REVIEW: “Mamakrom” (2020)

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Sitting upon the endless red clay of northern Ghana is the village of Mamakrom and a school built on the very foundation of hope and compassion. The new documentary, understandably titled “Mamakrom”, is made with the same passion and solicitude as its namesake. Filmmakers Joseph Pelegreen and Matt Lang have put together something anchored by a heartfelt love for a struggling region and a genuine desire to see true and meaningful change.

“Mamakrom” showed at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and competed in the International Features category. The film is clearly a passion project and is imbued with the empathy and aspiration of its makers. It’s an eye-opening doc inspired by a decade’s worth of first-hand observation and experience. From the opening frames it’s clear this is something near and dear to hearts of those in front of and behind the cameras.

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You could say “Mamakrom” is as educational as it is inspirational. Pelegreen (who serves as the film’s director) puts a lot of time into developing the setting and situation for his viewers. Through evocative imagery and the words of local workers for change, the film vividly captures the region’s abject poverty. It talks about famine and drought. It highlights the dangers of malaria and waterborne diseases in a place with limited access to healthcare. This directly connects to the most heartbreaking reality – the high mortality rate specifically among children.

With a clear-eyed perspective Pelegreen and Lang highlight the region’s most critical needs: health, development, and (the film’s biggest focus) education. “Educate a child and you’ll change his life forever.” But doing so in northern Ghana comes with its own set of intense challenges. The lack of infrastructure, the poor quality of the schoolhouses, the inability to find and maintain teachers – all of these things combined with the deeper health and quality of life struggles puts any aspiration of a burgeoning education system instantly behind the proverbial eight ball.

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But one of the joys of “Mamakrom” is that it offers hope that even obstacles which seem insurmountable can be overcome by those willing to commit themselves and answer the call to action. This is embodied in the missions-based ESI Foundation (an acronym for Every Souls Important). The group has been a steady presence in Marakrom pouring time, money, and love into the children and their future. The film shows the fruits of the ESI’s investments – the construction of new school buildings, a library, and teachers quarters. More importantly, we get a taste of the impact they are having on the lives of the students. It’s all working towards building a better future for the people of Ghana, not through dependability but self-sustainability.

The film makes several other insightful observations, such as how the the aforementioned high mortality rate actually leads to a higher birth rate as families painfully try and compensate for the children they will inevitably lose. Or how the influx of used clothing and imported produce, though well-intended, has adverse effects on local markets. But while the health crisis is heartbreaking and the region’s economic complexities are compelling, the film always comes back to its faith-fueled hope of a better future for Ghanaians. “Mamakrom” doesn’t hide its intentions. It wants to open eyes and move people to action. And what better way to do that than by showing that such actions are not in vain.

“Mamakrom” is scheduled to show at several upcoming film festivals and it’s currently fielding offers for distribution.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “MLK/FBI” (2020)

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The dark and troubling relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is well known and has been well documented. But I’m not sure it has ever been as thoughtfully considered as it is in Sam Pollard’s new documentary “MLK/FBI”. I had the opportunity to see the film at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and it has been on my mind ever since.

Pollard’s film is timely considering the country’s current conversations about race relations and social justice. It’s equally fitting that it comes out during a time when the FBI is under scrutiny and face accusations of (once again) abusing their powers. I’m sure Pollard is aware of his film’s relevance, but he wisely lets it come through naturally, covering his subject from a clear-eyed historical perspective.

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“MLK/FBI” uses two parallel but frequently intersecting timelines in its effort to chronicle Hoover’s evolving FBI and King’s rise as a civil rights leader. Pollard uses a fascinating collection of archived footage, audio recordings, and news feeds accompanied by insightful narration from a handful of authors, historians, former FBI agents, as well as a friend and speechwriter for Dr. King.

J. Edgar Hoover was the very first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ran the organization for 37 years until his death in 1972. He served through a total of eight presidencies from Coolidge to Nixon. Under Hoover one of the the FBI’s chief undertakings was rooting out and exposing communists. Stanley Levison was a New York attorney with communist connections. He was also an advisor and friend to Dr. King which led Hoover to put his sights on the civil rights movement.

King was steadily growing in popularity and influence. His words of equality resonated with African-Americans across the country culminating with the famous March on Washington in August 28, 1963. Two days later the FBI’s head of domestic intelligence would deem King “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation from the standpoint of communism.” A year later and with the permission of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Hoover began wiretapping King, compiling countless tapes of private conversations and uncovering numerous adulterous affairs. While his actions were morally repugnant, King did nothing illegal so the Bureau put together a smear campaign aimed at staining the leader’s reputation.

Pollard’s examination isn’t exhaustive nor can it be considering the tapes connecting King and the FBI are sealed in a National Archives vault until February 2027. But what he does do is construct a strong moral case against the FBI’s targeting of King while also using the flimsiness of their communist ties claims to reveal far more troubling motivations. Hoover’s cooperation with the Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson adds an even darker shade to their political power and influence.

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But at the same time Pollard doesn’t sugarcoat King’s transgressions. If the FBI was eager to create their own smoking gun, King’s extra-marital affairs provided them with the bullet. “MLK/FBI” challenges the almost saintly mythos surrounding Dr. King today while still showing him as the victim of a concentrated effort by the government’s principal law enforcement agency to discredit and silence not only him, but the entire civil rights movement. The film ends by posing a thought-provoking question – does an individual’s personal sins negate their work as a leader and their voice for change?

With “MLK/FBI” Sam Pollard merges history with cinema to reconstruct the often contentious relationship between the United States government and one of nation’s most iconic leaders. For better or for worse the film’s clinical, just-the-facts approach can feel a lot like a history lesson. And it does veer ever so slightly into conspiracy theory territory when speaking of King’s assassination. But Pollard doesn’t linger on the unknown. His film is about examining what we do know, highlighting the abuse of federal power to thwart a powerful national movement. The rest will have to wait until 2027.

“MLK/FBI” is appearing in several North American festivals before its scheduled release in January 2021.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Missing in Brooks County” (2020)

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I had the honor of serving as a juror at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and once again the festival’s program featured a wealth of talented filmmakers presenting their work. One of the most gripping documentaries I had the opportunity to see was “Missing in Brooks County”, a thoughtful and immersive look at the lingering US/Mexico border crisis.

The film comes from documentarians Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss. The two directed, filmed and produced this affecting examination of a critical issue that has in many ways been lost in the noise of battling bureaucracies and political parties. As is obvious from the title, the film is set within Brooks County, Texas, much of it in and around the small town of Falfurrias.

For a little history, during Bill Clinton’s presidency measures were taken by his administration to address the increasing flow of illegal migrant traffic crossing the southern border. The idea was to strengthen border security in order to funnel migrant traffic to the most dangerous areas. While some casualties were expected, the hope was to discourage illegal crossers from attempting the long, arduous journey. Predictably that’s not at all what happened.

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In Brooks County, some 70 miles from the US/Mexico border, migrants are brought in by coyotes who gave them a jug of water and directions around the checkpoints. The groups then walk for miles across hot, dry, privately owned ranch land. Many never make it to their destination, losing their way and dying due to the harsh and rugged elements. It’s believed that since 2008 an estimated 2,000 migrants have died in their attempt at making the dangerous trek. Yet considering how many are never found, the total could be considerably higher.

Molomot and Bemiss begin by introducing us to Eddie Canales, a 70-year-old advocate running the South Texas Human Rights Center. With limited resources but maximum heart and effort, Eddie works to help families looking for missing relatives. He also works with willing ranchers to place water stations on their property in hopes of reducing the number of migrant deaths. But not everyone sees this as noble work. We hear from some who question Eddie’s motivations, even theorizing that he is involved with smuggling people past the checkpoints. It creates a local tension that exacerbates the problem more than helps.

There is also a real-life mystery element as we follow two different families trying to find their loved ones who attempted to cross Brooks County but have never been heard from since. We also feel the pulse of others directly affected by the crisis including the border patrol, human rights workers, and the understaffed local sheriff’s department who is tasked with covering approximately 900,000 square acres of jurisdiction.

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Through them all Molomot and Bemiss vividly capture the complexity and the far-reaching effects of the situation. To the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend to have a perfect solution. Instead it’s aim is to focus on the humanity, something often lost in today’s black-and-white politicization of the issue. Outside of a few overt political pop-shots, the movie keeps us at the epicenter by concentrating solely on the viewpoints of those directly impacted. It’s the essential ingredient to the film’s potency.

Another strength is the cinematography which places us close to the people on the ground and offers us an effective emotional connection to them and their circumstances. It also does a great job presenting the south Texas territory whether on foot or through soaring high-resolution drone footage. Both reveal the sparse foreboding landscape consisting of thousands of acres with few distinguishable landmarks. The vast ominous sameness is striking. This strong sense of setting adds a sharp visual clarity to the issues Molomot and Bemiss are exploring.

“Missing in Brooks County” is a clear-eyed exposé of a troubling situation that isn’t as simple as “opening our borders” or “building a wall”. The documentary shows that the situation in this poor South Texas county is far more complicated and personal. Again the film doesn’t pretend to have the answers nor does it get lost in the inflammatory rhetoric and political posturing that surrounds this important issue today. Instead the film’s interests are in the human costs and in challenging its audience to look past the surface-level nonsense in order to understand the real stakes at the heart of the crisis.

“Missing in Brooks County” made its world premiere at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival where it won for Best Southern Feature. Look for it to be expanding to other festivals in the near future.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Mulan” (2020)

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If you’re wondering how the new “Mulan” stacks up against its animated predecessor or even the more recent Disney live-action remakes, this might not be the review you’re looking for. Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the original 1998 animated feature. And I haven’t watched any of the latest not-so-warmly received live-action reheats. But I have seen Disney’s new $200 million “Mulan”. You know, the $30 ‘stream at home’ version. And guess what – it’s not bad. Is it worth the high price tag to watch right now? I’ll let you decide.

“Mulan” comes from director Niki Caro and the writing team of Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek. Their retelling of this inspirational tale aims at capturing the spirit of the original animated film while also making meaningful choices that set their version apart. The way it sounds, the more recent live-action remakes went to great lengths to follow their originals. “Mulan” 2020 attempts to carve its own identity with a more realistic vision, no songs and no celebrity-voiced comic sidekick. The results aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darned impressive.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

Liu Yifei plays Mulan, the spirited eldest daughter of honored war veteran Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma). The two have a loving bond with the father aware that there is something special about his daughter. But his deep devotion to archaic traditions leaves Mulan bound by the expectations of her family, village, and culture. “A daughter brings honor through marriage“, Hua Zhou lectures. “Your job is to bring honor to the family.” Yet in this world of ‘honor’ through marriage, she can’t even choose her own husband.

Meanwhile on the outskirts of the empire a warlord with a grudge named Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) begins attacking imperial garrisons. Lee is a striking presence, with the look and the snarl of a menacing villain. Unfortunately he’s the victim of an all-too-familiar problem in modern blockbusters – bad guys with hardly any depth and the barest motivations. Basically Böri Khan sets out to quench his thirst for revenge by killing the emperor and becoming the new ruler of the kingdom. Not the most original crusade, but he and his soldiers sure look cool carrying it out.

With the attacks intensifying, the Emperor (played with stoic distinction by Jet Li) calls for one male member of every family to join the fight to quell the enemy invasion. Hua Zhou, the lone male in their family, prepares to join the war effort despite his failing health. Knowing her father’s chances of survival are slim, Mulan takes his sword and armor and sneaks away, posing as his son and joining the Fifth Battalion led by esteemed Commander Tung (played by Chinese screen legend Donnie Yen). It’s her first venture into the male-dominated world and if her ruse is discovered she’ll have more to worry about than shame and dishonor.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

The bulk of the film’s second act concentrates on the training of the young soldiers. Mulan is easily the most skilled warrior in her regiment, but showing her abilities would draw too much attention and risk exposing her secret. Therefore much of this segment is spent with Mulan concealing her identity from the other recruits especially the curious and charismatic Chen (Yoson An). What’s missing is the emotional toil. There is certainly an interesting thematic conflict between loyalty to duty and embracing one’s true self. But we rarely see Mulan wrestling with it on an emotional level. We get a few of those scenes and they work really well. We just get too few of them.

From there the film moves to an action-filled final third. Surprisingly “Mulan” never quite reaches the scale I was expecting. This could be due to misguided expectations on my part, but the film isn’t a huge sprawling epic. It has all the dressings, but when it comes to the action the film’s snappy pace never keeps it in one place for too long. For that reason some of the action scenes are unexpectedly short and tame, perhaps the result of being a Disney property.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t stunning images throughout “Mulan”. Caro and her DP Mandy Walker shoot some exquisite shots both when filming the diverse landscapes or capturing the gravity-defying fight sequences. One showdown set inside a tight hallway is shot with incredible style and energy. Another fight through some bamboo scaffolding features several ingenious camera tricks and wonderful framing. At the same time Oscar winner Grant Major’s production design and Bina Daigeler’s costumes add something interesting to every composition.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

Cast-wise Liu Yifei shows nice range moving from a rambunctious rebel by nature to a battle-ready warrior exemplifying courage and leadership. She does good with what emotional material she’s given and her physicality is unquestioned. Donnie Yen and Jet Li are great presences but get little opportunity to show the martial arts prowess what made them such stars. Perhaps the most compelling character is an exiled sorceress named Xianniang (Li Gong). She’s a servant and weapon of Böri Khan who doesn’t take kindly to being called a “witch”. There are hints of a rich and thoughtful backstory, but sadly all we get are crumbs – fleeting references to a pained past that I would love to have known more about.

I can see “Mulan” pulling people in a variety of directions. Lovers of the animated original may take issue with some of its creative choices. Those looking forward to its more realistic spin may find it too restrained and safe. For me, the film’s strengths definitely outweigh its shortcomings. “Mulan” pulls us into a vibrant and fascinating world while telling a story full of inspiration and relevance. At the same time I found myself constantly wanting it to go further. Did being a Disney property hold it back? Were my expectations out of whack? I’m not sure. So I end up still unable to tell you if the movie is worth the $30 price tag. Once again, I’ll let you decide. “Mulan” is now available exclusively on Disney+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Made in Italy” (2020)

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Liam Neeson has hunted down bad guys and utilized his “very particular set of skills” all across the globe. His latest film “Made in Italy” sets him down in the heart of sumptuous Tuscany. But this time he isn’t up against terrorists, human traffickers, or rogue cops. Instead he’s forced to face a dilapidated estate, a ton of pent-up grief, and a brittle relationship with his estranged son. The terrorist were puny by comparison.

“Made in Italy” is the directorial debut for British actor James D’Arcy and I have to admit, I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. It’s a well-made family drama with a dash of humor and a misty-eyed final act that may be predictable but that justifies its emotional payoff. That’s because D’Arcy gives us characters we can care about. Yes, sometimes they do stick too close to conventional scripting, but they earn our empathy through grounded portrayals and a keen sense of humanity.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s real-life son) plays Jack, the manager of a bustling London art gallery owned by the parents of his soon-to-be ex-wife Ruth (Yolanda Kettle). As a result of their messy divorce, Ruth’s parents decide to sell the gallery leaving Jack high and dry. Desperate to buy it for himself, a cash-strapped Jack will have to convince his jerk of a father Robert (Neeson) to sell their Tuscan country villa left to them by their deceased mother/wife. The problem is they aren’t what you would call ‘close’.

So father and son head to the beautiful Tuscan countryside and find the once stunning estate, neglected and vacant for 20 years, in desperate need of repair. Their delightfully snarky real estate agent Kate (Lindsay Duncan) informs them that if they don’t fix the place up they’ll never turn a profit. So Robert and Jack begin restoring the house, unpacking (predictably) years of emotional baggage along the way. Buried grief resurfaces and cloudy memories are brought into focus as the family’s history with the house is revealed.

D’Arcy smartly keeps things from getting too heavy until they need to be or too whimsical therefore undercutting the drama. And while the Tuscany backdrops are easy on the eyes, D’Arcy doesn’t milk them dry. DP Mike Eley admires the scenery without gawking, even having some fun with the notoriously arresting locations.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

It’s impossible to watch Neeson and Richardson and not think about the real-life reverberations. In 2009 their wife and mother Natasha Richardson died in a tragic skiing accident. This material has to hit home for both of them and you sense it in several scenes. But instead of fully tapping into those true experiences, the movie relies too heavily on a handful of clichés. Many of them come through Jack’s budding romance with a local restaurant owner named Natalia (Valeria Bilello). She adds some needed local flavor and is a welcomed presence. But Natalia never rises above being your standard love interest.

Rough patches aside, James D’Arcy’s behind-the-camera debut works where it needs to the most. I had no problem latching onto the two lead characters, believing their feelings of loss, and rooting for their inevitable reconciliation. Yes, some scenes are woefully overwritten and everyone (and I do mean everyone) has their moment to unload their past sorrows. But D’Arcy still manages to deliver a satisfying heartwarmer while Neeson reminds us he has more to offer than just headshots and hip tosses. “Made in Italy” opens this weekend on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “My Spy” (2020)

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What is it with ex-wrestlers turned movie stars starring alongside super-cute kids in corny action-comedies? Hulk Hogan did it years ago with “Mr. Nanny”. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made “Tooth Fairy” and “The Game Plan”. Paul “Triple H” Levesque starred in “The Chaperone”. And just last year John Cena made “Playing with Fire”. Not to be outdone, Dave Bautista now takes his turn with “My Spy”, a film originally set for a big screen release but bought by Amazon after the COVID-19 theater closings.

The film comes from director Peter Segal and was written by Jon and Erich Hoeber. In it Bautista plays a hardened CIA agent named JJ. He’s rather new to the whole spy game yet for some logic-defying reason his boss (Ken Jeong) sends him on a solo mission to Russia to infiltrate an illegal weapons exchange. What’s on the line? Only enough plutonium to blow up a major city. JJ botches the job killing everyone except one guy who slips away with half of the plutonium.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon

As a result of blowing his mission JJ gets moved to surveillance where he’s teamed with an air-headed tech specialist named Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) who happens to be his biggest fan (I’m still not sure why. All I can figure is she likes that he kills a lot of people and has big muscles). The two are sent to Chicago where they are to keep tabs on a young widow named Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her 9-year-old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman). They’re on the run from an evil in-law named Victor (Greg Bryk) who believes Kate is hiding plans for a nuclear bomb given to her by her late husband.

That’s already more information than you really need because plot-wise none of that stuff is remotely convincing. But if the CIA angle still wasn’t absurd enough, within minutes of getting the surveillance equipment up and running, JJ and Bobbi are discovered by Sophie who records them admitting they are CIA operatives. She then uses the recording to blackmail JJ into doing the typical stuff – taking her ice skating, getting her ice cream, going to parent day at her school, and of course teaching her how to be a spy (as if JJ would know). In a goofy bit of irony, Bobbi (framed as the dumbest character in the movie) is the only one who can see how nuts all of this is. Go figure.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon

From there it follows an insanely predictable path. The brawny tough guy does a lot of silly stuff and begins to soften up. A chemistry-less romance between JJ and Kate springs up. And of course once the bad guy inevitable surfaces we get a violent by-the-books action finale. There isn’t a box that “My Spy” doesn’t check. The lone saving grace is young Coleman who despite being trapped in a derivative story has enough charm to divert our attention (at least a little).

It’s tempting to dismiss my own opinion by simply accepting that I’m not the target audience. Then again I’m not quite sure who the target audience is. The dead bodies and the smattering of crude dialogue are enough to muddle the lines. So I’ll stick with my take – “My Spy” misses its mark, nothing about it seems fresh or original, and Dave Bautista may not quite be ready for leading roles. Still, he’s not the first wrestler-turned-actor to do this kind of movie. Probably won’t be the last. “My Spy” is now playing on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars