Intra-Familial, Inter-Cultural Confusions
Reviews by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
Don’t Let Go (Jacob Aaron Estes) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Jack, an L.A. police detective, periodically has to call his mentally-troubled (sometimes off his meds), former drug-dealer brother to task for not being responsible enough with Jack’s adorable niece, Ashley. Quickly, though, this story veers into tragedy as the brother, his wife, and daughter are all brutally killed. Even though as a relative Jack’s not supposed to be involved in this case he can’t keep himself away from finding out more about whatever caused this horrible event (especially because the initial indication is the brother shot the others, then himself), but such natural demands of curiosity are intensified when he gets a phone call, supposedly from Ashley. When he tries to return it, he finds the number’s been disconnected, yet even when he locates her phone at the scene of the crime he’s still getting calls with enough verifiable clues it’s really Ashley on the line. In an attempt to just accept this unbelievable scenario—not only is she still alive, she’s also calling from a few days prior to her demise (we’ve seen the body, know she’s dead)—Jack gets help from “past Ashley” to track down someone named Georgie who might have been responsible for the murders; all he gets for his troubles, though, is being wounded himself by an unseen gunman, leading to him begging Ashley in their next conversation to call 911 to have her Dad locked up (for protection), due to the box of cocaine Jack saw under his brother's bed after the killings. When she does, the story seems to reset itself where Jack’s serious wounds were concerned, yet a newspaper story shows the killings still happened even though a day earlier than before. Any more details would get us into Spoiler territory so I’ll refrain unless you choose to read my highlighted-giveaways in the review below. You’re going to find lots of negativity from the OCCU, but I still enjoyed Don’t Let Go, think many of you would also.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Jack Radcliff’s (David Oyelowo) an L.A. police detective with close ties to his teenage-niece, Ashley (Storm Reid), somewhat because her Dad—Jack’s brother, Garret (Brian Tyree Henry)—has previous drug-involved-problems, still isn’t always being the in-tune-father he should be (in these opening scenes Ashley has to call her uncle for a ride because Garret didn’t show up as scheduled) so Jack (off-screen) chews him out about familial responsibilities, leading to Ashley getting a new bicycle and a dinner out with Dad and her Mom, Susan (Shinelle Azoroh). While driving, Jack gets a garbled phone call from Ashley worrying him enough he races to her home only to find Garret, Susan, and Ashley all dead in a bloody mess (even the dog’s been shot). News reports claim this as a double-murder/suicide by Garret, so Jack somewhat blames himself fearful his chastisement of his brother set him off, especially because when looking over the crime scene he saw an open box of cocaine under Garret’s bed; however, his examiner from Internal Affairs, Detective Roger Lee (Byron Mann), angers Jack, confuses us with a seemingly-groundless-line-of-questioning exploring whether Jack was secretly involved with Susan when something went wrong leading Jack to kill his relatives. As if this bluntly-rejected-scenario’s not enough to trouble Jack, then 2 weeks later he gets a call from someone claiming to be Ashley, putting Jack into a low-level of panic, assuming it’s a vicious prank; however, when he finds her cellphone (still in the blood-smeared-bathtub where her body was found, overlooked by the cops, although he also notices her bedroom window’s accidently sealed shut from a recent paint job by her father) another call comes in with enough conversation—and casual-identity-verification—to convince Jack it’s somehow his niece on the other end. He gets more (inexplicable) proof it’s her when he goes to her home, enters a workshed out back, notes a can of red spray paint, then on another call from Ashley (she always contacts him, never vice-versa) he asks her to come to the shed, paint a big X on the inner door, which then appears (!) even though we saw it wasn’t there before. From these calls Jack learns Ashley’s in a timeline 4 days prior to her death, but he tells her nothing about the upcoming homicides although he does asks her about someone Garret called Georgie in a note Jack found so Ashley prowls around her home, finds an address for Georgie, leading Jack to a house where he’s shot at, badly wounded. Bleeding Jack makes his way back to the police station where his detective buddy, Bobby (Mykelti Williamson), and Chief Howard (Alfred Molina) want to get him to an emergency room but he refuses, taking another call from Ashley in which he tells her to call 911 to have Garret locked up (because of the cocaine), in a desperate attempt to prevent the murders. Ashley hesitates for a long time in utter confusion but glimpses the box herself, then makes the call.
In the next scene, though, Jack and Bobby are in a police car, Jack briefly seems to be having a convulsion (we see no trace of his previous wounds nor any sense he was ever hospitalized, giving us a vague idea his present changed because of Ashley’s actions in his recent past), then grabs a newspaper to find his relatives were killed a day earlier than the event previously happened. ⇒Ashley calls again; she’s secretly followed Dad to a warehouse, peeks inside to see some guys beating him with a baseball bat, gives Jack some license-plate-numbers of cars parked outside at his request (he passes those on to his station for I.D.), but then she’s spotted. After a harrowing chase by one of Garret’s attackers she manages to get to safety across a river/storm drain channel (assuming it’s rained in L.A. any since Chinatown [Roman Polanski, 1974; an easy 5 stars if I ever reviewed it]). Back in Jack’s present he visits the warehouse, gets wounded again by unseen assailants (not hurt as badly this time but still bleeds a bit before patching himself up); through phone contact with Ashley he goes to a diner they both know, as does she at his request, has her chew some multi-colored-gumballs available in the same booth they both occupy (in their different timelines) then stick the gum under the table where he retrieves it, tells her the proper colors as they both accept the surrealistic situation they share, at which point she demands he tell her the truth of the awful fate awaiting her and her parents; reluctantly, he does. Next for Jack, he’s back at the station where he learns one of the cars at that warehouse belongs to Det. Lee so Jack, Bobby, and Howard head to a meeting with an insider-source, the other 2 telling Jack along the way they know "Georgie"‘s not a dealer who killed his relatives over some transgression by Garret but instead it’s the name for a cluster of crooked cops Bobby and the Chief have been slowly gathering evidence on. However, when they get to the remote location, Bobby suddenly kills Howard, with Jack next as his once-close-friend struggles to pull the trigger, even as Bobby knows he must wipe out all evidence of his involvement in these crimes, including murdering Jack’s relatives a day earlier than before when he became aware of Ashley’s 911 call. Jack manages to buy more time when Ashley calls again by telling her she must save herself which will save him, as Bobby struggles with his own confusion about shooting Jack. In Ashley’s timeline Bobby comes to her home, kills her parents (and the dog), but she uses a chair to smash her bedroom window, escapes to the "earlier present" of Uncle Jack’s home followed by crazed Bobby; this time, though, without knowing what’s transpired in the larger context, Jack simply protects himself and his niece by killing Bobby, with Jack and Bobby disappearing from the “later present” scene as most of the events of the preceding weeks have now not happened (except for Garret and Susan dying, which Ashley wasn't able to prevent). She and Jack now know the sordid truth, leaving us to decipher if we do or not.⇐
So What? As I speculated at the conclusion of my last posting (August 22, 2019), I didn’t add anything new last week because of other commitments including the annual 3-night-marathon where my wife, Nina, and I watch The Godfather trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974, 1990) after I finally brave making dinner (and Nina braves eating it)—consisting of the very complex meal of spaghetti with meat sauce, spinach salad, and wines reminiscent of Italy’s Tuscany region—which we consume in high-quantity-amounts while watching these superb films (yes, even … Part III, which gets better the more years you watch it [or maybe the more wine you drink; we’ve got it covered either way]), although we did manage 2 weekends ago to see the Short Takes offerings reviewed farther below. So, when this past weekend rolled around I wanted to find something really intriguing for my feature review of this posting, but my local theaters weren't cooperating much as the most interesting fare opened just in San Francisco (a bit of a hassle to get to unless the situation truly demands it) while the only East Bay option of possible interest—Don’t Let Go—seemed like a stinker if I believed the OCCU: Rotten Tomatoes at 41% positive reviews, Metacritic with a (surprisingly) slightly higher average number but still dismal at 51% (more details on both in the Related Links section down below). Then I came upon this opening line from Peter Hartlaub's review (from the San Francisco Chronicle, giving me an opportunity to comment on someone besides their official Movie Critic, Mick LaSalle, for a change): "‘Don’t Let Go’ is a supernatural psychological thriller cop drama, and that’s just the first five genres that come to mind.” He concludes with “By the end, the otherworldly distractions are reduced, distilling the movie to its strengths: writing and performance. It seems a little jerk-ish to complain about Jack and Ashley’s poor 21st century phone skills. [He notes neither send texts, photos, or videos; rather, they indulge only in the use of the oldest of old-school-telephone-activities—they actually just talk to each other.] They’ve both been through so much together, and by the end it seems so real.” So, off my little viewing group went to see Don’t Let Go, which I’m generally glad we did, even if major plot points feel a bit convoluted at times, but if you just glide over those to enjoy what’s rapidly-transpiring on screen you receive a solid cluster of heart-racing-action, unexpected-narrative-twists, satisfying resolution, making this a most-enjoyable-diversion, even if best appreciated at bargain-matinee-prices (one of our constant considerations, with Senior Discounts at times helping out even more).
I’ll admit my next observations may nudge into the realm of Spoilers, but in that there are more important events in this movie which I didn’t reveal in my “safe” (blandly-undesignated for narrative secrets) plot summary above and I doubt any of you who haven’t already read the book I’m about to reference will likely do so soon because it’s been out since 2011 as well as running 849 pp. in the hardcover version, so I’m sticking with the assumption I’m not really ruining anything for anybody in this paragraph without having to go into my bold/arrows/special colors-mode (besides, if you saw the 2016 Hulu mini-series [or its DVD] based on this novel you'll know the ending anyway). The book I’m referring to is Stephen King’s 11/22/63 in which the protagonist, Jake Epping, discovers a time-travel-portal in a local diner where anyone who steps through it always finds themselves in Sept. 9, 1958; you can stay as long as you like before returning to present-day-Maine (where else would many a King novel be set?) but your body continues aging even though you return to almost where you left (plus 2 minutes). You can attempt to change your present by taking actions in the past, although the time-space-continuum itself will try to work against you, so your attempts may require much effort; if something seems to have gone wrong in further events after your changes, you can just re-enter the portal which sets it all back like it was originally on 9/9/1958, but if you wish to attempt some other change you’ll have to live through the past again (adding more years to your actual life) until you again get to the point where you wish to act. In the book, Jake wants to prevent the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, which he finally does but upon returning to 2011 he finds all manner of horrors have occurred in the new timeline he created (OK, I’ll leave it at that if you really want to read what happens next in the book, although it has echoes of the finale of Avengers: Endgame [Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 1, 2019 posting]). I bring all this up because in Don’t Let Go Jack seems to encounter the same situation where events brought about by Ashley when she was still alive, yet in phone contact with Jack after her death, rippled into Jack’s present, changing his timeline in a rapid manner, leaving us to just have to accept these changes, even if it takes post-viewing-reconsideration, seeking to comprehend what I’m alluding to.
Specifically, I’m talking about the events occurring in roughly the middle of this story (just before my acknowledged-Spoilers kick in) when Jack follows Ashley’s lead to “Georgie’s” house where he’s shot at by an unseen assailant, wounded, responds to the next call from Ashley by telling her to call 911 to have her Dad locked up (noting the box of cocaine under Garret’s bed as justification); finding her parents home in the afternoon in a very loving attitude toward themselves and their daughter, with Dad wanting to sing her the rehab-inspired-song he’s been working on, she hesitated to call the cops, then noticed the box, ran outside very troubled, made the 911 call, resulting in a sudden cut back to Jack, no longer wounded, frantic to find in a newspaper his relatives have now been killed a day earlier than before. This all happens so quickly it’s hard to easily make sense of upon first viewing, but in retrospect we just have to assume actions in the recent past have erased the most-recent-part of the present we’ve just been witnessing about the first gunshot-attack on Jack. ⇒(Later, Bobby's almost-easy-to-miss-comments in this new version of their ever-changing-present indicate he picked up on Ashley’s 911 call, did his killings even sooner than before, so that decision somehow (?) erased what previously happened to Jack, throwing all of them (and us) into the longer, final revamping of the present where Garret and Susan still die at Bobby’s hand but Ashley escapes, ultimately links up with Jack who shoots Bobby in self-defense, again erasing most of what we've previously seen.)⇐ Of course, the use of actions in the past changing the nature of the present is a time-honored (so to speak) fictional-filmic-trope we’ve been conditioned to accept within the framework of a given time-manipulation-narrative, but what’s never explained here (even in complex-quantum-physics-terms in the manner Cooper [Matthew McConaughey] was able to communicate after-the-fact with daughter Murph [Mackenzie Foy] in Interstellar [Christopher Nolan, 2014; review in our November 13, 2014 posting]) is why Ashley, in the days just before her death, made phone calls to Jack received by him only in the days just after she died, so “past-Ashley” was always talking to “present-Jack” instead of “past-Jack,” who’d be parallel to her in her timeline, rather than Uncle Jack a few days removed into her future (had she lived to see it)—Got that? Of course you do. I doubt seriously screenwriter Eates (directing his own screenplay) even attempted to consider an explanation here, hoping we’d all just buy into the unfolding events rather than hold him accountable for how he constructed them. I can’t say he totally succeeded in that assumption, as the “What the hell?’-factor here is a bit hard to shake, even when you enjoy what you’ve seen, but it does give you reason to keep thinking about the movie, possibly encouraging others to see it (as I’m doing with you) which lifts its box-office-presence—for some of us at least—above what would be expected from all those damning-with-marginally-faint-praise OCCU reviews.
Bottom Line Final Comments: Movie patrons apparently weren’t all that impressed with Don’t Let Go’s potential either, as it made only $3 million (vs. a $5 production budget) on its Labor Day debut weekend (when you’d think audiences would be looking for something new as summer unofficially comes to an end), completely overwhelmed by others that have already been out anywhere from 2 to 11 weeks (maybe those last-chance-summer-escapees hadn’t caught up with these previous-high-roller-projects yet) so it landed at #15, far below returning-#1 Angel Has Fallen (Ric Roman Waugh) with Gerald Butler as a Secret Service agent protecting U.S. President Morgan Freeman (if only!) hauling in $14.8 million ($43.9 million after 2 weeks in release). Of course, another factor may be Angel …’s playing in 3,336 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters while Don’t …’s only in 922 so far (Don’t … can claim one triumph, though: it did notably better than 6 obscurities also opening last weekend). One other thing to note about Don’t … (I’m not being original, just passing on others’ observations) is while except for Molina its primary actors are African-American this is simply a matter of casting because the story has nothing to do with them being Black (the same thing could be said about the primary family in Us [Jordan Peele; review in our March 27, 2019 posting]); with the same character names they could easily have been White, with different names they could be Hispanic or Asian, so it’s good to not only see more diversity on screen but also encouraging to watch a story where ethnic identity doesn’t always define the action; people are simply caught up in circumstances beyond their control (or explanation) no matter who they are, where they live, what led up to their present situations. So, given the relative availability of this movie, whom are you going to listen to regarding its potential? Those with opinions I normally respect who cast it aside—James Berardinelli of ReelViews says “[…] Estes has come to this project with a clever concept but his execution is weak, contradictory, and confusing […] The movie has a slick, surface-level cleverness that evaporates upon even momentary consideration”; Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times declares “[…] ‘Don’t Let Go’ gets off to a crackling start, but soon becomes one of those movies where you laugh even when you’re not supposed to laugh, because come ON. […] Maybe we could return to about the 30-minute mark of this movie and see if there’s a better path to take from there”—or Peter Hartlaub (above) and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, who argues “At some point you will likely get lost in ‘Don’t Let Go,’ as people say of Venice, with its labyrinthine streets and canals. […] Knowing this may make it easier to watch ‘Don’t Let Go,’ freeing you from pesky thoughts about time and space, narrative logic and quantum physics. There’s pleasure in solving the mystery, piecing together the jigsaw. But it can be nice just going with the kind of choppy flow.” If anything, I'll say it all flows along well, keeping you engaged.
While I’m with those willing to give Don’t Let Go a chance, I’ll agree there are distracting plot points you could be bothered by (Roeper brings up plausible ones in his review cited just above), raising the eternal question about fiction as to how much a made-up-story must conform to the physical reality the audience inhabits, how much literary-leeway are we paying customers willing to grant concerning a narrative’s own rules of operation before we yell “Foul!”? In this case, sure, there are confusing incidents—as well as the unexplained foundational premise—calling out for more clarity than our screenwriter-director appears willing to provide, so it may be up to your personal demands of rationality/clarity/logic as to how entertaining this movie might be for you. For me, it was a pleasant diversion on a late Friday afternoon followed by drinks and dinner, all providing some relief from ongoing concerns about a “no-deal” Brexit from the EU by Great Britain (which may not be so great if they lose Scotland and Northern Ireland in the process) or how the latest atrocity pulled by President Trump or his minions might impact U.S. (or global) society. I’ll keep that distraction going by finishing with my usual concluding Musical Metaphor, in this case the somewhat-obvious Cher song, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (from her 1989 album Heart of Stone) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=Of7r1Jho1HE, a live duet with Cyndi Lauper.* The song’s originally about a woman wishing for a life do-over to erase pain she’s caused a former lover, but it metaphorically relates to Jack’s loss of family members as he feels “My world was shattered, I was torn apart Like someone took a knife and drove it deep in my heart […] I lost everything […] then and there [… but when Ashley “returns” he focuses on] If I could turn back time, if I could find a way,” which he's able to do (as best those past events could ever be altered) with aid from his frantic-but-cooperative-niece.
*Given the overall serious (yet consistently entertaining) intent of Don’t Let Go I decided not to use the official music video for this song, oddly shot on the USS Missouri with the U.S. Navy’s permission although they had after-the-fact-regrets when they saw Cher dressed in her best hooker outfit (Yeah, I know she’s not known for demure costumes; what were they thinking?), bringing what they felt as disrespect to the ship where the Japanese signed their surrender in WW II (it’s now anchored at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, HI; I’ve visited, it’s impressive—however, the Navy might be furthered troubled if they, like me, interpreted all those cheering sailors on Cher’s ship as akin to the triumphant proto-Soviet rebels from the final shots of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin , a fictionalized version of the 1905 mutiny later celebrated by Russia's Communist rulers after they took power). What’s she’s wearing in the Lauper duet includes something that looks like a green jock strap, though, so maybe I haven’t improved things too much here tastewise.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers may also appear here)
Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
Tel Aviv on Fire (Sameh Zoabi) Not Rated
Set in the tension-filled borderland of Israel and West Bank Palestine, this film’s actually a comedy (with acknowledgements of serious aspects of its setting) about an Arab man working on his uncle’s popular TV soap opera who accidently becomes a scriptwriting collaborator with a demanding Israeli army officer, leading to hilarious complications.
Here’s the trailer:
In this fictional, satirical story of contemporary relations between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif)—whose coincidental-resemblance (for my eyes anyway) to Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) on NBC TV’s 1990s hit, Seinfeld, gives me a unintended (but even funnier) extra-textual-interpretation of the chaos I’m seeing on screen—is a young Arab, mostly unsuccessful at much of anything, living in Jerusalem but crossing the border into/back from the West Bank twice a day to work at a Ramallah TV studio where Uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) is the producer of a popular show, Tel Aviv on Fire, intended for Palestinian audiences but also a soap-opera-favorite with many Israelis (mostly women). It’s in its only season (as intended by its backers), set in 1967 just prior to the actual Six Day War (resulting in Israel occupying bordering Arab territories, most of which it holds today), focused on Israeli General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef “Joe” Sweid) in a torrid romance with Rachel—played by egotistical French actor Tala (Lubna Azabel)—a Palestinian spy in a a quiet relationship with rebel Marwan (Ashraf Farah). Ultimately, the show’s supposed to end with Tala killing Yehuda, undermining Israel during this tense time, although the scripts are much more about steamy encounters between them than sociopolitical warfare. Salam’s a (clumsy) production assistant but with a specific role in fine-tuning the actors’ Hebrew pronunciations as he’s proficient in the language, although any dialogue changes are rejected by haughty scriptwriter Maisa (Laëtitia Eido). One day he says Yehuda shouldn’t refer to Rachel as “explosive,” an offensive term, but he’s overruled; on his way home at the checkpoint he asks a soldier about the connotations of the word only to be hauled into the office of Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton) where his possession of the next day’s script leads to a false claim he’s the writer, catching Assi’s interest in the plot’s progression as a means of impressing his wife, a regular viewer. When Salam comes through the checkpoint the next morning he’s summoned to Assi’s office again where the Captain’s rewritten a scene to make Yehuda more plausible as an Israeli officer. To Salam’s surprise, the script changes are accepted with him now promoted to writing scenes for Yehuda, done clandestinely with Assi who quickly becomes quite demanding of keeping all his ideas in as well as insisting the series end with a wedding between Yehuda and Rachel (not what Bassam wants, but Salam’s getting increasing support from Tala so “his” concepts are gaining credence, even though the show’s backers are resisting what they see as Zionist propaganda [from Assi]). Salam also has to bribe Assi with a daily ration of fine Palestinian hummus, which he normally gets from a local grocery but one day has to depend on the seemingly-vile canned version which he doctors up at home to hilariously create the best batch yet.
Salam’s increasing success in the eyes of those who know him (despite most of his dialogue coming from Assi, as well as Salam’s mother or even random strangers talking in a café; enhancing his scripts for us, though, are shots from the soap opera with the actors bringing his words to life) is even leading to a thaw in relations with ex-girlfriend Mariam (Maisa Abd Alhady), hurt by his previous lack of passion for her (always looking ahead to some greater adventure somewhere else in the world), but the plot-based-deal with Assi (who holds Salam’s I.D. as insurance for his script demands, forcing Salam to stay in the West Bank so he has to sleep at the studio, can’t connect with Mariam for a planned date even as he’s summoned by Tala to discuss his future with her) for the wedding is about to unravel as Bassam insists the wedding will only be a ruse for Rachel to hide a bomb detonator in her flowers thereby satisfying Palestinian interests over those of insistent-Israel Assi. ⇒In a bold move to resolve all of his issues—including rejecting Tala’s offer of joining her as she returns to Paris, intent on leaving in a huff as her character’s to be killed thus depriving her of any possibility of continuance into a now-more-plausible second season given the increasing popularity of the show, Salam choosing instead to stay put with Mariam who’s come to love him again—Salam demonstrates his now-evolved-writing-skills (he’d managed to get Assi’s approval for some of his ideas recently) by coming up with a new twist on the wedding bombing, supported by Tala, accepted by Bassam where the rabbi about to marry the couple suddenly reveals himself to be an undercover intelligence officer who orders the arrest of both Yehuda (for reasons I didn’t quite catch but some sort of corruption I think) and Rachel (as a spy/terrorist), with this new character actually played by Captain Assi Tzur who becomes the breakout-star of the show (thereby resolving all problems with Salam) which goes into a second season with Salam as an increasingly-secure-writer, lovingly involved again for the duration with Mariam.⇐ While there are lots of laughs at many of these absurd plot points throughout this film there’s no softening of the hard reality that the West Bank is under occupation, that Israelis have firm control over the lives of Palestinians (in this region with actual terrorists—or freedom-fighters, depending on how you interpret the complex, bitter situations of the Middle East—notwithstanding, although such physical resistance to Israel fortunately doesn’t make its way into this story, which has different intentions); still, even in the face of the ongoing enmity in this part of our world it’s a pleasant relief to see some level of internal cooperation can be achieved among sworn enemies (an—intended, at least—subtext of the documentary to be explored just below), even if it takes a fantasy-based-story such as this to give a little insight on how this institutionalized hatred in the real world might yield a few moments of relief.
|(I'll admit I have no clue about what his shirt says. If it's offensive, my apologies;|
if not, at least I hope it has some humorous context within this film's plot.)
The professional CCAL is generally in support of such rapprochement (fictional as it may be) as well, with the RT positive reviews reaching a marvelously-positive-level of 92% although the more-reserved-minds at MC offer an average score of only 70% (largely in the range of most of their numbers concerning what both they and I have reviewed so far this year), but that’s based on only 16 reviews so you might check back later at that MC site for this film in my Related Links section much farther below to see if any additional responses change their results. Audience reaction has also been positive, at least from the standpoint of per-screen-average, with an extremely-healthy $1,870 take (topped mostly by releases in Box Office Mojo’s Top 10 for last weekend or a few playing in a tiny number of venues; Tel Aviv … came in at #47 overall in domestic ticket sales of 78 tallied); however, that’s based on only 35 theatres for a film out for 5 weeks, so it’s unique subject matter (probably coupled with some misunderstandings a story about Palestinians and Israelis couldn’t possibly function as a comedy) doesn’t seem likely to add much to these totals (only $406,950 in total domestic gross so far; no word on international receipts where there might be some possibility of greater interest in some countries) so if what you’ve read here (or elsewhere) intrigues your interest I’d suggest a video queue for future acquisition. Until then I’ll leave you with my Musical Metaphor, which attempts to remain in the overall-lighthearted-attitude of the film with The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” (a 1966 hit single [with “Rain” as the B-side] later found on various compilation albums including Hey Jude  and 1 ) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYvkICbTZIQ (an odd music video with Ringo just sitting around rather sullenly while the others perform the song in a lush garden, although they look equally bored at times as well) where the singer/”author” seemingly has about as much writing talent as Salam did initially yet has total confidence in his abilities to be successful in the popular marketplace: “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few I’ll be writing more in a week or two I could make it longer if you like the style I can change it ‘round and I want to be a paperback writer.” Salam’s writing in a different genre (somewhat, as pulp fiction’s the common denominator here), but he and this singer both “need a break,” willing to do whatever it may take to escape the dreaded-dustbin of sociocultural obscurity.
American Factory (Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar)
rated TV-14 (Netflix)
A documentary chronicling the rebirth of a closed GM plant near Dayton, OH (where I spent a couple of mid-1960s-summers when my NCR-repairman Dad was transferred to the main factory), an emblematic location of U.S. manufacturing woes taken over by a Chinese automobile-glass-company; painfully-honest footage surveys some successes and failures of this intercultural project.
Here’s the trailer:
As I noted about The Great Hack (Jehane Noujaim; review in our August 14, 2019 posting), I normally don’t give attention to films available only through streaming (Netflix both then and now), but in that American Factory’s also playing in a very few domestic theaters (not enough to make Box Office Mojo’s lists from the last 2 weekends), its content is well worth your attention no matter your political stance, plus Netflix is a widely-available-platform for you to find it (not in China, however, an irony given what this film’s about) I’ll devote some space to it here, given its implications for our current global-economy-struggles, especially with the ongoing trade/tariff war between the U.S. and China. There are really no spoilers to divulge, although reading my summary shouldn’t preclude your viewing of this film should its content be of interest, so please plunge ahead if you wish. What’s contained in this extensively-honest (even when damning for some of those involved) portrayal of an attempted manufacturing revival in the American Midwest is how a GM factory near Dayton, OH closed in 2008, laying off about 2,000 people who apparently had no other prospects (several interviews confirm the dire situations these folks found themselves in) until Fuyao—a Chinese firm making glass windshields for most cars and trucks—took over the space in 2013, retooled, rehired about 1,000, retrained the work force prior to a grand opening in 2016, setting up the prospect of Sino-American cooperation helping Rust Belt-unemployeds regain some sense of independence while the U.S. economy benefitted from a substantial foreign investment (something the Chinese have been doing in the U.S. since 2010). Despite initial enthusiasm from the Americans, though, the reality of cultural/workplace differences between the 2 sides soon produced consistent problems: previous salaries of $29 per hr. now dropped to $12.84; American workers accustomed to 8-hr. days in the plant were now overseen by/working along with Chinese trained in the “996” attitude (on the job 9am-9pm 6 days a week); labor unions were not welcome, explicitly rejected by Fuyao’s Chairman Cho Tak Wong, despite an initial-but-festering-conflict from that lavish grand opening stemming from Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown’s remarks in support of unions despite the opposite stance by the plant’s management (“Fuck you,” one of them mutters). As the situation progresses over a few years of filming we get bluntly-direct complaints from American workers about unsafe conditions, supervisor harassment, unrealistic production goals while the Chinese managers (in translation, so there are a good number of subtitles to read) talk of their employees as lazy, hard to train, interested only in their salaries instead of slavish devotion to their jobs (in contrast, we see the much-smaller-contingent of Chinese workers sent to this plant begin their day with military-like-rituals, chants of support for success, a sense of obedience to the collective needs of the company: “Solidarity forever” [we’re back to … Potemkin]).
The flashpoint of conflict, though, comes from the United Auto Workers attempting to unionize the shop, with overt opposition from management including bringing in “facilitators” for required-seminars about the dangers of unionization such as being replaced if you go on strike (the law says you can’t be fired, but if “replacement” isn't “firing” then I need a remedial-course in corporate law), so that when the vote was finally taken about 60% of the workers chose “no”; ironically, there are 2017 scenes at the company’s headquarters back in Shanghai (when 10 of the Americans were chosen to visit on a goodwill/cooperation-building tour) where everyone belongs to a union but it’s one created in coordination with the ruling Communist government where the entire population is considered part of the machinery of the state anyway. Despite all of the initial American supervisors at the Ohio plant being fired because they weren’t restrictive enough toward union recruitment and thoughtful, sad ruminations by VP Junming “Jimmy” Wong ([right, above] who, nevertheless, like Chairman Cao, allows his misgivings about the present demands for success in China replacing older, less-stressful lifestyles to be soothed by the material satisfaction he now enjoys), those workers who weren’t fired for being too-union-supportive (although other reasons were cited) eventually become more tolerant of this in-house-cultural-clash, with a $2-hourly-raise helping a bit. Toward the end of the film, though, company execs note they’ll be increasing the use of robotic automation, thereby replacing even more human workers (it’s estimated 375 million worldwide will be laid off due to this change in production processes by 2030), yet ending graphics note Fuyao Glass America’s been profitable since 2018, now has 2,200 U.S., 200 Chinese employees, despite wages stuck at $14 an hour. This is an engaging-yet-ultimately-depressing-film to watch as it reveals little in the way of actual intercultural cooperation and growth—just tolerance in a time where blue-collar-jobs are still difficult to find (or maintain) especially if you value anything in your life except work, with the Chinese (here at least) much stronger on efficiency than on overall quality.
Given that most of the viewership for American Factory is through streaming, I can give you no audience size nor income for this film, although it’s CCAL support is extremely-commendable (RT 96% positive reviews, MC an abnormally-elevated [for them] 86% average score), yet it does have its negative responses; this one's from "Tyler Durden" (a pseudonym employed by ZeroHedge writers, using the name of the ultra-assertive-character in Fight Club [David Fincher, 1999] played by Brad Pitt), claiming that contrary to its own intentions, this doc shows the dysfunctional-entitlement-attitudes of America’s unionized-workers (I don’t agree; while certainly there are abuses at times, those union folks fought desperately for decades to insure some semblance of humane working conditions when they were [are] desperately hard to come by). On the other hand, this article offers comments from Chinese viewers concerned about their countrymen’s obsessions with working themselves into the ground. A final note is this is the first film from Higher Ground Productions, a storytelling-based-project (fiction and non-fiction) of Barack and Michelle Obama’s (not why I praise this film, although my leftie-sympathies are well-documented throughout this blog); on Netflix you can automatically follow your screening with a 10-min. conversation between them and … Factory’s directors, so here’s an abbreviated version of it (3:09, automatically captioned for the hearing-impaired). Finally, what strikes me as an appropriate Musical Metaphor is Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together” (from their 1970 Future Blues album)—originally written by Wilbert Harrison in 1962 as “Let’s Stick Together,” then he changed the lyrics completely in 1969—at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnPkEyP_Tzg with a hopeful plea of overcoming disharmony: “Before when things go wrong, as they sometimes will And the road that you travel, it stays all uphill Let’s work together, come on, come on, let’s work together You know together we will stand Every boy, girl, woman and a man.” It’s easier to sing about than to actually do, though, as this film explores from the perspectives of both Chinese and Americans, but cooperation's an essential goal in a world where global economies benefit from good-faith-negotiations rather than punitive-attempts at market-dominating-tariff-wars. (I guess my Metaphor could have been The Village People’s "Y.M.C.A." [from their 1978 Cruisin’ album], as sung by those visiting Americans in China at a lavish banquet promoting company success, with its encouragement “there’s no need to feel down […] ‘cause you’re in a new town,” but given the frequently-cited-gay-subtext [not that there's anything wrong with that] I doubt many of these managers from either side of the Pacific truly embrace the not-so-subtle-connotations of this song as indicative of what they’re promoting, despite the energetic sing-a-long they all seem to be enjoying so much shown in American Factory.)
Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Don’t Let Go:
https://www.dontletgomovie.com/home/ (there’s not much here, though)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c-c_cssl4E (5:25 interview with director-screenwriter Jacob Aaron Estes and actors Storm Reid, David Oyelowo)
Here’s more information about Tel Aviv on Fire:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkHPpZG3qLE (10:24 interview with director Sameh Zoabi)
Here’s more information about American Factory:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlgIR0Joj38 (12:21 interview with directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of email@example.com. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,
https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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