Carmine Street Guitars


Flowers aren’t the gift; flowers come with the gift.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly, Dallas Good, Travis Good, Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, Eszter Balint, Jim Jarmusch, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Charlie Sexton, Kirk Douglas, Dave Hill, Eleanor Friedberger, Jamie Hince, Stewart Hurwood, Christine Bougie. Directed by Ron Mann

 

It is sometimes depressing to consider how the world has become so commodified. Everything is product now; mass-produced, soulless, disposable. Hand-crafted items are a rarity now, and becoming rarer by the day. Few people take the time or the effort to make things from scratch.

Rick Kelly is one of those people. He has a storefront in Greenwich Village in New York City; the titular Carmine Street Guitars. There, he and his apprentice Cindy Hulej make guitars the old-fashioned way – by hand. Rick uses wood rescued from buildings that have been demolished, buildings that predate the Civil War and I’m not talking about the Marvel movie.

This documentary ostensibly follows the shop for a week in the life, although it doesn’t ostensibly say so. There are pictures on the wall of some of the store’s famous customers (one, a signed photo of Robert Quine, is crooked and no amount of fiddling will straighten it out) which include the late Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s current guitarist, former New Wave pretty boy Charlie Sexton, drops by to test drive one of Rick’s guitars.

In fact much of the film is people dropping by to check out guitars Rick has made or is making. Those dropping by include Nels Cline of Wilco, there to buy a birthday gift for bandmate Jeff Tweedy; jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell who plays some surf guitar hits from early in his career. Lenny Kaye of the Patty Smith Band also drops by to noodle on a guitar as does avant garde guitarist Marc Ribot. No matter what the style of the guitarist, they all sound pretty amazing on Carmine Street guitars.

This is a stream of consciousness kind of cinema verité; there are no talking head interviews, no animated sequences and there is no archival footage. We are always in the moment during the film; we don’t get a lot of context and are left to manufacture that on our own. Kelly is kind of an ex-hippie who has an almost grandfatherly aspect to him; the guitars are his children and his clients prospective adoptive parents. Hulej is even more interesting than the idiosyncratic Kelly (whose 93-year-old mother answers phones and does the books for the store). A platinum blonde goth punk chick, her extraordinary beauty works for her as a cinematic focal point but against her in her career; she talks frankly with Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces that men often don’t take her seriously because of her looks, particularly as a crafter of guitars.

While Hulej seems to primarily be concerned with burning graphics into the guitars, she can also build them and the sense that these two people are artisans in the best sense of the word also points out that they are a disappearing breed. Watching the two of them at work reminds the viewer that there is something special about those who love what they do and take pride in what they make.

I like that Kelly uses old wood – what he calls “the bones of Old New York” – in his craft. That shows not only a sense of history but also of caring very much about not just where he set up shop but what is sold inside of it. It reminds me why New Yorkers consider their city the greatest on Earth and more importantly, why they have a case for that boast. I know that if I played guitar, I’d want to own one of these. Those who love guitars and the people who play them are very much encouraged to see this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a stream-of-consciousness documentary; no talking heads, no animations. Some great guitar noodling by masters of the craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not have as much appeal for non-guitar junkies.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Strad Style
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury

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Ode to Joy (2019)


Love means never having to stand in the rain.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Mosaic) Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Jake Lacy, Melissa Rauch, Jane Curtin, Shannon Woodward, Ellis Rubin, Jackie Selden, Adam Shapiro, Jason Altman, Alex Perez, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Tyler Bourke, dL Sams. Directed by Jason Winer

Love is a difficult enough proposition without throwing in an exotic illness. The highs, the lows…it’s a real test of our emotional capabilities. It can affect even the best of us in unexpected ways. Those who are especially sensitive…it can be a real war.

Charlie (Freeman) is such a case. He has a rare condition called Cataplexy which affects those who suffer it whenever they are struck by strong emotions. Although portrayed here as a separate disease, it is actually a side effect of narcolepsy. For Charlie, whenever he feels joy, he loses consciousness. That can be a real mood-killer, romantically speaking.

He lives a carefully ordered life, one in which he tries to avoid any situations that might affect him emotionally and the sight of newborn babies will have him reciting lists of the most depressing thigs imaginable. He tries to keep as even a keel as possible, aided by his generally irresponsible younger brother Cooper (Lacy). That all takes a sharp left turn when he meets Francesca (Baccarin). Charlie and Francesca hit it off immediately and soon Charlie takes a chance and asks her out. It seems to go really well until she asks him up to her apartment – and Charlie’s condition makes a very nasty appearance.

Charlie, fearing what might happen, calls things off with Francesca and ends up seeing Bethany (Rauch), a friend of Francesca’s. Cooper, noticing that Francesca is available, starts dating his brother’s ex – except Charlie and Francesca aren’t at all sure that they are with the right partners.

Freeman is a charming lead with oodles of likability. While the chemistry with Baccarin isn’t 100% convincing, it’s a good 95% at least; maybe it’s the imperfections that make the romance at the center of the movie more powerful. While the medical basis for the film is a little bit shaky, it should be remembered that this isn’t meant to be a medical textbook and thus the disease is meant to fit the story rather than the other way around.

At times the dialogue gets a little florid, not unusual in a rom-com although the film valiantly tries and mostly succeeds at avoiding the clichés of the genre. Still, there is plenty of heart here and while I could do without the quirky indie New Yorker tropes, this is actually a heart-warming and charming little film that hopefully will get at least a limited release (it has a distribution deal with a boutique Sony label so there’s that) because this is the kind of movie the world needs more of.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your typical rom-com. Really strong performances all around. Bizarre in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is overwrought.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and mild profanity as well as a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freeman and Baccarin have both appeared in Marvel movies; Freeman as Agent Everett Ross, Baccarin as Vanessa Carlyle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: As Good As It Gets
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Carmine Street Guitars

Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

Master Maggie


Let the acting lesson begin.

(2019) Drama/Short (Goodface) Lorraine Bracco, Neil Jain, Brian Dennehy, Kenan Thompson, Chris Henry Coffey. Directed by Matthew Bonifacio

To be a great actor it doesn’t hurt to have a great acting coast and Maggie is one of the best. Thanked by both Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett in their Oscar acceptance speeches, Maggie has a client list that is strictly A-list, including Brian Dennehy and SNL veteran Kenan Thompson.

When a guy (Jain) comes off the street trying to wheedle a lesson out of her – he has a big audition with Law & Order the next day – she refuses at first but he’s persistent and eventually she agrees to give him a crash course. It is a lesson destined to change them both.

Bonifacio is no stranger to Tribeca, having debuted two well-received shorts there. This one has his best-known cast to date. Getting Bracco was a particular coup; she simply knocks it out of the park. Ever since The Sopranos ended, we really haven’t seen much of her onscreen; that’s a damn shame because she is really a wonderful actress. Jain, best-known for his work in the 2014 film The Quitter holds his own.

Bonifacio, drawing on his own experiences as an acting coach, wrote and produced the film with his wife Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio making this a family affair. The short has a sly sense of humor and an interesting twist at the end, although it isn’t super-revelatory.

I don’t generally review shorts but this one caught my attention with a terrific cast (I’m a big fan of both Dennehy and Bracco) and the cojones to tell veteran actor Dennehy that he needs to be more intense. Of course, when Tony Soprano’s shrink tells you that you need more intensity, then you get more intense, that’s the end of it. The short is currently appearing at the Tribeca Film Festival and is likely to play several more. Keep your eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Bracco gives an intense performance, matched nicely by Jain.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is on the mild side.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit more than little ones can handle.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jain’s character is auditioning for Law & Order; Jain ironically appeared in a role on the Criminal Intent spin-off.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Satan & Adam


The ultimate odd couple.

(2018) Music Documentary (Cargo) Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, Adam Gussow, Harry Shearer, The Edge, Al Sharpton, Kevin Moore, Phil Joanou, Bobby Robinson, Joan Gussow, Frank Migliorelli, TC Carr, Quentin Davis, Miss Maicy, Jeremy Jemott, Peter Noel, Margo Lewis, Rachel Faro. Directed by V. Scott Balcerek

 

The blues can be a beautiful thing. I think (and many agree) that no music touches every aspect of the human spirit the way the blues does. The blues can be sad yes but it can be cathartic, make you feel good when you feel down, bind us together (who hasn’t had the blues at one time or another?) and give us guidance. The blues is wisdom, man.

Adam Gussow had the blues one afternoon in 1986. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and the Princeton grad (and Columbia grad student) was walking around, finding himself in Harlem near the Apollo theater. I imagine if he’d been thinking about it clearly, he might not have ambled into that part of town so easily; New York City in 1986 was rife with racial tensions and people as lily white as Gussow were regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility there.

About a block north of the legendary Apollo Theater he heard music and saw a crowd gathering. Being a harmonica player himself, he was curious and listened to the man identifying himself as Mr. Satan’s One-Man Band. The man who called himself Mr. Satan played hi-hat and tambourine using pedals and played the kind of guitar that rubs the soul raw. Totally in the right space for this Mississippi Delta blues, the white Gussow asked Mr. Satan if he could sit in on a couple of tunes. The older African-American man said sure. And lo and behold, the white boy could play. Afterwards, the young Ivy League grad asked if he could come back. Satan said sure. So Adam came back. And soon he was a regular partner. Mr. Satan noticed that the crowds were bigger when Adam played; it was a novelty that a white man could play the blues like that. While there was some grumbling that Adam was just another white man out to appropriate the music of black musicians, the partnership between Satan and Adam continued to grow and blossom.

The story of this duo is not your usual music industry tale. The duo would go on to record an album for the prestigious Flying Fish label, tour Europe and play such events as the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival. They were on the cusp of being a big act in the blues market…and then Mr. Satan just disappeared.

The movie takes place over a 20-year span. Balcerek first ran into the pair playing on the streets of New York City and became absolutely entranced with their story. He’s been filming them off and on over that time, sometimes in black and white (particularly the early years) but also in color. He buttresses the performance footage with interviews not only with the musicians themselves but by those in their orbit; friends, fellow musicians, celebrities. I was surprised to learn that the two were spotted by director Phil Joanou when he was filming the U2 concert documentary Rattle and Hum and U2’s guitarist The Edge was so taken with them that he put a snippet of their performance of the song “Freedom for My People” on the soundtrack.

I don’t want to spoil too much about their story; I’m deliberately leaving a lot of things out which will have greater impact if you experience them without any foreknowledge. The tone is pretty low-key and even some of the emotional highlights don’t hit you like a sucker punch but still there is a melancholic tone that reflects the music nicely.

And that music! Mr. Satan, whose birth name was Sterling Magee, is one of those raw, natural talents who come along every so often and simply rewrite the book. Think of him as up there with Sun Ra (jazz), George Clinton (funk) and Jimi Hendrix (rock). Yeah, he’s that good. Gussow compliments his sound nicely, not quite in the same league as a musician but wise enough to know that his main job is to support Mr. Satan.

Needless to say, a guy who calls himself Mr. Satan is kind of an interesting cat and you’ll be captivated by him. Magee can be charming although he has a temperamental streak as well and Adam learned when to tread carefully around him when he was in a bad mood. But once onstage, Magee was as joyful a human being as there ever was – it radiates from his face and from his smile. He reminds us that while the blues may be rooted in a particular set of emotions, there is joy in playing the blues at the absolute best of your abilities.

The story is unusual enough to make this a different kind of music documentary. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but even those who aren’t blues fans will be captivated – and who knows, it might win over a few converts. While as a documentary this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, it is compact enough that it doesn’t require an exorbitant investment of time nor does it overstay its welcome. At the same time, you get to hear some raw street blues, some of the best you’ll ever hear. That alone has got to be worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one. The music is incendiary.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit of a lull in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Magee played in the bands of James Brown, Etta James and Marvin Gaye (among others) and had a solo career on Ray Charles’ label before walking out on the music industry in disgust.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hail, Satan?

Marching Forward


The Jones High Marching Tigers at the 1964 World’s Fair.

(2019) Documentary (University of Central Florida) James “Chief” Wilson, Del Kieffner, Carl Maultsby, Kay Kieffner Kimbrough, Jamaal Nicholas, Richard Fogelsong, Jamia Wilson, Joy Dickinson, Barbara Young, Nina Wilson Jones, Ben Brolemarkle, Virginia Wilson, Noel Wooley Weller, Karen Jones, Anthony Foster, Lyman Brodie, Barbara Kaye Burns, Lynn Kieffner Lockhart. Directed by Oswmer Louis, Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello

High school is the time when the people we are as adults is influenced perhaps more than at any other time of our lives. The people who guide us (teachers, counselors, parents) are slowly displaced by our peers. The friendships we form in high school can be indelible, lasting the length of our lives even if we no longer have physical proximity.

Here in Orlando back in 1964, schools were segregated. Jones High School was one of the only high schools African-American students could attend. While race relations in Orlando were relatively mild, there was still plenty of things that needed to change – for example, members of the band recall demanding a nearby hamburger stand allow them to pay at the front window to get their burgers. Those demands resulted in a police action at band practice later that day.

Edgewater High School, by contrast, was lily white and fairly upper class. The students there were expected to become leaders of the community as well as of the state of Florida eventually. They had the best facilities available, the most modern amenities. Jones was lucky if they had enough books for everybody. The high school experience for students at these two Orlando high schools was night and day.

But both had one thing in common; marching bands that were among the best in the state. James “Chief” Wilson was the band leader at the time (and would continue to do so until he retired in the 1980s) at Jones and one of his closest friends was Del Kieffner, band leader at Edgewater. Both men took their jobs seriously of molding young people into a cohesive unit. Both men influenced their students who these days are of retirement age themselves, even now more than 50 years later. Both men are regarded fondly not only by the students who played in their bands but are revered by the institutions they served for so long and so well.

In 1964 the big news was the massive World’s Fair coming to New York City’s Flushing Meadow for a two-year run. On display would be the latest in manufacturing, tourism and amusements; the world was coming to New York and at the Florida pavilion it was determined that marching bands from high schools from around the state would be invited to play at the pavilion. The two best bands in the city were Edgewater and Jones; there was no doubt that Edgewater was going to go.

However, Jones didn’t have the kind of budget to send their kids to New York. Everything would have to be done through donations and through fund raisers. Many thought Jones was the best marching band in the State – they’d won several competitions to back their case. Many felt that Jones had to go. Among those was Del Kieffner. This set the stage for history.

According to his daughters, Kieffner was never really concerned about the history-making aspect of the Edgewater-Jones relationship; he only knew it was the right thing to do. Wilson however, also according to his daughters, was savvier about what it meant. It would illustrate that Orlando was a much more tolerant place than other like places in the South. It is not beyond the realm of chance that this attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who was even then scouting locations for an East Coast Disneyland at the time. Disney had a huge presence at the Fair with many what would become iconic attractions being tested there, including It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. While there isn’t any documentation to corroborate this, it had to register that African-American tourists would be more welcome in Orlando than they would be in other cities.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love. It clearly shows the lifelong bonds of affection generated by being in band, as well as the influence the band leaders had on those kids – many of whom went on to become educators themselves. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of footage that exists of the band from that period other than some 16mm home movie footage so much of the film is made up of interviews with the people who were there and their descendants. Even though the film is a compact 61 minutes, the non-stop interviews can make it seem like a segment of 60 Minutes.

This is also a student project so many student hands can be felt during the making of this film, but surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a student film at all. Many student documentaries tend to feel like the viewer is being led by the nose to a specific conclusion; this one allows the viewer to feel the sweep of history without feeling manipulated. Kudos have to go to the faculty members who guided the project and allowed the students to do their thing, but also keep the movie entertaining and informative.

There are some brief animated segments with fairly basic techniques but the animations do make a nice break from the interviews which the movie really needs. I do have to stress that in reading this review, you should be aware I saw it at a Florida Film Festival screening that was packed to the gills mainly with Jones and Edgewater students who were involved in the World’s Fair trip, or who had played in bands led by Wilson and Kieffner. It was a fairly enthusiastic environment and no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the film. Most readers will be unlikely to be able to recreate that experience.

Still, this is a well-made documentary about a moment that has been largely overlooked by history. In a turbulent era, it showed that there could be mutual respect and even friendship between black and white. A lot of myths were punctured. The film makes it easy to take a look back and feel part of that era without becoming strident. That’s a massive plus in and of itself.

Currently the filmmakers are looking to place the movie in film festivals and hosted screenings. If you are interested in hosting a screening or are a programmer in a film festival interested in booking the film, go to the film’s webpage by clicking on the photo above and contact the filmmakers directly.

REASONS TO SEE: The bond formed within marching bands is clearly illustrated. Chief Wilson is an unsung hero. The animation, while basic, is effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes regarding racism and segregation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film began as a class project at the University of Central Florida; after class ended, the two faculty members (Mills and Cassanello) as well as several students worked to complete the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marching Orders
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Satan and Adam

Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker


Jonathan Baker, meet Jonathan Baker.

(2018) Documentary (Random)  Jonathan Baker, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, Adrian Lyne, John Badham. Directed by Neal Thibedeau

 

It goes without saying that it takes a certain amount of ego to be a successful Hollywood motion picture director. You need that ego to maintain focus on your vision and refuse to let compromise and collaboration dilute it or divert it. Without that ego, a director’s crew, his/her actors and financial backers will walk all over them like a linoleum runner on your mom’s best carpet.

Jonathan Baker is nothing if not ambitious. Not only does he want to direct movies, he wants to be really good at it – Oscar-winning good, name above the title good. He was getting ready to direct his first feature film – a suspense film from Lionsgate called Inconceivable with a stellar cast including Nicolas Cage, Faye Dunaway and Gina Gershon. Baker wisely figured out that he could avoid a lot of pitfalls by talking to other directors and finding out what their experiences were on their first films – and what advice they had for an aspiring director.

The interviews with such luminaries as Foster (Little Man Tate), Badham (Blue Thunder), Hackford (Ray) and Lyne (Fatal Attraction) are actually mega-informative and have some good advice for those who want to direct movies as a career – in fact much of their advice can be applied to leadership roles in other fields as well.

Baker is clearly passionate about film and filmmaking and I have no doubt that he wanted to make the best film he could. He talks about the interference and lack of faith from the studio, the bond holders and even his own crew. Often he felt that it was “me versus them alone on an island,” a comparison he uses more than once. Overcoming these sorts of hurtles and completing his film was a Herculean effort that is worth respecting.

But Baker is also extremely full of himself. Some might remember him from The Amazing Race 6 which he ran with his then-wife Victoria Fuller and became one of the most hated contestants in the history of the show, allegedly shoving his wife to the ground in anger after losing a foot race to the rest stop for one of the legs in Paris. While Baker maintained that he would never hit his wife (and the tape is inconclusive as to whether she lost her footing or if he shoved her), he certainly verbally abused her throughout the race. He seems a lot calmer now.

Getting back to the present, Baker drops names incessantly, particularly that of Warren Beatty whom he characterizes as his mentor – not once but at least a good half a dozen times during the film. He also mentions that he owns Beatty’s first house, which he claims that the legendary actor/director wouldn’t have sold to just anybody. We’ll just have to take your word on that one, Mr. Baker.

So much of the movie we’re made to watch Baker walking down streets, walking in parks, sitting in an editing bay…at times it is difficult to figure out whether this is meant to be an instructional documentary or a biographical one, omitting his stint on The Amazing Race which brought him notoriety and fame enough that likely opened a few doors for him.

Baker’s advice often comes off as a means of pumping himself up, to illustrate that he had the inner strength and purity of vision to withstand all of the obstacles and in honesty those obstacles were considerable. When he concentrates on the other directors and their experiences – even on his own experiences – the movie is at its best. When we hear the actors on his single feature film describe what it’s like to work with the Iconic (eventually) Jonathan Baker, or hear Baker talking about how talented and strong in character he is, well, it comes off more like a love letter to himself.

Director Neal Thibedeau doesn’t do himself any favors by inserting as many random issues that are sometimes only tangentially related to what’s being discussed onscreen as possible. He also managed to get a soundtrack which sounds like it belongs on a 1980s action film, preferably one based on G.I. Joe. The two elements together take a movie that needs all the help it can get and lets it drown in shallow water.

Not to discount Baker’s accomplishment in getting his film made, but it should be noted that Inconceivable carries with it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 31, not a number that speaks of a natural talent immediately making waves. Baker has a considerable distance to go before becoming iconic – even some of the directors interviewed here are experienced rather than iconic. That’s not to say that Baker one day won’t make amazing, insightful award-worthy films but in the meantime it might serve him well to remember that along with a healthy ego a good director needs humility as well.

REASONS TO GO: Hearing some of the stories by the likes of Foster, Hackford, Lyne and Badham is invaluable particularly to budding filmmakers but also budding leaders of other fields as well.
REASONS TO STAY: The name-dropping and self-promotion wears one down. This may come off a little bit as “Movie Directing 101” for first year film students. There are a lot of visual non-sequiturs and the soundtrack is inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 3/10
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Islam and the Future of Tolerance