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Friday, April 28, 2017

Tribeca Review: WHITNEY CAN I BE ME is a Devastating Yet Manipulative Look at Identity, Fame, and Drugs

Literally, every time I think of Whitney Houston, I get sad. Her untimely death in 2012, though some may argue we saw coming for at least a decade, still devastates me something awful. When one of her songs shuffle to the surface of my iPod playlist, or while watching anybody else sing the "Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl, I miss her profoundly. So, thinking of her has become synonymous with heartache and bewilderment over a beautiful and talented idol who withered away right in front of us.

Naturally, WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME, a new documentary which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is an equally harrowing narrative not only because it recounts Houston's once incredible voice and horrific demise, but shows the woman behind the talent; the deeply fragile, lost young starlet-turned-mother and wife. Though directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal sometimes victimize Houston in the way media once did, highlighting her vulnerability and naivete often during those precious private moments and her rapid downward spiral of drug addiction of which she had no control, they are quick to couple that with interviews with those who spent the most time with her, including her bodyguard, hair stylist, and personal assistant—highlighting the complicity of those around her. There is an obvious dichotomy between how Houston saw herself and how everyone else perceived her.

The film, however, does curiously work hard to dispel any notions that Houston's husband Bobby Brown introduced her to drugs. In fact, it mentions on several occasions in the years prior to meeting her future husband that she had overdosed or had been using. According to those in her entourage and who knew her from her New Jersey beginnings, this is something she struggled with personally, without anyone else's direct influence. Whether it was her severe insecurity, inability to navigate the pressures of the industry, gay rumors, or the crippling realization that her black audience thought she had betrayed her by becoming a pop star sellout, Houston made the decision to pick up a habit that completely enveloped her. 

Similar to Asif Kapadia's 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary, WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME is uncompromising, uncomfortable, and can definitely be considered exploitative. Especially given that the movie doesn't include any interviews with Houston's family or friends (noticeably, Brown's sister offers her own account in the film) and most of the interviews featured are picked up from other people's interviews (i.e. Diane Sawyer's 2002 interview with Houston and Oprah Winfrey's 2013 interview with her mother, Cissy Houston). Did she have any friends other than those that were on her payroll? Did her family not want any role in the project? Who is the person behind the camera, capturing all these personal moments? 

I bring this up to point out the overly crafted, manipulative narrative, which may or may not be intentional on the filmmakers' part. Still, it doesn't sit well with me. But the film remains a crushing profile of one of the world's most beloved stars, even if much of it relies on her darkest moments. 

Rating: *** out of *****

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Tribeca Short Takes: TV, Short Films, and Virtual Reality

In just one week's time, the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival has managed to highlight a remarkable variety of films and conversations that highlight diverse storytelling, genres, characters, cultures, languages, and even format. In fact, a major element this year was its Virtual Arcade, an exciting treasure trove of cinematic projects made specifically for the virtual reality space. That's right, folks. We are now living in the future.

Here are a few of my favorite non-traditional projects at the Festival:


Director: Brian Schulz
Short Take: Avoiding what could have easily been a somber narrative about the clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Schulz instead chooses to make this documentary a love letter to the city. He interviews long-time residents who reflect on the beauty of their hometown. In doing so, they share their own stories of redemption, faith, mentorship, and pride. While the movie has no discernible agenda, and skirts all intentions of being a passionate rallying cry, there is something very special about this inspiring piece and how it looks at tragedy.

Writer/Director: Kaveh Mazaheri
Cast Azadeh Abadpour, Negin Ahmadi, Forough Azizi 
Short Take: Add this to the growing list of brilliant modern films by or featuring Iranian talent or characters (Under the Shadow and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) that are coming out of the woodwork lately. While it's not directed by a woman, Retouch is decidedly feminist. It centers on a wife and mother (Azadeh Abadpour) who makes a conscious decision to not intervene when her overbearing husband (Negin Ahmadi) loses his grip on a dumbbell that falls onto his neck. While he struggles to twist from beneath the heavy weight, his wife stares on looking at once fearful, sad, yet subtly relieved. We don't know anything about the back story between the two characters, but this one scene is enough build full chapters on. Was she oppressed? Abused? Does she just no longer want her husband around? Or was this a convenient act of defiance? Abadpour's wonderful performance embodies the perfect combination of horror, silent rage, subtlety, and vulnerability. A definite must-see. 


Created by and for black women, this project highlights the brilliance, authority, beauty, and savvy of black women in science, business, and society. It immerses you in a Matrix-like portal that quickly evolves into familiar realms, including a beauty parlor, and introduces you to bold, naturally shaped and coiffed black women geniuses that serve as mentors and guides for you along this spectacular journey. It's a truly empowering trip.

In celebration of Mother Earth, voice actors Constance Wu (ABC's Fresh Off the Boat) and Diego Luna (Rogue One) team up for a gorgeous project that teaches the importance of protecting the world in which we live and accepting personal uniqueness. Oscar and Grammy Award-winner John Legend executive produced and stars as the lead character, who is teased in the preview showcased at the Festival. For a more interactive experience, you can even impact the weather with the gentle wave of a wand. While it may primarily attract children, there's definitely a universal message that audiences of all ages can appreciate. 


After years of playing the love interest and the insignificant other in countless films, Jessica Biel may have finally found the role she was actually meant to play. Director Antonio Campos, who slayed audiences with the criminally underrated Christine last year, returns with an equally disturbing and fragile narrative about Cora Tanner (Biel) whose intrigue is only matched by her violent rage when you least expect. We know very little about Cora when we first meet her, outside the fact that she is a mother and a wife, but her discomfort in her own surroundings is palpable. As Biel said at the Festival's premiere of the first episode, Cora is the type of character whose layers are peeled as the series progresses. I'm already hooked. 


Commenting on everything from the lack of diversity in late night TV to the underdiscussed transphobia and homophobia portrayed on the classic sitcom Martin, to the vulnerability of being a black woman who discusses race on the Internet, Aisha Harris (Culture Writer and Editor for Slate) and Franchesca Ramsey (the mastermind behind the viral sensation, Sh*t White Girls Black Girls (SWGSTBG) and the host of MTV’s Decoded) left no subject taboo in this much needed conversation about diverse images in media. Funny, enlightening, and boldly outrageous, Ramsey basically proved she is a spirit animal of many of us as she too thinks that Party of Five was unceremoniously canceled, your faves are problematic, and that Chewing Gum's Michaela Coel is "inspiring." She's debuting a late night pilot on Comedy Central soon. She didn't reveal any more details beyond that, but my fingers are crossed. 

For more information about the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, visit their website

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Helen Mirren as a Recluse Living in a Haunted House? Yes, Please and Thank You

The always amazing Helen Mirren continues to live her best life ever, defying ageism in Hollywood by playing everything from badass action heroes to villainesses and Queen Elizabeth. Next up? She's going to play a pretty darn scary-looking recluse who's living in a haunted house that may or may not be driving her insane. And of course it's "inspired by true events." Hell, I don't even care what this; I'm already in.

But here's the official synopsis:

Inspired by true events, WINCHESTER follows the story of firearm heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who was convinced that she was haunted by the souls killed at the hands of the Winchester Repeating Rifle. After the sudden deaths of her husband and child, she threw herself into the 24-hours a day, seven days a week construction of an enormous mansion designed to keep the evil spirits at bay. But when skeptical San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is dispatched to the estate to evaluate her state of mind, he discovers that her obsession may not be so insane after all. The film will take audiences inside the labyrinth-like house that is believed to be one of the most haunted places in the world.

Note: the guys behind this film, writers/directors and twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, don't have the best track record in genre filmmakers. Previous credits include Daybreakers and Saw: Legacy. So, there's that. But there's still Mirren, which makes me cautiously optimistic.

WINCHESTER comes to theaters in spring 2018. I'll keep you updated as I learn more. 

Tribeca Review: On THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON and the Urgency of Stories about Trans Women of Color

Literally as I started writing this review, a headline flashed across my TV screen highlighting yet another trans woman of color who was senselessly killed while she was out minding her business, living her life proudly. Sadly, we hear this news story far too many times. They don't usually get names, and we rarely hear about a resolution in their murder cases. They're just gone, never to be spoken of again. Like they never even existed.

That's what makes the new documentary, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, so timely. It actually goes beyond the headlines and 140-character Twitter posts to tell the story of one of the most famous and respected transgender people known throughout the U.S. and the world. In doing so, it provides a sense of humanity to a community that has for too long been discarded and ignored. But, as its title indicates, it does so only by way of understanding the mystery that still shrouds her death. In fact, writers David France (who also directed the film) and Mark Blane present her story as an extremely cold case that deserves to finally be reconciled. At the beginning of the film, we meet Victoria Cruz of the NYC Anti-Violence Project, who decides to pursue the reopening of Johnson's case, whose 1992 death was instantly ruled a suicide, as a possible homicide citing recovered details about the mafia being after her and other harassment. Cruz remains a dominant figure throughout the film as she struggles to piece together scattered details and obtain personal quotes from those who knew Johnson especially during her last days.

Thus propels a narrative that is at once enraging, deeply sad, and bold. Enraging because it highlights so many careless errors made by law enforcement in their haste to close the case. Bold because it demonstrates the passion of fellow activists in the community who go out of their way to protect and honor their own. And sad because this 25-year-old case remains unsolved. Further, it has been followed by countless other deaths in the community who don't get a chance for their stories to be told on the big screen. Often times, their deaths don't even make the obituary section in their own local newspapers.

The film also uses Johnson's story to tell a broader narrative about the history of LGBT activism, and those who led the fight. The late Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) has a major presence in the film as one of Johnson's closest confidantes who provides layers to Johnson's unfinished story, noting her passion, generosity, confidence, and happiness. Together with Johnson, she co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in the early 1970s—a major staple in the movement—that provided shelter, food, and support to trans women and young drag queens, and became one of the most recognizable faces in the Stonewall Riots. The movie also highlights the division between the Gay and Trans liberation movements, the latter which many thought excluded trans people (there is a scene in the film in which Rivera takes the mic at a Gay Liberation rally and she is booed off the stage).

While THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON is important in many ways, including how it connects Johnson's story to today's continued fight for visibility and acceptance in the LGBT community, it evades details about her early life growing up and who she was before she became the legend. Because of that, her life is still as much of a mystery as her death. There is some footage of Johnson in her own words, mostly interacting with her friends, but most of that is narrated by those who knew or admired her. Interestingly, it is Rivera's story, albeit intertwined with Johnson's, that is more realized as she recounts her journey, and we get to spend more time with her.

At its core, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON is a celebration of a leader whose importance is finally being recognized through a wider lens. But it's also a rallying cry, a call for all of us to acknowledge, appreciate, and amplify LGBT equality and liberation.

Rating: **** out of *****

Watch a clip from the film here:

Tribeca Review: Crazy is as Crazy Does in PSYCHOPATHS

Films like PSYCHOPATHS, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, are the reasons why horror snobs hate the genre so much: no originality, gratuitous gore, and no identity of their own. But you still watch them because they're fun, and they remind you of other great films you've watched before. So, you don't really expect anything.

Borrowing from films like the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse movies (which are themselves knockoffs from 60s and 70s genre), similarly styled PSYCHOPATHS goes out of its way to be fun, crass, and disturbing all at once. It's just basic as all get out. Several lunatics throughout Nowhere Town USA decide to go buckwild torturing and killing folks in the name of their serial killer idol, who's just succumbed to the electric chair for his terrifying deeds. There's a delirium, a glee that goes into each cheap kill. We learn nothing about neither the victims or the perpetrators, so we don't really care who lives or dies. And I don't think writer/director Mickey Keating (Pod) does either. With the exception of a few characters, none of them even have real names. They go by names like Blondie, Strangler, or Orderly. Keating establishes right away that he's not trying to create a character discussion. It's about watching crazy people be crazy. It's the idea of psychopaths for the sake of psychopaths. Random acts of terror running through a dusty town.

There's nothing new here and the film has nothing to say, new or otherwise. But, you can tell the actors are having a blast with it.While Sam Zimmerman is cuckoo crazy as the masked murderer, Ashley Bell revels in her nightclub act-turned-couple killer role—which is part sexy femme fatale and part delightful lunatic. And Angela Trimbur is just as intoxicating to watch as a killer in a blonde wig getting off on her own bloody prowess. They make the film infinitely more endurable, despite its vapidness.

So, if you're looking for a fun, meaningless throwback thriller, definitely give PSYCHOPATHS a whirl. Otherwise, you might want to stay away entirely.

Rating: ** out of *****

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tribeca Review: Reconciling Young White Male Angst and SUPER DARK TIMES

It's no secret that white men embody the largest percentage of serial killers in the United States. Which immediately begs the question, why? What incites such rage in white males, the most privileged people in the nation, that they resort to multiple homicides? Of course, there are many reasons why people kill other people, but I felt a particular need to understand this motivation when I watched director Kevin Phillips's disturbing 90s-set drama, SUPER DARK TIMES.

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, the movie follows Zach, Josh, Daryl, and Charlie (Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Max Talisman, and Sawyer Barth), a group of high school friends hanging out near the woods one day when Josh accidentally kills Daryl with a sword he takes from his brother's bedroom, presumably to impress his friends. It seems innocent enough, so to speak. Josh is visibly horrified, instantly going into apology mode aimed mostly toward his best friend Zach, who he clearly thinks highly of. He even suggests they call the police. They opt to keep it a secret among themselves instead. A series of random murders around town follows.

The scene near the woods is a triggering moment in the film that propels the narrative from a "kids will be kids" high school drama to a psychological drama highlighting the unpredictable and fragile mindset of young white boys from good homes in Suburbia who commit senseless crimes. But the movie fails to really explain the motivating factor behind these murders. The murders are already arbitrary (and sudden), yet screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski seem to take advantage of our willingness to accept the arbitrary with no accountability. Or maybe they see how society has become desensitized to white male serial killers that they don't feel the need to explain. But, I have questions. For starters, why? Did what happen in the woods ignite a previously dormant homicidal rage? Are the homicides reactions to the trauma? Is he just acting out as a cry for help? And if we're supposed to just accept this as a portrayal of typical white male angst, we still deserve a multidimensional character study. Shifting the lead character from Zach to Josh would have also helped.

SUPER DARK TIMES can certainly be commended for its scarily accurate portrayal of young white male angst, its solid performances, and deceptive setting but I still have trouble reconciling with what it's ultimately trying to say.

Rating: *** out of *****

Tribeca Review: Cate Blanchett's MANIFESTO is Indulgent, Annoying, and Shrill (But Well Acted)

Hi. Have you heard the name Cate Blanchett, two-time Academy Award-winning actress? She's pretty great, been in a few good movies. Perhaps you've heard of her? Well, if you haven't, please see her new audition reel movie, MANIFESTO, which premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I jest (sorta). I assume of course that many of you are well familiar with Blanchett's work (Carol, Blue Jasmine, etc). But in MANIFESTO, the shrill new drama consisting of a series of rants and strongly-worded exchanges about topics including art, capitalism, and women's rights, she goes way out of her way to remind you that SHE IS AN ACTRESS, DAMMIT. And not in a good way. She plays countless characters, even in dialogues with herself as another character. She dons a variety of accents, wigs,  attires, and makeup to let you know that she not only can play any character, but she can play all the characters at the same time. Never have I seen such a gratuitous series of performances that manages to say everything yet nothing at all whatsoever.

This is disappointing, because I am such a fan of Blanchett. But this effort is just so desperate, so look at me, so unnecessary that I am stunned that it comes from such a seasoned actress as herself. The second feature from writer/director Julian Rosefeldt, MANIFESTO is annoyingly narcissistic, even in its cleaver-sharp critique of society. However, there are times when the commentary is actually so spot on that you're almost angry at yourself for appreciating that. Perhaps presented differently, not as gimmicky vignettes with Blanchett playing dress-up, it could have been a smart, effective narrative. But instead, Rosefeldt decided to do it this way, which some may see as a bold experiment. I find it indulgent and confounding.

Rating: * out of *****

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