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
NEXT:
Islam and the Future of Tolerance

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Write When You Get Work


This is what “kissyface” looks like.

(2018) Dramedy (Abramorama) Finn Wittrock, Emily Mortimer, Rachel Keller, Jessica Hecht, Hermione Heckrich, James Ransone, Andrew Schultz, Isabella Blassingame, Afton Williamson, Jennifer Mudge, Mitchell Slaggert, Gregory Isaac Stone, Jeffrey Butler, Robert Eli, Scott Cohen,  Sam Gilroy, Rosa Gilmore, Adele Kader, Ava Capri, Tess Frazer. Directed by Stacy Cochran

 

Sometimes people get off to a bad start. They get involved with the wrong people, get involved with the wrong drugs, or just plain lose their way. Some people stay that way while others make an effort to make a change. After all, it’s not how you start but how you finish.

Jonny (Wittrock) and Ruth (Keller) had that kind of start. The two were high school sweethearts if that’s what you can call a couple who share hurried beach couplings and shoplifting sprees. Nine years later, both have graduated on gone on to different lives. Jonny remains pretty much in the same juvenile pattern, unable to keep a job and forever on the hustle for whatever score he can manage.

Ruth on the other hand has landed a job in the admissions office of an exclusive girls school on Long Island. While it is very much an “interim” position, things are looking up for her. A chance meeting at a funeral for a track coach for the both of them leads Jonny to infiltrate her life, much against her will, involving occasional breaking and entering.

When he finds out about Ruth’s new gig, dollar signs light up his eyes. He looks at the school she works at as his own potential fishing hole. He lands on a particularly vulnerable guppy; Nan Noble (Mortimer) who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her douchebag of a husband (Ransone) is being investigated by the feds for financial chicanery and she is very much worried that her own assets will eventually be seized. Enter smooth-talking Jonny and soon the two hatch a convoluted plot. At first, Ruth is trying to separate Jonny from Ruth but soon gets sucked into the scheme. Things begin to escalate, one double-cross follows another and soon nobody knows who to trust.

I don’t mind a good heist movie, no matter how complicated but you need to have a rooting interest in the con artists. Jonny is just so slimy and so without conscience that you can only root for a quick arrest. Wittrock is a decent enough actor and he is certainly a good looking man but he doesn’t pull off the charming rogue here. Mortimer though is fun to watch; you get the sense that she is one bad day away from cracking and she does high-strung as well as anyone.

There are some moments that are borderline brilliant – the cinematography can be magical – but the plot is so convoluted and relies on people acting in ways that people don’t ever act. Cochran has made a couple of solid movies but this one is a step backwards. By the time you get to the end of the movie you may have already checked out which is a shame because that’s the best part of the movie. File this one under near-miss.

REASONS TO GO: There are flashes of something interesting here. Mortimer does her best with  bad hand.
REASONS TO STAY: Wittrock’s character is completely despicable. The script is convoluted and sometimes not believable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Robert Elswit has worked frequently with director Paul Thomas Anderson
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thief
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Invisible Hands

See Know Evil


New York attitude personified.

(2018) Documentary (Made to Measure) Davide Sorrenti, Milla Jovovich, Jamie King, Francesa Sorrenti, Chris Brenner, Richard Paradiscio, Mario Sorrenti, Alex Burns, Long Nguyen, David Lipman, Vanina Sorrenti, Justin Salguero, Mutale Kanyanta, Lola Schnabel, Anthony Ray, Steve Sutton, Shaun Regreto, Havana Laffitte, Danielle Zainich, Jade Barreau, Victoria Bartlett.  Directed by Charlie Curran

Some may remember the “heroin chic” fashion photography of the 90s. The ones where Kate Moss, Jamie King and other painfully thin looking models were made to look sunken-eyed and despondent, often photographed in grimy, dingy places that could well double as shooting galleries, often with vacant stares and other facial expressions associated with heroin use.

One photographer who was known for pioneering this style was Davide Sorrenti. A street-tough New York City kid (by way of Italy where he was born), he ran with the SKE crew tagging, smoking joints and skateboarding. While he took great pains to look gangsta-tough, his image was often sabotaged by his sweet nature. Like his older brother Mario, he discovered photography was something he had a talent for as well as a love for.

Although he would eventually make a living as a fashion photographer, he himself preferred a documentary-style realism that would inform his style in his chosen vocation. Starting out taking candid pictures of his crew, he moved on to taking pictures of models and the pretty girls he seemed to attract like moths to a flame.

In fact, many of his friends from that era characterize him as a shining personality whose charm endeared him to nearly everyone he met but he had a secret; he had been born with beta thalassemia, a blood disease that is terminal. He wasn’t expected to make it out of infancy but he beat the odds and grew up to be a young man. In doing so, he went through his life knowing that his time was more limited than others and that what he wanted to do with his life he needed to do immediately. It gave him a joie de vivre that was at once attractive and dangerous.
His mother blames King, his girlfriend at the time, for his eventual heroin addiction. Heroin became an “in” drug largely due to the grunge movement in music but also from edgy and dark independent films like Trainspotting and My Own Private Idaho. Ad campaigns for brands like Calvin Klein and magazines like Ray Gun and Interview further seemed to glamorize the drug.

Davide eventually died at age 20 although not from a drug overdose – renal failure was the culprit. While autopsy results were unclear as to the role both his disease and his drug use played in his death, because he was such a high profile member of the style he was rightly or wrongly the poster child for the backlash against it. President Bill Clinton at the time spoke out against it and the fashion industry as a whole turned their backs on the style and went back to using more traditional models and photographic styles in promoting fashion once again.

Curran’s documentary doesn’t pull any punches; it doesn’t shy away from the drug use aspect of his life nor does it excuse it. While much of the focus is on Sorrenti’s fight against his disease and the toll it took on the young boy, it also celebrates his courage in overcoming it to a degree. There seems to be two schools of thought from those who knew him; that his success came in spite of his illness, and those who believed that his success came because of it. That Sorrenti went to bed every night hooked up to a transfuser in order to survive day to day tells you the kind of life he led. The movie is anything but hagiographic though – Davide is depicted as occasionally being grumpy or out of sorts and who an blame him.

The problem with the movie is it’s devotion to a 90’s-like style, with random clips and images bombarding the screen in between home movies of Davide and talking head interviews of those who knew him or of him. The practice becomes annoying and then irritating as it is used constantly throughout the movie. It detracts from the story unfolding in front of you and seems to contradict the anti-drug message that his mom Francesca seems to be trying to send.

Davide had a lot of swagger – he had to in order to get where he did – which might be off-putting to some. He also had a whole lot of New York street kid in him from the white rap fashion to the antipathy for authority. His life was all too short and was always intended to be but perhaps the knowledge of his mortality helped him blaze all the brighter. While rightly or wrongly his contributions to heroin chic have made him something of a controversial figure, if you look at the images carefully as a whole he really seemed to be more interested in capturing what was real rather than what was manufactured. It wasn’t always pretty but at least it had the virtue of being honest.

REASONS TO GO: The portrait of Sorrenti is well-balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of random images is overdone and annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Sorrenti family became known as “the Corleones of fashion photography” because so many of them became important in the industry.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Larger than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain

Jonathan


You’re never alone when you’re a schizophrenic.

(2018) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson, Matt Bomer, Douglas Hodge, Souleymane Sy Savane, Shunori Ramanathan, Joe Egender, Ian Unterman, Alok Tewari, Jeff Kim, Alaska M. McFadden, Ramses Torres, Teo Rapp-Olsson, Julie Mickelson.  Directed by Bill Oliver

 

Most people have facets to their personalities. They aren’t just one thing; not just a party animal, not just a career person, not just a mama’s boy (or girl). We are most of us several different people whose varied personalities make up our one personality. What would it be like if the different personality traits turned out to be different and separate consciousnesses, battling one another for control?

That is the situation Jonathan (Elgort) is in. By day he is a ramrod-straight, obsessive draftsman for an architectural firm where he is just on the cusp of breaking into an important role. By night, he is a laid-back physical guy who drinks, hangs out with friends and is messy. Essentially, Jonathan and his other self John are twin brothers inhabiting the same body. They have been cared for nearly all their lives by the wise and maternal Dr. Mina Nariman (Clarkson) who often acts as a kind of mediator between the two brothers.

There are rules they must follow, mainly because they don’t want their secret discovered although to be honest I was never clear as to why they couldn’t let anybody know what they were going through. The boys each dictate a video diary which the other one reads when they “wake up” before recording their own diary when they go “to sleep.” That way, both brothers are prepared for the reactions neighbors and acquaintances might have for them.

The problems begin when John falls for a pretty barmaid/cocktail waitress named Elena (Waterhouse) and doesn’t tell Jonathan about it. When Jonathan finds clues that there’s something that may be going on, he hires a private investigator (Bomer) to figure out what’s going on. When he discovers the truth, he is furious and insists that John end the relationship. John refuses and so Jonathan takes it upon himself to do it for him by telling her the truth. She naturally thinks John is schizophrenic and breaks things up, which causes a rift between the brothers, a rift that only deepens when Jonathan finds himself falling in love with Elena himself.

The brothers’ 12 hour control “shifts” (John gets 7pm through 7am to be conscious, Jonathan from 7am to 7pm) is regulated by a doohickey which is where the science fiction element comes in. While this is set in a recognizable present day, the cold and sterile environs of the office Jonathan works in, the apartment he lives in, and the doctor’s office he visits weekly give an almost dystopian THX-1138 feel to the movie. In fact, the visuals are so antiseptic at times the movie feels nearly colorless and emotion-free. That’s a reflection of Jonathan’s cold and calculating personality, and it is through his eyes we primarily see the events of the movie.

Elgort has mainly been cast in teen heartthrob roles although from time to time he has shown glimpses of raw talent. This is his best performance – or performances – to date. The two twins are definitely separate personalities and Elgort looks comfortable and believable in both of them. Waterhouse has to react to both halves of the Jonathan whole and she does so admirably although fairly colorlessly. She isn’t given much personality to work with and mainly exists in the film as a fulcrum to spark the dissension between the two personalities.

For the most part the script is smart, refusing to take shortcuts and in fact nicely mapping out the rules of the world Jonathan exists in. Yes, there may be a sci-fi doohickey involved but it’s more of a MacGuffin than a focal point. That keeps the tech from getting too distracting.

This is definitely aimed at those who prefer thought-provoking science fiction over space operas. Critic Warren Cantrell of The Playlist even discusses the Freudian implications of the two separate Johns (you can read his analysis here) which is a fascinating interpretation and not wrong at all. As things start to break down for Jonathan, the color palate for the film grows more diverse – more food for thought.

In short (too late), this is a well-developed well-considered movie of the type we don’t get enough of these days. It’s a solid feature debut for Oliver and while some may find the sterility of Jonathan a bit off-putting, those who like to exercise their grey matter may find this film a decent workout.

REASONS TO GO: Elgort pulls off a difficult task. The script is intelligent and well-thought out.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this too sterile and intellectual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third time Elgort and Waterhouse have appeared together – they were also both in Insurgent and Billionaire Boys Club.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daniel
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
See Know Evil

To Kid or Not to Kid


Maxine Trump and Megan Turner share a moment.

(2018) Documentary (Helpman) Maxine Trump, Megan Turner, Josh Granger, Karen Malone Wright, Marcia Drut-Davis, Jane Kevers, Douglas Stein, Mandy Harvey, Tim Belcher, Victoria Elder, Juniper Melnicoff, Andy Williams, Lesley Melnicoff, Leon Wojciechowski, Dutch Yardley, Cynthia Yardley, Dawn Bowker, Bryan Caplan, Dina Ibarra. Directed by Maxine Trump

Motherhood is a central facet of a woman’s life. Biological imperatives aside, women have been socially assigned a nurturing role, one traditionally associated with child-rearing. For most women, having children is a central part of their existence. It was what they were born to do.

But that isn’t the case for all women. Recent studies have shown that one out of five women over the age of forty are childless. Some of that percentage has to do with infertility, but for many women, children just aren’t a part of the picture. Having babies may not fit in with career and life goals.

As filmmaker Maxine Trump (no relation to the President) discovered, there is a stigma attached to being childless when you’re a woman, particularly once you get married. There’s always family pressure: “When are you going to have a baby,” “When are you going to make me a grandma,” when when when. For Maxine, she wasn’t sure what the answer to that question was. That answer might truly turn out to be “never.”

Being a filmmaker, Maxine decided to turn the camera on herself as she went in search of an answer to that very important question – whether or not she wanted to have kids. In Maxine’s case, there were some compelling arguments against; surgeries when she had been younger had left doctors warning her that it was likely that she wouldn’t be able to bring a baby to term initially and that she would have to suffer through several miscarriages before successfully giving birth, which alone would be enough to give anybody pause.

Maxine also values her freedom to pursue her career, and being a filmmaker doesn’t mix terribly well with raising children as she is often called upon to shoot in all sorts of places around the world, some which you wouldn’t want to take a child to. Pursuing that dream was more a part of her identity as traditional female roles were.

It’s not that Maxine hates kids – she has plenty of nieces, nephews and other children around her and she’s more than happy to be around them. It’s just the drastic change in lifestyle wasn’t one that she wanted to make…but at the same time, there was that biological urge nagging at her, telling her that her clock was ticking ever onward and that her window of opportunity to be a mother was shrinking fast. What would her final decision be?

Well, the answer will be much more obvious to viewers I think than it was to Maxine herself. She dithers for much of the movie, often breaking down into tears which she claims at one point that she doesn’t do but by that time she had already done so several times. The question is clearly one that is eating her alive, not the least of which is that if she should choose to be childless she felt it would cost her friendships and relationships. It had already cost her a close friend who had gotten into an argument with her over whether it was selfish or not to have kids (or not to have them) and the two hadn’t spoken in years because of it.

On the selfishness question, incidentally, I need to weigh in since the question is brought up several times during the movie. It is selfish to have children, of course it is. It is also selfish not to have them. So what? What does it matter? It is selfish to eat because in taking in sustenance we are killing a living thing, be it plant or animal. It is selfish to breathe because we expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and in our own small way contribute to global warming. In some things, it is okay to be selfish. We have got to stop apologizing for existing as a culture. It’s okay to be a part of the human race and to want to have kids – or not. It truly isn’t anybody’s business.

This is clearly Maxine’s movie and this is a chronicle of her journey. There are times when her conflict felt a little bit managed in order to give the film some dramatic conflict, but in the end I don’t think that it actually was. There were some points that got pounded away a bit which felt a bit like nagging but perhaps I’m just sensitive to such things.

The movie also follows the quest of 20-something Brit Megan Turner who is attempting to get surgically sterilized. She has no desire to have kids and is concerned that if she continues to be sexually active that she will accidentally get pregnant. There is some resistance from the National Health Service to perform such a surgery without a medical reason; she is continually counseled by doctors to think over her decision since it isn’t reversible once the surgery is performed. At the end of the movie, Megan still awaits the surgery she has been seeking for more than three years.

It’s apparent that the goal for Maxine was to inform other women undergoing the same anguish she herself felt that it is okay to have these needs and to not want to have kids. It doesn’t make her – or they – any less of a woman despite the social backlash. It may be a bit of a primer in places but she does raise valid questions and tries to give valid answers. Not everyone will be able to get past their own ingrained preconceptions about women who choose to be childless and this movie simply won’t work for them. However, for those women out there who are questioning whether or not to have children, this is a good place to start looking for arguments on the side of “not to kid.”

REASONS TO GO: Some valid questions are raised here.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, it felt a bit like it was rehashing territory already covered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two years after attending her first Childless by Choice conference in Cleveland, Trump would become a featured speaker at the annual event
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Good Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Jonathan

3100: Run and Become


One of the beautiful images from the film.

(2018) Documentary (Illumine) Ashprihanal Aalto, Shamita Achenbach-König, Yuri Trostenyuk, Shaun Martin, Gaolo, Rupantar LaRusso, Dohai König, Nirbhasa Magee, Ray “The K” Krolevicz, Jumanda Gakelbone, Sahishnu Szczesiul, Supan Tsekob, Ilgyasu Tervo, Ajari Misunaga, Isomura-san, Tess Thakara, Petra Aalto.  Directed by Sanjay Rawal

 

It is well known that physical exertion can lead to a feeling of well-being. It’s not just the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a particularly difficult goal, but also the physical rush of endorphins one gets from such exercises as yoga, weight lifting and running.

Some even say that running can be used as a means of spiritual enlightenment. A particular proponent of that line of thought was Sri Chinmoy, an Indian sprinter, philosopher and running guru. He helped spread the philosophy throughout the world. One of those who picked up on it and ran with it (literally) is Finnish newspaper delivery man Ashprihanal Aalto. Aalto is what is known as an ultra long distance runner – someone who runs races of extraordinary lengths. He has been a dominant force in Chinmoy’s 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence race, running it 13 times and winning it five times, setting the course record in his most recent attempt.

He is 45 now and really has no mountains left to climb when it comes to the race. However his spiritual adviser Ilgyasu Tervo counsels him to give it one last shot – soon he will not have the physical stamina to run the race in the style he is used to. He elects to go to New York for one last run around the block.

That’s literally what the race is; it’s a grueling run taking over the course of 51 days. Runners go as fast and as far as they can each day, finishing only when they reach the magic 3100 mile mark. The course is one city block in the Bronx, one half mile in length. Runners circle the block over and over again, trying to make 120 laps each day. It’s not a particularly photogenic block but the repetition supposedly helps runners reach a trance-like state where they can focus in on their spiritual side.

Many of the runners are middle-aged; most are men and all are white – at least in the 2016 race. While they come from around the world and many have converted to the faith Chinmoy espoused, there is a homogeneity about the runners in the race that doesn’t particularly make for compelling filmmaking. It’s no surprise therefore that Rawal elects to add other stories that make the connection between running and spiritualism.

For example, Native American Shaun Martin of the Navajo tribe re-creates his father’s escape from a government-mandated boarding school back to his home (both buildings no longer exist) in order to plug in to his cultural and personal heritage. Buddhist monk Ajari Misunaga mentors Isomura-san on the rite of kaihgyo which involves running around Mount Hiei in Japan for one thousand consecutive days – just under three years. The distance is just over 60 miles and is done in robes with stops to pay devotion at various places. Misunaga also casually mentions that those that fail are required to commit suicide. Self-flagellation suddenly seems a whole lot less barbaric.

We also see the plight of a tribe in the Kalahari desert who for thousands of years have fed themselves by running down their prey during the hunt. When the government of Malawi (where the tribe is located) enacts a law forbidding the process, the tribe begins to fail, unable to subsist on the meager rations they are provided but also losing tribal identity. Tribesman Gaolo elects to defy the ban with serious consequences to him if he is caught.

The three additional stories are actually in many ways more compelling than the story of the Race which is grueling as New York City suffers through a murderous heat wave and triple digit temperatures, but seems to be more of an “inner self” kind of thing that doesn’t have much connection to a larger culture, at least not the way it is presented here.

The cinematography, particularly outside of New York – i.e. the Arizona and Kalahari deserts, the cold winter landscapes of Finland and the beautiful mountain landscapes of Japan – are often breathtaking. However, there feels like there is more than a little proselytizing here which made me feel uncomfortable. And after seeing some recent NYC DOC films that are about making the world a better place, watching white people try to find spiritual harmony doesn’t feel quite like it has the same urgency or importance.

Running is inherently a selfish sport. It is done solo and even if you are on a running team at the end of the day it is always the individual versus the course. The race finale, although extraordinarily close is ultimately anti-climactic – winning is almost beside the point when the reason the race exists is right there in the title of it: self-transcendence. Improving oneself is not a bad thing by any means but this feels like it falls in line with a self-absorbed generation that is making the world an increasingly harsh place to live in.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the cinematography is beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of the two ultra-marathoners, the tribesman and the Native American don’t really mesh well together.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The race was founded in 1997 by Sri Chinmoy and is currently the longest certified road race in the world..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hare Krishna!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up and Away

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Melissa McCarthy awaits that call from the Academy.

(2018) Biographical Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Pun Badhu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Shae D’lyn, Rosal Colon, Anna Deavere Smith, Marc Evan Jackson, Roberta Wallach, Tina Benko, Sandy Rosenberg, Kevin Carolan, Mary McCann. Directed by Marielle Heller

 

It’s a tough old world out there and anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. Sometimes we find success only to have it snatched away from us and before long, desperation begins to set in as the bills begin to pile up.

Lee Israel (McCarthy) was a successful writer – her biography of columnist, raconteur and perpetual game show contestant in the 1950s Dorothy Kilgallen landed her on the New York Times bestseller list. Those days are long gone; a disastrous biography of cosmetics maven Estee Lauder was in the cut-out bins almost as soon as it was released. Her caustic personality hasn’t endeared her to publishers or her agent (Curtin) and nobody but nobody wants to hire her – in addition to her prickly personality her style of biographies have gone out of favor with the public while caustic tell-alls are all the rage. Her agent tells her bluntly she needs to find another way to earn a living.

This is New York City in the 1990s, one of the most expensive places in the world to live and Lee is 51 years old with no job experience other than writing. Her alcoholism has become so pronounced that when she does find a job as a copy editor, she actually brings her glass, ice and booze into the office, a big no-no. So with her rent months overdue and her beloved cat ill and needing medicine that she can’t afford and in any case she has an unpaid balance that needs to be paid before the vet will even look at the cat, she hits rock bottom.

She sells a letter from Katherine Hepburn that nets her an unexpectedly high amount of cash from a local bookseller but when she discovers a Fanny Brice letter, the bookseller who buys it (a lovely Dolly Wells) gently tells her that the contents of the letter are a little bland, so she can’t give her as much as she’d like to. Undeterred, Israel decides to rewrite the letter for which she gets a handsome fee. Now realizing that this could be a lucrative source of income for her, she begins forging letters out of whole cloth from gone but not quite forgotten stars like Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Parker who Lee is particularly adept at imitating.

Lee begins to celebrate by drinking more, endearing her to the closest thing she has to a friend – gay, drug-addicted fading man about town Jack Hock (Grant) who shares a catty wit with Lee who mainly tolerates him but when she starts letting him get close, she soon realizes that there was a reason that she has isolated herself from people. Besides, the FBI has discovered her little game and soon she appears on a list of people forging memorabilia from stars and nobody will buy from her. She has to rely on Jack to sell her letters – and Jack isn’t exactly the most reliable guy on the planet.

Many critics are raving about McCarthy’s performance and with some justification. Some are even predicting an Oscar nomination for her and I’ll admit, there is also some justification for that. I’m not sure this is an Oscar-worthy performance but it’s pretty damn close. Grant is also getting some ink pushing him for a Best Supporting nomination – again, not without justification.

Some will have a tough time with this because McCarthy is almost too good at portraying Israel’s notorious misanthropic side. Near the end of the movie cracks begin to appear in her armor and even as her deeds are coming crashing down around her, one gets the sense that McCarthy might have preferred a less humble Lee at the end of the film.

But for the most part the script is funny and smartly written by Nicole Holofcener – one of my favorite writer/directors out there – and Jeff Whitty. We also get a nice epilogue which explains what happened to both Jack and Lee (both have since sadly passed away) and lets us know that Lee’s wit was just as caustic as ever even after she did her time. This is a strong indie which may have some Oscar buzz around it going into Awards season; keep an eye out for it if you are motivated by such things.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. McCarthy does a not-quite-Oscar-worthy turn here.
REASONS TO STAY: Israel is so unlikable that it is difficult to root for her.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of profanity (some of it sexual) as well as some brief depictions of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Long Shadow