Thursday, August 06, 2020

A Thousand Cuts: Duterte’s War on Journalists

Why is Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte still popular in his own country? Despite the lost livelihoods of Filipino fishermen, he has basically conceded China’s claims of sovereignty of the entire South China Sea. Even though he presides over large Catholic and Muslim populations, he continues to cozy up to Xi’s regime, while it razes churches, persecutes believers of all faiths, and wages a campaign of cultural genocide and mass incarceration against the Muslim Uyghurs. It certainly helps that Duterte shares the CCP’s hostility towards a free press. Ramona S. Diaz follows one of his leading journalistic gadflies as she deals with trolling, death threats, and specious criminal charges in A Thousand Cuts, which releases virtually tomorrow.

M
aria Ressa interviewed Duterte several times during his rise to power. As we can see from the clips Diaz incorporates, she was tough, but always respectful. She clearly was not “out to get him” from the start. Nonetheless, her online news outlet Rappler aggressively covered his “war on drugs” and the extralegal killings it inspired, which inevitably brought her into conflict with his government.

Diaz also follows Mocha Uson, a former pop idol who now serves as the field marshal of Duterte’s social media army, as well as his hand-picked senate candidate and a long-shot opposition rival. Frankly, Diaz is so fair in her approach, she shows Uson’s human side, even while capturing all the slimy trolling she facilitates.

Thousand Cuts
is all observation, with no talking head interviews to tell us what to think. Nevertheless, what she records is undeniably damning. After watching Duterte’s orchestrated harassment of Ressa and Rappler reporters, it is clear the free press in the Philippines faces dire, existential threats—and consequently, so does its democracy. Diaz even managed to affix an up-to-the-moment post-script that is impressive in its nimbleness, but chilling in its implications.

Waiting for the Barbarians

In this far desert country, the temperature is hot, the air is dry, and the allegories run heavy. This is the distant frontier of an unnamed European empire. The uniforms look French, but the geography resembles Eurasia. During his tenire, the unassuming Magistrate has largely maintained a climate of laissez-faire tolerance with the locals. Of course, when an inquisitor from the capitol comes looking for trouble, he will inevitably find it in Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

We know by now nothing good comes from a visit by the Inspector General. That would be Colonel Joll, who is conducting a fact-finding mission along the frontier. Much to the Magistrate’s surprise, he is bizarrely interested in two rather pathetic sheep thieves he is holding in custody. After a ferocious interrogation session, Joll and his troops tear off after the suspects the broken men named.

The world-weary Magistrate fully understands the Colonel’s campaign is a self-fulfilling prophecy (as does the audience), but Joll is a power unto himself. Despite the precariousness of his situation, the old bureaucrat will do his best to make things right for at least one of Joll’s victims, a nomadic woman, who stirs feelings of both pity and longing within him.

The very title of
Barbarians conspicuously evokes a Pogo-esque response, along the lines of: “but we were the barbarians.” There is absolutely no subtlety here whatsoever. Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee adapted his own novel, but the dreaminess of the book becomes the broad strokes and bombast of propaganda theater.

Nevertheless, Mark Rylance (the king of nebbish angst) does his best to portray the Magistrate with tragic sensitivity. He also develops an intriguingly complicated relationship with the Woman, played by Mongolian thesp Gana Bayarsaikhan, but the narrative surrounding it is awkward and clunky.

Frankly, Johnny Depp seems rather bored going through the motions of Joll’s villainy. On the other hand, Robert Pattinson mostly engages as bursts of inexplicable anger as Officer Mandel, like he knew his part would be consigned to the film’s margins (while still looming large over the one-sheet).

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows

It is tricky to prosecute, but domestic violence is definitely a crime in the West, whereas in Iran there is no legal recourse against an abusive husband or father. Consequently, many desperate young women take matters into their own hands. The criminal justice system should hardly be surprised, but is still coldly unforgiving. Acclaimed Iranian documentarian Mehrdad Oskouei returns to the Centre for the Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults to document a group of girls convicted of killing their predatory husbands and fathers in Sunless Shadows, which screens virtually as part of MoMI’s film series, Bound Unbound: Four by Mehrdad Oskouei.

If you have already seen Oskouei’s
Starless Dreams, you know the girls at the detention facility really are just girls. Yet, many of them were already married—and they have all been convicted of murder. Most of them really were not thinking clearly when they committed their crimes. They were just wanted to make the violence stop. Those who acted together with their mothers are now tormented with maternal concern. Yet, ironically, for most of the incarcerated women, the Centre is unlikely shelter from the exploitative men in their families and society at large.

The irony further compounds when they are visited by a recently released fellow prisoner, who admits she returns often. While there are advantages to the relative freedom of contemporary Iranian society, she misses her friends and the protective environment the shelter offers.

Just when you think
Starless cannot get any sadder, Oskouei finds something even more poignant. He focuses on the personal rather than the political, but it is impossible to miss the profound misogyny and inequity of Iranian society reflected in each of the women’s stories.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Coma: A Russian Dreamscape

Prepare to plumb the collective unconscious, but it is deeper and more real than Yung ever imagined. It is a shared-dream world inhabited by coma patients, shaped by everyone’s aggregated memories. This is indeed a trippy place to suddenly awaken, but it holds even greater secrets that will eventually be revealed in Nikita Argunov’s Coma, which releases today on DVD and VOD.

When you wake up in “Coma,” you do not remember who you are (so come up with a nickname you can live with), but there are flashes of memory regarding what you were. It is an unstable world, populated with shadowy monsters called reapers, so “the Architect” is lucky someone expected him and dispatched a team of soldiers to collect him. He is pretty clueless at first, but eventually his ability to build things with mind surfaces under stress. “The Architect” (there was one in
The Matrix too, but he was very different) is a lot like Neo, “the Chosen One,” but there is something nagging him in his repressed memory about how he went into his coma in the first place.

Coma
boasts some legitimately eye-popping visuals. Previous Russian special effects-heavy genre films have been decidedly hit-or-miss (take The Guardians, please!). However, Coma is legit. As an added bonus, the twists and turns in the screenplay (credited to Argunov, Timofei Dekin, and Aleksey Gravitskiy) hold together surprisingly well. The only real drawback is the cold fish ensemble, but fortunately they are often dwarfed by the spectacle of the fantastical world. Also, they have been dubbed, which admittedly could rob their original performances of some of their texture and nuance.

Rinal Mukhametov is okay as the bewildered Architect and Anton Pampushnyy is sufficiently thuggish as Phantom, the hard-charging squad leader who arranges his initial reception. Probably Lyubov Aksonova fares best as Fly, the woman they are both interested in, but the big villain arouses our suspicions right from his initial entrance.

Skin Walker, Co-Starring Udo Kier

You could definitely say Regine has family issues. She thought her deformed half-brother Isaac died in child-birth, but he might have survived to become the monster killing people in the woods. Either way, her father is still Udo Kier, so she certainly did not have it easy growing up. She has returned for her unbeloved grandmother’s funeral, but stays to uncover her family secrets in Christian Neuman’s Skin Walker, which releases today on VOD and DVD.

Regine had a traumatic childhood, as her fractured memories and flashbacks cannot attest. Just when she is poised to start a new life with her grungy boyfriend, she returns home to the family chateau. Claus, her old pops is not exactly welcoming. Instead, it is her mother’s old lover Robert who wants to talk to her. Partly, he wants to warn her about Isaac, but sees her as a means to reconnect with her mother. In fact, things get a little weird between them. Unless, Regine is just plain nuts.

Buckle up sports fans, because Neuman’s jarring narrative shifts could cause whiplash. Honestly,
Skin Walker plays like a film that had two or three cast-members die during production and was subsequently cobbled together by the producers, as best they could. Logic goes out the window, but it almost takes on the up-and-down thrills of a roller coaster—almost but not quite.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Red Penguins: The Pittsburgh Penguins Russian Co-Venture

Who knew documentaries about Russian hockey would become a sub-genre in themselves, but here is the third getting serious distribution. They have the obvious advantage of a sports topic, but they also use athletics as a proxy to examine larger geo-political developments. In this case, when the Pittsburgh Penguins looked for opportunities in Russia, they found excitement and danger instead. Gabe Polsky chronicles their short but eventful venture in Red Penguins, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Quick history lesson for Millennials: we won the Cold War, the Socialist USSR lost, and it was a good thing for the world. Consequently, the Red Army hockey team, the pride of Soviet propaganda, was in danger of financial collapse. Their “Ice Palace” had fallen into disrepair and the team could not even afford new jerseys. Seeing an opportunity, Howard Baldwin, of the Pittsburgh Penguins ownership group, negotiated a financial-management arrangement with the Red Army team.

The Penguin group gave them an infusion of cash, with the expectation the team redubbed The Russian Penguin would start generating merchandising revenue and serve as a pipeline of Russian talent to the Pittsburgh team. Steven Warshaw was the young, crazy marketing kid who was supposed to make it happen.

Somewhat logically, the history of the Russian Penguins parallels that of Russia’s political history. The Yeltsin years were wild and rather dangerous, but also a good deal of fun. However, the fun came to a stop when the mobbed-up oligarchs solidified their holdings under Putin. The Pittsburghers’ Russian adventure parallels that storyline.

Initially,
Red Penguins is a larky doc that reminisces over the strippers who worked in an underground club in the Ice Palace basement, whom Warshaw eventually brought up on the ice to provide mid-period entertainment. Indeed, Warshaw shrewdly fell back on those old marketing standards, sex and booze, which really started to pay dividends when combined with a hammy mascot and improved play on the ice. Unfortunately, the party came to an end when mobsters started circling the team, with the winking encouragement of the team’s Red Army bosses.

Anyone contemplating a joint-venture in Russia or China should watch
Red Penguins first. As Baldwin and Warshaw explain, they so expected the Russians to skim a little off the top, they even budgeted for it. Yet, the extent of the Russian stealing was so great, it led to a management crisis.

Ostensibly, the Russians won and the Pittsburghers lost, but in a short-sighted way which illustrates why the Russians are still not a global economic power (unlike China). The open Russian corruption scared away Disney, whom Baldwin was courting for a multimillion-dollar merchandising and programming deal. Apparently, Eisner denies it now, but Polsky pretty well establishes their considerable interest. The Russians might have taken Baldwin and company for several hundred thousand dollars, but the opportunity cost for doing so could well have been tens of millions. You can see this kind of thinking throughout the late Yeltsin and early Putin years. The oligarchs grabbed the natural resource companies, but the manufacturing and service industries remain stuck in the mud. Putin is a dictator who means us harm, but the Russian economy is a sickly dog.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Coroner (Pilot)

In the days of Burke and Hare, anatomists were not held in high regard by the popular press. Times have changed. These days, some of our favorite TV crime fighters are pathologists. The CSI franchises and Da Vinci’s Inquest (also Canadian) are the best examples, but the tradition goes back to Quincy M.E. Dr. Jenny Cooper, Toronto’s freshly appointed coroner, now joins their ranks. The protagonist of M.R. Hall’s mystery novels comes to American television, when the Canadian series Coroner premieres this Wednesday on the CW.

As a former ER doctor, Cooper thought she knew the sort of things people did to each other, but now she sees the patients who do not make it to the hospital. Frankly, she is maybe not in the best mindset for her new gig, since her husband recently died from an aneurism right in front of her eyes. However, she will need the job, when she discovers the mountain of debt her late spouse left her holding.

Det. Donovan “Mac” McAvoy and his partner Det. Taylor Kim are a bit surprised to see her offer what looks like a quick prayer over her first pick-up, but he warms to her relatively quickly. Her dogged pursuit of the truth rather matches his own working methods. He also shares her empathy for the kids incarcerated at the juvy facility where two supposed suicides were found.

The actual mystery Dr. Cooper investigates in the pilot is not particularly complicated and resolves itself surprisingly easily, but the first episode also has to carry a lot of exposition. However, the chemistry developing between her and Det. McAvoy is already quite promising. Plus, Cooper’s foreboding visions of a sinister black dog are quite a distinctive motif. Still, the general level of writing seems pretty conventional, largely on par with shows like
Profiler and Crossing Jordan, from about twenty years ago.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team, on PBS

If there was a year history went off on the wrong course, it was probably 1992, well before 2016. For the previous twelve years, America was an optimistic nation, where we believed our best years were ahead of us. Clinton won the election by selling pessimism based on an economic recession that looks utterly trivial in retrospect. Years later, Trump and Obama both cynically exploited that lingering pessimism, yet back in 1992, the nation had good reason to stay optimistic. Pres. George H. W. Bush, the so-called “Foreign Policy President” had lived up to his billing, thanks to the help of his team. Top Bush foreign policy officials look back at his administration in Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team (directed by Lori Shinseki and produced in conjunction with the Miller Center of Public Affairs), which premieres this coming Tuesday on PBS.

Fittingly,
Statecraft reminds us Bush 41’s involvement in foreign affairs started on a very personal level when he served as teenaged fighter pilot in WWII. He built an impeccable resume, most notably including his tenure as Ronald Reagan’s loyal vice-president. However, he largely brought in his own team when he succeeded Pres. Reagan. They were as experienced as he was, and in many cases they were long-time associates—often even close friends.

We hear from a number of them in substantive talking head interviews, including Defense Secretary (and future VP) Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, Chief of Staff John Sununu, Gen. Colin Powell, and advisors like Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, Stephen Hadley, and Robert Zoellick. It is definitely an impressive cast, who offer some considerable insight on the history they witnessed.

There is a lot of interesting material here, but
Statecraft is at its most illuminating for general audiences when it chronicles the leading role Pres. Bush played to facilitate the reunification of Germany. We now forget both the Soviets (really the Russians at that point) and our Western European allies were dead set against it, but Bush had a prescient vision that a unified Germany, which was still a full military member of NATO, would lead to a more stable and secure Europe.