Very few feature films can be praised as accurately depicting the angst of being a 13-year-old girl. Bo Burnham’s 2018 comedy “Eighth Grade” is one of them. Catherine Hardwicke’s 2003 dark drama “Thirteen” is another. And here’s another to add to the list: writer/director Bora Kim’s beautifully made, introspective feature-film debut “House of Hummingbird,” a semi-autobiographical drama set in 1994 Seoul, South Korea. “House of Hummingbird” does not have the social-media-driven humor of “Eighth Grade” or the dangerous, self-destructive behavior of “Thirteen,” but it conveys a similar spirit that shows how feelings of insecurity and social pressures can eat away at a young girl’s confidence. Carried by an admirable performance by Jihu Park, “House of Hummingbird” is a deliberately paced film that builds up to a conclusion that transforms several of the characters in the story.
Being a 13-year-old in eighth grade is a tricky age for a girl. She’s going through puberty, and might be thinking about dating—but, depending on her family and peers, she might be considered too young to date people her age. She’s old enough to go to places without adult supervision, but she’s not old enough to drive. And 13 is an age when most people are preparing themselves for high school, which is the time in many people’s lives where they have to make decisions that impact their futures as adults.
In “House of Hummingbird,” Park portrays Eunhee, a slightly rebellious teen who loves spending time with her friends, going to karaoke bars, and occasionally getting into mischief, such as shoplifting. Her parents own a rice cake shop, and she’s sometimes made to feel socially inferior because of her family’s working-class economic status. At home in their crowded urban apartment, Eunhee is often unhappy. Her older brother Dae-Hoon (played by Son Sang-yeon), who is the favored child because he is a boy, bullies her by secretly hitting her for no good reason. Her stressed-out parents (played by Lee Seung-yeon and Jung In-gi) frequently argue with each other. And her older sister Suhee (played by Bak Su-yeon) is so passive that she tries to make herself invisible and isn’t much of a friend to Eunhee. All of the kids sometimes chip in to work at the family shop, but Eunhee doesn’t like it and thinks she can have a better life for herself. She doesn’t really know yet how she’s going to accomplish that, although she dreams of being a cartoonist.
At the cram school where Eunhee is a student, she finds an intriguing role model in a new teacher named Yong-ji (played Saebyuk Kim), who is more independent-minded than the other female teachers at the school. It’s the kind of school where a teacher will make the students chant that they won’t do karaoke and will go to Seoul University, and students are told to anonymously write down the names of other students who are being delinquent. Yong-ji encourages Eunhee to follow her dreams and to find a way to respect herself, even if the people around her don’t show Eunhee respect. As her admiration for Yong-ji grows, Eunhee finds reasons to spend time with her teacher outside of the classroom. In a letter that Eunhee writes to Yong-ji later in the movie, she asks a question that sums up her teenage feelings of uncertainty: “When will my life shine?”
Meanwhile, Eunhee tentatively gets closer to a male friend named Jiwan (played by Jeong Yun-se), and their innocent flirting turns into hand holding and then awkward experimenting with French kissing. Eunhee keeps her budding romance a secret from her family, since she doesn’t want to get in trouble for being considered too wild. Eunhee and her best friend Jisuk (played by Park Seo-yun ) get caught shoplifting, and they have a disagreement over whether or not to offer an apology to the store owner. Jisuk wants to apologize, but Eunhee does not, and the disagreement ends their friendship. During all of this personal drama, Eunhee finds out that there’s a lump on her upper neck that needs to be removed because it’s near a salivary gland. The operation might leave a scar, and there’s a chance that her face might be paralyzed.
Much of “House of Hummingbird” might be a little too slow-paced for movie audiences who are used to films about teens that have a lot of snappy dialogue and a constant stream of misadventures. “House of Hummingbird” takes a more realistic approach of showing some of the boredom that comes with being a stifled teenager. However, the last 30 minutes of this 138-minute film have a series of unforgettable events where Eunhee has a powerful awakening that she least expects, even if it comes at an emotional cost.
“Back to the Future” meets “Black Lives Matter” could be a superficial way to describe “See You Yesterday,” a time-traveling drama about a teenage girl who goes back in time to prevent the police-shooting death of her older brother. But “See You Yesterday” is not a “Back to the Future” ripoff—it’s a compelling social commentary seen through the eyes of intelligent African American teenagers who are the central characters in the movie.
“See You Yesterday,” the first feature film from Spike Lee protégé Stefon Bristol, is a longer version of Bristol’s short film of the same name, and the movie has the same two lead actors from the short film. Eden Duncan-Smith is Claudette “CJ” Walker and Danté Crichlow is Sebastian Thomas, CJ’s best friend—two high-school students who live in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood in New York City. Both teens are aspiring scientists who have been working on a time-traveling machine that can be worn in a backpack. CJ is the type of student who likes to read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in class, and she’s essentially the brains behind the time machine.
As with most scientific experiments, things are done with trial and error. The movie begins with CJ and Sebastian’s botched attempts to get the time-traveling invention to work. It’s only a matter of time before they broach the subject of time traveling with their science teacher Mr. Lockhart (played by “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox, in a brilliantly cast cameo), who tells them that if time travel were possible, it would be one of the greatest ethical conundrums that people would face, before declaring, “Time travel. Great Scott!” Fans of “Back to the Future” will get this inside joke. (In a Q&A after one of the Tribeca Film Festival screenings of “See You Yesterday,” Bristol said that Fox agreed to be in the movie after Bristol wrote him a letter, and Fox hadn’t even seen the script yet. Before filming was set to begin, Fox broke his hand, but they were able to reschedule filming for Fox several weeks later after he recovered from his injury.)
On their fourth attempt at time travel, CJ and Sebastian succeed on June 29, 2019, and go back in time and then back to the present day. The date that they begin to time travel is significant because of what will happen less than a month later. For now, the two budding scientists decide to keep their time-traveling secret to themselves.
Being a science nerd in tough East Flatbush isn’t easy. CJ and Sebastian constantly have to dodge the crime and street fights that plague their neighborhood. Her 19-year-old older brother Calvin (played by Brian Bradley, also known as Astro or Stro) is a bit of a rebel, but he’s very protective of CJ. She is also dealing with moving on from ex-boyfriend Jared (played by Rayshawn Richardson), a bully who flaunts his new girlfriend in front of CJ. It’s clear that when Jared and CJ were together, he did not treat her well, and their relationship ended badly. But Jared keeps doing things to irritate CJ, so it isn’t long before big brother Calvin gets involved. When police arrive, an unarmed Calvin reaches for his cell phone, and gets shot to death by a cop. The date is July 14, 2019.
After going through this devastating loss, CJ comes up with the idea to go back in time to prevent Calvin from dying. Sebastian is extremely reluctant at first, but he goes along with the plan when he sees that there’s no talking CJ out of it. What happens next in the movie can’t be described without giving away spoilers, but it’s enough to say that “See You Yesterday”—like other stories about time travel—does treat the issue of changing the past in order to alter the future as a serious ethical dilemma that can have unexpected consequences. The movie also has a message that unnecessary police brutality is not going away anytime soon.
Bristol, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frederica Bailey, authentically captures modern-day Brooklyn, with the young characters talking like how real teenagers would talk, including a fair amount of cursing. If you watch “See You Yesterday” closely, there’s also a scene in the movie that’s a nod to Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” It’s refreshing that the inventor of the time machine in this story is a teenager, because an adult would be more likely to seek fame, riches and/or glory from such an invention, whereas a teenager would be more likely to keep it a secret from adults. Above all, “See You Yesterday” shows people, no matter what their age, that life is not about changing the past but how we move forward.
Netflix will premiere “See You Yesterday” on May 17, 2019.
Most of the recent movies about artificial intelligence (A.I.) play on fears that A.I. technology will replace jobs previously done by humans and/or will take over the world in sinister ways. The documentary “I Am Human” takes a more optimistic view by examining how the links between the human brain and A.I. technology can be used to improve health sciences by helping solve human medical problems. If you have absolutely no interest in science or A.I. technology, then you’ll probably find a great deal of this movie incredibly dull since it relies heavily on talking heads explaining complex issues and trying to make them more understandable in layman’s terms. However, the case studies presented in “I Am Human” make the documentary worth watching for anyone who’s curious about the future of medical science.
There are three people profiled in the documentary’s case studies. Bill Kochevar is a tetraplegic who receives treatment at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. Anne Shabason is a Parkinson’s disease patient in Bolton, Canada. Stephen Shrubnall is a blind man who’s hoping to have a limited fraction of his eyesight restored. All three patients undergo risky, experimental brain surgeries, which are chronicled in the film.
These case studies are part of the clinical trials known as BrainGate2 Neural Interface System, which began in 2009 and is owned by Braingate Co. BrainGate2 is the successor of BrainGate, a brain-implant system that was built and previously owned by Cyberkinetics.
Among the experts interviewed in “I Am Human” are Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist from Stanford University; sci-fi author Amez Naam; Dr. Andres Lozano, a neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto; Dr. Robert Deveny, an opthamologist a Toronto Western Hospital; Dr. Nita Faranhay, professor of law and philosophy at Duke University; and Bryan Johnson, a neurotech entrepreneur.
Kochevar’s, Shabason’s and Shrubnall’s respective surgeries involve getting sensors implanted in brains, with the sensors being able to affect an external objects. These surgeries are very expensive and recommended only to people who have severe diseases. The goal is for technology to advance to the point where brain implants can be done without surgery. Another goal is to have brain interfacing by just putting on a headset, which could be possible in the future. It would vastly improve communications and decrease language barriers. Scientists and neurotech entrepreneurs are planning to introduce the first high-resolution, wearable brain interface by the year 2021.
Kochevar’s surgery was meant to have his brain control some of his machine-enabled movements through A.I. technology. As a result, his abilities to reach and grasp greatly improved. Shabon’s brain implant is connected to a pacemaker in her chest, and her anxiety greatly decreased after the surgery. Shrubnall’s surgery involved a band sown around his eye to stimulate the retina. He then had to wear special glasses, which submit electrodes to the brain, which resulted in his vision being partially restored, by him being able to see shadows. The best parts of the documentary are to see the elated reactions to the surgery results.
Of course, any new technology comes with concerns of it being used for unlawful purposes. One of the biggest issues, which is addressed in the documentary, is the idea that A.I. technology that involves brain implants will lead to “brain hacking.” But as neurotech entrepreneur Johnson says in the documentary, the rewards outweigh the risks: “Nothing is more important than addressing a broken brain.”
There’s an ongoing debate on how transgender people should be treated in situations where people are segregated by gender. Sports will continue to be one of the hot-button areas where transgender people are fighting for their rights. Unlike using a public restroom, categorizing a person’s gender in sports can affect their future, especially when money is involved (and it usually is). “Changing the Game” is a documentary that explores these issues, as the movie follows three American teenage transgender athletes who are navigating their way through a system where they are often mistreated and misunderstood.
At the time this documentary was filmed, all three of the athletes were in high school. Mack Beggs, who gets the most screen time, is a transgender male wrestler in Texas who’s forced to compete against girls. Beggs, who has been a state champion, also stars in the short film “Mack Wrestles,” which is making the rounds at film festivals, including Tribeca. Sarah Huckman is a transgender female Nordic skier in New Hampshire. Sarah (who is Asian) is adopted, and her parents, Jen and Tom Huckman, are completely supportive of her. Andraya Yearwood is an African American transgender female track runner in Connecticut, one of the states that allows public schools to categorize students according to whatever gender the student identifies as. Laws vary from state to state in this issue.
Mack’s situation is complicated because he is taking male hormones yet competing against girls. The documentary includes commentary from parents who think Mack has an unfair advantage against the girls he competes against. Mack essentially agrees, because he wants to compete against other males. Meanwhile, Mack’s coach doesn’t seem to care about Mack’s gender, as long as he’s winning. The coach says, “I would never turn my back on an athlete,” but all the controversy over Mack makes you wonder if the coach would stand by Mack so strongly if Mack was losing most of his matches.
Mack is living with his grandparents Nancy and Roy, who have adopted him. His grandmother says, “I’m a hardcore Republican, but I don’t have a problem stepping on any toes for transgender kids.” Mack has a girlfriend who’s also very supportive of him, but he admits that he has bouts of depression and a past suicide attempt by taking sleeping pills. The documentary mentions that 40 percent of transgender athletes attempt suicide. Mack is also under a lot of pressure because he needs an athletic scholarship to get into the college of his choice, but he knows that the odds are stacked against him because he’s a transgender athlete.
Meanwhile, the documentary shows how Sarah has become a political activist for transgender athletes. Her advocacy had an effect on the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policies for transgender students, according to Guy Donnelly, principal of Kingswood Regional High School, where Sarah was a student. Advocates for transgender athletes believe that transgender people should be accepted as transgender in all aspects of their lives—in other words, sports should not be an exception.
For track runner Andraya, the biggest supporter in her family is her single mother, Ngozi Nnaji, who says she’s so protective of her daughter that she almost feels like a bodyguard. Of all three trans athletes profiled in the movie, Andraya endures the most heckling from angry parents at the games. The documentary mentions a sobering statistic that African American transgender female students are five times more likely to be murdered than their peers.
Mack gets quite a bit of heckling too. He mentions that most of the verbal abuse and bullying he gets are from adults, not from other kids. It’s taken a toll on his mental health, and his girlfriend says that Mack has had a couple of emotional breakdowns, but he doesn’t like to talk about how much pressure he’s under. Mack says, “My relationship with testosterone is complicated. I wish I didn’t have to inject it.”
The most common argument that people have against trans athletes is that trans athletes have an “unfair advantage.” This argument seems to be used the most when parents think someone with a masculine physique is competing against females. When prize money and scholarships are at stake, it’s no wonder that the conflicts over this issue can get heated. Sarah admits that she often holds herself back in competitions and deliberately does not perform at her best because she doesn’t want to be a target for this type of “unfair advantage” accusation.
Andraya says she wouldn’t be on her track team if she didn’t have the support from the other people on the team. She gets some more encouragement when another African American transgender female named Terry Miller joins the team. In one of the movie’s most touching moments, Terry says that she was inspired to join the team because of Andraya. They naturally become very close friends.
Still, they have to endure angry outbursts from parents who don’t want them on the team, even if Andraya and Terry can help the team win in group competitions. During a track meet, a furious mother tells the camera that athletes like Andraya and Terry don’t have to deal with menstruation, so they have an unfair advantage. The menstruation argument is actually an insult to all females, because it wrongly assumes that females who are menstruating are physically less capable of winning an athletic competition against females who aren’t menstruating.
“Changing the Game” is a straightforward documentary that doesn’t use gimmicks or fancy camera techniques. The film is unapologetically rooting for these transgender athletes, but the filmmakers could have done a little bit more well-rounded reporting by interviewing more people involved in the schools’ athletic systems, such as more coaches, referees, recruiters and leaders of athletic departments.
Another area where the movie definitely need improving was in expanding its reporting on what is being done on both sides to address the legal issues in the key states where transgender laws are the most hotly debated. Showing Sarah Huckman’s activism in New Hampshire (a liberal state) doesn’t seem like enough to cover the lawmaking issues that should be addressed in this documentary. In addition, although high school athletes are the focus of this film, most of these athletes have plans to continue in the sport after high school, and they will probably be facing the same issues in college or wherever they plan to continue participating in the sport. Only Mack’s post-high-school plans were given enough screen time in this film.
Despite some of these flaws in the documentary, “Changing the Game” does a good job of humanizing an issue that many people want to dismiss as not relevant to their lives. The rights that transgender people are fighting for are civil rights that speak to us as human beings and how we treat each other. The rights aren’t asking for special treatment but to be treated with the same respect, dignity and legal access that cisgender people get for gender identity.
The documentary “Wig” is a joyous and sassy love letter to Wigstock (the annual drag festival in New York City) and New York City’s drag culture. The movie comes 24 years after the 1995 documentary “Wigstock: The Movie,” which chronicled the 1994 Wigstock event. Unlike “Wigstock: The Movie,” which was essentially a concert film, “Wig” takes a deeper dive into the history of Wigstock and its under-rated impact on pop culture.
Wigstock was launched in 1984 by Lady Bunny, and its first incarnation ran until 2001. The festival was revived in 2018 by Lady Bunny and Neil Patrick Harris. (Harris and his husband, David Burtka, are two of the producers of “Wig,” which had its world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Tribeca Celebrates Pride, an entire day of LGBTQ-themed programming. Lady Bunny performed after the film’s premiere.)
A lot has changed since Wigstock went on hiatus in 2001. RuPaul, who was one of Wigstock’s original stars, has become an entertainment mogul, as the host/showrunner of the Emmy-winning drag contest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the founder of RuPaul’s DragCon event, which currently has annual editions in Los Angeles and New York City. The rise of RuPaul and drag culture is a direct result of LGBTQ culture overall becoming much more visible in the 21st century, with more LGBTQ characters and reality stars on screen; the launch of LGBTQ TV networks, such as Logo and Here; and more LGBTQ celebrities living their lives openly. That visibility and growing public support for LGBTQ rights also had an impact on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to make marriage equality legal for same-sex couples.
In its own unique way, Wigstock has been part of this movement. It’s important to bring up this historical context because “Wig” would have been a very different movie if it had been made in the 1990s. “Wig” director Chris Moukarbel (who directed Lady Gaga’s 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two”) skillfully rises to the challenge of presenting the history of Wigstock in a cohesive, entertaining style that a wide variety of people can relate to and enjoy.
“Wig” includes some prophetic archival footage from the early 1990s showing RuPaul having a bathroom conversation with British filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who asks RuPaul if drag queens will be popular in America. Fast forward decades later, and Bailey’s World of Wonder production company (which he co-founded in 1991 with fellow filmmaker Randy Barbato) is producing the “Drag Race” franchise, drag queen Big Freedia’s self-titled reality series and numerous other film, TV and digital projects. RuPaul is seen frequently throughout the “Wig” movie, including RuPaul’s early club days at New York City’s Pyramid Club (which was a vital part of the city’s drag scene that birthed Wigstock), to directing an impromptu home photo session with fellow drag queen Nelson Sullivan in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, to on-stage appearances at Wigstock throughout the years.
In “Wig,” many of the drag queens comment on the mainstreaming of drag culture, compared to the early years of Wigstock. Although many of the queens appreciate that drag culture has become more accepted and has become a more viable way to make a living, some of the queens express some wistful nostalgia for the days when the community was much smaller and more tight-knit.
Drag queen Linda Simpson says that “’Drag Race’ was groundbreaking,” but the flip side is that drag culture was “more fun” when it was less mainstream. Simpson adds, “Now, drag is all about de-mystifying drag. It takes away from the insider-y feel that we had before.”
Flotilla DeBarge comments, “There are too many people right now who want to be drag queens, but they don’t know what it’s about,” adding that doing drag should be about passion, not money. “Anybody can do drag, but what kind of drag queen do you want to be?” As drag queen Naomi Smalls puts it: “RuPaul paved the way for me, but who the fuck paved the way for Ru? I love that drag is being normalized.”
For many drag queens, validation outside the drag community is the ultimate sign of success. Willam Belli, also known as drag queen Willam (a former “Drag Race” contestant who landed a cameo in the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born”), hilariously tells a story about surprising a male intruder who had broken into Willam’s home, and the intruder backed away and called her “ma’am.” Willam laughs when remembering how the intruder acknowledged her as a woman: “I passed!”
Some of the Wigstock devotees also talk about their early influences. Charlene Incarnate says that most of her gay role models were closeted dads in her church. Harris said that drag culture appeals to him as a magician. As drag queen Tabboo! says in the film, “Wigstock was revolutionary because it kickstarted the ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’”
Lady Bunny adds, “We were putting something special out there in New York because this was the time of AIDS.” The AIDS crisis and its impact on the LGBTQ community is given a respectful amount of acknowledgement in “Wig,” which includes some heartbreaking testimonials of people who have lost friends and loved ones to the deadly disease.
Hate crimes against drag queens and others in the LGBTQ community are also mentioned in “Wig.” Jeremy Extravagance talks about his longtime friendship with singer/drag queen Kevin Aviance, who was the survivor of a vicious beating in 2006, outside of a gay bar in Manhattan. Aviance, who is interviewed and has some of the movie’s best scenes, describes his attack as, “I never felt so much hate in my life from someone I never met.” He says of being a hate-crime survivor: “Drag is my silver lining.”
As one commentator puts it: “Drag is hyper-femininity in response to aggressive masculinity.” If that’s the case, then Wigstock is the ultimate on-stage clapback. The heart of the movie is still about the thrill and the spectacle of performing at Wigstock, with Lady Bunny as the event’s founding mother. Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry, a previous Wigstock performer, says cheekily of Lady Bunny: “The thing that annoys me about Bunny is that she flirts like crazy…and nothing happened [between us].”
If there’s any one person who’s portrayed as a chief villain in “Wig,” it’s Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City from 1993 to 2001. (He is not interviewed in the movie.) Giuliani’s crackdown of the city’s nightclubs resulted in numerous closures that directly affected gay nightlife and drag culture. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wigstock went out of business when Giuliani was in office.
The movie culminates with a dazzling array of footage from Wigstock’s spectacular comeback in 2018, including appearances from Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio, Aviance, Ladies of Lips, Amanda Lepore and Harris in full costume from his Tony-winning “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” drag role. If people still don’t understand what drag culture is about, one “Wig” commentator says it best in the movie: “Drag is about putting on the outside what you feel on the inside.”
Brick-and-mortar retail stores that sell music—just like video stores and places to develop film—are a dying breed that the Internet and other digital technology have been killing off since the mid-2000s. From 1995 to 2016, Other Music was an independent music store located in New York City’s East Village. The store had a reputation for being a place that championed obscure and non-mainstream music, but Other Music also carried releases from popular artists, with an emphasis on releases that might not be that easy to find. The documentary “Other Music” is a respectful, nostalgic history of the store, including a behind-the-scenes look at the final days before Other Music closed for good on June 25, 2016.
Other Music’s financial woes weren’t just caused by the Internet. Like many other independent retailers in high-priced urban cities, Other Music (which stayed in the same location throughout its 21-year run) couldn’t keep up with the rising rents in the area. But the store’s history is truly a reflection of what was going on in the music business at the time. Other Music was co-founded by Chris Vanderloo, Josh Madell and Jeff Gibson, at a time (the mid-‘90s) when alternative/indie rock was at the height of its commercial appeal. Vanderloo and Madell were former employees of Kim’s Underground Video, an independently run video store in New York City.
In the documentary, Vanderloo is described as the most customer-oriented; he was the Other Music owner who was most likely to be mingling with store customers. Madell was the managerial taskmaster, who was the most involved in employee hiring and training, as well as community outreach and setting up in-store performances. Gibson was the one who was the most enthusiastic about discovering new music—the more obscure, the better. In 2001, Gibson left Other Music and moved to Belgium, where his wife is from, and he declined to participate in the documentary.
The documentary mentions that, at first, many people thought it was crazy for Other Music to open directly across the street from the East Village location of Tower Records, the music-store behemoth that was considered one of the most powerful music retailers in the U.S. for decades. But it turns out that both stores had overlapping customers, and Tower Records’ foot traffic helped Other Music, which was a place to find releases that Tower Records might not have. Ironically, Other Music would outlast Tower Records (which closed all its U.S. operations in 2006), as well as other corporate music retailers that shut down in the U.S., such as Virgin Megastore and HMV. TransWorld-owned music retailers Musicland, Sam Goody, The Wherehouse and Camelot Music also went out of business years before Other Music did.
Other Music was the kind of store that strived to keep its anti-corporate image intact. The store’s labels and signs were hand-written. Most of the inventory was from independent record companies. The store prided itself on having employees who were extremely knowledgeable about non-mainstream music and weren’t shy about making recommendations to customers. But all of that led to Other Music having a “hipster snob” reputation that was a turnoff and intimidated some people, which the documentary rightfully acknowledges. A few of the employees interviewed also admit that they would be impatient and give attitude to customers if they thought the customers didn’t know much about music.
The film predictably includes a number of celebrities who mostly praise Other Music. Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore opens the movie with this glowing statement about Other Music: “Per square meter, it probably had more interest value than any other shop I’d ever been in, in the world.” Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro says that shopping at Other Music was “almost like a religious experience.” Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig, former Le Tigre member JD Sampson, and Animal Collective singer Avey Tare are among the other artists who share fond memories of Other Music.
A few celebrities, such as Jason Schwartzman and Regina Spektor, admit that although they were fans of Other Music, they often felt like their musical tastes were being judged by the staff. Spektor explains that she always had a feeling of “first-day-of-school nervousness” when she shopped at Other Music, because she didn’t want to feel embarrassed. The National lead singer Matt Berninger said that if people felt uncomfortable shopping at Other Music because of the “snob” factor, it was because Other Music “set the bar high” when it came to musical taste. “They should celebrate stuff that’s better-than-average.”
One of the best things about the Other Music documentary is that is gives a spotlight to some of the store’s unsung heroes. Even though Other Music carried a wide variety of music, it still had an image of being dominated by indie rock. It might come as a surprise to many people who see this film that Other Music’s staff was a lot more diverse than the stereotypical white male music nerd, even though the store’s owners/bosses and many of the employees fit that stereotype. There were plenty of female staffers there too (although they don’t get as much screen time in the movie as the male staffers) and some people of color (usually male) who worked at Other Music. Most of the employees describe themselves as music fanatics and misfits who wouldn’t do well if they had to work at a regular 9-to-5 office job. It’s mentioned in the documentary that it was hard to get a job at Other Music because the standards for music knowledge were high and the employee turnover was relatively low. Co-owner Madell said that if employees got fired, it was often because of chronic tardiness.
Many people in the documentary mention Duane Harriott (a black man) as Other Music’s best employee. Harriott, who worked at Other Music from 1997 to 2008, is interviewed in the film, and he says of Other Music: “It wasn’t just a record store. It was a community center.” He also says he was largely responsible for building Other Music’s hip-hop inventory “from scratch.” Harriott is praised by many people in the documentary for his encyclopedic music knowledge and his sales skills—he had a gift of gab with customers, and he loved to tell trivia factoids and stories about artists, which often resulted in people buying music that they originally didn’t intend to buy.
Many of the employees of Other Music were also musicians, and they were encouraged to promote their own music in the store. One former employee, an African American identified in the movie only as Beans, was notorious for relentlessly suggesting that customers buy his music. Beans, who’s interviewed in the movie, freely admits that he was one of those Other Music employees who would get impatient and give attitude to customers if he thought they seemed clueless. Even though he admits this flaw, he’s also clearly one of Other Music’s most loyal employees: He’s seen in the documentary being one of the last employees to stay behind to help clear out the store after it permanently closed.
The documentary also interviews Vanderloo’s wife Lydia and Madell’s wife Dawn, who are perhaps the biggest unsung heroes of Other Music. The wives reveal that because they had more stable incomes than their husbands, the wives kept the business afloat for years when Other Music was losing money. In other words, if Vanderloo and Madell hadn’t been married to people who could give them money to keep the business going, the store would have closed years before 2016. The wives say that they and their husbands kept the business going because they felt obligated to Other Music’s customers and employees. But when they were losing so much money that the business no longer became sustainable, it was time to shut it down for good.
From the beginning, Other Music had issues with being cash-strapped. As Josh Madell says in documentary, the store didn’t pay most of its employees in its early years (the staff knowingly signed up as volunteers), and not even Lydia and Dawn were exempt from working for free. The wives talk about how their pre-marriage dates with their future husbands involved meeting at the store and being unpaid employees. A “dinner date” would be often be ordering pizza while they worked for free at the store.
The documentary also mentions how Other Music was affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which caused most businesses located in downtown Manhattan to be temporarily closed or severely limited in the weeks and sometimes months after the tragedy. William Basinski’s “DLP1.1” composition (one of his “disintegration loop” instrumental recordings) became Other Music’s unofficial anthem in dealing with aftermath of 9/11, according to the documentary. Other Music co-owner Madell says that the store had its biggest sales in the year 2000, and things never really recovered after 2001.
When Napster and other controversial file-sharing services began to eat away at the music industry’s profits, Other Music responded by launching its own digital music store without digital-rights management, but that wasn’t until 2007, when music retail was already in a major downward spiral, and iTunes was already dominating the online music market. Things also got worse for Other Music when corporate stores such as Best Buy had lower prices for CDs than what Other Music’s wholesalers/distributors would charge. Other Music had its own e-newsletter, and when that also shut down, the owners heard that Lou Reed was despondent over it. Other Music also launched its own record label in 2012.
Financial woes aside, Other Music’s biggest legacy is that it was a home for independent artists, many of whom weren’t mainstream enough for commercial radio or corporate chain stores. The documentary includes footage of in-store performances of artists such as Ghost, St. Vincent and Conor Oberst. Former employee Harriott says his most memorable Other Music performance was by the mysterious and elusive singer/songwriter Gary Wilson, who arrived at the store with a blanket over his face. Before his performance, Wilson poured talcum powder over himself and then performed wearing 3-D glasses.
The documentary also notes that in the aftermath of 9/11, the music community in New York City became more vibrant. It was during this period of time that the New York City music scene had LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, Interpol, The National, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Other Music helped all of these acts before they broke through to larger audiences.
Although a few people (including Josh Madell) had tears in their eyes and understandably got emotional in the final days and hours before Other Music’s last day in business, the general feeling was one of positivity over all the great experiences they had because of Other Music. There’s plenty of nostalgia and wistfulness, because the closing of Other Music represents a bygone era when most people got their music by physically going to a store and combing through racks of vinyl records, cassettes or CDs. Many of the customers interviewed in the documentary talk about how they prefer the tangible feeling of holding albums in their hands, so that they can better appreciate the artwork or lyrics that came with the packaging.
People who’ve spent countless hours of their lives at a music store know that it’s become an increasingly rare experience to physically be at a store devoted to music where you can find those hidden gems or sought-out items to add to a collection. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly common for small, independent businesses such as Other Music to not be able to survive online competitors, technology’s effects or rising rent.
The documentary ends with the “Other Music Forever” farewell concert that took place at the Bowery Ballroom on June 28, 2016. The event, hosted by Janeane Garofalo, included performances by Yoko Ono, Sharon Van Etten, Bill Callahan, Yo La Tengo, OM, Julianna Barwick and Frankie Cosmos. People who didn’t attend the concert can see a few snippets in the movie, as well as how Other Music co-owner Madell had to practically beg a modest Vanderloo to come up on stage.
“Other Music” co-directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller do a fine job of telling Other Music’s story in a cohesive and entirely conventional manner. There’s some use of animation, which can be hit-or-miss in a documentary, but it works well-enough in this movie because the animation is used sparingly. And although there are some celebrities and other world travelers who no doubt got to experience Other Music firsthand, the movie might not be compelling enough to watch for the average person who’s never heard of Other Music or has never even been to New York City.
And here’s why the movie might have a challenge in finding an audience that’s larger than those who care about a music store in New York City: Unfortunately, there are any number of beloved, independently owned music stores around the world that have closed over the years. Each store had its own unique impact on its community. Other Music just happened to be in America’s largest-populated city, so it had a bigger profile than most indie record stores. The people who have the most emotional attachment to Other Music are those who had a great experience there and/or those whose careers were affected by Other Music—and that’s a very niche audience indeed.
That’s not to say that the “Other Music” documentary isn’t worth watching, and you don’t have to be a former customer or employee to enjoy the movie. But people who never went to Other Music might have a harder time relating to and engaging in the documentary’s sentimental nostalgia over the store. The “Other Music” documentary would make a great double feature with “All Things Must Pass,” director Colin Hanks’ excellent 2015 documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, because, at the very least, the “Other Music” documentary shows how a scrappy underdog outlasted a corporate giant.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has directed an eclectic array of documentaries, which feature his deliberate and thoughtful style of narration and on-camera interview techniques. “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” is probably one of Herzog’s most personal documentaries of his career because British writer/adventurer Bruce Chatwin, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 48, was one of Herzog’s good friends.
Before Chatwin died, he gave Herzog a rucksack that Chatwin had carried in his travels around the world. In the documentary, Herzog brings the rucksack and retraces a lot of Chatwin’s journeys to pay tribute to and get a better understanding of his late friend. The documentary includes voiceovers from Herzog and old recordings of Chatwin. Unlike most movies, which are divided into three acts, “Nomad” has eight chapters, all of which are titled in the film.
“Chapter One: The Skin of the Brontosaurus” has Herzog going to Patagonia, Chile, which was the subject of Chatwin’s 1977 travel book “In Patagonia.” He interviews Karin Eberhard, the great-granddaughter of 19th-century explorer Hermann Eberhard, who is credited with discovering the remains of a giant sloth. In this chapter of the documentary, Herzog goes to the Patagonia city of Punta Arenas, where he visits the Lord Lonsdale Shipwreck, as well as the grave for Charles Milward, the British consul who was a cousin of Chatwin’s grandmother Isobel. Milward reportedly gave a piece of giant sloth fur (which was sometimes mistaken for brontosaurus hide) to Isobel as a wedding gift. It was Chatwin’s dream to get a piece of a brontosaurus. In this chapter, Herzog also interviews Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.
“Chapter Two: Landscapes of the Soul” has Herzog traveling to Avebury, Wiltshire, in England, where there is a stone many people believe has mythical force and powers. Silbury Hill was Chatwin’s “pivot, his mythical place of origin,” according to Herzog, who includes footage of tourists wearing masks over their eyes for protection from these mysterious forces. There’s also footage of how the magnetic forces work with metal prongs. Herzog also travels to Llanthony Priory in Wales, the location of where Bruce courted his wife Elizabeth, who is interviewed in this chapter.
“Bruce Chatwin was searching for strangeness,” Herzog comments in the film. He also notes that Chatwin liked Herzog’s 1969 “Signs of Life” movie with the windmills scene that Chatwin called “dangerous landscape,” according to Herzog. The filmmaker also travels to Coober Pedy, Australia, where Chatwin and Herzog first met. “We were both fascinated by Aboriginal mythology,” Herzog remembers.
“Chapter Three: Songs and Songlines” explores indigenous sounds in Australia, particularly at the Strehlow Research Centre. People interviewed in this chapter include musician Glenn Morrison and Alyawerre experts Michael Liddle Pula, Marcus Wheeler and Shawn Angeles Penange. “Our songlines are our way of contributing to the health of this planet,” says one of the Alyawerre commentators.
“Chapter Four: The Nomadic Alternative” is named for an unpublished Chatwin manuscript. Herzog travels to Tierra del Feugo in Argentina, where photos of nomads fascinated Chatwin. There’s some great footage of hand imprints on overhanging rocks that were left more than 10,000 years ago, as well as some photos of nomads, such as those showing nomads with painted bodies and a naked man lying down.
“Chapter Five: Journey to the End of the World” finds Herzog in the remote La Isla Navariono in Chile.
“Chapter Six: Chatwin’s Rucksack” has Herzog back in Patagonia, where he carries the cherished rucksack and says that in his 1991 movie “Scream of Stone,” there’s a scene with someone with a rucksack, and that scene was a tribute to Chatwin.
“Chapter Seven: Cobra Verde” is a brief behind-the-scenes commentary on Herzog’s 1987 film “Cobra Verde,” which was based on “Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel “The Viceroy of Ouidah.”
“Chapter Eight: The Chapter Is Closed” circles back to Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, who candidly talks about their open marriage. She says that she didn’t care that her husband Bruce was bisexual, and that he often invited his lovers into their home. Herzog also reads from the notebook containing the last line that Chatwin ever wrote.
“Nomad” is certainly going to appeal to fans of Herzog and Chatwin, as well as people who have a general interest in world travels. This is a quintessential arthouse film, so anyone who isn’t inclined to watch an artsy documentary will find a lot of this movie too slow-moving and dull for their tastes. The cinematography (by Louis Caulfield and Mike Paterson) has many stunning moments, which is to be expected in a Herzog film.
Herzog’s dry wit is present in the movie, but the wistfulness and sadness that he feels over his dear friend’s death can also be felt in the documentary. Above all, Herzog respectfully pays tribute to Chatwin in “Nomad,” and offers unique glimpses into Chatwin’s personality and intellectual curiosity in this celebration of Chatwin’s adventurous and full life.
In the documentary “What Will Become of Us,” Frank Lowy, the billionaire founder of the Westfield corporation of shopping malls, has a dilemma: Should he sell his beloved business and go into retirement, or should he keep his business, which he plans to leave to his three sons? At first glance, this might seem like a movie about “rich people’s problems.” However, Lowy (who was born in 1930) has a much more emotionally riveting and fascinating story to tell in this film, which clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes.
Lowy, who was born in the country then known as Czechoslovakia, is not a spoiled heir who was handed his wealth by a privileged parent. He literally has a “rags to riches” story as a Jewish refugee of Nazis who invaded his country and tore his family apart. In “What Will Become of Us,” Lowy, accompanied by his biographer David Kushner, goes back to many of the sites from his childhood that still haunt him.
Growing up, Lowy was bullied and beaten up for being Jewish. His childhood experiences are still painful for him to remember, because he calls the country of his birth “a horrible place” with “sad memories.” From 1943 to 1945, Lowy and his family (his parents, his sister and his brother) lived in Budapest, Hungary. Lowy had a very close relationship with his father, who disappeared when Lowy was 14, during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Lowy says he still grieves for his father, and he is at his most tearful in the documentary when he talks about his father. Later on in the movie, Lowy finds out what finally happened to his long-lost father.
After fleeing Nazi-occupied Hungary, Lowy and his family went their separate ways. He lived in Palestine and Israel from 1946 to 1952. His sister married a lawyer in Australia, where his mother and brother eventually moved. Lowy later joined them in Australia in 1952, when he began his life as a business mogul in Sydney.
Lowy had humble beginnings in Australia, where he started off as a delivery boy. He saved up enough money to eventually buy a deli and a coffee shop, which he sold and used the money to buy real estate. His real-estate dealings evolved into the shopping-mall business that he is known for today. (In 1960, Lowy co-founded Westfield with John Saunders, who sold his interest in the company to Lowy years later.)
“What Will Become of Us” also delves into Lowy’s personal life. Married to his wife Shirley since 1964, Lowy describes their relationship as “love at first sight” for him when he met her at a Hanukkah party. He was 31, and she was 19 when they met, and they married 18 months later. It sounds like an ideal love story, but Shirley now has Alzheimer’s disease. As Frank describes it, “Physically, she’s there, but mentally she’s not.” She is interviewed in the movie, which shows some instances of her memory loss.
Frank also says that he’s been a hardcore workaholic for decades, so that might be why the documentary doesn’t really give much information about the relationships that he’s had with his three sons: Peter and Steven (the co-CEOs of Westfield) and David, a principal of the Lowy Family Group. All three sons are interviewed in the movie, but they don’t reveal anything about the family dynamics in running the business or how they deal with each other on a personal level. Although Frank is shown being a devoted husband tending to Shirley, one has to wonder how small of a fraction of time that is for him, compared to all the time he admits to spending on his business.
At the beginning of the movie, Frank says it’s “painful” for him to open up negotiations to sell Westfield. If you follow corporate business news, then you know what his decision was on whether or not to sell the company. “What Will Become of Us” isn’t really a window into how Westfield is run, but it’s a fairly effective attempt to make billionaire Frank Lowy look more human and emotionally vulnerable than the ruthless image that corporate moguls like him tend to have.
Traditional romantic comedies whose two central characters are a man and a woman typically follow this formula: “Boy meets girl. Boy and girl hook up/fall in love. Boy loses girl because of an argument, misunderstanding and/or fear of commitment—take your pick. Boy and girl make up and reunite in the end.” The couple in the story either can’t stand each other when they first meet, or they’re longtime friends who discover they have romantic feelings for one another.
Taking all of these clichés into account, “Plus One” is as predictable as they come for romantic-comedy plots. However, the entertaining dialogue and winning performances of the movie’s cast make the film an enjoyable and breezy ride. It’s also rare to see an American rom-com with an interracial storyline between a white man and an Asian woman. Their racial differences are mentioned for a few jokes in the movie, but it’s not a source of tension in the story, since all the main characters in this movie are accepting of people from different cultures.
In “Plus One”—the first feature film from writers/directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer—Jack Quaid is Ben King and Maya Erskine is Alice Mori, two friends who have known each other since their college days. Ben and Alice are in an age range (late 20s to early 30s), when many of their peers are getting married, but Ben and Alice are still struggling with finding their life partner. Ben is fairly choosy about what he wants, and most of his relationships end because his partner has a flaw that he can no longer tolerate. Alice is less judgmental about the people she dates, but she might be a borderline alcoholic, and her raunchy, no-filter personality screams “hot mess,” thereby driving away a lot of potential partners. She’s also still hurting from a recent breakup from ex-boyfriend Nate (played by Tim Chiou), who dumped her.
So what are two lovelorn singles to do when they’re invited to several weddings in one summer? They agree to be each other’s date (or “plus one”) to all of the weddings. One of the weddings happens to be that of Ben’s twice-divorced father Chuck (played by Ed Begley Jr.), who’s marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter, much to Ben’s disapproval. To make things even more awkward for Ben, his father asks Ben to be his best man.
The weddings take place in different parts of the world, so it’s unclear how Ben and Alice (who are working professionals) have been able to take all that time off from work to globetrot to all of these weddings. But those are the kind of details that romantic comedies such as “Plus One” aren’t really concerned about explaining. The main concern that these kinds of movies have is to get audiences to root for what we all know is going to happen.
The movie opens with Ben rehearsing his speech as a groom’s best man, so that Alice can critique the speech. Awkward wedding speeches are used as comedic devices throughout the entire film. At this particular wedding, Alice does what she does at pretty much all of the weddings in this movie: She gets drunk.
Since Alice has decided she’s going to be Ben’s “wing woman,” she tries to play matchmaker for him at the wedding receptions. However, Alice’s idea of introducing Ben to a woman is to shove him hard enough to fall down near the woman.
Ben is literally the straight man to wacky Alice, who’s a foul-mouthed, crude partier with immaturity issues. But there are hints that she’s attracted to him. When they have to share a hotel bed, due to a series of events that force them to take the only hotel room available to them, she wants to cuddle with Ben and tickle-scratch him, but he refuses.
Perhaps stung by the rejection, sharp-tongued Alice tries to convince others (and maybe herself) that Ben isn’t a suitable love partner. Some of the zingers that she puts out there include, “Ben doesn’t date people. He dates ideas.” Later, she tells Ben, “Someone as grotesquely tall and skinny as you doesn’t have the right to be picky.” Even with the sarcastic put-downs, Alice shows a vulnerable side to Ben, when she confesses that her long-married parents are miserable together, thus revealing her own issues with commitment.
When Ben finally meets Alice parents, we see a familiar pattern: Alice’s mother Angela (played by Rosalind Chao) is the tactless motormouth who pries into other people’s love lives (just like Alice), while Alice’s father Mitch (played by Tom Yi) is the calmer, more polite partner (just like Ben). People who know the rom-com formula can figure out what happens with Ben and Alice. Are Ben and Alice the type of people you would want to be friends with in real life? Alice’s drunken antics and rants would be embarrassing to any sane adult, but spending less than two hours with her and Ben on screen is amusing enough for some laughs and some sighs of relief that most wedding guests never act like Alice.
RLJE Films will release “Plus One” in select U.S. theaters on June 14, 2019.
Let’s get the inevitable comparison out of the way first: No, “Crown Vic” doesn’t come close to the quality of 2001’s “Training Day,” the Antoine Fuqua-directed drama about corrupt cops that earned Denzel Washington his second Academy Award. If the Oscar-caliber “Training Day” is like filet mignon, then “Crown Vic” is like a McDonald’s hamburger—cheaply made with a lot of questionable filler, but most people who end up consuming it know in advance that they’re getting lowbrow junk.
“Crown Vic” takes place entirely during a night of patrol duty for the cops who are the two central characters—cynical grouch Ray Mandel (played by Thomas Jane) and his younger rookie partner Nick Holland Jr. (played by Luke Kleintank)—while they tool around the streets of Los Angeles in a Ford Crown Victoria squad car. It’s the first night that Nick and Ray are working together, and the movie will be compared to “Training Day” because both movies take place in Los Angeles and are essentially about how an older LAPD cop shows his shocked younger partner how to be brutal and get away with crimes. The younger partner then must make a decision to stop the madness or go along with the corruption that his partner is teaching him. (In “Training Day,” Ethan Hawke played the rookie to Washington’s older criminal cop.)
During the course of Ray and Nick’s extremely eventful night, we see how they handle various criminal activities. Among the dangerous situations they find themselves in are finding a burning car with a person inside; getting involved in an armed robbery and murder; chasing after and arresting a thug who throws a brick at their car; surprising a prowler before he commits a burglary; intervening in a domestic-violence dispute; and hunting down the people who’ve kidnapped a 9-year-old girl who’s been missing for a month.
Ray (who does the driving, of course) is the type of character who might seem somewhat religious because has a St. Anthony medal (St. Anthony is the patron saint of finding lost people), but he has no problem committing police brutality and breaking other laws in full view of his partner. Nick is very by-the-book, and he brings some emotional baggage into the partnership: He’s living in the shadow of his father, a respected, high-ranking cop from the LAPD, but Nick is currently estranged from his father for reasons that aren’t made clear in the movie. Nick, who’s been married for two years, is expecting a baby girl with his pregnant wife, who checks in with him by phone every couple of hours as a good-luck ritual. Nick says of their marriage, “I worry about doing something so stupid, she’ll never want to see me again.”
During their ride together, Ray essentially admits that he’s married to his work and is perfectly okay with not having much of a personal life. He also makes some jaded, wise-cracking quips while on patrol duty. When he lights up a cigarette while driving in the car, and Nick declines to smoke, he tells Nick, “I don’t trust a man with no vices.”
Later, when Ray and Nick arrest a drunk woman with a gun in her car, she begins to have a temper tantrum in the back of the police car after she fails to sweet-talk her way out of the arrest. Ray’s response when she starts kicking and screaming: “Don’t underestimate over-privileged chicks from the Valley. It’s all that yoga. It keeps them in shape.”
It’s the case of the kidnapped 9-year-old girl that takes up a good deal of the story. The girl’s mother is a junkie whom Ray and Nick have met at a restaurant to get more information on the child’s disappearance. Because of the mother’s drug problem and because she didn’t report her missing child right away, Nick and Ray suspect that the child might have been sold by her mother into sex-trafficking.
In the type of unrealistic time frame that can happen in a movie, these two cops working together for the first time for only a few hours are close to solving the kidnapping case when they track down a suspect, who gets hit by a car driven by an undercover cop (played by Faron Salisbury), who’s tweaked out on meth. There’s some police brutality, cops pulling guns on each other, and one of the cops trying to commit suicide—all in this one scene. Then, as if to cram in more action, one of the cops is taken hostage toward the end of the film. Just a reminder: All of this is supposed to happen in one night.
But what really stretches the bounds of credibility is when Ray commits a serious, violent crime in plain view (with street lights on) in the middle of a residential street. He says his police recorder was busted as a way to explain why he won’t get caught, but the movie doesn’t take into account that a big city like Los Angeles has street cameras, not to mention the real probability that all the ruckus would be witnessed by people in the neighborhood who could use their phones to videorecord what’s happening. Even though “Crown Vic” is supposed to take place in the present day, it’s almost like the script (written by first-time feature director Joel Souza) was so influenced by cop movies from previous decades, like “Training Day” and “Colors,” that the screenplay is stuck in an unrealistic time warp when smartphones didn’t exist and street cameras weren’t as widespread as they are today.
“Crown Vic” is mindless B-movie pulp, through and through. To its credit, it doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else. “Crown Vic” star Jane has been making these kinds of movies for quite some time, so people who know his track record should know what they’re signing up for if they watch this film. It’s the kind of movie where Ray gives this speech to Nick to justify Ray’s law-breaking activities: “It’s us against them. You are the sheepdog. They are the sheep. People sleep peacefully at night because rough men do violence on their behalf.”
Screen Media Films will release “Crown Vic” on a date to be announced.