Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer


Even police officers must tread lightly when walking while black.

(2017) Documentary (Magnetbox/Buffalo 8) Fred Williamson, Gavin Newsom, Melvin Russell, Catherine E. Pugh, Pastor Michael Freeman, Jameel “Zookie” McGee, Andrew Collins, A.J. Ali, Chance M. Glenn Sr., Tim McMillan, Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., Tsega Hapte, Jose Carvajal, Cheryl Dorsey. Directed by A.J. Ali

 

It is no secret that one of the most inflammatory topics in American culture currently is the relationship between the justice system and the African-American community. There is no doubt that our brothers and sisters of color have every right to be angry and frustrated – if you do doubt it, watch the first half of the film, of the footage of Eric Garner being choked to death, of the cases of Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott, of Philando Castile dying in the hands of the Baltimore police department.

You won’t see George Floyd or any more contemporary cases here – this movie was made more than four years ago and is only now appearing on VOD platforms (see below for details). However, it is just as timely now as it was then. The film isn’t just a laundry list of grievances against the cops, however – although that could fill a documentary in and of itself – but also gives the perspective of the police force, of cops encountering systemic racism in their own departments, community leaders of color who experienced racial profiling and those working in the legal system showing how even judges and prosecutors are pressured to convict black suspects.

The second half of the film focuses on changing mindsets, of forgiving past injustices and moving forward to a better future. Love is used as an acronym here – L stands for Learning About People and Communities, O for Opening Our Hearts and Being Empathic, V for Volunteering to be Part of the Solution, and E for Empowering Others. Some examples of how those concepts are being carried out are discussed.

One of the more inspiring examples is that of Jameel “Zookie” McGee, a black father who was unjustly arrested and ended up serving four years he didn’t owe. Andrew Collins, the arresting officer, had his eyes opened by the experience and wanted to make amends. He and McGee ended up meeting and McGee ended up forgiving him for his transgression. The two have since forged an impressive friendship.

Also worthy of notice is Colonel Melvin Russell of the Baltimore P.D. As a detective, he was told by officers above him in the chain of command that he was only suited for undercover work buying narcotics rather than the work he wanted to do – being an actual detective – because he wasn’t smart enough due to the color of his skin. He would go on not only to prove those men wrong, but to become one of the most decorated officers in the city and leading an effort to changing the relationship between his department and the predominantly black communities they serve.

The movie relies an awful lot on talking head interviews and that can become a bit stupefying after awhile, but the message is one worth hearing, particularly on the day that this is being published by Cinema365 – Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery which was recently made a federal holiday. Racial relations in the United States remain a source of conflict in this country, particularly as there is a segment of our society that insists that there IS no conflict at this time, flying in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Some African-Americans wonder, not unjustly, why it is the African-American community that is always being tasked with being the ones to forgive. Well, the answer is simple – they are the ones being wronged. Forgiveness must come from their side; it cannot come from the side that did the wrongdoing. That doesn’t mean that the bulk of the work here has to be done by communities of color. On the contrary; the white community must learn to put aside their preconceptions and change their outlook. They must learn to trust people of color as they trust people who aren’t. Finally, and most importantly, they must learn to apply justice equally to everyone, regardless of race, or religion, or sexual identity, or gender, or anything else that might make them different. We are all, after all, in this same life together and share the same hopes and dreams. Once we begin to understand that, perhaps there won’t be a need for documentaries like this one in the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Spends the second half of the film on viable solutions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Ali’s first feature as a director and writer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whose Streets?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Tigre Gente


On the hunt for the hunters.

(2021) Documentary (XTR) Marcos Uzquiano, Laurel Chor, Gloria Chor, Zhang Go Yang. Directed by Elizabeth Unger

 

It is no secret that the natural world is under siege, and that largely due to humans. Our expanding population requires that more and more land that was once the sole habitat of animals are becoming developed for human habitation. The toxins we pour into the water and the soil are poisoning animals and the plant life that they feed on at an alarming rate. The carbons and hydrocarbons we release into the atmosphere are warming the planet, rendering some habitats unlivable for some species of animals and insects. We are diverting wter for agriculture and other less pressing needs, turning once lush places into virtual deserts. And particularly in countries like china and Myanmar, folk medicine remedies that depend on various organs, skin and bone of a variety of animals has led to a lucrative poaching trade.

Bolivia’s Madidi National Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is also one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and is one of the last places which is densely populated by jaguars. However, poachers are reducing the population of jaguars in this protected place at an alarming rate. Park director Marcos Uzquiano is trying to get to the bottom of the problem. He is committed to protecting these beautiful animals, long a symbol of strength and wisdom to the natives of the region.

Meanwhile on the border between Myanmar and China, journalist and environmental activist Laurel Chor is discovering a thriving trade on jaguar teeth and pelts. She is wondering who is buing these items, and what are they being used for. Without knowing it, she is following the same trail that Uzquiano is from different ends.

The sequences set in Madidi are breathtaking and justify the park’s reputation for being one of the places on Earth that is unmatched in terms of natural wonder. Unger, a National Geographic Explorer who has been to all seven continents and is making her documentary feature debut here, builds up the Uzquiano sequence almost like a thriller, with a boat chase of poachers who were likely armed, and a sting operation in which a suspect is found to be trafficking in illegal jaguar teeth and quickly confesses and begs for clemency. We also see Uzquiano interacting with fishermen and villagers in the region, trying to find out who is hunting the big cats and more importantly, who they are selling to.

The Chor sequence is a bit more dry but no less important. She wears a hidden camera as she interviews selelrs at markets who display jaguar skulls and teeth alongside cell phones, others with piles of shark fins to be sold to chefs for shark fin soup. Chor is a bit more articulate than Uzquiano, discussing the situation with her mother who at first disbelieves the claims of environmentalists as “exagerrations” but as her daughter steadfastly informs her that the rhinos whose horns were taken as aphrodisiacs are extinct, she gets defensive. “It’s not just a Chinese problem. There is also a lot of ivory in America.”

Chor realizes that it is a cultural issue, and that changing the hearts and minds of literally billions of people is going to require education rather than indoctrination. She gives talks with school children, trying to open some eyes which Unger hopes to do in the West with her film. Uzquiano comes off perhaps less polished than Chor, but no less committed.

It has been said before and by far more articulate writers that we are custodians of the planet for the next generation; sadly, the generations preceding ours largely failed in their job and while we are getting at least aware of the problem, we are not much more successful. It isn’t just the hearts and minds of the Chinese that have to be changed; all of us are in this together. We owe it to our descendents to give them a world no less beautiful than the one we were given.

REASONS TO SEE: Breathtaking beauty. Heartbreaking and horrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID: The journalist’s sequences are less compelling than those of the park director.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of animal remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are fewer than 100,000 jaguars left in the wild and fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the wild (there are more tigers in captivity). Some species of rhino have gone extinct, all attributable to Chinese and east Asian demand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Tribeca @ Home (through June 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tigerland
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Censor

Reflection: a walk with water


A world without water is dry and dusty.

(2021) Documentary (Reflection Film LLC) Emmett Brennan, Kathy Bancroft, Connor Jones, Rhamis Kent, Gigi Coyle, Ariel Greenwood, Andy Lipkis, Raymond Hunter, Kate Bunney, Alan Babcock, Brock Dolman, Geoff Dalglish, Ben Holgate, Paul Kaiser, Penny Livingston. Directed by Emmett Brennan

 

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without it, all life would be impossible. Without it, humans would auickly – within a matter of days – become extinct. Water helps provide oxygen for the planet through evaporation but also by watering plants which provide it. Water grows our food which we need to live. Water keeps us hydrated, which our bodies must have to survive. In short, water is life.

In 1913, the city of Los Angeles built an aqueduct leading from the Owens Valley, nearly 250 miles away. The ambitious plan provided nearly four times the amount of water the city of Los Angeles needed at the time, but it proved to be a far-sighted plan as within seven years, the population of Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in California. Until recently, the Los Angeles aqueduct provided nearly 75% of the city’s water.

But there is a price to pay for everything. The Owens Lake shrunk dramatically, becoming a dry lakebed. Once a fertile agricultural region, the Owens Valley became little more than a desert (which, ironically, was what the San Fernando Valley had been before the aqueduct). The dust particulates in the lakebed proved to be a bigger problem, causing respiratory problems for the residents and carrying carcinogenic materials.

Environmentalist, activist and filmmaker Emmett Brannon wanted to call attention to the plight of the Owens Valley, but also to the effects of water mismanagement, which was leading to the epidemic of wildfires that have been plaguing Southern California over the last few years. He and a group of like-minded environmentalists decided to hike alongside the aqueduct to show the effects that the water theft had on the regions left behind.

The science is compelling. The presence of water creates a self-regenerating ecosystem in which water evaporates and creates rain, fog and mist which nourish the soil from which the water can then create rain, fog and mist and start the cycle once again. Without water, soil becomes denser, and actually becomes water-resistant. Of course, once the water is gone, so is the rain for the most part. Brennan and the scientists that he utilizes for the film then go on to suggest solutions.

A lot of time is spent bashing the city of Los Angeles, which is a bit childish and unnecessary. What’s done is done, and the city can’t very well cut off water on which millions of people depend on. Brennan and his team don’t seem to be very thrilled with the idea of irrigation either; the general feeling I got is that water should be left to do what nature intended it to do. I suspect the farmers in the region might not appreciate their solutions, nor the hundreds of millions who are fed from the crops that come out of California alone. I get the sense that there is an awful lot of New Age thought that went into the film; that has a tendency to sabotage the science that also went into it. Mantras and formulas don’t mix.

In that sense, this is a very Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of documentary. There is some useful information in it as well as some solutions that merit further study for a problem that is real and needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the filmmaker looked as globally at the problem as he might have because I don’t get the sense he took into account the consequences of the changes he proposed to the lives of the people that would be affected by them. Just because a documentary addresses a problem that needs to be addressed doesn’t mean the solutions it proposes are viable.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes some salient points about the misuse of water.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science is diluted with a disturbing amount of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cabin seen at the beginning of the film is Brennan’s residence and he built it himself.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Tribeca @ Home (June 16-23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flow
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigre Gente

P.S. Burn This Letter Please


Playing with New York dolls.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Michael Alogna, Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Robert Bouvard, George Chauncey, Claude Diaz, Joe E. Jeffreys, Esther Newton, Terry Noel, George Roth, Joseph Touchette, Adam Faison (voice), Robin de Jesus (voice), Cole Escola (voice), Matt Shively (voice). Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

 

When L.A. radio personality Reno Martin passed away, like many folks these days, he left many of his possessions in storage. Among those discovered were a cache of letters from the late 50s. It turned out that Martin had been a part of the drag queen scene in Manhattan in the day and even after leaving for the other coast kept in close contact with his friends who couldn’t wait to dish about what was happening back home.

These letters form the basis for the bittersweet doc P.S. Burn This Letter Please, capturing an era when men dressing as women were a big no-no and could get you arrested – and get the bar you showed in shut down. Even the Mattachine Society, pioneers in activism for gay rights, were uneasy about drag queens (or female impersonators, as some prefer to be called) who they felt harmed their cause more than helped it.

Filmmakers Seligman and Tiexiera were moved to seek out the writers of the letters and found a surprising number of them, some still living in New York. They are in their 80s and 90s, but they remain vigorous and chock full of personality. The men haven’t seen these letters since they wrote them more than sixty years previously. Embellished with photographs of various occasions that they attended back in the day, the era of glamor and utter fabulousness which informs much of gay life even now was born in the clubs, bars and parties that these men put together. They describe feeling like outcasts and finding, at long last, a place they belonged and people who were more family than the families they’d grown up with who had largely judged and rejected them.

In some ways it’s kind of odd the picture that is painted here – in an era where RuPaul is a cultural icon and cross-dressing is more or less accepted, the kind of consequences that were levied on these men and their generation seems almost alien, until you read about a protest at a library where a man in drag was reading children’s stories. Perhaps we haven’t come quite as far as we think we have.

The men react with a variety of emotions; unrepentant pride at some of their escapades, sorrow at friends lost (the AIDS epidemic of the 80s hit their community particularly hard). The men have some wonderful storiesl; Claude “Claudia” Diaz tells about stealing wigs with Josephine Baker (the nom de gowne of Roberto Perez) from the Metropolitan Opera to sell to eager members of their community. However, it is the excerpts of the letters that are the most compelling, read by professional actors in the catty, swishy cadence of the epoch. Some might find it hard to follow, as some of the terminology is not mainstream; to paint is to put on make-up, to mop is to steal, to dish is to gossip. Still, the utter delight in describing the gowns they wore, the parties they went to, the men they picked up – it is the historical documents of an era where letters such as these were routinely destroyed by family members who were ashamed of the sexuality of the recipient. Much of the descriptions of life in that fabulous era have been lost forever in that way.

While historians of gay culture do contribute some commentary, I would have liked to have seen a bit more context offered in how the drag queens of that era have influenced modern gay culture, but perhaps that wasn’t what the filmmakers were after. If so, they are reducing this to a niche documentary which would be a shame because this is just so damn well-made. Some of the identities of the people referred to in the letters are intentionally kept hidden until the end of the film, making it all the more poignant when they are revealed. In that sense, this is a movie that is meant for audiences that are both gay and straight, although perhaps straight audiences might be uncomfortable with it. That is the sort of thing that reminds us that we have a ways to go when dealing with our attitudes towards alternate sexuality.

The movie was originally slated to play Tribeca last year but the festival was unfortunately canceled due to the pandemic. It is playing there tomorrow in a show that is unfortunately sold-out and it is not available as on the festival’s streaming platform. However, the movie is currently available on the Discovery Plus streaming platform, a link to which is provided below.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating and occasionally moving.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a bit more modern context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual and drug use references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was among the initial offerings when Discovery Plus went live on January 4th.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris is Burning
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Reflection: A Walk With Water

Stateless


(2019) Documentary (Hispaniola/PBS) Rosa Iris, Juan Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz. Directed by Michéle Stephenson

Here in the United States, we grapple with our own race relations. On the left, claims that institutional racism has kept Americans of African descent from achieving their own American dream, whereas from the right equally firm assertions that racism is individual, not institutional and that great strides have been made since the Jim Crow era.

In many ways, racism here has been a subtle presence over the past thirty years, but during the Trump administration, it became more overt. We have, in many demonstrable ways, regressed back in time. However, the racism here is nothing compared to what it is in the Dominican Republic.

In 2013, their Supreme Court handed down an astonishing decision that stripped citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent going back to 1929. That left more than 200,000 people stateless – without a country, without rights. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti; in the Dominican, Spanish is spoken whereas in Haiti the language is French. The Dominicans tend to be lighter-skinned; Haiti is largely populated by those of African descent. The Dominican is relatively prosperous whereas Haiti is impoverished, and what infrastructure had been there was largely reduced to rubble in the earthquake and hurricane that followed it.

The wealthy sugar cane plantations in the Dominican had long imported Haitian labor to do the brutal work in the cane fields, but in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to execute all Haitians inside the Dominican border, and they responded by not only doing that but murdering Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, even Dominicans with no Haitian blood but darker-skinned. Tens of thousands were murdered.

This Canadian-made and financed documentary follows three people; lawyer and activist Rosa Iris, whose primary job is getting citizenship for those whose citizenship was unjustly taken away. She runs for office, hoping to reverse the nationalist trend that has enveloped the Dominican. One of her clients is her cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat, one of the 200,000 affected. He is prohibited from seeing his children and has been living in Haiti, hoping to get his legal status resolved. Finally, there’s Gladys Feliz, a grandmotherly sort who represents the nationalist movement. Hers is the most chilling sequence of all; she seems on the surface to be a lovely and rational person, but then she says things that are simply horrible and clearly racist. For her, Haitians are all about robbery, rape and murder (sound familiar?) and who are out to subvert the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic.

The stories are interwoven with a folk tale-like story of a woman named Moraime, who fled the 1937 massacre. The cinematography for the Moraime sequences are almost dream-like and hauntingly beautiful, as opposed to the stark pictures of the poverty of Haiti and of the Dominican Haitians.

There is a terrifying sequence in which Rosa Iris is driving Juan Teofilo from the Haitian border to Santo Domingo to submit paperwork. Their car is stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Any one of them could result in arrest. We watch mainly through hidden cameras, the tension in the faces of the occupants of the car palpable.

Much of the latter half of the film revolves around the campaign by Rosa Iris to be elected to the national assembly, hoping to bring her activism to the halls of power. Already a target for threats of violence due to her assistance of Haitian-descended Dominicans in getting their citizenship reinstated, now becomes a target for death threats. She is concerned for not only her safety but the safety of her beguiling young son. In all honesty, while her efforts to resolve the injustice politically are noble, we end up spending more time watching her campaign than dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles that face Dominicans of Haitian descent; the meeting that Juan Teofilo has with an apathetic clerk in the records office is one of the most compelling bits in the film. His melancholy face is as memorable as Rosa Iris’ courage and heroism is.

This is a marvelous and chilling film. The United States isn’t quite this bad yet, but we were definitely on the road that leads to what we see here, and we’re not off of it yet (I was thinking that while Gladys Feliz espouses her hateful invective that it was ironic that she would likely be the sort of person that Trump’s policies would have excluded from immigrating to America). The movie, which won best Canadian feature at the recent Hot Docs festival, is also playing Tribeca this weekend. For those who aren’t able to make it to that festival, it will be airing on the wonderful PBS documentary series P.O.V. on July 19th and should be available for streaming after that. This is a movie that those who are passionate about social justice should have on their short list.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosa Iris cuts a heroic figure. The story is compelling and all-too-tragically familiar.
REASONS TO AVOID: The electioneering distracts from the central issue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the election, Rosa Iris continued to receive death threats for her support of the Haitian community; she eventually requested and was granted asylum in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: PBS (effective July 19), Tribeca @ Home (through June 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Penn
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
P.S. Please Burn This Letter

Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Jackie Robinson, Jalen Rayford, Crystal, Jamal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aija Larry, Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford, Emma Gonzalez, Anita Harvey Dixon, Manuel Oliver, Elishaba, Jamie, Bridgette, Asia. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Escaping poverty can sometimes seem an insurmountable task. Those caught in its clutches are busy just trying to survive; making headway to get out is almost impossible. Many take the easy way out of violence and crime. Most agree the best way out is through education, but often those neighborhoods who need it most are also neglected the most, particularly when it comes to early childhood education. Poor kids getting a head start? Who’s going to pay for that?

In Chicago, the poorest neighborhood in America was located in the Robert Adams housing project. Also the largest public housing project in America, the massive high rises were riddled with disease, drugs and despair. Elevators never worked and the stairways were places where violence often occurred. Parents often restricted their kids to playing on the ramps outside their apartments.

Neighborhood educators knew there had to be a better way. Many of the parents who were concerned about their kids worked and were desperate for daycare, but couldn’t afford it and even if they could, getting their kids there in back was an unreasonable risk. Putting together a foundation called Ounce of Prevention, these educators established a center right there in the Adams housing project, using an empty apartment as their base. Rather than just babysitting the kids by plopping them in front of a television set, they used the opportunity to help them to learn socialization skills and education through play. When playing outside proved to be a formidable obstacle, they put the kids on busses and took them to a local park.

But this center, known as The Beethoven Project, had a major obstacle to face; the city, tired of the crime and violence that festered in the project, decided to tear them down and replace them with better, safer housing. Of course, in order to do that, they needed to relocate the families to new housing throughout the city. Then, the walls came down.

But the city reneged on their promise to rebuild and the parents found themselves in the same predicament, only now they were scattered all over Chicago’s South Side. Ounce of Prevention took the bull by the horns and built Educare, an early education center geared towards impoverished and at-risk children.

This short documentary (just over 45 minutes long, including a prologue testimonial from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot which felt unnecessary) follows three members of the first class at Educare in 2000. All three are getting ready to graduate high school and have big plans; Jamal, a drum line major who has music running in his veins, plans to become a sound engineer. Sensitive Jalen writes poetry to work out the issues that upset her; having been suicidal at one time, she wants to give back to her community ad plans to be a psychiatrist and work in the same South Side neighborhood she grew up in. Crystal, who has a thing for wigs, looks to become a pediatrician after she graduates college, to which all three are attending.

Now, I have a healthy dose of skepticism in my veins. All three young people are articulate and clearly on the cusp of becoming community leaders. I’m sure not everyone who came through Educare is as cinematic as these three, but certainly any educational program would be happy to have three kids like this as alumni, and it doesn’t hurt to highlight success stories for a program that had so many obstacles to overcome, as indeed these kids did growing up – all three have seen gun violence or known a victim of it. Jalen’s brother was murdered when she was young, and as a result when the Parkland students came to march, she marched right along with them (as did Jamal).

The importance of early childhood education is demonstrable, and too few kids in poor neigborhoods have access to it. Programs like Educare, which has branched out to 25 locations around the country, are going to be necessary if this country is going to keep up with global competitors – an educated population is the key to innovation and economic growth. It seems criminal that we choose to squander the opportunity to develop this country’s greatest asset – its young people.

REASONS TO SEE: The three young people that are followed here are inspirational. The obstacles the center had to overcome are daunting. The film is more concerned with the results of the program rather than the nuts and bolts of how it works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prologue was somewhat unnecessary and a bit long-winded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief profanity (one word) and an image of a body being wheeled out of the Robert Adams housing project.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every one of the kids enrolled in the first Educare class graduated from high school.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starting at Zero
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stateless

Women


In the clutches of a predator.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) Anna Maiche, Anna Marie Dobbins, Adam Dorsey, Michael Simon Hall, Cindy Hogan, Christian I. Noble, Erinn Jones, Christi Cawley, Susanna Matza, Kylie Deire, Kristin Samuelson, David E. McMahon, Victor Rivera, Isaak Wells, Heather Fusari, Denise Gossett, Anthony del Negro, Shea Stewart. Edward Hubay, Ebony Mason, Kelly Schwartz. Directed by Anton Sigurdsson

 

The line between depicting the exploitation of women and actually exploiting them is razor-thin. It is hard to depict torture and sexual assault without crossing that line; good intentions aside, it can get you into trouble in an era where rape culture is being called out for what it is throughout our society.

Detective Hawk (Dorsey) is working a case of a grisly find; a desiccated corpse of a woman is found in the trunk of a car in a junkyard in a small Florida town. As he works the case, he discovers that the woman had gone to the local college where another co-ed, Jennifer (Dobbins) had disappeared some months past. In fact, as Hawk looks into it, there are several beautiful young girls who have passed away. Their relatives all received postcards that basically said “I’m fine. Don’t look for me,” and all took the sociology class of Professor Bradley Gilmore (Hall).

To cap things off, another co-ed – Haley (Maiche) has turned up missing as well. Hawk has some personal demons of his own – his mother is a heroin addict, as was his sister who had similarly vanished and then turned up dead. However, he hasn’t told his mother that his sister has passed on; her emotional state is such that it might just send her over the edge.

Hawk knows that Gilmore has the girls. He has rape accusations in his past, but the charges were dropped – his wealthy family paid off the victims. In the meantime, Professor Bradley is using rape and torture to mold Haley into the perfect wife. Jennifer, who has survived by essentially capitulating to his warped demands, advises her to play along if she wants to live, but Hailey knows she can’t live like this – she plans to escape, although Jennifer implores her not to try. Can Detective Hawk find the girls in time, or can they find a way to escape? If not, the girls will surely die.

Icelandic director Sigurdsson has a difficult task; to make a movie in which women are systematically tortured, humiliated and sexually abused without being exploitive. I’ll be honest with you; I think in some ways, he did succeed and in others, he did not. For example, there’s no overt nudity and most of the sexual assaults take place off-camera. On the other hand, the women in the film are largely shown in victim roles, whether victims of a sexual predator or of drug abuse. While Hailey is at least a strong female character and Jennifer is in her own way, both are largely helpless in their situation.

Sigurdsson also wrote the screenplay and he doesn’t devote much thought to character development. Only Hawk gets any sort of background at all, and Sigurdsson didn’t even give him a first name – Tony, perhaps? – which is not a good idea because in a movie like this, you need your audience to relate to the characters in it and quite frankly, we’re not given enough background for any of them to really develop any sort of simpatico with any of them. The closest one to it is Detective Hawk, and Adam Dorsey’s performance isn’t bad given the circumstances, but he isn’t given a lot of help.

Sigurdsson does have a good feel for tone and while the movie is a slow builder, it does find its footing late in the movie and the final twenty minutes are pretty good. To get there, though, you have to wade through about an hour that is slower than your last period class on the last day of school, or the last hour of work on a Friday before a holiday weekend. One reviewer I read called this misogynistic garbage, and I can understand where she’s coming from, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous to ascribe motivations to someone you have never met and don’t know. Looing as objectively as I can at the final product, I can say there are elements that could be construed as misogyny here, but that doesn’t make this a misogynistic. I agree, the film is quite underwhelming, and I don’t think that it adds anything new to the kidnapping subgenre but it isn’t completely devoid of value either.

REASONS TO SEE: Does get the tension level up nicely late in the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-building – perhaps too much so.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references, sexual content, profanity, rape and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some scenes were filmed at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with students there appearing as extras in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collector
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow’s Hope

City of Ali


The Greatest takes his last ride through his beloved Louisville.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield, Rasheda Ali, Bill Plaschko, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Montgomery, Asaad Ali, Greg Fischer, Hannah Drake, Allen Houston, Rev. Charles Elliott, Greg Fisher, Atallah Shabazz, Chief Sydney Hall, Lonnie Ali, John Ramsey, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Houston, Rahman Ali, Natasha Mundkur, Ahmed Edmund, Hannah Storm. Directed by Graham Shelby

 

Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular figures in the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He was also polarizing in a lot of ways – his cocky demeanor was described as “uppity” by a certain segment of the American South, who took umbrage when he chose to refuse to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam war, explaining that the Viet Cong weren’t oppressing his people, weren’t lynching them. He had no beef with them. He promptly had his title stripped from him and spent three of what should have been the most productive of his career on the sidelines.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr., which he called “a slave name,” and embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims. He was often infuriating with his boasts, mainly because he could back them up in the ring. He was outspoken, but he was also a humanitarian, giving of himself to all sorts of causes, and giving of himself in ways that most celebrities of his stature would never even consider. A Louisville sportswriter recalls attending a boxing match with the Champ at the 2000 Olympics, and after congratulating the winner of he match, going into he locker room to find the boxer who lost the match and spending time giving him a pep talk, sparring with him and in general, giving the young man the thrill of his life.

Mayor Greg Fischer diplomatically puts it that Ali had a complicated relationship with Louisville. There was no doubt that he loved the neighborhood he grew up in and the people he grew up with, but at the same time, like most cities in the American South, it was heavily segregated and there were places he could go, things he couldn’t do and he certainly would have experienced racism firsthand.

When he died at age 74, he had already ben planning his funeral. He and his family knew that there would be an outpouring of grief, and there was. The Ciiy of Louisville assisted with the logistics, assigning traffic control. The Muhammad Ali Center, which housed the museum of Ali’s career and artifacts, threw open its doors so that anyone could visit. One woman covered the roadway leading to the cemetary with rose petals so the funeral procession drove over them, creating a perfume as it went. They also somewhat spontaneously drove the casket from the ceremony through a 20 mile route that took it through the neighborhood Ali grew up in.

There is a bit of kumbaya vibe here, as most involved with the funeral proclaim that the city came together as one for the funeral. It is worth mentioning that only four years later, the same Louisville police force killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid, an act that was largely swept under the rug initially. One of the men who took still photographs at the funeral that are used here would die during the protests that followed.

There are a lot of good stories about Ali, some background about how the funeral came together and a quick summary of Ali’s life, particularly his years in Louisville. There are a lot of talking heads, but considering some of the stories that are coming out of them, it is forgivable. The co-operation of Ali’s surviving family is evident, although his most famous child – Laila – is conspicuous by her absence. That they would want the funeral to be meaningful and triumphant is understandable, but sadly, the same problems that have beset the nation in his formative years in Louisville are largely with us – in a different form, yes, but not completely gone. Not even the Greatest that ever was could solve those problems on his own.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the anecdotes are truly wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a bit too hard to make the event more unifying than it turned out to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. Normally, Muslim law requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. An exception was made in Ali’s case due to his passing in Phoenix, and his wish to be buried in his hometown of Louisville and of course his enormous worldwide popularity gave dignitaries time to make arrangements to attend the funeral.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Women

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Welcome Matt