Herb Alpert Is…


The brass still gleams.

(2020) Music Documentary (AbramoramaHerb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Lani Hall, Sting, Quincy Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Lou Adler, Terry Lewis, Bill Moyers, Randy Alpert, Jimmy Jam, Quest Love, Chloe Flower, Richard Carpenter, Eden Alpert, Hussain Jiffry, Ken Robinson, John Pisano, Chip Tom, Eric Pryor, Richard W. Lariviere, Bill Cantos, Aria Alpert Adjani. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the early-to-mid Sixties, the biggest musical group in the world was the Beatles. All the kids listened to them. But it might surprise you to know what their parents were listening to; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The two groups were the biggest selling musical acts in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” at some point in your life. You’ve had to.

In the sixties, his music served as something of a soundtrack. It was used as incidental music on The Dating Game and could be heard in movies and of course, on the radio. As ubiquitous as his music was, he might be best remembered in the music business for being the “A” in A&M Records, whose roster of artists included at one time or another Janet Jackson, The Carpenters, Carole King, The Police, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, Bryan Adams, Soundgarden, The Black-Eyed Peas, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Styx, Amy Grant, Joe Jackson, the Neville Brothers, Atlantic Starr, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Human League, Oingo Boingo, Hugh Masakela, Iggy Pop, the Neville Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, the Tubes, Simple Minds, UB40, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp, Bill Withers and the Stranglers.

These days, Alpert spends a lot of time sculpting and painting. Music has taken a back seat to the visual arts, although he still dabbles. He sold the record company years ago, and is able to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle. He’s reached a point in his life where people tend to turn inward and ask themselves “Did I do okay?” It is also the time of life when documentarians tend to come knocking on your door.

Scheinfeld has assembled some pretty impressive interviews, and Alpert himself, notoriously an introvert, actually proves to tell some pretty fun stories. The tone of the film is, as you might expect, somewhat reverent and if you’re looking for a “warts and all” portrayal here, you will likely be disappointed. Still, the archival footage is absolutely amazing – the TJB were making music videos back in the early Sixties before just about anybody else – and you get to hear a little bit more than just ten-second snippets of songs.

Alpert seems to be a pretty forward-looking guy as most artists tend to be. Still, in an era when looking forward tends to bring on depression, it was a pleasure to look back a bit. My mom and dad owned the South of the Border album and they played the heck out of it – I’m surprised it still plays (my mom still has the album somewhere). It represents a simpler, more innocent era to me, and I lived in Southern California – the perfect environment to hear Alpert’s music. Some today might mutter about cultural appropriation and watered-down version of Mexican music, but it was more than an accompaniment to chips and salsa at your local Mexican chain restaurant. It introduced a lot of people to a different type of music and made them receptive to hearing still more. Whatever you think of the TJB, you have to admit that Alpert made an indelible mark on the music industry and thus, on our lives. For my money, he done good.

REASONS TO SEE: The music clips are a little longer than usual for this genre. There is some terrific archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film occasionally descends into hagiography.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alpert got his start in the music business as a songwriter; among the songs that he wrote was the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.”
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20.20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Great Deceiver

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Draupadi Unleashed


The lot of a woman in India has long been sadness.

(2019) Romance (Passion RiverSalena Qureshi, Cas Anvar, Taaha Shah Badusha, Dominic Rains, Anna George, Melanie Chandra, Azita Ghanizada, Paras Patel, Saad Siddiqui, Indigo Sabharwal, Abi Bais, Gopal Divan, Anil Kumar, Meghana Mudiyam, Pooja Batra, Kai Gowda, TeriEnna Blanco. Directed by Tony Stopperan and Nisha Sabharwal

 

Passion can be a liberating thing, but it can also be a damning thing. Our passions can lead us into great happiness, but more often, into big trouble. But passion is an indelible part of our nature, like it or not.

Young Indira (Qureshi) has passion to spare, but you’d never know it. For one thing, female passion is frowned upon during the British raj of the 1930s, and certainly in the upper caste to which she belongs. She is expected to be submissive to her husband – when a marriage is arranged for her – and to let him do all the thinking. Her job is to keep his house and make him happy.

But Indira wants more, and more might be her cousin Gautam (Badusha), her childhood playmate grown to handsome young manhood. However, the match arranged for her is with Amar (Rains), the heir to a sugar fortune, but another cousin of Indira, Masumi (Ghanizada) – who happens to be married to the rarely present Dev (Saddiqui) – has designs on Amar. She approves the match, if only so that Indira can turn down his sexual advances so that he is driven to Masumi. Blessing the union of Amar and Indira is the reclusive swami Manu (Anvar) who instantly realizes what’s going on and tries to steer this ship away from the rocks it is heading to, but the tremors that begin to occur with more frequency presage a disaster coming to the city of Quetta that would eventually kill more than 40,000.

I will say this is a lush and beautiful looking and sounding film; the visuals have that Downton Abby sheen of wealth and privilege, while the score – utilizing traditional Indian instruments and melodies – is absolutely breathtaking.

The movie exists in kind of a bubble; the social upheaval going on in India during the same period is never referred to – they may as well have set the action on Mars. There is a curiously bloodless feeling here, as if everyone is on lithium. From time to time, someone (usually Amar) raises their voice, but for someone who is willing to run off with her cousin, Indira sometimes comes off as someone who really can’t be bothered to make a decision on her own. The effect is to make her less compelling as a character, which is a shame because Qureshi has a great deal of charm which shows up in unexpected times and ways. With a little bit more character development, she could have been truly memorable.

Although set in India, this is an American production so the sensuality is a little bit pronounced although still of the PG variety. There is some violence and the climactic sequences are fairly thrilling, although by the time the movie hits the two hour mark you’re pretty much ready for it to be done. I like the idea here a lot more than the execution.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful score and costumes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Far too long to be this passionless.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild violence and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sabharwal not only co-directed the film, but she did the narration (as an older version of Indira) and wrote the novel it’s based on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Remains of the Day
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Racer

We Are Many


Proof that politicians can ignore even the loudest voices of the people.

(2014) Documentary (Area 23aRichard Branson, Hans Blix, Susan Sarandon, John Le Carré, Damon Albarn, Mark Rylance, Ken Loach, Danny Glover, Tom Hayden, Brian Eno, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Jesse Jackson, Robert Greenwald, Jeremy Corbyn, Gen. Lawrence Wilkerson, Tariq Ali, Philippe Sands, John Rees, Lord Charles, Victoria Branson, Rafaella Bonini. Directed by Amir Amirani

 

“The power of the people” rests in the will of the people to act in concert. When people unite, they can accomplish great things. That is, at least, the story we’ve been told, but what if I told you that somewhere between six and thirty million people worldwide gathered on the same day around the world to protest a war – and the war happened anyway?

After 9-11, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan because reliable intelligence had the leadership of Al-Qaeda holed up in the caves of that country. The military might of the United States and its allies quickly overwhelmed the Taliban government of Afghanistan. After the collective trauma, grief and rage of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, it didn’t feel like enough. The Bush Administration turned its eyes to Iraq, the country that the president’s father had invaded nearly twenty years before. Aided and abetted by the Tony Blair government in the UK, the word went out that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would launch at the West.

We know now that those weapons of mass destruction never existed, r if they did, they didn’t exist anymore. Blair, Bush and their governments knowingly and willfully lied to their citizens in order to popularize a war that they couldn’t legally justify. Most of the people of both countries bought the lies hook, line and sinker, myself included. Not everybody did, though.

Some felt that the war was an unjust one; that the real motivation for the war was to enrich the profits of the oil companies. “No blood for oil,” was the popular chant. Protests were organized in Europe and then, although social media was in its infancy, the Internet was used to plan and co-ordinate massive rallies across the globe. While the movement began in Europe, it quickly spread to become a worldwide phenomenon.

But as we all know, all the outpouring of dissent went for naught. A month later, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and the U.S. and many of its allies remain there to this day, 17 years later. Thousands of coalition soldiers never came home. The number of Iraqi dead may be as much as more 1,500,000. There is a little bit of a post-mortem, but other than one semi-tenuous link to much more successful protests later (more on that below), we really don’t get a sense of what the march actually accomplished, and its lasting legacy, if any.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is detailed information on how the massive march was coordinated. You get the feeling it was just kind of a grass roots seat-of-the-pants operation that just sprouted up independent of one another in various cities, countries – and Antarctica (that’s right). We get more information about the political goings-on leading up to that time – most of which is easily available elsewhere – and not nearly enough inside information on how difficult it was to coordinate the marches, the logistical issues they ran into, that sort of thing. We do get a lot of celebrity talking heads, talking about their involvement with the march. The only one I found truly compelling was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson who expresses regret now about the events that brought the United States into Iraq.

The movie was actually filmed in 2013, ten years after the protest, so there is a bit of perspective here. The film has been given a virtual theatrical release, six years after its original theatrical release in 2014. For whatever reason, it never got a North American release back then, so now that we’re dealing with massive protests around the country, a pandemic and the most contentious Presidential election since the Civil War, I guess they figured the time was right.

You also have to take into account that at the end of the day, the war happened anyway, but the filmmakers don’t really address that in any detail. They do point out a tentative connection between the protest and the Arab Spring that took place seven years later, and they may not be wrong; certainly the organizers of those protests used the march as inspiration, but how much is subject to interpretation.

It is important that we remember the march because it was an important moment in which the world came together with one voice for possibly the first time – and were ignored by their leaders. It is a sobering thought that if peaceful protests that massive in nature may no longer influence the powers that be. One wonders how far the people will have to go to get their point across now.

REASONS TO SEE: Very timely given the current climate of protest around the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Explains why the protests were made but doesn’t really get into how this massive event was organized.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and depictions of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The protest still remains the largest worldwide gathering of people; it took place on February 15, 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Draupadi Unleashed

The Glorias


Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug make plans.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Mo Brings Plenty, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Kimberly Guerrero, Myles Evans, David Shaé, Victor Slezak, Enid Graham, Allie McCulloch, Tom Nowicki, Annika Pampel, Monica Sanchez, Gloria Steinem. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

Like many who have attempted to bring change to our culture, Gloria Steinem is a deeply polarizing figure. To some, she’s a heroine of the feminist movement, standing up to men and speaking truth to power regarding the patriarchy. To others, she was a conniving hypocrite who got attention because of her looks and had no compunction about using them to her advantage. Nobody can disagree that she made a definite impact on late 20th century culture which continues to reverberate now.

]Filmmaker Julie Taymor (Across the Universe) has never shied away from using unconventional means of storytelling, regularly diving into scenes of fantasy to describe what’s going on in the head of a character. Here, she utilizes four different actresses to play Steinem at various points in her life – Armstrong as a young girl, Wilson as an adolescent, Vikander as a young woman, and Moore as a middle-aged feminist leader. Actually, you might say there are five actresses playing her; Steinem herself shows up re-creating her stirring speech at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

The film hits most of the highlights of Steinem’s 80 plus years of life, from her relationship with her travelling salesman father (Hutton) who instilled in her a love of travel (being on the road is a theme utilized throughout the film), her mother’s gradual descent into depression and mental illness; her attempts to break through the boy’s club of New York City journalism (and succeeding by going undercover as a Playboy bunny), her early years as one of the most visible faces of the feminist movement, the founding of Ms. Magazine, and her relationships with various activists and political figures of the era, including Bella Abzug (Midler), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Monae), the outrageous and over-the-top Flo Kennedy (a memorable Lorraine Toussaint), UFW activist Dolores Huerta (Sanchez) and Wilma Mankiller (Guerrero), the first woman to be voted prime elder of the Cherokee tribe.

The film is extraordinarily well-acted, with kudos going particularly to Vikander, who reminds us once again that she is one of the best young actresses working today. There are some emotionally charged scenes – one in which Steinem says goodbye to a dying Mankiller, or the inspiring National Women’s Congress of 1977 which moved to get the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort that ultimately didn’t succeed after conservatives banded together to denounce the ERA as a weapon for the left to destroy the family unit. Sound familiar?

The movie jumps around from time period to time period, and while it isn’t too difficult to follow, the framing device of Steinem riding a Greyhound bus – often with other versions of Steinem on the same bus, sometimes interacting together – is inventive but overused, ultimately distracting the viewer from the flow of Steinem’s story.

I suppose it’s fitting for her biopic to be unconventional, because in life Gloria Steinem has been anything but conventional. It is also fitting that the movie comes out as the nation mourns the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg whose legal career made brought women’s equality closer to realization and whose passing may threaten the gains made in that regard.

The fantasy sequences may or may not be your cup of tea – I thought that Taymor should have been more judicious in their use, but you may disagree. In some ways, they are illuminating but in others they feel kind of more about the director than about the movie she’s making. I won’t attempt to place a stamp of yea or nay on those feelings; I leave that up to you, gentle reader because in the final tally it is really your call. I can only say that I found them to be overused; my wife, Da Queen, disagrees. So do other critics. That’s the kind of thing I love about movies like this – there is no right answer. Love it or hate it, you absolutely won’t forget it.

The film is curently playing in limited release around the country. It will be availble to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Wednesday, September 30th.

REASONS TO SEE: Vikander gives a whale of a performance. The NWC segment is inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: The fantasy sequences are overused and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore, Hutton and Vikander have all won Oscars; Midler was nominated for one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
LX 2048

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


Let them eat cake.

(2020) Documentary (IFCYoram Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko, Janice Wong, Sam Bompas, Ghaya Oliveira, Deborah Krohn, Dominique Ansel, Limar Tomer, Sruly Lazarus, Sami Tamimi. Directed by Laura Gabbert

 

It is somewhat apocryphal that Marie Antoinette, when informed that the people of Paris could not afford to buy bread, retorted “then let them eat cake.” It turns out she never actually said that, but it seemed to encapsulate the attitude the French nobility had at the time for the multitude of Parisians and French citizens elsewhere in France who were literally starving while they ate fabulous banquets in a palace noted for its ostentatious decadence.

When the Metropolitan Museum of New York brought artifacts from the French palace for an exhibition called “Visitors to Versailles” in 2018, they decided to publicize the exhibition, as they often do, with a preview dinner. They contacted world-renowned pastry chef and cookbook author Yoram Ottolenghi to create a menu of delicacies that would be fit for the table of the Sun King.

In true “go big or go home” fashion, he recruited some of the world’s most distinguished pâtissiers to create an experience not seen in all likelihood since Versailles saw its last royal resident; French-American Dominique Ansel, inventor of the Cronut, who determined to reinterpret pastries that might have been served at the French court;  Janice Wong from Singapore, known for her “edible art,” who decided to make an edible recreation of the gardens at Versailles; the British team of Bompas and Parr, known for the decadent gelatin deserts that move almost of their own accord; Tunisian chocolatier Ghaya Oliveira of New York’s exclusive Restaurant Daniel, and Ukrainian cake maker Dinara Kasko, who uses her training as an architect to print 3D molds that create cakes that are architectural wonders.

The deserts these masters make are truly spectacular and are likely to make even the most jaded foodie go ooh and ahh with wonder. Oddly enough, Ottolenghi serves as a curator and creates nothing of his own for the event, although curiously we see him sampling potential deserts for his London eatery at one time. As food porn goes, this is pretty exquisite stuff. I wish that Gabbert spent more time showing us how these deserts were crafted; as for Bompas and Parr (we never hear from poor Parr nor is he identified except in passing) we see their deserts but don’t have a clue how they are made. I get that this wasn’t meant to be a cooking show, but some background would have been nice.

But there is an odd undercurrent here. Gabbert spends a good deal of the surprisingly short run time of 75 minutes talking about the history of Versailles and what it meant in terms of class divisions, but there doesn’t seem to be much irony in these world class pastry makers creating exquisite treats for a clientele of wealthy New York museum patrons in an era where the income equality issue is quite possibly the worst it has ever been in American history, and in a year where the pandemic has caused an economic downturn that is just inches away from being a second Depression. You end up tasting the irony rather than the deserts, which in all honesty set the mouth to watering, but as is the case with most upscale events, leave us on the outside looking in.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the creations here are amazing. A wonderful treat for foodies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the tone-deaf side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ottolenghi was raised in Jerusalem and is Jewish; Tamimi, his business partner, is Palestinian.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Night
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Glorias

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

3 Day Weekend


No matter what, he’s got her back.

(2019) Suspense (Sleeper CellMorgan Krantz, Maya Stojan, Nathan Phillips, Scott MacDonald. Directed by Wyatt McDill

Sometimes a movie will show a tremendous amount of promise but end up sabotaging itself with the execution. 3 Day Weekend is just such a movie.

Millennial Ben Boyd (Krantz) decides that after a painful relationship break-up to go camping and get away from his heartache. Never mind that he really has no experience camping; how hard can it be to pitch a tent and set up a sleeping bag? Exactly.

However, he stumbles upon a deaf girl (Stojan) locked in the trunk of a car and intuits that a kidnapping is in progress. There is a menacing looking redneck (Phillips) with a gun involved and Ben’s attempts to rescue the damsel in distress go awry. When another redneck bearing a gun (MacDonald) shows up, things get even more lively, but Ben couldn’t possibly imagine the truth of what is happening; it certainly isn’t what it might seem to be to him at the time.

And there you have it; a simple concept, which McDill enhances by keeping dialogue to a bare minimum (there’s almost no dialogue at all in the first 30 minutes other than text messages which become important later), and to McDill’s credit he pulls it off. Also adding to the list of admirable qualities for the film is that it is told from the viewpoint of each character at various times with each character adding to the information that the audience has, changing our interpretation of events subtly until it ends up being quite a major shift. Kudos to McDill (who also wrote the script) for that.

Where the film loses its goodwill is in the camera work. McDill and cinematographer Brian Lundy rely a great deal on handheld cameras, leading to shaky cameras running through the Minnesota woods. He also utilizes some very questionable camera angles that end up annoying the viewer rather than impressing us with their skill. I’ve never been a big fan of shaky cam to begin with; it’s a much-overused camera technique. Used in moderation, it adds immediacy. Used to excess, it adds nausea.

It’s a shame because Lundy and McDill have some beautiful woods to work with, and McDill has written a very good film. However, movies are a visual medium and if that aspect of the project isn’t up to par, it really creates an unpleasant experience. The good news is that McDill shows a lot of potential here and if he just settles down a bit with the cinematography I’m positive he’s capable of delivering some really good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Builds up the tension nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some really questionable camera angle choices and way too much handheld shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival, near where filming took place..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood and Money
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Musical Comedy Whore

Hollywood Fringe


Kirk and Prediger can’t believe the dialogue coming out of their mouths.

(2020) Comedy (Sleeper CellJennifer Prediger, Justin Kirk, Nishi Munshi, Maya Stojan, Tory Devon Smith, Rainbow Underhill, Erica Hernandez, Jim Holmes, Terryn Westbrook, Cyd Strittmatter, Frank Cappello, Shaughn Buchholz, Aaron Conte, Miles Dausuel, Amit May Cohen, Max Goudsmit, Neel Ghosh, Jolene Kay, Charley Koontz, Aimee McGuire, Anna Shields, Michelle Nakamoto. Directed by Meghan Huber and Wyatt McDill

I would assume at least some of my readers have attended a local fringe festival (and here in Orlando we happen to have a good one). For those not in the know, fringe festivals are a festival of short, generally experimental or avant garde performance media, generally theatrical in nature although some fringe festivals also include short film screenings. Fringe performances are meant to push the boundaries a bit, sometimes dealing with uncomfortable subject matter, sometimes involving audience participation, sometimes being really weird and way out there. Fringe festivals are something of an acquired taste, one I’m sad to say that I’ve never acquired and I’ve been to a few, mostly in California.

This piece is essentially a feature length fringe festival film involving married couple Samantha (Prediger) and Travis (Kirk). They are struggling actors and writers, originally from the Midwest but gradually coming to the realization that they are approaching 40 and have nothing to show for it. They have one last shot – a TV show they have developed about a self-sustaining farm – which they have pitched to a fictional network. If this doesn’t click for them, they have decided to leave L.A. and move back home and start a different life.

But there’s good news and there’s bad news for them; the series is picked up. Yay! But the network only wants Travis, finding Samantha to be too unlikable. Boo! This puts a strain on their marriage as Travis continues on with the show, getting more and more disillusioned as the network changes their original concept into something completely unrecognizable. Meanwhile, Samantha is looking to put on a piece from their younger days, entitled The Alien Play and after auditioning a group of actors from a long line of really bad actors, settles on a group of highly strung actors who, like Samantha, haven’t found success yet  Samantha is turning into a drama teacher as well as theater director, and as Travis gets discouraged, she gets more energized.

But wait! Is that what’s really happening? Co-directors McDill and Huber leave that extremely open-ended, presenting the story as a series of short vignettes that have an audience, generally a very small one. We are left to wonder whether this is reality or performance or a clever mix of both, and the filmmakers leave it to the audience to decide which. That’s to the good. Also to the good is Prediger, who has just enough of an edge to be interesting, but not so much as to be unlikable. She has some real screen presence and has a good deal of potential, kind of like a poor man’s Tina Fey.

But this is often a slog to watch. The dialogue is flat out bad; it is like the dialogue you’d find in a badly written community play. Now, that might well have been done on purpose, but it gets extremely annoying, as does the hand clapping and melodica blowing in between scenes. What probably sounded like an original idea on paper becomes on film somewhat gimmicky and overbearing. Less is definitely more.

I can’t say as I enjoyed this film very much, but take that with a grain of sand – as I intimated earlier, I’m not a big fan of fringe theater to begin with and that is a personal preference. The acting here is decent and the idea would be intriguing if the execution wasn’t so annoying. It comes off a little bit pretentious, like a Fringe performance without the intelligence, innovation or humor. Chalk this up as a noble failure.

REASONS TO SEE: Prediger has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: Real. People. Don’t. Talk. Like. This. Very much like spending 90 minutes with people you can’t stand to be around.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Huber and McDill are a married couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Your local fringe festival.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
3-Day Weekend

Centigrade (2020)


Baby, it’s cold outside.

(2020) Thriller (IFC MidnightGenesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza. Directed by Brendan Walsh

 

I think one of the basic fears of modern man is being stranded, particularly in the middle of nowhere. We rely so much on our modern conveniences – a working car, the Internet, our creature comforts – that when they’re taken away, we’re at a loss as what to do. In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go?That’s what faces young American married couple Matt (Piazza) and Naomi (Rodriguez) when they pull over to the side of the road one night during a blizzard. They are on a European book tour for her latest tome, and were driving to their next stop, a hotel in the hinterlands of Norway. She is very pregnant, nearly ready to give birth and they wake up after sleeping the night away to discover that the car won’t start. They can’t open the doors because of the weight of all the ice and snow. It is dangerously cold, and they have precious little in the way of food and water.

The two have very different ideas as to what they should do next. One of them wants to stay put and wait for rescue, while the other thinks that their best chance of survival rests on getting out of the car and walking to safety. Initially, it’s not much of an argument – getting out of the car is out of the question anyway, so they are more or less forced to stay put but as time goes by and desperation grows, something is going to have to give or all that will be found of them re their frozen bodies, still wrapped in blankets in the car.

Rodriguez and Piazza are both fine actors and they do a decent job. It’s a pity that they weren’t given more defined characters to work with. We really don’t find out very much about them during the course of the 90 minutes we are forced to spend with them, which considering that they are stuck inside a car with nothing to do, seems to be almost criminal. They do bicker, but so do most couples and the stress of a life-or-death survival situation is likely to bring out the worst in both of them.

The production is pretty minimalist which makes sense given the confined quarters the characters are in. Walsh at least is creative with his camera angles, but after a while it isn’t really enough to keep our interest. This is the type of movie that would have been much better as a short than as a feature length film; there’s not enough dramatic conflict to sustain us and we don’t even get the benefit of flashbacks to change the monotony

A word about true stories: the movie claims it is “inspired by a true story,” but I couldn’t find any information anywhere about whose story this was based on. That could mean one of two things (at least that come to mind right away); either the people this happened to were unwilling to grant the rights to their story, or the finished story veered so far away from the truth that the real couple wanted nothing to do with it. For all we know, some friend of the producer might have been stranded in their car on a chilly night and the producer thought “Hey, this could be a great movie if we add a blizzard….and they’re snowed in! Yeah, that’s the ticket!!!” All kidding aside, the words “inspired by” can hide a lot of sins, so take the true story aspect with a grain of salt. One aspect couldn’t possibly be true; no obstetrician on the planet would let a woman as pregnant as Naomi fly to Europe to do a book tour.

This is another case of strong concept, less successful execution. For a movie like this to work, we have to get invested in the characters and without really getting much of a glimpse as to who they are, we haven’t much to hold onto and so our interest wanes. Even though the movie isn’t a long one, the lack of action or character development really made it feel much longer. That might be a little bit cold to say, but given the circumstances I think it justified. Still, the actors do give it their all, so if you like either Piazza or Rodriguez (or both) this isn’t a bad rental, but otherwise this is disappointing to say the least.

REASONS TO SEE: Nicely tense and claustrophobic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty good amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez and Piazza are an actual couple in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lamp Light
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Unfamiliar