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:


HOTEL MUMBAI (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A group of quiet and focused young men with backpacks arrive by boat and then split into taxis. We hear the calm voice being fed into their ear buds. The voice assures them that “God is with you” and “Paradise awaits.” Of course, since this is based on true events from 2008, we know the horror that is about to be unleashed by these terrorists (more than 170 killed).

This is the first feature film from writer-director Anthony Maras, and with his co-writer John Collee (MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, 2003), we are taken to CST, the train station which is one of the 12 terrorist targets. Actual footage is mixed in, leaving no doubt as to the panic and violence that unfolded. As the individuals in the group divide into their well-orchestrated terrorist teams, we flash to the morning routine at a nearby home. Arjun (Dev Patel) is frantically getting prepared for work before heading to his pregnant wife’s place of work. He is dropping off their young child since the sitter was a no-show.

Arjun is part of the staff at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel Palace, affectionately referred to as “The Taj”. The service is impeccable … to the point of checking the temperature of bath water for one of the guests. Those who stay here are accustomed to and demanding of the very finest. However, on this stay, they will experience the sharp contrast of ultimate luxury and raw terror. As viewers, our guts sense the feeling of dread, even as the hotel managers and staff are welcoming arriving guests such as a retired Russian Special Forces officer turned wealthy playboy (Jason Isaacs) and newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Homeland”), along with their newborn baby and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

As the cold-blooded attack is carried out by the terrorists at The Taj, we witness so many innocent people mowed down with precision – some execution style. Many hotel guests find hiding spots, including an exclusive club in the heart of the hotel. The staff, including Arjun and renowned Chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), courageously try to survive while also protecting the guests. David and Zahra get separated from each other and from their baby, leaving the nanny desperately trying to keep the oft-crying infant from being heard.

We also witness the local police – undermanned, under-armed, under-trained – try their best to defuse the situation, knowing that Special Forces are “hours away”. Courage is on display throughout the film, but this is no Jason Bourne or John McClane scenario. These are cooks and waiters and hotel guests caught in one of the most frightening situations imaginable.

For cinematic effect, the attack seems to take place over the course of a single night, whereas the actual events were over 3 days, resulting in 31 deaths at The Taj. The level of tension is maintained throughout … it’s a well-made thriller centered on actual events and real people. The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid any political, social or religious commentary or insight. We only know the terrorists are told to take American prisoners and “Go and do Jihad”. It’s described as “indiscriminate terror” and that they are reclaiming what has been taken from them over the years. It is a difficult film to watch, though we understand there will always be bad people doing bad things for what they believe are the right reasons. Fortunately, there will also always be courageous and good people. More than once we hear the staff mention “Guest is God” … but not all of these guests were welcome.

watch the trailer: