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Kings

Released on the 25th anniversary year of of the L.A. Riots, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings explores the dynamics of this turbulent time in US history. Ergüven, born in Turkey but raised in France, was deeply affected by the 2005 French Riots. In an interview at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where Kings had its world premiere, Ergüven said that as a Turkish woman in France she could relate to the feelings of being an outsider, a minority. In 2005 she could sense that “a big societal issue was coming to the surface.” This began her fascination with riots and the desire to make a film about them. Her research led her to the L.A. Riots of the early 1990s. Ergüven began working on a script for what was supposed to be her feature film debut. Finished in 2011, she wasn’t able to get it financed. A friend suggested she make another film in the interim which led Ergüven to make Mustang, released in 2015. That film served as a platform to get Ergüven’s script attention and funding. 11 years in the making, Kings was finally born.

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Kings follows the story of Millie Dunbar (Halle Berry), a single woman and foster mom who takes the impossible task of raising eight children on her own. The oldest, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), is quiet and observant. He tries to make sense of the racial tensions in his neighborhood and develops an attraction to his fiesty and outspoken classmate Nicole (Rachel Hilson). When Millie brings home an abandoned teen, William (Kaalan Rashad Walker), the family dynamic shifts as William lashes out at authority and introduces the younger kids to shoplifting. He also develops a romance with Nicole that both angers and confuses Jesse. The family’s next door neighbor, Obie (Daniel Craig), is an eccentric writer who lives in relative seclusion. Obie and Millie frequently butt heads. When the Rodney King trail verdict angers the neighborhood setting off a riot, Obie, Millie and her family are embroiled in a fight for their lives.

Ergüven stays true to the era by weaving archival footage of news coverage throughout the film. There is a reenactment of the Latasha Harlins murder as well of footage of Soon Ja Du’s trial and eventual release. There is also plenty of footage of the Rodney King beatings and his trial. These are the two inciting incidents that set off the riots. The film really captures the paranoia, the tension and the desperation of a very volatile time. We sense the anger of the African-American community, the paranoia of the police force and the confusion of the young ones who are not capable of understanding where they fit in all of this. Something Ergüven does really well is she includes moments in which the characters experience joy. I was particularly taken with one scene in three of Millie’s foster kids are joined by other kids with the intent of burning down the local Burger King. An employee comes out and begs them to reconsider. Other employees come out and bring free milkshakes and fries for the kids to enjoy. Instead of burning down the establishment, the kids instead go elsewhere and throw their fire sticks over a bridge. This is not something a lot of movies do. Finding even a single moment of happiness during time of turmoil is the only thing that can keep us sane and help us move forward.

Where Kings excels in capturing the unrest of a particular time in history, it fails in character development. I didn’t get to know Millie, Obie or any of the other characters. The romance between Millie and Obie felt a bit forced to me. Two people who hate each other yet come together during a difficult time is a storyline that could work but doesn’t here. There was also a bizarre sex/dream sequence that felt out of place, unnecessary and briefly took me out of the movie. I wanted to know why Millie had all these foster kids and why Obie was so eccentric. And I wanted to know more about the trio of teenagers William, Nicole and Jesse. The actors all delivered fine performances but they couldn’t overcome what was lacking in the story. It felt like the riots overshadowed any potential this film had to be a good character study.

Kings is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download and will release on demand 7/31.

Official website

Ferrari: Race to Immortality Poster

Ferrari: Race to Immortality

“It was an era of great glamour and great risk.”

In the 1950s, races like Le Mans and Grand Prix thrilled spectators and made racers celebrities. It was an exciting and scary time in the history of auto racing. This was a gentleman’s sport with much respect for the car and adoration for its driver. A first place win guaranteed immortality. During this time the sport wasn’t quite new but was still suffering from growing pains. Technological advancements ensured faster and more efficient vehicles and racers were beating speed records left and right. However the sport was still incredibly dangerous. From 1950 to 1959, 39 drivers were killed on the racetrack, an alarmingly high mortality rate.

Was the risk worth the glory? Enzo Ferrari thought so.

 

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In a new documentary by director Daryl Goodrich, Ferrari: Race to Immortality explores the pivotal years of 1955-1958, when Ferrari’s Formula One team was celebrated as one of the most successful teams in racing history.  Told through stunning archival footage and audio and interviews with historians, biographers, former racers and those closest to the drivers, we learn about these drivers who lived for the thrill even when death stared them right in the face. Key figures in the documentary include:

Mike Hawthorn
Peter Collins
Luigi Musso
Eugenio Castelotti
Marquis Alonso de Portago
Juan Manuel Fangio

 

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“These guys are warriors.”

The film also offers background on the figure behind the team and the brand, Enzo Ferrari. He had a very complicated relationship with his business and his drivers. Driven by unwavering ambition, he worked tirelessly to bring prestige to his brand Ferrari. It paid off because Ferrari is still known as one of the most important luxury car brands in the world. He felt little emotion for this team members, with the exception of Peter Collins who had a bond with Enzo’s terminally ill son.

A key takeaway from the documentary is how death was perceived by the drivers, team members, their significant others and by society as a whole. Today we can look back at this time and be both horrified at what happened and relieved that the sport is much safer now. But in the 1950s, society embraced death in a way we wouldn’t understand today. In the 1955 Le Mans disaster that killed one driver plus over 80 spectators, the race continued and Mike Hawthorn won. Whenever a fellow competitor died on the track, the wins were tempered with sadness but there was also a resilience to keep on. This is a reminder of what people would do for glory and immortality.

Race To Immortality at Brands Hatch

 

This documentary fully immerses you in the world of 1950s racing. Instead of seeing the talking heads we hear narration over all of the archival footage. The faces of the interview subjects are only revealed in the last 10 minutes. This was an interesting filmmaking technique. The footage keeps you in their world and breaking away to footage of interviews would have just taken the viewer out of it. Also there was a build up of curiosity about the interview subjects. There was some added some emotional resonance at the end when we finally get to see their faces.

Ferrari: Race to Immortality is a poignant documentary about an exciting yet dangerous time in the history of auto racing. It’s available on digital download and is coming to VOD on 7/24.

 

Lady Bird

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

 

Lady Bird’s story is your story. But it wasn’t mine.

I don’t call myself a film critic. I call myself a film writer. Why? I can’t be completely objective about a movie. Emotions always get involved. When I watch a movie I feel things. I experience joy, sadness, enlightenment, confusion, anxiety, fear, shock or awe. I’m overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Some movies open my eyes to new experiences. Some unlock something within me that’s been dormant for years. Sometimes a movie makes me so mad I want to punch something. Sometimes a movie makes me so happy I want to share it with anyone who will listen.

Recently I asked myself the question, how does someone appreciate a film when they have no emotional connection to it?

Greta Gerwig’s critically acclaimed and award winning film Lady Bird (2017). Released to much praise, the story follows Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior living in Sacramento circa 2002. We follow her as struggles with her transitional year. She has a strong hate/love relationship with her home town, butts heads with her strong-willed mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), loses her close bond with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and pretends to live in a fancy house in the rich part of town to impress a popular girl at school. Then there are the boys. She falls for Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), two very different boys but both relationships offer the same potential for heartbreak. Lady Bird, whose real name is Christine, is opinionated, brash, and desperate to find some happiness in what she deems a bleak existence.

 

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In one online review, a viewer pointed out that Sacramento could be any town and that Lady Bird could be any teenager. This is true. Lady Bird’s story is one many people could relate to. Many of us have complicated relationships with our hometown, with a parent, with a friend, with a teacher and with our first love. In the film Lady Bird goes through the whole gamut of life experiences from losing her virginity, to fighting with her mom, to watching her dad go through depression, to losing and regaining a best friend and to losing, finding and losing again that romantic connection with another person. And her name change to Lady Bird is symbolic; she’s a young woman who wants to spread her wings and fly away. And as for Sacramento, the hometown she thought she hated so much… It took her leaving for New York, shedding her self-appointed moniker and experiencing a new life to realize how much she actually loved that town and missed it.

When I was 17 years old, my experience was the complete opposite of Lady Bird’s. I hated my hometown of Milford, MA and still do to this day. Every visit back is filled with dread. In fact I despised Milford so much as a teenager that I attended an agricultural high school in another county. Mostly because I wanted to spend as much time away from my town as possible. In the film, Lady Bird who once joked about living on the wrong side of the tracks begins to feel peer pressure to please the popular crowd. I felt none of this pressure in high school and I thought the popular kids, barring one notable exception, were all idiots. I butted heads with my dad not my mom. I didn’t have a sibling growing up, Lady Bird has a brother. My parents didn’t have any opinions or influence on my college applications. I didn’t go to my prom. I didn’t have a best friend or boyfriends. While many of you were Lady Birds growing up, I was not. At all.

People talk about stories being mirrors (reflecting yourself) and windows (with a view to someone else’s experience). Watching Lady Bird was like looking through a window and not fully understanding what was happening on the other side. I had to break down this film into its parts. Great actors? Check. Well-developed characters? Check. A deep connection to a particular time and place? Check and check. Good dialogue, pacing and storytelling. More checks. Lady Bird is a brilliant film. Greta Gerwig, Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are a fierce female filmmaking trio. This movie is for many people even if it wasn’t for me.

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As a DVD Nation Director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Lady Bird on DVD.com

Further Reading: My review of Brooklyn (2015)

 

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs

Do Americans really understand Socialism? That question kicks off a new documentary about the early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Victor Debs. Born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up in a prosperous household but it wasn’t until he left school at an early age and entered the workforce that he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow working man. He fought tirelessly, sometimes at the cost of his own health,  against the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the working class that began in post Civil War America. He was highly influenced by Karl Marx but also by everyday people. Debs was a gifted orator, traveled the country proselytizing for socialism and amassed millions of fervent supporters. He campaigned for president several times, starting in 1900 and ending in 1920 when he was arrested for radicalism. To this day Debs holds the title of being the only presidential candidate imprisoned for his campaign platform. He was released from prison after 6 months and archival footage of the day of his release is included in the documentary. He continued to fight for his cause until his health failed him and he passed away in 1926.

 

Eugene V. Debs - Passionate Orator
Eugene V. Debs – Passionate Orator. Photo courtesy of First Run Pictures

 

Directed by Yale Strom and released by First Run Features, American Socialist chronicles the life and times of this little known figure in American politics. Economists, professors, scholars and writers offer their insights into Debs and socialism. I was interested to learn that socialism peaked in 1912, that during the agricultural crisis of the early 20th century Oklahoma was the most progressive of the Southern states in contemplating socialist politics and about how capitalism inherently clashes with Christian beliefs. But the focus of this film is truly Eugene V. Debs. It offers a look at the socialist movement,the history of labor activism and the fight against income inequality through the lens of Debs’ life.

 

 

 

What drew me to this documentary was this line from the film’s marketing copy:

“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him?”

As someone whose politics align very closely to Sanders, I was curious to learn more about the man who influenced him. Bernie Sanders so admired Debs that he created his own documentary about Debs’ life and hung a portrait of Debs in his office. However I didn’t learn any of this from American Socialist . The film only showed a brief clip of a Bernie Sanders speech but offered no information about how the two political figures were connected. At 1 hour and 40 minutes I felt like a good 20 minutes could have been tacked on to explore Debs’ legacy, his influence on Sanders, and how democratic socialism is part of the political landscape today.

 

American Socialist is available today on iTunes It’s also available on DVD from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Cold November (2017) poster)

Cold November

All around the world, children, on the cusp of puberty, go through a rite of passage. These rituals symbolize their transition into adulthood, a journey that’s only just beginning. Deep in the woods of Minnesota, this rite of passage is deer hunting.

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Cold November follows the story of Florence (Bijou Abas), affectionately nicknamed Flor, a 12 year old girl who is about to hunt her very first deer. Her mother Amanda (Anna Klemp) and grandmother Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding) have been preparing her for this moment. She learns how to properly use and care for a hunting rifle, a family heirloom, how to dress for the hunt, what to do in the look out spot, how to shoot the deer, and what to do with a deer or buck once it’s been killed. In the midst of all this Flor gets her period, another sign that womanhood is just around the corner. For this family and their community, deer hunting is not for sport; it’s for survival. The process is treated with respect and the animal is not a trophy, rather a means to feed the family. It’s a ritual passed on from one generation to the next and in this matriarch this is a treasured tradition. Visiting Flor and her mom are aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner) and uncle Craig (Karl Jacob). The couple are going through their own transition as they deal with the loss of their daughter Sweeney. We follow Flor as she prepares for her first hunt, how she deals with frustration on multiple hunts that result in no kills and what happens when she finally gets the opportunity to use all the knowledge and training she’s acquired but has to do it all on her own.

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In his director’s statement, Karl Jacob writes “I hope to challenge the stereotype that the hunting ritual is an inherently male practice. I grew up in a similar situation to Florence, where my mother, aunts, and grandmother played a huge part in my life and had also gone through this hunting experience as young women.” Jacob’s character Craig is the only male character in the film. This is truly a story about women. Three generations in a matriarch and how they prepare their youngest for the life ahead. The female perspective is highly valued and respected in the story. Flor’s first period is a significant moment in the story and it’s given time. Foreshadowing the hunt in the future, Flor has to deal with this change all on her own.

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The movie is spare and beautiful. It gives itself room for the characters to have their moments and for the story to live and breathe in its own world. There is no rush to get anywhere but its also expertly paced. I loved the cinematography especially the bright colors of the hunting clothes against the stark backgrounds. It reminded me of Track of the Cat (1954) where Robert Mitchum wears a bright red coat against a muted color palette of the backwoods during winter. My only minor criticism with Cold November is that I didn’t care for the one scene when the camera shoots from inside a deer carcass looking out. This felt unnecessary to me.

In order to truly appreciate the film, you must be comfortable enough to watch the women handle dear carcasses. You won’t see the moment of death nor will you see the animal suffer. In one scene you’ll hear a buck call out in pain but its quickly shot to put its out of its misery. The film makes an effort to show respect for the deer and the hunt. Craig reveals to Flor how he thanks the animal after a kill. Flor’s mother Amanda talks at length about how they use the meat for sustenance, how not to kill more than you need and not letting the animal suffer. If you are vegan, vegetarian or a member of PETA, you probably won’t want to watch this film. I’m an omnivore and I have enough respect for the cycle of life and the killing of animals for meat that I know when to criticize the process. For example, I refuse to eat veal and salmon because of what I believe are unethical farming/hunting methods. Cold November treated hunting for deer and the consumption of venison with great respect which I appreciated.

Cold November won the 2017 Memphis Indie Film Festival Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. It began as a Kickstarter project and is now available on iTunes, Vimeo and Amazon Prime.

This is a fantastic indie film with wonderful performances, stunning cinematography and a great care for its subject. I highly recommend you give Cold November a try.

Official Website

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