Category Archives: Film Reviews
How did the opioid crises take off in the US before the government or even families knew what was going on? Legal pill pushers, given the imprimatur by doctors, distributors like Walgreen and manufacturers like Actavis generated the opioid killing machine. American Pain in its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival effectively exposes how lack of regulation fuels the opioid crisis and death by drugs. Additionally, the Spotlight documentary highlights that an in depth understanding of the supply chain from pill manufacturers to doctors who write scripts pays off. This is especially so in states like Florida, whose political good will maintains strong ties to the medical industrial complex.
Directed by Darren Foster, in a comprehensive well-researched study, the film uncovers the chronicle of Jeff and Chris George as kickstarters of the opioid crises we still suffer today. Indeed, law enforcement identified that the George brothers ran the largest street level operation of all the opioid dealers in the U.S. No one put more pills on the streets than they did. The scale was enormous and they did this in broad daylight and with impunity.
Through interviews of the twin brothers, their family, friends and law enforcement who took down their pain clinics, Foster exposes Florida’s opioid empire. Importantly, Foster includes undercover video footage to document the George brothers’ successful pain clinic business up to their capture, clinic closures and jail sentences. In fact Foster’s account of his subjects spools out American Pain as a true crime story. The documentary adds another spin to our understanding of the opioid epidemic and highlights crucial aspects not known before.
Twin brothers and bodybuilders Chris and Jeff George grew up in Florida luxury with a father who generated money in real estate during the housing boom. With a privileged upbringing in upscale Wellington (home to Bill Gates and others) the twins received whatever they wanted. However, when their parents divorced, Jeff and Chris lived with their mother and stepfather, a firefighter. Their lifestyle changed. They embraced body building, steroid use and the red neck lifestyle. Indeed, from privilege and doing well in school, they took up white supremacy in a subsequent attraction to the machismo of guns, strippers and diesel bodies.
Ironically, when a brush fire they set exploded into a forest fire, a slap in the face for their stepdad, the boys only got a slap on the wrist. Their illegal actions continued. and their wrap sheet grew to include battery, vandalism, grand theft auto and criminal mischief. However, they never saw jail because they received suspended sentences or community service. Accountability never knocked at their doors.
Clearly, the director points out in taped interviews that their father, Mr. George, disdained the police and uplifted being rich. Indeed, he told his sons that the cops are stupid to make no money. Foster reveals through interviews that the twins’ father maintains a point of pride with his sons making millions. That they also contributed to causing deaths by addiction and overdosing escapes Mr. George conveniently.
This attitude of blaming the addicts for overdosing and dying Foster indicates as one also held by George and Chris. Indeed Chris states in his last interview that he merely provided a service. If the addicts died, they and their families had to own their deaths. “They’d find another way to die,” remains the attitude also held by their mother who worked in their pain clinics and knew the addictive nature of the drugs. With the exception of maybe one or two opioid dealers who went to jail as they did, most of the pill pushers expressed the same attitude. They felt no remorse for the results of their actions. A aunt of the Kentucky group of pushers, known as the queen opioid dealer in Kentucky, also believed the addicts were responsible for their addictions. Her relatives who drove to Florida weekly to pick up pills and drive back to her, who dealt them out knowing her clients would die, also have the same attitude.
All along the supply chain, starting with manufacturers, no one took responsibility for opioid deaths. And as Foster’s interviews with law enforcement reveal, all knew Roxicodone’s (another name for Oxycodone) addictive power could eventually lead to death. However, money talked and death walked. As long as the money rolled in, accountability didn’t matter.
When the George brothers took steroids, their friendship with suppliers led them to deal steroids in gyms. Enjoying the money because of their former lifestyle and father’s lionizing money, they moved to more lucrative sales after meeting Dr. Overstreet. Interestingly, like anything, the Georges started small with South Florida Pain Clinic. Then they opened another clinic East Florida Pain Clinic because the lines flowed out the door and around the block. By word of mouth folks across the south and from around the country drove or flew down for their pills.
Foster in a clear and precise indictment of Florida’s lax laws regarding pain clinics and doctors, reveal how the twins got away with fraud. When Dr. Overstreet died, they used his lists to engage other doctors to write scripts. A former DEA agent who needed money was hired to make the operation organized and legal according to lax the licensure of Florida pain clinics. Additionally, Florida had no central data base for patients and drugs. So with impunity, the well oiled operation ran smoothly with no interference from law enforcement. Patients could arrive, show where the pain was, get a script in a few minutes and be out the door with a few hundred Roxidodone. When a mobile MRI owner came to work with them on the advice of others, the patients’ pain legitimized by the MRI paperwork, sealed the deals.
As they grew their franchise of pain clinics, manufacturers and distributors made millions. Of course, the doctors made more money than their co-pays which further fed their addiction to money. The George brothers hauled in trash bags full of cash. Humorously, the ridiculous happened with parties in the clinic parking lots and neighbors furious about the noise. And moving to the height of a great business model, busloads of addicts came to the clinics for their “meds.” In one instance Foster shows video clips of “church members” with T-shirts listing the church leaving the bus to go to the clinic and get their pills. All was made to look legitimate when it wasn’t.
As word got around, others wanted in on the money. Foster reveals other pill pushers who opened their clinics, rivaled the George brothers. Like thugs, Chris George to protect his business demanded a percentage. He received it after he threatened to burn down Zach Rose’s pain clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. And when reporters stalked the twins and doggedly questioned their activities, on good advice they changed the name of their business to “American Pain.”
Foster gets to the inside corruption with mastery. As succinctly as possible, he draws down hundreds of hours of wiretap recordings, undercover video and interviews with drug pushers who went to jail with 7-year sentences because they pleaded guilty. Only Jeff George received a 20-year sentence because pills from his clinic could be traced to a user who died.
American Pain covers familiar ground in an unfamiliar way. Unfortunately, manufacturers still make opioids and distributors find ways to deliver their product flying under the radar of law enforcement. Of course the opioid death rate increases and Chris George intends to continue being a businessman. However, in Foster’s last interview with him, he didn’t specify his plans. Clearly, unless state governments make it impossible to push pills at even one-half the scale the George brothers did, folks will still overdose. When they can’t get opioids, they’ll move to heroin or Fen Fen. Foster reveals this will continue because addiction pulls in billions across the supply chain.
See American Pain at Tribeca Film Festival by visiting their website: https://tribecafilm.com/
In his Tribeca Spotlight Narrative feature There There, Andrew Bujalski’s quirky, comedic take on love and coupling dynamically shifts through five vignettes. The World Premiere which screened at Tribeca Film Festival with a Q and A afterward is satiric and sharp. The stories thread irregularly from couple to situation. Interestingly, writer director Bujalski’s pointed dialogue twists on a dime to different scenarios and couples. He examines love, nascent relationships and disrupting influences.
We willingly go along for the ride because of the excellent acting and unusual cinematography. In fact much about the feature remains particular because of how Bujalski shot There There. As he stated in the Q and A after the Tribeca screening, the actors were miles away from each other in their homes during COVID-19. Thus, Bujalski and his team worked prodigious sets ups and heavily story boarded to accomplish remote filming.
Starring powerhouses known for delivering unique performances, Bujalski selects Jason Schwartzman, Lili Taylor, Lennie James, Molly Gordon and Avi Nash to spin encounters of want and confrontation. Subtly, he focuses on frontal shots of the actors who are in solo framed shots. They dialogue with those offscreen. Thus, when Lili Taylor discusses her previous evening’s intimacy with Lennie James, we never see the couple physically together. Yet, the beauty of Bujalski’s work seamlessly reveals through the dialogue, the amazing night for the “couple.” However, where will these two proceed if Taylor wants to move slowly toward the love dynamic and James wants to race ahead?
Bridged by a musical riff performed by the versatile Jon Natchez in the shadowy light from a window, the next scene shows Taylor and her friend an AA counselor. As the friend and counselor listens and reacts to Taylor’s impressions of the night with James, the mood changes. The scene sparks a different type of intimacy, one of a confidante who listens and one who digs deep to gain enlightenment. Uncertainty ends the encounter and Natchez’s music riff segues into a confrontation between teacher and parent.
The mom, played by Taylor’s counselor in the previous scene becomes abusive to Molly Gordon’s exasperated teacher. Apparently, the counselor’s son has been engaged in porn on his phone in class. How and why he sneaks the phone in without discovery is moot. Instead, the blame game moves forward and both Gordon and the parent verbally upbraid each other. Unsatisfactorily, the encounter ends strangely with nothing resolved. Ironically, two individuals who allegedly “have it together” based on their roles, reveal themselves to be flawed and self-hating. Reflecting the culture’s craziness, both negotiate with each other as adversaries instead of collaborators. They accomplish little to confront and help the son.
Natchez’s musical bridge moves the scene between two friends who violate the dictum that friends shouldn’t go into business together. Schwartzman and Nash tie into the previous scene. In this ironic construct Schwartzman’s lawyer advises Nash to curtail his apparently illegal money-making online activity. As they wrangle about the illegality and Nash’s exposure to liability, the debate flares. The fun parts of the scene involve Schwartzman in his kitchen puttering and Nash impressively doing upside down calisthenics on rings suspended from his ceiling. Again, this couple resolves nothing except to declare their brotherly love for each other. Apparently, their professional relationship and Nash’s exposure take a backseat to their closeness. But Nash’s character doesn’t accept Schwartzman’s legal advice anyway, so why not?
However, for the lawyer Schwartzmans portrays, the guilt becomes overwhelming. Visited by the ghost of his relative, portrayed by Roy Nathanson, Schwartzman has a humorous “come to Jesus” moment. We gather that he can’t bear up against his sleazy and unethical practice and behavior. Finally, resolution comes in this scenario as Schwartzman vows to change. Schwartzman’s ironic mirror image of ourselves in our best and worst moments of guilt, remorse, revelation and desire to change floats away. Sincerity seems key. However, we have no way of knowing whether his heart to heart with the ghost prompts him to correct or worsen. Uncertainty reigns.
In the last vignette after a Natchez, interlude James and Gordon meet up at James’ well appointed restaurant. As he attempts to save her from Nash’s intrusion into Gordon’s space, they chat. Gordon’s “drunk” convinces James to oust her. However, she manipulates him to stay and they settle into edgy repartee which ends in sexual suggestion then like a ghost floats away as Gordon leaves. Like all encounters, the results remain open ended, low-high risk on a tension wire of possibilities unrealized until the next encounter. Unfortunately, the film ended, but our imaginations took up the possibilities.
In the Q and A Bujalski acknowledged his film’s weird strangeness. Certainly episodic the narrative threads linked. However, no follow through chronicled any particular character. Instead, we sense that the individuals might pass each other in the street or meet at any moment. Life’s serendipitous moments, unusual and unique carry enjoyment and risk, as visited in the first, third and fifth vignettes. Compelling in and strikingly different, Bujalski’s There There is all the more fascinating considering its cinematography and great effort necessary to shoot during the pandemic.
For tickets and times go to the Tribeca Film Festival website: https://tribecafilm.com/films/there-there-2022 or check streaming services.
Jennifer Lopez in an interesting move joins Beyoncé and Demi Lovado (see my SXSW review) as the celebrated subject of her own documentary in Halftime. Singularly, the film chronicles Lopez’s journey to fame in flashbacks cut with the key present event she aims for, the half-time show at the 2020 Super Bowl. Director Amanda Micheli in present to past to present video segments and clips chronicles how Lopez got to the Super Bowl moment that she always fantasized about. Thus, with thematic breakdowns, Micheli follows Lopez from the day of her 50th birthday celebrations to the Super Bowl half-time show she co-headlined with Shakira in 2020.
Importantly, in this World Premiere which first screened at Tribeca Film Festival, Lopez deals with many problematic issues in her upbringing and career. Centrally focusing on the intersection of both, Lopez comments about the issues in naturalistic interview clips without make-up and in a relaxed gym outfit. Briefly referring to tabloid exploitation of her relationships at various points, we understand a different portrait from what the media reveals.
Director Micheli employs an abundance of video clips that flashback to her numerous films, and trace the trajectory of her career. Also included are family moments, for example around the Thanksgiving dinner table, and a brief interview with her mom. Throughout, Lopez includes her daughter who also performs in the Super Bowl half-time show and rehearses with her to prep for the show.
Lopez highlights how her work morphed from dancing after she reconciled her mother’s thoughts that she couldn’t sing. With every opportunity that presented itself to her, she transformed. Now, she does it all, singing, acting, dancing, producing (Hustlers) and performing a monolithic show at Super Bowl 2020 that makes a statement for a global audience.
The director captures rehearsals for the show and delves into Lopez’s vision to make a political statement. Powerfully standing up to the management who wanted her to mute her vision decrying the kids in cages at the Southern Border, she used her klout. The show’s songs encouraged unity, equity and ended with “Born in the USA.” Her show’s vision uplifted immigrants nationally. Indeed, Lopez’s courage in standing against the fear mongering former president’s cruel immigration policies reveals the same admirable courage and boldness shown throughout her career and life.
In preparation for the show, we note she is an overcomer. Lopez discusses the difficulties in the chauvinistic decision to cast two Latinas to do the job of one performer. Indeed, they cut down their time and forced them to work with prodigious collaboration that created immense pressure for both performers. That they succeeded credits their talent, hard work and effort, something the officials, as Philistine corporates cluelessly benefited from.
Though some will be snarky and whine that criticism of her treatment by the tabloids, media and chauvinists amounts to victimization, that attitude too easily dismisses Lopez. In anticipation of this Micheli emphasizes that Lopez had to battle negativity her entire life as a Latina. Though the media demeaned her, ridiculed her “failed” relationships and underestimated her career, she accepted the challenge. Thus, with effective counterpoint Halftime focuses on her startling achievements.
Also, Micheli spends time on the media’s creation of the fake woman’s perfect Anglo Saxon look and appearance. Throughout her career the media ridiculeed her figure as a woman with curves. Lopez’s discussion of this rocks. All women have to measure up against the media’s prescribed BMI 17 weight. As a result they images doom they to fail. With humor Lopez exposes the way women have been demeaned and objectified to make them vulnerable for further exploitation. Her authenticity allows all women who see this film to identify.
Considering what Lopez overcame to arrive at her current destination, her detractors have not even done one-eighth as much. Importantly, Micheli and Lopez present Lopez’s overcoming perspective. Take it or leave it, the documentary stands on its own as informative, beyond entertaining, authentic and human. Vitally, Halftime inspires women and encourages them to strive, to persist and forge their own paths where none may exist.
Well structured, the film uses flashbacks to reveal her history and rise to fame. Halftime strikes a balance in revealing issues which Lopez takes up about her life, like being a Latina. The self-expose becomes intriguing. For example Lopez discusses how Cartoon TV ridiculed her and featured her as a Bimbo. Clearly, the smear campaigns hurt, as she explains in response to questions. On the other hand she relied on the strength she received from her mother and her heritage as a Puerto Rican. who could “do anything.”
Some of the most mesmerizing video clips feature Lopez during her rehearsals and training. They include clips for the Halftime show rehearsals, and clips from practice sessions to prepare for her Oscar-nominated role in Hustlers. Additionally, we get to experience Lopez discussing the Oscars and selecting outfits for the media campaign to win Best Supporting Actress for Hustlers. She is hopeful about receiving her first Oscar after her nomination for Selena twenty years before. When she doesn’t win, her disappointment and her team’s upset are acute. Her team (who she’s employed for years to do hair, make-up, etc.) ride the highs and lows of her career; this was a lowpoint.
Micheli covers tremendous ground. The portrait reveals Jennifer’s humanity, her expressed vulnerabilities and hurts which have informed her acting and performing. In understanding her genius, her tremendous talents as an actress, dancer, singer, entrepreneur, producer, mom, sister and much more we identify and are inspired. What we don’t understand, Miceli gives a wide birth: her private romantic life. After all, we don’t kiss and tell as tabloid fodder.
Halftime acquaints us with a Jennifer Lopez fans who love her know. It introduces those who underestimate her with a mosaic of myriad reflections of a woman determined to move through the next fifty years of her life (at least) making waves. Lopez indicates she has more to say, do, achieve. Halftime whets our appetites.
The excellent documentary streams on Neflix beginning the 14th of June. To review Tribeca Festival features go to their website: https://tribecafilm.com/ or see Tribeca At Home offerings: https://tribecafilm.com/festival/at-home
The Tale of King Crab (De Granchio) is a cinematically rich and gorgeously landscaped parable of forbidden love, identity, classism, soul freedom, and the power of storytelling to communicate wisdom and human fealty that rhetoric cannot. Written and directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, De Granchio made its World Premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival-Directors’ Fortnight and was an official selection at the 2021 New York Film Festival. The film went on to win 7 awards out of its thirteen nominations. Stunning and memorable for Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography and Vittorio Giampietro’s haunting, striking music, the layered story by de Righi, Zoppis, Tomasso Bertani and Carlo Lavagna moves through conflict and reprisal to suspenseful, eerie adventure before it settles on its mystical takeaway.
The film begins with the image of a bearded man who appears backlit in the shallow edge of a lake, picking up a thin golden hued ornament lying underwater on pebbles. From the shimmering lake image filmmakers transfer to the present evening where Bruno awaits his paesani who are elderly hunters in modern day Tusci, Italy. The established community of friends gather to eat pasta, sing, drink wine and reflect upon generational stories some have heard and others have not, as they enjoy each other’s company and fill in gaps of information for elucidation and edification.
The storytelling and communal singing is a throwback to ancient times when hunter-gathers and indigenous people sat around the campfire and shared lessons which entertained, yet brought a chill of recognition that would heal and uplift in cathartic moments of revelation. Likewise, in their film the directors pay homage to the process of storytelling with their extraordinary images and beautiful shot compositions. The arc of development is surprising because their spare evocative minimalism keeps the viewer enthralled, worried and engaged.
As the filmmakers flit from present to past, they unravel the legend merging the generational aspect of the tale as the elders in the present portray characters from over a hundred years ago. For example Bruno, who is the chief story-teller, singer (Tosca) and local Inn Keeper of Luciano’s village transposes from the present to the past and back to the present when the story takes an incredible voyage to a strange land of monstrous beauty.
As all great stories combine the fascination of the listeners as they build on the fascination of listeners past, the listeners intrude in the beauty of this legend of Luciano (Gabriele Silli) whose name in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese means light. Indeed, this Luciano is a bearer of light. He manifests this treasure because he has experienced great pain. As we watch his journey from weal to woe, we note his perception and growth as a man who has gained the wisdom to receive the timelessness of spiritual love.
The film progresses after the hunters eat. Bruno sings a refrain of the legend of Luciano, a doctor’s son in the town of Vejano, Italy around the turn of the century, near the place where they now hunt. Bruno sings the second refrain which in two lines summarizes the first chapter of events. Filmmakers use the haunting melody of Bruno’s song carried by a lone flute transporting us into the flashback of the past in the remote town in Tuscany, where the tall, massively dark bearded Luciano drinks from a bottle and meanders along the road, whistling the same melody that Bruno sang, as we seamlessly move from present to past. In Bruno’s voice over we note that the townsfolk have labeled Luciano many things, crazy, a drunk, a saint, an aristocrat, and as the film progresses, he is the full measure of all these characteristics and more.
Luciano lives a life of leisure it would seem, as a doctor’s son with possibly aristocratic patronage in a town of the very poor and a prince who lives in a castle. The “prince” is a vestige of feudal times which have just ended with Italy’s unification twenty years before. Immediately, the story moves to Luciano’s classist conflict with the prince who has blockaded a shortcut path through his property to the other side of the village. It is a path which has been accessible for generations. Seeing the gate has been locked and one of the shepherds has been inconvenienced, Luciano breaks open the gate and the shepherd takes his sheep through, even though he warns Luciano the prince will press charges for the damage.
We understand why Luciano accompanies the shepherd. He has a daughter Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu) that Luciano has known for years and with whom he has formed a love attachment. They meet and talk to each other and Luciano gives her the thin ornament he retrieved from the lake that he tells Emma is Etruscan gold that has great significance. It is then she tells him of a dream she had about him and a desire for her destiny. How her dream comes true by the conclusion of the film is rapturous, if you understand the profound significance.
During the course of the next scenes, we learn that the prince has strengthened the locked gate and has hired two uneducated, crass thugs to confront Luciano in the Inn where he goes to drink, though his father warned him not to. When they tell him not to break the gate again, Luciano’s toast reveals his character and the nature of the town’s burden of class inequity between rich and poor. Luciano drinks to the prince, to their rights and to the Republic. When one of the thugs asks what he means, Luciano says, “Who do you think you are? You’re just pawns!” When the brute goes to respond with a smack, Luciano shows no fear and dares him, receiving a blow which knocks him out.
It is clear Luciano is ahead of his time and could be a leader against the prince’s oppressive, arrogant attempts to hold on to power signified by the ungracious act of locking a right of way his family allowed for generations. However, Luciano’s alcoholism provokes others and causes trouble for his father who takes him home, chides him then comforts him. Luciano humbly apologizes, tells his father he loves him and demeans the greatness of his character by claiming he’s just a “drunk.”
During their talk Luciano reveals he’s in love with Emma. His father gives him a piece of advice, that Severino, despite Luciano’s heritage, will not allow him to marry her. He doesn’t approve of Luciano. Knowing his daughter is fond of Luciano, Severino provokes Luciano with the thought that the Prince is interested in her when she goes to the Prince’s castle to prepare for the procession.
Indeed, Severino has given permission for his daughter to be dressed in feudal clothing as La Donna in the Saint Orsio procession. When Luciano confidently confronts her in the presence of the wealthy at the castle while they decide what she should wear, she admits she doesn’t fit in. One of the prince’s friends arrogantly states that Luciano is “a ghost,” as he speaks to Emma. This nobleman refuses to acknowledge that Luciano takes a rebellious stand in attempting to prove that the prince and the wealthy caste are like everyone else in Italy, even if they have money, since it has become a Republic.
Meanwhile, Severino elicits the help of the thugs to go after Luciano who is now the enemy of Severino and the Prince. Luciano, fueled by the wine from the communion table (symbolic), shows he will not be ruled by the prince in a symbolic act which ends in a catastrophe and horrific incident. Ambiguously, the filmmakers infer that Emma may or may not have been attacked and raped as the thugs take her to the prince, a situation that is unbeknownst to Luciano.
Filmmakers switch to the present and the hunters discuss that the catastrophe forces Luciano to flee the town and go to Argentina where he lives in exile. And they warn that from that point on, the story becomes unreliable. Filmmakers take us from the comfort of the apparently truthful paesano in Italy and launch out across the ocean where the story transports us into the realms of the mythic.
The next time we see Luciano and hear him in a voice over, he is wearing the cassock of a Salesian priest and on a treasure hunting adventure in “The Asshole of the Earth,” an island in the remote and visually fearsome and beautifully barren Tierra del Fuego. Here the music and cinematography meld in a pageantry of images, sounds and silences that create suspense and drama. Luciano must protect himself from vicious pirates who have nothing to lose in their search for gold as they accompany him in the hunt.
Luciano is the map to the gold with the help of a creature who is the most unlikely traveler up mountains and through rocky terrain, spongy tundra and wind-blasted trees. Together, the men look for the lost gold of the shipwrecked Jacinta owned by the Spanish monarchy. The Jacinta’s captain and crew died because they underestimated that death lurked everywhere on the island where they landed.
As the legend creates a life of its own, the hunters in the present fade away. Luciano becomes the hero living his legend before us. Resilient, experienced in fighting off those out to destroy him, Luciano proves to be far from the ghostly figure the arrogant lord described him to be years before. He has matured and stopped drinking. Valiant and on a mission to return home with gold, he delivers the drama, excitement and amazing revelation in this final chapter of his story. And as a legendary hero, he himself learns the significance of the gold ornament that he picked up in the lake in Tusci where we glimpsed him in the first image of the film.
This setting in the second segment of the film, like the tone and mood is stark, desolate and hardscrabble, as the first chapter is romantic, luscious and tragic. Filmmakers add even greater depth to the characterization of Luciano showing he has become more poetic, insightful and ironic in his search for the gold which becomes synonymous with home. Also, the filmmakers continue paying homage to the process of storytelling to uplift and educate in this segment as well. It is through the indigenous peoples’ stories someone wrote down that Luciano learns of the golden treasure on the island and how to find it.
In learning about the gold, Luciano, humorously states words to the effect, “I saw an opportunity. After all, this is America.” We are reminded of the stories that brought the explorers to the new world, and the emigrants who are brought to the Americas because of the streets metaphorically are paved with gold. However, for Luciano, the gold signifies something intangible. Interestingly, the symbolism and multiple meanings of this are revealed at the film’s conclusion. Most importantly, as a result of Luciano’s incredible journey to the other side of the world, he is brought to the greatest depths of his own spiritual growth and golden nature. Of course his greatness was within him all along, he just had to realize it.
The film is just dynamite in its multi-dimensional themes, (one of which is immigrants forever wish to return to home), homage to storytellers who keep legends alive, cinematic beauty, superb music, sound design, pacing and all of what I’ve mentioned above. Filmmakers were anointed ushering in the fabulous inwardly deep performance by Gabriele Silli whose piercing blue eyes seem to have traveled to deeper realms than we can ever understand. As his accompaniment the sweetness and peasant nobility of Maria Alexandra Lungu is graceful and worthy of the object of his forever love.
This is one to see. It opens in New York City on April 15 at Film at Lincoln Center. For tickets and times go to their calendar. https://www.filmlinc.org/calendar/ In Los Angeles The Tale of King Crab opens April 29th.
If you are in NYC why not get a membership to Film at Lincoln Center. With it you’ll be able to get a heads up on some of the finest films in the world as well as Academy Award Winners often predicted at the New York Film Festival.
Starting Over is Bittersweet
Peace by Chocolate, is the uplifting and poignant film telling the story of a family of Syrian refugees who make a completely new life for themselves in Canada. The award winning film written by Jonathan Keijser and Abdul Malik, and directed by Jonathan Keijser chronicles the journey of the Hadhad family through chaos and darkness into warmth, love and light. The film reveals that an open heart which loves others and helps, creates a sustaining fountain of giving that saves lives and encourages kindness, decency and community despite great differences in religion, language and culture.
Like many successful and loving families who are caught up as casualties of war, the Hadhad’s flee the bombing of Damascus in war-torn Syria where they have lost everything, but their lives. They lived in the once beautiful Damascus on the Mediterranean, the last stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups that have been trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad since 2011. Al-Assad assisted by Putin’s general, the “Butcher of Syria” and other groups, left at least 350,000 people dead, and caused half the population to flee their homes, including almost six million refugees abroad as of October 2021.
The Hadhads who fled when Papa Isam’s factory was bombed and there was a window of escape, ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon for three years. Upset with their homeless state and their plight there, they gain sponsorship to emigrate to Canada rather than to stay and wait for the war to end then return to their home. Theirs was a practical decision considering the Syrian Civil War is still going on today. However, the decision to leave their culture, identity, language and future in the land where their ancestors lived for centuries is a momentous one.
The result is fraught with sorrow and hardship, however, the film concentrates on the point that the Hadhads are flexible and never look back as painful as that is. The most important factor on their agenda is that they all be together. Thus, with a brief reference to the backstory, the film centers on Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) the oldest son who speaks English and is the first to arrive and make the way for the rest of the family. Tareq is disappointed about many things. Foremost is that he was almost done with his studies to be a doctor when the war dislocated his future. Will he be be able to continue his studies in Canada?
As Tareq’s sponsors drive him to his new home, Keijser emphasizes the humor in the tremendous culture and setting shifts Tareq experiences going from the warm Mediterranean to the freezing snow and wind driven Atlantic North. Unhappy and disappointed, he registers the unappealing facts about small town Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. Nothing seems to be happening; there is little business, and there are no Syrians or Arabs. The Hadhads had preferred to stay with friends in Toronto, Ontario which would provide many employment opportunities and which had a large Syrian population. However, that opportunity is closed off to them. They have ended in the backside of nowhere. Is this their destiny?
Tareq does make one Arab friend and his sponsor Frank (Mark Camacho) is absolutely welcoming and kind. When his parents Isam (Hatem Ali) and Shahnaz (Yara Sabri) finally arrive, his father finds it difficult to settle in. He is displaced and bored. Though they receive public assistance, Isam refuses to take it and tries to ingratiate himself with the town’s candy maker, Kelly (Alika Autran) who is frightened when he comes behind the counter to check out her chocolate making operation.
At this point we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, Isam was, as Tareq tells Kelly, the finest chocolatier in all of Syria and he is impatient to reveal his secrets to her and increase her business. However, he cannot convey to Kelly what he wishes for her to do to improve the taste of her chocolate and she freaks out. Just in time, Tareq comes into the store and saves his father and apologizes to her. But it is the first of a number of road blocks that the Hadhads must break through in order to begin to feel they can offer their gifts to the Canadians.
Above all, it is very depressing because their language, culture, intentions and differences appear to be an impossible leap for any of them to make to the other side to immerse themselves in a society that is vastly disparate from theirs. The only thing they have in common is that they are human beings.
On top of this Tareq finds the education that he had in Syria to become a doctor differs from Canadian requirements. He doesn’t have the right paperwork. All was lost to him, so he brings one sheet of paper to show examiners which isn’t hardly enough. As if that doesn’t push all of them near the edge, Alaa (Najla Al Kamri) has been detained and her passage to Canada has been denied. The only thing that keeps them going is their love for each other and Frank’s love and great encouragement. Frank has become a friend and his church does everything it can to help the family feel welcome.
As a last resort against boredom and the need to give back to the country that saved their lives, Isam goes to Kelly’s chocolate shop and buys chocolates with the money allotment that the government gives the family, which will run out in a year. He gathers the things together and makes delicious chocolates in the family’s small kitchen. Frank and Isam bring these to the church and they are a sellout. Because the chocolates are incredibly delicious and there’s a high demand, Frank and Isam collaborate and Isam expands.
However, Kelly is resentful especially after she invites Isam to make chocolate in her shop. He declines her offer because her ingredients and method are inferior. He knows if he doesn’t persist in what he can do best, it will be a curse. Isam always relies on God to show him the way and create the best way for him. He cannot leave his first estate. However, he can transfer his gifts to another country. That is a blessing. Of course, Kelly doesn’t understand and later this creates problems.
Meanwhile, Tareq is between a rock and a hard place wanting to become a doctor and helping his father grow the business which is his family’s treasure and legacy. The wedge becomes such a canyon of distrust between father and son, it creates terrible tensions which nearly cost all of them. This is especially so when they learn that Alaa’s husband has been killed in the war and she has yet to receive the proper visa to join her family in Canada.
How the Hadhads overleap the impossible and become known to Justin Trudeau is a miraculous story that has blessed everyone who hears it. Likewise, a blessing arrives to everyone who eats a piece of Isam’s chocolate. Why? It is named for the message the family brings to their new homeland, “Peace by Chocolate.”
This is a beautiful film rendered with care. Concerned for the social good, the superb director and wonderful actors. clue us in to what is important in life: family, kindness, decency and hospitality. It shouldn’t be missed especially now that another refugee crises is at our doorsteps and talented, loving individuals are needing to start a new life since their other life has been destroyed. Can we not open the doors to them knowing what they give to us will be a hundredfold of what we give to them?
Peace by Chocolate will be released in select theaters starting April 29th and On Demand thereafter on June 10th.
Pure Grit, written and directed by Kim Bartley focuses on the relationship between Sharmaine Weed and Savannah Martinez who “love each other,” but cannot “live with each other.” It is also about Sharmaine’s definition of herself as a winning bareback horse racer. Bareback horse racing is one of the most dangerous sports on the planet.
Bartley’s interest in these two indigenous women and their relationship reveals the concern and love they have for each other. Indeed, Savannah joins Sharmaine around the time that Sharmaine takes a year off her winning streak bareback riding to care for her sister who was severely injured following a catastrophic accident during a horse race. The love of the entire family to become champion bareback riders is in their bones. It is an inherent love bred in their DNA. Part of the love includes the knowledge of the risk that they take riding bareback. Sharmaine’s sister took the risk and badly injured herself.
So in a matter-of-fact way Sharmaine describes the accident and her sister’s paralysis on one side of her body. With Savannah, Sharmaine takes care of her sister’s children and with the help and support of other family, they make a life for each other. The sister must go through a lengthy rehabilitation process. Her paralysis impacts her ability to ride. But Sharmaine has the goal for her sister to become healed enough so she can get up on a horse again without fear.
Because Sharmaine takes a year off from racing to take care of her sister, she has become rusty and needs to practice racing again. She is in a position of greater danger than ever because she hasn’t ridden bareback on a horse and has been redirected helping her sister and smoothing over her relationship with Savannah. When she realizes the racing championships are coming in months, Sharmaine pushes herself to get ready and refocuses. But first she must earn money to purchase the right horse to help her return to her greatness as a winner.
Bartley uses her camera from the perspective of a friend and engages Sharmaine’s family members comfortably. She informally interviews her mother and her younger brother Kashe and her older brother Brandon. With abundant voice overs and portraits of the family’s activities, we learn about their lives. Additionally, each family member shares their impressions of their lives, the reservation and their commitment to bareback horse racing.
Brandon has taught Sharmaine a lot of what she knows and gives her pointers about getting back into her riding. Kashe has returned, having been caught up with friends in drugs and alcohol. Because family members have established a comfortable and trusting relationship with Bartley, the film approaches an ethnography. We become a part of the setting and identify with the family and enjoy learning about them.
Though Savannah loves Wyoming Wind River Reservation where it is beautiful and peaceful, all is not heavenly there and the stresses of daily living encumber them. Thus, both women decide to go to Denver, Colorado where Savannah lives. On the one hand, the fighting atmosphere on the Reservation becomes toxic, but they will still be together in Denver. However, there, they calculate the change of scene will improve their spirits. Sharmaine will more easily find a job since there are no jobs on the reservation. With the money she earns, she will buy a horse to use in the upcoming races.
Denver brings freedom and opportunity. However, there are many distractions and these become a strain on their fledgling relationship. When racing season starts up, Sharmaine and Savannah hit the road and embrace the risks. With a new horse from her city earnings, Sharmaine sees the potential for a fresh start. She is determined to be a champion and she practices hard and wins a few preliminary races. However, she emotionally feels she is not prepared because in order to make up for a year off her racing, she must train and there never seems to be enough time.
Furthermore, Savannah is insecure about Sharmaine’s love for her. There is an age difference and though Sharmaine feels she is expressive enough, Savannah is needy. She requires constant reassurance about Sharmaine’s feelings. The strain between them grows, perhaps driven by Sharmaine’s overriding concern that the training with the new horse she purchases isn’t yielding the results she wants.
Kim Bartley presents these individuals in all their humanity and their desires. As a result they become family and we are devastated when Sharmaine, who tries her best to win the race for the first time, after a year, doesn’t make it. Additionally, the once close Sharmaine and Savannah split. They do agree that they love each other but fight too much to live with each other happily.
Bartley reveals that life goes on for them. And the title indicates that life isn’t always about winning, it isn’t always about getting along with someone you love. And sometimes, family leaves and there is nothing that can be done. These themes of struggle and the grit it takes to continue in spite of pain and loss are the life lessons that Bartley highlights in this beautifully shot, well edited film that has no beginning or ending. We are assured, like this family, the struggle in life goes on. And we are glad to be a part of it because to be a part of it is to be alive to take risks.
To see this fascinating film, look for it on VOD channels or check IMBD for updates.
One in three Australian women experience discrimination in the workplace. Julia Gillard, Australia’s first and last female Prime Minister ran the gauntlet of misogyny, discrimination, chauvinism and sexism from her own party members, members of the opposition and the media. What she endured, no woman should have to suffer in the workplace. Sadly, not much has changed since she served for three years as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia. Filmmaker Tosca Looby’s Strong Female Lead sets the record straight chronicling Gillard’s war years bravely standing up to men assiduously devoted to destroying her career and her resolve.
The documentary that screened at Athena Film Festival makes a leap in the right direction of supporting and denouncing the attacks and vilification of Gillard, a representative of women in political leadership. The film reveals that their brilliance and personal power frightened men unable to deal with their own personal issues with women. Clips of these craven, which Looby culls from mounds of archived film, TV and radio clips disgrace and humiliate themselves. They slander and excoriate Gillard instead of supporting her governance and properly upholding the rule of law with the integrity and grace due the offices they hold for the sake of Australians.
In her superb, difficult to watch film Looby cobbles together a record of film and TV clips, statements, film clips of protests, radio commentary and quotes in her exhaustive documentary. What she unfortunately reveals is the egregious, childish behavior of the males in their smear campaign to oust Julia Gillard almost from the moment she takes office in 2010. Indeed, she reveals how they worked prodigiously day and night to divide her party so she would be ousted in 2013. That Gillard’s brave leadership as PM got many programs accomplished despite the attacks is to her credit. One wonders how much more she would have accomplished if she had more support from the media.
Unbelievably, the opposition under the leadership of Tony Abbot at the time preferred to abuse her daily, mentoring hatred for the daughters and wives of Australian ministers and citizens. Abbott, a conservative (think anti LGBTQ, same-sex marriage, anti women’s rights) had no problem slamming Gillard’s personal life. Bloodletting was his purpose, not governance. His shameful acts and comments in parliament are recorded historically in Looby’s documentary, for all time, behaviors and comments seen cumulatively in Looby’s film provide a visceral and raw record of behavior antithetical to human decency required of a member of parliament and possibly a future Prime Minister.
Thus, Lobby’s film Strong Female Lead enumerates the level and extent of hatred and insult Gillard withstood in parliament and the media. Brave is not the word to describe her. Anointed, Godly, spirited is more the behavior she demonstrated. If anyone deserved to be PM, it was she. Sadly, the citizens have cretins and blowhards to govern them, a complete joke which rivals the United States insurrectionist blowhards in the Republican Party, one whose own brother and family denounced him, stating he belonged in a mental institution and should be removed from office.
However, the parliament and Abbott were not implying Gillard was a witch alone. They were helped by right wing conservative media who whipped up crowds and protests that Tony Abbott self-righteously appeared before as the savior of Australia, while milking the empaths with statements about helping Indigenous populations in various parts of the country. When there was a spotlight shining on Abbott, he puffed up like a red rooster.
In her commentary before the film Looby apologizes for including the misogyny and hate-filled clips. However, she mentions that out of the resources at her disposal, all archived on television and radio, she selected the ones that were the least offensive. That is amazing. So the signs flashed on TV that Abbott stood next to that read, “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch” were tame. Ironically, this leaves us wondering, what didn’t she include? Additionally, Looby’s extensive coverage of vile Alan Jones of 2GB radio, now, a former host whose contract has not been renewed by Sky News and who has been repeatedly sued for defamation, is particularly loathsome.
For direct hate-filled sexism and misogyny, Jones rivals the most monstrous. During Gillard’s tenure as PM, her father died. Jones takes a salt mine of vitriol rubs it in Gillard’s grieving wounds claiming her father “died of shame” because of her behavior. Mind you, what horrific things did she do? Disagree with his right-wing, conservative politics? Later, Looby includes his apology which of course rings so insincerely the next time he launches out and spews more venom at her. Indeed, he was Tony Abbott’s good little puppy. That was a deal made in the abyss.
However, one of the most uplifting clips Looby makes sure to include is Gillard’s queenly speech, filled with integrity and grace that answers all of what Abbott attempts to smear her party member (sexism and misogyny). The speech went viral and Gillard will forever be remembered for the power and brilliance with which she spoke.
Looby makes an incredible case for Gillard’s abuse at the hands of the opposition, Abbott, the right-wing media and other’s sexism. She seamlessly edits the pre-existing materials, visual and audio, sourced predominantly from television and radio. Interestingly, the indictment falls not only on these guilty of their bravado of sexism. She makes a clear, defining statement about the inappropriate misogynistic media.
Since Gillard retired from politics and her party lost, Abbott became Prime Minister for two years and then was also ousted from the opposition party. Critics and experts agree that he is one of the worst Prime Ministers in Australia’s history. Meanwhile, Gillard has gone on to remain active. In April 2021, Gillard was appointed chair of the board of Governors at Wellcome Trust, a charitable trust which supports research and innovation in medicine, public health, mental health and climate change. Additionally, Gillard was recently honored by the award of the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun from the Government of Japan. This was formally presented to her by the Ambassador of Japan to Australia. Gillard is the 8th Australian prime minister to receive the award.
Looby uplifts Gillard’s courage to be who she chooses to be. If it rocks the status quo in conservative circles, so be it. She once stated that she could never run for a political position in the U.S. with her lifestyle. She is an atheist, childless and has lived with her partner Tim Mathieson since 2006. They are not married. During her tenure as PM, Looby includes clips by the media during which she receives incredible pressure about her lifestyle and her relationship with Tim and his career. Gillard’s responses were humorous and clever. Of course Jones and Abbott piled on the heat and abused her with her unhousewifely behaviors, choice of partner, not having children and having a career in politics. In her speech credited and included above, she answers Abbott’s sexism.
This is a film to see if you need the courage of convictions in presenting your choices. Gillard’s strength in being proud and standing up for herself by calling out misogyny is an imperative all should follow. Look for Strong Female Lead on VOD and updates on IMBD.
Actress, filmmaker, director Ida Lupino was a force for her time (1940s-1960s). When no other woman in Hollywood was able to get around the discrimination against females in leadership positions Ida Lupino was there! Ida Lupino: Gentlemen & Miss Lupino, a documentary which screened at Athena Film Festival reveals the extraordinary work of this actress/writer/director/producer. In their documentary Julia and Clare Kuperberg cobble together interviews, film clips, quotes from Lupino’s autobiography, commentary by Lupino experts, current directors and more to tell Lupino’s story. Their film is a fabulous reminder of how women can forge ahead despite the overwhelming odds against them.
In the creation of the studio system, actors became the chattel of studio bosses. Their dictatorial control siphoned off creative energy and channeled it in one direction, a narrow commercialism based on the proclivities of the bosses. Thus, walls of paternalism and misogyny were thrown up by these weak-willed, desperate and selfish power hungry, who after the 1920s took over Hollywood. Jealous of their power, intent on exploiting and using women, to not compete with them, they prevented and excluded women from being producers, directors, managers in leadership positions in the studio system. The tool of sanctioning and oppression kept women in line so that they wouldn’t consider moving “above” their submission.
Studio bosses perpetuated some of the most damning feminine myths. These psychically abused women actresses highlighting them as sex objects or villainous vamps. Such myths also damned male/female reactions to each other and mentored psychologically warped relationships for decades. Sadly, as housewives and mothers, women characters remained in the background. Only in comedy and musicals did women shine.
As an actress Ida Lupino entered this system and “caging the joint,” she brilliantly decided she had enough of women’s stereotypical roles. She wanted to step out of her “designated” lowly position and direct the types of films that authentically related to women. Thus, looking at Ida Lupino’s films one notes a glorious reality that rounds out the lives of women with authenticity. A maverick, she proved that women’s films could be profitable and popular.
In highlighting that Lupino started as an actress and branched out from there as perhaps the first to establish the genre of Film Noir, the Kuperbergs interview Julie Grossman who penned Ida Lupino Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition and film historian Tony Maietta. With prodigious examples in their interviews, the Kuperbergs reinforce Lupino’s own comments and reveal her revolutionary approaches to creating films.
Importantly, the Kuperbergs use Lupino’s own biography and film interviews she gave to fashion their entertaining and insightful documentary Ida Lupino: Gentlemen & Miss Lupino. With quotes, film clips and commentary by Ida Lupino and quotes from her biography, we learn how this creative genius withstood the discrimination to direct important films related to women’s issues. Cleverly, she navigated the all male technical crews by referring to herself as “Mother,” a benign characterization which engendered a nurturing spirit among the men.
Related to this persona which Lupino wore with pride, the Kuperberg’s also indicate how Lupino learned from working as an actress in the studio system surrounded by men in positions of power behind the camera. With humor Lupino suggests that men hate to be bossed and ordered around. She implies that in getting male cooperation, there’s nothing worse for fragmenting unity than a “controlling” woman. Hence, her mother image worked every time.
Vitally, when the 1300 men in the entertainment industry were predominately concerned with objectifying women and selling them as whores, prostitutes and sex objects, Lupino created films that dealt with women’s issues like abortion, rape, pregnancy and bigamy. And she did this with empathy and depth moving beyond stereotypes and cardboard cut-outs of female and male villains and heroes. As a director, she emphasized the humanity of both the men and women in the revelation of real-life issues. It is no wonder that her films were popular successes.
The only woman with a serious career as a director in the 1950s and 1960s, she headed up her own production company with her husband actor Collier Young. Together they created The Filmmakers Inc. As a Democrat and a Catholic, Lupino’s cinema took on sociological and criminal subjects that male directors either feared dealing with or ignored because men engendered the subject matter (i.e. rape).
Lupino’s film about rape (Outrage-1950) is decades ahead of its time in the way she reveals how the victim suffers PTSD afterward in nightmares and reactions to simple sounds. Also, the cinematography is incredible with tall shadows representing the terror and fear as the rapist stalks his victim. Indeed, this and other Lupino films are superb examples of Film Noir before Lupino’s counterparts dealt adequately with the genre.
In another clip the Kuperbergs interview Martin Scorsese who discusses how Lupino’s cinematography influenced him. Identifying Not Wanted, a film about an unwanted pregnancy, Scorsese comments about the film’s documentary feel and power as a unique and pioneering work. The film shot on location deals with trauma, and the instability of a young woman having a baby with no husband. In dealing with the idea of teenage pregnancy which was against the happy family myths Hollywood perpetuated, again Lupino was a maverick presciently ahead of her time.
Finally, Lupino confronted another taboo related to illness and disease, the one ravaging children at the time: polio. She chronicles how polio sufferers were rejected and treated like lepers. Approaching this subject like no one else did before, Lupino creates empathy and humanity for those who suffered polio and other illness.
Interestingly, Lupino was the brains behind Filmmakers Inc. When Young wanted to go into distribution in addition to production, Lupino disagreed. She attempted to convince him that they knew little about the workings of distribution. Not listening to Lupino, Young tried and failed. They had to shutter Filmmakers Inc. However, Lupino persisted with her directing career after their divorce. Television was burgeoning so she moved to the small screen and directed over 100 works. She contributed her directing efforts to various episodes on “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and many other series. Lupino remains as the most prolific global female director of all time.
No wonder why men have attempted to stomp her from memory. But mother Lupino knows best. The Kuperbergs have resurrected her extraordinary contributions because perhaps the culture is ripe to recognize the genius independent producer-writer-director and learn from her.
Lupino has been out of the Hollywood loop historically. Nevertheless, her films remain timeless treasures where the mass produced typical commercial Hollywood fare have fallen into the garbage heap. Appreciating her brilliance and noting that she was one of the most complete and politically responsible filmmakers of all time, the Kuperberg’s Ida Lupino: Gentlemen & Miss Lupino, presents a long overdue focus on her career, themes and achievements. This is a must-see for filmmakers, writers, cinematographers and cinefiles. Check IMBD or your favorite VOD channels for screenings.
In Master written and directed by Mariama Diallo, the horrors of the past combine with present-day horror to gyrate into a memorable thriller with twists. The film screened at Athena Film Festival and SXSW.
Starring Regina Hall as Professor Gail Bishop, Zoe Renee as Freshman Jasmine Moore and Amber Gray as Professor Liv Beckman, Diallo presents three women of color. Each must find her own way to success at an elite New England university. Only one of the three succeeds. The reason why is disclosed by the conclusion.
Three Women of Color at an Elite University
Diallo opens with Jasmine who arrives at the campus welcomed by a student who intimates that she got “the room.” Later Jasmine discovers the legend about a woman hanged for being a witch. Part of the legend’s spin is that the university site is a Salem era gallows hill.
In macabre fashion, the “witch” picture hangs with other white Puritan ancestors/donors of the university. For whatever reason, the university perhaps views the woman as a martyr and eschews her dark and violent end. But the legend abides on the campus and underclassmen are tantalized by it as upperclassmen share the story abundantly so every student knows it.
Jasmine remains submerged in the legend and the hanging. Increasingly, she feels uncomfortable. Spooked by discussion that the witch forced a girl to jump to her death, Jasmine begins having nightmares. Her roommate and friends remain coolly distant and provide no help to make her feel accepted or comfortable.
The Dean Discovers a History of Racism on the Campus
Meanwhile, Gail Bishop enjoys the privilege of her position as “Master,” the dean of students. Though warmly welcomed by colleagues and students, she too must confront a terror which is in her beautiful but darkly lit residence. When Gail attempts to clean out some of the storage areas, she discovers the history of servitude and slavery in pictures left in shoe boxes.
Though her exalted position as a black woman makes her proud of her achievement to be appointed dean, in the artifacts she finds the unpleasantness of racism and servile abuse that existed in the house decades before. This is the site the official board of the university gave her to adopt as her home, but no one thought to clean out the storage areas. Is there an underlying message they are relaying? The pictures and weird, creaking noises stoke her fears. She visits her colleague Liv Beckman for comfort.
Meanwhile, something curious is happening with Jasmine in her classes. Though she achieved As in Tacoma, Washington and graduated as the Valedictorian, on the issue of critical race theory, she disagrees with Professor Liv Beckman. Beckman suggests that The Scarlett Letter has great racial bias and claims that the novel may be used to understand the racism in the setting and characters. Jasmine opposes that in open discussion. After she writes a paper expressing her views, she receives an F. Asking other students their grades, Jasmine determines that Beckman targeted her, so she files a complaint letter suggesting Beckman lacks competence.
The Women of Color are on Campus to Represent “Inclusion”
Ironically, Beckman represents as a black woman who college officials hired to show they support “inclusion.” Jasmine and Gail are all there for the same reason, to reveal how open and accepting the university is toward women of color. Thus, Jasmine’s accusation against Beckman appears contradictory and weird as does Beckman singling out a “sister.” Instead of unity between two black women, division overshadows them. What is the spirit that causes this?
The complexity deepens when the professors challenge Beckman’s receiving tenure because she hasn’t published. Caught between supporting her “sister” and being objective, Gail brings up the letter of complaint Jasmine filed against Beckman. It appears that Liv will have to leave. The unity that should exist among all three women has been shattered. To appear objective and just, Gail feels forced to tell her colleagues who will vote on Liv’s tenure about Jasmine’s letter of complaint.
Master’s Terror Shifts From Legends to Realities
Diallo then ratchets up the revelations of racial bias on the campus among the student body. Terrifying events occur that seem strange on a New England campus that appears to support diversity. However, the university had a vile history of a racism even in the 1960s which Jasmine uncovers doing research in the library. The perpetrators were never found in the lynching of a black woman student. Was this the work of the witch or a ghoul? Or did the murderer or murderers have white faces?
Using lighting, camera angels, pacing and interesting cinematography, Diallo creates mystery and suspense tying in the legends of the witch with a cult that meets in the woods and the lynching of the black woman student. After Jasmine discovers the hate crime, something becomes unleashed. Her discovery becomes the turning point. Racism on the campus becomes overt. Jasmine and Gail are targeted. Beckman, Jasmine and Gail attempt to help each other. However, sadly, the help never makes a difference.
The lines blur between imagination and truth
In the last half of the film Diallo stuns with unexpected twists. At one point, I thought the film to be sophomoric because Diallo cleverly misdirects her audience. Manipulating our understanding, she blurs the lines between the characters’ imaginations, nightmares and reality without clear delineation. And then she slowly reveals what we anticipate is the truth, but it isn’t. She keeps us guessing. Indeed, the opaqueness remains vital to the mystery, horror and shocking events that occur by the conclusion.
When brutality arrives, it devastates. The victim and the viewers who identify experience the fullness of the traumatic events.
Thematically, Diallo’s work clearly focuses on empathy. Allowing others to experience the shock of trauma puts the audience in the shoes of those abused, of those who experience racism’s terror on a visceral level.
When Terror Comes There is no Going Back
Once the characters sustain that terror, there is no going back. Certainly, political discrimination, white privilege and historical racism are undercurrents which Gail finally realizes permeate the university. And institutional racism floats everywhere and terrorizes like a ghost ubiquitously. It’s on the campus. It’s in the nation. Diallo proves that Gail has nowhere to run or hide from danger as a black woman, certainly not at this university. Like a flash of lightening the full import of title comes to us as ironic and diabolical. Finally, what Liv achieves when she receives tenure is a well planned outcome that is a travesty of justice built on lies.
Diallo’s twists create a greater horror than ghosts and legends in Master. But the elite university still remains. And that may be the greatest horror of all.
Master is screening on Amazon. Don’t miss it.
Film Forum’s four week festival screening of 33 films starring iconic Japanese actor Toshirō Mifune (1920-1997) and directed by Akira Kurosawa kicks off Friday, February 11 and ends on 30th of March at Film Forum. What is amazing about this festival is that not only are Kurosawa’s masterpieces included like Rashomon, Seven Samuri, High and Low, Yojimbo and Hidden Fortress, but also found are Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s rarities and rediscoveries in 35mm. These have been imported from the libraries of The Japan Foundation and The National Film Archive of Japan. For the entire schedule of films go to their website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune
A favorite film in Japan, but not that well known in the U.S., unless you are a Akira Kurosawa and Mifune fan, is High and Low. In this hybrid crime thriller and human drama, we see a different aspect of Toshirō Mifune’s acting versatility and concentration in inhabiting an uncharacteristic role, that of a modern, wealthy Japanese executive Kingo Gondo. Director Kurosawa’s layered unveiling of the strike zone of danger is a slow boil that begins with a meeting of shoe company executives that are plotting to undermine the owner of the company by pooling together their shares. By the end of the film, the company and the executives, especially Gondo are in completely different places, having gone through an unforgettable trauma that changes their lives.
Gondo, a creative entrepreneur, intends to outwit the other executives by buying up more shares in the company alone, than they have pooling their shares together. He refuses to go along with their manufacturing vision because they, mirroring American corporate values, intend to squeeze out greater profits by making an inferior product. His values are high-minded: make beautiful, unique and high quality shoes which have good value for their money. He argues with the executives believing that long term, the company will be better served through his vision of raising the bar and maintaining the company’s integrity.
The executives disagree and close him out of their deal. However, he intends to put his own plan into effect by gathering the money for a leveraged buyout to own over half the shares of the company, by mortgaging his house. At the point where he is about to send his assistant to finalize the deal, he receives a phone call from a kidnapper, who has mistakenly taken his chauffeur’s son Shinichi instead of his own son Jun. However, it is no consolation that the kidnapper wants a “king’s ransom,” for a child who is lower middle class, because the child is his son Jun’s friend.
Using the money to purchase the shoe company instead of paying the ransom for a helpless, frightened child is morally reprehensible. He realizes word will get out to the press that he values money over the life of a child, a position of moral bankruptcy. One way or another he will lose. Either his soul will become hardened as he places material things above a human life, or he will lose money but have saved the life of a child who is not his own son. Such grace is heroic and beautiful, even saintly. What will Gondo decide? It is a typical Kurasawa dilemma that his protagonists always have to choose between a rock and a hard place.
Initially, Gondo is not going to pay the ransom with the money he put together for the buyout. He thinks perhaps he can borrow other money from the bank to tide himself over. The plot thickens and turning points occur frequently. Despite the kidnapper telling Gondo not to call them, the police become involved. They assure him that they will help him get the money back. That, coupled with his wife and the chauffeur’s pleading as well as his own son questioning where his friend Shinichi is, persuades him not to go through with the money deal. Instead, he will give the money to the kidnapper at a specified place, following his instructions. However, first, as they tape record the kidnapper’s voice, they try to find his location as well as verify that the child has not been killed. The suspense and tension increases as the stakes lengthen and we wonder if the child will be killed.
In the second part of the film, Kurosawa’s specificity lays out the step by step plan the police use to eventually put together the clues that lead to the identity and place of the kidnapper. On the phone, the kidnapper spills that he is sweltering down in the city ready to die of heat prostration, while he looks up at the cool, beautiful house of Gondo, high atop the cliff overlooking the city. That detail and others, like the sound of the train where the suitcase with the money is supposed to be dropped off and clues that Shinichi gives the police about the place where he was taken, gradually provide the net that the police draw around the kidnapper.
The good news is that Shinichi is returned and the money exchange goes smoothly. However, the bad news is that the police eventually find the dead bodies of the accomplices who were keeping Shinichi in a house by the beach. Thus, the police are in a dead heat with the kidnapper, finding clues then arriving at a literal dead end. Meanwhile, as the cat and mouse game continues, Gondo loses everything, forced out of the company because his assistant told the executives of his planned double cross leveraged buyout. Gondo’s creditors demand the collateral in lieu of the debt and he is forced to auction off everything. However, his story is widely reported and he is viewed as a hero and selfless executive which raises his reputation and worthiness to the heavens, while the other executives/owners of National Shoe Company are scorned and excoriated.
As the wheels of fate turn, lowering Gondo materially, yet raising him morally and strengthening his soul spiritually, the now wealthy kidnapper becomes emotionally unhinged by a stratagem the police detectives use, after they autopsy the accomplices who died of a heroin overdose. The detectives trick the kidnapper by making him think the accomplices are still alive; they give him a note demanding more ,heroin. Through this ruse and going undercover into the most crime ridden street of Yokohama, full of prostitutes and addicts, investigators locate the kidnapper who has given a prostitute a lethal dose of heroin to test it out. Threading this evidence with the kidnapper’s showing up at the accomplices’ house believing them still alive, the police arrest him and jail him with sufficient evidence. Finally, as the last stick of furniture is taken from Gondo’s house, too late, the police recover the money with only a nominal amount missing.
Thus, from wheel to woe to back again, Gondo’s character has gone through the trials and sufferings of a Job. Mifune gradually becomes more stoic by the end of the film. His character has experienced the strengthening of his faith in himself, justice, karma and superb police work. The most amazing section of the film and the acting occurs when Gondo visits the kidnapper who by this point reveals himself to be a raving lunatic.
The kidnapper, a young medical intern laughs with ridicule at Gondo until Gondo tells him he is better off as the executive of a smaller shoe company where he can use his own vision and ideas to influence the quality and worthiness of the product. He is starting over again which is fine with him. Indeed, Gondo, regardless of whether he is high or low, learns to be steady and temperate. On the other hand, the kidnapper and murderer is completely unbalanced. Unlike Gondo who can be abased or abounded in life and remain a stolid rock, the kidnapper breaks down and screams in utter lunatic rage and pain. It is a shocking and incredibly memorable scene. One of the greatest acting performances by two actors that I’ve seen in any film. Absolutely unforgettable.
This is Kurosawa at his suspenseful and profound best. From the arc of Gondo’s admirable personal development, to the uplifting of the themes of quality over commercialism, sacrifice over greed, timeless and immutable values are presented as behaviors to emulate. Contrasting the personality of the kidnapper and killer who is psychotic for money and motivated to “get rich at the expense of others,” we are reminded of another path individuals take. Kurosawa offers both up for us to choose: the light and the dark, the ethical samuri vs. the twisted, psychotic who turns inward and self-destructs. This is ultimately, “the high and the low.”
These portraits are breathtaking in another must-see Mifune/Kurosawa collaboration. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times see below, and go to the Film Forum website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune
High and Low at Film Forum
Saturday, February 19 at 8:00
Wednesday, March 2 at 2:30
Tuesday, March 8 at 12:40, 7:50