Tag Archive | Movie Review

Recommended Viewing: We Are X, The Death and Life of X Japan

We Are X Movie Poster
Above Image Courtesy of We Are X Film Dot Com. All Other Photos By Gail

When the most popular heavy metal band in Japan came to New York in October of 2014 to play a show at Madison Square Garden, they managed to sell out the legendary arena, despite being virtually unknown in America. X (known stateside as X Japan), got their start in the 1980s as a glam metal band, doing their best to shock audiences with their outrageous stage show and equally over-the-top, gender-bending physical appearances that included flamboyant rock fashions, wildly theatrical hairstyles and Kabuki-esque make-up. But what critics who initially dismissed the band as all style and no substance didn’t realize was that these guys could play their asses off, and were selling the type of rebellious image that repressed Japanese audiences couldn’t wait to buy. Now, an award-winning documentary, We Are X,  aims to bring the myth and enigma that is X Japan into your consciousness.

X Japan Concert Ad

Critics say that the mark of a good documentary is when its story is accessible to, and can be fully enjoyed by, audiences who are completely unfamiliar with its subject matter. Using the career-milestone Madison Square Garden concert as a jumping off point, and circling back to that show (which I attended) at the film’s end, Director Stephen Kijak (Stones in Exile, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) has succeeded wildly at crafting a career-spanning Rock & Roll fable that will surely hook those who’ve never even heard of X Japan right from its opening credits.

Yoshiki at MSG
Yoshiki on Stage at MSG

Told primarily from the viewpoint of founding member Yoshiki; X Japan’s drummer, composer and charismatic leader, We Are X is both the story of the band’s groundbreaking 30-year career, and also the life story of Yoshiki, who turned to music as a child as a means to cope with the suicide of his father. Forming X as a teenager with school friend Toshi, who became the band’s lead singer, Yoshiki was driven to succeed by existential questions that haunted him from his father’s death; namely “What is my purpose?” and “why am I here?”

Yoshiki and Stephen Kijak
Yoshiki and Stephen Kijak Discuss the Film at a Post-Screening Q&A Here in NYC

Embracing a ‘Do or Die’ sensibility, X Japan became not just an innovative and successful rock band, but a cultural force as powerfully influential as that created by The Beatles decades before them. Not only have they achieved phenomenal record sales and concert attendances, but band members’ personal brands are associated with products as diverse as credit cards, wine, comic book superhero alter egos, and dolls made in their own likenesses. X Japan is also credited with spearheading the uniquely Japanese Visual Kei movement.

X at MSG
X Japan on Stage at MSG

The band’s great successes, however, were tempered with equally great tragedies. As a counterpoint to the celebratory  moments, the film carefully explores the suicides of two seminal band members, Hide (in 1998) and Taiji (in 2011), which shattered the lives of both X Japan’s surviving members, and devastated their fans, one of whom was driven to suicide because of the news. We Are X is a true life Rock & Roll story that really has everything.

Yoshiki and Toshi
Yoshiki and Toshi Rocking It Back in the Day!

Despite the intense personal/personnel drama, career challenges and many heart-rending moments, We Are X is also good fun, and thoroughly entertaining. One of my favorite parts happens towards the film’s end, when Yoshiki and Toshi are reunited in 2007, ten years after the singer abandoned X Japan to join a mind-controlling cult. Yoshiki recalls hanging out at the Palladium in Hollywood, where the friends were approached by two guys looking to buy drugs. One of the men asked the duo if they knew where they could score some X (meaning the psychedelic drug, Ecstasy). Yoshiki, whose grasp of the English language is obviously much  better now than it was back then, laughs when he recalls replying to the guy, with complete sincerity, “We are X!” Hilarious.

We Are X opens in theaters nationwide on Friday October 21st, 2016.

Grade: A+

X at MSG
X Japan On Stage at Madison Square Garden, October 2014


Movie Review: Weiner, A Documentary That Fully Satisfies

Weiner Movie Poster

Anyone living in (or anywhere near) NYC during the city’s 2013 Mayoral campaign should be familiar with Anthony Weiner; the former US Congressman who became a walking punch line in 2011, when a sexting scandal (Weiner sent pictures of his junk to several female followers on Twitter) forced him to resign his position. Weiner’s inability to keep it in his pants was not only personally humiliating for the married congressman, but ultimately a huge loss for the citizens he represented, as Weiner had been a passionate advocate for the people during his tenure in Congress; particularly with regard to supporting civil rights for an array of minority groups, and pleading the case for healthcare for 9/11 first responders. That he had no one but himself to blame for his situation made Weiner’s resignation a shame on all fronts.

Weiner Post Cover

But America loves a good comeback story, and when Anthony Weiner staged a high profile race to win the 2013 Democratic nomination for NYC Mayor, two filmmakers, Josh Kreigman and Elyse Steinberg signed on to document the campaign from the inside. It wasn’t long, unfortunately, before his past returned to haunt him, as new sexually explicit texts sent by Weiner to women he had met online come to light. But instead of shutting down the film, Weiner encouraged Kriegman and Steinberg to keep the cameras rolling, as he forged ahead with his campaign. The result of those efforts is Wiener, a new documentary film which is so wildly engaging and surprisingly hilarious, it must be seen to be believed

When the 2013 scandal made the news, it gave me a very negative opinion of Anthony Wiener — and I was most definitely mortified for his wife,  Huma Abedin, who is also in the political arena as close advisor to Hilary Clinton. But the truth is didn’t know anything about all the good Weiner had done while in Congress until I started watching this movie. And no one was more surprised than me when, ten minutes into it I thought to myself, you know what, Anthony Weiner is adorable. As a down-to-earth politician, he comes off as genuinely charming, sincere and intelligent, with an unbelievably quick wit. He’s also a badass force to be reckoned with when it comes to facing his adversaries. Some of Weiner’s most entertaining moments occur when he gets into verbal sparing matches with those who would take him down. It is easy to understand his popularity, and why women threw themselves at him.

Weiner for Mayor
Anthony Weiner and Wife Huma Abedin in a Scene from Weiner

Wiener is consistently fascinating as it reveals the disgraced politician’s effort to come clean and spin the controversy, steadfastly refusing to quit his campaign and drop out of a race he feels he can still win, while doing damage-control on his home life with Huma and their baby son. Abedin is all over this movie, and her ability to present a united front with her husband while maintaining grace under fire, and never denying his misdeeds, is admirable and to be respected. Huma Abedin is a class act, for sure.

No one is denying that Anthony Wiener made some really bad decisions, and paid for them dearly with loss of his career and a blow to his marriage. But the film makes no judgments; it just shows you what happened, and lets you make the call. Personally, I’d like to see him try for another comeback. If he got therapy for his lack of impulse control, and remained scandal free through another campaign for office, I’d vote for him.

Weiner, which won the Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, is one of the most riveting documentaries I have ever seen, and I enthusiastically recommend it. The film opens theatrically on Friday, May 20th, 2016, and will be showing here in New York City at the IFC Center.

The Worley Gig Gives Weiner Five out of Five Stars. Watch the Trailer Below:


Don Cheadle Becomes Miles Davis in Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead Poster
Don Cheadle is Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (All Images Courtesy of Sony Classics)

Movies about Trumpet Playing Jazz Legends are a thing right now. Just last week, IFC released Born to Be Blue, a surreal art film based loosely on the life and career of Chet Baker. This week, Miles Ahead — actor, and first-time director Don Cheadle’s much-anticipated love letter to another groundbreaking jazz innovator, Miles Davis  — comes to the big screen after garnering all kinds of awards on last year’s festival circuit. It was worth the wait, because Miles Ahead is a fantastic film.

The thing to keep in mind about Miles Ahead going in is that, like Born to be Blue, it takes bit of artistic license with the facts in order to capture the essence of Davis‘ life and art. It is not disputed that Miles Davis changed music a bunch of times during his career. With Bitches Brew (an album that both fans and critics totally lose their minds over) he basically turned Jazz on its head as he added rock and funk to a style of music that previously never had any of those elements. And that was all inspired by his admiration for Jimi Hendrix! Davis was actually supposed to record with Hendrix, but the guitarist died that weekend! You can read these stories in the book Miles: The Autobiography, which is one of the craziest, most-engaging music biographies, ever.

Miles Davis Early

Miles Ahead basically takes place during a five-year period  in the late 1970s where Davis felt he had nothing left to say, so he became reclusive and descended into taking tons of drugs and sleeping with everything that moved. The way he describes it in the book is amazing; scary, but hilarious. One time, he was in an elevator and he was so high, he thought he was in his car, so he punched a lady who was in the elevator with him and he told her to get the fuck out of his car! There are a couple of similar moments in Miles Ahead, and they are just insane. But I digress.

Don Cheadle as Miles

As far as how wide a scope of the story of Miles Davis colorful life and considerable accomplishments are covered in this 100 minute film, let’s say that if Miles Ahead were a weekly TV series, then this would be one episode. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Dave Braden, a ballsy journalist who claims to be on assignment from Rolling Stone. Braden shows up on Davis’ doorstep (while the latter is most definitely wasted out of his mind) and tricks his way into the musician’s home under the guise of conducting an interview for a comeback story. Over the next couple of days, Braden alternately serves as either Davis’ perceived adversary or accidental sidekick, as the two men embark on a wild and sometimes harrowing adventure to recover a stolen tape of the musician’s latest compositions.

The story gains depth from many flashbacks, including those of Davis’ marriage to his first wife, Frances Taylor (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer who gave up her career to marry him. Taylor was Davis’ muse during the period that he released several of his signature recordings, including the groundbreaking Sketches of Spain and Someday My Prince Will Come. To put it mildly, he was kind of a dick to her. Miles Davis also ruminates on other past triumphs and regrets, and the film’s jagged flashback style is an effective way to showcase his many inner demons.

Most importantly, Don Cheadle delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as Miles Davis, but he’s amazing in everything. From Boogie Nights to Hotel Rwanda to Showtime’s House of Lies; the man completely loses himself in every role. He’s a genius. Corinealdi is also excellent as Francis, and it’s always fun to see Ewan McGregor, though I believe his unique talents are mostly wasted in this role.

Maybe Miles Ahead isn’t the definitive Miles Davis life story, but when you’re feeling it, who gives a shit? You could make ten movies about Miles Davis and there would still be room for more. If you want a cradle-to-grave primer, read his book.

The Worley Gig Gives Miles Ahead Five out of Five Stars!

Miles Ahead Opens for a Limited Theatrical Release on April 1st, 2016. Consult Fandango Dot Com to find a theater where it is playing in your area.

Jazz Legend Chet Baker’s Life Gets an Anti-Biopic Reimagining in Born to Be Blue

 Ethan Hawke Shades (Chet Baker)
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s, Born to Be Blue. (All Images Courtesy of IFC Films/Caitlin Cronenberg)

Perhaps a story doesn’t need to get all the facts exactly right in order to capture the creative and spiritual essence of a person’s life. In writer/director Robert Budreau’s new ‘anti-biopic,’ Born to Be Blue, the life lived by American Jazz Trumpeter Chet Baker is keenly interpreted by actor Ethan Hawke in a surreal but gritty performance that tells you all you need to know about the troubled musical genius — renowned as both a pioneer of the West Coast jazz scene and a style icon — who just couldn’t seem to get out of his own way.  Born to Be Blue has a tight focus; imaginatively extrapolating several key, true events in Baker’s life, and launching his story at a time in the 1960s when he was struggling to come back musically after years of debilitating heroin addiction. But while drugs were a demon that Baker battled until the end of his life, this movie emphasizes how he never surrendered the passion he had for his art, or his determination to play music at the top of his game (albeit on his own terms).

Born to Be Blue opens on a  scene of Baker being released from jail, based on an event in the early 1960s, when Baker was imprisoned on drug convictions in Italy, and producer Dino de Laurentiis approached him to star in a movie as himself. While that film never materialized in real life, Budreau uses the narrative device of Baker playing himself in a movie to set a dreamlike tone that accents both the improvisational nature of his music and also the opiate haze of his severe heroin dependency. The movie-within-the-movie is also shot in black and white, for transitional contrast with the ‘real life’ color sequences, which adds to the film’s often hypnagogic feel.

Carmen Ejogo
Carmen Ejogo as Jane

Born to Be Blue also takes on Baker’s stormy relationship with romance. While on the movie set, Chet meets Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) a beautiful and smart actress playing his love interest. The two start a passionate affair in real life, and Jane becomes Chet’s muse, inspiring him creatively and giving him a place to live after he has basically become homeless. Jane’s character isn’t based on any one woman in Baker’s life, but rather she represents composite elements of his wives (he was married twice) and girlfriends into a fictitious female love interest, and Ejogo is vibrant in this role.

In 1968, Baker was the victim of a brutal beating from which he lost of most of his teeth. The film’s reenactment has Chet being attacked by drug dealers, to whom he owes money, as he and Jane leave a bowling alley together. Chet’s severe injuries all but completely destroy is ability to play the trumpet, and lead to filming on the movie being shut down permanently. Baker gets fitted for dentures, but physical pain, and frustration he feels at the loss of his embouchure (the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of the trumpet) make staying off heroin impossible. Ethan Hawke does a fantastic job of portraying Baker as a tortured artist who couldn’t see his way out of a life of addiction.

Ethan Hawke (Chet Baker)

There are many scenes in Born to Be Blue of Chet Baker in the recording studio and also performing live, so fans of his music will not be disappointed. Hawke did all his own singing for the film, while versatile trumpet player, Kevin Turcotte, recreated all of Baker’s trumpet parts (Turcotte also ‘plays’ two other jazz trumpet players in the film, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie). The film culminates with the wildly suspenseful and emotionally harrowing retelling of  Baker’s comeback show at New York’s famous Birdland Jazz Club, where he’s surrounded by his heroes, peers and fans. It’s not like we don’t already know how the story ends, but Hawke makes Baker’s choice between The Lady or The Tiger: trying to play inspired jazz on a dose of methadone, versus channeling his divine muse with just one more fix, creates authentic dramatic tension while breaking your heart into a million pieces.

It’s been said by those who knew Chet Baker that even the biographical documentary, Let’s Get Lost, contains numerous factual inaccuracies.  Rather than call itself a definitive biography, Born to Be Blue is more like a love letter to Chet Baker, his ground breaking music, and his contribution to pop culture, despite his status as an unarguably flawed protagonist.  As far as what is truth and what is fictitious, the film is comparable to Tom Haynes 2007 masterpiece, I’m Not There; where  six characters embody a different aspect of the life and work of Bob Dylan. As long as it captures and honors the spirit of the artist, what else really matters?

The Worley Gig Gives Born to Be Blue Four out of Five Stars!

Born to Be Blue is now playing in limited release. Visit Fandango Dot Com to find a theater where it is playing in your area. The film will be available via Video on Demand starting March 31st.

Recommended Viewing: Naz & Maalik

Naz and Maalik Movie Poster
Curtiss Cook Jr. and Kerwin Johnson Jr. Star in Naz & Maalik (All Images Courtesy of Wolfe Video)

One day in the life of a pair of Brooklyn teenagers moves beyond their typical routine to mark an emotional turning point in the lives of the two best friends in Naz & Maalik; an engaging new film from screenwriter/director Jay Dockendorf. The film’s dynamic script is based on a first-person account from one of Dockendorf’s former neighbors; a gay Muslim man who revealed his own experience as a teenager living in Brooklyn, at a time when the NYPD and FBI were spying on Muslims across the country. In Bed-Stuy (Bedford Stuyvesant, a heavily African American neighborhood of Brooklyn) in particular, COPs would infiltrate mosques with undercover agents, coerce civilians arrested for petty crimes into becoming informants and conduct door-to-door interviews with Muslim citizens in front of their homes. The overbearing presence of the police created a charged environment, and a similar atmosphere of consistent tension infiltrates this bittersweet coming-of-age story that is expertly directed and acted.

Naz and Maalik Screen Shot

Portrayed by Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik) and Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz), two young actors both making their feature film debut in these roles, Naz and Maalik spend their days together, earning cash by selling Lotto tickets, Saint cards, candy and scented oils on the streets of their neighborhood, as well as while riding the subway lines. Their faith is also made evident, as they make a stop at a local mosque during their day to pray with the faithful. Their bond of friendship is fast and tight, and, as we learn early on, their relationship has only just taken a romantic turn — something that Naz is way more comfortable with than Maalik. As devout Muslims, their love is forbidden, and it doesn’t help that Maalik’s bratty younger sister has already threatened to “out” the couple to their parents. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough.

And then there’s the matter of that FBI agents that starts following the boys’ every move…

Naz and Maalik In Park2

As their story unfolds naturally, Naz & Maalik takes on many hot-button issues — racial profiling, religion, sexuality — as the streets and subway trains of Brooklyn advance the backstory of just who these kids are without a need for superfluous narrative dialogue. In fact, to suggest that Brooklyn is also a main character in the film is not out of line.

Naz and Maalik Park

Naz & Maalik isn’t so much a film about easy resolution as it is about tackling life’s curve balls and trying to stay true to yourself and your beliefs while also embracing the uncertainty of new love. Naz and Maalik are extremely likable characters and their story is both straightforward and nuanced, and highly engaging overall. The film’s original score, also written by Dockendorf is also fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about this film.

Grade: A

After Debuting at NYC’s Cinema Village, Naz & Maalik is currently available via Wolfe on DVD and Video On Demand.

Naz and Maalik on Street

Movie Review: Jeruzalem

Jeruzalem Movie Poster

Did you know that here on earth there are three gates to hell: one in the desert, one in the ocean, and one in Jerusalem? I had no idea, and I’m betting that Israel’s tourism board wants to keep that nugget of information on the down low; because it would surely be bad for business if word got out.

Unfortunately, no one tipped off Sarah and Rachel, two young American tourists on their way to a carefree vacation in Tel Aviv, who instead get a one-way ticket to the End Times in Jeruzalem, a new independent film directed by Israeli brothers Yoav and Doron Paz.

Jeruzalem Rachel Sarah Selfie
Rachel (Yael Grobglas) and Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) Pose for One Last Selfie before Departing to Jeruzalem

On the flight over, the girls meet a sexy and charismatic anthropologist named Kevin (Yon Tumarkin) who convinces them to take a detour to the old city of Jerusalem for some historical sightseeing before continuing on to the serious partying in Tel Aviv. Sarah and Kevin hit it off, and Jerusalem is seemingly filled with all kinds of hot guys for Rachel to flirt with, so it’s kind of a no brainer. They plan to stay only 48 hours, but their second night in Jerusalem happens to be Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and that is when all hell, literally, breaks loose.

Jeruzalem Escape

While Sarah, Rachel, Kevin and new friends from the hostel where they’ve been staying make a frantic attempt to escape the walled city, it’s equally frightening to imagine that the Apocalypse will be documented via Google Glass, which, as worn by Sarah, serves as the first person-perspective from which the entire movie is shot (be forewarned that if shaky, hand-held camera movements make you nauseous, you might want to drop a Dramamine before the film even starts).

It’s somewhat distracting at first, especially when Sarah does one of her many face-plants while running after, or from, something, but the device serves to further the narrative in interesting ways; providing facial recognition, maps, Wikipedia entries, music videos, social media and panicked Skype calls from Sarah’s concerned Dad, which all get tossed into the mix.

I really don’t want to spoil anything except to offer that Jeruzalem features truly mind-bending moments of psychological terror (the scene where Sarah searches frantically for Kevin in a derelict mental institution is particularly unnerving), and more than a few instances where smart people inexplicably decline to run away when confronted with nightmarish physical horror, such as menacing giants and undead Monsters with Wings.

If you liked Cloverfield, you’ll love Jeruzalem.

Grade: B+

Jeruzalem opens at NYC’s Cinema Village on January 22, 2016, when it will also be available on VOD. Rated: R, Runtime: 94 minutes.

Movie Review: Stink!

Stink Animated Movie Poster

The plots of many horror films, both modern and classic, often center on the tragic fate of individuals who take an interest in suspicious matters where their attention is neither wanted nor welcome. And while things rarely, if ever, work out well for the protagonists of those films, a provocative new documentary entitled Stink! aims to benefit, potentially, every consumer on the planet by revealing hidden truths about carcinogenic chemical ingredients contained in an innumerable list of products that we all eat, wear and put on our bodies every day. The cosmetic industry, the film points out, is especially lacking in federal regulation. It isn’t at all unlikely that the Chanel No 5 cologne that you spray on your body contains some of the same ingredients as your toilet bowl cleaner. Are you horrified? You will be by the time you’re about 20 minutes into Stink!

It’s been said that it’s not about what you know or what you don’t know: it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that can hurt you. That’s what Stink! is all about. Created and directed by Jon Whelan, Stink! is one man’s quest for transparency that was prompted when Whelan noticed an overwhelmingly foul chemical smell coming from Pajamas he’d purchased as Christmas gifts for his two young daughters. Whelan was left as a single father after his wife, Heather, succumbed to breast cancer in January of 2009. A beautiful and vibrant woman, Heather Whelan makes significant posthumous appearances throughout the documentary as Jon pays tribute to her inspirational life and vows to protect their children from the the toxic chemical product additives that she, in life, was so vigilantly wary of.

While consumer product package labeling is more and more widely available, what most of us are clueless about is the fact that toxins can very easily hidden in the guise of being labeled as “fragrance,” and there are no laws that compel companies to divulge the fact that they are using toxic chemicals in their products. Yes, putting poisons in consumer products is completely legal and, in fact, it is a widespread, cost-cutting practice that’s protected by lobbyists who are hired to fight for a company’s bottom line in order to pad their own pockets. It’s disgusting. The level of bureaucratic bullshit — much of which is starkly revealed over Stink!‘s 91-minute run time, is both staggering and infuriating.

Engaging, enlightening, and scary as hell, Stink! takes you on a three-year journey from the retailer to the laboratory, through corporate boardrooms, down back alleys, and into the halls of Congress. In Stink!, the viewer follows Whelan on his dogged search for anyone willing to be accountable as he clashes with political and corporate operatives all trying to protect the darkest secrets of the chemical industry.

Troubling facts revealed by Whelan in the film include:
1. Almost 1,500 chemical ingredients are currently banned in the European Union. Only 11 of those ingredients are banned in the United States.
2. Formaldehyde, Propylparaben, Lead Acetate and other dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals are often found in cosmetic products on shelves in US retailers.
3. The FDA has virtually no authority to test cosmetics and other consumer products for unsafe levels of harmful chemicals.

Yes, even the FDA can’t save you! This film is wildly eye opening and will surely prompt you to ask the question “Is this safe to use?” about virtually every item in your home, and rightly so. As Whelen says in the trailer (below) “It’s my story, but it could be yours.” If that doesn’t scare you, trust me; it should.

The Worley Gig Gives Stink! Five out of Five Stars.

Stink! Opens in New York on Black Friday (November 27th) at Cinema Village on Second Avenue and 12th Street, and in Los Angeles on December 4th, 2015, Before Expanding to Additional Markets. Watch the Trailer Below.