(2019)Documentary (Magnolia) Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Daniel Fleuette, Joshua Green, Deb Haaland, Raheem Kassam, Kevin Sullivan, Sam Nunberg, John Thornton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ari Melber, Roy Moore, Sean Bannon, David Frum, Christopher Hope, Paul Gosar, Paul Lewis, Anne Karni, Steve Cortes, Lena Epstein, Giorgia Meloni, Ilhan Omar, Sharice Davids.Directed by Alison Klayman
Steve Bannon has never, to my knowledge, been elected to any office, but he remains even now an important figure in the Republican party, although admittedly less so than he might have been in 2016 after steering Donald Trump’s unlikely Presidential win. He became a policy advisor to the 45th President for the first year of his term, before being unceremoniously dumped from his post following the Charlottesville protest.
This documentary follows him during the year after his dismissal from the White House, accompanying him on a whirlwind speaking tour as he attempts to assemble a global unity of populist parties (some would say white nationalist) that he identifies as “The Movement,” meeting with far right party members in far-flung locations like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, and France.
Bannon can be charming and disarming, but one doesn’t have to listen all that closely to realize how monstrous his message is. Considering that he is currently under indictment for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the January 6th committee regarding the events of that day, he is a mass of contradictions, espousing a return to law and order yet defying the law when it suits his interests.
Bannon clearly craves the spotlight, and the power that comes with it and it seems likely that he is deliberately steering the documentary towards keeping him in the limelight as much as possible, because that’s where his effectiveness is essentially made by uttering controversial statements, and by appearing to be a Red Bull-chugging, slovenly Sasquatch-in-a-suit. Is he a demagogue? Absolutely. Is he dangerous? Without a doubt. Is he a fitting documentary subject? As a cautionary tale, yes.
REASONS TO SEE: A terrifying look at the playbook of the far right. REASONS TO AVOID: A very polarizing film, as some will see Bannon as a hero, others as a villain (the filmmaker’s position is clearly obvious). FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is one of two documentaries shot concurrently about Bannon, the other being Errol Morris’ American Dharma. BEYOND THE THEATERS:Amazon, AppleTV, Flix Fling, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100. COMPARISON SHOPPING:American Dharma FINAL RATING: 6.5/10 NEXT:The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
(2020)Science Fiction (Gravitas) Nick Nolte, Kalipha Touray, Charlotte Rampling, Alba Rohrwacher, Stellan Skarsgård, Silvia Calderoni, Maryam d’Abo, Osemwenoghogho “Victory” Wilfred, Vincenzo Del Prete, Giovani Trono, Jun Ichikawa, Fiorenzo Madonna, Cosimo Desil, Adreina Liotti, Roberta Mattei, Ivan Alfredo Manzano, Nicolas Sacrez, Giulio Esposito, Fabiana Guarino, Valeria Golino.Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
Contemplating the end of mankind is never a pleasant thing. This dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi film from noted documentary filmmaker Nossiter does just that. It’s not so much Waiting for Godot as it is Waiting for The End.
It is 2086 and Kal (Touray) is the last man standing – or sitting, or lying down – on Earth. He wants to leave a record of humanity’s last days. An unnamed catastrophe has devastated the planet, leaving the water toxic and plant life pretty much obliterated. Those that remain sustain life on bottled water and canned goods. Kal and his sister who is pregnant live in what’s left of Paris until an encounter with a gang of feral kids leads to a most horrific offscreen death of his sister. Kal then heads to Italy, where he finds Shakespeare (Nolte) holed up in a cave with the last remaining celluloid, keeping himself entertained by watching movies.
Shakespeare comes up with the idea of constructing a movie camera and manufacturing film (into which Kal hand-punches the sprocket holes) and heading off to Greece, where it is rumored a last remaining settlement of humans remains, in a patch of Earth still capable of sustaining life. After an arduous journey, sure enough they find one, headed up by the resolute Dr. Zyberski (Skarsgård) and the hyper-sexual Batik (Rampling). There the two reacquaint the survivors with the wonders of motion pictures while counting down the days until The End.
The first half of the picture is dominated by Nolte and he responds by giving a performance that actually carries the movie. Nossiter plainly has a love for all things cinematic and Nolte is able to capture the essence of that love without being too maudlin about it. The cast has a few interesting performers like Rampling, Skarsgård and d’Abo, but mostly what we have here are extras who are going through the motions, which makes some sense – when confronted with the end of everything, a certain amount of numbness is likely to occur.
Try not to think too much about inner logic here; Shakespeare claims to remember the Sixties first-hand but hey, it’s 2085 and that would make him – even if he were a kid in the Summer of Love – well over 120 years old, and considering that he’d spent the last twenty years or so living off of what canned food and bottled water he can scrounge up, a lifestyle and diet not conducive to long life.
The plot feels a bit all over the place and nonsensical at times, which perhaps is the point. Still, this is a hell of a downer of the movie, unrelentingly bleak and depressing. This is not a movie to show to anyone who is clinically depressed, or even to fans of intelligent sci-fi. The message here is that things are going to end with a whimper or even more likely, a simple shrug of the shoulders. It doesn’t say much about humanity, or Nossiter’s opinion of it.
REASONS TO SEE: Nolte gives a truly strong performance. REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and joyless. FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, nudity and violence, including a sexual assault. TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Skarsgård and Rampling both appear in the recent remake of Dune. BEYOND THE THEATERS:Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100. COMPARISON SHOPPING:Quintet FINAL RATING: 5/10 NEXT:Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers
(2021)Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis.Directed by Gwen van de Pas
When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.
For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.
She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.
Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.
She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.
Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.
It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.
At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.
This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.
I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.
But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.
REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming. REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse. FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser. BEYOND THE THEATERS:Discovery Plus CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet. COMPARISON SHOPPING:The Hunting Ground FINAL RATING: 10/10 NEXT:Godzilla vs. Kong
(1997) Documentary (PBS) Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, John Fawcett, Clarence Lee, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas (narrator), Peggy De Hart, C.R. “Tiny” Boland, Jim Mitchell, James San Jule, Charley Bull, Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson. Directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys
In this era of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it is a good idea to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. While things aren’t quite as bad now as they were then, it is well to remember just how devastating it was. People who were living comfortably found that they lost everything, literally overnight. Many discovered that there was no work of any kind to be found where they lived. Their solution was to get out of town, but most of them couldn’t afford transportation.
Their solution was to hop on freight trains and “ride the rails” to whatever destination the trains were headed in. Not only was this illegal but incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for people trying to hop a freight train to lose their footing and fall underneath the wheels of the train. There were also the railway police and local law enforcement who weren’t above administering a beating to those they discovered illegally hitching a ride.
Documentary filmmaker and historian Michael Uys was fascinated by a book written during the depression by Thomas Minehan called The Boy and Girl Tramps of America which depicted the lives of teenage hobos traveling from place to place. He disguised himself as one of them and rode the rails with them for awhile, getting their stories. Uys figured it would make a good film and thus came this documentary.
Originally, it debuted at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival but most who have seen this know it from its appearance on the distinguished PBS documentary series The American Experience back on April 13, 1998. Since then it has been rebroadcast from time to time and appeared on DVD off and on. Now, it is available for streaming for the first time.
Uys and co-director Lexy Lovell interviewed in depth ten former rail riders – nine men and a woman – who were in their 70s and 80s at the time this was filmed (as this was 15 years ago, several of them have since passed on). They share their stories of hardship and exhilaration. There are similarities in their tales; all of them speak of their experiences matter-of-factly as they talk about the dangers of the road, but also they speak of it with nostalgia. They all remark upon the freedom they had riding the rails; unconstrained by possessions, jobs or relationships, they would pack up at a moments notice, searching for the next town, the next horizon.
Many teens left home for just that reason – the allure of adventure, seeing the world when nothing held them at home. Some were informed by their parents that they had to leave as mom and dad could no longer afford to take care of them. Some fled abuse. None of those interviewed seemed to regret their time on the road.
In fact one of them, Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, was still riding the rails in the summers and invited one of the filmmakers along. “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t swing myself on board a boxcar any longer,” he declares. The filmmakers use archival photographs, often lingering on the evocative faces of the depression, and filmed footage to show contemporary accounts of the lifestyle. The soundtrack is rich with the music of the era, like Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie, warbling about the allure of the rails, of the call of the horizon and of the loneliness of the road.
I wouldn’t say it’s a powerful documentary, although there are moments that are stirring. Mostly, it is just evocative – reminding us of a bygone era. As a historical document, it is absolutely invaluable. Most of those who rode the rails in the depression are gone now, their stories silenced. While I would have liked to see a little bit more context (perhaps some commentary from sa sociologist or a historian to better explain the history behind the depression and rail riding), it is good that the filmmakers were able to collect them, for succeeding generations to enjoy and learn from.
REASONS TO SEE:The stories are indeed fascinating. The archival photos and footage make wonderful use of close-ups. The Americana soundtrack is terrific. REASONS TO AVOID:Could have used a little more background information and context. FAMILY VALUES:There is some mild profanity but otherwise suitable for the entire family. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uys wrote to over 40 publications, including Modern Maturity, to find potential subjects for interviews. He ended up receiving over 3,000 letters in response and, realizing he would need help with the project, enlisted Lovell. BEYOND THE THEATERS:Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla CRITICAL MASS:As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100. COMPARISON SHOPPING:The American Hobo FINAL RATING: 8/10 NEXT:The Little Things
(2019) Music Documentary (Greenwich) Billie Holiday, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Billy Eckstein, Bobby Tucker, Jo Jones, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Skinny Davenport, John Fagan, John Hammond, Myra Luftman, John Simmons, Artie Shaw, Al Avola, Les Robinson, Luis McKay, Irene Kitchings, Mae Weiss. Directed by James Erskine
That she was a jazz legend there is no doubt, but much of the life of Billie Holiday remains an enigma to modern listeners. When she died in 1959 at age 44, she was nearly penniless, victimized by abusive husbands and managers who stole nearly every penny she earned, and did nothing as she sank into alcohol and hard drug abuse. Given a childhood in which she was raped as a pre-teen and began work as a prostitute at age 13, perhaps that descent was inevitable.
The movie had its genesis in a book that was never written. In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a big fan of the singer, decided to write her definitive biography (there was an autobiography in 1956 that was later criticized for being factually inaccurate, and was apparently threatened with legal action if certain aspects, such as her relationships with Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead and Orson Welles were not removed) and spent the next eight years amassing interviews with those who knew her best, including jazz luminaries like Count Basie and Tony Bennett. However, before she could write the book, she passed away in 1979 in what was deemed by the Washington DC police as a suicide, although she left no note. Her family to this day contests the finding; Erskine attempted to look into the matter but all of the evidence collected by the DC police had been destroyed.
Erskine peppers the audio interviews with archival footage of Holiday performing some of her most memorable songs, as well as contemporaneous interviews with Lady Day herself (a nickname granted her by the musicians in the Count Basie orchestra with whom she sang early on in her career). Holiday once told her friend Sylvia Syms that the trick to performing was this: “If you almost laugh, the audience will laugh. If you almost cry, the audience will cry.” We see the evidence of that in her performance in which all the pain of her life – and all the joy – was very much in evidence in her face and in her body language.
Notably, we see a television performance of “Strange Fruit,” the at-the-time controversial song about lynching, late in her life. Her eyes are nearly deadened, numb with the horror of that which so many African-Americans of her generation had to grow up with and are now facing again, albeit in a much different way. The interviews are also fascinating, including one with the man who was her pimp during her prostitute days, who chuckles at the memory of beating her up when she got out of line; “the girls liked it,” he chortles. It’s enough to turn your stomach.
The film spends a little too much time on the journalist’s story, which although fascinating tends to detract from the story of the singer that she was trying to tell, something I imagine that the writer would find ironic if not disturbing. I think that she might have been gratified, however, if she knew that if you do an image search on her name, pictures of Holiday turn up (and a few of Linda Ronstadt, whose musical biography was also released by Greenwich last year).
It’s the music that Holiday will be remembered for, however, and there’s plenty of it here and you will be taken by the sheer force of her vocals. She was the greatest singer of her age bar none, and if you aren’t familiar with her work this is a dandy place to start. If you are familiar with her work, then the interviews about her will be a treasure trove.
Although iMDB gives a June release date for the film, that was a pre-Coronavirus entry and the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. For those looking to see it on the Florida Film Festival virtual festival, it is unfortunately sold out. Keep an eye out for it though – it is one of the best documentaries you’ll see this year.
REASONS TO SEE: Holliday’s story is tragic and compelling. Some wonderful performance footage. Judging from the interviews, this would have been an amazing book. Gives due to one of the most important figures in American music of the 20th century. REASONS TO AVOID:Spends a little too much time on Kuehl’s story. FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity (Holliday swore like a sailor), plus plenty of drug references. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film. CRITICAL MASS:As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool FINAL RATING: 9/10 NEXT:The Outside Story
(2017) Western (Tri-Coast) Adam Newberry, Jesse Lee Pacheco, Christine Dodge, Eric Schumacher, Benny Lee Kennedy, Richard Anderson, Jason Graham, Shayn Herndon, Michele Bauer, Haydn Winston, Bradford Trojan, James Miller, Callie Hutchinson, Rogelio Camarillo Brenda Jean Foley, Frank Gonzalez, Wade Everett, Pablo Kjolseth, Susan Sebanc. Directed by Alex Cox
One of the watershed moments in the Old West was the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory on October 26, 1881 has taken on mythic proportions in the annals of the American frontier.
What is not well-known is that a time-travelling film crew arrived in Tombstone to document the famous event. Unfortunately, they miscalculated and arrived in Tombstone on October 27. Although distraught at having missed the historic event, they chose to soldier on, interviewing the survivors and eyewitnesses.
Among the participants interviewed were Ike Clanton (Kennedy), J.W. “Doc” Holliday (Schumacher) and Wyatt Earp (Newberry). Also interviewed were Holliday’s common-law wife Mary “Big Nose Kate” Horony (Dodge), Sheriff Johnny Behan (Pacheco) and saloon keeper Col. John Hafford (Anderson). Each gave conflicting testimony as to what happened that day. We’ll never really know for certain what happened in those fateful 30 seconds on that cold, windy day but nobody will ever forget it.
Legendary cult film director Alex Cox comes up with an intriguing concept, but true to his ethos doesn’t really stick to it. Trying to put the events of one of the most famous events in the Old West through the same microscope as Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 samurai film Rashomon, we see footage of the events as told by the various interview subjects, although the title card at the beginning clearly states that the camera crew didn’t arrive until after that all happened. Cox might have been better served to either use animatics to illustrate the testimony (a fairly expensive proposition) or simply not state when the film crew arrived, although that might have messed with the whole Kurosawa angle.
I don’t know how much research was done into this – probably not a lot – but there are a lot of idiosyncrasies here. For example, the Hungarian-born Horony is confused as to grammar, referring to male subjects as “she” and “her” throughout. Although Horony had been in America for 21 years when the shootout took place. We also see the Earps arrive at the gunfight in a police SUV. I like goofy humor as much as the next guy, but I have a burr up my butt about anachronisms. It would have been just as bad if they had been singing a David Bowie song in the saloon.
The film was shot around Arizona although not in Tombstone itself, which is understandable since modern Tombstone is a tourist mecca and doesn’t really lend itself to filming movies anymore. The costuming is mostly authentic, although the clothes are much cleaner than they would have been in the 19th century.
The performances by mainly unknown actors are solid and believable. My one issue is with the interviewer (Sebanc) who speaks in a flat, emotionless and almost robotic voice. Something tells me that was the direction that Cox gave the actress, but it sounds like the interview is being conducted by Ciri or Alexa.
The movie is interesting enough to watch, but the little idiosyncrasies end up doing it in. Cox has a pretty legit resume and has continued to make flawed but fascinating movies since his heyday in the 80s, and this is another one of those.
REASONS TO SEE: Solid onscreen performances. REASONS TO AVOID: The interviewer is robotic and stiff. FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cox is best-known for his mid-80s cult hits Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell. BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandor CRITICAL MASS:As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet COMPARISON SHOPPING:Tombstone FINAL RATING: 6.5/10 NEXT:Widows
The legendary opera diva Maria Callas interviewed by David Frost.
(2017)Documentary (Sony Classics) Maria Callas, Fanny Ardant, David Frost, Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters, Elvira de Hidalgo, Joyce DiDonato, Aristotle Onassis, Omar Sharif, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Bing, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Bernard Gavoty, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot, Vittorio De Sica, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly.Directed by Tom Volf
Maria Callas’ star has faded. Even to people my own age she’s just a name that may or may not be familiar and to those younger than myself, not even that. Those who remember her may remember her as the epitome of the operatic diva, a woman whose talent made her a household name and whose lifestyle made her a legend.
When diva behavior is caricatured with furs, an adoring sycophantic entourage and small dogs, they are really discussing Callas who developed the persona for real. However, she was more than just a caricature and Volf uses interview footage – much of it unseen since it first aired – and the diva’s own words through letters and an unpublished autobiography to paint a portrait of the artist.
Born in New York to Greek immigrants, she was sent (unwillingly) to Athens to study operatic singing and after the war became a rising star, a star that blazed in the 1950s and early 1960s. She famously had a long-term affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis who would then in a shocking turn of events (at least to Callas) marry the widow of the former U.S. President, Jacqueline Kennedy. The betrayal devastated her, although she apparently continued a romantic relationship with him after he married Jackie.
Her life was a lonely one despite the wealth and fame; she had a love-hate relationship with the press and with her relationship with Onassis a defining moment for her, she would not marry again (she did marry an Italian impresario but the marriage ended when she felt he exerted too much influence over her career). That she was bitter is obvious through her words here.
This is an intimate look at an artist who has largely been forgotten, which is the nature of fame; it is indeed fleeting. How many famous people who dominate the headlines now be remembered in 50 to 70 years? For many, the answer will be not at all.
The movie glosses over a lot of the less pleasant aspects of her life, and tends to be unwilling to identify various people talking to and about Callas, so you may find yourself having to Google images of some of these folks. The filmmaker presents Callas as a woman who was largely imprisoned by her fame and gave more to her art and to her lover than she received back from either, a viewpoint that I think is a bit condescending. From everything I’ve been able to find out about the woman, she was very much in control of her life and her career; she was strong-willed and temperamental to the point that people tended to walk on eggshells around her.
I don’t think this is a complete view of the opera star, although watching her rapturous expression as she is singing an aria may well tell you everything you need to know about her. The film also tends to gloss over some of her less admirable qualities, as well as to the very obvious weight loss which may have contributed to the vocal issues that plagued her later on in her career, which only the opera fan may notice from her performances here. Still, this is an excellent introduction to her work and her life and maybe even to her personality as well.
REASONS TO SEE: A must for opera fans and history buffs. Some wonderful archival footage. REASONS TO AVOID:Skips over the less wonderful aspects of her life. FAMILY VALUES: There is some vague sexual references, mild profanity and mild adult thematic content. TRIVIAL PURSUIT:This is the first feature film by Volf. BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100. COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose FINAL RATING: 7/10 NEXT:The Front Runner
(2018) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jess Wexler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett, Charlie Korsmo, Sari Lennick, Joanna Arrow, Cosmo Bjorkenheim, Will Blomker, Lauren Brown, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Jon Dieringer, Rayvin Disla, Daniel Gilchrist, Avi Glickstein, Miranda Gruss, Rebecca Gruss, Colin Healey, William Huntley, Joaquina Kalukango, Lucy Kaminsky.Directed by Aaron Schimberg
There is no doubt that filmmaking is a translation of our thoughts and creativity. As such, filmmakers tend to live in a kind of a dream world, one in which they can shape their celluloid world to bring their imagination to life. Once in a while, the lines between real and reel blur somewhat.
Mabel (Wexler) is busy making an indie film to put a little extra jump in her career as an actress. She’s playing a blind patient of a mad doctor (Plunkett) who runs a clinic full of disfigured people, from Siamese twins to bearded ladies to the hideously scarred. The director (Korsmo) – whom it is rumored grew up in a circus and speaks with a pronounced German actor even though he may not be German – in order to enhance the realism is filming in an actual clinic in which the disfigured are cared for and has cast a few in the film, including the romantic lead Rosenthal (Pearson).
Rosenthal has a condition called Neurofibromatosis (which actor Adam Pearson is afflicted with in real life) but has a sweet, gentle soul. He’s not a professional actor and is having trouble remembering his lines and enlists Mabel’s help. Mabel, for her part, has trouble looking straight at her co-star but as they spend time together, her inhibitions begin to dissolve as she sees beyond what Hollywood tends to sell as normal.
Schimberg, making his first American feature, is weaving several stories together; the story of the film crew, the story of the film, the story of a film that the inmates at the clinic are making when the film crew goes back to their hotel at night and perhaps a story that is more meta than at first glance. In that sense, he shows a good deal of ambition and that’s to be applauded.
He also gets to skewer the insular nature of a film set; as the camera wanders through we pick up snippets of conversations and gossip. There’s also some business that have a sense of whimsy to them, like the hospital administrator (Arrow) who is continually looking for someone in charge to get the trucks blocking their driveway moved, or the film crew wondering if Siamese twins are a thing anymore.
He doesn’t pull it off, unfortunately. Towards the end of the film all of the stories begin to blend together until the viewer isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Normally, I’d consider that an artistic triumph but here it feels more like he’s painted himself into a corner and doesn’t really care about leaving tracks on the fresh paint.
Wexler, who has an impressive resume to her credit, shows plenty of screen presence here. She’s undoubtedly a beautiful woman but even beyond that she is able to handle both the shallowness that is part and parcel of the industry but also at the same time manages to give her character a sense of depth beyond the surface. Wexler, who has qualities of both Brie Larson and Drew Barrymore as an actress, manages to fuse both into a complete and compelling character.
There are going to be those who are going to raise questions about exploitation here and in a sense I can understand it. Schimberg utilizes a lot of tight close-ups of Pearson’s face, lingering on the deformities that have almost a prurient aspect to them. He seems to be sending the message Rosenthal is more than his physical attributes but at the same time he seems perfectly okay with dwelling on them. Perhaps that’s a comment on how cinematographers dwell on the features of beautiful actors and actresses in the same way.
This had the making of a compelling film until the final 20 minutes at which time it just seems to lose its way. There’s still plenty of material here to give the average cinephile some food for thought, but not enough to make for a satisfying meal.
REASONS TO SEE: Wexler has oodles of screen presence. The film examines preconceptions of normality and attraction. REASONS TO AVOID: Lethargic pacing with plenty of cinematic non-sequiturs. Goes off the rails in the final third. FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, sexuality and nudity. TRIVIAL PURSUIT:This is the first onscreen acting credit for Korsmo in 20 years since Can’t Hardly Wait (1998). CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100. COMPARISON SHOPPING:Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story FINAL RATING: 6.5/10 NEXT:Official Secrets
In the desert where you can bury your bodies …or not.
(2017) Documentary (Vision) Jacky Rom, Tommy McDonald, Junior Rubio, Arianna Black, Mason Pollack, Jamie Wilson, Sarah Cass, Cash Kasper, Norm Thom, Derek Stevens, John Fiato, Jenny Brown, Vivien Karp, Joseph Charfauros, Sandy Karp, Larry Hess Lyle Rivero, Marco Antonio, Keith Evans, Kristin Whittemore, Isabelle Mondelaers. Directed by Elliot Manarin
How do you kill a person and get away with it? In this era of forensic experts, security cameras and digital footprints, it’s harder than ever – and it was never easy. For most of us, it’s an academic question, something that leads us to watching TV crime shows or reading murder mysteries.
For British crime novelist Jacky Rom however, it’s a whole lot more than idle speculation – it’s a living. The author of best-selling novel From Makeup to Murder, she was hard at work on the follow-up From Vegas to Villainy and needed some ideas on how to do the deed, so to speak. Being the kind of plucky sort who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she heads out to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to figure out how she was going to commit the perfect crime – in a literary sense.
In this hour-long documentary, Rom interviews tattoo artists, photographers, magicians, make-up specialists, lion tamers, archers, casino security experts and firearm specialists. For the most part everything is handled in a fun, lighthearted manner. Rom is endlessly cheerful and comes off like a Brit combining work and vacation, but there are some serious moments. She is visibly affected when she fires a handgun; the recoil establishes just how powerful a weapon it is and just how easy it is to kill someone with it. For a few moments, the crime author seems to be empathizing more with the victims than the investigators.
She seems to have an inventive mind as one of the methods she devises is pure genius if impractical. However, sadly, most of the methods she investigates are pretty run-of-the-mill – I suppose she wanted to keep her best ideas for her book and I could hardly blame her. As it turns out, having lions dispose of the remains of her victim turns out to be a bad idea. When she looks into burying a body in the desert, she discovers it is a whole lot harder than it sounds.
I don’t think this is going to give anyone with criminal intent any nefarious ideas but it is a bit of a lark, even if it moves slowly occasionally. Rom is an engaging personality and I wouldn’t mind spending an hour with her normally but after awhile this begins to feel like one of those British travel documentaries that has an offbeat, morbid bent.
REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating albeit morbid. REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is fairly vanilla and unimaginative. FAMILY VALUES: Although presented in a lighthearted manner, some of the subject here is adult in nature thematically speaking. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a crime novelist, Rom also is a radio hostess in the UK. BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet. COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Commit the Perfect Murder FINAL RATING: 5/10
(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Amy Dowd, Laura Lee, Jay Benedict Brown, Blake Curton, Jerry Cortese, Kit Thompson, Hannah Cagwin, Teresa Cocas, Gary Foster, Taylor Hollenbeck, Lynne Jordan, Dixon White, William Tidwell, Gary J. Neuger, Deb Hultgren, Ronda Belser, Tamara Hutchins, Marian Rothschild, Suzanne Yazzie, Dorinda Dercar. Directed by Kitty Green
The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has captured the attention of the American public for more than 20 years now. The six-year-old beauty pageant entrant was found missing on Christmas Eve 1996 with a four-page ransom note found on the staircase; hours later on Christmas Day her body was found in the basement wrapped in a blanket, her head savagely bludgeoned and then strangled by the neck. It is possible that she was sexually assaulted in her last minutes on earth.
The Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado came under intense media scrutiny; stories didn’t add up and accusations were flung, some fairly ludicrous. Her mother Patsy, her father John and her brother Burke were all at one time or another suspects of the police investigation, which became notorious for its incompetence.
Documentarian Kitty Green took a unique tactic looking at the JonBenet murder. While we have seen plenty of newsmagazine crime show segments and similarly-themed documentaries looking at the murder, Green chose instead to film over 15 months in Boulder, interviewing local actors who were ostensibly auditioning for a movie about the murder.
Boulder being a small college town, it’s unsurprising that some of the actors (some of whom were professional, some not) had personal connections to the Ramsey family; one had a girlfriend at the time of the murder who was John Ramsey’s personal assistant. Another had an aunt who lived in the neighborhood. Another gave vocal lessons to JonBenet herself. All of them who had lived in Boulder in ’96 had opinions of who did it.
We get some of the facts of the case through re-enactments and through anecdotes but if you’re looking for a police procedural or a historical examination of the events that took place, look elsewhere. Green’s aim is not to present an examination of the murder from a typical sense but to see how the murder affected not only the people of Boulder but by extension, the rest of us in America.
As the movie goes on, the camera becomes kind of a confessional and the Ramsey case triggers memories of personal tragedies. One man relates to John Ramsey because he himself was accused of murdering a loved one (he was found innocent and the investigation into him was dropped); another actress remembers the murder of a sibling and how it tore apart her household.
Some of the women empathized with Patsy Ramsey, breaking into tears at the thought of their own child being found alone in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket after being brutally murdered. Those are the moments that the movie works best, giving the viewer an anchor to latch onto. When Green goes the more esoteric route (such as a tracking shot near the end in which the actors act out a variety of the many theories about the murder) the film is less successful.
It has been said about the case that nobody knows the truth but everyone has an opinion. Possibly that’s the message that Green was trying to send but her intentions are a little vague. There aren’t any experts in the facts of the case being interviewed so what we are mostly getting are amateur opinions and you may or may not have any use for those.
Still it makes for compelling viewing into human nature; along with the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of JFK and the OJ Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder captured the public attention like few other crimes in the 20th century. That it remains unsolved to this day is perhaps part of the attraction; that we’ll likely never know what happened in that basement Christmas Eve adds to the tragedy.
REASONS TO GO: There are some moments that pack a powerful emotional punch. This is an at times fascinating take on a story everyone knows generally but not in detail. REASONS TO STAY: It’s more of a social experiment than a documentary. I’m not entirely sure what the point was in making this. FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and disturbing content. TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2017 edition of Sundance. BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. COMPARISON SHOPPING:Kate Plays Christine FINAL RATING: 6/10 NEXT:The Post