Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, 25 Prospect Street Among Highlights at the 12th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival
by Matt Fagerholm on March 30, 2020 at 2:44 PM
Of all the statements I’ve read regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, few have moved me as deeply as the anonymous one recently paraphrased by West Belfast community worker Tommy Holland in a video from Ireland's Upper Springfield community response team. He said that we shouldn’t view the empty streets out our windows as a sign of the end times, but rather, the “most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.” We are staying in our homes, first and foremost, to protect those among us—people like my mother with Multiple Sclerosis—who are most susceptible to succumbing to this virus. Communal spaces such as movie theaters may currently be closed across the country, but that won’t stop various major film events from occurring, albeit in a virtual form. The 12th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, an essential weeklong marathon in New York City showcasing works of cinema by, about and for people with disabilities, will still run Tuesday, March 31st, through Monday, April 6th, though it will take place entirely online. By having each film available for a 24-hour period from the moment it premieres, while following the scheduled screenings with Q&As, festival director Isaac Zablocki rightly believes that it will advance ReelAbilities’ overarching mission of accessibility. I was fortunate enough to view five of this year’s selections, and one of them instantly ranks among my favorite films I’ve seen in these early, uncertain months of 2020. Ric Burns’ wonderful documentary, “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” enables the celebrated neurologist and author to recount his life story in his own words. The footage of Sacks in all his exuberantly and tirelessly inquisitive glory was shot just months before he provided what his close friends believed was a master class in how to bid life adieu. He was diagnosed with metastatic cancer two weeks after he turned in the manuscript of his memoir, which is visualized here with the same level of insight and nuance that Sacks brought to his groundbreaking case studies. His 1973 book Awakenings illuminated the rich inner lives of patients who had been rendered catatonic by the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the 1920s. After they were treated with L-DOPA, they suddenly became alert and talkative for a period of time, much like how medicinal marijuana temporarily brought movement back to my mother’s limbs. Many neurologists were dismissive of Sacks’ book until it was adapted into Penny Marshall’s well-regarded film nearly two decades later. Temple Grandin, the brilliant autism spokesperson and professor of animal science, was among the subjects with neurological differences that Sacks profiled, and in Burns’ film, she shoots down claims that he exploited his patients, arguing that he undermined the stereotypes normally attributed to his patients by allowing the reader to walk in their shoes. Sacks’ writing (which I wish was excerpted more here) was similar to great films like Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which places the audience within the paralyzed body of its protagonist, involving them in his complex and engaging psyche while avoiding any trace of sentiment. After his homosexuality caused his mother to deem him an abomination, prompting him to flee his British home for San Francisco, Sacks knew all too well what it felt like to be marginalized. There’s a lovely denouement to his story, as he finds himself, in his late 70s, falling head over heels for a man, thus breaking his 35-year streak of celibacy. His fascination with neuroscience leads to an especially inspired sequence deconstructing how our eyes process continuous motion, raising provocative questions about the cinematic nature of our vision and how it shapes the flow of time. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” premieres at 7pm on Wednesday, April 1st. “Honey, you’re changing that boy’s life!” “No, [dramatic pause] he’s changing mine.” Though that cringe-inducing exchange wasn’t from any of the films scathingly analyzed in Salome Chasnoff’s “Code of the Freaks,” it might as well have been. Such dialogue epitomizes Hollywood’s formulaic approach to portraying minorities, whether it be a major league football player in “The Blind Side” (quoted above) or the football coach’s assistant with mental health issues in “Radio” (one of Chasnoff’s primary targets), all of whom are meant to educate the white, able-bodied characters on how to be better people. This picture is a necessary and frequently enraging work of film criticism, as its round-up of impassioned disability experts explain why various critically acclaimed pictures encompassing a century of cinema history fail to reflect the truth of their experience. Aside from Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks,” a horror classic in which the audience is made to identify with its ensemble of side show performers, none of the films covered here are upheld as acceptable forms of representation. One of the strongest insights shared here is how the irreverence of Farrelly Brothers comedies, in which relatable human fallacies are mocked rather than the disability itself, are preferable to dehumanizing inspirational clichés. I’ll freely admit that some of the films ridiculed here are among my personal favorites, such as childhood staples “Heidi” and “The Secret Garden,” both of which are called out for giving disabled viewers false hope that their affliction can be easily remedied. What’s missing here is the full context of these narratives, which are not about miraculous cures but rather insidious manipulation. It doesn’t seem fair to penalize “The Elephant Man” for depicting the historically accurate death of Joseph Merrick, or “Coming Home” for having a romance that is transformative for both partners (and not just due to disability), or even “Million Dollar Baby” for giving its heroine the right to euthanasia. And yet, Chasnoff’s film reminds us that the power of images is undeniable, and the proliferation of negative and misleading ones can have a destructive impact, regardless of their context. “Code of the Freaks” is premieres at 7pm on Tuesday, March 31st. As a film geared for families, Serbian director Raško Miljković’s “The Witch Hunters” doesn’t have much of an endearing premise. If anything, it could’ve easily veered into “The Lodge”-level horror, with its pair of 10-year-old friends convinced that the woman one of their fathers has been seeing is a witch, just because she’s an herbalist who does yoga. They plan on defeating her powers not through any supernatural means, but rather, by stabbing her in the neck when she’s asleep. If you can stomach that set-up (and don’t worry, it doesn’t get gory), you’ll be rewarded with a splendid lead performance by Mihajlo Milavic as Jovan, a boy with partial cerebral palsy who isn’t treated as anything other than a normal kid. He’s not written to be an inspirational beacon for his peers, nor is he supposed to teach his pal Milica (an equally impressive Silma Mahmuti)—the one with the allegedly bewitched dad—any profound lessons about the world. In fact, he’s grouchy when she first sits next to him in class, annoyed that a peer has infiltrated his protective bubble. Simply watching Jovan go about his day reminded me of the horrific bullying endured by kids in his situation, especially during junior high, where raging insecurities give budding adolescents the desperate urge to make others feel small. It’s no surprise that Jovan’s alter ego in escapist fantasies takes the form of a towering superhero with unlimited powers of movement. The best and most wrenching scene in the film occurs when the boy stubbornly ascends a staircase without the help of others, only to collapse back onto the crowd where he quietly weeps, “I want another body.” Though the smile pasted on Milica’s face in the film’s final moments felt patently false, providing too easy a solution for her understandably conflicted emotions, Jovan’s character arc does stick the landing, as he realizes that the world isn’t always as scary as it initially appears to be. The most joyous moment is a small one, as he gains the courage to ask an adult to help him up the stairs of the bus, affirming that there are indeed good souls out there willing to lend a hand. “The Witch Hunters” premieres at 12pm on Sunday, April 5th. Having a loved one with a disability entirely alters one’s view of the world. You instantly become more aware of the lingering glances and careless actions made by strangers, the lack of wheelchair ramps in public spaces and the gradual chipping away of one’s dignity when medical professionals utilize patronizing phrases like, “Can we stand?” I nodded in recognition when British actor/drama teacher Sue Wylie included that final observation in the script for her lovely vignette, “Kinetics,” directed by Tom Martin. Wylie based the film on her own semi-autobiographical play, which was based on her experiences of having early-onset Parkinson’s, a diagnosis that she kept secret until she decided to explore it through her cherished art form. As Rose, a character modeled loosely after herself, Wylie is marvelous, tackling her mounting frustrations with a resilient wit, while deftly illustrating the creeping violation of Parkinson’s as it erodes your freedom—the kind most of us take for granted—bit by bit. I can imagine ReelAbilities audiences cheering the scene where Rose stands up to an impatient man behind her in line at a store, who thinks that the time she takes to pay for her order is indicative of inebriation, an assumption she corrects with a cathartically shaming monologue (I applauded it myself). The heart of the film resides in the bond Rose forges with a student, Lukas (Roly Botha), who battles his ADHD by leaping across rooftops, which he describes as his way of knowing and accepting his limitations while always pushing himself a little further. In part because the film runs only 50 minutes, the melodramatic plot turns that briefly complicate their relationship come off as rushed, though it’s irrefutable that during times of crisis, we do tend to vent at those to whom we are closest. There are perhaps one too many recitations of their favored mantra, “Accept, adapt, adjust,” yet for those battling a disease like Parkinson’s day in and day out, subtlety isn’t always a necessity. I honestly can’t think of a better motto for our species to embrace in this present moment. “Kinetics” premieres at 6:15pm on Thursday, April 2nd. A particularly biting observation made in “Code of the Freaks” was how Hollywood narratives often portrayed disabilities as something to be overcome rather than embraced as a strength. Mick Jackson’s astonishing HBO film “Temple Grandin” showed how the autistic mind of its titular subject brought her a perspective of the world that previously hadn’t been documented, as well as an understanding of animals that led to her breaking new ground in the humane treatment of livestock. When I interviewed Grandin in 2015, she was refreshingly blunt in her answers, explaining that she “didn’t give a shit” whether or not it’s legal to put autistic kids in a cash economy, since it may be a better place for them to learn discipline and responsibility. Rachel Wise, one of the employees (dubbed “prospects”) spotlighted in Kaveh Taherian’s hugely uplifting documentary, “25 Prospect Street,” reminded me of Grandin in her brutal honesty as well as her visionary creations, which turn out to be a star attraction at her job. Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut was created by Valerie Jensen as a potentially sustainable business model for employing people with a wide range of abilities, empowering not only their intellect and skills but also their creativity—the kind Oliver Sacks may have been writing about in his final weeks. When Jensen realizes that not enough jobs exist elsewhere for her workers, she simply creates more of them, expanding outside the movie theater with an accompanying restaurant and various landscaping duties. When streaming services threaten to put them out of business, the Prospector decides to up their showmanship, enlisting Wise to draw ingenious flip book-style animations for each release and fellow prospect Daniel to rap about his daily work tasks, while inviting members of the public to submit their own work for a program of superhero-themed short films. Jensen and her team demonstrate how patience, intuition and a willingness to think outside the box are the building blocks toward bringing about a more inclusive world. Since the film, which was made in 2018, has no end coda detailing the fate of the venue, I went on its official site and found that—while it was obviously forced to close due to COVID-19—it had been open to the public for 1,933 consecutive days, ever since it first welcomed customers in November 2014. That in itself is a triumphant achievement, and so is this movie. “25 Prospect Street” premieres at 1:30pm on Friday, April 3rd. To find the full line-up of the 12th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, running March 31st through April 6th, visit its official site.
This Incredible, Unusual, Really Unique Sort of Hook: Writer/Director George Nolfi on The Banker
by Nell Minow on March 30, 2020 at 2:44 PM
"The Banker" sounded like it was going to be 2019's "Hidden Figures." Two "Avengers" stars played real-life black men who became wealthy real estate investors with vast properties by telling their white construction worker what to say so that he could pretend to be the president of their company. But controversy unrelated to the quality of the film became a distraction that derailed some of the marketing for the film, and its quieter release to Apple TV+ has made it harder for the film to find its audience. In an interview with RogerEbert.com co-writer/director George Nolfi talked about the eight hours of taped interviews with the real-life Bernard Garrett (played in the film by Anthony Mackie), taking the MasterClass on directing from Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Joe Morris), making property valuation and bank loans cinematic, and how "The Banker" is both a heist film and a "My Fair Lady" story. I’m guessing that until you started working on this movie, you never really thought much about banks. Is that right? [Laughs] That’s mostly right. I would say, because I studied a lot of economics and political science, I certainly was familiar with the importance of the movement of capital into businesses and into private hands, and the way that allows the economic engine to go, society-wide as well as with individuals, being able to start businesses and buy houses. As to the specifics of the arcana of banking laws and also of property valuation, that was all stuff that I had to go and talk to experts about, and then get back into my math brain and figure out how all that stuff worked. Well, that’s step one. Step two is: how do you make that cinematic? I was concerned when I first heard the story. Let me take a step back and tell you how I first heard about the story. I was making "The Adjustment Bureau." We’d finally saved up the money to get to the top of Rockefeller Center to shoot the end of the movie, and Joel Viertel, a friend of mine who was basically the on-set editor on that project, pitched the story, the real-life story to me and to Anthony Mackie. And we were both so amazed at what these guys accomplished, and we also felt like there was this incredible, unusual, really unique sort of hook where you reverse all the stereotypes and you have these two amazing African-American men, despite all the racism around them, My Fair Lady-ing, as it were, a white guy to be their front. We felt, right then and there we just kinda looked at each other and said: "OK, what can we do to help get this made?" In that same moment, I had a shiver down my spine of like-- it’s about banking and real estate! Not exactly the most cinematic things that there are. It took several years. I had to finish "Adjustment Bureau" and then I went and did a TV show for a while that I created and so forth, and by the time I came back to it, I had been turning it over in my head for a long time. The more I thought about it, the more important I thought it was to try with every tool that I had to not dumb down the banking and real estate, and to create a movie that showed really what these guys did. Because the reality of most of the jobs and most of the wealth in America is that they’re not accumulated in cinematic ways. I felt it was extremely important to tell a story, very closely based on facts, about two African-American men succeeding using only their brains, despite racism around them, having fun doing it, and the movie had to be fun watching them do it. It’s almost a heist film isn’t it? That was the idea. The idea was to bring to bear the genre elements of a heist movie and the things that Hollywood does great in terms of production design and music and costuming and the look of the film, to bring all of those tools to bear to make that banking and real estate talk something that you can accept. You might say, "I don’t understand it in the moment, but I know these guys understand it." At the last screening I did before the corona epidemic shut all that down, an African-American woman stood up to say: ‘thank you for giving us our very own 'Ocean’s Eleven.'' And I was like, "That’s the best compliment I could possibly have." But I corrected her and said "Ocean’s Twelve," because that’s one I wrote [laughs]. But that’s what I was trying to do. I feel like white people take for granted that Hollywood will make movies that glamorize them with all the tools that Hollywood has, that glamorize the way they outsmart a system or a person who has vast resources. That’s what the "Ocean's" movies are. I felt like—show me the movie that has African American protagonists that does that, instead of the usual focus on misery. One thing that I thought was very insightful was acknowledging Bernard’s anger, because he doesn’t show it. That is what I felt from listening to the eight hours of tapes with Bernard—you get much more so by actually listening to them than by reading the transcripts of them. He does actually talk about it to some extent. He absolutely had made a choice in his life. He looked around and he said, "I’m not going to beat the racist system, I’m not going to change the world, but what I can do is keep my head down, effectively not challenge the white power structure in a direct way, and use my smarts to succeed. I have a steeper climb, but I have the tools to make that steeper climb and make it to the top." That seems to be his attitude in some of the things he said, and also the way that he said them. Then it is clear that when he got arrested, and called before Congress that there was a transition in his thinking, to where he thought: "I was wrong. I was too sanguine about the possibility of just keeping my head down and succeeding in a society that has this much structuralized racism in it." So that’s the transition that I wanted to dramatize in the movie. I felt that that was a transition that he went through in the part of his life that we were dramatizing, which was fundamentally up to him going to prison. That’s what I would say, I just think that’s who he was. Let me just say, just to come back to the anger, I think he kept his anger in check, and when you listen to the tapes, it comes out when he feels like he’s given too much credit to the ability that he can survive in this system. And how much Joe had to do with bringing that out is-- you’re sort of trying to read between the lines of what he’s saying, because we don’t have an interview with Joe, but it does seem clear that Joe was a person who understood the ways of the world, and he was incredibly politically savvy. That’s where that dynamic came from. That existed to some extent in the original script, because there was a script written 25 years ago, several drafts of that script. But I wanted to bring that out when I revised it with Niceole Levy. It’s also worth noting that my three co-writers on the script are all African-American, and we had multiple producers who are African-American including Sam Jackson and Anthony Mackie, who’s been involved from the very beginning of my involvement with it. As often happens with real-life stories, there have been some complaints that you did not include all the facts. Many of the claims that were made about the movie not being based on reality, that we were manipulating the facts, are just false. And they’re provably false. And it has been very difficult for me as a filmmaker to sit back and hold my fire. It hews very closely in the first part of the movie, up to the idea to buy the Banker Building almost exactly to what happened to him as he described it. All the stuff about Barker (the white investor who helped Garrett, played by Colm Meaney), Barker dying, Barker’s wife, the guy in the wheelchair, the lawyer helping them, all that is just exactly what happened. And then we also have an 1,100-page US Senate hearing where Bernard is interviewed under oath, Joe is questioned under oath, Matt is questioned under oath, and multiple federal officials, including the ones who show up at the end, like Norman Dunn, Comptroller of the Currency for the Southern District, gives sworn testimony under oath. We also have 40 or 50 legal documents about the Banker Building and other properties that they owned, notarized legal documents from the County Recorder’s offices of where the property was owned. We have court cases, unimpeachable sworn testimony, and notarized legal documents, contemporaneous, filed with the county recorder. Did we dramatize things? Of course. Any movie "based on a true story" does that or it would be the most boring movie ever made. Or it would be called a documentary. Did we take more liberties in what we dramatized than "Hidden Figures," for example? Or "Argo"? Or "BlacKkKlansman"? All of which I personally loved. Absolutely not. Did you really watch Samuel L. Jackson's MasterClass? And if so, what did you learn? I did! So I had not met him before we started shooting. Anthony Mackie—this is what producers do—Anthony Mackie had emailed him, texted him, called him, whatever, and said: "You know what? We’ve known each other for a long time. This is the one I want you to do with me. Will you please read this script." And it was Anthony calling Sam that got Sam to read it quickly, and got Sam to say, "All right, you’ve worked with the guy, so I approve him as a director." So, then I first met Sam the night before we started shooting. I had no time to rehearse. It’s very tricky; these guys are so busy. Day one or two, I’m in Sam’s trailer talking to him about what’s coming for the day, and he says, "Have you seen my MasterClass?" And I was like, "Um, no." And he was like, "Oh, you’ve got to see my MasterClass." So I looked through the ten or so chapters, and one of the chapters is him talking about directors. I just go straight to the directors chapter, and he’s so harsh. He’s like: "There are shooters, and they’re basically guys that love the camera and have been shooting music videos or whatever, and they’re fine because you just do your thing and they do their thing and that’s that, and then there are people who are lucky to be there—and that’s most of them." And he proceeds to just say: "All these idiots have gotten an opportunity to direct for one reason or another." And then, he says, "There are writer directors, and they’re an interesting lot, because they understand their script; they can really help and whatever." So it was daunting because he was very much like: "Look, the director can do his thing and kinda suck at what he’s doing, and I’m gonna do my thing, and that’s that. But if there’s somebody who comes to the table prepared, and really knows the material, then we can have a conversation." So I went in the next day and I was like: "Uh, which category do I fall into?’ And I’m sure he was honest with you. "Oh," he said, "Too early to tell." [laughs]
It Just Takes Common Sense: Dr. Marty Goldstein on The Dog Doc
by Tomris Laffly on March 30, 2020 at 2:43 PM
It’s been nearly a decade since director Cindy Meehl made her debut feature “Buck,” a stirring documentary on the real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman and his unconventional way of training horses with respect and compassion. Now with the equally emotional “The Dog Doc,” currently available to rent on Amazon Video, she turns her intimate lens onto another maverick with a distinctive consideration and love for animals. He is Dr. Marty Goldstein, a pioneer of integrative veterinary medicine who has been combining conventional practices with alternative treatments—like vitamins, supplements and health-oriented dietary modifications—for over four decades, at South Salem, NY’s Smith Ridge Veterinary Center. Vivacious, passionate and dressed with a unique flair, Dr. Marty leads the way as Meehl takes the viewer behind the scenes of Smith Ridge, portraying pets (well, mostly adorable dogs with seemingly untreatable conditions), their guardians and an ecosystem of support as both animals and humans heal in ways unexpected and miraculous. Joining me on the phone last week, Dr. Marty unpacked the beginnings of “The Dog Doc,” his misgivings about certain widespread and conventional veterinary practices that disregard common sense as well as valuable insights about pets vs. the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. (His words will put many dog and cat parents at ease.) Can you tell us how Smith Ridge is affected by this ongoing crisis? Since I handed my practice over to my associate that I have very well-trained, I'm doing most of my work from home; so the impact on me personally has been minimal. At [Smith Ridge], [work] has slowed down. I spoke to some other veterinarians and you know, animals are being passed in from the parking lot, while people wait in the parking lot. It definitely has impacted almost every aspect of life. I've been looking online, on the CDC site and reading up on the effect of Coronavirus on dogs, whether they can carry the virus, whether they can pass it on. It appears there is no evidence of that. Still, I feel like a lot of misinformation is spreading around these days and people are worried about the wrong things. So what would you say to put pet parents at ease? Yeah, you worded it correctly. We've been dealing with Coronavirus in veterinary medicine for years and it's mostly been a gastrointestinal disease, almost never fatal in dogs and in cats. I know that this virus supposedly started in the animal kingdom, especially [with] a bat, but then it actually mutated and spread to people. There was a virus in cats called Feline Enteric Coronavirus, and that's the one that causes diarrhea and things like that. That virus had mutated into a disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis and that is the most deadly disease I've seen in my almost 50-year career. If a cat gets this FIP, then there's almost no treatment and they're going to die within a very short period of time. So it's the mutation of the virus that makes it novel, that causes the problem. [Here’s the situation with] the dogs and cats now. Even though they did find the virus in a couple of elderly dogs, in the lining of the inside of the nose, they just think it's a contamination from a person sneezing on them. So they are not considered to be infectious or considered to be in harm at all by this virus. One thing very interesting with this; one of the documented successful therapies in Shanghai is intravenous vitamin C [featured in the film]. I have research [from Orthomolecular.org] and the Government that vitamin C is effective in treating the outbreak. And this morning, The New York Post [published] an article that doctors have been using Vitamin C therapy in hospitals in New York City with success. And as you saw in the documentary, I've treated tens of thousands of animals with intravenous vitamin C already and it's finally but too slowly catching on. If I got infected by the Coronavirus, I'd be on intravenous vitamin C in a second. We usually use vitamin C on almost all our patients, so when they do surgery or any kind of procedure, we've always put vitamin C in the intravenous bag. What's interesting is the vitamin C doses that they're using to treat the people that are responding to it. [It’s] so far below what they should be using. They've never used this before, so they are in fear. They're giving 1500 milligrams three times a day to a human. We give 40 to 60 grams to a dog, a day, and we've never had a side effect. The pharmaceutical industry does have an influence on medical practices in this country. And the ethics are questionable. Oh you're a 100% right. The profession of veterinary medicine is subsidized by the drug companies and the food companies, and neither of them really promote health. You saw the section on pet food [in the film]. It goes back to the cereal industry. The number one ingredient in some of the biggest selling pet foods of all time is corn and you know, dogs and cats in nature don't eat corn. Maybe they'll find a cob here or there, but to make these foods 50 to 60% processed cereal rye products ... that's why I witnessed the incident of cancer, at least quadruple within my career. I have been feeding my dog, Audrey, Merrick brand grain-free dry food for several years now, with number one ingredient always being chicken or other type of real meat. But just watching the documentary, I am starting to think beyond the number one ingredient. One aversion I have to dry food, even if the ingredients are very good, it's baked to very high temperatures, and then it goes through a process called extrusion to get it into the little pieces, and that destroys so much nutritional value. And that unfortunately to meet the FDA, or what's called AAFCO regulations, the pet food industry has to put all of these vitamins and minerals back in, and they put them in synthetic forms. Synthetic vitamins are just not healthy for the body. It sounds like the director, Cindy Meehl, has brought you her dogs in the past, and that's how your relationship with her started. Because I was the first publicly holistic veterinarian in the United States, way back in the '70s, I got so much criticism and ridicule. The reason it's taken so long for me to be accepted is, they never really listened to me. They ridiculed what I said. But then I made so many non-responsive patients better that even veterinarians, when they saw that the animal that they felt was going to die, or they knew was going to die better, they started to develop a reach. Almost 30 years ago, Cindy had a Shar-Pei named CoCo that you see at the end of the documentary, and CoCo had very, very high fever. It's a syndrome that Shar-Peis get. And every time that the fever spikes or exceed 106, CoCo would go on antibiotics and steroids. Unfortunately inflammation is the way the body heals. And this happened so many times that CoCo was deemed to be hopeless and terminal. Cindy was in a pet store, a holistic pet store, almost in tears knowing CoCo was going to die, and someone came over and said, "Did you call Marty Goldstein?" So she called my practice, like many around the country were doing. I was backed up for weeks, and she left a message. I called her back Friday night at 11 at night. And right there she knew I was different because she said, "what doctor that you don't even know would call you that late at night?" and I simply said to her on the phone, "Don't you realize that CoCo's fever is trying to do something and you're not allowing it, you keep on suppressing the drugs?" And it made so much sense [to her]. So on a Saturday she brought CoCo to me. We stopped the suppressive effects of the drugs. We went on remedies and supplements and dietary change. And the fever worked its way through and CoCo suddenly became this extremely healthy dog and lived for years. So that's how it happened with Cindy. She filmed in your practice for over two years, around animals, their owners (or their parents, as I would like to call them) and around staff while they were at work. How was that process, gaining the trust of everyone and making sure the shoot isn’t intrusive? There were advantages and disadvantages on both sides. For her side and the film crew, they became emotionally attached. (And yeah, I do not use the word owner. I do use the word parent.) I'm glad we agree on that. Yeah. And I still use the word guardian, too. In my new book, we use the phrase "pet parents" at least a hundred times. So, what happened is, they became very emotionally attached to not only the patients like Waffles, but the parents. You see a lot of crying going on in the film, that was happening with the whole Cedar Creek [Productions], Cindy's staff, too. From our point of view, even though we'd become used to cameras coming in because of the popularity I gained, it was never for two and a half years in a row, almost every day. So we had the behind-the-scenes and the delays of setting up, getting mic’ed, having the cameras there. And a lot of these pet parents, they were not concerned with cameras, their pet was dying. So it was a little invasive, but there was so much understanding between the doctors, Cindy's staff and almost all the people that this was an important thing to do. Did you have any kind of say in what stories ended up in the finished film? I'm wondering if that was a collaborative process between you and Cindy. The editor that she's hired, Steve Heffner, did a genius job. One of the problems we had was [not knowing the outcome of any patient while they filmed.] I've had so many miracle cases over my career. When I speak at vet schools, I put up these documented cases and it just blows their mind. But Cindy would not really film anything that already existed. She didn't want to go back and have the people come in with my successful cases. So she would start filming a case like Waffles, and you don't know the outcome. And so there was a concern about that. But then the editor did one of the most brilliant jobs ever in taking what he did and putting that film together, because it really drove home the point. Mulligan and the dog with the bone tumor, the pit bull … those were quite miraculous cases. But hardly any of the cats came out well on film, so that's why it was called “The Dog Doc,” not “The Animal Doc” or “The Cat Doc.” I was actually wondering about that, as much as I’m a dog person. When people ask, "What about cats?," I just jokingly say, "Oh that's the sequel!" Absolutely. There’s got to be a cat doc after this. We have cats, we have dogs, we have chickens. You saw it in the film. We now have rats too. We do have two pet rats right now in the house. I have to say, I love your dress sense. You're into fun, colorful sweaters and dog-print shirts. Your wardrobe has an eccentric quality, but also an uplifting, optimistic edge that you exhibit to the world. And you saw my pin collection, too. I did, of course. And I loved it, I wish I had it. It's an absolutely amazing collection. I have some pins that were made for me by artists, probably worth thousands of dollars. As for the clothes, I do have a very good wardrobe of classical, sophisticated suits and jackets and nice shirts. And I have an amazing animal tie collection, too. But you know, I'll tell you one thing, and this is very important. The last book I wrote was called, The Nature of Animal Healing, and nature had two meanings. The nature in which the body heals and also the nature as the healer. Not the doctor. You heal a cut, the doctor doesn't heal your cut. The title of my next book that I just presented to St. Martin's Press is called The Spirit Of Animal Healing and spirit also has two meanings. The spirit in which the body heals, but also the spiritual connection between the animal kingdom and the human kingdom, the human-animal bond. And it goes way beyond physical reality. We know that animals can detect earthquakes, they get can detect seizures, bladder cancer way before we can, as sophisticated as we become. So there is this extra physical plane between them. So when I wear stuff like this in the spirit of play, let's call it, it's sensed by those animals. I can't tell you how many times we have heard people in our practice at Smith Ridge say, "She loves coming here, but she freaks out going to all the other veterinary hospitals. She starts to wag her tail when we pull into the driveway. Where we go into the other ones, she hides under the seat." So they sense this spirit of play, and those clothes that I wear (about which Mulligan's mother said, "he's 25 years too old for the clothes he wears"), are all part of the therapy. Believe it or not. I believe it. And that’s sort of why I asked the question because it really looked like a decision on your part, the clothes you chose specifically. I've seen cancers skyrocket, and this film addresses some of those root causes. It’s not that vaccines are bad, but over-vaccination is bad. The adjuvants and chemicals they put in the vaccine, that don't need to be in there are bad, and the pet food too. There was a real big reason, besides enjoyment, for this documentary to come out right now. Those animals for the human race is a level of unconditional love. And when that level turns into cancer, we have a problem, the human race does. Do you remember when your last polio shot was? I always ask that to people or chicken pox or measles. Animals, only animals in United States that are owned by pet parents, get all their puppy or kitten vaccines every three years. And many still get it, because it's a business-driven industry. But we get them as children and then it stops for life. There's scientific documentation that the puppy and kitten vaccines’ immunity lasts a minimum of seven to 15 years, which is their lifetime. So why isn't proper science being applied to this at the veterinary schools? It just takes common sense, we just need the veterinarians to ponder it.
Krzysztof Penderecki: 1933-2020
by Scout Tafoya on March 29, 2020 at 6:15 PM
Dębica, Poland sits only a few hours from the Ukrainian border, which meant it was in a precarious position in the early 1930s. When the Germans invaded, some of the sizable Jewish population fled for the Soviet controlled territories rather than wait for the Nazi rule to reshape the town. Many stayed behind and had their freedoms restricted a little at a time until finally they were forced into a ghetto constructed in 1942 and liquidated in 1943. The 1600 or so captives housed in the Dębica ghettos were sent to other camps around Poland. From his family’s house a few blocks from the ghetto in the center of town, a young Krzysztof Penderecki watched it all happen. Penderecki’s family were protestant and catholic but they were nevertheless touched by the war in a hundred ways. His uncles were officers in the Polish army, killed by both the Germans and the soviets, one in the Katyn Massacre, when soviets rounded up some 22,000 Polish officers and killed them all summarily. Poland was a pawn in the war, invaded by Germany and then by Russia, which forced Britain to join the war. Poland suffered thousands of casualties and was not prepared to defend itself. Penderecki came of age with the creeping horror of the holocaust drifting over his home like a dread fog. Poland would take years to recover from the horror and destruction, and as it rebuilt itself, the young man would discover music. In the films "Ida" and "Cold War" by Pawel Pawlikowski we witness the influence of Western music on those paralyzed by the Second World War. Jazz, rock & roll, experimental and avant-garde were introduced like new species into an endangered ecosystem after Poland rejected Stalinism and his cultural restrictions. Like the jazz-struck heroes of those movies, Penderecki took to Western music instantly, especially the stark strangeness of John Cage and early electronic music. He enrolled in the Academy of music in 1954 and when he graduated in 1958 began teaching and composing in his free time. It’s difficult to fathom now that it took only two years for Penderecki to become an indispensable force in modern Classical music. He premiered his pieces Strophen, Psalms of David, and Emanations in 1959, and 1960 changed the face of modern media with his piece 8' 37". 8' 37" was the length of the piece and no doubt a paean to Cage’s work 4′33″, in which the orchestra or musician playing the piece is quiet for that length of time, thus making the sound of the room and audience during the period the music of the piece. Just as Cage was attempting something radical in experimental music, a kind of Brechtian joke at the expense of the high brow, so too was Penderecki searching for new spaces in music theory. He later said he was attempting to create a new musical language, and indeed the techniques are bold and unprecedented. It was written for 52 string instruments and every part of their bodies was used. Musicians were encouraged to play behind the bridge of their violins, basses and cellos, or bow somewhere other than the strings. The result is quite unlike any piece of music before it. When he first heard the piece performed by the Krakow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, all he could think about was Hiroshima, the bomb, the horror of radiation and the destruction of the body. He retitled the piece Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima. Penderecki’s development of a dissonant and churning foundational texture, the kind of undercarriage of his pieces, has precedent. His contemporary, the American composer Alan Hovhaness, for instance developed a similar language, and there are pronounced debts to Anton Webern & Igor Stravinsky among others. Penderecki’s music, beginning with Threnody, finds an idiom unique to his obsessions and his family history. His music, his famous use of tone clusters, encouraged to relive the tragedies of the 20th century. He begins writing choral music and opera in the '60s, including his take on the oft quoted Dies Irae, which he dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz, and his opera The Devils of Loudon, and his work with the human voice is just as haunting as his experiments with string instruments. The dissonant harmonies, the wailing quality of his female lead vocals while woodwinds hum menacingly or squeak nervously behind them, this was choral music as only someone who had caught glimpses of Hell could have produced. Penderecki became a sought after composer for short film and documentary in the '60s after Threnody made waves all over the globe. His highest profile work during this period were his scores for the work of Wojciech Has, most notably his adaptation of Jan Potocki’s "The Saragossa Manuscript" in 1965. Alain Resnais asked him to score his time-jumping sci-fi tragedy "Je t’aime je t’aime" in 1968, as did New Wave minor leaguer Michel Cournot for his film "Les Gauloises Bleues." Both films would have competed against each other at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, if it hadn’t been cancelled midway through. In 1969, Rolf Liebermann made a film of his libretto "The Devils of Loudon" for German television, which had a pronounced impact on Ken Russell, the most operatic of filmmakers, who made his own version of the Aldous Huxley novel from which Penderecki took inspiration. Everywhere in his work was the shadow of violence, the voices in his work were mournful reminders of the silenced cries of the dead, left in mass graves without names or testimonies. Penderecki’s great musical project was to give voice back to those who had become statistics in mankind’s campaigns of warfare. His music returned humanity to those stripped of their identities by history’s crucibles of blood and power. That was only the beginning of Penderecki’s influence on film. In 1973 William Friedkin was also out to change the language of a medium when he made "The Exorcist." "The Exorcist" is one of the great works of manipulation in cinema, shoving us toward scares and revelations, daring us to look away as the devil and leagues of doctors and other professionals wage war on the body of a little girl. His then-groundbreaking strategy involved taking avant-garde compositions and laying them over both horrifying and banal passages of the movie to keep the viewer on edge. Famously he used Mike Oldfield’s song "Tubular Bells," but more important to the nerve-shredding texture of the piece, he used some five pieces by Penderecki, dropping us in his viper’s nest of strings for a few seconds and then retreating to silence. If the film still gives people nightmares, Penderecki is to thank. A few years later, his work, along with Hector Berlioz, György Ligeti, and Béla Bartók would be used and adapted by Wendy Carlos for the immediately famous soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining." Both "The Exorcist" and "The Shining" would become classics that still endure decades after their releases. Their soundscapes and the judicious application of Penderecki’s music played no small part. The texture of horror films owe his orchestral approximation of nuclear fission a debt they could never repay. Scraping violin sounds were not exactly new to horror movies when "The Exorcist" first dropped a needle on Penderecki’s early work. Bernard Herrmann had made violins sound like women screaming in his work for "Psycho" in 1960 (the same year Penderecki wrote Threnody), but there was something uniquely unnerving about the use of Penderecki’s modernist compositions that changed the game. It was the unyielding throng of sound, the way the music wasn’t designed for our emotions to fully make sense of the sounds. Placing Penderecki in film meant the music would not respond to the images, and indeed that these images would now echo with the real world terror he evoked. It is no small thing to use Penderecki’s music and few know how to get away with it. Among the successful employers are Peter Weir, David Lynch, Pablo Larrain, and Martin Scorsese. Lynch has used Penderecki more than once, indeed his movies and their famously oppressive sound designs make easy companions with the Polish composer, most famously employing Threnody during his dramatization of the atomic bomb testing in America during the eighth episode of "Twin Peaks: The Return." Penderecki was also a huge influence on in-demand composer Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist for the band Radiohead. His compositions for Paul Thomas Anderson’s "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master" bear Penderecki’s influence, specifically in his unconventionally percussive use of violins. They would later tour their compositions together and release an album of their work jointly. Penderecki was always open to changing tides in music, encouraging Greenwood and later working with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. He was only too happy to allow the times to wend their way into his work. After all it was from history he drew his influences, and he was savvy enough to see Greenwood and Gibbons as part of it, no more or less important than any classical composer. In 2007, he received one of his most important commissions from fellow Pole Andrzej Wajda, the famed chronicler of Polish history in his justly lauded films. Wajda was directing "Katyn," based on the events surrounding the Katyn Massacre, which claimed the life of Penderecki’s uncle among the other thousands killed and buried. It was a way to close an important chapter in his life, to say something final about the events that had haunted his childhood and influenced his work as a composer. Penderecki’s legacy has been assured from nearly the moment he started composing a half a century ago. His music helped us reckon with the disastrous human rights violations that marked the middle of the 1900s, helped us hear cries made mute for the first time, turned the abstract toll of cruelty into something concrete. Something that still rings in our ears, and will always thunder in our memories. Krzysztof Penderecki was an artist only the 20th century could have produced, and in turn he shaped it into something more empathetic and something vastly more beautiful than seemed possible.
Netflix's Unorthodox Depicts a Melancholic Escape from Faith
by Nick Allen on March 27, 2020 at 5:35 PM
Based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman, Netflix's “Unorthodox” presents viewers with a rare women’s perspective from inside a Hasidic community in Williamsburg, an aspect that's a large part of this miniseries' intrigue. While it features a lot of specific Hasidic rituals and parts of lifestyle, its attitude takes after great deal from the book’s subtitle: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. This is a melancholic story, told with a touch as sensitive as it is respectful, but with the same overwhelming feeling as an observer: "Get out of there!". And yet the feeling underneath this story is a quiet angst, which sometimes erupts in the tears that fall down the cheeks of courageous escapee Esther. If only the miniseries that sets her free had more to say about the community she's fleeing, or the new world she throws herself into. Shira Haas plays Esther (also known as Esty), a young woman from an ultra-Orthodox community who wants to get out. In the first of the miniseries’ four episodes, she plans a getaway to a destination that soon becomes clear to us (Berlin), for reasons that are more and more pertinent—the oppression she faced as a woman in the community, especially after being married to a man named Yanky (Amit Rahav). It's a scandal within the community, reflected on the faces of other women (like Esty's grandmother Babby [Dina Doron]) who have themselves been hollowed out and silenced by patriarchy. Once in Berlin, Esther is frightened and alone, but quickly feels the difference—bright colors, a diverse group of people, open spaces. Even the daylight seems to be brighter there. As someone who secretly practiced piano for years (a woman being musical was seen as immodest), she finds refuge in a music school, sleeping there one night and befriending a hip group of students. They accept her quickly, having come from all over the world themselves, and offer her a strong juxtaposition of family. Esty's initial plan is to earn a scholarship for piano, even though it’s revealed that she is able to present passion more than technique. On Esty’s tail are Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), the latter who seems invested in tracking down Esty for the sake of the hunt, and also as a further exercise of his repressed machismo. They try to initially track down her mother Leah (who fled years ago), but split up, and have different varied emotional experiences about being outside of their community. Yanky, who is in a way as frightened as Esty, tries to balance in his heart his roles as a Hasidic man, and what feels right to him as a quietly sensitive person; Moishe has a darker side, and dabbles with gambling and gangsters in Berlin. Meanwhile, Esty finds herself restarting life from zero, Haas' docile performance presenting a woman experiencing so many new yet relatively ordinary things, like trying on jeans. Created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, "Unorthodox" contrasts Esty's new story with flashbacks to the process that ultimately broke her, like getting set up with Yanky, and realizing more and more that she is only meant to serve a role of subservient wife and mother, instead of being an independent person. And while "Unorthodox" has rich cultural detail in presenting this community back in Williamsburg, the tragic note it hits remains the same. In this story, religion is presented as a joyless life sentence. That’s an entirely welcome depiction whether one agrees with it or not, it’s more that it flattens out the story when it comes to making a challenging world or set of characters, and makes Esty's liberation all the more obvious. It's a breath of fresh air the moment she steps out of the Berlin airport in episode one, and the flashbacks to the past confirm again and again how much better her life will be the further she moves on. Not even the prospect of a chase seems to put that in anxious jeopardy, with Yanky and Moishe doing some clumsy investigating around Berlin. Esty's own inner conflict is not about whether she'd ever go back, it's just whether she'll be able to make it in Berlin (of which the fourth episode has an answer to that that goes from powerful to quaint). The epiphanies that Esty experiences are undercut too, as much as it becomes clear that she never has heard techno music, or tried on lipstick. The best byproduct of the miniseries' expansive narrative focus is that it portrays sex in this world for all of its mechanics and dreaded repeated nights of a woman’s displeasure. Like when Esty is chided by Yanky's mother about their failed attempts at sex, it's full of mortifying ideas of control in service of a man's ego. This story focus later leads to a face of visceral horror from Esty (during Yanky’s pleasure) that all the more solidifies the grave inequality in their community. And "Unorthodox" only need provide such criticism through simple matter-of-factness, with passion-less sex presented as being barely different from time in the synagogue. Berlin itself plays a compelling part in "Unorthodox," given the story's focus on the impact of the past. Within these events is a sense of trauma from the Holocaust, and that provides a tension to the ideologies that the story briefly touches. In one of the miniseries’ best scenes, a defiant character objects to Esther being in Berlin in part because of its history, and all the lost souls that are there; but Esther is connected with the place because it has a sense of new life. This moment comes almost too late in the story, and there seems to be a missing thread about how her mother's secret German citizenship (revealed in episode one) plays into the dual notions of identity and acceptance. "Unorthodox" is always tender, especially as it laments the kind of experiences had by real-life Esthers. But its pacing is gradual almost to a fault, and spreads itself thin when stepping away to focus on Moishe’s vices, and Yanky’s sensitive realizations. For the most part, it's a four-episode miniseries that particularly feels like its themes would have been better serviced in a two-hour movie, especially in bottling up the shock of a woman's long overdue freedom, and the chase it inspires. "Unorthodox" is now playing on Netflix.
by Brian Tallerico on March 27, 2020 at 2:13 PM
There may be no March Madness this year but there’s something truly insane related to college basketball this Tuesday. Airing on HBO after its canceled SXSW premiere, “The Scheme” tells the story of Christian Dawkins, a man whose ambition and business savvy became the focus of a major federal operation to bring down corruption in the NCAA. You may remember the fallout in 2017 that led to the resignation of Rick Pitino at Louisville, but the truth is that not much seemed to change in the NCAA. Personally, I remembered Sean Miller of Arizona’s angry press conference and a few other ESPN early reports but wondered what came of it. The truth is that most people know there’s corruption in the NCAA because it’s a system designed to support it through its nonsensical arguments about amateurism. So the question of “The Scheme” becomes not so much what did the government uncover but why did they bother? And perhaps a bit frustratingly unexplored by the film, why did they just kind of gently place the cover back when they were done? “The Scheme” is really a profile piece of Christian Dawkins, the Michigan man who was the center of this expensive sting operation. Dawkins grew up in Saginaw, a high school basketball hot spot that has produced major players like Draymond Green. His brother looked like the next NBA star but he died at a tragically young age from an undiagnosed heart condition. With his brother’s talent, the legacy of his school’s program, and a father who was a famous coach locally, it seems inevitable that Dawkins would go into something related to basketball. And it turned out that he had incredible business savvy. At a young age, he was scouting high school players and selling the results to college coaches. He was negotiating shoe deals for players in high school. It made perfect sense that he would try to get into managing players. And so he did. In the mid’-10s, he raised some capital and worked toward founding his own company that would kind of guide players from high school through college and into the pros. Imagine finding the right guy early and getting a cut of an NBA All-Star future. Naturally, Dawkins became an essential ally for college coaches, not just offering advice but encouraging his players to go to certain schools. However, none of what Dawkins was doing was illegal. He’s a representative, someone to speak for the players and guide their future. And yet, for some reason, the government saw him as the key to a massive corruption sting. They sent in undercover agents to basically hand Dawkins money and then encourage him to bring coaches into the financial system. While “The Scheme” is arguably one-sided—the producers reached out to the government and coaches but they refused comment—it’s hard to watch the undercover footage here and not consider this entrapment. Dawkins repeatedly tries to explain to his new investors that bribing coaches isn’t what he does and what he wants to do. It’s not out of an allegiance to a corrupt, broken system, but it just doesn’t make sense for his business model. But someone decided that college coaches are public officials and so bribing would be enough for a corruption charge and they kept pushing their way into a horrible scheme. Clearly, the plan was to get just enough on Dawkins to turn him to then dismantle the system further, but Dawkins didn’t play along. “The Scheme” takes a bit too long to get there—it didn’t need to be a full two hours—but the final quarter of this game is ridiculously entertaining and enlightening. Without “spoiling” anything, you’ll hear the voices of some major players in the college coaching scene who will have some serious explaining to do if they want to keep their jobs next week. And Dawkins is charmingly defiant about all of it. He’s the main reason “The Scheme” works, someone who can look at all of this nonsense and see it for what it is. The filmmakers rely a bit too much on interviews—the old criticism of "talking-head movie" could be used here—but Dawkins is a fascinating subject, and there's filmmaking skill in how they get him to open up for the first time and detail everything that happened. The headlines that dropped on Dawkins, Pitino, and others emerged from a deeply broken system, one that punishes players for minor offenses while making millions off their talents. The fact that the U.S. government wasted so much time and resources poorly trying to push into one corner of this behemoth of corruption and greed is the real story here. And it’s well-told. “The Scheme” airs on HBO on Tuesday night at 9pm EST.
by Simon Abrams on March 27, 2020 at 2:13 PM
There’s more hand-me-down genre movie tropes than recognizable human behavior in the new sci-fi/horror hybrid “Vivarium,” about a young couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) who is abducted and forced to raise a creepy pod person child. Which wouldn’t be so bad if “Vivarium” wasn’t about the suffocating nature of marriage and parenting in the 21st century. “Vivarium” isn’t a fun watch, and not just because it’s generally claustrophobic and insistently bleak. Even less fun: watching a pair of talented actors go through the motions of an exhausted scenario that’s based almost entirely on pat assumptions about how pre-fabricated and insidious modern suburbia is. In every dream home a heartache? Yeah, sure. After visiting a creepy realtor (Jonathan Aris), Tom and Gemma (Eisenberg and Poots) are driven to and then abandoned in Yonder, a very bland vision of an even blander gated community. Every house in Yonder is painted green, every backyard is mowed, and every cloud in the sky resembles a matte painting. Tom and Gemma try to escape, but they cannot find Yonder’s exit. So they settle in at #9 (no street address, presumably because they’re all the same), and periodically receive care packages of flavorless, but neatly vacuum-sealed perishables, like steak, eggs, and coffee. One such box includes a human baby; on the side of the box are these instructions: “Raise the child and be released.” Time passes differently in Yonder, especially for Tom and Gemma’s unnamed child (Senan Jennings, and then later Eanna Hardwicke). This kid is like one of the Midwich Cuckoos from “Village of the Damned,” only he’s not nearly as interesting: he ages faster than normal, like a dog, and he asks awkward questions that have negligible existential value, like what’s a dog, what’s a dream, etc. Tom and Gemma’s child also screams whenever they don’t go through the motions of parenting him, like when they don’t serve him enough breakfast cereal. He also parrots their conversations back to them, like, oh, any time that Tom and Gemma argue. This kid is creepy, mostly thanks to Jennings and Hardwicke’s performances, but he’s not interesting enough to stick in your mind for long. The same is basically true of Tom and Gemma’s frustrated coping strategies: he tries to escape by digging a hole in their lawn while she tries to bond with Jennings and Hardwicke’s bad seed. Tom and Gemma’s respective activities define who they are in “Vivarium,” because the plot doesn’t slow down long enough to relate any valuable information beyond expository dialogue. This is especially frustrating whenever Tom and Gemma’s situation tells us how they feel about each other, because those feelings are often as vague as Tom and Gemma’s ersatz son. Most “Vivarium” scenes are too brisk and un-nuanced to flesh out Yonder’s ostensibly forbidding world of plastic, consumer-friendly domesticity. One moment we’re watching Tom trudge from the breakfast table back to his lawn hole. Then, a few minutes and scenes later, we’re watching him cough up a lung, and pantomime bone-deep weariness. Eisenberg’s a talented performer, but he’s not good enough to suggest soul-sick mania in a few seconds. Viewers are also left with a number of basic conceptual questions that are never really answered, because Tom and Gemma don’t waste much time talking their way through their problems. Is that lack of introspection supposed to mean something? It’s hard to tell, especially given how unyielding most of the movie’s dialogue is, like when Gemma wonderingly tells her child that “You’re a mystery, and I’m going to solve you.” Equally banal dialogue exchanges, like when she tells him that a dream is “all sorts of moving pictures in your mind, but no one else can see them,” also reminded me of the human sensitivity that’s often lacking from “Vivarium.” I know this movie is supposed to be about what it’s like to be sucked dry by social expectations … but does it have to be so empty, too? Every moment in “Vivarium” is a frustrating synecdoche, since no single metaphor or image convey an idea that you probably couldn’t think up with yourself during an especially foul mood. Marriage is a prison; parenting is a scam; home ownership is a trap; and you’ll probably die alone, without a substantial legacy. Understood, but who cares? If all you can show me is what you think isn’t genuine, you leave me with zero idea about what you think authenticity looks like, or why I should care. “Vivarium” is the horror movie equivalent of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans: easy to reproduce, easier to forget. Available on VOD today, 3/27.
by Sheila O'Malley on March 27, 2020 at 2:13 PM
There's something about the summer in between high school and college. Friendships break up or become super clingy, due to all that impending separation anxiety. Romances break up. People get way too drunk and hug it out. Tears are shed. Things get a little ... intense. "Banana Split" takes place during such a summer, complete with brightly-colored chapter markers: "89 Days Until Orientation," and etc. Even with the clock running down, there's an in-between feeling, a "this is forever and yet it's also ending" feeling, nicely captured by director Benjamin Kasulke, with poignant and sometimes funny needle drops, and two excellent central performances from Hannah Marks and Liana Liberato. There's a lot more complexity here than may meet the eye, even with the title's broad-stroke (so to speak) double entendre. "Banana Split" opens with a montage, a bold and not entirely successful choice, showing the falling-in-love, virginity-losing, and eventual old-married-couple-fighting of April (Marks) and her hottie boyfriend Nick (Dylan Sprouse). As the montage reveals in a quick succession of scenes, they're together for two years (basically a 40-year-marriage in high school years). But when April gets into Boston University, all the way across the country from Los Angeles, things change. Nick is going to school locally in California. He's hurt she would make such a choice. The two don't break up in a formal way. April still thinks they're going out, until one day she notices something horrifying: Nick posting pictures on his Instagram of him making out with another girl. April is a pretty tough cookie, and judging from her mother (a very funny Jessica Hecht), and her trash-talking younger sister (Addison Riecke), the apples all fall from the same tree. Tough as she may be, April is devastated by Nick abandoning her (and confused by him still texting her). Luke Spencer Roberts plays Ben, friend to both Nick and April, who finds himself stuck in the middle. Meanwhile, April becomes obsessed with this new girl, who has dropped into their crowd from out of nowhere. She is Clara (Liana Liberato), a coolly beautiful and confident blonde, and April glowers at her from across crowded parties, getting way too drunk, tears pooling up in her eyes. Eventually, though, the girls become friends, and decide to continue their friendship without telling anyone—not Nick, not social media, no one. It's like they are cheating on everyone with each other. They sneak around, and Clara keeps seeing Nick, and April has many mixed feelings. The script was co-written by Hannah Marks and Joey Power (this is their second script, the first being 2018's "After Everything"). Marks also served as executive producer for the film. Marks is just 27 years old, and this alone is hope for the future. Young women creating their own work, initiating projects, getting it done, not waiting around for someone in power to "give them" roles they deserve. Marks was recently named by Rolling Stone as one of the "25 under 25 changing the world." A heady label, but Marks seems more than ready to take on all those challenges. As children, both Marks and Liberato were profiled in a 2006 New York Times Magazine article about child actors (Liberato was featured on the cover). Child actors often flame out, suffering from the "too much too soon" tradition in the industry. But Marks and Liberato have made that transition with grace: they both work all the time, in television series (Marks in "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and Liberato in "Sons of Anarchy" and "Light as a Feather"). In 2011, Liberato gave a tremendous performance in David Schwimmer's "Trust" playing a 14-year-old child lured into a "relationship" by a much-older online predator. Here, together, Marks and Liberato make such an interesting onscreen pair. Marks is all wisecracks, but with an undercurrent of constant roiling emotion, rage and hurt and humor. She wears her mixed feelings on her sleeve. And Liberato plays a girl who presents as confident and open—but the truth is she's struggling to find her way, she's a little bit lost, even. Clara is not going to college. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. Sometimes flashes of deep ambivalence cross her face, showing that Clara doesn't quite like the way things are going, that she may not be as easy-breezy as she seems. "Banana Split"'s opening sequence is a little rough. The dialogue is presentational, and the jokey tone is a bit arch. But once the two girls start hanging out together, "Banana Split" settles into its rhythm. There are moments of poignancy and humor. This is an entertaining and often insightful look at female friendship during a particularly strange time, the hiatus before everything changes, the last gasp before adulthood and independence. The film is refreshingly frank about teenage life, the drinking and drugs, the fake IDs, the drunken Lyft rides home, all of the bad choices everyone makes. The film isn't phobic or leering about female sexuality. It's all very matter-of-fact, another refreshing choice. Even Nick gets to have complexity (eventually). This is director Kasulke's first narrative feature, but he comes to the table with a lot of experience as a cinematographer and it shows. The film looks beautiful, using natural locations and available golden sunlight, all of which creates a real sense of the environment. Make it through the first 10 minutes. It’s just the film warming up. The rest of it flows. Available on VOD today, 3/27.
by Glenn Kenny on March 27, 2020 at 2:13 PM
Everybody hates mimes, we have been led to believe. But this is not true, or at least, not quite true. In the training of actors, mime is an important learned skill. And I am told that every young actor, after a period of thorough training, will long carry with them a secret yearning to be cast in a role that will somehow allow them to really show their learned mime skills, despite the fact that everybody hates mimes. It is a curious position. When we first see Jesse Eisenberg (now in his mid-thirties, incidentally) in “Resistance,” he is wearing a Charlie Chaplin mustache and performing mime. His angry father, a Kosher butcher, pursues him into an alley. “Look at you, dressed as Hitler and performing in a whorehouse.” Eisenberg’s character, Marcel, corrects him about the Hitler/Chaplin confusion and further clarifies that it’s a cabaret rather than a brothel. The time is 1938. The place is Strasbourg, France. Some older readers may be adding two and two here. A character named …Marcel? Who’s also a … mime? Why yes. And here’s the other contradiction of the truism that everybody hates mimes. Because Eisenberg here is indeed playing the real-life figure who would achieve world renown and fame as Marcel Marceau, the 20th century’s only universally beloved mime. Beloved not just because of his skills and innovations, but because his mime art was one of abundant humanity. Did you know that Marceau was a real-life war hero? He was. He began working in what became known as the French Resistance well before the Nazi invasion of France, and in secret alliance with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts organization helped save the lives of thousands of war orphans. This movie, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan filmmaker of Polish-Jewish descent, who also made the 2016 “Hands of Stone,” weaves a couple of other narrative threads around Marcel’s. The movie opens with Elsbeth, a young Jewish girl being reassured by her parents and then almost immediately orphaned. Strangely, we then cut to Nuremburg after the Allied victory, and General George Patton addressing his troops. (Patton is played by Ed Harris.) Did you know that Marcel Marceau was also a liaison officer for Patton during the last days of the war? Well he was. The movie also chronicles the depredations of Klaus Barbie (while juggling, for the sake of themes, some of the facts of his personal life), the Nazi who was nicknamed “The Butcher of Lyon.” Jakubowicz handles these threads with coherence and vigor. As for its main thrust, well you can imagine what happens when you put a trained mime in a situation where he has to handle a lot of traumatized children. Marcel distracts them with amusing routines, which Eisenberg … uses his no doubt extensive training in mime to recreate. I know what you are thinking. But no, this is not “Life Is Beautiful.” The joy-in-the-midst-of-tragedy theme is provisional. The movie also portrays Marcel as a genuine fighter. Although it does reach a bit here. There’s a moment where Marcel uses fire eating, the venerable for-mature-audiences circus trick, in a bid to set fire to a Nazi officer. I mean, it could have happened. But as portrayed here, it’s a little on the nose. That said, it’s salutary that the movie doesn’t lean on love-conquers-all platitudes. There’s a crucial scene in which Emma (Clémence Poésy) attempts suicide after enduring torture from Barbie. (The scenes in which Barbie executes and torments prisoners are set in a converted gymnasium and its empty swimming pool; the tiles are shiny, gleaming, giving the sequences an almost futuristic quality of gruesomeness.) After saving her, Marcel explains that seeking revenge is useless; actively saving lives is all that matters. It’s a cogent expression of the proper spirit of resistance—that it should be based in love, but expressed in action. Direct, effective action. On the other hand, this is also a movie in which a group of characters sits in the back of a van, discussing what it means to be a Jew, and one of them says “Jews are emancipated slaves,” and there’s a cutaway to the only person of color in the van perking up. That is, it’s a bit literal minded. And, yes, mime-heavy. But I give it a lot of credit for being a movie that doesn’t have its head up its own fundament concerning the question of how Nazis should have, and should be, fought. Available on VOD today, 3/27.
by Tomris Laffly on March 27, 2020 at 2:12 PM
Whether it’s a major character like in “Book Club” or a passion to be followed like in “A Good Year” or “Sideways,” wine isn’t often portrayed in American cinema as an integral part of the black experience. In his good-natured feature debut “Uncorked,” writer/director Prentice Penny (“Insecure,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) sets out to challenge and change these optics, braiding a formulaic father-and-son tale with a gifted African-American sommelier-to-be’s pursuit of his advanced palate. That scheme alone sets “Uncorked” apart from the typical “wine movie,” admittedly in short supply already. The filmmaker doesn’t really steer clear of box-ticking clichés—a tendency that often dents various Netflix-helmed movies such as “Always Be My Maybe.” But Penny still manages to put the tried-and-true template of a tale pitched between family tradition and individualism in new context, delivering something closer to a satisfying, everyday table wine than a rare, award-winning bottle. Most of the film’s rewarding spirit is supplied by its lead Mamoudou Athie (“Underwater,” “The Circle”) in the role of the wine-enthusiast Elijah who dedicatedly works at a liquor store in Memphis. The film’s vigorous (and by all means, mouth-watering) opening sequence economically represents the world in which he dwells through a bit of slick editing—on one hand, there is the BBQ joint ran by his father, Louis (a coolly authoritative Courtney B. Vance), and on the other, there are the velvety pours Elijah sells and studies with enthusiasm while dreaming of becoming a master sommelier one day. That opening is followed by an equally endearing scene, in which Elijah spots a new customer, Tanya (Sasha Compère), and guides the inexperienced but curious drinker towards something that would align with her taste in hip-hop. “A Pinot Grigio is like Kanye West,” he suggests. Then he likens a Chardonnay, “the granddaddy of wines,” to Jay-Z and a Riesling to Drake. Tanya goes with Drake, upon which a sweet romance with palpable chemistry blooms between her and Elijah. Meanwhile Elijah’s future, at least in his father’s eyes, seems to be decided upon—he would one day take over the family restaurant just like his father did back in the day, when it was run by the family patriarch. But things take a different turn when the young man finally decides to register for a course to tackle the impossible-to-pass sommelier exam. Two supporting characters—Matt McGorry’s initially arrogant but ultimately well-meaning “Harvard” (because, well, he went to Harvard, as he often brags about) and Gil Ozeri’s adorably awkward, often insecure Richie—furnish the film with much welcome notes of comedy. Elsewhere, Penny tries to do his best with keeping Tanya as well as Elijah’s supportive mom Sylvia (a fabulous Niecy Nash) relevant to the core of the story. Sadly, his efforts don’t always land—one labored, rushed-through plotline involving cancer especially drags down the film’s energy while failing to sell some bare-minimum teary emotions. Still, this is the story of Elijah and Louis, and Penny mostly succeeds on those grounds, demonstrating his tightest grip on the narrative when he focuses on the similar pride that drives both men. For Elijah, that pride seems to be split evenly between his career obsession and parental respect, evident both when he strolls through the streets of Paris—a course-mandated excursion he embarks upon, thanks to his caring family’s generous backing—and when he works at his dad’s BBQ restaurant. And for Louis, that pride resides in familial legacy and love. Gradually, it becomes clear that Penny is more interested in what unites the two (they are both meticulous in their professions, for instance) rather than what sets them apart, forging the way to a conclusion of genuine, mutual acceptance, without abandoning the challenges they face even in a post-Obama world that many falsely consider to be post-racial. In the days where we’re all cooped up at home, there are certainly worse things you could do than settling in front of this pleasant film and its upbeat musical tracks (original music by Hit Boy) with a positive attitude and a smooth bottle of wine. It will go down easy. Available on Netflix today, 3/27.
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