The Beta Test


Jim Cummings promises that he’s not a douchenozzle like Jordan.

(2021) Mystery (IFC) Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Applegate, Jacqueline Doke, Christian Hillborg, Jessie Barr, Malin Barr, Wilky Lau, Keith Powell, Lya Yanne, Jackie Michele Johnson, Brayden Reeves, Dustin Hahn, Ammar Alderi, Joy Sunday, Julio Trinidad, Bryan Casserly, Jeffrey Markle, Cheri Chen Julian. Directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe

 

Hollywood is not a place for the faint of heart. It is full of rampaging egos and cutthroat businessfolk who chew up and spit out the gentler souls. It is a place that needs thick skins and a cold heart in order to survive.

Jordan (Cummings) is an agent for a three-letter talent agency (Hollywood insider junkies can likely figure out which one it’s supposed to be) who is pretty much a douchebag. He makes deals of questionable legality and unquestionable immorality, treats assistants like cannon fodder, and outwardly dotes on his fiancé Caroline (Newcomb) while viewing her as essentially a stepping stone on the way to real power.

He receives a strange invitation in a purple envelope, promising him a one-time no-strings-attached sexual encounter if he shows up to such-and-such a hotel room at such-and-such a time. He barely gives it a second thought and shows up, where he is blindfolded and has passionate sex with a similarly blindfolded partner.

But paranoia runs deep in the heart of an agent, and Jordan begins to suspect that he’s been set up. He confides in his partner PJ (McCabe) who launches a quiet investigation; in the meantime, Angelinos are dropping like flies, being murdered by their partners for their infidelity. Is that what’s in store for Jordan?

There’s a lot going on here; multiple layers of different genres, from a whodunit, to a Hollywood insider satire, to a dark comedy and to an erotic thriller. The movie tilts at windmills like Big Tech, misogynistic Hollywood culture, toxic masculinity and infidelity. Some might even see it as a parable about modern society and morals; I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but I can see where the idea might germinate. In the first two acts, the various elements are interwoven deftly, although co-directors (and co-writers) seem to lose the threads in the final act when the violence begins to accelerate.

One of the big problems here is that Jordan is a walking talking bag of feces, and the longer you spend with him, the more unclean you’ll feel. There comes a point where you begin hoping that Caroline will find out what’s going on and attatch a bomb to his testicles; at least that might give the audience a sense of satisfaction, but alas, that’s not to be. Does Jordan get what’s coming to him? I’m not telling, but suffice to say that you may or may not leave the film’s final credits feeling vindicated.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of different layers going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lead character is such a jerk you don’t want to spend another minute with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the dialogue is repeated verbatim from testimony given the filmmakers by eleven agents, former agents and assistants at the four largest talent agencies in Hollywood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

New Releases for the Week of November 26, 2021


ENCANTO

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero, Angie Cepeda, John Leguizamo, Wilmer Valderrama. Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard

The Madrigal family have been blessed to live in an enchanted house called Encanto in the mountains of Columbia. The house bestows upon each of them a special power – all except Mirabel. But the magic of Encanto is in danger and the only one who can save it might just be Mirabel.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and mild peril)

A Holiday Chance

(Faith Media) Nafessa Williams, Sharon Leal, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tobias Truvillion. Two estranged rival sisters must come together to help save the family business when their father suffers some tragic events during the holidays.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Holiday
Now Playing: Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and a suggestive reference)

Antim: The Final Truth

(Zee) Salman Khan, Aayush Sharma, Mahima Makwana, Mahesh Manjrekar. A penniless village boy sacrifices family and nearly everything else to rise to the top of organized crime, pursued closely by a relentless police officer.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Crime
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Springs, Regal Pavilion Port Orange
Rating: NR

Anubhavinchu Raja

(Annapurna) Ajay, Raj Tarun, Krishna Murali Posani, Sudharshan. A young man who inherits wealth at an early age becomes the village laughingstock when his lavish lifestyle catches up to him. Determined to prove himself worthy, his quest to gain respect goes awry.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando
Rating: NR

For the Love of Money

(Freestyle) Keri Hilson, Rotimi, Jason Mitchell, Keith Sweat. When shadowy figures threaten a woman’s daughter, she is pulled into the life she had escaped and had hoped never to return to.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: R (for language, some sexual content/nudity and violence)

House of Gucci

(United Artists) Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons. Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott may have another awards contender on his hands as the family behind an Italian fashion empire is unraveled by the naked ambition of an outsider who married into the family.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: True Crime Drama
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: R (for language, some sexual content, and brief nudity and violence)

Julia

(Sony Classics) Julia Child, Ina Garten, Jacques Pepin, Marcus Samuelsson. This is the story of the woman who essentially created the modern cooking show, transformed the way Americans see food and cooking, and even made a difference in the role of women in society.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Cinematique Daytona, Enzian
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language/sexual references, and some thematic elements)

Maanaadu

(V House) S.J. Suryah, T.R. Silambarasan, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Bharathiraja. The bodyguard of the chief minister of the state and a police officer are caught in a time loop on the day of an important conference.

See the trailer
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando, Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: NR

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

(Screen Gems) Kaya Scodelario, Hannah John-Kamen, Robbie Amell, Donal Logue. The exodus of pharmaceutical giant Umbrella has turned a boom town into a ghost town, but the problems for Raccoon City are far worse below the surface, where the evil of the Umbrella Corporation is being born.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: R (for strong violence and gore, and language throughout)

The Unforgivable

(Netflix) Sandra Bullock, Jon Bernthal, Vincent D’Onofrio, Viola Davis. A woman convicted for a violent crime serves out her sentence after which she returns home, where she is decidedly not welcome. Her only hope for redemption is in finding her estranged younger sister, whom she was forced to leave behind.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Cinemark Universal Citywalk
Rating: R (for language and violence)

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible (Monday)
Adrienne
(Wednesday)
Angéle
Badland Doves
(Wednesday)
Burning
(Monday)
Dig Deeper: The Disappearance of Birgit Meier
DMX: Don’t Try to Understand Me
(Thursday)
Dog Years
Good Thief
(Tuesday)
Green Snake
Lady Buds
More the Merrier
(Monday)
Nash Bridges
(Saturday)
The Power of the Dog
(Wednesday)
South Park: Post-COVID
(Thursday)
Spoiled Brats
The Summit of the Gods
(Tuesday)

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Encanto
House of Gucci
Lady Buds
The Power of the Dog
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City
The Unforgivable

The Feast


When Wales becomes wails.

(2021) Horror (IFC Midnight) Annes Elwy, Nia Roberts, Julian Lewis Jones, Steffan Cennydd, Sion Alun Davies, Rodri Mellir, Lisa Palfrey, Chris Gordon, Caroline Berry. Directed by Lee Haven Jones

 

Some horror movies are an adrenaline rush from start to finish, keeping one on the edge of the seat, pulses pounding, going from one scare to another with little let-up. Others are slow burns, building up a mood and tension, building up to an explosive climax that leaves the viewer feeling wrung-out and exhausted, like a wet dishrag.

The Feast is the latter kind of film. In the green Welsh countryside, a monstrosity of a house stands out like a sore thumb. It is owned by the Member of Parliament Gwyn (Jones), who is the kind of politician whose idea of service only encompasses his own bank account. His wife, Glenda (Roberts) – Gwyn and Glenda; I wonder if Jones and writer Roger Williams noted the similarity to the title of a classic Ed Wood film? – is from the countryside but yearns to be considered an urban sophisticate. She is supervising a dinner party to be thrown for a local farmer whom Gwyn is anxious to get to sell his mineral rights to a large mining company; it is a deal with the devil from which profit is king and the damage to the countryside not even a consideration.

But Glenda can’t do it all alone, so she has enlisted the aid of Cadi (Elwy), a local waitress who is happy to make a little extra cash at this side gig, but when she arrives, she’s strangely soaking wet and muddy and her whole personality seems a little…off. As we meet the two sons of the house – arrogant triathlete Gweirydd (Davies), and the family black sheep and drug addict Gweithiwr (Gordon), we begin to notice that there’s more than a little bit strange about Cadi and as she observes the family and their guests, it becomes clear that the family is headed for a reckoning, one they richly deserve. But who is Cadi, or perhaps more to the point, what?

The script lets slip only tantalizing tidbits of information, keeping the audience in the dark until the very final act when the true nature of what’s happening is revealed. By then, it’s far too late for the victims, and also for the less patient viewer who may give up on the movie much earlier than that. That would be a mistake; the payoff is pretty satisfying, and while there are no characters who are really going to grab your rooting interest for survival, at least there is some grim satisfaction in seeing some despicable people get made examples of. It’s not justice – unless you believe in the extreme sort – but there is something deeply satisfying with seeing people who put greed and profit above everything else be made to pay big time.

Most of the violence occurs off-screen, although the director Lee Haven Jones doesn’t shy away from showing the results of the violence. The atmospheric cinematography by Bjorn Ståle Bratberg does much to establish the uneasy tone that builds throughout the film. The actors, mostly known for appearances on British television shows and movies, go about their business professionally and keep their performances subtle and centered.

This is not the kind of movie that feels like a roller coaster ride, but it IS the kind of movie that will give you nightmares and leave you feeling creeped out long after you’ve seen it. This is a very striking and solid horror experience that is going to take a few folks by surprise; definitely seek it out if you’re looking to spend the rest of the night jumping at every sound in your house.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out unsettling and the discomfort only grows from there. A bit of a comment on privilege and class distinctions.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little too long in developing for the impatient.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the few films whose entire dialogue is in Welsh.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beatriz at Dinner
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
King Richard

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road


Brian Wilson , in many ways, carried the Beach Boys.

(2021) Music Documentary (Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Jason Fine, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Gustavo Dudamel, Don Was, Steven Page, Nick Jonas, Jakob Dylan, Jim James, Mark Linett, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Bob Gaudio, Probyn Gregory, Andy Paley, Taylor Hawkins, Darian Sahanaia, Stephen Kalioich, Melinda Ledbetter. Directed by Brent Wilson

Without a doubt, the musical legacy of Brian Wilson is right up there, as Los Angeles Philharmonic Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel opines, with Schubert and Mahler. He has been described as “Pop’s Mozart” and while the man himself would probably squirm at such descriptions, they aren’t wrong.

Wilson, the man who wrote most of the big hits of the Beach Boys and produced their greatest records, also has struggled with mental illness, exacerbated by his drug abuse in the late Sixties and Seventies. Before that, he was churning out incredible songs extolling Southern California as a kind of paradise of warm sand, sunshine, beautiful girls in bikinis, and clean-cut guys in hot rods. It was a different era – for many, this sounded like heaven on Earth and the Beach Boys sold it like aggressive real estate agents. The Los Angeles chamber of commerce should have pictures of these guys up on their wall; they helped bring a lot of business and industry to California because they brought a lot of people to the Golden State.

He comes off here as a gentle soul, uncomfortable with talking about himself, nervous and anxious about any sort of interview. The fact that his friend and Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine is conducting the interviews probably helps some. Fine drives the former Beach Boy around Los Angeles to points of interest on the Brian Wilson tour; to the site of the house he grew up in Hawthorne – long since demolished to make room for a freeway, although a plaque stands at the site marking it as a California Historic Landmark. He also takes him to Paradise Cove, where the covers to some of the early Beach Boys albums were photographed – there’s a plaque there, too. Fine also takes him to various houses where he lived during the heyday of the band, and to his brother Carl’s home – he generally doesn’t get out of the car, except at the Deli where they have lunch (and run into Vanna White, a former neighbor of Wilsons and their brief chat occurs off-camera; ah, Hollywood).

We listen to a long of the songs that Brian and the Boys made famous (and a few less famous ones), and listen to the expert opinions of fellow greats Springsteen and Sir Elton John, both who admit being mesmerized by the music and inspired by it. John even admits to cribbing a few of Brian’s studio tricks for his own albums. Don Was, the veteran producer who also directed the 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Wasn’t Made For These Times, listens to “God Only Knows” from the magnificent Pet Sounds album and shakes his head in wonderment and delight. “I’ve been doing this (producing music) for forty years and I still can’t tell you how he did that,” listening to the intricate instrumentation, some of which he can’t identify – “A flute with reverb, maybe?”

But maybe the most emotional moments, even as director Brent Wilson (no relation) looks at the abusive of Brian’s father Murry, and his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, are reserved for Brian’s relationships with his brothers, both gone. He listens, for the first time he says, to Dennis Wilson’s overlooked gem of a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue and is impressed. “I wanna hear it ALL,” he says when asked if he wants to hear more. He also is brought to tears talking about his brother Carl (who passed away in 1998 from cancer, and asks Fine to turn off the song on which Carl is singing. “I can’t listen to this anymore,” he says quietly. Dennis drowned in 1983.

This isn’t a documentary that is going to reveal much more about Brian than is already out there – you probably need to go to I Was Not Made For These Times if you want more of that. But this is a sweet and affecting documentary that reminds us that although Brian may not like being identified as a genius, he nevertheless has produced some of the greatest music of his time and we are all the better for it.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some strong and powerful moments here. Lots of really good insights throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nothing really revelatory here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilson has been diagnosed with schizoactive disorder, and continues to hear voices in his head to this day.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Feast

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


Filmmaker (left) and author, out for a stroll on the beach.

(2021) Documentary (IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston (voice), John Irving, Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Adams, Jerome Klinkowitz, Morley Safer, Sidney Offit, Nanny Vonnegut, Dan Simon, Steve Adams, Valerie Stevenson, Gregory Sumner, Rodney Allen, Mark Vonnegut, Jim Adams, Joe Bleifuss, Dan Wakefield, Peter Adams, Ginger Strand. Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott

Very often before writing a review of a film I’ve recently seen, I like to read the reviews written by other critics. Not because I want to steal their prose, although once in a while I find that we’re thining along the same lines. It’s mainly curiosity that motivates me; why did this critic rate the movie so highly, or so low? What did they see that I didn’t? When it comes to documentaries, I am often surprised that critics seem to write negative reviews because a documentary didn’t meet their expectations of what they thought it should cover. I suppose that I’ve probably been guilty of the same sin myself – it’s extraordinarily, brutally hard to evaluate one’s own work – but I at least try to review what’s up there on the screen rather than what I think should be up there. That just seems logical to me.

So I suppose that those who love the work of Kurt Vonnegut – author of classics like Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions – might well be disappointed because the movie, shot over a forty year period by his close friend Robert B. Weide (an Emmy winner for Curb Your Enthusiasm), doesn’t dwell very much on literary analysis. This is a biography, told in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, much as Vonnegut’s best works are written.

It does spend a lot of time examining the facts of his life; how he served in World War II, eventually being taken prisoner and housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden where he witnessed firsthand the terrifying firebombing of that city, and was afterwards forced to dig out corpses from the smoldering ruins. The events were chronicled in his most famous book that was also his commercial breakthrough, Slaughterhouse Five,

Weide and co-director Don Argott go through the main highlights of his life, from his upbringing in Indianapolis to his marriage to Jane Marie Cox, his adoption of his sister Alice’s four sons after she died of cancer (and likely a broken heart) just two days after her husband perished in a horrific train accident, adding her children to the three he and Jane already had (one of her sister’s children would eventually move out after a year to be raised by relatives on his paternal side). It also reports on how he divorced Jane, leaving her for the photographer he was having an affair with, which did alienate him from his children for many years.

Weide talks to a lot of people, from his children (Jane, who passed away in 1986, is not heard from, curiously) to academics and admirers, biographers and people who also knew the author. We see him at personal appearances, reading from his books; he is an engaging speaker, as funny in person as his prose is on the printed page.

But it’s his relationship with Weide that really takes center stage in the movie. We see informal footage of the two chatting together, hear answering machine messages from the author that Weide saved, and hear him talk about anecdotes that Vonnegut shared with him. We learn, poignantly, that Weide keeps a dictionary above his desk that was published before the author’s death in 2007. The entry reads “Kurt Vonnegut (1922-    ), American author.” In that way, there was a source at Weide’s desk that lists his friend as still being alive. At the end of the film, Weide gently pencils in the date into the author’s entry, perhaps signifying that the completion of the documentary, which took Weide forty years to complete, is the appropriate place to let go.

The film is engaging and sometimes sentimental. For those unfamiliar with the details of Vonnegut’s life, there is a lot here to unpack – although nothing that doesn’t appear on his Wikipedia page, so from that standpoint, it’s not going to surprise those who are more familiar with the author’s life. And for those looking for insight into the author’s work, there’s really not a lot here that you wouldn’t find in your average 10th grade American literature course. Like all authors, Vonnegut was a product of his times. His experiences at Dresden made him passionately anti-war, and in the Seventies he became something of a counterculture figure for a brief time. There is something almost professorial about Vonnegut, from his bushy moustache to his corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows, to the ever-present cigarettes – one thing that annoyed me about the movie that in still photos in which Vonnegut is smoking (and there are MANY of those) Weide adds digital smoke to the point it becomes distracting.

Other than that, this is a well-made look at the author’s life through the lens of his friend’s eyes. From that standpoint, there is nothing remotely impartial about the film. In fact, the fact that the filmmaker obviously had a great deal of affection for his subject actually makes the movie a lot more enjoyable than something else that would have been dry and insufferable – the very antithesis of what Vonnegut was as a writer.

REASONS TO SEE: A moving tribute from one friend to another. Some insight into one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, particularly for those not familiar with the details of his life.
=REASONS TO AVOID: The digital smoke from the cigarettes is overused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vonnegut introduced the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. The character would recur in many of Vonnegut’s works.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28), Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; =Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

Dean Martin: King of Cool


Dino in his element.

(2021) Documentary (Creative Chaos) Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Jon Hamm, Dick Cavett, Barbara Rush, Deana Martin, RZA, Alec Baldwin, Frankie Avalon, Lanie Kazan, Norman Lear, Tommy Tune, Bob Newhart, Regis Philbin, Tom Dreeson, James Woods, Scotty Lewis, George Schlatter, Ron Morasco, Josh Homme, Peter Bogdanovich, Tony Oppedisano, Anne Hayen. Directed by Tom Donahue

Everyone has their own idea as to what “cool” is. Maybe it’s someone who is up on all the latest fashions and trends. Maybe it’s someone who always seems calm in the face of difficulty. Maybe it’s just someone who runs with the cool kids. But there are those who all of us agree has that special something, that degree of cool that everyone instantly recognizes.

Dean Martin was one of those guys, although that wasn’t always the case. He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a Rust Belt town where his Italian immigrant parents (his birth name was Dino Paul Crocetti and he was often referred to affectionately as Dino throughout his life) had settled. He didn’t speak English until he was six, often being bullied in school for his accent. He dropped out of high school eventually and after trying his hand at several careers that didn’t pan out (including boxing and as a blackjack dealer) until he found one that stuck – as a singer.

Martin had a warm, inviting voice and his style was influenced by that of Bing Crosby and, in particular, the Mills Brothers (a clip from his TV program shows him performing with the Brothers and he looks absolutely tickled pink). He was a steady performer, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with up-and-coming wunderkind comic Jerry Lewis in 1946 that he found fame and fortune. Their partnership lasted ten years but ended acrimoniously. Lewis had always been assumed to be the genius of the duo, and many felt Martin would sink into obscurity, but that didn’t happen.

Instead he mounted a comeback, starring as a pretty fair dramatic actor in films like The Young Lions and Rio Bravo while his singing career continued to blossom, even though the age of the crooner was waning with the advent of rock and roll. He became close friends with fellow singer Frank Sinatra and became a member of the Rat Pack, a legendary group of performers who often dropped in unannounced at each other’s shows, and made a group of movies together, including the original Oceans 11 and Robin and the Seven Hoods. Martin also hosted a long-running TV variety show which cemented his image as not only a wonderful performer, but also a strong comedian, poking fun at his own drinking and smoking.

This documentary does a very thorough job in documenting Martin’s career, concentrating on everything from the Martin-Lewis years on. The interviews are with performers who knew him well (Angie Dickinson, Barbara Rush), family members (his daughter Deana who was also a producer on the film), and contemporary admirers like RZA, Alec Baldwin and Josh Homme. There are some audio interviews with Martin’s ex-wives but only one interview with Dino himself – taken shortly after the death of his son Dean Paul in a plane crash in 1987, an event which devastated him. He himself would pass away on Christmas Day, 1995 from complications from lung cancer, a legacy of a lifetime of being a heavy smoker.

One of the interesting takeaways from the documentary is that Martin was an intensely private individual. His second wife Jeanne, who probably knew him better than anyone, once remarked that despite being married to him for more than two decades, she didn’t really know him – nobody did. He was affable and genial in his public persona, and a loyal father who spent long stretches away from his family, but often seemed to be alone in a crowd.

For fans of Martin, this is definitely a must-see. It is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies (it’s second broadcast will be on November 26th as part of a celebration of Dino’s movies) and is likely to show up on HBO Max or TCM’s subscription streaming service afterwards. Otherwise, this is a pretty standard biography, although one should admire how well the life of the entertainer is covered.

REASONS TO SEE: A very thorough look at the life of an American icon.
REASONS TO AVOID: A whole LOT of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and a whole lot of smoking (and drinking).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 29, Martin was ten years older than Jerry Lewis when the two began their collaboration.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Children of the Enemy


Patricio Galvez cuddles his grandson.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Patricio Galvez, Clive Stafford Smith, Alba Galvez, Katalina Galvez, Mio Galvez, Persraw Baker Hussein, Eskandar Saleh, Stefan Åsberg, Isobel Coles, Adam Mattinen, Cecilia Uddén, Terese Cristiansson, Jacek Machula, Simon Sowell, Rena Effendi, Beatrice Eriksson. Directed by Gorki Glaser-Müller

Dostoyevsky wrote that a civilization is judged by how it treats its prisoners. That could also be included as to how it treats its enemies – or their children.

Patricio Galvez, a middle-aged musician who had emigrated to Sweden from Chile, made headlines in Scandinavia in 2018-19 when he attempted to rescue his seven grandchildren from the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. You see, his daughter Amanda had converted to Islam along with her mother (at the time divorced from Patricio) and had an arranged marriage with Michael Skråmo, a notorious ISIS recruiter from Norway. Eventually the two moved to Syria over the objections of Galvez, and taken their four children with them. While in Syria, they kept busy – Amanda had three more children there and was pregnant with an eighth when she was killed in an air strike. A couple of months later, Skråmo died during the fall of the caliphate, shot to death in front of his children.

The children were placed in a refugee camp and as the children of ISIS terrorists, were essentially persona non grata in Sweden. Galvez didn’t see the children of terrorists, however; he just saw his grandchildren and put up a tremendous fight to get them out of the camp. But the clock was ticking; the children were severely malnourished and were growing weaker and more ill with each passing day.

The movie chronicles the ordeal of Galvez, which is mostly down time waiting on bureaucrats to return his call, or for some action or another to be taken. He enlists the aid of humanitarian groups, but they can accomplish later. He begins a media campaign which seems to spur the Swedish government into action. However, the Swedish public is less sanguine about the affair; the social media posts are (predictably) nasty, urging Galvez to return to Chile and pointing out his failures as a father to raise a terrorist, wondering if he would be fit to raise these children as well or would they turn out to be just as radical as Amanda turned out to be?

Galvez is very conflicted. On the one hand, he mourns the loss of his daughter, realizing that she was lost years earlier when she was radicalized. He also mourns the damage done by his son-in-law and ISIS in general, all the lives disrupted, the women used as sex slaves, the children left as orphans. But throughout, he perseveres. He realizes, better than most, that the sins of the father (or the mother) should not be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

It is at times a difficult movie to watch; some of Amanda’s letters to her father from Syria are absolutely chilling, as are the home movies the two sent him of the kids. There are some joyous moments, as when Patricio finally gets a breakthrough from the Swedish diplomatic corps and Glaser-Müller puts down the camera to embrace his friend, who is overcome. The grandmother makes an appearance, further complicating matters.

The children themselves we see little of and when we do see them, their eyes are pixilated so that they can’t be easily identified. They are clearly traumatized but for all that, they are still just kids, innocent victims of parents who had followed a path of evil.

There are some negatives here; we don’t really get a lot of personal background. We aren’t told when and how Patricio’s marriage to Amanda’s mother ended, or how the two women ended up converting to Islam and why. Then again, this isn’t meant to be Amanda’s story, although she looms large throughout. We also aren’t told how Patricio managed to afford staying in the hotel near the Iraq-Syria border for a month and a half, or how he could afford to take off work (or even whether he is employed). We learn almost nothing about the mundane details of Patricio’s life, other than that he is a doting grandfather, a grieving father and a musician. A few more blanks needed to be filled in. The score is a bit on the intrusive side as well.

But that aside, this is a powerful documentary that looks at the war on terror from an entirely different viewpoint. The film is currently playing in a limited run in Los Angeles, as well as available for streaming as part of the DOC NYC festival online (see link below). While there are some questions that can never be answered – how can an apparently well-adjusted person be radicalized to that degree – it at least lets us look at the questions it can answer.

REASONS TO SEE: Patricio is a compelling subject with a warm, engaging smile but still a broken heart. Plays almost like a thriller in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t give us much insight as to who Galvez is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like Galvez, Glaser-Müller is a Chilean-Swede.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mass
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Dean Martin: King of Cool

Omara


The vitality and joy of Omara’s performance still lights up the stage after all these years.

(2021) Music Documentary (Fourth Agreement) Omara Portuondo, Rolando Luna, Ariel Portuondo, Lester Hamlet, Santiao Alfonso, Arturo O’Farrill, Telemary Diaz, Satomi, Diego El Cigola, Rossio Jiménez Blanco, Yoshiro Hiroishi, Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Chucho Valdés, Aymée Nuviola, Roberto Fonseca, Pura Obrega. Directed by Hugo Perez

The undisputed grand dame of Cuban music is Omara Portuondo. She came to public notice back in the pre-Revolution days as part of the Cuarteto d’Alda along with her sister Haydee; they were mainstays at world-famous venues like the Tropicana and the Copacabana in Havana. But the revolution came and with it many thousands of Cubanos left the country, including Haydee who moved to Miami while Omara remained in her beloved Cuba. The two sisters have scarcely spoken since.

She is best-known here as a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club organized of veteran Cuban musicians by Ry Cooder, whose recording and concerts were filmed by Wim Wenders and led to Cuban music being discovered in this country in a big way. However in Cuba, Omara is clearly revered (and rightfully so) as a legend and a national treasure. She has been compared to Billie Holiday (and rightfully so) because of the emotional resonance of her voice; listening to her sing doesn’t just appeal to the ears but to the heart as well.

She is the child of an interracial marriage, something absolutely unheard-of back in the 1920s when her parents were first married (her white mother was disowned by her family for marrying an Afro-Cuban man), and long-time friends describe that she was the target of abuse because of it, although that is obviously no longer the case. Her voice is both seductive and sweet, caressing pop and folk songs from her native land with equal fervor. And for a 90-year-old woman, her voice is astonishingly pure; as people age their voices tend to get rougher but she has managed to avoid this. When asked her secret, she plays it coy but I’m certain there’s some sort of miracle involved.

Her story isn’t well-known here nor is her music, two compelling reasons to see this documentary. Being of Cuban descent, I do lament the continued embargo that is still in place and has accomplished exactly nothing; Zero. Zip. Nada. It has robbed America of generations of beautiful music, great baseball players and of enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has split families and robbed Cuba of the energy and drive that has been transferred to the U.S. by those who came over. It is long past time for the embargo to go away and for us to stop being idiots about communism. Cuba poses no threat to us. I’m no fan of the Castro regime, but both Cuba and the United States would benefit from the end of these unnecessary restrictions. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay; see this documentary anyay and just enjoy the wonderful music of a consummate artist.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is lilting and seductive. A lovely introduction to an artist who deserves more recognition in the United States.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling may confuse some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Omara has been managed by her son for nearly forty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Children of the Enemy

New Releases for the Week of November 19, 2021


GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE

(Columbia) Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, McKenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Jason Reitman

A single mother is forced to move her kids to a small town in the middle of nowhere, unaware that they have a connection to the original Ghostbusters and that their legacy may be all that stands between us and Armageddon.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: PG-13 (for supernatural action and some suggestive references)

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

(Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Jason Fine. The legendary Beach Boys mastermind takes a journey through his own past with his close friend Jason Fine to discover the road from a quiet neighborhood in Hawthorne, California to his position as one of the all-time greatest musical minds today.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian (Monday only)
Rating: NR

Bruised

(Netflix) Halle Berry, Stephen Henderson, Adam Canto, Shamier Anderson. A former MMA fighter who left the sport in disgrace, makes a comeback through the sketchy underground fight circuit. When the son she gave up for adoption shows up on her doorstep, she is given a more compelling reason to fight.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando, CMX Daytona Beach
Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content/nudity and violence)

India Sweets and Spices

(Bleecker Street) Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala, Adil Hussain, Rish Shah. A young Indian-American woman home from college invites the son of a poor grocer to their upper class home for dinner, setting the stage for the revelation of long-buried family secrets and how the tendrils of traditional prejudices continue to entangle their lives.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Orlando, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, sexual material and brief drug references)

King Richard

(Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn. Richard Williams, an African-American man, sets high standards for his children and sets his daughters Venus and Serena along a path to tennis superstardom, breaking down barriers along the way.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: Wide (also on HBO Max)
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references)

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

(IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston, Edie Vonnegut. Vonnegut was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. This is the story of his life as seen through the eyes of his long-time friend Weide, completing the documentary he began forty years earlier.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Biographical Documentary
Now Playing: Cinematique Daytona Beach
Rating: NR

Kurup

(Phars) Dulquer Salmaan, Indrajith Sukumaran, Sobhita Dhulipala, Shine Tom Chacko. This is the story of Sukumara Kurup, one of the most notorious criminals of the Indian state of Kerala.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Crime
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando
Rating: NR

The Youngest Evangelist

(Atlas) Princeton Bryan, Crystal Clark, Duranice Pace. The true story of John King, a ten-year-old African-American child who, after witnessing his mother’s joy of salvation following years of domestic abuse, and determines to experience it himself, putting himself on a path of evangelism that captivated the world of faith in this country back in the Eighties.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Faith Biography
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Orlando, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Oviedo Marketplace
Rating: NR

Zeros and Ones

(Lionsgate) Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Valerio Mastandrea, Phil Neilson. A soldier races against time in the dark streets of Rome to find his imprisoned twin brother, who has information that could foil a terrorist attack on the Vatican.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Picture Show at Altamonte Springs, Studio Movie Grille Sunset Walk
Rating: R (for language, some violence, bloody images, sexual material and drug content)

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

A House on the Bayou
Black Friday
(Tuesday)
Boiling Point
(Tuesday)
Clerk
(Tuesday)
Dean Martin: King of Cool
El Hombre Bufalo
The Feast
Jagged
(Thursday)
Keep Sweet
(Wednesday)
Outlaws
(Monday)
The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star
(Thursday)
Procession
Psych 3: This is Gus
(Thursday)
She Paradise
Tick…Tick…BOOM!

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Black Friday
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road
Dean Martin: King of Cool
The Feast
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
India Sweets and Spices
Jagged
Keep Sweet
King Richard
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time