2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Picture Character’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Picture Character
The inventor of emoji, Shigetaka Kurita, draws the original smiley face emoji in “Picture Character” (Photo by David Allen)

“Picture Character” 

Directed by Martha Shane and Ian Cheney

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

UPDATE: The title of this movie was changed to “The Emoji Story.”

A documentary about emojis and emoji culture deserves a more interesting title than “Picture Character,” but what this movie lacks in name creativity, it makes up for in informative content. Emoji (which means “picture character” in Japanese) is the computer symbol used to convey a word or emotion. Emojis have been called the modern-equivalent of Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphic and Chinese pictographs. Using emojis as shorthand language makes people creative (according to emoji supporters) or makes people lazy (according to emoji critics). Curiously, “Picture Character” doesn’t mention the 2017 critically panned animated film “The Emoji Movie.” Maybe it’s because “The Emoji Movie” got such bad reviews that it gave emoji culture a bad name.

Shigetaka Kurita, the Japanese man credited with inventing emojis (his first emoji was a smiley face), is interviewed in the movie. Other people interviewed in the film include emoji pop-culture enthusiasts Jeremy Burge (an emoji historian), Tyler Schnoebelen (a linguist whose specialty is computer-based language) and Brooklyn Queen, a young rapper whose “Emoji” video went viral in 2017.

Luckily, “Picture Character” isn’t a documentary that just strings together a bunch of interviews about people talking about emojis. The movie also takes a fascinating look into the process of getting a new emoji approved by the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC), a mysterious group based in California’s Silicon Valley that decides which emojis will be available to the world’s computers and smartphones. “Picture Character” follows the journey of three emojis that are seeking approval from UTC: a hijab emoji created by a Muslim teenage girl in Germany; a maté emoji created by Argentine women who wanted a symbol for the popular South American caffeinated drink; and a menstruation emoji from a feminist non-profit group in the United Kingdom.

The UTC is described in the movie as consisting of mostly “white men” who are from the “old guard” of Silicon Valley. One of the earliest problems that had to be addressed in emoji culture was that early emojis depicting humans showed only Caucasians. Changes were not made until a black businesswoman from Texas named Katrina Parrott lobbied the UTC to have emojis of different skin tones to represent other races. The different emoji skin tones were later used by corporate tech giants Apple and Google.

UTC chair Lisa Moore and former UTC chair Mark Davis are among those interviewed for the documentary. They talk about the challenges and pressures they feel about adding new emojis. They both agree that making the emoji library too big would ruin the integrity of emojis. They also acknowledge that the emoji approval process still needs progress when it comes to being more inclusive of cultures that are outside of an Anglo or male standard. The group behind the possible menstruation emoji lament the fact that this natural biological function of females is considered too taboo for the UTC, but the UTC has approved several emojis for excrement.

“Picture Character” comes the conclusion that emojis won’t completely replace written or spoken language, but with more people preferring to communicate by text or email instead of talking over the phone, emojis have become increasingly important to the world’s culture, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.

UPDATE: Utopia will release “The Emoji Story” (formerly titled “Picture Character”) in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 18, 2020, and on digital and VOD on December 22, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘You Don’t Nomi’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

You Don't Nomi
“Showgirls! The Musical!” star April Kidwell in “You Don’t Nomi” (Photo by Peaches Christ)

“You Don’t Nomi”

Directed by Jeffrey McHale

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

The 1995 campy film “Showgirls” has become a cult classic for many people, and there are now two documentaries exploring the pop-culture spectacle that’s been spawned by intense “Showgirls” devotion. The documentary “You Don’t Nomi,” directed by Jeffrey McHale, is expected to be released first; the movie focuses on “Showgirls” fandom and doesn’t include any interviews with any of the stars and filmmakers of “Showgirls.” The other documentary is “Goddess: The Rise and Fall of ‘Showgirls’,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, which includes the participation of several “Showgirls” principals, such as director Paul Verhoeven, but not “Showgirls” star Elizabeth Berkley. (“Goddess” launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2019, and reached its $50,000 goal.)

Without the participation of anyone from the “Showgirls” cast and crew, “You Don’t Nomi” has to rely on archived interview clips with “Showgirls” principals and a lot of commentary from talking heads. The pundits interviewed in “You Don’t Nomi” include “Showgirls” superfans such as drag queen Peaches Christ, actress April Kidwell (who has starred as Nomi Malone in the off-Broadway musicals “I, Nomi” and “Showgirls! The Musical!”) and podcaster Matt Baume. Others who give their comments on “Showgirls” include film critics such as Adam Nayman (who wrote the book “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls”), Barbara Shulgasser (formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Examiner) and Susan Wloszczyna, who wrote for USA Today at the time “Showgirls” was released.

You don’t have to know anything about “Showgirls” before seeing “You Don’t Nomi,” because the documentary explains it all. “Showgirls,” which was a flop with critics and at the box office when it was first released, tells the story of Nomi Malone (played by Berkley), an aspiring dancer who moves to Las Vegas to try to make it big in a racy Vegas revue called “Goddess” at the Stardust Casino, where the female dancers often have to perform topless or nearly nude.

Nomi has ambitions to be the star of the show, and in order to do that, she has to find a way to replace Cristal Conners (played by Gina Gershon), the catty queen bee who is the current star of “Goddess.” Nomi uses her sexuality to get ahead, including seducing Cristal’s boyfriend Zack Carey (played by Kyle McLachlan), who is the Stardust’s entertainment director, and James Smith (played by Glenn Plummer), who is a bouncer at Cheetah’s Topless Club, where Nomi works on her way to joining the “Goddess” show. The movie has undertones of bisexuality, as Nomi and Cristal play erotic mind games with each other by trying to act like they want to have a sexual affair with each other. There are also hints that Nomi’s roommate Molly Abrams (played by Gina Ravera) has a crush on Nomi.

The melodramatic acting, the over-the-top sexuality and the laughable dialogue all made “Showgirls” either universally reviled by those who considered it to be one of the worst movies of all time, or endearing to those who think that “Showgirls” is so bad that it’s good. The movie also had the notoriety of getting a rare NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, so that people under the age of 17 weren’t allowed to see the movie in theaters. “Showgirls” sparked public outrage at the time because critics said the movie was exploitative and misogynistic, an accusation denied by Verhoeven and “Showgirls” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Verhoeven and Eszterhas previously worked together on 1992’s “Basic Instinct,” another controversial erotic drama.

The pundits in “You Don’t Nomi” offer insightful and sometimes hilarious analysis of “Showgirls,” pointing out its flaws as well as aspects that might be considered underrated. One of the inexplicable quirks of “Showgirls” is that the characters repeatedly mention eating brown rice and vegetables. Fan theories have abounded over why this type of meal is brought up so many times in the movie.

The outrage over “Showgirls” has faded over the years, but the damage to Berkley’s career has had long-lasting effects, since this former “Saved by the Bell” star hasn’t been able to get top billing at a major studio film since “Showgirls.” In recent years, Berkley has become more open about her “Showgirls” past, even appearing at a 20th anniversary “Showgirls” screening event in Los Angeles to introduce the movie. “You Don’t Nomi” has footage from that event.

Verhoeven’s and Eszterhas’ previous movies are examined in the documentary, and “You Don’t Nomi” has hilarious sequences demonstrating that Verhoeven’s movies have an apparent obsession with showing women admiring their fingernails. More disturbing, Verhoeven also has a pattern of depicting rape and other sexual assaults in his movies. One of the main reasons why “Showgirls” was hated by so many people is because of a scene where one of the female characters gets gang raped. Even the “Showgirls” fans who comment in “You Don’t Nomi” agree that the “Showgirls” rape scene was gratuitous and reeked of exploitation.

The documentary also doesn’t shy away from commenting on another criticism of “Showgirls”—that the movie was kind of racist, since the black characters in the movie were expendable and only seemed to be written as subservient people who would do anything for Nomi. However, the pundits also mention that one of the campiest things about “Showgirls” is that almost everyone who crosses paths with Nomi seems to fall for her—even though she’s not very charming, not very smart, and she has some pretty big anger issues. (Nomi’s temper-flaring outbursts, which are often random, are among the most-ridiculed aspects of “Showgirls.”)

There’s also some film history in “You Don’t Nomi,” as one of the pundits notes that “Showgirls” can be considered the spiritual sister of two other female-starring movies that flopped but went on to become cult classics: 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls” and 1981’s “Mommie Dearest”—all films about women driven to the brink of insanity by the desire for fame in the entertainment industry.

So why do people love “Showgirls”? The movie is cathartic for many people who relate to the characters, especially Nomi. As Baume points out, that’s why “Showgirls” has struck a chord with many in the LGBTQ community because, like Nomi, many LGBTQ people move to a big city to reinvent themselves, chase dreams, and find acceptance in a new environment. For actress Kidwell, she says in the documentary that “Showgirls” and playing the Nomi Malone character on stage were therapeutic for her, and helped her cope with the trauma of a real-life rape that she experienced.

McHale not only directed “You Don’t Nomi,” but he also wrote and edited the film, and is one of the documentary’s producers. The editing is one of the best things about “You Don’t Nomi,” because McHale has a knack for placing the right footage with effective music and commentary. He uses clips from a hodgepodge of pop-culture references to augment a point being made in the film. The clips range from well-known blockbusters such “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to cult films such as “Pink Flamingos” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” to flops that most people haven’t seen, such as Olivia Newton John’s “Xanadu” and Lindsay Lohan’s “I Know Who Killed Me.” After watching “You Don’t Nomi,” it will be hard to resist the temptation to see “Showgirls” to look out for some of the details that get an entertaining analysis in the documentary.

UPDATE: RLJE Films will release “You Don’t Nomi” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on June 9, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Leftover Women’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

"Leftover Women"
Qui Hua Mei in “Leftover Women” (Photo courtesy of Medalia Productions)

“Leftover Women”

Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia

Mandarin with subtitles

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

If you know any single women who complain about not being able to find a life partner, or if you know people who think ABC’s reality TV franchise “The Bachelor” is exploitative and sexist toward women, then they should watch the documentary “Leftover Women,” which is a scathing look at the indignities and scorn that single women over a certain age have to endure in China. The movie takes its title from the Chinese phrase “sheng nu,” which translates into “leftover women”—the unflattering term that Chinese people use to describe unmarried, childless women who are near or over the age of 30.

The documentary focuses on three of these women, all of whom have successful careers: Qui Hua Mei, a 34-year-old attorney; Xu Min, a 28-year-old radio employee; and Gai Qui, a 36-year-old assistant professor at Normal University in Beijing. They’re not the type of women to sit around and feel sorry for themselves because they’re single, even when so many people around them try to shame them for not finding a husband yet. (This is a heterosexual-only film, as LGBTQ people are not mentioned in this documentary.)

Hua Mei is the heart and soul of the film. She is easily the most compelling and empathetic person to watch in the movie, whose opening scene is of her in a meeting with a middle-aged female dating coach/matchmaker. The matchmaker, who is smug and cruelly judgmental, proceeds to demean Hua Mei by telling her that she’s too old and not pretty enough to be considered a realistic candidate for marriage. Even though Hua Mei is neither old nor unattractive—and she’s certainly more attractive than the mean-spirited matchmaker who’s written her off as a lost cause—Chinese culture dictates that Hua Mei respect her elders, so she just sits there, nods, and takes the insults as if she deserves to be degraded. It’s excruciating and infuriating watch.

Still, Hua Mei makes an effort to find “the one,” and we see her looking for love in nightclubs, going on awkward dates, and participating in government-sanctioned social events for marriage-minded singles. The documentary also shows that Hua Mei isn’t some sad-sack, desperate spinster: She’s a caring individual who has an emotionally fulfilling life with her friends and career, but it’s impossible for her to escape from the overwhelming disapproval that she gets from Chinese society over her marital status.

The matchmaker isn’t the only person to treat the accomplished and intelligent Hua Mei as a pathetic loser just because she isn’t married. The movie shows that Hua Mei’s own family members, who still live in the rural area where she was raised, are constantly pressuring her to find a husband. It’s clear that Hua Mei has an independent streak and won’t settle for any suitor who comes along. She’s also the most educated person in her family, but her parents think of her as “less accomplished” than her married siblings simply because she isn’t married yet. They also remind Hua Mei that even though they love her, they think she’s an embarrassing burden on her family because she’s not married. And they say this, even though she’s an attorney who’s helped out her family financially because she has the income to do it.

It’s no wonder that Hua Mei is afraid to reveal to the people closest to her that she doesn’t really want to have children. Based on the way her family reacts when she tells them, you’d think that she had just confessed to a horrible crime. When Hua Mei breaks down in tears at her family’s unrelenting criticism, it’s one of the most emotionally difficult moments to watch in the movie. But it also foreshadows a decision that she makes at the end of the film.

Min comes from a well-to-do family who has somewhat spoiled her with material possessions, and she’s somewhat whiny about still being single, but she has other issues that come out during the course of the movie. From a therapy session shown in the film, she reveals that her mother emotionally abused her as a child, by pretending to abandon her as a way of punishment. Min still has not healed from those emotional wounds, and when she has an inevitable argument with her parents about still being unmarried, their response shows that they think they are good parents because they provided her with material comforts all of her life. In another argument, this time when Min is alone with her mother, she confronts her mother about the past abuse, and her mother abruptly ends the conversation and calls Min “ungrateful.”

Qui’s story is the most incongruous, because early on in the movie, she’s shown getting married. The quick courtship that she had with her younger husband is not in the film, but it’s revealed that there’s somewhat of a stigma in their relationship because she makes more money than he does. Of the three women whose stories are told in the movie, Qui is shown the least, so there’s no real sense of her personality, and she doesn’t go through the same struggles as the other two women do in the movie.

It’s no surprise that a patriarchal, sexist culture would place more shame on women than men for being unmarried by a certain age. The older the woman, the more “undesirable” she becomes to society, which is a prejudice that is embedded even in the most “progressive” countries. It goes back to the issue of women, not men, having a biological clock when it comes to conceiving children. Men face their own issues when it comes to how they’re judged as potential spouses. In most societies, a man’s marriage desirability is primarily defined by his wealth/income, followed closely by his physical appearance. In that respect, the United States and other Western countries aren’t much different from China.

These kinds of superficial biases are repeatedly shown in “Leftover Women,” such as a scene with women selecting potential husbands on a dating website and discussing the standards they have for any man they might marry. Several men are automatically rejected based on their looks, height, income or because they live in a rural area. (It’s assumed in Chinese society that people from rural areas are less educated and have less money than those from more urban areas.) Even if it looks like women have more control when they go online to choose whom to date, the documentary shows that when women in China are in serious romantic relationships, they’re expected to let the men be the dominant partners in the relationships. China isn’t the only country in the world to have a society with this mentality, but “Leftover Women” shows that the humiliation and pressure that unmarried women in China have to go through to find a husband make “The Bachelor” look like a feminist paradise.

UPDATE: PBS will premiere “Leftover Women” as part of the “Independent Lens” series on February 10, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Day in the Life of America’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

A Day in the Life of America
DeAndre Upshaw and Stuart Hausmann in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Evett Rolsten)

“A Day in the Life of America”

Directed by Jared Leto

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival  in New York City on April 27, 2019.

Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto, who is also the lead singer/songwriter of the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, has been steadily building a portfolio of interesting work as a director—beginning with Thirty Seconds to Mars videos, and progressing to the award-winning 2012 documentary feature “Artifact” (which chronicled the band’s fight to get out of its contract with EMI Music) and the non-fiction digital series “Beyond the Horizon” and “Great Wide Open.” The documentary “A Day in the Life of America” is his most ambitious directorial project so far. Inspired by National Geographic’s “A Day in the Life” book series, the documentary is a fascinating mosaic of people in the United States, all filmed on a single day: July 4, 2017. Leto solicited video footage from the public, but the majority of what made it into the final cut of the movie is footage that was professionally filmed by the 92 camera crews that Leto dispatched across the United States to capture everyday people on Independence Day. The documentary is also a companion piece to Thirty Seconds to Mars’ 2018 album “America.”

Because we’re living in an era where millions of people have put their video diaries on the Internet, one of the documentary’s biggest accomplishments is that it takes all of that type of noise and shapes it into an eclectic and riveting symphony of varied human perspectives. Not all of it is easy to digest. There are so many contrasting viewpoints expressed in the documentary, that people watching this film are bound to see things that will make them angry, sad, offended, entertained, hopeful and inspired. The movie’s top-notch editing, seamless cinematography and compelling Thirty Seconds to Mars music score all contribute to making “A Day in the Life of America” an engrossing cinematic journey. The movie does not interview political pundits or news commentators to give their distracting opinions. The people in the movie are not identified by name when we see them talk. It’s a wise decision, because what everyday people have to say in this movie is more important than the possibility that anyone could become a star by being in this film.

“A Day in the Life of America,” whose main scenes are shown in chronological order, begins with a pregnant woman going into labor during a home birth. During the course of the documentary, viewers hear from a wide variety of people from just about every region of the United States. In Arkansas, two drunk redneck men fire assault rifles in the air, and complain that white Americans are a dying breed. In California, a porn actress is shown working on the set of one of her movies and talks about how much she loves her job. In New York, a Hasidic trans woman shares her experiences of what it feels like to be discriminated against in and outside her religion. In West Virginia, a young, white single mother who’s addicted to meth smokes the drug on camera, and expresses shame and guilt for not being a good parent. In Texas, a gay black man at a skating rink expresses his thoughts on LGBTQ rights and the ongoing fight to be accepted in the same way as heterosexuals.

On the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., people who are gathered at the Capitol Building range from Donald Trump supporters to anti-Trump protesters. Trump and wife Melania are shown greeting the crowd outside the White House. Speaking of Trump, his administration’s Muslim ban—and people’s contrasting views about it—are given notable screen time in this movie.

For many viewers, the most emotionally triggering aspect of “A Day in the Life of America” is the movie’s raw look at racism. In North Carolina, male and female members of the Ku Klux Klan are shown planning for a race war and spewing hatred against people who aren’t white and Christian. In Louisiana, African American adults talk about how there are two Americas: one that gives more privileges to whites and one where people who aren’t white still have to struggle to be accepted as equals. Meanwhile, the black kids in the Louisiana footage express more optimism about the future, saying that America represents freedom to them.

One of the movie’s effective devices is how contrasting viewpoints are edited right next to each other. After the KKK members from North Carolina are shown ranting that immigrants are ruining America, the next footage shows Native Americans in South Dakota celebrating their heritage. In another scene, there’s a ceremony where people are becoming U.S. citizens. The next scene is of white nationalist American Freedom Party members gathered for a meeting and talking about how they want their own country so they can have stricter laws against immigration. There’s a scene with people dressed as Revolutionary War-era Americans during a patriotic ceremony in Virginia. That footage is followed by a scene of a Muslim teenage girl in a boxing ring talking about how she won a hard-fought legal battle for her right to wear a hijab while boxing.

The documentary also takes a searing look at crime in America, particularly in how crime disproportionately affects black people. In Chicago, black residents in a working-class neighborhood express fear and sadness on the Fourth of July when they can’t tell if they’re hearing fireworks or gunshots. During filming, police arrive because a boy got shot. (The shooting is not in the movie.) In Detroit, young black residents on the streets are jaded and pessimistic about their future. In Oklahoma, a black man in prison (the details of his criminal record aren’t mentioned) talks about not getting justice and feeling like he’s invisible.

Health care is another big issue that’s covered in the movie. Tennis player Sebastien Jacques (who recovered from a life-threatening brain tumor) is shown in Kansas during his Walk Across America campaign to promote hope in dealing with health problems. That footage is in contrast to the next scene that shows a bed-ridden man dying from cancer.

Of course, it’s impossible for one movie to capture all the subcultures and issues that exist in the United States. For example, the wealthiest “one-percent” of people in America are noticeably absent from the film’s featured interviews. It would have been great to include the perspective of a self-made billionaire—not necessarily someone who’s famous, but someone who represents what is often described as the ultimate American Dream. Even though the super-wealthy aren’t really given a spotlight as a contrast to all the poor and middle-class people who highlighted are in the movie, “A Day in the Life of America” does a fairly comprehensive job of capturing a great deal of the contemporary diversity that exists in the United States. Simply put: “A Day in the Life of America” just might be the most honest documentary about the United States that could be released this year, because it’s the collective voices of people in America speaking their truths.

UPDATE: PBS’s “Independent Lens” series will premiere “A Day in the Life of America” on January 11, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Slay the Dragon’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

Slay the Dragon
Katie Fahey in “Slay the Dragon” (Photo by Sam Russell)

“Slay the Dragon”

Directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

The political documentary “Slay the Dragon” is part history lesson, part wake-up call to U.S. voters. The movie focuses on gerrymandering, the longtime practice of manipulating and rezoning voting districts so that one political party has a disproportionately favorable advantage over others. The word “gerrymander” was inspired by Elbridge Gerry (the Massachusetts governor credited with inventing the practice in the early 19th century) and the word “salamander,” since one of his rezoned districts looked like a salamander.

Even though “Slay the Dragon” mentions that Democrats and Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering, “Slay the Dragon” portrays Republicans as being more ruthless and more corrupt when putting gerrymandering into practice. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, as well as the Republican party’s dominance of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate elections that year, can be considered the flashpoint for much of the grass-roots activism that gets the spotlight in this movie.

“Slay the Dragon” co-director Barak Goodman says that this documentary was largely inspired by David Daley’s 2016 nonfiction book “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” which details how gerrymandering was taken to new levels of corruption by Republicans, in response to the 2008 U.S. presidential election of Barack Obama and Democrats who dominated Congress during Obama’s first term. Daley, who is interviewed in the film, is also a consultant for the documentary. Also interviewed in the film are Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman and Republican State Leadership Committee chief Chris Jankowski, a political strategist who is often credited with the Republicans’ dominance of the 2016 elections.

But the film’s real star is Katie Fahey, founder of the Michigan-based grassroots organization Voters Not Politicians. Fahey, an upbeat activist in her 20s, had no political experience when she started Voters Not Politicians. Against the odds and predictions of naysayers, Voters Not Politicians managed to get the state of Michigan to create an independent commission to oversee voter redistricting. Voters Not Politicians is supposed to be a non-partisan group, but it’s clear that most of the group members are left-leaning voters who are more alarmed by Republicans taking over their districts than Democrats.

“Slay the Dragon” also examines the racism behind gerrymandering, which usually targets blacks and Latinos as groups to manipulate when reshaping voting districts. The 2014 Supreme Court case McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated limits on campaign donations for federal elections, is considered one of the main reasons why gerrymandering has placed even more political control in the hands of the wealthy. “Slay the Dragon” gives hope to those who believe that voters who aren’t wealthy have a real chance of making a difference if they band together to fight corruption.

UPDATE: Magnolia Pictures will release “Slay the Dragon” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020. 

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ’17 Blocks’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

17 Blocks
Emmanuel Sanford-Durant in “17 Blocks” (Photo by Davy Busta)

“17 Blocks”

Directed by Davy Rothbart

World premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

It might be easy to write off “17 Blocks” as just another movie that shows black people struggling in a ghetto neighborhood plagued by drugs and crime. The struggle has been depicted in too many movies and TV shows to count, and it can become a tiresome stereotype, especially when law-abiding, middle-class black families are under-represented on screen—and when these role-model black families are portrayed on screen, it’s usually in the context of a comedy. But the documentary “17 Blocks,” which was filmed in the span of nearly 20 years, beginning in 1999, is so deeply personal and emotionally moving that it doesn’t feel like blaxploitation.

“17 Blocks” director Davy Rothbart (who happens to be white) got the idea for the movie after seeing a 9-year-old black boy named Emmanuel Sanford-Durant using a home-video camera to film himself and his family in their rough Washington, D.C., neighborhood that’s only 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. Rothbart met and befriended Emmanuel and his older brother Smurf while playing basketball near the brothers’ apartment. The filmmaker, who never lived in the neighborhood, became close to the Sanford-Durant family and began documenting their lives over the years. The result is this movie.

Much of the early footage in “17 Blocks” was filmed by Emmanuel, a bright and thoughtful child who later had goals to become a firefighter. He’s almost the polar opposite of Smurf (who is six years older than Emmanuel), a drug dealer and addict with multiple arrests related to his criminal lifestyle. Middle child Denice (who is three years older than Emmanuel) doesn’t lead a life of crime, but she becomes a teenage mother and school dropout, which slows down her career prospects. As Denice becomes an adult, she has aspirations to become a security guard.

Meanwhile, the kids’ mother, Cheryl, spends many years raising them as a single parent (her marital status over the years remains a murky mystery in the film), but she struggles with an addiction to cocaine that leaves her children often feeling emotionally abandoned and resentful. The father or fathers of Cheryl’s three kids are not in the movie, and there’s no indication that the kids were raised by their father(s). It’s revealed in the movie that Cheryl came from a solid middle-class home where she was raised by her two parents and once aspired to be an actress. But her cocaine addiction often hampered her ability to be a responsible parent. It’s hinted in the movie that Cheryl’s parents sometimes had to help raise her children when she was in the throes of addiction.

Emmanuel is the family’s “golden child,” the one with the most potential and talent to become a success. He’s the only one of Cheryl’s children to graduate from high school. (Unfortunately, due to her addiction, Cheryl missed Emmanuel’s high-school graduation ceremony, which is one of the many regrets that she expresses in the film.) Emmanuel has a bright future ahead of him after he graduates from high school, and he’s looking forward to begin training as a firefighter. Unlike his siblings, who became parents as teenagers, and have children from broken relationships, Emmanuel hasn’t become a teen father. He’s in a solid and loving relationship with a neighborhood girl named Carmen Payne, who also has career goals, and they eventually plan to marry.

But a tragedy changes the Sanford-Durant family forever, and the second half of the movie documents how they cope with that tragedy. “17 Blocks” will not be an easy film to watch for many people because it might trigger feelings of sadness and/or anger for all the families who’ve experienced similar tragedies—regardless of race or socioeconomic status. “17 Blocks” is a wake-up call that might also inspire people to reach out to those in their communities who are hurting. And it’s also a reminder that it’s never too late to learn from our mistakes, and make our lives better for ourselves and other people.

UPDATE: MTV Documentary Films will release “17 Blocks” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on February 19, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice
Linda Ronstadt in 1968. The singer’s life story is told in “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” (Photo by Henry Diltz)

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

Back in the days when VH1 embraced nostalgia and classic rock artists, the documentary series “Behind the Music”—which focused on a different artist per episode—became one of the network’s flagship shows. Grammy-winning singer Linda Ronstadt never did a “Behind the Music” episode, but the documentary film “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” looks like it could’ve been part of that series.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the early years of “Behind the Music” had had some fascinating and thoroughly researched episodes before the series became a watered-down publicity showcase. “Behind the Music” required the participation of the artist (or artist’s estate if the artist was deceased) and the use of the artist’s music. The artist’s story was told in chronological order, and followed a familiar formula of describing the artist’s rise to fame, having successful hits, struggling with various personal issues while at the top of their game, and (depending on the artist) either overcoming those issues, succumbing to personal demons, or trying to stage a comeback. The story is told through new interviews with the artist and people close to the artist, as well as archival footage, music videos and personal behind-the-scenes footage.

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is a very traditional documentary in that sense, except that for most of the movie, her new interviews are in voiceover. Ronstadt, who retired from performing in 2009, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, and she rarely does interviews these days. The other people who have new interviews for this movie include Jackson Browne; J.D. Souther (who dated Ronstadt in the 1970s); Don Henley (who was her drummer before co-founding the Eagles); Ry Cooder; music-journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe; John Boylan (Ronstadt’s longtime producer); Peter Asher (Ronstadt’s former manager); David Geffen (whose Asylum Records released Ronstadt’s earliest solo albums); former Warner Bros. Records chief Joe Smith (who worked with Ronstadt at the height of her fame); Kevin Kline (her “Pirates of Penzance” leading man on Broadway); and Ronstadt’s Trio band mates Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.

All of them appear on camera, and speak highly of Ronstadt. There are vivid descriptions of Ronstadt being a supportive friend and collaborator, with a tendency to be a perfectionist when it came to her music. Several of interviewees mention that she was plagued with a life-long insecurity about her voice “not being good enough,” and she had anxiety over doing live performances. The movie also has a good archival selection of Ronstadt performing. Some of her biggest hits featured in the documentary include “When Will I Be Loved,” “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou.”

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” chronicles her entire life story, from her childhood in Arizona to her early singing career as the lead singer of the California folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys (whose biggest hit song was “Different Drum”) to her solo career where she became the best-selling female rock star of the 1970s to her later years where she branched out into other forms of music. One of the documentary’s best achievements is reminding people of Ronstadt’s extraordinary musical versatility, as she proved to be talented in big band music (the “What’s New” album with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra), Broadway music (she received a Tony nomination for “The Pirates of Penzance”), Latin music (her “Canciones de Mi Padre” album, which was a nod to her Mexican roots), country music (her work with Trio) and adult-contemporary pop, including the smash hit “Don’t Know Much,” her ballad duet with Aaron Neville.

As for her personal struggles—besides having self-confidence issues about her talent—at the height of her fame, “Linda’s thing was diet pills,” according to Geffen, who says she took diet pills and speed to keep her weight down and to have enough energy for her grueling schedule. In retrospect, Ronstadt says that her drug use at the time caused paranoia that affected her personal relationships and her ability to communicate well.

Ronstadt also talks openly in new interviews and in archival footage about the sexism she and other female rock artists experienced in the male-dominated music business. Her romance with politician Jerry Brown is also mentioned—she says their breakup was mainly caused by their busy schedules keeping them apart—but as her former boyfriend Souther puts it, “Neither one of us is built for marriage or long-term relationships.” (Ronstadt, who has never married, has an adopted son and daughter, who are now adults. Her children are not mentioned in the movie.)

In the documentary, Ronstadt is calmly accepting about having Parkinson’s disease, which she says has given her a new perspective about not focusing on death but how she’s going to live before she dies. In the movie, her Trio band mate Harris begins to cry when she says that although Ronstadt doesn’t miss doing concerts, “I think she misses singing with her friends.”

Just when you think that you’re not going to see the present-day Ronstadt on camera and are never going to hear her sing again, in true “Behind the Music” fashion, she appears on camera during the last 15 minutes of the film, where she’s shown singing in Spanish with her nephew Peter Ronstadt accompanying her on guitar. The footage was filmed in 2019, according to a caption shown in the movie. Ronstadt says because she’s singing in harmony, and not singing lead vocals, she doesn’t consider it “real singing.” Still, the movie has what might be one of the last publicly released performances of Ronstadt singing after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

In February 2019, Ronstadt’s “Live in Hollywood” album (a recording of a concert she did in 1980) became her first live album ever to be officially released. “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is essential viewing for any of her fans, and it’s worth seeing for anyone who appreciates knowing more about a very talented and unique singer.

 UPDATE: Greenwich Entertainment will release “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” on September 2, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Scheme Birds’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Scheme Birds
Gemma in “Scheme Birds” (Photo by Ellinor Hallin)

“Scheme Birds”

Directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

This bleak documentary about lower-class Scottish teens takes its title from the term used to describe females who are always on the hustle. At the center of the story is the film’s narrator, Gemma, a pretty blonde rebel who lives a rough-and-tumble lifestyle where she predicts she’ll either get “knocked up or locked up.” She lives in the steel town of Motherwell, Scotland, which was thriving in previous generations, but the manufacturing jobs have all but disappeared, and the community has been an economic downward spiral ever since. Gemma’s close circle of juvenile-delinquent confidants are her boyfriend Pat; her best friend, Amy; and Amy’s boyfriend JP. All of them are school dropouts who spend their days and nights not doing much but making mischief, partying, and sometimes getting into gang fights. Their accents are so thick and filled with so much slang that the movie has subtitles.

The most important adult in Gemma’s life is her paternal grandfather Joseph, who has essentially raised Gemma with his wife. Gemma has no relationship with her biological parents. As it’s described in the movie, her mother is a drug addict who abandoned Gemma as a baby, and her father passed on the responsibility of raising Gemma to his parents. Joseph has a hobby of raising pigeons and selling them to the locals. He also works at a boxing gym, and he tries to get Gemma interested in boxing and/or his side business of raising pigeons, but she’d rather continue her ambition-less existence in the council flats (the United Kingdom equivalent of public housing) where she and her family and friends live.

After being introduced in the first third of the movie, Joseph essentially isn’t seen again, as Gemma’s life undergoes a major change when she gets pregnant with Pat’s child. The documentary follows Gemma through her pregnancy and the birth of their son. Becoming a mother changes Gemma’s priorities dramatically, and her hard edge softens as her maternal instinct gives her a different perspective on life. She and Pat seem ready to settle down, and they try to become responsible parents by giving up their hard-partying lifestyle.

But life isn’t a fairy tale, especially in Gemma’s world, where expectations are low, ambition is discouraged, and people don’t have much motivation to get out of their rut of disenfranchisement. When it’s easier for unskilled young people in that world to get money by committing crimes or living on welfare than it is by getting a job, it’s no wonder that many are tempted to take the easier ways to get money. When a tragedy hits someone in Gemma’s social circle, it has long-lasting and damaging effects. That tragedy is the most emotionally riveting part of the movie.

Even though Gemma and her friends have what many people consider to be depressing lives, it’s hard to feel too sorry for them because many of their problems are of their own doing. They don’t have “third world” poverty because they are fortunate to live in a country where financially disadvantaged people can live off of government assistance. They also have access to birth control, unlike many people in truly impoverished areas of the world, so there’s really not much of an excuse for the rampant teen pregnancy in their community. The same places where chain-smoking, hard-drinking Gemma and her friends get their cigarettes and booze are the same places where they can get condoms. Birth control is obviously a low priority for people in this movie.

Even when Gemma becomes a mother, decides to sober up, and looks for a job, things come fairly easily to her. After she applies for a low-paying job at a local café by filling out an application online, even though she has no experience, she gets the job just by calling up the manager and saying that she’s a responsible person. Even the most low-paying café jobs nowadays still require applicants to meet the hiring manager in person, so it’s an uncommon stroke of luck that Gemma gets the job just by having a brief conversation with a stranger over the phone.

“Scheme Birds” was directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, two filmmakers from Sweden, a country that is considered one of the most advanced in the world when it comes to how it takes care of its financially disadvantaged citizens. Perhaps Fiske and Hallin thought this documentary would be more compelling if it focused on someone who looks like the girls who star in the MTV reality show “Teen Mom.” Unfortunately, Gemma’s story is not unusual enough to have a lasting impact on viewers, and the fact that she takes for granted so many privileges that she has makes her even less sympathetic. There are millions of impoverished teenage mothers who face even more obstacles and challenges because of the color of their skin or because they live in a third-world country. But those aren’t the kind of girls who get cast on reality shows or have tabloid stories written about them, so it’s not a surprise that a lot of documentary filmmakers don’t want to tell their stories.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Taste of Sky’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

"A Taste of Sky"
“A Taste of Sky” (Photo by Jeff Louis Peterman)

“A Taste of Sky”

Directed by Michael Y. Lei

International premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

Award-winning restaurants and chefs around the world have gotten a lot of exposure, thanks to non-fiction shows like “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “Chef’s Table.” So when there’s a documentary about a risk-taking restaurant started by a world-renowned chef, that movie better deliver something extraordinary. Unfortunately, “A Taste of Sky” falls short of those expectations and ends up being a conventional documentary with some serious flaws.

“A Taste of Sky,” the first feature film from director Michael Y. Lei, is about the creation of Gustu, a fine-dining restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia. What made Gustu different from other Bolivian restaurants is that it was founded by Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, whose Noma restaurant in Copenhagen was named Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine from 2010 to 2012 and in 2014. Meyer also had the idea of making Gustu a culinary school for underprivileged youth who could train to become chefs. “A Taste of Sky” focuses on two of those students: Kenzo, an ambitious hunter who was raised in the Bolivian Amazon, and Maria Claudia, who is from the Andes high plains.

To its credit, the movie doesn’t shy away from the “white savior”/colonialism issue. Meyer talks about it and is fully aware that he can be perceived as an arrogant European who thinks he can tell Bolivians how to run a successful restaurant in their own country. There’s a sequence in the movie showing Bolivian chefs or restaurateurs sitting at a table, essentially saying the same thing, as they criticize Meyer for founding Gustu to boost his own ego.

Meyer denies that his intentions are driven by his ego and a “white savior” mentality, but his denials don’t ring true when viewers see that the top managers he’s hired to get Gustu up and running are Europeans. A restaurant owner who cared more about cultural inclusivity would have hired at least one qualified local Bolivian to be one of the first managers of the restaurant. Instead, the Bolivians shown working in the restaurant are all subservient to their European teachers/supervisors. Unfortunately, director Lei does not question this ethnic inequality in the film. Perhaps he was too star-struck by Meyer to ask why Bolivians were excluded from Gustu’s initial management team. The film’s written epilogue mentions that a Bolivian employee of Gustu was eventually promoted to general manager about a year after the restaurant launched. Unfortunately, the viewers of this movie don’t get to see any Bolivians in positions of power at Gustu.

And that’s not the only problem with this film. “A Taste of Sky” has a lengthy interview with Meyer telling his life story, but there’s a corny gimmick that tries to be cute: His pre-teen daughter Augusta asks the questions in the interview. It’s unknown if Augusta came up with the questions herself or if an adult provided her with the questions, but the gimmick guarantees that Meyer would be asked very easy questions. There is virtually no investigative journalism in “A Taste of Sky.”

The movie has some footage of Kenzo and Maria Claudia learning chef skills and visiting their families back in their hometowns, but it’s all framed with the tone that they would be poor, downtrodden Bolivian people with a dismal future if not for this restaurant run by Europeans who have saved them from a life of misery. Kenzo’s brother, who was also enrolled in the chef school, had to drop out, in order to help their family take care of their farm. It’s not the catastrophe that the movie wants us to think it is, mainly because Kenzo’s brother doesn’t have the passion for cooking that Kenzo has. Kenzo’s family is poor, but they’re happy, they’re close-knit, and they live comfortably off of their land. Money can’t buy that type of family happiness.

Kenzo is seen as a bright and confident pupil, and his story is given more weight than Maria Claudia’s story. There is brief mention of sexism, as Maria Claudia talks about how her family didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be enrolled in the school because she’s a woman. It’s clear that not having the emotional support of her family has affected Maria Claudia’s confidence. But sexism in the restaurant industry overall— the industry has a long history of giving male chefs more power and better opportunities than female chefs—is barely acknowledged in the movie. It’s not too much of a surprise when a male chef at a prestigious restaurant in Spain invites Kenzo to be an apprentice. Maria Claudia doesn’t get a similar opportunity. One could argue that Kenzo is simply more talented than Maria Claudia, but the movie doesn’t really go into specifics about who are the most talented students in the program.

Worst of all, for a documentary about the opening of a restaurant, there is hardly any mention of the restaurant’s first menu or how the restaurant was marketed to customers. There are brief glimpses of food after it’s been plated, but what’s actually on the plate isn’t really explained. Crocodile is mentioned as a popular Bolivian entrée, but the movie never details what makes Gustu’s menu so special from the menus at other Bolivian restaurants.

In the movie, Bolivia is described as a third-world country that’s the poorest in South America, and Meyer wanted to launch Gustu as a fine-dining restaurant to help uplift the Bolivian economy. But the movie doesn’t even mention how pricing was chosen in order to market a “luxury” restaurant in a “poor” country. Customers aren’t interviewed, so there’s no sense of who goes to this restaurant. There are some lovely shots of the Bolivian terrain, and plenty of scenes that take place in the kitchen, but viewers don’t get to experience Gustu’s inner ambience from a customer’s point of view. In the end, “A Taste of Sky” could have been a fascinating documentary about a groundbreaking restaurant. Instead, it seems as if the filmmakers bent too far backwards to accommodate Meyer’s ego, and the whole movie looks like a superficial vanity project.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Trixie Mattel in “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” (Photo by Nick Zeig-Owens)

“Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts”

Directed by Nick Zeig-Owens

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

Brian Michael Firkus, also known as drag queen Trixie Mattel, is best known for winning Season 3 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” the spin-off show to VH1’s Emmy-winning drag-queen competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This documentary examines Trixie’s rise to fame, her budding career as a singer/comedian and her personal behind-the-scenes struggles. For all of her flamboyant and sassy prancing and preening that she does on stage, the documentary reveals that off-stage, Trixie is quite grounded and humble. Even when chaos is are happening around her, she remains fairly level-headed.

It should be noted that “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” is produced by World of Wonder, the same production company for the “Drag Race” series. That might explain why parts of the documentary look more like a publicist-approved electronic press kit than a revealing biography. Trixie/Brian’s love life is not seen or discussed at all in the film. It’s unclear if Trixie/Brian (who is openly gay) wanted that subject matter to be off-limits in the movie, or if director Nick Zeig-Owens made that decision all on his own.

Most of the movie was filmed in the period of time after Trixie’s first stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where she came in sixth place on Season 7. Trixie then parlayed that fame into a stint co-hosting two talk shows with fellow “Drag Race” alum Katya Zamolodchikova: “UNHhhh” on World of Wonder’s YouTube channel and then later “The Trixie & Katya Show” on Viceland. As fans already know, “The Trixie & Katya Show” was canceled after Katya took a leave of absence to deal with personal issues.

The documentary brings some insight into what really went on behind the scenes. While in a dressing room getting ready for a show, Katya (whose real name is Brian Cook) openly discusses her anxiety issues and doing meth to cope with her problems. She talks about having a “psychotic break” and even loudly declares, “I should be in rehab.” Not long after that outburst, on another day, Katya has a meltdown and refuses to do the show. Shortly afterward, Katya is in rehab, and the show scrambles to do reshoots and find a replacement guest host.

Meanwhile, Trixie/Brian admits to feeling mixed emotions about Katya’s abrupt leave of absence—anger that Katya has jeopardized Trixie’s career; guilt that the resentment he feels toward Katya is a selfish emotion; and relief that Katya is getting the help that she needs. Trixie tries to be a supportive pal, but to her surprise, Katya ends their friendship. In one scene, Trixie reads aloud a vicious email from Katya in which she calls Trixie “arrogant” and “boring” on the show, and ends the email by saying, “Do what I did, bitch. Fail.” (Fans of Trixie and Katya already know if their friendship was mended, but for those who don’t know, the answer to that question is covered in the documentary.)

After the cancellation of the talk shows with Katya, Trixie forges ahead to launch a singing career in country music, with aspirations to be a drag-queen alternative to Dolly Parton. (Trixie tours on a regular basis, and has released two albums so far: 2017’s “Two Birds” and 2018’s “One Stone.” She also did a performance at the world premiere of “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.) As for Trixie’s singing talent, she’s no Dolly Parton, but she’s not terrible either. She’s fully aware that she has to do her drag act as a country singer because audiences come to see Trixie, not Brian, on stage. (Although the documentary does show Brian doing soundchecks and rehearsals while not in drag.)

The estrangement from Katya has tested Trixie’s confidence, and she wonders aloud how much fans will accept her as a comedian without being part of a duo with Katya. There are many scenes in the documentary of Trixie on tour, meeting fans, getting dolled up, showing viewers her wardrobe, and going to “Drag Race” viewing parties. The movie also features appearances by drag queens such as RuPaul, Morgan McMichaels, Bob the Drag Queen, BenDeLaCreme and Kennedy Davenport.

Trixie mentions that there were two different endings filmed for her “Drag Race All Stars” finale, presumably to avoid spoilers from leaking out to the public. In one ending, Trixie was named the winner. In the other ending, finalists Trixie and Shangela were named the winners in a tie. She found out the real outcome at the same time as everyone else who watched the finale at the viewing party

A lot of people might think that a documentary about a drag queen would have a lot of histrionics from the star of the movie. But Trixie does not fall into the stereotype of being a hysterical drama queen. In fact, even when Trixie wins “Drag Race All-Stars,” she’s happy, but she she’s not jumping up and down, and she’s not crying uncontrollably. Even when she goes through some tough times emotionally, particularly during her period of estrangement from close friend Katya, Trixie doesn’t really cry on screen.

Brian/Trixie uses humor to deflect a lot of emotional pain, and it’s clear that he/she prefers to compartmentalize and hide away the pain rather than to let it all hang out—at least not in front of these documentary cameras. Brian briefly opens up about his unhappy childhood that included an abusive, alcoholic stepfather who Brian says often beat him. According to Brian, the last time his stepfather (who is now deceased) abused him was when he pointed a gun at Brian’s head and said he was going to kill him. Fortunately, Brian has a healthy and loving relationship with his mother, who is shown in the documentary when he goes to his hometown of Milwaukee while on tour.

Even though Brian says in the documentary that he grew up thinking it was normal to feel like wanting to die, he doesn’t consider himself to be a depressed person now. He admits that many people, including Trixie’s fans, assume that Brian/Trixie has issues with anxiety and/or depression. There are a few scenes in the movie when he gets emotionally touched when fans write to him or tell him in person how much Trixie has helped them with their confidence and/or mental-health issues.

Underneath the big hair and big personality, Trixie says she’s a songwriter at heart. When she confesses her life goals, she says it in a way that is very Trixie Mattel: “I would love to write songs for other people…just sit in the woods…and jerk off.” She also explains why mainstream audiences have embraced drag queens more than ever before: “They’re there to see this delusional confidence.”

UPDATE: World of Wonder will release “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” on several VOD platforms (including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Microsoft Movies) on December 3, 2019.

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