Friday, October 18, 2019


By Dwight Casimere

 Eric Garner's widow-Esaw Garner Snipes

The Judge portrayed by Isabelle Kirshner-Criminal Defense Attorney

Unless you are a salamander living under a rock or a consistent viewer of Fox News, you must be aware of the Eric Garner story. To refresh your memory, Eric Garner was strangled to death on the afternoon of July 17, 2014 by NYPD officer Anthony Pantaleo and a gang of his fellow New York officers on a street corner in Staten Island. Garner was allegedly targeted by police for selling 'loosie's,' illegal single cigarettes, at most, a  ticketable offense. A Staten Island Grand Jury refused to indict Pantaleo and a later federal probe was inconclusive. The Garner family eventually received a $5.6 million dollar settlement from the City of New York.  Roee Messenger's film American Trial: The Eric Garner Story posits the question; "What if there had been a trial?"

The film immediately takes us away from the viral cell phone video of Garner's gruesome death and the street protests and rhetoric  right into the courtroom. So widespread were the protests that LeBron James and the LA Lakers even took to the practice court wearing warmup shirts emblazoned with the phrase "I Can't Breathe.' 

The film uses a mix of fact and fiction to create an imaginary trial for Pantaleo, something the legal experts call 'moot court.'  The particulars of the case are hashed out in gruesome detail with actual legal experts such as Alan Dershowitz and a parade of retired police officers including Det. Carlton Berkley of the 100 Black and Latino Police Officers Organization who gives a blood-curdling  frame-by-frame description of what transpired in the Garner viral video.

The film uses actual people instead of actors in the courtroom drama, including Garner's widow and James Knight, his close friend who was with him the day of the murder. The only actor in the film is Anthony Altieri, who portrays Pantaleo. His words are taken from public statements and an interview with his defense lawyer Stuart London.  

The trial dramatization features Garner's widow Esaw Garner Snipes, who after holding up a severely deformed arthritic hand to be sworn in, gives a testimony wracked with bitter tears. We learn that Erioc Garner was a family man. They were married 26 years and have 4 children. She has yet to recover emotionally  from her loss. Her pain is palpable, even in the fake courtroom setting. In fact, at the end of the film, we see her in a backroom having an emotional breakdown over the experience of reliving her husband's death through her testimony. Coincidentally. the filming occurred just on the heels of losing her daughter, Erica Garner, to cardiac arrest.  Expert witnesses also include Dr. Michael Baden, the former NYC Chief Medical Examiner, who  performed the second autopsy on Eric Garner in the civil case. 

Officer Pantaleo was finally fired by the City of New York in the summer of 2019 after an internal Police Commission investigation and stripped of his pension.   The grand jury transcripts have never been revealed and there are no future plans for an actual trial.

 Roee Messenger's American Trial: The Eric Garner Story envisions a justice that the Garner family, the nation, and, indeed, the world, will never see. The viral video of Garner's death is shown several times in the film. Its painful to watch, no matter how many times you see it. The fact that his case has never been brought to justice, as the film reminds us, causes it to become a gaping social wound that has yet to be healed. 

Friday, October 4, 2019



by Dwight Casimere

More than 300 scenes, 108 days of shooting, 117 locations, and a decade of planning culminated in the multiple Oscar-worthy masterpiece,  Martin Scorsese's  The Irishman, in theaters in limited release Nov.1st  then streaming on Netflix beginning Nov. 27. 

Produced by Scorsese with Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro and their TriBeCa productions, among others, this is a film that should not be missed. It is particularly so  in light of events that are now unfolding in our nation's capitol. The Irishman speaks to the moral dilemma of our time. Clocking in at just under three and a half hours, the film's content is so absorbing that the time is of no matter.  With a production budget of $159 million, it is one of the most expensive films of  Scorsese's career. Cost and running time notwithstanding, this is a film that commands your full attention throughout.

The Irishman is a 2019 American epic crime film produced and directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Steven Zaillian.  Based on the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, it purports to trace the life of the man responsible for the murder and disappearance of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa. The film traces his simultaneous rise through the ranks of the union and the mob to become Hoffa's right hand man and confidant. As he is handed the coveted ring, marking him as the highest rank of "made" men ("there are only three of these," he is told by the Joe Pesci character, crime boss Russell Bufalino,  "you are the only Irishmen to get one of these." Hence, the film's title). But, with that honor, comes a heavy price.
"This movie is not so much about the actual events, " Scorsese told a news conference after the films World Premiere screening at the 57th New York Film Festival, "but about what happens to us emotionally within. Yes, we know its all going to happen, no matter what, as the Pesci character points out, but how it weighs on us, and the regret it fosters. This is paramount throughout the film."

Digital effects by Industrial Light and Magic and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato along with a posture coach allowed the characters to age and de-age as the film's narrative time-shifts.  "I was playing Jimmy Hoffa at the age of 39," Pacino told the critics assembled at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall for a  pre-festival screening.  "They're doing that on a computer. We went through all these tests and things (recreating a scene from Scorsese's earlier film Goodfellas) You're 39, some sort of memory of 39, and your body tries to acclimate to that." The result upon  viewing  the film is seamless. The special effects alone are worthy of an Oscar nod for their aesthetic achievement. 

The all-star cast is punctuated in a bravura performance by  Al Pacino as embattled union leader Jimmy Hoffa. I have memories of Hoffa's appearances at Union rallies in Chicago,  where attendance was mandatory for two of my relatives, who were both union members and organizers. His fiery rhetoric and bombastic delivery were his signature and Pacino captures it perfectly in this film. Hoffa pulled no punches in his speeches and his troops were merciless in enforcing his iron will, which was his eventual downfall. (One  particularly vivid memory is that of a union 'scab' being shot as he attempted to pull his Mack truck out of a neighboring driveway in the pre-dawn hours during a Teamsters' strike. My father immediately darkened the house so that no one could see that we had witnessed the travesty).

 "There was a lot of film and old TV footage of Hoffa that I could draw from," Pacino told the news gathering.  Scorsese chimed in, "You could also see Al walking around the set with an earpiece in his ear the whole time, listening to audio of Hoffa's speeches!" Joe Pesci as crime boss Russell Bufalino gives another tightly wound performance. The superb front-line cast is rounded out with Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno and a surprisingly scintillating performance by Ray Romano as the crime family's 'consiglieri'  Bill Bufalino. 

The film is pure genius and a virtual primer on what good filmmaking is all about. It should win many Oscars. 

The Irishman

Directed byMartin Scorsese
Produced by
Screenplay bySteven Zaillian
Based onI Heard You Paint Houses
by Charles Brandt
CinematographyRodrigo Prieto
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Distributed byNetflix
Release date
  • September 27, 2019(NYFF)
  • November 1, 2019(United States)
Running time
209 minutes[1]

Sunday, July 7, 2019


Superb dancing by Principals and Soloists and a precision ensemble
elevates a time-honored classic to new heights

ABT Spring Season
June 24-29, 2019
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY

by Dwight Casimere

 Misty Copeland dances the role of Odete-Odile
 The Swans at the Lakeside
 Scenes from ABT's Swan Lake

Swan Lake is the ultimate ballet. Composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsy's  famous creation is, without question, the most well-known and performed ballet of all time. There isn't a budding ballet dancer alive who has not danced at least one scene from this master creation. It's music has been used in every genre there is from ballet, to film, to popular music. Its even been sampled in commercials, and, yes, you might even find a bar or two buried somewhere in the background track of a rap litany. 

It is, therefor, fitting that American Ballet Theatre would choose to include this repertoire mainstay in the final weeks of its Spring Season at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. No matter how many times you may have seen this or any other production, there is no mistaking that the June 24-29, 2019 performances were so vital and fresh that, even for the most jaded viewer, it was like seeing the ballet for the first time.

Principal Dancers Hee Seo as Odette-Odile, the Swan who is transformed into a beautiful princess, and Cory Stearns as her pursuer, Prince Seigfried, have made the roles their own. 

The scenery and costumes by Zack Brown, with lighting by Duane Schuler, makes the production a delight to observe. Maestro David LaMarche's spirited conducting from the Company Orchestra pit sheds new light on the composer's shimmering melodies and lush orchestrations. 

Like some many pieces that are regarded as mainstay's today, Swan Lake was met with less than enthusiastic criticism at its premiere in 1877 at the Bolshoi. The music was considered too complicated to be performed or appreciated by audiences of the day and the dancers found it impossible to keep step.  It faded into obscurity until it was revived decades later by the legendary dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa and his collaborator Lev Ivanov. It is this iteration that serves as the Holy Grail of today's productions.  Kevin McKemzie's further reworking for ABT transforms this timeless classic into a spectacle for the ages.

Known for its technical demands on the dancers, ABT makes the various scenes flow like an endless dream. All of the dancers perform complex feats with ease, moving with such precision the entire Corps de Ballet of Swans move as one. The Great Hall scene, which features spirited solos from the likes of Courtney Lavine as the Spanish Princess and the masterful ensembles that were the Czardas and the Spanish Dance troupe were the highlights of Act III. The Black Swan Pas de Deux by Hee Seo and Cory Stearns at the end of Act III was, without question the highlight of the evening. Soloist Thomas Forster as the wicked sorcerer von Rothbart made for a commanding and artful presence. 

ABTs Swan Lake was a spectacle to behold.  Breathtaking and beautiful it left one almost speechless. As Odette-Odile and the Prince ascended to their new life in the emerging dawn, the soul almost rose to meet them in mid-flight.


Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 22, 2019 2:00pm

Part One: Manon

Stella Abreara in the title role

 Principal Dancers Misty Copeland and Cory Stearns in Manon

by Dwight Casimere

American Ballet Theatre ABT ended its Spring Season at New York's Metropolitan Opera House with ballet productions that epitomized its standing as  the nation's preeminent ballet company. Those who saw Manon and Swan Lake, were treated to a ravishing display of classic ballet at its pinnacle. Sleeping Beauty was the season finale.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, which received its World Premiere at The Royal Ballet in 1974, was presented with all of its dramatic import and scenic glory intact. Adapted from the 1731 novel of the same name my Abbe Prevost , the story of the rise and fall of a woman born into poverty working her way through the misogynistic ethos of the era to fleeting wealth only to fall victim to its imbeded traps, is the ultimate tragic tale.

 In Manon's world, she is bartered like a piece of chattel by her greedy brother, Lescaut to be passed between the hands of the older gentleman she is traveling with and the wealthy Monsieur GM. When she arrives in Paris in the courtyard of the inn where her brother and GM await, she meets the handsome young student Des Grieux among the glamorous habitués and demimonde of Paris, and instantly falls in love. 

The opera's score is a pastiche of music gleaned from more than a dozen of Massenet's operas, orchestral divertissements and piano works (one recognizes themes from Thais, Don Quixote, Le Cid, Cleopatre, Cendrillon, among others). The themes are beautifully spun out like gilded threads by members of the Company Orchestra. Principal Conductor Charles Barker imbued the score with an air of depth and clarity.

Manon is one of the most enduring tragic stories in all art. It is a tome that has found its way into the pages of literature, to the opera stage, and then to the ballet.  It follows the path of a fallen heroine, a theme which lies at the heart of so many great operatic tragedies. In fact, when MacMillan first proposed his new ballet to his principal dancers at The Royal Ballet, he presented them with a double volume that included a novella of that most eponymous of all tragic heroines, Carmen.

Those who saw several productions of Manon during its run at the MET were treated to a cornucopia of superlative performances from ABT's principal dancers, who brought differing levels of dramatic tension and choreographic nuance to the characters and the ballet's expertly staged scenes. It is hard to believe that all of the principals were appearing in their role debuts, as their performances were so in sync with their partners. 

The matinee performance of Manon featured Principal Dancers Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg in the title roles of Manon and her ardent suitor Des Grieux. Principal Dancer Christine Shevchenko danced the role of Lescaut's Mistress and Soloist Blaine Hoven was Lescaut.

When we first meet Manon she is on her way to a convent,  Boylston's 
gossamer moves aptly reflected her innocence. Her transformation from ingenue to operator to oppressed victim was seamless and convincing.

Things heated up quickly in Act I.  Once  Manon spied De Grieux they instantly fell in love. The ballet and the performances by Boylston and Hallberg  then moved into high gear. 

The party scene which opened ACT II was a masterpiece of stagecraft. The costumes and scenery were a glory to behold. Lighting by Thomas R. Skelton underscored the gaiety of the moment and portend the gravitas to follow.

With Massenet's glorious themes swelling from the orchestra pit, the ballet soared to  theatrical and balletic heights. 

The party scene was  where the principals and soloists began to shine. The pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux was danced by Boylston and Hallberg to the apex of seduction. Sir MacMillan's ingenious choreography was expertly danced by the pair. 

Ultimately, it was Manon's journey that served as the dramatic arc of the ballet. Artful dancing and exceptional staging made for an indelible experience. 

There's plenty of 'storm und drang' in this ballet, complete with stabbings, murders and passion to spare. 

Staged by the team of  Julie Lincoln and Robert Tewsley, the Scenery and Costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, as  recreated by ABT, brilliantly depicted the  razor-thin delineation between great opulence and absolute degradation. Manon's fall from grace as a bejeweled courtesan and the object of Des Gireux's ardor, to her subsequent arrest as a disgraced woman charged with prostitution and her banishment to the wilds of the Louisiana Territory are portrayed with stunning clarity. 

Manon's story is the ultimate dramatic tragedy. It inspired not only Sir Kenneth MacMillan's ballet, but two  grand operas; Jules Massenet's Manon and Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut. As one who has seen both opera versions numerous times, it was refreshing to see it transposed to the balletic stage. ABT's presentation of this classic once again proved the enduring power of dance.

ABT Principal Dancer Isabella Boylston (r)

Friday, July 5, 2019

"The Pieces I Am"-Bio Film Explores the Creative Soul of Nobel Prize-Winning Author Toni Morrison

by Dwight Casimere

 Dwight Casimere with the film's director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
 Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison

No one knows the power of words better than Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. In the brilliant documentary, The Pieces I Am' by celebrated photographer and long-time Morrison confidant  Timothy Greenfield Sanders, she tells how, as a toddler, when she and her sister began scratching the letters of a curse word she had seen on the sidewalk in front of her childhood home on Lorain, Ohio, her mother had become enraged beyond words. Later in life, she received word that the Texas Correctional Authority had banned her book Paradise from the prison reading library because, in their words, it would start a riot. "Now that's power,: Morrison says in the film, "that I could tear the whole place up!"

Using archival footage, artful animation, on camera interviews with Morrison herself and celebrated writers such as Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb and others, combined with Greenfield-Sanders' own gripping photographs, the film is an absorbing and thoroughly informative portrait of the artist which dares to delve deep inside both her outwardly creative and introspectively inner soul.

With sensitive cinematography by Graham Willoughby, skillful editing by Johanna Giebelhaus, and a haunting score by Kathryn Bostic that incorporates both traditional and modern black music, the film has thundering impact in spite of its quiet, measured pace.

Born Chloe Ardella Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the film reaches deep into the author's cultural roots. She tells of her grandfather who proudly told her that he had read the Bible cover to cover five times. "In those days, it was against the law for a white person to teach a black person to read, much less for a black person to read. That alone brought a heavy penalty. In that sense, reading was a revolutionary act." That declaration by Morrison is layered with photos of lynchings to drive the thought home. One of Greenfield's own photo portraits of a pair of weathered black hands resting on a Bible further illustrates both the gravity and grace of the moment. 

Reflections on her later thirst for reading and knowledge involved her work as a teenaged ;library assistant where she spent the majority of her time reading the classics rather than dutifully stacking the shelves. Her voracious appetite for knowledge caused her to delve deeper and deeper into the world of literature, an act that would later inform her writing. 

After protesting her mother's early demands that she attend nearby Oberlin College, where Morrison felt parental interference would constantly distract her, she managed a scholarship to Howard University, the nation's most historic of Historically Black Colleges and ground zero for progressive black thought. Howard, the undisputed black Harvard, had its impact on a young, impressionable and idealistic Morrison. It gave full flower and substance to her burgeoning personal and racial identity and fueled and informed her creativity. Morrison's career as both  an author and editor at one of the nation's most powerful publishing houses, which brought to the public the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali, among others, is further illustrative of her commitment to promoting the thoughts and beliefs of her people. The path to her Nobel Prize is given further weight by the fact that her fellow black writers all joined to petition the National Book Award to grant her a prize which they felt she richly deserved.

In the film, Morrison is very clear about her mission as a writer. "I wanted to write books that spoke to me. I always felt that black writers were always writing to white people. The writers were always explaining things that they didn't have to explain to me. Even Frederick Douglass. He wasn't writing to me. The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison). Invisible to whom!?"

"The Pieces I Am" is one of the most absorbing biographical films you will ever see. It is both provocative and haunting and, like Morrison's many books, it compells one to revisit it again and again.

Particularly provocative is the anecdote she relates as to the incident that planted the seed for her celebrated novel, Beloved. The novel is loosely based on the story of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, who flees slavery in Kentucky only to be captured in the free state of Ohio is 1856. Rather than surrender to the 'Paddy Rollers' (slave hunters), she elects to kill her own children rather than have them raised in slavery. The central issue surrounding her later trial was should she be tried for murder, which would mean that slaves were human beings, or for destroying property.

Beloved's place in black literature is immutable . Not only does it give flesh and blood to the saga of slavery it, in the words of editor Gottlieb, "crystalizes" the impact of slavery on black history and gives it a face and a soul. |t also, in Morrison's words, tells the story of the impact of slavery from the unique perspective of a black woman who must make a momentous and difficult choice.

Morrison opted not to make her novel a literal retelling of the facts of the story but merely used it as a jumping off point to explore a larger truth. She says the answer came to her in a vision.

"Early one morning I looked out my window at the end of the pier. And out of the river, a young woman arose, fully dressed, and sat on the edge of the pier. She was wearing a nice hat. Then she disappeared.  I new then that I had the solution for Beloved."

That's just one of the spoken gems of "The Pieces I Am." By viewing the film, one learns that the personality fragments that the author reveals are also deeply woven into the fabric of our own inner beings. 

 Receiving the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden and (below) the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama

Friday, June 28, 2019



by Dwight Casimere

Newport Jazz Festival 2019 is pulling out all the stops to ensure that this year's festival is the greatest ever.  Celebrate under the stars at  Newport's famed International Tennis Hall of Fame with TV personality and Grammy-winning Louisiana Roots musician Jon Batiste and Friends at 8pm, Friday August 2. Earlier that day, jazz legend Herbie Hancock stars on the festival's opening day performances at Fort Adams. .The Oscar and Grammy-winning jazz icon will also  partner with festival Artistic Director Christian McBride and Vinnie Colaiouta for a Special Performance Saturday, August 3 , also at the festival's Fort Adams venue.

As if that  weren't enough to entice music lovers to jam the feast's online ticket office, the hurricane force saxophone whirlwind  Kamasi Washington brings his musical gravity defying ensemble to the Fort Adams stage on Saturday as well. Washington's 2015 album The Epic won him the inaugural American Music Prize. He is currently scheduled to make his first appearance as a film director at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival next January,  collaborating with new wave film  directors Bradford Young, Jenn Nkiru, Terrence Nance and Marc Thomas in the film As Told To G/D Thyself, inspired by his  genre bending  2018 album Heaven and Earth. 
Speaking of genre bending, perhaps one of the biggest all-around stars of all time, Chicago's very own Common will break down all barriers between music, spoken word and performance art in his appearance at Fort Adams Sunday, August 4. The Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy and Grammy-winning artist and actor promises to bring a diverse set to the Newport stage that will further cement his image as one of the most impactful performers of our time. 

Dianne Reeves, the world's  undisputed premier jazz vocalist will bring her powerful improvisational chops to the forefront on Saturday, August 3. Featured in the Academy Award nominated George Clooney film "Good Night, Good Luck," Reeves won a Grammy as Best Jazz Vocal for the film's soundtrack.

Another multi Grammy winner and perennial Newport favorite is Cecile McClorin Salvant who is also among the stellar lineup of vocalists, which include Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Memphis Soulphony. Even Salvant's longtime pianist and music director Aaron Diehl is featured in a solo turn. 

There's no shortage of jazz legends in this year's festival program and true jazz lovers would do well to be front and center for some bedrock jazz names; Ron Carter and his trio, Terence Blanchard, Gary Bartz and Another Earth 50 Year Anniversary, Ravi Coltrane, all make for a landmark experience.

There are  performers to satisfy the most eclectic musical palate. The legendary Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra. Ghost-Note and Thundercats, to name a few of the wide-ranging offerings that will satisfy the discriminating few . For the full festival lineup and tickets visit


Friday, May 31, 2019


Mouthpiece examines a conflicted mother/daughter relationship with quirky candor

by Dwight Casimere

Mouthpiece is a provocative film by Patricia Rozema (Into the Forest, Mansfield Park) that gives an imaginative exploration of the inner emotional turmoil that is faced by a young woman, Cassandra Haywood(Amy Nostbakken) who is confronted with the sudden death of her mother  Elaine (Maev Beaty). In Mouthpiece, director Rozema chooses to depict the internal conflict  of a mother/daughter love/hate relationship. From a script writing by the director Rozema, Mouthpiece  stars Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. The film takes the quirky tack of involving the central character, Elizabeth in a running conflict with her alter-ego, played with tongue-in-cheek candor by  Sadava. Those who have endured a similar circumstance may find the film excruciating to watch because it really cuts close to the bone. Fortunately, director Rozema handles the delicate subject with a deft hand that injects a certain level of dry humor with candor and  a stunningly accurate incite into this prickly subject. The film is presented with such clarity, both dramatically and cinematically that its hard to turn away from. 

Beautifully filmed on location in Toronto, Cinematographer Catherine Lutes and Production Designer Zazu Myers  take full advantage of that city's atmospheric  surroundings to draw an effective portrait of psychic angst. Set decoration by Matthew Bianchi, costumes by Marissa Schwartz and Mara Zigler and a killer sound track  with original music by star Amy Nostbakken and incidental and background music assembled by Amy Fritz and Michelle Irving make for an absorbing experience. The nearly all-female production team is to be credited with delivering a truly polished film with lasting impact.

Cassandra Haywood represents the thoroughly modern woman, whose fast-paced life is suddenly interrupted by a seemingly insurmountable personal tragedy. The film represents the conflicting voices that rage inside her head in the 48 hours leading up to her mother's funeral. As seemingly adept as she is at managing the affairs of her personal life, she's all thumbs when it comes to handling this disarming personal crisis. 

The film is loosely adapted from the play of the same name by co-stars Nostbakken and Sadava. The film is produced by director Rozema's own production company, Crucial Things and First Generation Films. 

With stellar supporting performances throughout, notably Taylor Belle Puterman and Sarah Camacho  as Little and Medium Cassandra, respectively,  and Paula Boudreau as Aunt Jane (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves alsdo steals a scene or two as the Bartender), Mouthpiece is a film worth seeing. 

Open Friday, May 31 at Village East Cinema NYC and Friday, June 7 at Monica Film Center, LA.

Friday, May 17, 2019


Atmospheric Film Delivers A Gothic Thriller With A Feminist Twist

Taissa Farmiga as Merricat and Alexandra Daddario as Constance, the two sisters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle from Brainstorm Media

by Dwight Casimere

Columbia College Chicago graduate (1993)and GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film-Limited Release-winner Stacie Lyne Passon has delivered one polished Gothic suspense drama in the form of Brainstorm Media's We Have Always Lived In The Castle, in theaters and VOD beginning May 17.  Executive Produced by Michael Douglas, the film stars Taissa Farmiga as the troubled teen Merricat Blackwood, who is haunted by the mystery surrounding the arsenic poisoning death of her parents. It quickly becomes evident that, with her passion for her Book of Spells and her belief in the power of the Forces of Darkness, she may more than a passive hand in the events that have unfolded.  Alexandra Daddario plays her prim and proper sister Constance, who likewise suffered the post traumatic stress of the horror and veteran British actor Crispin Glover as her partially paralyzed Uncle Julian.  His memory has been all but wiped clean by the poison. In the aftermath of surviving the incident, he desperately grabs at straws of the details of that fateful night,  trying to reconstruct  its unfolding under the guise of writing a novel. He recounts the course of events, down to the last morsel of food that was served ("roasted  lamb leg of lamb with mint") with the dispassionate air of an  observer, all the while seeking to exorcise his seething rage as its victim. Sebastian Stan stars in the pivotal role of the charming cousin Charles who arrives on the scene, much to the chagrin of young Merricat. The son of Julian, Charles is the crasher of this sullen pity party, totally unwanted by Merricat, who becomes ever more jealous and enraged as sister Constance becomes entranced by his charms. Its obvious that Charles is only interested in one thing, unearthing the family wealth that has been rumored by the local townies and the tabloids. 

The facts of the murder emerge slowly in the course of the film, like figures emerging from the foggy shadows surrounding the Blackwood Estates, perched ominously on a hill high above a tiny village on the outskirts of 1950s Dublin.The film is not without its moments of high drama, which erupt with the sudden force of a newly awakened dormant volcano.

Mention of Passon's Columbia College Chicago roots is significant because the college is noted for chruning out significant TV and film personalities. Notable among them is Conan O'Brien's sidekick, Andy Richter, Wheel of Fortune's Pat Sajack, Mission Impossible III and Gone Baby Gone actress and Film Producer Michelle Monoghan, 
Director and Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Rapper Rhymefest, Film Producer and Playwright Nelsan Ellis and TV and Film Director John McNaughton among many others., 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is expertly filmed by award-winning British  cinematographer Piers McGrail with atmospheric music by BAFTA nominee for Best New Composer for film and TV Andrew Hewitt. Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, the film is a tribute to the art of suspense drama. With superb production design from Anna Rackard and art design from Louise Mathews, the film gradually reveals hints of the darkness that lurks beneath. 

Constance's crinoline dresses, the luxurious stained-wood veneers and elegantly appointed sitting rooms of the star-crossed mansion are just so much window dressing for the ugly secrets buried inside the house and under its grounds. Te film is well-grounded with scenes that scream authenticity. (And yes, that is actress Alexandra Daddario on the keyboard playing Chopin's Nocturne No. 9!)

The Blackwoods argue in the kitchen. From left, Crispin Glover (Uncle Julian), Sebastian Stan (Cousin Charles), Taissa Farmiga (Merricat), Alexandra Daddario (Constance)

 "The Blackwoods have always lived in this house," Merricat says defiantly as the story unfolds. "and we will never leave here, no matter what they say, or what they do to us. Never. But a change is coming, and nobody knows it but me." Stick around and fasten your seat belt. You're in for a bumpy, gut-wrenching ride for the next 96 minutes.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Award-winning film is a 20 year chronicle of hard-scrabble life just blocks from the Nation's Capitol

by Dwight Casimere

A 9 year old Emmanual Durant with the video camera used to record 17 Blocks

17 Blocks director Davy Rothbart

Meet Cheryl Denice Catherine Cashwell Alizea Santiago Sanford. We see the 57 year old as she mounts the stairs of an old house in Southeast Washington D.C., a house she claims to have lived in "all of my life." She's greeted by the new owner, a young white millennial, a sign of the gentrification that has occurred in many old line black communities around the country. Her erstwhile host watches in dismay as she quickly devolves into a tearful monologue of self-recrimination. "My actions started a chain reaction that put things in motion that should not have happened," she says ruefully. "Everything that was about to take place changed in one night!" We then hear the cold, metallic voice of a 911 call center dispatcher dispassionately announcing a shooting at 17th and Kennedy, the house where Cheryl stands crying. "Somebody got shot," the voice says. This is the raw drama that unfolds in the excellent documentary 17 blocks (USA), from director Davy Rothbart, which won the 18th Tribeca FILM FESTIVAL DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION for Best Editing in a Documentary Film. 

The Sanford-Durant family was given a video camera in 1999 and used that camera to record their day-to-day lives over the next 20 years. The result is a revealing chronicle of life in an evolving urban landscape that is being played out at this very moment in inner cities around the country. Knock on any door in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, L.A. or any other bulging metropolis and you will meet families with like circumstances. In the case of the Sanford-Durant family, the tragedy of their lives unfolded just 17 blocks from the Nation's Capitol. Thus, the title of this award-winning documentary from director Davy Rothbart and film editor Jennifer Tiexiera.

We meet Cheryl's children, Akil, her first born, nicknamed Smurf, Denice Catherine, her namesake, and young Emmanuel. Smurf and Emmanuel, are seen at ages 15 and 9, respectively,  playing with the other neighborhood boys on the basketball court, a scene of numerous triumphs and tragedies over the course of the film. Emmanuel is seen kicking the can on the way to what was then their new home on 17th and Kentucky, after several years of living pillar to post. The house was a step up, and the move considered a sign that things were looking up.

Cheryl recounts how her upbringing was very middle class. The daughter of civil servants, her mother had intended for her to grow up among a better class of people and join the social set. She tells a story of how she tried to blend in with the wealthier kids in high school. When a date who was considered a vey desirable upper class boy took her out for her high school prom, she thought she was well on her way to acceptance. When it came time for her to be taken home, he diverted the car and took her to a park to meet up with a group of other boys who raped her. "In those days, they called it gang-banging," she recounts bitterly. Thus began the downward spiral of her life into abusive relationships and drug addiction.

We see her oldest son Smurf, smoking reefer and lounging around the house with a group of low-lifes. He's decided to drop out of school and become a drug dealer. "I can't blame him for deciding to get into 'the life,'" Cheryl says with resignation. "I was the one who introduced him to it."

We also see young Emmanuel, speaking directly into the camera. His face is a shining beacon of hope as he expresses his desire to stay away from drugs, finish school and, as he so charmingly says in his limited perspective, birthed in innocence, "earn a thousand, two thousand, a million dollars a week, or a month, live in a mansion. Don't come knockin' on my door looking' for food!" His proclamation is both sweet and tragic.

A later scene shows the boys playing with the video camera. It shows a closeup shot of Emmanuel and Smurf  in reverse chroma, which gives their faces a ghost-like aura. The shot is eerily prophetic. And so go the unrelenting law of cause and effect that takes its toll in 17 Blocks. 

In its awarding of the $2,500 dollar prize, the Tribeca Jury commented: "the award for best editing goes to a film for its profound treatment of vast amounts of honest, often raw footage. The film is structured in a way that renders some of the most affecting moments with great subtlety." 17 Blocks makes its point without hitting you over the head. Sadly, it is a story that is as true to life today as it was 20 years ago, when its filming began.
 Emmanuel Durant, a central figure in the documentary 17 Blocks
 Director Davy Rothbart (c) with 17 Blocks editor Jennifer Tiexiera (r) at the World Premiere of 17 Blocks at the 18th Tribeca Film Festival