Author Archives: Amos

“MOSS”— From Adolescence to Adulthood

“MOSS”

From Adolescence to Adulthood

Amos Lassen

In “Moss” director Daniel Peddle looks at the transition from adolescence to adulthood and the awkwardness that goes along with it. While the physical transformation has occurred, the emotional side of things tends to lag behind. We often think that we are men before actually becoming so. Maturity is a non-linear path with many detours and regressions.

On his 18th birthday, Moss (Mitchell Slaggert) is ready to leave home and start a new life. He hopes to escape from what his father (Billy Ray Suggs) who he sees as oppressive. He lives in an isolated southern community where there are more alligators than Life in no way appears to be easy for Moss but he sees and adds an inherent beauty and simplicity to his existence. Moss and his friends don’t have much in the way of worldly possessions but they do have a generosity and sense of calm unlike suburban America. In many ways the inhabitants of this rustic riverside community are far richer they realize. Moss’s father is an outsider artist who collects driftwood to make his pieces.

The film has a natural tone and an other worldly quality that explodes with color. Director Peddle immerses us in the country world of the South and a day in the life of 18-year old Moss, complete with the river, the woods, the quiet and the isolation, while exploring the ideas of self-discovery, identity, love, and loss.

Mitchell Slaggert delivers an unforgettable performance steeped in quiet reflection. Joining Slaggert as Moss’ best friend, Blaze (Dorian Cobb), outgoing yin to Moss’s introspective yang. Expanding the world of young Moss is the mysterious Mary (Christine Marzano).

This is a lush, lyrical look at the “gothic” South, with its breathtaking blue skies, silken waters and green grasses of the region, all laced with the shadows and weight of life.

At first, it’s difficult to follow since the film is quiet, filled with restraint and compelling but unfocused in narrating a fateful day for Moss. The story takes place on Moss’ 18th birthday. His mother died giving birth to him, triggering a rift between the young guy and his father. Moss’ birthday only reminds his father to the grief he’s been denying all the time. The film deals with the boy’s new responsibility as a young adult to deliver meds to his grandmother; but, he’s drifted between temptation of immaturity, the search for adulthood.

All the conflicts are episodically presented in a single day, as the film introduces battles inside Moss. First, Moss battles over his immaturity upon visiting Blaze who lives on a raft. Then, the film introduces Mary, a much older woman which triggers something inside Moss­—between sexual awakening and forever longing for motherly love. Practically, it should be a film about Moss, but, Moss often strays from its main focuses to follow some other characters with apparently no definite motive.

Peddle knows what he wants to convey in this bitter coming-of-age drama, but he simply cannot resist his desire to project his visions without considering the missing links.

“HALLELUJAH! RON ATHLEY: A STORY OF DELIVERANCE”— Kinkiness, Piercing, Branding and Tattoos

“Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance”

Kinkiness Piercing, Branding and Tattoos

Amos Lassen

Body artist, extreme masochist, H.I.V.-positive gay man, heavily tattooed freak, former heroin addict, onetime grant recipient from the National Endowment, Ron Athey has turned his life into the most radical kind of performance art.

In his collaborations with a traveling troupe of self-described outcasts, Mr. Athey turns his experiences into mock Christian rituals. In one he is ecstatically tormented with a crown of thorns consisting of hypodermic needles that spill blood across his face as they are inserted into the skull. At the moment of insertion, Mr. Athey, his eyes rolling heavenward, wears an expression of total calm.

This crowning is just one of several blood-letting scenes in Catherine Gund Saalfield’s documentary portrait “Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance”. This is a movie that is definitely not for everyone, especially not the squeamish or the sexually prudish. In addition to the blood-smearing, the film offers a methodical catalogue of advanced sexual kinkiness, with scenes of piercing, bondage, branding, flogging, enemas and dildos (everything you never wanted to see).

As Mr. Athey shares that he was born an extremist, having been raised by a Pentecostal grandmother to be a prophet. Anyone who is brought up in such an extremely devout environment is probably bound to have a very developed sense of good and evil, of Jesus and the devil involved in perpetual combat. When Mr. Athey smiles, you have the sense of a performer taking pleasure in being the naughtiest little boy in the world. His performance art is admittedly a desperate act. As an H.I.V.-positive man, he insists he wants to make the most creative use of whatever time he has left. And his performances take body art about as far you can go. The most disturbing excerpt from his work shown in the film is a section from “Martyrs and Saints,” in which impassive white-robed “doctors and nurses” brutally parody invasive medical procedures.

We ask ourselves if Athey’s performances are art or psychodrama, sacred or profane and we realize that they are both. Emphasis is on visceral and spiritual extremes and are obvious attempts to shock.

“IDEAL HOME”— A Surprise Child

“Ideal Home”

A Surprise Child

Amos Lassen

Erasmus Brumble (Steve Coogan) and Paul (Paul Rudd) are a long-term gay couple on the verge of a nervous breakdown in “Ideal Home”, a new comedy film written and directed by Andrew Fleming. Erasmus and Paul have been together many years and produce a successful cooking show on American basic cable TV, hosted by Erasmus himself. The success of the show allows them to lead an extravagant lifestyle and distracts them from their own relationship problems. Then one night, out of the blue, Angel (Jack Gore) shows up at their door with a note explaining that he is the child of Erasmus’ son, Beau (Jake McDorman).

Erasmus had not even been aware of Angel’s existence. Despite this, there is no one else in the world who can take care of his grandson so they decide to take Angel into their home and look after him. As can be expected, the child’s sudden arrival turns their world upside down and the task of parenting proves to be challenging to them. Angel, whom they soon take to calling Bill, is a difficult child and they may be a little too immature to take care of him properly. Yet it is their willingness to learn the tricks of the trade as they go along that shows that they are kind hearted souls. It is their own coming-of-age that is the film’s real driving force and is also the source of most of the film’s humor.

Paul and Erasmus are unapologetically gay and not concerned with having to hide who they are to be accepted by society. Gay parenting is explored in a more naturalistic way, rather than through overwhelming heavy-handedness. The film generates many laughs but they are neither at the expense of its lead characters nor dependent on gay stereotypes.

The film also works because of the balanced lead performances by Coogan and Rudd. They share great chemistry as both a comedy duo and as an on-screen long-term couple who feel like they don’t have to try so hard anymore. Despite their moaning and whining, Erasmus and Paul clearly love each other and part of the fun is seeing them realize that several times over the course of the film.

This is a lighthearted comedy that successfully updates conventional depictions of queerness and family and we get a heartwarming closing montage of real-life LGBTIQ families also reminds us that it’s time to update notions of domesticity and re-define what makes a home ‘ideal.

Erasmus had his son Beau  when he was very young, and wasn’t involved in his life at all. Beau’s son “The kid” (who spends the first half of the film without the men even knowing his name) has grown up with a dad who has exposed him to drug dealing, cursing and homophobia With the arrival of “the kid”, the tension in the men’s relationship is further amplified but there’s genuine emotion in each of the men showing the youngster that they care about him in their own way, and earning his trust.

The comedy comes in the film’s  scathing rebuttals and one-liners and it is dark and often inappropriate. These is also laugh-out-loud humor and a bit of self-referentialism with the very last shot of the film being the greatest moment of all.

Erasmus and Paul make a convincing couple, both in the frequently heated arguments, and in the more tender moments of the film. There is just enough sweetness to balance it all and it is great to see an LGBTIQ+ film looking at the lighter side of tumultuous relationships.

“WITNESSES”— Three Stories

“WITNESSES”

Three Stories

Amos Lassen

“Witnesses” is made up of three intertwined stories, told from the perspective of a pair of shoes, a German shepherd puppy, and a violin. They come together in this powerful Holocaust drama directed by Konstantin (“Costa”) Fam. It was filmed in Moscow, New York, Prague and Brest and is the first Russian production on the Holocaust and the first production to film in Auschwitz (even Steven Spielberg was not allowed to film there).

With neither dialogue nor faces, a pair of red women’s shoes discovered in a store window tells the story of the round up of the Jews and ends on display at Auschwitz in ‘Shoes.’

A German shepherd puppy (‘Brutus’), given as a gift to a Jewish woman, becomes a tool of terror when an SS officer commandeers it after an edict is issued that Jews can no longer own pets.

The three stories come together in ‘Violin,’ which follows a lovingly-crafted instrument from its creation in pre-war Europe to modern-day New York. Discovered by a modern virtuoso, played by Lenn Kudrjawizki, the violin finds its way to the Wailing Wall in Israel for a final concert.

“HURRICANE BIANCA: FROM RUSSIA WITH HATE”— The “Shequel:

“Hurricane Bianca: From Russia with Hate”

The “Shequel”

Amos Lassen

I am sure that my feelings about this movie come from my not being a drag aficionado. I also don’t believe that making sequels of movies that are not so good is a smart idea. This film and the one that came before are cashing on Bianca Del Rio’s success on “Drag Race” and my reaction is “meh”. However, I am sure that the film will have a following.

The original 2016 film starred Bianca Del Rio as a teacher from New York who is fired from his job at a small-town Texas high school because he is gay, so he returns disguised a woman to seek revenge on a variety of wacky characters from the bigoted town. It was a clever idea but way overdone.

The “shequel” picks up where the first movie left off, with Richard (Bianca Del Rio) still teaching at the school, but Debbie (Rachel Dratch) being sent to jail for having “inappropriate relations” with a student. When Debbie is released from prison, she seeks revenge on Richard/Bianca—which eventually sends Bianca to Russia. I found only one moment that elicited a slight chuckle but most of what I saw did nothing for me or to me.

There is talent here but unfortunately it is wasted and I think that is because the script is so poor. Bianca Del Rio and Katya are very funny in certain contexts but the dialogue here is flat and the plot does not allow for much creativity. It seems that they were in such a hurry to get this made and make a few coins that no one paid attention that they were bringing a dead mule to the market.

Bianca del Rio has a reputation as a hilarious comedian who is not afraid to cut you down to size with her words. Perhaps she should have cut herself out of this movie. The film claims an all-star cast of celebrities from both inside and outside “Drag Race. Aside from Bianca and Dratch are Katya Zamolodchikova (Brian McCook), Shangela Laquifa Wadley (DJ Pierce), Wanda Sykes, Cheyenne Jackson, Janeane Garofalo, Mrs. Kasha Davis (Ed Popil).

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”— Jewish, Gay and in Japan

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”

Jewish, Gay and in Japan

Amos Lassen

In Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Kafka on the Beach’, we meet a mysterious man who calls himself Johnnie Walker. Is he modeled on Joni Waka, a Jewish man living in Tokyo, or is it the other way round? The charismatic and talkative Waka is a true chameleon and a self-proclaimed outsider, a “mythomaniac”, a homosexual and the natural center of every party. He claims to come from an age-old Jewish lineage.

“The Swedish artist Magnus Bärtås met Waka 20 years ago, and has since been fascinated by how this professional oddball has cultivated his entire life story as fiction. Joni Waka ignores all social norms – and there are a few of these in Japan – and sees himself as a ‘henna gaijin’, the strangest among strangers. He has a self-image that launches him into many confrontations and adventures, and he insists on living it out every single moment of his life. Rumor has it that there is something about the African man whom Waka once seduced in Daqar.”

Waka claims that he is the only Jew left in Japan descending from the old Jewish families in the country. Confronted with a social pressure, he seems to ignore dominating norms and moral, and at the same time using his outside position, as a henna gaijin (the “strangest stranger”) as a space of freedom to stage his life and create an everyday comedy.

This is a mesmerizing documentary with more questions than answers, not just about Waka, but also the very nature of truth.

“PARTITIONED HEART”— Dealing with Grief

“PARTITIONED HEART “

Dealing with Grief

Amos Lassen

I must admit that I have never thought much about the emotion of grief but this nine minute short film caused me to spend time thinking about it. I realized that grief is such a strong emotion because it deals with love, or rather the loss of a love that will never be experienced again. We have all gone through it and we will again and again and probably the only thing that makes us feel better is time but that is also relative. In fact, I am not sure that we ever get over it—we simply live with it by pushing to a place in the mind where it rests forever. I can’t imagine anything more grievous than a parent’s loss of a child.

Rob (Travis Mitchell), is a father who while grieving over the loss of his son, Daniel (the voice of Malik Uhuru), is revisited by him via a mysterious computer program. This program allows Rob to converse with his son’s soul. At first it is comforting for Rob to be able to maintain some kind of relationship with Daniel who sees it differently. Daniel wants his father to show a sign of love and this is devastating for Rob. Of course, I will not share here what that is but I will tell you that the amazing performance of takes us on an emotional journey of just nine minutes but during which he experiences happiness, horror and denial almost at the same time.

The pain that we see here is so real that we feel it ourselves and that is a credit to the director, Matt Morris. Grief is a difficult emotion to show much less in such a short time. I must also mention that Uhuru’s performance is also stunning especially since we only hear him. We never know the cause of Daniel’s death but we sense that the father/son relationship was sincere and close even though they did not always agree. We definitely feel the love that shared and the pain that comes after loss. As I write this now, it is right after I saw the film and I feel a lump in my chest and tears in my eyes. Not many films affect me so deeply especially one as short as this.

 

 

“SAVING BRINTON”— Man With a Mission

“Saving Brinton”

Man With a Mission

Amos Lassen

“Saving Brinton” is a tribute to a dedicated cinema fan and historian, and to the work he has done to save an essential piece of the past and cultivate its story for the future. Thirty years ago, former history schoolteacher Michael Zahs, of Washington, Iowa, was gifted a collection of old film memorabilia from the estate of Frank and Indiana Brinton, a husband-and-wife team of entertainment impresarios who were responsible for bringing fun, news, and views of distant lands to audiences across the heartland of America in the days before radio, TV, and easy international travel.

The Brintons didn’t just show the short films that Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès and others were making in the late 19th century: they created entire evenings around those films by using music as well as “magic lanterns” (which created the illusion of movement from still pictures). Somehow, the collection that landed with Zahs didn’t only include old films but also documents with the details of the business and posters and advertisements for their shows, and much, much more. The collection is an look into early pop culture.

All of this sat in a barn on Zahs’ homestead for decades because no one was interested in it until just a few years ago, when the University of Iowa was happy to add this to its libraries. (It’s still in the process of being digitized but you can already watch some of the films online.)

Then documentarians Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne come into the picture and, introduce us to the Brintons and the Zahs. “Saving Brinton” is so much more than about rediscovering a nearly lost piece of history; it’s about what it takes to make certain that history doesn’t get lost in the first place. Zahs is a hero, a man who rescues what needs rescuing (dogs, kittens, church steeples about to be demolished).

We see him as he travels the nation and the world with a Méliès short that had previously been thought gone forever. ( Since the collection has barely begun to be catalogued, there may be many more “lost” films in it.)

He presents evenings of Brinton-style entertainment in an opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa, where the Brintons themselves once put on shows and at the State theater back in Washington (Iowa), the oldest operating cinema anywhere on the planet. Zahs is bringing the Brintons back to the world.

“THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE”— A Life Devoted to Fashion

“The Gospel According to André”

A Life Devoted to Fashion

Amos Lassen

André Leon Talley stands out  as a 6’ 6” African American man. He has a deep booming voice and has spent his life breaking down barriers. He was raised in Durham, North Carolina in the segregated south. He remembers the degradation of Jim Crow laws and watching the Civil Rights Movement play out. As a child, Talley had rocks thrown at him on a college campus as he was walking across town to pick up the latest copy of Vogue magazine at a news stand. Talley sought and found solace and refuge in fashion magazines and books. He read about fashion icons as he watched the pulse of modern fashion. In an interview with one of his high school teachers he recalls a grey Dior-inspired skirt she had some forty-plus years ago. Anna Wintour, a close friend of Talley’s and colleague at Vogue, admitted that her fashion history wasn’t strong when she started at Vogue and she relied on Talley for that knowledge.

Talley is something of a news junky and he tracks the progress of the 2016 presidential election throughout the filming of the documentary. The film ends in November 2016 with Talley and the rest of the world coming to terms with the results of that election. In most of the film Talley speaks about the way he was raised and the necessity of braking barriers in a matter of fact way. When he speaks about his grandmother, however, his tone and mannerisms change. She worked as a domestic maid in a dorm to support them and she gave him the freedom and courage to be what he is today. He and his friends talk about how there was a lot of pressure on the African American population to be the best and this was the only way that there would be upward mobility.

the greatest strength of director Kate Novack’s documentary is Talley himself, who when on screen performs wonderfully at whatever we see him doing. his own master of ceremonies, whether at dinner with friends, sitting on his front porch in White Plains, observing a fitting, or revealing some of the more painful details of his past. He possesses great ability to contextualize his experiences both past and present that makes Novack’s frequent shifts to other voices seem distracting. There are exceptions, such as Fran Lebowitz, who explains her time at “Interview” magazine with Talley through anecdotes but Novack keeps dragging her focus back to the industry perspective as a whole.

Talley’s youth in a lower-class African-American family is a “black superhero” story and his legacy helps redefine perceptions of black masculinity and power. Talley’s idea of fashion as an “escape from reality” is treated by Novack as a flight of fancy and not as the freeing of one’s mind from the constraints that separate upper and lower classes of wealth.

This is a straightforward documentary mostly composed of straight-to-camera interviews, historical footage, or on the street footage. But it is fascinating to watch because Talley and his life is fascinating. The clothes in the film are wonderful and we see many clips from fashion shows throughout the years along with fashion spreads from magazines full of beautiful clothes.

Talley admits to a few of his fashion mistakes over the years and most of the time we see him in draped in expensive coats or his colorful caftans and large jewelry (that have become his signature dress). He is nearly seventy years old now and the film takes a look at fashion throughout the decades and some the key signature pieces and designers. We see black women in the 1940s who used their weekly church trips to express themselves with their clothes and hats and go through the disco seventies and through 2016 when the film was shot. The interviews are made up “who’s who” of the fashion world, including Marc Jacobs, Manolo Blahnik and Isabella Rossellini.

Talley struggled to get to the top of the fashion world. After leaving the segregated south he had to work hard to get himself to a position of power. He used his intelligence, sense of style, and charisma to get him there. He tells us that he is offended when people say he slept his way to the top or did anything other than what he did to get his level of success. We see his strength and how he used it to get to where he is and that some of those cruel memories still are for him.

This is the story of one man breaking down racial barriers and becoming a success in a time when African Americans had few opportunities in the fashion world. Talley brought a new perspective to fashion and never backed down when people questioned it. He is loud, boisterous, colorful, intelligent, and funny. Beyond being a documentary about a fashion icon, “The Gospel Accord to André” is a look at how strong people dealt with great odds at a time of great division and racial tension in America. We get a whole new meaning on the expression ‘larger-than-life’. He is one of a kind and there will probably never be anyone like him in the future.

“Moment of Truth” edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner— Whose Truth?

Stern-Weiner, Jamie, editor. “Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions”, OR Books, 2018.

Whose Truth?

Amos Lassen

It has been more than a century since the Balfour Declaration and more than 50 years since the Six-Day War in 1967, and a full decade into the siege of Gaza (as this editor prefers to call it but then she also names her book “Moment of Truth”— I guess that means which side you are on since no one is neutral) and the Israel-Palestine conflict rolls on. Now pay carful attention to the construct of this next sentence: “Amidst a growing sense that the Palestinians’ long struggle for self-determination has reached a crossroads, if not an impasse, this volume takes stock, draw lessons from experience, and weigh paths forward.” (This “volume draws lessons”— from whom? When a book is one-sided the question of research and honesty is paramount. What I see as paramount here is milking a situation to make a few coins quickly.)

Here is a list of contributors to this volume so please carefully note the names and count the number of Israelis to the number of Arabs and yes, do not forget scholar Norman Finkelstein who has been run out of every school h has ever held a position with and is a self appointed Jewish anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust which his parents survived:

Musa Abuhashhash, As’ad Abukhalil, Mkhaimar Abusada, Gilbert Achcar, Ghaith al-Omari, Ghassan Andoni, Usama Antar, Nur Arafeh, Shaul Arieli, Arie Arnon, Tareq Baconi, Sam Bahour, Sari Bashi, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Suhad Bishara, Nathan J. Brown, Diana Buttu, John Dugard, Michael Dumper, Hagai El-Ad, Richard A. Falk, Norman G. Finkelstein, Neve Gordon, Ran Greenstein, Yoaz Hendel, Jamil Hilal, Khaled Hroub, Amal Jamal, Jan de Jong, Leila Khaled, Raja Khalidi, Rami G. Khouri, Lior Lehrs, Gideon Levy, Alon Liel, John J. Mearsheimer, Jessica Montell, Rami Nasrallah, Wendy Pearlman, Nicola Perugini, William B. Quandt, Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Glen Rangwala, Glenn E. Robinson, Nadim Rouhana, Sara Roy, Bashir Saade, Robbie Sabel, Dahlia Scheindlin, Daniel Seidemann, Michael Sfard, Muhammad Shehada, Raja Shehadeh, Sammy Smooha, Mark Tessler, Nathan Thrall, Ahmed Yousef, Ido Zelkovitz.

What a fine well-balanced group. Now since the book dispenses hate so well, I’ll just quote it all:”

 

“Moment of Truth seeks to clarify what it would take to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, to assess the prospects of doing so, and to illuminate what is possible in Palestine. It assembles an unprecedented wealth of expertise—encompassing political leaders, preeminent scholars, and dedicated activists from Israel, Palestine, and abroad—in direct critical exchange on the issues at the heart of the world’s most intractable conflict. Has Israel’s settlement enterprise made a Palestinian state impossible? Can the Palestinian leadership end the occupation? Is Israel’s rule in the Palestinian territories a form of apartheid? Could the US government force Israel to withdraw? In a series of compelling, enlightening, and at times no-holds-barred debates, leading authorities tackle these and other challenges, exposing myths, challenging preconceptions, and establishing between them a more sober and informed basis for political action.”

 

Jamie Stern-Weiner, the editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions, publishing next week says “Two million people have been herded into one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, denied the prerequisites for a functioning economy, pummeled with the most sophisticated military equipment on earth, and left to rot. 

Yesterday, May 14, as many as 80,000 people in Gaza marched upon the perimeter fence to protest their imprisonment. 

Their motivation was eloquently expressed by Olfat al-Kurd, a 37 year-old mother of four who works in Gaza as a human rights activist:

Israel has been holding Gaza under blockade for more than ten years. Some of the young people participating in the protests, and being wounded or even killed by soldiers, do not know what it’s like to have running water and a steady supply of electricity. They have never left Gaza and grew up in a prison. 

There is no real life in Gaza. The whole place is clinically dead. 

The younger generations are crushed by the hopelessness and death everywhere. The protests have given us all a spark of hope. They are our attempt to cry out to the world that it must wake up, that there are people here fighting for their most basic rights, which they are entitled to fulfill. We deserve to live, too.” Did I see her mention that Caza has become an incubation rook for terrorism? Did she mention how many terrorists from Gaza have killed innocent Israelis? Yet she maintains this is a balanced picture.

 

“The demonstrations were overwhelmingly nonviolent, as they have been since the Great Return March began some seven weeks ago. Israel responded with a massacre: 52 dead, including five children, and some 2,500 wounded. A senior Human Rights Watch official described their murder:

This is about individual snipers safely ensconced hundreds of feet, even farther, away, targeting individual protestors and executing them one at a time.”

“As the Red Cross warned that Gaza’s health system was ‘on the verge of collapse’, straining to cope with the mass influx of casualties, President Trump tweeted: ‘Big day for Israel. Congratulations!’ 

Today, May 15, will likely see Gazans in unprecedented numbers attempt en masse to break free of their cage. The danger of further slaughter looms large, demanding that supporters of justice and international law around the world take action to restrain Israel’s bloodletting and educate themselves about solutions capable of ensuring that such atrocities do not continue.”