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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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 *****

Monday, April 24, 2017

Tribeca Review: Music Veteran Clive Davis is Feted in a Wholesome, Toe-Tapping Documentary

As omnipresent as music mogul Clive Davis is, I have to say I have never been interested in learning more about his personal life outside of the countless recording artists he's mentored and iconic music he has produced throughout his 50+ years in the music industry. So, I can't say I was overly enthusiastic about a documentary about him. Thankfully, CLIVE DAVIS: THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES is anything but. In fact, it's more of a look back at some of the most influential artists over the past five decades, who just happened to be repped by Davis. You will find very few nuggets about Davis's life here.

So if you love good music (I'm talking Santana, Simon and Garfunkel, Alicia Keys, and Aretha Franklin, to name a few), then you'll enjoy this documentary from director Chris Perkel, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Each of them help tell the story of Davis's steady professional rise to music superstardom, and the tunes he helped make famous. The film features interviews with them, as well as Davis's own reflections on his journey—including signing Janis Joplin as his first recording artist. Not a bad start for a guy whose first career was actually as a lawyer, As the film emphasizes, Davis was as much of a music fan as many of us. He had a natural knack for not only understanding the industry, but also where it's been, where it's going, and how it continues to document a cultural revolution that is still evolving. That said, the film is as much a celebration of great music as it is a really effective marketing tool for Davis, now 85 years young. Outside a few business/legal squabbles that were heavily documented in the media; ousted from his own record labels because, as he says, he was "making too much money" and "was too old," Davis's clean image is never questioned.

It helps that the film is based upon Anthony DeCurtis's biography on Davis, Soundtrack of My Life (a collaboration with Davis). DeCurtis appears in the film, heavily influencing the narrative. So throughout the first hour of the film, we're really just bopping our heads to the inevitably great soundtrack and learning behind-the-scenes tidbits of the business of hit-making; late night calls bickering over which songs should be turned into singles, and the like. But the last half hour of the film takes a somber tone as it reveals just how significant the death of pop icon Whitney Houston was to Davis, who considered her one of his proudest discoveries and a nearly immaculate treasure to music. Though it is clear that Davis is not the most candid figure when it comes to his personal life, he is noticeably still affected by the loss, affirmed in footage of the two in interviews and photo shoots, and through personal letters.

Although CLIVE DAVIS: THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES is deliberate in its depiction of Davis, and surely won't satisfy folks looking for something more exploitative of either Davis or any of the artists he produced, it does hold true to its title reflecting music that defined generations and defied time. It's a tribute to the artists, including Aerosmith, Patti Smith, Carly Simon, Grateful Dead, Barry Manilow, Earth Wind & Fire, Bruce Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron, and more who not only impacted his life but ours as well.

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Tribeca Review: Reckoning with the Image of Rodney King's Beating and the L.A Riots in LA 92

Despite its astounding resonance, it's strange to look back on the L.A. riots now as an adult. Twenty-five years ago this month I was just 10 years old (almost 11, as I would have said then). I remember my mom turning on the news and I caught a glimpse of what looked like a war zone. Buildings were on fire, people were rushing in stores stealing items off the racks, running through the streets shouting. It was utter mayhem, yet it seemed so distant from me—an image that lived inside our T.V. screen. And it was completely beyond my comprehension. So as horrifying as that moment was, the circumstances surrounding it didn't connect with me at that time. But the picture of that scene was forever etched in my memory.

So when I recently watched LA 92, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, I was brought back to my mom's kitchen T.V., staring at the scene at the intersection of Florence and Normandie where it looked like the world had came to an end. The documentary focuses on the series of events that occurred in the one year leading up to the riots, concentrating on Rodney King's brutal beating by four police officers (another horrifying image I remember as a child), and interweaves the subsequent political landscape and civil unrest with that of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, also sparked by police brutality. Juxtaposing the black and white news reports of the 1960s with those of 1992, nearly thirty years later, highlights a city (much like most of the nation) on which time—and multiple civil rights movements—had had no impact.

LA 92 highlights repeated frustrated declarations of injustice, inhumanity, and invisibility following the King verdict is seen in the film, coming from not only South Central residents but political leaders like Maxine Waters, who had taken office just a year earlier as U.S. Representative for California's 43rd congressional district. And it all fell on deaf ears. As the film details, it wasn't until tensions rose to an unbearable level, after the officers in King's beating were acquitted and 15-year-old Latasha Harlins murderer was let off, when the community took it to the next level in a blind rage. And in the urban neighborhood of South Central where the riots occurred, there was little to no police interference while black businesses and Korean businesses alike burned to the ground, lives were lost (sadly, most were black), and thousands were injured. For the first time in a long while, the Los Angeles landscape in 1992, the frustrations of the people, the fragile Korean and African-American relationship, and police relations are put into perspective—one which still resonates today.

While many documentarians feel the need to match images of past events with people and events that are happening right now, directors Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin never once include an image of someone like Oscar Grant, Eric Gardner, or any of the many black people who die at the hands of police to this day to emphasize the narrative's relevance. They don't need to. We already know.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tribeca Review: On Motherhood, Predators, and the Disturbing Thriller HOUNDS OF LOVE

Rarely does a horror filmmaker come out the gate with a narrative so layered and complex, yet so primal that it stays in your mind long after you've seen it. Such is the case of Ben Young, whose first feature, the '80s-set Australian horror HOUNDS OF LOVE, will leave you with conflicting emotions of terror and empathy toward its bats**t crazy villains.

To call HOUNDS OF LOVE, inspired by real-life serial killer couple David and Catherine Birnie, uncomfortable would be an understatement. Through overhead camera angles and slow motion shots, it immediately places the audience into the role of a peeping tom, a pervert peering over playful, innocent scenes of youth as the opening credits cascade across the screen, then eavesdropping over the most intimate, fragile conversations between lovers and family. For that, it's simultaneously manipulative as it is just plain old creepy. But it creates a sense of balance in how you view each of the characters, all vulnerable in their own right, though some we learn are far more unhinged than others.

Take for instance, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings). She's a typical teenage girl, carefree, loves her boyfriend. Sure, she may be dealing with some broken home issues (her mother left her dad and now lives in her own place), but she's generally pretty expected. So generic that when she sneaks out of her mother's house in the middle of the night to go to a party, we don't blink an eye.

Then there's Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry), the maniacal couple across the way who we quickly learn are more than a little off. We meet them at the dawn of morning as they lie still in bed. Evelyn gets up and immediately assumes her position in the kitchen, cooking breakfast. Her wild-eyed hubby's first deed of the day is the brutal attack of a dog we discover is one of theirs. So when the two are seen trolling the streets in their car at the exact same time as Vicki is strolling down the street, we instantly know that this inevitable encounter will not end well.

But a standard abduction thriller this is not. In fact, HOUNDS OF LOVE is more of a psychological thriller that weaponizes maternal desires, as represented through Evelyn's desperation to keep Vicki in her home and her obsession with her dogs. But the film also uses the idea of motherhood, and Evelyn's lack of it, to create terrifying insecurity in her marriage—something so evident that even Vicki, while tied up to a bed post, sees instantly. It's that internalized rage, something undoubtedly aggravated by society's view of women's roles, that further intensifies the narrative and propels Vicki to resort to matters of intimacy for survival.

Each of the performances are solid, including Susie Porter who plays Vicki's mother. But it is Booth who steals the movie. As seductive as she is cripplingly anxious, she is absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

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

Watch the trailer:

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