OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
The legalization of recreational marijuana in many states has opened up a whole new chasm in the mechanics of an already tumultuous 21st-century American economy. Addressing this phenomenon in a resolutely small-scale, micro sense, Mario Furloni and Kate McLean’s Freeland chronicles the difficulties of one woman’s desperate, ultimately futile attempts to navigate a new, heretofore unimaginable arena of corporatization, as the old ways have gradually dissolved into a morass of bureaucratic red tape and big business monopolies. It would seem that there is absolutely nothing that capitalism can’t turn into a haves-and-have-nots dichotomy.
Nestled away in the secluded woodlands of Northern California, ex-hippie Devi (Krisha Fairchild) has carved herself out a sustainable life of pot cultivation. With a small crew of younger helpers, who live in trailers on her property, she grows and harvests her own weed crop, selling her wares to dealers big and small and otherwise enjoying her twilight years. But legalization has led to closer scrutiny via local government, which has begun pursuing sanctions against Devi for not having the proper permits to officially grow or distribute her pot. And so the film charts her gradual capitulation to an oppressive system; at first, calm, even cavalier about her predicament, Devi assumes things will blow over. When a lien is placed on her homestead, she digs up her life savings in an effort to secure a permit. But that doesn’t work, either, as big companies have cornered the market for their own purposes. A visit to an old family friend quickly turns antagonistic, as they explain to Devi that they cannot buy her pot as they can’t prove it comes from a legal source, then chastise her for trying to buck the system. It’s a series of Catch 22s, in which Devi can’t make money without following strict procedures, yet can not afford to buy her way into the system.
Furloni and McLean come from a documentary background, and one of Freeland’s strengths is its precise sense of place. Shot on location on real, working pot farms, there’s a tactile quality to the proceedings. Authenticity is hard to fake, and Fairchild’s nuanced, guileless performance matches the specificity of the milieu. Co-director Furloni is also the film’s cinematographer, and gradually transforms the natural terrain from a gentle sense of envelopment into a kind of ominous, foreboding prison, with towering trees overwhelming the human figure. At barely 80 minutes long sans credits, Freeland doesn’t flesh out its supporting characters enough to support a late act betrayal, which disregards the realistic materialism of the rest of the film for a brief dive into pop psychology. Like this year’s Holler, another strong indie film plagued by a late-act miscalculation, one senses that the filmmakers felt compelled to add unnecessary complications in an effort to goose the narrative rather than simply luxuriating in character moments. Still, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise stellar film, and in her first major role since her breakthrough in 2015’s Krisha, Fairchild commands the screen with her regal yet casual air and hearty laugh, somewhere between a queen and a stoned grandma. Her downfall is heartbreaking to observe, all the more so as Furloni and McLean contextualize it as the last gasp of a long diminished counter-culture dream. When the man” has taken over even the once-illicit drug trade, what’s left for the rebels to rage against? It’s all been co-opted.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
An existential slice of sci-fi, Warning is the kind of film that practically begs for a thorough post-mortem. It’s quite obvious that something went horribly wrong after production wrapped, starting with the fact that the onscreen credits list this as “A Cybill Lui Eppich Film,” yet Eppich is merely a producer, one of a staggering 20. The film was actually directed and co-written by Agata Alexander, making her feature-film debut, and who is probably none too happy with the end result — this could not have been the filmmaker’s ultimate vision. Warning is a series of short films that address big questions regarding humanity, mortality, religion, sexuality, gender — basically anything that might pop up in an intro-level humanities course at your local liberal arts college. But instead of going the anthology route, the film has taken its various storylines and haphazardly thrown them into a blender, resulting in a vile concoction that makes little to no sense; more than anything, the film feels like somebody fast-forwarding through an entire season of Black Mirror over the course of 85 minutes, occasionally stopping whenever the imagery seems the least bit appealing. Some of the stories that play out here last only a few minutes, while others take up at least 20, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to how the footage is paired or presented, as the stories here only rarely inform each other. The only plot thread that is present throughout the film’s entire running time is one in which “space janitor” Thomas Jane is left floating in the dark reaches of our universe after a freak lighting storm sends him hurtling from the satellite which he was servicing. The film proceeds to venture onto a greenscreen set every ten minutes or thereabouts so that we can hear Jane bargain with God and come to terms with the fact that he is a shitty father.
Other storylines, meanwhile, are introduced and abandoned so abruptly that it is only upon reflection that we realize that short’s conclusion has already come and gone; everything feels so inconsequential that it is near impossible to tell the difference. When entirely new characters played by Annabelle Wallis and Alex Pettyfer are introduced at the film’s halfway point, it’s easy to regard the development as a tad wrong-headed; when the same thing happens literally two minutes before the end credits hit, it’s safe to assume that the editors gave zero thought to how any of this was going to play to the casual viewer. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the movie is a tonal mess, with comedic bits butting heads with scenes of sexual assault that are seriously ill-advised when they’re not outright offensive. Perhaps there is some thematic connection between society’s overreliance on technology in the worshipping of an Alexa-like device that is literally called God and the stalking of a lover through futuristic means, but that doesn’t mean they can co-exist peacefully. By the time the film heads into Cronenbergian body-horror territory and first-person POV, it seems like nothing more than a desperate ploy to shock. It’s obvious that the production roped in its random cast of B- and C-listers simply because all of the actors only had to shoot for a few days — the film even features arthouse commodity Tomasz Kot, of Cold War fame (Patrick Schwarzenegger probably had less pressing engagements). Put bluntly, Warning is very definition of a clusterfuck, the kind of movie whose existence is so perplexing that viewers will be liable to utter the exact words on which the film ends: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Writer: Steven Warner
Set in 1980s New York, Eric Steel’s Minyan is a tender, intimate coming-of-age film about a young man coming to terms with his identity as both a Jew and a gay man. David (Samuel H. Levine) struggles to reconcile his identities until meeting two closeted gay men in his grandfather’s apartment complex, and becoming more deeply involved with the gay community right at one of its most pivotal historical moments. As David navigates relationships, community, and even less abstract realities, like school and ensuring his widowed grandfather has a home, the three collide, reshaping his life.
Minyan is a film that is more than comfortable with its own dual-identity, accepting and artfully portraying all the many contradictions that David encounters. The score, from David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg, is audacious, mirroring David’s attempts to find his place within wildly different subcultures. The duo utilize everything from the thumping bass of nightclubs to soft, twinkling jazz to Yiddish klezmer music. It’s not a subtle approach, but the score infuses the entire film with a sense of dynamism that could easily be missing from a work this introspective and quiet.
The score isn’t the only way the film draws from and articulates these different facets of David’s identity, with influences ranging from James Baldwin to the Torah, and from orthodox Jewish culture to the queer nightlife of 1980s New York. The result is poetic, neatly and effectively finding rhymes between Jewish and queer experience, and drawing a subtle link between a community emotionally recovering from a genocide and another who are unwittingly approaching theirs. Steel is never brazen about the comparison, leaving it as tasteful subtext, but David’s status as a member of both of these groups, his youth leaving him naive to the real suffering of both, is heartbreaking nevertheless, and makes his coming-of-age politically as well as emotionally meaningful. Steel departs these quiet, intricate comparisons on an optimistic note that neatly ties together the thread he has been twining, with a rabbi commenting that his minyan, a group of ten Jewish men that is considered the minimum for religious ceremonies, accepts any man of faith, regardless of their background or, pointedly, their sexuality. David is welcomed, not with a fake promise of unconditional love, but with the sentiment that this is how marginalized communities survive: by putting aside differences and focusing on similarities, and letting each other’s individuality thrive.
Writer: Molly Adams
There’s a deep, dark mystery at the heart of director Aaron Fradkin’s Val — a mystery that is literally revealed by the movie’s own marketing material. Indeed, any image accompanying an article or review of the film likely gives away the big rug-pull, which is unfortunate as it takes almost half of the film’s 80-minute runtime for the narrative proper to kick in. In fact, Val tries to pull off a few different high-wire acts and fails at pretty much all of them. It’s neither particularly funny nor scary, a pretty big stumbling block for an ostensible horror-comedy, and by mostly limiting its scenario to two main characters who spend virtually every minute of the film’s runtime talking to each other, there’s a distinct lack of either chemistry or tension.
The film begins with Fin (Zachary Mooren) on the run from police. He’s been involved in a car accident while fleeing an unspecified crime scene. He winds up taking refuge in a large, beautifully appointed mansion occupied by high-class escort Val (Misha Reeves). Fin is suffering from a concussion, and his attempts to order around and otherwise manhandle Val gradually reveal a man way in over his head. For her part, Val appears to be submissive and demure, but at a certain point begins to become more assertive and even starts flaunting herself in front of a confused Fin. An unexpected visit from a client provides the film its first narrative hiccup, as Fin first tries to hide from but then must confront the unsuspecting but potentially violent man. The problem here is that the audience already knows what Fin does not — Val is a demon, here to manipulate and tempt him — and waiting for the other shoe to drop becomes a tedious waiting game.
As the sexy, sarcastic demon, Reeves makes quite an impression. She seems to be the only one having any fun, or with an understanding of exactly how to pitch this kind of material. Mooren isn’t bad as the fumbling, wanna-be crook, and a belated flashback that fills in his character’s backstory makes the man agreeably sympathetic. But the occasional intrusion by bit players known mostly for sketch comedy (Kyle Howard and Veep’s Sufe Bradshaw show up as cops searching for Fin) are jarring, and Fradkin, with co-writer Victoria Fratz, can’t seem to get the tone right. Even worse is the shrug of an ending, which plays out as a simplistic, annoyingly familiar moral conundrum. Val is ultimately a passable calling card movie, which might have benefited from being a short or part of a Tales from the Crypt-style anthology. There’s talent on display here, but it’s largely wasted on a wisp of an idea.
Writer: Daniel Gorman