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
NEXT:
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

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


Let them eat cake.

(2020) Documentary (IFCYoram Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko, Janice Wong, Sam Bompas, Ghaya Oliveira, Deborah Krohn, Dominique Ansel, Limar Tomer, Sruly Lazarus, Sami Tamimi. Directed by Laura Gabbert

 

It is somewhat apocryphal that Marie Antoinette, when informed that the people of Paris could not afford to buy bread, retorted “then let them eat cake.” It turns out she never actually said that, but it seemed to encapsulate the attitude the French nobility had at the time for the multitude of Parisians and French citizens elsewhere in France who were literally starving while they ate fabulous banquets in a palace noted for its ostentatious decadence.

When the Metropolitan Museum of New York brought artifacts from the French palace for an exhibition called “Visitors to Versailles” in 2018, they decided to publicize the exhibition, as they often do, with a preview dinner. They contacted world-renowned pastry chef and cookbook author Yoram Ottolenghi to create a menu of delicacies that would be fit for the table of the Sun King.

In true “go big or go home” fashion, he recruited some of the world’s most distinguished pâtissiers to create an experience not seen in all likelihood since Versailles saw its last royal resident; French-American Dominique Ansel, inventor of the Cronut, who determined to reinterpret pastries that might have been served at the French court;  Janice Wong from Singapore, known for her “edible art,” who decided to make an edible recreation of the gardens at Versailles; the British team of Bompas and Parr, known for the decadent gelatin deserts that move almost of their own accord; Tunisian chocolatier Ghaya Oliveira of New York’s exclusive Restaurant Daniel, and Ukrainian cake maker Dinara Kasko, who uses her training as an architect to print 3D molds that create cakes that are architectural wonders.

The deserts these masters make are truly spectacular and are likely to make even the most jaded foodie go ooh and ahh with wonder. Oddly enough, Ottolenghi serves as a curator and creates nothing of his own for the event, although curiously we see him sampling potential deserts for his London eatery at one time. As food porn goes, this is pretty exquisite stuff. I wish that Gabbert spent more time showing us how these deserts were crafted; as for Bompas and Parr (we never hear from poor Parr nor is he identified except in passing) we see their deserts but don’t have a clue how they are made. I get that this wasn’t meant to be a cooking show, but some background would have been nice.

But there is an odd undercurrent here. Gabbert spends a good deal of the surprisingly short run time of 75 minutes talking about the history of Versailles and what it meant in terms of class divisions, but there doesn’t seem to be much irony in these world class pastry makers creating exquisite treats for a clientele of wealthy New York museum patrons in an era where the income equality issue is quite possibly the worst it has ever been in American history, and in a year where the pandemic has caused an economic downturn that is just inches away from being a second Depression. You end up tasting the irony rather than the deserts, which in all honesty set the mouth to watering, but as is the case with most upscale events, leave us on the outside looking in.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the creations here are amazing. A wonderful treat for foodies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the tone-deaf side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ottolenghi was raised in Jerusalem and is Jewish; Tamimi, his business partner, is Palestinian.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Night
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Glorias

DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden Left Behind


Tina looks out at a world that isn’t kind to trans women.

(2019) Drama (Uncork’d) Carlie Guevara, Edward Asner, Michael Madsen, Danny Flaherty, Anthony Abdo, Alex Kruz, Tamara M. Williams, Miriam Cruz, Dawn Young, Bernadette Quigley, Brock Yurich, Sidiki Fofana, Amanda M. Rodriguez, Pablo González, Ivana Black, Lea Nayeli, Tym Moss, Kristen Parker Lovell, Devin Michael Lowe, Christine Nyland, Adam Kee, Sarah Skeist. Directed by Flavio Alves

 

Some of the most vulnerable members of our society are trans women of color (see Trivial Pursuit below) as well as undocumented immigrants. Both are subject to discrimination and sometimes, even violence.

Tina (Guevara) is transitioning woman who is in the early stages of the process. She lives with her arbuela (grandmother), Elaina (Cruz), in New York City. Tina supports them driving an unlicensed cab. Her grandmother is having a hard time coming to terms with her grandchild’s journey, often referring to her as Antonio, her birth name, but Tina seems to accept that her grandmother is set in her ways; besides, there is undeniably much love between the two of them. It literally is them against the world.

Tina does have a support system of trans friends, particularly Carol (Williams) who is outspoken, particularly when one of their group is brutally beaten up by cops. As Carol shepherds Tina through the process of interviews with an older white doctor (Asner) who Tina doesn’t quite trust enough to open up to, she also infuses Tina with her activism.

A good thing too, because Tina’s long-term boyfriend (Kruz), a Wall Street jerk, is mainly there for the sex and is somewhat ashamed of Tina or more properly, ashamed of his own desires. Tina is also unknowingly being stalked by a bodega clerk (Abdo) who has issues of his own, which inevitably comes to a head.

The film definitely has its heart in the right place as it looks realistically and unflinchingly at the issues besetting both trans women and undocumented immigrants, from the uncertainty about getting insurance and employment, to the ever-present specter of violence; there is a segment when Tina is selling her car that drips with menace. It isn’t that the buyer is overtly aggressive, it’s just the potential for violence seems very close to the surface. These sorts of things are what trans gender women live with daily, and the movie is at its best when it puts its emphasis on these.

I also give the film kudos for casting trans actors in trans roles; it is refreshing that a low-budget indie film is able to do that when much larger Hollywood productions seem uninterested in doing so. Perhaps the AMPAS inclusion guidelines will change that, something I wholeheartedly endorse.

But with inexperienced actors comes another set of problems. Guevara is a very expressive and passionate actress, but her line readings can be stiff and the timing a little off. This is mostly an inexperience thing and I do believe that as she gets more comfortable in front of the camera, she’ll start loosening up somewhat but for now, it is noticeable.

The climax is quite moving, and I loved the relationship between Tina and Elaina; Miriam Cruz does a wonderful job portraying the kind of Latin grandmother I’m very familiar with. The characters are very realistic, although I think that the character of Chris was sadly underdeveloped, considering the part he has to play in the film. Another review I read suggested that Chris shouldn’t have been developed at all but rather just show up at the end, an idea I found intriguing. It certainly would have been more effective than the half-assed development he got.

This is a flawed film, but most of its flaws are honestly made; there is also a good deal here to recommend it. The movie is certainly topical, and while the ending is rather dramatic, it is nonetheless a sad fact of life in the trans community. I look forward to bigger and better things coming from the filmmakers as well as the cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Covers issues of two groups that are badly discriminated against.
REASONS TO AVOID: Guevara’s line reading is fairly stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including gay slurs, violence, sex, nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 2018, the year this was filmed, was the deadliest year for transgenders ever; nearly all the victims were women of color.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DirecTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lingua Franca
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bombardier Blood