Woman on Fire


God bless all first responders.

(2016) Documentary (Animal) Brooke Guinan, George Guinan V, Susan Guinan, Jim Baker, Bill Deblasio, George Guinan IV, Sarinya Srisakul, Charlotte Guinan, Joe Baker, Maureen Baker, Charles Radcliffe, Darren Melcchiore. Directed by Julie Sokolow

It is a different world we live in today than those my age lived in when I was growing up. Things are less settled, less certain. You can’t even count on biology to necessarily get things right.

Brooke Guinan is a firefighter for the Fire Department of New York City. She is a rarity in that she is a woman in that very male profession; in New York City there are just 44 women out of roughly 10,000 total firefighters, that’s just 0.4% for those keeping track. But she is also unique; she is openly transgender transitioning from male to female. She is the first and only (to date) transgender working as a firefighter in New York.

She was born George Guinan VI to conservative parents and at a young age presented to Susan Guinan (his mother) a letter explaining calmly that he was pretty sure he was gay. He was 11 years old at the time. Susan and George V (his dad) were devastated but over time, they accepted their son for who he was. When 9/11 occurred, Georgie was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He got a lot of ribbing from the fairly traditional culture of the men of the FDNY but Georgie was pretty sure that he could take it. There was just one problem.

Georgie had it wrong. He wasn’t gay. He was a woman living in a man’s body. Making the decision to transition wasn’t an easy one and when he informed his parents that he would be known as Brooke from now on, her parents once again were devastated. As Susan put it, “First I had to bury Georgie before I could accept Brooke.” Her dad wasn’t sure what to think.

And it wasn’t any easier at work. The ribbing got to be something else from the men. Even the women of the department weren’t accepting Brooke; it took six months for them to agree to allow Brooke to join their support group, mainly at the urging of the group’s president Sarinya Srisakul who had emigrated from Southeast Asia as a young woman and accepted Brooke not just as a woman but also as a friend.

As Brooke became more visible in the department, she was dubbed “New York’s Bravest” and she did a lot of publicity for the department, becoming the face of acceptance for the department and indeed the city. She became grand marshal at gay pride parades and appeared on talk shows and lectures.

Her boyfriend Jim, an Air Force veteran, accepts Brooke but he’s not sure how to break the news to his parents that he’s dating a transgender woman. Jim also seems to be hesitating to marry Brooke; he’s a bit commitment-phobic. When the two decide to buy a house together and invite Jim’s parents, it’s time for things to come out into the open.

Sokolow, who also directed the 2015 Florida Film Festival favorite Aspie Seeks Love, is a director who likes to focus on people who are part of groups that are marginalized by society. To me, that’s an admirable way to choose documentary subjects and Sokolow, a former indie rocker, shows a little more confidence on this her second feature. While she isn’t as innovative with telling her story as she was in Aspie Seeks Love (which was organized by holidays), there is definite improvement when it comes to telling the story.

It helps that Sokolow has a subject who is charismatic, eloquent and important. At a time when the Christian right seems intent on showing just how intolerant they can be to the transgender community, trying to limit which bathrooms they can use because they’re concerned that transgender men will rape straight women (cases of that actually happening: zero) whereas transgender men have been beaten up in men’s bathrooms which often lead them to hold it until they get home. Yes, Virginia, the transgender community should be allowed to use public bathrooms too – and the ones that belong to the sex they identify with. Brooke puts a human face on transgender women, much as the justifiably lauded Amazon series Transparent does. The only difference is that this isn’t fictional.

The quibble I have here is that we rarely see Brooke doing her job; mostly she is seen hanging out at the fire station and doing promotional appearances. We concentrate more on her personal life and her relationship with her family and I agree that this is an important aspect of her life. However, if you’re going to use her standing with the FDNY you should at least give a sense of her as a firefighter. This is clearly a large part of her identity and I don’t think Sokolow was successful in portraying this aspect of her. It does Brooke a disservice because viewers may get the impression that she’s more of a publicity stunt than a real firefighter. That is certainly not the case.

Still, this is a fascinating story and we get to see Brooke’s relationship with her dad, which is simply inspiring. It is good to see how far the two have traveled. I don’t doubt that her dad is Brooke’s hero and he’ll be your hero too. When Jim’s parents do arrive at their son’s new house, they treat Brooke with such affection that it makes one think that perhaps most people are more accepting of transgenders than we think.

This isn’t a big leap forward for Sokolow as a filmmaker but it is definitely a forward motion for her. There is some improvement and that’s always encouraging; the subject matter is certainly worthy of a documentary. I’m not sure if Brooke Guinan is New York’s Bravest but a case can definitely be made for that. You won’t forget her once you’ve seen this film and if that doesn’t spell success for a documentary, I don’t know what does.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives a human face to the transgender community.
REASONS TO STAY: We never really see Brooke at work as a firefighter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guinan is a third-generation firefighter; her father was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and her grandfather retired a captain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Somewhere Beautiful

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A Thousand Words


A Thousand Words

Eddie Murphy takes out his frustration after Cliff Curtis reads him some of the reviews of his latest film.

(2012) Fantasy Comedy (DreamWorks) Eddie Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Clark Duke, Allison Janney, Ruby Dee, Jack McBrayer, Alain Chabat, Lennie Loftin, David Burke, Emmanuel Ragsdale, Eshaya Draper, Sarah Scott Davis, Brian Gallivan, Steven M. Gagnon. Directed by Brian Robbins

 

Words are paramount. We communicate everything with them; civilization would be impossible without them and yet we use them to obfuscate, to twist the truth, to spin lies. Some of us use words as tools; others as weapons. However, words are meaningless without the underlying concepts and emotions behind them. Without truth, words are as empty as the space they fill.

Jack McGill (Murphy) knows all about words. He is a literary agent, one who makes a living selling words. The irony is that Jack isn’t much of a reader. A good book, he tells his youthful assistant Aaron Wiseburger (Duke), is good in the first five pages and the last five pages – everything else in between is just filler.

Jack has his sights set on Dr. Sinja (Curtis), a new age slash kinda Buddhist philosopher who has been gaining an amazing worldwide following. Rumor has it he’s written a book and Jack can see dollar signs all over the puppy. He goes to Sinja’s temple, posing as a follower and wrangles his way into a personal audience with the good Doctor.

Jack makes his pitch and manages to convince Sinja that he has his best interests at heart, that he believes in his message and wants to spread it. The only message that Jack believes in however is the message that money delivers. And that message often gets in the way of his life.

His wife  (or is it girlfriend? this isn’t made clear) Caroline (Washington) wants to live in a house that is more suitable for a family; they are living in what is essentially Jack’s old bachelor pad and Jack who loves the amenities and the view is loathe to give it up for a suburban split-level. Caroline wants Jack to spend more time with their son Tyler (Ragsdale) but Jack’s manic career precludes that. However, he makes time to visit his Alzheimer’s-stricken mom (Dee) in the home on her birthday; she confuses him with his father, who passed away when Jack was a little boy and for that Jack has been unable to forgive him.

One night a Bodhi tree appears in their yard, fully formed with a thousand leaves on it. Jack is puzzled at first but he quickly figures out that for each word that he speaks or writes, a leaf falls. Dr. Sinja explains that once the Bodhi tree loses all its leaves, the tree will die and since Jack is somehow linked to the tree, he will die as well.

The rest of the movie is about Jack’s attempts to communicate non-verbally in a world where he is expected to speak. There is some hilarity because whatever happens to the tree happens to Jack as well; if it’s watered Jack gets wet; if fungicide is sprayed on it, Jack coughs. If squirrels run around its trunk playfully, Jack is tickled. You get my drift.

It also gives Eddie Murphy the opportunity to mug outrageously with twisted lips, eyes as wide as saucers and arched eyebrows. This gives him the look of a black constipated  Don Ameche from Cocoon doing an impression of Bette Davis while auditioning for “Project: Runway.” It’s unsettling to say the least.

This was actually filmed in 2008 (pre-Tower Heist) and is one in a long line of Murphy mis-fires (i.e. Meet Dave, Imagine That, The Adventures of Pluto Nash ad nauseam). This isn’t strictly a family movie but it isn’t very funny either. The sad part is most of the best humor comes from Duke, who made an indelible impression in Hot Tub Time Machine. Murphy has always been one of the better verbal comics and robbing him of his most effective weapon is a ballsy move but one that ultimately doesn’t pay off here.

Hopefully his work on Heist will have generated some better scripts for Murphy, although clearly his Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls didn’t. There is plenty of concept here, but the execution is tired and lame. Nothing unexpected happens, there are no laugh-out-loud moments and the comedy is pretty low-brow generally speaking. Movies like this one, which are mediocre at best, make me wonder how long it will be before Murphy’s films start going direct-to-home-video.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few mildly amusing moments. Duke gets most of the laughs.

REASONS TO STAY: Another family-oriented Murphy comedy that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. All concept and no execution.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there, some sexual dialogue and a bit of drug humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third movie that Murphy has been directed by Robbins in, the first two being Norbit and Meet Dave. It is also the first one of the three not to have the lead character’s name in the title.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100. The reviews are bad, bad, bad!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Liar, Liar

TREE LOVERS: While the Bodhi tree is a real tree (remarkable for its heart-shaped leaves) the one in the film is not.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Maiden Heist