Review: ‘Come Out Fighting’ (2023), starring Kellan Lutz, Michael Jai White, Tyrese Gibson, Dolph Lundgren and Hiram A. Murray

August 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kellan Lutz and Hiram A. Murray in “Come Out Fighting” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Come Out Fighting” (2023)

Directed by Steven Luke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe during World War II, the action film “Come Out Fighting” features a cast of white and African American characters representing military men fighting in the war.

Culture Clash: A squad of African American soldiers in the U.S. Army are tasked with going behind enemy lines to find their official missing commanding officer, and they find a U.S. Army fighter pilot who’s lost in the woods after his plane crashed.

Culture Audience: “Come Out Fighting” will appeal mostly to people who are enthusiasts of World War II movies, no matter how bad the movie.

Dolph Lundgren in “Come Out Fighting” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Come Out Fighting” is an excruciatingly awful World War II combat movie that is an insult to history and an insult to anyone who was a part of this war. It’s hard to watch this junkpile movie’s visual effects, dialogue, and acting, which are all terrible. The only good use of “Come Out Fighting” is if anyone wants to see how not to make a war film.

Written and directed by Steven Luke, “Come Out Fighting” is an onslaught of nonsensical and unrealistic military combat scenes. It’s as if the soldiers in the movie were trained by clowns in a circus sideshow. However, “Come Out Fighting” isn’t a satire or comedy. It takes itself way too seriously, considering how terribly tacky everything is in the abomination of a film.

“Come Out Fighting,” which has an all-male cast, begins with a very fake-looking scene of U.S. Army pilots Lieutenant Mike Rawlings (played by Andrew Stecker) and Lieutenant Frank Ross (played by Kellan Lutz) each flying a small plane over an open field somewhere in Europe. (“Come Out Fighting was actually filmed in the United States.) Mike and Frank bomb a train carrying military items, such as tanks. The train derails and explodes.

It doesn’t take long for the enemy to retaliate. Enemy planes shoot at Mike and Frank. Mike dies when his plane is shot, and his plane crashes into a field. Frank runs out of fuel, but he is able to parachute out of the plane. Frank is then considered missing for a great deal of the story.

Meanwhile, an all-African American squad of soldiers, led by Lieutenant Robert A. Hayes (played by Hiram A. Murphy), not only have to fight the Nazis and Axis military personnel in this war, they also have to fight the racism within the ranks of the U.S. military. Robert’s subordinates include Sergeant AJ “Red” McCarron (played by Michael Jai White) and Private Michael “Salty” Buttons (played by Rich Lowe). In the beginning of the movie, all three men are in a wooded area for a task of finding mines.

Here’s an example of the cringeworthy dialogue in “Come Out Fighting”: When the trio encounters a group of white soldiers from the U.S. Army, earnest Salty tells a gruff and cynical Red: “These white boys don’t look happy to see us.” Red replies to Salty: “When we around, white folks ain’t never happy.”

After some mind-numbingly horrible staged combat scenes, Robert goes missing. His squad goes looking for him in the same wooded area where Frank has disappeared. Robert’s squad then teams up with another African American squad, led by Sergeant Warran Crecy (played by Tyrese Gibson), who’s a rebellious drunk. Warran has a large, bald sidekick named Sgt. Thomas (played by Vicellous Shannon), who is stereotypically brooding.

With two U.S. Army lieutenants lost in the woods, “Come Out Fighting” does the most predictable thing possible: These two lieutenants (Robert and Frank) find each other. And there’s tension between them from the start. Even though they need each other to stay alive, expect to see Robert and Frank do a lot of bickering with each other.

Can these two lost lieutenants put aside their differences to work together on finding their way out of the woods on their own? Or will any squad come to their rescue? And will anyone care about halfway through the movie, which gets bogged down in a lot of boring repetition?

Dolph Lundgren shows up and barks orders as a character named Major Chase Anderson, in an obvious “I’m just here for the paycheck” role, which can also be said for any of the actors who degraded themselves to be in such an embarrassing movie. The sheer ineptitude on display here (even the costume design is wrong) just gets worse as this train wreck of a movie careens toward it unimaginative ending. There’s not much more to say about “Come Out Fighting” except that a more accurate title for this type of tacky film is “Come Out Failing.”

Screen Media Films released “Come Out Fighting” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘Railway Children,’ starring Jenny Agutter, Sheridan Smith, John Bradley and Tom Courtenay

November 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zac Cudby, Beau Gadsdon, Austin Haynes, Eden Hamilton and Kenneth “KJ” Aikens in “Railway Children” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Railway Children”

Directed by Morgan Matthews

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1944, mainly in West Yorkshire, England, the dramatic film “Railway Children” features a predominantly white cast of characters (and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During World War II, four British children befriend and help a young African American soldier, who has deserted the U.S. Army and has gone into hiding. 

Culture Audience: “Railway Children” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching corny and sometimes unrealistic dramas that take place during World War II.

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Eden Hamilton, Austin Haynes, Sheridan Smith, Tom Courtenay, Jenny Agutter, Beau Gadsdon and Zac Cudby in “Railway Children” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

Even though the sappy drama “Railway Children” is told from the perspectives of children during World War II, it’s still no excuse for how the movie mishandles issues such as racism and military desertion. The movie’s last 15 minutes are atrociously mushy. Mostly, “Railway Children” is just lackluster and dull, until the last third of the film, where a plot development is crammed in to create a false sense of suspense. This plot development ends up falling very flat because of the way it’s unrealistically resolved.

Directed by Morgan Matthews, “Railway Children” takes place in 1944, mostly in West Yorkshire, England. Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers co-wrote the maudlin “Railway Children” screenplay. If people don’t know anything about the movie before seeing it, the movie’s title might give the impression it’s about vagabond kids who travel by railway. The movie’s actually not about that at all. It’s a sequel to the 1970 film “The Railway Children,” which is based on Edith Nesbit’s 1905 novel. “The Railway Children” was remade into a TV-movie released in 2000.

The children who are the central characters in “Railway Children” (formerly titled “The Railway Children Return”) actually aren’t homeless. Transportation by train is only a significant part of the movie’s plot in the beginning and near the end of the film. “Railway Children” is about three siblings whose mother has made them temporarily relocate from Manchester, England, to West Yorkshire, because a big city like Manchester is more likely to be bombed during the war. Their single mother, who is a nurse, has decided to live and work in Liverpool, England, until it’s safe for her to be reunited with her evacuated kids.

The opening scene of “Railway Children” shows the children’s mother, Angela Watts (played by Jessica Baglow), saying a tearful goodbye to her three kids at the train station in Manchester. She will not be going with them on the train. Eldest child Lily Watts (played by Beau Gadsdon) is about 14 or 15 years old. Middle child Pattie Watts (played by Eden Hamilton) is about 10 or 11 years old. Youngest child Ted Watts (played by Zac Cudby) is about 6 or 7 years old.

Angela tells Lily that because Lily is the eldest child, “You’re the parent now.” Pattie is wearing a dress, and she complains that she doesn’t like wearing dresses. After the children board the train, they meet some other unaccompanied children who have been sent away by their parents for the same reason as the Watts kids. The ticket taker on the train is aware that there are about 20 of these evacuated kids on the train.

During this trip, the kids are mostly obedient but get restless when they are told that the train won’t stop just anywhere for the passengers to use a restroom. The ticket taker gruffly tells Lily that everyone will have to wait until the train gets to the next train station, which has restrooms for people to use. Instead of waiting for that to happen, Lily secretly pulls the train’s emergency brake, forcing the train to stop.

The children then use this interruption to go in a field and relieve themselves. The train conductor suspects Lily pulled the emergency brake and accuses her privately, but she dares him to prove that she pulled the brake. Of course, he can’t prove it.

The main purpose of this scene is to establish early in the movie that Lily is a strong-willed, independent thinker who will break the rules if she thinks it’s for a good reason. Lily demonstrates this personality trait many times throughout the movie, especially when she makes a decision that could get her in trouble with the law. Lily also doesn’t abide by sexist gender roles where girls are expected to be weaker than boys.

When the evacuated kids on the train arrive at West Yorkshire, they are greeted by St. Mark’s School headmistress Annie Clark (played by Sheridan Smith) and Annie’s mother Roberta “Bobbie” Waterbury (played by Jenny Agutter), who live together and are both very welcoming to the kids. Agutter reprises her role as Bobbie, which she played in 1970’s “The Railway Children,” which was about three child siblings in 1905 who try to find out why their father disappeared. In the 2000 TV-movie version of “The Railway Children,” Agutter played the children’s mother.

In the “Railway Children” sequel, various families in the area have gathered at the school to meet the evacuated children and choose which ones they will take into their homes as foster kids. The Watts children don’t want to be separated, but that means no foster family wants to take all three of the Watts siblings together. Bobbie feels a great deal of sympathy for the Watts siblings, because they remind her of herself and her two siblings when she was a child, so she convinces a reluctant Annie to take the Watts siblings into their home.

Annie has an amiable and talkative son named Thomas Clark (played by Austin Haynes), who’s about 10 or 11 years old. Instead of being irritated that he has to share his living space with three kids he doesn’t know, Thomas adapts quickly and seems happy to have the company of kids close to his age. Thomas and the Watts siblings become fast friends and spend most of the movie hanging out together.

Thomas’ father is away, fighting in the war. Lily says that her father is doing the same thing. (As soon as she says that, it’s obvious she’s lying.) An occasional visitor to the household is Annie’s uncle Walter (played by Tom Courtenay), who lives in London and works as a political liaison for the Allies. Walter is a compassionate and wise person, but this character is very underdeveloped in the movie.

Another supporting character who is fairly one-dimensional is Richard (played by John Bradley), the manager of the local train station. Richard acts like a know-it-all and is somewhat impatient with kids. However, Richard likes Thomas enough to show Thomas the surveillance audio equipment that Richard keeps in the train station. Richard tells Thomas that he likes to eavesdrop on unsuspecting people to find out if anyone in town is a traitorous spy.

Unfortunately, the movie’s pace slows down considerably, as it lumbers along in showing how the Watts children have somewhat of a hard time adjusting to their new environment outside of their new household. At school, the Watts siblings are treated like outsiders by the classmates, except for Thomas. Four school bullies, led by a brat named Georgie Duckworth (played by Joseph Richards), try to attack Ted, Pattie and Thomas, but Lily sneaks up behind the bullies and is able to fight them off and scare them away.

“Railway Children” has repetitive scenes of Lily, Ted, Pattie and Thomas playing in an open field area that has some abandoned train cars. They uses these cars as “secret hideouts” when playing games with each other. Lily, Ted and Pattie are happy that they have a new friend in Thomas, but the Watts siblings miss their mother tremendously. Unfortunately, the movie depicts these emotions in a superficial way, as other issues get more importance in the story.

Life in the foster home is fairly tranquil, with occasional disruptions if the four kids are messy or don’t immediately do something that an adult tells them to do. One day, Annie gets a letter from the military with some upsetting news that she wants to keep a secret from the children. The information in the letter is eventually revealed, but the movie drags it out in a weak attempt to have some suspense.

About halfway through “Railway Children,” Lily, Pattie and Thomas make a very surprising discovery in their hideout area. A teenage American soldier named Abraham “Abe” McCarthy (played by Kenneth “KJ” Aikens) is hiding in one of the abandoned train cars. He has a gash injury on one of his legs. Abe tells the kids that he’s 18 years old and that he’s hiding because he’s on a secret mission for the U.S. Army.

Abe asks the children to bring him bandages and begs the kids not to tell anyone that he is there. Of course, all this secrecy means that Abe is probably lying. Eventually, the children find out the truth: Abe has gone absent without leave (AWOL) from the U.S. Army, which has sent the military police and other officials to look for Abe in West Yorkshire. Abe being a military deserter is not the only thing that Abe has lied about, and his other lie is very obvious to figure out.

Several U.S. Army soldiers are temporarily stationed in the area. The movie shows in heavy-handed ways that Abe has additional paranoia about being caught because he’s an African American and is expected to get harsher punishment than if he were white. More than one scene in the movie depicts white American soldiers harassing the African American soldiers, such as when a white American soldier berates and shoves an off-duty African American soldier for talking to a white British woman.

Abe wants to find a way to get on the next train out of town. Lily suggests that Abe get on the train going to Liverpool, where she says Abe can find her nurse mother to give him treatment. This naïve plan is taken very seriously in the movie, which doesn’t even show Lily giving Abe enough information to find her mother in a fairly big city like Liverpool. Meanwhile, Thomas gets very nervous about keeping Abe a secret, so Thomas starts to disagree with Lily about keeping this secret.

“Railway Children” is one of those movies where the kids have a secret plan to help someone and try to outsmart the adults in hatching this plan. Some viewers might find it quaint and charming how it’s all presented in the movie. However, it just comes across as cloying and pandering to people who want a formulaic and lazy movie that doesn’t take any risks and doesn’t try to deal with Abe’s issues in a realistic way.

For example, “Railway Children” makes it look like only the white Americans are racist, when the reality is that white supremacist racism can be anywhere, regardless of the nation. In the movie, Abe says he wants to leave the U.S. Army because of the racism he experiences in the Army. However, “Railway Children” doesn’t adequately address the reality that even if Abe made it back to the United States without getting punished by the U.S. Army, he would still be going back to a nation where racial segragation and other racist practices were legal. Abe talks a little bit about his family, but the British kids helping him don’t seem too interested in knowing what kind of life Abe would be going back home to in America.

All of those societal facts are shoved aside or buried because “Railway Children” wants to be an overly sweet movie about some kind-hearted kids who help a runaway teenager of a different race and nationality. There’s nothing wrong with children being depicted as naïve, but it’s wrong to depict the adults in this story acting like ignorant kids too, especially during a war that was mainly about freeing people from the hatefully bigoted tryanny of Nazi Germany. It doesn’t help that the acting performances in the movie are not very impressive, especially from Aikens, who delivers his lines of dialogue in an awkward and stiff manner.

“Railway Children” missed an opportunity to be a valuable lesson about World War II history and dealing with the harsh realities of war and bigotry. Instead, after a long, boring stretch where not much happens in the first two-thirds of the movie, the last third of “Railway Children” turns into a very clumsily staged runaway caper where everything is dumbed-down in service of being an absurdly sentimental story. Ultimately, “Railway Children” is one in a long list of movie sequels that are far inferior to the movies that spawned the sequels.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Railway Children” in U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 6, 2022. “Railway Children” was released in the United Kingdom on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Dara of Jasenovac,’ starring Biljana Čekić

February 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Biljana Čekić in “Dara of Jasenovac” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Dara of Jasenovac”

Directed by Predrag Antonijević

Serbian and Croatian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place Croatia during World War II, the dramatic film “Dara of Jasenovac” features an all-white cast of characters portraying concentration camp prisoners and their oppressors.

Culture Clash: Ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people were imprisoned, tortured and killed by Croatians who were sympathetic to Nazi beliefs.

Culture Audience: “Dara of Jasenovac” will appeal primarily to people interested in a dramatic portrayal about the dark side of Croatian history, and viewers should expect to see many depressing and violent scenes.

Marko Pipić, Anja Stanić and Igor Djordjević in “Dara of Jasenovac” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

Just say the words “concentration camp movie,” and you can figure out what’s in the film, so sensitive viewers should be warned. The dramatic film “Dara of Jasenovac” is well-acted and thoughtfully constructed, but the movie’s disturbing onslaught of violence (including heartbreaking depictions of children being murdered) will make this film very difficult to watch for many people. The movie has fictional characters but is inspired by real-life experiences of ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people who were imprisoned in Croatian concentration camps built by Croatia’s then-fascist Ustase government during the 1940s/World War II era. The most notorious Croatian concentration camp was called Jasenovac.

Directed by Predrag Antonijević and written by Natasa Drakulić, “Dara of Jasenovac” tells the story of a 10-year-old Serbian girl named Dara Ilić (played by Biljana Čekić) and her family’s tortuous saga of being separated and imprisoned in concentration camps in Croatia. Her father Mile Ilić (played by Zlatan Vidović) has been sent to the Donja Gradina Concentration Camp. A few kilometers away at Jasenovac are the rest of his immediate family: Dara, who is very introverted; her 12-year-old brother Jovo (played by Marko Pipić); her 1-year-old brother Budo, nicknamed Bude (played by triplets Luka, Jakov and Simon Saranović); and their mother Nada (played by Anja Stanić Ilić), who faces constant threats to have any or all of her children taken away from her.

Most of the movie depicts the violence, starvation and other traumas that this family and other people experience in the concentration camps. Although the movie has Dara’s name in the title, the story is often seen from the perspective of the adult prisoners. Dara endures immense tragedies, but she’s probably one of the most stoic characters you’ll ever see in a concentration camp movie, because she rarely cries or screams in terror, even when certain people she’s close to are murdered in front of her.

The torturers and murderers in this story are men and women who share in the Nazi belief of exterminating those who are not Christian or those who are considered ethnically “inferior.” Their leader in this story is Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić (played by Marko Janketić), who is feared the most by the prisoners. His underlings, who are also very cruel and sadistic, include his second-in-command Ljabo Miloš (played by Bogdan Bogdanović) and Maks’ sister Nada Sakić (played by Alisa Radaković). And the movie doesn’t gloss over factual history that some nuns and other members of the clergy were complicit in helping people who operated concentration camps.

Mile befriends another prisoner named Jaša (played by Bojan ZiroviIlić), whose wife, four sons and one daughter were all murdered when they stayed behind in Sarajevo. As prisoners on work duty, Mile and Jaša are often tasked with dumping bodies of concentration camp victims in ditches or throwing murdered corpses into a river. It results in some harrowing scenes that further intensify the atrocities of what people witnessed in real life.

Meanwhile, Mile’s wife Nada has no idea where he is and asks another Jasenovac prisoner named Anđelko (played by Marko Pavlovski) if he’s seen her husband. Anđelko tells her that Mile is probably at Grandina, where many of the men have been sent to separate them from their families. Nada and her children soon find out that trying to reunite with Mile has to wait when they’re all just trying to survive and not be separated themselves. There are several times in the story when all five of the Ilić family members face the possibility of being torn apart from each other for various reasons.

At Jasenovac, there are three female prisoners who make a big difference in helping Dara and her family overcome some obstacles. One of them is compassionate Vera Stanić (played by Sandra Ljubojević), who steps up in a pivotal moment and pretends to be Mile’s sister, so that the Ilić family won’t be separated. There’s also feisty Mileva Kovar (played by Nikolina Friganović), who is severely beaten for stealing corn for her children. And a kind Jewish woman named Blankica (played by Jelena Grujićić) is especially fond of Dara and gives her helpful tips on survival.

The many gruesome murder scenes in the film include a vile game of musical chairs that the soldiers force the male prisoners to play. The odd man out gets his throat slit and stabbed. And sometimes a prisoner will have his throat cut for random reasons. The scene ends with the soldiers beating the prisoners to death.

This movie is relentless in showing people getting shot, beaten, stabbed and murdered in other horrific ways. And there’s no sugarcoating of the violence that happens to the children. There’s even a scene of kids who are locked in a room while a soldier throws a grenade inside to kill them. This is a movie that shows the worst of humanity, made all the more horrifying because it re-enacts what happened in real life.

Every time a significant character dies in the movie, “Dara of Jasanovec” has a technique of depicting how that person has passed into the afterlife, by showing the character walking through a snowstorm and stepping into a gloomy train car. As the story goes on, the train car gets filled up with more and more people, while more snow starts to fall. The snow is a metaphor for the worsening storm of this sickening Holocaust.

“Dara of Jasenovac” gets all of the production elements right in accurately portraying the hell of concentration camps. The actors all give convincing performances. However, the character of Dara is a bit of an enigma throughout the entire story. Viewers do not get any sense of what her hopes and dreams were before this terrible tragedy. She’s brave but very quiet, and she often barely reacts when a lot of terrible things are happening around her. But it’s also a realistic portrayal of how someone can be when they’re in shock.

It isn’t until the last third of the film, when Dara is faced with being permanently separated from her younger brother Budo, that Dara shows a fiery will to fight for her family. However, viewers should not expect to see a cliché ending where the people who survive live happily ever after. “Dara of Jasenovac” is a haunting and impactful story of how the evils of concentration camps have left permanent damage to countless families and are a shameful part of human history.

101 Studios released “Dara of Jasenovac” in select U.S. cinemas on February 5, 2021. The movie was released in Serbia in 2020.

Review: ‘A Call to Spy,’ starring Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache and Rossif Sutherland

November 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sarah Megan Thomas in “A Call to Spy” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“A Call to Spy”

Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United Kingdom and France during World War II, the dramatic film “A Call to Spy,” which is inspired by a true story, features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one Indian) representing the middle-class, working-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A United Kingdom-based government operation recruits women to become spies in Nazi-occupied France.

Culture Audience: “A Call to Spy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in real-life World War II stories that don’t get much attention, but the formulaic plot and slow pace of the movie are detriments to the movie’s overall inspiring message.

Stana Katic in “A Call to Spy” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The dramatic film “A Call to Spy,” which is based on real events, has its heart in the right place, but the movie is a little too cookie-cutter and by-the-numbers predictable for it to be considered a great movie. However, “A Call to Spy” (directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher) has enough merit because it tells a noble story that’s never been told before in a movie: how women during World War II volunteered to become spies for the Allied Forces by going into Nazi-occupied France and helping the French Resistance movement. The spy program was created by Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret group formed by the British government in 1940.

“A Call to Spy” was written and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas, who also stars as Virginia Hall, the story’s main heroine and the only American character in the film. Virginia has a prosthetic leg below the knee, and her leg disability is why she’s been rejected several times to work as a diplomat for the United States Foreign Service. It’s not shown in the movie, but the real-life Virginia Hall was an ambulance driver in France and lived for a while in Spain before she was recruited in 1941 to work for SOE.

Although Thomas is not a bad actress, it’s easy to see that she financed this movie so she could showcase herself. And there’s nothing wrong with that if the quality of the film is what the subject matter deserves. When someone is the producer, writer and star of a movie, that person might not be willing to take constructive criticism to improve the project.

A more objective producer probably would have been able to do something to improve the movie’s obvious flaws, particularly the over-simplistic screenplay that doesn’t properly acknowledge some of war’s harsh realities. And it isn’t until the film’s epilogue that it’s mentioned how high the mortality rate was (about 33%) for the women in this spy program who died while in service.

“A Call to Spy” focuses on three women who are part of this SOE spy program: Virginia Hall, who is the movie’s pluckiest, bravest and most resourceful heroine; SOE “spymistress” Vera Atkins (played by Stana Katic), who personally recruits many of the women spies and does mostly office work in London; and Noor Inayat Khan (played by Radhika Apte), whose family background is inexplicably changed for this movie. In “A Call to Spy,” Noor is described as an “Indian princess” whose father comes from Indian royalty and whose white mother is American. In real life, Noor Inayat Khan did have an Indian father and a white American mother, but her father was a musician who wasn’t part of Indian royalty.

The idea to recruit women spies came about because women wouldn’t be considered as suspicious as men. “A Call to Spy” has a prologue explaining that in the British government’s mission to help the French Resistance by having spies infiltrate Nazi-occupied France, “there were no experienced spies for this type of warfare.” Therefore, “amateurs” had to be recruited. A lot of the women were “wireless” operatives, since one of their chief responsibilities was using telegraphs to wire information that they received.

Vera’s supervisor at SOE’s F section in London is Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (played by Linus Roache), who is written and portrayed as an enlightened man who was way ahead of his time because he doesn’t have a problem with a woman being in charge of this important recruitment process. Maurice also knows a big secret about Vera: She and her mother are Jewish refugees, and they are not British citizens. Maurice tells Vera that her secret is safe with him. Meanwhile, Vera has been applying for British citizenship but has been rejected multiple times.

During Virginia’s spy activities in France, she makes an ally in a French physician named Doctor Chevain (played by Rossif Sutherland), who helps hide and give medical treatment to Jewish people and people involved in the French Resistance. Meanwhile, Noor is embedded as a servant in the house of a French Nazi, and she’s taken the alias Madeline. The movie’s sometimes slow pace begins to pick up when it actually shows these spies at work. The best parts of the movie are how they navigate the intrigue and secrecy of taking on a new identity while fulfilling their duties to get valuable information to send to the British government.

Unfortunately, too much of “A Call to Spy” has very “TV movie of the week” characteristics instead of being a powerful and immersive cinema experience. And that doesn’t mean that the movie needed a larger budget. The film’s screenplay often does a disservice to its intent of being a historical film, because it downplays or erases too many of the horrible-but-realistic aspects of war. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were thinking, “Women are probably the target audience for this movie. Therefore, we can’t put anything in the movie that’s too realistic because it would be too disturbing to the target audience.”

For example, this is a movie about female spies, but nowhere does the movie acknowledge that sexual violence is a part of war. It’s as if the filmmakers want viewers to think that people during World War II didn’t experience these atrocities. And that doesn’t mean that rape had to be shown in the movie. But the movie doesn’t even mention that rape and other sexual assault were real risks that these female spies had to consider or experienced while they were doing this dangerous work.

As part of their training, the female spies are told to not get emotionally involved with anyone they meet while performing their spy duties. And the movie shows a little bit of their self-defense training, where Virginia is taught how to slice someone with a knife while ambushing from behind. And because they train alongside men, the movie predictably show some of the sexist reactions they get from some of their male colleagues.

But the movie fails to acknowledge a major gender difference in espionage training: Female spies, then and now, are taught that they can use their sexuality in order to get what they want. It’s understandable that the filmmakers of this movie did not want to depict the sexuality aspect of spying (there’s no sex or romance in the movie), but it seems like they also wanted to shield the audience from this reality.

The women spies don’t need to have any sexual encounters in this movie for it to be realistic. But in trying too hard to present the women spies as saintly and practically asexual heroes, “A Call to Spy” gives the women spies a “too good to be true” sheen that at times looks unrealistic. However, it’s admirable how the movie depicts the friendships and loyalties that develop among these colleagues.

The movie has questionable portrayals of what happens when spies are captured by the enemy. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where Virginia is captured and goes through water torture, but when things go wrong for Virginia, things work out just a little too smoothly for her. There’s a scene later in the movie where Virginia is mistakenly assigned to walk through brutal winter snow in the Pyrenees to go to a particular destination, but it’s really a trap that was set by the Nazis. But how she was able to avoid this trap is never fully explained because she’s next seen safe and sound, having a meeting with SOE officials.

There are some SOE men in the movie who are blatantly sexist, but they are written as minor characters that make rude comments and don’t really try to actively sabotage Vera or take her power away. For example, one of these sexist male colleagues tells Vera about her recruitment of female spies: “Miss Atkins, make sure they’re pretty.” Vera quips in response: “For you or the spies?”

The Nazis are obviously portrayed as the villains, so the movie shows the worst derogatory comments and violence coming from the Nazis. However, as much as the movie wants to make a big deal out of these spies being women, it also glosses over how these unmarried, attractive women (especially Virginia and Noor, who are actually in France doing the spying, while Vera basically has an office job in England) would be used and abused in this line of work, sometimes from people who are supposed to be on their side.

There’s a little bit of tokenism to the Noor character, since the movie never really delves into her perspective of how she must have felt being a woman of color sent to spy in Nazi territory. When it comes to any bigotry barriers that these women face, other than gender discrimination, “A Call to Spy” gives Virginia’s prosthetic leg much more empathy than Noor’s skin color as an “impediment” that makes them the target of prejudice. However, when it suits her, Virginia can and does hide the fact that she has a prosthetic leg, whereas Noor cannot hide her skin color.

The character of Vera comes closest to being written as a human being with vulnerabilities, such as self-doubt and impatience. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, nor does she try to be a feminist superwoman, because she often defers to her boss Maurice to make big decisions. Virginia and Noor are portrayed with almost no personality flaws and are completely focused on their work, whereas Vera has more of a realistic emotional story arc.

All of the cast members do adequate jobs of portraying their characters, but there’s really nothing outstanding about their performances. The movie, which was actually filmed in Pennsylvania and Hungary, has better costume design than it does production design. All of the other production elements are fine, but not award-worthy. “A Call to Spy” is worth seeing for a portrayal of World War II female espionage that’s not really taught in history classes. However, the movie gives the impression that people would be better off reading non-fiction books to get a sense of who these women really were.

IFC Films released “A Call to Spy” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on October 2, 2020. The movie’s U.K. release was on October 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Apocalypse ’45,’ starring Thomas Vaucher, Harold Wheatley, Ittsei Nakagawa, William Braddock Jr., Maurice Hubert, Nazareth Sinanian and Kenneth Erger

September 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

A “Taps” ceremony in “Apocalypse ’45” (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

“Apocalypse ’45”

Directed by Erik Nelson

Culture Representation: The documentary “Apocalypse ’45” interviews an almost all-white group of American former military men (and one Japanese American man) about their World War II experiences when the United States was at war with Japan.

Culture Clash: Several of the men say that their military training included being taught to hate Japanese people, and the cultural differences between Japanese and American military are pointed out in the documentary.

Culture Audience: “Apocalypse ’45” will appeal primarily to World War II buffs and other people who are interested in war documentaries from an American perspective.

World War II veterans in “Apocalypse ’45” (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

Does the world really need another movie about World War II? The documentary “Apocalypse ’45” sets itself apart from the rest because the movie has previously unreleased and digitally restored (to 4K) color footage that was taken during the war, mostly in combat zones in or near the Pacific Ocean. The footage came from more than 700 reels provided by the National Archives. The documentary also includes “long lost” footage from director John Ford that shows the ruins of the Pacific Fleet and the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack that promoted the war against Japan.

The main reason to see “Apocalypse ’45” is this previously unreleased footage, which is some of the crispest color World War II footage that you might ever see. Most of the footage is from 1944 and 1945, filmed in locations that include the island of Saipan in Japan and the Japanese capital of Tokyo. There are numerous combat scenes on land and sea.

There’s also 1945 footage of an atomic bomb testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The aftermath of a bomb test is shown. And so is the bomb-proof, sphere-shaped container with Purple Heart medals which were warehoused at the site. The documentary notes: “This stockpile of Purple Hearts has been enough to supply every subsequent war.”

However, very sensitive viewers should be warned: “Apocalypse ’45” shows the brutalities of war in an unflinching manner that will be disturbing to some people. Although no one is seen being murdered, some of the footage is very graphic and uncensored. In addition to showing a lot of bloody war injuries (including people with missing limbs), the movie has several scenes of dead bodies of American and Japanese people.

It’s mentioned in the movie that many Japanese people committed suicide because they didn’t want to become prisoners of war. Mothers would jump off cliffs with their babies in their arms. (The movie includes footage of dead babies in the water.)

The documentary also shows a Japanese woman by herself, leaping to her death off of a cliff. In another scene, a Japanese girl who’s about 8 or 9 years old is shown with a missing foot. A note held up by someone on the film crew says that the girl’s foot was cut off because she refused to go back with the retreating Japanese.

And later in the movie, there’s March 1946 footage showing the wreckage of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are scenes of some Japanese civilian survivors with severe burns and other injuries. It’s a sobering contrast to the VJ Day celebrations celebrating the U.S. victory over Japan.

Not all of “Apocalypse ’45” is gloom and doom. The movie has a few humorous moments, with footage of the military men relaxing and goofing around in their free time. There’s a scene where several men are sunbathing on a ship. And there’s a poignant scene of a military man eagerly opening a letter and taking in a deep whiff to get the scent of the loved one who sent the letter.

The movie has voiceover commentary from 24 former U.S. military men who fought in World War II. The expected “war is hell” stories are told. There was a lot of fear and a lot of bravery. Some of the veterans who are interviewed express some remorse over the killing that they did in combat, while others say that don’t have any regrets.

“Apocalypse ’45” director Erik Nelson made the artistic decision to keep their interview comments as audio only, so that viewers wouldn’t be distracted if the movie kept cutting back and forth between showing the interviewees and the archival footage. The main down side to this method is that the movie doesn’t identity the people by their names during the voiceover narration.

It isn’t until the end of the film that viewers find out the names of the men who were interviewed and what they look like. They say their names individually and what their military job was during World War II. During the end credits, a World War II-era photo of each man is shown and it fades into a photo of what they looked like at the time of the interviews.

The only exception to this interview format is when the movie opens with an introduction by Hiroshima bombing survivor Ittsei Nakagawa, a Japanese American who was 15 years old and on a family trip when the atomic bomb was set off in Hiroshima, Japan. He isn’t seen again in the movie until near the end. Nakagawa is the only person interviewed in the movie who is of Japanese descent. Everyone else who’s interviewed is someone who fought in the U.S. military during the World War II.

“Apocalypse ’45” begins with footage in Hawaii and other parts of the United States on VJ Day (also known as Victory Over Japan Day), which happened on August 15, 1945. The victorious celebrations over Japan’s surrender and the war being over are almost palpable when watching them on screen. The story then goes back to the deadly bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, which led to the U.S. and Japan declaring war on each other the next day. Most of the movie, which is obviously told from an American perspective, focuses on what happened on the battlegrounds and on the ships during U.S.-Japanese conflicts during World War II.

Interspersed during the footage are titles card of printed text, with each having a basic summary of events that happened during the U.S.-Japanese battles. World War II history buffs won’t learn anything new from what’s on these title cards, but the title cards provide adequate historical context for the visuals that are on screen. The commentary from the World War II veterans provide the emotional context of what was going on with them at the time. Some of them begin to cry, as they relive the war when telling their stories.

According to the movie’s production notes, here are the American World War II veterans who were interviewed for the documentary. The ages listed are the ages they were at the time they were interviewed:

  • Captain Abner Aust, 98, of Frostproof, Florida. He flew P-51 Mustangs for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Aust passed away in 2020.
  • Corporal James Blaine, 95, of Denver, Colorado. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima and he was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in that battle.
  • Sergeant Major George Boutwell, 96, of Pell City, Alabama. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. During the occupation, he was briefly station at Nagasaki where he saw the devastation first-hand.
  • Corporal William Braddock Jr., 98, of Pensacola, Florida. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. He was serving with the Marines before WWII and was a witness to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
  • Fire Controlman Third Class Kenneth Erger, 94, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He served with the U.S. Navy as a fire control operator on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
  • 1st Lieutenant Bill Eversole, 95, of Gainesville, Florida. At the age of 20, Eversole piloted a P-51 Mustang for the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew missions over Iwo Jima and mainland Japan.
  • Sergeant Ivan Hammond, 93, of Santa Fe, Texas. He was a Marine at Iwo Jima with the signal corps.  He witnessed the aftermath of destruction at Nagasaki while serving with the Occupation Forces.
  • Pharmacists First Mate Maurice Hubert, 96, of Spotsylvania, Virginia. He a was corpsman with the United States Navy. He did five landings during World War II, including the first wave at Iwo Jima where he tended the wounded and dying, including war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who died in Hubert’s arms.
  • Private First Class Al Nelson, 94, of Burlington, Iowa. He was a member of a tank crew and fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima.
  • Corporal Monroe Ozment, 94, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima and was wounded by rifle fire during the first day of battle.  Ozment passed away in 2020.
  • Private First Class Johnnie Page Jr., 94, of Decatur, Georgia. He served with the U.S. Army at Okinawa.  Though he arrived after the main battle, booby traps and snipers still presented mortal danger to him and his company.
  • Seaman First Class George Puterbaugh, 95, of Lake Oswego, Oregon. He crewed on the USS San Juan with the United States Navy.  His ship was at Iwo Jima where he witnessed several kamikaze attacks.
  • Lt. Commander Charles Schlag, 97, of West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was a carrier pilot with the United States Navy. He flew multiple missions over Okinawa. Schlag passed away in 2020.
  • Private Ralph C. Simoneau, 95, of Germantown, Wisconsin. He served with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. It was his first and only battle.
  • Sergeant Nazareth Sinanian, 94, of Staten Island, New York. He served with the US Army Air Corps in charge of central fire control on B-29 bomber. He participated in the firebombing of Tokyo.
  • Major Richard Spooner, 93, of Quantico, Virginia. He fought as a private first class with the U.S. Marine Corps at Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. At Saipan he was briefly taken as a prison of war by the Japanese.
  • Private First Class Delbert Treichler, 96, of Germantown, Wisconsin. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. As part of the occupation forces, he later witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki.
  • Private First Class Duane Tunnyhill, 94, of Omaha, Nebraska. He enlisted in the US Marine Corps when he was 17. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained on his 36th day of combat.
  • Seaman First Class George Vouros, 94, of Natick, Massachusetts. He was a ship’s gunner for the U.S. Navy who defended against Kamikazes in the Battle for the Philippines and Iwo Jima. Vouros passed away in 2020.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Vaucher, 101, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. He served as a pilot and wing commander with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was an aide to General Curtis Lemay. Vaucher led the ceremonial victory flyover at Tokyo during the formal surrender of Japan.
  • Private Harold Wheatley, 93, of Savoy, Illinois. He was a combat soldier who fought with the U.S. Army at Okinawa. He personally witnessed the mass suicides on the island as well as seeing Kamikazes attacking the ships anchored off the island.
  • Corporal Hershal “Woody” Williams, 96, of Ona, West Virginia. He was a U.S. Marine who fought with a flamethrower at Iwo Jima.  Due to his gallantry in action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, and is the last surviving Marine from World War II to hold this honor.
  • Sergeant Joseph Win, 95, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a gunner on a B-29 bomber based on Tinian. Wing flew several missions over Japan, and ironically lives just a mile away from Vaucher.

Many of the men describe being programmed to think of the Japanese, even the civilians, not as people but as “the enemy.” Williams comments on his military training and what he was told about Japanese culture: “They told us that they [the Japanese] were very vicious people, that for them to die was an honor, they were not going to give up. So, it made them very tenacious people because even if they died, they’re going to be rewarded for that. And we were just the opposite. You know, the American people, we Marines would do almost anything to preserve a life.”

The U.S. military men also went into combat with a “kill or be killed” mentality, according to several people interviewed in the documentary. There was fear, but there was also bravery. Nelson comments, “We were thinking about saving our asses. That’s true. Because boy, it scared us. It scared us tremendously.”

Tunnyhill says, “I was dumb. I didn’t think too much about it. When you’re young like that, you’re not going to get killed. How are they going to kill you? I guess that’s what really carried a lot of us through the battle, the thinking that we weren’t going to get killed.”

Simoneau adds, “Thank God that I didn’t have to stare somebody in the face and kill them. I’m a Christian and I believe in the Ten Commandments. This morning I was starting to cry because I did something that’s not me, because my belief in the Ten Commandments says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And I don’t know of any exception to that. It just says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'”

Braddock has a different perspective of the killing he did while in combat: “Well, it didn’t bother me to shoot them, because if I didn’t shoot them, they were going to shoot me. And being ‘country,’ so, eye for an eye, you know.”

Voucher has this memory of his World War II superior Commander Curtis LeMay: “Curtis LeMay had no reservations about killing crews. LeMay’s position was, and I’ve heard him say this: ‘Wars don’t end until enough people are killed.’ He said, ‘This thing will end when we kill enough Japanese.’”  

Sinanian comments, “Later on you find out as you get older that the bad guys were not bad, they were just doing what they had to do. Somebody told them that they had to do it. The guys above me, they tell me what I have to do. So, I guess maybe all Japanese were nice people too. They just had to do what the idiots that started the war told them to do.”

Several of the military veterans say in the documentary that the smell of death is something they’ll never forget and seeing the dead bodies will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Hubert, who word as a combat medic, says that things got to so bad that he couldn’t remember what his name was because people kept calling him “Doc.” He adds. “A lot of kids, a lot of casualties. I never like to remember any of those things. I always try to put it behind me. But I managed to survive. The good Lord was on my shoulder.”

Although it’s admirable that “Apocalypse ’45” got the perspectives of several American veterans of World War II, the movie would have set itself apart even more from most other World War II documentaries by having more Japanese perspectives included. Surely, the filmmakers could have found at least one other Hiroshima or Nagasaki civilian survivor besides Nakagawa.

Nakagawa gives a chilling description of what it was like to experience the Hiroshima bombing, which happened on August 6, 1945: “Everything went black. You couldn’t see or hear anything. Nobody knew what it was.” Anyone who had the misfortune of being outside in the immediate vicinity of the bomb either died or was severely injured. And even the people who were inside weren’t safe, since the bomb destroyed buildings.

Boutwell shares this memory of seeing firsthand the atomic bombing Nagasaki, Japan, which happened on August 9, 1945: “There was one thing standing, a big long chimney going up in the air that it must have been 200 feet high.”

Nakagawa comments in the documentary: “I met Frank Oppenheimer, who is the brother of Bob Oppenheimer, the designer for the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. ‘Do you know the story of Genie in the Bottle?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sort of remember that story. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘the genie’s out of the bottle. There is no way that you can get that guy in a bottle.'”

As for the lessons they learned in World War II, some of the veterans say that war will be declared by politicians who send other people to do the dirty work of fighting the war. Wheatley comments, “You can talk to any veteran you want to and they don’t understand at all. Why? ‘Cause most divisiveness going on in our country between politics, it’s crazy.”

Erger adds, “When you think in terms of all that money that we could use for medicines, we have people that have all the diseases that we could accomplish and conquer and they just aren’t doing it. All that money gone to waste and all these guys that cause the war, how can they justify all that? Just let them fight amongst themselves and see how long it would last.”

However, Vouros comments: “If I could do it again, I would, for this country. I would do anything for this country. I love this country. I’m getting teared up.”

“Apocalypse ’45” is undoubtedly a very patriotic American film that gives almost all of the perspective to U.S. military veterans who did combat during World War II. Some viewers might have a problem with not enough perspective being given to Japanese survivors of the war. However, since the documentary’s rare footage was filmed by Americans from the perspective of the U.S. military, it arguably made sense to have most of the documentary interviews be from the American military veterans who served in World War II.

U.S. military troops were still segregated during World War II, with white men making up the vast majority of U.S. military fighters in combat against Japan in the war, which might explain why only white military veterans are interviewed for the documentary. However, it would have been great if the filmmakers made the extra effort to include any people of color who were World War II military veterans and who did combat in Japan.

War is an ugly fact of life that “Apocalypse ’45” underscores with stark footage and frank commentary from people who lived through this brutal experience. Even though the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings helped end World War II, the documentary notes that the decisions to drop the bombs are still being debated today. Because the footage in “Apocalypse ’45” is in well-preserved color (when most World War II footage is in black and white), it makes the documentary seem more like modern-day news footage rather than footage from a black-and-white film era. For Hollywood’s version of World War II, watch “Saving Private Ryan.” For the reality of World War II, watch “Apocalypse ’45.”

Abramorama released “Apocalypse ’45” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 14, 2020. Discovery premiered the movie on September 5, 2020.

Review: ‘Shadows of Freedom,’ starring Robert Satloff, Robert Gildea, Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, Brian Lane Herder, Helen Fry and Christopher Kolakowski

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

U.S. troops with Algerians during World War II in “Shadows of Freedom” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Shadows of Freedom”

Directed by Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud

Culture Representation: This documentary, which interviews an all-white group of history experts, examines the underreported World War II history of Jewish resistance fighters in Algeria who were influential in helping the Allied Forces build a military strategy to defeat the Nazi regime.

Culture Clash: The Jewish resistance fighters in Algiers had to battle with the Nazi-controlled Vichy government in France, while United States and the United Kingdom disagreed on which Nazi-occupied country to invade first.

Culture Audience: “Shadows of Freedom” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about World War II history that took place in North Africa.

José Aboulker in a 1972 TV interview (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Much has been written about and reported on Jewish resistance fighters in Europe during World War II, but most people aren’t aware (because it’s rarely taught in history classes) that Jewish resistance fighters in the North African country of Algeria played a crucial role in the Allied Forces winning the War. “Shadows of Freedom” (directed by Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud) is a very traditionally made documentary that tells this underdog story through the use of archival footage, some animation and interviews with World War II history experts.

Narrated by Youssef Iraqi in an appropriately serious tone, “Shadows of Freedom” begins with a brief summary of the events that led up to World War II, such as Adolf Hitler-led Nazis invading several countries in Europe from 1938 to 1940. France became divided between two territories with two separate governments: the democracy government in the free territory and the Vichy government in the Nazi-controlled territory. Also at stake where the North African countries Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Algiers, the capital of Algeria, was the largest city in this African region.

It was in Algiers that the seeds of resistance were sown with a Jewish man who is widely considered the leader of the Jewish resistance movement in Algeria: José Aboulker, who came from a French immigrant family of left-wing intellectuals. José’s father Henri was a professor of medicine and an activist. José’s brothers Rafael and Stephan also were influential members of the Jewish resistance group in Algeria.

The talking heads who provide commentary in the documentary are Robert Sayloff, executive director of the Washington Institute of Near East policy; Oxford University professor Robert Gildea, author of “Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of French Resistance”; Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, a historian and José Aboulker biographer; Brian Lane Herder, author of “Operation Torch 1942: The Invasion of French North Africa”; World War II historian Helen Fry, author of “Churchill’s German Army”; and Christopher Kolakowski, director of the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

José Aboulker, who was a 20-year-old medical student at the time he formed the resistance group, is described in the documentary as intelligent and well-connected. With the help of his brothers, José recruited members of the group under the guise of having health-club/gum gatherings, so as not to raise suspicions of the government. It was a clear ruse, since the meetings would serve twofold purpose of making plans and giving physical training to the resistance members, most of whom were young (18 to 40 years old) but with no military experience.

Other key members of the French resistance in Algiers were two members of the free French government: Henri D’Astier de la Vigerie (a soldier) and Colonel Germain Jousse. And although the majority of the resistance members were Jewish immigrants from France, many were also Jews born in Algeria and some were non-Jewish Algerians.

During the formation of the Jewish resistance in Algeria, there were also disagreements brewing between the United States and the United Kingdom on what military strategy to use to win World War II. The U.S. had resisted getting involved for years in fighting the Nazis, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941 was the catalyst for the U.S. to get involved in World War II as part of the Allied Forces with the United Kingdom.

The U.S. military wanted to invade an embattled France first to free it from the Vichy regime. However, the U.K. military thought a better strategy would be to defeat Germany in other Nazi-occupied countries first, starting with those in North Africa, and then working up to Europe. The U.K. strategy is the one that was taken, and it turned out to be the correct strategy, because it have the Allied troops the experience and the confidence needed by the time they got to Europe.

In order to free the countries in North Africa, the Allied Forces would have to battle the French/Vichy military controlling these countries. A relatively small group (about 388 people) of Jewish resistance fighters, led by José Aboulker, played a crucial role by taking over the city of Algiers on November 8, 1942. The resistance fighters took police officers and city officials into custody for about six hours, which was longer than the resistance movement had expected.

The resistance fighters’ takeover of Algiers cleared a path when the Allied troops entered Algeria and finished what the resistance fighters started in the famous Operation Torch siege, by defeating the Nazi-sympathetic governments in Algeria and in other parts of North Africa. Unfortunately, the resistance fighters in Algeria were later marginalized in the Darlan Deal, brokered by French admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan after the Allied Forces’ defeat of North Africa. Many of the resistance fighters were imprisoned for their helpful actions during Operation Torch.

The documentary’s pundits say that this mistreatment of the resistance fighters is an embarrassing part of French history, and it’s one of the reasons why the resistance movement in Algeria is not widely taught in history classes. Likewise, Americans and Brits also downplayed or tried to erase the contributions of the resistance fighters in Algeria, because Americans and Brits had to fight against the French in Algeria, and it doesn’t fit the usual narrative that the French were allies to Americans and Brits during World War II.

At 65 minutes long, “Shadows of Freedom” is a completely efficient retelling of this underrated part of World War II history. The archival footage includes early 1970s TV interviews of José Aboulker; his cousin Bernard Karsenty, who was also part of the Jewish resistance in Algeria; and Marc Jacquet, who called D’Astier de la Vigerie “an archangel with a sword” and a “true leader.”

D’Astier de la Vigerie is credited with being influential in the Jewish resistance movement in Algeria, but the documentary also points out that although he was anti-Nazi, he also had right-leaning political views that favored the idea of France going back to being a monarchy instead of  democracy. Satloff (who is the most compelling and articulate pundit in the documentary) also mentions that José Aboulker, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, was also probably not given enough credit in historical accounts of Operation Torch because of José Aboulker’s unpopular political views later in life. José Aboulker advocated on behalf of Algerian Muslims, which was a controversial stance for a Jewish person.

The documentary’s illustrations/animation by Joseph Sherman adeptly complement the story that’s told in the movie. There is a small editing error toward the end when subtitles are absent for historian Verdès-Leroux, who speaks in French. However, “Shadows of Freedom” musical score by co-directed Carlen is on point, ranging from majestic to poignant. “Shadows of Freedom” is the type of documentary that can easily be shown in history classes as part of any curriculum about World War II. However, you don’t have to be a history buff to be inspired by the courage of ordinary people who made a positive difference in an extraordinary period of humankind.

Gravitas Ventures released “Shadows of Freedom” on digital and VOD on April 24, 2020.

Review: ‘The Windermere Children,’ starring Thomas Kretschmann, Romola Garai, Tim McInnerny, Iain Glen, Tomasz Studzinski and Kacper Swietek

April 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Windermere Children,” pictured from left to right: Anna Maciejewska, Tomasz Studzinski, Lukasz Zieba, Kuba Sprenger, Marek Wrobelewski, Jakub Jankiewicz, Pascal Fischer and Kacper Swietek (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Windermere Children”

Directed by Michael Samuels 

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1945, shortly near the end of World War II, the drama “The Windermere Children” is based on a true story of how a group of Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust are brought to a group home in England to start new lives.

Culture Clash: The orphans experience difficult recoveries from their trauma, as well as anti-Semitism from some of the local residents.

Culture Audience: “The Windermere Children” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in stories about orphans or Holocaust survivors.

Thomas Kretschmann (standing) in “The Windermere Children” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Most stories about Holocaust survivors tend to be about what their lives are like years after World War II ended. But the dramatic film “The Windermere Children” (which is inspired by true events) tells the story of what happened in August 1945, shortly near the official end of World War II, when a group of about 300 Jewish orphans were brought from continental Europe (many were from Poland) to an estate in England as refugees. Because almost all of the children did not have relatives to claim them, the orphans had to start new lives in England.

Almost all of the children survived concentration camps and are going through severe trauma. They arrive by bus to Calgarth Estate, which is located by Lake Windermere. The estate has been turned into a group home for the children, whose transition and rehabilitation will be aided by a group of counselors and volunteers. Leading this group is German psychologist Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), whose specialty is child psychology.

Other people who are part of the team are athletic coach Jock Lawrence (played by Ian Glen); art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai); philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny); and married couple Georg Lauer (played by Philipp Christopher) and Edith Lauer (Anna Schumacher). Friedmann used to run an institution for troubled boys in Germany, but nothing quite prepares him for what he will experience with these orphans.

“The Windemere Children” (Michael Samuels and written by Simon Block) shows the somewhat chaotic and anxiety-filled arrival of the children by bus (one boy vomits on Mr. Montefiore as soon as he’s greeted by Montefiore), but then the teenagers who will be the main orphan characters in the story start to come into focus. (The ones who get the most screen time and backstories are the boys.)

Arek Hershlikovicz (played by Tomasz Studzinski) is a lanky, pimple-faced rebel. He shows an early romantic interest in Sala (played by Anna Maciejewska), who becomes his girlfriend. Icek “Ike” Alterman (played by Kuba Sprenger) is a bit of a charming flirt, and he finds out soon upon arriving that he’s attracted to an English girl. Schmuel “Sam” Laskier (played by Marek Wrobelewski) is a sorrowful loner. Ben Helfgott (played by Pascal Fischer) is a superb athlete, who quickly becomes a favorite of Coach Lawrence.

Chaim Olmer (played by Kacper Swietek) had assumed the identity of a boy named Ephraim Minsburg in order to survive, and the alias has stuck, but Chaim now wants to be known by his real name so that his sister can find him. Salek Falinower (played by Jakub Jankiewicz) is another loner, and he’s more likely than Sam to separate himself from the rest of the group. (He has to be gently coaxed by Friedmann to get out of the bus.) Salek is convinced that he will be reunited with his missing brother Chiel someday, even though everyone keeps telling him that there’s almost no chance that Chiel has survived.

Because most of the children have been through the trauma of concentration camps, their healing and rehabilitation are emotionally tough on them. The younger children who lived out on the streets are inseparable. During a walk in the woods, they are terrified by the presence of a small dog being walked by a local woman. The children run off and hide and have to be searched for by a counselor.

Another scene in the movie shows how something as simple as putting bread on the tables in the dining hall can spark a feeding frenzy, as the children grab the bread and run to their rooms to either eat the bread quickly or hide it from others. Eventually, the children learn that food at the orphanage is plentiful and they don’t have to act like paranoid scavengers and hoarders in order to get a meal.

Medical exams are also filled with anxiety and sometimes bad news. Many of the children are malnourished and recovering from physical abuse, such as beatings, whippings and burns. It’s not uncommon for them to have missing or decaying teeth. And the children also have to be de-loused. The clothes they arrived in are also burned, which is symbolic of them leaving their previous lives behind.

It’s while the children are being de-loused outdoors that they have an unpleasant encounter with some of the local residents. A group of boys who are in the same age group watch from afar and try to taunt them. Arek sees that the local boys’ reactions are out of fear and ignorance, so he approaches them, covered in de-lousing powder and extends his hand as if to give a handshake. One of the taunting boys tentatively takes Arek’s hand, but instead of shaking the hand, Arek pulls the terrified boy into the de-lousing shed. The other local boys run off and leave their bicycles behind, which some of the orphans gleefully steal.

Stealing becomes a habit for some of the orphans, and they are lectured not to do it by their elders at the orphanage. Meanwhile, the orphans are taught English and are encouraged by Ms. Paneth to paint their inner thoughts, without instruction rules or judgment on technique. It’s welcome therapy for many of the children, but one disturbing portrait by a child brings the art teacher to tears. And, as the movie shows, the children have constant nightmares and can be heard screaming and sobbing throughout the night.

During a trip to a local ice-cream parlor, the kids experience more anti-Semitism when the same group of boys who previously tried to taunt them show up at near the shop and give a Nazi salute, Friedmann than shames the boys by telling them that these children’s families were slaughtered. The boys sheepishly walk away, but the Jewish orphans see that anti-Semitism is everywhere, even in a country that fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Meanwhile, Coach Lawrence, a Scotsman who oversees the boys’ soccer playing, tries to toughen them up by telling them that people in the “real world” won’t care about them being Jewish refugees and they can’t use it as an excuse to get special treatment. Privately, Lawrence tells Friedmann that it might be time to start placing the kids into foster homes, in order to improve the strained relations between the locals and the refugees. Some of the locals are very open about their resentment that the estate land and taxpayer money are helping fund the refugees at the group home.

The most devastating part of the movie is when the Red Cross arrives to bring news about the orphans’ families. Most of the children had been holding out glimmers of hope that someone in their family would still be alive. But the news is as bad as expected. Arek is so emotionally wounded to find out that his entire family has been murdered the he verbally lashes out at Donna, and it puts an enormous strain on their relationship. There is a bright spot toward the end of the movie, which won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that this happy moment is a testament to the power of hope.

The epilogue of the film takes a similar approach to what “Schindler’s List” did at the end: It shows some of the real-life  survivors returning to the place depicted in the movie, along with flashbacks to the actors who portrayed them in the movie. The real-life Windermere children who give comments at the end of the film are Arek Hersh (who changed his last name from Hershlikovicz), Chaim “Harry” Olmer, Ben Helfgott and Schmuel “Sam” Laskier and Icek “Ike” Alterman.

“The Windermere Children” is an emotionally powerful film (although by no means as harrowing and masterfully made as “Schindler’s List”) that tells an important part of the Holocaust refugee story. The film’s cast members give solid performances, but the movie is heavily slanted toward the male perspective of these children’s experiences, while the female perspective isn’t given as much importance. There’s a one-hour documentary called “The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words,” which is worth watching for a more balanced gender representation and for more testimonials from the survivors. The documentary is a great complement to this dramatic film’s version of their story.

PBS had the U.S. TV premiere of “The Windermere Children” on April 5, 2020. BBC Two had movie’s U.K. TV premiere on January 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Resistance,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer and Ed Harris

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Resistance” (2020)

Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz 

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in World War II-era France, “Resistance” has a predominantly white cast of characters in a dramatic film inspired by the true story of a young Marcel Marceau and his involvement in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis.

Culture Clash: Marcel, whose artistic dreams are discouraged by his skeptical father, is at first reluctant to join the French Resistance, but he and others in the Resistance end up risking their lives in their fight against the Nazi regime.

Culture Audience: “Resistance” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in World War II stories or inspirational biographies told in a melodramatic way.

Clémence Poésy, Jesse Eisenberg and Bella Ramsey (second from right) in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

People who know about Marcel Marceau as one of the world’s most famous mime entertainers might or might know about his involvement in the French Resistance that saved thousands of Jewish people’s lives during the horrors of the World War II-era Holocaust. The emotionally riveting melodrama “Resistance” primarily tells the story of this part of Marceau’s life from 1938 to 1942 (when he was 25 to 29 years old), and his transformation from aspiring entertainer to war hero.

The movie (written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz) begins on November 9, 1935, in Nazi-controlled Munich, Germany. A Jewish mother and father (played by Aurélie Bancilhon and Edgar Ramírez) lovingly kiss their 14-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep for the night. But their lives are shattered when Nazis break into the home, kidnap the parents, and murder them in the street before the terrified daughter’s eyes. What happens to this girl is shown later in the story.

Meanwhile, the movie flashes forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany, with U.S. General George Patton (played by Ed Harris) addressing a large group of American soldiers in a stadium. Patton says he’s going to tell them a story about “one of those unique human beings who makes your sacrifices and heroism completely worth it.”

It’s then that the story of Marceau begins in Strasbourg, France. It’s November 1938, when he was known by his birth name, Marcel Mangel. Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) doing a mime impersonation of Charlie Chaplin on stage at a cabaret. No sooner does he get off the stage, he is pulled out into an alley by his disapproving father, Charles Mangel (played by Karl Markovics), an immigrant from Poland who thinks Marcel is wasting his time trying to be an artist. Charles wants Marcel to follow in his footsteps in the family’s butcher business, which Marcel does reluctantly as a “day job.”

Meanwhile, one of the butcher shop’s female customers has a daughter named Emma (played by Clémence Poésy), who Marcel asks about when she comes into the store. Marcel jokes that his father wants Marcel to marry Emma, but viewers can see from the Marcel’s demeanor when he sees Emma later that he doesn’t need any parental interference to be interested in her. They have the kind of back-and-forth “I’m trying to play it cool but deep down I’m attracted to you” banter that would-be couples have in movies when you know that there will be some romantic sparks between them later.

Emma and her sister Mila (played by Vica Kerekes) are part of the underground French Resistance movement that includes Marcel’s cousin Georges Loinger (played by Géza Röhrig), who was the head of the Jewish Boy Scouts during World War II. Georges, Emma, Mila and Marcel’s older brother Alain (Félix Moati) are all involved in helping rescue orphaned Jewish children and finding them a place to live.

Georges has asked Marcel to use his mime skills to entertain the children, but Marcell initially says no because he wants to use his free time to work on a play and his other artistic interest of painting. Marcel and Alain come from a  tight-knit Jewish family (their parents have a solid marriage), but Alain and Marcel have a strained relationship because Alain thinks that Marcel is too self-centered and arrogant.

And the movie shows that Alain is right. Even though Marcel is a mime on stage, he hates it when people call him “a clown.” As he tells his father haughtily, “I’m an actor!” Marcel also thinks that he’s too good to be a butcher and he’s destined for greatness as a famous and respected artist. No one can tell him otherwise.

But when a group of 123 orphans arrive in Strasbourg, and Marcel volunteers to borrow his father’s truck to transport them to an abandoned castle where the orphans will be staying, it sets in motion a life journey that at the time Marcel didn’t even know that he would be taking. In this group of orphans is a teenager named Elsbeth (played by Bella Ramsey), and she’s the same girl viewers saw in the beginning of the film. Elsbeth ends up bonding with Emma, who acts like a surrogate older sister to Elsbeth.

While at the castle, the frightened orphans are slowly put at ease by Marcel’s mime antics. It’s during these performances that Marcel realizes that he can use his art for something more important than his own career ambitions. However, Marcel still doesn’t want to give up his dreams of being an artist.

One day, while Charles watches his son Marcel working on a painting, he asks Marcel, “You dress like a clown. You paint a clown. Why do you do it?” Marcel replies, “Why do you go to the bathroom?” Charles answers, “Because my body gives me no choice.” Marcel tersely says before he walks out of the room, “There it is. That’s my answer.”

However, Marcel’s artistic dreams are put on hold when it becomes clear that the Nazis are getting closer to invading the region of France where he lives. Alain tells the others that they need to train the children to survive. And sure enough, the Nazis order the evacuation of the border towns in France. The Mangel family, like so many other Jewish families in the region, comply and think that they will eventually be allowed to go back to their homes. Tragically, they are mistaken.

It’s 1941. And while in France’s city of Limoges in Vichy, Marcel puts his  precise painting skills to good use and finds out he has a knack for forging passports, which he does for himself and several fellow Jewish refugees. It’s during this period of time that he changes his last name to Marceau, in order to hide his real Jewish surname.

Meanwhile, Marcel and Emma have gotten closer, while Alain and Mila have started their own romance. Along with Georges, they are all still heavily involved with helping orphans find a place to live. And it’s around this time that Alain and Marcel officially decide to join the Resistance. They tell their father, who is supportive.

As this is going on in France, viewers are then taken to Berlin, where Nazi lieutenant Klaus Barbie (played by Matthias Schweighöfer) is inflicting violence and terror on Jews and some of his fellow Nazis. (In one brutal scene, he viciously beats another Nazi in front of others because the man is gay.) The movie shows that this sadistic Nazi has a soft side when it comes to his family (he has a wife and baby daughter), which illustrates how several Nazis had the duality of being heartless murderers but also loving family men.

Before the end of the movie, Marcel and his group have a lot of harrowing, heartbreaking and life-threatening experiences. “Resistance” is not an easy film to watch if you’re extremely sensitive to seeing terrifying acts of murder and torture. It makes it all the more painful to watch because these are re-enactments of what millions of Jews and other people went through in real life.

And the movie also shows that the Nazis were not the only people to blame for the Holocaust. An untold number of non-Jewish people in Nazi-occupied countries betrayed their fellow Jewish citizens by giving up information about them for cash or other rewards. “Resistance” effectively shows how the culture of complicity allowed the Nazi reign of terror to thrive for as long as it did.

Although this is certainly an important story to be told, “Resistance” might have some people rolling their eyes at the melodramatic tactics used in telling the story. There’s a scene where one of the main characters goes missing and is found in a big city, just at the moment when this person is about to jump in front of train in a moment of suicidal despair and is rescued from committing that deadly act. This kind of too-good-to-be-true coincidence looks like it was fabricated just for the movie.

And in another part of the story that doesn’t make much sense, one of the characters is captured and tortured by a Nazi and then inexplicably allowed to leave. In reality, this person would’ve been killed, but it seems that this person’s life was spared in order to further the plot in another part of the movie. However, it’s one of the few parts of “Resistance” that doesn’t ring true. The rest of the film, which unabashedly tugs at people’s heartstrings, tells the story in a way that could have reasonably happened in real life.

“Resistance” director and Jonathan Jakubowicz and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz imbue the film with a sense of urgency in the war scenes and a sense of dramedy in the more light-hearted scenes. There are many sweeping shots at 360-degree angles that give the viewers a head-spinning overview of what usually is a pivotal scene in the story. But even with these artsy camera tricks, the movie doesn’t trivialize the dark side of this story.

As Marcel, Eisenberg gives a compelling performance, even if his real-life American accent occasionally slips out in the dialogue. He convincingly portrays Marcel as someone who evolves from thinking that nothing is more important to him than his art to realizing that there are other ways that artists can make an important difference in the world without giving up their passion for art. (Eisenberg’s mother was a clown in real life, so doing the mime scenes must have had special meaning for him.) “Resistance” is undoubtedly a story about how someone can triumph over tragedy, but it’s also a reminder that the horrors of the Holocaust must never happen again.

IFC Films released “Resistance” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.

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