Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribeca World Premiere "Five Star" rips a page from the mean Brooklyn streets in compelling film

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere April 17, 2014

NEW YORK--"Five Star", the World Narrative Competition entry, had its World Premiere  at the 13th Tribeca Film Festival. It is a compelling film by second-time features director Keith Miller (Welcome to Pine Hill-2012 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner).  A member of the Brooklyn Film Collective, Miller, with his cinematographers Ed Davis, Alexander Mallis and Eric Phillips-Horst, captures the raw, Bosnia- drab world of  Brooklyn's Walt Whitman housing projects and frames it in a modernistic urban fable that blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

This is not the street gang world that you see glorified in the rap videos. There are no pimped out "rides"or make-it-rain visits to strip clubs. The gang bangers in this film don't wear any bling or drive  fancy cars. They simply hang out on street corners or in dingy apartments,  protecting their turf, and using young kids as 'mules' to transport their 'packages,' a euphemism for drugs, from point A, to point B.' That's precisely the point where we meet the protagonists Primo and John in the film Five Star.

The film revolves around the actions of the notorious Bloods in their home turf in the Brooklyn projects during one sweltering hot summer.  Their leader, "Primo,"is  the Five Star General of the Bloods who rules by abject fear, although he calls it "respect."(The term "Five Star" is an obvious play on the like term for military leaders).

At the outset of the film, we meet James "Primo" Grant, a real-life Blood enforcer,  speaking on camera to an unseen passenger riding in his car, about the day his young son, Sincere, was born. Sincere, we later learn, is autistic. Sincere is at the center of Primo's being and  he expresses his feeling that the birth of Sincere was the seminal event of his life. "But do you know where I was," he declares ruefully. "Fuckin' locked up!"

The film quickly moves forward, with Primo taking young John under his wing (played with disarming charm, authenticity and a sense of youthful innocence by budding actor and East Side New York resident John Diaz). John's father was mysteriously murdered and Primo has offered to mentor him, showing him the ropes and all the ins and outs of gang life and the streets. John's an eager wannabe and Primo offers him the protection and guidance he craves, particularly in light of the absence of his father, who was revered by everyone in this tightly wound world of ruthless demi-gods and their minions.

Primo promises that he will mentor John, but what transpires is anything but. The next thing we see, is John as mule, transporting a "package" to one of Primo's street lieutenants. When Primo  hears that John didn't make the drop as ordered, he's ready to snuff him. So much for Ward Cleaver!

The film deftly sets up Primo's character, showing him first as the coldly calculating ruler ("It's just business!" he declares as he beats a young recruit to the floor for failing to come up with the money that is owed on a drug deal, then cooly walks out of the room as his followers finish the job). Flash forward to him lovingly preparing a tasty meal for his doting girlfriend and commercial- pretty young children in the sanctity of their peacefully, albeit threadbare, home in the projects. The contrast between his ruthlessness in the streets and the loving interactions with his girlfriend and their three young children, could not be more pronounced.

We soon learn that another child is on the way and Primo is overjoyed.  We especially meet young Sincere, Primo's son, who is profoundly affected by autism.  Primo's own children played themselves in the movie and both the director and Primo deemed them "naturals" in front of the camera. In a post-screening Q and A, Primo declared that his son, "no matter what anyone says about him. He's perfect!" It's the kind of whistling in the dark heroism displayed by many parents of autistic children, which I learned as a volunteer with the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, in which horses are used as Equine Therapy with children who have autism. The children with autism interact and communicate with the horses in a way that they will not with humans. It's magical to see. (See the reference in actor Liam Neeson's op-ed piece on the  Central Park horse drawn controversy in the April 14 New York Times).

Director Miller admits that parts of the film were unscripted. That is both one of its strengths, and its profound weakness. As Miller later pointed out in the post-screening Q and A, the ad libbed approachs fostered a great deal of  honesty in the actor's interactions and contributed to the authenticity of some of the scenes, such as the pickup basketball game  between John and Primo at the outset of the film. It is a pivotal moment in the development of their relationship.  The scene unfolds as a sort of male rite of passage with the older and younger man developing a sparring match that becomes a test of manhood between the mentor Primo and his new charge, John. Part of the central theme of Five Star revolves around the meaning of manhood and the process of fostering same, which often translates as toughness.

Miller and his crew capture the inner essence of Primo's life perfectly, eavesdropping on the tender interactions with his family in their bleak apartment and contrasting that with the  twinkling lights of the cityscape view just outside his window. The nearby beach also plays a role in the film, as both a metaphor for life's endless possibilities and a parallel setting for some of the grittier pivotal moments in the film, such as the place where John target practices an illegal semi-automatic, and where, in all probability, his father was murdered.

One of the few lighter moments in the film is the budding romance between John (John Diaz) and the girl-next-door beauty Jasmine (Jasmine Burgos). As much as the mother rails against the relationship, she grudgingly advises him on proper condom use, much to John's chagrin. The scenes of John courting Jasmine on the beach are magical and in such sharp contrast to the eventual consummation of their relationship on a mattress on the floor of her family's apartment, which is her bedroom.

Wanda Nobles Colon displays considerable acting chops as John's Mom, and lights up the screen with her intensity. Her character offers the single best explanation of the plot construct surrounding the mystery of her husband's death. Unfortunately the film fails to build upon that point. The character delineation and conflict between John and Primo somehow fall flat and gets lost in the amorphous ramblings of the core scenes of the film.

According to the script, John's  father was supposedly killed by a stray bullet,  an explanation that neither  the mother, nor her son, believes. John is determined to find the truth. Subconsciously he knows that it lies hidden somewhere beneath the emotional chain mail that surrounds his mentor, Primo.
(That was the image gleaned from the maze of tattoos Primo wears on his arms and chest. They looked like the chain link armor worn by the knights of old for protection.)

James "Primo" Grant  deserves raves for a stellar performance as a first-time actor playing himself in the film. He brings to mind the late James Galdolfini as Tony Soprano, with his undercurrent of menace toward the outside world tempered with an overriding sweetness toward his family in the privacy of his home. We never actually see Primo in any overt acts of extreme violence. He always seems to be walking away as his lieutenants carry out his dirty work.

Another irony, Primo works as a bouncer for a local club owner, who pays him a measly 300 bucks for a couple of nights a week. Primo practically begs him for more work because he has another child on the way and needs a larger apartment. The club owner hires him to be a bodyguard at his son's Bar Mitzvah. We see Primo getting outfitted in a business suit for the occasion. At the conclusion of the event, Primo and the owner have a heartfelt talk about the significance of the Mitzvah as a rite of passage for a Jewish boy into manhood when he turns 13. Primo likens it to his initiation into the Bloods at the age of 12, in which he had to beat off 7 guys and take a solemn oath. The comparison is a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea.

In spite of its flaws, Five Star is a compelling film that will command attention wherever it is shown. It is a must see at this year's Tribeca festival. One of the distinct advantages of being shown at a festival like Tribeca, is that it allows budding directors to be seen and to attract the type of interest and resources that will  further their careers. Keith Miller is clearly an up-and-coming director to watch. He has an uncanny feel for edgy subject matter. Hopefully he will garner the resources to express his ideas in future projects in a more developed way.

Five Star shows at the 13th Tribeca Film Festival Saturday, April 19, 8:30pm at AMC Loews Village 7, Monday, April 21, 8:30pm, Bow Tie Cinemas 9 and Saturday, April 26,  2:30pm, also at Bow Tie Cinemas 9. For ticket information, visit

Below: James "Primo" Grant in the title role
photo 2-with John Diaz as John

Wanda Nobles Colon who plays John's mother

 The cast of Five Star on the Red Carpet at the Tribeca World Premiere
 Dwight Casimere with James "Primo" Grant

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tribeca Film Festival premieres "All About Ann," HBO Documentary Film on Texas Governor Ann Richards

"All About Ann" and unvarnished view of tough-as-nails political pioneer

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere April 17, 2014

NEW YORK--All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State is the HBO Documentary Film that premieres at the 13th Tribeca Film Festival Friday, April 18 with additional screenings Sunday, April 20 and Friday April 25. The film debuts on HBO exclusively Monday, April 28 at 9pm ET. For Tribeca times and tickets, visit

Ann Richard's life has already been the subject of a short-lived Broadway play, Ann, written by and starring TV's Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men), which ran last summer at Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater. Now comes the HBO movie and Tribeca Film Festival Premiere.

"All About Ann" charts the meteoric rise of Ann Richards, a little girl with big dreams from the small town of Lakeview, Texas , who rises from obscurity as a school teacher, mother of four to be catapulted into first state-wide and then  the national spotlight to be elected as the Lone Star State's first female State Treasurer and then, the state's first elected female Governor in a hotly contested race that garnered national and international attention.

Richards garnered the national spotlight as the Keynote Address speaker at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Her famous opening lines (which the HBO producers carefully pointed out, were hand-written by Richards herself just moments before delivering the speech), instantly cemented her reputation as a no-nonsense defender of women's rights. "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels!"

Not only was Ann Richards a woman in a man's game in a decidedly macho environment, she was also a liberal in an ultra-conservatiive, even John Birch Society right-wing political climate. Along the way, she sacrificed her marriage to her long-suffering and supportive husband David, on the altar of political ambition, battled alcoholism, for which she very publicly engaged in rehabilitation, and vociferously countered accusations of lesbianism and drug abuse.

Producer Keith Patterson, CEO of Filmbank Entertainment of New York, in his first outing as a filmmaker for HBO and veteran HBO producer Phillip Schopper, whose credits include the Emmy-nominated "Gloria: In Her Own Words," and the Emmy-winning "Teddy: In His Own Words," present a probing, behind-scenes- look at this most public of charismatic figures, using archival and news footage, profile interviews with such news and political luminaries as Dan Rather and Bill Clinton, and personal sidebars from her ex-husband David and daughter, Ann, among others.

The documentary further gives an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the pivotal events in Gov. Richards' life, most notably her bare-knuckles fight against Republican Clayton Williams in the race for the Governor's seat. Williams stooped to accusations of cocaine abuse by Richards, even in the face of her very public acknowledgement of her alcoholism.  The death knell was sounded when he committed the gaffe of being caught on camera saying that "Rape's like the weather. If it's inevitable, lay back and enjoy it." Voters began to reach their limit with him when he failed to identify an important ballot initiative during an on-camera interview. The final straw came when he snubbed Richards at a televised political event, refusing to shake her hand on the dais. The ungentlemanly act revealed him to be the true heel that he was and voters responded by giving Richards a resounding victory as the first duly elected female Governor of the Lone Star State.
Ann Richards giving the Keynote Address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention
TV's Holland Taylor as Ann Richards on Broadway
Ann Richards and her opponent in the race for Governor, Clayton Williams
TV newsman Dan Rather, one of the commentors in the Ann Richards HBO documentary
Ann Richards at the helm at Texas Governor
"W" on the campaign trail
David Richard's, Ann's ex-husband appears in the film with sensitive commentary
Ann's daughter gives illuminating commments throughout the film
Ann Richards applies her "war paint" before an appearance on Meet The Press
With Nelson Mandela
A latter-day Ann Richards

Producers Patterson and Schopper conclude the film with a probing analysis of Richard's ultimate defeat in her race for a second term as Governor at the hand of master GOP strategist Roger Ailes and his freshly-minted future presidential candidate, George W. Bush. From the outset, Ailes makes it clear that he views the Texas Governor's race as merely the first step in "W's"ultimate ascendancy to the Oval Office. The documentary very deftly charts Ailes' capabilities as a master political architect, carefully crafting his master plan through a series of very public onslaughts and behind-the-scenes subterfuges, with innuendos of lesbianism, drug abuse and anti-gun stances (even though Richards herself was a gun owner), which ultimately undermined her reelection efforts.

One of the final scenes of the film is among its most poignant. It shows Richards in one of her last public appearances before succumbing to esophageal cancer in 2006. Speaking to a political action group of LGBT supporters, her speech was interrupted several times by coughing spasms and dry throat, which an aide explained on camera, were symptoms of her advancing disease. Richards nonetheless, gave a rousing speech that praised efforts to support individual rights and freedoms. Her remarks through a thunderous and heartfelt ovation.

All About Ann is more than a political documentary. It is an up close and personal look at one of the most charismatic and visceral political figures of our time and an unvarnished view of the no-holds-barred cage fight that is the arena of modern American politics.  All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State premieres on HBO Monday, April 28 ay 9pm ET, with additional HBO playdates April 28 (4:45am ET), May 1 (4:45pm ET), May 4 (2pm ET), May 7 (8:30am) and May 10 (10:15 am ET). This film is must viewing for anyone who believes in the importance of life-long commitment and sacrifice in the preservation of individual freedom and liberty within the context of the American Body Politic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tribeca Film Festival 2014: Love & Engineering a passionate, funny look at romance in the age of cyberdating

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere April 12, 2014

NEW YORK--Love & Engineering, a Finnish, German and Bulgarian Documentary Feature now playing at the 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan, is a passionate and oftentimes humorous look at a close-to-the-bone subject, the search for romance in the age of cyberdating. Award-winning Finnish producer Kaarle Aho (Finnish Film Producer of the Year-2008) and third-time Bulgarian documentary filmmaker Tonislav Hristov (Family Fortune-2008, Rules of Single Life-2012 Best Documentary Award, Sofia International Film Festival), ask the question "is there an algorithm for love?"

Atanas, a happily-married Bulgarian engineer living and working in Finland, decides to find the answer, using his fellow engineers as subjects in an elaborate study, utilizing cyber-dating, speed-dating and good old fashioned blind dates contrasted with super-scientific brain-wave studies to come up with the answer. He even employs the prickly practice of "hacking" (using a pseudo-persona to misrepresent your desirability on a computer dating site) to attract perspective mates to his hapless band of computer uber-geeks.

Ironically, Atanas has a promounced stutter, yet it in no way inhibits his ability to get his point across. He most certainly has not suffered any diminishing of his self esteem as a result of it. In fact, he is the only one in his crew that has a stable, fulfilling relationship with a woman, making him the envy of all. 

"Go ahead and show up in costume," Atanas off-handedly tells his eager participants, during a discussion of what to wear when they show up for a speed dating session at a local nightclub. One of the subjects decides to adopt the persona and costume of a cruise ship captain, which turns out to be an instant hit. He decides to adopt the garb for each and every one of the subsequent speed-dating sessions and becomes the accidental life of the party!

Atanas and his subjects meet often to discuss their progress or lack of same. In between, there are elaborate lab sessions and studies involving the application of electrodes on both male and female subjects, to record their brain wave and heart/blood pressure activity during question and answer sessions surrounding the subjects of sex and dating. After the first speed dating session, one of Atanas' geek subjects almost strikes it rich with a potential love mate. After tripping the light fantastic on a successful introductory date, he decides 'this is it,' but, obviously, his female counterpart has second thoughts and abruptly cancels a much-anticipated second date.  He is crushingly plunged into depression by the rejection. Atanas likens the experience to the mythical figure Icarus, flying to close to the sun. An almost-uncomfortably long close-up shot records his subjects meltdown and emotional unraveling, a no-no in the cold, data-speak world of the engineer, but no less a telling scene that cuts to the heart of the movie's subject matter. 

The whole project and the film reaches a denouement when Atanas organizes a Love Boat-type overnight cruise-to-nowhere that turns disastrous. The entire project almost comes apart at the seems amidst a three-way fight over the same girl and a shouting match and near fisticuffs over privacy issues and a perceived-as-inappropriate sexual encounter.  With a happy marriage and  kid at home and  a contented wife who wants another muffin in the oven, Atanas reaches an epiphany and abandons the project.

Love & Engineering is a delightfully captivating film that treats a delicate and sometimes uncomfortable subject with a light touch and a good dose of humor. It is a film with a subject matter that will resonate far beyond the festival screenings and generate buzz in social media and private conversation for some time. 

Love & Engineering plays at the Tribeca Flm Festival Sturday, April 19, Tuesday, April 22, Thursday April 24 and Saturday, April 26 at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea. Visit for ticket information.

 Filmmaker and Director Tonislav Hristov

Producer Kaarle Aho

 Scenes from Love & Engineering-The Finnish Film Foundation

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Time Is Illmatic" NAS documentary opens Tribeca Film Festival April 16

13th Edition of Tribeca Film Festival features groundbreaking documentaries that pay homage to music legends

Story by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK- That annual Rite of Spring in lower Manhattan, the Tribeca Film Festival, opens Wednesday, April 16 with the One9-directory documentary "Time Is Illmatic," which celebrates the 20th anniversary of one of hip-hop's most universally celebrated albums, Nas' debut album, Illmatic. After the World Premiere screening of the documentary. NAS will present a live concert performance at the legendary Beacon Theatre in midtown Manhattan as part of the Opening Night Tribeca Film Festival. NAS also plans a spring tour promoting the release of Illmatic XX, a special edition reissue of the landmark album featuring remastered versions, demos, remixes and unreleased material. In discussing the reissue and the impact of "Illmatic" in general, NAS is quoted as saying that he simply set out to make "the perfect album."

Music and sports are two of the themes taking center stage at Tribeca Film Festival, especially among the 44 documentaries that wil be presented at Tribeca 2014.  "Keep On Keepin' On" pays tribute to the godfather of jazz, legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, who at 94 years of age and in failing health, continues to be a driving force in today's music realm by ment oring a blind pianist, Justin Kaulflin, passing on a lifetime of musical skills, even as his health fails.  Herbie Hancock leads an all-star ensemble of jazz legends in a post-film concert tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center. "Unititled James Brown" charts the early career of "the hardest working man in show business," James Brown, and the music that would change the world forever.

Other documentary subjects delve into the world of sports, with the Tribeca Sports Film Festival sponsored by Mohegan Sun, celebrating competitive passion and team work through a variety of captivating sports-themed films, including "Iverson," in which the iconic basketball player, Alan Iverson, discusses his success and influence both on and off the court.

Tribeca Film Festival runs April 16-27. For tickets in schedule information, visit

Tribeca Film Festival provides North American Premiere for "Manos Sucias, " Spike Lee supported film

 U.S. Columbian co-production screens in Tribeca's Spotlight section Thursday, April 17-Thursday, April 24 at Bow Tie Cinemas, Chelsea, in New York City

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere April 12, 2014
NEW YORK--Spike Lee threw his weight behind this riveting U.S.-Columbian co-production, which depicts the seamy underbelly of the Columbian Pacific coast drug trade from the vantage point of a couple of hapless Afro-Columbian "mules" who volunteer to do "just one last" drug transport to finance their futile dreams of achieving rap-star status and a better life in Bogota. The film, "Manos sucias" (Dirty Hands), directed by Booklyn-based director Josef Wladyka, was incubated in Spike Lee's EPed feature film project (Lee was Wladyka's NYU film program professor). Working with a cast of non-professional locals, the film was developed during a five-week storytelling workshop in the coastal town of Buenaventura, Columbia's largest Pacific port, with the goal of creating sustainable life-skills among the city's indigenous Afro-Columbian population.  Local residents learned basic camera techniques, how to edit in camera by using their cell phones and how to structure story lines. Several local residents were hired as Production Assistants during the on-location filming and one even went on to become the film's  production coordinator.

"Manios sucias" tells the story of  two brothers; the elder Jacobo, played with an undercurrent of hair-trigger violence, tempered with sobbing emotion by Jarline Javier Martinez and hiis younger brother Delio, a wide-eyed wannabe rapper with more enthusiasm than talent, played by Cristian James Abvincula.  Jacobo characterizes himself as "the devil," and to prove the strength of his mettle, kills the white drug lieutenant charged with overseeing their clandestine operation. Delio, in spite of his outward bravado, has no stomach for the required blood-thirsty "dirty hands" that are required of him to complete the mission.  The two hire themselves out to a local druglord to transport a floating torpedo loaded with millions of dollars worth of drugs, to be delivered by a date certain from the gang's hideout in the north, toward Panama. Posing as a pair of out-of-luck fishermen, the two encounter paramilitaries (whom we later learned killed Jacobo's young son), a would be hijackers, and a suspicious coast guard. The action at times seemed to get mired in the very swamp waters traversed by the wayward brothers, but the film manages to make the point of underscoring the dashed hopes and futile dreams of Afro-Columbian locals whose dreams of a better life always seem just out of reach. There's really nothing new here, except the fact that the film portrays the lives of largely under-represented Afro-Columbian youth. The film really captures their lifestyle, which is flavored by the same hip-hop and rap aspirations of their counterparts in America's urban settings. Their remoteness from the city-life and rap glitter they crave makes their struggle even more poignant. There's some terrific local music throughout and the solemn, almost choir-like interludes at times during the brother's errant journey, underscores the futility and commonality of their search for redemption and resurrection.

 Coming on the heels of its glowing Cartagena premiere, it heads to Tribeca for its North American premiere on April 17. Visit for tickets and information.

Director:  Josef Kubota Wladyka
Executive Producer:  Spike Lee
Screenwriters:  Alan Blanco, Josef Kubota Wladyka
Cast:  Cristian James Advincula, Jarlin Martinez, Hadder Blandon, Manuel David Riascos

Spanish with English subtitles. Stills and press notes are available.
MANOS SUCIAS plays at the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea
Location:  260 W 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011
MANOS SUCIAS Tribeca Screenings
Thursday, April 17th at 6:45PM at BTC8 – 1st Public Screening (Premiere)
Friday, April 18th at 12:45pm at BTC8– P&I Screening #1
Friday, April 18th at 9:45PM at BTC8 – 2nd Public Screening
Monday, April 21st at 10:30PM at BTC9 – 3rd Public Screening
Thursday, April 24th at 12:45pm at BTC8– P&I Screening #2