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

Greta (2018)


Besties being stalked by a very disturbed woman.

(2018) Thriller (FocusIsabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Zawe Ashton, Stephen Rea, Jeff Hiller, Thaddeus Daniels, Raven Dauda, Parker Sawyers, Elisa Berkeley, Jane Perry, Brandon Lee Sears, Arthur Lee, Rosa Escoda, Jessica Preddy, Nagisa Morimoto, Graeme Thomas King, Aneta Dina Keder, Frankie Verroca, Angela Dál Riata. Directed by Neil Jordan

 

Isabelle Huppert, with 140 (and counting) films to her credit over a distinguished nearly 40-year career doesn’t appear to be slowing down in either quantity or quality. She elevates what is a fairly typical and predictable thriller into a decent, fun time.

She plays the title character who is befriended by Frances (Moretz), a sweet but naïve young woman trying to make it in New York after the passing of her mother. Greta is similarly alone, her daughter studying overseas in Paris. As time goes by and Greta begins to show signs of possessiveness, Frances makes an unnerving discovery that causes her to try and cut ties with Greta. However the lady won’t take no for an answer and soon the two are involved in a cat and mouse game which just proves the adage that in any cat and mouse game, the mouse is over-matched.

This is the second time Huppert has played a deranged piano teacher (the first was in the aptly-titled The Piano Teacher) and she is no less delicious here. Although Moretz is adequate as the scream queen, Huppert is clearly having fun and with veteran director Jordan behind the camera, we are treated to a visually arresting film in which every sequence seems carefully considered. Oh, and Maika Monroe does surprisingly well with the comic relief best friend role, having done the scream queen thing herself on occasion. She is certainly an actress with great things ahead of her.

The problem is that the script is about as predictable as political diatribes in an election year. Anyone who has watched any horror/suspense film over the past few years is bound to figure out where this is going, even if they haven’t seen or don’t remember the trailer. And as with any thriller that is lazily written, there are way too many jump scares, some predicated on musical cues that become tedious and obvious before too long.

The reason to rent this bad boy is the visual aesthetics of Jordan and the performances of Huppert and Monroe (and to a lesser extent, Moretz who is a fine actress in her own right – just not so much here). You could do worse than renting this one – but you could also do a lot better.

REASONS TO SEE: Huppert is delightful as the villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unsurprising, typical potboiler.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence as well as a few disturbing and creepy images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz and Monroe previously worked together on The 5th Wave.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Single White Female
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
CRSHD

Isn’t It Romantic


Three’s a crowd.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott-Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alexandra Kis, Jay Oakerson, Rao Rampilla, Marcus Choi, Hugh Sheridan, Luciano Acuna Jr., Ray Anthony Thomas, Zach Cherry, Sandy Honig, Rosemary Howard, Ron Nakahar, Tom Ellis, Michelle Buteau. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 

I have never been a huge Rebel Wilson fan, but even I can see that the girl’s got skills. Part of my problem with Wilson is that she seems to be cast in very similar roles that after a while, get monotonous. The good news here is that she is the lead for the first time In her career, and she has been given a part that is unlike anything she’s ever played before.

The bad news is that it isn’t a part like anything we haven’t seen before. She’s Natalie, a junior architect at a New York City firm in which she is ignored and marginalized – the billionaire client (Hemsworth) whose project she’s working on, continually asks her to fetch coffee for him. As with many people in the Big Apple, she is alone. Cynically rejecting the tropes of romance and of romantic comedies in particular, she sees herself as a realist – until a bonk on the head during a subway mugging knocks her unconscious, leading her to wake up in a world that IS a romantic comedy.

This is a nightmare for a cynic. All the clichés are here, from the gay best friend to the PG-13 coupling, to the way it always seems to rain when she kisses someone romantically. Most satires tend to be pretty hit and miss and that’s very true about Isn’t It Romantic but it does get some laughs – just not as many as I would have preferred. The ending is a bit sappy but pleasant in a surprising way and is geared to lift even the most grumpy soul out of the doldrums, which is something all of us can use lately.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly surprising, particularly the ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much of the humor doesn’t work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and brief drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strauss-Schulson watched over 90 rom-coms in just over two weeks in order to note similarities in visual styles so he could apply them to this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Sunlit Night

This Teacher


Sign of the times.

 (2019) Thriller (Breaking GlassHafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Kevin Kane, Lucy Walters, Gabe Fazio, Lev Gorn, Lawrence Novak, Rebekah Del Rio. Directed by Mark Jackson

 

We don’t always get to choose how we are defined. We may see ourselves one way,  but the world insists on putting its labels and prejudices on us. A beautiful French Muslim girl, therefore, is looked at as a hijab-wearing potential terrorist despite the fact wshe doesn’t wear a hijab nor does she seem interested in detonating bombs.

Hafsia (Herzi) has taken up her friend Zarah’s (Kazemy) offer to visit her in New York, paying for Hafsia’s plane ticket. Zarah is now an actress, living with Heath, a much older rich white man (Fazio) and essentially turning her back on her past, drinking, wearing revealing dresses and Westernizing her name to Sarah. Hafsia, for her part, has remained provincial, a cashier in a bakery who, as Zarah tells her partner late one night, smells bad, like the world Zarah fled. Zarah is unaware that Hafsia can hear her.

With the reunion between the two childhood friends going catastrophically, Hafsia arranges to rent a cabin in upstate New York, taking Zarah’s identity as well, professing to be a nurse (the profession Zarah was in before she came to America) and living the rustic life in the woods, with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. Her mental state, always fragile, begins to unravel. She meets a couple – teacher Rose (Walters) and cop Darren (Kane) – in an adjacent property and is cajoled into drinking with them. Thus she begins an education into what being a Muslim in America in the third decade of the 21st century entails.

Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself. Other times, she is shrieking in fury. Never do her actions feel forced, but there are times, particularly during the third act when she is let down by a script that is too strident by half.

Jackson clearly has a bone to pick with the attitudes of Americans at this time in history (not that I blame him), so when Hafsia attends a party that Zarah and Heath throw, she encounters the kind of subtle, condescending racism that is most often displayed by people who probably don’t think of themselves as racist at all. It’s what you might call “white liberal rednecks” in action.

There’s some lovely cinematography and the score is pretty decent; the problem here is that third act when the movie loses the good will it’s built up and instead of making points that resonate, turns into essentially a diatribe against white Christian privilege and while I don’t have an issue with that – there’s an awful lot of that going around lately – I found it literally to be oppressive in a different way. There is a point when if someone screams at you long enough, you just stop listening and it all becomes background noise. I fear that this film has reached that point.

REASONS TO SEE: A gripping performance by Herzi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half hour is just off the rails.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations and frank sexual discussions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Executive producer Reed Morano, best known for his work producing A Handmaid’s Tale, was Director of Photography on Jackson’s last film War Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sharkwater Extinction

Feral (2019)


All the best feral people ride the bus.

(2019) Drama (1091) Annapurna Srinam, Kevin Hoffman, Doug Drucker, Lori Bullock, Jonathan Rentler, Annie Henk, Francis Lyons, Bene Coopersmith, Aurora Flores, Sonia Mena, Enoch Tsumuraya, Kimberly Smith, Sarah Wharton, Bryan Amato, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Matt Stango, Marcus Wright, Nicole Neretin, Adam Soltis, Mary Lu Garmone, Kirsten Hess, Lassen Davis, Emma Hall-Martin. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

The streets are an unforgiving place. Surviving on them is no picnic, particularly when you are homeless. You are vulnerable every minute of every day and survival isn’t guaranteed. If the hunger doesn’t get you, the violence will; if the violence doesn’t get you, the weather will.

Yazmine (Srinam) lives on the streets of Brooklyn, or more to the point, under them. She has made herself a nest in an abandoned power station off the subway line and it is there that she stores what few possessions she has. It is there she sleeps, sometimes with rats scurrying about.

When she ventures out, she looks like anyone else; clean and reasonably dressed. This is an advantage; it gets her picked up by a compassionate musician (Hoffman) who bonds with her over a slice of pizza, then takes her to his place. When she convinces him to take a shower, she empties his wallet and takes some of his precious LPs. That’s survival, baby, and it ain’t pretty.

A young mother (Wharton) confesses that she wishes her little boy would run away; Yazmine listens compassionately, only to have a meltdown when the privileged brat steals a meaningless plastic dinosaur from her purse. A middle-aged Latina woman (Flores) reminisces about her days dancing in salsa clubs, even getting Yazmine to dance with her. However, she also calls a homeless shelter to take Yazmine in – not on her terms, but on theirs – which leads to an unforgettable final scene.

The movie is a mix of styles, both narrative and documentary. Wonder occasionally interrupts his film with interviews with people who are or were homeless, including an interview with Yazmine herself. We see Yazmine getting jumped and beaten up by a group of drunken frat-boy types, and refusing help from counselors and medical professionals. We learn only near the end that her mother was deported when Yazmine was 16; her story is heartbreaking when you finally hear it. Throughout the film, Yazmine maintains a brash demeanor that can only be called “Noo Yawk.”

Srinam gives an outstanding performance. Yazmine is oftentimes her own worst enemy, but there’s a vulnerability that is just below the surface and very endearing on those occasions when she allows you to glimpse it. Yazmine often changes her look which is not something I am sure is common among homeless women, but okay; in all other ways the movie feels like an authentic glimpse of the lives they lead. The rest of the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as Wonder cast a mix of professionals and amateurs.

The cinematography is generally speaking, really good, showing both the filth of the underground and the beauty of snow-covered streets. Wonder does a lot of quick-cutting early on which I suppose is meant to set the pace for the film which is pretty fast – in New York, it has to be – but he calms down on that aspect further into the film.

The narrative structure is a little disjointed and at times you get the sense that some of Wonder’s decisions have more to do with showing his creativity more than serving the pace and story of the movie, but c’est la vie. I don’t have an issue with movies that defy the norms, only that they be true to themselves and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case here.

Still, it’s a decent effort and it does examine the homeless issue with a steady, unwavering gaze. I did like the movie – particularly Srinam – but I can’t say as I loved it.

REASONS TO SEE: Annapurna Srinam gives a memorable performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and occasionally a little too self-reverent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on stories told to the director when he was working with the homeless people of New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen Mimi
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Adrift in Soho

My Hindu Friend (Meu Amigo Hindu)


Doing a rain dance.

(2015) Drama (Rock SaltWillem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Candido, Reynaldo Gianecchini, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello, Guilherme Weber, Dan Stulbach, Gilda Nomacce, Tuna Dwek, Tania Khalill, Maité Proença, Dalton Vigh, Supla, Ary Fontoura, Rio Adlakha, Barry Baker, Juan Alba, Lilian Blanc, Jason Bermingham, Roney Facchini, Helena Cerello, Ondina Clais, Christine Fernandes. Directed by Hector Babenco

 

Death comes for us all, but it comes in different forms; a sudden, violent end a gentle slippage into eternal sleep, or a protracted, painful illness. Whether ready or not, we all die.

Diego Fairman (Dafoe) is a famous film director but neither his riches or his fame can rescue him from the inevitable; he has cancer, an aggressive and life-threatening sort. He needs a bone marrow transplant if he is to survive, but the operation itself might kill him. His girlfriend/partner Livia (Candido) responds with supportive words “You know that if it were a choice between you dying and me dying, I’d choose me” to which Diego agrees that he wishes it were her dying. He’s lashing out, of course but even so that had to hurt, but still she agrees to marry him.

Following the ceremony, he is whisked to New York for the painful and debilitating process that will either save his life or end it. While in the hospital, he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Mello) who has come to collect him to take him to the other side. “But I’m not ready to go,” Diego protests. The man shrugs. “That’s what they all say,” he says in a plainly irritated voice. The stranger comes night after night, sitting down to play chess with Diego in a nice little nod to Berman.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Diego meets a young Indian boy (Adlakha) whom he befriends, using his imagination to tell stories to keep the frightened little boy from being too afraid of the terrible suffering he is undergoing. Diego wants to make one more movie and his new friend might just give him the strength to go out and make it.

The movie was actually made in 2015 by Brazilian legend Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco, the first Latin American director to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. It is largely based on his own experiences battling the cancer that would eventually kiss him in 2016 (his death would keep the film from American distribution until earlier this year).

This is not just a downbeat film about the indignity of dying – yes, the horrible painful indignities visited upon cancer patients are presented matter-of-factly, as are Diego’s estrangement from his brother who is now charged with keeping Diego alive with a donation of bone marrow – but also a loving tribute to the movies that Babenco loves and kept him going in dark times. At one point, Diego breaks into a song – “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to be exact – pulling out his breathing apparatus, but his fantasy overlaps into the real world as nurses frantically sedate him before he inadvertently kills himself.

Like most Brazilian films, there is a sensuality that is going to surprise American audiences not used to such things. It manifests in a joyous dance routine that closes out the movie set to the standard “Singing in the Rain.” It also manifests in a scene in which Diego, long too sick for sex, rediscovers his physical sexuality once again in one of the film’s more affecting moments.

The film was originally written in Portuguese but was switched to English to accommodate Dafoe (more on him in a moment). The result is that some of the Brazilian actors are a bit stiff and stilted in their dialogue and it is kind of strange to hear all the supposedly American doctors and nurses speaking with Portuguese accents.

But it might have well been worth it to get Dafoe, one of the best actors of his generation. He is downright skeletal as the ill Diego, his head shaved from the chemo and radiation therapies, looking very much like a man who is inching closer to death. He still, even in his debilitated state, have the ability to roar at the cosmos over the injustice of it all and Dafoe makes it feel organic.

The movie is a bit of a mixed bag and sometimes all the parts don’t mesh as well as I would like, but that’s me. The fantasy sequences work really well, but the “real” sequences of the cancer treatment are also compelling in their own way. The movie does end up on a high note, even though it is tempered with the thought that one of the great directors was making his last film. As swan songs go, this one is a pretty satisfying way to say goodbye.

REASONS TO SEE: Rather imaginative and somewhat surreal. Keeps the interest despite a two-hour running time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little self-indulgent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some drug use, and plenty of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on the experiences of Babenco as he battled cancer and the characters are based on his own family and friends; this would turn out to be his final film as he passed away a year after the movie was released in Brazil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, FlixFling, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seventh Seal
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A 12-year Night

Green Book


Driving Mister Daisy.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorksViggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimeter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Don Stark, Brian Stepanek, Geraldine Singer, Iqbal Theba, David Kallaway, Tom Virtue, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Anthony Mangano, Don DiPetta, Jenna Laurenzo, Suehyla El-Attar. Directed by Peter Farrelly

 

Few Oscar Best Picture winners have gotten the backlash this film has. Directed by Peter Farrelly, stepping away from the comedies he’s known for (co-directed with his brother Bobby), this is an account of a business and personal relationship between concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), so named because of his penchant for chatter.

Set in 1962, the street-wise bouncer Tony applies for a job driving the fastidious Shirley through a Southern concert tour in the winter of 1962. At first possessed of the casual racism common in the era (he throws out a glass that black workers drank out of in his home), Tony soon sees for himself firsthand the ugly realities of racism. He also grows to admire the cultured kindness of Shirley who helps him with his diction and with writing letters home to his wife Dolores (Cardellini).

For Don’s part, he is brought out of his self-imposed shell to appreciate the uncouth but honest life lived by Tony. It’s all so very Driving Miss Daisy but the relationship between Don and Tony, as interpreted by two of the better actors working in this part of the 21st century, makes the movie magic required to elevate this above the sometimes generic parable on racial relations that the movie can sink into from time to time.

There are a few cringe-inducing scenes (including one where Tony introduces Don to the joys of fried chicken, and another where Tony exclaims “I’m blacker than you are!” when Don confesses he’s not familiar with the music of Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Otis Redding) but there are also plenty of scenes with genuine warmth.

The film focuses mostly on Tony which is unsurprising since it was co-written by Tony’s son Nick; the Shirley family has also complained that the relationship between the two was purely employer-employee, a claim that was proven false when an audio interview with Shirley surfaced in which he specifically said it was not.

One of my favorite scenes is where Shirley faces a crisis of the soul. A gay man when that fact alone would be enough to end his career, uncomfortable with his fellow African-Americans and unaccepted by the white society that acknowledges his talent as a pianist, he cries out “I’m not black! I’m not white! I’m not a man; what am I?” If you want to see Ali at his best, that’s the scene to watch.

I realize that woke readers for whom this movie doesn’t pass the purity test will likely take exception with this review; certainly, those folks are entitled to their opinion. I do agree that there are some tone-deaf moments that don’t reflect well on the film overall, and quite frankly I tend to agree with those who thought that the film was a little too flawed to be named Best Picture. Still, there’s enough here to make for worthwhile viewing and that should be acknowledged as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great chemistry between Mortensen and Ali.
REASONS TO AVOID: Less than fully factual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including racial slurs, adult thematic content, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortensen gained weight for the picture mainly on a diet of Italian food – pizzas, pastas and the like. He did so much on-screen eating that he never utilized the on-set catering.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy