Saturday, September 14, 2019

A chilling documentary, and a modern virgin birth?

I’m spending the month in the New York area and films reviewed may or may not coincide with those opening in Metro Detroit.

The Danish film, Cold Case Hammerskjöld, by investigative journalist Mads Brügger, is a fascinating probe into the crash of a plane in Africa in 1961 carrying former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in it. No one had formally concluded a reason for the crash but Brügger goes a long way in piecing together a theory. This film is a serious documentary by any means yet has the patina of a satire with Brügger a kind of merry prankster at the helm of a farcical investigation. He dresses all in white, just like the key person in his conspiracy theory that was allegedly behind the assassination. And he dons the white colonialist’s garb, including pith helmet, as he at one point absurdly uses a metal detector to find debris from the crashed aircraft buried in a field (authorities kick him off the site). As the movie progresses we follow the journalist in a real time sense, as he makes one discovery after another in his investigation, leading to a white supremacist who headed a mercenary operation linked to the South African Apartheid regime. We finally learn that many people had reasons to kill the mild-mannered Dag Hammarskjöld. While the film doesn’t offer conclusive proof of who did it, it comes very close and tells a very chilling story indeed.

Rowan Athale’s Strange But True, from the novel by John Searles, contains a bizarre plot that nevertheless keeps the viewer hooked almost to the end. Melissa (Margaret Qualley), a young woman, turns up pregnant at the suburban home of her one time and several years deceased high school sweetheart Ronnie (Connor Jessup). Ronnie’s brother Philip (Nick Robinson) welcomes her but mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) is appalled and sends her on her way. After all, Melissa claims she is carrying Ronnie’s child! How could this be? The plot becomes a whodunit. Charlene is driven near mad trying to medically understand how the pregnancy is possible – did Ronnie freeze his sperm, could this have even been a virgin birth? Several unlikely characters could also have impregnated Melissa.  But while the film has you hooked, the end turns out to be prosaic and makes you wonder: “is this all?” or “so what!” Ryan, however, is particularly good as the embittered mom and, though I’m a big fan of Blythe Danner, she seemed weak and gives a going-through-the-motions performance as an older grandmotherly type.

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