Belle Vie

At the heart of Marcus Mizelle’s Belle Vie is Vincent Samarco, a passionate French immigrant whose warm and jovial demeanor has you fully invested in his difficult journey bringing his restaurant Belle Vie (meaning “the good life”) to his Los Angeles community. Slideshows of close-up images detail the delicious food that he so finely crafts. Mizelle’s film is a medley of small, intimate observations into Samarco’s domestic life, family history, and relationships with his workers— all of the human details that go into his trade. 

Belle Vie is not your average food documentary as it explores the impact of COVID-19 on hardworking restauranters like Samarco. Despite all of the struggles to remain open during California’s harsh restrictions, Samarco maintains a positivity that is inspiring.  He reflects on the importance of restaurants and other public institutions to find kinship and camaraderie with others. Belle Vie was the heart of many people’s lives, a space for good music, conversation, and meeting new friends. In this modern age of remote work and staring in front of our computer screens all day, Samarco’s heartfelt interviews about the virtues of human connection are quite moving to hear. 

One of the unique things that Samarco did during the pandemic was let patrons contribute their favorite memories on a chalk drawing that looked like the inside of Belle Vie covering the facade of the restaurant. Mizelle’s combination of talking head interviews and fly-on-the-wall shots of Samarco and his wife Ornella is very engaging, especially as they fight to keep Belle Vie open while the state piles on more and more constraints. Samarco’s earnest love of cooking and community, as well as his good-natured presence, makes Belle Vie an uplifting work in spite of the disheartening ending. Through its hardworking and cheerful main subject, the affectionate documentary Belle Vie delivers a powerful message about persevering despite the worst and most uncertain of times. It is exactly the kind of comfort food we need in this post-pandemic world. 

Stalker

Incorporating social media into films—particularly horror genre ones—in an organic and fluid manner is tricky,  but Stalker does so with panache. Tyler Savage’s Stalker is an unsettling film about the dual disconnection and intrusiveness of modern society. The riveting Vincent Van Horn stars as Andrew, a young man soothing his recent heartbreak by moving to Los Angeles. He still spends his nights scrolling through photographic memories with his ex-girlfriend Erin. Soon he meets the beguiling Sam (Christine Ko) at a bar and they connect over their failed relationships. Andrew’s world comes crashing down when he crosses paths with Roger,  a lonely ride-share driver. 

Michael Lee Joplin’s kinetic performance carries the film; he deftly balances the eerie charm of the psychopathic role without being too cartoonish. Roger develops an obsession with Andy and starts harassing him by threatening his adorable dog Juicebox, installing secret cameras, impersonating him on phone calls, and so much more. Savage, working from his script with Dash Hawkins, skillfully builds the tension as Roger’s grip on Andy’s life becomes increasingly stronger. Roger ends up running Andy’s job, relationships, and finances with the simple push of a button. The way Roger can destroy Andy’s life and assume his identity through technology with such ease is utterly terrifying. 

Stalker features a clever twist ending that is best left as a surprise and sure to rattle viewers. Savage makes great use of the lower budget and small cast to craft an unsettling film about the power social media has in our lives. It is an incisive horror piece that handles its brutality and psychological menace with precision and makes you think twice about exposing yourself so intimately online. 

Coast

Coast has familiar teen-movie themes: disaffected youth who want to escape their hometown, teen pregnancy, an inspiring English teacher, concerns about the future, and parental strife. But it is also an affectionate portrait of a unique and specific agricultural community and its people. The film focuses on the children of Californian immigrants who endure difficult, back-breaking labor in the local strawberry fields or vineyards. Coast centers on a group of bold young girls who yearn to find their own place in the world. 

15-year-old Abby (Fatima Ptacek) longs to know what lies beyond her stifling hometown of Santa Maria, a point of view that is slightly at odds with the painterly compositions of pale skies and lush greens from cinematographer D.J. Harder. She cannot appreciate the town’s rugged beauty because, like most teenagers, she wants to spread her wings and fly somewhere else. Ptacek delivers an electric performance as the rebellious and listless Abby. She fiercely communicates the fire in Abby’s belly for something more, particularly through her love of music. 

Abby butts heads with her hard-working mother, a night-shift nurse played by a staid Cristela Alonzo. She takes care of an ailing woman played by the formidable Melissa Leo, whose side plot is unnecessary but engaging. Abby’s father Blake (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) has been kicked out of their home for getting his secretary pregnant and Abby largely ignores him. A bright light in Abby’s humdrum existence is the enigmatic musician Dave (Kane Ritchotte), a traveling musician who makes Abby believe her dreams can come true. 

Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart and writer Cindy Kitagawa give Coast a meandering feeling that drags at times but evokes the aimless feeling of the main characters. What is most significant about the film is that it is told through the lens of Hispanic teenagers, many of whose parents are undocumented laborers. There is also the constant thrum of music, whether it be live performances or on the soundtrack that gives Coast vibrant energy, even in its tedious moments. Coast is an earnest coming-of-age film about adolescent discontent with a unique perspective on the pressures of second-generation immigrants.

What We Do Next

What We Do Next is small in scale but tackles wide-ranging issues such as familial trauma, social justice, and moral responsibility. The tense drama focuses on a young woman released from prison after 16 years for using funds donated by community activists to purchase a gun and kill her father. Writer/director Stephen Belber confronts the difficult question of who was responsible for the young girl and if it was wrong to provide her a pathway to crime.

Belber’s film uses an intimate theatrical structure to craft a strained atmosphere. Each scene only includes two or three actors often shot in tight close-ups, occurs in an enclosed space, and takes place in real-time. This filmmaking style amplifies the pressure the characters feel and the impact of the actors’ heated performances.

A pensive and determined Corey Stoll plays a liberal lawyer now doing corporate work who agrees to take the fall for loaning Elsa the money. Karen Pittman is powerful as the conflicted Sandy, an intelligent and ambitious politician who truly wants to help others but unwittingly aided a murder. Michelle Veintmilla deftly captures the pain and trauma that lies beneath Elsa’s blinding rage and manipulation. Elsa has a short fuse that frequently sets off and burns everything in its path. At times Ventmilla’s crackling energy is over the top, but it shows how Elsa is desperately clawing her into an acceptable future.

Despite its title, What We Do Next doesn’t offer any pat answers. Instead, the film challenges the audience to consider the harmful ramifications of political idealism. What We Do Next teaches us that solving the problems of inner-city youth is easier said than done, and there are no tangible solutions for an entire systemic issue. The film approaches such ideas with a thoughtful intensity.

MICerz

MICerz revolves around a hapless group of mostly male comedians trying to make it in Hollywood. Most of the comedy is derived from them roasting one another. If crass humor is not your style, this film may not appeal to you, especially because the acerbic jokes obnoxiously go on for the entirety of the film. The flat, dark visuals match the cynical tone of Omar Dzlieri’s screenplay.

Arnold is a down-on-his-luck comic who lives in a van. He agrees to help out Dave, the grouchy owner of a hole-in-the-wall club The Bomb Shelter, in exchange for parking nearby and practicing there. The best part of the film is Arnold’s dynamic with the other comics, despite a few stilted performances from some of the ensemble. Through their quick-witted sparring, Dzlieri authentically captures how they find humor in every situation and are constantly striving to perfect their craft.

The Bomb Shelter allows the group of comedians to test their sets on one another, and they call each other out when they bomb (hence the club’s name). While it is fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes of a comedian perfecting their set, the constant barrage of failed jokes starts to irritate the viewer.

MICerz is not a triumphant tale of upward mobility. Told with wry humor and a touch of cynicism, the film navigates the failures and flaws of people who are dedicated to finding the humor in those very same things. This is not a story of finding stardom but of exposing the underbelly of Hollywood. Not all viewers will be able to handle the boorish humor, but MICerz has a gritty outlook that makes the comedians’ quest for success compelling.