Movie Review ~ Last Call

The Facts:

Synopsis: Shot in two true single takes, filmed simultaneously in two different parts of a city, this is a real time feature presented in split screen showcasing both ends of a wrong number phone call that has the potential to save a life.

Stars: Daved Wilkins, Sarah Booth, Matt Maenpaa

Director: Gavin Michael Booth

Rated: NR

Running Length: 77 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Released in conjunction with the recently concluded National Suicide Awareness week, Last Call is a clever new tiny Canadian drama showing in virtual theaters and arriving soon in on demand platforms.  You’ll likely hear about the film first because of how it was made (more on that later) but once you get acclimated to what you’re seeing, audiences are apt to find a movie boasting high stakes performances delivered with a strong, if at times a bit muddled, message that’s handled with a surprisingly delicate touch.

My advice to you before seeing Last Call is to make sure you’re ready to sit for the full duration without interruption because that’s going to be the best way to fully immerse yourself in the filmmaking experience as intended.  Clocking in around 74 minutes, it shouldn’t be a challenge…you can focus in and pretend you’re back in a movie theater.  I’d also suggest removing distractions as well because in all honesty there are points in the film where you’ll be tempted to check your phone quickly but, again, that would break the spell of the mood that’s being created.  Know that when you hit ‘play’ the film begins and doesn’t stop, with two continuous takes being shown onscreen.  Two actors were filmed at the same time in the same city in one continuous take and thought you may feel you’d be too wrapped up in paying attention to that fete of filmmaking it becomes secondary to the story rather quickly.

On one side of the screen is Beth (Sarah Booth), a single mother arriving to her shift as the night janitor at an adult education center she attends during the day.  Working there after hours to subsidize her own studies, she’s distracted because her eldest son hasn’t returned home after a night at the movies.  The other side of the screen has Scott (co-writer Daved Wilkins) who is polishing off his drink at a local bar before heading home for the evening.  For the first fifteen minutes of the film we watch these two people settle in for their evening plans.  Beth attempts to locate her son and tries to find coverage in case she needs to leave and track him down and Scott walks the several long blocks back to his home where he resumes drinking.

Then Scott makes a phone call and dials the wrong number.  That’s when he connects with Beth and two things happen.  The first is that our view of the situation literally changes and the second is that we become eavesdroppers on a real-time conversation between individuals that don’t know each other but are soon bonded over their emotionally revealing talk.  When it becomes clear that Scott thinks he’s called a suicide prevention line and if Beth disconnects from this man she has no way of redialing.  Without any personal information to go on, she continues to engage with while simultaneously using her resources to use what little clues he’s giving her to identify him and get him help.

Ok, this one goes out to all you theater nerds out there.  In the 1959 musical Gypsy, there’s a second-act show stopping number where three vaudeville strip-tease artists sing “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”.  It brings down the house and one line from that number rang through my head while watching Last Call:  “You gotta get a gimmick, If you wanna get applause.”  The film has a gimmick, there’s no getting around it, but it’s efficiently used and appropriately engaged.  Instead of teetering with high-stake chicanery, it’s not used as a cheap trick or garishly exploited to show off director Gavin Michael Booth’s bravura filmmaking technique.  It adds to the overall impact and assists particularly in the intense final act which may resort to some slightly overbaked histrionics but don’t affect the feelings toward the film as a whole.  It’s highly worthy of praise because it’s so masterfully done.

If there’s one questionable aspect here, I did start to wonder how much consulting the screenwriters and filmmakers had with suicide prevention counselors.  While there’s nothing disrespectful here or actions taken that raise red flags, some of the approaches employed feel quaintly pat and textbook, like someone just looked up what is the right response in a certain situation and copied it verbatim into the script.  I think there could have been a better way of handling some of these more serious and serious-minded developments of the narrative.

Wilkins is a bit of a tough nut to crack, which is likely the point, but there’s something to be said about being too obtuse for this kind of role that asks you to expose some raw nerves.  He could have taken a note or two from his co-star Sarah Booth (the director is her husband) because she’s often downright riveting to watch.  There were moments when the attention was meant to be on Scott’s character but what Booth was doing was so interesting even in moments of silence that I just kept watching her.  I almost have to think about what this would have been like if the Wilkins view had been excised completely, I think the intensity would have still been there, though the purpose of the two shots would have gone away.

Plenty of films and filmmakers have experimented with these long takes and one shot movies but I don’t remember one that has done something like this before and I think it’s by and large a success.  There are some long gaps where nothing much happens and there could have been some creative ways to fill in that space but it also added to the reality of the world of these characters to not have every minute of their lives spent talking to someone.  Last Call has a first rate concept and an important message, it has its gimmick and deserves the applause.

Movie Review ~ The Wall of Mexico

The Facts

Synopsis: A wealthy Mexican-American family decides to build a wall around their ranch to stop townspeople from stealing their well water, which is rumored to have unusual properties.

Stars: Esai Morales, Mariel Hemingway, Jackson Rathbone, Alex Meneses, Carmela Zumbado, Marisol Sacramento, Xander Berkeley, Moises Arias

Director: Zachary Cotler & Magdalena Zyzak

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned it here before but I think it’s worth repeating here: at film festivals, it pays to have good time management skills.  That’s really the only way you’re going to maximize your full potential of seeing as much as you can in the often short time frame that is allotted for screenings.  Apart from choosing your films carefully, you need to make sure you’re also selecting the right films at the correct time of day so your energy is matched with what you’re seeing.  It doesn’t always work as well as it should when you factor in availability and sheer unavoidable bouts of fatigue but when everything lines up you’re in for a gold star viewing experience.

At the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest, I was having trouble making my schedule work and finding that I had a gap of time that went unaccounted for.  Then I realized that if I moved a few things around, I could start earlier in the day and add another film to my list, which is how The Wall of Mexico began as a simple gap filler but wound up being one of the more interesting and intriguing films I saw. Remember, this was back in October 2019 when all we had to worry about, pre-COVID, fiery protests, and the upcoming election were the harsh regulations being imposed against immigrations into the US.  So a movie with a title like The Wall of Mexico was bound to pique some interest at the outset and the good news is that writer/co-director Zachary Cotler rewards those who take the leap into the mysterious lives of the Arista family with a mostly unpredictable parable.

In an unnamed town running along the California border to Mexico, the Mexican-American Arista family lives an enviable life of privilege.  As the head of the family, Henry (Esai Morales) has provided well for his two daughters Tania (Marisol Sacramento) and Ximena (Carmela Zumbado, Need for Speed) who spend days lounging by the pool soaking up the sun and nights with a select group who party until they pass out.  Into this tranquil existence comes Tom (Jackson Rathbone, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), hired to work as a groundskeeper under the tutelage of Michael (Xander Berkeley, Candyman), the Aristas long-standing employee.  It isn’t long before Tom falls under the spell of the beautiful Tania and his crush on her doesn’t seem to surprise anyone, even when it strays into possibly dangerous territory.

If that were the crux of the story, Colter and his co-director Magdalena Zyzak might have had a fine if standard, film exploring the class differences between Tom and Tania but there’s something more on the agenda.  On the Arista property is a well, which seems to hold some sort of secret for the family in addition to serving as a frenzied curiosity for the townspeople that want to know what’s being kept hidden from them.  When the water level in the well begins to lower dramatically and it becomes evident someone is stealing the limited supply, Tom is assigned to help Michael build a wall around the Arista estate during the day and watch over the tank as an overnight watchman to catch the culprit.  As you can imagine, formally being walled out of something creates an even bigger uproar from the rabidly curious and increasingly irate townfolk, leading to a showdown with the town officials (led by Mariel Hemmingway in a brief cameo) and an eventual standoff.

With a run time of nearly two hours, Colter and Zyzak can’t quite sustain the energy or keep up the interest they’ve laid out for the entirety of the film but for a while there The Wall of Mexico gets a nice buzz going as you try to figure out, along with Tom, what’s truly going on.  Is the Arista well some sort of fountain of youth, aiding the Arista clan in their success, longevity, and glamorous looks? Or is it simply water and a valuable resource they choose to keep for themselves, which they have every right to do.  The questions are interesting and the answers feel resolved long before the movie wraps up

It’s good, then, that the cast is so worth watching and brings something more to the script than what was on the page, and that goes for everyone on screen from top to bottom.  Usually, the characters that enter a world foreign to them can be the dullest ones in the bunch but Rathbone finds some good moments throughout that feel special, giving the audience someone they can feel some kind of small relation to.  There’s also a bit of a kinship to Morales as the father just doing right for his family and protecting what he’s worked hard to cultivate.  A hard-working character actor for years, Berkeley is solid as always.  Playing the two wild daughters that take great joy in manipulating the men they love and loathe in their lives, Zumbado and Sacramento are of particular note because they seem to hold the greatest air of mystery for the longest amount of time.

While it’s not the politically timed piece it appears to be at first, there are so many underlying currents flowing through The Wall of Mexico and its left to the viewer to draw their own parallels between the events in the news and what transpires on the Arista estate.  Colter has crafted a neat little parable that reflects on our culture and today’s entitled society, it’s often right on the money and I’d imagine it’s a more uncomfortable watch now than it was when I first saw it nearly a year ago.