The Velvet Underground


New York cool, circa 1966.

(2021) Music Documentary (AppleTV Plus) John Cale, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, Mary Woronov, Barbara Walters, Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Jonas Mekas, Billy Name, Jonathan Richman, Jackson Browne, Martha Morrison, Merrill Reed Weiner, Joseph Freeman, Allen Hyman, Henry Flynt, Terry Philips, Marian Zazeela, Shelley Corwin, Amy Taubin. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

Some bands make an impact because of their massive popularity; others because of some element of their style which would go on to become influential of other bands that came after. Still others are very much a product of their time and place.

The Velvet Underground fits the latter two categories. They were born in the early Sixties when wanna-be rock star Lou Reed met Welsh avant garde enthusiast John Cale, who had moved to New York to work with La Monte Young who had perfected the art of the long, sustained drone. They hooked up with guitarist Sterling Morrison, whom Reed knew from his time at Syracuse University. Finally, Maureen “Moe” Tucker finished the group on drums.

Their music was for its time way out of the norm. Naturally, artistic sorts like Andy Warhol drifted into their sphere. The band became a regular at the Factory, Warhol’s art space. Warhol became their de facto manager and at his urging, the group added German model Nico to front the band along with Reed. She participated on the first album, the one with the banana on the cover, drawn by Warhol himself. Even with the star power behind them, the band never sold a lot of records while they were around. Tensions would escalate between Reed and Cale until Reed essentially fired him from the band. Doug Yule was brought aboard and when Reed himself left the band, would valiantly soldier on until he, too, eventually abandoned the project.

Director Todd Haynes wasn’t interested in creating a standard rock documentary. There are talking heads here, but for most of the film they are more disembodied voices. Some of the interviews are actually pretty wonderful (Richman, Tucker – one of the two surviving Velvets) although some are a little too self-promoting, but I don’t think that this was necessarily about paying tribute to the band.

Haynes, instead, wanted the viewers to get a sense of the band’s era, and of the New York art scene that sprouted them. He wanted the audience to hear the band as if they were hearing them for the first time in that place and time. In this he was unsuccessful, in my opinion.

Haynes has the Factory to fall back on, and the hours and hours of footage shot at that collective. He often has it playing in the background during interview sessions. We see some performance footage from the band, but not a lot. In fact, we don’t even hear the band’s music until we’re 50 minutes in to the nearly two-hour movie. There are an awful lot of cinematic non-sequiturs – commercials and television footage meant to show how America was portraying itself in the media as a consumer’s paradise. Some of the footage is wonderful, to be sure, but it comes off as condescending and pompous and not very useful to the task at hand.

I’ve always found Haynes’ work to be a little too pretentious for my tastes, but I know a lot of people whom I respect who think he’s the bees knees. Fair enough. Still, if you’re wanting to find out about the Velvet Underground, your best bet is always to actually listen to their music – it’s readily available on Spotify, Amazon Music and other sources. However, if you are hoping to get more educated about the band by watching this movie, I don’t think it’s likely. But you’ll get an education about Warhol and the Factory, though.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much cinematic excess. Less about the band’s actual music and more about the place and time they existed in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality, nudity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Velvet Underground got their name from a book about deviant sex.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews; Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enter the Void
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Becoming Cousteau

La Casa de Mama Icha


Mama Icha, left, doesn’t like what her daughter and granddaughter have to say.

(2021) Documentary (PBS) Maria Dionisia “Mama Icha” Navarro, Gustavo Navarro, Alberto Navarro, Epifania Ortiz, Michelle Ángela Ortiz, Oscar Molina. Directed by Oscar Molina

 

As you reach a certain age, you long for the familiar, a longing that becomes almost obsessive. You yearn for the things that comforted you as a youth; the sounds, the smells, the people that were around you. For someone who has immigrated to another country, that pull can be powerful indeed.

93-year-old Maria Dionisia Navarro – known affectionately to her family as “Mama Icha,” is deep in the grip of that pull. She moved to Philadelphia to help out her daughter Epifania, who has hammered out a comfortable living running a catering business, where her own daughter Michelle helps out. Mama, over the years, has been able to put away money to maintain her old house in Colombia, in the picturesque village of Mompox (it is a World Heritage Site, according to UNESCO) where Mama Icha grew up.

Epifania tries to talk her out of it. She reminds her that she will lose her social security benefits and Medicare if she leaves this country. Mama Icha is adamant, though; her little house has been waiting for her and calls to her. Her son Gustavo has been looking after the place and she cannot wait to get back. Reluctantly, Epifania gives her mother her blessing, perhaps knowing deep inside that she will never see her Mama again.

When Mama Icha arrives in Colombia, she is shocked to find her house a shambles. The tiny house is in sore need of cleaning, trash is piled up in every room, and many of Mama Icha’s things are missing or have been befouled. Mama is so upset she throws Gustavo out of the house. Gustavo responds by insinuating that his brother Alberto has been planting ideas in their mother’s head. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two brothers. The money that has been sent to pay the bills for the house apparently wasn’t enough – or perhaps, as Alberto hints, Gustavo has been using it for his own expenses. Certainly Gustavo doesn’t appear to have a job of any sort.

It isn’t too long after she arrives that Mama Icha begins to feel poorly. It has taken almost all of her money to pay the bills on the house that Gustavo hasn’t kept up with and there is little left over for medicine and doctor visits. Gustavo decides that the best course of action is to sell the house and take his mother to a neighboring town where Gustavo is sure he can find lodging. Mama is very much against this idea, but she may have little choice in the matter.

Colombian documentary filmmaker Molina followed around Mama both in Philly and in Mompox. While he doesn’t appear on-camera, he can be heard posing questions to Mama and her family, often asking for clarification when things don’t make sense (which happens fairly regularly). It is in many ways a heartbreaking film; Mama Icha just wants to spend her last days in dignity, surrounded by the familiar sights and people of her town. As it looks increasingly likely that she will be denied even that, the sadness that fills her face is palpable and as she is driven away from her tiny home for the very last time, it is hard not to feel pain for the old woman. Little regard is given to her wishes, especially by her sons who are convinced they know better, and Gustavo clearly has been taking advantage of his mother for many years now, and Alberto comes off only marginally better.

Which makes the early scenes all the more poignant in retrospect. In Philadelphia, at least she was surrounded by family that cared for her and eventually because they wanted her to be happy, let her go. There she had money coming in from social security, and she had Medicare to cover her medical needs. It makes me wonder that Mama Icha might not have listened to the very sage advice (as it turned out) of her daughter and granddaughter because they are women, and women in Latin culture have traditionally not been given much respect. It’s one of those things of the machismo culture that I find absolutely mind-boggling.

The film is currently available to view for free on the POV website (see below) for American audiences. It reminds us that we have a tendency to cast the elderly out as if they have outlived their usefulness, something that even families will do to one another. It makes me want to go and hug my own mom.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics in Mama Icha’s family are both fascinating and heartbreaking. Certainly a wake-up call for those entering their golden years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could use just a smidge more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first in a planned trilogy of films by Molina concerned with the topics of roots, migration, belonging and poverty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Not a Burden
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Velvet Underground

Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters


Who ya gonna call?

(2021) Documentary (Screen Media) Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, Ernie Hudson, Ray Parker Jr., William Atherton, Sigourney Weaver, Richard Edlund, Michael C. Gross, Sheldon Kahn, Steven Ziff, Colin J. Campbell, Steve Johnson, Peter Bernstein, Steven Tash, Alice Drummond, John Rothman, Annie Potts, Richard Beggs, Allen Coulter, Jennifer Runyon. Directed by Anthony Bueno

 

There is no doubt that Ghostbusters is an iconic movie. There are many who count it as an unexpected hit back in 1984, but I don’t recall anyone expecting anything other than box office coffers being filled to the brim, given its cast and subject matter. That it would go on to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year, beating some pretty sure things in the final numbers, was a bit surprising though.

Now, with a new entry in the franchise featuring members of the original cast and directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original director Ivan Reitman, it seems like a good time to look back at the original and there’s no better way – other than by watching the movie itself, of course – than this exhaustive documentary, which is probably as complete a record of the film as you’re likely to find anywhere.

It’s chock full of interviews – some contemporaneous with the film, others newly recorded – and includes many of the original cast members (Aykroyd, Weaver, Atherton, Potts, Drummond and recorded before his untimely death in 2014, Ramis). There are also plenty of anecdotes, much behind-the-scenes footage and even some deleted scenes from the movie. Most people will learn something new about Ghostbusters, even some of the most well-versed fans. Did you know, for example, that Aykroyd originally wrote the role of Peter Venkmann  for his good friend John Belushi who sadly passed away shortly after the script was completed? Or that Eddie Murphy was going to be Winston Zeddmore? Or that John Candy wanted the role of Louis Tully but his agent basically talked his way out of the part?

Filming took only a year from the time the film was greenlit, which considering that the movie had some very complex special effects and massive sets to deal with was virtually an impossible from the get-go. In an era in which digital effects were barely in their infancy, the crew was looking at doing practical and optical effects to make the movie work, and they would have to use some pretty creative solutions to make those effects truly special indeed.

The movie is about two hours long, which may be a bit more than the average fan would bargain for but for the superfans of the film it will feel like it could go longer. There are a lot of talking head interviews which are unexciting, and the how-to on the effects may be a bit more than you might want to know, but for those who really loved the movie (and love it still), this will be absolute catnip. Even casual fans of the film are likely to find something here of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely detailed with plenty of anecdotes.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a lot here to unpack, maybe too much, and there is a surfeit of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd was inspired by his great-grandfather, who was an amateur spiritualist and paranormal researcher.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Crackle, DirecTV,  Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Movies That Made Us
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Casa de Mama Icha

Son of Monarchs


We all yearn thttps://sonofmonarchs.com/o emerge from childhood as a beautiful butterfly.

(2021) Drama (Warner Media/150) Tenoch Huerta, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, Juan Ugarte, Electra Avellán, Angelina Peláez, Emily Keefe, Jay Potter, Jarod Lindsey, Wendy Heagy, Daniel Fuentes Lobo, Gadi Rubin, Rich Miglio, Gisell Rodriguez, Maia Vogel, Fernanda Rivera, Maria Luiza Ceglia. Directed by Alexis Gambis

 

Butterflies are creatures of intense beauty and fragility. Their colorful wings delight us, and their migratory patterns can astound us. Butterflies have always been used as a metaphor, a desire that we harbor to emerge from our chrysalis – whatever it may be – as a beautiful, bejeweled butterfly and (hopefully) not as a dull, drab moth.

The parents of Mendel (Huerta) must have had great expectations for their son, naming him for a Czech scientist, but they didn’t live to see it happen, dying senselessly during a flood. This left Mendel and his older brother Simon (Hernández) orphaned, to be raised by their grandmother (Peláez) and a assortment of uncles. Mendel eventually left the tiny village nestled in the mountains of Michoacán where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter to study the butterflies as a biologist for a lab in New York. Simon stayed to work in the mines and raise a family; Simon hasn’t forgiven Mendel for leaving Mexico and leaving Simon alone to cope with the grief.

But Mendel returns for the funeral of his grandmother to find that while most of his family is overjoyed to see him, particularly his niece Lucia (Avellan) who wants very much for her uncle to return for her wedding later in the year. Her father, Simon, is less happy to see Mendel and can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when his brother is around.

Back in New York, Mendel is introduced to Sarah (Rasmussen) who works for a non-profit and is a recreational trapeze artist (is that really a thing?) and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Mendel can’t get over the ease with which Sarah flies through the air; this must be what it’s like to be a human butterfly. He also begins to experience vivid flashbacks of the horrible day in which his parents perished.

Although Mendel is reluctant to return to Michoacán, he eventually decides to do so, knowing that he and his brother must confront the things separating them that keep them from soaring through the winds like the brightly colored insects they both love.

Gambis, who is not only a filmmaker but also holds a PhD in biology, has a lyrical bent that is shown at various times in the film, as when a young Mendel is covered in a sea of orange and brown monarchs, or showing the beauty of the landscape surrounded by desolation wrought by the greed of men.

His script has some interesting points, but has a tendency to get bogged down on minutiae, so there isn’t the kind of flow you would like to see in a film like this. He is constantly throwing in dream sequences and flashbacks which also disrupt a film that needed a gentle rhythm. Finally, the whole use of butterflies as a metaphor is overused to the point of dreariness.

And these are large issues indeed, but not insurmountable ones and in fact the movie more than makes up for them with compelling performances by Huerta and Hernández, whose chemistry as two brothers, once close but now wary of each other and unsure not only how they got to this point but whether they can get back to what they once were at all. The two have a confrontation near the end of the film that is absolutely riveting and highly emotional; it is the highlight of the film and the centerpiece for it in many ways.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia fills the screen with bright butterfly-like colors, while Cristóbal Maryán contributes a score that is delicate and beautiful. The simplicity of life in the village is alluring when contrasted with the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple, although some may find that more to their liking. I found myself succumbing to the charms of the film despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them. This is a very impressive first film for Gambis.

The movie is in the midst of a brief limited run in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other cities. It will arrive on HBO Max on November 2nd.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, beautifully scored. The heat between Huerta and Hernández is realistic and powerful. The sequences of village life are lovely. A wonderful examination of the difficulties for even legal immigrants in America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leans a little bit too much on flashbacks, butterfly metaphors and dream sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is given annually to the festival entry that focuses on science as a central theme or scientists as central characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (starting November 2nd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identifying Features
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

Luzzu


Fishing as it has been done for centuries.

(2021) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jesmark Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Michaela Farrugia, Uday McLean, Yuric Allison, Paul Cilia, Reece Vella, Marcelle Theuma, David Scicluna, Marta Vella, Stephen Buhagiar, Noel Grech, Adrian Farrugia, Thelma Abela, Joseph Scicluna, Michael Sciortino, Sonia Cassar, Dianna Bonnici, Joseph Schiavone, Yorgen Vella, Emmanuel Muscat. Directed by Alex Camilleri

 

The Mediterranean island of Malta is not exactly a film hotspot. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe by land area, and is full of traditions that go back centuries. Like many other countries, though, it is finding that its traditions are under siege by the economic realities of modern geopolitics.

Jesmark (Je. Scicluna) is a fisherman. He, like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, have fished from a small, brightly painted wooden boat called a luzzu. However, Jesmark has found, like many of his compatriots, that fishing has been less successful as he is competing with vast trawlers that are able to catch thousands of fish in a single trip where he is struggling to net three or four. He adheres to the rules of the local fisheries board, and works hard. However, he is disquieted by the local fish auctioneers consistently selling his fish below what they are worth, and he is unable to find other buyers for his catch.

To make matters worse, Jesmark has a baby with his girlfriend Denise (M. Farrugia) and that baby is having growth issues, necessitating some expensive baby food, visits to specialists and medications – all expensive and all putting a strain on what little money they are able to save. And to top things off, his beloved boat, the Te Palma, has developed a leak that will not be cheap to repair. “Without a boat, you’ll lose your way,” a fellow fisherman warns. These things have driven a wedge between Jesmark and Denise, and she moves out with his son to live with her mother, who already has a strained relationship with Jesmark, whom she disapproves of.

Jesmark is forced to compromise his ethics, working on the black market selling fish illicitly, some out of season, some off the books. Jesmark indeed feels that he has lost his way, and with the European Union putting pressure on local fishermen to buy back their luzzus and move them into different occupations which Jesmark is extremely reluctant to do, it is looking more and more like he will have little choice if his small family is to survive.

It is unsurprising that Camilleri has a background in documentaries, for this has the look and feel of one. The marketing material describes the film as “neorealist” or “hyper-realistic” and both monikers are true; there is a very authentic vibe here – you can almost smell the salt air and the rotting wood of the docks. That is the mark of a good documentary.

Jesmark Scicluna, who is not a professional actor, is a real find here. Ruggedly handsome with a sober mien (he rarely smiles in the movie nor is there much reason for him to), he has a charismatic personality that leaps off the screen as he fights forces that he doesn’t understand and are way out of his control. It’s an extremely effective performance that is bound to resonate among those who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet even with a good job. If the fishing industry is really as bad as it is made out to be here, he could have a legitimate shot at a career in front of the camera.

The story moves effortlessly from the documentary-like first act into the second act which is more of a crime drama, although one that has little suspense. We feel more the economic squeeze on Jesmark than we do any sort of fear of the consequences if he is to be caught. This leads to an ending that is poignant and well-earned.

Camilleri is a protege of Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) who also produced the film. Like some of his mentor’s best films, Camilleri infuses this film with a sense of how difficult it is to survive when everything is stacked against you, as it is these days. This isn’t an easy movie to watch in the sense that it will take you out of your own troubles; chances are you’ll recognize some of your own troubles in the film. However, the movie is brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, wonderfully shot by Léo Lefevre, and certainly worth your time and trouble to seek it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Jesmark is an absolutely magnetic presence. An engaging story that has universal appeal. Perfectly captures the desperation of those living on the edge of a financial abyss.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too quiet and slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesmark Scicluna is an actual fisherman in Malta who was cast by Camilleri for the film, along with a number of other fishermen playing – you guessed it, fishermen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CODA
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Son of Monarchs

Last Night in Rozzie


Reliving one’s childhood is no walk in the park.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Neil Brown Jr., Nicky Whelan, Jeremy Sisto, Kevin Chapman, James DeFillippi, Greyson Cage, Ryan Canale, Maureen Keller, Paris Scott Allen, Jimmy Dunn, Mariela Hill, Ryan McDonough, Cameron Hubbard, Paul Taft, Drew DeSimone, Mary Kate McDonald. Directed by Sean Gannet

 

Childhood scars us. It’s just a matter of degree. The simple truth is, idyllic childhoods are rare. We are beset by things that shape us, not always for the better – bad parental decisions, traumas, even terrors of our own making. They remain with us, and over time we continue to pay for them. If that sounds bleak, it’s not meant to, but for some, we continue to be trapped by our past.

Ronnie Russo (Brown) is a successful corporate New York lawyer working on a complicated deal for his firm. He is right in the most critical phase of it when he gets a call from an old friend – Joey Donovan (Sisto) who isn’t doing very well. He’s back in Boston, in Roslindale (the titular “Rozzie”) where they both grew up. And he’s dying of liver cancer. You can tell by the steady stream of phlegm-caked coughs.

So Ronnie drops everything ad drives up the coast to Rozzie. It turns out his old buddy has one last request – to meet his son JJ (DeFillippi), whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was an infant. As it turns out, Joey was married once upon a time to Pattie Barry (Whelan), who happened to be Ronnie’s boyhood crush, one he was too shy to do anything about. The two had a bitter break-up and Pattie has refused to let her son have any contact with his father – or so Joey says. Joey isn’t the most dependable source of information.

So Ronnie, despite being under the gun with work pressures, decides to work a convoluted plan to win Pattie’s trust and get JJ to see his father before it’s too late. But there are secrets between the three of them, and secrets have a way of coming out…

Although McDonough grew up in Roslindale, the movie doesn’t really give us a sense of the place. It feels pretty much like any other suburb, with old houses, ballfields, and what have you. None of the characters here speak with a Boston accent which makes it further less believable.

The writing choices are a bit strange. Instead of coming out and telling Pattie the truth – which would have made this a ten minute short – we are treated to the most time-consuming and unrealistic plan imaginable, which involve lies that anyone with the sense of a seven-year-old could see through. There is also a reunion with Ronnie’s mom (Keller) which is staged awkwardly and feels like filler.

But to be fair, the ending is killer and the best part of the movie occurs in the last ten to fifteen minutes. Fortunately, it’s a pretty short movie so you only have to sit through about an hour of less memorable material to get to the good part, but that’s still an hour you’re never going to get back and I’m not sure that the last fifteen minutes, good as they are, make up for the time beforehand. Personally, I don’t think so.

REASONS TO SEE: I’m always up to see Sisto perform, even if he is under-utilized.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks heat and passion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is based on a short film that Gannet previously made with McDonough, who also wrote and produced this one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic River
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Luzzu

Pharma Bro


Justifiably the most hated man in America.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Martin Shkreli, Brent Hodge, Ghostface Killah, Milo Yiannopoulos, Judith Aberg, Billy the Fridge, Travis Langley, Josh Robbins, Cilvaringz, Ben Brafman, Thomas Keith, Andrew Pollack, Meg Tirrell, Jaclyn Collier. Directed by Brent Hodge

 

When Martin Shkreli was called “the most hated man in Ameica,” it was a distinction well-earned. Most know him for his price-gouging of daraprim, a drug needed by AIDS patients to combat toxoplasmosis, as well as in pregnant women; it is also a treatment for malaria. His arrogance, smugness and apparent lack of compassion made him a poster boy for unbridled capitalism and for Big Pharma in general.

In all honesty, I was a bit hesitant in reviewing this. I truly don’t want to give this jerk any more publicity than he already has – he seems to thrive on being in the limelight, much as a wrestling “heel” thrives on boos at a WWE event. And much of the allure of a documentary on the guy would be to give you additional reasons to hate the guy – I sure thought that feeding into my righteous anger against the guy would make me feel better.

But this isn’t that kind of documentary. Hodge, instead, is out to understand what makes a man like him tick. What motivates him to cultivate an image that attracts so much hatred. Hodge set out to interview a number of people, tending to steer clear of those who hate Shkreli with a passion (which is most people) and speaking to his lawyer Ben Brafman, former girlfriends, rapper Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan and his friend Billy the Fridge, reported Meg Tirrell and medical doctors Judith Aberg and Travis Langley.

Hodge also attempted to interview Shkreli himself, although the former hedge fund manager and pharmaceutical CEO wasn’t interested. Hodge went so far as to move into Shkreli’s building (which must set some kind of new standard for dedication to one’s own film) in order to get to know him, but still was unsuccessful at getting the interview he wanted. So, he instead travelled to Albania to the town where his parents immigrated from to talk to relatives living there.

Ultimately, we don’t really get much insight into what makes Shkreli do the things he does. We get some excuses about price gouging – “everyone else is doing it,” which of course is the kind of thing that would have prompted my mom to say “if everyone else was pouring hydrochloric acid onto their genitals, would you do that too” except that my mom would have probably said “jump off of a cliff” instead. My mom is much classier than I am.

Many of the ex-girlfriends interviewed here seem to be dazzled by Shkreli’s wealth and fame and as far as I can tell, so does Hodge. He seems to genuinely want the notorious Pharma Bro to like him, or at least that’s how it felt to me at times. Perhaps that was just a ploy to get the bad boy to do the interview, but still that impression does come off to an extent and it might be off-putting to some.

Clearly, Shkreli isn’t the only person behaving badly on Wall Street or within the pharmaceutical industry. Clearly, he’s not doing anything that hasn’t been done before and continues to be done, as lobbies for both Big Pharma and Wall Street have assiduously seen that the politicians that the very rich have helped get elected keep regulation to a bare minimum. Regulation is desperately needed to keep drug prices down, which while many politicians have echoed that sentiment, there has been a marked failure to act on it.

There isn’t anything here that will change your mind about wanting to punch this weasel straight in the gob if you’re already feeling that way. And, to be fair, there isn’t anything in here that is likely to make you want to punch him if you are already not disposed to doing so. But if anything, the documentary reinforces the idea that the moral bankruptcy of the Martin Shkrelis of the world is not necessarily uncommon or even unremarkable. He is everything that’s wrong with our society and as he rots in jail (he was convicted in 2017 of securities fraud) one would wish that what he really deserves is to not be in a Federal Country Club prison but in a nasty “don’t bend over in the shower” prison where he might genuinely feel the pain he inflicted on so many.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly thorough attempt to understand Shkreli.
=REASONS TO AVOID: Hodge appears a bit starry-eyed by the fame and wealth of Shkreli.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shkreli is expected to be released from prison in 2023.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Madoff
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Last Night in Rozzie

The Many Saints of Newark


Dinner with the Family.

(2021) Crime Drama (New Line) Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta, Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Michael Imperioli (voice), Samson Moeakiola, Joey Coco Diaz, Germar Terrell Gardner, Alexandra Intrator, Gabriella Piazza, Mason Bleu, Aaron Joshua, Lesli Margherita. Directed by Alan Taylor

 

There is absolutely no doubt that The Sopranos remains one of the most influential and important television series of all time. It helped establish HBO as a legitimate provider of quality original entertainment and ushered in a new golden age of television which moved away from broadcast and to alternate sources of content providers, from cable and now to streaming. For many of our favorite television shows of the past decade, we can thank show creator David Chase, who co-wrote and produced this prequel to his show, whose storytelling prowess paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy.

The movie opens with a startling and effective crane shot that turns into a dolly shot of a graveyard. We hear various voices of the dead until one takes focus; that of Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli, the sole member of the series cast who appears here), who acts as a kind of narrator as well as Banquo’s ghost. He laments over his own untimely death (one of the most shocking moments in a series replete with them) and focuses in on his father, Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola).

Dickie is welcoming his father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, back from Italy. He brings with him a brand-new bride, Giussepina (De Rossi) from Italy. She speaks little English and is about a third his age. Dickie has been running the numbers operation for the DiMeo crime family, using enforcer Harold McBrayer (Odom) to collect in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of central Newark. It is 1967, and after the violent arrest of an innocent black taxi driver, riots erupt.

In the meantime, Johnny Soprano (Bernthal) has been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and sent to prison, leaving his son Tony (Ludwig) in the less-than-tender care of Livia (Farmiga), who is already showing signs of being the unstable, manipulative harridan that Nancy Marchand was acclaimed for in the series. Tony admires his uncle Dickie and begins to see him as a mentor and father figure. As Tony grows into his teenage years (Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfini who played Tony in the series), he begins to show a willingness to gravitate towards the criminal life that his Uncle – and father – are part of. In the meantime, McBrayer – seeing the Black power movement and feeling the contempt in which he is held by the Italians – begins to build an empire of his own. Things are going to get mighty ugly in Newark.

I have to admit, I blew a little hot and cold about this one. Da Queen, who is not really a Sopranos fan and has seen little of the show, liked this movie a lot. On the other hand, I’ve watched the show and know how good it could be – and to be frank, the movie doesn’t really measure up in some ways to the original. Few things, to be fair, ever do.

Part of the problem is that the characters who were so indelible – not only Livia, but Paulie Walnuts (Magnusson), Uncle Junior (Stoll), Big Pussy (Moeakola) and Silvio Dante (Magaro) – all faithfully reproduce the look and mannerisms of those who played the characters on the show. It is a bit distracting in a way – it’s like watching a remake of a favorited movie with celebrity impersonators – but one has to give credit where credit is due. All of the things that made us love (or hate) those characters are present here. Farmiga, in particular, and Stoll, both get high marks for inhabiting the parts that Marchand and Dominic Chianese created. However, there isn’t a lot of additional insight to the characters that can’t be gleaned by watching the show – any of them. As a result, the emphasis is mainly on the “new” characters of Dickie, his father and McBrayer.

It should also be mentioned that Gandolfini acquits himself very nicely in the role that made his father famous. The movie really isn’t about Tony; he’s a bit player in his own prequel. For some, that is going to be annoying. I think, though, that it’s a smart move; Tony Soprano is a character that was perhaps one of the most well-developed in television history. While other characters in the show that are portrayed here don’t really get to add much insight to their characters, I don’t think there’s really a lot that can be added to Tony that we don’t already know

So there are a couple of questions to be answered here. First of all, if you’re not familiar with the show, you can still see The Many Saints of Newark without feeling lost. Familiarity with the show adds a certain amount of flavor, but for many of the characters who met untimely ends, we’re fully aware of their (sometimes) grisly demises that occurred in the series and that does color our perceptions somewhat. Does it add anything for fans of the show? Not really a lot. You get a little more background into the relationship between Tony and his mentor, but it doesn’t really make for any startling revelations. While there are plenty of Easter Eggs for super fans to glom onto, for the most part this doesn’t really sit atop the pantheon of mobster movies as much as the show does. If you’re anything like me, however, you will be inspired to re-watch the show once again and that really isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances throughout. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans of the show.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add a lot of additional insight into the show and characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it gruesome), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The amusement park scenes were filmed at Rye Playland in Westchester, NY. The amusement park scenes for Big were also filmed there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 1)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Pharma Bro

The Secret of Sinchanee


This is one serious dude.

(2021) Horror (Vertical) Tamara Austin, Steven Grayhm, Nate Boyer, Laila Lockhart Kraner, Rudy Reyes, Chris Neville, Margarita Reyes, Mark Oliver (voice), Kathleen Kenny, Skylar Schanen, Elena Capaldi, Ricky Barksdale, Jacob Schick, TJ Millard, Don McAlister, Emmett Spriggs, Bryanna Nadeau, Jesse Goddard, Trystyn Roberts, Donna Tierney-Jones. Directed by Steven Grayhm

 

It is a shameful fact that the Europeans who came to colonize the Americas often clashed with the Natives who were here first. The interlopers behaved deplorably, making promises they had no intention of keeping, spreading diseases among the native indigenous population and when all else failed, massacring them outright. Not all Europeans treated the first nations poorly, of course, but enough did to create a schism between original inhabitants and colonists that has continued for morethan four hundred years.

Will Stark (Grayhm) is a tow truck driver who suffers from insomnia. He has returned to his home in Massachusetts to dispose of his father’s property, after his father passed away. However, selling the house is no easy task; it is a house, as they say, with a past, and an unsavory one at that – Will witnessed the murder of his mother and sister in that house when he was a child. The townsfolk consider him an odd duck; his father had schizophrenia and Will is showing signs of the condition as well, experiencing strange visions. Of course, the lack of sleep might account for that, too.

But there are other disturbing things going on. A woman for unknown reasons abandons her car in the middle of a cold night and wanders out into the snow to freeze to death. When her body is discovered, it appears as if she has been branded with peculiar symbols. Detectives Carrie Donovan (Austin) and Drew Carter (Boyer) are investigating the case, and they, like Will’s house, have a history – they also have a child together, young Ava (Kraner).

As Will begins experiencing more strange occurrences in the house, Detective Donovan is finding that the case of the murdered woman is leading her increasingly towards the supernatural. She finally meets with a Native American shaman named Solomon Goodblood (Reyes) who tells her about the Sinchanee, a tribe that lived in the area that had shown remarkable resistance to the diseases that the white settlers brought to the area. This apparently annoyed the heck out of a pagan cult called the Atlantow who were bound and determined to destroy the Sinanchee and turned their death spirit against them. The Atlantow will not be satisfied until every last remaining Sinchanee is wiped out. Guess who has Sinchanee blood running in their veins? Yup…Will, Carrie…and Ava.

First-time filmmaker Grayhm opts to tell Will and Carrie’s stories concurrently. This is a tactical error, as it lengthens the film unnecessarily. There’s also an awful lot of unnecessary business in the movie, which takes a long time to get going and once it does, doesn’t really pack the kind of excitement that the slow buildup would required as a payoff. Grayhm, who also wrote the film, uses a lot of horror movie tropes which don’t add luster to the story.

The cinematography by Logan Fulton is very scenic in a wintery way and does make the movie look good. Grayhm also does a good job of creating a tone for the movie, which is right about two hours long and should have been at least a half hour less. One way he might have accomplished this is by combining the two storylines, having Carrie and Will working together. It might have streamlined the story which is badly in need of it.

In these politically correct times of woke expectations, I wonder about using Native American legends as a framework for a horror movie, even if the legends are spun from whole cloth. There might be some who take offense to it…but then again, basically we’re in an era where everything causes offense by one person or another; so, what are you gonna do? I get the sense that Grayhm was fairly respectful of Native American culture in general, although that’s not really for me to say – not being of that ethnic group. But I think it would have been more respectful to make a better movie about native mythology just as a general rule of thumb.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job of creating a tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should have streamlined the story considerably.
=FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The company Will works for in the movie actually exists in Massachusetts, although that is not their office used in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Redbox, Vudu
=CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wendigo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Many Saints of Newark

Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma)


Danger lurks everywhere in prewar Japan.

(2020) Historical Drama (Kino Lorber) Yû Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Higashide, Ryôta Bandô, Yuri Tsunematsu, Minosuke, Hyunri, Takashi Sasano, Chuck Johnson, Nihi. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

 

Marriage is built on trust. Trust comes with open and honest communication. Certainly we all have our secrets and over-sharing isn’t necessarily healthy for a relationship, but without communication, there can never be trust and without trust, no marriage can survive.

Satoko (Aoi) loves her husband Yusaku (Takahashi) very much. He is a prosperous silk merchant in the Japanese city of Kobe in 1940 during the height of imperialist Japan. He fancies himself a cosmopolitan sort, having visited America (and liking it) and being fond of Western customs. But Japan is in the middle of an era of retrenchment, when doing things – like wearing a suit and tie or drinking whiskey will bring the suspicions of the police upon you for being “un-Japanese.”

Yusaku also likes to direct home movies that are silent, vaguely noir espionage thrillers starring Satoko and his nephew Fumio (Bandô), who also works for him in the silk impor/export business. Satoko’s childhood friend Taiji (Higashide) who is now the head of the local military police, warns Satoko about her husband’s Western ways, and Western associations – a British client of theirs (Johnson) is arrested as a spy. Yusaku bails him out but Taiji is now watching Yusaku’s every move.

\So it’s the perfect time for Yusaku to take Fumio on a month-long trip to Manchuria, recently conquered by Japan, right? But when he comes back, he begins acting cagey, arousing the suspicions of Satoko and Taiji both. But while Taiji thinks that the liberal Yusaku might be getting involved with espionage, Satoko is thinking he’s getting involved with the mysterious woman Hiroko (Hyunri) that he brought back with him from Manchuria. When she turns up dead on the beach, things take a turn for the worse.

Kurosawa certainly knows his movie lore. He manages to capture all sorts of different genres from the era, from noir to melodrama to romance. This movie is one I almost wish had been filmed in black and white; it certainly would fit right in with any TCM movie marathon. He also gets an impressive performance from his leading lady. Satoko starts off as being a bit of a ditzy diva, goes through an “anything for hubby” stage, and then ends up as a woman in peril. Aoi carries off each version of her character with aplomb and makes each change in her attitude very natural and understandable. As submissive as Satoko is initially, by the end of the movie she’s far stronger than anyone might have thought she’d turn out to be.

He also knows how to make the suspense intense. He brings up the level of tension almost imperceptively through the first half of the film so that by the time things come to a head, you don’t notice you’ve been sitting on the edge of your chair for the past half hour. His work here shows that he should be a much more well-known talent here than he is; he’s basically known for Tokyo Sonata and Kairo, two fine films, but he’s clearly a world-class talent. With a name like Kurosawa, you almost have to be (although he’s not related to the iconic Japanese director).

It is rare for Japanese films to be critical of their government’s behavior during the Imperial era of the 30s and 40s but this movie takes on events of actual wrongdoing that is pretty much never discussed. Not many directors feel comfortable questioning the misdeeds of their country’s past, but Kurosawa is evidently an exception. Incidentally, the lab referred to in the movie actually existed and the things that Yusaku and Fumio claim that happened there, actually did. That lab is a museum today.

This has the look and feel of a classic film, and the quality to become a classic in its own right. While it may fall on the overly melodramatic side upon occasion, Kurosawa never loses sight of his main focus and keeps his eye on the prize throughout. While the coda (which takes place five years after the film’s action begins) may seem a bit anti-climactic (and indeed, I thought it wasn’t really necessary), the movie nonetheless takes you back in a good way.

REASONS TO SEE: A throwback of a film in all the right ways. Really gets the suspense dialed up. Picks up the pace to a fever pitch in the second half.
REASONS TO AVOID: Piles on the melodrama a bit too thickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and some scenes of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fumio grumpily refers to Manchuria as “settler’s paradise,” he is echoing a slogan that the Japanese government actually used when resettling Manchuria with Japanese peasants in the 30s and 40s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Zookeeper’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Secret of Sinchanee