NIGHT OF THE KINGS (2021, Ivory Coast)

February 27, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Could you tell a story that lasts all night? What if you were standing on a box in front of a few hundred rowdy inmates? What if your life depended on it? Writer-director Phillippe Lacote (RUN, 2015) opens the film with an aerial shot over the jungles of the Ivory Coast and slowly makes way to the isolated prison known as La MACA.

The camera takes us to the bed of a police pickup truck where a handcuffed young man is being escorted by an armed guard. It’s the first day of his prison sentence. La MACA has a warden and prison guards, but even they admit the place is mostly run by the inmates. The warden (Issaka Sawadogo) meets with the new prisoner (newcomer Bakary Kone), but it’s Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who summons the newbie to his cell. Blackbird has been the Dangaro, Chief of Prisoners, for years, and only recently has his hulking presence led to chatter of diminishing losing power. With his fatigue requiring regular intake from oxygen tanks, Blackbird realizes his reign is near … and tradition requires that, once too weak to lead, he take his own life.

Blackbird names the wide-eyed new prisoner Roman, meaning he will be the storyteller at that evening’s Red Moon. Blackbeard has this planned as his final hurrah as leader. Two prisoners are vying to become the new Dangaro: Blackbeard’s loyal assistant Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeau) and rival faction leader Lass (Abdoul Karim Konate). They each have their eye on wearing the “crown”.

If all this sounds a bit convoluted, you should know it’s fascinating to watch unfold on the screen. The rules and rituals are followed vigorously, and just like in any political situation, behind-the-scenes maneuverings are ongoing. We never lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of criminals gathered in a confined area, yet the structure of their organization lends itself to Roman’s storytelling.

As a member of the Microbes gang in the Lawless Quarter of Abidjan, Roman doesn’t consider himself a storyteller, and is reluctant to begin. Urged on by the aggressive reactions of his audience, he’s soon weaving tales blending his childhood, the recent arrest of local legend Zama King, and the mythology and history of the Ivory Coast. Stunning flashbacks and visuals are utilized in just the right dosage to help us understand the stories without losing the danger Roman faces. What danger, you ask? Well a fellow prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant, from 2012 cult favorite HOLY MOTORS), who keeps a chicken perched on his shoulder, warns Roman that his story must last through the night until the Red Moon sets on the horizon … or the ritual demands he be killed. Talk about motivation – as if the metal hook in the stairwell wasn’t enough!

Filmmaker Lacote excels with his ‘story within a story’ and the blending of truth and fiction. The fed-up guards watching through the small window in their protected office says more than words could. And cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille works wonders within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, and by capturing the emotions of the participants. This is an original film that could be equally effective as a stage production, as both vehicles can convey the glory of the moment morning breaks. Let’s hope this isn’t “once upon a time” for Lacote, and that he has more to offer at this level.

Available February 26, 2021 in select theatres and Virtual Cinemas

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SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES (2021, doc)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness.  For anyone who still believes documentaries are dry and boring, the cure is this latest from Jonathan Blank, a filmmaker who returns to Holland 25 years after his first documentary, SEX, DRUGS & DEMOCRACY (1994). Entertaining and informative is a terrific blend as Mr. Blank uses interviews, statistics, and animation to contrast the Dutch way of life with that of the good ol’ USA.

Tall and happy … the description of Holland’s citizens. And why wouldn’t they be happy?  The Netherlands are known for picturesque windmills, fields of tulips, and of course, legalized drugs and prostitution! Director Blank digs in to find out more, and what he teaches us, in an often humorous manner, is that Holland and USA are quite different in many ways, yet similar in some others. While Americans are known for devoting excessive hours to work and forgoing vacation, the Dutch are paid for 13 months, while actually only working 11. Yet hate crimes and a blight on history are shared traits.

The number of topics touched on here can seem overwhelming, though Blank’s structure of the “Top 10” things to know about Holland definitely helps. We get insight from locals, including a Senator, sexologists, educators, pot farmers, and other citizens. The topics include a national healthcare system, climate change, free speech, social tolerance, and renewable energy vs fossil fuels. There is even an “Animal Rights” political party.

Is Holland a Utopia? A regulated sex worker industry, pot smoking in coffee houses, and double-paid vacation might lead you to think so. However, Blank also talks about the high taxes, a history of slavery, modern day holiday parades that feature blackface, and hate crimes. The progressive social aspects of the culture include a healthcare system that covers gender-reassignment surgery and open acceptance of the LBGTQ community – except where it’s not. It turns out that even in the world’s happiest country, there are closed-minded and nasty people.

In a country of 17 million people where the admitted national pastime is “complaining”, it turns out there is much to admire, yet also an existence of many of the same problems faced elsewhere. Heck, the Dutch use the f-word as frequently as any Quentin Tarantino character, and their dependency on fossil fuels is a known hot topic. Director Blank has succeeded in presenting an entertaining and informative look at an admired culture … warts and all.

The film will air on PBS on February 26, 2021, and also on various streaming platforms.

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CRISIS (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best thrillers often interweave multiple story lines to create a complex web of detail for viewers to unwind. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (ARBITRAGE, 2012) serves up three story lines, all related to the current Opioid crisis. Although the film looks great and has a deep cast, we’ve seen most of this before and no new insight is provided in regards to the struggle. Instead, it’s really standard thriller fare that never goes deep enough into any of the characters to make us care.

Armie Hammer (along with the recent personal baggage attached to him) stars as Jake Kelly, a DEA Agent who has worked undercover in hopes of exposing the Armenian-Canadian-American drug traffickers responsible for a significant portion of opioids crossing the border. Hammer spends the entire movie with an intensely furrowed brow that would likely inspire distrust amongst any potential drug syndicates.

In storyline number 2, Evangeline Lilly (Wasp in the ANT-MAN movies) is Claire Reimann, an architect and recovering drug addict, who is out for vengeance when her beloved high school athlete son is found dead with drugs in his system. The third segment features Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) as Dr. Tyrone Brower, a science professor at a private Detroit university. He runs a drug-testing lab and faces a moral dilemma when questionable lab results for “the first non-addictive painkiller” puts people at risk, not to mention funding for his work.

Any one of these actors or stories could carry the weight of a movie, but when combined, they succeed only in crushing the entertainment value and tension level. Oldman’s story is easily the most interesting. It addresses how Big Pharma gets new drugs rubber-stamped by funding otherwise cash-strapped labs and schools. There is also the skepticism involved with the drug-producer’s influence over the supposedly independent FDA, and on top of all that, there is the ethical concerns of everyone putting the almighty dollar ahead of safety.

Director Jarecki (the brother of Andrew Jarecki who directed the superb 2003 documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS) kicks off the movie with a beautifully filmed, albeit brief, chase scene through the snowy Canadian forest. In fact, the camera work throughout is fine. It’s really the overloaded script that prevents any of the stories or characters from clicking. Mr. Oldman seems to sense that he needs to overcome the lack of complexity in his story, and because of the effort, loses his usual reserved cerebral approach for which he’s known.

Supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as the Dean willing to sacrifice ethics and friendship for money, Michelle Rodriguez as the DEA supervisor in a budget crunch, and Lily-Rose Depp as Jake’s strung out sister. Also contributing are Indira Varma, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Mia Kirshner, Kid Cudi, Michael Aronov, Luke Evans, and Veronica Ferres. The weakest link here is director Jarecki himself, who for some reason, thought he could play Jake’s partner … a role that would have benefited from a more refined actor.

The horrific effects of the Opioid crisis are known to most, and the film plays like a Wikipedia explanation for anyone who doesn’t read or watch the news. Certainly not helping is the “Miami Vice” type score that accompanies many scenes, and the choppy editing that causes many scenes to fail. Better movies in this genre would include THE INSIDER (1999, ironically directed by “Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann) and Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000). The obstacles faced by whistleblowers, the importance of funding to academia, budgetary concerns for law enforcement, the tragic impact of drugs on families, and the systemic corruption that has fueled the epidemic … all of these are touched on. It’s just that it all seems too obvious. If somehow you didn’t already know, the money-hungry don’t play fair – whether they be drug dealers or drug companies.

The film will hit theaters on February 26, 2021 and Digital and On Demand March 5, 2021

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CHERRY (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are known for their work with Marvel, including, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, and AVENGERS: INFIINITY WAR. This time they tackle a stylish crime-thriller based on the Nico Walker novel, and adapted for the screen by co-writers Angela Russo-Otsot (sister of the directors) and Jessica Goldberg. The Russos reunite with Tom Holland (Spider-Man in the Marvel universe), and he proves quite capable of carrying the heavy load in a bleak and somber drama.

Opening a film with a Van Morrison song is always a welcome move, and then it cuts right to Holland as our lead character narrating as he executes armed robbery at a local Cleveland bank. He admits it’s not his first and that his face has been caught on camera a few times. Oh, and he discloses to us that he likes trees. It’s not the last time we ask, “Why?”

The directors break the film into segments, beginning with Part 1: 2002, “When life was beginning, I saw you.” In English class, he spots Emily (Ciara Bravo) and soon the romance is in full bloom. A too-quick decision has him joining the Army, and the two lovebirds tie the knot before he heads out. In this segment, we learn that he takes Xanax for panic attacks, and his best friend is James (Forrest Goodluck).

Part 2 takes us through Basic Training, where Holland’s character pushes through the brutal Drill Instructors to become a medic, which transitions into Part 3 known as Cherry (the name given to Holland’s character after his first battlefield action. His time in Iraq finds him watching as his Army pal Jimenez (Jeff Wahlberg, Mark’s nephew) dies from wounds.

Part 4 “Home”, shifts the film from a character study to a case study on the extremes of PTSD. Even though he is back with Emily, the love of his life, Cherry simply can’t function as a normal person. The medal for his heroic war efforts means nothing to a man who can’t sleep or find peace. His self-destructive actions include drinking, drug addiction, and a series of bad decisions … all dragging his lovely Emily right down with him. This leads to Part 5 “Dope Life”, which is without question, one of the most depressing and difficult to watch segments of any movie I can recall. It’s every bit as much of a downer as THE BOOST (1988), LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), or  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). The film becomes a sea of drugs, bank robberies, and needles in arms.

Long time cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (DRIVE, 2011; THE USUAL SUSPECTS, 1999) assists with the horrific sensation that these situations evoke by capturing the desperation of the characters and squalor of their environment. The Epilogue covers an extended period time through present day, and though the ending is not really a surprise, we do wish a bit more context had been provided. The initial bank robbery we see basically bookends the film leaving us trying to recover from this Romance-War-Mental Health-Drug Addiction-Crime thriller that saps our energy. This is not one for those who prefer light-hearted cinema or get annoyed by cheap filmmaker tricks.

Available in theatres February 26, 2021 and on AppleTV on March 12, 2021

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PINOCCHIO (2021)

February 23, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Part ‘Frankenstein’ and part parable for parenting is how I’ve always thought of the story of Pinocchio. In this latest version, director and co-writer (with Massimo Ceccherini) Matteo Garrone adds a splash “Alice in Wonderland” to Carlo Callodi’s 1883 novel, “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. The result is a grim, not-kid-friendly live-action presentation that’s a bit uneven, yet still engaging.

Oscar winner Roberto Benigni (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, 1997) is wood-carver Geppetto, a poverty-stricken man who works magic with a chisel, but is never quite sure where his next meal will come from. When the traveling Grand Puppet Theater hits town, Geppetto dreams of creating a beautiful puppet and traversing the globe to show it off. A fellow wood worker gifts him with the enchanted piece of wood from which Pinocchio is born. When he discovers the puppet can talk, Geppetto is so proud of his new son that he shows him off around town and walks him to his first day of school.

Of course we know that Pinocchio is a curious boy, and he immediately sneaks off to watch the puppet show. This sets off his many adventures, while simultaneously making Geppetto quite sad as he undertakes a search and rescue mission. Pinocchio crosses paths with the kinda creepy Talking Cricket (Davide Marotta), the fire-eating Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proeitti), a couple of tricksters in Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (co-writer Ceccherini), a confused gorilla judge (Teco Celio), and a friendly, but slimy snail (Maria Pia Timo) who lives with the Fata Turchina/Blue Fairy (played young by Alida Baldari Calabria, and older by well-known French actress Marine Vacth).

The enticement of playing all day and having no responsibilities leads Pinocchio to accept an invitation to Toyland, although the train of donkeys pulling the wagon load of kids is our tipoff to what’s about to go down. Pinocchio’s subsequent swim in the ocean and encounter with the sea monster are handled well visually, and the reunion with Geppetto is quite pleasant. You should know that the iconic Pinocchio nose that grows upon telling lies is limited to a single scene, albeit a memorable one.

Benigni was the writer-director-star of the critically-panned 2002 PINOCCHIO, which also failed at the box office. He’s much better suited to the role of Geppetto and does a nice job of capturing the essence of the character. Federico Ielapi handles the role of Pinocchio quite well, and the “wooden” effects of his face are quite impressive. The story is a metaphor for the struggles and challenges of life, and the life lessons are easy to discern … for instance, there is no ‘field of miracles’, regardless of what Cat and Fox promise. Nicolai Bruel’s cinematography is at times visually stunning as we make our way through the countryside of Italy. It’s just that director Garrone (two excellent films: TALE OF TALES 2015, and GOMORRAH 2008) chooses to emphasize the bleakness, and it’s important to note that this is far-removed from the 1940 Disney animated classic. Most will struggle to find an emotional connection, though the look of the film and life lessons are top notch. Guillermo del Toro has a stop-action animation version currently in production and it’s not surprisingly rumored to be even darker than this one.

After a long delay, the film gets a digital release on February 23, 2021

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NOMADLAND (2021)

February 20, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Traditional beauty is nowhere to be found in filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s extraordinary film adapted (by Ms. Zhao) from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 award-winning book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”. There are no breathtaking shots of majestic sites like the Grand Canyon, and the people we meet rarely bathe, and are not concerned with fashion. Despite this, the film can best be described as one of the most beautiful and most unique cinema experiences in years. Ms. Zhao provides a look at America’s roads and landscape through the eyes of folks that society tends to overlook.

A significant reason this film works is the incredible performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (FARGO, 1996, and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017). She plays Fern, a strong woman who refuses to let grief suffocate her. Her hometown of Empire, Nevada was erased from existence in 2011 when US Gypsum shut down the local plant, resulting in the town’s zip code being discontinued a few months later. As if her town disappearing wasn’t enough, Fern’s husband passed away, leaving her with little evidence of a life to which she had grown accustomed. We watch as Fern packs up her van and hits the road.

Her first stop is working at an Amazon distribution center during the holiday rush season. She lives out of her van as part of the company-sponsored CamperForce program. When the season is over, Fern hits the road again. We slowly get a feel for this subculture of van-dwelling nomads, young and old, who travel the country’s backroads and keep to themselves, except when they gather to form a temporary community of similar-minded individuals. Fern makes it clear she is “house-less”, not “homeless”, and has nicknamed her customized vehicle, ‘Vanguard’.

Fern thrives on her solitude, but is also friendly enough to connect with others wherever she stops driving or works. She joins the annual gathering of Bob Wells’ community/tribe, and her other odd jobs include acting as a “host” at one of the stops, shoveling sugar beets at a farm, and cooking/cleaning/serving at the famous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota. Along the way she befriends Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow nomad whose dreams don’t necessarily coincide with Ferns. Respected actor Strathairn is the only other familiar face in the film, other than McDormand. Non-professional actors fill the scenes, most of whom are real life nomads kind enough to share their ways in front of a camera.

Director Zhao has reunited with Joshua James Richards, her cinematographer on the excellent 2017 film, THE RIDER. Their work here is a masterclass in taking us into a world most of us know little about, and doing so in a way that combines both the intimacy of people with the scale of nature. Even the sequence where Fern revisits her past life is quietly emotional and done with grace, while also packing a punch. The music from Ludovico Einaudi is exceptional in its complementary nature and ability to leave the quiet moments unspoiled, while also driving our empathy and emotions. This is an extraordinary film with a superb performance, and one that is entertaining, while also proving thought-provoking at a time when so many of us are questioning the sustainability of our current societal structure, and wondering just who will toss a rock on the fire in remembrance.

In theatres and PVOD on Hulu beginning February 19, 2020

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DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER (2021)

February 20, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. If most people realized how obnoxious they were as teenagers, we’d likely have far fewer folks opting to be parents. Actor-turned-director Simon Bird, in his first feature film, portrays the awkward, frustrating, and sometimes bitter relationship between a confused and directionless teenage boy and his divorced, well-meaning, single mom. The screenplay was written by Bird’s wife, Lisa Owens, and adapted from Joff Winterhart’s 2012 graphic novel.

Daniel (a terrific Earl Cave) is a 15 year old boy who is obsessed with heavy-metal music and resents pretty much everything else in life. He’s a droopy boy who can’t be bothered to shampoo his hair, and the only energy he expends is with snarky comments to his devoted mother, Sue (an outstanding Monica Dolan), who is clueless on how to connect with a son who bears little resemblance to the younger boy she fondly recalls raising. Sue is diligent with her work as a librarian, and tries to instill some ambition in Daniel by having his seek employment.

Daniel sinks into an even lower funk when the dad he worships cancels the boy’s much anticipated trip to Florida for a visit. Of course, Sue subtly points out that dear old dad may not be the best idol for her son, but those cautions fall on deaf ears. Instead, Daniel labels Sue, “the most boring person in the world”. Their time together is cringe-inducing, as Sue does her best to convince Daniel they can have fun, despite his disappointment.

The interesting aspect of the film is derived from its structure as a comedy, while the undercurrent of sadness and isolation is ever-present. Sue is thrilled when Douglas (Rob Brydon), a history teacher, asks her out on a date. At the same time, Daniel’s best (only?) friend Ky (Elliott Speller-Gillott) encourages him to pursue his dream as a front man for a local metal band … resulting in one of the film’s funniest and strangest segments. Neither Sue’s date, or the aftermath, nor Ky’s attempt to help his friend go according to plan.

Much of the soundtrack comes courtesy of Belle & Sebastian, and the uses of musical montages actually takes away from the otherwise realistic interactions between these characters. In addition to Brydon and Speller-Gillott, Alice Lowe has a welcome supporting role as Sue’s more socially-inclined sister, but this film belongs to Mr. Cave and Ms. Dolan. Most parents can relate to Sue’s challenges, and most adults who can be honest with themselves in retrospect, will likely recognize some of their own behavior in Daniel. The nuanced behavior and witty humor is handled well, and that deeper emotional level elevates the film for those who care to dig in.

Available in theatres, Virtual Cinema, and streaming platforms on February 19, 2021

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BLITHE SPIRIT (2021)

February 20, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Contrary to what one might assume, bringing entertaining, silly slapstick comedy to the screen is actually quite difficult. This is director Edward Hall’s first feature film, as his career has been mostly in TV series work and on stage. That stage work is likely what attracted him to this long-time favorite from Noel Coward. Adding to the difficulty is that Coward’s work was previously brought to the screen by legendary director David Lean in 1945, in a project that featured Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, and Margaret Rutherford. Lean’s film won an Oscar for Special Effects.

Director Hall is working with a script adapted from Coward’s play by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft. Rather than embrace the witty dialogue of a sophisticated upper class screwball comedy, this one seems committed to a level of silliness that intentionally overshadows the supernatural story line. It’s 1937 England where we first meet crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) in an angry, whisky-laced state of writer’s block. He’s trying to adapt his own novel into his first screenplay, and the pressure is mounting since the movie’s Producer is also his father-in-law. Charles’ second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) enjoys her life of luxury and can’t understand why her successful husband can’t do it (in more ways than one).

Date night at the theatre inspires Charles to invite the spiritualist medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to their house to conduct a séance. This despite Madame Arcati being exposed as a fraud. He’s simply desperate to break his writer’s block. The story takes a turn when the séance conjures Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). However, he’s the only one who can see her, and neither Elvira nor Ruth are pleased with the presence of the other. On the bright side, Elvira assists Charles with his writing – it turns out she was long his muse (and maybe more).

Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher are two of the most talented comic actresses working today, but even they can’t save this nonsensical barrage of motion. Judi Dench is an Oscar winner, and at 86 years old, she still excels at working a scene. On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Stevens has neither the charm nor the comedic chops to pull off the Charles character as written. And it does seem the script, and the approach to the material, is what turns this into a vacuous affair, seemingly devoid of any cleverness save what the trio of talented actresses deliver. There are plenty of movies that deal with life after death in various ways, but whether serious or farcical, the best are entertaining. Unfortunately, this one has little to offer, and actually turns from not very funny to downright mean by the end.

Opening in theaters and VOD on February 19, 2021

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THE MAURITANIAN (2021)

February 13, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. September 11, 2001 will be always remembered in history books, and seared into the memories of those who were there or watched the horrifying events unfold on television. As Americans, we were stunned and felt vulnerability for the first time in years. Also as Americans, we demanded justice for those responsible (or at least closure). Oscar winning director Kevin Macdonald (ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, 1999) working from a script by co-writers Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, brings us the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, based on his best-selling 2015 memoir, “Guantanamo Diary”.

Tahar Rahim (so good in A PROPHET, 2009) stars as Slahi, and we first see him in November 2001 (2 months after the attack) as he’s returned from Germany to Mauritania, West Africa for a family wedding. He’s told, “The Americans want to talk to you”, as he’s taken into custody. The movie skips to 2005 where we find Defense Attorney Nancy Hollander (2 time Oscar winner Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) in the courtroom. These two are crusaders for the law, and take on the case of Slahi, who has bounced first from a prison in Jordan and now to Guantanamo. Four years with no hearing, no trial, and no charges brought against him.

The film jumps around from Slahi in Gitmo, to the two sides prepping their cases: Hollander for the defense, and Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) for the military. Couch had a friend on one of the 9/11 planes, and he’s instructed that this is a death penalty case – the only outcome that will deliver justice to the American people. Director Macdonald includes flashbacks to Slahi’s arrival at Gitmo, and even further back (1988) to his earning a scholarship to Germany. We also see the reenactment of the documented torture and “enhanced interrogation” procedures used against Slahi. It’s difficult to watch even these snippets of what he endured.

It’s 2009 before a judge even hears Slahi’s case, and 7 more years before he’s released. A total of 14 years captive with no charges, on top of the well-documented torture. Was Mohamedou Ould Slahi in some way responsible for the terrorist act of September 11, 2001?  Did he recruit others to join the cause? The fact that we don’t really know the answers goes to the heart of what went wrong at Gitmo, and how the American need for justice caused a horrific detour in the legal process.

Unlike some, I have no issues with “agenda movies”, and it seems as though director Macdonald set out to make this one. The problem is that the multiple pieces and characters are just too much to juggle for one film. At times, it seems to highlight Hollander as a crusader. Other times it wants us to understand the struggles of Couch. And then there are times when the attention is on Slahi. The fragmented approach leaves us lacking in all aspects, especially for teasing a courtroom drama that never occurs. The actual footage included at the conclusion leaves us wondering whether the intention all along was to tug on our heartstrings, rather than expose the wrongs that transpired.

In theaters February 12, 2021

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COWBOYS (2021)

February 13, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Marriage is difficult, and adding parenting to the mix brings significantly more challenges. However when the marriage crumbles, the parenting piece becomes even more complex – for the adults and the kids. Writer-director Anna Kerrigan takes that hand and raises the stakes with a husband/father battling a mental illness, a wife/mother sticking to her idealistic vision, and a frustrated child who is absolutely certain they are in the wrong body.

Sally (Jillian Bell) is a loving mother who wants to buy dolls, dresses and “pretty” boots for her daughter Josie (Sasha Knight). The problem is that Josie is more comfortable in the world of her dad – guns, belt buckles, horses, and hanging with buddies. Troy (Steve Zahn) enjoys a bond with his daughter and is appreciative that she likes “guy” things. The best scene in the film occurs when Josie demands to be Joe. Sitting in the truck with dad, Joe claims to be a boy, not a girl. Troy initially laughs it off, but quickly comes around to the seriousness of the situation. Having a transgender child requires more sensitivity than Troy has previously displayed, and he handles the moment well.

It’s Sally who pushes this off as the action of a confused adolescent, and makes a good point about how any child would find hunting and bowling preferable to washing dishes and scrubbing toilets. This of itself makes a strong statement. The interesting thing about Kerrigan’s film is that the transgender aspect is really not the focus. Troy and Joe take off on a camping trip in the Montana forest, with the goal of escaping to Canada. They are each outsiders in their own way, and heading to the country of “nice people” who will accept them is just too good to pass up.

Of course, a parent kidnapping their kid is never the right move, and soon a detective (Ann Dowd) is on their trail. Troy loses his medication and his behavior becomes more erratic, pushing Joe into a spot they are too young to handle. Flashbacks are used to fill in the family history, and show us each character’s flaws and difficulties. The film lacks the dramatics that we might expect given the subject matter, but I most appreciated how Sally was treated as a real person – a hard working woman, a frustrated wife, and a mother who wants the best for her child, even if her path from denial to acceptance is gut-wrenching. The film suffers a bit from the extraneous baggage of Troy’s medication and temper, but the message comes through in the end. As a bonus, we see some beautiful scenery along the way.

Available VOD on February 12, 2021

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