Tag Archives: based on a true story

The Last Full Measure

Retired Master Sergeant Thomas Tully (William Hurt) picks a bad day to visit Scott (Sebastian Stan) at his office. Scott’s boss has just quit unexpectedly, and with an election looming, it’s likely that Scott will soon be out of a job. So yes, Scott’s been shuffling Tully’s paperwork around on his desk for months now, but today wasn’t super ideal in terms of bringing it to his attention. Tully gets the brush off, has been getting it in some form or another for more than 30 years.

Tully fought in the Vietnam war, and he’s asking for a decorations review, an upgrade from the Cross to a Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for a comrade who didn’t come back, a young man named Pitsenbarger, known as Pits. On a particularly bloody day of the war, Operation Abilene, one company was used pretty much as bait, and before the sun set they’d taken 80% casualties all on that single day. And the only reason the other 20% survived was because of Pits, a man who didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t part of the operation. He was Air Force, part of pararescue. He and his unit were hovering in their helicopter trying to evacuate soldiers when he assessed the situation and acted. He went down. We went down because the company had already lost their medic and were taking an awful lot of fire. There were wounded everywhere. It was a miracle that he survived the descent, but what he did on land was even more remarkable.

Except his actions had only posthumously been awarded a Cross when the grateful survivors had put him up for an MOH. They were still pursuing it this many years later, hoping to commemorate all he had done for men he didn’t even know.

Scott’s in a tricky position career-wise and gets sent to check out this story. He interviews the survivors, many of them reluctant, all of them haunted (including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Ed Harris). And he visits the Pitsenbarger family, finding parents (Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd) still grieving their son. This assignment may have started as a way to run out the clock on his former position, but as he begins to comprehend the black hole of bureaucracy that this simple request has suffered, he becomes more committed to seeing in through. It’s about more than acknowledging the sacrifice made by The Pitsenbarger family, it’s a balm on the psychic wounds of the people he saved. The Vietnam war in particular offered so little to its returning vets that this was really their last avenue for healing their emotional scars.

Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film is earnest, safe, and sensitive. It’s also true. It very carefully toes the tricky path of celebrating the contributions of those who served without condoning the war itself. But more than that, it serves as a reminder of a war that may have fallen away from public consciousness but is still serving aftershocks to those who narrowly survived and to the families of those who did not.

Mope

Just on the off-chance that your internet browser history is squeaky clean and filled with wholesome pinterest pies and youtube videos of puppy piles, I offer you this:

Mope (in addition to other definitions, of course) (noun)

a bottom-tier porn performer willing to do the dirtiest, most depraved work in the business

We first meet Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry) as they sit among a bunch of men in their underwear. As soon as a light turns green the men cheer, and then start chanting “Bukaki, bukaki!” like a rallying cry, which I suppose it is, to their junk. Another definition:

Bukaki (both a verb and a noun, I think) (it’s filthy, so feel free to look away)

to gather around a woman and cum on her face as a group

The men keep up the chant as they circle around a naked woman named Treasure who is kneeling on a tarp, which should, in theory, be unnecessary, as all the men have only one target in mind. They all, more or less, hit their mark, with only Steve left in the end, still trying to get the job done. Tom offers his (moral) support, which helps push Steve over the edge, and poor Treasure’s face is indeed glazed like a donut. Tom and Steve become instant friends.

For some reason, Steve and Tom are desperate to break into the porn industry, which is why:

a) They agree to a ball-busting audition. I’ll spare you the textbook definition because it pretty much is what it seems – only remember, porn stars don’t wear Toms or ballet flats, they wear 9 inch platform heels.

b) They also agree to share a dorm and split a single salary between them.

But these boys are ambitious. They don’t want to be mopes forever, they want to be porn stars. They pitch themselves to director Rocket (David Arquette), the “auteur of porn,” as the Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker of adult entertainment. It…doesn’t work out for them. Nothing works out for them. The universe is telling them that porn fame is not in the cards for them. Tom accepts his fate, happy to fix up the studio’s subpar website, and contribute to a gang bang once in a while, but Steve is fixated, and maybe a little unstable.

The movie feels almost as amateurish as the porn scene it describes. It also fails to really justify itself as a film even though it’s an (apparently) true story. The script doesn’t generate much sympathy for these characters, who remain unlikable at best, nor does it ever quite find their humanity. This is a piece of shock cinema unlike any other, but that’s not a redeeming quality. The movie goes off the rails in the finale minutes of the film (you wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true), making for some memorable cinema, but memorable in the way that trauma is memorable. If only you could forget it. It’s not good for the soul, and I wholly regret having undertaken it.

Run This Town

I know Americans think they have the market cornered in disgusting, unfit politicians, but before Donald’s fated presidential run, Canada was home to a mayor who made headlines around the world – and definitely not the good kind.

With all this extra time at home, we’re supplementing our movie watching with series watching, and one that recently caught our eye on Netflix (though it has been there a while – it wasn’t interesting enough in a world where we could go outdoors, but it was just good enough for lockdown) is Daybreak. It’s basically like Ferris Bueller’s Day off, but it’s also the apocalypse, and in this one, Matthew Broderick plays the principal. And the protagonist is a student who has recently transferred from Toronto (Canada). Though the kid refers to it as a “small town,” the kind in which all fathers take their sons hunting, it is in fact our most populous city. There are about 6 million people living in the GTA, so someone didn’t do their homework. Toronto is a frequent filming location for big Hollywood movies, movies that pretend they’re actually shooting in NYC, or Chicago. Very rarely does Toronto get to be Toronto, and the one time it does serves only to remind the world of that time when we were the buffoons.

2013: what a simple, naive time it was, looking back on it now. There are basically two sets of shockingly young people behind the wheels of basically everything: the mayor’s “special assistants”, led by Kamal (Mena Massoud), and the eager newspaper intern Bram (Ben Platt). Kamal’s job is basically to babysit the mayor and to minimize the collateral damage as much as possible. Bram’s job, aside from listicles, is to try to convince the grown-ups that there’s a major storm brewing at the mayor’s office, and whoever breaks it is about to earn a tsunami of clicks.

Rob Ford. There, I’ve said it. In the movie he’s played by an unrecognizable Damien Lewis. Rob Ford was a “businessman” who simply inherited a family business that was quite successful. He nonetheless saw himself as a “man of the people.” He was a conservative who loved to shout slogans and cut taxes. And also do crack.

Are you remembering him now? Every late night host loved to skewer this guy and he just kept feeding the fire. While he may not have been the first crack-smoking mayor, he was certainly the most photographed-with-a-crack-pipe mayor. He was also a very heavy drinker, and when he was good and plastered he’d sexually harass, or assault, female staffers, and, well, female anything. He was a black-out drunk who always denied it the next day, and often offered too much information in his denials. And yet 2013 was certainly in the time of smart phones. Video evidence was plentiful.

Run This Town is THAT story. The story of Kamal, a brown-skinned young man with the unenviable job of sweeping some extra-large skeletons back into some very full closets, despite the fact that Ford constantly reminded everyone he was anti-immigrant even if he thought Kamal was “a good one.” And of Bram, who knew this was a whale of a story but never got enough professional respect to do anything about it. It’s a reminder that these millennials we’re always accusing of being lazy are actually just very busy cleaning up boomer messes. Massoud and Platt are both excellent in this, and so are many others. But Lewis as Ford was not my favourite. The performance got lost behind the extensive prosthetics, which didn’t even feel accurate. Yes, Ford was a big, sweaty guy, not unlike a Chris Farley while Lewis’ look is more reminiscent of Fat Bastard.

Rob Ford is a sore spot for a lot of Torontonians, some of whom still defend him. But it’s also hard to criticize him, let alone mock him, since he died of cancer shortly thereafter, only 46 years old. And now Rob’s brother Doug is the premier of Ontario, because people refuse to learn lessons. I will say though, that while I despise his politics, he’s doing surprisingly well as a pandemic premier, his response oddly rational, and he’s taken care to distance himself from Trump’s dangerous rhetoric. So maybe there’s hope for the Fords after all?

The good news is that Run This Town tells the story fairly. It’s not a personal attack, in fact it’s not an attack at all. Rather than shaming Ford for what turns out to be a monumental addictions problem, the movie focuses on the very young people who actually had their hands on the steering wheel. Remember, this is the generation who cannot afford Toronto’s astronomical real estate prices. They are over-educated and under-paid. They can’t afford to be picky about who they work for. Their parents who prattle on about avocado toast are the very people who voted a crackhead as mayor.

 

Run This Town is now available to own or rent across all digital platforms.

Sergio

When we first meet UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura), he’s just been injured in a bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. How did he get there and how will he get out? The film rewinds three years or so to trace his path as a high ranking special representative of the United Nations. Previously he’d worked to make East Timor an independent state, learning valuable lessons in open and honest communications with the very people he’s trying to help. It’s also where he meets Carolina (Ana de Armis), a woman so special that she’ll follow him to him to his next posting, in Iraq.

It’s 2003 and the U.S. has just declared war on Iraq. It’s a war neither Sergio nor Carolina believe in, but Sergio believes in his work and believes he has one last contribution to make before retiring to Brazil with his new love. Setting up headquarters in the Canal Hotel, he dismisses the U.S. troops guarding the building, taking pride in the fact that Iraqis would feel welcome to approach their offices. He was adamant that the UN remain neutral, unaffiliated with the US invasion. But this decision left the building vulnerable, and Al-Qaeda seized the opportunity, using a suicide driver to detonate a bomb under his office’s window. The blast injured over 100 people and killed at least 22. Sergio and Gil Loescher (Brían F. O’Byrne), a consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are alive but trapped in the rubble. If nothing else, it gives Sergio plenty of time to reflect on his past.

Sergio de Mello is clearly important, if mostly unknown, and his peace-making ideals are admirable. It’s clear director Greg Barker wants to pay tribute to the man but in doing so, the story splinters. The love story is given equal if not more screen time than his storied political career, which inevitable gets simplified, complex situation distilled into soundbites, which actually seems to be the antithesis of what de Mello stood for.

Still, it’s an incredible performance from Moura and a competent one from de Armis. It is likely worth watching for that alone. It’s surprisingly slow at times for a movie that starts with an explosion, and I wish we knew more about the man and his motivations. But since this bombing resulted in a profound and lasting change to the way UN administers its practices globally, this event is worth commemorating.

Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.

Lost Girls

When Shannan runs screaming from a home in a gated community on Long Island and places a frantic call to 911, it takes police an hour to respond. They find nothing amiss but Shannan is never seen again. The cops’ lackluster investigation accomplishes very little but coincidentally they stumble upon a dozen bodies in this very same community, all of them sex workers fitting Shannan’s general description, but none of them her. And the police do truly treat it like a coincidence; they announce that her disappearance is unrelated and are largely unconcerned.

Shannan’s mother, Mari (Amy Ryan) doesn’t fit the profile of a grieving mother. Her family isn’t made for television. There’s precious little sympathy extended to victims like Shannan. They live a “high risk” lifestyle so when bad things happen, the victims are blamed, the police are unimpressed, the culprits allowed to disappear, or worse, to re-offend. Certainly in this case, the Long Island serial killer appears to have more than a dozen victims, and those are just the skeletons police have accidentally stumbled upon. Imagine if they were actually looking.

Shannan Gilbert was a daughter, a friend, a big sister. She was a real person. This is a true story. Her short life was filled with pain and because there were no easy choices for her, her death was not a tragedy worth investigating. This movie doesn’t have a real ending because Shannan’s murder remains unsolved. Director Liz Garbus allows us to sit with this reality, a small and meager tribute to a life cut short. The film flirts with different suspects only to highlight that the police do not. This entire investigation (or lack thereof) is either gross incompetence or a complicit coverup. The truths here are ugly, the endings aren’t happy. But the film is suffused with a roiling anger that is perhaps the important take away of Lost Girls – a sense of injustice for young, vulnerable women, whom society has judged not worthy of its concern.

Thank You For Your Service

A trio of buddies and U.S. soldiers return home from the war in Iraq. Their group used to be bigger but one guy went home early with a couple of inches missing from his brain, and another didn’t return at all. His wife (Amy Schumer) accosts Adam (Miles Teller) as soon as his feet hit the tarmac, begging to know how her husband died. Adam’s wife Saskia is upset that his welcome home is ruined, but she doesn’t know yet that nothing about his return home will go as she planned.

Adam, Tausolo (Beulah Koale), and Billy (Joe Cole) are all having trouble adjusting. Haunted by the things they’ve seen and the things they did to survive, they are shamed for seeking help from the army and their brave persistence only means their names are on a 6-9 month waiting list. Twenty two veterans a day are killing themselves and Billy is soon one of them. His mother knew he needed help beyond what the army was providing and had arranged a treatment facility out of pocket. Since he’s no longer around to take it, there’s one spot open, and two remaining friends. In a game of “who needs it the most” there truly is no winner.

Adam and Tausolo are both putting their families at risk reliving the war in real time; their dead comrades not just visiting their dreams but their waking life as well. This is hallmark PTSD but veteran’s affairs are backlogged and useless. Of course there is no cure. The only way forward is to talk through all of the things they’d rather forget, and learn to manage the pain. Even people with ‘Support our troops’ magnets on their cars forget them as soon as they return to American soul, but in truth that’s when their own personal war begins.

Based on Adam Schumann’s memoirs, Thank You For Your Service is an incomplete picture since thankfully Schumann was still alive to tell it. But it paints a very sobering portrait of a complete lack of support for warriors turned civilians. The film retreads some familiar ground and if anything, director Jason Hall deprives the movie of some well-deserved righteous anger.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

There’s flooding in Mozambique, and when the rains finally come in Malawi, they come heavy. The farmers have been struggling for years, unable to cope after the big tobacco farms went elsewhere. The wealthy estates take advantage, offering a lump sum in exchange for the lumber on their lands. Cash-strapped, many are tempted, but the village chief warns that these trees are they only resource they have to protect from serious flooding.

William (Maxwell Simba) must drop out of school when his family’s money runs out. The harvest is poorer than anyone predicted; his father Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) manages less than 70 ears of corn, and that’s all the family will have for the entire dry season. The government denies a food shortage but hunger makes people do bad things. Whole villages are starving.

William thinks he can generate power by building a windmill that would operate a water pump, extending the growing season, but to do so he’d need to sacrifice the family’s only possession, a bicycle. Trywell refuses. You might guess from the title that William will prevail. And if a movie is willing to spoil itself right in the title, then you know it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is about hunger. Not just an empty belly, but a need for something, a strong desire. And that kind of hunger can be very motivating. But a child surpassing his parent is hard on both.

Chiwetel Ejiofor directs himself in the film; he bought the rights to the book after reading it and set to learning Chichewa, the Malawi dialect spoken in the film. He shot it on location in Malawi, helping to bring authenticity and context to a true story. Farming is getting harder for everyone, everywhere. Global warming makes weather unpredictable, too wet, too dry. In Africa, where so many have so little, there is little margin of error. A thirteen year old boy saved his village from famine by cobbling together a wind generator built out of garbage. He was self-taught from books he wasn’t technically allowed to read, not having paid his school fees. He makes it look easy, but for him, it was simply and urgently necessary. This impressing directorial debut from Ejiofor communicates both the hope and the despair, but above all, ingenuity.

 

Miss Virginia

Virginia (Uzo Aduba) is a single mother who is watching her son James slips away. School is a place where trying only flags the attention of bullies, so flying under the radar is necessary for survival. The streets and their easy money call to James (Niles Fitch) while his school turns its back on him, unwilling and unable to teach. Virginia knows the only way to keep him safe is to get him an education, and despite his failing grades, James is quite bright, but tuition at a private school is out of reach.

Virginia takes a second job scrubbing toilets for her local representative but still has to pull James out of private school when two low-paying jobs still don’t pay the bills. She’s disillusioned to find that her representative (Aunjanue Ellis) only pays lip service to education, but it spurs her to find someone who will actually help, and after some prodding and some golf-shaming, she finds it in congressman Cliff Williams (Matthew Modine) who takes up her cause and helps her get a bill before congress.

Based on a true story, Miss Virginia is superficially a testament to iron will and persistence, but it’s also a reminder of just how dismally many people in so-called democracies are actually represented by elected and appointed officials. You shouldn’t have to fight this hard to get your government to do what’s right. It shouldn’t take children riddled with bullets to understand that something’s not right. And the moment schools stop teaching should obviously be a huge red flag. And yet there are still lots of students who are underserved and left behind, and it’s all but impossible for anyone to escape the clutches of poverty without a solid education.

As a movie, Miss Virginia is a little pat, a little paint by numbers. It tells its story in a straight-forward, unexciting manner. The beats, by now, are familiar. Since the actual elected officials don’t give a flying fuck, and are very much content to cash generous paycheques in exchange for sitting on their asses and letting lobbyists pay for lunches or luxury vacations to buy their votes, it takes a concerned and devoted citizen to dedicate their lives to a cause. And even then it’s an uphill battle: government isn’t exactly friendly to outsiders. We’ve seen it countless times because that’s the only way things ever change. Politicians do jack shit and single mothers with two minimum wage jobs have to carve out spare time they don’t have to be congressional super heroes.

Movies love women who take on the man: Erin Brockovich, Loving, The Long Walk Home, The Whistleblower, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Best of Enemies, North Country, Silkwood, Norma Rae. I get it. They’re inspiring. And since we owe these women (and certainly many men: see Philadelphia, Michael Clayton, Selma) a debt of gratitude, their stories are worth remembering and recounting. But it’s also depressing to know that it takes a citizen turned super hero – someone not only willing to stick their neck out, but to literally risk it at times – to get issues noticed let alone fixed. That ordinary people have to do a politician’s job for them – and fight the politician who’s against anyone doing anything! Maybe we need to be making more movies about how democracy works so voters know what they SHOULD be able to expect from their representatives, and then hold our officials to these standards. If we keep voting for the status quo, that’s exactly what we’re going to get. We shouldn’t need the Virginias of the world to sacrifice their lives to have the government take care of its people when we pay politicians to do that very thing.

Hampstead

Emily (Diane Keaton) is a widow living a life she cannot afford. She’s angry with her dead husband, as after he died she discovered he had been cheating in her. She’s alone in an apartment she’s going to have to give up, having regular meetings/lunch dates with an accountant who’s helping sort out her tax problems. Then, one day while hiding from her problems in her apartment building’s attic, she lays eyes on Donald (Brendan Gleeson), the hermit of her dreams who lives just acrMV5BMjdmM2RjMjItZGZmZC00YTAxLTg3MmItMjdlOGVkZWY0MWFmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_oss the way on the grounds of a derilict hospital. Before you can say “squatter’s rights”, Emily and Donald are spending romantic nights together in the attic, but what will happen when the accountant and Emily’s neighbours find out?

Part romantic comedy, part self-discovery tale, and part real-life legal drama, Hampstead is kind of a mess. It claims to be based on the real life of Harry Hallowes, who became a landowner because of an arcane legal concept called adverse possession, but clearly many liberties have been taken with Hallowes’ story in this retelling. In fact, one might ask why this claims to be based on his life at all, other than as a cheap way to cash in on the press his lawsuit attracted.  For his part, Hallowes made clear that he wanted nothing to do with the film, so it seems unlikely there is any truth to this romantic tale other than what was publicly reported about his case (with no mention whatsoever in the papers of Hallowes striking up a romantic relationship with a neighbouring widow who happened to be leading on her sleazy accountant, and you know the British tabloids would have been ALL OVER those sordid details if even rumoured).

Incidentally, I knew none of this “real-life” stuff until after having watched the film, and I still didn’t care for the movie. I found it tedious, chichéd, and nonsensical, and now I have even less goodwill toward it.