The East (De Oost)


Take me to the river.

(2020) War (Magnet) Martijn Lakemeier, Marwan Kenzari, Jonas Smulders, Abel van Gijlswijk, Coen Bril, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Jim Deddes, Jeroen Perceval, Mike Reus, Joenoes Polnaija, Denise Aznam, Peter Paul Muller, Huub Smit, Putri Ayudya, Lukman Sardi, David Wristers, Robert de Hoog, Reinout Bussemaker, Joes Brauers, Nanette Edens. Directed by Jim Taihuttu

 

Before the United States sank into the quagmire that was Vietnam, the Netherlands had Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was then known. It was 1945 and World War II had just ended. The Netherlands had been occupied for the bulk of the war by the Nazis and her East Asian colonies had been occupied by Japan. Now the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army was in the process of booting the Japanese out.

But the inhabitants of the many islands that make up Indonesia were fed up with colonialism. They wanted to rule themselves, to determine their own future. But they were divided by hundreds of islands and so there was fighting sprouting up all over the place and the army was sent in to quell these pockets of unrest that could turn into a full-blown rebellion if the various factions were to unite.

Into this atmosphere comes Johan de Vries (Lakemeier), a young man with redemption on his mind. His father had disgraced the family name – the name Johan had been born with – and when others in the company get wind of who Johan is – or rather, who his father is – things get a little dicey for him. He finds a role model in Raymond Westerling (Kenzari), known to the enlisted men as “The Turk” whose very simple black and white assessment of the situation has won the admiration of the men, and his non-nonsense results-oriented approach has many thinking that he should be in charge.

In fact, Westerling is soon given his own elite team of men in black uniforms that are eerily reminiscent of the Gestapo and they are sent to fight terror with some of their own. Westerling’s methods are brutal and final. At first, Johan is fine with those methods – he doesn’t exactly have a moral compass that points true north – but as he sees that their efforts are giving the Indonesians someone to unify against, he begins to reconsider his allegiance – and that the Turk cannot tolerate.

The depiction here of the Dutch army would prompt a lawsuit from a veteran’s group in the Netherlands who objected to the way the Dutch soldiers are portrayed, but director Jim Taihuttu sourced much of his material from the diaries of men who actually served in the conflict. The lawsuit eventually made its way through the Dutch courts where the defense was eventually successful in winning the case.

The depiction of the fighting men and the steamy jungle warfare harkens back to classic Vietnam war films like Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War and Platoon, and while some of the plot elements appear to have been at least inspired by those films (one could draw a direct line from Colonel Kurtz to the Turk and not be wrong), the movie has a sensibility all its own – perhaps because the war is largely unknown today, even in the Netherlands.

Both Lakemeier and Kenzari play morally compromised characters and do a fine job of making them both reasonably relatable, although Westerling eventually goes right off the rails at the very end. The fact that both men are so flawed makes them so compelling.

As war movies go, there is not nearly as much action in this film as you might expect, which in a nearly 2 ½ hour film may make attention-challenged Americans squirm a bit in their chairs. The middle third of the movie is a bit ponderous, and I could have done without the subplot about Johan’s relationship with an Indonesian prostitute. It’s that last third, however, that is where The East really shines. Truth be told though, I must admit I was a little bit disappointed by the ending, but it is telegraphed a little bit by the opening scenes.

All in all, this is a fairly densely packed movie that gives the audience a whole lot to think about, especially considering the morality of nations and of the soldiers. The Dutch soldiers feel nothing but disdain for the Indonesians, who they call “brown monkeys” (and worse) and essentially assert that the whole idea of independence is ludicrous because they couldn’t possibly govern themselves. Of course, time proved those soldiers wrong as Indonesia has one of the most vibrant economies on Earth currently.

I really liked the movie, but I can see how it won’t be for everyone. The run time might give some pause and the lack of spectacle even more so. However, it does bring to light a conflict that evidently we haven’t learned from nearly 80 years after the fact. If we had, we never would have stayed in Afghanistan as long as we did.

REASONS TO SEE: Gritty and dark. Some strong performances from the leads.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a bit in the middle and I’m not a fan of the ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, racial slurs, war violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taihuttu’s grandfather fought and died in the conflict as a member of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On-Demand, Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Not Going Quietly

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It


Rita Moreno is not above publicizing her own documentary.

(2021) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, Hector Elizondo, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Mitzi Gaynor, Norman Lear, Sonia Sotomayor, Frances Negron-Montaner, Gloria Estefan, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Jackie Speier, Tom Fontana, Terence McNally, Chita Rivera. Directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

When most people think of Rita Moreno, the first thing that comes to mind is her Oscar-winning part as the sizzling, seductive Anita in West Side Story. That isn’t so surprising, but she has had a nearly 70 year career in entertainment, and is the first (and so far only) Latina actress to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards in their career. That’s an accomplishment that is exceedingly rare few actors can make the same claim.

Moreno grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, but remembers her childhood as idyllic. That came to an end when her parents divorced and her mother moved her to New York City. She developed an affinity for dancing and dropped out of school at 16 to become the family’s sole breadwinner. She did get noticed, though and was eventually signed to a contract at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.

The documentary, at a snug 89 minutes, covers most of the highlights of her career; the any reinventions, such as her time on the seminal children’s PBS program The Electric Company and her dramatic role as a nun-prison psychologist in Oz and more recently her starring role in the reboot of One Day at a Time (sadly canceled) and up to her forthcoming appearance in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story which she executive produced.

There are also some of the struggles she underwent; the typecasting as an ethnic actress, often requiring her to wear skin-darkening makeup to play Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic roles. There is also the misogyny, as when Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn told her point blank at a cocktail party that he wanted to have sex with her (in much cruder terms) which as a fairly sheltered teen from Puerto Rico was quite a shock.

Through much of the film, Moreno is seen watching the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Neil Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. These seem to resonate with her in particular; she then talks about her own sexual assault at the hands of an agent. She then says that she still kept him on as her agent, as he was the only one willing to believe in her “so-called career” as few agents would represent anyone of Latin origin as they tended to be typecast in a narrow variety of roles.

Although much of this can be found in Moreno’s 2013 memoir, it might come as new information for those who haven’t read it – including myself. For instance, I’d forgotten that early in her career she’d appeared in both The King and I and Singing in the Rain (in one of her rare non-ethnic appearances). What is more telling is the effect her career has had on those of the Latin performers who followed her and speak about her with reverence, including her One Day at a Time co-star Machado and Broadway emperor Lin-Manuel Miranda. America Ferraro is also seen giving a heartfelt speech at an awards ceremony honoring Moreno. It is a touch hagiographic, but I can’t help but think that if anyone deserves that kind of hero-worship, it’s Moreno.

REASONS TO SEE: A squidge better than the average Hollywood biodoc. Moreno is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and a description of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moreno was the first actor of Puerto Rican descent to win an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympia
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
It’s Not a Burden

Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer


Even police officers must tread lightly when walking while black.

(2017) Documentary (Magnetbox/Buffalo 8) Fred Williamson, Gavin Newsom, Melvin Russell, Catherine E. Pugh, Pastor Michael Freeman, Jameel “Zookie” McGee, Andrew Collins, A.J. Ali, Chance M. Glenn Sr., Tim McMillan, Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., Tsega Hapte, Jose Carvajal, Cheryl Dorsey. Directed by A.J. Ali

 

It is no secret that one of the most inflammatory topics in American culture currently is the relationship between the justice system and the African-American community. There is no doubt that our brothers and sisters of color have every right to be angry and frustrated – if you do doubt it, watch the first half of the film, of the footage of Eric Garner being choked to death, of the cases of Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott, of Philando Castile dying in the hands of the Baltimore police department.

You won’t see George Floyd or any more contemporary cases here – this movie was made more than four years ago and is only now appearing on VOD platforms (see below for details). However, it is just as timely now as it was then. The film isn’t just a laundry list of grievances against the cops, however – although that could fill a documentary in and of itself – but also gives the perspective of the police force, of cops encountering systemic racism in their own departments, community leaders of color who experienced racial profiling and those working in the legal system showing how even judges and prosecutors are pressured to convict black suspects.

The second half of the film focuses on changing mindsets, of forgiving past injustices and moving forward to a better future. Love is used as an acronym here – L stands for Learning About People and Communities, O for Opening Our Hearts and Being Empathic, V for Volunteering to be Part of the Solution, and E for Empowering Others. Some examples of how those concepts are being carried out are discussed.

One of the more inspiring examples is that of Jameel “Zookie” McGee, a black father who was unjustly arrested and ended up serving four years he didn’t owe. Andrew Collins, the arresting officer, had his eyes opened by the experience and wanted to make amends. He and McGee ended up meeting and McGee ended up forgiving him for his transgression. The two have since forged an impressive friendship.

Also worthy of notice is Colonel Melvin Russell of the Baltimore P.D. As a detective, he was told by officers above him in the chain of command that he was only suited for undercover work buying narcotics rather than the work he wanted to do – being an actual detective – because he wasn’t smart enough due to the color of his skin. He would go on not only to prove those men wrong, but to become one of the most decorated officers in the city and leading an effort to changing the relationship between his department and the predominantly black communities they serve.

The movie relies an awful lot on talking head interviews and that can become a bit stupefying after awhile, but the message is one worth hearing, particularly on the day that this is being published by Cinema365 – Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery which was recently made a federal holiday. Racial relations in the United States remain a source of conflict in this country, particularly as there is a segment of our society that insists that there IS no conflict at this time, flying in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Some African-Americans wonder, not unjustly, why it is the African-American community that is always being tasked with being the ones to forgive. Well, the answer is simple – they are the ones being wronged. Forgiveness must come from their side; it cannot come from the side that did the wrongdoing. That doesn’t mean that the bulk of the work here has to be done by communities of color. On the contrary; the white community must learn to put aside their preconceptions and change their outlook. They must learn to trust people of color as they trust people who aren’t. Finally, and most importantly, they must learn to apply justice equally to everyone, regardless of race, or religion, or sexual identity, or gender, or anything else that might make them different. We are all, after all, in this same life together and share the same hopes and dreams. Once we begin to understand that, perhaps there won’t be a need for documentaries like this one in the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Spends the second half of the film on viable solutions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Ali’s first feature as a director and writer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whose Streets?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Stateless


(2019) Documentary (Hispaniola/PBS) Rosa Iris, Juan Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz. Directed by Michéle Stephenson

Here in the United States, we grapple with our own race relations. On the left, claims that institutional racism has kept Americans of African descent from achieving their own American dream, whereas from the right equally firm assertions that racism is individual, not institutional and that great strides have been made since the Jim Crow era.

In many ways, racism here has been a subtle presence over the past thirty years, but during the Trump administration, it became more overt. We have, in many demonstrable ways, regressed back in time. However, the racism here is nothing compared to what it is in the Dominican Republic.

In 2013, their Supreme Court handed down an astonishing decision that stripped citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent going back to 1929. That left more than 200,000 people stateless – without a country, without rights. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti; in the Dominican, Spanish is spoken whereas in Haiti the language is French. The Dominicans tend to be lighter-skinned; Haiti is largely populated by those of African descent. The Dominican is relatively prosperous whereas Haiti is impoverished, and what infrastructure had been there was largely reduced to rubble in the earthquake and hurricane that followed it.

The wealthy sugar cane plantations in the Dominican had long imported Haitian labor to do the brutal work in the cane fields, but in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to execute all Haitians inside the Dominican border, and they responded by not only doing that but murdering Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, even Dominicans with no Haitian blood but darker-skinned. Tens of thousands were murdered.

This Canadian-made and financed documentary follows three people; lawyer and activist Rosa Iris, whose primary job is getting citizenship for those whose citizenship was unjustly taken away. She runs for office, hoping to reverse the nationalist trend that has enveloped the Dominican. One of her clients is her cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat, one of the 200,000 affected. He is prohibited from seeing his children and has been living in Haiti, hoping to get his legal status resolved. Finally, there’s Gladys Feliz, a grandmotherly sort who represents the nationalist movement. Hers is the most chilling sequence of all; she seems on the surface to be a lovely and rational person, but then she says things that are simply horrible and clearly racist. For her, Haitians are all about robbery, rape and murder (sound familiar?) and who are out to subvert the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic.

The stories are interwoven with a folk tale-like story of a woman named Moraime, who fled the 1937 massacre. The cinematography for the Moraime sequences are almost dream-like and hauntingly beautiful, as opposed to the stark pictures of the poverty of Haiti and of the Dominican Haitians.

There is a terrifying sequence in which Rosa Iris is driving Juan Teofilo from the Haitian border to Santo Domingo to submit paperwork. Their car is stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Any one of them could result in arrest. We watch mainly through hidden cameras, the tension in the faces of the occupants of the car palpable.

Much of the latter half of the film revolves around the campaign by Rosa Iris to be elected to the national assembly, hoping to bring her activism to the halls of power. Already a target for threats of violence due to her assistance of Haitian-descended Dominicans in getting their citizenship reinstated, now becomes a target for death threats. She is concerned for not only her safety but the safety of her beguiling young son. In all honesty, while her efforts to resolve the injustice politically are noble, we end up spending more time watching her campaign than dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles that face Dominicans of Haitian descent; the meeting that Juan Teofilo has with an apathetic clerk in the records office is one of the most compelling bits in the film. His melancholy face is as memorable as Rosa Iris’ courage and heroism is.

This is a marvelous and chilling film. The United States isn’t quite this bad yet, but we were definitely on the road that leads to what we see here, and we’re not off of it yet (I was thinking that while Gladys Feliz espouses her hateful invective that it was ironic that she would likely be the sort of person that Trump’s policies would have excluded from immigrating to America). The movie, which won best Canadian feature at the recent Hot Docs festival, is also playing Tribeca this weekend. For those who aren’t able to make it to that festival, it will be airing on the wonderful PBS documentary series P.O.V. on July 19th and should be available for streaming after that. This is a movie that those who are passionate about social justice should have on their short list.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosa Iris cuts a heroic figure. The story is compelling and all-too-tragically familiar.
REASONS TO AVOID: The electioneering distracts from the central issue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the election, Rosa Iris continued to receive death threats for her support of the Haitian community; she eventually requested and was granted asylum in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: PBS (effective July 19), Tribeca @ Home (through June 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Penn
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
P.S. Please Burn This Letter

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Billie


The legendary Billie Holiday.

(2019) Music Documentary (Greenwich) Billie Holiday, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Billy Eckstein, Bobby Tucker, Jo Jones, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Skinny Davenport, John Fagan, John Hammond, Myra Luftman, John Simmons, Artie Shaw, Al Avola, Les Robinson, Luis McKay, Irene Kitchings, Mae Weiss. Directed by James Erskine

That she was a jazz legend there is no doubt, but much of the life of Billie Holiday remains an enigma to modern listeners. When she died in 1959 at age 44, she was nearly penniless, victimized by abusive husbands and managers who stole nearly every penny she earned, and did nothing as she sank into alcohol and hard drug abuse. Given a childhood in which she was raped as a pre-teen and began work as a prostitute at age 13, perhaps that descent was inevitable.

The movie had its genesis in a book that was never written. In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a big fan of the singer, decided to write her definitive biography (there was an autobiography in 1956 that was later criticized for being factually inaccurate, and was apparently threatened with legal action if certain aspects, such as her relationships with Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead and Orson Welles were not removed) and spent the next eight years amassing interviews with those who knew her best, including jazz luminaries like Count Basie and Tony Bennett. However, before she could write the book, she passed away in 1979 in what was deemed by the Washington DC police as a suicide, although she left no note. Her family to this day contests the finding; Erskine attempted to look into the matter but all of the evidence collected by the DC police had been destroyed.

Erskine peppers the audio interviews with archival footage of Holiday performing some of her most memorable songs, as well as contemporaneous interviews with Lady Day herself (a nickname granted her by the musicians in the Count Basie orchestra with whom she sang early on in her career). Holiday once told her friend Sylvia Syms that the trick to performing was this: “If you almost laugh, the audience will laugh. If you almost cry, the audience will cry.” We see the evidence of that in her performance in which all the pain of her life – and all the joy – was very much in evidence in her face and in her body language.

Notably, we see a television performance of “Strange Fruit,” the at-the-time controversial song about lynching, late in her life. Her eyes are nearly deadened, numb with the horror of that which so many African-Americans of her generation had to grow up with and are now facing again, albeit in a much different way. The interviews are also fascinating, including one with the man who was her pimp during her prostitute days, who chuckles at the memory of beating her up when she got out of line; “the girls liked it,” he chortles. It’s enough to turn your stomach.

The film spends a little too much time on the journalist’s story, which although fascinating tends to detract from the story of the singer that she was trying to tell, something I imagine that the writer would find ironic if not disturbing. I think that she might have been gratified, however, if she knew that if you do an image search on her name, pictures of Holiday turn up (and a few of Linda Ronstadt, whose musical biography was also released by Greenwich last year).

It’s the music that Holiday will be remembered for, however, and there’s plenty of it here and you will be taken by the sheer force of her vocals. She was the greatest singer of her age bar none, and if you aren’t familiar with her work this is a dandy place to start. If you are familiar with her work, then the interviews about her will be a treasure trove.

Although iMDB gives a June release date for the film, that was a pre-Coronavirus entry and the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. For those looking to see it on the Florida Film Festival virtual festival, it is unfortunately sold out. Keep an eye out for it though – it is one of the best documentaries you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Holliday’s story is tragic and compelling. Some wonderful performance footage. Judging from the interviews, this would have been an amazing book. Gives due to one of the most important figures in American music of the 20th century.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends a little too much time on Kuehl’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity (Holliday swore like a sailor), plus plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Outside Story

The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

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

Bias


Biases are shoot first and ask questions later.

(2018) Documentary (1091) Robin Hauser, Iris Bohnet, Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald, Heidi Roizen, Ronald Tyler, Howard Ross, Allyson Robinson, David Rock, Judith Michelle Williams, Krista Morgan, Promise Phelon, Aileen Leo, Malcolm Gladwell, Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, Jerry Kang, Shikira Porter, Nirav Tolia, Lois James, Steve James, Angéle Christin, Abby Wambach. Directed by Robin Hauser

 

We all have pre-conceived notions of one sort or another; African-American males are criminals, women are too emotional to lead, liberals are elitist snobs, conservatives are ignorant rednecks. Sometimes our biases are so subtle we are unaware that we even have them.

Documentary filmmaker Robin Hauser examines the biases that are in all of us. I think most of us like to think of ourselves as unbiased and objective but there are online tests that you can take that will quickly disabuse you of that notion. The tests are part of a study that confirms that most Americans – and indeed, most humans – have some sort of bias. Maybe we favor a certain political philosophy. Maybe we are suspicious of people of a certain ethnic background. Maybe we believe women are less capable than men. Hauser was shocked to discover that she herself had that bias, that men were more career-oriented and women more family-oriented. As a woman who has a career, she thought she’d have a different viewpoint.

Hauser talks to a number of researchers, authors, psychologists and social engineers, people who shape viewpoints. We are shown how biases form a part of the fabric of society and how many people are even unaware that they have them.

The documentary can be a bit dry in places, and there are a lot of talking heads, but there are also some impressive animated sequences as well as some information that is sure to make you raise an eyebrow if not drop your jaw. Hauser is an engaging host, taking front and center in her documentary as she talks to people on the street, takes the online test in the presence of those who created it, and engages in a police exercise meant to focus on police biases and help cops overcome them.

It’s a fairly short watch and for those who think that they are pretty much objective, this can be a game-changer. While I didn’t take the online test myself (the documentary shows you how you yourself can take it), I did recognize some of my own political biases rearing their ugly heads. While the film asserts that we can “re-program” ourselves to eliminate biases, it doesn’t really explain how too deeply and does mention that it is an extraordinarily difficult process, but knowing that those feelings are there is the first step in dealing with them.

REASONS TO SEE: Eye-opening. Some nifty animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of talking heads giving dry information.
FAMILY VALUES: There is occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hauser’s third documentary feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Changes Everything
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Sharks (Los tiburones)

The First Purge


Viewers can now binge the Purge.

(2018) Thriller (Universal/BlumhouseY’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul, Mo McRae, Jermel Howard, Siya, Christian Robinson, Steve Harris, Derek Basco, D.K. Bowser, Mitchell Edwards, Maria Rivera, Chyna Layne, Ian Blackman, Melonie Diaz. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

The Purge series posits a somewhat fascist American government creating a 12=hour period annually during which all crime is legal, including murder. Those who can afford to leave, do – or they set up their homes as impenetrable fortresses. For the less wealthy, the alternative is to hunker down and ride it out, hoping the crazies won’t find them.

The latest film in the franchise (which has since also added a ten-episode “event” cable TV series, an ad for which appeared mid-credits at the film’s conclusion) goes back to the beginning, when the New Founding Fathers – the only political party standing – have emerged as the de facto rulers after an economic crisis has crippled the United States. Eager to purge the roles of welfare recipients and those getting federal assistance, they enlist a kooky psychiatrist (Tomei) to come up with a plan. The experiment is limited to Staten Island, where the government entices residents to stay by offering $5000 cash if they’ll wear contact lenses mounted with miniaturized cameras, giving everybody’s eyes a bizarre glow.

Nya (Davis) is having none of it. She sees the Purge for what it is – a racist attempt to take out the poor and the dark-skinned. Her ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Noel) is more pragmatic; he’s a drug dealer who is staying only because relocating his product would be too risky. So , with rival dealers seeing the Purge as an opportunity and other segments of the population throwing huge parties, oblivious to the danger that confronts them, and the government sending in hit squads when the violence isn’t enough to capture the imagination of the populous, Nya and Dmitri are going to have a very long night indeed.

There is no doubt that the series is allegorical, accurately predicting America’s turn towards extremism back in 2013 when the series debuted. The MAGA-like hat that decorated the poster was another clue; there’s even a reference to female genital grabbing if that isn’t enough. All in all, I’m not sure if Trump supporters are going to see this as elitist liberalism or a reactionary wet dream and respond accordingly.

The performances of the mostly unknown leads are solid enough and some of the murder scenes are cleverly staged but the movie is absolutely riddled with tropes and stock characters to the point that it becomes depressingly predictable. There are definitely signs that the franchise is losing its steam and doesn’t really have the courage of its convictions any longer. Still, those who appreciated the first three films in the series will likely appreciate this one, although they – like I – may not embrace it as a fitting addition to the franchise.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the murder sequences are extremely effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many clichés and way too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plethora of often disturbing violence, some sexual content, profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in the franchise not to be directed by James DeMonaco. Although he did write the screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A Reindeer’s Journey