American Gadfly


Sharing a laugh before hitting the campaign laptop.

(2022) Documentary (Gravitas) Mike Gravel, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery, Henry Magowan, Whitney Stewart Gravel, Dave Weigel, Jamie Keiles, Marianne Williamson, Rick Santorum, Jon Suhr, Anne Williams, Bettina Weil, Keane Bhatt, Alex Chang, Benjamin Church, Niko House, Katherine Williams. Directed by Skye Wallin

 

The political landscape has changed, as it always, inevitably, does. As technologies change, as fresh blood infuses the electorate, the way in which political discourse is conducted has shifted. We are entering the age, for better or for worse, of the political meme.

As the 2020 presidential election began to take shape, a group of politically-minded high school seniors in upscale Westchester County, New York, felt frustrated by the way the Democratic primaries were shaping out. Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery (a junior) and Henry Magowan felt that the issues important to them and to other young liberals, were not being addressed by the largely centrist group of candidates. Even Bernie Sanders didn’t feel far enough to the left for them. They thought they needed a candidate who would, at least, bring their issues to the conversation.

They found one in Mike Gravel (pronounced Gra-velle, with an emphasis on the second syllable. A former Senator from Alaska, Gravel was known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record to point out the criminal activities being perpetrated by military forces in Vietnam. He was a bit of a maverick, often breaking with party lines, who believed in direct Democracy – that issues should be decided by a popular vote by the electorate, rather than by elected officials. He was also a pacifist, vehemently antiwar.

The trouble was that Gravel was long since retired from politics, living in Monterey, California, and just shy of 90. That didn’t stop the idealistic teens from reaching out to Gravel and asking him to run one last time for President, as he had in 2008 where he had at least made it to the debate stage.

The boys had no illusions of winning the primary. All they wanted to accomplish was to get Gravel on the debate stage this time out, so that their issues might be expressed. Gravel was intrigued by the idea, although he felt that the physical demands of the campaign would be too much for him. However, he agreed to file and allow the students to use his social media accounts to raise the issues and have the conversation that the boys felt was important for the party’s future.

The documentary follows the process as the boys run a uniquely 21st century campaign through Twitter and Facebook. They took on the other candidates for the Democratic primary, often snarky in tone, but the campaign was unusual enough to get some notice from the late night talk shows…well, at least, one of them, anyway.

Although the title of the movie seems to indicate that it’s about Gravel, the former Senator is actually a supporting player. He is generally contacted by phone and rarely consulted about the content of the campaign. The movie is really about the four young men, who know absolutely nothing about running a campaign and yet managing to achieve the goal of getting enough donations to qualify for the second Democratic primary debate – unfortunately, Gravel still didn’t make the stage since more than 20 candidates qualified and the organizers would only permit a maximum of 20 candidates onstage.

The focus on the boys has some interest; as the campaign goes on, some friction rises between the four as they begn to disagree on how the campaign is to be run. Still, this may well be a preview of how campaigns are going to be run in the near-future, and in many ways it’s chilling. When you reduce the conversation to television sound bites, ideas often get essentially lost; reduce it further to accomodate Twitter and the ideas disappear completely. The memes are often snarky and sometimes even vicious; even though the boys decry the bullying tactics of Trump, they often imitate them. Watching this, I thought about the divide between conservatives and liberals in this country; would we further fracture as the far right and far left take on the centrists in their own parties? Can we as a nation ever come back from such a divide?

One admires the chutzpah of the four young men running a campaign on a shoestring. Some will grumble that there isn’t a great deal of inclusiveness in their campaign – no women and only two people of color (both Asians) are involved with their campaign in any meaningful way, but considering that this is essentially four guys from the same school who decided to tilt at a particular windmill that others weren’t likely to follow along with, it’s understandable that they didn’t attract a whole lot of interest from others who might have been (and were) more interested in the campaigns of Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang.

The movie is a bit self-aggrandizing – the boys tend to make claims about the effects of their campaign on the national conversation that I don’t think are warranted – but at the end of the day, four young men of a generation that are pretty much left out of the political equation saw a need to get themselves representation and went for it. There’s nothing that isn’t admirable about that.

REASONS TO SEE: There is something comforting about watching young people trying to change the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is somewhat misleading towards the content.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity as well as some adult these.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravel passed away at age 91 on June 26, 2021 of multiple myelomas. He is the oldest candidate for President in the history of the Democratic party.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Brand is Crisis
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Don’t Look Up

The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Who is Amos Otis?


The revolution is already underway.

(2021) Courtroom Drama (Gravitas) Josh Katawick, Rico Reid, Derek Snow, A.J. Ford, Christine Brunner, Mike Dennis, Peggy S. Allen, Donald John Volpenhein, Denise Del Vera, Christine Jones, Moulay Essakalli, Rajiim A. Gross, Paul Morris, Carol Brammer. Directed by Greg Newberry

 

In a world as polarized as ours is, it is perhaps understandable that people might wonder – to themselves, or even out loud – if the world might not be a better place if this public figure or that public figure got whacked. I imagine that’s fairly common fantasy fodder on both sides of the political aisle.

But a man has gone and made it a reality. Using a sniper rifle, he has assassinated a highly divisive President (who isn’t named but is meant to resemble Trump). Captured afterwards, he identifies himself as Amos Otis (Katawick) but it soon becomes apparent that he isn’t him; Amos Otis, the owner of the truck that this man was driving, was most assuredly an elderly African-American man whereas this man using his identity is a 30-something white male (and baseball fans, the movie nor either character has anything to do with Hall of Fame ballplayer Amos Otis of the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals).

Jake Johnson (Reid), a court-appointed attorney doesn’t particularly want the job. Amos is a man who doesn’t exist and he doesn’t seem particularly disposed to informing his attorney too much on what his motivations are, or even who he really is. Jake is like a blind man in a room full of pitfalls, trying to navigate his way through without any input whatsoever.

The odds against him are overwhelming. The prosecutor (Snow) has videotape of Otis taking the two shots – one that injured a secret service agent, the second blowing the head clear off of the President’s neck. Johnson knows that it is almost impossible to keep his client out of death row, so he wants to plead insanity, which his client is very much against, so he reluctantly argues a self-defense case that will not hold water, until the story takes an unexpected hard turn into the Twilight Zone.

For being based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, there are an awful lot of factual errors about courtroom procedures and even about the laws governing them. The bulk of the film is the trial of Amos Otis, prefaced by jailhouse interviews by his lawyer. This gives the movie a bit of a stage-y feel, which the director – who wrote the original play – doesn’t do much to dispel. But the trial looks like it came out of a bad 80s courtroom drama – actual trials tend to be far less interesting and dramatic than they are portrayed here, and lawyers are more scholarly sorts who get their clients off (or convict them) based on examination of the evidence and knowledge of the law. There is little bombast in a court of law and if there were, no judge would let it continue.

But for all that, the movie is appealing as it gives us an opportunity to examine our own prejudices. The thought that using violence to achieve a political goal is one that is getting increasing scrutiny on both sides of the political divide, and talk of civil war in this country has taken the chilling overtones that it is actually becoming not only possible, but possibly likely that such a thing could come to pass.

I do think that it was a mistake to make the assassinated President so obviously based on Trump. Most obviously, that is going to alienate basically anyone who leans even a little bit to the right, but also a few lefties as well – I found it abhorrent that the movie seems to take the viewpoint that the end justifies the means in order to save the country. In all likelihood, if some nut case with a gun and an idea actually pulled off an assassination of the former President (and it would be so difficult as to be nearly impossible to do so given the type of protection Presidents and former Presidents enjoy these days) it would do more harm than good to the liberal cause for more reasons than I’m willing to go into here, but the one that I will bring up is that it would do something terrible to our nation’s soul.

It would have been more effective to make the fictional President’s politics more anonymous here, only giving the assassin the motivation that his policies will destroy our Democracy without saying how in much detail. Not only does that make the movie more palatable to larger audiences, but it remains timely so long as you show the nation being further polarized by the assassination.

The premise here is an interesting one and while it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to go with the big twist, and to accept the movies factual as well as logical shortcomings, one is left with some food for thought that might require a little bit of time to digest.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating subject. Flawed for the most part, but succeeds where it isn’t.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a little stiff and the politics may offend some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newberry originally wrote this as a stage play, for which it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/15/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stoker Hills

Last Words


Everything Old Testament will become New again.

(2020) Science Fiction (Gravitas) Nick Nolte, Kalipha Touray, Charlotte Rampling, Alba Rohrwacher, Stellan Skarsgård, Silvia Calderoni, Maryam d’Abo, Osemwenoghogho “Victory” Wilfred, Vincenzo Del Prete, Giovani Trono, Jun Ichikawa, Fiorenzo Madonna, Cosimo Desil, Adreina Liotti, Roberta Mattei, Ivan Alfredo Manzano, Nicolas Sacrez, Giulio Esposito, Fabiana Guarino, Valeria Golino. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter

 

Contemplating the end of mankind is never a pleasant thing. This dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi film from noted documentary filmmaker Nossiter does just that. It’s not so much Waiting for Godot as it is Waiting for The End.

It is 2086 and Kal (Touray) is the last man standing – or sitting, or lying down – on Earth. He wants to leave a record of humanity’s last days. An unnamed catastrophe has devastated the planet, leaving the water toxic and plant life pretty much obliterated. Those that remain sustain life on bottled water and canned goods. Kal and his sister who is pregnant live in what’s left of Paris until an encounter with a gang of feral kids leads to a most horrific offscreen death of his sister. Kal then heads to Italy, where he finds Shakespeare (Nolte) holed up in a cave with the last remaining celluloid, keeping himself entertained by watching movies.

Shakespeare comes up with the idea of constructing a movie camera and manufacturing film (into which Kal hand-punches the sprocket holes) and heading off to Greece, where it is rumored a last remaining settlement of humans remains, in a patch of Earth still capable of sustaining life. After an arduous journey, sure enough they find one, headed up by the resolute Dr. Zyberski (Skarsgård) and the hyper-sexual Batik (Rampling). There the two reacquaint the survivors with the wonders of motion pictures while counting down the days until The End.

The first half of the picture is dominated by Nolte and he responds by giving a performance that actually carries the movie. Nossiter plainly has a love for all things cinematic and Nolte is able to capture the essence of that love without being too maudlin about it. The cast has a few interesting performers like Rampling, Skarsgård and d’Abo, but mostly what we have here are extras who are going through the motions, which makes some sense – when confronted with the end of everything, a certain amount of numbness is likely to occur.

Try not to think too much about inner logic here; Shakespeare claims to remember the Sixties first-hand but hey, it’s 2085 and that would make him – even if he were a kid in the Summer of Love – well over 120 years old, and considering that he’d spent the last twenty years or so living off of what canned food and bottled water he can scrounge up, a lifestyle and diet not conducive to long life.

The plot feels a bit all over the place and nonsensical at times, which perhaps is the point. Still, this is a hell of a downer of the movie, unrelentingly bleak and depressing. This is not a movie to show to anyone who is clinically depressed, or even to fans of intelligent sci-fi. The message here is that things are going to end with a whimper or even more likely, a simple shrug of the shoulders. It doesn’t say much about humanity, or Nossiter’s opinion of it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nolte gives a truly strong performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and joyless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, nudity and violence, including a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Skarsgård and Rampling both appear in the recent remake of Dune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Quintet
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers

Autumn Road


Stop hearse-ing around.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lorelei Linklater, Riley Cusick, Justin Meeks, Lar Park-Lincoln, George Welder, Maddy-Lea Hendrix, Ranger Lerway, Jonas Lerway, Jordan Wright, Kerry McCormick, Buddy Love, Maya Alexander, Sydney Aucerman, Matt Williams, Kenneth Fisher, Christian Baker, Rick Jezak, Gideon Bing, Damien Bannister, Madison Pine. Directed by Riley Cusick

 

One of the things many of us look forward to about October is the haunted house attraction. Walking through a maze of corridors, looking at scenes of disturbing violence (or the results of same), having actors leap out from dark corners to scare the bejeezus out of us, and the horrific (or sexy) costumes, not only of the staff but also of those in line to go through. It’s a familiar rite of autumn.

Twins Vincent (J. Lerway) and Charlie (R. Lerway) are the teenage sons of a man (Meeks) who has for years run such an attraction in a small Texas town. They are friends with Winnie (Hendrix), who has a crush on the shy and retiring Charlie. In turn the creepy and impulsive control-challenged Vincent likes Winnie but when it’s time to go trick-or-treating, Charlie bows out, remaining in the prop hearse in the front of the haunted house while Winnie and Vincent walk the town. Afterwards, Winnie goes into the hearse to chat with Charlie, and is never seen again. Did Charlie murder the girl, or did Vincent do it in a fit of jealous rage? I’m not telling.

Years later, Winnie’s little sister Laura (Linklater) returns to town after an abortive attempt to become an actress in Los Angeles is capped off with an unexpected and ghoulish tragedy. She’s not particularly eager to visit her mom (Lincoln), who fell apart after Winnie’s disappearance. At the local diner, she runs into Charlie and like her sister before her, takes a liking to the shy young man (Cusick), while feeling a little nervous about the still-creepy Vincent (also Cusick) who from time to time assaults patrons of the haunted house he and Charlie inherited. Her appearance triggers Vincent and Charlie, who have a secret to protect. But is it the secret you might think it is?

One has to admire the gumption of Cusick who not only wrote and directed the movie, but also starred in two critical roles. That’s a lot to take on – maybe too much, for the movie lacks a whole lot of focus, which had Cusick been less torn with all of the different roles he had to play for the film, he might have been able to see the movie with a bit more objectivity and correct some very basic problems.

One of the most glaring is the pacing. The movie is an hour and a half long, but feels much longer. Things take a very long time to develop and by the time we get to the climax, it’s more of a relief that you might feel after arriving at a service station after walking several miles to get there when your car breaks down. That’s not the feeling any director wants his audience to come away from his film with.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit. One place that Cusick does excel in is creating an evocative tone. Also worth noting is that there are some effective shocks, one taking place about 22 minutes in that will absolutely take your breath away. There are a lot of plot points that you never see coming, and that can be a good thing.

But there are also some plot points that are nonsensical, and some inconsistencies (like an employee of the haunted house who quits very forcefully and yet is back the next day without any sort of comment) and some characters whose behavior doesn’t make sense. Cusick the writer and Cusick the director could both do with a more judicious editor.

REASONS TO SEE: There is some genuine creepiness and some fairly shocking violence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is waaaaaaaaay ssssslllloooowwwwww.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, profanity and scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Linklater is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Fest
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Infinite

An Intrusion


Scout Taylor-Compton refuses to touch the rest of the script.

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(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) Dustin Prince, Erika Hovland, Angelina Danielle Cama, Scout Taylor-Compton, Keir Gilchrist, Billy Boyd, Sam Logan Kaleghi, Michael Emery, Kayla Kelly, Jaime Zevallos, Allison Megroet, Madison Merlanti, Jerry Narsh, Kayden Bryce, Dan Stolarski, Jordan Kantola, Rose Anne Nepa, Alexandra Benoit, Bill Holcomb, Marleen Holcomb, Karen McCants. Directed by Nicholas Holland

 

\My mother-in-law used to tell her children (including my wife) that “your sins will find you out.” In other words, sooner or later your misdeeds will catch up with you and you’ll pay for them in one way or another.

For Sam Hodges (Prince), that is exactly what’s happening. He works in a corporate law firm and is reasonably successful. One night, his house is broken into and vandalized, as is his car. His daughter Rebecca (Cama), gone down to the kitchen for a glass of water, interrupts the intruder and her screams brings her father running.

But the more we find out about Sam, the worse he gets. For one thing, he has been cheating on his wife Joyce (Hovland) with a co-worker and even though the affair has ended, the rift between Joyce – who is unaware of Sam’s infidelity – and her husband is growing exponentially. We find that Sam is pretty practiced at lying to his family and to the cops, and we begin to suspect that there are darker secrets lurking in Sam’s past. Sam suspects that it is Layne (Gilchrist), Rebecca’s goth boyfriend, who might be behind the threatening e-mails and phone calls, mainly because Sam clearly dislikes the boy and has been doing his best to break the couple up. But when Layne disappears, it is obvious that someone else is behind the threats.

I’ve seen this film compared to a Lifetime thriller, which is not a compliment. This is very much a by-the-numbers suspense film with red herrings a-plenty, and a few twists and turns, none that aren’t fairly predictable. What really makes this hard to watch is the character of Sam himself. We find out early on that Sam has very little to recommend about him as a person; he’s the kind of guy that you would avoid if you worked with him, and the sort of guy that you would wind up punching him in the face if you had to spend time with him. He treats nearly everyone with disdain and hostility, and he has a serious temper control issue. I have seen this kind of thing more frequently lately; it is as if indie directors are trying to test just how unlikable a character we can stand to watch for more than an hour and a half, and the answer here is probably not going to be what the director is hoping for.

That isn’t to say there aren’t moments here. Scout Taylor-Compton tries her best as the police detective who is investigating the home invasion of the Hodge residence and begins to suspect (rightly as it turns out) that Sam isn’t telling her the whole truth. She isn’t given a whole lot to work with, but she makes the most of it anyway. Lord of the Rings fans will find ex-hobbit Billy Boyd among the cast, nearly unrecognizable as a suburban pastor.

\By the time you find out what’s all behind the chaos, you’re likely to exclaim, as I did (and to be fair, as Sam does) “Is THAT what this is all about?” It comes out of left field and is a bit of a cheat, leaving the viewer feeling less-than-satisfied and maybe, even a little pissed off. I should mention that the score is invasive and overbearing; while I realize that musical scores are often meant to steer the viewer in a specific emotional direction, it is so obviously manipulative that it ends up only irritating the listener.

Truth be told, this isn’t a very good movie; the twists are easy to spot and the big reveal is anti-climactic, both film-killers. Comparing this to a Lifetime thriller is a bit unkind; there are a lot of movies of that ilk that are a whole lot better than this one is.

REASONS TO SEE: Taylor-Compton makes a noble effort.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sam is too unpleasant a character to care about. A truly overbearing score.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Detroit and in nearby suburbs.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fatal Attraction
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Citizen Ashe

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain


A bipolar veteran takes stock of his situation in the last hour of his life.

(2020) True Life Crime (Gravitas) Frankie Faison, Steve O’Connell, Enrico Natale, Ben Marten, Angela Peel, Tom McElroy, LaRoyce Hawkins, Christopher R. Ellis, Anika Noni Rose, Antonio Polk, Dexter Zollicoffer, Kelly Owens, Kelly Owens, Armando Reyes, Eunice Woods, Daniel Houle, Linda Bright Clay, Kate Black-Spence, Alexander Strong, Nayeli Pagaza, Kristine Angela. Directed by David Midell

 

On November 19, 2011, 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was asleep in bed and somehow managed to trigger his LifeAid medical alert necklace. When the LifeAid operator called to check on him, the call box was in the living room and Chamberlain didn’t hear it. Not getting a response, the LifeAid operator notified the White Plains, NY police department to do a wellness check. Police officers were dispatched at 5:30am that morning. By 7am, Kenneth Chamberlain would be dead.

This dramatization of those events, which after a successful festival run and brief theatrical run, debuted on HBO Max on the tenth anniversary of the event, appropriately enough. The police officers – whose names are changed here – arrive at the doorstep of Chamberlain (Faison) and begin pounding on the door. Sgt. Parks (O’Connell) is a veteran of the WPPD who doesn’t think too highly of the residents of the apartment complex, a public housing unit where drug arrests are not uncommon. Officer Jackson (Marten) is a racist with a hair trigger, while Officer Rossi (Natale) is a rookie whose last job was teaching middle school.

Chamberlain, a Marine Corps veteran, suffered from a heart condition necessitating the LifeAid (called LifeAlert here) necklace. He also had bipolar disorder. He is initially confused by the banging on his door, but eventually is contacted by the LifeAid operator and is informed what’s going on. Chamberlain insists he’s okay, that the alert was an accident and there’s no need for the officers to remain. However, he is adamant that he will not open the steel door and let the officers into his apartment. Like many African-Americans, he has a distrust of the police and this is compounded by his mental illness, which rendered him a bit paranoid. He was certain that if he let the cops into his apartment, he would end up dead.

We see the events play out in real time. Much of what happens in the movie is corroborated – the encounter was caught on the LifeAid callbox (portions of which are played at the end of the film), and some of the final moments were captured on a camera mounted on a police taser. The police claimed that Chamberlain was armed with a butcher knife and that the officers shot him in self-defense, a charge the family of Mr. Chamberlain denies. The film seems to validate this; by the time the police broke in, Chamberlain is shown to be disarmed. He is also tasered – which is not recommended for someone with a heart condition – and then shot by Jackson while he is down and essentially helpless.

So in that sense, this isn’t a he-said-she-said situation; many of the facts are not in dispute. What is absolutely mind-boggling is that despite several trials, nobody has ever been charged in Chamberlain’s death. Supporters of police officers will be quick o point out that had Chamberlain simply cooperated, the men would have been in and out of the apartment in five minutes and he would still be alive today.

However, the police should never have forced entry into the apartment. They didn’t have probable cause. Chamberlain’s reluctance to let them inside didn’t constitute probable cause. He didn’t let them in because he was not required to. It’s his own home. They would have needed a search warrant to lawfully enter his residence and they didn’t have one.

We watch the escalation unfolding with eyes wide open; Sgt. Park muses that Chamberlain might have a hooker tied up in a closet in there, or a meth lab in his kitchen. Chamberlain’s military service was the subject of snide comments by the officers, and racial slurs were used at least once on the tape.

Throughout, Chamberlain is clearly terrified and Faison wisely doesn’t overplay it, nor does he overplay the mental illness aspect. For the most part, he plays Chamberlain as a cantankerous, somewhat confused old man who was (justifiably, as it turned out) concerned with his safety should he allow the officers into his home. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that I hope won’t get overlooked which could happen, considering that the movie didn’t get wide distribution although having HBO behind it might help.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch and I imagine that African-American viewers will have a particularly hard time not being triggered by it. One can feel the cops testosterone-fueled rage up against the outrage by the other residents and the desperation of Chamberlain’s niece (Peel) – who also lived in the building and begged the cops to let her talk to her Uncle and defuse the situation, which they steadfastly effused to do. And it was all so very avoidable, and points out one of the flaws in our system of policing – as much as this could have been averted had Chamberlain cooperated, it also might have turned out differently if at the first sign of trouble, mental health professionals trained to deal with this type of behavior had been called in. The police officers weren’t trained to deal with Chamberlain’s mental condition, and saw his refusal as a challenge to their authority. That the judicial system has agreed with that assessment is proof positive that we have a very long way to go before we can claim that our African-American brothers and sisters have equal justice before the law.

REASONS TO SEE: An extraordinary performance by Faison. Shines a light on an incident that should have gotten broader coverage. Gripping from start to finish.
REASONS TO AVOID: The use of loud sound cues is somewhat distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including racial epithets, violence, and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it appears to be depicted here that Chamberlain died on the scene, he actually passed away in the hospital while in surgery.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If Beale Street Could Talk
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Tomorrow War

Silent Hours


Chick magnet? Or serial killer?

(2021) Erotic Thriller (Gravitas) James Weber Brown, Susie Amy, Hugh Bonneville, Dervla Kirwan, Annie Cooper, Tom Beard, Vicki Michelle, Elizabeth Healey, Alistair Petrie, Indira Varma, Angela Thorne, Caio Sael. Directed by Mark Greenstreet

It’s no secret that the British do mysteries and thrillers better than anybody else. That is likely because they have a voracious appetite for them; their television programming is absolutely littered with the things. This particular film was actually aired on British television in 2017 as a three-part miniseries, albeit likely a premium service, considering the fairly mature and graphic subject matter.

John Duval (Brown) is an ex-Navy man living in the UK naval town of Portsmouth back in 2002. He makes a post-service living as a private investigator, mainly following wives of canning factory owners, naval officers and the like as their husbands suspect them of infidelity. Spoiler alert; they’re usually right. And what’s worse is Duval’s occasional ability to fall in bed with his client’s wives once the job is done.

In fact, a lot of women are falling into his bed, and they seem to all have a thing for what the Brits euphemistically call “naughty underwear,” while Duval has a thing for a certain canine sexual position with a tendency to spank his partner as he does the nasty. Sexual repression is virtually a cottage industry in the UK.

But as the women that Duval sleep with (including his girlfriend (Healey) and a few others) turn up brutally murdered and dismembered with their bodies displayed in lascivious positions, the police in the form of Detective Inspector Jane Ambrose (Kirwan) have painted a bullseye on Duval as their prime suspect. It’s enough to make someone seek therapy, but Duval was already doing that, sharing with his therapist (Varma) his blackouts and dropping baleful hints of a checkered past. The only way out of the situation for Duval is to find the culprit himself – no matter where the trail may lead.

The two and a half hour runtime for this is about an hour too long for this kind of movie, which isn’t helped by pacing more suitable to a…well, British television show than a feature film. It doesn’t help that the final twist is absolutely preposterous, but by the time you get there – if you haven’t switched the bloody thing off by then – you pretty much don’t care whodunit.

There are some fine actors here; Amie and Bonneville are both veterans who perform admirably and Brown, best known for his work on Coronation Street is adequate as the hard-bitten P.I. but the whole conceit of women throwing themselves at him makes no sense. Perhaps I’m not hanging out with the right kind of women, but the ones I know don’t seem to be sexually attracted to a washed-up ex-Navy guy with no prospects, almost no morals, who sleeps around with anyone who has the right plumbing and drinks too much. Rugged good looks can only take you so far and as you hit your fifties, they take you less far than they used to.

The score is bombastic and intrusive and often drowns out the dialogue which is annoying. But for those who like the old soft-core thrillers that used to air late night on the Cinemax cable network, this might be the movie you’ve been waiting for. There’s undeniably a hefty amount of sex and nudity, not to mention women in seductive lingerie, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat. Some judicious editing might have floated mine a bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who remember “Skinemax” films with some fondness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way, way, WAY too long for what it is and slow-paced at that.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sex, nudity, sex, smoking, sex, profanity, sex, violence, sex and gruesome images. Did we mention sex?
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Silent hours” is Royal Naval slang for night hours aboard a ship.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Hunter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Emperor’s Sword

Anonymous Animals (Les animaux anonymes)


The master of the hunt.

(2020) Fantasy (Gravitas)Thierry Marcos, Aurélien Chilarski, Emilien Lavaut, Pauline Guilpain. Directed by Baptiste Rouveure.

For thousands of years, humans have been using animals for a number of purposes; for transportation, for agriculture, and of course, for food. There are those who are horrified by the state of things, seeing this as exploitation of the worst sort, literally a form of murder. Obviously, French film director Baptiste Rouveure is one of those.

His brief but memorable Anonymous Animals posits a role reversal, where animals are the users and humans the used. Shot in rural France, we see dog-like figures abusing their human pets, cow and pig factory farmers herding their terrified animals into dank, filthy pens for eventual slaughter, and most visually striking, a stag-headed hunter stalking the woods, rifle in hand. Or is that hoof?

There isn’t a coherent story here, just a loose collection of scenes in which humans show anxiety and terror at their situations, a human dog straining at a chain while tied to a tree, and the fear-filled eyes of a human herd being pushed into pens with cattle prods. The point here is obvious; Rouveure wants us to think about how animals are treated.

Certainly vegans are going to champion this film and with good reason. Beyond its salient point, the movie is beautifully shot in chilly early winter/late autumn woods and farm settings and one can’t argue that the premise isn’t a fascinating one (albeit one used at least once before, in the 2018 film The Farm). Still, even though the film is short, it feels much longer because of two reasons.

First, Rouveure makes his point early on and then continues to beat us over the head with it for the rest of the film, amounting to a sixty-minute lecture. Secondly, I couldn’t help thinking “Not all dog owners treat their animals this way” as well as “Not all farms are factory farms.” In fact, the farm sequences aren’t as visceral as they could be; most factory farms (if not all) are more densely populated, to the point where the poor animals are unable to sit or lie down. “Inhumane” doesn’t even begin to describe it, but the farm here is relatively spacious, likely because Rouveure either couldn’t recruit enough actors to make the point, or couldn’t afford to pay for more than he got.

While many of the anthropomorphic animals are not always easy to figure out what species they are (with the exception of the magnificent stag headpiece), the human versions of the animals are fairly easy to figure out. It might take a few minutes for those who view the film without knowing anything about it beforehand to figure out what’s going on, but they’ll catch on pretty quickly, I think.

So while this is a bit of a polemic for the cause of PETA, the audience it will likely reach are those who are already sympathetic to the cause. For those who most need to get the message, it is as likely they will be turned off by the bludgeoning-style of narration as they will be convinced by the message.

REASONS TO SEE: A creative, visionary concept. Unsettling in every sense of the word.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels like an exercise more than a fully formed film.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing, terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several extras are former or current first responders who have actually responded to tornado disasters in the area the movie was filmed in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Farm (2018)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Dune (2021)

The Gig is Up


On to the next gig.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Al Aloudi, Annette Rivero, Nick Srnicek, Ying Lu, Rui Ma, Derek Thompson, Leila Ouadad, Jason Edwards, Mary L. Gray, Mitchell Amewieye, Prayag Narula, Jerome Pimot, Sidiki, Wu Guoyong, Ali. Directed by Shannon Walsh

 

The nature of employment is changing. More and more adults are being employed through the so-called gig economy, working for such tech giants as Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit. They are by-products of convenience and technology, as we rely more and more on our smart phones to provide us with products and services. Whenever you order a burger on Uber Eats, you are employing a gig worker to pick up and deliver the food to your door. When you summon somebody to put together your Ikea desk on TaskRabbit, you’re hiring a gig worker. When you call Lyft to get a ride to the airport, you’re being driven by a gig worker.

While some take these jobs out of necessity – perhaps they are undocumented workers like Algerian Ali in France, or maybe they are unable to secure traditional employment like Floridian Jason Edwards, a convicted felon with a mouth full of gold teeth, both of which are essential job offer killers – many take these jobs voluntarily, seeing these jobs as a means of escaping the tyranny of the cubicle. You set your own hours, and can make much more in tips than you would make at a traditional wage. Hearing promises like that, people tend to jump at the chance, particularly those in the more vulnerable echelons of society. You don’t need an education or social standing to get these jobs; you don’t need a great resume to acquire them. In that sense, the gig economy is truly egalitarian; in theory, it pays you on results.

But as entrepreneur Prayag Narula eloquently puts it, we’re trading the tyranny of a boss for the tyranny of an algorithm and that is much, much worse. The reality of gig work, as Canadian documentarian Shannon Walsh shows in her timely film, is that you are lured by the promise of good pay and employment autonomy but find yourself trapped as your wages are determined by your employer, who charges the consumer less than the work costs. The difference is made up by the gig worker, who must pay for their own fuel and maintenance out of their own pockets. The employer always – always – gets paid, whether through fees or in the case of food delivery, by upcharging the amount of food ordered by the customer compared to what the restaurant charges and pocketing the difference. The driver sees none of that; they exist on tips, and many customers choose not to tip them.

They also exist on ratings. One bad rating from a customer can severely impact their employment; a complaint from a customer can be devastating. Also, gig workers are tracked by numbers besides ratings; how long it takes them to deliver, how many deliveries they accept. If those numbers are below the curve, the worker is “deactivated,” tech-speak for fired.

Also, because these employees are classified as “independent contractors,” they are often not paid wages or salaries, and of course get no benefits whatsoever, including sick time. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and an on-the-job injury isn’t covered; the worker must pay their medical expenses on their own. We see further heartlessness when Leila Ouadad tries to get her employer to pay back wages to a fellow food deliverer in France who has been severely injured when riding his bicycle with someone’s dinner and being hit by a truck.

The movie also examines ghost workers, those online workers who do the kind of support that requires human eyes, like cleaning up data, transcribing audio and taking surveys. The largest provider of ghost jobs is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (or M-Turk) with over 500,000 registered workers (including Edwards). Many of these jobs pay pennies and are performed by people in Third World countries, who are paid not in cash (only workers in the United States and India get cash) but in Amazon gift cards, a reminder of a time when coal workers were paid in company scrip which was accepted only at company stores.

The movie is eye-opening. While some of the workers profiled, like Jason Edwards, are pretty clear-eyed and even have a sense of humor about their situation (some of the film’s sweeter moments occur when Edwards’ mother interrupts the interviews, much to the annoyance of her son), many seem caught in the grip of despair and exhaustion. Narula warns that if we don’t take action soon, these employers are going to make the Middle Ages look like paradise. While some gig workers, like the activist Al Aloudi, a San Francisco Uber driver, are beginning to fight back, many gig workers feel dehumanized, reduced to replaceable numbers in a vast, uncaring machine.

If this is progress, I don’t think the term is being properly used. This is more like regress. The one issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire; we like to think of Big Tech as progressive and benevolent, but they are showing themselves to be the new Robber Barons. Everyone who uses an app for some kind of delivery service should be required to watch this.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely and necessary film. Explores the pros and cons of gig work. Shows the global impact of gig work.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit too polite.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The median income for people using Mechanical Turk is $2 per hour.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Hell Hath No Fury