The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

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Magic Mike XXL


You're welcome, ladies.

You’re welcome, ladies.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Kevin Nash, Elizabeth Banks Andie MacDowell, Amber Heard, Michael Strahan, Donald Glover, Stephen Boss, Rhoda Griffis, Jane McNeill, Ann Hamilton, Mary Kraft, Kimberly Drummond, Carrie Anne Hunt. Directed by Gregory Jacobs

Sometimes a movie is only as good as the audience you view it with. I can’t imagine seeing Magic Mike XXL in a room full of dour, jaded critics. They would never get what this movie is about on their own. What I did see this movie with was a room full of screaming, hooting, hollering women who would have thrown dollar bills at the screen had they thought of it.

And that’s just how Magic Mike XXL should be experienced. Channing Tatum returns as the titular male entertainer, now having hung up his G-string with a custom-made furniture business. His girlfriend from Magic Mike has left him and while he is doing what he wanted to do in the first film, he kind of misses the life. When Tarzan (Nash) calls, Mike comes running. The remaining Kings of Tampa – Dallas (Matthew McConaughey’s character from the first film) having absconded to Europe with the Alex Pettyfer character – are ready to close out their careers with a bang, at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach over the Fourth of July weekend. So Mike piles in to a fro-yo van owned by Tito (Rodriguez) along with Ken (Bomer), Tobias (Iglesias) and Big Dick Richie (Manganiello) for a road trip for bros.

So this becomes a road trip movie, with a stop in Savannah to visit Rome, a private club run by Rome (Smith)  in which female members get up close and personal with a gaggle of strippers whose members include Augustus (Strahan), Andre (Glover) and Malik (Boss). With Tobias having been injured in a van accident, the Kings are in dire need of an M.C. and ask Rome who declines. She and Mike have a history y’see…

After a stop in house of randy older women including Nancy (MacDowell), the mother of Megan (Hunt) whom they met in a Jacksonville bar and whose buddy Zoe (Heard) is the new romantic interest of Mike, in a kind of non-threatening platonic way they run into Rome who has changed her mind and it’s on to Myrtle Beach, the Redneck Riviera, where the boys will go out with a bang.

This isn’t nearly as serious a movie as the first Magic Mike was. That movie’s director, Steven Soderbergh, is still behind the camera but as a cinematographer this time. What we have here is more of a road movie that doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. I will give you that the filmmakers understand their target audience as the women in our audience lost their minds nearly every time that the men started dancing or stripping. However, it was surprising to me that most of the women in the audience seemed to be fonder of Manganiello than of Tatum, although after one simulated sex/dance sequence featuring the star, one audience member exclaimed “I think I need a cigarette.”

\I will also say that the movie does look at the bond between men in a way not usual to Hollywood, which tends to view male bonding as a macho thing done over guns, cars and violence. The Kings of Tampa are all pretty sensitive guys who admire and respect women rather than viewing them as objects to be taken to bed as conquests and then cast aside. They view what they do as a kind of therapy, giving their clients something they need – not just a sexual release but adoration as well. I think most women’s fantasies are about guys like these, sensitive but sexy, handsome and hot as well. What woman wouldn’t want to be adored by guys like these?

The plot is kind of threadbare and I was left wondering if I’d seen this in a room full the aforementioned dour and jaded critics would I have liked this movie as much? Probably not. Because the women in the audience were having such a good time, I ended up having as good a time as well and that’s something to consider. The movie is in many ways not nearly as good as its predecessor but in many ways better – it gives its audience exactly what they want and that isn’t such a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Has heart as well as tush. We end up caring what happens to these guys.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely lightweight and disposable. More of an experience than a movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Language, male butt nudity, sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Finding Bliss

Riddick


Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine, Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pla, Danny Blanco Hall, Noah Danby, Neil Napier, Nolan Gerald Funk, Karl Urban, Andreas Apergis, Keri Lynn Hilson, Charlie Marie Dupont, Jan Gerste, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, Antoinette Kalaj, Lani Minella. Directed by David Twohy

Some characters need to be on their own turf to really be effective. Indiana Jones, for example, is at his best in some ruined palace, searching for treasure; high society shindigs are not his thing. As for Richard B. Riddick, well, let’s put him on some forgotten miserable barely habitable rock in the middle of deep space populated by vicious, deadly creatures and we’re interested.

And that’s just where Riddick (Diesel) finds himself after being betrayed by Lord Vaako (Urban) of the Necromongers (from The Chronicles of Riddick which preceded this). The world is desolate, filled with carrion eaters, a jackal/dog hybrid and a slithering nasty that has a venomous sting on its scorpion-like tail and a penchant for hiding in standing pools of water. Riddick is left on this planet to die, his leg broken and without any supplies or weapons except for a tiny little throwing knife.

Riddick manages to set his broken leg the hard way and finds his way to a grassland which is a bit less predator-filled. He manages to tame one of the jackal/dog puppy hybrids and keeps it as a pet and watchdog. He survives for years this way.

When he sees a storm brewing, he realizes his happy haven is about to be overrun by the slithering nasties. He needs to get off this rock and fast. He’s found a mercenary outpost and presses the panic button, making sure that he is detected. Given the bounty on his head, it isn’t long before two sets of bounty hunters – one led by the sleazy Santana (Molla) with his brutish sidekick Diaz (Bautista), the other a group of mercenaries led by Boss Johns (Nable) who has a personal stake in Riddick. He is supported by the laconic Moss (Woodbine) and the aptly-named Dahl (Sackhoff), a lesbian with no time for Santana’s shenanigans and the ability to kick his ass to back it up.

As you might guess, the two parties begin feuding almost immediately and Riddick is forced to pick them off one by one. The storm is almost upon them and once it gets there, things are going to get really, really bad.

This is more of a throwback to the first film in the series, 2000’s Pitch Black more than its successor. That was more of a thriller than the space opera that was The Chronicles of Riddick. Neither movie did particularly well at the theatrical box office but both performed much better on home video. Of course, it’s taken nine years for the second sequel to hit the screen (has it really been that long?) and tastes have changed somewhat since then.

Diesel has been identified with this role in many ways more so than Dom Toretto from the Fast and Furious franchise. Riddick is in many ways the ultimate badass; he’s a survivor no matter how overwhelming the odds and it is a prudent man who is terrified of Riddick. Yes, he has had his eyes surgically altered so that he can see in the dark – an effect they used well in the first film but for whatever reason have shied away from ever since.

The rest of the cast is pretty much serviceable but then they really aren’t given a whole lot of personality other than the one-dimensional kind. Sackhoff, best-known to genre fans for her run as Starbuck in the highly respected Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy a few years back, shows some big screen promise; she’s got tons of charisma, oodles of good looks and plenty of chops to become the female action hero that has been sorely lacking in Hollywood.

The creature effects are pretty spectacular and all of the non-human monsters look believable and deadly. Even Riddick has problems with the slithering nasty and realizes that discretion is the better part of valor with those baddies (he spends some time developing an immunity to the venom but rarely takes them on head-on if he can avoid it). While the slithering nasties (called mud demons  by and large) aren’t quite as lethal in some ways as the creatures Riddick faced in the first film, they do resemble the titular Aliens in some ways.

There is a good deal of posturing and posing, that kind of testosterone-slurping “my balls are bigger than yours” competitiveness between the various Mercs and Bounty Hunters (including Dahl) which gets a bit tiresome over the length of the film. The film’s climax is also a bit of a letdown, lacking epic scope and originality. It just kind of ends.

Thanks to a pretty minuscule budget by sci-fi standards, it seems logical that the movie will make a tidy profit, making the likelihood of a fourth film in the franchise (fifth if you count the short The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury) pretty strong. That won’t bother me in the least; as anti-heroic as he is, Riddick is one of the more compelling characters to come along in the movies in some time. I wouldn’t mind seeing what else he gets himself in to.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific creatures. Extreme badassery.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much posturing. Denouement lacks excitement.

FAMILY VALUES:  Quite a bit of violence, some brief nudity and sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel agreed to do a cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise in order to secure financing independently for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Act of Killing

African Cats


African Cats

These African Cats are just a bunch of cheetahs.

(2011) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey

Nature can be a harsh mother, one whose life lessons are sometimes cruel and at other times beautiful. The world that the predator cats of Africa exist in is one that is exacting, but one in which the devotion of a mother is as fierce and beautiful as it is in the civilized world.

Layla is an aging lioness, a fierce hunter and mother to Mara, a female cub. She lives on the South bank of a river as part of the River Pride, presided over by its only male, Fang. Like Layla, Fang is a battle-scarred warrior who is beginning to show the signs of his age.

Sita is a fearless cheetah, one who is bringing up five cubs alone, as is the nature of cheetahs. They live on the Northern bank of the river. She is trying to teach her children the necessities of survival, something that is not always easy with children, especially when she has to contend with hyenas, a sometimes scarce food supply and also the lions of the region.

Kali is the father of three strapping young male lions. He rules the Northern bank of the river and now seeks to expand his territory south. He must bide his time during the rainy season as the river is crocodile-infested, but as the summer arrives and the waters recede, he moves south to take on Fang. At stake are the lives of the cubs, all of whom will be killed should Kali take over; he will then father new cubs with the lionesses. The battle for survival has begun.

As with the annual Earth Day DisneyNature documentaries, the animals are heavily anthropomorphized, the most of any of these documentaries yet. Jackson, in his spirited narration tells us what the cat moms are thinking, feeling and planning, giving them human responses to situations that might not mirror what a big cat is thinking, feeling or planning. Some of these emotions and thoughts that are ascribed to the felines can be extrapolated from their actions but others are most certainly all invention. I find that bothersome somehow, as if we’re being lied to – which is probably over-sensitivity on my part but still I can’t help feeling a little bit uncomfortable with it.

Certainly their maternal instincts are highly honed and when cubs are missing, they become obviously distraught; when the cubs are threatened, they fight like berserkers, claws and teeth savaging their opponents.

Like all of the DisneyNature documentaries, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Aerial shots of the vast savannah, the river winding through it like a muddy ribbon, thousands of wildebeests migrating through the territory like ants. The close-up shots of the lions and cheetahs going about their business are nothing short of amazing – watching Sita at full speed, her muscles straining for every bit of speed is something any viewer is going to remember for a very long time. It is a kind of savage beauty that serves to further amaze us at the diversity of life on this big blue marble.

However, the harshness of life on the plains makes for a fairly depressing movie. Lions and cubs are horribly injured and killed; they shiver in the rain and bake in the sun. Some become little more than skin and bones as they slowly starve to death.

The temptation to compare this to National Geographic’s documentary The Last Lions is hard to resist. Both movies focus on lionesses struggling to protect their cubs and both feature amazing footage of lions (and in the case of African Cats, cheetahs as well) in the savannah. However, the Nat-Geo film seems to be more concerned with calling attention to the dwindling numbers of wild lions in Africa while African Cats seems more disposed towards telling a kid-friendly story, so you have to give a nod to the other film on that score.

However, I found the Kenya-filmed footage in African Cats more compelling and more spectacular thanks to Fothergill’s well-honed sense of scope. He has also filmed the documentaries Deep Blue and Earth and may very well be the best nature documentarian alive. It kind of winds up as a push.

Disney’s heart is in the right place, using Earth Day to release films about our natural environment and tell stories that are played out in it every day. I don’t really love their need to turn these beautiful creatures into characters as if they should be talking and singing in one of their animated features; the narration should be kept to a minimum in my humble opinion because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures like these are worth infinitely more, and those in charge of these wonderful documentaries would do well to remember that.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography of the majestic African plains and its inhabitants.

REASONS TO STAY: The storyline was too anthropomorphized and depressing.

FAMILY VALUES: There really isn’t anything that would cause a parent to give pause in allowing their children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An original song by “American Idol” Season Six winner Jordin Sparks, “The World I Knew” is played over the closing credits, as the various animals that appear in the movie are identified in a humorous way.

HOME OR THEATER: The big African vistas should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mercy (2009)

The Last Lions


The Last Lions

This lion just ain't gonna take no bull...umm, well if you look at it from a certain point of view, they actually ARE.

(2011) Nature Documentary (National Geographic) Jeremy Irons (narration). Directed by Dereck Joubert

Fifty years ago, there were nearly half a million lions in the wild. That number is down to somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand, depending on whose estimates you believe. Current estimates have the wild lion population disappearing, possibly within the lifetime of children currently living.

They are being driven out of their natural habitats by the movement of human expansion on the African continent. They are being hunted by farmers trying to protect their cattle from attacks by the big cats; they are also being crowded into places where their food supply is dwindling and where they are competing with other ferocious predators for game.

Irons’ narration tells the tale of Ma di Tau (translated as Mother of Lions in the local language), a wild lioness in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. She is a single mother of three adorable cubs. Her territory has been invaded by a pride from the North, moving down due to human incursion. She and her mate are attacked; her mate is grievously injured and the mother and her cubs are forced to cross a crocodile-infested stream to get to Duba Island, a large grassy atoll in the river. In rainy season it can be wet and marshy; in the summers the river slows down to a trickle, inviting other predators to visit.

There’s also a largish herd of water buffalo that are the size of VW Beetles and twice as ornery. One in particular, the herd leader who is marked with a noticeable scar across his face, fears nothing or no lion. His horns are nightmarishly lethal, and without a pride to help her in the hunt, Ma di Tau is reduced to nearly suicidal frontal assaults before devising tactics made from desperation; she desperately needs the meat to feed her cubs and if she doesn’t feed them soon, they’ll starve.

Director Joubert and his producer/partner/wife Beverly live on Duba Island and have been naturalist documentarians for a quarter of a century – in fact, Disney used footage they shot to help guide their animators for The Lion King.

Their footage is phenomenal. We get as up close to lions so much so that we become part of their pride, privy to their daily routines and lives. Nature documentaries have a tendency to anthropomorphize their subjects – give them human qualities and traits. This one doesn’t quite resist the temptation, often musing on what Ma di Tau is thinking and feeling through Irons’ solid narration. However some of the prose he’s given to recite is a little bit on the purple side.

There is no sentimentality here. Lions act like lions and when their territory is invaded, a struggle to the death ensues and it is a bloody and savage one. Cubs, unable to fend for themselves, are put in danger and don’t always escape it unscathed. Lightning ignites grass fires; things are eaten by crocodiles or gored by water buffalo. In short, life on the savannah is a harsh one.

But there is also love and affection and while not as much of that is shown in the eagerness of Joubert to make his point about the dwindling population of the magnificent beasts it is nonetheless present, particularly in Ma di Tau’s fierce devotion to her cubs and her willingness to do whatever it takes to protect them. The playfulness is rarely glimpsed but it is glimpsed.

There is definitely a message here and it’s a somber one – the kings of the jungle are disappearing from the face of the earth. It is happening slowly, but when you consider that it only took half a century to kill off nearly 90% of the lion population in the wild, the urgency of their protection becomes clear. The film provides websites and text numbers for donations to an organization dedicated to protecting these big cats, and hopefully you’ll take advantage of them as well (you can get info on their website which you can access by clicking on the picture above).

As documentaries go, this is a solid one. It lacks the grandeur of DisneyNature’s Earth or the humor of March of the Penguins but it tells its story simply and effectively. It also sends its message clearly and that is all you can ask of a documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and narrated. Some of the up-close shots of the lions are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie pulls no punches in describing that it’s a jungle out there, even in the savannah; the faint of heart be warned.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of animals mauling and killing one another which might get the kiddies a little upset.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeremy Irons voiced the villainous Scar in Disney’s The Lion King.

HOME OR THEATER: Gorgeously photographed African savannah worth seeing in all its glory on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Hop