Wallflower


Reflection of a mass murderer.

(2017) True Life Drama (Passion RiverDavid Call, Atsuko Okatsuka, Conner Marx, Hannah Horton, Cequoia Johnson, Hassan Cristos Messiah, Molly Tollefson, Hope Shanthi, Jose Abaoag, Stewie Valencia, Sheila Houlihan, Joe Cummings, Kyle Jewell, Rosario Rieger, Nathan Christopher Haase, Geoff Garza, Reza Leal-Smartt, Rachelle Henry. Directed by Jagger Gravning

 

Sometimes, when a mass murder is committed, there’s a reason, an explanation that those left behind can at least understand. Other times, however, the act is senseless and we are left to wonder why the killer did what he did.

The movie is based on the 2006 Capitol Hill Massacre in Seattle. A loner, a disturbed young man identified only as Murderer (Call) in the credits, attends a rave at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. He seems aloof and quiet, but he meets Link (Marx), a happy-go-lucky prankster who invites him to an after-party at a local home owned by aspiring comic book artist Strobe Rainbow (Okatsuka) – the victims are mainly identified by their rave names.

The movie tends to move around in time quite a bit. Therefore, the murders actually occur about 15 minutes in (incongruously set to the strains of the Archies bubblegum pop hit “Sugar Sugar,” one of the most upbeat songs ever) and the rest of the film (except for the final scene) is mainly told in a series of flashbacks as the murderer hovers on the edge of conversations, a figure of judgmental indignation who grows creepier as the night progresses. He’s the kind of guy who sees life as a party that he hasn’t been invited to and as a result despises those who seem happy and part of the community

By all accounts the Seattle rave community was known for its inclusive nature and while recreational drug use was a heavy part of the scene, they also look out for one another and make sure everyone is okay.

Most of the characters other than those of Link and Strobe, are mainly undeveloped. Even the murderer is essentially labeled as an angry white guy which  seems to me to be a gross over-simplification; while I applaud the director’s refusal to give the murderer a name or even a motive (to this day, nobody is sure why he erupted the way he did) it doesn’t serve the movie well to boil him down to an archetype.

Most of the conversations we overhear (through the murderer’s ears) are inane and even downright immature. The main question that bothered me while I was watching was why did this movie have to be made? To illustrate the innocence of the victims? Since they are never named, it makes me wonder if the project was done without the cooperation of the survivors and the families of the victims.

That doesn’t mean that Gravning doesn’t have some moments. There’s one sequence set at the rave where he changes the music on the soundtrack to classical music. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition and is a welcome relief from the occasionally monotonous EDM music that dominates the soundtrack. There’s also a conversation between Strobe and Link near the end of the film that has some depth that is staged in an interesting way with Strobe at the bottom of a staircase leading to the basement and Link, smiling and good-natured, leaning over the railing. Some of the shots show a nimbus of the rising sun around his head, presaging what was about to happen to him (although we saw his fate early on).

Most of the film is dimly lit by necessity but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The performances are solid even if the characters are mostly forgettable, although Marx and Okatsuka were both impressive and Call makes a game effort to make something of a thankless role. I’m still not 100% sure that I understand what the director had in mind, but this is nonetheless a reasonably interesting take on an act of violence that has become, tragically, so common that this particular act has been forgotten outside of Seattle.

REASONS TO SEE: Gravning makes a few interesting choices that really work nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching a party is never as much fun as being at one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of drug use and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wrinkles the Clown

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The Most Dangerous Year


Just a good old-fashioned protest.

(2018) Documentary (Passion River) Vlada Knowlton, Aidan Key, Meghan Hebert-Trainer, Kristina Olson, Joe Fain, Tiffany Dolmseth Kelly, Jim Ritter, Sarah Taboada, Ryan Trainer, Laurie Jinkins, Cyrus Habib, Erika Laurentz, Asaf Orr, Kristina Olson, Kevin Hatfield, Huddle Morris Blakefield, Johanna Olson-Kennedy, Jennifer Popkin. Directed by Vlada Knowlton

 

The Human Rights Report called 2016 the most dangerous year for transgenders on account of all the so-called “bathroom bills” aimed at disallowing transgenders from using public bathrooms of their gender identification, mandating that they use the bathrooms of the genders that they were born with. The supporters of the legislature tended to demonize transgenders, depicting them all as some sort of closet Norman Bates, going into women’s bathrooms to prey on women despite absolutely no evidence that this sort of issue was occurring. In fact, transgenders have been using the bathrooms of their gender identification for decades without incident. All of a sudden, they’ve become demonic sexual predators in the eyes of Middle America.

Much attention was focused on HB 2, the notorious North Carolina bill that was signed into law by governor Pat McCrory which led to widespread protests and sanctions, losing the state an estimated $400 million in revenue. McCrory was eventually defeated in his bid for re-election and his successor, a Democrat, quietly repealed the bill.

=However, there were similar bills that came onto the books in a succession of Red States and, surprisingly, Washington – one of the most progressive states in the union. Vlada Knowlton, a documentary filmmaker based in Seattle, especially had a stake in the politics – she is the mother of a five-year-old (at the time) trans daughter. She, like many parents of transgenders, realized that the bill was just a first step in making second class citizens of their children and could lead to violence against them. The suicide rate among transgenders is already high.

The movie chronicles the fight against Washington SB 6443 which was similarly worded to the notorious HB 2, and then later attempts to get a ballot initiative (I-1515) onto the 2016 ballot for the citizens of Washington to vote on. Knowlton attends plenty of senate hearings, court cases and town halls; while she interviews a few supporters of these bills and questions them as to why they believe that way, clearly this isn’t a subject she can’t be objective about – nor should she be.

Aidan Key, a transgender activist, comes off as one of the heroes here as does Washington State Senator Joe Fain, a Republican who voted against the bill which led to some anger among his supporters, one of whom threatened to punch him in the nose at a contentious town hall (note to Angry White Man: You do not have the right to punch a state senator in the nose. You make the decision to do so. The State Senator then has the right to bring you up on charges, and you have the right to representation when you go to trial for assault and battery).

This is an important documentary, a little bit on the raw side but certainly one that needed to be made. Even the Gay and Lesbian community hasn’t been as vocally supportive of the Transgender community as they might have been; in some ways Transgenders are the most vulnerable of our population; they have little representation and few supporters. That the parent’s groups have stepped up is heartening. Parallels are drawn between the segregation of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South and the current laws (or attempt at laws) aimed against transgenders that are effectively done.

The soundtrack has is really nice and Knowlton is a decent narrator. There is a whole lot of interview footage which can get tedious but one can’t deny the passion or the heart behind the documentary. All parents of transgender kids – and those who are allies – should see this. More importantly, people who think transgenders should be excluded from using the bathrooms of their gender identification should see this too.

REASONS TO SEE: The stories are heartbreaking. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is an over-reliance on interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Thematically this is on the adult side; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Knowlton worked at Microsoft prior to becoming a filmmaker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Collisions

The Long Shadow


It’s a long road we’ve been walking and a long road yet to walk.

(2017) Documentary (Passion River) Frances Causey, John Powell, Leon F. Litwack, La Tonya Lawson-Jones, Ian Harvey Lopez, Sally Holst, Jody Allen, Gerald Horne, Paul Kivel, Anne Conkling, Mike Church, Tim Duckenfield, John Adams, Nadine Stark Sims, Karen Alexander, Lorne Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Erica Tanks, Bill Blair, Maureen Gosling, Laura Willis, Judy Sims, Yolanda Wells.  Directed by Frances Causey and Maureen Gosling

 

Race relations remain a defining issue in the United States. From slavery down to Jim Crow and into the Black Lives Matter movement today, America has been formed going all the way back to its founding by white supremacy.

Filmmaker and journalist Frances Causey grew up in a privileged neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina to prosperous parents. She had little contact with African-Americans beyond those that worked for the family, but she had eyes that could see and she was fully aware that her black neighbors weren’t treated the same way; they lived in terrible poverty, were prevented from drinking at the same water fountains as she, and were looked down upon as inferior to the white privileged class. It bothered her then and continues to bother her now

She is directly descended from Virginia lawyer and founding father Edmund Pendleton, who essentially wrote the verbiage into the Constitution that institutionalized slavery in the South. Because there were far more slaves in the South and far fewer whites, Pendleton came up with the 3/5 of a person compromise that gave the South disproportionate power in the Federal government for nearly a century.

Causey goes on to discuss the economic benefits of slavery that powered the engine of the slave trade; how Wall Street was essentially created to facilitate it and how the legacy of slavery informs our policies and politics now 150 years after the end of th Civil War. African Americans may have been emancipated but they continue to be victims of inequality.

Throughout Causey interjects commentary about various aspects, such as what happened to those runaway slaves who fled to Canada, an enlightened plantation owner who gradually freed his slaves and the difference it made to their descendants today. We see her horrified reaction to the massacre in the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist and we see her genuine affection for her former nanny and the grown up children of her caregiver.

Causey utilizes a goodly number of academics to give some context to history and some of them, particularly John Powell (an expert on the effects of slavery on American society), historian Jody Allen (somewhat incongruously interviewed on the serene campus of the College of William and Mary considering the subject) and historian Leon Litwack who won a Pulitzer Prize on the subject. However some of the other talking heads can be a bit dry. Again, those with a personal story to tell are far more effective than those coming from a strictly academic standpoint.

The film is at its best when Causey is looking through her highly personal connection to white privilege and racism. There is no doubt she is aiming her film for white audiences in an effort to make them understand a history most of them don’t know or don’t want to know. Most of the final two thirds is really a more broad view of the reverberations of racism and violence through American history. I thought the first third was much more successful; the story of her ancestry and her experience growing up in the deep south are far more personal and relatable than the academic exercise that followed. However, that doesn’t man that interesting questions aren’t raised. For example, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1772. Could the southern founding fathers have chosen to leave British rule in order to continue slavery here and keep the economic engine of the South running?

The movie was filmed before the 2016 presidential election which makes it in many ways all the more timely but in dire need of a new chapter that brings it all together with the current expressions of white nationalism that has reared its ugly head since then. Even in the days when the film was about to be released there were instances of hate crimes (a white racist opening fire on African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger). The movie does make for a good history lesson but quite frankly much of this material is covered elsewhere, particularly in Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix documentary 13th.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that slavery warped the soul of this nation and continues to. Just the extent of the damage that continues to be done is something even the most progressive of white liberals (myself included) fail to understand. It’s information that African-Americans know only all too well and if there ever is going to be real change and moving forward in this country, white people will have to not only understand it but own it as well.

REASONS TO GO: The archival photos and drawings are extremely effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film begins by connecting Causey to the slavery issue on a personal level and then veers away from that into a standard PBS-like documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and occasionally graphic photos of brutalized slaves and lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Causey worked as a journalist at CNN for 14 years; it was the events in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown that galvanized her to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Outlawed

The Workers Cup


All for one moment of glory.

(2018) Documentary (Passion River) Kenneth Kwesi, Padam Kumal, David Kwesi, Samuel Alabi Ago, Grahame McCaig, Sebastian, Carlton, Paul, Umesh. Directed by Adam Sobel

 

Although Americans tend to believe that the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the world, the reality is that the World Cup is bigger and draws more viewers – even more so than the Olympics. Like the Olympics, the World Cup occurs every four years. The 2022 edition will take place in Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and the oil-rich nation is constructing a mammoth stadium as well as additional buildings, roads and infrastructure, to accommodate the influx of tourists who will arrive for the games.

Much of the construction work is done by migrant workers imported mainly from Africa, and Asia. There are dozens of companies working on various projects having to do with the Cup; the governing body in Qatar that has been responsible for the World Cup activities decided to put on a tournament of teams representing 24 of the construction companies working on the facilities.

One of these companies, GCC, is the one that the filmmakers followed. Kenneth, 21, from Ghana would be the team captain. Lured to Qatar by a recruiting agent who claimed he would be playing professional soccer there (which turned out to be a lie), he works and dreams of getting the opportunity to play the sport professionally. Samuel from Kenya was a professional player but still couldn’t make ends meet so he went to Qatar to make more money working construction. Sebastian is an office worker for GCC from India who becomes the team manager.

In all, six men stories are told here but although the director asserts that this is a sports movie, most viewers won’t remember the tournament. It is the conditions that the workers are forced to live in that will stick with you. There’s an aerial shot of the Umm Salal Camp that is more reminiscent of a Prisoner of War camp to my eyes. It’s startling and a bit sickening as well.

The company has absolute control over the lives of their workers. They are not allowed to leave camp ad have to get permission to go anywhere, even to wire money back home or go out on a  date. The gleaming skyscrapers and beautiful malls are there in the capital but they are not for such as these; even the security guards aren’t allowed to be in the malls past 10am. This is literally slave labor paid a barely minimum wage. The workers can’t even choose to quit and go home; in one chilling scene, a worker is sent to the infirmary with a bad cut on his leg inflicted by another worker who wanted to go home and that was the only way he could think of being sent home.

The movie’s soccer scenes don’t really flow well with the rest of the movie; they are almost two separate movies weaved into one. Because there are so many subjects, we don’t really get to know any of them all that well so that while the subject matter should be riveting, the movie is less compelling than it might be.

REASONS TO GO: This is not so much about soccer as it is about imported workers.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the film is interesting but it really isn’t compelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobel was based in Qatar for five years producing pieces for CNN, the Guardian and other news outlets; this allowed him to gain extraordinary access to the laborers and the camps.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Great
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Soufra