CITIZEN PENN (2021, doc)

May 6, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As a two-time Oscar winner for MILK (2008) and MYSTIC RIVER (2003), Sean Penn is unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation. He’s also an accomplished writer, director, and producer, and has been in two high-profile marriages/divorces: once to pop superstar Madonna, and then to actress Robin Wright. Over the years, Penn has been labeled Hollywood’s bad boy, anti-American, an opportunist, an activist, a philanthropist, and a humanitarian. Documentarian Don Hardy sets the stage by acknowledging all of that, and then focuses on Sean Penn’s work with his relief organization J/P HRO (now CORE).

Director Hardy interviews Penn in what appears to be his living room. Penn rarely stops smoking and does an admirable job of taking us through how he became more than just a celebrity seeking a photo op. It was 2010 when Haiti was hit by a massive 7.0 earthquake that killed 250,000, injured 300,000, and displaced 1.5 million from their home. Penn’s personal life was at a fork, and he viewed this as a way to do the right thing and help those in need. So he made some calls and along with other volunteers, headed to Haiti. Penn describes this as “building the airplane after takeoff”. Stunned by the devastation, Penn used his connections to garner medical supplies and other items.

Despite facing cynicism from many, Penn mostly avoided cameras, except when he granted interviews to Anderson Cooper on CNN in hopes of raising awareness and funds for relief efforts. Penn spent several months in Haiti and his team evolved from emergency relief (medical support, food, clean water) to temporary housing, to the removal of tons of debris and rubble, and finally to new development. One of the camps that housed 60,000 people began as a tent city and is today a new city of its own.

Director Hardy weaves in some terrific video footage that corresponds to Penn’s recollections, and there are especially tension-filled moments involving diphtheria, cholera, and an emergency birth. To Penn’s credit, he doesn’t harp on the political unrest within Haiti, and spends his time and energy on helping the citizens and his JP/HRO team as best he can. We also see clips of the organization’s annual gala and witness Penn’s growing frustration at the number of wealthy individuals who partake in the food, party, and music, yet don’t crack open a checkbook. He shows gratitude to those who are generous, but can’t hide his distaste for the others – proving that his passion goes much deeper than good PR.

Penn recruited Ann Lee from her work at the U.N. to head the newly named CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and the relief work from this organization has carried on through Hurricane Matthew in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 Pandemic, as they distributed tests to underserved areas. You may be the kind that volunteers for everything. Or you may be the kind that critiques others while lounging on your sofa. But even if your political views don’t align with Penn’s, the film will surely have you respecting his sacrifices for those in needs. His are real actions … nothing for “show”.

Premiering on Discovery+ on May 6, 2021

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THE HUMAN FACTOR (2021, doc)

May 6, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s truly (and sadly) the never-ending story. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, or Jews and Arabs, has a history of more than one hundred years. Documentarian Dror Moreh was Oscar nominated for his 2012 film THE GATEKEEPERS, which told the story from the Israeli security perspective, and this time he focuses on the U.S. negotiators’ viewpoint. He covers a 30 year time period, but a substantial portion is dedicated to the Clinton administration.

The list of familiar names from Israel includes: Yitzhak Shamir, Ytizhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Bibi Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak. From the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), there is the ever-present Yasser Arafat. And from the United States, we see Jim Baker, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright. But beyond the names and faces we know, Moreh interviews negotiators such as Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Robert Malley, and diplomat Galal Hamel for their distinct insight into the years of meetings and attempts at agreement. These interviews blended with the extraordinary archival footage provide more information than an endless stream of newscasts over the last thirty years.

Elections, assassinations, wars, and culture clashes have combined to bring constant shifts to negotiations. We are told that even the language differences creates problems, as each side defines “history” and “future” in their own way. One of the most fascinating segments revolves around the infamous/iconic handshake at the 1993 Oslo Accords. The importance of the handshake was relayed to Rabin, and he was adamant that Arafat not be in uniform, not carry a gun, and that there be no cheek-kisses, which Arafat was known for. So the negotiators came up with “Safari suit” as a description, and the handshake occurred. 

Numerous moments like this are discussed by the negotiators, and we realize that posturing and power plays have been the main reason nothing has really changed (hence, the film’s title). Peace seemed within grasp in 1995 … right up until Rabin was assassinated. And the Clinton segment around the failed last gasp of the 2000 Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David is exceptional with its photographs and insight from the interviews.

Moreh has delivered the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at one of the most frustrating global situations, and the negotiators offer insight into the process – and the role played by manipulation, credibility, trust, and empathy. Mostly, we are left with what might have been, and are told “peace” is not even the right word when no solution exists.

Opens in theaters May 7, 2021

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THE SONS OF SAM: A DESCENT INTO DARKNESS (2021, docuseries)

May 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Obsession can take many forms, and a few are on display in this latest Netflix docuseries from filmmaker Joshua Zeman. For those alive in 1977, you likely remember the reign of terror in New York City due to the “.44 Killer”, later known as “Son of Sam”. Fear was pervasive, and the shootings that actually started in the summer of 1976 but not connected until months later, mostly seemed random, which added to the public panic. Despite the title, Zeman’s docuseries is not so much about the murders, but about one man’s obsession with proving the ‘Son of Sam’ was really more than one person, and that the relief felt by citizens after the arrest of David Berkowitz, was misplaced.

Maury Terry was an IBM employee with an exceedingly inquisitive mind. His interest in the Son of Sam case pushed him to slowly evolve into an investigative journalist ultimately convinced that the NYPD had closed the case too soon, and not approached his own level of in-depth research and detail. Terry’s work is presented here after being delivered to Zeman in three boxes after Terry’s death. Paul Giamatti reads Terry’s own notes and book passages, and Zeman fills the four episodes with archival news clips, Terry’s own videos, shots of newspaper clippings, and interviews (past and present) from family members, cops, journalists, and even surviving victims. There is a recounting of columnist Jimmy Breslin’s time as a conduit to Berkowitz, a clip of Berkowitz’s father’s press conference after the arrest, and a fascinating tale of Maury Terry’s first date with his ex-wife … anyone looking for a good dating tip should ignore this segment.

Towards the end of the first episode, we see the iconic video of David Berkowitz smiling at the camera as police take him into custody. Since a (at the time) rare .44 caliber pistol was found with him, and Berkowitz confessed to the murders during his interrogation, the NYPD was quick to go on TV and announce to a relieved citizenry that the streets of New York were again safe, and Son of Sam was behind bars.

However, for Maury Terry, the case and the evidence just didn’t add up. He was intrigued by many bits and pieces. Berkowitz stated that his actions had been guided by a 1000 year old demon through his neighbor Sam’s dog. Additionally, the variances in police sketches drawn from eyewitnesses over the year simply didn’t add up to being the same guy. As to Berkowitz himself, the personality of the Yonkers postal worker didn’t fit cleanly into the police profile either. The more skeptical Terry became, the more doubt his research created. The final 3 episodes really focus on the case work he performed over decades … especially his belief that the murders traced back to a satanic cult.

The show is well crafted as it connects us visually with Terry’s writings and findings (including his 1987 book “The Ultimate Evil”). We see ‘The Devil’s Cave’ and get a nice overview of the neighborhood where Terry spent much of his time investigating. We also head to Minot, North Dakota and Stanford University to gain intel on how those two sites tie-in to the case. Additionally, there’s a possible connection to the Charles Manson family. The show is elevated by real life occurrences such as the letter Berkowitz wrote to Terry, and how seemingly unrelated murders might have a connection. In fact, by the end of episode four, we can’t help but take note of the chain of dead bodies beyond those of the Son of Sam victims. Could it all be coincidence, or possibly the result of Maury Terry stretching too hard to make his case?

Crime shows are big TV ratings business these days, and this one blends the best of that with a notorious real life event. Having the retired Police Captain Borelli defend the work of the police somehow doesn’t make us feel more satisfied with their findings, and by the end, we are just as skeptical of Terry’s beliefs as we are of the department’s proclamation that Berkowitz acted alone. Of course, the highlight of the show are the videos of Terry interviewing Berkowitz in person at Attica. This was influential for Netflix’s brilliant series “Mindhunter” where Oliver Cooper played Berkowitz. We are tuned in to the body language of a guy who has been in prison for years. Even more than 40 years later, the events prove traumatic to revisit, and are only made creepier by Terry’s theories. Were his theories on the right path or was he a lunatic conspiracy theorist, as many described? It’s only now that we can question the accuracy of Berkowitz’s first letter to Terry when he told him, “The public will never truly believe you.” Whether accurate or not, there is no questioning Maury Terry’s obsession with the Son of Sam case. Zeman’s docuseries will tax your armchair detective skills and leave you wondering what’s real.

***NOTE: the opening credits of each episode feature a rocking version of “Season of the Witch” performed by Joan Jett. It’s certainly not the chilling version by Lana Del Rey or the psychedelic version from Donovan, but it’s the perfect fit for this docuseries.

***NOTE: David Berkowitz turns 68 years old in June 2021, and is currently housed at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York

Releasing on Netflix May 5, 2021

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STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET (2021, doc)

April 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Kermit the Frog. Bert and Ernie. Big Bird. Cookie Monster. Abby Cadabby. Grover. Oscar the Grouch. Guy Smiley. Mr. Snuffleupagus. Prairie Dawn. The Two-Headed Monster. Elmo. Count Von Count (The Count is my personal favorite). What a lineup of characters … each with their own personality and look, and every one designed to appeal to kids and help educate. It’s been more than 50 years since “Sesame Street” first hit the TV airwaves, and filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo (MAD HOT BALLROOM, 2005) uses Michael Davis’ book, “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” as a guide to this personal peek behind the curtain, and a look at the folks who made the show such a success.

The four main drivers responsible for the show were Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Jon Stone, and Jim Henson. Ms. Cooney and Mr. Morrisett co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop, which led to the research and funding necessary to kick off “Sesame Street”, the show. Ms. Cooney brought on Mr. Stone to develop and produce the programming, and of course, Mr. Henson, the creator of the Muppets and “Fraggle Rock” was the master puppeteer who was with the project from its inception in 1969.

The background information is quite interesting. Morrisett recalls hearing his 3 year old daughter singing beer jingles she had memorized from watching TV. He instinctively knew TV was making an impact and could be better utilized. Cooney talks about her initial business plan and how, at the time, a woman wasn’t going to be accepted as the face of an innovative program – risky for investors and networks. We also see many clips of Stone and Henson at work on set, and numerous people offer perspective on the creativity and effort that went into those early years. In fact, the film opens with a look at the 1981 New York City set as an episode is being filmed. Some of the cast members interviewed include Roscoe Ormon (Gordon), Sonia Manzano (Maria), and Bob McGrath (Bob).

With an early emphasis on providing educational programming for minority and inner city kids, we hear of Mississippi’s refusal to air the program due to minority cast members. The focus on 3 to 5 year olds was revolutionary at the time, and the societal benefits of injecting fun into learning was immense, though brilliantly, the creators made it interesting for adults as well. Filmmaker Agrelo has much to cover here, and does a nice job segmenting so that each piece of the Sesame Street puzzle is clear. The focus is on the early years (pre-Elmo). The dynamics of Frank Oz and Jim Henson as master puppeteers is a joy to behold, while Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf offer perspective on the frantic pace to generate the music necessary for each episode … including the “lawsuit” involved with “Letter B”.

As with any educational efforts, but especially those with an entertainment push, addressing the difficult and uncomfortable issues is critical. We hear about the iconic segment where the characters deal with Mr. Hooper’s death in the 1980’s. Even today, it’s held up as the standard for helping kids deal with death. Jim Henson’s unexpected death at age 53 in 1990 is also discussed, and clips from that funeral will likely bring a tear to your eye. Big Bird singing Kermit’s signature song, “Bein’ Green” got to me. There is a bit on Carroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar), who passed away just over a year ago, and all of the key characters get their moment.

This is an HBO Documentary and Chicken Soup for the Soul production, and it’s an enlightening ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the visionaries responsible for this groundbreaking, Emmy and Peabody award-winning show that probably saved public television. So my advice is to “Put down the Ducky” and give this documentary a watch. It’s sure to take you to where “the air is sweet.”

The film will be released in theaters on April 23, 2021 and On Demand on May 7, 2021

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TINY TIM: KING FOR A DAY (2021, doc)

April 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not sure how many people under age 50 even know who Tiny Tim was. Perhaps they recall a mention of his most popular song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in one of the Harry Potter books, or remember hearing the song in the 2010 horror film INSIDIOUS; but if they happen to recognize his name, I expect very few in that age group understand the cultural phenomenon that was Tiny Tim … albeit for a short period of time.

Filmmaker Johan von Sydow opens with a clip of Tiny Tim singing “I’ve Got You Babe”, a hit song for Sonny and Cher. It’s likely a jarring opening for those unfamiliar with him, but it captures his unique style and stage presence. Weird Al Yankovic is the narrator that guides us through the story, and there are interviews with Tiny Tim’s widow Susan, his daughter Tulip (yep),  and personality Wavy Gravy (best known for the WOODSTOCK movie), as well as friends, musicians, directors, and others who provide insight into the man and his life and career.

“Tiptoe through the Tulips” was actually a hit song from 1929, and Tiny Tim reinvented it as a novelty song – and we see the clip of him performing it in 1968 for a national audience on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”. Yankovic reads passages from Tiny Tim’s diary, and we gain perspective on what it’s like to go through life as a “freak”. From the diary we learn, “God told me to sing the sissy way”, and that was evidently his motivation for using the falsetto … allowing him to be billed as “The Human Canary” early on. His first album, “God Bless Tiny Tim”, was released in 1968, but it was the following year that caused the biggest splash. In December 1969, Tiny Tim married 17 year old Miss Vicki Budinger live on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”, and 45 million viewers tuned in.

Born in New York as Herbert Butros Khaury, he was focused at an early age on being famous – on making an impact. Carrying a shopping bag on stage and pulling out a ukulele, Tiny Tim crafted a stage persona that took over his life. Of course the thing about fame is that it’s often fleeting. Director von Sydow pulls much of the story from the biography, “Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim”, by Justin Martell and Alanna Wray Mcdonald. Sure, there’s the photo by Diane Arbus, but there’s also the mob control and gigs with the traveling circus. In 1995, he married lifelong fan Susan Gardner. This was the year before his death, and we see the clips of his time on stage as he has a heart attack, and just prior to his final collapse a couple of months later. How can so much sadness come from a man who entertained so many? We are reminded of the song, “Tears of a Clown”, yet when one’s goal is fame, the piper must be paid.

Being released in theaters on April 23, 2021

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SECRETS OF THE WHALES (2021, docuseries)

April 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. For many of us, our exposure to whales is limited to learning in school they are the largest mammals on Earth, and browsing travel guides displaying fantastic photographs of breeching whales alongside various tour excursions. National Geographic is on a mission to take us deeper into the world of these marvelous marine creatures. This 4-part docuseries is Executive Produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and award-winning photographer Brian Skerry, and was filmed over 3 years in multiple locations around the globe.

Episode One is titled “Orca Dynasty”, and it explores communication and social structure that occurs within the family pod and community … a recurring theme in each of the episodes, and across the five types of whales covered. Orcas, sometimes referred to as “killer whales”, are the gorgeous black and white whales often featured at water parks … although thankfully not as frequently as in the past. This segment takes us to New Zealand where we see the Orcas work together in hunting stingray, and utilize sophisticated sonar as their guide. We also follow them to the frigid water of the Arctic Ocean, as well as their confrontations with elephant seals in The Falklands.

Episode Two, “Humpback Song”, features a baby learning to “speak”, and again focuses on the culture and communication of the humpbacks. We witness these whales using their large brains for “bubblenet” fishing in Alaska – a highly coordinated effort that has been occurring for 40-plus years. The humpbacks breech and then slap their fin to communicate with each other. Their ‘song of the sea’ is featured in the Cook Islands, and we see the bonding that occurs between mother and calf. It’s awe-inspiring to note that 100,000 whales from around the world simultaneously head to Antarctica for a krill buffet that results in each whale gaining up to 12 pounds an hour!

In Episode Three, “Beluga Kingdom”, we follow along as these creamy white whales and their exceptionally social manner, adopt a stray narwhal whale into their pod so that it doesn’t die alone. The narwhals are the most unusual looking whale in existence, even in comparison to the Belugas. With skin 100 times thicker than humans, Belugas are also known for group births, and generations of Belugas have spent one-third of their summers in Hudson Bay (Canada).

The fourth and final episode, “Ocean Giants” focuses on the massive sperm whales, best known as “Moby Dick”. We learn their brains are six times larger than humans, and they use a Morse Code style clicking sound to communicate with each other. In Dominica (eastern Caribbean) we find 20 sperm whale families who deep dive to feed on 100 squid per day. This segment also includes the often tragic ramifications of human debris in the ocean, as sea turtles are entangled in discarded fishing nets.

Photography throughout the series is stunning and breath-taking. It takes us to places we never knew existed or might have previously only dreamt of. The only downside is the narration from Sigourney Weaver, whose lack of energy in reading, periodically gives this the sound of an old-school educational film. James Cameron provides an epilogue for each episode, but without a doubt, it’s the fabulous creatures themselves that hold our attention. We find the Orcas, Humpbacks, Belugas, Narwhals, and Sperm Whales to be awe-inspiring and mesmerizing, and it’s fascinating to learn how intricate and complex their social structures and cultures are. These intelligent giants of the sea draw us right into their world; and we are better off for it.


Disney+ original series Secrets of the Whales, from National Geographic, premieres Earth Day, April 22, 2021. The three-year project will also be featured in the new National Geographic book Secrets of the Whales, on sale April 6, and the May issue of National Geographic magazine, The Ocean Issue, available online on April 15. 

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GUNDA (2021, doc)

April 15, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a pig in prone position with her head sticking through an opening in the barn. It takes a minute to realize the sow isn’t sleeping, but rather giving birth. Slowly the newborn piglets begin tumbling out into the world. Cutting to a reverse camera angle, we see the 12-13 babies desperately trying to latch onto mom for their first meal. The runt of the litter struggles more than the others. Award-winning filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy runs this first segment just over 19 minutes. There is no dialogue. No human on screen. The soundtrack is all natural from nature: the snorts from mama sow, the squeals from piglets, and unseen birds chirping.

Our second segment finds roosters in a crate. Clearly new to the surroundings, and likely never-before “free” to roam the land, these chickens cautiously explore as the camera focuses on their tentative initial steps from the cage and startled reactions to birds. A one-legged rooster captures our attention as it makes its way through the grass and over fallen logs. It’s likely the longest amount of time a movie camera has been dedicated to following roosters around.

We then head back to find the piglets have grown substantially. We don’t know how much time has passed, but we watch along with their mother as the youngsters play in the field, fight with each other, and bully their youngest sibling. Gunda, the mother sow, watches over them just as any mother would watch over her kids. Our third group is introduced as the barn door opens and the cows are released. They romp into the fields like school kids at recess. Some of the cows stare directly into the camera as if to inform us they are ready for their close-up. It’s fascinating to see how they use teamwork for an ingenious head-to-tail solution to the annoying flies that relentlessly pester them.

The final segment returns us to the pigs as they display the same feeding frenzy as one might witness at the buffet on a Carnival cruise. An ending that will surely evoke emotions in viewers, though maybe not at the extreme of Gunda herself. Filmmaker Kosakovskiy leaves us wondering how a black and white film with no dialogue or human characters makes such an impression as it focuses on farm animals. Pork, chicken, and beef. Clearly it’s no coincidence that he chose three staples of the American diet. There is no lecture on animal rights, and none of the brutality of other “raised for food” documentaries is shown. But the message is there. It was filmed on farms in Norway, Spain, and the U.K., but the locales matter little. Director Kosakovskiy previously brought us the excellent AQUARELA (2018), a documentary showcasing the nature of water and ice, and here he assisted Egil Haskjold Larsen with cinematography, and Ainara Vera with editing. It’s an unusual film, and one meant to inspire reflection and thought … and hopefully change.

In theaters beginning April 16, 2021

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FUTURE PEOPLE: THE FAMILY OF DONOR 5114 (2021, doc)

April 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Over the past five decades, blended families have become commonplace, while at the same time single women and same-sex couples have utilized sperm-donors to enrich and expand their families. Michael Rothman’s documentary kind of combines these two as he explores the 37 half-siblings resulting from anonymous sperm-donor number 5114 at the California Cryobank.

You may have seen one or both of the film comedies, STARBUCK (2011) and DELIVERY MAN (2013). The first from Canada, the re-make two years later starring Vince Vaughn. Both were directed by Ken Scott and revolve around a sperm-donor who discovers he fathered 533 offspring. Well, Mr. Rothman’s documentary is not quite that outlandish, and it’s told from the perspective of the kids, who slowly uncover and communicate with their half-siblings. They even have their own Facebook group!

Rothman’s approach allows us access to the meet-ups (reunions) of the half-siblings as more of them are able to make the trips. Over the years this was filmed, we are there for Taos, Los Angeles, Plymouth, and Breckenridge. We even join them for a tour of the California Cryobank, where one couple takes the last two vials of 5114, in hopes of adding to their own family, as well as this connected one.

These are mostly just normal kids who are trying to fill that familial gap that occurs when one doesn’t know a parent. It’s both understandable and emotional. As Mattie from Dallas turns 18, she’s encouraged to reach out to the donor through the organization. The burden she carries for the group proves a bit too heavy, but later one of the siblings does make contact virtually … and Rothman has us in the room as the correspondence is read.

We are shown a timeline for the kids, and we hear the same audio recording they do – that of the donor at the time of his 1996 application. Hearing his voice provides comfort, but his self-description of “optimistic and curious” with a love of fly-fishing, leaves the kids wishing (and deserving) of more. As with any group of 37 kids, there is a wide variance in personalities, but the kids enjoy exploring their similarities. We are told that the average donor leads to 12-14 offspring, so 37 is a statistical anomaly, and hats off to these half-siblings for bonding with each other to complete the circle.

Streaming on Discovery+ on April 10, 2021

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MIRACLE FISHING: KIDNAPPED ABROAD (doc, 2021)

March 25, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Depending on the subject, it’s not uncommon for documentaries to utilize archival video footage from 25+ years ago. What is unusual about co-directors Miles Hargrove’s and Christopher Birge’s film is that it relies almost solely on footage from that era … and all filmed by an amateur. This is really a video diary of the harrowing episode Miles and his family endured after his father was kidnapped and held hostage in 1994.

Tom Hargrove was an odd blend of agricultural scientist and journalist, and had lived with his family, wife Susan and two sons, in the Philippines for almost 20 years when he took a job with a non-profit organization requiring relocation to Cali, Columbia. One day in September 1994, Tom tried to beat the traffic by taking a back road to work. He was taken hostage at a FARC road block set up for “fishing” – the goal of catching someone of value for ransom. FARC was a guerilla force of the people’s rebellion, and used kidnapping-collecting ransom to bankroll their operation.

This situation put the family in a horrendous situation. Tom’s son Miles decided to film the process, mostly as a diary for this dad to watch upon his return, though none of them had any idea what they were about to endure for almost a full year. It’s difficult to imagine a more stressful time for a family, especially once Tom’s company announced they would not pay the $6 million ransom or be involved in the negotiations. With hundreds of kidnapping each year, the Columbian government had no assistance to offer, and the family’s FBI contact could only provide tips and guidance.

Miles’ video clearly shows the formation of an ensemble support group, including the Greiner’s who lived next door. There was strength in the communal approach, and this included both the radio negotiations with the captors, as well as the stress-relieving group dinners. It’s fascinating, frightening, and gut-wrenching to watch and listen as the negotiations take place. The tension is nearly unbearable, so just imagine what the family felt at the time. It’s as painful to watch the moments of hope as it is the lowest lows. The days and weeks and months of waiting are soul-crushing.

This is a true crime story as seen through the eyes of the victimized family. An ordeal that ultimately lasted 325 days, and required help from so many … including Uncle Raford in west Texas … is something that while we see it play out on screen, we can’t fathom having to live through. This family learned the definition of “proof of life”, and worked daily to maneuver their way through a world they knew nothing of. Miles dedicates the film “For my Mom and Dad”, and invites us along for the memories.

Streaming March 25, 2021 on Discovery+

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SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.