My Name is Bulger


Whitey Bulger, tough guy.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Bulger, Michael Dukakis, Mary Bulger, Bill Weld, Jimmy Bulger, Matt Connelly, William Bulger, Dan Bulger, Sarah Bulger Piscatelli, Brian Wallace, Peter Gelzinis, Pat Nee, Jean Bulger, Pastor Robert Gray, Kevin Weeks, Katherine Greig, Jason Bowns, Jenn Bulger Holland, Bob Ward, Shelley Murphy. Directed by Brendan J. Byrne

 

I never had a brother, but I’ve known many. Brothers can be different as night and day. One can turn out to be a civic leader, the other a mob boss, and both from the same household. The old nature versus nurture debate? Well, nature certainly has a lot to do with it.

That dynamic really happened in the Bulger family. A large Irish-American Catholic family in South Boston (or Southie, as natives prefer calling it) the boys William and James grew up in poverty in one of the housing projects. But whereas William, known more colloquially as Bill, grew up to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, his brother James, who was better known as Whitey, led the Winter Hill Gang and was known to be one of the ost ruthless criminals of his time.

None of the other Bulgers turned to crime, and there are a lot of Bulgers – Bill and Whitey had seven other siblings and they all had large families as well (Bill himself would raise nine kids). So how does one deal with living a life on the straight and narrow but being known for the one person in the family that didn’t?

Byrne, a documentary filmmaker from Northern Ireland, doesn’t really get into it, but he is granted remarkable access to a family that has been over the years notoriously press-shy. He even managed to get an interview with Catherine Grieg, Whitey’s girlfriend who was with him while he was on the lam for fifteen years.

The Bulger family seems interested in rehabilitating their legacy, and anyone can certainly understand that. There’s no evidence that the younger Bulger knew of his brother’s criminal exploits, nor did he use his office to aid his brother in any way. One of Whitey’s criminal associates, Kevin Weeks, remarks that when the two got together they generally talked about family and mundane things – certainly not about what Whitey was up to. I suppose there was a willful blindness going on – considering the reporting the Boston Globe did on the exploits of Whitey Bulger you’d think that the rest of his family had at least an inkling that he was into something unsavory. But I would guess that nobody wanted to rock the boat, so the subject would be genteelly ignored.

Again, that’s conjecture. aI suspect that the Bulger family would be reluctant to talk about how much they knew of Whitey’s deeds. They seem to be more interested in downplaying his criminal side and pushing the fact that he was a nice guy, generous and loyal to his family. That’s kind of a curious tack to take, but it rings a little false to the casual viewer, and perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended.

But I think it’s also curious that the only aspect of Bill’s legislative career that is discussed with any depth was his opposition to forced bussing in the Seventies, a hot-button issue that turned national attention on South Boston and not in a positive way. To Byrne’s credit, he presents both sides of the issue dispassionately, but it leaves a complicated legacy. But Bill’s support for expanding school nutrition programs and environmental protection, as well as writing legislation modifying the process of reporting child abuse and helping reboot the welfare system so efficiently that it became a model for other states – that’s not mentioned at all. It seems to me that would go a lot further to cementing Bill’s legacy than downplaying the awful things his brother did.

Bill’s in his mid-80s now and retired to Southie. His story is a compelling one and while I do think that it deserves to be told, I’m certain that it could have used a little more positive reinforcement for Bill and less of that for Whitey. The man served his constituency well for three decades, and went on to be president of the University of Massachusetts, only to see that stripped from him when he refused to answer questions about his brother’s whereabouts in front of a Senate hearing. That was the consequences of a moral choice he made, but perhaps his legacy needs to be more about what he accomplished and less what his brother did.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story, a real-life Angels with Dirty Faces.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-centric and a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitey Bulger was murdered within 24 hours of being transferred to Hazelton Prison in West Virginia. His family has requested an investigation into the affair.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Mass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Werewolves Within

Resisterhood


The resistance will be televised – and feminine.

(2020) Documentary (The Content FarmJohanna Lohman, Nancy Lohman, Steve Lohman, Luis Gutierrez, Jean Gearon, Margaret Johnson Morrison, Kate Houston Gearon, Suraida Gutierrez, Dallas Chisolm, Adrienne Chisolm, Mimi Hassanein, Jessica Gutierrez, Hedda Hassanein. Directed by Cheryl Jacobs Crim

 

Almost from the day that Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, concerned women all over the country took to the streets. Their March on Washington, organized by women concerned about the future of reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, and the rise of misogyny from a man who bragged on tape that he could grab the genitalia of a woman without permission and get away with it.

The movie begins with that Women’s March and continues until the 2018 midterms that saw the most racially, ethnically and gender-diverse Congress in U.S. history get elected. It follows six activists – professional soccer player Jennifer Lohman, one of the heroines of the U.S. Women’s team’s run to World Cup wins and proud possessor of the “Jo-Hawk” hairstyle, an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ youth; Representative Luis Gutierrez from Chicago, convinced by his wife to skip the inauguration and march – and afterwards, continuing to fight for Dreamers and immigrants while helping his daughter out in her own bid for an alderman’s spot in the Windy City; Mimi Hassanein, an Egyptian immigrant with 15 grandchildren who is inspired to run for a local city position; 82-year-old Margaret Johnson Morrison who marched with John Lewis and Martin Luther King in Selma who makes a point of attending modern marches despite her advanced age – she is passionate about educating the young on the power of citizen activism; and Dr. Jean Gearon, who turned her six-person book club into a political activist organization numbering more than 400 and growing.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Crim organizes the stories nicely, and make no mistake, this is meant to be inspiration of the highest order. We’re meant to take hope from the simple act of ordinary people making the decision to make a difference. All of these people do make a difference in their own way, with ripples that range from small to mighty. It’s hard to argue with Morrison who stands up at a KLAN rally; that’s the kind of bravery that most of us only dream of possessing.

Crim shows how the seeds of change come from fields of despair as those who see the Trump presidency as a call to responsibility – the responsibility to stand against one of the most venal political figures in history. It is inspiring to watch how political activism translates to the ballot box and as we sit as I publish this awaiting for word from battleground states that may finally end this presidency following the biggest turnout of American registered voters in more than a century, and reminds us that all of us must do our part because even if the election goes the way we hope it does, the work is far from over. This is by far one of the most inspiring films I’ve seen all year. Amazon Prime members can watch this for free at publication time; it can also be purchased there by non-members.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly inspirational. Thoughtfully assembled. Shows the direct connection between activism and ballot box. Illustrates the power of citizen participation
REASONS TO AVOID: Trump followers won’t like this much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jean Gearon’s great-grandmother was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement that brought the vote to women in America.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Many
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Kindred

Nationtime


Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, addresses the convention.

(1972) Documentary (Kino-LorberSidney Poitier (narrator), Dick Gregory, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Richard Hatcher, Amiri Baraka, Bobby Seale, Charles C. Diggs, Harry Belafonte, Phil Cohran, Ben Branch, Walter Fauntroy, Byron Lewis, Queen Mother Moore, Richard Roundtree, Owusu Sadukai, Wali Siddiq, Al Freeman Jr.. Directed by William Greaves

 

1972 was a part of some momentous times. The Watergate scandal was just getting underway while antiwar protests were in full bloom. The National Organization of Women was pushing the ERA, while Black Power was beginning to manifest itself in political terms.

To that end, they put together a convention that met in Gary, Indiana – home of the Jackson 5 (whose family was in attendance at the convention). Many leaders in politics and entertainment met to discuss things that mattered to the African-American community. The convention was captured on film by acclaimed documentary filmmaker William Greaves. On the mind of those speaking was disenfranchisement of the African-American community (despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act five years earlier, still fully half of eligible African-Americans had not yet registered to vote), police brutality, and an ongoing war. Does any of that sound familiar today?

Two of the political leaders of the African-American community had been assassinated – Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, but both of their widows spoke at the convention. Comedian Dick Gregory showed his insightful political humor and Isaac Hayes performed as only he could. Poetry by Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes was read by Harry Belafonte, but the star of the show in many ways was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose fiery speech was meant to galvanize his audience – and it did. It was almost like a sermon, with call and response – “What time is it?” “It’s nationtime!” – and a powerful indictment of the system that was by design denying African-Americans equal opportunities – again, a depressingly familiar situation. Jackson intoned that both parties had failed the African-American community and he advocated founding a new political party of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and white allies to take a run at the established parties and deliver to the people the opportunities they deserve. One can’t help but wonder if the idea isn’t just as valid now as it was then.

There has been some improvement over the years – for example, in 1972 there were only 13 Black members of Congress when, by population, there should have been 52. Today, there are 56 which is closer to the percentage of population that African-Americans make up. There has also been an African-American president, something not even considered by the Gary convention, at least not on camera. And speaking of on-camera, I would have liked to have seen more of the women of the community get camera time but it is the men who dominate. It was a different time, and certainly were a similar convention to take place now, I imagine whoever was chosen to document it would give African-American women more exposure.

The film is very much set in its era, with the buzzwords of the time and the radical politics of the time both very much in evidence. It might be a little quaint to see the huge afros and cringe-worthy fashion of the era in evidence, but the film also evokes the rage that was simmering in the community – the riots in Watts and Detroit were fresh in everyone’s mind. Sadly, that rage continues today as African-Americans still must protest unfair treatment by the police, a general lack of opportunity available in African-American communities compared to white communities, and as David Austin so eloquently put it, Fear of a Black Nation. The movie dramatically shows that while there has been some change for the better, there is still a very long way to go. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to remind us of that in these volatile times.

REASONS TO SEE: An important, powerful historical document. Jesse Jackson’s speech is a real fire breather.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Greaves was a prolific documentarian with over 100 films to his credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trial of the Chicago 7
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Resusterhood

Vice (2018)


Love him or hate him, Bale nailed Dick Cheney.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Annapurna) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemmons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Gurgis, Tyler Perry, Josh Latzer, Jeff Bosley, Camille Harman, Jillian Armenante, Matthew Jacobs, Alexander MacNicoll, Cailee Spaeny. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Dick Cheney is a polarizing figure. The former Vice-President is looked upon by many conservatives as an architect of the modern Republican party; liberals tend to see him as the boogie man. He is a man renowned for playing his cards close to the vest and as a result is something of an enigma.

Cheney is not so much portrayed as inhabited by Christian Bale, an actor noted for throwing himself feet first into his roles (he would win the Golden Globe for this one). He is accompanied, as all great men are, by a great woman, his wife Lynne (Adams, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe). He becomes an aide to then-Senator Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), an association that would last through several administrations.

McKay presents this almost as a comedy; there are indeed some farcical interludes (like a false set of credits that role before Cheney decides to take the Vice-Presidential position) which seems like an odd call, but it works. Cheney is by his own admission not the most charismatic of men and how he rose to such a powerful position is something of a miracle of “right guy, right place and right time.” The humor helps lighten the movie which wouldn’t have worked as well as a straight drama.

I can imagine those readers leaning to the right will find this contemptible and disrespectful. I can’t disagree with the latter; McKay’s politics made it inevitable that this would not be a kindly portrait of the former V.P. Liberals of the more fire-breathing sort will say this doesn’t go far enough in excoriating a man that some believe paved the way for our current chief executive and his philosophy of absolute executive power.

But I’m not here to review the politics of the film, only the film itself. It is well-acted, highly entertaining and certainly worth a look, particularly if you are left-leaning. As I said, those on the right will likely not find this a laughing matter as I’m sure a similarly themed movie about, say, Al Gore, would be to folks like me.

\REASONS TO SEE: Bale and Adams truly inhabit their roles. Irreverently funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Conservatives may not dig this, and everyone may find it a tad dry
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few violent images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bale has the same birthday as Dick Cheney does (January 30).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: W
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lionheart (1988)

The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend

John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan