Panel Discussion – Streaming, Theaters, and COVID-19

July 8, 2020

I participated in a panel discussion on the state of movies: the impact of streaming services, the challenges faced by movie theaters, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in the movie industry.

The other two panelists were movie critic Will Mann and screenwriter Tim Hodgin (@tim_hodgin). The discussion was moderated by the editor of International Policy Digest, (intpolicydigest.org) and you can read it here:

Streaming, Theaters and COVID: Three Cinephiles Weigh In


INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO (2020, doc)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy and convenient to lump folks into the old adage “people don’t change”, because not changing is the easiest way. However, we’d be hard pressed to find someone who fits the “turned over a new leaf” description better than Danny Trejo. He has certainly made the best of his second chance … and he knows it. What makes his story inspirational is his willingness, no make that determination, to share his own story in hopes that he can help others.

Director Brett Harvey surprises us in a couple of ways with this documentary. First, he spends the first two-thirds on Trejo’s background, with barely a mention of movies. Second, he recognizes the gold to mine here is derived from Trejo himself, and he allows the man to talk and show us what he’s all about. Sure, we get bits of insight from Trejo’s neighborhood friends, his acting peers, and his own kids and sister, but no one can tell Trejo’s story better than Trejo. In fact, director Harvey bookends the film with Trejo talking to convicts, and beginning with “my number was B-948.”

While cruising around town in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, Trejo points out “Richie Valens Junior High”, which is actually Pacoima Middle School. It’s fascinating that he still lives in the same area in which he was raised, especially after we hear him recall his childhood. As a kid, his hero was Uncle Gilbert – the cool guy who had money, cars, and girls. Trejo stuck like glue to Gilbert, who turned the boy onto weed at age 8 and heroin at age 12, and then transitioned him to armed robbery (including a live grenade!). It was four bags of sugar sold to an undercover cop that sent Trejo to San Quentin.

Trejo is very direct as he discusses his time in prison and what occurred to push him towards getting his life in order. He mentions it’s not about reform, but about keeping a promise. He talks about the ‘predator or prey’ aspect of prison and recalls some of the best advice he received: remaining on the path of drugs-alcohol-crime can only lead to death-insanity-jail. He absolutely believes these words and works this in to his motivational speeches to this day.

He stumbled backwards into an acting career, simply by visiting a friend on the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). His look and that tattoo were instrumental to his acting gigs, and that’s where the title of the documentary comes from – he was cast as “Inmate #1” in the early days. Of course, things really exploded for him after his second cousin, director Robert Rodriguez, cast him as the silent assassin in DESPERADO (1995), and then again when Trejo got the lead in the tongue-in-cheek MACHETE (2010) which spawned from a fake trailer in the Rodriguez-Tarantino blend GRINDHOUSE (2007).

One of those interviewed states, “They make movies about guys like him”, and by the time the documentary ends, we simply with there were more people like Danny Trejo in society. It’s rare that we find such respect for an actor after getting to know what they are like “in real life.” He may joke about learning acting at the San Quentin School of Dramatics, but he spends most of his time doing good for others. His infectious laugh and upbeat demeanor are traits of a man who appreciates his second chance in life. Just keep in mind, “Machete don’t text.”

watch the trailer:


ELVIS FROM OUTER SPACE (2020)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. All you Elvis Presley fans out there can relax. This is not a documentary. In fact, trying to put a label on the film co-written and co-directed by Marv Z Silverman and Tracy Wuischpard would be pointless … unless we can just agree on “Midnight Movie Madness”, and leave it at that.

Not that I would ever encourage such activity, but some have declared that the best ‘midnight movies’ are most enjoyed whilst a sufficiently mind-altered state is achieved, and one is unnaturally influenced by beverage or ‘other’. Now that’s a category this film easily and happily (and likely by design) fits in. There is no reason to start this film while thinking clearly, and actually, thinking is best avoided for the entire 90 minute runtime.

The story kicks off with the narrator explaining that Elvis has spent the last 30 years or so with the aliens of Alpha Centauri. He has been playing music for the community of ETs proving “music is the universal language.” ’But now Elvis is homesick for Earth and wants to see his daughter, Linda Bess Truman. The aliens contact the CIA and arrangements are made for the drop in Area 51. Some quick math places the story sometime around 2010 or a couple years prior.

There is no way I will risk spoiling the zaniness that occurs, but Elvis, now codename John “JB” Burrows, finds himself in the 1970’s Elvis World Crown Competition at the Desert Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You may have heard about the time that Charlie Chaplin lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, but here, JB brings down the house as an Elvis impersonator. He’s so good the other contestants (quite a motley crew) question his identity. One of those is “Big M” who is also the film’s narrator. All of this drama is broadcast via “Barry Live”, a TMZ type show delivers laughs along with the daily scoop.

George Thomas plays JB/Elvis, and he seems at ease in the jumpsuits, although those fake sideburns are a punchline by themselves. David Heavener is Big M and the narrator, and his initial role as rival shifts as the story progresses. Diane Yang Kirk plays CIA Agent Messina, who is on JB’s side, and Lauren-Elaine Powell is Jackie, the earthly love interest. Barry Ratcliffe nearly steals the show as the TV host of “Barry Live”, and I believe TJ Myers plays daughter Linda, while Martin Kove (you’ll recognize as bad guy Kreese from THE KARATE KID, 1984) is the State Trooper. Alexander Butterfield is CIA Chairman Townsend, and in real life, Mr. Butterfield served as Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, and was the one who revealed the existence of the Oval Office recording system during the Watergate investigation. Best of all, Sonny West appears as himself. Sonny was part of Elvis’ “Memphis Mafia” back in the day. Sonny and his cousin Red West died within a couple of months of each other in 2017.

Hopefully you’ve picked up that this move is so far outside of mainstream that a traditional review is simply not possible. Animation is used for the aliens and spaceships and the rest of it must be seen to be … well, seen. It appears to be a re-boot of Mr. Silverman’s 2011 project entitled MEMPHIS RISING: ELVIS RETURNS, making most of the footage almost 10 years old. Still, a passion project is the heartfelt pursuit of a filmmaker, whether it’s SCHINDLER’S LIST or Elvis being held captive in ‘Area 52’.

watch the trailer:


I, PASTAFARI: A FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER STORY (2020, doc)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. You are to be excused for not taking seriously any person, club, organization, or religion that chooses to be identified by wearing colanders (pasta strainers) on their head. After all, many municipalities and courts of law would and have agreed with you. Still, writer-director Michael Arthur takes a direct approach in presenting the Pastafarians, and many will be on board with some of the points made.

Bobby Henderson founded the “ancient but forgotten religion” in 2005 to oppose the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools, and claimed Pastafarianism as a real religion, “as much as any other.” The intent was to keep religion out of government-financed schools. While many will agree with the philosophy, it is difficult to gain credibility when one’s deity is an invisible ‘flying spaghetti monster’ and your leader defends the religion as legitimate by showing up in court wearing a colander on his head.

Mr. Arthur takes us through The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Costa Rica as he explores the followers and the factions. We meet Bruder Spaghettus, who claims humans and Pastafarianism are descended from pirates, and he attributes the increase in global warming to a decrease in the number of pirates. Many religions have had “splits”, and this one is no different in that regard. What is different here is that Bruder’s Pastafari followers wear pirate garb instead of colanders. Only you can decide if that’s an improvement. Is this a real religion, a fake religion or a parody of religion? Director Arthur interviews followers, as well as academic scholars in search of the truth.

Reading between the lines, it appears likely that the religion was started as a lark, but has evolved into a somewhat loose organization with a philosophy of opposition to “traditional” religions being given more power, respect, advantages, and influence than should be the case. There is no real evidence to support claims that Pastafari (a play on words from Rastafari, the Jamaican Abrahamic religion) is the ‘fastest growing religion’ or has ‘millions of believers.’ Is it possible to take a serious look at a ridiculous topic? What Mr. Arthur finds is that it seems legitimate to question the manner in which “real” religions are treated with privilege. The film doesn’t feature founder Bobby Henderson, which seems odd, and it skims the surface more for entertainment than enlightenment. And what I have to say to that is … R’amen, brother.

watch the trailer:


HAMILTON (movie, 2020)

July 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. You know what it’s like when people start talking about some great new restaurant that just opened (think back to pre-pandemic)? And then you start to hear your friends and co-workers raving about it … best ‘steamed broccoli’ (ok, insert your favorite entrée) I’ve ever tasted! Having been burned many times with high expectations, you remain skeptical, but make the reservation. Well, that’s been me with “Hamilton.” For almost 5 years, the hype was just too much. Surely folks were caught up in the frenzy, and peer pressure was such that no one would admit it wasn’t all that. So, now I’m here … throwing myself at the mercy of the Theater Gods. Thanks to Disney Plus, I only needed to invest a little (ok, a lot) of time, rather than a few hundred dollars for a ticket. This is me humbly admitting I was wrong. The show is fantastic, and I only wish my first viewing had been a live performance.

Unfortunately (because of what I mentioned above) this can’t be a comparison of a live stage performance and the film version. Instead, this will briefly outline what I noticed in the movie. First, and I believe this is key, the original stage director Thomas Kail is back to direct the film. It should be noted that the film version is a blend of a couple of recorded live shows, plus some recorded songs seamlessly edited in. This is the original cast doing what they do best, and the edits are imperceptible. Second, the main cast is filled with dynamic performers. In many stage shows, one or two actors are head and shoulders above the others. Not so here. At a minimum the top seven actors are as skilled and fun to watch as any you’ve seen. Third, this is a true musical in that the songs drive the story. Some of the early songs require serious concentration to catch the lines, but even if you miss some lyrics, the gist of what’s happening is pretty clear. These aren’t so much catchy sing-along types, but you’ll easily recall the scenes when you hear the songs again at a later date. We see a perfect melding of music-performance-story.

Of course most everyone knows that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creative force behind the show. He credits writer Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton as the inspiration for the production, but it’s Mr. Miranda that appeared on every talk show for a couple of years, and he also performs as Alexander Hamilton. Daveed Diggs has dual roles as the flamboyant Marquis de Lafayette and the equally flamboyant (at least here) Thomas Jefferson. Renee Elise Goldsberry takes over the stage with her powerful voice as Angelica Schuyler, and Chris Jackson is a dominating physical presence as George Washington. Jonathan Groff (from “Mindhunter”) is absolutely hysterical and unforgettable as King George III, both through song and strut. Everyone will have their favorite performers, and truly they are all exceptional, and I’d like to point out the two that took my breath away. Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton has a pristine voice that will bring tears to many eyes. She may not be as involved with the political elements of the story, but in the most emotional moments, she is front and center. Lastly, the passion Leslie Odom Jr brings to his role as Adam Burr is beyond description. He may be the “villain”, but he makes Burr accessible and easy to understand … plus Odom is a terrific singer and performer, and he lights up the stage.

It’s easy to overlook the dance and stage choreography since it’s never over-the-top, but the dancers are terrific and the performers make great use of the single set – although props are regularly brought in and taken away. Perhaps what really makes this click as movie entertainment is the expert use of cameras and editing. We see the full stage when we should, and we are offered close-ups when it’s most effective. I do hope to catch the live show at some point, but if my Hamilton experience is limited to this cinematic version, well … “that would be enough.”

available on DISNEY PLUS

watch the trailer:

 


THE OUTPOST (2020)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rod Lurie’s latest is not only based on a remarkable true story, it uses the real American soldier’s names (and some real soldiers) and depicts the valiant efforts of those who were part of the Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan on October 3, 2009. Mr. Lurie (THE CONTENDER, 2000) is a West Point graduate and Army veteran, and the film is based on the book by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, with a screenplay from Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy.

We first meet the new arrivals on their helicopter transport under the cover of darkness. They have been assigned to this combat outpost known as “Camp Custer.” The nickname comes from the assumption that everyone there is going to die. Why is that? Well for some reason, this military outpost is positioned so as to be surrounded by the foothills of a mountain range – creating a natural shooting gallery of which the soldiers are sitting ducks. It’s one of the most vulnerable military outposts ever created, and with it comes so many Taliban attacks that the soldiers can’t even take seriously their local scout’s constant warnings, “The Taliban are coming!”

There are 53 soldiers assigned to the camp, and the aura of impending doom hovers non-stop. To compensate, joking around and playing sports are utilized to pass the time between attacks. The men even debate whether calling home is a good thing or not. One of the bunk beds has “It doesn’t get better” carved into the frame – that’s a taste of the kind of inspiration floating around. “Thank you for your service” is pure parody amongst these soldiers, and it’s easy to understand, given the tension they must feel – we are nervous merely watching from the safety of an armchair.

The performances are solid and you’ll recognize a few. Orlando Bloom is Lieutenant Keating, Scott Eastwood is Sergeant Cline Romesha, and Caleb Landry Jones is a standout as Carter, the ex-Marine outcast who is more complex than initial impressions lead us to believe. On an unusual note, the list of “relateds” is quite impressive: Eastwood is of course the son of Clint, Milo Gibson is the son of Mel, James Jagger is the son of Mick, Will Attenborough is the grandson of Sir Richard Attenborough, and Scott Alda Coffey is the grandson of Alan Alda.

Director Lurie divides the film into chapters associated with officers, but the segment that most every viewer will find riveting is the near-40 minute attack on the outpost by hundreds of Taliban gunmen. It’s relentless battle action at a level rarely seen in movies, and we feel like we are in the middle of it. This onslaught feels like hopelessness, followed by desperation, followed by survival mode. Never does it feel like an outright victory, but more a relief for those who survive. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore makes this a visceral experience – one we won’t forget.

Very little politics come into play here. Instead this is about the men in the line of fire – their courage – and their desperate attempts to live and hold the outpost. All of which is followed by a haunting breakdown that stuns. This battle resulted in 8 dead and 27 injured American soldiers, followed by many medals, including two Medal of Honors. The closing credits honor those killed in action, and we see photos of the actual soldiers next to the actor who played them.

On Demand and Digital Platforms July 3, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE TRUTH (La Verite, France, 2020)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely every movie lover will savor the chance to watch two of France’s screen titans go at each other as combative mother and daughter. Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche don’t disappoint in this latest from writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, who was previously Oscar nominated for SHOPLIFTERS (2018).

Ms. Deneuve stars as Fabienne Dangeville, an aging French Oscar winning actress who has recently published her memoir. To celebrate the book, her daughter Lumir (Ms. Binoche) is coming with her family for a visit. Husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a self-admitted second rate actor, and their daughter Charlotte (newcomer Clementine Grenier) is awfully cute and meeting her grandmother for the first time. Lumir is a scriptwriter, and harbors less-than-favorable childhood memories of dear old mom.

The personalities of mother and daughter are pretty easy to ascertain. Fabienne admits “I’d rather be a bad mother, a bad friend, and a good actress.” She’s a petty and sometimes nasty woman, who’s quite self-aware. Lumir is the type that has critiqued her mother’s memoir with post-it notes throughout, and calls her out on the false claims of being a doting mother. Most of the movie deals with memories, honesty, and family relationships. It’s not just Lumir who is bothered by book. Fabienne’s long time handler Luc (French screen veteran Alain Libolt) reacts strongly to being omitted entirely, as if he never existed.

Fabienne waves off the criticisms by claiming she’s an actress, so the naked truth is not expected … whereas interesting stories are.  The film opens with Fabienne being interviewed by a journalist (Laurent Capelutto, “Black Spot”), and between this interview and what we learn of the memoir, we can’t help but chuckle at some of the real life similarities. First, Ms. Deneuve’s real middle name is Fabienne, and there are teases of her multiple lovers and “almost” movie with Alfred Hitchcock.

A large portion of the film is spent on the film-within-the-film that Fabienne is working on. It’s a science-fiction film (from a short story written by Ken Liu) that focuses on an unusual and difficult mother-daughter relationship. Lumir spots the obvious symmetry, but we are never really sure if Fabienne does, as she’s so busy firing barbs at the lead actress played by rising star Manon Lenoir (the first feature for Manon Clavel). For the elder Fabienne, acting has always been about being a star, so she struggles seeing the younger actress take a role she herself would have embodied 50 years prior.

Other supporting work comes from Christian Crahay as Jacques, Fabienne’s live-in cook (and more); Roger Van Hool as Pierre (man, not turtle) as Lumir’s father who is listed as deceased in the book; and Ludivine Sagnier (SWIMMING POOL, 2003) who plays a younger version of Fabienne’s character in the film-within-the-film. One key character we never actually see is Sarah, a deceased woman who was a friend and fellow actress to Fabienne, and a kind of surrogate mother to Lumir when she was a young girl. Sarah’s memory still hovers over the lives of Fabienne and Lumir, and may be at the heart of any possible reconciliation. Koreeda is a terrific director, and watching the performances here is quite entertaining. We do have the feeling that the script could have gone deeper emotionally had it not attempted to tackle so much. Additionally, many scenes felt like they were begging for more biting comedy than what was there. This is mostly played straight, which leaves Ms. Deneuve and Ms. Binoche to carry the load – a burden they handle quite capably.

watch the trailer:


SUZI Q (2020, doc)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Home is where the heart is.” That’s a two thousand year old phrase whose sentiment has multiple interpretations. It’s the phrase that came to mind while watching Liam Firmager’s profile of Suzi Quatro, the pioneering female Rock ‘n Roller. She started as a middle-class Detroit girl who went on to have a huge international career, though her music never really clicked with the U.S. audience. The emotions from and towards her family are even more complicated.

Playing a bass guitar that made her look even smaller than her diminutive 5 foot frame, Quatro was quite the stage presence in her leather jump suits (inspired by Jane Fonda’s character in BARBARELLA) and constant motion. Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s admitted that she had never even thought about women playing instruments in a rock band until she saw Suzi. Most of the interviews here have a similar thread: Suzi Quatro was a main influence for such female rockers as Cherie Currie and Lita Ford of The Runaways, KT Tunstall, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth of The Talking Heads, and of course, Joan Jett. We hear from each of these musicians as they pay tribute to their trailblazer. When Suzi is described as “the quintessential rock ‘n roll chick”, it’s obviously a term of respect.

The film has a bit of a disjointed structure and uneven flow, but that doesn’t diminish the message. Suzi Quatro was a daring ground-breaker. We get some of the backstory regarding her family, as she credits her mother for instilling Catholic morals, and her dad for passing along his performing gene. But it’s the sisters who provide the most insight. These are the type of sisters who didn’t tell Suzi about an offer from renowned music producer Mickie Most, because they didn’t want her to quit their band and have success without them. It’s these same sisters who, almost 50 years later, refuse to give Suzi the respect she so craves.

Alice Cooper speaks to her influence, and Henry Winkler recalls her time as Leather Tuscadero, a recurring character on “Happy Days.” We also hear from Len Tuckey, Suzi’s guitarist and first husband, who offers insight to the band and the person. There is also a segment (with a clip) on her success in the stage musical “Annie Get Your Gun”, and, on a personal note, we learn Suzi is the aunt to actress Sherilynn Fenn (“Twin Peaks”).

Suzi Quatro has sold over 55 million records in her career … and she still plays live gigs today (well at least prior to the pandemic). The driving ambition that motivated her to pursue her dream is still there, although she admits “most girls gave up music to have a life.” We see her in 1973 and in 2019. The leather and the energy are still present, as is the mystery of why she was so much more popular internationally than in her home country. The film touches on the male-oriented business and the sexism that occurred. There is footage of a stunning moment on a British talk show where the host actually slapped her on her leather-clad derriere. Imagine that moment today! Was Suzi Quatro ahead of her time, or did she come along at just the right moment? Either way, the professional success contrasted with the unresolved family issues, make this more than a standard rock bio. It’s a history lesson with a moral to the story.

Available on VOD July 3, 2020

watch the trailer:


IRRESISTIBLE (2020)

June 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For the fifteen plus years Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show”, he could be depended on to bring his acerbic wit and often scathing political commentary to virtually every show. His most devoted followers leaned left, though he was known to take down extremists on both ends. Stewart’s foray into filmmaking as writer-director was ROSEWATER (2014), a look at the detainment and interrogation of journalist Maziar Bahari in an Iranian prison. This follow-up takes a much lighter approach – one similar to his TV days – while still managing to skewer our election system and campaign financing.

Steve Carell spent a brief time as a reporter/correspondent on “The Daily Show” before heading off to mega-stardom in movies and on TV. Here he plays Gary Zimmer, a political strategist for the Democratic Party. The film opens on the 2016 Presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we first see Zimmer in a whirlwind media battle of words against his nemesis, Faith Brewster (played by a funny but underutilized Rose Byrne), a strategist for the Republicans. As you might imagine, Zimmer is a funk after the election, and his career is in shambles.

A ray of hope and inspiration enters Zimmer’s life in the form of a viral YouTube video. Wisconsin farmer and former Marine Jack Hastings (the great Chris Cooper) is recorded tearing into the Deerlaken Mayor and City Council. Zimmer recognizes the Patriotism and a potential Party savior, and seizes on the opportunity to convince Hastings that the Democrats stand for the same things he stands for … those things he rattled off in the video.

Zimmer in Deerlaken is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, and his trip is farmed for laughs. It starts in the local German beer hall and carries forward to Hastings’ farm where Zimmer spots daughter Diana Hastings (Mackenzie Davis) up to her elbow in cow. The other locals we get to know include Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin as Big Mike and Little Mike, CJ Wilson as the accommodating barkeep, Blair Sams as the eager baker, and Brent Sexton as Republican Mayor Braun. When Zimmer’s campaign for Hastings catches the eye of Ms. Brewster, we soon experience an all-out political brawl for the Mayor’s job in this tiny town … one recently made smaller by the closing of the local military base. Director Stewart labels this “Heartland USA.”

Of course, this isn’t a story about the candidates. It’s Stewart’s commentary on how campaigns are conducted today. Social media and the national news media are weapons, and we see that there’s no such thing as dirty politics … only politics. Topher Grace plays a pollster and Natasha Lyonne is in charge of analytics, and the over-dependence on data is made clear. However, the biggest point Stewart makes has to do with campaign finance and money. It’s all about the ‘Benjamins.’ The Super PAC is shoved (conveniently) to the back of the room in what Stewart terms “an election economy.”

There are plenty of Jon Stewart comedic touches on display. We get “Rhinestone Cowboy” used a couple of times, see “swing voters” listed on a first name basis, and get an advertising slogan of “a redder kind of blue.” When Faith Brewster says “I look forward to lying to you in the future”, we recognize this as prime form Stewart. The problem with political statements, political commentary, and political satire, is that people will complain it goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough, or points the finger, or doesn’t point the finger. It won’t cover what they want covered in a way they want it covered. Stewart lets neither party off here. In fact, he lays blame on both. However, given what we see and live through on a daily basis right now, Stewart’s observations come across a bit tame … we wish he had pushed harder.

The opening credits segment is brilliant with a slide show of previous campaigns accompanied by Bob Seger’s “Still the Same”, and the closing credits are worth sticking around for just to hear Trevor Potter, the former Chairman of Federal Election Commission.

Releasing on Digital/VOD on June 26, 2020

watch the trailer:


MADAGASIKARA (2020, doc)

June 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world at 228,900 square miles. 90 percent of its wildlife is found nowhere else, and it features a unique ecosystem with staggering natural resources. It’s been the subject of National Geographic specials and very successful (and cute) animated kids’ movies. Contrasting to all of those details, is the fact that the vast majority of the citizens live in extreme poverty and suffer from malnutrition, while the government is in near-constant turmoil.

Cam Cowan is a former attorney, and this is his first documentary feature. Rather than bury us in bottom-of-the-world economic data, or frustrate us with details of years of political corruption and upheaval, he allows us to focus on the very personal stories of three women … each woman striving to survive the day and provide for her family.

Lin offers laundry services for the community. The first day we see her, she makes 28 cents, which just about covers the cost of 2 cups of white rice. One of Lin’s babies died a few months after birth, and she buried the young girl at the front door stoop, so that she never forgets. Deborah began as a sex worker at age 12. She recounts how some physically abuse her and don’t pay. Her dream was to be a lawyer, but now hopes her kids can get the education she was denied. Tina busts rocks in local quarry. She spends hours each day under the sun without even the luxury of gloves to protect her hands.

In 2009, Malagasy citizens took to the streets to protest corruption in government. The international community responded by cutting off support. That support accounted for 60% of social services, including food, healthcare, and education. A sinking country sunk even lower. We learn that Madagascar is the only country untouched by war where the populace is now poorer than they were in 1960. In fact, the majority of citizens earn less than $2.00 per day, and 80-90% fall below the poverty line.

As a mother plucks fleas and larvae from her kids’ feet, she admonishes them with, “From now on, tell me when you have fleas in your feet.” We may think parenting is difficult, but the guess is, you’ve never warned your kids about fleas nesting under their skin. The film touches on some of the issues with government structure, but there really isn’t enough time for a deep dive. We also learn about humanitarian Father Pedro, who helps educate and feed children. He’s the subject of Mr. Cowan’s next documentary, OPEKA, which is being released as a follow up to this one.

The island’s natural resources are not really discussed here, as the focus is on the people and the daily hardships they endure. There is an undeniable spirit amongst these people, even though it’s a struggle to find hope. Some of the international support has returned, but it’s clear real change won’t happen until the government is structured to support the citizenry and trust is restored. This is tough to watch, but we must.

Opens on Amazon Prime June 26, 2020

watch the trailer: