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Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself.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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


A gathering of Spiders.

(2018) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Natalie Morales, Oscar Isaac, Jorma Taccone, Lake Bell. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman

Spider-Man has been perhaps the most popular character in the history of Marvel Comics. So much so that the hero has progressed beyond Peter Parker; there are a number of iterations of the character in the comics; some serious, some not.

Miles Morales (Moore) is one of those characters. A young, African-American/Hispanic teen, he likes hanging out with his Uncle Aaron (Ali), and less so with his cop father (Henry). He’s a very smart kid, but not so interested in school and a little on the timid side. When he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, he gets the powers of Spider-Man. He relies on the comic books to kind of guide him through.

But then the Kingpin (Schreiber), a corpulent villain, opens up gateways to a multitude of parallel universes, threatening all of them. Spider-men from all around the multiverse begin to flood in, including a tired and nearly broken Peter Parker (Johnson), an iteration in which Gwen Stacy (Steinfeld) becomes Spider-Gwen, a black and white character from the 30s called Spider-Noir (Cage), a porcine cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (Mulaney) and a sprightly teen from the future named Peni Parker (Glenn). Together they will have to face down against the Kingpin and his scientific advisor Doc Octopus (Hahn) if they are to save the multi-verse.

Visually, this is a striking film that is meant to look more like a comic book than conventional animated features. It is certainly meant to appeal to Spider-Fans, with lots of little in-jokes and Easter Eggs for those who follow the character in the comics, but even for those unfamiliar with the various Spider-Man characters, there is some clever dialogue to keep the story moving, even though at just a hair under two hours long it might be too much for the attention-challenged. Still, this was the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards and quite honestly, it deserved to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful animation. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans. Clever dialogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence, mild profanity and thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hope Gap

Rewind (2019)


Through the eyes of a child you will see.

(2019) Documentary (Grizzly CreekSasha Joseph Neulinger, Jacqui Neulinger, Henry Nevison, Dr Herbert Lustig, Bekah Neulinger, George Ohrin, Risa Ferman. Directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger

 

It is almost as American as apple pie; the family gatherings and celebrations being captured on video cameras. Birthdays and vacations, children running around at play, new puppies, old grandparents, good times. That’s what video cameras seemed to be made for – nobody was bringing video cameras to funerals and dental appointments.

Like many kids, Sasha Joseph Neulinger grew up with his father, Henry Nevison (who is himself a documentary filmmaker) with camera in hand, often to the exasperation of Sasha’s mother Jacqui. However, the fun-filled videos of the extended family – grandparents, uncles, cousins, family friends – hid a dark secret. Sasha and his sister Bekah were being sexually abused.

At this point, I’m not going to tell you who was doing the abusing other than to say that at one point Sasha and Bekah’s father came under suspicion and we find out later, was himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The case would eventually make headlines, particularly in New York City not only due to the nature of the abuse, but because of the notoriety of one of the accused.

The documentary features interviews with Sasha’s parents and sister as well as his psychologist Dr. Herbert Lustig, the detective who worked the case (George Ohrin) and the prosecutor who argued the case (Risa Ferman). We are taken through a chronological retelling of events, watching Sasha go from a bright and sweet toddler to a kid prone to anger and self-loathing, eventually leaning towards suicidal thoughts. Sasha allows the revelations in the case to come out the same way his parents experienced them, adding to the horror. We can see the guilt and shame in Jacqui’s face; How could I let this happen? How could I not know? A mother’s anguish is pretty much universal.

This is not a psychological study and why abuse happens; this is merely one kid’s experiences with it, and the movie can be quite disturbing in places – young kids who have been through this should probably not watch this, but their parents most definitely should. In fact, all parents should.

We see the places where the justice system fails the kids involved and indeed fails in general; one of the defendants is wealthy and has access to nearly unlimited funds while others involved were working class. I think you can guess how the sentencing would go.

Again, I’m being deliberately vague about some of the details here – not to be coy, but so as not to detract from the impact the film has. It packs a wallop and is deservedly being given praise along the lines of “one of the best films of the year,” which it certainly deserves. This isn’t for the faint-hearted but there are truths in here that every parent should know.

The movie is currently available on VOD on the platforms listed below, but for those who wish to see it, the film will be airing tonight at 10pm on Independent Lens on PBS and can be either viewed on your local PBS station or streamed on their website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring and important. The use of home movies well-integrated. Stark, harsh portrait of abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get really raw and intense at times and may trigger those who have been through similar experiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some serious adult themes about child abuse, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18; 90% of those abused know their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
How To Build a Girl

The Booksellers


There is no joy quite like exploring an independent bookstore.

(2019) Documentary (GreenwichParker Posey (narrator), Fran Lebowitz, Gay Talese, David Bergman, Jim Cummins, Glenn Horowitz, Bibi Mohamed, Rebecca Romney, Saul Roll, Adam Weinberger, Henry Wessells, Michael Zinman, Cara Schlesinger, Caroline Schimmel, Susan Orlean, Beth Young, Adina Cohen, Arthur Fournier, Syreeta Gates, Heather O’Donnell. Directed by D.W. Young

 

As a boy and young man, I took a lot of joy in wandering around the dusty bookshelves of a used book store. It was the ultimate recycling center; a recycling of knowledge, of imagination and of possibility. I have always loved books and I love to read. I love to be transported to other places, other times, other points of view.

Many people no longer read books. When they do, they are on electronic devices. Some don’t have the time to peruse more than a paragraph or two. This is how and why knowledge gets lost; we’ve stopped taking the time to grow and expand…other than expanding our bellies and our butts, mind you. The joy of sitting down with a good book, a glass of wine and a roaring fire is being lost.

If you are the sort of person who thrills at the discovery of a new book, this is your movie and these are your people. As the title implies, the movie concerns itself with those who sell antique and used books. It is a bit New York-centric (although there are a couple of outliers from London) which is as it should be – New York has always been the world headquarters for books. We see Book Fairs, and rare book auctions and dusty old caverns with crusty old owners.

If you think that all booksellers are middle-aged or older white (a large percentage of whom are Jewish) gents in tweed jackets with magnificent moustaches, well, some of them fit that description. Others, however, are young, African-American and/or women. The face of selling books is changing and the movie confronts that, often lamenting it. However, there are those like popular Pawn Stars contributor Rebecca Romney who aren’t so sure that bookselling is as endangered as people think. Younger people have taken up reading and there is some evidence that the people who are using Kindles and similar devices are largely right around 40 years old.

We also get a gander at collectors; people who collect science fiction, hip-hop culture stories, Beat generation writers, women authors and first editions. I’ve always wondered about those who collect first editions. Because of the expense (a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci went at auction for $30 million to an anonymous bidder who turned out to be Bill Gates) this is the province of the very rich and I’m sure that they regard these books as objects of investment. One wonders if they ever actually read their books; I would hazard a guess not, since damaging them could “ruin their investment” but it seems to me that defeats the purpose of the book to begin with. Books are meant to be read.

Some of the material is absolutely dry as a dusty bookshelf at the Argosy bookstore, the last remaining store on the fabled “Book Row” of 4th street in Manhattan. Once the home to more than 80 book stores, only one remains and it only survived because the owner had the foresight to buy the building it is housed in. Some might find their attention wandering midway through.

This is clearly made with a great deal of love, however, and there is always value in that. It is also a movie that celebrates the intellectual – those who seek to expand their horizons, not the party-killing know-it-all bores that the name has come to symbolize. In an era in which knowledge and learning have come increasingly under fire, there is value in that as well.

The movie is currently available as part of Greenwich’s Virtual Cinema Initiative, benefiting art houses nationwide in which a portion of the rental is given to various independent theaters who have been forced to shut their doors due to the pandemic. Although currently available only in Los Angeles and a few other areas, check with your local art house to see when the film will be playing for their benefit. You can also check at their website by clicking on the photo above.

REASONS TO SEE: Reminded me of the wonderful hours spent perusing used book stores back in the day before Kindle spoiled it all.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get dusty-dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic:  73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
They Shall Not Grow Old

The Legend of Swee’ Pea


(2015) Sports Documentary (1091) Lloyd Daniels, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, John Lucas, Howard Garfinkel, Geary Hendley, Keith Glass, Kenny Graham, Leo James, Ernie Hall, Saul Lerner, Lois Tarkanian, David Chesnoff, Ron Naclerio, John Valenti, Ramon Ortiz, Jabari Joyner, Robbito Garcia, Alvis Brown, Avery Johnson, Benjamin May, Tom Kancholosky, Anita Hendley. Directed by Benjamin May

 

Every so often a basketball player comes along who is considered can’t-miss; they are recruited heavily out of high school by the biggest college programs in the sport and some go on to long, productive careers in the NBA; guys like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had those kinds of career. And then, there is Lloyd Daniels.

Daniels is a New York playground legend. At 16, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the world – including in the NBA. His mom died when he was a child; he spent most of his time being shuttled between one grandmother in Queens and another in Brooklyn. His father, who never recovered from his wife’s death, sank into alcoholism. Eventually, Lloyd joined him in alcohol abuse at a young age, and went on to get addicted to crack just as it became epidemic in New York.

Lloyd liked to party but he didn’t particularly like going to class and almost never went. One thing not explained in the documentary is how he was allowed to play basketball when he wasn’t attending class. In my day, you couldn’t participate in extracurricular athletics if you didn’t maintain at least a “C” average, but New York in the Nineties might have been different. In any case, Daniels is dyslexic which may explain his ambivalent attitude towards school. However, one thing he was serious about was basketball and he was a 6’7” guard who could pass AND shoot, a rarity. Lots of coaches were foaming at the mouth trying to get him into their programs. He eventually aged out of high school without graduating or passing a single course.

He wound up being accepted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a scholarship. The Running Rebels were coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian who were always one of the favorites to win the NCAA title back then. But his college career was derailed before he’d even played a single game; he was arrested in a crack house on a police sting operation on February 9, 1987 and Tarkanian threw him off the team. With a drug arrest in his portfolio, he essentially became untouchable. Also not mentioned in the documentary was the involvement of Richard Perry, a noted gambler who helped steer Daniels to UNLV and the ensuing investigation of whom would lead to Tarkanian being forced out as coach of their team.

Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff thought he got a raw deal and helped him get into the Continental Basketball Association with the Topeka Sizzlers. However, his addiction followed him and he was dropped from the team. Going back to New York City, he resumed smoking crack and after trying to rip off some drug dealers of an $8 vial of crack, was shot three times in the chest. He actually died, but was saved by skilled surgeons and lived to play again.

This time it was Coach Tarkanian who came calling; now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. Daniels, given a second chance, started to look like he deserved one. He was showing signs of the skills that had made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits of his generation. Unfortunately, the Spurs weren’t doing all that well as a team and Tarkanian was let go. When John Lucas, a recovering addict himself, was made coach, he saw some disturbing signs in Daniels. Eventually, after a two year stay with San Antonio – the longest of his professional career, he was let go and ended up playing with a myriad of teams, six in the NBA finishing just seven games shy of being vested in the player’s pension program.

These days, Daniels is an AAU coach in New York. In middle age, he bears a striking resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His voice is raspy from years of smoking crack. He is divorced, and while his three kids are all college graduates, he frankly gives credit to his ex-wife. Former radiologist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin May got the opportunity to film Daniels; at times he seems to be a very willing subject, opening up about his addictions and what they cost him. We see him visiting the house where he was arrested in 1987, where the wheels began to fall off on his life and career. Tears come to his eyes when he thinks about that cost.

While he appears open and affable here, there is the other side of Daniels. He is still drinking, which is why his ex-wife declined to be interviewed for the project. We also hear a variety of phone messages left on May’s answering machines of Daniels, wheedling for money and accusing him of exploiting Daniels. Eventually, the calls grow more and more angry and confrontational until they end on a conciliatory note.

This is truly a cautionary tale and shows how incredibly difficult it is to get out of poverty; Daniels had all the tools to have an NBA career that would have set him up for life. Sadly, he never got the guidance he needed to deal with life and his addiction would eventually overwhelm his talent. Daniels was failed by those closest to him, failed by the public school system, failed by society but most of all he failed himself. This is the sort of documentary that would have been perfect for the ESPN “30 in 30” series but sadly, it never made it there which is just symbolic of Daniels’ life in general.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale about wasted potential and drug abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: The documentary feels a little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers of the film is legendary New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Without Bias
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Booksellers

Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

The Times of Bill Cunningham


He had an eye for ladies’ fashion and for life going on around him.

(2018) Documentary (GreenwichBill Cunningham, Sarah Jessica Parker (narrator), Mark Bozek, Editta Sherman, Diana Vreeland. Directed by Mark Bozek

 

Bill Cunningham was a beloved figure in New York; his two columns for the New York Times begun in 1967 were candid shots of mainly women on the streets of New York and out at fabulous parties became something of a visual history of fashion in the Big Apple for nearly 50 years. He mainly hung out at 57th Street and 5th Avenue, a corner which New Yorkers have petitioned to re-designate as “Bill Cunningham Corner,” a familiar presence on his bicycle and blue moleskin jacket.

The movie essentially revolves around a 1994 interview Bozek conducted with the photographer that was only supposed to last ten minutes but went on until the tape ran out. Although there was a previous documentary on his life, this one – which fittingly enough debuted at the New York Film Festival in 2018 – has more of the man’s voice in it, faint Boston accent and all.

We get a pretty good overview of his life, from his strict conservative Catholic upbringing in Boston, to his time working as an advertising minion at the high-end department store Bonwit Teller in New York, to his obsession with ladies hats leading to a career as a milliner (hatmaker) which continued clandestinely while he was stationed in France for the Army. We see his time working at Chez Ninon, a New York fashion house that catered to the wealthy, to his introduction to journalism at Women’s Wear Daily, to the serendipitous photograph of Greta Garbo – he didn’t know who it was he was taking a picture of, only that he admired the way she wore her nutria coat that led to his long association with the Times.

Cunningham is a marvelous storyteller and a charming, boyish presence on whom Bozek wisely keeps his focus. Former Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker is an appropriate narrator, although I wish the narration had filled in the blanks a little bit more; for example, we’re never told how he ended up in the Army and when was he a part of it. We also hear nothing of the autobiography that was posthumously published, nor is any material referred to from there.

However, we are treated to literally thousands of still images that were not only taken by Cunningham but also illustrated the various eras of fashion that he lived through. We get the joy that Cunningham took from his work – although he considered himself a fashion historian rather than a photographer and constantly downplayed his keen eye – but also there are moments that humanize him, as when he breaks down considering the toll AIDS took on those around him, particularly neighbor Carlos Garcia who was the subject of a documentary earlier this year himself and lived with Cunningham in the remarkable Carnegie Studio apartments above the legendary facility which are sadly scheduled for demolition to build offices and studios for the performers there. That’s a shame, considering that luminaries like Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando lived and worked there.

In any case, this is a joyful documentary that is a tribute to a life well-lived. Most New Yorkers, particularly those in or with an interest in the fashion industry, adored Cunningham; Anna Wintour, the notoriously catty editor of Vogue once quipped “We all get dressed up for Bill,” and there is a lot of truth in that. It was not unknown for the women of New York, eager to get their picture in the Times, to put on something fabulous and make their way to his corner. It was a kind of immortality, after all.

In that sense, Cunningham – who passed away following a stroke in 2016 – will outlive us all. His amazing collection of photos which he stored in his tiny studio apartment somewhat haphazardly, will continue to shine a light on how we lived and how we dressed for what future generations remain. There is nothing wrong with that epitaph.

REASONS TO SEE: Cunningham is a bubbly, effusive and self-effacing raconteur who makes for a charming subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to fill in some of the blanks.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Cunningham was the subject for a previous documentary of his life in 2010 and attended the premiere, he remained outside while the film screened, taking pictures and never saw the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Bill Cunningham: New York
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire