Rebel Hearts


Crusading for social justice.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, Corita Kent, Lenore Dowling, Sheila Biggs, Clement Connelly, Pat Reif, Helene McCambridge, Ruthanne Murray, Francis J. Weber, Mary Mark Zeyen, Mickey Myers, Ray Smith, Marian Sharples, Dorothy Dunn, Daniel Berrigan, Frances Snyder, Patrice Underwood, Rita Callanan, Rosa Manriquez. Directed by Pedro Kos

 

Most of us think of ruler-wielding martinets when we think about nuns, dressed in habits that often made them look like giant penguins. That image was perpetuated by the media to a certain extent, but the truth is that it’s not terribly accurate and hasn’t been for many decades. The reason it is inaccurate is largely due to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a convent of nuns in heathen Los Angeles who in the Sixties, launched a revolution of their own.

Prior to that, nuns were Brides of Christ, women devoted to service in poverty (and often in silence) and devoted to prayer and community with their fellow sisters. They were “God’s career women,” according to a newsreel from the postwar era, and that was fairly apt. Into this mix came a couple of far-reaching events. The first was the installation of James McIntyre as Cardinal of the Los Angeles diocese. A former Wall Street runner, he ran the diocese pretty much as a business, erecting a large number of schools to serve the burgeoning population of Los Angeles and staffing them largely with nuns who weren’t paid and were woefully unprepared and unqualified to teach (perhaps the reputation for torturous discipline came out of that inexperience).

The Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and ended in 1965 under Paul VI, represented a seismic shift for the Church. It for the first time allowed the mass to be performed in the local vernacular rather than in Latin which prior to 1965 it was exclusively performed in; it also started a process of liberalization which, among other things, allowed nuns to decide whether to continue to wear habits or dress in more modern outfits.

This became an issue in Los Angeles largely because the very conservative McIntyre (who was likely one of the Cardinals who voted against ratifying the results of Vatican II, as it was known then) disapproved of most of the more liberal aspects of the council’s edicts. The nuns, who inhabited a garden-like convent near Hollywood, also ran a private college which didn’t fall under the Cardinal’s control; it was a liberal arts school (emphasis on the liberal) that taught art and sociology with equal fervor as it did theology.

On the college staff was art teacher Corita Kent, who was producing silkscreen art of her own, text-based pop art that reflected the turbulence of the late Sixties, largely with anti-war and social justice messages that should have been in line with the church’s teachings of peace and justice for all, but in that era the church was more rigid and conservative than it is now. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest in that era, began to protest the war and racial inequality (among other things) and sisters of Immaculate Heart began to show up at protests as well (one marched with Martin Luther King at Selma). Fed up with his fractious sisters, the Cardinal began pressuring them to mend their ways until a showdown became inevitable.

I grew up in Los Angeles during that era; I do remember the run-in between Cardinal McIntyre and the sisters and it was much talked-about in Catholic schools in the era following (I was in Catholic high school in the mid-Seventies and in a Jesuit University in the late Seventies and early Eighties). So in a lot of ways, I got a feeling of nostalgia from the film that may not necessarily be the experience of others who see it, so do take that into encount when reading the rest of my review.

While most of the interviews with the aging sisters were recorded several years ago (Kent, for example, passed away in 1986). He utilizes animations created by Brandon Blommaert and Una Lorenzen that playfully reflect Kent’s graphic style and often depict McIntyre as a rampaging demonic presence, which according to some of his assistants (who were also interviewed here) was not far from the truth.

The women that we meet in the interviews are gracious but feisty; they look back with some amusement at their place in history, amazed that these women who simply wanted to be taken seriously were considered to be such thorns in the side of the church that they were at one point given a choice to return to the old ways that the sisters conducted their affairs or risk expulsion.

It is these interviews that are the heart and soul of the film, because these ladies were the heart and soul of American Catholicism, even though they (and indeed, most Catholics) didn’t realize it at the time. Their courage in the face of a powerful, intractable foe has brought bar-reaching changes, which are still ongoing today. If you ask me, the Church is in need of a Vatican III and if one should ever be called, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart should be inspiration for the proceedings.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is done in the style of Sister Conita’s artwork. Very reflective of its times. The nuns are lively, engaging and courageous.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have less appeal for non-Catholics.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the interview segments were conducted by Shawnee Isaac-Smith and were conducted years ago as many of the women interviewed here have passed away since.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Greater Love: A Unique Portrait of the Carmelite Nuns
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Tove

Cryptozoo


Giant snakes always make a movie better.

(2021) Animated Feature (Magnolia) Starring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. Directed by Dash Shaw

 

Some readers may be old enough to remember the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s in which artists such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Trina Robbins made comic strips distinctly aimed at adults, laden with sex, drugs and what have you. A kind of counterculture acid trip made printable, these comics enjoyed a brief heyday and their influence can be felt today in online comic strips, from which sprang Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea).

His latest has the look and feel of those halcyon works of art with a touch of 70s tarot cards mixed in. The visual style has a reason; the movie is set in an alternate version of the Sixties. Hippies Amber (Krause) and Matthew (Cera) wander into the woods near San Francisco to get stoned and have sex. Naked in the afterglow and not having come down from their high quite yet, they decide to go exploring and run into an impossibly high fence. Matthew immediately wants to see what’s behind it whereas Amber is a bit more cautious. When Matthew spies a castle (“Walt Disney must live there” he exclaims), Amber reluctantly follows. The two then see something even more incredible; a unicorn, but when Matthew stumbles and falls when trying to touch the creature, the animal gets spooked leading to tragedy.

The unicorn is one of hundreds of mythological creatures from all over the world called cryptids who have been gathered in this preserve as a means of protecting them and educating the public about them. They have been gathered in this enclosure, called the Cryptozoo, by Joan (Zabriskie), an elderly wealthy philanthropist. Her right hand is Lauren Gray (Bell), who as an army brat in Okinawa encountered a baku, a Japanese creature resembling a pig/baby elephant hybrid, that eats bad dreams. Since then, she has tracked down legendary creatures and brought them to this place, a kind of Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. She is on the lookout for the baku but then again, so is the U.S. military in the form of Nicholas (Ryan) who seeks to weaponize the cryptids ad put an end to any discussion of any military supremacy other than American. Lauren is aided by Phoebe (Papoulia), a gorgon (don’t call her Medusa) who longs to fit in to society with a normal husband and a normal life.

However, bad things are happening at the Cryptozoo and things have been loosed that shouldn’t ever have been confined. Will Joan’s dream of integrating the cryptids into society be destroyed, or should the cryptids be free to live as they choose – even if they must remain hidden?

There’s a lot going on in this movie – maybe a little too much. There are some of the obvious subtexts – wariness of the military-industrial complex, respect the environment and ecology, zoos and other places where wildlife are kept for public display are inherently bad places, and the like. It’s a lot to pack in to an hour and a half and at times the movie seems lost in its own maze of subtexts.

What works here is the animation; it is inventive (as is the story itself) and most of the time, gorgeous to look at. Clearly a lot of imagination went into this and you see all of it on the screen. While the drawings themselves aren’t super-detailed (this is hand drawn 2D rather than CGI) the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. I find that’s the sign of a director who trusts his audience.

My main objection is that the story can be hard to follow at times; there is a fragmentation that occurs because I think Shaw and his wife and creative partner Jane Samborski (who supervised the animation) had so much to say that they could have easily fit it in to several films. I imagine when you are doing something as labor-intensive as an animated feature, there is a tendency to want to fit as much in as possible, but in this case it hurt the movie a little bit.

The film continues to play the Florida Film Festival the rest of the week and Florida residents still can purchase a virtual copy, although they are going fast. If you’re not able to do so, the movie will be released theatrically in August and it might be better seen on the big screen anyway. Animation this gorgeous deserves the best possible presentation.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully inventive and gorgeous animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is a bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Unicorn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
After Antarctica

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street


Just another day at the office.

(2021) Documentary (HBO Documentaries) Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Caroll Spinney, Holly Robinson Peete, Sonia Manzano, Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath, Matt Robinson, Frank Biondo, Christopher Cerf, Lloyd Morissette, Nick Raposo, Emilio Delgado, Dolores Robinson, Fran Brill, Matt Robinson Jr., Polly Stone, Kate Stone Lucas Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

 

When Sesame Street debuted on PBS in 1968, there was likely nobody expecting just how massive the seismic shift it was to create in American television would be. Essentially since the moment television began broadcasting kid’s programming, the soul aim for those shows was to sell breakfast cereal and toys to kids.

But there were visionaries who thought TV could do more. Producer Joan Ganz Cooney and director/writer/producer Jon Stone thought that kids – who already by then were spending an enormous amount of time glued to the boob tube – could be educated instead of merely regarded as mini-consumers in the making. And it was their bright idea to use the same sorts of techniques that Madison Avenue was using to sell kids on learning the alphabet, their numbers and important life lessons.

This was a revolutionary change in thinking and this documentary shows how they came to accomplish just that. Utilizing a well-regarded but largely unknown puppeteer named Jim Henson and his Muppet creations – which had been used for adult humor on late night TV, or to sell beer (and they show the hilarious clips of the Muppets doing just that) – and a perfect symbiosis was created. Because this was theSixties, Cooney was very invested in the Civil Rights movement and wanted to show an integrated neighborhood, and because her program was aimed at lower-income children who were at a disadvantage when it came to getting a good education, the setting was one her target audience could relate to – an urban street.

With a wealth of behind the scenes footage as well as contemporary and archival interviews, we hear from the principle players including composer Joe Raposo who wrote the iconic “It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” and the human actors who played the adult residents of Sesame Street. Their recollections are tinged with nostalgia and a hint of rose-colored glasses filtering out the more unpleasant things, but it was obvious that these people and the dozens who worked on the show cared very much about the show’s mission, and ultimately for each other. They refer to it as a second family, and that is obvious in the care taken with the work.

There are some hilarious moments of backstage tomfoolery, as well as moments of pathos – the cast explaining to a distraught Big Bird that one of the characters, Mr. Cooper, had died which he is at first unable to understand. It is a bittersweet moment and for Da Queen and myself, incredibly moving. It was obvious that the cast was deeply affected because the actor who played Mr. Cooper, Will Lee, had himself passed on and in a way, they were able to process their own grief by helping Big Bird with his own.

The movie essentially covers the 20 year period from the show’s inception to Henson’s funeral in 1990, so there are a lot of characters and things not covered here. The tone is more than a little hagiographic; even the one instance where there was some negativity – the first actor who played Gordon, Matt Robinson (father of Holly Robinson Peete) had developed an African-American muppet named Eugene, who spoke in what could be termed a “ghetto dialect.” This proved to be unpopular – surprisingly enough, with the black demographic – and the character was quietly phased out. Matt, stung by the rejection, eventually exited the show.

But mostly all is sunshine and rainbows on Sesame Street. For those who grew up watching the show, this is bound to bring the warm fuzzies, particularly since many of those who grew up with the show then got to experience it again as parents with their own children, as Da Queen did (she was four years old when the show came out and firmly in the target audience).

While television continues to use it’s vast power mainly to sell to consumers, Sesame Street became the rare instance of committed people with a good idea shepherding the idea to fruition, and having that idea make a big difference. Three generations of kids have learned their A-B-Cs at the lap of the show, and new episodes continue to be filmed for HBO, the company who made this documentary so I suppose the positive tone would be inevitable. However, the documentary is extremely informative and will bring out fond memories for anyone who found out how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

REASONS TO SEE: Will definitely have all the feels for people of a certain age group. Gives a great deal of insight into the making of the show. Very emotional in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mississippi’s public Television station initially refused to air the show because it depicted a racially mixed neighborhood. A commercial station picked up the show which proved to be extraordinarily popular with the local children, forcing the PBS station to relent.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: <em?97% positive="" reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Lily Topples the World

Tiny Tim: King For a Day


The life of Tiny Tim wasn’t an easy one.

(2020) Music Documentary (Juno) Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury, Weird Al Yankovic, Justin A. Martell, Susan Khaury-Wellman, Johnny Pineapple, Richard Perry, Wavy Gravy, Bernie Stein, Eddie Rabin, Ron DeBlasio, Bobby Gonzalves, George Schlatter, Jonas Nekas, Artie Butler, Milt Friedwald, Martin Sharp, Harvey Mann, Tulip Stewart. Directed by Johan van Sydow

Tiny Tim exists, for the most part, in the national zeitgeist as an oddity of the 1960s, dismissed as a one-trick pony with his elfin smile, ukulele and falsetto vocals. He would die in 1995, mostly forgotten, playing in restaurants, circuses and middle school auditoriums, a sad figure living on the limelight that had long since faded away.

Stardom is a potent, addicting thing and Tiny Tim, bourn Herbert Butros Khaury, was a junkie. The son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father – an almost unheard-of combination back then and even so still today. His parents really didn’t know what to make of him, and were generally unsupportive of his ambitions and even when he had become a big star, were less than enthusiastic about his career choice.

This documentary, which debuted at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival and is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival, features a good deal of archival footage of Tim’s television performances on the Tonight Show, Dick Cavett, Ed Sullivan and the like. At the height of his fame, he was a national icon who was something of a symbol of the flower power movement but a change in management put his career in the hands of those who would, in the words of his friend Johnny Pineapple, “send him out anywhere if it put a dollar in their pocket.” His career took a nosedive and as quickly as he he became a household name, he declined into obscurity.

The documentary utilizes excerpts from Tim’s diaries (read by Weird Al Yankovic, himself fairly conversant with the fickle finger of fame) which hints at a darkness in the performer’s soul. Apparently a very religious person (he lamented at one point that he felt as “a lost soul in Hell, crying out for help”) with some severe self-image issues as well as a pretty nasty case of depression, he kept his gentle smile and childlike demeanor showing even to the very end. There is also some effective black and white animated sequences.

The overall tone is bittersweet. I don’t know if you could term his life, as Todd Rundgren coined it, “the ever-popular tortured artist effect” but there’s no doubt that his life had more than his share of pain and suffering. If there’s a silver lining here, it does make you re-examine your attitude towards artists who might be outsiders, those whose music might be a bit different. Maybe their music isn’t your cup of tea, and that’s okay, but it should be remembered that every artists, regardless of who they are, put themselves out there and that is something to be respected, not ridiculed. I have to admit that my attitude towards Tiny Tim changed after watching this, and so did my attitude towards people like William Hung and others who may be chasing fame, but even if they don’t achieve it for long, should be treated with compassion rather than derision.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly affecting at times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical music doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tiny Tim’s wedding broadcast on The Tonight Show remains the second largest American television audience of all time as of this writing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zappa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily

Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Where She Lies


Peggy Phillips manages to keep a positive face despite a life filled with heartache.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Peggy Phillips, Zach Marion, Suzanne Smith, Marguerite Nocera, Doug Scott, Vondie Stinet, Susan Farrar, Doug Cox, Jody Brooks, Steve Lawson, Jewell Scott, Curtis Ottinger, Evelyn Burroughs, Trey Monroe, Tom Bokkin, Jimmy Phillips, Melanie Marion Oliveira. Directed by Zach Marion

 

We often are confronted in our lives with tragedy, injustice, or a combination thereof. It can shape our lives and alter our perception of who and what we are permanently. Some respond to it better than others.

Peggy Phillips was an ordinary 19-year-old girl living in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1962. While her parents were authoritarian and strict Baptists, Still, she was fairly happy but like most girls her age, she chafed a bit at her parents restrictive household, and then her naivete led to her being sexually assaulted by a married man (who told her she was separated) and to a pregnancy.

At that time, there was a whole lot of stigma attached with an unwed mother, a stigma visited both on the mother and the child. Despite the fact that Peggy was unwilling and in truth a victim of rape, her father was as cold as ice to her. This had to be her fault, somehow. There was no question that the baby would be given up for adoption, except for one thing – Peggy didn’t want to.

Peggy’s dad threatened to disown her and throw her out of the house; even Peggy’s obstetrician counseled her to give up the baby for adoption but Peggy was adamant. The stubborn girl was sent to live with her aunt and eventually, the big day came. Peggy was in a fog of anesthetic and remembers nothing about the delivery. She awoke the next morning, only to be told that the baby had died shortly after birth. Peggy was heartbroken but went on to live her life, but the relationship between her and her father was soured forever.

However, incredibly, her mother on her deathbed confessed to Peggy that the child hadn’t really died; her father had given the baby up for adoption, forging her signature on the paperwork. Now, Peggy went on a crusade to find her lost baby. At last, a woman stepped forward; Suzanne Smith, who had been adopted by neighbors of Peggy’s family. A lot of signs pointed to Smith’s story being true, but her testimony was unreliable to say the least; she was a chronic drug addict who was in and out of prison. Still, Peggy formed a bond with Suzanne and began to think of her as a daughter.

Peggy had a lawyer named Doug Cox on her side, and the grave where Peggy’s baby had supposedly been buried was exhumed. The remains of an infant were found. There were some things that didn’t add up though, but nevertheless Peggy was eager to have a DNA test done to prove once and for all the infant in the grave those 30 years were not hers. Unfortunately, Peggy didn’t have the funds to get a DNA test done so definitive proof remained elusive.

Years later, aspiring filmmaker Zach Marion ran across Peggy’s story while researching another potential subject for a documentary. He decided this would make the perfect subject for a feature and asked Peggy if it would be okay to do an interview. Peggy agreed and it led to a detective story as Zach set out to obtain the answers to the questions that had essentially defined the now septuagenarian Peggy her entire adult life.

Marion sets this up essentially like a detective story, but doesn’t succumb to the tropes of a true crime documentary – at least, not much. Peggy isn’t the most charismatic subject in the world, but then again it’s hard to blame her for being reserved; most of the people she trusted in the world had betrayed her about as completely as a human can betray another. She remains good-hearted and optimistic, although she seems to be less interested in finding facts than in having her hopes validated. It is a little troubling to think that is essentially how our political decisions are being made these days.

There are a lot of twists and turns here, not all of them expected. Generally, it is never a good idea for a documentary filmmaker to become part of the story, but Marion becomes inexorably linked to Peggy’s story and so the cinematic faux pas doesn’t sting quite as much. The story is compelling enough that you’ll want to sit through it and find out what happened. The big issue is that Peggy is a bit of a wet noodle as a subject, but with good reason. She’s been through a lot in her life and her situation is essentially a poster child to how women have been regarded for centuries. You will feel sympathy for her, but there is a feeling of resignation in her that may prevent you from thoroughly relating to her as you might ordinarily.

REASONS TO SEE: Keeps you guessing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Peggy hides her emotions so well that it is hard to get caught up in how sad the story really is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a mention of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peggy suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and generally had to walk with the aid of a cane towards the end of her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In Silico

Green Book


Driving Mister Daisy.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorksViggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimeter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Don Stark, Brian Stepanek, Geraldine Singer, Iqbal Theba, David Kallaway, Tom Virtue, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Anthony Mangano, Don DiPetta, Jenna Laurenzo, Suehyla El-Attar. Directed by Peter Farrelly

 

Few Oscar Best Picture winners have gotten the backlash this film has. Directed by Peter Farrelly, stepping away from the comedies he’s known for (co-directed with his brother Bobby), this is an account of a business and personal relationship between concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), so named because of his penchant for chatter.

Set in 1962, the street-wise bouncer Tony applies for a job driving the fastidious Shirley through a Southern concert tour in the winter of 1962. At first possessed of the casual racism common in the era (he throws out a glass that black workers drank out of in his home), Tony soon sees for himself firsthand the ugly realities of racism. He also grows to admire the cultured kindness of Shirley who helps him with his diction and with writing letters home to his wife Dolores (Cardellini).

For Don’s part, he is brought out of his self-imposed shell to appreciate the uncouth but honest life lived by Tony. It’s all so very Driving Miss Daisy but the relationship between Don and Tony, as interpreted by two of the better actors working in this part of the 21st century, makes the movie magic required to elevate this above the sometimes generic parable on racial relations that the movie can sink into from time to time.

There are a few cringe-inducing scenes (including one where Tony introduces Don to the joys of fried chicken, and another where Tony exclaims “I’m blacker than you are!” when Don confesses he’s not familiar with the music of Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Otis Redding) but there are also plenty of scenes with genuine warmth.

The film focuses mostly on Tony which is unsurprising since it was co-written by Tony’s son Nick; the Shirley family has also complained that the relationship between the two was purely employer-employee, a claim that was proven false when an audio interview with Shirley surfaced in which he specifically said it was not.

One of my favorite scenes is where Shirley faces a crisis of the soul. A gay man when that fact alone would be enough to end his career, uncomfortable with his fellow African-Americans and unaccepted by the white society that acknowledges his talent as a pianist, he cries out “I’m not black! I’m not white! I’m not a man; what am I?” If you want to see Ali at his best, that’s the scene to watch.

I realize that woke readers for whom this movie doesn’t pass the purity test will likely take exception with this review; certainly, those folks are entitled to their opinion. I do agree that there are some tone-deaf moments that don’t reflect well on the film overall, and quite frankly I tend to agree with those who thought that the film was a little too flawed to be named Best Picture. Still, there’s enough here to make for worthwhile viewing and that should be acknowledged as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great chemistry between Mortensen and Ali.
REASONS TO AVOID: Less than fully factual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including racial slurs, adult thematic content, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortensen gained weight for the picture mainly on a diet of Italian food – pizzas, pastas and the like. He did so much on-screen eating that he never utilized the on-set catering.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Streetlight Harmonies


A walk down Memory Lane.

(2020) Music Documentaries (Gravitas) Lamont Dozier, Lance Bass, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, Ron Dante, Brian Wilson, Freda Payne, Al Jardine, Brian McKnight, Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis, Anthony Gourdine, Sammy Strain, Vito Picone, Jimmy Merchant, Scherrie Payne, Diz Russell, Charlie Horner, Jeff Barry, Tony Butala, Leon Hughes, Janis Siegel, Florence LaRue, Lala Brooks. Directed by Brent Wilson

 

It was a different time. Kids used to gather on the street corners of Brooklyn, Harlem and Philadelphia, singing under the lights in the summer evening twilight, using close harmonies. And why not? Teenage girls loved it and there is nothing a teenage boy likes better than being the center of a teenage girl’s attention. Well, the straight ones anyway.

The style was called Doo-Wop and it would eventually come to be one of the most influential forms of music ever. You can draw a straight line from the Doo-Wop groups of the 40s and 50s through the girl groups of the 60s to the boy bands of the 90s. As Lance Bass of N’Sync notes, other genres will come and go but there will always be pop bands that utilize harmonies.

Some of these performers have been singing these songs for 60 years and more, and there are plenty of great bands here, like Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Chantels, Jay and the Americans, the Orioles and so on, playing songs like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Sh-Boom.”  There are some stories that are heartwarming but a lot are anything but. Racial prejudice was common for these predominantly African-American groups who were often discriminated against by the very audiences dancing to their records. Many of those who were responsible for some of the most iconic songs of the 20th century were never paid royalties, or amounts that were almost insulting.

This isn’t really a definitive documentary – they’d need a mini-series for that – and it glosses over the history to a large degree. Wilson does a pretty good job using a clever motif of a 45 record to delineate various chapters of the documentary, and further graphics give a sense of what year various songs came out. Still, if you’re looking for more information, the film barely scratches the surface.

The good thing, though, is that you get to hear some of the music and it is essential music. Sure, it’s from a much more “innocent” time (even though Doo-Wop did play an essential role in the Civil Rights movement) and may sound a bit dated to modern ears, but the harmonies are timeless and so are most of the songs themselves. For some, this might make for a lovely walk down Memory Lane while for others this might serve as an introduction to a style of music that has influenced the pop music of every era since – including the current one.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is absolutely essential. Nice use of graphics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as informative as other docs of this type have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life Could Be a Dream
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hunter Killer