Whitney


The Queen of Pop in her salad days.

(2018) Musical Documentary (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, L.A. Reid, Michael Houston, Brad Johnson, Clive Davis, Keith Kelly, Rickey Minor, Lynne Volkman, Pat Houston, Steve Gittelman, DeForrest Soames, Donna Houston, Nicole David, Cinque Henderson, John Houston IV, Joey Arbagi, Babyface, Mary Jones. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

 

On February 11, 2012 the great pop star Whitney Houston was found floating face down in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was the end of an era and the end of a life, one that began with promise which was later fulfilled as she became one of the biggest stars of the 80s and early 90s. She remains the only performer to ever notch seven number one Billboard pop hits in a row – and they were her first seven singles at that. It is a feat not likely to be ever altered. She also is the biggest selling female artist of all time, and holds the biggest selling single (“I Will Always Love You”) of all time for a female artist.

In between her early days and her tragic end, Whitney Houston became a revered public figure although not without controversy. The daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of legendary pop icon Dionne Warwick, Houston had greatness in her DNA. She was impressive as a singer from an early age singing for her church choir and mentored by her mother who was, by all accounts, an often difficult taskmaster.

After being signed to a contract with Arista Records boss Clive Davis, she rocketed to fame with her debut album which in many ways defined her era. In the mid-80s you really couldn’t go very long without hearing her songs on the radio and while there was some grumbling about how she was being marketed to a white audience (as a light-skinned black girl, she had been bullied as a youngster in Newark where she grew up) she nevertheless grew up to be one of the most formidable talents of her time.

But there were pressures on her to maintain the success and the gravy train that had been created by that success. Most of her family was employed by Whitney (her estranged father who had divorced her mother when Whitney was a young girl was her manager and her brothers were road  managers) and the carefully marketed “good girl” image that had been created for her began to crumble. A marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown put further cracks in the veneer and as the 90s progressed it became apparent that Whitney was using drugs.

The documentary by veteran filmmaker Macdonald isn’t the first on Houston (Showtime aired one just last year) but it is perhaps the most personal; interviews with her family members give us a better picture of the real Whitney than her Showtime doc did. The documentary follows her life relatively chronologically although a revelation about two-thirds of the way through the movie of an incident that happened when she was much younger makes for some dramatic footage but it also throws the flow of the movie askew. There also seems to have been a reluctance on Macdonald’s part to follow up too deeply on that revelation – in fact, he seemed reluctant to follow up on any of the really unflattering aspects of her life at all.

Of course her drug use was the elephant in the room and while it is addressed, Macdonald almost regards it as a corollary to her fame and fortune, almost as predetermined as having paparazzi following her around. There is no footage from her train wreck of a reality show Inside Bobby Brown and when Brown is questioned about his ex-wife’s drug use, he says in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Well, what the hell did he think that any documentary about his wife’s time with him would want to talk about him with?

The last days of Whitney’s life are particularly hard to watch. While the performance footage of her during the prime of her career is a reminder of just how powerful and beautiful her voice was – and how absolutely she had control over it – footage of her singing during the last year of her life is almost painful. Her voice is raspy and off-key and when she tries to hit the high notes…well, it’s not pretty. It acts as a cautionary tale to any aspiring performer who thinks that they can “handle” drugs.

Still, if you want to look at this as a celebration of her life the film does that quite well. Fans of the late singer can renew their affection for her. Those who weren’t particular fans of hers probably won’t end up being converted to blind admiration but if you know anything about music you absolutely have to respect her voice and her work ethic early on.

I get the sense that we get a little deeper into who Whitney Houston was and that’s a positive. There are a lot of talking heads in this picture and occasionally they go over the same territory perhaps to distraction but this is simply put essential viewing for fans of the diva and of 80s pop music in general. Bring plenty of hankies though; it’s hard to watch the highs without the thought of the lows that were to come and would lead to her end alone in a hotel room drowning in a bathtub, a fate tragically shared by her daughter just three years later.

Still, I don’t know anyone who listens to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” who isn’t instantly uplifted with the joy of being alive. Whitney Houston could do that with her voice and it is absolutely tragic that it was taken away from her – and us.

REASONS TO GO: The final days of Whitney are truly heartbreaking. Some of the performance video from when she was in her prime reiterates how powerful a singer she truly was.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote as documentaries go. Macdonald seemed to be unwilling to ask the tough questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug use and other drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were a lot of interviews that were filmed but never used. Macdonald felt that they were banal and added nothing to the narrative.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Blood of Wolves

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Baby Driver


Baby and Debora want their Big Mac meals right NOW!!!

(2017) Action Comedy (TriStar) Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Elza Gonzalez, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Morse Diggs, Flea, CJ Jones, Paul Williams, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Lance Palmer, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon, Hudson Meek, Brogan Hall, Richard Marcos Taylor, Viviana Chavez, Hal Whiteside, Brigitte Kali. Directed by Edgar Wright

 

This has been a really good year for quirky action movies and this one is one of the best of the year. British director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) channels Tarantino through a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack filter and turns in an absolute gem.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver par excellence. Due to a childhood accident, he suffers from tinnitus – a ringing of the ear that can sometimes be distracting. To combat this, he wears an iPod and ear buds to drown out the white noise with classic rock and roll from such diverse groups as The Damned, Golden Earring, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and T-Rex.

He works for a criminal named Doc (Spacey) who robs banks, although he doesn’t actually do the robbing himself; he puts together the master pan and assembles the crews. The only common denominator is Baby who he considers his “good luck charm” and who besides owes Doc a debt which he pays for with each job. Baby has one more job to go before the debt is paid but Doc doesn’t really want to let him go.

The trouble is from Doc’s standpoint is that Baby has found himself a girlfriend, Debora (James) who waitresses at the diner he frequents. The two are eager to get the heck out of Dodge (or at least Atlanta) and drive west and never stop but Doc has Baby sucked in. Still, Baby has his own plans and he might just be able to outthink the brilliant Doc if he gets a few breaks going his way.

The action sequences which were done practically and without CGI are flat-out amazing. Some of the best car chase sequences since Bullitt populate this film. The backstory and mythology of the piece is riveting and Wright populates this world with a cast of characters that would do the aforementioned Tarantino proud. The dialogue as you would expect from an Edgar Wright film is smart and occasionally brilliant.

Elgort who has not impressed me particularly to this point does so here. He’s done a lot of teen heartthrob films and he is completely wasted in them; this is the kind of movie he was born to do and he makes the most of it. The rest of the cast is uniformly at the top of their games, with Hamm and Foxx particularly noteworthy.

Since allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Spacey a few weeks ago, there are likely many who will want to boycott the film because of his presence in it and yes, he plays a very critical role and takes up a good deal of screen time. I won’t begin to excuse his performance or advise for or against boycotting this film because of it but I will say that while he shows off the best of his abilities here, I can understand why people will want to give this film a miss because of his presence. Again, I won’t judge anyone’s moral compass other than to say that the rest of the cast and crew who made this one of the year’s best movies may deserve your support in this case but again, it is understandable if you choose to withhold it. Nevertheless this is one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are second to none. Elgort gives the best performance of his career to date and has real chemistry with James. The backstory is not only credible but entertaining. The soundtrack is spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s quite possible that the film is too hip for its own good. The presence of the disgraced Spacey may make it a moral choice whether to support this film or not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CJ Jones, who plays Joseph (a deaf character) is himself deaf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mr. Roosevelt

Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents

Presenting Princess Shaw


A pop Princess in the making.

A pop Princess in the making.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Samantha Montgomery, Ophir Kutiel. Directed by Ido Haar

The American Experience

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ephemeral things, ideas that we vaguely like but really don’t do anything about so they remain formless. Others are those we work actively towards and put our hearts and souls into. Those are the ones more likely to come true.

Samantha Montgomery, whose stage name is Princess Shaw, has a dream of being a singer. And not for nothing; she has a legitimate voice, beautiful and evocative. She’s also a crackerjack songwriter, her songs filled with longing and emotion so much so that they reach out and grab the listener, take hold of them by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go until they feel the same thing Princess is feeling.

Samantha works by day in a New Orleans elderly care facility. She is upbeat and cheerful and seems to love working with her patients and caring for them. Some nights, she goes to Open Mike shows at local bars, and once in awhile sings at nightclubs and parties. She uploads a capella versions of her songs onto YouTube where she has a channel that several hundred subscribers check out from time to time. She labors in obscurity but still hopes that one day, she’ll be discovered.

What she doesn’t know is that she already has been. Ophir Kutiel, who goes by the name of Kutiman, has made some Internet fame for himself as a remixer, taking elements from YouTube music videos, cutting and pasting them together to make a cohesive song – all without the knowledge of the participants until the new video is posted. He has, against all odds, discovered the work of Princess Shaw and has been captivated by it. He takes one of her songs, “Give It Up,” and layers percussion, guitars, brass and piano – and creates a song that has a timeless urban pop feel to it, taking elements of hip-hop, jazz, R&B and a little bit of rock and roll to make something really tasty. You can see the results of his efforts here.

&Israeli documentary filmmaker Ido Haar originally was going to look at all of the various components of the video but once he met Princess Shaw he knew he didn’t need any of the other musicians. Her story is compelling, with a background of being sexually abused as a young girl and continuing on into adulthood into an abusive romantic relationship, she has weathered some tough times. We find out most of this later on in the film; she’s really a blank slate as the film begins, which is a wise move. We only know the longing and loneliness she feels through her music.

We never find out what Samantha/Princess thinks is the reason she’s being followed by a camera crew. She was unaware of what Kutiman was up to although Haar was certainly in the know. I think that knowing what she thought was going on would have been beneficial to the film, but that’s really nit-picking. Then again, it would make some of what’s going on feel a little less staged.

Princess Shaw has an amazing voice but it is her heart that is at the center of this film. Not only is she upbeat despite the obstacles and difficulties she’s had to face, but she shows tenderness and appreciation for her patients, her family and those musicians she encounters around town (midway through the film, she moves to Atlanta to try and make her dream happen). One of the most special moments in the film is when Montgomery hears the Kutiman music video for the first time…and watches in absolute astonishment as the video approaches a million views.

The movie ends with Princess being flown to Tel Aviv to perform at a Kutiman concert there. She is absolutely delightful, hugging every musician like a long lost friend, taking delight in being somewhere she never thought she’d be. The concert is a bit anticlimactic, but it’s clear she’s a performer with a capital P. I don’t know what happened with her career after filming ended, but I’d like to think she’s getting representation and getting ready to record with musicians…and maybe touring. I’d pay to see her, and I don’t go to any concerts anymore.

It is stupid difficult making it in the music industry. People long to be stars but few are willing to put in the work to make it happen and fewer still have the talent to make it happen. Even if you have both of those qualities, that’s no guarantee you’ll make it in a business that’s as cutthroat and as insular as the music industry. As anyone who’s seen any episodes of shows like American Idol or The Voice can attest, the world is full of people with the dreams of pop stardom. It’s nice to see a movie about someone who actually deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Truly this is cinema of the heart. Montgomery has an amazing effervescent personality and a tremendous talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels a bit staged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Haar’s 2007 documentary 9 Star Hotel previously appeared on the acclaimed PBS documentary series P.O.V. in 2008.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

Ride Along 2


Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt, Tika Sumpter, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd, Arturo del Puerto, Eric Goins, Carlos Gomez, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Glen Powell, Nadine Velazquez, Bresha Webb, Jessica Blalick, Michelle Pieroway, Shelby Courtney, James Martin Kelly, Robert Pralgo, Tyrese Gibson, Liz Godwin. Directed by Tim Story

There are times as a critic that you simply have to understand that there are movies that aren’t meant for you. Their success is completely independent of what you think and quite frankly, you’re a pretty superfluous cog in the process. You also have to understand that just because you don’t find something funny doesn’t mean that others don’t as well.

Kevin Hart is a comedic actor who laughs all the way to the bank. His movies are essentially critic-proof; while he’s never gotten reviews above the lukewarm level, his movies time after time are hits. Does that say something about America’s sense of humor? Probably. It just as likely says something about critics’ understanding of filmgoers.

In this buddy cop sequel, Hart plays Ben Bishop, now a rookie cop having graduated from the academy he hadn’t entered yet two years ago for the first Ride Along. During a stake out, despite having been told by his soon-to-be brother-in-law James Payton (Cube) who is an accomplished and let’s just say badass detective, to stay in the van, he almost ruins a drug bust by coming in and interfering at exactly the wrong moment, ending up getting Payton’s partner (Gibson) shot.

However the incident unearths facts that lead James to Miami where a prominent businessman (Bratt) turns out to be a vicious drug lord looking to set up a superhighway of illegal material through the Southeast. Even though he’s marrying James’ sister (Sumpter) in a week, Ben begs James to let him tag along – which finally and inexplicably James allows him to.

Along with a cute Miami detective (Munn) and a greedy womanizing hacker (Jeong), the two misfit cops make their way through Miami like bulls in a china shop. Ben causes havoc wherever he goes until accidentally stumbling onto clues that lead the more serious James closer to getting his man, if the man doesn’t get them first.

One thing that can be said about Ride Along 2 is that it has already made history; it will forever be remembered as the movie that stopped Star Wars: The Force Awakens box office run as weekend champion. Pretty much though, that’s all the history it’s going to make. Kevin Hart has tons and tons of screen presence. He can also be a really funny guy when given the right material to work with. Most of the jokes here are fairly tired although there were a few good laughs in and among the bunch.

He has some pretty decent support. Ice Cube has become a solid actor and while he hasn’t displayed a ton of range yet, he does what he does really well. Munn has a huge amount of talent; she’s been impressive in virtually everything I’ve seen her in. However, she’s awaiting – and still awaits – that right role that will put her over the top.

So why doesn’t this movie work as well as it might? Well, the writing is the big culprit. The plot doesn’t seem to have been given a whole lot of thought and that would be okay if there were the jokes to cover for it but that is simply not the case. I will grant you that my sense of humor may be a lot different than most people’s but at the crowded screening I attended, I didn’t hear a ton of laughter. The action sequences are pretty rote, and there’s a touch too much mugging and not enough acting. The appeal of Hart is undeniable but sometimes a little Hart goes a long way.

At the end of the day, this falls under the “pleasant but not memorable” category. It’s entertaining enough that you can pass the time with it nicely, but it isn’t a showstopper that you’ll come back to again and again. The critics have been unduly harsh for the most part; it’s way too inoffensive to be worth the vitriol. Think of this as a sitcom that has a decent run for a couple of seasons but after that is canceled and is essentially forgotten; people don’t even binge watch it afterwards except if they’d never seen it before. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s viewing.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin Hart leads a solid cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Not funny often enough. Ludicrous plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of police action violence, a bit of rough language, some sexuality and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second film starring Ice Cube to be set in Miami; the first was All about the Benjamins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Revenant

SlingShot


Who knew that the inventor of the Segway was such a badass?!

Who knew that the inventor of the Segway was such a badass?!

(2014) Documentary (Moon Avenue) Dean Kamen, Muhtar Kent. Directed by Paul Lazarus

Florida Film Festival 2014

The problems of the world sometimes look so insurmountable that we feel helpless to do anything to remedy them. The truth is however that very often some of the biggest problems are resolved by a single person with the will, the drive and the expertise deciding to take that problem on and solve it.

Dean Kamen isn’t a household name but he should be. He is best known as the inventor of the Segway, the two-wheeled device that is sometimes used in place of walking tours. It is somewhat ironic that the device, which never caught on in the way he had hoped, is what has been up to now his legacy – he has since worked quite tirelessly in the medical field with among other things a portable dialysis device to his credit.

But Kamen isn’t satisfied with helping just a few people – he wants his legacy to be something more notable. As he correctly points out, half of the world’s illnesses are the result of water borne pathogens. If he could figure out a way to clean up the world’s water supply, he could empty half of the world’s hospital beds in a single stroke. Not a bad legacy to leave behind.

To successfully do this, he would need to develop a device that is easy to maintain, requires a minimal amount of power and is reasonably compact. All of these are matters of engineering and he and his team at his engineering think tank Deka Technology are very good engineers. So to make a long story short, he succeeded. The device exists. Testing it out in Ghana and Central America, the device proved to be successful.

The issue is getting them to where they’re needed and it is here that he hit his biggest roadblocks. Government agencies were unhelpful as were agencies like the United Nations and the Red Cross. Kamen’s frustration was palpable. What he needed was a distribution system.

Also the founder of the FIRST program and robotics competition which had outgrown its venue, Kamen had sought out a new venue for his competition and struck a deal with Phillips Arena in Atlanta. When he arrived in the Georgia city, he was struck by all the Coca-Cola signs around the arena and the city and was struck by inspiration – what product can be found in virtually every village in the world no matter how remote?

Coke wasn’t just a beverage he realized but also a delivery system. He contacted Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coke who was intrigued with the idea. A bargain was soon struck – if Kamen could produced a certain number of devices, the Company would agree to underwrite the distribution of the devices and transport advisors who would teach the locals how to maintain it. In return, Kamen would invent for them a new soda fountain to replace the one they’d been using for more than half a century. Kamen came up with the Freestyle Coke dispensers, now in use at places like Burger King, Five Guys, AMC Theaters and Pei Wei.

The story is inspiring and it’s hard to believe that we are on the cusp of overcoming this problem – in a few short years the worlds water supply could well be completely cleansed. But equally inspiring is Kamen himself – he is an engaging personality, thoughtful and loquacious. By the film’s end you may well want to go invent something yourself. He also has a puckish sense of humor – he really took to the clapper which filmmakers use to sync the sound and film in the editing process. Throughout the film he claps his hands expertly to start the scene, which became kind of a theme among platinum passholders at the Festival who often “clapped” like Kamen just before a film screened.

While the movie drags a little bit in the middle as Kamen himself is bogged down in the bureaucratic red tape trying to get his invention out to where it is needed, this is a very good documentary that not only explains a major problem the world faces but also its solution which is somewhat rare for a documentary. It isn’t just the story of that problem that is engaging however, but also Kamen himself who keeps the interest of the viewer. That makes this one double threat of a documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Inspirational. Kamen is extremely articulate and likable.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second film in Florida Film Festival history to take home both the Jury and Audience awards in a single category.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: If You Build It

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Kill Team

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Which one will blink first?

Which one will blink first?

(2012) Drama (IFC) Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Ashwath Batt, Sarah Quinn, Chandrachur Singh, Adil Hussain, Ali Sethi, Deepti Datt, Gary Richardson, Victor Slezak, Ashlyn Henson, Cait Johnson. Directed by Mira Nair

What creates a terrorist? How does one go from being a devout member of one’s religion to a wild-eyed fanatic willing to kill – and die – for his/her faith?

After an American professor (Richardson) is kidnapped after attending a movie in Lahore, Pakistan, a colleague of his at the university, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is interviewed by journalist Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber). Changez has fallen under suspicion of being connected to a terrorist group mainly based on his anti-American rhetoric and firebrand speeches in the classroom  He’d also met with a notorious terrorist cell leader

However,  Changez had started out as a rapidly pro-American, a big believer in the American dream. Born in Lahore to a poet (Puri) and a housewife (Azmi) who had been well-to-do at one time but who had blown through the money they had as poetry even in Pakistan isn’t a job that brings in high earnings. Changez gets a scholarship to Princeton and when he graduates is pegged by Jim Cross (Sutherland) to be a gifted evaluator of business worth which makes him a valuable commodity with a bright future at Underwood Samson who evaluate the value of companies and come up with ways to increase that value. It’s a pretty lucrative field and Changez looks to be on the fast track to success.

As he banters with his friends Wainwright (Ellis), Clea (Quinn) and Rizzo (Smith), Changez falls for Erica (Hudson), the artistic niece of  Underwood Samson’s CEO. It isn’t long before they move in together, although Erica has a deep melancholy – her previous boyfriend had died in a car accident and she’s still grieving. Even though Changez moves slowly and gives her as much leeway as she wants and she clearly has feelings for him, she still feels like she’s cheating on her dead lover.

Everything changes though when the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. Changez is in Manila on business when it happens and when he finally comes home, he is stripped and forced to undergo a humiliating body cavity search. People begin to view Changez with suspicion, particularly now that he’s sporting a beard to reconnect with his Pakistani roots. He is growing more and more distant from his family which hits him hard when he goes home for his sister Bina’s (Shafi) wedding.

The final straw is when he goes to Turkey to evaluate a publishing company that one of Underhill Samson’s clients had just purchased. Even though the company had done much to promulgate Turkish culture and that of their neighbors (Changez’ dad had even had a book of his poems published there) the numbers point to liquidating the assets and shuttering the doors. Changez has an epiphany and refuses to do it. He quits his job and returns home, finding a job teaching.

So now things in Lahore are a powderkeg as American CIA and local police are detaining and arresting students at the University and conducting random searches. Even Changez’ family has received a visit of the state police simply because of their association with him. It won’t take much for this powderkeg to blow. So how involved is Changez with the kidnapping. Had his treatment in America paved the way for his conversion into jihadism? Or is he simply an innocent victim of circumstance?

Nair, who has on her resume some impressive efforts (not the least of which are Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) has another one to add to that list. Based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid that is largely a monologue by Changez, she utilizes some brilliant cinematography and a terrific cast to explore the complex themes of the book.

Changez is largely a cypher. On the surface he seems a gentle, kind soul who adheres to non-violence but in practice he spent his Wall Street career practicing a kind of economic violence. While he eventually turns away from it, there is that sense that he is blaming America for allowing him to willingly participate in an admittedly immoral career. He made his choices but took no responsibility for them even after he quit. In that sense, Changez is unlikable and I personally find it a bit refreshing to have a character who turns a blind eye towards his own imperfections – most of us are like that.

Ahmed, a Pakistani-born British rapper and actor has a great deal of charisma and reminds me of a young Oded Fehr in looks and manner. He holds his own in his scenes with Schreiber who is an excellent actor so it’s no small feat. Their scenes are the most compelling in the film and it is their confrontation that provides the essence of the film.

Sutherland and Puri do great work in supporting roles. Hudson, who is also capable of strong roles, kind of gets a little lost here – it could be that she plays her character, who is weak and clings to her grief like Linus and his security blanket, too well. There are never the kind of sparks between her and Ahmed that I would have liked to have seen although that possibly was deliberate on Nair’s part. However, a good deal of time is spent on the relationship between Erica and Changez and quite frankly that is the weakest part of the story.

The film’s climax is powerful as we are left to ponder whether we are creating our own enemies out of our own arrogance and insensitivity, which I think is clearly the case. If so, then we come by that hatred honestly but we refuse to acknowledge it, one more reason for people in other countries to despise us. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that we discover where Changez’ sympathies lie and whether or not he is involved in the kidnapping. In a way it’s almost a moot point; ultimately this isn’t about who Changez is. It’s about who we are.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and balanced. Fine performances by Ahmed, Sutherland, Schreiber, Puri and Ellis.

REASONS TO STAY: The film is far more powerful when focusing on Changez’ conflicting feelings about America than on his relationship with Erica.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of swearing, some violence and a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hudson was initially unable to do the film because she was pregnant at the time that shooting was scheduled to take place. When shooting was delayed until after she had her baby, Hudson was able to take the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rush (2013)