New Chefs on the Block


Aaron Silverman gets intense.

(2016) Documentary (Lateral Line) Aaron Silverman, Frank Lynn, Michel Richard, Frank Lynn Sr., Konstantin “Kosta” Troupos, BJ Lieberman, Anne Lynn, Emily Sprissler, Mike Isabella, Dan Silverman, Libby Diamond, Michael McNamara, Drew Adams, Kate Diamond, Danny Meyer, Andy Erdmann, Elizabeth Parker, Scott Muns, Aziz Shafi, Justin Eobstel, Andi Chesser, Alison Danie. Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas

It is said that the second hardest thing to do in the small business realm is to open up a new restaurant. The hardest thing to do is keep it open. As most people are aware, restaurants come and go with almost a terrifying regularity. People tend to be fickle and may pack your eatery one day and the next day be on to the new flavor of the week. Banks are very loathe to give out small business loans for that reason, particularly for would-be restaurateurs with no track record.

One of the toughest markets for restaurants is the Washington DC area. This documentary follows two men with very different concepts and very different hopes; one is Aaron Silverman, a chef with a pedigree that has brought him under the tutelage of some of the best in the business, including Michel Richard (who sadly passed away shortly after filming concluded for New Chefs on the Block). He had an idea of a five star dining experience at two star prices. In order to accomplish that he loaded up his kitchen with experienced chefs.

He also gave his staff health and dental benefits (a rarity in the food service industry) and regular hours, giving them the ability to plan their lives. This is also revolutionary stuff in an industry well-known for creating personal life chaos. Silverman is something of a perfectionist and the price it would take to make his dream happen was a heck of a lot more than the second chef.

Frank Lynn (who in the interest of transparency is the brother-in-law of the filmmaker) had been operating a successful pizza-oriented food truck for two years and yearned to have a brick-and-mortar location to call his own. He found one in the Maryland suburbs of DC but the space would need some extensive work. Believing that the $86,000 he raised through family members and Crowdfunding would be more than sufficient to get his neighborhood pizzeria open, he set about remodeling his space mainly with the help of his family and friends.

Both project take longer than expected to reach opening night and both are fraught with issues that threaten to kill the dreams of their prospective owners before they even get started. We see pretty much everything; the process of getting permits, the physical construction, ordering a pizza oven that turns out to be defective, the compromises and calamities all told.

Many restaurant owners are going to see this and chuckle ruefully to themselves. Others who are thinking about opening a restaurant might turn white as a sheet. However, the cautionary tale is that Harrison-Atlas turned out to be extraordinarily lucky; most restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary and the number that make it to their second is terrifyingly low. Still, this is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how your neighborhood restaurants came into being. That the two owners are engaging and charismatic fellas makes this a lot more palatable because some might find the somewhat clinical view of the start to finish process a bit of a slog. However I assure you that you’ll leave the theater (or your home couch if you are watching through streaming or home video) a little bit more educated about the business and, even more likely, craving something good to eat.

REASONS TO GO: An informative look at what goes into opening a restaurant. A rooting interest is maintained even when the expectations aren’t realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little bit too “nuts and bolts” for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity occasionally.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rose’s Luxury would go on to win the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Quiet Passion

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea


A wonderland of turgid prose.

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alex Karpovsky, Louisa Krause, John Cameron Mitchell, Matthew Maher, Emily Davis. Directed by Dash Shaw

When an animated feature starts off with a warning that the movie features stroboscopic effects that may negatively affect people with photosensitive epilepsy, one isn’t sure to take it seriously or as the movie’s first joke. Not for nothing; take it seriously.

This is one of the most imaginative and self-consciously hip animated features to come along in quite awhile. It feels like an online comic strip come to life which is no coincidence since Shaw is a noted online comic artist whose Bottomless Belly Button has won a good deal of online acclaim. The dialogue is snappy with a bored but snarky sensitivity that falls in perfectly with the millennial milieu and I would guess that most people who love online comics are going to do cartwheels when they see this. Virtual cartwheels, anyway.

The plot is basically The Poseidon Adventure on acid; two good friends, Dash (Schwartzman) and Aasif (Watts) are starting their sophomore years at Tides High. They both work for the student newspaper – well, they essentially are the student newspaper along with their editor Verti (Rudolph) whose name is an off-shoot of the Latin word for truth (see, I did learn something in high school). When she develops a crush on Aasif and hands him the plum assignment that Dash wanted, it drives a wedge between the two which is further widened by Dash’s borderline libelous newspaper column about his ex-friend.

However, all that gets swept aside when Dash discovers paperwork that indicates the school’s foundations aren’t up to code and wouldn’t stand up in a natural disaster. Dash tries to tell everyone what’s going on but Principle Grimm (Ryan) shuts him down and nobody believes Dash anyway. Of course, right about then an earthquake knocks the entire high school off the cliff it sits on and into the ocean where it promptly begins to sink.

Dash and Aasif patch things up and along with Verti and Mary (Dunham), a popular girl who turns out to have a heart underneath her shallow exterior as well as Lunch Lady Lorraine (Sarandon), a no-nonsense military sort who has maintained her military skills, are forced to make their way up through the Junior floor and then to the Senior floor before graduating to the roof if they are to survive. They will have to take on Jellyfish attacks, shark attacks, a kangaroo court of jocks, electrical wires and school bus blockages in order to get there.

Shaw uses a variety of techniques, often hand drawn, throughout the film although he generally uses the sort of heavy black markers with crayon-like colors. The movie comes off as a disaster movie produced by Adult Swim animators and written by twenty-something online writers. There’s no doubt what kind of audience this is aimed at and it’s not the underage kind; there are some pretty nasty moments in the film that parents may not want their kids to deal with quite yet.

Shaw has been friends with Schwartzman for years which helped him get the kind of talent he managed to get for the film which include a few cultural touchstones for the Millennial generation, including Dunham, Mitchell and of course Schwartzman himself. Sarandon does a gravelly voiced job as Lunch Lady Lorraine and was one of my favorite characters in the movie.Parents of angst-suffused teenage children may get a vicarious thrill of watching so many teens offed during the course of the film. I know I did.

There is a psychedelic sequence near the end of the movie which I suppose is an attempt to 2001 the hell out of the movie but it runs much too long and slows the momentum of a movie that is already short and sweet. A scant 75 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome other than the aforementioned sequence.

I get that not everybody is going to love this film; it appeals to a younger, more savvy audience that is much more aware of current pop culture. As a result, the film might end up being dated even a few years from now but there is enough humor in it that it might stand on its own two feet as a legacy. Still, this is worth seeking out particularly as I mentioned earlier if you love online comics. It might just rock your world, if that phrase isn’t out of date yet.

REASONS TO GO: There is a good deal of allegory in the film which may lead to some interesting discussions among audience members. It’s sort of a modern “Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too surreal for some and the psychedelic sequence is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of teen peril, some drug use and a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Belko Experiment

Unrest (2017)


There can be beauty in medicine.

(2017) Documentary (Chicken & Egg) Jennifer Brea, Omar Wasow, Nancy Klimas, Paul Cheney, Stig Gerdes, Lee-ray Denton, Casie Jackson, Ketty Hansen, Ron Davis, Per Hansen, Whitney Dafoe, Jessica Taylor, Darwin Jackson, Jessica Harden, Lee Routh, Sawyer Jackson, Ruby Taylor, Samuel Bearman, Colin Taylor, Randy Denton, Per Fink, Ron Gill, Theo Haugen, Linda Tannenbaum. Directed by Jennifer Brea

Unless you’re a medical professional, you’ve probably never heard of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). You may be more familiar with its popular name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s a medical problem that the medical community has almost no understanding of. There are many doctors who believe it is entirely psychosomatic – in the patients mind  In some countries, that is in fact medical policy.

Jennifer Brea, originally from the Orlando area, was studying for her PhD at Harvard. A bright and vivacious girl, she traveled the world and lived life to its fullest. She was engaged to be married to a handsome Internet analyst (and later professor at Princeton) named Omar Wasow. Life was only going to get better.

Then she got sick, struck by a fever that at its worst measured 104.7 degrees. The fever broke, but she was left with extreme sensitivity to light and sound and bouts of fatigue so all-encompassing that she could barely get out of bed and eventually could only crawl inch by inch along the ground (the opening scenes of the movie document this). Eventually she is confined to a wheelchair but soon she is unable to sit up in a seated position. She is only capable of being prone.

Of course, she sees her doctor, and then specialists, and then other specialists. None of them can even offer a diagnosis. Some told her she was dehydrated and stressed due to her doctoral work. Others told her that her symptoms were due to a long-buried trauma that was surfacing only now. Meanwhile, her symptoms were growing worse. Unconvinced by what her doctors were telling her and determined to get to the bottom of what was affecting her, she did her own research and came up with ME and CFS which is said to affect as many as 17 million people around the world. She went onto YouTube and heard stories that were eerily similar to her own. She knew she had found the source of her problems.

But as she looked into it, she found the depressing fact that despite the fact that her disease was so widespread, there was little to no research being done on it. Few knew how the disease operated and those that did were only in the early stages of understanding how it worked. The more people Jennifer talked to, the more she realized that hope  was being lost on a widespread basis. Rather than face a lifetime confined to bed, many sufferers were taking their own lives.

Determined to make these stories public, Jennifer decided to make a documentary. She enlisted camera crews in England, Denmark and around the United States to capture sufferers of ME/CFS on-camera. We hear the story of Jessica Taylor, a young woman living in Kent, England who has spent her 16th through 21st birthdays in bed and whose inactivity has caused osteoporosis which gives her the bones of a 100-year-old, not an uncommon side effect for ME/CFS sufferers. There’s also Lee-Ray, a Georgia housewife whose husband left her after years of caring for her and when their daughter came down with the disease, finally realized that this wasn’t something Lee-Ray was making up and has since begun the process of reconciling with his ex-wife. One of the few geneticists looking into the disease is Stanford’s Ron Davis who has a personal interest – his son has ME and is unable to speak anymore.

The most outrageous case is that of Karina Hansen, a young girl afflicted with the disease who is forcibly removed from her parents home by the police and confined to a mental hospital in Copenhagen where her parents are refused access to her. Largely due to a Danish physician named Per Fink, the Danish medical establish operates on the principle that the disease is entirely psychosomatic and that removal from the environment which reinforces belief in the disease is the only means of cure. It was only after this proved ineffective that Karina was finally allowed to return home.

Through these stories we get to see how ME/CFS impacts not only the person who has it but their families and loved ones as well. The central story however belongs to Brea and her husband and in some ways we feel a bit of the intimacy between them as we are privy to moments of romance, frustration, and conflict but mostly support and love. Omar sometimes questions the desperate methods Jennifer tries to ameliorate her disease like ingesting a hookworm and living in a tent out in her yard to avoid any vestige of mold but for the most part, he does everything he can to give her a normal life and most importantly to keep hope alive.

The movie keeps the focus mainly on Jennifer herself but gives an adequate amount of time and focus on the other stories as well. As with all things, ME/CFS affects different people differently so seeing the various degrees and results of the symptoms on the lives of different people gives us a bit more of perspective. The only thing I can really fault the film with is the opening sequence may prove challenging to those who are more sensitive to camera motion, as I am; a chronic vertigo sufferer, I found the opening sequence started to bring my symptoms on. I recognize the need for the sequence; it gives viewers a sense of what Jennifer goes through but those like myself who have that sensitivity should be aware that the opening few minutes may be a problem.

That can be hard to do; we look at the prescriptions Jennifer is supposed to take; it’s a staggering amount and personally I can’t believe all those pharmaceuticals can possibly be doing her body any good. It’s no wonder that Jennifer is looking into alternative treatments.

But she’s also not taking her situation if you’ll excuse the pun lying down. She’s helping to organize and was involved with the Millions Missing event in which family members of ME/CFS victims left shoes out in public places to illustrate how he people who have this affliction have disappeared from life (some literally; the suicide rate is high). Most importantly, she’s made this documentary which brings to light the plight of those suffering from this illness and the medical establishment’s attitudes towards it. One can’t help but notice that suffers of Multiple Sclerosis were once upon a time often told the same things by the medical establishment until the invention of CAT scans revealed an actual issue. As of yet there are no tests that show a medical cause for these issues although some work is finally starting to get done.

This documentary goes a long way into not only showing the global impact of the syndrome but also its immediate effects. That gives the film both an intimacy as well as wide perspective, a very difficult wire to walk. This is an important documentary which hopefully will give a greater understanding of the illness not only to the general public but to the medical and scientific communities as well.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heart-rending and occasionally heartbreaking film. You can’t help but admire Brea for her courage. Brea manages to reveal the scope of the disease worldwide and provide intimate details of its effects at the same time.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of the Go-Pro camera at the beginning of the film may be rough for those who are sensitive to jarring camera movement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers are mounting a campaign to show the film in medical schools to allow new doctors to get a glimpse into what ME means to the patient.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: In Circles

Colossal


Put ’em up!

(2017) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Neon) Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Hannah Cheramy, Nathan Ellison, Sarah Surh, Haeun Hannah Cho, Carlos Joe Costa, Melissa Montgomery, Christine Lee, Rukiya Bernard, James Yi, Alyssa Dawson, Miho Suzuki, Charles Raahul Singh, Jenny Mitchell, Maddie Smith, Everett Adams, Agamdeep Darshi. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

It is said that within all of us there are both angels and monsters. For the most part, the majority of us try as hard as we can to keep that monster inside and let the angel out but it can be difficult, particularly if we are coping with more than we can handle. That’s when those monsters can show their faces and take control.

Gloria (Hathaway) has some issues. She is chronically unemployed or underemployed. She goes out and parties with friends most nights; sometimes for days. She drinks far too much and often doesn’t remember what she did the night before. Finally, her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) has had enough. While he loves Gloria, he can’t stand being around her anymore. Nothing he can say or do has helped. It’s time for him to remove this toxic person from his life and he not only dumps her, he packs up her stuff and tells her she has to move out of their New York apartment…or rather, his New York apartment.

With no other options, Gloria moves back to her childhood home upstate that her recently deceased mom left to her. While there she runs into childhood playmate Oscar (Sudeikis) who has an inheritance of his own – his parents bar. He offers Gloria a job waitressing there which she gratefully accepts although perhaps working in a bar isn’t exactly the best place to be for an alcoholic. By day, Oscar helps out by buying her things to help furnish her empty home; by night, they work at the bar which has bottomed out in popularity in recent years. Oscar has closed off a huge chunk of it, decorated in cowboy fashion. Gloria resolves to spruce it up and reopen it. In between, there are late nights drinking with Oscar and his friends Garth (Nelson), a philosophical drunk and Joel (Stowell), a handsome local who catches Gloria’s eye.

But things take a turn for the strange when news reports show a gigantic monster rampaging in Seoul, South Korea and then disappearing. Like everyone else, Gloria is amazed and alarmed. Unlike everyone else, Gloria discovers she has a strange connection with the monster. The monster makes strange hand gestures that are very much reminiscent of the same quirky gestures Gloria makes. She also discovers that the monsters rampages take place when she is in the playground at a local park. She begins to realize that she is the monster.

Before too long, a second monster appears – a giant robot and Gloria’s monster is needed to do battle with it. She also finds she needs to do battle in real life as well with someone she trusted who has become abusive and controlling. Can she summon the strength to fight on both fronts and in doing so, save the lives of millions of people in Seoul?

Giant monster or kaiju films have regained popularity recently with the successes of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island as well as dozens of films in Asia. This is a very different take on them. Spanish director Vigalondo has been an up-and-coming name in horror films in recent years and this might just be his best work yet. It’s imaginative and thought-provoking, the latter of which being a rare quality in movies that are as entertaining as this one.

Hathaway gives a marvelous performance as a woman who has lost control of her life and who’s made a ton of bad choices, many of which were informed by alcohol abuse. She is appealing here as she is in most of her films and even though her character isn’t always doing the right thing we still end up rooting for her. Sudeikis is also a very likable screen personality and while the movie begins with him playing a role that is typical for him it changes somewhat as the film progresses. It’s really a marvelous role for him as it allows him to expand his range.

While the special effects reflect the movie’s small budget, the movie explores all sorts of things during the course of its run time from living with substance abusers to domestic violence and taking responsibility. These are some heavy topics for what is essentially a kaiju comedy that turns into something a little deeper.

This played the Florida Film Festival last month and one of the programmers for the Festival reported that a couple of angry ladies accosted him following the screening of this film and complained that it glorifies domestic abuse. Quite frankly with respect to the ladies making the complaint, I believe that their interpretation is quite a bit off the mark. One of the points that the movie is making is that domestic violence can come from people who are the nicest of guys outwardly; that’s why it’s so shocking when it happens in the film. Rather than glorifying domestic violence, the scenes depicting it show it for what it is – a disgusting, cowardly act.

While the movie’s final third is a little less impressive than the first two, it maintains interest throughout. Vigalondo has the annoying habit of having the onscreen characters visibly react to things that the audience can’t see which after having been done a few times gets to be a little bit annoying, but that’s really small potatoes. This is an inventive take on the giant monster movies that is both retro and modern. It’s cinematic fun of the highest order and should be a must-see for anyone who likes good entertainment with a dash of perspective.

REASONS TO GO: It’s definitely a different take on kaiju films. Hathaway makes an appealing drunk. Sudeikis is so charming to begin with his attitude change is all the more shocking. It is refreshing for a movie this entertaining to be this thoughtful as well.
REASONS TO STAY: It loses steam about 2/3 of the way through. The film has the annoying habit of showing actors reacting to things not revealed to the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and scenes of mass destruction and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hathaway was in the second trimester of her pregnancy while she filmed this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big in Japan
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Unrest

White Sun (Seto Surya)


You know you’re in trouble when your ex-wife brings soldiers to the party.

(2016) Drama (Kimstim) Dayahang Rai, Asha Maya Magrati, Rabindra Singh Baniya, Sumi Malla, Amrit Pariyar, Deepak Chhetri, Deshbakhta Khanal. Directed by Deepak Rauniyar

As we get older, we tend to like things to stay the way they are. Change frightens and confuses us. We find those who advocate change to be untrustworthy.

In Nepal, a civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 divided royalists, who believed in Nepalese traditions and Maoists, more progressive sorts In the tiny village of Nepaltra, the war decimated the village leaving few men other than the village elders and the town doctor Suraj (Baniya), the son of the former mayor and a Royalist himself. When the ex-mayor passes away, Suraj’ brother Chandra (Rai), an insurgent who now lives in Kathmandu, is summoned to help carry his father’s corpse down to the riverside where it will be burned according to longstanding village traditions.

Chandra – who was known as Agni during the fighting – and his brother fought on opposite sides during the Civil War and the enmity between them is boiling just under the surface. Making matters worse is Chandra’s ex-wife Durga (Magrati) whose daughter Pooja (Malla) is not Chandra’s. She’s not willing to divulge the details of her paternity and Suraj is one of the possible candidates. Pooja herself is hoping that Chandra is her dad. Durga needs Chandra to sign paternity papers acknowledging that Pooja is his even though she is not; without that signature, she can’t get the schooling that Durga desperately wants her to get. Complicating matters is street urchin Badri (Pariyar) who rumor has it is Chandra’s son.

While carrying their father’s body down to the river, Chandra and Suraj snipe at each other until the anger boils over and the two come to blows. Suraj walks off in a huff and it is up to Chandra to find suitable pall bearers as the remaining men are too weak and feeble to carry the corpulent corpse’s body down the mountain to the river. Accompanied by Pooja and Badri, Chandra goes to neighboring villages to find someone willing to help him carry his father’s body the rest of the way to his final rest.

Rauniyar is an emerging talent from an unlikely cinematic base but when you consider the kind of background scenery he has to work with and the richness of the Nepalese culture, things fall into place. Rauniyar takes advantage of both of those elements here as he creates a movie that is beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking all at once.

The beauty is courtesy of cinematographer Mark Ellam but given the dramatic scenery of Nepal he certainly has a leg up but the movie isn’t all about pretty pictures. This is a movie about the clash of traditions and progress, as an ancient culture tries to find its way in a world that is changing rapidly. Some of the changes are frankly welcome; Durga is despised in the movie because she is not only a woman but one of a lower caste. She is not even allowed to touch the body of her ex-father-in-law who she has been caring for during his final illness. There are many strictures in the daily life of the village that are senseless and a bit misogynist.

But it’s exactly that thinking that has to come under some consideration. In an era of cell phones and social media who has the right to tell someone that their society has to change? While I agree that things that are discriminatory and keep people from realizing their dreams should change, the rhythms of life that have been there for centuries can be a tricky thing to adjust to modern rhythms.

But that’s not what the Nepalese Civil War was about, of course. It was a determination on how they wanted to be governed and while the Maoists won out, the Royalists continue to seethe and certainly the division between Chandra and Suraj illustrates that. One of the more fascinating studies is the village priest (played by Deepak Chhetri) who worries that the identity of the villagers will be lost as their traditions disappear. It is not an unjustified fear.

The movie is powerful and emotional and while you might think that the grief over the loss of the father would be central to the story, it really isn’t. Suraj exhibits more grief over the loss of his culture than any for his dad, although he sees his father as representing the best of the village culture. Chandra, who is a good man for the most part, does seem to regret having left his home although one also gets the sense he feels it necessary. He has been burned by previous relationships and although he is kind to both the children and his ex-wife, there are some walls up that likely have to do with how the relationship with his ex-wife and brother ended up.

This is a very human movie and while it isn’t always delightful there are some moments of quirky humor, such as the attempts to get the somewhat obese corpse out of a tiny upstairs window since it can’t pass through the front door of the house due to local tradition. There are some moments of great pathos. While I’m not a fan of the ending, it’s really the only thing in the movie that felt wrong to me and quite frankly I was pretty much alone in that thought at the screening I attended.

The performances here are top notch; Rai is one of Nepal’s most popular actors and he shows that popularity is completely justified. Magrati, who acted as the casting director for the film as well, also shows some chops as she takes the part of what could have been a shrewish ex-wife and gave it depth, dignity and sympathy.

This is the kind of movie I truly adore. Not only does it present a culture that I don’t know much about but it is presented in a way that makes me consider the pros and cons of village life in Nepal. It also makes me consider the similar battles between the traditional and the modern in my own culture. While you can make what allegories you will of this film, I think there’s enough here that is universal that will appeal to any moviegoer who has curiosity about other cultures. This is an early favorite for the best movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A powerfully emotional film depicting the clash of traditionalism and modernism. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get a glimpse at a culture that is rarely seen in the West. The performances from Rai and Magrati are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some audiences may find it slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both of the films Rauniyar has made to date take place over three days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Supergirl (2016)


A young woman who is strong as she is beautiful.

(2016) Documentary (FilmRise) Naomi Kutin, Ed Kutin, Neshama Kutin, Ari Kutin, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin. Directed by Jessie Auritt

Sometimes young people come along who are just extraordinary. They stand out as having passions, being goal-oriented, natural leaders. Naomi Kutin is just such a person.

When we meet her in this documentary she is just 10 years old but she already owns the power lifting world record in the 97 pound class. She routinely beats people twice her age. During the course of the film we watch in awe as she lifts three times their own body weight. To quote the title of a mostly-forgotten 70s television show, that’s incredible.

Her parents are extremely supportive. Her father Ed is a power lifter as well and often competes in the master class at the same meets his daughter does. He has been training her from the time she expressed interest in the sport. Her mother Neshama who converted to Judaism is also extremely supportive but is very careful to make sure Naomi gets to express other sides of her personality as well. In the meantime, she goes to all of the competitions her daughter lifts at and shouts encouragement from the sideline; “Go Supergirl,” the nickname that she and Naomi’s friends have bestowed upon her. There is also her younger brother Ari who is in the autistic spectrum but who clearly adores his big sister – a feeling that is amply returned by Naomi. She is protective of him and encourages him when he also takes up an interest in power lifting.

In fact Naomi and Supergirl are almost two different people. Naomi is a devout Orthodox Jew but also a modern little girl who titters over boys with her friends, likes bright colors and is aware of all the pop culture touchstones that girls her age are into. Supergirl is a dedicated and focused athlete who spends most of her time training and before lifting psychs herself up with primal screams and grunts that you wouldn’t expect coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old…or anyone else.

Auritt shot the documentary over the course of three years, from the triumphs of re-setting the power lifting record for her weight class to her struggles to stay in that class even as she is growing out of it. Much of Naomi’s self-identity, at least early on, is wrapped up in her world records. As it becomes clear that her body is growing into the next weight class, Naomi is dead set on keeping her weight at 97 pounds even though she is taller and not as centered as she was before her growth spurt.

Even as Naomi is wrestling with the inevitability of her weight increase, she is dealt a devastating blow as she begins to get terrible migraines. Soon it becomes clear that the cause of her migraines is her training and weightlifting; the doctors advise her to give it up but Naomi doesn’t want to. At first she fights through the pain but when she can no longer do that, she tries to find alternative solutions to maintain her health and still compete in the sport she loves at the level she is used to. As we watch, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to have what she wants.

What the movie makes clear is that Naomi is not the victim of stage parents who live vicariously through her achievements; nobody who is this dedicated and this focused does what Naomi does because they’re trying to please their parents. Her passion for power lifting comes straight from the heart. I’m sure there will be people who see this who will criticize the parenting going on, but personally I don’t think that’s valid. There are trolls all over the Internet as we see when Naomi reads some cruel comments that appear on her Facebook page. People really do suck sometimes.

It is also fascinating to watch how the Kutin family reconciles the weightlifting with their religious beliefs, although there are a few questions I have; their faith requires that there can be no electrical devices used during the Sabbath but we watch them on one occasion observing the Sabbath as a family; isn’t the camera an electronic device? Perhaps I’m ignorant of what is allowed on the Sabbath and what is not. Still, it is refreshing to see just how normal this family is other than the constant training. Watching Naomi and her mom go dress shopping for Naomi’s bat mizvah is about as fun as being there with them. In a sense, we are although of course we get no input into the dress Naomi chooses. Pity, that, because I have excellent taste in dresses. Moving along….

It is clear that the director has a good deal of affection for the subject of her documentary and who can blame her? Naomi is an extraordinary little girl. And for the record, she’s a beautiful girl who is going to grow to be a beautiful woman. She may power lift but she’s not sacrificing an iota of her femininity for it. I sense that her mother is seeing to that to a certain degree, but the fact is that Naomi just plain likes being a girl.

The story is pretty straightforward and told in a manner that is easily followed; Auritt doesn’t augment her film with animations or graphics for the most part other than the bare minimum. This is a traditional documentary style which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Auritt wisely chooses not to reinvent the wheel and just presents Naomi’s story mainly in Naomi’s own words. The talking heads mainly belong to her parents.

This isn’t the kind of documentary that is going to change your life for the most part. It is the story of a focused and special young woman and to be fair it will be inspirational to many. The takeaway is that those who are willing to put in the time, discipline and work to achieve their dreams can achieve them regardless of their age or size. That’s a good lesson, but not one that hasn’t been given in other films as well. Naomi Kutin is a special little girl and I think you’ll enjoy watching her story. You might even be inspired to go beyond your own limits in the thing your passionate about. And that, as it turns out, is what life is all about.

REASONS TO GO: Naomi is an impressive young person. The film gives us a glimpse into the daily life of an Orthodox Jewish family in a way that is very simple and direct.
REASONS TO STAY: The film isn’t as compelling as it might be. There are some incongruous moments.
FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that I wouldn’t feel concerned about allowing children or young people to see.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Auritt got the inspiration to do the film after reading a profile of Naomi online.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tickled

Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke


It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life.

(2016) Documentary (Wild Blue Yonder) James White, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Annetta White, Jon Langford, Gary P. Nunn, Josh Delk, Cornell Hurd, Bruce Robison, Dale Watson, Jesse Dayton, Tracey Dear, Terri White, Joe Nick Patoski, Ginny White, Jessie Matthieson, Will Wynn, Ray Benson, Mike Harmier, Denise Hosek, Alvin Crow, James Hand, Pauline Reese, Julie Johnson. Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas and Julie Mitchell

The Broken Spoke in South Austin sits smack on South Lamar Boulevard, the heart of the highly developed South Lamar Corridor. Brand new condos and multi-purpose buildings surround it. The building is incongruous, a ramshackle wooden bar with a dirt parking lot and a beautiful oak tree out front.

James White built the Spoke by hand back in 1964, assisted by as he puts it “Every drunk in South Austin.” When it rains, the roof leaks like a sieve, necessitating a corrugated tin roof being placed in between the shingles and the roof in order to keep the patrons dry. It may not look like much but it is a piece of history, a place that matters in a city where music matters almost as much as dancing, where a good country fried steak matters as much as a cold Lonestar beer and where the great and the not-so-great have played on its tiny stage with a ceiling so low that taller performers often have to slouch down to keep from banging their head on it.

On that stage have played country music royalty, from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to Ernest Tubbs to George Strait to a young clean-cut Willie Nelson. All who have played that stage have understood the fundamental truth of why they’re there; get the customers to dance. Dancing, in Texas, is at least as important as walking. The music, says one interviewee, is an excuse to get people to touch each other in public.

This documentary celebrates a lot of things; not just the Spoke itself although that is the primary focus but also Austin as one of the world’s music capitals and Texas which is not just a lifestyle but a life. As the world has changed, dance halls and honky tonks have all but disappeared. There is a difference between the two; the former is where you take your wife to dance, the latter is where you take someone else’s wife to dance. You’ve gotta love Texas.

The White family has made this their second home for half a century. James and his wife Annetta have tended to the business with care; James is the public face, attired in brilliant rhinestones and embroidered shirts. He greets the customers, introduces the bands (and sometimes sings with them) and shares stories with those willing to listen (which is just about everybody). He is the main focus of the documentary and they couldn’t find a better one; he’s charming, garrulous and full of great stories. He’s a born entertainer but not in a show biz sense; he just lifts up the spirits of anyone he’s around. While he takes care of the front of the house, his wife sees to the books but also the kitchen where those killer country fried steaks are made and tends bar. She spends a lot of time on-camera as well and she is just as full of piss and vinegar as any Texas woman is. The last shot of the movie – of James and Annetta dancing a Texas waltz – is beautiful and sums up how close this couple is to one another. It really does bring a tear to one’s eye and sums up what the movie is really all about..

Their daughters Ginny and Terri also work at the Spoke; Terri conducts dancing lessons before the bands go onstage, and Ginny embroiders the shirts her father wears as well as assists her mother with the running of the Spoke on the business side. She is the heir apparent and feels a keen responsibility to keep it going when her parents finally hang up their rhinestones, a day that she doesn’t particularly want to see come. Her voice breaks when she discusses it.

The history of the Spoke is discussed and there are plenty of archival photos that are absolutely amazing. There is also a kind of tour of dance halls in various rural Texas towns that mostly stand silent and empty. Throughout the movie you get a sense of Texas and what it’s like to be part of that great state. Those that are in charge of such things really ought to designate this film a Texas treasure; there aren’t many films that give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be a Texan as well as this one does.

I’m not a particular fan of country music as I’ve said in other reviews although I respect the relationship the musicians have with their fans. I will say that even if you can’t stand country music, you will likely still find this fascinating and enjoyable. It’s not just Honky Tonk music that this film is all about; it’s about a life and a tradition that is still beloved and revered. I’ve been to Austin on occasion and caught my share of live music there in some of their justifiably famous venues (like Antone’s and Emo’s) but I do know that the next time I’m in the Texas capital, I’m going to make a jaunt down South Lamar and park my ass at the bar at the Spoke and maybe order me a chicken fried steak. While I’m there, I’m going to be sure to shake the hand of James White and thank him for keeping the legend alive for so long – and I’ll be honored to do all of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Even those not into country music will find something to love about this movie. James White is a fascinating study. Nicely does the history without dwelling too much on it. The film is as Texas as it comes.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that isn’t suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the band is playing, standing on the dance floor is not allowed. You must be dancing or get off the dance floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Supergirl

Rat Film


Oh, rats!

(2016) Experimental Documentary (The Cinema Guild) No cast listed. Directed by Theo Anthony

You dirty rat. Rat bastard. Rat fink. The fact is, rats are not looked on fondly by our society. They are symbols of decay and rot, of filth and poverty. Rats are bringers of pestilence; it is said that they brought the Black Death to Europe but in fact, it was parasites living on the rats that carried the plague. Have rats been getting a bad rap?

Well, no. Rats do carry a variety of diseases and thrive in urban decay. Anthony’s debut feature documentary – or feature experimental documentary to be more accurate – is not so much a feature but a collection of shorts thrown together, sometimes incomprehensibly, with an overall theme of rats in Baltimore – and even that isn’t always true.

The movie is narrated by a female voice that sounds a bit like a distaff Stephen Hawking or more to the point, a primitive bored-sounding Siri. There is also an odd popping sound on the soundtrack throughout that I’m thinking was put there intentionally, if for no other reason than to further annoy the audience which Anthony probably thinks of as “challenging the audience.” Maybe he’s right.

There are a lot of vignettes that may or may not have anything to do with anything else; we follow a city-employed rat exterminator (none of those who appear in the film are named) who is both humane and philosophical; “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” he opines during a break from visiting homes in Baltimore’s poorest areas, “It’s a people problem.” That is apparently because the city of Baltimore more than a century ago set out to divide the neighborhoods by desirability and then focus services on the desirable area. Those in the redlined areas were essentially left to rot and rot they did.

There are sequences where a computer-generated Baltimore is created from a rat’s point of view. Where there are gaps in the program, star fields are shown. Here, the film seems to say, there be rats. Or perhaps more accurately, here there be software glitches. Take your pick.

The sequence showing doll house crime scene recreations from the 30s that are still used today for CSI training (and can be viewed by the public in a museum setting) was interesting. The CGI rat in a maze was not. There is no flow to the film; at times it just seems like Anthony is throwing things at the screen and seeing what sticks. I termed it cinematic masturbation when I saw it; after having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure I was right but I can understand why others might think so

The movie was deeply polarizing. Friends of mine have been singing its praises; others think it’s one of the worst films to ever play the Florida Film Festival. I’m not a fan; perhaps I prefer my documentaries to be more traditional and am not ready for this kind of challenge. I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer however if I didn’t point out that this really isn’t for everybody; some of the scenes (such as amateur rat catchers luring rats from a garbage-strewn alleyway with turkey slices smeared with peanut butter on a fishhook and then beating them to death with a baseball bat, and the final scene in which a snake devours a helpless baby rat) may make sensitive audience members uncomfortable, and the sensory assault of the computer graphics may also do the same.

I would never tell anyone not to go see a movie, even one that I absolutely loathed. I don’t absolutely loathe this one. The exterminator is an interesting character study and there are moments here and there that I found fascinating. While the linking of rats to urban blight and racism felt more obvious than perhaps was intended, the filmmaker shows a certain sympathy towards the rats. I only wish he’d had a little more for his audience.

REASONS TO GO: The city exterminator is an interesting guy and his story is the most compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has absolutely no flow; it’s a bunch of images thrown up on the screen without any sort of rhyme or reason. There is a popping sound on the soundtrack that was most annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity present as well as scenes that may make animal lovers a bit uncomfortable..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is composed by electronic music star Dan Deacon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sans Soleil
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Archer

Circus Kid


Where do kids who already live in the circus run away to?

(2016) Documentary (Points West) Larry Pisoni, Bill Irwin, Peggy Snider, Lorenzo Pisoni, Harvey Robb, Geoff Hoyle, Terry Lorant, Paul Binder, Hovey Burgess, Gypsy Snider, Jess Pisoni. Directed by Lorenzo Pisoni

Being in a circus, to a kid, would seem to be the most wonderful thing ever. Traveling from city to city, performing in front of adoring crowds and all those wonderful animals! Oh my, what kid of my generation would not want to join the circus?

Well, Lorenzo Pisoni did just that but not the way you’d think. His father Larry and his mother Peggy Snider were co-founders of the Pickle Family Circus in 1974 in San Francisco. The Pickles were at the forefront of the New American Circus movement, one which eschewed animal acts and while they did use traditional circus performers like clowns, jugglers, high wire acts, tumblers and did I mention clowns? Larry was the head clown and his act made the world take notice.

As a 2-year-old boy Lorenzo wandered out onto the center of the ring and performed his own clown act. Soon he was partnering with his dad who became not just his parent but his coach, mentor and of course onstage partner. Although Lorenzo got his share of home schooling, he had little contact with other kids his age. He was too busy performing and practicing when he wasn’t performing. It speaks volumes that Lorenzo signed a contract as a performer as a seven-year-old, locking him into the life of the circus.

His father also developed a drinking problem, one that got him pushed out of the circus he founded. That forced a change in the life Lorenzo had already known. While Peggy was now staying in San Francisco looking after the financial affairs of the circus, Lorenzo as an 11-year-old boy was traveling with the show without either one of his parents now that his father was out of the picture, although he did have a legal guardian with him.

Years later, Lorenzo would create a one-man show detailing his childhood in an off-Broadway production called Humor Abuse – snippets of it are shown paralleling events being discussed in the film which Lorenzo directs. At first it’s essentially a story of the Pickle Family Circus but eventually it becomes the story of a boy’s relationship with his dad, how it became toxic and how the two reconciled. The latter part is the more interesting element of the two, although the circus history and backstage peeks are also fascinating in their own right.

Bill Irwin was probably the most famous graduate of the Pickle Family Circus, with Geoff Hoyle a close second. Both appear here to talk about their time as part of the Pickles and Irwin gets fairly emotional about it. For those wondering, the group has changed quite a bit over the years – they have incorporated Chinese acrobatics into the show and still do weekend shows in the San Francisco Bay Area three months a year.

Being a West Coast boy, I’ve seen the Pickle Family Circus on more than one occasion in their heyday. Like Cirque du Soleil which was inspired by their example, they have only a single ring rather than three. The clowns which I remember vividly were perhaps the most important element of the circus; the feats of agility were certainly amazing but I remember the clowns. It was a more innocent age.

The movie gives some insight not only into the dynamic between Larry and Lorenzo but also into the Circus itself, but it feels like almost two movies. Lorenzo, now a family man himself, doesn’t really bring the two aspects of his film together as smoothly as it might have been. Still, if you ever dreamed of running away to the Circus, this might be the film for you although I have to admit that running away to the Circus generally didn’t mean having my parents along when I was daydreaming about it as a young boy.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at the lives of traveling performers and of the history of the Pickle Family Circus.
REASONS TO STAY: The two elements of the movie – the history of the Pickles and the father and son dynamic between Lorenzo and Larry don’t mesh as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing you wouldn’t want your kids to see – especially if they’re threatening to run away with the circus.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lorenzo’s sister Gypsy created all the circus sequences in the recent Tony-award winning revival of Pippin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Fang
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Rat Film

Girl Flu


Girl, you’ll be a woman soon.

(2017) Dramedy (Free Chicken) Katee Sackhoff, Jeremy Sisto, Jade Pettyjohn, Heather Matarazzo, Judy Reyes, Diego Joseph, Isabella Acres, Max Baroudi, Robert Farrior, Fallon Heaslip, Grace Olsen, Jonah Beres, Arianna Ortiz, Marem Hassler, Golden Bachelder, Amanda Troop, Jovan Armand, Kyle Kittredge, Jackson Royce Laurence, Kelly Straub Hull, Madison Dae Clarion. Directed by Dorie Barton

 

Let’s face it; girls have it much rougher than boys. They generally are taken less seriously, are paid less money for doing similar work, are expected to take care of the house and the kids even when they feel like crap and let’s not even start about menstruation. Or, if you’re director Dorie Barton, let’s do just that.

Robyn (Pettyjohn) who has been called “Baby Bird” by her mother since she was a baby, a nickname that irks her (she grudgingly settles for “Bird” which people seem dead set on referring to her as), is not a happy 12-year-old  Her mother Jenny (Sackhoff) moved her from the (San Fernando) Valley where she was happy into Echo Park (an L.A. neighborhood) where she is not. She is bullied by Rachel (Acres) who isn’t afraid to get physical. And to top it off, at her Middle School Graduation party, she gets her first period – wearing her grandma’s white pants, no less. There is probably nothing on earth that could have mortified her more.

That is, until her mother tries to connect with her daughter. Jenny is actually far less mature than Bird; she basically lives to get high and have sex with her musician boyfriend Arlo (Sisto) while refusing to commit to him even though he’s anxious to take their relationship to the next level. Jenny also has issues with her own mother who is at the moment at an Ashram in India. Jenny wants to be there for her daughter and help her through all the lovely things that goes with one’s first period; the cramps, the mood swings, the tears, the rage – and doesn’t understand when Bird gets livid with her. Jenny really doesn’t do the mothering thing very well.

Barton is a first-time feature film director and I give her props for taking on a subject matter that makes members of both sexes uncomfortable. Rough, tough, macho men can turn into squeamish little children when discussing their wife/girlfriend’s menstrual issues, while I can’t imagine women who have to endure the monthly visit of Auntie Flo (as an ex-girlfriend used to refer to it as) discussing it with much enthusiasm beyond saying “Oh GAWD it sucks!” Still, she brings the subject out in an often humorous and always sensitive way.

The movie is nicely shot, giving the overall effect of a sun-drenched L.A. summer (although some of it takes place on rainy days). There is definitely a feminine point of view here and the fact that those types of films are becoming more and more prevalent is encouraging. We certainly need more women who direct in the film industry and the indie ranks are beginning to develop a nice talent base among the fairer sex. That can only translate to more women directing big Hollywood productions over the next few years. One of the best points of this movie is that it allows men like myself to experience a bit what adolescent girls go through. That kind of thing can lead to more understanding, more empathy and maybe down the line the death of rape culture. One can only dream.

I do have a few issues with the film however and the main one is Precocious Child Syndrome; that’s the one where the child is adultier than the adults. I’ve met a lot of children in my time and some of them have been very intelligent, very precocious and very responsible; invariably kids who are that way have adults as role models to guide them in that direction. Generally you don’t see a single mom who is a mess raising a kid who is as amazing as Bird. I’m not saying there aren’t kids who are like Bird out there; they just generally don’t have to rescue their parents. There’s also the misstep of Arlo pretending to be Bird’s boyfriend on a couple of occasions; that was just a little bit too creepy and I can’t imagine Jeremy Sisto felt good about the pedophile vibe that was in the background there.

Sackhoff shows herself to be a fine comic actress and here she brings out her inner Goldie Hawn. Jenny is a bit of a ditz and a bit self-centered and maybe she is the poster child for unfit mothers (in a fit of rage she leaves her child at a fire station; Jade promptly calls a cab to drive her to Reseda, paying with a wad of cash she took from her mom) but Sackhoff makes Jenny vulnerable and scared which gives the audience something to sympathize with.

Pettyjohn is a capable actress; I would have liked to have seen her character be more of a 12-year-old and less of a prodigy. She handles the emotional histrionics of a young girl encountering her hormones for the very first time and the wicked mood swings that brings with it. Parents of young girls will exchange looks of recognition at some of the things Bird puts Jenny through; parents who don’t have girls in their brood will look heavenward with gratitude that they only had boys.

I think this had the potential of being a really important movie but I just can’t get past the pandering to young adult girls that is done here. I think it sets unrealistic images of how moms and daughters actually get along and may give kids the idea that their parents are unstable idiots and that they are wiser and more responsible than they are. Believe it or not, kids do take those sorts of messages to heart.

REASONS TO GO: The film tackles head-on some taboo women’s issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film suffers from precocious child syndrome. The subject matter may make some feel a bit awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use and smoking, a fair amount of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 20th Century Women
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Holly Kane Experiment