“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” Delivers mindless silliness on a silver platter

February 12th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” Delivers mindless silliness on a silver platter”

Lifelong friends Barb and Star embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they decide to leave their small Midwestern town for the first time – ever.

Not every movie is supposed to be an intellectual, thought-provoking masterpiece. Sometimes you just need some goofy escapism which is why movies like “Stepbrothers,” “Austin Powers,” and the like. “Barb and Star” is exactly that as it hones in on the intricacies that make female relationships different than guy friendships. And as it hones in those little details, it makes fun of and cherishes them. Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) finish each other’s sentences, talk in rapid-fire succession as if someone turned up the speed on the turntable and remind us that (most) women, while we look to make ourselves happy, are always concerned about how that will effect others; particularly our besties.

“Barb and Star” bounces all over the place as it adds a sprinkle of raunchy but comedic romance, action thriller, spy caper, and even a musical as Edgar (Jamie Dornan) belts out a little song reminiscent of something out of “Mama Mia.” There are laugh out loud jokes that truly made me belly laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. And with cameos from multiple stars such as Phyllis Smith who gets punished at a strict “talk club” and Damon Wayans Jr. as a thug for the evil Lady Doctor who spills too much information at every possible turn, these actors provide even more levity.

This is a girlfriends’ movie and would make a great girls’ night Galentine gathering with a few cocktails in hand. No, this isn’t going to win any awards, but what it might do is make you laugh. And for me, that’s exactly what I needed.

2 1/2 Stars (and Barb)

“Judas and the Black Messiah” – Riveting story and performances

February 10th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Judas and the Black Messiah” – Riveting story and performances”

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, and directed by Shaka King, takes us back to the oppressively dangerous city of Chicago in 1969 where a petty criminal is flipped to be an informant for the FBI, resulting in the death of an upcoming leader, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) of the Chicago Black Panther Party.

Based on a true story, co-writers Will Berson and Shaka King take riveting testimony, transcripts, and first-hand interviews to recreate the events that occurred during that pivotal year. The story carefully weaves together three different perspectives to give us the complete picture of how Fred Hampton was assassinated at the age of 21; such a threat to the FBI for being the next Black leader or as he was coined, the next Black Messiah.

We meet the young O’Neal caught between a rock and a hard place as he is about to be charged as a criminal. Given the opportunity by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to have all charges dropped in exchange for information about the whereabouts and plannings of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, O’Neal saves himself. Quickly gaining access and trust of those around Hampton, O’Neal does as he is asked, from both parties. The conflict he feels is palpable, but ultimately this man is no hero and like Judas, betrays his people and leader.

Taking us inside the operations as Hampton meets and falls in love with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a talented actress who stands out in this film, we get what feels like a private introduction to an eloquent man who is driven to help his people gain equality amidst the chaos of oppression and brutality. He gives of himself and connects others with him to find a commonality among all people. Kaluuya digs deep to find this intrinsic value of love while having a coat of armor to repel the evils that rain down on him and those he leads.

What O’Neal lacks in morals he makes up for in his ability to read others and insinuate himself like a chameleon into whatever the situation calls for. He’s street smart with characteristics that are always self-serving. Stanfield, like Kaluuya, dives into this character as he exhibits his fight for survival but there’s a glimmer of internal conflict as he battles his inner demons of betrayal.

“Judas” also portrays the preposterous paranoia and prejudices of the head of the FBI and those who serve the organization lead by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). The targeting of the Black Panthers does nothing more than to escalate tensions making it difficult to not only resolve issues but to educate others. The racism is ingrained and built upon to ensure that Hampton and the Chicago chapter’s goals are quelled through raids and even murder. The film hammers home the disturbing elements of racial injustices as we witness the atrocities unfold.

Like Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman,” this is an incredulous story based in reality. King delicately sets the tone of the film as he develops each of his characters to give a basis for their decisions. Stanfield may have the more difficult role as he portrays a man whose morals betray not only his people but ultimately himself. We understand his predicament and his decisions as those in power manipulate him like a marionette.

The pacing of the film falters slightly in the second act which takes away some of the passion that should have been present. However, the final act is riveting as we discover more truths and contemplate what could have been. The civil rights movement is still moving; a finish line that should have been crossed decades ago. “Judas” reminds us of our history and to discover the importance of seeing the full picture.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in theaters and HBOMax on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

3 1/2 Stars

“Malcolm & Marie” A Bold and Flawless Portrayal of Love

February 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Malcolm & Marie” A Bold and Flawless Portrayal of Love”

Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) have just returned home from Malcolm’s big movie premiere. What should have been one of the most enjoyable and celebratory nights of their lives, turns into a brutal and emotionally raw argument that makes Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”masochistic verbal pummeling look more like an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” as June and Ward Cleaver. Awaiting the first formal review, Malcolm and Marie peel away the layers of their lives to discover the ugly pain that lies beneath the surface.

First, I must relay that I am a white (middle aged) female film critic writing for a newspaper…the very enemy—albeit on a smaller scale — that is referenced in this rivetingly accusatory (deservedly-so) film that feels more like a theatrical stage production than a movie, but in all the right ways. Now that that admission is clearly on the table, dare I say that “Malcolm & Marie” is an incredibly “authentic” story filled with emotional turmoil that rings true? Yes, I will because it’s accurate. It is also gorgeously shot, in black and white, narrowly but crisply focusing on the truths which opens old wounds and then pours salt in them, watching how it effects the recipient.

The story unfolds over the course of less than 12 hours, but what it reveals about each of the characters and who they are at their core allows us to know them but also to see them grow…for better or worse. And the range of emotions takes us as high as a mountain and down to the lowest valley as this young couple who knows one another better than any married couple of a half a century attempts to wade thorough the muck and mire of their past. We see Malcolm puff his chest omnisciently, looking down upon Marie as she soaks in a tub, seemingly unprotected, as he fires off threats of being able to break her like a twig with his verbal onslaught. It’s rough, powerful, and disturbing, but just as we begin to feel the pain of Malcolm’s shots, Marie, who has the emotional exterior of an armored knight, fires back. One minute the hatred and resentment that is spewed from their mouths is then tempered with acceptance and understanding. It’s truly a roller coaster ride as both characters are not only honest with each other but also with themselves.

The “authenticity” (I use quotes as this is directly from the film) is the fact that Malcolm and Marie bring you into their fight as I found myself saying the exact words Marie was about to say aloud to Malcolm. Both characters are smart and tough and neither is ever emotionally highjacked for long allowing for calm moments interjected to create a balance in the story and in the relationship. Marie is angry and from a woman’s point of view, I completely understood her immediate and long-buried issues. As the water for the mac-n-cheese begins to boil, so too does her temper. Marie’s body language says it all, but the words pulsate with intensity until she reaches the ultimate crescendo. Matching that, Malcolm fires back like a fully loaded verbal machine gun with the accuracy of a sharp shooter. They know each other’s strengths and weakness.

It’s a perfect portrayal of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus as issues of infidelity, race, entitlement, drug usage, recovery, plagiarism, credit, and empathy are masterfully woven into the story, seen from each perspective. Marie feels she has received no gratitude for her part in his successes or their relationship. And Malcolm, accused of being narcissistic, compartmentalizes the argument so that he can eat his boxed macaroni and cheese. And as the make up and clothes come off, their true selves are more accurately displayed and they are no longer actors on the screen and we are flies on the wall, riveted by what we see and hear. The story and our beloved characters fight with love in order to be able to love possibly more deeply or perhaps to their demise. This narrative arc rises and falls creating an unparalleled story of passion and understanding amidst the chaos.

Davidson and Zendaya are captivating as they must be to carry the entire weight of the film. Of course, Zendaya is gorgeous to watch, but her talent goes much deeper. Her responses, both verbally and physically create a myriad of emotions and we feel them all. Davidson is her equal, giving us a performance of a lifetime and together they are mesmerizing. The film is simply just a conversation that leads to an argument between the two of them, but the dialogue is strong and magically eloquent. The pacing quickly races as do our hearts as the heat rises. It is with awe that I watched, realizing the daunting task of memorizing the lines of dialogue, resembling soliloquies at times, but the emotion, never too much and never too little, is an integral part of each and every word uttered. The pain that is inflicted upon them both from their razor sharp tongues filled with gut-wrenching honesty is visible with just a flinch of an eye or a downward gaze. While the story replicates many familiar age-old arguments with timeless issues among the clutter of their lives, this bold and flawless film dares us all to be honest in love to see where the chips fall.

“Malcolm & Marie” premieres on Netflix Friday, Feb. 5

4 Stars

“The Dig” A Masterful Work of Art

January 27th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Dig” A Masterful Work of Art”

Don’t let the title, “The Dig,” scare you away. It’s a riveting artistic period piece that will surprise and enthrall you as you discover a well-buried treasure which is exactly what this film is about. Carey Mulligan stars as Edith Pretty, a young mother to Robert (Archie Barnes) and a widow, a result of WWII, who feels beckoned by her land’s century’s old mounds of earth to dig deeply. Edith hires a knowledgeable man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who may not have a formal degree in archaeology but knows the area’s land better than anyone. Together, this odd pair forge not only a deep friendship, but unearth the secrets from the past.

Based on a true story and the novel by John Preston, Moira Buffini’s screenplay brilliantly imbues her characters with a richness that comfortably seeps onto the screen and into your soul. We meet Edith, a stoic woman who’s youth defies her persona as she raises her son alone. Hiring Brown for a pittance, but to his delight, Edith directs him to several mounds on her land. Keeping one another at an arm’s distance, Robert finds a new father figure in Brown and we get to learn much more about the background of this learned but stifled man thanks to his station in life.

In true British style, the emotional elements of the film and of the characters are buried as deeply as the 7th century bones yet to be discovered, but like these artifacts, the layers are pulled away every so carefully to reveal complexly beautiful characters. Of course, in any entertaining story there is a villain and this story is no exception, but remember, this is based on true events. The villains in this case come in the form of leading museum directors who covet what’s been discovered. This becomes a territorial fight as Edith, who refuses to be steamrolled by the patriarchal society in which she lives, must make the right decisions for herself, her son, and the educational realm.

The story becomes even richer as it interjects a love story between the married assistant Peggy (Lily James) and Edith’s nephew and photographer Rory (Johnny Flynn), carefully touching upon a forbidden love of that time period. Additionally, the tender and connected moments between Brown and Robert make this story even more satisfying and powerfully authentic.

This is Edith and Brown’s story to tell and thanks to not only their talents but the skillful direction of Simon Stone, we find that the subtleties and moments where not a word is spoken, there is so much actually conveyed. Mulligan and Fiennes shine in these refined yet evocative roles. As their friendship and connection slowly grow, spilling over to give you a sense of warmth and satisfaction, you enter their world and become a part of their every emotion, no matter how small, feeling the utmost importance. Both actors have an incredible range, particularly if you’ve seen Mulligan recently in “Promising Young Woman” and Fiennes transforms himself into a shy man who lives for the land just like his father and his ancestors before him. Lacking confidence, his mannerisms and body language shout louder than any voice as his character is subjugated by the upper class. And with all of this, we remain connected with Brown and Edith—indelible emotions and characters.

“The Dig” is a work of art, both visually and emotionally thanks to a beautifully complex script, masterful direction, and, of course, a talented cast lead by incomparable lead actors. This heartbreakingly endearing story is one not to be missed and is streaming on Netflix Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.

4 Stars

“Our Friend” Finds authenticity, love, and even humor in this tragic story

January 21st, 2021 Posted by Review, women reviews 0 thoughts on ““Our Friend” Finds authenticity, love, and even humor in this tragic story”

“Our Friend,” based on the Matthew Teague’s article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” retells the heartbreakingly loving story of friendship and compassion. Nicole (Dakota Johnson) has terminal cancer. We learn this in the opening scene as Nicole and her husband, Matt (Casey Affleck) discuss the essentials of delivering the news to their two young daughters who are currently being entertained by the family friend, Dane (Jason Segel). “Our Friend” takes us on an extraordinary journey over a decade as the family lived and subsequently dealt with the short future ahead.

As quickly as we hear the devastating words of Nicole’s impending death, the story jumps back in time for us to experience the young couple’s blissful beginnings and comedic introduction to Dane, a hapless sweetheart who, at one time, pined for Nicole. The three, against all odds, become inseparable and Dane finds himself as a part of a family. The story jumps back and forth in time to inform us of all that has happened in their lives, the ups and the downs, the joys and frustrations, to bring us to the pivotal point of the end. This counterweight allows our emotions to relax and enjoy the every day banter or the arguments and issues that every couple experiences, but with these bookmarks in life, we always pivot back to the fallout of the inevitable.

Occasionally, the timeline is a bit confusing as it jumps from references of 5 years ago or 1 year after the diagnosis, and while this is off-putting during the film, you realize that it’s not that important to the overall story. What is important is that we glean important information about the past, getting to know this couple and the incredible generosity and loyalty of their friend. And thanks to the insightfully detailed and evocative skills of writer Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”) who pays careful attention to each of our main characters, we can see the world through their eyes.

Dane, lacking in confidence and direction, finds meaning in his life as the fun uncle or as he calls himself Grandma Dane, but we also see him struggling to find his own path in life. However, his friendship is unwavering with a deep love for the entire family, however there’s an emotional barricade he seems to face, driving him to care for others more than for himself. In fact, the film, originally entitled “The Friend” is much more aptly renamed as “Our Friend” as Nicole, Matt, and both children rely heavily upon him, and sometimes, as we see, to his own detriment.

Matt, on the other hand, dreams of being recognized as a great writer and wants to further his career which leads to marital issues. Nicole’s theatrical focus is her only outlet, but both have missing pieces in their lives. Dane is always the sounding board, the voice of reason, and the safety net they both need no matter where he is in his own life, floundering to make sense of it all.

There are plenty of moments to laugh, and to cry, as we are captivated by the giggles of the children and relate to the everyday moments, “Our Friend” is a perfectly balanced story that rings true to every aspect of life including facing death. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite delicately allows her stars to perform with all the subtleties and nuances of reality which brings us into the picture, into their lives, and to walk beside them on this journey. It’s hard to imagine any other actor having the capacity to deliver these performances other than Segel, Affleck, and Johnson. They portray their characters as flawed, imperfect people who forge ahead, trying to properly play the cards they have been dealt. Segel, while he makes us laugh and chuckle, captures our hearts as he becomes Dane—we all know someone like him—a complicated, sad soul looking for someone to guide and love him. Segel is the glue that binds the entire cast together, a superglue force, who reminds us to cherish every day with those you love.

Johnson’s understated performance has incredible depth as a wife, friend, and then loving mother who must wrestle with the possibility of leaving her children behind. It’s simply devastating, but Johnson finds the humanity and humility to give us a performance of a lifetime. And Affleck, no stranger to the importance of nuanced roles, delivers with brilliance. If you’ve not walked in his character’s shoes, you will be able to better sympathize with someone who has by the time the credits roll. Affleck shows us the trauma, anger, and frustration over the inability to protect someone he loves; his children from losing their mother and his wife from succumbing to the disease. We also get a bird’s eye view of the domino effect of what cancer can do to a family; the ripples reach much further than we can imagine.

“Our Friend” reminds us of the importance of compassion and giving our time to those we love and those who are in need. This heartfelt and original yet universal story with superb performances thanks not only to the talented actors but to a credible script and an intuitive director makes “Our Friend” a film you need to see.

3 1/2 Stars

“Pieces of a Woman” misses the mark even with exceptional performances

January 5th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Pieces of a Woman” misses the mark even with exceptional performances”

Young love, a new marriage, and the excitement of becoming parents for the first time implodes when a tragic accident occurs during the birthing process. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star in the new Netflix film “Pieces of a Woman” as Martha and Sean, the mismatched but charming couple who find themselves in an inexorable downward spiral after losing their baby. While the film expertly touches upon the emotional havoc that Martha experiences, it also captures the devastating aftershocks for everyone in her circle. Unfortunately, there are many pieces of the story that seem to be missing, leaving the viewer hanging and needing more information about each of the characters.

With these missing pieces, however, that’s not to say it’s not worth seeing. The performances are cutting and gutting, particularly in the first 30 minutes of the film. Kirby’s realistic portrayal of a woman during the birthing process leaves you breathless and cringing while LaBeouf’s role during this segment gives you sympathy for his helplessness. With skillful cinematography, we are there in the apartment with this couple with a seamless single shot following their every move. The scene is mesmerizingly beautiful and gut wrenching as we anticipate the outcome which after an excruciating 30 minutes devastatingly arrives.

“Pieces of a Woman” explores the emotional trauma from Martha’s point of view as she wrestles with her own guilt of having a midwife instead of going to the hospital for a traditional birth. There’s plenty of guilt to be dealt to everyone, but Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), Martha’s mother doles this out by the truckload. Never shying away from her disapproval of her marriage and all of Martha’s subsequent decisions, the two have obvious irreparable damage to their relationship. As the blame becomes focused on the split second decisions of the backup midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), Martha pulls further and further away from friends, family, and most importantly, her husband.

Writer Kata Wéber’s intimate perspective on the subject of loss during childbirth is chillingly realistic, but the story lacks that intimacy as we enter into the next year of Martha’s life. We see her only from the outside, never allowing us to hear her thoughts and feelings from the inside. And with that lack of understanding, we become disconnected from the character. Additionally, Sean is roiling not only from the loss of his child, but the loss of the wife he once knew, loved, and cherished. We get only snippets of his actions and interactions, but never enough to connect all the dots to the final scene. Of course, there are ramifications for Eva, but again, this is only superficially touched upon making the dramatic ending rather puzzling.

While the narrative element after the first grueling scene doesn’t hold water from a storytelling perspective, the performances from each and every actor are deeply moving. Kirby finds the harsh nuances of what it’s like to give birth, but takes it to a higher level. We feel what she feels and understand her guarded distance or lashing out after losing her baby. LaBeouf hits the right notes of the mourning husband with a volatile relationship with his mother-in-law. Parker has a small role, but a powerful one as a less competent and insecure midwife who must wrestle with the outcome. And it’s unfortunate that it is such a small role as exploring this character and what happens to her in that year would have augmented the story significantly.

Under the direction of Kornél Mundruczó, LaBeouf, Kirby, Burstyn, and Parker have standout performances with a cinematic vision that is unparalleled even with a story that loses its ability to bring the viewer into the emotional landscape after the first harrowing portion of the film. This is a film that will hit home with anyone who has lost a child during birth, but unfortunately, the storytelling element of the film and pieces of it were perhaps lost in the editing of the film or in the screenplay itself. I needed more answers to my questions of each of the character’s motivations for their decisions as too much seemed to have happened offscreen.

2 1/2 Stars

“Wonder Woman 1984” is a mixed bag

December 23rd, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Wonder Woman 1984” is a mixed bag”

I will be the first to admit that I don’t seek out super hero movies and I frequently get the DC and Marvel Universes mixed up. With that admission, it’s always such a joy when a super hero film surprises me, entertains me, and even, sometimes, connects me emotionally. “Shazam!” is one such example and to my surprise, I enjoyed the first “Wonder Woman” (2017) film starring Gal Gadot, or at least the first 2 hours of it. With Patty Jenkins at the director’s helm once again for the sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” I held out hope that it would not disappoint. What I received was a mixed bag of treasures and failures.

In “Wonder Woman 1984,” several decades have passed since Diana Prince (Gadot) lost her true love, Steve (Chris Pine) as he sacrificed himself for the greater good during WWII. Diana takes us back to her youth and her training, a visually stunning recreation of a competition among the strongest of women on the island. The one vital lesson she learned that day, “no true hero is born from lies,” will help her in the dangers that lie ahead.

It’s now the mid-80’s and a jewelry heist is taking place at a mall with 4 nefarious men who seem to be straight out of a comic book with their exaggerated mannerisms and reactions. Just as they’re about to get away, Wonder Woman swoops in to help save the day. This scene is a delight as Wonder Woman stops to save a young girl, giving her a wink of the eye, and then single handedly wraps up the thieves and delivers them to a cop car on the street below. This playful, unrealistic, straight from the pages of a comic book scenario sets up a promising tone for the rest of the film.

“The Mysterious Female Savior,” aka Diana works as a specialist at the Smithsonian when she’s not capturing theives. She’s not only drop-dead gorgeous, she’s also intelligent, a leader, kind, and speaks a myriad number of languages. Reaching out to a new hire at work, Diana befriends Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) an awkward, low-talking, socially inept wallflower who wants nothing more than to be more like Diana. This character is sad yet so humorous as Wiig is no stranger to making an audience laugh as she brings her own signature style of comedy to this role. Both Diana and Barbara find that when they can have their deepest desires and wishes come true, there’s a price to pay and that’s where our main villain Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) comes into the story. Avarice for power and wealth drive this man to use others, but his discovery of a gem just may give him what he needs.

The rest of the story plays out exactly the way you would expect in a super hero movie, but this one has a love story as a primary component. As Steve (Pine) re-enters the story, the humor ramps up to balance when Barbara isn’t in a scene. His reaction to the changes in technology from the 1940’s to the current day of 1984 adds the perfect element of levity. And his comments on parachute pants and donning a fanny pack is laugh out loud funny. If you lived through the 1980’s, it’s a walk down memory lane as we are transported back to a time of break dancing, goth styles, big hair, loud colors, and shoulder pads. Only Diana Prince can pull off the styles of the ’80’s and she does. Keeping true to the film’s beginning of creating characters that feel ripped from the pages of a comic book, Lord and our unexpected number 2 villain, have relatable issues concerning love, acceptance, and bullying, but it never tips the scales into the dark waters of reality that “Joker” found itself. (Forgive me if I’ve mixed the universes again.)

Gadot is the perfect Wonder Woman with strength, agility, intelligence and heart which are all characteristics she readily displays. While Pine reincarnates his persona from the original 2017 film, newcomer Pascal gives us a maleficent character with more than meets the eye. Wiig, a standout in the film, is transformative in her portrayal of Barbara as she hones in on subtle attributes of this woman’s personality and uses her comedic prowess. Unfortunately, once all of the characters are introduced, the film loses its pacing. There’s so much time spent on the evil Max Lord beginning to take over parts of the world, controlling all who he encounters, that the story’s momentum flounders. It’s a race against the clock, but there’s so much repetition that we forget that aspect. With a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes, we needed the humor to stitch through the story, but alas it does not.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is chockfull of special effects, stunts, and incredible cinematography to bring this saga to life. The beginning is strikingly memorable and while the story suffers from becoming the same as almost every other super hero movie, the performances, humor, and ultimately the love story keep you engaged.

You can stream this on HBO Max on Dec. 25, 2020

3 Stars

“Soul” finds heart in this emotionally complex story

December 21st, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Soul” finds heart in this emotionally complex story”

Disney Pixar has done it again with “Soul” thanks to the inspirational co-writing and co-directing of the renowned artist Pete Docter who gave us “Up,” “Inside Out,” and “Toy Story.” With animation that makes you forget it’s animated, Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett and an array of other well-known and talented actors use their voice to bring these characters to life. It’s a remarkable story, perhaps geared more toward adults than children, that sends a perfect message of living our best lives each and every day.

The opening scene introduces us to Joe Gardner (Foxx) who finds himself in a rut as a middle school music teacher. Never having attained his goal of becoming a standout jazz pianist, Joe trudges through his days. But then that day of opportunity comes and he’s ready. Auditioning for the great Dorothea Williams (Bassett), he gets his lucky break and the world is a shiny new place for Joe. Moments later, along a zippy stroll back home, he takes a wrong step and lands in a weigh station between life and death. Just when things were looking up for Joe, it looks like he’s never going to make his earthly dreams come true.

The animation changes in this new place as we only see Joe’s soul and all those who are ascending to the next phase. But Joe, unwilling to leave his life behind, runs, finding himself in The Great Before, the place where personalities and quirks are developed for each and every soul. It is here that he meets the feisty 22 (Fey) who has absolutely no want to become human but together, inadvertently, they discover the true meaning of life.

“Soul” is an existential story delving into what it means to be human and the gifts we are given and how they are attained. While this may sound like a conceptually complicated idea to convey, Docter and co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers find a concrete way to demonstrate it. And in true Pixar style, the emotional element rings loudly, bringing us into the story as we forget that we are watching an animated film, connecting us with Joe and his urgency to not give up on his life. Countering Joe’s dramatic flare, 22 adds the snarky comedy that makes us laugh aloud—it’s a perfect balance. But there’s also a dark side of the film, a land of lost souls which counterbalances and adds an element of fear to Joe’s quest to live. While the darkness may seem disturbing, like in life, we cannot appreciate the light without the dark.

The imaginative elements seems boundless in “Soul” as it captivates you and pushes your cognitive boundaries. With this creativity, as would be expected with any Pixar film, the animation is stellar. Playing the piano, Joe’s fingers hit every key needed to produce the harmonic tones. A simple rise of an eyebrow or the slow turn of a head, gives Dorothea the hesitant and exasperated emotion necessary for a scene. The attention to detail is incredible as the animators find seemingly imperceptible ways to animate these characters and bring them to life. Of course, the voices are the final touch and each character is cast perfectly. Foxx finds the dramatic notes while Fey’s razor sharp wit punches each scene in staccato style. Graham Norton’s droll humor seeps into the bean counter “Moonwind” as we chuckle at his focus on precision. It’s a magical amalgam of writing, directing, acting and animation that equals the passionately evocative story telling of “Coco,” “Toy Story,” and “Inside Out.”

“Soul” is the perfect escape to find yourself and while it may appeal more to adults than children, the animation will certainly capture the heart and soul, pun intended, of everyone who watches it. Be cautioned, parents, as this is going to spur a few questions about life, death, and every existential question you could imagine from your kids…and maybe even from you!

You can stream “Soul” on Disney+ beginning Dec. 25, 2020.

4 Stars

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” A powerhouse like no other

December 15th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” A powerhouse like no other”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” written by playwright August Wilson, is hitting Netflix this weekend. Driven by the talents of one of Broadway’s leading directors, George Wolfe, and its incomparable lead actors Viola Davis as the Mother of the Blues and Chadwick Boseman, a talented young horn player, the story depicts a struggle of equality and how these inequities influence each of the characters during a high-tension recording session in Chicago.

Before arriving in Chicago, the raucously captivating Ma Rainey (Davis) with vaudevillian-like makeup and a gilted smile is performing under a tent to a predominantly Black audience in the deep south. Ma has made a name for herself, crossing the racial boundaries with her vocal and musical talents, appealing to both Blacks and whites. And with her fame comes an angry power culminating in confrontation with those who challenge her. Driving north to Chicago to a recording studio with her band, and her niece and nephew, she’s demanding, rude, confrontational, and manipulative, possessing no fear whatsoever. Whoa be to the one who dares to challenge this woman. But there’s good reason for this lashing out which we learn later.

The four band members, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and eventually Levee (Boseman) congregate in a dilapidated basement room of the Chicago recording studio making you wonder if every band is placed here or is it just for Black bands. But it is here, in this suffocatingly hot and oppressively small room that the foundation of their relationship is poured. There’s a suspicious focus on a locked door to an unknown destination perhaps symbolizing their situations as well as their hopes for the future. A rhythmically vibrant discussion of the constant element of change breaks out accompanied by the occasional musical note. The fast-paced exchanges give insight into the personalities of each of the men, but it is Levee’s restlessness and anxiousness that draws out the conversational topics from “making the world better for the colored man,” to selling your soul to the devil. It’s obvious that the three wise and older men are at peace with their own contributions and successes, and with their honesty with one another and the tolerance of young Levee’s push to have more and be more, we peel back the layers of each of the men to gaze upon their souls.

As the tensions begin to mount between Levee and his fellow band mates, upstairs Ma is making it perfectly clear that this is her group. She is the leader. She is in control and she is the focal point. We get a glimpse earlier that these aspects will most certainly be an issue between Ma and Levee later, and they are. To shake things up even more, Ma insists that her nephew who stutters will do the introduction to the recording much to everyone’s chagrin, especially Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s manager, and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the recording studio owner, as each error costs them money. This, in all honesty, seems to make Ma happy as it’s a way to punctuate that she is in control, not them. Then, throw in some good old fashioned Chicago heat and humidity and you have a volcano ready to explode.

As with any August Wilson play, the potent dialogue fits the era and sucker punches you, leaving you breathless as you attempt to unpack it fully. With powerful prose, each character’s performance word, pause, and movement eloquently conveys the deeply raw experiences of their past; the frustrations, and ultimately the anger within. The stories, an amalgam of the atrocities we’ve read about, bring you to tears. It’s harsh, emotionally confrontational, and still relevant today, unfortunately.

To elicit these evocative reactions, the entire ensemble finds the core of their characters, but this is Levee’s story to tell. He’s young, passionate, and on the surface, he won’t let anyone stop him as forges full steam ahead. But that anger within is easily seen as we pull back the curtain
to expose his past experiences. He has the power of youth in his pocket, but lacks the restraint that comes with age. Coupling this with the emotional trauma and his desires, the volcano begins to rumble and it’s only a matter of time until it erupts.

Boseman is sensational, perhaps his best role. He keys into this character’s cocky, headstrong thinking and creativity while lightly suppressing the fear and frustration that we see in his subtle facial expressions and his eyes. The twitch of his lids and the slight quiver of the corner of this mouth accentuate his soliloquies and just as quickly as he melts, he flips a switch and becomes the gregarious horn player who wants the spot light. The passion with which he creates this character is unparalleled as it leaves an indelible emotional impact upon the viewer all while he dances, sings, and plays his trumpet.

Davis is equally powerful as she portrays a hardened woman who is hell-bent on steam rolling through the remainder of her life. It’s a nuanced role doused in rage, but Davis finds so much more to deliver in this character and we understand her mindset. There’s an element of sadness as she protects her nephew, but happiness seems to be out of reach for this woman. Of course, Wolfe brings his vast knowledge of theater and incorporates it into the film, bringing an energy and greatness to every scene. Bouncing camera angles, seemingly swirling images, and vibrant costuming makes this energetic endeavor even more grand. With succinct editing, the film becomes complete, a product that perhaps the original playwright would give a standing ovation.

You can stream “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on Netflix beginning Dec. 14.

4 Stars

“Promising Young Woman” promises to entertain, shock, and educate

December 14th, 2020 Posted by Review, women reviews 0 thoughts on ““Promising Young Woman” promises to entertain, shock, and educate”

A vengeful woman is a dangerous woman and Emerald Fennell’s debut feature film “Promising Young Woman” accentuates this to an extreme. We meet Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) in a drunken stupor alone in a club, late at night, as three young men across the room have a revolting conversation about her situation. One, seemingly the morally best of the three, offers to drive her home as her friends have abandoned her and she’s lost her phone. Cassandra unwittingly finds herself in this man’s apartment and in a situation in which she’s not giving consent. And with the words, “Hey! What are you doing?” repeated twice, the tone and actions are set for the remainder of the film.


Cassandra works in a coffee shop and seems to have lost her way. Living at home, pushing 30, and in an entry-level job, this young woman was once a promising medical student, shining brighter than her colleagues, according to Ryan (Bo Burnham), a now successful pediatric surgeon who stops in coincidentally for a cup of coffee. The two begin to date, reluctantly-so on Cassandra’s part, but there’s a sweetness with a refreshing humor that perfectly counterbalances the previously gruesome hook-ups we’ve been witnessing.

There’s a vengeful hatred that emanates from Cassandra’s soul, and while we get a glimpse into why she is setting men up to fail and teaching them a lesson about consent, we don’t get the full picture until midway through the film. And then there’s a visceral and shocking twist that knocks you off your feet as you emotionally attempt to process what has happened. It is at this point that we plunge into an even deeper abyss filled with pain and an inability to change or heal.

This is a horror film but not in the traditional sense. Yes, there’s some occasional cringeworthy gore, but the true horror comes from the reality of the situations in which Cassandra is placed. Writer/director Fennell delicately yet boldly travels down several paths: the emotional trauma of rape; the complicit behavior of others; and the stereotypical responses of the he said-she said scenario. But all of these paths have different nuances to them to make you see things from a novel perspective. A perfect example is when Dean Walker (Connie Britton) is confronted with her decisions from years ago. As she, a woman, is rationalizing and justifying herself, you better understand the reasons for the need for the #MeToo movement.

The writing of “Promising Young Woman” is incredibly smart, intuitive, and well-balanced as we quickly begin to not only understand Cassandra, but root for her whether she’s seeking vengeance or attempting to move on in her life as she finds happiness. Fennell artfully balances drama, tension, and humor into this screenplay but it is the humor that is surprising. The various types of comedy she taps into are brilliant—irony, sweet, charming, and malevolent—all finding just the right place in the script and are executed by each actor perfectly. And this all-star cast comprised of Mulligan, Burnham (“Eighth Grade”),Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, and Jennifer Coolidge, contribute their own style and personality to their characters to give a resounding reality to this film.

Each character is obviously aptly cast, but of course, the weight of the film rests on Mulligan’s shoulders who carries it with ease while we see in her eyes, the importance of never forgetting the underlying theme. Her cool, measured, and razor sharp words and physical reactions make her formidable, emphasizing her character’s drive and motivation. And whether or not we agree with her character’s actions, Mulligan’s powerfully nuanced performance establishes a connection with the viewer. We feel her anger, initially, and then understand her pain as she struggles internally with her emotional well-being. Mulligan is transformative in this character as she brings a familiar story to light and hopefully, into future conversations.

With the realistic attributes of the film, the ending, although quite surprising isn’t without a few flaws, but not enough to take you out of the moment. In an era that has raised awareness of consent, sexual harassment, and rape, “Promising Young Woman” goes one step further past awareness to start a conversation of understanding, acknowledgment, and perhaps even change.

3 1/2 Stars

Opening in theaters Dec. 25, 2020

“If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you are not alone. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or online.rainn.org. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7 in English and Spanish.”

“Safety” is more than a sports story

December 9th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Safety” is more than a sports story”

When you think Disney, images of uplifting, family-friendly and uplifting films comes to mind. Their newest film “Safety,” based on the true story of Ray-Ray McElrathbey, a freshman football player on scholarship at Clemson University, stays true to this image.

Jay Reeves stars as the young football recruit who is, as any freshman student-athlete would be, struggling to juggle it all. It’s a tough road, but Ray-Ray is looking to his future, knowing that football is a means to an end and probably not a path to a professional career. Taking a heavy class load, attending practice, getting acclimated to school life, and finding his place on the team, Ray-Ray gets a crisis call from home. His mother is being admitted to a rehab facility and his little brother has no choice but to go to a foster home. It’s a heartbreaking moment as Ray-Ray’s mind quickly weighs his options, and then accepts responsibility for caring for Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson). Living in the dorms with a roommate, Ray-Ray smuggles his little brother in, attempting to be his father-figure and juggle football and school. Of course, this is too much and Ray-Ray finds that it truly does take a village to raise a child.

“Safety” could easily be a fictional tale as it travels down what seems like a predictable road, but knowing it is based in reality adds a level of sincerity to the story and the characters. We watch as Ray-Ray shuts those around him out of his life, not trusting others, but his love interest, a school journalist, helps him shed those fears. The obstacles he faces, from coaches’ inflexible rules to the NCAA’s equality rigid guidelines, add the elements of tension and opportunities for maturity and eloquence from Ray-Ray and he rises to every occasion. While much of this may appear on the surface as being contrived, it feels nothing but sincere as it connects us to not only Ray-Ray and Fahmarr, but every coach and athlete we meet. We are rooting for this unique family called the Clemson Tigers as they ignite love and empathy in us as the viewer.

Reeves effortlessly carries this heavy load as Ray-Ray, a young man who has experienced tragedy and trauma most of us only read about. This role could easily have been overstated, but Reeves demonstrates restraint and gives us a more nuanced and credible performance. Mixson is equally talented as the irritating little brother who struggles with school, trust, and respect, but gradually finds a better version of himself. Together, Reeves and Mixson create a genuine relationship as they connect you with their characters.

Staying true to the story, the coaches portrayed by James Badge Dale as Coach Simmons and Matthew Glave as Coach Bowden, have their own story to tell, augmenting Ray-Ray’s tale. And as the team becomes a family, all with their own unique personalities, it gives you hope in humanity.

Disney, of course, adds their signature style creating a glossier story to one which was probably much more gritty in real life. But this doesn’t take away from the message and the reality of what it took for one young man to choose his family and potentially sacrifice himself. The story, more than a decade ago, reminds us of the importance of community and family as we reach out to one another. You can’t ask for a better message in our world today, especially as we approach the holiday season.

You can stream this on Disney+ beginning December 11, 2020.

3 Stars

Cheers to “Another Round” now showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center

December 7th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Cheers to “Another Round” now showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center”

Cheers! “Another Round” stars Mads Mikkelsen as Martin, a burnt out high school teacher slogging through life. His marriage is stagnant and he lacks drive, ambition, and motivation which slaps him hard as his go-getter students fear for their lack of education. This confrontation by his students and his superiors, accompanied by his recognition of his failing marriage, spirals his mental health further down until a colleague/friend proposes that their tight-knit group tests a theory. A Norwegian philosopher claimed that they are meant to function with a low level of alcohol in their systems at all times…like Hemingway. What starts as good if not mischievous fun becomes a turning point in all of their lives.

It’s an interesting theory which writer/director Thomas Vinterberg explores with such believability that I had to look it up. Of course, there’s no such theory that claims that “…humans are born with a blood alcohol content that’s 0.05% too low,” but it sounded good. (I do enjoy my wine!) The four men, all middle-aged, struggling in some way, are high school teachers who agree to maintain a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. And as teachers, they go about the “study” with dedication and precision, writing a list of rules—no drinking after 8 pm or on the weekends— and documenting the results each week hoping to find that their lives and performances have improved. And they do, but of course nothing could be so simple and what goes up must come down.

These men begin to look more like adolescents as they sneak bottles and flasks of booze, hiding them in nooks and crannies around the school. But Martin does find new passion in the classroom. He is engaging with his students who relish in his stories and new-found sense of direction. It’s simply fun to watch his students respond and hang on his every word. And his marriage begins to breathe a breath of fresh air as he once again is partaking in life and not just watching it pass by. All of his friends, a P.E. teacher, a philosophy teacher, and a music teacher, find similar successes, but maintaining that slight buzz requires a bit more and they all begin to push the envelope. It is at this point that the fun and games come to an end and the film takes on a more dramatic tone as one by one, they hit life’s brick wall. Joie de vivre is certainly the sentiment of the film, but “Another Round” gives us so much more to consider.

Mikkelsen’s fine-tuned performance hits all the right notes as he experiences the harsh realities of life. His versatility is endless as he shows us with this character and his keen understanding of “Martin.” While his performance is captivating, the camera working and lighting amplifies his every expression and thought effortlessly.

From start to finish, we get to know these very different men and anyone over the age of 40 understands the issues at hand. In many ways, this is a coming of age film or perhaps more accurately described as a coming to terms of aging film that harkens our youthful dreams as we embrace our decades of living. It’s a brilliant script that comes full circle with each of the characters growing and changing despite themselves. With equal parts humor and drama, “Another Round” is robustly satisfying as it quenches your thirst for life.

You can see this at the Gene Siskel film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” now or on Dec. 18th on major digital platforms.

3 1/2 Stars

For ticket info

“Black Bear” A twisty, atmospheric thriller not to be missed

December 2nd, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Black Bear” A twisty, atmospheric thriller not to be missed”

“Black Bear,” a twisty dramatic thriller starring Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, and Christopher Abbott, arrives in theaters (where possible) and on demand, Friday, Dec. 4. Writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine gives us an intense look at the psychology of jealousy as it spills over into the work life of its main character, Allison (Plaza), a famous screenwriter who arrives at a remote retreat run by the husband and wife team Blair (Gadon) and Gabe (Abbott).


There’s an edge to the atmosphere as Allison arrives at the retreat, initially greeted by Gabe. The awkwardness between the two is the first red flag that we are in for a searing time, particularly as the perky Blair cuts into the scene complimenting Allison at every turn. It’s one of those moments that we’ve all experienced as we try to put our best foot forward—even when it’s not really who we are.

As Allison stares at the blank pages in front of her and the time ticks on, the three add another element to the story: alcohol. This certainly loosens everyone’s tongues as they plunge into deep emotional waters lashing out and defining their personalities more accurately. There’s trouble in paradise and a palpable connection between Gabe, a quiet and somewhat morose young man, and Allison. The complicated and multi-layered story begins to build the foundation until the tension increases exponentially. Truths are revealed which lands them all in a place no one could have predicted.

To give you any more to the story would spoil the fun of the unexpected twists and turns this film takes, but suffice it to say, you’re going to love the surprises that reveal themselves. For much of the first half of the film, there’s an element of live theater as we only have the three actors in each scene. There’s a contemplative quietness to Plaza’s character who gives us subtle signs that there’s more to her than meets the eye. And when all three characters converge in the living room to discuss “issues,” that’s when we feel like we are watching a new version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff.” The camera work circles the group, creating a paralleled feeling of dizziness to accompany the rapid fire dialogue. This succinctly intense scene pulls us into their world as we wait for the next shoe to drop, but instead, the rug is pulled out from under us.

Plaza’s performance is hauntingly potent as a troubled screenwriter. Her dark, foreboding gaze reaches your soul as you attempt to put together the pieces of the puzzle before your eyes. Abbott’s range in this film is challenged and he easily rises to the task. And Gadon finally has a role to allow her to showcase her abilities as a multifaceted actor and she shines. Together, the three are mesmerizingly engaging as they tell a story of love and betrayal.

As the entire film takes place in a home deep in the woods, the feeling of isolation is immediate. A place that should incite peace, instead harbors tension and anxiety thanks to deft performances and cinematography. And Levine’s non-linear storyline works perfectly to elevate the tension and the intentional confusion of the viewer to create a powerful dramatic thriller.

“Black Bear,” which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, is one of those indie gems that could fly under the radar, but you’d be missing out if you don’t see it. Plaza, Gadon, and Abbott are sheer magic together as they push their acting limits to a higher level and tell a trippy and thoroughly entertaining story.

3 1/2 Stars

“Dear Santa” renews our spirit for the holidays

December 2nd, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Dear Santa” renews our spirit for the holidays”

I believe. And you will too after seeing Dana Nachman’s newest uplifting documentary “Dear Santa.” Nachman, known for finding stories that renew our faith in mankind like “Batkid Begins” and “Pick of the Litter,” shares the backstory of “Operation Santa,” an annual program from the United States Post Office that helps Santa recruit elves and make dreams come true on Christmas morning.


Nachman pulls on our heartstrings from the moment the cameras start rolling as we hear from the mouths of babes defining who that jolly old elf is, and writing their own special letters to him. Eliciting our own childhood memories and those of our own children, you can’t help but smile as they dream of puppy dogs, race cars, Barbies and Legos. These kids know the story of how it all happens, but what they don’t know is what comes after they send their letters and before Santa squeezes quietly down the chimney to deliver the goodies. That’s where “Operation Santa” comes in and Nachman shares the many special stories of one Christmas season.

Nachman travels Post Offices across the country, enlightening us about the more than 100 year-old program. Santa, needing a little help, has recruited many postal worker elves who invite people to adopt letters. These helpers then shop and deliver the toys to good little girls and boys. Traveling to Chicago, Arizona, California, and NY, Nachman introduces us to the postal elves like Janice who found her true calling as an elf and Jamie who was born to be one of Santa’s helpers. We see what it takes for these elves to organize and find others to help during the holidays to make Christmas morning one filled with joy and not sorrow.

The individual stories from across the country include Christopher who wants 10 Dutch bunnies because “they fill my heart up with joy.” And Lorelai and Victoria whose homes were destroyed in the Paradise, CA fires wanting simple things they no longer have, grateful for anything Mr. Claus decides to bring. Some of these stories will bring a tear to your eye and break your heart and others will make you laugh aloud. But Santa doesn’t discriminate between kids and adults. He also gets letters from adults who are struggling and asking for needed items that most of us take for granted.

“Dear Santa” is a whirlwind journey during one of the busiest times of the year, particularly for the U.S. Postal Service and Nachman captures this energy and the logistical complications of this endeavor from the inside. But it’s the end of the journey, Christmas Day, that will warm your heart as Nachman captures the deliveries. These are scenes that would make even the grumpiest of Scrooges smile and shed a tear of happiness. And it’s all from the kindness of others, supporting “Operation Santa.”

To learn more about “Operation Santa,” go to https://about.usps.com/holidaynews/operation-santa.htm. And to find out more about the making of this film, check out the interview I had with Nachman, at www.reeltalkwithchuckandpam.com

You can see “Dear Santa” on demand on most major digital platforms including Amazon and iTunes as well as in select theaters.

3 1/2 Stars

“Sound of Metal” A sensorial masterpiece of empathy

December 1st, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Sound of Metal” A sensorial masterpiece of empathy”

Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”) stars as Ruben a young man in a heavy metal band on his way to success, but suddenly begins to lose his hearing. It’s a surprisingly empathetic film that delves into the hearing versus the deaf community and the balancing act between the two.


The beginning of the film, unless you’re a heavy metal music fan, is a bit off-putting, but quickly we experience Ruben’s auditory changing world as he does. His talented girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) and he travel from gig to gig in their shabby but comfy sleeper van, but one day, Ruben finds he cannot hear more than muffled sounds. Confused and scared, he finds his way to an audiologist who diagnoses his hearing loss, attributed to drug usage, as one that is irreparable. The only way to regain his hearing is through an expensive surgical procedure of cochlear implants. No money and now no way of getting any, he finds himself alone and struggling—a position that a recovering addict may relapse—as he searches for answers and himself along the way.

“Sound of Metal” is a sensorial masterpiece allowing the viewers to walk in Ruben’s shoes. It’s not a total world of silence, initially, but one that is muffled, giving it a sense of being underwater and in an unfamiliar and unnavigable world. With deft direction of both Ahmed’s reactions and sound editing, we find the anger, the frustration, and the fear of the future that Ruben is feeling. Ahmed’s keen understanding of his character is expressed in every nuanced manner, from his bold round eyes that dart like a captured deer to his once confident swagger as a drummer now hesitatingly putting one foot in front of the other in a world he just doesn’t understand.

Finding refuge in a facility for the deaf run by Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben begins to see the world in a different way. He also begins to see himself in a new and perhaps improved way. He gets in touch with his thoughts and begins to help others, specifically children with hearing loss. This environment poses the question of is deafness a difference or a handicap. And that is a question that Ruben combats as he knows there’s a solution just $40,000 away in a surgical procedure.

Ahmed is the star in this story, but never is he overly dramatic or artificial. His subtleties in posture, body language, expressions, and every attribute a seasoned actor hopes to have is effortless conveyed. The cinematography accompanies the sound design like a well oiled machine, delivering and accentuating Ahmed’s performance. Ahmed lets us into his character’s mind as we understand he demons with which he struggles and his intrinsic conflicts.

“Sound of Metal” is a small cast of characters, but of interest is Paul Raci who’s knowledge and understanding of the deaf community comes naturally. We see this in his passion as he explains what it means to be hearing impaired or deaf and how this community differs in its views from the hearing world. Raci’s emotive performance finds perfect harmony with Ahmed’s seemingly genuine reactions and together they enable you to have a deeper and more meaningful understanding of this world.

While his drug usage caused Ruben’s hearing loss, Marder is careful to never be heavy handed with this aspect of the story. It’s an element, but only one to provide a vehicle for the plot to move forward. The script takes us on a journey most would never know and when we come out on the other side, we see and feel our environment differently. With a compelling story arc, we root for him to regain his hearing only to find ourselves questioning whether or not this is truly the best thing for him. Ahmed has created a character with whom we are invested. We care about him and see as he reaches a cross roads in his new life. Ultimately, it’s his choice and Marder allows the rest of story to unfold naturally. And as the pacing of the film revs up, it readies us for the finale—one that will leave you speechless and contemplative. It’s not often a film can provide these elements along with a natural sense of empathy.

Releasing on demand Dec. 4 on Amazon Prime and all other major digital platforms.

3 1/2 stars

“Hillybilly Elegy”

November 24th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Hillybilly Elegy””

Escaping one’s background for a better future is a common theme and one perhaps you also have experienced. Director Ron Howard brings one such story to life; Kentucky-born attorney J.D. Vance. Vanessa Taylor adapts the novel written by Vance to take us to a small town in Southern Ohio where Vance grew up amidst poverty, drug abuse, and lack of education. It’s a familiar looking town—one that typifies much of America. Director Ron Howard navigates the muddy waters of life with Gabriel Basso portraying Vance as he attempts to not only keep his head above water, but breathe in a new world no matter how strong the family current pulls him out to sea.

We meet the younger version of J.D. (Owen Asztalos) as he attends a family reunion in the “hollows” of Jackson, Kentucky. This kid receives the lion’s share of bullying not only from the nearby kids, but his own family. It’s the school of hard knocks. Living is tough. Jobs are scarce, and poverty is pervasive. But we quickly see that J.D.’s different. He has a heart of gold as he saves a turtle with a cracked shell, but the harshness of his environment is seen as his mom, Bev (Amy Adams) and tough, foul-mouthed grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close) cut one another with their razor-sharp words.

This raw and unrefined foundation sets the tone for J.D.’s upbringing as we get a brief glimpse of J.D.’s fractured family life in Middletown, Ohio–a town representative of every dying blue collar town. We fast forward to see that the caring and intelligent young man has escaped his past as he is in the final year of law school at Yale. His bright future is evident; he’s got a girlfriend and promising interviews for clerkships. But, of course, he can’t totally sever the ties that bind him and he is called home to intervene with his mother and her addiction.

“Hillbilly Elegy” allows us to step into J.D.’s shoes, if only for a short time, to feel the intrinsic struggle of family love and obligation as it thwarts his desire to move forward. It’s a classic tale of overcoming the station of life in which we were born, leaving only the strongest and most resilient to succeed.

The story is told in a non-linear form as we flash back to pivotal points in J.D.’s life. These moments give us insight into J.D.’s upbringing as it delves into Bev’s failings and Mamaw’s regrets. We better understand the dynamics among the characters in this family where everything presents as an obstacle to climb over until most give up.

Basso gives us a strong performance as J.D., a young man who isn’t quite confident or comfortable in his own skin yet. On the surface, he’s strong, but inside, he’s constantly focused on his inadequacies and lack of experiences that most Ivy Leaguers have. His choices are sometimes cringe-worthy, but of particular importance is his exchange with his future employers as he explains and almost defends his upbringing. It is at this point that we find a true sense of empathy with J.D., conflicted by his own thoughts and behaviors.

Howard has a cast that most directors could only dream of with Adams and Close as supporting actors in this film. Adams portrays Bev with a gruff but loving hue while she wrestles the dark demons of addiction. However, it is Close who at first is all but recognizable, that is the highlight of this film. Yes, costuming and prosthetics create a different outward appearance, but it is her body language—posture, walk, reactions—that give Mamaw that intimidating yet beleaguered persona. She has plenty of opportunities to shine in this film as she truly is the matriarch of the family and Close takes full advantage of them while never pushing the envelope of believability. Her life, a series of errors with heart, help place focus on J.D.’s ability to see and reach for a better future. Of course, Close also has some classically creative lines like “I wouldn’t spit on her ass if her guts were on fire” that will make your jaw drop as you chuckle.

“Hillbilly Elegy” has a familiar feel, especially if you weren’t raised in the city and didn’t have access to all “the best.” This family is in every town and this town is in every state. It’s a slice of life and one man’s story of finding himself as he reclaims his background, better understanding who he is and where he came from.

Howard always finds a story that has heart, but this time he’s found a story that is the heart of America. While the term “hillbilly” is one that denotes a negative tone, the title of the film is of appreciation for it. Howard makes it clear that this is a story that is representative of many; we all strive to be better and do better, but we cannot forget our past and our roots. With eloquent performances, particularly from Close, it’s a story that will resonate with many.

Now streaming on Netflix.

4 Stars

“The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” Finds the Force

November 18th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” Finds the Force”

After countless hours of watching every single “Star Wars” movie ever made, I am almost inclined to say “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is the most entertaining one!  Disney’s Lego artistry is of course incredible as characters embrace their swiveling hair and pincer grip hands, but it’s the writing that makes it stand out. Making fun of the concept, the never-ending saga of “Star Wars,” and the evil, good, or strange characters’ personalities, writer David Shayne incorporates every character and confusing story line and brings it to life in this time travel saga.

We begin this holiday rendition, narrated in classic syntactic style by Yoda, with Rey struggling with her inabilities to teach Finn how to be a Jedi. Questioning her own credibility, she ventures off to find answers.  Accompanied by BB8, Rey discovers a time travel key in a mysterious temple which unlocks the doors to see and meet the greats of “Star Wars” past.  From young Anakin Skywalker and Han Solo to Darth Vader himself and even baby Yoda, Rey interacts with and learns valuable lessons along the way. But…one past version of Darth Vader sneaks back to the future with Rey and begins to wreak havoc. Now, young Rey must set things back in order and get back to the present in time to celebrate the infamous Life Day.

Writer Shayne capitalizes on the “Star Wars” soap opera-like confusing genealogy of the characters, and crazy as it sounds, he creates a bit more background from these animated plastic characters, especially the relationship between the evil Supreme Leader and Darth Vader. The conversations that ensue shed light upon the character’s personalities and why they chose between the dark and the light side. In fact, many of these conversations and parenthetical comments, especially among the Supreme Leader, Darth and Kylo are laugh out loud funny. These strange little plastic figures with changeable printed garments come to life with voice overs which conjure the real life actors. They deliver dialogue that is incredibly smart and funny, particularly if you’ve been subjected to the myriad number of hours of “Star Wars” movie viewing.  

The action and vivid animation is there to hold younger fans’ attentions, even if they don’t quite understand all the “Star Wars” references, but it’s those references and attention to visual detail that we adults will appreciate. And somehow, Shayne squeezes in or makes a nod to almost every relevant “Star Wars” character or convoluted story line in the short running time of 44 minutes while it creates a captivatingly entertaining story with a complete narrative arc and lesson.

Be sure to check out “Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” available on Disney+.

3 1/2 Stars

“Freaky” Over the top gore tempers Vaughn’s comedy

November 11th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Freaky” Over the top gore tempers Vaughn’s comedy”

Body swapping films aren’t a new concept. In fact, there have been more than a dozen over the last several decades including the most famous one “Freaky Friday” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan upon which the newest Vince Vaughn horror flick by Blumhouse Productions loosely borrows their title. Looking back through history, from the original 1973 version of “Freaky Friday” starring Jodie Foster and based on Mary Rogers’ book to Tom Hanks in “Big,” Jennifer Garner in “Going on 30,” and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “Jumanji” series, all of these films are comedies at the heart. “Freaky,” on the other hand, is a gruesome horror movie from start to finish with just a touch of comedy if you can stomach the rest.

“Freaky” not only borrows a portion of its title, it appropriates many of its horror concepts such as the mask-wearing villain replicating Jason in “Friday the 13th,” and any and every horror trope from “Scream,” “Saw” (all the versions), and “Halloween.” While there’s really nothing new here, Blumhouse ups the ante with its shocking visual brutality and special effects.

Of course, as any scary movie should do, the film’s premise starts with a folklore of the villain. In this case, it’s the Blissfield Butcher (Vaughn) who, on Homecoming night, brutally murdered several of the town’s youth. As the celebratory dance looms overhead, two teen couples recount the lore, dismissing it as nonsense. And, you guessed it. They all bite the bullet or should I say the wine bottle. Writers Michael Kennedy and Christopher Landon who also directed this movie, make no bones about their intent to shock you as we watch horrific scenes unfold in the first 10 minutes making you cringe, gasp, and ultimately look away.

Now for the body swapping. We meet the meek and innocent Millie (Kathryn Newton) who is bullied not just by the mean girls and the misogynistic jocks, but also the shop teacher (Alan Ruck) who gets in on the action. This sets the tone for the obvious and inevitable revenge plot after Millie and The Blissfield Butcher trade places.

Millie’s spirit is now in the 50 year-old 6’4” muscular male physique of The Butcher giving Vaughn plenty of latitude to have fun performing as a petite teenage blonde. And Newton tries her best to be the sinister and menacing Butcher who finds being female to be not so much fun. But what makes body swapping films fun? It’s not just the trading of bodies, it’s the switching of personalities and that’s where this film truly lacks. While we know Millie has a tough home life, her shy personality never rings through to Vaughn’s portrayal of Millie’s psyche and Newton’s one-dimensional villain schtick gets old pretty quickly.

As we’ve seen with many body swapping films, there’s a race against time in order to prevent each character from being permanently changed. Millie has exactly 24 hours to not only switch back, but to save the town from another brutal massacre. The Butcher, however, uses his new body to earn the trust of the other kids resulting in slicing, dicing, blood spurting and bodies piling up.

We’ve seen it all before, but we’ve never seen a body swapping horror movie. With Vaughn as a main character, we are unintentionally promised a comedy. While we do chuckle at how he portrays his new character running, enjoying a new found way to use the bathroom, and falingl in love with a boy, the comedy is a low priority in this film. Supporting characters of Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) are over-the-top as Millie’s best friends, but it is Osherovich’s performance that gives us that welcomed reprieve and allows us to let our guard down to laugh at his physical comedy and humorous responses to situations.

Blumhouse is known for its recipe for horror movie success, but this one just goes a little too far with showing us every gruesome attack leaving nothing to the imagination. That does, however, allow for some remarkable special effects which are a standout in the film. Editing is also key in horror films to make you jump or squeal even when you know the scare is just around the corner. That’s what makes horror films fun.

“Freaky” gives you plenty of jump-scares, many of which make you laugh at yourself, and Vaughn appears to have a little fun with his role, but in the end (and even this ending is like every other horror movie) it’s just another horror flick that is way too graphically violent.

Playing in Theaters Friday, Nov. 13

2 1/2 Stars

“Let Him Go” leaves out too much

November 3rd, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Let Him Go” leaves out too much”

The best-selling novel, “Let Him Go,” by Larry Watson, has snagged an all-star cast including Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Lesley Manville to bring this dramatic crime thriller to life. Unfortunately, this visual version of the story has too many missing pieces which are probably left back on the pages of the book to make it one that is satisfying.

Margaret Blackledge (Lane), a no-nonsense horse trainer and her husband George (Costner), a retired police officer, live in the remote West, living a simple life with their son, James (Ryan Bruce), daughter-in-law, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and infant grandson until one tragic day hits and James is found dead. We quickly fast-forward to many years later and Lorna is remarrying Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). It’s an awkward ceremony for obvious reasons as Margaret and George attend, but there’s something else more deeply disturbing about it. Quickly, we understand as Margaret witnesses shocking physical abuse from Donnie toward not only Lorna, but little Jimmy. And then the family disappears into thin air leaving Margaret and George devastated.

Margaret is a head-strong, independent woman who convinces her begrudging husband to join her in a mission to find Jimmy and bring him home to live with them. The preposterous idea that Lorna will cooperate is laid out on the table by George, but nevertheless, he and Margaret hop in the car to venture into unknown territories. George, using his law enforcement connections, uncovers clues as to their whereabouts, but the close-knit communities are the likes of whom they’ve never seen. The Weboy family has its clutches in every business and family within a 100 mile radius and have no intention of helping Margaret and George who will face life and death decisions as they attempt to save Jimmy.

Screenwriter and director Thomas Bezucha carefully lays the foundation for this story, deliberately building the tension, and leaving several unanswered questions which are seemingly for dramatic purposes. These questions, unfortunately, are never answered and while a movie can never cover everything in a novel, these elements created a mystery that could have made for an even more explosive ending. Instead, the gaping holes in the story line just made it frustrating.

Additionally, while Lane’s character is bold, determined, and strong, with the heartbreak and compassion clearly just beneath the surface, her choices are sometimes in conflict with who this character is. Costner’s portrayal of George is steady and consistent as the level-headed protector who learned years ago that when Margaret makes up her mind to do something, she does it. Both Lane and Costner bring an element of believability to their roles as a long-married couple who are facing a very different retired life than they planned. Lane gives Margaret the backbone she would need in the era, defying gender stereotypes yet still relying on her husband for emotional support. This is her story to tell and while we feel every step she takes, the conflicting and missing story elements disconnect us from her character and the film.

While “Let Him Go” tries your patience at times, the premise of the film continually cuts through your gut as you place yourself in their shoes. Would you do anything to save a grandchild in peril? What if that child was your only connection left with your deceased son? It’s harrowing and Bezucha never lets up on the conundrum George and Margaret face which forces the viewer to confront that issue as well.

Where the story takes on a less credible element occurs as the couple encounters the smarmy, sneaky, and underhanded Weboy family. The family, lead by matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville) is over-the-top yet captivatingly entertaining. Surprisingly, this character has more layers and Manville hones in on them with subtle brilliance. Blanche’s number one son, Bill (Jeffrey Donovan) sends chills down your spine with his sardonic smile slowly curling up on his face. The rest of the family is exactly what you would picture a backwoods, uneducated group to look and act like. And obviously, George and Margaret are fish out of water here making it a good guys versus bad guys with no shades of grey type of story.

“Let Him Go” is a gritty yet gorgeously shot period piece which becomes nothing more than a preposterous thriller. With its equally ridiculous ending taking away from the seriousness of Lorna’s situation and the unanswered questions which could have added so much to the story, not even Costner and Lane’s heartfelt performances can make this a memorable film.

2 1/2 Stars

“Come Play” A surprisingly complex horror flick

October 29th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Come Play” A surprisingly complex horror flick”

Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a little different and that make him a social pariah at his elementary school and the victim of bullying. His overprotective yet extraordinarily caring mom, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) harbors the guilt of responsibility, undeservedly so, for the severity of his situation as Oliver isn’t speaking and can’t make friends, a result of autism. But most of all, the fact that Oliver does not make eye contact, connecting emotionally with his mother, is simply gutting for Sarah. Oliver’s disconnected loneliness makes him the target of Larry, a “misunderstood monster” and this is where the horrors of friendship begin.

Oliver is a bright yet non-verbal boy who uses a communication board on his iPad to express himself. And on that iPad, a new book pops up one night—“The Misunderstood Monster.” Drawn to the images, Oliver begins to read. The lightbulbs begin to pop and strange noises are heard. Unable to scream for help, Oliver hides beneath the covers, shuddering as to what is lurking behind the doors or in the closet. It’s absolutely chilling as writer/director Jacob Chase takes full advantage of every childhood memory of being scared of things that go bump in the night.

Larry is the book’s subject, a monster who is attempting to cross into Oliver’s world as he just wants a friend. The more Oliver reads, the closer Larry gets, but try as he might, he can’t shut Larry off. Oliver’s ability to communicate with his mom is rudimentary but Sarah begins to see the light…and Larry. However, it’s not until she follows Oliver’s speech therapist’s direction, Dr. Robyn (Eboni Booth), to help Oliver establish friendships that Larry begins to become a bigger part of everyone’s lives.

Making friends for someone like Oliver is obviously difficult, but the cruelty of a group of boys led by pack leader Byron (Winslow Fegley) is heartbreaking. Of course, Mom unwittingly invites Byron and the boys over for a sleepover to help Oliver make friends, but what happens when Larry invites himself creates a total nightmare for everyone.

To give anymore of the story away would take away the chills and thrills as well as the key points of an unexpectedly engaging story. Chase ticks all the boxes of what makes a horror movie captivatingly chilling, but he does much more than that. He blends a narrative arc of reality with our silly and irrational fears of childhood with characters who we not only care about but identify with. These elements combined with precision editing of both sound and sight give us a horror film that will haunt you long after the credits roll.

Are there stereotypical elements of classic horror movies that make you jump and chuckle at yourself for falling for it? Of course, but isn’t that the fun of a horror film? Additionally, Chase is skillful in his writing and directing as he holds out seeing Larry until just the right moment, late in the film. He teases us as he uses the illustrations in the book to give us a sneak peek into what awaits us. Little by little, we see more of Larry, and it’s scary, but not having the complete picture from the beginning creates incredible tension, building incrementally until the story’s climax.

A film isn’t complete with just the story, its cast of characters, in this cast rather small, is vital to the film. Each actor, no matter their age, skillfully plays their parts, but a heavy load is placed upon the shoulders of Robertson as he has no dialogue playing Oliver, the lead role. With his huge round brown eyes, he’s is like a sweet innocent doe who is hunted by a monster. He conveys every emotion and thought non-verbally or laboriously with his communication device. He has a firm grasp of some of the possible attributes of someone with autism, primarily the lack of connecting eye contact, and with Chase’s direction, Robertson all the necessary tools to create a believable Oliver. The role of mom is quite important in Chase’s story and Jacobs who exudes an air of authenticity in every role she has portrays Sarah, a guilt-ridden mom who’s on overload and wants nothing more than to have a “normal” son, with exceptional skill. While the remainder of the small cast is certainly noteworthy, young Fegley as Byron the bully stands out. To create characters and have performances which feel real and natural in a monster movie is certainly quite a feat and a team effort all led by the director.

“Come Play” is a smart horror film capitalizing on the familiar while making a few pointed jabs at our social dependency on electronics and the dangers within. But on the surface, it’s a fun horror movie with an ending that may just pull on your heartstrings. How many times can you say that about a horror movie?

Opening in theaters October 30th.

3 1/2 stars

“Bad Hair” never looked so good

October 23rd, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Bad Hair” never looked so good”

If you think you’re having a bad hair day, wait till you see Justin Simien’s newest film “Bad Hair,” starring Elle Lorraine and Vanessa Williams. This film gives the term a whole new meaning! As Anna (Elle Lorraine), a young Black woman in the late 1980’s struggles for recognition as a television host for cutting edge music, she finds that looks matter more than talent in this industry. With a corporate shake up lead by Zora (Williams), Anna (Lorraine) is encouraged to do something with her hair if she wants to succeed. Succumbing to the pressure, Anna pleads with a hip salon to put in a weave to make her hair luxuriously beautiful. The results are unexpectedly horrific and oftentimes jaw-droopingly comedic as she climbs that corporate ladder.

We meet Anna (Zaria Kelley) as a youngster, adopted into a loving yet high-pressured family. Her sister Linda (Corinne Massiah) is busy helping to relax Anna’s hair using the chemical process of the day. This becomes a traumatic event which will impact her and the story well into her adult life. Dad (Blair Underwood), an accomplished historian shares with his girls a story of their African ancestors. Anna, ever the rebellious one, questions these folklores which sets her adoptive parents into a tizzy. Fast forward about twenty years later and Anna’s working in one of the most prestigious L.A. music television stations, surrounded (and taken advantage of) by high profile talent and industry leaders. But Anna isn’t getting anywhere in this company no matter how many great ideas she has–she’s always overlooked. Lacking confidence, she’s like a quiet mouse but when Zora shows up, there’s a connection and admiration which inspires her to change.

The groundwork is slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, and methodically set up for the first half of the film, but as soon as Anna sits in that salon chair to have that hair weave brutally installed (yes, installed), the tone shifts dramatically and we have a horror story unraveling before our eyes. Anna’s hair is straight, long, and luxurious. She’s turning heads everywhere she goes. Her confidence rises but still plagued by financial issues and imminent eviction from her dilapidated apartment by her slimy landlord, the hair begins to have a mind of its own and the blood begins to spill.

To give you any more information would ruin the fun of this film, but suffice it to say, the landlord isn’t the only victim of Anna’s bad hair. This film artfully combines gruesome over-the-top horror with an underlying story of how Black women were/are perceived. And the lengths they go to in order to change their appearance and be accepted in a white world is astounding. Acknowledging the inequities and pressure to assimilate, the film blends lore and superstition into a world of reality to give us a unique horror story that sticks with you.

Simien brings us back to L.A. in the ’80’s complete with shoulder pads, crazy colors, and the music of the day. The cast of characters embrace their roles and this era to bring it to life, never missing an opportunity to make us laugh as we witness some of the horrors. Lorraine’s reactions are priceless as her character discovers a new part of herself. She invites us into her mind as she struggles with what’s happening and the conundrum of succeeding because of it. Balancing Lorraine’s depiction of the innocent Anna is Williams’ evil persona of Zora, but there’s more to her than meets the eye. Williams holds nothing back which is perfect and she’s having fun in this role. In fact, no one holds anything back which speaks to the fine direction of Simien resulting in a thrill ride of a film.

“Bad Hair” is a unique horror film which makes you laugh, gasp, cringe, and understand more about perception and struggle for equality in the work place not just as a woman but a Black woman. While it’s quite gruesome, it may not be for everyone, but there are plenty of comedic and dramatic elements to counterbalance that horror.

**Streaming now on Hulu**

3 1/2 Stars

“On the Rocks” – A bumpy father-daughter story

October 20th, 2020 Posted by Review, women reviews 0 thoughts on ““On the Rocks” – A bumpy father-daughter story”

While best known for “Lost in Translation” starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen, winter/director Sophia Coppola’s credits are significant and now she is reunited with Murray in her newest film“On the Rocks.” This time, Murray is paired with Rashida Jones as a father-daughter duo tackling life and the ghosts that haunt their relationship.

We meet the happy young couple, Laura (Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) upon their wedding day with a bright future ahead of them. Fast forward nearly a decade later and we are thrust into their chaotically busy life filled with two kids, a traveling husband, and a former writer trying to get back in touch with her passion. It’s a familiar scene of striving for balance in life but achieving it is another story.

Laura begins to have doubts about her relationship with her husband and reaches out to her father, Felix (Murray) whose previous actions with women may help her decide. The story becomes a study of this particular father-daughter relationship as the two attempt to reconnect as they play private detective.

The film is very narrowly focused on this duo, but make no mistake, this is Laura’s story. We get a glimpse into her life of being a mom and wife as she constantly transports kids, waits for them at school, and briskly interacts on the run with other moms all while trying to write her next book. It’s anxiety producing and for many of us, it brings back memories of a time that are merely a blur as we tried to juggle it all.

The heart of the film comes from Laura and Felix’s interactions. Felix, ever a flirt, seems to happily flit through life, superimposing his own morals and values upon every male including his son-in-law. This personal moral compass of his significantly and negatively impacted his relationship with his daughter and may continue to do so as we watch the story unfold.

On the surface, the question of “is Dean having an affair with his gorgeous assistant” is always looming overhead, but as we dig deeper into the story, it’s about Laura coming to terms with who her father is and if she will allow those attributes to effect her life now. It’s a slow burn and sometimes a bit too slow, but that initial question keeps you hooked. You have to find out if Dean is having an affair.

“On the Rocks” is a small slice of one woman’s life as she yearns for the relationship and identity she once had while her relationship with her father comes to a head. We immediately know Felix has disappointed Laura in the past, but she holds out hope that maybe this time he’ll be different. It’s apparent that these unresolved issues must be confronted before she can independently and emotionally move forward.

Jones creates a believable character to carry this significant load, skillfully finding the right subtle actions and reactions to show us her longing for her image of a father to guide her. It’s an understated performance, and while she and Murray find a connection, the rhythm just isn’t consistently there. Murray seems to be constricted as he portrays the less than likable dad with a cavalier and self-absorbed perspective. He seems to pull back in this film, however when he does relax, as he does in the scene to talk his way out of a ticket, it’s wonderfully engaging.

The film is beautifully shot as the pair zip through New York City in a convertible or have an intimate drink and dinner at a familiar-feeling restaurant. This personal perspective to the film allows us to have empathy with Laura as the turmoil in her life culminates. Where the story suffers is its attention to character development with the supporting cast. We never get to know Dean or Laura’s annoying “friend” Vanessa (Jenny Slate) who adds a touch of humor to the dramatic film. There are a few unanswered questions , but ultimately, the film poses an introspective question for us all—how much do we let others’ baggage influence us?

While it’s a slow-moving film with a feeling of tying things up too neatly and quickly at the end, Jones and Murray create an intricate story of how our past influences our future.

3 Stars

“Where We’re Meant to Be” – Change how you see the world

October 15th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Where We’re Meant to Be” – Change how you see the world”

*Repost from September 2016*

When you think independent film, you envision a creative filmmaker scraping together funding, asking friends to borrow homes or other settings for a day of filming, and even enlisting talented friends who might know sound engineering or those that can act. I think this wonderfully written and well-executed production just might fit this rather romanticized version of an indie film. Shot in North Carolina over a 23 day period for a mere $25,000, Michael Howard brought his words from the page to full living color with the help of talented individuals who believed in his project. With the cooperation of the town to use churches, warehouses, and even the police department to shut down streets and use squad cars, Howard shows us that you don’t need a multimillion dollar budget to have a quality production.

“Where We’re Meant To Be” is a series of several vignettes which all overlap in seemingly random ways. It is this coordinated “randomness” that brings to the forefront of our thoughts how meaningful those smallest of moments in life just might be. As we find ourselves watching Charlie (Blayne Weaver) and Anna (Tate Hanyok) interact on a blind date, their journey sets the ball in motion, if you will. Their actions reverberate like ripples in the ocean, setting the scene for the next story. The domino effect of actions continues to stitch together several more stories revolving around death, God, happiness, murder, and even a first sexual experience. All of these lives are intertwined, sometimes marginally, but always beautifully and powerfully to send home the message that our actions have a lasting impact.

The stories are all very poignant, but the two that stand out, because of the incredible acting, are the blind date and the kidnapping. Weaver (“Favor”) and Hanyok (“Shameless”) portray that natural chemistry and awkwardness of a blind date that’s going quite well. Their cowwmtb-film-shot6mmunication, both verbally and non-verbally, brings you to the table to experience their thoughts and feelings, always with a smile on your face. It would be easy to listen to the two talk for hours as we learn about their lives and their older and wiser take on what the future holds. The film then takes a darker turn as we witness a kidnapping and crime with an undercover cop. It’s a brutal and harsh scene that will quite literally take your breath away. Howard takes on the role of John, revealing that this talented filmmaker is comfortable both behind and in front of the camera.

While there are some pacing issues, particularly as the sister deals with the guilt and aftermath of her brother awwmtb-film-shot3nd nephew dying, the heftiness of the topic may deserve the time allotted. The musical score in this film augments the stories perfectly, creating hopefulness as well as emphasizing some of the more dire situations. Overall, this film allows you to not only see the value in your actions and your words, but in the serendipitous nature of all the positive things in our world.

“Where We’re Meant To Be” is a thoughtful, beautiful film full of love and emotion. Creating such a philosophical and entertaining film on this budget should be lauded as a true accomplishment. Be sure to catch this film…it might just change how you see the world.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” – Brilliantly and heartbreakingly timeless, exceptionally entertaining

October 14th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Trial of the Chicago 7” – Brilliantly and heartbreakingly timeless, exceptionally entertaining”

Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men”) creates yet another incredibly gripping and captivating story based upon the catastrophic events in Chicago in 1968 with “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” With an all-star cast including Eddie Redmayne, Sasha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance and many more, Sorkin takes us along the political and racial journey of nearly 50 years ago, bringing it to life and making it resonate in today’s world.


With Sorkin-esque style, we are introduced to the characters one by one just days before the 1968 Democratic National Convention was to begin near Grant Park in Chicago. Each of the key figures in this story has a unique reason for going to protest, and each has a different response to the dangers that may lie ahead. But never did any of them consider the possible turmoil that would soon unfold nor the dire straights in which they would find themselves as they defended their actions to a corrupt judge and court proceeding.

Sorkin seamlessly edits each individual’s story and then stitches it back together allowing us to see the grand picture. Taking us into the White House, we are privy to the turmoil of the changing of the guard as John Mitchell (John Doman) expresses his grievances and direction to the newly charged head counsel Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt), a by-the-book lawyer. Quickly cutting across the nation, we meet Tom Hayden (Redmayne) and Rennie Davis, political activists of the Students for a Democratic Society, “counter-culture Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), MOBE organizer and Boy Scott leader, Dellinger’s cohorts John Froines and Lees Weiner, and Bobby Seal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the Black Panthers Party Chairman. Sorkin’s script takes us inside these men’s lives briefly, but meaningfully, to understand their personalities and their motivations for demonstrating in Chicago.

It’s when all of these men and their respective followers among many others who congregated during the pivotal days leading to their arrest that the tension builds like a rumbling volcano. We know historically what’s going to happen, but this film brings us into a personal level as we witness the brutality of the police and the consequences the protesters suffer.

The first half of the film gives us all the educational aspects of how these eight men (the number seven is explained later) were targeted, arrested and now put on trial as a group for “conspiring to incite a riot outside the Democratic Convention.” The second half of the film is set in the courthouse as the corrupt and racist Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) sets the cringe-worthy and at times devastating tone for the remainder of the film.

Again, editing is key in telling this elaborately detailed story and Sorkin expertly utilizes this element as we flash back in time to crucial events or to Abbie Hoffman’s comedy show. We see the behind the scenes actions and watch Abbie recount the confounding events which took place in court that week. His perspective throws an ironically humorous spin but never discounts the harsh realities of what has happened. And pacing is never an issue in this over two-hour film as we are kept on the edge of our seats needing and wanting to know what happens next even if we are already familiar with the story. There’s not a wasted scene, character, or piece of dialogue in this film— all of it necessary to accurately tell this intricately layered story with painstaking precision.

Of course, the script cannot stand alone and this all-star cast of actors passionately create personalities to bring it to life. The actors, all perfectly cast as their characters, each have their own moment to shine, but not one actor is the star. Supporting one another, we get the sense that they are there to solely tell a story, an important and still relevant one today. Rylance finds an understated tone to deliver a remarkable performance and Baron Cohen couldn’t have channeled the personality with the sarcastic wit and the intelligence of Abbie Hoffman any better. The subtle and nuanced performance of both Redmayne and Gordon-Levitt create authentic characters who tap into their moral compass for direction and Langella gives us a disturbingly haunting performance of a lifetime.

While the actors all shine, it’s the story that hits home particularly in our volatile political world today. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth and the heartbreaking injustices of the ’60’s. The scene with Bobby Seale in the courtroom, bound and gagged as a punishment for invoking his constitutional rights is simply gutting. Recalling this scene as I write this brings me to tears.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is one of the best films of the year and may be one of Sorkin’s best of all time. His vision and direction has created a brilliantly timeless and extraordinarily entertaining story that unfortunately mirrors the unrest and inequities of today.

Streaming on Netflix Friday, October 16, 2020.

4 Stars

“She’s In Portland” – An indie gem paying homage to our youth and the one that got away

October 8th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““She’s In Portland” – An indie gem paying homage to our youth and the one that got away”


Two college friends, now in their thirties, admire each other’s lives and feel trapped in their own. Wes, tied to a demanding career and responsibilities to family, extends a work trip to drag his dispirited artist friend Luke to find Luke’s “one that got away”.

This is an unexpected gem of a buddy road trip film.  Accentuating the difficulties in adulthood seen through Wes (Tommy Dewey) and Luke’s (Fancois Arnaud) eyes as they travel the Pacific Coast Highway to find a long-lost love, skeleton’s in each of their closets are revealed to one another.  Meeting unique characters along the way provides the opportunities to discover what’s happened over the last 10 or so years, but it also gives the writer a way to inject a bit of humor as well.  This is a true indie with lead actors who elevate the story and our connection with it.  Beautifully shot and written, this homage to the coastal byway and our changing friendships is a love story like no other.  

Now streaming on all major digital platforms including Amazon Prime Video.

3 Stars



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