Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Billie (2020) offers a riveting look at the jazz icon

In 1971, high school teacher and journalist Linda Lipnak Kuehl set out to write a biography of iconic singer Billie Holiday. After spending the next eight years collecting over 200 hours of rare interviews with her colleagues and friends, Kuehl's work went released until now. Directed by James Erskine, Billie adapts her unfinished book to showcase an inexplicable thread between two women across racial barriers.

Similar to the likes of Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, Holiday's legacy sometimes outshines her humanity. As much as she's known in jazz circles as an incomparable talent, she's also known for the challenges she endured. While the documentary's main through-line is expectantly linear from her upbringing until her death, it dives into what still makes Holiday a formidable figure today. 

When Holiday sang, she did so as if survived every sorrow the world could throw at her. Her sensual and graceful voice was a part of her survival as she sang heartbreaking anti-lynching anthems such as “Strange Fruit” and yet also highlighted inequalities of the time. Since Kuehl originally helmed how she wanted to explore Holiday's life, she was more than willing to ask tough questions about Holiday's experiences as a teenage prostitute, her fiery sexuality, breaking into the music business, and a drug addiction that made her the target of the FBI. In return, Kuehl was able to get raw answers from dozens of eyewitnesses – the pimps who made her work the street, producers who signed her and then couldn't protect her from racist audiences and reactions, high school friends, and fellow singers – and provide a critical view into Holiday’s life that doesn’t cut corners. 

What sets Billie apart from most documentaries is how unflinching the story unfolds and how relevant it is to the racial climate in the United States. Erskine doesn't aim to filter the challenges she endures, postulate her reputation, or pass judgement. Using Kuehl’s audio as a timeline, he creates an overall portrait of Holiday by piecing together stock, archival footage, and televised performances to match Kuehl’s interviews. Though the outlook of Holiday is told from direct sources closest to her, and can sometimes be skewed based on their own recollection or memories, the visceral insight from the likes of Count Basie and drummer Jonathan “Jo” Jones explores her perseverance while the world and music industry criminalized her as a Black woman.

Since the documentary primarily focuses on Holiday, Kueh’s personal life doesn’t take center stage as much as it could. We are offered insight into Kuehl such as how she became interested in Holiday initially and what drove her to continue with the project even when self-doubt crept in. After she started the project and the years waned, her passionate involvement in digging for more insight led to an uncertain death riddled with unanswered questions. Her mysterious passing subtly opens the film as a marker, but it's not a consistent topic throughout. Though the full extent of her death is not fully delved into, her dedication lays the foundation for the entire film. And perhaps that’s the way it’s meant to be – for her work to shine a brighter light on Holiday’s legacy.

Rating: ★★1/2☆
Please Note: I was provided with a screener and provide an honest review. Billie is in select theaters and available on streaming on December 4th, 2020.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Happiest Season (2020) Misses the Point of Queer Holiday Joy

With Christmas right around the corner, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) hopes to treat her longtime girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) to a special weekend getaway with her family. There’s just one problem: Harper hasn’t come out to her parents yet. To save face until she’s comfortable enough to own her sexuality, Abby goes along with pretending to be a straight roommate while hoping to seek her family's acceptance to eventually propose.

Tis the season to be jolly and gay. At least, that’s what Happiness Season would like a lot of us to believe. Marketed as a holiday movie for the gays (and straights) – yay! – it’s hard to believe how much nuance is packed into the first major studio backed lesbian holiday flick – another yay! – and yet makes a total ba-humbug mess of this coming out tale. 

(This review contains spoilers)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Nest (2020) Proves The Family Makes A House into Home-Sweet-Home

Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) has everything going for him – healthy and happy kids Samantha and Benjamin (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell, respectively), and a wife Allison (Carrie Coon) who challenges him. Their life seems like paradise from the outside looking in, but an endless nagging of unfulfilled potential convinces Rory otherwise. Despite the challenges of uprooting his family across the world to start over, he takes a chance on a job opportunity in the United Kingdom even though it could potentially cost him the peaceful life they already have.


Friday, November 6, 2020

Quick Reviews: Shows I Watched In Lockdown (Part 2)

Since the Coronavirus lockdown started earlier this year, there's been more time to watch new television shows and revisit some of my older faves. I didn't think there would be so much time to watch as many series as I have so far, or that we'd be eight months later since March still trying to get control of the Coronavirus fall-out. 

Below are my quick (mostly disappointed) reviews of shows I watched over the summer. Spoilers are included for The Office, Ratched, The Boys, Lovecraft Country, and Watchmen.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Once Upon A River (2020) Unleashes A Promising Debut

Based on the novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, 15 year old Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) lives on the Stark River bank with her father Bernard (Tatanka Means). After she endures a family scandal that leaves her ostracized from the community and other relatives, she goes in search of her mother who left a year earlier. As she winds down the river, she encounters strangers who help her heal and start over.

As Once Upon A River is told from Crane’s perspective, the film primarily belongs to Kenadi DelaCerna. She occupies almost every frame from beginning to end, which is a tall order for an actress making her screen debut. Crane is a quiet and thoughtful heroine who internalizes her experiences, leading most of DelaCerna’s performance to rest in subtle expressions, and to do so without losing your attention of what she is thinking and feeling. DelaCerna possesses a mature presence that brings Crane to life. A solid round of supporting actors also strengthens DelaCerna’s presence on-screen from a gentle teacher who takes her in as a hitch-hiker (William) Ajuawak Kapashesit to a trailer park dweller Smoke (John Ashton) who becomes one of Crane’s greatest allies and glimpses of hope.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A Call To Spy (2019) Celebrates Women-Led Resistance

Inspired by true stories Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) helps lead Winston Churchill’s new secret army of spies known as the Special Operations Executive. Two of her newest recruits – Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) become the first “lady spies” of a resistance network in German-occupied France as Hitler poises to cross the English channel. 

History has a way of repeating itself in Hollywood. When the same old stories are told, we’re stuck believing that the same people save or revolutionize the world over and over again. As female filmmakers look more between the lines of the past and its forgotten trailblazers, we begin to see just how much entertainment has scratched the surface. In a recent bout of solid female-driven World War II films, A Call To Spy continues to turn the tide of how cinema defines the “the greatest generation.”

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Salute to a King - Chadwick Boseman (1976 - 2020)

photo by Neil Krug

Very few stars in Hollywood shine so brightly. After a handful of roles under his belt, Chadwick Boseman accomplished more in his massive skyrocket to fame than many are ever able to. It's only fitting that Esquire once declared, "Chadwick is telling America's greatest stories." But how these stories were told is just as illuminating and important as Chadwick being the chosen one to tell them.