Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things


The legend in action.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Okonedo (narrator), Sharon D. Clark (narrator), Ray Brown Jr., Judith Tick, Smokey Robinson, Norma Miller, Patti Austin, Andre Previn, George Wien, Johnny Mathis, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett, Laura Myula, Margo Jefferson, Gregg Field, Will Friedwald, Kenny Barron, Norman Granz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Laine, Alexis MorrastDirected by Leslie Woodhead

 

So many of the great musicians of the mid-20th century jazz scene are little more than names to most Americans now; some night even that. Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was a giant in her time, one of the defining voices of American music, one whose career spanned six decades.

Her career almost never happened. Part of the Great Migration of African-Americans moving from the South to the industrialized North in search of a better life, she moved to Yonkers as a child with her mother and stepfather. Her mother died when Fitzgerald was just 13 (the result of injuries incurred in a car accident), ending up living on the streets of New York after a stint in reform school where the abuse was so pervasive that she ran away. Only a victory in a 1934 talent show at the Apopllo Theater in Harlem would save her.

Discovered by the “King of Jazz Drummers” Chick Webb who led one of the most popular bands in New York at the time, Fitzgerald became a star after recording “A Tisket, A Tasket” – a jazzed up version of a nursery rhyme that Fitzgerald co-wrote) and she never looked back.

She embraced scat singing as World War II began and became one of its most accomplished practitioners. After the war, she recorded a string of hits for the Verve label (a jazz label founded specifically to market her) and became a mainstay touring around the world, often on the road for nine months of the year. That made it difficult to sustain a relationship with her only child, Ray Brown Jr., who became a musician himself although his relationship with his mother was often distant – the two rarely spoke during the last ten years of her life.

The movie utilizes archival footage that frames the times that Fitzgerald grew up in, as well as illustrating the racism that she faced throughout her life. When she purchased a house in Beverly Hills, she had to use her white manager Norman Granz to do it, despite the fact that she had more than enough cash to buy the house outright.

There is performance footage and we get a sense of the passion and the power of Fitzgerald’s craft. It could be said that she was married to her career; throughout most of her life it was her focus. She did love children and founded a foundation that helped provide food and healthcare to at-risk kids in the last years of her life, but mainly she expressed herself through her music; she was a highly private individual who rarely talked about her feelings in interviews, with a notable exception – a radio interview in 1963 when she finally spoke out against the racial injustice she had seen and that her people continued to deal with. The interview was never aired, a postscript that echoes through these uncertain and volatile times.

Her story is told largely in a chronological fashion, interspersed with interviews of contemporaries (both archival and modern), as well as a younger generation who recognize her influence on modern music. While the testimonials are glowing, the film largely fails to draw the lines between her music and modern music and when the movie ends, doesn’t really elucidate what her legacy is.

What survives first and foremost is the music and we get a fair sampling of  it and we are left to marvel at her control and her phrasing. The movie is available on virtual cinema for the next couple of weeks (fans can benefit the Tampa Theater, the Polk Theater in Lakeland or the O Cinema in Miami (see the virtual cinematic experience link for a line-up of theaters across the country). It is also playing at the Enzian for those who want the big screen experience which I would highly recommend.

REASONS TO SEE: The soundtrack is simply amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is abrupt and really doesn’t analyze her legacy at as much as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of racism including some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fitzgerald won the legendary Apollo Theater’s talent contest in 1934, she hadn’t planned to sing but to dance as she had on Harlem street corners, but when she was preceded by the Edwards Sisters (two of the best dancers to ever come out of Harlem), she changed her mind and sang, believing she could never win against the sisters with dancing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Keep On Keepin’ On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Feral (2019)


All the best feral people ride the bus.

(2019) Drama (1091) Annapurna Srinam, Kevin Hoffman, Doug Drucker, Lori Bullock, Jonathan Rentler, Annie Henk, Francis Lyons, Bene Coopersmith, Aurora Flores, Sonia Mena, Enoch Tsumuraya, Kimberly Smith, Sarah Wharton, Bryan Amato, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Matt Stango, Marcus Wright, Nicole Neretin, Adam Soltis, Mary Lu Garmone, Kirsten Hess, Lassen Davis, Emma Hall-Martin. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

The streets are an unforgiving place. Surviving on them is no picnic, particularly when you are homeless. You are vulnerable every minute of every day and survival isn’t guaranteed. If the hunger doesn’t get you, the violence will; if the violence doesn’t get you, the weather will.

Yazmine (Srinam) lives on the streets of Brooklyn, or more to the point, under them. She has made herself a nest in an abandoned power station off the subway line and it is there that she stores what few possessions she has. It is there she sleeps, sometimes with rats scurrying about.

When she ventures out, she looks like anyone else; clean and reasonably dressed. This is an advantage; it gets her picked up by a compassionate musician (Hoffman) who bonds with her over a slice of pizza, then takes her to his place. When she convinces him to take a shower, she empties his wallet and takes some of his precious LPs. That’s survival, baby, and it ain’t pretty.

A young mother (Wharton) confesses that she wishes her little boy would run away; Yazmine listens compassionately, only to have a meltdown when the privileged brat steals a meaningless plastic dinosaur from her purse. A middle-aged Latina woman (Flores) reminisces about her days dancing in salsa clubs, even getting Yazmine to dance with her. However, she also calls a homeless shelter to take Yazmine in – not on her terms, but on theirs – which leads to an unforgettable final scene.

The movie is a mix of styles, both narrative and documentary. Wonder occasionally interrupts his film with interviews with people who are or were homeless, including an interview with Yazmine herself. We see Yazmine getting jumped and beaten up by a group of drunken frat-boy types, and refusing help from counselors and medical professionals. We learn only near the end that her mother was deported when Yazmine was 16; her story is heartbreaking when you finally hear it. Throughout the film, Yazmine maintains a brash demeanor that can only be called “Noo Yawk.”

Srinam gives an outstanding performance. Yazmine is oftentimes her own worst enemy, but there’s a vulnerability that is just below the surface and very endearing on those occasions when she allows you to glimpse it. Yazmine often changes her look which is not something I am sure is common among homeless women, but okay; in all other ways the movie feels like an authentic glimpse of the lives they lead. The rest of the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as Wonder cast a mix of professionals and amateurs.

The cinematography is generally speaking, really good, showing both the filth of the underground and the beauty of snow-covered streets. Wonder does a lot of quick-cutting early on which I suppose is meant to set the pace for the film which is pretty fast – in New York, it has to be – but he calms down on that aspect further into the film.

The narrative structure is a little disjointed and at times you get the sense that some of Wonder’s decisions have more to do with showing his creativity more than serving the pace and story of the movie, but c’est la vie. I don’t have an issue with movies that defy the norms, only that they be true to themselves and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case here.

Still, it’s a decent effort and it does examine the homeless issue with a steady, unwavering gaze. I did like the movie – particularly Srinam – but I can’t say as I loved it.

REASONS TO SEE: Annapurna Srinam gives a memorable performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and occasionally a little too self-reverent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on stories told to the director when he was working with the homeless people of New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen Mimi
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Adrift in Soho

Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

(2019) Drama (Big Boss Creative) Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jacob Vargas, Blake Michael, Jenny Gago, Tim Abell, Tabitha Brown, Anthony Jansen, Karim Diane, William Guirola, Braxton Davis, Danielle Dotson, Destiny Toliver, Sarah-Jayne Bedford, Monique Chachere, Pam Levin, Tori Griffith, Kelly Hancock. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of homeless people in this country today. Most of them are people who have fallen through the cracks, unable to support themselves due to mental illness, drug abuse or just plain bad luck. A staggering percentage of those living on the streets are children.

One such is Alisha (Buck), a street-savvy 12-year-old girl whose dad refers to her as Princess – that is, when he remembers who she is. For the most part, Iraq war vet Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Gathegi) is caught up in a waking nightmare of mental illness, reliving terrible moments from his time in country. Willis was injured by a roadside bomb and his periods of lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. Alisha’s mother has long since split, a victim of her own nightmares generated by drug abuse. Father and daughter survive on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Alisha doesn’t have to live on the street. She has a caring social worker named Magdalene (Ortiz) who genuinely wants to see her safe and sound but time and time again, she refuses or runs away, preferring to be with her dad who has nobody to take care of him but Alisha. Her dad’s paranoid delusions preclude him from accepting any sort of help. Most of the time he is docile, going wherever Alisha leads him but occasionally something triggers him and he gets violent.

Alisha has become entirely suspicious of the motives of most adults, Magdalene’s obvious example aside she has dealt with far too many people who don’t have her best interests at heart. Even Magdalene doesn’t seem to understand how devoted she is to her dad nor is Magdalene able to act on it even if she did. Even genuinely good people like prospective foster parent John Austin (Sheen) who, like Alisha, is a talented writer is met with stony silence and suspicion.

Things begin to spiral from bad to worse as Alisha falls into the clutches of a human trafficker and briefly considers selling herself to get her dad and her out of L.A. and away to somewhere where they can both be safe. However, her dad’s demons surface at the most inopportune time and Alisha is left facing a nearly impossible decision.

In many ways this is a very powerful film and much of the reason for that is the performances. Buck does an impossibly mature job playing young Alisha and bears the burden of carrying the film on her back with dignity and grace. From time to time a child actor comes along that you know instinctively has enormous talent, talent enough to move on and become a big star in his or her own right. Buck is just such an actress; there isn’t one false note in her entire performance here and she pulls it off in a way that would make a whole lot of adult actresses green with envy.

Gathegi also gives a standout performance. Yes, I know he mostly has to stare straight ahead with a blank expression but you try doing that for a long length of time and see how difficult it is to do. In rare moments of lucidity, Bo is fully aware that he is an anchor dragging his daughter down into his own private hell and he whispers to her gently that it is all right for her to let him go. We never know if he heard him until the very end of the film. The chemistry between Buck and Gathegi is natural and alive; the two work seamlessly off one another. The performances aren’t the problem here.

In many ways this is a very cliché film and Carlson like many indie filmmakers seems loathe to make the kind of deep cuts during the editing process (Carlson is an editor by trade and the hardest thing in that line of work to do is to edit your own footage objectively) that the film needed. As a result, it feels at times that the plot is running in place and not getting anywhere. Not only is the movie on the long side, the plot has a whole lot of clichés; the well-meaning social worker with an overwhelming case load and constraints laid on her by an unfeeling bureaucracy; a war veteran with psychological (or in this case physical issues causing the psychological) issues, a seemingly nice guy offering salvation but delivering damnation.

It’s a shame because I think there are a lot of good ideas here. In the interest of transparency however, I should point out that of my circle of friends who have seen the film, I am very much in the minority – Da Queen in fact has proclaimed this as her favorite film of the Festival so far. I can see where she would like it – the father-daughter relationship is very powerful here and I think a lot of people are going to be swept up by it and that’s not a bad thing. Still, those who look beyond the best feature of the film might see a few imperfections in the overall work.

REASONS TO SEE: Buck delivers a strong performance and has good chemistry with Gathegi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie wanders a bit and could have been a little shorter.
FAMILY VALUES: The is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson is best known for his 2011 award-winning documentary Bhopali.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Most Dangerous Year

Hunter (2018)


Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.

(2018) Horror (Random Media) Jason Kellerman, Rachel Cerda, Leigh Foster, Ryan Heindl, Nick Searcy, Beau Forbes, Adria Dawn, Bill Bannon, Susan Monts-Bologna, Andrew Gebhart, Lynda Shadrake, Ann Joseph, Leah Uteg, Kiley Moore, Darren Stephens, Ryan Kitley, Renee Sebby, Riley Sebby, Shon McGregory, Claudine Tambuatco. Directed by David Tarleton

 

Chicago has been a violent place since the Jazz Age. These days it’s a poster child for urban gang violence and murder. Still, the Windy City has a special quality all its own, if you don’t look too closely into the shadows.

Hunter (Kellerman) was at one time a feared MMA fighter. He was absolutely devoted to his mother (Shadrake) and little sister (Uteg). All that is shattered when they are killed in a home invasion. Only Hunter survives and he carries with him images of horror from that night that haunt him non-stop.

He is reduced to living on the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter. Starving and cold, he hears about a shelter from his only friend, Crazy Sybil (Dawn) and in near desperation he goes to find a warm bed, hot food and maybe even a shower. However, the price for staying is that he must talk to a therapist, in this case named Danni (Cerda). The problem is, Hunter isn’t interested in talking. He’s just interested in surviving and so Cerda has to find a way to break down his walls.

Those walls are up for a reason. It turns out that the gang that killed his sister and mother are still out there and still murdering. Hunter knows their secret and may be the only person who can stop them, but Hunter isn’t sure whether they are real or figments of his imagination. Spoiler alert: they are very real. In the meantime Danni and Hunter have crossed a line into romance which now makes her a target.

This actually has a pretty nifty concept, one I can’t discuss completely without spoiling the film. Suffice to say that revealing Hunter’s last name would be a very big clue. It also should be noted that the way in which Chicago is utilized as a setting lends itself to the type of movie this actually is, although in a much different way than fans of the genre are unused to. What genre? I can only say it’s a subset of the horror genre and leave it there.

Kellerman doesn’t look like your average horror or action hero, nor does he look like the average MMA champion. When he hasn’t been “homeless-ed” up with a raggedy beard, scruffy clothes and weathered skin, he resembles more the happy-go-lucky Jewish boy next door in a romantic comedy albeit one with Hebrew calligraphy tattooed to his chest. Nonetheless he does a pretty strong job in the lead and has a big future ahead of him given the right breaks.

Unfortunately, Tarleton opted to use a myriad of jump cuts perhaps in an effort to give us an idea of Hunter’s confusion and torment. If that was the purpose (and I have no definite idea that it was only that it’s the only explanation that makes sense) he was unsuccessful. After watching these cuts for only 20 minutes I began to get a headache and had to shut the movie off for a bit. That’s never a good sign.

Tarleton is more successful at building up to the climax, and he does so masterfully. We get a sense that Hunter is unreliable as a narrator, doubting even his own senses. That works really well in the course of the film giving us an is-he-crazy-or-is-he-not subtext to work with. In many ways the movie has a lot of inventive qualities and if the editing had been less frenetic this actually could have been a superior film. I give the filmmakers props for giving us a movie that has a lot of potential and viewers who are able to handle a lot of rapid-fire images perhaps better than I could may actually end up enjoying this immensely. Those who are more sensitive (like myself apparently) may find this to be more of an ordeal than a pleasant experience though. If that’s the case and you really are intrigued, I suggest having plenty of aspirin on hand.

REASONS TO SEE: The atmosphere is suitably Gothic, something Chicago lends itself to well.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmakers have an over reliance on jump cuts which tends to be headache-inducing after a while.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity as well as a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:
Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirst
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Last Resort

Bikini Moon


The frank stare of madness is unblinking.

(2017) Mockumentary (Flix Premiere) Condola Rashad, Sarah Goldberg, Will Janowitz, Sathya Sridharan, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Chukwudi Iwuji, Scott Martin, Irungu Mutu, Lauren Lim Jackson, Alyssa Cheatham, Irma Estella La Guerre, Jeremy Rafal, Brian Sills, Roland Sands Cliff Moylan, Lisa Lakatos, Gemma Forbes, Jeannine Kaspar, Danielle Kelsey. Directed by Milcho Manchevski

 

Mockumetaries – fake documentaries which are actually scripted films – are one of those genres that are truly hit or miss. Sometimes they’re played for comedy, as in This is Spinal Tap while other times they’re played straight as in…well, most found footage films like the Paranormal Activity series. This movie is one of the latter.

A documentary crew led by ambitious but obsessive Trevor (Janowitz) and his mousy girlfriend Kate (Goldberg) are filming at a New York City housing office when they are struck by Bikini (Rashad), an Iraqi war veteran who clearly has some emotional and mental problems and decide to focus on her instead. Unable to secure government housing, the couple spends the night trying to find her an apartment that will get her off the streets. The landlord who agrees over the phone to take her in suddenly changes his mind when he sees the film crew but Bikini gives him oral sex and that seems to satisfy things…but as will become her modus operandi she will mess things up for herself when she stops taking her medication. You can usually tell shes having issues when she starts blathering on about the wonderful creatures that are the praying mantis. That figures into things fairly heavily late in the game.

With their subject back on the street, the couple brings Bikini into their own home that Kate inherited from her mom. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things will end in tears and they literally do. In fact, pretty much everything does, from Bikini’s attempts to regain custody of her daughter Ashley (Harris) to her friendship with Kate and Trevor. And when the rest of the crew tries to finish the film in order to at least recoup some sort of payment for all their time and effort, things take a turn that nobody will see coming.

The first half of the film is enthralling, largely due to the efforts of Rashad who is absolutely brilliant. She has been seen in such things as the Showtime series Billions but she is clearly ready to take on major roles in important films. She never overplays the crazy until she needs to but her performance is raw and believable. The first half of the film is riveting and unforgettable.

Then comes the second half which not only goes off the rails, it proposes that there were never any rails to begin with. The more Bikini does to sabotage her situation, the more unbelievable everyone around her acts. Kate is the poster child for white guilt and Trevor is an absolute douchebag as we eventually discover but at some point someone would say “I’m not dealing with this crap anymore” and walk away.

One of the things the movie does successfully is look at the artificiality of some documentaries where scenes are staged and rehearsed rather than capturing the reality of the situation. We also see how the presence of a film crew can change the situation. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – and while it’s not directly addressed Manchevski gives you the situation and lets you go from there. That shows a great deal of respect for his audience and had he continued down this route this could have been an absolutely amazing film.

Sadly, he chooses to go down the path of weirdness and as things spiral into an ending that the rest of the movie doesn’t hint at and to be frank doesn’t earn, the viewer will not only be taken straight out of the film which appeared to have something to say at first and likely, as I did, get incredibly angry at the filmmaker who went to the trouble of sending a message and then spoiling whatever good will he had developed with an absolute train wreck of an ending.

Basically there are two films here; one very good, the other a waste of time. I would recommend that you watch the first half and after Trevor and Kate go their separate ways just turn off the movie or walk out of the theater. Of course, the curious will want to see this all the way to the end but I’m here to tell you it’s not worth it. See the first half, skip the second. You’ve been warned.

REASONS TO GO: Rashad is a real talent with a bright future.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little at the end with an out-of-left-field ending that it hasn’t earned.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some violence, nudity, sexual content and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Condola Rashad is the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lobster
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Oath

An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

Shadowman


Me…and my shaaa-dow…

(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby

 

An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.

Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.

But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.

During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.

Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.

In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.

REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aida’s Secrets