Billie


The legendary Billie Holiday.

(2019) Music Documentary (Greenwich) Billie Holiday, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Billy Eckstein, Bobby Tucker, Jo Jones, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Skinny Davenport, John Fagan, John Hammond, Myra Luftman, John Simmons, Artie Shaw, Al Avola, Les Robinson, Luis McKay, Irene Kitchings, Mae Weiss. Directed by James Erskine

That she was a jazz legend there is no doubt, but much of the life of Billie Holiday remains an enigma to modern listeners. When she died in 1959 at age 44, she was nearly penniless, victimized by abusive husbands and managers who stole nearly every penny she earned, and did nothing as she sank into alcohol and hard drug abuse. Given a childhood in which she was raped as a pre-teen and began work as a prostitute at age 13, perhaps that descent was inevitable.

The movie had its genesis in a book that was never written. In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a big fan of the singer, decided to write her definitive biography (there was an autobiography in 1956 that was later criticized for being factually inaccurate, and was apparently threatened with legal action if certain aspects, such as her relationships with Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead and Orson Welles were not removed) and spent the next eight years amassing interviews with those who knew her best, including jazz luminaries like Count Basie and Tony Bennett. However, before she could write the book, she passed away in 1979 in what was deemed by the Washington DC police as a suicide, although she left no note. Her family to this day contests the finding; Erskine attempted to look into the matter but all of the evidence collected by the DC police had been destroyed.

Erskine peppers the audio interviews with archival footage of Holiday performing some of her most memorable songs, as well as contemporaneous interviews with Lady Day herself (a nickname granted her by the musicians in the Count Basie orchestra with whom she sang early on in her career). Holiday once told her friend Sylvia Syms that the trick to performing was this: “If you almost laugh, the audience will laugh. If you almost cry, the audience will cry.” We see the evidence of that in her performance in which all the pain of her life – and all the joy – was very much in evidence in her face and in her body language.

Notably, we see a television performance of “Strange Fruit,” the at-the-time controversial song about lynching, late in her life. Her eyes are nearly deadened, numb with the horror of that which so many African-Americans of her generation had to grow up with and are now facing again, albeit in a much different way. The interviews are also fascinating, including one with the man who was her pimp during her prostitute days, who chuckles at the memory of beating her up when she got out of line; “the girls liked it,” he chortles. It’s enough to turn your stomach.

The film spends a little too much time on the journalist’s story, which although fascinating tends to detract from the story of the singer that she was trying to tell, something I imagine that the writer would find ironic if not disturbing. I think that she might have been gratified, however, if she knew that if you do an image search on her name, pictures of Holiday turn up (and a few of Linda Ronstadt, whose musical biography was also released by Greenwich last year).

It’s the music that Holiday will be remembered for, however, and there’s plenty of it here and you will be taken by the sheer force of her vocals. She was the greatest singer of her age bar none, and if you aren’t familiar with her work this is a dandy place to start. If you are familiar with her work, then the interviews about her will be a treasure trove.

Although iMDB gives a June release date for the film, that was a pre-Coronavirus entry and the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. For those looking to see it on the Florida Film Festival virtual festival, it is unfortunately sold out. Keep an eye out for it though – it is one of the best documentaries you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Holliday’s story is tragic and compelling. Some wonderful performance footage. Judging from the interviews, this would have been an amazing book. Gives due to one of the most important figures in American music of the 20th century.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends a little too much time on Kuehl’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity (Holliday swore like a sailor), plus plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Outside Story

Opus of an Angel


The blind leading the bland.

(2017) Drama (Random) William McNamara, Cindy Pickett, Kaylynn Kubeldis, Sofya Skya, Destiny Austin, Lee Kholafai, Leila Ciancaglini, Nadja Hussein Camper, Will C, Marjo-Rikka Makela, Cristian Fagins, Don DiPaolo, Marisa Lopez, Ellison Julia, Jamison Newlander, Jon Peacy, Micah Fitzgerald, Joan Benedict Steiger, Mikul Robins, Said William Legue, Christine Kent, Sara Terho. Directed by Ali Zamani

 

What is an angel? Most of us don’t really believe in angels to begin with – whether you are religious or not. It goes without saying that nobody has ever seen one, or will willingly admit to it since if you DID admit to having seen one, chances are people are going to be quietly backing away from you. Angels are the servants of God, right? Or are they ageless creatures sent to watch over us in our hour of need? Or are they merely observers of the human condition? Wings and halos notwithstanding, we may want to believe in angels deep down even if we think they don’t exist.

When it comes to faith, Dr. Stephen Murphy (McNamara) gave at the office. He was once a successful cardiac surgeon, a happy father and husband, celebrating his little girl’s tenth birthday with a picnic at her favorite park, when his cell phone rings – an emergency surgery is necessary, life or death. And the patient is a kid just about his daughter’s age.

We catch up to Stephen a year later on his daughter’s eleventh birthday. His home is tidy, but empty; the only thing that looks out of place is the noose hanging in the kitchen. Stephen has decided that he can’t take the pain of life anymore and is going to finish himself off just as soon as he runs a final few errands. However, before he has been gone from the house very long, he sees a blind little girl (Kubeldis) knocked over by a car driven by a group of hoodlums. She’s okay, but has been separated from her classmates who are out and about on a field trip. Unable to contact her mother, he allows her to tag along on his last day. Might as well have some company, right? Besides, his paternal instincts kick in – you can’t exactly leave a blind girl alone in the city to fend for herself.

The two actually end up bonding. Stephen, initially morose and almost robotic, begins to respond to the girl’s – her name is Maria, by the way – infectious attitude. One of the most touching scenes in the film involves Stephen taking her to a movie theater playing a classic Buster Keaton silent comedy, with Stephen describing what’s happening on the screen to the blind girl. Stephen is plagued by memories, though, that soon explain what happened to his family and to Stephen, and why he is no longer interested in living. Is Maria just a blind little girl who happened to cross paths with Stephen, or is there something more going on here?

The script plays it coy, but I think its obvious by the end of the film that there is an otherworldly aspect to the movie. This is not exactly a faith-based drama – although there are elements of that, but the filmmakers choose not to hit you in the face with the faith aspects of the film. Militant atheists, however, may find some offense to be taken.

For cinema buffs, this is a movie with tons of heart but lacking in execution. Much of the movie is shot on handheld camera, and often the camera sways like the operator is having an attack of vertigo, or wants the viewer to. The performances here are stiff and the dialogue contrived.

I felt bad for Kubeldis; she’s given a difficult role to work with and her inexperience shows through, most notably in her line reading which sounds forced and not at all natural. It’s the kind of part that would be difficult for a trained professional; for a tyro making her first film appearance, it’s nearly impossible and at the very least, a hell of a lot to ask of a novice. Kubeldis has some moments where her naturally sunny disposition are infectious, but she can’t really maintain it enough to elevate the movie, which sorely needed it. She shows plenty of potential though so I hope she doesn’t get discouraged after making this film.

There are enough moments in the movie that are worthwhile that I can barely recommend it, but just barely. There are an awful lot of rookie mistakes both behind the camera and in front of it too. You can’t deny, though, that the intentions of the filmmakers were at least honorable and this is the kind of movie that we do need more of; I just would have appreciated a little more attention to detail though.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that shine.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kubeldis, who plays the blind Maria, is blind herself in real life and makes her onscreen acting debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Touched By an Angel
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Summerland

Guest of Honour


This party is about to be toast.

(2019) Drama (Kino-LorberDavid Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Rossif Sutherland, Tennille Read, Tamara Podemski, Gage Munroe, Alexandre Bourgeois, Gage Munro, Arsinée Khanijian, John Bourgeois, Sugith Varughese, Hrant Alianak, Seamus Patterson, Isabelle Franca, Joyce Rivera, Juan Carlos Velis, Alexander Marsh, Sima Fisher, Sochi Fried. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Atom Egoyan is well-known among cinematic connoisseurs and hoity-toity critics alike. During the 90s, he turned out several wonderful movies that bespoke a talent for layering dense plots and exploring the inner pain of characters in imaginative ways. Over the past few years, however, his films have lost their sharp edge, and while he’s maintained his reputation, critics continue to view his new films with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

Like many of his films, his recent movie was spotlighted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, something he has done so often he might well be known as “Mister TIFF.” Here, we meet Veronica (De Oliveira), a comely high school music teacher, discussing the funeral of her father with a patient priest (Wilson). As she tells Father Greg about her dad, it turns into a therapeutic ride into the past for her.

Her Dad, Jim (Thewlis), wasn’t the easiest man to get to know. “He made a lot of odd choices,” she confesses and so he did. A man who dreamed of owning a restaurant but ending up as a health inspector instead, he combs the restaurants around Hamilton, Ontario, looking for code violations, measuring the temperature of meat, combing the out-of-the-way spaces looking for vermin droppings and spoiled food. He seems to be a nice enough guy, though – he even took care of Veronica’s pet bunny Benjamin while she was in jail (cue vinyl record scratching sound).

It turns out Veronica had been in jail for abusing her authority as a teacher with a minor, despite the fact that she didn’t do the crime – and everyone knew she didn’t do the crime. She insisted, however, that she be jailed for it and serve the most stringent sentence available. Why would she do something like that? What secrets in her pasts and in her father’s compelled her to such a stand?

It all gets explained and as with many Egoyan projects, it takes a number of unexpected twists and turns, involving a high school boyfriend of Veronica’s, a music teacher, a skeezy bus driver, fried rabbit ears (apparently that’s a thing), a dead mom and dreams that didn’t work out the way they planned. This plays a little bit like a whodunit, only we all know who did it. Like all of Egoyan’s work, this film doesn’t lack for things going on.

Sometimes it feels that way, however, with endless montages of Jim investigating restaurants and Veronica conducting band performances. It feels like in trying to tell a complex story, Egoyan got caught up in the minutiae and eventually became lost within it. There are flashbacks a-plenty, and even flashbacks within flashbacks for good measure. At times, it becomes difficult to manage just what time period is being examined, as the story takes place (more or less) over a 15-year period.

The performances are good, with De Oliveira playing the guilt-ravaged Veronica with a kind of resigned world-weariness, Thewlis as rock solid as ever and Alexander Bourgeois channeling a young Leonardo di Caprio as the object of Veronica’s guilt, or, at least, apparently so. Not everything is as it seems, which is usually a good thing.

But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. In the hour and forty-odd minute run time there’s an awful lot stuffed into the mix, and after awhile the average viewer might feel like their heads are going to explode, but still Egoyan is a good enough director not to let it get completely out of hand. He benefits from some nifty cinematography from Paul Sarossy, although the Philip Glass-influenced score by Mychael Danna is often intrusive.

The movie is currently available in Virtual Cinematic form, benefiting independent theaters across the country. For Florida readers, the theaters that are currently running the virtual screenings include the Enzian Theater in Orlando, the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the MDC Tower Theater in Miami, the Corazon Café in St. Augustine, the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, and the Pensacola Cinema Art in Pensacola. Click on the theater name to go to the Kino Marquee link for that theater; for those readers outside of Florida, click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link for a list of theaters elsewhere.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully autumnal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down in minutiae.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual situations and a small amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanijian  who plays the Armenian restaurant co-owner, is married to Egoyan in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sweet Hereafter
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fighting With the Family

Lords of Chaos


Welcome to my nightmare.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Gunpowder & SkyRory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Wilson Gonzalez, Lucian Charles Collier, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwyn, Gustaf Hammarsten, Jon Ølgarden, Arion Csihar, Jason Arnopp, Tom van Hoesch, Dzsenifer Bagi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

In the mid-90s, black metal rose out of Norway as a reaction to what the practitioners viewed as the trendiness of death metal. The group Mayhem essentially defined the genre, then became enmeshed in it, finally being destroyed by it, even though the band continues to perform even to this day.

Disaffected Norwegian Euronymous (Culkin) forms the band as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with Norway’s Christian society and to take death metal further than it seemed likely to go. When Swedish lead singer Dead (Cohen) commits suicide, Euronymous – who discovered the body – seems to grow callous towards the grisly end of his friend, even handing out necklaces that contained bone fragments from his bandmate’s skull to the remaining members of Mayhem as well as to musicians that he liked.

He takes under his wing teenage Varg Vikernes (Cohen) who has the zeal of a convert. Varg takes to burning churches, some of them centuries old and Norwegian cultural treasures. Euronymous heartily approves of this behavior, even though he is more of an observer than a participant. Things begin to get dicey between the two as Varg brags – anonymously – about the deeds, even boasting that he had killed someone – to the press. Euronymous is horrified, understanding that this could get them all arrested but Varg feels that they need to be feared, to make a statement that this is not just posing but who they really are. As the two men grow more paranoid, it leads to a fracture within the band – and a shocking crime.

Åkerlund has plenty of insight into the scene; as a young man he played drums for the Swedish band Bathory which was an inspiration to the real Mayhem but strangely enough, we don’t get much. The motivations for these people to do genuinely evil acts seems to be a kind of macho one-upsmanship and a fear of being labeled a poseur. Although the film takes place in Norway, the film is in English with the character of Euronymous providing narration. Cohen sounds a bit like Christian Slater which also is somewhat disconcerting.

Surprisingly little black metal is used on the soundtrack; in fact, the lead-up to the climax utilizes Dead Can Dance – decidedly not a metal band – effectively as the background score. The suicide is graphic as is the final scene and sensitive sorts should definitely steer clear; that final scene is particularly brutal and realistic. The movie is interesting as a character study, but at the end of the day we get the distinct impression that who these guys really were was a bunch of asshats.

REASONS TO SEE: Disturbing in an interesting way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems to glorify knuckle-dragging behavior.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s chock full of profanity; there’s also nudity, sex, graphic bloody violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Euronymous is portrayed here smoking regularly and drinking heavily but in reality he rarely drank anything stronger than Coca-Cola and did not smoke.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Until the Light Takes Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beyond Skiing Everest

Exit Plan (Selvmordsturisten)


A cold and clinical beauty.

(2019) Suspense (Screen MediaNikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Jan Bijvoet, Sonja Richter, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Slimane Dazi, Lorraine Hilton, Kaya Wilkins, Johanna Wokalek, Peder Thomas Pedersen, Mette Lysdahl, Vibeke Hastrup, Anders Mossling, Per Egil Aske, Kate Ashfield, Christine Albeck Børge. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby

 

Sometimes, just coincidentally, more than one movie gets released at about the same time with a similar theme or subject matter, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. This week, there are two movies dealing with assisted suicide, or Death with Dignity (the previously reviewed Here Awhile is the other one). This is the second.

But whereas Here Awhile dealt with the subject as a straightforward drama, examining how the intention of ending one’s life affected those around them, this is something else. Max (Coster-Waldau) is an insurance investigator, although judging from his personality he might have been better suited to be an insurance company accountant. He has a pair of glasses and a moustache, and you think that a hunk like Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) would rock that look. Think Stephen Root in Office Space and you’ll understand nobody could rock this look.

A client of his company, Alice Dinesen (Richter) who most definitely did not have a farm in Africa, wants to collect the life insurance from her husband Arthur (Mossling), who has been missing for more than a year. The only evidence she has that he’s gone is a video that was mailed to her by the Hotel Aurora in which her husband announced that he was taking his own life and that by the time she receives the video he will be dead. Alas, there is no body so the company is not willing to pay – no corpse, no cash, as they like to say in the life insurance biz.

Max is only too happy to look into the hotel, because he has some thoughts in that direction as well. You see, Max has an inoperable brain tumor that is growing larger by the day and soon he will be looking at a loss of identity and dignity. After overhearing his significant other (Novotny) tell a friend that she doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with Max (she’s unaware of his medical condition), he decides he will take advantage of the hotel’s services.

At first, it seems like he’s made a good choice. The hotel is absolutely spectacular, nestled in the mountains of Scandinavia, a modern steel and glass beauty with comfortable Danish design. There are hot tubs for soaking, massage therapists, gourmet meals in a restaurant with a spectacular view, tea laced with opium – all the amenities of a five-star hotel. They offer a passing away experience that is painless (or painful, if that’s what he wants) in the environment of his choice. Sounds like a killer deal.

But Max is beginning to have second thoughts and things turn sinister. He is told “You can leave, but you cannot escape” which sounds to me like writer Rasmus Birch was listening to The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an endless loop when he wrote this. He begins to see things that may or may not be there – or is that his tumor asserting itself? Or something else?

The writer and director made some odd choices for this film. For one, they take the charismatic Coster-Waldau, a handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, and reduce him to a milquetoast. Fans of Jamie Lannister are going to be throwing things at the screen, although to be fair I’m sure the fact that this role is as far from Jamie as it’s possible to get was part of the appeal for Coster-Waldau.

It’s also got terrific set and production design; the hotel is cold, clinical with odd warm accents but there is no feeling of humanity here. The hotel staff are largely smiling automatons who make the adjective “pleasant” a pejorative. The natural beauty around the hotel is nice as well, but the whole screen tone has a wintry feel, which I do believe is on purpose.

The movie has some high aspirations to examine the relationship between life and death, and the morality thereof. There are some hints of paranormal elements, but they never really come to fruition unless you decide that the fairly ambiguous ending means something along those lines (I’m being purposely vague here as not to spoil things) but if you take into account that a man with a brain tumor might not be the most reliable narrator, well, you do the math.

I have to say that although there were things I liked about the film, I do believe that in the end its reach exceeded its grasp. I don’t think the movie was a failure per se, but suffice to say that I don’t think that it was successful in what I believe it was aiming for. They swung for the fences but ended up legging out an infield single, in other words.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of a cold, sterile beauty.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coster-Waldau and Aramayo were both members of the sprawling Game of Thrones cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark City
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Velvet Buzzsaw

A Peloton of One


The road is a long and lonely one.

(2020) Documentary (Self-Released) Dave Ohlmuller, Joe Capozzi, Chris Gambino, Marci Hamilton, Tommy Williams, Robert M. Hootson, Ken Kaczmarz, Sen. Joe Vitale, Kathryn Robb, Art Baselice, Ginna Ohlmuller, Patty Hogan, Drew Broderick, Dave Broderick, Sam Rivera, Marc Pearlman, Danielle Pulananni, Betsey Blankenship, Bridie Farrell, Kelsey Stoll. Directed by Steven E. Mallorca and John C. Bernardo

 

One of the most awful, despicable acts that one human can perform on another is to sexually abuse a child. It robs the victim of their childhood, and often, much of the good things of an adult life; rthe ability to maintain a romantic relationship, the ability to trust another. Making it even more difficult is that children often cope with their abuse by keeping it to themselves, feeling themselves damaged and unworthy; often when they do come forward, they aren’t believed or supported. It usually takes years and even decades for a person who has suffered this kind of abuse to come forward.

Dave Ohlmuller is one of those victims. Sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a boy, he grew into manhood, suffering from his trauma in ways that most of us can’t even fathom. It effected his relationship with his wife and son, and also his health as he turned to an unhealthy lifestyle to cope. Eventually, he opened up to former priest and CSA advocate Robert M. Hootson, a phone call that changed Dave’s life. He started to take better care of himself, taking up platform tennis, yoga and bike riding.

But even though he had a support system, he didn’t really take advantage of it as he decided to navigate the legal system and make sure that the man who abused him was never allowed to do the same horrible things to other children, but Dave met stone walls at every turn. The Catholic church was uncooperative and in many ways, vindictive, making it nearly impossible for Dave to track down his abuser to discover if he had been removed from the church, as he was first told (which turned out to be inaccurate) or put in a position where he was prevented from having unsupervised interaction with children, which the church claimed but as you might imagine, Dave was skeptical about.

=Even getting any sort of legal redress was nearly impossible; statute of limitation laws prevented him from filing criminal charges or even civil charges. The laws for the Statute of Limitations in child sex abuse are archaic and don’t reflect the reality that survivors rarely come forward immediately; as I mentioned earlier, it often takes decades.

Advocates like Marci Hamilton in Pennsylvania, Kathryn Robb in New York and Senator Joe Vitale in New Jersey are working to change those laws. Ironically, they are mainly opposed by Republican legislators – you know, the ones who are supposed to be tough on crime – operating at the behest of the Catholic church and insurance companies who don’t want to pay out settlements to survivors. To bring attention to those laws – which prevent survivors from bringing legal action after they turn 23 – Dave decided to bicycle from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to New York.

He chose to do so alone, feeling that the image of a lone bicyclist would be a more powerful one, but the truth be told, Dave had always felt that he was more or less alone in his struggle. The movie depicts more than just a bike ride from point A to point B; it is also a journey in which Dave meets fellow survivors and their advocates and begins to come to the realization that he is far from alone in his struggle to cope, overcome and move on.

The bicycling scenes are nicely photographed and are compelling in their own way, but the real power of the movie is in the stories of the survivors; in addition to Dave, we hear from his friend (and a co-producer on the movie) Joe Capozzi, who came forward ten years before Dave did with a similar story; Tommy Williams, a Pennsylvania teen who suffered ongoing abuse at the hands of his half-brother; Art Baselice, a police officer whose son was abused by a Catholic priest and later committed suicide, and several others.

Their stories are the emotional core of the film, and to the credit of the filmmakers they let the survivors tell their stories in their own way. There are a lot of tears and a lot of emotion, some of it cathartic. You’ll definitely want to keep several handkerchiefs handy while watching.

The directors make the curious decision to tell the story of the bike ride in a non-linear fashion, often going back months before the ride to show events even while showing events from the ride. It is jarring and doesn’t enhance the story at all; the filmmakers would have been better served to tell the story in a more linear fashion. It’s powerful enough to hold up on its own.

The movie is currently seeking distribution after making its debut on the online version of the Greenwich Film Festival earlier this year. I have no doubt that it will get that distribution and soon; this is a well-made film that has an important message to tell.  Hopefully, you’ll be seeing it on a streaming service, or at an art house or even on PBS in the near future.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing, heartbreaking, hopeful. Approaches the subject from different angles than other documentaries on Childhood Sexual Abuse. There is some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the non-linear storytelling is confusing and jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A peloton refers to a bike racing term in which a group of cyclists, often on the same team, cluster together for safety and protection.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Speaking the Unspeakable
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stan & Ollie

A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls

The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose