Tag Archives: Tribeca Film Festival

Charlie Tahan as Josh in SUPER DARK TIMES. Photo by Eli Born.

Violent-Young-Men Movies: “The Dinner,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Super Dark Times,” and “The Gray State”

Violent-Young-Men Movies: Teenage Sociopaths Are Everywhere!

by HelenHighly

The fresh batch of films coming out of Tribeca2017 seems to have a violent teenage psychopath every time you turn around. What turns our young men into crazy killers? At the same time as a slew of documentaries and true-life tales are depicting the courage and moral fortitude of actual young men around the world, responding to terrorism and war with bravery – going to extraordinary lengths to save lives, we get a bunch of “thriller” films that depict American young men as narcissistic psychopaths who revel in bloody violence. On one hand there is City of Ghosts, Dabka, and When God Sleeps, for starters – peace-seeking films about heroism, and on the other is The Dinner, Super Dark Times, Sweet Virginia, and even The Gray State, all featuring violence-obsessed middle-class Americans. Is there a cultural connection? Helen is Highly contemplating the significance of this, while I write some short reviews of these Tribeca thrillers:

Shahin Najafi in WHEN GOD SLEEPS. Photo credit: Khelghat.
Shahin Najafi in WHEN GOD SLEEPS. Photo credit: Khelghat.

I’ll start with The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman – an intelligent thriller, starring big-names Richard Gere and Laura Linney, which is a well-made, well-balanced film that is an adaptation of the Herman Koch bestseller (first published in the Netherlands in 2009 but now smoothly re-made into an all-American tale). The film begins as a kind of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-ish gentil sit-down between two well-dressed and well-mannered couples, and with smart editing and sophisticated structure, it skillfully reveals the violent underpinnings to this story. The film’s layers and complexity make it engrossing. I also will say here that the performances are all stellar, including the other two leads, Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall. And the cinematography is top-notch, which adds to the startling revelations and juxtaposition of civility and brutality.

This may be the most thoughtful of these violent-young-men movies, with a serious and nuanced nod to the challenges of mental illness. But that mental illness does not belong to the violent young man whose horrific actions are at the center of the tale. Is the teenage son turned into a violent sociopath by his father’s badly-controlled rage, despite being otherwise surrounded by a supportive and nurturing family, and an especially close relationship with his mother?

Steve Coogan as Paul Lohman, Richard Gere as Stan Lohman, Rebecca Hallas Katelyn Lohman, and Laura Linney as Claire Lohnman in THE DINNER. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Steve Coogan as Paul Lohman, Richard Gere as Stan Lohman, Rebecca Hallas Katelyn Lohman, and Laura Linney as Claire Lohnman in THE DINNER. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Is that really how sociopaths are built? And if not, then… what? I guess the teen boy could have inherited some mental illness from his father, but the father’s behavior is closely detailed and scrutinized, while the son shows no early signs of imbalance – until this one spectacular act of terror. I left thinking that was the weak point of an otherwise intelligent movie. Maybe I am underestimating the suddenness with which severe mental illness can manifest. But the movie does not fill in the blanks, so I am left to contemplate just another ordinary, brutal teenage boy.

FYI, it is no spoiler to tell that there is deadly violence in this film, because the true story is about if/why/how the parents will deal with it and/or cover it up. This, unfortunately, is not an original idea. We have seen the likes of it before in films such as The Deep End, where a mother and/or father struggle with the moral issues involved in parenting a murderer. Still, Helen does recommend this film (leaving out the Highly), if you are in the mood for a literate and complex family-drama / crime-thriller.

BUT: Back to my larger topic. That’s one violent-boy-culture movie. Now the next:

Sweet Virginia: This movie is as thoughtless and superficial as The Dinner is layered and complex. As I said in my mini-review, Director Jamie M. Dagg delivers a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be movie that fails miserably (and I mean miserably literally – wretched to sit through). I don’t care about any of the characters, and Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. Calling the pacing lethargic is kind. And the lighting is bad too (annoyingly dark, since I guess the filmmakers couldn’t manage to portray emotional darkness).

Jon Bernthal as Sam and Chris Abbott as Elwood in SWEET VIRGINIA. Photographer: Jessica Gagne.

The odd thing is that this movie does take time, during its dull and sluggish storyline, to give us some specific detail about the predator – his father, his mother, his personal troubles and dreams. And it still adds up to a big, empty nothing. (And at some point it is suggested that all that info was false anyway.) No insight. No appeal. Just a young guy with a gun who cares not who he kills or why. The epitome of Violent Boy Culture.

Unfortunately, when I watched this film, I was not able to obtain my always-preferred end-seat, so I was stuck in the middle and therefore trapped; I had to sit this movie all the way through. Otherwise, I would have bailed by the halfway mark. Helen Highly recommends that, if you go, you have a good escape route.

Super Dark Times: There seems to be something inherently menacing about teenage boys – rural-suburban teenage boys in particular. In the opening scenes of this movie, directed by Kevin Phillips, we see our key players demonstrate how over-sexed, aggressive, uneducated, bored, and rude they are. They have a callous curiosity about death. I guess these are the types who kill cats for fun. But these boys don’t do that; they kill people instead – “friends” in fact. It starts out as a single-death accident that they decide for-no-good-reason-other-than-stupidity to cover up. Then things get out of control.

Actually, this film could have been a sensitive coming-of-age tragedy. The young actors are quite good and there are inklings of emotional depth. But the filmmakers went for the thrills and gore instead. There is no apparent rhyme or reason. This serial killer is just… another kid next door who develops a taste for blood. It’s dark times; get ready for the end of the world. I would call this genre a 90’s chiller.

Owen Campbell as Zach, Charlie Tahan as Josh, Max Talisman as Daryl, and Sawyer Barth as Charlie in SUPER DARK TIMES. Photo by Eli Born.

And, now that I think about it, the movie starts with … I think… an enormous, bloody and dying moose sprawled out on a classroom floor at middle school. The way the director shows it, we first see a vague bloody carcass on the school floor (can’t tell what it is and assume it’s a person), with police and students gathered around, in horror. This raises to mind the mass shootings around the country at numerous schools… an association that is brought to the audience’s mind and then discarded and totally ignored for the rest of the film. We never see or hear of that moose ever again. Kevin Phillips, please meet Anton Checkov (re gun in the first act).

And finally: The Gray State, a documentary directed by Erik Nelson and executive produced by Werner Herzog. This is a completely fascinating film and astoundingly true tale that takes you on a wild ride with surprising twists and turns, even if you already read about this story in the news. In 2010 David Crowley, an Iraq veteran, aspiring filmmaker and charismatic up-and-coming voice in fringe politics, began production on his fictional film Gray State. Set in a dystopian near-future where civil liberties are trampled by an unrestrained federal government, the film’s crowd-funded trailer was enthusiastically received by the burgeoning online community of Libertarians, Tea Party activists and members of the nascent alt-right. In January of 2015, Crowley was found dead with his family in their Minnesota home. Their shocking deaths quickly become a cause célèbre for conspiracy theorists who speculate that Crowley was assassinated by a shadowy government concerned about a film and filmmaker that was getting too close to the truth about their aims.

The documentary carries appropriately weighty seriousness, but it also shrewdly includes a touch of macabre humor – a kind of delightful brutality, which illustrates a component of this violent-young-men mentality. The movie is meticulously thorough and fully investigates the why and what and how of the story (which is perhaps a conspiracy wrapped in an enigma). It’s a film within a film, a documentary with a thriller structure, which I love, when it’s done right, which it is here. I won’t get into the quicksand of outlining the plot, but I will mention that it also takes place in American, middle-class, suburbia, with nice homes, in a Minnesota town actually called Apple Valley.

David Crowley, self portrait, October 2014, two months before murders. Film still from A GRAY STATE. Photo credit: David Crowley.
David Crowley, self portrait, October 2014, two months before murders. Film still from A GRAY STATE. Photo credit: David Crowley.

And whatever way you look at it (and the film offers a range of mind-boggling and emotionally charged perspectives) … no matter the tragically true earnestness of the film, it ends with a double-murder-suicide by a young man. It’s a thoughtful film that addresses the Violent Boy Culture head on, at the least, and goes well beyond to explore the glamorization of the military, especially to boys, and the paranoid “they’re coming to get you” belief system that has run rampant in this country. Click here to watch the infamous trailer to the film within the film, which had a seductive appeal to many other violent young men.

The documentary also suggests legitimate mental illness as a possible contributing factor to Crowley’s bloody end (although… not every mentally ill teen necessarily turns into a killer). But if you really want to consider what is wrong with our young men, this is a good movie to see. And it’s easy and almost entertaining to watch.

I have not seen all the films at Tribeca this year, and not even read about all of them, so there are likely even more than these few films that are based on Young Male Predators. (In fact, there is one in particular that I can think of, which definitely fits this “genre” of Violent Young Men in new American films, but I don’t want to give a spoiler by revealing that the male lead is a killer. But let’s just say… yet another thriller with a young male killer, which I will explore more thoroughly when I discuss the religious overtones, in an upcoming article.) But, if feels like I see one of these Violent-Young-Men movies every day, and I’m sure it says something sad and dangerous about our society. I can only add, that by my count, there are even more films this year about young heroism. Unfortunately, it’s the spooky movies that follow you home and haunt you.



Command and Control: The Titan II

“Command and Control” Review: Kenner / Schlosser Will Blow Your Mind

Command and Control Review: Earth-Shaking Revelations Abound

by HelenHighly

Command and Control movie poster
Command and Control movie poster

Command and Control, which premiered at the Tribeca 2016 Film Festival, is a high-stakes documentary thriller, from Robert Kenner, director of the Emmy-award-winning film Food, Inc, which was based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, Fast Food Nation.  The docu-drama duo has teamed up again to bring us Command and Control, based on Schlosser’s critically-acclaimed book of the same name. (The book was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.) In this film, Schlosser and Kenner explore the deadly “human error” that led to a catastrophic accident at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980, the stunning details of which have only recently been revealed.

Titan II Explosion Site
Titan II Explosion Site

The chilling new documentary details the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States. Command and Control exposes the terrifying truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal, demonstrates what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us, and probes how mutually assured destruction might actually mean self-annihilation.

Titan II Warhead
Titan II Warhead

One might wonder if, in today’s post-Cold-War era of disarmament and new, advanced-technology drone warfare, this story is still relevant. If it feels like old news, consider: The United States has about 4,700 nuclear weapons in its current arsenal – enough to completely obliterate this country more than 20 times over. And once a nuclear weapon is fully assembled, its safety is never absolute.

Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense when the Damascus accident occurred, and he only recently revealed to Command and Control filmmakers, “Accidents were not unusual in the defense department. There must have been several every day.”  As stated in this documentary: “Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.”

The filmmaker warns, “Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work.”

More Than a Synopsis:

It’s a spy-movie thriller that pivots on a horror-movie trick.

There is a special category of films at Tribeca 2016 that I called “You Think You Know But You Don’t.” Command and Control is a perfect example of this category. Even when you already know how it ends, and even though you just now read the synopsis, and even if you have some experience with this topic, this film still warrants your participation as audience – to sit for 92 minutes and watch and listen to how this story unfolds as told by these two immensely talented men, Screenwriter/Director Robert Kenner and Screenwriter Eric Schlosser.

Titan Missile Pit Crew
Titan Missile Pit Crew

You have to hear the tremble in the voice of the guy (not a portrayal – the actual man) who is still alive but was only 21 years old when the socket dropped from his wrench as he did routine maintenance on the Titan II missile and almost blew up our country – his country.  On top of that missile sat a warhead three times more powerful than all the bombs dropped in World War II, including both atomic bombs. You have to hear David Powell himself explain how he was just a kid – a proud hillbilly from rural Kentucky, who’s first thought as he reached for the falling socket but couldn’t catch it, was that he “didn’t want to get in trouble” and have to tell his mother.

The Socket That Fell From the Wrench
The Socket That Fell From the Wrench

You have to see his work partner, who was only 18 years old at the time, explain how he “had no fear” and was excited “to play with the missile fuel” in the most powerful weapon that had ever existed – “a monster ready to go off,” and that his training included “preparation to destroy an entire civilization – without hesitation,” and he was “willing to do it” (determent only works if you’re actually willing to drop the bomb), but he had never considered that our own warhead might detonate on our own continent.

Titan Missile Explosion
Titan Missile Explosion

You have to hear the aching tone in the voice of this man who tells how he “was ready to take on the world” when he joined the PTS team, but on that fateful day, he stood helpless next to his co-worker as they watched that socket fall 70 feet down the length of the missile and bounce off the platform and puncture a hole in the fuel tank skin, and how they didn’t fully report what had happened – what was happening (highly explosive rocket-fuel pouring out of the missile), because they didn’t want their commander “to freak out.” When they finally admitted the truth, more than 30 minutes later, the situation was out of control. (By comparison: Once launched, the missile could reach a target over half a world away in less than 30 minutes.)

You have to endure the excruciating, minute-by-minute details of what happened next and then next and then unfathomably next, until a few hours later the missile completely exploded, destroying its underground silo and blowing the nine-megaton warhead … to literally God-only-knew where. (Note: one megaton = one million tons of TNT.)  “We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion,” said General George Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Air Command.

This film will pound your heart and rattle your brain; it will pound your brain and rattle your heart.

  • The image that haunts you: The green-grey glow that surrounds the majestic missile – 10 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall, like a giant gleaming bullet, loaded into a concrete gun barrel, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
  • The sound of manual typewriter keys, as data is spelled out on the screen – the metallic clickity-clack of what we now recognize as an antiquated and imperfect machine but was a “high-tech” business tool at the time.
  • The word that, when spoken, will make you never hear it quite the same again: “When you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” – First Lieutenant Allan Childers, who was there that day.
  • The context given to simple facts that make you appreciate how complicated those facts really are: It would take fewer than 200 nuclear missiles to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. In the mid-60’s we had 32,000. (We have thousands still hidden around the U.S. Do you wonder where they are? And who is doing “routine maintenance” on them now?*)
Launch Control Panel
Launch Control Panel

You have to be present to comprehend all the little revelations that cannot be captured in a synopsis but that slowly expose themselves and stack precariously, one on top of the other. These are the moments that you will take to bed with you and that you will tell your friend the next day. One revelation that strikes in this film (as well as in another important documentary at Tribeca 2016, National Bird, which is about the U.S. drone program) is that America routinely puts its most powerful weapons and its most dangerous decisions in the hands of virtual children who are patently ill-equipped for the responsibility.

Command and Control is a must-watch film because you must experience the juxtaposition of vigilant precision-on-a-minuscule-scale against the gargantuan-danger and gross-miscalculation that created this event. You have to see the way these men actually light a match and burn the little slip of paper on which is written the daily code that opens the 740-ton door into the missile silo – the spy-movie level of secrecy to safeguard against enemy intrusion, and then come to realize that despite all these preventative measures, it is a horror-movie trick that gets them in the end: Don’t lock the door! The Killer is Inside the House! The danger is not our enemy; the danger is us.

Titan II MIssile Silo
Titan II MIssile Silo

These are the things that make Command and Control a captivating movie and are the reason you should watch it. And despite all the “spoilers” I have written, they barely make a dent in the mass of shock and awe contained in this film. This is truly a movie – not just a news story for the history channel. Although, PBS American Experience already owns it, so… that’s good and bad. But it’s mostly good because that means more people will see it, and this is something you definitely should see. Nonetheless, my point is that this film could sustain – visually, intellectually, emotionally, it could sustain the size and expectations that come with a large screen in a movie theater. Despite being an astounding documentary, this film is also a dramatic thriller.

One of the interviews included in this movie answers this question about the country’s current nuclear arsenal, ominously: Harold Brown, previous Secretary of Defense reports, “the degree of oversight and attention has, if anything, gotten worse.” Separately, on November 14, 2014, the negligence was acknowledged when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference: “We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here,” Hagel said.

Can’t Stop Thinking About It: There’s a saying that just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, environmental and atmospheric scientists Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon explain why the detonation of even a “limited number” of nuclear weapons could have repercussions for millions of people around the world far away from a nuclear conflict. You can read it by clicking here.

Watching the Command and Control documentary ignited a private memory of my own — something that connected me personally to that tragic story, and after going home and doing a little Googling, a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. So, I’ve researched and written my own spin-off essay (or, Command and Control Commentary — Part 2) that could almost be its own documentary. Here’s the intro:

Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis

I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible. Click here to read more. 

Where to see the film in theaters: Here’s a list of screenings, coming to your city soon.

Watch the Command and Control movie trailer:



"My Blind Brother," an unusual romantic comedy

Sophie Goodhart’s “My Blind Brother” Review: A Shrewd Romantic Comedy

Helen Highly Recommends Sophie Goodhart’s My Blind Brother as One of the Best of Tribeca 2016

Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in "My Blind Brother
Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in My Blind Brother

Droll My Blind Brother Premiered at SXSW and Cracks Up Tribeca 2016

“I’m a superficial narcissist”
“I’m lazy and judgmental.”

This is how the two romantic leads in My Blind Brother introduce themselves to each other, and I fell in love with them both immediately.

HelenHighly also wants to watch TV all day.
HelenHighly also wants to lay in bed and watch TV all day.

Then, when they both reveal that they perversely wish they could be invalids so they’d have an excuse to lay in bed all day and watch TV, I fell in love with screenwriter Sophie Goodhart. Add in a blind guy, jaded and bored with his own infirmity, who is smoking weed unabashedly in public, even with the police nearby, who says, “I could shoot up in front of cops and they wouldn’t do anything,” and I love this movie in full. It manages to be morbidly dark, joyfully funny and unsentimentally touching all at the same time. 

The storyline itself is genuinely fresh; unlike so many other films at this festival, I can’t think of another previous movie to compare it to. Robbie (Adam Scott) is a champion blind athlete and local philanthropic hero doted on by the community (and his parents) and seemingly incapable of wrongdoing. His apparently well-earned egotism is fed by his frequent, televised crusades to rise above his “disability” while also raising money for charity, where after each successful feat, he is surrounded by gushing reporters who never seem to notice that he tells the same, lame joke every time: “You look beautiful today,” Robbie the blind guy tells every female member of the press.

Robbie’s hapless, unassuming brother Bill (Nick Kroll) knows the real Robbie to be arrogant, selfish and rude, but he still guide-dog-faithfully runs every marathon by Robbie’s side and never makes a peep when he doesn’t receive any accolades, or when even his own parents continually criticize him. One night, Bill escapes the relentless Robbie-worship by hitting up the local bar, where despite his best efforts to present himself as unworthy and unappealing, he gets lucky with an attractive and like-hearted woman named Rose (Jenny Slate). Bill is guilt-ridden because Robbie’s blindness was the result of a childhood accident in which he was involved. Rose is guilt-ridden because immediately after she told her fiancé she wanted to break up with him, he distractedly crossed the street and was hit and killed by a bus.

After one pitiful, anti-romantic (yet soul-soaring) night together, Rose flees without leaving her phone number. Nonetheless, Bill thinks his karma might finally be coming around and that he’s found his sad-sack love-match. But his fantasy is soon squashed when his brother introduces him to his own new paramour – the very same Rose, who (without knowing he is Bill’s brother) has started dating blind Robbie in an attempt to make herself a better person. Now Bill must decide if he will put himself second again or finally stand up to his blind brother.

"My Blind Brother" gives a new twist to the Love Triangle
My Blind Brother gives a new twist to the Love Triangle

Kudos to writer/director Sophie Goodhart for opting against a “when bad things happen to good people” script and instead going with “when good things happen to bad people.” Goodhart’s two, guilty, self-loathing characters are amazingly charming and lovable. Robbie makes a wonderfully heroic antagonist, whose capability and determination we slowly come to dislike more and more as the story unfolds. (The fact that actor Adam Scott looks quite a bit like a smugly smiling Tom Cruise doesn’t hurt.) And Goodhart’s ingenious twist on the conventional love-triangle takes the sentimental weight out of the usual wet blanket that hangs over traditional romantic comedies. This movie is bright and buoyant and makes us laugh at ourselves more than at mere jokes.

Goodhart’s head-on attacks of our socially-correct attitudes toward both the physically handicapped and noble self-sacrifice are deftly executed dark humor that captures what’s funny about resentment, bitterness, and condescension. Her sharp jabs at “those less fortunate” never feel like bullying and never fall into rude buffoonery. Even as the movie escalates into full-blown wackiness, it still maintains its shrewd edge.

Another strength to this film are the secondary characters. Rose’s prissy, eye-rolling, sarcastically unsympathetic roommate (Zoe Kazan) ends up with the stoner blind guy. Ha! It’s just another delightful quirk in this defiant film where apathy and under-achievement are treated as virtues and perfection is the problem to be overcome. Finally: a romantic comedy with mutually flawed lovers, where no sacrifice or self-improvement is necessary for them to win happiness and each other.

HelenHighly Votes Yes
HelenHighly Votes Yes

Just to be fair, I will say that there are a few small spots where the script veers into impossible interactions – stupid things that could or would never actually be said. These mini-moments wouldn’t stand out so much if all the other moments in the script were not so true and all the other lines were not so witty. I am not usually a great lover of comedies, and the fact that I am calling this film One of the Best of Tribeca 2016 means it is truly something special. Unfortunately, my opinion doesn’t count for much, and this film may not get a broad theatrical release, so keep an eye out at your local art theater and on television.

News Update: Starz is nearing a deal to pick up Sophie Goodhart’s SXSW premiere My Blind BrotherVariety reports. The outlet shares that the acquisition “will likely be the biggest sale out of this year’s South by Southwest” and is estimated to be in the low seven-figure range. The comedy was reportedly the subject of a bidding war among distributors like Netflix, The Orchard, Sony and Gravitas Ventures.