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Tribeca 2017 Reviews: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief

Tribeca 2017 Glimpse: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief

by HelenHighly

I am working on some of my typically long, in-depth essays about several of the films that are being screened at Tribeca Film Festival 2017, but I thought I’d post a short and sweet overview / glimpse that might be of use to people in New York who may actually be choosing which films to see. At the least, here’s a brief taste of mini reviews of several of this year’s flicks:

Favorites So Far:

A film still from CITY OF GHOSTS. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

City of Ghosts. “There is a death threat against me on a social media channel… that belongs to ISIS.” — spoken by the actual guy who is in this film even as he is still fearing for his life and mourning the murders of his forced-into-activism comrades. A feature documentary directed by Matthew Heineman. The fearless citizen-journalists of “Raqqua is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) risk their lives on a daily basis to document and expose the atrocities of the Islamic State in their home city of Raqqa, Syria.

I think this may be the best film of the festival. It features the actual young men in the middle of this story – no re-enactments. This is the real thing. It’s both a powerful story and a tremendously well-made film. It shows you first-hand how “whoever holds the camera is strongest,” and the real war against ISIS is being fought online. This is what a documentary should be – important and captivating and thought-provoking and shocking and inspiring. It will leave you breathless, and less horrified at how low humans can go than you are proud of how great humans can be in the face of adversity. There are many films coming out now from or about the Middle East, but City of Ghosts is a Must-See.

Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Jay (Evan Peters) waiting to interview a pirate in DABKA. Photographer: Jasyn Howes.

Dabka. A feature narrative, based on a true story, directed by Bryan Buckley. This tells the story of rookie journalist, Jay Bahadur (played beautifully by Evan Peters), who has an inspiring chance-encounter with his journalist idol (played by Al Pacino, in a smart performance that is a refreshing reminder of what an excellent actor he is). There are many reasons to admire this film, but one personal point of appreciation is the emphatic way that Al Pacino yells, “Fuck Harvard!” (just saying) Anyway: This young, crazy-ambitious wanna-be-journalist uproots his life and moves to Somalia looking for the story of a lifetime. Hooking up with a local fixer, he attempts to embed himself with the local Somali pirates, only to find himself quickly over his head. Yet his risk-taking adventure ultimately brought the world an unprecedented first-person account of the pirates of Somalia (that the major news outlets were literally afraid to cover) and influenced international politics with its genuine insight into real life in Somalia.

It’s the kind of film I love – about being a writer, and also about living a daring life. Plus, it reinforces the belief that I have long held – that people should not be judged by their governments, or by the radical extremists that terrorize them into submission (before going on to terrorize others).

Ittetsu Nemoto in Nagoya, Japan. Film still from THE DEPARTURE, directed by Lana Wilson, 2017. Photo credit: Emily Topper.

The Departure. A feature documentary directed by Lana Wilson. The film offers an intimate portrait of one quietly extraordinary man – a modern-day Buddhist priest renowned for counseling and saving the lives of suicidal people. But this priest, suffering from heart disease and supporting his wife and young son, risks his life carrying the heavy emotional load needed to support those who no longer want to live. Not the least bit maudlin or depressing, this film poetically explores what it means to be human and to be alive. One of my favorite lines from the film: When confronted with a woman who feels her life has no meaning, he says “Does a river have a meaning?”

These You Can Skip:

Dog Years, with Burt Reynolds, playing an aging movie star unable to accept his increasing irrelevance, who is forced to confront… blah blah blah. The only thing interesting about this movie is that Burt Reynolds is “playing” a role and pretending to be someone other than himself. Otherwise, painfully cliched and horrifically adorable. Dear Burt: Two words – Sunset Boulevard. Unless you can deliver a dead guy floating in a swimming pool (rather than a chubby, tattooed hipster chick who needs boyfriend advice more than Gloria Swanson needs her close-up) … give us a break.

Take Me and Hounds of Love. See my other article about two films-to-miss that feature blondes bound in basements.

Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) and Ariel Winter (Lil) share a moment at McDougal’s Pub in DOG YEARS. Photo by Bob Franklin.

Sweet Virgina, a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be thriller, with just-plain-bad lighting and a lethargic pace, that has not-even-close-to-Tarantino blood-soaked violence that is too boring to even be gruesome. Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. And… do I really need to say more about beautiful blondes (not yet bound in basement, but certainly at risk)? I will say that the one bit I enjoyed is the Lyle-Lovett-ish ugly/sexy rodeo-rider history of the male hero. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

Super Dark Times: No

More Quick Yeses:

Aardvark: Yes

The Dinner: Yes (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

When God Sleeps: Yes

AlphaGO: Yes

Chuck: Surprisingly, yes!

Buster’s Mal Heart: Oddly, yes.

A Gray State: A deeply, darkly, disturbing YES. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

Clive Davis: Soundtrack of Our Lives

“Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives” – That’s Entertainment!

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives — That’s Entertainment!

The opening night film at Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, directed by Chris Perkel – in his directorial debut. The new film premiered at Madison Square Garden, followed by a live performance by several of the musical greats featured in the film – Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, Earth Wind & Fire, Barry Manilow, Carly Simon, and Dionne Warwick. Quite a splashy opening for “downtown” Tribeca. First question is always: Why is this the opening night film and is it justified? I have previously found fault with such choices, because they are often made with profit-making motives taking precedence over artistic merit or relevance of subject, but in this case, I am surprised to report: Yes, this was a good choice, and worthy.

A young Clive Davis

Helen Highly recommends this film despite some red-flag causes for concern. First, the film, named Soundtrack of Our Lives is based on the Clive Davis autobiography titled Soundtrack of My Life. When a documentary biopic is essentially written by the subject, one does not expect much serious investigative journalism, and honestly, we do not receive much (or any) investigative reporting, nor shocking revelations or even new insights. Not even any fresh, gossipy tales. But I will concede that just because there is no groundbreaking news in this film… well, sometimes really good entertainment is more the right answer than “real art.”

“He discovered Earth Wind & Fire – not the band, the elements.” – Bill Maher

I might snidely refer to this as a “fan film,” with nothing but laudatory gushing, and no teeth, but what stops me is the immensely true statement in the press release, calling this movie “ceaselessly entertaining;” this is truly a joy to watch. And what becomes interesting is that the biggest fan in this film is the protagonist himself; he became the all-time greatest music man by being one of the all-time great fans of his musical clients. This is a story of a truly legendary man with “golden ears,” who touched nearly every stage in the history of modern American music, in a story that largely takes place in New York City, which is important in qualifying the film as appropriate for opening the Tribeca festival, which is quintessentially a New York institution. Clive Davis’ Arista Records was the center of New York life at a critical time in the development of the city and its artists. At one point in his career, Clive was being pushed out of Arista – the company he created and built, and in this movie, we hear Carly Simon speak about that, saying:

 “Taking Clive Davis out of Arista is like taking Manhattan out of New York.”

Hell, even one of the most tough-minded and beloved New Yorkers, the profound, “punk poet laureate” and truth-speaking goddess of rock, who penned the anthem “People Have the Power,” Patti Smith, is in this movie, expressing admiration and gratitude to Clive Davis. And we get to hear her sing, “Because the Night.” Right there – that’s worth the price of admission.

Patti Smith
Patti Smith

And here is the bottom line: MUSIC! Lots and lots of lots of fascinating and spectacular and wondrous and truly historical and genuinely joyous musical footage by seemingly all of America’s greatest musicians and singers. And really, who needs to know if Clive Davis had any seedy sexual or even business encounters in his career? Who needs an understory to be dug up? This is more than a tribute film; this is a Legacy Movie. And Man, this man has created a legacy to define the word legacy.

Clive Davis and Janis Joplin
Clive Davis and Janis Joplin

The first shot in the movie is of Janis Joplin singing. That surprised me! I really had no idea that it was Clive Davis who “discovered” Janis Joplin. In fact, last year I wrote rather in-depth commentary about a documentary about Joplin, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, which Helen still Highly recommends, and that film talks about how Janis joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, and when she played with them at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her rendition of “Ball and Chain” made her an instant sensation (and in my words, “blew the collective minds of the audience.”) But that movie did not mention that Clive Davis, the newly-named head of Columbia Records – a lawyer (from NYU) who essentially came out of nowhere, with no musical background, to be handed that title, was in the audience (wearing white pants and a tennis sweater, if anyone doubts his good-boy, straight-guy image), and he signed Janis to a contract the next day – Clive’s first artist.

In this movie, unlike in the Janis doc, we actually get to hear Joplin sing that all-time-great rendition of “Ball and Chain,” as well as “Piece of My Heart.” In this film, Clive describes how “she was hypnotic,” and “I felt my arms tingle,” and most importantly, how he recognized Joplin – and rock ‘n roll – as a musical revolution – far ahead of some important others who wrongly predicted that rock ‘n roll would be a short-lived trend and who were still focusing their attention (and backing) on traditional, middle-of-the-road music.

Clive Davis and Whitney Houston
Clive Davis and Whitney Houston

The movie ends with the death of Whitney Houston, who we all know was “almost like a daughter” to Clive. We get to read a heartbreaking letter he wrote to Whitney, trying to persuade her to get help for her addictions. And we also get to see Clive first introducing Whitney on The Merv Griffin Show, when she was a mere child. The rise and fall of Whitney Houston to some extent serves as the arc of the story of the film, and it adds some needed gravitas. I thought they handled her story with appropriate sensitivity and yet didn’t get too bogged down in it.

Clive Davis and Bruce Springsteen
Clive Davis and Bruce Springsteen

But, sentimentality aside, the true story of Clive Davis’ life is the story of five decades of American music – from the 60’s to hip-hop. The list is crazy-long – not just stunning for whose career was touched (and made, or re-made) by Clive Davis, but for who the filmmakers got to appear in this movie and what musical footage they were able to include. The list starts with Janis Joplin and includes Simon and Garfunkel, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Santana, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Kinks, Barry Manilow, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Brooks & Dunn, Bob Dylan, Chicago, Carly Simon, Whitney Houston (of course), The Thompson Twins, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and even the Grateful Dead. Yup, Clive was determined to be the guy who would finally bring some commercial success to this cult-band. And he did. And there is Bob Weir (!) talking about it.

The Grateful Dead, 1970
The Grateful Dead, 1970

And then there is Barry Manilow. Who knew Barry Manilow was ever sexy or seemed hot? Well, apparently, he was, in the old days – after Clive found him and persuaded him to sing some songs he didn’t write himself so that he could make some hits. There is a clip of Barry Manilow singing “I Can’t Smile Without You,” and watching it, I myself could not stop smiling.

Barry Manilow
Barry Manilow

There is also an amusing clip of Bill Maher, who says of Clive, “He discovered Earth Wind & Fire – not the band, the elements.” Ha! And what is so much fun about this movie is that there is a film clip of almost everyone who was anyone, including some real gems of little-seen musical footage. They pulled together an impressive list of Who’s Who to do interviews for the documentary, but they smartly chose to cut those interviews into short quotes, squeezed in between a relentless songbook of great music. So, while there is actually no “story” per se, the movie is fast-paced and bright and uplifting – all about the tremendous potential and love and enthusiasm that Clive Davis saw and recognized and felt and brought to the world.

At one point, Simon Cowell, a star-maker in his own right, says, “Deep down we all wanted to be Clive Davis – to turn a singer into a superstar.” Clive could miraculously pick the truly special songs and singers, and he could turn them into chart-topping hits and all-time-greats. With his renowned passion and perfectionism, and a modest amount of magic, Clive served as a conduit between us and the talents of artists that even they had not recognized. Tired of Donald Trump depression? Go see this joyful film! It will renew your faith in humanity.


News: There is so much great music in this film, it’s no surprise that Apple has purchased the Clive Davis Documentary Soundtrack of Our Lives

Take Me

“Take Me” and “Hounds of Love” Film Reviews: Blondes-Bound-in-Basement Movies

Take Me and Hounds of Love:
Blondes-Bound-in-Basement Movies

by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly
Take Me
Blonde Bound in Basement, in Take Me

There are two films I’ve seen so far at TribecaFilm Festival 2017 that have very significant similarities – they both center around a pretty blonde woman getting kidnapped, tied up, stuffed into someone’s basement, and abused. Both are also directorial debuts, btw. One is called Hounds of Love, an Australian drama written and directed by Ben Young. The other is called Take Me, an American film written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Pat Healy (who also plays the leading role). That movie lets the audience figure out if it is a crime thriller or a slapstick farce.

Sorry, but I walked out on Hounds of Love after the first scene (blonde bound in basement), thinking I could just as easily go home and watch an episode of Law & Order SVU (which I loathe). It started with some nubile young women playing tennis at an outdoor tennis court, with a couple parked in a car nearby lasciviously watching, while creepy music played.  Couple offers naive girl a ride home on such a hot day, which she hesitantly accepts, and cut to terrified and brutalized blonde bound in basement.  That’s where I cut out. Okay, so that’s a totally biased non-review based on only one scene. But… go watch it at your peril.  Variety insists that “brave audiences will be rewarded,” although I also see the word “harrowing” in the first paragraph, along with “serial killer.” Apologies again, but I cannot even bear to read the full review.

From Hounds of Love: She looked better in her tennis outfit.

But I will write a review of the other blonde-bound-in-basement film, Take Me. I will start by saying that I’ve always hated stories (usually comedies) that are based entirely on one simple misunderstanding or single sentence that goes unsaid. All the ensuing anguish and supposed hilarity is based on someone not saying or doing the obvious thing at the obvious time. Usually this takes the form of overstretched “irony” – when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. And then we must wait and watch as they stumble around and figure out what they really should have known from the start.

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Well, Take Me manages to do the same annoying thing, but with suspense instead of irony – leaving the audience waiting to find out something that, in the end, we realize was something that never would have happened, even in the “comical” world that the movie is presenting. Helen Highly objects to this type of cheap trick. If you’re going to withhold information in order to create suspense, then it should be something of substance, or at least something that makes sense.

And SPOLIER ALERT: There is no such thing as a spoiler alert when the story is already rotten. But still, I will not tell how the movie ends. I will only tell where it falls apart (which is pretty much at the start).

So, I’m going to say the magic words that would have made this story impossible, and as a result rendered this awkward and distasteful tale completely impotent. We know everything we need to know from the first scene, and if the writer/director would have used the least amount of common sense in allowing that scene (and its related ones) to play out as they reasonably would have, these two words would have spared us all from a frustrating and grossly unpleasant 84 minutes. Are you ready?

Here are the unspoken and unwritten words: Notarized Signature.

The first scene takes place in a bank, where Ray Moody (Pat Healy) is trying to get a business loan for his “wacky” (hideous) business of abduction-for-hire. Yes, he kidnaps people upon their request for therapy and/or amusement – whatever the customer wants. For example, we later see Ray brutally kidnap a fat guy, tie him up and berate him as Ray force feeds the willing abductee twelve giant sloppy cheeseburgers. This is a “therapy” scenario where, in theory, the horror and disgust of the experience will scare the fat guy thin and make him never want to eat a juicy cheeseburger again.

But back to the very first scene – the bank scene. The very reasonable and not-at-all slapstick loan officer conducts a logical interview with Ray Moody, including asking about a lawsuit against him in another state in which there was some terrible misunderstanding between Ray and one of his kidnapped clients. Ray assures her that his business practices are now entirely professional, fully legal,  and carefully regulated, and that would never happen again.

Cut to his new client who wants Ray to break protocol and kidnap and then physically hurt her – just for fun, we guess. She wants to be slapped. (Aaaah, I guess that then qualifies this movie as slapstick comedy?) Ray objects, because that could be misconstrued as illegal. He insists, with a false sense of integrity, that he does not do physical harm (only psychological torture). But she entices him by offering him lots of money, which we know he needs because he did not get the bank loan. Thus, Ray reluctantly agrees to kidnap and hold this woman for nine times longer than his normal limit (3 days vs 8 hrs) and to hurt her physically (very dangerous territory). One would assume — having just watched that bank scene — that Ray would prepare with not only due-diligence but extreme-diligence in vetting this client, protecting himself, and keeping everything lawsuit-free.

And yet…. the big point of suspense that drives this entire movie is whether or not this woman (Taylor Schilling) truly wanted to be kidnapped and slapped around or if she and Ray have been tricked, which would make her a true victim and him a true criminal. Is she brilliantly playing her designated part when she begs for mercy and insists that she never invited this incident? Or is she sincere when she pleads with Ray to investigate the supposed client, which she swears is not her? Ray calls her phone number, but it’s been disconnected. Uh-oh. Ray shows her the contract that she signed and faxed to him. She responds by writing out her true signature, which looks nothing like the signature on the contract. Oops! Has Ray been punked? Or is she a mastermind wanna-be victim?

Take Me: Is he an idiot or an idiot?
Take Me: Is he an idiot or an idiot?

Well… honestly, this film was so unfunny and uninteresting that I couldn’t care less. But still… how could I not think to myself that this whole quandary would never have existed if Ray had only asked for a notarized signature on his contract?  Then he’d know for sure who was hiring him. And, after all, his practices had been challenged before, and he had learned his lesson and assured the bank’s loan officer that now he took every precaution — every precaution except the most obvious and simple one, apparently. Sigh.emojiSigh

Ray is hapless but not stupid. (We know he is hapless because he wears a bad wig with no embarrassment. Just one example of how painfully not funny this movie is.) But he clearly is educated and comes from a good family with a lovely suburban house. He puts an awful lot of effort and apparent expertise into executing his kidnappings (and has even done psychological research), as well as advertising them on his own self-designed website, and in his attempted funding of his business, which included an oddly practical and professional presentation at the bank.

Why wouldn’t he put the bare minimum of effort into the “paperwork” of this especially risky and lucrative project? It’s the internet age. He doesn’t do a background check on his kidnapping client? But forget that; why wouldn’t he at least get an assurance of a legitimate siemojiArghgnature from his client on the contract that would be the one thing that defines him as a businessman and not a violent criminal? The supposed “comedy” of this movie is that he is actually a businessman who only seems like a criminal. And no, that’s not a spoiler; that’s the premise. So… he should do business like a businessman! Get a friggin authorized signature on your contract for your authorized kidnapping!

Here is my point: Ray would know to get a notarized signature. He definitely would know that. I can only assume that it’s the young and inexperienced writer of this movie, Mike Makowsky, who does not know about such things, and he lets his ignorance be the vehicle for driving this movie. Not good.

I could easily object to the offensive nature of the subject matter of this movie. But I’m not even gonna go there, because first it needs to be a movie, and it’s not. Helen Highly takes offense at the faulty execution of a self-proclaimed thriller that does not understand how suspense should operate.

But, if you doubt me… you go ahead and watch this movie to find out iemojiNof this blonde chick really wanted to be tortured or if someone else wanted to have her tortured. The press release asks the audience to wonder: Is this a crime thriller or a slapstick comedy? Helen Highly declares it is neither; it is just a waste of time (and a poor excuse for having a beautiful blonde bound in the basement).

Follow-Up Advice:

  • When making important contracts with strangers, always have the signature notarized.
  • Just on general principle, stay away from films that center around some pretty blonde woman being beat up.
  • And please please you film PR companies: Stop calling every would-be psycho-thriller “Hitchcockian.” Just casting a blonde lead does not make a director Hitchcock. And using cheesy, weak “suspense” also does not make a director Hitchcock. Have a little respect.