Trial by Fire


The despair of a father or the guilt of a murderer?

(2018) True Crime Drama (Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, Jade Pettyjohn, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gómez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pėre, Darren Pettie, Blair Bomar, Rhoda Griffis, Katie McClellan, Noah Lomax, Catherine Carlen, Michael H. Cole, Carlos Aviles, Elle Graham, McKinley Belcher III, Bryan Adrian, Mary Rachel Quinn. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

The death penalty remains a controversial subject, igniting passionate responses on both sides. Some consider it cruel and inhumane; others see it as righteous justice. Some say it is a deterrent to criminals, others point out that there’s no evidence that suggests that’s true. Some say that it at least keeps those who have committed heinous crime out of commission for good; others point to the possibilities that those who are innocent might be put to death wrongfully.

A young girl in the small Texas town of Corsicana was playing in her yard when she saw smoke billowing out of the house across the street. A shirtless man came out of the house, coughing and screaming that his kids were still in the house. The little girl’s mommy called 911 but it was all for naught – the three little girls inside the house were gone. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) would eventually be charged with their murder.

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Willingham was a notorious local troublemaker with a violent streak who had on several occasions physically abused his wife Stacy (Meade) who was away from the house when the fire occurred. Arson investigators for the county pronounced that it was absolutely a case of arson. Willingham was given a public defender who didn’t see much point in putting up any kind of defense. He never challenged the testimony of witnesses who changed their stories on the stand, nor checked on the veracity of a convicted criminal who testified that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in jail. Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite his protestations of innocence and his wife’s insistence that he would never hurt his own kids.

Willingham was put on Death Row where he was taunted as a baby killer and abused by guards and fellow inmates alike. His mandatory appeals are going nowhere and he can’t afford decent representation. Then, along comes playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a kindhearted do-gooder who reluctantly contacts him through a prison outreach program. Far from the thuggish brute she expected, he seems charming, gentlemanly and kind but absolutely unwavering in his cries that he’s an innocent man about to be executed for something he didn’t do.

Gilbert becomes drawn in to his story and starts to do research into his case and what she finds is shocking. The investigation was conducted in a shoddy and haphazard fashion with no other option other than Willingham ever considered for the crime. When she engages world famous arson investigator Dr. Hurst (Perry) who states unequivocally that that the initial investigation was botched and the culprit was likely a faulty space heater, Gilbert tries to find someone in authority to listen.

This case actually happened and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, more than twelve years after his daughters died in that terrible blaze. Zwick, an Oscar nominated director for Glory, puts together a searing indictment of our current justice system in which the law has become a commodity; only the very wealthy can afford good representation and that means often those who are poor are without any sort of recourse to get an adequate defense. It is the reason programs like The Innocence Project exist.

O’Connell, a fine actor who has been sort of just on the cusp of something brilliant, delivers it here with an absolutely stellar turn as Willingham. While I don’t think Zwick did O’Connell any favors by inserting imaginary one-sided conversations with his deceased oldest daughter, we get a sense of his despair, his outrage and yes his anger. The role likely won’t win him very many awards but might be the stepping stone to roles that will.

Zwick enlisted Alex Belcher to compose the music and he delivers with a haunting mood-inducing score that is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately, Zwick doesn’t give this film the kind of passion that he managed in Glory; I’ve read other critics describe his direction as workman-like and that is unfortunately right on the money. This is the kind of movie that should leave you with your blood boiling but oddly, it doesn’t and considering how tailor made it is to eliciting that kind of reaction, it’s almost criminal in and of itself.

Still, this is an important movie on the subject of our legal system, especially implying that then-Texas governor Rick Perry refused to even read Hurst’s report that should have exonerated Willingham, preferring that the execution go on as scheduled to preserve the reputation of the State as kick-ass against crime. This is one that got by them and quite frankly, some of those whose shameful behavior sent an innocent man to jail and execution should have had criminal charges filed against them.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Connell does a sterling job. The score is absolutely haunting. An important film on the issue of capital punishment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should leave you with your blood boiling but it doesn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann which opined that Texas had knowingly and willfully executed an innocent man.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Man Walking
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Violent Separation

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Support the Girls


The ladies of Double Whammies strike a pose.

(2018) Comedy (Magnolia) Regina Hall, Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, James LeGros, Lea DeLaria, John Elvis, Steve Zapata, Dylan Gelula, Ann McCaskey, Elizabeth Trieu, Zoe Graham, Lawrence Varnado, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker, Lindsay Kent, Jesse Marshall, Luis Olmeda, Krista Hayes, Jermichael Grey, Pete Partida, AnnaClare Hicks. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

 

In 2018 we have seen women in Hollywood stand up to the sexual mistreatment of men – particularly powerful men – in the industry. However, it is not just celebrities who have been the recipients of this shameful treatment; women in all walks of life must endure objectification at the hands of men and even by other women in all strata of society. If you doubt it, have a meal at a Twisted Kilt, Twin Peaks or Hooters sometime.

Double Whammies belongs in that group. It is a sports bar in a suburban Houston strip mall where the waitresses are all women and all wear skimpy uniforms that show off their cleavage, their legs, their butts and their navels (not necessarily in that order) where the customers are mainly there not for the food (a rule of thumb is that most of the restaurants that rely on sex to pull customers in generally have crappy food) and perhaps not even for the beer or the big game on TV but to ogle the waitresses. The girls pretty much accept it; the tips, after all, are better here.

Lisa (Hall) is their manager and den mother. She loves her girls like a mother loves her daughters but the drama of 20-something girls (and there is always drama with 20-something girls) is getting to her, as well as a thousand other things. For instance, her husband (Varnado) has essentially given up, spending his days surfing the net and playing on his laptop, not even able to rouse himself from his rut to go and see an apartment she very much wants to move into (and he very much does not want to). Her boss (LeGros) is a pig who has NO respect for his employees and treats Lisa with bitter condescension which has put her right at the breaking point.

One of her girls (Kramer) has attacked her abusive boyfriend by deliberately hitting him with her truck and is now staying at Lisa’s place. Lisa puts together a charity car wash to pay her legal fees. She’s also coping with a group of new hires who her top waitress Maci (Richardson) is training on the art of flirting just enough to get those high tips but not enough to make the family-friendly dynamic of Double Whammies (and yes, Lisa considers the sports bar as a family establishment) spiral down the toilet. It’s a fine line to walk but Lisa seems to have a handle on it, but on this day when things are beginning to fall apart – from discovering a would-be burglar trapped in the air ducts to having to fire a waitress because of a tattoo of Stephon Curry on her waist to coping with the national franchise “sports bar with curves” Mancave coming into the neighborhood; well, it’s enough to make even the hardiest of women cry in her car in the parking lot before work.

Bujalski who has made some pretty decent films up to now, has a golden opportunity here to really drill down into the plight of working women facing non-stop discrimination and objectification in the workplace and to a certain extent he does, if only obliquely. However, he lacks the courage of his convictions to show the uncomfortable lengths of abuse women endure from both co-workers (especially male managers) and customers who decide if their President can grab genitalia at his own whim, why shouldn’t they get to. We see none of that and most of the abuse that the women face is decidedly non-sexual such as when a biker makes a joke that one of the waitresses is fat when she clearly isn’t and gets marched out by a furiously protective Lisa, backed up by a pair of cops who were there to deal with the burglar but are also regulars at the bar. I get the sense that Bujalski, who also wrote the screenplay, didn’t talk to a lot of women who work in such establishments to find out what sorts of things they have to go through every day.

The thing though that makes this movie is the girls themselves, particularly Regina Hall as Lisa. Hall is a fine actress although not utilized as well as she might be throughout her career. Given a chance to shine here, she nails the part and absolutely takes over the screen. She has star quality but as yet hasn’t gotten a role that really challenges her skills. Her performance here might just lead to such roles. Newcomer McHayle as Lisa’s confidante and closest friend is a real find, both compassionate and kickass at once. I for one would love to see more of her. DeLaria also shines as a butch truck driver who also looks after the girls.

As comedies go, this one is a bit light on laughs but despite some of its flaws managed to capture my heart. I ended up genuinely caring about the characters and wishing I could hang out with them. You end up wanting to spend time at Double Whammies (despite the jerk of an owner) and that’s about all you can ask of a movie like this. Yeah, the postscript of the film goes on way too long (despite a wonderful cameo by Brooklyn Decker) but I found myself liking the film anyway and I suspect you will too – unless you’re one of the misogynist jerks who thinks you’re entitled to grab a waitress’ behind at a place like this. In that case you might end up feeling a bit uncomfortable and deservedly so.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are (mainly) likable. The filmmakers obliquely tackle the way women are regarded in modern society. Regina Hall is at the top of her game.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy falls flat most of the time. The last scene on the roof goes on too long. The movie drops the ball on showing real workplace sexism by whitewashing it a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and mild sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was a Smith family affair, with brothers Josh, Tate and Porter Smith involved both behind and in front of the camera, sister Janelle doing costuming and father David producing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Flixfling, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting…
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mudbound

A Ghost Story


When I’m left alone, there’s a ghost in the house.

(2017) Drama (A24) Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, Dagger Salazar, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Kimberly Fiddes, Daniel Escudero, Kesha Sebert, Jared Kopf, Afomia Hailemeskel, Will Oldham, Brea Grant, Augustine Frizzell. Directed by David Lowery

 

Life inevitably ends with death. It is a defining factor of our lives; most fear death as the ultimate unknown, the cessation of things familiar. Some, those in pain or those who have lived too long, welcome it. Either way, we all eventually experience it.

This masterpiece of a film starts with a young couple – Affleck and Mara – moving into a single story ranch house. He’s a musician; the two are quietly, deeply in love. There are some strange bumps in the night but they seem content enough. Their happiness in their new home is short-lived; he dies in a car accident just yards from his front door. She goes to the morgue to identify his body, then attendant and wife leave the room. The body sits straight up in a parody of horror film tropes. The ghost, resembling an imagination-challenged Halloween costume of a sheet with eye holes cut out, shuffles out of the hospital, pausing before a bright light and then shuffling on home.

There the ghost observes the grief of his wife, watching her numbly eat a pie a neighbor left, slumping on the floor, tears falling as she eats. Eventually, she leaves but the ghost remains through different owners, even past when the home is leveled and an office building put in. Future becomes past. Time circles in on itself.

And that is all the plot you need to know. This is an elegiac film, melancholy almost to the point of heartbreak. A gorgeous score heightens the feeling. Affleck after the first few minutes must act entirely with body language and one can sense the sadness and longing coming from him despite the fact we cannot see anything of his face or body, he contributes to the emotional tone. Mara gets to put on a more traditional performance and she’s excellent. Everything is filmed in a kind of gauzy sepia with the corners of the screen rounded, like an antique photograph.

Not everyone is going to like this or “get” this. When it debuted at Sundance earlier this year the audience was sharply divided. Among my friends there are those who loved this film and others who didn’t like it at all. Some of you are going to find it boring and confusing. Others are going to find insights that will keep you haunted by this film for a long time to come. It likely won’t make a lot of awards lists this year but even so it may very well be the best movie of 2017 and should be seen, even just to decide whether you love it or hate it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautiful and melancholy. The score is lovely and atmospheric. Lowery lets the audience fill in the blanks. This is more of a cinematic poem than a traditional story.
REASONS TO STAY: The non-linear storytelling method may be confusing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a single disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lowery used profits from Pete’s Dragon to make this film. It was filmed in secret and the project not even announced until filming had already wrapped.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If I Stay
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
A Different Set of Cards

The Mighty Atom


Steel chains: breakfast of champions!

(2017) Documentary (SDG) Joseph Greenstein (voice, archival footage), Mike Greenstein, Steven Greenstein, Slim Farman, Pamela Nadell, Dennis Rogers, Dave Yarnell, Edward Meyer, Jan Dellinger, Duane Knudson, Donald Kuhn Jr., John Klug (narrator), Lauren Kornacki, Alec Kornacki, Liz Kornacki, Dan Cenidoza, Paluna Santamaria, Heather Ablodi. Directed by Steven Greenstein

 

In this Internet age, we make heroes of people who do crazy stunts on skateboards, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, or simply taking dumb risks for 15 minutes of Internet glory. Back in the roaring 20s and Depression-era 30s, that particular function was fulfilled by vaudeville and the circus, where stunts of derring-do were routinely performed in theaters all over the world.

Feats of strength were certainly audience grabbers at the time but few could match the marvel that was Joseph Greenstein. Known by his nickname “The Mighty Atom,” he stood 5’4” tall and weighed 148 pounds soaking wet. He is as far from the traditional muscle men as it’s possible to get but he still performed amazing exhibitions that even today can’t be replicated easily. One of his feats was to bend a horseshoe; a modern strongman attempts to do so in a Florida lab but is unable to match what Greenstein did routinely into his 80s.

The movie centers around a 1967 radio interview that Greenstein did for WNBC in New York. The film adds interviews of his sons and grandson, fans and disciples in the muscle man (and women) community, experts on the nature of human bio-physiology and assorted spectators and interested parties. There are some diversions such as a story about a woman who seeing that the car her father was working on had slipped its jack and was crushing him lifted the 1.5 ton car off of him and pulled him to safety.

Greenstein’s success wasn’t brought on by muscle mass but rather by mental focus. As a young boy he contracted tuberculosis (which had already taken the life of his father) and he wasn’t expected to live more than a year. He got it into his head after seeing posters of strong men in a local shop that the strength these men possessed might be able to save him. He pleaded with a wrestler in a travelling circus to train him and the man took pity on him and invited him to join. Greenstein spent a few years on the road with the circus learning proper nutrition and how to focus mentally and use that focus to do amazing things.

He eventually returned home to Poland to marry and unable to find work immigrated to Galveston, Texas. There he started his own business – a gas station. Greenstein’s son Mike recalls the time when Harry Houdini, travelling through town, got a flat tire. Greenstein was summoned to change the tire and he did so without the use of tools or a jack. Astonished, Houdini’s manager brought Greenstein to New York to work on the vaudeville circuit and once he began to make some real money, he sent for his burgeoning family which now included six sons.

Besides his size, another unusual feature about Joseph was that he was Jewish and as his grandson wryly relates, there weren’t a lot of Jewish athletes at the time. Greenstein was proud of his heritage and was a devout member of his congregation for the rest of his life.

I will say the movie is entertaining although not vital; the archival footage verifying some of Greenstein’s legendary exploits which included preventing a plane from taking off using only his hair, biting through chains, bending nails, horseshoes and steel bars as well as hammering nails into plywood with his bare hands is absolutely riveting. In the footage Greenstein looks positively grandfatherly and somewhat of an academic which he was; he also marketed salves, lineaments and nutritional supplements that he created himself. He was also well-versed in the science of nutrition long before it became fashionable.

The overall tone is that Greenstein is proof that a human being can do anything he or she put their minds to, even the impossible. It kind of makes me want to go out and see for myself what I’m capable of, not a bad feeling to have after watching a film.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at strength and how much of it is not physical at all.
REASONS TO STAY: Like many documentaries, there is an overuse of talking head footage.
FAMILY VALUES: This is completely suitable for general audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was directed by the grandson of the Mighty Atom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunesVimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Beguiled (2017)

Thar She Blows


Some of you may be aware that I’m based in the Orlando area. Starting later on tonight, we’ll be experiencing the leading edges of Hurricane Irma, the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. While we are understandably nervous about the oncoming threat, do be aware that we are well inland and won’t receive the kind of devastation that they are predicting for the coast.

However, there will certainly be plenty of wind and rain and likely a loss of power. How long we’ll be without electricity is anyone’s guess; could be a matter of hours or days. Cinema365 will for that reason be offline for a bit but rest assured we will be back. However, it will only be for a short time; if everything goes as planned, I’ll be leaving on Sunday the 17th for a 12 day vacation, returning on the 29th. Regular publication will resume on the 30th. However, I will try to get out a review for Stronger on or about the 22nd. Otherwise, it will be an interesting couple of weeks. Those who are also in harm’s way of Irma, particularly those on the coast and those who have already been devastated by Harvey over in Texas, you are in our prayers as are those who may be affected by other storms as well as wildfires in the Northwest, flooding in Asia and other disasters that seem to be coming at us one after another. Hopefully we’ll be back shortly to provide you with a relief from this kind of news and take your mind off of things with talk of movies both big and small. Take care, all.

Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story


John Paul DeJoria did well so he could do good.

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) John Paul DeJoria, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Trejo, Arianna Huffington, Cheech Marin, Robert Kennedy, Ron White, John Capra, Michelle Phillips, Pierce Brosnan, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Lou Jacobellis, Michaeline DeJoria, Goose, Pam Peplow, Angus Mitchell, Paul Watson, Alexis DeJoria, Julia Povost, Joyce Campbell, Mara Goudrine, Ilana Edelstein. Directed by Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell

 

“Success that is not shared is failure” according to billionaire John Paul DeJoria. It’s an attitude that is refreshing in an era where the top 1% of our wealthiest citizens are viewed with distrust if not outright hostility and for good reason. Our wealthy have acted in a manner befitting the “Let them eat cake” crowd in an orgy of conspicuous consumption and overall lack of care for the planet and the people on it. The arrogance and utter blind disregard that they have shown to everyone and everything else that doesn’t immediately affect their bank accounts positively is absolutely deplorable.

DeJoria is different. He came from a background that these days isn’t uncommon, but back in the 40s and 50s was certainly not the norm. His father left when John Paul, or JP as most of his friends call him, was two years old. Raised by a single mom – an immigrant from Greece – in East Los Angeles, he and his brother were poor but never really knew that they were. His mother instilled in them a respect for others and a desire to help those who were worse off than themselves, making JP and his brother put a dime in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas even though they were living hand to mouth but even then she felt the urge to do good. DeJoria justifiably has been close to his mom ever since.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy where he learned the value of hard work and teamwork, he set out to make something of himself. He discovered an affinity for sales and was successful selling encyclopedias door to door as well as a short but successful career selling life insurance. After being introduced to the hair care industry working for Redken (a company my own father worked for decades earlier) he met hairstylist Paul Mitchell in 1971 and together they formed John Paul Mitchell Systems, a hair care line sold exclusively through salons. After a rocky and precarious start, the partners were rewarded when the 80s, perhaps the most hair-conscious era in history, helped their sales explode..

After Mitchell’s death in 1986 from pancreatic cancer, DeJoria became the sole owner of the company and continued to run it in the manner he always had; with an eye towards the environment and with respect and care for the people who worked for him. He had come a long way from living out of his car on two separate occasions (including once while he was getting John Paul Mitchell Systems up and running), from being in a biker gang (after graduating high school) and from two failed marriages.

He would use his millions to start several ventures, including the House of Blues and Absolut Vodka (not touched upon in the film) and more importantly, Patron Tequila which is covered extensively in the movie. He married a third time and found love; he has been a doting father to his blended family with children from both his previous marriages and from his new one, as well as her children from before her marriage to John Paul. One of his children is Alexis DeJoria, a funny car driver who owns the world record.

Ever since the Salvation Army incident in his youth, JP has had almost an obsession with giving back. He supports something like 250 different charities not only with financial contributions but also with his rather precious time. He is shown here spending time with Chrysalis, a Los Angeles-based charity that gets homeless people aid in getting back into the workforce, and Sea Shepard, dedicated to stopping illegal poaching of marine life (such as blue whales and bluefin tuna, both nearly extinct). Not shown in the film is his devotion to Food4Africa which has provided something like 400,000 meals to starving children in Africa since their inception. Not touched upon in the film was his contribution to Ted Cruz’ campaign which seems at odds with his world view of protecting the planet. I’d love to know why he would donate to someone who has voted consistently against climate change and environmental protection but that’s just me.

The husband/wife team of Joshua and Rebecca Tickell has some pretty serious films to their credit and to their credit they do portray their subject as distinctly non-saintly although there is a steady stream of praise coming from such celebrities as Cheech Marin, Ariana Huffington, Pierce Brosnan, Ron White, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Danny Trejo and Michelle Phillips – the latter two friends since childhood.

I get the sense that DeJoria is much too humble to want to be the subject of a fawn-a-thon. What my guess is that he did this picture for was to inspire those who are down and out to go out and chase their dream anyway. He certainly did and through hard work and determination became wealthy beyond his wildest imagining. Not everyone is going to achieve that kind of success but certainly people willing to do their best are likely to at least improve their situation in life.

DeJoria is an inspiring person whose commitment to the environment, to the betterment of humanity and to the inspiration of others is worthy of emulation. I wish that more of the 1% would adopt his attitude and some have to be fair – I see you, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – although not enough to rehabilitate the reputation of the rich and shameless.

DeJoria is also an engaging, charismatic individual and that makes the film a lot easier to enjoy. Not only are you rooting for him throughout the film but you want to hang out with him – and one gets the sense that he would love for you to hang out with him, too. People like DeJoria are rare commodities these days and if anyone deserves a documentary of their own, it’s them. I’m glad that DeJoria got his.

REASONS TO GO: The subject is quite inspiring. DeJoria himself is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The film occasionally is too fawning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of DeJoria’s children work for him at Paul Mitchell Systems.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Becoming Warren Buffett
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown

Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke


It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life.

(2016) Documentary (Wild Blue Yonder) James White, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Annetta White, Jon Langford, Gary P. Nunn, Josh Delk, Cornell Hurd, Bruce Robison, Dale Watson, Jesse Dayton, Tracey Dear, Terri White, Joe Nick Patoski, Ginny White, Jessie Matthieson, Will Wynn, Ray Benson, Mike Harmier, Denise Hosek, Alvin Crow, James Hand, Pauline Reese, Julie Johnson. Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas and Julie Mitchell

The Broken Spoke in South Austin sits smack on South Lamar Boulevard, the heart of the highly developed South Lamar Corridor. Brand new condos and multi-purpose buildings surround it. The building is incongruous, a ramshackle wooden bar with a dirt parking lot and a beautiful oak tree out front.

James White built the Spoke by hand back in 1964, assisted by as he puts it “Every drunk in South Austin.” When it rains, the roof leaks like a sieve, necessitating a corrugated tin roof being placed in between the shingles and the roof in order to keep the patrons dry. It may not look like much but it is a piece of history, a place that matters in a city where music matters almost as much as dancing, where a good country fried steak matters as much as a cold Lonestar beer and where the great and the not-so-great have played on its tiny stage with a ceiling so low that taller performers often have to slouch down to keep from banging their head on it.

On that stage have played country music royalty, from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to Ernest Tubbs to George Strait to a young clean-cut Willie Nelson. All who have played that stage have understood the fundamental truth of why they’re there; get the customers to dance. Dancing, in Texas, is at least as important as walking. The music, says one interviewee, is an excuse to get people to touch each other in public.

This documentary celebrates a lot of things; not just the Spoke itself although that is the primary focus but also Austin as one of the world’s music capitals and Texas which is not just a lifestyle but a life. As the world has changed, dance halls and honky tonks have all but disappeared. There is a difference between the two; the former is where you take your wife to dance, the latter is where you take someone else’s wife to dance. You’ve gotta love Texas.

The White family has made this their second home for half a century. James and his wife Annetta have tended to the business with care; James is the public face, attired in brilliant rhinestones and embroidered shirts. He greets the customers, introduces the bands (and sometimes sings with them) and shares stories with those willing to listen (which is just about everybody). He is the main focus of the documentary and they couldn’t find a better one; he’s charming, garrulous and full of great stories. He’s a born entertainer but not in a show biz sense; he just lifts up the spirits of anyone he’s around. While he takes care of the front of the house, his wife sees to the books but also the kitchen where those killer country fried steaks are made and tends bar. She spends a lot of time on-camera as well and she is just as full of piss and vinegar as any Texas woman is. The last shot of the movie – of James and Annetta dancing a Texas waltz – is beautiful and sums up how close this couple is to one another. It really does bring a tear to one’s eye and sums up what the movie is really all about..

Their daughters Ginny and Terri also work at the Spoke; Terri conducts dancing lessons before the bands go onstage, and Ginny embroiders the shirts her father wears as well as assists her mother with the running of the Spoke on the business side. She is the heir apparent and feels a keen responsibility to keep it going when her parents finally hang up their rhinestones, a day that she doesn’t particularly want to see come. Her voice breaks when she discusses it.

The history of the Spoke is discussed and there are plenty of archival photos that are absolutely amazing. There is also a kind of tour of dance halls in various rural Texas towns that mostly stand silent and empty. Throughout the movie you get a sense of Texas and what it’s like to be part of that great state. Those that are in charge of such things really ought to designate this film a Texas treasure; there aren’t many films that give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be a Texan as well as this one does.

I’m not a particular fan of country music as I’ve said in other reviews although I respect the relationship the musicians have with their fans. I will say that even if you can’t stand country music, you will likely still find this fascinating and enjoyable. It’s not just Honky Tonk music that this film is all about; it’s about a life and a tradition that is still beloved and revered. I’ve been to Austin on occasion and caught my share of live music there in some of their justifiably famous venues (like Antone’s and Emo’s) but I do know that the next time I’m in the Texas capital, I’m going to make a jaunt down South Lamar and park my ass at the bar at the Spoke and maybe order me a chicken fried steak. While I’m there, I’m going to be sure to shake the hand of James White and thank him for keeping the legend alive for so long – and I’ll be honored to do all of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Even those not into country music will find something to love about this movie. James White is a fascinating study. Nicely does the history without dwelling too much on it. The film is as Texas as it comes.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that isn’t suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the band is playing, standing on the dance floor is not allowed. You must be dancing or get off the dance floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Supergirl