The Surge at Mount Sinai


Front line health care workers battle COVID and exhaustion.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Bon Jovi (narration), Jessica Montanaro, Larry Kelly, Mary Fowlkes, Mirna Mohanraj, Don Boyce, Rafael Miranda, Lynne D. Richardson, Gina Gandhi, Miriam Merat, Mohammed Khansa, Judith Aberg, Dawn Kelly, Carlos Cordon-Cudo, David L. Reich, Deep Patadia, Andre Cooper, Montano Soares, Veronica Colon, Melissa Nelson. Directed by Jonny Kapps

 

In the Spring of 2020, the United States got their first experience with COVID. The surge went from almost no cases to thousands a day in a matter of days. While there was some warning that the pandemic was coming, it still overwhelmed most hospitals and health-care workers as New York City became the epicenter for the epidemic; from March 11 through May 2, 18,879 New Yorkers died of the disease. That’s one death every five minutes. This documentary, though, reminds us that it isn’t just about those who died – it’s about those who lived, as well.

The Mount Sinai hospital system in New York City is one of the largest in the country and, indeed, in the world. The venerable institution had seen nothing like this since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and essentially had to pivot on the fly and change strategies. Nurses, dealing with the majority of patient care, printed out brief summaries of the patients on their COVID ward doors so that the nurses could relate to those suffering from the disease as people rather than numbers, and given the staggering numbers they were seeing, it could be forgiven. They were dealing with frightened, sick people who needed comfort as much as they needed medicine and they received both.

We follow in the main a trio of health care professionals, including supernurse Jessica Montanaro, a married mom whose maternal instincts of caring for her patients was put to the test, but she managed to show a human face to all of her patients, including that of Dr. Mohammed Khansa, a colleague at the hospital who was stricken by the disease. Jessica played an instrumental role of keeping his spirits up and believing that he would beat the disease. That belief could mean the difference between life and death for some.

We hear all the time expressions of gratitude for our healthcare workers who served on the front lines against COVID but we really didn’t know exactly why until now. The sacrifices they made – physically, mentally and emotionally – the innovations that were made in giving care, the living with constantly trying to help people who would die anyway, we see the ravages of that to a certain extent and keep in mind this was filmed during that first spike – well before the fall/winter spike. You can bet that an awful lot of the people in this film are currently suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress.

But you can also bet that most of them are still at it, still serving their patients as best they can. With the advent of the vaccines, things have gotten better, although given how many are choosing not to vaccinate, the rise of new, even more communicable variants and the knuckleheads who think that COVID is just another version of the flu, another surge could conceivably happen. And these are the people who will pay the price for it if it does.

I have to admit that I do have a perspective here; my mom was a registered nurse. She retired more than 20 years ago but had COVID struck back then, it would have been her in the thick of things, giving the kind of care that these nurses and health care workers did. And I’m thankful every day that she didn’t have to.

REASONS TO SEE: Even-handed portrayal of the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers. Personalizes COVID in a way few other docs have done. Moving and inspiring. Shows the real value of nurses in the healthcare system.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too soon for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was written and narrated by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 76 Days
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Stowaway

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie is hotter than ever.

(2021) Action (New Line) Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Boots Southerland, Tory Kittles, James Jordan, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, Howard Ferguson Jr., Ryan Jason Cook, Laura Niemi, Dylan Kenin, Faith Lynch, Alexander Wagerman, Mason Howell, Calvin Olson, Sofia Embid. Directed by Taylor Sheridan

 
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of kids in peril movies. Too often Hollywood films that put children in the path of evil adults portray the kids unrealistically, either as much smarter than the adults that are after them, much braver than the adults around them, or much cooler than anyone in a similar situation would be. While kids do come in all shapes and sizes – and personality types, including heroic – Hollywood tends to idealize them in one way or another which can make an entire film ring false.

Forensic investigator Owen (Weber) discovers that the district attorney he works for has been killed in a freak gas explosion. He doesn’t believe it for a moment – after all, Owen discovered some disturbing information about some very powerful people. Realizing that the death was no accident, he gathers up his son Connor (Little) and makes a run for Montana, where his brother-in-law, Deputy Sheriff Ethan (Bernthal) might be able to help.

But there are a pair of vicious hired hitmen on their trail, Jack (Gillen) and Patrick (Hoult) and when they ambush and kill Owen, Connor gets away into the Montana woods. There he meets up with Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper who is currently working in a fire tower after a mistake on her part led to the deaths of her crew, including several children they were in the process of rescuing. She has been covering up her pain with a surfeit of drinking and one-of-the-boys behaviors that have led to her being sent somewhere where she can get her head together. A fire tower is certainly a place where there isn’t much to distract you.

Unless it’s the sudden appearance of a young, terrified boy on the run from ruthless assassins who have set a raging out-of-control forest fire to literally smoke the boy out and keep the local law enforcement busy while they complete their nefarious task. Can Hannah’s survival skills help her protect Connor from the men who wish him dead?

In all honesty, I have to admit that while these types of pictures tend to not thrill me much, Little actually does a pretty fair job of playing the kid realistically; numb and terrified. However, he is overshadowed by the main stars – Jolie, in a return to the front of the camera (she has spent the last few years concentrating on her directorial efforts) reminds us that her star quality has never left. She continues to be absolute money in the bank when it comes to these sorts of physically demanding action roles. Few other actresses handle physically demanding roles as ably as she does.

And lest we forget Bernthal, the one-time Walking Dead baddie who has been on the cusp of being a big star for awhile. This role won’t push him over the edge in either direction, but he continues to be impressive. I’m hopeful that Marvel makes a new Punisher movie at some point with this guy; he deserves the kind of career push that kind of movie would give him.

The action sequences here tend to be pretty big and well-choreographed. That’s not the problem. The problem here is that the plot is just oh-so-predictable and while the characters are given some backstory, they feel kind of shoehorned into cookie cutter cliches of psychologically wounded leads 101. The roles never really feel authentic and the story never takes an unexpected turn. I’m not saying that moviemakers have to reinvent the wheel with every film – that’s simply not a realistic expectation – but this one is a bit too by-the-numbers for me to give it anything but a mild thumbs up.

The movie was one of those released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max; it is still out in some theaters but is no longer available on the streaming service at the present. It will be made available on most VOD services starting July 2nd and will be on HBO (and by extension, HBO Max) sometime later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Jolie retains her star power and Bernthal continues to get better with every role.
REASONS TO AVOID: An utterly pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sometimes brutal violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage was at one time considered for a role as one of the hitmen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now (effective July 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Professional
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Happy Times (2019)


Dinner parties can be SOOO stressful…

(2019) Horror (Artsploitation) Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Guy Adler, Ido Mohr, Daniel Lavid, Shani Atlas, Sophia Santi, Mike Burstyn, Kevin Thomas, Rigo Obezo.  Directed by Michael Mayer

 

What could be more civilized than a gathering of friends and family for a dinner party? Breaking bread with those we care about is one of the nicer parts of being human, something many of us have been missing during the pandemic. However, one look at this dinner party and we might want to embrace social distancing to a much more restrictive degree.

Boorish businessman Yossi (Mohr) and his elegant trophy wife Sigal (Chamami) are Israeli ex-pats living in Southern California. They host a post-Sabbath dinner at their McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, sending the kids away with a heartfelt “Good riddance!” (now, there’s my kind of mom) giving the adults room to party.

Attending the party is Yossi’s business partner, contractor Ilan (Adler) and his girlfriend Noya (Atlas), business executive Avner (Pdut) and his wife Hila (Bahr) who gave up a law career to start a family, and cousin Maor (Lavid) who came stag. Aspiring  actor Michael (Aloni) – Sigal’s beloved cousin who is essentially maligned by the rest of the group – arrives  last with his African-American girlfriend Aliyah (Celma).

Soon, long-simmering resentments begin to leak to the surface and despite Sigal’s best efforts to keep everything sociable, the addition of  black sheep Michael who seems hell-bent on irritating absolutely everybody brings things to a boiling point. Buttons are pushed. Punches are thrown. People are knocked out. Dick pics are taken. Panties are stolen. Accusations are hurled. Bullets fly. Cops arrive. Cops leave. Things get much, much worse.

There is a ghoulish pleasure in watching a dinner party of snobby, shallow rich people turn into a Tarantino climax and you can almost feel Mayer’s glee at staging it. None of the characters onscreen (with the possible exceptions of Aliyah and the rabbi (Burstyn) who shows up in the third act) have any redeeming qualities at all. None of the relationships here seem to be healthy in any way, shape or form except for maybe Sigal and Michael in which there seems to be at least some genuine affection.

There’s a lot of dark humor here, with writers Guy Ayal and Mayer injecting commentary on the shallow nature of Hollywood elites as well as the macho posturing of Israeli men. Even Israeli women don’t go unscathed as the Israeli women here are largely pretty nasty pieces of work with plenty of repressed fury.

There is plenty of blood and carnage, although the murders aren’t particularly inventive. Then again, most of them are crimes of opportunity and passion. Someone gets pushed to the breaking point and grabs whatever is at hand, be it a heavy blunt object or an antique crossbow. Someone even gets stuffed into a kiln.

The mostly-Israeli actors are extremely strong here, with Chamami and Aloni getting the lions share of the moments to remember. However, Pdut has his own share of moments as the businessman hiding PTSD from his time in the compulsory Israeli military service. The movie, though, falls in between niches; it’s not really the kind of horror film that is going to invite raves in the horror film community, and it is a little bit too genre for the arthouse crowd. It also forces the audience to sit through about 45 minutes of a dinner party of unpleasant people before getting to the good stuff, which may try the patience of many. Still, the last half of the movie does move at a pretty good clip, so those who like their mayhem with a side of Jewish gestalt will get their money’s worth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Skewers both shallow Hollywood culture and macho Israeli ethos. A stellar dark comedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a very long time to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, gore and mayhem, plenty of profanity, some sexual situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Host
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bliss

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

Out of the Fight


As American as appletinis.

(2020) Drama (GravitasRandy Wayne, Jordan Jude, Chris Mullinax, Judy Norton, Robert Miano, Carle Atwater, Corie Robinson, Lily Thomas, Ron Chevalier, Tisa Key, Michael Aaron Milligan, Jon-Paul Gates, Paul Sampson, Aaron Mitchell, Rob Wolfe, Beejan Land, Curtis Nichouls, Holdyn Barder, Christopher Heskey, David William Arnott, Russell Snipes, Talia Andrews. Directed by Steve Moon

It’s a familiar story as America continues to deal with the longest armed conflict in its history; soldiers are trained to go out into the field to defend….well, our way of life ostensibly, although I think most soldiers would be hard-pressed to say what our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has to do with protecting the American way. Superman would weep. Politics aside, we send these young men and women out to fight and die, but those who survive are dumped back into civilian life, often in the grip of PTSD and barely able to cope with life back home.

Jason Pete (Wayne) has served three tours in Afghanistan and has returned home to a loving wife Emily (Jude) and a four-year-old daughter. His body is scarred with wounds received in service, but it is his mind that is more deeply wounded and less apparently so. The VA provices him with a psychiatrist (Norton) but the sessions don’t appear to give him much peace. He turns to drinking and pills to ease his inner pain, but it doesn’t help. A friendly local police officer (Mullinax) tries to guide him through, but will it be enough?

The movie makes us aware – if you weren’t already – that our vets are committing suicide in terrifying numbers. It doesn’t directly address the question, but certainly most of us will hbe thinking it – if we can afford to spend money on new tanks and planes and battleships we don’t need, why can’t we spend the money to give our servicemen and women the post-deployment care they need and deserve? It is truly a national scandal.

It is a truly worthy subject for a film, but the execution is a bit lacking. Much of this is due to the low budget, which is readily apparent in the action scenes. Filmed locally in Alabama with a local crew and cast, there is some inexperience showing in terms of on-camera performances, which tend to be a litte wooden. There are a few relatively well-known names in the cast, including former Waltons star Judy Norton as the psychiatrist (she also co-wrote the script with the director), and veteran character actor Robert Miano as Jason’s commanding officer, but while their performances are more relaxed, there are a number of performers who don’t look comfortable in front of the camera.

The filmmakers talked to more than fifty veterans and their families to get their impressions of how they coped with the return of warriors to civilian life; every one of them, it was reported, had served with someone who had killed themselves, attempted to or was dealing with severe PTSD. I assume they used some of those stories here, and to be truthful, there are some moments that are incredibly gripping and harrowing, but more often than not, this feels like other films on the subject that have dealt with the same topic. I’m wondering if the filmmakers might not have served the subject better by making a documentary and interviewing the various family members on-camera rather than create a drama around it; something tells me the real stories would be far more compelling than this.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers admirably turn their camera on a still very real and serious problem that has yet to be effectively addressed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard issue for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pete house in the film was demolished after filming was completed to make way for a new road.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When I Came Home
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Team Marco

The Unfamiliar


Not destined to be a new dance craze anytime soon.

(2020) Horror (Vertical/Dark MatterJemma West, Christopher Dane, Rebecca Hanssen, Harry McMillan-Hunt, Rachel Lin, Tori Butler-Hart, Ben Lee, Guy Warren-Thomas, Beatrice Woolrych. Directed by Henk Pretorius

 

Unlike my wife, I love horror movies. I love a good scare, a terrifying creature, a malevolent poltergeist, a deliciously evil demon, a skilled slasher, whatever the case may be. I even love those psychological horror films where the main character may or may not be going insane. This is one of those.

Dr. Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (West) is recently returned to England from Afghanistan, where she was a British army medic. She returns, like many of her peers, loaded with PTSD, but she’s happy to be back in the bosom of her family – husband Ethan (Dane), a collect professor of anthropology, son Tommy (McMillan-Hunt) and daughter Emma (Hanssen). But, as with most horror movies, the idyllic homecoming doesn’t last.

Izzy notices that her family is acting a bit strange and distant. There are also pictures that fly off the wall of their own accord, and strange sounds during the night lead Izzy to believe that she’s either being driven mad by her post-traumatic stress, or there is something supernatural going on in her house. People who hear about her issues are wondering if she’s taking her pills. At last, Ethan decides to take his family on a vacation to Hawaii, where he first began studying the culture of Hawaiian myths. And if you think Hawaiian folk tales have anything to do with what’s going on with Izzy, well, you’d be right.

This might be the most mis-named horror movie in history because everything in the film is likely to feel familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few horror movies. From the jump scares to the creepy psychic to the haunted house tropes (although this isn’t strictly speaking a haunted house movie), there is nothing here that is terribly original. It IS nice that the hero here is a woman and an army veteran; she’s the one who takes the fore, directs the husband to stay with the kids and goes out to face down the villain herself. That’s a nice change.

But there’s little to no character development going on here. Sure, there are a few good scares, particularly in the final act, but for the most part this is ho-hum horror. With so many good horror movies out there (and more coming out all the time), it’s hard to give a movie like this much love. It isn’t that the movie is bad – it certainly is no worse than anything else out there – but it’s just more of the same. If that’s what floats your boat, then by all means give this one a shot.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not particularly memorable.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the death of Barry Kramer, the magazine went through a number of different hands; by the 21st century there were legal disputes as to the ownership of the CREEM name and archives. By 2017 the litigation had been settled with JJ Kramer (son of Barry and Connie) taking control of the brand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 17’% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hole in the Ground
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Epicentro

A Dog’s Way Home


Happiness is the love of a good dog.

 (2019) Family (ColumbiaAshley Judd, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson, Chris Bauer, Tammy Gillis, Jonah Hauer-King, Farrah Aviva, Patrick Gallagher, Lucia Walters, Lane Edwards, John Cassini, Darcy Laurie, Benjamin Ratner, Motell Foster, Brian Markinson, Patrick Gallagher, Broadus Mattison, Christine Willes. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

 

Another in a recent spate of movies told from a canine point of view, this is also based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote A Dog’s Purpose which, perhaps not coincidentally, got the sequel treatment in 2019 as well.

Here, kind-hearted med student Lucas (Hauer-King) finds and rescues a pit bull puppy living in a condemned property that an unscrupulous developer (Markinson) is trying to tear down. He and fellow VA intern Olivia (Shipp) who would look favorably on Lucas as boyfriend material, decide to keep the pup over the objections of Lucas’ PTSD-afflicted veteran mom (Judd) who gradually warms to the dog, whom they name Bella (Howard) whose thoughts we get to hear.

Lucas’ efforts to keep the developer from…umm, developing leads to him calling a favor from an equally unscrupulous animal control officer (Cassini) who is enforcing a Denver law banning pit bulls. Knowing that if Bella is captured by animal control she’ll be put to sleep, Lucas reluctantly arranges to give his dog to a family in New Mexico to care for, only to see Bella run home to her one true master. Along the way she meets people (good and bad), critters (good and bad) and tugs at the heartstrings at just about every available opportunity.

Being a dog nut myself, I tend to be overly lenient to such films and will be the first to admit that the ending had tears streaming down my jaded critical face. There are even moments for cat lovers – baby Bella is raised by Mother Cat, and along the road back home Bella meets a cougar kitten whom she dubs “Big Kitten,” turning into a not-so-good CGI apparition.

This is more-or-less harmless family viewing material with a nice sucker punch for dog lovers like me. It doesn’t really push any boundaries nor is it essential viewing even for kids, but it does make a nice hour and a half babysitter for parents and children alike during these stay-at-home days.

REASONS TO SEE: Ends up being heartwarming, but you would expect that..
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really Jack London, is it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some dog peril and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog that plays the adult Bella, Shelby the Dog, was a rescue dog found liiving in a Tennessee junkyard.

BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic:  50100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Call of the Wild
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Grey Fox

Rewind (2019)


Through the eyes of a child you will see.

(2019) Documentary (Grizzly CreekSasha Joseph Neulinger, Jacqui Neulinger, Henry Nevison, Dr Herbert Lustig, Bekah Neulinger, George Ohrin, Risa Ferman. Directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger

 

It is almost as American as apple pie; the family gatherings and celebrations being captured on video cameras. Birthdays and vacations, children running around at play, new puppies, old grandparents, good times. That’s what video cameras seemed to be made for – nobody was bringing video cameras to funerals and dental appointments.

Like many kids, Sasha Joseph Neulinger grew up with his father, Henry Nevison (who is himself a documentary filmmaker) with camera in hand, often to the exasperation of Sasha’s mother Jacqui. However, the fun-filled videos of the extended family – grandparents, uncles, cousins, family friends – hid a dark secret. Sasha and his sister Bekah were being sexually abused.

At this point, I’m not going to tell you who was doing the abusing other than to say that at one point Sasha and Bekah’s father came under suspicion and we find out later, was himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The case would eventually make headlines, particularly in New York City not only due to the nature of the abuse, but because of the notoriety of one of the accused.

The documentary features interviews with Sasha’s parents and sister as well as his psychologist Dr. Herbert Lustig, the detective who worked the case (George Ohrin) and the prosecutor who argued the case (Risa Ferman). We are taken through a chronological retelling of events, watching Sasha go from a bright and sweet toddler to a kid prone to anger and self-loathing, eventually leaning towards suicidal thoughts. Sasha allows the revelations in the case to come out the same way his parents experienced them, adding to the horror. We can see the guilt and shame in Jacqui’s face; How could I let this happen? How could I not know? A mother’s anguish is pretty much universal.

This is not a psychological study and why abuse happens; this is merely one kid’s experiences with it, and the movie can be quite disturbing in places – young kids who have been through this should probably not watch this, but their parents most definitely should. In fact, all parents should.

We see the places where the justice system fails the kids involved and indeed fails in general; one of the defendants is wealthy and has access to nearly unlimited funds while others involved were working class. I think you can guess how the sentencing would go.

Again, I’m being deliberately vague about some of the details here – not to be coy, but so as not to detract from the impact the film has. It packs a wallop and is deservedly being given praise along the lines of “one of the best films of the year,” which it certainly deserves. This isn’t for the faint-hearted but there are truths in here that every parent should know.

The movie is currently available on VOD on the platforms listed below, but for those who wish to see it, the film will be airing tonight at 10pm on Independent Lens on PBS and can be either viewed on your local PBS station or streamed on their website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring and important. The use of home movies well-integrated. Stark, harsh portrait of abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get really raw and intense at times and may trigger those who have been through similar experiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some serious adult themes about child abuse, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18; 90% of those abused know their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
How To Build a Girl