Review: ‘And Then We Danced,’ starring Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili

February 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

And Then We Danced
Bachi Valishvili and Levan Gelbakhiani in “And Then We Danced” (Photo by Lisabi Fridell/Music Box Films)

“And Then We Danced”

Directed by Levan Akin

Georgian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the modern-day Eastern European republic of Georgia, the coming-of-age drama “And Then We Danced” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle and lower classes of a country which places significant cultural importance on traditional Georgian dance.

Culture Clash: Two young male dancers who fall in love with each other face the pressures and obstacles of a society that condemns homosexuality.

Culture Audience: “And Then We Danced” will appeal primarily to people who like European arthouse cinema, as well as to viewers who want to see LGBTQ stories told realistically on screen.

Bachi Valishvili, Levan Gelbakhiani and Ana Javakishvili in “And Then We Danced” (Photo by Anka Gujabidze/Music Box Films)

You might have heard that the dramatic film “And Then We Danced” sparked protests and some violence when it opened to sold-out screenings in the Eastern European republic of Georgia in November 2019. What was the reason for this outrage? Does the movie show excessive violence? Does it have any hate-filled political messages? No. The controversy was because the movie is about two men who fall in love with each other after they meet in their training to become professionals in the world of traditional Georgian dance—a profession that preaches that there’s no place for homosexuality and male dancers should very masculine.

“And Then We Danced” writer/director Levan Akin, who was born in Sweden and is of Georgian descent, says he was inspired to make the film in 2013, when he witnessed the large mob attacks on people who tried to organized the first Pride parade in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the country’s largest city. It’s in Tbilisi where most of the story takes place in “And Then We Danced.”

The cultural significance of traditional Georgian dance in Georgia and how it’s tied so closely to national pride is very similar to how Americans feel about line dancing for country music, which originated in the United States. Although a person’s sexuality is not a measure of talent in dancing, nevertheless, it’s still taboo for people in many styles of dancing to be openly non-heterosexual, depending on where the laws and customs in their society. Traditional Georgian dance is so important to the nation’s culture, kids in Georgia are taught traditional Georgian dance from an early age. As the character who plays the National Georgian Ensemble’s dance director says in the movie: “Georgian dance isn’t about achieving perfection. It’s the soul of the nation.”

However, it’s made clear in the beginning of the film that there are certain inflexible expectations on how people can express themselves in traditional Georgian dance: Male dancers have to be extra macho. Female dancers must appear to be innocent and “virginal.” Dance moves that are considered sexual are strictly forbidden. These rules are evident in the opening scene, which shows a stern, middle-age male dance instructor Aleko (playedby Kakha Gogidze) barking orders to a group of dancers practicing in a rehearsal space: “There is no sex in Georgia dance,” he bellows. “This isn’t the lambada.”

An eager young student named Merab Lominadze (played by Levan Gelbakhiani) is dancing as if it’s his life passion. And it is. He has dreams of becoming a professional dancer in the National Georgian Ensemble, even though it’s a highly competitive career with a limited span for dancers in their prime. His regular dance partner is a young woman around the same age named Miriam “Mary” Kipiani (played by Ana Javakishvili), and they have obvious dance chemistry together. Merab and Mary have been paired with each other since she was 10, and they’ve developed a long-term close friendship outside of dancing.

In the film’s first scene, a handsome new dancer interrupts the rehearsal and says he’s been sent as a replacement dancer. His name is Irakli (played by Bachi Valishvili), and he’s got a Marlon Bando-ish swagger and attitude about him that has the rest of the class intrigued. It’s clear from Merab’s reaction to Irakli that he’s infatuated at first sight.

It’s hinted throughout the story that Mary might have an unrequited crush on Merab, but he only has eyes for Irakli. Mary tries to ignore all the signs that her longtime friend isn’t heterosexual, but there are indications that she’s somewhat jealous of Merab’s subtle interest in Irakli. As Irakli gets acquainted with the rest of the dancers, Mary tries to put off Merab from getting to know Irakli better, by saying that Irakli is “weird.” But Merab is having none of that shady talk from Mary, and he watches Irakli from a distance until circumstances bring them into each other’s social circle.

Merab lives with three other people in a cramped apartment: his troubled single mother Teona (played Tamar Bukhnikashvili), who works as a housekeeper; his no-nonsense maternal grandmother Nona (played by Marika Gogichaishvili); and his older brother David (played by Giorgi Tsereteli), who’s a hard-partying rebel. David and Merab share a room together, and they’re both in the same dance class. But David is on the verge of being kicked out of the class for missing too many rehearsals. To help out with their financially strapped household income, Merab works part-time as a restaurant waiter. He hands over a lot, if not all, of his wages to his mother, who appears to have an addiction problem because she’s disheveled and often seen in some kind of intoxicated stupor.

Because gay or queer people have to keep their sexuality hidden in the world of Georgian dance, this pressure to stay in the closet is shown in two of the dance-studio scenes that are juxtaposed next to each other. In one scene that takes place in the women’s dressing room, Mary talks about a former male dance student named Zaza, whose parents sent him to a monastery to “cure” him of his homosexuality so that he could be “normal.” In the other scene, which takes place in the men’s dressing room, some of the male dancers talk about visiting a brothel, and they ask Irakli if he wants to join them on their next visit. He says no, because he says he has a girlfriend back in his hometown of Berami.

Early one morning Merab is practicing at the dance studio when the only other person there is Irakli. As they practice some dance moves together, Irakli tells Merab that his dancing technique is wrong because it could lead to a leg injury. Irakli then shows Merab the correct way to execute the dance move, and it’s the first time that the two men touch each other. You can almost see the sparks of electricity between them.

They get to talking, and Irakli asks Merab if one of the female dancers in the class has a boyfriend because he’s thinking of asking her out on a date. A visibly disappointed Merab tells Irakli that the girl likes to be taken to expensive restaurants. Irakli says that he won’t pursue her because he wouldn’t be able to afford to date her. He then opens up to Merab by telling him that he has use his money to help his ailing father, who has cancer.

Merab also has some family problems. His parents, who split up years ago, used to be well-respected dancers in Georgia’s national dance ensemble, but somewhere along the way, they gave up their successful dance careers and fell into a life of financial hardship that’s brought a certain shame to the family. For example, Merba’s mother doesn’t want people to know that a local food merchant donates leftover, throwaway food to them, and she has Merab pick up the food on his way home.

Merab’s father Ioseb (played by Aleko Begalishvili) now works at Tbilisi Eliava Bazaar, a crowded flea-market-style collective of merchants. It’s implied that he was a deadbeat dad who failed to provide enough child support payments, and there’s some lingering tension in the family because they’ve fallen on hard times. Ioseb discourages Merab from following his dreams of being a professional dancer. As he tells his son: “There’s no future in Georgian dance. Being a dancer is a dog’s life.” Despite what his father says, Merab remains undeterred.

Irakli and Merab continue to meet up for early-morning rehearsals before the other dancers arrive. Word gets back to the dance instructor Aleko about this hard-working duo, so he tests Irakli and Merab’s dance chemistry together in a male duet. Not surprisingly, Merab and Irakli are terrific dance partners, which intensifies their growing attraction to one another. Although Irakli has made it clear that he’s attracted to women, Merab is starting to develop romantic feelings for him. Could Irakli be attracted to men too, and will Merab have a chance with him? And what about Irakli’s girlfriend in his hometown?

As fate would have it, David comes home one night with a new drinking buddy: Irakli. They both stumble into the apartment very drunk, and David lets Irakli sleep on the floor. Merab can’t believe his luck that Irakli is spending the night in his bedroom (although in a very non-sexual way), and he stares lovingly at Irakli when Irakli’s asleep. Complicating their potential love affair is the fact that Merab and Irakli are among the school’s dancers who’ve been selected to audition for the National Georgian Ensemble, since there’s a job opening for a male dancer.

Merab and Irakli’s bond becomes closer when Irakli, who lives in Tbilisi with his grandmother (played by Tamari Skhirtladze), invites Merab over to introduce Merab to her and to spend some time alone with him in Irakli’s room. They talk some more, but Merab still isn’t quite sure if Irakli wants to be more than friends, and Merab is afraid to make the first move.

In the meantime, Irakli has joined the circle of dancer friends that include Mary, David, Merab and Sopo (played by Anano Makharadze), who’s dating David.  The clique goes on a getaway trip to the family lake house of one of the dancers, and they do a lot of partying. It’s during this fateful trip that the sparks between Merab and Irakli turn into something much more, and they have their first sexual encounter with each other, which then leads to a secret love affair.

Merab seems to be more comfortable coming to terms with his same-sex attraction, but Irakli is not. Merab likes to show affection to Irakli when people aren’t looking, but Irakli is the one more likely to feel paranoid about getting caught, so he pulls away first if Merab tries to kiss him or hold his hand in public. They both don’t feel entirely safe about coming out, but Merab takes steps to express his true sexuality by befriending an openly gay club kid who hangs out with prostitutes who are drag queens or transgender women. As Merab explores more of the gay nightlife scene, he becomes increasingly despondent over the reality that he can’t go public about his love for Irakli, who’s definitely not the type to go to a gay nightclub.

As for the gay love scenes in “And Then We Danced” that caused so much controversy in Georgia, they’re not very explicit. There’s kissing but no full-frontal nudity. The sex acts are implied through movements instead of showing everything on camera, just like the sex scenes were done in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Rocketman.” However, since Georgia is one of the Eastern European countries that has anti-LGBTQ laws, people who object to “And Then We Danced” have taken particular offense because the men having the love affair in the movie are those representing the nation’s cultural institution of Georgian dance.

Regardless of how people feel about LGBTQ rights, it can’t be denied that “And Then We Danced” is a superbly made film that’s elevated largely by Gelbakhiani (who makes his film debut in the movie) and his believably expressive performance as someone falling in love for the first time and coming to terms with his sexuality. Gelbakhiani and Valishvili (who both have several years of experience in Georgian dance) have natural chemistry together. But since the movie is told mainly from Merab’s perspective, the audience’s emotional journey is largely through him—from the spring in his steps and joy in his face when he’s in the throes of this new love affair to the anxiety and fear that threaten to plunge him into a depression when his lover doesn’t return his messages and seems to be avoiding him.

The movie’s cinematography (by Lisabi Fridell) has moments of sublime authenticity, from sweeping camera angles during big, dramatic moments to tight camera shots to capture the intensity of the dance rehearsals. Even though the movie takes place in Georgia, because writer/director Akin is Swedish, “And Then We Danced” was Sweden’s 2019 selection for the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film. Although the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination, and even though the story takes place in a specific part of the world, the concept of falling in love for the first time and facing any fears because of it, is a universal theme that will strike a chord with mature, open-minded people of any sexual orientation.

Music Box Films will release “And Then We Danced” in select U.S. cinemas on February 7, 2020. The movie was originally released parts of Europe (including Georgia and Sweden) in 2019.





Review: ‘Cane River,’ starring Tommye Myrick and Richard Romain

February 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Richard Romain and Tommye Myrick in “Cane River” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Cane River”

Directed by Horace B. Jenkins

Culture Representation: Set in 1981 Louisiana, the romantic drama “Cane River” has a predominantly African American cast of working-class and middle-class characters.

Culture Clash: Creoles and darker-skinned African Americans have conflicts that stem from issues of colorism and classism within the community.

Culture Audience: “Cane River” will appeal primarily to people who want to seek out vintage African American independent films or independent films about Louisiana culture.

Tommye Myrick and Richard Romain in “Cane River” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Cane River” is a throwback to a time when a romantic movie drama starring African Americans didn’t keep repeating negative stereotypes, such as excessive cursing, someone facing prison time (or someone who just got out of prison) and someone who’s been caught cheating on a partner. “Cane River” was written, directed and produced by Horace B. Jenkins, who passed away of a heart attack at the age of 42 in 1982, before the movie could be released. “Cane River” has received a new 4K restoration from IndieCollect, in association with Academy Film Archive, and it’s being released for the first time in 2020.

The movie is very much a snapshot of African American independent cinema in the early 1980s. Don’t expect to see anything that could be called masterful filmmaking, but just go along for the retro ride for this simple story that portrays a very complex issue that’s rarely discussed in movies: colorism among African Americans and how it can divide black people for generations.

At the beginning of the movie, it’s May 1981, and tall and good-looking Peter Metoyer (played by Richard Romain) is traveling by bus to go back to his rural hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Based on the warm welcome he gets when he arrives ( a crowd has gathered and there’s a “welcome home” banner in the center of the town), he seems to be somewhat of a local hero. Peter is known in the area because he was a superb athlete in high school, with football the sport he excelled in the most. He was so talented that he spent some time away from home being courted by professional football teams, including the New York Jets.

But Peter is far from a typical athlete. He turned down all the offers, and instead decided to move back to his small town to become a farmer and a poet. His Creole family owns farming land that he plans to live on and harvest for a living while pursuing his writing career.

While getting himself re-acquainted with his hometown, he visits the Melrose Plantation, where he meets a tour guide named Maria Mathis (played by Tommye Myrick), a sassy and intelligent woman who has ambitions to go to college. Peter and Maria, who are both in their early 20s, hit it off immediately, and Peter offers her a ride home—by horseback. (There just happens to be two horses nearby that he can use.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a romantic drama without the central couple having some obstacles. As soon as Peter meets Maria, it’s obvious that their lives are going in different directions. She’s tired of living in a small town and is looking forward to moving to the big city of New Orleans, where she’ll start attending Xavier University of Louisiana in the fall. Meanwhile, Peter has already experienced living in a big city, and he wants to go back to living on his family farm.

Despite knowing that they have limited time to spend with each other before Maria has to leave for college, Peter and Maria start dating each other. They go horseback riding, swimming and have other romantic meet-ups near Cane River. Peter and Maria start to fall in love, even though they both know that the circumstances are less than ideal for them.

And there’s another problem: Maria’s domineering, widowed mother Mrs. Mathis (played by Carol Sutton) and her surly, slacker brother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie and is played by Ilunga Adell) disapprove of the relationship from the beginning because the Metoyer family has a Creole image of being prejudiced against darker-skinned African Americans who are poor or working-class. As a reference for their beliefs, Maria’s mother and brother cite the findings of the 1977 non-fiction book “The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color Book,” by Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. The book’s historical account of Creoles in the area lists an ancestor of Peter’s as being a free woman of color who married a white man who owned slaves.

Maria’s mother and brother believe that their family members are descendants of people who used to be slaves of the Metoyer family. It’s one of the main reasons why Maria’s mother and brother are vehemently against Maria having a romance with Peter. They also believe that Maria will never truly be accepted by the Metoyers since she’s not a light-skinned Creole. Maria angrily brushes off their orders to stop seeing Peter, because she thinks that he and the current Metoyer family shouldn’t be held responsible for what happened hundreds of years ago.

In defiance of her family’s disapproval, Maria continues to see Peter and eventually meets his family—including his father (played by Lloyd LaCour) and his sister Dominique (played by Barbara Tasker), who mostly approve of the relationship. However, Peter’s family members have concerns that Peter’s relationship won’t last since Maria will be going away to New Orleans for college, and they don’t want Peter’s heart to get broken.

As Maria and Peter fall deeper in love, they impulsively take a trip to New Orleans, but the trip further amplifies their contrasting goals and interests. While Maria is fascinated by the big city and can’t wait to go back, Peter is reminded of why he wants to live on a  farm instead of a big city. However, his whirlwind romance with Maria has become very serious because he’s thinking about proposing to her and asking her to stay in Natchitoches with him. He starts to drop hints to Maria that maybe she should think twice about going to Xavier University and maybe attend a college that’s closer to Natchitoches. When Maria starts to doubt her decision to go to Xavier, her mother is infuriated, and Maria eventually has to make a decision once and for all about what she’s going to do.

For all of its charm and sincerity, “Cane River” does have some noticeable flaws, especially with its choppy editing (there are some really cringeworthy jump cuts) and uneven sound mixing. Myrick and Romain, who made their film debuts in “Cane River,” make a believable on-screen couple but their performances would have been better if they had more acting experience. And quite a few of supporting actors are also a little too stiff in their performances.

The movie is very low-tech, but it has a lot of heart that shines through in the story. The cinematography by Gideon Manasseh captures some great shots of the Cane River landscape. And for people who like old-school R&B, the movie’s soundtrack by LeRoy Glover will be a nostalgic treat.

Amid the romantic plot, there’s also a message in the movie about the repercussions of colorism and how it still affects people, generations after slavery was abolished in the United States. Even among African Americans and other black people, lighter-skinned black people can get preference over darker-skinned black people, which can cause deep-seated resentments that are difficult to overcome. There’s also a scene in “Cane River” where Peter visits a bank, and he gets a lesson in how black people’s disenfranchisement is directly proportional to how much property black people own in their communities.

Considering how rare it was for African American independent filmmakers in the 1980s to be able to write, produce and direct their own films with a predominantly black cast, “Cane River” is a time capsule of what types of films could be made under obstacles and barriers in the movie industry—keeping in mind that it was much more expensive in 1980s money to make an independent movie than it is now, because digital technology for independent filmmakers did not exist back then. (The legacy of “Cane River” director Horace B. Jenkins lives on through his son Sacha Jenkins, a journalist and independent filmmaker whose credits include the documentaries “Fresh Dressed” and “Word Is Bond.”)

If people get a chance to see “Cane River,” they might be intrigued to experience some 1980s nostalgia, but they should also appreciate the larger context of how difficult it must have been to make this movie and how long it’s taken for the public to get a chance to see it.

Oscilloscope Laboratories will release “Cane River” in New York City and New Orleans on February 7, 2020. The movie’s U.S. release expands to more cities, as of February 14, 2020.

2020 Sundance Film Festival: winners announced

February 1, 2020

The winners of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival were announced in its annual award ceremony, held this year on February 1 in Park City, Utah. The annual festival, which is presented by the Sundance Institute in Park City, runs from January 23 to February 2 this year.

In addition, the Sundance Film Festival announced at the award ceremony that Tabitha Jackson is replacing John Cooper as Sundance Film Festival Director.  Jackson was Director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program since 2014. Cooper, who was in the position since 2008, is stepping down to pursue other opportunities. He will continue to be a part of the Sundance Institute as director of special projects.

Here is the complete list of winners:


Steven Yeun  (pictured at right) in “Minari” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Grand Jury Prize: “Minari”

Audience Award: “Minari”

Directing: Radha Blank, “The 40-Year-Old Version”

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Edson Oda, “Nine Days”

Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast: “Charm City Kings”

Special Jury Auteur Award: Josephine Decker, “Shirley”

Special Jury Award for Neorealism: Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”


Steven Garza in “Boys State” (Photo by Thorsten Thielow).

Grand Jury Prize: “Boys State”

Audience Award: “Crip Camp”

Directing: Garrett Bradley, “Time”

Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker: Arthur Jones, “Feels Good Man”

Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres, “The Fight”

Special Jury Award for Editing: Tyler H. Walk, “Welcome to Chechnya”

Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling: Kirsten Johnson, “Dick Johnson Is Dead”


Sadaf Asgari in “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

Grand Jury Prize: “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness”

Audience Award: “Identifying Features”

Directing Award: Maïmouna Doucouré, “Cuties”

Special Jury Award for Acting: Ben Whishaw, “Surge”

Special Jury Award for Visionary Filmmaking: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection”

Special Jury Award for Best Screenplay: Fernanda Valadez & Astrid Rondero. “Identifying Features”


Epicentro” (Photo by Hubert Sauper)

Grand Jury Prize: “Epicentro”

Audience Award: “The Reason I Jump”

Directing Award: Iryna Tsilyk, “The Earth is Blue as an Orange”

Special Jury Award for Editing: Mila Aung Thwin, Sam Soko, Ryan Mullins, “Softie”

Special Jury Award for Cinematography: Micrea Topoleanu, Radu Ciorniciuc, “Acasa, My Home”

Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling: Benjamin Ree, “The Painter and the Thief”


Christian Vásquez and Armando Espitia in “I Carry You With Me” (Photo by Alejandro López)

NEXT Audience Award: “I Carry You With Me”

NEXT Innovator Award: “I Carry You With Me”

Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: “Tesla”

Sundance Institute NHK Award: Kirsten Tan, “Higher”

Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Features: Huriyyah Muhammad, “Farewell Amor”

Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Documentary Features: Diane Becker & Melanie Miller of Fishbowl Films, “Whirlybird”

Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Documentary: Carla Gutierrez

Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Narrative: Affonso Gonçalves

Review: ‘The Rhythm Section,’ starring Blake Lively and Jude Law

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Blake Lively in "The Rhythm Section"
Blake Lively in “The Rhythm Section” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Rhythm Section”

Directed by Reed Morano

Culture Representation: This globe-trotting action film, which is about a woman who becomes an undercover assassin to avenge the deaths of her family, consists of predominantly white (with some African American and Asian) characters representing the middle and upper classes of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Culture Clash: The protagonist, an American who’s been living in the United Kingdom for several years, wants revenge against an international terrorist group that sets bombs to kill innocent people.

Culture Audience: “The Rhythm Section” will appeal mostly to fans of lead actress Blake Lively, but her myriad of disguises in the film can’t quite cover up the movie’s far-fetched plot.

Blake Lively and Jude Law in “The Rhythm Section” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

If you were to believe Hollywood’s version of what female assassins are like in action dramas, then you’d think that they’re all extremely good-looking, emotionally damaged women (with a past or present drug problem) who don’t have families and have to be a prostitute or “kept woman” to a rich and powerful man at least once, in order to get information or to get revenge. When an assassin/spy movie’s main character is a woman who’s new to the game, she’s almost always trained by a man.

She usually has sexual tension or an affair with her trainer or another man who has some kind of supervisor power over her. And there’s always an excuse to present her in a scantily clad outfit (such as lingerie) or possibly nude in the movie. It should come as no surprise that these movies about female assassins/spies who prostitute themselves are almost always written by men. Think about how many times James Bond, Jason Bourne or “Mission: Impossible’s” Ethan Hunt have had to show their naked private parts or play a male hooker in their movies. Exactly. Zero.

When you take all of these sexist movie stereotypes about female assassins/spies into consideration, “The Rhythm Section” really is just another predictable rehash of the same old formula that seemed fresh with 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” but has since been recycled so many times that movie audiences have rightfully become bored with it. Recent movie flops such as “Anna,” “Red Sparrow” and “Atomic Blonde” (with “The Rhythm Section” inevitably joining the list) are an indication that audiences are rejecting this concept that female assassins—no matter how badass they are in their gun-toting, disguise-changing ways—are still reduced to being sexpots who are following orders from men. With other more empowered action role models on screen, such as female superheroes, who needs these outdated portrayals of women who go undercover?

The main difference between “The Rhythm Section” and almost every female assassin/spy movie of this type is that “The Rhythm Section” is directed by a woman—Reed Morano, whose directing work on the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” earned her an Emmy Award. “The Rhythm Section” (which is a terrible title for an action movie) is based on the novel by Mark Burnell, who wrote the movie’s screenplay. It’s called “The Rhythm Section” because more than one character utters in the film: “Think of your heart as the drums and your breathing as the bass,” as a way to focus when they’re in a dangerous situation. Such pretentious tripe.

Near the beginning of the film, it becomes obvious that Stephanie Patrick (played by Lively) already checks three of the cliché boxes about female assassins in movies. Is she without a family? Check. Her immediate family (her parents and her younger sister and brother) have died in a plane crash three years before the story takes place.

Is she emotionally damaged with a drug problem? Check. She’s so traumatized over the loss of her family that she’s become a down-and-out drug addict. Is she a prostitute too? Check. She goes by the alias “Lisa” when she’s working as a hooker. Before the tragedy, Stephanie was an American who was living in England as a university student. Clearly, her student visa has now expired, just like this movie’s weak concept.

Somehow, a freelance journalist named Keith Proctor (played by Raza Jeffrey) tracks down Stephanie and poses as a client so that he can get into her apartment. He tells her that he doesn’t want sex but wants to tell her that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident. It was really caused by a bomb that was planted by a terrorist named Muhammad Reza (played Tawfeek Barhom), in yet another movie stereotype that portrays an Arab as a crazy terrorist.

Okay, stop right there. At some point, you have to wonder how stupid the filmmakers think viewers are, because there’s no way that a plane that has been exploded by a bomb, killing everyone (hundreds of people) on board, could be mistaken as an “accident” by government agencies investigating such a major tragedy. But in the world of “The Rhythm Section,” so many things are silly and illogical that there’s no point in trying to make sense of this sloppy mess of a story.

And in the world of “The Rhythm Section,” if you’re a journalist investigating this plane that was “secretly” bombed, you need to track down a drug-addicted prostitute whose immediately family died on the plane and convince her that she needs to help you find this mysterious terrorist, even though she’s so strung out that she can barely function. No joke. That’s what happens in the movie.

Proctor, who already knows Stephanie’s real name, then proceeds to invite her to his place and leave all of his keys with her, even though he knows she’s a drug addict who’ll be tempted to steal from him to get money for drugs. When she points that out to him, he tells her, “I can always change the locks.” It’s no surprise that things don’t turn out very well for Proctor. Before he’s out of the picture, Stephanie confesses to him that she feels guilty because she was supposed to be on the plane with her family, but she changed her mind at the last minute.

Stephanie goes away to a remote countryside in Scotland. And almost immediately, she’s tracked down by another man, who ambushes her. Despite being a messed-up junkie with no background in espionage, law enforcement, the military or intelligence gathering, Stephanie seems to have some kind of invisible radar where people think that she’s the perfect candidate to hunt down an international terrorist. The new man who wants Stephanie to be his terrorist hunter just goes by the name “B” (played by Jude Law), and his mission is to train Stephanie to become an assassin to find not only Reza, but also the head of the international terrorist group that sent Reza to plant the plane’s bomb. The group’s name is U-17, which sounds more like a submarine than a terrorist faction.

And off Stephanie and B go in the remote countryside, where he whips her into shape, as she huffs and puffs on morning jogs she doesn’t want to take. So, no drug rehab then? After some target practice, B’s way of training Stephanie to use a gun is to demand that she shoot him while he’s wearing a bulletproof vest. Viewers will also have to sit through several scenes where B seems to take pleasure in randomly starting physical fights with Stephanie, as a way to prepare her for her new life as a terrorist hunter.

Oh and by the way, as B tells her, Stephanie has to pose as a German spy named Petra, because Petra has disappeared and he needs someone to assume Petra’s identity. And why exactly does Stephanie agree to all of this and go away with this mystery person, who won’t even tell her his full name and says he used to be in MI6 but shows no proof? Are she and this movie’s screenplay that dumb? Yes.

It’s not long before another guy comes into the mix: Marc Serra (played by Sterling K. Brown), an American philanthropist who says he used to be in the CIA and he’s willing to help “Petra” track down the brains behind U-17, so he becomes a trusted advisor. He immediately notices that “Petra” doesn’t have a German accent, and she doesn’t really answer his question when he asks her why she doesn’t have a German accent. (Lively’s accent in the movie is kind of distracting, because it sounds like American trying too hard to sound British. She should’ve just stuck with her real American accent.) Stephanie and Marc are sexually attracted to each other, so of course that means ethics will be compromised and judgment will be clouded.

And even when she assumes a new identity, the movie isn’t done with showing Stephanie/”Petra” being a hooker yet. While disguising herself as a red-haired, high-priced escort, she visits a rich, arrogant businessman named Michael “Leo” Giler (played by Max Casella) in his New York City luxury apartment. B has told her to kill the guy. However, things might or might not go as planned. But that’s not before Stephanie strips down into dominatrix-type lingerie where she slinks and slithers around on Giler to lure him into her seduction trap.

As car chases, gun fights and explosions in several cities around the world act as filler to this very flimsy story, viewers might ask, “Where exactly is this movie going?” For long stretches of the movie, the answer to that question is “nowhere.” And then there’s the laughably bad ending that leaves you wondering how the actors could’ve kept a straight face while filming it. “The Rhythm Section” is an ironic title for this movie, which ultimately hits all the wrong beats and is off-balance from the start.

Paramount Pictures released “The Rhythm Section” in U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.

Review: ’37 Seconds,’ starring Mei Kayama

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in "37 Seconds"
Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

“37 Seconds”

Directed by Hikari

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Set primarily in modern-day Japan and with some scenes in Thailand, the dramatic film “37 Seconds” has an Asian cast of characters, and the protagonist is a young female illustrator who has cerebral palsy.

Culture Clash: The movie depicts the struggles and prejudices that a person with physical challenges must constantly face, as well as personal conflicts between a mother and a daughter.

Culture Audience: “37 Seconds” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in Japanese movies or movies that give the rare opportunity of making someone with cerebral palsy the star of the story.

Mei Kayama and Shunsuke Daitô in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

One of the first things that people need to know about the Japanese drama “37 Seconds” is that it’s not a “disease of the week” depressing movie where people are supposed to feel sorry for someone with a physical disorder. Nor is it the type of movie where the person with the physical challenge enters a competition to face seemingly insurmountable odds. The story of “37 Seconds” (written and directed by Hikari) is about a much more subtle self-awakening that happens to an aspiring manga artist in modern-day Tokyo.

When we see the wheelchair-bound Yuma Takada (played by Mei Kayama) in the first few scenes of the movie, she’s shown to be someone who likes to be as independent as possible, as she takes public transportation around town. Yuma lives with her overprotective single mother, Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno), who still insists on bathing Yuma, even though her daughter has full use of her hands.

Yuma, who is 23 but looks like she could be in her late teens, has a part-time job working as an assistant for her pretty cousin Sayaka (played by Minori Hagiwara), a semi-famous manga artist, who has her own YouTube channel and loves to wear Harajuku fashion. Yuma is as shy and insecure as Sayaka is bold and confident.

At one of Sayaka’s book signings, Yuma unexpectedly attends as a show of her support, but Yuma gets a rude awakening when she finds out that Sayaka has been telling people that she doesn’t have an assistant. (And that’s not the only thing that Sayaka lies about when it comes to her work.) Feeling hurt and unappreciated, Yuma decides to pursue plans she started earlier to do some freelance artwork. Yuma makes cold calls to several manga publishing companies to find out if they’re looking for new artists.

She’s automatically rejected by places that don’t take unsolicited material. But one place is willing to give her a chance, and she’s able to get an interview immediately. The only catch? It’s at a magazine called Weekly Boom, which publishes erotic manga. Yuma, who’s a naïve virgin, is just happy to get an opportunity to be hired as an artist, so she goes to the interview, not really knowing what to expect.

The female Weekly Boom editor (played by Yuri Ono) who interviews Yuma takes a look at Yuma’s artwork and explains to her that if she gets hired at the company, she would have to draw sexually explicit art. The interviewer isn’t concerned with Yuma’s cerebral palsy; she’s more concerend about how much Yuma actually knows about sex. When she asks Yuma if she’s ever been sexually intimate with anyone, Yuma tells her the truth and says she’s a virgin. The interviewer tells Yuma to come back when she’s sexually experienced.

Yuma goes home and researches porn on the Internet so she can get an idea of what she can draw. Still curious, she decides to try and find a man online so she can lose her virginity to him. That leads to a series of somewhat comical blind dates whom she meets in a café. One date is a shy social misfit like Yuma, and he basically admits that he’s a recluse who’s too scared to have sex with anyone. Another date is a flamboyant eccentric who seems like he probably isn’t sexually attracted to women. The last date she meets with is a nice guy who says he would have no problem hanging out with her but he doesn’t want to take her virginity.

The next thing you know, Yuma is in a seedy area of Tokyo where the streets are lined with sex shops and massage parlors. She asks a pimp (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) on the street how she can hire a male prostitute. He makes a phone call and manages to find a gigolo who’s available to do the deed, so Yuma arranges to meet the guy later in a hotel that she’s rented. (The movie doesn’t really explain where Yuma has gotten the money, but it’s presumed that she gets some kind of disability income from the government.)

All of this looks fairly convincing, since Yuma has the type of unassuming personality where it seems plausible that she could go up to a pimp on the street with this request and he’d be willing to help her. Because Yuma isn’t the type of young woman whom predators would consider “sexy,” because she’s in a wheelchair, it’s entirely believable that she could go to this sleazy area and not be targeted for sex crimes. As far as a pimp is concerned, a woman in a wheelchair is of no use to him, and he actually might feel sorry for her.

Yuma’s encounter with the gigolo is one of the most amusing parts of the movie. Let’s just say that some akward things happen, so he gives her a discount on his regular fee. The encounter with the gigolo is important to mention because after Yuma leaves the hotel room and gets ready to leave, she notices that the elevator doesn’t work, so she calls for help.

It’s during this situation that she meets two people who will change the course of her life in this story. One is a middle-aged female prostitute named Mai (played by Makiko Watanabe) and her “caretaker”/driver Toshi (played by Shunsuke Daitô), who’s in his 20s. When Yuma first meets them in the hotel hallway, Mai is also with a wheelchair-bound customer, a senior citizen named Mr. Kuma (played by Yoshihiko Kumashino), who is clearly infatuated with Mai.

Seeing that Yuma is alone and kind of stranded at the hotel, Mai and Toshi offer to give her a ride home so that she doesn’t have to take public transportation. The four of them pile into a van, and Yuma reveals why she was at the hotel. Because Yuma doesn’t pass judgment on what Mai does for a living, she and Mai form a fast friendship.

On another day, she calls Mai, who takes Yuma out for some fun around town. First, they go to a sex shop where Mai buys Yuma a dildo that Yuma has picked out because she thinks it looks cute. Then, Mai takes Yuma shopping for new clothes and then to a beauty parlor where Yuma gets her hair and makeup done. After that, they end up at a gay bar watching some of the patrons doing karaoke, and Yuma gets drunk on sake.

Meanwhile, Yuma’s mother Kyoko suspects that something is going on with her daughter, so she snoops through Yuma’s belongings while Yuma is out of the house. She’s shocked to find the erotic drawings that Yuma has made as practice. So by the time Yuma gets home, she’s very drunk, and her mother is furious and confronts her over what she has found in Yuma’s room.

They have a big argument where Kyoko says that Yuma can’t survive without here. Yuma retorts by saying that she can, but that her mother is too afraid to be alone. And then Yuma blurts out something that deeply hurts her mother and makes her back out of the room: Yuma says her absent father left because he couldn’t stand to be with Kyoko.

One of the best things about “37 Seconds” is that the story could have gone in a very predictable way for the rest of the movie, but the story takes a turn that most people will not expect at all. It’s enough to say that secrets are revealed, including the full reason why the movie is titled “37 Seconds.”

Kayama, who has cerebral palsy in real life, makes her film debut with “37 Seconds,” and she admirably carries the movie with a performance that shows Yuma’s emotional transformation. But as Yuma’s mother Kyoko, actress Kanno has the most heartbreaking moment in the film. This movie is recommended for anyone who wants to discover a story about unique people who experience an unpredictable and poignant turn of events.

Netflix premiered “37 Seconds” in the U.S. and Canada on January 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Incitement,’ starring Yehuda Nahari Halevi

January 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yehuda Nahari Halev in "Incitement"
Yehuda Nahari Halevi in “Incitement” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)


Directed by Yaron Zilberman

Hebrew with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Israel, this dramatic film centers mostly on middle-class Israeli residents of different ethnicities and ideological beliefs.

Culture Clash: Depicting the life of Yigal Amir in the year leading up to his 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “Incitement” takes an unflinching look at the political and religious conflicts in Israel over Rabin’s attempts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Culture Audience: “Incitement” will appeal primarily to those who like arthouse international films about 20th century Israeli history.

AmitayYaish Ben Ousilio and Yehuda Nahari Halevi in “Incitement” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Whenever a scripted movie is done from the point of view of someone who murdered a well-known public figure, the filmmakers have to make sure that the killer isn’t glorified. The dramatic film “Incitement—which depicts the life of assassin Yagil Amir in the year leading up to him murdering Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995—has a tone that is mostly observational, rather than judgmental. The movie is not intended to sway people in one way or the other, politically or religiously. Instead, it is a wake-up call about being more diligent about warning signs that show how someone can turn from being a hate-talking extremist into a murderer.

In the production notes for “Incitement,” director Yaron Zilberman made a statement that included this comment: “At the very beginning of the process I asked myself, together with Ron Leshem with whom I wrote the script, what the most meaningful approach would be for telling the story in order to create a cinematic experience that transmits the magnitude of the catastrophe and from which we could learn the most about how it happened. We concluded that only through an examination of the assassin’s journey could we arrive at new insights.”

“Incitement” immerses viewers on that journey by showing the gradual process of how Amir (played by Yehuda Nahari Halevi) decided to murder Rabin. (The movie also uses a lot of real-life archival news footage.) At first, Amir appears to be an unassuming law student who lives with his parents while attending Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. In one of the scenes in the beginning of the film, Armir is driving on his way to the university campus, when his car is caught in a big political protest that’s happening in the streets. As the protest becomes violent and he gets out of the car, Amir is nearly arrested because the police think he’s one of the protesters. But he’s able to talk himself out of the arrest by convincing the police officer that he’s just an innocent college student trying to get to one of his classes.

This scene is crucial to understand not only why Amir was able to fly under the radar but also to show how he could mask his dangerous personality under the guise of being a mild-mannered citizen. In the early-to-mid-1990s, Israel was divided over Prime Minister Rabin’s historic attempts to make peace between Israel and Palestine by his push for the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords (which included Oslo II) would have granted Palestine temporary self-government rights in certain areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the regions which Israel and Palestine have been feuding over for decades. Israelis with left-leaning political views tended to support the Oslo Accords, while those with right-leaning political views tended to oppose the Oslo Accords.

Soon after viewers see Amir arrive on campus, it’s clear which way he leans politically. He’s shown observing a protest with students, who are dressed as Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officers, depicting what they think would happen if Rabin signs the Oslo II Agreement. The students portraying PLO officers round up other students depicting Israeli citizens, and act out the PLO officers massacring the Israeli citizens. After watching this demonstration, Amir smirks and walks away. His smile indicates that he very much agrees with the beliefs of the students protesting against Rabin’s support of the Oslo Accords.

One of the ways that “Incitement” frames Amir’s increasing obsession with targeting Rabin is by having the TV news playing in the background of many scenes. In each scene where the TV news is on near Amir, he is seen reacting to the political developments of the day that are about Rabin and Oslo II, and his anger toward Rabin grows to dangerous levels. A turning point for Amir is the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Hebron, where an American Israeli named Dr. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 people and wounded 125 others at a mosque. In Amir’s mind, Goldstein is a patriotic and religious hero.

In another scene, Amir attends the public funeral of Baruch Kopel, a relative of Goldstein’s, and later attends a rabbi-led meeting where the rabbi leader praises Goldstein for being a good soldier of the Torah. In real life, after he was arrested, Amir claimed that several Orthodox Jew rabbis endorsed and encouraged him to assassinate Rabin, although no rabbis were ever charged with this crime.

The movie depicts Amir’s claims about the rabbis to be true, as he becomes increasingly angry at Rabin after attending rabbi-led meetings where the rabbis essentially say that Rabin is an enemy of the Jewish religion and should be killed. When Amir tells a leader of these extremist rabbis that he wants to be the one to kill Rabin, the rabbi says he was just joking about killing Rabin, but then essentially tells Amir that if he decides to go through with the murder, he would have no problem with it. We’ll never really know if that exact conversation took place, but “Incitement” makes it clear that Amir would have assassinated Rabin, with or without a rabbi’s blessing.

Throughout the course of the movie, the layers of Amir’s complex life are slowly uncovered. He has a deep infatuation with a fellow law student named Nava (played by Daniella Kertesz) and he pursues her romantically. But there are signs that he has a controlling nature. For their first date, he insists on bringing her home for dinner to meet his parents, who are immigrants from Yemen. But instead of meeting just his parents, Nava finds that several members of his family have gathered, and she’s introduced to them all.

It’s at this family gathering that more details are revealed explaining why Amir turned out the way he did. His domineering mother, Hagai (played by Yoav Levi) is against Rabin’s policies, and she has a great deal of influence on her son, whom she sees as a prince who’s destined for greatness. Amir’s father Shlomo (played by AmitayYaish Ben Ousilio) is a gentle, peace-loving parent who believes in giving Rabin’s policies a chance.

Nava is an Ashkenzai Jew, and Hagai is very prejudiced against Ashkenazi Jews, whom she believes are entitled and uppity. In a private conversation, Hagai tells Shlomo that she thinks that Nava will use and humiliate Yigal, who overhears the conversation and gets upset because he wants to marry Nava. Feeling overwhelmed at this family gathering, Nava cuts the date short before having dinner, by saying she’s stressed out over an upcoming exam and wants to leave so that she can study for it. Although she has doubts about getting involved with Amir and his family, she’s attracted to his charisma and intelligence, so she continues to date him.

It isn’t long before another side to Amir emerges, when he’s seen having  secret meetings with shady characters who are hoarding illegal weapons of war. Amir is a military veteran who has kept in touch with several people who have access to these weapons. In one crucial scene in the movie, Amir’s double life is almost exposed when at a family gathering, a fellow military veteran who was in combat with him says that Amir looks innocent on the outside but he’s a ruthless killer when he was in combat. Amir laughs off the comment, but it’s unnerved him because he doesn’t want his family to know about his dark side.

Meanwhile, Amir begins inviting students and other young people to what he has described as religious retreats. But, as he admits privately to certain people, these retreats are really just a way for him to recruit people for a radical militia that he wants to lead. “Incitement” shows how the retreats start off as road trips by bus to various religious and historical sites in Israel, but then the retreats become cult-like gatherings where the members get worked up over talking about how Rabin’s government is trying to destroy the Jewish religion.

When Amir meets Nava’s family for the first time, he makes his political views clear, by saying that he has no problem with Arabs but he has a problem with Jewish “traitors from within.” Nava becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Amir’s extreme views and his ambitions to lead a militia, and she breaks up with him. He eventually moves on to another attractive female law student: Margalit Har Shefi (played by Sivan Mast), who shares his radical beliefs and plays a pivotal role in what would become his plans to assassinate Rabin.

Through researching ancient Jewish scripture, Amir has fixated on the idea that Jews who betray other Jews are enemy informers of the religion, and that it is within a religious Jew’s right to kill those informers. As he says in a well-received speech during one of his radical retreats, Jewish law is above worldly law. And as far as Amir is concerned, Rabin is the biggest Jewish informer traitor of them all.

Amir reaches a point when he doesn’t even try to hide from his family how much he hates Rabin. While sitting at a table and watching the news with his father Shlomo one day, Amir says that Rabin “should be taken out.” Shlomo gets very upset, and during their argument, the father tells his son that the military has changed his personality for the worse. And with other people, Amir essentially comes right out and says that he wants to kill Rabin. Just as it is with many people who commit first-degree murder, all the warning signs were there, but nothing was really done to prevent the murder from happening.

In his portrayal of Amir, actor Halevi does a masterful job of embodying Amir’s dual personas as a charming student and as a cold-blooded killer. The movie leaves it open to interpretation for viewers to decide if Amir was a true sociopath or a religious fanatic who thought that committing this assassination was a noble thing for his religion. The movie works very well in other areas—such as direction, cinematography screenwriting and editing—but what makes “Incitement” the most compelling is Halevi’s performance. It’s no wonder that “Incitement” won Best Film at Awards of the Israeli Film Academy—the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars. Regardless of people’s political and religious beliefs, watching “Incitement” will leave viewers with the haunting reminder that there are no real winners in this tragic story.

Greenwich Entertainment will release “Incitement” in New York City on January 31, 2020. The movie’s U.S. release expands to Los Angeles and other cities, beginning February 7, 2020. “Incitement” was originally released in Israel in 2019.

Review: ‘A Patient Man,’ starring Jonathan Mangum and Tate Ellington

January 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jonathan Mangum in “A Patient Man” (Photo courtesy of Commuter Productions)

“A Patient Man”

Directed by Kevin Ward

Culture Representation: Taking place in modern-day California, the story of “A Patient Man” centers on a group of middle-class, mostly white working professionals in their 30s and 40s.

Culture Clash: A widower whose wife died in a car accident has trouble coping with his grief and has conflicts over his mental stability after finding out that his wife had been cheating on him.

Culture Audience: “A Patient Man” will appeal primarily to people who like to seek out under-the-radar independent movies and don’t mind if the plot is as flawed as the movie’s main characters.

Tate Ellington and Jonathan Mangum in “A Patient Man” (Photo courtesy of Commuter Productions)

“A Patient Man” is not the kind of movie where people should ask themselves, “What would I do in this situation?” That’s because there are so many plot holes in the story that you would just sink into hypothetical quicksand that threatens to bury any logical thoughts whatsoever. That being said, the movie’s cast members deliver solid performances in this relentlessly somber film, even if the story is based on an extremely flawed concept.

When viewers first see Tom Alexander (played by Jonathan Mangum), he seems to be a mild-mannered man, as he rides his bicycle at night on city streets and as he gets on a commuter train with the bike. A woman on the train asks where Tom’s friend is because she’s used to seeing them together on the train. Through flashbacks that aren’t in chronological order, the story unfolds about who Tom is, how he got to know his commuter friend on the train, and how it all ties in to a chain of events revealed at the end of the film.

Tom works in logistics for a company whose clients are manufacturing companies. His job is to advise clients on how to save money and increase their profit margins, based on how they handle their products. When viewers see Tom going to his job for the first time, he’s greeted by office workers who are happy to see him, but they also react to him with awkward, sympathetic looks and tell him that they’re sorry about what happened.

That’s because, as seen through flashbacks, Tom was on a leave of absence for several months after he was in a traumatic car accident. He was driving the car, and his attorney wife Beth Alexander (played by Katie F. Ward), who was in the front passenger seat, died in the car accident. The accident happened when they were at an intersection and were blindsided by another car that hit them. Tom’s air bag worked, but Beth’s didn’t, and she was killed instantly. (He and Beth have no children.)

The accident resulted in Tom getting serious injuries that left him barely conscious. While in the hospital, he finds out from his trusted work colleague Maya (played by Elaine Loh) that the man who caused the accident had called his lawyer, who was there at the accident scene before the police even arrived—an indication that the guy who plowed into Tom’s car might be hiding something illegal, such as he might have been driving while intoxicated. During Tom’s hospital stay, Maya suggests to Tom that he sue the guy, but Tom doesn’t want to do that because he and the other driver are both insured.

Now, this is where the plot falls apart. Without revealing any spoilers, it’s enough to say that in order for this movie to be believable, you’d have to be convinced that after Tom’s wife has died in a preventable car accident caused by another driver, he doesn’t think the other driver should be held legally responsible through a criminal case or through a lawsuit. In reality, police and lawyers would definitely be involved, but that’s never shown in this movie.

In addition, the way that Tom finds out the identity of the driver is convoluted and completely ludicrous. In the real world, it would be information that he could easily get through a police report or his insurance company. This wasn’t a minor fender bender. This was a car wreck that resulted in someone’s death, and the driver who caused the accident could be in legal trouble because of it. And with insurance companies involved too, there would have to be an investigation, so the drivers’ identities wouldn’t be mysteries to each other. But the movie ignores all those pesky details and goes straight into Tom playing private detective on his own, with some assistance from Maya.

Several scenes in the movie show Tom in the office of his female therapist (played by Kelsey Scott), who notices that Tom is oddly detached from his emotions, because she has to point out that he won’t even say Beth’s name. Tom tells the therapist that before his wife’s death, he was mildly content. After her death, all the things that he used to enjoy seem trivial to him now. Tom’s therapist tells him that although people can grieve in different ways, his avoidance of dealing with the emotional pain could hurt him in the long run. She recommends that he go out and meet new people.

Because of the trauma over the car wreck, Tom has not been in a car since the accident, which is why he rides a bike and takes public transportation to get around. While on the train, he strikes up a conversation with a fellow commuter named Aaron Clarke (played by Tate Ellington), and they later see each other on the same train on a regular basis. At first, they engage in small talk, but over time, they begin to open up about their lives. Aaron is a lawyer who’s married, but he confesses that he’s a “jerk,” and things aren’t going so well in his marriage.

As for Tom, viewers find out from a therapy session that Tom’s grief over his wife’s death is complicated because, although he was in love with Beth and thought they had a good marriage, he found out after she died that she had been cheating on him. Maya knew about the affair, and she told Tom after Beth died that the only thing that she knew about Beth’s lover was what Beth told her: He was someone Beth knew for a long time, and their secret trysts would often happen because Beth would lie to Tom by saying she was away on a business trip.

The movie makes a giant illogical misstep by having Tom enlist Maya to help him find out who Beth’s lover is, when all Tom had to do is check Beth’s cell phone records, which he would be entitled to do after her death. A flashback in the movie shows that her mystery lover called Beth on her cell phone on the day of the car accident, so we know she wasn’t using a secret phone to communicate with him.

Because so much of the movie’s premise relies on Tom wanting to find out who was having the affair with Beth, it spends a lot of unnecessary time showing Tom acting like a stealth detective, when it’s just a smokescreen for lazy screenwriting that lacks common sense. Conveniently, Tom and Beth don’t have any family members or friends in the movie, in order to make it obvious that Tom is isolated and can’t find out answers through people who might have been close to Beth.

There’s also a minor subplot about Tom’s return to his job and how his state of mind affects his work performance. After a co-worker retires, Tom’s boss George (played by David Jahn) privately tells Tom that he wants to promote Tom into the open position vacated by the retired employee. However, Tom’s ambitious and condescending co-worker Rami (played by Amir Talai) wants the promotion and has been openly campaigning for it.

Tom doesn’t really want the promotion, but George ignores Tom’s wishes and tells him that he wants Tom and Rami to do a presentation to junior colleagues, and the person with the better presentation will get the promotion. It should come as no surprise that Tom deliberately sabotages his own presentation.

Meanwhile, Tom takes his therapist’s advice to meet new people, and he asks fellow bike enthusiast Rami if he knows of any biking groups that he could join. Rami invites Tom to join a group of nighttime bike riders called the Night Riders. It might be Tom’s way of trying to get back to a normal life, but it’s also clear from what happens in the movie that Tom’s obsession to find out the identity of Beth’s lover is anything but normal.

Does Tom find out who was having an affair with his wife? And what about the man who caused the car wreck? Those are questions that are answered in the movie, which has key plot points that can be easily predicted halfway through the film.

“A Patient Man” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Kevin Ward, who seems to have a lot of potential as a filmmaker, if he works with a better script. The movie’s technical choices (such as editing, musical score and cinematography) work very well for a low-budget independent film. But the woefully ludicrous plot ultimately sinks this movie, which will be a letdown to people looking for a good mystery story.

Commuter Productions released “A Patient Man” for online purchase on January 17, 2020. The movie’s VOD release is on February 7, 2020.

Review: ‘The Assistant’ (2020), starring Julia Garner and Matthew Macfadyen

January 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Julia Garner in “The Assistant” (Photo by Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

“The Assistant” (2020)

Directed by Kitty Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, “The Assistant” features a predominantly white cast of characters who are middle-to-upper-class Americans in a male-dominated, competitive office environment, although some Asians are briefly represented as visiting Japanese businessmen. 

Culture Clash: An obvious battle of the sexes, “The Assistant” portrays men as mostly explicitly or implicitly sexist against the female protagonist.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to those who like arthouse think pieces that have a lot of low-key “slice of life” moments instead of big, dramatic scenes.

Julia Garner in “The Assistant” (Photo by Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

“The Assistant” writer/director Kitty Green, a filmmaker from Australia, says that the Harvey Weinstein scandal inspired her to do this fictional dramatic film, and she conducted dozens of interviews with women who survived work-related abuse and harassment. But before people watch the movie, they should know that it’s not a big showdown about a crusader getting justice. Rather, “The Assistant” is more of a character study of why sexual harassment/abuse is enabled in the workplace.

If you prefer your entertainment to be like a suspenseful Lifetime movie or a “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episode, then “The Assistant” might not be your cup of tea. But if you want the subject matter of workplace abuse and sexism to be tackled in a more realistic manner on screen, then you’ll appreciate that Green took a more subtle and less predictable approach to telling this story. Green previously directed the documentaries “Casting JonBenet” and “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” so she has a penchant for doing female-centric movies that explore society’s gender roles and how they influence power dynamics and exploitation.

In partnership with the New York Women’s Foundation, 10% of profits from “The Assistant” will go to support NYWF’s grantmaking to “women-led, community-based organizations that promote the economic security, safety and health of women and families in New York City, where the film was made,” according to the film’s production notes. (Click here for more information.)

At the heart of the story is Jane (played by the always-talented Julia Garner), a recent graduate of Northwestern University, who lives by herself in an apartment in the middle-class New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. Green says she chose the name Jane for this character as a metaphor for all the Jane Does who experience what this character experiences in the movie.

Jane is a hard-working, soft-spoken employee at an unnamed successful movie/TV company, where she’s on the lowest end of the administrative assistant hierarchy. She gets up at the crack of dawn to be the first person in the office, which strongly resembles The Weinstein Company’s former headquarters in New York City’s TriBeCa area. It’s a large enough company to have locations in other cities, such as Los Angeles and London, but it’s not a massive conglomerate that can afford to be in a super-modern and pricey office building. The office vibe is corporate, with lots of men in business suits going in and out of the building, but just enough of a downtown Manhattan aura to remind people that it’s an entertainment company in a trendy part of the city.

For the first 20 minutes of the film, a mostly silent Jane does mundane office work, such as making coffee, filing papers, and booking travel arrangements. But there are enough signs to show that she is lonely and isolated in the big city. The only people outside of work she communicates with are her supportive parents via phone. It’s clear from Jane’s conversations that she spends many late nights and weekends at the office, and she has no social life because of her workaholic ways. She’s an aspiring film producer, so it’s easy to see why she want this job and is desperate to please her boss.

In the very male-dominated office, she’s treated like an expendable underling. She’s so low on the totem pole that she even has to order lunch for the two male administrative assistants who work at the desks near her. Jane has been at the company for about five weeks, so the male assistants (who are not named in the movie) constantly remind Jane in micro-aggressive ways that they have more seniority and power than she does. One of them (played by Noah Robbins) repeatedly throws a wad of paper at Jane to get her attention. The other male assistant (played by Jon Orisini) has a tendency to look over Jane’s shoulder when she’s working on the computer, as if he’s entitled to know what she’s doing and is ready to jump in and correct any mistake that he’s certain that she’ll make.

One of the few female employees seen in the office is a middle-aged cynic who is not only complicit in covering up for the predatory boss, but she also openly expresses contempt for some of the pretty young women (wannabe actresses or wannabe industry people) who have appointments to see the boss, in the hopes that he’ll give them their big breaks. After one of these eager hopefuls (whose name is Ruby, played by Makenzie Leigh) is ushered into the boss’s office for an “audition,” the female co-worker sneers to Jane that the woman is a “waste of time.”

Going against what might be expected in movies about sexual harassment in the workplace, Green (who’s a producer and co-editor of “The Assistant”) never actually shows explicit sexual abuse in the movie, nor does she ever show the boss on screen, and viewers never find out what his name is. The biggest indication that the viewers get in how the boss operates is seeing that he has several attractive young women who have private meetings alone with him in his office or in a local hotel. (Jane has the task of booking the hotel suites that he uses.)

She also notices when doing some accounting work that some signed checks that she’s responsible for recording have large amounts but no payee name on the checks. When she asks an unidentified male over the phone if her boss knows what the checks are for, she’s told in a tone of voice that yes, the boss does know, and Jane better not ask any more questions about it.

As for this mysterious and malevolent boss, viewers can hear him being verbally abusive over the phone to Jane in insulting rants that are muffled just enough that the movie never lets you hear his voice clearly, as if to say, “This could be your boss or the boss of someone you know.” Jane feels pressured to write suck-up apology emails to the boss every time he yells at her (and her nosy male colleagues even dictate what she should say in the email), which adds to Jane’s humilation. The boss also shows his manipulative side when, after one of his abusive tirades, he sends Jane an email that says, “You’re very good. I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great.”

In one disturbing scene, the two rotten assistants who work next to Jane listen in by phone on what’s happening in the boss’s office during one of his “private meetings” with a woman, and they laugh like two drunken frat boys at the faint sounds of sexual moaning that they know Jane can probably hear. (Based on her facial expression, she does hear what’s going on, but she’s too shocked to say anything.) The implication is clear: Someone in that office deliberately let these guys listen in by phone, because they knew they’d get a kick out of it.

The signs of sexual harassment and degradation are there, and Jane (who’s no idiot) figures out what’s going on, and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with it. The viewers of this movie see the signs too: Jane cleans up stains in her boss’ office before the other employees get there—even though the company has cleaning employees, Jane says she’s been told to personally clean the boss’s office. Jane opens a mailed box of prescription bottles filled with erection-aid medication and places the bottles in the boss’ office medicine cabinet—something that Weinstein reportedly had his assistants do in real life. Jane returns a lost earring to a distraught woman who goes back to the office, after losing the earring during a private meeting with the boss. The fear and dread in the woman’s eyes are unmistakable—she’s reluctantly returned to the scene of a crime where she was a victim.

And in case viewers aren’t sure if the boss uses a “casting couch” for his interviews with women, there’s a scene that spells it out very clearly. A group of businessmen are gathered in the boss’ office for a meeting, and while they’re waiting for the boss to arrive, one of the men laughs as he warns one of the visiting businessman who’s about to sit on a couch, “I wouldn’t sit there if I were you.”

There are also signs that the predatory boss is out of control, because he misses appointments, and Jane often has to lie to people who are looking for him. It’s because he has a habit of mysteriously disappearing from the office at the same time as the latest nubile young woman who showed up to visit him.  Jane is often left to deal with the wrath of the boss’ wife, who gets furious when Jane can’t tell her where her husband is. In another scene, Jane frantically enlists the help of an executive when her boss skips a business meeting and doesn’t telling anyone where he’s gone.

There’s also a major hint that this toxic boss has a drug problem, because one of Jane’s job duties is to go through her boss’s trash can and dispose of the used hypodermic needles that she finds there. It’s never said what was in those needles, but whatever it is, the boss doesn’t want the regular cleaning people to find out, and Jane has to get rid of the needles herself.

Why would anyone put up with this miserable and dysfunctional workplace? As the brainwashed employees constantly tell Jane, she should consider herself lucky to work there, because of the opportunities she could get in the entertainment industry just by being at that job. (It’s the main reason why many former longtime Weinstein employees have confessed in post-scandal interviews that they stayed as long as they did, even though they knew Weinstein was an abusive boss.)

And yet, for all the preaching from the employees about how privileged they are to work for this company, no one actually looks happy to be there. It’s clear that all of the underlings (not just the women) and many executives stay because, just like rabbits with a carrot dangled out of their reach, they all want the glory and power that they think this job might get them if they stick around long enough and claw their way to the top.

If you’re looking for a feel-good feminist movie where Jane finds female allies, and they band together to take down the predator, this isn’t that kind of film. In fact, except for Jane, all of the women who are seen in the movie come across as either meek victims who give furtive glances, as if they want to say something but are too afraid; power-hungry shrews who look the other way (such as the boss’ wife); or desperately ambitious pretty women who may or may not know that this predatory boss will expect them to engage in sexual activity with him. In other words, Jane is the only woman in the movie who seems to have a moral compass and the courage to speak out about the abuse that she knows is going on around her.

Similarly, all the men with speaking roles in the movie (except for Jane’s father, who we only hear over the phone) are either dismissive or condescending to Jane. There’s absolutely no subtlety in portraying these male employees as either abusive villains or weak-minded followers who are complicit in their sexism. Meanwhile, Jane is portrayed as a kind-hearted heroine who’s surrounded by a bunch of soulless or vapid people. And therein lies the movie’s biggest flaw: The characters are written with such broad, black-and-white strokes that although the situations in the movie are realistic, the characters often feel underdeveloped and undeservedly clichéd.

It wouldn’t have been that hard to have at least one other smart and likable person in that office besides Jane. Even in other “boss from hell” movies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Swimming With Sharks”), there was at least one other sympathetic character besides the protagonist. For all the horror stories that have been exposed about Weinstein, many people inside and outside his now-defunct company said that there were a lot of good people working there. Many of them (like Jane) couldn’t afford to quit without another job lined up, which is why most people who hate their jobs stay longer than they should. The only way to excuse this movie’s main flaw is that it seems like Green wanted to make it obvious that Jane is very isolated at work. But it’s a point delivered with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

The turning point for Jane is when she finds out that her boss from hell has hired another assistant named Sienna (played by Kristine Froseth), a barely legal teen who’s fresh out of high school and has no related work experience. The boss has flown out this attractive, wide-eyed teen from Idaho (he met her in Sun Valley when he was there for a conference) and has put her up in a hotel that Jane knows her boss uses for his “private meetings.” As Jane is tasked with training this new employee, she quickly finds out that Sienna is useless around the office and that Sienna’s employment is probably a cover-up for something sleazy. (Sienna kind of senses it too in her first day on the job, when she’s told to sign some papers, and she hesitantly asks if she needs to have a lawyer.)

The movie’s most powerful scene is when Jane takes her concerns to a high-ranking human resources executive named Wilcock (played by Matthew Macfadyen), who proceeds to turn things around and make it sound like Jane’s concerns have no merit and that she’s just insecure and jealous of Sienna. He browbeats Jane to make her feel like she’s a nuisance and a nutjob. It’s the type of “gaslighting” that is often inflicted on people who report abuse, in order to intimidate them into staying silent.

After Wilcock tells Jane that he has “400 résumés” lined up from people who want her job, he then makes the ultimate manipulative move. He asks her if she thinks it’s worth it for him to take her complaint higher up, or if he should toss out the complaint. “You know how this will look,” he tells her as he shows her the skimpy notes he’s taken during the meeting. And if Jane had any doubt about which side this HR creep is on and how much dirt he really knows about the boss, those doubts are squashed when he ends the meeting by telling her that she doesn’t have anything to worry about with the boss because, “You’re not his type.”

People looking for several flashy and dramatic scenes like this one will be disappointed in the movie overall, which would be a shame, because expecting a predictable formula would be missing the whole point of how this story was told. The movie’s greatest strength is that it shows that the worst sexual harassment, employee abuse and sexism in the workplace are rarely done out in the open where there are plenty of witnesses. The abuse often takes place behind closed doors where the abuser and the victim are the only witnesses.

Sexism in the workplace, even if reported, is often dismissed as a joke. The victim is unfairly branded as a “difficult complainer” who’s “not a good fit” for the company, and then the victim is the one who gets fired or is targeted to be fired. Sympathetic co-workers and colleagues might suspect workplace abuse, but they stay silent out of fear of losing their jobs. In many cases, co-workers will side with the workplace bully if they think it will help their careers. These are some of the main reasons why so many victims are afraid to come forward.

The movie adeptly shows that amid the dull office tasks that this lowly assistant must do every day, there’s a feeling of dread and powerlessness that she and probably many other employees feel when they know they’re working for a sexual predator but they think he’s too powerful to stop, especially if he owns the company that employs them. Instead of rallying together to fight the abuse, in most situations, employees have a “mind my own business, keep my head down” way of dealing with these issues.

And the movie accurately depicts the culture of silence from people who are afraid of speaking up about abuse, for fear of retaliation, or they don’t speak up because they just don’t care. Unless harassment is happening to them and negatively affects their jobs directly, many people just don’t want to deal with it, much less talk about it. So, when people ask why it sometimes takes years for people to report work-related abuse or harassment, “The Assistant” should be essential viewing for them, because it does more to explain what’s more likely to happen in real life than any formulaic movie that wraps things up nicely in a safe and tidy bow.

Bleeker Street will release “The Assistant” in select U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Beanpole,’ starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina

January 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)


Directed by Kantemir Balagov 

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place shortly after World War II in Leningrad, Russia, the female-centric “Beanpole” has an all-white cast of characters representing people from various social classes, ranging from working-class to middle-class to upper-class.

Culture Clash: Two female war veterans who are best friends have difficulties adjusting to life after the war, as they encounter obstacles due to their socioeconomic status, and the two friends have conflicts with each other over motherhood issues.

Culture Audience: “Beanpole” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema from Europe.

Vasilisa Perelygina and Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

The opening scene of the dramatic film “Beanpole” doesn’t leave any doubt that the movie’s title character has something very wrong with her. In the beginning of the film, Russian nurse Iya Tsvylyova (who’s nicknamed “Beanpole” because she’s very tall and thin) is seen in a hospital laundry room in a trance-like state, and she’s making noises that sound like she wants to speak but she can’t. Is she mute? Is she in shock over something? Is she mentally challenged?

It turns out that she’s none of the above, but the movie keeps you guessing over when she’ll go in and out of these trances. Iya (played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko) can talk just fine when she’s not in a trance, so there’s nothing wrong with her vocal cords. Based on her co-workers’ reactions, they’re aware of Iya having these unexplained episodes of detachment, and the only thing they can do when she’s in a trance is wait for her to snap out of it.

The story takes place just after World War II, and Iya works as a nurse in a Leningrad hospital for wounded veterans. Her life revolves around her job and caring for Pashka (played by Timofey Glazkov), a boy who is about 4 or 5 years old. At first, the movie leads you to believe that Pashka is Iya’s son, since the child is living with her and she treats him exactly like how a loving mother would treat a child. But something terrible happens to Pashka, resulting in his death, and we find out that Iya is not the boy’s biological mother.

Pashka’s real mother is Masha (played by Vasilisa Perelygina), a military veteran and Iya’s best friend, who has returned from the war, not knowing that her son has died. Masha has not seen her son since he was a baby or a toddler, so when Masha visits Iya at home to retrieve Pashka, Masha is eager to find out how much her son has changed. The look of fear and dread on Iya’s face tells Masha that something awful has happened, and she correctly guesses that Pashka is dead. When Masha asks how Paskha died, Iya lies to Masha by saying that Paskha died in his sleep, because Iya knows that telling Masha the truth would be too devastating. Masha doesn’t go into hysterics and seems to internalize her grief.

Meanwhile, it’s eventually revealed that Iya is also a military veteran. She and Misha served in the war as anti-aircraft gunners, but Iya was discharged from the military, due to getting a concussion that presumably has caused her to go into these trances. It’s also likely that Iya has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), since it’s implied that she developed this condition during the war.

Despite the tragedy of losing her son Pashka while the child was in Iya’s care, Masha decides to remain a close friend to Iya, and she moves in with her, since Masha has no family and has no other place to go. (It’s mentioned that Pashka’s father died in the war.)

The two women are opposites. Iya is shy, awkward and seems to be sexually inexperienced. Masha is outgoing, feisty and very open about the fact that she’s had several lovers. And their attitudes greatly differ when it comes to having children, which affects what happens later on in the story.

“Beanpole” shows that one of the harsh realities of post-World War II life in Russia was that the country was plagued with food shortages, and women often prostituted themselves by having sex with men in exchange for food. That’s what happens when Masha and Iya are walking down a street one night, and they’re spotted by two young men driving by in a car, and the men offer them the food that they have in the car.

Masha knows what the men are after, but Iya seems to be completely unaware of what’s expected of her and Masha after they eat the food that the men have offered to them. One of the men takes Iya outside, while Masha stays in the car and has quickie sex with the other man in the back seat of the car. Masha and the guy have barely finished when he’s dragged out of the car by Iya, who punches him in the face.

It turns out that Iya has also assaulted the other guy, who has witnessed Iya’s rage toward his friend. It isn’t revealed how much sexual activity took place between Iya and the other guy, but he says with a strange smirk that his arm might be broken and that the two women were livelier than he thought they would be. While Iya and Masha run away, Iya scolds Masha for not telling her what the men’s intentions were, but Masha laughs because she thinks the entire incident is hilarious. It’s a sign that there’s something mentally “off” about Masha too.

Soon after that incident, Masha interviews for a job at the hospital. She flirts with the middle-aged supervisor Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (played by Andrey Bykov), who’s interviewing her, and she’s intrigued by him because she knows that the doctor is sexually attracted to Iya. When Masha sees a photo of two young children on his desk, she asks him if those are his children. He tells her yes, but the children have died. When he asks her if she has any children, she tells him she doesn’t, and lies by saying that she hasn’t become a mother yet. Masha ends up getting a job as an attendant at the hospital.

Not long after she starts working at the hospital, Masha gets a nosebleed and mysteriously collapses. She’s diagnosed with exhaustion and finds out, to her horror, that her reproductive organs were removed without her knowledge during an operation that she had in the war. But in yet another sign of Masha’s mental instability, she reacts to the news in a bizarre way: She says she could be pregnant at that moment and it would be a miracle.

Eventually, reality sinks in, and Masha is devastated over knowing that she can never conceive a child again. She tells Iya that not being a mother makes her feel empty, so she asks Iya to get pregnant and give the child to Masha to raise as her own. Iya is shocked by the proposal and is terrified at the thought of having sex with a sperm donor, but Masha puts a guilt trip on Iya about Pashka’s death, by saying to Iya, “You owe me.”

Later at the hospital, Masha runs into someone unexpected: the guy she had sex with in the car. By a strange twist of fate, he works at the hospital as an orderly. His name is Alexander, nicknamed Sasha (played by Igor Shirokov), and he’s clearly infatuated with Masha. Sasha pursues her romantically and starts spending more time at Iya and Masha’s place, much to Iya’s dismay. Later on in the movie, Masha finds out why Iya is so jealous of Sasha. Iya isn’t the only one with a secret. Sasha has also been secretive about a part of his life, and when he shows that side of his life to Masha, it permanently changes his relationship with her.

Does Iya agree to get pregnant? And if so, who will impregnate her? Does she give birth and then give the baby to Masha? Those are questions that are answered in the movie, but that information won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that the emotional heart of the story is in Iya’s decision and what happens afterward. (The ending might not be what you think it is.)

“Beanpole” is the type of movie that will sneak up on you with a few surprises, while telling a story that is specific yet universal. While most people will never know what it’s like to be a Russian female World War II veteran, almost everyone can relate to having the type of friendship where uncommon favors and sacrifices are made because of the friendship. People who have parenthood issues, especially when it comes to infertility or losing a child to death, can also be emotionally impacted by this story.

“Beanpole” director Kantemir Balagov, who wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aleksandr Terekhov, unfolds the story by revealing details in a scattered way that eventually comes together to make sense, much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. For example, some of the characters are introduced and we get to know their personalities, but their names aren’t revealed until much later in the story. “Beanpole” is the first film for actresses Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who have made impressive debuts by convincingly portraying the ups, downs and nuances of a friendship that’s deeply affected by love and the emotional wounds of war.

The movie also realistically shows that these female war veterans, who work in a hospital taking care of male war veterans, don’t really have anyone looking after their own emotional needs as veterans. Iya and Masha don’t discuss any of their war stories in the movie, as if they just want to put the war behind them. The bond between combat comrades who’ve gone through a war together is an underlying reason why their friendship is so strong and was able to withstand the tragedy of Pashka’s death.

“Beanpole” had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where Balagov won the award for Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category. The movie then made the rounds at other prestigious festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest), and was chosen as Russia’s official 2019 entry for the Academy Awards category Best International Feature Film. Ultimately, “Beanpole” didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but the movie has revealed promising new talent in Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who will likely have a bright future in Russian cinema.

Kino Lorber will release “Beanpole” in New York City on January 29, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to other cities, beginning February 12, 2020. “Beanpole” was originally released in Russia in 2019.

Review: ‘The Last Full Measure,’ starring Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris and Samuel L. Jackson

January 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sebastian Stan and William Hurt in “The Last Full Measure” (Photo by Jackson Lee Davis)

“The Last Full Measure”

Directed by Todd Robinson

Culture Representation: Set in the United States and Vietnam, the male-centric military drama “The Last Full Measure” centers on predominantly white (and a few African American) characters who are connected in some way to the U.S. Air Force.

Culture Clash: The conflicting agendas of politicians, military officials and war veterans are depicted in the process of deciding if a deceased military man will get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Culture Audience: “The Last Full Measure” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about military veterans and the Vietnam War.

Jeremy Irvine in “The Last Full Measure” (Photo by Wasan Puengprasert)

The military/political drama “The Last Full Measure” gets its title from the phrase used to describe the ultimate sacrifice that a military person can give in service. Inspired by a true story, this appropriately solemn movie chronicles the journey of Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (a fictional chracter played by Sebastian Stan), who investigates a decades-long request for the Congressional Medal of Honor to be given to Vietnam War hero William Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who died in combat in 1966, at the age of 21.

Pitsenbarger (nicknamed Pits) lost his life during a battle at Xa Cam My that was part of a secretive mission called Operation Abilene. He was a para jumper (or PJ), who saved approximately 60 men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division during his military service in the Vietnam War. The movie’s story unfolds in a way that is similar to a mystery, since Scott uncovers secrets that certain people in the government do not want to be revealed. According to “The Last Full Measure” writer/director Todd Robinson (who tried to get this movie made for 20 years), the fictional Scott Huffman character is a composite of himself, historian Parker Hayes and unnamed Pentagon staffers who fought for Pitsenbarger to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The beginning of the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., in 1999, when F. Whitten Peters (played by Linus Roache) abruptly retired from his position as U.S. Secretary of the Air Force. Knowing that he’ll soon be out of a job because he worked on Peters’ staff, Scott reluctantly takes an assignment from the smirky and arrogant Carlton Stanton (played by Bradley Whitford), a Pentagon public-relations employee who delights in giving to Scott what they both perceive as a trivial and distracting task—looking into a Congressional Medal of Honor request that has been rejected for decades. (Viewers can see from the get-go that Carlton will be the movie’s power-hungry villain who will do whatever it takes to climb the government ladder.)

At the time he is given the assignment, Scott is more concerned about where he’s going to find his next job.  He’s the father of a kindergarten-age son, and he’s expecting his second child with his pregnant wife Tara (played by Alison Sudol), who encourages him to approach the investigation with compassion and an open mind. The three people who are the biggest advocates for Pits to get his posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor are retired Air Force Sgt. Tom Tulley (William Hurt), who was Pits’ best friend and mission partner, and Pits’ parents Frank and Alice (played by Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd), who have never fully recovered from the untimely loss of their son.

Scott interviews them, as well as several U.S. military veterans who were eyewitnesses to Pits’ bravery, including Billy Takoda (played by Samuel L. Jackson), Ray Mott (played by Ed Harris), Jimmy Burr (played Peter Fonda, in his last movie role, which is essentially a camero) and Kepper (John Savage), who still lives in Vietnam. Scott travels all the way to Vietnam to interview Kepper, and during his conversation with Kepper, Scott has a powerful awakening. Through the interviews, Scott pieces together the puzzle of the ill-fated Operation Abilene that led the U.S. soldiers into a Viet Cong ambush. Showing uncommon bravery, Pitsenbarger refused a chance to escape and instead stayed on the battleground to help save lives and attend to the wounded, while also taking up arms to defend his comrades. The battle scenes are shown in flashbacks, with Jeremy Irvine portraying Pits.

But what really caused that deadly ambush at Xa Cam My? And how much did the U.S. government know but chose to hide from the public? As Scott gets closer to the truth, he knows that revealing the truth could destroy his career and possibly put his life in danger. It could also kill the chances of Pits getting a Congressional Medal of Honor if the full story comes out about Operation Abilene. It’s a tricky dilemma, because some of the same government people whose votes are needed to approve the Congressional Medal of Honor going to Pits are also the same people who could squash that request if Scott goes public with the full story.

During the course of the movie, viewers see Scott’s transformation as a somewhat rigid character who tends to see issues in black and white to someone who begins to understand that issues come in many shades of grey. For example, in one scene in the movie, Scott is assembling a crib and he refuses to look at the instructions, because “that would be cheating,” he says—an indication of not only his hardline approach on how to solve problems but also an assertion of how he perceives his strong masuculinity. But as the stories about Operation Abilene unfold, Scott begins to question his views on ethics in the context of war. He must also confront issues of patriotism and personal sacrifice—issues that can sometimes be at odds with each other and can be tested if it involves reporting government corruption.

Fortunately, Stan does an admirable job of portraying this metamorphosis in a realistic way. He and co-star Hurt have a few emotional scenes in the movie, which doesn’t veer too much into melodrama for the characters. In addition, “The Last Full Measure” respectfully handles the issues of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how it not only affects war veterans but also their loved ones. The movie responsibly shows how people can react to PTSD in different ways and how military machismo sometimes hinders people from dealing with these issues in a beneficial and healing way.

Because “The Last Full Measure” is a male-oriented film and the military is a male-dominated field, the female characters don’t have much to do except play “the supportive wife” or “the supportive administration employee.” However, that doesn’t mean the women in this movie are doormats. In particular, Ladd’s Alice Pitsenbarger character shows inspiring determination to keep pushing for the family’s cause when her ailing husband’s health issues indicate that he won’t be around much longer.

“The Last Full Measure” is an engrossing and heartfelt story that might seem like a paint-by-numbers military movie because the ending is very easy to predict, but it stands out for its top-notch cast of stars (who all deliver convincing performances) and the fact that Vietnam War stories about the U.S. Air Force are rarely told in movies. At the end of the film, “The Last Full Measure” points out the extremely low percentage of Air Force people and even lower percentage of enlisted airpeople who have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The movie is ultimately a tribute to U.S. military people, especially those who made personal sacrifices during wars, whether or not they made it out alive.

Roadside Attractions will release “The Last Full Measure” in U.S. cinemas on January 24, 2020.

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