Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)


You really don’t want to get on her bad side.

(2018) Drama (Mumba DeviShalini Vatsa, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Kritika Pande, Vinay Sharma, Ahmareen Anjum, Sonal Joshi. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

In our patriarchal society, rape has been a hidden problem, one that is often not taken seriously by the powers that be. A large percentage of rapes go unreported because often the investigation and trial are nearly as bad if not worse than the actual sexual assault. As bad as things are in the United States however, they are infinitely worse in India.

Delhi is the rape capital of India (and quite possibly the entire planet). The women of Delhi live in a constant state of fear and hyper-awareness. At 8 pm, women know that the time for extra vigilance has come and being away from their homes is taking a terrible chance. Ladies-only taxi services have sprouted up because of the number of women who have gotten into taxis only to be driven to a remote spot and raped by the driver. Ladies only services only pick up women and have female drivers.

One such service is run by Shaila (Pande) who is also a student and a self-professed feminist. One evening she picks up a group of women to take home; Chitra (Chakraborty), a martial arts instructor, Vibha (Vatsa) an office worker and Shagun (Joshi), a police officer. Traffic, as is typical at rush hour, is bad and the women decide to stop an get a bite to eat before continuing on their way home. At a roadside eatery, they are harassed by a tough guy on a motorcycle, the kind of thing women around the world have to endure. It doesn’t end there, however.

As they are driving a cyclist pulls up next to them and makes some lewd remark- s which causes an accident…sort of. The motorcyclist ends up sprawled on the side of the road and the women come up with an idea; they are all tired of living in fear of being raped. They wanted to have men feel that same fear – maybe if they were to understand how it felt to know they could be violated at any time changes might actually come.

They take the guy (Sharma) to an abandoned room which had been used by criminals who had since been arrested. They lock him in a metal cabinet and leave him there with the intention of figuring out how to break him to the point where he becomes certain that he can be raped at any time.

The women use a variety of techniques to break him down, by treating him as a servant girl to chloroforming him and spraying pepper spray into the cabinet. Chitra turns out to have a lot of anger and often has to be restrained; Shagun reminds her that when they react to their captive, they are putting the power in his hands. Their job is to make him react to them. They are streaming video of their various indignities being visited upon him live to the Internet but what will happen when the day comes to actually convince the man in their possession that he is about to be raped?

Kripalani also directed the 2017 feature Tikli and Laxmi Bomb which dealt with the abuse of sex workers. This takes a broader look at rape culture and the effect it has on women. In all honesty, I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like this. Sure, we’ve seen our share of movies about women pushed to the edge (and often over it) by a sexual assault but those are generally revenge thrillers. There are elements of that here but I wouldn’t say this was a revenge thriller per se.

As with his previous film, Kripalani films largely on the streets of Mumbai and the movie has an authentic feel. While there are more sets in this film than in the last, the movie doesn’t feel static at all. There is kind of gravity pushing and pulling the film towards the inevitable climax which although somewhat anticlimactic in some ways, feels like the right direction for Kripalani to go in.

]Both Chakraborty and Pande appeared in his last film; they both deliver strong performances, particularly Chakraborty who is turning out to be an excellent actress. Chitra is a seething cauldron of rage who doesn’t need much prompting to erupt but at the same time she has a surprisingly vulnerable heart which is revealed in a moving conversation with Vibha late in the film. All of the characters have a personal connection to sexual assault which get revealed at various places in the film.

More or less this is cinema verite. There isn’t a lot of frills and the budget for the movie was likely not very large. The cinematography is a bit murky in places, like a ballroom lit by a 20 watt bulb.

I can’t imagine how women deal with the constant threat; the rules they have to follow – don’t get into an elevator alone with a strange man, when in a bar never drink anything you didn’t watch the bartender make and hand directly to you, always carry a rape whistle or pepper spray on your person, always park in well-lighted areas close to an exit. Be aware of what you’re wearing because that may be considered an invitation, or at least be used against you during the trial in the unlikely event that the crime goes to trial. These are things that men don’t deal with, can’t even conceive of. When the #MeToo movement began and women started posting that they had been victims of sexual harassment and/or assault, I had always known that the percentage of women who had gone through that horror was high but I didn’t realize how high it really was. I was shocked at how many friends and family had survived it.

There has been some blowback about the film; some men see it as threatening and even encouraging violence. I don’t know that I disagree; however, as far as understanding where that rage comes from, I can completely understand and even applaud the filmmakers for daring to tap into the rage of women, something that most men fear to do.

While the film has played the festival circuit, the producers tell me that Netflix has picked up the movie and will be streaming it this summer. I certainly hope so; I think a lot of men who could benefit from seeing it. The tragedy is that they probably aren’t aware that they are part of the problem.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely premise considering the rise of people opposing rape culture.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lighting is a bit too dark.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity and violence, sexual references and descriptions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The words tottaa, pataaka, item and maal in Hindi are words that are used in Northern India to tease women. They loosely translate to “hot,” “sexy” and so on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rape Squad
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Diamantino

The Light of the Moon


Sometimes you can only hold each other in the dead of the night.

(2017) Drama (Imagination Worldwide) Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Stahl-David, Conrad Ricamora, Catherine Curtin, Cindy Cheung, Susan Heyward, Jessica M. Thompson, Olga Merediz, Craig Walker, Heather Simms, Cara Loften, Christine Spang, Patricia Noonan, Christian Barber, Mike Ivers, Michael Cuomo, Nelly Savinon, Sarah Dacey-Charles, Jennifer Bareilles, Ashley Van Egeren. Directed by Jessica M. Thompson

 

In the wake of revelations about celebrity sexual predators (i.e. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey) along with a commander-in-chief who thinks it’s perfectly okay to grab the genitals of a woman uninvited, there is no doubt that we have a culture predisposed to rape. To be a woman in 2017 means that she has to be absolutely aware of her surroundings at all times; she doesn’t have the freedom to walk alone at night, to accept drinks from strangers that she hasn’t  watched the bartender pour, to be subjected to the icy predatory stares of men checking her out, the condescending remarks and to be judged more on how she looks than who she is. Being a woman in 2017 to be frank is scary, and to raise a daughter in this time is heartbreaking, knowing what she is likely to experience before she is even old enough to vote.

Bonnie (Beatriz) is an architect working for a firm that is a rising star in the field. She’s been given a major project to lead and she’s putting in a lot of hours, wanting to make a big splash. She lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn only a few blocks from where she works. Her boyfriend Matt (Stahl-David) also has a career that demands a lot of time from him; he was supposed to meet Bonnie and some of her work friends for after-work drinks but had to blow her off to entertain a client.

Bonnie has been through the drill before though and she and her friends Priya (Loften) and Jack (Ricamora) drink heavily, dance like there’s no tomorrow and generally have the kind of good time that New Yorkers seem to instinctively know how to have. As her friends scatter, Bonnie refuses Jack’s offer to share a cab and decides to walk the few blocks home.

Intoxicated and wearing headphones, she doesn’t hear her attacker until it’s much too late. She is dragged into an alley and raped. It isn’t a long, drawn-out attack but to Bonnie it musts have seemed interminable. Her attacker, having done what he wanted to do, leaves her to pull her panties up, gather herself together, wipe herself off with tissue paper and stagger back home. Matt hasn’t arrived yet so she puts her panties and the tissue paper she wiped herself off with and when Matt arrives home and sees the black eye and nasty cut on her forehead, accompanies her to the Emergency Room. Led to believe it was only a mugging, she confesses in a small child-like voice that she was raped.

Matt is devastated, guilty that he wasn’t there to protect her as she should have been. Bonnie wants as few people to know as possible – she tells her colleagues at work that she was mugged but neglects to mention the sexual assault. She also refuses to tell her family that she was raped, leaving Matt, the detectives working her case and the DA who is prosecuting it the only ones who know.

At first Matt is overly attentive, fixing her breakfast, coming home early and cooking dinner. Bonnie wonders why he wasn’t giving her this much TLC before she was raped. She seems to be in a place where she just wants to move on and put it behind her but Matt worries that she’s not really dealing with the trauma. When he suggests she join a support group, Bonnie snarls “I don’t want to join the Sisterhood of Rape Victims.”

Intimacy between Matt and Bonnie becomes a minefield. He is concerned about hurting her; she wants the sex to be as raw and as rough as it was before the incident. Gradually the two begin to move inexorably apart; Matt desperately wants to do the right thing but doesn’t understand what Bonnie needs. Bonnie herself just wants to put her ordeal behind her but everybody who know about her rape treats her like she’s made of glass. When Matt tries to explain “This happened to us” he doesn’t realize how that must sound to Bonnie; nor does Bonnie understand that there is an element of truth in that Matt is affected by her trauma.

I wasn’t sure that this movie was going to be anything but a glossy Lifetime movie version of a serious topic but my fears on that subject turned out to be groundless. This is a powerful, sometimes raw and sometimes very hard to watch look at the aftermath of one of the worst things that can happen to a woman. Survivors of sexual assault may end up being triggered by the movie; although the rape scene itself isn’t very graphic (there is no skin and the scene is mostly dark and a close-up of Bonnie’s face) it is still very realistic and may not be suitable for those sensitive to depictions of sexual assault. You should decide for yourself if you are up for viewing the movie on that basis.

That said it is an educational look at the aftermath which is something that often gets short shrift in the discussion of rape. Bonnie finds that people look at her differently as a sexual assault victim; she becomes an object of pity, one to be handled delicately. Bonnie doesn’t want to be handled; she knows she’s strong, she knows she is a survivor and she simply wants to move on. Society wants her to deal with the trauma and she simply doesn’t want to. Is her approach a healthy one? Most would say no, but who’s to say what’s healthy for one individual may not be for another?

Beatriz gives us a searing performance; Bonnie can be both brittle and fragile, or tough and strident. There aren’t a lot of histrionics here but there are a lot of powerful emotions handled with empathy and with dignity. Beatriz, who is known most for her role on Brooklyn Nine Nine is a star in the making. Performances like this can move her right up to the next level.

There are some things that I wish first-time feature filmmaker Thompson would have done a little differently; the indie trope of the young professionals living in an amazing book-filled apartment in New York City (at a rent that would likely cost them the GNP of a small country in real life) and the overuse of Bonnie going into a dissociative trance with the sound getting muddied like the microphone is underwater. Other than that, this is truly a rich story well told and well acted and tackling a subject that is often taboo but is something that we SHOULD be talking about.

With all the focus on how much sexual assault, molestation and harassment that goes on today it is time that we had a conversation about the real trauma of rape and this movie helps to initiate that conversation. In that sense it is as timely a film as it possibly could be but then again this is a conversation long overdue. Again, some survivors may have a hard time with this and should be aware of what their tolerance for this kind of realism I going to be. Beyond that, this is a movie everybody should see.

REASONS TO GO: The acting performances are strong throughout and Beatriz is absolutely extraordinary. A timely arrival in the wake of the Facebook “Me Too” campaign. A realistic relationship and the effects of sexual assault on that relationship are portrayed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense depiction of a rape, sexual content, profanity, violence and it goes without saying, adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the crew including the director, writer, cinematographer and editor are either women or minorities.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
ADDicted

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

The Archer (2017)


(2017) Action (MarVista) Bailey Noble, Jeanine Mason, Michael Grant Terry, Bill Sage, Dendrie Taylor, Kyanna Simone, Alexis Rosinski, Timothy Granaderos, Kurt Fuller, Grace Victoria Cox, Anastasia Markova, JoAnna Rhambo, Kalista Dwyer, Kathi Anderson, India’yolanda Collins. Directed by Valerie Weiss

As the war on drugs (and the accompanying war on crime) has created more and more convicts, prison systems throughout the country have been overwhelmed. Most states have turned to corporate prisons rather than building new ones. Keeping those prisons filled has become a priority – by any means necessary.

Lauren Pierce (Noble) is a champion archer with Olympic aspirations. Being raised by a single mom (Taylor), she pals around with Nina (Markova) who is her best friend. Lauren doesn’t approve of her douchebag boyfriend (Granaderos) who is abusive but Nina, like a lot of young girls, makes excuses for the transgressions of her boo. Lauren has ulterior motives; she’s attracted towards Nina as well. However, when she’s finally getting somewhere with Nina, big bad boyfriend shows up at the door and begins roughing up Nina when he doesn’t get what he wants. Lauren tries to intervene and the idiot boyfriend tries the same tactics on her. That wasn’t a particularly good idea; Lauren beats the living snot out of him.

However, beating the living snot out of someone can get you arrested and Lauren is sentenced to a youth camp for an indefinite amount of time. There she’s taken under the wing of the warden, Bob Patrice (Sage) who is a bow-hunter himself and is eager to take Lauren’s training to the next level. However, Lauren soon discovers that the good warden isn’t quite so good after all and that the male guards are all out to get themselves a little bit of young tail, particularly Bob’s son Michael (Terry) who with his bowl haircut you just know is going to be a pervert.

Lauren is befriended by Rebecca (Mason), a kind of Goth girl who has a history of trying to escape but has essentially given up. After Michael tries to attack Rebecca and Lauren once again comes to the rescue, the two women realize they have a real shot of making it out of prison – especially since Lauren has discovered her indefinite stay has just been extended. She and Rebecca find their way to the Warden’s residence where they make a discovery that will blow the whole sordid corrupt situation with the camp completely out of the water – if they can avoid the bullets of the deputies and the arrows of the warden, that is.

If this sounds like a women’s prison movie from the 70s, that’s because it essentially is. Oh, there’s a veneer of social injustice ripped from the headlines (more on that later) but trust me, this is all B-movie exploitation. Why else would you have two beautiful young women, on the run from nutcases and in a situation where time is of the essence, decide to take a long steamy shower – together? I do like Weiss’ instincts when it comes to empowering Lauren but showing Lauren’s hormones taking a superior position to her intellect doesn’t help the cause. Then again, I wonder if I would say the same thing if a male hero stopped to have a sex scene during a pursuit. I would like to hope I would.

Noble does a good job In an action role and I could see her getting more of those sorts of roles in the future. The cast is largely unknown and they at least nobody disgraces themselves; for the most part the performances here are satisfactory or better. They could have used some dialogue that didn’t make them sound like they were being paid by Roger Corman.

I will say that every single male in this picture is either corrupt, perverted, evil or all three. There isn’t a single male role that has a redeeming quality. Given the heavy lesbian overtones of the film (most of the women in the movie are either lesbians or victims) some conservative sorts might connect the dots which again doesn’t do the message that the movie is trying to send any favors. Not all men are evil and not all women are victims. One can be a good person without finding the same sex attractive or having testicles.

There is some beautiful cinematography here and that’s to be commended, but the movie falls apart when you examine the plot too closely. For example, there is an African-American character who appears to have some importance early on in the film but just disappears completely as Lauren makes friends with Rebecca. For another, as the girls are fleeing, they have the opportunity to take a truck and make it to civilization much faster; instead they choose to go on foot. We know they both are able to drive and they’re both intelligent; the only reason they go on foot is so that the pursuit can be more personal. It’s a situation where the plot ditches logic to serve an agenda which in this case is to finish with a face-to-face confrontation. There are a lot of ways that could have occurred without sacrificing common sense.

At times this felt like a Lifetime Movie and not in a good way. While there have been some pretty good Lifetime Movies, for the most part they’ve been cheap parbroilers that appeal to the visceral (much like SyFy original movies in that sense). The issue that the film is dealing with is a real one and an important one, but by coating it in a B-movie exploitation batter and deep frying the lot the message gets lost in all the grease. I suspect that Weiss has more to offer than this kind of stuff. I’m not above enjoying a good exploitation film from time to time – not every movie has to stimulate the cortex but it’s hard to take seriously a movie that wants to be a message movie at the same time taking up the flag for exploitation. You have to choose a side.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful vistas of the mountains of Southern California. Kind of a women’s prison movie with an indie lesbian bent.
REASONS TO STAY: Also a bit of a Lifetime Movie to be honest. Way too many plot holes to overlook.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of scenes of sexuality as well as some disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was inspired by actual events in Pennsylvania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Caged Heat
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke

The Holly Kane Experiment


“Now, this won’t hurt a bit…”

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kirsty Averton, Nicky Henson, James Rose, Lindsey Campbell, Matthew Neal, Sophie Barker, Justin Hayward, Simon Hepworth, Emma Davies, Will Harrison-Wallace, Euan Macnaughton, Tom Cox, Tom Clear, Nicholas Fagerberg, Steve Doyle, Axel Kaae, Aidan Creegan, Stevie Raine, George Stocks, Claire Ashton, Sian Dobson. Directed by Tom Sands

 

There aren’t a lot of things we can be sure of in this life but one is that our thoughts are our own. However, technology is coming in which perhaps we cannot even be sure of that any longer.

Holly Kane (Averton) is a psychiatrist in Brighton who has come up with a means of implanting thoughts into the heads of other people, using sensory deprivation tanks and subliminal audio. She may seem a beautiful, competent professional on the surface but just below she is deeply terrified of becoming like her sister Rosalyn (Barker) who is committed to a mental institution.

Her technique is too much like brainwashing and after being invited to help a patient undergoing an appendectomy do so without anesthesia strictly utilizing her technique, she finds herself being sued by the hospital that asked for her help. No good deed will go unpunished, right? However, her savior comes in the form of Marvin Greenslade (Henson), a pioneer in the field of subliminal communication and a personal hero of hers. He offers to fund her research and gives her office space in his building to do it. Although he’s 70-something, he is clearly attracted to the much younger Holly.

Holly’s personal life is pretty much a mess; her best friend is Jeannie (Campbell) who in addition to being a brilliant chemist is also a bit of a party girl. She is the one who is supplying Holly with the highly illegal substances she needs to concoct a liquid that opens up the mind for adjustment. It also provides a psychedelic trip that while it wouldn’t do Kubrick proud is nonetheless fun to watch.

She’s also getting into the handsome young Scot Dennis MacIntyre (Rose) who although a bit on the scruffy side is nonetheless quite into Holly. However, she calls it off with him when she finds out from Greenslade that he’s a former spy; she lambastes him for lying to her – a lie by omission but still. In any case, as Dennis begins to dig deeper into Greenslade, it turns out that Marvin isn’t the wonderful guy he makes himself out to be. He’s got government connections at the highest levels and might be looking to use Holly’s technique as a means of brainwashing terrorists. He also is using her own technique against her to make her believe that she wants to have sex with him and she eventually does although judging from her expression she’s clearly not enjoying it. He also uses the subliminal audio to tell her to trust only him and to distrust Dennis. Using some nasty spy sorts like, for example, Carl Gower (Neal) who also messes up MacIntyre’s mind when he starts to get too close, Greenslade has eyes and ears everywhere. Can the two escape the clutches of Greenslade before he wipes out their minds permanently?

What I liked the most about this film is that it really evokes a 70s espionage film vibe from the pulsating electronic score to the paranoia to the plot twists and turns. While the suspense for the climactic chase isn’t built up as much as I would have liked, nonetheless this had a distinct cold war feel to it You were never quite sure who you could trust.

The character of Holly Kane is written a bit strangely. At times she’s emotionally closed off; other times she’s very emotional as when she visits her sister after a long absence. Averton plays her as well as can be expected, particularly during one of the most curious sex scenes in movie history when she has sex with Greenslade; her face is so emotionless and her body is so rigid that Greenslade may as well have been schtupping a plank. Otherwise Averton plays Kane cool which goes along with the overall vibe. Even when she’s partying Holly is a bit on the reserved side. There’s a scene in the deprivation tank in which Holly is masturbating which kind of comes from left field; even there her expression is almost clinical.

I’m not sure why the psychiatrist has to look like a super-model. I am also not sure why that she has to be saved from rape and brainwashing by a man who is at least as in trouble as she is. After going to the trouble of establishing Holly Kane as a strong, independent and brilliant woman, writer Mick Sands then turns her into a typical victim. Just once I’d like to see a woman like Dr. Kane not need rescuing from a guy but be able to take matters into her own hands.

The chase scene as Holly and Dennis try to escape the clutches of Greenslade and his goons is oddly flat. One doesn’t get the sense of imminent danger that should go with a scene like this. Time and time again, goons burst into the place where they think the two are only to find them gone. I don’t remember seeing their pursuers in the same frame as them at any time during the chase. It could have used a little more of a thrill factor.

Despite the flaws this is a satisfactory film and even a little bit more. It gets the tone right and although it could have used a bit more oomph in the suspense generation, it nonetheless keeps you guessing until the final chase. Considering the miniature budget for this thing, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere and paranoia of a 70s espionage film is recreated here in a good way. The concept that both the heroic leads may be clinically insane is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels anti-climactic towards the end. The surveillance photo stops get to be annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: Sensuality, some nudity, rape, drug use, violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Sands directed his first feature, Nazi Vengeance (2014) at the age of 24. His brother Mick wrote both of his features to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Parallax View
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bang! The Bert Berns Story