“Totally Under Control” looks at how the Trump administration failed in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Neon)

‘Totally Under Control’ details Trump’s COVID failures

‘Planters’ a whimsical comedy with heart

During these months of gloom and Zoom, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (“Citizen K”), with fellow directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, made “Totally Under Control,” which examines the Trump administration’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the issues are familiar terrain, the stories and details assembled give rise to an important and appropriately infuriating full picture.

Available on demand on Oct. 13 and premiering on Hulu Oct. 20, the earnestly presented investigative doc examines how Donald Trump has placed politics above science when addressing the COVID threat, often with his reelection in mind. It shows the human consequences of governmental neglect and corruption.

Sobering statistics open the film. The United States accounts for 21 percent of the world’s COVID-19 deaths, but only 4 percent of the population. More than 200,000 Americans have died from the virus.

Through archival footage and recent interviews, the film shows what went wrong.

For starters, the U.S failed to follow its own guidelines for containing a pandemic: Test, identify, trace, isolate.

A “lost month” in the testing process allowed the virus to spread considerably.

Additional challenges have included shortages of personal protective equipment, along with Trump’s divisive politicizing of masks.

States in need of federal help, meanwhile, often have had to fend for themselves.

As the death count rises, Trump continues to tell the nation that the situation is under control and that the economy — his perceived ticket to reelection — is healthy.

Those who criticize his statements are silenced or fired. Job vacancies have been filled with people chosen for political loyalty rather than scientific knowledge.

Gibney notes that Trump described COVID-19 as a “deadly virus” in a February interview with Bob Woodward. Essentially, Trump knew of the dangers COVID posed but didn’t address them.

Trump’s disdain of science extends to the touting of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that scientists deemed ineffective and possibly dangerous.

And lots more.

The ground the film covers — from test-kit snafus to cruise-ship quarantines to New York City’s COVID nightmare — isn’t new.

Rushed to completion for pre-election release, the movie is a bit unfocused and messy.

Yet the facts, stories and insights in it add up to a significant document illustrating how rank ignorance, denial and deception on the part of the “manager” have led to the COVID crisis. With the election upon us, this film was made to be, and should be, seen.

Interviewees who were filmed in isolation with a specially crafted “COVID camera” (the lockdown technology is almost a documentary subject in itself) — scientists, former government officials, journalists, the hydroxychloroquine-promoting doctor whose YouTube video impressed Trump — provide vivid and sometimes affecting accounts of their experiences.

Mike Bowen, an executive at Prestige Ameritech, gets emotional when recalling how he offered lifesaving protective equipment to the administration, to no avail.

Max Kennedy, who broke his nondisclosure agreement and filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint to Congress, discusses what he describes as an incompetently run project that placed inexperienced 20-year-olds in charge of procuring PPE items.

The timely film was completed one day before Trump announced he tested positive for COVID-19.


Totally Under Control


With: Kathleen Sebelius, Alex Greninger, Rick Bright, Max Kennedy

Directed by: Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger, Ophelia Harutyunyan

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Hannah Leder, left, and Alexandra Kotcheff star in the amusing indie comedy “The Planters.” (Courtesy photo)

Noteworthy in the quirky-indie arena is “The Planters,” a charmingly eccentric 78-minute female mismatched-buddy comedy written and directed by Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder.

It’s the feature debut of the longtime friends, who also star and wear other hats as well.

With its droll humor, meticulously designed sets, and low-budget do-it-yourself quality, their film suggests a blend of Wes Anderson, Aki Kaurismaki and the early Duplasses. Its heroines and story, though, feel fresh and original.

Martha Plant (Kotcheff), a grieving loner whose parents died in a freak accident, supplements a telemarketing job, for which her deadpan tone is hopelessly wrong, with a self-created gig that involves selling stolen trinkets in the Southern California desert.

Martha hires Sadie (Leder), a Jesus-worshipping former psychiatric patient, as her assistant. The personable Sadie, who has two additional personalities — 4-year-old Emma and hardboiled Angie — helps Martha develop a client-friendly phone-sales voice. The two, in their oddball way, help each other realize their potential.

The film also features two male supporting characters, romantic and whodunit elements, and stop-motion animation.

It’s not deep or indelible. But Kotcheff and Leder, impressive behind and in front of the camera, believe in their characters and have fun with Sadie’s condition without treating mental illness as a laughing matter. This whimsical and humane tale of friendship and connection establishes them as talents to look for.


The Planters


Starring: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

Written and directed by: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Opens: In virtual cinemas on Oct. 9; visit theplantersfilm.com

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