Man searches for past shaped by racial prejudice

Columbus resident David Bynum recaps his search for unknown family members in From a Place of Love–My Adoption Journey, a modest documentary he wrote and directed himself. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.

Father’s death prompts dangerous quest for justice

Paul Lima keeps in touch with his team as they plot to capture a killer in After the Murder of Albert Lima. (Photos courtesy of This Is Just a Test Media)

By Richard Ades

After watching the unbearably tense (and now Oscar-nominated) Quo Vadis, Aida?, I was ready for something a bit calmer. Instead, I stumbled onto After the Murder of Albert Lima.

The documentary follows an American named Paul Lima as he heads to Honduras in 2013 to seek out his father’s alleged killer. The man in question, Oral Coleman, has actually been convicted of the crime but remains at large, apparently having bribed enough officials to evade prison.

The murder, by the way, took place 13 years earlier. Since then, Lima has devoted his life to seeking justice, but it appears to be in short supply in the Central American country. As a result, he’s hired bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen to accompany him to the island where the suspect lives.

The plan: Find Coleman, subdue him with drugs and restraints, and turn him over to the proper authorities for delivery to prison. The problem: Coleman is a prosperous businessman/gangster who’s always surrounded by bodyguards and ever-vigilant underlings.

Bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen

Torres, the more assertive of the two bounty hunters, effects an air of self-confidence as he assures Lima that their plan is sound. But even he seems taken aback when he learns how well-protected Coleman is, and how lawless and hazardous life on the island can be. Nevertheless, the three set about gathering the supplies they need for their dangerous mission, including a pair of poorly maintained firearms.

Is Lima setting himself up for the kind of tragic end that befell his father? Are bounty hunters Torres and Korhonen as competent as they claim, or are they in over their heads? Director Aengus James encourages such questions while keeping the dread factor high with help from composer Adam Sanborne’s ominous score.

The only respite comes during interludes that explain why Paul Lima decided to undertake such an insane quest. We come to understand that his need for closure largely overrules his instinct for self-preservation. That’s because his life is stuck in limbo and will remain there unless he succeeds in bringing his father’s killer to justice.  

Like a condensed, real-life version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, After the Murder of Albert Lima blends psychology and suspense in the tale of an obsession that both defines and endangers one man’s life. It’s quite a yarn.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

After the Murder of Albert Lima is available beginning March 18 on Crackle, a free screening service.

Teacher/interpreter/mother tries to ward off tragedy

Jasna Djuricic plays Aida Selmanagic, a Bosnian teacher and interpreter, in Quo Vadis, Aida?

By Richard Ades

Quo Vadis, Aida? is set during the Bosnian War (1992-95), which gave rise to Europe’s most deadly outbreak of genocide since the Holocaust. Not only that, but it takes place in the town of Srebrenica, site of one of the conflict’s most infamous atrocities.

That should clue you in that the film won’t make you feel good about the human condition. Instead, you’ll feel drained, exhausted and saddened by its depiction of the hatred and cruelty one people can direct against another people—and of the inability of well-meaning but powerless institutions to prevent it.

Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic has created a breathless account of what happened in July 1995, when Serbian troops set their sights on Srebrenica even though the United Nations had declared it a safe zone. The fictionalized but based-on-reality tale is told through the eyes of Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic), a Bosnian Muslim teacher who works as an interpreter for the UN peacekeeping detail.

It’s Aida’s job to convey to other Bosnians what she’s told by the Dutch officers who are attempting to protect the town on behalf of the UN. This soon puts her in a bind, as she begins to suspect they have little power to stop the advance of Serbian forces under a ruthless general named Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic).

Though she’s charged with relaying a calming message, Aida becomes increasingly concerned for the safety of the thousands who’ve sought sanctuary in Srebrenica, including her husband and two sons. It’s an impossible situation, and a terrifying one.

As Aida, Djuricic digs deep to express the anguish of a woman caught between her duties to her employers and her loyalties to her countrymen. Most of all, she defines the fierce courage of a mother who will do anything to protect her family.

Throughout the ordeal, writer-director Zbanic mostly spares viewers the sight of actual violence by locating it just beyond our field of view. Otherwise, she’s merciless in her tense depiction of a wartime tragedy in the making.

The tension begins to abate only in an extended postscript that finds our heroine numbed by all that has happened. As the viewer, you’re likely to feel the same.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Quo Vadis, Aida? (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning March 15.

Sexual assault’s aftermath puts interracial couple to the test

Test Pattern, written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford, delves into sexual and racial politics as it shows what happens after a woman is violated while incapacitated by drugs and alcohol. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.

Low-key reverie belies explosive title

Sam (Colin Firth, left) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) stop for a roadside meal in Supernova. (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Richard Ades

It’s a bit misleading that writer-director Harry Macqueen’s new movie is called Supernova.

In astronomy, a supernova occurs when a star comes to an explosive end. True, the flick is about the impending demise of a star of sorts, as Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful novelist (and amateur astronomer) with an incurable illness. But Tusker suffers from premature dementia that promises to make him fade away, memory first, not erupt in a brilliant explosion.   

Essentially a road picture, Supernova is the low-key account of what is likely to be the final trip Tusker takes with his partner of 20 years, pianist Sam (Colin Firth). At Tusker’s request, they pile into their aged RV and set off for their favorite vacation spot, England’s beautiful Lake District. Also on the itinerary is a visit with members of Sam’s family and his first concert after an extended break from performing.  

All of this was planned by Tusker, as Sam would have preferred to stay home so he could better take care of his ailing friend. In fact, caring for Tusker is the only thing Sam wants to do, even if it means putting aside his own needs while Tusker wastes away. But Tusker’s pride and concern for his partner make that the scenario he fears the most.

This sets up arguments that continue throughout the film, ones that doubtless will resound with many aging couples, gay or straight. With Firth and Tucci expertly acting out their characters’ worries against the backdrop of Dick Pope’s cinematography and composer Keaton Henson’s tender score, the result is a melancholy reverie on love and mortality.

Unfortunately, the result is also a journey that is less emotionally involving than it could be. Considering all the talent involved, that’s even more puzzling than the title.

One possibility is that Macqueen doesn’t tell us enough about the characters’ past to appreciate just how much they’ve lost due to Tusker’s illness. “I want to be remembered for who I was and not for who I’m about to become,” Tusker says at one point. But we just don’t know who either he or Sam was except in the most general terms.

A related problem is that Macqueen’s dialogue is too present-oriented, and too plot-oriented—too “on the nose.” It zeroes in on Tusker and Sam’s current challenges so thoroughly that even pros like Tucci and Firth have trouble shading their lines with 20 years’ worth of intimacy.

Supernova does succeed in tackling a sad topic with tact and sensitivity. With a little more insight into the characters, it could have been truly stellar.   

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Supernova (rated R) can be viewed at select theaters (including Columbus’s AMC Easton Town Center 30 and AMC Dublin Village 18) and is available beginning Feb. 16 on digital VOD.

High school romance skips the clichés

Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and Tilly (Quinn Liebling) share a schoolyard hug in Young Hearts.

By Richard Ades

“Meeting cute” is a common trope of romcoms. In the naturalistic teenage romance Young Hearts, the filmmakers prefer to have their protagonists meet awkward.

The flick centers on two Portland, Oregon, high schoolers: freshman Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and sophomore Tilly (Quinn Liebling). Even though they’ve been neighbors since childhood, they’ve never really talked until they run into each other one day on the way to school. Thanks to Sarah Sherman’s script and sensitive direction by Sherman and her brother, Zachary Ray Sherman, their dialogue captures the stop-and-start conversation of two kids eager to connect but unsure how to proceed.   

When they finally break out of their reticence, it’s due to the slimmest of coincidences: On a subsequent walk home, Harper eyes the fall foliage overhead and makes the offhand comment that she loves leaves. This gives Tilly the excuse to invite her to his room to view his own collection of dried leaves. Thus reassured that they have something in common, they soon surrender to their obvious attraction and fall into a relationship.

What might make the movie uncomfortable for some parents is that this relationship quickly becomes not only sexual but all-encompassing. Even when they’re not together, Harper and Tilly are making plans and sharing thoughts via texts. This would be a major commitment for adults, let alone kids who are aged 14 and 15, respectively. Aren’t they jumping the gun?

That question does come up, but only in a roundabout way. The filmmakers seem less interested in spinning a cautionary tale than they are in reflecting contemporary teenage attitudes and behaviors. They also seem eager to call out the threads of sexism that remain in effect even in a progressive community like Portland. Harper, for example, endures inuendo for being in an intimate relationship, while Tilly encounters friction only from Harper’s brother (Alex Jarmon), who was previously his best friend.

A key element of the film’s success is that the leads are portrayed likably and realistically by Azhar and Liebling. Though the characters have major backstories—Harper was given up for adoption by her Indian mother at age 3, and Tilly recently lost his own mom—it’s their present behavior that defines them the most. Harper is an outspoken feminist who talks about sexual politics on an early date, and Tilly is the kind of kid whose shyness probably makes the school’s drama club an appealing outlet.

Neither is a stereotypical teenager, any more than Young Hearts is a stereotypical high school flick. Instead, it’s a wise and warmhearted look at two youths who discover love and all its complications a few years ahead of schedule.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Young Hearts is available in select theaters and from VOD outlets beginning Feb. 12.

Injustice, inequality fuel two angry films

A disguised Cassie (Carrie Milligan) is on the prowl for sexual predators in Promising Young Woman.

By Richard Ades

Righteous anger has been such an overwhelming force in society recently that it’s not surprising it sometimes makes its way into the movies. One of the prime examples was released to theaters in late 2020 and subsequently was named the best film of that year by my colleagues in the Columbus Film Critics Association.

Promising Young Woman is the sad and provocative tale of Cassie (Carrie Milligan), a 30-ish coffee shop clerk who lives with her parents and has long since abandoned her career goal of becoming a doctor. Her reason for doing so isn’t revealed until well after we see the dangerous charade it’s led her into. Hitting the local bars and acting like she’s drunk herself into oblivion, she methodically fools men into thinking they can take advantage of her “helpless” condition—only to discover otherwise after they’ve taken her home.

Written and directed by Emerald Fenner, Promising Young Woman has been called a “Me Too” revenge tale, but that’s somewhat misleading. Cassie isn’t out for blood as much as she’s in search of justice and relief from the sorrow she feels over a long-ago sexual assault. Just how she goes about that search, and the psychological cost she pays in the process, is revealed so slyly and powerfully that Columbus critics also gave the film four additional citations, including nods for best actress (for Milligan) and best original screenplay (for Fenner).

Oscar nominations are likewise predicted to be in store for this offbeat thriller. Luckily for the curious but safety-minded, it is now being made available through VOD outlets.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) has dreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur in The White Tiger.

Even angrier than Promising Young Woman is The White Tiger, an India-set tale that American director Ramin Bahrani adapted from a book by Aravind Adiga. Its plucky protagonist is Balram (played with ferocious wit by Adarsh Gourav), who was born into poverty but is committed to becoming a successful entrepreneur by any means necessary. He narrates the story of his efforts in the form of a letter he’s writing to a Chinese official who’s expected to visit India.

Balram believes his main problem is the servile attitude he shares with other Indians who weren’t born into wealth. As he sees it, this leads them to spend all their energy serving masters who often repay them with abuse and inadequate wages. Balram is determined to break this curse by finding a master who is worthy of his service and can help him better himself.

His choice is Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), a young businessman who’s just returned from the U.S. with his Indian American wife, Pinky (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra). Balram has observed that Ashok is more decent than either his wealthy father (Mahesh Manjrekar) or older brother, who’s nicknamed the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Unfortunately, though, old habits die hard. Neither Ashok nor Balram is immune to the proclivities of his respective class, leading to an uncomfortable situation that threatens to derail Balram’s quest to move up in society.  

With an amoral and ruthless “hero,” a keen awareness of social injustice and a tendency toward dark humor mixed with tragedy, The White Tiger will remind many of 2019’s Oscar-winning South Korean film, Parasite. The newer work isn’t quite that sublime, but it does entertain and challenge viewers in the process of venting its righteous anger.   

Promising Young Woman: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The White Tiger: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Promising Young Woman can be viewed at select theaters and is available through VOD outlets beginning Jan. 15. The White Tiger was released to theaters (including Columbus’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema) on Jan. 13 and will be available through Netflix beginning Jan. 22. Both films are rated R.

Funny women eulogize a not-so-funny year

A socially distanced group of female comics pay their respects to 2020 and all the ways it changed our lives (for the worse, of course). The result is Yearly Departed, a comedy special now available on Amazon Prime Video. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.

Will Canada be led by a foot fetishist?

Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) thinks he smells political success.

By Richard Ades

Years ago, I saw a film from Brazil that was filled with so many obscure references and in-jokes that no one from outside that country could possibly have understood it.

In much the same way, Canada’s The Twentieth Century is filled with references and in-jokes that no one could understand unless they had intimate knowledge of that country’s history. However, it’s also so weird and hilariously campy that ignorance of such matters is only a slight inconvenience.

Writer-director Matthew Rankin has taken a few historical figures from the turn of the last century and combined them in a tale that bears only passing resemblance to reality—fact-wise, that is. Appearance-wise, it bears no resemblance to reality, being a pastiche of expressionistic scenery and ancient movie conventions.

And, oh yes, it also features several characters portrayed by actors of the opposite gender, a detail they make little effort to hide.

Mackenzie’s mom (Louis Negin) is determined to see her son become prime minister.

The tale’s protagonist is Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), played by a performer who may remind silent-movie buffs of baby-faced comedian Harry Langdon. Pushed relentlessly by his reclusive mother (Louis Negin), King has made it his life’s work to become prime minister. To that end, he enters a political competition that involves such odd challenges as underarm tickling, butter churning and clubbing baby seals.

 First, though, he makes a play for Ruby Eliott (Catherine St-Laurent), a mysterious harp player whom he feels destined to wed because she’s a dead ringer for the woman in a painting his mother gave him long ago.

Unfortunately for King, he knows nothing about music and repeatedly refers to Ruby’s instrument as a “trumpet.” Even more unfortunately, Ruby already has a fiancé in the form of one of his chief competitors for prime minister.

But King’s biggest hurdle is one he tries to hide: He has an insatiable foot fetish, which turns out to be a huge political liability.

Other characters we meet through King include a smitten nurse (Sarianne Cormier) and a tubercular child named Little Charlotte (Satine Scarlett Montaz). Spoiler alert: Fans of Dickens probably know that youngsters named “Little” seldom have a bright future.

The film apparently sees Canada through the eyes of a German expressionist.

Those curious enough to look up the details will find that Rankin’s delightfully dark tale is like a Bizarro World version of Canadian history. It’s largely based on real people, but presumably they didn’t act quite so oddly as they do here. And presumably, despite what Rankin claims, Canada wasn’t really teetering on the edge of fascism, its political contest didn’t really involve clubbing baby seals, and its banner wasn’t really called “the disappointment.”

The fact that Rankin gets away with distorting the country’s history in this way and getting laughs in the process shows two things: (1) He has a great sense of humor. And (2) so do Canadians.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Twentieth Century (no MPAA rating) can be rented through the Gateway Film Center in Columbus and will be available on VOD platforms beginning Dec. 11.