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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 12.Jan.22

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
dir-scr Jesse Harris
prd Tiziano Tucci, Nancy Cartwright, Greg Lauritano, Monica Gil-Rodriguez, Jesse Harris, Damiano Tucci
with Lucy Hale, Leynar Gomez, Jorge A Jimenez, Nicholas Gonzalez, Olivia Trujillo, Jaime Aymerich, Nancy Cartwright, Edward J Bentley, Brendan McNamee, Jim Meskimen, Cari Kabinoff, Enrique Rosales Montoya
release US 14.Jan.22
22/US 1h42

Is it streaming?

hale and gomez
Taking on the opioid crisis from an unusual angle, this wiry thriller captures a strong sense of its desert setting along California-Mexico border. The underpowered narrative gently progresses in interconnected plot threads with occasional bursts of violence. As it begins to come together, there's a hint of emotional intensity to go along with the visceral thrills. And filmmaker Jesse Harris gets a lot from what's clearly a small budget.
In the Borrego Valley, botanist Elly (Hale) is doing a plant survey one evening when she witnesses a plane crash. But inexperienced pilot Tomas (Gomez) is a drug mule from Mexico who comes after her with a gun. To survive, she offers to help him find his way out of the desert, but they face an impossible journey against the odds. Meanwhile, drug trafficker Guillermo (Jimenez) is beyond furious. And as he follows the evidence, local sheriff Jose (Gonzalez) begins to understand the seriousness of the situation, worrying about his rebellious dirt-biker daughter Alex (Trujillo).
While the multi-strand approach and a few strong personal scenes add a vague whiff of complexity, the plot and characters aren't actually terribly deep. But the intensity of the drama distracts from niggling gaps in the story's logic. Much of the film is relatively quiet, centring on low-key conversations and days of near-silent trekking across a strikingly beautiful desert, putting a variety of people on a fateful collision course. This leads to a few intense confrontations, outbursts of gunfire and a couple of desperate chases.

Harris' muted script and hushed direction don't offer the cast many opportunities for nuanced performances, especially with some over-the-top machismo on display. But Hale manages to create a tenacious figure at the centre, someone the audience can properly root for along with Gonzalez's good-guy cop and Trujillo's resourceful tough girl, both of whom are oddly sidelined for long periods of time. More intriguingly, Gomez manages to give Tomas more texture than expected, although Jimenez's brutal Guillermo is little more than a murderous thug.

As characters open up to each other in moments of vulnerability, they recount dramatic backstories that are designed to add textures to the characters and situation. This also creates some emotional angles to the larger themes about how the global drug trade destroys lives and entire communities. But then this is all spoken in blocks of on-screen text at the beginning and end. Otherwise, this gritty thriller just about holds the attention without exaggerating the action too much.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 10.Jan.22

The Free Fall  
Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
The Free Fall
dir Adam Stilwell
scr Kent Harper
prd Paul Holbrook, Sean E DeMott, Gill Gayle, Patrick Rizzotti
with Andrea Londo, Shawn Ashmore, Jane Badler, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Michael Berry Jr, Dominic Hoffman, Lorenzo Antonucci, Marc Senter, Nathaniel Peterson, Madeleine Coghlan, Jackie Dallas, Samuel Davis
release UK Oct.21 gff,
US 14.Jan.22
21/US 1h23

Is it streaming?

ashmore and londo
Deploying a dreamy-gothic vibe, this slick horror movie plays each scene so seriously that it becomes blackly comical. Whether or not this is intentional, director Adam Stilwell and writer Kent Harper adeptly maintain an intensely foreboding tone while adding unnerving jolts along the way. The atmospherics are skilfully bonkers, including some entertainingly deranged touches. But the script wilfully withholds the key details until very late in the game.
After a horrific personal tragedy, Sara (Londo) attempts suicide and is nursed back to health by her doting husband Nick (Ashmore). But she only has fragmented memories of her life, and is a bit blurry about why Nick has hired Rose (Badler) to help around their enormously creepy house, or why he prevents her from seeing her sister Julie (Cappuccino). Then as she recovers, Nick plans a dinner party for their friends, for which Rose produces a full roasted pig. But Sara doesn't remember anyone, and she keeps spotting a strange man (Berry) lurking outside.
Freak-out nightmares, yucky imagery and an outrageously moody score add to the unsettling tone, complete with witty references to horror classics. Early on, the controlling Nick becomes a figure of suspicion, saying things like "I will never leave you" with earnest menace. This is so obvious that it surely has to be a red herring, so there's still some suspense as Sara tries to piece together her swirling fragments of memory with dusty clues she stumbles across around the house.

Performances are heightened, making it tricky to tell what's a dream and what isn't. Londo is engagingly yearning, offering a strong perspective through which the audience can get involved in the story. This adds internal tension as Nick goads Sara in a variety of ways. Ashmore's tightly wound performance is a terrific contrast. Even if he's deliberately sinister, there are hints of emotional vulnerability that keep us wondering. Seen through Sara's bewildered eyes, side characters do a lot of arch glowering.

Because these kinds of movies make it clear early on that they're going to pull the rug out from under us, it's not surprising that scenes begin to twist in nutty directions. As the rather thin story unfolds, there are suggestions of grisly supernatural goings-on, violent religious practices and manic mental illness. It doesn't matter that it never quite makes sense, because the payoff is rather fantastic. And as an exercise in scary atmospherics, this is a lot of perhaps unintentional fun.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 10.Jan.22

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5
dir Eric Steel
scr Eric Steel, Daniel Pearle
prd Luca Borghese, Ben Howe, Eric Steel, Luigi Caiola
with Samuel H Levine, Ron Rifkin, Christopher McCann, Mark Margolis, Richard Topol, Brooke Bloom, Alex Hurt, Carson Meyer, Zane Pais, Eleanor Reissa, Gera Sandler, Chris Perfetti
release US 29.Oct.21,
UK 7.Jan.22
20/US 1h58


Is it streaming?

hurt and levine
With careful understatement, filmmaker Eric Steel tells a story about a young man who feels like an outsider in his tight community. It's finely observed and expertly packed with details about the central character and the period setting. The slow pace makes the extended running time feel even longer, but the story's notes resonate strongly. And it's ultimately about much more than a gay teen coming of age.
In 1986 Brooklyn, 17-year-old yeshiva student David (Levine) is feeling hemmed in by his conservative Russian-Jewish family, pushed by his mother (Bloom) and bullied by his father (Sandler). So he spends his spare time with his recently widowed grandfather Josef (Rifkin) as he moves into a retirement home. But David is secretly struggling with his same-sex desires, responding by drinking vodka, exchanging glances with strange men and befriending his grandfather's closeted neighbours (McCann and Margolis). Then when David meets a handsome barman (Hurt), he thinks about exploring his newly discovered sexuality.
While the film is essentially an extended slice of life, there's a lot going on with knowing observations about several issues swirling around David. In addition to the gay storyline, there are vivid comments on the immigrant experience and religious devotion (the title refers to a Jewish quorum). And the narrative has a strong sense of historical context, weaving in echoes of James Baldwin's work along with a range of plot threads that relate to various aspects of David's life within his lively subculture.

Levine is remarkably nuanced, subtly conveying David's unease about his sexuality, even as it's expressed in bursts of angry masculinity. As his curiosity and desire become clearer, the performance blossoms to reveal self-confidence and inner strength in the way he sees himself and interacts with others. Each costar has a strong impact, with a particularly lovely turn from Rifkin. Bloom gets some strong moments as David's realist mother. And Hurt adds intriguing shades to his lusty barman.

Moving very slowly, the has a deliberate momentum as it traces David's sexual journey from confusion to curiosity to exploration. This is a bracing depiction of the road he takes to discover who he is and where he belongs, finding his voice in the process. And the period adds an additional angle with the first wave of the Aids epidemic, as well as the living memories of those who survived the Holocaust. This is a richly made film layered with meaning, and it carries several strong kicks.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 4.Jan.22

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