|Films I Neglected To Review: On The Road Again
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "7500," "Miss Juneteenth," "Roger Waters Us + Them" and "The Short History of the Long Road."
Chicago's Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are continuing their virtual cinema partnerships with independent film distributors to bring the movies that they normally would have been screening into homes via streaming arrangements and collect a portion of the proceeds as a way of helping to keep them in business during these trying times. At the Music Box, the new offerings include "Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy," a documentary on the life and work of the celebrated Juilliard acting teacher featuring testimonials from such students as Viola Davis, Patti LuPone and Jessica Chastain. "Picture of His Life" follows famed wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum as he attempts to fulfill his greatest professional dream--photographing a polar bear underwater while actually swimming alongside it. To commemorate Pride Month, they are also making available "Proud," an acclaimed three-part 2018 French miniseries following the lives of three men from the same family with each story taking place during a key moment in the history of gay rights in France. At the Siskel Center, the new films are led by a 4K restoration of "The Killing Floor," Bill Duke's powerful 1984 drama, originally produced for PBS, about a man (Damien Leake) who leaves his Mississippi home in 1917 for a better life in Chicago, only to become involved in the racial and labor struggles that would eventually explode into a massive real-life race riot that engulfed the city in 1919. "The Girl with a Bracelet" is a French courtroom drama focused on a seemingly ordinary 16-year-old girl on trial for allegedly stabbing a friend to death on the morning after a sleepover, a case that soon becomes a virtual referendum on the beliefs and behaviors of her entire generation. Jeremy Hersh's "The Surrogate" is an intimate drama about a woman (Jasmie Batchelor) who agrees to become a surrogate mother for her best friend (Chris Perfetti) and his husband (Sullivan Jones), an arrangement that becomes far more complicated after they receive the results of a key prenatal test. They are also now showing "Mr. Topaze," Peter Sellers' long-unavailable directorial debut, an adaptation of the Marcel Pagnol play about a scrupulously honest men who discovers the allure of the money, power and influence that he can acquired if he can learn to set those pesky ideals aside. Finally, there is "You Don’t Nomi," an intriguing though sometimes shallow documentary that attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Paul Verhoeven’s long-vilified 1995 epic "Showgirls."
To order the Music Box titles, go to musicboxtheatre.com For the offerings from the Siskel Center, go to siskelfilmcenter.org/filmcenterfromyoursofa
"7500" is a movie that cobbles together two reliable cinematic subgenres--the disaster film and the gimmick film--and adds in a healthy dose of pretension (including kicking things off with a Gandhi quote) in the hopes of distracting viewers from how hollow and reductive the whole thing ultimately proves to be. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias, an American commercial airline pilot based in Germany who is serving as co-pilot on a trip from Berlin to Paris that undergoes a hijacking attempt by three Muslim men (Omid Memar, Passar Hariky and Murathan Muslu) shortly after takeoff. While Tobias and the pilot (Carlo Kitzlinger) are able to keep the attackers from getting access to the cockpit, both are wounded in the process-Tobias moderately and the captain severely. As Tobias prepares to make an emergency landing, the terrorists begin threatening to kill the passengers one by one unless he lets them into the cockpit. Obviously this is a no-no but things are a little more complicated because one of the flight attendants is Gokce (Aylin Tezel), who is not only of the same Turkish-German extraction as the hijackers but is also Tobias's lover and the mother of their young son. When it becomes obvious that one of the terrorists is perhaps not 100% with the program or its planned outcome, Tobias tries to use that reticence to help him get the plane and the passengers down safely.
Obviously, setting a film almost entirely inside an airplane (save for some security camera footage in the opening moments) makes for a claustrophobic moviegoing experience and co-writer/director Patrick Vollrath amps that feeling up considerably by limiting all of the on-screen action to the even smaller confines of the cockpit. This is the kind of self-conscious stunt that Alfred Hitchcock or Larry Cohen might have pulled off in their sleep and taken on a purely technical level, Vollrath does a good job of keeping things interesting on a visual level despite the limited locale and clearly knows how to milk the material for maximum suspense to the point where just the briefest ruffle of a partition curtain is enough to make one sit up and prepare for the worst. The trouble is that beyond that conceit, "7500" does not really have a lot to offer. The screenplay is surprisingly thin, filled with cheap ploys and contrivances (including people getting knocked unconscious and waking up at exactly the moment that the plot requires it and while I would not go so far as to label the film as being overtly anti-Muslim, putting all of the focus on Tobias cannot help but make those characters come across as one-dimensional monsters by comparison. The film has its moments (especially for those who already have an aversion to flying) and shows that newcomer Vollrath can indeed direct a thriller. Hopefully with his next outing, he can show us that he can make a more satisfying one.
"Miss Juneteenth" is a film that does such a good job of convincingly establishing both the environment and the central characters of the story it is telling that it is slightly disappointing that debuting writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples is unable to do the same for everything else. Set in a lower-middle-class area of Fort Worth, the film centers around Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a woman who won the town’s Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant back in 2004 but was unable to take full advantage of her crowning (including full ride to a HBCU school) after getting pregnant. Still stuck in her hometown, she works two jobs (at a local BBQ joint and doing the makeup for corpses at a funeral home) and scrimping every dollar in order to save up enough to put her own 15-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) into the pageant in the hopes that she can win and have a chance at the life that was denied to Turquoise. The one key hurdle to all of this is the fact that Kai could not care less about the pageant--she has no interest in learning all the rituals that are part of the program (at one point, she faces humiliation for not knowing the difference between her salad knife and her dinner knife) and would much rather spend her time with her new boyfriend (Jaime Matthis) or joining up with her school's competitive dance team, notions that only serve to upset her mother. As the pageant draws closer, Turquoise struggles to keep her dream of Kai taking the stage alive while at the same time managing to keep her head above water in a time where the finances are so shaky that the slightest hiccup can have catastrophic results.
The film does an excellent job of presenting its surroundings in a manner that is so richly detailed that it almost takes on a documentary-like flavor at times--the depiction of small-town life as seen here is as convincing as any that I have seen in a film of late. Peoples also gets strong and sure performances from Beharie and Chikaeze as the mother and daughter at the center of the story--they also create an uncommonly convincing mother-daughter dynamic--occasionally fraught but always loving--and when they are on the screen together, you cannot take your eyes off of them. The problem is that while Peoples proves to be uncommonly gifted in setting up her main characters and environment (the barbecue place alone could be the basis for its own movie), she is less sure with other aspects. Some of the supporting characters--particularly Turquoise's troubled religious fanatic mother (Lori Hayes), Kai's unreliable father (Kendrick Sampson) and the shy funeral parlor director (Akron Watson) who has been crushing on Turquoise since they were kids--come across as little more than a collection of cliches, especially in comparison to the undeniable authenticity of Turquoise and Kai. The film also has some unfortunate pacing problems--there are points in the middle section where it becomes a little too laid-back for its own good--and throws in some dramatic plot points but doesn’t do much of anything with them after they are introduced. Still, the performances from Beharie and Chikaeze are solid enough to make "Miss Juneteenth" worth checking out and shows Peoples to be a promising new filmmaking voice worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Still ambitious and controversial after all these years, "Roger Waters Us + Them" finds the former front man from the legendary rock band Pink Floyd presenting a massive multi-media spectacle fusing together music from his considerable back catalogue, both from his Floyd period and his equally sprawling and inventive solo material, with an astonishing array of spectacular visual effects in a concert film culled from footage shot over three nights of his hugely successful "Us + Them" tour in 2018. Of course, with the combination of Waters’ not-exactly-lilting singing voice and dense material dealing with, among other things, the horrors of war, mindless greed, angst, depression, the Palestine-Israel conflict and Donald Trump, two straight hours of his music may prove to be too much for viewers who are not already devotees of his work. His vast legion of fans will, of course, eat it up, though the more objective ones may find it to be a bit uneven in certain respects. Seen live, the show was a genuine spectacle featuring everything from the return of the inflatable pig from "Animals" to a massive metal grid sporting 16 moving LED screen displaying visuals meant to underscore the lyrical content. Although cinematographer Brett Turnbull does a solid job of recording the shows and capturing as much of the sensory overload as possible, he never quite manages to convey the sheer size of the scale of the live experience for the home audience. Waters and co-director Sean Evans also have an odd tendency to cut exclusively to young people in the audience as they cheer and sing along with the songs--the idea is to presumably illustrate how the messages of Waters' music continues to resonate with successive generations of fans but after a while, it begins to look a little silly. On the other hand, the music is fantastic and it is interesting to note just how easily more current material like the selections from his 2017 album "Is This the Life We Really Wanted?" meshes, both musically and tonally, with the Floyd classics without coming across like mere retreads. Waters is also one of the rare so-called dinosaur acts who is willing to take potentially risky positions and present challenging music instead of just offering up the hits--in the most stirring and cohesive segment, the new "Picture That" is followed by the classics "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" and "Money" come together to offer a scathing mini-indictment of Trump and the mindset that helped bring someone like him to power. "Roger Waters Us + Them" may ultimately be nothing more than a concert film designed to appeal to fans rather than something that tries to bring new people into the fold. As such things go, however, it is an undeniably well-produced example that will presumably blow the minds--not to mention eardrums, depending on the volume level deployed--of those who watch it.
In the indie drama "The Short History of the Long Road," former Disney Channel star Sabrina Carpenter stars as Nola, a teenager who has spent her entire life living a nomadic existence on the road with her iconoclast father Clint (Steven Ogg)--they drive around in an RV that has clearly seen better decades, earn a few bucks here and there doing odd jobs and squat in foreclosed houses when they can. With her mother long out of the picture (as Clint puts it, "she zigged and we zagged"), Clint is literally the only constant in Nola's life and even though she clearly loves him and has grown accustomed to her unusual lifestyle, you can tell by looking at her that she is beginning to sense that there is something else out there for her and that some kind of confrontation between the two is imminent. From this very basic description, you can probably make an educated guess as to where things are headed next. I know I did when I first sat down to watch it and found myself pleasantly surprised to discover that writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy elected to flip the script by throwing in a major curveball surprisingly early in the proceedings that sent both Nola and the narrative in an unexpected new direction. Some of the early moments in this coming-of-age story are a bit rough but Simon-Kennedy grows in confidence as a filmmaker as things progress--she admirably goes for a more realistic and low-key tone over the soap opera histrionics that the material might have devolved into in less confident hands. She also gets excellent performances from Carpenter and a strong supporting cast that also includes Maggie Siff as Nola’s long-lost mother and the great Danny Trejo, who is very good in a rare non-menacing turn as a body shop owner who winds up taking Nola under his wing. It may not seem like much at first glance but "The Short History of the Long Road" proves to be a journey that is definitely worth taking.
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originally posted: 06/18/20 13:24:33
last updated: 06/18/20 14:09:05