“For a cop things are black or white. In the middle there’s nothing.”
The year is 1975. In a small province of Argentina, a group of people are quietly emptying a house of its most valuable possessions. It’s rumored that the family who lived there were the targets of a government raid and have since fled the country. This introduction tells us what we need to know about mid-1970s Argentina and the government corruption that endangers its own people.
Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) is a town counselor and lawyer. A tense confrontation with a stranger, later known as El Hippie (Diego Cremonesi), at a restaurant escalates and ends in tragedy. Claudio leaves this unfortunate event behind him and transitions back to his normal life with his wife Susana (Andrea Frigerio) and teenage daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti). Corruption lurks around every corner as friends go missing. After arranging an underhanded deal with his friend Vivas (Claudio Martinez Bel) to buy the aforementioned house, Claudio discovers the true identity of El Hippie and that Vivas has hired former cop turned celebrity detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro) to investigate. It’s only a matter of time for things to unravel for Claudio as Sinclair zeroes in on what really happened.
Written and directed by Benjamin Naishtat, Rojo is a moody and atmospheric drama that explores how government corruption enables the worst in human behavior. I found this film deeply unsettling. Right from the very beginning I got a sense of dread. As though danger were lurking at every corner. Why is the camera so still? Why is it looking at this house for so long? Is the house going to explode? It didn’t but that was the palpable tension that made me so engrossed in the film.
Rojo means red in Spanish and the film utilizes the color in many ways. The most interesting use of the color comes from the scene when a solar eclipse casts a red glow. This is a pivotal point in the film as detective Sinclair has just entered Claudio’s life, stirring the pot and making Claudio very uncomfortable. Claudio and his wife escape to the beach where they witness the eclipse and this moment the beginning of an end of sorts.
Naishtat was inspired to make Rojo from his fascination with the 1970s and “the symbolic burden” the political persecution and exile of the Argentine people had on future generations. The overall theme of a greater evil threatening the personal freedoms of citizens is compelling and universal but really gives the viewers a sense of one of the darkest times in Argentina’s history.
Rojo opens in New York City at Quad Cinema and the Film at Lincoln Center on Friday and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal on July 19th.
“He was that rarest of men. One who simply did what he believed was right. Nothing more, nothing less.” – Charlie Mechem
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space mission and the landing of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins set out on a dangerous mission and their accomplishment remains unparalleled to this day. Director David Fairhead’s new documentary simply titled Armstrong focuses on Commander Neil Armstrong. Through archival footage and interviews with the family members and peers who knew him best, the film takes us on a journey through the life of an extraordinary yet reserved man. Actor Harrison Ford narrates the film using Armstrong’s own words in the absence of the man himself who passed away in 2012.
As a young boy fascinated with airplanes, Armstrong sought out a pilot license before he even wanted to drive a car. Soaring above the earth was his natural state of being and his early training as a pilot led to his career as a fighter pilot in the Navy. A near death experience during the Korean War changed his life forever and set the course for his future career as an astronaut. The documentary explores his early days as a pilot, his education and transition into NASA, his home life, the tragic loss of his two year old daughter Karen, his work on Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Apollo 11 and most notably Armstrong’s life and career after that epic mission. Helping paint a portrait of this legendary man are his sons Mark and Rick Armstrong, his first wife Janet Armstrong, his sister June, plus various friends and peers as well as astronauts Joe Engle, David Scott, Frank Borman and Mike Collins, all legends in and of themselves.
The biggest takeaway from the documentary is the lost culture of mid-20th Century Cold War America. Throughout the film, Armstrong is presented as this man who believed in working hard, keeping your nose clean, not complaining and moving on from great tragedies. It was also an innovative time when the field of aeronautics and space exploration was new and rapidly changing. There was this intrinsic desire to accomplish big things for the advancement of mankind. It was a challenging era but also a ground-breaking one. Things have shifted so much and we’ve lost that desire to work hard, keep our emotions in check and to achieve goals for something bigger than ourselves.
Armstrong is an intimate portrait of an extraordinary individual and required viewing for anyone who appreciated Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Manbut craved more. (You can read my review of that film here.) The greatest value this documentary has to offer is the abundance of pristine archival footage, including home video, news clips, footage from NASA, some of which has never before been seen by the public. It plays with format presenting much of this footage in the center of the screen rather than stretching it out to fit the widescreen. A biographical documentary or even a biopic that has the blessing of the subject’s family can be a double-edged sword in terms of output. There’s a benefit of having so much access to people close to the subject but it will come with an inherent bias that will filter the story. Viewers can take the documentary with a grain of salt while still appreciating the fresh new material it has to offer. I for one appreciate what biographic documentaries can do that biopics cannot; rely on the real footage and real stories to tell the story that needs to be told.
Armstrong released in theaters and on VOD from Gravitas Ventures on Friday July 12th.
Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.
Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German.
A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.
The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.
On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.
Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.
“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics. But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”
Director Josh Howard
Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.
I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.
The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.
“People are going to die anyways. Their stories don’t have to.”
If you could turn your grief into a horror film, what would it look like? A.T. White’s new film Starfish transforms the mourning process into a cosmic and post-apocalyptic drama that is as quiet and spare as it is fraught with tension and mystery.
After the sudden death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson), Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) travels back to her hometown for the funeral. The small town seems even smaller one day when Aubrey wakes up in Grace’s apartment to discover she’s the only one left. Extra-terrestrial creatures had invaded and killed everyone in town and possibly everyone else on earth. It isn’t until she comes face-to-face with one of the deadly creatures that she hears another human voice by way of a walkie talkie. Before Grace passed away, she uncovered a series of mysterious transmissions by which the creatures transported themselves to earth. Through a series of mixtapes she created a way to save Aubrey and save the world. The voices through the walkie talkie help Aubrey but eventually she must face the barren landscape and escape the creatures on her own.
Starfish was written, directed, edited, produced and composed by A.T. (Al) White. This film is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s more of a mood than it is a cohesive story. White plays with different mediums and one scene is even told through animation. We’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is reality or Aubrey’s dissociation as a result of her grief. I love how the film plays with our perceptions, distorts the story and both confuses and intrigues us at every turn. One beautiful shot projects an imagined scene on the ceiling. Another scene takes Aubrey out of her reality and onto a movie set where she sees a version of herself talking to a director and surrounded by a film crew. Very meta. The time setting is left ambiguous but there are some clues in the technology used including an old TV set, the FM/AM radio that receives the mysterious transmissions, a rotary phone, cassette tapes, etc.
Overall the film is quite intimate. We never stray far from Aubrey as she guides us through her world. The star Virginia Gardner is up to the task and delivers a beautiful and haunting performance.
I interpreted the film as a metaphor for grief and mourning. When someone you love dies, it feels like they’ve abandoned you and you’re left to fend for yourself. I know I felt this way when my father passed. What they leave behind, in the case of Starfish it’s the mixtapes Grace leaves Aubrey, helps us get through the pain and the days to come. I could identify with the themes of loneliness and abandonment.
As someone who doesn’t watch horror, I found this one to be manageable. There was enough to frighten me but not too much to overwhelm. It’s a film both horror enthusiasts and avoiders can appreciate.
Starfish is available on digital VOD through iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, FandangoNow and other platforms in select territories. The film is dedicated to Sayako Grace Robinson who passed away in 2014 and all profits the director makes from the film are to be donated to cancer research.