Film Review: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me

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“Even if you win, you don’t win.”

That’s the lesson Sammy learned the day he got jumped by a racist fellow infantryman and won the fight. Nursing his well-deserved wounds, the man told Davis that he was “still a [n word].” That was the moment that Davis decided fighting wasn’t getting him anywhere. If he was going to change the hearts of white America, he had to try another tactic.

Samuel D. Pollard’s documentary about the career of Sammy Davis, Jr. is more than just a Hollywood biography. At a time when race relations have returned to the forefront of America’s consciousness, Sammy’s struggle rings true to a shameful degree. Despite his innumerable talents, he still faced plenty of discrimination on account of his skin color and later, his Jewish faith. But his unflappable spirit was also a beacon of hope for other marginalized people. As one interviewee puts it, his success, “made [African Americans] feel special and for a time feel equal”.

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Film Review: Cassette

1cassetteZach Taylor’s wistful documentary Cassette is an in-depth exploration of a recording format that lives on despite having been declared dead more than 20 years ago. It’s not just niche hipsters and nostalgic punk old timers that are keeping it alive.

It’s the concept of the “mix tape” in particular that endures. The mix-tape is an ideology. It’s the notion that we can curate what we hear and what we share with others. Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose work is undeniably cool but also inarguably mainstream, originally called his smash Broadway musical “the Hamilton Mix-Tape.”He later released a successful album of re-mixes and covers with that title. Taylor’s documentary is also a mix-tape. It’s a compilation of tributes to the format alongside more factual information about its history.

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Hammer 2 Nail: The Reagan Show

“No wonder your president has to be an actor. He’s gotta look good on television!”-Doc Brown, Back to the Future

When asked if he thought his acting background was an advantage to doing the job of president, Ronald Reagan replied, “There are times I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor”. It’s a telling statement from a president who spent two thirds of his time on public relations, logging more screen time up to that point than the combination of all other politicians since the advent of television. Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall) and Pacho Velez (Mankamana) created their documentary, The Reagan Show using news and behind-the-scenes footage from Reagan’s two-term presidency (1981-89). The result is equal parts amusing, upsetting, and apropos with regard to our current political poop show. Like with Trump, it was easy to make fun of Reagan when he didn’t have his finger on the nuke button.

The film has no narration, as none is needed. The footage speaks for itself. It’s a mostly chronological explanation as to why a man who was so ineffectual (if not downright detrimental) is considered by many to be “the Great Communicator”. No one can deny that he was charismatic. Like any actor, he knew how to smile, hit his mark, wave, and take direction. He was in his element at photo shoots, even coming up with a couple of ideas himself. POTUS was his meatiest role. But riding horses and inviting Mr. T to the Oval Office did nothing for the failing economy, the Cold War, or the threat of nuclear annihilation. As Ted Koppel so eloquently put it, “He’s a leader…but to lead us where…and into what?”

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Lost in America

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It’s been over 30 years since Albert Brooks unleashed his on-point satire about the mental unraveling of dissatisfied yuppies in Regan-era America. And while Easy Rider (1969) the film that inspires them, is even further in the rearview today than it was in 1985, the sentiments of ignorance, delusion, and privilege remain tragically relevant in what will one day be known as (barf) Trump-era America. Fortunately, because it’s an Albert Brooks film, these hard truths are wrapped up in a hilarious package, now available as part of the Criterion collection.

After being passed over for a promotion at his high-paying advertising job, David (Brooks) urges his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty) to quit her job and sell everything they own to “drop out of society” and tour the county in a decked-out Winnebago. The key to making this plan work is his oft-referenced “nest egg” – the liquidated lump sum of their assets that is meant to keep them afloat for the remainder of their years on this planet. It shouldn’t be a problem because the idea is to simplify. After a grand send-off from their friends, they set out from Los Angeles, planning to renew their wedding vows in Vegas as their first stop. David and Linda will never be the characters from Easy Rider. But it takes them losing everything to truly understand that…

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Hammer to Nail: SIFF 2017 Wrap-Up

Better late than never!

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival, which runs for 25 days every spring in the Emerald City, is four weeks of wall-to-wall, butt-numbing entertainment. This year’s festival took place May 18th to June 11th and featured 400 films from 80 countries. All told, there were 750 festival screenings and events, including 36 world premieres. That’s a lot of time spent in a dark theater. On the festival’s final day, the SIFF employees who introduced the screenings asked the audience how many of them had seen over 100 SIFF films this year. I was shocked when a couple of people actually raised their hands. Those folks averaged 4 films per day. My itinerary wasn’t quite as impressive, but I did manage to squeeze in 26 films, at an average of 1 per day. Hey, I had to see my kids some time.

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Special honored guests included Angelica Houston, who received an award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting; and the buttery-voiced cowboy Sam Elliott, who spent an afternoon reminiscing about his career and taking questions from an enthusiastic audience.

There were a lot of great films this year.

Read about them on Hammer to Nail!

H2N Review: Beatriz at Dinner

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Donald Trump isn’t the first appalling billionaire, and he certainly won’t be the last. But what would you do if you found yourself at a dinner party honoring a man who has an awful lot in common with the hotel mogul (and some other title I can’t think of right now)? In Beatriz at Dinner, Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s latest collaboration, Beatriz (Selma Hayek) finds herself in this very position. She elects to not keep her worldview under wraps when faced with a man who is the very antithesis of all she holds dear.

Following in the footsteps of Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Selma Hayek de-glams herself for the two Mikes in order to embody the character of a simple, earthy, Mexican immigrant who wants nothing more than to do her part to heal the world. She wakes up fresh-faced, empathetic eyes peering out from beneath woefully cropped bangs. She pulls on mom jeans and starts her day caring for the bevy of animals, including a goat, that she keeps as roommates. After a quick meditation session in front of an alter dedicated to family and a different goat, she loads her massage table into her relic of a Volkswagen, and heads off to a holistic cancer center where she pulls out all the naturopathic stops for struggling patients. This is the routine of a person who wants to help others, possibly at the expense of her own self-care…

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This film was part of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

H2N Review: The Fabulous Allan Carr

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One of the greatest things a documentary can do is introduce a wide(r) audience to someone who contributed to the cultural zeitgeist without receiving proper recognition. Case in point: Allan Carr, a movie producer who brought us the musicals Grease, and La Cage Aux Falles and invented both the Village People and saying, “And the Oscar goes to…” instead of “And the winner is…” Maybe Grease didn’t influence your life per se. But I bet you know at least a couple of bars of “Summer Lovin’.” And even if you aren’t proud of that fact, chances are you’ll find something to love about The Fabulous Allan Carr.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am Divine) knows his way around a gay icon biopic. His latest film is based on the biography, “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Robert Hofler. Schwarz didn’t have a lot of personal video archives to work with so he had to animate some of the story using a sort of art deco, “Bewitched” style. Sometimes animation can overwhelm a documentary, but since Carr was a larger-than-life persona, it works. Schwarz also collected a stellar group of people to discuss Allan’s legacy including close friend Lorna Luft, the singular Bruce Vilanch, and sound-bite master Frank DeCaro. Allan had a lot of friends. Really, almost every talking head in the film is identified as a friend of his. And they all loved him.

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This film played at the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.