April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Movies that put youngsters in peril can go one of two directions: the story can feel contrived to the point of manipulation, or it can be real and heartfelt with commentary on society. Filmmaker Eliza Hittman proved her mettle with BEACH RATS (2017), and she proves yet again, that her instincts translate to the screen in stories and characters that hit a nerve.

It’s stunning to discover that this is the first screen credit for Sidney Flanigan who plays 17 year old Autumn. We first see her onstage at her school talent show singing a soulful rendition of “He’s Got the Power”, a 1963 song by The Exciters. Her performance stands in contrast to the mostly generic acts from her classmates, though it’s our first hint at how she is perceived. Autumn is one of those teens who seems to be naturally burdened with more than she can carry. A bloated belly leads her to take a pregnancy test at the local clinic, where she is informed that “a positive is always a positive” – a brilliant line than doesn’t hold true for all interpretations.

The clinic worker shows Autumn an anti-abortion video, which leads her to Google do-it-yourself abortion, and finally to the realization that because of Pennsylvania’s requirement for parental consent, she’ll have to travel to New York City for the procedure. Fortunately for Autumn, she has a trusted and resourceful friend/cousin/co-worker in Skylar (Talia Ryder, who will appear in Spielberg’s upcoming WEST SIDE STORY remake). The girls skim from their cash registers at the grocery store they both work at, and then hop on the bus towards the city.

Their time in the city is an adventure unto itself. By this time we’ve seen some of the everyday obstacles faced by teenage girls, including thoughtless teenage boys, a loathsome stepfather (Ryan Eggold), and a sleazy store manager. All of this is in addition to the challenges brought on by being a sexually active minor. On the trip, they meet Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”), a fellow bus traveler who strikes up a conversation. Is he a good guy or not? Can he be trusted or not? Again, these are situations that the teens must navigate through instincts not yet fully developed.

A questionnaire administered at the Planned Parenthood clinic provides the film’s title, as well as one of its most powerful scenes. Ms. Flanigan is exceptional as this simple form requires her to face her situation and her life as she answers questions regarding her sexual and personal history. Ms. Ryder is also tremendous in making Skylar such a strong young woman and friend. This film and these actresses show more than they tell. The minimal dialogue contrasts to the many movies who portray gabby teens. Writer-director Hittman seems to make movies more appreciated by critics than mainstream audiences, but it seems her time is coming. She makes her political belief quite clear, but does so by focusing on the real world that teenage girls face. It’s a dramatic work of art with extraordinary camera work by Helene Louvart (the excellent INVISIBLE LIFE, 2019).

watch the trailer:

TESLAFY ME (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve been trying to think of other examples of famous people known for one thing, when they deserve to be remembered for something else. Hedy Lamarr, considered by many to be the most beautiful actress ever (she played Delilah in SAMSON AND DELILAH), also invented a frequency hopping process used today in WIFI and military defense satellites. Marcel Marceau was a world famous mime who also helped save thousands of children during WWII. Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in many movies during the 1930’s and 40’s and created that iconic Tarzan yell, also was a 5 time Olympic Gold medal swimmer. Surely there are many others with similar stories, but maybe none more remarkable than Nikola Tesla … known today as the make of a popular electric car, but his backstory is vital not only to history, but also to our current way of life.

Slovenian filmmaker Janja Glogovac delivers a very informative and highly polished documentary that takes us through Tesla’s life (Serbian roots, raised in Croatia, moved to United States), including his dealings with such well known luminaries as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and JP Morgan. Ms. Glogovac utilizes interviews with intellects, including Tesla’s nephew William Terbo (a NASA engineer), and also many creative graphics, simulations, and animation.

Do you consider Steve Jobs a visionary? Would you be surprised to learn that Tesla imagined the cell phone more than a century ago? He dreamed of Utopia where energy was clean, rather than dependent on fossil fuels which would negatively impact climate and the earth’s natural vibrations. Tesla detailed how his ideas came to him as flashes of light, and very specific. For you engineers and scientists, don’t worry, some segments go fairly deep on his inventions and what they were meant to accomplish.

Tesla came to America in 1884, and after a brief stint with Edison (who put much into trying to discredit Tesla), was funded by George Westinghouse. Tesla’s commitment to his electro-magnetic motor (alternating current) elevated his rivalry with Edison and the direct current option. When Tesla and Westinghouse “lit up” Chicago, the industrial revolution was ushered in. Tesla’s hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls earned him the title of Father of Renewable Energy, and led to the Wardenclyffe Tower construction in 1901. It was an experimental wireless transmission tower that ended up with a similar fall from grace as Tesla himself.

Can the story of Nikola Tesla be told in an 80 minute documentary? Hardly. But the purpose seems to be reigniting an interest in a forgotten genius – a man whose work with radio, wireless, and electricity is still being utilized today. Elon Musk chose his brand name wisely, and we can’t help but wonder if Tesla’s ideas for clean energy had been supported rather than squashed, would we have avoided some of today’s issues. Learning that J. Edgar Hoover had Tesla followed, and that Tesla died broke, leaves us wanting more information … he deserves to be known as something more than the badge on an sleek electric vehicle.

watch the trailer:

SLAY THE DRAGON (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s no wonder our faith in democracy is waning. The list of reasons and the targets to point fingers are both numerous. Heck, one of the last-standing Presidential hopefuls has spent most of his life believing and preaching that there is a better way. This documentary from co-directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman ensures gerrymandering remains on the list of reasons. They weave together three stories from Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin to demonstrate how a party can invoke a strategy of gerrymandering, and what the long-term impact can mean.

We’ve long understood the basics of gerrymandering. It is when one political party works to carve up the voting districts in order to benefit one party or handicap the other. The film educates us on the fine art of “packing” and “cracking.” Packing involves concentrating the opposing party’s voters into a few districts, while cracking involves spreading out (diluting) that party’s voters amidst many districts. Both are designed to render opposition votes meaningless. We even learn how gerrymandering got its name … a link to Elbridge Gerry, a former Governor of Massachusetts and Vice President to James Madison.

The “star” of the Michigan segment is Kate Fahey, and we see how her 2016 Facebook post led her directly into political activism, and the formation of “Voters Not Politicians” (VNP). Because she is so energetic and engaging, it’s clear why the filmmakers devoted so much time to this segment. Ballot initiatives, petitions, speeches, interviews, the Michigan Supreme Court, and ultimately, voting day … this is her journey and we get to come along for the ride.

North Carolina and Wisconsin offer more details on the fights against gerrymandering, but neither of these stories go quite as in-depth, although we do follow the Wisconsin case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Kennedy’s retirement changes everything. There is a very informative segment on the Republican’s national strategy after Obama was elected. Survival of the party was in jeopardy, and behind-the-scenes strategists like Chris Jankowski and Tom Hoeffler were specialists brought in to focus on the best approach to re-districting across the country … something called the Redmap Project.

There are a lot of moving parts included in the film by Durrance and Goodman: tracing the 2014 Flint water crises to the 2010 elections, insight into ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), discussions of Lobbyists writing bills, details on voter suppression, and input from journalists, radio talk show hosts, political consultants, and attorneys. David Daley, author of the 2016 book “Ratf**ked” comments throughout with his opinions on specific examples of gerrymandering. The grass roots movement to end gerrymandering in Michigan was fascinating to watch, and there is mention that both parties have used gerrymandering to their advantage over the years. The difference makers these days are Big Data and Big Tech … highly complex analytical tools that turn this into a science. “Independent committees” drawing district lines is offered as a solution, but if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that most everyone has an agenda and true independent thinkers are a rare breed. Whether calling this an “assault on Democracy” is accurate or not, it seems quite obvious that there must be a better way … and a better way is needed.

watch the trailer:

IT STARTED AS A JOKE (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Have you heard the one about the comedy festival poking fun at comedy festivals? Of course not. And you may not even be familiar with comedian Eugene Mirman. But the efforts of co-directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman ensure that by the end of their documentary, we understand the impact of Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival (founded to parody comedy festivals).

So who is Eugene Mirman? He’s one of the key players in alternative comedy … comedians who don’t rely on traditional jokes, and often perform in places other than comedy clubs. If you ever watched the series “I’m Dying Up Here”, you saw a comedian perform in the back of a local deli. That is an example of alternative comedy. When you check the lineup of comedians included here, it becomes even more obvious. Kristen Schaal, John Hodgman, Kumail Nanjiani, Janeane Garofola, Jim Gaffigan, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Mike Birbiglia, and Michael Showalter are just a few of the participants. Ms. Garofola embraces her “alternative” by labeling herself a terrible joke writer, and more of a “filibusterer.”

Eugene Mirman is known for his voice acting (“Bob’s Burgers” and “Archer”), as well as his appearances on TV series such as (the brilliant) “Flight of the Conchords.” He married Set Director Katie Tharp and they had a son named Oliver. These personal details matter because Katie’s cancer plays a part in Eugene’s final year for the festival, and we get a glimpse of their home life, including time with Oliver. Their personal life is instrumental in elevating this from a Comedy Central special where comedians parade across the stage, to a real life drama that inspires a comical look at the parts of life that don’t seem so funny on the surface.

A community of comedians is on full display here at The Bell House in Brooklyn. They recall the first time they met or saw Eugene perform, and recollect memories of the festival’s past 10 years. Each of those festivals were presented with some off-the-wall theme – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. H Jon Benjamin (lead voice in “Bob’s Burgers”) tells his story … a pork chop story that was his introduction to Eugene. Silliness is ever-present, but the Eugene/Katie love story stands on its own – including the ‘first kiss’ photo that graced their wedding invitation. The festival may have begun as a joke, and comedians may shy away from dragging their personal life into the act, but it’s clear “comedy is about connecting with people”, and its value never diminishes.

watch the trailer:

CLOVER (2020)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. These days, B-movies don’t get the respect they deserve. In the age of massive, hundred million dollar (and more) budget blockbusters, the low-budget movies produced purely for entertainment purposes get brushed off as being undeserving of screen time. The truth is, the best ones are easy to watch … and can be a fun way to while away the hours if, say, one is forced to stay in their home for an extended period of time. Writer-director-actor Jon Abrahams’ movie fills this role just fine.

Mr. Abrahams (MEET THE PARENTS) and Mark Webber (GREEN ROOM) star as the Callahan brothers, Mickey and Jackie, respectively. These are the type of Irish brothers who only stop bickering long enough to wrestle each other to the ground. While most of their spats may be typical brother stuff, this latest involves Jackie’s inept card playing, and the subsequent loss of the money they needed to pay back a mob loan shark. Missing this payment means Tony (Chazz Palminteri) assumes ownership of the Irish bar their late father opened, and it could mean even worse news for the brothers.

I would pay triple ticket price just to watch Chazz Palminteri chew scenery like he does here as Tony. When he makes the boys an offer they can’t refuse, they end up in the basement of a house with Tony’s son Joey (Michael Godere) telling them to shoot the man tied to a chair (another of Tony’s loan customers). Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, and the next thing we know Mickey and Jackie are on the run with 13 year old Clover (Nicole Elizabeth Berger), dodging Tony’s men, in addition to the 2 female assassins (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) and Julia Jones (WIND RIVER) they aren’t even aware of!

As a quasi-framing device, we find Ron Perlman holed up in a fabulous mansion that we view with the film’s opening aerial shot. Mr. Perlman is afforded his own chance to ‘let loose’ and emote like he’s participating in an acting seminar … while play-calling the wolf video running simultaneously. Other characters that cross paths with the brothers and Clover include Jackie’s ex-girlfriend Angie (Jessica Szhor), a befuddling rescue ‘scientist’ played by Jake Weber, and a bar owner played by Tichina Arnold, who like Perlman and Palminteri, was clearly directed that it’s not possible to go “too big” in a scene.

Humor, most of it pretty dark, is around every corner. A bowling pin has a use outside the lane, the lady assassins drive a car with a fitting sign, we are treated to a good old fashioned death scene, and there’s a shootout accompanied by melodic jazz. As a cherry on top, the bar patron that the brothers leave in charge is Larry, played by the director’s dad, Martin Abrahams. There is a definite 1970’s vibe to the story and film, and we can’t help but be a little disappointed when the conclusion does in fact, “end the chaos.”

watch the trailer:

“How to Fix a Drug Scandal” (Netflix DocuSeries, 2020)

April 1, 2020

Beginning April 1, 2020 – Netflix, 4 episodes

 Greetings again from the darkness. We expect the chef to taste the special of the day. We don’t expect the bench chemist to personally try out the drugs being tested for a criminal case. This 4-part DocuSeries from Netflix explores not one, but two of the most explosive cases in Massachusetts history. Were these Law Enforcement scandals? Were these workplace scandals? Were there miscarriages of justice? The simple answer to all three questions is yes, and the series breaks down the stunning details as well as the aftermath.

Most DocuSeries focus on one crime or one criminal. Here, documentarian Erin Lee Carr delivers two stories connected by job description, consequences and geography. In the state of Massachusetts, two drug testing laboratories are used for the majority of drug cases. The Hinton lab covers Boston and the eastern part of the state, while the Amherst lab covers the west, including Springfield, the capital for illegal drugs. In the Hinton lab, it was discovered that “star” chemist Annie Dookhan had illegally falsified thousands of drug tests. In the Amherst lab, chemist Sonja Farak admitted not just to using the drugs she was testing, but using those drugs while on the job.

Either of these stories are worthy of documentary treatment, and yet combining them generates even more impact, both from a viewing standpoint and for the legal fallout. Ms. Farak’s story is easily the most fascinating. There is a reason that many bakers carry a few extra pounds … they sample the goods. So why shouldn’t we be extra cautious with those who test illicit drugs all day, every day? Evidently no one in Massachusetts ever thought to ask the question, as Ms. Farak worked in the Amherst office for nearly 10 years with minimal oversight. She literally walked across the hall from the lab to smoke crack cocaine, and even cooked the drug at her desk!

If not for the Farak story, we would likely find Annie Dookhan’s case to be one of the most outrageous we’ve heard. Lauded as the highest producing chemist in the busy Hinton lab where she worked for 9 years, it turns out Ms. Dookhan used “dry labbing” to sustain her numbers. Dry labbing is basically eye-balling substances to determine if they are likely illegal drugs. These two women were involved in over 50,000 cases, including those for which they testified in court. They are accused of “fraud on the court.”

As you might imagine, defense attorneys were in an uproar as the details in these cases emerged. Ms. Carr focuses her attention on defense attorney Luke Ryan, and one of his collaborating trial attorneys, Jared Olanoff. While law enforcement and prosecutors fought to maintain the convictions, Mr. Ryan spent a significant portion of his time researching, tracking down evidence, and making the case that thousands of convictions should be overturned, with prisoners released and criminal records cleared. It’s particular disheartening to see Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley take the stance that Ms. Farak’s inappropriate actions were limited in scope to just a few cases. Ms. Coakley’s statements were made before any type of investigation had been done, so it was clearly an attempt to minimize attention from the media, public and other attorneys.

Interviews with Ms. Farak’s mother and younger sister Amy are included. Their words help personalize the film, since dramatizations and archival clips are used for Farak’s stunning testimony. The actions of so many are questioned throughout. Even with limited budgets, how are these chemists not subjected to some basic oversight? How does Judge Kindred make the ruling he does? Why did the ACLU need to get involved in what seems like a pretty straightforward situation? What happens if Luke Ryan doesn’t remain diligent in his pursuit of justice? What if the State Supreme Court had refused to hear the cases?

Some background information is provided for both women, including the fact that Sonja Farak was the first girl to play high school football in Rhode Island. Both women had strong academic backgrounds, but education doesn’t always make for good judgment. This DocuSeries from Ms. Carr is exceptionally well crafted and the stories move fast and keep us spellbound. More than 50,000 cases were impacted by the inappropriate and illegal actions of these two trusted chemists, and their actions cast doubt on the entire judicial system. Let’s just hope that the next time one of your co-workers is sneaking off 10 times a day to smoke crack, that someone will say something to somebody!

Premiering April 1, 2020 on Netflix

watch the trailer:


March 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Learning of the courageous people who found their own way to battle the Nazis during World War II never gets old. Sometimes brain power and courage are more important than gun power. Such is the case in this latest from writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who brings a fascinating story from within the French Resistance to the big screen. This is a group that rescued 10,000 orphaned kids, and this is a story of one special man from within that group.

Jesse Eisenberg (and an iffy French accent) plays Marcel, the son of a multi-generational Jewish butcher in Strasbourg France. Out of familial duty, Marcel works at the butcher shop with his father, but his passion is in performing arts. One evening his dad (Karl Markovics) ‘catches’ him performing a silent Charlie Chaplin act on stage at a local cabaret. A parental lecture follows. Marcel’s penchant for entertaining does come in handy when he helps his brother Alain (Felix Moati) and cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig, SON OF SAUL) rescue 123 orphans.

The opening sequence in the film finds young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, Lorna Luft in JUDY) witnessing her Jewish parents being murdered in the street outside their Munich home by Nazis in 1938. We next see her in the group of 123 orphans noted above. As a kind of framing device, we flash forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, as General George S Patton (Ed Harris) is addressing the troops and telling the story of a remarkable man. That man is Marcel, and the film then takes us through his journey and we “see” the story that General Patton is “telling.”

When Marcel and his brother agree to join the French Jewish Resistance (also known as Organization Juive de Combat, OJC), they face more danger, and maintain their focus on rescuing orphans. Helping in the cause is Emma (Clemence Poesy, IN BRUGES), and a mutual respect and attraction forms between she and Marcel. The brutality of the war is shown through the actions of Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). As the head of the Gestapo in France (and known as The Butcher of Lyon), Barbie works out of the Hotel Terminus, and his sadistic tendencies find their way into the Resistance.

Once the war escalates to a certain point, the Resistance must decide whether it’s best to continue hiding the kids, or risk the perilous journey across the Alps in hopes of freedom. In reality, it’s not much of a decision, as staying put likely means torture, if not death. There are some touching moments between Marcel and the kids, and some acts of pure bravery from all involved.

At times, the film teeters into LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL territory, but never for long. The moments of pure terror are well presented, yet never overly graphic. We feel the stress of the Resistance as they struggle to get the kids to safety, and feel their pain in tragic losses. As the film ends, General Patton finishes his story by introducing his story’s Marcel. The spotlight then lands on Marcel Marceau in full make-up and costume. Marceau, of course, went on to become famous and beloved around the world as the most famous mime. Filmmaker Jakubowicz has delivered yet another fascinating story of heroism and courage … another story that deserves to be remembered.

watch the trailer: