Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad


The Hargrove family makes preparations for the unthinkable.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atomic Cover-Up


The serenity of absolute destruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos


Surf’s up.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Lars Ulrich, Ice-T, Robert DeLeo, Jerry Cantrell, Dexter Holland, Duff McKagan, John Kasich, Drew Pinsky, Tom Morello, Taylor Momsen, Rob Zombie, Dorothy Martin, Gavin Rossdale, Ed Kowalcyk, Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, Matt Pinfield, Machine Gun Kelly, Lzzy Hale, Jason Flom, Seyth Boardman, Allison Hagendorf. Directed by Jonathan McHugh

 

Heavy metal has always gotten, if you’ll excuse the expression, a bad rap among musical genres. Often the music is dismissed as self-indulgent guitar noodling with satanic lyrics, its fans as Beavis and Butthead clones. That’s neither accurate nor fair.

Metal fans have always been amongst music’s most passionate. There is a kind of tribalism that goes on with metal fans, from the tattoos of lyrics and logos to the tour t-shirts and festival followers. While there might be rivalries with different bands (Metallica and Megadeth come to mind right away), there is a camaraderie between metal fans regardless of their favorite band; they’re all in it together and even if your favorite band is Halestorm, you can still rock out to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Korn or Body Count.

This is a documentary that suffers from the desire to do too much. McHugh starts as a way for fans to discuss what about the music appeals to them, why they love the bands they do and some of this is the most interesting material in the film, like the midwestern Mom whose kids can’t stand the music she listens to (it’s too loud) and takes one weekend off a year to attend a music festival to blow off steam and re-connect with friends and fellow metalheads.

But McHugh goes off in several other directions without any sort of plan or organization, going from the communal nature of the fans to the fine art of crowd surfing, to the casualties of the rock and roll lifestyle, to the lack of mainstream appeal of the music. The film leads off with Gene Simmons’ quote that Rock and Roll is Dead and rap has taken its place. That may well be statistically accurate, but it fails to take into account the cyclical nature of music which Simmons himself should have an understanding of since he and his band (KISS) have seen metal fall out of favor, come back in the late 80s/early 90s, and then fade away again. Sure, rap and hip hop may well be in the driver’s seat now but so was disco in the 70s; at some point kids will find something else to listen to. They always do.

There’s enough material here for McHugh to have done a miniseries on the subject, but instead he tried to cram it all into an hour and a half. That was probably not a good idea; most of the individual topics he takes off could easily use a movie of their own – the growing acceptance of women and African-Americans in the genre, the soul-grinding nature of touring and the toll it takes on family life, the healing nature of music, the relationship between fans and bands and those I mentioned previously, to name a few.

Much of the footage takes place at large-scale festival shows with tens of thousands in attendance (and often more) which might be painful for those who miss those gatherings which are probably at least another year or two away from happening again as of this writing. The effect of the pandemic on the fans and the musicians is never explored, but something tells me that this was filmed long before that. Some follow-up footage might have been nice. There also seems to be an emphasis on bands of the 80s and afterwards with curiously little mention to the hard rock pioneers of the 60s and 70s like KISS, Van Halen, Iron Butterfly, The Who, the Stones, and only a brief mention of Heart as pioneers for women in rock during that sequence. Context might have been a nice addition as well.

This is a worthy subject for a documentary and there is a definitely uplifting feeling to the film, despite a section on the passing of Chris Cornell and Chester Binnington of Soundgarden and Linkin Park, respectively. I think with a little better editing an maybe a little less scattershot approach, this could have been a lot more kickass than it was.

As a rock critic back in the day, I covered a number of the bands that are portrayed here. I have to say that the metal fans were some of the most inclusive of any I’ve ever dealt with as a rock critic. Although I tended to be more drawn to alternative music personally, I looked forward to metal shows not just because I liked the fans, but also because the women tended to be the sexiest – I was a single guy at the time, after all.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets an “A” for enthusiasm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really organize its subjects well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references and profanity herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Halestorm, who is profiled in the film, recorded a cover of The Who’s “Long Live Rock” to promote the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lava

Own the Room


Rehearsing the pitch.

(2021) Documentary (National Geographic) Henry Onyango, Daniela Blanco, Alondra Toledo, Santosh Pandey, Jason Hadzikosas, Miguel Modestino, Fernando Toledo, Maria Blanco, Patricia Castillo, Tyler Olson, Kunda Divit, Huston Malande, Eddie Alvarado, Gustavo Fuga, Alberto Soto-Benitez, Damarie Toledo. Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster

 

It is indescribably difficult to get a business off the ground, particularly one that is operating with ideas outside the box. As television shows like Shark Tank show, most of these businesses fail within the first year because of a lack of capital to bankroll the operation. When you’re a young person without a history of innovation and business experience, it is doubly hard. That’s why there is an international competition known as the Global Student Entrepreneur Award.

This award annually gives $100,000 to the student whose idea and business plan impresses the judges the most. For many of the students that participate, the money means the difference between survival and closing the doors of the nascent business they’ve started.

This documentary, currently streaming on the Disney Plus service, focuses on five entrants into the competition; Santosh Pandey from Nepal has a business that allows ex-pats from Nepal (who have lost a high number of workers who have emigrated all over the world to find work to support their families back home) to surprise loved ones in Nepal with impromptu celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries and so on. Daniela Blanco is an immigrant from Venezuela who left her native land when government crackdowns on student protesters made conditions too dangerous for her to continue her studies at home; utilizing a scholarship at New York University, she used her electrical engineering degree to invent a method of using solar power to create the materials to make nylon as opposed to the fossil fuels that the industry currently uses. Her company, Sunthetics, is the key to her remaining in the United States. Jason Hadzikosas is from Greece and has developed an application that uses artificial intelligence to translate the cries of infants and translate them into what the baby is really asking for. His company, Cry2Talk, could revolutionize parenting.

Henry Onyango is a student in Nairobi, Kenya who discovered that there was a serious student housing shortage throughout Kenya and indeed, throughout Africa. An expert coder, he created an app called Roometo that allows students to find housing close to their universities, a kind of Air BnB for the college crowd. Finally, Alondra Toledo from Puerto Rico has developed an application that allows deaf patients to communicate with doctors who don’t understand sign language. Her company is called UnderstHand and given the island’s difficulties following Hurricane Maria, seems to be an important idea that deserves further exploration.

The documentary sticks with the five contestants through the preliminary rounds in their home countries and gathers them in Macao, where the global finals are to take place. We get to know what drives them, what inspires them and how their idea came to fruition. We meet some of their co-workers and family members, and discover that all five are engaging, intelligent and driven to make the world a better place.

There is unexpected drama when one of the contestants is denied entry into Macau initially due to not having enough cash to enter the casino-heavy “Las Vegas of the Orient” but also possibly because of other factors, not the least of which was the candidate’s overly casual style of dress. With the possibility of being deported back to their home country and not being able to present their idea to the judges, the contestant scrambles to find a means of getting into Macao and making it to their presentation slot on time.

The various contestants are all inspiring but the film is pretty much a typical competition documentary in presentation and execution. Still, there’s enough inspiration and innovation from the candidates to make this worth your while and non-fiction cinema enthusiasts will no doubt find this to be of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive ideas delivered by young people who’ll give you hope for the future.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty typical competition documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family, although there is a brief reference to potential racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Own the room” refers to a public speaking truism that to be successful in a presentation, the presenter must be in complete charge and seem knowledgeable and confident, also known as “owning the room.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Science Fair
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos

The Walrus and the Whistleblower


Phil Demers is at the center of the protest.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Phil Demers, Doug Draper, Ted Satci, John Holer, Michael Noonen, Catherine Ens-Hurwood, Carolyn Narononni, Naomi Rose, Brendan Kelly, Angela Bontivagna, Ron Bucholz, Holly Lake, Murray Sinclair, Elizabeth May. Directed by Nathalie Bibeau

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I’ve never understood the appeal of watching trained animals perform. I’m not really big on zoos, although I am all for interacting with animals in a safe environment for both humans and the animals themselves. I have no problem with teaching children the wonders of the animal kingdom and the importance of respecting other species different than our own. So when I have the opportunity to go to marine parks where trained dolphins and killer whales perform for a stadium full of spectators, I am not terribly enthusiastic about attending. However, I realize that a lot of people feel differently than I do on the subject.

Marineland, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, has been showcasing performing dolphins, killer whales and other marine mammals since opening its doors in 1961. It is the largest employer in the area which has little other industry besides tourism. In 2000, they brought in walruses and trainer Phil Demers developed a special relationship with Smooshi – so named because she had a habit of smooshing up against his face – who imprinted on him, which to be honest I’m not sure whether or not that is unusual since that’s one of many avenues that the film never explores (this gets to be a theme throughout the movie and is its greatest drawback). The two were inseparable.

However, Demers was disturbed at the way the animals in general were treated at the park – a recurring litany that has dogged Marineland for decades. When a type of algae starting growing in the water that was harmful to the animals, they responded by using chlorine to kill it which in turn caused painful chemical burns that eventually no amount of drugs could soothe. When Demers discovered the tragic and torturous route Smooshi (and the other walruses that Marineland eventually added to the show) took in being purchased for the park, Demers finally resigned his job. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

He became an animal rights activist, picketing Marineland and taking on the Twitter handle WalrusWhisperer to bring the plight of the animals to the attention of the general public. He would be barred from the grounds of Marineland and later a large lawsuit was brought on by the marie park against him. In the meantime, Canada began to take up legislation to ban the keeping of certain marine mammals (but ironically, not walruses) from marine parks and aquariums. It is an uphill battle and Demers is basically a bearded David facing an unforgiving and vengeful Goliath but he soldiers on.

The movie takes a lot of its cues from Blackfish although its focus is on a specific incident even more so than Blackfish, which broadened its scope to look at animal abuse in marine parks globally. The laser-like focus here is on Marineland and its owner John Holer (who passed away during film, an event that caused mixed reactions in Demers) to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps with the wider focus of the other film, Bibeau might have felt she didn’t need to expand her view, but basically honed in on Demers’ story and while it is an admirable one, it could have used further context. The only negativity that comes in was that some of his fellow activists are frustrated with him because he refuses to embrace veganism, and what criticism is leveled at Demers is largely leveled by himself – “I sound like an asshole. I look like an asshole. I know the vein in my forehead is bulging,” he admits in a moment of self-examination.

The importance of the subject is unquestioned and the fact that in the years since Blackfish was released it appears that there hasn’t been a ton of change in the policies regarding the way marine parks treat the animals in their care is something that at least deserves mention, but it never is. Also Demers proclaims that he doesn’t want to win money out of all of this; he just wants Smooshi, but to what end? Releasing her back into the wild would be impractical at best and deadly at worst; she’s lived her entire life in captivity and doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild. So where would Demers keep her? There doesn’t appear to be much room in his house for her, and the bill for feeding a walrus would be appalling. But whatever plans Demers has for the care of Smooshi once released from the park are never elaborated on.

And that’s really symbolic for the movie as a whole; I don’t think Bibeau had much of a plan in assembling this film. Certainly it is an important story, and certainly it means a lot to her personally (see Trivial Pursuits below) but it feels like she didn’t really want to make much effort to dot her I’s and cross her T’s and this is a film that could badly use both, even if the story is compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating David vs. Goliath story. The footage of Smooshi and Demers being separated is absolutely heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leaves too many important questions unexplored.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug use and disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bibeau knew of Demers because he was her brother’s best friend growing up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Discovery Plus, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Come True

Latin Noir


Double fisted death.Cine

(2021) Documentary (AnemonPaco Ignacio Taibo II, Roberto Bardini, Luis Sepulveda, Claudia Pineiro, Leonardo Paduro, Philip Swanson, Juan Sasturain, Santiago Roncagliolo.  Directed by Andreas Apostolides

We all have our image of noir fiction; hard-bitten, world-weary detectives (most of whom resemble Humphrey Bogart uncannily) dealing with beautiful women who shouldn’t be trusted and forces well beyond his pay grade. They prowl the back alleys of the big city, wearing heavy trenchcoats and fedoras, peering into the fog and rain-soaked streets looking for clues, knowing deep down that justice is something that only happens in fairy tales.

In Latin America, they have a different outlook on noir. As Mexican crime fiction novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II asks, “how can you write a crime novel in a country where the state is the main criminal?” In the 70s, Latin America was riddled with military dictatorships and authoritarian governments. People disappeared without a trace; the police were not interested in protecting the people so much as protecting the government that paid them, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to be murdered in cold blood on the order of the state.

For a group of writers that began to emerge during that period, crime fiction began to blend by necessity with social fiction; the real crime was being committed by the State. A handful of writers, including Taibo but also Luis Sepulveda (Chile), Claudia Pineiro (Argentina), Leonardo Paduro (Cuba), and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru), created a subgenre of crime fiction that came to be identified as novellas negras or, black novels. They began to be referred to as Latin Noir, for their similarities to the great noir fiction of the 1930s and 1940s.

Apostolides, himself a crime novelist whose work is infused with his own experiences during the repressive Greek dictatorship of the 1980s, interviews the five writers as well as scholars Philip Swanson and Juan Sasturain for context. The writers talk about how their experiences within their countries inspired them to create their best-known novels and characters. The interviews offer a fascinating look at the creative processes of these writers, as well as give us insight into recent Latin American politics and history.

The jazz-inspired score fits perfectly into the noir oeuvre and clips from noir films help bring some of the words to life. However, the best parts are when passages from the novels themselves are read (in Spanish, with the English translation in subtitles). One gets a sense of the underlying hope for better things and the grim realities of the past and present that flavor these novels.

This isn’t for everybody. There is definitely an academic tinge to the film which tends to be fairly analytical in tone. There is a lot of good information here, however, and those interested in Latin culture are going to find this fascinating. It made its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival and is available online through the Festival for American audiences through the end of the Festival run on March 14. Afterwards, keep an eye out for it at your own local film festival, particularly if it tends to play films from that region. I wouldn’t be surprised if this made its way onto PBS somehow; it would fit like a glove there.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative about political events in Latin America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very reliant on talking heads; some may fid it dry and academic.
FAMILY VALUES: Little overt violence or sex, but discusses adult thematic concepts of state-sponsored repression.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sepulveda passed away due to complications from COVID-19 last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (available through 3/14/21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Los Angeles: City of Film Noir
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Sin La Habana

Stray (2020)


Some dogs have the unique ability to look sad and smug at the same time.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Zeytin, Nazar, Kartal, Jamil, Ali, Hajil, Little Ali, Baran, Hakim, Kenan.  Directed by Elizabeth Lo

 

We humans treat our dogs with attitudes that can only be called schizophrenic. On the one hand, we are nuts about our pups; we buy them sweaters to wear in the winter (despite the fact they come factory-equipped with a fur coat), and write endless reams of praise for their loyalty, their friendship, their love. We also use their name as an insult; you’re a “dirty dog” or “treat someone like a dog.” But mostly, we regard the creature as man’s best friend.

Istanbul has a vast number of stray dogs running about. That’s mainly because a fair number of those following the Islamic faith believe that dogs are ritually unpure; certain writings forbid the practice of keeping a dog in the house; some believe that the mere site of a dog during prayer can negate the supplications of the person doing the praying. The Quran also instructs, on the other hand, that all creatures be respected and be treated with dignity – including dogs.

Hong Kong-born filmmaker Elizabeth Lo spent two years in Istanbul following around a trio of strays, with Zeytin – the first one we meet – the one she spent the most time with. Zeytin is a beautiful animal with one of the most expressive canine faces you’re ever likely to see. She has a playful disposition and although she does get in a kerfuffle with another stray during the course of the film, mostly she seems to want to play with other dogs and the humans she meets on the streets of Istanbul.

There are also two other dogs that Lo spends time with; Nazar, the companion of Zeytin, and Kartal, a puppy that joins the group later in the film. That’s because she is dognapped by one of the teen Syrian refugees that Zeytin spends a lot of time hanging out with. Much of the film is spent drawing parallels between the dogs and the refugees who have, ironically, fewer protections under the law than the stray dogs do.

Lo tends to give us a dog’s-eye view of the human culture, setting the camera low at eye level of the various hounds she follows. She also at one point straps a GoPro to Zeytin which proves to be a terrible idea; the loping dog gait bounces and jerks the camera around like there’s an earthquake going on. Even on a laptop the effect is so dizziness-inducing that I had to step away from watching the movie for several minutes while my vertigo subsided and my equilibrium was restored.

There isn’t much dialogue here. We catch snatches of conversations with passersby, as well as from the varied street kids that the dogs are with. There are moments that are moving – the kids receive meals from a state service, feeding the dogs from those meals first. There are also moments that are amusing as the dogs can be plenty playful and as I said, Zeytin has a wonderful range of expressions on her face, from smugness to incredulity to joy to sorrow.

I have to admit that I was terrified watching Zeytin ambling along the streets and highways of the city. Traffic is often whizzing by and I had nightmare visions of the dog dashing into the street and getting pulverized by a truck. Thankfully, nothing like that happens here.

Being something of a dog nut myself, I found spending time with these canines to be most rewarding. Lo obviously has an affinity for dogs; she peppers the film with title cards with quotes regarding the nobility of dogs by ancient philosophers, mostly from Diogenes – the same guy who went looking for an honest man while carrying a lamp, according to legend. Diogenes clearly preferred dogs to humans and I can hardly blame him.

Your attitude towards the film will largely depend on your attitude towards dogs. If you love dogs, you’ll find the film rewarding. If you are ambivalent towards dogs, you likely will find the film more enlightening about the attitudes towards refugees. If you’re not fond of dogs, best you find something else to watch. The movie, though, is entertaining and heartwarming enough that it’s worth seeing by the entire family, although you will rarely find a movie in which dogs take a dump as much as they do in this one.

REASONS TO SEE:  Zeytin has the most amazing expressive face. Makes some fascinating parallels between stray dogs and homeless teens.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a nausea-inducing sequence when a GoPro is strapped to Zeytin’s back.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1909 the city of Istanbul made a concerted effort to annihilate the stray dog population, but public outcry forced the government to enact laws preventing the euthanasia or holding of strays.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Showcase Now, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 941% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Los Reyes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Latin Noir

The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien


Tim O’Brien says hi.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasTim O’Brien, Dan Rather, Timmy O’Brien, Tad O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Ben Fountain, Marlon James.  Directed by Aaron Matthews

 

War is hell, we all know that. It is a last resort, something nobody wants to see except for a segment of society enamored with the nobility of sacrifice to an almost morbid degree. So, too, writing is hell. Conjuring words from the deepest places in our minds, the most hidden, private, personal spaces laid bare for all to see – the process is not so much sitting down at a laptop and typing away as ripping bits of your flesh and soul away with tweezers. For the good writers, that is; that goes without saying.

Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam an his experiences there fueled eleven books that are among the best ever written by an American. His tomes Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried should be required reading for any American, particularly for those too young to remember the Vietnam war and the Sixties in general. He became a father late in life, and in order to be a decent dad, he turned away from writing and turned towards his responsibilities as a father. Most of his income today is derived from a teaching career at the University of Texas at San Marcos, and from frequent appearances on the lecture circuit. Otherwise, he lives a comfortable life in suburban Austin, attending the basketball games of his now-teenage sons, helping with homework, comforting them when they are frightened.

But as he entered his seventh decade of life, O’Brien knew that chances are he wouldn’t live long enough to see his two sons Timmy and Tad grow into manhood. A lifelong two pack a day smoker, his health has been showing signs of wear and tear. Also, it troubled him that his sons never asked him a single question about his experiences in the war. He knew the time was fast approaching when his sons would have to make their way through life without him. And so he decided to write one last book for himself, to say everything he needed to say, but more importantly, for them, so they could hear their father’s voice after he was gone.

This documentary takes place over the four years it took for O’Brien to write his most recent book, Dad’s Maybe Book. During the course of filming, he struggled with writer’s block, often going into the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning to scrub the tiles with paper towels and disinfectant to try and get his mind out of the endless loop of frustration. He also suffers a serious bout of pneumonia that had him hallucinating and scaring the bejeezus out of not only his sons but his wife Meredith as well.

Matthews takes a cinema verité fly on the wall approach, rarely interviewing O’Brien or his family formally, but rather letting them say what’s on their mind. It’s an approach that works for directors like Errol Morris, but we end up being frustrated here because there’s no real context for anything; this movie may well have been titled Things That Happened While Tim O’Brien Wrote His Last Book. No context? No insight either; not really. We do hear about Tim’s thought’s on his mortality, but no real further exploration of them. Recently, Esquire magazine conducted an interview with him in which he goes much further into his motivations for writing the book and doing the movie, and there is far more insight into the soul of Tim O’Brien there then in this movie. But then again, I guess most people will agree that the book is always better than the movie.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Brien is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, feels little more than a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was 71 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stray

The Reunited States


Susan Bro wants to give the whole world a hug.

(2021) Documentary (Dark Star) David Leaverton, Susan Bro, Mark Gerzon, Erin Leaverton, Steven Olikara, Greg Orman, Jay Hooper, Jeramy Anderson, Orlando Paden, Bear Cadman, Professor Rob Lee, Carri Hicks. Directed by Ben Rekhi

 

One thing both the left and the right can agree on is that our country is deeply divided politically. Never since the Civil War have passions been so inflamed on both sides…or both sides so intractable that they have stopped listening to one another. Regardless of who wins elections, this is a dangerous situation for the future of our country as we sink further and further into an abyss that can only lead to bloodshed.

There are some people who want to change that, and this film – inspired by the non-fiction book by Mark Gerzon, who appears onscreen from time to time to give an overview of the situation – looks at a few of them. We meet Greg Orman, a third party gubernatorial candidate for Kansas in the 2018 elections who fights the uphill battle of convincing people that they aren’t wasting tgheir votes by voting for him; Steven Olikara puts together a coalition of Millennial politicians from both sides of the aisle. David Leaverton, a former Republican operative who had no problem demonizing the left and doing whatever it took to win races, becomes disenchanted with the results of his work and decides to pack up his family in an RV and go to all fifty states and talk to people of both political sides of the argument. Finally, and most poignantly, there’s Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2016, taking up her daughter’s mantle for racial equality and justice.

There are some heavy emotional moments here, including Erin Leaverton embracing an African-American woman whose skin color contributed to medical professionals disbelieving her situation which led to tragedy, and Susan Bro admitting to David Leaverton that she didn’t want to meet with him at first because she felt that people like him contributed to the rage that led to her daughter’s murder.

An issue I have is somewhat endemic to the movie in general; it has to walk a tight line to begin with as not to become a partisan diatribe itself, so often it leaves  details out about specific policies and beliefs. I understand the tendency, but it seems to me that if we can’t even talk about issues for fear of offending or enraging one side or the other, we’ve already lost the war.

Still, this is a movie that provides something that’s in short supply these days; hope that things can get better. It will take a shift in attitude and perhaps a degree of maturity that our nation has yet to demonstrate in the actions of its cirizens of late, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change. “I don’t know if the reconciliation you’re talking about is even possible,” one interviewee admits on-camera. All I know is that it is completely impossible if we don’t make the attempt.

REASONS TO SEE: Very emotional throughout. A hopeful sign that there are some people working to bridge the gap between the left and the right.
REASONS TO AVOID: Frustratingly thin on concrete etails.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CNN commentator Van Jones and The View host  Meghan McCain are among the producers of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien