Summertime


In L.A., you can always see the stars.

(2020) Musical (Good Deed) Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Major, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene’t Benton, Gordon Ip, Gihee Hong, Anna Osuna, Caedmon Branch, Mila Cuda, Paolina Acuña-Gonazlez, Gabriela de Luna, Sun Park, Walter Finnie Jr., Jason Alvarez, Doug Klinger, Joel Dupont, Sophia Thomas. Directed by Carlos López Estrada

 

I grew up in Los Angeles. I spent my formative years there, from age six until I graduated college at age 21. I still feel deep connective roots to L.A. and so movies that are love letters to the City of Angels often tap a soft spot in my heart. Just sayin’.

Carlos López Estrada’s (Blindspotting) new film is just that. Set on a warm, summer day in La La Land, it careens from the beach communities to the inner city to the suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which was once described when I was living there as a bunch of suburbs in search of a city. That’s a bit of a mean-spirited description, but it isn’t entirely inaccurate.

There’s not much plot here; in that sense, this is more of a collection of shorts than a cohesive whole but essentially, we are taken on a tour of the neighborhoods of L.A. by a group of young poets, each with their own issues. The characters sometimes are on their own, other times they run into each other (sometimes literally) and only at the end do we have any sort of cohesive group moment. The individual poets wrote their own poetry and created their own characters, often using their own names. For example, Tyris Winter plays a young gay black man who has been rejected by his family and is essentially crashing on the couches of his friends. Outraged by the gentrification of a beloved diner that no longer serves hamburgers but instead offers avocado toast for fifteen bucks, he goes on a rant against the high price of things before stalking out in search of a moderately priced burger, which turns out to be more of a difficult quest than he (or we) expect. He is one of the bright spots in the film and tends to be the connecting tissue for the whole movie.

Then there is Marquesha Babers who just about steals the show near the end of the film as a plus-sized girl who has been hurt because of her size. Toting a book by a therapist that urges its readers to “rap away their demons,” she confronts an ex-crush who rejected her because of her weight and lets him have it in an emotional bring-down-the-house rap that anyone who has been rejected by a potential romantic partner because of their size or their looks will certainly relate to.

Adding comedy relief is the rapping duo of Anewbyss (Banks) and Rah (Antoine) who go from street corner rappers struggling to get people to buy their mixtape to jaded hitmaking superstars during the course of a single day, lamenting in a crowded burger joint that they miss the simplicity of their former lives. That comes directly after a rant by a fast food worker (Yip) who, fed up with a counter full of Karens and a minimum wage job that expects him to provide elite level service, decides to give away burgers to all comers.

The other highlight for me is an argument between mother (de Luna) and daughter (Acuña-Gonzalez) about the shade of the daughter’s lipstick, which leads to a discussion about how men perceive women which leads to a wonderful dance of waitresses in bright red dresses accosting a car full of wolf-whistlers with an assertive dance that is beautiful in its empowerment.

Not everything works; the opening song which involves a skateboarding guitar player singing a folky love song to L.A. falls a bit flat, sounding pretentious and at times the artists do sink into self-righteous diatribes. Some of the performances are stiff, or unnecessarily over-the-top, even some of the good ones occasionally lose focus.

All of the poets are from one marginalized group or another, whether it be people of color, LGBTQ, plus-size people, or women. Some will roll their eyes and smirk “Hollywood liberalism” at that, but it’s hard to forget that these are groups that have largely been ignored and get to express their joy and their love for a city that is often misunderstood.

Honestly, I’m not particularly into rap or slam poetry, and there’s a lot of both here but I found myself drawn in to the feeling of community and neighborhood. This is not the idealized L.A. of other movies, but a more realistic one where diversity has led to some cultural overlapping and a bit more acceptance among those who have grown up among other cultures, other points of view. Those who grew up in a single culture may dismiss this as woke Hollywood socialist crap, but they miss the point. This is about all of us being in the same leaky boat and while the boat might be a little beat up and dingy, there is much to love about it. This is a movie that may not be on your radar that you should definitely check out.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling and innovative, a movie that grows on you as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the sequences are overly mannered and pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Estrada got the idea for the movie while watching a poetry slam event in L.A.; most of the cast were recruited from similar area events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Heights
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Green Sea

The Penny Black


Who knew collecting stamps could be so exciting?

(2020) Documentary (1091) Will Cassayd-Smith, Cheryl Baumbaugh, Alex Greer, Joe Saunders, Bonnie Collins, Allison, Roman. Directed by William J. Saunders

 

The Penny Black was the first self-adhesive stamp in history. It was first issued in 1840 and has a bit of an odd history. Because of its color, the British Post Office had to cancel the stamps using red ink, which as it turned out was water soluble and could be washed, allowing the canny to reuse the stamps. The British, who are nothing if not problem solvers, simply put out new stamps called Penny Reds which could be canceled with black ink which was NOT water soluble. Problem solved.

As you can guess, those stamps which are over 175 years old, are fairly valuable. But why, pray tell, are we interested in this old stamp? Well, meet Will Cassayd-Smith, an affable young Millennial living in Los Angeles. He sometimes would go outside his apartment to smoke, and there he would often meet one of his neighbors, a man with a heavy Russian accent he knew only as Roman. The two men got to know each other and often went out to local bars to have a few adult beverages. One night, when Roman had more than a few, he prevailed upon Will to watch a package for him. He’s been fighting with his wife, you see, and he doesn’t want to leave it with her because she might sell it just to spite him. Will says sure, Roman thanks him and says he’ll be back in two weeks.

Two weeks come and go and Roman doesn’t return. Will becomes concerned and takes a look at the package and finds one large book, two smaller books and several loose leaf pages – all filled with stamps. And, when weeks stretch into months, Will takes the collection to be appraised and discovers that there are more than a few stamps worth tens of thousands of dollars, including the Penny Black – which, incidentally, isn’t the most valuable stamp in the collection.

Will is beginning to freak out. He never counted on having to be responsible for something of that value. And what happened to Roman? How did he come by these stamps? The more Will finds out, the more unsettled he becomes. His friend, a sports documentary producer, becomes involved in chronicling the tale for Will.

But Will has a checkered past of his own. His father, from whom he’s estranged, was a con artist who forged documents and artwork, before being deported for his crimes. And Will suddenly has a brand new car, followed up by a brand new sailboat. How did he get them? Gifts. But one of the stamp books is missing. Where did it go? Will is vague. He doesn’t remember. Maybe when he and his girlfriend Alison broke up and he moved out, it accidentally got thrown out. Sounds a bit sketchy to me.

And that’s kind of the point. If ever there was a poster boy for unreliable narration, it’s Will. Saunders wisely doesn’t let you know what he thinks about the whole situation, other than it sounds fishy. He seems to accept Will’s explanations at face value, and that’s not hard to do because Will is doing and saying the right things. He has hired a private detective to look into finding the whereabouts of Roman. He also explores the possibility that the collection was stolen, talking to a woman in Arizona who reported a sizable theft of stamps from her grandfather’s estate. Are these stamps from that collection? We never find out definitively.

And that’s where the genius of the movie comes in – this isn’t a movie about explanations. You pretty much have to find your own. And when Roman does finally show up, things get really tense and crazy, but we are still left with far more questions than answers. One begins to wonder how legitimate Will’s tale is. And then one wonders if the filmmakers are in on it if it’s not. That’s brilliant filmmaking.

There are some hiccups. The soundtrack is overbearing and intrusive. One would have wished for less music, or at least something a little less obvious. The story also has a tendency to make abrupt cuts from one direction to the other; that may well have been how it developed in real time, but it still feels choppy.

We live in untrustworthy times. We view our neighbors with suspicion and our only friends are online, well beyond arm’s length. The movie isn’t commenting on that directly, but trustworthiness is certainly a major component of the movie. The story is compelling enough to hold your interest from beginning to end, at which time it directs you to the film’s website for further details. There are several deleted scenes available on the website, but no further clarity. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Some stories were never meant to be clear.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly intriguing story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is intrusive and overbearing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Slamdance in 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder Death Koreatown
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

Saint Judy


Don’t fence me in.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Blue Fox) Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany, Common, Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Ben Schnetzer, Gabriel Bateman, Waleed Zuaiter, Mykelti Williamson, Peter Krause, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Chapman, Gil Birmingham, Roxie Hanish, Rob Brownstein, Fahim Fazli, Samira Izadi, Kim Strother, Allel Aimiche, Anne Betancourt, Peter Jason, Michael Hagiwara, Ceci Lugo. Directed by Sean Hanish

 

Judy Wood (Monaghan) is a lawyer who moved to Los Angeles so that her son (Bateman) can be close to his dad (Krause) from whom Wood is divorced. She gets into the immigration law firm of Ray Hernandez (Molina). She’s expected to churn out open-and-shut cases as quickly as possible, but she latches on to the plight of Asefa (Lubany), an Afghan activist who tried to set up a school for women, which the Taliban took exception to and subjected her to torture and rape. She fled to the United States to request asylum – only to discover that the law didn’t cover women in that situation because women aren’t a minority. Drugged by American prison officials, at the end of her rope, knowing that she will die if she is returned to Afghanistan, Judy is her last hope.

Released in the midst of the Trump presidency when immigration was a hot-button topic, the film boasts a top-knotch cast led by the criminally underrated Monaghan, who has a career full of terrific performances but never seems to get the credit due for her talents. This movie, which pretty much barely created a ripple during its release, is the perfect example. I think that at some point Marvel needs to cast her as a superheroine so that she can start getting the roles and recognition she deserves. Unfortunately, despite some strong supporting performances (particularly from Lubany, Common as a sympathetic prosecutor, Molina and Kruse), the script eschews human drama in favor of emotional outbursts, plot development in favor of pontificating. While nobody can argue with the importance of Wood’s work or the justness of her cause, the movie seems to have taken its title a bit too seriously, which is ironic since the name was given to Wood as a bit of an insult – too good to be true, never met a cause she didn’t stand up for and so on. The movie would have benefitted from less posturing and more insight.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan is appealing, leading a stellar cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: On the schmaltzy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and the description of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dmitry Portnoy, who wrote the screenplay, was a former intern of Wood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Erin Brockovich
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Audible

Rebel Hearts


Crusading for social justice.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, Corita Kent, Lenore Dowling, Sheila Biggs, Clement Connelly, Pat Reif, Helene McCambridge, Ruthanne Murray, Francis J. Weber, Mary Mark Zeyen, Mickey Myers, Ray Smith, Marian Sharples, Dorothy Dunn, Daniel Berrigan, Frances Snyder, Patrice Underwood, Rita Callanan, Rosa Manriquez. Directed by Pedro Kos

 

Most of us think of ruler-wielding martinets when we think about nuns, dressed in habits that often made them look like giant penguins. That image was perpetuated by the media to a certain extent, but the truth is that it’s not terribly accurate and hasn’t been for many decades. The reason it is inaccurate is largely due to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a convent of nuns in heathen Los Angeles who in the Sixties, launched a revolution of their own.

Prior to that, nuns were Brides of Christ, women devoted to service in poverty (and often in silence) and devoted to prayer and community with their fellow sisters. They were “God’s career women,” according to a newsreel from the postwar era, and that was fairly apt. Into this mix came a couple of far-reaching events. The first was the installation of James McIntyre as Cardinal of the Los Angeles diocese. A former Wall Street runner, he ran the diocese pretty much as a business, erecting a large number of schools to serve the burgeoning population of Los Angeles and staffing them largely with nuns who weren’t paid and were woefully unprepared and unqualified to teach (perhaps the reputation for torturous discipline came out of that inexperience).

The Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and ended in 1965 under Paul VI, represented a seismic shift for the Church. It for the first time allowed the mass to be performed in the local vernacular rather than in Latin which prior to 1965 it was exclusively performed in; it also started a process of liberalization which, among other things, allowed nuns to decide whether to continue to wear habits or dress in more modern outfits.

This became an issue in Los Angeles largely because the very conservative McIntyre (who was likely one of the Cardinals who voted against ratifying the results of Vatican II, as it was known then) disapproved of most of the more liberal aspects of the council’s edicts. The nuns, who inhabited a garden-like convent near Hollywood, also ran a private college which didn’t fall under the Cardinal’s control; it was a liberal arts school (emphasis on the liberal) that taught art and sociology with equal fervor as it did theology.

On the college staff was art teacher Corita Kent, who was producing silkscreen art of her own, text-based pop art that reflected the turbulence of the late Sixties, largely with anti-war and social justice messages that should have been in line with the church’s teachings of peace and justice for all, but in that era the church was more rigid and conservative than it is now. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest in that era, began to protest the war and racial inequality (among other things) and sisters of Immaculate Heart began to show up at protests as well (one marched with Martin Luther King at Selma). Fed up with his fractious sisters, the Cardinal began pressuring them to mend their ways until a showdown became inevitable.

I grew up in Los Angeles during that era; I do remember the run-in between Cardinal McIntyre and the sisters and it was much talked-about in Catholic schools in the era following (I was in Catholic high school in the mid-Seventies and in a Jesuit University in the late Seventies and early Eighties). So in a lot of ways, I got a feeling of nostalgia from the film that may not necessarily be the experience of others who see it, so do take that into encount when reading the rest of my review.

While most of the interviews with the aging sisters were recorded several years ago (Kent, for example, passed away in 1986). He utilizes animations created by Brandon Blommaert and Una Lorenzen that playfully reflect Kent’s graphic style and often depict McIntyre as a rampaging demonic presence, which according to some of his assistants (who were also interviewed here) was not far from the truth.

The women that we meet in the interviews are gracious but feisty; they look back with some amusement at their place in history, amazed that these women who simply wanted to be taken seriously were considered to be such thorns in the side of the church that they were at one point given a choice to return to the old ways that the sisters conducted their affairs or risk expulsion.

It is these interviews that are the heart and soul of the film, because these ladies were the heart and soul of American Catholicism, even though they (and indeed, most Catholics) didn’t realize it at the time. Their courage in the face of a powerful, intractable foe has brought bar-reaching changes, which are still ongoing today. If you ask me, the Church is in need of a Vatican III and if one should ever be called, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart should be inspiration for the proceedings.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is done in the style of Sister Conita’s artwork. Very reflective of its times. The nuns are lively, engaging and courageous.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have less appeal for non-Catholics.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the interview segments were conducted by Shawnee Isaac-Smith and were conducted years ago as many of the women interviewed here have passed away since.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Greater Love: A Unique Portrait of the Carmelite Nuns
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Tove

Reflection: a walk with water


A world without water is dry and dusty.

(2021) Documentary (Reflection Film LLC) Emmett Brennan, Kathy Bancroft, Connor Jones, Rhamis Kent, Gigi Coyle, Ariel Greenwood, Andy Lipkis, Raymond Hunter, Kate Bunney, Alan Babcock, Brock Dolman, Geoff Dalglish, Ben Holgate, Paul Kaiser, Penny Livingston. Directed by Emmett Brennan

 

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without it, all life would be impossible. Without it, humans would auickly – within a matter of days – become extinct. Water helps provide oxygen for the planet through evaporation but also by watering plants which provide it. Water grows our food which we need to live. Water keeps us hydrated, which our bodies must have to survive. In short, water is life.

In 1913, the city of Los Angeles built an aqueduct leading from the Owens Valley, nearly 250 miles away. The ambitious plan provided nearly four times the amount of water the city of Los Angeles needed at the time, but it proved to be a far-sighted plan as within seven years, the population of Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in California. Until recently, the Los Angeles aqueduct provided nearly 75% of the city’s water.

But there is a price to pay for everything. The Owens Lake shrunk dramatically, becoming a dry lakebed. Once a fertile agricultural region, the Owens Valley became little more than a desert (which, ironically, was what the San Fernando Valley had been before the aqueduct). The dust particulates in the lakebed proved to be a bigger problem, causing respiratory problems for the residents and carrying carcinogenic materials.

Environmentalist, activist and filmmaker Emmett Brannon wanted to call attention to the plight of the Owens Valley, but also to the effects of water mismanagement, which was leading to the epidemic of wildfires that have been plaguing Southern California over the last few years. He and a group of like-minded environmentalists decided to hike alongside the aqueduct to show the effects that the water theft had on the regions left behind.

The science is compelling. The presence of water creates a self-regenerating ecosystem in which water evaporates and creates rain, fog and mist which nourish the soil from which the water can then create rain, fog and mist and start the cycle once again. Without water, soil becomes denser, and actually becomes water-resistant. Of course, once the water is gone, so is the rain for the most part. Brennan and the scientists that he utilizes for the film then go on to suggest solutions.

A lot of time is spent bashing the city of Los Angeles, which is a bit childish and unnecessary. What’s done is done, and the city can’t very well cut off water on which millions of people depend on. Brennan and his team don’t seem to be very thrilled with the idea of irrigation either; the general feeling I got is that water should be left to do what nature intended it to do. I suspect the farmers in the region might not appreciate their solutions, nor the hundreds of millions who are fed from the crops that come out of California alone. I get the sense that there is an awful lot of New Age thought that went into the film; that has a tendency to sabotage the science that also went into it. Mantras and formulas don’t mix.

In that sense, this is a very Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of documentary. There is some useful information in it as well as some solutions that merit further study for a problem that is real and needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the filmmaker looked as globally at the problem as he might have because I don’t get the sense he took into account the consequences of the changes he proposed to the lives of the people that would be affected by them. Just because a documentary addresses a problem that needs to be addressed doesn’t mean the solutions it proposes are viable.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes some salient points about the misuse of water.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science is diluted with a disturbing amount of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cabin seen at the beginning of the film is Brennan’s residence and he built it himself.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Tribeca @ Home (June 16-23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flow
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigre Gente

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

Take Out Girl


It’s not easy scratching a living in the mean streets.

(2020) Drama (1091) Hedy Wong, Ski Carr, Lynna Yee, J. Teddy Garces, Lorin Alond Ly, Dijon Talton, Mier Chasin, Lizette Hunter, Joe Rudy Guerrero Jr., Tony Bentajado, Cole Bernstein, Melissa Del Rosario, Adia Bell, Collin Hayes, Zavieh Harrell, Veronica Mitsuk, Marilyn Simon, Caslin Rose, Tania Nolan, Crystal Powell, Jody Marie. Directed by Hisonni Mustafa

 

Life is hard, particularly in neighborhoods that are not affluent. It seems like the game is rigged for those who already have all the money they could ever need and those who are just trying to get out of poverty and make a decent life for themselves have little to no chance at succeeding at that worthy goal.

Some just give up, but that’s not how Tera Wong (Wong) is wired. She is a born fighter, bred to take crap from nobody, and raised in an environment where you have to stand up for yourself or face being knocked down over and over again. That’s life in the bottom of South Central. She’s gone to college to learn business to better take care of her mother’s failing Chinese restaurant, but has withdrawn from school as she realizes that she is needed at the restaurant more.

Her mom (Yee) is bone-weary, suffering from a back injury she can’t afford to get fixed up – or even get decent pain meds for. She can’t even afford to take time away from work to rest her back. It’s a grim catch-22 that makes Tera, and her gang-banging brother Saren (Ly) angry and frustrated. Cousin Crystal (Chasin) also works at the restaurant, although her outlook is a little more optimistic. In the meantime, Tera knows all the side hustles in the world won’t elevate this restaurant out of the gutter, where she and her family seem destined to reside.

Then while out delivering, she crosses paths with Lalo (Carr), a local drug dealer. He seems to take a shine to Tera, who calls him on his crap, much to the disgust of Lalo’s enforcer Hector (Garces) and Girl Friday Chuey (Hunter). That’s when Tera hits upon an idea; she can run drugs for Lalo without ever being given a second glance. Most of Lalo’s runners affect a look right out of a gangsta rap video, almost asking for the cops to keep a wary eye out for them. Who would give a cute Chinese girl a second glance?

At first things work out better than Tera could have dreamed as finally she’s making enough money to help her mom in a concrete way. However, there is always a price to pay for walking on that side of the street and as tough as Tera may be, that bill will come due and sooner rather than later.

Urban crime dramas concerning unlikely people getting involved in the drug trade are nothing new; there are even several about Asian women getting caught up in drug distribution, some fairly recent. Few have had as electrifying a performance as the one delivered here by Hedy Wong to fall back on. Wong, who co-wrote the movie based on her own experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, plays a young woman who has learned to keep the walls up and the defenses on high alert. Her stiff posture, with the baseball cap slung low over her eyes, her lips tight in a kind of cupid-bow pout with a hard edge on it tell you all you need to know about the character. She is seemingly fearless – until you look closer. Her eyes sometimes betray the fact that she’s in over her head and knows it.

Her hard edges might make it difficult to identify with the character early on; when someone mutters “bitch” under their breath after an interaction with her, you can’t help but agree. But that’s not her whole story, and as the movie unspools you begin to see deeper into a character who has had to become hard out of necessity.

The dialogue is meant to be gritty and snappy, but it comes off as a bit cliché. Also, while the movie starts off compelling, it seems to lose its way about halfway through and finishes with a sputter rather than a roar, utilizing an ending that feels rushed and unearned. You may well lose interest by that time; I just about did, although the final twist would have been a good one if the filmmakers had taken the time to develop the ending a little more. In other words, if they had given as much care to the ending as to the beginning this might have been a much more solid film, but you end up feeling like you watched half a movie by the time the end credits roll.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out as a compelling urban drama.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and peters out at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity along with drug references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although meant to portray downtown Los Angeles, the movie was actually filmed in nearby Riverside.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Nice
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn

Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

Take Me to Tarzana


Making plans over a single generic beer; now THAT’S living the high life!

(2021) Comedy (GravitasJonathan Bennett, Maria Conchita Alonso, Samantha Robinson, Oliver Cooper, Kahyun Kim, Andrew Creer, Owen Harn, Kent Shocknek, Chris Coppola, Kimberly Joy McBride, Betsy Hume, Bob Wiltfong, Henry Brooke, Desiree Staples, Emanuel Hernandez, Denny Nolan, Andrew J. Rice, Ivan Ehlers, Kevin Dembinsky, Elle Vernee.  Directed by Maceo Greenberg

 

These days, big corporations and in particular, Big Tech make big targets. So do creepy, misogynist bosses. We all know that everyone hates all of those things. Well, ALMOST everyone.

Miles (Creer) works at Teleplex, a data mining company. It’s a far from ideal working environment, with a boss (Cooper) who is as abusive as they come and with unreasonable expectations. People are worked like the wage slaves they are and Miles can barely afford to live in the apartment he rents, despite having what most woud consider a stable job.

His cubicle is next to Jane (Robinson), one of those incredibly beautiful girls who always seem to be absolutely unobtainable. She has crosses to bear of her own; that same boss, Charles, consistently demeans her and she seems to have to work twice as hard as the men to earn any sort of respect.

But things are a lot worse than Mies thought they were; in fact, Charles has hidden cameras all over the building including under Jane’s desk and in the women’s bathroom, the better to perve on all the gals in the office. When he brings this to Jane’s attention, rather than go to the police or even to HR, she wants to get back at Charles in a more meaningful way. They enlist Miles’ party animal friend Jameson (Bennett) to help dig up the real goods on the company but when they get the dirt on Charles, they discover that the hidden cameras are only the tip of the iceberg.

As far as workplace comedies go, the top of the pyramid is the 1999 Mike Judge movie Office Space with which this film shares some thematic elements in common. I think, however, that Greenberg is loathe to have his own film compared to that classic comedy; for one thing, he shifts tones about two thirds of the way through the film in what can only be described as a jarring and unexpected manner. From that point, the movie falls off the rails in a big way.

That’s a shame, because up to that point it’s pretty enjoyable. I might have wished for edgier comedy, but the leads of Robinson and Creer are pretty nifty. Both are very likable and although Miles is a bit on the wishy washy side, Jane is a strong, powerful woman whom you wouldn’t want to cross. The character of Jameson, though, seemed to be somewhat unnecessary to me; he’s meant to provide comic relief but his Spicoli-like antics really don’t do anything to make the film better.

All in all the movie is mostly likable but that shift from workplace comedy to faux thriller really dooms it. I wouldn’t try to talk you out of giving this a try from your local streaming service for a weekend pizza and movie night on a cod winter evening, but then again I think you could probably do better as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Creer and Robinson have much potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor needs more edge.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Office Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Judas and the Black Messiah

The Go-Go’s


They got the beat.

(2020) Music Documentary (Eagle RockBelinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Margot Olaverra, Ginger Canzoneri, Elissa Bello, Pleasant Gehman, Miles Copeland, Kathleen Hanna, Sting, Terry Hall, Lee Thompson, Lynval Golding, Chris Connelly, Dave Robinson, Paula Jean Brown, Richard Gottehrer, Stuart Copeland, Jann Wenner, Martha Quinn. Directed by Alison Ellwood

 

What the hell is wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? More to the point, why aren’t the Go-Go’s in it?

This is a band that has never truly been taken seriously. Even at the height of their fame, they were written off by critics as a lightweight pop band, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were trailblazers. They didn’t have a Svengali behind them as the Runaways, who have received far more props from the critical community. They achieved their success on their own. Maybe it’s because they flamed out so quickly, but there are bands in the Hall that have had shorter careers than they.

The Go-Go’s emerged from the L.A. punk scene that gave us bands like X, Motels, The Germs, and the Minutemen, among others. Jane Wiedlin, the manic pixie dreamgirl guitarist for the band, talks candidly of her own depression which led to a suicide attempt at 15; she was rescued by a punk scene that empowered her and inspired her to join a band with vocalist Belinda Carlisle.

The nascent group were more enthusiastic than accomplished. Early footage of them shows a band that can barely play their instruments, but even though their music is very different than what it would eventually become, that pop sheen can still clearly be heard. They eventually added guitarist Charlotte Caffey who turned out to be a talented songwriter who gave them their first hit single, “We Got the Beat,” inspired by a viewing of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

They became better, growing a following. They added a new drummer, Gina Schock, who turned out to be a world-class skin-pounder. And then when original bassist Margot Olaverra, who resisted the band’s shift from pure punk to a more pop-oriented sound, became ill, they recruited former Textones guitarist Kathy Valentine to take her spot. Valentine, who had never played bass before at the time, recalls learning the entire set of her new band in a two-day cocaine-fueled binge.

An early milestone was an invitation to tour England as an opening act for the Specials and Madness, two ska revival bands who the Go-Go’s opened for in L.A. It turned out to be a difficult tour; the Go-Go’s didn’t play ska music and often got booed off the stage, or spat upon by white nationalists who were fans of the ska movement (which is kind of ironic, when you think of it; most of the ska bands at the time were integrated and the music itself was based on music from Jamaica). It did get them attention enough from Stiff Records, the influential English independent label which then released “We Got the Beat” as a single. During the tour, Wiedlin became romantically involved with Specials frontman Terry Hall and the two wrote another song that would become a signature of the band: “Our Lips are Sealed.”

Miles Copeland, manager of The Police, signed the band to his fledgling IRS Records label who released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. Jet-propelled by the two singles, it rose to number one on the charts and established the group as a major hitmaker. From there, they got on the rock and roll treadmill of touring, making a new album, touring, rinse, repeat.

Like other bands in the industry, the group was beset by the usual problems; squabbles about royalty payments, drug use (Caffey hid a burgeoning heroin addiction from the band, even as she continued to write the majority of their hits), Even as the Go-Go’s were becoming one of the biggest acts in rock and roll, the seeds of their implosion were planted; they fired their longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri for a more corporate management team, and eventually Wiedlin left the band. They replaced her briefly with Paula Jean Brown, but the chemistry of the band had already been affected. Six months after Wiedlin left the band, the rest of the group called it a day.

Ellwood has assembled a pretty standard rockumentary with plenty of interviews. The band is remarkably candid about their own foibles with the exception of Carlisle who while forthcoming about her own drug habit in the past, doesn’t mention it here and only obliquely refers to the role her own ego played in the schisms that ultimately broke the band apart. Ellwood does a good job of capturing the bond that still exists between the band (as the documentary was being completed, the band recorded their first material together in nearly two decades). She’s less successful at offering context of how the band was affected by their era – and how they affected succeeding eras. Only Bikini Kill’s outspoken Kathleen Hanna really remarks on the influence the band had on female musicians that came afterwards.

It’s hard to understand why this band hasn’t gotten the credit that is due them. Their music was never outwardly political or topical and thus became timeless; they sang about love and lust and loneliness; the things we all relate to. They did it with a relentlessly cheerful beat and irresistible pop hooks. There is skill involved in all of that but the band ended up being marginalized by everyone except their fans.

Nobody really took them seriously back then, a head-scratching attitude that continues to this day. There is the fact that they are all very attractive women and there is a tendency to look at attractive women as incompetents who get by on their looks rather than talent. It could be the mere fact that they are women, but when I think back to the recent documentaries on Joan Jett and Hanna, women whose music was more aggressive than that of the Go-Go’s, and the critical reception to both of those who hailed the subjects of those films as innovators and trailblazers. Well, so were the Go-Go’s but even now I don’t see the same type of acclaim being accorded them. Perhaps a more strident documentary was needed to maybe force people to listen. This band deserves better. They always have.

REASONS TO SEE: Puts the spotlight on a group that never really got its due.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Go-Go’s were the first (and to date, only) all-female group to play their own instruments and write their own songs to have a number one album on the Billboard charts.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV,  Fubo, Google Play, Showtime, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Reputation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Little Fish