Mateo


Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

(2015) Documentary (XLRator) Matthew Stoneman, Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano. Directed by Aaron I. Naar

If you go by the assumption that the best individual subjects for documentaries are those who fall furthest outside the mainstream of society, then Matthew Stoneman might well be the perfect subject. A mild-looking red-headed ex-convict mariachi singer from New Hampshire currently residing in Los Angeles, he regularly spends time in Cuba where he has spent seven years recording an ambitious record titled Una Historia de Cuba with Cuban musicians, including members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. He is often described in his press as the “gringo mariachi” which is fitting.

Facially resembling Bill Gates a little bit, Stoneman has a gentle, voice that is at odds with the typical big voices spawned by American Idol that dominate pop music at the moment. His songs express a good deal of longing, a kind of melancholia that cuts right to the heart. This is the kind of music that simply isn’t made in the American and western idioms; this is music from the Latin soul and it isn’t for everybody.

Stoneman, who uses the stage name Mateo and is addressed as such by the Mexican mariachi musicians he hangs out with in Los Angeles, plays in restaurants and scrounging for tips as well as at weddings, quinceañeras and whatever gigs he can find. He lives in an apartment that resembles an episode of Hoarders and saves every penny to fly to Cuba.

It is in Havana that he feels more at home, working with Cuban musicians on his ambitious record which as far as I could tell was original songs by Stoneman documenting the various styles of music in that Caribbean country as well as detailing its history. The Cuban musicians have accepted Stoneman as one of their own, a kindred spirit and praise his work ethic repeatedly, as well as his talent. While some will find his voice a little tentative, his low-key delivery is perfect for the tone and vibe of his music.

The documentary captures Stoneman in all his elements, and not all of them are savory. In the studio he is exacting, knowing exactly the sounds he wants to create but he collaborates with the musicians and accepts their input, sometimes with some contention but the experience looks to be joyful – certainly the musicians are having a good time.

Stoneman himself, though, seems more driven than happy. During the film he admits that he doesn’t have much use for friends and family and prefers to keep to himself which I believe is poison for an artist. He is clearly a lonely man, and his music reflects that; he could use a wider variety of emotions in his music with the caveat being that I’ve only heard what’s on the soundtrack – for all I know the rest of his music is upbeat and fun but something tells me that the melancholy dominates. When you deny yourself all the colors on your palate as a painter, your painting is going to be limited; so it is with music as well, with emotions being the colors that a musician employs. Still, the music I heard here is haunting and many viewers are going to be looking to order the CD the first chance they get although to be honest, I was unable to locate a website that it was available for purchase – my search was necessarily cursory however. If I find one, I’ll be sure to update this review though.

This isn’t a travelogue so the views of Cuba are more of the everyday life of the Cuban people and less of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture that we associate with the island nature, although there are some views of both. Mostly we get a sense of how Cubans live and while they don’t have a lot of the goods that we here in the States have, they don’t seem to miss them (it was refreshing not to see anyone carrying the ubiquitous cell phone around).

Stoneman does have a checkered past and while he doesn’t bury it, there isn’t a lot of detail about it in the film (most of the information as to what he did was culled from interviews I read with the filmmakers). It was while he was doing time for armed robbery that he was first exposed to the ballads that Mexican-American inmates listened to and sang, and he became so enchanted with them that he decided to give up on his career in pop music and concentrate on the beautiful Latin music that he became enamored with.

We do get a glimpse of Stoneman’s darker nature; he has a bit of a thing for Cuban hookers and there are several sequences detailing his search for them, including one fairly graphic scene in which he finds one to his liking. He is also a little bit confrontational from time to time, although you don’t get a sense that he has a temper; he never raises his voice during the course of the film. Not that he doesn’t in real life. Further, he is certainly estranged from his parents and the impression they give is that he abruptly severed ties with them; they seem a bit puzzled about it but the father is a bit fatalistic; he doesn’t expect that they will have any sort of relationship with their mercurial son for the rest of his days. Whatever rift exists between Stoneman and his parents is never detailed in the film.

Neither is the question of how Stoneman can afford to make his album. In Los Angeles he ekes out a hardscrabble existence, and yet the filmmakers state that the album took seven years and cost $350,000 to produce. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change and it doesn’t seem likely that an existence of tips and parties could produce that kind of cash, which if you average out would be $50K per year. Unless Stoneman has another job that isn’t shown in the film, the math really doesn’t add up; Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live.

Stoneman himself is a bit o a question mark; you get the sense that he is mostly a pleasant person and he is certainly driven and his passion for his music is undeniable. On the flip side, he doesn’t seem to let anyone in too deep; he can be affectionate with his friends but onscreen anyway he doesn’t seem disposed to revealing too much about himself. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten to know him better but something tells me that wouldn’t be possible in any case; some people like to keep others at a comfortable distance and Stoneman is clearly of that ilk.

In many ways this is a courageous documentary, and given the recent re-opening of the American embassy and the swelling movement of ending a half century of sanctions that have accomplished nothing and normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it is a timely one. Being the son of a rabid anti-Castro Cuban myself, I can only wonder what my late father would have made of Stoneman. I’m not sure he would have admired the man, but he certainly would have been fascinated by his music.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and beautiful images. An insider glimpse at Cuba. Enigmatic yet fascinating subject.
REASONS TO STAY: Stoneman not really forthcoming about his background, other than in broad strokes. The prostitute sequences may be offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rough language, brief nudity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stoneman was arrested for fencing stolen recording equipment, breaking his leg while attempting to elude the police. He spent four years in prison for his crimes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Park Bench

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Into the Grizzly Maze (Red Machine)


There's nothing worse than bear breath.

There’s nothing worse than bear breath.

(2014) Action (Vertical) James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Scott Glenn, Michaela McManus, Adam Beach, Sarah Desjardins, Luisa D’Oliveira, Bart the Bear, Patrick Sabongui, Kelly Curran, Seth Isaac Johnson, Sean O. Roberts, Reese Alexander, Carson Reaume, Michael Jonsson, Mariel Belanger. Directed by David Hackl

Recently, I did a review of a 1981 movie called Roar in which live actors and crew mingled with untamed wild lions and tigers which led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 injuries to cast and crew. This movie would be the anti-Roar.

After seven years in prison, Rowan (Marsden) returns home to a small Alaskan town (actually British Columbia) on a mysterious mission which involves a map. Treasure, maybe? When he gets into an altercation with a pimp (Jonsson) who was in the process of beating up a hooker (Curran), he is arrested – by none other than his own brother Beckett (Jane) who turned his back on him after Rowan was convicted of shooting a guy. The two brothers obviously have little love for each other and so when Rowan heads off into the wilderness, Beckett isn’t particularly sorry to see him go.

But what Rowan is really up to is a rescue mission; a friend with the unlikely name of Johnny Cadillac (Beach) is missing after having guided a pair of poachers into the woods (no singing though) and his wife (Belanger) is concerned enough to ask Rowan to go find him. The three of them, however, have met up with a rogue rampaging grizzly (Bart) who with his food supplies dwindling is turning to a human protein supplement to his diet.

Once Beckett and his boss, Sheriff Sullivan (Glenn) realize what’s happening Beckett decides to head into the woods to find the bear and tranquilize it. Sullivan would rather hire bear whisperer Douglass (Thornton) to track down the mutha and kill it, but Beckett puts up a stink so Sullivan caves. Or at least appears to; once Beckett is gone, he sends Douglass out anyway.

Beckett has another reason to head out into the woods – his deaf conservationist wife Michelle (Perabo) is out there and with a crazed killer bear stalking anything on two legs, the town medical examiner Kaley (McManus) tags along just in case someone needs medical attention or an autopsy. And of course all of them meet up and the Grizzly comes after them. Getting back to civilization is going to be no easy task, even with a pair of experienced woodsmen and crack shots in the group.

This is a throwback to deranged animal movies from the ’70s like Jaws and Day of the Animals which generally took an all-star cast of the level that you’d find on a typical episode of The Love Boat and put them squarely in the path of an animal (or animals) that had gone loco and were hungry for the taste of human flesh. This one relies on CGI a great deal as we rarely see humans in the same frame as the evil bear here and quite frankly, the CGI work is sloppy and weak. There is a sequence where the grizzly is surrounded by CGI flames that are so fake as to be almost laughable and then breaks through the ring of fire with a mighty roar and scarcely a single hair singed. There is another scene where the grizzly looks up from his lunch of a hapless human with blood on his mouth and snout that is so patently CGI (the color is bright cherry lipstick red rather than the typical crimson of actual blood) as to look more like the bear had gotten into a strumpet’s lipstick. Godawful.

The cast here is pretty decent and to their credit none of them phone it in although Perabo, who really has nothing much to do, might as well have. Jane is actually a pretty decent action hero who did some good work in Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher but is generally relegated to supporting roles these days and leads in Direct-to-VOD films like this one. Marsden is versatile, doing comedy and action equally well but he’s all business here. Thornton, who always seems to enjoy himself no matter what level of film he’s doing, from excellent (the Fargo series) to sheer paycheck (this).

The British Columbia forests, substituting for Alaska, are unutterably beautiful and while I wouldn’t say they’re a piece of cake to photograph, it’s hard to go wrong with that kind of backdrop  One of the big problems with the film is that it’s completely non-credible. Bears don’t act like this, not even rogues and for the most part people don’t either. While Hackl does a good job building suspense, there are too many instances of a gigantic bear sneaking up on hapless humans which is damn near impossible; bears are not stealth creatures. They’re far too massive. At the end of the day this is a subpar potboiler with a good cast and bad CGI that might be worth a rainy day or evening’s rental on VOD if your standards aren’t particularly high.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful setting. Good cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrealistic. Terrible CGI. Throwback to films that weren’t very good in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There are animal attack images as well as disturbing gore images, violence, some brief sexuality and a little bit of foul language
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the film was Red Machine which is the name given the bear in the credits. This is in reference to the late Timothy Treadwell of the film Grizzly Man who said that one bear, which he had named The Big Red Machine, was the only one that actually terrified him. It is reputed that this was the bear that actually killed him and his girlfriend, although that is unconfirmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Magic Mike XXL

Imperial Dreams


The face of urban stress.

The face of urban stress.

(2014) Drama (Super Crispy) John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, De’aundre Bonds, Keke Palmer, Fat Dog, Nora Zehetner, Todd Louiso, Sufe Bradshaw, Maximiliano Hernandez, Anika Noni Rose, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Jernard Burks, Wilfred Lopez, Nik Petcov, Kelita Smith, Zilah Mendoza, Kandiss Edmundson. Directed by Malik Vitthal

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the years since John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boys N the Hood illustrated the agonies and the ecstasies of South Central Los Angeles, little has changed. The choices are few for those restricted by poverty and apathy; selling drugs and using drugs. Getting out of the cycle of violence and poverty has become nearly impossible.

Bambi (Boyega) is boyishly handsome and just home after serving a 28 month stretch for armed robbery. His son Day (the Coach twins) has been staying with his Uncle Shrimp (Plummer) while Bambi’s girlfriend and baby mama Samaara (Palmer) is also in jail for a non-violent crime.

Bambi wants to be a good role model for his son and stay on the straight and narrow. Shrimp has other ideas. He wants Bambi to resume his place in Shrimp’s gang. Bambi would much rather get a job. However, the system is stacked against him; the state has filed for child support on behalf of Samaara, cranking a debt that Bambi can’t pay without a job. He can’t, however, get a job without a driver’s license and he can’t get a driver’s license with that child support debt on his record. It’s beyond Catch-22; it’s Catch-23.

As hard as it is for Bambi to stay straight, the thug life continues to intrude. His cousin Gideon (Bonds) is on the run from a rival gang who mean to murder him and Bambi’s proximity to Gideon is putting both him and Day in danger but Gideon is one of the few who are out to help Bambi make it on the level. Bambi’s mom (Zehetner) is a raging alcoholic and his half-brother Wayne (Akinosho) who has a partial scholarship to Howard’s business school but needs money to make up the difference so he can actually go to college is thinking of taking a short cut that may lead him down the same path that Bambi is trying to get off of. An act of violence puts everything in flux and puts Bambi even more at risk than he has been, leaving him and Day as vulnerable as can be, living out of a car that doesn’t run with a pair of skeptical detectives (Hernandez, Bradshaw) and a social worker (Rose) on Bambi’s back.

This is one of those movies that I really wanted to like a lot more than I ended up doing. Clearly Vitthal has a good eye and ear for inner city drama, and knows how to tell a good story. The trouble is, this is the kind of story that doesn’t really tell us anything new. Particularly in the light of recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and other places around the country, we’re particularly sensitive to the plight of young black men in predominantly African-American communities that are riddled with poverty, crime and drugs. While this story is sadly not one far from the stories of many young African-American men, I get the sense that it has been told more than once and more than once in this very Film Festival.

That said, Boyega (who was tremendous in Attack the Block) has the chops and the looks to be the next Hollywood superstar. In my review of that movie, I compared him to Denzel Washington and certainly he has that kind of charisma and screen presence. Here, in a much more subdued and less obviously heroic role, he struggles with his conscience and his frustration, knowing that the easy way out is to revert back to the old life, but that it would lead him to exactly the same place – if not a cold, steel slab in the morgue.

The rest of the cast are fairly solid, with the Coach twins doing particularly well as Day; the father-son dynamic between the two is genuine and affecting. Very often actors this young have a difficult time bonding with their screen parents but in this case that’s not the case. The heart of this movie is Bambi’s devotion to Day and if we don’t believe that, we don’t believe the movie. That the movie is convincing on that end is admirable.

I take it that the slang being used here is genuine to the time and place; at times I had difficulty figuring out what some of the characters were saying and subtitles would have been genuinely appreciated. While some might write this off as a feature-length rap video (and with some justification), that would be a bit presumptive. This is a solid film by a filmmaker with potential that is dominated by an actor who may well be a great one in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performance by Boyega. Loved the father-son dynamic. Captures the Catch-22 of the modern inner city.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really break any new ground. At times needs subtitles to follow the inner city slang dialogue. A few too many cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and foul language throughout; some drug use and lots of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed at the actual Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Homeless

Fruitvale Station


A precursor to tragedy.

A precursor to tragedy.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears, Destiny Ekwueme, Bianca Rodriguez III, Julian Keyes, Kenny Grimm, Thomas Wright, Alejandra Nolasco. Directed by Ryan Coogler

On December 31, 2008 a young man and his girlfriend left their daughter at a relative’s house and took a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco to celebrate the new year. After a few hours of revelry, they returned home on the same train. A fight was said to have broken out, so the train was stopped at the Fruitvale Station so that the transit police could investigate. Four young African-American men were pulled off the train and detained, including the young father. When he rose up to protest, he was forced to the ground with an officer’s knee in his face. While he was down, another officer shot him in the back. He would die the next morning from his wounds.

The young man’s name was Oscar Grant III and his death provoked massive protests and outcry particularly on the West Coast. In the wake of the recent Trayvon Martin decision, his story is more relevant than ever.

The movie opens with actual footage of the incident (many passengers on the train captured it on their cell phones, as did surveillance cameras on the station platform) and then flashes back 24 hours as we see Oscar (Jordan) in the last 24 hours of his life. This young man was no saint – he had a temper and had been incarcerated for selling drugs. He’d recently lost his job in a grocery store for being late to work too often and had recently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz).

Still, he clearly loved his daughter Tatiana (Neal) and was trying his best to be a good father to her. Despite his indiscretion, he wanted nothing more than a more permanent relationship with Sophina. And he adored his mother Wanda (Spencer) and looked up to her as a role model. He, Sophina and Tatiana spent the evening having dinner with Wanda and celebrating her birthday. Worried that traffic in and out of the city would be bad and that with all the drunk people on the road it might be dangerous, Wanda urges Oscar to take the train which he and his buddies (along with Sophina and another girl) elect to do, a train that will take Oscar to his final moments.

This will undoubtedly go down as one of the best films of 2013 and will certainly merit some awards consideration (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Weinstein do a brief theatrical re-release right around Christmas to remind Academy voters how good this movie is). I won’t lie and say this is a completely objective movie, but neither is it unrealistic – Oscar Grant had some issues in his short life and his family would undoubtedly be the first to say so. He’s not portrayed as some kind of saint here, but as a real guy struggling to better his life and the lives of his family. Most of us are no different in that regard.

Jordan delivers a real star turn here. He has the best onscreen smile since Tom Cruise and shows amazing screen presence and charisma here. He transforms Oscar Grant from a name on newscasts into flesh and blood. I don’t know how close he was to capturing the personality of the real Oscar Grant (although friend of the family Jack Bryson indicated that it was) but Jordan makes the impending tragedy hanging over the bulk of this movie like a Sword of Damocles all the more poignant because while he was far from perfect, Oscar Grant was a good man.

Octavia Spencer has already won an Oscar and she might just get another one as Oscar’s tough loving mom. She demands – and receives – respect from her son, and is the kind of mom that everyone loves and whose respect and approval everyone craves. Spencer gives Wanda inner strength (which the real Wanda possesses in abundance) and her grief for her son in the movie’s closing scenes is hard to watch.

The movie is highly fictionalized, portraying an incident in which Oscar watches a dog get hit by a car after which it dies in his arm (portending his own fate) and a shopper at the grocery store (O’Reilly) trying to get a recipe for a fish fry whom he connects with his grandma (Shears). In fact, Oscar is constantly on his phone, a conceit that is used throughout the movie by projecting the phone screen onscreen to show us the texts he’s receiving. It’s very effective.

There are those who will grouse that the movie is manipulative, but that’s bull. It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by the events that transpire onscreen. It’s hard not to like Oscar Grant and wish he was still around to take care of his family. But it’s harder still to avoid the conversation that should and does ensue – that even now, 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we as a nation still treat our African-American citizens with suspicion and prejudice. While I can’t say it’s entirely unjustified to be wary of young African-American, they still deserve better than to be profiled and shot like animals. That we’re still having this conversation in 2013 is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and moving. Career-defining work by Jordan. Possible Oscar consideration for Spencer and Diaz.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of foul language, a bit of drug use and some violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Film Audience Award at Sundance, and Best First Film at Cannes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100; the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boyz ‘N the Hood

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Red 2