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

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

Krimes


The King of Krimes.

(2021) Documentary (MTV Films) Jesse Krimes, Jared Owens, Russell Craig, Gilberto “Cano” Rivera, Cindy Krimes, Robyn Buseman, Asia Johnson, Michelle C. Jones, Courtney Cone, Daniel McCarthy Clifford, Sherrill Roland, Nicole Fleetwood, Julie Courtney, Jasmine Heiss, Peg Krimes. Directed by Alysa Nahmias

 

We all make mistakes when we’re young. Most are of the variety that harm nobody but ourselves, although occasionally we break the hearts of others who don’t deserve to have their hearts broken. Sometimes, young people make worse mistakes and the consequences of those errors in judgment have them ending up in prison.

Jesse Krimes (if ever there was an appropriate name for a convict!) is one such young man. Raised by a single mom, he showed a knack for creativity and artistic design. He ended up going to Millersville College and getting an art degree there. However, by then he had begun to party a bit too hard and got into trouble, finally being arrested and convicted for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

While in prison, he met Jared Owens and Gilberto Rivera, both of whom were artists in prison. He also found out that his girlfriend was pregnant (she would give birth to his son while he was incarcerated). Suddenly realizing that he was in danger of becoming the kind of absent father that had haunted his own childhood, he vowed to go the straight and narrow and through Owens and Rivera, began to find his own artistic voice. He began work on a mural that was too large to fit into any space in the prison, and knowing that it would be confiscated as contraband (particularly since he was using prison sheets for his canvas), he mailed them out and wouldn’t see the completed work as a whole until after he was released, a year early.

He did get a job with a public works project in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (his home town) where he met Russell Craig, a fellow ex-con artist. Staying clean and sober was no easy task; it was difficult for him to find work and financial pressures were leading him to making some old mistakes. One night, after drinking too much, he teetered out of a bar and almost literally into the arms of a police officer. He spent an agonizing night in jail, thinking that everything he’d built was going to fold like an accordion and he would be sent back to prison. However, his parole officer saw something in him and he was allowed to remain outside. The pressure of knowing that the slightest mistake would send him back into prison for a much longer stint hung over him like the sword of Damocles.

But his art began to get noticed and soon he began to sell some of his work, and put together shows. He became an activist for fixing the broken criminal justice system, for the rights of ex-cons and for rehabilitation through art. He began to be the father to his boy that his own father had never been to him.

Krimes is a compelling subject. He’s a handsome man, resembling professional wrestler Chris Jericho slightly. He’s also humble and accountable for the errors in judgment he’s made in his life. He also loves being a dad and it’s clear watching him and his son together that he is a good father.

Some look at the prison system as simply a vehicle to punish those who have done wicked things. Others see it as an opportunity to rehabilitate those who turn to crime. Most of us agree that the system isn’t working the way it is supposed to, fulfilling neither goal effectively. Many ex-cons end up returning to crime because every other door is closed to them. That doesn’t sound like a particularly efficient system to me.

Krimes is, while a fairly standard documentary/biography, noteworthy in that while it recognizes its subject as a flawed human being, also celebrates the beauty he has created (and his artwork really is wonderful). He’s a man who has recognized that he has been given a second chance and intends to make the most of it and if that isn’t something admirable, well, it should be.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story about overcoming the odds.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical documentary tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krimes and Craig co-founded the Right to Return Fellowship with the Soze Agency, funded by the Open Philadelphia Project, to assist ex-convict artists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Omara

Objects


These objects may seem to be junk but they won’t be by the end of the film.

(2021) Documentary (Semicolon) Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Joshua Glenn, Arianna Huhn, Eri Yasuhara, Eugene Wong, Margaret Bynum Hill, Marie Kondo, Jad Abumrad, Rob Walker, Mindah-Lee Kumar, Isabelle Corey, Caren Wheeler, Lynn Levy, Nelson Dale, Amy Gesick. Directed by Vincent Liota

I sincerely believe we all need a little bit of clutter. I distrust too much order; there is something that is authoritarian, almost fascist about it. If life is ordered, there are no surprises. No deeper meaning. At this time in our history, we seem to worship order. Clutter is a sign of an undisciplined mind (although studies prove the opposite); clutter is a sign of an undisciplined life. Clutter is bad for the environment; it means we need more space to hold it and tiny dwellings are better for the environment (poppycock, by the way; tiny dwellings can have as large a carbon footprint as a larger dwelling in the right circumstances). Memories aren’t connected to objects; they are locked inside our brains.

But that’s not really true. Most of us have keepsakes; a stub from a ticket to a concert that has meaning for us, or a gift from a loved one who is no longer with us. The point is, we impress meaning on inanimate objects that others may not share. The value of an object is directly related to its meaning towards us, not in how much it would fetch at an Antiques Roadshow auction.

This documentary explores the hold objects may have on us, but not in an obsessive/compulsive manner (although it may seem that way to some at first). Three subjects – former NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich, graphic designer Rick Rawlins and author Heidi Julavits are all of the school that objects tether us in time, connect us directly to positive memories.

Julavits is of the opinion (that I honestly don’t disagree with) that every object, no matter how insignificant, has a story to tell. The story may have meaning only to the object’s owner, but that story is a part of the fabric of their life nonetheless. As I sit here writing this on my laptop at my dining room table (where I do all my writing because it is comfortable, I have a great view of my back yard and the woods beyond from the window, and it gives my dogs a place to hang out with me), I can see literally dozens of objects that we have collected over the years. Some have pragmatic value – our good china for special occasions, a Von Briggle vase that my wife – Da Queen – and I bought while on a trip to Colorado Springs where she grew up, a miniature Spanish flag from a Transatlantic cruise, a gravy boat that was a wedding gift. Some of them may have intrinsic value (the vase, for example) but the flag certainly does not, although I think both my wife and I would be loath to give it up.

All three of the film’s subjects have stories like that. For Julavits, she was drawn to some clothing that she found on E-bay that once belonged to the obscure French actress Isabelle Corey, who passed away in 2011. She became almost compulsive about finding more of her things. Part of it was an interest in the woman herself; why did she suddenly stop appearing in films in the early 60s, just when her career seemed to be at its height? Julavits felt that the artifacts from her life might give her a clue, but she found herself being connected in an unexpected way.

Krulwich has held on to a tuft of grass for fifty years. You see, back when he was 15 years old, he was madly in love with a young girl and it appeared she returned his affection. They were in Central Park in New York, in front of Cleopatra’s Needle (an obelisk that is a well-known landmark in the park) and it was a big moment for the young man. He wanted something to memorialize the moment, but there was nothing around. Impulsively, he grabbed a handful of grass and put it in his pocket and has kept it ever since. This might seem to be a little out there, but as Krulwich puts it, whenever he sees the grass he can connect with the excitement of his 15-year-old self and for a moment, the memory is so vivid that he IS 15 again. Who needs a time machine when you have a handful of sod?

Maybe the most affecting story belongs to Rawlins, who as a young boy described himself as “socially awkward.” That might have been because his father’s job required him to move regularly so the family was rarely in one place long enough for the young lad to develop friendships. However, there was a boy by the name of David Turley who did seem interested in pursuing a friendship with young Rick. He invited Rawlins to a birthday party, but as it turned out, the family had to move yet again – on the very day of the birthday party, to make matters worse. Rick, distraught, decided to run over to the Turley home anyway but didn’t know what to say once he arrived there, so he stood on the porch, obviously close to breaking down. Young squire Turley, perhaps sensing his friend’s emotional turmoil, gifted him with a sugar egg – a confection that is very much like a hollow egg-shaped sugar cube. Young Rick was so overcome by the kind gesture that he kept the egg and still does to this day, in a special wooden box (whose significance is also explained in the film). Although I wondered how the egg went so long without getting moldy, it becomes the center for emotional resonance for the film, particularly during a segment about a radio show…well, I won’t get into it but I found myself unexpectedly connected to the story.

And that unexpected connection basically is the story of the movie. Things have a habit of finding a wavelength that matters to us, and we find outselves using that wavelength to recapture the feelings the original moment brought out in us to begin with. That wavelength isn’t just about possessions, either – we find that resonance in particular songs, in smells (my grandmother’s perogies were such an integral part of my childhood that smelling ANY perogies can take me back to that feeling of warmth, love and comfort) and every other sense you can imagine.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific explanation in the film, surprising because Liota has a background in science journalism. In the press notes, he mentions that is a deliberate decision on his part because he wanted to concentrate on the emotional side of the equation, and he does exactly that, successfully.

But the other side of that is that we get something of a one-sided conversation. Julavits’ searching for further memorabilia from Corey begins to show signs of obsession and compulsion. And while none of the main focuses of the film could be called hoarders, where is the line properly drawn?

I think there is a happy medium to be had here. On the one hand, too much order is unnatural. Sometimes, it’s not all about what we need, or even what “sparks joy” (because there is always a matter of degree) as Marie Kondo, the maven of decluttering your life (whose book Julavits searches for in her cluttered apartment, one of the more amusing vignettes in the film) puts it. Sometimes a bit of clutter is what we need to prove that we are inhabiting our own lives. Too much order is sterility; it makes the house look unlived-in, not a home at all. And the objects that bring us a connection – with out own past, with friends and family, with important events – are to be prized and treasured. And nobody can put a price on that.

REASONS TO SEE: One of those movies that grabs you unexpectedly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The conversation is a little bit one-sided.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly fine for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liota is an Emmy-winning filmmaker who was a senior producer on PBS’ acclaimed science series NOVA scienceNOW.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Krimes