Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story


John Paul DeJoria did well so he could do good.

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) John Paul DeJoria, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Trejo, Arianna Huffington, Cheech Marin, Robert Kennedy, Ron White, John Capra, Michelle Phillips, Pierce Brosnan, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Lou Jacobellis, Michaeline DeJoria, Goose, Pam Peplow, Angus Mitchell, Paul Watson, Alexis DeJoria, Julia Povost, Joyce Campbell, Mara Goudrine, Ilana Edelstein. Directed by Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell

 

“Success that is not shared is failure” according to billionaire John Paul DeJoria. It’s an attitude that is refreshing in an era where the top 1% of our wealthiest citizens are viewed with distrust if not outright hostility and for good reason. Our wealthy have acted in a manner befitting the “Let them eat cake” crowd in an orgy of conspicuous consumption and overall lack of care for the planet and the people on it. The arrogance and utter blind disregard that they have shown to everyone and everything else that doesn’t immediately affect their bank accounts positively is absolutely deplorable.

DeJoria is different. He came from a background that these days isn’t uncommon, but back in the 40s and 50s was certainly not the norm. His father left when John Paul, or JP as most of his friends call him, was two years old. Raised by a single mom – an immigrant from Greece – in East Los Angeles, he and his brother were poor but never really knew that they were. His mother instilled in them a respect for others and a desire to help those who were worse off than themselves, making JP and his brother put a dime in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas even though they were living hand to mouth but even then she felt the urge to do good. DeJoria justifiably has been close to his mom ever since.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy where he learned the value of hard work and teamwork, he set out to make something of himself. He discovered an affinity for sales and was successful selling encyclopedias door to door as well as a short but successful career selling life insurance. After being introduced to the hair care industry working for Redken (a company my own father worked for decades earlier) he met hairstylist Paul Mitchell in 1971 and together they formed John Paul Mitchell Systems, a hair care line sold exclusively through salons. After a rocky and precarious start, the partners were rewarded when the 80s, perhaps the most hair-conscious era in history, helped their sales explode..

After Mitchell’s death in 1986 from pancreatic cancer, DeJoria became the sole owner of the company and continued to run it in the manner he always had; with an eye towards the environment and with respect and care for the people who worked for him. He had come a long way from living out of his car on two separate occasions (including once while he was getting John Paul Mitchell Systems up and running), from being in a biker gang (after graduating high school) and from two failed marriages.

He would use his millions to start several ventures, including the House of Blues and Absolut Vodka (not touched upon in the film) and more importantly, Patron Tequila which is covered extensively in the movie. He married a third time and found love; he has been a doting father to his blended family with children from both his previous marriages and from his new one, as well as her children from before her marriage to John Paul. One of his children is Alexis DeJoria, a funny car driver who owns the world record.

Ever since the Salvation Army incident in his youth, JP has had almost an obsession with giving back. He supports something like 250 different charities not only with financial contributions but also with his rather precious time. He is shown here spending time with Chrysalis, a Los Angeles-based charity that gets homeless people aid in getting back into the workforce, and Sea Shepard, dedicated to stopping illegal poaching of marine life (such as blue whales and bluefin tuna, both nearly extinct). Not shown in the film is his devotion to Food4Africa which has provided something like 400,000 meals to starving children in Africa since their inception. Not touched upon in the film was his contribution to Ted Cruz’ campaign which seems at odds with his world view of protecting the planet. I’d love to know why he would donate to someone who has voted consistently against climate change and environmental protection but that’s just me.

The husband/wife team of Joshua and Rebecca Tickell has some pretty serious films to their credit and to their credit they do portray their subject as distinctly non-saintly although there is a steady stream of praise coming from such celebrities as Cheech Marin, Ariana Huffington, Pierce Brosnan, Ron White, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Danny Trejo and Michelle Phillips – the latter two friends since childhood.

I get the sense that DeJoria is much too humble to want to be the subject of a fawn-a-thon. What my guess is that he did this picture for was to inspire those who are down and out to go out and chase their dream anyway. He certainly did and through hard work and determination became wealthy beyond his wildest imagining. Not everyone is going to achieve that kind of success but certainly people willing to do their best are likely to at least improve their situation in life.

DeJoria is an inspiring person whose commitment to the environment, to the betterment of humanity and to the inspiration of others is worthy of emulation. I wish that more of the 1% would adopt his attitude and some have to be fair – I see you, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – although not enough to rehabilitate the reputation of the rich and shameless.

DeJoria is also an engaging, charismatic individual and that makes the film a lot easier to enjoy. Not only are you rooting for him throughout the film but you want to hang out with him – and one gets the sense that he would love for you to hang out with him, too. People like DeJoria are rare commodities these days and if anyone deserves a documentary of their own, it’s them. I’m glad that DeJoria got his.

REASONS TO GO: The subject is quite inspiring. DeJoria himself is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The film occasionally is too fawning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of DeJoria’s children work for him at Paul Mitchell Systems.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Becoming Warren Buffett
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown

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A Stray


A day in the park with your dog,

(2016) Drama (Self-Released) Barkhad Abdirahman, Fathia Absie, Faysal Ahmed, Ayla, Christina Baldwin, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour, George McCauley, Ben Phelps, Andrew Stecker, Rhiana Yazzle. Directed by Musa Syeed

With our President and his followers at the forefront of an anti-immigration movement that has swept through the West, it is a difficult time to be an immigrant, particularly for those who are Muslims and especially from those regions that are hotbeds of terrorist activity. We rarely get the point of view from the immigrant side of things, but the obstacles they face in this country were already hard to begin with.

Adan (Abdirahman) is a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis with his mom and sister, but he is having a particularly hard time with it. Although when employed he is a hard worker, he also has a temper and a willingness to bend rules, turning him to a life of petty crime. When his mother discovers that he has pawned some of her jewelry, she throws him out onto the street.

A kindly Imam gives him shelter and a menial job, and arranges for the restaurant next door to hire him. The owner befriends Adan and gives him the responsibility of delivering food. On his way to his first delivery, he accidentally hits a dog crossing the street. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking the dog to the vet, where Adan is relieved to discover the dog is uninjured.

Adan doesn’t particularly like dogs; his religion portrays them as disloyal and filthy. He is eager to give the dog away but nobody seems to want the dog. In the meantime Adan scrounges for food and finds places to sleep wherever he can. He gets money working as an FBI informant mainly translating phone calls that the FBI agent (Baldwin) in charge of him thinks might be national security threats but to Adan’s amusement is mainly about much more mundane things.

As time goes by Adan’s attitude towards the dog begins to change. He sees in him a kindred spirit, and even though he refuses to give the mutt a name, he finds himself identifying with a fellow unwanted creature who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

I love the duality of the title; on the surface it might seem to refer to the dog but in fact it is the man who is the title subject. Adan is the stray here; it is the dog that gives him a sense of worth. It also must be said that the dog is damn adorable.  W.C. Fields famously advised that you should never work with animals or children and he has a point; none of the mainly non-professional cast stands a chance with the dog.

Abdirahman had a supporting part as one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips but I suspect he’s in over his head here. His delivery is wooden and although there are times when he uses body language to get his points across (and there he’s very successful), he really has issues delivering dialogue with any sort of emotion. It might be he still doesn’t feel confident in his English, which is heavily accented and some of the fellow viewers at the screening I attended complained that he was difficult to understand in places.

Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Somalis outside of Somalia and we get an insider’s look at their daily lives. Most of the immigrants are, like Adan himself, hard-working when given the chance and want nothing more than to live their lives in peace the way they were unable to in war-torn Somalia. They worship in their mosques, educate their children and hope for a better life for them down the road. The one issue I have is that the pacing of the film is extremely slow and even at a scant 80 minutes feels like it would have done better as a 40 minute short.

The anti-immigration movement that was referred to at the beginning of this review plays only on the fringes of the film as snippets of television broadcasts. We don’t see any active bullying of the Somalis by American thugs and I get the sense that even in today’s environment that kind of thing is rare. It certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a part of the life of Adan and his circle of…well, not really friends so much as acquaintances. Still, I found myself thinking about violence against immigrants throughout the film in the back of my mind.

Given what has happened in American politics since this was filmed it is an incredibly timely arrival. This is a movie that I would like to give a much more enthusiastic recommendation to but the flaws are deep enough I can only give it a mild recommendation. This is a movie that embodies a filmmaker with a story that is absolutely worth telling but who is unfortunately still learning how to streamline his storytelling at this moment.

REASONS TO GO: A personalized look at the Muslim refugee issue. The dog is absolutely adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Abdirahman is less than scintillating in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some language, some violence and adult themes.
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 5/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lowriders

Dave Made a Maze


The Tiki God of garbage gazes over his domain.

(2016) Fantasy Comedy (Foton) Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Stephanie Allynne, Adam Busch, Scott Krinsky, James Urbaniak, John Hennigan, Frank Caeti, Scott Narver, Kirsten Vangsness, Drew Knigga, Kamilla Alnes, Rick Overton, Timothy Nordwind, Etienne Eckert, Brittney Deutsch, Jessica Graves. Directed by Bill Watterson

The imagination can be a powerful thing. It can create entire worlds…entire realities. It can change one’s life in a heartbeat. Of course, it comes in real handy when making movies as well.

Dave (Thune) is one of those guys who just pisses away his life. He has a thousand ideas for things but he never follows them through to the end. As a result, as he hits 30 and wonders where his life is taking him, he feels a failure even though he has a beautiful girlfriend named Anna (Kumbhani) and a bunch of friends who think he’s cool.

One weekend, Anna is out of town on a business trip and Dave is bored out of his skull. He decides to construct a maze out of cardboard in the living room – an elaborate one. Like many projects that become obsessions, it takes on a life of its own.

When Anna arrives home, she discovers the maze in her living room and can find neither hide nor hair of Dave. Eventually she hears his voice calling from inside the cardboard creation. It turns out that he’s gotten lost in the maze. That sounds absolutely unbelievable but Dave insists that it is much bigger on the inside. Anna means to knock it down so he can get out but he begs her not to – he wants to finish something for once in his life.

He doesn’t want her to go in and get her either – a rescue mission is too dangerous as there are booby traps and trip wires. Nonetheless, Anna calls Dave’s best friend Gordon (Busch) and he calls a few other friends (despite being told explicitly not to) and soon there’s a party in Dave’s living room which includes power couple Greg (Nordwind) and Brynn (Allynne), ubernerd Jane (Vangsness), a random homeless guy (Overton), Harry (Urbaniak), a documentary film maker with his boom operator (Caeti) and camera operator (Narver) and a couple of Flemish tourists (Knigga and Alnes) and Leonard (Krinsky) who is just…Leonard.

They all go in after him and find a world they could never imagined; living origami, a Tiki God that spurts out living ribbon, rooms that evolve on their own and yes, a Minotaur (Hennigan) for good measure. Not everyone is going to make it out alive, but then again, not all of them were really living anyway.

I gotta hand it to first-time filmmaker Watterson – he has oodles of imagination. The production design here may be low-budget but it is absolutely captivating. The world of the maze isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen…well, most of it is anyway. The crew used 30,000 square feet of cardboard to construct the maze and…well, every penny is on the screen as some critics like to say.

Watterson also uses perspective as an additional effect to keep the viewer off balance, and he wisely refrains from using it overmuch. One of the things that encourage me about this new director is that he knows how to keep from being repetitive while remaining creative. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Thune has plenty of charisma and likability in the lead role and I can see him building on this and getting some plum roles in the near future. Certainly performances like this will make him eligible for romantic comedy leads as well as straight comedies. Thune has a pretty rosy future.

There are a few faces here from TV, like Vangsness from Criminal Minds, Allynne from One Mississippi and Krinsky from Chuck but most of the others with the exception of Thune are largely not well known and Thune is known mostly for being a stand-up comic with appearances on stand-up shows and @Midnight.

Be warned though that in watching this you’re likely to suffer hipster overload. The movie is lousy with them and those who find them insufferable may find themselves heading for the exit. The soundtrack is full of indie rock and the male characters with beards. You may want to dose yourself with anti-hipster medicine before coming to see this.

That and an ending that doesn’t live up to the rest of the movie aside, this is a very strong entry in the ranks of indie films this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get some distribution from one of the big indies. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those movies that is going to show up in a lot of best of the year lists this year.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the most amazing production design you’ll see in a film this year. Thune is an engaging and earnest lead. Watterson has a good eye for perspective. One of the most imaginative films at this year’s Florida Film Festival.
REASONS TO STAY: Hipster overload. The ending is a tad weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director is not related to the cartoonist of the same name who created Calvin & Hobbes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cool World
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: For Ahkeem

God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?

Are We Not Cats


Someone needs a little hair tonic.

(2016) Romance (Tri-Coast Worldwide) Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere, Dean Holtermann, Charles Gould, Adeline Thery, Alice Frank, Tuffy Questell, Theodore Bouloukos, Joe Buldo, Ernst Zorin, Marika Dacluk, Bill Weeden, Alex Goldberg, Willy Muse, Carson Grant, Kelsea Dakota. Directed by Xander Robin

Some movies are easily described while others beggar description. This is one of the latter even though I’m about to give it a try.

Eli (Nicholson) seems to have a stable if unsatisfying life; he has a girlfriend, a steady job and an apartment in New York City – it’s a decent enough life. In a matter of hours though he loses all three and on top of that his parents decide to vacate New York for the heat of Arizona. “Visit us!” his mom exclaims once Eli has loaded all their furniture in the moving truck. That doesn’t seem likely given his situation – he’s essentially homeless and is sleeping in the delivery van that is his only source of income.

He gets a job delivering an engine to a small upstate town that will at least keep him afloat for a few months where he meets Kyle (Godere) who is having the engine put in his car but unfortunately Eli arrives with it too late for Kyle to drive out of the repair shop that day so Eli gives Kyle a ride home. In turn, Kyle takes Eli to an underground party in an abandoned warehouse space where he meets Kyle’s girlfriend Anya (Lopez) who seems to be the hippest person in all of New York State and that includes the five boroughs. Eli is quite smitten with her but Kyle gets mad at the attention Eli is giving Anya and he hits her. Anya seems to find that amusing but I guarantee most audience members won’t.

In order to stay nearby, Eli takes a job where Kyle works much to the dismay of both Kyle and Anya. When Kyle has to leave on some sort of trip, Eli keeps Anya company while he’s away. At first she is firm about keeping things on a friendship level; the two have a lot in common and seem comfortable with each other but both of them are hiding something; Eli is suffering from trichotillomania (a compulsion for pulling out one’s own hair) while Anya has trichophagia (a compulsion to eat human hair). We discover that Anya has been wearing a wig the whole time and is nearly bald from the yanking out of her own hair and consuming it. The two eventually have sex and while Eli sleeps Anya consumes his luxuriant head of hair, leaving him looking like a radiation victim as she does.

One of the consequences of trichophagia is that it can create massive hair balls in the intestines, effectively blocking the normal digestive process and this is what happens to Anya. Being that she lives in the middle of nowhere in a loft in which she has created a machine that creates light shows and kinetic movement by the sounds of a record played on an old-fashioned turntable, no help can arrive for hours so a distraught Eli realizes he has but one option – to perform surgery on her himself.

Yes, that’s essentially the plot and yes, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I will give Robin props for at least coming up with an original concept here even if the execution isn’t always what I might like it to be. There is a little bit too much shaky handheld camera shots for my taste, but others may be okay with that. This is definitely going to appeal to Millennials as Eli and particularly Anya pretty much are almost stereotypical characters from that generation. In some ways, the whole film is an allegory for what it is to be from that generation; the characters have nowhere to go, nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. At least, to a mind of the generation that essentially fucked things up for Millennials.

Nicholson and Lopez are appealing actors who don’t appear to mind taking chances. Certainly it couldn’t be easy either having their hair shaved to look like victims of an atomic bomb or more likely to wear wigs that make them appear that way. During scenes in the middle of the movie, Lopez wears blue lipstick that gives her a corpse-like appearance and presages the scenes in the latter stages of the movie where she is getting her home surgery done.

That scene is fairly bloody and visceral and it may upset those who are affected by such things. There is a kind of absurdist humor that’s going on during it though that does lighten the mood considerably and in fact the whole situation is kind of abstract in a way – I don’t think you run into people who would willingly perform surgery (particularly on someone they are fond of) without any training whatsoever. Either Eli is an idiot, in a panic or self-confident beyond rationality. I’d probably choose the second explanation if given a choice.

The landscapes are pretty bleak here and most of the movie feels grimy and post-apocalyptic even though it’s clear that society continues to function in the movie (if you consider what society is doing right now “functioning”). Unfortunately the story feels disjointed and confusing and I had trouble at times figuring out why people were acting the way they did in the movie. There is a certain amount of nihilism present in modern society but if it really is as much as portrayed here, then we are truly screwed.

REASONS TO GO: It’s kind of a nifty allegory for how millennials are viewed. It’s edgy and at least tries to take a few chances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s way too much shaky cam. The film is fairly disjointed and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, sexuality, some disturbing images as well as a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally started life as a 2013 short with the same title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fly (1986)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: A United Kingdom

Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

Tallulah


A short walk on a long pier.

A short walk on a long pier.

(2016) Drama (Netflix) Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Felix Solis, Uzo Aduba, Fredric Lehne, Liliana/Evangeline Ellis, John Benjamin Hickey, Zachary Quinto, Maddie Corman, Tommar Wilson, J. Oscar Simmons, Charlotte Ubben, Olivia Levine, Jason Tottenham, Todd Alan Crain, Chanel Jenkins, Stacey Thunder, Jasson Finney. Directed by Sian Heder

 

Motherhood is one of the most primal of all human urges. There is no doubt that it changes a woman, not just in a physical sense (which it does) but also in her perspective, in how she sees the world. Some say that every woman becomes a great mother, but that simply isn’t so. Some women were flat-out not made to be mothers.

Lu (Page) has been living on her own, homeless and content to be. She doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone – although she seems pretty smitten with her boyfriend Nico (Jonigkeit). However, he isn’t terribly smitten with the lifestyle of stealing and conning to survive and eventually takes a powder. Knowing that he is headed to New York City to find his estranged mom, she follows him there. Since she’s in a van and he’s on foot, she gets there first.

Margo (Janney) is Nico’s mom and she’s bitter ever since her husband Stephen (Hickey) deserted her – for another man, in this case Andreas (Quinto). Because Margo is living in faculty housing and it’s Stephen who is actually the faculty, she has to pretend like he’s still there, a fiction that has kept her in a place to live even though she hates the artwork on the walls and feels trapped in a place that she doesn’t particularly like.

When Lu turns up at her door, she’s at first dismissive but at she realizes that Lu is the only connection she has to her son so when Margo sees the doorman Manuel (Solis) she instructs him to send the waif back up the next time she drops by. And she drop by she does, only this time in the company of a baby (Ellis).

You see, while Lu was at a posh hotel taking leftover food from room service trays, she was spotted by Carolyn (Blanchard), a Real Housewives type. Mistaking Lu for hotel staff, she has her babysit her baby while she goes out and parties with a man who she is most definitely not married to. When she comes back to the hotel room and passes out dead drunk, Lu realizes Carolyn is not a fit mother. Rather than contact the authorities, she impulsively takes the baby herself for her own.

On the Margo front, Lu passes off the baby as Margo’s granddaughter and suddenly the two women are bonding, not just over the shared genetic material but also over motherhood itself. Margo realizes she wasn’t mother of the year – neither was Lu’s mom, who essentially abandoned her – but she has a chance to redeem herself for the mistakes she made with her son. The police however are closing in and Lu doesn’t sense the tightening net around her.

Heder, one of the writers of Netflix’ hit Orange is the New Black series, has a keen eye for women’s issues and what could be a more important one than motherhood? Well, at least that’s the way society makes it out to be. A woman is more than her ovaries and this is a movie that makes a case that being a great mom is not all there is to life.

In fact, the three main female characters are none of them great moms. The closest one to it is Lu, who stole her baby which is certainly one of the most unforgivable crimes in our culture. That she took it from a woman patently unfit to be a mother, who didn’t want to be a mother, who endangered her child’s welfare and seemingly her life was not necessarily the issue, or at least I didn’t think so.

Margo had devoted her life to Nico, particularly after she and Stephen broken up but her bitterness and betrayal colored that relationship as well. It wasn’t until after she met Lu that she was able to let go and be free of her self-imposed burdens, which is a theme in the movie symbolized by both of the two main female characters imagining they are floating away from earth, no longer tethered by gravity. With Lu it’s a dream at the beginning of the film; with Margo a daydream at the end.

I’ve never been an over-the-top Ellen Page fan, although I recognize that she is an extremely talented actress and I can relate to her on that point. However, the characters she chooses to play are often a bit too strident for my liking and often a bit too offbeat from time to time. Lu lives by her own rules; in some ways, she is as self-centered a character as Page has ever portrayed. There are those who will characterize this as kind of the logical continuation of Juno, the title character that launched her career, a pregnant teen. I don’t really see it that way though; Lu is nothing like Juno.

One of the objections I had to the script was that Lu has been set up to be something of an individualist. She wants relationships to be on her terms, in fact life itself is lived on her own terms. Her action of impulsively stealing the baby just seems to be so out of left field in that sense; someone who is as irresponsible as Lu is suddenly decides to take on the biggest responsibility of them all? It didn’t make sense when I saw it and I imagine that it could be written off as the impetuousness of youth – but that’s some bad writing.

While I enjoyed the performance of Allison Janney immensely, at the end of the day this seems to be a missed opportunity more than anything. We rarely get to see mothers portrayed as anything but saints and sacrificers and that is largely true of most moms, but we don’t always get to see the other side of it – the loss of identity, the absolute panic of not knowing what to do when your baby won’t stop crying, the exhaustion and the mistakes. Any mom will tell you that she made her share of foul-ups and sometimes things that she’s done that she wishes she hadn’t. I don’t think Heder was really certain as to whether she was writing a treatise on motherhood or finding freedom as a woman, and in a sense she tried to do both and ended up doing neither. I didn’t see anything here that really gave me any insight into the characters that I couldn’t have figured out by watching the Lifetime network for an hour or two.

REASONS TO GO: Janney is as solid as she always is.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points don’t seem too organic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds; there are also plenty of adult themes, some drinking and drug use, sexual situations and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Allison Janney and Ellen Page are in the same movie for the third time, after Juno and Touchy Feely.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Der Bunker