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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Film Miss Juneteenth - Packs Emotional Bite and Racial Insights

Channing Godfrey Peoples is an American filmmaker making an impressive debut with "Miss Juneteenth."  The film made in 2019; a dividing line from 2020, the corona virus & social unrest that is prescient & weighing in on all our lives.  This film's an intimate look into the lives of African Americans in a small TX town struggling to make ends meet while still aspiring for the "American Dream."  The film focuses on Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) a beautiful young mother and former "Miss Juneteenth."  Turquoise works two jobs; working as a waitress at a local bar & doing makeup at a funeral home.  Her beloved boss at the local joint has a photo of Turquoise as Miss Juneteenth.  He tells her "there is no American dream."  Nonetheless, Turquoise's dream is to have her daughter be crowned and receive a full scholarship to any black university.  Turquoise's aspirations were lost in transformation into early motherhood & a dysfunctional marriage with a handsome, undependable man.  A formulaic plot of unflappable mom who will stop at nothing to provide her daughter loving discipline and a promising future has its predictable scenarios.  Still, the love between Turquoise & Kei makes this a phenomenal film to watch.  Kei wanting to please her mom & still be her own person is matched against Turquoise's relentless efforts & hopes for daughter.  We see two remarkable women.  Turquoise has Kei recite the same Maya Angelou poem "Phenomenal Woman" she performed when she was crowned.  Kei's reluctance to enter the contest is overridden with the desire to show her mother her love for her.  In doing so, Kei finds her own inner fortitude.  Both mother & daughter are phenomenal women living life "not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, some style." (M Angelou).  The film with its stereotyped characterizations offers something special and unique worth grasping.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

French Film On a Magical Night - A Pastiche of Trysts and Films

"On a Magical Night" is a sexual romp that is not as risqué or clever as one would wish.  It's a pastiche of past films, homages and a hearty wink.  The movies it marvel are' "A Christmas Tale," "Sliding Doors" and "It's a Wonderful Life."  The film take on a life of its own when Mari (Chiara Mastroianni) a professor with grade A sexual promiscuity is confronted by her husband Richard (Benjamin Biolay) of her infidelity revealed on her sex texting iPhone.  C'est la vie - comme ci comme sa - Voila, il nes pah big deal, Mari says to Richard her husband of 20 years.  (Chiara & Benjamin were married in real life & the sparks between them on screen barely smolder.). Chiara Mastroianni is the daughter of actors Marcel Mastroianni and Catherine Denueve.  She could pass as a doppelgänger for a young Susan Sarandon.  Richard appears devastated while Mari can't understand why he's so upset.  "Marriages that last more than 20 years couldn't survive without having lovers."  Richard tells her he never betrayed her in all their years together. He suggests time apart to think things over.  Mari takes him at his word and takes herself to the hotel across the street with A Room With a View into their apartment where she watches Richard from a Rear Window.  Overnight mysterious, magical, sensual & salacious moments occur.  Mari wakes to find Richard (Vincent Lacoste) at the young age they first met. "How can you be so young?" Mari asks.  "How can you be so old?" Richard replies.  Alas, this doesn't stop the two from making love which looks incestual.  All Mari's past lovers manifest and congregate in the adjoining room to allow Mari & young Richard opportunity to revisit their past passions while wrapped up in sheets.  Mari's lovers outnumber Richard's sole lover, his piano teacher, Irene (Camille Cottin).  She started as his school boy mentor and went on to tutor him sexually despite the age difference.  Irene appears in Richard's apartment to his amazement & wonderment she looks exactly the same as when he last saw her as a young man.  Mari watches the two across the way as Irene tries to seduce Richard & introduces an enfant that would have been their son had they stayed together.  French dir/screenwriter Christopher Honore pulls a lot of stops from his bag of tricks.  There are outrageously funny moments when Mari is visited by her dead mother "But you're dead" she says to her.  "So what!" says her mother and her grandmother has some harsh words for Mari's mother.  But the viewer sees the man behind the curtain and there's no place except home for the heavy prestidigitations.  The magic comes in soft drifts but leaves you out in the cold.  You don't believe me?  Humbug, my little Rosebud.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Nat'l Theater SMALL ISLAND - A Golden Play about Racism in UK/Jamaica and Today

The Nat'l Theater Live is presenting some of their best theatrical productions on youtube for everyone to enjoy.  SMALL ISLAND (SI) which streamed "live" yesterday & available for viewing until June 25th is not to be missed.  The 3 hr 2 Act production doesn't have to be viewed in 1 sitting.  I was completely captivated by author/playwright Andrea Levy's Orange Prize winning play based on her novel the 3 hours hit me like a powerful tempest and drenched me in its profundity & prescient issues of systemic racism & hatred.  Levy co-adapted her Man Booker winning novel to stage with award winning author & playwright Helen Edmundson. Both accomplished women are British: Levy (b 1956-2019) & Edmundson (b 1964).  Levy was elected a Fellow for the Royal Soc. of Lit. ('05).  The utter brilliance of the writing and themes compare somewhat to Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun."  SI set in Jamaica and the UK 1930s-1950) examines the atrocities of racism & war, but also humanity found in strength & dignity.  The play begins with a tempest.  A young, black woman, Hortense tells the audience this is "a great love story."  The cleverly staged production depicts an approaching monsoon.  Everyone's rushing for shelter except for Hortense & the young, white teacher she assists in the schoolhouse.  Hortense remains anticipating that the man she loves will come to her rescue.  The white teacher is cowering under a table calling out "where is he".  Hortense takes this to mean her husband. Turns out it's Michael a black man & Hortense's assumed paramour.  Michael shockingly rushes to embrace the other woman. Our hearts shatter with Hortense's.  We're swept away in the maelstrom of war, intertwining lives & racial divides that are malevolent, oppressive though sometimes uplifting.  Queenie is a young white woman raised on her family's farm.  Queenie yearns for more than her arduous, unfulfilling life.  Hortense is raised in her cousin Michael's home by her strict, pious & opinionated aunt& uncle.  They keep Hortense subservient & obedient which givers her pretense & a rebellious spirit.  As children, the cousins form a rivalrous friendship.  Hortense is saddened when Michael is sent to boarding school.  He returns years later.  Feelings of sexual attraction abound. Michael returns with a bigger picture of the world and his presumed place in it. He's adulterous, inter-racial scandal & defiance to his father return him to England.  After WWII Hortense & other Jamaicans look to getting off their small island for a bigger, more worldly life in the UK.  Black soldiers fought alongside the Brits but find they're spurned in the community despite having fought to end fascism & persecution.  Elwood, a Jamaican known by the islanders has a small but insightful role "WWII is a white man's war and the world belongs to whites off the island." Queenie seized her opportunity to expand her horizons as did Hortense.  Hortense makes a financial, loveless deal to marry Gilbert and pays for his voyage back to the UK provided he sends for her.  The lives of Hortense, Michael, Queenie & Gilbert intwine in ways that are not tolerated by white society.  The contrived connections only enforce powerful emotions that are painful & promising.  I promise SMALL ISLAND is a major theatrical force with a great cast & profound writing.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

THE KING of STATEN ISLAND Written and Starring Pete Davison Dir by Judd Apatow

THE KING of STATEN ISLAND is a comedy-drama written by & starring Pete Davidson of SNL fame, known for dating hot celebrity dames for a NY minute & for his tattoos up the wazoo.  Scott (Pete Davison) is a putz & a yahoo.  He's 24 but hasn't figured out what to do with his life.  He's mired in the pot infused basement of his mom's home in Staten Island.  Scott's mom, Margie (Acad. Award winning actress, Marissa Tomei) is a loving & indulgent mother.  Margie's been too lenient marring Scott from maturing into a productive adult.  Margie is an emergency room RN whose nursed her aggrieved son after his fire fighting father died in the line of duty when he was 7.  Davison's real life heroic father died as a firefighter in the 9/11 attack.  Scott's younger sister Claire, (Maude Apatow) fairs far better than her bro.  She's excited to be heading off to college but not without her apprehensions concerning her brother's welfare.  Claire is the daughter of Judd Apatow who directed the film and actress Leslie Mann.  Nepotism may have made the role of Maude a shoe-in but the kid's got solid acting chops.  What keeps this self-indulgent, mildly amusing comedy afloat is a boat load of talent including A list comedians & actors: Bill Burr as Ray, Margie's suitor and Scott's nemesis, Pamela Adlon as Ray's bitter ex and mother of their 2 adorable kids, Steve Buscemi as the Capt. of the local firehouse who takes Scott under his wing despite Ray being stationed at the firehouse & not fully on board after Margie gave Ray the bum's rush thanks to Scott.  Scott's sometime girlfriend, Kelsey (British actress Bel Powley) steals every scene with her honed accent & guileless blue eyes.  Minor players mired in the undertow of Staten Island; a minor NYC borough complete with its own minor league Yankee baseball team are all outstanding.  Davison's alter-ego Scott, shares a history of growing up in Staten Island with his single mom & sister, a penchant for inking his bod and for parlaying his goofiness into something that plays outside of Poohkeepsie.  Scott & Pete both suffer from Crohn's Disease which he shares regardless of being TMI and his perpetual petulance wears thin and turns grating.  THE KING of STATEN ISLAND is ferried along with the support of a strong bench of cast members; any of whom would be welcomed to host SNL.  The film is not as clever or winning as it strives to be but entire crew keeps swinging for the fences landing a charming & chuckle worthy screenwriting/starring film debut for Pete Davidson.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Spike Lee's Da 5 BLOODS - Hemorrhages from Social Commentary to Absurdity

Spike Lee always has a lot to say, artistically, politically and presciently.  Da 5 BLOODS just released is a pastiche of political inequities, wars' inhumanities & an absurdity that discredits its gravitas as an artistic achievement of social significance.  The film is a disappointing bomb.  Full disclosure:  I didn't watch the entire 2 1/2+ hours.  Spike lost me at the destination of the untimely & gruesome death of one of da 5 bloods from a land mine detonation.  The film does make affective use of unforgettable archival footage of civil unrest, Vietnam protests and Vietnam newsreels & photos which leave a profound impact.  In fact, clip's from Lee's "prologue" are a must see for those who were born after this era and viewed again by those alive during this time.  The movie reunites 4 former, black Vietnam Vets in Vietnam.  The 5th Norman (the incomparable Chadwick Boseman "The Black Panther") is present in spirit & flashback.  Norman was a squadron leader, revered by the 4 blackmen in his unit.  The returning vets are there to reconnect & carry-out their promise to recover the remains of "Stormin Norman", or so it seems.  The 4 older but not altogether wiser group consist of a 4-star team of actors.  Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the vet most obviously suffering from PTS.  His son, David (Jonathan Majors, "Last Blackman in SF") surprises his father but his presence is not initially warmly received.  Otis (a superb Clark Peters "Harriet") appears the most level headed and emotional focus for the group.  Eddie (Jonathan Majors, Tony Musical winner) is the charismatic charmer whose life isn't all as it first appears.  Majors has incredible acting chops sadly his singing talents weren't put to use and unfortunately, his demise put the final nail in the coffin for watchin the remaining hour.  The convoluted film packs in an unbeknownst daughter left behind, star crossed lovers and humor that lands like a grenade.  David inveigles his way into his father's group of 4 on their covert mission which is much more than just recovering Norman's remains.  The film is also a senior caper of uncovering buried treasure.  David strikes gold when he goes to unload which is even crappier than it sounds.  Still, some very affecting scenes, mostly in flashback with Norman and his troop during their tour of duty are arresting, especially compounded with the violence & social unrest back home.  Lee is a genius.  Hi body of work will be a legacy to filmmaking and social awakening.  Regardless, no one bats a 1,000.  The Knicks have had a lengthy losing streak.  And, Da 5 BLOODS is a misses the target.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Carlo Mirabella Davis' SWALLOW - Sticks in Your Gut, Unforgettable

SWALLOW is a psychological, suspense drama about a handsome, newly wed couple expecting their first child.  But, an ugly undertow shatters what at first appears an idyllic lifestyle for the beautiful wife, Hunter (a stunning performance by Haley Bennett) and her handsome, but easily distracted husband, Richie (a terrific Austin Stowell).  The couple live in a contemporary & pristine home with shades of "Ad Men" aesthetics in both the interior and couture worn by Hunter.  Richie is greeted by his wife on a nightly basis by Hunter dressed dazzlingly as if for a cocktail party but its merely a weeknight, candle lit dinner at home.  Of course, the multi-course meal is consumed from opposite ends of a long glass table.  Richie is more consumed with his cell that what his wife has to tell.  Dir., screenwriter, producer Carlo M Davis has concocted a truly unique film that is hypnotic, visually stunning; thanks to Katelin Arizmendi's brilliant cinematography and emotionally visceral.  Richie's parents are insidiously manipulative and menacing.  Hunter's background remains a vague, mystery until it begins to unravel as told to her psychiatrist, seemingly with Hunter's sole benefit.  Hunter has developed an appetite for swallowing hazardous objects which require emergency surgery and pose a dire threat to her pregnancy.  Hunter's husband & in-laws understandably take her for needed psychiatric help but are hesitant to leave the room during Hunter's psychiatric sessions.  Hunter's omnipresent husband & his parents hound Hunter relentlessly.   The family hires a male "nurse" to attend Hunter at all times to protect her from harming herself.  "We can't watch you 7/24" says her unctuous mother-in-law who along with her over-bearing father-in-law & 'Stepford' husband have taken control over Hunter's life.  Control is the overriding issue in SWALLOW.  Hunter is baffled by her behavior & tells everyone she doesn't know why she chokes down gagging items: a tack, a battery, a needle and a menagerie of non-edible eateries.  We sympathize with Hunter's unseeming compulsive behaviors & inedible proclivities that have manifested into a battle self-control ingesting life-threatening items.  This suspenseful, provocative picture is a poignant portrayal of Hunter's cravings for basic human needs:  compassion, physical contact and validation.  Hunter's backstory becomes glaringly clear at the end of the movie at which time you may find yourself holding your breath, if not your stomach.  Again, Arizmendi brilliant use of color schemes explode into kaleidoscope technicolor when she ventures outside her meticulous & calmer color palette at home.  SWALLOW is artistically and emotionally unforgettable.  This may not appeal to everyone's taste but  should SWALLOW not be in contention for next year's Oscar it would be an unjust shading.

Friday, June 5, 2020

London's Nat'l Theater Live Shakespear's CORIOLANUS Starring Tom Hiddleston

"Coriolanus" is not one of Shakespeare's better known or more popular tragedies.  It's based on factual events during rebellious times in Rome as Rome was often challenged with uprisings v. its governances  during the early 17th C.  Now, with stay in place orders and social upheaval this FREE U-tube broadcast is politically prescient and a present to thespians and the community at large.  Tom Hiddleston stars in the leading role of Marcius Coriolanus, the heroic soldier whose battlefield victories make him an instant celebrity upon his return.  The production, FREE to the publicist not worth complaining about the over narrative and 12 minute prologue that detract from the production.  (Of course, for those who are blind or hard of hearing, this is a much welcomed adjunct.)   The plot parallels the pompous dictator in the White House and borrows both from Shakespeare's more acclaimed plays:  "McBeth" and "Julius Caesar".  Marcius (a tour-de-force Tom Hiddleston) returns from the battlefields to a loving wife, an adoring public and a social climbing, power hungry mother; not unlike lady McBeth.  It's at his mother's pushing Marcius use his notoriety to gain a position elected to the counsel in Rome.  Mauritius doesn't require much prodding by his mother to aspire for high office as he deems himself worthy of adulation and power.  However, his narcissism turns to disdain from the people he represents and there's an incendiary mutiny from within the electorates that not unlike Brutus & Caesar.  The sparse, dark staging is very effective in evoking enmity and blood thirsty revenge.  The costuming blends early Roman dress and contemporary dress which provide an edge to adorn Mauritius' foes.  The choreographed sword fights are staged with stealth and skill.  Shakespeare's dialogue remains an elevated art form that remains music to one's ears.  CORIOLANUS aligns with the anus in the White House who believes himself above the law and above the people for whom he pledged to protect.   "Action is eloquence," which is the antithesis of Trump's tyrannical tactics.  Rather Trump unsheathes Shakespeare's prose "Let me have war, say I, it exceeds peace as far as day does night.  It's spritely, waking, audible and full of vent.  Peace is a very apoplexy."  Now is the time for peaceful protest & discontent.  Now is the time to take advantage of London's Nat'l Theater Live broadcasts.

I Say LOVEBIRDS Soars because of Issa Rae

We as a nation, if not the world, are experiencing a seismic shift in revealing & reviling systematic racism from plaguing & oppressing everyone; mainly people of color.  George Floyd's murder is an Emmett Till image seen by everyone that will not go unseen nor disregarded.  This is not a conventional review to a rom/com caper film but it's pertinent: a) humor is healing and needed at this time, b) the interracial couple seemed inconsequential in the film and c) casting of characters should not in anyway reflect any characteristic other than talent.  The romantic comedy stars a hilarious & convincing Issa Rae as Leilani and her lover of 3 years Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran.  Rae is currently starring on HBO in "Insecure."  Rae is riotously funny and emotionally touching in the series.  Nanjiani, a renown stand-up comic and star of "The Big Sick" plays more of a malleable, straight man to Rae's character.  The opening scene between Leilani and Jibran is sweet & tender starts to their relationship which quickly shifts 3 years later to find them living together.  No longer a relationship of kisses and romantic bliss.  Their bickering reveals a deeper disconnect which leads them to agree to break-up en-route to a dinner party.  The ride is fraught with bumps in the road and a shockingly funny yet gruesome murder in which they are unwittingly involved.  When a witness, after the fact, calls 911 they both decide to run on the count of 3.  The shenanigans are more ingenious than your typical crime riddled mystery.   Together, the two find themselves having each other's back.  Leilani's high heels & slapping steel some scenes.  And, there's some classic comedy duo pairing as the two fumble their way towards solving the crime to exonerate themselves.   Yes, if they had contacted the police from the start, that would have ended what turned into clever, delightfully funny interludes while risking their lives.  (Just go along for the ride).  The weakness lies in the obvious ending; bad white cop admitting his dastardly deeds and Jibran & Leilani outsmarting or outlasting him.  Rae is a rising star of comedic acting and Nanjiani smartly nuanced his comedy chops which made for a dynamo, comedy duo who found their way back into each other's hearts.  The obvious fact of the interracial coupling was a non-issue.  The film had terrific acting and direction by Michael Showalter ("The Big Sick") which Nanjiani starred in & co-wrote.  I don't wish to mitigate the current & on-going murders of unarmed people of color by white people.  I do however, want to recommend LOVEBIRDS as romantic comedy at this time of despair and this time of hope.  On the count of 3...go see.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Liz Moore's Novel LONG BRIGHT RIVER - Beth Macy's NonF DOPESICK

Hunter College in NYC is offering online talks during this pandemic.  A recent video concerned our country's opioid overuse & overdose problems. The informative talk and Q&A was between Liz Moore, a Hunter alum & novelist & award winning journalist & Non-F writer Beth Macy.  Moore's recent novel LONG BRIGHT RIVER is a crime, mystery with a female protagonist, police officer, Mickey. Mickey is searching for her younger sister Kasey whose life took a downward path to self-destruction through heroin & prostitution to feed her habit.  Macy's DOPESICK examines the origins of the pain killer Oxycontin & traces its havoc of destruction & pain.  Moore draws us into the drama of a "good cop" Mickey, v. "bad cop" drug addicted sister.  Their estrangement turns to frenzy for Mickey to find Kasey amidst a flurry of homicides of prostitutes that "worked" the same beat as Kasey.  Moore develops a mystery of fitting together puzzle pieces to fit in solving Kasey's disappearance.  It's also a story of familial love between sisters & Mickey's love for her young son.  The story does take an unsurprising twist of corrupt cops promulgating drugs & prostitution for profit.  Still, it's a stirring & prescient novel that both entertains & proselytizes the deadly & overpowering opioid addiction.  Macy's DOPESICK cogently explains Oxycontin's billion dollar industry growth while knowingly pushing Drs. to overprescribe.  Both writers reiterate the self-loathing & omnipotent hold wielded by opioid use.  Those who become addicted are most likely to be ruled by the addiction for the rest of their lives and more than likely to die from an overdose.  Side affects include depression, memory loss & the need to fulfill the cravings through illegal, self-destructive behaviors putting themselves & others in harms' way.  Moore & Macy make clear the morphine override in an addicted person's brain is to avoid the psychological pain of withdrawal avoiding dopesickness at any cost.  Macy's tells a David v. Goliath story; taking down the Purdue Drug Co.  The hero is Dr. Van Zee, a local small VA town Dr. who became distressed burying young people whom he cared for & helped to bring into the world. His motivation not being financial gain but punitive measures aimed at Purdue to terminate their criminal behavior that resulted in so many deaths and take away their financial incentives to continue. Interestingly, Giuliani acted as legal counsel for Purdue brokering behind the scenes deals to mitigate fines & rebuff jail sentencing.  Giuliani propagandized he wouldn't take an assignment with a Co. he felt acted improperly {hah!}.  America remains a nation where becoming addicted is far easier than receiving treatment for addiction.  "People with promise, people dependent & depended upon, people loving and beloved, one after another, in a line, in a river...a long bright river of departed souls." (Moore)  Opiod Addiction becomes a lifelong & typically relapse laden disease & the only avenue to achieve remission is through medication-assisted treatment.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Ricky Gervais' "AFTER LIFE" Life Goes On Oh Blah Deep Connective Humanity

Ricky Gervais is a genius.  He gets humor, he gets grief, he understands compassion, kindness, craziness and insanity.  He's also a damn fine actor, writer & humanitarian.  Why call him a humanitarian?  Simple, his humor connects us all & can help keep from the sanitarium.  Seriously, "After Life" has insane humor that is off-putting and repugnant at times; so too is the human condition.  And the most important thing to remember is we all comprise the human condition and we can all try a little tenderness towards one another.  Why can't we all get along?  OK, I digress & appropriate from the best, but Gervais' talent is in another galaxy, altogether.  "After Life" borrows (legitimately) from Gervais' show "The Office."  "The Office" and "After Life" break comic barriers  blurring comedy & tragedy.  His characters are all credible with foibles that make you ask {are these people for real?}. The premise for "After Life" orbits around the life of Tony (an astounding Ricky Gervais) whose is struggling with severe depression after the death of his beloved wife.  Much of Tony's time is spent in front of his computer, drinking & watching his previously idyllic life with his wife.  We watch his life unfold while Tony watches teary eyed alongside his beloved dog.  We even see the dog as a pup given as a surprise to his wife.  When Tony's not at the office working with a motley mix of misfits with his kind brother-in-law for a boss, or at his psychotic shrink's office, he's often found sitting with his senile dad, walking his dog or at the cemetery.  It's on a cemetery bench  where Tony finds solace speaking with Anne, (Penelope Wilton 'Downton Abbey') an elderly widow who frequents her husband's grave.  Gervais makes the poignant point how crucial it is for humans to have someone who will listen and empathize with them.  Seeking medical help for depression is parodied by a ridiculous psychiatrist both Tony & his brother-in-law see.  This promotes the importance of earnest listening, compassion and unqualified love as essential ingredients to a life well  lived.  Laughter is also a vital factor in the mix of zaniness that comes our way.  Just, don't miss out on life, or the chance to offer kindness.  Nor take for granted the bliss in the mundane things we find in one another we may one day miss.  "After Life" is an emotional roller coaster that accelerates the  guffaws & tears.  Gervais' show can be summed up in his own words: "You have options.  You can continue to be miserable or you can just stop being angry at everyone and accept the way things are.  Allow yourself to live."  His other advice, "Be happy.  It really annoys negative people." My advice - don't miss out on "After Life."