Review: ‘The Truth,’ starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alain Libolt, Juliette Binoche, Christian Crahay, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Truth”

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “The Truth” features a nearly all-white cast (with some Asians briefly shown as extras) representing the upper-class/wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A screenwriter has a troubled relationship with her famous actress mother and confronts some of these issues while visiting her mother in Paris.

Culture Audience: “The Truth” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally realistic arthouse cinema.

Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

When filmmakers do a story about a vain and spoiled famous actress who has a difficult love/hate relationship with a daughter living in her shadow, the results are usually comedy (such as 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge) or camp (such as 1981’s “Mommie Dearest”). “The Truth” is neither. Instead, this well-acted, well-written movie is a drama that authentically shows the dynamics and tensions of a family affected by fame, career ambitions and public image.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) wrote and directed “The Truth,” which is his first movie filmed outside of Japan. The story is essentially an emotional tug of war between legendary actress Fabienne Dangeville (played by Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (played by Juliette Binoche), as they come to terms with their relationship and how it was affected by Fabienne’s actress rival Sarah Mondavan, who died 40 years earlier.

Lumir lives in New York City with her American actor husband Hank (played by Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. All three of them go to Paris to visit with Fabienne, who has recently released her memoir, which is called “The Truth.” In addition to promoting the book, Fabienne is busy filming a new movie.

Lumir has ostensibly come to Paris to celebrate the release of the book, which is a bestseller in France, but it’s clear that Lumir is also there to possibly finished some unsettled business with her mother. One of the first things that Lumir does when she sees her mother again is confront Fabienne about not sending her the book’s manuscript before it was published.

Lumir reminds Fabienne that Fabienne had promised that Lumir would be the first person to read the manuscript. However, Fabienne insists that she did sent the manuscript to Lumir, and Fabienne claims to have no idea why Lumir never received it.

And it seems as if Fabienne has a version of the truth that contrasts with her daughter’s. In the memoir, Fabienne talks about picking up Lumir from school when Lumir was a child. However, Lumir says her mother never did any such thing because Fabienne was always too busy. “My memories, my book,” Fabienne responds dismissively.

During the course of the movie, it becomes clear that a lot of this mother-daughter tension has to do with unresolved issues that both women have over Sarah, who is never seen in this movie. At one time, Sarah’s and Fabienne’s acting careers were thriving and were approximately on the same level. But Fabienne ended up getting major fame and accolades that eclipsed Sarah, who died in a drowning that was officially ruled an accident.

Lumir has a lot of resentment toward her mother over Sarah’s death because while Fabienne was caught up in her career, she often neglected Lumir as a child, while Sarah was a devoted mother figure to Lumir. Meanwhile, Fabienne and Sarah had been competing for the same role in a movie, and the role was presumed to be going to Sarah.

However, Fabienne (by her own admission) slept with the director and got the role instead. Fabienne won a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for the role, and her relationship with Sarah was never the same again. It’s implied, but not stated outright, that Sarah’s death might have been a suicide, not an accident, because she was devastated by Fabienne’s betrayal. Lumir is also upset with Fabienne because Fabienne never even mentioned Sarah in Fabienne’s memoir.

The movie that Fabienne is working on during Lumir’s visit is a sci-fi drama called “Memories of My Mother.” In the film, a terminally ill woman goes to outer space to try and extend her life, and she leaves her teenage daughter behind on Earth.  When the woman comes back to Earth after seven years of being away, she has barely aged, while she finds out that her teenage daughter is now an old woman. Fabienne plays the old woman, while an up-and-coming actress named Manon (played by Manon Clavel) has the role of the mother who’s barely aged.

Fabienne’s long-suffering personal assistant/butler Luc (Alain Libolt) tells Lumir that the main reason why Fabienne wanted to do the movie is because Manon has the starring role and because the media and public have been constantly comparing Manon to Sarah. Not only has Manon been dubbed the “second coming of Sarah Mondavan,” but her speaking voice sounds remarkably like Sarah’s.

Luc invites Lumir and her family to Epinay Studios, where the movie is being filmed. Lumir can’t help but be intrigued, so she readily accepts the invitation. The “movie within a movie” concept is masterfully delivered here to show how life can imitate art and art can imitate life. (Fabienne’s fear of aging and Fabienne being distant for years from her daughter are obvious parallels to the story in “Memories of My Mother.”) While watching her mother on this film set, Lumir observes firsthand how much Fabienne is still set in her ways and is using the movie to work out some issues that Fabienne had with Sarah.

Fabienne is every inch the self-centered diva, but she also has a very charming side that draws people to her and keeps people fascinated by her. It’s one of the reasons why Luc has been working for her for more than 40 years, but even his steadfast loyalty is tested during the course of the movie. Luc knows the history of how Fabienne and Lumir’s relationship was affected by their respective relationships with Sarah.

Although the supporting actors in “The Truth” do a very good job with their roles, this movie is really a showcase for Deneuve and Binoche. Deneuve has the more complicated, less transparent role, and she plays it to the hilt without being melodramatic. Binoche gives a quivery-mouth, teary-eyed vulnerability to Lumir, but she also shows that Lumir is no pushover when she expresses how she feels and stands up to her mother’s attempted manipulations.

Charlotte is a typical adorable kid, while Hank is mainly there as a supportive husband. He respects his wife’s wishes to stay out of the conflict between Fabienne and Lumir. In the beginning of the story, Fabienne (who has not seen Frank since his and Lumir’s wedding) seems to show that she doesn’t have much respect for Frank, but she eventually warms up to him when she sees that he’s not going to criticize her in the way that Lumir is intent on doing.

When Frank, Lumir and Charlotte first arrive at Fabienne’s home, she has just finished being interviewed by a print journalist. When the journalist observes that she has visitors at her door, Fabienne says, “It’s nothing. It’s my daughter and her little family.” And when she talks about Frank, she says calling him an “actor” is “saying a lot.”

It turns out that Frank really is a working actor in movies, but he’s not an actor who’s had a leading role yet. He’s taken a vow not to drink alcohol until he gets a leading role, but that vow is quickly broken during the visit with Fabienne. It’s not too much of a surprise, since a lot of people would want to get drunk too if they had to be around a difficult mother-in-law like Fabienne.

Much like celebrities in real life who expect the world to revolve around them, the world of “The Truth” also revolves around Fabienne. Viewers of the movie don’t find out much about Lumir and Frank, other than that one of the reasons why Lumir moved to New York was to get away from her mother. But viewers find out a lot of Fabienne.

Fabienne has an enormous fear of being perceived as a has-been. She’s very competitive with other actresses. (And there’s a somewhat meta moment with Deneuve when Bridget Bardot’s name is mentioned in one scene.) She loves dogs and hates cats. She has an old turtle in her backyard garden that she’s named Pierre, after her ex-husband (Lumir), whom she kicked out of her life when she got tired of him.

Fabienne also lied in her memoir by saying that Pierre is dead. Pierre (played by Roger Van Hool) doesn’t find out that Fabienne has literally written him off as dead until he shows up for a surprise visit while Lumir and her family are at Fabienne’s house. Pierre is a laid-back, scruffy type who never really had big career ambitions (he used to work in the film business as an assistant), and he’s obviously faded into reclusive obscurity. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that Fabienne has told the world that he’s dead.

Although he’s of retirement age, Pierre has been vague about how he’s able to make money. And in one of the more amusing scenes in the film, when Pierre first meets Hank, he mistakenly assumes that Hank is a much-younger lover of Fabienne’s. Fabienne does have a lover, but he’s close to her age. His name is Jacques (played by Christian Crahay), and he happens to be Fabienne’s live-in chef, who’s more than happy to be subservient to her in every way.

Fabienne is clearly someone who is accustomed to using men to get what she wants. In one scene in the movie, she even tells Lumir that she’s never apologized to a man. And it’s also obvious that Fabienne is used to treating other women as rivals, since Fabienne wants to be the queen bee at all times. But that selfishness has come at a price.

A recurring symbolism in the movie is of females brushing each other’s hair. Fabienne lets her granddaughter Charlotte brush her hair, and she comments somewhat sadly that Lumir would never let Fabienne brush Lumir’s hair. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Sarah would often brush Lumir’s hair. The brushing of hair is obviously a metaphor for mutual trust and admiration.

The ending of “The Truth” is a little formulaic, but the head games and verbal sparring between mother and daughter are perfectly matched to this movie. It’s not a movie that’s going to change the world, but it’s one that will make people think about the emotional toll that comes from holding grudges against family members and whether or not refusing to forgive is worth the cost.

IFC Films released “The Truth” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on July 3, 2020. The movie was already released in France and in Japan in 2019.

 

Review: ‘Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash,’ starring Ian Shultis, Taylor Clift, Samuel Kay Forrest and Rich Dally III

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Taylor Clift (front row, second from right) and Ian Shultis (crouching in blue shirt) in “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash”

Directed by Jared Cohn

Culture Representation: This dramatic film, which has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans as extras), tells the story of the 1977 plane crash that took the lives of six people, including four people on the team of multiplatinum American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Culture Clash: Some members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd team had doubts and conflicts about the plane’s safety before it took that fateful flight.

Culture Audience:  Lynyrd Skynyrd fans are the obvious target audience of “Street Survivors,” but the movie should also appeal to people who want to see a dramatic recreation of what happened before, during and after the plane crash, if they can stomach the very graphic and bloody scenes in the movie.

Navarone Garibaldi, Taylor Clift and Samuel Kay Forrest in “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

The tragic story of rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd has been told many times in news reports, feature articles, books and documentaries, including the 2018 documentary film “Lynyrd Skynyrd: If I Leave Here Tomorrow.” Most of these versions of the band’s story respectfully tiptoed around describing the explicit, gory details of what happened during and after the plane crash in 1977 that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines (Steve’s older sister), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. The tragedy occurred because the faulty Convair CV-240 chartered plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi, on October 20, 1977.

“Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” (written and directed by Jared Cohn) does not sugarcoat or gloss over the horrors of the crash. The movie is so graphic with its up-close recreation of the blood, injuries and dead bodies, that this film is bound to disturb and probably anger a lot of people. Is it exploitation?

It would feel completely exploitative if not for that fact that plane-crash survivor Artimus Pyle, who was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer at the time, approved this movie, because the the story is told from his perspective. At various points of the film, Pyle does on-camera narration. As a survivor of this tragedy, Pyle certainly has the right to tell his version of events.

If a Lynyrd Skynyrd plane-crash movie had been made without any of the survivors’ input, it wouldn’t be right at all. But if a survivor, who saved the lives of several of the passengers, signed off on this movie, it’s up to viewers to decide if this dramatic recreation of the plane crash is something that’s worth seeing.

But sensitive viewers should be warned: This is one of the most graphic and disturbing plane-crash movies that you might ever see. It’s not recommended viewing for people who’ve survived an aircraft crash or who have a loved one who’s died in an aircraft crash, because this movie will no doubt be triggering for this type of trauma.

The plane crash is depicted about 50 minutes into this 92-minute film. Pyle opens the film by making this statement: “There have been many variations and accounts and contradictions to this story, but I was there. This was something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did. This is more than the story about the plane crash. It’s about the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the greatest Southern rock band of all time.”

Actually, the movie isn’t really about the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, because very little of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music is in the film. There’s a scene where the actors portraying the band are briefly shown performing “Call Me the Breeze” on stage. The full performance of “Call Me the Breeze” (which is from  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second album “Second Helping”) is then shown during the end credits.

If people watching this movie are expecting to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s greatest hits, then they will be very disappointed. One can assume that this low-budget film didn’t have the money to license the rights to more Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. And that’s probably why the movie does not have a lot of scenes of Lynyrd Skynyrd recording songs or performing live.

And if people are looking for a “rise to fame” story of how Lynyrd Skynyrd went from being unknown musicians based in Tallahassee, Florida, to multiplatinum rock stars, the “Street Survivors” movie isn’t that story either. Because the “Street Survivors” movie is told from Pyle’s perspective, the film starts off with how he joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1975, shortly before Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the band’s third album “Nuthin’ Fancy,” which yielded the hit single “Saturday Night Special.”

Pyle replaced original Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Bob Burns, who quit the band after having a nervous breakdown. By the time Pyle joined Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band had sold millions of records and already had several hit songs, such as “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The “Street Survivors” movie shows how Pyle (played by Ian Shultis) got the call to audition for Lynyrd Skynyrd and how, about two weeks later, a jubilant Pyle was asked to join the band on stage in Atlanta. Patricia Williamson, who became Pyle’s first wife, is portrayed in the movie as a loving and supportive live-in partner. Williamson is played by Kristina St. Peter in a small supporting role.

After Pyle joined the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd released fourth album “Gimme Back My Bullets” in 1976, and fifth album “Street Survivors” in 1977, just three days before the plane crash. The “Street Survivors” album had the hit songs “What’s Your Name,” “You Got That Right” and “That Smell.” After showing Pyle joining the band, the “Street Survivors” movie skips right to 1977, with the band in the middle of a tour and partying heavily with groupies and other hangers-on at a hotel.

The other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who are portrayed in the movie are lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (played by Taylor Clift), guitarist Gary Rossington (played by Navarone Garibaldi), guitarist Steve Gaines (played by Samuel Kay Forrest), guitarist Allen Collins (played by Rich Dally III), keyboardist Billy Powell (played by Hudson Long) and bass player Leon Wilkeson (played by Nick Chandler).

Also part of the Lynyrd Skynyrd team at the time were tour manager Ron Eckerman (played by Mark Dippolito), assistant tour manager Kilpatrick (played by Mark Valeriano), and backup singers Cassie Gaines (played by Lelia Symington), Leslie Hawkins (played by Sierra Intoccio) and JoJo Billingsley (played by Julie Zimmer). All of them and other members of the entourage were on that tragic plane flight, which had a total of 26 people on the plane.

The partying scenes in “Street Survivors” are what you would expect, considering the wild reputation that Lynyrd Skynyrd had in the 1970s. Drugs everywhere, especially cocaine and marijuana. Drunken antics. More than a few fist fights. Naked groupies offering up free sex.

In one scene, Van Zant throws a TV out of a hotel room window, causing the window to break in the process. A hotel manager angrily confronts the band in the room and tells them that they have to pay for the damages. Van Zant arrogantly asks the manager who’s going to make them pay, before bass player Wilkeson hits the manager on the head with a beer bottle.

The setbacks caused by this drug-and-alcohol-fueled lifestyle are referenced only in passing in the movie. For example, in another scene, Pyle answers a knock on his hotel door and is told by a male assistant, “Ronnie’s in jail, but here’s your gold record,” as Pyle is handed the gold plaque. It’s an example of the highs and lows of being in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Even before the plane crash, band members Van Zant, Rossington and Collins had car crashes, but those aren’t mentioned in the movie.

In one of his on-camera narrations, the real Pyle comments: “I want the world to know how funny my band was, because being the drummer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, every single day on the road was a hilarious adventure.” Therefore, it isn’t too surprising that the movie doesn’t really cover all the down sides of the band before the plane crash.

The only band members in the movie who are written as having distinct personalities are Pyle, Van Zant and Steve Gaines. All of them were heavy partiers, but Pyle is portrayed as the most responsible one of the three and perhaps the wackiest band member on stage. (Pyle would stage dive into the audience before stage diving became trendy.)

Van Zant is portrayed as a confident, outspoken leader with a quick temper but also extremely loyal to his bandmates. Van Zant had predicted to the other members of Lynyrd Skynryd that he would die before the age of 30 (he was 29 when the plane crash happened), and that ominous premonition is recreated in the movie. Steve Gaines (who was 28 when he died) was the youngest and still fairly new to Lynyrd Skynyrd (he had only been in the band since 1976, as a replacement for Ed King), so he was the band member who was the newest to the rock-star/private-plane lifestyle that Lynyrd Skynyrd was leading.

Even though “Street Survivors” avoids covering the negative effects of the band’s hedonistic lifestyle, what the movie does show is how Lynyrd Skynyrd ended up with the faulty plane that caused this tragedy to happen. In one scene, Aerosmith’s then-manager David Krebs (played by Sean McNabb) is seen in his office, with all of the members of Aerosmith there, surrounded by cocaine and women.

Krebs is shown on the phone rejecting an offer for Aerosmith to use a chartered plane because the plane didn’t meet the band’s safety standards. He also yells at the person on the other line about how the airplane pilot was seen passing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s back and forth during the plane inspection.

Guess which plane Aerosmith rejected and ended up being used by Lynyrd Skynyrd? In the movie, when Lynyrd Skynyrd first sees the plane, someone utters, “What a piece of junk!” And someone else comments on the plane, “Well, I guess that must be ours.”

In the movie, pilot McCreary (played by Tom Jenkins) and co-pilot Gray (played by Will David Jordan) introduce themselves to the band and assorted team members on the airport tarmac. Gray is portrayed as a star-stuck fan who eagerly tells the assembled group: “All my life, all I’ve dreamed of doing is to fly a big rig with rock stars. After this, I’ll die a happy man.” Cringe.

And although the movie doesn’t portray the pilots as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs while flying the plane, it does portray the pilots as very reckless and dishonest about the plane’s mechanical malfunctions. The day before the tragic flight, Lynyrd Skynyrd flew on that plane and had a close call when one of the plane engines caught on fire. When asked about this major engine problem during the flight, co-pilot Gray brushed it off as “a little blowback” that was “normal.”

The movie shows that although several passengers on the plane were understandably freaked out by the experience, they decided to use the same plane the next day on October 20, 1977. According to the movie, the band’s tour manager made an angry phone call to fix the malfunctioning plane after they landed on October 19, 1977. Obviously, those repairs never happened.

After performing in Greenville, South Carolina, on October 19, 1977, the band had to fly to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, because Lynyrd Skynyrd was scheduled to do a concert at Louisiana State University on October 21, 1977. Because of the band’s tight schedule, there wasn’t enough time to charter another plane, and Lynyrd Skynyrd couldn’t risk missing the Baton Rouge concert by using other travel methods that would take longer.

Before he became a professional musician, Pyle was an aircraft sergeant in the Marines. That aircraft background helped when it became obvious the plane was in serious trouble during the flight on October 20, 1977. First, the engine problems started again, and oil from the engine could be seen leaking on the airplane windows.

Then, when Pyle and other passengers started asking the pilots what was going on, they found out to their horror that the airplane’s gas gauge wasn’t working, which gave the pilots an overestimation of how much fuel the plane had. The plane had actually run out of fuel. The crash happened when the pilots decided to make an emergency landing. The movie thoroughly conveys the panic that spread throughout the airplane when the passengers knew that they were going to crash.

The bloody and shocking aftermath of the crash is also portrayed in heart-pounding detail, including Pyle having to pull a heavy part of a tree out of a passenger’s chest. Pyle also joined forces with other survivors to try and rescue Rossington, whose legs were pinned underneath part of the destroyed plane. Pyle was the one who left the crash scene to get help in the remote area. When he finally saw a farmhouse and yelled for help at a man standing in the field, the man ended up shooting Pyle in the arm because he thought that Pyle was a crazy trespasser.

The hospital scenes are also very dramatic and might be very hard to watch for some people. The movie shows that even when Pyle was going through this trauma, he had to be the one to identify the bodies at the crash site. He was also the one who had to confirm who owned which luggage items at the crash site. And he had to go through the indignity of being interrogated by a Drug Enforcement Agency officer who was ready to arrest Pyle on the spot when DEA people found legal ginseng in Pyle’s luggage and mistook it for an illegal drug.

One of the points made in the movie is how MCA Records, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s record company at the time, refused to help pay the enormous hospital bills that resulted from the crash. Pyle was the crash survivor with some of the least-severe injuries, so he was the “go to” leading witness for what happened. (He was conscious the whole time and he was still able to walk immediately after the plane crash.) In the movie, Pyle is shown being presented with the hospital bills while many of the surviving passengers are still in the hospital.

Pyle makes an angry phone call to a record-label guy named “Pete,” who coldly tells Pyle that the company isn’t responsible for the hospital bills, because Pyle’s contract was with the now-dead Van Zant. Not for nothing, Lynyrd Skynyrd never released a new studio album with MCA again.

“Street Survivors,” the band’s last album with Ronnie Van Zant, had a haunting band photo on the cover, with fire in the background. In the photo, it looks like Steve Gaines is on fire, which is very eerie, considering that he died in a fiery plane crash. After the plane crash, MCA released the “Street Survivors” album with an alternate cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd band photo without anything in the background. The album is still available with either album cover.

Although “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” doesn’t have top-notch acting or screenwriting, the casting for the movie is actually very good, since all of the actors resemble and capture some essence of their real-life counterparts. And the 1970s rock-star lifestyle scenes in the movie are very accurate.

However, the film’s direction and tone go back and forth between being hokey and suspenseful. Overall, it’s clear that the intention was to make Pyle look like the hero of the story. Some people will agree with that, while others won’t.

The movie has such a full-on commitment to showing realistic details of the plane crash that it might affect people on a deep emotional level. People will be really angry/sad that this tragedy happened or will feel very inspired by how Pyle handled this tragedy. There might be some people who feel both ways.

There will definitely be people who will hate this movie or feel lukewarm about it. However, it’s hard to imagine a lot of people loving this movie, because so much of it is disturbing to watch. Even if people think that “Street Survivors” is a good movie, they might have a hard time watching it again.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” on digital, VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Force of Nature’ (2020), starring Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth, Mel Gibson, David Zayas and Stephanie Cayo

July 1, 2020

Mel Gibson, Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth and Stephanie Cayo in “Force of Nature” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Force of Nature” (2020) 

Directed by Michael Polish

Culture Representation: Taking place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the action flick “Force of Nature” has a racially diverse cast (white people, Latinos and one African American) portraying middle-class citizens and criminals.

Culture Clash: During a hurricane, two police officers and four other people in an apartment building try to fight off a gang of ruthless thieves who’ve invaded the mostly evacuated building to steal a safe full of valuables worth $55 million.

Culture Audience: “Force of Nature” will appeal primarily to people who like movies with a lot of gun violence but very little substance.

Emile Hirsch and William Catlett in “Force of Nature” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Let’s say you’re in a gang of thieves who want to pull off the perfect heist in a building when there won’t be hardly anyone in the building. When do you want to commit this crime? During a hurricane, of course. That’s the premise behind the laughably bad action movie “Force of Nature,” whose stupidity is as relentless as the fake torrential rain that’s supposed to pass for a Category 5 hurricane in this mess of a story.

Directed by Michael Polish and written by Cory Miller, “Force of Nature” can’t even get basic elements right when it comes to portraying a hurricane in the movie. In “Force of Nature,” the Category 5 hurricane just looks like a heavy rain storm on the Category 2 level, since the wind gusts in the outside fight scenes are very mild compared to what a real Category 5 hurricane looks like.

But people who make these kinds of mindless movies aren’t really too concerned about realism or having a believable story. Their main concern is to stage as much violence and stunt shots to fill up the story with as much action as possible  and distract from the flimsy plot. However, even the action scenes in “Force of Nature” are unimaginative and very repetitive.

In “Force of Nature” (which takes place in San Juan, Puerto Rico), viewers are introduced to the main protagonist: A police officer whose last name is Cardillo (his first name is never mentioned; he’s portrayed by Emile Hirsh), who is shown in the beginning of the film by himself in a bathtub with a gun pointed in his mouth. Cardillo doesn’t go through with shooting himself, and when he gets dressed, viewers see that he’s a police officer. Why is he suicidal? It’s revealed later in the movie.

Now that we know that this cop is suicidal, you have to wonder if it’s deliberate or a coincidence that this “gun in mouth” scene is similar to the “gun in mouth” scene in 1987’s “Lethal Weapon,” which had Mel Gibson also portraying a suicidal cop. It’s worth mentioning this comparison, since Gibson plays an angry retired cop in “Force of Nature.” We’ll get to that in a moment.

When Cardillo goes to work, he’s less than thrilled to find out that he’s supposed to train a new partner that day: Jess Peña (played by Stephanie Cayo), who has a fairly upbeat personality, but is no pushover when a cranky Cardillo makes it obvious that he doesn’t want to work with her.

Puerto Rico is about to go on lockdown because of an impending Category 5 hurricane, so Jess has been assigned to work with Cardillo to train on how to evacuate residents. They’ve been called to assist in an apartment building where two of the residents stubbornly refuse to evacuate.

Meanwhile, a crime boss named John, nicknamed John the Baptist (played by David Zayas), and one of his henchmen have taken an elderly lady named Mrs. Gradisher (played by Leslee Emmett) to a bank, where they force her by gunpoint to open a safe-deposit box in a private room. There’s cash in the box (which the thugs take), but what they’re really more interested in is a painting in the box.

As they start to leave the bank, John coldly executes the lady in the head in the bank lobby. Several horrified people in the bank have witnessed the shooting. Therefore, not only are these criminals ruthless, they also don’t care about being seen committing murder without any disguises, in full view of witnesses and security cameras.

Meanwhile, at a grocery store, a man named Jason Griffin (played by William Catlett) has stocked up on a cartload of meat. He’s taken so much meat that there’s no more left for other customers. Griffin gets into a dispute with another man who asks Jason for one packet of meat, but Griffin refuses.

The angry customer than gets a store manager and falsely claims that Griffin stole a package of meat right out of the hands of the other customer’s son. Even though Griffin denies it, the manager sides with the other customer and asks Griffin to leave the store. (There are some racial undertones to this scene, since Griffin is African American and the other customer is not.)

Before he leaves, Griffin lunges at the other customer in anger. And the next thing you know, the police are called. Guess who are the cops who show up to respond to this incident? Cardillo and Jess, of course.

The customer who started the dispute declines to press charges on Griffin, who is released from police custody. When Cardillo asks Griffin asked why he was trying to buy all that meat, Griffin explains that he wanted to feed his cat Janet before the hurricane arrived.

And it just so happens that Griffin lives in the same apartment building where Cardillo and Jess were headed to assist in an evacuation. Cardillo and Jess agree to let Griffin back into this apartment to feed his cat, on the condition that Griffin immediately evacuate after the cat is fed.

It’s easy to figure out, based on the type of meat and the large quantities that Griffin was going to buy, that he does not have a regular domestic cat. But apparently, these two cops are too dumb to notice these clues, and they’re shocked when they find out what type of cat Griffin has. This animal is the reason for a subplot to the movie that won’t be revealed in this review.

Meanwhile, the two residents of the building who refuse to evacuate are retired cop Ray (played by Gibson) and another retirement-age man named Paul Bergkamp (played by Jorge Luis Ramos), who is originally from Germany. Bergkamp has no on else in his apartment, but Ray’s daughter Troy (played by Kate Bosworth, who’s married in real life to “Force of Nature” director Polish) is in the apartment with Ray, because she’s been unsuccessfully trying get him to evacuate.

Troy is a doctor (her medical skills come in handy later in the story), but she tells Jess, “He doesn’t exactly respond to female authority,” which is why Ray won’t listen to her. (We might never know if Gibson’s own reputation for making sexist comments had anything to do with why he got cast in this role.)

At any rate, Ray is an ill-tempered curmudgeon who immediately says when the cops arrive to evacuate him: “The current PD [police department] is full of pussies who care more about liberties and politics. I’m staying here.”

The only other known person at the apartment building is the superintendent, who is outside boarding up and securing windows. Not long after Cardillo and Jess have the displeasure of meeting Ray, Cardillo witnesses the superintendent getting gunned down by John and his small gang of thugs. Why are these criminals at this apartment? To get to a safe that has $55 million worth of valuables.

The rest of the movie’s action is a showdown between the bad guys and the people at the apartment. And just to make it harder for anyone to escape, the apartment elevator just happens to be not working. And did we mention that Ray has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal?

Gibson seems to be very self-aware of his controversial reputation, because he plays Ray to the hilt as an anti-hero, so there’s almost an element of camp to his acting. The rest of the cast members play it straight in this very formulaic, cheaply made action flick. The visual effects are tacky, and the director does a sloppy job with the action sequences, where it’s obvious to see who the stunt doubles are.

Much of the dialogue in “Force of Nature” is also very cringeworthy. At one point in the movie, Jess says, “Let’s go. Rock me like hurricane.” “Force of Nature” is supposed to take place during a hurricane, but the movie itself is another kind of disaster.

Lionsgate released “Force of Nature” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Welcome to Chechnya,’ starring Maxim Lapunov, David Isteev and Olga Baranova

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Bogdan” and Maxim Lapunov (also known as “Grisha”) in “Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Welcome To Chechnya”

Directed by David France

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and other parts of Europe, the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” interviews white and Arabic middle-class people about the deadly persecution of LGBTQ people in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and the documentary follows a group of activists who smuggle LGBTQ people in Chechnya to safe locations.

Culture Clash: The documentary reports that several LGBTQ people in Chechnya have been tortured or killed because of their sexual orientation, while Chechnya officials ignore these hate crimes or try to silence witnesses.

Culture Audience: “Welcome to Chechnya” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in compelling documentaries about human rights.

A scene from “Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

It’s not a secret that there are many countries and communities in the world that openly endorse or enable the persecution and murders of LGBTQ people. These crimes and human-rights violations are usually committed under the guise of religious beliefs. The documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” takes a harrowing, up-close look at Russian LGBTQ people (and some of their family members) who have suffered from hate crimes in the Russian republic of Chechnya and are trying to escape. The film also focuses on leaders of a group of activists who provide shelter and relocation services for LGBTQ people who want to leave Chechnya and start new lives in countries that outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ people.

For people who don’t know anything about Chechnya, the documentary gives a brief overview. Chechnya, which has about 1.4 million residents (many of whom are Muslim), is a republic that was formed in 1993, and is part of Russia, but operates independently from Russia in many ways. Ramzan Kadyrov, the current prime minister of the Chechnya, was appointed to the position in 2006. He is the son of former Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004.

Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has openly expressed contempt for LGBTQ people and believes that the Chechen government shouldn’t interfere if families want to kill LGBTQ family members for religious reasons or to protect the family’s “honor.” The documentary includes footage from a TV interview where Kadyrov (who projects an overly macho, swaggering image) denies that LGBTQ torture prisons exist in Chechnya. In the interview, he also denies that LGBTQ people even exist in Chechnya, but at the same time he says that if LGBTQ people are in Chechnya, then they should be sent away.

“Welcome to Chechnya” director David France (who is American) has experience doing documentaries about how discrimination against LGBTQ people can literally be life-threatening. In his Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” he examined how homophobia caused the AIDS crisis to be mishandled for years by the U.S. federal government. In his 2017 Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” he chronicled what happened to LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson, a New York City transgender woman whose death in 1992 at the age of 46 was officially ruled an accident, but many people suspect that Johnson’s death was really a hate-crime homicide.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is not the type of investigative documentary that most American viewers are used to seeing about human-rights issues. Most American filmmakers who do investigative documentaries about human-rights violations have dramatic “justice must prevail” type of music throughout the story, while there’s at least one “larger than life” personality (usually someone who’s the chief investigator, an activist or an attorney) who’s presented as the “star” of the film.

Instead, “Welcome to Chechnya” shows how Russian culture is very different from American culture, because there are no over-the-top, outraged histrionics in this movie. Emotions are very suppressed in “Welcome to Chechnya,” compared to how many Americans would act if this documentary had been made about Americans. Everyone in the movie is an “ordinary citizen,” and there’s no “larger than life” hero who’s coming to their rescue.

“Welcome to Chechnya” wisely chose to focus on only a handful of people in presenting their stories for this documentary, in order to make the film easy to follow. Two LGBTQ activists are featured in the film: David Isteev, a former journalist, is a crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. Olga Baranova, a former advertising employee, is director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT Initiatives.

Isteev and Baranova are both heavily involved in helping LBGTQ people in Russia get visas to move to countries where there are laws against discriminating against LGBTQ people. Both of these activists experience exhaustion and burnout because of their work. By the end of the film, one of them will quit, while the other one continues.

The hate-crime survivors who are featured in “Welcome to Chechnya” all have aliases to protect their identities, although they fully appear on camera without any disguises. One of the survivors initially goes by the alias “Grisha,” but he later goes public with his real name—Maxim Lapunov—for reasons that are explained in the film.

Lapunov, who was 30 when this documentary was filmed, never lived in Chechnya, but he visited there because of his job as an event planner. He says he was kidnapped and put in a secret prison in Chechnya, where he and other LGBTQ people were tortured just because of their sexual orientation. Lapunov was eventually released, he sought shelter in a house in Moscow for survivors of LGBTQ hate crimes, and he made plans to move out of Russia. He says that before this horrific turn of events, he had always thought that Chechnya was a great place full of friendly people.

“When the gay persecution began, it was a huge shock for me,” Lapunov comments in the film. “Being abducted and tortured changes you. That period of time broke me hard.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that the secret imprisonment and torture of LGBTQ people in Chechnya is believed to have increased sometime in 2017.

During a drug raid in 2017, police found explicitly gay messages on the phone of one of the men arrested. He was tortured and forced to identify other LGBTQ people in Chechnya. This raid is believed to have set off a firestorm of persecution attacks and abductions of LGBTQ people in Chechnya and other parts of Russia.

The documentary includes disturbing undercover video of some of these attacks. “Welcome to Chechnya” also mentions openly gay Russian pop singer Zelim Bakaev, who disappeared in Chechnya in 2017. Bakaev is believed to have been abducted and killed because of his sexual orientation.

During the course of the film, Lapunov is reunited with his boyfriend, who goes by the alias “Bogdan” and who was 29 when this movie was filmed. At the time Lapunov and “Bogdan” reunited, they had been in a romantic relationship for about 10 years. “Bogdan” left his family behind to move with Lapunov to a country that can give them asylum. Because Lapunov’s immediate family members accept his sexual orientation and because he is a key witness to the Chechen prison torture of LGBTQ people, his family members are also in danger of persecution, so they all plan to make the same relocation.

Another hate-crime survivor featured in the documentary is “Anya,” a 21-year-old Muslim whose uncle threatens to tell her family that she’s a lesbian. In exchange for his silence, he demands that she have sex with him. “Anya’s” father is a powerful government official, and “Anya” is certain that her father will have her killed if he finds out that she’s a lesbian. The documentary shows how the LGBTQ activist group helped “Anya” escape to an undisclosed location, but there are unexpected problems that occur with this rescue mission.

“Akhmad” is a 30-year-old hate-crime survivor who relocates to Canada. Out of all the survivors featured in the documentary, he gets the least amount of screen time, because the film shows him toward the end of his shelter stay and how he eventually leaves the shelter to move to Canada. It’s mentioned in the documentary that each shelter resident can stay for a maximum of 14 or 15 days. Although the Russian LGBTQ activists get help from LGBTQ activist groups in many other countries, not having enough money is a constant challenge in being able to continue the work.

Isteev is very clear about what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Russia: “Being gay, lesbian and transgender in Russia can get you killed or maimed. And no one will be held accountable for it.” Although it’s not explicitly stated in the movie, Isteev and Baranova being filmed for this documentary with their real names can put their lives in danger.

Isteev’s personal life is not shown at all in the film, but Baranova is filmed with her son Filip (who looks to be about 5 or 6 years old when this movie was filmed) and some of her LGBTQ friends. Baranova says that she wants Filip to know that there are other LGBTQ families like theirs, so he won’t grow up with the same feelings that other people have that LGBTQ people are “abnormal” and should be hidden away in shame.

Because most of the documentary is in the Russian language (with translated subtitles) and because the people in “Welcome to Chechyna” speak in calm, measured tones, some viewers might think the movie is “boring,” compared to other movies that would cover the topic of LGBTQ persecution. But if you have the patience and interest in looking at the movie for what it really is, there’s a quiet desperation that people have in this documentary that is no less impactful than Americans who loudly shout about their own rights and are ready to file complaints if they feel their rights have been violated.

“Welcome to Chechyna” accurately shows the repressed social behavior in a culture that’s ruled by a government that doesn’t allow street protests, legal recourse or freedom of speech for certain issues in the same way that other countries do. The only real moment of emotional hysteria in the documentary comes when one of the male residents of the LGBTQ shelter attempts suicide by cutting his wrist with a razor blade, and the panicked residents react to this suicide attempt in various ways. The shelter leaders make the agonizing decision not to get professional medical help because it would expose the location of the shelter.

Even though the emotions in “Welcome to Chechnya” are more muted than if this movie had been made about Americans or other Europeans, that doesn’t mean that the Russian people in this documentary are less passionate about fighting for their rights. They face more uphill battles than they would in many other countries.

And the documentary shows how much survivors have to sacrifice if they take the chance of starting new lives in other countries: They almost always have to leave their families and other loved ones behind. And they usually have to cut off contact with their families and other loved ones permanently, since the families left behind in Russia will be under government surveillance to track down the LGBTQ families members who escaped.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is nothing short of sounding the alarm that there is a modern-day holocaust of LGBTQ people. Baranova puts it bluntly when she says: “A group of people is identified without charge or trial. [Ramzan] Kadyrov and his people openly say that they are cleansing the republic.”

HBO premiered “Welcome to Chechnya” on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Ask No Questions,’ starring Chen Ruichang, Jason Loftus, Lisa Weaver and Liang Zihui

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chen Ruichang and Jason Loftus in “Ask No Questions” (Photo courtesy of Lofty Sky Entertainment)

“Ask No Questions” 

Directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli

Culture Representation: The documentary “Ask No Questions” interviews a racially diverse (Asian and white) group of people about how China’s government-controlled media handled the 2001 story of five people who appeared to set themselves  on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Culture Clash: Several people interviewed in the documentary say that the self-immolation incident was staged by the Chinese government in an effort to discredit the religious practice Falun Gong.

Culture Audience: “Ask No Questions” will appeal primarily to people who  are interested in documentaries that explore conspiracy theories about governments.

A photo still from “Ask No Questions” (Photo courtesy of Lofty Sky Entertainment)

On January 23, 2001 (Chinese New Year’s Eve), five people caught on fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in an apparent suicide pact among seven people. This horrifying incident made worldwide news and then faded from public consciousness. However, the documentary “Ask No Questions” (directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli) revisits this tragedy by coming to the conclusion that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 was probably staged by the Chinese government, in order to make the religious practice Falun Gong look like a dangerous cult belief.

“Ask No Questions” co-director Loftus (who is the film’s narrator and on-camera investigator) admits up front that he is very biased, because he’s a longtime practitioner of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), which he describes as a spirituality-based belief system that encourages meditation-oriented exercises. Loftus believes that Falun Gong is a misunderstood religion that the Chinese government has unfairly banned in China. Therefore, this documentary isn’t really an objective investigation as much as it is the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers trying to prove a conspiracy theory.

The Chinese media reported that seven Falun Gong believers had traveled from the Henan province to Beijing and were involved in this self-immolation incident: Wang Jindong (adult male), Liu Chunling (adult female), Liu Siying (Liu Chunling’s then-12-year-old daughter), Hao Huijunl (adult female), Chen Guo (Hao Huijunl’s then-17-year-old daughter), Liu Yunfang (adult male) and Liu Baorong (adult female).

Liu Chunling died on the spot, while Liu Siying died a few months after being hospitalized. Liu Yunfang and Liu Boarong, who did not set themselves on fire, faced very difference consequences: Liu Yunfang was named as the mastermind of this self-immolation incident, and he was sentenced to life in prison, while Liu Boarong denounced Falun Gong and escaped punishment.

Three other people who were not at Tiananmen Square that day were charged with helping the group, and they were sentenced to prison: Wang Jindong got a 15-year sentence, Xue Hongjun received a 10-year sentence, and Liu Xiuqin got a seven-year sentence.

Loftus asks this question about himself in the beginning of the film: “How does a small-town Canadian kid get involved in a struggle between the Chinese government and an Eastern spiritual group that was largely unknown in the West?” He then explains his background: Loftus became interested in Eastern religions and philosophies when he was a teenager. He read numerous books on these subjects, and he discovered Falun Gong at the age of 16.

By 1998, Loftus was practicing Falun Gong. By 1999, the Chinese government had banned Falun Gong. And by the time Loftus reached college age in the early 2000s, he was in China protesting the Chinese government’s ban on Falun Gong. It’s important to know this background because Loftus didn’t just do this documentary on a whim, since he’s been a pro-Falun Gong activist for many years.

There are two people interviewed in this 79-minute documentary who have the most compelling things to say. The first is Chen Ruichang, who was a high-ranking programmer at Guangdong TV (one of the four government-controlled TV networks in China), from 1987 to 2013. Chen’s main job was to gather research to make government propaganda more convincing on television.

Chen is a Falun Gong believer, but he says when the government banned Falun Gong, he was arrested several times, put into detainment centers and work camps, and tortured as a way to get him to denounce his Falun Gong beliefs. He refused. Chen says that the Chinese government staged the 2001 Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident.

In the documentary: Chen says of the Chinese government’s actions to suppress Falun Gong: “Their purpose was to sustain the persecution. So they carefully planned the self-immolation to incite hatred in people’s hearts.” Later, Chen says of his role in creating government propaganda for Chinese television: “I fell guilty because I helped them deceive people.”

The second person who has the most interesting things to say in “Ask No Questions” is Lisa Weaver, who was a CNN reporter in Beijing from 1999 to 2003. She was at Tiananmen Square during the self-immolation incident in 2001, and she smuggled out video footage of the incident. (The video footage is included in the documentary. )

Weaver says in the documentary about getting this footage: “We were in the right time at the right place.” However, Weaver claims that the Chinese government-controlled media showed close-up footage of the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident and falsely claimed that it was CNN footage.

The reason why Weaver says she’s certain of this is because she was there with the CNN camera crew, and they were too far away from the burning bodies to get the kind of close-up video footage that the Chinese media claimed was from CNN. Weaver also claims that China’s Xinhua news agency misquoted her account of what she saw that day in Tiananmen Square.

And according to Weaver’s eyewitness memories, she saw three people set on fire, but not at the same time, as reported by the Chinese media. She remembers that some of the burning people shouted Falun Gong slogans, but she got the impression that they weren’t true Falun Gong believers, since Falun Gong strongly disapproves of suicide. Did the Chinese government force the people who were set on fire to commit these acts and coach them in advance to chant Falun Gong slogans?

It’s a theory that “Ask No Questions” unabashedly claims is probably what really happed. The problem with this documentary is that it doesn’t really interview enough people from both sides of the issue to come to a well-rounded conclusion. The other people interviewed are mostly those who support in some way the documentary’s conspiracy theory.

The other interviewees include some of Chen’s relatives—his wife Liang Zihui, who says she was also detained and tortured by the Chinese government; his brother Richard Chen; and Richard’s wife Celia Ou. Other people interviewed include Falun Dafa Information Center director Levi Browde; Sarah Cooke, Freedom House senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep” author David Satter; and “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” author Danny Schechter, who died in 2015, which gives you an idea of how long ago he was interviewed for this film.

“Ask No Questions” also interviews Hollywood stunt man Tom Comet (also known as DangerBoy) to demonstrate how someone can be set on fire and not get seriously injured. And there’s also an interview with Dr. Alan Rosers, a surgeon at Ross Tilley Burn Center, who examines the 2001 Chinese TV news footage of the Tiananmen Square burn victims being interviewed by government-sanctioned news reporter, with a nurse having an up-close conversation with the Liu Siying in the hospital bed. (Former CNN reporter Weaver says that no other media outlets, other the Chinese outlets controlled by the Chinese government, were allowed to interview the Tiananmen Square burn survivors.)

Rosers notices several oddities in the footage, including how all of the surviving victims were placed in the same hospital room, which he says is unusual hospital procedure because severe burn victims are supposed to be kept away from as many people as possible during recovery, in order prevent infections. Rosers also says that’s also why it was very unusual for the nurse and reporter to not wear any protective masks or gloves while speaking up close with Liu Siying while she was interviewed on camera.

The doctor also notices that Liu Siying’s appeared to have a severely burned hand with a lot of bandages wrapped at the wrist, but the victim’s exposed arm for that hand looks perfectly fine, which is not consistent with someone whose whole body was set on fire. Rosers says that although he can’t prove it, the burned hand looks like a hand from a corpse, and it appears to be a prop that was tied by bandages at the wrist. Rosers comes to the conclusion, based on watching some grainy TV footage, that most of the surviving burn victims had real burns, while some could have been faked.

Loftus believes that it’s no coincidence that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 has eerie parallels to Wang Liviong’s 1991 novel “Yellow Peril,” which describes how the Chinese government staged a self-immolation incident in order to make propaganda. Loftus also takes a closer look at the seven people named as participants in the alleged suicide pact and found that none were known to be ardent followers of Falun Gong.

In addition, “Ask No Questions” also floats a long-held theory that Liu Chunling might have died to a blow to the head, instead of by burning, based on grainy footage of what looks like a man aiming a large object at her head while she was on fire. Other conspiracy theorists have noted how unusual it was for police at Tiananmen Square that day to be carrying around fire extinguishers, as if they were anticipating having to put out fires.

And how far does the Chinese government go to punish conspiracy theorists and their supporters? Loftus says that while he was making this documentary, his Chinese wife had to delete her Chinese social media accounts out of fear that her relatives in China would be targeted by the Chinese government. Loftus also mentions that his Toronto-based production company Lofty Sky Entertainment had a contract with a Chinese company to make video games, but that contract was cancelled with no real explanation. However, that’s not too surprising, because even in non-Communist capitalist countries, some companies just don’t want to do business with a company involved in controversial political activism.

Much of the investigation in “Ask Now Questions” recycles a lot of the investigative work that Washington Post reporter Philip Pan began in 2001. The filmmakers acknowledge that Pan did a lot of the groundbreaking investigations into this conspiracy theory. Loftus says in the film’s voiceover narration that he and the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers reached out to several journalists (Chinese and non-Chinese) who were working in Beijing in 2001, but they all declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

However, why not dig deeper? There’s no indication that the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers ever attempted to interview the politicians, attorneys or other officials who were responsible for helping Chen and his wife Liang gain asylum in the United States. The main reason why Chen was able to immigrate to the U.S. was because his imprisonment got a lot of media coverage, after his relatives went public with Chen’s story.

And what do ambassadors to China think about Chinese citizens who seek asylum in other countries by claiming they are being persecuted for their Falun Gong beliefs? The documentary leaves out the perspectives of government officials involved in international relations with China.

In the documentary, Chen gives a harrowing account of the type of torture that he endured, such as being forced to watch the 2001 self-immolation incident and other horrific things on a TV screen for eight hours a day, with the volume turned up to full blast. He says that the psychological torment, more than physical abuse, is what breaks torture victims: “And once a crack forms in your logical thinking, they will drill into it until they break your will.”

Unlike her husband, Liang did eventually denounce Luong Gong while she was detained and tortured in a “brainwashing center.” She says that the prolonged torture and forced separations that she and Chen went through almost caused them to get divorced. When they fled to the United States, the couple had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their son behind in China. Although their son wanted to them to get asylum in the U.S. so that they could be safe, the documentary shows that the pain of being separated from him is still palpable.

“Ask No Questions” has some compelling interviews, but the documentary does not present anything new that hasn’t already been reported about this conspiracy theory. Loftus admits that without indisputable evidence (which he believes has been suppressed by the Chinese government), there’s no way to prove that the Chinese government staged the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001.

It’s not a secret that the Chinese government has banned Falun Gong and punished Chinese citizens who profess to be Falun Gong believers. (And that topic could be an entirely different documentary.) Therefore, “Ask No Questions” is an echo chamber that sets out to prove a conspiracy theory and, by its own admission, falls short of getting widespread evidence. If the main purpose of the documentary is to make more people aware of the conspiracy theory, then “Ask No Questions” succeeds in that goal.

1091 released “Ask No Questions” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Skyman,’ starring Michael Selle, Nicolette Sweeney and Faleolo Alailima

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Selle in “Skyman” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Skyman”

Directed by Daniel Myrick

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California, the sci-fi drama “Skyman” features a nearly all-white cast (with a few Asian characters) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man is a social outcast in his community because he believes in UFOs and outer-space aliens, and he plans to celebrate his 40th birthday by trying to reunite with an alien that he says he saw when he was 10 years old.

Culture Audience: “Skyman” will appeal primarily to people who have the patience to sit through a very boring sci-fi movie where not much happens until the last 10 minutes of the film.

Michael Selle in “Skyman” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

If you’re type of person who hates movies where people keep talking about what they’re going to do and they take a long time before they actually follow through with it, then you’re really going to despise the sci-fi drama “Skyman.” It’s a movie that’s stuck on an irritating and boring repeat loop of the main character preparing and talking about something that doesn’t happen until the last 10 minutes of this 92-minute snoozefest.

“Skyman” was written and directed by Daniel Myrick, who is best known for the 1999 horror flick “The Blair Witch Project,” which was his first feature film and a big sleeper hit. “The Blair Witch Project” has been credited with starting the “found footage” trend that has been over-used in many horror films since then. Although “The Blair Witch Project” got some criticism for being an overly talkative movie with a very flimsy premise, most people would agree that “The Blair Witch Project” did have some moments of genuine suspense.

Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no suspense in “Skyman,” which telegraphs the very predictable ending so early in the story that by the time the ending happens, it’s anticlimactic and there are no real surprises. Instead of having a “found footage” format, “Skyman” has a faux documentary format: What we’re seeing is supposed to look like a documentary, but it’s actually all scripted with actors. The story in “Skyman” is supposed to take place in 2017.

There’s so much filler in “Skyman” that it really should have been a short film instead. One of the many unnecessary scenes in “Skyman” is the opening scene, which has a “talking head” interview with Cecil. H. Crawford, Ph.D. (played by Craig Downing), who works in psychology at the University of Washington. Dr. Crawford is speaking outside what looks like the university campus, and he’s talking about people who believe in UFOs and outer-space aliens.

“Typically, there’s a specific, socioeconomic profile that tends to make them more vulnerable to believing in the idea,” says Dr. Crawford. “They’re good people. They may be a little bit lost and looking for something that science can’t provide.” The movie then shows a montage of 1980s-era home videos of a family who lives in a desert area. The father and two sons are featured prominently in this home-video footage.

Who is this family? They are the Merryweather family, and they’ve been living in the desert town of Apple Valley, California, for about 35 years. Something happened to the Merryweathers about 30 years ago that permanently changed their lives: When their son Carl (played by Michael Selle) was 10 years old in 1987, he and some other people in the area saw a UFO. In addition, Carl claims that he also had an encounter with a space alien that day.

The sighting of the UFO (which Carl describes as a “black triangle”) and the space alien made the news, and Carl was interviewed on local TV about it. But all the publicity caused Carl to be ridiculed as crazy by most people in the community, and he’s been a socially awkward outcast ever since. However, about 30 years after the sighting, a documentary filmmaker (played by Myrick, who is mostly heard off-camera and briefly seen on camera) has taken an interest in Carl and wants to chronicle Carl’s quest to reunite with the alien on Carl’s 40th birthday. And guess what Carl  has nicknamed this creature? Skyman.

As an example of this movie’s lazy screenwriting, it’s never explained in the movie how Carl, who has been living in obscurity, got a documentary filmmaker to do a movie about him, considering that are many other people in the world who’ve claimed to have had encounters with space aliens. Did Carl contact the filmmaker, or did the filmmaker contact him? Although it’s a minor detail, it would also put into context how much of a publicity seeker Carl is or not.

Carl has such a plodding demeanor and banal personality that any good documentarian would be able to see within 20 minutes of spending time with him that he would not make an interesting subject for a documentary. And because he’s a loner, the documentary largely hinges on his character and what he does with his life. In the larger context of “Skyman,” making such an uninteresting and often pathetic character the center of this movie can only be blamed on writer/director Myrick. At least “The Blair Witch Project” had an ensemble of distinct personalities trying to solve a mystery that helped make the movie’s story intriguing.

Carl and his divorced sister Gina Campbell (played by Nicolette Sweeney), who do not have children, sit down for an interview together early in this “documentary” to talk about their family history. The Merryweather family, which includes their older bother Kenny, moved to Apple Valley when Carl was 5. Their father (whose name is never mentioned in the movie) was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and he died of a heart attack in 2010. Carl and Gina’s mother Denise lives in a nursing home, where Gina works full-time. Gina is also a student working on getting her nursing degree.

Carl and Gina’s older brother Kenny lives in Alaska and is estranged from the family. Kenny and Carl have a long history of not getting along with each other. When they were kids, Kenny would often bully Carl. What does Kenny have to do with the story? Absolutely nothing. He’s only mentioned as an example of someone who was mean-spirited to Carl, in order to make Carl look sympathetic to viewers.

According to interviews with some of the locals, Carl is known to be an eccentric who likes tinkering with items and fixing things. Carl is described as intelligent when it comes to this type of work, but he’s had a hard time holding a steady job. It’s implied that Carl has a pattern of getting fired because when he’s at work, he can’t help but start babbling about his UFO conspiracy theories. He seems to earn some money by doing independent contractor repair jobs for people here and there.

Anyone who wants to slog through the tedious sludge that is most of this movie’s content should be warned that most of the “documentary” footage looks like outtakes from very mundane family home videos. There’s a scene of Carl giving a tour of his very cluttered “pack rat” home, where he has a large collection of UFO-related books and magazines.

He also shows some of his hand-drawn illustrations of the space alien that he encountered. (It looks like a tall creature with a typical aesthetic that’s been seen in other sci-fi movies about space aliens.) As part of his “sightings” collection, Carl keeps a hand-written book of contact information for everyone he knows about who has claimed to have encountered UFOs or space aliens. There is no subtlety in this movie. Carl is obsessed.

Carl also gives a tour of the Merryweather family’s abandoned high ground house (HGH), which is essentially a large trailer located way out in a remote part of the desert. Carl says that he considers himself to be a doomsday prepper, but he insists that he isn’t crazy. Carl’s father had the family live in the HGH for a good deal of the siblings’ childhood. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Carl reveals that his father had a UFO encounter while on Air Force duty with two other colleagues, but his father and Air Force co-workers didn’t report it because they didn’t want to be accused of having “battle fatigue.”

There’s a long stretch of the movie where the “documentary” follows Carl during his first time attending two UFO Festivals: one in McMinnville, Oregon, and one in Roswell, New Mexico. These events are essentially Comic-Cons for UFO enthusiasts. These UFO Festival scenes, if they had been written better, would have made “Skyman” a slightly interesting film, but Myrick wastes this opportunity by making these festival scenes as lackluster as the scenes of Carl back at home.

This is Carl’s reaction to experiencing these festivals: “I’ve never needed validation …  but it’s nice to know that I’m not as alone in how I feel.” In fact, Carl keeps repeating a variation of “I know what I saw was real” when talking about his UFO/space alien experience, and he says it so many times, that it could easily become a drinking game for this movie.

Even the family tension in the movie is downright dull. Carl’s mother Denise (played by Patricia Lentz) doesn’t approve of his obsession over UFOs and space aliens, but there’s not much she can do about it. When he visits her in the nursing home, all she does is mildly scold him when she finds out what he plans to do for his 40th birthday.

Meanwhile, Gina is feeling the pressure of trying to hold the family together, and she’s carrying most of the financial weight to take care of the siblings’ ailing mother. In a separate interview, away from Carl, she confesses that she feels alone because she doesn’t really have a support system. She breaks down and cries when she says about Carl: “I can’t rely on him.”

Gina is semi-skeptical about the existence of UFOs, but Carl convinces her to go with him to the family’s desert HGH on his 40th birthday. Also along for the trip is Marcus Florio (played by Faleolo Alailima), who’s known the siblings since they were in high school together. As Carl says in the movie about Marcus: “He’s one of the only people in town that doesn’t think I’m crazy.”

Marcus works at a local hardware store, where Carl buys some magnet equipment to test any electromagnetic forces that might change due to an alien’s presence. For the trip to the desert HGH, Carl also brings a small, handmade satellite dish that looks like it belongs in a junkyard. You don’t have to be a genius to see that Carl is desperate to make contact with the alien.

There are very few movies where you can watch the first 10 minutes, then skip to the last 10 minutes, and find out everything you need to know about the story. But “Skyman” is one of those films. And one of the many flaws of this disappointing movie is that it doesn’t stay consistent with the faux documentary format.

In some scenes, the movie looks like raw documentary footage with no musical score. In other scenes, it looks like a scripted drama, including the addition of a musical score that’s supposed to reflect the mood of the scene. (Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan is one of the film’s three musical composers for the sparse “Skyman” score. The other two music composers are Don Miggs and Greg Hansen.)

The acting is mediocre, and there are a few scenes where even the actors break from a naturalistic style to a more affected “it looks like we’re reading a script” style. Since Carl is the focus of the film, Selle (who makes his feature-film debut in “Skyman”) does an adequate job in the role. The acting isn’t the biggest problem with “Skyman.” It’s the very thinly constructed and monotonous screenplay, as well as the unimaginative direction, that make “Skyman” the very definition of a movie that’s overly padded to disguise that there is no real substance to this film.

While Carl, Gina and Marcus wait in the desert for a possible encounter with the Sykman alien, Carl utters, “I hope that this hasn’t been a big waste of time.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly how people will feel while watching “Skyman.”

Gravitas Ventures released “Skyman” in select U.S. drive-in theaters on June 30, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is on July 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Desolation Center,’ starring Stuart Swezey, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Einstürzende Neubauten, Red Kross, Perry Farrell and Mark Pauline

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Einstürzende Neubauten in “Desolation Center” (Photo courtesy of Passion River Films)

“Desolation Center”

Directed by Stuart Swezey

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations in Southern California, the music documentary “Desolation Center” interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, African American, Latino and Asian) talking about the notable 1980s rock concerts promoted by the independent team Desolation Center, with commentaries from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people. 

Culture Clash: Desolation Center concerts, which rejected anything that was corporate, often operated outside the law by not filing permits and by being held in unconventional places.

Culture Audience: “Desolation Center” will appeal primarily to people interested in the non-mainstream Los Angeles rock scene in the 1980s and stories about music festivals.

 

Perry Farrell and Aaron Sherer (both facing camera) in “Desolation Center” (Photo by Mariska Leyssius)

Imagine a well-attended music festival that takes place in the California desert. Event permits weren’t filed, people were transported by school bus to the festival, and most attendees were so excited about going that they didn’t think about bringing sunscreen, water or food. And there wouldn’t be any vendors at the festival to sell anything. This festival obviously isn’t Coachella.

The documentary film “Desolation Center” is a nostalgic and fascinating look at five of the biggest concerts staged by a Los Angeles-based independent promotion team called Desolation Center. In its relatively short existence (1983 to 1986), Desolation Center influenced several festivals that ended up becoming corporate behemoths, including Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella. The five Desolation Center concerts that get the spotlight in the documentary are Mohave Exodus, Mohave Auzug, Joy at Sea, Gila Monster Jamboree and Solstice.

“Desolation Center” director Stuart Swezey, who also appears on camera for his commentary, is the best person to helm this documentary, since he founded Desolation Center and had hands-on involvement in every show presented by the team. His deep history with Desolation Center serves this film well, since it’s packed with a lot of great archival photos and video footage, as well as an extremely well-rounded set of interviews from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people who usually have first-hand accounts of Desolation Center shows.

Artists interviewed include the members of Sonic Youth (except for Kim Gordon), Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Red Kross and Einstürzende Neubauten. Also giving an artist perspective are Perry Farrell (co-founder of Lollapalooza Festival and the band Jane’s Addiction); Aaron Sherer (who was in Psi Com, Farrell’s pre-Jane’s Addicition band); Kurt Schellenbach of Nip Drivers; Suzi Gardner of L7; Michael Gra of Swans; Dan Bolles of the Germs; Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag; Steve Housden of Lawndale; Ian Rakow of Valley Punk; F.M. Einheit; artist Anthony Ausgang; noise musician Boyd Rice; performance artist Ron Athey; poet John Tottenham; and performance artists Mark Pauline and Matt Heckert of Survival Research Laboratories.

Unlike many music documentaries that shun or limit perspectives of non-famous fans, “Desolation Center” gives almost as much screen time to fans as it does the artists. Among the fans who share their fond memories of Desolation Center shows are poet Maw Shein Win; musician Sean DeLear; community organizer Linda Kite; costumer designer Nancy Steiner; Sandy Glaze; Lisa Derrick; Janet Housden; Easter Seals COO Bev Mendes; artist Kristine Kryttre; Bertell Ferguson; Skip King; ML Compton; Mike Guerena; Fourway Cross bandmates Courtney Davies, Steve Gerdes and Tom Dolan; and married couple Joy and Ken Abbott, who’ve been together since the ’80s.

Also giving their insight are Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar; Burning Man co-founder John Law; indie music operative Carmel Conlin; SST producer Spot; photographer/musician Mariska Leyssius; sound engineer Ed Cirino of Gold Sound; Re/Search Publications editor/publisher V. Vale, music publisher Adam Wolf; and journalists Chris Morris, Simon Reynolds, Joseph Bien-Khan.

“Desolation Center” begins with a contextual backdrop of what was going on in the Los Angeles music scene during the 1980s that laid the groundwork to form Desolation Center. If there’s any villain of this story, it’s Daryl Gates, who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from 1978 to 1992. DeLear calls Gates “rotten” and “creepy” in the documentary.

And several people who comment in the film, including Swezey, describe the LAPD under Gates’ leadership as an oppressive force that targeted punk rock musicians and fans for harassment and arrests. Bolles says, “The LAPD freaked out about punk rock, like it was the second coming of the Black Panthers.”

Therefore, nightclubs and bars in Los Angeles that booked punk artists frequently had those shows shut down or heavily enforced by the LAPD. Meat Puppets lead singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood adds, “It seems like they [the LAPD] were going through the newspaper and finding bands that sounded punk rock and making sure they didn’t happen.” Performance artist Athey comments on Los Angeles: “I grew up here. I wasn’t enlightened that you could live in a non-police state, so you figured out how to skirt around it.”

The good news is that in the early 1980s, the alternative/underground music scene was very diverse, in terms of race, gender, sexuality and economic backgrounds. Kite, who was the fiancée of Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boone, comments on the Los Angeles punk/underground music scene during this era: “There was just as much people of color in it as there were white kids. Bands were multicultural, as well as the scene was multicultural.”

This diversity was in stark contrast to Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene and classic rock scene, which pretty much excluded musicians who weren’t straight white males. Another big difference between the punk scene and communities for other rock genres was that punk was all about rejecting conformity and corporate greed.

Swezey comments in the documentary: “In the early ’80s, I think the rest of the world saw L.A. as this brain-dead, sun baked, smoggy sprawl—which it kind of was. For those of us who grew up here, the early ’80s was actually a really vital and interesting time.”

Before Swezey founded Desolation Center, he was a 21-year-old college dropout doing phone sales for a municipal broker in 1982. Although he was a fan of punk music and went to a lot of shows, he wasn’t inspired to become a show promoter until he saw a Throbbing Gristle concert and later met its promoter Michael Sheppard. Swezey says of that fateful Throbbing Gristle show: “Their sonic assault changed the way I thought of music and performance forever.”

He took the plunge to form Desolation Center in 1983, as an independent collective to promote “alternative” rock and performance artists. At the time, Swezey was living in a very seedy and run-down part of downtown Los Angeles. He says he came up with the name Desolation Center “because that’s how I was feeling about my environment at the time.”

Desolation Center was born out of nonconformity, not just because of punk ideals but also out of financial necessity. The tiny start-up didn’t have the budget to book artists at established nightclubs and advertise those types of shows. Therefore, Swezey and Desolation Center had the great idea to do the opposite of what most concert promoters were doing.

Desolation Center booked shows in abandoned warehouses and other under-the-radar places. The shows also didn’t follow industry norms: Guests lists weren’t allowed, everyone had to pay to get inside, and the shows didn’t sell alcohol (which would get the attention of the police), but people of legal drinking age were allowed to bring their own alcohol. Desolation Center also didn’t advertise its shows and did not court publicity.

Having these shows in non-traditional venues also allowed Desolation Center to not have to deal with Ticketmaster or city permits to put on these shows. And finding about these shows, not through advertising or media publicity, but through word of mouth, gave Desolation Center a cool, underground reputation with fans. Nowadays, with insurance liabilities being more of a concern for artists and promoters, an outfit like Desolation Center wouldn’t have been able to stay in business for as long as it did.

It wasn’t long before Desolation Center wanted to do something bigger than just a small show in a warehouse, without having to go to a traditional large venue. After taking a road trip through the Sonora Desert in Mexico, Swezey was inspired to have the first Desolation Center festival in the desert. He approached Savage Republic band member Bruce Licher, who came up with the idea to have the show in the Mohave Desert, about three hours east outside of Los Angeles.

That show ended up being a mini-festival called Mohave Exodus, which took place on April 24, 1983, and featured performances by Savage Republic and Minutemen. Licher had access to a printing press, so he was essentially in charge of making the tickets and signage that were used for the show. Farrell says of Licher: “He was like the Benjamin Franklin of our scene.”

Getting to the concert site was unconventional. There was a secret place in downtown L.A. where ticketholders were told to meet. From there, rented school buses took them to the remote area in the desert. Many of the fans were completely unaware of how hot the desert heat would be and were decked out in full-on heavy punk gear.

Kryttre, an artist who attended the event, remembers how driving to the concert site was a challenge because some of truck stop managers would lock their restrooms when they saw all the “alternative”-looking young people coming out of the buses to use the restrooms. The way these fans looked back then wouldn’t be considered a big deal today, but it was a big deal back then.

The concert was so bare-bones and do-it-yourself that nothing was set up in the middle of the desert except for the band’s equipment and sound system. There was no stage separating the band from the audience. Most concertgoers had to sit on the hard desert ground, although some people thought of bringing lawn chairs. And forget about places to eat, drink and use toilets at the concert site. There weren’t any.

And they weren’t prepared for the forceful desert winds in the area. Sound engineer Cirino remembers that socks had to be put on microphones, and the buses had to be parked behind the bands to form a wall that would be a wind barrier. It was about as unglamorous and uncomfortable as you can imagine. But looking back on it, the concertgoers and band members interviewed in the documentary say they loved the experience.

Win comments, “I felt we were these young people creating this great, alternative world for ourselves out in the desert.” Guerena says, “There was no violence, no weirdness. It was like everybody was in this one cool group.” Joy Abbott adds, “I just remember thinking, ‘This is one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my whole life.'”

After the Mohave Exodus show, Swezey quit his day job and went backpacking around Europe. While he was in West Berlin, he saw German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten perform for the first time and was completely awed by the experience. It was around this time that Swezey saw director Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo,” which also gave Swezey the idea for the next big Desolation Center festival.

In “Fitzcarraldo,” a European opera fan becomes obsessed with building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. Swezey explains how Einstürzende Neubauten and “Fiztcarraldo” inspired him: Instead of bringing opera to the jungle, he wanted to bring industrial music to the desert.

And that led to the Desolation Center show Mohave Auzug, held in Mecca, California, on March 4, 1984. Einstürzende Neubauten headlined the show, which was more elaborate—and crazier and more dangerous—than Mohave Exodus. A pacifist percussion group Djemaa-El-Fna greeted concertgoers as they arrived.

But that peaceful atmosphere was quickly destroyed by Survival Research Laboratories, a rebellious group of performance artists (whose most famous member is Mark Pauline), who loved to literally blow things up. And the desert was their playground at the show, as they set off explosives in a cave, as well as other places outside, despite the objections of Djemaa-El-Fna and some concertgoers.

Luckily, no one was hurt at Mohave Auzug by these explosions. Pauline and the rest of the anarchists look back with no regrets and say the explosions were all in the name of fun and performance art. Lawndale band member Housden remembers that at this industrial-oriented concert, power tools were used as musical instruments and other playthings: “They were giving a hard time to our dad’s power tools … They ruined them.”

With two well-received desert concerts under his belt, Swezey decided that the next big Desolation Center concert would be at an opposite location: on the water. The Joy at Sea concert was held in the San Pedro Harbor in California, on June 15, 1984. The headliners were San Pedro hometown band Minutemen and Arizona-based band Meat Puppets. Meat Puppets bass player Cris Kirkwood says of the experience: “It was one  of the highlights of my musical career in a lot of ways—just magical as crap.”

Then, it was back to the California desert. Gila Monster Jamboree was Desolation Center’s biggest event yet, and is probably considered the most important one for Desolation Center. Taking place on January 5, 1985, the bill included Sonic Youth (in the New York City band’s West Coast debut), Meat Puppets, Red Kross and Psi Com, which was Farrell’s band before he formed Jane’s Addiction.

In the documentary, Farrell admits that Psi Com got the gig because he was Swezey’s roommate at the time. “It was really cool, so I thank you for that,” Farrell says. Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood remembers that everybody at the concert seemed to be in a good mood because most people were flying high on LSD. Montgomery, one of the fans at the concert, says: “There were very few people who weren’t tripping.”

Unlike previous Desolation Center concerts in the desert, where the concertgoers could only get there by Desolation Center’s provided buses, Gila Monster Jamboree gave concertgoers the option to take their own transportation to the concert site, although bus transportation was still provided for those who wanted it. There were was still none of the commercial trappings (merchandise booths and food vendors), sanitary facilities, or safety precautions that are presumed for today’s music festivals. Because, just like other Desolation Center concerts, the promoters didn’t have a permit to hold the event.

Steve and Jeff McDonald, the brothers who co-founded Red Kross, remember the nerve-racking experience of having a driver who got lost for hours, making the band very late for the concert. Red Kross was the first “glam rock” band to perform at a Desolation Center festival. And ironically, the band was so late, the members of Red Kross didn’t have time to change into their glammed-up stage clothes and instead performed in jeans and sweatpants, which was outside their comfort zone for their stage wardrobe.

Desolation Center’s permit-avoiding ways eventually caught up to the team, which was fined $400 for the Gila Monster Jamboree show. Swezey says that $400 was a lot of money to them at the time. So, in true D.I.Y. fashion, Desolation Center held a Trespass Benefit show to raise funds to pay off the fine. Minutemen and Nip Drivers performed at the fundraising concert, which was held at the Anti Club on Augusts 4, 1985.

Desolation Center’s last big hurrah was the Solstice concert on December 21, 1985. Sonic Youth and Swans topped the bill for the show, which had the unusual distinction of being partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Swezey says that a friend who received NEA grant money approached him to do the show.

But tragedy struck on December 22, 1985, when Minutemen lead singer D. Boone was killed in a car accident that injured his fiancée Kite and permanently disabled Kite’s sister. It was an end of an era. Swezey says in the documentary that Boone’s death and the stricter laws being enforced for concert promotion led to the decision to say goodbye to Desolation Center and move on to other things. Swezey then founded Amok Books, an alternative publishing company.

“Desolation Center” isn’t just for people who remember what it was like to be a fan of alternative music in the early ’80s. It’s the type of documentary that people of many generations can enjoy if they like the bands in the film and if they want to get a meaningful historical time capsule of a specific subculture of the Los Angeles music scene in the early-to-mid-1980s.

It might also make people wistful for a bygone era when people went to concerts and festivals and lived in the moment, instead of worrying about how things were going to look on social media. Remarkably, no one was killed or maimed at a Desolation Center concert, which is in stark contrast to all the concerts that have happened since the ’80s that have experienced mass shootings, bombings and other weapons of war against innocent concertgoers.

Desolation Center wasn’t exactly about “peace and love” all the time, but one of its greatest legacies that’s been largely abandoned by most big concert promoters is that the shows embraced people from all sorts of backgrounds, by not excluding people through ticket prices that are too high for certain people’s budgets. Those days might be long gone for music festivals, but this documentary is a significant reminder of how it was possible back in the ’80s and how well it worked.

Passion River Films released “Desolation Center” on digital, VOD and DVD on June 23, 2020.

Carl Reiner dead at 98; comedic icon was father to actor/filmmaker Rob Reiner

June 30, 2020

by Jeffrey Peterson

On June 29, 2020, Carl Reiner, the comedic actor, writer,  producer and director who created and co-starred in the CBS comedy series “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” died of natural causes in his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 98. His assistant Judy Nagy confirmed the death, which was first reported by TMZ, according to the Associated Press.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was on the air from 1961 to 1966, starred Dick Van Dyke as a TV writer and Mary Tyler Moore as his wife. The comedy series was inspired by Reiner’s real-life experiences working on Sid Caesar’s comedy series “Caesar’s Hour” from 1954 to 1957. Later in his career, Reiner was a frequent collaborator with Mel Brooks and Steve Martin.

In addition to acting in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and numerous other TV shows, Reiner co-starred several movies, including 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and 1978’s “The Jerk.” His last film role was as the voice of Carl Reineroceros in 2019’s Oscar-winning animated film “Toy Story 4.”

He was directed several movies, including 1979’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” 1978’s “The Jerk” and 1977’s “Oh, God!” The last movie that Carl Reiner directed was 1997’s “That Old Feeling,” starring Bette Midler and Dennis Farina.

Carl Reiner was the father of Rob Reiner, who started out as an actor (best known for his co-starring role in “All in the Family”), but Rob eventually became a director too. Rob Reiner’s directorial film credits include 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” 1987’s “The Princess Bride,” 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally,” 1990’s Misery” and 1992’s “A Few Good Men.”

Carl Reiner and is wife Estelle were married from 1943 until she died in 2008.. Car Reiner is survived by his children Rob, Lucas (who is a film director) and Sylvia, who is a psychoanalyst and author.

Review: ‘Run With the Hunted,’ starring Michael Carmen Pitt, Ron Perlman, Dree Hemingway, Mitchell Paulsen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sam Quartin and Kylie Rogers

June 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Carmen Pitt and Dree Hemingway in “Run With the Hunted” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Run With the Hunted”

Directed by John Swab

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the crime drama “Run With the Hunted” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) portraying the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy runs away from home after killing a man, and he grows up to lead his own group of runaway lawbreakers.

Culture Audience: “Run With the Hunted” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally dark movies about people haunted by their past, but the film fails to deliver a well-written, well-paced story.

Kylie Rogers and Mitchell Paulsen in “Run With the Hunted” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Much like the hoodlums in the crime drama “Run With the Hunted,” the movie wastes a lot of potential to have a better purpose in existing and instead wallows in self-indulgence and excessive violence. Written and directed by John Swab, “Run With the Hunted” benefits from solid acting from most of the cast. However, the movie ruins a compelling story idea with nonsensical scenes and uneven pacing.

“Run With the Hunted” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) has an intriguing but dark concept of a boy who runs away from home after murdering a man and who grows up to become an adult leader of a gang of lawbreaking children. The first two-thirds of the film are told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy named Oscar Grey (played by Mitchell Paulsen), who lives in a very rural area with his mother Josephine (played by Mykle McCoslin), his father Augustus (played by William Forsythe) and his sister Lollie (played by Tatum Stiles).

Josephine, nicknamed Jo, is a nurturing and loving person, while Augustus is stern and judgmental. In the beginning of the movie, Augustus is seen asking Oscar if he listened to the sermon that day while they are both standing by a small pond. Even although Augustus and his family are apparently churchgoing people, apparently Augustus doesn’t believe in being charitable to neighbors, because he scolds Josephine for wanting to give their dinner leftovers to a neighbor family who’s financially struggling.

When Josephine asks Oscar to take the dinner plate over to the neighbors’ place, Augustus warns Oscar: “I don’t want you to catch whatever virus lingers in that house.” The neighbors are the Robbins family, consisting of a drunk and mean-spirited father named Persey (played by Brad Carter) and his kids Amos (played by Evan Assante) and Loux (played by Madilyn Kellam), who are around the same age as Oscar. The children’s mother isn’t in the home, and it’s implied that she’s dead.

It’s clear from the first few minutes of Oscar being in the house that Persey is violent and abusive. Not even Oscar escapes from Persey’s physical aggression and shouting. Persey rudely refuses Oscar’s dinner and orders him to leave the Robbins’ run-down and messy house. Persey growls to Oscar: “I want you to tell that daddy of yours that I don’t need your mother’s backhanded charity. Take it back. Get the fuck out of my house!”

In a later conversation that Oscar and Loux have by themselves while outside in a field, Loux tells Oscar that she wants to escape from her home, but she can’t. It’s implied, but not shown in detail, that Persey has been sexually abusing her, since there’s a creepy scene where Percey makes Loux sit on his lap, strokes her hair and tells her that Loux that reminds him of her mother.

One night, while Percey is passed out drunk on his living room couch, Oscar sneaks into the house, takes a fire poker from a lit fireplace, and stabs Percey to death. The gory details are shown later in the movie as a flashback. The next thing you know, Oscar is about 100 miles away in a city that’s big enough for him to hide for a while but not so big where the city has a large police department. (“Run With the Hunted” was actually filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

While he’s homeless and alone in the city, Oscar is picked up for violating curfew. Since he has no identification and presumably won’t tell the authorities who he is, Oscar spends the night locked up by himself in an adult jail cell. While Oscar is sitting in jail, a police officer on duty at the station named Jim Flannery (played by Slaine) gets a faxed alert that Oscar Grey is wanted for murder.

Even though the alert has a clear photo of Oscar, Flannery stupidly assumes that the kid locked up in the jail cell couldn’t be the same boy, because he thinks a boy who lives in that rural area wouldn’t have the means or intelligence to travel 100 miles away by himself. He also comments to a desk-clerk colleague named Keryn (played by Renée Willett) that the boy who’s in the jail cell doesn’t look like a murderer. Keryn cynically agrees that all these delinquent kids start to look alike. Therefore, Oscar is let back out onto the streets.

This is a badly written part of the movie, because even if Flannery wanted to assume that Oscar wasn’t the same boy who was wanted for murder, an obvious underage runaway like Oscar would not be let back out on the streets so quickly by police, since child-protective services would be called. And people watching the movie won’t get over the fact that the photo of Oscar in the alert looks exactly like him.

The only purpose of this gaping plot hole is to establish that Flannery (who’s in the latter third of the story too) is a dumb, corrupt cop. This plot hole is also a set-up so that Oscar is free to be on the streets when he has a fateful meeting with another street kid named Peaches (played by Kylie Rogers), who takes a liking to Oscar. She shows him the abandoned, remote warehouse where she and other kids around their age hang out and get training to become thieving criminals. Their leader is a scruffy middle-aged loser named Sway (played by Mark Boone Junior), whose real name is Neville.

Sway is excited to have a new recruit join their ranks. He tells his boss Birdie (played by Ron Perlman) while Birdie is at beauty salon getting a pedicure. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. This slightly comical scene is also supposed to establish that Birdie is well-connected to corrupt politicians, since he’s meeting with a congressman (played by Darryl Cox) at the salon.

Peaches and Oscar start to have a teen romance (she’s his first kiss), and he confesses to her that he’s a fugitive for murder, but that he killed an abusive man to save his kids from the abuse. Oscar doesn’t go into details by telling Peaches the last name of the family involved, but Peaches understands.

Peaches tells Oscar: “Someday, Loux will find you. For now, you have me. I believe fate brought us together.” Peaches makes it clear that she wants Oscar all to herself, and she tells him to promise that he will never leave her.

And there’s something else about Peaches: Her father is Birdie. In one scene, he has a father-daughter talk with her in his car while she’s eating an ice cream cone. Birdie gives this advice to Peaches: “You’ve got to grab what you want, because no one is going to give it to you.”

Meanwhile, Sway is having second thoughts about having Oscar in his gang of juvenile delinquents and he wants to kick Oscar out of the group. The word gets back to Birdie, who wants to keep Oscar in the group, especially since Oscar and Peaches have started dating each other. How far will Sway go in defying Birdie’s orders? That question is answered in the movie.

When the movie flashes forward 15 years later, it’s shown that Oscar (played by Michael Carmen Pitt) and Peaches (played by Dree Hemingway) are still together. Peaches works as a stripper, and she and Oscar have a very co-dependent relationship where she’s still very needy.

However, Birdie and Peaches have kind of a sleazy father-daughter dynamic that looks borderline incestual. There’s a scene where Peaches sits on Birdie’s lap and she sort of acts like she’s his girlfriend by the way she hugs and kisses him. (Peaches’ mother, just like Loux’s mother, is nowhere in sight.)

The dumbest scene in “Run With the Hunted” is one that has absolutely no bearing on the overall story. It’s 15 years after Oscar has committed the murder, and he’s now tutoring a gang of four teenage hoodlums to commit armed robbery. They rob a grocery store and hold everyone hostage. And not surprisingly, one of the customers gets shot. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the movie’s trailer.)

What’s incredibly moronic about the scene is that Oscar and his gang do nothing to disguise themselves when they commit the robbery. Even if there’s the unlikely possibility that the store doesn’t have surveillance cameras, there were several hostages as eyewitnesses. And a grocery store, compared to a bank or jewelry store, isn’t exactly the best place to get a large haul of money to steal. Most grocery stores keep a limited amount of cash in their registers, so it’s no surprise that Oscar and his gang don’t end up with a lot of money from the robbery.

What’s also laughable about this badly written part of the movie is that Oscar and his four teenage followers (two who are white, two who are black) all live together in the same house, which is not a remote house but a place on a suburban-looking neighborhood street. Therefore, it’s obvious that this motley group would stick out in any neighborhood and would be easy to identify after the robbery.

Oscar is supposed to be 28 in this part of the story, but Pitt (the actor playing the adult Oscar) looks like he’s closer to 38. Any respectable neighbor would think, “Why is a man that age living with underage teenage boys who aren’t related to him? Who and where are these kids’ parents?” That unusual living arrangement would be enough to attract attention to Oscar, who’s supposed to be an “underground” criminal.

Wherever this city is that Oscar ran away to and now lives, the city must have the dumbest law enforcement not to catch on to the fact that there’s a coordinated gang of young criminals who are committing a lot of the thefts (including pickpocketing) right out in the open on the streets and in stores where there should be surveillance cameras. The city is obviously not isolated enough for these kids to be able to stay in hiding for long.

And just as Peaches predicted years before, an adult Loux (played by Sam Quartin) does come looking for Oscar. (Again, this is not a spoiler, since the movie’s trailer already revealed this part of the story.) Loux ends up in the same city and gets a job working for a private investigator named Lester Rineau (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a widower who might or might not be helpful to Loux’s stealthy investigation into Oscar’s childhood disappearance.

As a crime thriller, “Run With the Hunted” is a lot duller than it should have been, with much of the pacing dragged down by the relationship problems of the adult Oscar and Peaches, who have grown up to be very miserable human beings. And after Loux comes to town, the plot basically goes down the toilet, in terms of how people in the story react to her investigation.

One of the best things about “Run With the Hunted” is the talented performance by Paulsen as the young Oscar. He gives a completely credible and effective depiction of a kid who’s caught up in circumstances that are way over his head. The casting of Paulsen in this movie was definitely a very good choice.

Pitt and Perlman have been typecast (Pitt often plays troubled souls, Perlman often plays villains), so there’s not much of an acting stretch for them in this movie. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The few women in this movie aren’t given much to do except react to whatever the men are doing.

“Run With the Hunted” has the expected violence and foul language, but sensitive viewers should be warned that the film has violence that usually isn’t seen in crime dramas—scenes of underage kids killing other people. It’s a disturbing aspect of “Run With the Hunted” that comes across as exploitative for the sake of appearing provocative and “edgy.” It’s also an example of how “Run With the Hunted” is more concerned with having violent scenes instead of having a coherent and plausible story.

Vertical Entertainment released “Run With the Hunted” on digital and VOD on June 26, 2020.

2020 BET Awards: Roddy Ricch, Megan Thee Stallion, Chris Brown, DJ Khaled are the top winners

June 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

With two prizes each, Roddy Ricch, Megan Thee Stallion, Chris Brown and DJ Khaled were the top lead-artist winners of the 20th annual BET Awards, which were announced on June 28, 2020. For the first time in BET Awards history, the show was an all-virtual event, and it was simulcast on BET, BET Her and CBS. Comedian/actress Amanda Seales hosted the event, which was pre-recorded due to the coronavirus pandemic causing the cancellation of large gatherings.

Roddy Ricch won the awards for Album of the Year (for “Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial”) and Best New Artist. DJ Khaled featuring Nipsey Hussle & John Legend’s hit song “Higher” was named Video of the Year and tied for Best Collaboration with Chris Brown featuring Drake’s “No Guidance.” Brown also tied with Anderson .Paak for Best Male R&B/Pop Artist.

Drake was the top nominee at the 2020 BET Awards, with six nods. In the end, he won the award Best Male Hip-Hop Artist (in a tie with DaBaby) and the aforementioned Best Collaboration prize as a featured artist on Brown’s “No Guidance.” Megan Thee Stallion was named Best Female Hip-Hop Artist, while Megan Thee Stallion featuring Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign– “Hot Girl Summer” won the Coca-Cola Viewers’ Choice Award.

According to a BET press release: “The nominations are selected by BET’s Voting Academy, which is composed of fans and an esteemed group of entertainment professionals in the fields of television, film, music, social media, digital marketing, sports journalism, public relations, and creative arts.”

In the non-competitive categories, Beyoncé received the Humanitarian Award:, while the Shine A Light Award went to DJ D-Nice (Club Quarantine), Swizz Beatz & Timbaland.

Performers included Alicia Keys, Chloe X Halle, DaBaby, D Smoke, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, Jonathan McReynolds, Kane Brown, Lil Wayne (who did a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant), Megan Thee Stallion, Roddy Ricch, SiR, Summer Walker, Usher, Wayne Brady and more. BET Amplified Artists, Masego and Lonr. performed on the BET Amplified Music Stage, a platform for emerging artists.

Internationally, the show was simulcast on BET Africa at 2 am CAT on June 29. The 2020 BET Awards will be televised in the United Kingdom on June 29 at 9 pm BST, in France on June 30 at 8:45 pm CEST, and in South Korea on June 30 at 9 pm KST.

Here is the complete list of nominees and winners for 2020 BET Awards:

*=winner

BEST FEMALE R&B/POP ARTIST
Beyoncé
H.E.R.
Jhene Aiko
Kehlani
Lizzo*
Summer Walker

BEST MALE R&B/POP ARTIST
Anderson .Paak* (tie)
Chris Brown* (tie)
Jacquees
Khalid
The Weeknd
Usher

BEST GROUP
Chloe x Halle
City Girls
EarthGang
Griselda
Jackboys
Migos*

BEST COLLABORATION
Chris Brown featuring Drake – “No Guidance”* (tie)
DJ Khaled featuring Nipsey Hussle & John Legend – “Higher”* (tie)
Future featuring Drake – “Life is Good”
H.E.R. featuring YG – “Slide”
Megan Thee Stallion featuring Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign– “Hot Girl Summer”
Wale featuring Jeremih – “On Chill”

BEST MALE HIP HOP ARTIST
DaBaby* (tie)
Drake* (tie)
Future
Lil Baby
Roddy Ricch
Travis Scott

BEST FEMALE HIP HOP ARTIST
Cardi B
Doja Cat
Lizzo
Megan Thee Stallion*
Nicki Minaj
Saweetie

VIDEO OF THE YEAR
Chris Brown featuring Drake – “No Guidance”* (tie)
DaBaby – “Bop”
DJ Khaled featuring Nipsey Hussle & John Legend – “Higher”* (tie)
Doja Cat – “Say So”
Megan Thee Stallion featuring Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign– “Hot Girl Summer”
Roddy Ricch – “The Box”

VIDEO DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR
Benny Boom
Cole Bennett
Dave Meyers
Director X
Eif Rivera
Teyana Taylor*

BEST NEW ARTIST
DaniLeigh
Lil Nas X
Pop Smoke
Roddy Ricch*
Summer Walker
YBN Cordae

ALBUM OF THE YEAR
“Cuz I Love You” – Lizzo
“Fever” – Megan Thee Stallion
“Homecoming: The Live Album” – Beyoncé
“I Used to Know Her” – H.E.R.
“Kirk” – DaBaby
“Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial” – Roddy Ricch*

DR. BOBBY JONES BEST GOSPEL/INSPIRATIONAL AWARD
The Clark Sisters – “Victory”
Kirk Franklin – “Just for Me”*
Fred Hammond – “Alright”
John P. Kee featuring Zacardi Cortez – “I Made It Out”
Kanye West – “Follow God”
PJ Morton featuring Le’Andria Johnson & Mary Mary – “All In His Plan”

BEST ACTRESS
Angela Bassett
Cynthia Erivo
Regina King
Issa Rae*
Tracee Ellis Ross
Zendaya
Jennifer Lopez

BEST ACTOR
Jamie Foxx
Omari Hardwick
Michael B. Jordan*
Eddie Murphy
Billy Porter
Will Smith
Forest Whitaker

YOUNGSTARS AWARD
Asante Blackk
Miles Brown
Alex Hibbert
Marsai Martin*
Storm Reid
Jahi Di’Allo Winston

BEST MOVIE
“Bad Boys for Life”
“Dolemite Is My Name”
“Harriet”
“Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé”
“Just Mercy”
“The Lion King”
“Queen & Slim”*

SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR
Simone Biles*
Coco Gauff
Naomi Osaka
Claressa Shields
Serena Williams
Ajeé Wilson

SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Odell Beckham Jr.
Stephen Curry
LeBron James*
Kawhi Leonard
Patrick Mahomes II

BET HER AWARD
Beyoncé featuring Blue Ivy, WizKid & Saint Jhn – “Brown Skin Girl”*
Ciara featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Ester Dean, City Girls & La La – “Melanin”
Layton Greene – “I Choose”
Lizzo featuring Missy Elliott – “Tempo”
Alicia Keys – “Underdog”
Rapsody featuring PJ Morgan – “Afeni”

VIEWER’S CHOICE AWARD
Chris Brown featuring Drake – “No Guidance”
DaBaby – “Bop”
Future featuring Drake – “Life is Good”
Megan Thee Stallion featuring Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign– “Hot Girl Summer”*
Roddy Ricch – “The Box”
The Weeknd – “Heartless”

BEST INTERNATIONAL ACT
Burna Boy (Nigeria)*
Innoss’B (DRC)
Sho Madjozi (South Africa)
Dave (UK)
Stormzy (UK)
Ninho (France)
S.Pri Noir (France)

BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL ACT
Celeste (UK)
Hatik (France)
Rema (Nigeria)
Sha Sha (Zimbabwe)*
Stacy (France)
Young T & Bugsey (UK)