Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)


You really don’t want to get on her bad side.

(2018) Drama (Mumba DeviShalini Vatsa, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Kritika Pande, Vinay Sharma, Ahmareen Anjum, Sonal Joshi. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

In our patriarchal society, rape has been a hidden problem, one that is often not taken seriously by the powers that be. A large percentage of rapes go unreported because often the investigation and trial are nearly as bad if not worse than the actual sexual assault. As bad as things are in the United States however, they are infinitely worse in India.

Delhi is the rape capital of India (and quite possibly the entire planet). The women of Delhi live in a constant state of fear and hyper-awareness. At 8 pm, women know that the time for extra vigilance has come and being away from their homes is taking a terrible chance. Ladies-only taxi services have sprouted up because of the number of women who have gotten into taxis only to be driven to a remote spot and raped by the driver. Ladies only services only pick up women and have female drivers.

One such service is run by Shaila (Pande) who is also a student and a self-professed feminist. One evening she picks up a group of women to take home; Chitra (Chakraborty), a martial arts instructor, Vibha (Vatsa) an office worker and Shagun (Joshi), a police officer. Traffic, as is typical at rush hour, is bad and the women decide to stop an get a bite to eat before continuing on their way home. At a roadside eatery, they are harassed by a tough guy on a motorcycle, the kind of thing women around the world have to endure. It doesn’t end there, however.

As they are driving a cyclist pulls up next to them and makes some lewd remark- s which causes an accident…sort of. The motorcyclist ends up sprawled on the side of the road and the women come up with an idea; they are all tired of living in fear of being raped. They wanted to have men feel that same fear – maybe if they were to understand how it felt to know they could be violated at any time changes might actually come.

They take the guy (Sharma) to an abandoned room which had been used by criminals who had since been arrested. They lock him in a metal cabinet and leave him there with the intention of figuring out how to break him to the point where he becomes certain that he can be raped at any time.

The women use a variety of techniques to break him down, by treating him as a servant girl to chloroforming him and spraying pepper spray into the cabinet. Chitra turns out to have a lot of anger and often has to be restrained; Shagun reminds her that when they react to their captive, they are putting the power in his hands. Their job is to make him react to them. They are streaming video of their various indignities being visited upon him live to the Internet but what will happen when the day comes to actually convince the man in their possession that he is about to be raped?

Kripalani also directed the 2017 feature Tikli and Laxmi Bomb which dealt with the abuse of sex workers. This takes a broader look at rape culture and the effect it has on women. In all honesty, I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like this. Sure, we’ve seen our share of movies about women pushed to the edge (and often over it) by a sexual assault but those are generally revenge thrillers. There are elements of that here but I wouldn’t say this was a revenge thriller per se.

As with his previous film, Kripalani films largely on the streets of Mumbai and the movie has an authentic feel. While there are more sets in this film than in the last, the movie doesn’t feel static at all. There is kind of gravity pushing and pulling the film towards the inevitable climax which although somewhat anticlimactic in some ways, feels like the right direction for Kripalani to go in.

]Both Chakraborty and Pande appeared in his last film; they both deliver strong performances, particularly Chakraborty who is turning out to be an excellent actress. Chitra is a seething cauldron of rage who doesn’t need much prompting to erupt but at the same time she has a surprisingly vulnerable heart which is revealed in a moving conversation with Vibha late in the film. All of the characters have a personal connection to sexual assault which get revealed at various places in the film.

More or less this is cinema verite. There isn’t a lot of frills and the budget for the movie was likely not very large. The cinematography is a bit murky in places, like a ballroom lit by a 20 watt bulb.

I can’t imagine how women deal with the constant threat; the rules they have to follow – don’t get into an elevator alone with a strange man, when in a bar never drink anything you didn’t watch the bartender make and hand directly to you, always carry a rape whistle or pepper spray on your person, always park in well-lighted areas close to an exit. Be aware of what you’re wearing because that may be considered an invitation, or at least be used against you during the trial in the unlikely event that the crime goes to trial. These are things that men don’t deal with, can’t even conceive of. When the #MeToo movement began and women started posting that they had been victims of sexual harassment and/or assault, I had always known that the percentage of women who had gone through that horror was high but I didn’t realize how high it really was. I was shocked at how many friends and family had survived it.

There has been some blowback about the film; some men see it as threatening and even encouraging violence. I don’t know that I disagree; however, as far as understanding where that rage comes from, I can completely understand and even applaud the filmmakers for daring to tap into the rage of women, something that most men fear to do.

While the film has played the festival circuit, the producers tell me that Netflix has picked up the movie and will be streaming it this summer. I certainly hope so; I think a lot of men who could benefit from seeing it. The tragedy is that they probably aren’t aware that they are part of the problem.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely premise considering the rise of people opposing rape culture.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lighting is a bit too dark.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity and violence, sexual references and descriptions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The words tottaa, pataaka, item and maal in Hindi are words that are used in Northern India to tease women. They loosely translate to “hot,” “sexy” and so on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rape Squad
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Diamantino

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Pick of the Litter – June 2019


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Toy Story 4

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Annie Potts. With Andy having grown up and gone to college, the gang from Andy’s room now have a new child to take care of – Bonnie. Bonnie has some toys of her own including one she made as a craft project; Forky. However, Forky has rejected his place as a toy and runs away. When the gang goes to bring him back, it leads to a reunion with an old friend and new dangers to overcome. June 21

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Framing John DeLorean

(Sundance Selects) Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Michael Rispoli, Dean Winters. The incredible but true story of John DeLorean, a visionary and fraud who captured headlines in the 1980s for his revolutionary car and his spectacular fall. This film is a combination documentary and biopic that tells the tale. June 7

Late Night

(Amazon) Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy. A veteran late-night talk show host whose show has been slowly withering away hires a perky woman of color to augment her all-white male writing staff and ends up finding her funny again. June 7

I Am Mother

(Netflix) Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne (voice), Hilary Swank, Luke Hawker. A kindly robot raises a teenage girl underground following the extinction of mankind. Dedicated to repopulating the earth, they live a quiet life until a mysterious woman, still inexplicably alive, arrives with disturbing news. June 7

Papi Chulo

(Blue Fox) Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Wendi McLendon-Covey. An L.A. weatherman, in the midst of a personal crisis, hires a day laborer to refinish his deck. The two form an unlikely friendship which takes them both in unexpected directions in their lives. June 7

The Dead Don’t Die

(Focus) Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez. It’s the Zombie Apocalypse, Jim Jarmusch-style as the pleasant town of Centerville takes on an army of the undead ravening for human flesh. At last, the answer to the question “What if an acclaimed and revered indie icon directed an episode of The Walking Dead. NB: Not to be taken seriously. June 14

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

(A24) Jimmie Falls, Jonathan Majors, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover. A young man dreams of reclaiming the gorgeous Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. However, the city is not the same as he remembered it and perhaps that dream has already slipped through his fingers. This Sundance hit is already being discussed as a possible Oscar contender. June 14

American Woman

(Roadside Attractions) Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan. When a 32-year-old Pennsylvania woman’s teenage daughter disappears, she is left to raise her infant granddaughter alone. The movie follows the eleven-year journey for the mom to eventually find out what happened to her girl. June 14

Nightmare Cinema

(Cinelou) Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser. This horror anthology includes five works by some of the best directors in the business; Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade and Alejandro Bruguės. Five strangers convene at a movie theater where a sinister projectionist shows them their deepest fears and darkest secrets. June 21

 

Maiden

(Sony Classics) Tracy Edwards. In 1989, skipper Tracy Edwards assembled an all-female crew and entered them into the Whitbread Around the World Race, one of the most grueling and dangerous sporting events there is. Nobody believed that these women could do it – not even themselves at times. This documentary covers the incredible true story of some unsung heroines of sailing. June 28

This Changes Everything

(Good Deed) Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman. This documentary takes a hard look at gender disparity in Hollywood, from the #MeToo movement to the lack of women in the executive structures while at the same time introducing us to some new voices in feminist filmmaking. June 28

New Releases for the Week of May 31, 2019


GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

(Warner Brothers) Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Ziyi Zhang, Charles Dance. Directed by Michael Dougherty

As mankind tries to figure out what to do with Godzilla, other titans begin to rise from the mists of legend and vie for world supremacy. It’s the Big G facing off against Rodan, Mothra and the nastiest of them all, King Ghidorah with the fate of humankind hanging in the balance.

See the trailer, video featurettes, a clip and an interview here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language)

Hail, Satan?

(Magnolia) Lucien Greaves, Jex Blackmore, Nicholas Crowe, Malcolm Jarry. This big Florida Film Festival favorite makes a limited run at the Enzian this week. It’s the story of the Satanic Temple and their quixotic efforts to keep Church and State separate and stave off the Christian right’s attempt to create a modern theocracy here in the United States.

See the trailer and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for graphic nudity and some violence)

Ma

(BlumHouse/Universal) Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller. When a new teen in town asks a woman in a small Ohio town to buy her and her friends some beer, the door is opened to an unusual friendship. At first she provides a basement where the party never stops but as the friendship becomes obsession suddenly the party may be permanently over for the teens.

See the trailer, interviews, video featurettes, clips and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for violent disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use)

Rocketman

(Paramount) Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard. Hitmaker Elton John, one of the most iconic names in rock and roll, has his story told in this biofilm although in true Elton John fashion there is a whole lot of fantasy and imagination in the mix.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Musical Biography
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Domino
Falaknuma Das
NGK

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Always Be My Maybe
Artifishal
Diamantino
Falaknuma Das
NGK

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Falaknuma Das
NGK
Rich Boy, Rich Girl

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

NGK

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Diamantino
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Hail, Satan?
Ma
Rocketman

Extra Innings


The waiting is the hardest part.

(2019) Drama (Ocean Parkway) Geraldine Singer, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Alex Walton, Albert Dabah, Robby Ramos, Mara Kassin, Simone Policano, Avery Powers, Ryan DeLuca, Erika Longo, Dylan Pitanza, Gavin Swartz, Juliette Gold, Victoria Ric, Ed Bergtold, Ava Curry, Meg Scanlon, Natasha Coppola-Shalom, Elise Finnerty. Directed by Albert Dabah

 

One of the great joys of movies is that often we get a glimpse into someone else’s life. That life may be harder than our own or easier; there may be more tragedy in it or less, but it is inescapably different than our own. In observing another person’s experiences, fictional or not, we learn something about our own.

David (Brennan) is a young middle school kid who loves baseball and why not? It is the early 1960s in Brooklyn and while the Dodgers are gone leaving a gaping open wound in Brooklyn’s heart, there is still the joy of playing out on the diamond. He has raw talent and his coach (Bergtold) thinks he has real potential.

David’s situation at home though makes it difficult for him to put all his energy into the game. David’s parents are Jewish of Syrian descent and while not Orthodox, his dad (Dabah) is strict about Jewish traditions and what is expected of his son. The family is also dealing with Morris (Ramos), David’s much older brother who is suffering from what appears to be some form of autism (at least to my untrained eye) at a time when it was little understood. Morris is essentially a shut-in and spends his days listening to classical music, sometimes at ear-splitting volume, and memorizing classic literature. Sometimes he finds it hard to communicate at all. David’s mom (Singer) is certain she is seeing some progress from her eldest son following a trip to Israel to consult with top doctors there.

David’s dad sees his younger son’s obsession with baseball as childish and foolish; it is nearly time for David’s bar mitzvah and he’s concerned that David isn’t devoting enough time to study. He also believes that David’s dream of playing baseball professionally is absolutely a fantasy; David should remain in his Brooklyn community, take a Jewish wife, raise a Jewish family and join the family business that Morris is clearly not equipped to handle.

The only person who appears to understand David is his older sister, free-spirited Vivian (Kassin) who lives in California with her husband although her marriage is on the rocks. She’s the only member of his family to see David play and is a manic cheerleader for him when she’s around. However, the family would soon be rocked by tragedy.

Fast forward to David’s senior year in high school. He’s still playing baseball and has become the star of the team; his family has come to more or less tolerate David’s obsession but the opinion of David’s father hasn’t changed at all. Still, things are going pretty good for David; he has a girlfriend in Natalie (Policano) and best of all, David’s coach has gotten him noticed by a West Coast university that wants David out there in the fall to play center field.

Naturally, David’s family is very much against this. They want him to stay local, play at a community college and then give up this baseball foolishness and get married, get a job yadda yadda yadda. However, David stands up for himself and puts his foot down; he’s got a golden opportunity and he’s going to take it. An ecstatic Vivian is thrilled for her baby brother and offers to put him up at her place in L.A. until he can get settled into a dorm. Unfortunately, tragedy isn’t done with David.

Dabah, making his feature film debut in the director’s chair, based the movie on his own experiences as a teen. While some of the events depicted in the film are slightly different than they occurred in reality, the basics are there. Dabah takes on the unusual challenge of playing his own father; one wonders if he got any insight into his dad in doing so.

This is clearly a project that has a great deal of personal meaning to Dabah and that passion shows in his meticulous attention to character development. There are no cookie cutter characters in this movie and for the most part the actors cast do their jobs well. I felt a little badly for Brennan; he has a scene in the film where he’s informed about a terrible personal tragedy and handling the emotional aspect of it was clearly not something he was experienced enough for. Dabah would have been better served to either keep David’s reaction off-screen or have the actor turn away from the camera. Just indulging in a little armchair directing there, but it would have spared the child actor from a difficult emotional scene and made the movie a little better as well.

While the budgetary restrictions were in evidence (although David’s team plays several games during the course of the movie, they’re always against the same team) what money Dabah had to work with is all onscreen. He does a decent job of recreating the 60s given his limited budget and more importantly, he makes the family products of the era as well.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; there seems to be some extraneous scenes that really reinforce what has already occurred in other scenes but brevity is a skill that is hard to master from a filmmaker’s point of view. Regardless of the movie’s flaws, it ended up growing on me the longer I watched it. Right now, the movie is just starting to show up in film festivals and at one-off screenings at Jewish community centers around New York but the producers hope to branch out at film festivals nationwide (are you listening, Central Florida Jewish Film Festival?) and hope to be on an online streaming service down the road.

REASONS TO SEE: Obviously made from the heart.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a bit more editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rockaway
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)

Tangent Room


Seeing double.

(2017) Science Fiction (Epic) Lisa Bearpark, Håkan Julander, Jennifer Lila Knipe, Daniel Epstein, Vee Vimolval. Directed by Björn Engström

 

The universe is a complicated place and we know jack about how it works. As a species we’re not unlike infants trying to grasp the linguistic rules of Sanskrit, or in this case, quantum mechanics – literally.

Four internationally renowned scientists are brought to a Chilean astronomy station into a basement room. They are honored to be there because they have been invited by Dr. Wahlstein (Epstein), a brilliant but somewhat neurotic scientist. Each one of the invitees have a different specialization in matters of understanding the cosmos from mathematics to physics. They wonder why they have been brought there and where their host is.

That is cleared up quickly when Dr. Wahlstein appears on a video screen and tells them that he is dead and so shall all of them be by 10 pm that very night. In order to save themselves – and indeed the whole world – they must solve the riddle of a variety of numbers. I don’t want to tell you about what catastrophe is occurring – suffice to say it involves parallel universes occupying the same place – but as the scientists at first think they are the victims of a colossal practical joke begin to realize that their dilemma is all too real and all too dire.

It is a locked room conundrum movie but also that is precisely not what this is. If I sound like I’m talking in circles, I’m trying to be deliberately vague as to not spoil what happens in that locked room too much. The problem is, if I break it down to its very basic level, Tangent Room is about four scientists in a locked room bickering and that sounds about as fun as a root canal. Tangent Room, however, is anything but simple.

This is an intensely cerebral science fiction movie, maybe the most academic you’ve ever seen. It leans very hard on science and while one critic groused that it had its mathematics and physics wrong, I can’t really take that on faith as I don’t know what the guy’s qualifications are to judge that. It wouldn’t surprise me though; cinema has never been shy about sacrificing accuracy for the sake of story.

The performances are decent enough but first-time director Engström (and the film’s writer) doesn’t really have enough time to give the characters actual personalities beyond that of argumentative academics. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain ran into much the same problem but managed to give us characters worth caring about so when the excreta hit the fan the viewers actually worried about them.

This is going to appeal to physics professors, scientists and academics pretty much exclusively, unless watching four scientists bicker about various aspects of cosmology are your idea of a fun evening out. That doesn’t mean this is a bad movie – it isn’t by any means – but with a little more creativity this could have hit both the gut and the brain but to be honest, anything that affects the brain these days is more than welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally red-shifts into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fermat’s Room
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Extra Innings

Long Lost


The femme fatale hard at work.

(2018) Erotic Thriller (Indie Rights) Adam Weppler, Catherine Corcoran, Nicholas Tucci, Fran Kranz. Directed by Erik Bloomquist

 

I think all of us from time to time wonder about (or even fantasize about) having long-lost family members we never knew we had. A rich uncle, birth parent or sibling who will take care of our problems like a deus ex machina descending from the rafters. But what would you do if you actually got a letter from such a relative?

Seth (Weppler) gets to find out the answer to his question. A struggling blogger, he is just getting by financially and maybe not quite even that. One day, he gets a letter from a man claiming to be his stepbrother, inviting him to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut – all expenses paid. Intrigued and with nothing better to do, Seth agrees to go. I know I would if I were him.

Seth ends up finding a huge, beautiful mansion with acreage and there he meets Richard (Tucci), the stepbrother he never knew he had. At first Seth is greeted warmly but then things get…well, weird. He meets Abby (Corcoran), Richard’s girlfriend that he neglected to mention, stepping nude out of the shower – and apparently not minding Seth’s presence a bit.

Richard turns out to be something of a hyper-competitive bully, urging Seth to play childish games like flashlight tag and something called “Fluffy Bunny” which involves stuffing mushrooms in the mouth (don’t ask). He also uses every opportunity to belittle and insult Seth who quickly tires of the abuse. Abby gets her share as well but whereas Seth can walk out the door at any time, Abby perhaps can’t. Besides, Abby is taking quite a shine to her boyfriend’s stepbrother and makes no bones about it which makes Seth distinctly uncomfortable. Seth has a bit of a stick up his anus, you know.

Even given the enticement of a very willing Abby, Seth keeps trying to leave and Richard pleads with him to stay, offering him ten Gs for one more night of his company. Seth can’t say no to that kind of money so he stays and then the party really starts to go off the rails.

In the 80s and 90s, erotic thrillers were a staple of cable TV and featured prominently on HBO, Showtime and particularly Cinemax. They have fallen out of favor in more recent days – the erotic part pales to the kind of pornography that is easily accessible on the Internet – and as a result the erotic thrillers that come out these days tend to be missing something either on the erotic or thriller sides of the equation.

This one, from first-time feature writer/director Erik Bloomquist, is missing out to a certain extent on both sides. While Catherine Corcoran is amazingly attractive and crazy sexy, there are no real sparks between her and Weppler. Her seduction of him seems arbitrary and forced in order to make the plot work; Seth as a character is kind of devoid of any sort of heat. He seems to be a nice enough guy but he’s super uptight and after awhile you just would rather spend more time with Richard and Abby. Tucci gets to have the most fun with his character who has an explosive temper and few redeeming qualities of his own, but Tucci plays him with enough gusto to make him interesting.

The thriller part is lacking a bit as well. While Bloomquist makes good use of the lighting (or often, the lack thereof), the atmosphere never really acquires the quality of suspense a film like this needs to work. The twist isn’t really a bad one, but by the time it comes you really haven’t developed any sort of reason to care. You are left with a feeling of “Oh, those crazy rich people, they can get away with anything BWAHAHAHA” which isn’t the way you want to leave an erotic thriller. The mansion itself is beautiful as is the grounds and Bloomquist makes excellent use of the setting.

I can’t say for certain that Bloomquist was trying to make a 90s-style erotic thriller but there are certainly elements here thereof. The overall tone is unsettling rather than suspenseful and I don’t think that’s what Bloomquist was going for. There are some scenes that work and Corcoran makes an excellent female lead and Tucci gives it the old college try but at the end of the day this is far too cliché to be worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Corcoran makes a wonderful femme fatale.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very generic entry into the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, sexual situations, drug use and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tucci and Kranz were both members of the Suite 13 comedy sketch club while at Yale.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye Lover
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tangent Room

If the Dancer Dances


The dancers rehearse.

(2018) Documentary (Monument) Stephen Petronio, Merce Cunningham (archival), Meg Harper, Davalois Fearon, Gino Grenek, Rashaun Mitchell, Sandra Neels, Jaqlin Medlock, Barrington Hinds, Albert Reid, Silas Riener, Nick Sciscione, Gus Solomons Jr., Emily Stone, Joshua Tuason, David Vaughan, Andrea Weber, Mike McGinnis, Mondo Morales, Melissa Toogood. Directed by Maia Wechsler

 

Please forgive me but the first bit of this review is going to be more about me than the movie – my knowledge of modern dance is abysmal. I am unfamiliar with the important figures in it, the innovators or the dance companies that push the boundaries of the art form. It’s not that I can’t appreciate grace when I see it, but often these days that’s not a factor. Perhaps because I’m not a graceful person whatsoever, but when I see dancers move in certain ways, I am awe-stricken. When I see them moving in ways that are more athletic than anything I tend to lose interest. You should know that going into this review.

Merce Cunningham is a towering icon of modern dance whose pieces worked in collaboration with some of the great artists of his time. Rain Forest, a 1968 piece apparently inspired by his youth in Washington state, utilized set design by Andy Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns as well as music by David Tudor. Cunningham’s work was innovative and diametrically different from anything that dance was used to; most dance companies are constantly in motion but Cunningham used stillness, slow motion and held positions which were physically challenging to the dancers of his company. Cunningham was the lead dancer in the piece as he was in most of his own pieces until he was almost 90. Cunningham continued to work creating new choreography until he died in 2009.

Stephen Petronio runs a highly respected dance company of his own. His company up until 2015 had always performed original compositions. Petronio was grappling with the idea of legacy; how do we keep dance pieces alive after the choreographers are gone. Yes, there is video but if a choreography exists without anyone dancing it, how alive is it really?

Petronio decided to take on Rain Forest and utilized three members of Cunningham’s company – Meg Harper, Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber – to teach his company the moves. We begin to see that there are vast differences between styles of modern dance. Cunningham rehearsed without music, using a stopwatch and clapped beats to give the dancers their cues. The Cunningham dancers are also having to teach Petronio’s dancers an entire new way of movement, one that emanates from the back rather than the legs. For the dancers it means a whole lot of cramping.

Cunningham is treated here with hero-worship and to be honest I found that disconcerting after a while. Not that he doesn’t deserve the respect but at times it felt like there wasn’t any objectivity whatsoever not only from the dancers who could be excused for their hagiography but from the filmmakers as well, who needed to be less worshipful. Producer Lise Friedman was also a member of the Cunningham company so perhaps that has something to do with it.

This is definitely a niche film. People who are fans of modern dance or at least well-acquainted with it will find this fascinating. Others might find it confusing and dull. Fans of performing arts in general will appreciate the backstage look at rehearsals and how the work is slowly translated from Cunningham’s dancers to Petronio’s. It is in that respect a fascinating process.

REASONS TO SEE: An intimate and fascinating look backstage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Verges on the hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Long Lost