Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America


Saying goodbye doesn’t have to wait until you die.

(2019) Documentary (HBOLeila Johnson, Linda Johnson, Steve Berkoff, Guadalupe Cuevas, Guadalupe Cuevas Jr., Amalia Cuevas, Alicia Cuevas Gonzalez, Barbara Jean, TJ, Sarah Singer Green, Lisa Bransine, Dick Shannon, Will Corbett, Ryan Matthews, Emelie Matthews. Directed by Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz

 

Death is a taboo subject. We tend to shove it to the back of our minds; we don’t like to think about it and we certainly don’t like to talk about it. Our mortality makes us uncomfortable, regardless that all of us are eventually going to die. Most of us have little clue as to how we want our endgame to play.

The Baby Boomers who are of an age now where they are beginning to get visits from the Grim Reaper with regularity are changing the way we think of death and dying. While some still opt for coffins that cost as much as cars, a ceremony in a place of worship and a viewing at the local funeral home, there are other ways to say goodbye now.

This new HBO documentary revisits the way we look at the end of the road. A visit to the National Funeral Directors Association convention in Boston reveals holographic final messages from the deceased to their loved ones, elaborate urns – don’t call them urns, they’re memorial art – and boxes of good Irish soil so that the deceased may get buried at home, even if their casket is thousands of miles away.

Others may prefer having their cremated remains shot into outer space as one teacher’s family did in New Mexico. His family was one of 45 whose loved ones became part of the final frontier. Although I would imagine that would be fairly pricy, so those cost-conscious about final send-offs may want to be aware of that.

There are also things called “green burials” which Texan Barbara Jean has selected. She wants instead of a coffin to be wrapped in biodegradable material and have her decomposing remains nurture the life of a new tree. I admit there is some appeal in having your corpse be put to good use.

One of the hardest segments to watch was that involving a celebration of life. 5-year-old Garrett Matthews was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He told his mommy and daddy (Emilie and Ryan) that he didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a party complete with fireworks, bouncy houses, snow cones and an appearance by the Caped Crusader himself, Batman so after their child passed on, his parents did exactly what little Garrett wanted. Yes, it was a celebration of life but I don’t know if I could have had the emotional ability to approach it with the kind of joy they did and to be honest, one imagines there was a whole lot of tears and grief that didn’t appear on-camera.

Silicon Valley engineer Dick Shannon had terminal lung cancer and decided he wanted to decide for himself how and when to die. California’s “Death with dignity” laws enabled him to do that so Dick had a cocktail of drugs that would ease him off into the void peacefully and painlessly. Before he goes, Dick helps design (and build) his own coffin and also throws a farewell bash with a hefty amount of gallows humor.

We are shown Dick drinking his hemlock and sharing his final moments with his wife and family and that was a little uncomfortable, like we were invading the privacy of the family at a particularly painful time. I suppose we are conditioned to think that way.

The option that I’d go for was the first one presented; having your ashes mixed with concrete and made part of a Memorial Coral Reef. Considering the harm we’ve done to the ocean, it feels like the least we can do. Again, though, that one might be pricier than some of the other options presented here.

Some of this might seem a little new age-y to you (certainly the green burial had some elements of that) which might detract from the merits of the various options here, so try to keep an open mind. As Dick Shannon accurately says, the dying in America have no part of their own process of dying. They are removed from it to a large degree. Obviously those who die suddenly may not have time to consider what they want for their end of life choices, but it behooves most of us no matter how young we are to have at least some idea of how we want our families to handle our final arrangements. And death doesn’t necessarily have to be more about those left behind; I must admit I take some comfort in that.

REASONS TO SEE: Presents different viewpoints on death and how to deal with it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find this a little too new age-y.
FAMILY VALUES: The matter-of-fact approach to death and dying may be too intense for the sensitive and the immature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2018, more people opted for cremation than for traditional funerals in America for the first time ever.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Xenophobia

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Ice on Fire


The sun is setting on our window of opportunity to reverse climate change.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Leonardo DiCaprio (narrator), Jennifer Frances Morse, Patricia Lang, Pieter Tang, Thom Hartmann, David Yacopian, Michael Mann, Jim White, Peter Wadhams, Janine Benyus, Ottmar Edenholer, Brigitte Knopf, Jürgen Meinholt, Pavel Serov, Jan Wurzbager, Christof Gebald, Daniel Nocera, James Murray, Neil Kermode, Ietef Vita. Directed by Leila Conners

 

Climate change exists; despite the denials of politicians, the petroleum and natural gas industries and others with a vested interest in the status quo, climate change is fact. Climate change documentaries also exist, and have been growing rapidly in number and more strident in tone.

This new HBO documentary which debuted on the cable giant this week pulls no punches. Narrated by actor and environmental activist DiCaprio, the move globe-hops from Norway to California to Colorado to Iceland and all over the world, examining the effects of the polar ice caps melting and how dire the situation has truly become. Many climate scientists have been stunned at how quickly the dominos have begun to fall and several tipping points have already been reached – and exceeded.

Conners gives the film over to those self-same scientists who explain the science of how greenhouse gasses have affected the planet. These scientists are not meant to be entertaining and their explanations can be dry and hard to fathom particularly since so much information is being downloaded into our brains here. But unlike other documentaries, this film isn’t a doom and gloom downer in which only the consequences of our inaction are decried. Conners and DiCaprio take great pains to show solutions that are already underway. The hopeful news is that we have the technology right now to turn around and even reverse climate changes by cleaning up our atmospheres and healing our oceans.

We are shown the Harvard researcher who has created the “artificial leaf,” a means of using photosynthesis to remove carbon from the atmosphere and the Connecticut fisherman who has helped nurture a new kelp bed near the Thimble Islands, bringing life back to overfished waters. We are also shown machines in Iceland that use geothermal energy to power a carbon capture machine that converts the carbon into rocks which are then buried; other carbon capture machines route them into greenhouses where it is used to grow food which we then consume. There’s also the researcher seeding the ocean with microscopic particles of iron which makes the ocean less acidic, becoming a magnet for microbial life which reasserts the oceanic food chain.

The film over-relies on graphics to help make their points. It’s not that graphics aren’t useful but over the course of the movie they become distracting, whether they are showing how CO2 particles are trapped by carbon capture machines, or show graphs of the release of methane into the atmosphere over time.

Also, I suspect this movie will end up preaching to the choir and little more. Unlike Wonders of the Sea which had an iconic Republican associated with it and thus might attract some who ordinarily wouldn’t have been drawn to a documentary of that nature, Leonardo DiCaprio is regarded as a leftie Hollywood snowflake who is not to be trusted. The dry scientific commentary and doom and gloom prognostications early on are also certain to get people to change channels before they can get to the meat of the movie.

There is little doubt that our planet is in grave peril and saving it needs to be a priority. While the United States continues to behave as if short term profit is more important (one could say “trumps”) than long-term survival, other nations are beginning to take the bull by the horns. We are still a long way away from being out of the woods but we can get there if we have the will. We could be the generation that saves the planet – or we can be the generation that through our inaction renders it lifeless. The choice is ours.

REASONS TO SEE: The film ends on a hopeful note. There is a lot of good information here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The graphics are overused and distracting. Mind-numbing in its presentation.
FAMILY VALUES: Children might find this overwhelming.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to the Fatherland

It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

Warning: This Drug May Kill You


A heartbroken mother comforts her heroin-addicted daughter.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Kathy Kelly, Stephany Gay, Britt Doyle, Preston Doyle, Britt Doyle Jr., Harry Doyle, Gail Cole, Brian Cole, David Cayce, Judy Cayce Enseki. Directed by Perri Peltz

 

We are told that the current opioid crisis is the worst drug addiction crisis in American history. Even as the debate for stricter gun control rages in the forefront of the American consciousness, the opioid crisis remains in the background despite the fact that it is responsible for more American deaths than are taken by guns.

This HBO documentary tries to take the epidemic out of the background and bring it into the light of day. It presents four families directly affected by the opioid epidemic in an attempt to put a human face on drug addiction. It begins by showing cell phone footage of addicts keeling over, barely conscious; of paramedics trying to revive them. In one heartbreaking moment, a mother is collapsed in the toy aisle of a grocery store while her toddler wails disconsolately beside her. Then, we cut to a Purdue Pharmaceutical advertisement from the 1990s in which Dr. Alan Spanos blithely advises doctors that opioids such as Dilaudid, Percoset and OxyContin were perfectly safe to prescribe for chronic pain patients and that the addictive properties of those drugs had been overstated.

Of course, we all know that’s hogwash and what’s more, we know that Purdue knew that it was a lie. They were fined millions of dollars for their misdirection but the damage was done; the company made billions of dollars as the rate of prescriptions went up 800 times what it had been before the ads and even today doctors continue to prescribe these very seriously addicting drugs for nearly every medical – and even dental – procedure. Many patients were never really informed as to just how dangerous these drugs could be.

Stephany Gay had issues with kidney stones as a teen and was given OxyContin and Vicodin for the pain. She began to get addicted to the feeling of well-being that the drugs gave her and she began to take them well above the recommended dosage. Her sister Ashley began experimenting with the pills but when it proved to be a more expensive habit than they could afford they switched to heroin. At first they were snorting it and both girls swore up and down to their mother Kathy Kelly that they would never use needles but eventually both did and at length Ashley died from an overdose. Stephany weeps in recounting those horrible events but now she has a daughter and is clean. Then we are informed that she relapsed six weeks after those interviews were filmed.

The Britt Doyle talks about his wife who was prescribed opioids following a C-section and turned from being a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing woman to a shell of her former self. Her young sons would find her dead after an overdose. Gail and Brian Cole visit their son’s grave; he was prescribed drugs following the removal of a cyst and became addicted and yes, died.

These are all white, middle class and upper class American families being affected; studies show that poorer class Americans aren’t prescribed opioids nearly as often mainly because the drugs are so expensive. Still in all these are stories of dealing with grief as well as dealing with drug abuse and they are emotionally powerful to be sure. But there is almost no context here and we are left to wonder why without any answers forthcoming do doctors continue to prescribe these drugs so commonly despite knowing the damage they are doing – more than 180,000 Americans have died between 2000 and 2016 due to the aggressive marketing and prescribing of opioid painkillers.

The sense is given that there are few resources available for prescription painkiller abusers, although Stephany entered a state-sponsored rehab program following her relapse, although she walked away from it four days after checking in. We may know anecdotally that heroin is a nearly impossible habit to break but we aren’t told why and that’s a question that Peltz doesn’t ask during the just under one hour documentary.

There really isn’t a lot of media coverage of the opioid epidemic and documentaries like this should be applauded for even being on the front lines of the issue but they also should be encouraged to dig deeper and this one simply doesn’t. Peltz seems to be content with displaying the grief of the families that survived the victims rather than explaining how the medical environment changed that allowed these tragedies to happen, nor does she talk about those who are beginning to take on Big Pharma to hold them accountable for the deaths that continue to climb. From watching this, you get the sense that this is a problem for which nothing is being done and that’s far from the case.

REASONS TO GO: The stories of the families depicted are indeed heart-wrenching. The movie puts a human face on the opioid epidemic. The story has gotten little coverage except in generalizations; more documentaries like this are needed.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary feels incomplete with little context. It’s somewhat “Documentary 101” in form.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, depictions of drug overdoses, references to prescription drug abuse and other adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deaths from opioid overdose now exceed gun violence and car accidents as a leading cause of death in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Make Money Selling Drugs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Thor: Ragnarok

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out