Friday, May 18, 2018

“Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word” – Movie Review


This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new documentary by Wim Wenders, “Pope Francis:  A Man Of His Word


The Pope discusses his philosophy, including views on life, death and the ecology.


In a series of speeches, news videos and statements made directly to the camera, Pope Francis shares his opinions on a wide variety of topics – not all of which are necessarily religious or directly about Catholicism.  For example, one of The Pope’s favorite topics is the environment, which is something the church had tended to avoid prior to Francis.  He believes that defiling the planet is a sin against God because humans are systematically destroying His greatest creation.  Therefore, it is the duty of all its inhabitants to take care of the planet as a way of honoring The Creator.

When it comes to the economy, The Pope believes that there is great financial inequality in the world and that 80% of the wealth goes to about 20% of the people.  He says that we can all do with a little bit less in life and if we do, then there will be a little bit more for those less fortunate than we are.  Speaking of inequality, there is also the issue of gender bias.  The pontiff feels that women should be given greater roles in society and that their voice should be heard more.  As things stand right now, the men in society control far more than their fair share. 

As far as life is concerned, Pope Francis is of the opinion that you can’t consider life without considering death.  He thinks that most people don’t want to think about their own demise because it is too unpleasant; we must reconcile ourselves with death because with each passing day, we are all dying a little bit.  But don’t be so obsessed with it that you can’t allow yourself to enjoy life.  You should have fun, be playful and most importantly, try to find reasons to smile.  If you don’t look for opportunities to laugh and smile, then you’re missing out on what life is all about.


The more you pay attention to the content of what Pope Francis says, the more he sounds like the Catholic version of Bernie Sanders.  Does this mean we have a Socialist Pope on our hands?  Perhaps.  But nevertheless, his views – which some have felt controversial – are what have contributed to his extraordinary popularity with young people.  For those who may be looking for a biography of His Holiness, this is not that movie; if, on the other hand, you are looking for a film where The Pope endlessly pontificates (you caught that pun, right?), then “A Man Of His Word” is for your. 

Admirers of Pope Francis will no doubt enjoy this movie because the pontiff in offered up in all of his glory.  On the other hand, if you’re considerably less of a fanboy when it comes to His Holiness, then you’ll have plenty to gripe about.  This documentary comes across almost as if it were an infomercial – not for Catholicism in general, but for this Pope in particular.  Does the phrase “preaching to the converted” come to mind?  The basic problem here is that the Pope is essentially giving an hour and a half monolog where he’s never questioned or challenged – which arguably would’ve made this a considerably better film. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with the documentary’s director Wim Wenders.  Wenders explained that he initially got involved with the project when he received a letter from The Vatican which outlined the idea of the film and inquired as to his interest.  He wound up meeting with The Pope four times, each session lasting two hours, just to see if they could get along and also to make sure their idea of the movie was reasonably close.  The Vatican pretty much gave him a free hand to do whatever he wanted with the motion picture, never insisting on final cut or having a say in the content. 

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018) on IMDb

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

“First Reformed”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new drama written and directed by Paul Schrader, “First Reformed”, starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried.


When a member of a pastor’s congregation dies, will he take up the man’s cause or choose to end his own life?


Rev. Toller (Hawke) is the pastor of The First Reformed Church in upstate New York.  Currently, he’s busy making plans and scheduling much-needed repairs prior to the celebration of the church’s 250th anniversary despite the fact that he’s having worsening health problems.  It is at this time when he’s approached by Mary (Seyfried), who is concerned about her husband, Michael – an environmentalist who was recently released from jail after a protest. He’s been depressed and wants Mary to abort their baby; Mary hopes that Toller can counsel him.

Unfortunately, Michael is too far gone and he ends up committing suicide.  Toller now sees his duty to see after Mary during this difficult time; in the course of doing so, he starts reading through Michael’s old research and begins to get involved in the ecological movement.  Over time, Toller’s health starts impacting his ability to serve his congregation so he finally decides to see a doctor and have some tests performed. The tests reveal that Toller may be seriously ill and the doctor recommends more specialized investigation to determine exactly whether or not he has some form of cancer.

As the anniversary draws near, Toller believes his job may be in jeopardy.  His town’s church is overseen by the pastor of a county mega-church, which is itself funded by a local corporation that is a known polluter of the environment.  When the company’s CEO is alarmed by what he sees as Toller’s ecological activism, his ability to lead the church comes into question. Since the anniversary is going to be a major event attended by the governor and the mayor, as well as the CEO, it will get significant press coverage.  With this in mind, Toller believes he can use this opportunity to speak out about how the corporation is defiling the area’s environment. But considering his health, Toller is forced to make a choice: should he make a public statement about the company’s pollution and possibly lose his job or should he simply kill himself rather than wait for the cancer to take him?     


More than 40 years after the classic “Taxi Driver”, Paul Schrader is still obsessed with writing about Travis Bickle.  This time, however, the movie is “First Reformed”, Bickle is named Toller and instead of being a cabbie he’s a preacher.  But basically, he’s the same guy.  Both Bickle and Toller are, in their own peculiar but unique way, trying to seek some sort of redemption – and doing so in the most violent way imaginable.  Another similarity these characters share is the fact that neither one of them is exactly the most mentally stable individual you’ve ever met. 

While Toller as a protagonist starts out as a sympathetic character, he takes one dark turn after another as the story progresses and dares you to like him by the end.  Make no mistake, this is an odd movie that takes some weird twists – which can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether or not you’re enjoying the unusual and unnerving experience that is this film. Whether you are fascinated by the manner in which Toller is questioning his religious faith or are more attuned to the ecological aspects of  this motion picture, “First Reformed” will have something for you – but it defies you to find this story accessible.

Following the screening, there was an interview with Schrader, Hawke and Cedric The Entertainer, who plays the pastor at the mega-church.  Hawke said that he described “First Reformed” to a friend of his as an Ingmar Bergman-like movie. After the friend caught a screening of the film, he told Hawke, “It’s more like if Bergman listened to The Ramones”.  Schrader characterized his movie as “passive aggressive” and said that he loves stories that contain spirituality up against politics. Cedric said that some of his acquaintances are preachers at mega-churches, so he based his character on some of them.


First Reformed (2017) on IMDb

Saturday, May 12, 2018

“The Day After”– Movie Review


This weekend, I attended the opening night screening of the new Korean drama “The Day After”, directed by Hong Sang-soo. 


When a married man ends an affair with an employee, will he repeat his behavior with her replacement?


Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) runs a book publishing company and is frequently racing to the office unusually early in the morning.  Quite reasonably, his wife suspects something is up.  She confronts him about this and speculates that he is having an affair with another woman – possibly, someone at work.  Bongwan refuses to allay her concerns, but neither does he deny nor confirm her accusations.  Instead, Bongwan is more concerned with the office assistant who quit her job about a month ago.  Her replacement is scheduled to start that day. 

Areum (Kim Min-hee) is greeted by Bongwan on her first day at work.  She came highly recommended by a long-time acquaintance of Bongwan, so he hired her immediately.  Areum starts her new career at the publisher with an extended conversation with Bongwan over a cup of coffee.  Areum, as it turns out, aspires to be a writer someday and thinks that working for a publisher will help her toward that goal.  She looks up to Bongwan because he is renowned throughout the country as himself being a great writer and literary critic.

Bongwan’s wife finds a poem she suspects he wrote to his girlfriend and ventures to the publishing office to confront her husband’s lover – unfortunately, she finds Areum there and wrongly believes this young woman of being her husband’s girlfriend.  She begins beating up poor Areum, who is rightly confused by all of this; Bongwan’s wife doesn’t believe Areum when she denies the accusation.  Once Bongwan discovers this, he explains to his wife he’s not having an affair with her – but actually, he was cheating on his wife with his previous assistant.  Will Areum now be able to keep her new job or will Bongwan be forced to fire her in order to mollify his wife?


“The Day After” is an intricate and complex movie that presents far too many challenges to viewers to make it accessible.  Also, its fluidity with time can present difficulties in terms of your ability to follow the story.  There are probably people who strongly believe that this is a clever way to tell a tale.  They’re not entirely wrong – in some ways it is.  The problem is that spending an hour and a half watching two people chatting incessantly over coffee or during a lunch or dinner at a restaurant can wear you down a bit.  It is a less interesting version of “My Dinner With Andre”.

Where the movie goes wrong is in its lack of dramatic tension and absence of a protagonist in whom the audience can invest its interest.  Without either one of those things, you really don’t have much of a story to tell.  Apparently, we are supposed to get behind the man here but he seems to be such a scoundrel you don’t want to bother.  As far as the wife is concerned, her character doesn’t have enough screen time to be a protagonist; likewise for the ex-girlfriend.  The new office employee, on the other hand, has plenty of screen time with her boss and given how unfairly she’s treated, you want to make her the heroine; the only problem is she allows herself to be a victim in this situation and never actually does anything remotely “heroic”. 

Lacking any way to connect to these characters – or a compelling story in which the audience can get involved – there’s precious little that makes this movie worthy of recommending.  It seems as though this is supposed to be an intense psychological drama, but it doesn’t come across that way at all; instead, it spends time appearing to chase its own tail in search of a plot.  Why was the film shot in black and white?  It’s hard to say.  Director Hong Sang-soo claims that it was his own idea and not that of his cinematographer.  Perhaps the choice was to make this story feel as though it could have taken place in an earlier time (the books he publishes are all in hard copies – if there are digitized versions, there is no mention made of them).       

The Day After (2017) on IMDb

“Book Club”– Movie Review


Recently, I attended an advanced screening of the new comedy “Book Club”, with Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. 


When long-time friends read a sexually stimulating book, can it inspire them to improve their love life?


Over the past 40 years, four friends have kept in touch by meeting regularly in their book club:  Diane (Keaton), Vivian (Fonda), Sharon (Bergen) and Carol (Steenburgen). They assign each other the same book to read and discuss it during their meetings.  One day, they decide to read the best seller “Fifty Shades of Grey”. When they meet to discuss their progress, they unanimously agree that they find this entire subject matter to be incredibly stimulating; given their enthusiasm, they decide to commit to reading the entire trilogy.  But their interest belies the fact that each woman is currently encountering her own challenges with respect to her love life.

Diane’s husband passed away about a year ago; her daughters are concerned about her being alone so they encourage her to move from her home in southern California to Arizona, where they’re located.  Vivian never married; a wealthy and successful businesswoman, she couldn’t find time for a serious relationship, so instead she just went from one affair to another. Sharon, a federal judge, was divorced 18 years ago and hasn’t been with a man since.  Carol has been married for 35 years, but since her husband’s retirement a couple of months ago, they haven’t been intimate.

Diane winds up meeting Mitchell (Andy Garcia), a pilot who also happens to live in Arizona.  Will she be able to start a new romance with him or will their initial sparks just result in a misfire?  Vivian runs into Arthur (Don Johnson) at one of her hotels; he’s an old flame from years ago. At this point in her life, is it possible for them to rekindle their relationship?  Sharon registers on a web site for a dating service designed for mature adults. When she meets a man with whom she feels comfortable, will she have the perseverance to see it through?  Once Carol tries a few ideas to reignite her husband’s libido, will her schemes work or will it only serve to drive him further away?


As demographics in our country change, we may be finding a new genre of film emerging:  Geezer Love. Should that come to pass, let’s hope the quality of the movies improves because “Book Club” – which apparently aspires to be something of a romantic comedy – is not nearly as funny as it seems to think it is.  This is very much a paint-by-numbers type of motion picture which is just a little too familiar – the feeling of deja vu pervades the viewing experience giving you the feeling that you’ve seen this story before (which you have – many times, in fact).  This being the case, the resolution of each character’s situation is fairly predictable.

Part of the problem here is that the actresses in this cast are a particularly talented group of women with quite accomplished careers – unfortunately, because of their age, their career as such is mostly behind them because they no longer get offered any of the top screenplays.  Those scripts are going to much younger women. As a result, they are forced to take just about anything that comes along because the pickings are slim. If they are going to continue to see themselves as working actresses – or at the very least, score a nice payday – then they pretty much have to commit to whatever comes along. 

“Book Club” is certainly pleasant enough – inoffensive and enjoyable for anyone who’s not terribly demanding when it comes to their entertainment.  The humor, such as it is, isn’t edgy in any way. Whether or not it’s worth going out to the theaters to see is another matter entirely. The timing of its release is a bit unfortunate though; this would’ve been a good movie to see on Mother’s Day, but it’s not opening until the following weekend.  Perhaps if you miss the brunch Mother’s Day weekend, you can make up for it by taking Mom to this film next weekend. Just don’t set your expectations too high.


Wednesday, May 09, 2018

“Life Of The Party”– Movie Review


This week, I attended an advanced screening of the new comedy “Life Of The Party”, starring Melissa McCarthy.


When a middle-aged woman suddenly finds out her husband is leaving her, she decides to return to college to get her degree – but will this sit well with her daughter who attends the same school?


What should be a bittersweet day for Deanna (McCarthy) turns out to be more bitter than sweet.  Shortly after dropping off her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at college for the beginning of her senior year, Deanna’s husband Dan (Matt Walsh) informs her that he wants a divorce because he’s fallen in love with another woman.  Horrified by the news – as well as its timing – she then decides to exact revenge by returning to college to get her degree and having Dan pay the tuition.  While this initially seems like a good idea, Maddie may not agree – mainly because Deanna is enrolling in the same college she’s attending. 

Deanna’s enthusiasm for her return to university life is soon tempered when she winds up getting a weird roommate and is trolled by some mean girls who aren’t terribly friendly or welcoming.  Nevertheless, Deanna is emboldened by the fact that Maddie’s friends absolutely adore and accept her; they are totally supportive of Deanna’s goal to finally finish her education and earn her degree.  Another thing that makes Deanna’s adjustment to college a bit smoother is that Jack (Luke Benward), one of the students at the school, is strongly attracted to her.

Once the divorce is finalized, Dan decides to get married to the woman for whom he’s left Deanna.  Although Deanna still harbors understandable bitterness toward Dan, she decides to bury the hatchet by attending his wedding and wishing him well.  However, upon arriving at the banquet hall where the ceremony is being held, she is pained to discover that Dan has gone out of his way to humiliate her in the eyes of the other guests.  So unnerved is Deanna that she trashes the reception area, causing Dan to cut her off financially.  Without Dan paying Deanna’s tuition, will she still be able to graduate?     


It almost goes without saying that the saving grace of “Life Of The Party” is its star, Melissa McCarthy, who is credited with co-writing the screenplay (she is also credited as a co-producer as well).  While the script is trite and cliché ridden, it nevertheless serves its star well in that she is able to remind us what a gifted physical comedienne she is (although some scenes are either effects or stunt doubles) as well as the fact that she gives herself some of the best lines.  Having said that, though, it should be acknowledged that Maya Rudolph, who plays Deanna’s best friend Christine, comes close to really stealing the show.

In her own way, McCarthy – despite occasional missteps in some films over the past few years – has been the comedic trailblazer for women’s empowerment movies.  Even in what can sometimes be a sub-par motion picture, she can be the best thing to watch – and the fact that you can’t take your eyes off her is part of what goes into making her the star that she deservedly is.  The key to her success in this regard is the fact that while her character sometimes finds herself in embarrassing predicaments, she is never a buffoon; such situations only serve to humanize her character rather than demean her in the view of the audience.      

Did McCarthy really co-write this screenplay?  Probably not in the traditional sense.  Given that she wound up getting some of the best lines and the biggest hunk on campus had an immense crush on her character, she likely did have tremendous input into the script – which is probably how she ended up with a co-writing credit.  For that matter, did she really co-produce the movie?  Again, probably not in the standard way, although the role of the producer has typically been somewhat fluid.  In all likelihood, she probably negotiated the title as a way of having some degree of control over the film. 

Life of the Party (2018) on IMDb

Sunday, April 22, 2018

“Zoe”– Movie Review


This weekend, I attended the Centerpiece screening at The Tribeca Film Festival, the World Premiere of the new science-fiction romance, “Zoe”, starring Ewan McGregor. 


In a futuristic company that specializes in human relationships, can a romance between two co-workers survive despite a revelation that disturbs them both?


In the not too distant future, a market has developed that is to help people with their romantic relationships.  A small start-up company known as Relationist has become one of the leaders in this field; they have perfected a technology that will determine whether or not a couple will be a good match.  While this has gained them some notoriety, what they are really working on is “synths” – synthetic forms of human beings.  Some would call them robots, but they are really the next generation.  These synths can do much more than merely walk your dog or landscape your yard:  they can be your life partner. 

The founder of this company is Cole (McGregor), a brilliant but lonely man who buries himself in his work in order to forget about his failed marriage.  Overseeing the manufacture of the synths is Zoe (Léa Seydoux), who secretly harbors romantic feelings for Cole, which she is reluctant to express.  Together, they work to create what they hope will be the next generation of synths, which is one they call Ash (Theo James).  Once he is brought online, Ash is brought to socialization, which includes education of qualities that will make him more human-like. 

Despite the fact that Ash develops an attraction for Zoe, she spurns him because Cole is the object of her desire.  Unable to contain her feelings any longer, Zoe and Cole embark on a romance – but it turns out to be ill-fated once Zoe learns from Cole that she is one of his synth creations.  After an accident which results in Zoe being taken offline temporarily, Cole decides he must end the relationship.  Distraught, Zoe delves into the black market of synths where she seeks to be taken offline permanently.  But when Cole finds out about this, can he stop Zoe before it’s too late?   


If you are a fan of the genre of films popularly known as mumblecore, then there’s a good chance that you might like “Zoe”.  Having said that, however, it should also be noted that “Zoe” is a decent science fiction drama that, while presenting a dystopian future, also provides a glimmer of hope for that very same future.  While it may be seen that “Zoe” is a story about robots, it is, in fact, more of a story about humans and what makes our relationships imperfect and fallible.  Like any good science fiction, it is less about the futuristic gadgets and more an introspection of who we as human beings are right now.

Although the film is of a reasonable length, at times it feels as though it’s dragging; this may be attributable to its slow pace.  It’s a science fiction movie, but there aren’t any sequences that contain “action”, mainly because it’s more of a psychological story.  This isn’t a criticism so much as an observation.  Viewers should be aware that this is not going to be like a Star Wars type of experience; it’s much more low-key than that and if you are looking for chase scenes or shoot-em-ups, then you would be advised to search elsewhere.  “Zoe” is an enjoyable – but at times languid – motion picture.       

Following the screening was a question and answer session with the director and cast.  Doremus said that he has a strong connection to the theme of love; he feels it is a constant longing and this film asks the question, “What do we need in order to fulfill ourselves?”.  “Zoe” focuses on the less evolved synths versus the more evolved synths.  He said that he encouraged much improvisation during the filming.  His choice of many close-ups in the movie was due to the fact that he felt there was so much intimacy in the story, he wanted the audience to feel as though we almost shouldn’t be watching this.  

Zoe (2018) on IMDb

“Duck Butter”– Movie Review


This week at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new comedy, “Duck Butter”, starring Alia Shawkat.


When two women become disappointed in relationships, they decide to spend 24 hours together in order to restore their faith.


Naima (Shawkat) is an aspiring actress who has become disenchanted with relationships due to the dishonesty she has experienced.  She has suffered as many professional disappointments as personal ones.  One night, she goes to a nightclub to let off some steam.  While there, she meets Sergio (Laia Costa), an aspiring singer/songwriter, who is also performing at the club.  Afterwards, they chat and find that they are really hitting it off.  In fact, they discover that they have both shared similar disappointments in their respective relationships. 

Later, they go back to Sergio’s place for a hook-up.  Afterwards, they concoct a plan that they believe will solve their problems:  to spend 24 consecutive hours with each other, having sex every hour, where they will be forced to confront each other in an open and hones way while sharing both emotional and physical intimacy.  In so doing, they believe, this will restore their faith in their ability to have an actual relationship with someone – possibly even each other.  Initially, things go well, but after hours without sleep, both become irritable and disagreeable. 

They return to Naima’s the next morning to continue their plan.  Living together is not as comfortable as they had both hoped it would be.  Sergio’s mother is supposed to meet her for breakfast, so they invite her over to Naima’s home, where she prepares a meal.  Things don’t improve much once she arrives; her presence only adds to the conflict and anxiety between the two.  After she leaves, Naima and Sergio must confront the reality with which they are faced:  has their experiment actually blown up in their face or can they overcome their difficulties to be a couple?


If you already know the meaning of the term “Duck Butter” – or have had the opportunity to research what it references – then you probably have a reasonable idea of just how disgusting this movie has the potential of being.  Assuming you are entertained by the output of a rectum, then it’s possible that you may find the film “Duck Butter” to be a joyful cinematic experience.  However, if this does not sound like the foundation of solid filmmaking, then perhaps it might be time to look elsewhere.  As a fan of much of Alia Shawkat’s other work, this comes as a major disappointment. 

While watching “Duck Butter”, one gets the sense that it is utterly disjointed and nonsensical in its concept.  There’s a good reason for this:  as it turns out (based on the post-screening interview with the director and its stars), there was no screenplay.  At least not in the traditional sense.  Apparently, here’s what happened:  director Miguel Arteta received an outline from Shawkat; this was written at a very high level, one would think because Shawkat lacked the discipline to do the heavy lifting of writing an actual script.  She admitted during the interview that no dialog was written. 

The concept of the story is that these two women spend 24 hours together where they are having sex with each other every hour.  What we learned from the post-screening interview with Arteta is that in order to create the authenticity of a couple being awake for 24 hours straight, he chose to shoot the sequence in real time, during a 24 hour period where no one had a chance to sleep.  It shows.  What comes across is some kind of manic dream where people are unable to think clearly and are operating on sheer emotion.  Unfortunately, this results in unsympathetic characters and you really can’t root for either of them.

Duck Butter (2018) on IMDb

Thursday, April 19, 2018

“Love, Gilda”– Movie Review

love gilda

This week at the opening night of The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new documentary, “Love, Gilda”. 


A documentary that covers the life, loves, influences and premature death of a beloved comedy actress from the original cast of “Saturday Night Live”.


Detroit in the 1950’s was a special place to grow up.  It was among the best and biggest cities in America – known as The Motor City because it was the home to automobile manufacturing.  This is where Gilda Radner grew up.  Born into a family of means – her father was successful in real estate – she was a child who came late to her parents, born when they were around 50 years old.  It was therefore a traumatic event when her father passed away when she was only 14; she believed that because he died before she became a woman, she subconsciously wanted to remain a child forever after. 

During her childhood, Gilda was a bit on the chubby side, which caused her to be the focus of much ridicule from her classmates.  She would use her sense of humor to turn this into a defense mechanism to combat her bullies.  When she went off to college, she joined a theater group and fell in love with being on the stage and acting.  Realizing early on that comedy was where she was best suited, she joined a comedy group where she could perform sketches and perfect creating her own characters.  Later, she would get her first major job in the musical“Godspell”, which led to her joining Toronto’s Second City comedy troupe. 

Her big break came when she passed an audition in 1975 for a new television show called “Saturday Night Live”; becoming a cast member, it was not long before she was recognized as one of the show’s stand-out performers.  Leaving the show a few years later, she embarked on a career in the movies; one of those introduced her to Gene Wilder, whom she would later marry.  Their short-lived union seemed doomed when Gilda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; after initially going into remission, the cancer eventually resurfaced and she died in 1989 at the age of 43. 


For fans of either Gilda Radner or of the original Saturday Night Live, “Love, Gilda” will be something of an emotional roller coaster; as much of a joy as it is to see Radner’s appearances on old video clips, it’s painful to see her getting sick towards the end, especially when we know the outcome.  Likewise, learning about the emotional pain in her personal life is equally difficult -- although it did help to shape much of her later work and some of the characters she subsequently developed on the television show. Nevertheless, the eating disorders she suffered from even after attaining professional success show that her fame didn’t really bring her the happiness she sought.

Among the delights of this documentary is the fact that there are a great many home movies that are included -- not only from Radner’s childhood, but also later in life, including when she became ill.  One of the most notable omissions is among the interviews of people who knew her; Wilder, of course, passed away a couple of years ago, but her first husband, guitarist G.E. Smith, was absent as well. Was he difficult to get in touch with or have his scars never healed?  Also, some former SNL cast members were missing in action. Paul Shaffer and Chevy Chase appeared in the film, but Dan Aykroyd (one of her former boyfriends) were nowhere to be found.

One observation -- which is not necessarily a criticism, but something worth noting -- is that the style of this documentary will seem very familiar if you’ve already seen Judd Apatow’s documentary on HBO, “The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling”.  The reason is because “Love, Gilda” -- like Apatow’s film -- incorporates the actual diary entries of its subject. In both documentaries, some are just seen on screen and others are read aloud (in the case of “Love, Gilda”, they are read by former SNL cast members who succeeded Radner’s era).  Oddly coincidental as well is the fact that the documentary also includes Radner’s return to television after cancer treatment: an appearance on the late Garry Shandling’s Showtime sit-com.

Love Gilda (2018) on IMDb

Sunday, April 15, 2018

“Bloodlight and Bami”– Movie Review


This weekend, I attended the opening of the new musical documentary “Grace Jones:  Bloodlight and Bami”, starring Grace Jones. 


A documentary where Grace Jones is seen performing live in concert and in behind-the-scenes visits with her family in Jamaica.


Performer Grace Jones travels to her home – the island nation of Jamaica – where she spends time with her family.  In these moments, this woman with the bigger-than-life personality becomes suddenly humanized; she is less the celebrity and more the dutiful daughter, sister and aunt enjoying down-time with relatives she has not seen in a very long time.  At times, it seems as though she is less having a family reunion than acting like a tourist; Jones visits various attractions and takes occasional snapshots of the surroundings and people.

While promoting her latest recording, a disco version of “La Vie En Rose”, she goes to Paris in order to appear on a television show where she will perform the song.  Unknown to her, the set is designed in such a way where she will be surrounded by young women dancing in lingerie.  Following the taping, she argues with the show’s producer that she feels as though she looks like either a pimp or a Madame who operates a brothel.  The producer, wishing to appease her, offers to let her re-tape the segment without the dancers. 

At this point in her career, Jones suddenly finds herself without a recording contract.  As a result, she must coordinate her own recording sessions if she is to make the new album she wishes to start.  What this means is that she will have to pay for the recording studio and musicians out of her own pocket and hope to get reimbursed either by sales of the album or concert appearances.  Unfortunately, some of the musicians she has lined up turn out to be unreliable and fail to arrive for a scheduled recording date.  Desperate, Jones must either convince them to join her or find new musicians on short notice.    


Once upon a time, there was a big problem with documentaries:  it was called The Talking Heads Syndrome.  This problem was manifested by rapid cuts to a blur of many different faces in close-up, each of whom were being interviewed about the subject of the documentary.  There was very little intercut between the interviewees and other footage or even still photographs.  As a result of this, many people got turned off to watching documentaries because it felt more like a lecture than a film.  While there is little to no justification for going back to this style of filmmaking, “Bloodlight And Bami” might have benefited from a prudent amount. 

Not unlike Grace Jones herself, this documentary is pretty much all over the place.  There is precious little in the way of context or explanation for exactly what we are seeing and who we are hearing from throughout the film.  That’s unfortunate because there seems to be plenty interesting there that is alluded to about Jones’ past and what she’s experiencing now in the present.  Although it frequently intercuts between performances and personal time with her family, it’s not really biographical; we learn nothing about her acting career and never see clips of her many movies. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Jones and the film’s director, Sophie Fiennes.  Fiennes said that she met Jones at a screening of one of her other documentaries in 2003; they hit it off and decided to work together on something.  Shortly thereafter, shooting started and occurred sporadically over a period of years in between other projects with which each were previously occupied.  Jones revealed that one of her greatest professional regrets was the fact that she turned down a role in the original version of the movie “Blade Runner”; after reading the script, she abruptly changed her mind – but by that time, it was too late as the role had already been re-cast.     

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017) on IMDb

Sunday, April 08, 2018

“Hale County”– Movie Review

Hale County

On the closing weekend of The New Directors/New Films Festival, I attended the New York Premiere of the documentary, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”. 


A documentary that follows the day to day activities in the lives of members of the Hale County, Alabama community.


Hale County, Alabama is not the place where you’ll find the 1%; it has long been a town where poverty has reigned.  Over the decades, however, the demographics have changed; where it once housed white sharecroppers from the Dust Bowl era of The Great Depression, it is now home to African Americans who see little hope for a better tomorrow.  Instead, they just seek to find a way to survive day-to-day – which is no easy task.  The lack of opportunity for both the children and adults seems to be what dooms them to a future similar to their present.

RaMell Ross was living in Washington, D.C. when he had a job offer to move to Hale County where he would teach photography and help coach basketball.  Upon moving there, he found that he fell in love with the people and the place and instead of making this a short-term opportunity, he decided to settle there.  Inspired by the resiliency of Hale County’s citizens in the face of great adversity, he then decided to record their lives as they struggled to make a go of things.  Whether observing a basketball practice or watching children play with fireworks in an empty lot, he shot whatever he stumbled upon. 

Ross follows the story of one couple who, despite being of modest means, decides to have children.  After their first child, Boosie later becomes pregnant with twins; she has a boy and a girl.  Tragedy strikes when the boy succumbs to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, leaving the couple now with only two children.  In the stiflingly humid summer heat, there isn’t much in the way of entertainment for many children but to spend evenings outside hoping for either a soothing breeze or a rain to cool things down.  In Hale County, the citizens become accustomed to living in invisibility.   


For those who seek a standard narrative structure in a documentary, “Hale County, This Morning, This Evening” will not be your movie.  That is because this documentary has none – the structure is as flat as a pancake.  Whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on the degree to which you respond to director RaMell Ross’ unique visual style.  There is no doubt about the fact that he has done something quite different in terms of not only his shot choices and composition, but also the fact that he’ll choose to linger on a particular shot merely because he finds it interesting. 

There is no doubt about the fact that Ross is quite courageous – some might even say audacious – to attempt something quite so daring in your first feature film.  However, there is also the extremely valid question of whether or not it works.  One can look at pretty pictures for only so long before it feels as though you’re merely watching someone’s home movie rather than a documentary.  We have to get an understanding of whose story we’re watching, why it’s being presented to us and for what reason should the audience have an emotional investment.  While this is not an argument to contrive a story that doesn’t exist (a sin of some documentarians), all filmmakers must be capable of telling a story coherently.

Following the screening, director RaMell Ross was interviewed.  The full title of the film, “Hale County, This Morning, This Evening”, was a nod to writer James Baldwin’s short story, “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon”.  Ross said that he shot the movie over a five year period, recording over 1300 hours of footage.  He found it to be a bit of a challenge to raise money for this movie because investors didn’t like the fact that there was no story.  Instead, Ross believed in the documentary’s ability to show beauty in the mundane – a “rambling beauty”, as he characterized the content.    

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) on IMDb