Category Archives: Film Reviews
How many times have we walked by homeless people on the NYC sidewalk overbundled with blankets and towels in the wintertime? Did you toss change in their cup and walk away free from the guilt? Or did you have a conversation if you had a bit of time to spare, in a show of human decency?
I’ve often thought that the change didn’t begin to answer the loss of a life of connectedness that the individual experiences daily bracing against the elements as he or she determine to live on the streets. If the individual is an older person, I’ve wondered how they might have gotten there. Was it a downhill spiral from drugs or alcohol or not taking their meds? What do we do with their presence which represents a failure of our culture and government to care for its own? Do we walk by ignoring them as invisible people, throw change or when no one is looking use them for an occasion to unleash our devils within?
Nicole Gut Executive Producer, Author, Songwriter, Composer, Actor, Singer considered these issues and wrote a short play about a woman who has lost her singing voice. Through a series of events the woman ends up living on the streets of New York with the hope of returning to herself one day. It is a day which never comes.
Lullaby premiered at the John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors in Manhattan in New York on October 2018 as an entry for Paul Michael’s New Short Play Festival. The play was directed by Kae Fujisawa and was a success.
Ryan Mills, an actor in the production gave a hard and long look at what the team accomplished. He was convinced there was so much more to the story that must be told. With his insight and assistance, Nicole decided to transform LULLABY into a SAG narrative short film. Kae Fujisawa whose dedication and perceptiveness as a director who helped to shepherd the play to a home run would be the director and co-writer of the film. At that point events moved quickly. Nicole and Kae worked on the script to add complications and deepen the themes.
The resultant film from Nicole Gut’s titular short play Lullaby is a work they are proud of. It had a number of screenings, one at the Network Film Festival in New York City where it was well received. Nicole Gut garnered a Best Actress Nomination and Jack Utrata was nominated for Best Cinematography.
The film stars Ryan Mills as Brian Mills and Nicholas Ferrara as Michael Franklin who portray friends and near-do-wells who are ethically and morally challenged. Both, especially Brian, are unable to solve the overwhelming issues that threaten to destroy their lives. Alcohol is never a panacea to heal soul damage. In fact it exacerbates the damage and launches one into a place that is an abyss of misery and torment.
And so it goes for Brian and Michael who on a drunken spree come across a homeless woman and former singer Sarah Hughes (Nicole Gut) who has lost her voice. The alcohol overtakes Brian and Michael and they allow it to dominate their will, self-hood and decency. Sarah tries to defend herself, but her response provokes the men, especially Brian. We learn later why he moves against her with venom. Susan Jane McDonald as Brian’s mom reveals Brian’s untoward actions, which are deeply rooted in sorrow. Indeed, when old wounds do not heal, they bleed out onto other individuals and the reckoning is horrific for everyone involved, a reckoning which has no answer and no end.
I screened Lullaby at a private screening at Shetler Studios after the Network Film Festival. It was then I learned that the film was accepted to Culver City Film Festival as a narrative short and screened 6-12 of December. I can understand why. It is well conceived, acted and directed; the cinematography (by Jack Utrata) lighting and shot construction are cogent and propel the story and atmosphere of the film toward its ironic and eerie conclusion. Kudos to Nicole Gut, Kae Fujisawa, Jack Ultrata and other members of the team who worked to effect a story that has currency with our time.
The creative team intend to submit the film to additional festivals as they work on a full-length feature that promises to broaden the characterizations and themes. These center around issues of homelessness, bullying, psychological trauma, discrimination, and the mistaken assumptions that kindness is weakness and machismo shows one is powerful.
Lullaby screened at Culver City Film Festival in Los Angeles, California where it won the Best Short Suspense Award. To learn more about Lullaby on Instagram, go to @LullabySweetDreamsFilm. On Facebook CLICK HERE.
To become a part of the LULLABY team by donating to their Indie Go Go campaign, CLICK HERE.
For the Lullaby website to stay apprised of the events related to the film CLICK HERE.
‘Night Hunter,’ a Psychological Thriller Starring Henry Cavill, Alexandra Daddario, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci
Strong performances by Sir Ben Kingsley and Brendan Fletcher as a psychotic sexual predator killer make Night Hunter an intriguing film for those who are able to pay attention. If you watch it on a small screen and take frequent breaks from focus, you may get lost with the opacity of the plot which largely rests as a mystery whose reveal builds brick upon brick and slams into crystal clarity at the end.
Written and directed by nascent filmmaker David Raymond, the film is not without flaws in its sound and audio delivery. Indeed, the fine music score at times drowns out the dialogue instead of whispering the insidiousness and suspense that is inherent in the storyline, a storyline which pays homage to psychotic schizophrenics in other films that have a better handle on terrorizing the audience, perhaps. But make no mistake. This film is not of that genre. Night Hunter has its moments and if you are a fan of Tucci, Cavill and especially Kingsley, who as usual is spot-on terrific in a small, meaty part, you will receive what you came for.
Henry Cavill portrays police detective Marshall, a “night hunter” of sexual predator/killers who has become so overwhelmed by his career that he has allowed it to occlude his family relationships. He’s lost custody of his daughter and is divorced and has been drawn inward by guilt and the darkness he hunts. His characterization is largely intuited; Cavill is dour, depressed and cold, a warning to those who believe that “hunting” killers is all fun and video games. It’s not and Raymond indicates that Marshall has been largely undone emotionally. He’s siphoned off feelings and warmth to remain sharp for his incredible journey into the minds of the psychotics. Fun it is not!
Along this particular journey looking for a murderous sexual predator, he is aided by former girlfriend Rachel, the lovely Alexandra Daddario who is a sweet-faced, kittenish damsel in distress (especially at the end). Continually against type she alternately proves she can and can’t profile killers, but nevertheless she somewhat successfully draws out the monstrously weird, mentally challenged, deaf Simon who Brendan Fletcher portrays with lightening empathy and terrifying reality.
Stanley Tucci as Commissioner Harper keeps his force together and weathers the embarrassment (it’s a humorous scene) of facing down the press and public infuriated by the police force’s incompetence at locating enough proof to put away the predator stalking their city. Unlike American Law Enforcement who readily finds their killers and then years later are upended by DNA testing which proves they got the wrong guy, Canadian law enforcement intends to get it right. Of course, amidst botch jobs and misdirection down wrong paths (the mentally challenged Simon is being abetted by someone who is keen to kill and has the brilliance to outsmart and dispatch the police) the community’s patience wears thin as the serial killer remains on the loose to strike again and again.
It is no surprise that Kingsley, who portrays retired judge Cooper converted into a vigilante who protects the community against sexual predators without killing them appears a hero. His rationale beautifully delivered to Cavill’s Marshall in the benign brightness of a diner, seems right-on and clear-eyed considering he succeeds where law enforcement continually stumbles. Well, their emotional motivations are as different as night and day. For the police, looking for predators is just a job. For Cooper it is a mission in which he is emotionally invested. Actually, women have suggested that predators be dealt with as Cooper deals with them. Stopping the assaults and ending ruining the emotional ethos and psyches of women, however, is not important enough for the male-driven law enforcement officials to even lobby for.
Law enforcement, full of brio and testosterone (Marshall, Harper) find his methods beyond the pale, except at the end when Cooper joins the team. How Cooper goes about stopping predators from their chronic obsession to sexually abuse, prey upon and even kill young women is ironic and profound. Perhaps such a method should have been used on Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and other misogynistic (rape is a crime of violence and against young and old has been characterized as a weapon of war) sexual criminals whose privilege (if they are rich) places them above the law to predatorize women with impunity.
Indeed, Cooper outshines all of law enforcement and makes the self-righteous Marshall, who can’t even get his own role as father in sync with his daughter and is in a state of panic with the predator on the loose, look like a wimp. In all fairness, Cavill is not Superman in this film which is a refreshing switch. And up against Kingsley who is just terrific, he is bested/awed in the two-minute scene where Cooper makes his case for going after predators “his” way with his side-kick the wry and sometime funny Lara (the fine Eliana Jones) as the lure for the men attracted to underage, “unwitting” GIRLS.
Not enough credit has been given to Raymond for exposing the two different approaches to sexual predation: one as a medical condition, the other as a crime whose predators, once they fulfill their sentence, move back into the culture to prey upon victims again. Law enforcement’s and the male culture’s myopia perceive sexual predation as a sexual phenomenon. It is not; it is a mental/physical condition as Cooper suggests, or worse, a hate crime especially regarding serial rapists (who eventually turn out to be killers). To end the deaths and destruction of women’s lives, Cooper’s methods seem less than harsh. However, as long as the patriarchy runs things, women will have to suffer and sexual predators, always men (identified with by male law enforcement) be given lenience. Kingsley’s performance brings all the nuance, depth and controversy to these issues. As Cooper he is heartfelt. The arc of that character’s development by Raymond is drawn well and acted superbly by Kingsley who gives the judge great substance and moment.
The themes about how “night hunters” who are hunted (the psycho killer avenges himself on the police) survive and the emotional toll it takes on them are interesting, as is Daddario’s Rachel in her empathetic sweetness to lure Simon to speak the truth. The psychological aspects of law enforcement are notes in the film, which is not just about apprehending a psychotic sexual predator/killer. See if you can figure out the mystery; clues are present.
Considering that many murders/disappearances (sex trafficking ends in murder, the womens’ bodies often disappeared) end up cold case, the elements Raymond pinpoints are vital; but as in most films about rape, sexual predators, psychotic killers, i.e. the Silence of the Lambs series, SeVen, etc., the plots are fantastic fiction regarding the success of law enforcement. Holding serial rapists and killers and sexual predators to account is hard won and more often than not, they are allowed to go free, abetted by law enforcement’s malaise about rape (see the film I Am Evidence). Thus, Night Hunter effects an interesting response to the issue of sexual predation through the characterization of Cooper, unlike any seen before. That males will easily dismiss and overlook these elements seems moot.
Currently on DIRECTTV, Night Hunter will be screening in theaters and ON DEMAND in NYC, LA and other cities beginning 6th September. Look for it.
Morgan Spurlock rose to international fame in Super Size Me (2004) when he used himself as a research subject to chow down for breakfast, lunch and dinner on “supersize portions” at McDonalds in a marathon of calorically indulgent eating. During the process Spurlock fashioned his body into a toxic biohazard. After one month of greasy Mc-oversizing, he proved the medical hazards of such an intake of poisonous fare. His systemic overloading on fats, salt and sugar compromised the health of his kidneys, liver and heart and his weight gain laced with nights of acid reflux and intense heartburn solidified how fast food chains outsourced bad nutrition and obesity while emphasizing low cost.
The film successfully grossed millions with a huge profit margin and vaulted Spurlock into the hero heaven of vegans and health food mavens. Meanwhile, a shamed McDonalds pulled its “supersize program” and brought in “healthier” menus with salad sides and meals, and thoughtful “trimmings” on burgers. And as a documentarian, actor, producer, writer and filmmaker, Spurlock’s entertaining and revelatory approach reshaped the tenor of documentaries by spinning a novel, investigative method, moving from outside critic to inside ethnographer whose chronicle as a consumer couldn’t be easily dismissed.
Though the fast food chains had been put on notice immediately after the film’s release and mega publicity, to what extent did they maintain their “good behavior” providing healthier fare years later? Indeed, after the shock of Spurlock’s doctor’s dire warnings about his ill health faded from the public’s memory, could they be lured back to fried, greasy, salty, burgers, chicken sandwiches and fries?
Spurlock discovered they could in his sequel Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! in which he chronicles his own launch into fast food and agribusiness poultry farming. As a result of a proposition by Hardees to make an advertisement using his credibility and authenticity showcasing the supposed “healthiness” of its menu, he decided it was time to revisit the new “trends” morphing the fast food industry. Once again, taking an ethnographer participant’s approach after research, expert consultations and the input of the public, Spurlock created his farm to fast food table chicken pop-up restaurant in Columbus, Ohio where his Holy Chicken! joint rose like a phoenix from an old Wendy’s.
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! is Spurlock’s amazing journey through poultry farming right up to the psychological approach of designing a chicken sandwich and “healthy,” relaxing setting in which to eat it. When it comes to the insidiousness and cruelty (toward farmers and chickens) of what Spurlock refers to as the “Big Chicken Mafia,” and the obsessive intensity of the fast food industry to brainwash and lure its customers, Spurlock reveals how the public is gamed, bamboozled, duped and mollified into believing agribusiness and the fast food industries have their best interests at heart. By assuming the role of the insider, Spurlock becomes privy to most everything we need to know to “open our eyes” when we make food selections from their raw forms in grocery stores (branding, i.e. organic, free range, etc., is an extreme exaggeration) to their crispy chicken (never say fried-it’s anathema) and painted on grill marks in fast food restaurants.
Some of what Spurlock entertainingly and wryly unloads on the viewer they are probably familiar with. Fast food menus have been made to appear sleek, chic, “organic,” healthy, fresh, but are actually filled with the same old malign items despite the kale most probably grown with pesticides and herbicides. With his innocent, frank and humorous delivery that he has honed to precision, he lightly excoriates how “branding” and “labeling” provide a “halo of health” effect which of course is a sham.
For example what is fresh, organic, natural regarding veggies? Were these items bagged from California days ago or fresh picked from the farm that morning and raised without pesticides and herbicides? Are pictures of salads, veggies and fruits come-ons to convince us we are eating healthy food as we by-pass them for the greasy, fat-filled burgers and fried chicken? Are wooden laminate floors and green decor appointments suggestive of fresh, natural settings decrying the artificial? Yes! The industry has staged every element of delivery down to their brown napkins and bags and paper straws.
When Spurlock in the interest of sampling the competition’s chicken sandwiches (chicken sandwiches-best sellers, have overtaken burgers as healthier offerings in the public mind) he visits McDonalds, Burger King, et. al, to try out their chickeny fare. His epithet descriptors are humorous and of course, the taste is no different than what he remembers from thirteen years ago. As for sampling and examining the best-selling chicken sandwich in the US market today offered at Chick-fil-a? He discovers their advertised “seasoned to perfection” deliciousness is not because of the chicken, but because of the extensive “flavor enhancer” otherwise known as the devastatingly poisonous MSG. So he and the experts he has taken along on their sampling travels to see how they can beat the competition vow that to succeed, he should be as authentic farm to table as possible, minus the MSG.
The most upsetting segment in the documentary underscored ironically by melodic classical music involves Morganic Fresh Farms in Alabama. Spurlock takes us on his adventures finding, purchasing and raising his chickens which begin as adorable hatchlings under the auspices of independent farmer and mentor Johnathan Buttram. It is then that he rips the veil to expose the noxious, controlling practices of “Big Chicken” integrators (Tyson Foods, Perdue, Koch Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms) who turn their farmers into sharecroppers as they “tow the poverty line” eventually bankrupting them or driving them out of business if they become rebellious. The integrators use a genocidally counterproductive “tournament system” that pits farmer against farmer for the “love of “big brother chicken” to enhance their profits while squeezing their farmers by forcing them to make unnecessary upgrades.
Spurlock’s interviews with some of the farmers who are at their wits end and emotionally devastated at the stress of having to increase their purchases and indebtedness to “big brother chicken” integrators, tell a tale akin to “slavery,” in a job that requires farmers never take rests or vacations but are on call almost 24/7. On strict orders not to talk to reporters to tell them of their plight or they will be blackballed, the farmers take a great risk to get the information to the public in Spurlock’s film. Indeed, Spurlock who makes Jonathan Buttram his hero farmer, indicates by the close of the film (2016) “big brother chicken” integrators refused to give Buttram more chickens to grow because of his revelations about the industry. To “big brother chicken” integrators the truth is punishable by elimination. Vladimir Putin and other autocrats do no less. Reprehensible!
Indeed, if “big brother chicken” truly cared about the public as their friendly advertisements and chicken lobbyist Tom Super suggest, they would open their doors to their growing houses. But they can’t because if the public knew how the chickens were overcrowded and abused, they would be appalled and boycott “big brother chicken,” who refuses to change its profitable practices. For example Spurlock chronicles how the broiler chickens used in fast food and for sale in grocery stores have been genetically modified to grow in hyperdrive over a six week period so they weigh six pounds by the end of their lives. If a baby grew as fast proportionately, it would weigh 650 pounds.
Talk about genetic overload, the chickens are so obscenely big breasted top heavy, they can have hip joint breakage and necrosis and a myriad of other disgusting diseases if their immune systems are not functioning properly. However, even the healthier ones die of heart attacks before the six weeks are up because they are too heavy to stand for longer than 5 seconds let alone run around and get exercise. Their heart muscle gives out because genetically they are conditioned to grow too quickly for their heart to accommodate them. When Spurlock takes some of his heart attacked chickens to the vet who autopsies them, the vet pronounces that this is what happens to these chickens whose meat is otherwise healthy.
Humanely, Spurlock allows his chickens more space to run around where to make money to survive, his friend and mentor from whom he purchased his chicks, Buttram, like other farmers are forced to pack in their chickens for profitability. If they can’t move? Well, a hazard the integrators promote. Spurlock saves the one God-growing chicken not genetically modified to hyperdrive growth that he kept with the other big breasted chickens to show as a comparison. The God-growing chicken runs so fast, they can barely catch him. Of course, he is smaller, healthy and not in a chronically somnambulant feed overdose!
Spurlock’s film is fascinating and sardonic not only for what he reveals, but for the authentic and honest approach he takes insuring the credibility and reliability of his chicken sandwich product. On the walls of his pop-up Holy Chicken!, he exposes every shoddy practice that the fast food industry and he himself used down to the painting of grill marks on his crispy “grilled” chicken sandwich. And he identifies, to the dismay of his patrons, the big breasted hyperdrive grown chickens he grew on his farm. He also includes a drawing of Johnathan Buttram with the admonition “know your farmer” and a description of the sharecropper system that farmers are forced to use if they would be poultry growers.
The opening day patrons of Holy Chicken! paid for a delicious chicken sandwich which by the time they finished reading all of the information on the walls and the menu, they were appalled to have eaten. One patron commented about the clever ironies of the restaurant ,and Spurlock affirmed speaking into the camera to both industries that he hopes to put himself and them out of business with increased public awareness that they are being “taken for a ride.”
Supersize Me 2: Holy Chicken! is a must-see for a laugh and a tear. It was featured a few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival and then was pulled for #MeToo reasons against Spurlock who made an Al Franken move and apologized for his behavior then was bashed again and again for it. The inability of women to discern when they should forgive those who admit fault and apologize instead of beating them forever, bodes badly for the movement. Kirsten Gillibrand’s insistence that Franken fall on his own sword and resign from the senate while the occupant of the White House and his friend Jeffrey Epstein and Justice Kavanaugh had done far worse than Franken, reveals the movement needs to step back and examine itself for inequitable judgment and cowardice for not going after those who need to be called down in the face of overwhelming evidence. #MeToo needs to embrace the men who apologize, make amends and change, not flagellate them in a misguided fashion while NOT ADMONISHING RELENTLESSLY the true rapists, misogynists and sexual predators in high places who smile in the shadows of their lying denials.
Thankfully, Spurlock’s film finally will do the good that it was intended to do, receiving a release date the week of 6 September 2019. Don’t miss it! If you can’t wait, it is also online.
Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Review: ‘It Takes a Lunatic,’ The Life and Times of Wynn Handman
Anyone who has been involved in the New York City theater world knows who the prodigiously awarded Wynn Handman is. He is a lunatic indeed, with a purpose and a passion. Wynn Handman’s love is for theatrical performance, teasing out character to achieve the pinnacle of believability that allows the actor to live “onstage.”
For decades Wynn Handman has been coaching actors to get in touch with the best part of themselves and release their God given talents. His appreciation for innovative theater is as legion as his humanity. It is expressed in the countless friendships he’s had over the years with writers, playwrights, musicians, directors and artists. Billy Lyons’ wonderful documentary is an incredible testament to a great man who continues to have an impact on all in his sphere of influence.
In its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, It Takes a Lunatic, director Billy Lyons (actor, director, teacher, producer and assistant to Wynn Handman) displays the man behind the mask and reveals there is no mask or gloss to Wynn Handman. Wynn is who he is, an authentic, witty, “tell-it-like-is” acting teacher, and he is this with everyone, large and small, famous or infamous, actor or layperson. Why change now? Wynn is 97-years-young and is still teaching acting. He has nothing to lose by being himself, which he always has been, “a wild and crazy guy!”
Lyons’ poignant tribute to this brilliant genius and loving artist is a lesson in learning to be real, to get to the core of oneself unapologetically, to take risks, to embrace the unique, and defy the status quo. And above all through this retrospective on Wynn, we learn that in the theatrical world, one should go where angels fear to tread to manifest the rewards of creative inspiration. Wynn has approached his life this way and has achieved what only a fearless magician would dare to even think about. He initiated The American Place Theatre and with it directed and hosted unknown and established playwrights and known writers who adapted their work into plays. Wynn allowed innovation to flourish and opened opportunities to black (Ed Bullins, Michael Bradford, Ron Milner) and Chinese (Frank Chin) and female (Emily Mann, María Irene Fornés) playwrights and actors at a time when opportunities for them were slender and doors opened infrequently.
Lyons reveals how Wynn effected this, through his own life experiences during and after the war when New York was opening up like a flower and anything seemed possible. Wynn learned from some of the best; he ended up studying with and assisting Sandy Meiser at The Neighborhood Playhouse. There he made his chops and had the grist to launch out on his own creating his own acting classes and sessions which he has continued doing for decades.
Lyons captures this dynamo through film and video interviews and archived family photos that span his early life and cover all parts in between through his marriage, later family life and continuous career, from 1949 up until the present. Lyons captures his enthusiasm, his great good will, humor, generosity and his flexibility to understand the importance of helping to hone the talents of actors, directors and writers. Video and film clips include interviews or discussions with/about a veritable “Who’s Who” of actors, directors and playwrights who studied or worked with Wynn. A few interviewed in the film or seen in photos or film clips are Richard Gere, Joel Grey, John Leguizamo, Bill Irwin, Raul Julia, Sam Waterston, Frank Langella, Sam Shepherd, Eric Bogosian, Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Mira Sorvino, Susan Lucci, Woody King Jr, Faye Dunaway and many more.
Lyons includes historical clips from his acting and coaching classes as individuals discuss Wynn Handman’s approach toward his actors which was unlike many of the other acting teachers in the city who were austere and frightening. Every actor interviewed from Michael Douglas to Richard Gere tells anecdotes and experiences they had with Wynn, many humorous, all of them praiseworthy. He is the ideal acting teaching who dispels fear, encourages, comforts with his wise, calm demeanor. He knows just when to tell a joke or make one laugh. His suggestions and perceptions are superlative. From the introductory applause in the theater as Robert De Niro introduced Billy Lyons and the film, one could tell that Wynn’s hundreds of fans-many of them working actors and directors were present to support him. They gave him and Billy Lyons a standing ovation before and after the film.
The list of celebrities who studied with Wynn is impressive. Many of them have gone on to be award winners. Lyons includes fabulous black and white performance clips from some of the fascinating productions staged at The American Place Theatre and has various actors discuss their impact. Lyons delves into Wynn Handman’s close friendship with Sam Shepherd who he, in effect, put on the map by producing 8 of his plays at The American Place Theatre.
Wynn Handman conducted many series at The American Place Theatre. There was a Humorist’s series (i.e. Cavin Trillin, James Thurber, Jules Feiffer and others) A Woman’s Project Series, a Literature Series (various authors adapted their longer works into plays). Wynn encouraged the production of controversial, ground-breaking and thematically striking works.
In 1969 Wynn produced George Tabori’s The Cannibals a holocaust play which received a cool reception because the audience didn’t understand the piece as black comedy. Tabori’s play went on to be produced at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin where it received an incredible reception and outpouring of support because the Germans needed to deal with elements of the Holocaust and the play afforded them the opportunity. Tabori, a Hungarian Jew who swore he would never return to Berlin ended up moving there and becoming a vital force in German Theater. From the reception of this work, Tabori ended up writing additional plays and working in TV as opportunities opened up to him. Tabori became globally renowned and won various awards. Without Wynn Handman’s support for Tabori to present his plays, one wonders would this inspired story have ended the way it did? Lyons coverage of this segment in the history of NYC theater is monumental.
Additionally, in 1970, Wynn staged Tabori’s Pinkville starring Michael Douglas in a dynamic and highly praised performance. The play was an indictment of the US war in Vietnam. Pinkville was controversial and exceptional. It is another example of Wynn Handman’s courage in treading where theatrical producers feared to go. But in the film Handman emphasizes that The American Place Theatre was a non-profit theater, funded through subscriptions. So those who donated, paid their subscriptions because they wanted to see controversial, ground-breaking Off Broadway theater. The American Place Theatre was artistic theater in the best sense of the word and as one of the producers, Handman was free from worrying about the bottom line and commercialism that plagues NYC theater today.
The moderator of the Q & A that occurred after the screening was Jeremy Gerard who wrote the biography on Wynn Handman entitled Wynn, Place, Show. It is worth the read to review Wynn’s historical place in American theater and specifically his influence in shepherding so many sterling actors who are still working today.
The documentary superbly chronicles one man’s indelible impact on NYC theater and in particular revelatory drama. Lyons has created a gem of a film. It is a must-see for anyone pursuing a theater or entertainment career, and for those interested in how theater’s cultural impact can change lives. Look for It Takes a Lunatic online and check out their FB page.
American Factory by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert screened in its New York premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary is an alarming view of the foreign factory which may presage the downhill slide for American workers as the trend of foreign investment continues. Factories in China and Russia operate differently. And when such investment comes to the U.S., standards of accountability are not what Americans are used to. Foreign ownership dictates process and operation.
The film presents the anatomy of a GM plant closing December 2008 and its rise from the ashes in the form of a refurbished plant bought by Chinese investors. The idea to invest in the U.S. was to establish profitability. For Americans the hope was that the jobs created would bring greenery back to a state which was choking from the massive rust storms its closed industries had caused.
The devastation in industry as a result of the mortgage debacle and Second Great Depression under the Bush Administration was legion throughout the U.S. and globally. Thus, when news of the GM plant’s restoration by Chairman Cao came, there was cause for jubilation. After the dust of the launch settled, expectations shifted and the hard realities revealed themselves.
The filmmakers lay no blame and avoid a political stance. Any reference to politics is my own perspective. The filmmakers present all sides and attempt to be as objective as possible. Because of that attitude they had total access to the factory floor. Using the techniques of cinema verite and acute editing, we see interviews of workers expressing feelings and opinions. In light of the history of the American factory and unions which the film touches upon, what is now happening with foreign investment coming here and opening factories is not the boon politicians would make it out to be. Based upon what the filmmakers discovered and relate through their interviews and portraits of workers at home and on the factory floor, “the handwriting is on the wall.”
A Bit of History
When the Dayton, Ohio GM plant closed in 2008 filmmakers recorded what was a tragedy for blue collar workers. Dayton, the home of the Wright Brothers, had a prodigious history of industry and innovation. At one point it boasted the most patents per capita than any other city in the US. It was the second largest automotive manufacturing city after Detroit at a prosperous time before the Regan administration. Before the Regan years the wealthy were taxed proportionately with the other classes. The corporate tax rate was triple what it is now. The unions protected/advocated for workers and petitioned the government (OSHA) to safeguard their health and well being when there were violations. CEO salaries were not as exponentially wacked in comparison to their workers’ salaries. Workers faced low inflation: by comparison to today, there was little national debt. A single parent wage-earner was able to support a family of four and put kids through college in middle America and the South. Additionally, the medical industrial complex was not profit based.
None of this was socialism! The wealthy were taxed their proportionate fair share. It was good, old-fashioned American citizens paying to support one another’s prosperity, from the wealthy to the poor based on the graduated income tax. The extremes between rich and poor were not galactic. Banks were regulated repositories of citizen funds; they could not invest.
Ronald Regan and a conservative Republican administration exponentially increased corporate socialism otherwise known as corporate welfare. Everything changed in the nation’s economy and social/economic progress among the classes to benefit the wealthiest and slight the poor and middle class (upper middle, middle, lower middle). Republicans increasingly targeted programs for every-day Americans and pushed for more tax breaks for the wealthy. Unions were broken up. Globalism was used as the excuse, but in effect, the 60/40% power balance upended between unions and corporate higher ups to 80/20. Corporates took advantage. Greed blossomed, inequities grew. Corporations closed factories in the U.S. and went overseas, not happy to make a profit, but happier to make a mega profit to pay a hefty CEO salary and benefits to someone more interested in the bottom line than making product. Banking structure continued to change. Banks consolidated, made investments, funded derivatives, subprime mortgages and became “too big to fail.
Surreptitiously, Regan and others that followed had the laws changed to effect this, all to benefit corporates and the wealthy. There was continued downsizing, outsourcing, lower corporate tax rates, higher middle class tax rates, and lower taxes for the wealthy. Factories went overseas and Americans and farmers went bankrupt as the American Dream evaporated. With the mortgage debacle in 2008, it was the apotheosis of the death of the American Dream. Plant closures bankrupted and retrograded the lives of thousands of blue-collar workers in a chain reaction effect on other businesses.
After filmmakers covered the GM plant closing, they did an update of the area. Founder, chairman and CEO of Fuyao Glass Industry Group in a symbolic gesture acquired the old GM factory to establish an American headquarters of multinational Fuyao Glass. For the promise of hiring American workers and having it launched by American officials, he received enormous tax credits from the Ohio Tax Credit Authority. These breaks have increased under the Trump Tax Reform Act, which gives millions of dollars in tax welfare to corporations and billionaires, while making the other, poorer economic classes pay for it in a now swelling $23 trillion dollar deficit, something once considered anathema by conservative Republican tea partyists, now embraced and lauded by Mitch McConnell Republicans.
Documentarians filmed the plant launch and operations of Fuyao Glass which, to Chairman Cao’s consternation, was not immediately profitable as it would have been in China. It was losing money on top of the $500 million invested to open the plant.
Interestingly, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert examine a cross-section of Chinese and American workers and managers to gauge the cultural differences, language barriers and work approaches. They interview Chairman Cao (a communist party leader hooked in high up to the party through his family). The Chinese workers, used to long hours and little pay are happy. American workers are upset.
The differences between the two cultures are staggering and problematic when the pressure of financial losses increases. Chinese workers, used to 10-14 hour days, find the 8 hour day unrealistic for profitability. US safety regulations established by OSHA are not understood and often ignored imperiling workers. For example Wong He, lead Furnace Engineer in OEM Tempering at Fuyao Glass America in an area where temperatures exceed 1200 F, a 20-plus-year employee of Fuyo, has burn marks all over his arms gotten in China. China’s safety regulations are not like ours. American workers file grievances, something that Chairman Cao doesn’t understand.
The Chinese and American workers try to become friends; there are humorous clips of Americans bringing Chinese workers for barbecue and for entertainment, showing them how to use guns for target practice. The Chinese workers who are away from their families and room together in tiny apartments are shocked that some Americans have to work two jobs (FGA pays $14.00 per hr.) to make ends meet. Clearly, American standards of living are not what Chinese hear about. Filmmakers interviews who lost homes, went bankrupt and live in one room in a relative’s house with few belongings. Thus, FGA seemed a dream come true. There are caveats.
In the past the former jobs at GM paid $28.00 an hour and the inflation rates and cost of living were lower. With their lower salary and higher costs, inflation and the shrinking purchasing power of the dollar, the FGA workers cannot afford to pay for their own education to retool or pay for their children’s college. Some are happy to have a job. But it is longer hours (they are not paid for training) with unsafe working conditions. The Chinese workers are younger and are used to long work hours under stressful conditions. Chinese workers come from a militaristic/communistic approach to company loyalty. They obey all commands without question, even if it means sacrificing their safety. Americans if have been used to a long tradition since unionization of asking “why?” Chairman Cao and the Chinese officials see this approach as disloyalty. They should just obey orders.
As the financial pressures increase, the Chinese attempt to show American company officials how FGA should be operated; they even pay for their visit to China to understand how plants are run. The hand of the Communist Party is all over the company in China; there are songs, banquets and entertainment to praise Fuyo Glass and the Chairman for his goodness. The sessions appear like brainwashing PR advertisements which inculcate the workers to be loyal, obedient employees for the good of the company/communist party. The visit to mainland China is an eye-opener.
Though American managers who visited China attempt to rein in their American workers when they return home, the historical, socio-cultural and economic disparities get in the way. Everything explodes when American workers at FGA attempt to unionize with the help of the U.A.W. Chairman Cao will not brook this assault on his company. He hires American lawyers and lobbyists to thwart unionization and mount an attack campaign against the union so workers will vote it down. The firm he hires, the Labor Relations Institute is paid over one-million for its assistance to provide everything that Chairman Cao and Chinese managers (Chairman Cao brings over new managers to tackle what the American managers can’t) need for the union vote to fail.
Filmmakers catch all of these interactions on camera and edit cogently so we understand the events with voice over explanations by workers. Surveillance of union representatives at FGA is taken. The right of the worker to voice complaint is discouraged; union reps who work at the plant are the equivalent of traitors. The vote fails; FGA has no union. There are promises made to lift the employee wages. Eventually, with no profitability, American management is fired; union reps are fired and anyone who gives “what for” or doesn’t work at the level required of their Chinese counterparts is put on notice. Retribution for asserting the right to speak out will occur, thus workers fear filing grievances with OSHA. At the end of the film’s shooting in December of 2017, a Fuyao employee was accidentally crushed to death. Additionally, to avoid conflicts in the future, the plant is being increasingly automated. Regardless, workers will be out of jobs, even if they prove loyalty.
Is there any way of knowing what injuries are occurring or what violations are happening in a corporation in the US, a foreign run company, which follows Chinese policies and practices? Only whistleblowers could reveal this; but they need their jobs and would be fired if the the identity of the whistleblower was revealed. The law of profitability is supreme, under a system of loyalty to the Chairman and the company which expects its workers to meet its own standards, not American standards.
Since the film the number of OSHA complaints against the company is down-exactly why is not known. The company has been profitable in 2018; but one of the stipulations for tax incentives of $15 million is that the company fulfill its promise to hire 800 employees, generate an annual payroll of $32.5 million and stay at their current facility for at least 18 years. Filmmakers also discovered that in March of 2018 a Fuyao employee was accidentally killed while working. Fifteen years ago in plants across the nation, to avoid citations, OSHA standards were being followed and the press would have publicly shamed the company.
Chairman Cao is spending $16 million to build a new processing center in South Carolina. It’s a new day. Foreign investment is here. It’s been a long time coming. Those in the “know” needed to prime the nation for such a situation with sub prime loans, so workers could go bankrupt, corporations could make more money overseas, the unions could be broken and those pesky regulations could be obviated. All of this happened and happens so that corporations pay little for a desperate, broken-down, poor, workforce, and foreign companies find the US an attractive place to invest, helped by politicians looking to make a little spare change for their states and themselves. But as automation takes over jobs, much of the need to oversee human production will be moot.
How do we handle the coming foreign factories that are populating our American landscape, offering jobs at what cost to Americans?
The situation has exponentially worsened under Trump. Workers are expendable and invisible; the rule of law and regulations are a thing of the past. No one is watching except Chairman Cao, and other foreign corporate chairmen and Trump. They are watching their bottom line at the expense of workers and the American people. But don’t believe what I’ve written here. See the film for yourself. Corporate socialism has everything to do with what is happening to the “American” Factory. Equitable economic, democratic practices and tax structure had everything to do with why the U.S. was thriving up until Regan. Only the .001% are increasing their wealth exponentially. The reset of the nation is treading water or drowning in rust. Automation will exacerbate these problems.
The film is truly a siren call to citizens in the South and in the Rust Belt who are debilitated and hurting economically, despite promises by Trump. Fox News reports which ADVERTISE for the next election, a “booming economy” (yes for billionaires and Wall Street) are great sources of brainwashing to convince Americans that the shrinking purchasing power of the dollar is not happening and their existing paycheck to paycheck is a good thing. Just don’t get sick. The film posits what is happening and I’ve suggested this is no coincidence if you look at the larger picture. The economy is global. Corporations are not bound by nation-states,’ laws. They are free; their CEOS make incredible salaries; workers can’t afford a night out on the town if they have children. And under Citizen’s United, corporations are people; they can donate any amount they like to their preferred political candidates to perpetuate corporate welfare.
An example of foreign investment that is happening as I write this concerns Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska who is bringing money and jobs to Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky after Trump lifted heavy sanctions applied by Obama. against Russia for the Crimean invasion. Oleg Deripaska,Putin’s close friend, is building an aluminium factory in Kentucky. Deripaska has a history of looting, money laundering, corruption, silencing whistleblowers (one woman who shot her mouth off that Deripaska knew about Russian meddling with the U.S. election has been jailed in Russia). Deripaska/Putin have covered up corruption that is the basis of his oligarchic empire which he is making global with the help of Trump and McConnell.
If Deripaska is given carte blanche treatment to “stimulate jobs,” for McConnell’s Kentucky, his company will not ipso facto be subject to former American factory standards, especially if Trump and Mitch McConnell (who has turned a blind eye to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the Mueller Report’s findings of potential conspiracy and definite obstruction of justice) are in power. If the company pollutes and run roughshod over American workers? Only an aware public and vigilant government can stop any abuse by a company that is processing one of the most toxic substances on this planet, a poison connected to Alzheimer’s and other debilities.
Under Trump, the skies are the limit with foreign investment and foreign companies coming to the US to “create jobs.” There are no regulations worth keeping to improve the profitability of corporations. US tax payers will be subsidizing these corporations and individual states will be subsidizing tax breaks; certainly Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky state tax commission will be offering Oleg Deripaska tax breaks as a condition of hiring American workers. One wonders what else McConnell and others from Kentucky will be offering to “bring jobs” to one of the poorest states in the Union?
If we learn anything from American Factory, we will note that unless guarantees are made with workers, foreign investment will not improve American citizens’ plight and the economy in states that are hurting. Coupled with workers’ inability to easily retool and get an education (they cannot afford it because of bank strangleholds on student loans and interest rates) their options are so limited they are forced to work in such foreign industries for lower pay and questionable safety conditions. The vicious cycle will continue and the divide between rich and poor, the coastal cities and the red States will exponentially worsen. We must ask who does this foreign investment help?
This is a film worth seeing and thinking about. The point is to keep on learning. Ignorance is not a luxury we can afford.
In Washington, D.C. the beautiful monuments and treasured capitol building are icons Americans accept with reverence to appreciate their history. Also in an area that encompasses 17 blocks in the shadow of the capital there is a slaughter going on which is shameful and hidden.
The documentary film 17 Blocks by filmmaker/journalist Davy Rothbart with screenplay and editing by Jennifer Tiexiera, who won a Tribeca Award for Best Editing, exposes one of the most violent areas and gives us pause to ask why must gun violence continue, even in the very capital whose politicians refuse to deal with it because of money and power? We also ask, what is the value of human life to individuals whose lives have apparently been thrown away by a society and culture that doesn’t care?
Rothbart’s powerful and poignant film exposes the raw underbelly and extremes of life and death, that exist for black Americans who abide in the shadows of racism, poverty, drug addiction and the dwindling hope that their lives will ever get better in the capital of a ountry whose history has been plagued by war from its inception. In the chronicling of one family’s experience living in the 17 block radius, a picture unfolds that explains all we need to know about our country’s ethos in the hope that there can be improvement. If people see and understand, then they can change and help others change. It started with a filmmaker and someone who liked the idea of filming and from there, 17 Blocks was born.
The film begins with 9-year-old Emmanuel (the name means “God is with us,” and in the New Testament, Jesus Christ) using the camera in cinema verite style to capture the daily life of each member of the Sanford-Durant family.
Rothbart met Emmanuel who expressed an interest in being a filmmaker after he and his older brother Smurf become friendly with Rothbart. Eventually, the ball was set in motion for Emmanuel to chronicle snippets of family over a period of two decades. Emmanuel used Rothbart’s camera to shoot homely scenes, for example of his sister Denice preparing dinner, his mother getting ready to go out, as well as the family dynamic, their relationships and struggles. Various scenes express a rawness and poignancy that shows their love, concern, stress, anger and the full range of emotions that beset a family that is going through hard times, including the lack of finances or the education to start a successful career path.
Emmanuel introduces us to his mother Cheryl and other family members, Smurf, his brother who is six-years-older and Denice the oldest sister who has a job and attempts to take care of everyone. Over the years we watch their aging. We understand that Smurf battles a drug addiction and then goes full blown into dealing and then is arrested. We note that Cheryl has been struggling with a drug addiction that has financially bled her family dry and has dispossessed herself from a life of success by using. this goes on for years and is exacerbated when she is with her boyfriend Joe. Emmanuel even tapes their arguments.
Through it all, we watch Emmanuel grow up to capture what it is like living in the not so safe haven of family and the unsafe streets that they must negotiate as they attempt to get through each day. Emmanuel captures Denice’s children and Smurf’s holiday gatherings, parties, Cheryl’s elderly father who is not well and the general mayhem of the household which does not have enough room for all of them.
Denice who works, attempts to do the best she can but is not a good housekeeper and Cheryl chides her for this. But taking care of her children, cooking for them, working and moving in the direction of being a cop, then dealing with her addicted mother and brother is stressful. Somehow she manages to shore up her strength and be the mother and rock for all of them.
We are upset by their lows and happy that Emmanuel who has found an interest in being a firefighter and who has made good grades in school is graduating. He has a lovely girlfriend who is a good influence on him and it is clear that capturing on film his and his family’s lives may have made a difference in his choices away from running on the streets like so many of the other kids in this 17 block radius.
However, Cheryl and Smurf are on a downward slide with nothing to buoy them up and take them away from the destructive habits that have overwhelmed them. We understand this by how Cheryl has aged and by Smurf’s attitude, that the drugs will eventually do them in unless there is an intervention to make them realize their lives are worth something and that they still have a purpose in living.
Happily, their intervention comes. However, how and when it comes is not only unexpected, it is tragic.
Rothbart’s cobbling together these cinema verite pieces that Emmanuel captured during this time period is an ethnographic study in one black family’s life attempting to make it to the next day. Emmanuel portrays them lovingly through his lens so that we feel we come to know them, empathize with them and want the best for each of them. We are happy for Emmanuel’s goodness and Denice’s ambition and we hope against hope that Smurf and Cheryl will somehow dig deep within to change their lives.
We also stand in their shoes through the intimate approach that Emmanuel takes loving every one of his family members. And we can’t help but ask what would I do if I lived in that 17 blocks? Would I be so desolate I would turn to drugs as a way out and into oblivion? Where do I go for hope when I am so depressed and don’t have the means to seek a doctor’s help when what ails me is I’ve objectified what the culture and society says about who I am; that I’m worthless?
Rothbart has presented this documentary with perfection, keeping the inexpertly shot footage by Emmanuel as a nine-year-old and merging it eventually with the footage Emmanuel shot later and the scenes he himself has shot toward the conclusion of the film. We are left with a heartbreaking portrait of a family who is like us and who wants out of living in an environment prevalent with drugs and violence. And so would we if we stood in their shoes. And that is Rothbart’s point. Deliverance must come to this area. It has been a long time coming and ultimately seeing from the perspective of a nine-year-old who grows into manhood, the heartbreaking message is clear. We must stop the proliferation of illegal guns by making it unprofitable for gun manufacturers. There is no time better than now.
Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘A Taste of Sky,’ Sparking the Vision of the New Nordic Cuisine in Bolivia
Have you ever eaten at the number one restaurant in the world? For a number of years NOMA received the honor. Chef René Redzepi who runs the new NOMA in Copenhagen is working his way up to first world status again, after having moved and lost the former prestige. Chef Claus Meyer worked with Redzepi in helping to put New Nordic Cuisine and Copenhagen, Denmark, not normally known for sensational food, on the superior gastronomy map to win the title of “Best Restaurant in the World” four times.
A Taste of Sky by Michael Y. Lei features Claus Meyer’s groundbreaking cooking school and fine-dining restaurant GUSTU and chronicles how and why Meyer decided to open the school in La Paz, Bolivia. The film presents two students from GUSTU who are among the best of the best for they have evolved from humble beginnings to become fine chefs who will most probably one day gain the title of helping to be a part of the restaurant team who will have achieved the title of “Best Restaurant in the World.”
Yei’s documentary is a beautifully shot film for foodies and a great way to become acquainted with those who dedicate their lives to superior gastronomy like Claus Meyer. Meyer is culinary entrepreneur, food activist, cookbook author, professor and TV host. Though others assisted in helping Meyer establish the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy (12 chefs in 2004 wrote the New Nordic Food Manifesto to begin the movement, based on Claus Meyer’s initiative, inspirational draft and coordination) Meyer’s genius originated the concept. Over the years after the establishment of NOMA as a working laboratory and kitchen to foster the ideas of the New Nordic Cuisine, the restaurant became globally renowned and the philosophy spawned other iterations. Restaurants materialized similar approaches.
New Nordic Cuisine seeks to foster local agriculture, honor the region’s agrarian traditions, encourage environmentally friendly production, and establish food with a uniquely Nordic identity among the world’s great cuisines. An activist who believes that gastronomy can improve lives and change xenophobic responses to disparate cultures, Meyer has worked on many projects over the years to realize his beliefs. One of these projects took him to La Paz, Bolivia where he opened GUSTU and proved that the concepts initiated in the philosophy of “New Nordic Cuisine” could be retrofitted to any area in the world which has a dynamic environment and varied cuisine.
Lei’s film cuts back and forth to his interview with Claus Meyer and his daughter, and two students trained at GUSTU: Kenzo, a hunter raised in the wild of the Bolivian Amazon and Maria Claudia, a native of the Andean altiplano. Both sacrificed to leave home and attempt to become familiar with another world entirely. Meyer’s hope to establish one of the poorest countries in the world, Bolivia, as a a fine dining destination, is a fascinating revelation and experiment in fostering cultural intersections, between cities and rural areas, between and among cultures, and families educated and not educated.
The filmmaker includes glorious shots of Kenzo’s Amazon rain forest as he delves into Kenzo’s background, familiarizes us with the terrain, visits Kenzo’s parent’s farm and home, interviews his parents and generally helps us get to know this amazing, forward-thinking young man with great ambition. Assimilating the concepts of the philosophy behind New Nordic Cuisine, Kenzo, who completed his training at GUSTU, has made it through a difficult program where his friend dropped out to pursue something else.
Kenzo is currently working as a chef at a fine dining restaurant far away from Bolivia. He hopes to return one day to establish his own restaurant creating dishes whose unique ingredients come from the rain forest, the place he knows best as he learned from his father what plants are edible, healthful and delicious. The cuisine he will create using the local ingredients promises to be incredible.
Lei gives a sensitive and caring portrait of Maria Claudia, revealing that her problems are the usual ones for women. She must launch out into a career, having left home and the ones she loves instead of getting married and bearing children. She is overthrowing centuries of gender folkways with her new beginnings. This has been emotionally painful for her. The power of Lei’s interviews with Maria Claudia are that he allows her to explore and express her feelings so we understand what she has given up for a dream that she herself must manifest.
Lei reveals that in their own way, seeking their dreams using gastronomy as the vehicle, Maria Claudia, Kenzo and Meyer have taken parallel paths, though they are completely different individuals from different countries and backgrounds. Yet, all were inspired by this dream of how food can change one’s life and world, expanding food culture to meld people together so they might appreciate each other.
In his interview with Meyer, Lei brings out the problems with establishing the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy as it might adapt to the cuisine and culture of La Paz, Bolivia. Lei includes interviews with Meyer’s critics who are eventually won over by what Meyer is doing. And Meyer discusses the idea that the obstacle of the perception of the “colonial” coming in to help the “little people” was something he had to overcome. During Lei’s interviews with Meyer, he allows the entrepreneur to discuss his childhood and personal life. From that we understand the forces that shaped Meyer to move in the direction of gastronomy in a world laboratory to change people’s lives for the better.
To his credit, once Meyer established the success of GUSTU and made sure the school was grounded and continuing without him, he gave it over to Bolivia. Meyer’s intellectual genius is in researching whether or not his hypothesis about food works anywhere in the world, in any setting in the world. Is food a vehicle to change lives and improve the lives of the most hurting, the most needy of individuals? In all of Meyer’s projects threads of this belief are present.
Credit goes to Lei’s vision and the perspective he captures in this sonorous, sensual, striking film. The title is ingenious in symbolizing not only the beauty of the sky in Bolivia and the skyward dreams that both Kenzo and Maria Claudia are reaching toward, as they fly up to meet them using their love of gastronomy to create their own unique dishes based upon their culture, background and training.
The film is seamless in its cinematography and editing. It should be seen especially if one is a foodie. Look for A Taste of Sky online.
Our Time Machine won the Tribeca FF Best Cinematography for the Best Documentary Feature Awar, as well it should. The atmospheric lighting and shot compositions helped to create the poignance and poetic beauty of the film.
The arc of development concerns the relationship between the aging Chinese artist (Ma Ke) and his son the famous Chinese photographer and award winning graphic artist (Maleonn). Together, they work on a theatrical project which Maleonn believes will bring them closer together. Through Maleonn’s creation of life-sized father-son machine puppets and a theatrical installation propelled by his family story of life and death, Maleonn hopes to ground his father in a familiar theatrical milieu. Thus, he will receive his father’s wisdom as they work on the project together. Ultimately, Maleonn hopes this artistic endeavor will forestall his Dad’s worsening dementia by linking him with his beloved art form, theater.
Chinese artist Maleonn creates elaborate photo tableaus that blend the real and the surreal in ways that echo his own memories. The installation he hopes to create is his family’s time machine that will symbolically suggest the past, present and future. The filmmakers capture steps of the creative process, the engineering of the puppets, the workshop where they assemble them and various spaces which reveal how the actors/puppeteers gradually take on the ethos of the characters Maleonn has created in his family story.
The documentary directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang is fascinating on a number of levels: artistic, historical, personal, human, cultural. In reflecting upon the lives of Maleonn, one of China’s most influential conceptual artists today, and Ma Ke, the former artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater who put on more than 80 operas, we are encouraged to see the connections of China’s artistic and cultural past and the burgeoning, innovative artistic China of the present. The new China is reaching out to make its artistic mark internationally, helped along on Social Media and the Internet.
Sun and Chiang reveal the artistic threads between the old China and the China of the digital age as they chronicle Ma Ke’s experiences growing up in a China of varying artistic contours and morphing political philosophies. For Ma Ke, being involved with Chinese Opera Theater (his love and expertise created a wonderful career for himself and his actress wife) was verboten during the Cultural Revolution. He was unable to work for a decade and was humiliated as all theater was politically themed, extolling the glories of communism and the various heads of the Communist Party. There was no place for traditional art forms and especially Opera Theater with its costumes, make-up and hairstyles that reflected ancient China.
After a decade the bans were lifted. Ma Ke was free to work in the theater and he feverishly made up for the lost years. Maleonn appreciated his father’s artistry, but was never involved in it. And he felt excluded because his father’s time and life centered around an art form that had nearly been eradicated. Father and son were on different paths and embraced different artistic endeavors. Maleonn felt resentment. Though he appreciated his father’s artistic passion, he did not like that he was away from home and the family.
The filmmakers relate the historical perspectives using archival footage and photographs of Ma Ke and his wife and some of the operas that he directed. Parallel to Ma Ke’s story is how Maleonn made a name for himself in photography. However, Maleonn decided it was time to return home when his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his mother was stressed taking care of him. It is then that Maleonn conceives of the life-sized puppets, the symbolism of going back in time to stir his father’s memories, and a theatrical installation that will be presented in China and abroad.
As Maleonn’s amazing team and Maleonn work to create the human-sized puppets and develop the story, obstacles arise. They manage to overcome each one with enthusiasm. However, there are two they find nearly impossible to overcome: the lack of money and Ma Ke’s deteriorating condition. It is a race against time to find the money and finish the installation so that his father remembers his involvement with it and is inspired by the creation to which he contributed his wisdom and vast experience working in opera.
The filmmakers touch upon the history of China before the Cultural Revolution, during and afterward as they chronicle Ma Ke’s past. In their revelation of the incredible development of Shanghai, we understand the changing world and understand that Ma Ke is losing his place, memory and identity in it. Pushing back against time and the stresses of his own artistic ambition, Maleonn attempts to remain keep his family calm in the face of his father’s forgetfulness and forge ahead with the project. But Ma Ke forgets the operas he worked on and is frustrated that he forgets. He must be reminded about how he is involved with his son’s project and what Maleonn is endeavoring.
The filmmakers chronicle the family’s trials at home, a visit to the place where Ma Ke grew up (which he remembers) and visits to the doctor’s. He juxtaposes the creation of the life-sized father-son puppets, in a symbolic representation of the two of them. This is most poignant for as the puppet creations have life breathed into them, so to speak, Ma Ke loses more of his memory to dementia.
From the shattering of their past relationship overshadowed by theater, Maleonn redeems his resentment during this theatrical creative endeavor making his Dad a part of it as best he can. The documentary is finest in its intimate look at a father-son relationship as it moves toward love and redemption from dislocation and fragmentation. The symbolic transition reflects the cultural divide between the old China and the new reconciled China that is moving into first-world status.
Filmmakers reaffirm that from the past and the present can come inspiration and wholeness that through art, represents the best of the old and the new. It is a powerful message for our time, for China and for countries around the world who are grappling with maintaining their monuments and in the case of Notre Dame now, restoring them. We must develop, yet retain the best of the past as outgrowths into the present.
By the end of the film, Maleonn and his father are reconciled and the installation is able to move forward. One generation springs into the next. Maleonn marries an artist on his team and together they have a child. Ma Ke’s exclamations of excitement and surprise at the baby are touching. Of course, he asks every 10 minutes the name of the baby and whose it is. But Maleonn exclaims that his Dad’s joy returns again and again as he tells Ma Ke that the baby is his.
This is a soaring film that is emotional and sensitive in how it chronicles the family history, and also in how it reflects that the inherent spirit of artistic creation is carried on from generation to generation. Indeed, there is much to learn about how art can be used to sustain memory and identity in the face of the debilitating effects of dementia.
I heartily recommend this film. Look for it. In addition to screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival, tomorrow, the film screens at HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, the DocLands Documentary Film Festival, the 35th LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, CAAMFest 2019 and the 2019 Chicago Film Critics Film Festival. The filmmaking team is expected to be at each festival.
The documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter in its World Premiere at SXSW 2019 is a provocative and compelling look at a case which stunned New England. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, presented in the Spotlight Section, the filmmaker examines two different perspectives of the case against Michelle Carter who the court found culpable in the death of her friend/boyfriend Conrad Roy III. Carr features the prosecutions arguments, replete with video clips taken from the courtroom. Also, the filmmaker features the arguments presented by the defense in the courtroom. She does some follow-up interviews of the witnesses on both sides.
The eighteen-year-old, Conrad Roy III, was found in his pick up truck asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at his own hand. He had purchased a generator which trapped the carbon monoxide from his car’s cabin as he sat parked behind a local K-Mart. He didn’t leave a suicide note. Instead, he and Michelle Carter left 60,000 text messages of their relationship, feelings for one another, their mental states, fantasies about being like Romeo and Juliet and more.
However, as the texts made clear, Roy III was in pain and wanted to commit suicide. He was being treated for depression and he was on the medication Prozac which has been tied to suicide deaths. Whether as a friend, help-meet, or as a self-serving, dastardly and willful individual looking for attention as the prosecution painted her, some of Michelle Carter’s final text messages encouraged him to finish his goal to end his life. What was never recorded was the final phone conversation they had together. Whether this was up until the moments of his death is unclear. Only the text messages remain as evidence.
In the first segment, Carr presents an outline of the backstory of the texting relationship between Carter and Conrad Roy III who only saw each other face to face around 5-6 times, but in teenspeak were “talking” which meant they were close. Indeed, Michelle Carter referred to him as her boyfriend. In the first segment Carr includes many of their texts, out of order in following the prosecution’s case to hone in on various arguments. They often texted that they loved each other. Carr culled through the approximately 60,000 texts between the two individuals. She uses their texts and sound effects on a black screen for full effect in both segments of the HBO presentation.
Carr uses video clips from the public hearings during the case. She interviews Conrad Roy III’s family members. There was difficulty between his parents who were divorced and were with other individuals. Clearly, Conrad Roy III didn’t have an idyllic home life, however, the extent to which this contributed to his pain and wanting to commit suicide was only alluded to by Carr briefly in the film. Michelle Carter’s family life was not covered, but her parents are together and supporting her throughout the ordeal and civil lawsuit by Conrad Roy III’s family.
Interestingly, there was no jury trial, but three judges decided the case. Since the media had garnered such an outcry spiking controversy against her, the Defense decided no jury trial was in her best interests. In Part II of the series which is an HBO Showcase and scheduled to air some time in the summer, the documentarian presents the Defense’s perspective why Michelle Carter should not be held accountable for Conrad Roy III’s suicide..
Michelle Carter never gave voice to her own feelings testifying before the judges in court. Nor was she interviewed for the film. Her testimony, the missing piece of the puzzle, may never be revealed now that she is serving her prison sentence after she lost her appeal.
Carr chronicles the events mirroring each perspective. The film is structured precisely to allow the audience to decide where they land, in support of Michelle Carter or in favor of the prosecution. I found both arguments riveting, but the situation is extremely complex and the film does not evidence the complexity. One must “see” between the lines.
The femme fatale image of Carter whipped up by a media hungry for clicks and viewers tragically skewed the case beyond a proper examination of the mental background related to both Conrade Roy III and Carter. Carr includes the Defense testimony of the doctor who discusses Conrad Roy III’s mental state. Also this witness ties in the effects of Prozac which in some individuals create suicidal tendencies. However, in this area, the film and perhaps the defense’s medical strategy doesn’t go far enough.
I know of at least three individuals who were on Prozac who either attempted or succeeded in committing suicide; these were adults. Conrad Roy III was 18-years-old and it is unclear the extent to which this drug exacerbated his pain on his young mind.
Nevertheless, the focal point of the prosecution’s argument became Michelle Carter’s encouragement of Conrad Roy III in the last hour and one–half of his life to choose death, not life. The Defense strategy used a freedom of speech argument saying Michelle Carter’s speech was protected, and couldn’t be used against her, even though it was morally reprehensible to encourage someone else to commit suicide.
The judges ruled against Carter using as evidence her texts of encouragement. She urged Conrad Roy III to get back into the truck and finish what he set out to do as the carbon monoxide was filling up the cabin. Because she did not encourage him against killing himself, she was given the sentence she received. The Defense could disprove the prosecution’s faulty logic, however, there was no answer for what the judges deemed in their opinions indefensible, which was her encouragement to suicide.
Obviously, Conrad Roy III had doubts the last hour of his life whether to kill himself or not. Interestingly, he sought out Michelle Carter precisely for what she gave him: support in his endeavor. He did not call his parents, his sister, or go on youtube where he would have been discouraged. His parents notified? He would have been put in the Psych Ward. His will to choose one who would support him kill himself is clear: indeed, in that he holds the ultimate responsibility, the ultimate choice of texting her, of phoning her and not someone who would stand in the way and prevent his wishes.
However, in that the judges obviated and ignored his obvious, willful selection and damned her. Her texts were used as the weapon to kill him, not his own will, determination, previous texts, treatment for depression, known wishes to commit suicide and the youtube video he posted about “social anxiety.” The evident misogyny in not looking at Conrad’s ultimate selection of Michelle Carter to get what he needed in the last moments of his life is apparent. It was his choice; the responsibility was his, and he took her down with him.
Indeed, the judges and prosecution believed that Michelle Carter should have “gone on record” inspiring Conrad Roy III toward life, though clearly the fact that Conrad Roy III purchased the generator and sat in the pick-up and eventually stayed in the cabin to inhale enough of the poison to kill himself, ultimately revealed that his will was toward death, as heinous as that may seem. The tragic irony is that the text messages “appear” to reveal what happened. However, not even Michelle Carter knew what was going on in the final moments with Conrad Roy III. She only responded to what he told her. Only he knew what he did, for only he was present. Thus, though her Defense didn’t enforce this argument, Carter was swept up in what is largely circumstantial evidence.
Following the judges’ logic, examine the instance of a jumper at the top of a building who is cursed at and screamed at with encouraging phrases to jump by the crowd below. If he jumps, all in the crowd should be held responsible for his death. They are not. Ultimately, the choice whether to jump or not is in the mind/will of the jumper.
The filmmaker by the very nature of her selection process cannot be objective, though she tries. She includes some trial clips over others and interviews of Conrad Roy III’s parents and Michelle Carter’s friends over others. She also interviews the reporters who covered the case.
However, in presenting the clips, to my mind questions are raised about the adequacy of the defense and the adequacy of the testimony of the mental health professionals in the cross examination of the prosecution’s medical professional. There should have been more health professionals testifying about Conrad Roy III’s mental health, the side effects of Prozac, and Michelle Carter’s mental health, etc.
In attempting to organize the series into two parts and “leaving it up to the viewer to decide” the approach is a quick and dirty way to further sensationalize this tragedy and “involve” folks in the “harmless” game of having an “opinion” about Michelle Carter. To actually dig deeper and approach the subjects from another angle would have been more profound and elucidating. The question remains. Where is Michelle Carter’s viewpoint, opinion and testimony in all of this?
Though this isn’t a focal point, the film does raise additional questions philosophically as to whether it is “right” to assist someone else in their wish to commit suicide to escape extreme mental anguish. If the person appears to aver, should one encourage them in support, or take the opportunity to help them stop their plans, knowing they will try again, perhaps until they succeed? Indeed, teen rates of suicide are increasing as suicide rates overall are increasing in our nation, and especially for those veterans who have PTSD. What is the law’s stance regarding suicide? Did Michelle Carter know? Or is this a matter of human rights and one’s autonomous decision?
Suicide is a slippery slope. Taking into consideration the ages of these individuals (Conrad Roy III was of age), Michelle Carter at the time was younger, the teen mind set, the teen subculture, the lack of communication with parents and siblings of both families, the effects of Prozac, many variables need to be examined to understand better what may have happened. However, Conrad Roy III enacted all of the steps he needed to kill himself, even elected to use carbon monoxide and not a gun or pills. Michelle Carter a supportive friend/girlfriend reacted to what he told her with her texts. But no one was present except Conrad Roy III.
Carr’s work is intriguing in relaying teen social constructs that are current. She focuses on raising the specter of suicide that haunts our culture. The clips of Roy speaking on social media are particularly gut-wrenching. Did his parents see these? Now, more than ever, parents need take note and make sure lines of communication are always open with their children. If this had been the case, would Conrad Roy III have taken the ultimate path he choose for himself?.
The organization of the documentary is sufficient for what the filmmaker’s intended purpose may be, to “have the audience decide.” Another approach might have yielded much more information. The documentary will air in the summer on HBO.
The Day Shall Come directed by Chris Morris, co-written by Chris Morris and Jesse Armstrong takes real-live accounts of how the FBI attempts to trap terrorists and hate groups and spins a fantastical yarn that is in whole is frighteningly realistic. Indeed, Morris culled research from stories which run to the overarching plot of this film, NOT the specifics. The events recall dastardly Keystone Cops episodes of law enforcement who entrap faux criminals, while real killers, i.e Parkland, 911, Columbine, Tree of Life Synagogue, Las Vegas, etc. have their way with US citizens.
Chris Morris creates a complicated, humorous and sardonic plot to send a powerful message to us about real terrorists and the convenient conversion of folks into harmless, safe, FBI-styled terrorists in the wake of the Bush era “war on terror” and Trump era terrorists on the border mantras used to herd the brains of American Citizens. At the bottom of Morris’ contentions? If we are not circumspect watchmen, law enforcement can become overweaning and abuse its powers. This is especially so when the risk reward ratios are tied to terrorist quotas which allow agents to convert folks to terrorism rather than locate actual terrorists and skillfully infiltrate their groups which takes years/decades.
In The Day Shall Come, Morris’ compact film resounds with currency, insanity and selects as its hero a black man. Considering historically blacks have proportionately not engaged in terrorist activities and have continually been victimized by law enforcement, this is an extremely satiric choice.
Moses, a self-proclaimed Floridian preacher, his wife Venus and four saintly “soldiers” attempt to raise up a religious following and by peaceful means, overcome the corrupt white culture that is displacing hundreds with gentrification and soulless development that decries affordable housing. On a wing and a prayer, some meds for bi-polar disorder, his converts and his raggedy church/farm that sells eggs and chickens to make ends meet, Moses (a hysterical and well-paced performance by Marchánt Davis) attempts to stop the continual threats of eviction and sell-out to developers with a shuck and jive routine that grows tired even for his once empathetic landlord.
Money is king. Money is the soul and song of existence in a culture which has extruded Moses and his church from its society and left them on the precipice of humanity. Without money, one cannot live even a meager existence with dignity. And Moses rag tag group Star of Six, cannot even begin to think about activism with any viability.
Desperate to forestall the end of his ministry and the abject misery of extreme poverty for himself, his children and his church family becoming like the thousands of Floridian homeless, Moses is driven to use “any means necessary” to fulfill his destiny and keep his church in the promised land where God has placed him. But where will he come up with the rent?
Enter a slimy pedophile miscreant with a taste for teenage girls and the FBI’s immunity to abuse them in a continual quid pro quo. Reza (Kayvan Novak) is the enslaved puppet informant of the FBI whom they send out with gobs of taxpayer cash to lure, entrap and capture those groveling for their last dimes (like Moses) to turn them into “enemies of the state” and terrorists. Terrorists are needed to prove this branch of the FBI “are worthy” of their budget and the jobs they hold.
In the case of Moses who goes off his meds to speak to God and Satan and refuses to carry rifles, AK-47s, glock pistols or anything that shoots bullets, the impoverished preacher, his wife and four congregants are hard cases to prove as terrorists, even though they are an uber tiny “radical” group. The nature of who the FBI is willing to convert to terrorism is beyond the pale. But Reza is the perfect foil for his handlers to squeeze. He is stressed to come up with a ready plot to snag Moses, though a three-year-old can see Moses has mega mental issues and terrorism is not one of them.
But desperate to continue his sexual abuse of teen girls, Reza’s urges compel him to work quickly or his equally amoral, slimy handlers Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), Andy (Dennis O’Hare) and other FBI officials will cut off his chick supply and throw him in a greasy Florida jail with worse perverts. That they are more into “fighting” terrorism with the most unlikely of candidates than get a red, hot, live sex offender, is ironic and damning. But, hey, this is credible considering the backlash against the #metoo movement and rampant world sex trafficking that could be ameliorated if… but it is not considered that important, nor is rape, for that matter.
With Reza’s lust working overtime, a plan is conceived to snare Moses who by this time, enveloped with stress about money, has gone off his meds and is convinced the lightening strike on a large crane in a development zone is God’s sign that he is with Moses whatever he does. How Moses goes from a poor, non-violent preacher who means well to an FBI terrorist supplying arms to the KKK is the stuff of satiric greatness that only a Brit like Chris Morris could evolve with horrific authenticity, supple comedy and riotous laughter. The coda at the end which identifies what happens to Moses, his wife, his four congregants and the FBI agents is both sickening and too realistic.
The Peter Principle is alive and well according to Chris Morris in The Day Shall Come, which also proves that in a septic tank, the really big turd chunks rise to the top. By comparison, Moses and his church are crystal clear water preyed upon by evil creatures twisted by their own hellishness.
The actors who portray the agents are depicted with skill. We dislike them immediately once we understand their self-dealing intentions. And indeed, Davis’ comedic “performance with a purpose” as the bi-polar preacher who hears from God and Satan is truly exceptional. The supporting cast and wife Venus (Danielle Brooks) do their wacko leader proud.
The themes Morris touches upon are numerous, varied and styled with clever twists. Many vital concepts about human nature and the human condition, good vs. evil reversals, abide with humor in this clever work. Most importantly, we understand how corruption self breeds like a toxic bacteria once it begins. When there is no moral force to oversee the rabidly power-hungry and abusive who are supposed to be caretakers of the law, every wicked trope, every sick meme congregates on the warped and diseased host, then spreads. This is not a pretty portrait of the FBI, but it is a darkly wicked one which will resonate. Physician? Heal thyself or your own disease will rot you from within.
The Day Shall Come will be released later in the year. Don’t miss this sardonic, zany and “too-true-to-look-away” film. And do not in any way confuse it with satire against black activist organizations. This is aimed front and center at the FBI. Moses and his group are cast in the most extreme and crazy light possible to reveal “how” terrorists are made and how economic inequality and overweaning power structures mold harmless, faux “terrorists” into bogey men then use them in their institutional PR campaigns.