“June Again”

January 15th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““June Again””

Writer and Director JJ Winlove takes us on a journey we all fear and many of us have experienced from the periphery: watching a loved one decline from dementia. But what if one day your loved one “woke up” from that debilitating disease and had a fleeting chance to be whole again? This is the premise of “June Again” starring Noni Hazlehurst.

We meet June in a nursing facility, privy to her memories of a cherished time many decades ago. Unable to process what’s happening around her, we watch as a speech therapist assesses her basic linguistic skills of identifying a common object. The frustration and embarrassment is obvious, but one day, June’s condition is in complete remission and she is lucid once again. Taking advantage of her situation, she escapes from her confines and steps back into her life that stopped 5 years ago.

She quickly learns that while her life was on hold, her adult children’s lives were not. The business she started and left in the capable hands of her daughter Ginny (Claudia Karvan) is failing. And her son’s life has seemingly spiraled out of control. The world she left behind is a different one and June dives in to right the sinking ship.

Winlove allows us to view June’s world through her eyes. We understand her confusion and her longing to take advantage of this indeterminate time she has been given. What we don’t predict is that the story morphs into a love story — a beautiful, heartbreaking love story.

For those of you who are questioning the premise of the story, I can personally attest to its validity. Winlove did his homework about types of dementia and cerebral vascular events. And as a former speech-language pathologist and daughter of a woman who experienced “terminal lucidity,” this fleeting time of seeing your mother become mom again can be deemed a curse or a gift which is exactly what is accentuated in the film.

Winlove’s keen understanding of relationships and life’s unfair hands that are dealt to each of us eloquently and even comedically unfolds in “June Again.” Hazlehurst is perfectly cast as she becomes June, an intelligent, insightful yet controlling woman with regrets in life who rides an internal emotional rollercoaster. Karvan and Hazlehurst deliver a mother-daughter performance that rings true, connecting us more deeply to the situation and the characters.

“June Again” finds all the right notes to tell a story of love in unexpected ways. It’s a surprising story that tugs on all your heartstrings, making us laugh and cry, and reminds us of the precious gifts that we have in our lives.

3 1/2 Stars

You can stream “June Again” on major digital platforms.

“American Underdog”

December 21st, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““American Underdog””

“Destiny belongs to the underdogs,” a quote from the newest film “American Underdog” directed by the duo Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin and starring Zackary Levi (“Shazam”) and Anna Paquin as Kurt Warner and Brenda Meoni. It’s a Cinderella story of a man with a dream of being the next Joe Montana who loses his way only to find his way back through the love of Brenda and the coaches who see how special he is. The true life story of this MVP Hall of Fame winning quarterback is uplifting and inspiring even with its rather contrived musical score.

Warner’s story is a familiar one, but this one accentuates on man’s vulnerable psyche and how others play a vital role in his resiliency and success. It’s a lesson for us all as we attempt to accomplish our own dreams and goals and have the opportunity to help others do the same.

Warner’s rags to riches story takes us back in time to Warner’s college days where he shined. The stars of fate weren’t yet aligned and he found himself hopping from job to job, near poverty level. Meeting the woman who would later become his wife, Brenda, and her two children one of whom is blind, Warner finds new inspiration in life and living. With Brenda’s faith, the two still struggle, but they do it together.

We watch as his dreams are shattered year after year, stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at a grocery store to help makes ends meet, but as luck would have it, he gets an opportunity to Arena Football coached by Jim Foster (Bruce McGill). Thinking this may open doors, and they do, many are still slammed shut for this man some of which he helps close due to his lack of self confidence. It isn’t until Warner finds his way to the St. Louis Rams, coached by Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) and Coach Mike Martz (Chance Kelly), that Warner is allowed to become the shining star he was destined to be.

The story, as many of you know, has a brilliant ending, and as newscasters and coaches actually said, “A better script couldn’t have been written,” screenwriters took this story and transformed it into a heartfelt drama filled with love and a message.

Casting actors who appear to be doppelgängers of the real life characters (be sure to stay all the way through the credits to see actual footage and photos), Levi easily embodies the star football player with a heart. His easy-going demeanor and ability to allow us into his mind and feel his emotions is exactly what this role requires. Levi is immediately likable and we are connected, the very essence of what the film relies upon to carry it. Paquin’s spunk and spark ignite the story as her character creates the stress and tension of real life. Protecting her children (and herself from more heartache) we feel this push and pull between the two making it believable.

“American Underdog” reminds us of the importance of believing in yourself, finding the courage to do so and those who lift us when we cannot walk alone. Warner’s story is an inspiring one as he defies the odds, going from a grocery stock “boy” to 5 years later, winning the Super Bowl as an undrafted player and achieving more accolades than imaginable.

3 Stars

“Being the Ricardos”

December 21st, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Being the Ricardos””

I love Lucy. You love Lucy. Let’s face it, we all love Lucy and the title of Lucille Ball’s first television series couldn’t have been more aptly named. Aaron Sorkin writes and directs a slice of Lucy and Desi Arnaz’s life amidst one of the most pivotal week’s in this couple’s history with “Being the Ricardos.” That week Lucy was named a communist. The fallout could have been the end of her, her marriage, countless employees of the show, and her future…but it wasn’t. And this is their story.

Sorkin takes us back to1953 as the “Red Scare” continued to plague Hollywood elites rendering many of the writers, directors, and actors without a job; black listed. Radio show host and gossip monger Walter Winchell made the announcement that Lucy was a Communist on a live broadcast on a Sunday night just before the beginning of Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi’s (Javier Bardem) work week to create another episode of the sitcom that changed how people viewed and made TV shows.

Before we enter the tumultuous week which brings us behind the scenes to the hardened and serious business of making people laugh, Sorkin creates “interviews” with the movers and shakers of the time. Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin), a female screenwriter, recounts her memories of that week and Lucy’s impact upon the world. Intermittently, but with no predictable timing, we hear from the heads of companies and studios — all portrayed by actors — to give us a retrospective of that week and of Lucy. We are also privy to Lucy’s memories and visions which takes us into her thought processes. All of these aspects give us an intricately complete picture of her life, her history, and her future.

For fans of Lucy — and I am an avid one having grown up in the same area of gorgeous Chautauqua Lake, NY — we see a different side of this woman. She’s tough as nails and isn’t afraid to show it. She’s cutting and demanding. And she’s progressive in her thinking as obstacles, to her, are nothing more than things to be pushed aside. But most of all, she loves her husband and her work.

Learning about the making of this one week’s episode and the burden both Lucy and Desi carried as they attempted to pull out all the stops to put the Communism theory to rest once and for all, we are introduced to both critical and ancillary people within her life. Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) valiantly yet quite ineffectively attempts to reign Lucy in as she announces her pregnancy; a word and concept never before addressed on television. Within the comings and goings over the course of 5 days before performing and recording in front of a live television audience (Desi pioneered this concept), we get a glimpse into the turmoil of “Fred and Ethel” and the overall pragmatics of this foursome who entered 60 million homes every week.

The stress of the situation is palpable, but Lucy’s strength and tenacity shines through thanks to Kidman’s version. We see Lucy and Desi as a solid team, never to be shaken by the likes of Hoover or the shenanigans of the ensemble cast and crew. Bardem becomes Desi in mannerisms and charisma. He finds a way to demonstrate Desi’s intelligence and passion with sheer credibility. It’s a memorable performance that will certainly capture voters’ attention during the Awards season. With equal fervor is J.K. Simmons’ performance as the cranky curmudgeon William Frawley who felt that happy hour began at 10 am. Not for a minute did I think I wasn’t watching the real Frawley. And the antagonistic relationship between he and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) allows you to watch with awe how they found a way to make us all laugh.

Kidman is the lead and it’s a heavy burden to carry. Playing one of the most influential female comic actors and a woman who paved the way for other females in the industry isn’t an easy task, but Kidman, for the most part, adequately does so. Occasionally, her look is identical and even with her voice, but her dialect took me out of the character. Lucy lived briefly in NYC, but was raised in NY State and her dialect was wrong and took away her believability. Perhaps it was Kidman’s own Australian dialectical differences that she imbued, but it doesn’t work. We never forget that it’s Kidman playing the part of Ball.

Sorkin tackles a very complicated story and using flashbacks and memories he is able to tell a much more elaborate one. The unexpected “real time” interviews, however, is jarring and takes us out of the story. Had these interviews occurred on a predictable timeline, perhaps the stylistic choice of doing so would have had a different result.

I do love Lucy and while there are some flaws within the making of “Being the Ricardos,” the overall effect pays homage to this brilliant pioneer of television.

If you want more, be sure to listen to TCM’s “The Plot Thickens.”

3 Stars

“Nightmare Alley” visually beautiful with a story that slogs along

December 15th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Nightmare Alley” visually beautiful with a story that slogs along”

“Nightmare Alley,” directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, is a remake from the 1947 film of the same name starring Tyrone Power, both based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The latest version, starring Bradley Cooper as the huckster carny Stanton Carlisle whose need for greed takes him down dangerous paths of love and lust, is almost unmemorable story if it weren’t for del Toro’s stylized vision.

It’s an all-star cast lead by Cooper as his character stumbles into the home of Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) who’s been to this carnival scene many times before. Carlisle has a sordid past, but is welcomed by Zeena and her con-artist/magician hubby Pete (David Strathairn) as they take Carlisle under their wing, Zeena a little more tightly than is appropriate. Learning, improving, and honing the tricks of the trade of mentalism, he falls in love with the talented Molly (Rooney Mara). The pair are convinced there are bigger targets to be had and run off to this better life. But greed smothers all other aspects of Carlisle’s life as he swindles a wealthy, powerful and “innocent” man named Ezra (Richard Jenkins).

The web del Toro weaves is a complicated one as it plummets into the abyss of greed and characters who are moralistically bankrupt. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the intelligent, intuitive, and manipulative psychologist is the epitome of this type of character, matching Carlisle blow for blow. Unfortunately, it takes much too long to get to these seedy yet high profile and vibrant characters as the film slogs along back at the carnival, spinning its wheels as it readies itself to take off to the meat of the story.

Visually, however, del Toro keeps us entertained even when the story flounders. He takes us back in time to an era none of us have experienced and to places we are unfamiliar. Amplifying colors and palates he introduces us to this world of despicable behavior, some overt, some hidden, and places his characters in a variety of situations. The burden, however, lies with Cooper to give us a man who is broken and defies his fate. We just never hate him enough or care for him enough to feel that we have stakes in his game of life. Blanchett, on the other hand, is chillingly captivating, appearing to bask in this character’s charade, but she arrives on the scene a little too late.

Fine performances from an almost unrecognizable Jenkins as a man with a deplorable past seeking forgiveness finds a way to be the story we really want to know. And there are several subplots and ancillary characters that are introduced and then taken away making them just that, ancillary.

Guillermo del Toro’s vision in storytelling is unparalleled, but he stumbles in pushing his narrative and allowing his main character to be who really is; a sociopathic narcissist. While the all-star cast shines, the story dampens them as it focuses on being artistically beautiful and not what matters—telling the story and keeping the pace.

2 stars

“Don’t Look Up”

December 7th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Don’t Look Up””

Michigan State University PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and supervising professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) have unexpectedly discovered a comet the size of Mt. Kilamanjaro hurtling toward Earth with an expected global destruction impact date in 6 months. They must alert the US Government and ultimately the general public in an effort to save our planet, but the hurdles they encounter just may make it impossible to do so. Thankfully, we are laughing out loud almost the entire time, a surprising effect, as the masterful writer and director Adam McKay finds a way to make annihilation hilarious while not so subtly burying the issue of climate change just below the surface to open our eyes.

From the opening scene portraying Kate’s revelation, and confirmation by Mindy, of a comet that will destroy Earth is accurate, the reactions of these ordinary — yet brilliantly intelligent — people is what sets the comedic tone to the film. The pair set out to alert NASA who then alerts the president of the United States, President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), with whom the pair will meet and explain and hopefully prevent the end of mankind. After waiting hours in uncomfortable rooms and purchasing cheez-its (this becomes a running joke), Mindy and Kate finally get a chance to explain their findings. While not falling upon deaf ears, although it is the Midterms and Congress may never pass the budget she and her Chief of Staff (and son) Jason (Jonah Hill) who has a few mommy issues, the most powerful woman in the world attempts to find a way to spin this whole thing into a profitable position with the help a major contributor who is also a leading scientist and business man Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance).

Mindy and Kate have hit a dead end and with the help of Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of NASA, they hit the streets to let the public know about the comet. Getting some air-time on a popular morning show hosted by the effervescent Jack (Tyler Perry) and the superficial alcoholic Brie (Cate Blanchett), Kate finds her performance to be as catastrophic as the comet named after her. And this is just the beginning of their 6 month-long adventure into chaos, turmoil, and life in the fast lane which neither Kate nor Mindy navigate well.

McKay’s attention to detail in comedy is extraordinarily precise while always feeling free-flowing and fun. Never missing an opportunity to weave social narratives into the picture, the film, surprisingly written before Covid hit, finds ridiculousness in our truth while exaggerating it slightly to entertain us. McKay’s loose yet focused direction gives each of his actors an opportunity to explore, develop and ultimately run with their characters bringing aspects to life that no one could have written. We experience Hill’s oedipus complex with Streep’s expressive comedy as pure gold. Their performances lend a hand to the frustrated character of Dr. Mindy as DiCaprio hones in on his passion of saving the Earth as the fictional character of Mindy. McKay also takes full advantage of our instantaneous and reactionary population as Lawrence’s demonstrative effects find their way into memes, gifs, and notoriety.

“Don’t Look Up” is a complicated and tangled story weaving together so many characters (even Ariana Grande’s performance and improvised lyrics make you laugh), but never losing focus and strategically circling back to the path we’ve already traveled. This makes for not only great storytelling, but great comedy.

With a cast like this, there’s not a weak link in it, all having performances of a lifetime, and even more evident, having fun! However, Mark Rylance as the Elon Musk-type of character is one of the most surprisingly hilarious performances. His teeth alone will make you laugh, but his mannerisms are what makes our jaws drop as he expresses his thoughts and decisions about how to avert imminent doom and make a few bucks. On that same note, Blanchett finds a way to make Brie a caricature of a television host who lives for the day into a mesmerizing yet deplorable woman. And then there’s Timothee Chalamet in a role that he was meant to play, a skateboarder named Yule, who brings the entire story together.

McKay ushers us into our comfortable seats to see his film, but we quickly find that we are in the launch position of a rocket. We are strapped in for an incredible ride filled with laughter and revelations, the comet as a metaphor for so much of what’s happening in our world today. Hang on tightly! This is a ride you don’t want to miss.

4 Stars

“House of Gucci”

November 22nd, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““House of Gucci””

“House of Gucci,” directed by the renowned Ridley Scott, has taken a lot of heat about his actors’ inability to nail an Italian “accent.” The story, however, is what should bind this film together like gorilla glue so that we don’t even notice the atrocious inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their dialectical difficulties. Unfortunately, it does not. The story is nothing more than a dull mess that spins its wheels as the actors appear to have all been given different interpretations of the script. Lady Gaga gives us a soap opera-esque rendition of “Patrizia,” her character, and Jared Leto and Al Pacino (the most entertaining of the massive ensemble) thought it was a comedy, while Adam Driver delivers a subdued dramatic performance in his supporting (?) role. He has the lead, he just doesn’t know it. The list goes on and on, and while these different tones in a film can add depth and layers like a symphonic harmony, “House of Gucci’s” mixed tones creates a cacophony like toddlers given percussion instruments.

The story begins, warning us that the name Gucci is cursed, back when this fashion forward family ruled the industry. With its roots strongly held in Italy, the family branched out to the United States with Aldo (Pacino) at the helm here. The family dynamics alone should have and could have been a salacious joy ride, but becomes nothing more than a journey on a jam-packed Greyhound bus…you’ll want to get off as soon as possible without reaching the end.

Scott takes his time in setting up the relationship between Patrizia and Maurizio Gucci (Driver). It’s a sweet and innocent courtship that results in Maurizio leaving his father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and his entire family fortune behind to marry the love of his life. Warning his new head-strong wife that money is the root of all evil, Patrizia re-establishes relationships across the sea with Aldo, estranged from his brother Rodolfo and whose son Paolo (Leto), a bumbling idiot and complete disappointment, lures the young married couple back into the Gucci privileged lair. With plenty of backstabbing and undermining relatives to relinquish their stock shares in the company, along with affairs, legal issues, and death, the curse continues on the Gucci name. The rest, if you recall from the news, is history, but this is Patrizia’s story of her demise and its cause.

The film is based on the book by Sara Gay Forden with the screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. As is typically found in adaptations, you can’t include every detail from the book on the screen, but Scott seems to try with the running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes. With so many characters who had the potential to be developed more completely, this easily could have been a limited television series. However, we get disjointed and incomplete stories and subplots and characters with whom we have no connection.

Lady Gaga is physically transformed into Patrizia, but it is Leto who is unrecognizable as Paolo. He and Pacino — both have totally different speech styles — are the highlight as the father and son who ride an interesting and gut-wrenching roller coaster of life. Together these two actors and their characters attempt to resuscitate the film, but alas, it is too much for them. Not even Salma Hayek’s Pina the Tarot Card Reader can stop the inevitable catastrophe of the film.

“House of Gucci” tries too hard to be too much in too little time. With distracting accents, no real focal point, too many tones, and actors appearing to have little direction, the film slogs along to its bitter end.

1 1/2 Stars

“Tick, Tick, Boom”

November 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Tick, Tick, Boom””

“Tick Tick Boom” was explosive from the very first scene to the final credits. Andrew Garfield embodies Jonathan Larson, the creative force behind the successful and long-running Broadway Musical “Rent.” While this man achieved success only posthumously, Larson’s life the week before his 30th birthday is told in musically dramatic form in the Lin-Manuel Miranda directed film “Tick Tick Boom.”

Reflecting on life and his lack of accomplishments — a list and bar set by everyone else he knows — Larson (Garfield) dreams of his musical “Superbia” on Broadway’s stage. Struggling to make ends meet or even pay the electric bill, Jonathan hits a road block both in his writing and in his life. This crossroads forces him to make life-altering decisions with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and to look in the mirror to see who he is and can be.

Steven Levenson is responsible for this screenplay and intricately, delicately, and with utmost care weaves together a complicated story and with an unusual style. Part musical, part drama, we follow Larson as he struggles, recalls, and lives those pivotal days prior to entering his third decade of life. Intertwining musical numbers that augment, not jar us out of the story, is a difficult task, but with the writing and directing talents behind the film, it flows naturally and most importantly, in an entertaining and stimulating fashion.

As capable the talent behind the camera is, Miranda surrounds himself with extraordinary acting and singing talent in front of it. Garfield’s stellar performance as he belts out impassioned lyrics while he plays the piano is heart-stopping. His character finds himself in various situations — performing for an audience as he tells this contemporaneous story, re-enacting his past, and living his daily life — it’s a cognitive juggling act which requires inexhaustible levels of acting energy and Garfield delivers.

Levenson also takes us into the complexities of what is required to just pitch a musical let alone get one on stage. We see Larson’s “Superbia” requirements, the musicians and singers, as they rehearse the songs to be performed to the powers of Broadway including Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford). The talents of Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), Roger (Joshua Henry), and other gifted singers are mesmerizing as they deliver their songs with clarity and emotion. Additionally, we are taken back in time to the ’90’s when being gay and the AIDS crisis was hitting hard. It’s not all drama and hardship, though. There’s plenty of laughter as the likes of Judith Light as Larson’s unresponsive agent Rosa Stevens hits the screen and Laura Benanti as a focus group leader helps develop marketing for a potential product.

“Tick Tick Boom” is a unique story filled with vibrant music and characters and a narrative arc that is at once compelling. With Miranda at the helm, luring us in to care about Larson, Garfield shows us he is so much more than Spider-Man…he truly can do it all. The entire cast rises to the occasion to tell us the story of a man who chose to follow his dream with determination and perseverance. It’s as if Larson knew life was going to be short for him and he needed to make the most of each and every precious moment. Perhaps we should all take heed from this man.

For all of you who say you don’t like musicals, I dare you to watch this one and continue to believe you don’t like them.

3 1/2 Stars

“King Richard”

November 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““King Richard””

Venus and Serena Williams, the unstoppable, formidable sister duo steamrolled over every opponent in the tennis world for decades. These girls who became women in the circuit were the best players in history, but how many of us know the obstacles they overcame to triumph professionally and personally? “King Richard,” written by Zach Baylin and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, brings us this inspirational tale of rags to riches via a very unlikely path: a father who had a dream.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton star as Venus and Serena, respectively, as the powerhouses before their notoriety and fame. A mere 10 and 12 years of age, Venus and Serena, growing up in the dangerous and well-known Los Angeles area called Compton, are coached by their eccentric father, Richard (Will Smith). Living in a 2 bedroom home, they and their 3 sisters worked incredibly hard while their parents, living meagerly to make ends meet, provided love and stability with the hopes of having a better future. Richard’s knew this would come via his two tennis players daughters…he wrote it in his “plan” before the girls were even born.

Richard followed his plan religiously, gaining access to the best tennis coaches in the country including Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and the renowned Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). But Richard’s approach, a very unconventional one, leads to frustration by the powers that be and awkward moments for all of us watching the events unfold.

Richard’s perseverance and spot-on clairvoyance of events to come are the thread that stitches the story together, but the foundation of the story comes from the love of a father and a mother who stand firm for their beliefs. While they buck the system, keeping their daughters’ humility in check and finding a way to let them still be kids, Richard’s mantra of “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” rings true, much to Goldwyn and especially Macci’s chagrin.

The story tackles the obstacles of living in poverty and in a gang-ridden environment where survival is a part of each and every day. The racial prejudice is evident, but frequently this is presented with ironic humor. Incredibly, there is a lot of humor in the film balanced delicately by the dramatic elements to create one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Richard’s past is a part of this racial prejudice as he relays heartbreaking tales of his own childhood. The heartbreak continues with beatings from gang leaders, but never does Richard break. It’s as if he always sees the end goal in sight, all supported by his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). While they present a united front to the public and to their girls, Oracene and Richard have two pivotal scenes that allow us to see the reality of their relationship.

Making a biopic is a tough task as they frequently become watered down versions of the truth seen through rose colored glasses. “King Richard” boldly tells the story with warts and blemishes of their lives, making this a story that feels real. Richard comes off at times as selfless and other times embarrassingly selfish. His strength in his marriage and Oracene’s loyalty comes from faith, but it’s not perfect by any means. And we see the sisterly bond between all of the girls, watching Serena live in Venus’s shadow, and learn lessons from watching “Cinderella.”

While we know how the story ends, it’s vitally important to see how the story began and the journey these two women traveled to get to that end point. Sidney and Singleton shine in their roles as the tennis stars who trust in their parents’ lead. Their innocence and confidence is brilliantly demonstrated both on and off the court as their characters attempt to rise through the ranks even when their father unilaterally pulls the rug out from beneath them. Both Sidney and Singleton’s soft spoken demeanor fits their characters, but there’s a light that shines within them that brings a sense of vibrancy and emotion.

The entire cast finds just the right cadence and affect, and Bernthal’s unique character as he embodies Macci is standout, but Smith’s transformative performance creates a Richard Williams that has depth and heart, with so many layers reminding us to never judge a book by its cover. He easily finds the wackiness of Richard, complete with his odd speech style and body posture, but also delivers love and determination with his voice and eyes to give us a complete picture. Smith has found another role that should put him in the spotlight come Oscar time.

Of course, this is a film about a specific sport which requires incredible cinematography and editing to bring us into the tournaments and games. It’s intensely paced as we hang on for this exciting ride, watching the line and calling the game in our heads. “King Richard” is an inspirational film filled with humor, heart, and humility…you can’t ask for more.

4 Stars

“Julia”

November 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Julia””

Whether or not you were around in the 1960’s and watched Julia Child’s infamous television show, know the SNL skit, or have one of her cook books as a staple in your kitchen, the name Julia Child is synonymous with gourmet home cooked meals. Academy Award nominated documentary filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen who gave us the engaging film “RBG” in 2019, bring us the new film “Julia.” Taking us on a long and luscious journey of her life and career, Cohen and West bring her back to life and into our kitchens.

The filmmakers bring us back in time to the early 1900’s when Child was exactly that, a child. We explore her family life, her education and her circuitous route in becoming the kitchen icon that her name remains today. Using old photos, clippings, and hilarious clips from talk shows and her own show, we get a very clear picture of who she was and what she did to pave the way for women in show business and business in general. Her zest for life is seen, felt and heard as she added that spice to her dishes as well.

Along this journey, we feel as if we sample the culinary delights she creates, learn a few more tips from one of the most ingenious and engaging chefs our modern world has known, and have a fire lit to get back into the kitchen and really cook. The dishes are Julia’s— her creations, her inspirations, and her personality. And with that personality, we are entertained, delighted, and completely sated.

We learn of her rise to fame, the love of her life, and those who waxed and waned in her life, professionally and personally. And Child, undeterred and undaunted by the logistics of live television, is never flummoxed by it, but we the viewer sit in awe and laughter.

Cohen and West are masterful storytellers bringing us into the life of yet another innovative and bold woman who influenced us. “Julia” reminds us of what it takes to succeed — the sacrifices, determination, and the love — but perhaps even more than her success, she paved the road for all who came after in the cooking media world and women in the workplace.

“Julia” is simply delightful as it satisfies all of our senses although it left me feeling hunger pangs!

3 1/2 Stars

“Belfast”

November 12th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Belfast””

It’s 1969 Belfast, Ireland. The heat of the “The Troubles,” a sectarian war between the Catholics and the Protestants of Northern Ireland, is in full gear and infiltrates the which idyllic blue collar neighborhood where Buddy (Jude Hill) and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and parents (Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan) live. What appears to be a typical day instantly becomes a brutal one, filled with fear and violence. Buddy’s view of the world is forever changed in an instant and “Belfast” is his story seen through his eyes.

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” is a this semi-autobiographical story. He shares his memories, correct or not, these are his views painted in his childlike lens as Buddy, our main character, attempts to process the events, live a new normal life, and find a future. His grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciara Hinds) a strong presence in his life, weigh in on navigating these rough waters, protecting their children and grandchildren.

Buddy’s childlike processing of a new concept — categorization of people — is heartbreaking as he and Cousin Vanessa (Nessa Eriksson) discuss how to tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant by name alone. Equally disturbing and somehow also humorous is this little guy’s interpretation of Catholicism as viewed by a Protestant. The innocence imparted with his words brings clarity as Buddy attempts to make sense of the violence and danger surrounding him.

Ma and Pa struggle as Pa finds work in England, but it’s not home. Home is Ireland, but more specifically, Belfast and this tight-knit community. These changing times push this family to make decisions that will change them forever, but again, as Buddy’s childhood innocence is shattered, he focuses and holds on to the normalcy of being a kid — his crush in school is of particular focus — and the insular relationships within the neighborhood including his grandparents.

“Belfast” rings true no matter who you are or where you live. It’s a story of family and the bonds that are developed and embraced with the heart and soul seen through the eyes of a young boy. Buddy’s perception and interpretation of the events and consequences are heartbreakingly raw, but there’s a blurred hue that is superimposed on the events and that is from the love and resiliency he receives from Ma, Pa, Gran and Pops.

Branagh’s vision into his past beautifully imbued by black and white and frame-filling faces captures a myriad of emotions. Frequently, Branagh chooses to take us to Buddy’s level, seeing the world literally from his perspective. Gorgeously shot, “Belfast” takes possession of your heart, relating to your own childhood relationships, no matter how rose-colored we remember it all.

Branagh’s cast is a family, a family of actors who immediately create the intimacy of having spent years together. Belfe and Dornan delicately impart the push and pull of a typical married couple under extraordinary circumstances demonstrating confusion and sorrow as they make their sacrifices. Dench’s Gran portrayal hits home with her strength, wisdom, stoicism, wit, and never-ending love. Her final scene eviscerates you as you realize what she has done. Of course, the story balances on the innocence and authenticity of young Jude Hill who plays Buddy and this child shines brighter than any star in the sky. His brilliance is captured by the camera, but it is the genuine relationships he has cultivated among the adults that endears you to him. Never does it appear that he is acting. He lets us into his world and we see the devastation and the love through him.

“Belfast” may be Branagh’s best film to date as a love letter to Ireland, to Belfast, and to the roots that connect us to our friends and most importantly to our family.

4 Stars

“Violet”

November 8th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Violet””

We hear Violet’s (Olivia Munn) inner voice talking to her, critiquing her, in the very first scene; calling her a pig because she eats a sno-ball for breakfast. That voice stays with her as she jumps in her car, racing to get to work as a production head at a film company lead by a demanding, misogynistic boss (Dennis Boutsikaris). This angry, condescending voice inside her head competes with another voice, one which is eloquently scrawled across the screen as we watch Violet proceed with her daily tasks.

Violet is her own worst enemy as she encounters her colleagues, subordinates, family members, and even friends. On the outside, she is a beautiful, confident, and a successful woman, but just below the surface, using this inner voice and flashing back in time to a younger Violet, we learn so much more about the emotional trauma and constant undermining of the development of her psyche.

Violet finds herself in a rut, spinning her wheels in her career as well as her love life. Temporarily living with Red (Luke Bracey), a childhood friend and now successful filmmaker while her home is completing renovations, Violet longs to be caught by a safety net, but just doesn’t know how to reach out and ask for help.

Within all of us, we have the same voices; one which is constantly narrating our situations and the other which pops up when we are stressed. This is our inner critic. It’s the one that can shame us, make us feel incompetent, and block us in our attempts to reach for things outside of our comfort zone. Violet’s inner critic voice (Justin Thoreau) or “The Committee” as she calls it, undermines her every move and we are privy to this voice…every gut-wrenching word. It warns her that she will be labeled a bitch if she says what she actually thinks at work, or she’s not good enough to get a different job. She’s cloaked in a shield of negative armor and all the while her mind is screaming for what she really wants or what she really feels. “I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore” or begging for those who could help not to leave, but verbalizing something far different because “The Committee” has won this battle.

It isn’t until she shares with a good friend that she has these competing voices in her head that she begins to take charge of her life. This negative armor is peeled away to reveal, as she says, and a new raw skin. Her life begins to change, but it’s not without consequence and not without her own internal battles continuing in a decrescendo.

“Violet” is many things — a smart psychological drama using bold filmmaking choices — but more than anything, it’s a representation of us all. Each and everyone of us deals with our own thoughts as well as that inner critic voice which can save us from taking unnecessary potentially harmful risks, but too often, that voice overpowers rational thought and deters us from growing and succeeding in life. Who hasn’t been to a work party and sized up everyone around, comparing and feeling inadequate? How many of us settled for a job or were afraid to jump to the next level because we didn’t think we could do it? Perhaps “The Committee” is stronger in some than in others, but we all have it and this is what connects us emotionally with Violet as she attempts to balance her life.

Just like Violet’s secret cognitive battle, her outside world has two antagonistic extremes as well. Red wants nothing more than to be her rock and Tom, her boss, wants nothing more than to cut her at the core. A work meeting with a client depicts one of the most angering and heartbreaking scenes as Violet endures Tom’s harassment with no escape route. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Lila (Erica Ash), Violet’s good friend who provides the pivotal words which change Violet’s world. She can begin to see life and those who undermine it more clearly. Bateman skillfully provides Violet with several opportunities to explore her past and her present and how she can change her future. And Bateman, a first-time feature screenwriter and director, shows us that she’s a powerhouse in storytelling, daring to push the envelope.

Munn has the difficult task of creating Violet, a flawed woman filled with anger, resentment, and fear who on the outside looks strong and confident and she does so with perfection. In many ways, Munn creates three different characters in one with absolute authenticity and nuanced skill. To do this, writer and director Justine Bateman takes her own chances which pay off. She finds a way to use emotionally loaded scenarios and sub stories all of which have their own climactic arc, as well as interjecting visual and/or auditory bombardment to tell this tale. When Violet’s inner critic becomes overwhelming, the screen bleeds into a red hue and the music becomes uncomfortable. Additionally, Violet’s internal voice is accentuated with written words covering the screen and the dark resonant voice that is the inner critic haunts and angers us. It’s literally and figuratively a complete picture.

“Violet” is a bold and relatable story of one woman, a woman who represents us all in varying gradations, on an evocative journey of life and finding harmony. With a strong cast and an exceptional lead, “Violet” is a searing exploration into the human psyche that has a rippling real life effect.

3.5/4 Stars

“Finch”

November 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Finch””

Did you ever think that there could be a sweet apocalypse movie? Apple TV has done just that with “Finch” starring Tom Hanks as a man surviving a cataclysmic solar flare leaving the world a dangerous radiation-filled place where those left behind have no regard for others.

Finch is no ordinary man, a robotics engineer whose keen mind has helped him survive, but it is his relationship with his dog GOODYEAR, whose name will be explained in the film, that keeps him going. Finch is ill, though and in order to plan for his dog’s remaining life, he creates Jeff, a robot who goes through the stages of life and development on hyperdrive, but not without its flaws as it misunderstands literal language and attempts to grow up fast making us laugh and endearing us to Jeff and the story.

Finch and Goodyear load up the Winnebago to travel from St. Louis to San Francisco as the weather is destined to annihilate their current bunker. This road trip is one for the memories as we learn more about the world and how it came to be. Hanks has found his new Wilson in Jeff, but this time the object can talk back. If there is anyone who can carry the film making it appear to be effortless, it’s Hanks. He brings heart — sometimes a heavy one — and soul to a dire situation.

Writers Craig Luck and Ivor Powell take us along on Finch’s journey, literally and figuratively, while director Miguel Sapochnik brings the story to life. Hanks, working with Caleb Landry Jones as the robot Jeff as well as a well-behaved canine actor, brings his “Cast Away” roots into full play. The artists behind Jones’ Jeff create a viable and lovable giant sized toddler who grows into a caring creature before our eyes. At the heart of the film is the power of love between a man and his best friend, but this film will stimulate many other conversations about climate change and survival. While the latter is the driving force of the film, it takes a back seat for what’s most important.
“Finch” could have easily been an ridiculous film filled with tropes and “lessons to be learned,” but that’s not the case. It’s a thoughtful and evocative film that hooks you from the beginning as we are reeled in for the finale.

You can stream “Finch” on Apple TV+ beginning Friday, November 5, 2021.

3 1/2 Stars

“Marionette”

November 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Marionette””

“Marionette” is a chilling psychological drama washed with Twilight Zone-esque hues. Co-writer and director Elbert van Strien takes trauma and turns it into a question of the meaning of life with undercurrents of religion as his star, Dr. Marianne Winter portrayed by Thekla Reuten searches for a new life. With every twist and turn, van Strien has you questioning and attempting to put together the complete puzzle, but his imagination is greater than ours, surprising us with an ending that will haunt your next move.

The story begins as Dr. Marianne Winter has traveled from a secure therapist’s position in Upstate New York to the dreary backdrop of Scotland to take over a psychologist’s position who has abruptly left. Welcomed by the warm staff, she studies her client list in the dreadfully depressing office she now calls her own. Her patients, all children, have severe issues, but one boy, Manny (Elijah Wolf) says, and more importantly, draws things yet to come. Her reaction is initially inquisitive as she brushes it off as coincidental, but as the pictures, dark and foreboding, become a part of her life, she begins to spiral out of control.

Marianne’s reactions and the boy’s menacing looks countered by angelic expressions for those who feel nothing but sympathy for this orphan, take her down a path of no return. Questioning her own actions, free will, as well as good and evil, Marianne must find answers and protect herself, but even those actions and thoughts are in question.

The setting, equally important to the script and actors, envelops us as we sink deeper and deeper into the story. The institution in which the story is set is more like a castle or a prison. The formidable structure seems impenetrable foreshadowing what lies ahead. Van Strien captures the land’s dampness and chill which augments the overall feel of “Marionette.” And as the story ramps up, the weather gets worse.

“Marionette” is a smart thriller with performances by a small ensemble cast that finds just the right pacing and tone to deliver believable characters. Reuten’s authenticity as a woman trying to bury her tragic past and find a new future as it is derailed by a mere child connects us to her. The dialogue is never forced, but has a sense of reality to it even given the strange circumstances. As genuine as Reuten’s performance is, Wolf is equally skilled in his portrayal of a menacing boy who can turn on a dime with his expressions, but never is this over the top. Together, Wolf and Reuten create a story that is both engaging and cognitively stimulating as we push our abilities to predict the outcome.

“Marionette” is an original concept — something we just don’t see anymore — that takes us on a psychologically chilling ride. Attention to every detail with exceptional performances makes this a breathtaking film that is sure to stick with you.

3 1/2 Stars

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“Dune”

October 19th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Dune””

The much-anticipated release of the remake of “Dune” is finally here. Is it worth the wait? That really depends upon your perspective and investment in the book and/or the original David Lynch film from 1984. If you’re not a fan, you can skip reading the rest of this review because this film is not for you.

The writing team of Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Denis Villeneuve who also directed the film, created a much more cohesive storyline than the original allowing viewers to follow the origins of the characters and their future tragectory. Unfortunately, the special effects team seems to have highjacked that script to showcase ad nauseum battle scenes.

At the core of the film is a struggle for power over resources; a time-old tale, but in this case it’s a spice on the planet Dune or Arakis. This spice has healing powers, longevity and the ability to fold space and time. Of course, the indigenous people, the Fremen, using their planet’s elements to survive, are overtaken and brutally ruled by the evil Harkonnens. The Emperor, in order to squash the growing power of the Atreides from the planet Caladan lead by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his witchy wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) who bore him a forbidden son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), ousts the Harkonnens and places Duke Leto at the helm of Arakis. (Are you still with me?) A bold militaristic move by the Emperor which sets up the ensuing onslaught of battles to come.

This complicated tale — this is only Part I of II — focuses upon that forbidden son, Paul. Is he the chosen one? Is he the one all people have prophesied? With plenty of religious references, Paul is tested to make that determination. Paul’s teacher, his mother, also questions whether or not her son is “the one” as they fight for their lives and begin to understand the power of the people and this orange spice.

The entire tone of the film is dark and foreboding. Catastrophes loom around every corner, heightening your anticipatory response of death. And these deaths are gratuitously violent ones not sparing the viewer any sordid detail. Additionally, visually stunning scenes take us to these other-worldly planets in a galaxy far, far away as both Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Paul’s idol and Duke Leto’s right-hand man and guard Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) are constantly engulfed in hand to hand mortal combat. The constant emotionally morbid feel overrides the story. With no relief and no variation, the film flatlines.

The cast is an all-star one with Chalamet, Isaac, Ferguson, as well as Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson and many more. Chalamet is the star as he portrays Paul who is coming into his own. This boy is haunted by his visions, particularly of a Fremen woman (Zendaya), as Chalamet finds a small range of personality to connect us with this character. And Ferguson’s strength as she depicts a mother who is trying to protect her son comes across as one of the best performances in the huge cast.

“Dune” is a long-winded and bloated film typifying what men do to overpower others…they fight. While there’s a glimmer of hope with the character of Duke Leto, it’s not enough. And yes, the special effects are quite special, but the battle scenes are so repetitive and long that they become dull and ineffectual. Perhaps Part II wouldn’t have been necessary if the writers would have focused on doing one thing…telling the story.

1 1/2 stars

“The Last Duel” a flawless masterpiece

October 13th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Last Duel” a flawless masterpiece”

Before the #MeToo Movement there was Marguerite de Carrouges, a 14th century woman who dared to have a voice and speak up against the man who raped her. Her voice, the representative voice for all women during this repulsive time in history where women were nothing more than property, rings loud and clear in the Rashomon-Style film “The Last Duel.” Based on a true story, “The Last Duel” is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck.

It’s Paris, 1386. The story begins at the end as two men, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Driver) prepare to joust to the death, the divine judge in innocence and guilt. As the two collide, we flash back in time to 1370 to see the events through Jean’s eyes which lead to this bitter ending. The battles fought during the Hundred Years’ War are brutal but the respect, camaraderie, and even friendship between Carrouges and Le Gris are clearly portrayed. As the years go by, the battles continue, but the two men find themselves in different stations in life. Le Gris becomes the right hand man to King Charles VI’s brother , Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) while Carrouges meets the woman whose enticing dowery sways him to remarry. Carrouges’ inflexible mentality of righting all wrongs creates animosity and enemies in high places, but never does he waver. But one fateful day, arriving home after a battle, he finds his wife distraught. Attributing it to her inability to get along with her harshly judgmental live-in mother-in-law (Harriet Walter), he soon finds out that his “friend” has betrayed him in the most vile of ways.

The film restarts back in 1370 to give us Le Gris’ version of the events, or his “truth.” Le Gris’ perspective is oftentimes reversed from Carrouges but only in minor ways as he remembers himself to deliver the eloquent or inspiring words during battle. We also gain an understanding of both Le Gris and d’Alençon’s relationship and their treatment of woman as sexual objects or property. These two powerful men reveal the political manipulation that occurs behind closed doors, but it isn’t until we see Le Gris’ version of his first and last interaction with Marguerite that we begin to more completely understand this narcissistic man.

The third and final chapter is seen through Marguerite’s eyes, “the truth according to Marguerite.” As the final three words fade leaving only “the truth” on the screen, we learn what happened that fateful afternoon. We also learn who this strong, smart, and fiercely independent woman is as we are once again back to the year 1370. Her recounting of the relationship between Carrouges and she is slightly different, but those nuances create a completely different tone. And for a second time, we recount the initial meeting between Le Gris and Marguerite and the horrific intrusion where she is raped. Finding the strength and courage to tell her husband and convince him that not only is she telling the truth, she accuses Le Gris of this crime only to put herself and her husband’s life on the line. According to the archaic rules of what would become the last duel to take place in France, God would protect the truth-teller. If Le Gris lives and Carrouges dies, Marguerite, chained to a chair high above in a wooden platform with kindling beneath her, would be burned alive. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

“The Last Duel,” written in three segments by three different writers, allows us to better see and understand the depth of the story. The subtle differences between Carrouges’ version, written by Damon, and that of Le Gris, written by Affleck, gives us a wonderfully well-rounded tale. But it is Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) who writes the third perspective for Marguerite that is the most powerful element of the story.

This could have easily been a convoluted mess given the slight variations to each of the character’s perspectives, but thanks to director Ridley Scott and the stunning skill set of the actors, the film is a period masterpiece that tells a riveting and raw tale of what is unfortunately a familiar story even today. And while the battles are sometimes gruesome, the savagery is short-lived as Scott readily realizes that the heart of the story is Marguerite and what happened amidst the brutality of the time period.

Damon, who never disappoints us in anything he does, rises to this challenge of this role with the gritty determination of his character. His dextrous performance as Carrouges, a flawed man who possesses integrity and strength, augments not only the story but the rest of the cast.

Driver has an equally powerful performance as a man who doesn’t understand his own wrong-doing. His character’s complicated backstory completes Le Gris as we watch this man cling to his version of the truth. Finding and using those subtleties within this particular character is an extraordinary feat, but rivaling his performance is the power of Comer as Marguerite. Her tenacity to depict Marguerite in the 14th century and even today, is as inspiring as it is heart-wrenching. Her performance, like her two co-stars, in each of the three versions requires fine-tuned attention to detail to portray this woman seen from two different men’s perspectives and then her own. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that will resonate particularly with women who have ever experienced sexual abuse.

Affleck and Lawther — the mentally disturbed King Charles VI — have fun with their roles which gives the viewer a few light-hearted moments. On the other side of the spectrum, we also see a breathtaking performance from Walter in a pivotal scene as she discusses rape and women in that time period. (Have things changed in 600 years?) Director Scott’s attention to detail elicits standout performances from his entire cast as well as recreating 14th century France. “The Last Duel,” an emotionally raw and powerful story that is unfortunately still a relevant one, is simply flawless.

4 Stars

“Mass” – A gripping masterpiece of tragedy and healing

October 7th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Mass” – A gripping masterpiece of tragedy and healing”

If you don’t know the name Fran Kranz, you soon will. While this actor has a healthy resume, it’s his sharp eye for story telling that most assuredly will catapult this first-time writer and director into the stratosphere with his writing and directorial debut of Mass starring Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney. With a keen ear for dialogue, a skilled eye, and deft direction of this passionate ensemble cast, the result is one of the most harrowingly complex and captivating films in recent memory.

To read the review in its entirety, go to the “Alliance of Women Film Journalists.”

“Lamb” a volatile look into life’s longings

October 7th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Lamb” a volatile look into life’s longings”

Every year there’s always one. One movie that many — myself included — deem to be the WTF movie of the year. This year, at least so far, it’s “Lamb,” co-written and directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and starring Noomi Rapace. Classified as a drama/horror/mystery, this haunting depiction of a couple’s inability to have and raise children defies classification. As the mystifying tale unfolds (pun intended…you’ll see), it borders on ridiculous, but there’s something to it that holds you to the very end. And even that ending prompts a lot of questions!

We meet Maria (Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) living in the most secluded and barren segment of Iceland, attempting to farm and raise sheep. The eerie mist settling on the volcanic rock welcomes the guttural breathing of an unknown entity into the barn. The animals sense what’s to come, but Maria and Ingvar, living a quiet and routine life, perhaps do not. Winter turns to spring and as the land begins to thaw, they work the land and find the fruits of their labor pay off with the birth of several new lambs. But one lamb delivers a surprise that will change this couple forever.

“Lamb” is an atmospheric phenomena which superficially touches upon the preposterous. However, it is the layers roiling just beneath that surface, much like the volcanoes surrounding the life it could easily wipe out, that make this film so mesmerizing. With little dialogue, the visual aesthetics carry much of the story as we watch Maria and Ingvar come back to life and Ingvar’s troublesome yet famous older brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) re-enter.

The first layer to be peeled away finds a man and a woman whose lives are not just repetitive but empty. Tragedy and loss have created a wedge between the two with a healing salve nowhere to be found. The harsh life of farming in Iceland is reflected in Maria and Ingvar’s relationship; barren and desolate. The birth of the “lamb,” however is a “gift” that help the two reconnect and find a reason to truly live again; a rebirth of sorts.

A lamb, a rebirth, an inexplicable creation with unknown origins reminds us of the Christian religion and the analogies don’t stop there. We see three crosses on a hill as Maria visits a family graveyard. The red-washed window casings on the outside of the home, framing the couple with their new addition, remind us of The Passover and of course, there’s Pétur or Peter who denied what he saw much like the disciple Peter. The parallel lines between this story and Christianity cannot be denied, especially with its ending, but the constant intrinsic questioning of the entire film keeps your mind racing as it slowly reveals the nature of the beast. (Again, pun intended.)

“Lamb” is a quiet film as it uses striking cinematic elements to capture the feel –cold, harsh and unwelcoming — of the environment. Color and lack thereof is just as important as the shades of white and black blending to a muted grey throughout much of the film, but when we see green, a color of fertility, it arouses our visual senses, alerting us to what’s to come even if it’s only subconsciously. Never does this feel overt but the cinematographer and director pay close attention to the importance of color.

Within the quietness, Rapace and Guðnason find a familiar tone together. Initially, just existing in an empty world, automatically doing chores, but eventually living life once again…at least for awhile. It’s easy to believe they’ve been together for a long time and have succumbed to nature’s will. The ease of their silence or their laughter is genuine as we watch the two read one another as easily as a book. Haraldsson adds just the right element of reality to this bizarre situation as his reactions are exactly what the viewer would initially do. The vagueness is intentional as to give anymore away would ruin the element of total surprise and disbelief.

“Lamb” creates discussion after you catch your breath from the ending. Delve in deeply and see, hear, and feel this film but be warned, this is my WTF film of the year.

3 Stars

“Blue Bayou” finds poetic beauty amidst tragedy

September 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Blue Bayou” finds poetic beauty amidst tragedy”

“Blue Bayou” is much more than a character study. It’s a study of our social and criminal justice system in today’s volatile world where your skin color and/or race makes you a target for deportation. Written, directed, and starring Justin Chon as Antonio, a Korean immigrant adopted here in the United States at the age of 3, fights to combat his heritage and his past while trying to save his marriage, his step-daughter, and the future of his unborn daughter as well as his own.

Chon’s heartfelt performance lets us inside, opening the doors to a world most of us probably never will know. Antonio is poor and has a record. Living in poverty with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and adorable daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), Anthony desperately searches for a new and better paying job, but with a felony record, he can’t outrun his past. His optimism turns inwardly into pain and hopelessness, but never will he let his family know he has failed. When a chance argument is interrupted by Kathy’s ex-husband, a cop with less than stellar virtues and a moralistically bankrupt partner, Antonio finds himself incarcerated by ICE and a daunting fight to correct the oversight of paperwork stamping him as a Korean citizen, not an American one.

The cards are stacked against Antonio from the beginning and we realize this even more as the story unfolds … he never had a fighting chance. His decisions and others’ reactions based in prejudice create a never-ending and vicious cycle in which he is embedded. From a broken juice system to police abuse of power, “Blue Bayou” punctuates that the American Dream has become a nightmare for this family.

Cinematically, this is pure poetry. Using artistry of foggy memories intertwined in the story’s narrative, we begin to understand the ghosts that haunt this Korean man. We also begin to understand the barriers that his life built, unbeknownst to him. Identity and belonging are key components to his persona, both of which were built on a shaky foundation. Unable to connect with his past and finding a formidable future, Antonio is never fully able to understand himself, what’s broken, and most importantly, how to fix it and move forward in a positive direction.

Chon is the heart and soul of this film, giving a finely-tuned and evocative portrayal of a shattered man held together by tenuous material and a man whose goodness oozes from these crevices only to be obliterated with the ugliness of hatred. And Chon surrounds himself with a small, but incredibly talented ensemble cast who allow this cinema verite style of film to give the story complete credibility as a possible true tale; we are flies on the wall watching Chon’s “Antonio” live this small but pivotal portion of his life. Sydney Kowalske gives us a heartbreakingly authentic performance as Jessie, Antonio’s young daughter. Their relationship is natural and the camera captures every beautiful moment. Equally genuine is Chon and Vikander whose understated performance is sheer perfection. Together, they are a family. A real family. And like real families, there’s a disapproving mother-in-law, an angry ex-husband (Mark O’Brien) and another bad egg in the law enforcement world. Never, thanks to realistic writing, insightful directions, deft performances, and intuitive camera work, does this feel forced or contrived. The story washes over you like a gentle wave until you’re soaked in the plight of the situation, more fully understanding what thousands of adopted immigrants may have experienced over the last 50 years.

“Blue Bayou” has a brutal yet realistic ending that reminds us of not just our flawed deportation laws but the adoption laws that failed to protect the innocent. Chon’s skills allow him to wear the three different hats — star, director, writer — and do so with definitive finesse.

4 Stars

Schrader’s “The Card Counter” a troubling look at forgiveness

September 10th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Schrader’s “The Card Counter” a troubling look at forgiveness”

Paul Schrader, known for the searing “First Reformed” in 2017, “Raging Bull” in 1980, and of course “Taxi Driver” which catapulted Jodie Foster’s career in 1976, is back in the driver’s seat with “The Card Counter.” Starring Oscar Isaac as a troubled military ex-con, Schrader delves deeply into guilt and forgiveness in this troubling and flawed film which loses direction and pace only to wrap up its loose ends neatly with a bow.

That’s not to say “The Card Counter” isn’t worth seeing. Schrader takes on three storylines, all of which are interwoven and their concurrent presentation hooks you as you walk along Isaac’s character of Bill. We know from the very beginning that Bill has made mistakes; mistakes for which he paid behind bars. And with that time, he learned some very valuable lessons—how to count cards to win at Black Jack. Now released, Bill flies under the radar, using his knowledge and talents to make a living. A happenstance convention places Bill in a room where Major John Gordo (Willem Defoe) is speaking. A young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan) slips Bill his number to discuss Bill’s past and possible future. Which path will Bill choose, revenge or forgiveness?

From this point, Bill takes the young man under his wing, attempting to steer him in a more positive direction other than fulfilling a revenge plot. In order to help Cirk, Bill must find higher stakes and a backer who comes in the form of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). The three travel the country, making a name for Bill and winning, but the past is a difficult thing to shake as we find Bill’s demons haunting him and wrestling with doing the right thing.

The story starts with promise as we learn about the intricacies of card counting as Bill narrates this portion. It’s reminiscent of “The Big Short” as it plunges us into a previously unknown topic, enlightening us yet still confusing us. Bill plays poker against some odd characters, particularly Mr. USA with his obnoxious chants and cheers, but these tournaments which could have been nail biters, are just a vehicle for the story to focus upon Bill’s past traumas and decisions. We learn of the military torture and Cirk’s father’s relationship to the protocol that Gordo instituted and Bill implimented. Flashbacks take us to horrific conditions and events that are visually and emotionally disturbing, but we can’t unsee what was just shown. These images haunt us as they haunt our character Bill, creating a sense of removed empathy with him.

The story seems to leave something behind. While we understand why Bill is helping Cirk avoid a devastating path of no return, the emotional connection between the two is missing. Schrader, as writer and director, makes no bones about the core of this film. Forgiveness. Being punished for wrong-doing is one thing, but forgiving yourself for wrong-doing is quite another. And on yet another prong of the forgiveness spoke, is vengeance, meeding out your own punishment for being wronged. All of these are spokes are of the same wheel; and all of these impact Bill and Cirk differently. Perhaps Bill’s age invokes wisdom, that of which he hopes to impart upon Cirk. It’s a captivating conversation, but the story itself slips and slides too much as it focuses upon the gambling, not the card counting, resulting in the the pace feeling more like a snail than a high-intensity game.

The casting in this film seems odd with both Sheridan and Haddish. Sheridan’s stiff and stifled performance elicits a questioning of why Bill wants so badly to help Sheridan’s character. His measured delivery, emotionless, is empty. His supposed rage is too tempered as he comes off as a misguided directionless and apathetic teen. Haddish, feeling quite comfortable and giving us a new layer of her acting skills is natural in her performance. She never appears to be acting, but the role itself is odd and Haddish doesn’t pull off the wheeler and dealer of the high-stakes gambling world.

Isaac, however, gives us a haunting performance. We fully believe he has suffered the traumas and cannot forgive himself for those he inflicted upon others. He is a broken man and many of the pieces will never be found. And Isaac’s captivatingly raw yet understated delivery elevates the story to a more evocative level, making us forgive it what it lacks in energy and direction.

Of course, with Schrader, you’re going to expect unique cinematography and lighting which he delivers on a silver platter. Use of a fisheye lens creates an even more jarring image as captors abuse those incarcerated in disturbingly horrific ways. Lighting and color accentuate the scenes as does the musical score. Schrader always creates a film that emphatically punctuates each and every scene with the very important ancillary elements and “The Card Counter” beautifully exemplifies this.

“The Card Counter” is a visceral exploration of forgiveness, but unfortunately, has numerous missteps in pacing, an inconsistent performance from Sheridan, and an ending that disappoints.

2 1/2 Stars

“Come From Away” musical finds a new perspective about 9/11

September 8th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Come From Away” musical finds a new perspective about 9/11”

A musical about 9/11? Yes! This daring, funny, and poignant musical, “Come From Away,” filmed on a live theatrical stage in New York City portrays the townspeople in Gander, Newfoundland and the 7000 passengers, more than two dozen plans diverted to a small nearby airport on that fateful day 20 years ago.

The town is represented by a small ensemble cast who take on multiple roles to give us a story about these welcoming, kind-hearted individuals who opened their arms and their homes to strangers from around the world during an unnerving and uncertain time. Most of us never considered the thousands of planes which were en route to various destinations during the attack of September 11th. This immediately raises questions about how long they were stranded, how were they cared for, and at what point did they understand the news? Of course, the musical brings up many other questions and concerns that many of the passengers had during this time, but most importantly, it punctuates the kindness of others during a time of need.

“Come From Away” gives us characters that are oftentimes over-the-top, but always in a good way and always to make us laugh out loud. From the new broadcast journalist and the humane society volunteer to the mayor of the town and a local air traffic controller and several more, the characters are vividly portrayed as they sing songs about the town of Gander and how they all came together to house, feed, and entertain 7000 additional guests who were staying for an undetermined amount of time. As the actors take on numerous roles including a Muslim man, a gay couple, a mother of a NYC fire fighter, and more, you see this pivotal day from a new perspective. It’s a lens that truly opens your eyes to a new world.

The music is the driving undercurrent of the story; all of which you unexpectedly begin to sing along with the characters. The voices of the actors compliment the story, but it is Jenn Colella’s vocal prowess that stands out among them all. Taking on a range of characters, her vocal range is just as great. The strength as she sings about loss or love reverberates within your body, reminding us of the tragic events as well as how each and every individual was somehow effected by the attacks of 9/11.

3 ½ Stars

You can stream this captivatingly entertaining musical beginning September 10th on Apple TV+

“Cinderella” live-action remake hits all the right notes

September 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Cinderella” live-action remake hits all the right notes”

The seemingly endless live-action Disney remakes have found a way to make the old new again with “Cinderella,” starring Camila Cabello. Written and directed by Kay Cannon (“Pitch Perfect,” “30 Rock”), a graduate from the local Reed-Custer High School and Lewis University, the fairy-tale is set in a fictional time period of long ago while it breathes new life into the story with current social and global issues. What once was a rather dull and predictable story of a fair maiden being rescued by a wealthy prince has transformed into a funny feminist fairy tale with great music that will have you dancing in your living room, laughing aloud, and loving this new spin on a tired old one.

We meet poor Cinderella (Cabello) as she dreams of being a dressmaker, trapped in the basement of her stepmother Vivian’s (Idina Menzel) home with her difficult stepsisters constantly degrading her. Meanwhile, the rebellious Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) dares to defy his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) who desperately wants his son to marry royalty and does not care an iota about love. His mother, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) understands her son’s reticence as she sees her own relationship with the King falter. As we all know with the story of Cinderella, a ball will take place for the Prince to choose his bride, but what we don’t know is all the different layers of story that don’t follow the old tried and tired storyline.

Cannon takes the time to develop all of her characters to the extent needed to augment Cinderella’s story and hone in on topical issues. A new character of Princess Gwen (Tallulah Grieve) who is always lurking around, pushing progressive concepts onto her father’s reluctant radar gives us great humor as well as thoughtfulness. And while we have those familiar characters of the footmen, formerly mice, the Fairy Godmother now known as Fab G (Billy Porter), and the nasty stepsisters, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) and Drizella (Charlotte Spencer), each of these characters breaks the mold to find a new way to tell this story.

Let’s get back to our star and focal point of the story, Cinderella played by the not only gorgeous, but vocally beautiful Cabello. Again, Cannon allows this character to be so much more than just a pretty face waiting to be saved by some guy. She’s smart, creative, and has dreams to fulfill. She has a heart of gold, but is also driven to rise to her potential as a seamstress and future entrepreneur. Her brazen independence and unwillingness to fall into line and follow this antiquated patriarchal society gives this character a current-day and refreshing feel. And Cannon dares, successfully so, to take this character in a totally different direction as she does the character of Prince Robert. Gender stereotypes are shattered along with a formerly predictable storyline.

The numerous side stories unfolding give this old fairy tale much more depth. Stepmom Vivian has her own baggage to carry as we learn more about her past and Queen Beatrice looks back on her life’s decisions and marriage hoping to impart wisdom to her son to do better. And let’s not forget the totally revamped character of the Fairy Godmother who is now Fab G, making us laugh—yes, it’s true that even magic has its limits with making high heels comfy— and tap our toes, reveling in the energy.

The music is an element that blows this version of Cinderella out of the water. As the Town Crier (Doc Brown) raps his news to the townspeople, we hear new renditions of Madonna’s “Material Girl” as Vivian and her girls wash clothes, dreaming of a better, richer future. The list goes on and on with great music like Earth Wind and Fire’s “You’re A Shining Star,” The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” as a background for the ballroom dance, or Ed Sheeran’s “You Look Perfect.” Every song is perfectly placed to help propel the story, augmented by finely-tuned choreography that is simply mesmerizing.

What Cannon imbues into the script that was sorely lacking in the animated version is humor. This is laugh out loud funny thanks to the comedic abilities of James Cordon, Billy Porter, Pierce Brosnan and the relative newcomer Tallulah Grieve. “Cinderella” has found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (or was that Rumpelstiltskin?) with an updated bold story, eye-catching costuming and set design, captivating singing and dancing, and vibrant characters that actually develop.

While most of the live-action Disney remakes are nothing more than that, “Cinderella” daringly takes us down a new path and what a visual spectacle it is for both kids and adults.

4 Stars

“Together” Poignantly dramatic with razor-sharp wit hits all the right notes of relationships during Covid

August 27th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Together” Poignantly dramatic with razor-sharp wit hits all the right notes of relationships during Covid”

A film about Covid-19…is it too soon? The answer, thanks to the brilliance in writing, directing and acting in the new movie “Together,” is a resounding no!  In fact, the dynamics and messages within make it the perfect time to see a movie about this on-going pandemic with no end in sight.  

To read the review in its entirety as published in the Alliance of Women Film Journalists , go to AWFJ “Together”

“Candyman” surprisingly complex and relevant horror film breaks the mold of the genre

August 26th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Candyman” surprisingly complex and relevant horror film breaks the mold of the genre”

“Candyman,” a sequel to the original 1992 version, takes us back to Chicago where the former housing project of Cabrini Green has been leveled to make way for a new, gentrified neighborhood. (If you haven’t seen the original, don’t fret. This new film, co-written by Jordan Peele gets you up to speed.) The lore of the Candyman is revisited as Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a rising artist struggling to find his muse for his next exhibit, learns of the horrors of the past in Cabrini Green. Delving into the long-buried stories, Anthony’s artistic creations take on a life of its own, catapulting him from struggling to renowned.

Anthony and Brianna (Teyonah Parris) live in this gentrified upscale neighborhood, basking in the luxuries that life has afforded them. Brianna, a wealthy and successful woman in her own right, watches as Anthony gets pulled deeper and deeper into a very dark space. His research consumes him and meeting a stranger (Colman Domingo) who provides pivotal information about the legend of the Candyman, plunges him into an abyss from which he may not return. But this is exactly what inspires him to create a must-see exhibit called “Say His Name,” allowing him to rise from the ashes and profit from his past.

Mockingly, Anthony shares with Brianna the lore of saying “his” name five times while looking in the mirror after learning of the deaths surrounding his exhibit. The brutally horrific demise of those he knows brings no sadness, but a sense of accomplishment as the publicity helps with his own name recognition. Abdul-Mateen II’s performance, particularly in this scene, reminds us of his finely tuned skills as an actor as he sends shivers down your spine in reaction. He was also a show-stopper in his performance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” so it comes as no surprise that he can take this role and make it his own.

“Candyman” isn’t your typical bloody horror flick. In fact, there’s nothing typical about it. This is a smart and complicated story that gently exposes the ills of the past and how they continue on through the present. The inequities of opportunities and oppression based on race are the underlying currents that ebb and flow throughout the film. However, it is never heavy-handed, but articulately defined and portrayed, sweeping you out to the sea of understanding. And unlike any other typical horror film, we don’t know how this is going to end as the narrative arc is a surprising one.

The writers carefully depict the past, present and perhaps the future using various story-telling techniques. Shadow puppetry, as old as the hills, is interwoven into the fabric of the story, an impactful visual effect more powerful than any high-tech cinematography. Additionally, the writers and director (Nia DaCosta) sprinkle in bits of symbolism and repetitive imagery which brings the story to its inevitable yet surprising conclusion. The twists and turns it takes are what keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what lies around the next corner.

DaCosta’s vision brings “Candyman” to life. She doesn’t rely on the “jump-scares” but instead on psychological set-ups to awaken your every sense. With simple yet effective set designs, we are also brought into the grit of Chicago’s former housing projects and the horrific conditions of the past that still live in our memories. These, of course, influence the trajectory of the story as our main character relives his past and others.

Knowing that Peele had a hand in the writing, you immediately know that you’re in for surprises and societal statements. He does not disappoint. His keen understanding of storytelling and surrounding himself with the talents of his co-writers, director and of course, the cast allow him to create a genuinely unique and captivating story. We also see the genre of horror with all its tropes push the envelope to become something far superior. It challenges us to look more deeply into our history and our knowledge base to actually see things for what they are. And at the same time we are thoroughly entertained.

3.5 Stars

“The Night House” A flawed yet chilling thriller

August 19th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Night House” A flawed yet chilling thriller”

Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski along with director David Bruckner create “The Night House,” a chilling atmospheric horror flick starring Rebecca Hall. While the story has more holes in it than a moth-eaten sweater—if you look at it at a superficial level—you can’t deny the fact that it hooks you, sends shivers down your spine on a frequent basis, and perhaps is even a metaphor for depression and the grip it has on our main character, Beth (Hall).

Beth’s husband Owen has committed suicide on a small row boat where their dream house was being built. The devastation she exhibits is palpable and we know her love of Owen was as deep as the Grand Canyon. Trying to push forward, Beth, a teacher, goes back to her duties, but her husband’s death has changed her. One of the best scenes in the film happens early on as she discusses with a student’s mother a grade the boy got in speech class. Her response is priceless and a scene I am sure teachers will most certainly enjoy. Leaning on her colleague and best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), Beth confides that she is experiencing strange events at night ranging from phone calls from Owen, seeing and sensing someone—perhaps him—in the house. And as Beth delves more deeply into Owen’s past, she discovers some rather dark and disturbing secrets.

The trajectory of the film is what you would expect in a horror film, but what stands out is not only Hall’s skilled delivery of a broken woman in search of answers, but the overall effect of the film. There aren’t any silly jump-scares, but the film delivers a visceral punch that elicits goosebumps to form and run down your back and your arms. Deft direction and skilled cinematography are key players in any horror film, but to pull the viewer into the film and allow us to feel the effects is sheer brilliance.

Unfortunately, the screenplay has too many red herrings and unfulfilled threads of stories which are never neatly tied up. However, this doesn’t take away from our connection to Beth and in finding out why he killed himself and whether or not her nightly episodes are just a figment of her imagination or are they real. It’s truly a mystery/thriller that ends with a few more questions than it should, but still, on many levels, leaves you satisfied.

Digging more deeply into this film, we learn early on that Beth wrestles with her own dark demons of depression. You can’t help but wonder if her near death experience and the “dark holes” she feels within her are actually a projection of what it feels like to deal with depression and “dark thoughts.” Owen seemed to have been her stabilization factor and with him gone, the dark holes get bigger and bigger, pulling her into an abyss.

Either way you look at this film, it’s a chilling thriller. While the story needed to wrap up a few loose ends—it felt as if it ended too early with the final scene missing the perfect camera angle—it still delivers the requisite goose bumps with characters we care about and a story that hooks us.

3 Stars

“Free Guy” an absolute blast

August 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Free Guy” an absolute blast”

I haven’t had this much fun at the theater since “Knives Out!” “Free Guy” co-written by Matt Lieberman and Zach Penn take comedy and a creative concept to new levels in this strange world of gaming and artificial intelligence. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller and NPC (non-playable character) inside a violent video game. His role is to react to the repeated bank heists and brutal killings that occur thanks to the gamers dressed in avatars invading Free City from the real world. But when Guy sees a woman from afar and eventually meets her, his world turns upside down. He begins to challenge his “Ground Hog Day” choices and make some changes. These small ripples will forever change the game called “Free City.”

That woman, Millie (Jodie Comer), is playing the game for a different reason. A programmer who’s technology has been stolen is determined to find the clue in this game that will prove her proprietary rights. Meeting Guy, however, gives her a partner in this game to help right the wrongs. As Guy learns more, he changes and these changes effect not only Free City, but the controlling real world. To tell you much more about what happens would spoil the fun of this journey and ultimate conclusion. Suffice it to say that each and every scene will have you laughing out loud and surprised by all the twists and turns (and cameos) that occur. And what starts out as a comedic mystery becomes an unexpected love story.

“Free City” has it all: humor, heart, mystery, intrigue, social commentary, incredible set designs and jaw-dropping special effects that bring you into this video world. All of this is elevated by actors who are having fun with their roles. Reynolds is magical as Guy or as he is deemed “Blue Shirt Guy.” He is a master of comedy with his timing, facial expressions, and nuance. We love his character immediately and watch him grow, rooting for him every step of the way while we wipe away the tears of laughter. Of course, it’s not a one-man show. His best friend and bank security officer named Buddy is played by Lil Rel Howery who uses his signature style of comedy but shows us he can deliver another level of persona: that of a scared, insecure NPC and loyal friend. Guy and Buddy’s interactions are a sheer delight.

Comer has a dual role as Millie in the real world and that of her gaming avatar. Joe Keery is “Keys,” Millie’s former work colleague who wants to be so much more. Together, these characters navigate the pretend world as it morphs into its own reality, racing against time to prove that their technology was stolen. The cast of characters including Utkarsh Ambudkar as “Mouser” and Matt Cardarople as “Gamer” who provides some of my favorite scenes in the film, and Taika Waititi as the offensively greedy gaming tech company Soonami CEO, make us laugh and escape into the movie.

Unlike many superhero movies where you really need to be a fan to appreciate it, you don’t have to be a video gamer to enjoy every aspect of this film. “Free Guy” is pure fun, stirring up the worlds of reality and video gaming and giving us one of the most entertainingly hilarious rom-coms ever. With its smart and creative plot, dialogue, and message, I can’t wait to see this movie again…and again.

4 Stars

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