By Alex McPherson

“Mangrove,” the first installment of director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series, is harrowing, inspirational, and relevant to our modern social climate.

McQueen’s film focuses on the events leading up to and including the 1970 trial of the Mangrove Nine in London. Entrepreneur and Trinidaddian immigrant Frank Crichlow (portrayed by Shaun Parkes with emotional nuance) opens a business in Notting Hill called the Mangrove, intent on providing good food and better vibes without attracting unwanted attention. The restaurant soon becomes a popular community hub, especially for West Indian individuals.

Unfortunately, the local Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) harasses both Crichlow and other people of color with malevolent glee — ordering several destructive raids on the Mangrove in the process. Played with blood-boiling effectiveness by Spruell, PC Pulley firmly believes in the subordination of Black people, attacking a location where many find comfort and respite.

 Before long, Altheia Jones-Lecointe (powerfully portrayed by Letitia Wright), a founder of the British Black Panther Movement, as well as activists Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), help persuade Crichlow to protest against police brutality at the Mangrove. Their attempted peaceful demonstration is turned violent by the police. Facing serious charges, the film then becomes an intense, nail-biting courtroom drama, as the Mangrove Nine confront injustice and police brutality in the face of monumental obstacles and risks to their personal safety. 

“Mangrove” is visceral, empathetic, and deeply moving — showcasing the fraught yet essential nature of activism within a systemically oppressive world. The film also remains both empowering and sobering in light of the continued fight for social justice in 2021 and beyond.

Indeed, the film captures a wide emotional spectrum — joy, hatred, anguish, defiance, hope, and perseverance — and depicts a story of determined individuals ever-so-slightly chipping away at the institutional racism that has dominated human society for so long and continues to do so. 

“Mangrove” contains numerous upsetting, sobering moments, but McQueen’s film doesn’t exploit its subjects for dramatic purposes. Rather, McQueen sets the scene perfectly — helping us understand what’s at stake, appreciate the challenges faced by the Mangrove Nine, and understand the comforting essence of the Mangrove itself through immersive filmmaking techniques and lived-in characterizations. 

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner isn’t afraid to linger on images (a kitchen pan rolling back and forth along the floor after a raid; a silhouette of Altheia giving an impassioned speech with her fist raised) to lend them additional impact. Similarly, the script doesn’t brush over the characters’ contradictions and inner struggles — spotlighting Frank, Aletheia, Barbara, and Darcus for the heroes they are without rendering them one-dimensional.  

Crichlow, for example, is trying to start fresh after previous run-ins with the police at his former establishment. He is weathered and fatigued, extremely reluctant to fill the activist role he’s pressured to adopt. His mindset contrasts with Aletheia’s, who stands firm in her efforts to protest and to not surrender to larger forces. This leads to several fascinating, suspenseful interactions as the film progresses, as Crichlow weighs the benefits of giving in against the symbolic weight of the Trial for British society at large.

When the film reaches the courtroom — represented as a foreboding, larger-than-life presence — “Mangrove” doesn’t feel as manipulative or crowd-pleasing as something like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” There’s no White Savior here, thank god, only intelligent, brave individuals confronting the very real forces of evil seeking to silence them. 

A couple of defendants — Altheia and Darcus — actually served as their own counsel in the proceedings, subverting the system to make stark condemnations of it and refusing to let others control their fate. Darcus in particular, portrayed with fervor by Kirby, gives a nuanced, impassioned speech that speaks to humanity’s long past of prejudice and the need to overcome it today. 

By its conclusion, McQueen encourages viewers to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how much we haven’t progressed, in terms of social justice. Even though efforts might seem fruitless, “Mangrove” reasserts that the fight must continue.

“Mangrove” is part of director Steve McQueen’s television mini-series, “Small Axe,” on Amazon Prime. Alex’s Rating: A+

By Alex McPherson
2020 was a good year for movies, despite everything! Here are my top 10 films of the year, with 11 honorable mentions. There’s still some movies I need to watch, of course, including “Soul” and “Palm Springs.”

  • “Red Penguins”

Director Gabe Polsky’s documentary, “Red Penguins,” focuses on an American-Russian partnership that quickly spirals out of control. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, two managers of the Pittsburgh Penguins and an eccentric marketing executive try to revive Russia’s national hockey team in cooperation with the team’s general managers. The tactics they deploy are, suffice to say, quite out-there. Live bears serving beer on the ice? Huh? 

Despite garnering international attention, problems soon arise. Poor decision-making among all parties creates a situation with life-and-death consequences. Featuring energetic editing that constantly keeps viewers on their toes, and interviewees who illuminate all sides of the story, “Red Penguins” is alternately hilarious and horrifying — a cautionary tale told in a harrowing fashion. More people need to watch this film.    

  • “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Few films this year provide the raw emotional impact of director Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” The film centers around a young woman in rural Pennsylvania named Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) who contends with an unintended pregnancy. She wants to get an abortion, but the state requires that she gets permission beforehand from her parents, with whom she has an uneasy relationship. This leads her to travel to New York City with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), to seek out the procedure. Confronting not only the faults of America’s healthcare system but also the casual injustices faced by women on a regular basis, Hittman’s film is bleak, intense, yet absolutely essential viewing, with a suitably powerful ending.   

  • “Da 5 Bloods”

Director Spike Lee’s latest effort, “Da 5 Bloods,” is an ambitious exploration of war, trauma, friendship, and family. A group of four Black Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam to locate the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin Norman (soulfully played by Chadwick Boseman), and find the treasure they hid together all those years ago. What follows is a timely, genre-blurring creation that only Lee could provide. Featuring excellent performances — especially by Delroy Lindo, playing a complex, mentally tormented individual — one of year’s finest scores, and a narrative that twists and turns unpredictably, Lee’s film is mesmerizing and packed with meaning.    

  • “Another Round”

“Another Round,” the latest effort from Danish film director Thomas Vinterberg, is a compelling and darkly comedic ode to appreciating the roller coaster of life. Martin, a depressed high school history teacher, takes part in an experiment along with three other colleagues to see what happens if they maintain a blood alcohol content of 0.05, which supposedly provides enhanced creativity and social skills. Unsurprisingly, even though the experiment begins with promising results, the four gentlemen soon get in way over their heads. At some points disturbing and heartbreaking, “Another Round” also contains moments of levity — capturing these characters’ struggles and triumphs through superb acting and dialogue. And that ending scene, oh boy. I could rewatch the film’s finale on repeat for an entire day and not get bored.

  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Borat’s second feature-length outing feels like a slap-in-the-face to Trumpers — always a positive in my book — and has real heart beneath the outrageousness on display. Borat Sagdiev (Sacha Baron Cohen), a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, finds himself on a mission to deliver his daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), to Vice President Pence, in order to strengthen the nation’s standing with the United States after the fallout from the original film. Containing all the shocking, laugh-out-loud sequences that one expects from a “Borat” film — including an infamous interaction with the leaky vampire himself, Rudy Giuliani — the sequel is also about Borat’s relationship with Tutar, and Tutar’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment about how the world really works and her own ability to make an impact. All in all, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is “Very Nice!”

  • “Driveways”

A gentle, beautifully acted story, director Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways” is a perfect film to start the New Year with. Ahn shows how simple acts of kindness can have far-reaching rippling effects, and how friendships can form between people with starkly different life experiences. The heart of the film lies in the friendship between eight-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) and a widowed war veteran named Del, played by the late Brian Dennehy, who lives next door. Although the film’s plot remains predictable, Ahn’s film truly shines through its refreshingly low-key, nuanced approach to the material — cementing itself as one of 2020’s absolute gems. We can all learn something from “Driveways.”

  • “Sound of Metal”

Director Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is a hard-hitting character study that makes use of cinema’s immersive potential. When a punk-metal drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) starts to lose his hearing, his life is upended. He must reckon with his frustration, heartbreak, and feelings of hopelessness for his future. Though at times hard to watch, “Sound of Metal” is oh so moving, depicting Ruben’s journey in an uncompromising fashion. The film’s powerhouse performances and realistic narrative, combined with sound design that simulates the effects of Ruben’s hearing loss, creates a film whose visceral qualities are matched by thought-provoking, deeply human themes. 

  • “First Cow”

Set in 1820s Oregon, “First Cow” follows two travelers — a soft-spoken, introspective chef named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from vengeful Russians — as they form a friendship and attempt to make a living in unforgiving conditions. Their business involves stealing milk from the only cow in the region, owned by the repugnant Chief Factor (Toby Jones), and baking popular, supremely delicious biscuits. Director Kelly Reichardt builds a quietly suspenseful tale exploring the American Dream, with three-dimensional characters, stunning cinematography, and an impeccable atmosphere that transports viewers to the time period. The film’s slower, more deliberate pace might turn off impatient viewers, but for everyone else, “First Cow” is first-rate. 

  • “Bacurau”

Impossible to pin down to a single genre, “Bacurau” is one of 2020’s most brutally satisfying films. Set in a fictional Brazillian village of the same name, the film depicts a tight-knit community working together to combat a threat that seeks to literally wipe them off the map. This crazy film works on multiple levels — as an allegory for struggles within contemporary Brazil, and as an emotional roller coaster with sympathetic heroes, sadistic villains, a cathartic conclusion, and revolutionary ideals. I’ve watched “Bacurau” four times and can’t wait to rewatch it again. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but any and all cinephiles should appreciate the film’s striking vision.

  • “Small Axe Anthology”

Yes, I realize that some people might classify director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe Anthology” as television; however, I don’t care. This collection of five films is brilliant from start to finish, depicting the experiences of some West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s — including the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine and inequality within the schooling system. The films are unflinching, empathetic, and expertly crafted — depicting their subjects without reducing or simplifying their struggles for pure entertainment value. “Small Axe” encourages viewers to reflect on how far we’ve come, how much has worsened or stayed the same, and the heights we could achieve in terms of racial equality. Full of moments of joy, grief, struggle, and human connection, these films are achingly resonant, and they shouldn’t be missed.   

Honorable Mentions: “12 Hour Shift,” “American Utopia,” “Bad Education,” “Beasts Clawing at Straws,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “My Dinner with Werner,” “The-Forty-Year-Old Version,” “The Vast of Night” 

By Alex McPherson
Like a Christmas miracle, director Andrew Ahn’s new film, “Driveways,” restored my faith in humanity.

Cody (Lucas Jaye) is a sensitive boy struggling to fit in with his peers. He helps his loving yet overwhelmed mother, Kathy (Hong Chau), clean out his late aunt’s house in a rural New York town to prepare it for sale. Cody meets Del (the late Brian Dennehy), a widowed war veteran living next door, and eventually forms a friendship with him that profoundly impacts both their lives and the lives of those around them for the better.

Sure, the plot sounds exceedingly saccharine, and although “Driveways” follows predictable beats, Ahn’s humanistic approach to the material sets it apart. Viewers shouldn’t expect anything like the bombastic screamfest of “Hillbilly Elegy,” thank goodness, but rather a film that feels like a bittersweet pat on the back. 

With a gentle touch that prizes emotional subtlety over heavy-handedness, “Driveways” zeroes in on a few characters who all feel adrift and disoriented in their lives. Cody is lonely and doesn’t seem to embrace the joys of childhood, in need of a friend.

Kathy is processing the death of her sister — who she became distanced from in adulthood — and the responsibilities of caring for Cody as a single, Asian American parent, while also working to become a nurse.

Del is coming to grips with his remaining years and the mistakes made throughout his life, waiting for a figurative sunset to close out his final chapter. 

The stage is set for a depressing tale, but “Driveways” isn’t a depressing film — showing these characters’ potential for growth despite their struggles, as well as the meaningful impacts that acts of goodwill can have on their lives, or, in fact, anyone’s life.

The film emphasizes smaller, quieter moments of human connection that feel earned and genuine, with an emotional core that sneaks up on viewers and encourages them to go out into the real world and be compassionate to others. 

Much of the power of “Driveways” comes from Ahn’s devotion to letting us sit with the characters and watch them interact in a way that doesn’t feel traditionally “dramatic.”

Indeed, the film progresses in a relatively low-key fashion, with sympathetic characters whose struggles feel relatable, and whose arcs feel earned and thoughtful. Larger topics linger in the periphery— among them prejudice, economic inequality, and the stress of single parenting  — but “Driveways” isn’t really concerned with hard-hitting social commentary.

What Ahn’s film spotlights, on the other hand, is how seemingly mundane acts of kindness and reaching out can bring people together, even those with vastly different life experiences.

The actors portraying the film’s small cast are exceptional, helping to make the characters feel like real human beings. Jaye gives an absolutely incredible performance, conveying an emotional range and nuance that would be impressive for an actor of any age.

Chau is also compelling to watch, illustrating her character’s resilience in an emotionally draining situation. The true standout performance of “Driveways,” though, is by Brian Dennehy. Knowing that this performance was among his last gives every scene he’s in an added melancholic weight, especially his final monologue — a mournful, beautiful reflection on life and the importance of cherishing those close to us.

I don’t have a single flaw to nit-pick. “Driveways” is a near-perfect film, one whose simplistic premise and small-scale storytelling belies an emotional wisdom that the world needs right now. Do yourself a favor and go watch it.

“Driveways” is a drama directed by Andrew Ahn, starring Brian Dennehy, Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye and Christine Ebersole. It is 83 minutes long and is available on Showtime and Video on Demand. Alex’s Grade: A+

By Alex McPherson
Jeff Roda’s directorial debut, “18 to Party,” is a competent coming-of-age drama that needs more time to mature.

The year is 1984 in upstate New York. A squad of angsty eighth graders, many of whom have troubled home lives, wait outside a nightclub, hoping to attend a party later in the evening. The friends discuss art, politics, UFOs, school drama, and happenings around town in the nightclub’s backlot. As the party draws nearer, their interactions force them to confront their changing selves within a world that refuses to slow down for them.

Taking place in just a couple of locations, “18 to Party” presents appealing characters, but doesn’t give them all satisfying arcs, only breaching the surface of the topics it brings up. As a result, Roda’s film definitely has heart, but ends up feeling like the pilot installment of a larger, more impactful story.

In a stripped-back fashion, Roda allows viewers to connect with these characters simply by watching them hang out over the course of an afternoon. They have distinctive personalities — from the rebellious, Reagan-hating Kira (Ivy Miller) to the anxious, uptight Shel (Tanner Flood), who becomes the film’s de facto protagonist as the story progresses. It’s certainly entertaining watching them banter and engage in vicious trash-talking, with dialogue that feels authentic to kids of their age. 

This minimalist style, however, prevents me from becoming fully immersed — failing to make the most of the medium’s potential. Nevertheless, I admire Roda’s decision to show these characters in a naturalistic way, helping to render them as actual human beings. The film’s attention to period detail in costuming and music choices is also worth noting, adequately helping to set the scene.

While the film’s conversational approach lends itself to comedic moments, “18 to Party” attempts to provide more than just laughs. The children discuss difficult, sometimes harrowing topics — including reckoning with the aftermath of several suicides in their town, as well as their own life challenges, often stemming from absentee parents. Indeed, the film frequently underlines their youthful innocence as they struggle to understand what it all means.

For example, when Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson), a classmate enrolled in a support group after his brother’s death, shows up, the group doesn’t know how to react — judging him without appreciating the circumstances that helped form his fractured mental state. 

The actors, across the board, effectively convey youthful energy and vulnerability. They have fantastic chemistry with one another, giving “18 to Party” a documentary-esque feel at times. The standout is Freedson-Jackson, who gives a striking performance as a peer struggling to reconnect with his friends after a traumatic experience.

Although I appreciate what Roda’s going for, there needs to be more resolution to the conflicts being brought up. All the elements of a classic are there, but “18 to Party” can’t stick the landing —  leaving way too many subplots unresolved and failing to memorably articulate its themes.

Most of my problems stem from an overabundance of characters. Among the central group, consisting of seven individuals, only a couple receive any meaningful development by the conclusion. We watch some disagreements escalate into all-out fights, but don’t see the aftermath and what, if anything, the kids learn from them.

In fact, Shel is the only person that undergoes any true changes. His earnest, relatable journey towards self-acceptance and embracing life’s joys is engaging enough to watch, but doesn’t offer viewers much they haven’t likely seen before.

All that being said, “18 to Party” still has enough charm and poignancy to recommend, if only tentatively. The journey is far more compelling than the destination.

“18 to Party” (2019) is a comedy-drama written and directed by Jeff Roda and starring James Freedson-Jackson, Tanner Flood and Ivy Miller. Its runtime is 1 hr. 20 min. Alex’s Grade: B- The film is available video on demand.

By Alex McPherson

Director Gabe Polsky’s new documentary, “Red Penguins,” is a memorable tale of cross-cultural friendship, misunderstanding, greed, betrayal, societal unrest, and good, old-fashioned hockey.

Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, two owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins and an idiosyncratic marketing executive — Tom Ruta, Howard Baldwin, and Steven Warshaw, respectively — helped manage Russia’s national hockey team, which was fading into obscurity. Working with the general managers Valery Gushin and Victor Tikhonov, they attempted to revive the team and its brand — taking advantage of Russia’s new market and attempting to set an example for the rest of the world. 

In order to attract the attention of the Russian populace, free alcohol was provided (served by live bears at one point, resulting in a player losing half a finger), strippers were hired to perform on the ice rink, and everything was generally ratcheted up a notch, a true spectacle to behold.

Thanks to this approach, the team, eventually referred to as the Red Penguins, became internationally popular, even catching the eye of Michael Eisner, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Company. Set against the backdrop of the 1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis, however, violent tensions ran high. Ego, greed, opportunism, and ignorance among all parties also infected this Russian-American partnership, but rendered it ripe for cinematic portrayal.

And good grief, what a wild ride it was, especially when told through Polsky’s lens. Less about hockey than about Post-Soviet Russia more broadly, “Red Penguins” works on multiple levels — as an emotional roller coaster swerving between hilarity and dead seriousness, as a Russian history lesson, and as a testament to the importance of effective intercultural communication.

Polsky takes a brisk, fast-paced approach to the material, finding a near-perfect balance between humor and horror. The story itself, told by the people, American and Russian alike, who lived it, is undeniably compelling, featuring several outlandish moments that I won’t dare spoil here. Even so, “Red Penguins” spends equally as much time providing context, describing a Post-Soviet Russia permeated with social unrest. With rising crime rates, economic struggles, and the ever-powerful influence of the mafia among authority figures, the atmosphere is tense. One montage, for example, juxtaposes the rambunctious fun of the hockey games with graphic footage of police clashes outdoors in the streets, to chilling effect.

Indeed, the film’s humorous, happy-go-lucky tone early on quickly gives way to dread about what’s to come later. Nationalism and pure, unadulterated foolishness rule the day, creating a nervous atmosphere throughout that pervades even the film’s most absurd moments. This feeling, in a sense, emulates how the initial mindsets of Warshaw and company were replaced with fear when they realized the situation they put themselves in. 

Case in point, Warshaw, the film’s most endearing presence, is a cocky individual willing to go to cartoonish lengths to ensure the team’s success — regardless of his personal safety or Russian cultural norms. This creates obvious problems down the road with the authority figures he claims to have befriended. 

The consequences are potentially life and death, and Polsky adds another fearful layer by showing the interviewee’s differing interpretations of the events at hand and letting them reveal their true selves to the camera. When Valery Gushin, also interviewed for the film, laughs heartily about “teaching [Warshaw] a lesson,” a chill ran down my spine.

By its conclusion, “Red Penguins,” is ultimately a sobering, disturbing story of societal change and dangerous misunderstandings. This film is, at its essence, an ode to understanding the Other, told via a stranger-than-fiction story that deserves to be known.

“Red Penguins,” a 2019 documentary written and directed by Gabe Polsky, is rated PG-13 for violence/bloody images, sexual material/nudity, some strong language and a drug reference/ Runtime is 80 minutes. The film was released Aug.4 in U.S. and available video on demand. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson
Colin Thompson’s coming-of-age tale, “Light Years,” is an enjoyable romp down memory lane that can’t quite reach the emotional heights it aspires to.

The film centers on Kevin (Thompson) a thirty-something man taking magic mushrooms and embarking on a vision quest to visit Briggs (Russell Posner), his deceased friend who’s based on someone Thompson knew in real life.

Kevin is transported back to a rambunctious night from his high school years — featuring an uncomfortable house party, family drama, and, you guessed it, a fair amount of ‘shrooms. In a psychedelic twist, Young Kevin (Christopher Gray) becomes Adult Kevin, and nearly everyone in his drug-induced flashback (with the exception of Briggs and Kevin’s sister, Em (Makenzie Leigh)) is played by Thompson himself. Whoa, dude, far out! 

While “Light Years” fumbles a balance between silliness and heartfelt sentimentality, the film satisfies as light entertainment. There’s definitely some fun to be had in watching these characters engage in juvenile shenanigans, especially when so many of them are played by the same actor.

Indeed, Thompson has ample opportunity to flex his acting chops as he embodies several different characters, most of whom have their own distinctive personality. Although the novelty eventually wears off, his efforts are commendable. This stylistic choice even holds metaphorical weight, with Briggs being one of the only characters not played by Thompson. 

Light Years also simulates the effects of ‘shrooms through several cinematic techniques, including eye-popping stop-motion animation and time manipulation. While I’ve never taken ‘shrooms, the film certainly succeeds in visualizing the zonked-out head spaces of the central characters.

The humor itself is hit or miss, however, and assumes that viewers find this sort of drug use humorous. Lacking nuance, it grows tiresome by the end of the film’s 81-minute runtime — too often reverting to immaturity over actual intelligence.

Luckily, Light Years has more on its mind than depicting characters out-of-their-mind. In the vein of films like Superbad and Booksmart, Thompson’s film ultimately revolves around Kevin and Briggs’ friendship, and the life lessons they learn from each other.

They depend on one another to stay afloat and maintain a positive outlook on life. At the time of the flashback, Kevin is having a quarter-life crisis, unsure of his future and reeling emotionally from his parents’ divorce. He finds solace in hanging out with friends — especially Briggs, whose spastic personality ensures there’s rarely a dull moment, particularly when under the influence. Thompson and Posner have great chemistry, and their back-and-forth dialogue at times reminds me of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, as they indulge in over-the-top impressions and play off each other with chuckle-worthy results.

Unfortunately, Kevin and Briggs need more depth to add weight to the tragedy down the road. Thompson’s small-scale approach works to the story’s detriment as a result, spending too much time with side characters lacking development and oversimplifying potentially impactful subject matter in favor of providing comedy. Kevin’s arc would have benefited from expanding the timeline to show how the lessons learned in his vision quest impact his present-day life. Additionally, the film neglects to make a clear, meaningful statement on addiction and drug use, coming to ambiguous conclusions. Yes, a more dramatic approach would have mellowed the film’s laid back atmosphere, but as a memorial to a lost friend, it feels odd to omit these details in favor of accessible entertainment value. 

At the end of the day, Light Years is a watchable stoner comedy that features some clever cinematic tricks and an endearing central duo, but fails to truly stand out from the pack.

“Light Years” (2019), written and directed by Colin Thompson, is adventure with a TV-14 designation. It runs 1 hr. 21 minutes and is available video on demand on Nov. 17. Alex’s Grade: B-