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Slay the Dragon (2019)
highlighting an issue
Greetings again from the darkness. It's no wonder our faith in democracy is waning. The list of reasons and the targets to point fingers are both numerous. Heck, one of the last-standing Presidential hopefuls has spent most of his life believing and preaching that there is a better way. This documentary from co-directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman ensures gerrymandering remains on the list of reasons. They weave together three stories from Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin to demonstrate how a party can invoke a strategy of gerrymandering, and what the long-term impact can mean.
We've long understood the basics of gerrymandering. It is when one political party works to carve up the voting districts in order to benefit one party or handicap the other. The film educates us on the fine art of "packing" and "cracking." Packing involves concentrating the opposing party's voters into a few districts, while cracking involves spreading out (diluting) that party's voters amidst many districts. Both are designed to render opposition votes meaningless. We even learn how gerrymandering got its name ... a link to Elbridge Gerry, a former Governor of Massachusetts and Vice President to James Madison.
The "star" of the Michigan segment is Kate Fahey, and we see how her 2016 Facebook post led her directly into political activism, and the formation of "Voters Not Politicians" (VNP). Because she is so energetic and engaging, it's clear why the filmmakers devoted so much time to this segment. Ballot initiatives, petitions, speeches, interviews, the Michigan Supreme Court, and ultimately, voting day ... this is her journey and we get to come along for the ride.
North Carolina and Wisconsin offer more details on the fights against gerrymandering, but neither of these stories go quite as in-depth, although we do follow the Wisconsin case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Kennedy's retirement changes everything. There is a very informative segment on the Republican's national strategy after Obama was elected. Survival of the party was in jeopardy, and behind-the-scenes strategists like Chris Jankowski and Tom Hoeffler were specialists brought in to focus on the best approach to re-districting across the country ... something called the Redmap Project.
There are a lot of moving parts included in the film by Durrance and Goodman: tracing the 2014 Flint water crises to the 2010 elections, insight into ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), discussions of Lobbyists writing bills, details on voter suppression, and input from journalists, radio talk show hosts, political consultants, and attorneys. Author David Daley comments throughout with his opinions on specific examples of gerrymandering. The grass roots movement to end gerrymandering in Michigan was fascinating to watch, and there is mention that both parties have used gerrymandering to their advantage over the years. The difference makers these days are Big Data and Big Tech ... highly complex analytical tools that turn this into a science. "Independent committees" drawing district lines is offered as a solution, but if the last decade has taught us anything, it's that most everyone has an agenda and true independent thinkers are a rare breed. Whether calling this an "assault on Democracy" is accurate or not, it seems quite obvious that there must be a better way ... and a better way is needed.
Greetings again from the darkness. These days, B-movies don't get the respect they deserve. In the age of massive, hundred million dollar (and more) budget blockbusters, the low-budget movies produced purely for entertainment purposes get brushed off as being undeserving of screen time. The truth is, the best ones are easy to watch ... and can be a fun way to while away the hours if, say, one is forced to stay in their home for an extended period of time. Writer-director-actor Jon Abrahams' movie fills this role just fine.
Mr. Abrahams (MEET THE PARENTS) and Mark Webber (GREEN ROOM) star as the Callahan brothers, Mickey and Jackie, respectively. These are the type of Irish brothers who only stop bickering long enough to wrestle each other to the ground. While most of their spats may be typical brother stuff, this latest involves Jackie's inept card playing, and the subsequent loss of the money they needed to pay back a mob loan shark. Missing this payment means Tony (Chazz Palminteri) assumes ownership of the Irish bar their late father opened, and it could mean even worse news for the brothers.
I would pay triple ticket price just to watch Chazz Palminteri chew scenery like he does here as Tony. When he makes the boys an offer they can't refuse, they end up in the basement of a house with Tony's son Joey (Michael Godere) telling them to shoot the man tied to a chair (another of Tony's loan customers). Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, and the next thing we know Mickey and Jackie are on the run with 13 year old Clover (Nicole Elizabeth Berger), dodging Tony's men, in addition to the 2 female assassins (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) and Julia Jones (WIND RIVER) they aren't even aware of!
As a quasi-framing device, we find Ron Perlman holed up in a fabulous mansion that we view with the film's opening aerial shot. Mr. Perlman is afforded his own chance to 'let loose' and emote like he's participating in an acting seminar ... while play-calling the wolf video running simultaneously. Other characters that cross paths with the brothers and Clover include Jackie's ex-girlfriend Angie (Jessica Szhor), a befuddling rescue 'scientist' played by Jake Weber, and a bar owner played by Tichina Arnold, who like Perlman and Palminteri, was clearly directed that it's not possible to go "too big" in a scene.
Humor, most of it pretty dark, is around every corner. A bowling pin has a use outside the lane, the lady assassins drive a car with a fitting sign, we are treated to a good old fashioned death scene, and there's a shootout accompanied by melodic jazz. As a cherry on top, the bar patron that the brothers leave in charge is Larry, played by the director's dad, Martin Abrahams. There is a definite 1970's vibe to the story and film, and we can't help but be a little disappointed when the conclusion does in fact, "end the chaos."
Waldo on Weed (2019)
Waldo is where he needs to be
Greetings again from the darkness. Waldo James Mysterious Dwyer is a hefty name for a huge baby (13.5 pounds) born in 2014 to parents Brian and Danielle. When we first meet Brian, he's a partner at Pizza Brain, a quaint neighborhood place to pick up a slice in Philadelphia. Waldo is their first child, and it's clear from the beginning that they are loving, doting parents. He's a spirited and active child, and at 6 months, a stunning diagnosis of eye cancer (Retinoblastoma) staggers the couple.
If you are a parent, you know with absolute certainty that you would do anything for you kid ... especially if they are in pain. When Waldo has a severe reaction to chemotherapy, Brian takes the advice of his friends Larry and Mike, and begins researching cannabis as an alternative treatment. Since it's illegal in Pennsylvania, Brian travels cross-country to California where medicinal cannabis is legal. The next thing we know, he's been advised by "Dr Dina" and is boxing up a care-package disguised as birthday party goodies. He's able to purchase an 8 month supply, and the next day, Waldo is getting his first dose. Immediate results bring smiles (and hope) to Brian, Danielle, and Waldo.
Much of the footage we see was shot by Brian on a video recorder he received at a baby shower. Tommy Avallone (THE BILL MURRAY STORIES: LIFE LESSONS LEARNED FROM A MYTHICAL MAN, 2018) turns the footage into a story, and better yet, a love letter from father to son. Brian and Danielle are devoted parents, but it's Waldo who will steal your heart. His smile will lift you up, and his dancing will have you beaming.
We learn that in April 2016, Pennsylvania passed a bill legalizing medicinal cannabis; however, since the process of bringing it to market was going to last a couple of year, Brian and Danielle packed up Waldo and headed to the west coast. To categorize their plan as non-existent would not be an understatement, yet they knew this was necessary for their son's health. You might cry a little. You'll certainly smile plenty. And hopefully, we'll all be a bit more empathetic and understanding towards parents ... we don't always know what they're dealing with. Never underestimate what parents will do for their kids.
carrying so much
Greetings again from the darkness. Movies that put youngsters in peril can go one of two directions: the story can feel contrived to the point of manipulation, or it can be real and heartfelt with commentary on society. Filmmaker Eliza Hittman proved her mettle with BEACH RATS (2017), and she proves yet again, that her instincts translate to the screen in stories and characters that hit a nerve.
It's stunning to discover that this is the first screen credit for Sidney Flanigan who plays 17 year old Autumn. We first see her onstage at her school talent show singing a soulful rendition of "He's Got the Power", a 1963 song by The Exciters. Her performance stands in contrast to the mostly generic acts from her classmates, though it's our first hint at how she is perceived. Autumn is one of those teens who seems to be naturally burdened with more than she can carry. A bloated belly leads her to take a pregnancy test at the local clinic, where she is informed that "a positive is always a positive" - a brilliant line than doesn't hold true for all interpretations.
The clinic worker shows Autumn an anti-abortion video, which leads her to Google do-it-yourself abortion, and finally to the realization that because of Pennsylvania's requirement for parental consent, she'll have to travel to New York City for the procedure. Fortunately for Autumn, she has a trusted and resourceful friend/cousin/co-worker in Skylar (Talia Ryder, who will appear in Spielberg's upcoming WEST SIDE STORY remake). The girls skim from their cash registers at the grocery store they both work at, and then hop on the bus towards the city.
Their time in the city is an adventure unto itself. By this time we've seen some of the everyday obstacles faced by teenage girls, including thoughtless teenage boys, a loathsome stepfather (Ryan Eggold), and a sleazy store manager. All of this is in addition to the challenges brought on by being a sexually active minor. On the trip, they meet Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, "On Becoming a God in Central Florida"), a fellow bus traveler who strikes up a conversation. Is he a good guy or not? Can he be trusted or not? Again, these are situations that the teens must navigate through instincts not yet fully developed.
A questionnaire administered at the Planned Parenthood clinic provides the film's title, as well as one of its most powerful scenes. Ms. Flanigan is exceptional as this simple form requires her to face her situation and her life as she answers questions regarding her sexual and personal history. Ms. Ryder is also tremendous in making Skylar such a strong young woman and friend. This film and these actresses show more than they tell. The minimal dialogue contrasts to the many movies who portray gabby teens. Writer-director Hittman seems to make movies more appreciated by critics than mainstream audiences, but it seems her time is coming. She makes her political belief quite clear, but does so by focusing on the real world that teenage girls face. It's a dramatic work of art with extraordinary camera work by Helene Louvart (the excellent INVISIBLE LIFE, 2019).
It Started As a Joke (2019)
knock, knock, a real life comedy-drama
Greetings again from the darkness. Have you heard the one about the comedy festival poking fun at comedy festivals? Of course not. And you may not even be familiar with comedian Eugene Mirman. But the efforts of co-directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman ensure that by the end of their documentary, we understand the impact of Eugene Mirman's Comedy Festival (founded to parody comedy festivals).
So who is Eugene Mirman? He's one of the key players in alternative comedy ... comedians who don't rely on traditional jokes, and often perform in places other than comedy clubs. If you ever watched the series "I'm Dying Up Here", you saw a comedian perform in the back of a local deli. That is an example of alternative comedy. When you check the lineup of comedians included here, it becomes even more obvious. Kristen Schaal, John Hodgman, Kumail Nanjiani, Janeane Garofola, Jim Gaffigan, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Mike Birbiglia, and Michael Showalter are just a few of the participants. Ms. Garofola embraces her "alternative" by labeling herself a terrible joke writer, and more of a "filibusterer."
Eugene Mirman is known for his voice acting ("Bob's Burgers" and "Archer"), as well as his appearances on TV series such as (the brilliant) "Flight of the Conchords." He married Set Director Katie Tharp and they had a son named Oliver. These personal details matter because Katie's cancer plays a part in Eugene's final year for the festival, and we get a glimpse of their home life, including time with Oliver. Their personal life is instrumental in elevating this from a Comedy Central special where comedians parade across the stage, to a real life drama that inspires a comical look at the parts of life that don't seem so funny on the surface.
A community of comedians is on full display here at The Bell House in Brooklyn. They recall the first time they met or saw Eugene perform, and recollect memories of the festival's past 10 years. Each of those festivals were presented with some off-the-wall theme - sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. H Jon Benjamin (lead voice in "Bob's Burgers") tells his story ... a pork chop story that was his introduction to Eugene. Silliness is ever-present, but the Eugene/Katie love story stands on its own - including the 'first kiss' photo that graced their wedding invitation. The festival may have begun as a joke, and comedians may shy away from dragging their personal life into the act, but it's clear "comedy is about connecting with people", and its value never diminishes.
Teslafy Me (2019)
a jolting doc
Greetings again from the darkness. I've been trying to think of other examples of famous people known for one thing, when they deserve to be remembered for something else. Hedy Lamarr, considered by many to be the most beautiful actress ever (she played Delilah in SAMSON AND DELILAH), also invented a frequency hopping process used today in WIFI and military defense satellites. Marcel Marceau was a world famous mime who also helped save thousands of children during WWII. Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in many movies during the 1930's and 40's and created that iconic Tarzan yell, also was a 5 time Olympic Gold medal swimmer. Surely there are many others with similar stories, but maybe none more remarkable than Nikola Tesla ... known today as the make of a popular electric car, but his backstory is vital not only to history, but also to our current way of life.
Slovenian filmmaker Janja Glogovac delivers a very informative and highly polished documentary that takes us through Tesla's life (Serbian roots, raised in Croatia, moved to United States), including his dealings with such well known luminaries as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and JP Morgan. Ms. Glogovac utilizes interviews with intellects, including Tesla's nephew William Terbo (a NASA engineer), and also many creative graphics, simulations, and animation.
Do you consider Steve Jobs a visionary? Would you be surprised to learn that Tesla imagined the cell phone more than a century ago? He dreamed of Utopia where energy was clean, rather than dependent on fossil fuels which would negatively impact climate and the earth's natural vibrations. Tesla detailed how his ideas came to him as flashes of light, and very specific. For you engineers and scientists, don't worry, some segments go fairly deep on his inventions and what they were meant to accomplish.
Tesla came to America in 1884, and after a brief stint with Edison (who put much into trying to discredit Tesla), was funded by George Westinghouse. Tesla's commitment to his electro-magnetic motor (alternating current) elevated his rivalry with Edison and the direct current option. When Tesla and Westinghouse "lit up" Chicago, the industrial revolution was ushered in. Tesla's hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls earned him the title of Father of Renewable Energy, and led to the Wardenclyffe Tower construction in 1901. It was an experimental wireless transmission tower that ended up with a similar fall from grace as Tesla himself.
Can the story of Nikola Tesla be told in an 80 minute documentary? Hardly. But the purpose seems to be reigniting an interest in a forgotten genius - a man whose work with radio, wireless, and electricity is still being utilized today. Elon Musk chose his brand name wisely, and we can't help but wonder if Tesla's ideas for clean energy had been supported rather than squashed, would we have avoided some of today's issues. Learning that J. Edgar Hoover had Tesla followed, and that Tesla died broke, leaves us wanting more information ... he deserves to be known as something more than the badge on an sleek electric vehicle.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal (2020)
when the fox guards the hen house
Greetings again from the darkness. We expect the chef to taste the special of the day. We don't expect the bench chemist to personally try out the drugs being tested for a criminal case. This 4-part DocuSeries from Netflix explores not one, but two of the most explosive cases in Massachusetts history. Were these Law Enforcement scandals? Were these workplace scandals? Were there miscarriages of justice? The simple answer to all three questions is yes, and the series breaks down the stunning details as well as the aftermath.
Most DocuSeries focus on one crime or one criminal. Here, documentarian Erin Lee Carr delivers two stories connected by job description, consequences and geography. In the state of Massachusetts, two drug testing laboratories are used for the majority of drug cases. The Hinton lab covers Boston and the eastern part of the state, while the Amherst lab covers the west, including Springfield, the capital for illegal drugs. In the Hinton lab, it was discovered that "star" chemist Annie Dookhan had illegally falsified thousands of drug tests. In the Amherst lab, chemist Sonja Farak admitted not just to using the drugs she was testing, but using those drugs while on the job.
Either of these stories are worthy of documentary treatment, and yet combining them generates even more impact, both from a viewing standpoint and for the legal fallout. Ms. Farak's story is easily the most fascinating. There is a reason that many bakers carry a few extra pounds ... they sample the goods. So why shouldn't we be extra cautious with those who test illicit drugs all day, every day? Evidently no one in Massachusetts ever thought to ask the question, as Ms. Farak worked in the Amherst office for nearly 10 years with minimal oversight. She literally walked across the hall from the lab to smoke crack cocaine, and even cooked the drug at her desk!
If not for the Farak story, we would likely find Annie Dookhan's case to be one of the most outrageous we've heard. Lauded as the highest producing chemist in the busy Hinton lab where she worked for 9 years, it turns out Ms. Dookhan used "dry labbing" to sustain her numbers. Dry labbing is basically eye-balling substances to determine if they are likely illegal drugs. These two women were involved in over 50,000 cases, including those for which they testified in court. They are accused of "fraud on the court."
As you might imagine, defense attorneys were in an uproar as the details in these cases emerged. Ms. Carr focuses her attention on defense attorney Luke Ryan, and one of his collaborating trial attorneys, Jared Olanoff. While law enforcement and prosecutors fought to maintain the convictions, Mr. Ryan spent a significant portion of his time researching, tracking down evidence, and making the case that thousands of convictions should be overturned, with prisoners released and criminal records cleared. It's particular disheartening to see Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley take the stance that Ms. Farak's inappropriate actions were limited in scope to just a few cases. Ms. Coakley's statements were made before any type of investigation had been done, so it was clearly an attempt to minimize attention from the media, public and other attorneys.
Interviews with Ms. Farak's mother and younger sister Amy are included. Their words help personalize the film, since dramatizations and archival clips are used for Farak's stunning testimony. The actions of so many are questioned throughout. Even with limited budgets, how are these chemists not subjected to some basic oversight? How does Judge Kindred make the ruling he does? Why did the ACLU need to get involved in what seems like a pretty straightforward situation? What happens if Luke Ryan doesn't remain diligent in his pursuit of justice? What if the State Supreme Court had refused to hear the cases?
Some background information is provided for both women, including the fact that Sonja Farak was the first girl to play high school football in Rhode Island. Both women had strong academic backgrounds, but education doesn't always make for good judgment. This DocuSeries from Ms. Carr is exceptionally well crafted and the stories move fast and keep us spellbound. More than 50,000 cases were impacted by the inappropriate and illegal actions of these two trusted chemists, and their actions cast doubt on the entire judicial system. Let's just hope that the next time one of your co-workers is sneaking off 10 times a day to smoke crack, that someone will say something to somebody!
How Far is Home (2020)
seizing their opportunity
Greetings again from the darkness. It's a 21 minute documentary short film, yet director Apo W Bazidi (RESISTANCE IS LIFE, 2017) manages to put a face to President's Trump immigration policies and proposals, and those people trying to make the best of it. We immediately take a liking to Ahmed Mohammed, the same as most others who meet him.
Ahmed attends Thomas Jefferson School in Cleveland. It's an immigrant school and covers grades Pre-K through 12th for "newcomers." We learn Ohio receives the third most refugees of any state, and most are children. Ahmed is from Iraq and is 11th grade. He attends school, works as a busboy, has been selected for peer mediation, and acts as translator for new students. He sports a mop of wavy hair, loves acting class and soccer, and is bursting with charisma. Ahmed is everything we hope for our own kids. However, Ahmed has lost both parents, and now clings to his sister Ruba, a senior at the same school. They came to the US from Syria, after previously fleeing Iraq.
One of the best moments occurs when Ruba reads the paper she wrote recollecting her own experience ... an experience likely similar to many in her class. Each is learning a new language and culture, and the support system of the teachers and administrators is crucial. Many of the teachers have backgrounds similar to the students. The film is filled with folks making the best of their situation and seizing an opportunity to salvage a life, where once one was in doubt. One can view Bazidi's film as being critical of the current U.S. immigration policy, or as an exceptionally inspirational film about those who are working daily to take advantage of an opportunity. Ahmed and Ruba, and these educators leave quite a strong impression.
courage to be remembered
Greetings again from the darkness. Learning of the courageous people who found their own way to battle the Nazis during World War II never gets old. Sometimes brain power and courage are more important than gun power. Such is the case in this latest from writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who brings a fascinating story from within the French Resistance to the big screen. This is a group that rescued 10,000 orphaned kids, and this is a story of one special man from within that group.
Jesse Eisenberg (and an iffy French accent) plays Marcel, the son of a multi-generational Jewish butcher in Strasbourg France. Out of familial duty, Marcel works at the butcher shop with his father, but his passion is in performing arts. One evening his dad (Karl Markovics) 'catches' him performing a silent Charlie Chaplin act on stage at a local cabaret. A parental lecture follows. Marcel's penchant for entertaining does come in handy when he helps his brother Alain (Felix Moati) and cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig, SON OF SAUL) rescue 123 orphans.
The opening sequence in the film finds young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, Lorna Luft in JUDY) witnessing her Jewish parents being murdered in the street outside their Munich home by Nazis in 1938. We next see her in the group of 123 orphans noted above. As a kind of framing device, we flash forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, as General George S Patton (Ed Harris) is addressing the troops and telling the story of a remarkable man. That man is Marcel, and the film then takes us through his journey and we "see" the story that General Patton is "telling."
When Marcel and his brother agree to join the French Jewish Resistance (also known as Organization Juive de Combat, OJC), they face more danger, and maintain their focus on rescuing orphans. Helping in the cause is Emma (Clemence Poesy, IN BRUGES), and a mutual respect and attraction forms between she and Marcel. The brutality of the war is shown through the actions of Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). As the head of the Gestapo in France (and known as The Butcher of Lyon), Barbie works out of the Hotel Terminus, and his sadistic tendencies find their way into the Resistance.
Once the war escalates to a certain point, the Resistance must decide whether it's best to continue hiding the kids, or risk the perilous journey across the Alps in hopes of freedom. In reality, it's not much of a decision, as staying put likely means torture, if not death. There are some touching moments between Marcel and the kids, and some acts of pure bravery from all involved.
At times, the film teeters into LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL territory, but never for long. The moments of pure terror are well presented, yet never overly graphic. We feel the stress of the Resistance as they struggle to get the kids to safety, and feel their pain in tragic losses. As the film ends, General Patton finishes his story by introducing his story's Marcel. The spotlight then lands on Marcel Marceau in full make-up and costume. Marceau, of course, went on to become famous and beloved around the world as the most famous mime. Filmmaker Jakubowicz has delivered yet another fascinating story of heroism and courage ... another story that deserves to be remembered.
No Small Matter (2018)
the learning brain
Greetings again from the darkness. Perpetuating the species is one goal, but improving the species ... specifically, improving the possibilities for each child ... is truly a worthwhile pursuit. The research is presented, and the film is co-directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs, and Jon Siskel (Gene's son). We are told "Beginnings matter", and then we are shown why and how.
Birth to age 5 is critical for what is called "the Learning Brain." Unfortunately, in today's society, fewer parents are spending a significant amount of time with their youngsters. We are told that in the U.S., 11 million kids under age 5 are spending greater than 50% of waking hours with someone other than their own parents. Daycares and pre-schools have become the most important link in the early brain development of these young kids. And because of that, the high income versus low income gap is creating vastly different results for the age group. Higher income tends to offer better options for early development, and statistics show these kids hear and learn more words, and visit more libraries and museums. We are informed that in 28 states, daycare costs are now greater than public college tuition.
Research and input is offered by Professors, researchers and children educators. We follow one particularly enthusiastic pre-school teacher who is clearly very talented, but due to low salary (she has a second job bartending), she decides to head back to graduate school. It turns out the challenges at this younger level are the same faced throughout the education system. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it's the students who suffer. However, unlike older ages, this younger age group isn't yet capable of taking on more learning opportunities on their own. They require assistance.
The Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the Avance group in Waco, Texas are highlighted as organizations working to provide assistance to those at risk of not being able to provide adequate early childhood learning opportunities. We also see the military's approach of "Investing in Quality" so that the kids of military families have stimulating learning programs. Educators stress the importance of 'executive function' - the learned skill of kids being able to pay attention and cooperate in a classroom environment. It's not all about reading and writing. The need goes deeper. The film does a nice job of presenting information most of us are aware of, in a way that makes the solutions clear and importance known. The idea of referring to this as 'brain building' rather than 'babysitting' makes a lot of sense. Not investing in our kids from day one means we are choosing perpetuation over than improvement.
Greetings again from the darkness. The film draws its title from both the town it studies and a Maya Angelou poem. It opens with a short excerpt from that poem; though not until we have watched documentarian Alexander Glustrom's film do we fully understand the connection. Mossville is a rural community just outside Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was settled by free slaves in the 1800's, and this is the story of how that history is literally being bulldozed from existence.
Mr. Glustrom makes the story personal by serving up the stories of Mossville residents Stacey Ryan and Erica Jackson, with Mr. Ryan getting the most attention since he is truly the last holdout. Holdout from what? Well that would be the massive industrial construction project of SASOL (South African Synthetic Oil Limited), which the state leaders excitedly announced would bring a $14 billion investment inside the Louisiana borders. We learn the Mossville population peaked at more than 8000, but after the SASOL land purchase, most of the community no longer exists.
Stacey Ryan is a holdout, and aerial views show the stunning transformation of the land from majestic trees and comfortable homes to acreage stripped of anything living that's not operating heavy equipment ... other than Mr. Ryan. His little plot stands out as an anomaly - a mobile home and battered pickup in the midst of a steady stream of bulldozers and dump trucks. Even after his utilities are cut off, Mr. Ryan remains. He explains that during his school days, he was referred to as "Greasy" because he was constantly working on cars. His mechanical skills allow him to rig up electrical, water, and sewer. He's a resourceful guy fighting industrial facility encroachment.
"Fenceline community" seems to be an insufficient description of Mossville. An EDC spill ... a toxic industrial accident ... affected many in the area, and that's where Erica Jackson comes in. She's located in the "voluntary buyout" area, and explains how her family has been inordinately impacted by disease since the spill. The widespread health issues of her family and previous neighbors are addressed by an Environmental attorney, but it's a story we've heard many times before. Corporate negligence and systemic racism seem to be ignored when it comes to "progress" and when capital investments are at stake. A reasonable middle ground seems possible, though that's rarely the case.
Mr. Ryan states, "I elected to stay behind because there is no other place for me." He has his own personal dreams for raising his son, and no one can spend this time with him and judge him as some radical or rebel ... he even introduces us to the Mossville Sabretooth Squirrel! He's simply trying to stay connected to his family roots, though deep down, he knows the days are numbered. There is no fairy tale ending, as this is the reality of a population that is outgrowing its home planet. Mr. Ryan states, "To them, I don't exist." This brings us back to the Maya Angelou poem: "They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed."
Lost Girls (2020)
mama's on a mission
Greetings again from the darkness. The Long Island serial killer is a famous unsolved case, yet very few filmmakers would take on a true murder mystery that has no ending. Liz Garbus long ago established herself as an expert documentarian, and has earned Oscar nominations (WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? 2015; THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA 1998). My guess is she was initially attracted to this story as a documentary, but transitioned to her first narrative feature out of necessity. Working from the book by Robert Kolker and a screenplay from Michael Werwie (EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, 2019), Ms. Garbus and her talented cast offer up a different viewpoint of the crimes ... the viewpoint of a mother who refuses to give up her daughter a second time.
Amy Ryan (Oscar nominated for GONE BABY GONE, 2007) gives a fierce and compelling performance as Mari Gilbert. Mari is a struggling single mom holding down two jobs - one as a construction worker, and one in a local diner. She is raising two daughters: Sherri (rising star Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) and Sarra (Oona Laurence, THE BEGUILED, 2017). Mari takes a phone call from her eldest daughter Shannan, expressing delight that the girl will visit for dinner, and with little hesitation, asks her daughter for some money to fill the gap left by reduced work hours.
Shannan never shows up, and a mysterious phone call the next morning sends Mari and her daughters into investigative mode. Daughter Sherri uncovers the secrets her mom has been keeping from her, while at the same time watching her mom tear into the cops for their apparent lack of interest in finding Shannan. Dean Winters ("Mayhem" from the insurance commercials) plays Detective Bostick, who barely hides his contempt for Mari and her missing 'prostitute' daughter. Police Commissioner Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) deals directly with Mari, and bears the brunt of her aggressive fight to keep her daughter's case from fading.
Mari is wrestling with her own emotions regarding Shannan, and it's really daughter Sherri (Ms. McKenzie) who becomes the most interesting character in the saga. Other key players are Kevin Corrigan as conspiracy theorist Joe Salise, Reed Birney as creepy Dr. Peter Hackett, and Lola Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, and GONE GIRL) as Kim, the sister of one of the missing sex workers. With Mari pushing the cops, four bodies are discovered near a wealthy gated community called Oak Beach. There is a tremendous sequence involving 911 calls, and it plays right into the debate of whether this was incompetent police work or a cover-up. The lack of interest regarding missing girls seems to make it clear that the cops were hardly motivated to find the sex workers, and when Mari reminds them that these are daughters and sisters, it's a powerful moment.
Director Garbus includes some actual news clips, and at the film's conclusion we see a 2016 press conference with the real Mari Gilbert. Shannan disappeared in 2010, and 10-16 bodies have since been attributed to the Long Island serial killer - though the cases have never been solved. As a police procedural, the film has far too many gaps and skims over details and evidence. However, as a personal drama and commentary on police attitudes, it succeeds. The film is now available on Netflix.
the need to feel
Greetings again from the darkness. Swedish filmmaker Jimmy Olsson follows up his excellent 2018 short film 2ND CLASS with another gem that cuts to the core of what it means to be human.
Ida (Madeleine Martin) is caregiver to wheelchair-bound Viktoria (Eva Johansson), who also has challenges with her speech. We learn quickly that Viktoria is very sharp and quite funny ... and also extremely frustrated with her situation. After teasing Ida about her boyfriend Bjorn (Joel Odmann), director Olsson delivers a terrific sequence. We watch alternating shots displaying the contrast between Ida and Bjorn in bed, and Viktoria being put to bed by her evening caregiver. So much is relayed with these shots.
Ida agrees to help Viktoria create a Tinder profile, but once she has a match, Viktoria's protective instincts kick in. The film excels are reminding us how we are each desperate to feel alive - something that no amount of therapy can replace. Another excellent outing from filmmaker Olsson.
Blow the Man Down (2019)
a pretty young damsel I chanced to meet
Greetings again from the darkness. Who better to sing the title song than Gloucester, Massachusetts singer David Coffin ... while wearing the attire of the local fishermen of fictional Easter Cove, Maine? Mr. Coffin's rich vocals (and face) pop up periodically throughout the film and provide an unusual bit of story structure to the feature film debut of co-writers and co-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. It's a nifty little indie film that's fun to watch, despite some gaps in the storytelling that keep it from 'what could have been.'
Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor star as the Connolly sisters, Priscilla and Mary Beth. Their mother Mary Margaret Connolly has just died, and it appears they may lose their family home as well as the family business - a local fish market. Priscilla is the reserved, level-headed one, while Mary Beth (who put off college for a year) is impulsive and reactionary. A poor decision made while drinking with bad boy Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) leads to a violent confrontation involving a harpoon, a brick and cole slaw. Well, technically the cole slaw comes in during the clean-up being orchestrated by Priscilla.
There are some Coen Brothers and neo-noir elements at play here, which, along with the intriguing small town characters keeps us connected to the story and wondering how things will end up. An interesting twist has Easter Cove with a Matriarchal town structure, one of which the recently deceased Mary Margaret Connolly was instrumental. Three elderly ladies played with glee by June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O'Toole take it upon themselves to continue the behind-the-scenes power brokering, while at the same time 'cleaning up' the town a bit. After the murder of a local prostitute, the triumvirate of senior women confront Enid Nora Devlin (yet another scene-stealing turn from Margot Martindale), who runs Ocean View B&B, the town's brothel. Enid listens to their request to shutter the doors ... or at least transition into a traditional bed and breakfast.
A found bag of money plays a role, as does Priscilla's carving knife, and Alexis (Gayle Rankin), a friend of the murdered girl. Will Brittain plays Officer Justin Brennan, a young policeman who fancies Priscilla and is committed to solving the crime(s). All of these interactions are quite something to watch, as most every character has their own secrets and motivations. As mentioned, the story structure may remind some of Coen Brothers projects, however as fun as it is to watch, it's lacking the sharp and witty dialogue of the Coens. Also, while many of us enjoy movies that don't fill in every detail, there are gaps crucial to understanding the actions of these characters ... gaps that probably should have been colored in a bit more.
Harpswell, Maine poses as Easter Cove, and there is something about this small fishing community on the northeast coast that creates a unique and appealing setting for a movie. Additionally, the dialect and personalities make for entertaining cinema. It's a nice first feature for Ms. Cole and Ms. Krudy and we look forward to more of their work.
no bull here
Greetings again from the darkness. A film focusing on an unlikely intersecting of cross-generational dead-end lives in a mostly ignored poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of Houston may not seem like much of a pick-me-up during these challenging times. And while it's not a crowd-pleaser, it is pleasing in a high quality independent filmmaking kind of way - especially to those of us who thrive on such projects. Writer-director Annie Silverstein's first feature film was co-written with Johnny McAllister and Josh Melrod, and it never tries to impress with any cleverness or trickery, and instead allows us to wallow in the harshness of a world that has its inhabitants grasping for hope.
We first see 14 year old Krystal (Kris) and her little sister messing with a chicken that's been killed by their pet pit bull in their backyard. The chicken belongs to their African American neighbor Abe, who threatens to shoot the dog if it comes in his yard again. Kris spends an inordinate amount of time taking care of her little sister. They live with their constantly annoyed grandmother while their mom is incarcerated. Jailhouse visits begin with hugs, and end with frustration. Kris seizes on an opportunity while neighbor Abe is gone for a weekend rodeo. She invites her friends over and they raid Abe's liquor and pain pills, and trash his house. The kids all have fun, but Abe is understandably upset when he returns home.
In a show of mercy towards Kris' grandmother, Abe agrees to allow Kris to clean up the party mess rather than be arrested and shipped to juvenile detention. Slowly, very slowly, Abe and Kris begin to bond. She is fascinated by middle-aged Abe's history. He was once a bull rider, and now he's a bull fighter - one of the guys in the arena who distracts the bulls so the riders can escape safely after their ride. His body and spirit are broken, and he's constantly in pain and sore. Kris, a sullen teenager, carries her own pain. Her situation is such that we (and Abe) find it difficult, if not meaningless, to judge her. She desperately wants to be loved and cared for, but finds none of that through her family or "friends."
Rob Morgan, who was so memorable in MUDBOUND (2017), plays Abe, a man who fights to maintain his dignity in a profession more conducive to younger folks, and with a body that continues to fail a bit more with each gore. He has some type of relationship with his ex, Sheila (Yolanda Ross), but mostly he's alone and quiet until he's around his fellow rodeo performers. Newcomer Amber Havard plays Kris, and captures the confusion and hurt with subtle facial movements of an actress far more experienced. The moment her mother (Peggy Schott) lets her down yet again is gut-wrenching, and we feel Kris' pain every bit as much as we feel Abe's pain at the tip of a bull horn.
Ms. Silverstein's film is surely to draw comparisons to the excellent THE RIDER (2017), with its understated approach, and power in the quietness and stillness. It touches on African American rodeos, and provides a contrast with 'white' rodeos, while also showing us the sex and drug issues facing young Kris. With its multi-generational view of life, we see a girl desperate for a role model, and a man coming to terms with loneliness. Kris and Abe prove quite the odd couple as she finds a glimmer of hope in her desire to become a bull rider, and Abe finds a companion and reason to carry on. The two fine performances help us deal with the often bleak daily lives of Kris and Abe, and Ms. Silverstein directs her film in such a visceral way that, as viewers, we are appreciative when the cloud lifts just a bit.
Facing East (2019)
a story unearthed
Greetings again from the darkness. The story of the Eastern Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky is disheartening, yet somehow not overly surprising. It's known as the most over-buried cemetery in America, and while the practice of over-burying - more than one body per plot - can be traced to greed, the shocking part here is the length of time it has evidently been business-as-usual at this particular cemetery.
The sign posted at the entrance states Eastern Cemetery was founded in 1848. In 1885 the "Louisville Journal" was reporting on mass pauper graves at the site, with 2-3 bodies per grave. This is Tommy Baker's first feature length documentary and he provides us the statistics we need to fully comprehend the story. Eastern Cemetery is 29.6 acres, and the industry standard is 1000 bodies per acre. Records indicate 138,000 bodies can be traced to the cemetery, including the mass pauper graves from the mid-19th century. So yes, Eastern exceeds the standard by more than 100,000 bodies.
Mr. Baker opens the film with archival footage of a courtroom case involving the cemetery, but as we learn, despite ceasing operations in 1989, no one has been held accountable. Three chapters provide the film's structure: History, Interrogation, and Friends of Eastern. History is important to establish the foundation of what occurred, but it's the words of those interviewed who make this an emotional story to follow. The impact really strikes a chord when a family member reminds us that our society strives to bury the dead with dignity. She proclaims that at Eastern, a loved one's final resting place is neither final nor restful.
We hear from the director of Cave Hill Veterans Cemetery, a graveyard that shares a property boundary/wall with Eastern, and has ten times the land. We hear of the ownership and involvement of the Methodist Church, as well as the affiliation with Greenwood Cemetery. Eastern housed Louisville's first crematorium, and in 1989 when the re-using of plots became public knowledge, the cemetery ceased operations. It was at this point where things somehow got worse. The graveyard fell into disrepair due to neglect, and a sad situation turned shameful.
As is often the case, money provided an answer. A misappropriation of perpetual care trust funds meant there was no money for upkeep. Family members were angry and frustrated. After 25 years of failed court cases and legal wranglings, a non-profit organization called Friends of Eastern began to clean-up the site and re-store it to a proper condition. Frank Whitaker is our narrator through this sad saga with heart-breaking segments like "babyland", and we come to understand how Eastern became the most over-buried cemetery in America ... but we are discouraged to learn there are others.
Saint Frances (2019)
a six year old guidance counselor
Greetings again from the darkness. The old saying goes, "Fake it till you make it." Well when it comes to life and adulting, no one ever really makes it. Everyone has their doubts and troubles and challenges. And by everyone, this means every single person, regardless of whether you think they have it all figured out. This is the first feature film for director Alex Thompson and the first feature length screenplay from Kelly O'Sullivan, who is also the lead actress here. The script is so smart and intimate that we tend to believe she included at least some of her own experiences. Either way, this is superb independent filmmaking ... the type usually reserved for festival runs.
Ms. O'Sullivan plays Bridget, a 34 year old "server" who seems cloaked in a type of sadness or melancholy that elicits first disinterest, and then attraction from the two guys we see her meet at a party. Once a promising writer, Bridget's life has started to slip away. As often happens when things aren't going well, life gets more complicated for Bridget. Her casual relationship ("This is NOT a relationship!") with uber-nice guy Jace (Max Lipchitz) leads to an unwanted pregnancy, followed by an abortion. Jace is very supportive during the process, and seems to be a wonderful guy. Rather than giving him a split personality with an evil side, the film allows Jace to be Jace, while Bridget treats him as a convenience (can you say turned tables?).
Bridget soon takes on her first ever nanny job, even though it's pretty clear she is clueless when it comes to caring for kids. Her "job" is rambunctious and whip-smart 6 year old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), daughter of mixed race lesbian couple Marin (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu). Marin recently gave birth and is suffering from postpartum depression, while Annie is a stressed-out attorney. In other words, they are all a mess. What stands out here, and throughout the movie, is that these characters all seem like real people ... folks we could know. That's why we immediately click with the story and the characters, especially Bridget and Frances.
There are times the film gives off the vibe of a feminist handbook, as it touches on modern world dating and sex, depression, sexual orientation, contemporary societal standards, the conflicting role of religion, and the challenges faced both professionally and personally in a world that is slow to accept the new normal. Despite that, the film never loses focus on what makes it work ... the budding relationship between Bridget and Frances, and the forces at work around them (including Joan Jett and a fulsome music teacher/poet played by Jim True-Frost).
One of the more impactful moments occurs when Bridget's mother (Mary Beth Fisher) is recollecting an emotion she experienced when Bridget was a baby. It's a terrifying and honest moment that most movies wouldn't touch. Kelly O'Sullivan wrote a terrific script, but it's her performance that sticks with you. She reminded me of Brie Larson in SHORT TERM 12 in that the character seems so real ... so authentic. There is also a lesson here in that our lives can be impacted by anyone we meet - even a precocious 6 year old.
a different spin on Peter
Greetings again from the darkness. When you think of Peter Pan, you likely envision either the 1953 animated Disney film classic or the writings of J.M. Barre, who first introduced the character in his 1902 adult novel, "The Little White Bird." Whatever your impressions and memories of Peter Pan, they likely differ from those of filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, who was Oscar nominated for his stunning 2012 film, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD.
The story begins at a small town greasy spoon diner nestled along railroad tracks. Birthday boy Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) is devouring a plate of bacon and taking ribbing from the locals who are teasing him with tales of his future working at the diner. He storms out yelping "I ain't gonna be no mop and broom man". Toddler Wendy watches as Thomas jumps on the passing train and disappears with the wind. A few years later, Wendy (newcomer Devin France) and her older twin brothers James and Douglas (Gage and Gavin Naquin) are awakened by a passing train and spot a giggling Peter (Yashua Mack) running along the top of the cars. The siblings climb out the window and leap to join Peter. Soon, they are on an adventure to an island (we assume is Neverland) which seems to be populated with kids who run and jump and play all day. Among them is Thomas, who hasn't aged a day since his birthday bacon.
Any re-imagining of a classic comes with risks. Messing with people's childhood memories inevitably leads to push-back. Benh Zeitlin gives the impression that he's a passion-project only type of filmmaker. This interpretation means something to him, and it's obvious in the detail and creativity. The similarities in visual style to his previous "Beasts" film are obvious, and render quite a different look and feel than we are accustomed to with fantasy movies. But then, this is not a Peter Pan for kids. It's really a philosophical analysis of life. Everything is an adventure for kids, and then somewhere along the way, we lose ourselves and start the 'adulting' portion of life - leaving our childhood dreams behind.
Buzzo represents the once young boy who lost faith. He's now an old guy dreaming of recapturing his youth. Mr. Zeitlin's film, which he co-wrote with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, includes magical elements, fantasies, realism, life lessons, hardships, and the importance of personal connections. The score from Dan Romer is exceptional, as are the performances from youngsters Devin France and Yashua Mack. It was filmed on the volcanic island of Montserrat, and thanks to the mythical "Mother" who lives underwater, it becomes a fable about keeping the faith and never growing old. J.M. Barre's famous first line was "All children, except one, grow up." Are you that one child, or have you lost faith?
Human Nature (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. That feeling when you start up a 95 minute documentary and a black and white clip of a Biologist giving a speech in 1966 fills the screen ... it's a moment of dread, which fortunately, filmmaker Adam Bolt quickly turns into a fascinating education. The fellow giving the 1966 speech (I missed his name) states that someday we will be able to alter human genes. More than 50 years later, Mr. Bolt's film shows us that scientists are beyond that, and on the verge of developments that demand some serious and literally life-altering discussions.
Deep science and cinematic story-telling aren't typically a good mix, but here we have a blending of journalists, researchers, and many types of scientists working with a knowledgeable filmmaker. They succeed in explaining the 'why' and 'what for' of gene-editing in a way that even a simpleton such as yours truly could follow. Going in, the concept of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) was vague at best (for me), and those involved with the film explain how this has opened the scientific door to the building blocks of life through gene-editing.
For structure, the film is divided into six chapters: Needle in a Haystack, CRISPR, The Gene Machine, Brave New World, The Good Gene, and Playing God. These chapters touch on the story of young David Sanchez (afflicted with Sickle Cell Anemia), food and bacteria, Aldous Huxley's book, eugenics, and morality. With so much to cover, the film excels in providing just enough for viewers, and putting the spotlight on those who can best explain their area of expertise or what results might mean.
Science often complements humanity while simultaneously standing opposed to nature. The film even shows the infamous JURASSIC PARK clip where Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) tries to confront the idea of genetic altering by stating, "Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." There are also clips from BLADE RUNNER and GATTACA, and they all lead us to the question on everyone's mind ... should we play God? Most agree that stopping genetic diseases is a worthy goal, but how about designer babies? That's where discussion of Huxley's "Brave New World" and Hitler come in. Should we be architecting the "perfect human being"? When Dr. Jennifer Doudna asks, "What have I done?", she's smiling on the outside as a scientist, but surely has doubts as a person.
Keegan DeWitt's score is top notch for a documentary, but a film about isolating individual and specific strands of DNA isn't really about style. Listening to bioengineers discuss their own work and that of others in the field, gives us the basics of the science involved; however, as a society we must come to grips with that big question. Do we play the hand we're dealt, or do we stack the deck and keep one up the sleeve? At some point very soon, we must decide. As the film states, after 2 billion years, this is the end of the beginning. What does the next stage look like?
The Hunt (2020)
it's a wild one for both extremes
Greetings again from the darkness. Let's face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film's new marketing slogan became, "The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one's actually seen." Of course, it wasn't really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that's what made it genius marketing ... they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your "side", you'll find some laughs here.
If you've seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It's a twist on Richard Connell's 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game", although the modern day rich aren't hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation - gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.
Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin ("Glow") as Crystal. She's a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has "a pinch between her cheek and gum" (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film's highlight.
One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so 'deplorables' slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.
Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena's "manor", and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat - surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on "Watchmen" and "The Leftovers."
Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell's "Animal House" and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It's not at the level of last year's gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it's a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!
Greetings again from the darkness. The familiar phrase is "Art is in the eye of the beholder", but do you know the full quote? Author E.A. Bucchianeri actually wrote, "Art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone will have their own interpretation." Perhaps no artist lived this philosophy more than Marcel Duchamp; a true artist who inspired so many, and who convinced the art world that even an 'idea' could be art. There may be no more perfect fit than Matthew Taylor creating a profile on an artist who touched so many art disciplines ... not unlike the director himself.
"I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste." Marcel Duchamp spoke these words and seemed to live by them. He was born in the Normandy area of France, and his grandfather ensured that art surrounded family members. Marcel, his two older brothers, and their sister all became artists. Marcel became the one who inspired, influenced, and created controversy and debate.
Mr. Taylor's film is, for the most part, a chronological profile of Duchamp. He effectively uses interviews to emphasize the impact. As an example, performance artist Marina Abramovic, filmmaker Michel Gondry, and singer David Bowie ... each creative giants in their respective field ... have clips crediting the influence of Duchamp. Others interviewed include: Art historians, researchers, critics, and other artists.
The film takes us through Duchamp's association with Dada, Cubism, and Conceptualism - though he claimed none of these. We get a peek at his use of science, language, geometry and technology in his work, and also learn the stories behind his most famous works, including Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), 3 Standard Stoppages (1914), his Mona Lisa parody LHOOQ (1919), and The Large Glass (an 8-12 year project). His "Readymades" include the R Mutt urinal from 1917, which absolutely tested the boundaries of what could be art.
Duchamp had a long-time affair with Brazilian artist Maria Martins, while his second wife, Alexina Sattler, was the former daughter-in-law of renowned painter Henri Matisse, an artist he had once used as a prime example of "retinal art" - pleasing only to the eye. Clearly Duchamp felt art was 'of the mind' and he felt taste to be subjective, even an enemy of art. Sometimes referred to as the "Father of Conceptualism", Duchamp gave a lecture in 1962 titled "Apropos of Myself", of which the full text is available online.
Mr. Taylor's film and Mr. Duchamp's work are quite enlightening as to how the definition of art was expanded, and how that transformation is still impacting today's artists. It's mentioned that most every artist wants fame and fortune, and though Duchamp wanted neither, he ended up with both. By the film's end, we are in agreement with Duchamp that what's important isn't the art, but rather the artist. And few have been more important than Marcel Duchamp.
women of strength
Greetings again from the darkness. These days, and for the last decade, it has been difficult to find any story of hope or optimism associated with Syria. Of course that just makes these personal stories all the more important to tell. Co-directors Louis DeCaprio, Khwala Al Hammouri succeed in making this film very personal and somewhat hopeful ... quite an accomplishment.
The first woman we meet explains that she has "no one left in Syria" because of the war. Her house was shelled. Her husband is dead. She took her four kids to Jordan. We learn that 1.3 million Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan, and more than half are children. So many women are on their own, trying desperately to make a new life for themselves and their kids. At the same time, these women and kids are quite vulnerable in the refugee camps ... especially the young girls.
Seeking a second chance to live, these women of strength are forging ahead making something of history. It's heart-breaking to see kids drawing tanks and war scenes, as that's all they've known. With an emphasis on education and keeping dreams alive, inner strength is crucial part of each of the women's stories that are briefly told here. These Syrian woman understand the burden they carry, and they are committed to providing a better future for their kids.
The Mimic (2020)
red pants may be a sign
Greetings again from the darkness. It has been said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Writer-director Thomas F Mazziotti has not only based this story on his own real life experience, but with it proves that imitation can also be the sign of a psychopath. In fact, as the film begins, we are informed that 1 in 25 people are psychopaths, and also playing a role here is "The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us", a 2005 book written by Martha Stout.
This is an unusual film with an offbeat rhythm. It reminds me a bit of CREEP, the 2014 movie starring Mark Duplass, in that the characters all seem like someone we could know, yet there's something a bit off. Thomas Sadoski ("The Newsroom") is Tony, a lead character, narrator, and a widower. Tony has not adjusted to life without his wife, and part of the reason could be how his friends and neighbors are always bringing it up. Once the "Kid" shows up, Tony is taken on a ride that has him questioning not just other people, but reality.
"Kid" is actually Peter (Jake Robinson), a 31 year old, red pants wearing newcomer to town. He seems to fit right in with the elderly local newspaper ladies as they bicker about semi-colons, but his real attraction is to Tony - proclaiming "we're on the same wavelength" after a few 'coincidental' meet-ups. It's tempting to label this as a battle of nitwits, but neither of the men lack intelligence. They are both just awkward, and that includes Tony, our trusted narrator.
The film is basically a puzzle with numerous separate pieces loosely packaged as a series of vignettes that may or may not tie together. The segments certainly provide a showcase for a plethora of recognizable actors. The list includes: Austin Pendleton, Gina Gershon, Jessica Walter, Didi Conn, Marilu Henner, Tammy Blanchard, Matthew Maher, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Josh Pais, and Steve Routman. One segment I found particularly entertaining featured Doug Plaut and the legendary M Emmet Walsh as a writer and director discussing a project.
For the most part, it just seems the film, the writers, and the characters are all trying so desperately to be witty, clever, or funny, that whether it works as a cohesive project gets kind of pushed aside. The background circus music fits well and complements the theatrical pacing and cadence. Mazziotti's film is certainly not cinema-as-usual, and it will likely find a cult following ... perhaps among those bonding "on a personal pronoun basis."
The Girl with the Rivet Gun (2020)
3 Rosies speak
Greetings again from the darkness. The image most associated with "Rosie the Riveter" is the iconic poster featuring a woman wearing a headband, and flexing her bicep exposed by a rolled-up work sleeve. The phrase on the poster reads "We can do it!", and it's now viewed as a tribute to the many women who took jobs in factories as men were called to military duty when WWII escalated. Co-directors Anne de Marie and Kirsten Kelly previously collaborated on documentaries, including THE HOMESTRETCH (2014) and ASPARAGUS! STALKING THE AMERICAN LIFE (2008), and here they allow three surviving "Rosies" to tell a bit of their own stories.
After opening with an excerpt of an Eleanor Roosevelt speech, the film introduces us to Esther Horne, Susan Taylor King, and Mildred "Millie" Crow Sargent. The women are from quite different backgrounds and provide their own perspectives on what they experienced Rosie the Riveter. We see a photo of Gussack Machine Shop in Long Island City where, during her first year of marriage, Esther recalled doing the job "for the war" - in other words, as her patriotic duty. Susan, a woman of color, explains how she attended Defense Training School and worked at the Chevy plant in Baltimore. At the time, her dream was to own more than two pair of shoes. Southern lady Millie recounts how, up to that point, "nice girls didn't wear pants", and how that changed when she went to work building Helldivers.
The filmmakers use stop-motion animation in lieu of archival footage to present the women working in factories, but these segments actually distract from the best parts: watching these women tell their own stories so many years later. We can't help but be fascinated as Esther acknowledges the pranks she endured being sent to the tool shop for "a left-handed hammer", and Millie admits her initial reticence at working next to black people. We also cringe at the modern-day symmetry as Millie discusses the unfairness of being paid 40 cents an hour, while her male co-workers made 75 cents.
We learn of the 2010 "Rosie the Riveter" reunion, and hear the comparison of these women to the first woman in space. Although the numbers vary depending on the data source, the filmmakers say 6 million women were added to the workforce during WWII. One thing that doesn't vary ... Ester, Susan, and Millie are proud of their contributions, as they rightly should be. Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping the story of "Rosie" alive.
***NOTE: the familiar poster noted above was actually created in 1942 as a motivational poster for Westinghouse, not as a U.S. recruiting tool.
The Banker (2020)
my husband is a genius
Greetings again from the darkness. The 'long con' usually doesn't work for movies since the story must be told within a 2 hour window. However, writer-director Georg Nolfi and co-writers Brad Kane, Niceole R Levy, David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger deliver a story inspired by the true actions and events of men who found a clever way to circumvent a system designed to prevent people of color from succeeding in business.
Anthony Mackie puts on glasses and a few sharp suits to play Bernard Garrett. We see young Bernard as a shoeshine boy in Willis, Texas in 1939, eavesdropping on the businessmen as they chat about high finance, and then taking notes on subjects such as return on investment and calculating property value. Young Bernard grows into a math whiz adult ... one whose ambition is hampered only by the color of his skin. He has a chip on his shoulder and is intent on proving the world wrong. His supportive wife Eunice (Nia Long) introduces him to Los Angeles entrepreneur Joe Morris (Samuel L Jackson), whose enterprising approach and bold lifestyle both complements and contrasts with Bernard's ambition and straight-laced personality.
Bernard realized early on that in order to build the real estate portfolio he envisioned .one that could provide opportunity for others in the black community .he needed the face of a white man to handle the negotiations. Initially that white face belonged to Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), and the business grew quickly. Things really take off for the Garrett - Morris partnership when they begin training Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) how to be the face of the company. Bernard's shrewd business and financial sense flies over Steiner's head, but with practice, he learns to "act" the part. Steiner's training involves everything from golf to math to dinner table etiquette.
It was the late 1950's and early 1960's . racism was rampant. The Garrett - Morris story plays like an underground rebellion, and one that is surprisingly fun to watch unfold on screen. While the two men built their personal wealth, their actions also helped fight against racism and inequality. They ended up owning 177 buildings, and things might have continued on had Garrett not, against Morris' better judgment, decided they were strong enough to change things back in his hometown of Willis, Texas. Morris labeled Garrett's plan as "social activism" rather than business. Their real estate venture morphed into banking so that blacks could have access to business and personal loans. What seemed like a minor misstep from Steiner, blew the wheels off and created a worst case scenario for Garrett and Morris.
Mackie, Hoult and Jackson are all fun to watch here, with Mr. Jackson offering up many of his patented reaction shots and laughs. If anything, the filmmakers play things a bit too safe with the story-telling. It's all a bit too slick and glossy, given the times. Sure, it's a pleasure to see what amounts to a classic car show on the street, but it's difficult to imagine things went quite this smoothly right up until they didn't. This is an Apple TV production, and its release was delayed due to controversy surrounding Garrett's second wife (not depicted in the film) and his son, who was originally listed as a Producer. An "Inspired by true events" banner to open a film typically means some dramatic license was taken, which we can assume was the case here. Regardless, the story of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris and Matt Steiner is fascinating, and worthy of being told.