THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We now have the latest example for those who fall on one side or the other when it comes to documentary vs dramatized biopic. Director Michael Showalter (the excellent THE BIG SICK, 2017) and writer Abe Sylvia have adapted the 2000 documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – and even kept the same title. The focus here (obviously) is on Tammy Faye Bakker, as she and her televangelist husband Jim skyrocketed to fame before imploding in a quite public and spectacular fashion. Jim went from world-renowned Christian TV personality to scandal-burdened prison inmate, while Tammy Faye rose up from roots of poverty to beloved personality, before becoming a media and Talk Show punchline caricature.

Regardless of your preferred biopic style, or your memories of the Bakkers’ rise and fall, most of us can agree that Jessica Chastain delivers a superb and entertaining performance as Tammy Faye. Already established as one of our finest actors, this is truly a passion project for Ms. Chastain, as she purchased the film rights nearly a decade ago. Here, as you might expect, her features are often buried under prosthetics and mounds of make-up to achieve the oh-so-familiar Tammy Faye look. She captures the babyish voice, the recognizable chuckle, and even sings the songs (very well) that Tammy Faye sang on camera and released albums.

Depending on your expectations, the film serves up a sympathetic view of a true believer with a heart of gold, or it merely skims the surface of a ministry filled with fraud, greed, and deception. And it’s likely both. Tammy Faye is a bit of an enigma. As a child, she was forbidden by her mother (Cherry Jones) from attending church, as she served as a reminder of the ‘Scarlet D’ (divorce) burdening her mother. However, one sip of the sacrament sent young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) into speaking in tongues and on the road to North Central Bible College where she would meet Jim Bakker.

Andrew Garfield portrays Jim Bakker, and captures the very familiar speech pattern and effeminate mannerisms of the man who proclaimed God did not want poverty for his followers … a belief that led first to the Bakkers’ “The 700 Club” on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) Christian Broadcasting Network, and ultimately to their own network and “The PTL Club”, followed by Heritage USA, a Christian theme park. Along the way, they crossed paths with the powerful, ultra conservative Christian, Jerry Falwell (a reserved Vincent D’Onofrio), a man who was envious of the number of followers and the dollars generated by Jim and Tammy Faye. Falwell filled a significant role in how things played out for the Bakkers, and that part is touched on here.

Showalter opts to open the film with a montage of newscasts reporting the Bakker collapse, followed by Tammy Faye in 1994 commenting on her famous eyelashes by stating, “That’s who I am.” The rest of the film is a re-telling of the Tammy Faye story, though we are left to ponder, ‘How much did she really know?”. We see a good-hearted person – a woman brave enough to publicly stand up for the LGBTQ community despite the objections of powerful men in the church. We also see a woman who enjoys fine luxury living and asking few questions, while consistently holding to her message, “God loves you. He really does.” Evangelicals, hypocrisy, financial standing, and political influence are all part of the story, but this is no deep dive into what sent Jim Bakker to prison. Even the Jessica Hahn scandal garners but a brief mention. Instead, this is the story of one woman who was trusted by so many prior to becoming a punchline. One could even say Jim and Tammy Faye were the pioneers of Reality TV, and their rise and fall are only unusual due to the ties to Christianity.

In theaters September 17, 2021

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BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER (2021, doc)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a rare occurrence, but every once in a while subduing my internal fanboy is a bit of a challenge. A documentary on the career of the great Boris Karloff certainly is one of those times. Mesmerized by the Universal monster films as a kid, Karloff’s appearances continued to have a hypnotic effect on me throughout his career … a career that spanned fifty years and ended only with his death in 1969. Of course Christmas time each year returns Karloff back into our homes through his Grammy-winning voice acting in “Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

Somewhat oddly, director Thomas Hamilton chooses to open the film discussing Karloff’s work in Mario Bava’s 1963 film BLACK SABBATH. Contemporary horror master Guillermo del Toro (THE SHAPE OF WATER, PAN’S LABYRINTH) comments that the film heavily influenced his own CRONOS (1993). It may be an unusual opening segment to kick off a discussion of Karloff’s career, but understanding his stature and influence is really the legacy – it goes much deeper than his iconic Frankenstein monster. The opening credits are played over a stream of stunning chalk/graphite drawings of Karloff’s many characters.

Some of the key interviews are conducted with film historians; film directors del Toro, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and John Landis; actors Caroline Munro, Christopher Plummer, and Dick Miller; and Karloff’s own daughter, Sara, who is now at an age her father never saw. For the most part, we go chronologically through Karloff’s career with commentary on each of the key roles and films. The vintage footage brings back many memories and is a blast to watch – likely aided significantly by movie memorabilia collector and Karloff expert Ron MacCloskey (the film’s co-writer). Karloff’s physical presence on screen is noted on multiple occasions, as is his ability to emote, even through heavy makeup.

Obviously it’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) that elevated Karloff from a character actor to a star. Although surprisingly, the man himself credits Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE (1930) as his big break. The following year, after the success of DRACULA with Bela Lugosi, Universal put Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” on the fast track and assigned James Whale to direct. Going against conventional wisdom, Whale decided not to cast Lugosi, and instead went with Karloff … in hindsight, a decision that looks brilliant. We hear about the makeup genius Jack Pierce, who worked with Karloff’s facial features in creating the now iconic look of the monster. Pierce had made an early name for himself with his work on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), and then spent nearly two decades creating the now familiar Universal monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, and of course, Elsa Lanchester’s Bride in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

The film spends very little time on Karloff’s personal life, though it mentions his six marriages, his participation in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and his at-times debilitating back pain. He often wore a metal leg brace for stability and balance, and for those who only know him as the monster and the Grinch, the segments on his later career will likely be enlightening. Karloff loved live theater and received acclaim for his stage work in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Daughter Sara confirms that he embraced television from the early days, and director Hamilton includes a clip of an elderly Karloff acting in a comedy skit with two other greats, Red Skelton and Vincent Price. As a fan, I truly appreciate some of Karloff’s work in his final 10-12 years, including “Shock” theater, the “Thriller” series, and Roger Corman’s THE RAVEN (1963). Beyond all of Karloff’s exceptional work through multiple mediums (including children’s book series), and that instantly recognizable face and voice, it’s his monster’s initial entrance onto the screen that remains one of the truly iconic moments in film history – even 90 years later.

The film is scheduled for a rolling release beginning September 17, 2021 and carrying through October 31. See the link for the schedule:                              

https://www.themanbehindthemonster.com/watch

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THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN (2020)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. No one denies law enforcement officers have a tough and demanding and risky job. However, with cell phones putting video cameras in the hands of just about everyone, any poor decision by cops … and certainly any tragic one… is likely to get recorded and then plastered across all media. Writer-director David Midell delivers a dramatized reenactment of a tragic and inexplicable interaction between one man and a team of frustrated cops whose actions proved deadly.

On November 19, 2011, former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr was asleep in his White Plains, NY apartment. He rolled over and accidentally enacted his LifeAid alert pendant. Since he slept without his hearing aids, Kenneth didn’t hear Candace, the LifeAid operator, try to reach him. Following protocol, Candace ordered a welfare check. 90 minutes later, Kenneth lay dead – killed by police after they broke down his front door. The tension during that 90 minutes is nearly unbearable.

Frankie Faison (“Banshee”) gives an excellent and gut-wrenching performance as Chamberlain. We ‘feel’ everything he says. As he talks to the cops through the door, we learn he has a heart condition, as well as a mental health issue (likely bi-polar). His constant pleas of “leave me alone”, “I’m fine”, the alarm “was an accident”, and “you’re not coming in” all heighten the sense of impending doom he feels. We feel it too. His experience tells him to expect something to go wrong anytime the police are involved.

The three cops banging on his door are Sergeant Parks (Steve O’Connell), Officer Jackson (Ben Martin), and Officer Rossi (Enrique Natale). Jackson is the racist, hot-headed gum-smacking cop (blond of course) who has judged Chamberlain simply by the demographics of the run-down complex he lives in. Rossi is the empathetic rookie cop who has a feel for the pressure Chamberlain is under, and his attempts at preaching patience are shot down by the more experienced cops. Parks has little time for Rossi’s cuddly approach or Jackson’s on-edge nature, but he’s not appreciative of Chamberlain’s refusal to cooperate, and certainly can’t relate to his distrust of the badge.

Midell’s film has been well received at film festivals the past couple of years, and his ‘real time’ approach coupled with the performances and the claustrophobic setting (it all takes place in Chamberlain’s apartment and the stairwell outside his door) work to give us a feel for the emotions and nervous energy of the situation. Throughout the ordeal, Chamberlain communicates with Candace at LifeAid and his own family on his cell. The opening quote tells us that depending on who you are, the sight of a police officer could mean “safety” or “terror”. This film relays the latter, and the actual audio and photos over the closing credits prove this horror film was unbearably true. “This is my home” was not enough for Kenneth Chamberlain. One small quibble: Chamberlain’s hearing aids come and go through the film.

In select theaters and VOD on September 17, 2021

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THE NOWHERE INN (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if David Lynch and Fred Armisen collaborated on a contemporary reimagining of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)? Well, me neither, and that has not happened. But it’s the closest I can come to giving you some idea of this meta-comedy concept film from director Bill Benz and co-writers and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and St Vincent.

We are told that initially singer-songwriter-musician St Vincent has asked her friend Carrie Brownstein to direct a documentary on the singer and her tour. Brownstein envisions a blend of concert and offstage footage so that fans get to know the “real” St Vincent. It turns out the real St Vincent is Annie Clark, a woman who plays Scrabble and video games, and loves to shop for radishes at local Farmers Markets. The contrast between St Vincent’s onstage red guitar riffs, giant video screen, leather outfits and her offstage calm personality is not just stark, but actually a bit boring.

Boring is not what Brownstein has in mind and it creates a rift between the two women, and flips a switch for St Vincent. The musician goes overboard in trying to manufacture the typical rock star image of cool and aloof. Brownstein is frustrated not just with the artificiality of the new approach, but also in the expanding distance between the two friends. Some of the vignettes are quite humorous – in a surreal way. St Vincent stages an intimate scene in her bedroom with a scantily clad Dakota Johnson, and then another sequence features St Vincent’s “family” in a scene right out of “Hee-Haw”.

The satire on public vs private life is a topic worthy of discussion. Often it’s the fans who feel entitled to know more about their icons, while other times it’s the celebrities who are trying to cultivate a public image and garner some extra publicity. In this era of social media, the bigger the personality – the more outlandish – the more publicity and the more followers.

Director Benz’s film drags a bit in the middle, and the final act turns somewhat surreal as Brownstein and St Vincent both have their lapses from reality. Both seem to be confused about their public persona vs real life, so it begins to mimic what’s happened with the original documentary concept. There is a terrific scene involving St Vincent singing on stage and working her way through red velvet stage curtains, but for the most part this isn’t a biting satire – it’s more like a soft-touch. The “Portlandia” connection is clear throughout (Benz, Brownstein, St Vincent) but I’m not sure the film is cohesive enough (mockumentary? wry comedy? satire?) for a mass audience … it might work best as midnight madness.

In theaters September 17, 2021

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LAST NIGHT IN ROZZIE (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Fulfilling the dying wish of a long-ago childhood friend is the basis of this story from screenwriter Ryan McDonough and director Sean Gannet. It’s the feature film version of their own 2017 short film with the same title.

Jeremy Sisto (WAITRESS, 2007) stars as Joey Donovan, a crude man just waiting to die in his hospital bed. Out of the blue, he calls his childhood buddy Ronnie Russo (Neil Brown Jr, “SEAL Team”). The two haven’t spoken for 25 years, and Ronnie is now an attorney in New York City. He’s the one who “got out”, while Joey remained in the Roslindale area of Boston, a working class neighborhood. It’s an awkward reunion for the two men whose last connection was their Little League team. Joey asks for Ronnie’s help in fulfilling his final wish.

We soon learn that Joey is not the most straightforward and truthful of individuals. In fact, he’s downright deceitful at times, and director Gannet includes flashbacks to give us some background on why these two turned out the way they did, and what event from so many years ago ties them together. Joey’s request forces Ronnie to re-connect with his childhood crush Pattie (Nicky Whelan, HALL PASS, 2011). And of course there’s more complexity to the situation than Joey discloses.

The film has been well received at film festivals, but I can’t help but think that more attention to the background of the three main characters could have added a bit more heft. Supporting actors include Kevin Chapman as Joey’s father, Greyson Cage and Ryan Canale as young Ronnie and Joey, and James DeFilippi as Patti’s son, JJ. The film touches on a few interesting topics – childhood friends, split second decisions, regrets and final wishes, as well as the reasons behind lies.

In select theaters and on VOD beginning September 17, 2021

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THE CAPOTE TAPES (2021, doc)

September 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The audio tapes of interviews George Plimpton conducted for his 1997 biography, “Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Distractors Recall his Turbulent Career”, serve as the foundation for this documentary by Ebs Burnough, once a Senior Advisor to former First Lady, Michelle Obama. As fascinating as the tapes are, it’s the archival footage, photographs, and additional on-camera interviews that turn this into a well-rounded profile of the enigmatic Truman Capote.

We hear those who knew him describe Capote as seductive, a freak, sleazy, brilliant, fun, and naughty. He’s also the author of two literary classics, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958) and “In Cold Blood” (1966). It’s the latter which some claim kicked off the celebrity culture (the one that’s out of control today), as Capote capitalized on his fame and high society standing to become bigger than the work (insert Norma Desmond line here). Burnough uses the long-standing rumors of Capote’s scandalous manuscript, “Answered Prayers” as the structure of his story-telling. For more than 10 years, Capote teased with his anticipated answer to Proust’s “In Search of Lost Times”. The closest it came to publication was a couple of chapters in Esquire Magazine in 1975. We hear this described as “excerpts of a novel that doesn’t exist”.

Whether the manuscript exists or not, has little bearing on Burnough’s ability to help us understand Capote. Those providing insight include author Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City, 1984), Capote’s long-time partner Jack Dunphy, Pulitzer Prize winning author Norman Mailer (claims Capote “wrote the best sentences”), and Kate Harrington, Capote’s adopted daughter (he had a relationship with her father). Ms. Harrington’s recollections are quite personal and add a welcome dimension to an otherwise focus on celebrity.

The segment on Capote’s 1966 “Black and White” ball at New York’s swanky Plaza Hotel is likely the best snapshot of how many remember him. The guest list was truly a who’s who among New York high society, intellects, celebrities, and even royalty. By this time, we’ve learned of Capote’s “Swans” – the beautiful and elegant society ladies who constantly escorted him in public. Of course, gay life in those days was quite a bit more challenging, so appearances were crucial.

CAPOTE (2005) with Philip Seymour Hoffman and INFAMOUS (2006) with Toby Jones, stand as the main cinematic depictions of Truman Capote for younger generations. For those of us a bit older, we vividly recall the talk show appearances by this funny little man with the baby voice and effeminate mannerisms. He was an oddity to most of us, in that he looked and sounded quite different, but it was clear he was intelligent and funny. What we didn’t know was that drugs, alcohol, and self-absorption were slowly killing him. Capote became a caricature of himself, and by the end in 1984 at age 59 had betrayed many of his friends. Burnough’s documentary is all we hoped it would be.

Opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters on September 10, 2021

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DATING & NEW YORK (2021)

September 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. One must presume that many Millennials in their mid-to-late 20s will recognize and relate to the characters and situations in this indie Romantic Comedy from writer-director Jonah Feingold. For those born prior to 1980, that’s likely to be more challenging, and in fact, some of the conversations may more closely resemble a foreign language than familiar human exchanges. We can almost picture the emoji’s as these characters speak.

Milo (Jaboukie Young-White) and Wendy (Francesca Reale) are two single New Yorkers who match on the cleverly-named dating app, “Meet Cute”. Of course, that’s also the cinematic description for most every Rom-Com initial introduction since the days of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Ernst Lubitsch. After a perfect first date-turned one-night stand, Milo and Wendy ghost each other. Three weeks later they have a café meeting where Wendy presents a “Best Friends with Benefits” contract. He wants more, while she just wants this. BFWB is a step beyond FWB since it’s more than sex. The two will regularly hang out and offer each other life and relationship advice – but definitely no “I love you” or PDA. Even their friends Hank (Brian Muller) and Jessie (Catherine Cohen) recognize this for the bad idea it is … but Hank and Jessie are too distracted developing their own bond to care too much.

Feingold utilizes some very cool water colors over the opening credits, and Grant Fonda’s score is spot on throughout. There will be comparisons to FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS and NO STRONGS ATTACHED, two movies released in 2011. However, a better and more interesting connection is to see how Feingold was influenced by WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989) and ANNIE HALL (1977), two of the very best romantic comedies. Just keep in mind that this film is for those born in this modern era, where the rules of dating are determined by social media and dating (hook-up) apps. We are told that Millennials are “cursed with choices”.

Feingold’s characters discover break-up email templates (these people can’t subject themselves to face-to-face conflict), the real world expense of wedding planners, the confusing dynamics of haggling over who pays for dinner and drinks, and of course, the importance of guacamole. The characters are believable and seem like folks we could know … except when they speak. Jerry Ferrara (Turtle in “Entourage”) plays doorman Cole and also serves as the film’s narrator, a welcome guide through the reasons behind the actions.

Cinematographer Maria Rusche effectively captures the familiar sites of NYC, as well as the food and drink moments that go with dating. Director Feingold comes up short in his cameo, although in a humorous way. The four lead actors are not yet household names, and probably won’t be recognized by most viewers – though expect them to be part of the next wave. Mostly Feingold keeps things light and cutesy, and whether intentionally or not, reminds us that social media can be manipulative and controlling. Those pushing 30, especially New Yorkers, will likely enjoy seeing their life on screen, while the rest of us simply wonder how hooking up and hanging out isn’t considered a serious relationship.

In select theaters and available on digital beginning September 10, 2021

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THE ALPINIST (2021, doc)

September 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I nearly opted to pass on this since I assumed it would be similar to watching Alex Honnold climb in Best Documentary Oscar winner FREE SOLO (2018), and that was a visceral viewing experience that should not be messed with. To ease my concerns, the filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen interview Honnold early on, and Alex makes it abundantly clear how impressed he is with the solo climbing of Marc-Andre LeClerc, the focus of this film. 

The opening sequence is truly breathtaking as we watch LeClerc climb. The filmmakers followed him, or at least attempted to, for the better part of two years. Honnold explains that LeClerc never sought adulation or recognition, and purposefully remained under the radar – a form of purity (and elusiveness). But even climbers have a grapevine, and over time the stories of LeClerc’s solo climbs became somewhat legendary.

Two things are well known about free climbing: these folks are a different breed – beating to their own drum, and the risk of death is extraordinary (we see a roster of some who have perished). Somehow LeClerc is even more extreme than this community of extremists. He owned neither a cell phone nor a vehicle. He had no home, and in fact, he and his girlfriend Brette Harrington recounted sleeping in a stairwell (for warmth, not comfort). As kindred spirits, LeClerc and Brette would sometimes climb together, while other times, he would take off on a new adventure.

As elusive and private as he remained, LeClerc’s own time on camera endears him to us – whether he’s climbing or just talking. For such a young man, his thoughts seem clear and deep. He understands what makes him tick, and his mother admits a 9-to-5 job was never a possibility. LeClerc recalls his hard partying phase, and how climbing helped him recover. The filmmakers panic about halfway through when their star goes AWOL and they struggle to track him down.

The photography is stunning at times, and there are drone shots that capture the spectacle of a lone climber dwarfed by nature. Just when our nerves are frazzled to bits, the ante gets upped with LeClerc displaying his ice climbing ability, and his trip to Patagonia to take on Torre Egger, the most challenging climb in the western Hemisphere. Other climbers provide some insight into the mindset, as well as LeClerc’s accomplishments. Brette and LeClerc’s mother also provide perspective, and while we may have some comprehension of alpinism and solo climbing, it’s Marc-Andre LeClerc’s natural habitat, and the only place he could quiet his mind.

In U.S. theaters on September 10, 2021, following a September 7 nationwide Fathom Events premiere, featuring exclusive bonus content (and an interview with directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen)

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CINDERELLA (2021)

September 2, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In keeping with the times, writer-director Kay Cannon (the screenwriter for three PITCH PERFECT movies) has turned the classic and ancient Cinderella tale into an agenda movie, albeit one adorned with new and lively adaptations of popular songs. The earliest versions of the folk tale date back 2000 years, while the most widely-accepted fairy tale version was penned by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault, who also wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Since then, there have been countless renditions around the globe in various forms: literary, stage, musical theatre, TV, and animated and live action film. As far as I can tell, this is the first feminist take.

Opening with the town folks performing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”, we are then introduced to Ella (pop singer Camila Cabello in her first movie), who lives in the basement of her stepmother’s (Idina Menzel) home. Yes, Ella has two stepsisters, although neither are particularly wicked. In fact, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) appears almost disinterested, while Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) is at times, downright hilarious (in a Leslie Mann kind of way). Even the stepmother has moments of respectability and decency with Ella.

Ella’s only friends are the three mice who also live in the basement. It’s here where she hones her talent as a dress designer and dreams of having her own business (“how hard can it be?”). For her, she sees fashion design as not just her way out of the basement, but more importantly, as her road to independence. She doesn’t need a man or anyone else, and is skilled in daily affirmations. Hers is less of a ‘dream’ and more of a goal, despite the challenges of her situation.

Of course this is still a Cinderella story, and Nicholas Galitzine plays Prince Robert, an unfocused young man who lacks the drive to be king and fulfill the ultimate wish of his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). On the other hand, Robert’s sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is both driven and filled with ideas on ways to improve the kingdom. Her father readily dismisses her from matters of importance (men things), while Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) initially tries to maintain peace in the family. Knowing that this is a musical, and seeing Pierce Brosnan’s name in the credits, might generate nightmarish flashbacks for those who experienced his singing in MAMMA MIA! (2008). While he does tease/threaten us with singing, most of his musical bits are quite tongue-in-cheek.

Bringing a jolt of energy to the story at a time when it’s desperately needed is Billy Porter as Ella’s non-binary Fabulous Godmother, known as Fab G. Porter’s costume and overall flamboyance are a hoot to watch, and oh by the way, he’s quite a singer as well. And yes, the three mice turn into coachmen played by James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan. They do serve up some comic relief, but likely not as much as they or the filmmaker hopes. Surprisingly, the set design and costume design are fairly drab – the two exceptions being Porter and the ball.

In addition to the opening “Rhythm Nation” song, you’ll hear a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “What a Man”, as well as other familiar tunes. The music and the shift in Ella’s approach are the contemporary touches, as the girl-power theme stresses there’s no need for a man … even a Prince. The twist on the Cinderella tale varies from previous versions, the most popular being Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 film with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, the 1997 film with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and of course, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated classic. Ms. Cannon’s version is still a love story; it’s just love of one’s self and career, rather than the love of another person. A tale perfectly suited to the times.

In select theaters and on Amazon Prime beginning September 3, 2021

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THE LOST LEONARDO (2021, doc)

August 26, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is an unusual documentary from Andreas Keofoed. The first part examines the attempts to solve the origin mystery of a discovered painting, while the second half takes us inside the mysterious money side of the collectible art world. Both mysteries are fascinating on their own, and they blend together to track the 15 year history of a painting that may have come from the brushes of Leonardo da Vinci more than 600 years ago. Or it may not have.

We first meet Alexander Parish, a self-described “Sleeper Hunter” – one always on the lookout to purchase undervalued artwork. “That’s what I do”, states Parish. He’s the one who found the Salvator Mundi painting at a 2005 New Orleans art auction. He and his partner, Robert Simon, paid $1175 for the painting, though they had no idea what they were getting. Director Keofoed spoils any surprise, by delivering an opening credit graphic that traces the painting’s international travels over the next dozen years by itemizing the sales: $1175 in 2005, $83 million in 2013, $127.5 million in 2013, and $450 million in 2017.

Part 1: The Art Game focuses on the examination, investigation, and restoration of the painting. On one hand we have restorer Dianne Modestini meticulously working her magic to discover what she believes is without question, a da Vinci painting. On the other hand we have noted art critic Jerry Salz who is less skeptical and more mocking in his conclusion that not only is it not from da Vinci, it’s not even a ‘good’ painting. A great deal of effort goes into formulating the painting’s provenance – the family tree of ownership. This is crucial to the process in establishing whether it belongs with one of the 15 known Leonardo paintings, or perhaps, at best, from the work of his pupils.

Beginning with Part 2: The Art Game, the film shifts focus from the origin of ‘The Male Mona Lisa’ (as it was dubbed) to its sale and subsequent flip, and the associated investigation by the CIA into possible money laundering. It’s at this point where we meet Yves Bouvier and learn of his purchase and flip to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is none too happy once he puts the pieces of the transaction together. The use of Freeports by the rich is also discussed. These high-security fortresses allow the owners to avoid taxes by maintaining a state of “in transit”. It’s also in this section where the role of Christie’s auction house comes into play and we learn of the brilliant hype/marketing of ‘The Lost da Vinci’.

When spending $450 million on an object, most of us would likely verify the item’s authenticity. But then most of us aren’t the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Part 3: The Global Game details how the authenticity of the painting might not even matter when the purpose is to move or protect money. A “dark transaction” allows the purchase to remain anonymous, and when the identity is discovered, it’s clear that the art world is now about money, not art.

For some purists, the question of authenticity remains for the Salvator Mundi, and restorer Modestini remains haunted by her conclusion. The art of the deal is clearly less about the art and more about the deal. Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy is not impacted by this debate, but the impact of the painting on many other folks is undeniable … and it has served a purpose as an eye-opener and economics lesson for the rest of us.

Opens in select theaters on August 27, 2021

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