THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (2020, doc)

May 21, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Artists think differently than the rest of us. Not only do they see the world with an offbeat or skewed vision, but they process life events in ways we sometimes can’t fathom. For instance, if a crime were committed against you – say, your property was stolen – your natural response would be anger, or a desire for justice for the perpetrator. In Norwegian director Benjamin Ree’s documentary, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova reacts much differently when her two most valuable paintings are stolen. She befriends the thief.

We see the security video footage. Karl-Bertil Nordland and another man break into Oslo’s Galleri Nobel and then walk out with Barbora’s paintings. Upon being apprehended, the painter and thief have a chat in the courtroom. Bertil confesses that he chose the paintings because they were “beautiful.” The artist is intrigued and invites the thief to pose for a portrait when he is released from jail. As if this situation isn’t bizarre enough, Bertil claims he has no idea where the stolen paintings are, and has no memory of what happened. Yes, he’s also a drug addict.

It’s a bit uncomfortable to watch post-prison Bertil lounging on Barbora’s sofa as she sketches him and they converse about philosophies of life. Slowly, their relationship builds into a friendship. It’s an unlikely connection through art. We get a rare glimpse of an artist at work, as we see Barbora in her studio working on her pieces. Of course, she is also saddened by the loss of the two unrecovered pieces, and we also witness the artist struggle with the commerce/business side of art, as she faces frequent rejections from galleries as she attempts to display her work. This is on top of the lectures from her boyfriend … lectures delivered in the manner a parent would talk to their kid.

One of the more surreal moments occurs when the camera films Barbora at Bertil’s place, and she sketches him and his girlfriend in a provocative pose. During all of this, we hear Barbora discussing why she finds Bertil interesting, despite his junkie-criminal lifestyle. After all, he is the kind of guy who scores a fix on his way to rehab. Things get very interesting … in a weird way … when Ree turns the tables and films Bertil analyzing Barbora.

These two have studied each other over the years, and may have a better understanding of their friend, than they do of themselves. Watching Barbora act as caregiver for an injured Bertil is a confusing development to process, but it goes back to how artists see the world through their own eyes. Her paintings may be ultra-realistic, but her life barely qualifies as our reality … at least until the rent is past due. The connections through the circle tattoo may come across as somewhat creepy, and we find ourselves a bit skeptical of many scenes where the camera is present, but there is no denying this works as a remarkable character study of two people we wouldn’t normally categorize as friends.

Neon is presenting this via Virtual Cinema beginning May 22, 2020

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A TOWERING TASK: THE STORY OF THE PEACE CORPS (2020, doc)

May 21, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The PSAs that frequently popped up on my childhood TV are vivid memories, though it took many years before I had any concept of what the Peace Corps was, how it was formed, and what it did. Director Alana DeJoseph, herself a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), and writer Shana Kelly want to make sure we all know the history of the organization, what its mission has been for almost 60 years, and most importantly, that the Peace Corps still exists today.

William J Lederer and Eugene Burdick co-wrote the 1958 political novel “The Ugly American”, and the best-seller had a surprising effect on John Kennedy’s ability to get The Peace Corps established not long after he became President of the Unites States.  In 1961, President Kennedy named his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, as the organization’s first director. Shriver was a passionate leader and served as the director into 1966. We see archival footage and photographs of Shriver’s time with the Peace Corps, and learn that a memo from his task force was responsible for the phrase “A Towering Task”, a recurring reference over the years, and the title of this film.

From the beginning, there were vocal skeptics. An escape plan for ‘draft dodger’ is how many cynics labeled The Peace Corps, and it was a difficult label to shake. We learn that in the beginning, four out of every five applicants was denied admission, and the footage of those early training regimens looked more like the Marines than a volunteer service organization. Still, many were attracted to the stated mission: Promote World Peace and Friendship, a mission that remains in place today.

In addition to the treasure trove of archival footage and speeches, there are many interviews with authors, former volunteers, and many of the directors who have served. We view some of the recruiting films and PSAs and travel through the procession of US Presidents from Kennedy through Trump, and explore the various challenges faced by the Peace Corps. One of the more in-depth segments involves the longest-serving former director Loret Miller Ruppe, who was director from 1981-89. Her recounting the story of the Prime Minister of Fiji and his words to Ronald Reagan are a highlight.

Ms. DeJoseph and Ms. Kelly have delivered a most-informative history of the Peace Corps in a matter-of-fact manner. Four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening serves as the narrator, and her work is serviceable, though lacking in energy. The film is neither propaganda nor a hard sell for volunteers, and it’s not what one would call entertaining. Instead, it serves as a detailed timeline of this important agency, and that is an important step for posterity.

Available in Virtual Cinema beginning May 22, 2020

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TORPEDO: U-235 (2020)

May 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Desperate times, desperate measures” is a phrase that dates back to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic Oath), and has been applied in many and varied situations since … war strategy being one of the most common. We hear the phrase a couple of times in the War Room during an early scene in the feature film directorial debut of writer-director Sven Huybrechts submarine movie. The term “submarine movie” is used with the utmost respect, as I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Opening with a well-orchestrated attack on Nazi soldiers, we are soon in the midst of a group of resistance fighters – a rag tag bunch committed to wiping out as many Nazis as possible. In the War Room scene, this group is referred to as “The Bad Eggs”, and everyone from all sides seems to want them stopped. However, there is a problem – this group is made up of the only ones crazy enough to accept the current ‘suicide’ mission: delivering a Uranium filled submarine from the Belgian Congo to the United States, where the cargo will be used for the Manhattan Project.

The cast is excellent, led by the ongoing conflict between two outstanding and renowned leads: Belgian actor Koen De Bouw as Nazi-hater Stan, and German actor Thure Riefenstein as captured U-Boat Captain Franz Jager. Co-writers Huybrechts and Johan Horemans effectively use the dangers and claustrophobia of the submarine, and are truly expert in their pitting Stan against Jager. Stan’s beautiful (and sharpshooter) daughter Nadine (Ella-June Henrard) is also on the mission, but it’s Stan’s tragic backstory (which we see in tension-filled flashbacks) that have filled him with a lust for revenge and over-protectiveness.

Training for submarine crews typically lasts a year, and this group of misfits has only three weeks to prepare. Some of the early soundtrack reminds of the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which comes across a bit misplaced, but that’s a minor quibble for a film that gets most everything else right – except for a too-good-to-be-true sequence near the end. Along the way, we see vivid images of the brutality and cruelty of Nazis, which helps us understand why all of these folks are so committed to the mission.

Working with a low budget, the film still manages to deliver the danger and tense situations we expect from a submarine during WWII. There is even a sub vs sub battle for some underwater action. The lineup of other worthy submarine movies over the years include: Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) with Robert Mitchum, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)  based on the Alistair MacLean novel, the nerve-rattling DAS BOOT (1981) from Werner Herzog, THE ABYSS (1989) from James Cameron, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) from Tom Clancy’s novel starring Sean Connery, CRIMSON TIDE (1995) pitting Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman, U-571 (2000) with the great Thomas Kretschmann, and BLACK SEA (2014) with Jude Law. And let’s not forget the 1968 classic featuring The Beatles animated, YELLOW SUBMARIINE.

This latest begins in 1941 and the final scene takes place on August 6, 1945. Huybrechts’s film could be described as a cross between INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DAS BOOT, and it includes plenty of material for conversation on race, religion, nationality, and duty.

Available VOD beginning May 19, 2020

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AMERICAN TRIAL: THE ERIC GARNER STORY (2020)

May 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a blank screen, but immediately recognize the audio. “I did nothing.” Producer-Director Roee Messinger slowly brings up the all-too-familiar video of Eric Garner being wrestled to the ground by multiple police officers. Mr. Garner is heard to say “I can’t breathe” eleven times during the cell phone video. Those were to be his last words.

His death was ruled a homicide, but a Grand Jury refused to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Filmmaker Messinger presents a “What if?” there had been a trial. This is Messinger’s first feature film, and it’s non-scripted … a mock trial featuring former NY state prosecutors, practicing attorneys, actual witnesses, field experts, Garner’s wife, and actor Anthony Altieri playing the role of Officer Pantaleo. We see Mr. Pantaleo in consult with his attorneys, but the vast majority of the film is spent in the courtroom as we watch the proceedings, and hear testimony.

For those of us whose time in a courtroom is limited to mandatory appearances for jury duty, it’s very interesting to see how a trial is conducted; though we should keep in mind that the pace is a bit faster in an edited movie version than what would occur in real life. Still, listening to the experts – a Medical Examiner and Pathologist offering conflicting opinions on the evidence drives home the point of what a challenging job jurors would have had with the case. And then there is Mr. Garner’s friend who testifies that he witnessed the whole thing while standing just a few feet away. His reason for not getting involved was fear of being arrested himself. Of course, the most emotional testimony comes from Esaw Snipes Garner, Eric’s wife of 26 years. She’s defensive and impassioned while on the stand, and her frustration and distrust of the system is palpable.

In the film, Officer Pantaleo is charged with Manslaughter and Strangulation. When he takes the stand, we learn some of his background and police training. We hear the definition of a chokehold versus “necessary” force in bringing a suspect under control. Mr. Garner was a large man – approximately 395 pounds. He made it very clear to the officers on the scene that he was not going to cooperate with being arrested. Was it a chokehold? Was it necessary force? Was Garner really unable to breathe? All of these questions are addressed, as was the reason police approached him in the first place – suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes (“loosies”) on the streets of Staten Island.

Just like cameras and recording devices, we aren’t allowed to witness the jury deliberations. In fact, the purpose is to have viewers act as jurors in the case – listen to the evidence and testimony and arguments, and then make your own decision. Famed Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz serves up his thoughts, and we learn of Mr. Garner’s many underlying health issues (asthma, high blood pressure, sleep apnea) while making up our own mind on what happened that day, and what Garner’s death should have led to.

Opens in Virtual Cinemas May 18, 2020

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SEBERG (2020)

May 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Who is Jean Seberg?” A reporter asks the question to her, just before the movie star’s agent escorts him away as she prepares for publicity shots on PAINT YOUR WAGON, the outlandish 1969 musical-comedy in which she co-starred with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. It’s also a question we expect a film entitled SEBERG to answer, though it never really does. Oh sure, we get the basics: small town girl (Marshalltown, Iowa), Hollywood starlet, activist, target of FBI, and tragic ending. Unwisely, the film tries to cram in too many other pieces of a puzzle – a puzzle plenty interesting on its own.

Kristen Stewart stars as Jean Seberg, the breakout star of the French New Wave Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960). Ms. Stewart brings much more than a short haircut to the role. It’s not a stretch to imagine Ms. Stewart has experienced some of the downside to fame that Ms. Seberg experienced during her career, so it’s no surprise that the moments of torment and frustration and anxiety are the film’s best. Even as a teenager in Iowa, Ms. Seberg showed signs of an activist-in-development. She ran off to Hollywood and was discovered by director Otto Preminger and cast in the lead role for his SAINT JOAN (1957). Seberg actually suffered severe burns during the filming of a key scene – one which is reenacted by Stewart for this film.

Director Benedict Andrews working with a script from Joe Shrapnel (grandson of actress Deborah Kerr) and Anna Waterhouse (they also co-wrote THE AFTERMATH and RACE), focuses mostly on the period of 1968-1971. We see Seberg’s first encounter with Hakim Abdullah Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a commercial flight, and her follow-up pose with the Black Panthers for a publicity shot on the tarmac. This kicks off an FBI investigation, as well as an affair between Seberg (married to novelist and filmmaker Romain Gary, played by Yvan Attal) and Jamal (married to Dorothy, played by Zazie Beetz). We see how Seberg landed on Hoover’s FBI watch list, and how she was sincerely trying to help what she saw as a worthy cause.

We watch the FBI meticulously build a file on Seberg, albeit illegally under the COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) program. Surveillance was used to work towards their goal of running a smear campaign against Seberg due to her support of the Black Panther Party. Jack O’Connell plays FBI Agent Jack Solomon, and Vince Vaughan plays his partner Carl Kowalski. Family dinner time at the Kowalski home is anything but leisurely fun, and it’s an unnecessary scene meant to contrast Kowalski’s character with that of Solomon. It’s here where the film falters. An inordinate amount of time is spent on Agent Solomon and his conscience and his med-student wife Linette (a sinfully underutilized Margaret Qualley).

The film would have been best served by focusing on either Seberg or Solomon. The two stories dilute the effectiveness, and beyond that, the Black Panther story line fades, as does the whole celebrity-as-an-activist subplot. Instead, Seberg’s breakdown and Solomon’s second thoughts share center-stage. The film does succeed in exposing the extremes Hoover’s organization would go to in order to discredit someone whose beliefs might not have meshed with what was deemed proper for the times. What happened to Seberg was a tragedy, and according to Mr. Gary, led to the loss of her career and eventually to her death.

The film bounces from Paris to Los Angeles, and the set decorations and costumes are picture perfect for the era. There are actual Black Panther clips shown, and Ms. Stewart also reenacts a scene from BREATHLESS. Regardless of the script and story issues, Kristen Stewart delivers a terrific performance as Jean Seberg, and keeps our attention the entire time. We like her and feel for her as she slips. The real Ms. Seberg was found dead in a car at age 40, and suicide was suspected, though mystery still surrounds her death to this day. Lastly, just a piece of free advice … if you are looking to do good things in life, having a marital affair is rarely the right first step.

Available on Amazon Prime beginning May 15, 2020

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CAPONE (2020)

May 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I was really hoping for a Josh Trank resurgence. When his FANTASTIC FOUR became one of the worst reviewed movies of 2015, he lost out on a chance to direct a Star Wars film. Given creative control as writer-director-editor, CAPONE was supposed to be his chance bounce back and re-capture the intrigue and promise of his first film, CHRONICLE (2011). And he even chose the fascinating notorious gangster Al Capone as the subject for his comeback. What could go wrong? Well … most everything.

Tom Hardy usually adds enough interest to make any of his projects entertaining to watch, and sometimes he’s downright brilliant. Going back to BRONSON (2008), and on through TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), WARRIOR (2011), THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), THE REVENANT (2015), and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”, Mr. Hardy has quite a resume of memorable characters – and the above list barely covers half. This time out he plays Al Capone … “Fonse” … don’t dare call him Al “in this house.” He has recently been released from Alcatraz where he was serving his sentence for tax evasion. Confined to his Florida mansion, Capone is only 47 years old, but looks twenty years older thanks to the effects of neurosyphillis-induced dementia. His mind is never clear and his visions take him back to his violent criminal past, or snapshots of his youth (with an ever-present gold balloon).

We can’t really tell if filmmaker Trank meant this as a parody or not. Capone is seen as a mumbling near-zombie, almost always wearing a bathrobe. His eyes are bloodshot, and the once menacing gangster is now a paranoid, saggy diaper-wearing shell who noisily chomps on a cigar (or carrot), fires off his gold-plated Tommy Gun, and has constant issues with vomit-bladder-bowels. Typically a parody offers either slapstick or black comedy, but I only recall a single chuckle … one that occurs when Capone pulls out a shotgun while on a fishing boat with his old mob buddy Johnny (Matt Dillon). Other than that, it’s mostly a bleak look at dementia and the lost power of a man who follows his visions into closets and basements, and jumps up during a movie to sing-a-long with the Cowardly Lion’s “If I Were the King of the Forest.”

The supporting players are given little to work with. The great Linda Cardellini plays Mae, Capone’s supportive wife, while Kyle MacLachlan is his crooked doctor, Noel Fisher is Al junior, Al Sapienza is Capone’s brother Ralphie, and Kathrine Narducci is Ralphie’s wife. There is a secondary plot point involving government surveillance as they attempt to discover the whereabouts of the $10 million Capone supposedly stashed years ago. Of course, Capone doesn’t remember, and when and FBI agent (Jack Lowden, with director Trank in a cameo) interrogates him, he’s unsure whether Capone is acting or actually that far gone. There is also a bit about phone calls from “Tony”, possibly a long-lost Capone son borne from an affair.

The film covers Capone’s final year, and mostly it comes across as a sad and depressing view of dementia. The most obvious statement on Capone’s loss of power, comes in the form of a metaphor, as his beloved “Lady Atlas” garden statue is removed to be sold off. There is also a recurring moment where Capone tunes the radio to a broadcast of the Saint Valentines’ Day Massacre, and family time at Thanksgiving is nothing short of painful to watch. Cinematographer Peter Deming (MULHOLLAND DRIVE, 2001) gives us a well shot film, but despite a couple of David Lynch-type moments, the film mostly lacks entertainment value. I can’t figure out who might want to watch this. Trank seemed to go the deeply artistic route on a subject that’s tough to watch. Maybe he’ll get yet another shot.

Available on VOD beginning May 12, 2020

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FINDING EDEN (2020)

May 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rodney Luis Aquino opens his first feature film on a happy and loving family consisting of father/husband, mother/wife, and son. They are a normal family who eat dinner together while discussing spitballs. The wife questions the husband’s “vacation beard” … a beard that has, by the looks of it, been growing for 3-4 months, leaving us to wonder what kind of benefits his employer offers. Their paradise is rocked one evening when the National Emergency Warning goes off. We learn from the news reports that the Earth has gone off its axis, leading to weather catastrophes around the planet.

We then flash forward as narrator Lisa (the wife) informs us “The Turn” occurred three winters ago, and sometimes she wonders if this is all a dream. It’s not a post-apocalyptic world, but it might as well be. She tells us there are rumors of cannibalism; however, in this family they hunt for food and scrounge for water. Adam takes his bow and three arrows in hopes of nabbing dinner. But Adam (Jason Sutton) is no superhero. He leaves his beloved Lisa (Jennifer Faith Ward) and son Sam (Michael Campion) at the campsite. When he returns empty handed, he discovers his family has been taken. His mission is no longer wild rabbit for dinner, but rather rescuing his loved ones.

On his journey, Adam crosses paths with Fred (Joseph Gatt, whom you’ll recognize from many roles), who tells him about “Eden”, a community of good folks who are forming a new society. It’s here where we learn that the bloody handprint signs Adam has seen along the way belong to Donner, a vicious guy who was kicked out of Eden. Of course, we understand that Adam and Donner are headed for a showdown if the family has any hope of survival. Veteran character actor Tom Proctor plays Donner, and he brings all he can to a role that embodies evil … Donner is a deliciously nasty fellow.

With an ultra-low budget project, some slack must be given for production value. Kraig Swisher takes on the rare combination of screenwriter and cinematographer, and at times the dialogue could have used a jolt, while the visuals never seem to take full advantage of the Florida and Georgia filming locations. The sound mixing is entirely too noticeable at times (those footsteps), and Mr. Sutton doesn’t really have the chops yet for leading man. Mr. Gatt and Mr. Proctor certainly elevate the film during their sequences, and the soundtrack is mostly in sync with what we see on screen. Overall, there are some fine moments, though we would have preferred the scenes of peril and danger to go much deeper, along with some more incisive commentary on the likelihood that most humans would take shortcuts when things go badly (like what is currently happening).

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