The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

Crisis


Greg Kinnear makes his point to Gary Oldman.Cinema

(2021) Drama (QuiverGary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly, Greg Kinnear, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Cudi, Indira Varma, Lily-Rose Depp, Mia Kirshner, Guy Nadon, Michael Aronov, Adam Tsekhman, Veronica Ferres, Nicholas Jarecki, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Marcel Jeannin, Eric Bruneau, Duke Nicholson, Ellora Torchia, Daniel Jun, Luke Evans, Billy Bryk, Meghan Allen.  Directed by Nicholas Jarecki

One of the major problems facing our country right now – and yes, there are many – is the opioid epidemic. Something like 100,000 people die every year of overdoses of opioid painkillers, most of which began as prescriptions and moved on into full blown addictions.

Claire (Lilly) had been an addict, hooked on oxycodone. She’d managed to kick the habit, though, and had a career as a successful architect in Detroit. She asks her hockey-mad son (Bryk) to stop by the corner grocery on his way home from practice and pick up some tortillas. He never arrives back home. She goes out looking for him with her sister (Kirshner) but can’t find him; then she gets the news every mother dreads – her son is dead, of a drug overdose. Claire is stunned. “If he was an addict, I’d know!” she blurts out. Something doesn’t sit right about this whole affair and she is determined to get down to the bottom of it and figure out what happened to her boy.

Jake (Hammer) is a hard-bitten DEA agent who is trying to stem the flow of opioids coming into the country. He’s currently working on some Armenian gangsters who are importing them from Canada, and they are particularly interested on obtaining Fentanyl, which looks to be the new hot opioid-of-choice for the discriminating addict. He arranges a buy with Montreal-based drug kingpin Mother (Nadon) who turns out to be a lot more bloodthirsty than his name implies. Jake is under pressure from his boss (Rodriguez) to make a quick arrest; he’s been undercover for a year now with nothing to show for it. Jake is also trying to hide the fact that his own sister (Depp) is also an addict in rehab.

College professor Tyrone Brower (Oldman) has brought in a healthy revenue stream for the university by testing new products for Big Pharma in his lab. When on of the more unscrupulous companies touts a new wonder drug that is a non-addictive painkiller, the FDA is falling all over itself to approve the drug and stem the tide on the opioid crisis. But as Dr. Brower discovers that far from being non-addictive Klaratol is actually far more addictive and leads to death among his test subjects, he wants to blow the whistle, but the FDA doesn’t want to hear about it, the drug company will do anything to squelch his research and his obsequious dean (Kinnear) tries to convince him to forget his research. A crisis of morality beckons.

The three stories all parallel but only two of them converge – that of Claire and Jake. The Dr. Brower story, while interesting, never really touches what’s going on in the other two stories and seems like it should have been an entirely separate movie, but that kind of laxness in execution characterizes Crisis which has the advantage of being timely – the opioid crisis is certainly on the minds of many.

The cast is stellar and they all do pretty good jobs, particularly Lilly who has an excellent scene with Kirshner early on in the movie as her grief overwhelms her. The former Lost actress who is better known for her work in the MCU these days has always been a fine actress, but she rarely gets the opportunity to show off her mad skillz and so this is a refreshing change.

Jarecki cuts between the three stories rapidly and without any sort of linking device, so the changes are often jarring and inorganic. All of these stories have a certain amount of dramatic tension built in but Jarecki scuttles it by moving from story to story so quickly and so often that whatever momentum he builds up gets lost and the audience loses interest.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t worthwhile; it is certainly well-acted and has a compelling subject, but the stories are so interesting that you want to spend more time on them, which Jarecki fails to do, ending up giving short shrift to all of them. He probably could have eliminated the Brower story completely and padded out the other two with further character development and made a more effective movie – and kept the Brower story as a separate, stand-alone movie. That would have been a more satisfactory solution. Perhaps he can still do that with a director’s cut, someday. I wouldn’t mind if he did.

The film is currently playing in limited release around the country but will be available starting Friday on most major streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime, Vudu and Google Play, to name just a few. Check their website (click on photo above) for further information on where the film can be streamed on Friday.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely exploration of different viewpoints of the opioid crisis.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dramatic tension is sabotaged by the quick cutting between stories.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug content, profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Dreamland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
‘Til Kingdom Come

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

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

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

Out of the Fight


As American as appletinis.

(2020) Drama (GravitasRandy Wayne, Jordan Jude, Chris Mullinax, Judy Norton, Robert Miano, Carle Atwater, Corie Robinson, Lily Thomas, Ron Chevalier, Tisa Key, Michael Aaron Milligan, Jon-Paul Gates, Paul Sampson, Aaron Mitchell, Rob Wolfe, Beejan Land, Curtis Nichouls, Holdyn Barder, Christopher Heskey, David William Arnott, Russell Snipes, Talia Andrews. Directed by Steve Moon

It’s a familiar story as America continues to deal with the longest armed conflict in its history; soldiers are trained to go out into the field to defend….well, our way of life ostensibly, although I think most soldiers would be hard-pressed to say what our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has to do with protecting the American way. Superman would weep. Politics aside, we send these young men and women out to fight and die, but those who survive are dumped back into civilian life, often in the grip of PTSD and barely able to cope with life back home.

Jason Pete (Wayne) has served three tours in Afghanistan and has returned home to a loving wife Emily (Jude) and a four-year-old daughter. His body is scarred with wounds received in service, but it is his mind that is more deeply wounded and less apparently so. The VA provices him with a psychiatrist (Norton) but the sessions don’t appear to give him much peace. He turns to drinking and pills to ease his inner pain, but it doesn’t help. A friendly local police officer (Mullinax) tries to guide him through, but will it be enough?

The movie makes us aware – if you weren’t already – that our vets are committing suicide in terrifying numbers. It doesn’t directly address the question, but certainly most of us will hbe thinking it – if we can afford to spend money on new tanks and planes and battleships we don’t need, why can’t we spend the money to give our servicemen and women the post-deployment care they need and deserve? It is truly a national scandal.

It is a truly worthy subject for a film, but the execution is a bit lacking. Much of this is due to the low budget, which is readily apparent in the action scenes. Filmed locally in Alabama with a local crew and cast, there is some inexperience showing in terms of on-camera performances, which tend to be a litte wooden. There are a few relatively well-known names in the cast, including former Waltons star Judy Norton as the psychiatrist (she also co-wrote the script with the director), and veteran character actor Robert Miano as Jason’s commanding officer, but while their performances are more relaxed, there are a number of performers who don’t look comfortable in front of the camera.

The filmmakers talked to more than fifty veterans and their families to get their impressions of how they coped with the return of warriors to civilian life; every one of them, it was reported, had served with someone who had killed themselves, attempted to or was dealing with severe PTSD. I assume they used some of those stories here, and to be truthful, there are some moments that are incredibly gripping and harrowing, but more often than not, this feels like other films on the subject that have dealt with the same topic. I’m wondering if the filmmakers might not have served the subject better by making a documentary and interviewing the various family members on-camera rather than create a drama around it; something tells me the real stories would be far more compelling than this.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers admirably turn their camera on a still very real and serious problem that has yet to be effectively addressed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard issue for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pete house in the film was demolished after filming was completed to make way for a new road.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When I Came Home
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Team Marco

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band


The name of the band is The Band.

(2019) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, John Simon, Peter Gabriel, Jann Wenner, Ronnie Hawkins, John Scheele, Jimmy Vivino, Larry Campbell, George Semkiw. Directed by David Roher

 

There is absolutely no disputing that The Band were one of the most talented and influential ensembles to ever grace a rock and roll stage. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer/singer Levon Helm, bassist/singer Rick Danko, pianist/singer Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson essentially created the Americana subgenre and made music that was both timeless and timely, both symbolizing an era and transcending it.

They formed as the back-up band to wild blues singer Ronnie Hawkins, known initially as The Hawks. When Bob Dylan absconded with them to back him up during his “Dylan goes electric” tour, they were roundly booed at every appearance. It was only when they went out on their own under their generic “The Band” moniker that they finally began hearing cheers.

Albums like Music From Big Pink and The Band were classics, yielding such songs as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek,” but the strength of The Band was in their tight arrangements, superior songwriting and raw, emotional vocals particularly from Helm but also from Danko and Manuel. It would all come to an end in 1975 with the release of The Last Waltz¸ the group’s last concert (and the last time all five of them would appear together onstage) and the accompanying documentary by Martin Scorsese.

This new film comes mainly from Robertson’s perspective; he is the only band member interviewed for it (although remarks by Helm and Danko appear from earlier interviews) and it is based on his own memoirs. There is sadly a real lack of contemporary footage of the Band in concert, particularly in their days as backup bands for Hawkins and Dylan so there is a lot of reliance on talking head interviews from fans like Scorsese and Springsteen (whose “Atlantic City” they covered on their post-Robertson album Jericho) as well as with Robertson’s wife Dominique and producer John Simon.

Robertson is an engaging storyteller but we really only get his viewpoint – only he and Hudson remain still alive from the group, and Hudson who was notoriously shy, doesn’t appear other than as a performer in the film. Much is made of the group’s drug abuse, with Manuel, Danko and Helm all flirting with heroin (Robertson and Hudson did not, and Robertson blames the group’s eventual dissolution on drug abuse, citing a harrowing story of Manuel getting into a car wreck with Robertson’s wife aboard). Although the film essentially ends with The Last Waltz, it neglects to mention that the group went on to record several albums and tour sans Robertson afterwards, although Robertson insists that he had always intended that The Last Waltz was meant to signal a temporary hiatus and that they always planned to get back together, shrugging it off with a disarming “but they just forgot, I guess.” By that time, Robertson was continuing to record on his own and was also pursuing an acting career.

He also glosses over the post-breakup feuds and enmity having to do with royalties and songwriting credit, which Helm in particular felt should have belonged to the entire group and not just Robertson since they did most of the arranging. Although there was bad blood, Robertson tells that when Helm was dying in 2012, he flew out to be by his side when Helm was on his deathbed.

That the group was once close and had a rare kind of cohesion can’t be argued; that there was bad blood afterwards – well, even brothers fight; sometimes more bitterly than most. This is a pretty decent tribute to a group that deserves more recognition than they got from the public, having shaped country, rock and roll and folk music with a sound that at the time was revolutionary but toI day is merely influential. I would have preferred that the film be less hagiographic and include more voices than just Robertson’s but that wasn’t to be; Manuel passed away in 1996, Danko in 1998 and Helm as mentioned before in 2012. With three fifths of the group gone, it just makes one wonder how the perspective would have changed had some of them been there to give their point of view.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty nifty performance footage. A bittersweet look at one of the most influential groups of all time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the celebrity testimonials.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robertson penned two songs for the 1959 Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks album Mr. Dynamo when Robertson was only 15 years old.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beanpole

See Know Evil


New York attitude personified.

(2018) Documentary (Made to Measure) Davide Sorrenti, Milla Jovovich, Jamie King, Francesa Sorrenti, Chris Brenner, Richard Paradiscio, Mario Sorrenti, Alex Burns, Long Nguyen, David Lipman, Vanina Sorrenti, Justin Salguero, Mutale Kanyanta, Lola Schnabel, Anthony Ray, Steve Sutton, Shaun Regreto, Havana Laffitte, Danielle Zainich, Jade Barreau, Victoria Bartlett.  Directed by Charlie Curran

Some may remember the “heroin chic” fashion photography of the 90s. The ones where Kate Moss, Jamie King and other painfully thin looking models were made to look sunken-eyed and despondent, often photographed in grimy, dingy places that could well double as shooting galleries, often with vacant stares and other facial expressions associated with heroin use.

One photographer who was known for pioneering this style was Davide Sorrenti. A street-tough New York City kid (by way of Italy where he was born), he ran with the SKE crew tagging, smoking joints and skateboarding. While he took great pains to look gangsta-tough, his image was often sabotaged by his sweet nature. Like his older brother Mario, he discovered photography was something he had a talent for as well as a love for.

Although he would eventually make a living as a fashion photographer, he himself preferred a documentary-style realism that would inform his style in his chosen vocation. Starting out taking candid pictures of his crew, he moved on to taking pictures of models and the pretty girls he seemed to attract like moths to a flame.

In fact, many of his friends from that era characterize him as a shining personality whose charm endeared him to nearly everyone he met but he had a secret; he had been born with beta thalassemia, a blood disease that is terminal. He wasn’t expected to make it out of infancy but he beat the odds and grew up to be a young man. In doing so, he went through his life knowing that his time was more limited than others and that what he wanted to do with his life he needed to do immediately. It gave him a joie de vivre that was at once attractive and dangerous.
His mother blames King, his girlfriend at the time, for his eventual heroin addiction. Heroin became an “in” drug largely due to the grunge movement in music but also from edgy and dark independent films like Trainspotting and My Own Private Idaho. Ad campaigns for brands like Calvin Klein and magazines like Ray Gun and Interview further seemed to glamorize the drug.

Davide eventually died at age 20 although not from a drug overdose – renal failure was the culprit. While autopsy results were unclear as to the role both his disease and his drug use played in his death, because he was such a high profile member of the style he was rightly or wrongly the poster child for the backlash against it. President Bill Clinton at the time spoke out against it and the fashion industry as a whole turned their backs on the style and went back to using more traditional models and photographic styles in promoting fashion once again.

Curran’s documentary doesn’t pull any punches; it doesn’t shy away from the drug use aspect of his life nor does it excuse it. While much of the focus is on Sorrenti’s fight against his disease and the toll it took on the young boy, it also celebrates his courage in overcoming it to a degree. There seems to be two schools of thought from those who knew him; that his success came in spite of his illness, and those who believed that his success came because of it. That Sorrenti went to bed every night hooked up to a transfuser in order to survive day to day tells you the kind of life he led. The movie is anything but hagiographic though – Davide is depicted as occasionally being grumpy or out of sorts and who an blame him.

The problem with the movie is it’s devotion to a 90’s-like style, with random clips and images bombarding the screen in between home movies of Davide and talking head interviews of those who knew him or of him. The practice becomes annoying and then irritating as it is used constantly throughout the movie. It detracts from the story unfolding in front of you and seems to contradict the anti-drug message that his mom Francesca seems to be trying to send.

Davide had a lot of swagger – he had to in order to get where he did – which might be off-putting to some. He also had a whole lot of New York street kid in him from the white rap fashion to the antipathy for authority. His life was all too short and was always intended to be but perhaps the knowledge of his mortality helped him blaze all the brighter. While rightly or wrongly his contributions to heroin chic have made him something of a controversial figure, if you look at the images carefully as a whole he really seemed to be more interested in capturing what was real rather than what was manufactured. It wasn’t always pretty but at least it had the virtue of being honest.

REASONS TO GO: The portrait of Sorrenti is well-balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of random images is overdone and annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Sorrenti family became known as “the Corleones of fashion photography” because so many of them became important in the industry.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Larger than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story


Student and sensei: Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters.

(2017) Dramedy (Abramorama) Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Peter Butterfield, Jac Holzman, Maria Muldaur, David Sanborn, Sam Lay, Lee Butterfield, Mark Naftalin, BB King, Paul Shaffer, Al Kooper, Jim Rooney, Marshall Chess, Gabriel Butterfield, Buzz Feiten, Jim Kweskin, Joe Boyd, Clydie King, Happy Traum, Bonnie Raitt, Kathy Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Cindy Cashdollar. Directed by John Anderson

 

Not many modern music lovers – unless they cherish the blues and blues rock of the 70s – remember the name of Paul Butterfield and if they do, it’s only vaguely. Most have not heard his music. Butterfield was a Chicago bluesman who grew up in Hyde Park, a white enclave surrounded by African-American communities. There were dozens of blues clubs around him growing up and he got hooked on the sound early, trading in the flute that his classical music-loving father wanted him to play for the harmonica.

He would become one of the most influential musicians of his time. His band was integrated at a time when that was not common. He was a protégé of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, who both had the prescience to see that for the blues to grow it had to attract white audiences and in order to do that, white musicians. Butterfield was one of the best of those, even as the blues was taking hold in Britain and British musicians were enthusiastically promoting the American masters who inspired them.

The movie is pretty standard documentary filmmaking, stylistically speaking. There are plenty of interviews with friends, families and musicians although in this case, musicians who actually played with Butterfield and none who were inspired by him. There is a fairly notable lack of contemporary musical figures, although Raitt, Sanborn and Bishop are still active.

The performance footage from Butterfield’s early years and salad days is particularly of interest. He had a well-earned reputation as a blistering performer – bandmates routinely describe him as a “force of nature” and “as intense as it gets.” There’s no substitute for being physically present at a life show of course but the footage gives an idea of how dynamic a performer he truly was. There is also footage from later on his career including some from the last months of his life but they pale in comparison.

Some of the footage is from the ground-breaking Newport Jazz Festival of 1965 in which Bob Dylan famously went electric. Most people don’t know that it was Butterfield and his blues band – which at the time included Elvin Bishop and Howlin Wolf’s rhythm section of drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold – that backed up Dylan at the Festival. While it vastly offended purists who believed folk (and the blues, come to that) should be acoustic music, the genii was out of the bottle. They had influenced rock and roll and now rock was returning the favor.

Butterfield’s decline was as heartbreaking as it was inevitable. He had moved his family to Woodstock, New York (before the famous rock festival) and lived a simple country life with his second wife Kathy and son Lee (he had a son Gabriel from his first marriage) when he was home but that wasn’t often. Butterfield had never been what you would call a consumer of healthy food and years of hard drinking, drug abuse and stress had led to a painful digestive ailment called peritonitis. He essentially ignored it and continued to play and party hard, which led to Kathy and Gabriel leaving him. The disintegration of his family apparently weighed heavily on him. His career took a turn downward as the blues became less popular and as the 70s came to a close receded into the province of being a somewhat cult music rather than a popular one. While it remains vital today, it doesn’t capture the popular imagination as it did in Butterfield’s era.

He died far too young at age 44 of a heroin overdose. His legacy however remains, even if most people are unaware of it. I wish the filmmakers had taken the time to talk to those carrying on that legacy rather than those who were contemporaries; it might have urged more people unfamiliar with his music to give him a try. Those who might be interested should check out his self-titled first album and the second, East-West which also was one of the early shapers of jazz fusion.

At the end of the day, this is not really an essential documentary although I wish it could have been. Truly, this is going to remain a niche film, appealing mainly to fans of Butterfield and of the genre in general. It’s unlikely to convert many new fans which is a shame because the music speaks for itself. I myself am not a particular lover of the blues but I do respect the blues and those who play it well. Butterfield was one of the very best and his music ignites and inspires just as intensely now as it did when he was still alive.

The film is scheduled to play Orlando on November 14 at the Gallery on Avalon Island. For those not willing to wait that long or want to make additional showings, it will also be playing at the Cine-World Film Festival in Sarasota on November 2, 6 and 11 – all at the Burns Court Cinema, one of the two venues for the Festival. Tickets for the Festival can be purchased online here. Click on the same link for further information about the Festival which has an impressive line-up this year.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is mind-blowing. Fans of Butterfield and of the blues genre in general will love this.
REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Butterfield is a member of both the blues and rock and roll Halls of Fame.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howlin Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock and Roll
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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ADDicted (2017)


The joys of home study can’t be understated.

(2017) Drama (Vision) Luke Guldan, Lauren Sweetser, Kathleen Quinlan, Gil Bellows, Thom Christopher, Ezra Knight, Taylor Gildersleeve, Tyrone Brown, Morgan Roberts Jarrett Worley, Aaron Bickes, J. Tucker Smith, Danielle Marcucci, Mark Tallman, Ben Kaplan, Sarah Kaplan, Sal Belfonte, Delia Cai, Joe Greene, Ryan J. Murray, Sue Ellersieck, Jon Drtina, Katherine Ashcraft. Directed by Dan Jenski

 

College is a pressure cooker, even more so now than it was in my day. Every professor seems to be of the mindset that theirs is the only class you’re taking. Most students have to take on a job in order to make ends meet while they’re in school in addition to their class loads and if they intend to go further in their education with an advanced degree, the pressure is really on to keep the grades high in order to be in the mix for those coveted grad school slots.

\Drew Dawson (Guldan) has more pressure on him than most. Although he comes from a background of wealth and privilege, he is a star football player who loves playing the game. His overbearing and demanding mother Kate (Quinlan) has his future all planned out for him; law school, a job at his grandfather’s prestigious St. Louis law firm and then maybe politics. She herself is running for a seat in the House of Representatives and needs Drew to be at his very best.

But all this is much more difficult because Drew has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He has a hard time focusing and keeping his grades up, so he has been taking Adderall for a decade, not long after his father passed away in a car accident. On top of that, Drew has broken up with Ashley Ross (Sweetser) after he caught her cheating with an ex. A sorority queen and journalism major, Ashley is a favorite of Kate’s who knows she will write complimentary material for the school paper and Kate needs all the good press she can get. For that reason, Drew hasn’t told his mother about the breakup.

Things being what they are, Drew is starting to crumble a little bit. A paper he has turned in to Professor Mueller (Bellows) has been flagged for plagiarism; actually, Drew didn’t mean to plagiarize the material he’d just failed to attribute the quotes he was using to the proper sources. If Drew gets turned in for plagiarism, he could lose his scholarship and certainly his place on the team. After some pleading, Drew is given a second chance.

Drew’s doctor (Smith) ups the dosage of the Adderall and at first that seems to settle Drew down but Drew is also providing pills to Ashley and his good friend “Radar” Robson (Brown) who uses the pills to help him focus on the field. But the straw tower is collapsing and Drew is floundering; his mother isn’t very sympathetic and soon an innocent study session leads to a decision that could have devastating consequences.

In all honesty I didn’t know Adderall addiction on campus was a thing but apparently it is. Set at the fictional Missouri A&M University, the movie does a pretty realistic job of capturing the pressures of college life although most college students don’t have the resources that Drew has; as I said earlier, most have to maintain some sort of job in order to pay for their living expenses while Drew doesn’t have that problem. Still, even he is under the gun of high expectations.

Guldan is a good looking young man but throughout the film his delivery is low-key; I’m not sure if this is to portray the effects of the drug on Drew or if it’s his natural delivery. It makes his performance a little bit stiff and wooden though. Quinlan is given a character who isn’t very realistic and who isn’t a very good mother and she does her best with it but at times I thought her character should have been twirling a metaphorical moustache a la Snidley Whiplash. Bellows, a solid character actor, fares best with the hip and cool professor who really Cares About His Kids. He comes off as very down to earth and the kind of professor who made learning fun when I was in school back in the stone age when we didn’t bring laptops to class. We – horrors – hand wrote our notes; oh, the humanity!

Some of the plot elements are a bit over the top in a soap opera sense and that doesn’t do the movie any favors. The whole subplot about Kate’s Congressional campaign could have been jettisoned without adversely affecting the movie; in fact, I would have loved to have seen more material on the effects of the drug on Drew and the people around him and gain a sense of how widespread the problem really is. While the movie has some missteps, the subject matter and main focus are to be congratulated and it is worth checking out for the scenes that do seem to be more on mission and less concerned with unrealistic plot twists.

REASONS TO GO: The issue of Adderall abuse on college campuses is brought into focus. Bellows gives a down to earth performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drug abuse, adult themes, profanity, some sexual references and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the college campus scenes were filmed at the University of Missouri.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Basketball Diaries
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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