Krimes


The King of Krimes.

(2021) Documentary (MTV Films) Jesse Krimes, Jared Owens, Russell Craig, Gilberto “Cano” Rivera, Cindy Krimes, Robyn Buseman, Asia Johnson, Michelle C. Jones, Courtney Cone, Daniel McCarthy Clifford, Sherrill Roland, Nicole Fleetwood, Julie Courtney, Jasmine Heiss, Peg Krimes. Directed by Alysa Nahmias

 

We all make mistakes when we’re young. Most are of the variety that harm nobody but ourselves, although occasionally we break the hearts of others who don’t deserve to have their hearts broken. Sometimes, young people make worse mistakes and the consequences of those errors in judgment have them ending up in prison.

Jesse Krimes (if ever there was an appropriate name for a convict!) is one such young man. Raised by a single mom, he showed a knack for creativity and artistic design. He ended up going to Millersville College and getting an art degree there. However, by then he had begun to party a bit too hard and got into trouble, finally being arrested and convicted for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

While in prison, he met Jared Owens and Gilberto Rivera, both of whom were artists in prison. He also found out that his girlfriend was pregnant (she would give birth to his son while he was incarcerated). Suddenly realizing that he was in danger of becoming the kind of absent father that had haunted his own childhood, he vowed to go the straight and narrow and through Owens and Rivera, began to find his own artistic voice. He began work on a mural that was too large to fit into any space in the prison, and knowing that it would be confiscated as contraband (particularly since he was using prison sheets for his canvas), he mailed them out and wouldn’t see the completed work as a whole until after he was released, a year early.

He did get a job with a public works project in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (his home town) where he met Russell Craig, a fellow ex-con artist. Staying clean and sober was no easy task; it was difficult for him to find work and financial pressures were leading him to making some old mistakes. One night, after drinking too much, he teetered out of a bar and almost literally into the arms of a police officer. He spent an agonizing night in jail, thinking that everything he’d built was going to fold like an accordion and he would be sent back to prison. However, his parole officer saw something in him and he was allowed to remain outside. The pressure of knowing that the slightest mistake would send him back into prison for a much longer stint hung over him like the sword of Damocles.

But his art began to get noticed and soon he began to sell some of his work, and put together shows. He became an activist for fixing the broken criminal justice system, for the rights of ex-cons and for rehabilitation through art. He began to be the father to his boy that his own father had never been to him.

Krimes is a compelling subject. He’s a handsome man, resembling professional wrestler Chris Jericho slightly. He’s also humble and accountable for the errors in judgment he’s made in his life. He also loves being a dad and it’s clear watching him and his son together that he is a good father.

Some look at the prison system as simply a vehicle to punish those who have done wicked things. Others see it as an opportunity to rehabilitate those who turn to crime. Most of us agree that the system isn’t working the way it is supposed to, fulfilling neither goal effectively. Many ex-cons end up returning to crime because every other door is closed to them. That doesn’t sound like a particularly efficient system to me.

Krimes is, while a fairly standard documentary/biography, noteworthy in that while it recognizes its subject as a flawed human being, also celebrates the beauty he has created (and his artwork really is wonderful). He’s a man who has recognized that he has been given a second chance and intends to make the most of it and if that isn’t something admirable, well, it should be.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story about overcoming the odds.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical documentary tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krimes and Craig co-founded the Right to Return Fellowship with the Soze Agency, funded by the Open Philadelphia Project, to assist ex-convict artists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Omara

La Casa de Mama Icha


Mama Icha, left, doesn’t like what her daughter and granddaughter have to say.

(2021) Documentary (PBS) Maria Dionisia “Mama Icha” Navarro, Gustavo Navarro, Alberto Navarro, Epifania Ortiz, Michelle Ángela Ortiz, Oscar Molina. Directed by Oscar Molina

 

As you reach a certain age, you long for the familiar, a longing that becomes almost obsessive. You yearn for the things that comforted you as a youth; the sounds, the smells, the people that were around you. For someone who has immigrated to another country, that pull can be powerful indeed.

93-year-old Maria Dionisia Navarro – known affectionately to her family as “Mama Icha,” is deep in the grip of that pull. She moved to Philadelphia to help out her daughter Epifania, who has hammered out a comfortable living running a catering business, where her own daughter Michelle helps out. Mama, over the years, has been able to put away money to maintain her old house in Colombia, in the picturesque village of Mompox (it is a World Heritage Site, according to UNESCO) where Mama Icha grew up.

Epifania tries to talk her out of it. She reminds her that she will lose her social security benefits and Medicare if she leaves this country. Mama Icha is adamant, though; her little house has been waiting for her and calls to her. Her son Gustavo has been looking after the place and she cannot wait to get back. Reluctantly, Epifania gives her mother her blessing, perhaps knowing deep inside that she will never see her Mama again.

When Mama Icha arrives in Colombia, she is shocked to find her house a shambles. The tiny house is in sore need of cleaning, trash is piled up in every room, and many of Mama Icha’s things are missing or have been befouled. Mama is so upset she throws Gustavo out of the house. Gustavo responds by insinuating that his brother Alberto has been planting ideas in their mother’s head. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two brothers. The money that has been sent to pay the bills for the house apparently wasn’t enough – or perhaps, as Alberto hints, Gustavo has been using it for his own expenses. Certainly Gustavo doesn’t appear to have a job of any sort.

It isn’t too long after she arrives that Mama Icha begins to feel poorly. It has taken almost all of her money to pay the bills on the house that Gustavo hasn’t kept up with and there is little left over for medicine and doctor visits. Gustavo decides that the best course of action is to sell the house and take his mother to a neighboring town where Gustavo is sure he can find lodging. Mama is very much against this idea, but she may have little choice in the matter.

Colombian documentary filmmaker Molina followed around Mama both in Philly and in Mompox. While he doesn’t appear on-camera, he can be heard posing questions to Mama and her family, often asking for clarification when things don’t make sense (which happens fairly regularly). It is in many ways a heartbreaking film; Mama Icha just wants to spend her last days in dignity, surrounded by the familiar sights and people of her town. As it looks increasingly likely that she will be denied even that, the sadness that fills her face is palpable and as she is driven away from her tiny home for the very last time, it is hard not to feel pain for the old woman. Little regard is given to her wishes, especially by her sons who are convinced they know better, and Gustavo clearly has been taking advantage of his mother for many years now, and Alberto comes off only marginally better.

Which makes the early scenes all the more poignant in retrospect. In Philadelphia, at least she was surrounded by family that cared for her and eventually because they wanted her to be happy, let her go. There she had money coming in from social security, and she had Medicare to cover her medical needs. It makes me wonder that Mama Icha might not have listened to the very sage advice (as it turned out) of her daughter and granddaughter because they are women, and women in Latin culture have traditionally not been given much respect. It’s one of those things of the machismo culture that I find absolutely mind-boggling.

The film is currently available to view for free on the POV website (see below) for American audiences. It reminds us that we have a tendency to cast the elderly out as if they have outlived their usefulness, something that even families will do to one another. It makes me want to go and hug my own mom.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics in Mama Icha’s family are both fascinating and heartbreaking. Certainly a wake-up call for those entering their golden years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could use just a smidge more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first in a planned trilogy of films by Molina concerned with the topics of roots, migration, belonging and poverty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Not a Burden
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Velvet Underground

Glass (2019)


Just because we’re crazy doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

(2019) Superhero (Blumhouse/UniversalJames McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson, M. Night Shyamalan, Shannon Ryan, Diana Silvers, Nina Wisner, Kyli Zion, Serge Didenko, Russell Porter, Kimberly Fairbanks, Rosemary Howard, Leslie Stefanson. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

Glass is the conclusion of a trilogy that began almost 20 years earlier with Unbreakable and then continued in a stealth sort of way in his 2016 film Split. It is director M. Night Shyamalan’s take on the superhero mythos and America’s obsession with it.

It features three characters from those first two movies; heroic David Dunn (Willis), virtually invulnerable and known in the press as the Overseer; Kevin Crumb (McAvoy), possessed of multiple personalities including a super-powered one known as the Beast, and Mr. Glass (Jackson), a criminal mastermind with impossibly brittle bones.

As Dunn chases Crumb, who has kidnapped several cheerleaders and is holding them hostage to feed to the Beast, eventually both of them are captured by the police and sent to an asylum where a psychiatrist (Paulson) tries to convince the three of them that they have no superpowers. Of course, we know that they do and it sets up a coda between the Overseer and the Beast that will lead to one of Shyamalan’s patented twist endings.

Shyamalan conspicuously avoids world-building here, preferring to set things in the real world with three extraordinary individuals. Each has someone who is a civilian counterpart; David’s son Joseph (Clark), Glass’ mom (Woodard) and Crumb’s escaped victim (Taylor-Joy). Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis use color-coding – purple for Glass, yellow/ocher for Crumb and green for Dunn. It gives the movie an almost comic-book feel that I found appealing.

While the soundtrack is wonderful and the performances by Jackson, Willis and particularly McAvoy marvelous, the movie is bogged down by Shyamalan’s attempts to make his film mythic but when push comes to shove, it comes off more pretentious and long-winded than what I think he intended. I had high hopes for this film, especially since Split had been one of Shyamalan’s best films, but was ultimately disappointed in that the movie was merely okay.

REASONS TO SEE: Willis, Jackson and McAvoy are all strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries very hard to be mythic but doesn’t quite get there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, some adult thematic elements and regular profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to retain creative control on the film, Shyamalan mortgaged his own house to co-finance it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
IO

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

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project


Worshiping at the video altar.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberMelvin Metelits, Richard Stevens, Frank Heilman, Anna Lofton, Michael Metelits, Maurice Borger, Mizzy Stokes, Anthony Massimini, Anne Stokes-Hochberg, Roger McDonald, Marion Stokes. Directed by Matt Wolf

 

There is a very fine line between obsession and compulsion. We can take a hobby or something that we enjoy doing and allow it to take over our lives to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes, good things may come of it. Most often, however, it takes a toll on our relationships and the state of our own minds.

Marion Stokes was by all accounts a brilliant woman, an African-American Philadelphia librarian who leaned towards socialism, but after marrying Michael Metelits, became involved with the Communist Party of America, which she eventually grew to disdain for its lack of action. She and Metelits at one time wished to emigrate to Cuba but was denied an entry visa by the Cuban government.

Disillusioned, she returned home to Philadelphia where her marriage quickly crumbled. She eventually became involved with a television show on a CBS affiliate in Philly called Input, a Sunday morning talk show hosted by John Stokes, who as a contractor had become well-to-do and eventually, she and Stokes fell in love and were married.

The Iran hostage crisis fascinated Marion. She intuited that the way news was being presented to the masses was changing. Wanting to document that change with a librarian’s zeal for preservation and organization, she started recording news broadcasts. With the advent of CNN a year later, the project became much more of a life.

Marion and John became virtual recluses and Marion, whose personality had a strident tone to it, became very possessive of her husband’s time. Their children were virtually shut out from their lives (although they never had children together, they each had children from previous marriages) and Marion took complete control of John’s life. Meanwhile the taping went on, several VCRs taping anywhere from three to eight channels at any given time, with assistants changing tapes (on those rare occasions when Marion went out for any length of time, her limo driver Richard Stevens would be sent home just to change the tapes on the VCR.

Time passed, and so did John. Marion lived in virtual seclusion, with a nurse and an assistant providing companionship, as well as assistance with her project. The momentous events of the end of the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st) were captured on Marion’s videotapes; the fall of the Berlin Wall, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana and her death years later, 9/11, the election of Barack Obama (which had special resonance for Marion) and also the minutiae – a local woman who decided to be buried in her Cadillac – and was, for example. Stories that captivated for a time and were quickly forgotten, all preserved.

When she died in 2012, she left behind more than 70,000 videotapes even though towards the end finding blank videotapes to record on had become increasingly difficult. Many of them were identified only with Post-It notes and all of them were on a type of medium that wasn’t meant to last forever. As we speak, her collection is being digitized and cataloged, something the librarian in her would no doubt approve of. One day, her incredible project will be available for everyone to peruse.

The big elephant in the room (or on the film) was Marion’s mental state. There was no doubt a bit of a hoarding mentality to her; at her death she had collected not only the videotapes but more than 50,000 books (she was a voracious reader), furniture she never used and an uncountable number of newspapers. She had gone from a single apartment in the swanky Barclay building in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to seven, all full of her collections. Although her personality was generally prickly – she didn’t take to being disagreed with at all – one gets the sense that beneath that disagreeable facade there was a genuinely caring heart. We see that mostly through her son, who was estranged from his mother for a good number of years but managed to reconcile with her shortly before she passed.

While I wouldn’t say this is an essential documentary, it is a fascinating one and it’s told in simple fashion without a whole lot of bells and whistles. Fans of docs in general are going to like this; it’s the kind of film you find at your local film festival and leave deciding that if you’re going to find films like this there, you’ll have to come back the following year for more.

REASONS TO SEE: Stokes is not always likable but one has to admire her intelligence. The dizzying array of news stories she recorded is mind-boggling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score gets a little bit annoying in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stokes was a lifelong admirer of Steve Jobs and to support him bought a massive amount of Apple stock at $7 per share. Already moderately wealthy at the time, this elevated her to a different level of rich.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The Irishman


I heard he paints houses.

(2019) Gangster (NetflixRobert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Jim Norton, Aleksa Paladino. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Much of the American fascination with the mob can be traced to Coppola’s The Godfather saga and the films of Martin Scorsese. If you take Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and The Departed as part of the same franchise, The Irishman may well be the concluding episode in the saga.

This film, which has been winning the kind of effusive praise from critics normally reserved for pictures of their grandkids, follows the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who went from being a war hero during the Second World War to a refrigerated truck driver, to a thug in the Philadelphia mob run by Russell Buffalino (Pesci)  to the bodyguard and right hand man of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). We see Sheeran transverse the glory days of the mob, covering the late 40s all the way up until the mid-70s. While there are references to watershed moments in the history of American organized crime, this isn’t really a primer on the subject; rather, it is the point of view of an insider, one whose claims as to the disappearance of Hoffa – still considered unsolved to this day – are perhaps self-aggrandizing but there is at least some evidence that says it might have happened the way it’s depicted here.

I am being purposely vague as to the plot points because this is an intensely long movie – right around three and a half hours. While as of this writing it is still in certain select theaters around the country, and in all honesty, it should be seen on a big ass screen with a big ass booming sound system, the length makes this kind of prohibitive. Those who have short attention spans won’t be able to tolerate this and those of us who have mobility issues might find it preferable to watch this at home on Netflix, where it just debuted Thanksgiving eve.

Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the cast, with De Niro and Pacino as powerful as they have ever been in the film. Pacino, in fact, may count this alongside Michael Corleone and Tony Montana as the roles that will mark the absolute apex of his distinguished and memorable career. His fans will be delighted to watch this; those who can take or leave him can watch this and understand why others consider him one of the most gifted actors of his generation.

Not that Pesci and De Niro are slouches by any means. Pesci was lured out of retirement (he hadn’t made an onscreen appearance since 2010) which is a godsend; I truly missed the man as an actor, with his charming sense of humor and occasional fits of rage. Here he is much more subdued and plays Buffalino as a more reserved and restrained Don who is smart enough to keep a low profile but ruthless enough to do whatever is necessary to keep his empire humming along. De Niro, for his part, is De Niro here – explosive and vulnerable in equal parts.

There is a fourth Oscar winner in the cast – Anna Paquin, who plays the adult version of Sheeran’s daughter who adores her Uncle Jimmy Hoffa and takes a wary dislike to Russell, whom her father feels closer to. When Hoffa disappears, she understands that her father was involved in some way and refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life, which apparently mirrored real life. Paquin only gets a couple of lines but her venomous looks, delighted smiles and eventually sad eyes remind me why she is an Oscar winner and makes me wonder why we don’t see more of her in the movies.

Scorsese utilizes technology in a very un-Scorsese-like manner, using computers to de-age the actors for flashback scenes (all three of the leads are well into their 70s). The technology has advanced to the point where it is actually effective here; the men look truly younger, even more so than Will Smith in Gemini Man. With technology like this, it is bound to alter how movies are made. If you have a role for a 20-something that calls for the kind of emotional depth and acting experience a 20-something actor won’t have, why not cast a veteran actor and de-age them for the role? I can see a lot of drawbacks to this, not the least of which that it will be tougher for young actors to get the kind of experience that propels younger actors into becoming great ones. Still, with the dizzying amount of product out there to fill all of the streaming services and their needs, that point may end up being moot.

Some critics are waxing rhapsodic about The Irishman and proclaim it the best film of the year (it isn’t) and among the best that Scorsese has ever done (it isn’t). There is a bittersweet feel to the movie, particularly in the last 20 minutes as if this is the end of an era, which it likely is. At 77, Scorsese doesn’t show any signs of slowing down; he has already directed one other movie released on Netflix earlier this year, a Bob Dylan documentary with at least another documentary on the music of the 70s in the pipeline. Still, getting the universe to align to get this kind of cast together and to get this kind of film made for the kind of budget it took to get it made isn’t likely to happen again, plus after this I really don’t know if there is much more Scorsese can say about the mob, although I will be the first to temper that with a never say never warning; if there is a story out there to be told, Scorsese can find a way to tell it.

The big problem I have with the film is its aforementioned length. I can understand why Scorsese let it run so long – he may never have the chance to direct something like this with this cast again – but as much as I respect him as perhaps the greatest American director ever, the movie is repetitive in places and quite frankly we could have done without about an hour of it. Watching this is no spring; it’s an endurance contest and you’d best enter into watching it prepared for that. Hydrate regularly, watch from a comfortable seated position and take a few breaks to walk around and get your blood flowing. The magic of Netflix is that you are allowed to do that whenever you like.

In the end, I think this is one of Scorsese’s best movies, but not with the triumvirate that make up his absolute best films – Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and Casino. This is more along the level of Raging Bull, The Departed. Mean Streets and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think most cinephiles are going to see this anyway but if you’re on the fence, I think you should pull the trigger and see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it off and start binging The Rick and Morty Show.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the greatest casts this decade. Scorsese is still Scorsese. A plausible explanation of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity as well as its fair share of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest feature film Scorsese has ever directed and the longest overall to be commercially released in more than 20 years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 94//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: GoodFellas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Brittany Runs a Marathon


You can’t move forward if you’re just standing still.

(2019) Dramedy (AmazonJillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howley, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Erica Hernandez, Adam Sietz, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day, Kate Arrington, Beth Malone, Esteban Benito, Nadia Quinn, Juri Henley-Cohn, Peter Vack, Gene Gabriel, Sarah Bolt, Ian Unterman, Frances Eve. Directed by Paul Downs Collaizo

 

We have become more aware of our health than perhaps ever before. Here in America, despite the epidemic of obesity and its attendant health issues, we have become more aware of what we eat, how we exercise and generally what kind of shape we’re in.

Brittany (Bell) does none of those things. She works taking tickets at an off-Broadway theater and spends her nights drinking, hanging out with her friends and essentially being the fat best friend, to use a movie cliché. She goes to see a doctor (based on his Yelp rating) hoping to get him to prescribe Adderall; instead, he gives her a wake-up call. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are dangerously high as is her Body Mass Index. Her liver is beginning to get enough fatty deposits to be worrisome. In short, her doc (Darragh) advises her to lose 50 pounds pronto and make some serious life style changes.

That’s not necessarily an easy task for Brittany, who is used to making fun of people who exercise. Going to the gym is out of the question; she can’t afford even the most basic gym membership. However, as she notes to an obsequious gym owner, running outside is still free so Brittany digs out a ratty old sports bra and a pair of sneakers that have seen better days and prepares to make a quick run down the block.

She makes friends with fellow runners Catherine (Watkins) who is undergoing an ugly divorce and runs to take her mind off of things, and Seth (Stock), a married gay man who wants to get more fit so he can keep up with his kids. Brittany begins to take to running and gets it into her head that she wants to run the New York City Marathon. She convinces Seth and Catherine to train for it with her.

Brittany begins to transform. She loses weight and feels better physically. She stands up to her former roommate Gretchen (Lee), a bitchy judgmental Instagram influencer who constantly demeans Brittany and moves into the mansion of the couple whom she is dog-sitting for while they are away on an extended vacation. Already moved in is Jern (Ambudkar) – yes you read the name right – a feckless Millennial with all the ambition of a potato and not even of the couch variety. Jern is interested in a maybe romantic relationship but Brittany is not so sure.

As the pounds melt off, something odd happens – all the self-loathing and self-doubt that she has felt most of her life haven’t melted away with it. She resents anyone who wants to help her, distrusting their motivations. Brittany may not be Olympic material as a runner, but she is world-class when it comes to pushing people away. Soon enough she ends up living with her older sister (Arrington) in Philadelphia along with her brother-in-law (Howley) who is more of a father figure to her. Brittany’s dreams of running the New York marathon look to be in jeopardy.

This is most definitely a female empowerment film, although not the usual kind. For one thing, Brittany’s physical changes don’t necessarily coincide with attitude adjustments; she still has all the insecurities she’s always had and her sense of humor can be occasionally cruel. Brittany isn’t always a likable person, but thanks to Bell’s charismatic performance you still end up rooting for her to succeed. As kind of an odd aside, I found myself distracted by Bell’s resemblance to actress Cameron Diaz. I ended up chiding myself for being so shallow when it comes to reviewing a movie which is about inner beauty more than outer but it is noticeable enough that I had to mention it.

Writer-director Collaizo based the story on his experiences with his own best friend who underwent a similar transformation. I don’t know what the real Brittany thought of the movie – it isn’t always flattering to her – but she does end up kind of heroic and inspirational in spite of that. You can sense the affection Collaizo holds for the real Brittany throughout. He also wisely keeps the audience guessing as to where the movie is going to go up until the end, but sadly finishes with a pure Hollywood ending that is disappointing but not enough to affect the rating too much.

Brittany’s journey isn’t always an easy one and thus neither is it always for the audience either. Still, the movie has an abundance of charm going for it, a star performance by Bell and some nice skewering of our self-indulgent, self-centered society. There’s definitely some meat on the bones here, but with enough entertainment value to make for a pleasant meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Was never sure where this was going to lead us. You wind up rooting for Brittany despite her occasional bitchiness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug content and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell lost 40 pounds during the course of filming the movie, just as her character does in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Run, Fatboy, Run
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chained For Life

The Church (2018)


Not every church is a sanctuary.

(2018) Horror (Hard Floor) Bill Moseley, Matthew Nadu, Daniel Wyland, Ashley C Williams, Clint Howard, Kenneth McGregor, Keith Stallworth, Lisa Wilcox, Deltra Leak, Holly Zuelle, Meghan Strange, Shaun Paul Costello, Michelle Romano, Vito LoGrasso, Victoria Gates, Scott Lehman, Jack Hoffman, Michael Connolly, Marcia C. Myers, Marie A. Garton, Belinda M. Wlson. Directed by Dom Frank

 

We tend to have a bit of a fixation on religion and the paranormal. From The Exorcist on down, we stand in awe of cathedrals and the rites of the church. Some churches though are less holy places than others.

The First Corinthians Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia was once a magnificent edifice, a tribute to the glory of God. Of late it has fallen on hard times however. The membership has dwindled as the neighborhood has become less affluent and nearby mega-churches has enticed others away. Pastor James (Moseley) whose family has been at the church for generations is at a crossroads; gentrification is beginning to creep into the neighborhood and developers want the valuable property to tear down the aging and decrepit church and put in a new multi-use facility; they’re even willing to build a brand spanking new mega-church for the pastor to preach in, much to the delight of his ambitious wife Loretta (Romano).

The pastor is reluctant to give up on the building that is in many ways his family’s legacy but the developer in the person of Ronald Lawson (Nadu) is persuasive and at last the pastor gives in. However the subject has to be approved by the church’s various boards and with Loretta working diligently behind the scenes, the measure squeaks by.

When Lawson comes to the church several nights later for the signing of the papers that will mean the end of the grand old lady, he brings with him the secretary he’s having an affair with (Williams), the Romanian financier that is his partner (Wyland), a local community leader who has also partnered with him (Stallworth) and his bodyguard (LoGrasso). Pastor James has with him his wife, the head of the board of Deacons (McGregor), the church secretary (Wilcox) and a board member (Zuelle). It’s literally a dark and stormy night but all who are in the church don’t realize that the building is not at all happy at the prospect of being torn down and isn’t going to let them go to carry out the deed.

First of all, the First Corinthians Baptist Church is a real one and it is absolutely a beautiful building. It is the perfect location for this kind of a movie; nearly 200 years old and full of the kind of architectural detail that modern churches last. It feels like a place of worship which makes the haunted goings-on therein all the more shocking. Kudos to Frank for taking full advantage of his location filming.

There aren’t a lot of digital effects here and the production could have sorely used them but one can’t get picky when you’re on a budget. The big problem is the script is a bit inconsistent; various characters are “taken” by the church to be pulled into a purgatory-like dimension in a puff of black smoke. Some of them seem to burn (at least there are flames superimposed on the actors) while others don’t. We don’t get enough backstory to the various characters to understand why some get the flames and others don’t. As to why this is happening, there really isn’t much of an explanation; the Romanian mutters about old Romanian myths about holy places that sit in judgment of those who are evil but again, everybody seems to be victimized without a lot of rhyme or reason other than maybe being part of the plan to knock down the building.

The acting is a bit on the wooden side for the most part and the presence of horror cult favorite Moseley excepted, the biggest name actor (Howard) is essentially unrecognizable as a bearded monk who appears as an apparition in a couple of scenes and has no lines. That seems a bit of a waste to me.

This has been described as a faith-based horror film and in my notes I wrote down that it gets a little preachy at times but for the life of me I can’t remember any such occasions. I do remember the ending which is abrupt, unsatisfying and seems to exist to set up a sequel which the filmmaker has already stated is going to happen. All in all, Frank got the atmosphere right but needed to flesh out his script with a bit more information about the various characters and the history of the church – we see a brief headline from an old newspaper about a wicked family being punished by the church but it’s so quick we never get any details.

With so many new movies to choose from for your Halloween horror movie fix this year it’s hard to recommend this one but there are definitely some plusses to consider. The scares are a bit weak but given that Frank didn’t have a whole lot of cash to work with I think he did the best he could. Hopefully for the sequel he’ll give us a more fleshed out story and maybe a bit more of a budget to work with.

REASONS TO GO: The filming location is awesome.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit abrupt and disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, profanity, spooky images and light sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in downtown Philadelphia’s First Corinthian Baptist Church which Frank’s family has been attending for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borderlands
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Samuel Project

Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

The Ottoman Lieutenant


If wishes were horses

(2016) Historical Romance (Paladin) Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selʕuk Yöntem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say, Deniz Kilic Flak, Aysen Sümercan, Murat Seven, Bree Welch, Brian Caspe, Joe Weintraub, Ephraim Goldin, Tzvi Shmilovich, Frederick Preston, Begum Burian. Directed by Joseph Ruben

 

One of the oldest cinematic tropes in Hollywood history is the star-crossed lovers in wartime. Of course, that was a literary trope far earlier than that but still, two people separated by war but connected by passion – what could get the heart beating faster than that?

Lillie Rowe (Hilmar) is a feisty, high-spirited nurse in Philadelphia somewhere around 1915. She is horrified when a brutally injured man is denied treatment at the hospital in which she works simply due to the color of his skin. Being the child of wealthy but devout Philadelphians, her evening entertainment consists of listening to the noble Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at a missionary hospital in Eastern Anatolia plea for funds in an isolated mountainous region that is the only medical facility for hundreds of miles. He is proud that nobody is turned away from their doors when they require medical attention; be they Turks, in whose Ottoman Empire the hospital resides, or Armenian in whose ancient land the hospital is.

Lillie is inspired and offers her late brother’s truck to the hospital in lieu of cash but when the doctor ruefully asks how could the truck be delivered to the hospital when there are no roads in the vicinity, Lillie impulsively volunteers to deliver it herself. Of course, her parents are aghast but Lillie – remember she is high-spirited – is determined to see this through. The Ottoman government, not wanting to antagonize the United States government by having one of its daughters murdered by Armenian brigands on their watch, assigns Lt. Ismail Veli (Huisman) to escort Lillie to the hospital’s doorstep. The Ottoman Lieutenant (yes, isn’t that clever?) is not enthusiastic about the assignment since he feels he has more to offer his country in a very crucial period in their history than playing nursemaid to a spoiled American heiress but being a good soldier accepts the mission with some grace. He even plays tour guide with the girl, taking her to one of Constantinople’s most beautiful mosques and showing her some beautifully desolate landscapes.

There she also meets the hospital’s founder, Dr. Woodruff (Kingsley) who is all about not taking sides in the coming conflict but his own Dr. Gresham is secretly supplying arms to the Armenians who turn out to be quite adept at using them. When civil war finally does break out however, the hospital is going to be caught literally in the middle of the crossfire.

I actually looked forward to seeing this movie initially; that area of the world scarcely gets much notice from Hollywood and that particularly turbulent time seemed like the perfect setting for a movie but unfortunately what we got was a painfully poorly written hodgepodge of clichés and tropes that essentially take all the inertia from the film and turn it into something that even the Lifetime cable channel might have thought twice about airing.

Armenians have been justifiably outraged that the film ignores the Armenian genocide which was going on at the time and makes it look as if the Armenians were the aggressors and worse yet that they deserved what they had coming. The Turks have denied that the genocide ever took place and the movie does have some financing from Turkish sources so that has to be taken with a grain of salt; I don’t know that this whitewashes history so much as chooses to ignore it.

And maybe if there was a really great story here that particular sin could have been, if not forgiven, at least rendered less egregious but there simply isn’t. The plot is predictable and contrived and even though Huisman does his best as the dashing title character, at the end of the day Ismail has about as much depth as the cover of the average romance novel. Had they gotten Fabio to play the role they wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Huisman is a fine actor who deserves much better than this.

Hilmar is curiously lifeless here. Her voice is nearly flat and toneless and the camera captures little sparkle in her character. With the wide-brimmed hat she wears she looks a lot like a dime store hipster affecting a free spirited look but with nothing that would really inspire any sort of passion in anyone. Two men fall in love with Lillie and I’m hard-pressed to tell you why.

However, the movie isn’t without its charms. The score by Geoff Zanelli is epic and recalls some of the best work of John Barry. The cinematography by Daniel Aranyó is stirring, with the beautiful mosque interiors and the dramatic sweep of the Anatolian plains. The movie is gorgeous visually and audibly.

Unfortunately even though the actors try their best they simply can’t overcome the stilted dialogue and the hoary plot points. This turns out not to be the kind of indie film that gives credibility to a filmography but rather smacks of being a paycheck and little more. That’s doubly disappointing considering if they’d been able to come up with a script that had a little bit more meat on its bones this could have been absolutely enchanting instead of being what it is: ho-hum.

REASONS TO GO: The score is haunting and beautiful. Some of the cinematography is lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is poorly written. Hilmar lacks the presence to pull off the kind of character that was needed to make this work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence as well as war sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingsley and Hartnett both appeared together in Lucky Number Slevin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Water Diviner
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: El Amparo