Citizen Penn


Some citizens are more badass about getting things done than others.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper, Cécile Accilien, Capt. Barry Frishman, Dr. Justine Crowley, Tommy Prato, Alastair Lamb, Edgar Nonce, Dr. Dominique Valentin, Laurent Lamothe, Ann Lee, Jeff Dorsey, Amani Phillips, Avery Harrell, Pamela White, Alexandra Kuykendahl. Directed by Don Hardy

 

When you think of Sean Penn, what comes to mind? Spicoli? His years as Mr. Madonna? Punching out a paparazzi? Two-time Oscar winner? Fox News whipping boy? Or dedicated activist and philanthropist who made Haitian relief a priority?

Chances are it isn’t the latter, but that is what this documentary is about, and judging on what is in the film, is what Penn himself is about. The one-time bad boy has not mellowed, but he has matured; there is a big difference. He has been associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, which is remarked about but not gone into great deal here. Mostly, it is mentioned mainly because Penn prevailed upon Chavez to provide 350,000 doses of morphine for Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake when nobody else would.

This documentary, currently airing on the Discovery Plus streaming service (click on the link below if you want to check it out although you will need to be a subscriber if you want to see it), consists largely of an interview with the actor in which he smokes incessantly, and talks plainly about his time in Haiti and of the obstacles he faced there. He also talks about the courage and compassion of the Haitian people, who refuse to see themselves as victims.

There is also a whole lot of footage of the disaster (and the ensuing hurricane that formed a one-two punch with the earthquake that nearly leveled the island). Penn talks about taking a helicopter trip in a U.S. military helicopter at one point and suddenly realizing the scope of the disaster; it is hard to see it when you are looking at individuals and small spaces. The devastation was so widespread it is amazing that Haiti has recovered at all.

It is admirable that the focus of the film shifts about halfway through, from Penn and his efforts to that of his organization, originally known as J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization) but is now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and how the volunteers there have taken over and helped Haitians take charge of their own relief.

The film makes the distinction between celebrities who support relief organizations and those who actively help on the ground where it is needed. Penn is most definitely one of the latter; he stayed in Haiti working 20-hour days long after the TV cameras had packed up and gone home. He describes a harrowing account of trying to get a young boy a life-saving medicine after he was diagnosed with diptheria. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences in the film, boiling down all the suffering to one little boy. That is how we are more able to connect with disasters; not in the sheer volume of those affected, because it is overwhelming, but in the eyes of a desperate father and a sick little boy.

Most people have probably made up their minds about Penn even before seeing this, and that may prevent you from seeing the documentary, which would be a shame because while Penn is certainly the draw, it is not just about him, and that’s just how he wants it. He uses the documentary the same way he uses his celebrity to call attention to issues he’s passionate about and raise fund to help combat them. Penn strikes me as a man who doesn’t tolerate bullshit at all; it seems to me that the world could use more people like him.

If, like me, you are motivated to donate to Penn’s organization to help with the ongoing humanitarian efforts for the island (which is now battling COVID just like the rest of us), do yourself a favor and go to the CORE website. Every dollar donated will help save lives. You can go to the website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Portrays the scope of the issues in Haiti effectively. Moves the focus away from Penn in the second half of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2010 earthquake left 230,000 dead and more than 1.5 million homeless.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mortal Kombat

The Deep (1977)


Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in drier clothes.

Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in drier clothes.

(1977) Adventure (Columbia) Jacqueline Bisset, Nick Nolte, Dick Anthony Williams, Robert Shaw, Earl Maynard, Bob Minor, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach, Robert Tessier, Lee McClain, Teddy Tucker, Peter Benchley, Colin Shaw, Peter Wallach. Directed by Peter Yates

Our Film Library 2015

The sea guards its secrets jealously. The ships and men that go down into its deadly embrace can carry with them treasures untold; retrieving those treasures can be as deadly above the water as below.

David Sanders (Nolte) and Gail Berke (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda, taking up a hobby that the both of them share – scuba diving. They come upon a wreck and pull up a gold coin as well as an ampule of an amber liquid. The latter seems to be anachronistic when combined with the former.

The couple take the finds to Romer Treece (Nolte), a reclusive treasure hunter who lives in a luxuriously appointed converted lighthouse. He deduces that the ampule is from the Goliath, a ship carrying medical supplies and munitions to Europe during the Second World War but because of the presence of the ammo has been marked off-limits to divers because of the danger involved. He also figures out that the wreck of the Goliath sits upon the wreck of a much older ship which may be carrying priceless treasure.

The fellow they purchase diving equipment from, Adam Coffin (Wallach) happens to be the only living survivor from the wreck of the Goliath. In addition, the ampule has caught the attention of Henri Cloche (Gossett), the local Haitian crime lord (doesn’t every island have one?) who wants the ampules which turn out to be morphine. He agrees to let Treece and Sanders pull the morphine out of the wreck in exchange for a million dollars. Of course, Cloche has no intention of letting them just walk away from the wreck knowing that he has just come into millions of ampules of medical morphine and employs thugs, intimidation – and even voodoo – to get what he wants.

This was in many ways a follow-up to Jaws which at the time had redefined Hollywood from simply pumping out whatever movies suited them to one oriented to blockbusters. It was also released during the summer of Star Wars which had been packing in massive audiences since late May and still managed to do decent box office business.

That was because it had one special effect that Star Wars couldn’t muster – Jackie Bisset in a wet t-shirt. The movie notoriously featured the nubile young actress throughout the first part of the film in a wet t-shirt which was of course heavily marketed and paved the way for wet t-shirt in bars and spring break events across the country. I can hear my female readers shaking their heads now and saying “Men…!”

The movie, like Jaws, was based on a novel by Peter Benchley, who also penned the screenplay of his own novel here (and makes a cameo appearance as a U-Boat crewman in the film’s opening sequence). Sadly, neither the book nor the movie was as well-written as Jaws was, with plenty of irritating lapses in logic that defied common sense even of people who knew absolutely nothing about scuba diving.

Nolte was one of the top young leading men in Hollywood and does a fine job here as the intrepid David but these days few people even remember he was in the movie. That’s because Bisset, who could have easily phoned in a part which was clearly exploitative in many ways, actually imbues her character with strength and character. If you remember anything from the movie (other than the t-shirts) it is Gail, who is more of a modern heroine rather than the damsel in distress which she seems to have been written to be.

The underwater photography is some of the best that has ever been captured in a Hollywood film. Shooting in actual wrecks in the Caribbean, the actors had to get scuba certified before filming began and the producers got not only the best underwater cameramen in the business at the time but added consultants who knew a lot about the actual technical obstacles to working a wreck like this one. Unlike many underwater scenes from films of that era and earlier, The Deep doesn’t look murky or muddled; the clarity is amazing even by modern standards.

As adventure flicks go, this one is pretty fun and although extremely dated in some ways (the mostly black thugs are a tip of the hat to the blaxploitation flicks that were popular at the time) it remains a fun ride even for modern audiences. Benchley as a writer was always able to spin a good yarn and while he is mostly remembered for Jaws the book this is based on is his second-best known work, although for many his novel The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is his best-written work. The Deep benefited from attractive stars and titillation but remains a movie that should be better remembered for bringing the audience right under the waves and into the action.

WHY RENT THIS: An engaging adventure flick that is a product of its era. Some of the best underwater scenes ever filmed. Bisset in a wet t-shirt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Laughable plot that defies logic. Some of the special effects and racial attitudes are dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, some sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The younger version of Treece and Coffin were played by the sons of actors Robert Shaw and Eli Wallach respectively.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The movie was broadcast on American TV as a two night event miniseries with nearly an hour of additional footage. While the expanded version has never been released on home video, several of the scenes from that additional footage are included in the Blu-Ray edition, as is Robert Shaw’s diving primer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.5M on a $9M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Your Eyes Only
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues!

13 Tzameti


13 Tzameti

All right, all right, we'll film the damn thing in black and white!

(Palm Pictures) Georges Babluani, Pascal Bongard, Aurelien Recoing, Fred Ulysse, Nicolas Pignon, Vania Vilers, Olga Legrand, Christopher van de Velde, Agustin Legrand, Jo Prestia. Directed by Gela Babluani

Desperation can make us do extraordinary things. We will do whatever it takes to get out of the situation we’re in, risk anything – even our own lives.

Sebastien (Georges Babluani), a contractor barely making ends meet, accepts a job in a rundown old home for an immigrant Georgian couple. When he accidentally puts a hole in their roof, he overhears a conversation indicating that there is a package that promises great riches. When the Georgian owner dies of a drug overdose, Sebastien decides to take the package for himself.

It leads him to a dilapidated hotel in the middle of nowhere where a game is going on, a dangerous game that the French authorities would very much like to infiltrate and stop but a game that delivers to its victors great riches. Sebastien has no idea what he’s getting himself into from the get-go and by the time he realizes what’s going on, getting out is not an option. In fact, his only option is to win.

I’m deliberately leaving the plot summary very vague, because the less you know about this movie, the more enjoyment you’re likely to take out of it. It’s well-plotted and when you look back on it, you realize that the entire movie switched gears completely near the middle of the film, but so expertly is it done that not only do you not notice it but it feel very organic within the framework of the movie.

Gela Babluani won the Luigi de Laurentiis award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival for the best first feature by a director, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema at the Sundance Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. A Georgian immigrant himself (whose brother plays Sebastien in the film), he has delivered a marvelous film, full of suspense and tension from the opening moments to the very last shot.

The mood is enhanced by the black and white photography, serving to make this an almost film noir kind of atmosphere, which is almost Hitchcockian in its simplicity yet with an elegant Gallic permeation that gives it an extra little twist.

Georges Babluani is marvelous as Sebastien. He is a bit on the passive side, mainly because terrible things tend to happen when he takes chances. He is neither a coward nor a hero but somewhere in between, an ordinary man driven by circumstances he doesn’t quite understand into extraordinary conditions. He behaves much the same as I think I’d behave in similar circumstances.

The game that he is forced to play (I won’t reveal much of it so as not to ruin the powerful effect of the movie) is stark and brutal, and is filmed in an almost industrial manner. Orders are barked with military precision and shots of stark, bare light bulbs reinforce the utilitarian feel. While there is a great deal of violence, there isn’t a whole lot of gore, at least not in the traditional sense. This isn’t a Saw movie except in only the barest sense of sadism in the creation of the game itself.

The thing that is the most extraordinary is that the game depicted here actually exists in France, and apparently it has been going on for some time. The movie is about the circumstances that would lead someone to play in a game with such high stakes, and in that sense the movie is wildly successful. If I had a quibble, there are just two; the people running the game are depicted as almost cliches and in some ways that makes them more terrifying because we don’t really get too much of an insight to them, but in the end the film would have been better if we had. Secondly, the incredible suspense of the first two thirds of the movie breaks down a little in the third and the ending is a bit anti-climactic.

Beyond that, however, this is a terrific movie that is well-worth seeing. Some might find the starkness off-putting and there are some who abhor both subtitles and black and white, but if you get past those prejudices, you will find a movie of extraordinary power and substance well worth your effort in getting to know better.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous air of tension and suspense filmed in beautiful black and white, giving it a feeling of a Hitchcock film noir with a French sophistication.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie isn’t able to maintain the suspenseful tone of the first third, and some of the characters surrounding the game are tissue-thin.

FAMILY VALUES: Mature subject matter and some scenes of shocking violence make this a no-no for child viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tzameti is the number 13 in Georgian, so the title is literally “13 Thirteen.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprisingly bountiful amount of interesting extras, like an interview with someone who actually participated in one of these underground shooting matches and survived, as well as a short film by Gene Laufenberg called The Sunday Game that fits nicely into the overall themes of 13 Tzameti. Finally, there’s an interview with Babluani discussing life as an immigrant in France. Overall, a very strong collection of extras, a definite keeper.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Lemon Tree