Spy escapades, teen chesscapades, and a new Shakespeare adaptation are on the slate this week.
Featuring an octogenarian neophyte undercover sleuth, the Chilean documentary “The Mole Agent,” on Video On Demand, begins as a lighthearted romp and slowly becomes a poignant statement on aging and loneliness.
Director Maite Alberdi, who has made a string of documentaries about older people, has packaged the film as a nonfiction senior-citizen spy comedy shot fly-on-the-wall style. Her central figure is a find.
He’s Sergio Chamy, an unassuming 83-year-old widower chosen by noir-styled private eye Romulo Aitken from a group of respondents to a job ad seeking an independent male, age 80 to 90.
Romulo has a client who wants him to investigate whether her elderly mother, Sonia, is being abused at the Santiago-area assisted-living home where she resides. Sergio’s mission is to infiltrate the facility, pose as an ordinary resident, get close to Sonia, aka the “target,” and determine if she’s been mistreated.
After some humorous scenes in which Sergio struggles to master his cellphone, his three-month assignment begins.
Sergio’s no 007. His search for the “target” proceeds slowly, and, snooping around the premises, he appears comically conspicuous. “All the ladies look the same to me,” Sergio tells the increasingly impatient Romulo, explaining why he hasn’t found Sonia yet.
Sergio’s a hit with other residents, though, most of whom are women who adore his gentlemanly company. One envisions marrying him. So popular is Sergio that he is crowned “king” of the nursing home.
Not all that transpires is sunny. Dementia and death shade the general upbeat tone.
One woman carries on cogent conversations with Sergio but, each time, can’t remember having spoken with him before.
Another conducts imaginary phone calls with her dead mother.
A funeral occurs.
Eventually, Sergio locates the “target,” and his findings, while anticlimactic on one level, shift the film into deeper terrain. Loneliness is the facility’s worst problem, Sergio concludes. Residents feel isolated and abandoned.
This isn’t a hard-hitting documentary. We receive few details about what everyday life is like for long-term residents at the home, who tend to be less physically or mentally able than Sergio.
But there’s nothing unclear about the emotions Alberdi captures, from the joy that flows among residents during Sergio’s “king”-crowning celebration to the sense of purpose the spy assignment gives Sergio. A depressed grieving widower at the beginning of the film, he’s found a new calling — brightening the lives of others — by the end.
With his leading-man charisma, generous heart, natural elegance (when he’s not sleuthing), and endearing clunkiness (when he is sleuthing), Sergio is a wonderful documentary protagonist. His comments about how older people are often betrayed by their brains and ignored by their families give the film an underlying message and a compassionate voiceover.
Romulo, meanwhile, who seems to picture himself as a Chilean Sam Spade, is an entertaining supporting presence.
It all adds up to an uplifting and engaging blend of spy entertainment, personal journey, social statement and thoughtful reflection.
The Mole Agent
With: Sergio Chamy, Romulo Aitken
Written and directed by: Maite Alberdi
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Streaming on demand starting Friday, “Critical Thinking,” John Leguizamo’s feature directorial debut, dramatizes the success stories of Mario Martinez, the Miami Jackson High School teacher who, in 1998, led a team of academically neglected teens to a National Chess Championship victory. With its familiar plot lines and lack of surprises, the film can be frustratingly ordinary. But generally, it pleases, due to Leguizamo’s sincerity, the cast’s likeability, and the uplift delivered by its underdog story.
Working from a screenplay by Dito Montiel, Leguizamo offers an inspiring-teacher drama, like “Dangerous Minds” or “Freedom Writers,” and a sports film that includes corny pep talks and a climatic competition. More singularly, Leguizamo addresses the lack of opportunities available for Latinx and African-American young people, especially in the intellectual arena.
Leguizamo also stars in the movie, portraying Mario Martinez, whose “critical thinking” elective class is all about chess. Martinez describes the game as the “great equalizer” to his students, most of whom are Latinx or African-American and from low-income families and high-crime neighborhoods. The school board underfunds their education. Martinez objects to Principal Kestel (Rachel Bay Jones), but she’s little help.
Martinez, who believes in the kids, forms a chess team consisting of four top players and prepares them for a regional tournament.
Sedrick (Corwin Tuggles), whose troubled father (Michael Kenneth Williams) also plays chess, and Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who works nights to help support his family, are the team’s most featured members. Gil (Will Hochman) and Rodelay (Angel Bismark Curiel) round out the quartet. Marcel (Jeffry Batista), a brilliant Cuban immigrant, comes aboard later.
Overcoming challenges that include raising funds and dealing with officials who interpret their nonwhite faces and not prestigious school jackets as signs of loserhood, the team advances to the nationals.
Surprises rarely occur, and the story unfolds predictably. We know that somebody will get shot and that Ito will start dealing drugs, for example.
Inadequate character development, too, is a problem.
Yet as formula pictures go, this one’s got vitality and purpose. Leguizamo’s storytelling, while conventional, features lively interactions, embraceable characters and credibly depicted struggles. The tournament scenes contain sports-movie adrenaline.
In actor mode, Leguizamo conveys the dedication, and the sometimes hokey way of showing it, that we associate with our favorite teachers.
The young actors, to whom Leguizamo generously yields much of the spotlight — Tuggles and Lendeborg, who have the most to work with, are particularly strong — share an engaging energy and are convincing as chess champions.
Leguizamo has said that he made this film to counter the stereotypes that popular culture perpetuates about Latins and other minorities, and the movie is particularly noteworthy for its non-preachy condemnation of the belief that teens like Sedrick and Ito may be able to handle a football but are incapable of soaring intellectually. What a joy it is to see these kids prove that attitude immensely wrong.
Starring: John Leguizamo, Corwin Tuggles, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Michael Kenneth Williams
Written by: Dito Montiel
Directed by: John Leguizamo
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Streaming Friday, the Australian film “Measure for Measure” transports William Shakespeare’s neither tragic nor comic Vienna-set play about vice, virtue, and mercy to contemporary Melbourne and takes the form of a gangster tale and forbidden-love story. Events transpire in a drug-plagued housing complex and involve the Shakespearean subjects of power struggles, ethnic conflicts and virginity.
A mass shooting committed by a war-damaged meth addict gives rise to a tangle of mini-dramas. Forced to lie low, crime lord Duke (Hugo Weaving) puts top underling Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) in charge of his empire, with problematic consequences.
A young Muslim woman (Megan Smart) pursues a romance with a musician (Harrison Gilbertson), to the disapproval of her traditional mother (Doris Younane) and brutal gun-running brother (Fayssal Bazzi). Not all ends badly.
Director Paul Ireland, who cowrote the screenplay with his late “Pawno” collaborator Damian Hill, has given thoughtful consideration to the relevance of the bard’s play in contemporary Australia and the world. The performances — Weaving and Smart are standouts — are more than adequate.
But the plot-dense, character-packed story seldom comes to stirring life, and while the actors emote capably, the emotion doesn’t resonate much.
Measure for Measure
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Mark Leonard Winter, Megan Smart, Harrison Gilbertson
Written by: Damian Hill, Paul Ireland
Directed by: Paul Ireland
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes