Monogamish


Sexuality should be playful.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Dr. Christopher Ryan, Dan Savage, Tao Ruspoli, Roberta Haze, Claudia Ruspoli, Debra Berger, Dr. Loree Johnson, John Perry Barlow, Mark Wrathall, Stephanie Coontz, Frank Ryan, Julie Ryan, Sforza Ruspoli, Wendell Berger, Eric Berkowitz, Dossie Easton, Annette Burger, Eric Anderson, Judith Stacy, Stephanie Johnstone. Directed by Tao Ruspoli

 

As a culture, we have been taught to revere monogamy. When someone cheats in a marriage our sympathies automatically go to the cheated upon. While there are psychologists and philosophers who have written that monogamy is not the natural state for humankind, nonetheless western society has come to embrace it to a point.

After undergoing a bitter divorce, director/actor Tao Ruspoli decided he needed to explore the subject. He enlisted the help of a variety of experts on the subject from marriage counselors to academics to sex columnists to his own family. Ruspoli, as it turns out, is the son of an Italian prince. A child of the freewheeling 70s, his mother was his father’s 18-year-old girlfriend (his dad was in his 50s at the time) and grew up in a life of privilege but also in an environment where he was exposed to non-traditional relationships from an early age.

One thing we don’t get is why the interest in monogamy. The obvious answer is that either Ruspoli cheated on his ex-wife (actress Olivia Wilde) or she cheated on him, although neither scenario is spelled out in the film. Other ramifications from serial cheating are not explored, like the increased likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases.

There are some very good cases made for polyamory, particularly from Savage, an outspoken proponent for the subject and Dr. Christopher Ryan who has written books on it. Not everyone is wired to be monogamous; some people are unhappy in exclusive relationships. Also the point of marriage de-emphasizing sex is brought up but if sex is so unimportant, why would having sex with another partner be grounds to end it? It’s an interesting question that there are no easy answers to.

Not everyone is going to receive the message here well and I will admit that I personally felt that some of the arguments for polyamory felt more like excuses to be unfaithful. Any good relationship takes a lot of work and commitment; it is much harder to commit to someone else if there’s an easy out through infidelity. Roberta Haze, a neighbor of Ruspoli’s and a costume designer for the film industry, blithely admits that she left three husbands because she got bored with them. Perhaps for some people the need for excitement outweighs the need for stability.

I do think Ruspoli tries to present both sides of the equation, but it’s clear that his sympathies lie on one specific side as the “big reveal” at the end at the end of the movie implies. The subject is presented in a fairly clinical way and with a lot of personal anecdotes but at the end of the day this is a highly charged, emotional subject which the message for which might not be able to penetrate the emotional barriers set up by some who adhere to a certain mindset. Nonetheless, this is an excellent starting point for people interested in learning about our monogamous culture, the “marriage-industrial complex” (as Savage deems it) and a society which praises monogamy but in which infidelity is rampant.

REASONS TO GO: A thoughtful and insightful look at human sexuality.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the film seems to be looking for excuses to cheat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Savage is best known for his column “Savage Love” printed weekly in the Seattle-based alternative paper The Stranger.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Human Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
TBD

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Clarity


Healthcare isn’t what it used to be.

(2014) Drama (Vision) Nadine Velazquez, Dina Meyer, Maurice Compte, Tony Denison, Dana Melanie, Lourdes Narro, Geovanni Gopradi, Anton Rivas, Rusty Meyers, Jason Sarcinelli, Cazi Greene, Thompson Jr., Vinda Montalvo, Veronica Lopez, Eduard Osipov, Christina Roman, Joey Huebner, Morgen Weaver, Luis Delgado, Danny Pacheco, Andrew Pacheco, Sharon Resnikoff. Directed by Peyv Raz

 

A mother’s love is pretty much about as certain as death and taxes. There aren’t many moms who wouldn’t go through hell for the sake of their child and if that child’s life hung in the balance, well there isn’t anything they wouldn’t do to save them

Sharon (Meyer) is throwing a dinner party to welcome her adopted daughter Maggie (Melanie) home from medical school. However when she arrives home she suddenly collapses at the dinner table and is rushed to the hospital. As it turns out, Maggie has a rare disease that is causing her kidney to fail and she needs a new one pronto. As she is adopted, nobody in Las Vegas – where Sharon lives – can help. They’ll have to find her birth mother who Sharon only knows lives somewhere in Mexico.

But Maggie being adopted is a bit of a misnomer. She was in fact stolen from her birth mother Carmen (Velazquez – Narro as the younger version in flashbacks) and sold to the rich American. Sharon wasn’t aware of this although Malcolm (Denison), her late husband’s muscle man, knew the score. So he heads off south of the Border to bring Carmen back. He doesn’t mention that her long lost daughter needs a kidney. Carmen’s husband Omar (Compte) is somewhat suspicious at the sudden reunion and insists on coming along.

Carmen has the same disease as her daughter does and the transplant may very well kill her – which makes one wonder if poor Maggie is getting a kidney that will last her for very long. Sharon is used to getting what she wants but as the power shifts from the wealthy Sharon to Carmen who wants justice for having her child stolen from her, Maggie’s life will hang in the balance.

I’ll give credit where credit is due; this is a really good concept for a film and it brings up some solid socioeconomic points not to mention some pretty strong emotional ones. Unfortunately, the opportunity provided by a good concept is squandered in execution, mainly because the movie ends up coming off like a particularly hysterical telenovela.

Some of the plot points strain credibility, particularly near the end when Carmen threatens Sharon, and by extension, her own daughter. It comes out of left field and especially when Carmen went through such heartache and at last is reunited with her daughter I don’t think that she would do anything to endanger her daughter’s life – but beyond that there’s also the dialogue which does sound like soap opera 101. Not that I have anything against soap operas but the movie takes all the worst elements of that particular art form which may well thrill fans of that genre but if, like me, you’re not quite so enamored this might not be good news at all

Meyer, who was one of my favorite actresses of the 90s (I’ll never forget her work on Starship Troopers and Eyes Wide Shut) puts as much dignity as she can muster into the role. Velazquez who has done some stellar work on her TV shows Major Crimes and Six does what she can with a character who is often contradictory which I suppose makes her fairly realistic. Playing the innocent martyr is Melanie who at least manages to look beautiful and ill at the same time.

Much of the rest of the cast injects some hysterics in their histrionics. I don’t blame them to be honest; with a movie like this chewing scenery is really the only option for an actor and a lot of that goes on here. I do think this is a bit of a wasted opportunity; this could have further explored the class divide between the wealthy trophy wife of a Las Vegas businessman (I don’t think it was really necessary to make him so shady) and the impoverished hard-working Mexican girl; given the current climate of Mexican-American relations, a lot of hay could have been made of that as well although to be fair this was filmed well before Trump was elected. If the over-dramatics had been cut down in the plot, this could have been a really nice little film. Hopefully Raz’s next one will be better.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is good and Meyer handles her part like a pro.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is cringe-inducing. Some of the writing is a bit on the overwrought side.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a bit of violence as well as discussion of a character’s rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature directing debut for Peyv Raz.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Forrester
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Monogamish

New Releases for the Week of October 13, 2017


THE FOREIGNER

(STX) Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Katie Leung, Rufus Jones, Charlie Murphy, Michael McElhatton, Lia Williams, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Stephen Hogan. Directed by Martin Campbell

A Chinese businessman living in London is horrified to see his daughter killed in a terrorist bomb blast. Grieving and obsessed with seeing justice for his daughter’s murder, he crosses swords with a government official with a past who may have clues as to the identity of the terrorist. What the official doesn’t realize that the businessman also has a past – one that may very well cause all sorts of mayhem before all is said and done.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence, language, and some sexual material)

American Satan

(Miramax) Denise Richards, Booboo Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Boone Junior. In a moment of weakness, a young rock band makes a deal with the devil. Fame and fortune seem to be coming their way but they soon realize the cost is way too high. Can they figure out a way to get out of their deal before it’s too late?

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, drug use throughout, pervasive language and some violence)

The Florida Project

(A24) Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Caleb Landry Jones. In a decrepit hotel near Walt Disney World, a precocious and fearless 6-year-old girl gets into mischief with her friends while her rebellious mother barely scrapes together enough for the two of them to get by. Over the course of one magical summer, the young girl will take magic wherever she can find it under the watchful eye of the grumpy manager with a heart of gold. A festival favorite, this one has been getting Best Picture Oscar buzz and was shot right here in Orlando.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material)

Happy Death Day

(Blumhouse/Universal) Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews. In the grand tradition of Groundhog Day, a high school senior relives the same day over and over again. It’s her birthday, normally a good thing – but it’s also the day she is murdered. She must find out the identity of her killer and survive until the next day – or be doomed to be killed over and over and over and over and over…

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity)

Marshall

(Open Road) Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown. A cocky young African-American lawyer takes on a controversial case that has wider ramifications in the fight for civil rights. The lawyer will have to battle the prejudices of an entire nation in order to triumph but triumph is what Thurgood Marshall’s whole career would be about – as the first African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

See the trailer, interviews and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

(Annapurna) Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton. Psychologist William Marston is best known today for creating the Wonder Woman comic in 1941. Incorporating the feminist ideals of his wife and their lover, the comic was controversial from the beginning but Marston stood up for his creation, making her the most popular female superhero in the world.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips and an interview here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language)

The Secret Scripture

(Vertical) Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Eric Bana, Theo James. A woman who has been placed in a psychiatric care facility begins to receive visits from a young psychologist. His interest in her diary begins to trigger flashbacks to her youth which was filled with romance, obsession, intrigue, turmoil and ultimately the mental breakdown that got her committed.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content, some sexuality and lanuage)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Blood Money
Raju Gari Gadhi 2
RWBY Volume 5: Premiere

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Raju Gari Gadhi 2
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain
Jane
Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards
Marjorie Prime
MFA
Raju Gari Gadhi 2
Udaharanam Sujatha

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

Lucky
Raju Gari Gadhi 2

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Brawl in Cell Block 99
The Florida Project
The Foreigner
Happy Death Day
Lucky
Marjorie Prime
Marshall
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Miami Film Festival GEMS (Miami, October 12-15)

Loving Vincent


But is it art?

(2017) Animated Feature (Good Deed) Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, James Green, Bill Thomas, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Josh Burdett, John Sessions, Joe Stuckey, Piotr Pamula, Kamila Dyoubari . Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

 

As a painter, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the world’s most influential, creating works that remain iconic to this day – most of us have seen at least pictures of some of his work. As a person, Vincent Van Gogh was an enigma; beset by mental and emotional issues throughout his life (there are some experts who believe he was bipolar) that led to him shooting himself fatally at age 30 in 1890. He remains a mystery to many, producing over 800 paintings in the last 10 years of his life and then abruptly choosing suicide.

Armand Roulin (Booth) is a roustabout, a ne’er do well who is the son of Joseph Roulin (O’Dowd), the postmaster of Arles where Van Gogh lived and a friend to the Dutch painter. Joseph has come into possession of a letter that Vincent (Gulaczyk) wrote to his beloved brother Theo (Pamula) near the end of his life. It is 1891 and Van Gogh has been dead for a year. Joseph has tasked his son with the job of delivering the letter from the late master to his brother in Paris, only when Armand gets there he is unable to locate Theo. He goes to Vincent’s art supply dealer Pere Tanguy (Sessions) who informs him that Theo has followed Vincent into the hereafter. Armand then decides that in lieu of delivering the letter to Theo he will deliver it instead to Theo’s wife Johanna. Tanguy doesn’t know where she is living but suggests contacting Dr. Gachet (Flynn) in Auvers who treated Vincent in the last months of his life and was with him when he died.

Roulin travels to Auvers only to find that the good Doctor is out of town. He decides to stay at the same inn and pub where Vincent stayed; the kindly innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux (Tomlinson) who remembered the painter quite fondly puts him up in the very room where Vincent lived and died. Armand sets out while he waits for the doctor to return with talking with various townspeople about the painter, from the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Ronan), his housekeeper (McCrory), a boatman (Flynn) and the local policeman (Herdman). The more Armand interviews the people who knew Van Gogh the more murky his death becomes. Was it really suicide, as the painter himself confessed to on his deathbed? Or was it something else?

First off, this movie is a remarkable achievement in animation. The filmmakers started by filming the actors against green screen, then utilized more than 100 artists to create each frame as an oil painting in the style of Van Gogh (inserting actual paintings of the master in various places more than 40 of them – see if you can spot them all) which came out to about approximately 65,000 paintings all told. In a way, we’re getting a view inside Van Gogh’s head and coming about as close as we will ever get to seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes.

The voice acting can be stiff and stuffy at times, but unlike a lot of reviewers I found the story compelling. There is a bit of a mystery to the death of Van Gogh, particularly in light of a 2011 biography that questions the official account of his death and hints that he may have been the victim of an accidental shooting and that he insisted it was suicide to protect the person who shot him. There are certainly some compelling reasons to think it, mainly based on the angle of the shot that mortally wounded the painter. Most suicides put the gun to their head; most don’t kill themselves by shooting themselves in the stomach which is an exceedingly painful way to go. The angle of the wound also suggests a trajectory that would have made it physically unlikely that Van Gogh shot himself although it was possible.

That said, most scholars today agree that this new theory is less likely than suicide and while the filmmakers here seem to lean in the direction of homicide, it at least gives us a bit of a gateway into examining the painter’s works, particularly in the last months of his life. While the movie seems preoccupied with Van Gogh’s death more than his life – something in which Adeline Ravoux actually scolds Armand about during the film – there is no doubt that the filmmakers hold his work in great reverence.

And that’s really the beauty of the film. It brings the world of Van Gogh to life, gives it depth and meaning in ways that most of us could never do on our own. It will hopefully give some folks the impetus to take a closer look at his work and his life; it did me for sure. Spending so much time trying to make sense of his death may give the movie a bit of a morbid tinge but that doesn’t detract at all from the overall beauty that Van Gogh created – and the filmmakers re-created with such obvious love. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on the shortlist for the Best Animated Feature Oscar for next year.

REASONS TO GO: The technique is startling and brilliant. The use of Van Gogh’s paintings is clever. The story is compelling. The end credits are extremely well done. The film will likely motivate you to explore Van Gogh, his life and his work.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems more concerned with Van Gogh’s death than with his life. Some of the voice acting is a little stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly mature; there’s also some violence, a bit of sexuality and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each one of the film’s more than 65,000 frames were hand-painted using similar techniques to what Van Gogh actually used. It took a team of more than 125 artists more than seven years to complete the massive task.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Painting (Le tableau)
FINAL RATING: 8..5/10
NEXT:
Clarity

The Mummy (2017)


Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis are up in the air waiting on the future of the Dark Universe.

(2017) Horror (Universal) Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Mitchell, Rez Kempton, Erol Ismail, Selva Rasalingam, Shanina Shaik, Javier Botet, Hadrian Howard, Dylan Smith, Parker Sawyers, Bella Georgiou. Directed by Alex Kurtzman

 

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a license to print money for Disney, it’s no wonder that shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood. A shared universe differs from a franchise in that whereas franchise films feature the same characters appearing in different films that are literal sequels, a shared universe has different characters appearing in different films that share a common background and often different characters appear in the films of other characters.

Universal has decided to throw their hat into the ring with the Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe featuring their classic monsters which if you ask me is a tip-top idea; back in the heyday of Universal monster movies, the studio made big bucks when they would have films with three or four of their monsters sharing screen time in the same movie so in a way they have already done the shared universe thing. Can they it work in the 21st century?

Nick Morton (Cruise) is a U.S. Army officer who moonlights as a soldier of fortune “liberating” ancient artifacts from the various countries he serves in and selling them on the black market. Nick is not so much amoral as he is self-serving and his sidekick Vail (Johnson) knows it. When they are ambushed by insurgents during a long reconnaissance in Iraq, Nick calls in an airstrike which in turn reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Nick’s superior Colonel Greenway (Vance) enlists archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis) to examine the tomb which she reports is more like a prison. Nick discovers a sarcophagus inside a pool of mercury and raises it. With the insurgents returning, Greenway orders the sarcophagus put on an army transport plane and sent to England for further study.

What Nick doesn’t know is that the tomb is that of Ahmanet (Boutella), an ambitious Egyptian princess in line for the throne until one of Pharaoh’s concubines gives birth to a son. Knowing this will relegate her to the sidelines, she slaughters her entire family and prepares her lover to be sacrificed so that the spirit of the evil god Set can take over his body but the pharaoh’s guards discover what she is up to and for her awful crimes she is sentenced to be mummified alive.

What Nick also doesn’t know is that his pal Vail has been bitten by a camel spider which was controlled by the evil princess and is now controlled by Ahmanet. On board the transport he goes on a rampage in an effort to free the mummy but is killed; Ahmanet instead sends a massive flock of crows to bring the plane down. Nick at the last moment puts a parachute on Jennifer and sends her out the door. He is apparently killed in the plane crash.

The thing is, he’s not quite dead yet. He wakes up and nobody is more mystified than he as to why he’s still alive. However, Vail’s ghost informs him (in a conceit right out of American Werewolf in London) that Nick has been marked by Ahmanet to be the new vessel for Set, completing her bargain with the god and giving her unlimited power on Earth. However, in order to do that she’s is going to have to find two relics – a ruby and a dagger – that are hidden in England.

Nick finds out that Jennifer is an employee of a company called Prodigium which was created to fight supernatural enemies on Earth by a man named Henry Jekyll (Crowe), a brilliant scientist who harbors a secret that pretty much everybody knows he won’t be able to Hyde. Stopping Ahmanet is job one at the moment. However, Ahmanet has been busy. She’s been regenerating by feeding on the living and her powers to control the dead are growing. Nick knows he can run but he can’t hide – he and Ahmanet have a psychic connection now. How do you fight against a monster that has virtually unlimited power?

Most people are going to compare this to the 1999 version of The Mummy. Do yourself a favor and don’t, as hard as it is not to have that film in your head when watching this one. The Brendan Fraser version is a rollicking roller coaster ride that is sheer entertainment from beginning to end. This one is far more ponderous. Kurtzman, a veteran writer, has penned some big movies for some big franchises and who has been placed in creative control of the Dark Universe. He’s indulging in some world building here and that might be understandable but the problem is that he’s really cramming way too much into a single movie. Things get convoluted and while the Prodigium stuff is fascinating, the ancient Egyptian backstory is not. This feels less fun and more of a chore to get through so that the other movies can come along and fit in to the sandbox Kurtzman and his fellow writers are constructing. That’s not how you want to feel coming out of a big summer tentpole movie, particularly one in which you want to establish a billion dollar franchise. This has the feel of a movie-by-committee.

Cruise is beginning to show some signs of middle age but he still has the smile wattage and the screen presence to pull this off. Crowe makes Jekyll an enigma who you want to learn more about; both of these performances bode well for future ventures. Boutella also makes a pretty decent movie monster. She’s sexy AND scary, a nice combination. Wallis is less memorable although I think that’s more a function of the writing and less of her performance.

The CGI is less than sparkling; it’s not that it is out and out bad, it’s just not exciting. These days the CGI has to dazzle to a certain degree and here it merely fills in the gaps. I will say that the plane crash sequence here is flat-out amazing; it’s truly the highlight of the film and is a scene I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Not enough to want to buy the movie though.

Kurtzman is packing too many elements in here. We see bits of Indiana Jones, of the aforementioned American Werewolf and even Aliens. The whole movie feels ponderous and derivative where it should be fun and exciting, or at least scary as hell. The movie ends up being not so much boring as unimaginative and lacking in any reason to want to see the scheduled follow-up Bride of Frankenstein (which has since been yanked from the Universal release schedule – something tells me some major re-tooling is underway). When you’re trying to establish a new cinematic universe, that’s the opposite of the effect you want your movie to have on your audience.

REASONS TO GO: The character of Henry Jekyll and the Prodigium backstory have potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many elements borrowed liberally from much better films make this less of a thrill ride than the 1999 version.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, action and scary images; there’s also a smattering of sexually suggestive material including some brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With this film and his starring role in American Made, this is the first time since 2012 that Cruise has starred in more than one film in the same calendar year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Loving Vincent

Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

Woodpeckers (Carpinteros)


Julian is on the inside looking out.

(2017) Drama (Outsider) Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Mario Nunez, Aleja Johnson, Manuel Raposo, Carlota Carrelero, Toussaint Merionne, Orestes Amador, Fernando De Jesús Mejia, Cape Ramirez, Gilberto Hernández, Jose Cruz, Keunis Alvarez, Karina Valdez. Directed by José Maria Cabral

Incarceration is no joke; going to prison is not a preferable situation for anyone, anywhere in the world. In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Of course, once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really give a hoot what happens to them.

Julian Sosa (Jean) is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he is jailed in the notorious Najayo Prison outside of Santo Domingo. Prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.

Julian, who is of Haitian descent (which is not a very pleasant place to be in Santo Domingo) initially wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury (Candelario) who like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the kind of guy who can get things for you. Unlike Mr. Freeman, Manaury has a hair-trigger temper and is borderline psychotic.

He introduces Julian to woodpecking, a detailed sign language that the prisoners use to communicate with the female inmates who are housed a mere 400 feet away across a yard. Through woodpecking, romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another. Manaury has a “girlfriend” named Yanelly (Perez) who is a bit temperamental herself. When Manaury gets in a fracas and gets sent to solitary, he prevails upon Julian to communicate with Yanelly via woodpecking.

The problem is that Yanelly had discovered that Manaury had been woodpecking with another girl in while she was in solitary herself. As she “talks” to Julian she begins to fall for him and he for her. By the time the suspicious and paranoid Manaury gets released back into the general population, Yanelly and Julian are deeply in love. He has even managed to wrangle a work detail in the women’s prison so that the two of them can exchange a quick and furtive kiss. She arranges to smuggle her own panties to him which leads to Manaury finding out that his paranoia was justified…and for him to plot brutal revenge against Julian.

This movie played the Miami Film Festival earlier this year and is the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar Foreign Language Film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. The movie is gritty and realistic which you know it had to be, considering the filming location and extras (only the leads were professional actors). You get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions.

The movie spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. Fortunately despite being something of an odd couple – Yanelly is volatile and passionate, Julian introspective and quiet – the love aspect works and one ends up rooting for the couple. Both Perez and Jean do strong jobs here, particularly the former. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Candelario who seems to be screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time. It’s an over-the-top performance that makes his character more of a caricature.

Unfortunately the filmmakers can’t sustain the momentum the movie builds early on and during the last third, after both Julian and Manaury are transferred to the even more brutal La Victoria prison and a prison riot breaks out. It does lead to a final shot that is compelling and almost redeems the rest of that plot point – but not quite. Still this is a superior movie that made the rounds on the festival circuit (and continues to do so) and even had a brief New York run. It’s a little hard to find at the moment but no doubt it will get some streaming service or another to pick it up and once it does you should give it a chance. This is a fine movie from a filmmaker who has enormous potential.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty and realistic depiction of prison life in the Dominican. The love story is believable and fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses momentum during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some nudity and sexuality as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed inside a Dominican prison utilizing actual prisoners in small roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crown Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Te Ata