Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad


The Hargrove family makes preparations for the unthinkable.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Susan Hargrove, Geddie Hargrove, Tom Hargrove, Miles Hargrove, Oscar Tejada, Claudia Greiner, Robert Clarx, Uli Greiner, David Little, Raford Hargrove, Peter Greiner, David Parkinson. Directed by Miles Hargrove

 

In the 90s, kidnappings by political, terrorist and guerilla groups and drug cartels reached epidemic proportions. So much so that a cottage industry sprang up around expert negotiators, and men dedicated to acting as liaisons between the kidnappers and the families of their victims. It was a nightmare scenario for anyone working abroad.

For the Hargrove family, it was a nightmare that became all too real. In 1994, the family – which had been all over the world for father Tom Hargrove’s job, had moved to Cali, Colombia where drug cartels were in the midst of a bloody war and where antigovernmental guerillas were terrorizing the populace almost as much as government soldiers were. Tom worked as an agricultural advisor, introducing new types of farming techniques and crops to help reduce starvation and make farming more productive in the reason. While Tom was in Vietnam during the war, the Viet Cong had targeted him but when they discovered that he was bringing new types of rice that would yield more in the region, he was left alone. Tom figured that this would protect him, that he was there to help the people who were in dire need of it, although kidnappings were common in the region.

He thought wrong. At what appeared to be a routine police check point on his way to work one morning, he was removed from his car by armed guerillas from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist group that aimed to overthrow the government and stop drug-related violence in the region. His wife, Susan, was alone in Colombia; her sons Geddie and Miles were both away at college but they both rushed to Cali to be by her side. Her German neighbors, Uli and Claudia Greiner and their son Peter, also provided support as did Tom’s brother Raford, who came in from Texas to lend a hand. They also hired former federal agent Oscar Tejada as their advisor to help them navigate the minefield that was negotiating with the kidnappers.

Miles had become obsessed with a new camcorder that he had gotten, much to the dismay of his father who was a little weary of being constantly filmed by his son. He documented the ordeal from the point of view of the family, from the major events – phone calls from the guerillas, strategy sessions, the setting up of secure phone lines so that nobody could listen in, and the ransom drops, which were tense affairs as the sums of money were always at risk for being confiscated by corrupt police – and family dinners, little bits of life as the family tried to somehow cope with the unbelievable stress of not knowing whether Tom was alive or not and if he would be returned alive once all was said and done. They grimly watch footage of kidnap victims being discovered machine-gunned by their kidnappers after the ransom was paid.

The footage is almost exclusively from Miles’ camcorder and so the quality is often poor, which might give some pause, but that would be a mistake. Some of the film plays almost like a spy thriller, with a sequence of the family trying to pay the ransom harrowing as they are followed by parties unknown – is it someone from the police or from the kidnappers? – plus they go for weeks and even months without hearing from the kidnappers, whose mountain location is imperiled by government forces seeking to eradicate them. The underlying worry was that Tom might be executed by the guerillas as the government made their situation untenable, or be caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the kidnappers and the army.

There are also interviews with some of the principles including mom Susan, the neighbors Uli and Claudia Greiner, Oscar Tejada and Geddie and Miles Hargrove that were conducted twenty years after the fact. Tom also kept an illicit diary he kept hidden in his money belt during the long ordeal and we are shown excerpts of that as well, some of which is almost impossible to read.

If you’re looking for great emotional releases, you won’t find many here; the family manage to keep control of their emotions admirably considering the circumstances. The ever-present eye of the camera give us an unflinching inside look at what the family went through that is both intimate and compelling. My only gripe is that Miles has a tendency to push the mundane aspects a little harder than he needed to which pads the running time a bit more than was necessary, but this is true crime done as perfectly as it can be.

REASONS TO SEE: An incredible, personal story. Plays like a crime thriller – except it’s a documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the home video footage feels extraneous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Proof of Life is based on this incident.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Proof of Life
,FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah

Senior Moment


Life begins at 80

(2021) Comedy (Screen Media) William Shatner, Jean Smart, Christopher Lloyd, Katrina Bowden, Esai Morales, Ruta Lee, Valerie Pettiford, Carlos Miranda, Beth Littleford, Don McManus, Maya Stojan, Joe Estevez, Ron Gilbert, Denise DuBarry, Kaye Ballard, Wesley Eure, Jack Wallace, David Shatraw, Jilon VanOver, Luke Massy, Melissa Greenspan. Directed by Giorgio Serafini

 

One of the main indignities of growing old is the loss of abilities; while we have been self-sufficient all our lives, suddenly we need help doing even the basics as various aches and pains and infirmities brought on by living an increasing number of years taxes are bodies well past our wear date. For many, the loss of the ability to drive is the loss of independence and brings us back to the dependency of our childhood. It’s humbling, to say the least.

Victor Martin (Shatner) is a former NASA test pilot (undoubtedly a nudge nudge wink wink at Shatner’s bests-known role) living out his retirement in balmy Palm Springs. A confirmed bachelor, he spends most of his days hanging out with his best buddy Sal (Lloyd) and driving his pride and joy, a vintage Porsche convertible. A man who has the need for speed, he’s not afraid to test his mettle against would-be drag races, but his enthusiasm often gets him making poor choices. After one too many drag races with a friendly rival (Miranda), his license is suspended and his Porsche impounded.

Relegated to public transportation, surly Uber drivers, expensive taxis and his own two feet, Victor is forced to slow things down and in doing so, runs into Caroline (Smart), a café owner who makes a mean strudel as well as an activist concerned with saving the desert tortoise. She and Victor couldn’t be less alike. Therefore, the two fall in love. Victor at last realizes that there is something more to life than fast cars and hot young girls, but does he have the ability, at this point in his life, to be a good romantic partner?

It should be said that Shatner was 86 when this was filmed and turned 90 just a few days before this film was released this past Friday (as this is written) and he doesn’t seem to have slowed down all that much. While nobody is hoping that his shirt rips any longer, he still has the screen presence that made him not only a star but a cultural icon. He has an easy chemistry with Designing Women’s Smart as well as Taxi’s Lloyd. He keeps things pretty much low-key and that serves him well here.

The problem with the movie isn’t so much the actors, who are for the most part accomplished pros who do their best with what they’re given, but in the writing. The movie follows established rom-com tropes and ends up being more predictable than it needed to be. I also thought the hoary old trope of the dirty-minded senior was insulting. Certainly seniors are sexual; that’s been explored in plenty of films and television shows. It just seems condescending to make a joke out of it.

But the worst thing is that most of the humor falls pretty flat. The movie feels like the director really wanted to make a drama and the writer really wanted to write a comedy; at times, the film seems at war with itself as to what it wants to be. I can only imagine that actors were wondering the same thing.

At worst, this is a predictable time-waster that will be viewed once, and then forgotten by the viewer who might have been attracted to see it due to the presence of the leads. At best, though, the charm and sweetness of the cast will be just enough to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO SEE: Generally sweet-natured entertainment.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor often falls flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual innuendo, sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shatner and Lloyd appeared together in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and then again in Just in Time For Christmas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews; Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad

Six Minutes to Midnight


Class dismissed.

(2020) Thriller (IFC) Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent, David Schofield, Carla Juri, Kevin Eldon, Nigel Lindsay, Rupert Holliday-Evans, Bianca Nawrath, Maria Dragus, Celyn Jones, Tijan Marei, Franziska Brandmeier, Richard Elfyn, Nicola Kelleher, Maude Druine, Andrew Byron, Luisa-Céline Gaffron, Toby Hadoke, Harley Broomfield, Evangeline Ward-Drummond. Directed by Andy Goddard

 

In Sussex on the southwestern English coast there was a girl’s finishing school called Augustus Victoria College, named for the last German empress. It existed in the 1930s, and the daughters of high ranking Nazi officials attend there to learn English manners. The school closed down when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, but the idea that such a school existed leads to some interesting theories.

It is the summer of 1939, mere weeks before Europe will erupt into a devastating war. When one of the teachers at Augusta Victoria mysteriously disappears, the ramrod-straight headmistress Miss Rocholl (Dench) needs to replace him in a hurry. She settles on journeyman teacher Thomas Miller (Izzard).

But Izzard isn’t just a teacher – in fact, he’s no teacher at all. He’s a spy, there to investigate the disappearance of the other teacher, who was also a spy. There is some thought that the school might be used to transmit sensitive information back to the Fatherland. Certainly, Miss Rocholl, an apologist for the Nazis (based mainly on her protective instincts for the young girls) allows the girls to listen to speeches from Hitler on the wireless, prompting the young girls to rise and give a good “Sieg, Heil!” in response. Also, one of the teachers – the lovely near-Olympic athlete Ilse Keller (Juri) – is absolutely on board with the Nazi party line.

He overhears a conversation that the girls are about to be smuggled out of England, a sure sign that Germany is getting ready to do something war-like. As he informs his handler, a shot rings out and his handler is dropped. Suddenly Miller has to run – not only from the assassin but from the local police who are convinced he did it and is the German spy. Now it is a race against time to inform his superiors, evade the police, evade the spies, avoid being double crossed by double agents, and protect the girls who may or may not be innocent pawns.

It sounds like that could be a fascinating movie, particularly for those who like spy thrillers set during the Second World War, but this is curiously colorless. Considering the caliber of the cast involved, that is especially surprising. Izzard is best-known for his biting social comedy, but as an action star he makes a fine comedian. But Dench is given a part that left me conflicted; clearly Miss Rocholl is very wrong about the Nazis, but in all other respects she seems to be forceful and forthright, but when it coes to politics she seems almost wishy washy. It’s the most un-Judi Dench-like performance I think I’ve ever seen Dench give, but she still manages to keep the audience attention because, well, she’s Judi Dench. So, too, for Eddie Izzard.

Part of the problem is that the writing here is a bit washed out. The character development is iffy, and the plot points seem culled from movies that have less to do with suspense and more to do with period accuracy. Think Dead Poet’s Society with a distaff student body and a Robert Ludlum bent. Unfortunately, it would have benefitted from Ludlum’s ability to build suspense because that is what is sorely lacking here.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench and Izzard do good work in roles that are less defined than they should be.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bland side, never reaching the level of suspense needed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and anti-Semitic dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Goddard is best known for directing several episodes of Downton Abbey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews; Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle Has Landed
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Senior Moment

The Dead of Night


Colby Crain takes a beer break.

(2021) Horror (Shout!) Jake Etheridge, Colby Crain, Leah Bezozo, Kyle Overstreet, Matthew Lawrence, Lance Henriksen, Charlotte McKee, Darius Homayoun, Merritt C. Glover, Boots Southerland, Jack Lutz, Jesse Kinser, Ellen Gerstein, Mark Speno, Chris Ranney, Tim Stafford, Maria Robison, Brian Patrick Buckley, Harrison Wirstrom, Rudy Benta, Sid Goodloe, Connie Hanley. Directed by Robert Dean

 

Some people prefer the hustle and bustle of a big city. Others prefer a more rural existence. There is something about living in the country – isolated, quiet, peaceful. You quickly learn to fend for yourself in a situation like that because if trouble comes, there’s nobody to come save you.

In a small New Mexico town a couple of drifters, both wearing wolf skins and masks, murder a pick-up truck driver and steal his truck. They move on into town where an annual rodeo is taking place. One of the stars, Colt Skeen (Homayoun) – a local boy – hooks up with Maddie (MeKee), the daughter of unpopular local developer (Speno) who has just announced that he is running for mayor, to a dreadfully stony silence. They repair in Colt’s rundown RV to an empty field (there are a lot of them around town) for a tryst, only to be interrupted by the wolfskin killers.

The killing of the young people take place near the ranch of Tommy (Etheridge), who has some things on his mind. His sister June (Crain) is leaving town the next day to fly out to Germany to be with her fiancée who is stationed on a base there. Young sheriff’s deputy Luke (Lawrence), who has a thing for June, suspects that Tommy has something to do with the killings which makes things even harder for the brother and sister who are already on thin ice with each other – Tommy wants her to stay and help run the family ranch, while June is happy to be anywhere but there.

But June is determined, so her friends Amber (Bezozo) and Ryan (Overstreet) throw a farewell party at her house for her. In the meantime, Tommy witnesses the wolfskin killers murdering an old man. He is detected but escapes, bringing the killers to his ranch – where they’ll terrorize the siblings and their guests. Blood will spill before a twist nobody will see coming gives the movie a punch in the gut.

Up until that twist, this is fairly standard stuff; mysterious masked strangers killing seemingly without rhyme or reason, murdering people at random simply because their paths cross. That has been a popular theme in horror movies, particularly of late. In these anxiety-ridden times, I think we’re all suspicious of just about everyone else. And we’re not too sure about ourselves.

There’s some real nice empty spaces cinematography courtesy of Troy Scoughton Jr., and while there is a country and western feel to the proceedings that give it a kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre overlay, which is nice and welcome in these times. The performances by the young cast are solid and Dean gives a lot more thought to character development than the average horror director, who tend to line up the body count more than anything else. You may notice genre veteran Lance Henriksen in the cast, but don’t be fooled – he’s only in the film for a very brief cup of coffee, and really has not much of an impact overall, which is a shame because he is the sort of actor who normally adds a great deal to any film he’s in. They could have used him in a larger role.

And there is a body count here, but curiously, not a whole lot of gore. The murders often take place off-screen and the gore is kept to a minimum. That might not sit well with hardcore horror fans, but there are compensations – namely, the character development I mentioned earlier. I wish that there had been a little more thought given to the plot, though, which is fairly derivative throughout until the climax. All in all, not a bad effort but a tame one when it comes to gore and horrific images.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to build the suspense nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many standard slasher tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of violence, and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in New Mexico and is based on a childhood fear of writer/director Dean, who grew up in an isolated rural environment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Minutes to Midnight

Older


As we grow older, life and love grow more complicated.

(2020) Romance (Rialto/Indie Rights) Guy Pigden, Liesha Ward Knox, Astra McLaren, Harley Neville, Samantha Jukes, Michael Drew, Michelle Leuthart, Louise Higgins, Jay Simon, Simon Ward, Peter Coonan, Melanie Bevan, Kelvin Taylor, Carey Lee. Directed by Guy Pigden

 

For the most part, we are all dragged kicking and screaming into maturity. When we are young, we are self-indulgent, self-centered and all about hanging out with friends, feeling good, and putting off responsibility just as long as humanly possible. Sooner or later, though, we are faced with the reality of growing up and becoming an adult…of getting older.

Alex (Pigden) hasn’t yet gotten there. An aspiring filmmaker, his one film was soundly rejected by critics and public alike, and he has retreated into a kind of rut, living with his Mum (Leuthart) and Dad (Drew), getting high, jerking off, and hanging out with a dwindling group of friends including Henry (Neville), his best friend from childhood who has started to make that climb into adulthood. He is living with his fiancée Isabelle (Jukes) and had a baby with her. Suddenly, Alex and Henry aren’t on the same page anymore.

At Henry and Isabelle’s wedding, Alex reconnects from a couple of women from his past – model Stephanie (McLaren), whom Alex has had a thing for since high school, while Jenny (Knox) was his partner in crime along with Henry. Alex is very interested still in Stephanie and it turns out she has some interest in him, while he enjoys hanging out with Jenny. Both relationships eventually lead to sex, which eventually leads to complications. All of the parties in this triangle are aware that they are far from exclusive with one another, and that’s fine with them – Stephanie doesn’t seem to have much of an emotional connection to Alex and while Jenny certainly has one, she’s no more interested in building a future with him than he is. She’s content to run her coffee shop, hang out with Alex and other partners on occasion – that is, until one of those annoying real life complications hits her smack in the face, giving Alex – who up until now has been quite the likable bloke – the opportunity to do something utterly stupid, and damn near unforgivable.

For his part, Alex is also dealing with real life events that have left him forced to sort out who he is and more importantly, who he wants to be. Alex, at 29, now realizes that maturity is beckoning whether he wants it to or not; and while he can choose to ignore it and continue to exist in the comfortable rut he has lived in for years (and that’s always an option), the consequences of that choice may be more than he can bear.

Pigden, who also wrote and directed the movie, actually comes off as extremely likable despite the immaturity that is basic to the character and other than one incident alluded to above (note to all young men – the question he asks Jenny (and you’ll know what it is when you hear it) is one that you should never EVER under any circumstances whatsoever ask a woman you have any feelings for)you’ll find yourself enjoying his company which is a good thing because he’s in nearly every frame of the film.

While I don’t object to flashbacks per se, the way they are utilized here in what is essentially a linear narrative comes off as overuse which, I admit, might just be a personal taste thing on my part. He also utilizes a kind of romcom type of template particularly near the end of the movie that veteran movie buffs might find off-putting. There is also a fair amount of nudity, sex, and what some would consider bad behavior but might for a segment of society just be another Friday night, so if that kind of thing bothers you, be aware.

But most of all, this is a movie that hits al the right notes. It’s the kind of movie that bores into your brain like that song you can’t forget and as time goes by, you regard it more fondly than you did the first time you experienced it. Pigden has written that this is a personal film for him, and you can tell that it holds an awful lot of meaning for him. While not strictly autobiographical, enough of his life experiences have been included to give the movie a whole lot of authenticity. I imagine that you might not have had this on your radar – unfortunately, the film received little publicity or fanfare which is sadly the case for most indie films – but this is a jewel worth seeking out, particularly if you are of an age where your twenties are in jeopardy of becoming your thirties and you’re wondering if that’s all there is. Spoiler alert; it isn’t, and movies like this can take the sting out of getting older.

REASONS TO SEE: Snappy dialogue and smart soundtrack. Pigden is extremely likable for the most part.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies on flashbacks a little too much. Uses a few standard romance tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sex, and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes from Alex’s horror film are actually Pigden’s award-winning short No Caller ID.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, Roku, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Second Chance
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Dead of Night

The United States vs. Billie Holiday


Lady Day sings the blues.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Audra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Slim Williams, Orville Thompson, Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Corbett, Amanda Strawn. Directed by Lee Daniels

 

For most modern Americans, Billie Holiday is a distant memory of our grandparents, a footnote on the cultural scene whose name might be familiar but whose music isn’t. As our tastes have turned more towards Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Lady Gaga in terms of female performers, few realize that all three – and so many more – owe Holiday a debt of gratitude.

Holiday’s best-known song is “Strange Fruit,” written by the poet-activist Abel Meeropol, depicting the lynching of a black man. The song, even today, is absolutely horrifying and stark. Time magazine voted it the song of the centurn in 1999, and for good reason. The song also got Holiday the attention of the FBI, led by the noted racist J. Edgar Hoover, whose underling and chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) remarked that while they couldn’t arrest her for singing a song, they could arrest her for her noted drug use.

From then on, Billie Holiday (Day) was a marked soman. Hounded by the FBN, she was arrested for narcotics use – turned in by undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) who later became romantically involved with her – and sent to prison for a year. Because of her conviction, she lost her cabaret license which allowed her to perform in nightclubs which was her bread and butter. She was able to get booked at Carnegie Hall, where she delivered a triumphant comeback performance that led to European tours and theater bookings, but Anslinger continued to put the pressure on, even arresting her and handcuffing her as she lay dying on her deathbed at the age of 44.

It’s a sad, disgraceful story that as told here, is largely true, although some things are inventions; the extent of her romantic involvement with Fletcher is unknown as is much of his background. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote her screenplay based on a single chapter of a Johann Hari book on the war on drugs that detailed how the FBI went after Holiday in the last decade of her life.

We are treated to an absolutely dazzling performance by Day, which has already netted her the Golden Globe in a bit of an upset (it was thought that Frances McDormand had the award sewn up) and puts her on track for the Best Actress Oscar, which she is nominated for. She does her own singing here and does a pretty good approximation of Holiday, although she lacks some of the vocal warmth that Holiday had. She captures Holiday’s feisty, don’t-take-no-crap attitude that was at odds with the amount of abuse she took from the men in her life who abused her physically (and helped her get hooked on heroin) and financially, as well as from a society that didn’t want women of color to speak out against the system. Her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” is portrayed as an act of heroism, which it surely was.

The odd thing here is how the song, which was theoretically at the center of her troubles with the government, isn’t sung completely through here – she reads some of the lyrics at one point and a few lines are sung, but the song remains more of a concept than an actual presence. Even the triumphant Carnegie Hall performance, in which audience members are depicted calling out for the song, curiously doesn’t have her singing it, even though she did perform it that night. Considering how important the song is to the story, and that people are less familiar with the song now than they were even twenty years ago, it’s mystified why we don’t hear more of it.

Daniels weaves in a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, jumping around in the narrative which can be confusing at times. We do see the absolutely horrific childhood she experienced which certainly led to her need to escape her demons through drugs, alcohol and sex. While her affairs with men are shown pretty graphically, Daniels is a bit coy with her affairs with women, alluding only to one female lover (actress Tallulah Bankhead); she was bisexual and had more than a few female partners during her time.

But that’s no nevermind. This is a much grittier – and less sanitized – version of Holiday than the more well-known portrayal in Lady Sing the Blues and while the movie is on the long side and could have used a bit less emphasis on Anslinger and Fletcher, this is still a high-end movie that deserves to have a wide audience, not just for the story of one of America’s great artists, but on how shabbily she was treated.

REASONS TO SEE: Day gives an award-winning performance. The music is unforgettable. Captures the reality of the African-American experience of the era. Daniels pulls no punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: The presentation is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is heavy drug use, profanity, racial epithets, sex and nudity, violence and disturbing images of lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan Ross, who plays an FBI agent in the movie, is the grandson of Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sing the Blues.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billie
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Older

Atomic Cover-Up


The serenity of absolute destruction.

(2021) Documentary (Exposed Films) Osamu Inoue, Dennis Predovic, Rob Burgos. Directed by Greg Mitchell

In August, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They remain, to this day, the only places on this planet where atomic weapons have been used. Images of the devastation caused by the bombs have been widely available for decades, but the human toll has never been documented effectively – until now.

Within days of the bombs dropping, cameramen for a Japanese newsreel agency went to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima to film the destruction as a historical document. They also took plenty of black and white footage of the human suffering, of people hideously burned and deformed by the radiation. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army sent cameramen Daniel McGovern and Herbert Sussan to take color footage in both locations, mainly to be used for scientific study. Under American supervision, the footage from both the American and Japanese cameramen were edited into a single 2 ½-hour documentary, with voice-over narration. The Japanese news agency was distressed over the way the documentary was presented and purposely put inappropriately light-hearted music over some of the footage to express their disdain.

While McGovern was eager to have the film seen as a means of impressing that peace was now more vital than ever, the Army decided to go the other way; all of the footage was confiscated and stored away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Despite the efforts of both Sussan and McGovern to get the footage into the eyes of the public, it remained there gathering dust until the late 60s when it was declassified. Eric Barnouw, a Columbia University professor and documentary expert, assembled some of the footage into a documentary that aired on PBS. Bits of the footage were used in the 1959 Alain Resnais film Hiroshima Mon Amour; when the Army had seized the footage, Nippon Eiga Sha secreted a copy of the original film in the ceiling of an editing bay where it sat for years.

Mor recently, author and filmmaker Greg Mitchell (who wrote a book on the history of the footage) has now created a documentary about the cover-up of that footage which premiered March 20th at the Cinequest Film Festival in my old stomping grounds, San Jose, California. The footage has been restored to 4K specifications and looks about as pristine as it did when it was first shot. The documentary is not narrated, but in Ken Burns fashion the words of the various cameramen involved with the footage were read by voice actors over the footage. Some additional newsreel footage was also included.

As McGovern pointed out, most of the film shown to the American public about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of the bombs concentrated strictly on the damage to buildings and infrastructure; the human cost of the radiation sickness and the massive number of deaths from the blast itself were largely hidden by the Army. The reasons for this are not really explored; I get the sense that the Army didn’t want the public upset at the horrific nature of the injuries and illness that followed the bombings, in order to maintain America’s image as white knights, I suppose. Personally, that seems short-sighted to me; perhaps it might have been more effective to show that footage and proclaim “this is what happens when we use these weapons, which we still have. Please don’t give us an excuse to use them ever again.” But again, that might have tarnished America’s image and worse, our self-image.

In may ways this is a distressing film. Some of the images of burns and death are almost sickening to look at; I strongly recommend that those who are sensitive to such things think very hard before viewing this film. The movie, though, is a very important document of footage that has been kept secret from Americans for decades; even though it aired on PBS in 1970, I would wager most modern Americans don’t even know it exists. Now, you do.

REASONS TO SEE: Short (only 52 minutes) but extremely powerful. Historical documentation of one of the most awful events in history. Encompasses both American and Japanese points of view. Uses the words of the cameramen who shot the footage effectively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can be disturbing for sensitive viewers. Could have explored the reasons for the cover-up more thoroughly.
FAMILY VALUES: There are lots of disturbing images of the effects of radiation sickness and of the devastation of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including human remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former president Dwight Eisenhower noted that he felt that Japan was already on the verge of surrender and that the use of atomic weapons was unnecessary.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through March 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message from Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Happily


Married couples red light district.

(2021) Comedy (Saban) Kerry Bishé, Joel McHale, Natalie Morales, Stephen Root, Charlyne Yi, Shannon Woodward, Breckin Meyer, Brea Grant, Al Madrigal, Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Billie Wolff. Directed by BenDavid Grabinski

 

It is a truism that as the years go by, passion within a couple cools down. While we are newlyweds, we cannot keep our hands off one another. With age comes wisdom and a settling into a more comfortable relationship as we learn to accept our partners foibles and quirks (or don’t) and get used to the idea that, for better or worse, here is the person we’re going to spend the rest of our lives with – the person we’re stuck with, in other words.

Tom (McHale) and Janet (Bishé) are the exceptions. Fourteen years into their marriage and they still can’t wait to have sex with each other – and do at every possible opportunity, including at parties, in clubs, at home – whenever they can do the bad thing, they do it.

This has taken a toll on their friends. Tom’s ex Karen (Zea) and her husband Val (Scheer), fed up with the lovey-dovey couple, have disinvited them from an upcoming couples’ weekend at a snazzy estate with a spectacular view of L.A. They are shortly thereafter visited by a stranger named Goodman (Root) who informs them that due to a defect in their genetic make-up, they have not done what most couples do and lose that newlywed zeal. However, a quick stick with a syringe full of dayglo yellow goop will quickly put things right and make them both miserable, which is to say, normal.

Janet, however, is not okay with this option and chooses to take action to prevent this. Shortly after, they are re-invited to the couples-only weekend and show up along with the aforementioned Karen and Val, Patricia (Morales) – the only one among them who isn’t uncomfortable with their failure to lose the romance – and grumpy Donald (Daly), snooty Carla (Howell-Baptiste) and shy Maude (Woodward) and newly engaged Richard (Meyer) and Gretel (Yi).

This couples weekend was supposed to be a means of blowing off steam, but it turns out to be therapeutic in a most unconventional and unexpected way. As secrets get discovered, issues get confronted and the dead don’t stay buried, and relationships will be changed.

This is kind of a black comedy that comments on our obsession with wanting more, our refusal as a society to appreciate what we have, and the nature of relationships and what constitutes a happy one, all with a slightly supernatural bent. It helps that there is an outstanding cast, with Bishé, Morales and Root all doing standout turns and McHale nearly stealing the show.

Unfortunately, writer-director BenDavid Grabinski didn’t really develop many of the characters; this was a case of too many roles. He could have probably combined some of the attributes of the supporting cast and reduced the cast by four or more people; it certainly would have made the film a bit more interesting. Certainly he could have worked a bit on the ending, which was a big letdown.

But by and large, this is a solid film that while not spectacular, at least hits most of the right notes. With a few tweaks here and there, it could have been something special. As it is, it’s not bad at all; but it’s not great. Worth a rental? Sure enough.

REASONS TO SEE: Dark and twisted with a nifty soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit pointless at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and lots and lots of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Jack Black is among the producers for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Box
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Atomic Cover-Up

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily

Lava


Big trees invite big snakes.

(2019) Animated Feature (Rock Salt) Starring the voices of Janeane Garofalo, Martin Piroyaski, Daisy Hamilton-Risher. Directed by Ayar Blasco

 

Not everyone sees things the same way. For example, we can all look at a painting by Salvador Dali. We can be mesmerized by the image. We can be repulsed by the subject matter. But we will all see it and interpret it through our own lens, through our own experiences. And what we ourselves see isn’t necessarily what everyone else sees.

Debora (Garofalo) is a tattoo artist who is currently single, although her roommate – who is deliriously in love – wants to set her up with a friend, who is quite taken with her. Debora is less enthusiastic, but is open to the idea. The four of them settle down to watch a bootlegged version of the hit fantasy series – all of them being proud flag-waving nerds – Gain of Clones. That’s when things go weird. All their broadcast media – the TV, the radio, their phones, go haywire. Anything with a display is broadcasting strange images. One of them enters a trance-like state. Then as abruptly as it began, they regain their normal signals.

But nothing is normal. Giant cats prowl the rooftops. Giant snakes are eating people. A giant witch terrorizes the town. It’s an alien invasion, and the one person who can stop it might be Debora. If she wants to, that is.

The plot – such as it is – is deceptively simple, but I’m leaving a lot out; not just because it would spoil the viewing of it (although it might) but mainly because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you put it down on paper…err, a digital screen. But the animation is definitely simplistic, a throwback to Nicktoons and Adult Swim animation. This isn’t anime by any stretch of the imagination.

But speaking of imagination, there’s plenty of that here. This movie is so far out of the box that the box has ceased to be a reference point. This movie just is and that’s really all it needs to be. There’s no real explaining it; it has to be experienced.

But that said, this isn’t for everybody. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s for a narrow range of film buffs who grew up in the 90s, have a certain simpatico for sci-fi and fantasy, don’t mind a little romance, and prefer their movies to be as completely whacko as they possibly can be – the less mainstream, the better. If 2020 had been a normal year, this might have done some serious damage on the festival circuit and perhaps it still will, but for those Jonesing for a virtual film festival of their own to curate might do well to add this to their list. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the weird part.

REASONS TO SEE: Studiously weird, but imaginative.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story jumps around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original Spanish-language version, acclaimed Argentine actress Sofia Gala Castiglione voices the role of Debora.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, MUBI, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: >em>No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extraterrestrial
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Courier