‘Great White’ review: Shark, the herald B-actor screams

Five people stranded on a life raft find themselves to be potential fish bait in the new film “Great White.” PHOTO Credit: RLJE Films/Shudder

NoIf only the titular species of the new film “Great White” were more of a troll. One of the supporting humans(because let’s face it – the shark is the star) wants to spread the ashes of a loved one, and it is fun to imagine how this could be played for more terror and laughs. The shark could eat the urn, or even better: it could eat the ashes right out of the water, just for spite. In a perfect world, it would then turn to the camera and say, ‘I know…I’m terrible.’ Shark snark practically writes itself. It’s usually not a good sign when the mind starts to wander while watching a movie.

But wow, this is a hungry shark, and the few times the viewer gets a good look at the beast are unintentionally funny. “Great White” tries to take the serious and suspenseful road, but the shark shots are often too laughable to hold much weight. It takes the time to give two of the main characters a little backstory and something to invest in. It also suffers from a lack of closure: the film would have benefited from a follow-up scene with any survivors, especially since it goes through the trouble of a setup.

A couple who run a chartered sea plane company take on two last minute clients, which would seem like more of a headache than a great opportunity. Isn’t there a lot of planning and preparation involved? Insurance forms to complete? The trip eventually devolves to a “Jaws” meets “Open Water” scenario aboard a life raft. With this micro-genre, blood in the water is usually as visceral as it gets, and “Great White” is no exception. Why not a shot of the shark biting a leg off? The film is not rated, but it could probably avoid an ‘R’ if it was.

Well, shark special effects haven’t improved much since their heyday, and these themed movies are usually spaced out enough for people to forget that much of what can be done with the shark movie has already been done. That is why this writer is advocating for a film done from the perspective of a shark. How about more from-the-fin shots? What if the sharks had an inner monologue so they could explain their motivations, and better yet, crack wise? Yes, this is ridiculous in theory. But so is trying to get the audience to care about bland characters while the sharks circle the water. The viewer just wants to see who gets eaten.

Such is the case with “Great White.” It loses the goodwill of its character building with its hasty finish, and the big moments that are supposed to pay off are more silly than fun. The screenplay could have embraced that silliness instead of doubling down on seriousness; there was risk in either direction. And the actors trying to sell the drama feel slightly less fake than the sharks underneath their feet. Without the fresh blood of some new ideas, the shark movie is circling extinction.

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‘In the Heights’ review: Far from perfect, but perfect for right now

“In the Heights” adapts the titular Broadway musical exploring the NYC neighborhood of Washington Heights. PHOTO CREDIT: Macall Polay/Warner Bros Entertainment, Inc.

Is “In The Heights” a great musical? This writer has many holes in his arts knowledge, but the biggest would probably be the theatre(notice the spelling change). Also, musicals are not a go-to genre, and a significant hole in his cinematic repertoire. So the initial question is one that cannot be answered here. But there doesn’t seem to be a truly memorable musical number present in the film, and the opening number might be the best. Some of the singing elements are just small thoughts instead of fleshed-out songs, which sometimes makes the viewer wonder when one ends and the new one begins.

While director Jon M. Chu’s influence is interwoven in the dancing(don’t forget, he directed two films in the “Step Up” series; the pool scene will make you remember), does this film stand tall from the viewpoint of a standalone piece? The answer is yes, as it is able to successively navigate the hiccups embedded in the source material.

The stories amidst all the singing involve more than a handful of characters, but the main throughline involves Usnavi, a young man running a bodega in the NYC neighborhood of Washington Heights. Originally from the Dominican Republic, he emigrated to the United States when he was young. He has saved his money to return and re-open his father’s beachside bar, which is in ruins after a tropical storm. He eventually arrives at a crossroads of whether to stay or go. Many of the characters tangle with the idea of leaving in one way or another, whether it be relocating to a new neighborhood or leaving a job.

One of the big misses with the story comes near the end of the second act. But to be fair, whether or not the film has a third act is a valid quandary. Perhaps it’s not so much a fleshed-out section as it is an obligatory collection of moments trying to wrap things up with the narrative and to go out on a high note. But upon brief reflection some issues do come to light. Reconciliation never comes for Nina and her father, and whatever became of Benny?

But back to that second act. A particular character’s story arc gets played out in a certain fashion(as we try dancing around any spoilers), and it feels like a cliché and a cheap way out. Especially when the character was at a particular crossroads anyhow. Watching the character make that decision would have made for a far more compelling arc. Instead, the character gets boxed into a predictable closure that they didn’t deserve.

And alas, the romantic relationships here are never really earned. Navi and Vanessa fight like a couple at the end of their very first date. But this is not a new flaw, and is present in many of today’s cine-romantic plots. None of these small gripes are enough to ruin the experience, even if you can sense the final reveal coming a mile away. To be fair, there is a certain surprise element in the closure, but it definitely proves deliberate misdirection once it comes to light.

“In The Heights” is a fun, feel-good time at the movies. Perhaps for a lot of people, it’s just what is needed at the cineplex, especially after all the pandemic wrought over the last year and a half. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s something relatively fresh and original(especially if you aren’t familiar with the Broadway source material). The theater already has plenty of sequels and rehashes during this re-opening era, and it will only get worse once the big tent-pole films and blockbusters fully come out of the quarantine hiding. For this writer, it marked the first time back in a movie theater for the better part of two years’ time, and perhaps that swayed the opinion presented here.

But if that is the case, so be it. What a wonderful privilege to be able to return to the big screen experience. And to return to it with a film like “In The Heights” makes the privilege feel all the more special. So please, don’t watch this on HBO Max. Save that for one of the big-budget releases coming down the line. Instead, witness it on the big screen. Slap a mask on your face(at least until you are through concessions; you can take it off in the auditorium of course!); staff will thank you for being safe but they also will be glad to see you back! Plus, the amount of people going to ‘the show'(as old folks refer to it) is still down, so if you like less of a crowd at the movies, that is an added bonus!

To anyone ready to return to the movies: see something like “In The Heights.” See something original. Future original ideas looking for funding will be thankful, and the future movie-going self will be ecstatic that original films are still being made.

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‘Spare Parts'(2021) movie review: New action horror entry tries to piece together a good time

“Spare Parts” is an amusingly cheeky title for this new horror release, given its subject matter. It is a nod to its macabre main attraction, but also fits the film’s main setting. Given that it also equips many of the genre tools of the trade and several story dynamics, it itself often resembles a collection of spare parts. Does it achieve a sense of cohesion, or is it destined to remain a hacked-up mess, not unlike the misfortuned protagonists?

A punk quartet is tearing through a song at a sketchy, rough-and-tumble bar. Anyone who has seen “Green Room” knows the odds of this gig potentially ending badly. The four females on stage feel out of place only because of their current audience, which is comprised entirely of men. After getting pulled into an all-out brawl, they somehow manage to escape the gig, only to end up with a blown tire during the getaway. Yes, the genre tropes abound.

Since no horror protagonist in history has ever had AAA, the four women are forced to rely upon the surface-level kindness of a stranger, who takes them to a junkyard that supposedly has a repair shop attached. For a tire replacement, this feels like overkill. Naturally, there is no new tire, and the rockers find themselves subdued. Not only that, but they wake up to find themselves surgically modified: limbs removed to fit customized weapons attachments. Going to the bathroom would be a real nightmare. Ah, the horror!

These weapons are used in to-the-death cage matches that are staged mostly for the amusement of a cult leader. These scenes do have some memorable gore, but they never live up to the potential of the overall concept. Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” approached similar territory with Rose McGowan’s Cherry Darling, as she gets a custom machine gun outfitted after losing a leg. It was only for a scene, but it was (tonally)more fun than any of the action in “Spare Parts.”

To its credit, the movie does attempt to breathe some developmental life into its characters. Two of the band members are sisters, and their damaged relationship is a focal point. Even the cult leader is allowed to expand on his philosophies. But the viewer is ultimately left wanting more from these developments, and seemingly important side characters are barely explored before they meet their fate at the hands of plot progression.

Director Andrew Thomas Hunt is a founding partner of Raven Banner Entertainment, and he recently served as executive producer on “Psycho Goreman”, a recent indie horror release with stronger word-of-mouth. “Spare Parts” marks his second feature as a director. When viewed through the lens of a sophomore effort, the film does gain a little bit of sheen. The acting ranges from acceptable to over-the-top stilted, but performance chops have thankfully never been a necessity in a horror film. The action scenes have a certain level of flash and finesse, but they fail to capitalize on a stacked-deck setup of gross-out body horror and unique weapons in bloody action.

The modified-meat and potatoes of “Spare Parts” should be its junkyard gladiator fight scenes, but these seem to fly by and never hit a climactic nerve. At the same time, the backstories of the characters demand equal attention, but the lack of follow-through in the screenplay prevent it from reaching a much-needed third dimension. “Spare Parts” is a running, functional vehicle, but one that never reaches a truly playful speed.

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‘Knives and Skin’ review: Small-town drama experiment leaves a compelling, detached air

An image of a scene from the film Knives and Skin.

A small community lands in the spotlight when a girl goes missing in the new drama “Knives and Skin.” PHOTO CREDIT: IFC Midnight

“Knives and Skin” employs choir renditions of hit 80s tunes like “Our Lips Are Sealed”, “Blue Monday” and “Promises Promises.” The takes are like antithetical “Pitch Perfect” performances, perfunctory and purely technical. The singers have all the detachment of a electronic Euro-pop song from thirty years ago, but these characters exist in the twenty-first century.

Jennifer Reeder’s new film is an amalgamation of ideas and characters explored in her previous short films, and this seems to make sense from different angles. The opening sequence could be its own standalone short film, as could many of the scenes in “Knives and Skin.” Even when characters interact within a scene, a sense of understanding often gets lost in the shuffle. They could easily exist inside their own little short film world, with no bearing or context of an effect on the next one beginning. That’s a reflection on the film’s characters, not the production itself.

The film concerns a missing girl, although no one in the small town seems all that concerned at any point in time. Carolyn Harper goes missing after a fateful rendezvous with a school jock. The jock abandons her after she falls and injures herself, taking her prescription glasses with him. But the glasses merely sit in the glove compartment of his vehicle, never to become a discovery; the jock is never pressed to divulge info, even if he was the last person to see Carolyn alive. He doesn’t even bother driving back to the spot he last saw her, if only out of mild curiosity. To do so would be besides the point. Will Carolyn succumb to her head injury, or just a tremendous unwillingness to get up out of the dirt?

In the meantime, Carolyn’s mother unravels while she continues to show up to work as the high school women’s choir instructor. No one suggests a leave of absence, even after she sports her daughter’s formal dress over her t-shirt and refuses to take it off. The choir ties together the three main teenagers. Two have conflicting viewpoints on the impending Homecoming dance, but both are lying to themselves for different reasons. The third is a kind of aspiring entrepreneur, but she earns her money in the sketchiest of ways. When she divulges one source of income to her mother, it barely registers when it really, really should. In any other film, that would be a surprise.

“Knives and Skin” could be considered a dark comedy for all its detached tendencies, but the characters would probably resent any display of emotion(no matter how lighthearted). Writer/director Reeder grew up in Ohio, and her film captures the contradictions of a midwestern suburban existence. Houses are close-knit and everyone seems to know everybody, but people are still in their own silos; their own solitary worlds where they can’t(or won’t) communicate.

The result is something akin to a science experiment. The viewer is not required to take notes, but observation of the subjects and their behavior is crucial. All of the players are suspect, but they aren’t actually suspects. Poor Carolyn Harper is merely a pawn, caught up in the narrative device. Maybe the film will give her the last laugh yet, as she is essentially the single, mostly-ignored thread that pulls the entire community together.

When approaching “Knives and Skin”, it is best to do as the residents of the fictional Big River do, and forego any emotional attachment. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration, but it isn’t too far off. The camera is merely the microscope, an instrument in this dramatic science experiment. Getting a good look at the subjects is still valuable and entertaining, even if they don’t warrant an emotional connection. Interpreting and analyzing the results and expounding on conclusions is what the scientific method is all about. In this way, “Knives and Skin” becomes the perfect tested hypothesis.

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‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ review: Make-believe friend tale a worthy horror vision

An image of a scene from the horror film Daniel Isn't Real.

A college student(Miles Robbins, left) reunites with a problematic imaginary friend(Patrick Schwarzenegger) in “Daniel Isn’t Real.” PHOTO CREDIT: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Aside from the spoiler of a title, “Daniel Isn’t Real” has something going for it. Okay, so maybe the title doesn’t really betray any mystery. The main character clearly has an imaginary friend; a point established early on. And while friends(real or otherwise) encouraging cinematic bad behavior is nothing new, the new horror film rides high on its thematic choices and inspired imagery.

It also marks a high point for distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films. The company is on a roll as “Daniel Isn’t Real” follows in the footsteps of another recent above-average thriller release: the 2019 Sundance alum “Paradise Hills.”

“Daniel Isn’t Real” is an adaptation of the 2009 novel In This Way I Was Saved, which happens to have a great title. Author Brian DeLeeuw wrote the adapted screenplay with director Adam Egypt Mortimer. The story involves Luke, a young boy trying to cope with his parents’ impending divorce, but his stuffed sidekick puppet Wilbur isn’t quite enough. He soon discovers an imaginary ally in Daniel, and the two are never apart. But when Daniel convinces Luke to harm his mother, Luke banishes his cerebral friend to lockup for good.

The narrative takes the fast lane to college, and the freshman, adult version of Luke(now played by Miles Robbins) is feeling the pressure of university life. He also feels responsible for his mother(Mary Stuart Masterson), who has deteriorated mentally since her divorce. When the stress piles up and things come to a head, Daniel unexpectedly returns. He too has aged into adulthood. Even the forgotten ones grow so fast.

Daniel(Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold) assumes that Luke needs his help, which is partially true. He gives the young man an inspired sense of self-confidence, but this boost does little for Luke’s emotional challenges. Luke also confides in a psychiatrist who seems almost too nonchalant in response to his mental hurdles. The doctor does, however, earn credit for coming to Luke’s aid late in the film.

The ‘imaginary friend’ concept hasn’t made its way into a ton of motion pictures, but it has been utilized enough for a certain formula to develop around it. Luke enjoys having Daniel around until Daniel wants too much control. Luke’s connection to Daniel eventually puts the people around him(in this case, the proverbial love interest) in jeopardy, and Luke must overcome the dependency and defeat his former, fake friend. By the third act, suspension of disbelief is a must, as Daniel’s conjured persona somehow becomes a very-real physical threat.

Fortunately, “Daniel Isn’t Real” encapsulates its familiar dynamics inside a custom shell. The special effects shots sometimes inspire the best cringe-take; they are eye candy to behold between the makeshift filter of the hands. As Daniel’s influence gets stronger, there are also hints that his presence may originate from somewhere beyond the mental capacity of a human being. Whether that is the intended message or just a metaphor is just a bonus layer of depth to explore.

Director Mortimer claims that he had his own imaginary friend in his preschool years, and even thanks the artificial being(‘Mr. Nobody’) during the end credits. It is no surprise that the filmmaker lists a certain 1999 David Fincher film(would naming it constitute a spoiler?) among his inspirations, considering the narrative similarities to this film. But by the time Daniel has turned the tables on Luke and locked him away just as he was long ago, Mortimer’s unique voice speaks louder than any story routines. His unique visual motif is a welcome fresh breeze to the familiar air. The film even nods to its beginning during the crucial final standoff; just another example of a film assembled with the right amount of thought and care. It certainly inspires curiosity about its source material. “Daniel Isn’t Real” has a very-real upside momentum.

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‘My First Kiss and the People Involved’ review: Eccentric indie exercise a strange satisfaction

An image of a scene from the film My First Kiss and the People Involved.

The silent yet introspective Sam(Bobbi Salvör Menuez) contends with unexpected circumstances in the indie drama “My First Kiss and the People Involved.”

The way is long for the independent film. The lucky ones snag a fleeting chance with a popular indie distributor like IFC Films or Sony Pictures Classics. Others overperform on a single New York or Los Angeles screen and earn themselves a brief layover in other major cities. But they had better perform! Even Sundance Film Festival’s clout becomes diluted in a world of binge-streaming and content saturation. As far as acquisitions are concerned, a trip to Park City, UT is no longer a sure thing.

“My First Kiss and the People Involved” knows this road all too well. The film is new in terms of distribution, as it just arrived on Amazon Prime. But as far as shelf life goes, it has been around awhile. In fact, it was a world premiere selection at the (now defunct)Los Angeles Film Festival in 2016. Even in Hollywood and the hotbed of the film business, the indie drama couldn’t find a distribution partner to adopt it.

Luigi Campi’s first narrative feature deserved better. “My First Kiss and the People Involved” is frequently odd, but oddly approachable. The MiniDV(technology circa 2004) cinematography lends a grainy fuzz to the visuals, but somehow makes the colors pop alongside all-natural lighting). The film’s prominent score fills in for the mostly wordless main character. And the small mystery presented within the narrative is a calculated dash of instability.

Of course the film’s title hints at other characters, but the unlikely protagonist role falls to Sam, a teenager who rarely utters a word. She is more inclined to produce random, repeating noises when she longs to communicate. She lives in a group home amongst people who are mostly self-sufficient, but couldn’t quite make it on their own if they had to.

Lydia and Larry are the house caretakers. Lydia is a musician, and resembles a modern-day hippie. Her woman’s intuition concludes that Sam might have a crush on the only other teen in the house. So Lydia decides that a party is in order; this will give the roommates a chance to socialize and dance. She also hopes that this might bring Sam and the boy closer. But it is what happens after the party that stokes the narrative’s fire.

On any given night, Sam often hears angry voices and dull smacks of furniture being bumped. Lydia and Larry often sound like they are fighting when the rest of the house is sleeping. However, these interactions are often distorted and blurred, observed through faded glass windows and small floorboard holes. It is intentionally difficult to see what is going on, and if Larry and Lydia’s relationship is anything but platonic, the viewer is as much in the dark as the rest of the house.

The day after the party, Larry vaguely announces that Lydia had  left the house for a few weeks. While others ask the questions, Sam is soon digging deeper. Flashing back to the loud interactions she witnessed, she reasons that Larry may be lying, and determines to find out what truly happened to Lydia.

“My First Kiss and the People Involved” sort of slides back together unexpectedly towards the end, especially with the slight nod to the film’s premise. Its colorful spin on the visuals is stark and unique, but it doesn’t merely rely on the motif to make its statement.

Sam and her housemates each probably see the world through their own unique camera filter. Some choose to embrace the confused distortion and meet it with a smile. Others have more difficulty reckoning with what they see, and the default response is fear. Sam may be the quietest and the most afraid, but she’s also the most observant. Writer/director Campi wanted to visualize such a unique, heightened perspective, and his film captures it quite well. “My First Kiss and The People Involved” earns its time in the all-natural spotlight of the color-enhanced sun.

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‘The Shed'(2019) review: Horror film claims fun as its first victim

An image of a scene from the horror film The Shed.

A troubled teenager tangles with a bloodthirsty creature in the horror film “The Shed.” PHOTO CREDIT: RLJE Films

Imagine a vampire finding a tool shed to take refuge in, hiding from a high-noon sun. When night comes, it leaves the shelter to find food, subsisting on whatever animals it may be able to snare(an unexplored reason keeps it from breaking into a house and dining on a slumbering body). Compared to snacking on a human, the volume of blood found in a rabbit must leave much to be desired(and the belly still rumbling).

If the vampire was confined to the shed, it would really be hungry. If it happened to luck out when a police officer came around to investigate, it would get its hands on a full-size human body. But after attacking the jugular, the vampire might decide to rip off an arm and toss it outside the shed(sorry to the squeamish). It is not a zombie, so it won’t eat flesh. But there would have to be at least some blood in the arm, right? No one tosses the last piece of chicken in the bucket just because it’s the smallest.

This very scenario comes to life in the new horror film “The Shed.” But how long the severed arm lies in the grass, unnoticed, is nearly as absurd. The main character’s story has too much weight on it to be so easily tossed off later, and it relies too heavily on a classic horror device to setup its kills.

Stan(Jay Jay Warren) lives with his deadbeat grandpa, and fortunately the old man appears to be abusive in only a verbal nature. The bruises and scrapes on his face most likely come from his fights at school, usually in the name of protecting his best friend Dommer(Cody Kostro, who slightly resembles Cillian Murphy). His only options are the juvenile detention center(where he previously lived) or his grandfather’s place, so he chooses to endure the berating. The threat of returning to juvie doesn’t stop him from skipping class to drink beer with Dommer, however.

Stan discovers a creature in the backyard tool shed when he tries to retrieve the lawn mower, and soon it makes a meal of his dog and his grandfather. Stan refers to it as a monster until he suddenly catches on to the vampire. His best friend sees this as an opportunity for revenge against his bullies, and the girl at school just so happens to become interested in Stan(again?) so the stakes can scramble a little higher.

Stan chooses not to call the police after his grandfather is killed. Whether or not he’s in trouble, he would have no guardian, and would probably be sent back to the detention center. While this is a strong motivating factor early on, it is forgotten by the time the climax rolls around. The police would eventually come looking for him anyhow, what with his extended truancy and people going missing. Stan should flee town immediately; instead, he does almost the exact opposite.

“The Shed” relies on a familiar horror trope of miscommunication. Two characters talk over each other, neither one listening. One(or sometimes both) essentially repeats the same thing over and over, but the content doesn’t matter. The dialogue’s purpose is only to push a character to their death, a strange way to build to a climax. “The Shed” relies on this way too often, giving the death scenes a frustrating predictability.

The film’s poorly-paced climax allows a character to stop and admire some photos taped to a bedroom wall while a vampire stalks nearby. And just in case no one has ever(ever!) seen or read anything about the mythical creatures, it also takes time to expound on the ways to kill a vampire. The true infraction is the introduction of a shotgun shortly afterwards, and the shells certainly don’t appear to be made of silver.

The movie tries to spin a recalled moment into a last-minute joke with the final shot, but the original moment wasn’t really funny to begin with. Besides, “The Shed” plays it straight throughout. A sense of humor isn’t required, but a sense of fun is. The film has high ambitions when it comes to its narrative, but it seems to meander along in indecision. Its ideas end up in the wind as the film betrays itself to formulate a conclusion. There was a much better movie in there somewhere; perhaps it is still hiding with the lawnmower.

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‘Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops’ review: Inspiring, authentic doc indicates a crucial beginning

An image of a scene from the documentary film Ernie and Joe Crisis Cops.

San Antonio police officers try a different approach to mental health emergencies in the documentary film “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops.” PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy HBO

As these words are being written, just over twenty-four hours have passed since the most recent school shooting on U.S. soil. A sixteen year-old male in Santa Clarita, CA celebrated his birthday by shooting five classmates, and then himself. Firey debates that do little more than encourage inaction will reignite, and there will be minimal talk of the growing concern of mental health issues in the country.

The new documentary “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” proposes a small step on a much larger journey to mental health awareness and effective treatment. Its subject and messages are very timely, and it may inspire some feel-good emotion. But the film doesn’t sugar-coat the struggle or edit itself into a pseudo-happy ending. “You’re only the first step,” says the mental health unit officer, referring to his role in a much larger, slower process. A fitting analogy for the documentary as well.

Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are San Antonio police officers with a particular set of skills. They are members of the department’s mental health unit, a progressive concept that utilizes special tactics and training in response to mental health-related 911 calls. The disturbing bodycam video that opens the film is a jarring, damning argument that a classical response to these types of emergencies is tragically ineffective.

Aside from overtime patrol hours, Ernie and Joe wear street clothes and rarely sport holsters. During the week, they check in with people who once prompted emergency calls. They also conduct response training for new recruits and community members such as teachers. And sometimes they receive requests to respond to particular mental health emergencies.

The unit’s approach is literally hands-off, and focuses on effective communication and building trust to de-escalate a situation. Jenifer McShane’s third documentary wisely captures moments where this approach doesn’t always work, so it isn’t cast in the light of a magic Band-Aid. But from a realistic camera lens, the new strategy seems to be safer and less stressful for both the officer and person of interest; a clear benefit of the new procedures.

A group photo shows eleven members of the San Antonio mental health specialists, and an end note states that the department is looking to boost the roster to 20. As the seventh most-populated city in the United States, San Antonio was a good jump-off point to test such an idea. But it remains to be seen how such a unit might function in a larger city. One can only wonder about that, as well as why the program hasn’t expanded more quickly(both in the host city and beyond). Why aren’t police departments across the country making this a priority? Why wouldn’t an officer want to champion something that makes his job better, and safer?

“Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” won the Special Jury Prize at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival and screened to a sold-out audience at DOC NYC. It is easy to see why; the surprisingly emotional documentary basks in humanity, right up to its lighthearted final moment. It also inspires a whole mess of questions; an almost frustrating number of inquiries. The film might leave the viewer clamoring for a sequel; an unlikely phenomenon in the nonfiction space.

The doc may provoke questions with ease, but it is not required to answer them. That responsibility lies within each viewer as the lights come up and the credits start to roll. Progress will continue away from the cameras, and its up to the people to take up the torch and continue the race. “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” satisfies like a deep stretch, and is an engaging, thought-provoking warm-up exercise.

“Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” is in select theaters now, and will debut on HBO November 19 at 9pm EST.

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DOCNYC review: ‘The Longest Wave’

An image of a scene from the documentary film The Longest Wave.

“The Longest Wave” explores the life of Robby Naish, one of the most storied watermen in sports history. PHOTO CREDIT: Red Bull Films

A new documentary starts with promise, but one of the opening title cards immediately fires a warning shot. This film about beer is presented by a large industry conglomerate. Still, there is a small glimmer of hope. Perhaps the doc can stay impartial while sharing an informative and engaging story.

The last ray of promise is clouded over as an early shot has a beer historian sitting in one of the conglomerate’s craft breweries. And three of the film’s four main subjects just so happen to work for the corporate behemoth. The documentary ends up playing like a marketing video, complete with stiff, unnatural dialogue and moments that feel nearly staged. A nonfiction film has never had so many shots of people meeting and shaking hands outside of a company building.

The doc proved to be a massive disappointment, and one not worthy of further analysis. Besides, Forbes magazine already published a critique that addressed the film’s slimy, dishonest corporate feel. That is also why the film won’t be named here; it can be easily discovered with a little web research.

What does any of this have to do with “The Longest Wave”? Well, the new documentary is the latest production from Red Bull Media Group. And subject windsurfer Robby Naish has his own team of athletes that is sponsored by Red Bull. But the fact that there is no explicit mention of the beverage company in the film gives it the first inkling of credibility.

“The Longest Wave” is directed by Joe Berlinger, who made the “Paradise Lost” films and the excellent Metallica documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster(2004).” His experience spans well over two decades, and he knows how to find the compelling narrative beyond the obvious exterior. And aside from some hats and Robby drinking Red Bull in a couple different scenes, the energy drink company is fine with leaving any blatant branding attempts out of the equation. Seeing the cans still makes the viewer wonder, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s bigger goal. Other companies would be wise to take Red Bull’s lead in this department.

Robby Naish is known as a waterman, because he does more than what the uninitiated would consider to be surfing.  At a young age he started dominating the sport of windsurfing; his thin, muscular frame blazing across the ocean surface. He also competed in kite surfing and brought stand-up paddle boarding into the mainstream sports consciousness. A good deal of footage captures Robby foil surfing. Foil surfing involves attaching a hydrofoil(hence the name) to the bottom of a surfboard, allowng the board to frequently move over the top of the water.

Now in his 50’s, Naish still longs to be a high achiever and pioneer in the field. This desire leads him to an informal, multinational jaunt to ride the biggest waves the oceans have to offer. In the meantime, injuries and his business and personal lives all compete to steal him away from his passion and pursuit.

The film features some amazing drone shots capturing just how far Naish can ride a wave. A special shoutout is due to Johnny Decesare, the once ski bum-turned-cinematographer who Naish personally handpicked for his journey. He serves as action unit director during these key energetic sequences. It was also a surprise to see Serj Tankian(lead singer of System of a Down) pop up in the credits for the film’s original music.

“The Longest Wave” tackles the rockiness of life as it follows Naish around the world. There is plenty of surfing eye candy, but the film is more than just a highlight reel. Joe Berlinger and Red Bull’s production house prove to be a winning combination. Naish’s biggest challenges don’t even involve a surfboard. His personal struggles may not be wholly unique, but they deserve their time in the sun. So does this film.

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‘Saving Atlantis’ review: Coral reef documentary sells on data, fear, and a little action

An image of a scene from the documentary film Saving Atlantis

The coral reef’s beauty and developing fragility are explored in the documentary “Saving Atlantis.” PHOTO CREDIT: Oregon State University

The new genomics documentary “Human Nature” briefly mentions coral reefs, and how gene editing may offer opportunities to save them.  It looks like the problem is bigger than just one science circle. “Saving Atlantis” explores the dangers of being a coral on present-day Earth, and the people actively working to avoid or mitigate those dangers.

Oregon State University holds all four grant designations: land, sea, sun and space. The school then has a responsibility to inform the public of new knowledge and scientific breakthroughs. Therefore, it makes sense that OSU produced the film, which was directed by Justin Smith and David Baker. It is available on all major VOD platforms now, so they have the ‘inform the public’ requirement filled too.

One of the big arguments from people who deny climate change is the fact that the earth and mother nature have the ability to adapt and slowly change over time.  This is true regardless of human interjection. The coral reefs are no exception, and they have evolved and changed over time to ensure survival. The difference now is how quickly the environment is changing, and the coral’s natural tendencies cannot keep up. So there is definitely a problem, and this is one of the most important points the film makes.

The earth’s oceans are getting progressively warmer, and this is affecting the coral reefs. The rising water temperatures are causing bleaching among this sea wildlife. Bleaching robs the ocean of all that color and vibrancy. Far worse, the bleaching weakens the coral so it cannot perform the photosynthesis tasks needed to create sustenance and maintain energy. The documentary also explains the importance of a coral reef as a member of the ecosystem. If reefs were completely destroyed, repercussions would be felt at many levels, including the economic.

The cameras travel to different coral reef hotspots like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Colombia, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and the Red Sea. They take advantage of the varied color palettes and the beautiful clarity of the water. There are interviews with scientists and fishermen, and even ocean advocates who want to educate others on the importantance of reverence and preservation of Earth’s natural resources.

“Saving Atlantis” is a small film trying to tackle a big problem. At seventy-five minutes, it definitely could have said more, but the doc does a good job of sharing information and arguing its points. When it comes to climate change, creating awareness is an important step, and “Saving Atlantis” accomplishes this goal while also selling a sense of urgency.

When it comes to film and the entertainment medium, perhaps this is a better way to breach the topic of climate change. This film takes just one of the planet’s growing hurdles and goes in deep on the subject. To tackle climate change as a whole would be too complicated a conversation, or it may diverge into blanket statements or generalized arguments. Focusing on one problem area makes it far more approachable. It also increases the likelihood that a skeptic might jump on board if a particular concern touches them personally.

As a film, “Saving Atlantis” might be too quick and too quickly forgettable, but its topic certainly isn’t. This highly-important doc almost transcends recommendation; it is nearly a necessity.

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