The White Helmets


A profile in courage.

A profile in courage.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Khaled Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar, Khaled Omar. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

 

The civil war that rages in Syria has become a political mess as the citizens of that country have to endure military bombings, the depredations inflicted upon them by their own government as well as the harsh occupation in some places by ISIS. It’s no wonder that refugees are pouring out of that country, trying to find safety and sanity.

But not everyone is leaving. Even in cities like Aleppo there are people still trying to cling to their homes in the hope that things will get better, but even so there are regular bombings and with bombings come people buried in rubble. That’s where the Syrian Civil Defense comes in. Nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive protective headgear, they go into terribly dangerous situations, into buildings that have been bombed and are structurally unsafe in order to pull out people who are injured or trapped.

We follow three members of that group in Aleppo (the SCD operates throughout Syria wherever they’re needed)  none of whom were trained professionals prior; one was a construction worker who built homes; another a tailor and the third a blacksmith. In fact, they are sent to Turkey to receive the training they desperately need to be more effective. They go unarmed and they fire no shots in anger at anyone – “I think it’s more important to rescue a soul than to take a soul,” says one laconically.

All three are family men who go to work desperately worried about their homes and loved ones, who are at risk every single day simply by virtue of the fact they live in Aleppo. While they are in Turkey they joke with one another, even occasionally playing practical jokes. They talk about their children and their hopes for them. To a man, they all believe that things will eventually get better.

But as the conflict approaches its seventh year with no end in sight, it’s hard not to admire these men who took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The group’s motto is a quote from the Koran; “save one life and you save humanity.” They are certainly putting that to good use.

In another era, these men would have qualified for John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. However, the organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In three years they have saved (as of the release of the film) more than 58,000 lives while 130 of their number have paid the ultimate price.

Do be warned that some of the footage is pretty intense. Most of it was filmed by the White Helmets themselves; the situations were far too dangerous to send camera crews in. Director von Einsiedel didn’t even come to Syria, although he did spend time with the subjects in Turkey. He had more than 70 hours of footage to go through, much of it unusable because it was too graphic. However even of what is shown some of it may be disturbing to the sensitive although when they pull the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble of an apartment building (a one-week old baby who survived a direct hit to her home) one can’t help but cry along with the rescuers who are also crying.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. The downside is that it shows mankind at its worst – you can’t help but feel infuriated when you watch bombs hitting civilian targets with the knowledge that they were likely specifically targeted. The upside is that you also see mankind at its best – which makes you think that maybe this species might have a future after all.

REASONS TO GO: The message is uplifting and powerful. The three subjects are engaging and appealing in their ordinariness.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is not suitable for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are many disturbing images and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Khaled Omar, the White Helmet who is depicted here pulling the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble, died in an airstrike in August 2016.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Miss Sharon Jones!

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Searching for Sugar Man


Just chillin', Detroit-style.

Just chillin’, Detroit-style.

(2012) Music Documentary (Sony Classics) Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Clarence Avant, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Möller, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

documented

Fame in the music business is a very fickle thing. Some have it who don’t deserve it. Some deserve it who don’t have it. Some work hard to get it while others couldn’t care less if they have it. Fame isn’t the be-all and end-all for a musician, but it is a measure of how much their music gets heard, which is after all what being a musician is all about.

Rodriguez was a young folk singer in the late 1960s working in the Detroit area. A construction worker by day, he’d play in seedy bars at night, wowing crowds with his direct songwriting style and his plaintive voice. A pair of executives for a subsidiary of Motown records saw him perform and thinking they’d discovered the next big thing, signed the young troubadour to a contract, knowing Motown wanted to make inroads in the rock market.

His first album, Cold Fact (1970) was a legendary flop, barely selling enough to make up the cost of catering for the project. The follow-up Coming From Reality (1971) also bombed. The label dropped Rodriguez and he faded from view, doomed to the obscurity of failed rock and roll careers.

Except a funny thing happened. In apartheid-era South Africa, his music struck a chord. Anti-apartheid activists used its direct appeal for unity as a rallying point. Although the repressive South African government banned the music on their government-owned radio or from being imported into their country, bootlegged copies sold like wildfire. In fact, Rodriguez outsold Elvis in South Africa.

Segerman, an enterprising record store owner, and Strydom, a rock journalist, decided to see if they could find Rodriguez for the purpose of bringing him to South Africa to perform. That proved to be very difficult; there was little information about him available and rumors even had it that he had even committed suicide, either shooting himself in the head or dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire depending on who you talked to. There was no evidence of either version having happened definitively but the rumors were persistent.

So were the two men however and their journey was followed by Bendjelloul, a Swedish actor/filmmaker. It was no easy task finding a man who didn’t know anyone was looking for him, a man who had left fame and its trappings behind. The men weren’t even sure they would find a living legend, or a dead rumor. Even in the era of the Internet their search was frustrating and often fruitless, until it took an unexpected turn.

Bendjelloul treats this not just as a documentary but as a mystery as well and we watch the step by step search. Therefore we feel like we’re searching for Rodriguez as well, and the information so tantalizing, so compelling that we get caught up in it. Part of the reason is that they make liberal use of his music as a soundtrack and yes, everything you’ve heard is right – the music is amazing. It is almost incomprehensible to me why this man never made it. His music is as good as anything you have heard from that era or since, but even now there are those who say that because he just used his own last name that people figured he was a Mexican singing Mexican folk. This is nothing of the sort, my friends, other than the penchant of Mexican folk music to be about social justice.

There isn’t a ton of archival footage of Rodriguez so it’s augmented by animation and contemporary interviews with those involved in his career. The movie never gets boring a Bendjelloul takes us through every twist and turn the investigators take. I won’t tell you what the results of their investigations are, only that you will feel inspired once the closing credits start rolling.

This won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013 and it was against some pretty stiff competition, including The Gatekeepers and The Invisible War but that would turn out to be sadly not enough. Bendjelloul, about a year later, committed suicide after battling depression all his life in an irony that can’t be escaped, considering the subject of his documentary was rumored to have committed suicide himself. It is a bittersweet coda to what is otherwise an amazing, wonderful movie that at the very least stands as an enduring legacy not only to Rodriguez but to Bendjelloul, his talent as a filmmaker and his obvious humanity.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing story well-told. A soundtrack that will stay in your memory for a long time. Uplifting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally looks like it was shot on an iPhone – which some of it was.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intent was for Bendjelloul to do 3D animations to augment the film but he couldn’t afford them so the oven paper drawings he did to illustrate what he intended to do were used in the film instead.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with the director and star of the documentary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Documented continues

Take Shelter


Michael Shannon has a point.

Michael Shannon has a point.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker, Tova Stewart, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Knisley, Robert Longstreet, Heather Caldwell, Guy Van Swearingen, LisaGay Hamilton, Ray McKinnon, Stuart Greer, Bart Flynn, Sheila Hullihen, John Kloock, Marianna Alacchi. Directed by Jeff Nichols

One man’s prophecy is another man’s mental illness. We sometimes have dreams that are disturbingly real and sometimes we ascribe some sort of prophecy of the future to them. Sometimes the dreams are so vivid and repetitive we think that they MUST be trying to communicate something to us. Is it a kind of craziness – or something we ignore at our peril?

Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a pretty ordinary guy living in a small town and working construction. His wife Samantha (Chastain) sells crafts to supplement their income which they sorely need; their daughter Hannah (Stewart) is deaf but a cochlear transplant might restore at least partial hearing. Curtis’ insurance would make that operation possible. With this hope looming ahead of them, life is pretty good all in all.

But all is not perfect. Curtis begins to have some disturbing dreams; the family dog inexplicably attacks him. And most importantly, a massive storm destroys his home. The dreams are so vivid that Curtis begins to act on them in waking life. He pens his dog – who has always been mellow and well-behaved – in the yard. And he begins to work on expanding his storm shelter.

His best friend Dewart (Whigham) is sanguine about all this, defending his friend as the towns people begin to whisper that Curtis may be losing it. Curtis isn’t so sure that they’re wrong – there’s a history of mental illness in his family, and he consults with his institutionalized mother (Baker) to see if she had dreams when her problems started.

But things are escalating out of control as Curtis’ dreams grow more and more disturbing. His behavior takes a turn for the worse and when he loses his job even his saintly wife must admit that something is terribly wrong. Is Curtis losing his mind? Or is he privy to a terrible tragedy that will destroy everything he has if he does nothing about it?

Nichols, who first directed Shannon in Shotgun Stories and met him as an actor on Tigerland does a fine job of blurring the line between dreams and reality. There are times when we realize that we are viewing a dream (as when the sky rains oil) but there are others where we aren’t entirely sure and neither is Curtis.

Speaking of Curtis, this is one of Shannon’s best roles to date. Most people to this point recognized him for his work on Boardwalk Empire although his turn as General Zod on Man of Steel may have netted him some mainstream notice. Shannon has always come off to my way of thinking and a tightly wound spring. There is always an undercurrent of darkness in his characters, even his comedic ones (although his comedic rules are few and far between). His size and his intensity make him intimidating and that shines right through in nearly every role he plays.

Chastain, who was in the midst of a pretty good run when this was made, also does some sterling work although she’s a bit overshadowed by Shannon. She has quickly become one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood. While she has been less busy in 2013 (she appeared in no less than seven feature films that were released in 2012) she has built a great base to build a stellar career on. No doubt there are further accolades in her future.

The movie is a bit predictable in places, particularly towards the end but otherwise this is a really good movie. The viewer is left, along with the characters in the movie, to wonder if Curtis is really having visions or just going nuts. I wish the ending would have been a little more ambiguous but otherwise I really liked the way this movie developed and even more so Shannon’s performance which was Oscar-worthy although he wound up not being nominated. Something tells me you don’t have to be much of a prophet to predict that there will be Oscars in his trophy case at some point.

WHY RENT THIS: A bravura performance by Shannon. Blurs the line between reality and dreams nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stewart, who plays Hannah, the deaf daughter of Curtis and Samantha, is deaf in real life.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a Q&A in which Shannon and Nichols discuss their long-time friendship and this film in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on a $5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Field of Dreams

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Vicious Kind


Don't you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

Don’t you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

(2009) Drama (72nd Street) Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons, Vittorio Brahm, Bill Buell, Alysia Reiner, Kate Krieger, Jordan Reid Berkow, Anne Gill, Emily Oehler, Jim Ford, Kevin Rogers, Robert Bizik, Rebecca Bond Nikeas. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Every so often you’ll run into someone who’s a real asshole. They say cruel things, express opinions that are deplorable, and their actions tell you that they are nothing more than self-centered misogynistic jerks.

Did I say misogynistic? Well, that’s because we’re talking about Caleb Sinclaire (Scott), a construction worker in Connecticut. He is estranged from his father (Simmons) and a bit overly protective of his virginal younger brother Peter (Frost) who is just back from college for Thanksgiving. He’s also brought his new girlfriend Emma Gainsborough (Snow), a sweetie whom Peter is over the moon for.

Caleb, not so much. He is deeply suspicious of her and when he hears the story of how they met (at a party she went to with a group of fraternity boys) he’s quite sure she slept with the lot of them, despite her denials that she slept with any of them. To Caleb, all women are cheating whores. His girlfriend Hannah (Berkow), to whom Emma bears a strong resemblance, was just kicked to the curb for that very thing.

Due to his strained relationship with Dad, Caleb excuses himself from the holiday but continues to run into Emma in odd places, mainly because both of them smoke and go outside to the same places for smoke breaks. An odd friendship begins to form…and an attraction that is a little disquieting to Caleb because he’d never hurt his brother, one of the few people on Earth that Caleb gives a damn about but he can’t deny what he’s feeling for Emma.

And Emma can’t deny Peter’s tender feelings for her as well. Peter is willing to give Emma his virginity which is no small thing – and yet she is beginning to be attracted to bad boy Caleb. As their encounters grow more and more erotically charged, Caleb embarks on an emotional rollercoaster that ranges from violent and threatening to weeping and helpless. Emma realizes that she is soon going to have to choose between the two brothers – the sweet but kind of bland Peter or the complex and unpredictable Caleb.

This is one of those movies that is out there with the very best of intentions but doesn’t quite hit the mark for one reason or another. It’s not for lack of trying however. Adam Scott, who’s been around and done a few fairly well-known roles (as his one in Step Brothers) shines here as Caleb. The character is a pretty tough nut to crack and as the movie goes on we do get some insight as to why Caleb behaves the way he does. That still doesn’t excuse him from assault, attempted rape, cruelty and yes – viciousness. It makes it hard to root for him even when he does start showing signs of becoming a new man.

Snow isn’t half-bad either although her performance tends to get ignored by a lot of critics who seem to be zeroing in on Scott – although I can’t blame them to be truthful. Still, Snow’s Emma is not everything she appears to be; she has a dark side which manifests first in the smoking habit she keeps from her boyfriend to her lust for Caleb and then finally in…well, that one you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The trouble here is that the filmmakers seem to think that nearly everybody cheats on their partners (nearly everybody in the movie does). The movie has a kind of cynical world view in which it’s okay to be a bitch/bastard to others because sooner or later they’re going to screw you over if you don’t do it to them first. I’m not sure I agree with that – while there are certainly people who don’t mind sticking it to other people, not everyone is that way in my experience – and thus I find a hard time relating to the film, which might contribute to my lower score for it. So that’s something to take into account.

Otherwise the filmmaking itself is pretty good from a technical standpoint. This is a pretty good looking film. It just didn’t reach out and grab me the way it should have with this kind of subject matter. Maybe the problem was that Scott gave too good a performance and the script was too vicious. Or maybe I’m one of those vicious critics who don’t get it. Golly, I hope not. So I’ll just leave it at this wasn’t my cup of tea but it just might be yours.

WHY RENT THIS: Snow and Scott deliver some pretty powerful performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script seems to have a pretty low opinion of people. Caleb is such a douche sometimes you finally give up on him.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality is a bit in your face as is the bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received two Independent Spirit award nominations (Adam Scott for Best Actor and Lee Toland Krieger for Best Screenplay) in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone

FINAL RATING:4.5/10

NEXT: Playing For Keeps