Mickey and the Bear


The obligatory uncomfortable car ride shot.

(2019) Drama (UtopiaCamila Morrone, James Badge Dale, Calvin Demba, Ben Rosenfield, Rebecca Henderson, Rob Grabow, Gabriel Vega, Katee Ferguson. Directed by Annabelle Attanasio

 

Recently, director Martin Scorsese stirred up an Internet hornet’s nest when he disparaged Marvel films (and their like). He spoke about the films he grew up watching and quite frankly, this one from first-time director Attanasio would be the sort of film that he would dig.

Mickey (Morrone) lives in the small Big Sky town of Anaconda, Montana. Her mother has recently passed away due to cancer; the toxic waste from mining operations there have decimated the population of the town. Mickey’s dad Hank (Dale) is an ex-Marine who came home with a drinking problem, a severe case of PTSD and wild mood swings that his medication isn’t really regulating anymore. Mickey is his sole caregiver and support; she works after school in a taxidermy shop and supplements his veterans benefits with the little income she can make. Hank is chronically unemployed, and an object of pity in the town; he is not only a vet but a widower. He is essentially given a pass for his bad behavior, which is growing steadily worse.

Mickey has a boyfriend, Aron (Rosenfield) who professes undying love for Mickey, but steals her father’s Oxycontin and seems most interested in her female parts than in any other part of her. Mickey is trapped in the small town, unable to leave because her father couldn’t survive without her, but sees any sort of hope for a life of her own slipping away from her.

But there are some bright spots. New kid at school, Wyatt (Demba) – a transfer from the UK – sees potential in her and encourages her to go out and seek it. VA psychiatrist Leslee Watkins (Henderson) takes an interest in her and sees that the situation she’s in is not likely to improve…ever. Mickey is beginning to take tentative steps out of her situation but then her father drags her right back into the nest.

Attanasio is one of the new breed of female directors who not only has something to say but knows how to say it in a compelling manner. It’s hard to believe this is her first feature; it’s even harder to believe that she was only 25 years old when she made this. It’s directed with such assurance that you would think that the person behind the camera had decades of experience in the director’s chair. I’m excited for the future of this young woman.

It doesn’t hurt that she has a pair of actors giving career-defining performances. Dale, a veteran character actor, has never been better. He walks a tightrope between portraying Hank as an utter bastard and an object of pity. Hank is neither; he is prideful and his mood swings can lead to violence. At the same time, there’s just enough charm to allow us to see what he must have been like before he went off to war. This isn’t a textbook PTSD performance; it’s more true to life.

The revelation, however, is Morrone. With a limited resume behind her, there was no reason to believe she had this kind of performance inside her but quite frankly, it’s Oscar-worthy. Mickey is strong and vulnerable; making a terrible decision one moment and standing up for herself the next. She is, in short, a young woman who has seen far too much of life for a girl her age; it has caused her to grow up way too fast, but she is still at the end of the day only 18 years old.

Most of the other performances are strong as well, although Demba looks way too old to be a high school student. The Montana landscape is shown off nicely while the town is basically the working-class kind of place that has been hit particularly hard by the economic hardships that have caused them to embrace outsiders in politics. There’s a quiet desperation in the town that is heartbreaking; elitist liberals would do well to take notice.

Attanasio keeps the mood tense; one never knows when Hank is going to erupt. It’s a slow burn rather than an explosive conclusion. At the end of the day, the only flaw here is that the ending feels a bit more cliché than the rest of the film. Even though the final image of Mickey is hopeful and inspiring, it doesn’t really jive with the tone of the film.

The movie is currently playing in New York and opening in Los Angeles later this week; at the end of the month, it will start playing nationwide. Keep an eye out for it; this is a very strong movie that cinephiles should want to experience for themselves.

REASONS TO SEE: While Badge does a good job, Morrone is incredible. Gritty Americana at its finest.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little too pat, too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of profanity, scenes of drug abuse, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Attanasio is best known as an actress on the CBS drama Bull; she left the show following the third season in order to shoot this movie, her directorial debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond

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

The Quake (Skjelvet)


Oslo, meet Los Angeles.

(2018) Disaster (Magnet) Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Katherine Thorborg Johansen, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Jonas Hoff-Otrebro, Stig R. Amdam, Ingvild Haugstad, Ravdeep Singh Bajwa, Hang Tran, Tina Schel. Directed by John Andreas Andersen

 

Some of you might remember a Norwegian disaster movie called The Wave from back in 2015 in which a small town in the mouth of a fjord is hit by a massive wave that nearly levels the town. Well, one good Norwegian disaster deserves another, don’t you think?

Obsessive geologist Kristian Elkjord (Joner) is a broken man. After trying unsuccessfully to get government officials in the little resort town of Geiranger to take his warnings of an impending disaster seriously, 248 people ended up dead. Now two years later, he continues to live in Geiranger although his wife Idun (Torp) has left him and his college-aged son Sondre (Otrebro) has no time for him. Only his daughter Julia (Haagenrud-Sande) seems to have any gumption to spend time with her dad but he clearly suffers from raging PTSD and cuts short a planned visit because he simply can’t handle it.

]When a colleague dies mysteriously Kristian is piqued into looking into his studies. Consulting his friend’s raw data, he begins to suspect that his colleague was on to something – that Oslo is on the brink of suffering the repeat of a devastating quake at the turn of the 20th century and with dozens of glass skyscrapers dominating the graceful sideline it is a disaster (movie) waiting to happen. And when the family is put into jeopardy, it is Julia and not Sondre who puts them there. Fortunately, the couple only had two kids…

]Poor Kristian has become the Cassandra of Norway – nobody will listen to his dire warnings which of course all come true. After all, nobody wants to see a movie in which the lead scientist is taken seriously and his advice followed. But I’m pretty sure that nobody wants to see a movie in which a kid defies her parent’s orders to put herself – and eventually others – in danger either, but that’s what happens here. Kids are not known for acting calmly and intelligently in a crisis situation but there comes a time where I was hoping that Julia might be flattened by a crossbeam or something. Hope springs eternal.

]Joner does a good job of portraying Kristian’s precarious mental state. We know the geologist will act decisively and heroically in a crisis situation (because we’ve seen him do it before) but it’s good that an element of uncertainty is thrown in. Will the PTSD overcome his heroic impulses? Stay tuned.

As with The Wave, the special effects range from the solid to the spectacular. While the director preferred – either for budgetary reasons or personal preference but it doesn’t matter which – using practical effects wherever possible, the CGI when used is hella effective. There are also some fairly gruesome injuries/deaths in the film, one in particular which is of the type Hollywood films like to tease but never carry through. Here in The Quake you get to see it and there is a certain visceral satisfaction in it, even if the victim doesn’t particularly deserve their fate.

The story though is pretty much Disaster Movie 101 much like The Wave was. It follows the same formulaic steps and while those steps are accomplished competently, there isn’t much in the way of surprises here. Still, it’s fine entertainment if you don’t mind subtitles and bratty kids. If it doesn’t play anywhere near you during a limited theatrical run, it’s already available for streaming on most major sites.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are very well done.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is too formulaic and depends on children doing stupid things.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of disaster imagery and destruction, some depiction of injuries and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oslo did suffer an earthquake in 1904 that measured 5.4 on the Richter scale; seismologists have expressed concern that they are due for another even more devastating quake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker

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

Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker