The Penny Black


Who knew collecting stamps could be so exciting?

(2020) Documentary (1091) Will Cassayd-Smith, Cheryl Baumbaugh, Alex Greer, Joe Saunders, Bonnie Collins, Allison, Roman. Directed by William J. Saunders

 

The Penny Black was the first self-adhesive stamp in history. It was first issued in 1840 and has a bit of an odd history. Because of its color, the British Post Office had to cancel the stamps using red ink, which as it turned out was water soluble and could be washed, allowing the canny to reuse the stamps. The British, who are nothing if not problem solvers, simply put out new stamps called Penny Reds which could be canceled with black ink which was NOT water soluble. Problem solved.

As you can guess, those stamps which are over 175 years old, are fairly valuable. But why, pray tell, are we interested in this old stamp? Well, meet Will Cassayd-Smith, an affable young Millennial living in Los Angeles. He sometimes would go outside his apartment to smoke, and there he would often meet one of his neighbors, a man with a heavy Russian accent he knew only as Roman. The two men got to know each other and often went out to local bars to have a few adult beverages. One night, when Roman had more than a few, he prevailed upon Will to watch a package for him. He’s been fighting with his wife, you see, and he doesn’t want to leave it with her because she might sell it just to spite him. Will says sure, Roman thanks him and says he’ll be back in two weeks.

Two weeks come and go and Roman doesn’t return. Will becomes concerned and takes a look at the package and finds one large book, two smaller books and several loose leaf pages – all filled with stamps. And, when weeks stretch into months, Will takes the collection to be appraised and discovers that there are more than a few stamps worth tens of thousands of dollars, including the Penny Black – which, incidentally, isn’t the most valuable stamp in the collection.

Will is beginning to freak out. He never counted on having to be responsible for something of that value. And what happened to Roman? How did he come by these stamps? The more Will finds out, the more unsettled he becomes. His friend, a sports documentary producer, becomes involved in chronicling the tale for Will.

But Will has a checkered past of his own. His father, from whom he’s estranged, was a con artist who forged documents and artwork, before being deported for his crimes. And Will suddenly has a brand new car, followed up by a brand new sailboat. How did he get them? Gifts. But one of the stamp books is missing. Where did it go? Will is vague. He doesn’t remember. Maybe when he and his girlfriend Alison broke up and he moved out, it accidentally got thrown out. Sounds a bit sketchy to me.

And that’s kind of the point. If ever there was a poster boy for unreliable narration, it’s Will. Saunders wisely doesn’t let you know what he thinks about the whole situation, other than it sounds fishy. He seems to accept Will’s explanations at face value, and that’s not hard to do because Will is doing and saying the right things. He has hired a private detective to look into finding the whereabouts of Roman. He also explores the possibility that the collection was stolen, talking to a woman in Arizona who reported a sizable theft of stamps from her grandfather’s estate. Are these stamps from that collection? We never find out definitively.

And that’s where the genius of the movie comes in – this isn’t a movie about explanations. You pretty much have to find your own. And when Roman does finally show up, things get really tense and crazy, but we are still left with far more questions than answers. One begins to wonder how legitimate Will’s tale is. And then one wonders if the filmmakers are in on it if it’s not. That’s brilliant filmmaking.

There are some hiccups. The soundtrack is overbearing and intrusive. One would have wished for less music, or at least something a little less obvious. The story also has a tendency to make abrupt cuts from one direction to the other; that may well have been how it developed in real time, but it still feels choppy.

We live in untrustworthy times. We view our neighbors with suspicion and our only friends are online, well beyond arm’s length. The movie isn’t commenting on that directly, but trustworthiness is certainly a major component of the movie. The story is compelling enough to hold your interest from beginning to end, at which time it directs you to the film’s website for further details. There are several deleted scenes available on the website, but no further clarity. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Some stories were never meant to be clear.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly intriguing story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is intrusive and overbearing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Slamdance in 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder Death Koreatown
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

Strad Style


Danny Hauck in his home studio.

Danny Hauck in his home studio.

(2016) Documentary (1170 Productions) Daniel Hauck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Stefan Avalos, Rodger Stearns, Mary Hauck, Alfredo Primavera. Directed by Stefan Avalos

Slamdance

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some are more realistic than others. Then again, that’s what dreams should be right – to reach for the unattainable, the unlikely, the impossible?

Daniel Hauck is a bipolar man who lives in an isolated farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio. Since he was a young boy he has been fascinated by violins. More than fascinated, really; it would be more accurate to call it a passion or an obsession than anything else. He doesn’t really have the talent to play them so much but he develops an urge to build them.

Besides that he’s also into custom cars and car clubs but that’s really a hobby that is a bit more expensive than he can afford at present being unemployed with almost no prospects of anything coming along anytime soon. He lives a lonely existence by choice although he does have a computer in which he keeps up with social media.

It’s on Facebook that he meets Razvan Stoica, a concert violinist considered to be one of the best in the world right now, although he is not well-known in the States – yet. The two befriend one another and begin messaging each other. They talk about classic violins and Stoica mentions that he would love to play one of the most famous in the world – Guarneri del Gesu’s (a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari and a fellow resident of Cremona in Italy) Il Cannone, or the cannon, the violin made famous by Paganini. .Daniel, perhaps impetuously, offers to build him a replica of the instrument.

Daniel hasn’t built a violin of this caliber before and he has no training in doing so. Nonetheless, he goes after the project with a certain amount of joie de vivre and learns what he can from the Internet. He also gets the help and support of Rodger Stearns, a local violin maker and woodworker. While his mother Mary and cousin David Campbell give him various degrees of support, Daniel proceeds largely through trial and error using the tools he has and making homemade UV booths and other ingenious ideas to keep the process going.

In the meantime, Razvan has expressed that he wants to play the instrument during a series of concerts in June starting in Amsterdam. Can Daniel overcome the odds and produce an instrument up to the exacting standards not only of one of the greatest concert violinists of our time but also one of the all-time masters of violin making?

Hauck is an engaging subject, often self-deprecating and sometimes raging against the difficulty of his situation and of the task he has set before himself. He is in many ways a perfect documentary subject, candid and open about nearly every aspect of his life. He has a dream yes, and he is determined to fulfill it but like most dreams it isn’t an easy one and it wouldn’t have been hard to abandon it at any time.

Avalos does just about everything on the project, including running the camera, editing, directing, producing and interviewing the subject. It’s very much his show and it shows enormous promise. The cinematography is as good as any I’ve seen for a documentary in the last year or so and not only captures the clutter of Danny’s home but also the stark beauty of the Ohio landscape in winter, the gorgeous Renaissance-era architecture of Cremona, and the sensuous lines of the violin.

There’s an awful lot of instruction going on here as well as Hauck takes us through the making of his violin. He knows what to do – he’s just not always sure how to do it and not everything he does ends up in success. Still, it’s fascinating stuff watching the project go from pieces of wood to a beautiful musical instrument.

I don’t know that this is so much an inspiring story so much as a comforting one – human beings are capable of so much more than we ever think we are and this reaffirms that. I’m hoping that a distributor that knows what to do with good documentaries gets hold of this; it deserves to be seen by a large audience. The logline may sound a bit dry but this is nonetheless a documentary that leaves the audience feeling good after the end credits roll and at a time when so many documentaries are hell-bent on telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s nice to see what’s right.

REASONS TO GO: Danny Hauck is an engaging and fascinating subject. The film is actually extremely instructive on the difficulties of making a violin.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the editing is a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Avalos was originally doing a documentary about “new violins” versus “old violins” and met Hauck through the process of researching it. When he discovered Hauck’s story, Avalos elected to focus on that instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mao’s Last Dancer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 20th Century Women

The Tail Job


Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

(2016) Comedy (Moses Millar) Craig Anderson, Blair Dwyer, Kellie Clark, Laura Hughes, Dorje Swallow, Georgina Symes, Daniel James Millar, Stephen Anderton, Dave Eastgate, Grant Dodwell, Rakesh Dasgupta, Gary Waddell, Troy Russell, William Ryan, Ralph Moses, Dave Williams, David Attrill, Claudia Barrie, Ursula Mills, Lauren Orrell, Jessica Saras. Directed by Bryan Moses and Daniel James Millar

Slamdance

There is no doubt love breeds jealousy. The simplest of acts can be misinterpreted to be sinister – a phone call taken in another room, a vague identification of the caller as “just a friend,” a mysterious rendezvous that you’re not invited to – all can point to infidelity to the jealous mind. And let’s face it; the jealous mind is capable of some pretty imaginative stuff.

Nicholas (Dwyer) is in just such a situation. He believes his beautiful fiancée Mona (Hughes) is having an affair with a man named Sio Bohan. Hurt and stung, when she says she’s off to a girl’s night out in downtown Sydney, he hires a taxi with the idea of following her and taking photos of her caught in the act. Unfortunately, the cab he hires is driven by Trevor (Anderson).

Trevor is one of those “G’day mate” Aussies who means well and is a solid citizen, but Trevor is also one of those guys who can’t catch a break. When he hears of Nicholas’ plight, he is all in to help the cuckold tail his girl. Unfortunately, an encounter with a psycho driver (Millar) with terminal road rage leads them to lose their quarry. Nicholas (whom Trevor repeatedly calls Nick, much to his annoyance) first chats up Stacy (Clark), a friend of Mona’s, to see if she has any idea where Mona is going that night and who clearly has a thing for Nicholas.

After consulting a phone hacker (Anderton) friend of Stacy’s as well as finding out from the cabbie (Dodwell) who drove Mona downtown where he dropped her off, the duo turn out to be miserable detectives, misinterpreting one clue after another and running afoul of the real Sio Bohan (Swallow) who turns out to be a vicious gangster. Nicholas is determined to get the evidence that will end his relationship with Mona, who is actually on an innocent girls night out with her mate Siobhan (Mills), but to rescue her first from the clutches of a dangerous man. Trevor turns out to be far more loyal than you’d expect a cabbie to be, but can the two crack the case and bring Mona back to Nicholas?

Millar and Moses have been filmmakers for a decade but this is their first feature. Made on a shoestring budget shooting mostly at night and on weekends in Sydney, they utilize local actors and Aussie celebrities who make cameo appearances, all of which will fly right over the heads of American audiences unless they’ve spent some serious time in Oz. And that’s okay because it won’t diminish the film any if you don’t get the references, but I’m sure that Australian audiences will get more of a kick out of the film than we Americans will.

The plot isn’t particularly praiseworthy; there are some lapses of logic that give me the sense that certain plot points exist mainly to send poor Nicholas into a death spiral of jealousy, but the thing is that the Nicholas character doesn’t seem to be unduly emotional or prone to going off half-cocked. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Then again, as I said earlier jealousy can manufacture crazy ideas in the brain.

The movie is a comedy and has some genuinely funny moments, like the second road rage encounter and Trevor’s attempts to get into a posh club that end up with him asking a prostitute (Symes) to be his date. There are also some moments of pathos, as when Nicholas finds a photo of Trevor’s family in the glove box and realizes the deep wounds in Trevor’s soul may be what is motivating him.

At times this feels a bit too much like a sitcom for comfort; as I alluded earlier, some of the plot points feel contrived and the movie relies far too much on magic coincidences. However, it also has an immense amount of charm and plenty of heart at its center and those are things you can’t fake. That tells me that these are filmmakers who love what they do and have some truly marvelous films in them. That’s something you can feel in the film and it makes it so much more enjoyable for the viewer.

This is one of those movies who as the late Roger Ebert pointed out wouldn’t exist if the lead characters had a two minute conversation. Then again, divorce probably wouldn’t exist if couples would have more two-minute conversations but that might be a bit of a stretch. Certainly one wonders what sort of chance the relationship between Nicholas and Mona has if they can’t even communicate over a night out with a friend.

The Tail Job isn’t perfect but it is solid entertainment. While Americans might find the Australian sense of humor a trifle broad, the film definitely has its heart in the right place. After making its world premiere at Slamdance this past weekend, it is likely to play the festival circuit and hopefully pick up some distribution. There’s always room for a movie like this and it would be a shame if a wider audience didn’t get to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Has plenty of heart and charm. A cut above similar American films.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a sitcom feel. Loses its steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, some violence and sexuality and brief frontal nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moses and Millar based their movie on a friend of theirs who actually believed his fiancée at the time was cheating on him with a man named Sio Bohan; the two thought that would make a good movie if they took it to the next level.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Boy