Wednesday, June 9, 2021


Ummmm, not much to actually say or add this week. The only real thing of note on this blog is that I responded to a comment that's a few months old. I've been busy working on other projects mostly, but I did get to some films I didn't review here. I enjoyed "The Levelling" a British indy about a family that has hidden drama that gets revealed and brought to the surface after a sudden death. I also saw "The World Made Straight" which I didn't like much at all. It was about a young man who was dealing with his family's history of violence and it took place near where a famous Civil War Battle took place, and was trying to be about the overall circular legacy of the place, but I thought it was a mess. 

The most enjoyable thing I watched this week for me, was a TV Movie, "Game Changers" which was one of Alex Trebek's last non-"Jeopardy!" projects. It was a documentary from BUZZR about the history of game shows and includes some delightful interviews, both with and without Alex with some of the other legendary game show hosts around. I'm a sucker for stuff like this, and I felt like watching some Alex Trebek stuff. His passing has been very sad although it's been enjoyable seeing the guest hosts on "Jeopardy!" over this time. Personally, I think Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and Mayim Bialik have been my favorites, but I still miss Alex Trebek so it was nice to see that. 

Anyway, not much else. Let's get to the Movie Reviews. 

SAINT MAUD (2021) Director: Rose Glass


You ever notice that the most zealous of religious fanatics tend to be the ones who, seemed to live life, let's say, a little more self-destructively then others originally. Sometimes, they had hard lives put upon them instead, or in many cases, as well, but you can usually presume that their behavior, must've been somewhat destructive beforehand. It's basically trading one for of excessive, sometimes addictive but always destructive behavior, for another. And of course, they had destructive lives, that's why they end up as religious zealots. I mean, once you finally do hit rock bottom, that's when you're looking for anything to literally speak to you and lead you on a new path; and that's when religion most becomes an acceptable avenue for you, hitting you at your most vulnerable. Their perfect audience.

"Saint Maud" takes that idea, to an interesting extreme. Checking Aja Romano's Vox review of the movie, and she mentioned the historically documented sublimation of psychosexual desires that were manifested as religious ecstasy among nuns in medieval convents, which eh, sent me down a disturbing internet rabbit hole when I read that..., but yeah, I guess that's what first-time writer-director Rose Glass is essentially going for. "Saint Maud". It's a film getting compared to the classic religious horrors of the '70s like "The Exorcist" or "The Omen", and this is a more typical comparison but honestly the movie that I feel is a better comparison is Lars Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves", where Emily Watson's character goes down a complex religious-based sexual rabbit hole after her husband's accident leaves her incapable of making love and he gives her permission to look elsewhere. It's a horrific character study of a women who's trust in faith leads her downhill. "Saint Maud"'s different because the religious trust in it's main character isn't inspired by external factors, it's completely internal. Viciously internal. 

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a nurse who, after a horrific incident at her hospital eventually takes work as a private nurse. She's also suddenly become completely devoted to God who's power seems to have overtaken her mentally. At one point, her devotion to God seems practically orgasmic in nature. She often sees strange gruesome images and depictions in others and herself, but she's also convinced that she now has a higher power. Her apartment, as much as it is, is quite minor and bare, almost like a nunnery. She's convinced herself that it's her duty to convert others to the ecstasy of God that she feels.

This, goes about as well as you imagine, although, she thinks she's having some success with her current client, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) a dying former dancer, who she has a moment or two with and then devotes herself to converting her, believing it's her destiny and what's she supposed to do to please God. She even changes her name from Katie to Maud, thinking it's more saintly. Okay, several saints do actually change their names in life, that's kind of a thing, believe it or not, but there are several saints named Katherine, so-eh, I don't know if Maud is that much more saintly. 

Eventually, he falls out of favor with her after confronting Amanda's friend Carol (Lily Frazier), first attempting to throw her out of her house after one of her regular visits, which is sexual with Amanda, and then later after she comes back and Maud throws a fit at a party and gets fired. She's also, despite everything, seems to be struggling to also simultaneously devote herself only to God, but also keep herself social, sometimes to a disturbing degree. I better warn people that there's a scene of sexual assault in this film that might trigger some people in the film, although the more interesting thing we actually learn in that film is how promiscuous Maud was before this conversion. 

Actually, we don't really learn a lot about Maud's past. Just vague surreal imagery at best, and I can finds hints of the past with some interviews with Rose Glass. It's a pretty astonishing film debut. It originally came out on the festival on 2019 and made a lot of awards shows in the UK last year, only now getting a release in America, getting a limited theatrical release before streaming on Amazon this year, COVID having heavily effected it's release. The movie is somewhere between "Black Swan"'s surrealism and "Breaking the Waves" dissection of religion along with a few hints of "Black Narcissus" melodrama. Personally, I think the movie could probably have been helped by a few more rewrites myself. I think it would stick with me more if there was a more fully realized characters in the lead, similar to "Black Swan" in fact, but that's a nitpick. It's an impressive, ambitious debut either way; one of the first really good film of this year, at least in America. I want to see more of Ms. Glass after this, I suspect she's got more in her. 

PINOCCHIO (2020) Director: Matteo Garrone


So, as an Italian-American, it's become clear to me that for some reason, the big Italian entry into the canon of children's story is "Pinocchio". It's not necessarily the only one, some people trace the origin of "Little Red Riding Hood" to Italy, and yeah, there are parts of that story that I can totally buy as Italian-inspired, but really, "Pinocchio" is easily the big one that's clearly Italian-inspired. It's arguably as big and important a story that Italy's introduced to the greater culture, say, any major famous Italian opera you can name. I'm fairly certain there's been dozens of operas based on "Pinocchio" too. This story has been adapted, and still is being adapted all the time. This isn't even the latest adaptation, there's a few current "Pinocchio" projects still in development, including an adaptation by Guillermo Del Toro, and that's not even counting the rumored, upcoming live-action Disney remake. Hell, this is the second film called "Pinocchio" that stars the most famous of modern Italian actors, Roberto Benigni! In the first one, which he wrote and directed himself, he played the titular Pinocchio. He was 50 at the time and despite being pretty accurate to the original Carlo Collodi novel, that was probably a bad idea. I love Benigni but; I don't think he gets nearly the credit he deserves, and I don't agree with most of the backlash that's gone against his best and most famous film, the Oscar-winning, "Life is Beautiful"; I consider that film a masterpiece, but yeah, his version of "Pinocchio", and well as the last film he directed, "The Tiger and the Snow", yeah, not great. 

Now though, director Matteo Garrone, one of the better and more interesting Italian directors out there right now, has decided to put out his attempt at a live-action "Pinocchio" and in a somewhat ingenius and clever move, he's cast Benigni, this time as Gepetto, which is already a much better idea then him playing "Pinocchio". That said though, has a live-action "Pinocchio" ever been a good idea? 

I presume the Italians in particular would love if there was a universally accepted homegrown film adaptation of "Pinocchio", but it's not coincidence that the very best version has always been Disney's most famous one. It's one of my favorite of the older Disney films, but honestly, I kinda wonder and question how much that one even works half the time, 'cause "Pinocchio" is a very dark story. Frankly, I think animation works the best because of how truly surreal it is. I mean, think about it, a wooden boy named Pinocchio (Federico Lelapi) comes to life and then, goes through Hell! Like, damn near literally; in fact you can argue that his journey is worst then hell in some versions of the story, and the original version was much more tragic and horrifying then most people realize. Arguably animation is both the only medium where his story should be told because of that, and Disney's is arguably the best version because of how honestly sanitized the story, and it's still full of body dysmorphia, Kafkaesque species transformations, several villainous characters trying to use or control this young person, and even the main characters getting swallowed whole inside a monstrous sea beast! If there's any other infamous Italian story that "Pinocchio"'s really inspired by, it's not an melodrama opera or any other kind of children's story, it's "Dante's Inferno"!

I'm honestly kinda stunned in hindsight that "Pinocchio" not only remains infamously popular today, even with Disney's version saturating the market, considering how really dated the story is. I guess you can update it, although this film isn't going for that; it keeps itself pretty close to the original context, but "Pinocchio" is a turn-of-the-century piece that was specifically written to be a horror story for young boys to keep them in line and to not run off and be on your own before you're ready. That's why the story shows every horrible thing happening to Pinocchio over time and how those effects hurt himself and others. He goes to a marionette puppet show instead of to school one day, and instead, he gets kidnapped and taken for the show and nearly gets burned alive by the show's owner Magniafuoco (Gigi Proietti), this after previously getting his legs burned off after falling asleep at a fireplace. A Fox and Cat (Massimo Ceccherini and Rocco Papaleo) convince him to bury gold coins so they can become a tree, and when he does he gets attacked and hung by a tree. He plays with Lucignlo (Alessio di Domenicantonio) and his toys, he gets turned into a donkey and sold into the circus, and then is thrown off a cliff! And of course, his nose grows when he lies to the Blue Fairy (Alida Baldari Calabria as a child, Marine Vacth as an adult, which begs another question of just how long this journey has been that apparently the Fairy started out younger and got older over the story!). These aren't lessons and actually feel more condescending by modern ideas of storytelling to me. I know a young enough kid will believe that if they don't go to school and try to learn to read they'll be turned into a donkey, in basically in the same ways they'll believe that Santa Claus is real, but, still, like I think only really young little boys. 
I can't imagine this story, however told, and it's told fairly well, would ever have the same impact on modern kids then it does here. 

That said, I think I'm clearly in a minority overall, and if you're gonna redo "Pinocchio" this isn't a bad adaptation, really. The film got nominated for two Oscars, for Costumes and more notably, Makeup and Hairstyling, which is quite elaborate and somewhat frightening at times, but I was impressed with it, as well as for the costumes. I'm not sure the film entirely works; I'm not sure there's ever not gonna be something that's a little off-putting to "Pinocchio" to some extent, especially a live-action version. I'm still hard-pressed to seriously consider panning it though. I've seen more misguided attempts at telling "Pinocchio" then this one. It's way too long and perhaps suffers from being way too accurate to the story, but it's technically got a lot of good ideas there, some really well executed ones. I can see all the ways this film would put off some viewers, but eh, I've seen it done so much worst. And frankly, it's a hard story to judge by modern standards anyway, so I can't completely look at it like that anyway. It's a good retelling and it's really sharp in combining practical special effects with modern technical visual effects. There's some strong performances here, from a very good cast, and some direction. It stills reveals the flaws in telling the story of "Pinocchio" in a live-action medium, but no more then the average interpretation does. So, it's a mild recommendation, knowing that you know what you're in for. Knowing that while the movie is definitely weird and off-putting in ways, remember "Pinocchio" is already weird, surreal and at times off-putting to begin with. 

PALM SPRINGS (2020) Director: Max Barbakow


So-eh, suddenly remaking "Groundhog Day" has become a good idea?

Honestly, this revelation in recent years is one that I genuinely didn't think would happen. "Groundhog Day" is one of those weird movies that, traditionally had such a unique idea and premise behind it, and happened to be such an instant beloved classic, that any kind of copying it, basically automatically to negative comparisons. I'd seen more then a few attempted twists on the theme or just an outright steals over the years and none of them ever came close to working. Some of them aren't terrible, but few of them are remotely memorable, and if they are, they're for the wrong reasons. Redoing the "Groundhog Day" plot basically amounting to working, in one-off parody TV episodes of a series, at most, the same way that say, that's mostly the only way anybody can do a retelling of "It's a Wonderful Life" now. 

And now, for those thinking, I'm talking about all movies and ideas about being stuck in a time loop, no, I'm not. "Source Code" for instance, isn't a "Groundhog Day" movie, because it's using a futuristic premise where a spy has to pull off a complicated time travel save in the past, through an artificial created time loop in a world where time travel is possible and is trying to change the future by altering the past; that movie has more in common with say, the "Terminator" sequels or especially something like "12 Monkeys'. "Groundhog Day" is very specifically about a character who's stuck reliving the exact say day over and over again and having to go through all the emotional sprawls and pitfalls that sudden discovery entails. That premise shouldn't have been this hard to continually pull off until now, but Bill Murray and Harold Ramis just so nailed that one that I honestly didn't think we would. 

However, in recent years, that's changed quite a bit. Doug Liman's action thriller "Edge of Tomorrow" with Tom Cruise, is one of the better action movies of the last decade and it uses the premise ingeniously well to tell a story of a male and female soldier caught reliving the same battle constantly, with no real way to both survive and save as many as they can by preventing disaster. Last year's Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short Film, Trevon Free's "Two Different Strangers" is probably the best use of the "Groundhog Day" formula I've ever seen, finding incredibly horror and symbolism in the story of a young African-American man, trying to get home to feed his dog, without getting killed by a racist cop who targets him while he's just walking down the street. (BTW: That totally deserved to win last year; it was easily the best short film; I know some people hate it, but they're wrong.) Hell, it even worked on television, as not just as a one-off episode, as a whole series with Netflix's "Russian Doll". I was doubly-convinced it was a stupid narrative to ever actually try to make a television show out of, especially after a horrible attempt to make a serious drama with the narrative conceit of "Groundhog Day" in the 2000s called "Day Break" that starred Taye Diggs. (Man, I feel sorry for him; he should've had a lot better leading man roles, in film and television.), but somehow, for one season anyway, "Russian Doll" worked too. 

So, the great comedy has been adapted well in recent years, as an action-thriller, an emotionally metaphorical short about the inherent systemic racism in America's justice system, and into an eight-episode one-season sitcom. Now, here's "Palm Springs" an attempt to turn the great comedy, into a-eh, well, great comedy. Oh-kay, a little less inventive, but still promising. Actually, "Palm Springs", has a few distinct twists on the genre. I had a friend of mine on Facebook point out that he liked that one of the advantages of the film is that the story begins in the middle of the daily time loop and not beforehand. That's true enough for Nyles (Andy Samberg), but that's not actually true enough for Sarah (Cristin Millioti). Nyles ended up going through a portal found in a cave that was unearthed after an Earthquake after he escaped from a wedding that he doesn't really want to be at. He's mostly known by the others at the wedding as Misty's boyfriend, and Misty (Meredith Hagner) is cheating on him, and seems fairly obnoxious and unfaithful. The wedding is for Sarah's sister Tala (Camilla Mendes) and her boyfriend Abe (Tyler Hoechlin); Sarah's the Maid of Honor technically, but hates it as her family seems to have particular disdain for her and her behavior and to be fair, it's not entirely unwarranted as we discover. For now though, she decides to escape with Nyles to the desert and the next day, she ends up in the same time loop as Nyles. So she's basically discovering all the benefits and effects of living the same day over and over again while Nyles has been living the same day so much that he at this point, barely remembers his life before the time loop started and has become fairly defeatist in his approach.

This to me, is the real biggest twist from the "Groundhog Day' formula is Sarah, the fact that somebody joins the main character in the permanent time loop. Well, actually, there's a third person Roy (J.K. Simmons) who's also in the loop after he partied with him one night, and is trying to kill him every other day or so, but now he has somebody to go through the loop with and they eventually begin to form a bond and eventually form a complex relationship. This is an interesting idea, I've seen relationship stories or rom-coms in multiverse-like places before, "Wristcutters: A Love Story" comes to mind, and technically this is an improvement on "Groundhog Day" which is a romantic-comedy technically, but it's one that if you truly think about isn't that particularly deep, and actually makes Andie McDowell's character seem fairly shallow in hindsight. That's okay in that film, because it's not about her, it's about Bill Murray's character and the despair of utter loneliness and fragility that living in a time loop entails, and it's only through constant and continuing improving upon himself and his character change do we see how being in the loop equates to his personal growth. "Palm Springs" has both a defeated, lonely character and an active character who's still fresh in the loop and is both searching for a way out but also a way to enjoy the experience, Sarah figuring that since nothing matters and they're just gonna wake up the next day in the same place anyway, then they can do anything. Nyles actually has a more emotional response, constantly bringing up that while the world around them isn't real, pain is real, and indicates that it's better to suffer in quiet desperation as oppose to putting oneself through real emotion or physical pain or trying to escape or get out. 

That's technically a new, interesting addition to the formula; in fact I can't think of any other time loop film that deals with the excruciating feeling of pain that this kind of emptiness and loneliness can cause. Even "Two Different Strangers" wasn't about the physical pain of getting shot or killed deals with and "Groundhog Day" only deals with it as an aside and not through the main character himself, who does suffer pain, in his several suicide attempts, but it's still superficial compared to the idea of actual hurt. That's something that stuck with me through, and the journey that both these two distinct, different characters go through, both together and separate and why and how they go on these journeys is the powerful aspect to the film. 

The movie got the most praise and attention for its writing and first-time screenwriter Andy Siara does write a really sharp, tight script, but I think the real trick to his work is that he's figured out that the real trick to these kind of time loop films isn't the quantum physics of it all, but in finding strong main characters to go through this, as well as good actors Samberg and Milioti in particular give very strong performances here. It's also a solid directing job by Max Barbakow who's mostly been known for short films and documentaries up until now; this is his first real mainstream project as well.

You might notice that despite all my praising analysis for "Palm Springs" I'm still barely giving it a recommendation though..... 

Yeah, this movie's kinda more interesting in hindsight then it actually is to watch. I got a couple laughs out of it, but the movie does kinda lose something in a few places too. For one, the fact that Sarah is so insistent on trying to find a way out, does kinda make the movie fall into that trap of trying to figure it out when there really isn't much of a need to. Also, there's something odd about the whole setting of a Palm Springs wedding that's kinda limiting to me. I get why this helps for making a film on a budget, but it does hinder the possibilities. All the other films I can think of that didn't have a whole city of Punxsutawny to explore usually had a good reason why the characters couldn't escape from their routine as much as others. There's talk about how Nyles at one point did travel everywhere he could to get as far away from the wedding, but he's now in a more defeated state, but mostly the wedding idea as a setting just isn't as interesting a place in general to hold this kind of story as well. I could see how it can be torturous enough to explore a cave, but it isn't the most compelling and it's only kinda casually explored as it is. There's one really good revelation that's kinda finally revealed involving the wedding and guests, which gives us real insight into one of our main characters, but other then that, I kinda wonder if there were other possibilities of get-togethers that weren't as well explored. Also, the movie kinda rushes to its ending fairly quickly as well. The film's only about 84 minutes or so, not counting the credits, and it kinda rushes to a finish that seems, eh, it's not quite deus ex machina; well, I guess "Groundhog Day" kinda had an arbitrary deus ex machina of a conclusion as well, but, eh, I think most of these movies have a small issue when it comes to seeing this as a problem that needs to be solved moreso then a new condition that has to be experienced, and yeah, this movie, does eventually fall into that trap. 

Also, while I keep talking about "Groundhog Day", 'cause it's the obvious point of comparison and like I mentioned before, the fact that people trying to copy it are actually good is a stunning revelation, the movie that "Palm Springs" actually reminds me the most of is Morten Tyldum's "Passengers". Now that movie was, bad; it was a complete mess of a film, although I think I was one of the few who was probably nicer to it then most, mainly because I liked the core idea of two people stuck in an abandoned foreign place they don't have the key to and there's struggles to survive and endure. It also had the more similar narrative of one character first being alone in this void for an extremely prolonged period of time, and then the second, possible romantic interest character then coming into the same void and both of them having to react to their own approach to the situation. "Palm Springs" get a lot right that "Passengers" got wrong, but it also kinda just feels like it gives up on the ambition nature of the plot and just becomes a romantic-comedy. 

Despite everything, I ultimately found "Palm Springs" good, but underwhelming. I mention the script being tight, and that's admirable, but it might be too tight; I feel like the movie gave me no room to breathe and explore, something that both "Groundhog Day" and even though it ultimately failed, "Passengers" allowed for. I still enjoy the movie enough to recommend, but I think there could've been more here. 

MISS JUNETEENTH (2020) Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples


I gotta confess something; until a few years ago, I never heard of Juneteenth. I went most of my life without ever hearing about it. I can come with a bunch of reasons why that was and some would be my failure and some would other aspects of our society's failures, but either way, I'm fairly certain that on June 19, 1867, when the slaves of the Galveston, Texas area were informed of their freedom, two years after the end of the Civil War, I'm sure one of their priorities was making sure all their youth knew how to identify a salad knife. (Which I don't think is actually a thing, like, not at a dining room table; I think there's a lettuce knife, but that's a preparation knife; I think that was just made up in the film, which, good joke.) 

So, I don't know the intricacies of Juneteenth, but I do know quite a bit more about pageant culture. I grew up during the last era where it actually mattered to some degree; I watched quite a few Miss America and Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, even once watched a combined Miss Teen Nevada and Miss Nevada pageant that, for some reason, aired on local TV that year. It was still a big deal, well into the '90s, and in some areas of the country, there still is a major pageant culture, especially in the Southern United States. I-eh, I don't really get why anymore. I know they're still pretty big these days internationally, but it's an American tradition that's trying to cling to relevance. Yes, there's a lot of benefits to them, if you do well in them, most of the major ones are scholarships or reward-based, but there's also several smaller local pageants all across the nation and many of them have different intentions and standards, and this is where we end up with this film, "Miss Juneteenth". Now from what I can tell, this is a fictional pageant, but I can definitely see a pageant like this existing somewhere. Set up by local leaders in the Ft. Worth, Texas African-American female community, the pageant has a lot of prestige behind it. Former winners went on to become major professionals and figures in the African-American community (or married to some of them...) and the winner gets a full ride college scholarship to an HBCU of her choice. 

One of those former winners is Turquoise (Nicole Beharie); she's not one of the past winners who carries a lot of prestige. She's currently working as a waitress at a local barbecue restaurant run by Wayman (Marcus M. Maudlin) after years struggling as a single mother to Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who she had in college, forcing her to drop out of school and raise her. Now, she's old enough for the pageant herself and despite how lowly the other pageant people look out at her, always with faint praise about how well she did when she won, she's determined that Kai can do well and deserve the opportunity she got to improve her life. 

There's a lot of cross-generational wires being crossed in this film. Kai clearly isn't as interested in competing in this pageant, but reluctantly does so seeing how important it is for her mother, tries to go along with it as the mother struggles to pay admittance fees as well as getting a custom-design beauty gown for her, plus a lot of the regular bullshit she gets at work, both her first job as a waitress as well as her other job working for Bacon (Akron Watson) a funeral home operator who has a crush on her. She meanwhile is still seeing Kai's father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) even though he's often in precarious positions and they're technically separated, but he's still part of Kai's lives. He's the one who starts backing her up when Turquoise gets upset at Kai for having a boyfriend, Quintavious (Jaime Matthis) and recognizes that Kai doesn't really want to compete in this pageant, but Turquoise is determined on that front. She even sacrifices the electricity temporarily to try to pay for that custom made gown. 

She's also though, still a strict pageant mother, including forcing her daughter to have the same talent skill that she had, which was, um, reciting Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Women"..., which um..., kinda seems like a weird choice to me. Like, I get why Maya Angelou would appeal to this crowd, but that poem, is very specifically written, not from a perspective of someone who, would probably not be competing in a beauty pageant, let's say... I mean, I guess I can kinda see the counterargument that if somebody with a beauty queen look performs it that well... Anyway, that's neither here nor there, but it's also clear that Turquoise should be more empathetic when we meet her church lady drunk of a mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes) and how she didn't exactly help out Turquoise when she was in need. 

There's a lot of other details going on surrounding the movie at the edges though. The fact that, the only major white character is the owner of the dress shop that Turquoise is buying that aforementioned dress from, and she seems to be absolutely relentless when, due to unexpected circumstances, she can't afford to pay for the custom-made dress at the time it's finished. There's also distinctions between trying to borrow from a white bank and a black bank, and this is a modern-day tale and it's a modern-day issue.
The film was the debut feature by Channing Godfrey Peoples a very talented young Ft. Worth filmmaker who made it out to USC, and she seems to be starting off by starting with what she knows, at least tonally; I have no idea if she's a pageant girl or not, but it feels authentic. "Miss Juneteenth" more then anything puts me into this little slice of American life that both feels languishes in cultural significance and still reveals the artificiality and hypocrisy within, not just in the White America, but also within the hierarchy and social norms of Black America as well. It's one of the stronger debuts I can remember in a long time, and Nicole Beharie gives a powerful performance. I saw a couple people compare her work and this film to Andrew Bujalski's "Support the Girls" which had a great lead performance from Regina Hall; I think that film and performance were both better, but I get the comparison and that's a great compliment to me as far as I'm concerned. "Miss Juneteenth" feels a little tight for me, all things considered; Peoples was apparently working on this script since after film school, and for a slice-of-life, it's a really tight script; which I think holds the movie back a bit. Sometimes a movie doesn't need to be so refined. That's another minor nitpick though; this is a wonderfully impressive and fascinating film. 

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA (2020) Director: David France



Man, Russia is so big. I mean, that's not a revelation or anything, but I don't think we truly realize just how big it is, and how strangely diverse the population actually is. Chechnya for instance, is a good example; for a country that for so long we've reigned down a complaint that they were godless, Chechnya is a very religious area. Not just any religion though, they're a Muslim nation. Except for the nation part; they're technically apart of Russia still, despite many recent attempts to gain independence. Right now, the country is run by Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin-installed murderous sociopathic dictator who's been running the area since 2007. Most people in America, especially if you watch John Oliver, might remember the time he lost his cat. 

Ramzan Kadyrov has several, several, several human rights violations against, one of the latest ones involve, just flat-out killing gay people. 

There's not much else I think needs to be said about that; the police and other authorities torture and kill gays, and under the promotion of "cleansing" the nation, (Man, there is never a good scenario where a politician of any kind uses that word) he also insists on the families eliminating that influence themselves, and that also happens (In particular, that often happens to lesbians, women, let's say, don't have all the rights men necessarily do in Chechnya.). It's been happening for awhile, and continues to happen, but also, when it started happening, underground railroad groups began popping up to get gay people out of the country, and the movie follows these people and their struggles to protect Chechen gays and in some cases, their more accepting families, who if they don't disown or perhaps even kill their gay family members are themselves persecuted, as well as document any footage they intercept of them being persecuted. They have several different channels and routes and there's a lot that can happen on the way, if they can find a way out. 

You might be wondering how we get these behind-the-scenes of these of, refugees who are indeed essentially being treated as criminals in their homeland and seeing them as they call for help, or even go to dire situations even while in the hands of those who are trying to protect them, why they would agree to be filmed for a documentary. Well, technically, they didn't. Director David France, who made one of the best documentaries of all-time, "How to Survive a Plague" which documented the rise of the AIDS epidemic, used deepfake visual effects to complete adjust the facial and body figures of those in the film who they're protecting. I've heard of this process before, it's usually mostly used, for fake celebrity porn, which, frankly I've always found fairly disturbing no matter how you approach that use, but it's effect here, well, honestly, I didn't recognize it. The movie was on the Oscar shortlist for Best Visual Effects and if you didn't tell, I wouldn't have known that, 'cause I didn't recognize a thing, and that's probably it didn't get nominated, which is also kinda bullshit. The whole point of great special effects in general is supposed to be that you don't recognize them. And frankly, considering how and why they were used here, that should also be commended.

The movie tries at times to document some of the more noteworthy incidents, like Chechen pop star Zalim Bakaev's disappearance in 2017 among others. Mostly it focuses on the inner workings of the LGBT underground and some of the tactics they use to combat and ultimately, hopefully saves the lives of LGBT members of the community. 

A few fought back, one young man did make himself known, Maxim Luponov, actually revealed himself, told his story publicly and went to court. The government and Kadyrov specifically said they weren't telling the truth, to no surprise, that's what's expected. Some we watched managed to escape, others, well, we don't entirely know about. David France's advancement of the technology is groundbreaking, the kinds of documentaries that can be told now has been expanded immensley. As to the film, it's hard, but essential-to-watch. I'll probably always have difficulty considering anything David France does on its own merits again after "How to Survive a Plague" since that could easily rank as one of the greatest and most important documentaries of all-time, but "Welcome to Chechnya" is still powerful. It's one of those reminders that when we hear the headlines on the news of some horrible travesty of human rights that there's so much more going on, not just politically, but literally on the ground both with those enacting it, and with those combatting it. It's one of the year's better documentaries. 

A THOUSAND CUTS (2020) Director: Ramona S. Diaz


Nothing happens in a vacuum. That's something my old sociology professors would say. We all like to think that, but it's true, when something major and horrific happens, back then we'd talk about 9/11, nowadays, we'll discuss January 6th with the same level of sobriety, as well as T----'s whole Presidency and how we brought out the most authoritarian and vile aspects of the GOP. The thing is that even that was years in the making and much of his rise also coincided with the rise of other similar authoritarian rulers throughout the world. India, Brazil, and in this case, The Philippines. 

Rodrigo Duterte's murderous regime has been running The Philippines for a few years now and "A Thousand Cuts" details the telling of the story of his regime, both in how it came to power through the same manipulation of social media tricks that Cambridge Analytica was used for... (Yeah, CA used these tricks on other countries first, mostly ones without strong government, third world, supposedly, and they worked there as well.) and more interesting, showcases the journalists who've reported on Duterte and how he's gone after the media. Most specifically Maria Rezza, the award-winning journalist who's been the main person Duterte's attacked. She was one of the journalist named Time's Person of the Year in 2018 for confronting dictatorial regimes and Duterte's personally attacked her. As of now, the Princeton Educated Philippino-American is fighting an appeal after being convicted of Cyberlibel against Duterte. The most interesting stuff in the film is following her over this time. She's the CEO of Rappler Magazine, and we see the personal side of her, before and after her world notoriety continues to rise. We follow her on speaking tours across the world, all the while, continuing to go back to The Philippines to confront and cover Duterte and the barrage of misinformation and attacks on the free speech, as well as the genocide that he's committing under the guise of being tough on drugs. 

There's not much cinematically interesting about "A Thousand Cuts"; it's a Frontline documentary which, except for the voiceover is what you basically expect. Ramona S. Diaz has become a strong documentarian in recent years and is good at profiling interesting people, and Messa definitely belong in that category. She's a tiny little woman with a screechy voice who seems insistent in both her interview approach, there's a lot of clips of her interviewing Duterte, who openly brags about killing and other things that make this populist outsider even more sociopathic and psychotic then even T----, plus she's as vigorous in her defense of the Press as well. She's one of the few who does keep fighting and that's made her a symbol in The Philippines and to the world. She's right, to paraphrase and adapt that most famous of Holocaust quotes, "First they went after the journalists, and we don't know what happens after that." Honestly, it's such a sign of not just weakness and corruption, but simplicity and intellectual ineptitude to attack the press for criticizing them; you better have proof against fact reporters, then, it's just bullying, and it never works. Sometimes, I think bullies don't get that you can't just call someone a liar and make it untrue, like it's not just their only weapon; that'd be one thing, but it's like it's already their only strategy. You'd think people who work so hard to gain power and systemically murder the poor, would have better strategies to combatting criticism. 

ALWAYS IN SEASON (2019) Director: Jacqueline Olive


Did you know that there was such a thing as Lynching Reenactments? 

Seriously, lynching reenactments, it's a thing. In Monroe County, Georgia at least, where every year to commemorate the Moore's Ford Lynchings, where two African American couples, George and Mae Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm were apparently taken and beaten by a KKK mob, shot dozens of times to death, and then hung near Moore's Ford Bridge. Nobody's ever been charged or convicted of the crime, even though then-President Truman ordered an FBI investigation. Grand juries were convened, and there's several witnesses who've come forward with varying degrees of accounts of the incident, and the case had periodically been reopened and closed. The reenactors, African-Americans who oftentimes can't even find enough local white performers to play the members of the mob, so they put white sacks on there heads to emulate the Klan, perform this reenactment every year as a reminder to the crime that's occurred and the injustice that's continued to rain over it. 

"Always in Season" talks about Moore's lynching and the current ramifications of that, but it also takes a much more modern look at the recent lynching of Lennon Lacy. Yes, lynching are still going on; in fact, during the buildup to the 2016 elections, Lacy was one of a couple dozen accounts all across the country of black young men being found having hung themselves by a tree. All the deaths have been ruled suicides, almost none of them certainly are. The movie focuses on the death of Lennon Lacy, which supposed suicide that was so boggled, probably on purpose, that we'll probably never know what actually happened, even though, as the movie shows as it investigates the case on its own, we kinda essentially know what happened. We learn mostly about Lennon through his mother, the one who's most prominent in continuing the case, as well as an NAACP lawyer who gives us background. We also get a sense of Lennon's friends as well as the town around them, and how ambivalent some, like the local paper seem to be. 

The reasoning for the framing is to show just how common and recent, and in some cases, current lynchings actually were. We get interviews with people who actually witnesses lynchings as kids. How common the practice was in the South, how regularly and often nobody was ever punished. How it was used by the KKK and others whites basically as a way to keep the African-Americans in line. This is also why the reenactments are so interesting and controversial. They can barely find white people to be in it, and both communities are split on whether or not they should exist historically or rather, people should keep bringing up the lynchings in regard to the past or just move on and stop bringing them up. Part of me thinks, in regards to the re-enactments, I kinda wish they'd stop doing those Civil War re-enactments others in the area love to thrive in. However war and murder are two different things, and lynching is a third altogether. Nobody was alive anymore from the Civil War, there are people alive who've seen and participated in lynchings, and arguably some still are trying to return to a time where they were a common way of keep the Blacks in line. It's not the main tactic, nor do I think lynching ever was, although they certainly used to be proud enough to through pretty big parties around it when they did do it. 

Lennon's case, is being blamed on a suicide, purportedly because those who investigated claim that it was a combination of factors for a supposedly emotional kid who had a breakup with his first love. He did have a girlfriend, a much older woman; he was 17, she was 32, and they do talk with her, and boy did she seemed scared to talk. For one thing, while it's not illegal in the state of North Carolina, where the age of consent is sixteen, it's definitely looked down upon. She's also a troubled addict who's had a rough. There were also nearby neighbors who clearly are on the more KKK side of the extreme, and there were friends of friends involved. I don't know exactly what's missing, but she did remind me a little of Carolyn Bryant, the woman who claimed Emmitt Louis Till whistled and attacked her at the grocery, which decades later, she admitted was untrue. She also reminded me other troubled women who seem to be surrounded by lousy people all their lives. She tells a story of a nice May-December romance, and also indicates that both were trying to get away from each other. Either way, it doesn't seem like this was the kind of breakup that would end in a suicide. Also, he was beaten up pretty badly based on his bruises for it to be a suicide. And he had different shoes on. Also, nothing in his previous activities indicated to anyone the possibility of Lennon committing suicide. 

Also why would he hang himself by a tree? I have heard of suicide clusters where young teens and 20-somethings kill themselves by hanging themselves from a tree, but it's usually not African-American who've been apart of that. Besides, hanging oneself by a tree, also seems particularly rare and unusual; I literally can only think of one example ever in a piece of media and that's from the New Zealand film "Once Were Warriors"; so it shows how unusual that is. (And that suicide was a completely different kind of teenage suicide). 

You know, that's so disturbing and heartwrenching with stories like these, is how it really shows just how incompetent the police in this country really are. How they really are just a weapon for those who wish to exorcise they're power, feel these weak-ass little power grabs over others, whether it be for racist or other purposes, but mostly for racism. Police don't solve murders because they can't, they don't solve them because they don't want them solved.

"Always in Season" takes these two threads of the past and present and merge them to complete a horrific history tale, one that's still morphing and continuing today. Things do not happen in vacuums; neither do any historical events, or even personal ones, nor do they only effect us in the past. Racial prejudice and violence doesn't just end, and suicides also, just don't happen suddenly. Neither do lynchings. The power in the film, to me, lies in how harrowing and disturbing the documentary is, just by giving out the details. Both the imagined and created ones for the re-enactments and the counter ones about how a modern-day lynching plays out just as similarly, all because people in power can. "Always in Season" indeed. 

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