Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

(2018) Drama (1091) Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Ennis Esmer, Salvatore Antonio, Brandon McKnight, Genevieve Kang, Caroline Bartczak, Lauren Collins, Jason Tome, Cody Black, Robert B. Kennedy, Brock Morgan, Rufio Luey. Directed by Jesse Zigelstein

 

In recent years, chefs have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming rock stars in their own right. A celebrity chef can pretty much write their own ticket, able to command the attention of foodies the world over who will walk across hot coals to get a table at their restaurant. For this, we sometimes excuse behavior we wouldn’t accept in our own workplace. If Gordon Ramsey were my boss, I’d be sitting him down in HR with a lawyer handy after one of his tirades.

Danny (Abrams) has gone from being the darling of hipster foodies, the hot young chef to being a dinosaur in his own bistro. His restaurant is hemorrhaging money and his past due bills are piling up; even though his restaurant is packed night after night, he is drowning in debt. The only life preserver on the horizon is his school chum Mark (Esmer) who has agreed to come to his restaurant for a meal with a group of potential investors who might prove to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He needs to wow the table or face the closure of a business he has spent ten years building.

The film chronicles the day of that dinner. Danny is already in hot water with Chloe (Chorostecki), his house manager and sometime lover who he stood up the night previous. He is perturbed because the new hot food truck with the new hip not chef (Tome) is parked cross the street from his eatery. His sommelier (Antonio) reports that none of his wine providers will extend any credit to him any longer. His landlord (Kennedy) has had it up to here with missed rental payments and bounced checks; he has to the end of the month to get caught up or Danny will be evicted.

To make matters worse, a supercilious food blogger (Collins) informs Danny that his talented sous chef Keith (McKnight) is jumping ship for the chance to become an executive chef in his own restaurant. And Danny has forgotten that his ex-wife (Bartczak) is bringing his son (Black) over because it is his day to watch him. Along the way, Danny will rant, scream, and berate his put-upon staff while pushing away the one person who seems to believe in him at all. As the night progresses, Danny seems to be falling apart. Can he pull it together to save his restaurant?

First-time feature director Zigelstein paints a realistic portrait of life in an upscale bistro, and of the challenges (that are sometimes insurmountable) that independent restaurants face. It is no secret that restaurants fail at a staggering rate; it is one of the toughest businesses to succeed at.

Abrams does strong work as Danny, a man whose own hubris is his own worst enemy. Danny believes that he is still the biggest and brightest star in Toronto; that belief has become increasingly delusional and everyone knows it except Danny. He’s not a pleasant person to be around and he’s certainly not a pleasant person to work for. He’s the stereotype of an asshole chef, the kind we see on TV and in the movies and whose behavior may be amusing from a distance, but if you are forced to deal with it day after day would no doubt provoke PTSD in a major way. Danny’s tirades and tantrums eventually grow wearying and by the time the movie comes to an end you may not give a ratatouille whether Danny saves his bistro or not.

That aside, the movie feels pretty authentic to me, but as I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen myself you might want to take that with a grain of salt. This is definitely not a film for Vegans (there’s a scene that is critical to the plot that involves the butchering of a hog, and it appears they use an actual hog carcass or at least a realistic facsimile of same) nor is it a film for those whose idea of a high class meal is the daily special at Appleby’s. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to merit a look-see and as the rental fee is extremely reasonable ($3.99 at most streaming services), you really can’t go wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at some of the obstacles restaurants face.
REASONS TO AVOID: There comes a point where the tantrums become tiresome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of profanity and some brief violence. There are also images of meat being butchered that may upset vegans or those sensitive to such scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Abrams and Chorostecki had supporting roles on the excellent but lamentably canceled Hannibal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Made in Italy

The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom


Not your ordinary publicist.

(2019) Documentary (1091Howard Bloom, Lashette Williams, Jeff Bridges, Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Ted Coons, Kyle McLaughlin, David Sloan Williams, Sruan Pal Singh, Amir Saddiqui. Directed by Charlie Hoxie

 

We are generally so caught up in our own lives that we really only comprehend the things that are an immediate part of those lives – the need to provide shelter, food and the basics, the relationships we are in, the news of the day and whatever drama is playing out in our lives or in social media.

It takes a good deal of discipline to look away from the minutiae of our lives and to concentrate on the bigger picture. The questions that are most important – who are we, what is our place in the universe, how do we interact with the universe, why must we die – we rarely have time to address those  issues and even if we do, we rarely have the knowledge or intellect required to address those questions intelligently.

Howard Bloom sees things differently. In the 70s and 80s, he was a publicist in the music business, with a client list that included Michael Jackson, Prince, Styx, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Run-DMC, Billy Joel and AC/DC, among many others. He was considered the best in the business at what he did. He had a company that was making money hand over fist and he hung out with the elite of pop music. That all ended in 1988 when he contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an insidious disease that left him bedridden for more than a decade, barely able to tolerate human company.

Bloom combated his disease with his intellect. If he couldn’t move, he could think. He began to find things that improved his situation little by little, medications and exercise. Gradually, he was able to bring himself to a semblance of a normal life through rigid self-discipline and keeping to a routine. His wife may have divorced him but he found solace in looking outward at the cosmos. He began writing books on various aspects of the human condition, including creation, Islamic fundamentalism, and the colonization of space. His world began to expand from the four walls of his bedroom in a Brooklyn brownstone to the limits of the universe itself.

This documentary is a look at the now 74-year-old author (as of the filming of the documentary) and he has an interesting, quirky nature with vocal patterns that remind me of Jeff Goldblum. He also has a sonorous voice, not unlike another famous Howard, DJ Howard Stern. He has interesting stories to tell, and a unique viewpoint. He shoots from the hip and if that at times can be grating (at one point he likens graduate school as an “Auschwitz of the mind”), but he is also capable of some really interesting concepts (“Maybe we’re not alive to achieve goals; maybe we’re alive to just pursue them”).

We don’t get a lot of information about what is in Howard’s grand theory; we know that he has compiled thousands of pages of documents detailing his thoughts. He is also concerned about his own mortality, and is anxious that his work be preserved and has engaged a friend, Dubai gym owner Amir Saddiqui, to execute his will when he passes. Howard is nothing if not eclectic in the composition of his inner circle.

Mostly, we hear Howard talking about Howard and even though the film is barely over an hour in length, it does start to sound a bit like an ego trip gone digital after awhile. I don’t believe that’s necessarily what he was aiming for but I think he is really using this as a means to steer people towards his books of which there are seven currently. He comes off as pretty likable (and he does admit to wanting to be liked, which seems to me to be a fairly common attitude for us primates with delusions of grandeur) and he definitely likes dogs and often stops to hug them while out and about. That’s my kind of guy, for certain.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the concepts are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much Howard, not enough Grand Theory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bloom contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1988. He didn’t leave his apartment again until 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Brief History of Time
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want

The Medicine


The shaman prepares.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy, AnnaLynne McCord, Kerry Rhodes, Graham Hancock, Daniel Pinchbeck, Mauricio Diazgranados, Rachel Harris, Mitra, Carlos Duran, Jeff McNair, Leonardo Cordero, Ricardo Diaz Mayorga, Jordi Riba, Stuart Townsend (narrator), Adrianna Jairsagua, Brandee Powell. Directed by Farzin Toussi

 

Ayahuasca is considered a dangerous drug here in the United States; it is illegal here. In the Amazon, however, it is an ancient plant concoction that has deep spiritual connotations; not only is it thought to be a means of seeing into another realm (it is certainly a hallucinogenic), it also heals spiritual, emotional and even physical ailments – it is thought that ayahuasca can actually regenerate brain cells, something modern science is unable to accomplish.

Deep in the forests of Colombia are the Inga people, directly descended from the Incas of Peru. They live pretty much the same way as their ancestors did, relying on the bounty of the rain forest to sustain them. Their wisdom comes from the natural world rather than the modern one. Their Taita (a term that encompasses a number of functions, including spiritual leader, medicine man and chief) but is usually one granted to older men. Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy is something of a rarity; a Taita who was deemed so as a teen, he remains a vibrant young man with a gentle sense of humor.

For those who think that those native tribes to the rain forest are ignorant savages, think again; Taita Juanito has an impressive knowledge of botany, easily equivalent to a PhD. He believes that the ecological disasters are nature’s way of reacting to decades of abuse by humans and he might just have a point. Contributing to it is the rash of hatred that permeates Western culture recently.

Toussi utilizes several scientists (like staff botanist Mauricio Diazgranados from Kew Gardens in London, the pre-eminent botanical garden on the planet) to describe the science behind the spirituality; it turns out that ayahuasca isn’t a single plant but made up as a brew of two distinctive plants; one containing the hallucinogen, the other helping deliver it to the brain cells and retain it there (the effect of the ayahuasca vine by itself is only momentary by itself).

For much of the latter half of the film, we follow the journey of two American celebrities – former NFL defensive back Kerry Rhodes and actress/activist AnnaLynne McCord. The former is trying to connect with his emotions, something frowned upon in football culture; he is also concerned about the effects multiple concussions may have had on his brain and hopes that ayahuasca will mitigate them. As for McCord, she was physically and sexually abused at a younger age and now has difficulty forming romantic connections and emotional intimacy.

Both undergo the ayahuasca ritual with varying results; Rhodes seems more receptive to it and went back for several more treatments. McCord, who had a suspicion of mind-altering drugs to begin with (she doesn’t use recreational drugs or alcohol) seemed less so. Taita Juanito allowed part of the ritual to be filmed, although once the ayahuasca was introduced he would allow only audio recording.

There is some beautiful cinematography of the forest, as you’d expect. One thing I found a little bit bizarre is that the filmmakers note that they resent the lumping of ayahuasca as a drug, with the negative connotations that come with it; yet when.  discussing the effects of it, they use psychedelic imagery more common with depictions of LSD usage. The images are pretty trippy, though.

Unlike other documentaries on ayahuasca, there is more of a scientific grounding here. Yes, a good number of the talking heads here are students of Taita Juanito – some might say disciples – who seem a little redundant when you have Juanito himself available. There is no doubt that he’s a wise man, one with a bit of impishness to him and not at all what you would visualize when the word “shaman” is mentioned.

Particularly early on, the movie is kind of jumbled and a little hard to follow. Eventually it settles down, concentrating on McCord and Rhodes and their interactions with Taita Juanito. The movie would have benefitted from better organization and a little less hagiographic interviews.

The debate about ayahuasca in this country remains not a debate at all; while pharmaceutical companies have been looking into the substance, there has been no serious studies done on it nor does there seem to be a serious movement to have it reclassified. Ayahuasca treatments will remain, for Americans, the domain of the rich and daring. The benefits of the plants in the Amazon are likely to be game-changers, although given the current Brazilian regime the Amazon basin is being handled as a place for exploitation. As time goes by, the shrinking rain forest may see an end to the culture of these indigenous tribes, perhaps in the lifetimes of some of our younger readers. All of that knowledge would then be lost and knowledge lost is always a human tragedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Taita Juanito is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really a linear documentary; organized in kind of a scattershot way.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is – I gotta say it – drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ayahuasca is listed in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug which indicates no medical benefit, despite never having been tested for such.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where Sleeping Dogs Lie

Beyond Skiing Everest


Mike Marolt ponders the cost of his obsession.

(2018) Sports Documentary (1091Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, Jim Gile, Jewel Kilcher (narrator), John Callahan. Directed by Mike Marolt and Steve Bellamy

 

High altitude skiing is not for the faint of heart. It combines two disciplines – mountain climbing and skiing – and requires stamina (because the moment you finish your scaling of a peak, you are skiing down it) and courage as mistakes at these heights can be costly. As Gile ruefully puts it, “I don’t want my last word to be ‘Oops’.”

Identical twins Mike and Steve Marolt and their boyhood buddy Jim Gile grew up in Aspen, Colorado, where you learn how to ski almost before you learn how to walk. They previously appeared in the documentary Skiing Everest (2009) which documented their attempt to climb up the world’s tallest and arguably most famous mountain and then ski back down it – without oxygen or Sherpa guides. That attempt proved frustrating as the commercialization of Everest has led to logjams of dilettantes going up the paths which have been set for them by Sherpas who have also thoughtfully provided pre-set ropes. For those attempting to scale the mountain without oxygen, stopping can be deadly.

The trio, all enshrined in the Skiing Hall of Fame, decided that going up mountains that were more remote, more off the beaten path, would suit their purposes better. Therefore their de facto leader Mike began researching peaks above 8,000 meters (a smidge under 26,250 feet) that had good snow and few climbers. They would travel the world, from the Andes to the Himalayas, documenting their attempts. They have skied down more peaks above 8,000 meters than any humans have ever done, and they do it by so-called pure climbing – without the aid of oxygen or guides.

=The documentary combines the footage taken on their many trips which is often impressive indeed, along with interviews with the three men, who are now in their 50s and still finding mountains to climb and ski back down. There is little to no input from anyone else other than the three; the disadvantage to that is that it robs the film of context. We hear the men talk about the various trips like this is a vacation movie they’re showing on super-8 film for friends. While their expertise is undeniable we get little understanding about why they do what they do, why they chose these particular mountains other than the criteria I mentioned above, and what others think of their accomplishments.

Also, in a nearly criminal move, we never hear from their families and loved ones that are left behind for months at a time; only in the last ten minutes do we even realize that they have families and get the sense that their absences are difficult on them. We only hear through the mouths of the three men themselves; their wives and children do not appear to speak for themselves. One suspects that the subjects of the documentary might not like what they hear.

One can’t help but admire the accomplishments of these three men and they seem to be pretty eloquent speakers, but I would have appreciated some other points of view other than theirs. That would make for far more interesting viewing and a less homogeneous documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really extraordinary vistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: High Altitude skiers, in addition to the mountain climbing gear they must take, add an average of sixty pounds to their packs for their ski equipment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Himalayan Ice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird

The Pollinators


Poetry in motion.

 (2019) Documentary (1091Alan Ard, Maryann Frazier, Jonathan Lundgren, Zac Browning, Bret Adee, James Frazier, Davey Hackenberg, Lucas Criswell, Sam Ramsey, Susan Kegley, Jeff Anderson, Leigh Kathryn Bonner. Directed by Peter Nelson

 

For most of us, bees are annoying and a swarm of them is to be feared; they can make picnics and outdoor activities a non-starter. However, they are absolutely vital to agriculture. They pollinate flowering crops that allow those flowers to become fruit, nuts and vegetables.

It is no secret that the bee population is declining at an alarming rate. This should concern everyone, because as one beekeeper wryly puts it, “We all, you know, eat.” I had always thought that farmers relied on local beekeepers but given the extent of agriculture in the 21st century that’s no longer possible. Beekeepers truck tens of thousands of bees via semi-tractor trailer across the country on interstates to farms whose orchards are just beginning to flower and require the pollination. Those windows of opportunity for the farmers are often brief and they can only give the beekeepers a few days’ notice that their bees are needed. This results in a logistical task equal to those of Hercules.

But bees have other challenges that they face. These same orchard growers use pesticides to help thin their flowers so that the resultant fruit are the largest possible; they also must use pesticides and fungicides to protect their crops. Most of these are harmful to bees, particularly the neonicotinoids which are prevalent currently.

In fact, much of modern agriculture is dictated by the big chemical companies. Big agriculture has deemed that monofarming – sticking with a single crop (usually corn, rice or soy) is the most efficient way to farm, and on the surface it might seem so. Those three crops I named are also not reliant on pollination, so that cuts the cost of importing bees. However, those crops use an enormous amount of space – the corn crop alone takes up 5% of the total land in the United States – and give nothing back. In fact, they leech the nutrients from the soil, producing food that is less and less nutritious and tasty, forcing home cooks and professional chefs alike to have to use more salt and sugar to give them a taste. They also rob bees of their own food source, causing mass starvation of bees in the wild. In addition, bees are attacked by a species of mite that came over from Asia that renders the bees more susceptible to the pesticides and starvation. It’s no wonder that entire colonies of bees have died off.

With the EPA and FDA unwilling to help – one beekeeper refers to the EPA derisively as the Chemical Protection Agency – a revolution in agriculture is quietly underway. Farmers and beekeepers are engaging in something called regenerative farming – going back to crop rotation, something that was done on farms globally until recently – and planting things like clover, rye and local grasses that are bee-friendly, giving the bees a source of nourishment beyond the crops they are pollinating.

Nelson, a veteran nature documentary cinematography, takes the director’s chair for the first time and does a bang-up job, delivering a massively informative documentary that calls attention to the problems in a sober and fact-based manner, offering solutions and allowing the beekeepers whose love for their charges goes beyond being their means of making a living to do the finger-pointing when needed and at the right targets – Big Agra, Big Chemicals and government agencies that are no longer even making a pretense of protecting the citizenry of this country but instead serve the interests of the wealthy. That farmers can and are taking matters into their own hands is both comforting and energizing.

Too often we see documentaries that call attention to a major problem and leave the viewer feeling helpless and hopeless, but that isn’t the case here. We all have a vested interest in the health of bees as their efforts help nourish all of us, and I do mean all. Nelson has a cinematographers eyes and utilizes plenty of slow-motion bees in flight images, aerial shots of bucolic farms, and close-ups of soil both lifeless and teeming with life. This is an excellent film that reminds us that we are all part of a system that works in harmony; disrupting even something as seemingly insignificant as the honey bees can have catastrophic consequences for us humans.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful bee photography. Gives insight to a very real problem and to those who love bees and are fighting to save them.
REASONS TO AVOID: The focus on agriculture may not resonate with those not involved directly with it other than as consumers.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in every three bites of food that you take has benefitted from the pollinizing by honey bees or a similar species.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: More Than Honey
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Berlin, I Love You

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Here Awhile


Reflections at the end of life.

(2019) Drama (1091Anna Camp, Steven Strait, Joe Lo Truglio, Chloe Mason, Kristin Taylor, Dana Millican, Reza Leal-Smartt, Grant Hall, Sydney Lovering, Parker Hall, Griffin Gadre, Kieran Gadre, Deborah Lee Smith. Directed by Tim True

 

Eventually, we all die. I will. You will. Your significant other will. Your parents will. Your children will. To dust we all, inevitably, finally, return.

Anna (Camp) has returned to Portland, Oregon, after an absence of 15 years to reconnect with her younger brother Michael (Strait). At first, Michael is not having it; there has been literally no contact between them since their late father threw her out of the house because she is a lesbian. Anna explains that she attempted to call, but their father would always hang up on her. It doesn’t take long before forgiveness supplants hurt feelings. Family is, after all, family.

But Anna has an ulterior motive; she has a very aggressive colon cancer that has spread all over her body. Not only is it inoperable but it is also untreatable as well. Oregon has a death with dignity law for their citizens. Anna has officially moved back and taken up residence, so she qualifies. She is in the end stages now and time is running short. She needs her brother’s support if she is going to end her life with the dignity she wants to.

She finds a new family with her wife Luisa (Taylor), Michael’s girlfriend Shonda (Mason) and Gary (Lo Truglio), Michael’s autistic/agoraphobic/OCD neighbor and co-worker whom Michael looks after. The five of them spread the ashes of Anna’s dad in a quiet, natural place, take a beach trip, have long talks about the nature of existence and what comes after death. As Anna weakens, she sees the doctor who gently tells her how to self-terminate. Will there be no miracle here?

Spoiler alert: no. Anna’s death is depicted as a part of life. The physical act of dying is handled with sensitivity and realism, so kudos to the True (who co-wrote the film) for that. He also shows off Portland pretty well, presenting it as a really nice place to live. Portland is often portrayed as the unwanted stepchild of Seattle, so that was nice to see.

The movie handles a topic – the end of life – that is rarely looked at by the movies, because it is a topic that most of us are uncomfortable with, even though we will all end up facing it someday (and I hope, gentle reader, it is a long, long, LONG time before you do). There is definite food for thought here and using Oregon’s enlightened death with dignity law is a handy springboard.

But the movie is deeply flawed. The characters are largely archetypes rather than feeling like real human beings. Camp looks way too healthy and strong to be dying; some creative make-up would have at least given her a sallow complexion. Worst of all, most of the characters are mouthing platitudes rather than any real insight. I wish the writers would have tried writing real people with real opinions for this film.

For those who are triggered by political correctness, the movie is woke AF. Both couples are bi-racial which is a good thing, but it doesn’t feel organic; it feels like it was a means for the filmmakers to feel proud of how politically correct they are. The relationships seem forced and poor Gary is the only one who doesn’t have a romantic partner. That feels more condescending than you can imagine, and the Asperger’s patient who is wiser than Merlin has become something of a cinematic cliché. I also feel a little skeevy about someone on the spectrum being used as comedy relief. Maybe I’m being too politically correct myself.

But I suppose that’s just the times we live in – everyone is overly sensitive about everything, it seems. I guess I’m no exception in that regard, but that doesn’t change the fact that this film had a golden opportunity to open dialogue about euthanasia, dying with dignity and death itself, but ends up sinking into a morass of clichés and banal plot points and characters. There is some insight to be had here, but you’ll essentially have to be work really hard to find it.

REASONS TO SEE: The subject matter is worth exploring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly maudlin and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult in nature, with a side of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is True’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, MUBI, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Farewell Party
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
This Teacher

Feral (2019)


All the best feral people ride the bus.

(2019) Drama (1091) Annapurna Srinam, Kevin Hoffman, Doug Drucker, Lori Bullock, Jonathan Rentler, Annie Henk, Francis Lyons, Bene Coopersmith, Aurora Flores, Sonia Mena, Enoch Tsumuraya, Kimberly Smith, Sarah Wharton, Bryan Amato, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Matt Stango, Marcus Wright, Nicole Neretin, Adam Soltis, Mary Lu Garmone, Kirsten Hess, Lassen Davis, Emma Hall-Martin. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

The streets are an unforgiving place. Surviving on them is no picnic, particularly when you are homeless. You are vulnerable every minute of every day and survival isn’t guaranteed. If the hunger doesn’t get you, the violence will; if the violence doesn’t get you, the weather will.

Yazmine (Srinam) lives on the streets of Brooklyn, or more to the point, under them. She has made herself a nest in an abandoned power station off the subway line and it is there that she stores what few possessions she has. It is there she sleeps, sometimes with rats scurrying about.

When she ventures out, she looks like anyone else; clean and reasonably dressed. This is an advantage; it gets her picked up by a compassionate musician (Hoffman) who bonds with her over a slice of pizza, then takes her to his place. When she convinces him to take a shower, she empties his wallet and takes some of his precious LPs. That’s survival, baby, and it ain’t pretty.

A young mother (Wharton) confesses that she wishes her little boy would run away; Yazmine listens compassionately, only to have a meltdown when the privileged brat steals a meaningless plastic dinosaur from her purse. A middle-aged Latina woman (Flores) reminisces about her days dancing in salsa clubs, even getting Yazmine to dance with her. However, she also calls a homeless shelter to take Yazmine in – not on her terms, but on theirs – which leads to an unforgettable final scene.

The movie is a mix of styles, both narrative and documentary. Wonder occasionally interrupts his film with interviews with people who are or were homeless, including an interview with Yazmine herself. We see Yazmine getting jumped and beaten up by a group of drunken frat-boy types, and refusing help from counselors and medical professionals. We learn only near the end that her mother was deported when Yazmine was 16; her story is heartbreaking when you finally hear it. Throughout the film, Yazmine maintains a brash demeanor that can only be called “Noo Yawk.”

Srinam gives an outstanding performance. Yazmine is oftentimes her own worst enemy, but there’s a vulnerability that is just below the surface and very endearing on those occasions when she allows you to glimpse it. Yazmine often changes her look which is not something I am sure is common among homeless women, but okay; in all other ways the movie feels like an authentic glimpse of the lives they lead. The rest of the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as Wonder cast a mix of professionals and amateurs.

The cinematography is generally speaking, really good, showing both the filth of the underground and the beauty of snow-covered streets. Wonder does a lot of quick-cutting early on which I suppose is meant to set the pace for the film which is pretty fast – in New York, it has to be – but he calms down on that aspect further into the film.

The narrative structure is a little disjointed and at times you get the sense that some of Wonder’s decisions have more to do with showing his creativity more than serving the pace and story of the movie, but c’est la vie. I don’t have an issue with movies that defy the norms, only that they be true to themselves and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case here.

Still, it’s a decent effort and it does examine the homeless issue with a steady, unwavering gaze. I did like the movie – particularly Srinam – but I can’t say as I loved it.

REASONS TO SEE: Annapurna Srinam gives a memorable performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and occasionally a little too self-reverent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on stories told to the director when he was working with the homeless people of New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen Mimi
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Adrift in Soho