Psychomagic, A Healing Art


They touched me and it felt like a fist.

(2019) Documentary (ABCKO) Alejandro Jodorowsky. Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

 

For anybody who has been wondering what visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky has been up to, well, this is it. For everybody else, you might want to skip on ahead.

Jodorowsky, for the uninitiated, is the Mexican surrealist director who is most famous for his signature film El Topo as well as films such as Santa Sangre, The Rainbow Thief and Tusk. His films are full of surreal imagery, and are sometimes difficult to interpret. Since the 1970s, he has been working with this form of therapy, which he explains at the beginning of the film thusly: “Psychotherapy is based on science, was created by Sigmund Freud, a doctor. Psychomagic, which was created by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a film and theater director, is based on art.”

We then get nearly two hours of case studies, interspersed with snippets from Jodorowsky’s 15-film catalogue. The therapy sessions, often presided over by Jodorowsky himself (who was pushing 90 at the time of filming and is 91 now), are a combination of sensual massage, symbolic ritual, primal scream therapy and performance art with a heavy emphasis on the latter.

Some of the “treatments” make logical sense; a man with familial issues prints out pictures of his family, tapes them to pumpkins and smashes them with a sledge hammer. A French couple, having communication problems, are chained together and forced to walk the streets of Paris without looking at each other. A woman, whose mother expressed that having her was a mistake and is now unsure if she herself is fit to be a mother, undergoes a simulated birth.

But some make no logical sense at all, like a stutterer forced to wear body paint and walk around muttering to himself, or a man with anxiety getting milk poured over his head. Many of the patients are required to take their clothes off which feels a bit unsavory and more so when you realize that Jodorowsky once claimed that he raped an actress for real on camera during the filming of El Topo. He later recanted, claiming that he said it just to drum up publicity for his film, but even if that were true (and I hope that it is because actually raping a woman for a film is beyond screwed up), using rape as a publicity tool is deplorable. So the whole thing takes on an extra added dosage of creepy which it didn’t need.

And to be honest, watching this go on for two hours becomes mind-numbing. I’m no therapist, but the lack of scientific grounding is troubling. Messing about with people’s minds and emotions is no joke. The brain can do wonderous things when it is properly moved to, and I can’t help feeling that for all the New Age yammering that Jodorowsky does here that he can do way more harm than good potentially and that those who have emotional or mental issues are better served seeing a true expert and not a filmmaker for help.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some interesting concepts here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels much more like a self-help infomercial than anything else. Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of nudity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jodorowsky has published 23 books (so far) on the subject of pyshcomagic..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On-Demand
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Glass Castle
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Day 13

Disclosure (2020)


The emotional heart of an unwelcome disclosure.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassGeraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Kieran Cochrane, Lucy McMurray. Directed by Michael Bentham

 

When it comes to our children, we are enormously protective. We believe in them, sometimes even against all evidence or logic; we give them the benefit of the doubt. When one child accuses another of a heinous act, the battle lines are drawn immediately and ferociously.

In this Australian drama (not to be confused with the 1994 Demi Moore/Michael Douglas erotic thriller nor the two other films – one a Netflix documentary on transgenders in cinema – with the same title coming out in 2020) we meet Danny (Winter) and Emily (Ridgway) Bowman. He’s a journalist, she’s a documentary filmmaker. When we first meet them, they are having sex and filming it. Flash forward a few years and we are in the home of Joel (Wren) and Bek (Hakewill) Chalmers. Joel is a local politician on the rise; she’s on the phone, obviously busy and harassed when we hear a piercing child’s scream coming from the bedroom. Distracted, she walks over to the room, warns her son Ethan to “leave the little ones alone” and sends him outside to play. She leaves, still on the phone. Ethan doesn’t emerge, but there’s an ominous silence coming from the room.

A few weeks later, Danny and Emily are skinny dipping in their backyard pool when Joel and Bek show up unexpectedly at their door, with Joel’s bodyguard (Stone) in tow. There is tension between the two couples, who have been close friends up to now and we soon find out why. The four-year-old daughter of Danny and Emily has told them that Ethan, the nine-year-old son of Joel and Bek, has done something terrible (and presumably, sexual) to her. Tom and Bek are there to plead with the Bowmans to take Ethan’s name out of the paperwork; Danny and Emily want Ethan to be seen by a therapist. Bek is particularly adamant against it – Ethan has denied the girl’s account. Bek, who suffered serial sexual abuse as a child, is particularly sensitive about the accusation. Emily is horrified that Bek doesn’t believe her daughter.

The discussions go from civilized to strained to frantic to violent as both couples stand their ground in defense of their kids. As things devolve, we get the sense that there is an awful lot of adult baggage being dragged into the argument which is, ostensibly, supposed to be about the welfare of their children.

This is an emotional film which only grows more so. At first, it is the women who react emotionally and, to a certain extent, non-logically. The men seem to be calmer and more conciliatory, wanting to work things out without damaging the friendship the two couples have built. The women are willing to burn the mofo right to the ground.

First time filmmaker Bentham has a good eye, contrasting the rural/suburban idyllic neighborhood, studded with pools and lush greenery with the ugliness of the innuendo cast in both directions by the parents whose civility slowly goes out the window over the course of the film. Hakewill in particular, playing the brittle and shrill Bek, does a marvelous job although all of the other main performers do a crackerjack job as well.

The ending was a little bit of a letdown; Bentham had played things straight pretty much throughout but there’s an almost comedic element to the denouement that doesn’t jive with the rest of the film; I was left wondering if it was meant to be symbolic of something (which I don’t want to get into so as not to spoil it) and in the end, decided that it was, but you may disagree and that’s perfectly legitimate.

This reminded me strongly of Roman Polanski’s 2011 filmed version of the Yasmina Reza stage play, with a sexual element added. That film had a more stage-y quality to it, although there are moments where this feels like it might have been based on a play as well. It is nevertheless an impressive work that has floated under the radar, but deserves far more attention than it has gotten to date (there isn’t even a page on Rotten Tomatoes for the film). For those film buffs still in quarantine looking for something different, this is one to keep in mind. It’s out on VOD now; it can be purchased on Blu-Ray next Tuesday (go to the film’s page to find out where it will be available in the U.S.).

REASONS TO SEE: Covers a wrenching topic from both points of view. Uses thriller tropes to tell a dramatic story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit awkward and unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sex, brief nudity, plenty of profanity and uncomfortable sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bentham’s debut feature.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Dosed (2019 Documentary)


Adrianne takes five on the back porch.

(2019) Documentary (Mangurama/AbramoramaAdrianne, Tyler Chandler, Mark Haden, Nicholas Meyers, Rick Doblin, Rosalind Watts, Ingrid Pacey, Trevor Miller, Gabor Mate, Garyth Moxey, Mark Howard, Paul Stamets, Geoff Acres, Gary Cook Patrick Rishley, Maud Lundestad, Chor Boogie, James Jesso, Robyn Howard. Directed by Tyler Chandler

Drug addiction was a pandemic long before COVID-19. All of us, every one of us, has been touched in some way by it, whether we ourselves have struggled with addiction to one drug or another, or if someone we know/love/cherish has done the same.

For Tyson Chandler, that friend is Adrianne (her last name is not given onscreen or in the press notes). She’s a 30-something woman who at one time was studying for law school. She had a quiet, middle class upbringing, a stable home life and for all intents and purposes, had everything going for her and yet starting from age 15 she began experimenting. Working in a law office, she was introduced to cocaine and from there on the downward spiral began.

She describes herself as a trashcan addict; she’s willing to do anything and everything, whatever is available so long as it takes her out of her own head. She takes us on a tour of the streets of Vancouver, streets that might appear ordinary but as she points out, are a hotbed for drug dealing.

She is engaging, intelligent and on the surface, brutally honest – although we eventually find out that she’s not being totally honest with both Chandler and those trying to help her and there are plenty of people trying to help her. She’s been through everything; rehab, psychotherapy, group sessions, psychotropics, methadone – in fact, she’s also addicted to the latter. She’s at the end of her rope and is willing to try anything.

How about psychedelics? Don’t snigger; there have been some clinical studies that show that psychedelics can actually unlock hidden traumas that lead to psychological disorders including addiction. At first, Adrianne tries increasing doses of magic mushrooms – psilocybin – but when she relapses, she and Chandler decide that something stronger is indicated; the African hallucinogenic Iboga. That’s even less easy (and just as illegal) to obtain in British Columbia, so she goes to IbogaSoul, a kind of communal rehab center in rural Squamish, where lead counselor/head cheerleader Mark Howard administers the drug in a ritual that I suppose is supposed to be African. It is here that we find out that Adrianne has been dishonest about the amount of heroin she has been using.

If you’re looking for a definitive documentary on the efficacy of psychedelics on drug addiction and other illnesses, keep looking. This is strictly anecdotal, the journey of a single addict chronicled by a loyal friend. From that standpoint, this is an effective documentary and if you’re looking for one person’s story, this is where you stop looking. However, there is a notable lack of scientific information as to how psychedelics work, or much information beyond “there have been some studies done.”

Instead, we get plenty of new age psychobabble about healing the spirit and so on. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with concentrating on the human spirit or expressing it in terms of something spiritual but it comes off a bit amateurish and it makes me wonder how qualified the people administering these drugs truly are. You also get the sense that Chandler and Adrianne are flying by the seat of their pants and in a sense, they really are – there’s no manual or much information about the road they’re going on, and definitely no road maps.

This is a fairly elementary documentary that is excellent for seeing things from an addict’s (and those who care about them) viewpoint, but not very helpful for those who might be looking into alternative treatments for drug addiction. In other words, from a personal standpoint this is fascinating; from an educational standpoint, not as useful as it might be.

NB: This is not to be confused with the 2019 horror film of the same name.

REASONS TO SEE: Presents an addict’s point of view.
REASONS TO AVOID: A whole lot of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chandler, a Canadian documentary producer, was inspired to make his directorial debut by wishing to document his friend’s struggle with drug addiction and her turning to alternative means of dealing with it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warning: This Drug May Kill You
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
By Day’s End

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

When the Bough Breaks: A Documentary About Postpartum Depression


Three brave women discuss that which society deems to be a stigma.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Brooke Shields (narrator), Carnie Wilson, Aarti Sequeira, Lindsay Gerszt, Diana Lynn Barnes, Bradley Gerszt, Haiti Harrison, Peggy Tanous, Naomi Knoles, Joy Burkhard, Raul Martinez,, Jenna Liddy, Tanya Neybould, Jane Honikman, David Arredondo, Vivian Burt, Jacqueline Goodman, Angela Burliing, Staci Janisse, Randy Gibbs, Candyce Carpenter. Directed by Jamielyn Lippman

 

For a long time women who felt down after giving birth were dismissed as having “the baby blues” or some such. “You’ll get over it,” was the prevailing logic. “Suck it up and get back to cleaning the house!” It hasn’t been until relatively recently that postpartum depression was seen as something serious – and occasionally lethal.

The first smart decision the filmmakers made was getting Brooke Shields involved as a narrator and producer. She in many ways became the face of postpartum depression when she wrote a book confessing her own issues and how she got through it – and was promptly read the riot act by Tom Cruise for admitting to taking medication for it. Some of you might remember that embarrassing moment in the actor’s career.

The genesis of the project was Lindsay Gerszt who suffered from a severe postpartum depression after the birth of her son Hunter. The filmmakers follow her through six years of a variety of different therapies, including acupuncture and electronic stimulation. We see how her husband Bradley copes (or doesn’t) with her situation, which I think is an excellent move on the part of Lippman – depression doesn’t just affect a single member of the family. Everyone has to deal with it.

There are a lot of talking heads here, mainly of women who have been through one of the various forms of PPD and some who have survived the worst of all – Postpartum Psychosis whose sufferers often have religious-based hallucinations and do bodily harm to themselves or their children including murdering them.

We do get some clinical information from various psychologists and specialists but the fact remains that PPD can strike any woman regardless of family history, social standing or culture. There are some things that can make you more susceptible to it (like a history of depression) but it can literally happen to anyone.

The filmmakers do talk about one of the worst aspects of PPD and that’s the stigma attached to it. There’s basically a stigma attached to any mental issue but in the case of Postpartum it really gets in the way of getting well. A lot of women won’t talk about the feelings they have because they are ashamed and feel that they’re “bad mommies.” Postpartum Depression often affects the bonding between women and their babies; women report feeling like they need to get away from their babies and don’t want to be around them. They cry often and sleep a great deal. Even the sight of women and their children in the mall can set off feelings of inadequacy. In some cases that feeling of alienation extends to their husbands/significant others and family members often bear the brunt of the victim’s frustrations and anger.

Again, with celebrities like Brooke Shields and Carnie Wilson (of Wilson-Phillips) coming out to share their experiences, things are getting a little better in that regard but we’re only starting to catch up now. Still screening for Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis isn’t standard in most states and for some women and their children, that can be fatal.

One of the faults I have with this movie is that it isn’t terribly representative. Most of the women here are well-to-do, live in beautiful homes, drive expensive cars – and most importantly can afford all manners of therapy for as long as they need it. That’s simply not the norm however; towards the end we get the experiences of a couple of families who are less affluent but in both cases it’s sufferers of Postpartum Psychosis whose illness leads to tragic ends. I think the movie would do a whole lot more good if women of less means can relate to the women in the film; I suspect many will look at the movie and say “But I can’t afford any of that” and instead of getting help they do like women have done through the ages and just suck it up, buttercup. It looks like nearly all of the women are from Southern California as well.

I will add this caveat that I saw this immediately after watching HBO’s excellent Cries from Syria which really makes this look a little bit like First World Problems and that’s achingly unfair. Post-Partum Psychosis claims the lives of women and children all over the globe and to put an exclamation point during the end credits, we are informed that two of the women interviewed for the film had taken their own lives since filming had been completed. If you are pregnant, about to be pregnant or know someone who is pregnant or about to be, you owe it to yourself – and them – to give this a watch. It could help you save the life of someone you love.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers make some excellent points about the demonization of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: Dwells too long on the experiences of celebrities and the rich; I would have liked to see more focus on women who don’t have the means to get six years worth of therapy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some frank discussion of violent events and childbirth as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project began when Lindsay Gerszt and Tanya Neybould discussed their postpartum depression with their friend filmmaker Jamielyn Lippman and the three determined to make a documentary about the condition which remains stigmatized.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Founder

The Disappointments Room


Kate Beckinsale reflects.

Kate Beckinsale reflects.

(2016) Supernatural Thriller (Rogue/Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Gerald McRaney, Michael Landes, Celia Weston, Michaela Conlin, Charles Carroll, Duncan Joiner, Ella Jones, Marcia de Rousse, Jennifer Leigh Mann, Melissa Eastwood, Robert McRary, Chris Matheny, Mike Bizon, Peabody Southwell, Steve Stamey, Robert Caponi, Rebecca Kerns. Directed by D.J. Caruso

 

When you move someplace new, exploring your new digs is half the fun, especially if it’s one of those wonderful old houses with long corridors and lots of doors. However, it is wise to remember that in some old houses, some doors shouldn’t be opened.

Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido) have just moved into one such house. They’re trying to pick up the pieces after the untimely death of an infant daughter. Dana, in particular, is a bit of a mess but David figures that having her redesign her new home (she is an architect, after all) might help take her mind off of things and lift her out of her doldrums.

But then she finds a door to a room in the attic that doesn’t appear on the floor plans, which is kind of bizarre because the room has a distinctive round window that can be seen clearly from the yard. But, okay – she is almost obsessed about opening the door and eventually she finds the key. The room has scratch marks, a drain and some disturbing looking stains that might be blood.

She begins to have visions of an intimidating man in black who turns out to be Judge Blacker (McRaney), a previous owner, and his vicious looking dog. Disturbed by the visions, she looks into the room and discovers that it was what was called a “Disappointments Room” where the wealthy would lock up their children who had mental issues or physical deformities (and sometimes their wives too – yes, disappointments rooms were a thing). When she is trapped in the hidden room for what seems like hours, she is mystified to discover she was only gone a few short minutes. Her sanity begins to take a tumble.

Not making matters much better is a hunky contractor (Till) who seems more interested in flirting with her than in actually getting the roof fixed nor a poorly timed dinner party when a drunken Dana pops her cork and has an epic meltdown. But the question is whether or not the house is truly haunted – or if Dana is descending into madness.

Caruso has a track record of both terrific suspense movies and also some fine action films but this is one that isn’t going to be front and center on his resume. The movie feels like it went off the rails near the end of the film, having either been rewritten from the original script by actor Wentworth Miller (who doesn’t appear in the film, alas) or was edited by someone at the studio’s nephew who turns out to be completely psychotic.

But the rest of the movie does a good job of building the “is she or isn’t she” suspense and Beckinsale was born for this kind of role, where she has to play things high strung. She’s a marvelous actor, horribly underrated who has a history of excellent but overlooked performances in genre films. She’s starting to branch out lately (Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is one such) and hopefully she’ll start to see roles that will attract more notice. Here she really holds the movie together almost by herself, but as I said the movie spirals into the toilet bowl of doom through no fault of her own.

The problem here is that that the movie kind of loses its inertia and at the end goes for cliches and easy scares rather than taking the ball it had been carrying all game long and running for the touchdown with it. And yes, that’s an intentional mixed metaphor; that perfectly explains how the movie felt to me.

This was a victim of the Relativity Media bankruptcy; it was in limbo for more than a year while the company sorted through its financial issues. It was actually supposed to open in November but for some reason the company pulled Before I Sleep from the schedule with less than two weeks to go and inserted this into the slot, shuttling it into theaters without any sort of promotional support whatsoever. Predictably, it died a quiet and painful death at the box office. It didn’t help matters that the movie is mediocre at best, but it seems sad that this is going to be a pretty decent performance by Beckinsale that will largely go unseen. That’s the big disappointment here.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale elevates the movie as she usually does.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is often confusing and disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (some of it bloody), some disturbing images, a bit of foul language and a couple of scenes of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the main location shooting was the Adamsleigh estate in the Sedgefield Country Club outside Greensboro, North Carolina. The home was built in 1930.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Husband
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sully

Hollywood Beauty Salon


Lookin' GOOD!!

Lookin’ GOOD!!

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, Sanetta “Butterfly” Watkins, Darlene Holmes Malone, Glenn Holsten, Crystal Smith, Rashida Herring, Edward Kozempel, Anthony Young, Paris Tyree, Serena Carter, Viola Wilson, Clyde Joelle, Paul Barnes, Cheryl Cobb, Irene Tindal, Margo Chavis, Marva Evans, Diane Daniels, Wilbur Ruhl, Laverne Davenport. Directed by Glenn Holsten

 

As a society we have a tendency to try to funnel the mentally ill, the substance abusers and the poor into places where we can’t see them, where they can languish largely forgotten by the world. The sad thing is that these are all human beings – troubled to be sure, but still just as human as you or I. They have feelings, they have dreams, they have hopes and they have lives. Generally, we don’t give them credit for any of that.

One glimpse of Hollywood Beauty Salon may change your minds. These aren’t drooling, feeble-minded village idiots who can’t dress themselves; at least one of them has a college degree (two of them, at that) and all of them compassion for one another. The stories they have to tell are often horrific; tales of witnessing their mothers commit suicide when they themselves are only five years old and tales of abusive relationships ending in gunfire. These are tales of bullying and foster care, of drug abuse and despair. These people have overcome some genuinely nightmarish pasts and have done so hampered by schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. It’s amazing that some of them are here at all.

One of their number, Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, managed to fight through the pain of losing a baby followed in short order by her partner being murdered; suicidal and hearing voices, she got the help she needed and in fact got a license as a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, enabling her to give back to the community that helped her on the road to recovery. She set up a beauty salon in a mental health recovery complex in the largely African-American district of Germantown in Philadelphia, citing that feeling beautiful helps with the recovery process. Training some of the residents there to cut hair, do manicures and pedicures and apply cosmetics helps give the residents marketable skills they can eventually use to get employment.

But strangely despite the title, this isn’t about the salon, although it does serve as something of a center for the film. It’s about the people in it; their stories, told through dramatic recreations, animated sequences or the old-fashioned way – talking to the camera and/or to each other. Filmmaker Glenn Holsten not only shows us the stories of these people but in a curious meta sort of way, shows us how the documentary itself was put together. For my money, that’s some impressive innovation.

The gist of the film is that under the aegis of Timms, the Salon is about to put on their second annual Hair and Fashion Recovery Show, in which the various clients and stylists of the Salon not only show off their skills but also their tales of recovery. We get to meet Sanetta Watkins, who wants to be known as Butterfly – not only because she loves them and their colorful wings but because they are a symbol of herself, coming out of a self-created chrysalis of loneliness and blossoming into a functioning, social human being. We also meet Edward Kozempel, once a bright and promising flutist who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and cancer – he loses everything, including his ability to make music and lives out in the streets until the program in Germantown finds him.

Dorothy Holmes Malone tells us a harrowing tale of how she grew up in foster care, always hungry and rarely being allowed to bathe except when social workers were coming for an inspection and endured a childhood full of bullying. She allows her tale to be told through dramatic recreation, her story so affecting one of the child actresses that she bursts into tears to be comforted by Malone herself.

But it is Hollywood’s story that really is at the emotional center of the film; it is hard to imagine losing nearly everything you love in life. She contemplated suicide and only her last remaining child, Cadence, convinced her to stay with the living. “Life is a choice,” she says in typical blunt fashion. She is as compassionate as they come but she can be a drill sergeant when she has to be. To me, Hollywood is the kind of hero America really needs, someone who overcame tremendous odds and gives back to her community in a tangible way. When she is doing some glamour shots for the Show, we get to see some of her inner joy and it is contagious. Everyone needs a little Hollywood in their lives.

Given the headlines of late of terrorism, mass murder and of a Presidential election that is perhaps the most depressing event in American history, it is refreshing to see a story like this one. One might even say it is necessary to our continued mental health to know that there are people out there with the kind of hearts and courage that these people exhibit just to get through their day. Sure, they break down from time to time but for the most part, these people are just like you and me. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have lives. And I’m glad we got to share a little bit in them. It truly made my day a lot better and how often can a movie do that?

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that shows a whole lot of heart but brings a whole lot of tears. The stories as horrifying as they sometimes are all are triumphant in their own way. The animations truly enhance the story.
REASONS TO STAY: The story jumps around a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult themes coupled with some sexual references and allusions to violence and drug/alcohol abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over the course of four years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Ghostbusters (2016)

Life, Animated


The world is Owen Suskind's oyster.

The world is Owen Suskind’s oyster.

(2016) Documentary (The Orchard) Owen Suskind, Ross Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walt Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman, Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, Emily, Michelle Garcia Winner. Directed by Roger Ross Williams

 

Autism can be a frightening thing to both parents and the children afflicted with it, and of course to the siblings not afflicted who only know their brother or sister is “different.” The thing is that there’s no one way to treat it and no right thing to do; it’s trial and error and sometimes, just error.

Writer Ross Suskind of the Wall Street Journal got to learn this first-hand when his son Owen was diagnosed at three with autism. He had been a normal toddler up to then, but all of a sudden he became withdrawn. Instead of communicating normally, he spoke in a kind of gibberish. His motor skills deteriorated. His mother Cornelia was frantic; his older brother Walt wasn’t sure what was going on with his brother. When the doctor made his diagnosis, the family was devastated. Nobody knew what to expect next.

It was years of silence; Owen was unable to communicate with his family normally and no matter what they did Owen seemingly couldn’t understand what they were trying to get across. It was a frustrating time for the entire family but they hung in there. There came a few years later an unusual breakthrough; Owen repeated dialogue from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. At first Ron and Carnelia were ecstatic but their doctor warned them that this was likely just echolalia, vocal parroting and somewhat common among autism sufferers.

But Ron figured out differently; he used a puppet of Iago from Aladdin to actually have a conversation with his son. Eventually the family and therapists used the Disney animations as a means to help find a way into Owen’s world. Owen, for his part, used the animations to help make sense of the world. They were timeless and unchanging in a world that was changing rapidly.

Most of the film, we see Owen at 23, getting ready to graduate to independent living in an apartment complex that his girlfriend Emily – also autistic – lives in. Owen seems on the surface like an attractive, normal guy until you hear him muttering gibberish to himself. He runs a club for like-minded autistics who connect to the world through Disney – there are a lot more of them than you’d think.

The heart of the movie is the connection between Owen and his family; clearly the love and patience that they have for each other are extraordinary and it does this jaded critic’s heart good to see it. Older brother Walt expresses concern about Owen’s future; when Ron and Cornelia pass away, who will take care of Owen? Walt knows it will be him and frankly, is more than willing but certainly not looking forward to the prospect.

The movie uses animation effectively; it is kind of stream-of-consciousness and generally depicts what Owen’s world looks like inside his head. There is an almost impressionist look to the animation which I found truly effective; in them Owen is always depicted as a little boy, and I found that somewhat apropos. I’ve always felt the use of animation to enhance documentaries was a brilliant idea, although it has been somewhat overused of late. In this instance, it truly does enhance the experience in that it gives us insight into Owen and how he views the world.

There are plenty of Disney clips used in the film, and Disneyphiles are going to love this; in a lot of ways, it confirms the healing power of movies, although in a kind of unquestioning manner. The book that Ron wrote that this is based upon also mentions that the Disney therapy is just one of many things that Owen responded to over his years of learning how to function despite the noise going on in his head. The movie gives the impression that Disney saved Owen and quite frankly that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I have to wonder what Owen made of the cameras. Clearly some of the scenes are staged, as when Owen watches Disney films in his room. While his actions of delight are genuine, it seems a bit too contrived for my comfort. The movie works best when it is simply capturing what happens in Owen’s daily life, including a lovely moment when Aladdin voice actors Gottfried and Freeman attend one of the meetings of Owen’s Disney club.

This shouldn’t be taken as a primer on how to deal with autistic family members – there is, as has been mentioned, no one right way. This also isn’t a movie about how Disney can be used to save autistic children; there’s no real telling what things autistic kids will focus in on, be it trains, baseball, playing cards or grocery stores.

What it is in reality is an account of how one kid made it through and how his family loved and nurtured him despite everything. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of movie that is well worth watching and the best part of what I get to do for a living.

REASONS TO GO: This is an unexpected, life-affirming treasure. Disneyphiles will dig this hard.
REASONS TO STAY: Leads one to wonder how much the presence of the cameras affected what we saw on the screen.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animations are supplied by the French animation firm Mac Guff.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Hollywood Beauty Salon

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli Davis Conspiracy


Michael Borelli meets the press.

Michael Borelli meets the press.

(2014) Documentary (Benaroya) Michael Borelli, Bob Davis, Robert Fullerton, Cindy Parmenter, Robin Levine, Liz Borelli, Kim Peterson, Melody Davis, Alan Dill, Frank Moya, Sam Raskin, Ron Kavanagh, Marge Gindro, Terry D’Prero, Larry Addeo, Chuck Brega, Rhoda Goldstein, Anna Venditti, Stanley Perlmutter. Directed by Sheldon Wilson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but then again, truth can sometimes resemble fiction. Take the cases of Michael Borelli and Bob Davis, for example. It feels like a movie about corrupt cops, the unjustly accused and a heinous murder but every word of it is true.

Borelli was a retired New York City police officer who wanted to utilize his skills as a baker. He moved west to Denver in the mid-70s to order to open up a New York City-style bakery which he felt would be a great success. He was persuaded instead to open up a restaurant; one of his partners was Hal Levine, a furniture store owner.

Levine was a gambler, and not just in a business sense. He had an addiction that he kept hidden from his partners and used the funds from Borelli’s successful restaurant to pay down his own debt which had become out of control. A life insurance policy was taken out on him with the partnership the beneficiary. Five months later, Levine was dead, gruesomely murdered with his wife also nearly killed during the assault.

The Denver police at the time had an organized crime unit which was on the verge of being broken up because, let’s face it, there wasn’t any organized crime in Denver. Sgt. Cantwell, one of the members of the unit, knew that if the unit went away so would his fairly cushy job that had little accountability. So he looked for Godfathers where there weren’t any. And he decided that the Levine murder fit all the earmarks of the crime.

He saw Borelli as guilty by reason of being Italian; the quick-tempered ex-cop was certain to be a foot soldier in one of the big crime families. He was Italian, wasn’t he? So Cantwell looked into the crime. Now with a suspect, he had to get through the inconvenient fact that Borelli had an alibi – he was in New York when the murder happened. No problem. He just through in Bob Davis, a former colleague of Borelli’s and a close friend. Even though Davis had only been to Denver once and there was no proof that he was there at all. Except…

…for the testimony of one Terry Lee D’Prero, who claimed to have been in the house (for which there was evidence) but wasn’t there to kill anybody but to put the fear of God into Levine. It was Davis who pulled the trigger. On D’Prero’s testimony alone were both Borelli and Davis convicted since the evidence against them was sketchy at best.

Too sketchy, in fact, as defense attorney Alan Dill started looking into the case deeper. He discovered that D’Prero’s testimony was full of holes, but because D’Prero had allegedly testified against high-ranking Mafiosi, he had been put into witness protection and had disappeared from view.

In prison, Borelli was actually treated as if he were Mafiosi and he didn’t dissuade the general prison population of the notion. He knew that if they learned that he wasn’t, he’d just be an ex-cop and that might very well be a death sentence for him so he played the part. Even prison officials bought into it.

At least Borelli had that to fall back on. Davis suffered brutally and throughout the affair was treated far worse than Borelli was. Amazingly, both men remained close friends – and are so to this day. Such a thing even had the somewhat creepy judge who presided at their trials shaking his head.

This is one of the more compelling stories you’ll find in a documentary this year. It has everything – corrupt police officers, a brutal murder, a judge possibly more interested in notoriety than justice, two former cops and best friends – everything but a book by Mario Puzo to base it on. The story is what keeps you going and there are quite a few twists and turns. Some of the things are astonishing; I won’t ruin them by stating them here, only that you’ll end up wondering why they don’t make ’em like Michael Borelli and Bob Davis anymore.

Initially, the filmmakers used an old radio interview with Borelli as narration which I thought was a nifty move. I wish they had kept it up throughout, just for continuity’s sake. Otherwise this is pretty standard stuff – talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs from the time. There also really isn’t any testimony from the opposing side; although the judge who decided the case was interviewed, none of the police were for obvious reasons.

They also have crime scene photos of Levine and his wife and be warned, they are graphic and disturbing. Those who decide to venture to see this should be aware that those images are in there; some may be upset by them. Personally, I question the need to have them in the film; we understand from the interviews that the murders were brutal. We didn’t need to see the visual evidence to confirm it.

So ultimately this is a terrific tale told in a somewhat pedestrian manner. Wilson should be commended, however, for perseverance in ferreting out the truth over the course of years investigating the case. I found the story so intriguing that it overcame the documentary 101 style that it is told in. Others may not be so charitable. In any case, it’s a story that deserves the telling and reminds us that justice ideally is blind but in reality, the justice system rarely is.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Borelli is an interesting interview. Ties things up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary use of crime scene photos. A bit too rote in terms of how the story is told.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic crime scene photos. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Sheldon Wilson once served as an instructor for film direction at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Aspie Seeking Love