Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb


Another day at the office.

(2017) Drama (Self-Released) Vibhawari Deshpande, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Divya Unny, Upendra Limaye, Suchitra Pillai, Kritika Pande, Mia Maelzer, Ralchi Mansha, Bageshi Jeshirao, Manasi Bhawalkar, Mayur More, Kamil, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

 

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession but it certainly hasn’t gotten any respect. Sex workers are often characterized as drug addicts who have no other skills other than lying on their back. Most societies, including America, tend to keep prostitutes at an arm’s length in popular culture. Often they aren’t referred to and when portrayed in popular culture they are either victims or plucky hookers doing their utmost to get out of the business.

In India, like most other countries, being a sex worker is a dangerous occupation. Laxmi (Deshpande) has been one for awhile. She works for a pimp named Mhatre (Limaye) for whom she is mainly an administrator although she hangs out on the streets with the other girls. She rarely turns tricks herself however. One night, Mhatre brings a Bengali woman named Putul (Chakraborty) into the fold and instructs Laxmi to show her the ropes. Instantly Putul – whom Laxmi soon dubs Tikli – annoys the older woman. Tikli has a mouth that often gets her into trouble, and as free-spirited as she appears to be she has a hair-trigger temper as well.

Tikli soon notices that the women are treated horribly by Mhatre and his security man JT. When the somewhat incompetent security man doesn’t pick up the phone when she’s frantically calling for help, she extricates herself from a potentially horrible situation with a hidden knife and heads back to the street corner to kick the man who was supposed to be protecting her in the gonads.

Laxmi is horrified and is certain that this will bring the wrath of Mhatre down on her and it does; he arranges for the girls to be detained at the local police station where a group of corrupt cops take turns raping Tikli. Eventually she comes home, grim-faced and Laxmi begins to feel some sympathy for her, even though she doesn’t like her much. Mhatre has forced Tikli to live with Laxmi and Tikli snores and farts and smokes, all of which annoy Laxmi.

But Tikli has ideas that frighten Laxmi, like the revolutionary thought that if the girls are not getting protection anyway that there’s no use for the pimp or his muscle so they may as well work for themselves. That means paying a percentage of their earnings to the local crime lord who is the boss of Mhatre, but if they can get the girls to pool their earnings and work together, the plan might just work. Most of Mhatre’s stable goes with Tikli especially when Laxmi supports the plan although one intransigent veteran hooker named Manda (Pillai) refuses. More and more girls begin to defect to the gang of prostitutes who now call themselves the Tikli and Laxmi Bomb gang. They come up with an ingenious loyalty program to lure and keep repeat customers.

All of this gets the attention of their old boss who is none too pleased with the willful Tikli or the girls in the gang. Things begin to get more and more serious as Mhatre and his men launch escalating reprisals but Tikli and Laxmi are determined to beat the system but with the system so stacked against them can they prevail?

First-time director Kripalani is going for authenticity, filming on the mean streets of Mumbai and often in subdued lighting. That makes the picture dark and murky at times but it also feels like you’re right there on the streets with them. Kripalani also wrote the novel the movie is based on and while the story is fictional it has the ring of the real to it, making the story and characters believable in ways other narrative features can’t compare to.

I don’t know how much research was done into the lives of these ladies but it feels like there was a lot. The movie doesn’t gloss over anything, from the vulnerability to physical attacks that sex workers around the world are subject to, to the camaraderie – and occasional rivalry – the girls have. I don’t know if there is a drug problem among Indian prostitutes – many prostitutes in the States use alcohol and recreational drugs to help them deal with the psychological ramifications of their job – but it isn’t really depicted her. The ladies all smoke and love to go to clubs to dance; occasionally they even drink but there isn’t a lot of that going on in the movie.

Chakraborty is absolutely delightful as the spunky Tikli and Deshpande gives a multi-layered performance as Laxmi. It was the latter character who intrigued me more; she doesn’t dress as seductively as her fellow sex workers, rarely wears make-up and comes off almost tomboyish but she is serenely beautiful in her own way.

Despite the sexual subject there’s no overt nudity or at least nothing is shown beyond bare shoulders and legs. The sexuality isn’t what I’d call gratuitous here; it is handled as matter-of-factly as the women themselves would normally. In a lot of ways I thought of this film as a kind of Norma Rae for sex workers and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

The movie is just a shade under three hours long so this isn’t a movie you get into lightly. It requires a commitment of time and patience and American audiences are notorious about lacking both. The movie isn’t generally available yet in the States for streaming purposes and continues to make the rounds on the Asian festival circuit but the producers haven’t ruled out appearances in American festivals or on streaming services here in the States. This is very different than what Americans tend to think of as Indian films; American audiences are only just discovering that Indian films are as diverse and as high-quality as the Sub-Continent itself and this particular film is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any serious lover of all things cinematic.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the plight of sex workers. The score has a bluesy edge that is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little rough around the edges. The movie might be a little bit too long for attention-challenged American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity as well as rape – the latter mainly implied rather than depicted graphically.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on street corners in Mumbai largely used by sex workers and their clients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blade of the Immortal

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Paul Taylor Creative Domain


An expression of love.

An expression of love.

(2015) Documentary (Resident Artists) Paul Taylor, Amy Young, Andy Labeau, Michael Trubnovec, Robert Kleinendorst, Sean Mahoney, John Tomlinson, Michelle Fleet, Annmaria Mazzini, Michael Novak, Peter Elyakim Taussig, Sean Gallagher, Parisa Khobdeh, Bettie de Jong. Directed by Kate Geis

Dance is the most physical of art forms. It is all about the human body but it is also about the human soul. The athletes who practice it must be physically fit, but also deeply in touch with their emotions. Those who choreograph these dances must have exceptional understanding of the human form, but also of human beings. The best choreographers are the best observers of our species.

Perhaps the most revered choreographer of modern dance is Paul Taylor, whose career spans six impressive decades. He danced for Martha Graham as a soloist and as a choreographer has such iconic works as Esplanade, Dust and Company B. He was, as Graham characterized him, “the naughty boy of dance” and has explored topics as diverse as incest, American imperialism, the afterlife, the effects of war and the natural world and mankind’s place in it.

He has always kept his creative process somewhat close to the vest, but granted documentarian Geis extraordinary access to his 133rd piece, one which would eventually be titled Thee Dubious Memories which has a bit of a Rashomon-like oeuvre as it explores the same events seen by three different sets of eyes. It takes us from the casting through the rehearsals and the film culminates with the performance of the piece.

Those who love dance will need to see this. Geis wisely lets her camera roll through the rehearsals and just captures Taylor at work with his dance company. The dancers themselves are a little bit star-struck and while most of their interviews are essentially excuses to heap praise and adoration on Taylor, some of the dancers – particularly Amy Young – reveal a good deal more about working for him and the demands involved. The filmmakers are clearly reverent about the man and while at times you get a sense that they are gushing a little bit, the respect is clear to see.

Taylor is extremely soft-spoken and to be honest at times almost lulled me to sleep. He is not particularly an exciting or vibrant interview although to be fair, he is a living legend in the dance community and doesn’t especially need to prove anything to anyone. For those who want to see a more exciting presentation of Taylor, they should look no further than the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary Dancemaker.This is meant to be more about his creative process and at times, he seems to rely more on the dancers to spark some sort of inspiration in him than providing inspiration for his dancers to work with. The thing about a creative process however, is that it is of more interest to the creators than to those observing the creation. Caveat emptor.

The rehearsal sequences can be fascinating; you get the sense that Taylor notices everything and some of his notes to his cast show an amazing observational acuity. The dancing sequences both at the rehearsal and through the performance are absolutely magnificent; true devotees may miss the intimacy of a live performance but this remains a testament to Taylor’s genius and preserves one of his works for posterity, so that’s a very good thing. Those who don’t love dance may find this tedious.

At the end of the day, the only thing you really need to understand about dance is what you see onstage and how that makes you feel. Movies are very similar in that regard. What I saw was at times mesmerizing and at times, stupefying. I don’t know that I got a ton of insight into what makes Taylor tick, but I do know I got to learn a little more about dance and who can possibly say that’s a bad thing?

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful dancing. Clearly reverent.
REASONS TO STAY: Offers little insight into the man. Little or no context. A little bit boring in places. More for people who love dance.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some sensuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since this film was shot, Taylor has gone on to choreograph nine more works as of this writing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :First Position
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: A Walk in the Woods

Catfish


Catfish

Nev Schulman wonders what's chasing him.

(Rogue) Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Pierce, Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Abby Pierce, Vince Pierce.  Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

Like it or not, social networks like Facebook have become a major part of our lives. We interact through them, make new friends and sometimes, romances bloom. As someone who met his own soulmate online, I can certainly relate, but there is a darker side to online romance as well.

Yaniv “Nev” Schulman is a photographer who lives in New York City and shares an office with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, who are both documentary filmmakers. All three specialize in taking images, moving and otherwise, of dancers. After one of Nev’s photos end up in the New York Sun, he is surprised to find that the image motivated an 8-year-old girl named Abby Pierce to make a painting based on his photograph.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly through Facebook. Nev is a sophisticated New Yorker, Abby lives in a rural Michigan town called Ish…Ishpem…it’s a town, okay? In any case, he begins to talk with the girl’s mother, Angela who tells him that the 8-year-old prodigy is already selling paintings to various collectors and is hoping to open up her own gallery.

As the friends and family of Angela and Abby begin to flock to Nev, one in particular gets his attention; Megan Faccio, Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister. Their relationship deepens into a full-on long-distance romance. Megan, a songwriter, begins to compose songs for her new flame. Abby sends painting after painting. Angela describes Sunday morning family breakfasts, and Megan talks about buying a horse farm, having been working for awhile in a veterinary office.

All this is being documented by Ariel and Henry, who are fascinated by the whole Facebook phenomenon which they are admittedly both a part of. However, as the trio venture out to Vail, Colorado to film a dance festival, cracks begin to appear in the facade of Nev’s new relationship. He begins to have qualms and doubts about the people he has lately become so fond of. He decides that he needs to visit them in person to try and get the skinny on who his new friends and would-be romance are, so the three of them fly to Chicago and drive roughly 500 miles to Ish…Ishpem…Ishpeming. Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, once they get there they discover something surprising.

The movie received a good deal of buzz at Sundance and has received some notoriety because of its trailer, which depicts the secret in a sinister light, on the order of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. First off, this is not a thriller by any means, so don’t go expecting to find the Manson family living in Michigan.

What this actually becomes is an examination of how we interact in 2010. We have become totally dependent on very impersonal means of communication – cell phones, instant messaging, e-mails and so on. Face-to-face interaction has become much more of a rare commodity. We develop close relationships with people that in truth we barely know.

For the first hour of the movie, we only see Angela, Abby and Megan as voices on a telephone, text messages, or as messages on Facebook. We see far more of Nev, Ariel and Henry and really, most of it is Nev. Nev seems to be a genuinely sweet guy with a nice smile and a charming lack of self-confidence. Nev wearies of the constant on-camera existence and wants to pull out, although Ariel eventually talks him back into it – some would call it bullying. Still, it’s a good thing he did because we would have been deprived of a good movie otherwise.

The last half-hour belongs to Angela, and she is the focal point in many ways of what the movie is trying to get across. I am purposely going to be vague about what that message is because it’s difficult to articulate it without giving away the twist, and the movie is far more effective if the twist isn’t spoiled. I did pat myself on the back on the way out of the theater for having figured it out in a way that I thought was clever (if you ask me nicely I’ll tell you what I did) and in all honesty, those who have extensive experience with online relationships and certain movies and novels (again I’m being deliberately vague) may also see through to the end before the twist arrives. 

Is this a cautionary tale? To a certain extent, yes. We have a tendency to see what we want to see when it comes to online relationships, and we don’t always know what’s real and what isn’t. In the end, successful relationships – both online and off – are built on truth and trust, and when either is missing, the relationship fails.

There are those who believe that this movie is entirely a put-on, a hoax although the filmmakers deny it. For my money, I think that this is completely real, although I suspect some scenes were filmed after the fact to make for more compelling drama. However, that is neither here nor there; the movie could be real and I believe that it is. Maybe Nev is a little bit too good to be true, but I understand he is still single which I’m sure won’t last long; his stock as an eligible bachelor has certainly increased with this movie.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the pitfalls of modern romance in the age of the social network. Nev is very likable and the use of Google Earth-like graphics is rather clever.

REASONS TO STAY: The twist doesn’t really live up to the billing in the trailer. Some have found the movie narcissistic and condescending, although I personally don’t agree with that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong language with some sexual references; while the subject matter is a bit adult, it should nevertheless be compelling viewing to any teenager or older, particularly if they are on Facebook.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the subject of a bidding war at Sundance after noted director Brett Ratner endorsed the film.

HOME OR THEATER: This movie isn’t on very many screens and may be hard to track down, but the intimate vibe makes it adequate home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Role Models