Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

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Trauma (2017)


Evil can be transcendent.

(2017) Horror (Artsploitation) Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Rios, Claudio Riveros, Florencia Heredia, Alejandro Trejo, Claudia Aravena, Mauricio Rojas, Max Torres, Felipe Eluti, Catalina Bianchi, Nicolas Rojas, Jose Calderon, Cristian Ramos, Nicolas Platovsky, Faby Zamora. Directed by Lucio A. Rojas

I’m not one to post warnings before I start my review, but this movie demands one. It is absolutely not for everybody. There are graphic depictions of rape, torture and worse. Those who are sensitive to such things should definitely NOT view this movie under any circumstances whatsoever. In fact, you probably shouldn’t read the rest of the review either. Those who think they can manage, read on…

During the height of the reign of Chilean despot Augustin Pinochet, a woman watches her husband be executed in front of her – this after she has been brutally raped by her interrogators. Then, her son (Torres) is brought in. She screams and cries and begs her son to be calm. The lead interrogator injects the boy with some kind of rudimentary Viagra and then the boy is forced to rape his own mother. He continues to rut with her even after she’s been shot dead by the interrogator, who then raises the boy as her own.

In present day Chile, four friends in metropolitan Santiago  – Andrea (Martin), her sister Camila (Carrere), their cousin Magdalena (Bofill) and Magdalena’s girlfriend Julia (del Solar) head out into the country for a girl’s weekend. They end up getting lost and find a bar in the small village which turns out to be a very unfriendly place, but a local named Juan (Antivilo) defuses the situation and gives the girls directions to the hacienda they are renting.

Later on that night, Juan appears at their rental with his son Pedro (Rios) and the two locals beat and rape the girls savagely. In the morning, the two leave but only after one last act of violence. The police soon arrive and the girls are able to describe their attackers. When the cops go to arrest Juan and his son, they are ambushed and only one cop survives. Knowing that there is no getting out except through the sadistic Juan, the women decide to join forces with the cops and beat Juan and Pedro at their own game.

Yes, Juan is the grown-up young boy from the opening scene and much of what Trauma is about is the cycle of violence perpetuated by abuse. This can be applied not only to the brutal abuse of a tyrannical regime but also domestic abuse, although the filmmakers don’t come out and say so. However, the trail markers are very much evident.

Antivilo is magnificent here. His smug smile and sadistic ways make him one of the most memorable movie villains I’ve seen this year Even though he doesn’t snap his finger and make half the population of the universe disappear (although one suspects he would if he could), he clearly enjoys his work so much that he can’t hide his glee at his awfulness. If this were an American film, he’d be getting comparisons to Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.

The violence here is graphic and unapologetic. Reportedly based on an actual incident, the movie pulls no punches including during the rapes. The actresses reportedly told Rojas that they wanted the actors to be as brutal as possible and the sense of savagery that courses through the scene seems genuine enough. While there are a few digital effects, for the main the effects here are practical.

The movie is a bit long; the build-up to the attack is slow-moving and there are scenes, such as when the four women are dancing in what they think is the privacy of their rented hacienda, that should have been trimmed severely. Also towards the end the movie essentially becomes a standard revenge film; no points for that.

But again, this is a movie that is likely to trigger women who have survived sexual assault and those who are sensitive to such depictions. The rape scenes are hard to watch even if you aren’t triggered. Although the women are beautiful and the nudity is graphic, there is nothing sexy about what happens to these women. The rape scenes can be juxtaposed with scenes of consensual sex which are shot in softer focus and are beautiful to watch; the rape scenes by comparison are in sharper focus and the soundtrack is absent of music during the scene. It’s very stark and effective in that regard.

The question to ask is whether the extreme violence here justifies the message of the movie. There will be some who will call it gratuitous and exploitative and I can’t deny there is a point there. I don’t know if I have an answer to that question; I suppose it will depend on the individual. For myself, I would not think of censoring this nor denying the film’s right to exist. I also think the point could have been made without resorting to the level of depravity the film stoops to. At a certain point, one gets numb to the horrors shown on-screen – but maybe that’s what Rojas intended all along. Maybe that’s ultimately his point.

REASONS TO GO: There is certainly a political point being made here and a valid one at that. Daniel Antivilo is one of the best movie villains this year.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence is brutal and trigger opportunities abound. Some scenes could have used some trimming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of graphic violence, much of it of a sexual nature. There are also portrayals of rape, torture, and various sex acts with plenty of nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artsploitation reportedly didn’t submit the film to be distributed by iTunes because they were concerned that all their films might end up being banned from the site.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Spit on Your Grave
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Five

The Wicker Man (2006)


Wicker Man

"Anything Mel can do I can do better, I can do anything better than Mel..."

(2006) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair, Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute.

The 1973 horror-suspense film The Wicker Man, which starred Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, was an atmospheric piece that depended on creating a mood to creep audiences out. There was little overt gore, but it still remains in the minds of many, a masterpiece of horror that is unsung. Only now that a high-profile remake is being released is it getting the kind of DVD release it deserves. So what of that high-profile remake?

It’s a bit different than the original. Highway patrol officer Edward Malus (Cage) is traumatized by an accident on the highway in which a mother and daughter burn to death and he is unable to rescue them. He is deep in depression, having overcome the physical injuries but still blames himself for the two lives he couldn’t save. 

Out of the blue he gets a letter from an ex-fiancée named Willow (Beahan) who left him and basically broke his heart. Now, she needs his help. Her daughter Rowan (Gair) has disappeared and she is frightened for her safety. She lives on an island in the Puget Sound called Summerisle, a privately-owned communal farm that specializes in honey. There are no regular ferries, so the girl must still be on the island. Despite misgivings by his partner Pete (Wiseman), Malus, being of no forethought – get it? – decides to go find the girl, deep down hoping he can redeem himself for the one he lost.

After basically conning his way onto the island, Malus is met by a chilly reception by the island’s inhabitants, a sort of Amish-like community in homespun dresses. After blustering his way around the island, he finally finds Willow in a common house, where the bartender Beech (Delano) reluctantly gives him a room.

As Malus investigates, things begin to get weirder. First of all, the women seem to be in a dominant position on the island, the men being relegated to menial labor and breeding stock. They never speak – I thought they had been made mute, although da Queen thought they were just too frightened to speak. He is having hallucinatory flashbacks to the accident, and sees visions that are terrifying. Most of the islanders deny the very existence of Rowan, but soon the stodgy Malus begins to find evidence that he is being lied to. A meeting with the Queen Bee of the colony, Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) convinces him that there is a secret that the women of the island are hiding. Still, he is getting no help from Willow whose behavior is becoming increasingly confused and dazed. With no phone service and no connection to the outside world, Malus realizes he is alone in a very dangerous situation.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to take the Christian vs. Pagan themes of the original movie and change them into a women vs. men scenario. The result is kind of a severe anti-feminist backlash, in which earth mother-worshipping females, who in the real world tend to be nurturing and gentle, become bloodthirsty advocates of human sacrifice. Not only does the psychology make no sense whatsoever, I found the movie to be exceedingly misogynistic. There is only one sympathetic female character in the entire movie – a waitress in the very first scene. I don’t know if that was the intention of the director and the writer, but that’s the impression I got from the movie, and I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

As if that isn’t bad enough, LaBute – who also wrote the screenplay – is guilty of some poor writing. There are many unnecessary plot contrivances that just leave you with a frustrating feeling of trying to figure out why they bothered to include that thread in the movie. For example, the fate of the pilot who transports Cage to the island is unnecessary except to provide a gross-out moment late in the movie. Once Cage is on the island, the pilot is no longer needed and should have been allowed to remain offscreen. Also, the climactic confrontation between Malus and the colony is drawn out too long and the plot “twist” is easily seen from miles away. Once you know what is coming, the movie takes way too long to get there. 

One thing I was glad to see was that the character of Malus was not some sort of supersleuth. A patrol officer with ambitions towards being a detective, he blusters and stumbles his way through the investigation, preferring the blunt force trauma method of investigating over the finesse method with predictable results. He is not a brilliant man, but an obsessed one with an increasing undercurrent of desperation. Still, I thought that while Cage did a credible job, he was clearly wrong for the role. This is one of the few times I’ve ever gotten a sense from him that he didn’t really have a clear handle on what the character was all about.

While it is very much Cage’s movie, he doesn’t get a lot of help from the supporting cast. Burstyn overacts like she doesn’t get out much anymore so she needs to show off every acting chop she has and Beahan gets so increasingly dazed and confused that by the end of the movie you aren’t taking her character seriously at all. Sobieski is good in her role as a straight-to-the-point kinda sister, but is ultimately wasted. I was reminded, however, of how good she can be in the right role. This one reminded me for some reason of her work in Eyes Wide Shut although I couldn’t tell you why.

Beautifully photographed in British Columbia, there are some nifty sequences (such as the accident at the beginning of the film) but in the end, this is a disappointing movie. I can’t decide if it’s a horror movie that isn’t scary, a suspense movie that has no suspense or a thriller that isn’t thrilling. Any way you slice it this isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT IT: Some nice cinematography and one of Cage’s best over-the-top scenes of his over-the-top career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage is miscast, most of the supporting cast isn’t of much help and the script is oddly misogynistic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some intensely disturbing imagery and scenes of violence. There is also a smattering of nasty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the police station scene early in the movie, there is a missing persons poster with a picture of actor Edward Woodward, who played the lead role in the 1973 original.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an alternate ending that is far more violent and close-ended than what appeared in the film that is superior in every way to how the original release was ended (at the insistence of the studio according to the commentary).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Little Miss Sunshine 

The Great New Wonderful


The Great New Wonderful

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco share a tense lunch.

(First Independent) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Naseerudin Shah, Stephen Colbert, Sharat Saxena, Tom McCarthy, Billy Donner. Directed by Danny Leiner

New York City is without a doubt one of the greatest cities in the world. It throbs with the vitality of its citizens, and as the song says, never sleeps. One day in 2001 would change the meaning of what it is to be a New Yorker forever.

A year after that day, the citizens of New York are getting on with their lives for the most part. Sandie (Gaffigan) is talking to a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist (Shalhoub) about anger issues which Sandie doesn’t think he has. With each session, Sandie becomes more and more frustrated and his anger seems to be more directed at the doctor than culled from some internal reservoir.

David (McCarthy) and Allison (Greer) are the young parents of Beelzebub, otherwise known as Charlie (Donner). Their young son has been acting out and these actions have grown exponentially worse as time has gone by. They are beginning to realize that he is becoming beyond their ability to control and as a result, their marriage is suffering. The headmaster (Colbert) of the exclusive private school they have sent him to is expelling him for his behavior and they have no idea what to do with their child.

Emme (Gyllenhaal) is an up-and-coming pastry chef in New York’s cutthroat bakery market and looks to unseat Safarah Polsky (Falco) as the reigning queen of the scene. Her ambition is driving her to use means both fair and foul to reach her goals, and she is unknowing or uncaring of the toll it takes on those who work with her, live with her or purchase her products.

Judy (Dukakis) lives with her husband across the East River in Brighton Beach in the borough of Brooklyn. Each night she fixes him dinner, then after eating makes collages while he smokes out on the balcony. Her re-connection with an old friend will open new doors and awaken new feelings of sensuality in her.

Two Indian-born New York resident security guards – Avi (Shah) and Satish (Saxena) have been given the assignment of watching over a dignitary from their native land while he is in New York to make a speech at the United Nations. Avi is carefree, joyful and humorous; his buddy Satish is dour, grumpy and prone to outbursts of rage. It’s hard to believe these two are neighbors, let alone friends.

All five of these stories carry little in common other than that they are set in New York a year to the month of the World Trade Center attack, and that all ten of the main characters share an elevator near the end of the movie. It is up to us to thread these stories together and quite frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch.

What one notices most is the emotional disconnect prevalent in almost all of the stories. The characters have latched onto some sort of idea or emotion and are holding onto it with a death grip, to the exclusion of all else. The self-absorption needed for this kind of focus is staggering, and yet those familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or The New Yorker magazine will not find it particularly far-fetched.

There is a routine also in each one of the main character’s lives and that routine is either a source of comfort or a fiendish trap. Breaking out of that routine seems to be, at least I’m guessing here, what the filmmakers suggest is the key to finding happiness, solace, call it whatever you want.

This is a very impressive cast for a micro-budget indie drama and they live up to their reputations for the most part. The vignette with the least-known actors in it (at least to those not familiar with Indian cinema), the one regarding Avi and Satish, was my own personal favorite as I found Avi to be the least hung-up of the main characters here.

I admit to having a certain fascination with everyday life in the Big Apple. I fully realize I don’t have the equipment to live there myself – it takes a certain kind of person to handle the pace and the feeling of being alone in a crowd that goes hand-in-hand with the NYC lifestyle. Still, I admire those who have what it takes and certainly New York offers perhaps the most attractive and varied choices for those who live there. I’m not sure if The Great Big Wonderful offers me any further insight into the psyche of New York, nor how it was affected by 9-11, but it does offer a nice visit to that town; I’m just not sure I would want to live there.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid cast gives solid performances. Some of the vignettes are interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the vignettes hold my attention. The linking thread is tenuous at best; this is certainly much more of a New York story than anything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly significant amount of salty language in the movie as well as a small amount of sexuality. Much more suitable for a mature audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Leiner is best known for comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 12