Sunday, May 14, 2017



by Dwight Casimere

The Sundance Award-winning documentary Last Men In Aleppo is ripped straight out of today's headlines. It is a difficult film to watch, but hard to take your eyes off of. In the hands of Syrian director Feras Fayyad, director of cinematography Fedi Al Halabi and cinematographer Thaer Mohamad and co-director Steen Johannssen, it is a masterpiece. The images are horrifying; dead babies being pulled from the rubble of buildings, pummeled by both Russian  drones and the sarin gas of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as volunteers, called "White Helmets" struggle to rescue the living and keep an accounting of the dying. We see Khaled, Mahmoud and Sushi rushing toward the scene of devastation, moments after bombs have rained on the innocents. The men are mostly former construction workers, and their skills at building are useful as they use heavy duty equipment to gingerly manipulate crushing masses of concrete to rescue victims moments from death.

In the opening scenes, the limp bodies of two infants are pulled from the rubble as we here a young boy crying, trapped in the rubble of his bombed out apartment building. "Don't cry," Khalid gently reassures him. "We are here to get you out."  The crew later visits the surviving family members, still wearing the bloody bandages of their fresh wounds. They learn that the father's two young sons and his wife were killed. The saddest news of all is that one of the young children that had been rescued, later died in the hospital. The oldest boy, the one who was trapped,  begging him to stay and clinging to his protective arms, as if the man's presence would ensure his future safety. "Stay! Stay! The coffee's ready!" The young boy cries as the men rush off to the next disaster. Speaking in confidence outside, we learn that Khalid made the visit, not so much to reassure the living, but to get an accurate accounting of the dead. His is a grim, sysyphean task in which no one is expected to survive.

"We will all die here. That is our fate," Khaled says at more than one juncture in the film.
Surprisingly, life goes on in the brief respites between bombings. Open  air markets spring into existence with fresh produce and live chickens appearing as if out of thin air. Khalid and his crew can been seen getting haircuts and shaves at the local barber, the reassuring hum of clippers and gossip filling the air. Khalid teasing the younger Mahmoud that he must be trying to impress a neighborhood girl. An sidewalk aquarium shop attracts Khaled attention. He decides it buy some goldfish. "You can eat them when there's no foot after the bombings," one of the crews teases. Its all gallows humor. Khaled swears that he's strictly buying them as pets, not for food. To prove the point, he sets the crew about the task of using their construction skills to build an elaborate concrete pond in from of his apartment, complete with a cascading fountain. Khaled draws the analogy that he is like the fish in the pond, unable to live out of water for more than a few minutes, just as he is incapable of living outside Aleppo. "I will die here," he says with prescience and resignation.

The symbolism of the goldfish runs throughout the fabric of the film. In fact, the opening shot begins with a tight shot of a goldfish eye. We aren't sure from the coloring if its the aftermath of a bomb blast or a black hole surrounded in blood, the aftermath of a bomb attack.

One particularly poignant scene occurs during one of the many ceasefires. Khaled, his crew and their families load up the ambulances and rescue vehicles and tear through the city as if going to an attack site. Their destination? The local playground in the center of town. Khaled confesses that, because of the constant turmoil and threat of war, he had never played as a child. We see his hulking frame testing the sturdiness of the play equipment as he careens down a kiddie-sized slide. "I hope I don't break this thing!" he shouts giddily. The respite is brief as spotters see drones flying overhead. A voice bellows over a loudspeaker. Everyone run to safety! The play hour is over. Its back to shelter, and for Khalid and his crew, the white helmets and the ambulances.

The film's pace is measured, almost elegiac. The shots of bombs falling on Aleppo are virtually poetic with the bursts of light falling in a latticework of light against the beautiful backdrop of the original music by Karsten Fundal.  As horrific as the subject matter is, Last Men In Aleppo is a film that inspires hope. Its showing in theaters and on Netflix should inspire governments, organizations and individuals to mobilize every humanitarian and diplomatic means at their disposal to end the carnage in Aleppo.

Friday, May 12, 2017



Daniel Kyri in his Goodman debut in the title role

by Dwight Casimere

If someone told you the harrowing story of African-born actor Shedrick Yarkpai, you would probably not believe it. Yet, here it is as the subject of a fully staged World Premiere production at Goodman Theatre, Chicago, Objects In The Mirror, by Chicago native playwright Charles Smith and directed by the Goodman's own esteemed Resident Director Chuck Smith (no relation). 

Playwright Smith first encountered Yarkpai in 2009 while traveling to the idyllic city of Adelaide, Australia in 2009 for a production of his play A Free Man of Color (the play later premiered on Broadway with the Golden Globe, Tony, Emmy and Drama Desk Award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright in the lead). A young Liberian actor, Shedrick Yarkpai, was slated to play the title role. Over the time of their close working relationship, Yarkpai began to unravel the story of his more than decade-long journey from a refugee campin war-torn Liberia, through the unimaginable brutality, starvation and cruelty of the refugee camps in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire to finally gaining asylum in Adelaide.

The story is a gripping one, and almost unbearable to listen to, were it not for the inherent innocence and honesty of the story-teller. Chicago actor Daniel Kyri, in his impassioned Goodman debut, plays young Yarkpai as he embarks on his perilous journey with his cousin Zaza Workolo (Detroit native Breon Arzell in his Goodman debut) and his uncle, John Workolo (Goodman veteran and  Allen Gilmore, The Matchmaker and three productions of A Christmas  Carol, in a searing performance.)  Yarpai leaves behind his doting mother, Luopu Workolo, played with steely conviction in a stand-ovation performance by Lily Mojekwu, in th e role she originated in the Goodman's New Stages Festival. New Stages Festival alum Ryan Kitley (Support Group for Men) returned to their Goodman to do a stellar job as Rob Mosher, a local attorney who befriends Shedrick and vows to help him dispel the demons of his past and unravel the legal entanglements surrounding the truth of his identity and family secrets

Seasoned director Chuck Smith assembled a Rolls Royce design team to bring his production to the Goodman stage. Set designer Riccardo Hernandez utilized an ingenous backdrop composed of overlapping sheets of corrugated tin, a material that is commonly used in a construction of the shanty in the settlements and refugee camps. to connote scene and demographic changes.. Make Tutaj created video projections that announced location changes, Birgit Rattenborg Wise created the evocative costumes. Ray Nardelli created th e sound scape, that was as much a part of the storyline, atmosphere and dialogue as anything else. Brian  J. Fahey was the production stage manager who orchestrated all of the complex elements to create a seamless production.

Objects In The Mirror is a must-see production now through June 4. Sadly, the events recounted in this play are happening to thousands of  refugees in Africa at this very moment. For tickets and show times, visit

 Daniel Kyri (c) as Shedrick Yarpai, Breon Arzell (l|) also in his Goodman debut as cousin Zaza Workolo, Goodman veteran Allen Gilmore as the uncle, John Workolo (r)
 Lily Mojekwu is Sheridrick's mother, Luopu Workolo
 Ryan Kitley (Rob Mosher) and Allen Gilmore (John Workolo) square off on the fate of his nephew Shedrick
 Allen Gilmore as John Workolo
 Daniel Kyri in a dramatic soliloquy
Sherdrick (Daniel Kyri) and John  Workolo(Allen Gilmore) marvel at their newfound refuge in Adelaide, Australia

Monday, May 1, 2017


by Dwight Casimere

Hana, Zuzana Kronerova and Brona, Pavel Novy with Lud, Brona's pet chicken and surrogate 'wife'

NEW YORK--The dramatic film, ICE MOTHER, from director Bohdan Slama of the Czech Republic took the Best Screenplay Award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.  From almost the moment the images of actress Tucana Kroncrova (Something Like Happiness)as Hana, a recently widowed 67 year old mother of two grown sons, dives into the icy river waters to save a drowning ice swimmer, Brona, played by veteran Czech actor Pavel Novy (Amadeus, Greedy Guts) and is suddenly thrust into a new romance and a new-found interest in life through ice swimming.
The film has less to do about ice swimming than it does about the complex and subtle interweaving of inter-generational family life and the challenges of trying to forge a slice of independence and happiness for a woman who has, throughout her adult life, seen after nothing but the welfare of others, including her greedy, self-serving sons. The single saving grace in the family is her eight year old  grandson, Ivanek, played with disarming charm by Daniel Vizek. The boy's deepening relationship with Brona becomes the glue that further cements their relationship amidst family storms and strifes.

This was the first film I saw after arriving in New York at the Tribeca Film office screening rooms for pre-festival screenings. After a turbulent flight from Chicago, it was just the kind of soothing cinematic tonic I needed. Also, there was something seductively captivating about the film. First, the beautiful and naturalistic cinematography and skillful directing of Bohdan Slama, allowed the story to unfold slowly, with careful attention to detail. The film is a real window into Eastern European culture. You can almost feel yourself seated at the inter-generational dinner table with Hana, her adult sons, their families and her new-found lover. It was a scene that, in fact, reminded me of the family dinners during my own upbringing in Chicago, that most Eastern European of American cities, with its large immigrant population.

This is a film that will touch every heart, even the most jaded. It treads lightly, but touches deeply. Hana's struggles, at 67 years old, to find new meaning in life, are palpable. Her disappointments at the ups and downs of her romance with Brona can be felt through Hana/Kroncrova's superb acting.

There's a great deal; of symbolism in t he film, but director Slama doesn't hit you over the head with it. He lets you arrive at it on your own. Hana's plunges into the river are a type of baptism of self discovery. It is also a rite of passage for her grandson into manhood, as Brona becomes his mentor, teaching him defensive moves in boxing with a won punching bag in the back of his trailer where he houses his pet chickens. One of them, is an odd character of sorts in the film. One of the chickens is his pet, which he carries everywhere, including to Hana's family dinner table. The chicken is not only a companion, but appears to have become a sort of surrogate wife. Fortunately, he is saved from that sad and solitary state of affairs by the arrival of Hana as a love interest.

This is a lovely film that even brought some of my fellow reviewers to tears. Its sentimental without being cloyingly so and it faces head on issues that many of us, well into are mature years are facing; those of feeling estranged and lonely, even when surrounded by family. There's also the search for meaning and purpose in a life that seems to be slipping away like grains of sand through your fingers.  Ice Mother is a terrific film that certainly deserves the Tribeca Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay.




NEW YORK--One of the most important and frightening films you will ever see is not a sci-fi fantasy or horror film, but something that may be happening right next door to you or within your own family; opioid addiction. The epidemic and it's devastating effects on families and the community is graphically portrayed in a take-no-prisoners documentary Warning: This Drug May Kill You which premieres on HBO Monday May 1 following its debut at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.   

As a reviewer, I must admit that this film was difficult to watch, particularly due to the fact that one of the families profiled was one that I had seen in passing in my old neighborhood in California. I didn't really know them, and certainly was unaware of their personal drama, until this film. It just shows how pervasive the problem is and how it can manifest itself anywhere.

The statistics say it all, more people die from opioid overdose than from car accidents or gun violence. The last figure is particularly sobering since I hail from the gang-riddled streets of Chicago, where murder is at an all-time high. 

The worst part about the opioid epidemic is that it happens to the most ordinary people and begins in the most innocuous ways. As the film shows, none of the victims began their journeys as doped-out runaways or hard-partying recreational drug users. From journalist and filmmaker Perri Pelt z (HBOs "Risky Drinking"), the film shines an unflinching laser beam on the lives of very ordinary people in the midst of an overwhelming and avalanching crisis. 

With nearly a hundred Americans dying everyday from opioid overdoses every day, the U.S. currently faces the worst drug epidemic in its history. That  number that has quadrupled since 1999.
            From journalist Perri Peltz (HBO’s “Risky Drinking”), the film tells the stories of families who have lost a loved one due to opioid overdose. According to their stories, it all starts innocently enough; a young mother going through a painful pregnancy, a teen who is prescribed pain killers after an injurious fall, another teen who is prescribed painkillers after back surgery. The drug companies all tout the drugs as safe in a massive pr campaign, but the facts say otherwise. The drugs are a gateway to crippling addiction and once doctors no longer will prescribe them to patients  the victims turn to the illicit drug trade, using heroin and God knows what else, to satisfy their craving. The result is complete and devastating. The grief and self-blame from their families is also everlasting. 

WARNING: THIS DRUG MAY KILL YOU is not an easy pill to swallow. But it is probably the most important film you'll see this year. It cuts to the heart of one of the most pervasive problems affecting families of all races and classes at this very moment.  As portrayed by director Peltz, society, the pharmaceutical industry and the government all share the blame, but the fault really lies with each of us, who do nothing to respond to the early warning signs and take steps to act as the unflinching advocates for intervention and aid from the medical and governmental establishment. 
WARNING: THIS DRUG MAY KILL YOU beginning MONDAY, MAY 1 (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO. The documentary will also be available on HBO ON DEMAND, HBO NOW, HBO GO and affiliate portals.
 Director Perri Peltz at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere
 Gail Cole, a subject of the documentary, on the Tribeca Red Carpet and (below) in the documentary
 Emma Roberts, a subject of the film at the Tribeca premiere
 Bryan Buckley, a subject of the film
 Gail Cole (c) and her family at the premiere