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

Monday, May 13, 2019


   Phillip Youmans' Burning Cane World Premiere wins Narrative Competition at the 18th Tribeca Film Festival
    by Dwight Casimere

Best Actor Foundation Award Winner Wendell Pierce as Rev. Tillman in Burning Cane
Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder with Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal, presenting the Founders Award to Phillip Youmans at the Awards Ceremony

History was made at the 18th Tribeca Film Festival. 'Burning Cane', the debut feature narrative by 19 year old director Phillip Youmans made him the first African American to win the coveted Founder's Award for Best Narrative Feature, he is also the youngest director to ever have a film presented in the prestigious film festival. Yuma's finished the film at the same time that he was finishing high school.  He is now a Freshman at New York University.

Youmans' masterpiece charts the events of a few days in the lives of the Wayne family and one Rev. Tilman in a small, rural Parish outside New Orleans. the film is recorded in almost documentary fashion b  y the young director's revelatory  camerawork, which also brought him honors for Best Cinematography in a U.S. Documentary Narrative Film.  Youmans was forced to shoot the film himself after his original choice for cinematic chores became  unavailable. His handheld camera gives the film a realistic feel that further adds to its impact. What may have been the result of sheer necessity turned out to be a fortuitous happenstance.  Youmans camera captures microscopic moments that are fleeting, yet quite telling; the opening scene of the sugar cane fields burning in the distance with the faint glimmer of a rainbow, a young boy riding his scooter inside the house. In later scenes, an alcoholic father is seen vomiting in ulcer-induced pain after a bout of binge drinking.  One can sense the undercurrent of raw human drama beneath the  placid overlay of long, humid afternoons. (A local radio announcer warns residents to stay inside 'the cool of your home' as defense against the 90 degree heat and to 'stock up on blue crabs and crawfish. The sale ends when the doors are locked!') Theirs are still waters, but they run deep. The film's story unfolds with the deft hand of a young William Faulkner. We hear the voice of Helen Wayne (a riveting Karen Kaia Livers), the matriarchal core of the film, recounting her endless quest to cure her beloved dog of 13 years, JoJo, of the mange. Applying consecutive doses of Apple Cider Vinegar, Hydrogen Peroxide, Borax, Vegetable Oil and Honey; all home remedies suggested by well-meaning friends and relatives, to no effect. "I won't take him to the doctor. They'll just tell me to take him out to the cane fields and shoot him. They can't tell me when JoJo should die. Only the Lord can do that!") Her mangy dog becomes a metaphor for the wounded souls we meet later in the film. Most astonishing is the fact that she recounts all of this tender, loving care of her dog while butchering a chicken in the bloodiest and most callous manner possible!  The film is loaded with such contradictions. Which, as we all know, is a fact of the human condition.  We then hear a male singer and organist singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot in the local church. That's when we meet the Right, Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce). 

Vastly underrated, the veteran actor Wendell Pierce (HBO TVS THE WIRE) plays Rev. Tillman, the alcoholic fire-and-brimstone preacher with feet of clay, For his efforts, Pierce also received the Founder's Award for Best U.S. Actor in a Narrative Documentary from the festival. He accepted the award via video from London, where he is currently starring as Willy Loman in the Young Vic production of Death of A Salesman. He was awarded for his stentorian delivery of the sermons that are proclamations of faith, even in the face of his own morass of self-doubt and alcoholism. His words, in part,  act as the narrative 'glue' of the film. His first sermon, invokes the edicts of the late millionaire piublisher Malcolm Forbes who was famously quoted as saying "He who dies with the most toys wins!" Pastor Tillman uses that quote as a parable to springboard into a searing message, admonishing those who place wealth over friendship, possessions over family values and  human relationships. As a storm brews in the distance, Helen confronts her alcoholic son,  Daniel, begins to recount his growing insecurity;  his brother Malcolm served honorably in the military ("I can't compete with that!"). and his father's real or imagined prowess as a breadwinner. " In his clouded mind, his father "worked his fingers to the bone" to provide for his family. He worked hisself to death," he proclaims.  Helen quickly retorts: "Your Daddy died of AIDS! You know your daddy was a whore!" And so goes their increasingly stormy relationship, which figures greatly in the films shocking and inevitable outcome. "I'm worried about JoJo," she continues. "I've done everything I can for him." She may be talking about her dog, but the concern in her eyes is for her son. The film is rife with symbolism. Even the title itself, and the opening image of the cane fields burning in the distance is metaphorical. Cane burning is both destructive and restorative. It gets rid of the wasted crop and provides the ground cover to fertilize the new. It as much an act of annihilation as it is one of purification.  Thus the title, which telegraphs the film's shocking conclusion.


We then meet Jeremiah the luminous wandering sprite of a young boy with hopeful eyes, played brilliantly by  Braelyn Kelly. He is like a latter day Candide wandering through the cane fields and orange groves of his rural Louisiana Parish with eyes of wonder. Youman's unflinching camera captures every nuance of the grim life that he faces within the confines of his tiny railroad car of a home. He's trapped into living  with  an unemployed alcoholic father who commands him to drain out the dregs of  wasted beer cans as respite from his endless watching of old cartoons and coloring books. We see his father crushing beer cans with angry pent up emotion. Then follows a  scene of the two dancing  as they take alternate swigs of whiskey, swaying to an old blues tune on the phonograph (Robert Johnson's They're Red Hot).  The dance is at once endearing and disturbing.  

  Along the way, we meet Daniel's common-law wife and Jeremiah's mother, Sherry (Emyri Crutchfield), Sherry's admonitions that Daniel find a job are met with violence that only escalates with Daniel's drinking. Soon after, we learn that Sherry is missing. Momma Helen is quick to confront her son on her fate. ( "Do you think I'm simple?!" she demands.)

There are further taboos only hinted at in the briefest suggestions of child sexual abuse,  spousal abuse and, the ultimate taboo in the black community, honor killing. Young Youmans handles all of these weighty subjects with a deft hand, and a maturity far beyond his years. These subjects all fall under the category of "the name that I shall not speak," in Rev. Tillman's final admonitions on the evil subterfuges of the devil, "He will use your family, your friends, your neighbors to turn you to his side. He's coming for you, our children, these precious babies.) His booming words border on homophobia. The film moves at a snail's pace, reflective of the life of those who inhabit it. Scenes are punctuated with angelic swells of choral music from the ages (Mary Lou Williams' Black Christ of the Andes from the words of St. Martin de Pores), Old Time Spirituals (Swing Low Sweet Chariot, This Little Light of Mine, and finally, It'll Be Alright In The Morning from the very real local Mount Sinai Youth Choir). All of this serves to ground the film in its own reality and bring it on home. Burning Cane is a powerful film that reminds us that the concepts of sin and redemption lie within our own grasp and that none of us is free from the  consequence for our actions. Youmans' Burning Cane presents a universal theme that transcends race and class. Its hard to believe that he conceived this film when he was just 16 years old and filmed it when he was 17. The themes, and the way he presents them is mindful of a young William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize laureate author from Oxford, Mississippi. Burning Cane is a masterpiece. Make way for the new generation of great black filmmakers in the person of one Phillip Youmans.


First Time Directors also win New Documentary Director Award



by Dwight Casimere

"If you stay here, you either get locked up or knocked up." Those candid words from Gemma, the film's primary focus,  provide the nucleus of the narrative for the 18th Tribeca Film Festival's Best Documentary Feature Scheme Birds from first time directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin. Seen through the unflinching eye of cinematographer Hallin, the feature-length debut from this Swedish duo places a laser-like focus on the grim world of wayward teens growing up in the  concrete wasteland of the housing projects of Motherwell, a forlorn Scottish town just on the outskirts of Glasgow. 

Music by Charlie Jefferson further illuminates the measured progression of this unfolding drama of hope and humanity.

With its  gang bangers, school dropouts and teen pregnancies, this fractured coming-of-age tome could just as easily been filmed in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, or any other hovel of despair in America.

Gemma was born just after the Thatcher administration shut down the steel mills in Motherwell, the town's sole source of livelihood. As she grows into her teen years, she witnesses the steel mill's demolition, a reflection of the crumbling pillars of her own life and those around her.

Gemma and her teen cohorts seem to delight in their endless cycle of violence, drugs and promiscuity. There's a certain bravado in Gemma's voice as she says with pride that she and her cohorts nicknamed themselves "Scheme Birds."

The seeds of the unraveling of the Scheme Bird's flawed paradise quickly develop. Gemma becomes pregnant by Pat, one of the ringleaders of the Scheme Birds who starts to rack up some serious jail time notches on his belt. The gang takes their violent outbursts to the brink by beating one of their own into a comatose near- human vegetable. Gemma begins to reassess her loyalty to a lifestyle on the fast track  to disaster.

Gemma is mentored under the world-weary eye of her grandfather, the local boxing gym manager, who finds solace in raising homing pigeons, which become a running metaphor throughout the film.
Most of the birds return home, grandpa Joseph muses, but there are a few who, once released, never come back.

The words "let the free birds fly" are  tattooed on Gemma's shoulder. One has the feeling  that Gemma has just what it takes to become one of the lucky few who will.