Posts by pamela

“Godzilla vs. Kong”

April 1st, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Godzilla vs. Kong””

The much-anticipated “Godzilla vs. Kong” hits theaters and HBO Max this week. Like so many sequels to this genre of movie, it’s not necessary to see any of its predecessors. Of course, viewing this larger-than-life film in a theater complete with surround sound is the way to go as it touts itself as more than a movie; it’s intended to be an experience. This cinematic awe and wonder is the key ingredient, but unfortunately there are more elements necessary and “Godzilla vs. Kong seems to have forgotten that.

That initial awe takes place as we meet an angry and depressed Kong, a captive animal living on a remote and secret island —think “The Truman Show” here—his every wisp of hair lit differently and reacting to the wind as he rips a tree from its roots, strips its branches with a single swipe and catapults this handmade spear into the sky. Hitting the “clouds,” we realize that Kong’s world is nothing more than a giant cage with an observation deck above. We learn that his handlers need his help in finding Hollow Earth located in the center of the planet, and in an instant, Kong is duped into believing he is being transported back home to the other Titans of the Monsterverse. Of course, there are ulterior motives not shared with the beast and all of these actions trigger an attack by the dreaded Godzilla.

The action is hot and heavy almost from start to finish as the two beasts meet and like a boxing match, duke it out for several rounds. The first interaction feels more like the finale, but this is just the beginning of the onslaught of non-stop fighting. Thankfully, and this is what makes the film work on at least one level, there’s a sweet connection between hearing impaired Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the daughter of Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the Kong Whisperer, and Kong himself. The emotion imparted on the story and the audience is incredible thanks to the CGI artistry and Hottle’s performance. We feel the connection between this little girl and Kong who has developed a deep and meaningful relationship thanks to the communication tool of sign language.

However, the story itself is a convoluted one as past characters from the Godzilla story emerge and like the two monsters, these two stories eventually clash as well. From the Godzilla side, high ranking Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and his daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) attempt to understand why Godzilla has returned to attack. Madison’s sidekick Josh (Julian Dennison) rides along on this transcontinental adventure and Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) a scientific conspiracy theorist attempt to provide the comic relief in what is otherwise a dark and dreary story. Bernie’s fast talking distractions and Josh’s comical commentary, unfortunately just falls flat.

Those missing ingredients in this film are many, but let’s address the elephant in the room; the acting. The stilted performances from every single character except Jia and I can’t believe I’m saying this, Kong make it a cringe-worthy experience. Kong, a CGI character has more personality and displays more emotion than all the rest of the cast put together. Did the actors forget to rehearse? Did they just read their lines from cue cards being held off in the distance? Did no one give the script a rewrite? And did the direct fall asleep on the job? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes! Hearing dialogue spoken was painful particularly from the talent represented in this film. Hall, Alexander Skarsgard, Chandler, Brown, and Henry have had extraordinary careers but to see them in this, you’d never know it. When a film focuses 90% of its energy on battle scenes, I crave a little human interaction, but in this case, it didn’t help.

The highlight of “Godzilla vs. Kong” is Jia and Kong’s story. Sadly, this interaction wasn’t seen nearly enough to save the monster movie. The rest of the film is one big predictable fight scene until the final bell rings and my eyes roll back in my head. Yes, the CGI is incredible and the artistry of Hollow Earth elicits that awe, but that can’t carry the entire more, but director Adam Wingard was banking on that happening.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” does tick all the right boxes of animation, artistry, and larger than life characters which will please all of the fans of this universe, but the writing, directing, and acting boxes are empty with the exception of Hottle. If you’re looking for a fun story to escape and engage your senses, you’re not going to find it here.

2 Stars

The Daily Journal
Reel Honest Reviews
FF2 Media

“Happily” – a delightfully dark comedy

March 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Happily” – a delightfully dark comedy”

The mere word ‘happily’ conjures so many images, but of course, it elicits the phrase “happily ever after” and writer/director BenDavid Grabinski puts a new twist on that old phrase. Starring Joel McHale as Tom and Kerry Bishé as Janet, the couple is living out that phrase even after 14 years of marriage, much to much to their friends’ chagrin. You see, Tom and Janet are still as lustful and smitten by one another as the day they met. Their rosy relationship is the envy of all, but a visit from a stranger hoping to set their genetics code straight–what else could possibly explain their oddness– plunges the loving couple into a weekend of puzzling behavior with a Twilight Zone edge.

We meet this couple at a party, role playing, as their friends explain the love birds’ behavior to others. Arthur (Al Madrigal) finds it to be incredulous while others shrug it off as “it’s just Tom and Janet.” However, the next morning there’s a glimmer of reality as Janet, rushing to get ready for work, finds herself cleaning up in front of the toilet (obviously not her doing), clearing the kitchen while her hubby slugs on the couch playing a video game. He then has the audacity to request that she make him an omelette. A quick deep sigh and Janet does so. We, the viewer, feel justified in believing their relationship is too good to be true only to find Tom, upon Janet’s arrival after a long day, is folding laundry in a pristinely clean house as he apologizes for his recent behavior. So much for too good to be true…or is it?

Tom and Janet’s chemistry is palpable and neither try to hide their love which according to Val (Paul Scheer) and Karen (Natalie Zea) is just not normal. It is also the reason Tom and Janet are despised by the tight-knit group, resulting in being unanimously uninvited to a fun couples’ getaway. After a sudden change of heart, Tom and Janet are re-invited but only after a knock on their door. Quickly crossing the threshold–literally and figuratively– Goodman (Stephen Root) reveals his true intentions and they are to set their calibrated love meter to “normal.” One quick injection by a large needle containing a phosphorescent green viscous material and POOF! they’ll be just like everyone else. Janet responds in a shocking manner and all of a sudden there’s a murder cover-up and a mystery to solve. Together, Tom and Janet match minds with the group in what becomes a fateful weekend getaway hoping to find out what really is happening and who is the ring leader.

A dark comedy is tough to pull off but McHale’s straight-laced, kind and considerate stand-by-your-gal attitude makes all the jokes work like a well-oiled machine. Typically the funny guy, McHale’s timing to set up and react to off-kilter and sometimes shocking situations is played perfectly. Countering him is Bishé’s ability to portray an equally kind persona with a sprinkling of confusion bubbling just beneath the surface. The two are natural on-screen and with a few steamy sex scenes, you readily believe they are a happily married couple. When you add into the mix Natalie Morales, Stephen Root, Charlyne Yi, Scheer, Daly and more, who all relish in their characters and a story cloaked by the spirit of Rod Serling, it’s a recipe for the darkest of dark comedies that is simply sublime.

Grabinski takes full advantage of his seasoned and talented comedic cast, but it is his dry wit and timing which throws us that curveball when we least expect it that makes it so much fun. Unfortunately, the culmination of all of this is slightly disappointing as we are shown the man behind the curtain. Trying to make up for the lackluster result, Grabinski throws us one more sucker punch that almost makes up for it.

“Happily” is the delightfully dark comedy capturing a topic we all can relate to–relationships with significant others and the realities of life.

“Happily” releases in theaters and digitally on March 19, 2021.

3/4 Stars

“The Courier” poignantly punctuates humanity in history

March 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Courier” poignantly punctuates humanity in history”

“The Courier” is an unlikely story of espionage, bravery and most importantly, friendship which may have saved the world as we know it. The film is based on the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman, husband, and father during the Cold War, who is recruited by British Intelligence and the CIA to insinuate himself into Russia, make contact with an informant, and bring back communication of the country’s gains in nuclear warfare.

We meet Wynne, a committed family man who works hard to maintain his meager position in life. He’s unremarkable in many ways which makes him the perfect patsy for the joint government venture to exploit. Tapping into his civic duties, Wynne agrees to begin a new business prospect in Moscow. Given little information, Wynne blindly plunges into meetings with the corporate Russian leaders but one man, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) notes a signal from Wynne and their partnership and ultimately their friendship begins.

This is a high stakes game which writer Tom O’Connor and director Dominic Cooke tap into immediately. Oleg aka Alex demonstrates the dangers of his actions in the very first scene and while the story rides a rhythmic wave of tension, the underlying current of life and death is never out of sight. Upon multiple viewings, it’s evident that O’Connor painstakingly plants seeds of verbal foreshadowing. These carefully sown seeds grow gradually to reveal government secrets, historical events which perhaps prior to this film were nothing more than footnotes in life, and finally, the conclusion of the men’s lives.

While “The Courier” is an historical recreation, it also has tremendous heart thanks again to not only the direction and writing, but the superb performances by Cumberbatch and Ninidze. These two characters could not have been any more different—their background, their position in life—but they find a commonality as men, husbands, fathers, the hope for peace and the greater good…perhaps at their own expense.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Wynne finds the subtle characteristics that allow us to connect with him. You can see the hesitancy in his initial response as well as the complacency he has grown to embrace. His confidence lacking, he begins to fancy himself a spy as we see a simper delicately wash over his face upon the completion of his first task. That, of course, quickly fades as he realizes that he is in over his head, ill-equipped physically and emotionally to be a spy.

Ultimately, this is a story of friendship forged under pressure, as precious as a diamond, and Cumberbatch and Ninidze’s authenticity give way to an evocative one. The initial goal of the two men is to parlay information, but upon subsequent meetings, the men learn more about one another and that connection cannot be severed…even under duress. Loyalty is a key element in their unlikely friendship which places us in their shoes, questioning ourselves as to whether or not we could possibly react so selflessly.

Cooke expertly takes us back in time to this era in both England and Russia. We are submerged in the murkiness of underhanded politics as well as the cost analysis. With so many moving parts in this puzzle, it would be easy to get lost, but with succinct writing and editing, the story is a heartfelt and captivating one, clearly relaying this complicated tale.

We remind ourselves throughout the quickly-paced running time of just under two hours that this is based on a true story and it punctuates the harrowing situation that most of us never had heard of. It is these unsung heroes that have unknowingly changed the course of history that need their stories sung from the highest mountaintops. And thanks to the talents of O’Connor, Cooke, and the entire cast and crew of “The Courier,” we can.

4 Stars

“Long Weekend” is a gem of an indie rom-com

March 11th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Long Weekend” is a gem of an indie rom-com”

Finn Wittrock plays Bart, a young man whose relationship, career, and maybe health woes are catching up with his financial ones. Unemployed and no longer able to live in his apartment, he moves his things into the garage of his best friend, Doug (Damon Wayans, Jr.). Sulking about his situation, he goes to see an old movie with a bottle of booze he has smuggled. As the credits roll, he is awakened from his drunken stupor by a kind (and beautiful) soul, Vienna (Zoe Chao). There’s an immediate spark and they spend the rest of the day together, but there are some red flags with Vienna. Who is she, really? And that question is in our minds for much of the film.

Romantic comedies never get old if they’re done with heart and have chemistry. “Long Weekend” succeeds on both fronts, but it also delivers on an element of originality. As we discover, or we think we have discovered, who Vienna is, another critical aspect comes into play which makes us question our own conclusions. With Tones of “Safety Not Guaranteed,” it isn’t until the very end that we know the truth which elicits an involuntary and heartfelt smile.

Chemistry counts and Wittrock and Chao have it in abundance. This burgeoning relationship is incredibly natural even when some of the situations are not–intentionally so. I mean, who goes on a date to open a safety deposit box? But even in that scene, we are so captivated by these two, what they have to share and say, that it goes on the back burner; still relevant, but the focus is the ever-growing spark.

While I’ve not seen Wittrock in a lead role, his charisma, good looks, and authenticity will pave the way for future roles like this. Perhaps he will be the next Hugh Grant of rom-coms. And Chao is extraordinary in her performance as the director helps us feel like we are a fly on the wall watching the next several days unfold. Again, another talented actor given the opportunity to shine and she does. Wayans’ character gives us plenty of laughs as he and on-screen wife balance screaming kids and marriage.

“Long Weekend” delivers a balanced serving of drama, comedy, and romance to keep us on our toes and willingly escape into this land of make-believe. It’s a gem of a film that adds just enough novelty to a tried and true genre to make it fresh.

3 Stars

“The Father” finds empathy in this masterful work of art

March 9th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Father” finds empathy in this masterful work of art”

Dementia. Millions of Americans suffer directly and indirectly from this devastating cognitive disease, but never has a film so eloquently allowed us to step into the shoes and mind of someone with this degenerative disease as in “The Father,” starring Anthony Hopkins. Written by Florian Zeller for the stage with critical acclaim, the playwright strikes out into the world of screenwriting and filmmaking for the first time so that we can see the world through the victim’s eyes. It’s a dizzying portrayal that ultimately changes how you understand and interact with Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, or Dad.

We meet the cantankerously charming older man, Anthony (Hopkins) in his apartment as his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) relentlessly and unsuccessfully tries to help him remember recent events and comprehend what’s to come. Anthony has gone through plenty of caretakers as is evidenced by his newest one, Laura (Imogen Poots) who better understands this man than his own daughter. Day by day, Anthony’s world begins to spin out of control, but he’s grasping for something to steady himself. With nothing anchored, he too begins to cognitively fall, taking us with him.

Anne, attempting to care for her father and somehow balance a life and career of her own is overwhelming, but we see this from Anthony’s perspective. It feels as if we are seated next to him as we watch his daughter struggle with who her father has become. Understanding that their relationship is riddled with turmoil from her youth, the result is compounded at this stage of life for both of them. Loyalty and love is tested as Anne watches her strong, independent father become quite the opposite.

Walking in Anthony’s shoes, we experience what he does; the confusion of person, place, and time and the misunderstanding of information he receives. The small details subtly and profoundly change in his world—room colors, decor, even people—adding the element of confusion which throws off our perception, too. The apartment or flat, a character in itself, is the location of most of the film and we are in a captive environment that unexpectedly changes moment by moment or day by day. The walls begin to close in, uncertain as to the reality of the situation. This is exactly what Anthony is experiencing, but we realize that his reality is the only reality that matters. Anne, however, cannot accept this. “Remember, Dad?” she says repeatedly. A question that becomes a trigger and I am reminded of working with patients in nursing homes, including my own mother and father-in-law, of what not to say. Their reality is the only reality and we must live in that. After several viewings of this film, I catch more and more minute changes creating an overwhelming sense of empathy for anyone who has dementia.

The role of Anthony was written for Hopkins, according to Zeller who presented the film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Hopkins takes on this challenging role and meets it with the expertise you would expect from this consummate actor. Hopkins’ gives his character a wit and brilliance which bubbles beneath the surface of his pained eyes, taking us into his character’s emotional status. Anthony understands that things aren’t right, but his intellect creates excuses to those with whom he interacts, covering up his “mistakes” and placing the blame on others. Lashing out and using his razor-sharp tongue to slice open the heart of his daughter is just one example of the pain he feels and inflicts. And yet, there are moments of lucidity and a glimmer of who this man was at one time. A twinkle in his eyes with a quick witted comment rises to the surface as if he’s flipping a switch and turning on the synapses. And just as quickly as it’s turned on, the switch is turned off and those wires become crossed, plunging him back into a world we do not know. Hopkins’ masterful performance is unparalleled as he gives us access to his character’s cognitive demise.

The entire cast is captivating, seeming to intuitively know the pain those who endure seeing a loved one in this situation. Colman’s dexterity elicits an evocative portrayal of Anthony’s daughter as she richly explores the open wounds of the past compounded by the onslaught of the present lashes. Of course, Zeller’s brilliant script and direction is at the core of the film readying a talented cast to give us commandingly powerful story.

Dementia is a disease that touches almost every family on some level. “The Father” creates empathy in a world frequently misunderstood and with an astute storyline, exceptional performances, and adroitly nimble direction, perhaps it will make your world a better place.

4 Stars

“Crisis” is a gripping portrayal of opioid issues

March 6th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Crisis” is a gripping portrayal of opioid issues”

The opioid crisis isn’t a new problem, but it seems to be an enduring one. “Crisis” highlights this as we watch three very different worlds intersect, collide and explode, thanks to greed and all at the expense of those who can’t benefit.

From the prestigious educational community and big pharmaceutical companies to illegal activity and innocent bystanders becoming victims, “Crisis” is a complicated and gripping tale that easily could be based in truth and reality.

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

3 Stars

Disney’s “Raya” isn’t new, but its message never gets old

March 6th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Disney’s “Raya” isn’t new, but its message never gets old”

An excerpt from The Daily Journal:

While the story of “Raya” is a collaborative effort, the screenplay is written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim as they stitch together familiar themes. Cherry-picking from other adventure stories such as “Indiana Jones,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and even “Mad Max,” “Raya” becomes its own in true Disney style, as it focuses upon the overt messages of good prevailing over evil. However, even though the story arc presents nothing new, the messages within are delivered in unique ways by faces we don’t frequently see. This is well worth noting, and these messages never get old.

To read the review in its entirety, go HERE

“Coming 2 America” can’t measure up to the original

March 6th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Coming 2 America” can’t measure up to the original”

If only I had as much fun as the cast appeared to have!  That’s not to say it didn’t have its moments; it did.  Seeing the first film, “Coming to America,” isn’t a prerequisite, but it does lend itself to a few inside laughs.  However, the collaborative efforts of the writers get you up to speed throughout the film does level the playing field of those who have and have not seen the first one.

The storyline from a female’s perspective is a frustrating one.  Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) becomes the king after his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) departs from this earthly world.  There’s a price on Akeem’s head so he must he find his male offspring from another mother to take his place rather than one of his three brilliant daughters because the law dictates that no female can become a ruler of their country.

Traveling back to NYC, we are introduced to the bodacious former streetwalker Mary (Leslie Jones) who is the mother of King Akeem’s son Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler).  Jones is comic gold, adding that energy and punch the script needed, but we needed more of her to freshen up this story. Thankfully, the familiar barbershop men return to remind us of the film’s predecessor,  eliciting a few belly laughs.

It’s a star-studded cast including Morgan Freeman as himself, Louie Anderson, Tracy Morgan, Wesley Snipes, Kiki Lane and more including many from the cast of the first film.   Incredible costuming from Ruth E. Carter gives the entire film that vivid visual punch, but the laughs seem to lag overall.   There’s a line in the film referencing the fact that sequels can never measure up to the original and they are right.

If you see this, stick around after the credits…way after.  There are a few outtakes and scenes you don’t want to miss.

2.5 Stars

“Chaos Walking” Dystopian Metacognitive Marvel

March 6th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Chaos Walking” Dystopian Metacognitive Marvel”

“Chaos Walking” is an aptly named film as is portrayed in the initial scene where we meet young Todd (Tom Holland) walking along a dirt road.  We are privy to his every fleeting and scattered thoughts, seeing colors wafting above his head that almost help us visualize his mind’s eye.  Upon an encounter with a horseback riding preacher, we see that there is a class system in place and Todd is at the bottom.  Beaten for his internal comments which Preacher (David Oyelowo) also hears, we struggle to discriminate spoken words from thoughts.  We are immersed into the confusing and chaotic world in which these men live.  And yes, there are only men in this dangerous world that in many ways mirrors Earth, but it isn’t.  This new planet is inhabited by a group lead by a menacingly manipulative man, Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen).  There’s more than meets the eye in their origins here but it isn’t until Todd discovers the sole survivor in a spacecraft crash landing–Viola (Daisy Ridley), a girl, that we begin to have our eyes opened as well.

Hunted like prey, Viola can hear The Noise, the men’s thoughts, and must trust Todd to help her escape to find a way to communicate with her ship to avoid an ambush.  Together, they race against time, only to discover there’s a whole different world out there than they realized.

The story is initial incredibly confusing, but in a way that is mesmerizing.  It’s a metacognitive challenge that pushes you to dampen what’s unnecessary and hone in on what is truly important.  Submersed into this world, we eventually find our footing as explanations are given and Director Doug Liman lightens the burden of distraction.  The use of special effects allowing us to see the thoughts and place color values on them makes it an even more lush story.

Holland once again proves that he is so much more than that geeky teen from Spider-Man however there is one moment that brings us back to his super hero talents.  Additionally, this difficult role requires him to react to his thoughts as well as his speech which elicits  a layered and rich performance.   Ridley’s reserved performance fits her role well –we even have a call-back to a “Star Wars” scene–with an awkward chemistry with Holland that is engaging.  Demian Bichir, Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo, Oyelowo, and Nick Jonas round out this star-studded cast to bring us into a believable dystopian world as it cautions us against many scenarios.

While this is a dark drama, and animal-lovers beware, there are elements of humor as well.  Holland’s Todd meets  a young woman for the first time…yes, his thoughts certainly wander and Viola can see and hear them!  One of my favorite and under the radar scenes explains why the men sleep in different areas than the women…oh, how we women can  relate to this!

“Chaos Walking” is a chilling tale reminding us of the importance of taking care of the land beneath our feet and to embrace differences rather than shun them.  Transforming this story from the book, “The Knife of Never Letting Go,” to a visual story is an incredibly daunting task, but screenwriters Patrick Ness and Christopher Ford find an artistically creative way to do so.  The special effects incorporated into the film punctuate these aspects elevating it to an even higher level.  This is an ingeniously challenging film that initially throws you off-kilter, but quickly rights the ship you to give you depth and clarity.

3 1/2 stars

“Raya and the Last Dragon” A familiar message from a unique messenger

March 4th, 2021 Posted by Review, women reviews 0 thoughts on ““Raya and the Last Dragon” A familiar message from a unique messenger”

Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” finds relevancy in today’s world as it branches out into others. Princess Warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran-voice) lives in Kumandra, a “re-imagined Earth” inhabited by 5 civilizations once bound together by the protective guidance of magical dragons. One unfortunate day, as her father (Daniel Day Kim-voice), the king, attempts to reunite the warring groups, the final relic of Sisu (Awkwafina-voice) the Dragon is shattered. With only shards of the powerful glowing gems, it may not be enough to ward off the evil Druun that lurk around every corner, promising to turn them all to stone.

Raya gives us a Kumandra history lesson to get us all up to speed as she explains how the beautiful motherland became such a dystopian abyss. As a young girl, Raya watched her father turn to stone and now the future of the world lies quite literally in her hands. With one last ditch incantation, Sisu returns but she isn’t exactly the all-powerful dragon Raya had imagined. Together they must find the other gems to right the wrongs of society’s past and blow away the minerals that bind all their loved ones for eternity.

Raya is everything any little girl dreams of being—strong, smart, kind, and wise beyond her years. But the trauma and burden placed upon her shoulders has weighed heavily upon her for a decade as she grows into a young woman. Her strength and intelligence intensifies and with Sisu’s hidden attributes, Raya discovers who she truly is. This is a story of love, forgiveness, trust, and most importantly, acceptance of others.

While the story of “Raya” is a collaborative effort, the screenplay is written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim as the stitch together familiar themes. Cherry picking from other adventure stories such as “Indiana Jones,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and even “Mad Max,” “Raya” becomes its own in true Disney style, as it focuses upon the overt messages of good prevailing over evil. However, even though the story arc presents nothing new, the messages within are delivered in unique ways by faces we don’t frequently see. This is well-worth noting and these messages never get old.

Every Disney animated film finds a way to bring incredible humanity and personality to their characters thanks to artistry and casting. “Raya” is no exception to this rule as Tran gives us a well-rounded Raya who must grow up, find the strength to lead, and then the confidence to trust herself. Of course, there’s humor in this film, and while some situations come from Raya as she does silly things like trusting a baby con-artist, most of the laughs come from the comedic overtones of Awkwafina’s Sisu. She allows this dragon an off-kilter personality who exudes love as she stumbles through this adventure transformed as a human version of the dragon. And together with Tran, Awkwafina finds just the right balance to keep us entertained with a bit of slapstick comedy and engaged with a female-centric story.

At the heart of “Raya” is the relevancy to our divided world today. Touching upon the distrust of others because they don’t look like you, or because they have more or less than you, as well as respecting Mother Nature and the balance she provides is pivotal. Seeing this in our own lives, politically and environmentally, effects us as we live. Drawing those parallel lines in this story accentuates the need for forgiveness and understanding so that we may move forward in a more positive way to allow for healing and ultimately growth. And Disney gives us a young woman of Asian decent to lead us in that direction which, in the entertainment industry, is still very much needed.

While “Raya” may not be the most innovative in storytelling, it is an important one and will entertain viewers of all ages. Gorgeously animated characters with whom we connect, “Raya” will be an inspiration to young girls everywhere. It’s also a great conversation starter for parents to talk with children about taking care of our Earth and being open to those who may look different from us.

3 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 1/2 Stars (and Barb)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

“The Dig” A Masterful Work of Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 1/2 Stars

“Wonder Woman 1984” is a mixed bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

“Soul” finds heart in this emotionally complex story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

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

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

Opening in theaters Dec. 25, 2020

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

“Safety” is more than a sports story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

For ticket info

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

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

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

“Dear Santa” renews our spirit for the holidays

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

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

“Sound of Metal” A sensorial masterpiece of empathy

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

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 stars

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