I AM WOMAN (2020)

September 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does penning and recording a feminist anthem warrant a film biopic? Well, when the singer is Helen Reddy and the song is “I Am Woman”, the answer is a resounding yes. This is director Unjoo Moon’s first narrative feature film, and she is working with a script from Emma Jensen (MARY SHELLEY, 2017). As with any biopic, its effectiveness comes down to the lead performance. Here, Tilda Cobham-Hervey is both strong and invincible as Ms. Reddy.

We first see a wide-eyed Helen Reddy walking through New York City clutching the hand of her very young daughter Traci after arriving from Australia in 1966. She’s in pursuit of a recording contract, but instead ends up singing at a mostly empty nightclub and living in a roach-infested rundown hotel. It takes almost no time for her to experience multiple instances of sexism and chauvinism. With no prospects for a better life, Helen meets up with fellow ex-pat Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, PATTI CAKE$, 2017), a journalist who shows her the town and offers her friendship.

Lilian throws a party for Helen, and after locking eyes across the room, Helen meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”), an up and coming agent at William Morris. By 1968, Wald has convinced Helen that Los Angeles is the place to kick off her singing career, and along with Traci, they move into a beautiful home and fill it with typical California dreaming. Jeff’s managing career starts to build, and Helen gets frustrated at his lack of attention to her career. There are some funny comparisons of Deep Purple, Tiny Tim, and Helen’s singing styles, but finally Capitol Records gives her a shot at recording a single.

Helen’s career takes off, as does her friend Lilian’s, who becomes the ‘Mother of Rock’ with her Rock ‘n Roll Encyclopedia, and subsequent reviews and articles. In fact, Ms. Roxon deserves a biopic or documentary highlighting her influence on rock journalism. As Helen puts out hit records, her husband Jeff is managing many successful acts. Money is pouring in (and out) and in contrast to Helen’s common sense manner, Jeff partakes of drugs and alcohol to extremes. Of course, the key component of Helen’s career and the movie is in regards to her writing the title song … a song that the skeptical executives of Capitol Records said made her sound “too angry”.

It was Lilian who introduced the women’s movement to Helen, but Helen was inherently ambitious and strong-willed … it ended up being the perfect match. Reddy supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), even as Phyllis Schlafly fought hard against it. Helen’s 1972 song “I Am Woman” became a huge hit, and later the anthem for a movement. But Helen Reddy’s story isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, and despite a dose of clichés, and some overacting on the part of Peters, the movie does an admirable job showing how she reacted to the challenges.

Director Moon’s husband Dion Beebe (Oscar winner for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, 2005) is the cinematographer, and he does nice work with the stage performances, as well as the more intimate moments. However, it’s Ms. Cobham-Hervey who stands out. I’ve only previously seen her in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018), and she captures the determination and charisma of Helen Reddy. We see her strength as she instills life lessons in her kids, and goes toe-to-toe with her husband. It’s an impressive performance.

The movie shows us Helen’s 1982 Las Vegas act, and we hear most, if not all, of her hits, “Delta Dawn”, “Leave Me Alone” (actually a pretty annoying song), “You and Me Against the World”, “Angie Baby”, and obviously, “I Am Woman”. Later, in 1989, we see a grown up Traci talk her retired mother into performing her most famous song at the Washington DC rally of the National Organization of Women. It’s quite a moment that encapsulates the empowerment that Helen Reddy devoted her life to. The movie doesn’t go there, but it’s unfortunate that Ms. Reddy has been afflicted with dementia since 2015. Like all great artists, her work will survive her.

In select theaters and VOD on September 11, 2020

watch the trailer:


Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2019

February 22, 2019

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2019

Top-to-bottom, this is the strongest shorts category I can recall. The quality of each is such that winning the Oscar would be well-deserved for any of the nominees. Four of the five are tension-packed, while the fifth is just as emotional – only in a more intimate manner. That being said, I have listed these in order of my preference. However, should you ask me tomorrow, the order might change. All five films are that strong. Just a reminder, these are not Oscar predictions, just personal opinion.

 

 MADRE (Spain) 19 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen begins his film with a long, slow pan shot across a deserted beach until we see the waves rhythmically rolling in and out. It appears to be a most peaceful setting, but instead it’s actually the set up for one of the most intense and emotionally shattering short films ever.

Marta Nieto and her mother Blanca Apilanez are hanging around the apartment on what’s a typical day for them. When Marta’s answers a call, an unimaginable horror unfolds via cell phone. On the other end is her 6 year old son. He’s on holiday with his father, Marta’s ex. Only her son tells her, as his cell phone battery is dying, that dad left him and now he’s alone on a beach … he thinks it’s France, but could be Spain.

Marta and her mother juggle cell phones as they try to track down the father, while keeping the young boy as calm as possible. It’s a captivating and stunning performance by Marta Nieto, and a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Mr. Sorogoyen. It may be the most unsettling 19 minutes of movie I’ve seen, and if it had gone any longer, it might have become truly unbearable.

 

 DETAINMENT (Ireland) 30 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Evil personified. That is the only possible way to describe 10 year old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. In February 1993, the British boys skipped school and spent the day doing typically mischievous activities around the local shopping center. Typical that is until they abducted 2 year old James Bulger.

This is writer-director Vincent Lambe’s 4th short film, and it’s based on the disturbingly true story of the abduction-torture-murder of toddler James by the two young boys. The film draws directly from the actual tapes of interviews/interrogations once the boys were identified from the grainy security footage. This dramatization includes the pleas of innocence from the boys, as well as the reactions of both their parents and the police officers. The scenes depicting the questioning of the boys is powerful, and the scenes of the 3 boys together is more than most of us can bear, despite little of the crime being shown (thankfully).

Young actors Ely Solan (Jon) and Leon Hughes (Robert) are both extraordinary in their performances. Director Lambe deftly applies judgment in what is shown on screen and what instead corrupts our thoughts. It’s heart-breaking to see what the parents of these boys must endure, but it’s beyond our comprehension to imagine what Baby James Bulger’s parents must have endured. The boys were tried as adults in 1993, and both subsequently released from incarceration and given assumed identities for their own protection. If somehow Lambe’s short film isn’t disturbing enough, it’s pretty simple to get the full report of what the boys inflicted on that poor child. Evil personified.

 

 FAUVE (Canada) 19 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Two young boys, obviously good friends, are spending the day just hanging out and exploring the area on the outskirts of town. They are engaged in an ongoing game of one-upmanship as they spontaneously compete over a string of mindless pranks to see who is the bravest or toughest.

Director Jeremy Comte places Tyler (Felix Grenier) and Benjamin (Alexandre Perreault) in common situations that most of us (at least from my generation) easily recognize. A vacant lot or deserted train car are easily turned into a playground as the mischievous boys deal with their unchaperoned independence. We find ourselves chuckling at their harmless teasing … well, harmless until it’s not.

Even with a run time of only 14 minutes, director Comte doesn’t rush the set up. It’s just a lazy, care-free day until the boys make their way into an open-pit mining zone. For someone with a quicksand-phobia (thanks to those early Tarzan movies), the shift in tone delivers an emotional gut-punch. A terrific final scene caps off a powerhouse short film that deserves the festival accolades it has received. From Canada with French dialogue, expect this one to receive even more award consideration.

 

 MARGUERITE (Canada) 19 min

Greetings again from the darkness. It was after the Oscar nominations were announced that I tracked down this one, the last of the 5 nominated live action shorts in the category that I’ve watched. While the other 4 nominees are tension-packed, this beautiful 18 minute film from writer-director Marianne Farley is serene and both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

Beatrice Picard began her acting career in the 1950’s, and here she is extraordinary in the titular role. Marguerite is a lonely elderly woman in the final stage of life. Understanding that her time is near, she has refused the daily dialysis recommended by her doctor. A window in her living room is literally her window to the world. As her body slowly fails, she is a captive in her home. Her time is spent anxiously awaiting the daily arrival of her in-home caregiver Rachel (Sandrine Bisson), a patient and compassionate woman who provides care, as well as Marguerite’s only human contact.

Bathing Marguerite, shampooing her hair, helping her get dressed, and applying lotion are part of Rachel’s routine. The importance of these moments is obvious by Marguerite’s face. One day she overhears a brief phone conversation between Rachel and her partner, which leads to an innocent question … the answer which ignites a memory in Marguerite that causes much reflection.

Forbidden love left unrequited and unmentioned highlights the generational and societal differences between these two women in ways we don’t often consider. It also brings them closer together. The wound that won’t heal on her foot is truly insignificant to the decades-long pain Marguerite has carried in her heart. Making peace with her past allows her final stage to play out thanks in part to the tender compassion shown by Rachel.

Marianne Farley is a French Canadian known mostly as an actress, yet this, her second short film as director creates a deep connection despite minimal dialogue between the two women. Cinematographer Marc Simpson-Threlford expertly uses lighting, color and framing to guide us through. C’est beau.

 

 SKIN (USA) 20 min

Greetings again from the darkness. Bestowed with an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film, this story from Israeli director Guy Nattiv, who co-wrote the script with Sharon Maymon, is stunning and frightening in how much of a punch it packs into 19 minutes. The influence parents have on their kids is at the heart of this devastating tale.

Jackson Robert Scott (Georgie from IT) stars as Troy, the young son of Jeffrey (Jonathan Tucker, “Justified”) and Christa (Danielle Macdonald, PATTI CAKE$). The film opens with dad Jeffrey taking the shears to Troy’s hair on the front porch. Then all 3 hop in the car with friends, singing a horribly inappropriate song on the way to shooting guns at beer bottles. Later, Troy convinces his dad to take him “surfing”. Of course, there are no waves in sight … you just have to see it to believe it.

Two things are abundantly clear: these are stereotypical hillbillies, and Troy loves his dad very much. Soon we learn something else. Dad is a white supremacist. While at the grocery store, a black man (Ashley Thomas) offers a friendly greeting to Troy, and dad snaps into vile racist mode. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jeffrey’s fellow gang of racists join him in violently pummeling the friendly black man. The vicious beating takes place in front of the man’s frantic wife, daughter and son (roughly the same age as Troy). It’s a family that mirrors Troy’s, with one exception – skin color.

It’s not long before a group of African-Americans take revenge on Jeffrey, albeit in a less violent, yet more permanent and clever manner. Bronny (Lonny Chavis, “This is Us”) is allowed to watch as the revenge plays out. The tables have been turned on Jeffrey, and the shocking ending proves that hate only leads to more hate … and sometimes hate is blind. Racism is a self-perpetuating culture that survives only when passed from one generation to the next. Filmmaker Nattiv and his producing partner-wife Jaime Ray Newman remind us that we reap what we sow. They have a feature length film being released later this year based on the true story of Bryon Widner – a story that likely influenced this impactful short.

 


PATTI CAKE$ (2017)

August 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A gritty, New Jersey based story of a blue-collar white girl trying to make it in hip-hop sounds like the makings of a film festival favorite – especially since it’s the first feature from its director and features a star-making turn from an unusual leading lady. After being warmly received at Sundance and Cannes (and other festivals), the only remaining question is, will mainstream audiences show the love?

The obvious comparison here is Eminem’s 8 MILE, but there is also a touch of ROCKY, THE COMMITMENTS, and most all other sports and music movies featuring the dreams of those from ‘the other side of the tracks’. Writer/director Geremy Jasper has a nice feel for setting and actors, and it’s only the (at times) formulaic nature of the script that keeps this one in the crowd-pleasing category rather reaching a level of greatness.

Australian native Danielle Macdonald plays Patti Dombrowski, also known as Killa P, and most every other cruel nickname (Dumbo, White Precious) one might pin on a plus-sized Anglo girl found street rapping. As you would expect, her tough outer visage masks an all-too-familiar inner insecurity borne from a larger than life mother who blames her daughter for every misery in life. Bridget Everett plays the mother Barb, a hard-drinking, hard-singing, hard-blaming type who gives such sterling mother advice as ‘lose the top button’ for that job interview. Mother Barb, providing proof of her distance from reality, refers to herself and daughter Patti as “the Dombrowski sisters”, whom she claims are “setting the world on fire”.

The tenuous mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, and these two actresses (and the movie) are at their best in their scenes together. On the music side, Siddarth Dhananjay plays Jhen, Patti’s eternal optimist-pharmacist-music partner, while Mamoudou Athie is Basterd, a self-proclaimed anti-Christ anarchist. The three form a band called PB&J (Patti, Basterd, Jhen) which provides friendship, a creative release, and, mostly, a reason for existence. Their band, and especially Patti, gets a boost from Nana (a remarkable Cathy Moriarty) on vocals and the CD cover. Ms. Moriarty is now 56 years old (playing older here), and was only 19 when she made her stunning screen debut in RAGING BULL. Other supporting work is provided by MC Lyte, Wass Stevens and Sahr Ngaujah.

The neighborhood is Bayonne New Jersey (see CHUCK), an area where lines such as “blood is thicker than Jager” actually make sense. A 23 year old would-be rapper can work as a bartender and caterer, and still find time to hone her musical skills. It’s the land of misfits and music that only sounds sweet to a few ears – where dreams don’t consist of owning yacht, but rather “making it across the bridge”. Crowd-pleasing movies are quite welcome these days, and filmmaker Jasper has joined with dynamite actresses Macdonald and Everett in delivering just that. Expect all to reach greater heights over the next few years.

watch the trailer: