“American Animals” Truth is stranger than fiction, a top film of the year

June 8th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““American Animals” Truth is stranger than fiction, a top film of the year”

When it comes to movies, I am continually reminded of the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Such is the case with Bart Layton’s “American Animals,” the movie about a book heist from the small liberal arts college Transylvania University located in Lexington, KY. 4 young students learn of a valuable and relatively unprotected book collection authored by James Audubon on display at the University’s library. Together, the four plot “the perfect heist” using Quentin Tarantino’s movies as a guide.  It quickly becomes a sad comedy of errors, forever effecting their lives and futures.

We meet Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) as he is interviewing to attend this small university. He’s a sweet and gifted artist struggling to find his inner-purpose and motivation in the art world. Warren, a long-time friend who Spencer’s parents disapprove, is the college jock; a talented athlete, but not exactly an academic. Spencer, after visiting the library’s special Audubon exhibit, plants the seed of theft in Warren’s mind who then focuses all his energy on devising a plan. Watching movies, googling information from a University of Kentucky computer, he makes the plan come to fruition. Spencer, always hesitating, but never fully resisting, reaches out to two other friends with skills they need to complete the heist. As D-Day approaches, it’s obvious that the group isn’t exactly “Oceans 11” precise.

“American Animals” is an exquisite portrayal of youth, greed, and impulsivity, documenting the psychology of what happens in a group setting and making one bad decision after another. The film seamlessly incorporates the narrative story with interviews with the real main characters, professors, and parents. We get to really know these boys as they make error after error, knowing they should stop, but all it takes is Warren, the strongest of the group, to keep them going. The pain you hear in their words and see in their eyes as actors is punctuated by the exact same emotions emitted from the real characters.

As you first learn what these kids are planning, you wonder to yourself how could they possibly think it was a good idea. And that’s exactly what filmmaker Bart Layton is able to do—-take us through the steps, the interactions, and the entire process that got them to the final point. It’s an extraordinary feat of filmmaking and story telling to give such insight while still entertaining the viewer. Layton sets up the situation flawlessly, building mountains of tension as you ready youself for the craziness that’s about to come.

Keoghan portrays Spencer, an innocent and generally thoughtful young man. All of the actors portrayed their respective characters with skill and heart. The actors allowed you to know that they were conflicted, but greed got the better of them all. The panic set in at different points for each of them, depending upon their moral compass, but it was breathtakingly painful as we observed their dilemma. The performances were so engaging that as a viewer you wanted to help them make better decisions. You felt that they were good kids at heart, but knowing this wasn’t going to end well. Evan Peters deep and agitated performance as “Warren” shows us how he could lead the others astray.

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction and while there are plenty of movies out there that capitalize on these stories, “American Animals” tells their tale in a brilliantly creative and novel way, adding authenticity and heart to this film and creating a captivatingly heartbreaking story of greed, immaturity, and impulsivity.

If you’re in the Chicago area, “American Animals” opens at the Music Box Theatre.

4 STARS

“Oceans 8” Dive on in for this female-lead heist sequel

June 6th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Oceans 8” Dive on in for this female-lead heist sequel”

Gary Ross is back in his familiar director’s chair for yet another “Oceans” film, but this time, the crew is all female, lead by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), the ring leader of the famed Las Vegas heist films in the early 2000’s.  While the original “Oceans 11” starring Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra was made in 1960 and the remake in 2001 with two sequels all focusing on completing an elaborate robbery, this new “Oceans 8” is a stand-alone movie, no prior “Oceans” viewings are necessary.

Ross and Olivia Milch co-write the story starring Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, and Mindy Kaling.  It’s a star-studded action-thriller that is purely preposterous good fun.

Debbie is released on parole after serving more than 5 years behind bars thanks to her ex-boyfriends inability to keep his mouth shut.  Immediately upon release, with $45 in her pocket and the clothes she was arrested in, she proves that her intellect and confidence are all she needs to get back in the game.  Reconnecting with Lou (Blanchett), the two get the wheels turning in the most painstakingly intricate jewel theft ever conceived.  With the help of a few contacts all with their own special set of skills, the group of women target a Cartier necklace at the Met’s annual gala, the 1st Sunday in May.

Debbie’s plan is complicated and outrageous to say the least, but always intriguing and somehow believable.  Her attention to detail and her keen understanding of people, create outrageously funny situations.  Using A-Lister Daphne Kluger’s (Hathaway) jealousy of another actress (Dakota Fanning) to gain access to the coveted Cartier necklace and convincing Rose Weil (Carter) to design a dress for Kluger for the gala.  The heist plays out with precision accuracy, but will Debbie’s need for vengeance be that one glitch in the plan?  It’s a thrilling and captivating story that had me glued to the screen as I got to know these very different characters all working together for the big payoff.

Bullock leads the pack with confidence and grace and Blanchett creates a character that we feel has an interesting back story, inviting us to know more.  Together, the pair feel like old friends, understanding one another’s every move and thought.  Kaling’s character of an unmarried woman living under the watchful and judgmental eye of her mother is the comedic element that helps weave together a more light-hearted film.  Her timing and deliver balances the subtle humor of the other characters whose situations create the humor.  The standout of the film is Hathaway as she creates a narcisstic and not-too-bright lead actress, always wanting to be the center of attention.  Her reactions to men, competition, and body image are simply priceless.  It’s her performance that, in the end of the film, makes you realize she’s an actress’s actress!

While the story-line is truly ridiculous, it’s great escapism and entertainment.  It’s a formulaic film, following its male predecessors, but accentuating the interactions of women.  The line uttered by Bullock’s character, “A him gets noticed.  A her gets ignored.  For once we want to be ignored,” is one of the most memorable and timely of the film.  The rest of the story is great editing and watching all the pieces fall into place. There are also quite a few surprise cameos throughout the film and particularly at the end that will bring a smile to your face.  It’s a fast-paced, comedic, heist film that balances out the gender scales for everyone to enjoy.  It’s not too often that a sequel can shine like a Cartier diamond necklace, but “Oceans 8” pulls it off without a hitch.

3 1/2 Stars

“RBG” Earns its spot at the box office as the best super hero film for women

May 30th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““RBG” Earns its spot at the box office as the best super hero film for women”

How often does a documentary find its way into the top 10 at the box office? The answer is never, until now! “RBG,” a film about the life of a currently-seated Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has grossed more than $6M as of May 28. It’s proof that we have a new super hero on our hands! Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West create a story that is exciting, dramatic, comedic, educational AND entertaining as they take us back in time to introduce us to the “Notorious RBG” in her youth and how she became the newest Wonder Woman at the age of 83.

The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews including mine as one of the best films of the festival. Having a chance to talk with West and Cohen about making the film, they shared, “We really felt that many of her millennial fans had no idea of the full story. They really didn’t know the role she had played in advancing women’s rights from a legal perspective and we also both knew about this amazing feminist love story that we thought would make a personal part of the film.”

Yes, this is a love story, too. We get a chance to meet Justice Ginsburg’s husband Marty who was the love of her life, capturing her heart with his humor. We get a glimpse into the connection the two shared as Ruth helped him through law school while he battled cancer and raising a young child.

The filmmakers create a foundation from which we see Justice Ginsburg’s determination, dedication, resiliency, and strength from a very early age. Elementary school friends talk about her as a child; her focus, intelligence and her admiration of her mother’s wisdom. We also meet Justice Ginsberg’s adult children and her granddaughter who has followed in her legal footsteps, and learn many charmingly sweet characteristics about this powerful judge such as the fact that “Bubee” wasn’t allowed in the kitchen to cook. That seems to be a running joke throughout the film. And humor is what connected two very unlikely judges—she and Judge Anthony Scalia. It’s a side of her that allows viewers to admire her even more. This personal story is wonderfully engaging as we not only understand the drive and fortitude it took to get to where she is, but to also have a wonderfully fulfilling life outside of work. But it wasn’t without heartache, as the filmmakers touchingly show.

Cohen and West artfully depict the legal side of Justice Ginsburg’s life as well. We are taken back in time to hear legal arguments from cases that began women’s rights for equality back in the 1960’s. The interviews with her legal opponents are comical as they recall being pitted against this formidable legal prowess. Justice Ginsberg’s unique perspective paired with her methodical and logical intelligence was exactly what the women’s movement needed to push us forward, little by little until she earned her seat on the Supreme Court. Here, too, Justice Ginsuerg helped in finding equal footing for all, frequently issuing a dissenting opinion, but always fighting for what she thought was right.

“RBG” sheds light and opens the doors of knowledge for viewers to get to know one of the most brilliant woman in American history. West finds that this film “…has a lot more resonance now with the #MeToo Movement, the #TimesUp Movement … Her story is even more inspirational for women who are trying to put their lives in the context for this long struggle for women’s rights…Had she not been the Supreme Court Justice, she still would hold a huge place in American history for what she did for women.”

“RBG” is not just one of the best documentaries of 2018, it’s one of the best films of this decade. It’s inspirational message as it recounts the obstacles of an era of just one woman, creates a momentum of hope for us all for true equality. Be inspired, educated, and most of all, be entertained.

To read the interview with West and Cohen from the DOC10! Film Festival in Chicago, go to FF2 Media

4/4 Stars

“Solo” a disappointing prequel in the “Star Wars” franchise

May 25th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Solo” a disappointing prequel in the “Star Wars” franchise”

From the Friday, May 25th edition of The Daily Journal:

Ron Howard (“Cinderella Man,” “Rush”) takes the director’s chair to create the prequel to the original “Star Wars,” depicting Han Solo’s beginnings. Written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, I had high hopes that humor would be the main ingredient in this saga’s origin story —that was not the case.

Even with the star power in front of and behind the camera, the story lacked originality, creativity and, most importantly, heart.

To read the review in its entirety go to The Daily Journal

 

“First Reformed” Schrader and Hawke create poignant tale of hope and despair

May 25th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““First Reformed” Schrader and Hawke create poignant tale of hope and despair”

Paul Schrader’s film “First Reformed” blends religion and climate change in poignantly beautiful and disturbing ways accentuating the two opposing concepts of hope and despair. Ethan Hawke stars in this emotionally conflicting role as a preacher who is at odds within himself, battling spiritual demons and the effects of an illness. It’s one of Schrader’s most evocative and topical films to date, leaving you questioning life, God, the future of our world, and whether or not love can conquer all.

Toller (Hawke), a former military chaplain, has been reassigned to an historic Presbyterian church in rural Upstate New York. The congregation is sparse, but Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a devout member, seeks his counsel after a service, sharing that she is pregnant and her husband wants her to abort. The two meet and as Toller attempts to give guidance, this fearful and deflated young activist’s words have a more profound effect on the pastor. This floods each sub-plot in the film, an undercurrent that pulls you out to sea, as we see Toller begin to fight a different fight—politics, lobbyists, and big business.

The film brings to light the “ministry” of mega churches as Toller’s every move is overseen by Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), the leader of Abundant Life Church. Politics within the church as well as big oil companies represented by BALQ industries, an uncanny similarity to the Koch Brothers and Georgia Pacific pollutants, opens Toller’s eyes as he plunges into unfamiliar territory. His personal quest, a new-found motivation and goal tests his own faith which had already been tested by his inability to resolve his anger and devastation over his own past.

“First Reformed” brilliantly weaves together a story for our times as we are immersed into religion, death, greed, and climate change. The power of the story is unmistakable, accentuating the doom of our future coupled with our own individualistic needs. Schrader’s writing reminds us of the power of words with each and every sentence sublimely important. With his nuanced direction, he allows his actors to shine in this darkly captivating film. Schrader also finds music from hymnals such as Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress and Thomas Martin’s own words, quoted as we glean a more textured meaning behind the actions we witness. And finally, the film is filled with religious symbolism, but never overpowers the secular issues it addresses.

Hawke’s performance is nearly indescribable as I was weeping in the first 10 minutes of the film. His intensity, at times explosive and at other times boiling just beneath the surface, can be felt directly. It’s as if he is talking to you and you are able to closely feel what he has experienced. His pain is evident in his eyes, his words, his tone, and his actions, all create a realistically complex character with whom we are immediately connected. In recent years, it’s quite obvious that Hawke has come into his own, perfecting each character he portrays and in this case, he embodies the mind and spirit of Toller.

Amanda Seyfried’s understated performance continues the somber yet meaningful delivery of a message that each viewer will see in a different light. She brings beauty and hope to the film and to Toller’s life with her innocence and love. Together Seyfried and Hawke are magical.

“First Reformed is a masterpiece—a brilliant depiction of hope versus despair and our human instinct to persevere. Schrader’s eye and his ability to direct this cast of characters should make “First Reformed” a film that will require several viewings. This is Hawke’s best performance to date and a film that is at the top of my list of the year.

“Book Club” With age, comes love and laughs

May 18th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Book Club” With age, comes love and laughs”

(From the 5-18-18 edition of The Daily Journal)

What happens when four women, bound together by life-long experiences, friends for decades, decide to tackle “Fifty Shades of Grey” in their thematic book club?  Sheer fun! “Book Club” was co-written by Erin Simms and Bill Holderman and directed by Holderman who both stood their ground in creating a romantic comedy with four talented and older women.  Initially, turned away from production companies who wanted younger actresses, the pair stuck to their guns to let Hollywood know there is a need for female-centric stories geared for the over 50 age group.  Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen, all women well-past their fifties, star in this film proving that while we all may get older, our hearts never do.

 

To read the review in its entirety as it appeared in the Friday, May 18 edition of The Daily Journal, go here.

SIZZLING INDEPENDENT SUMMER MOVIES

May 18th, 2018 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “SIZZLING INDEPENDENT SUMMER MOVIES”

(From the May, 2018 issue of Fete Lifestyle Magazine)

Summertime and the living is easy.  I can hear the rich voice of Ella Fitzgerald in my head now, but what’s not easy is finding great films to see this summer.  Big blockbusters take over the screens, edging out the independent little guys which, in my mind, are more worth your hard-earned dollar.  Traveling to film festival across the country, I’m able to easily find and share with you the films that will make your summer movie going experience sizzle. (All films featured open after May 18)

MAY:

Spotlight:  

“The Seagull” is based on Chekov’s play of the same name, but don’t let that scare you away.  Annette Bening stars in this film about an aging actress, unrequited love, love triangles, and family.  This elegant, fast-paced comedy draws you back in time, witnessing the stages of life and love.  It’s an all-star cast with stellar performances from Saoirse Ronan, Elizabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, and Mare Winningham.

Also playing:

“On Chesil Beach” stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as a newlywed couple in 1962 England, struggling with an awkward wedding night.

“First Reformed” gives Ethan Hawke a dramatic role like no other as a struggling pastor wrestling with a death of his son and an environmental activist.

“Terminal” stars Margot Robbie, Mike Myers, and Simon Pegg in this sinister, twisted, and murderous tale motivated by revenge.

“Book Club” gives 50 Shades of Grey a new look through the lens of four life-long friends during their book club discussion.  Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen star. 

“The Gospel According to Andre” documents the life of fashion designer Andre Leon Talle.

To read the article in its entirety, go to FETE LIFESTYLE MAGAZINE

“The Seagull” is an extraordinary adaptation of Chekhov, eloquently hilarious with Bening in her best role yet

May 18th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Seagull” is an extraordinary adaptation of Chekhov, eloquently hilarious with Bening in her best role yet”

Anton Chekhov whose plays have stood the test of time, being performed all over the world in their original form, now finds a new medium in which to showcase his humor and deep understanding of the stages of life and love with “The Seagull.”  If you’re not familiar with Chekhov’s plays, or if you are, don’t let that scare you away!  Stephan Karam adapts the story into an eloquently hilarious film directed by Michael Mayer with an amazing all-star cast comprised of Annette Bening, Brian Dennehy, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Corey Stoll, Mare Winningham, and Elisabeth Moss.

Set in the early 1900’s on Sorin’s (Dennehy) country estate, Irina (Bening), an aging stage actress who loves to be the center of attention on and off the stage, brings home Boris (Stoll), a younger, successful, and charismatic director who becomes smitten with Nina (Ronan), Irina’s son Konstantin (Howle), true love.  Meanwhile Masha (Moss), the daughter of the estate’s caretakers, Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler) and Polina (Mare Winningham), is in “mourning for her life” as she pines for the seemingly taken Konstantin.  The love triangles, unrequited love, and looking in the rear view mirror of life all create a hilariously messy tale.

The film starts off a bit slowly as we are introduced to each of the characters, but as the complexity of the situations increase, the slower pace allows you to bask in their personalities and more fully understand the layers of emotions and relationships.  And each and every character is remarkably unique as they interact and react, never veering away from their true self.  In many ways, the film never loses the feel of the stage theatrics as this ensemble cast intermingles and becomes one family.

“The Seagull” addresses the age-old confusing topic of love in all its many forms:  new love, marriages with no love, and the excitement of affairs.  But at the heart of the film is the process of aging and trying to hold on to some part of our youth.  We see Irina grasp on to the much younger Boris, clearly trying to cling on to her past and blur the image she sees in the mirror.  All of this is happening while her wealthy brother is just biding his time, waiting to meet his maker.  While she may have blinders on when it comes to aging, the younger set is equally blind, not understanding what lies ahead for them.

The film retains the eloquent expressive execution of language as you would expect from a stage production, but with the deft direction of Mayer and the remarkable talent of his cast, these soliloquies and the dialogue are profoundly powerful.  There’s whimsey and a lyrical element engaging you to every word spoken as it impacts your understanding of whomever is speaking from the heart.  While the overall pace of the film might be slow, the pace of the dialogue is anything but that—it’s riveting and energetic.

Bening, as expected, is extraordinary and perhaps she will be remembered this time for Oscar season.  She is sheer perfection as the rather narcissistic socialite fighting

 the process of aging, never willing to lose a round in that battle let alone the entire war.  Bening brings wisdom to the part as her character competes with the beauty and youth of Boris’ infatuation with Nina.  Bening seems to have fun with this role, a bit over-the-top, but fitting for her melodramatic character.

Every character is fully developed, an extraordinary feat unto itself, and each actor brings such depth and skill that we find there is no supporting actor—they all feel like leads.  Howle gives his character one of the most unique elements of innocence and urgency producing the feeling that every moment in time is a crossroads in his life.  He finds a way to boldly and clearly define his unique relationship and love of his mother and of the love who shuns him, Nina.   Stoll exudes strength and power with love being his achilles heel and Ronan’s haunting performance shows that she is a mere puppet with love controlling her strings. 

“The Seagull” is an extraordinary adaptation of a complicated stage production from Chekhov exemplifying love at all its various stages and life as we look forward and back.  This stellar cast gives the tale the clarity and humor it deserves, but at the helm is the deft director, Mayer whose trusting cast allows him to create this masterpiece.

4/4 Stars

“Always at the Carlyle” takes you through the doors of this iconic hotel in NYC

May 18th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Always at the Carlyle” takes you through the doors of this iconic hotel in NYC”

Obviously, we’re not all VIP’s or celebrities, but “Always at the Carlyle” can take you close to feeling like one or at least seeing how they live when they visit New York City.  The Carlyle is the place where royalty stays; where high profile musicians, actors, and world leaders stay; it’s the place.  Priding itself on “what happens at the Carlyle, stays at the Carlyle,” the film doesn’t reveal any secrets about its guests, but plenty of guests appear, telling of their experiences, opening the guest room doors and revealing their own insights.

Director Matthew Miele takes a look at the history of this iconic yet not ostentatious  structure nestled in the heart of Manhattan.  We meet the staff and understand their dedication to such a unique hotel.  The recurring guests also know the staff, all with their own favorites and relationships, and the staff have their favorites, too!  Not surprisingly, Mr. George Clooney is at the top of almost all the staff’s list.

Beautifully filmed, the viewer experiences the gracious elegance of the lobby, the welcoming smile of the staff, and the opulence of the guest rooms.  We ride the elevator with the operator, we talk with the woman who personally monograms pillow cases for VIP’s, and we also get a peek at the cafe and the bar where legends not only perform but go to see their idols play.  We understand the attention to detail and the importance that makes a difference to the guest.  In essence, we get to know a place that perhaps would have remained hidden as most of us couldn’t afford to pay the price of luxury here.  Or as Jon Hamm stated when asked if he would pay the price for a high floor suite, “You could pay for somebody’s school for a year for that.  That’s ridiculous.” 

The celebrity interviews are countless in this film, from Jeff Goldblum and Sofia Coppola to George Clooney and Anthony Bourdain, we learn a bit about what makes The Carlyle so special to each of them, many of whom have sweet memories attached to the hotel.  But what truly stands out are the interviews with the staff.  From the front desk clerk who stutters, sharing his inspirational words, to the housekeepers who share stories of the kindness of Jack Nicholson, the world of the wealthy intersects with those on the other end of the spectrum only to find a genuine respect and understanding.  

“Always at the Carlyle” is a unique look into an iconic and historically significant hotel in New York City that we can experience from the screen of our homes.  Perhaps the secret is out and we ordinary people can stop in for a cup of coffee at the cafe to say we too have had the pleasure of experiencing The Carlyle—and for a moment be a VIP.

 

“Terminal” a convoluted story lacking any substance

May 10th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Terminal” a convoluted story lacking any substance”

“Terminal” has a death sentence from the very beginning with a convoluted premise, unclear characters and motivations, and dialogue that is frequently indecipherable.  This all-star cast of Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, and Mike Myers who give it their all, can’t save the film from a cinematic graveyard.     Vaughn Stein writes and directs this film as it meanders to hell and back and it’s not until the last 10 minutes of the movie that we receive all the missing pieces of information, making it feel more like a crash course in what just happened and why.  Is this a poor choice in editing?  Could they have intertwined more of the past into the present to give the viewer a more complete story?  Yes.  That certainly would have helped, but alas, the final product is lacking on all levels.  The story never feels cohesive nor does it grab you as you invest your time in giving these actors the benefit of the doubt.

Annie (Robbie) is a late-night waitress at a diner who also happens to be a murderous sociopath.  In an apparent effort to wipe out her hit-man competition to work for the esteemed leader, Mr. Franklin (Myers) who hides behind closed doors and uses a disguised voice,  Annie’s heartless and cut-throat ways, sometimes literally, gets the job done.  Moralistically, the hit men Annie meets are no better than she, but even on the spectrum of evil, she takes the cake.  Bill (Pegg) is a hapless character and the only piece of the film that had any potential of a story line as a sad sack with a terminal illness and a wry sense of humor.  As his conversation with Annie takes a quick dark turn, offering many ways for him to commit suicide, this is cut short and our attention  is completely lost.  Stein also attempts to weave “Alice in Wonderland” references into the story only to create another confusingly jarring element. Another unfortunate circumstance is the underutilization of  Mike Meyers.  The master of disguises is disguised to a degree that we miss out on any of his talent.  

Of interest in the “Terminal” is the style.  It’s dark to punctuate the topic and the situation, but interestingly, the intensity of the neon colors give it a flicker of fun.  There are also numerous close-ups with intriguing backlighting, giving the film an eerie and surreal feel, however the cinematography can’t tell the story on its own.   

“Terminal” is a disappointment given the acting talent available.  With no characters with whom you can connect or care about and a story that meanders until it has to spoon feed you the plot and reasoning, “Terminal” should be put down and out of our misery.

1 Star for great lighting

“Lean on Pete” An emotionally devastating story; stellar performance by the young Charlie Plummer

May 3rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Lean on Pete” An emotionally devastating story; stellar performance by the young Charlie Plummer”

“Lean on Pete,” based on Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, is written and directed by Andrew Haigh.  For those unfamiliar with the book, let’s not judge the film based on the poster.  This is not a simple, sweet story about a boy and his horse.  It’s a  harsh and emotionally devastating film that delves into the societal issues and issues of health, welfare, and childhood instability and resiliency.  Charlie Plummer stars in this evocative and poignant film as “Charley,” a boy whose life is wrought with abandonment and disappointments. but somehow has an intrinsically positive persona.  As he is living in yet another new location with a less than attentive father (Travis Fimmel), Charley is left to his own devices and skills to create a life for himself in Portland.  He randomly comes across a racetrack’s stable when he encounters a rough and seasoned horseman, “Del” (Steve Buscemi).  Charley is immersed in the arena of horse racing as he begins to get a sense of accomplishment, earning money to buy groceries for he and his dad. But what lies ahead will change him forever.

The complex and deeply layered journey has just begun as Charley’s father’s choices catch up with him, leaving his son to truly fend for himself.  Del becomes a surrogate father-figure, unbeknownst to him, and with barbed tenderness, the two build a relationship.  As  Charley learns of the fate of the horse he has grown to love, Lean on Pete, he finds himself on a life-altering path, searching for answers, stability and guidance.

“Lean on Pete” is Charley’s story of growing up too soon and the ramifications thereof.  He’s still a boy yet he must use every instinct in order to just survive, making decisions along the way that are potentially deadly.  His encounters bring us into the very real conditions that most of us turn a blind eye to—homelessness, the poor, the hungry—and remind us of how our country is suffering on many fronts.

Plummer is extraordinary in this role, giving a subtle and nuanced performance.  We feel his every emotion and connect with him, wanting to somehow protect this boy.  He simply breaks your heart as he creates a character that must build a coat of armor quickly and reluctantly.   And in his eyes we see his sweetness and longing to be a part of a family, to be loved and not fear rejection and abandonment.

The story unfolds slowly, intentionally, allowing us to soak it all in as we are immersed into Charley’s life.  Buscemi, of course, gives a great performance as the intimidating and rough-around-the-edges horse owner, not quite up to the Derby standards.  He finds a way to show he cares about Charley, but doesn’t quite know how to rise to the occasion.  Plummer and Buscemi together create this raw story, giving it a depth that perhaps equals the emotion of the book.  Unfortunately, Fimmel and Alison Elliott’s performances are never quite believable, feeling rather stiff and unnatural, but these aren’t enough to take away from the overall effect story.

Cinematically, this film is gorgeous with its wide open shots capturing the vastness and beauty of the area and how this parallels Charley’s emotions and feelings of loss and hope.  Haigh does an exceptional job of directing his main character and bringing the feelings of hopelessness and survival to the screen.  It’s a harsh look at one boy’s life making you wonder how many other children out there are living in these extreme conditions.  No, this isn’t a sweet “Lassie” type of story, but it will capture your heart.

3 1/2 Stars

“Tully” An honest yet humorous and emotionally raw look at motherhood

April 30th, 2018 Posted by Review, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on ““Tully” An honest yet humorous and emotionally raw look at motherhood”

Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Young Adult”) writes this screenplay perhaps as she looks in the mirror, depicting life as a mother in one of the most raw and truthful films addressing the subject.  And Jason Reitman sits in the director’s chair for each of Cody’s screenplays, the second time directing Charlize Theron who stars as Marlo, a mother of 2 and pregnant with her 3rd, whose wealthy brother offers to pay for a “night nanny.”  With 2 active and demanding youngsters, a newborn, and a “typical” husband, Marlo is exhausted and bites the bullet, taking her  brother up on his generous offer.  As  Tully (Mackenzie Davis) and Marlo begin to bond, life takes a wonderfully positive turn, but as the layers are peeled away we discover so much more.  It’s an eloquent and insightful film that humorously and dramatically portrays the thoughts, emotions, and harsh realities of what motherhood is like on a daily basis as we are reminded of our dreams, our past, and our futures.

The first scene depicts a strange but peaceful interaction as Marlo brushes her young son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica).  This is the calm before the storm as reality rears its evil head as the family gets ready for school.  Rushed and late for a meeting, we learn that Jonah “is quirky,” perhaps on the Autism Spectrum.  The tension builds to a deafening crescendo, plunging all of us moms who are honest enough to admit it into a caldron of boiling lava.  There are more frustrating and incredulous yet relatable situation ahead as Marlo and her hubby (Ron Livingston) just get through the day after #3, Mia, is born.

Marlo’s struggles with balancing it all is like watching someone juggle fine china on a tightrope with her eyes closed.  You know she’s going to fall, but how hard?  Or will Tully truly save the day?  The interaction between the Marlo and Davis is odd yet genuine creating a sense of connection as we all begin to wonder why we didn’t have a “night nanny!”  As Marlo seems to steady herself with Tully’s support, that calmness returns.  Life is good again.  Or is it?  After watching the film twice, there are plenty of clues to pick up on to alert you to what is, initially, a shocking conclusion to the film.  While there is plenty of humor, this turn jolts you into understanding a bit more about the stress of childbirth and being a mother.  It’s perfect, actually. 

Cody’s script, Reitman’s direction, and the finely tuned execution of acting from the entire cast, but particularly Theron and Davis create one of the most open and honest depictions of what it’s like to be a mom.   We see the birth of Mia and the sheer exhaustion without elation afterward.  We get a glimpse into the never-ending days of diaper changes, cooking dinner, doing school work, crying baby, messes, and night feedings through quick-paced editing.  We feel her stress and exhaustion thanks to all of these components skillfully interwoven into the picture.

Theron is simply perfect in her portrayal of Marlo.  We are immediately connected to her and understand her every look and thought.  It’s as if she is allowing us to read her mind.  Theron is a master at this, and Davis seems to rise to Theron’s level of performance, balancing one another beautifully. 

Livingston’s portrayal of Drew is pretty typical of “every dad” at least from most wives’ perspective.  He’s sweet and loves his kids dearly, but really is out of touch.  His incessant video gaming doesn’t help matters and Marlo seems bothered, but too tired to truly do anything about it.  Again, most moms/wives out there can easily relate to this situation as well, even though a lot of dads out there are going to feel a bit slighted in the way this dad is portrayed.

“Tully” is a remarkable work of art as it depicts reality.  The story is told from a woman’s perspective about an issue and issues we moms experience.  I’ve never laughed so hard as I could relate to situations, knowing that while motherhood is wonderful, it’s one of the toughest jobs out there.  That’s where “Tully” makes a statement like no other of its cinematic predecessors–it’s honest and filled with humor while serving raw emotion to all.   

4 STARS

“Most Likely to Murder” An interview with writer/director Dan Gregor and star Adam Pally

April 29th, 2018 Posted by Interviews, Weekly DVD, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on ““Most Likely to Murder” An interview with writer/director Dan Gregor and star Adam Pally”

Dan Gregor co-writes with Doug Mand and directs this thrilling murder mystery comedy starring Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) and Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”).   Billy (Pally) goes home one last time before his parents move and is confronted with the memories and actions of his past.  Never having really grown up, he attempts to pick up where he left off ten years ago, but then finds himself in a world where he thinks a boy he picked on in school has murdered his mother.  The film is brilliantly funny yet somehow manages to delve into a rather poignant topic toward the end without ever losing the pace and sense of being a comedy.  I had the pleasure of talking with both Gregor and Pally about making this film.  You’ll be shocked by the genesis of the film, the candid childhood memories shared,  as well as the extortion that took place!

Pamela Powell (PP):  Before we talk about the film, Dan can you tell me about your background and the differences between writing for television and for movies?

Dan Gregor (DG):  I started writing TV at ‘How I Met Your Mother’ …  In some ways, a story is a story.  It’s about setting a problem and the rising action to fix it and the resolution… In that regard, going to movies has always felt very organic; it’s a similar muscle.  Obviously the big difference is trying to find something that really ends the sentence that gives real closure to the ideas … My writing partner Doug Mand and myself, whenever we’re breaking a story, we won’t even start writing a script until we know that we have an ending that gives it a really exciting conclusion.  Having something that feels like a third act that people are going to be engaged with, we always feel like [that’s] lacking in mainstream comedies.  You might like the first 45 minutes, but after that it’s like let’s wrap this up because I know where it’s going.  That’s the biggest difference in going into movie writing is that the third act is genuinely engaging and exciting and hopefully a little unexpected

PP:  I loved the movie!  You had me engaged the entire time and the ending was totally unexpected.  With as many movies as I see each year, that’s a tough thing to do!

DG:  Thank you.  That’s the highest praise I could get.

Adam Pally (AP):  Yes, truly the highest praise. 

DG:  I didn’t get a lot of praise from my parents growing up.  (Laughs)

PP: So how did you come up with the premise of this film?

DG:  The real beginning of the movie happened because  when I was 13 I had scrambled “Skinemax” porn in my bedroom and I would stay up all night. I would basically wait till I thought there was  a sex scene going on and then I would sprint on my tippee toes quietly to the family room that had the actual cable box and I would throw in a VHS tape and try to record the sex scene.  But I was always too late so I had this  really weird tape of the last 5 seconds of sex scenes.  (Laughs)  It’s this very weird montage.  And eventually I grew out of this phase of my life and I had the tape hidden in the back of my closet.  As an adult, I went back to my parents’ house and I stumbled across it and I was like,  ‘Oh, my God!  I can’t believe this thing still exists!’ and I was sort of desperate to watch it again, but I literally couldn’t find a VHS player.  As much as it’s ridiculous, that sort of emotion of having this piece of nostalgia that you are desperate to hold on to, but you can’t. [That] was the emotional starting place of movie.  Doug, my writing partner and I have always been obsessed with ‘coming home for the holiday’ movies in general, but also very specifically Thanksgiving weekend and the night before Thanksgiving where everyone’s back in their home town and you’re going to a local bar and you’re getting drunk and reliving past memories.  That sort of feeling that you desperately want to be in the past but you never can be again.  That was the genesis of … the movie.  Once we knew we wanted to do that, we then challenged ourselves to find a way to tell that in a [more] engaging way than white guy comes home and realizes he’s old. 

PP:  Adam, I’ve seen your two previous films, “Joshy” and “Band Aid,” two very different films from this one as are your characters.  Is there a commonality among these characters that you see as you play them?

AP:  Any character I play is a version of myself.  That’s the only way I know how to do something is to say, what part of me would be this person?  And then embrace that  and put a full spin on it.  I think they are three very different characters, but they’re all versions of myself.  I can see myself ending up like all three people with one right or left turn.  I think if I have any sort of process, it’s that. 

PP:  Some of Adam’s lines are remarkably memorable and offensively hilarious!  Dan, can you tell me about creating this?

DG:  I think that’s the fun part about writing.  By the time you’re seeing a movie, this, from concept to script, to revision to edit to improv, you’re seeing the 100th version of the movie … this movie was always written for Adam… and so even when we were writing the movie we were still checking with Adam…and also we’ve been working with Adam since we were 20 so we feel his voice pretty well.  And truly, Adam is one of the best improvisers in the world.  We have some spectacular lines in the movie that are completely improved from Adam.  

PP:  Adam, do you have a favorite line or improv situation?

AP:  The movie is written so well that it was fun to deliver the scripted lines.  You know what was really funny … is when I first curse in front of my parents.  I know that when you’re a kid, you see that other kid curse…

DG:  You go to that other kid’s house and go wait a minute, this kid is allowed to curse?  Not only in front of his parents, but at them? 

AP:  When you first see that in the movie, it gets a lot of laughs and I think that’s one of my favorite parts. 

DG:  And Adam gave it such a juvenile read, that is what I loved about it.  He’s such an angst-y teen about it.  My favorite Adam improve line, to brag about Adam, is toward the end of the movie, he’s talking about being a restroom attendant in Vegas and saying that he’s sorry that he keeps looking at people’s penises in the bathroom but it’s an accident and he can’t help but glance at a penis when it’s in front of you.

PP:  Are these characters based on any real life people from your past, Dan?

DG:  Every one is an amalgamation of people.  Every one is from my life or Doug’s life. In a very real way the character of Lowell is not a specific someone. [He] is based on the fact that when I was in middle school, I was a shitty kid.  I was not nice to people.  I went to this small private school and I was hot shit in this little school and I was not kind.  And then the next year, I went to this big public school and I instantly had the tables turned.  I was the nerd and I was getting picked on … And I had this realization that, oh, shit!  I was unkind to people and it fucking hurt.  That regret and that realization is the emotional cornerstone of the movie and the underlying ethos of the Lowell character.

PP:  Did you have any bumps in the road or was it smooth sailing?

AP:  We were extorted by the local town.

PP:  (Laughs)

DG:  Seriously … we moved to the actual suburbs where we shot the whole movie … this little town had a racket.  We found out afterwards where they let people sign up for film permits and then when it’s in the 11th hour they tripled the price.  Our amazing producer Petra Ahmann didn’t tell me what was going on because she didn’t want to mess in my head while I was filming and just snuck off to the local municipality courthouse.   Honestly, I have no idea what she did to spin them back.

AP:  Could have been a double extortion.

DG:  She somehow finagled them to let us get back to our original permit price, but the thing we did have to do is  we lost all of our night shoots.  So we had to change the entire closing sequence from a nighttime horror feel to a daytime horror feel.   I actually feel like it was a real gift because it gave that whole finale a much different look than maybe was the obvious choice.

PP:  I have to ask the next obvious question.  What town?

DG:  I’m happy to burn them.  Eastchester, NY.  It’s just the horror of making a low budget movie is that your every dollar really can mess you up pretty bad. 

“Most Likely to Murder,” a thrillingly comedic film, is available on DVD and various digital platforms on May 1.  Check out the trailer here: MOST LIKELY TO MURDER 

 

 

“Avengers: Infinity War” will please Marvel fans

April 27th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Avengers: Infinity War” will please Marvel fans”

“Avengers: Infinity War” confirms that superhero possibilities are not finite. Bringing together almost all of the Marvel heroes in one big bang of a film, the storylines are limitless — along with the dramatic overtures, fight scenes and explosions.

While just another gigantic blockbuster filled with more CGI special effects than stars in the sky, there’s an unexpected message in the film: awareness of sustainability of resources and a solution. Unfortunately, that solution is from the evil one, Thanos, whom the heroes have banded together to eliminate. Think of this solution as a more sinister version of “Downsizing.”

To read the rest of the review as published in the Friday, April 27th edition of The Daily Journal go here

Tribeca Film Festival 2018 is a wrap

April 27th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals 0 thoughts on “Tribeca Film Festival 2018 is a wrap”

The 18th Annual Tribeca Film Festival is coming to a close and is one I consider to be the best in years in terms of quality, equality, variety, and special presentations.  With close to 100 feature films not to mention the seemingly myriad number of short films, I have the best of the fest.

TULLY:  Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) writes this screenplay perhaps as she looks in the mirror, depicting life as a mother in one of the most raw and truthful films addressing the subject.  Charlize Theron stars as Marlo a mother of 2 and pregnant with her 3rd, whose wealthy brother offers to pay for a “night nanny.”  With 2 active and demanding youngsters, a newborn, and a “typical” husband, Marlo is exhausted and bites the bullet, taking her  brother up on his generous offer.  As  Tully (Mackenzie Davis) and Marlo begin to bond, life takes a wonderfully positive turn, but as the layers are peeled away we discover so much more.  It’s an eloquent and insightful film that humorously and dramatically portrays the thoughts, emotions, and harsh realities of what motherhood is like on a daily basis as we are reminded of our dreams, our past, and our futures.  Opens in theaters May 4.

 

 

 

STOCKHOLM:  The psychological term “Stockholm Syndrome” originated from this “absurd but true story” starring Ethan Hawke, Mark Strong, and Noomi Rapace.   The good-hearted bank robber, Lars (Hawke) hatches a hair-brained plan to get his best buddy Gunnar (Strong) out of the Swedish penitentiary, taking 3 hostages captive.  His plan unfolds in the most unpredictable, almost slap-stick silly way, making you fall in love with Lars as well.  It’s an incredibly entertaining and comedic slice of history suiting Hawke’s comedy skills to a “T” a skill we didn’t even know he had.

WOMAN WALKS AHEAD:  Written by Steven Knight (Locke Hundred Foot Journey) and directed by Susanna White, this story is also based upon an historical event.  Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a Brooklyn-based artist in the late 1800’s, travels to the Dakotas to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait.  Arriving in a hostile environment, she is unwelcome by the military, but with a determination not characteristically seen in women during this era, she perseveres.  The relationship she develops with Sitting Bull is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and the integrity she shows in fighting for Native American’s rights is inspiring.  Chastain is extraordinary, Sam Rockwell hones his skills as a dislikable misogyntist and racist, and Michael Greyeyes reincarnates a virtuous and complicated Sitting Bull.  The exceptional cinematography beckons you to see this on the big screen.  Opens in theaters June 29.

LOVE, GILDA:  The life of the beloved comedic performer from Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner, is featured in Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary, “Love, Gilda.”  Using journals, audio recordings, found family footage, and photographs from her life, Radner’s history is brought to life.  We learn about her childhood, her struggle with her weight, her love interests, and what drove her to be such a star.  Interviews with those who knew her best and those she inspired, such as Chevy Chase, Maya Rudolph, Lorne Michaels, and Martin Short to name a few, keep her spirit alive and allow all of us to know her better.  D’Apolito creates a flawless portrayal of one of the most iconic performers in the 20th century. (Release date yet to be determined.)

O.G.:  Written by Stephen Belber and directed by Madeleine Sackler, Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”) stars in this thought-provoking and poignant film about Louis, a man incarcerated for murder, serving 24 of his 60 year sentence, soon to be released on parole.  The emotional angst and uncertainty push him to reach out to a new, young convict, attempting to pass the torch and his wisdom as he looks in the rear view mirror of his life.  The complexity of the structure of prison is revealed and impacts Louis’ future as he is placed between survival and his future.  Beautifully filmed, we are taken inside the closed quarters, feeling as if we are walking along side Louis.  And Wright’s skillful performance lets us inside the mind of an “original gangster,” perhaps even gaining understanding for the decisions he has made and continues to make.  Filmed in an actual prison in Indiana, few actors were used, creating a formidable and impactful scenario not to be missed.  (Release date yet to be determined.)

It was a difficult task to limit my list of the best films as every film I saw stood out.  Never before have I attended such a festival where no film was a disappointment.  Other films that could have easily made my top list include:  “Diane,” “The Seagull,” “Blue Night,” “All About Nina,” “Mary Shelley,” Back Roads,” “Red Roll Red,” “Egg,” “General Magic,” “Ghostbox Cowboy,” and “M.” Additionally, TFF was represented by 48% women-directed films, three of which were my top films and “Tully” was written by a female.  TFF 2018 is one for the records!

EBERTFEST: A SIT DOWN WITH CHAZ

April 16th, 2018 Posted by Interviews 0 thoughts on “EBERTFEST: A SIT DOWN WITH CHAZ”

As published in this month’s edition of Fete Lifestyle Magazine, April 16, 2018

Ebertfest, the unique film festival created to give films overlooked by critics and audiences a second look, celebrates its 20th year on April 18-22 in the quaint college town of Champaign, Illinois. The festival, started by Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz, continues even after Ebert’s death 5 years ago.

To read the interview in its entirety, go to Fete Lifestyle Magazine 

 

WHAT’S ON THE HOT LIST AT THIS YEAR’S TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL

April 16th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals 0 thoughts on “WHAT’S ON THE HOT LIST AT THIS YEAR’S TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL”

Excerpt from the April 16th edition of Fete Lifestyle Magazine:

It’s show time for the annual Tribeca Film Festival taking place April 18-29 in New York City.  With 96 feature films, both narratives and documentaries, let’s see what’s top on the list this year. 

Go to Fete Lifestyle Magazine to see the entire list!

“Borg vs. McEnroe” is pure love of the game and the era

April 15th, 2018 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on ““Borg vs. McEnroe” is pure love of the game and the era”

Tennis fans, rejoice!  Last year’s under-appreciated “Battle of the Sexes” has opened the doors for another undeniably entertaining biopic revolving around tennis—“Borg vs. McEnroe.”  The film, written by Ronnie Sandahl and starring Sverirr Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, and Stellan Skarsgard, takes you back in time to the intense rivalry between two polar opposite tennis stars, the hot-headed John McEnroe and the even-keeled Nordic legend, Bjorn Borg.  The intensity spills over into the storyline, learning about these larger-than-life players and witnessing what might be the most dramatic competition in any sport.

We meet each of these players at the height of their game, but are quickly brought back to their respective childhoods, gaining keen insight to their background, difficulties, and family relationships.  The film focuses more upon the young Borg, his parents’ lack of financial wealth, and the boy’s inability to control his temper, allowing you to draw the conclusion that perhaps Borg and McEnroe really aren’t that different.  McEnroe has his own demons to wrestle from his youth, all of which he confronts as the day draws nearer to battling Borg at Wimbledon.  Never has a championship  been seen from the psychological aspect, delving into the pressures they each feel from their perspective.  McEnroe, cocky and boisterous, must defeat a 4 time champion.  And Borg, rumored to be getting old, must defend his title for the 5th time—something no one had ever done at that time.  While most of us will never be the best in one particular arena, this film gets us very close to understanding the sacrifices and the mindset it takes to do so.

Sverirr embodies Borg not just physically, but with his mannerisms and speech as well.  His head hangs in introspection with his shoulders slouching, only to gain confidence and composure once he steps onto the courts.  His long hair, cool demeanor, and chilling intensity is the very center of the real Borg, making his performance to be at once believable and real.  LaBeouf’s career seems to have stalled, but his portrayal of McEnroe is stellar.  While he isn’t McEnroe’s body double, he perfects the tennis champion’s speech and physical outbursts the player is known for.  As the story depicts Borg disproportionately, we also see Borg’s coach, Lennert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), step into his life as more of a father figure with tough love and life lessons to teach.  Together, a complete picture is painted to more fully understand who Bjorn Borg is and how he became the most revered player of the decade.

As the story unfolds, editing is key with this film as we jump back and forth between childhood memories, current day situations, and recent events.  Capturing this to tell the story along a timeline that makes sense is a difficult feat that “Borg vs. McEnroe” achieves.  Incredible camera work to recreate the matches brings you directly into the stands as you hold your breath with every serve and missed call.  You know the outcome, yet you’re still on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to truly happen.

“Borg vs. McEnroe” is a sheer delight to watch, particularly if you’re a fan of tennis and that era.  Sverirr, LaBeouf, and Skarsgard expertly portray each of their characters, bringing a sense of reality and connection to the story.

You can see “Borg vs. McEnroe” in theaters and select digital platforms such as Amazon.

3 1/2 Stars

“Capturing the Flag” a timely tale at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

April 15th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Capturing the Flag” a timely tale at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival”

If you think voter suppression is just an ugly part of our nation’s past history, think again.  It’s still happening.  Anne de Mare captures what happened in Fayetteville, North Carolina, just days before and the day of the 2016 Presidential election.  Following a team of voter protection volunteers, de Mare uncovers the subversive actions that lead to thousands of citizens being denied their Constitutional right to vote.  This shockingly frustrating and enlightening documentary captures an unbiased story that every American should see.

Watch the trailer here

Three long-time friends, all with different backgrounds, volunteer and travel to an area of the country where voter suppression is suspected.  Laverne Berry, an entertainment and business affairs attorney who is also one of the producers of this film, lead the small group comprised of Steve Miller, a seasoned veteran in these affairs, and newcomer and recent U.S. citizen from South Africa, Claire Wright.  Together, they attempt to help citizens understand how to vote, where to vote, and what to do if they encounter road blocks.  And there were plenty of roadblocks.

Laverne Berry, Photo Credit: Nelson Walker III

As we learn about each of the volunteers, it is at once inspiring to see the importance of their work and dedication.  The perspective from Claire about the concept of equality  in the United States is the most interesting because she is a recent citizen.  The reality, as we see unfold, is shocking to her and to the viewer as well.   

“Capturing the Flag” demonstrates that democracy at its very core is continually being challenged, and most of us are blissfully unaware.  As the team prepares for election day and helping fellow citizens, the laws by which we function are seemingly ever-changing.  We learn about tactics used to make it difficult to vote and how names and registrations have been purged.  Various other nefarious strategies are implemented, compounding the hurdles many  jump over in order to vote … and many who just give up.  Seeing the antagonistic behavior of  polling places as they attempt to thwart these volunteers to provide basic information is maddening.  But ignorance isn’t bliss—it’s potentially devastating.

“Capturing the Flag” is a compelling and educational film reminding us, as de Mare said in a recent interview with me for FF2 Media, “…to take better care of our democratic process, to think about [our] own role as citizens and about how [to] participate more … by getting involved with local boards of election, and by supporting grassroots organizations that put pressure on legislatures to make sure everyone has the ability to vote.”

We all know the outcome of the last election.  Knowing that volunteers across the nation like Laverne, Steve, and Claire are there to help every voter (no matter their party affiliation) know their rights is uplifting.   Knowledge is power and as a citizen, we must all be informed.  This film punctuates that fact as it lights a fire within to make sure this antiquated concept of voter suppression does not continue. 

“Capturing the Flag” is a timely tale that is as captivating as it is informative.  The natural circumstances create a tension-filled story as you truly begin to understand the situation at hand.   But most importantly, the film reminds us to cherish and exercise our Constitutional rights and perhaps we will write a different ending for historians to capture in the future.

  For more information about the film go to Capturing the Flag.  

 

Ebertfest paving a new path of equality

April 10th, 2018 Posted by Interviews 0 thoughts on “Ebertfest paving a new path of equality”

(From FF2 Media, April 9, 2018)

Roger Ebert will forever remain in the hearts of film lovers and film critics alike. His unique personality accompanied by his insight into all things film created a new way for people to see and enjoy going to the movies. Ebertfest, now celebrating its 20th anniversary on April 18-22, in Champaign, Illinois was originally named the Ebert Overlooked Film Festival to pay “…homage to those films that he thought needed to be seen by bigger audiences…” said his wife Chaz in a recent interview.

It’s been five years since Ebert passed away, but Chaz and her team continue this festival with special events planned for the 20th anniversary celebration. I had a chance to sit down with Chaz to discuss the festival, but also to get to know this woman who continues to champion Ebert’s causes, his vision of what makes films important in life and her focus on women in the filmmaking industry.

To read the article published on April 9th in its entirety, please go to  FF2 Media.

“Beirut” blends history with fiction in this intense political thriller

April 10th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Beirut” blends history with fiction in this intense political thriller”

Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike star in the political thriller “Beirut” written by Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) and directed by Brad Anderson. The film, while it depicts true events in Lebanon’s history, takes a fictitious situation and brings together the ugliness of war and its motives while humanizing each level. Thankfully, the writers give enough back story to allow for those not familiar with Beirut’s history to more completely understand this complex and on-going strife among Isreal, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.).

Mason Skiles (Hamm) is the charismatic government mediator, living a high-profile life with his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti) in Beirut in the early 1970’s. The couple have taken in a young Lebanese boy and while his innocence is questioned, the volatility of the situation escalates and Nadia is inadvertently gunned down. The film’s foundation has been set in stone as we fast forward 10 years to 1982.

Skiles has never recovered from the loss of his wife, finding himself as a small time mediator back in the U.S. with a major drinking problem. But Skiles is requested to take on a mediation job back in Lebanon as a friend who is a high-ranking official with decades of confidential information has been taken hostage. Reluctantly, Skiles travels back to the place that created the broken man he has become.

Skiles meets CIA official Sandy (Pike) and the two begin to work together, testing each other in an effort to unravel the convoluted information they have been provided. There’s more to Sandy’s story than meets the eye, but that seems true of everyone Skiles meets. Reunited with former colleagues, Skiles is thrown right back into the thick of things, but his past seems to be haunting him. The clock is ticking and Skiles must address these ghosts while pushing forward before time runs out for his old friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino). The brutality of this war-torn country is not just visually evident, you recognize it emotionally as well. From citizens hiding in their homes to the self-proclaimed military rebels, no one seems to value life. There are shockingly horrific scenes that remain in your mind, hoping that this only happens in the movies. It’s total devastation, fighting for concepts and idealisms that will never right the wrongs from the past. The story certainly doesn’t paint Israel in a positive light, but it does make you look more deeply at the issues that still create tension in this small but volatile area.

Hamm creates with exceptional skill, the definition of a broken-hearted, flawed and jaded man. Initially a gallant man who has it all, he easily transforms into an unkempt, self-loathing loser who must revive himself. It’s a nuanced performance supported by Pike’s portrayal of an intelligent women of that era, treated in a less than equal way. Dean Norris is almost unrecognizable with a full head of hair, but his unmistakable intensity and focus in his role as Donald Gaines, Skiles former boss, is familiar and welcomed.

“Beirut” is an intense political thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time, unsure as to who to trust and waiting for the next unexpected twist to show itself. It’s a harrowing tale blending history and fiction together impeccably utilizing deft direction and skilled performances.

4 Stars

Anderson’s Midas Touch continues with “Isle of Dogs”

April 10th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Anderson’s Midas Touch continues with “Isle of Dogs””

Wes Anderson has the Midas Touch when it comes to filmmaking, beginning with “Rushmore” in 1998 and continuing to gain momentum and notoriety with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” This year, Anderson returns to his love of stop-motion animation and brings kids and adults the endearingly unique film “Isle of Dogs.” (Say it quickly and you hear three different words.)

Anderson teams up with Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Kunichi Nomura to write the story as he directs several of his returning favorite cast members such as Edward Norton (voice of “Atari”), Bob Balaban (voice of “King”) and Bill Murray (voice of “Boss”) while adding A-Listers such as Bryan Cranston (voice of “Chief”), Jeff Goldblum (voice of “Duke”), and Frances McDormand (voice of “Interpreter Nelson”) and many more.

The story begins 20 years in the future in Japan as the Dog Flu and Snout-Fever reportedly are cross contaminating humans in the city of Megasaki requiring the Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) to banish all dogs to a trash island. We are then taken back 10 centuries to understand the back story of this evil empire and the no-good they’ve always been up to, complete with hilarious translations for the viewer. Back to the future, we  are introduced to the 12 year-old Atari, a ward of the corrupt Mayor,  whose beloved “Spots” (voice of Liev Schreiber) was one of the first dogs to be deported. A rebel at heart, Atari steals a plane and crash lands on Trash Island to find his best buddy. And now the adventure begins as he meets all the mongrels who help him in his quest.

“Isle of Dogs” is a classic story of a child saving the day. Anderson’s signature whimsical style, off-beat humor and staccato pacing of delivery translates perfectly into this animated feature, connecting you with each of the characters. As a story that is geared toward older children, it is a rather complicated one, allowing kids of all ages to connect on various levels. And by kids, I’m also talking about the ones over the age of 25. The story, on the surface, is about a boy in search of his dog, fighting the evil uncle/mayor. Dig a little more deeply and you’ve opened Pandora’s Box, filled with analogies into today’s political and social world—government corruption and conspiracies, dictatorships, educational suppression, news entities, and the right to protest among many more. But at the heart of it is a sweet story of a love of a boy and his dog.

The film beautifully pays homage to the story-telling master Kurosawa and the artistry of woodblock prints from Hiroshige and Hokusai, but it is the eccentric humor and delivery of these talented actors that makes it such a pleasure to watch. Hearing Murray’s voice and seeing his character dressed in blue and red as a baseball team’s mascot can’t help but conjure a Cubs uniform in disguise. Then we have Scarlett Johansson’s recognizable breathy voice as the pampered pup “Nutmeg” and Greta Gerwig’s honest and sweet interpretation of “Tracy Walker” who has an adorable crush on “Atari.” Each and every voice matches the personality of the character to a “T.”  Music is also a main character, accentuating each and every scene and sometimes even becoming the focal point.  It’s a wonderful visual, intellectual, and auditory amalgam of entertainment.

“Isle of Dogs” is an unusual animated film for both kids (over 12) and adults filled with humor and intelligence while blending Japanese culture and artistry with the avant-garde style of Anderson. Although the pacing lags about 2/3 of the way through, it picks back up toward the end as Anderson’s story ties up all the loose ends.

3 1/2 Stars

“Find Me” World premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center April 11

April 8th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Find Me” World premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center April 11”

The award-winning writer and director, Tom Huang, is back in action with his new dramedy  “Find Me.”  Huang writes, directs, and stars in this film as “Joe,” a recently divorced and depressed accountant whose co-worker/best buddy, Amelia (Sara Amini) goes missing.  Weeks later, Joe receives a letter from her with two words:  FIND ME.  Following clues she has set along the way, Joe embarks on an adventure through National Parks, allowing him to discover much more than he anticipated.  “Find Me” is filled with  humor, love, and most importantly, inspiration to reconnect with ourselves and nature. 

Joe is the poster child for a sad sack.  Working all day, helping to care for his aging father and dramatic mother, living alone, and eating dinner on the couch only to fall asleep watching mindless television is his every day existence.   Poor, sweet Joe.  We love him immediately.  He’s wallowing in his woes while Amelia, the polar opposite of Joe, attempts to get him out of his funk.  We get to know the two of them, understand their lives, and love watching them interact at work.  Their silly conversations as they refer to themselves in the third person or quoting movies while deeply talking about what’s happening in their lives gives this friendship a sense of reality.  They truly care about one another and we care about them. 

And then one day, Joe and Amelia connect on a different level and she immediately disappears.  Joe seems lost without her.  He watches the days go by, texting her with no response, checking her office with no luck.  Little does he know, she has already given him his  first clue to finding her—“Amelia’s Easy Adventure Book.”  He needs an extra push, the letter, to direct him to find her.  And the adventure begins!

“Find Me” is a high-tech geocache game as Joe embarks upon a trail of breadcrumbs to find Amelia.  Her plan is carefully orchestrated, introducing Joe to important people and extraordinary places, all allowing him to transform and to understand Amelia and her life better.  Joe travels to unique treasures in our country such as Death Valley where he camps under the stars, The Narrows in Zion where he first connects with the grandness of his surroundings, and the cliffs in Yosemite, reminding him (and us)  how remarkable Mother Nature truly is. 

“Find Me” never loses sight of the humor in life and it’s a constant throughout this film.   From the beginning, as we listen to the description of Joe’s trip to the Grand Canyon with his parents to the interactions he has with the hotel receptionist in Zion and the conversation with the waitress in Death Valley.  Each moment is priceless as is each hike he takes, searching for Amelia’s next clue in the form of an SD card.  The film, however, isn’t just a fun little romp around the Wild West.  It’s a meaningful and poignant film with life lessons that will make you sigh and even shed a few tears.

Huang’s writing gives “Find Me” a unique format as this very small cast creates a very large story.  While Amelia isn’t with Joe on this trip, she is there in voice and through the technology of the SD cards.  She is with him every step of the way, much like the viewer feels, walking right next to Joe and experiencing the glory of the scenery.  The keen eye of Cinematographer Kyle Crowell captures all of these awe-inspiring moments, adding to the indescribable peacefulness it brings to Joe and the viewer.

The entire cast is outstanding in “Find Me.”  Huang and Amini are a joy to see together in their roles as they have natural chemistry.  Their comfortable conversations and non-verbal communication create a naturalness not typically captured in films.  Amini brings zest to Huang’s writing for her character who has wonderful working knowledge about nature.  And Huang has a stellar performance as a reluctant traveler filled with a longing for more.   Wearing multiple hats of both star and director can be difficult, but Huang does so effortlessly.  

“Find Me” is a funny, uniquely charming, and gorgeous film that will inspire you to “be a traveler, not a tourist” in life.  Go ahead and “break out of this cycle of non-existence” and find your inner self!

For more information about the film and where to see it, go to FINDME.  If you’re in Chicago, “Find Me” has its world premiere at  the Gene Siskel Film Center on Wednesday, April 11 with Huang in person to answer questions after the film!  

 

4/4 Stars

“A Quiet Place” gives new meaning to the term “silent film”

April 6th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““A Quiet Place” gives new meaning to the term “silent film””

 

John Krasinski, known most readily for his role in “The Office,” not only stars in the new horror/thriller “A Quiet Place,” but has also written and directed it. This is only the second feature film in which he has worn all three hats and he sits quite comfortably in the director’s chair this time. It’s also the first time Krasinski has co-starred along side his real life wife, Emily Blunt…and it won’t be the last based on the predicted success of this film.

Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn (Blunt) and their three children live in a world of silence in a post-apocalyptic small town. There is no other sign of life as they walk through an abandoned grocery store, shelves wiped clean except for the well-stocked chip shelves, (yes, that’s important) no cars on the street, and the surroundings appear to have been long-forgotten. It’s fall, dressed in sweaters, the family walks barefooted back to their home in absolute silence, only to have the sweet family of 5 quickly become a family of 4 thanks to a forbidden battery operated toy.

Communicating through sign language, mourning the death or their youngest, the family attempts to live day by day in as normal of a way as possible…in silence. Playing board games with dice rolled on a rug, using lettuce leaves as plates, walking on paths made of sand or ash are all a part of how to live quietly. However, as mistakes are made such as trying to be silent while giving birth, the family must outsmart the blind, but super sensitive auditory creatures. Coincidentally, the oldest daughter is hearing-impaired, frustrated by a non-functioning cochlear implant.

The story is a rather predictable horror/monster/alien invasion film—we’ve seen them a hundred times before—but what makes this one different is the demonstration of the extraordinary responsibility and love a parent has for his or her children. Creating this scenario, complete with a rebellious young teen and a boy who still needs to be coddled, isn’t an easy task, but Krasinski hits all the right notes. While there are plenty of “gotcha” set ups, seemingly following a how-to guide book for horror movies, and a few holes in the premise, Krasinski gives us a story must find out how it ends. We care about this family and their survival as we, too, attempt to find the creatures‘ weakness.

Blunt and Krasinski, not surprisingly, give exceptional performances as a husband and wife, trying to survive. Noah Jupe (“Wonder”) and Millicent (“Wonderstruck”) portray the couple’s children with utmost ease. Besides being adorable, the kids have a connection the immediately bonds us to them.

The character of silence is also a part of this film. (Please refrain from bringing bags of chips to the theater. This completely ruins the atmosphere!) You can hear a pin drop and you realize you’ve been holding your breath. As you exhale, you can hear it. “A Quiet Place” gives the term “silent film” an entirely new definition. The ear-piercing screech of the monster/alien is equally jarring, juxtaposing the silence. There’s no underscore of music, at least that I can recall, giving my own senses the command to be uneasy…and I’m sure that’s exactly what Krasinski wanted. The computer generated monster is terrifying, especially as it uses its sensitive hearing. Half man, half t-rex, with a smattering of other scary features, you’re always awaiting this flying creature to appear, adding to your anxiety while watching.

Krasinski amplifies his ability in filmmaking with “A Quiet Place” as he demonstrates the skill to set up just the right situations and connections to make you care and your heart race. While it’s somewhat predictable with a few holes in the plot, it’s entertainingly horrifying as you can’t help but relate to this family living in silence.

3 Stars

“We’re Listening:” Founders of Cherry Picks Reviews to launch new site for female critics

April 5th, 2018 Posted by Interviews 0 thoughts on ““We’re Listening:” Founders of Cherry Picks Reviews to launch new site for female critics”

(As published in FF2 Media, Thursday, April 5, 2018.  To read the interview in its entirety, go to FF2Media)

Cherry Picks Reviews (CPR) is the much-anticipated upcoming critical site for all things women-in-media launching this fall! The gender equality issue has been making the headlines for the past couple of months, particularly in filmmaking. As a female film critic (over 50), Cherry Picks Reviews is a welcome change from the predominantly white male critical terrain which had been painting a skewed picture for film lovers.

Women comprise more than 50 percent of the population, yet less than four percent of the top 100 grossing films have been directed by women, according to Sundance.org. Times are changing, and Cherry Picks Reviews co-founders Miranda Bailey and Rebecca Odes talked to me about this “new voice in the critical conversation.”

Pamela Powell (PP): Why did you decide to create Cherry Picks Reviews?

Miranda Bailey (MB): Cherry Picks came about because of the lack of representation that was happening across the critical landscape in media itself, whether it was film or television, music or video games or any of the above. And now that we’re doing these aggregated sites and scoring systems that consumers are using [and] not having an equal opportunity playing field, it was really skewing the score…skewing the scores as to whether something was worth consumers’ money or not. We started Cherry Picks to specifically cherry pick out the female critical voice across media to shine a light on it to support it…and also just for women to know what other women think about something…whether or not they should spend their money on it. I think a lot of what is out there right now is from a very specific point of view that doesn’t represent all of the consumers…Men worry that [CPR] is perhaps skewed in some sexist way, but it’s really not. It’s about support, not segregation. It’s really no different than any other website that would be for females.

Go to FF2 Media for the complete interview.

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