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

Point Man


Two soldiers who don’t see eye to eye.

(2018) War (Vision) Christopher Long, Jacob Keohane, Chase Gutzmore, Marcus Bailey, Matthew Ewald, William Shannon Williams, Jeff Williams, Paul de Havilland, Joe W. Nowland, Acorye’ White, Jimmy Ace Lewis, Bryan Bachman, Cody Howard, Triston Dye, Jason Alan Cook, John Charles Harnett, James Roseman, Jason Damico, Marianne del Gallego. Directed by Phil Blattenberger

 

Once upon a time, war movies depicted American soldiers as brave, heroic and honorable and why not? The wars we were involved in were for the most part clearly defined from a moral standpoint. Then came Vietnam and everything changed.

Andre “Casper” Allen (Long) is “in country” and he’s not thrilled about it. Martin Luther King has just been assassinated back home and the civil rights movement is reaching a crescendo. Meanwhile he’s risking his life for a country where his people are hated, discriminated against, lynched and in general treated like second hand citizens. Even in Vietnam he’s called “Soul Man” by the locals who while they seem to be more accepting of him than his fellow Americans, are too busy trying to kill him for him to make friends.

He’s outspoken and opinionated which doesn’t endear him to his commanding officer, Lt. Sutton (Ewald) and he has to endure the racist taunts of Mississippi redneck Pvt. Meeks (Keohane) in the barracks. His platoon is being sent out into a largely hostile territory where unit 29 Bravo has disappeared and with whom all communication has been lost. They are being sent to sweep the area of Viet Cong and find the missing company, or their remains.

When his platoon gets into a firefight, four of the soldiers are pinned down – Casper, Meeks, and African-Americans Joe (Gutzmore) and Felix (Bailey) when Sutton bugs out to save his own neck, leaving the other four there to die. They fight their way out and go looking for Sutton – and it’s not to buy him an ice cream as Casper puts it. In the meantime, the four cut-off soldiers find the missing 29 Bravo and discover that their mission has devolved into killing every Vietnamese civilian possible whether they have any ties to the Viet Cong or not. Casper, who has become the quartet’s de facto leader, decides to take matters into his own hands which leads the group further and further down the rabbit hole.

=The morality of the Vietnam war is something America has been trying to come to grips with ever since we pulled out of Saigon, an act that is still hotly debated today. The soldiers who fought there are often caught in the middle; they were spat upon and despised by the left for even going to war and they were looked down upon and despised by the right for not winning it. Even today there’s a stigma associated with those who fought in the war, despite our rush to “support our troops” in the present day. The soldiers who served in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos don’t get the respect today that their peers who fought in other wars received and continue to receive.

We have to remember that a very large percentage of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were basically teenage boys from poorer environments. This is a fact of the war that the movie fails to capture – most of the soldiers here seem to be older. The movie does capture the chaos of having leadership that was often self-contradictory and often did senseless things without explanation.

This is a very low budget indie. Do not expect to see battle sequences loaded with explosions and DolbyTM bullets whizzing through the air. Most of this is done with practical effects and it appears that the budget for fake blood was pretty low as well. Some war film buffs might find that disconcerting. The actors here are largely unknown and while they mostly acquit themselves well, some of the dialogue that they’re required to speak doesn’t sound much like how soldiers actually talk.

This isn’t a home run but it isn’t bad. There are a lot of good things going on here, not the least of which that we get a chance to examine our moral evaluations of the war – everyone above a certain age has one. I’m not going to say this is the war as soldiers experienced it but I think that it gets some of the confusion, the moral dilemmas and the chaos of the war. High kudos to the filmmakers for at least trying something different and succeeding enough of the time to make this a recommended rental.

REASONS TO SEE: The film gives a sense of the conflict that African-American soldiers went through.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is a bit on the clunky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of salty language, racial epithets and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was the first American narrative production to shoot in Vietnam for a movie about the Vietnam War, some of the combat scenes were shot at Lee Ranch here in Orlando.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATINGS: 6/10
NEXT:
Arctic

It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

Bennett’s Song


In a family with fourteen kids, every night is a girl’s night out!

(2018) Family Comedy (Vision) Tara Reid, Dennis Haskins, Aphrodite Nikolovsky, Calhoun Koenig, Harley Wallen, Victoria Mullen, Morgan Nimmo, Arielle Olkhovsky, Joseph Ouelette, Dennis Marin, Aleksandra Luca, Evan Keoshian, La’Kenya Howard-Luster, Da’Mya Gogoua, Rees Curran, Cayleigh Brown, Maya Patel, Janellyn Woo, Lucas Yassayan, Chevonne Wilson. Directed by Harley Wallen

 

Family is family; they come in all shapes and sizes. One person’s idea of what a family is may be completely different than what another person might think they are. No two families are ever alike; they all have their own dynamics, their own issues.

\Susan Song (Nikolovsky) is a cheerful 40-something dentist who is a divorcee left with seven adopted kids of various ethnicities. She meets ex-MMA fighter and current gym owner Cole Bennett (Wallen), the son of a Saturday morning TV show host (Haskins) who something of a touchy-feely version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He’s a widower who, like Susan, has been left raising seven adopted kids of various ethnicities on his own.

The two hit it off and begin dating – awkwardly. It becomes clear soon enough that the two belong together but a family of fourteen kids of varying ages and ethnicities is going to be no easy task to raise. With Pearl Song (Koenig) having dreams of pop stardom, the family soon realizes they are going to have to work together to make things work for everyone. With a neighbor (Reid) who seems hell-bent on making the new blended family miserable and incidents of racism causing anguish for some of the younger kids, that’s going to be easier said than done.

This is very much a family film in the vein of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Brady Bunch. There is definitely a warmth and charm generated by the film but unfortunately it isn’t enough to overcome glaring problems. Perhaps most glaring of all is the acting; it is wooden, stiff and unnatural. The line delivery sounds more like a script reading than a finished product. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is clunky, with the jokes sitcom-stale and hoary (“Sure she’s smart and pretty and she’s standing right behind me isn’t she”) in an inoffensive way. You don’t need to be vulgar to be funny but you don’t need to be inoffensive to be family-friendly either.

When your two biggest names come from Sharknado and Saved by the Bell you have problems. There’s just nothing here that approaches even the lowest standard of acceptable filmmaking. To be fair the writers do attempt to address 21st century family issues like racism, blended families, financial issues and bullying but the problem here is that it doesn’t address them believably.

I get that indie filmmaking sometimes requires a little bit of a lower bar when considering the inexperience of a newer cast and crew but this is more like a filmed version of a community theater play and a bad one at that. In fact, saying that is an insult to community theater and I don’t mean it to be. There’s nothing about this movie that I can recommend unless you’re itching to see Tara Reid in a villainous role.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is wooden and lifeless. The dialogue is cliché. The comedy is all recycled from sitcoms.
REASONS TO STAY: Their heart is in the right place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yours, Mine and Ours
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Juliet, Naked

The Workshop (L’atelier)


Antoine gives his teacher a speculative look.

(2017) Drama (Strand) Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Mélissa Guilbert, Warda Rammach, Julien Souve, Issam Talbi, Olivier Thouret, Charlie Bardé, Marie Tarabella, Youcef Agal, Marianne Esposito, Thibaut Hernandez, Axel Caillet, Lény Sellam, Anne-Sophie Fayolle, Cédric Martinez, Chiara Fauvel, Jorys Leuthreau, Pierre Bouvier, Téva Agobian. Directed by Laurent Cantet

 

The act of writing is an act of revelation. No matter the format or genre, the writer never fails to reveal something about themselves. Sometimes that which is revealed is something dark and disturbing.

Celebrated novelist Olivia Dejazet (Foïs) is running a writer’s workshop for young people in the seaside town of Le Ciotat, near Marseilles. Once a prosperous shipyard, the mostly working class town has fallen on hard times. Unemployment is high and none of the teens who are attending the workshop have jobs. Apparently the purpose of the workshop is to give them something to do.

They are tasked with writing a thriller set in Le Ciotat. The youngsters debate whether to set it in present day or in the past, or in both utilizing flashbacks. The discussion is mostly friendly but there is one youth who is goading the others – Antoine (Lucci), a handsome and buff young man who insists that the novel be a murder mystery. That’s all well and good with the others but when it comes to motivation for the murder rather than something racially or financially motivated or a crime of passion, Antoine insists that it be more of a thrill crime – a sociopath who kills random people because he can. As he writes stories with this theme to read to the class, it is clear he is a very talented writer…and also that his imagination is disturbing to say the least.

Olivia begins to fixate on her young charge and does research, finding that he is watching right-wing nativist videos and shows an unhealthy obsession with guns and violence. Even as Olivia is drawn to him, she begins to fear him equally and what he might be capable of doing.

Cantet is the brilliant director of the brilliant The Class whose output since then hasn’t been released on American shores. The Workshop marks the first film in ten years by this director to get a U.S. release. Will this put him back on the art house radar the way The Class did in 2008? Probably not; the movie is more flawed than its predecessor.

Lucci, like all the other young people in the film, is an amateur actor local to Le Ciotat with no previous screen credit and he’s quite a find. Handsome and intimidating at times, he projects a sense of menace which is not so much overt but more venal than venomous. He seems hell-bent on pushing the buttons of everyone around him, sometime by saying things that are out-and-out racist or misogynist. Cantet hints that he truly believes some of those things but on the other hand there seems to be an ulterior motive that Antoine has in nearly every relationship he’s in with few exceptions. He despises his working class parents and everything they stand for but most of the right-wing commentaries he listens to disdain he unemployed, which he is.

The relationship between Antoine and Olivia is the central attraction here. The chemistry isn’t exactly sexual although there are hints that it might be. Olivia feels an odd compelling fascination that is mixed with outright and justifiable fear. As a writer, she’s curious about what Antoine is capable of. As a woman, she’s terrified over what Antoine is capable of. The resulting mix makes for a fascinating character study.

Unfortunately, none of the other kids in the class gets as much character development and the movie is long, drawn-out and slow paced which is an ingredient for American audiences switching to something less hard on their barely-there attention spans. That said, the film is still interesting – there are archival films of the shipyard’s heyday interspersed with the modern day action – and Cantet has a better handle on French social issues than almost any other director in France.

Readers in Miami can catch the film at the MDC Tower Theater this week. Tickets can be purchased here.

REASONS TO GO: The dynamic between Antoine and Olivia is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is long and slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen drinking and disturbing dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted in the Un Certain Regarde category of the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Friend Dahmer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where is Kyra?