Movie Review: “Body at Brighton Rock”

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There were two great take-aways from the horror classic “The Blair Witch Project.”

One was the faux veracity of “found footage,” which ratcheted up the fear that “This really happened, and their footage was all that’s left!” Yeah, we knew better, but the movie, as executed, put that in doubt, at least while we were watching it.

The other was the story’s inherent comedy. Film school nerds who know all about lenses and framing a shot, but not diddly squat about how to get by in the woods. That seemed to speak to and of a generation that was technically savvy, but a little lost in the “real” world.

That’s where “Body at Brighton Rock” lives, a young park ranger, perpetually tardy and utterly lost without her phone, stuck in the bear/wolf/coyote and who-knows-what woods of a state park somewhere in the Mountain West.

It’s a creepy, cleverly staged thriller built around our Gen Y-er in Jeopardy, out of her depth in the remote woods of a very big piece of near-wilderness.

Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin doesn’t reinvent the genre or subgenre here. But she’s damned good at reminding us of how frightening what we don’t know can be, how scary the dark is and how fear itself is its own self-perpetuating terror.

Wendy (Karina Fontes) is our young ranger-in-training, late to morning briefings, skilled in “handing out brochures, tells kids to not start fires” — that kind of “ranger.”

A more woodswise co-worker (Emily Althaus) wants to swift duties on this given fall day. Wendy isn’t her first choice.

She remembers the time a “spider made you jump,” would prefer to give her warning-sign update work way ou on Hitchback Ridge to somebody “tougher,” more “hardy” another co-worker offers.

“You’re an indoor kid, right?”

Wendy’s blithe declaration that she’s “just as qualified” as they are earns a “Your funeral!”

Whatever.

“It’s just a walk in the woods. How hard can it be?”

There are all these warning signs around the place, “Never hike alone,” “Stay warm and safe.”

And then there are the unwritten “signs.” Slashes on trees, weird noises.

Watch your step! Hang onto that map!

It’s when she gets off the trail, at the furthest distance from park HQ, that Wendy is truly tested. There’s a dead man, and not a fresh body either, at the bottom of a cliff.

What does she do?

Break out the radio, call it in. “Secure the area, and hold tight.”

First responders are on the way. Or will be, you know, at the crack of dawn.

Radio protocol doesn’t include Wendy’s gut response — “No f—–g way!”

“It’s just me and him. Me and uh, the body.”

The crackling voices on the other end of the radio are skeptical and annoyed that it is Wendy left with this responsibility. And she doesn’t disappoint.

“Don’t disturb anything” as this might be a “crime scene” means Wendy disturbs things — the body, the bear bag (hanging your food from a tree), the empty tent.

“You should be fine…for one night” isn’t reassuring to a 20something who has trouble making a fire for herself, who panics at every weird noise she hears.

And then, a stranger shows up.

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“Body at Brighton Rock” finds its frights in the real and unreal, and most effectively in the dark, when we really can’t tell the difference.

Benjamin rolls out threats we see coming and those that take us with as much surprise as they do Wendy. Fontes makes us believe she’s proud enough to put up a brave front, dedicated to her duty, but easily spooked and genuinely rattled at everything that’s happening.

It’s not edgy enough to join the ranks of indie horror classics, but “Body at Brighton Rock” is a solidly just–scary-enough thriller that reminds us that it’s not “found footage” that makes us jump, it’s things that shriek in the pitch black night.

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80s ish guitar pop by The Gifted

MPAA Rating:R for language and some bloody images

Cast: Karina Fontes, Casey Adams, Emily Althaus and John Getz

Credits: Written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin. A Magnolia/Magnet release.

Running time: 1:28

 

 

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Documentary Review: Jodie Foster narrates “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache, the First Female Filmmaker”

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Pioneering Franco-American filmmaker Alice Guy was never completely forgotten.

Her movies would be mentioned by legendary directors like Hitchcock and Eisenstein in their memoirs.

Every so often, over the decades of her life and in the 50 years since her death, some archivist or historian would seek to give her the due she was owed — first female writer-director-producer-editor, first female head of production, etc.

But the slights, omissions and outright sexist erasures of her name from the historical record ruled the day — a century of days. And this prolific, artistically and politically daring woman, whose story “dates back to 1896,” she says in an old black and white (1964)  French TV interview, could never quite take her place on the pantheon of Inventors of the Modern Cinema.

Until now.

“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, the First Female Filmmaker,” begins with Alison McMahan’s 2002 book, “Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema”‘ and dives into globe-trotting original scholarship, filling the screen with some 138 interview subjects and mountains of primary source (written and film) material.

Filmmaker Pamela B. Green’s film resume was, before this, mostly concerned with creating and consulting on the credits of movies. She’s made a thorough, entertaining and eye-opening documentary about a woman writer-director often robbed of her credits — 1000 films, shorts from the prehistory of the cinema to sound features — who worked in a time before “Written, Produced and Directed by” was invented and noted on the screen.

“Be Natural” — the film takes its title from a huge slogan written on the proscenium of the stage where Guy shot many of her American films, at Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey — is one of the great works of motion picture historical scholarship.

From its fanciful scene-setting “post card” packed opening credits to a flourish of a finale — the recreation of one of Guy’s earliest single shot comedies, filmed on vintage equipment and starring Chris Kattan and Horatio Sanz — “Be Natural” is a film buff’s dream of a documentary and an absolute delight.

You can catch a hint of incredulity in Oscar winning narrator (and producer) Jodie Foster’s voice as she and Green (who did the interviewing) relate the history of film REWRITTEN with Alice Guy, later Alice Guy Blaché’s groundbreaking contributions finally included.

“Be Natural” she commanded her actors at a studio she designed and built (another first) with her then-husband. And the snippets of celluloid generously sampled here, the result of a worldwide search of film collectors and archivists by Green & Co., often back that up.

There was no avoiding the posing and presentational acting of her day. Remember, Queen Victoria was still living when Guy got her start in 1896, and when she made her first noteworthy scripted film — 1899’s “The Cabbage Fairy.”

But by the time she was making movies in America (her husband Herbert Blaché relocated them), the subtlety was obvious, the “feminism” overt and a sense of cinematic style all her own can be detected.

Green fills the screen with a mosaic of actresses, movie makers, studio execs, honchos and historians, and lets scores of them declare they have no idea who this woman was.

Most of them, anyway.

A great conceit of her movie is using that mosaic to zoom in on say, actress-director Lake Bell or Evan Rachel Wood, or a special effects specialist or “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, to ask a question about Guy’s life — her process, her business acumen, how she handled being a working mom (in the U.S.) at a time when there were no other female filmmakers and relatively few working mothers.

Green and her team then set out to answer those questions, tracking down descendants (first contacted, on camera, by phone), digging through souvenirs, scrapbooks, boxes of memorabilia. She talks to expert archivists, tracks down a 1980s video interview with Guy’s daughter and chases down names from Guy’s old address books.

This is Scholarship 101, working your way up to primary sources (hand-written notes, old scripts, a Legion d’honneur a descendant has stashed in his home archives in Arizona).

History buffs and film buffs will be tickled, as I was, at this detail — the research detective work we see unfold in the film.

There’s no footage of the woman, in her prime, extant. But is there? An old “Kinora” flip-book style animation of her from the very early 1900s is shown to a police facial ID expert, who breaks down how he determines identities and positively names Guy as the subject of the “film.”

She was a secretary for Leon Gaumont, present at one of the earliest demonstrations of the Lumiere Brothers’ pioneering projection system, the cinematographe, in 1895.

By the next year, she was shooting film for the studio that would come to be called “Gaumont” and which she would run, and within three years she was making one of the very first “scripted” motion pictures ever made — in Paris.

When actress Julie Delpy and others wonder how she could have overcome the gender restrictions of her day, we’re reminded that Guy filmed a comic cross-dressing spoof, “The Consequences of Feminism” — in 1906!

Historians take us on a walking tour of the locations Guy made movies on in Paris, their trek charmingly fading into footage of the actual movie on that same location over a century before.

It’s dazzling.

She gave the first female American director (an actress) her big break behind the camera, lectured at Columbia University and was instrumental in getting many of the first synced-sound movies — “music videos” of the day — on celluloid.

Unlike Edison, whose filmmakers tried to shoot and record-singing etc. direct to disc on the set simultaneously, Guy had the foresight to record the vocalizing first, and then have the singer lip-sync to it.

Another first!

 

 

Guy has been, as I mentioned earlier, resurrected before. There was a French TV documentary about her in 1964.

But as soon as that had aired, she was all but forgotten again, swept under the rug by male film scholars working in a more primitive (pre-Internet) time for researchers, when many of Guy’s films were simply lost and all they could work with was sketchy prior research and hearsay.

The implication, that they were only too eager to do this (Cinematique Francaise founder, curator and historian Henri Langlois, who KNEW her, all but denies her existence in one archived interview) out of sexism, is inescapable.

But Pamela B. Green, adding to the growing mountain of knowledge about Alice Guy Blaché, ensures that this oversight will not stand.

A film professional known for creating movie credits makes certain that this pioneer finally gets the credit she’s been due for over 120 years.

“Be Natural,” from the moment of release, becomes one of the seminal documentaries on early film history and must-see movie watching for any serious cinephile.

4star4

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Narrated by Jodie Foster, with Alice Guy, Patty Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Catherine Hardwicke, Jon M. Chu, Diablo Cody, Martin Scorsese, Agnes Varda

Credits:Directed by Pamela B. Green, script by Pamela B. Green and Joan Simon. A Be Natural release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: Teens wonder if there is “No Alternative” to punk rock?

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Maybe it’s bad form to slap a movie you like with the one thing you didn’t like about it, right from the top, but here goes.

There’s a third act turn toward the dark in “No Alternative” that feels abrupt, harsh and unearned — or at least less earned than writer-director William Dickerson may have felt.

It doesn’t spoil the coming-of-age period piece that precedes that turn, and trails it. But it does tend to blunt its impact.

“No Alternative” is about siblings growing up in affluent suburban New York in the post-Nirvana grunge era. It’s 1994, and Bridget (newcomer Michaela Cavazos) and Thomas (Conor Proft) aren’t just sister and brother. They’re tight.

He’s waiting to hear if he gets into Georgetown, and he’s protective of his kid sister. Bridget seems to need it. She’s moody, stuck in a stocking cap, day and night, and in mild-mannered foul-mouthed rebellion with their parents.

Dad (Harry Hamlin) is a semi-stern judge running for the state supreme court, the type to bring home graphic descriptions of the crimes and criminals showing up in his courtroom, and Mom (Kathryn Erbe) wants to dote, but gives her kids space.

As we’ve seen Bridget in therapy, we get it. Her doctor is all about “smoothing out” this by prescribing that, treating her as a chemistry experiment.

Tom’s killing time this winter of college acceptance letters by jamming with his punk band. When they meet raspy, brooding and handsome singer Elias (Aria Shahghasemi), they realize that maybe they can take this seriously.

“I have a song that’s four chords…”

“That’s one too many, if you asked me!”

“It’s a love song. Called ‘Chumming.’

Bridget rolls her eyes at grunge. She’s into hip hop. And a discarded portable keyboard inspires her to put down the cigarette, knocks back a Zoloft with a vodka chaser, and starts spitting some rhymes of her own.

Dickerson’s film follows their parallel paths, a sister and brother seeking different things from music. Tom might get to put off growing up just a tad longer. Bridget? It’s her release, an artistic outlet (she also paints) that captures her ironic rage.

“No Alternative” isn’t a comedy, exactly. But Bridget’s scenes, as Bri-Dab, a rapper claiming a fake Harlem background, taking on the persona of Free 2B, rapping in the voice of a young black man (including the N-word), are hilarious.

“That was so punk rock I can’t even handle it,” Sarah Lawrence College boy Stewart (Logan Georges) tells her. He’s studying surrealism as a concept and sobriety as a lifestyle. He’s sweet on Free 2B.

And this happens as Bridget’s classmate, the promiscuous and equally “punk rock” (in that “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” sense) Jackie (Chloë Levine) is coming-on-strong to young Tom.

Pressure starts to build as the band bickers and the true extent of Bridget’s illness becomes clear and distracted Dad gets death threats, something he levels with his kids about even as he’s taking the strain out on them.

Maybe “You have my legs. You have my father’s legs. They’ve carried us a long way,” isn’t the platitude his son or daughter need at this moment.

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Dickerson (“Don’t Look Back” and “The Mirror” were two earlier indie efforts) is most at home immersing us in the milieu, and sending it up.

The “band” is more an excuse to hang out and drink and smoke and get tight and debate the qualities of this new film (“Pulp Fiction”) and where the filmmaker “stole” his ideas from.

Everybody’s worked up about how “punk rock” this or that is, and Tom and his pals are dressing and playing as if they could be “the New Nirvana.”

Bridget is adrift, impulsive, medicating and self-medicating. But she’s more in sync with the winds of change in music. Maybe she and her brother are drifting apart, musically, but if Jackie sleeps with him and smirks “I’ve had better,” she’s asking for a beat down.

Cavazos, who has the swagger and gift for the rude and crude of a young Sarah Silverman, is a revelation. Proft’s character is more a “type,” but he makes do with that.

There was a longer cut of “No Alternative,” according to IMDb. Perhaps the lost footage smoothed out and wholly-motivated that abrupt and clumsy third-act jump I opened the review complaining about. Perhaps not.

But what’s here is still a promising, entertaining effort. And it’s a fine showcase for Cavazos, who nails Bridget’s vocal fry, her pose, the disturbed and self-destructive vibe that she wears like a stocking cap, her armor against a world her illness — meds or no meds — won’t let her master.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, sex, teen drinking, drugs

Cast: Michaela Cavazos, Conor Proft, Kathryn Erbe and Harry Hamlin

Credits: Written and directed by William Dickerson. A Gravitas release.

Running time: 1:37

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Preview: Is “The Professor” Johnny Depp’s path to redemption?

He’s making movies for a smaller studio, the almost-indie Saban Films.

And he’s cutting his hair and playing a real role here, a college prof who discovers he’s dying of cancer and lives his life accordingly.

There’s a hint of tipsy in this turn as “The Professor,” which is Depp’s sweet-spot. If people aren’t totally over Johnny D., this May 17 release — sure to be lost in Blockbuster Season — could be one worth tracking down.

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Preview: “The Secret Life of Pets 2” feels like an upgrade

A few laughs, signs that this animated sequel is headed in more interesting directions — more realistic pet “problems” spun out of the secret “emotional” life of pets. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” will tickle your kids June 7.

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Preview: With “The Perfection,” has Netflix finally hit on a horror formula that works?

It’s not been a genre that the streaming service has been that impressive in before now.

They buy horror titles that earned no real release anywhere else. And their in house fright fare hasn’t dazzled.

But two beautiful young cellists/perhaps lovers trapped in a terror only relieved when they whack off their own limbs?

Allison Williams and Logan Browning are the stars of “The Perfection,” a  literal “skin crawling” tale of terror, due out May 24.

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Movie Review: “Long Shot” misses

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This week’s version of “She’s Out of Your League,” a rom-com concept Hollywood — well, male Hollywood — never tires of, stars Charlize Theron as the accomplished, runway-ready object of desire and Seth Rogen as the dumpy beard-o who totally has a chance.

“Long Shot” it’s called, for obvious reasons. As coarse and clean as a porn star’s loofah, witty as a haiku on a bathroom stall and as politically deep as a bumper sticker, it’s a stumble-footed two hour+ comedy about a shrill, unemployed journalist winning the heart of his old baby sitter, as her speech writer as she runs for president.

You can’t tell, but I was looking forward to loving this.

It’s slow, the jokes and gags that deliver are mainly about drugs, flatulence, masturbation and Boyz II Men. The political humor is a punch-pulling riff on America Today. And everybody comes off as trying too hard.

Too harsh? One of Rogen’s go-to moves as a funnyman is bugging his eyes out and delivering a line — punch-line or zinger — at a bellow. He bellows almost from start to finish here, playing Fred Flarsky, a newly-unemployed investigative journalist, muckraker and gadfly.

Theron? Oscar-winner she may be, but her comic chops seem limited to “too beautiful to bother with you and knows it.” See “Young Adult” and no, she wasn’t that funny in that, either. She’s got “mean girl” written all over her.

We meet Flarsky in the most promising circumstances, under-cover infiltrating a meeting of the skinhead brain trust known as “White Nation.” His “F-the-Jews” and “Heil…everybody” aren’t that convincing. He’s about to get a swastika tattoo when the jig is up and he’s out the window.

BIG Rogen pratfall.

But all is for naught, as Flarsky’s publication, The Brooklyn Advocate, has just sold to a Murdoch-esque right wing media empire. Andy Serkis plays this version of Rupert.

Flarsky’s college bud, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr. of “Straight Outta Compton”) takes off from running his tech firm to buck our boy up. A little drinking, an invite to a reception.

Hell, that lady it’s for, the Secretary of State? She was my baby sitter!

How an alleged journalist missed making the connection when Charlotte Field was first appointed we can only ponder.

They connect, and even though he’s dressed like a 38 year-old unkempt hipster and comes off as a tad angry and entirely too profane to be articulate, she is intrigued.

Nostalgia? Boyz II Men are performing at the reception. All we’ve learned about Field is her workaholic tendencies and loneliness.

How lonely? Male wish-fulfillment fantasy lonely. Apparently.

He’s a connection to the passion for political causes (the environment, etc.) she had before she started selling out to appease her ex-TV star president (Bob Odenkirk, amusing). And Fred’s funny, if off-color. He’ll be perfect to punch up her speeches and give her a sense of humor.

There’s a handsome Canadian prime minister (Alexander Skarsgård, funny for the first time ever) who’d be suitable dating material for a presidential candidate.

But does he stand a chance against a ball-capped goof who can turn her on to all the latest jams, introduce her to Molly and sneak her out clubbing?

The script by Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling doesn’t give the leads a believable and funny arc, or the supporting players much that’s funny to play. The political jokes, about the press baron who “believes that hurricanes are caused by gay marriage,” the “Fox & Friends” type show so sexist it’s supposed to be more over-the-top and funnier than the real thing, fall flat.

The introduction of the perils of being a female candidate (double standards, etc.) covers no new ground and is rarely brought up in a funny way.

But sometimes it is. And sometimes Rogen, a veteran of the “Funniest line on the set wins” school, finds a laugh on their global Secretary of State tour — receptions in Hanoi (“Sorry for what we did to your country.”) and Buenos Aires.

“It’s cool to be in Argentina. I think some of the guys who killed my grandparents are here!”

But the whole affair is so slow as to let the mind play casting exercises. This seems instantly dated in 2019. Would it have worked with a male candidate and frumpy female speech writer who used to babysit for him?

Nah. Rebel Wilson’s got as much work as she can handle.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use

Cast: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård and Bob Odenkirk

Credits:Directed by Jonathan Levine, script by Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling. A Summit/Lionsgate release.

Running time: 2:05

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Movie Review “Mia and the White Lion” has claws, but little bite

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If “Dumbo” taught us nothing else, it’s that if you’re going to make a movie with children interacting with animals, you need real animals for that to connect with an audience.

So if you’re making a movie about a girl who grows up to be great friends with a lion — a “white” lion, mind you — you’d better tie down a lot of time in the child actor’s schedule. And you’d best have a white lion handy that you can follow and bond with from oversized kitten to King of the Veldt.

“Mia and the White Lion” has that going for it, a three years-in-the-making Franco-South African production which paired up a child — played by Daniah de Villiers — with a lion cub for a story of family, the bond between humans and animals and the harsh reality that a lot of “rescue” work for orphan wildlife is just a business.

The “years-in-the-making” is both a tribute to the filmmakers’ perseverance, and an explanation for how choppy, jerky and repetitive “White Lion” is. Performances can’t find a rhythm and the melodramatic narrative suffers for it.

How many times can Dad say, “He’s not a bloody pet!” before the actor (Langley Kirkwood) is entitled to yell, “Can we get a rewrite, here?” When you’re piecing together a movie over years, bending your script to fit the reality of the growing cat’s personality and the maturing of your leading lady (de Villiers), and working with a large and potentially dangerous creature we are constantly reminded is “still a wild animal,” you’re constantly shooting at a moving target.

“Mia” is the story of a London family — South African husband, French wife (Mélanie Laurent) and their two kids (de Villiers, and Ryan Mac Lennan) — who move back to the husband’s family farm in rural South Africa.

His dad’s business was rescuing, raising and breeding lions and other wildlife for zoos, circuses and most controversially, preserves and other operations where big game hunters like that creep who owns a U.S. sandwich shop franchise can bag their trophy animal.

John constantly reminds us he’s not going to do with his forbears did. He’s given to griping about losing money on the farm, even as we can’t help but notice the Land Rovers, Jeeps and scooters he’s able to afford as they prep their two story farmhouse and grounds for a planned transition to a wilderness preserve bed and breakfast.

The animal that can make or break that business is the miraculous white lion born there, one connected to tribal legend. Mia, whom we meet at age 11, is slow to bond with the cub, named Charlie. But she warms up and gives up on her shallow London Facetime friends to become Charlie’s constant companion.

Older brother Mick (Mac Lennan) was traumatized by the move, has nightmares and is skittish around the kittenish cub.

The kid-friendliest moments of Gilles de Maistre’s film are Charlie’s bull-in-a-china-shop life in their house, knocking stuff over, roughhousing, cleaning the dinner table before anybody else has a chance to eat.

Young de Villiers shows a lot of brass, first scene to last, in interacting with something her on-screen parents constantly remind her is “a wild animal. And a wild animal’s a wild animal.”

The viewer can fixate, quite understandably, on everything that can go wrong. And even though this film has the kids talk to the animals (an elephant, for instance), giving them instructions which they apparently abide, de Maistre doesn’t shy away from showing us the very real dangers involved.

A growing lion won’t realize his strength, how lethal his teeth can be as he affectionately mouths his human pal, how damaging those claws can be, just by accident. The aftermath of a lion-mauling is shown.

Keeping Mia away from Charlie as he reaches young adulthood proves easier said than done. One can only hope she’ll learn the rules, “Never let yourself be below a lion. Never look a lion in the eye,” etc.

 

The best special effect here is the semi-trained lion, who knocks over furniture, gnaws on lamps and looks at Mia with what we can assume are big loving blue-grey eyes. Charlie proves to have some personality, even if the implicit menace is never quite out of the picture.

The human acting is, for the most part, indifferent, with even the polished Laurent (“Inglorious Basterds,””Beginners,” “Night Train to Lisbon”) underwhelming owing to the lack of big emotional moments in the script.

The tale takes nothing but predictable turns, considering how this farm operates and Mia’s growing connection with her “best friend.”

I was pretty forgiving of all this dry-eyed (meant to be a weeper) kid-friendly content until that moment when teen Mia points a gun at her father.

That’s jarring enough to take one right out of a movie that wasn’t exactly magnetic in pulling us in.

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MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, peril and some language

Cast: Daniah De Villiers, Mélanie Laurent, Langley Kirkwood, Ryan Mac Lennan and Brandon Auret

Credits: Directed by Gilles de Maistre, script by Prune de Maistre and William Davies. A StudioCanal release.

Running time: 1:38

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Documentary Review: Nuns become your best bud — or source for bud — “Breaking Habits”

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Sure, they don Catholic habits and call themselves nuns, even though they aren’t Catholic or even practicing Christians.

But that’s neither here nor there. Other religions have devout sisters who call themselves “nuns” just to keep it simple.

And it’s barely worth a raised eyebrow that these spiritual “Sisters of the Valley” raise marijuana to create medicinal oils out of this year’s “miracle cure-call,” CBD (cannabidiol). That THC (tetrahydrocannbinol) pot biproduct that gets its user’s high? Not their business. So they say.

Yes, the leader of this not-a-convent is activist entrepreneur Sister Kate, real name Christine Meeusen, formerly a Reagan-voting married working mom who found a “disruptive” way to start life over again in tiny, impoverished Merced, California.

“Weed is like honey. Local is best!”

But she claims they’re giving away their curative herb-infused oils to those who can’t afford to pay for it and decries local law enforcement, which seems to have a point when it notes a spike in gang-like activity as armed robberies of pot fields become the new crime of choice in their busted, broke, dead-end town. She heralds the job-creation benefits of her business without proof, and lets us see her fellow “sisters” in their habits without us knowing what their story is and how far down the “true believer” rabbit hole they’ve gone with her.

So “Breaking Habits,” a documentary mainly told from Sister Kate’s point of view, could use a serious dose of skepticism in its semi-droll narrative of Meesune’s life and hard times. She’s had it rough, but the leap from wronged-wife, wronged-sister to cannabis crusader needs something more than “She’s suffered, she deserves a break” to cross that chasm.

A little less cheer-leading and a little more questioning — of Sister Kate and her acolytes — was in order.

Writer-director Rob Ryan lets Sister Kate’s compelling story — communications consulting work that took her to the Netherlands, made her a millionaire, and then a victim as her con man husband stole all her money — and how MUCH of that story Sister Kate wants to tell, hijack his movie.

As in, she spent all that time in Amsterdam, came home to the Central Valley of California and settled on pot as her business model, and the two aren’t connected? She talks up the merciful, charitable, compassionate component of what the Sisters of the Valley do, but shows us no actual evidence that they give this stuff away.

Ryan does a good job of setting up Sister Kate’s obstacles — the heel of an ex-husband, the unethical brutish brother, the ten gallon-hat wearing sheriff who calls her “Sisters” “drug dealers, and they’re trying to say it’s medicine.”

The less antagonistic local prosecutor and Sister Kate’s lawyer are more on her side as she struggles to get her business registered, legal and above-board in a town reluctant to join California’s “weed revolution.”

There are laws to fear and rules to flout, or at least bend. We hear of thieves chased off with gunfire and watch the pot preparation process of Kate and her fellow sisters, see the smokey rituals they’ve invented to “bless” the kitchen and the greenhouses where they start their crops.

L.  Ron Hubbard has nothing on them.

And if the ridiculously fertile ground of “the most depressed community in the state” becomes the Napa Valley of weed, the world will remember Sister Kate as its prophet, its pioneer.

But as we see her glassy-eyed in some interviews, and see the drug problems visited on at least one of her children, Ryan is just letting us know that he didn’t get around to telling the full story.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: TV-14

Cast: Sister Kate and the Sisters of the Valley

Credits: Written and directed by Rob Ryan. A Good Deed Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:27

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Movie Review: Life Might get better, if they can just get out of “Little Woods,” N.D.

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A boom town is always more attractive on the outside looking in.

For many of those there before the gold, oil, timber or Big Ag rush began, the despair and isolation isn’t lessened by the fact that suddenly a lot of new people pour in. They bring their own problems, jack up demand, drive up prices and strain fragile systems and barely-scraping-by people in an under-regulated, unplanned for deluge.

“Little Woods” is an intimate underbelly drama of quiet desperation set against the North Dakota fracking boom. It’s about two half-sisters stuck in a place where the only good money to be made comes from pole dancing or pill dealing.

First-time writer-director Nia DaCosta may have filmed her Northern Plains tale on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. But she has a firm grasp of the loneliness and hopelessness of lives left behind by a boom in a state where working class women’s career and OB-GYN options are limited.

And having the wider horizons of Canada just across the border doesn’t help.

Tessa Thompson is Ollie, short for Oleander, a twentysomething piecing together a living by hustling coffee and sandwiches to oil rig workers. But a prologue, which showed her burying a bag in the woods, hints at a darker recent past. She’s on probation for selling pills. And her “regulars” are still hassling her for oxy.

In a town where medical facilities are overwhelmed by the increase in population with no spike in state or federal funding, working people in pain have the money to self-medicate, but not the time to wait all day in the emergency room.

There’s a foreclosure notice on the door of the house her mother left behind when she was hospitalized, her former pill supplier (Luke Kirby) and her probation officer (Lance Reddick of “John Wick”) are on her case and her sister (Lily James of the upcoming “Yesterday”) has just shown up, little boy in tow.

Deb is broke, pregnant and unable to lean on her man (James Badge Dale). She’s there because Ollie is the one person she knows who’s reliable.

“You never hope. You do.”

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Over the course of a stressful, downward spiral of a week, Ollie will try to deal with the bank, her sister’s problem pregnancy, a job interview and the mounting pressure to get back into the one business that paid her enough to keep the wolves at bay.

DaCosta sends Ollie into those woods to dig up her stash, and to roadhouses, strip clubs, a rodeo, oil rigs and truck stops where she sells her wares. We also track Deb’s misery at a world that is closing in around her ears, raising a little boy by herself and despairing at anything ever getting any better for her or her kid.

“I hope he grows up big and strong and worthless, like his daddy.

There are traces of “Winter’s Bone” in this world of oxy and meth and working class folks addicted to them. The lure of the border, which Ollie used to cross to buy drugs, is reminiscent of “Frozen River.”

As in those films, the stories are driven by stellar actresses in the lead roles, letting us see the weight bearing down on them both. Thompson and James both generate pity and make us feel their frustration.

Kirby stands out in the supporting cast, the smooth-talking good ol’boy who wants Ollie back in the biz, and on his terms — “We’re partners,” he hisses.

The best line? “Your choices or only as good as your options.”

Best moment? It might be in a clinic, in Canada, where neither a nurse nor a patient with forged Canadian ID has to say anything to get across desperation and the sisterly/motherly pity it inspires.

The ending is entirely too pat, considering all the complications that precede it. “Little Woods” lives more on the threat of violence, arrest or homelessness than anything overt. There are no big confrontations that give the story a satisfying finality.

But DaCosta has zeroed in on a place with a lot of money pouring in, and nothing much good coming of it. She has created a modern Western of trapped women who have to make their own way, by hook or by crook, with no cowboy riding up to save them.

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MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug material

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick

Credits: Written and directed by Nia DaCosta. A Neon release.

Running time: 1:43

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