“Harriet”

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Harriet””

My heart broke for Minty aka Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) in the very first scene as we are witnessing her memory of her family being violently pulled apart. Freedom for slaves south of the Mason Dixon Line is nothing but a dream and this first scene paints the background for the atrocities imparted upon anyone who is of a different color and held in ownership.

The film brings us back in time to Minty’s situation prior to escaping to the North. Her owners treatment is despicable, but filmmaker Kasi Lemmons doesn’t protect us from seeing it…we immediately sink into the same inescapable emotional abyss. But it’s clear that Minty—her name before her escape—is different. She has visions and these are caused by yet another sad event in her life. The story takes us on Minty’s harrowing journey to freedom, but this is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning.

While many of us know the name Harriet Tubman, a woman who was integral to the Underground Railroad which assisted slaves to escape into freedom, but “Harriet” takes us further into her story, discovering the tenacity, strength, and determination of this woman and how she came to possess these remarkable attributes. Additionally, the film imparts historical knowledge that admittedly I was unaware.

Embodying Harriet Tubman is the talented Erivo who gives a richly textured performance. It’s impossible to leave the theater and not think that you now know who Harriet Tubman was as a person, not just a hero. And this is thanks to Erivo’s passionately subtle portrayal which elicits immediate sympathy and an indescribable connection.

With every hero, there must be the anti-hero and in this film it comes with Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess the juvenile who becomes Minty’s master. His lack of humanity is chilling as he delivers repulsive lines with absolute conviction. And when the two actors are on screen together, there is a sense of fear that courses through your veins, dreading when and how that proverbial shoe is going to drop.

Making this film stand out are the unlikely characters in the story, aspects of history that most never knew. Understanding how Congress passed laws which further drove Blacks north and anyone of color, free or not, fearing for their lives. These details in the film bring the subject and time into clear focus allowing us to not only understand what happened, but to feel it in our hearts.

This dramatic action film accentuates the tension-filled situations that will be more than memorable. It will leave you with a sense of awe and admiration as you find yourself questioning what you would have done under similar circumstances. There aren’t many of us who could be true heroes, but Harriet Tubman certainly is.

Cinematically, the film shines, but there were issues toward the conclusion of the film that felt more forced and unnatural. Perhaps it is at this point that historical facts are given license to divert slightly. This, however, does not take away from the overall impact or importance of the film or this story. In fact, it will motivate you to learn more information about this woman, checking to see if she truly did have visions (she did) and the route she traveled to save hundreds of people who might have otherwise never lived (it’s daunting).

“Harriet” is filled with memorable situations and performances, but more importantly, it gives us a more complete understanding of American history. Lemmons’ direction takes what could have been a typical biopic and breathes a sense of urgency and life into it. This is a film for everyone to better understand our country, humanity, compassion, and the need to stand up for those who cannot.

3 ½ Stars

“Motherless Brooklyn”

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Motherless Brooklyn””

“Motherless Brooklyn” has so much going for it with an engaging old-fashioned story of mystery and intrigue in gritty film noir style. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Edward Norton is the writer, director and lead in this thriller. Unfortunately, there is one misstep from my point of view. He used the disorder of Tourette’s Syndrome as his comedic trope, accentuating the most severe and unlikely symptoms and associated behaviors and disorders. The film would have benefitted had he found a different way to make us chuckle.

We are introduced to Lionel and his buddies as a possible shake down is about to occur. We also find out more about Lionel as the story is narrated by and seen through his eyes. Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Lionel sit in the car awaiting further instructions. Are they both buffoons or is there more than meets the eye as Lionel perseverates on a loose thread in the cuff of his sweater. Danny (Dallas Roberts) helps him out, with a few reprimands, as Lionel utters a few repetitive words and rhymes. It is at this point that Lionel, through voiceover, explains to the audience what if feels like to have this “problem” which is severe Tourette’s Syndrome. Given the era this film takes place, the syndrome was not widely diagnosed, but the film does elude to some pretty awful therapies executed by the nuns where he and Frank were raised.

A murder occurs and Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) crack detective team, Danny, Lionel, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Gilbert, must put the pieces of the puzzle together to solve not only who the murderer is, but more importantly, the why of it all. With a sprinkle of a love story, a bit of humor although it is at the expense of a man suffering from Tourette’s, and a tight script not to mention the gorgeous jazz music at the foundation and sometimes as the focal point, it’s a story that keeps you guessing. Norton doesn’t give too much away too soon, teasing you to try to figure it out before his character does.

These characters, the costuming, and situations are all over-the-top, just as you would expect from this genre of film. And these are the elements you also love in this style of film. Alec Baldwin plays the heavy with dialogue you can’t help but imagine his muse is Donald Trump. Leslie Mann has fun with her role as the widow who surprisingly isn’t too sad about losing her hubby, and Bruce Willis brings a mellow, easy tone as leader of the pack. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s power of presence fills the screen and inexplicably forbids you to look away. Her character of Laura is the love interest or perhaps femme fatale as she fights to equalize social and racial injustices. The entire cast including Willem Defoe, Fisher Stevens, Cannavale, Michael Kenneth Williams as the engaging and talented trumpet player, and Josh Pais elevate the story to its finest level.

Norton’s direction called for multiple closeups, pushing the viewer to crawl into the mind of the subject at hand. It’s a tactic that works as you never have a moment to have your thoughts wander, but unfortunately, there was a projection issue during my screening which became distracting as portions of the screen were omitted. The chase and fight scenes, however, were tightly filmed with tension at the forefront giving the film the element of intensity at just the right moments.

While the running time is close to 2 ½ hours, there’s not a dull moment. Overall, it’s a complicated story that unfolds beautifully, but it’s too bad that this very smart story had to mock an actual disorder to try to make us laugh.

3 stars

“Fantastic Fungi”- The scientific magic of mushrooms

October 16th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Fantastic Fungi”- The scientific magic of mushrooms”

Hope. It’s what we’re missing when it comes to the future of the Earth, of humanity, but “Fantastic Fungi” is exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s this dose of hope that will inspire, educate, and renew your faith in Mother Nature and her ability to right the world. If this sounds like it’s too good to be true, think again and then take a moment to watch this visually arresting, entertaining, and thought-provoking film by Louie Schwartzberg, debuting at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, October 18, 2019.

Schwartzberg tells the story of mycelium or the mushroom in this new documentary. He explores the often overlooked, but massive and interconnected magical kingdom responsible for delectable delights, decomposition of organic matter, increasing the soil’s nutrient base, and even curing diseases. Using time-lapse macro cinematography, “Fantastic Fungi” is simply mesmerizing, captivating you, as you find yourself forgetting to breathe. Schwartzberg’s masterful camera work is equally as engaging as the layered and complicated, yet easily understood scientific information. The research expressed via narration and interviews lays the necessary foundation for us to easily build a fortress of understanding. We learn about the true cycle of life, from the beginning of time to our current day and our future as well as the more immediate circle of life as living organisms die and prepare the ground for new life.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

The film’s focus, mycologist Paul Stamets, brother of Chicago film critic Bill Stamets, has devoted his life to the discovery of mushrooms and their potential to solve humanity’s problems. His interest in the topic is a story in and of itself, but his discoveries and knowledge, all gained in atypical ways, has opened the previously locked doors of life’s secrets. We also gain further knowledge with interviews from author Michael Pollan, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Johns Hopkins neurologists and psychologists, giving great credibility to the information at hand.

Learning that the base that supports all life is an interconnected microorganism called a fungi, there are more than 1.5 million types of these organisms. Without them, you (we) wine drinkers, beer imbibers, and whiskey connoisseurs, would find our cocktail time uninviting. On a more serious note, the hundreds of thousands of types of mushrooms, a part of this fungi family, promises to have the potential to solve our climate change issues and help develop cancer treatments. “Fantastic Fungi” reveals the real magic kingdom, showcasing this organism’s potential as well as its roots—pun intended–as it appears that we are all interconnected. It’s a symbiotic relationship among all living organisms with a more complicated communication system than ever before realized, but it’s up to us to unlock the code and discover the answers literally beneath our feet.

When Mother Nature created mycelium which, without getting into the science behind it all in this review, takes any organic material and can process it. Think about targeting a cancer cell with this and eliminating this lethal cellular machine. Or using a type of fungi to decompose an oil spill, turning the environmental disaster into a haven for new life. Schwartzberg’s painstaking research unfolds before your eyes in wonderfully entertaining ways as you witness the wonders and magic of the mushroom.

With so many doom and gloom documentaries about the future of our world, “Fantastic Fungi” gives us hope in a future. Our Earth is a precious space that is in dire straits, but stopping to listen, see, and open our minds to a new way of learning just might prove that we have a chance after all. I was swept away by this film, its imagery, and its potency. It has inspired me to learn more about mushrooms and what might be right outside my back door in my very own yard. I am inspired, but even more importantly, I am hopeful.

Do not miss “Fantastic Fungi,” one of the most beautifully powerful and intellectually stimulating films of the year and perhaps even the decade. Paired with “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” it’s a match made in heaven to give you a greater scientific understanding of the balance in which we need to strive.

For more information about this film, visit Fantastic Fungi
For ticket information at the Siskel Film Center where the film will screen Friday October 18th and 19th with Schwartzberg in attendance and through October 24th, go to Gene Siskel Film Center
4 Stars

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” A disturbing mess not intended for children

October 16th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” A disturbing mess not intended for children”

The witch is back in Disney’s sequel “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This convoluted dark mess with an unknown target audience continues the saga of Maleficent with misguidance and misdirection from the mega studio. While the story picks up and recaps the events from the first film, “Maleficent,” a much more benign and children-friendly film, this new rendition has only enough content to fill about 30 minutes of the nearly 2-hour running time.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” begins with the young Queen Aurora (Fanning), Maleficent’s human daughter, and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) from the neighboring and previously warring kingdom, planning their upcoming nuptials, much to both their mothers’ chagrin. Caught in the middle of trying to please her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), and persuading Mom to hide her horns and behave, she finds that there are evil ulterior motives lying beneath her new mom’s intentions.

Initially, the film has a few laughs, particularly with Maleficent’s commentary of the human race, but these snarky quips quickly fall to the way side to make room for disturbing content that will surely spark a few nightmares for little ones. Queen Ingrith begins to reveal her true colors showing that she may not possess the magical powers of Maleficent, but she does have the devil in her heart. As the story twists and turns, we see the tone of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale (“Little Briar Rose”) brought to everliving color, but even the Brothers Grimm might cringe with the disturbing darkness that Disney has ensnared.

Queen Ingrith has devised the means to complete the genocide of two races. She is threatened by them, seeking power, and misunderstanding them because they are different. While there are wonderful lessons to be learned about embracing others’ differences, this is not the way a children’s film should do it. Disturbingly, we witness a little fairy being turned to dust before our eyes using a chemical invented by the evil queen. We also watch as all the little creatures are lured into a church under false pretenses only to be slowly gassed to their death. There are also plenty of battle scenes and the body count is high.

The story does, predictably, push us to root for not only the young couple in love, but also for the Queen of Evil, Maleficent. She’s got a temper, but thanks to her human child, she has learned to love, dampening her roiling rage. Jolie beautifully exudes this inner conflict, sometimes with sarcasm, and we find ourselves more emotionally connected to her than to Aurora. Fanning’s forgettable performance illustrates a milk toast character that is undeniably flat—it’s a total disappointment in Disney pushing forward with female empowerment. Pairing perfectly with Fanning is the princely love interest who is equally dull. The culprit of these disappointing performances is most likely an unimaginative script. And unimaginatively, the film appears to have directly “borrowed” scenes from other films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Lord of the Rings” to mention just a couple.

On the positive side, makeup, costuming and set design are incredible, but unfortunately, this cannot carry a film. Jolie’s sharply protruding cheek bones and clavicle which supports her talon-topped wings, and her sleekly silhouetted black garb, accentuating her strikingly strong physique, are simply mesmerizing. And Pfeiffer’s bejeweled and flattering royal dresses just might start a fashion trend.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is a disappointing live-action sequel that lacks content, but more importantly, it is a distressing and disturbing film not intended for youngsters. We also have grown to expect Disney to entertain the adults as well as the kids, but this one doesn’t fit the bill in either category.

1 Star

“Red Penguins” – An interview with director Gabe Polsky and subject Steven Warshaw at TIFF

October 3rd, 2019 Posted by Film Festivals, Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““Red Penguins” – An interview with director Gabe Polsky and subject Steven Warshaw at TIFF”

Who could possibly create a documentary about Russia, hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Mafia that is funny, educational, and insightful? None other than Gabe Polsky who gave us “Red Army” in 2016. While you might be thinking that this is just an extension of his first film, think again. This is one of the most bizarre, underreported, and unfathomable sports stories in history. Polsky’s subject, Steven Warshaw, a marketing genius, took it upon himself to attempt to save the Russian hockey program and create interest and financial stability for this Red team. What he found was corruption, embezzlement, and mind-boggling sordid situations proving the adage that truth truly is stranger than fiction.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chicago native Polsky and his subject, Steven Warshaw, for an entertaining and insightful conversation about the making of this film.

Pamela Powell (PP): How did you two become acquainted?

Gabe Polsky (GP): I was promoting “Red Army,” …at one of the festivals in NY and Steve came up to me afterwards and told me that he has a great story [and] that it’s also about this Red Army team, but it’s about the ’90’s and what happened afterwards. … But I told him, “Look, I’m not interested in even going near Russia or hockey again.” I just did this big film and I was kind of mad, actually, about the idea of doing something like that. Anyway, Steve asked for my address and I did give it to him. (Chuckling) He didn’t look like a creepy guy. He was a little strange (more laughter) … I got this huge box of materials, videos, documentation, photos, all this stuff about this story and I opened it up and looked through it and was kind of amazed and shocked … but then I pushed it away again.

PP: What made you open it back up and delve into the making of this film?

GP: It was the kind of thing that even to this day I was reluctant to go for because

Steven Warshaw (SW): This is the antithesis of what he had seen. [He] documented maybe the greatest hockey team in history and now he’s going to look at the train wreck that ensued after the Soviet Union. And we were that train wreck.

PP: And you were the engineer? (Laughing)

SW: No, I was the conductor, the engineer, and the toilet cleaner! (Laughing)

PP: Why did you hold on to all of this stuff?

SW: I am a pack rat. I save everything that’s flat. … I don’t save plush animals or hockey pucks. If it’s flat, I save it. Photos, tickets, contracts, archival material, artwork, anything that I can stack. And this was a really important part of my life. I fell in love over there, not just with the team, but I fell in love with a fantastic Russian woman. I was 34 at the time. I fell in love with the culture. … When we were just blown out of there, it hurt. It was like getting your doors blown off in a romance. … I always saved my love letters from my girlfriends, maybe I’ll be able to resurrect this too. So that’s why I did it.

PP: They say that with age comes wisdom. This is a two part question. What would you tell your younger self and would you do anything differently?

SW: Second question first. I would much rather have gone to Italy or Spain or done this in a better country. You look back and I had attributed it to just youthful insanity. In retrospect, obviously, it was crazy. I should have taken the other job offer I had … I had two offers at the same time. Either go to Russia or to come to Canada. So in retrospect I should have definitely gone to Vancouver and had a beautiful life in Canada instead of this crazy mad [one], but then Gabe wouldn’t have had a film. (Laughing) There you go. It was intriguing for us because we were young and stupid so the danger element was almost an adrenaline rush for us. Yes, you look back, I didn’t have kids so I could take chances back then. Now I wouldn’t, of course.

PP: What did your mother think?

SW: She thinks I [was] a greeting card salesman! (Laughs). Actually, they came to see us in (Russia). They came on Revolution Day. Nov. 7, 1993 … They had a great time over there. They didn’t see all of the criminal elements. They didn’t know about it. I didn’t tell them.

GP: Now they’ll know.

SW: Now they’ll know they raised a stupid kid. (Laughs!)

PP: Steven, how did all of this influence your future career and choices?

SW: I made a lot safer decisions. Blue chip type of deals instead of wild fantasy deals, but I still think I’ve got one more in me before I check out of here so maybe I’m looking at some other crazy, third world country and bringing badminton or I don’t know. There’s one more chapter in me … for you (looking to Gabe)!

PP: Gabe, there was one particularly chilling scene in the film where you discovered someone lurking behind you; you were being watched and followed when you were in Russia. Did this give you pause about completing film and presenting it publicly?

GP: It did! The answer is yes, I did feel kind of weird being in Russia at that time. Sanctions were going strong and the sentiment toward Americans wasn’t great. I wouldn’t say just regular people. The government position was pretty clear, but people were generally warm. I don’t know why, but when I was there, I felt a little bit paranoid and I’m not a super paranoid guy, but I felt weird. And when that happened, it was a WTF moment. Yes, I’ve been thinking a little bit about … the danger.

PP: Given today’s political environment, what do you think viewers will take away from this very timely piece even though this took place back in the 1990’s?

GP: I would hope that first of all, understanding the history and what happened in the ’90’s has relation to what’s happening now and their views toward Americans. Our working relationship, I think this is a good example of what [was] happening to all companies that were coming to Russia at the time. … and as soon as they saw success, they saw almost insurmountable challenges from encroaching interests. But more than even that, it’s this idea to understand the Russian psychology and behaviors in a deeper way. We read a lot of facts and allegations about that, but no one really gets to see how people behave and talk and deal with people. I think this story, by experiencing the story, we get to know the culture a lot better. Not just their culture, but ours too.

PP: Steven, when you watched the film, the interviews with those who spoke about you, what did you think or feel when you heard what they had to say?

SW: I’m still shocked that Goshen’s still breathing oxygen. That guy, he’s a walking heart attack. And everyone else died, except him.

PP: What does that tell you? (Laughing)

SW: That he’s Rasputin. He’s the devil! (More laughter) To me, it was frightening because I didn’t know how crazy I was back then. I wasn’t a kid, I was 34. We just threw caution to the wind and we were just worried about accomplishing our mission, to fill the arena and sell sponsorships, create tours, merchandising, a great story.

GP: But when you saw those other characters, the KGB guy and even Gusev, how did you feel? How did you feel?

SW: I wasn’t really shocked because I had lived it. But the one shocking element to me that I learned from the film was just how close the Mafia got to Gusev, my Russian partner. They really read him the riot act that he’s gotta leave Pittsburgh. I didn’t know that until I saw the film. I didn’t realize the Mafia was so deep into Viktor Gusev’s life that they had threatened him.

PP: But there’s that haunting laugh from Goshen.

GP: Yeah, how do you feel about that scene?

SW: It’s vintage Goshen. He’s brain damaged from alcohol. He’s had heart attacks, he’s been in car accidents, he’s been in prison. I mean the guy’s had an incredible life. So to me, he’s the perfect foil.

GP: Why is that vintage Gushen? What is that laugh?

SW: It’s demonic. He’s the evil empire that Reagan referred to. He’s a cartoon character that came to life and I’m just flattered that he said he’d still be my friend! (Laughs!)

PP: Flattered or scared?

SW: Scared! The same thing is that he would rather fail on his own that succeed with the [Americans]. I think that’s the critical point. They had such pride and that’s why they couldn’t take it. … It was embarrassing for them because it took foreigners to come in and do their job for them. They resented us for that and they actually rooted against us.

4 out of 4 Stars

Be sure to check back to find out how and when you can see this timely and entertaining film.

“Joker” A vengeful origin story that hits too close to reality

October 1st, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Joker” A vengeful origin story that hits too close to reality”

“Joker,” winner of the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival has created more than an Oscar stir. The controversial film is also igniting anti-gun organizations’ political battles as Warner Bros. stands behind this origin story of The Joker. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the deranged, unstable and anti-social sociopath, director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) creates one of the franchise’s darkest and most disturbingly sinister back stories that actually rings true to the graphic novel. While this certainly isn’t a film for every viewer, Phillips gives this genre’s fans a story that may change the DC Universe forever.

The opening scene sets the shockingly dark tone of this film as we see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), dressed as a jester who becomes the recipient of a random act of violence. Fleck is a broken man trying to support his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) in a dirty, dilapidated tenement building. He dotes on her, sacrificing for himself in an effort to make her as comfortable as possible, but he seems to have a target on his back as he is constantly pummeled with verbal and physical abuse by co-workers and strangers alike. Receiving social welfare benefits and medical aid for his condition, it’s pitiful to watch this poor man getting squished beneath the shoe of mankind as no one really seems to care about him. Actually, no one seems to care for anyone but themselves. When Arthur inadvertently receives a revolver, his brain snaps and so too does his trigger finger.

The world around Arthur in the dark world of Gotham is out of control. The political figures are vying for power, promising a brighter, safer world. And it is within this political world displayed through the medium of television that the tentacles of connection reach out and betray Arthur. Believing in a story told by his mother, Arthur begins to search for the truth about his own background, leading him down a path that will change him and Gotham. And as they say, with knowledge, comes power, but in this case, it’s an extraordinarily evil power.

The film stays true to the graphic novel, but adds so many deeply realistic elements to the story that it hits a little too close to home. “Joker” addresses our current political state with the hatred and division and more importantly, the power of the 1%. We also see how our system is failing so many who desperately need help, particularly the mentally ill. The social service programs are cut in the film’s story and this is a key aspect to Arthur’s deviation and of course, we see this happening in our world today. Gun violence, access, and regulations are also at the heart of the film as is the power of media and celebrity. It’s a complicated story that truly touches upon our current world, sitting upon a fragile precipice.

With all of these underlying components, the film also depicts the lack of humanity and compassion, an integral part of the survival of mankind and a way for Joker to rise. Without this compassion, chaos is unleashed, finding the perfect breeding ground for evil and rebellion, the two perhaps not so definitively separate. Creating a film that has all of these aspects, but also setting up one of the most well-known good vs. evil super heroes scenarios in this universe is a huge undertaking that Phillips capably creates, but it is Phoenix’s performances that will ultimately haunt you long after the credits roll.

Phoenix provides all the layers of his character as we watch him go through a metamorphosis. Our hearts break for this man, watching him suffer with no support and the subject of ridicule. He devolves into the Joker and while we do not agree with what he does, we have an understanding for him—now that’s a tough character to so artistically and evocatively create.

Media plays a hefty role in this film as well, particularly with the Johnny Carson type of talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Within this role, De Niro brings a cutting humor, reminding us of the power of words and that sarcasm creates ill will and not laughs. As the tension builds around Arthur and Franklin, the outside forces are also bubbling to the surface; a volcano about to erupt. While the story focuses primarily upon Arthur, there are several sub stories that occur, all intersecting at the most intense time, giving a sense of dread and discomfort throughout.

Conceptually, socially, and intellectually this film is disturbing, but the startling and realistic violence was more than unnerving. It was distressing. There were plenty of scenes that I wanted or perhaps even needed to cover my eyes, but those images will forever be ingrained in my mind. And perhaps if so many of these issues weren’t so relevant today, the violence wouldn’t have been as upsetting. But they are and it is.

As a piece of art, and film is an art form, “Joker” masterfully finds a voice for the brutal and believable backstory for The Joker. Phoenix gives this character incredible realistic depth which may help you see others who struggle in a more compassionate way. In the end, however, this is a film for super hero fans. It stays true to the graphic novel and creates an incredibly realistic persona and world that hits very close to home; perhaps too close. The shocking violence seems to be used for shock value alone rather than for the use of the plot. Oh, and the running time is, of course, too long. That seems to be a super hero film’s MO.

3 1/2 Stars (for fans of this genre)

“The Goldfinch” can’t soar even with its star-power

September 13th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Goldfinch” can’t soar even with its star-power”

“The Goldfinch,” a best-seller by Donna Tartt, makes its cinematic debut with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Ansel Elgort portrays Theo, a young man whowrestles with the trauma from his childhood, losing his mother in a terrorist attackat an art museum. Taken in by a wealthy family, Theo’s journey will require great fortitude and resilience, but there’s much more to the story than we initially believe.

We meet Theo as an adult, in a depressed state, narrating how he came to this point in his life. We are then taken back in time, meeting Theo as a child (Oakes Fegley)on that fateful day. Experiencing the explosion, Theo is in a state of shock and is taken in by the Barbour family. The Upper East Side socialites have their own sordid issues but graciously take Theo in. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), cold, distant yet polite begins to melt thanks to the joy that Theo seems to bring to thefamily, particularly Andy (Ryan Foust) who brings such personality to every scene.

To read the review in its entirety, go to THE DAILY JOURNAL

Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken” is a fresh look at fast food that will leave a sour taste in your mouth

September 12th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken” is a fresh look at fast food that will leave a sour taste in your mouth”

Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” from several years ago shed a light on the fast food industry, specifically McDonalds, and now he’s back with “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken.” Spurlock has a new target and initially it appears to be the entire fast food industry, but he narrow that focus with laser precision on Big Chicken—and you thought Big Oil was powerful! Wait till you see what a handful of Foul Magnates can do to the food industry and consumers in our country.

Spurlock identifies the issue of fast food appearing to have become “healthier” and questions the validity of this concept as he dives head first into the murky waters of the industry, becoming a “part of the problem.”

As with any documentary, we find ourselves walking, or in this case, driving alongside the subject as he researches his topic, interviews those in the know and on the ground, and develops a new concept in fast food. From farmers, bankers, lenders, marketing specialist, and chefs specializing in new fast food recipes, Spurlock takes us on his journey to uncover and discover the billion dollar industry’s recipe for success…or perhaps disaster.

Spurlock “takes a fresh approach” to “Holy Chicken,” joining the fast food industry as he tries to create the new chicken sensation while maintaining his integrity as he attempts to be transparent about what he’s serving. Starting from scratch, Spurlock finds a willing chicken farmer to lease him space, acquires thousands of chicken eggs, raises the fluffy little buggers that grow faster than a weed (not a good thing) and researches the production of a delectable delight all under the glow of the “Health Halo.” Jargon, new terms, aka deception, are all carefully folded into each layer of this film’s concept and while we are clucking at our own willingness to be duped into palatal conformation, salivating at the mere thought of a “crispy” chicken with aioli sauce, Spurlock tugs on our heartstrings and yanks the rug from beneath our straw-covered feet to reveal the true price of the Big Chicken Business…the farmers.

Spurlock has a penchant for topics that matter and have a lasting impact and “Holy Chicken” is no exception as he creates humor and entertainment, building upon the layers to educate and enlighten the viewer as to how we’re being duped into justifying our poor eating habits. As he plucks the feathers off of the squawking façade and reveals all the fat and fluff below aka Purdue, Tyson, Koch Foods, we see the fast food industry with undeniable clarity. Never before has an apparent monopoly, the resulting health risks, and marketing deception been so clearly defined. But what hits home is Spurlock’s discovery of how these components are hurting the farmers who are responsible for growing the food we eat and in the end, how our health is unwittingly damaged. Spurlock also finds a way to connect us with real people in this film; Jonathan a chicken farmer who is squeezed out, and the everyday workers trying to make ends meet, working 2 minimum wage jobs with no future. “Holy Chicken” becomes a 3 course film, but the dessert, in the end, just doesn’t set well although that’s exactly what Spurlock wants.

Knowledge is power and Spurlock provides the factual statistics and information to make your own decisions. See this film. Make your own decision. I’ve made mine…My chickens will now come only from my farmer friend.

4 Stars

Available on digital platforms Friday, September 13, 2019

“1982” Premieres at TIFF

September 11th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““1982” Premieres at TIFF”

“1982” transports us back to a time in Lebanon where political unrest and imminent war loomed overhead. Writer/director Oualid Mouaness creates a beautiful story of Wissam’s (Mohamed Dalli) school crush amidst the tension of the teachers and the news they are hearing.

Nadine Labaki (“Capernaum” director) stars as Yasmine whose relationship with fellow teacher Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman) is strained all due to differing political views. This is a multi-tiered story as the teachers and administrators prepare for graduation of their students, attempting in every way to maintain a sense of normalcy. Final exams are underway and off in the distance, the beginnings of an attack are evident. Finding stability among the adults is tested which ultimately makes it difficult to create an emotionally safe environment for the children.

“1982” begins with wide landscape shots, capturing the peace and beauty of the land. Artistically, as the story comes into sharp focus, the shots become more constrained, giving a more visceral sense of the ever-increasing tensions of the people near Beirut on the cusp of an invasion. Religion and cultural differences as well as expectations and prejudices play an important role among both the adults and the children on this momentous day.

It is the dialogue between our main characters of Wissam (Mohamad Dalli) and his best friend Majid (Ghassan Maalouf ) that endear us to them, reminding us of how special and, in many ways, how universal that feeling of first love is. The two discuss the plan for Wissam to let Joana (Gia Madi) know his true feelings despite the geographic, religious, and cultural differences. And these issues are explored with utmost care and even humor as Abir (Lelia Harkous) attempts to intervene.

On the other end of the spectrum is the more complicated interaction of Joseph and Yasmine. Love is never easy, no matter your age, but we see how our beliefs supersede this emotion in our older years while love does seem to conquer all when you’re young.

As the fear of the inevitable comes to reality in this film, it’s interesting to note how much emphasis we place on the need for routine. It’s our safety blanket, shielding us from the impact of that next shoe dropping and in this case, it’s much more than a shoe. That tension is palpable as we see Yasmine clinging on to the completion of her students’ exams. She will not give in to what’s happening around her and her emotional overload is conveyed in her voice and body language with deft skill. Mohamad Dalli is exceptional in this layered and sometimes very nuanced role. He’s silly and optimistic during this time, perfectly portraying the innocence of youth.

“1982” uniquely examines the core of people, no matter their age, as the world unravels. With extraordinary performances, we are not only given the opportunity to walk back in time, but to also walk in another’s shoes in a world where the future of tomorrow is truly unknown.

3 ½ out of 4 stars

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” creates understanding and compassion in an unlikely hero

August 22nd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Peanut Butter Falcon” creates understanding and compassion in an unlikely hero”

Zak runs away from his care home to make his dream of becoming a wrestler come true.
Written and directed by Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, and Dakota Johnson

If you’re looking for an inspiring, uplifting, and inclusive film, this is it! Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has Down’s Syndrome, is a ward of the state and living in a nursing home.  He wants more from life and after watching countless hours of his wrestling hero, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), he escapes thanks to his roommate’s (Bruce Dern) help.  Meeting the troubled fisherman, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), Zak begins to live life like never before.

The message within the film is readily apparent, but never too much.  It’s NOT a Hallmark movie! As Tyler treats Zak like anyone else who has certain strengths and weaknesses, we see this young man in a different light.  Their relationship is incredibly genuine and heartwarming, both of them helping one another in the most unlikely ways.  This is one of LaBeouf’s most authentic roles, creating a realistic yet flawed character with a heart and a troubled past.  Gottsagen’s performance is incredible as he captures our hearts with his smile and us to see who Zak truly is.   The all-star cast is an indication that the message this film sends is an important one as its beauty  has the power to change our perception of others in a positive way.

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

“The Nightingale” An interview with Aisling Franciosi

August 21st, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““The Nightingale” An interview with Aisling Franciosi”

It’s 1825 and a young Irish convict, her husband, and infant son live in the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, surviving each and every day. What lies ahead is one of the most unpredictable and tortuous tales of resiliency and love as a mother is set on vengeance for rape and murder. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, Aisling Franciosi stars in the lead role of Clare, creating an evocative and realistic story that delves deeply into the human psyche and the dark history of colonialism. The power within the character of Clare is immediately evident and builds throughout the film. I had a chance to sit down with Franciosi to discuss the making of “The Nightingale.”

Pamela Powell (PP): How did you prepare for such an emotional and difficult role, both physically and psychologically?

Aisling Franciosi (AF): I prepared by doing a lot of research myself, but also Jen (Kent) and I were in contact all the time about what to watch and what to read and obviously I read some history books for historical content on that side of things, but I also read this incredible book called “Trauma and Recovery.” The clinical psychologist who’s attached to the project, she suggested that I read it. She’s just really fascinated with how the brain of humans come up with survival mechanisms . … I also, from a practical point of view, I learned how to horse ride, wood chop, shoot a musket, but then when I got to Sydney, I went to the Center for Domestic Violence and I talked with the social workers there and some real life victims of rape. That honestly did a huge amount of work for me, emotionally preparing myself because I instantly had this weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

PP: Why did you want to portray Clare?

AF: I think it has something to do with how the truth drips off the page when you’re reading a Jennifer Kent script. She’s just an incredible writer. … I’m a little bit worried about that I might not get something like that again. It’s hard to find roles like that … and the more I researched it, the more I got into it, and … the angrier I got about the convict history of Australia. …I knew that convicts were sent to Australia, but I didin’t know how many of them were sent there for pretty much nothing. Stealing some food to survive. They were the rif raf that they wanted to clean up. Of course, there were some real, terrible criminals that were sent there, but women in particular were basically sent there, their job was to finish their sentence and populate this colony. And that really, really, really bothers me. That all added to this need to tell this story.

PP: Let’s talk about the rape scene. It was incredibly difficult to watch and that’s an understatement.

AF: Whenever I think of that scene, it’s instantly physical. I’m not thinking anything in particular, but when I watched it, I started crying. I think people want to describe it as a rape revenge film and I think on paper, I can see why people would think that, but please watch ours because it’s so much more. … they have to deal with this horrible loss and trauma and damage their sense of self and self-worth and PTSD. …You know what? If you’re going to show a rape, you better make sure that people feel devastated by it. In the past it’s been spoken about almost as if it’s a sexual deviancy. It really isn’t about sex. It’s a weapon and power and dehumanizing someone. There’s a reason that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s a very powerful, dehumanizing and destructive that has a long lasting effect. I’m really proud, and I know it’s not easy to watch, but even with the violence in general, our attitude is, it’s abhorrent. …. You’re forced to looking at how devastating it is.

PP: Jennifer must have set up a situation for you and all the actors to feel safe during that scene, right?

AF: Jen is just wonderful. first things first, she had her clinical psychologist on set, and [she] was there to kind of like take breaks and chat with us afterward about how we were feeling …. There was talk initially that maybe Sam and I, wouldn’t it be interesting if we didn’t really interact that much before shooting because there would be this weird distance between us and obviously she (Clare) hates him but is forced into having a very odd relationship with him and a very damaging one. No, we have to spend AS MUCH TIME AS possible together. I couldn’t have done those things with someone I didn’t feel, … [who] made me feel super safe.Those were really hard, those days. We were in tears in between takes and obviously it’s hard for me, but it’s terrible for the guys. … We were taking a break from the cabin scene, and [the psychologist] said do you mind talking with the guys? They’re really cut up about you. Can you show them that you’re ok? … I gave them a hug and everything and they were in bits.

PP: Tell me about training for all the physically challenging skills like horseback riding. Had you done that before?

AF: No, I didn’t. Someone even said to me, like, you’re Irish. I’m so sorry to disappoint you. It’s not like we’re all on green fields in Ireland on horses. I had never even been around horses at all. They flew me to Sydney to train. … [And] The wood chopping. It’s one of my new favorite things. You relieve so much tension. It’s why I loved that. I had the Tasmanian Wood Chopping Champions couple teaching me! …And then shooting the musket was, God those guns weigh so much! That scene where the four Aboriginals … awful, awful scene. 
The weather was terrible. We had a lot of first-time actors and my only job for that whole time was to hold my gun up against [Billy’s] back. Like at one point (quivering hands). Jen was like, no I want you to hold it like, (mimes taking gun) and [she said,] “Oh, my god this is heavy!” I know! (Laughs!)

Jen organized Taekwondo and boxing, not because I do any boxing or Taekwondo in the movie, but it was important for us. She wanted to get the physicality of Clare right and she’s a very tough, super working class West Ireland woman. …So before we’d do certain scenes, basically the stunt man would hold up two pads and I would beat them before “action!” It really helped.

PP: Can you tell me about the Aboriginal people in the film?

AF: People are always a a bit cautious when it’s a white woman telling the story of an Aboriginal, but she wanted to make sure that we had an Aboriginal elder on set and she got blessings from lots of different aboriginal elders from different communities. We definitely don’t fall into the White Savior category. It’s the other way around. Billy’s (Baykali Ganambarr) broken too. He’s got his own trauma. It’s what he sees … so he has his prejudices too and I love that. Yeah, we’re very different and there’s this fear of the other all the time but really there are people with their own pain and we’re so much more similar than we are different no matter how much we want to tell ourselves otherwise.

“The Nightingale” is an incredible and haunting story of power and resiliency with extraordinary performances from Franciosi and the entire cast. Kent’s remarkable writing and directing will make this film one of the best of the year.

4/4 Stars

“Ready or Not” is a bloody good game

August 20th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ready or Not” is a bloody good game”

Ready or not, let the games begin! The directors of “V/H/S,” Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, have upped their game with the intense horror-thriller “Ready or Not” starring Samara Weaving, Andy MacDowell, Mark O’Brien, and Adam Brody.

As a new-comer to the Le Domas gaming mogul family, Grace (Weaving), on her wedding night, must participate in a game and as the card is dealt, Hide and Seek means that Grace must fight not just to win, but to live.

The premise sounds quite sinister, and it is. The patriarch of the family, through generations, has made a pact to play a game chosen by a long-deceased colleague, stating that any new additions to the family must play in return for wealth. From benign games like Old Maid and Checkers to the deadly card drawn of Hide and Seek, the family’s very life depends upon playing the game to its bitter end: Hide and Seek requires the target to be killed before dawn or the family will all die. Refuse to play and death knocks on your door.

Writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy masterfully set up the story, allowing us to get to know this young couple, Alex and Grace. She’s beautiful and he’s rich and they’re madly in love. Alex’s dismissal of his blue blood roots is endearing and Grace’s sad background of being raised by foster parents is equally engaging. They’re a match made in heaven, but can they endure the hell to come?

We also get to know each of the family members, appearing more like a caricatures of the rich and famous than shrewd business leaders. With Aunt Helene’s (Nicky Guadagni) permanent scowl as she lurks in every corner, Father’s (Henry Czerny) less-than-regal demeanor, and Emilie’s (Melanie Scrofano) need to be coddled by mummy and daddy, it’s a recipe for comedic disaster almost as if characters from the board game Clue just came to life.

The consequences are dire, but there are so many unexpected hilarious moments, too. These incredibly shocking situations are set up and timed to also bring an element of humor to the scene. Imagine laughing as a woman gets a crossbow through the throat! And yes, we root for the young bride to make it till dawn and question the curse or pact that this crazy family has operated under for a century or so. “Ready or Not” plays the ridiculous card at precisely the right time, too, as it questions the validity of the very premise of the story.

This is Grace’s story and Weaving carries it effortlessly. Her expressive eyes and her character’s resilience, intelligence, and survival instincts become more intensified as the story unfolds. While the remaining cast supports her, and they are caricatures, they aren’t so over-the-top that we are taken out of the context of the film. Alex’s big brother Daniel (Brody) is a bit of a cad, married to a power-hungry wife and Emelie’s juvenile behavior accentuated by her drug use typifies what we might envision that .1% to behave like. MacDowell brings a touch of southern charm and superficiality to her portrayal of a loving mother who sacrifices for her family, but it is Kristian Bruun’s depiction of Fitch that gives us a punch of humor no matter the situaiton. His comedic timing and delivery is sheer perfection.

The genre of horror blended with mystery, comedy, and thriller is a tough combination, but with great writing, cinematography, directing and more importantly, a cast who can deliver, “Ready or Not” is a film to please several palates. This tension-filled, disturbing, yet hilarious film expertly makes every move, pulling us in to the story as we root for Grace to conquer all. If you think you know how this ends, think again. It’s one surprise after another. Of course, as in any horror film, the special effects are a part of the story, but never does it over-power the film; it punctuates the situation just as it should.

“Ready or Not” is pure horrific fun and while we have seen the premise in many other movies, how they get to the final scene is filled with unexpected and mind-blowing situations.
The humor, standout performances, and skillful writing and directing makes “Ready or Not” a film to see.

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” Is a comedic-action gem

July 31st, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” Is a comedic-action gem”

“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” is a spin-off of the franchise bringing two familiar faces, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham), to the screen for one of the best, most humorous and visually captivating of any of its predecessors. Directed by David Leitch who gave us “Deadpool 2,” the film delivers so much more than anticipated with great banter, preposterous stunts, and interesting characters; it’s the fuel injection this sequel needed to cross the finish line reigniting your faith in summer blockbuster flicks.

If we can forgive the opening scene typical of most of the “Fast & Furious” films of close-ups of women’s nearly bare butts, etc., and I did, we find our stars aka heroes leading two separate and polar opposite lives. Hobbs, the elite muscle-bound physical specimen and father of an adorable 9 year-old, Sam (Eliana Su’a), discusses school and the lack of knowledge of the family tree. Half-way around the world, Shaw, whose more refined and sophisticated British ways, leads an orderly and solitary life. They’re re-enlisted into their respective governmental intelligence agencies to team up, much to their utter distaste for one another, to find Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent who has gone rogue and stolen “Snowflake,” a globally lethal virus. Hot on this agent’s trail is “Brixton” (Idris Elba) the ultimate bad guy. It’s sure to be an explosive, high intensity showdown among them all.
TRAILER

While this certainly sounds like a formulaic, we’ve-seen-it-before, storyline—stolen weapons, save the world, all against the clock—and it is, it also breaks the mold with a focus on the characters’ chemistry, backstory, and hilarious banter between them. Co-writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce never let that comedic aspect cease. They know the pacing and balance of the film to entertain all audiences and find the right beats throughout this 2 hour and 15 minute film. While it is a bit long and after the 100 minute mark, perhaps an edit to a few action scenes would have helped, the stunts are still extraordinarily captivating and I truly cared about the characters.

It isn’t necessary to know anything about the other “Fast & Furious” films, making this a stand-alone spin-off, and there are plenty of unexpected surprises with cameos as well as unanticipated relationships. ***No spoilers here for you! *** If you’re expecting over-the-top and outrageous stunts, they’re here, but instead of making you roll your eyes, they make you laugh. This film laughs at itself, acknowledging the impossibility of it all and uses it accordingly.

For action fans as well as car enthusiasts, “Hobbs & Shaw” doesn’t disappoint either, staying true to what this F&F Franchise started out as. The stunts are also incredible, mind-boggling, actually, as you wrap your head around what’s real and what’s not. Sliding under a bus, jumping a line of cars, all on a motorcycle; careening around corners and cliffs high above the water’s edge, and so much more, creates unfathomable situations that glue your eyes to the screen. Equally captivating is the global travel, particularly as the chase leads them to a familiar country for Johnson, paying homage to his ancestral roots.

“Hobbs & Shaw” has its moments of seriousness as Brixton shares his reasons for going to the dark side. The underlying realities of our world, the environment, and politics drive the plot forward, but never does it overshadow the lightness of this film. Quite surprisingly, the violence is quite rampant, yet no more than a bruise or a little redness on a forehead is ever seen. There’s not grotesque blood-spurting; just a lot of hand-to-hand, well-choreographed fight scenes allowing our heroes to shine. Brixton, a combination of man and machine, showcases his unique abilities and features, highlighting the differences among all of them.

The key ingredient in this film is Johnson and Statham’s explosive chemistry. With an intuitive sense of comedic timing and the ability to somehow bring nuanced performances to a story typically not requiring this, they breathe fresh air into what could have been an ordinary, repetitive, action film. Johnson is more than just a bulky persona and we connect with him and even feel empathy as we see his feelings are hurt, looking more like an adolescent who has been picked on by a bully. And beneath the tough exterior of Statham, lies a sweet teddy bear with a big heart. Statham and Johnson are the epitome of a dynamic duo. The entire cast is exceptional as we see Eddie Marsan honing his skills as the confused and physically inept scientist and Alba creating a villain like no other. Another standout in this film is how strong and smart the character of Hattie is with a layered backstory which Kirby skillfully portrays.

“Hobbs & Shaw” is an unexpected blockbuster gem capitalizing on the strength, skills, and personalities of its stars. Hilarious, thrilling, and fun are exactly what a summertime movie should be and this pushes the pedal to the metal to give us total entertainment.

3 out of 4 Stars

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” – DiCaprio and Pitt are sheer magic

July 24th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” – DiCaprio and Pitt are sheer magic”

The much-anticipated summer blockbuster, “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood,” written and directed by the exalted Quentin Tarantino and starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie, brings us back in time to the late ’60’s, recounting the fictitious events and friendship of an actor and his stunt double and blending it with the horrors of historical reality. It’s a slow-burn that sometimes fizzles as it choses style over substance. Overall, however, it creates a haunting yet vibrant revisionist history, filled with nostalgia, humor, and of course, QT’s signature “Spaghetti Western” graphic violence.

It’s 1969 and Rick Dalton’s (DiCaprio) career as a cowboy in a hit television series is long gone. He’s wrestling with the possibility of being on the brink of being a has-been. Finding roles is becoming increasingly difficult, but he continues to pay his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) to drive him and basically take care of him. The two are inseparable, yet are as different as night and day. Cliff, a loner but loving dog-owner, is confident as he lives in the present, never seeming to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rick, on the other hand, is incredibly insecure, needing constant external positive reinforcement from anyone to make him happy. One of the sweetest, yet saddest moments in the film is when a child actor (Julia Butters) tells Rick that was the best acting she has ever seen. We immediately know how fragile this man is.

There are three seemingly independent storylines occurring in this film, but they eventually intersect in dramatically violent ways. Sharon Tate (Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) live next door to Rick and their fate is the ever-looming shoe above, ready to drop at any moment. Meanwhile, there are a group of “dirty hippies” living on an old man’s piece of property. As tough-guy Cliff meets one of the hippies, he’s determined to make sure his old acquaintance Charlie (Bruce Dern) isn’t being taken advantage of. Dern’s performance as the crotchety old man, napping in order to stay up for his girlfriend’s favorite TV shows, is simply hilarious. While Dern has little screen time, it’s a standout and memorable performance. Of course, the situation develops into a violently comedic one and we begin to see the writing on the wall.

Tarantino certainly takes his time in weaving this story together. It’s not until well past the half-way point that we begin to put the clues together to understand where this story might be going. This, to me, was somewhat frustrating as a more succinct technique could have accomplished the same result. However, Tarantino’s punctuation of style in every scene is his signature in this film as he pulls out the grit, color, and texture of this by-gone era of Hollywood. This stylistic choice is certainly a creative one, but comes to the forefront of the film and overpowers the story-telling.

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is in every way a buddy film. Two grown men, depending upon one another, floundering, making mistakes, but always there for one another. DiCaprio and Pitt are sheer magic together. While DiCaprio skillfully creates this unsure, alcoholic actor, always gambling with his choices and trying to play the Hollywood game, Pitt’s assured demeanor perfectly balances the pair. His smirk and confidence draws you to him, even after learning of his sordid past. The two have an undeniable chemistry, but unfortunately, Tarantino takes away from this solid foundation by focusing upon on-set filming for Rick’s show. The behind the scenes interactions are pure gold, but these scenes are significantly less by comparison.

As the film meanders its way to its apparent conclusion, for those who remember the fate of Sharon Tate, Tarantino finds a way to pull the rug out from under you, creating a very unexpected twist. This tone and feel isn’t consistent with the spirit of the film, however. It becomes graphically brutal and shocking, but the concept of the over-the-top violence is all a part of Tarantino’s signature. We do see how he skillfully brings all the apparent loose ends created at the beginning of the film together into a well-tied if not very messy bow.

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is in many ways an homage to television, but it is also a social statement about how the filmmaking industry influences its audience and vice versa. The two are inseparable, much like the main characters of Cliff and Rick, and both very fragile ecosystems. Interestingly, Tarantino also depicts those behind the camera as much stronger than those in front of the camera, always needing to have their egos stroked. Perhaps that’s how he sees his world.

3 out of 4 stars

“The Lion King” Same heart, incredible new technology in animation

July 11th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Lion King” Same heart, incredible new technology in animation”

Disney has released yet another remake from their wonderful world with Jon Favreau in the director’s chair. After the success of the incredible melding of real life with animation in “The Jungle Book,” many anticipated equally extraordinary visualization of the memorable film “The Lion King.” Varying little if at all from the original story, this new version of “The Lion King,” a “photo-real” production is mesmerizing throughout thanks to the artistic and technological worlds colliding in beautiful harmony.

The story begins with the familiar Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones) attempting to impart words of wisdom upon his adorable, fluffy, and feisty cub Simba (voice of JD McCrary). Doom and gloom ensues as Scar, always jealous of his older brother’s strength and place in life, plots to take down the king and in so doing, inflict seemingly irreparable damage to young Simba. Years pass and the missing heir to the thrown has made a new life, Hakuna Matata style, but he must follow the path his father and ancestors’ have paved for him.

While those who are familiar with the original animated version of the story will always cherish it, this new and visually impressive version tells the same father-son story, keeping all of the same key songs, but using the terminology of today and giving each of the characters a new, fresh voice.

The film is visually entrancing from the beginning, but it doesn’t really find its pacing until after the first third of the film when Simba meets Pumba (Seth Rogan) and Timon (Billy Eichner). Each of these characters are familiar yet their respective voices create new and interesting personalities as they help Simba get through each day. With laugh-out-loud moments, the film is a Disney multi-colored world of happiness and fun. Disney movies are known for their ability to make both kids and adults laugh and this updated version does exactly that, perhaps even more so than the original. Although the final portion of the film is much darker and more intense, and perhaps even scary for younger ones because it does feel and look so real, there’s also a message of environmentalism and honor as Simba stands up for what’s right and best for all.

With any remake, particularly Disney classics, you roll the dice when you cast a new voice for a beloved character. We saw mixed reactions to “Aladdin” (Will Smith vs. Robin Williams), but “The Lion King” thankfully continues with James Earl Jones as Mufasa and expertly or perhaps wisely casts Rogan and Eichner for incredible comedy and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the voice of Scar who formulates incomparable intimidation in his voice so that you can almost see the scheming and evil emanating from his character’s lips.

Zazu is voiced by John Oliver who brings us his own signature style and JD McCrary brings a youthful innocence to his character of young Simba. Growing older, Danny Glover takes over this part, spinning Simba in his own way, especially while he sings.

While many may argue whether or not a remake was needed, no one can argue this film’s astoundingly magical animation technique. Favreau reportedly blended “live-action filmmaking techniques with photo-real computer generated imagery” as the environments were designed within a game engine or VR (Virtual Reality) set up. Favreau’s vision and his team have revolutionized the world of animation and because of this we are in constant awe as we see the detail of the lion’s whiskers and fur, the graceful gallop of the giraffes, the rough and symmetrical ridges of the antelopes’ antlers, the intensity of the hyena’s dark and hateful eyes, or the billowing dust randomly rising and falling as we can almost feel the particles settle on our skin. The details are mesmerizing, capturing our attention and almost drawing it away from the story itself. Where the line of reality and animation blur is up for grabs as you cannot tell what is real and what is not. This truly gives the sense of anthropomorphism of the animals and immediate empathy for their lives.

Favreau masterfully creates an amalgam of worlds, real and animated, to retell a beautiful and familiar story which will mesmerize children and adults alike. With the skill, talent, knowledge and artistry involved in creating such a visual accomplishment, it’s too bad Disney didn’t put its efforts into creating a unique and original story to go along with it. However, fans of “The Lion King” will find that same heart of the original.

4 Stars

Hulu’s CULTURE SHOCK director Gigi Saul Guerrero talks about the reality and horror of her new feature episode

July 3rd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Hulu’s CULTURE SHOCK director Gigi Saul Guerrero talks about the reality and horror of her new feature episode”

Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror episodic series is underway and first-time feature director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Culture Shock” will be available to see on July 4th. It’s a timely release as the film tackles Mexican border crossings and the American Dream as the two collide in unimaginably horrific ways.

Guerrero was recently in Chicago to discuss not only the film, but how she personally connects with it and how it resonates with anyone who has a dream to live a better life.

To read the interview as published in the Wednesday, July 3rd edition of The Daily Journal, go HERE

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” A teen’s dream, but just another super hero film for the rest of us

June 27th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Spider-Man: Far From Home” A teen’s dream, but just another super hero film for the rest of us”

The never-ending onslaught of super hero films continues with the sequel to Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man with “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” This teen-geared film finds Peter Parker (Holland) preparing to go on a school trip to Europe as he dreams of telling MJ (Zendaya) how he truly feels about her. It’s a grand romantic plan, but of course, there is evil to be fought and that pesky leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) just can’t let a kid be a kid for a summer. Donning his Spider-Man suit, the young boy must fill the shoes of his beloved hero, Iron Man and save the world.

Ultimately, this is just another formulaic super hero film, but it does have its unique appeal as the film pays homage to those heroes that were lost in battle. The concept of those who disappeared only to return is referred to as the 5 year “Blip” and the consequences are wonderfully creative as you laugh out loud. The film also capitalizes wonderfully on that awkward first-love or first crush in high school as both Peter and his comedic sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon) navigate those choppy and unpredictable waters.

There are new threats that develop in the world as the evil Elementals begin to wreak havoc in every country. Fury looks to the young Spider-Man to help lead in this fight to save the world from imminent doom, but his reticence proves that he’s not quite ready for the big league. Thankfully, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps in to help and we see Peter’s longing for that father-figure in his life. The first half of the film, thanks to comedy, dialogue, and the introduction of this new character, is great fun, but the remaining half of the film plummets into predictable chase and fight scenes overloaded with visually boggling CGI. The story also blatantly attempts to make several social statements about our world today, particularly in the realm of media, but these, like the fight scenes, are very heavy handed. There’s no subtlety here. What started out as cute, very funny, charming, and even novel, developed into exactly what every other film in this genre typically is…a big fight scene with good versus evil, lulling us into a light slumber.

The cast of characters makes the most of the script and they truly shine in the first half. Holland is supremely comfortable as the awkward teen charged with tasks only a man should be able to carry. It’s this internalized struggle which he conveys with humor that makes Peter Parker a super hero for young fans to relate to as well as emulate. Of course, that love interest with the smart, independent, and striking MJ gives the story a boost of adrenaline, but it’s Batalon’s portrayal of Ned that brings us the extra charge of levity in this story. His timing and reactions are brilliant with unexpected dialogue that will have you roaring. Jackson has honed his role as Fury, to no surprise, and Gyllenhaal is well-suited for playing Mysterio. He’s passionate and creates a believable character, no matter the situation.

With these elements shining in the film, it feels that a different writer took over the reigns for the second half of the film, losing the pacing and charming comedic edge. Of course, this is based on a graphic novel and the artistry in creating alternative realities is quite impressive, but it’s not enough to maintain a high interest level or carry the storyline. Perhaps it’s the 2 hour and 9 minute running time that taxed my attention span, wanting the editing staff to cut about 30 minutes.

“Spider-Man: Far From Home,” even with its charming subplot of teen love and angst, is just another super hero movie in a world where I need Captain No More to save me from seeing another film in this genre. Teens will love it as will those who are invested in this universe, but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

2 Stars

“Olympia” An undeniably strong, humorous, and creative first feature for writer Chinn

June 23rd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Olympia” An undeniably strong, humorous, and creative first feature for writer Chinn”

Chicago actress and writer, McKenzie Chinn, makes her feature screenwriting debut with “Olympia,” directed by Greg Dixon and distributed by Cow Lamp Films. Chinn, also the lead in the film, creates a relatable character of Olympia, a young woman at the cross roads in life as she must decide whether or not she can stand on her own two feet.

Olympia is an educated and talented young woman who is stuck in a dead-end, entry-level job while she valiantly attempts to cope with the knowledge that her mother is dying. Diligently visiting and comforting her mom and coming to terms with this inevitable future, she must also now deal with the fact that her understandingly wonderful boyfriend is moving across the country for his job. He wants nothing more than for Olympia to come with him, but that would mean she has to step out of her comfort zone and grow up. Feeling that it’s all spinning out of control, Olympia gently dips her toe in the waters of adulthood and sometimes makes quite a splash.

From the moment we meet Olympia, we love her. She’s real, complicated, and filled with love. But it is her honest depiction of her fears that makes Olympia such a relatable character. Adding that consistent touch of humor, most of which is situational, sets up a protagonist we root for, but never really know which decisions we would make if we were walking in her shoes. To create a character that we have empathy for is quite a feat and Chinn does exactly that.

“Olympia” also hones in on creating authentic dialogue, particularly as we see Olympia interact with her sister and her best friend. Of course, as with any young adult, relationships outside of our love lives are key to working out our issues and making decisions. Olympia angrily and unabashedly discusses her resentment toward her missing father and openly confides her fears with her best friend. And her hesitancy to be completely honest with her boyfriend, Felix (Charles Andrew Gardner), allows us to more fully understand and connect with Olympia.

The realities of the economic difficulties that young grads experience is not news, but the emotional havoc it wreaks on lives is eloquently portrayed in “Olympia.” It is at this stage of life that we find so many crossroads, professionally and personally, and we watch as Olympia contemplates daring to follow her dreams while needing to maintaining a sense of individuality, but lacking the self-confidence that is necessary. Who hasn’t gone through all of this on some level?

Chinn develops her character of Olympia with incredible ease, finding a way to give her the layers and complexities that any woman can relate to. We empathize with her reticence in making a commitment in love and her art while we connect with her trepidation in actually becoming an adult and the possibility of not having her mom to lean on. Chinn’s performance is exceptional as the young woman trying to grow up.

It’s a small ensemble cast in “Olympia” all giving extraordinary, heartfelt performances. From LaNisa Renee Frederick’s undeniably difficult performance as Olympia’s dying mother to Gardner’s remarkable portrayal as Olympia’s boyfriend, the chemistry with Chinn is readily conveyed on screen.

With Chinn’s succinct, humorous, and touching screenwriting paired Dixon’s deft direction, it’s a match made in heaven as the two create a well-balanced and meaningful story. There is a unique creative aspect to this film that makes it even more memorable as the film intertwines graphic artistry, a wonderful soundtrack, and cinematography giving it a sense of whimsy and wonder, capturing the beauty of art and the Second City.

3 1/2 stars

Director Miranda Bailey talks about “Being Frank”

June 20th, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “Director Miranda Bailey talks about “Being Frank””

“Being Frank,” traveled the film festival circuit for quite some time before getting its final edits and now a release across the country. The film stars Jim Gaffigan, a favorite stand up comic whose acting career is bursting at the seems right now, as Frank, a man who attempts to balance life with two families; each unknown to the other. Of course, all “good” things must come to an end and Frank finds himself in a pickle with his son Phillip (Logan Miller). It’s a dark comedy that keeps the laughs coming thanks to the creative writing and directing as well as the casts’ impeccable ability to play off of one another yet still maintain a level of drama.

In an interview recently, Director Miranda Bailey discussed the changes made to the original concept, how she balances life, her female review site Cherry Picks, and quite shockingly, the fact that she had never heard of Jim Gaffigan before casting her film! Shocking, simply shocking.

Pamela Powell (PP): I understand you had a few changes to the overall script, making it a more personal one.

Miranda Bailey (MB): When I first received the script…it was in modern times. The one (wife) that Frank really loved was the stay-at-home mom who cooked all the time and was perfect and the other [wife] was working…We’re not going to have the one he really loves as this kind, sweet mom and the working mom is this one that no one wants around. Those elements changed drastically, the roles of the women. [The film was also] moved to 1992 which was a time in my life that was when my parents got divorced…I felt the fear that Phillip (Miller) goes through. ***SPOILER*** I was able to … say everything that I wanted to say to my dad or to myself as a child through the character. When Anna Gunn [the character of Laura] is saying .. well, he’ll always be your dad even though he’s a total dick … I wish someone would have said that to me.

PP: Initially, I thought it was an odd casting choice to have Gaffigan, but now I can’t imagine anyone else being able to pull off this role!

MB: I actually didn’t even know him when we started casting, I didn’t even know Jim Gaffigan!

PP: NO!

MB: When the script was ready to go, and you want Jason Bateman, but it can’t be Jason Bateman, 1. Because we can’t afford him; 2. He’s not available, and 3. Then it’s a Jason Bateman movie. It’s quite hard, especially in that age range to try to find someone who can be likable and lovable and still doing something so cruel but with cowardice…Initially, we were thinking Louis CK …and I’m so lucky the agents never gave it to him!

PP: Can you imagine?

MB: ****SPOILER***** Oh, my God! That would be awful! We made this movie before…any of the Weinstein stuff came out. Movies take a long time to go from concept to [finish] so it’s been pretty interesting in editing based on those things. [In] the version at the festivals, “You Can’t Choose Your Family,” Frank was forgiven by his son and I changed that in the end because the world has changed in that year.

PP: Gaffigan’s comedy has a very dark edge to it in this film. As a director, how did you draw that out of him?

MB: He definitely does have the dark comedic elements to him. That’s not necessarily part of his standup, but, you know, tragedy is funny! I think he understands that.

PP: Frank’s relationship with Laura is based on a lie. Can you talk about the lies and all the relationships?

MB: A lot of this movie focuses on lies. Everyone in this film, not just Frank, is lying to someone else or lying to themselves. Whether it’s Phillip lying about where he’s going, that he’s not drinking, he’s studying and his best friend’s lying about being gay, and Anna Gunn’s character is lying about being in a happy marriage. Not lying, but she’s refusing, she knows, she’s reading that book, she knows that something’s going on, she knows she’s not in love, she’s staying the course, she’s lying to herself that it’ll be ok. Samantha [her character of Bonnie] is being lied to but she is oblivious and doesn’t know but that’s like part of why she keeps painting the same thing, her home in her own back yard, nothing changes. Something’s going on and she’s trying to find it. She doesn’t know what it is, it’s like this weird artful metaphor, but she doesn’t realize it’s her and her husband.

PP: I hadn’t thought about that being her subconscious talking to her! Let’s chat about your own balancing act in life as director, producer, wife, and mother.

MB: I have a stay-at-home husband and my mother [and in-laws] and brother living here. When I was filming “Being Frank,” I had a really solid support system. … I don’t think I could do it without a supportive partner who was like, ‘Hey, I really want my job to be the house person,’ which is like the hardest job there is. That said, when I come home from work, he’s like, here you go! Your turn!

PP: It’s a tough balancing act!

MB: There’s a lot of pressure on us from society… when I was producing…all the traveling…all the guys and women were single and I was married and I was like the “bad mom” ha ha ha. They’d joke about it, [saying], “You’re never around. You’re always in Toronto drinking beer with us ha ha ha.” I’m not a bad mom, I’m a very good mom, but you don’t say anything. I think we feel guiltiest. Like my dad never had to go to parent teacher conferences and never got the pressure to do that. … And I hate dealing with teachers and principals and report cards, so it’s good because I just make him [my husband] do all that. (Laughs)

PP: I bet he’s good at it!

MB: He is because he’s nice. There’s got to be someone as the tough one. I’m tough in my regular life which is not home so when I come home and they say, can I have ice cream for dinner, I’m like, yep! Sure!

PP: You’ve got so many irons in the fire all the time and Cherry Picks review site for women is one of them and has been live now for 8 months. How’s that going?

MB: We now have this fantastic design that’s operating and at the end of the month we’ll have this critics [area] where critics will be able to upload their own stuff … and we have our own articles … we’re still learning and growing. It takes a long time to build. It’s like remodeling a kitchen. It takes 10 times longer than you expect. Rotten Tomatoes is great, but it’s for a specific audience and Cherry Picks is also for a specific audience.

“Being Frank” expands across the country this weekend and you can find more information about Cherry Picks at thecherrypicks.com

Film Rating: 3/4 Stars

“Katie Says Goodbye” finds optimism in a sea of despair

June 18th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Katie Says Goodbye” finds optimism in a sea of despair”

First-time feature filmmaker Wayne Roberts executes an extraordinary story about a young woman’s quest to have a better life while dealing with the continual harsh realities of her circumstances.  With an all-star cast including Olivia Cooke, Jim Belushi, Mary Steenburgen, Chris Abbott, Chris Lowell, and Mireille Enos, the story delves deeply into the human psyche, relationships, and hope.

Katie (Cooke) is a waitress and part-time prostitute in a desolate desert town, living in a trailer park, and supporting her mother and little sister, but she has dreams of one day escaping this less than desirable life.  Her circumstances, to most, would seem overwhelming, but Katie never loses her positive spirit and goal of leaving…until she meets and falls in love with Bruno (Abbott), a newcomer to town.  Establishing a relationship in a small community filled with gossip and cruelty is more difficult than she could have imagined.  The consequences and challenges she must face begin to smother her and Katie’s emotional survival is at risk.

“People need to appreciate things more…life is so amazing,” says Katie even as we see her worthless mother take complete advantage of her and men doing the same.  Your heart breaks as you see this young woman not only survive, but attempt to break free of the chains that hold her here.  The spark of positivity is always shining…her goal of leaving always the focal point.

Relationships are complex and the story brings us deep within all that Katie experiences.   She supports her mother who is more than physically capable of doing so, but relies on Katie.  We see the disappointment in her face as she puts on the facade that everything is ok.  Maybelle (Steenburgen) is wise, acting more like a mother than Katie will ever have, but again, Katie protects others from experiencing her atrocities.  Surprisingly, although Katie’s father is missing in action, she prays each night to him, wanting him to be proud and perhaps this imaginative father is the consistent, positive “person” in her life to give her that unstoppable resiliency.  The most unlikely man in her life, Bear (Belushi) is a “regular,” and quite surprisingly, also a sweet father-figure to Katie, giving her guidance in life.  This character opposition is unusual, but in its own strange way, very loving.

The relationships that are most disturbing are with other males in town, from the teacher who “visits” to the young men who are brutal and harsh beyond words.  There are scenes that will leave you speechless and take your breath away while tears stream down your face.

The ensemble cast expertly creates deep and realistic characters, some of whom you truly despise.  Cooke’s performance is simply sensational.  She develops a complex character, understanding her reactions, her disappointments, and her actions.  Even though we don’t approve of her choices. She is at once frustrating as she is engaging and Cooke creates this character with whom we truly care for.  

Belushi is one of the few actors that could portray “Bear.”  He creates the kindness in a male character that the story needs for balance.  The goodness he exudes, even though he is using Katie for sex, melts your heart.  Enos portrays  the epitome of a bad mom, but she, too, has depth and reasons for her situation.  Enos conveys this expertly, allowing us to dislike her, yet understand her at the same time.

Lowell shines just as brightly as someone we immediately hate.  We get a sense from him that he’s bad to the bone.  His look, his body language, and his tone all create a truly despicable character as “Dirk.”  Together, the entire cast tells this beautifully  intimate story of life and desperation, but most importantly hope.

Roberts first attempt at screenwriting and directing expertly demonstrates the skills needed to tell this heart-wrenching story. The characters he creates are extraordinarily real and his style of directing and communication, according to the cast during an interview, is unusual and allows the actors to give their best performances. While the dialogue is powerful, it is his direction with scenes requiring no speaking that are most evocative exuding desperation, heartbreak, and even love.

“Katie Says Goodbye” takes us on a remarkable emotional journey of life, filled with hope and countered by reality.  It’s a powerfully evocative story with outstanding performances, beautiful dialogue, and most importantly, a lasting effect of optimism.

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

“Late Night” Is a bold new comedy for today’s world

June 12th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Late Night” Is a bold new comedy for today’s world”

Check out Mindy Kaling’s newest creation “Late Night” starring Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a woman who is about to be ousted from her comfortable seat as a late night talk show host. Why? Because there’s a new, young, hip guy, Daniel (Ike Barinholtz), waiting in the wings to push her right off and teach this old stick-in-the-mud a few lessons on what it means to be funny. Of course, that’s all before Kaling’s naively bold and talented character fo Molly enters the scene. With a dream of writing for her idol, she inadvertently lands the job only because she’s female. What happens after this all rings true of society today, the issues at hand, and somehow still makes us constantly laugh till tears stream down our cheeks.

With Kaling in the writer’s chair and handing the director’s seat to Nisha Ganatra, the duo prove to be creatively powerful as they find the perfect chemistry needed to pull of a sometimes politically incorrect yet insightful perspective on sexism, agism, and racism not only in the country, but particularly in the entertainment industry.

Kaling, perhaps from real life experience of being the only female in a male dominated environment, is in the catbird’s seat as she skillfully and innocently portrays Molly. Her earnest outlook on her new job and why it was offered to her is the spice that this all-male team of late night writers needs to stir things up. Kaling’s performance is extraordinary as she allows us to watch her youthful character change and grow, seeing the world in a different light. Kaling is a comedic genius not only with writing, but with acting. Her depth of character, as with great comedy, peels away the layers to make her vulnerable and while we are laughing, we are also relating. It’s an extraordinary feat, yet Kaling makes it look easy.

While there are plenty of side stories taking place, this is Molly and Katherine’s story and how the two women learn and grow from one another. Katherine faces the reality of who she once was and who she now sees in the mirror, but Molly, who helps Katherine redefine herself, also has some growing to do. Together, they are magic on screen and the polar opposite personalities and looks just add to the fun chemistry and occasional explosions.

Thompson absolutely shines in this role, pushing her skills to showcase her comedic timing and her dramatic skills to create a well-rounded and realistic woman who has been at the top of her game and now faces almost-certain retirement. Thompson appears more than comfortable as the late night talk show host, carrying a burden of guilt from the opportunities that fame sometimes affords, which plunges her character into confronting other relationships in her life. Thompson is strong and powerful, yet there’s a sense of fragility within her character that allows us to connect with her.

John Lithgow is Walter, Katherine’s husband, and the one person who truly knows her and has the chutzpah to express his honest opinion. These are the moments that break your heart and inspire you as you see who this woman is and what she has experienced. The team of writers on the set of this late night show, from Max Casella to Denis O’Hare, give the film another element of authenticity. It is this honesty, sometimes a bit harsh, that elevates this film from just another comedy to one that is meaningful and even has an important message.

Ganatra directs this talented cast to give exceptional performances and deliver comedy with precision timing. It’s a difficult balancing act when you combine drama with comedy and Ganatra never loses sight of the comedic undertones, even when we are shedding a few tears.

We’re seeing more and more stories where women are the focal point which allows for new perspectives and ideas to be shared. “Late Night” is a film for everyone to see the world through a different and very entertaining lens.

To read the review in the Friday, June 14, 2019 edition of THE DAILY JOURNAL go to THE DAILY JOURNAL
4/4 Stars

“Men in Black: International” A disappointing attempt to revive a franchise

June 12th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Men in Black: International” A disappointing attempt to revive a franchise”

“Men in Black: International” aka MIB 4, attempts to re-create a fantastically fun and comedic franchise with new leads, but proves instead that sequels should just be a concept and nothing more. Starring Chris Hemsworth as Agent H and Tessa Thomspon as Agent M, the familiar storyline of an alternate world filled with aliens threatens the world as we know it and ultimately, the universe must be saved by the heroes.

The film starts out strong with an interesting concept as young Molly (Mandeiya Flory) encounters an alien. From this, her entire education and adult life (Thompson) is altered, driving her to join the Men In Black. Using her intelligence and wits, she finds a way to this world and partners with the renowned and rather cocky Agent H to earn her badge.

From this point, the film sputters to a near halt as the predictable “story” unfolds. Filled with plenty of special effects and chase scenes, this 4th installment of the franchise seems to have forgotten what made the first film so memorable: chemistry and dialogue. Thankfully, we are introduced to Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a CGI character who somehow is able to overshadow the handsome and charming Hemsworth character.

While it’s refreshing to see a female in the lead of a film with the word men in the title and a few comments regarding that, as well as Thompson doing an adequate job in the role, the interest level lacked for her character. Her personality was one-dimensional, much like Agent H’s, and together there was a feeling of forced chemistry that not even their acting skills could mimic. We craved information about who she is as a person and this lack of detail made her dull and benign.

Hemsworth is completely underutilized as an actor who has a range of skills untapped since Ron Howard’s direction of him in “Rush” (2013) or even Drew Goddard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018). Of course, he’s known as Thor and this film makes a humorous nod to it, but when an animated character can outshine this rock star of an actor, something’s missing. His valiant attempt at comedy is noted, but nothing more than that and we know he’s capable given his performances in all of his “Avengers” films.

Nanjiani brings the necessary and much needed comedic tone, but unfortunately, he’s not a major player in the film so we have to cherish his screen time when it’s there. Nanjiani is a master of vocal timing as Pawny with his parenthetical remarks. He makes you sit up and listen so as not to miss his hilarious comments.

If you’ve watched the trailer, you know that Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson are also in it, however, not even their regaled skills can elevate the level of entertainment of “Men in Black: International.”

Overall, the film is missing heart and consistent humor, and becomes a failed attempt to keep the franchise going. To its credit, the film has a female lead and allows Nanjiani to shine as the comedic wonder that he is, but this is just not enough to make this film worth seeing.

“Men in Black: International” is a disappointment particularly if you are a fan of that 1997 version starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The magic, humor, and chemistry of this pair cannot be replicated by Hemsworth and Thompson creating a lackluster fourth sequel. Please note that this film is rated PG-13 and not intended for kids under this age.

To read the review in the Friday, June 14, 2019 edition of The Daily Journal, go to THE DAILY JOURNAL

1 1/2 stars

“Aladdin” Disney updates story, message in live-action remake

May 22nd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Aladdin” Disney updates story, message in live-action remake”

Disney continues with its live-action remakes of their classic animated tales as it releases “Aladdin,” starring Will Smith as the Genie, Mena Massoud in the lead role of the beloved street thief Aladdin, and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. The question before us is, can Will Smith create the role of the Genie and make it his own or will we forever long for the Robin Williams’ version from 1992?

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

In expected Disney style, the film begins with vibrantly magical sweeping shots, creating the feeling of flying over the deep blue sea as we swoop down to meet a mariner and his children as he tells them a tall tale about a genie, a lamp, and a young man named Aladdin. We are then transported to a mystical time and place where we meet Aladdin and his monkey Abu, stealing and averting authorities and meeting a beautiful young woman. The story doesn’t appear to stray too far from the original, although with a running time of 30 additional minutes, there may be some additional—and unnecessary— scenes.

The pacing is what suffers slightly in this longer-running rendition, particularly in the middle of the film, which may elicit younger viewers to get a little wiggly in their seats. However, the energy picks back up in the final third of the film which is filled with impressively choreographed dance scenes and a few familiar songs. While the film is called “Aladdin,” it’s more of the Genie’s story and Smith uses his charm, looks, and style to bring a half CGI, half human character to life. The writers even bring us a love-interest side story for this chained yet powerful creature which is an unexpected and welcomed surprise. Smith makes this role his own and he shines in it, but if you’re a fan of the frenetically paced, uproariously funny Robin Williams version, he just doesn’t compare.

Massoud is extraordinary in his portrayal of a young man who knows his place in society, yet hopes that love can conquer all…with a little help from a genie. His lyrical voice captures your attention and your heart as he sings and dances his way in and out of trouble. Scott also shines in her role as the Princess with her expressively rich voice, and the writers take the time to allow her to have determination and intelligence which she easily conveys. Of course, she’s gorgeous, she is a Disney princess after all, but thankfully, there’s so much more to her than that.

Visually, this film is continually stunning with its jaw-droopingly gorgeous set designs and costuming. From elaborate castles to the forsaken desert, the Disney designers don’t miss a detail. The Far East allows for the use of bright and striking colors and the costumes reflect this perfectly. CGI is a character as well as it brings the Magic Carpet and Aladdin’s sidekick Abu to life and gives Smith’s on-screen presence an other-worldly feel. As Aladdin is frequently running away from situations and authorities, the extraordinary camera work takes you along on that chase, zipping in and out of tight spaces, over and under impossible roadblocks, to create dizzyingly exciting scenes. However, what appears to be missing, to a certain extent, is the humor. It’s funny, but it doesn’t have the comedic element that Williams was able to bring to the entire film. His style, talent, and memory cannot be superseded.

As we’ve come to expect from Disney, there are some life lessons in the film. The obvious ones regarding the evils of greed and power are there as well as the importance of word choice. Words do matter. The topic of gender equality also arises as the Princess tackles centuries of a patriarchal society, where women cannot be in a position of authority, let alone a sultan and she must marry to be successful in life. It’s another refreshing element to an updated Disney story.

“Aladdin” will reignite and to some extent reinvent the beloved Princess Jasmine story in live-action form. It’s a fun film with extraordinary special effects and designs as well as an updated vibe, but my heart holds Robin Williams in the role of the Genie and the classic animated version.

“John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum” is nothing more than a gluttonous onslaught of gratuitous violence

May 15th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum” is nothing more than a gluttonous onslaught of gratuitous violence”

In the decade-long career of reviewing films, I cannot recall a more disturbingly grotesque display of violence in a film as I witnessed in “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” directed by Chad Stahelski and starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, and Laurence Fishburne. Wick (Reeves) returns as the member of the elite assassins group who broke the rules in “John Wick: Chapter 2” and killed a target on sacred ground…all in retaliation for killing his puppy dog. The consequences? He then becomes the mark with a high price on his head—direct orders from the “High Table.” He must fight to survive and make allies in order to have a hope of living life again. And that, my friends, is all you need to know if you missed out on the film’s two predecessors or if you’re being dragged and tortured to see this film as a severe punishment for some unforgivable sin.

The beginning of the film is dark and turns incredibly violent in the blink of an eye. There’s a gory pun there, but I’ll let you find that out if you still go see this movie after reading my review. In fact, it was so brutally shocking that audible explicatives were uttered involuntarily throughout the film, much to the surprise of my colleagues sitting next to me. The killings begin “by the book” and within moments, our visual onslaught becomes the high-speed chase scenes and long action shots filled with outstanding choreography setting the tone for the entire movie. Wick appears to be some sort of super hero, without being one, as he is able to bounce back after being stabbed in the shoulder, hit by a car, twice, crash through windows, plummet from stories above, and still fight like a ninja warrior.

There really isn’t much of a story in this film, although when The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) shows up to mete out the consequences for her subordinates’ actions, there’s a promise that it just might get interesting. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. The entire film is comprised of chase scenes, savage bloodshed that becomes mundane, and shots to the head killing faceless and nameless souls, ultimately creating a movie that is more like watching someone play a violent video game.

“John Wick: Chapter 3” is one of the most insipid movies of the decade. Some may argue that there’s humor in this film, and I would agree. Zero (Mark Dacascos) who is Wick’s biggest enemy and his biggest fan, provides a bit of unexpected levity, but it’s not enough to forgive this film its greatest transgression—no story. Much to my surprise, the audience seemed to find many of the most repulsive savagery laugh out loud funny.

Were the special effects impressive? Yes. So impressive that the hatchet to the head will forever be ingrained in my memory. And there are the multiple brain bursts against stone walls as the bullet explodes “the enemies” faces which in turn elicited high anxiety as I drove aggressively home from Chicago that night. There are also incredible motorcycle and horseback chase scenes that still boggle my mind as to how they were performed. And finally, the hand-to-hand combat choreography was as well-orchestrated as any Boshoi Ballet performance.

However, none of this impressive implementation of stunts or effects can make up for the lack of a story. And given this lack of any substance, is it possible to find characters that you care about? No. In fact, no actual acting is necessary in this film especially given the fact that there’s barely any dialogue. And any utterance from Wick is as flatlined as the myriad number of dead bodies piled up. I ask you this. How many times can you watch one person and sometimes a team of two fire a bullet to the groin, then body, then the head? This, too, becomes a trance-like dance: shoot the groin, shoot the body, shoot the head, fall, repeat.

The film created as many situations as possible to skirmish, as if going through a check-list, covering all bases including a gun fight under water. There’s even a portion of the film that adds attack German Shepherds for a change of pace. Again, the cinematography is extraordinary, working under extremely difficult conditions and set-ups with long shots of well-orchestrated combat scenes, but can you really watch over 2 hours of this alone?

I harken back to the wise words of Robert Redford—Is it a good story told well? And the answer to this question is a resounding, “No!”

“John Wick: Chapter 3” is going to the top of my list for worst film of the decade. Skip this absolute piece garbage.

1 Stars for the cinematographers and choreographers

“Buffaloed” A top film at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival

May 8th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Buffaloed” A top film at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival”

Screenwriter Brian Sacca hands over the directing reigns to the talented Tanya Wexler as she tackles the real-life subject of the unscrupulous scavengers known as debt collectors in a fictional tale starring Zoey Deutch. The story takes place in the booming metropolis of Buffalo, NY, known for and priding itself on Buffalo Wild Wings (Anchor Bar or Duffs?) and the Buffalo Bills. With a sprinkling of The Big Short style to this story we learn everything about the entity of unregulated debt collecting while laughing out loud.

Bouncing back and forth in time and using narration to get us up to speed, Peg (Deutch) explains how she came to a point of wielding a gun and screaming at the top of her lungs. She’s whip-smart, but when she pits herself against the head honcho in the “industry,” she finds that debts aren’t always financial ones. It’s a high-paced, quick-witted film that capitalizes on the charisma of its lead actress and a story that is as engaging as it is informative and entertaining. With a supporting cast the likes of Judy Greer who plays Peg’s mom, Jai Courtney as a mob boss and a cast of personable misfits as her crew, it’s a winning equation.

3 1/2 stars

For more great films made by women at this year’s festival, go to FF2 Media

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