MLK/FBI (2021, doc)

January 14, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Free at last.” Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington is partially shown, yet documentarian Sam Pollard’s film proves that MLK was never really free, and still isn’t, even 50 plus years after his death. Based on David J Garrow’s 2015 book, “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From “Solo” to Memphis”, the film looks at FBI documents detailing what can only be described as FBI Director J Edgar Hoover’s crusade to destroy the man some viewed as “the moral leader of our nation”, and others viewed as “the most dangerous Negro in America”.

Most anyone who has a general knowledge of US history in the 1960’s is aware that Hoover was focused on knocking the revered MLK off his pedestal. What the new documents and the film show is that Hoover was not a free-wheeling rogue (at least as far as King was concerned), but rather a tool of the informed administrations he served. Phone taps, surveillance, and undercover agents were all utilized and authorized in the campaign to discredit King’s credibility and expose him as morally compromised. The extra-marital affairs are no revelation, but the letter sent encouraging King to kill himself, along with the audio tape recordings of consensual affairs comprise what former FBI Director James Comey labels, “the darkest part of bureau history”.

Rather than the usual talking heads, the film plays the interviews over the non-stop archival footage and photographs. Those we hear from include diplomat and activist Andrew Young, King speechwriter Clarence B Jones, Yale historian Beverly Gage, retired FBI agent Charles Knox, and author David Garrow. The film goes back to 1956 when King was a Montgomery, Alabama preacher and takes us through his assassination in 1968 Memphis … a 13 year non-violent movement for Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Poverty.

We learn that Hoover and William Sullivan (Head of FBI Intelligence) first thought that King’s downfall would be his connection to communism via his advisor Stanley Levison. When that failed, they decided to expose King’s non-monogamous activities which they felt would surely cause him to lose followers. The connection between King and the LBJ administration seemed strong right up until it wasn’t – due to King criticizing the money going to the Vietnam War, rather than to solve poverty in this country. Mahalia Jackson’s beautiful singing over the opening credits leads us right into the quandary of whether releasing the secret recordings and documents is a further invasion of privacy, or is it reasonable historical research? Pollard wisely doesn’t play any of the recordings during the film. More FBI documents and recordings are scheduled for release in 2027, and that same question will be pertinent then as well. Surely by now we’ve learned that people can accomplish great things, while themselves being imperfect.

Available January 15, 2020 Video on Demand (VOD)

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THE MARKSMAN (2021)

January 14, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills, and his grumpy face, seem to show up on screen most every January. If there is a surprise to this year’s entry, it’s that the annual Liam action movie is not directed by Jaume Collet-Sera, as were THE COMMUTER (2018), RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), NON-STOP (2014), and UNKNOWN (2011). Mr. Collet-Sera has apparently traded Liam in for The Rock as his go-to action star. Instead, it’s director Robert Lorenz (TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, 2012) who co-wrote the script with two other first time screenwriters, Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz. As with most (not all) of Mr. Neeson’s aging-action-hero films, this one is both watchable and forgettable.

Jim Hanson (Neeson) is a struggling Arizona cattle rancher. He’s also a flag-flying former Marine, who carries a walkie-talkie so he can immediately inform the Border Patrol whenever he spots “IAs” (illegal aliens) crossing his land. Jim is a shell of his former self ever since his beloved wife passed away. He spread her ashes on the hill next to his rundown home … a home that sits on land in the final stages of bank foreclosure. Her daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is part of the Border Patrol and periodically keeps tabs on Jim.

Although he never seems to care much for those crossing the border, Jim’s quick to offer a drink to anyone stranded and injured, even as he calls the Border Patrol. A young boy and his pleading mother are no different until a carload of cartel boys show up. The subsequent shootout leaves a couple of people dead and ignites a cross-country cat-and-mouse chase. A previous scene from Mexico taught us that the mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), and her son, Miguel (Jacob Perez), were sent on the run thanks to her brother’s crossing of the cartel. Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba, THE 33, 2015) is the intimidating cartel soldier sent to kill the mother and son.

The story covers Monday through Saturday, in what would be considered a stressful week for just about anyone. Jim had promised Miquel’s mother that he would take the boy to her cousin’s home in Chicago, and being the good soldier, he is committed to fulfilling his duty. Along the way, the grizzled old man and the angry young boy bond while driving in Jim’s bullet-riddled pickup truck. Hot dogs and hamburgers play a role, but mostly a late confrontation in a barn attempts to add some character development to a story that, to this point, had very little.

Filmmaker Lorenz has a history with Clint Eastwood, and offers up a respectful nod to his mentor by including a grainy scene from HANG ‘EM HIGH on a motel television. There is surprisingly little political commentary included, which actually adds to the slowness and dryness of the material. Liam Neeson is now 68 years old, and he has developed a nice little niche for himself with these action movies that are interesting enough to burn a couple of hours for viewers.

Coming to theaters January 15, 2021

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EVERYBODY FLIES (2021, doc)

January 14, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Do you know where cabin air comes from on the commercial planes you fly for vacation or business? Most of us don’t. We simply take the airlines’ word that the air is filtered and safe. Or at least we did before the pandemic motivated us to question air quality everywhere. Former British Airways Captain Tristan Loraine has spent most of two decades researching and compiling information on the cabin air he and so many flight crews … and passengers … breathe on a regular basis.

Loraine is not diving into whether COVID is being spread between folks on a flight, but rather his focus is on TCP (Tricresyl Phosphate), a chemical present in the oil used in jet engines. Without proper filtration (HEPA filters are not sufficient) and maintenance, TCP can leak into cabin air and cause varying degrees of health issues. Catastrophic events are rare and typically identified early, but the real concern is the long-term impact of being exposed to slow leakage causing contaminated air.

The comparison to “Big Tobacco” is made here, and it seems to fit as airlines and manufacturers all say there is nothing to worry about. This stance seems to fly in the face of documented cases of varying illnesses reported by crew members over the years … plus the numerous times where passengers and crews were overtaken by odor and toxic fumes that put them in immediate danger. When the toxicologist points out that a defense of “no evidence” showing danger is meaningless when no tests are run or data collected, the real concern kicks in.

Tristan Loraine and co-director Beth Moran (a former USAF Thunderbirds pilot) present testimony, research, and documentation to justify focused attention on the risk of bleeding air from the engines. They contrast this method with that of Boeing’s 787 which utilizes compressors. What’s shocking is that this has been a known, and overlooked issue since the 1950’s, and the hope is that the film can spur some true action for the safety of those why fly. No narrator is utilized in the film, but the information is systematically presented … it’s not meant to be entertaining, but rather informative. And that it is.

VOD January 15, 2021

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SOME KIND OF HEAVEN (2021, doc)

January 13, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Villages of Florida is a massive master-planned retirement community. It’s similar in development to Del Webb’s Sun City, but roughly 5 times the size. We learn that there are 20,000 single folks among the residents of The Villages, and it’s described as “Disneyland for retirees”. Director Lance Oppenheim (his first feature length documentary) peaks behind the façade of paradise.

You come here to live. You don’t come here to die.” One of the residents makes that statement, and there is much to back it up. Golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, recreation centers, social activities, concerts, churches, shopping, and it seems there’s always a party to be found. However, rather than explore the seniors who are embracing this pre-fab lifestyle, director Oppenheim focuses on four individuals whose situations wouldn’t be considered success stories.

Anne and Reggie are about to celebrate 47 years of marriage. But is there reason to celebrate? While Anne fine-tunes her pickleball skills, Reggie self-treats his declining mental acuity with drugs and solitary spirituality. Dennis is the party boy. He’s an 81 year old ‘teenager’ living in his van down by The Villages as he searches for a companion with money – one who will open her villa and treat him like the king he views himself as. Barbara is homesick for Boston. She moved to The Villages with her husband, and he died not long after their arrival. Out of money, she’s working full time in the community office – carrying a sullen look that implies depression and loneliness.

Anne looks to a counselor for help, while Reggie fights drug charges by representing himself in a court of law to a judge who doesn’t appreciate rudeness. Dennis is a self-described “handyman” who can’t work venetian blinds, and is smarmy in his pickup methods. Barbara watches video of her wedding on her iPad while eating lunch with her dog, and only shows signs of life when the Parrot Head Margarita man is kind enough to converse with her. While we are getting to know these four, Oppenheim shows off the fabulous community with a golf cart bridge over the freeway, its manicured lawns, swaying palm trees, and engaged citizenry.

The Villages were originally developed by Harold Schwartz, and he makes a brief appearance here thanks to an old video clip. With more than 100,000 residents, is it the sterile environment that masks sadness as presented by Oppenheim, or does it provide an environment for folks to live out their final years by staying active, learning new activities, and socializing? By choosing these four as his focus, there is little doubt the filmmaker is making a statement about his stance, but a better approach would have included insight from “the other side” of the argument. Otherwise, why are there so many “Frogs” – those there till the croak?

Available January 15, 2021 on Video on Demand

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NIGHT STALKER: THE HUNT FOR A SERIAL KILLER (2021, docuseries)

January 13, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Crime dramas are one of the most popular television series types these days, and Netflix is proving to be exceptional at producing crime docuseries – a short run series (2-8 episodes) based on real life crimes. This latest is the most haunting yet, as it focuses on a 1985 crime spree in California by one of the most notorious serial killers in history.

Tiller Russell (Producer BERNIE, 2011) directs all four episodes, which provides the continuity needed in this type of project. Each of the episodes are titled: Devil in the City of Angels, Anyone Could Be Next, Lock. Your. Doors., and Manhunt. Additionally, director Russell uses the date and number of days for story structure … beginning with March 17, 1985 as “Day 1” (although the police later learned this sick individual had already been at work for months). This was 1985 and Los Angeles was at its most glamorous, while also experiencing a heat wave.

The first three episodes play like a whodunit and detailed police procedural. We meet the two lead detectives: Gil Carrillo, who was the youngest detective in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, and his partner, Frank Salerno, the legendary detective who was worshipped for tracking down the Hillside Strangler (actually two cousins) in 1977. Both Carrillo and Salerno sit for interviews and recall much of what went in to the case – the detective work, the many mistakes, and the luck (both good and bad). In addition, there are interviews with surviving victims, family members, and journalists to go with the significant archival footage and photographs. Rather than a high-level overview of history, this is an in-depth dive into a tough-to-solve case that had the citizens of an entire state on edge.

As Carrillo and Salerno go back over the case and tell their stories, they are re-living the frustrations of the time. There were so many loose puzzle pieces and, initially, they weren’t sure the pieces were connected. In stark contrast to most serial killer cases, there was no pattern – no consistency in the race, age, or location of the victims. In addition, the crime scenes were only similar in that no fingerprints were discovered. Even the choice of weapons varied. In other words, it was a detective’s worst nightmare.

It’s fascinating to watch as the detectives discuss how footprints were the connective piece that made them realize they were dealing with one very sick individual. The crimes committed – murder, sexual abuse, burglary, etc – were increasingly brutal, and we see many of the crime scene photographs. Even more gut-wrenching are the recollections of surviving victims and family members. It’s mind-boggling how some of these folks survived such vicious attacks.

We also hear from some of the journalists who followed the story at the time, including one who broke the cardinal rule and became part of the story. It’s the humanity of this story that sticks with us, as there is certainly no attempt to glorify this psychopath or his reign of terror. Maps are utilized to help us visualize the haphazard nature of the attacks, and we hear about the multitude of jurisdictions in the area that were not initially sharing details on crimes. It wasn’t until July 20 – Day 125 that the detectives made a specific crime public, which caused the media to create monikers, including “the Walk-in Murderer”, before settling on “Night Stalker”. With no apparent motive or pattern, shock waves of fear flooded the local communities. Episode three recaps the crimes and victims, including one near Detective Carrillo’s home and another in San Francisco. This drives a particularly galling segment featuring San Francisco’s mayor at the time, Diane Feinstein (now a U.S. Senator). Feinstein made a huge gaffe that infuriated the detectives. She released much of their evidence during a TV press conference, possibly jeopardizing the case.

It’s not until the fourth and final episode that we understand how things came together and police were able to close in on the suspect. A tip from Skid Row and a rare break with fingerprints led to the release of a mug shot. With help from the community, the suspect was ultimately captured, and things got even weirder for the trial (3 ½ years later). Richard Ramirez was charged with dozens of crimes with victims ranging from age 6 to 82. In the courtroom, he flashed his palm with a pentagram and yelled, “Hail, Satan”, even while attracting his own following of groupies. Detective Salerno recalls thinking that the Hillside Strangler was a “once in a lifetime case”, and then as things started to come together on the Night Stalker, he thought, “Here we go again.”

The series features haunting, lasting images and a horror that most of us can’t even imagine. Richard Ramirez is the face and embodiment of pure evil, the likes of which we can’t fathom. He created fear and destroyed lives in unspeakable ways before being apprehended and sentenced to death row. Writer Philip Carlo later interviewed Ramirez, and some of those recordings are heard throughout the series. Dedicated Law Enforcement officers like Carrillo and Salerno are remarkable people committed to ensuring most of us can sleep well at night, and that the evil work of psychopaths is stopped as quickly as possible. Even though I vividly remember the time of the Night Stalker, this series will stick with me for a while. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s exceptionally well done.

Premiering January 13, 2021 on Netflix

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BEST OF 2020

January 10, 2021

My list of Top Movies from 2020 has been posted, and as is my custom, you’ll also find plenty of movies to check out. 2020 was a strange year in all aspects – including movies.  As always, I hope you’ll share your favorites with me as well!

Here is the link to the BEST OF 2020:

https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/annual-bests-2/best-of-2020/

 

 


ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)

January 10, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four grown men hanging out in a Miami motel room may not strike you as a promising premise for a must-see movie, but this wasn’t just a group of random buddies. Inspired by what actually happened on February 25, 1964, the film takes us behind the closed door that sheltered newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, pro football superstar Jim Brown, singer-songwriter-entrepreneur Sam Cooke, and activist Malcolm X, as they met to discuss their burgeoning roles as leaders in the Black community.

Each of the four main characters gets their own introductory prologue so that we have a feel for them prior to their motel rendezvous. We watch as Sam Cooke, smooth voice and all, bombs at the Copacabana Club simply because most of the rich white folks in the audience don’t want to be entertained by a black singer. In London, we are plopped into the ring of the first Cassius Clay – Henry Cooper fight, so we can witness Clay’s remarkable athleticism and showmanship … and also the rare instance of his being knocked down. We then head to St. Simons Island, Georgia, an historic spot for both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Local football hero Jim Brown is invited to iced tea on the front porch by a local rich man (Beau Bridges) and his daughter (real life daughter Emily Bridges). They fawn over his prowess as a sports figure, but after a friendly chat, state matter-of-factly why Brown is not allowed into the main house. Lastly, we pick up with Malcolm X as he disagrees with Elijah Muhammed, and the subsequent conversations with his wife about the ramifications of leaving the Nation of Islam.

These vignettes set the stage for the four men to meet in Malcolm X’s motel room after Clay’s historic defeat of Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Clay is portrayed by Eli Goree (RACE, 2016), who does a nice job of capturing the champ’s moves in the ring, as well as his charm, braggadocio, and intellect outside it. Cooke is played perfectly by Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr (Aaron Burr in both the stage and film version of HAMILTON), while Aldis Hodge (CLEMENCY, 2019) is Jim Brown and Kingley Ben-Adir (“The OA”) is a standout as Malcolm X.

Cooke and Brown are under the impression that this is going to be a wild Miami party, while Clay is in a celebratory mood, even though he knows the real reason the four men have gathered. Rather than a bash, Malcolm X has arranged an evening of “reflection” for the four men he envisions as leading the revolution of blacks against the devil known as the white man. What follows are multiple discussions – some deep, some angry, some both – about how the men view their position in society and culture. What Malcolm terms “The Struggle”, they each relate to, but have found their own personal ways of dealing. Brown wants to transition into acting as something less physically demanding, and Cooke is building his record label and buying cars to flaunt his success. Clay is young. He just turned 22 the month prior, and he is somewhat reluctantly buying into the Muslim Faith … quite the coup for Malcolm X’s plan.

The fun here is derived from the terrific interactions between four very different personalities, each with varying degrees of comprehension on their budding power. How best to utilize that power is the dilemma, and each man has their own opinions and perspectives. Cooke is on one extreme wanting to succeed in a capitalistic society, while Malcolm X is on the other extreme pushing activism and a full revolution (“blow it up”). The exchanges and conflict between these two are the highlights of the film, as Odom and Ben-Adir shine.

This is the feature film directorial debut of Oscar and Emmy winning actress Regina King, and while a screen adaptation of a stage play may be a risky first in the director’s chair, Ms. King handles the material expertly … as does the cast. Kemp Powers adapted his own stage production for the big screen, and he’s also a co-writer on the latest Pixar gem, SOUL. Supporting roles are covered by Lance Reddick (as Kareem X), Michael Imperioli (as Angelo Dundee), and Joaquina Kalukango (as Betty X). Sam Cooke was murdered later that same year. Malcolm X was assassinated by a Nation of Islam member one year later, and Cassius Clay of course changed his name to Muhammad Ali and passed away in 2016 at age 74. Jim Brown is still alive at age 84. These men each made their mark as leaders in the Black community, and even though we will never know what they talked about that night in Miami, the film digs in to personalities and leaves out the hero worship. Ms. King’s debut film will likely appeal more to history buffs and cinephiles, but it’s one that deserves attention.

Amazon Studios will release ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… in Miami theaters December 25th, 2020, in select US theaters on January 8th, 2021 and on Prime Video January 15th, 2021

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020)

January 8, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writers Danny Bilson (father of actress Rachel) and Paul De Meo, collaborators on the underrated THE ROCKETEER (1991), originally wrote this story about white veterans returning to Vietnam. That project was never able to move to production. When (Oscar winners for BLACKKKLANSMAN, 2018) Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott got involved, the characters shifted and it became a story about African-American veterans, and the film now carries a distinct message about racism and the effects of war on those who feel unappreciated.

Director Lee opens the movie with a montage of such historic events and influential people as the lunar landing, Angela Davis, LBJ, Kent State, Jackson State, Richard Nixon, Bobby Seale, and Donald Trump, along with statements from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, both vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Lee knows exactly what he’s doing, as this prologue sets such a serious tone upfront that we are maneuvered, or at least urged, into accepting his film as truth-based.

Four war veterans who served together are seen reuniting in the lobby of a hotel in modern day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). As the men warmly greet each other, we quickly grasp the individual personalities. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the hot-headed, grudge-holding, MAGA hat wearing fellow who bares his emotions on his sleeve (if he were wearing sleeves). Otis (Clarke Peters) is the former medic, and calm mediator, while Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the successful capitalist, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) is the free-wheeling, party guy. Why are there only 4 ‘bloods’? Well, officially the men are there to exhume the remains of their fallen and revered squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and return him to his family in the United States.

The official mission got the men back to Vietnam, but it’s their ulterior motive that turns this into something akin to a heist movie. The men plan to recover the millions of dollars of gold bars they buried in the jungle all those years ago. Though he has not been invited, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, intent on accompanying dear old dad and his war buddies on their big score. Cashing in on the gold requires the men to trust Tien (Y. Lan), a former local prostitute who had a relationship with Otis during the war, and Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady black market French money man. Director Lee attempts to sustain some suspense regarding the Desroche character, but as the only white man involved, that mystery falls a bit flat.

Additional supporting work is provided by Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen as a trio that inadvertently gets caught up in the bloods’ scheme. A nice touch is Veronica Ngo as Hanoi Hannah, with her lines pulled from actual broadcasts during the war – including the unsettling send off, “Have a good day, gentlemen.” There is little doubt this is meant to be Delroy Lindo’s film. His raging rants and explosive PTSD express the frustrations felt by many Vietnam War veterans, but particularly the African Americans, whom we are told made up 32% of soldiers on the battlefields. Lindo has a scene near the end of the film where he looks directly into the camera and goes off for a few minutes. It’s the kind of scene that garners award recognition. Special notice also goes to Chadwick Boseman, whose final two films were this one and the excellent MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. In Lee’s film, we absolutely accept Boseman as the spiritual and military leader of these men.

Spike Lee seemed to enjoy paying tribute and tipping his Knicks’ cap to many influences throughout the film. Especially notable are the similarities to scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), including the iconic “stinkin’ badges” line. Lee also pokes some fun at Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, and the whole genre of a white man as savior. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t escape unscathed, as he’s referred to as “President Fake Bone Spurs”. On a lighter note, the 5 Bloods plus Paul’s son share their first names of those from the original Motown group, The Temptations, as well as their famed producer (Norman Whitfield). Lee also includes heartfelt tributes to African American war heroes Crispus Attucks and Milton Olive, and then includes some tremendous songs from the late, great Marvin Gaye.

The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is exceptional, and Lee opts to change aspect ratios for the flashback scenes. Yet another interesting choice is that even during those flashbacks, the Bloods look their current age, even though it was 50 years prior. The idea being, in their memories, they see themselves as they are today. One glitch is that, periodically, composer Terence Blanchard’s score overpowers the moment. Not always, but enough to distract. Spike Lee really mixes things up, as at various times, this is a story of friendship, loyalty, history, greed, and camaraderie … and the emotional price paid for war. At 154 minutes, the run time is a bit long, but it’s one of Mr. Lee’s more ambitious films, and perhaps one of his best.

Available now on Netflix

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DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (2020, doc)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic HAROLD AND MAUDE takes a comical look at death, and in the process shows us the importance of living, and the jolt delivered by dying. Documentarian Kirsten Johnson (CAMERAPERSON, 2016) makes this a more personal project by involving her dad in a series of staged deaths for her film. Initially the purpose was to help him begin to deal with an end that could be coming soon, but it evolved into something altogether different.

Dick Johnson is an elderly psychiatrist. He’s a charming and lively man, boasting a nice sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. His daughter Kristen is “a camera person”, and suggests to him that they make a film about him dying. He’s on board. Kristen then stages various “deaths” for her father. These scenes include getting crushed by a falling air-conditioner, getting hit by a car, taking a horrific fall down stairs, and a construction site mishap. The more we get to know Dick, the more we like him. We learn it’s been 30 years since he had a heart attack, and 7 years since his wife died. She suffered from Alzheimer’s for years before she passed. We learn he’s a Seventh Day Adventist, and loves chocolate fudge cake. My how he loves chocolate cake.

Initially gung-ho for his daughter’s idea, and fully supportive of the situations she puts him in for her art, Dick begins to show signs of forgetfulness and confusion. At times we have our doubts that he fully comprehends what’s happening – not just in the film, but in everyday life. The comical elements shift to wistfulness, as we are present when Dick has to shut down his practice, sell his car, and ultimately box up his belongings and move out of his beloved home. Kristen moves him to her one bedroom New York City apartment, which is right next door to that of the two fathers of her children.

In addition to the staged deaths, we also meet a stuntman who gets involved, and we are on set for the filming of Dick’s “Heaven” which includes chocolate and popcorn, and his “Last Supper” featuring, among others, Bruce Lee, Frida Kahlo, Farrah Fawcett, and Frederick Douglass. There is also a family trip to a beach in Lisbon, and a reunion with Dick’s college girlfriend in California. The strangest bit is the staged funeral, replete with Dick in a coffin, and friends offering tributes. We also celebrate Dick’s 86th birthday, and see many family pictures and home videos.

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted: “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”

Watching Dick’s spirit fade along with his memory is anything but happy. His daughter Kristen tries to remain sensitive to his changing state, but the feeling we are left with is anything but happiness towards death. Her film is likely structured much differently than she originally intended, but has so much value for discussion with loved ones and a reminder of just how precious life is for those who appreciate it.

Now showing on Netflix

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GRIZZLY II: REVENGE (1983/2021)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The slate of movies I review each year leans heavily towards serious and dramatic material, but is there anything more serious than an 18 foot tall grizzly bear seeking revenge for the poaching of her cubs? And is there a better springboard to success for actors than the sequel to a cheesy land-based riff on JAWS? OK, I sense your skepticism. What if I told you that sequel featured three Oscar winners, and the original was one of the most profitable ROI films of the year? Starting to come around, aren’t you?

Well, before you get overly excited in anticipation of this film’s release, please allow me to explain … or come clean. This 1983 film has its own special place in cult film lore. Some even doubted its existence (or at least the actual title). But now, after all these years and rumors, the legend comes to life, and has not only been “completed”, but is getting a semblance of release. If you love schlock horror where nature-goes-awry, with the added bonus of ‘spot the actor’ (now almost 40 years older), then there is the possibility you are worthy of watching this … this … abomination (meant here as a term of endearment).

You should know that there are very few sightings of the enormous grizzly bear; although we do get an opening sequence with some quality camera work featuring grizzlies in the wild. Even though we don’t see much of the titular beast, she does dominate the story. The earliest sequence features three young campers ignoring bear warning signs. These three campers are why we are all here. A pre-“E/R” George Clooney (21 years old) sports a denim vest before climbing in a sleeping bag with a partially clothed 16 year old Laura Dern, who has somehow managed to complete the hike wearing sandals and whining the entire time. The third wheel is played by a 17 year old with hair hanging in his eyes and acne on his face. You’ll recognize him as Charlie Sheen, although here he looks very much like brother Emilio. If you show up for this trio, hold off on the potty break, because there’s an angry grizzly lurking.

There are other pieces to the story … and I use ‘pieces’ in a manner similar to what one sees in an intersection after a couple of cars collide. A group of drunk poachers roam the woods looking to collect grizzly gall bladders, which evidently have value on the black market. The Park Rangers are preparing for an upcoming rock concert where 100,000 attendees are expected. A concert promoter played by Louise Fletcher (an Oscar winner as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975) bullies the newest Park Ranger played by Steve Inwood (who also appeared in STAYING ALIVE that same year, reaching world class clunker status twice in 1983) into “the show must go on” despite the grizzly killings.

This was director Andre Szots’ second and final feature film as a director, though he did have a career as a producer. The husband and wife writing team of David Sheldon and Joan McCall ‘crafted’ the screenplay. He was also a co-writer on the original GRIZZLY (1976), while she appeared on screen in it. Continuing our game of ‘spot the actor’, we can’t help but notice Deborah Foreman as the lead Ranger’s wide-eyed daughter. Ms. Foreman was a very popular actor in the 1980’s, including a starring role in VALLEY GIRL (1983). Unfortunately her career never hit the heights many predicted, although she does have one of the best lines in this film when she proudly states her skill at working a phone – both dial and push-button! Fans of either the “Lord of the Rings” or “Indiana Jones” franchises will surely get a kick out of John Rhys-Davies as a lumberjack-American Indian, who is renowned for his expertise in hunting “the devil bear”. Other familiar faces include a young Timothy Spall (MR TURNER), Deborah Raffin (rumored to be the second choice for Sandy in GREASE), Ian McNiece (ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS, 1995), Dick Anthony Williams (a hard-working actor from the 1970’s until his death in 2012), Jack Starratt (actor in FIRST BLOOD, 1982, director of RACE WITH THE DEVIL, 1975), and Charles Cyphers, who played the Indians’ General Manager in MAJOR LEAGUE (1989).

The joy in seeing these folks in one place is compromised (to say the least) by the horrendous 1980’s pop music being performed by those on stage attired in just about any outrageous 80’s fashion you can recall. Initially comical, the musical acts quickly evolve into something stomach-churning to watch. The kindest description of the production quality is “low-budget”, but there is simply no term for the effects. A Darth Vader breathing sound is heard when the grizzly is near, a speeding Ranger jeep on a dirt path is used to create suspense (the same shot is used multiple times), the day-night inconsistencies could be their own drinking game, and fireworks and a forklift prove to be a bad mix with our grizzly. Finally, for reasons we never really understand, a US Senator is a guest at the concert, and these days a Senator would likely be considered a greater threat than an 18 foot grizzly. You’ve heard the adage, “so bad it’s good”, well this one is simply so bad it’s bad. William Girdler directed the original GRIZZLY in 1976, and he tragically died at age 30, just two years later.

Available On Demand January 8, 2021

watch the trailer