Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Beach Rats

              These Rats Would Probably Sink The Ship Themselves

                                                          Review by Ken Burke
Pat Craig (left) and me in 2015 on a visit to his new home in far-upper Washington state; I was
a guest on his Public Access radio show where we talked about movie musicals.  I tried to
get him to write a quick review over drinks at dinner 
(aiming for coherence) but to no avail.
  This is the 300th posting (encompassing 602 reviews) by Two Guys in the Dark (although I—Ken Burke—have done all of them since we began in December 2011 as my intended-writing-partner Pat Craig continues to contemplate how he’s going to best demonstrate his cinematic reviewing skills within our enterprise; the door’s always open, Pat, whenever you’re ready for your long-awaited, audience-anticipated entrance), so I’d hoped to have something somewhat significant to share with you on this occasion, but the decent-but-not-terrific Beach Rats is the best I could come up with for now as I continue to be generally underwhelmed by most of the not-already-Two Guys-reviewed-choices currently available to me in local cinemas (including It [Andrés Muschietti] despite "its" enormous $123.4 million domestic [U.S.-Canada] opening weekend), so maybe there’ll be something more conspicuous when we get to #400 (in the meantime, I’ll fill out this posting-accomplishment with various semi-related [at best] materials).  As always, thanks to the many anonymous thousands who check us out each week; according to Google our monthly unique hits were stabilizing in the 30,000+ range (sometimes up to about 45,000, although the latest count [see the very end of this posting] shows a drop-off to about 23,000—I guess we have to start giving out coupons for Beverages and More again) so we’re blissfully overwhelmed with your attention to our eccentric approach to film reviewing, hoping we will continue to see you often here in cyberspace.
                                           Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In an unspecified Long Island beach community—but seemingly around (if not actually at) Coney Island—a young man (late teens), Frankie, has little going in his life except a dying father, a mother who tries to connect with him to little or hostile responses, a younger sister he shows no interest in (except anger when she brings a boyfriend home), a bunch of beach buddies who share his attraction to muscles, drugs, and leering at girls (with little effort made to connect with any of those being drooled over except in Frankie's case), although he’s quite intrigued by a local gay porn site that allows him to make clandestine dates he has no intention of telling anyone else about, especially the new girlfriend who’s shown some willingness to overlook his more obnoxious tendencies.  Beach Rats doesn’t really go much of anywhere beyond this foundational situation, nor has it made much distribution impact yet (out for 3 weeks, yet playing in only 34 theaters, grossing just about $209,000 so far); there’s a lot to respect about it—especially the lead actor—but, honestly, you’ll get more from revisiting Moonlight on video in order to see an even-more-successfully-sincere-story of the lives of boys in the sand.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐  OK, continue on if you like.

What Happens: Frankie (Harrison Dickinson) is just 19 but already directionless, lives in the waterfront area of Brooklyn (maybe somewhere like Gerritsen Beach; more on that a bit later) where his days are spent in a seemingly-endless-cycle of quiet grieving over the imminent death of his cancer-stricken-father (that doesn’t prevent him from stealing some of the old man’s opioids so he can snort them with his friends), keeping his distance from his attempting-to-care-mother, Donna (Kate Hodge)—he pawns a pair of her earrings just to get $200 for more drugs—showing an older brother’s distain for his younger teenage sister, Carla (Nicole Flyus)—although maybe he’s jealous because she’s a lot surer in her sexuality than he is—hanging out at the local beach boardwalk/ arcade with his equally-buff-but-basically-boneheaded-buddies Jesse (Anton Selyaninov), Nick (Frank Hakaj), and Alexei (David Ivanov [all 3 are local amateur actors, recruited specifically for ... Rats])—clarifications I managed to figure out later from the interview with the director (2nd entry in the Related Links section of this review far below) because none of these characters address each other by name much (“Hey, Burke, you wanna know who I am?  Whassit to you, bitch?”)—showing interest (sexual for sure, maybe something deeper if he can feel it) with local girl Simone (Madeline Weinstein) who comes on to him one night during a fireworks display (“What’s your idea of romance?” she asks; by the end of Beach Rats we’re still waiting for an answer.), while smoking enough cigarettes to give you lung cancer just watching him, all of which is put into context by Frankie’s frequent cruising of the Brooklyn Boys website where he shyly, clumsily makes contact with various men for one-night-hookups in some dark realm of the beach.  Frankie’s not sure what—or whom—he wants, so we spend the rest of the film watching him try desperately to figure it out.

 Simone seems to be the only one of these folks with a job (selling clothes in a local franchise outlet) so we get to watch the guys spend their days playing handball, trying to out-macho each other, talking a lot about women but not doing much about it (Frankie tries to score, that is when he’s not doing dumb things that push Simone away from him), and looking to score whatever drugs might be available, wherever they might come from.  Frankie, of course, has one other aspect of his life no one else knows about, as this isn’t exactly a hipster Brooklyn neighborhood so his encounters are clandestine, the sex is quick and seemingly meaningless for all involved except for the immediate release, the confusion’s constant in Frankie as he insists he’s not gay even as Simone assures him that 2 girls kissing each other is “hot” while 2 guys doing so is not.  ⇒Frankie even tries to mix his pleasures toward the end of this story by telling his friends he cruises gay websites just to find guys with weed, although he doesn’t imply there’s actually any sex involved; in trying to make a connection (to satisfy his own urges, after Simone’s dumped him in response to angering her by getting too loaded while on a date even after they had doggie-style-sex in a dark corner—he’s almost unhinged when he sees the bartender’s his previous pickup, then refuses to let the man buy him drinks) where he hoped for some time alone with the guy (Jeremy [Harrison Sheehan]) before getting the pot for his buds (so to speak) his plan is thwarted when the rattier beach bros insist on coming along, so when Frankie leads his mark into the dark Jeremy’s jumped, punched out at the water’s edge by one of Frankie’s homophobic friends.  The next day we see shots of Frankie looking out at the waves (maybe to see if the clobbered guy was anywhere to be found, maybe considering suicide to end his endless-inner-trauma) but that’s put aside until another group of shots that night on the boardwalk with Frankie still looking lonely, lost, longing for some sort of inspiration as the fireworks flash above him, the film suddenly ending with no resolution.*⇐

*Last weekend was one of media-ambiguous-endings for me, not only in Beach Rats but also for the David Lynch series-continuation of Twin Peaks: The Return on Showtime TV where after 18 increasingly-weird-episodes it appears Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has actually gone back in time to prevent Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) murder only to end up in some alternate dimension where she’s alive but as a different person (as is he, seemingly) so if you’re as confused as I initially was (due somewhat to not being a … Peaks fanatic who can keep up with the constant flow of characters wandering in and out of this rambling narrative in its current incarnation as well as returnees from the previous 1990-’91 series) you might want to explore this explanation along with follow-ups 1 and 2, plus a few cinema and TV critics discussing the impact and value of this show/fragmented film (if you need any refreshers on what went on in … The Return you can consult this site, where there’s also a link at the beginning to the original ABC-TV series [where you can find a further link to the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me {Lynch, 1992} if you want the complete story of what’s Peak-ed out at us so far]).  If after all that you can truly make any sense of what went on in this wild amalgamation of a murder mystery gone deeply into near-incoherent-surrealism, please feel free to enlighten me (although I did enjoy watching this craziness if for no other reason than to try to see what I could comprehend of events transpiring from week to week).

So What? While there’s an obvious comparison here between Beach Rats and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016; review in our November 19, 2016 posting) due to their similar ocean-shoreline-settings and focus on the protagonists’ homosexuality (even if Frankie’s still not convinced he’s gay, yet I don't see him as bisexual either), I can’t really say this new film has quite the impact of the previous one, although both offer coming of age stories that usually aren’t promoted beyond various manifestations of LGBTQ (and beyond) festivals so they serve helpful purposes in giving straight audience members (like me) a chance to better understand life situations, challenges, traumas—even the triumphant moments of happiness—as well as the prejudices gay men must encounter, endure, in many cases attempt to rise above. (I can’t begin to say what such films offer to a gay audience, but hopefully they’re perceived as valid, mature, acceptable enough to be useful reflections of how at least some members of this vast community experience their often-derided-lives to instead be useful viewing experiences for these viewers as well).  However, in addition to Moonlight I also see some reasonable connections to a French New Wave masterpiece, François Truffaut’s debut film, The 400 Blows (1959),* not in terms of sexual-identity-conflicts but in terms of young men alienated from their families and/or adults in their communities, the social expectations being put on them, and even some of the cinematic approaches of their structures and conclusions.

*I’ll note The 400 Blows is on a list of all the films with a 100% positive rating at the Rotten Tomatoes critics’-accumulation-site (although this tally may be incomplete), a list that verifies a few things for me: (1) My stinginess in giving 5-star-ratings mostly to films I consider classics (reviewed by me upon re-release) is supported by a good many on this list going back in time as well, with the earliest one being A Trip to the Moon (George Méliès, 1902); (2) as with some of my choices for 4 or 4½ stars (there aren’t many of the latter either, but at least they’re all contemporary), one way a film might get RT highest rating is to be rather obscure so only the few who’ve seen it really like it (there are 21 entries from 2017 on this 100% positive list, none of which I’ve even seen [except, from years past, Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D {James Cameron, 1991} which is a modified re-release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind {Steven Spielberg,1977} is a 40th-anniversary re-release {with Truffaut in a supporting role} also re-mastered {to 4K sharper clarity}, while The Shape of Water {Guillermo del Toro} has only been shown at festivals so far]); (3) related to item 2, many of the entries on this list probably get there by good fortune as they’re based on a mere 10 or fewer reviews (as are 14 of the 2017 entries), all of which could be easily undone by a single dissenting voice, so I’m much more impressed by the only ones to break 100 reviews—Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, 1999) with 163 and Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) with 155—yet with all of them of a positive nature (a bit more on that last point will be footnote-explored in this review’s next section).

 In The 400 Blows (a title in French—Les Quatre Cents Coups—that implies “To raise hell,” in reference to the “blows” a person must endure in making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood) protagonist (about 6 or so years younger than Frankie) Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud—seemingly functioning as a fictional version of the director’s biography)is a consistent misfit whose irreverent, independent streak constantly gets him in trouble with his parents (who have their own problems: Dad Julien [Albert Rémy] is a bit of a blowhard but at least gave a more stable life to Mom Gilberte [Claire Maurier], pregnant by someone else when he married her but now having an affair with yet another someone when caught by her son one day on a Paris street when he’s playing hooky from school), his suspiciously-stern-teachers, and just about every other adult he encounters.  He finally attempts to live in the shadows of his enormous city with the help of his best friend, René Bigey (Patrick Auffay), but in trying to raise money by stealing (then attempting to hock) a typewriter from Dad’s office he’s caught in the act, sent to reform school, escapes (shown in a marvelously long tracking shot as the boy runs away from the prison yard to the nearby beach, as he’s never seen the sea), then his story comes to an abrupt end with a revolutionary (for the time) freeze frame of Antoine at the water’s edge, the camera zooming in on his increasingly-grainy-face with an ending as arbitrarily-unresolved as Frankie’s in Beach Rats (which has a similar grainy texture throughout, having been shot on 16mm then made larger for standard theatrical projection).

 These 2 young male protagonists have different motivations for their inabilities to fit in more comfortably with their respective societies; however, the constant problems they face, along with mutual estrangements from their parents—although Frankie’s is more pronounced in that his father’s death is very traumatic for him, his inability to confess his sexual confusion to his sympathetic mother cuts him off from a potential source of comfort while Antoine’s stepfather is hurt that his “son” shows him no better respect while his mother—despite her similarities with the boy’s independent streak—clearly wasn’t (still isn’t) committed to a life of familial responsibilities.  Unlike Truffaut’s grand accomplishment, though, with its energetic pace, active roaming camera (an inspiration from his great influence, the masterful Jean Renoir), and illusions to the proto-French New Wave work of Jean Vigo from the 1930s, Beach Rats generally moves at a meandering pace (almost as if it were a documentary of the lifestyles this director seems as knowledgeable about as did Truffaut in his semi-autobiographical script for The 400 Blows), often shot in tight closeups because as Hittman explains in that interview farther below she was shooting on a constrained schedule with a slim budget (another reasonable comparison to Truffaut's early work) so to compensate for problematic visual distractions in the various environments she shot in it was often necessary to eliminate everything but the actors’ faces to get all the proper coverage of her scenes.

Bottom Line Final Comments: One of my regular screening companions (who teaches at a well-respected private school in Oakland, CA) said he found Beach Rats to be an appropriate film for the 1970s but felt dated to him because he’s easily aware of 9th graders coming out with no trauma so doesn’t understand why Frankie’s so conflicted in such a hip location as Brooklyn.  My response may be outdated as well because I haven’t lived in NYC since late 1973, have visited only a couple of times since then (including to Brooklyn), but it’s my perception the muscleheads Frankie’s hanging around with in his beachside-community (Coney Island, some reviews say, but if you watch that interview with the director you’ll see this was originally intended to be Gerritsen Beach [more inland than Coney Island, on the small Sheepshead Bay rather than the Atlantic, even though the beach shots in the film clearly imply the vast ocean so Luna Park at Coney Island’s likely where we’ve actually ended up], a place I could easily see even in 2017 as still qualifying as a NYC neighborhood Rick Blaine [Humphrey Bogart] warned Major Strasser [Conrad Veidt] the Nazis shouldn’t attempt to invade, even as far back as in Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1943]—a 5-star-movie if there ever was one [although I’ve never officially reviewed it ... yet])—are as homophobic as any of the goons I could cite for you from my upbringing in Texas so I don’t think Frankie’s reticence about sharing his sexual ambiguities with his buddies is inappropriate at all.  To be even more specific, these beach bums are the “rats” I’m referring to in my title for this posting, pumped-up macho guys whose tunnel visions of life (When and how can we get high next?) and sexuality (Hey, Frankie, did Simone put out?) would easily choose to sink their friend’s fragile ship (of existence) if he doesn’t conform to their hetero-masculine-expectations, as they keep making clear to him with their questioning about why he roams gay websites, suspicious he’s not just looking to score drugs.

 As with Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer; review in our August 30, 2017 posting), Beach Rats is distributed by Neon which has again included an animated short with this screening (which doesn’t noticeably increase your viewing time as the feature runs only 98 min.), New Balls Please,* with this one about a rising Black tennis star, Jorge Romeo, defeating a reigning White champ, Kurt Bruckner, as their courtside antics take on sexual overtones (it also seemed like their match might be in the process of being stopped for a rain delay or a break between sets, but that just shows how little I know about tennis—or exactly what the point of this short is, except for sneaking in a titillating title prior to a feature with a good bit of gay sex, or maybe it’s a pun on an emerging male sports star [as evidenced by this information]; either way, I find these Neon Shorts to be odd little bits of business).  The critical establishment’s more attuned to Beach Rats than I am to New Balls …, though, with Rotten Tomatoes offering a hefty dose of 82% positive reviews** while the folks at Metacritic are surprisingly close with an average 77% score, so they’re a bit more taken with this feature than I am, finding it hard to not feel Moonlight more successfully addressed this touchy topic.  Festival judges may also disagree with me, though, as Beach Rats has won the Directing Award of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Features at the 2017 Boston Independent Film Festival, along with some other honors.

*A 4-min. Dutch ditty from 2004 (Richard James) now on screen. An even more appropriate use of this title might be for an unfortunate incident during a match at the January 2017 Australian Open.

**Film-biz-execs are now complaining that less than “fresh” ratings (positive reviews from at least 60% of the critics surveyed; under 60% is “rotten”) are contributing to the current decline in box-office-revenues (even though RT’s owned by Fandango, itself a subsidiary of NBCUniversal, and Warner Bros.) with disputes over whether the cumulative verbiage of a review constitutes a positive response or not.  (I must agree.  When I read some of those reviews I’m completely puzzled they’re declared to be within the “positive” realm; I haven’t seen complains about the MC scores although they seem even more arbitrary to me as each review’s assigned a number somehow [not just a rounded-off-80 for example, but a very specific 78 or 83], then those scores are averaged together, but how a review that carries no numerical designation [sure, 3 of 4 stars is easy to calculate as 75%, although many reviews offer no such specifics with the commentary’s context often giving nuanced responses] from the writer is given such a specific result’s really a mystery.)  However, those complaints in the New York Times article are disputed by Variety, citing studies that show no correlation between Tomato ratings and movie grosses, with additional data indicating the more successful an offering is the higher its RT percentage is likely to be (the 2017 average: 77.5 so far)

 Beach Rats is still an honest study of its subject matter, though, fairly earning its R rating with its use of sex scenes (nothing too graphic, although when Frankie’s giving another guy a blow job you don’t have to see erect genitals to know exactly what’s happening “down there”), some brief (with no briefs) full-nudity-shots, appropriate spewing of likely street language, and frequent drug use.  I know that director Hittman wants to be authentic in her depictions of this neighborhood (even as many other NYC locations had to be stand-ins because of the ongoing damage to actual Gerritsen Beach from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy—it’ll probably be awhile before much gets shot in Houston or Miami either) which she’s done, giving us a troubled portrait of a protagonist in deep confusion about his life, which we just take an exit from at the end of the film’s running time leaving him mired in the same situation he’s been facing for quite awhile, will continue to do so until he’s finally able to make some decisions unless peer-pressured-fear prevents him from ever finding an escape from his dilemmas.  In finishing off these comments with my usual tactic of a Musical Metaphor that gives a final look at the situation from the viewpoint of another artform I was drawn to use Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow (from his 1974 Late for the Sky album)—which I stumbled on after asking Amazon’s Echo device to “shuffle Jackson Browne,” then not recognizing a couple of the songs played so I turned to the website, reminding myself of the haunting 1974 tune which I’m offering to Frankie (as sung in a live performance by Browne at as part of my fictionalized extension to his story in which he finally meets a man—or womanhe can truly share a relationship with (not just secret sex at the beach), although they don’t connect for long but the experience still gives this kid some better perspective on his future as it might be noted to him when former lovers meet up again later, as do the main men in Moonlight:

“Now the things that I remember seems so distant and so small Though it hasn't really been that long a time What I was seeing wasn't what was happening at all [...] you see through love’s illusions, there lies a danger And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger While the loneliness seems to spring from your life Like a fountain from a pool Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight You’ve had to hide [...] but now you’re all right And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight."

 I never get to see any of your smiling faces (nor even very many of your keystrokes with commentary on what you encounter with these Two Guys—all done by this one guy—reviews), except for my wife, Nina, my most valued reader, but I do hope the sun’s beginning to shine again in southeast Texas, all through the Caribbean, and from Miami northward through the deep South for all of those who’ve suffered recent hurricane tragedies, with hopes that recovery, slow as it may be, will eventually bring back some sense of normalcy (even as Frankie out there on the ever-shifting-sands of time, probably even more so with Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer [if any version of Twin Peaks ever emerges out of the woods again] go on with their lives as well, hoping to eventually find some avenue of redemption).  As a final Musical Metaphor for some uplift in the face of such intensified-natural-disasters, here’s a tune from another seacoast entirely with The Beach Boys’ (no grungy Rats here) "The Warmth of the Sun" (from their 1964 album Shut Down Volume 2—written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love to offer some needed solace on the day of President Kennedy's 1963 assassinationwith added calming photos far from the recent angry waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean), so that even if—in a symbolic manner—“The love of my life She left me one day [just remember] Still I have the warmth of the sun Within me tonight.”  You might be able to offer a little warmth to the victims of these disasters as well by donating to the various charities helping with these massive cleanups, including the one from the recent network/cable TV telethon if they’re still taking donations at

 I'll look forward to seeing all however-many-of-you there are again, maybe for #301 and beyond (to infinity); I'm still holding out hope Pat Craig will join us as well, when the spirit's properly in motion.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about Beach Rats: (22:07 interview with director Eliza Hittman and actors Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, David Ivanov, Frank Hakaj)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*YouTube keeps deleting links to this Eagles performance so I keep putting a newer version back in but you’ll just find dead links in our previous postings prior to July 6, 2017, so don’t be confused.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 23,162; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (with activity from 5 continents, missing only Africa and Antarctica):

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Fencer and Short Takes on Dolores

     “Workers of the world, unite!” (until you get jailed or deported)

                                                           Reviews by Ken Burke
 As I’ve noted in recent postings, there’s not a lot out there right now I’m interested in seeing that I haven’t reviewed already (apparently I’m not the only one; Box Office Mojo reports this is the worst Labor Day weekend movie attendance in 12 years) so I’ve gone so esoteric in this posting most of you won’t be able to find these films at all, at least not for awhile.  In recognition of this income shortfall at our local cinemas I’ll note another Labor Day that didn’t turn out quite so well for “same old Hal” (William Holden) in Picnic (Jerome Robbins, 1955) although he did have a steamy dance scene with Madge (Kim Novak) before all hell broke loose.  I watched it with my even-steamier-wife, Nina* (it’s one of her favorites, despite all the melodrama, dysfunctionality, and blatant sexism—or maybe it’s because of all that; I dare not ask), playing my own little drinking game where I took a slug of Brother Thelonius (Belgian-style beer, high-alcohol, delicious!) every time he called her “Baby” instead of her name so I was pleasantly relaxed by the end of the story as they’re headed to Tulsa (probably with both of them playing their own drinking games in a few years after the reality of this 1-day-romance hits home). Now, on to my post-Labor Day-history-based-reviews for this week.

*Please scroll to the very end of these rambling explorations to see my new, permanent tribute to Nina in the famously-final-cluster of songs in every Two Guys in the Dark posting from this day on.
                                             The Fencer (Klaus Härö, 2015)

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Inspired by (but I'm not all that clear how much it’s specifically based on) the life of a well-known Estonian Soviet fencer who had to change his name, then go into hiding to escape being arrested for a situation he had no control over (recruited by the Nazis into their ranks during their WW II invasion of his country, then held accountable for that postwar by Stalin's merciless dictatorship) he returns to his homeland, takes a nondescript job as a school gym teacher in a small town, then establishes a fencing club when forced to sponsor an additional activity.  Despite the crude limitations his students face (they have no fencing foils, just long reeds from a nearby marsh), they’re enthusiastic about the sport, look upon their teacher as a father figure, beg him to take them to an all-Soviet tournament in Leningrad even though he knows what danger awaits him if he returns to his former residence.  This will be a very difficult film to find as it’s not yet scheduled for screenings in too many cities, but I encourage you to look out for The Fencer as it’s very heartfelt, inspirational, and reflective of the kind of social consternation now facing our society when those innocent of “crimes” they’re being accused of (e.g. the “Dreamer” undocumented immigrants now facing expulsion from the U.S. with the proposed demise of the DACA policy) must still face harsh punishments they’ve not intentionally brought upon themselves.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐  OK, continue on if you like.
What Happens: In this story based on facts (although the opening graphics don’t tell you that—you have to wait for the pre-credits statements at the end to verify what became of the actual protagonist and his work with fencing students) an Estonian man, Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), in the early 1950s faces a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario as his country was overrun by the Nazis during WW II so he and thousands of his countrymen were forced into the German ranks (the formerly-independent-country briefly came under control of the Soviet Union even earlier during the war); however, he managed to escape to Leningrad (relatively speaking, not that far away) where he eventually got a university education but then went on the run after the war because Russian madman Josef Stalin’s vicious program of imprisoning former conscripts (“collaborators”) allowed for no negotiation so Endel used documents with his mother’s maiden-name (previously he went by Keller), slipped back into Estonia to take a job as gym teacher in Haapsalu (where the principal [Hendrik Toompere], as a Communist Party official, accepts him but with distain because of his “uppity” life in Leningrad, then sets his assistant [Jaak Prints] on a records search to learn more about this new arrival).  Another job requirement is to mentor an extracurricular club, so when Endel finds some skis in a storeroom he gets eager recruits only to be shut down immediately when his equipment’s given to the local military base (another “damned” situation, this time with the blessing of his rigid, unhelpful principal).  Falling back on his own success in fencing, though, with the encouragement of little Marta (Liisa Koppel), Endel soon has a well-attended fencing club, even though his students must do the exercises with long marsh reeds.

 Through telephone conversations (and a later visit) with Aleksei (Kirill Käro) a fencing friend/coach in Leningrad, Endel learns he must stay quietly undercover because the secret police are anxious to locate him (Aleksei also proves helpful for the students by sending 2 crates of used foils, masks, chest guards so they can better learn their desired skills).  Ender faces further frustration as his principal attempts to shut down the fencing club (he considers it a “feudal” sport not appropriate for proletariat education) but the activity’s saved when student Jaan’s ([Joonas Koff] who had to endure some tough love from his teacher, as Endel sees potential in the boy but not yet enough discipline) grandfather ([Lembit Ulfsak] a fencer himself in previous years) notes at a parent-faculty meeting that Karl Marx was a fencer as a young man; then our beleaguered protagonist begins to find some joy in mutual attraction with fellow teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp).  Endel’s hopes of remaining under the Russian radar become complicated, though, when Marta learns of an all-Soviet youth fencing competition coming up in Leningrad.  Her disappointment in Endel not wanting his kids to participate (using the excuse they need further training to compete against more-skilled-opponents) finally convinces this sincere teacher that the stimulating experience of the big-city-trip along with the kids' challenge of putting their passions on the line against fierce competitors is more important than his safety, despite Kadri worried sick about his likely fate if he returns to Leningrad (we’re given good reason to share her fears, as even Jaan’s elderly grandfather is taken away, just another of the many men now missing from Haapsalu, either killed in the war or sent off to underserved prison terms afterward).  Jaan and 2 others are chosen for the contest, with Marta as the joyful alternate.

 They manage to make it to the finals, but with the score tied and seconds to go Jaan twists his ankle, forcing him to withdraw with Marta taking his place against a cocky kid from Moscow, a member of the previous year’s championship team.  Surprisingly (after encouragement from Endelwho previously tried to slip away when he realized he’s being watched but found all the exits guarded), the little girl manages to thrust through for the winning point, after which Endel quietly surrenders to the authorities, causing no disruption for his team’s celebration.  Endel’s sent off to a miserable Soviet prison for his wartime “crime” but is released seemingly not too long after Stalin’s death in 1953.  Returning to Haapsalu, he finds Lea and the children anxiously awaiting his return as they find no tinge of criminal guilt in him (even the principal, who came along on the Leningrad trip, revealed to Endel privately he was just doing the job expected of him for his own protection but encouraged this teacher to slip away if he could).  Those final pre-credits graphics tell us Endel lived well until 1993, as his Estonian fencing academy continues to operate into our current day.⇐

So What? Had I not learned at the very end of the film these events are based on a true story (well, actually, I knew that from reading a couple of reviews a few weeks prior but had forgotten that aspect of the narrative until being reminded by those closing graphics) I would have found The Fencer to be a bit melodramatic, with its constant tension of KGB intrusion into Endel’s life and the Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986 [also with some relation to actual events of the 1954 Milan High School basketball team winning the Indiana state championship])-like underdog win at the fencing tournament (a comparison made in several reviews of this film), ⇒especially with charming-child Marta as the unexpected conqueror, lunging to victory into her older, larger, better-prepared, smug male opponent.⇐   Realizing these events have a foundation in history, though (even if I can’t find any verification of this tournament’s particulars, so they may be dramatized quite a bit), helps me better appreciate how successful fiction’s often inspired by fact, even if those facts end up being put into a very different context (as with the actual water wars in 1920s-‘30s L.A. being turned into a tale of extreme-family-dysfunctionality in Chinatown [Roman Polanski, 1974]) or refocused in such a manner as to provide a filmmaker’s perspective on aspects of that history without trying to give a comprehensive account of the entire event (as with Christopher Nolan’s take on Dunkirk [review in our July 27, 2017 posting], where the emphasis is only on specific characters in this massive troop evacuation in the early days of WW II, so that we’re forced to feel the isolated aspects of this action along with those being highlighted rather than getting much of an overall sense of the huge rescue).

 If The Fencer simply were a tale of ragtag-winners moved from Hoosiers’ basketball court onto a fencing mat, this current film would still carry an uplifting, feel-good mood, ⇒enhanced by Endel not having to rot in a Gulag forced-labor-prison for several years as did Aleksander Solzhenitsyn⇐ (there’s a little bit more about him in this review’s next section just below), but knowing that The Fencer is in some manner a true story of a man willing to sacrifice his own freedom rather than continuing to fade into the mists of the vast U.S.S.R. for the benefit of kids in a small, backwater town who’d never been given any reason to think life has much meaning at all just makes this film all the more inspiring, a perfect companion for the documentary Dolores to be reviewed below.  Given The Fencer’s fictionalized approach to history, though, there’s additional opportunity for the filmmakers to use cinematic devices to enhance the mood of their story which they do with tactics such as several scenes where the camera follows Endel from behind, as if he’s being stalked by the always-lurking KGB, as well as the fear all of these characters show anytime there’s a knock on the door, likely implying a miserable fate from those dreaded masters of surveillance.  The landscape we see fits this sense of bleak paranoia as well, with the story taking place in the winter where we mostly observe barren environments, monochrome color schemes,  a lot of quiet stillness along with a generalized lack of activity or interest in this forlorn place even by its native-born-inhabitants.

 Long ago (2003) I had an opportunity to make a quick visit to Estonia, as I was attending an international conference of audiovisual producers (the kind of folks who made huge multi-image concoctions of projected slides enhanced with reel-to-reel-audiotape-soundtracks for various corporate, artistic, and educational uses in the 1960s-‘90s prior to this kind of striking display being replaced with increasingly-sophisticated video/computer-generated imagery) in Helsinki, Finland where it was possible to catch an early-morning ferry across the Baltic Sea (the Gulf of Finland specifically) to this neighboring country, but having already spent some days that week slipping away for a quick tour of the Czarist-palaces of Russia’s St. Petersburg (and the reality of that early-morning-departure) I passed on this chance—not likely to come again—which, had I traveled that road (or sea) not taken, would have given me an even better understanding of this frequently-occupied-country (over the centuries Denmark then the Swedish and Russian Empires held sway prior to the briefly-imposed Estonian S.S.R., the German occupation, and reabsorption into the U.S.S.R. so the current-day Republic of Estonia has existed only in about 1920-1940, then again since 1991) than I got in The Fencer, with its impactful presentation of how the citizens of this small land have for far too long functioned as pawns in the maneuvers of their more-powerful-neighbors.

 With concerns this may be happening again as current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin keeps trying to encroach into former-Soviet-territory, with NATO on alert to prevent a Crimea-type invasion/ occupation, The Fencer’s even more relevant today despite its 1950s Cold War setting.  If you’d like an extensive immersion into Estonian history, culture, etc. I recommend this site, a marvelously-detailed, well-documented collection of information no matter how snooty you might be about using Wikipedia, although there are other options if you put more trust in either the CIA or the BBC.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While this Finnish work competed to be among the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film last spring (made the shortlist of 9 but not the final 5), it found no domestic (U.S.-Canada) distribution until help arrived from the tiny CFI Releasing group, associated with the California Film Institute in San Rafael (just north of San Francisco) who produce the annual Mill Valley Film Festival (close to San Rafael) so The Fencer’s been in very-limited-release since July 21 of this year (just the 2nd film to be marketed by CFI Releasing) but only in 19 theaters as of last weekend (you can consult the official website far below in the Related Links section connected to this film to see what its intended schedule is through the upcoming autumn season) so at this point I have no idea about what its income has been (although it couldn’t have been very much) nor how accessible it will be to any of you until video options become available, although I’m in good critical company with my support of it as you’ll find the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are 85% positive while the Metacritic average score is 60 (however, the latter’s based on only 13 reviews so you might want to check back with them later to see if anything’s changed; you can get current details now if you wish in the Related Links for this film far below).

 Regular readers of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark (of which there are regularly tens of thousands according to the Google robots; I thank all of you for your support) know I attempt to cap off each analysis with a final dose of commentary in the form of a Musical Metaphor to offer some additional insight (or just plain silliness, depending on what we’re talking about) but from the perspective of an aural artform.  In trying to find something relevant for The Fencer I was stumped, even after pondering on it for a few days so I tried an Internet search for “song lyrics about personal sacrifice for the greater good” (interested to see what the algorithms could do with that) which led me to a site that located 5,206 songs containing the word “sacrifice”; after skimming the 1st 500 of them (as far as I intended to go) I decided to further explore Al Stewart’s “Trains” (from his 1993 Famous Last Words album), finding the full, extensive lyrics to be even more metaphorical to this topic than is my usual intention, but with nothing else to consider I turned to YouTube to see if there was some video of this tune only to stumble across Stewart’s “Roads to Moscow” (from his 1973 Past, Present and Future album) which seemed vaguely familiar from back in my grad-school-days when I know I heard this Scottish folk-rocker’s “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” on FM radio.

 A check of those lyrics showed this song as a perfect match for The Fencer, with its tale of a Russian soldier chronicling the Nazi advance (Operation Barbarossa) into his homeland beginning in 1941, finally turned back in 1944 thanks to huge Russian sacrifices on the battlefield but with this singer/soldier arrested upon his arrival home, sent to a bleak prison just because he’d been a German captive for only one day (Stewart’s implied this song references the imprisonment of previously-noted Nobel Prize for Literature-winner Solzhenitsyn [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962;The Gulag Archipelago, 1973]) so here it is at (a PowerPoint presentation incorporating the song, its lyrics, accompanying photos and maps), telling a story that gives additional, brutal context to what Endel Nelis endures.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
                                       Dolores (Peter Bratt)
This is a biographical-documentary about United Farm Workers co-founder and long-time farm workers/civil rights-activist Dolores Huerta who’s often mentioned (if at all, she's dropped from Texas social studies textbooks; ethnic studies curriculum outlawed in Arizona*) along with César Chávez but not explored enough on her own, despite a long lifetime of crusading work.

*Currently under challenge from a federal judge.

Here's the trailer:

          Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
 Normally, this is the type of review where I’d encourage you to especially pay attention to my plot spoilers warning because these comments represent one of those infrequent occasions where I got to attend a press screening of the film a few weeks ago so I’m now blogging about it on the same weekend it opens locally (in my case, the San Francisco area) so my comments are out there simultaneously with the more-well-known-critics (as fate will have it as to who gets such a designation) even though I’m giving it all away while they’re being discreet for the benefit of interested viewers who haven’t even had a chance to see Dolores yet.  However, that level of concern’s not too worrisome for me this time around for 2 reasons: (1) This film’s a biographical documentary that may offer some specific commentary not previously well-known about Delores Huerta, but the facts of her life are easily found with a simple Internet search so there’s really not much I can spoil about this “plot” anyway; (2) Dolores opened in only 3 theaters last weekend, is scheduled for just 4 more this upcoming one (Sept. 8-10) so there really aren’t very many of you with an opportunity yet to see this film anyway, maybe allowing my comments to substitute for attendance for now because it could be quite awhile before you even get a chance to seek it out unless you find some future video option (as with The Fencer, if you consult the 1st listing under the relevant Related Links section below for Dolores the official website notes when and where the scheduled viewing opportunities exist for those of you fortunate enough to live in those areas.*)  With all those intro items now out of the way, I’ll be glad to tell you why I liked Dolores so much with encouragement that you’ll be able to share my experience sometime in the near future.

*Published reviews of this film are currently scarce because so few critics have seen it; as I go to press “post,” there are only 13 at Rotten Tomatoes (but 100% positive), 6 at Metacritic (81% score).

 Unless the subject of a biographical documentary is already well known in our media-dominated-culture (say Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump—than you’re welcome to say whatever else you care to about any of them) one problem a filmmaker of such a cinematic-historical-exploration has to deal with is simultaneously giving enough information about the film’s subject for an unaware audience to fit this somewhat-mysterious-entity into a comfortable, already-established context (as with Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World [Catherin Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana], where the largely-unexplored contributions of Native Americans to a wide range of popular music styles is given a well-deserved-spotlight through interviewing well-known-musicians such as The Band's Robbie Robertson) while also appealing to those who may already have a decent awareness of the film’s subject so what’s presented doesn’t come across as pedantically-boring.  In my case, with a combo-heritage from Texas and California, I have a somewhat better idea of who Dolores Huerta is than the vast majority the filmmakers were concerned about, the millions of children and adults who either know nothing about her (sometimes because her contributions to contemporary social justice have been eliminated from textbooks) or assume she’s just an accessory to César Chávez’s accomplishments on behalf of farmworkers (at worst, understanding her as some sort of office manager  implementing the important work he originated).

 Further, I had the even-greater-advantage of seeing her speak in person at the October 1, 2010 Convocation ceremony at Mills College (3 years before I retired from my Film Studies faculty job), which you can see in these Part 1 (14:44) and Part 2 (8:14) videos if you like.Certainly, I learned a lot more about her in Dolores than I’d known previously, but the film is structured in such an energetic, decades-synthesizing-manner I’d have appreciated it if I’d somehow previously learned everything there was to know about this inspiring woman even before the first images appeared on screen (with an opening montage setting the proper tone for what’s to come, including negative comments about her, demonstrating this film’s trying to give an honest understanding of its subject not a transcript of some fawning testimonial dinner).  Even at age 87 she's still outspoken in her opinions, referring to President Trump's recent decision about DACA as "a step up above slavery."

*You might also be interested in my earlier review of the related-but-by-now-probably-mostly-lorgotten Cesar Chavez film (a docudrama directed by Diego Luna, 2014; no Spanish-language-accents in the “let’s-do-everything-we-can-to get-this-into-mainstream-theaters”-title) in our April 30, 2014 posting (featuring my horrible choices for paragraph layout in those earlier times; sorry).

 What Dolores does especially well is keeping the inclusions moving so the pace doesn’t settle into a flat history lecture while never losing sight of the focus on the people Huerta’s spent her adult life fighting for, not just her own accomplishments and honors.  Regarding this first point, throughout the structure of this film is an amazing collection of archival photography and footage, given contemporary context with statements from Dolores herself over the years plus more from a few of her adult children and many other social-justice-leaders who’ve admired/worked with her (too many to name but among the most recognizable are Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem [commenting on how Dolores’ interests came to also embrace feminism in the 1970s—an irony when Huerta is shown being pushed out of the United Farm Workers {UFW} leadership after Chávez’s death in 1993] and Luis Valdez [probably best known as director of Zoot Suit {1981} and La Bamba {1987}, founder of El Teatro Campesino stage group]); as for my second point, I never got the sense in watching Dolores the primary reason for the film’s existence is to celebrate Huerta (although, according to director Bratt in the press notes, that may have been the intention of executive producer Carlos Santana [yes, the famous musician] when he pitched the idea of the doc to Bratt) as much as it was to give honor and recognition to the people and movements she’s worked so tirelessly to advance through her ongoing crusades on behalf of farm workers, immigrants, candidates for local and national offices, and non-violence as the only appropriate strategy for achieving social justice. (This approach works better for me than the constant focus on Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel [Bonnie Cohen, Jon Shenk; review in our August 9, 2017 posting] where too often he comes across as the lone savior of Earth’s environment, whereas Huerta’s biographers are more willing to share her achievements, including with friend/UFW co-founder/often-confrontational-policyman Chávez.)

 While Dolores Huerta’s received numerous honors (the most prestigious being the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, in 2012 [you can learn more about her, even without seeing this film, at sites such as this one, this one, or this short doc {10:01}])Dolores has won some awards also including Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival (Audience Award) and the Seattle International Film Festival—she’s also been chastised for her political stances, criticized for leaving her children to be largely raised by others while she was involved in her continuous campaigns, and physically injured as a protester (most notably at a 1988 anti-G.H.W. Bush rally in San Francisco when a cop broke 4 of her ribs, shattered her spleen), as well as seeing many of the gains so hard-fought-for on behalf of the UFW members put in jeopardy when the Teamsters began encroaching on her work as early as 1973.  Still, she’s alive, candid, well-rounded in her pride and regrets (including the pain her children suffered during those frequent absences), a charismatic person showcased in a moving, energetic documentary (enhanced by a lot of music, including from Santana) I actively encourage you to see however, whenever you can find it (while distributor PBS isn’t as generally-unknown as The Fencer’s CFI, it’s not exactly a major player in the movie-biz but at least it portends basic-cable-availability in the near future [assuming no further proposed-federal-arts-budget-cuts in order to be fully-funded for destroying North Korea]).

 Speaking of music (if I didn't bury the reference too much in the previous paragraph), it’s time to bring these comments to a close with a Musical Metaphor which will be once again (as with my review of Cesar Chavez) the traditional Mexican folk song “De Colores” (with slight trepidation I’m just lumping Dolores in with César as has been the case before with her life’s work), but it was an anthem during their historic 1966 march from Delano, CA to Sacramento (340 miles) in support of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee-National Farm Workers Association (merged later into the UFW) strike against grape growers, demanding better working conditions.  This version (at by Joan Baez (lyrics translated from Spanish here) still conveys the essence of Dolores for me: “In colors, the fields drape themselves in profusion of colors in springtime In colors, in colors the young birds arriving from afar In colors, in colors the brilliant rainbow we spy And that’s why the great love of infinite colors is pleasing to me,” words that capture the combined senses of love, diverse interests, unshakable determination this film so well embodies about the marvelous presence, the ongoing “story [viewers can see] as part of their own, one that perhaps allows them to more fully, more honestly, understand the last 50 years in America’s history and how it connects to and informs where we find ourselves today” (Bratt), helping all of us to better support, believe, act on her most famous phrase, the UFW motto, “¡Sí se puede!” (Yes we can!), which Obama admits he stole from her for his 2008 Presidential campaign but remains a necessary rallying-cry, from the Hurricane Harvey cleanup in Houston (and hundreds of miles around) to all those running for election next year with sincere hopes of finally making progress for their constituents locally/statewide/nationally rather than just constantly talking about improvements while discretely focusing more on the next re-election campaign's fundraising.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about The Fencer: (5:00 mini-doc about U.S. fencer Nzingha Prescod, Bronze medalist at the 2015 World Fencing Championships and on the U.S.A. Olympic teams in 2012, 2016 but no medals; this video has no direct connection to the film but it’s about the most useful follow-up I could find based on aspiration of this fencer, except for several offers to see the full film if you care to pursue any of those, none of which I’m promoting)

Here’s more information about Dolores: (14:54 interview with co-writer/editors Jessica Congdon, Ben Zweig from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival; again, the best supportive video I could find except for multiple offers to see the entire film if you care to explore any of them)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*YouTube keeps deleting links to this Eagles performance so I keep putting a newer version back in but you’ll just find dead links in our previous postings prior to July 6, 2017, so don’t be confused.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared songNeil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 31,012; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (with a massive uptick from my normal Russia response; I guess those semi-psychic folks knew about my review of The Fencer but they clicked in a week early so maybe they'll be back this time):