Doin’ My Drugs


The road of an activist can be long and lonely.

(2019) Documentary (FreestyleThomas Buttenschøn, Yellowman, Danny Zaya, John Chiti, TK, Chris Aka, Bode Fashinasi, Cana Buttenschøn, Chef 187, DJ Len, Peter Lausted, Frances Kasonde, Maiko Zulu, DJ Taffy, Brian Bwembya, Jens Buttenschøn, DJ Vain, Mwiza Zulu, Inger Lis Lausted, Sista D Zulu . Directed by Tyler Q. Rosen

 

The politicization of illness didn’t start with COVID-19. In the 80s and 90s, HIV and AIDS carried with it a stigma that the person afflicted with it was essentially getting what they deserved because they were having sex. Never mind that sexual intercourse isn’t the only way to contract the virus; never mind that not everyone who contracted the disease was gay. The stigma remains associated with the disease to this day, particularly in Africa where homosexuality is much more of a taboo.

Thomas Muchimba Buttenschøn was born of a Zambian mother and a Danish father, and was born in Zambia. His parents discovered after his birth that they both had AIDS; they returned to Denmark which had a better health care system, but Thomas’ mother died in Zambia while visiting her family there, and his father died in Denmark shortly thereafter. Worse yet, Thomas was born HIV positive. His prospects for a long life seemed unlikely at the time.

But Thomas is 35 years old now with a wife and son of his own, and a thriving musical career.  Neither his wife nor his son have HIV or AIDS; medical advances have made it possible for Thomas to live a normal life, with the help of a drug regimen that he adheres to without fail. However, not too many people realize that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was. Thomas returned home to Zambia to spread the word that AIDS can be overcome, and to help ease the negativity surrounding those afflicted with the disease.

It’s not an easy task. Cultural taboos that go back thousands of years are difficult to overcome. On top of that, Zambia is a heavily Christian nation and the more evangelical elements have turned their backs on those suffering with the disease. Given that those who are diagnosed HIV positive are often shunned by their families and communities, it’s no wonder that the disease often goes unreported, leading to a more virulent spreading of the disease in Zambia.

Thomas’ mission is to educate and inform. Linking up with other musicians such as Danny Zaya, and Sister D Zulu who have been AIDS activists for years, even when it was unpopular to do so. Their songs were often banned by the government, although those anti-AIDS bans are starting to ease now. Thomas and his fellow musicians decided to put on a concert in the village where his mother was born – and eventually died. The price of admission; get tested.

Weaved in with the locals is Thomas’ own story which is at times, heartbreaking. His father was the subject of a news story in Denmark; he would be dead less than a year after it aired. But the baby-faced Thomas, while clearly affected by the tragedy, also seems to have moved on from it, having been raised by foster parents who helped him overcome the bleak outlook his father had – which, at the time, was understandable – and grow to live a full life of his own.

The documentary is very informative about the current state of HIV/AIDS and how it is regarded in Africa. Judging on posts I’ve seen on social media here in America, I would venture to see that ignorance about AIDS isn’t limited to that continent at all. Many Zambians were startled to discover that the drugs that have given Thomas a normal life are available there for free, given away by the government seeking to end the epidemic.

There is a lot of music in this documentary, and it is a bit surprising; the music is pretty Western-sounding to my ears. This isn’t a music documentary, however, despite the fact that musicians make up the central focus in many ways; this is about fighting a disease and more to the point, ignorance of that disease which is perhaps deadlier than the disease itself. That is true of any disease, including the one affecting our country right now.

REASONS TO SEE: Glimpses of other cultures are always welcome.
REASONS TO AVOID: Approach might be a little too low-key; needs some urgency.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The HIV/AIDS infection rate in Zambia was 14% when this was filmed in a country of 17 million people; the rate is likely much higher given the reluctance of people to report their condition as detailed in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elyse

Instant Family


Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne get a little cuddle time in.

(2018) Family Comedy (ParamountMark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Tom Segura, Allyn Rachel, Brittney Rentschler, Jody Thompson, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Michael O’Keefe, Joan Cusack, Edson Gary Weeks, Kenneth Israel, Hampton Fluker, Randy Havens, Iliza Schlesinger. Directed by Sean Anders

 

Having been an instant Dad, coming into a family in which there were already children, I imagine I have a bit of a leg up on the adoption comedy Instant Family. In some ways, the movie tackles some serious issues with the foster care system and of dealing with kids who have been through the ringer. It also has some humor which can be charitably described as weak; on top of it you have an awful lot of cursing, a fair amount of which is done by the kids themselves. This is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.

Which is weird because writer-director Anders based the film on his own experiences adopting three Hispanic children, which is what childless Yuppie couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) do. They end up with problematic teen Lizzy (Moner) who still harbors hope of reuniting with her birth mother, her little brother Juan (Quiroz) who is as clumsy as any anxious kid is and whose first instinct is to always apologize profusely whether he’s responsible or not, and finally little Lita (Gamiz) who is a bundle of need and a volcano when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Trying to guide these prospective parents through the process are agency workers Karen (Spencer) and Sharon (Notaro), as well as Ellie’s introspective mom (Hagerty) and Pete’s bulldozer of a mom (Martindale). When the birth mom of the kids, who has a history of drug addiction, decides she wants her kids back, Pete and Ellie, who have at times regretted their decision, suddenly realize that they need these kids as much or more than they need them.

It’s definitely a movie with all the feels, the kind of thing that infuriates a whole lot of movie critics who hate being emotionally manipulated, but in all honesty, I think Instant Family comes to its emotional high and lows honestly. Wahlberg is at his most charming here, and he has a solid cast to back him up including Oscar winner Spencer, Notaro (one of the finest comedians of our time) and particularly Martindale who over the past decade has become one of the most reliable and interesting character actresses in Hollywood.

It’s a shame that there’s so much here that doesn’t work, from Isabelle Moner doing her best to channel Selena Gomez, to the somewhat lame humor which never quite hits the mark, to the script that doesn’t really rise above its own limitations. I think the movie would have been better served to try less to be light comedy and harder to be a bit more realistic about the pitfalls – and joys – of being a foster parent can be. It’s not quite a Hallmark Channel movie, but it needed a little more firm direction in terms of what it wanted to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably heartwarming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it safe by following established formulas and really doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual material, adult thematic material and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on the real-life experiences of director Sean Anders, who adopted three Hispanic kids.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blended
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Liz & Ray

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back


Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

(2016) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Judd Lombard, Jason Douglas, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Anthony Molinari, M. Serrano, Nicole Barre, Jessica Stroup, Sharon E. Smith, Teri Wyble, Sean Boyd, Austin Hébert, Sabrina Gennarino, Ernest Wells, Lizbeth Hutchings. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Most of us have some sort of moral code. It might not be straight and narrow and it might be more flexible than most, but it’s there. For most of us, there are things that just cannot stand. Then again, there are those whose codes, for better or worse, are about as flexible as the Rock of Gibraltar. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

Jack Reacher (Cruise) was once in charge of a Military Police investigative unit until he retired from the armed forces. He prefers to live off the grid, moving from place to place and living off his pension which he collects in cash. He hitchhikes to get from place to place. He’s a loner by nature and will never initiate a conversation without reason to, but if you get up in his grill he absolutely will mop the floor with your carcass.

His successor in the unit is the ramrod-tough straight shooter Major Susan Turner (Smulders) on whom Reacher asks a favor from time to time. The two have developed a friendly, semi-flirtatious repartee that doesn’t seem to have much expectation that anything will come of it, but there is clearly mutual respect between the two and Reacher doesn’t respect a whole lot of people. After she arrests a group of human traffickers operating from a military base (and rescuing Reacher from being arrested himself for assault in the bargain), he tells her that he owes her a dinner and she can collect the next time he’s in D.C.

But by the time Reacher gets there, things have turned upside down; Major Turner has been arrested for espionage, something Reacher thinks smells fishy. And the more he talks to her commanding officer (McCallany), the fishier the smell. Pretty soon, he discovers that two of her direct reports in Afghanistan turned up dead. Quickly Reacher’s nose indicates that there’s a nasty little conspiracy going on and that Major Turner – whom he scarcely knows but considers a friend – is not safe in jail. He breaks her out and goes on the run, pursued by – well, everybody including a black-gloved assassin (Heusinger) with no name who might just be Reacher’s equal in hand-to-hand combat.

To further complicate matters, there’s a teenage girl (Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter and because she might be, she’s in the crosshairs of the killers. Whether she’s his progeny or not, he can’t just leave her in the hands of the wolves, so Reacher knows he’s going to have to do what he does best – kick ass and dig until he finds the truth, assuming you can handle it (see what I did there).

The Reacher book series penned by author Lee Child is at 21 books as of this writing and continuing to climb. The series has a fairly rabid fan base, not all of whom are especially pleased over the two films that have been adapted, particularly as the hero is 6’4” in the book, nearly a foot taller than what Cruise is in real life. Short of budget-busting special effects, nothing is going to make Cruise that tall. He is then forced to take up the slack with attitude.

And to a certain extent, it works. Reacher feels dangerous here. Maybe it’s the way he looks at you sideways or the coiled spring tension in Cruise’s body language but you get a sense that rubbing this guy the wrong way would be a bad and potentially fatal idea. I will give Cruise that – he gets the attitude of Reacher right.

But that makes it a bit of a hard sell. Reacher as written isn’t the sharing kind. He’s taciturn, sullen, often hostile. He’s smart in a predatory kind of way. He’s also self-disciplined as you’d expect for an elite military officer but that doesn’t mean he can’t explode into violence when the need arises. It’s the kind of character that Clint Eastwood might have owned a few decades ago, or more recently maybe Schwarzenegger. In many ways, Jack Reacher isn’t much different than a number of action hero loners with faulty social skills and therein lies the rub.

Much of the movie (particularly in the second half) requires Reacher to be something of a father figure and it just comes off…wrong. Reacher is loyal to a fault but that doesn’t make him an ideal family man. The interactions between Reacher and Samantha (said sullen teen whose moral compass is a bit shadier than his) are awkward as they should be, but that ends up making you feel uncomfortable, like listening to Florence Foster Jenkins singing karaoke.

The action sequences are decently staged, although unremarkable in and of themselves. The climactic fight between the assassin and Reacher on the rooftops of the French Quarter (and it must be said that the Big Easy looks pretty great here) is lengthy but it feels predictable. I’m not saying that it’s horrible, it just didn’t wow me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many action movies.

All in all, this is entertaining enough to recommend but not enough to recommend vigorously. I think that a good movie can be made from the Child novels but thus far the movies have been decent but not memorable. They make for some nice time fillers if you’re bored and want to kill a couple of hours, but if you’ve got a yen for an action movie that’s going to leave you breathless with your heart pounding, this isn’t the one to select.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty decent action sequences highlight the film. The filmmakers utilize the New Orleans location nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: For the most part the film is pretty unremarkable. It loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and action movie goodness, a bit of profanity, some adult themes and a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the eighteenth book in the series; its predecessor was based on the ninth book.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Out for Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Denial

The Book Thief


Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetezer to rehearse their lines with her but he's too tired.

Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetzer to rehearse their lines with her but he’s too tired.

(2013) Drama (20th Century Fox) Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watkins, Roger Allam (voice), Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Carina Wiese, Rainier Bock, Barbara Auer, Kirsten Block, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Hildegard Schroedter, Levin Liam, Sandra Nedeleff, Carl Heinz Choynski, Sebastian Hulk, Beata Lehmann. Directed by Brian Percival

The power of words can be transformative. The description of the day can bring someone trapped indoors into the world even for just a few moments. They can transport us to faraway places, transfer us into heroic beings and leave us like we can do anything.

In 1938 Germany, young Liesel (Nelisse) is being taken by train to meet her new foster parents by her mother (Makatsch) who is no longer able to keep her. Unfortunately before they can get there, her younger brother (Lehmann) dies suddenly and is buried by the tracks. At the graveside Liesel finds a book and even though she can neither read nor write, she impulsively takes it with her.

She is brought to a small German town where her new parents are waiting for her – kindly Hans (Rush), an out of work housepainter whose business has suffered because he hasn’t joined the Nazi party, and his harpy-esque wife Rosa (Watkins). She attracts the attention of Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the blonde young boy next door who happens to be the fastest runner in the neighborhood and who idolized Jesse Owens although that’s not exactly looked upon with favor by the Nazi regime.

Liesel’s illiteracy has caught the attention of the kids in school, particularly school bully Franz (Liam). Hans determines to teach Liesel how to read and write and turns their basement into a kind of living dictionary where Liesel writes new words she learns from various books she picks up.

Rosa takes in laundry to help make ends meet and one of her clients is the Buergmeister Hermann (Bock) and his wife Ilsa (Auer). At a book burning, Ilsa had noticed Liesel picking up a slightly charred copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man but tells no-one about it. Instead, she introduces Liesel to her library, a kind of homage to her son who had been killed. Laundry day becomes reading day for Ilsa and Liesel until the Buergmeister discovers what’s going on and puts a stop to it – and Rosa’s laundry.

In the meantime, following the infamous Kristallnacht of November 10, 1938 a young Jew named Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) shows up at Hans and Rosa’s door, needing to be hidden. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the First World War at the cost of his own so Hans feels honor-bound to save his son. For two years, Max lives in their basement and becomes fast friends with Liesel.

However as World War II begins and things start to go badly in Germany, things go from bad to worse for Liesel’s new family. While Liesel defiantly “borrows” books from Ilsa’s library, the war begins to turn against the Nazi’s and Hans’ refusal to join the party begins to get him viewed with further suspicion. What can good people do to survive such evil and such horror in their midst?

Based on the award winning bestseller by Marcus Zusak, this is brilliantly realized by Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey so he is at least experienced with the period. The German village (filmed in picturesque Gorlitz in Saxony) is bucolic and lovely but the ugliness hidden within is at times shocking. Not everyone in the village is a Nazi nor are most of them heroes; they are simply trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible and turn away when things get ugly, hoping that the ugliness won’t touch them directly. This is human nature, like it or not.

Nelisse, who was impressive in Monsieur Lazhar last year positively shines here. It is not an easy thing for an actress her age to carry a motion picture but Nelisse manages without being overly cute while being completely believable. It doesn’t hurt that she has actors the caliber of Rush and Watson to play off of. Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine may actually be more memorable here. He brings incredible humanity to the role of Hans without making him too good to be true. Hans simply put has a warm heart and a poet’s soul. Watson has a more difficult role with the prickly Rosa and manages to keep Rosa’s heart well buried beneath her gruff exterior. I think she has a good shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination when the Oscars come around.

Some critics have groused over the narration which is done by Death himself, in the guise of Roger Allam. The book was also so narrated and part of the book’s message requires Death to be involved because Death is a part of life. We are reminded of our mortality in the movie early and often and we are also reminded how precious life is and how easily we can lose it. Those who are complaining about Death’s narration may well have missed the point.

The movie is extremely moving and while there are elements of fantasy involved – not just Death’s narration but a scene in which the bodies of unfortunates caught in a bombing are lined up next to each other, beautifully untouched and looking mostly asleep (whereas if they had been in a bombing raid of the sort depicted they would have been charred and battered beyond recognition) – that’s fantasy. That’s death through a child’s eye (and perhaps through Death’s eye as well) in which death is a peaceful naptime, a transition from wakefulness to slumber.

Chances are the Academy is going to ignore this one – it simply hasn’t generated the buzz that American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have (haven’t seen the former and the latter is certainly justified). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. While this is based on a young adult novel, the subject matter may be a little too much for smaller kids. Do exercise parental caution is determining whether or not your kids are ready to see this. However if you feel they can handle it, it is well worth a family movie outing and is definitely one of the best movies this year.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and occasionally beautiful. Fine performances by Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Blend of fantasy and reality doesn’t always work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes that may be too intense for the very impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer of the book this is based on, Marcus Zusak, is actually Australian.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Nebraska