Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride


People are people; what’s on the outside is just gift wrapping.

(2017) Documentary (XLRator/Seventh  Art) Gloria Stein, Butch Rosichan, Dan Friedman, Steven Shulman, Susan Schaffel, Natalie Chasen, Larry Sands, Dawn Heber, RB Perlman, Ricki Perlman, Arlene Shaffer. Directed by Robyn Symon

 

Everyone has their own journey in life to take. Sometimes it seems to follow a set path but some journeys take us in unexpected ways to unexpected places. All we can really do is enjoy the ride; and it is a helluva ride.

She started out life as Butch Rosichan. A short, stocky man who made a living as an auto wrecker in Broward County (South Florida), he was a bulldog of a man who would get in your face at any perceived slight. He was not above getting into fistfights if he was provoked Homophobic and crude, he was something of a ladies’ man who had two sons from a failed marriage but that was nothing like his second marriage.

His divorce from that marriage turned into a bitter, knock-down drag-out thing. His ex and her pit bull of a lawyer hounded Butch into losing everything and then put him in jail for non-payment of alimony. When he finished serving his 120 days in the hoosegow, he found his business was finished and shortly thereafter another warrant for non-payment of alimony was issued. Not wanting to return to jail, he went into hiding instead – as a woman. Thus Gloria Stein was born.

As it turned out, she liked being a woman and decided that it wasn’t just a disguise. In 2003 she underwent surgery to change his gender. As Gloria, she met a man, Dan Friedman who as it turned out had been born a woman; Dan helped Gloria mellow out and smoothed out some of her rougher edges. She began reaching out to family members that she had alienated as Butch and began reconciling with them, although her two sons as of the filming of this documentary had yet to accept her or even return her calls. This is clearly very painful for her.

Butch became Gloria at the fairly advanced age of 67 (she’s pushing 80 now) and became the subject of a documentary by then-PBS documentary director Symon. The project, which was initially intended just to cover her transition from male to female became a decade-long endeavor.

Gloria is an engaging sort, an interesting subject matter who still refuses to take crap from anyone, although she’s less in-your-face about it these days. She’s an outspoken advocate for transgenders who does speaking engagements throughout the country. Along the way she has been a sex worker – a professional dominatrix – and oh yes, continues to have an interest in classic cars.

There are a lot of empty spaces in the film however and in many ways Gloria isn’t very forthcoming. When asked why she decided to undergo the sex change, she blurts out ‘I don’t know” and that feels a bit disingenuous. I suspect she knows but either can’t or won’t articulate it. Some of the more negative aspects of her life are glossed over somewhat; why she was unable to pay her alimony is never discussed although it is hinted at.

Apparently as Butch she was also involved in a stolen car ring but we don’t hear a lot about that other than a couple of moments discussing how she and her first wife used to take a cab to a restaurant then steal cars from the valet lot. Beyond that, we learn nothing about how she got involved with stealing cars and why. We’re also told that as Butch she was a homophobe but we get nothing else; I for one would love to have heard her feelings on her homophobia now that she has become a transgender. Considering that the documentary is only 76 minutes long, it seems incomprehensible that Symon had ten years to film and could only come up with 76 minutes of footage for her final product.

Symon utilizes home movie footage, re-enactments of certain events but primarily interviews with friends and family of Gloria, all of whom knew her as Butch. I’m wondering if the film couldn’t have used at least a couple of people who only knew Gloria and not Butch. The movie overall has a wry sense of humor about it that I liked very much.

It’s a fascinating documentary but maddeningly incomplete. I suppose it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than wanting less, but it’s still not a good feeling to leave a documentary wanting to know more about the subject and knowing that there was plenty of room to give us more. This feels more like a work in progress than a completed film, but at least it’s a quality work in progress.

REASONS TO GO: Stein is an engaging subject. The movie has a wry tone that is delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could use much more fleshing out. Gloria needed to be a lot more forthcoming about her past.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Symon during her time at PBS won two Emmys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Woman on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blood Stripe

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In Darkness


It's a fiddler in the sewers.

It’s a fiddler in the sewers.

(2011) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Wiekiewicz, Benno Furmann, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Agnieszka Grochowska, Marcin Bosak, Julia Kijowska, Jerzy Walczak, Oliwer Stanczak, Milla Bankowicz, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Kinga Preis, Olek Mincer, Piotr Glowacki, Maria Semotiuk, Michal Zurawski, Zofia Pieczynska, Etl Szyc, Weronika Rosati. Directed by Agnieszka Holland

There are those who society tends to write off as incorrigible. These are the dregs, those who cannot be redeemed. They were always destined to be criminal and so they will always remain.

In Nazi occupied Poland, a group of Jews have fled the ghetto of Lvov and made their way into the sewers. Sewer inspector Leopold Socha (Wiekiewicz) has discovered them in there. Socha and his compatriot Szczepek Wróblewski (Skonieczny) have supplemented their incomes with petty crimes and they see the Nazis as no particular change from the situation they’ve been in all their lives. However rather than turn the Jews in, Leopold seizes the opportunity to extort the Jews from their money in exchange for protecting and supplying them.

As time goes by the heat grows more intense to turn in wayward Jews and the penalties more severe for sheltering them. The Jews’ money begins to dwindle and the expense of buying food for the small group has become exorbitant. They wonder how long their opportunistic savior will continue to keep them safe.

In addition the toll of living underground amidst the smell and the grime is taking their toll on the refugees who have begun to squabble among themselves. Nazi patrols are actively scouring the sewers but the deft Socha, the only man in Lvov who knows the sewers well, steers them away most of the time. Still, Socha is at heart a criminal – who knows how long it will remain true.

This is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall which chronicles the real-life Jews who fled to the sewers and the real-life Leopold Socha. Holland, one of Poland’s most acclaimed directors, manages to capture the dim lighting and claustrophobia that the refugees surely must have experienced.

One of the main misconceptions about this movie is that it’s about the Holocaust. I beg to disagree. While the Holocaust is the setting, this isn’t the story of the refugees but it is Socha’s story. It is his change of heart that is the crux of the story, his movement from petty criminal to heroic protector which seems nearly impossible on the surface.

Holland wisely doesn’t turn the Jews in the tale into stoic survivors who endure each atrocity and degradation with clear eyes and full heart. They aren’t always heroic nor are they always nice. They are in a terrible situation with the prospect of being caught and killed hanging over their heads at every moment. We cannot imagine that kind of pressure; it seems pretty understandable to me that they would not always deal with it well.

Most of the actors are largely unknown over here (although Furmann was in the Wachowski’s Speed Racer) and do pretty solid jobs. Sometimes reading subtitles on the screen can distract from really enjoying an actor’s performance and I think that’s definitely the case here. It’s hard to catch subtleties when you’re just trying to read the translation.

Still, this was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards and justifiably so, although it didn’t win (it was heavily favored to do so). While comparison to Schindler’s List are pretty easy to make, this isn’t the same thing. The Spielberg film had a larger canvas and a much broader brush. Here, we are kept mainly underground in tight spaces that are dimly lit. If Schindler’s List is a Michelangelo, In Darkness is a Goya – but they are both fine art.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some bad language, sexuality and nudity as well as some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although filmed in Poland with a mostly Polish crew and in Polish, the writer of the film was Canadian and some of the financial backing came from Canadian sources. When it and Monsieur Lazhar were both nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, it marked the first time that two Canadian films were nominated for the award in the same year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Holland interviews one of the actual survivors of the Lvov sewers. There is also an interview with Holland in English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Take Shelter

The Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head

Hannibal


Hannibal

Ray Liotta flips his lid for Hannibal!

(2001) Thriller (MGM) Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek, Hazelle Goodman, David Andrews, Francis Guinan, James Opher, Enrico Lo Verso. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

The main problem with Hannibal, the multi-bazillion dollar grossing thriller, is Silence of the Lambs. Inevitably, it is going to be compared to that modern classic (after all, it is a sequel) and quite frankly, it doesn’t hold up. But y’know, director Ridley Scott really isn’t trying to do that. To his credit, Hannibal is a completely different type of movie, not so much suspenseful as visceral; it is more horror than it is heartstopping.

Some years have passed since the events of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling (a terribly miscast Moore) has managed to alienate most of her superiors and peers at the FBI, and after a botched arrest which leaves her partner dead and Starling under intense media scrutiny, has begun to have doubts about her career.

Meanwhile, escaped madman Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) has settled into a quiet life in Florence, Italy, as an academic. Careful not to attract too much attention to himself (and circumspectly wearing gloves and wiping wineglasses to protect from his fingerprints being discovered), he has found a niche that appeals to his love of antiquity, fine dining and academia. The problem is, Hannibal the Cannibal has become bored.

The only living survivor of a Lecter attack, multi-billionaire Mason Verger (Oldman, wonderful under a queasiness-inducing makeup job), has been plotting his revenge since Lecter’s escape, but has been unable to locate the good doctor. Starling’s disgrace becomes Verger’s chance to smoke the good doctor out of hiding, and he uses a Justice Department bureaucrat (Liotta) to do just that.

In the meantime, the academic has been spotted by an Italian policeman (Giannini), who is trying to support a high-maintenance, beautiful wife on a policeman’s salary. The reward for bringing in Lecter proves to be too tempting for the lawman, and so the game is afoot.

At the risk of giving too much away, things go south and Lecter comes home, mainly to observe Starling. He has a rather unique bond with her, and although his motivations are never made as clear as they are in the book, there seems to be a hint of romance in the doctor’s motivation.

Quite frankly, there is a lot of gore here, much more than either of the first two Lecter movies (Michael Mann’s Manhunter being the first). Although there is some nifty viscera (particularly the scene where a man eats a meal you won’t find in the average fast food joint … well, then again, you never know), that alone won’t carry a movie.

What does is story and performance. The acting is certainly solid. Hopkins chews the scenery like his character chews other characters but still makes Lecter one of the most interesting screen villains ever … in fact, “villain” is not quite the right term for Lecter. Most of the movie, you spend rooting for him to get away from those who wish to take away his freedom, but you are reminded at every turn just how dangerous and homicidal he is.

Giannini is as soulful an actor as there is today; here is a man not hemmed in by desperation, but by resignation. His pain is quiet and restrained, mostly communicated through his eyes and a sad smile.

Oldman’s scarred, twisted Mason Verger is the true baddie of the movie, and I am not aware of very many actors today who do bad guys as well as Gary Oldman. Verger revels in his wickedness, wearing his scars like a badge of honor. He can’t let the pain and suffering go – but in a sick way, he needs them to be who he is.

Director Ridley Scott must have been flashing back to his Blade Runner days when filming this; the movie is filled with rain, umbrellas and crowds (although the neon is missing). The cityscape of Florence is in its own way a major part of the movie’s allure; the beautiful, ancient, civilized Florence has an underbelly that can’t be trifled with.

There are certain unexpected moments of lightness – for example, prominently featured in Lecter’s kitchen is a vegetarian cookbook. However, for the most part, there is a heavy sense of impending destiny that drags the movie down. The showdowns — between Lecter and Verger, as well as the one between Lecter and Starling — are both too predictable.

Moore, while a fine actress, doesn’t really capture the toughness of Starling. She doesn’t really have the physicality needed for the part (although, to be fair, neither did then-recent mother Jodie Foster at the time this was filmed). Moore never for a moment convinces me that she is dangerous, or even well-trained. In all of the physical confrontations she is involved with, she gets bested rather easily.

While the ending of the movie differs significantly from the more controversial ending of the book, I think it works better. I never really understood why novelist Thomas Harris had Starling do what she did at the book’s conclusion; the ending screenwriter David Mamet came up with here seemed more consistent to her character. Nevertheless, I’m not a huge fan of Mamet’s writing; he is a bit too cerebral and slow for my tastes. Here, the pace drags and the plot is obfuscated with unnecessary little “See how smart I am”-type intellectualisms that I found a tad pretentious. Did we really need Lecter reading sonnets by Dante aloud?

Hannibal made a ton of money, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. I recommend it mainly for the performances of Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini and I think the movie works despite the godawful script, elephantine pacing and inept plotting. Let’s face it. Most of us are going to see a movie like this regardless of the reviews. Let’s just say this is a good movie that didn’t meet the impossible expectations set for it.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Hannibal Lecter, people. Brilliant performances by Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini. Scott pulls off a sequel to a classic that stands on its own.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moore is terribly miscast. The script is full of intellectual showing off, almost talks down to its audience. Moves slowly and some of the plot points are ludicrous.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence, some of it gruesome at times. There is also a little bit of nudity and some foul language peppered about here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes at Verger’s mansion were filmed at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. Winnipeggers can take pride that the killer hogs in the hog massacre scene were purchased from a Manitoba farm just outside of Winnipeg.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes footage from the press conference announcing the making of the movie. Strangely, the Blu-Ray edition (released in 2009 as part of a Hannibal Lecter collection that includes Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $351.7M on an $87M production budget; the movie was a big hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in China