Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

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The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore


Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey are out looking for trouble.

(2016) Crime Comedy (Netflix) Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy, Gary Anthony Williams, Devon Graye, Christine Woods, Robert Longstreet, Derek Mears, Jason Manuel Olazabal, Dagoberto Rodriguez, Dana Millican, Myron Natwick, Robin Blair, Buck Eddy-Blair, Marilyn Faith-Hickey, Jared Roylance, Michelle Moreno, Cristi Miles, Lee Eddy, Jana Lee Hamblin. Directed by Macon Blair

 

There comes a point in life where you just have to say “enough.” You can’t take another jerk in your life, you can’t bear to just swallow the selfishness of people and be polite. What triggers that feeling may vary from person to person.

For Ruth (Lynskey) it starts with a very bad day. A nurse’s assistant, her day begins with a most unpleasant patient, an elderly woman with racist thoughts, suddenly dies. It ends with Ruth coming home to a house which has been broken into. Her laptop is gone as is her grandmother’s silver set. The police in the person of Detective William Bendix (Williams) seem fairly indifferent to her plight.

With the aid of her martial arts-loving devout Christian neighbor Tony (Wood), Ruth endeavors to find her grandma’s silverware which has a sentimental value to her. Utilizing a tracking program on her laptop, she does recover her computer and discovers that the stoners using it picked up the device at a dicey pawn shop.

This will lead her into the world of incompetent, petty criminals, wealthy douchebag lawyers and home invasions. The journey there will be dark and twisted; will she come out all right on the other end?

This made a lot of noise at this year’s Sundance, winning the Grand Jury prize for dramatic presentation. Blair, a childhood friend of director Jeremy (The Green Room) Saulnier, is making his feature film directorial debut and I must say he has a really bright future if he chooses to pursue that aspect of filmmaking; Blair has appeared in front of the camera in several of Saulnier’s films as well as this one in a cameo as an annoying bar patron.  He has a great eye for shot composition which makes the film pleasing from a strictly visual point of view.

He also had the good sense to cast Lynskey in this. She’s an actress who simply doesn’t get her due; I can’t remember a performance of hers that was anything but compelling and here, in a rare opportunity to carry a movie herself, she knocks it out of the park. Ruth is an essentially mousy character who has been pushed too far. There’s a great scene where she stands up to Bendix at the police station, a confrontation that leads to an unexpected revelation. She also has great chemistry with Wood, who has morphed into an actor with a very broad range of styles. He may be one of the most versatile actors working in Hollywood today.

Ruth’s journey is a fascinating one. Even though she’s dealing with a sort of darker side of humanity not of her own doing, she keeps up her optimism pretty much throughout and although her naiveté gets her into situations that are somewhat precarious, she manages to prevail even though logic tells you that she shouldn’t.

The tone is a little bit off-kilter which can work in its favor, but also discourage more traditional moviegoers from wanting to see it. I admit, there were times when I was a little bit put off by the somewhat unconventional atmosphere. It’s not that there are a lot of eccentric indie trope characters in the movie, although there are a few; it’s just the situations can get a little bit wonky.

This is a good metaphor for life in 2017. Most of us feel the way Ruth does; there are a few too many assholes in the world and all we want is to live life as asshole-free as possible. Our society has in general become far more self-centered; there is little thought given about others, whether they are part of our circles or not. It is ironic that with communication so much easier we understand so much less than we once did. The world is indeed full of assholes; to counteract them, we need more people like Ruth.

REASONS TO GO: Lynskey is a much underrated actress who has become one of my favorites. The shot composition is terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The vibe may be a little too out there for some. The film is a little preachy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blair used his own experience of having his apartment broken into and his laptop stolen plus a perceived lack of police follow-up to inspire the story; the title comes from a line in a gospel song sung near the end of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Holden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: A Stray

Rat Film


Oh, rats!

(2016) Experimental Documentary (The Cinema Guild) No cast listed. Directed by Theo Anthony

You dirty rat. Rat bastard. Rat fink. The fact is, rats are not looked on fondly by our society. They are symbols of decay and rot, of filth and poverty. Rats are bringers of pestilence; it is said that they brought the Black Death to Europe but in fact, it was parasites living on the rats that carried the plague. Have rats been getting a bad rap?

Well, no. Rats do carry a variety of diseases and thrive in urban decay. Anthony’s debut feature documentary – or feature experimental documentary to be more accurate – is not so much a feature but a collection of shorts thrown together, sometimes incomprehensibly, with an overall theme of rats in Baltimore – and even that isn’t always true.

The movie is narrated by a female voice that sounds a bit like a distaff Stephen Hawking or more to the point, a primitive bored-sounding Siri. There is also an odd popping sound on the soundtrack throughout that I’m thinking was put there intentionally, if for no other reason than to further annoy the audience which Anthony probably thinks of as “challenging the audience.” Maybe he’s right.

There are a lot of vignettes that may or may not have anything to do with anything else; we follow a city-employed rat exterminator (none of those who appear in the film are named) who is both humane and philosophical; “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” he opines during a break from visiting homes in Baltimore’s poorest areas, “It’s a people problem.” That is apparently because the city of Baltimore more than a century ago set out to divide the neighborhoods by desirability and then focus services on the desirable area. Those in the redlined areas were essentially left to rot and rot they did.

There are sequences where a computer-generated Baltimore is created from a rat’s point of view. Where there are gaps in the program, star fields are shown. Here, the film seems to say, there be rats. Or perhaps more accurately, here there be software glitches. Take your pick.

The sequence showing doll house crime scene recreations from the 30s that are still used today for CSI training (and can be viewed by the public in a museum setting) was interesting. The CGI rat in a maze was not. There is no flow to the film; at times it just seems like Anthony is throwing things at the screen and seeing what sticks. I termed it cinematic masturbation when I saw it; after having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure I was right but I can understand why others might think so

The movie was deeply polarizing. Friends of mine have been singing its praises; others think it’s one of the worst films to ever play the Florida Film Festival. I’m not a fan; perhaps I prefer my documentaries to be more traditional and am not ready for this kind of challenge. I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer however if I didn’t point out that this really isn’t for everybody; some of the scenes (such as amateur rat catchers luring rats from a garbage-strewn alleyway with turkey slices smeared with peanut butter on a fishhook and then beating them to death with a baseball bat, and the final scene in which a snake devours a helpless baby rat) may make sensitive audience members uncomfortable, and the sensory assault of the computer graphics may also do the same.

I would never tell anyone not to go see a movie, even one that I absolutely loathed. I don’t absolutely loathe this one. The exterminator is an interesting character study and there are moments here and there that I found fascinating. While the linking of rats to urban blight and racism felt more obvious than perhaps was intended, the filmmaker shows a certain sympathy towards the rats. I only wish he’d had a little more for his audience.

REASONS TO GO: The city exterminator is an interesting guy and his story is the most compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has absolutely no flow; it’s a bunch of images thrown up on the screen without any sort of rhyme or reason. There is a popping sound on the soundtrack that was most annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity present as well as scenes that may make animal lovers a bit uncomfortable..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is composed by electronic music star Dan Deacon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sans Soleil
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Archer

Get Out


Daniel Kaluuya finds out we like him…we really, really like him.

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, Lil Rel Howery, Ashley LeConte Campbell, John Wilmot, Caren Larkey,Julie Ann Doan, Rutherford Cravens, Geraldine Singer, Yasuhiko Oyama, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander. Directed by Jordan Peele

 

Given the situation and history of race in America, it could be forgiven if some African-Americans might have nightmares that white America is out to get them. Certainly given institutional racism in the past, the need for Black Lives Matter in the present and not a lot of hope for change for the future, life in these United States might seem like one great big horror movie for people of color.

Chris (Kaluuya) is a photographer who’s just getting started in his career. He is an African-American with ties to the community but he also has a white girlfriend – Rose (Williams) who has yet to inform her parents that she’s dating a black guy. But not to worry, she tells him – her parents are liberal progressives from way back. They’ll have no problem with it. When you’re taking your boyfriend to meet your parents for the first time, please understand that those words offer no comfort whatsoever.

Rose’s parents are pretty well-to-do – they have a vacation home in upstate New York that most would probably classify as an estate. Her Dad (Whitford) is a neurosurgeon and her Mom (Keener) a psychiatrist specializing in hypnotherapy. Dad is that kind of guy whose attempts to sound hip and current are awkward and unintentionally funny (“So how long has this thang been going on?” he  asks much to Chris’ bemusement). Mom offers to help cure Chris of his smoking habit which he politely refuses. He doesn’t want anyone messing with his head.

But awkward first meeting weekend gives way to some legitimate misgivings. The African-American domestics Walter (Henderson) and Georgina (Gabriel) seem anachronistic. The bonhomie of a family and friends gathering reveals racism bubbling just under the surface. The drunken brother (Jones) seems unusually aggressive.  Chris has nightmares and realizes that someone has been messing with his head after all. But the messing with Chris’ head is nothing compared with what’s going to mess with ours.

Peele is best known up to now for being part of Key and Peele who have one of the most respected shows on Comedy Central. Methinks that he has something else that he’s going to be best known for. He shows a confident, deft hand which is unusual for a first-time director and he took a nearly microscopic budget for a movie released by a major studio and parlayed it into what is sure to be one of the most profitable movies of the year.

He does it with a smartly written film that lightens the tone of the deeper issues it explores and doesn’t allow the audience to get angry or frustrated given the climate of the times. While I’ve heard some mutterings that the movie is racist towards whites, I would tend to disregard that kind of talk and compare it to certain SNL sketches that poke fun of white stereotypes. We all, after all, have our prejudices whether we admit to them or not.

He also does it with a near-perfect cast of largely unknowns from a feature standpoint although Whitford and Keenan are both veterans and Jones and Stanfield have some good performances under their belts as well. Each cog in the wheel performs exactly as they need to which helps ratchet up the creepy factor when it appears that Chris has entered a weird Stepford Wives town for Caucasians.

As light as Peele keeps it he does save room for some heavy horror moments although there’s not a lot of viscera here. It’s more the concepts that are horrifying rather than any visual gore although there are a few images where Peele brings on the red stuff. He’s not shying away from it so much as using it effectively.

Kaluuya, a British actor playing an American here, has star written all over him. He is absolutely mesmerizing onscreen and delivers an excellent performance that’s bound to get him noticed for more high-profile roles. He reminds me a lot of John Boyega and we all know that his career brought him into the Star Wars universe; something similar could conceivably happen to Kaluuya who I think would make a fantastic John Stewart in the upcoming Green Lantern Corps movie for DC/Warner Brothers.

This is one of those occasions where the critics and the general public have both embraced a film. It’s certainly bound to be one of the better horror movies to come out this year and some might well keep it in mind for one of the best movies of the year period. I’m not quite on board for that kind of lofty praise but this is definitely a movie worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it already and savvy movie buffs are likely to add it to their collection when it comes out on home video later on this year.

REASONS TO GO: A comic-horror look at African-American perceptions and racial stereotypes. There are some good laughs as well as some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might be made uncomfortable by the film’s attitudes towards racism.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of violence, some bloody images, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peele became the first African-American director to earn over $100 million at the box office on his debut feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Life as a Zucchini