Carmine Street Guitars

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42 Carmine Street is the humble storefront home—blink and you’ll miss it—of Carmine Street Guitars, established by Rick Kelly in the 1970s, and in its current West Village location since 1990. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a mom-and-pop hardware store, instead of a pilgrimage destination for the greatest guitar players in the world. There’s a workshop in the back where Kelly builds custom guitars, using wood salvaged from all over New York City. Ron Mann’s new documentary, “Carmine Street Guitars,” is a “week in the life” of the store, with a parade of famous legends “stopping by” to chat, play guitars, talk with Kelly about music, about his process. The setup is somewhat contrived, and there’s a stilted quality to some of the conversations, clearly urged on by off-camera prompts that we don’t hear. But “Carmine Street Guitars” has its intense pleasures too, and those come mainly from being in the presence of such a devoted craftsman, and watching how he works. The rhythm is slow. You really get the sense that when you walk through the doors of Carmine Street Guitars, you step outside of time.

Carmine Street Guitars has just three employees: Kelly, his mother Dorothy who answers the phones and does the books, and Cindy Hulej, Kelly’s young apprentice, who burns beautiful custom designs into the guitars built by Kelly. In the workshop in the back of the store, Kelly and Hulej sit at opposite tables, silently consumed in carving, shellacking, burning. Quiet absorption is probably the norm for these two. “Talking heads” are a cliche in documentaries, but a little outside perspective might have helped “Carmine Street Guitars,” since Kelly and Hulej are too busy working to explain their processes.

One by one, legends show up, to try out guitars. These sequences have their awkward moments, where you can feel the self-conscious “set up” of it all, but the subject is so interesting, and the music played by these people is so gorgeous, it’s forgivable. There are many gems dropped along the way. Kelly talks with Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye about coming to New York when he was a teenager to see Jimi Hendrix play, before Jimi was even “Jimi Hendrix,” and Kelly and Bill Frisell have a fascinating conversation about Leo Fender (one of Kelly’s inspirations.) Each guest who visits plays a song on a Kelly-made guitar, and in these beautiful meditative sequences time stands still. There’s almost an exhale in such moments, where nothing is required of you but relax and enjoy the music. Kirk Douglas from The Roots asks Kelly about the different tools he uses, and Kelly shows off some of them, a small tutorial (the film could have used more of this. Kelly’s process is mostly shown, but not explained). Jim Jarmusch shows up with a guitar for repair, and he and Kelly have a long conversation about catalpa wood, ash trees, redwood trees. These people know their wood! There’s a beautiful shot of all of the guitars Kelly made for Lou Reed, lying on the floor, back to back, beautiful historic instruments. 

One of the strong impressions left by “Carmine Street Guitars,” and this may be more palpable to those who live in New York, is the sense of how much the world—and New York—has changed. The changes have not been good. Carmine Street Guitars is a “relic,” in a way, of a West Village that no longer exists. New York is now so much a city for the rich that the West Village has been decimated by ballooning rents and brand-name stores cutting a swath through independent ownership. (There’s an extremely awkward “scene” where a realtor stops by to ask Kelly questions about the building.) Carmine Street Guitars is an oasis, a quiet place devoted to one specific thing, and one thing only, an artist and craftsman who has been doing it for decades, and will continue until he drops. The sense of the past flows through the film. Honoring the past is seen as reactionary in some quarters. Not here. These guitars, made from wood pre-dating the Civil War in some cases, are a living legacy to the past, “the bones of old New York” as Kelly calls it. Kelly explains how old wood is better for guitars, the scars and imperfections help the sound, the vibrations. These are one-of-a-kind items. Assembly lines can’t create them. Creating a space for Kelly, his work, the slow vibe of life in his store, its devotion to one thing, is a beautiful act of tribute in and of itself.

There’s a moment where Charlie Sexton, from Bob Dylan’s band, stops by and plays the guitar we have watched Kelly create throughout the “week.” The wood comes from McSorley’s Old Ale House, on East 7th Street, one of the oldest Irish taverns in New York. Kelly wanted to make a guitar from McSorley’s wood for a long time. The finished product is a doozy, with graffiti scratched into the wood by McSorley’s customers left intact. Sexton loves the guitar, and plays the old Sophie Tucker song “Some of These Days,” with its opening lines, “Some of these days / You’ll miss your honey …” One of these days, Carmine Street Guitars might be gone. That eagle-eyed realtor is ominous, he is the bane of West Village existence. In this precarious context, Cindy Hulej takes on enormous importance. Kelly is passing on his craft to a younger generation, just like artisans did in the old days. There’s hope.

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New Netflix Horror Series Chambers Should Have Just Been a Movie

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Netflix’s “Chambers” feels like the offspring of their hit shows “13 Reasons Why” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” It has the young adult mystery of the former and the creepy supernatural vibe of the latter. I suppose the teen target audience may be more patient with it than I was, but I bailed after four very long hours in which I took a variation on the note “This should have just been a movie” about a dozen times. The abundance of programming on Netflix and other streaming services has clearly a reached a point when pitches that could have made solid 100-minute movies are being stretched out to entire TV seasons. Not only does this allow you to see the flaws in something derivative like “Chambers” but it kills the sense of atmosphere and pacing that a show like this needs to survive. There’s nothing less scary than utter boredom.

Sasha (Sivan Alyra Rose) has a heart attack on the stormy night that she’s losing her virginity. She awakens to find that she has someone else’s ticker in her chest, which brings her into the life of the girl who died to keep Sasha alive. Not only does she meet the late Becky’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Uma Thurman), but she increasingly seems to be taking her place, moving into Becky’s spot at a private school, and hanging with her friends and brother. Of course, it’s not long before Sasha seems to be “channeling” Becky, tying a knot she didn’t know how to tie and hearing the Stone Roses song that Becky listened to in her head. She not only starts to convince herself that she is at least partially possessed by Becky, but that there’s something suspicious about her death.

There’s a lot to unpack here. When Sasha first gets to her new private school, the camera lingers over a pretty offensive use of Native American imagery for a school pride banner, and one hopes that “Chambers” is going to become a commentary on appropriation. After all, Sasha literally takes someone else’s heart and then sort of becomes her. It’s fertile ground for a look at privilege and the impact of environment on young people. Is Sasha becoming more like Becky because of something supernatural/biological or because she’s driving around in her car and attending her fancy school?

Sadly, “Chambers” isn’t smart enough to dig into the material in an interesting way. It’s too concerned with jump scares and long scenes about what might have happened to Becky. The success of a show like this comes in how it balances character development with meting out new twists to the narrative – look to “Hill House” for how to do that perfectly. The pacing is off here in every single episode. Sasha isn’t an interesting character and poor Uma Thurman seems like she signed up for a much more interesting show about grief. She’s doing a lot with very little. And it would have been a fascinating supporting turn in the movie that “Chambers” should have been, one that pumps instead of suffering from the television version of low blood pressure.

Four episodes screened for review

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Ebertfest 2019: A Photo Journal

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Roger’s presence was alive and well in the Virginia Theatre at our 21st Ebertfest! Festival Director Nate Kohn and I presented the Roger Ebert‘s Film Festival in collaboration with Roger’s alma mater, the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We were assisted by Festival Coordinator, Andrew Michael Hall (“Andy”). The following photo diary offers snapshots of our cherished memories that took place April 10th through April 13th in Champaign and Urbana, Illinois.

Photos courtesy of Timothy Hiatt.


The Opening Night Gala for Ebertfest was hosted graciously by University President Timothy Kileen and his wife Dr. Roberta Johnson. Opening speeches were also given by Chancellor Robert Jones and College of Media Dean Tracy Sulkin. 

During my speech at the gala, I was joined at the podium by two of the festival’s special guests, Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. Coincidentally, Gina Gerson’s cousin, Alan Elliott, preserved, restored and presented our opening night selection, “Amazing Grace,” the amazing documentary about Aretha Franklin recording the best selling gospel album in history over two nights in a church in Watts, Los Angeles in 1972.

Preceding “Amazing Grace,” Alan Elliott was joined onstage for a Q&A with producer Tirrell D. Whittley and our Ebert Fellow, Whitney Spencer. Elliott told us of his musical roots and of how he was influenced by gospel music and why he was so passionate about bringing this performance of Aretha Franklin to the public. 

Tirrell Whittley’s background as a Deacon was evident in his powerful invocation. Once we saw this powerful film we understood Alan Elliott’s quest to bring it to the screen. It is being distributed by NEON and has opened in select theaters across the country. No doubt church groups and many others will line up to see this historic performance. 

The crowd-pleasing screening concluded with a performance by the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana that had the audience on its feet.

Turns out moving our musical finale of the festival to opening night was a great idea after all. It raised our spirits through the roof and held them there through the entirety of the week.


Prior to showtime at the Virginia Theatre, two inspiring academic panel discussions were held at the nearby Hyatt Hotel, the first sponsored by the Champaign County Alliance for Inclusion and Respect. 

It was entitled “Challenging Stigma Through the Arts,” and moderated by Dr. Eric Pierson. The discussion challenged whether the images of addiction in the movies helped or hindered the public’s understanding of addiction. Pierson was joined onstage by therapist Marcina Hale, film critic Matt Fagerholm, and professional representatives of the recovery community, including from the Rosencrance Rehabilitation Center. Their in-depth discussion offered suggestions on which movies and TV shows portrayed addiction accurately, but more importantly, they offered practical solutions to treating addiction and it’s aftermath as a service to the audience. 

The second panel focused on “Women in Cinema: Hollywood or Independent, Does it Make a Difference,” and featured such speakers as Alliance of Women Film Journalists president Jennifer Merin, “Bound” stars Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon… They too offered practical suggestions for how to increase the representation of women in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera.

… Assistant Editor Nell Minow, “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise” director Rita Coburn and “The Curvy Critic” Carla Renata (filmmaker Stephen Apkon and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker were also present).

Alloy Orchestra members Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue chatted onstage with Michael Phillips and Todd Rendleman following their live musical accompaniment of a silent screen classic, in this case, Jean Epstein’s 1923 melodrama, “Coeur fidèle” (“The Faithful Heart”). The third member of their trio, Roger Miller, was busy selling their priceless merchandise in the festival’s boutique.

The Alloy Orchestra has performed at Ebertfest for over 16 years and are always brought back by popular demand. They compose original scores for the silent films they select, even making some of the instruments they use. What a talented group. We are fortunate to have them. 

Both of the morning panels were reflected in the second film of the day, and Sony Pictures Classics Co-President, Michael Barker, delivered an amazing homage to the late Jonathan Demme’s 2008 masterwork, “Rachel Getting Married.” It featured Anne Hathaway in what I still consider her best performance, as a struggling addict returning home for her sister’s wedding. This film is phenomenal with a cast including Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill IrwinDebra Winger, Anna Deveare Smith, Tunde Adebimpe and many others. Demme considered it one of his favorites in contributing to the understanding of human behavior. It shows how whole families become dysfunctional and act out in various ways, but how facing up to addiction, admitting wrongs, making amends, forgiveness and love can help you face the very messiness of life and come together as a family and community. Michael Barker is without a doubt one of Ebertfest’s favorite guests. 

Barker spoke onstage after the film with our critic, Nell Minow, and one of Demme’s closest friends, Stephen Apkon, a recipient of the Roger Ebert Humanitarian Award for his documentary, “Disturbing the Peace.” The screenwriter of “Rachel Getting Married,” Jenny Lumet (the granddaughter of Lena Horne and the daughter of Sidney Lumet), joined in the conversation over the satellite.

Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s hugely enjoyable debut feature, “Bound,” was the evening’s cinematic treat, and it was made ten times more entertaining by the Q&A afterward with Gina Gershon and Academy Award nominee Jennifer Tilly. Their banter with critics Chuck Koplinski and Pamela Powell was a joy to watch.


Michael Phillips introduced the audience to the 2018-19 University of Illinois College of Media Roger Ebert Fellows, Curtis Cook, Pari Apostolakos and Eunice Alpasan, who did a splendid job covering their first full Ebertfest experience. Although Phillips is the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, he is the revered mentor for the Ebert Fellowship program at the University of Illinois, and is valued for his knowledge and experience and his love of teaching. He makes the program better every year. 

One of our longtime Ebertfest guests, Sam Fragoso, was encouraged by Roger to keep doing what he loved, and he is now an accomplished critic, podcaster and filmmaker. His wonderful short film, “Sebastian,” preceded the first feature screened on Day 3 of Ebertfest, and earned him the coveted Golden Thumb.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s ravishing Polish romance, “Cold War,” was the discussion topic for Festival Director Nate Kohn, Michael Phillips and Carla Renata, following the morning screening. Carla Renata interviewed the film’s director and shared some revealing insights into the movie. It was partially based on Pawlikowski’s parents’ tempestuous love story and is an epic told over several decades. Renata is also a recurring actress on ABC’s Superstore, and just published a book for actors on marketing. 

Horace Jenkins’ newly restored 1982 gem, “Cane River,” brought out a stellar quartet of talents: producer Sandra Schulberg, actress Tommye Myrick and Jenkins’ children, Sacha and Dominique Jenkins. This film is a modern day Romeo & Juliet played out in Louisiana among descendants of African-American Creoles and slaves. It is a tale of colorism, land ownership, and a young woman’s determination to pursue her education, but above all, it a tale of love. Very romantic. Ms. Myrick hilariously told us how she had to learn to swim and ride horses because she couldn’t do either and the film required both. Schulberg told us how she preserved to get the film restored. And Dominique and Sacha told us of their remarkable father whose life itself is worthy of a film. 

The great Polish actress, Madame Maja Komorowska, traveled all the way from Warsaw to attend our Ebertfest screening of Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1984 love story, “A Year of the Quiet Sun,” which paired her with the late Scott Wilson, to whom this year’s festival was dedicated. She was joined on stage by her amusing translator, Jerzy Tyszkiewicz, who also happens to be her grandson. 

Their Q&A was moderated by Professor Todd Rendleman and Jennifer Merin. After tribute clips of Scott Wilson’s film career, his widow, Heavenly Wilson, spoke of getting this movie made in Poland and at Monument Valley in the United States.

Here Maja Komorowska and Jerzy are joined by Scott’s widow, Heavenly Wilson. Getting to spend time with them was heavenly indeed. It has become an Ebertfest tradition for guests and audiences to pose with the sculpture of Roger on the plaza of the Virginia Theater. The sculpture is by artist Rick Harney and was installed by the fundraising efforts of festival donors Donna and Scott Anderson. It was truly a gift from the heart, as Donna woke up in the hospital when she was having a heart transplant and said she wanted to do whatever it took to get a sculpture of Roger near the Virginia Theater as a gift to the community. 

Iconic “Simpsons” producer David Mirkin brought down the house with his beloved 1997 comedy, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” Festival Director Nate Kohn appears here with film critics and broadcasters Chuck Koplinski and Pamela Powell who had a ball chatting with David Mirkin onstage.The audience loved seeing Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in their screwball roles. Mirkin presented an image of high school that so many can relate to. He was a delightful guest. 


Beginning the last day of Ebertfest 2019 were two films about heroic figures who have left an indelible imprint in our culture long after their passing. The first was “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise,” directed by Rita Coburn, who spoke onstage with our Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz and Ebert Fellow Whitney Spencer afterward. Rita Coburn, in a surprise, was presented with the inaugural ICON award, for the scope of her film about the iconic Maya Angelou, and her contributions to humanity. This was the first ICON award ever given at Ebertfest. Rita Coburn is actually one of those phenomenal women that Angelou talks about. The film was awarded a Peabody among other awards.

Director Morgan Neville won the Ebert Humanitarian award for his film, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” about the television trailblazer and radical humanist Fred Rogers.  It was only the third humanitarian award given. The second was given to Norman Lear for his lifetime of work in television in highlighting the various nuances of the human condition through humor.  Neville was joined onstage by Assistant Editors Nick Allen and Matt Fagerholm, who were both great admirers of the movie. Matt movingly shared with the audience the letter he wrote to Mr Rogers when he was five years old, and also the amazingly long and very specific response Mr Rogers wrote back to five-year-old Matt in encouragement. It illustrated the respect Mr Rogers had for children and his principle of radical kindness.

Our festival culminated with a celebration of Roger’s longtime on-air “At the Movies” partner, Richard Roeper. A montage of hilarious and touching highlights from their reviews preceded my conversation with him onstage. Richard chose two films to present at Ebertfest, and both were well received: “Almost Famous,” and “Sideways.” Richard’s career includes broadcasting on radio and television and other platforms, publishing books about movies and gambling, and lecturing. He may also be working on future movie projects. Managing Editor Brian Tallerico and Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz chatted with Richard Roeper and Sam Fragoso about one of their favorite movies, Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” a film very close to Roger’s heart (and his own life story). Crowe provided a special video introduction to the picture that was appreciated by the whole audience. His film still plays well all these years later, with an luminous performance by Kate Hudson, and an unbelievably perfect cast, including Billy Crudup, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee and the vulnerable newcomer Patrick Fugit.

Photo by Matt Fagerholm

Last but certainly not least, we screened one of Roeper’s most prized films he ever got to review with Roger, Alexander Payne’s “Sideways.” The film’s Oscar-nominated star, the beautiful Virginia Madsen, joined us via Skype from the set of her new TV series, “Swamp Thing,” for an emotional conversation about Roger and his championing of the film. The film starred Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden-Church and the unforgettable Sandra Oh. Virginia shared many insights, including about drinking fabricated fake wine. Hilarious.  Richard Roeper, Matt Zoller Seitz and Nell Minow were on hand for the discussion. All in all, a perfect end to another unforgettable Ebertfest. Join us April 15th through April 18th next year for the 22nd anniversary of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival!

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Ebertfest 2019: Table of Contents

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With the conclusion of the 21st Roger Ebert‘s Film Festival (Ebertfest), we’ve gathered all of our coverage on this past week’s panels, guests and film presentations. Included is the work of Chaz Ebert, Brian Tallerico, Nick Allen, Peter Sobczynski and our three Ebert Fellows, Curtis Cook, Pari Apostolakos and Eunice Alpasan, along with two articles published elsewhere.

Ebertfest 2019 Reveals Full Line-Up Honoring Scott Wilson, Richard Roeper and Jonathan Demme by Chaz Ebert

Spotlighting Ebertfest’s Festival Director and Audience Members by Chaz Ebert

Ebertfest 2019, Day 1: The Year Opens with a Cinematic Invocation by Brian Tallerico

Ebertfest 2019, Day 2: Coeur Fidele, Rachel Getting Married, Bound by Nick Allen

Ebertfest 2019, The Panels: Challenging Stigma Through the Arts; Women in Cinema by Nick Allen

Ebertfest 2019, Day 3: Sebastian, Cold War, Cane River, A Year of the Quiet Sun, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion by Peter Sobczynski 

Ebertfest 2019, Day 4: Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Almost Famous, Sideways by Nick Allen

Finding New Neighbors at the Movies: The Ebert Fellows on Ebertfest 2019 by Ebert Fellows Curtis Cook, Pari Apostolakos and Eunice Alpasan

From Daily Journal:

Ebertfest 2019 wrap-up: A film festival like no other by Pam Powell

From Prospectus News:

Empathy and Love at Roger Ebert Fest 2019 by Paul R. Benson

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Nelly Kaplan Retrospective at NYC’s Quad Cinema Celebrates Ferocious Filmmaker

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Just days after I moved to New York, the Quad Cinema screened a double feature of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s “Half Cocked” and “Radiation,” two melancholic portraits of mid-to-late-’90s indie rock life that recalled films like “The Last Picture Show” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I had never heard of Hawley and Galinsky or their work before, and I attended the one-night-only screening basically on a whim. By the end of the night, I was converted. In the past year, I was introduced to the work of Alan Rudolph, Eduardo de Gregorio, and Joan Micklin Silver; watched such X-rated works as “Salon Kitty” and “La Grande Bouffe”; and caught up with canonized titles like “Celine and Julie Go Boating” and “Daisy Kenyon.” For this Midwesterner, it was something of a gold mine.

When Chris Wells announced his departure as Director of Programming at the Quad Cinema two weeks ago, it compelled me to reflect upon how his work has impacted me during my brief time living in New York. As a regional novice with an interest in repertory cinema, the Quad’s programming was instrumental to my assimilation into the scene, and a neat introduction to the variety of options available in the city. Series like “Crimes of Passion: The Erotic Thriller” and “Some Are Better Than Others: The Curious Case of the Anthology Film” sought to both showcase works around a common through line while also highlighting underseen works. Wells and his team routinely exhibited unheralded films within unique contexts, guiding audiences to view these texts through new lenses with appropriate context. They challenged audiences to take chances on films with offbeat sensibilities or from artists who haven’t made big impacts in the States.

Case in point: the Quad’s “Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan,” their latest retrospective and a celebration of Nelly Kaplan, an Argentine-born filmmaker who abandoned her economics studies at the University of Buenos Aires to emigrate to France and pursue a career in cinema. In 1954, she met director Abel Gance and quickly became his professional (and personal) partner. She spent a decade in his orbit, collaborating on works like “Magirama” and “The Battle of Austerlitz,” before eventually striking out on her own. At first, she directed a series of documentary portraits, including ones on Gustave Moreau and Pablo Picasso, but soon after she moved into directing fiction features and, later, co-writing telefilms with Jean Chapot. Kaplan’s films examine the intersection of sex and the patriarchal social order, foregrounding female desire as a revolutionary act within a conservative cultural sphere.

“Abel Gance and his Napoléon”

Her breakthrough debut feature “A Very Curious Girl” (pictured at top) explores the social hypocrisy within a conservative French village after an orphaned young woman becomes a sex worker. Marie (Bernadette Lafont) toils away on a farm and mostly receives abuse and harassment for her trouble. After her mother is killed in a hit-and-run accident, she embraces self-liberation and decides to charge the men in the village for sex as payback for being treated as bait for years. The village labels her a whore and tries to run her out, but despite their public objections, none of men can resist her beguiling wiles. Every elite in the neighborhood shames her sexuality yet physically engages with it every chance they get.

Kaplan’s broad social satire mines laughs from the gap between public and private personas, as well as the inherently shallow nature of conservative values, but “A Very Curious Girl” wouldn’t make such an impact if it didn’t also have gentle reverence for Marie. She channels her bitterness into a sexual revenge plot as a survival tactic and an avenue for radical expression; she rewrites her own objectification so that she’s the hero instead of the victim. Her sweetness towards a horny mute grandfather and a film exhibitor that views her as an equal illustrates that Kaplan’s critique lies less in individuals and more in the flawed system of social propriety. If the men in the village weren’t suffering under a culture of repression, they wouldn’t be punishing women for embracing their desires. In a way, Marie liberates the village by tearing apart its social fabric, even if they refuse to heed the lesson.

“Papa, the ‘Lil Boats”

The other films in the series, playing all this week, spotlight Kaplan’s diverse range in genre and tone: “Papa, the Lil’ Boats,” a 1971 caper about a beautiful heiress (Sheila White) who uses her temptress ways to confound her kidnappers; “Néa,” an adaptation of a novel by Emmanuelle Arsan, writer of the erotic “Emmanuelle” series, about a young shoplifter (Ann Zacharias) who tries her hand at erotic fiction at the behest of an older publisher (Sami Frey); the melancholic social comedy “Charles and Lucie,” about a aging married couple who inherit a luxurious mansion and subsequently reevaluate their relationship. The series also features her 1984 documentary “Abel Gance and His Napoléon,” a tribute to her mentor that chronicles the making of his 1927 epic “Napoléon,” as well as her final feature to date, “The Pleasure of Love,” about a down-on-his-luck tutor (Pierre Arditi) who falls into sexual disarray after three women pursue him during a gig on a tropical island.

Quad owner and real estate magnate Charles S. Cohen says that the four-screen theater will still showcase “restored and classic films” despite Wells’ departure and its official designation as a Landmark theater. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen, but as of now, the Quad still programs exciting work from marginalized or overlooked voices. Look no further than its Nelly Kaplan series for proof.

Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan runs at New York’s Quad Cinema from April 12-25. For more information on the series, click here

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Someone Great

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Netflix’s Romantic Comedy Revival continues with a new twist. Instead of another sweet, lovey-dovey move a la “Set It Up” or “To All the Boys I Loved Before,” their next release, “Someone Great” starts with a breakup. The feel-good relationship at the heart of this movie isn’t found in the arms of a new man, but in the bonds between close friends. Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) is a driven writer who just landed her dream job at a publication across the country. The news finally breaks the crumbling relationship with her longtime boyfriend, Nate (LaKeith Stanfield). They break up, and then she cries—a lot. She quickly rallies her old friends, Blair (Brittany Snow) and Erin (DeWanda Wise), to triage her emotional state with booze, drugs, and a concert. 

“Someone Great” is an impressive feature debut from writer/director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the creator behind MTV’s “Sweet/Vicious.” The New York City-centric day-long arc manages to cram in a lot of mischief between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Although some of the movie’s details about the media industry are more fantasy than reality, its core story of coping with heartbreak through friends and escapism holds true. There are jokes about the setting and how everyone the women knew from their NYU days has moved to Los Angeles, and there are many jabs about the uncertainty of turning 30 and feeling like they should have married or accomplished something great. These lines never bring down the movie’s lighthearted tone, which bops along to a pop music soundtrack made up of some favorite songs and new hits. There’s even a hilarious sing-a-long moment to Selena’s “I’m Dreaming of You,” which is both a great song to listen to post-breakup or during a relationship. 

Although the characters tend to lean heavily on caricature, Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow seem to have plenty of chemistry with each other. Before her break up, Jenny looked like she had it all figured out when it came to her relationship and career. Blair, on the other hand, had already settled into a loveless relationship before turning 30. Jenny’s pre-30s crisis causes her to reevaluate her situation. Unlike her two straight friends, Erin is fine staying uncommitted until her partner, Leah (Rebecca Naomi Jones), asks her to take the next step in their relationship. The group seems overly fond of Internet slang, but the trio’s connection feels heartfelt. Their dynamics shifts to help out whichever friend is in need, like when Jenny helps pry Erin out of an awkward conversation with Leah or Erin confronts Blair about her shallow relationship. Plus, there are delightful appearances by RuPaul, Jaboukie Young-White, Rosario Dawson and Questlove throughout the film to keep things lively.

Kaytin Robinson’s movie has a sleek look that gives its messy breakup story more of a polished finish, and cinematographer Autumn Eakin uses the bright pink and white of stylish apartments and the neon and jewel tones of New York nightlife to color in this freewheeling day-to-night journey. Focus plays a distinct factor as well: Jenny’s flashbacks to her relationship are in soft focus, like idealized memories of old romantic comedies, while sharp focus is used for the time she spends with friends, reflecting on the hard reality she must come to accept. 

“Someone Great” does not refer to a person. That search for the perfect partner may not be what these women really need at this moment in their lives. For now, they have each other, and the movie wants us to enjoy their company as much as we would enjoy our time with our friends. It’s a fluffy romp with a sobering truth: relationships and your twenties may end, but neither signals the end of the world. 

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Mine 9

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Eddie Mensore’s “Mine 9,” a thriller about a group of coal miners trying to survive a cave-in, is a bravura display of storytelling prowess, turning liabilities into virtues in the manner of all good low-budget films. Borrowing equally from the survival movie and the horror film, it starts out by flat-out promising that something horrible is going to happen to a group of men led by section leader Zeke (Terry Serpico), and then it delivers, in the best/worst way. 

A near-disaster in the prologue establishes that increasing methane levels are putting the workers of Mine 9 in danger, but the system is ill-equipped to do anything about it. As the miners discuss amongst themselves, whenever a mine gets shut down by safety regulators, they don’t get a paycheck, and if one of them dies on the job, at least their family will get a payout, a scenario they prefer to unemployment, grim as it sounds. On top of that, if there’s an accident that traps miners in a shaft, federal investigators won’t help them. They have a rule against sending their own people into a situation that’s been established as life-threatening. All of which means that when things go bad, these guys are really and truly on their own. And things go very bad.

Mensore seems to have carefully studied the tough-guy action films of the 1960s and ’70s. At its best, “Mine 9” feels like a movie from that era, from the documentary-like emphasis on the rituals of donning and removing uniforms and gathering equipment, to the decision to keep film score music to a bare minimum (Marucio Yazigi’s work is mostly ambient and subliminal; sometimes you initially mistake it for natural or mechanical noises), to dealing with exposition by having the newcomer, Zeke’s eighteen-year old nephew Ryan (Drew Starkey), ask questions of the veterans accompanying him on his first trip into the mine. (Anybody who’s seen a war movie will immediately fear for the new kid’s safety; at least Mensore resisted the temptation to have him show off a picture of his fiancee.)

This is not a perfect film by any means. The characterizations are thin, in the manner of a standard-issue war picture about a platoon of mismatched grunts: each of the miners is largely defined by a single trait, such as innocence, piety, alcoholism, or a sense of paternal responsibility to the rest of the group, and they only occasionally rise above that, although once all hell breaks loose, the ability to watch them in action adds depth. And even though short feature films are becoming rarer these days, and should be applauded on principle, this one feels a bit too short. By the end, you’re so invested in the well-being of these men that you may wish the story had continued a bit further, to show them dealing with the psychological and maybe legal aftermath of what happened. (It’s easy to imagine a sequel where the survivors go to court seeking justice from the company, then turn to robbery or terrorism when they realize that the system is rigged against them.) 

Still, this is an impressive piece of work that deploys low-budget filmmaking techniques with cleverness. You feel as if you’re in that crumbling mine shaft with the heroes, who’ve already survived one close call and now find themselves trapped deep beneath the earth during a rainstorm. The sound design, supervised by Michael Hardman, is nerve-jangling in the manner of a very assured horror film, especially when the men have to play doctor on the spot, using tools that were designed to split rock. Matthew Boyd’s cinematography uses darkness for atmosphere and visual flair, often creating frames-within-frames that suggest Renaissance paintings matted with torn black paper (or monster movies that deal in claustrophobia, like the original “Alien” and “The Descent“). 

Most impressive of all is the way that both the cast and the filmmaking try to root every moment in physical reality. It’s not often that you see a thriller that is, in its heart, about workplace safety, the lengths that people will go to in order to support their families, and the way that machismo and tradition combine to rationalize away the coldness of industry. These guys are well-aware that the world as it is can be brutal to workers. But it’s the only world they know, and so they do whatever they have to do to survive in it. When the closing credits play out over footage of real miners who live and work in the locations where the movie was shot, it almost unbalances the whole thing, because although the fiction you just watched was engrossing, the reality that inspired it is profound.

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Galaxy’s Edge, Panels, Argus Panox and More: Highlights from the 2019 Star Wars Celebration

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Regardless of what level of Star Wars fandom you subscribe to, it’s quite clear that what George Lucas originally intended as a fairytale has become more than he could possibly imagine. I was reminded of this while attending my first Star Wars Celebration in Chicago this past weekend. Being a lifelong fan of the movies (and pretty much all things related to them), I’ve always wanted to attend a convention solely dedicated to Star Wars. Overall, it was a full and rewarding experience, confirming that real life is so much better than internet life.

In case you weren’t aware (if so, I envy you), a certain faction of online Star Wars fandom has become toxic since J.J. Abrams brought back the Skywalker sage in 2015. Outraged from so-called fans could be found online due to the presence of a black stormtrooper and the focus on a female protagonist. Other complaints and bemoaning could be found online, some directed at the two “A Star Wars Story” movies, “Rogue One” and “Solo,” but the good news is I found none of that negativity in the five days I attended Star Wars Celebration. 

There were signs warning against harassment all over the convention floor and that was mainly due to non-consent advances that cosplayers have received in the past. I can truly attest that all my conversations, either with colleagues or regular attendees, were filled with fruitful Star Wars conversations revolving that were constructive and enriching. Any disagreements were rare and drowned out by a bountiful love for what Lucas created and what others have developed and maintained.

That in and of itself was certainly one of the highlights of the long weekend. It confirmed not only the differences between online and real life interaction, but it also reaffirmed that passion and enthusiasm far outweighs cynicism and apathy. The fervent fandom I encountered at and in-between panels or walking the exhibit floor, confirmed acceptance, respect and the desire to include others instead of ostracize them.

The people I engaged with were as diverse as the panel presentations offered at the WinTrust Arena or the ones across the street at the McCormick Place West Expansion. The biggest events were presentations for “Episode IX” and “The Mandalorian,” and panels that offered a look at a new entertainment venue for Star Wars, updates on existing properties, and behind-the scenes information on the making of some of the movies.

Galaxy’s Edge / photo by David Fowlie

<span class="s1" The panel titled “Bringing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to Life at Disney Parks” helped promote and detail the work that has gone into the Star Wars theme parks the House of Mouse will be opening in May 31st at Disneyland in Anaheim and on August 29th in Orlando. The idea behind it all is for visitors to basically walk into and interact with a Star Wars environment. Buoyant host Josh Gad came out on stage and brought out Imagineers (a patented Disney term) Scott Trowbridge, Chris Beatty, Doug Chiang, Asa Kalama, Margaret Kerrison, and Matt Martin, to discuss the creativity and authenticity that went into bringing the environment to life. 

As many already know, a life-size Millennium Falcon has been built for each location, parked at the Black Spire Outpost located on the planet Batuu. It’s a brand new location for Star Wars, yet it will feel familiar and be considered canon in relation to the universe. There’s already books out there pertaining to the location, and this summer Marvel Comics (owned by Disney) will release a Galaxy’s Edge comic. They even got the vocal talents of Jim Cummings, Paul Reubens, and Frank Oz involved, playing some deep cut characters and a recognizable one, respectively. 

Galaxy’s Edge will be a place where you can participate in the story at every turn, with each decision bringing you closer to The Resistance or the First Order (which means it takes place post “The Force Awakens”). No doubt, the big draw will be flying the Falcon, which will require six people in the cockpit – two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. The state of your ship afterward is dependent on how successful your mission was. If you took on damage, it will be visible. You’ll smell and see smoke when you exit the same Falcon corridors you entered, adding to the visceral experience. 

I attended this panel with a modicum of trepidation, knowing the parks will be astronomically expensive and that the presentation would have the propensity of being all hype. In a smart move, Disney made it so attendees of Star Wars Celebration can be part of Galaxy’s Edge at the convention by recording a statement in a booth (what Star Wars means to you or what about the park you are looking forward to the most) on the show floor, which will then be added to a holocron, which will be on display at the park. Bottom line: this is likely to be an amazing experience for fans, but there’s no doubt it will be crazy crowded the first year it opens. 

“Vader Immortal – A Star Wars Series – Episode I”

Two highly-anticipated video games were announced as well, both of which will be released this year. On Friday afternoon, there was a presentation for “Vader Immortal: A Star Wars Series – Episode I,” which was created by ILMxLAB for the Occulus Quest and Occulus Rift VR game systems. The designers, writers and producers of the game were brought out on stage, and they discussed how the story of the game is considered canon as well and has ties to the comics and films, specifically “Rogue One.” 

Set between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” the game finds you playing a smuggler who is hired by Vader (voiced by Scott Lawrence) to carry out a special job. You’ll have a droid named ZOE3 (Maya Rudolph) to assist you and offer some levity to a game that’s quite dark, with most of it taking place on the molten lava planet, Mustafar, home to Vader’s lair. Aside from the 40-60 minutes of the game storyline, there’s also a demo that occurs in a lightsaber dojo where you can test your skills as you feel the heat and vibration of a Jedi’s weapon. 

Saturday afternoon came the presentation for EA and Respawn’s new game “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” a single-player Jedi fantasy story. It occurs after the events of “Revenge of the Sith” and follows a Padawan named Cal (played by Cameron Monaghan using performance capture) who managed to survive Order 66 – which branded all Jedi traitors to the Galactic Republic and targets for execution by the Grand Army of the Republic’s clone troopers – and is now hiding in plane sight. Of course, that won’t last long, and soon Cal is being pursued by an elite Inquisitor and a new type of stormtrooper (designed specifically for the game). With the help of assistant droid BD-1 (veteran Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt gave life to the character) and the mysterious Cere (Debra Wilson), Cal will work his way through what appears to be a compelling story arch. During the panel, an exciting trailer and informative behind-the-scenes clip was shown, which confirmed that this is more up my alley than a VR game. The game will be released on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on November 15th.

The most memorable panels for me had to do with the talent that made the fantastic visuals of Star Wars possible. On Friday afternoon, there was a presentation called “The Creatures, Droids & Aliens of Star Wars” in which award-winning special effects and make-up artist Neal Scanlan came out and discussed his work. Scanlan has been working on Star Wars movies since “The Force Awakens” and had plenty to talk about, from the changes the Chewbacca costumes has undergone to the development of the new droid D-O for “The Rise of Skywalker.” He also had a fully-functioning head model for Six Eyes, aka Argus Panox, the cheating alien who played sabaac during Han Solo’s first card game with Lando Calrissian in “Solo.” The fact that Scanlan and his crew are responsible for convincing viewers there are living and interactive beings apart from humanoids in these movies is impressive.

Doug Chiang / photo by David Fowlie

Another talented artist, Doug Chiang, led two presentations, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, and both provided a revealing look at how the look of Star Wars vehicles and characters are developed. I’ve long admired Chiang’s work, starting with his designs for “The Phantom Menace” and on to his work on “Rogue One.” He led a class called “The Art and Techniques of Designing for Star Wars” and also delivered a tutorial “The Evolution of Star Wars Design – Designing Episode I,” in which he provided valuable examples of his work. He humbly described what it was like when he began working with Lucas in the mid ’90s and how his artistic approach has developed over the years. Hearing from this extraordinary concept artist/production designer and meeting him was a personal highlight for me. 

<span class="s1" The panels I attended were energetic, fun and often enlightening, but there’s more to Star Wars Celebration than these presentations. One could easily get lost for hours on all that the convention floor has to offer, but what struck me the most in the five days I attended was the obvious passion and camaraderie I witnessed from the fans. There’s been 12 of these conventions within the last 20 years and it’s clear they’ve become a place where fans from all walks of life can commune around something that has impacted their lives in a meaningful way.

Star Wars Celebration is a place where you can talk all things Star Wars with anyone there and not get a weird look in return. It’s a place where you can feel understood and accepted, which is something needed considering the toxic vitriol that tends to surface online when it comes to Star Wars fandom. I left the Celebration quite fulfilled and inspired, with a renewed appreciation for all things Star Wars. 

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Hail Satan?

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The question mark in the title “Hail Satan?” hints at a failure of nerve that Penny Lane’s documentary rarely suffers from. This light-footed movie is essentially a defense brief, on behalf of a group whose existence amounts to an ongoing prank-with-a-purpose, in the spirit of the YippiesBillionaires for Bush and The Yes Men. One key difference, though, is that this group uses a combination of legal acumen and absurdist reasoning to attack its targets, and succeeds more often than you might think.

Lane focuses on members of The Satanic Temple, which was founded in 2013 and bears no relationship to Anton LaVey’s 1960s-founded Church of Satan, except for the worshiping Satan part. Ostensibly this is an organized group of Satan worshipers, the kind that made parents throw out their kids’ Dungeons & Dragons games and play records backwards in the 1980s to expose hidden messages. 

But we quickly see that any religious component of their existence is outweighed by an ideological mission. They’re mainly about keeping church and state separate. That’s not easy in country where the boundaries have been porous for centuries, and where the Evangelical right wing, which rose up in the 1950s in response to the Cold War specter of Communism, has managed to insert religion into public life to an extent that the Founding Fathers could never have imagined. (Among the many didja-know facts that Lane includes here: “In God We Trust” didn’t appear on any US currency besides the two-cent piece until 1957, when Congress added it to all paper currency. And those identical Ten Commandments statues that dot public buildings around the U.S. were giveaways from Paramount Pictures, promoting Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film.)

The Satanic Temple is best known for inserting themselves wherever Christian groups are trying to use public funds to praise Christianity, or integrate religious text or iconography into public commons. Wielding the first ten words of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—the group seeks out situations where, say, the American History and Heritage Foundation wants to put up a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, and demands that they also put up a statue of the demon-goat Baphomet.  

Throughout, Satan is treated more as a rhetorical device than a dark deity with a life force that can be tapped through incarnations or magic, as in a horror film. Devil worship is a way for Temple members to troll the dominant culture, expose mechanisms of control, and ask the sorts of questions a child might pose in Sunday school, such as “Why was it wrong for the Devil to offer Jesus food and water when he was suffering in the desert?” and “Why was it bad for the snake to offer Eve the chance to eat from the tree of knowledge, and go to live in the wider world with her mate?”

Lane directed “Our Nixon,” which viewed the disgraced president through the eyes of the people surrounding him, and “Nuts!”, a biography of a man who claimed to be able to cure impotence by replacing the testicles of non-performing men with goat testicles. She’s got unerring eye for quirky subjects who offer an alternative perspective on American mythology, and it serves her well here, even though the unruly complexity of the subject seems to overwhelm her in the end. 

The closest thing to a main character is TST spokesman Lucien Greaves. He’s a pale, smirking antihero with one glass eye—the sort of person that a horror movie might present as the smooth public face of a band of devil worshipers—but it’s obvious that the loves putting people on, and throwing shade so subtly that targets can’t be sure if they’ve been attacked or are just being paranoid. His power derives from his ability to keep a straight face whether he’s dealing with a reporter who pretends not to get the joke, or an outraged evangelical who doesn’t know there is one. 

There are many other comparably dynamic characters in the film, including Jex Blackmore, the leader of TST’s Detroit chapter who plays the role of youthful extremist firebrand to Greaves’ wise but maybe too-cautious elder. Greaves himself admits late in the film that The Satanic Temple has grown so large (with chapters as far away as Australia and South Africa) that it had to have a centralized authority, a scenario he’d always hoped to avoid by organizing it in a more anarchistic fashion. One of the things that a big group has to worry about is guiding and controlling the local chapters. The latter understandably want to have the freedom to maneuver and take chances. But they’re constantly being chastised for going off-script and exposing the group to charges that they’re contradicting themselves, or alienating potential converts who are receptive to the message but not the tactics. 

The philosophical conflict between Blackmore and Greaves is as fascinating as any of the details about the group and its public actions. Buried somewhere in this smart but somewhat disorganized and repetitious movie about The Satanic Temple is a trickier, potentially deeper and more all-encompassing work, about what happens to every seemingly dangerous group once it becomes popular. A small group that becomes a big group has to begin worrying about the long term ramifications of every action and statement, because it has so much more to lose than when it was a scrappy little band of figurative or literal hell-raisers. Unfortunately, Lane doesn’t really start to dig that movie out of “Hail Satan?” until the end, and she doesn’t excavate all of it—just the horns and head. 

We do get a good sense of what TST is actually up to, though. It comes across less as an unconventional/threatening theological organization than a social justice group with a secular, leftist worldview that is, in its ass-backwards way, rather earnest. The Satanic Temple of Western Florida collected socks for the homeless. The Satanic Temple of Arizona organized “Menstruate with Satan,” to provide menstruation products to schoolgirls who couldn’t afford them. The group’s first public act was rally in support of Florida governor Rick Scott, who was pushing legislation that would have allowed students to vote on whether to include prayers in public events such as graduation ceremonies. Scott, the group proclaimed in a press release, “has reaffirmed our American freedom to practice our faith openly, allowing our Satanic children the freedom to pray in school.” 

It’s as if the group had studied the“Rabbit season! Duck season!” exchange from the Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck classic “Rabbit Seasoning,” and figured out how to turn the punchline into a political movement. The larger point seems inescapable: the modern mechanisms of American government have been so corrupted by greed and organized religion that compassion and fairness are now treated as the devil’s work.  

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“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Anytime I hear the opening line of “Eleanor Rigby,” which the Beatles deliver like an elegiac sigh, I immediately picture the cramped interior of a subway train. The more crowded a car gets during the sweat-caked stretch of rush hour, the lonelier one can feel. An empty chair provides welcome relief, allowing us to bury our attention in the endless scrolling of our apps. Yet whenever I’m forced to stand amidst a tangle of passengers—our arms flailing for balance as if we were playing a game of Twister in a sardine can—my gaze remains fixed on an empty section of the wall. Longtime city dwellers have trained themselves to avoid eye contact with strangers for fear of being mistaken for a beggar or worse, a creep. Only in my early college days, after moving to Chicago from the suburbs, did I dare to make small talk in the subway with anyone willing to listen.

Michael Berry’s “Stuck” takes place in New York City’s MTA transit system, which resembles Chicago’s CTA system if it were redesigned by M.C. Escher. So dizzying is the labyrinth for first-timers that it’s a wonder any tourists make it to their desired location on time. The first inkling that my disbelief was in danger of becoming unsuspended arrived at the very top of Berry’s picture, when six travelers found themselves trapped in an otherwise vacant car, despite it being in the middle of a typically busy day. Such an anomaly would be hard to swallow, though for a brief moment, I wondered whether the characters’ purgatorial plight signaled their entrance into the Twilight Zone. 

After all, it is Lloyd (Giancarlo Esposito), the seemingly homeless man shaving at the end of the car, who seems to have willed this stagnation to occur. His Shakespearean monologues delivered to a reluctant audience unwilling to part with their cash would’ve seemed far fetched had I not encountered and befriended people exactly like him. Yet the film never appears interested in exploring his story, even as he coaxes all his fellow ensemble members into sharing their own. Esposito has a dynamic presence, and proves more than capable of suggesting the layers of vulnerability reverberating beneath Lloyd’s twinkly persona, but the character regrettably emerges as yet another incarnation of the antiquated archetype dubbed by Spike Lee as the Magical Negro. His chief duty is to supply the characters with precisely what they need at any given moment, including a clean roll of toilet paper, and appears all-too-content in living out his days on a circular path of benevolence. 

Maintaining a sense of claustrophobia is key for a film like “Stuck,” where the audience must feel immersed in the spatial limitations set for the characters. Berry’s movie is an adaptation of a one-act stage musical by Riley Thomas, and the train’s airless atmosphere is obliterated anytime a character breaks into song, mouthing to prerecorded tracks so slickly mixed, they are borderline laughable. Rather than have musical numbers spring organically from source ambiance or other sounds, such as the buzzing of earbuds or the tapping of fingers a la “Cell Block Tango” (which are used only fleetingly here), the songs jarringly burst forth in a way that makes one suspect the characters have been possessed by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin’s ghosts from “Beetlejuice.” Speaking of vintage Burton, the title tune’s refrain of “Wo-oah! Wo-oah!” is so inescapably evocative of Danny Elfman’s villain anthem from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” that I kept expecting Lloyd to follow it up with, “I’m the Oogie Boogie Man!” 

It’s telling that the best melodic bit in the film is not only the simplest but most functional, as three of the guys perform scat on the spot in order to drown out the sound of a fellow passenger, Alicia (Arden Cho), peeing into a bottle. An early song belted by comic book artist Caleb (Gerard Canonico) about a wheelchair-bound superhero is certainly the liveliest, considering that most of the music serves purely as exposition, rushing through the backstories of each character—except for Lloyd—so that we may empathize with their troubles. When hard-working immigrant Ramon (Omar Chaparro) starts articulating his anxieties in Spanish sans subtitles, Lloyd instructs us to stop listening with our ears. This would’ve likely resulted in a touching sequence relying on the nuance of visual storytelling, yet the lyrics quickly switch to English, as if they had lost their nerve. The film’s opening moments are similarly promising in how they juxtapose city noise with an orchestra warming up, but Lloyd proceeds to hit the nail on the head by spelling out the “symphony of sound … underground.” 

Perhaps “Stuck” would’ve played better had it been released closer to the 2008 world premiere of Thomas’ well-received show, long before the photo sharing scandal that rocked the New York City Ballet last fall. We are supposed to find Caleb’s infatuation with Alicia endearing, despite the fact that he stalked the woman at her ballet job and took pictures of her without her consent. His persistent stabs at conversation despite Alicia’s clear disinterest affirm his inability to accept that “no” does indeed mean “no.” Equally frustrating are the attempts made by various characters to convince the pregnant Eve (Ashanti) that she should have her baby rather than get an abortion. The presumptions of these onlookers have no basis in anything apart from their own beliefs steeped in outdated gender roles, and perhaps a steady diet of Pure Flix movies, while the only evidence we’re left with regarding Eve’s maternal skills is her offer to help a mother carry her buggy down the stairs. 

When racial tensions inevitably flare up between the passengers, leading to all sorts of thoughtless name-calling, the film veers dangerously close to becoming the musical equivalent of “Crash.” Numerous issues of inequity and prejudice are brought up just so they can be resoundingly ignored because, as Sue (Amy Madigan) observes, “We are all on this train together,” a pat response at best, since they are all bound for separate tracks. Madigan fares better than her co-stars in part because the charm she exudes that lit up the screen three decades ago in “Uncle Buck” and “Field of Dreams” hasn’t faded in the slightest. Not only is the power of her vocals impressive, she’s also a joy to watch in the silent moments, such as when she nearly utters a word before sheepishly retreating. Too bad her character is to “Stuck” what Tallulah Bankhead was to “Lifeboat”—the uptight female who must be perpetually schooled in her privilege until it is revealed that, wouldn’t you know it, she’s harboring her own pain too. A word of caution: the more antagonistic the character, the more traumatic the flashbacks. 

All that being said, I find Berry and Thomas’ intentions admirable. If only the connections forged between their characters could’ve been crafted with some trace of subtlety, instead of being fueled by an overriding need to cure all societal ills. I’ll admit to being touched by certain small beats, such as the reveal of Caleb’s ultimate destination. But when the contrived uplift of the finale kicks in, with the ensemble singing together in different locations a la “Magnolia,” the schmaltz is laid on so thickly, it turns the stomach. The very end of Jill Sprecher’s great “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” where the wave of a stranger causes a smile to caress the lips of a lonely passenger, perfects in mere seconds what “Stuck” struggles to achieve for the entirety of its running time. It’s not a film so much as a lecture punctuated by a patronizing moral, and more importantly, it’s not much fun. 

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