to others. How mean-spirited is Matthew? As a prank, he gives a drink to nerdy party guest Kenny (played by Nick Serino)—and the drink turns out to be Matthew’s urine.

Everyone at the party seems to know each other pretty well. Beth (played by Victoria Diamond) is a blonde Barbie doll type. Mary-Ann (played by Catherine Saindon) is the “nice girl” of the group. Tom (played by Sam Earle) seems like a regular guy until his true nature comes out later in the movie. And then there’s Tyler (played by Erniel Baez Duenas), a pizza delivery guy who’s a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

There are no adults in the house during the party, so the teens have free reign to do what they want. The movie has predictable scenes involving sex and drugs, but these scenes are filmed in such an amateurish way that it looks like a movie made by teenagers. And that doesn’t include the phone footage that’s supposed to represent what these partiers are filming for their social media.

After playing spin the bottle, the teens move on to another game. They gather around an octagon-shaped electronic toy called Game of Death that has a display window in the middle. It’s never explained how they got this mysterious toy, but an instruction card tells them the game’s numerical display shows how many people have to die for the game to end. If someone isn’t killed by a certain period of time (the movie doesn’t say for how long), then a game player’s head will explode. The card also warns that once the game starts, anyone playing the game can’t stop it until the required number of people are dead.

The teens think that all of this is too far-fetched to really happen, so they start playing the game. They place their fingers on the game’s finger slots. As soon as their fingers touch the game, they get an electrical shock that draws blood from their fingers. The blood dripping onto the device apparently activates the game to start.

Tyler freaks out and shouts, “That’s not even a a game! It’s an STD dispenser!” His pals tease him because they think he’s over-reacting. When one of them suggests that Tyler go to the hospital if he thinks his injury is so bad, he immediately rejects the idea because he says that the people at the hospital will experiment on him.

It isn’t long after that when someone’s head explodes, just like the game’s instruction card had warned. The numerical display shows that by the end of the game, 25 people have to die. Every time someone dies, an evil electronic voice from the game says, “One down,” and then gives a sinister chuckle. The rest of the story is basically a series of people’s heads exploding or people getting murdered. All of these death scenes are extremely bloody.

The visual effects are hit-and-miss in this film. The head-exploding scenes are fairly realistic-looking. However, a scene that looks dumb and very fake is when someone gets deliberately run over by a car, and the dead body’s splattered intestines look like elongated spaghetti covered with red paste instead of bloody human guts. To make matters worse, the dialogue throughout the film is just terrible.

While this deadly game is happening, the teens argue with each other about what they should do. Some don’t want to kill anyone. Some want to kill only “bad” people. Others in the group don’t care who they kill. The game unleashes a blood lust from two people in particular, who go on a murder spree that was clearly inspired by “Natural Born Killers.”

During all of this bloody mayhem, there are some bizarre moments that are meant to be funny but they just come across as very silly. After the first head explosion, the rest of the teens are covered in blood for the rest of the movie and don’t bother to clean themselves up, even when they eventually leave the house and do what they end up doing.

While driving Tyler’s Pizza Hawt car on a fairly deserted road, they’re stopped by a police trooper named Marilyn (played by Jane Hackett), who starts singing the Pizza Hawt theme for an interminable minute that seems like longer. When she asks the teens why they’re covered in blood, they tell her that they accidentally hit an animal with their car. It’s an obvious lie that this dimwitted cop easily accepts.

And then there’s a scene where there’s a gun showdown in a hospital hallway with a young girl hooked up to an IV pack and walking in the middle of this shootout. The problem with this scene is it’s filmed almost as if it’s a dream sequence: The hospital suddenly becomes deserted and the hallway gets that foggy look that indicates that it might be a dream.

But it’s not a dream. This gun showdown is also one of those unrealistic battle scenes where people point guns at each other, but then stand around and talk too much instead of blowing the opponent away. And one of the characters also gives a very pretentious, preachy speech about life and death.

“Game of Death” might have been intended as a dark comedy, but that only works when there’s anything that’s actually funny in the movie. When a movie is this bloody, it should either be very scary or very funny or both. “Game of Death” is neither. The only heads that might explode for “Game of Death” are when viewers get bored or frustrated with this bottom-of-the-barrel horror flick.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Game of Death” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on July 14, 2020. The movie was released in France and the United Kingdom in 2017.

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