Joe Bell


Some roads are harder than others.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinese, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford, Jayne Luke, Juan Antonio, Kenadee Clark, Ash Santos, Cassie Beck, Christina Thurmond, Raquel Horton, Jason Cozmo, Christina Torriente. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Humans tend to fear the different, and that is particularly true of white straight males, or at least, so it seems sometimes. In a conservative town like La Grange, Oregon, a town that prides itself on “American values,” bullying young gay teens seems to have been accepted as adhering to those values.

Joe Bell (Wahlberg) is embarking on a quest; he is walking from La Grange to New York City to put a spotlight on bullying. His son Jadin (Miller) was viciously bullied after coming out, with people leaving messages on his social media profile urging him to off himself. Nevertheless, Jadin became the only male on the cheerleading squad and seemed to be almost defiantly queer, but all was not well. His dad supported him only superficially, so long as his son didn’t embarrass him. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Joe often grew enraged over petty things, and at every opportunity he had to show support for his son, he turned away.

But when Jadin takes his own life, Joe is driven by grief (and perhaps guilt) to make his quest, talking up his message to whoever will listen, or at least that’s what he sets out to do. The brutal truth is that Joe isn’t much of a public speaker and when ordering food in a diner, he overhears some other men making ugly homophobic remarks. Instead of confronting them, he hands them a card and leaves, which Jadin rightfully chides him for. You see, even though Jadin is gone, his spirit is walking alongside Joe every step of the way, alternately cheering him on and questioning his methods and motives.

There are no heroes in this movie except for maybe Jadin, and often Jadin is made out to be a stereotype, a martyr of teen bullying. Joe is self-centered, truly a product of a conservative rural town in which men are in charge, women are there for support and those who don’t fit in are to be humiliated, shunned and driven away. Joe acts the way he does because he doesn’t know any better, and in that sense he is a tragic figure; tragic because he doesn’t see that his lack of support, his refusal to stand beside his son instead of sweeping him under the carpet as much as possible has left Jadin feeling alone and with nowhere to turn, which we see in a powerful scene that announces that Miller is a talent to be reckoned with.

As far as Wahlberg goes, this is not a movie that relies on his natural charisma and easy-going charm. Joe is rough around the edges and often says or does the wrong thing. He alienates his long-suffering wife Lola (Britton) and his other son Joseph (Jenkins) at a time when both are hurting, but Joe only sees his own grief. There’s a scene early on where he is addressing a noisy high school assembly about bullying and it’s almost painful to watch as Joe literally fumbles his way through, saying nothing of any depth and concludes with a lame “Any questions?” when he has given them nothing to analyze. It’s brilliant in the sense that you wouldn’t expect a blue collar dad from rural Oregon to suddenly turn into a brilliant orator. Grief isn’t always enough.

The writing, from the Oscar winning duo of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry who previously collaborated on the far superior Brokeback Mountain, is solid throughout, although to be honest it’s kind of hard to make something interesting of a movie that’s essentially about a guy walking down the side of the road. At times, the movie seems a bit maudlin, and it does feel like a movie that was meant for woke audiences rather than those who really need to see it  I must say, however, that it was nice to see Gary Sinese on the big screen, although his role shows up late in the film as a sympathetic sheriff.

This is another movie whose heart is in the right place but could have used a bit of sprucing up to make it truly marvelous, but we’ll have to make do with memorable performances by Wahlberg and Miller which isn’t really a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Heartfelt messaging. Wahlberg is solid in unfamiliar territory, and Miller is a breakout star.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir somewhat and maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including offensive slurs and disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Jadin is depicted to have died immediately in his suicide attempt, in reality he was still alive when he was discovered and hung on for 15 more days before being taken off life support and passing away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Till Death

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It


Rita Moreno is not above publicizing her own documentary.

(2021) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, Hector Elizondo, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Mitzi Gaynor, Norman Lear, Sonia Sotomayor, Frances Negron-Montaner, Gloria Estefan, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Jackie Speier, Tom Fontana, Terence McNally, Chita Rivera. Directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

When most people think of Rita Moreno, the first thing that comes to mind is her Oscar-winning part as the sizzling, seductive Anita in West Side Story. That isn’t so surprising, but she has had a nearly 70 year career in entertainment, and is the first (and so far only) Latina actress to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards in their career. That’s an accomplishment that is exceedingly rare few actors can make the same claim.

Moreno grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, but remembers her childhood as idyllic. That came to an end when her parents divorced and her mother moved her to New York City. She developed an affinity for dancing and dropped out of school at 16 to become the family’s sole breadwinner. She did get noticed, though and was eventually signed to a contract at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.

The documentary, at a snug 89 minutes, covers most of the highlights of her career; the any reinventions, such as her time on the seminal children’s PBS program The Electric Company and her dramatic role as a nun-prison psychologist in Oz and more recently her starring role in the reboot of One Day at a Time (sadly canceled) and up to her forthcoming appearance in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story which she executive produced.

There are also some of the struggles she underwent; the typecasting as an ethnic actress, often requiring her to wear skin-darkening makeup to play Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic roles. There is also the misogyny, as when Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn told her point blank at a cocktail party that he wanted to have sex with her (in much cruder terms) which as a fairly sheltered teen from Puerto Rico was quite a shock.

Through much of the film, Moreno is seen watching the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Neil Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. These seem to resonate with her in particular; she then talks about her own sexual assault at the hands of an agent. She then says that she still kept him on as her agent, as he was the only one willing to believe in her “so-called career” as few agents would represent anyone of Latin origin as they tended to be typecast in a narrow variety of roles.

Although much of this can be found in Moreno’s 2013 memoir, it might come as new information for those who haven’t read it – including myself. For instance, I’d forgotten that early in her career she’d appeared in both The King and I and Singing in the Rain (in one of her rare non-ethnic appearances). What is more telling is the effect her career has had on those of the Latin performers who followed her and speak about her with reverence, including her One Day at a Time co-star Machado and Broadway emperor Lin-Manuel Miranda. America Ferraro is also seen giving a heartfelt speech at an awards ceremony honoring Moreno. It is a touch hagiographic, but I can’t help but think that if anyone deserves that kind of hero-worship, it’s Moreno.

REASONS TO SEE: A squidge better than the average Hollywood biodoc. Moreno is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and a description of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moreno was the first actor of Puerto Rican descent to win an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympia
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
It’s Not a Burden

Women


In the clutches of a predator.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) Anna Maiche, Anna Marie Dobbins, Adam Dorsey, Michael Simon Hall, Cindy Hogan, Christian I. Noble, Erinn Jones, Christi Cawley, Susanna Matza, Kylie Deire, Kristin Samuelson, David E. McMahon, Victor Rivera, Isaak Wells, Heather Fusari, Denise Gossett, Anthony del Negro, Shea Stewart. Edward Hubay, Ebony Mason, Kelly Schwartz. Directed by Anton Sigurdsson

 

The line between depicting the exploitation of women and actually exploiting them is razor-thin. It is hard to depict torture and sexual assault without crossing that line; good intentions aside, it can get you into trouble in an era where rape culture is being called out for what it is throughout our society.

Detective Hawk (Dorsey) is working a case of a grisly find; a desiccated corpse of a woman is found in the trunk of a car in a junkyard in a small Florida town. As he works the case, he discovers that the woman had gone to the local college where another co-ed, Jennifer (Dobbins) had disappeared some months past. In fact, as Hawk looks into it, there are several beautiful young girls who have passed away. Their relatives all received postcards that basically said “I’m fine. Don’t look for me,” and all took the sociology class of Professor Bradley Gilmore (Hall).

To cap things off, another co-ed – Haley (Maiche) has turned up missing as well. Hawk has some personal demons of his own – his mother is a heroin addict, as was his sister who had similarly vanished and then turned up dead. However, he hasn’t told his mother that his sister has passed on; her emotional state is such that it might just send her over the edge.

Hawk knows that Gilmore has the girls. He has rape accusations in his past, but the charges were dropped – his wealthy family paid off the victims. In the meantime, Professor Bradley is using rape and torture to mold Haley into the perfect wife. Jennifer, who has survived by essentially capitulating to his warped demands, advises her to play along if she wants to live, but Hailey knows she can’t live like this – she plans to escape, although Jennifer implores her not to try. Can Detective Hawk find the girls in time, or can they find a way to escape? If not, the girls will surely die.

Icelandic director Sigurdsson has a difficult task; to make a movie in which women are systematically tortured, humiliated and sexually abused without being exploitive. I’ll be honest with you; I think in some ways, he did succeed and in others, he did not. For example, there’s no overt nudity and most of the sexual assaults take place off-camera. On the other hand, the women in the film are largely shown in victim roles, whether victims of a sexual predator or of drug abuse. While Hailey is at least a strong female character and Jennifer is in her own way, both are largely helpless in their situation.

Sigurdsson also wrote the screenplay and he doesn’t devote much thought to character development. Only Hawk gets any sort of background at all, and Sigurdsson didn’t even give him a first name – Tony, perhaps? – which is not a good idea because in a movie like this, you need your audience to relate to the characters in it and quite frankly, we’re not given enough background for any of them to really develop any sort of simpatico with any of them. The closest one to it is Detective Hawk, and Adam Dorsey’s performance isn’t bad given the circumstances, but he isn’t given a lot of help.

Sigurdsson does have a good feel for tone and while the movie is a slow builder, it does find its footing late in the movie and the final twenty minutes are pretty good. To get there, though, you have to wade through about an hour that is slower than your last period class on the last day of school, or the last hour of work on a Friday before a holiday weekend. One reviewer I read called this misogynistic garbage, and I can understand where she’s coming from, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous to ascribe motivations to someone you have never met and don’t know. Looing as objectively as I can at the final product, I can say there are elements that could be construed as misogyny here, but that doesn’t make this a misogynistic. I agree, the film is quite underwhelming, and I don’t think that it adds anything new to the kidnapping subgenre but it isn’t completely devoid of value either.

REASONS TO SEE: Does get the tension level up nicely late in the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-building – perhaps too much so.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references, sexual content, profanity, rape and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some scenes were filmed at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with students there appearing as extras in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collector
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow’s Hope

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

Don’t Click (2020)


The Internet is full of horror.

(2020) Horror (GravitasValter Skarsgård, Mark Koufos, Catherine Howard, Geoff Mays, May Grehan, Samantha Hart, Dayjan Lesmond, Derrick Rabethge, Erica Sherwood, Ry Barrett, Anthony Polito, Jessica Vano. Directed by G-Hey Kim

 

Those selling us the Internet have portrayed it as a repository for human knowledge and ingenuity, where our lives may be made easier and the ability to access the sum total of everything knowable could lead us to a new golden age…yeah, right.

Like everything else, we humans tend to muck it up with our baser instincts. In this horror opus from G-Hey Kim based on her own short film, college student Josh (Skarsgård) returns home after a night of drinking and partying to find his roommate Zane (Koufos) missing. His laptop, however, is still there and still connected to the site Josh had been watching – something called Beataslut.com. In it, voyeurs may watch the torture and degrading of a woman (Howard) who is gradually stripped, tortured and then eventually murdered by a smiling sadist (Mays).

Abruptly Josh is sucked into the laptop and finds himself in a dungeon with no windows or doors; only a mirror with the phrase “Take a good hard look at yourself” written in what may be lipstick, or might be blood. Therein is also Zane whose lips have been sewed shut and who has had tortures of his own visited upon him. Soon, it becomes obvious that the supernatural entities that are in control of the room can also control Josh, forcing him to do unspeakable things to his roommate. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Zane has been brought there – but why is Josh suffering the same fate?

This is a horror movie with a message and it is attempting to deliver it to the subset of viewers who might need to receive it the most – male horror movie fans. It has never been a secret that horror movies have traditionally been guilty of sexualizing brutality towards women, helping to create a culture of misogyny and rape that society has embraced. And yeah, that might be a harsh and simplistic assessment – rape culture and institutionalized misogyny come from a variety of sources, not just horror films – but let’s face it, horror movies have desensitized young men to brutality towards women for decades now.

The movie harkens back to the torture porn of the late 90s and early 21st century, and skeptics might be forgiven for pointing out that the movie, even as it seems to point out the violence towards women also indulges in it. There is definitely a sense of “do as I say, not as I do” here. It’s also certainly understandable that certain segments of the audience might find the scenes of violence and brutality too much to handle, although most hardcore horror fans will find it no problem at all, although a scene involving a character’s private parts might make even the most rabid of gorehounds a bit squeamish.

Kim does make a few stylistic choices that are questionable; for example, the scenes set in the dungeon are shot at a lower frame rate, giving the action a jumpy and overexposed feel that is more endemic to internet video of 20 years ago, not so much now. Skarsgård does a credible job in the lead role, but his character is somewhat bland and spends a good deal of the movie whining about one thing and another.

As a society, we are all guilty of turning a blind eye to the violence that has been visited upon women, not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional and mental sense as well. The overall theme of the movie is written on the mirror, and it is rare that a horror movie invites us to do just that. While the movie might have benefited from stronger characters, the message is one that can’t be ignored.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale for incels.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too brutal for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, disturbing images, nudity, abusive sexual behavior and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the UK Frightfest this past August.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Max Cloud

DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

The Perfect Candidate


Roles in Saudi Arabia are changing.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Ahmed Al-Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th, Rakan Abdulrahman, Nojoud Ahmed, Naser Al Algeel, Saeed Almana, Ahmad Alsulaimy, Reem Fahad, Bandar Hadadi, Bandar Alkhudair, Hamad Almuzainy, Ismaee Nasser, Muhammad Shaman, Abdullah Ateeg, Reema Mohammed. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enigma to Western minds. While it remains one of the most pro-Western governments in the Middle East, its government remains at times painfully repressive of women, although it did lift the ban on them driving by themselves in 2018 – not even two years ago. Lifting the veil, so to speak, on the lives of women in the Kingdom is no easy matter.

But who better to do so than Al-Mansour, who was the first Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film with the wonderful Wadjda back in 2012. Her protagonist, Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Al Zahrani) has a medical degree and works at a small hospital in a small town near Riyadh. She is constantly belittled by male colleagues, and encounters an elderly patient (Almuzainy) who refuses treatment by a female doctor. When Maryam refuses to back down, her hospital administrator (Hadadi) orders that the man be treated by the male nurses.
Back at home, she helps her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Al Awad) prepare a Ramadan meal for their father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), one of the country’s most gifted oud players. He is still mourning the untimely death of their mother, a beautiful wedding singer whose unusual choice of vocation (for Saudi women, unusual) had made things difficult at times, particularly for the sensitive Sara who disapproves of anything that might bring scrutiny down on the little family.

With Abdulaziz leaving on a national tour, Maryam uses the opportunity to attend a medical conference in Dubai where she is more likely to be noticed and find herself a new, more prestigious job. But there’s a problem; as an unmarried Saudi woman, she needs the permission of her father to travel, and his signature is apparently out of date. Stuck at the airport, desperately trying to get approval to fly to Dubai and with her father unreachable, she tries a cousin (Alsulaimy) to fix the problem. The trouble is, the supercilious administrative assistant won’t let Maryam see him unless she is planning on running for a municipal council office, and she grumpily declares that she is and then is told that her cousin isn’t willing to break the law on behalf, but she decides to make a serious run at it, even though she is told that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of defeating the incumbent. With the support of Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, and the surly resentment of her younger sister Sara, who remembers the difficulties her mom’s profession brought on the family,

While the movie is ostensibly a drama, it is lighthearted enough so that there’s never a sense of gloom or hopelessness. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and, apparently, even women themselves seem to think that progress might be taking place too quickly. We see the ladies taking off their niqab – a mask-like veil that only allows the eyes to be seen – in their homes, and gathering in gender-segregated halls in western dress, something unthinkable not so long ago.

This isn’t the kind of political underdog film that Frank Capra might have made; one gets the sense that Al-Mansour has to tread a very tricky line in order not to be overly critical of her government (she isn’t) while allowing the changes to be celebrated, yet there is certainly an underlying feeling  that more needs to be done. At times the way women are treated is positively medieval.

Both Al Zahrani and Dhay are wonderful performers; Al Zahrani makes Maryam a force of nature when she gets a head of steam going, although early on in the film she is fairly subservient. Dhay, though, is a remarkable burst of fresh air, so joyful and supportive that you’ll want to be her sister too. g

At times, the story moves along at a snail’s pace and there is little in the way of dramatic tension, which you wouldn’t think for a movie with the kind of issues this one raises. It feels virtually sedentary, but perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a Saudi female filmmaker; I imagine she would have to tread fairly lightly if she wants to continue making movies in her own country (although she has established a career in the States as well by now). There are some delightful moments and others that are pedantic; they about even each other out. So, not the triumph that Wadjda was, but certainly not a failure either.

REASONS TO SEE: Al Zahrani is a formidable presence and Dhay injects much vitality into the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times it lacks dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some misogyny on display.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official Saudi entry in the Best International Film category for the 92nd Academy Awards last spring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saudi Women’s Driving School
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Uncle Peckerhead

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

What Men Want


Touchdown!

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Richard Roundtree, Tracy Morgan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Josh Brener, Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, Max Greenfield, Jason Jones, Pete Davidson, Brian Bosworth, Chris Witaske, Erykah Badu, Kellan Lutz, Kausar Mohammed, Paul B. Johnson, Auston Moore, Shane Paul McGhie, Lisa Leslie. Directed by Adam Shankman

In 2000, Mel Gibson had a hit rom-com with What Women Want, in which a bathtub electrocution gave him the power to hear the thoughts of women (but not men). In this gender-reversal update (and I use the term loosely), Henson stars as Ali Davis, a brash and ambitious sports agent working basically at a white boy’s club where she hopes to become partner. When she’s passed over, she demands to know why since she has an impressive list of Olympic athletes with an impressive list of endorsements; her smarmy boss replies “You just don’t connect with men.”

Well, that problem is about to be solved by singer-songwriter Erykah Badu who plays Sister, a wacky psychic who is hired by a bachelorette party that Ali is attending. She supplies Ali with a drug-laced tea and then for good measure, Ali gets knocked upside the head by an oversized dildo. When she comes to, voila! She can hear the thoughts of men (but not women). She hopes to use her new superpower to her own advantage rather than trying to stop Thanos in his evil mission…err., wrong film. In any case, she discovers it isn’t so much what men are thinking that’s important (and non-spoiler alert – I think most women have a pretty good clue what men are generally thinking) but what is inside her own head that really matters.

The movie is full of rom-com clichés and never really excites any sort of glee from the audience. Henson is a talented actress who I’ve been a great fan of for more than a decade, and she does do her best here, but she has to contend with Badu’s shameless overacting (although to be fair Badu is pretty much the most consistently funny in the cast), a script that does her no favors and patter that rather than being snappy falls about as flat as a remake of a comedy about misogyny in the era of #MeToo. Timing matters.

REASONS TO SEE: Henson is a little bit over-the-top but still always watchable.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and sexual content, along with some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first R-rated film to be directed by Shankman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Women Want
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Relic

Lords of Chaos


Welcome to my nightmare.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Gunpowder & SkyRory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Wilson Gonzalez, Lucian Charles Collier, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwyn, Gustaf Hammarsten, Jon Ølgarden, Arion Csihar, Jason Arnopp, Tom van Hoesch, Dzsenifer Bagi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

In the mid-90s, black metal rose out of Norway as a reaction to what the practitioners viewed as the trendiness of death metal. The group Mayhem essentially defined the genre, then became enmeshed in it, finally being destroyed by it, even though the band continues to perform even to this day.

Disaffected Norwegian Euronymous (Culkin) forms the band as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with Norway’s Christian society and to take death metal further than it seemed likely to go. When Swedish lead singer Dead (Cohen) commits suicide, Euronymous – who discovered the body – seems to grow callous towards the grisly end of his friend, even handing out necklaces that contained bone fragments from his bandmate’s skull to the remaining members of Mayhem as well as to musicians that he liked.

He takes under his wing teenage Varg Vikernes (Cohen) who has the zeal of a convert. Varg takes to burning churches, some of them centuries old and Norwegian cultural treasures. Euronymous heartily approves of this behavior, even though he is more of an observer than a participant. Things begin to get dicey between the two as Varg brags – anonymously – about the deeds, even boasting that he had killed someone – to the press. Euronymous is horrified, understanding that this could get them all arrested but Varg feels that they need to be feared, to make a statement that this is not just posing but who they really are. As the two men grow more paranoid, it leads to a fracture within the band – and a shocking crime.

Åkerlund has plenty of insight into the scene; as a young man he played drums for the Swedish band Bathory which was an inspiration to the real Mayhem but strangely enough, we don’t get much. The motivations for these people to do genuinely evil acts seems to be a kind of macho one-upsmanship and a fear of being labeled a poseur. Although the film takes place in Norway, the film is in English with the character of Euronymous providing narration. Cohen sounds a bit like Christian Slater which also is somewhat disconcerting.

Surprisingly little black metal is used on the soundtrack; in fact, the lead-up to the climax utilizes Dead Can Dance – decidedly not a metal band – effectively as the background score. The suicide is graphic as is the final scene and sensitive sorts should definitely steer clear; that final scene is particularly brutal and realistic. The movie is interesting as a character study, but at the end of the day we get the distinct impression that who these guys really were was a bunch of asshats.

REASONS TO SEE: Disturbing in an interesting way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems to glorify knuckle-dragging behavior.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s chock full of profanity; there’s also nudity, sex, graphic bloody violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Euronymous is portrayed here smoking regularly and drinking heavily but in reality he rarely drank anything stronger than Coca-Cola and did not smoke.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Until the Light Takes Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beyond Skiing Everest