Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain


Sometimes, having it all isn’t enough.

(2021) Documentary (Focus) Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, Josh Homme, Eric Ripert, John Lurie, David Choe, Morgan Fallon, Doug Quint, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, Philippe Lajunie, Alison Mosshart. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

It is not unusual that we feel we know those television personalities whose career give us an idea of their temperament and style. We spend hours and hours with them; isn’t that a form of knowing them? Not always. I’ve read many comments by people who viewed this documentary about the late travel/food program host, former chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain that “Tony would have liked this,” or “Tony would have approved of that,” despite the fact that they didn’t know him and likely never stood face to face with the guy. This, even after those who DID know him say at least a couple of times during the film that television Tony was a different person than off-camera Tony.

The movie, from Oscar-winning documentary auteur Morgan Neville, chronicles his rise from a dishwasher in New York to a cook to a chef who was convinced by the wife of a friend who worked for a publishing firm that his writing style would sell a lot of books. Thus came Kitchen Confidential, a trailblazing non-fiction look at what goes on in the kitchen of high-end New York brasserie. Bourdain, who had managed to kick a heroin habit, but merely transferred his addiction from one thing to another.

When TV producers Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia heard that Bourdain was planning a follow-up book in which he would travel the globe, experiencing new cuisines and new cultures, they knew it would make a great TV show and so it did, and A Cook’s Tour became a hit. This led to No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and then his final show, Parts Unknown on CNN. We see how quickly Bourdain took to Vietnam, falling in love with the country and its food, joined on that episode by his old Les Halles boss Philippe Lajunie. We see him exploring the France of his boyhood with his brother, and later with his close friend Eric Ripert. We see how affected he was by conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti, and the amazing episode in Beirut that was interrupted by the beginning of a war that devastated the capital.

We also see the darker side of Bourdain; his relentless personality, the tantrums he throws when things aren’t going the way he thinks they should be, his occasional dark moods. We also hear from Bourdain himself that he yearns for a “normal” family life which he briefly had with his second wife Ottavia and his daughter Arielle, but his brutal travel schedule made that all but impossible. As his relationship with Ottavia ended, he took up with actress/director Asia Argento (daughter of horror legend Dario), and his addiction seemed to transfer to Asia. When she came out as a victim of Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain went all-in with #MeToo, ending some long-term friendships over things that had been said or done decades earlier (the film doesn’t mention that Argento herself was accused of sexual assault shortly after Bourdain passed away).

If there is a villain in this piece, it is Argento, at least in the eyes of those close to Bourdain and Neville. She directs some episodes of Parts Unknown and disagreements with her leads to the dismissal of a long-time camera operator for Bourdain, an action very out of character for the notoriously loyal host. But tabloid reports of Argento carrying on with another man, leading Bourdain to explode to one of his producers, “A little discretion, maybe?” in disgust days before Bourdain hung himself in a hotel room in Alsace, his body discovered by Ripert who doesn’t talk publicly about the incident.

Bourdain is barely a presence in the last half hour of the movie. We see a thousand yard stare, Bourdain glowering at the camera. Mostly, that portion of the movie is about his friends and family who break down, the wound still fresh two years (three as the film is released) after his death on June 8, 2018. Having had a close friend who took their own life, I can say that even a decade after she passed I still feel her absence keenly.

For some portions of the film, Neville recreated Bourdain’s voice using a Deepfake A.I. program. In those instances, the A.I. was using e-mails and other sources of Bourdain’s written correspondence, but still some found it to be skirting the line ethically. Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia, firmly denies having given Neville permission to re-create her late husband’s voice after Neville told GQ magazine that he had received permission from her. Some have looked at this as a blurry ethical line; I suppose it’s no worse than staging a scene for a documentary, but at least those dramatic re-creations tend to be announced in the credits, which is something Neville should have done here.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the suicide so much as on the way Bourdain changed the lives of those who knew him, and on how all of those who watched his shows viewed travel. If there’s one thing Bourdain taught me, it was the importance of experiencing things as immersively as possible. When you go to a place, don’t limit yourself to all the tourist locations, the chain restaurants. Truly see a place, how the locals live, and eat what they eat. Travel, as Bourdain has said many times, changes us.

I don’t claim to have known Bourdain at all, other than what I saw of him on TV – and I did watch his shows, as a travel junkie and a foodie. I loved his acerbic wit, his self-deprecating snarkiness and his brilliantly descriptive narration. He was unlike anyone else on TV in that he didn’t seem to give a crap about what he was supposed to be like. He just did things the way he thought they ought to be done. Sadly, he had demons that haunted him throughout his life – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was undiagnosed bipolar, frankly – and never seemed to find the happiness that he yearned for. Maybe that’s the real tragedy of Anthony Bourdain.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of amazing footage. Clearly an emotional subject for his friends two years after his death.
REASONS TO AVOID: Towards the end of the film, Bourdain is less of a presence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the film comes from a Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers song.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Fin

The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

The Surge at Mount Sinai


Front line health care workers battle COVID and exhaustion.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Bon Jovi (narration), Jessica Montanaro, Larry Kelly, Mary Fowlkes, Mirna Mohanraj, Don Boyce, Rafael Miranda, Lynne D. Richardson, Gina Gandhi, Miriam Merat, Mohammed Khansa, Judith Aberg, Dawn Kelly, Carlos Cordon-Cudo, David L. Reich, Deep Patadia, Andre Cooper, Montano Soares, Veronica Colon, Melissa Nelson. Directed by Jonny Kapps

 

In the Spring of 2020, the United States got their first experience with COVID. The surge went from almost no cases to thousands a day in a matter of days. While there was some warning that the pandemic was coming, it still overwhelmed most hospitals and health-care workers as New York City became the epicenter for the epidemic; from March 11 through May 2, 18,879 New Yorkers died of the disease. That’s one death every five minutes. This documentary, though, reminds us that it isn’t just about those who died – it’s about those who lived, as well.

The Mount Sinai hospital system in New York City is one of the largest in the country and, indeed, in the world. The venerable institution had seen nothing like this since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and essentially had to pivot on the fly and change strategies. Nurses, dealing with the majority of patient care, printed out brief summaries of the patients on their COVID ward doors so that the nurses could relate to those suffering from the disease as people rather than numbers, and given the staggering numbers they were seeing, it could be forgiven. They were dealing with frightened, sick people who needed comfort as much as they needed medicine and they received both.

We follow in the main a trio of health care professionals, including supernurse Jessica Montanaro, a married mom whose maternal instincts of caring for her patients was put to the test, but she managed to show a human face to all of her patients, including that of Dr. Mohammed Khansa, a colleague at the hospital who was stricken by the disease. Jessica played an instrumental role of keeping his spirits up and believing that he would beat the disease. That belief could mean the difference between life and death for some.

We hear all the time expressions of gratitude for our healthcare workers who served on the front lines against COVID but we really didn’t know exactly why until now. The sacrifices they made – physically, mentally and emotionally – the innovations that were made in giving care, the living with constantly trying to help people who would die anyway, we see the ravages of that to a certain extent and keep in mind this was filmed during that first spike – well before the fall/winter spike. You can bet that an awful lot of the people in this film are currently suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress.

But you can also bet that most of them are still at it, still serving their patients as best they can. With the advent of the vaccines, things have gotten better, although given how many are choosing not to vaccinate, the rise of new, even more communicable variants and the knuckleheads who think that COVID is just another version of the flu, another surge could conceivably happen. And these are the people who will pay the price for it if it does.

I have to admit that I do have a perspective here; my mom was a registered nurse. She retired more than 20 years ago but had COVID struck back then, it would have been her in the thick of things, giving the kind of care that these nurses and health care workers did. And I’m thankful every day that she didn’t have to.

REASONS TO SEE: Even-handed portrayal of the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers. Personalizes COVID in a way few other docs have done. Moving and inspiring. Shows the real value of nurses in the healthcare system.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too soon for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was written and narrated by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 76 Days
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Stowaway

My Fiona


Gemma can smile, but it hides the tears.

(2021) Drama (The Art Factory) Jeanette Maus, Corbin Reid, Sara Amini, Elohim Nycalove, Travis Coles, John Ennis, Ryan W. Garcia, Camille Guaty, April Lang, Thomas A. Keith, Jess Riley, Courtney Hawkins, Sterling Sulieman, Elle Vernee, Ursula Taherian, Boston Beck, Naiia Ulrich, Rachel Zink. Directed by Kelly Walker

 

When someone dies, they leave an ineffable hole in the lives of those around them. Sometimes that hole becomes so overwhelmingly large, its gravitational pull threatens to suck us in completely.

When Fiona (Amini) excuses herself from the desk she shares with her start-up company’s co-founder (and sole other employee) Jane (Maus) with a cherrful “I’ll be right back,” there’s no sense that anything profound is about to happen, but it does. Moments later, Jane is screaming in horror as her best friend lies dying on the ground in front of the building, having hurled herself off the roof.

At the funeral, Jane is numb but there is rage simmering under the exterior. She goes back to the office, searching for a clue as to why her friend did what she did. She connects with Fiona’s wife, Gemma (Reid), offering to babysit their son Bailey (Nycalove) so that Gemma can get back to work. And slowly (but surely), Jane begins to become more a part of their lives, while her own sexuality – she had been straight – begins to come into question as she begins to develop feelings for Gemma. After all, the two women have something important in common – Fiona’s ghost, still looming in their lives as surely as if they’d erected a statue in her honor.

Walker’s first feature film is a self-assured affair that rarely makes missteps. Sure, there are some scenes that feel maudlin and the ending’s emotional payoff doesn’t quite feel earned, and maybe there are a few too many indie film tropes (sad indie music over a montage here, tonal shifts sharp enough to scratch diamonds and so forth) but overall, you have to admire Walker’s choices. She opts for real emotions and real reactions over manufactured ones in most cases and sometimes the rawness hits you in the face pretty sharply.

It helps that she’s assembled a crackerjack cast to realize her vision. Maus, an acting coach and veteran actress best-known for Your Sister’s Sister and Charm City Kings, has magma simmering under a cool exterior. She seems okay, but Jane is SO not okay. From time to time she explodes with powerful and often unexpected ferocity (as she does at the funeral), but there is unexpected tenderness, as in the way she deals with Bailey’s tantrums. Her chemistry with Reid is undeniable and speaking of Reid, Gemma’s grief is mainly less explosive than Jane’s but no less deeply felt. Reid carries Gemma with quiet dignity and increasing frustration as she sees this intrusion on her grief as welcome at first, confusing later and upsetting after that.

Even more impressive than the two women is Nycalove. Bailey is naturally devastated by the death of his mother, and his acting out is completely understandable, albeit uncomfortable to watch at times. It can’t have been an easy task for the young actor, nor for the director in coaxing out a show of emotion like this from a juvenile, but both Walker and Nycalove were up to the task. Kudos to both of them.

Cinematographer Laura Jansen does some impressive work, both with a swooping spiral shot that circles around the tops of actors before coming to rest, to keeping tight close-ups on the tightly-wound Jane’s face, to some beautiful images throughout the film. My Fiona is not always an easy film to watch and while the short runtime isn’t going to dissuade anyone from watching – in fact, I might have added a few more scenes to develop Fiona’s personality a little more – it does, in fact, bear watching.

REASONS TO SEE: Nycalove gives a realistic portrait of a child grieving and acting out.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maus passed away on January 24, 2021 of colon cancer at age 39.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through May 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pieces of a Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Buds

Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut


Matt Smith gets high.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Philip O’Neill, Mickey O’Hagan, Anthony Michael Lopez, McKinley Belcher III, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karlee Perez, David J. Cork, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Robert George Siveris, John Bolton, Christina Rouner. Directed by Ondi Timmoner

 

There are figures in popular culture that loom large, directly or otherwise, in the national psyche, but for one reason or another we don’t really know much about them well, other than what our own personal prejudices tell us about them. One such is Robert Mapplethorpe.

His name still evokes powerful feelings among many today. Some see him as an artistic genius, one who pushed boundaries on male sexuality and the male body. Others see him as little more than a pornographer, a gay man whose work epitomized the bathhouse scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. His work was so controversial that it was the first (and to date only) exhibition to ever cause the gallery owner displaying it to be arrested on obscenity charges.

This biopic, helmed by able documentary filmmaker Timmoner, stars Matt Smith (roaming much further from Doctor Who than even Gallifrey) in the title role. We see him as a member of the ROTC at Pratt Institute, just before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he would take up with legendary punk goddess Patti Smith (Rendón) who was then a struggling musician. The two carried on a brief romantic relationship but it soon became obvious that young Robert swung for the other side. Eventually his relationship with gallery owner Sam Wagstaff (Hickey) would lead to him being championed by Wagstaff and his work to be discovered.

This isn’t a very flattering portrait of Mapplethorpe, who here is portrayed as someone who habitually used people and discarded them when they were no longer of use to him – including his own brother. He spent most of his life trying to catch the brass ring and when he finally did, found that it didn’t bring him any more happiness than chasing it did.

Smith is wonderful here, inhabiting his role admirably. The thing with biopics that most viewers, nearly all critics and quite a few filmmakers seem to never understand is that except in very rare cases, the actor’s job is not to portray the subject as they are/were, but as the audience thinks they should be/have been – after all, the audience likely never met Mr. Mapplethorpe or know anyone who did. We have only what we read about him (assuming we’ve read anything about him) or heard abut him or, more to the point, what we think about him. We think of Mapplethorpe as a gay man who was obsessed with male genitalia and homoerotic images; we are given a Mapplethorpe who is just that. So in that sense, Smith is entirely successful.

The movie covers some of the bases here; the effects of his strict Catholic upbringing, his contentious relationship with his father, the estrangement from his brother and so on. Timmoner doesn’t really get us too far into Mapplethorpe’s head; we rarely know what he’s thinking, although to be fair, Mapplethorpe played his opinions pretty close to his chest when he was aiive.

What is more disappointing is that the movie feels choppy and fragmented. There’s no flow to the film, no fluidity. Instead, we move from one set piece to the next, almost as if each scene was directed by someone completely different. It leaves you feeling like the film was directed by committee.

The film was originally released in 2019 without making much of an impression so I’m not exactly sure if anyone was calling for a director’s cut of the film. 12 minutes of additional scenes are added to the movie, which doesn’t really improve the film any. It just means you have to sit through twelve more minutes of it. The expanded edition is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; most of the others have the original theatrical version.

REASONS TO SEE: Matt Smith loses himself in the role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fragmented and overly long and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mapplethorpe’s mother passed away three days after her son did.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basquiat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cryptozoo

Tiny Tim: King For a Day


The life of Tiny Tim wasn’t an easy one.

(2020) Music Documentary (Juno) Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury, Weird Al Yankovic, Justin A. Martell, Susan Khaury-Wellman, Johnny Pineapple, Richard Perry, Wavy Gravy, Bernie Stein, Eddie Rabin, Ron DeBlasio, Bobby Gonzalves, George Schlatter, Jonas Nekas, Artie Butler, Milt Friedwald, Martin Sharp, Harvey Mann, Tulip Stewart. Directed by Johan van Sydow

Tiny Tim exists, for the most part, in the national zeitgeist as an oddity of the 1960s, dismissed as a one-trick pony with his elfin smile, ukulele and falsetto vocals. He would die in 1995, mostly forgotten, playing in restaurants, circuses and middle school auditoriums, a sad figure living on the limelight that had long since faded away.

Stardom is a potent, addicting thing and Tiny Tim, bourn Herbert Butros Khaury, was a junkie. The son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father – an almost unheard-of combination back then and even so still today. His parents really didn’t know what to make of him, and were generally unsupportive of his ambitions and even when he had become a big star, were less than enthusiastic about his career choice.

This documentary, which debuted at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival and is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival, features a good deal of archival footage of Tim’s television performances on the Tonight Show, Dick Cavett, Ed Sullivan and the like. At the height of his fame, he was a national icon who was something of a symbol of the flower power movement but a change in management put his career in the hands of those who would, in the words of his friend Johnny Pineapple, “send him out anywhere if it put a dollar in their pocket.” His career took a nosedive and as quickly as he he became a household name, he declined into obscurity.

The documentary utilizes excerpts from Tim’s diaries (read by Weird Al Yankovic, himself fairly conversant with the fickle finger of fame) which hints at a darkness in the performer’s soul. Apparently a very religious person (he lamented at one point that he felt as “a lost soul in Hell, crying out for help”) with some severe self-image issues as well as a pretty nasty case of depression, he kept his gentle smile and childlike demeanor showing even to the very end. There is also some effective black and white animated sequences.

The overall tone is bittersweet. I don’t know if you could term his life, as Todd Rundgren coined it, “the ever-popular tortured artist effect” but there’s no doubt that his life had more than his share of pain and suffering. If there’s a silver lining here, it does make you re-examine your attitude towards artists who might be outsiders, those whose music might be a bit different. Maybe their music isn’t your cup of tea, and that’s okay, but it should be remembered that every artists, regardless of who they are, put themselves out there and that is something to be respected, not ridiculed. I have to admit that my attitude towards Tiny Tim changed after watching this, and so did my attitude towards people like William Hung and others who may be chasing fame, but even if they don’t achieve it for long, should be treated with compassion rather than derision.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly affecting at times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical music doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tiny Tim’s wedding broadcast on The Tonight Show remains the second largest American television audience of all time as of this writing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zappa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Own the Room


Rehearsing the pitch.

(2021) Documentary (National Geographic) Henry Onyango, Daniela Blanco, Alondra Toledo, Santosh Pandey, Jason Hadzikosas, Miguel Modestino, Fernando Toledo, Maria Blanco, Patricia Castillo, Tyler Olson, Kunda Divit, Huston Malande, Eddie Alvarado, Gustavo Fuga, Alberto Soto-Benitez, Damarie Toledo. Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster

 

It is indescribably difficult to get a business off the ground, particularly one that is operating with ideas outside the box. As television shows like Shark Tank show, most of these businesses fail within the first year because of a lack of capital to bankroll the operation. When you’re a young person without a history of innovation and business experience, it is doubly hard. That’s why there is an international competition known as the Global Student Entrepreneur Award.

This award annually gives $100,000 to the student whose idea and business plan impresses the judges the most. For many of the students that participate, the money means the difference between survival and closing the doors of the nascent business they’ve started.

This documentary, currently streaming on the Disney Plus service, focuses on five entrants into the competition; Santosh Pandey from Nepal has a business that allows ex-pats from Nepal (who have lost a high number of workers who have emigrated all over the world to find work to support their families back home) to surprise loved ones in Nepal with impromptu celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries and so on. Daniela Blanco is an immigrant from Venezuela who left her native land when government crackdowns on student protesters made conditions too dangerous for her to continue her studies at home; utilizing a scholarship at New York University, she used her electrical engineering degree to invent a method of using solar power to create the materials to make nylon as opposed to the fossil fuels that the industry currently uses. Her company, Sunthetics, is the key to her remaining in the United States. Jason Hadzikosas is from Greece and has developed an application that uses artificial intelligence to translate the cries of infants and translate them into what the baby is really asking for. His company, Cry2Talk, could revolutionize parenting.

Henry Onyango is a student in Nairobi, Kenya who discovered that there was a serious student housing shortage throughout Kenya and indeed, throughout Africa. An expert coder, he created an app called Roometo that allows students to find housing close to their universities, a kind of Air BnB for the college crowd. Finally, Alondra Toledo from Puerto Rico has developed an application that allows deaf patients to communicate with doctors who don’t understand sign language. Her company is called UnderstHand and given the island’s difficulties following Hurricane Maria, seems to be an important idea that deserves further exploration.

The documentary sticks with the five contestants through the preliminary rounds in their home countries and gathers them in Macao, where the global finals are to take place. We get to know what drives them, what inspires them and how their idea came to fruition. We meet some of their co-workers and family members, and discover that all five are engaging, intelligent and driven to make the world a better place.

There is unexpected drama when one of the contestants is denied entry into Macau initially due to not having enough cash to enter the casino-heavy “Las Vegas of the Orient” but also possibly because of other factors, not the least of which was the candidate’s overly casual style of dress. With the possibility of being deported back to their home country and not being able to present their idea to the judges, the contestant scrambles to find a means of getting into Macao and making it to their presentation slot on time.

The various contestants are all inspiring but the film is pretty much a typical competition documentary in presentation and execution. Still, there’s enough inspiration and innovation from the candidates to make this worth your while and non-fiction cinema enthusiasts will no doubt find this to be of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive ideas delivered by young people who’ll give you hope for the future.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty typical competition documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family, although there is a brief reference to potential racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Own the room” refers to a public speaking truism that to be successful in a presentation, the presenter must be in complete charge and seem knowledgeable and confident, also known as “owning the room.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Science Fair
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos

Soul


There’s no doubt that Jamie Foxx has soul.

(2020) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger, Peggy Flood. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

 

Since its inception, Pixar has consistently turned out some of the most thought-provoking and imaginative animated features in history, winning multiple Oscars and changing the game forever. Once known for being one of the original computer-generated animation studios, they have completely redefined storytelling in the animated medium.

Not all of their films have been home runs, of course – no studio that has been around for nearly 30 years can be expected to be perfect every time out, but they have very few movies in their library that aren’t at least entertaining at worst and thought-provoking. Whether it is on the nature of toys and their relationship with our memories, to the emotions and how all of them are important to who we are, and including stories about a rat who longs to be a famous French chef and anthropomorphic cars, Pixar has something for everybody. Therefore, it is really saying something when I lead off a review of one of their pictures by saying it might be the best they’ve ever made.

 

Joe Gardner (Foxx) wants to be a jazz pianist with all his heart and soul. He has never gotten the big break he needs, though, and so has had to make ends meet by teaching music at a New York City high school. His mother (Rashad) wants him to give up on his dreams and deal with the reality that he needs to earn a living, and it looks like he might be doing that as his part-time gig at the school is aout to be turned full-time and permanent, complete with benefits and a pension, which is exactly what his mom wants for him.

But fate isn’t done with Joe. He gets and nails an audition with legendary saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Bassett). Finally, the big break he’s been praying for. As he makes an excited call home, he doesn’t notice the manhole cover that is ide open and falls in.

He hovers between life and death and his soul heads for the great beyond, but before he can head to his final destination, incensed at the thought of dying before he can make it, which he considers to be his destiny, he escapes the conveyer belt taking him to the great light and ends up in the great before – where souls go before they are born to adqure the personality traits that will stick with them after birth. Joe is given the stubborn soul-let 22 (Fey) to mentor. She is missing the spark that will fill out her check boxes and send her to Earth to become a person. The trouble is, 22 doesn’t want to leave. And Joe doesn’t want to stay – he needs to get back into his body before he misses the gig that he has been waiting his whole life to play.

As you can see, there are some pretty heavy concepts going on here. How do we become who we are? What happens to us when we die? Not exactly typical subjects for a kid flick, but Pixar regular Pete Docter (along with Kemp Powers, who wrote the acclaimed One Night in Miami which is just about to be released on Amazon Prime as I write this) makes it not only thought-provoking, but fun as well. In the Great Before, there are beings all named Jerry (voiced, by among others, by Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) that resemble concept drawings in Picasso’s sketchbook; one of the mentors there calls human beings “meat suits.”

This is a gorgeously rendered film, as nearly all Pixar films are. The New York City here is so real you can almost smell the garbage; a rat hauls away a slice of pizza with the grease glistening on the pepperoni. It’s the details that make the film; the jazz tunes are written by John Batiste whose performance on the keyboard was filmed so that the animators could match Joe’s fingering to that of Batiste exactly.

Speaking of music, the score – by Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is lustrous and mind-bending, in my opinion one of the best scores ever to grace an animated feature. The movie also celebrates African-American culture without pandering, which Hollywood productions sometimes do.

Foxx, an Oscar winner himself, is simply outstanding as Joe. His performance is full of pathos and humor as he gives Joe a unique personality; stubborn and at the same time, giving. You root for Joe without thinking he’s too good to be true; there are definitely warts there, but Foxx makes him all too relatable. Perhaps his experience bringing Ray Charles to the screen stood him in good stead here. In any case, it should rank among Foxx’s best performances ever, which is something to crow about.

In a year that has tested all of us, this is a lovely reward for making it this far. It is the kind of movie that we can watch together as a family, whether we are actual relations or not. It is a movie that explores what it is to be human, and what it is to be more than human – to explore the nature of what a soul is. It’s a brilliant work and one of the year’s best fims, if not THE best.

REASONS TO SEE: Wildly inventive and one of Pixar’s all-time best. The score is the best ever for an animated feature. Foxx is absolutely awesome. Doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Takes on some very difficult subjects without talking down.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American as the lead character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISONSHOPPING: Inside Out
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Queer Japan

Paint


Art for art’s sake.

(2020) Comedy (GravitasJosh Caras, Olivia Luccardi, Paul Cooper, Comfort Clinton, Amy Hargreaves, François Arnaud, Vince Nappo, Kaliswa Brewster, Daniel Bellomy, Lizzy DeClement, Phil Burke, Austin Pendleton, Kate Stone, Victor Verhaeghe, Emrhys Cooper, Stella Kammel, John Wolfman, Roger Netzer, Nick Neon, Anthony Edward Curry, Jon Valde. Directed by Michael Walker

 

I don’t know if any of you have ever met an art school graduate. My sister went to Cal Arts so I knew quite a few. Most of them were people just like thee and me, with a particular talent for creativity and artistic technique. A handful of them were pretentious blowhards who thought they could take a crap on a piece of canvas and it would be amazingly insightful.

The latter is the sort that inhabits the latest from New York indie filmmaker Michael Walker. Three mostly-affluent graduates from art school – frustrated Dan (Caras), his best friend Quinn (Cooper), a photographer who lives in his own studio; and lovely Kelsey (Luccardi) who works menial jobs while trying to find herself as an artist.

Dan is frustrated at the hoops he has to jump through to break through the high-falutin’ New York arts scene. His distracted father (Verhaeghe) encourages his son’s chosen career, introducing him to gallery owners and scene makers who tell Dan that his art “isn’t dark enough.” So, he does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – he asks his mom (Hargreaves) to pose nude for him.

She is understandably reluctant, but Dan sidesteps the obviously creepy Oedipal overtones by suggesting that Quinn take nude pictures of mommy dearest and Dan will paint based on these. Mom consents to this, but as it turns out, the session gets out of hand and one thing leads to another….

Speaking of inappropriate relationships, Kelsey has sex with an important painter three times her age who is currently homeless, who promptly takes one of her paintings that is heavily influenced by his own work and sells it as his own. So she does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – she blackmails the art gallery owner (Arnaud) to take on her career as a manager.

In the meantime, Dan finds out about what happened with Quinn and his mom, which doesn’t sit well with him at all, although he himself is having an affair with a married woman (Clinton). The three friends are forced to re-evaluate their values and their preconceptions about who they really are.

Walker, who also wrote the film, has a good ear for dialogue and that might just be the most distinctive thing about the film. It’s a shame that the characters speaking those lines are for the most part, pretentious self-absorbed twats. I get the sense that Parker was poking a hole in the façade of the New York art scene, which elevates the above-mentioned traits to god-like heights, but the humor here is more in the deranged nature of the situations. At one point, you wonder if actual human beings would do the things that the characters are doing in the movie. I would like to say they wouldn’t, although given that this is 2020, I may be overly generous with my assessment of human beings.

After a year in which it has become readily apparent that Americans have a self-serving streak wider than any river and a tribal identification taller than any mountain, I suppose my tolerance for spending time with characters I find no common morality with is pretty low. If you are in the same boat that I’m in, you might have the same reaction. But if your threshold for arseholes is relatively high, you might find this entertaining particularly if you enjoy the skewering of pretentious art snobs.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious and preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a 2018 short of the same name  featuring the same characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Velvet Buzzsaw
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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GetAWAY

Calendar Girl


Ruth Finley hasn’t quite been covering fashion since these columns were new.

(2020) Documentary (DitlevRuth Finley, Kathleen Turner, Tommy Hilfiger, Betsey Johnson, Bill Cunningham, Joseph Siegel, Carolina Herrera, Gael Greene, Diane von Furstenberg, Nicole Miller, Larry Lein, Mickey Boardman, Harold Koda, Ellin Saltzman, Mary Packer, Steven Kolb, Ralph Rucci, Garry Wassner, Debbie de Monfort, Ruth Thale, Andrew Bolton, Nanette Lepore. Directed by Christian D. Bruun

There is no doubt that New York is one of the primary stars in the fashion constellation. It is chock full of events from showings to preview parties to honors ceremonies. Keeping track of everything is a full-time job, but a necessary one for the industry to function.

For 65 years, Ruth Finley, founder and editor of Fashion Calendar, was the glue that held the industry together. Her calendar, which appeared weekly for a time and then bi-weekly and printed on distinctive pink paper so it could be found quickly on a cluttered office desk, became a bible allowing buyers to make sure they were getting to all the events they needed to, and for designers to maximize attendance at their shows.

Finley, a tiny woman towered over by statuesque models, made this her life’s work and a labor of love it was too. With a small staff (which at one time included future Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts), she kept track of everything fashion going on in the Big Apple, a kind of oasis of order amidst the chaos. In an industry where ego was big and tantrums were often bigger, Ruth was different in that she was kind, and helpful, particularly to new designers trying to establish themselves in one of the most notoriously cutthroat industries in the world.

Finley is naturally a modest woman but also possessed with a core of steel; she was a career woman in an era when that was exceedingly rare. She also divorced her first husband in 1954, an era when that was scandalous, and after her second husband died suddenly in 1959, she became a single mom, something very rare for that era. She remained so for the rest of her life, never remarrying although towards the end of her life she did have a boyfriend (Joseph Siegel, a former executive at Macy’s).

She did things her own way and was stubbornly analogue even when she was pleaded with to put her magazine online. She worked into her mid-90s, reluctantly selling Fashion Calendar to the Council of Fashion Designers of America who did eventually put the magazine online, discontinuing its print edition but in tribute to the magazine’s founder, kept the color of the calendar pink.

Bruun takes a fairly conservative approach to the documentary, relying mostly on talking head interviews with friends, family and admirers of Finley, interspersed with archival footage and photographs from both Finley’s personal life and from the fashion industry in general. It does get a bit hagiographic after awhile, but the more Finley is on-camera, the more you realize that the admiration is well-earned. Finley is the film’s secret weapon; charming, self-effacing and joyful about an industry that she loved. In her mid-90s for most of the film, her energy and joy is infectious. Yes, this is mostly going to appeal to those who love fashion and in particular the New York fashion scene, but documentary buffs will get a kick out of Finley who will charm even the most curmudgeonly viewer.

The movie recently made its world premiere at DOC NYC and remains available for virtual viewing at the link below through today. While it has yet to get a distribution deal, it is extremely likely that it will see at the very least several film festival appearances this fall, as well as some sort of distribution or streaming deal at the very least. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Finley is a delightful subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not appeal to non-fashionistas.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finley passed away in August 2018, three years after filming was completed at the age of 98.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iris
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Crime on the Bayou