Thunder Force


Some people hate dentists more than others.

(2021) Superhero Comedy (Netflix) Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale, Pom Klementieff, Melissa Leo Taylor Mosby, Marcella Lowery, Melissa Ponzio, Ben Falcone, Nate Hitpas, Jevon White, David Storrs, Kevin Dunn, Henry Bazemore Jr., Mikia Adrielle Jeter, Steve Mallory, Bria D. Singleton, Tai Leshaun, Vivian Falcone, Mia Kaplan. Directed by Ben Falcone

 

Making a good superhero movie is hard. Making a good comedy is harder. Trying to combine the two genres and making it work – REALLY hard.

In the world of Thunder Force, the world has been bathed by cosmic rays, imbuing a certain percentage of the population with cool superpowers. Unfortunately, it is the segment of the population that is sociopaths and assholes. These superpowered sociopaths are known as “miscreants.”

Ordinary people are caught in the crossfire. Among them are the parents of Emily Stanton (Spencer), who are geneticists working on a way to give those who aren’t sociopathic superpowers. Emily vows to carry on her parents’ work. Orphaned, she was raised by her grandmother and at her new school is befriended by Lydia Berman (McCarthy) who protects her from bullies, but has a lot more of a hedonistic attitude while Emily has a singular focus. It leads to a rift between the best friends.

Now middle aged, Emily is on the cusp of making her parents’ dream a reality, while Lydia works as a forklift operator, swilling beer and eating pancakes at her favorite diner which whose owner (Dunn) ruefully admits that he doesn’t know how much longer he can remain open since people aren’t going out to eat as much since there’s a good chance that they’ll be killed by a Miscreant if they do.

However, the diner owner manages to guilt Lydia into texting Emily to invite her to the upcoming class reunion, although Emily is too busy to really commit. So Lydia heads over to the digs of her high tech headquarters, only to accidentally be injected with the super strength serum Emily had intended on taking herself. Emily is forced to have to settle for invisibility, which is perhaps a wry commentary on the state of African-American women in the year of our lord, 2021.

The two plus-sized ladies become Thunder Force and set out to rid Chicago of its Miscreant population, including mayoral candidate King (Cannavale) whose bizarre henchman, the Crab (Bateman) becomes the focus of Lydia’s erotic desires. But can the two women, so different, work out their differences and become a dynamic duo?

If you’re looking for mindless entertainment, this here is not a bad choice. Like other McCarthy films, particularly those directed by her husband Ben Falcone, there’s a certain similarity in tone, with McCarthy playing an essentially good-hearted slob who stumbles her way into a difficult situation. Whether taking on spy films or science fction, crime capers or fish out of water films, McCarthy is a brfash presence with a flair for physical comedy, although some of the more difficult physical turns are less successful these days.

Spencer is a gifted actress who always seems to elevate everything she does, and she’s been a real life friend of McCarthy for decades now. The banter between the two of them is one of the film’s main highlights; I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing the two of them again as a comic duo, although given McCarthy’s recent success in dramatic roles, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to see them in a drama either.

Falcone tends to opt for the low-brow humor here, and has an unfortunate tendency to ram punchlines into the ground with endless repetition, something he has demonstrated throughout his collaborations with his wife. There are actually some intriguing ideas here, but Falcone never really explores them; I’d love to see a movie dealing with the effects of superpowers on ordinary folk (as in absolute power corrupts absolutely) as the brilliant DC miniseries Kingdom Come did. I also give the movie kudos for allowing the sorts of superheroines that we don’t ever see – women who aren’t statuesque sorts wearing skimpy leotards.

Ultimately, this is merely ordinary, with some decent special effects but nothing that will make MCU fans chomp at the bit to see this. I can’t say that my expectations were too high for this one, given the track record, and yours shouldn’t be either, but this is decent entertainment and lord knows in a year that has given us much to stress over, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent entertainment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add anything new.
FAMILY VALUES: There is comic book violence, some profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily is played as a young girl by Vivian Falcone, who is Melissa McCarthy’s real-life daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Better Days

Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

Gun and a Hotel Bible


It’s never a good thing when your Gideon Bible starts telling you fish stories.

(2019) Drama (Freestyle) Bradley Gosnell, Daniel Floren, Mia Marcon, David Shoffner, George Christopher, Delaney Milbourn, John A. McKenna, Wes Selby, Mark Laird, Zachary Fancey, Jimmy McCammon, Grace Fae. Directed by Raja Gosnell and Alicia Joy LeBlanc

Faith isn’t an easy thing to pin down. We don’t always know how strong it is; faith can come and go on a dime. We think we recognize it, but it is only when we are truly tested that we know whether or not our faith is real.

Pete (B. Gosnell) is facing just such a test. He’d met his wife Cindy (Marcon) in a seedy hotel bar. For him anyway, it was love at first sight. She was one of those women who just lights up a room; so full of life, so full of oy, every eye was on her. So he was surprised as hell when she sat down at his table and in the space of a night extracted his life story. Six months later, they were married. Should have been a happily ever after, right?

But life rarely offers us a happily ever after. The magic went out of the relationship and now Pete has discovered that his Cindy has been coming back to the same hotel every Friday night to meet Leo (Christopher) for an evening of passion. So, Pete has come to the hoteland gotten himself a room for Friday night. He packed light; a backpack, and in the backpack, a gun.

Gideon (Floren), or “Gid” as he likes to be called, has a pretty stationary life. He likes to do things by the book, which is understandable since he is a book – or perhaps more to the point, THE book – the Gideon Bible that is left free in hotel rooms for travellers to read. This particular Bible has been sitting in the same hotel room for six decades. He’s seen his share of tragedies and passions; one of his pages has been torn out by a stoner to use as a rolling paper “Judges. Ironic, huh?”) and on the back a child has drawn her own Picasso-esque masterpiece.

When Pete comes in, Gic strikes up a conversation, being an outgoing, people-loving sort. Gid quickly discovers what Pete’s intentions are and holds a conversation with Pete on the nature of faith, the inequities of translation and interpretation, and navigating right and wrong as he tries to guide Pete in a different direction than the one he’s planning on.

This movie had its beginning as a stage play, and sadly, hasn’t really risen past its beginnings. Most of the action takes place in the confines of a hotel room, and there is a stage-y feeling to the production and to be honest, to the dialogue as well. The rhythms here all scream “stage play” much more than they do “film”. Considering that the two co-stars co-wrote and starred in the sgtage version and co-director LeBlanc directed the original stage version, it isn’t so surprising. Raja Gosnell (Brad’s dad) is a veteran director of feature films; you’d think that he would have added a more cinematic quality to the production, but alas, no.

That’s not to say that this doesn’t have things going for it. The concept is imaginative and the opening sequence when Pete narrates how he and Cindy got together is pretty nifty and the movie tackles some pretty deep subjects. It is one of those rare movies that discusses faith from a rational standpoint, never feels like it’s preaching. I know a few theologians who are going to have some pretty stirring conversations based on this if they ever get to see it.

Gosnell the younger and Floren have a good chemistry and each does a pretty good job with their roles,Pete being scruffy and down on just about everything (as you might imagine) while Gid is a bit of a huckster, optimistic in an “Up With People” kind of vibe, and a little bit too into the Cubs. While the film is a brisk 60 minutes long, your tolerance for watching what is essentially an extended conversation will determine how much you’ll end up enjoying this movie. For me, it was thought-provoking enough to sustain my interest.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of imagination here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very stage-y; other than the opening scene, lacks a sense of being a film rather than a stage play.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play that debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTub]e
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Museum Town

5 Years Apart


In golf, four’s a game; five’s a crowd.

(2019) Comedy (GravitasChloe Bennet, Scott Michael Foster, Ally Maki, Michael Vlamis, Craig Low, Michelle Randolph, Malcolm Hatchett, Chandler Bailey, Samuel Elhindi, Kyle Anderson, Spencer Waldner, John Cahill, Becky Robinson, Christian Pierce, John McKay, Isiah Miller, Judah Miller, Arsenio Castellanos. Directed by Joe Angelo Menconi

 

If you are looking for the most vindictive, vitriolic and vicious blood feuds there are, look no further than the wars between siblings. It’s difficult to hide who you are from someone you grew up with. You know all the dirty secrets, the moments of shame, and the flaws and defects. There also tends to be rivalries, particularly between siblings of the same sex. Family breeds familiarity, after all, and familiarity breeds contempt.

Andrew (Foster) is about to turn 30. He is a successful businessman, the sort of meticulous man who has every moment of every day planned down to the minute. His wife Olivia (Maki) is much the same way. She and Andrew are thinking of starting a family, but it would entail Andrew taking a second job to offset the loss of income from Olivia and she’s not willing to see him overwork himself. They decide to take a birthday weekend at the house of Andrew’s parents in Arizona while the parents are on holiday in Italy.

His younger brother Sammy (Vlamis) is about to turn 25 – in fact, on the same day as Andrew as the two brothers were born five years apart on the same day. He works as a salesman for a bounce house rental company. He and Andrew haven’t spoken in five years after an incident at a Christmas family gathering led to a physical confrontation between the two. Sammy didn’t even show up at Andrew’s wedding and has never met Olivia. As meticulous as Andrew is, so Sammy is carefree and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. He had gone to Arizona State but had dropped out – just one of many instances of Sammy not finishing what he started.

Sammy decides to spend the weekend of his birthday at his parent’s house since they are in Italy. On his way there he meets Emma (Bennet) at a bar. The two hit it off and eventually win up doing the horizontal rumba on the living room couch. This brings out Andrew and Olivia who were doing their own wild thing in the bedroom. It also turns out that Emma had been coming out to visit with Olivia – her half-sister, ain’t coincidence a wonderful thing if you’re a screenwriter – so that she could be set up with Mark (Low), an outgoing Aussie who Andrew has a high opinion of. Unfortunately, as it soon turns out, Emma doesn’t.

The two brothers aren’t willing to budge so reluctantly they spend the weekend together in the same house. Sammy goes out of his way to irritate his staid older brother, while it turns out there is some tension between Olivia and Emma as well. Can the two sets of siblings figure out a way to get past their hurt feelings and pride and find a way to forge an actual relationship?

The plot has a sitcom-y element to it which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some contrivances, sure, but not in a too-in-your-face way that sitcoms sometimes get. Dysfunctional family relationships are not, as we all know, unheard of and in an era where we are being forced to spend more time with our families than perhaps we would normally thanks to quarantine, it’s easy to relate to how horrible they can get.

The cast is young and attractive and they do a pretty decent job here. Some of you may recognize Bennet from the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show and she is absolutely a lark here; the role plays very well to her strengths as an actress. Although her role on her TV show is more of an action heroine, she has some good comic timing and a flair for light comedy that should serve her well in her future career. She was my favorite part of 5 Years Apart.

For those who are cooped up with family, watching the brothers behave childishly towards each other may not be exactly what the doctor ordered; many of us are getting a heavy dose of that sort of thing in real life to want to watch much more than a smattering of it when we sit down to be entertained – in that sense, the film can be irritating. It is also, worse still, predictable, particularly in the last third.

This is a little bit better than I expected it to be in some ways; also, a little bit worse than I expected it to be in others. The performances are good, the characters are compelling and the chemistry is there. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of sitcom tropes and a dearth of funny jokes. The comedy is mainly situational and I would have preferred if the filmmakers had gotten away from that a little bit. It gets a mild thumbs up at best, but if you’re looking for a diversion right now (and who isn’t) you could do worse.

REASONS TO SEE: A role tailor-made for Chloe Bennet’s talents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable and occasionally irritating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, brief nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bennet and Maki are close friends in real life and have been for years, but this is the first time they’ve acted alongside each other.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rachel Getting Married
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
At the Video Store

A Peloton of One


The road is a long and lonely one.

(2020) Documentary (Self-Released) Dave Ohlmuller, Joe Capozzi, Chris Gambino, Marci Hamilton, Tommy Williams, Robert M. Hootson, Ken Kaczmarz, Sen. Joe Vitale, Kathryn Robb, Art Baselice, Ginna Ohlmuller, Patty Hogan, Drew Broderick, Dave Broderick, Sam Rivera, Marc Pearlman, Danielle Pulananni, Betsey Blankenship, Bridie Farrell, Kelsey Stoll. Directed by Steven E. Mallorca and John C. Bernardo

 

One of the most awful, despicable acts that one human can perform on another is to sexually abuse a child. It robs the victim of their childhood, and often, much of the good things of an adult life; rthe ability to maintain a romantic relationship, the ability to trust another. Making it even more difficult is that children often cope with their abuse by keeping it to themselves, feeling themselves damaged and unworthy; often when they do come forward, they aren’t believed or supported. It usually takes years and even decades for a person who has suffered this kind of abuse to come forward.

Dave Ohlmuller is one of those victims. Sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a boy, he grew into manhood, suffering from his trauma in ways that most of us can’t even fathom. It effected his relationship with his wife and son, and also his health as he turned to an unhealthy lifestyle to cope. Eventually, he opened up to former priest and CSA advocate Robert M. Hootson, a phone call that changed Dave’s life. He started to take better care of himself, taking up platform tennis, yoga and bike riding.

But even though he had a support system, he didn’t really take advantage of it as he decided to navigate the legal system and make sure that the man who abused him was never allowed to do the same horrible things to other children, but Dave met stone walls at every turn. The Catholic church was uncooperative and in many ways, vindictive, making it nearly impossible for Dave to track down his abuser to discover if he had been removed from the church, as he was first told (which turned out to be inaccurate) or put in a position where he was prevented from having unsupervised interaction with children, which the church claimed but as you might imagine, Dave was skeptical about.

=Even getting any sort of legal redress was nearly impossible; statute of limitation laws prevented him from filing criminal charges or even civil charges. The laws for the Statute of Limitations in child sex abuse are archaic and don’t reflect the reality that survivors rarely come forward immediately; as I mentioned earlier, it often takes decades.

Advocates like Marci Hamilton in Pennsylvania, Kathryn Robb in New York and Senator Joe Vitale in New Jersey are working to change those laws. Ironically, they are mainly opposed by Republican legislators – you know, the ones who are supposed to be tough on crime – operating at the behest of the Catholic church and insurance companies who don’t want to pay out settlements to survivors. To bring attention to those laws – which prevent survivors from bringing legal action after they turn 23 – Dave decided to bicycle from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to New York.

He chose to do so alone, feeling that the image of a lone bicyclist would be a more powerful one, but the truth be told, Dave had always felt that he was more or less alone in his struggle. The movie depicts more than just a bike ride from point A to point B; it is also a journey in which Dave meets fellow survivors and their advocates and begins to come to the realization that he is far from alone in his struggle to cope, overcome and move on.

The bicycling scenes are nicely photographed and are compelling in their own way, but the real power of the movie is in the stories of the survivors; in addition to Dave, we hear from his friend (and a co-producer on the movie) Joe Capozzi, who came forward ten years before Dave did with a similar story; Tommy Williams, a Pennsylvania teen who suffered ongoing abuse at the hands of his half-brother; Art Baselice, a police officer whose son was abused by a Catholic priest and later committed suicide, and several others.

Their stories are the emotional core of the film, and to the credit of the filmmakers they let the survivors tell their stories in their own way. There are a lot of tears and a lot of emotion, some of it cathartic. You’ll definitely want to keep several handkerchiefs handy while watching.

The directors make the curious decision to tell the story of the bike ride in a non-linear fashion, often going back months before the ride to show events even while showing events from the ride. It is jarring and doesn’t enhance the story at all; the filmmakers would have been better served to tell the story in a more linear fashion. It’s powerful enough to hold up on its own.

The movie is currently seeking distribution after making its debut on the online version of the Greenwich Film Festival earlier this year. I have no doubt that it will get that distribution and soon; this is a well-made film that has an important message to tell.  Hopefully, you’ll be seeing it on a streaming service, or at an art house or even on PBS in the near future.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing, heartbreaking, hopeful. Approaches the subject from different angles than other documentaries on Childhood Sexual Abuse. There is some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the non-linear storytelling is confusing and jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A peloton refers to a bike racing term in which a group of cyclists, often on the same team, cluster together for safety and protection.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Speaking the Unspeakable
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stan & Ollie

Widows (2018)


Dangerous deeds discussed in dark places.

(2018) Crime (20th Century) Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Lukas Haas, Coburn Goss, Alejandro Verdin, Molly Kunz, James Vincent Meredith, Patrese McClain. Directed by Steve McQueen

Viola Davis is one of America’s most underrated actresses and that considering that she has been nominated for an Oscar three times and won once (for Fences). So when I tell you that this might be the best performance of her career, and it wasn’t even one of the three nominated films on her resume, that might speak volumes about how the system

She plays Veronica, the widow of Harry (Neeson) who was butchered along with his crew after a job. As it turns out though, he stole two million bucks from a ruthless gangster (Henry) who happens to be running for Chicago alderman as the opponent of Jack Mulligan (Farrell), the son of a politician who together have been essentially running the Ward for decades. Now, with the gangster’s psychopathic brother (Kaluuya) hot on her trail, she knows she must resort tto literally using her husband’s playbook to pull off a much larger heist that will pay his debts in full and set her up for life, but she’ll need help. She figures the widows of Harry’s crew have both the motivation and the skills.

Oscar-winning director McQueen has assembled a cast that is without parallel. In fact, he might have done his job too well; the film is crammed full of interesting characters who all need more screen time than they got, so we end up with scenes that run too long and characters that overstay their record. A little less focus on the other characters would have made this a better film.

McQueen uses the city of Chicago perfect effect, whether in the mansion of Jack’s dad (Duvall) or in Veronica’s beautiful apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, or in the poorest corners of the largely African-American Ward, the movie is always interesting in a visual sense. The movie doesn’t have the humor that is usually found in heist films nor does it have that clever “we outsmarted you” gotcha that most heist films possess. This is far more brutal and direct. It works as a heist film, but it works even better as  a commentary on how wide the gulf between haves and have-nots has become.

REASONS TO SEE: A tremendous cast with Davis standing out particularly. McQueen has a great visual sense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long and a few too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Olivia the dog, who is heavily featured in the film, also appeared in Game Night.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kitchen
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Himalayan Ice

What They Had


The bonds between mother and daughter trasncend the years.

(2018) Drama (Bleecker Street) Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Sarah Sutherland, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Aimee Garcia, William Smillie, Isabeau Dornevil, Jennifer Robideau, Jay Montepare, An Whitney, Eric Ian, Matthias Kocur, Ruben Ramirez, Annie McKinnie, Darren Sheehan, Ryan W. Garcia, Ann Kabis. Directed by Elizabeth Chomko

 

Growing old sucks. If you don’t believe me, just check out every Hollywood movie ever made about dementia. Better still, talk to someone who has parents or grandparents actually going through it. It’s not as cute as it looks in the movies.

Ruth (Danner) gets out of bed early one morning, leaves her Chicago apartment in the midst of a snowstorm wearing only her nightgown and an overcoat and boards a train When her husband Burt (Forster) discovers she’s not there and can’t find her anywhere, he calls his son Nicky (Shannon) frantically. Nicky in turn calls his sister Bridget (Swank) a.k.a. “Bitty” against the express wishes of his father. Bridget arrives from California with her newly expelled from college daughter Emma (Farmiga) in tow, only to find that her mother has been found.

Nicky is all for putting Ruth in a memory-assistance home which Bridget tacitly agrees with, but Burt is having none of it and Bridget won’t stand up to her dad, who bullied her into marrying a husband (Lucas) that she didn’t love. Nicky, who owns a bar, stands up to his dad but with little effect; the power of attorney over his mom was granted to Bridget, which still rankles Nicky.

As Ruth’s stage six dementia progresses, the kids squabble and Burt pontificates. Bridget initiates an affair with a local contractor (Smillie). Soon it becomes obvious that Ruth is getting worse. Can the siblings convince their dad to see reason before something truly awful happens?

This kind of movie has been done in both movies and on television many, many times before. In terms of content, ain’t nothing to see here that won’t be familiar to those who watch movies that aren’t about spaceships and superheroes occasionally. The tropes that first time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko utilizes are going to be familiar to anyone who’s see any movie involving Alzheimer’s. She also doesn’t give her characters a whole lot of depth.

Given that, the reason to see the movie is the cast and it is a good one. Me, I lurve me some Robert Forster and will essentially see any movie that he’s in for no other reason other than because he is in it. Swank and Shannon are two of the best actors in Hollywood today and with Swank seen much less often onscreen these days, it is a treat to see her work just as it is a treat to see Shannon do his thing. Danner is given a pretty thankless role but she pulls it off with some dignity, despite there being essentially a caricature of dementia patients involved. We don’t see the messy side of it; the screaming, the tears, the recriminations. In that sense the movie is a bit bloodless.

Still, great acting can cover a lot of sins and that’s what happens here. Not an essential movie but certainly one to watch if you need something to watch and you’re tired of shut-off-your-brain Hollywood fare.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is nothing you haven’t seen before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a brief sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chomko’s grandparents – upon whom the couple of Bert and Ruth are based – appear in a photograph in their home.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Savages
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Underneath the Same Moon

Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

Hot Doug’s: The Movie


Hot Dog? Why, yes please!

(2016) Documentary (Random) Doug Sohn, Homaro Cantu, Steve Albini, Carlos Garcia, Barbara Tyksinski Benjamin Roman, Alex August, Steve Labedz, Michael Cantu, Brenda Maher, Octavio Garcia, Jose Luis Garduño, George Serveris, Alex Baez, Dan Sinker, Marco Roman, Michael Helminiak, Christian Garcia, April T.  Directed by Christopher Markos

 

Ah, the humble hot dog. Not even apple pie is as conscientiously American in the world’s imagination. While there are those who see New York City with their ubiquitous pushcarts as the hot dog Mecca, in recent years most outside the New York area would agree that Chicago is the epicenter for hot dog heaven and the Chicago dog the gold standard for dogs.

Douglas Sohn was the proprietor of Hot Doug’s, a hot dog in Chicago that was known for its rabid following. The line to get in normally stretched down the block and rare was the day when the average wait to get in wasn’t two hours or more. What made those dogs so special that Chicagoans, who aren’t exactly lacking for places to get a fine hot dog, were willing to endure waits – often in terrible weather – for his?

Sohn recalled that he started his establishment because he wanted a place that used the finest ingredients for their hot dogs. Early on, they stuck to basic frankfurters but eventually Doug decided to get a little wild; first off was the Atomic Dog, laden with spices and peppers. He asked his sausage supplier George Serveris for more exotic sausages and he responded with encased meat (as sausage lovers prefer to call them) from wild boar, rabbit and eventually such off-the-wall items as escargot and foie gras.

No less an authority than the late Anthony Bourdain – best-selling author, classically trained chef, TV host, world traveler and noted hot dog junkie – proclaimed Hot Doug’s one of 13 places you must eat at before you die. When he featured the show on his popular No Reservations program Hot Doug’s was transformed from a local hangout to a global phenomenon. Sure, the high-end hot dogs had a lot to do with it but much of the appeal lay with Sohn himself, who for fourteen years took every order at the front counter, interacting with his customers with goofy charm and a down-to-earth Midwestern sense of humor. He made each customer feel like part of the gang and that attitude carried on to the staff.

It all came to an end on October 3, 2014. Six months prior, the store announced on social media that it would be closing its doors for good on that date. When October 3 rolled around, the line was unbelievable as people waited in line in cold, rainy, miserable weather to get their last fix of Hot Doug’s. It was a testament to Sohn and his staff that although the staff knew well in advance that the run was coming to an end, almost all of them elected to keep working right up until the end.

The documentary clocks in at a brisk 56 minutes and Markos does an excellent job of giving the viewer a “you are there” experience. While there is some behind the scenes kind of stuff and a fair amount of talking heads, most of those he interviews are so engaging (particularly Sohn himself) that he can be forgiven.

Unfortunately, what he delivers in atmosphere he lacks in context. We get little reason for the store’s closing other than “it was time.” We also get no update as to what Sohn is up to now that his store is closed – he’s a pretty young guy so I assume he hasn’t retired on his hot dog earnings. One also wonders about the timing – did Markos know in advance about Sohn’s plans, or was he making the documentary and the closing just happened to occur while he was doing it. It doesn’t feel contrived so I’m inclined to believe the latter but one can’t know for sure.

One of the regular customers at Hot Doug’s summed up his impression of the store thusly: “It was a hot dog stand but it was a damn good hot dog stand” and that is about as fine an epitaph as any eating establishment could ever hope for. The film succeeds in portraying what it was like to enjoy a dog, the stand’s signature French fries cooked in duck fat and a cold beverage in a happening place. Legendary alternative rock producer Steve Albini’s studio was just down the block from Hot Doug’s and he enjoyed the rare privilege of being one of the only clients that could order ahead by fax, allowing the very busy Albini to skip the land although he felt guilty enough about it that when he visited the store on his own he would wait in line with everybody else and proclaimed that part of the overall experience of the joint was in fact waiting in line. While Hot Doug’s is no more, their legend will live on not only in the memories of the Chicago faithful who loved them but also in those who see this documentary and immediately have the urge to go and consume a dog at their local purveyor themselves. What more could you ask of any documentary?

REASONS TO SEE: Really gives you a sense of the time and place. Makes you want to eat a hot dog.
REASONS TO AVOID: Comes off as an infomercial in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Markos previously directed videos for the Obama presidential campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Hot Dog Program
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Maiden