A Win for Disney and Uganda in Queen of Katwe

queen-of-katwe-poster-2

 

If you’ve spent any extended amount of time talking to me you’ll learn two very important things, I love movies and I love Africa. The second one is far more niche than the other and harder to explain. If an Anglophile is someone who is obsessed with Doctor Who, Harry Potter and calls soccer “football” than an Afrophile is obsessed with Fela Kuti, Chinua Achebe and calls soccer “football.” I do feel conflicted using that term because I am indeed white and represent many of the past colonialism problems that plague the continent today. A conversation about this difficult history and the cultural appropriation I try to avoid can be saved for another post (or you can contact me directly). I preface this because it factors in immensely with my feelings toward Queen of Katwe, Disney’s new sports drama about the real-life Kampala chess champion, Phiona Mutesi. I’m not one for either sports films or family fare. It tends to be formulaic in the way of “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Thankfully it’s been awhile since Searching For Bobby Fischer and everyone skipped last year’s Pawn Sacrifice so I was willing to see director Mira Nair’s take on the game but the notable selling point is that it’s set and filmed on location in Uganda (and South Africa). Not only that, this movie is unabashedly African which is impressive considering most Disney films feel the need to cater to a caucasian audience. We’ve all seen the white savior narrative where an American goes to (insert country here) and trains some underprivileged youth how to be a proper team (see Cool Runnings, Million Dollar Arm etc). Katwe is caucasian free focusing on the interpersonal relationships in the capital’s slums as one girl rises in fame through her skilled knowledge of the board game.

Katwe in no way reinvents the wheel. If it wasn’t for the setting and strong performances by David Oyelowo as Phiona’s coach, Lupita Nyong’o as her mother and the lively batch of newcomers, it would be a very average movie. There’s the interesting aspect of the fact there are few villains in the story aside from abject poverty. What draws most of the children to Robert Katende’s (Oyelowo) unofficial chess club is the opportunity to prove their worth to the privileged private school educated players. Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) faces the challenges of having to assist her mother with selling maize in the market to support her fellow siblings as little income trickles in for the family. For every step forward she takes in her chess career, her home life takes two steps back with medical bills, eviction, and natural disasters. Katende takes more of the brunt of confronting the arrogant headmasters that don’t want to allow street children into their prestigious tournaments provoking the familiar “snobs vs slobs” trope but a bit more extreme considering the circumstances. The film is a constant push and pull and with every economic problem, Katende must convince Phiona’s mother that the game is worth pursuing. The writing often gets caught up in conventional chess metaphors like fellow team member Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) explaining the move where a pawn transforms to a queen by saying “a small one can come a big one” foreshadowing Phiona’s growth. A bit redundant since we’ve already been informed of her achievements from the film beginning in medias res at a tournament in 2011 before jumping back to ‘07. The other uphill battle is how difficult it is to make chess look interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game to play and if you were to watch a Grandmaster in action it’s probably mind blowing but since the film can’t devote a large amount of screen time to entire games (the runtime is already 2+ hours). Instead, there are cuts to players moving a rook here and a knight there. You should be on the edge of your seat but with no context, it’s just wood on a board. Nair finds ways to scoot around this by having exceptionally quirky kids participating in these games so it’s more fun to watch their facial expressions and awkward ticks.

Where the movie slumps with the sport quickly makes up for in atmosphere. If not obvious, I could watch an entire film of someone walking through the streets of Kampala. I adore the bustling roads of the city with vendors selling grilled meats and mango to the cars parked in traffic. There are children dancing for the tourists, tricked out boda bodas weaving through alleys and vibrant colors of the markets. Nair contrasts the impoverished neighborhoods with the bright fabrics worn by inhabitants. Without getting political, the plot becomes about the disadvantages of living in such hardship while getting the taste of the upper crust. Phiona’s success takes her abroad as her first international tournament is held in Sudan (which by just hearing made me wince because when has that country not been in conflict) where she and her teammates are roomed at a swanky hotel with a pool and an endless supply of milkshakes and ketchup. Where she was once content with her existence in Katwe, she now resents her home, desiring the benefits of her winnings. What becomes the moving aspect of the “inspirational” agenda of the film is that it exists as a reminder of what is held in such value in these communities and their disadvantages are far greater than we’ll ever experience. While Phiona’s mother is frustrated as her daughter now lives in a state of depression brought on by her understanding of her own social standing, what she can push for is getting her daughter an education. Katende rewards Phiona’s success with private tutoring from his wife who works for a local school. While primary education is free in most of Africa, many families cannot afford the fees of uniforms and textbooks. Living in America where it’s a given that everyone goes to school for twelve years (and often hates it) it’s eye opening to understand that in places like Uganda, education is a commodity. Education means Phiona will not have to sit in the dirt and sell maize. She can achieve upward mobility and not be caught in the cycle of pennilessness. Understanding the scarcities these children have gives their victories real power.

In my dreams, I’d love to see more studio features about Africa. Even though I’ve never been to the East of the continent, I’ll semi-confidently state it’s an honest portrayal of the country. Yes, there are slums but you are presented the many facets of the social constructs. Katende is part of the emerging middle class with a spacious house for his new family and the first tournament the children participate in is held at a gorgeous, high-ranking college in the country that the youth can’t help but gawk at. The film presents the diversity of a region which most audiences may be unfamiliar with. It’s as much African PR as it is a courageous story about overcoming the unfairness of life and preordained social constructs. It’s a nerd sports movie that someone like me who played Scrabble competitively can get behind. Most likely Queen of Katwe will be the kind of movie shown in schools on slow days right before a holiday when no one wants to do any work but presumably, the rise of a chess champion will be as education as learning math. More relatable than Remember the Titans in my opinion. What I get out of it is that I hope it will embolden people’s interest in Africa even if it’s just listening to the East African traditional/reggae/hip-hop infused soundtrack which is incredible. They throw in some Nigerian artists too and I won’t complain about added Afrobeat flavor. A single soundtrack motivated me to discover the continent ten years ago so let’s see a new crop of Megan’s listening to BBC Africa and being aware of the goings on of these growing nations. Queen of Katwe can make all this happen!

Sorry, this turned into a cry of needing to talk to about Africa with someone…

A Stroll Down London Road

1ce4b9071fdfa1e4ca96fb86de358ce8_500x735

I wish we lived in an era where movie musicals were produced more regularly. In the 21st century, you’re lucky to get two a year tops. There’s this assumption that unlike during the Golden Age of Hollywood, people don’t want to see musicals anymore even though there’s been major success with blockbusters likeHairspray, Mamma Mia, Les Mis etc. Thankfully, a small crop of indie musicals has been blossoming from the UK. God Help the Girl made my Top 10 of 2014 with its mod style and twee sound. John Carney’s Sing Street was a delightful gem from this year delivering some amazing pop throwbacks. London Road I’d place in equally high regard as it’s an unconventional take on the genre. It’s not theatrical or flamboyant though color plays a key role. There’s no belting tenors and screechy sopranos. It’s grounded and normal amidst an abnormal circumstance. Director Rufus Norris transports you to a quiet street in the suburbs of Ipswich that have a real problem on their hands and that problem is a serial killer.

You could describe London Road as The Office meets Serial with a dash of Sweeney Todd. The true story is that of serial killer Steven Wright who in 2006 murdered five sex workers in this town. Writers Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork compiled interviews by the citizens of Ipswich and turned their documented statements into songs. The narrative of this trial is gripping on its own so adding this extra layer of brilliance that is finding a way to put melody with these testimonies is icing on the cake. Norris very much embraces the documentary style but makes sure to utilize the visual medium. We open with interviews of whom would become the key characters living on London Road; single mother Julie (Olivia Colman), macho loner Dodge (Paul Thornley) and various couples ranging from young, middle age to retired. Throughout the film, we return to these living room interviews as each person gives their hot take as the plot unfolds. In between we venture into the market, the courthouse and the water tower that solidifies the city’s atmosphere. The beginning kicks off with the discovery of the fifth victim and is downright gloomy. Norris utilizes a desaturated palette as Dodge walks past the Christmas Shops which are decorated with ornaments and Santa hats yet sits in an air of gloom. These darks days are when we hear the first (and the best) of the musical numbers; the chorus of newscasters reporting on the incident to the synchronized choreography of shoppers for “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” and the catchiest song “It Could Be Him” sung by giggling teenage girls with a touch of techno beat. You are smartly eased into the singing with the opening number where reporters words are harmonized to a beat. Because the lyrics are adapted from regular speech (meaning no rhyme scheme in place) it’s a peculiar kind of music. It’s not talking but also not the full figured numbers we’re accustomed to.

All this plays into the charm about a movie concerning everyday people. All the characters have some kind of quirk especially the couple who either look alike or have developed idiosyncrasies with each other. Most importantly they appear very average, not drop dead gorgeous Broadway stars, all making this scenario feel more believable. Each character is interesting on their own but the shock of a killer living on their street and the disarray they find their neighborhood brings them together as Julie and portly Ron (Nick Holder) organize a gardening competition. As the springtime event gets underway color returns to the screen as the drab grays of winter fade away. What isn’t healed are the lives of the prostitutes who are considered a blemish on this town. The tone of the film often leans towards comedic that even in these terrible circumstances Norris finds instances for physical comedy like a woman getting caught in police tape or a local reporter who can’t repeat his copy correctly. With all this humor their lies a sourness as we watch this town rise from the ashes. In the early interviews, characters remark on how discussed they are by the streetwalkers who have migrated onto their road as urban sprawl has grown. The disdain in their words is biting as they have no sympathy for these women’s plight or any interest in helping them. The girls’ dreary tune “We’ve All Stopped” that details their inability to work due to higher police presence is heartbreaking as the actresses look dejected in their tight stockings and oversized hoodies. The achievements of the gardens that brighten the small homes are bittersweet as the prostitutes watch longingly, still ostracized and discarded by the community.

You may have gotten this far in my review and be thinking “why hasn’t she brought up movie star/sweetheart-baby-angel Tom Hardy? He’s on the poster so obviously the lead.” I give this movie the same note that I give all movies which is “NOT. ENOUGH. HARDY.” I’m sorry if the marketing duped you as it did me because there is only a single, five-minute scene with him as a taxi driver who theorizes on the identity of the killer. Besides being gorgeous, he’s perfect at playing an absolute creep which makes me wonder why he hasn’t played more mass murderers. It’s strong performances all around as we’re immersed into these residents lives. It’s a musical by the people for the people as these cockney, blue collar workers recount a piece of their country’s history in song. I don’t want to call a movie about a murderer cute but it’s fascinating to have a character-driven musical with little to no spectacle and have it turn out so well. They’re not songs that you’ll want to perform at karaoke night like Hamilton but it’s outstanding as one cohesive body. If England can keep delivering indies like these, my yearly Top 10 will be completely set.

A Disappointing Return To The Once Great Town of Blair

blair_witch_01

I’ve been deep in the woods for the last month (figuratively, not literally). With a back to back viewing of The Blair Witch Project and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and speaking in depth about the films on This Is Maryland, By The Way, I’ve been more than ready for this new incarnation. Whether it was going to be a remake or a sequel, I was on board. I’m often skeptical when it comes to any sort of horror reboot. They either delve way too deep into unnecessary backstory (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street), are inundated with CGI (2013’s Carrie) or are straight up botched, vile fuck ups that sully the name of a classic (I’m looking at you Black Christmas). Why my usual apprehensions had fallen by the wayside was because of my appreciation for the talent behind the project. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have delivered some of the best horror films in the last five years with the twisty home invasion thriller You’re Next that instills an unprecedented fear in animal masks and The Guest, a genre-bending action/thriller that asks “what is a hot guy could kill everyone?” Wingard has even proved his capability in found footage with his work in the V/H/S franchise. His short in V/H/S 2, “Phase I Clinical Trial”, is by far the scariest one out of the collective wherein man who has been given a robotic ocular implant after a car action begins to glitch causing the patient to have ghastly visions. These are two passionate filmmakers who love the genre so I expected them to produce a worthy sequel to the 1999 hit. But I said it myself when it came to the missteps ofBook of Shadows, where can you really take a sequel to the Blair Witch? We’ve now learned for the second time, nowhere.

One of the reasons the original film is so seminal is that it is the pinnacle of authenticity. Even with directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick leaving notes and character motivations for Heather, Mike and Josh, it truly is three kids out in the wilderness of Maryland shooting a movie. There’s no way you can recreate that with a major studio behind it. This 2016 version is still about teens in the forest but now they’re sexier, they’ve got more high tech cameras than a 16mm and video camcorder and they’re about to experience a whole lot of jump scares. The filmmakers seem to be obsessed with trying to make the narrative appear authentic but the harder they try, the worse it becomes. Project, maybe due to the limitations of budget and the 90’s in general, is so bare bones and that simplicity makes it work. As we open with this these new youths, collegiate documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) displays her array of recording equipment including flawless earpiece cameras and a hovering drone. Where Wingard and Barrett thought raiding a Best Buy would lead to being able to capture every single angle instead devolves into a headache inducing 90 minutes as they jump between the six cameras recording simultaneously and never steady enough to get your bearings. All I wanted was for the movie to sit still but it’s like a five-year-old with an iPhone, running around, never knowing what’s worth showing. I dreamed of returning to 1999 where shots were smooth and held for longer than thirty seconds. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Jason Bourne ran through frame. With over 15 years of technological advancement, there are insurmountable glitches with the cameras plus pops and crackles whenever something gets turned on. The thought process is that it’ll convince the viewer they’re watching real footage though anyone who has ever made a home movie will attest this isn’t the case.

The film starts off with good intentions at least of being a tie-in to the original narrative. James (James Allen McCune) is the subject of the documented expedition with his friends as they travel into the woods, hoping he will find his lost sister, Heather Donahue. Two Burkittsville, pseudo-redneck natives, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), are their guides as they had uploaded a mysterious video of the now missing Rustin Parr house, the location of the final showdown in the original film. This is a universe where the footage of Heather’s disappearance exists but was not the sleeper hit of the summer. The venture into the woods is ultimately dull. Characters bicker, Peter (Brandon Scott) doesn’t like the Blair-truthers, his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin) gets her foot cut on a rock and all the drone provides is gorgeous but uneventful views of the Vancouver horizon. Up to this point, I’ve given the film some slack because I’m willing to be patient for an amazing payoff. Paranormal Activity I’d sight as having a similar pace as you’re watching a couple be normal as a demon slowly ruins their lives. Though Paranormal, a movie that has a more believable reality, ruminates in its silence. Blair relies heavily on loud sounds to build up its tension which is more annoying that intriguing. Where it becomes so vexing, is that we are never presented the rules of the titular witch. The film throws in either elements we’re already familiar with (the twig men, walking in a circle) but there’s also these new powers like warping one’s perception of time, growing sticks and/or insects inside one’s body, breaking trees, throwing tents, the list goes on! The sounds mean nothing because we’re never given grounds of what causes them. Once all these crazy things start happening, if you didn’t realize it already, you’re strapped into another average, paranormal killer horror movie.

That climax I was waiting for could have worked if we understood or could see what this witch is doing but she seems to be A) all powerful and B) the cameras are so goddamn shaky that you’re not given a moment to take in all the chaos. In a rainstorm, James locates the elusive building and runs in, believing his sister to be inside. As he and Lisa separately enter, the POVs turn into a Silent Hill game with locked doors and creepy figures lurking in the cavernous hallways. Some of the other characters are there to pop out at you but others are presumably lost forever. There’s a decent homage to Heather’s confessional which is a great note to end on but all I’ve wanted is to see the sinister apparition it’s been building towards and you can’t get a good glimpse. I knew the film wasn’t going to follow the original formula and be a psychological thriller or remotely ambiguous. I’m fine with Blumhouse-esque spooks but with too many cameras, too many people and no angle that can hold still, the movie is nearly unwatchable.

A controversial statement, but I’ll take Book of Shadows over this Witch any day. Each is a product of their era of horror. The former has a goth metal soundtrack, midriffs, tits and slasher tropes while the latter is glossy, jump scare heavy and has your typical decrepit supernatural woman. At least Shadows has an interesting meta approach to the source material and I can attest it’s entertainingly bad. It doesn’t even try to be found footage as if realizing they had no idea how to recreate that. Wingard’s contribution is just boring. Each time it alludes to the original film I was reminded how much it pales in comparison. They even make the initial Lionsgate logo grainy meaning that logo was already a part of the excavated footage we’re viewing. There’s no reason why the editing should be as incompetent as the fictional amateur filmmakers. Maybe I’ll be less harsh on this film as time passes and the heartbreak heals though I can’t foresee anything worth revisiting. This will blend into the other forgettable horror movies of 2016 like The Forest, The Darkness and probably Rings (sorry for the preemptive shade throwing on that). I’m sure Wingard and Barrett will lick their wounds and return to the genre with something more original. This is an instance of a Witch that should rightfully be left alone.

Surviving Martyrs

martyrs

Martyrs since its release in 2008 has become less of a movie and more of a dare. It’s infamously known as such a shocking piece of cinema, it remains this challenge to see if you can stomach its contents. As a lover of horror, I’ve always been aware of its menacing reputation and the word of mouth spooked me enough to avoid it. Just seeing the poster of two frightened women, I could speculate that they probably endure so sort of physical and/or sexual brutality which I wouldn’t call a good time. Rape is an immediate turn off from a film with the exception of The Last House on the Left for reasons concerning some tonally inconsistent bumbling cops. I’m someone who thinks anyone that likes Irreversible is a monster. If you’ve never seen Martyrs you’ll be happy to learn the movie is completely rape free. In fact, that’s even highlighted in the dialogue as if it’s an achievement to be so depraved without that horrid act. I’m finally getting around to this movie as always because of a podcast, in this case Faculty of Horror, which will be dropping their New French Extremity episode this month. It’s scheduled to include discussions on the stated film as well as the more obscure 2004 back woods thriller Calvaire or The Ordeal. Only two scholarly Canadian podcasters could motivate me to watch such deplorable cinema and while I still love them in my heart, I’m quite conflicted of what I had to sit through.

New French Extremity is a film movement that cultivated in the early 2000’s with the prevalence of art house horror coming out of France. It conjunctively rose in prominence with the American genre coined “torture porn” with franchises such as Saw. Out of all of these that I’ve viewed from both side of the pond, definitively I can say Martyrs earns that “Extreme” title. The plot follows two girls, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) who escapes a mysterious torture ring as a child and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) her lifelong friend and protector. Fifteen years after Lucie’s traumatic incident, the two hunt down the captors and uncover more than they intended. No doubt, Martyrs lives up to the hype but what I realized as I settled into what would be an upsetting hour and a half, it dawned on me that I had never questioned if this was a good movie. I’ve known it to be notorious and never questioned if that translated to meaning “good” or “bad.” There’s a reason why its perception as one of shock and astonishment rather than one of criticism. I’m still torn about my feelings because I almost want to review it in two parts. You could break these 90 minutes down to two halves, the first being this home invasion/paranormal/People Under The Stairs thrill ride and the second a numbing, exploitative Hostel rip off. Each isolated I would give widely different ratings.

What makes the first hour so captivating is it’s genuinely unpredictable. I couldn’t name the last time I watched a movie especially horror in which I couldn’t foresee the formula or any projected twists and turns. From the introduction to the ten-year-old girls wherein as they sleep a lumbering, mutilated woman attacks Lucie, I was immediately disoriented (but in a good way.) Director/writer Pascal Laugier throws in such unimaginable elements to keep you unsure of what’s around the corner. When the time jump occurs you meet this nuclear family having breakfast with siblings arguing about school and post-graduation prospects. Right at the moment, you think your TV must have switched over to French All In The Family until Lucie rushes in with a shotgun and shows no mercy as she mows down the pseudo-Bunker clan. This whole section is filled with these jarring moments which are so exciting. It’s dark, sadistic and assuredly fucked up yet uniquely creative. Anna attempts to clean up the mess as Lucie is consumed with the residual trauma and mental illness personified as the horrid woman we saw previously. From the mass murder, the plot never stops escalating as we move between the actual physical battles between Lucie and her personal demons to the near escape of the shotgunned mother to the eventual discovery of the underground lair. The set up is so abundantly rousing and extraordinary that there’s no way they can produce a satisfying resolution and that in itself becomes the point of the whole movie.

After a full day inside the house of the crime scene, the secret organization arrives to shut this chaos down. They’re too late for Lucie who slit her throat during a violent frenzy but they kill another freed prisoner who was in the thralls of a similar outburst. What is a glimmer of hope for Anna becomes a nightmare as her saviors are now her captors. Here is when we get the explanation as to why this dungeon of pain exists. It’s a provocative concept that the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) dressed as a gypsy from the 40’s, lays out for Anna, that this underground society believes that bringing someone to the brink of death brought on by constant cruelty will cause them to see the beyond. The idea that the affluent would commit unspeakable acts to learn about the existence of an afterlife doesn’t sound that farfetched. It’s the sadistic shit we all assume the rich do. Where the film takes a fatal turn is that we are subjected to witnessing this martyrdom process. Up to this point, the movie has been over the top but here it’s excessive. We’ve already seen flashbacks to the same instances of beatings, force feeding and cutting off the hair inflicted on young Lucie, now its repeated exorbitantly with Anna. It’s a double-edged sword because while I’m complaining that it’s too much, the whole point of this genre is being extreme and up to that point you’ve been dying for an answer to Lucie’s past so they give it to you ten fold. I’ll give it that it’s consistent with its unpredictability because as the cycle of beatings continues in the isolated metal room, I kept thinking “she must get out somehow.” I should have foreseen her bleak demise considering Lucie was disposed of so early but till the final scenes I kept expecting her escape. Alas, the title of the film is upheld and even still Laugier finds a “fuck you” note to end on.

 
My ultimate feelings towards Martyrs falls somewhere in the middle. I respect and enjoy the clever way the narrative subverts my expectations. The entire movie thrives on being unexpected. Anna is an unconventional final girl, strong until the bitter end but still perishes. I’m fascinated by the premise and that they make the shadowy collective more than just black robed Satanists. It comes down to the gratuitous violence committed towards Anna that is way too self-serving. The story could have gotten its point across without having to endure watching her pain. Plus the sequence is visually derivative of Hostile in a way no other part of the film has been. It’s a relief to have this film done with and check it off my bucket list. I recommend listening to Faculty of Horror because they’ll have even greater insight to this contentious feature. Pairing it with Calvaire is interesting as that one is more conventional with its remote location and imprisonment themes but their twist is that the final girl is actually a boy. That film has a rape scene which I will sight as my immediate trepidation towards a film so the fact that there isn’t one in Martyrs automatically puts it in my favor. But does lack of rape make for a perfect feature? Hell no. And would I recommend this to people? Probably not. It’s only worth it for the iconography it’s made for itself in the horror genre. You see it to say you’ve seen it and hopefully leave not regretting all your life choices. All that’s left is A Serbian Film. Oh god, I hope they don’t cover that next…

The Vintage Revisits:The Panic In Needle Park

panic_in_needle_park

Before Requiem for a Dream there was The Panic In Needle Park which has the appearance of a film sponsored by D.A.R.E. if it wasn’t so artfully made. The 1971 film was adapted from James Mill’s exposé in Life magazine as an intimate tour into the danger and grit of New York City which was perceived as a hub of dope fiends and criminals by middle America. Panic definitely doesn’t prove that incorrect because you are placed directly amongst the most adulterated inhabitants. These are addicts who go to alarming lengths to get their next fix yet what makes this depiction of the perils of heroin so unsettling is its level of humanizing done for its characters. You’re welcomed into the lives of young couple Helen (Kitty Winn) and Bobby (Al Pacino), presented through a nonjudgmental lens. While brutally honest about their imperfections, the enlightening performances provoke such sympathy so as their lives spiral out of control, it becomes a gut punch with each poor decision. Shot cinéma vérité, director Jerry Schatzberg takes you deep into the dark allies of the city but paired with such moving performances, you can’t look away.

What differentiates Panic from Requiem is the appeal of the characters. With Requiem, everyone starts off pretty unlikeable (except for Ellen Burstyn of course) as Jared Leto kicks off the movie stealing his mother’s television. The film’s tone is immediately pessimistic as the three leads situation goes from bad to worse that by the end characters are either incarcerated, homeless or turn to prostitution. All this is included in Panic but at its core, it is a love story. It’s a tragic love story of a couple doomed by drugs and lose themselves in a cycle of self-destruction but in a fucked up way, they have each other. It’s not all bad, at least to start, you’re lured into the sweet amidst the sour environment. We are introduced to Helen quite deceivingly as she sits dazed on the subway. We already know her fate as the film states upfront with text that Needle Park is the nickname for Sherman Park on the Upper West Side populated by heroin addicts. Her vacant stare leads you to believe she may already be in the throes of a habit but as she returns to her then boyfriend’s loft (a handsome Raúl Juliá) you learn she had an abortion, a botched one that lands her in the hospital. An equally handsome Bobby who has become smitten with her sneaks into the hospital to flirt with her and this is where the affair blossoms. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Even though Helen is conscious of his reputation as a user (her boyfriend his supplier) she is instantly charmed and you can’t blame her. We meet Bobby at a high point which later becomes few and far between but when at his best, he’s magnetic as hell. He chats up the bum outside the ER, playfully teases the elderly pawnbroker to whom he sells a stolen TV and he loves sitting on the park bench with his pals swapping stories about what drugs mix best. Helen being an introvert is drawn to his bravado and they become a winning couple. So when Helen inevitably gives in to her curiosity and takes her first hit, you feel as betrayed as Bobby. She’s no longer pure but as flawed as him. The light in her eyes in gone as she is a zombie with a hunger stronger than Bobby’s.

Panic must have been shocking to audiences at the time of its release with its brazen depiction of heroin use and even by today’s standards is quite jolting. It’s not for the squeamish as there are long takes of how one injects heroin, something most films generally cut away from but that’s part of the film’s impact. This is coming out of the era of censorship when such sadism was only implied. The first time we witness shooting up is when Bobby takes Helen to a flophouse and while they talk mundanely in the background we watch a man strap up, find a vein and insert that needle, injecting the clear liquid, pulling back some blood, injecting again then sitting back as he’s hit by the rush of the high. The sound fades out as all we hear are his heavy breaths and watch his eyes go cross. A registered nurse was reported to be on set observing the technical precision and safety of the act making it all the more unnerving, knowing it’s real. The depiction in continually gratuitous with needles dangling from long track marks as unattended babies cry out on the shared bed.

Out of all the horror movies I consume, I can stomach ghosts, serial killers and masked assailants but nothing scares me more than drugs. It’s more terrifying because it’s undeniably around me. Helen’s deterioration could happen to anyone especially when it comes to the most addictive of substances. Kitty Winn incredibly sells Helen’s descent from the bubbly girl who picks at her fries to a pale, disheveled shell of a person turning tricks to pay for her $80 a day needs. What is so agonizing is how the film will give you these fleeting moments of happiness. There will be instances where both are somewhat clean and take the ferry to Long Island to buy a puppy and Helen dreams of moving away and starting a home. Before her thoughts can be completed, Bobby whisks her into the ferry bathroom for a hit, leaving the puppy to stumble off the side of the boat. Optimism is always dashed as the drugs dimish any good intention. They encourage each other’s habits but hate it when one is too strung out or hides their dwindling supply. What they look like slack-jawed, eyes rolling back from heroin could be mistaken for a corpse. The addicts in Needle Park are the real Walking Dead.

Panic is now a faded snapshot of a sanitized New York. Sherman Square is now adjacent to a Trader Joe’s and Haagan-Daz. That doesn’t mean these dark narratives have disappeared, they merely aren’t as visible. Even without the abysmal aesthetic, it’s a pertinent cautionary tale. Though maybe it only scares straight edge people like myself, inherently fearful of all forms of illicit consumption. I mean this couple marred by drugs finds solace with each other. The film concludes with Bobby being released from jail, a situation which Helen set him up for, yet they walk in toe towards the Manhattan horizon. There’s no way they live to see another winter but that’s ultimately unknown. They could get clean, finally get married and move to Connecticut, but throughout their relationship, we see little promise of that. Bobby is in love with Needle Park and Helen is in love with Bobby and the cycle continues. That entrapment is what is so haunting, addiction eliminating one’s free will. All that’s left is death which one of Bobby’s friends remarks “is the best high of all.” A depressing outcome to look forward to but that’s what this movie is, the dispiriting life of a junkie. It’s a morose note to end on but that’s how I felt when it was over, completely broken. So yeah, thumbs up.

A Positive 1.5 Star Review For Morgan

morgan-movie-2016-poster

There’s nothing better than stumbling upon the gem of a good bad movie. I didn’t have any expectations going into Morgan the new thriller from Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott. From the trailer, it had the potential to be good. With a cast that includes Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Toby Jones, it’s at least got talent in its corner. Marketed as a horror/thriller the premise of a group of scientists secluded in the Pacific Northwest working on a secretive assignment of creating a synthetic human who is now a teenager with dangerous abilities sounds interesting. It also sounds a little too close to Ex Machina. If anything Morgan will make you appreciate the brilliance of Ex Machina even more as director Alex Garland had a greater sense of timing and patience. Morgan falls off the rails pretty quickly as it doesn’t even know how to stick to its general principals and once it kicks into high gear, there’s no stopping.

The film begins with the audience surrogate in the form of Lee (Kate Mara), a risk assessment expert who is sent to investigate the bunker lab by the company funding the project after a violent outburst from Morgan leaves Dr.Grieff (Leigh) half blinded. A very intense and androgynous Lee is warned that the employees have closely bonded during their years at this remote location and have become too attached to the subject. The latter may be true, but I could easily be convinced that all these characters just met. There is no chemistry at all with the unit, even with those who are supposed to be in a relationship appear repulsed by each other. It doesn’t help that that screenwriter Seth Owen chose to introduce every character separately. It automatically instills distance as we don’t even have the opportunity to see them all function together aside from a few videos a sentimental Toby Jones shows Lee to present the trajectory of the subject’s being. It’s apparent how many actors they must have had for only one day as Leigh is bed ridden the whole story and project head Dr.Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), who is supposed to be the mother figure to the team and especially to Morgan is seen so rarely. Her brief, commanding appearances feel more like a tactic to attract a Chinese market. Yes, multiple characters speak to her in Mandarin, begging for the movie to do well overseas.

The assessment goes south when psychologist Dr. Shapiro (Paul Giamatti, another actor with only a day to spare) conducts a psych evaluation on Morgan. Up to this point, all we know about Morgan is she’s “special.” Everyone living at the compound states this repeatedly but that never is expanded on. By the end of the film, I couldn’t tell you if she’s super human, highly intelligent or what her purposes could have been. Anya Taylor-Joy who still feels very green coming off of The VVitch plays her so robotically that I had to remind myself she was human. So Giamatti proceeds on the most antagonist test on Morgan, essentially provoking her to attack him a la Headshot to Diablo in Suicide Squad. He’s just trying to “get her there” which is quite unethical. Not surprising that yelling at a fifteen-year-old that she’s going to be locked in her cement quarters forever and everyone she knows isn’t her friend would spark a murderous rampage and that’s where the plot takes us. After Morgan’s illusions of her perfect family are shattered, she will stop at nothing till all the staff are dead. This is where I really got on board because it becomes a dark and sadistic cuckoo bananas movie that I had not planned for. The merciless way Morgan shoots, suffocates and beats the crap out all the people she has known for her expedited five years of life is unsettling. She goes full dead-eyed Terminator as she tracks down her former loved ones. The story devolves into a chase through the forest as Lee is the only one who can stop her. The fact that this solemn movie manages to drop even lower with execution-style deaths and Toby Jones gratuitously hanging himself blows my mind.

Morgan feels like off brand M Night Shamaylan which is probably why its as laughable as The Happening. There’s a subpar twist that can be figured out roughly half way (or at line one if you’re listening) through when shit hits the fan it doesn’t lead to any explanation to why scientists grew this girl that the company is now so intent on killing. The movie takes itself gravely seriously which is what makes it so laughable. When the car chase between a Chevy and a Lexus through the woods turns into a luxury car commercial I couldn’t help but laugh. When the unassuming character of Brenda (Vinette Robinson) starts busting out Krav Maga on Morgan I knew all logic went out the window. Where Ex Machina was compelled to take their time setting up the location, the solitary confinement of nature and how the limited characters coped with the invention of the A.I., Morgan says fuck it and goes full Rambo. The frivolous violence paired with poor character development makes for a perfectly enjoyable mess. Barely running its 90 minutes this is totally a movie I want to show friends on a bad movie night. I’d like to think it exists only to be made fun because it’s such a cruel film otherwise. So welcome Morgan, you’ll make great bedfellows with the Howard the Ducks and Showgirls that have come before you.

Is it time for Roadies to lock the gates?: A season recap

Labor Day, the most bittersweet of holidays. It marks the end of summer; no more trips to the beach or the neighbor’s pool. The school year has started, fall is on its way or if you’re in LA, more of the same weather till it drops ten degrees. This three day weekend is the final hurrah before we are immersed in the trenches of work and winter and the end of another year. There’s a lot of great ways I could have spent this time, either with friends flipping burgers, maybe even being productive with my writing, get started on that great American novel. But alas, much like I spent my vacation in New York watching the Phantom Menace trilogy for a podcast formally known as Griffin and David Present, I spent these early days of September (roughly 32  hours) watching the poorly received Showtimes series Roadies in anticipation for the renamed podcast Blank Check with Griffin and David as they have tirelessly revisited all of Cameron Crowe’s filmography. This is more proof of my unhealthy dedication to an audio program as I have watched over ten hours of mediocre content for what I can only hope is enthralling two-hour discussion between the hosts (and “pro-doer” Ben).

roadies poster

I want to state upfront, Roadies isn’t a terrible show. It really could have been a train wreck after witnessing last year’s Aloha which feels like a script written by an alien trying to mimic how humans communicate. It’s similar to the fiasco of Elizabethtown which introduced to the much detested “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and the less appreciated knife-wielding “Murder Stationary Bike.” Roadies never reaches that level of catastrophe with white Hawaiians or misshapen shoes . The show centers around the crew containing riggers, guitar techs, managers and a nanny working the road with the fictional band Staten-House. Each episode takes us to a different city with a myriad of roadblocks and plenty of sexual tension. Most important to why this show isn’t dead on arrival is Crowe has returned to writing what he knows. He brings forth his love of music and atmosphere of life on tour which he first recreated in Almost Famous. Electrical rigger Kelly-Ann (Imogen Poots) embodies a young Crowe, in the industry because she believes in the music, following a band that speaks truth. One of her traits is her interest in film, she almost leaves the tour to attend film school but stays, always with a portable camera in hand (or at least the last episode leads us to believe she’s been documentary everything). Tour Manager Phil (Luke Wilson) is current day Crowe, someone who has seen it all, maybe sobered up but remains close to the world of music past and present. These two and production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino) take control of the narrative as they try to reign in the devoted team they travel with.

Sadly, it’s no Almost Famous as it doesn’t have the greatest era of rock ‘n’ roll on its side (or Phillip Seymour Hoffman). What should be an intimate look at the unsung heroes of the music industry feels more like Crowe showing off the songs on his iPod with egregious musician cameos from rising stars like Halsey to legends like Lindsey Buckingham. Enjoyment of the series hinges strongly on your enthusiasm towards live performances because each episode will pause for at least one song similar to the musical guest segment on SNL that I routinely fast forward through. This does not include the “Song of The Day”, the bonus content written out on screen to save you time from having to Shazam it. Crowe is no stranger in investing a lot of time and money into a project’s soundtrack but this comes off too much as either bragging about what cool bands he likes or pandering, hoping The Head and the Heart is what viewers want to see. These music specifics are what make up the world’s fervor in each city and stadium which holds a well of pop culture history. Reflecting on the past leads to some of the better moments like “King of the Road” Phil (Ron White) recounting his glory days with Led Zeppelin or the bottle episode where ignorant financial advisor Reg (Rafe Spall) utters “Cincinnati” on the tour bus and the entire crew of roadies must drive 100 miles the opposite direction because of a “Who” based superstition. I like music trivia without having to watch the music. The is a visual medium, I can listen to the songs later.

Now my disinterest towards what is indeed the basis of the show is my own problem. That’s a flawed, personal reason I was detached. There’s still a fair amount of small nitpicks and glaring omissions hindering the growth of Roadies. On a grand scale, there are too many characters. Some of the people on the poster get four lines an episode at most (Finesse Mitchell is purely on there for diversity sake). I was anticipating way more Keisha Castle-Hughes who I’ve missed since her Whale Riding days but get short shifted as sound board operator Donna. At one point Kelly Ann mentions that Donna and her girlfriend (who is pregnant) broke up which is glossed over and forgotten because they seem to be back together next time it’s brought up. There no consistency between story lines for minor characters. Both Milo (Peter Cambor) the guitar tech and Chris (Tanc Sade) one of the band members are remarked on having crushes on Kelly Ann, something that never plays into the narrative. Then you’ve got Shelli’s husband Sean (Matt Passmore) who surprises her at a venue, he seems real chipper for a guy who’s dad died a few days earlier. If you’re not a lead, your storyline picks up and drops off as it pleases. There’s often no sense of how much time has passed (the tour is only a few weeks but feels like months) as emotional turn around is so abrupt. Then there will be build ups with no payoff. Phil runs into an ex at a corporate function, he’s nervous that she might remember him, she does and is quite cordial. The end. I would have assumed that was going to be a significant plot point but like many are just another hollow scene. The writing itself is quite cliche which isn’t doing any favors for the characters. I found myself correctly guessing the next cheesy line to be uttered and I don’t want to know that. Television writers to be more inventive than my media consumer brain that repeats what I’ve already heard countless times.

I’ll be it there are two instances in which the creative team really shows me up and the Cameron Crowe crazy penetrates through. First is the show-within-a-show that is a hit with all the characters and presumably the nation which is “Dead Sex” starring David Spade. Garnered from the few clips exhibited, it’s  Walking Dead-esque and the premise is that a virus has spread and the only way to stay alive is to have sex, every nine days to be exact. I can’t tell if this running gag was put in place as a commentary about how there’s so much ridiculous, high concept TV out there now and Roadies is a combatant of that as a grounded character drama. This theory seems unlikely purely because everyone adores the show and we should be on their side. No one questions its integrity which puts the egg on the face of our heroes. Maybe its to make Roadies look good by comparison. Crowe has made some less than stellar contributions lately but at least it’s not tits and zombies, right? Or someone in the writers’ room thought it was funny and they knew David Spade was free between Sandler flicks. The even bigger mystery that irks me to no end, that has no bearings on a show that has been otherwise based in a familiar reality is that Taylor Swift goes to…space? This is something discussed so casually that I had to think that artists perform in alternate atmospheres all the time. This arises when Phil is forced to leave the band and joins the Plant Swift tour wherein apparently they travel to a satellite or space base for concert purposes. Phil skypes with Kelly Ann and laments how much he “misses gravity.” It’s so frustrating how normal this is to everyone. Shelli has marital problems which is suddenly a no-brainer when Sean is Swift’s tour manager. Of course, phone sex is hard when your husband is no longer in the same gravitational pull. We’re also supposed to believe Phil goes to space and returns to Staten-House in two weeks!? Is going to space like being ordained? Apply online, print out your certificate and walk onto a rocket? Pack light because you’ll be back in no time. That element is so frustrating I’m willing to overlook why the black lead singer of Staten-House has a white son. Anything in this world is possible!

Those setbacks don’t ruin the show, but it sure doesn’t help. It’s nice to know that Cameron Crowe hasn’t completely lost touch, which his recent string of flops led me to believe. He’s trying to get back in touch with his roots. It’s not a fruitless effort, just a bland one. His scathing take on critics in the form of a pompous Rain Wilson in episode three doesn’t put him in anyone’s good graces. It’s flourishing like that which make it clear Crowe cares too much. He’s trying to please people with cool bands and standard tropes so everyone can follow along. Not inclusive enough to have notable diversity and the stoic Hawaiian security guard is uncomfortably too “spiritual.” Will Roadies get a second season? It’s not like it’s a show that didn’t find its footing. It knows what it is and it’s uninspired. The appeal is built on relationships and music and if you don’t care about the romances (the friendships are pretty empty) and you’re more into hip hop than alt rock then no need to buy a ticket, let Roadies pass on through.

elizabethtown