Destined


In any reality, there are some guys you just don’t mess with.

(2016) Drama (XLRator) Cory Hardrict, Margot Bingham, Robert Christopher Riley, Jesse Metcalfe, Jason Dohring, Hill Harper, Zulay Henao, Mo McRae, La La Anthony, Demonte Thompson, Paula Devicq, James McCaffrey, Curtiss Cook, Robert Forte Simpson III, David Bianchi, Terri Partyka, Ricky Wayne, Sarab Kamoo, Martavious Grayles, Karen Minard. Directed by Qasim Basir

 

There is a theory that there are an uncountable number of realities, each one changing due to a different outcome in a pivotal moment; a choice made, a road not taken. Every outcome creates its own reality. This was explored somewhat in the romance Sliding Doors in which a missed train led to life-changing consequences for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Here, a young teen drug courier flees from the police. In one reality, he escapes and goes on to become Sheed (Hardrict), a ruthless drug kingpin who rules urban Detroit with the help of his volatile right hand man Cal (Riley). In the other, he stumbles and is caught by the police, straightens out his life and becomes an architect Rasheed (also Hardrict) who with the encouragement of close friend Calvin (also Riley) prepares to demolish his old neighborhood and erect gentrified condominiums in its place.

The two realities are differentiated by camera filters; in the Sheed story there is a warm, orange filter; in the Rasheed story the filter is more of a cool blue. Once you figure out the difference, it is generally pretty easy to tell which story is which although occasionally there is some confusion which might just be a continuity issue.

I did like the concept a great deal, which is meant to illustrate how a seemingly random change can have an earth-shattering effect on an individual life but some of the differences between the two realities seem to be inexplicable. In the Rasheed reality, Dylan Holder (Metcalfe) is a corrupt corporate type who works with Rasheed; in the Sheed reality, he is a relentless police officer looking to put an end to the reign of a drug boss. It doesn’t make sense that an arrest could have such a polarizing effect on Holder. Also, in the Rasheed reality his mother (Devicq) is a drug addict reaping the benefits of her son’s underworld status; in the other she is supportive and clean. How would her son’s arrest change her from a junkie to mother of the year?

In a lot of ways the Rasheed tale is much more interesting than the more generic Sheed story. The erosion of Rasheed’s conscience in the name of ambition resonates with me more. We’ve seen characters like Sheed in a number of thug life movies and he doesn’t really add a whole lot to the mix. Rasheed on the other hand is someone who is struggling between making a better life for himself but begins to wonder if the cost is too high. Most of us have to choose from time to time between the greater good and self-interest.

In each reality, Sheed/Rasheed are ambitious and ruthless, both willing to do whatever it takes to make that big score that will set him up for life. In each reality, he is pining for Maya (Bingham), a childhood friend who is trying to better herself. Either way, Sheed/Rasheed has an appointment with a loaded gun which seems to indicate that no matter what you do or how you live, you’re still going to end up at the same destination which seems to defeat the purpose of the whole film.

Hardrict is a compelling presence who could join actors like Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and John Boyega as big stars. He shows some rough edges here but with a little more experience and the right roles he has unlimited potential. His is definitely a name to remember coming out of this film.

Basir also utilizes the bleak urban war zone landscape of Detroit to full effect; in the Rasheed stories, he shows a dilapidated high rise being torn down as a kind of metaphor. The Sheed storyline packs a few too many clichés of the urban crime drama – the hip hop club where drug lords go to have a few drinks with their entourage, glare at one another, start wars with one another and argue with their nagging girlfriends. They don’t seem to be there to have a good time as we never see much dancing. There’s also the hotheaded pal who becomes a rival for power within his own gang. And so on. And so forth.

This is far from being a complete success. There are definitely signs of talent and imagination behind the camera and in front of it but Basir and crew don’t quite pull together a solid movie. Part of the issue is that the two stories don’t intertwine well; they need to flow together more smoothly and harmonize, each story complimenting the other. Often the movement from one story to the other seems somewhat arbitrary and without purpose. When the final credits roll, the viewer is left wondering what the point of the movie was other than as acting as an exercise in filmmaking that will lead to bigger and better things for all involved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hard to recommend for viewing a movie that at times feels like a practice run.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is a good one, although not original. Basir does a good job of delineating between the two realities.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a lot of stock urban crime tropes. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Rick Rosenthal, director of two movies in the Halloween franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Big Sonia

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Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride


People are people; what’s on the outside is just gift wrapping.

(2017) Documentary (XLRator/Seventh  Art) Gloria Stein, Butch Rosichan, Dan Friedman, Steven Shulman, Susan Schaffel, Natalie Chasen, Larry Sands, Dawn Heber, RB Perlman, Ricki Perlman, Arlene Shaffer. Directed by Robyn Symon

 

Everyone has their own journey in life to take. Sometimes it seems to follow a set path but some journeys take us in unexpected ways to unexpected places. All we can really do is enjoy the ride; and it is a helluva ride.

She started out life as Butch Rosichan. A short, stocky man who made a living as an auto wrecker in Broward County (South Florida), he was a bulldog of a man who would get in your face at any perceived slight. He was not above getting into fistfights if he was provoked Homophobic and crude, he was something of a ladies’ man who had two sons from a failed marriage but that was nothing like his second marriage.

His divorce from that marriage turned into a bitter, knock-down drag-out thing. His ex and her pit bull of a lawyer hounded Butch into losing everything and then put him in jail for non-payment of alimony. When he finished serving his 120 days in the hoosegow, he found his business was finished and shortly thereafter another warrant for non-payment of alimony was issued. Not wanting to return to jail, he went into hiding instead – as a woman. Thus Gloria Stein was born.

As it turned out, she liked being a woman and decided that it wasn’t just a disguise. In 2003 she underwent surgery to change his gender. As Gloria, she met a man, Dan Friedman who as it turned out had been born a woman; Dan helped Gloria mellow out and smoothed out some of her rougher edges. She began reaching out to family members that she had alienated as Butch and began reconciling with them, although her two sons as of the filming of this documentary had yet to accept her or even return her calls. This is clearly very painful for her.

Butch became Gloria at the fairly advanced age of 67 (she’s pushing 80 now) and became the subject of a documentary by then-PBS documentary director Symon. The project, which was initially intended just to cover her transition from male to female became a decade-long endeavor.

Gloria is an engaging sort, an interesting subject matter who still refuses to take crap from anyone, although she’s less in-your-face about it these days. She’s an outspoken advocate for transgenders who does speaking engagements throughout the country. Along the way she has been a sex worker – a professional dominatrix – and oh yes, continues to have an interest in classic cars.

There are a lot of empty spaces in the film however and in many ways Gloria isn’t very forthcoming. When asked why she decided to undergo the sex change, she blurts out ‘I don’t know” and that feels a bit disingenuous. I suspect she knows but either can’t or won’t articulate it. Some of the more negative aspects of her life are glossed over somewhat; why she was unable to pay her alimony is never discussed although it is hinted at.

Apparently as Butch she was also involved in a stolen car ring but we don’t hear a lot about that other than a couple of moments discussing how she and her first wife used to take a cab to a restaurant then steal cars from the valet lot. Beyond that, we learn nothing about how she got involved with stealing cars and why. We’re also told that as Butch she was a homophobe but we get nothing else; I for one would love to have heard her feelings on her homophobia now that she has become a transgender. Considering that the documentary is only 76 minutes long, it seems incomprehensible that Symon had ten years to film and could only come up with 76 minutes of footage for her final product.

Symon utilizes home movie footage, re-enactments of certain events but primarily interviews with friends and family of Gloria, all of whom knew her as Butch. I’m wondering if the film couldn’t have used at least a couple of people who only knew Gloria and not Butch. The movie overall has a wry sense of humor about it that I liked very much.

It’s a fascinating documentary but maddeningly incomplete. I suppose it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than wanting less, but it’s still not a good feeling to leave a documentary wanting to know more about the subject and knowing that there was plenty of room to give us more. This feels more like a work in progress than a completed film, but at least it’s a quality work in progress.

REASONS TO GO: Stein is an engaging subject. The movie has a wry tone that is delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could use much more fleshing out. Gloria needed to be a lot more forthcoming about her past.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Symon during her time at PBS won two Emmys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Woman on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blood Stripe

Admiral (Michiel de Ruyter)


Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

(2015) Historical Epic (XLRator Media) Frank Lammers, Charles Dance, Barry Atsma, Sanne Langelaar, Rutger Hauer, Derek de Lint, Roeland Fernhout, Hajo Bruins, Egbert Jan Weeber, Nils Verkooijen, Daniel Brocklebank, Colin Mace, Filip Peeters, Tygo Gernhardt, Victor Löw, Pip Pellens, Aurélie Meriel, Will Bowden, Ella-June Henrard, Lieke van Lexmond. Directed by Roel Reiné

You’ve probably not heard of Michiel de Ruyter unless you were schooled in the Netherlands or are a European history buff, but you likely should have. One of the most revered figures in Dutch history, he was a naval genius who kept his country from being invaded on several occasions by the English and the French, and at a time when his country was in political turmoil he was a stabilizing figure whom many credit for keeping his nation from plunging into civil war during a turbulent era.

As the movie opens, the 20,000 ship Dutch navy is under the command of Maarten Tromp (Hauer) but during the Battle of Scheveningen he is mortally wounded, although he does succeed in repelling the English. While King Charles (Dance) schemes in England, new prime minister Johan de Witt (Atsma) knows that the Dutch Republic, already a government teetering on the edge of a possible civil war with the Orangists, a monarchist group that wants William of Orange (Weeber) to rule, needs an admiral to defend the Netherlands from the rapacious British and their allies of convenience the French.

He recruits de Ruyter (Lammers), a stocky and unlovely man who is more interested in retiring to the country with his wife Anna (Langelaar) and two daughters. However, he is also a deeply patriotic man and is convinced by de Witt and his brilliant brother Cornelis (Fernhout) that the sailor is desperately needed.

Time and time again de Ruyter uses brilliant naval tactics to stave off the Brits while court intrigue between the de Witt brothers and the Machiavellian Kievit (de Lint) keep the Netherlands in chaos. As the years pass, the monarchist party slowly begins to take the upper hand – but will that advantage come at the expense of the entire nation?

Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Abele characterized the movie as a Michael Bay treatment of Dutch naval history and a more succinct summation of this film couldn’t be asked for. There is a good deal of large scale mayhem, with ships being hit by cannon fire, bodies flying in the air in all sorts of directions, splinters and wood dust coating everything. Some of the warfare sequences are pretty grisly, although not as much as the depiction of a historic lynching which ends up with various body parts being pulled out of the bodies of those possibly still conscious.

For most Americans, the history is going to be a bit vague. I doubt that the average American knows anything about the Anglo-Dutch War, let alone that there was more than one. Some of the stuff I learned here about the politics of Europe in the 17th century was fascinating; certainly, I never knew any of it which goes to show you how ignorant of history we Americans really are. Of course, I love this stuff and eat it up like candy but I’m sure those moviegoers who find history to be a bore will not have the same appreciation for it that I do.

War buffs will appreciate the naval strategy that is shown here, much of it innovative for its time. The rest of us may not be quite as appreciative of the overhead shots of the deployment of ships. However, film buffs will definitely be a little hosed that the CGI of the various fleets and the damage done to them is not very impressive; there are some very fine effects houses in Europe and certainly there could have been a better job done with the special effects.

The acting is very solid. Some of the finest actors in Europe appear here. While most in America are familiar with Hauer, de Lint and Lammers are two of Holland’s most respected actors. Lammers in particular does a good job with the stocky, somewhat awkward de Ruyter who was nonetheless beloved by those who sailed under him – his men nicknamed him ‘Grandfather,” a sign of affection and respect. Lammers physically captures the look of the man but also the indomitable spirit of one of the Netherlands’ greatest heroes.

The big problem here is that the movie is way too long. It is just over two hours long and captures 24 years in the life of de Ruyter but it feels like a good half hour could have been trimmed. There are only so many naval battle scenes you can take before they start to run together. Even with that there is some solid entertainment here that with a judicious pair of scissors and a little extra dough in the effects budget might have been a lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent production values. Lammers and cast do fine work. Insights into Dutch history most of us are unaware of here in the States.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too freaking long. The score is annoying. Underwhelming CGI
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, a graphic and gruesome lynching scene, some foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A special version of the film was created that was less gruesome in depicting several historical deaths so that schoolchildren in the Netherlands could view the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 300: Rise of an Empire
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Mateo


Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

(2015) Documentary (XLRator) Matthew Stoneman, Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano. Directed by Aaron I. Naar

If you go by the assumption that the best individual subjects for documentaries are those who fall furthest outside the mainstream of society, then Matthew Stoneman might well be the perfect subject. A mild-looking red-headed ex-convict mariachi singer from New Hampshire currently residing in Los Angeles, he regularly spends time in Cuba where he has spent seven years recording an ambitious record titled Una Historia de Cuba with Cuban musicians, including members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. He is often described in his press as the “gringo mariachi” which is fitting.

Facially resembling Bill Gates a little bit, Stoneman has a gentle, voice that is at odds with the typical big voices spawned by American Idol that dominate pop music at the moment. His songs express a good deal of longing, a kind of melancholia that cuts right to the heart. This is the kind of music that simply isn’t made in the American and western idioms; this is music from the Latin soul and it isn’t for everybody.

Stoneman, who uses the stage name Mateo and is addressed as such by the Mexican mariachi musicians he hangs out with in Los Angeles, plays in restaurants and scrounging for tips as well as at weddings, quinceañeras and whatever gigs he can find. He lives in an apartment that resembles an episode of Hoarders and saves every penny to fly to Cuba.

It is in Havana that he feels more at home, working with Cuban musicians on his ambitious record which as far as I could tell was original songs by Stoneman documenting the various styles of music in that Caribbean country as well as detailing its history. The Cuban musicians have accepted Stoneman as one of their own, a kindred spirit and praise his work ethic repeatedly, as well as his talent. While some will find his voice a little tentative, his low-key delivery is perfect for the tone and vibe of his music.

The documentary captures Stoneman in all his elements, and not all of them are savory. In the studio he is exacting, knowing exactly the sounds he wants to create but he collaborates with the musicians and accepts their input, sometimes with some contention but the experience looks to be joyful – certainly the musicians are having a good time.

Stoneman himself, though, seems more driven than happy. During the film he admits that he doesn’t have much use for friends and family and prefers to keep to himself which I believe is poison for an artist. He is clearly a lonely man, and his music reflects that; he could use a wider variety of emotions in his music with the caveat being that I’ve only heard what’s on the soundtrack – for all I know the rest of his music is upbeat and fun but something tells me that the melancholy dominates. When you deny yourself all the colors on your palate as a painter, your painting is going to be limited; so it is with music as well, with emotions being the colors that a musician employs. Still, the music I heard here is haunting and many viewers are going to be looking to order the CD the first chance they get although to be honest, I was unable to locate a website that it was available for purchase – my search was necessarily cursory however. If I find one, I’ll be sure to update this review though.

This isn’t a travelogue so the views of Cuba are more of the everyday life of the Cuban people and less of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture that we associate with the island nature, although there are some views of both. Mostly we get a sense of how Cubans live and while they don’t have a lot of the goods that we here in the States have, they don’t seem to miss them (it was refreshing not to see anyone carrying the ubiquitous cell phone around).

Stoneman does have a checkered past and while he doesn’t bury it, there isn’t a lot of detail about it in the film (most of the information as to what he did was culled from interviews I read with the filmmakers). It was while he was doing time for armed robbery that he was first exposed to the ballads that Mexican-American inmates listened to and sang, and he became so enchanted with them that he decided to give up on his career in pop music and concentrate on the beautiful Latin music that he became enamored with.

We do get a glimpse of Stoneman’s darker nature; he has a bit of a thing for Cuban hookers and there are several sequences detailing his search for them, including one fairly graphic scene in which he finds one to his liking. He is also a little bit confrontational from time to time, although you don’t get a sense that he has a temper; he never raises his voice during the course of the film. Not that he doesn’t in real life. Further, he is certainly estranged from his parents and the impression they give is that he abruptly severed ties with them; they seem a bit puzzled about it but the father is a bit fatalistic; he doesn’t expect that they will have any sort of relationship with their mercurial son for the rest of his days. Whatever rift exists between Stoneman and his parents is never detailed in the film.

Neither is the question of how Stoneman can afford to make his album. In Los Angeles he ekes out a hardscrabble existence, and yet the filmmakers state that the album took seven years and cost $350,000 to produce. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change and it doesn’t seem likely that an existence of tips and parties could produce that kind of cash, which if you average out would be $50K per year. Unless Stoneman has another job that isn’t shown in the film, the math really doesn’t add up; Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live.

Stoneman himself is a bit o a question mark; you get the sense that he is mostly a pleasant person and he is certainly driven and his passion for his music is undeniable. On the flip side, he doesn’t seem to let anyone in too deep; he can be affectionate with his friends but onscreen anyway he doesn’t seem disposed to revealing too much about himself. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten to know him better but something tells me that wouldn’t be possible in any case; some people like to keep others at a comfortable distance and Stoneman is clearly of that ilk.

In many ways this is a courageous documentary, and given the recent re-opening of the American embassy and the swelling movement of ending a half century of sanctions that have accomplished nothing and normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it is a timely one. Being the son of a rabid anti-Castro Cuban myself, I can only wonder what my late father would have made of Stoneman. I’m not sure he would have admired the man, but he certainly would have been fascinated by his music.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and beautiful images. An insider glimpse at Cuba. Enigmatic yet fascinating subject.
REASONS TO STAY: Stoneman not really forthcoming about his background, other than in broad strokes. The prostitute sequences may be offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rough language, brief nudity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stoneman was arrested for fencing stolen recording equipment, breaking his leg while attempting to elude the police. He spent four years in prison for his crimes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Park Bench

Time Lapse


The future doesn't look so bright for these Millennials.

The future doesn’t look so bright for these Millennials.

(2014) Science Fiction (XLRator) Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary, George Finn, John Rhys-Davies, Amin Joseph, Jason Spisak, Sharon Maughan, David Figlioli, Judith Drake, Mark C. Hanson (voice), Dayci Brookshire. Directed by Bradley King

If only we knew the future. What would we do with that knowledge? If we could look even just 24 hours ahead, how would that affect our lives?

A trio of young roommates have to wrestle with that problem. Finn (O’Leary) is a frustrated painter who has no idea what to paint. Stuck in the visually artistic version of writer’s block, he has taken a job as the maintenance man in a group of bungalow-style apartments, the sort that were once popular in L.A. and continue to be found throughout the Southland. He lives with his best friend Jasper (Finn), a happy-go-lucky gambling-addicted bartender and his girlfriend Callie (Panabaker), the only one of the three gainfully employed and an aspiring writer herself.

Finn gets word that their neighbor opposite them, the reclusive and elderly Mr. Bezzerides (Rhys-Davies) is late with his rent check. In addition, nobody has seen him for at least a week. He sends Callie over to the apartment, fully expecting it to stink to high heaven with the smell of decayed corpse but it seems fine. However, she discovers something odd; there’s a contraption that resembles a giant Polaroid camera pointed at their front window and a wall full of photos of things going on in their apartment – and sometimes of simply the empty window. Several of the photos appear to be missing.

They soon deduce that the device actually takes a picture of whatever it is aimed at 24 hours into the future. Callie finds Mr. Bezzerides’ journal detailing his experiments; the last entry indicates that the photo taken that day indicated Mr. Bezzerides demise. Eventually his desiccated body is discovered in a storage unit.

Finn is all for calling the cops but Jasper argues that it would be foolish to do so when what they have in front of them is a veritable gold mine. All they have to do is put a sign in the window with the winners of that day’s races and they can make a fortune. Jasper is sure that it will be perfect with no harm even remotely possible coming of it. Callie seems all in with the idea but Finn is  reluctant. Jasper convinces him that he can see what he’s painting in the future and get out of his funk. Finn finally agrees, a bit reluctantly.

Of course Jasper being a world class screw-up is absolutely wrong that no harm could possibly come of using the camera; of course harm can come, in the form of a suspicious bookie (Spisak) and his taciturn goon (Figlioli).  Paranoia rises, relationships crumble and the future suddenly seems a terrifying place as they become slaves to the images that must occur. Or do they?

First-time feature filmmaker King and his co-writer (and fellow first-time feature filmmaker) BP Cooper have formulated a cool premise that has tons of potential, then really don’t do anything with it. For one thing, they commit one of the most cardinal sins in filmmaking; taking two fairly smart and sensible characters (Finn and Callie) and have them listen to the most irresponsible of the three (Jasper). Would you even take advice as to what brand of toothpaste to use from this guy? No, and neither would they, especially since they presumably know him better.

Panabaker, best known for playing the sensible scientist in The Flash TV show, is once again playing the most grounded member of the group. Her performance is satisfying, but unfortunately both Finn and O’Leary (particularly the latter) seem a little bit stiff, like they’re not comfortable on-camera. Maybe someone showed them a Polaroid.

Near the end of the film some sexual tension shows up; I wish they might have used this a bit more in the film as it did improve the overall torpor that the movie seems to exist in. I will say that the climax turns out pretty well and tells me that both King and Cooper have a good deal of potential as writers, but the movie is definitely somewhat hit and miss in that regard; they use a terrific concept to tell a rather pedestrian story when all is said and done. With a little bit more imagination they might have had something here but that doesn’t mean what they have isn’t entertaining. Certainly it is worth a look on VOD or at your local theater if it happens to be playing there. Sci-fi fans will probably get a kick out of it in any case; I don’t need a gigantic camera that takes pictures of the future to tell me that one.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty difty premise. Cleverly thought out.
REASONS TO STAY: Stiffly enacted. Doesn’t really use the premise wisely.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality, some drug use, a little bit of foul language and some tense situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Polaroid film is no longer manufactured. The filmmakers had to fake the Polaroids by purchasing old Polaroid pictures on Ebay, cutting out the insides and pasting digital images color-corrected to resemble Polaroid pictures inside.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecrimes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Casino