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

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Bright


Not your two ordinary cops.

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho, Joseph Piccuirro, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano, Scarlet Spencer, Andrea Navedo, Kenneth Cho, Bobby Naderi, Carlos Linares, Bunnie Rivera. Directed by David Ayer

 

This Netflix film, released last Christmas, is a perfect example of the dichotomy between critics and audiences. Film critics hammered the film, calling it confusing and preposterous. Audiences loved it, making it one of the most watched non-theatrical movies ever. Netflix called for a sequel which is likely to be on the streaming giant’s front page in two to three years.

Smith, one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood for the past two decades, stars as a bitter and curmudgeonly L.A. cop who has a new partner that he doesn’t want. That sounds like the plot to dozens of cop buddy movies but this one’s a little different – it turns out his partner, Nick (Edgerton) is not just a different ethnicity. He’s an Orc – a completely different species.

The two are on the trail of a magic wand so powerful that whoever wields it can essentially bend the world to their will. Fortunately, only a select few can actually wield the wand; these worthies are called “Brights” and they only appear once every generation or so. Also on the trail of the wand is a bunch of corrupt cops, a gang of Orcs (who are portrayed here essentially as low-riding gangbangers) and an evil elf named Leilah (Rapace). Assisting Nick and Daryl (the Smith character’s name) is a less corrupt elf named Tikka (Fry).

There are some pretty decent effects here and Smith has never been so badass as he is in this film. I’m not kidding when I say that this is his best performance in a decade. Daryl walks around in a perpetually foul mood, like there’s a rock in his shoe he can’t quite get rid of or he has a particularly painful case of hemorrhoids. Either way, he’s far from cheerful; he’s like the anti-Fresh Prince.

It should come as no surprise that Max Landis wrote this; one of the things he does extremely well as a writer is world-building. The world of Bright is believable despite the mash-up of high fantasy and urban crime drama. There is a lot of detail and one gets a lot more detail that didn’t make it into the script. This is the kind of thing that can turn a single picture into a franchise.

David Ayer is the perfect director for this. Not so much for the fantasy elements although he is just fine with those but there are few directors who intuitively understand the workings of an urban crime drama like Ayer, whose previous credits include Training Day (as a writer), End of Watch, Harsh Times and Street Kings.

I don’t understand all the critical hate; this is really a good movie but I suppose this kind of fantasy mash-up isn’t for everybody. Still, I found it not just solidly entertaining but actually absorbing. This is one I wouldn’t mind seeing regularly (I’ve already watched it several times since it debuted). As far as I’m concerned, I only wish that this movie had a more widespread theatrical run; I would have liked to have seen it on a big movie theater screen. Ah well, if wishes were horses…there would undoubtedly be a few of them trotting around in the world of Bright.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an excellent job of world-building. Will Smith is at his badass best in this one.
REASONS TO STAY: The final action sequence is a bit disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, fantasy violence and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a $90 million production budget, this is the most expensive Netflix movie to date. Also, it is the first Netflix film to generate a sequel which was signed shortly before the movie was released to the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien Nation
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Three Identical Strangers

LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Birdshot


What better time to hunt with your dog than dawn?

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Mary Joy Apostol, Manuel Aquino, John Arcilla, Arnold Reyes. Directed by Mikhail Red

The world is a hard and often cruel place. Sometimes it feels like the powers that be are far more interested in symbols than in people. For those who live on the fringes of society, eking out an existence as best they can, getting caught in the machinations of the powerful is a daily struggle to survive.

Maya (Apostol) is a young teenage girl whose father Diego (Aquino) is the caretaker for a nature preserve in the rural Philippines. He is trying to teach her how to hunt so that she can one day fend for herself if something happens to him. She has difficulties with pulling the trigger and killing a helpless animal, much to the frustration of her dad.

Mendoza (Arcilla) is a cop and relatively new to the force. He has been partnered with Domingo (Reyes), a cynical veteran who doesn’t mind bending the rules every so often. The big news around that part of the Philippines is a bus full of farmers that disappeared on their way to Manila. Domingo interrogates a low-level criminal who might know something about the missing bus. The interrogation is a bit too brutal for Mendoza but he backs his partner, especially when the information he gets leads to the discovery of the bus in the wildlife preserve that Diego takes care of. Of the passengers there is no sign except for a piece of cloth from a shirt near the edge of the jungle.

Maya goes into the preserve to prove herself to her dad and she finally finds success, shooting a large bird. The bird turns out to be a Philippine eagle which is on the endangered species list; the preserve’s rangers keep careful count of the number of them left in the preserve. Diego is understandably upset. He makes Maya bury the bird and the gun that it was shot with and awaits the arrival of the police.

The investigation into the disappearance of the bus has met with official resistance, much to Mendoza’s surprise. The two cops are ordered to discontinue their efforts to find the missing passengers and instead look into a missing Philippine eagle from the wildlife preserve. Domingo urges Mendoza to give up on the case having seen what happens to cops who disobey their superior officers but Mendoza can’t give up the case, having spoken with the wife of one of the missing who beseeches him to find out what happened to her husband. The two cops go out to interview Diego about the missing eagle; Mendoza notices that Maya is wearing an eagle claw on a makeshift necklace. Domingo resolves to bring in Diego for questioning.

Diego knows he is about to be taken in and assumes that he’ll be back by the end of the evening; he urges his daughter to stay out of sight until he comes home. Mendoza receives a threat to his family that changes his outlook. The interrogation of Diego becomes more brutal and suddenly Diego is locked up overnight with hardened criminals who are plotting an escape. When the escape is successful but the criminals commit a horrific act in getting away, Diego is forced to flee. He makes his way home with the cops hot on his trail; a reckoning is bound to occur.

Red is an emerging talent in Filipino filmmaking. He has only made two films in his nascent career but both have been highly acclaimed and won film festival awards. His latest is a genre mash-up that starts out with two seemingly disparate stories – one a police procedural, the other a rural coming-of-age tale – that are slowly weaved into a single tale. Red who also co-wrote the film skillfully merges the two stories into one, a feat that is attempted pretty regularly in indie cinema these days but rarely as successfully as seen here.

There is a good deal of social commentary to be had here. Red makes clear that he feels that society values the lives of the rural residents less than the life of a bird. There is also a look at the corruption that is rampant in the law enforcement of the Philippines; considering that the war on drugs undertaken by the dictatorial president of the Philippines has led to the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Filipinos, the film is timely indeed.

The vistas of the rural Philippines are beautifully shot and make an excellent background to the ugliness of the souls of those who are in power. Red makes good use of the landscapes in the Philippine backwaters and crafts an extraordinarily beautiful movie. Unfortunately, the movie does move at a somewhat elephantine pace and is probably a good 15 minutes too long; some of the action here is redundant and unnecessary. The shocking ending is quite depressing as well.

Still, there is a lot going for the film for more patient viewers. Red is definitely a voice who has something valid to say and a talent we’re very likely to hear a lot more from in the future. If he keeps on making films like this, you might just be seeing his name on big Hollywood features in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a very interesting view on corruption in the Philippines in an era in which they are being run by a dictator.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow and the movie is a bit on the long side. The ending is a bit of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity and a scene of dog peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at last year’s Tokyo Film festival where it won Best Asian Futures Film, an award given to directors who have the most potential to shape filmmaking in Asia in the coming decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jane

Veteran (Beterang)


Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

(2015) Cop Action Comedy (CJ EntertainmentJeong-min Hwang, Ah In Yoo, Hae-jin Yoo, Dai-su Oh, Man-sik Jeong, Woong-in Jeong, Yoon-ju Jang, Shi-hoo Kim, Kyung Jin, In-yeong Yu, Kil-kang Ahn, Ho-jin Chun, Zoltán Durkó, Eung-soo Kim, Dong-seok Ma, Su-dam Park, Jake Patchett, Young-chang Song. Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo

Being a cop means understanding the difference between justice and closure. One doesn’t necessarily ensure the other. Sometimes you don’t get either. It’s very rare that you get both.

Detective Do-cheol Seo (Hwang) is a bit cocky and something of a hot shot. Bad guys rarely make it to the station without a few bumps, bruises or broken bones when he arrests them. Because he is so good at taking down Seoul’s more violent element, his superiors tend to look the other way, even after breaking up a violent car thief ring, infiltrating them with the help of trucker Bae (W.I. Jeong) who brings his little boy along, mainly because he can’t afford to have anyone watch him while his wife and he work. Bae and Seo develop a friendship during the long truck ride.

Celebrating his success that night, Detective Seo runs into Tae-oh Jo (A.I. Yoo), the son of a billionaire industrialist and a high-ranking executive in his company.  Seo immediately knows that the spoiled Jo is bad news, sadistic and arrogant. Seo senses that Jo is going to be trouble but he can’t really arrest him for his suspicions.

Shortly after that Seo’s friend attempts suicide by jumping off the office building owned by Jo’s company. Seo smells a rat and despite the smooth denials by Jo’s assistant and fellow executive Sang-Moo Choi (H.J. Yoo) who is the serpent to Jo’s shark. Seo decides to investigate the suspicious “suicide” attempt. However the company has influential friends in high places and Seo finds himself frustrated at every turn, sometimes by cops directly on the take.

In the meantime Jo is getting more and more reckless and doing more and more cocaine. Through smooth Choi he attempts to bribe Seo’s wife who turns it down flat and berates her husband for putting her into that position. In the meantime, Jo begins to get sloppy and make mistakes and is obliged to leave the country but not before throwing himself one last big blowout party but that quickly disintegrates and leads to a bloody confrontation between Jo and Seo.

There’s enough humor here to warrant calling it a comedy although the synopsis is more that of a hard bitten police procedural. The humor may be a little over-the-top for American audiences who tend to prefer their over-the-top humor to be more profane. One of the running jokes is the petite police woman (Jang) who kicks everybody’s ass.

This was a major hit in Asia this past summer and is just now making the rounds at a select few film festivals and will likely be hitting more film festivals in the spring. I hope so; this is one of those movies that is absolutely entertaining. There’s plenty of well-choreographed action – and Hwang turns out to be an extremely skilled martial artist.

But as good as Hwang is, Hae-jin Yoo is even better. A matinee idol in Korea, he plays the psychotic villain here and the baby-faced actor is absolutely perfect, delivering one of the best villainous performances of the year. He can be charming and charismatic but out of left field he’ll do something despicable and sadistic, forcing Bae to get into a Fight Club-style brawl in his office – in front of his own son, who sobs while his father is pummeled into a bloody pulp by his manager.

The story isn’t anything to write home about; the commentaries on corporate culture in Korea probably are going to fly right over the head of the average American audience, and we have seen plenty of lone cop fighting insurmountable corruption movies from both sides of the Pacific. Still, this one is so much better than most, with terrific performances, really good action sequences and some genuinely funny moments. This ain’t art but it’s pure entertainment, which is an art in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Kinetic action sequences. One of the nastiest villains ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor might be a bit broad for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some profanity and drug use as well as a hint of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite only having been released this past August in South Korea, the movie has already become one of the top ten all-time box office champs in that country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom


Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

(2015) Documentary (Netflix) Ekaterina Averchenko, Mustafa Ayyem, Maksim Panov, Eduard Kurganskiy, Diana Popova, Aleksandr Staradub, Ivan Sydor, Timur Ibraimov, Cissy Jones (narrator), Kamiliya Zahoor, Said Ismagilov, Vladimir Makarevich, Sergei Kibnuuski, Volodymyr Parasyuk, Aleksandr Pyovanov, Oleksandr Melnyk, Catherine Ashton. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

A wise man once said that while it is easy to see when a revolution ends, it is much more difficult to discern when it begins. That wasn’t the case with the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, also called the EuroMaidan revolution or just the Maidan revolution. named for Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square in central Kiev (the Ukrainian capital) which was the staging ground for most of the events of the uprising. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, this revolution was televised.

After then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the trade agreement with the European Union that he had promised to sign, journalist Mustafa Ayyem and others sent out messages on Facebook and other social media to gather in Maidan to protest. At first only a few dozen showed, but by the end of the evening there were thousands in the square.

The protesters would remain in Maidan for 93 days amid escalating retaliation from the State Police, or Berkut. went from beatings with truncheons, stun grenades and arrests for disorderly conduct to firing into the crowd with rubber bullets and eventually with live ammo. Backed by convicts and thugs paid by the government called titushky the pro-government forces clashed more and more violently with the anti-government forces which were now calling for Yanukovych to resign, culminating in five days in February which large-scale rioting took place and police brutality rose to sadistic levels.

International outcry was deafening as even the International Monetary Fund suspended activities within the Ukraine due to the unrest. Yanukovych finally resigned and fled the country for Russia, with whom he had been in secret negotiations. His government was toppled and new elections held. As the documentary itself notes, that didn’t end the violence however; Russia would annex the Crimean peninsula and pro-Russian activists in the Eastern Ukraine erupted in a civil war that continues to this day. More than six thousand Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict.

Russian/Israeli docu-journalist Afineevsky was on the ground in the Ukraine for the duration of the uprising and documented it as thoroughly as it can be – 28 cameramen and women were credited on the film and some of the footage appears to have been captured on cell phone cameras as well. The footage is quite frankly amazing; we see hordes of police descending on unarmed protesters and beating the holy crap out of them. We see people shot and literally die in front of our eyes.

What the film doesn’t do is provide any balance. There were incidents of violence involving protesters but these are never shown; we are given a political line here which I don’t think that the filmmakers realized would have been made stronger if we had heard some opposing voices as well. While I’m not trying to say that justification for the violence and brutality should have been provided, one gets the feeling that we’re hearing only one side of the story which makes it maddeningly incomplete.

Still, in presenting that single side the filmmakers are commendably thorough. Graphics illustrate the locations of the various clashes and show the routes of protest marches. The filmmakers also resist the urge that many documentaries in the last few years have followed in padding their films with animated sequences. Every image we see here other than the informational graphics is either live footage of the uprising or interviews with the participants after the fact.

The Ukraine is, surprisingly, one of the most multi-cultural nations on earth with a variety of religions and ethnic groups that live there (there’s a particularly large Muslin/Arabic ethnic population living in Kiev) and religious leaders played a major role in the protest. Time and time again throughout the film the anti-government activists boast that all of the various religions were united as one; we get that this wasn’t a religious conflict but a political one.

There are still some pro-Russian sorts who call this uprising a coup d’état rather than a true popular uprising (only about 40% of Ukrainians supported the protesters according to contemporary polls). However, there is no doubt that Yanukovych was entirely corrupt as was his administration and once he began ordering his police to fire on his own people with live ammunition he lost what little moral authority he might have had to begin with.

If this is a propaganda piece as it strongly feels like it is, it is an entirely effective one. There is no doubting the courage of the protesters standing up to armed and armored police officers while completely unarmed, an eerie foreshadowing of police militarization in our own country which thankfully hasn’t led to the kind of violence that we saw in Kiev. 75 people died during the uprising, mostly protesters. Yanukovych is now wanted internationally in connection with the police actions and for allegedly having looted more than $75 billion from the Ukrainian treasury.

Watching the images of the beatings and the shootings is absolutely heartbreaking at times – but inspiring throughout. I’m half-Ukrainian so I do have a bit of a dog in this hunt and I have to say that I have never been prouder of my heritage than I was during the extraordinary events of these 93 days in the winter of 2013-14. While the story is far from being over, it is a story that is worth telling. I just wish they’d told both sides of it.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage. Thorough presentation of the anti-Yanukovych point of view. Easy to follow and understand.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely one-sided point of view.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, profanity and some disturbing images of injuries and corpses.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gujarat, the Indian state that Vasant and Champa Patel were from, also was the home state of Gandhi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Square
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: 99 Homes

Stonewall (2015)


Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

(2015) True Life Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, Joey King, Karl Glusman, David Cubitt, Andrea Frankle, Atticus Dean Mitchell, Richard Jutras, Otoja Abit, Rohan Mead, Ben Sullivan, Johnny Falcone, Vladimir Alexis, Kwasi Songui, Alan C. Peterson, Veronika Vernadskaya. Directed by Roland Emmerich

For the LBGT community, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that took place following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn (a bar that catered to gay men and lesbians in an era when it was illegal to serve liquor to a homosexual) are a watershed moment, an event around which prompted real organization of gay rights activists.

In the late 1960s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was treated with electroshock therapy among other barbaric treatments. Gays were forbidden from working for the government, couldn’t get bank loans and were the targets of vicious beatings – often from the police.

Danny (Irvine), a young gay man from Indiana who has been kicked out of the house by his homophobic father (Cubitt) who also happens to be the high school football coach, has gone to New York City where he has a scholarship to Columbia University – if he can get his high school diploma and get his paperwork sent to the University. Dear old dad has no intention of helping his son, but his cowed mother (Frankle) is sympathetic and his little sister Phoebe (King) absolutely adores him and is very angry at her parents for the way they’ve treated their son.

Danny, having little money and nowhere to go, falls in with a group of gay street kids led by Ramon (Beauchamp), a hustler who turns tricks with middle class men who are firmly closeted, have wives and careers and occasionally beat the snot out of him. Ramon takes him in and fellow street kids Silent Paul (Sullivan), a Beatlephile, Orphan Annie (Jones) and Cong (Alexis) who is the most flamboyant of the bunch. He also attracts the eye of Trevor (Meyers), an activist who works for the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society. They believe in peaceful protest and non-violence while most of the street kids know that they will never get the attention of the straight society that way.

Most of them gather at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that is owned by the Mafia and managed by Ed Murphy (Perlman) who disdains the gay clientele but allows them to do pretty much what they want (the Mafia used the bar to blackmail wealthier gay clientele and made more money that way than from liquor but that’s not discussed in the film). Danny is a bit out of his element but soon grows to appreciate the more outgoing of his crew but there is tension between Ramon, who has fallen deeply in love with Danny, and Trevor to whom Danny is more attracted to.

Danny’s heart, however, belongs to Matt (Mitchell), the football player whom Danny was having furtive gay sex with and who threw Danny under the bus when they were discovered, prompting his ejection from school and home. Danny endures beatings from the cops and growing tensions between the now very jealous Ramon and Trevor, who may or may not be using Danny for his own devices, but those tensions are nothing compared to what was going on in the community and they would come to a head on a hot summer night in June 1969 when Detective Seymour Pine (Craven) made an ill-advised raid on the Stonewall.

Few people in the heterosexual community are all that aware of the Riots and their significance and the movie is the perfect opportunity to educate and inform. Unfortunately Emmerich, who is mostly known for his big sci-fi epics like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow decided to make a fictional account, using fictional characters mixed in with a few real ones like Pine and Marsha P. Johnson (Abit). Considering that there are plenty of those who were actual participants and observers who had some compelling stories to tell about the riots, it seems a bit of a waste.

&I had wondered why Emmerich didn’t use actual footage from the riots instead of recreated footage disguised as newsreels until I discovered that no footage exists of the riots and precious few photographs. I guess it’s hard for people of this modern society in which everything is documented to understand that news was covered by newspaper writers and photographers for the most part and to a lesser extent, television cameras and it was editors for newspapers and TV who determined what got covered and back then, a riot of gay people would tend to be given less attention (although it was front page news).

Beauchamp does a great job as Ramon/Ramona who wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a heartbreaking moment after a client has badly beaten him where he confesses to Danny that this life is all he can hope for and that he expects that there will never be anything better for him. It’s a compelling performance and Beauchamp has a good shot at some better roles.

There is a lot of sexuality in this movie – a LOT – and the sex scenes are handled pretty much the same way you would see heterosexual sex scenes in a mainstream movie; kudos to Emmerich for treating the two equally. Of course, conservative Christians will likely lose their shit over it much as they did for Brokeback Mountain but that’s assuming that the movie makes any sort of cultural headway, which is not necessarily going to happen.

Considering that this is a movie about such a significant event in the gay community, the filmmakers including writer Jon Robin Baitz, a respected playwright, seem to promote gay stereotypes almost to absurd heights. Yes, there were plenty of drag queens back then and there were those who were lisping, mincing fairies who gave birth to the stereotype, but we get little sense of who these people are other than those stereotypes. Also, using the very uptight, whitebread Danny as more or less your audience surrogate is almost insulting and watching him go from zero to radical in the space of about 30 seconds is downright jarring and outright unbelievable. If you’re going to pander to stereotypes, may as well go all the way with it.

I’m really overrating this movie to a large degree because I think that the story is an important one. There is certainly a great movie to be made about the Riots but this isn’t it. It’s a squandered opportunity but I’m still recommending it because at least you get the sense of how oppressed the gay community was back then and how far they have come since. That much is worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO GO: A story that needs to be told. Some good performances, particularly from Beauchamp. Sex scenes handled with sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: Going fictional was a tactical error. Plays up gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sex and sexual content, some drug use, plenty of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The riots took place on June 28, 1969 and lasted several nights instead of just the one indicated by the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Black Mass