Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk


The scene is a monster.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop (narrator), Jello Biafra, Laurence Livermore, Tim Armstrong, Kathleen Hanna, Brett Gurewitz, Ian Mackaye, East Bay Ray, Fat Mike, Ben Weasel, Kirk Hammett, Lars Fredricksen, Mike Dirnt, Sergei Loobkoff, Kevin Seconds, Penelope Houston, Tre Cool, Duff McKagan, Kamala Parks, Honey, Miranda July, Ginger Coyote. Directed by Corbett Redford

 

The nature of music is that every so often there comes a confluence, a mixture of talent, opportunity and inspiration that coalesces in a single location. The rise of Motown in the 60s, the British invasion, the Seattle grunge scene, the jangle pop scene in Athens, GA, the Madchester era and the Minneapolis of Prince, the Replacements and Soul Asylum are all examples of this.

There are other scenes that are evergreens; they are generally large cities that have a steady influx of talent. Los Angeles, New York City, London and San Francisco are all consistently churning out great artists and inventing (or reinventing) new sounds. Sometimes these large city scenes are like black holes, drawing in everything in a 50 mile or more radius.

The East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area has always existed on the edge of San Francisco’s orbit. While Oakland has always had a thriving rap scene, the suburbs of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties have largely been garage band territories that have from time to time produced some fine bands.

During the 80s as the punk phenomenon was in full swing in San Francisco with bands like the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and Flipper making important music something happened; the scene began to fade as hardcore skinhead bands began to suffuse the scene in violence. The editor of seminal punk ‘zine Maximumrocknroll Tim Yohannon wanted a venue that punk rockers of all ages could watch their favorite bands in safety – but also gave the bands the freedom to be themselves. He found such a space in Berkeley in a converted warehouse at 924 Gilman Street.

The 924 Gilman scene became a thriving punk scene that supported a wide variety of bands. The most famous bands to come out of the Gilman scene were Rancid and even bigger was Green Day whose success became a sticking point for many of those who felt that signing with a major label and making any sort of money was in effect selling out.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong approached Corbett Redford who went to high school with him looking for archival footage from the halcyon days of Gilman for a film that Armstrong wanted to make documenting  the scene. Not only did Redford have the footage that Billie Joe was looking for, he volunteered to direct the thing as well.

The result is one of the most exhaustively thorough music documentaries I’ve ever seen. Essentially chronicling the story of San Francisco Bay Area punk from its early beginnings to the break out success of Green Day in 1994, the movie contains footage of the bands who played the Gilman regularly and interviews with literally hundreds of people associated with the scene, from the musicians who played there to the volunteers who worked there to the writers who covered the scene to the artists who grew out of the scene. The film clocks in at about 2 ½ hours so it’s not something you sit in without some sort of commitment.

The length of the movie may be daunting to some; it’s hard to sit through 155 minutes of talking heads and snippets of songs but the frenetic editing pace makes it palatable. In fact, I was left wondering if with additional footage this couldn’t have been a mini-series rather than a movie although I have to admit a movie was an easier sell to something like Netflix than a miniseries based on a specific scene. Still, one has to admire the passion of all those involved from the filmmakers to the interviewees who made this happen.

The footage is in many cases extremely rare and unavailable anywhere else. For me, there was a nostalgic appeal in seeing bands like Operation Ivy, Neurosis and Kamala and the Karnivores, bands that figured in my Bay Area rock critic days and who now existed for me only as worn-out cassette tapes and memories – until now.

Redford utilizes animation sequences masterminded by Tim Armstrong of Rancid fame that recollects the artwork of the great punk zines. The animations are some of the best and most entertaining segments in the film and are worth seeing on their own.

One can’t understate the importance of Gilman as the ultimate expression of the DIY philosophy and of taking the punk ethic to the next logical evolutionary step. Not everything that came out of Gilman was amazing and life-changing but there was always an energy that radiated from the bands that played there regularly that were not present anywhere before or since. The Gilman is still there; some of the people who have been there since the beginning are too but for the most part, it’s a new generation trying not necessarily to live up to the accomplishments of those who came before them but to blaze their own trail while holding true to the tenets that have guided the Gilman collective since the beginning.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; people who find the music discordant and irritating doubtless will not find much to like here but it isn’t just the music that is important but the society that sprang from it. Love Green Day or label them sell-outs; they were an important part of the Gilman Street Experiment (almost said Experience there) and because of their success or maybe in spite of it, they are able to wield the clout to get a movie like this made. Punk scholars will appreciate this most of all.

REASONS TO GO: The concert footage is indispensable. The animated sequences are zine-like and cool. The Gilman scene gets the due it richly deserves.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much information coming at you in a documentary that’s a good half hour too long. There is an overabundance of talking heads here.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redford and the members of Green Day all went to Pinole Valley High School although two years apart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Monster Project

LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Landline


Even at a teppanyaki restaurant family dinners can get awkward.

(2016) Comedy (Amazon) Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Ali Ahn, Marquis Rodriguez, Jordan Carlos, Finn Wittrock, India Menuez, Charlotte Ubben, Roger Peffley, Raffaella Meloni, Eric Tabach, Noah Tully Sanderson, Amy Carlson, Ezra Barnes, Megan Byrne, Adam Enright, Ian Jarvis, Christine Sherrill. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

 

Some movies seem to be more gender-specific than others. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by both sexes but one is going to find it more relatable than the other. So it is with the sophomore effort by Gillian (Obvious Child) Robespierre.

The year is 1995 and it promises to be a banner one for one particular Upper West Side family. Mother Pat (Falco) is a bigwig for the EPA and is the main breadwinner for the family although wannabe playwright ad copywriter Alan (Turturro) does okay. Their daughter Dana (Slate) is working as a graphic artist and engaged to Ben (Duplass) with whom she lives. Ali (Quinn), their younger daughter, is a senior in high school and has a bright future ahead of her.

But things are only wonderful on the surface. Dana is frustrated at her relationship with Ben which has turned somewhat vanilla. Pat is frustrated that she is taken for granted in the household. Ali is frustrated with everything, acting out and hanging out with all the wrong friends, snorting heroin at raves and having sex with all the wrong guys. The worst is yet to come though; Ali accidentally discovers a floppy disc (it is 1995 after all) with erotic poetry that her father wrote. That’s cringeworthy enough but it turns out that he may have written them for another woman who isn’t her mom.

Ali and Dana have been like gasoline and matches for some time but when Dana, needing a break from Ben, moves back into the house, the two begin to bond over their dad’s potential infidelity. They go on a mission to find out who the mysterious woman is and whether the poems were in fact written for her. In the process, they discover their own skeletons are just waiting to leap out of their own closets.

I can understand why Da Queen loved this movie more than I did. Being a sister herself, she related to the movie more deeply than I did. It’s not that I can’t relate to female characters mind you but certain situations are going to speak to women more than men and vice versa. There’s no shame in that – that’s just life. And I think women are going to relate to this in a big way. The movie gives a lot of exploration to how infidelity can absolutely crush not just the partner being cheated on but everyone around them. The movie also spends a lot of time exploring the bonds between sisters – and between mothers and daughters.

Slate and Quinn both look like they could be sisters, which helps further the illusion. Da Queen was insistent that the relationship between the two felt authentic to her and I’m not one to argue with her, particularly on such matters. To the credit of both actresses, they play people who have a lot of baggage; Dana also is unfaithful to Ben while Ali is right on the cusp of being a poster child for teen overindulgence which could lead to being a statistic. The snorting of heroin is disturbing but I get the impression that the filmmakers don’t think it’s as big a deal as I do. I’ve seen what heroin can do so perhaps my triggers are a little bit more sensitive in that regard.

I thought Turturro and Falco were absolutely great here. Turturro is one of those actors who can elevate mediocre movies and when he gets a good part in a good part (a la O Brother Where Art Thou) can absolutely kill it and that is what happens here. Even better is Falco, an Emmy-winning actress who has consistently shown through two major TV shows that she is one of the finest actresses working today; personally I think her performance here is worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration and it’s not inconceivable that Amazon might have the wherewithal to promote her for it. I sure hope they do – it would be well-deserved.

While the movie doesn’t wallow in nostalgia like other period movies this summer have done, it does boast a killer soundtrack – as other period movies this summer have done. There are some subtle moments however – as when a television is tuned to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s landmark speech in Beijing on September 5, 1995 when she proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” a point that seems to need re-making in an era where her victorious opponent for the Presidency has allowed those human rights to be threatened with erosion. I do think that the point is intentional.

There is definitely some “first world problems” issues here and some moments when I thought the movie seemed a bit too self-involved for my tastes. Again, I think women are going to “get” this movie a lot more readily and appreciate it more than I did, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. Nevertheless there is plenty here for men to digest as relationships, never a simple subject, are particularly convoluted here. Robespierre is certainly a major talent whose future output I will be absolutely keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is terrific. Turturro and Falco deliver the goods, particularly Falco whose performance is Oscar-worthy.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a little bit self-involved. Quinn and Slate look like sisters and act like sisters but were less compelling than I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, drug use and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro is the cousin of Aida Turturro who was a cast member on The Sopranos along with Edie Falco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronically Metropolitan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!