To Be of Service


Taking a walk with your best friend on a snowy day.

(2019) Documentary (First RunGreg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox, Tom Flood, Greg Wells, Terry Henry, Susan Kolodziejczyk, Brandon Lewis, Dr. Frank Ochberg, Caleb White, Jon Bowersox, Dr. Larry Decker, Amanda Flood, Walter Parker, Phil Bauer, Tom Tackett, Kellen Dewey, Dr. Edward Tick, Jamie Kolodziejczyk, Maggie O’Haire, Lu Picard, Trisha Knickerbocker. Directed by Josh Aronson

 

Something like half a million veterans currently suffer from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most go through the VA system and are given a dizzying array of medications; one vet described receiving 31 different pills a day to combat his mood changes. Another discusses matter-of-factly his suicide attempt that left him in a coma for 19 days.

We’ve seen films that discuss alternative treatments for those suffering from PTSD but one alternative treatment is surprisingly simple; man’s best friend. Service dogs can be a tremendous gift for someone in the throes of the disorder. Not only do they provide constant companionship and unconditional love, they can actually smell mood changes in their handlers and help alert them (and those around them) that something’s wrong.

=Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker looks at how veterans affected by PTSD can have their lives virtually turned around by the presence of a service dog. The film primarily follows three veterans suffering PTSD; Greg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox and Tom Flood, showing how their PSD affected their lives, their families and their ability to function before showing how service dogs helped them become functional again.

The movie appears to be somewhat haphazardly put together; one of the veterans isn’t identified until nearly halfway through the film after he’s appeared several times. We start to follow the story of one vet who lost a leg in Afghanistan and then his story just seems to stop. There are also way too many interviews with clinical psychologists telling us how dogs are beneficial to their human patients. It takes up way too much time and distracts from the stories of the vets who we really want to know more about.

The vets talk candidly about some of the things they witnessed, the feelings they had; a clearly distraught Bowersox says “That’s what happens in war; people cease to be…and there’s nothing left.” She also urges people who thank her for her service to engage her in conversation; “Ask me what I did for my service,” she says, starting to cry, “I really want to talk to you.” The anguish that these people are suffering is heartbreaking, the lives absolutely devastated by the war that they fought.

Each service dog costs around $30,000 which is much more than most vets can afford; the bulk of them have to go through charitable foundations like the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation or Paws for Vets (links to those organizations and others like them can be found at the movie’s website which you can access by clicking on the movie still above). We don’t see much about how the dogs are trained; we come into the process essentially at the point where the new handlers are trained to properly use the dogs.

There are some great stories here and Bowersox, Kolodziejczyk and Flood all make compelling subjects. I would have liked to have seen a steadier hand in the editing bay and a bit less background information. More vets, more pets, less heads; that’s my take on this.

REASONS TO SEE: Clearly shows the bond between service dogs and their handlers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, as well as discussion of some horrific incidents during war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jon Bon Jovi recorded a song for the soundtrack and is also releasing it as a single; the proceeds will go to benefit the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Shock to Awe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Crown Vic

From Shock to Awe


In brotherhood there are battles.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Mike Cooley, Matt Kahl, Chris Young, Ryan LeCompte, Brooke Cooley, Aimee Kahl.  Directed by Luc Côtė

 

Every day in America, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s more than have been killed in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure that’s not a statistic that recruiting officers feel free to share with potential recruits.

Mike Cooley and Matt Kahl are both former soldiers living in the Colorado Springs area. Both are married with children (Cooley’s wife is also a combat veteran). Both are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both have been prescribed an enormous number of pharmaceuticals (over 90, according to Kahl who shows a medicine cabinet stuffed to the gills with pills) and both have found their treatments ineffective. Both describe an endless list of seemingly innocuous triggers, from people talking on cell phones, to being tailgated while driving to school (Cooley is attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) to flashes of light in a dark room.

Both men have been severely crippled by their disease. Their family lives have suffered; their wives feel helpless to ease the suffering of their husbands, who often take their frustrations out on their families or worse yet, shut down completely around them. They’ve tried all sorts of different forms of psychotherapy; none of them have worked.

In desperation, they have flown to Orlando to meet Chris Young, founder of the Soul Quest organization. He proposes using an Amazonian concoction called ayahuasca which is a powerful psychotropic drug that is currently banned in the United States (Young gets around it by using the drug in religious ceremonies and is a shaman with the Ayahuasca Church of the Mother Earth. He prefaces the ceremony by telling the men (who are accompanied by their buddy Ryan LeCompte) that they will experience a deep connection with the natural world.

The change in the men, after several ceremonies both daylight and night time, is remarkable. They are smiling again, able to reconnect with their families. The change is so remarkable that Brooke Cooley, herself suffering from PTSD but unable to tend to her own needs because of the severity of her husband’s condition, undergoes therapy utilizing MDMA, the psychotropic found in Ecstasy. She also experiences remarkable change.

Most documentaries these days tend to favor an non-objective point of view and that is certainly the case here. Although there is a warning that ayahuasca can be dangerous and should only be administered by those experienced with the drug, for the most part we are told that it is a miracle cure based solely on anecdotal evidence. There have been very few serious scientific studies of the plant-based drug and while the website does have some experts discussing the drug, none of that appears in the final film and quite frankly it could have used some. Also, like any other drug, ayahuasca doesn’t work the same way for everybody and it isn’t always helpful.

In fact, there are almost no talking heads other then Cooley, Kahl and their wives. Military footage from the Middle East is often interspersed into the film, forming a cinematic equivalent to the flashbacks the vets often suffer through – thankfully, however, Côtė doesn’t use animation or CGI to mimic the psychedelic experience of the ayahuasca.

There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to mount a serious medical study of the drug, but the United States is reluctant to look into any sort of psychoactive substance with any seriousness, perhaps due to the disastrous LSD studies of the 50s and 60s. Big Pharma is also unwilling to allow such studies to be taken; they earn far more in treating the symptoms than they would from finding a cure. This is why capitalism and medicine shouldn’t mix.

Still, the problem that vets face with PTSD, depression and suicide is very real and the current means of dealing with it are woefully inadequate. Our veterans do deserve better and this movie at least makes that salient point. I only wish they’d gone about it with a little more research and skepticism; our veterans also deserve to see every side to a potential life-changing cure. There is no vetting of a drug that can admittedly be dangerous, and that in and of itself is also dangerous.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark portrayal of how our system fails veterans. Shows the effects of PTSD not only on the returning soldiers but on their families as well.
REASONS TO AVOID: Shows little objectivity when it comes to alternative treatments.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of salty language, depictions of drug use and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 20% of all combat veterans who have returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Rondo


See no evil.

(2018) Sex Thriller (Artsploitation) Brenna Otts, Luke Sorge, Jazz Copeland, Gena Shaw, Reggie De Morton, Michael Vasicek, G. C. Clark, Kevin Sean Ryan, Iva Nora, Meagan Kiefel, Steve Van Beckum (narrator), Joseph M. Veals, Ashley Gagnon. Directed by Drew Barnhardt

 

Not many who are reading this will remember the golden era of grindhouse films. Those were the days when movies that were full of graphic violence, plenty of (female) nudity and lots of sex. But the 70s came and went and gradually those types of films fell out of favor. However, they influenced dozens of modern directors, not the least of whom are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Rondo director Drew Barnhardt is evidently another one so influenced. His latest would feel right at home in Times Square circa 1977. It’s got elements of slasher films, black comedies, psychological thrillers, a revenge epic and even grindhouse porn.

Paul (Sorge) is recently returned from Afghanistan and like many veterans, has returned with a case of severe PTSD. To cope, he has turned to self-medicating with alcohol. He’s hit rock bottom, losing his job and his apartment. Reduced to sleeping on his sister Jill’s (Otts) couch, she finally confronts him after catching him drinking – and sends him to a therapist named Cassie Wright (Shaw) whom she recently met.

With nothing left to lose, he heads to Cassie’s office where she basically tells him that the key to beating his addictions is simply to get laid. She gives him an address to go to for a kinky party, and the password for entry: Rondo. After some soul searching, he decides to go. There he enters a miasma of sex and murder, one that will drag his sister and father (Vasicek) into the middle of.

Like many grindhouse films of that era, Rondo doesn’t have much of a budget. The effects are practical albeit some occasionally over the top – whoever planted the squibs for the final confrontation had a field day. Therefore, a film like this has to rely on a decent plot – which it has. It also has to rely on decent performances and there we get a little bit dicey as the acting tends to be stiff, perhaps by design. It also has to rely on graphic sex and violence – and the film gets full marks for that. Barnhardt is obviously not afraid to push the envelope on that score.

The dialogue is fairly noir and has a few gems in it, such as “If you’re gonna live in the swamp, you’d better make friends with the gators.” There is voiceover narration which is done in kind of a “tough guy” noir tone. Unfortunately, the tone is a bit off; the voiceover narration in the cult TV show Pushing Daisies utilizes a stuffy British tone and it works as comedy, but the narration here ends up being annoying and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing but it’s inconsistent; at times during the movie every little event is commented on but then long stretches go by without any narration.

The soundtrack is pretty nifty, retaining elements of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and working really well in enhancing the action. Speaking of action, the denouement featuring a beautiful woman in bra and panties wielding a machine gun which has to be the wet dream of an NRA card carrier, and works as black comedy here. In fact, there are sly comic overtones throughout although sometimes you kind of have to look for them.

Fans of exploitation films will get a kick out of this one. Fans of the directors who utilize those influences in their work may also find this entertaining. However, if you find those sorts of films distasteful, this really isn’t the movie for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Catchy dialogue and nifty score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the performances were on the wooden side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, graphic violence, gore, graphic nudity, graphic sex – pretty much graphic everything.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film was shot in the Washington Park and LoDo districts in Denver.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Apostle

Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

From War to Wisdom


The real battle begins when they get home.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Josh Hisle, Scott Blakley, Matt Lorscheider, Kenny Bass, Hans Palmer, Ragtime, Neil Young, Frank Weston, Nick Salcedo, Jared Vrazel, Edward Smith, Justin Oxenrider, Rick Pickeral, Tyler Engel, Travis Elfgren, Josh Rivers, Mike Whiter, Mike Cerre, Walt Michael, Tony Trischka, Mark Llano, Ramez Wahab, Bryan Sellers, Brenda Anna. Directed by Dan Collins and Josh Hisle

 

As a general rule, we tend to honor our combat veterans. We appreciate the service they do for us, putting their lives in harm’s way and triumphing. They represent the best aspects of our society – the sacrifice that we make for the freedoms we enjoy. We literally can’t honor them enough for what they have done and continue to do.

But in truth we don’t truly understand; not really. We can mouth platitudes as I have just done but unless you’ve served in a combat situation, there’s simply no way for us to really empathize for what they’ve been through. We haven’t taken fire, seen our buddies shredded by shrapnel, watch our mentor take a gunshot through the head, felt a bullet whizzing by that missed us by a hair’s breadth and slammed into the face of the guy behind us. We haven’t taken bullets for our brothers nor have we watched our brothers take one for us. We don’t know.

For that reason, we make war with impunity and send our kids out as kids but see them come home as warriors. Once they get home, we pat them on the back, tell them well done and expect them to get on with their lives as if nothing has happened. I’m not sure where that mindset came from but the fact of the matter is that nobody who goes to war comes home unchanged. It’s not possible. That change often can be disturbing; it is common for returning veterans to have severe insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares (and occasional hallucinations), chemical and alcohol dependency and difficulty fitting back in to society. The incidence of homelessness among vets is staggering as is the divorce rate. Even more disturbing is the high suicide rate among veterans.

This documentary focuses on the Marine Corps Fox 2/5 company, one of the most decorated in the Corps. They have an illustrious history and those in it wish to pass on their honorable record to the newest members of the company. Josh Hisle was one of those in Fox 2/5 and he is essentially the main focus, although not the only one. We see them through two tours of combat; the first being the invasion of Iraq in 2003 followed by the Ramadi campaign in 2005. In the first they are viewed by the locals as liberators; in the second they are viewed as invaders.

The combat footage is at times harrowing and we get a real sense of how men react to combat; some of them have big smiles on their faces as combat can be exhilarating; others scream war cries and we are reminded that combat can bring out the savage within us. In both cases we get a sense of the emotional toll of war, more than any other documentary has brought us close to that I can remember.

More poignant than that though are the stories of the warriors returning home; Those who spend sleepless nights in their refuge; Hisle talks about being unable to sleep until he’s sure everyone in his apartment complex is asleep. He sits on his front porch drinking and with his head decidedly not in a good place. However, Hisle is one of the lucky ones; he has a creative outlet in songwriting that helps him to work out some of his frustrations.

And his music is really, really good; good enough to attract the attention of legendary rocker Neil Young who invites the young vet to appear in onstage with him and his group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as well as in his documentary CSNY: Deja Vu. Walt Michael, one of the founders of Common Grounds on the Hill, a group dedicated to highlighting the things that are common to all of us regardless of culture, heard some of Josh’s music and wanted him to attend one of their festivals as a music teacher. Josh was so impressed and was so moved that he convinced Walt to create a Veteran’s initiative, securing funding to get veterans in need of healing to a Common Grounds festival. Josh is convinced that Common Grounds has helped right his life and he has become a passionate advocate of it. This will be the fifth year that the Veteran’s initiative will be in effect.

In fact, several veterans have committed to creating positive changes for their fellow veterans. Matt Lorscheider, who served with Josh in the 2/5, is working with New Directions, a charitable foundation that takes homeless veterans off the streets, gives them vocational training, substance abuse counseling and helps them secure affordable permanent housing. Kenny Bass who was disabled during his tour of Iraq was told by his Veterans Administration doctor that he needed a service dog – but that is something not covered by his benefits. Kenny, on disability and a fixed income, basically had to save every penny to afford the $25,000 needed to purchase a service dog who has helped the quality of life for the veteran immensely. He and his war buddy Josh Rivers decided to turn his difficulty into a positive and founded their own charitable foundation Battle Buddies which helps veterans in need of service dogs be able to purchase one.

This isn’t a political film, although there is a decidedly anti-war skew here among the veterans but one can hardly blame them for that – nobody would want anybody else to go through what they have gone through. Hisle was blunt about his criticisms about certain decisions made during the war; ‘We were trained killers. You don’t send killers to keep the peace. It doesn’t work.” He has a point.

The one small complaint I might have had about the film is that they could have edited it down a bit more; the combat sequences while harrowing do get repetitive and I’m not 100% certain that we needed all of them in the film as the running time is a bit long for this kind of film. Less is more, generally although I would bow to the wisdom of Hisle and the other veterans behind the making of this film as to how much war we civilians need to see.

To a man none of the vets regret their service and would go back in a heartbeat – but only for the sake of those they served with, not for the reasons they were sent there in the first place. This is truly an inspiring documentary that shows you that these Marines are truly leaders of men. They have the will and the training to do tremendous things in the name of war. They also have the drive and the leadership to do amazing things in the name of peace. Our veterans are a resource this nation is truly squandering at present and all of us, the citizens of this country, are partly to blame. We have dropped the ball for those who have sacrificed so much and we need to give our veterans more than platitudes. By all means, do see this movie and be inspired but let that inspiration be more than just lip service; donate to these excellent causes that are helping veterans every day heal and resume their lives. That’s a way of showing your gratitude that truly matters.

REASONS TO GO: It’s truly inspiring to see veterans rising up to help one another – and truly depressing that our own government is not. The exhilaration and savagery of combat is depicted graphically. Hisle’s music is actually really good. In many ways the post-homecoming stories are more poignant.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie could have used a bit more editing
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and scenes of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the footage from the Iraqi conflict was taken by the embedded press with USMC Fox 2/5.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Rings

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

Room (2015)


Room is the world and the world is Room.

Room is the world and the world is Room.

(2015) Drama (A24) Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Cas Anvar, Zarrin Darnell-Martin, Tom McCamus, Sandy McMaster, Jee-Yun Lee, Matt Gordon, Randal Edwards, Justin Mader, Brad Wietersen, Jack Fulton, Kate Drummond, Chantelle Chung, Megan Park. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

The world is what we perceive it to be. For some, the world is vast and extends far beyond our planet. For others, the world is boiled down to the small space of their room.

Ivy (Larson) has a very close relationship with her son Jack (Tremblay). On the occasion of his fifth birthday, she bakes him a cake. He watches TV and she makes sure he gets plenty of exercise. She tucks him into bed at night with a story, then awaits the return of his father.

But this isn’t an ordinary situation. Their home is an 11×11 garden shed and his dad kidnapped Ivy when she was 17, tricking her into getting into his car by appealing to her compassion. Since then he has kept her locked up, raping her regularly (and inadvertently creating Jack) for seven years. Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight which mostly just allows them to see passing clouds. For Jack, Room is the entire world.

Finally, his mother devises a bold escape plan and the two are finally liberated. For Jack, his world has suddenly expanded like a sponge thrown into water. For Ivy, it means a reunion with her mom (Allen) and Dad (Macy) who have divorced in the aftermath of her kidnapping. It means coping with the media which clamors to hear her story. It means adjusting to freedom, something Jack has never known.

But the thing is, both of these souls are wounded, suffering from acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even if Jack hasn’t known any other life than Room, now he has to completely readjust his world view which is no easy task even for a five-year-old. Ivy has to deal with reintegrating herself into a world which has moved on without her, and she has to deal with the reality of what was done to her. She is no longer in survival mode and that can be the most dangerous time of all.

Room, which is based on an extraordinary novel turns out to be an extraordinary film. Abrahamson has taken the script, adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, and breathed life and color into it even if the color is mostly grey. The movie is set in Ohio during the fall and winter and it seems to be eternally raining, snowing or cold. Even the interiors are full of fall colors, the hospital where they are kept briefly sterile white. Only Room has bright colors, which is both ironic and intentional.

The effect brings a chill to the audience even if considering the horrifying circumstances that Ivy endures does not. And make no mistake, while those circumstances mirror several real life cases in which women were imprisoned, used as sex slaves and forced to bear children by their captor, this is a unique story unto itself and completely fictional – and completely plausible.

What makes this work are incredible performances by Larson and Tremblay. Their relationship is at the center of the story, and it is happily an authentic one. Larson has turned in several outstanding roles in a row and for my money is emerging as one of the best young actresses around. Don’t be surprised if Oscar comes knocking on her door for her work here, and certainly don’t be surprised if she nabs some high-profile roles because of it. Her character is strong on the outside, but the facade is crumbling and revealing an inner vulnerability that is heartbreaking, particularly when things come to a head about midway through the film.

Tremblay plays a child who gets frustrated, particularly when told things he doesn’t want to hear and often acts out with screaming tantrums – in other words, a typical five year old. While I think a few too many of these fits of anger are presented here – we get the point of his frustration and after awhile like any child’s tantrum they grow wearisome – that is certainly not the fault of this young actor who delivers a mature performance many veteran actors would have trouble producing. This may well be the top juvenile performance of the year.

Speaking of veteran actors, Joan Allen – one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses – does a stellar job here as a mother who has to readjust to having her daughter back after thinking she was lost forever, and having to deal with that daughter’s own rage issues, and shifting inability to cope with all the emotions that are just now coming to the surface. Allen delivers a character who is magnificent in her grace and patience. She’s the kind of mom we all would want to have.

The story is not an easy one to watch. We are looking at people who are soul-sick, who have all suffered at the hands of the actions of one monster. All of their lives have been shattered – even Jack’s although he never knows it – and picking up the pieces is no easy thing. In many ways this is a story that is genuine and authentic. It deals not just with the physical aspects of the story, but the emotional ones as well and you’re likely to be thinking about it long after the movie is done.

It may be too intense for some; some of the scenes are raw and hard to watch. Still, thinking about it, I think you’ll agree that sitting through those scenes may feel awkward at times but it is well worth the effort.  Clearly one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances from Larson and Tremblay. Excellent supporting performances by Allen and McCamus. Taut, excruciating story.
REASONS TO STAY: The frequent tantrums can be annoying. May be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, intimations of rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joan Allen and William H. Macy played husband and wife in Pleasantville as well.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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