Pure Grit


Sharmaine Weed doing what she loves.

(2021) Documentary (Bankside) Sharmaine Weed, Savannah Martinez, Brandon Weed, Charity Weed, Kashe Weed, Amari Bercier. Directed by Kim Bartley

 

Native Americans in the 21st century face many challenges, not the least of those they have faced since European colonizers came to steal their land from them. They seek to retain their cultural identity while fitting in to a modern world. They do that while living on reservations where economic opportunities are extremely limited, where most live in poverty and where many are plagued by alcohol and drug addiction.

For Sharmaine Weed, a Shoshone living on the massive Wind River reservation in Wyoming – “God’s country” as she puts it early on in the film – escape is through bareback horse racing. This isn’t the type of racing you see at Churchill Downs; it is extremely dangerous, as Sharmaine found out firsthand when her sister Charity rode for the first time, and suffered grievous injuries leaving her disabled. Sharmaine took a year off to help care for her sister, and her sister’s daughter.

She is back riding now, for the first time since her sister’s injury, and sporting a new girlfriend – Sharmaine is one of the few lesbians on the reservation – Savannah. The two are very much in love. But things at home are getting rough; her younger brother Kashe is turning abusive and Savannah wants Sharmaine to move to Denver. So Sharmaine gets a job out there and puts together enough money to buy a horse to run the summer racing season. Sharmaine looks at it as an opportunity for a fresh start – but things don’t run entirely to plan as they generally have a habit of doing.

Bartley spent three years shadowing Sharmaine and her patience pays off in a rich portrait of a family trying to stay afloat in difficult conditions and specifically of a young woman with fire, passion and determination who has her sights set on a goal, but is pragmatic enough to recognize that it isn’t worth sacrificing everything for. She is aware of the traps that reservation life offer – the despair, the alcoholism, the drug addiction – and she manages to avoid them, largely because of her dogged refusal to surrender to them. Her love for horse racing also carries her through, and she’s good enough at it that she can survive and thrive in that world.

Her relationship with Savannah is complicated; Savannah is six years younger and is still just barely old enough to drink legally. Her mind is still on things that Sharmaine has long since moved beyond (if they were ever important to her in the first place), and that puts a strain on their relationship. Savannah wants to enjoy life; Sharmaine wants to build something permanent. It’s not always the love that makes a relationship strong; sometimes it’s a matter of being on the same page in life. There’s nothing wrong with a young woman of 21 wanting to party, dye her hair, and in general be concerned more about less vital things. There is also nothing wrong with a young woman of 27 turning her eyes to the future. We’ve all been in relationships with people who wanted different things with their life. Maybe we loved those people with a passion, but a viable relationship just wasn’t possible.

Bartley does her own cinematography and it is often breathtaking. Horses leaving tracks in the Wyoming snow, drone shots of the endless prairie, the Weed family out hunting and fishing together. We quickly understand that the hunting isn’t done for sport; this is how the family puts food on the table. That they thank the animals they kill for their food for providing them with sustenance is a part of their cultural heritage.

We rarely get such an intimate glimpse at reservation life, and this one is a particularly thorough one. We can see the willingness to fight in Sharmaine’s eyes as she does her damnedest to make a life for herself that is free of drugs and alcohol. The movie could have used a little bit of work on the editing; some of the story progresses in a kind of an uneven manner. The film could have used a smoother flow to it and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt.

The movie is an Irish-American co-production, and is making its North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California today. Unfortunately, that particular film festival doesn’t have a streaming component, so you will likely have to wait until the movie makes an appearance at a festival near you, which it should do in the Fall or Spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on one streaming service or another shortly after that. This is a strong movie about a person you can’t help but admire and I strongly recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot. Inspiring and intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story doesn’t flow as naturally as it might.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wind River reservation, where Charmaine and her family live, is the seventh largest in the United States, and is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rider
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen

The Green Sea


Simone is serving up a knuckle sandwich.

(2021) Mystery (Reel 2 Reel) Katharine Isabelle, Hazel Doupe, Dermot Ward, Amy-Joyce Hastings, Jenny Dixon, Elena Tully, Zeb Moore, Ciaron Davies, Michael Parle, Eric Branden, Audrey Hamilton, Darren Killeen, Ava Kealy, Conor Marren, Darren Travers, Ed King, Peter Broderick, Graham Ward, Jonathan Caffrey, John Carey, Peter Lynch. Directed by Randal Plunkett

 

There is a tendency among young filmmakers who have a whole lot of ideas rattling around in their heads to try and get them all down on celluloid. The problem with that is it often makes a film feel less focused; generally, keeping things simple and honing in on the story above all things is the best way to go – but not always. Making films is funny that way – there are no hard and fast rules.

If we want to talk about rules, Simone (Isabelle) doesn’t really follow any. An American author living in a somewhat dilapidated mansion in a small Irish village, she was once a heavy metal musician who went by the name Sim Chaos, although her band never really progressed beyond cult status. So, she decided to write a book and it turned out to be a bestseller. Now she is trying to churn out a follow-up, but it has been six long years since her last one and her agent has lost patience with her.

But Simone has a lot going on, none of it good. She lives alone, after her marriage failed and her daughter…well, stick around and see. But she’s by herself, drinking herself into oblivion night after night, struggling to bang out a few pages on her typewriter, then tossing them into the fireplace in disgust. She keeps to herself and when she ventures into the village to get supplies, she is surly and rude, responding to a pleasantry to have a nice day with a pointed “F*ck off.” The only thing she seems to care about – besides her vodka – is her Jeep, which like her home has seen better days.

While returning home one evening after a particularly frustrating day in which she had a mechanical breakdown and was told it would be less expensive to buy a new car than to repair the old one, she runs into a young girl (Doupe) who is incongruously in the middle of the road in the middle of nowhere. Knowing that she has already had too much to drink and could be thrown in jail if she reports the incident, she instead takes the young girl home and feeds her, giving her a place to stay during the night. The girl, whose name Simone doesn’t want to bother to learn and whom she refers to only as “Kid,” starts cleaning up the place. Still, Simone wants her gone and gets hysterical at the thought of the Kid touching her belongings. However, she recognizes that the Kid could be useful, so she allows her to stay in exchange for cleaning up the place.

Things start to look up for Simone; she even dates a hero-worshipping auto mechanic (D. Ward) from town. But there is someone looking for the Kid, a smiling man (Parle) in a bowler hat and dark glasses whose apparent good humor makes him seem all the more sinister, and the Kid seems to bear a striking resemblance to a character Simone is writing about. Who is the Kid, and what does she want with Simone?

The movie starts out with an almost Gothic, brooding air (in an almost Brontë-like sense) but slowly adds elements of horror, thrillers and the supernatural into the mix. Some of these elements work better than others, and one must give first-time feature filmmaker Plunkett (who also wrote the screenplay) full marks for ingenuity, but at times the movie feels a bit lost in terms of its own identity.

But one thing that works really well is the chemistry between the two leads. One of the things I really liked about it is that the two women are constantly changing their dynamic; one moment, it’s almost sisterly; the next, it feels more like mother-daughter (and the roles of mother and daughter often reverse between Simone and the Kid) and at other moments, they’re like besties. Mix in some beautiful cinematography from Philipp Morozov and you have a good strong foundation here.

But still, Simone has her armor up so thoroughly that even the audience can’t really see through it and it takes Plunkett an hour to address the whys of Simone’s behavior, although astute viewers might be able to figure it out before then. The upshot is that it makes Simone a difficult character to relate to and get behind, although once you understand what drives her it becomes much easier. I’m all for filmmakers who make their audience earn understanding, but some viewers might give up on the movie before they really should, and that would be a shame. The payoff isn’t what you expect it to be, and that might be off-putting too, but I tend to prefer movies that err on the side of imagination rather than movies that stick to established formulas. This isn’t always an easy film to love, but it gets under your skin unexpectedly nonetheless.

REASONS TO SEE: Really strong chemistry between Isabelle and Doupe.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit out there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isabelle may be familiar to American audiences from her work in the film Ginger Snaps.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Secret Window
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story


Eighties flashback alert.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassDominique Swain, Cody Renee Cameron, Serena Maffucci, Moxie Owens, Leah Ann Cevoli, Psalms Salazar, Elizabeth Lamboy-Wilson, Emily Cheree, Christina Veronica, Thomas Haley, Mark Schaefer, Ryan Vincent, Natalie Fabrizio, Abby Latip, Leah Schaefer, Misha Suvorov, James Seaman, Corey Shane Love, Michelle Maylene. Directed by Robin Bain

 

There is a question that bedevils those that want to bring to the screen a portrayal of social ills, like sex trafficking; how do you bring that to the screen to decry exploitation without being exploitative yourself? It’s an extremely fine line and many well-meaning filmmakers are unsuccessful at navigating it.

The movie – a sequel to a 2016 movie in which the director starred – follows the stories of Hope (Owens) and Baby Girl (Salazar), the former a starry-eyed teen looking to escape an intolerable small town life with the promise of the glamor of being a model and actress, the latter a single mother with few options to feed, shelter and clothe her daughter. They are both enticed into the world of prostitution by Paige (Cameron) – Hope’s childhood babysitter – and Paige’s girlfriend Destiny (Maffucci), who are both out to make as much money as possible so that they can maintain a party hearty lifestyle.

While the exploiters turn a blind eye to the realities of the situation, the exploited deal with the psychological and physical fall-out of their profession (and not their chosen profession), falling into a spiral that they cannot escape from without outside intervention. It is the sad reality that a large number of young women have found themselves trapped in all over the globe.

Those who see prostitution as a victimless crime might come away with a different impression after seeing this. Certainly, there are some women who enter the game with both eyes wide open, and enter the trade with a plan to get out once they’ve made enough money and in fact choose to become sex workers. For many others, it is the only way out of desperation, or at least they have been convinced, either by others or themselves, of that idea. I remember a friend of mine in college who told me that if she flunked out of school (which she was in danger of doing at the time) that she would have no other choice but to become a hooker, because she had no other skills or work experience. Fortunately, she managed to stay in school. Not everyone is so fortunate, whether because of economics or other situations – not the least of which is drug addiction, which is an expensive proposition.

The question I asked earlier about walking the fine line is very applicable here because, in my opinion, Bain isn’t totally successful at walking the line between exploitation and drama. The ratio of sex acts to fall-out is probably higher than it should be; I get the commercial necessity of titillation in order to draw in an audience in order to get one’s message across, but that message is diluted by the erotic content in this case. It is further diluted by turning the story into a soap opera-esque miasma that is heavy on the suds and light on character development. It doesn’t help that the dialogue and acting are about at the level of a Cinemax late night skin flick.

That’s a shame because I think that the intentions of Bain are honorable. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is out to call attention to a situation that year after year, continues to be ignored by society in general while the lives of hundreds of young women are destroyed, often ending in drug overdoses, murder or suicide. Happy endings, for these women, are exceedingly rare.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who loved lurid 80s softcore teen hooker porn.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes what could be a serious subject and turns it into a turgid soap opera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of sexuality, some nudity and drug use, as well as plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angel
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mark of the Bell Witch

Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me


Portrait of an artist at work.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockRonnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Peter Grant, Malcolm McLaren, Charlie Watts, Imelda May, Damien Hirst, Mike Figgis, Sally Wood. Directed by Mike Figgis

 

Ron Wood, co-guitarist of the Rolling Stones alongside Keith Richards, stands out in rock and roll history as one of the finest and most influential blues rock guitarists to ever come out of Great Britain. He has been in bands with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, performing in such groups as the Birds (not the American psychedelic band), the Small Faces, the Jeff Beck Group and of course, the Stones – arguably the world’s greatest band.

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) presents Wood in all his working-class glory, the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with at the pub into the wee hours. His dad had the same kind of bonhomie, often falling asleep in random gardens on his way home from the pubs, not quite sober enough to make it all the way to his own door.

Figgis assembles a pretty impressive array of interview subjects, including three of his fellow Stones (although, oddly, there is very little footage of Wood performing with his current band, a rendition of “When the Whip Comes Down”) and Stewart, accomplished blues singer Imelda May (who performed with Wood early on in her career), alongside artist Damien Hirst (Wood is an accomplished painter as well) and, curiously, notorious Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant who had little if anything to do with Wood’s career, although he asks after Wood during an archival interview with Figgis and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (both Grant and McLaren have since passed on). Wood’s third wife, Sally, briefly appears to admit that she prefers her husband sober, although he is a pretty good drunk – Wood had the reputation of keeping things together even when sloshed. Wood’s first two wives and six children aren’t mentioned, nor is his session work.

Which is where the film falls down. We are given broad brush strokes, but few details, so overall the work looks a little bit like a house painter interpreting Manet. One wonders if there were logistical concerns here that prevented further participation from ex-wives, kids, or perhaps a rock historian or two to assess Wood’s place in rock and roll history, which is considerable. The movie is a scant 82 minutes and it felt like Figgis could have added another 20 minutes comfortably. This is one of those rare films that doesn’t overstay its welcome but quite the opposite; it leaves before you’re ready for it to go.

There is some terrific archival footage which is really the main reason some of his fans will want to check this out; the interview between Figgis and Wood is clearly a couple of old mates getting together and reminiscing, although Wood doesn’t spend much time in self-reflection. His philosophy of life is summarized in a Yogi Berra quote – “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Wood has led an interesting life and a charmed life – after having lung surgery following a half century of heavy smoking, his doctors told him he essentially had lungs that were as good as if he had never smoked at all. Wood’s delighted refrain was “It’s like a get out of jail free card – somebody up there must like me.” Plenty of people down here like him too, and for good reason; you just wouldn’t know it in this curiously uninformative documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: A chronicle of an interesting life.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little disjointed and curiously incomplete.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wood was invited to join the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones passed away, but his manager turned down the opportunity without informing Wood (until much later) because he already had a gig with the Small Faces, so Mick Taylor took the job. When Taylor decided to leave, the invitation was once again offered and this time Wood accepted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Who: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Social Dilemma

DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

The Legend of Swee’ Pea


(2015) Sports Documentary (1091) Lloyd Daniels, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, John Lucas, Howard Garfinkel, Geary Hendley, Keith Glass, Kenny Graham, Leo James, Ernie Hall, Saul Lerner, Lois Tarkanian, David Chesnoff, Ron Naclerio, John Valenti, Ramon Ortiz, Jabari Joyner, Robbito Garcia, Alvis Brown, Avery Johnson, Benjamin May, Tom Kancholosky, Anita Hendley. Directed by Benjamin May

 

Every so often a basketball player comes along who is considered can’t-miss; they are recruited heavily out of high school by the biggest college programs in the sport and some go on to long, productive careers in the NBA; guys like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had those kinds of career. And then, there is Lloyd Daniels.

Daniels is a New York playground legend. At 16, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the world – including in the NBA. His mom died when he was a child; he spent most of his time being shuttled between one grandmother in Queens and another in Brooklyn. His father, who never recovered from his wife’s death, sank into alcoholism. Eventually, Lloyd joined him in alcohol abuse at a young age, and went on to get addicted to crack just as it became epidemic in New York.

Lloyd liked to party but he didn’t particularly like going to class and almost never went. One thing not explained in the documentary is how he was allowed to play basketball when he wasn’t attending class. In my day, you couldn’t participate in extracurricular athletics if you didn’t maintain at least a “C” average, but New York in the Nineties might have been different. In any case, Daniels is dyslexic which may explain his ambivalent attitude towards school. However, one thing he was serious about was basketball and he was a 6’7” guard who could pass AND shoot, a rarity. Lots of coaches were foaming at the mouth trying to get him into their programs. He eventually aged out of high school without graduating or passing a single course.

He wound up being accepted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a scholarship. The Running Rebels were coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian who were always one of the favorites to win the NCAA title back then. But his college career was derailed before he’d even played a single game; he was arrested in a crack house on a police sting operation on February 9, 1987 and Tarkanian threw him off the team. With a drug arrest in his portfolio, he essentially became untouchable. Also not mentioned in the documentary was the involvement of Richard Perry, a noted gambler who helped steer Daniels to UNLV and the ensuing investigation of whom would lead to Tarkanian being forced out as coach of their team.

Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff thought he got a raw deal and helped him get into the Continental Basketball Association with the Topeka Sizzlers. However, his addiction followed him and he was dropped from the team. Going back to New York City, he resumed smoking crack and after trying to rip off some drug dealers of an $8 vial of crack, was shot three times in the chest. He actually died, but was saved by skilled surgeons and lived to play again.

This time it was Coach Tarkanian who came calling; now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. Daniels, given a second chance, started to look like he deserved one. He was showing signs of the skills that had made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits of his generation. Unfortunately, the Spurs weren’t doing all that well as a team and Tarkanian was let go. When John Lucas, a recovering addict himself, was made coach, he saw some disturbing signs in Daniels. Eventually, after a two year stay with San Antonio – the longest of his professional career, he was let go and ended up playing with a myriad of teams, six in the NBA finishing just seven games shy of being vested in the player’s pension program.

These days, Daniels is an AAU coach in New York. In middle age, he bears a striking resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His voice is raspy from years of smoking crack. He is divorced, and while his three kids are all college graduates, he frankly gives credit to his ex-wife. Former radiologist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin May got the opportunity to film Daniels; at times he seems to be a very willing subject, opening up about his addictions and what they cost him. We see him visiting the house where he was arrested in 1987, where the wheels began to fall off on his life and career. Tears come to his eyes when he thinks about that cost.

While he appears open and affable here, there is the other side of Daniels. He is still drinking, which is why his ex-wife declined to be interviewed for the project. We also hear a variety of phone messages left on May’s answering machines of Daniels, wheedling for money and accusing him of exploiting Daniels. Eventually, the calls grow more and more angry and confrontational until they end on a conciliatory note.

This is truly a cautionary tale and shows how incredibly difficult it is to get out of poverty; Daniels had all the tools to have an NBA career that would have set him up for life. Sadly, he never got the guidance he needed to deal with life and his addiction would eventually overwhelm his talent. Daniels was failed by those closest to him, failed by the public school system, failed by society but most of all he failed himself. This is the sort of documentary that would have been perfect for the ESPN “30 in 30” series but sadly, it never made it there which is just symbolic of Daniels’ life in general.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale about wasted potential and drug abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: The documentary feels a little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers of the film is legendary New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Without Bias
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Booksellers

The Possession of Hannah Grace


The morgue is NOT the ideal place to hide from a demon.

(2018) Horror (Screen GemsShay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Max McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent, James A. Watson Jr., Marianne Bayard, Adrian Mompoint, Matt Mings, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Guy Clemens, Sean Burns, Andrea Lyman, George Vezina, Melissa McMeekin. Directed by Diederick van Rooijen

 

There is nothing fun or desirable about a trip to the morgue. So when a movie has that as a central premise, you have to hope that they do enough to make it interesting.

The movie starts with an exorcism (where many other horror movies end) that is performed on the luckless Hannah Grace (Johnson). When the ceremony turns into carnage, the girl’s loving father (Herthum) smothers her to death. But, as I said, the movie is only beginning.

Megan (Mitchell), an ex-cop battling alcoholism and inner demons, gets to battle an outer demon now as well. She’s starting a new job as an intake clerk at a hospital morgue which looks like it was designed by the same guys who do urban boutique hotels. Lots of concrete, lots of glass, and incongruously, cross-shaped lights inside the morgue itself. A little obvious, don’t-cha think?

In any case, it isn’t long before Hannah Grace’s corpse is deposited and we begin our “not-quite-dead-yet” shenanigans, although she is most decidedly dead, dead enough to inspire a Munchkin song. That’s bad news for the few workers who are present on the (appropriately) graveyard shift, including Megan’s pal Lisa (Katic) and AA sponsor who figures out too late that she’s not imagining things. Hannah’s got a hankering to rejoin the living and she’ll need some freshly dead folks to do that. Demons; can’t die with them, can’t die without ’em.

Essentially this is a standard haunted house flick set in a morgue and despite the title, there really isn’t much in the way of Satanic ritual other than in the opening minutes, so the truth in advertising thing is out the window. There isn’t a lot to the film that’s highly original, other than having the exorcism at the beginning. Van Rooijen doesn’t do a whole lot to work the tone, inserting a lot of jump scares and utilizing a whole lot of icky images of dead, rotting flesh. The mostly young, not-well-known cast (Mitchell is best known from Pretty Little Liars) does about how you’d expect given the limitations of the script.

It’s not surprising that the movie opened in the no-man’s land of the week after Thanksgiving. Not much was expected of it and it basically delivers on the “not much” department. It’s decent looking and the walking corpse effects are pretty good, although nothing particularly new, so this is a tepid recommendation at best. If you’re in the mood to be scared, there are so many better options to choose from.

REASONS TO SEE: The corpse effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fairly standard haunted house-type film with many lapses in logic and lost scare opportunities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and some gruesome images throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The exterior of the hospital is actually Boston City Hall.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Autopsy of Jane Doe
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Bias

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

A Private War


War is actually hell.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Aviron) Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Jérémie Laheurte, Alexandra Moen, Amada Drew, Corey Johnson, Hilton McRae, Greg Wise, Mo’ath Sharif, Raad Rawi, Diana Mohammad, Pano Masti, Ahmad Yassin, Maha Al-Tamar, Rami Delshad, Bassam Hanna Touma, Fady Elsayed, Natasha Jayetileke.  Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Marie Colvin was, in every sense of the word, a hero. She brought to light the atrocities of war, putting her life at risk by going to some of the most hellish places on Earth – Kosovo, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria – until it finally caught up with her.

Colvin (Pike) didn’t go unscathed by what she saw; she suffered from nightmares and PTSD and relied on binge drinking and chain-smoking to dull the pain. She lost an eye covering the Tamil Tigers but gained a trademark – the distinctive eye patch she wore for the rest of her life. The incident is shown early on in the film.

Pike delivers here; her intensity is palpable as is her despair. This is not an iron-jawed war correspondent who is after the scoop more than speaking for the voiceless; this is a fragile, sometimes caustic woman who paid the price for her daring, eventually paying the ultimate price in Homs, Syria in 2012.

Heineman, who previously directed the Florida Film Festival entry Cartel Land, delivers footage that looks authentic; many of the locations may as well have been on the moon, so desolate are they. These feel like war zones, or at least how you’d imagine a war zone to be like. On the flip side, he also shows Colvin as a woman coping as best she can with the things she’s seen and not always succeeding. At an awards banquet, Colvin is dressed to the nines in a cocktail dress and heels but still she stomps through the venue like she’s marching through Fallujah. It is a telling moment.

I’m not sure that this is the definitive biography of Colvin. There is a bit too much attention paid to her sexual liaisons for my taste, which I found to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, this is a powerful film that gives you at least the spirit of Colvin, although you might want to check out the documentaries on her to get to know her public persona better.

REASONS TO SEE: Pike gives an intense portrayal as Colvin. Gritty and realistic depictions of war.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit too much prurient material for my liking.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violent images, some sexuality and brief nudity, as well as profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taron Egerton was originally scheduled to play Paul Conroy, but dropped out of the production. Jamie Dornan was hired to replace him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Under the Wire
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Standing Up, Falling Down

A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom