Posts in Review

Michael Glover Smith finds balance in artistry and entertainment in his 3rd feature film “Rendezvous in Chicago”

October 18th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on “Michael Glover Smith finds balance in artistry and entertainment in his 3rd feature film “Rendezvous in Chicago””

Writer and director Michael Glover Smith creates his third feature film “Rendezvous in Chicago.” Set in the Windy City, Smith continues to tackle various aspects of complicated relationships in three separate vignettes. While the short stories feature three different sets of couples, all at various stages of their relationships, the stories are interconnected by not only location, but by looking either into a crystal ball or the rearview mirror of life. Life and relationships are on a continuum, and Smith finds uniquely intriguing couples to portray this as he strikes a balance between artistry and entertainment.

Smith’s first story begins with Paul (Kevin Wehby) and Delaney (Clare Cooney) who first meet in a bar. This isn’t an ordinary bar scene, however. Delaney is almost hiding in the back of the bar with no one around her, buried in her computer and intent on completing her dissertation. Paul happens into the empty bar to finish his work, only to catch a glimpse of this focused woman. There’s something that pulls him to her as he tries desperately to engage her, but she’s wise beyond her years. The two swap barbs, but then there’s a connection like a strike of lightning thanks to 19th century Russian literature. It’s serendipitous, but Delaney’s too smart to let Paul take the lead. Where she leads him is wonderfully surprising and at times comedic, but always, this woman is “wearing the pants” in the beginning of this relationship.

Cooney is comfortably confident in her portrayal of Delaney while Wehby gives us a familiar performance of an overly self-assured young man who eventually has the tables turned. He beautifully and ever so slowly peels away the layers of his superficial persona to surprisingly reveal a male with deep emotional potential and appreciation of the woman he just met. The pacing and genuine interaction between Cooney and Wehby is refreshingly fun, creating a longing for knowing what happens next with these two individuals.

Smith then introduces us to a couple, Rob (Matthew Sherbach) and Andy (Rashaad Hall), who are madly in love, looking into becoming committed to one another officially. The tenuous excitement is palpable as they discuss unimportant topics of conversation such as dog vs. cat people, but what lies beneath is so much more important. There’s a surprise waiting as Rob has been keeping this a secret for awhile. Their sweet connection to one another immediately connects you to them, pulling you into their situation and anxiously anticipating the outcome.

While the first vignette allows you to recall the spark of interest and even lust or excitement in a relationship and the second creates the beauty of true love, the third story, starring Nina Ganet, is explosive, typifying the end of a relationship. As the first two stories are more traditional in story-telling style, the third is more experimental, pushing the envelope of emotion. Julie (Ganet) walks in on a cheating significant other and we, the audience become her sounding board as the dust begins to settle. This raw pain is exquisitely performed and we feel that we are her best friend, allowing her to bare her soul on this difficult day.

In all three of Smith’s feature films, he concentrates on various aspects of relationships, delving deeply into the stages. (There’s even a fun connection in the first vignette to “Mercury in Retrograde!”) In “Rendezvous in Chicago,” these stages are quite ordinary, however, there is nothing ordinary about these stories. We can all relate to each and every aspect as we recall our first meeting with a potential love-interest, or reminisce about taking that next step in a relationship or even breaking up, but where Smith pushes the envelope is with the strength of the women in the first and third story. Delaney is intelligent and witty, but not every guy is deserving of her. She hammers this home in subtle ways, thanks to the adroit writing skills of Smith and credit to her skillful delivery. Ganet finds power in her emotionally wrenching reaction to her character’s cheating significant other. She’s honest with herself and the viewer, and Smith’s direction creates an unusual relationship between the camera or viewer and Julie. Ganet is simply extraordinary.

Smith also deftly and rather slyly creates a traditional relationship in a gay couple, Rob who is white and Andy who is Black. Smith is able to subtly punctuate the fact that love is the same no matter what your gender, your orientation, or your race. There is a simple beauty in this overtly complex situation.

“Rendezvous in Chicago” finds strength and harmony in three seemingly disconnected stories set in Chicago. With the Second City as a backdrop and even character of the stories, there is so much more that connects these couples at the beginning, middle, and end of their relationships than Chicago. It’s the continuum of life and love that we all experience. Smith blurs the lines of traditional thoughts and storytelling techniques to create a throught-provoking and intriguing montage of love.

Redford, Spacek, and Affleck steal your heart in the charming bank robbery movie “The Old Man & The Gun”

October 4th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Redford, Spacek, and Affleck steal your heart in the charming bank robbery movie “The Old Man & The Gun””

Robert Redford proves that he’s still got it as he gets back in the acting saddle as Forrest Tucker, an elderly gentleman bank robber in “The Old Man & the Gun” which is based on a true story. Planning heists and completing them in the most polite and charming way with his “Over the Hill Gang” comprised of Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), Tucker’s got a twinkle in his eye for both bank robbery and his new acquaintance, Jewel (Sissy Spacek).

The cat and mouse game begins when Officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is on the case as both he and the audience are endeared with this “bad guy.” The robberies continue, leaving behind a string of happy “victims” who had no ill-will toward the gentleman who held a gun to them and demanded their money. This flummoxes officials and in some ways seems to entertain not just viewers hearing of these reports, but also Officer Hunt. Meanwhile, Tucker, going by a pseudonym of Bob Callahan, begins to court the farm owner Jewel. The scenes involving these two brilliantly talented actors are, you might say, the crowning jewel of the film. They light up in each other’s presense and transfer that feeling to the viewer.

Officer Hunt, equally charmed by Tucker and his gang, must somehow put a stop to these robberies and he institutes a different tactic in solving the mystery. He’s a father to two curious children who “help” in piecing together the puzzle. The relationship between Hunt and little Abilene (Ari Elizabeth Johnson) is an authentic feeling father-daughter relationship, endearing us to the very person who is after our charming outlaw! Creating a scenario where you’re rooting for both the good guy and the bad guy is a precariously fun position to find yourself as you watch the story unfold.

As the gang gets bored with the small heists, a larger one is planned, but the consequences may be a bitter pill to swallow at their age. The intensity builds in just the right ways and in just the right amount, and always finding a way to put a smile on your face.

As Hunt uses his detective skills, we are privy to Tucker’s back story, taking us back in time as we learn more and love him even more. To describe a bank robbery movie as sweet and charming seems an impossibility, but writer/director David Lowery along with his exceptional cast, creates exactly that. It’s a leisurely trip filled with lovely self-reflective images and scenery, never rushing you through the emotions of any of the characters.

Redford is exceptional as this gentleman bank robber whose very DNA seems to be programmed for heists. His engaging smile washes over its recipients who are then spellbound, creating an immediate attraction to him. Who other than Redford could possess these attributes to give us such a layered, rich and most importantly, believable performance. When you pair Redford with the equally delightful and talented Spacek, you have a match made in heaven. There’s a sparkle in both actors’ eyes that draws you immediately to them, wanting to spend more time with them and glean their life’s knowledge.

Affleck parallels Spacek and Redford’s performance, finding a calm beauty in his role as not just a police officer, but as a husband and father. Of course, Glover and Waits add to the film just like icing on a cake and the children are the sprinkles, as they give realistically wonderful performances.

Cinematically, the film finds the right tone for every scene; from car chases through corn fields and gazing over a hillside at sunset with horses in the backdrop to closeups allowing the viewer to connect with our heroes, it’s all simply beautiful.

While Redford has had an amazing career as an actor as well as wearing many other hats in life and in the film industry, we are lucky to be graced by his talent in this “truth is stranger than fiction” tale. There’s even a moral to the story, even if the morals are a bit skewed: Always do what you love.

4/4 Stars

The remake of “A Star Is Born” Shines brightly

October 3rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “The remake of “A Star Is Born” Shines brightly”

Actor and now screenwriter, song writer, and director Bradley Cooper undertakes the enormous project of remaking “A Star Is Born” for the third, or some may say the fourth, time. The 1932 George Cukor directed film, “What Price Hollywood?” is said to be the inspiration for the next 4 versions of “A Star Is Born” beginning with the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor, the 1957 Judy Garland version, and then the most well-known 1976 adaptation starring Barbra Steisand and Kris Kristofferson. That brings us to the Cooper and Lady Gaga saga, that is sure to bring old and new audiences to this timeless tale of love, jealousy, and loss.

The premise of the film remains the same, but the situations and circumstances are all brought into today’s world, complete with the original music many of which are co-written by Gaga and Cooper. We meet super star singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) who has obvious chemical dependency issues. After a performance, he happens into a bar where waitress Ally (Gaga) is performing. Awe-struck by her talent, he falls in love with her, but Ally is hesitant. The story unfolds as the two begin a relationship not only in love, but in life and work. Jackson opens doors for Ally, leading her on a path of success as he watches his own shining star begin to fade…much of which is self-destructive behavior. This classic love story pits the heart against the soul, pulling no punches in the final outcome.

From the very first scene as Ally sings a song in French, the emotions evoked are far greater than I could have anticipated. As we watch Jackson’s reaction to her, we completely understand how he feels and we are at once connected to this rising talent matched with a legendary performer. Their chemistry is powerful as we want nothing more than the two to rise to the top of their careers together and live happily ever after…but that wouldn’t be a very good story, would it? The tears must fall and the heart must be broken and as we watch Jackson’s alcohol and drug addiction effect not only his work, but every relationship he has, the story captivates you, taking you on an emotional ride.

Gaga’s talent seems to have no limits as she easily transforms from mega-star musician to a leading lady in “A Star Is Born.” Coupling this with her extraordinary musical skills, writing songs and performing them, adds an unparalleled aspect to the film. Cooper is equally talented in his musical and singing performance, as he replicates Sam Elliott’s lyrically rich, low voice who plays Jackson’s older brother, Bobby. Elliott’s performance, while it isn’t a huge role, is an important one as his character is resentful of his little brother’s talent and success, and is conflicted with his responsibility to care for him. The subtlety in his actions and reactions are indelible, eliciting such a deep viewer response. Gaga, Cooper, and Elliott are simply stellar, giving far-reaching and emotional portrayals of how life, love, and family affects you to the core.

The supporting cast shines brightly, illuminating the production. Anthony Ramos plays Ramon, Ally’s best friend and confidant with care and humor. Dave Chappelle finds a new and different way to create his character, Noodles, with a sense of reality and Andrew Dice Clay tones it down as he portrays Ally’s father, Lorenzo, a limo driver who is trying his best to help his daughter step into the next part of her life. A surprisingly complex performance from Rafi Gavron as Rez, Ally’s manager, finds just the right tone in superficial caring and honest guidance in the work place. Gavron is so subtle, his words become shocking—a truly skillful performance.

The film takes us along the highs and the lows of life and love, never missing a beat or an opportunity to pull on your heartstrings. While the performances are always intriguing, the film does meander a bit in the middle, lacking focus for just a short period of time, but unfortunately, this pulled me out of the moment. Reeling me back in at the end proved more difficult than I anticipated as the film tried to find an ending. These are minor flaws in this enormous endeavor and they do not overshadow the remarkable and engaging performances and musical entertainment in the film.

Cooper’s directorial debut is a strong one, proving that he has what it takes to write, act, direct, and even sing, but even more important, he knows how to assemble the right cast of characters to create a beautiful story worth re-telling for the 4th (or 5th) time. And you’re going to get the soundtrack for this one!

Puppies strive to become guide dogs in “Pick of the Litter”

September 28th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Puppies strive to become guide dogs in “Pick of the Litter””

Documentarians Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr., who gave us the informative and eye-opening film “The Human Experiment” and the heartfelt documentary “Batkid Begins,” are teaming up again to bring us “Pick of the Litter.”

This delightful and captivating story follows five promising puppies — Patriot, Primrose, Poppet, Phil and Potomac — all vying to become a guide dog for the blind. Will any of these furry, four-legged friends have what it takes to make the cut?

Over the course of two years, watching with bated breath, we get to know these dogs, their families and the individuals who need their services to guide. It’s a thrilling year filled with love, disappointment and even heartbreak while balanced by tears of joy. Yes, this “dynamic duo” of Nachman and Hardy have done it again with “Pick of the Litter.”

To read the review in its entirety, go to:
https://www.daily-journal.com/life/entertainment/puppies-strive-to-become-guide-dogs-in-pick-of-the/article_960109e8-c0d0-11e8-a162-3bcddcfd8943.html

Fogelman’s “Life Itself” can’t save itself from meandering and meaningless storylines

September 21st, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Fogelman’s “Life Itself” can’t save itself from meandering and meaningless storylines”

Dan Fogelman, known for his series “This Is Us,” creates a series of vignettes, all inter-related in the much-anticipated film “Life Itself” which premiered at TIFF. The film’s title should not under any circumstances be confused with the brilliant documentary of the same name about the legendary Roger Ebert. That being said, Fogelman’s film starts off strong with a tragic story line as Will (Oscar Isaac) is in a pitiful state, full of self-loathing and completely miserable. His wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde) is gone and during his flashbacks that he creatively visits by way of his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), we learn of how his fairytale love story became a living nightmare, resulting in the events that unfold in the next 4 “chapters” of the film.

Will and Abby’s lives are recounted from birth through college where they met, as Will reminds Dr. Morris that his memories are influenced by his very biased perception. These profound thoughts are hammered into the script the way a sledgehammer would be used for a picture hook. We find that the day that changed Will’s world and many others sets up the subsequent story lines, all connected by the previous story. That one day in Will and Abby’s life, a simple utterance and a small action inadvertently sets into motion dramatic and traumatic consequences for families for generations. The narrator of the film advises us not to get too attached to each segment’s hero because tragedy awaits. And tragic it is.

As the ripple-effect of Will and Abby’s lives continues across the world to Spain, we are introduced to Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), a wealthy owner of an olive farm who invites a worker into his home where he tells him a very, very long story about himself. The strangeness of how this aspect of the film concludes eludes words to describe, but perhaps “unbelievable” would do it justice. Dylan (Olivia Cooke) is also a pivotal character who we see change from an infant to a 6 year old to a rebellious 21 year-old being raised by her grandfather. And POOF! We are on to the next chapter. Within each “chapter,” there is a dizzying array of characters all attempting to be the focus of the story; an impossible endeavor.

The dark cloud constantly hangs over all of these lives, but there are a few moments of humor thanks to our narrator and the introduction of an obnoxiously stereotypical college girl, Shari (Isabel Durant) who somehow got into NYU. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough happiness or levity to counterbalance the seemingly constant heart-breaking misery. You feel that the next shoe is about to drop…but how many pairs of shoes are up there?

While there are aspects of this film that feel like a Hallmark movie on steroids, the acting is much better. Isaac and Wilde, in their short time on screen, somehow create characters that are at once engaging and interesting. It is a standout cast, but unfortunately, the content just isn’t there to allow them to shine. An exception to that is the young Dylan played by Kya Kruse who knocks it out of the park as she expresses her feelings of loss as death which appears to follow her.

The concept of “Life Itself” had great potential as we all like to think that our actions do have an impact on this world, but the film dishes out too much misery and attempts to give too much prolific life advice. With an ever-changing focus of the film taking us along a seemingly never-ending timeline, we just don’t feel connected to anyone but our first characters, Will and Abby. The film actually feels much better suited to a television series which would have allowed it time to delve more deeply into the subsequent lives and characters. This superficial grazing makes it feel more like a soap opera sped up.

While it all does come full circle, quite predictably, the film tried to cover too much and never really covered enough. It’s exhausting and depressing, leaving you with a feeling of remorse for spending two hours in a movie theater. Perhaps a double feature of depression would work; see this and then Fahrenheit 11/9. That’s sure to leave you in a fetal position in the corner for a few hours.

2 stars

“3100: Run and Become” Opens at the Siskel Film Center Sept. 21

September 20th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““3100: Run and Become” Opens at the Siskel Film Center Sept. 21”

“3100: Run and Become” documents the annual Sri Chamnoy Self Transcendence 3100 mile road race, focusing on champion runner Helsinki native Ashprihanal Aalto. Delving into this extreme athlete and the eleven other competitors, documentary filmmaker Sanjay Rawal (“Food Chains”) allows viewers into the history and actual need for running in our quest for humanity and connection.

Completing a 5k race for many of us is a feat, but what about a 3100 mile race? If this sounds extreme, you’re right, but for a dozen individuals, it connects them more directly and completely to themselves and their spirit to live a more meaningful life. The race takes place in the heat of New York City’s summer months as 12 racers from all over the world run a ½ mile city block for 3 weeks.  Runners complete an average of 60 miles per day in the hopes of finishing, but a few hope to win. 8-time champion Ashprihanal Aalto, a spiritual name given to him by the founder of the race meaning “aspiration fire inside the heart,” through interviews months before the race and during, answers those questions of not just why would anyone do this, but also how? The answers might surprise you, allowing yourself to relate to climbing this personal mountain and even inspire you.

We meet Aalto 9 months before the race, at the age of 45, contemplating whether or not he has it in himself to do it yet again.  Sanjay depicts Aalto’s personal journey while learning the history of running and how it still impacts indigenous people in the world. Interspersed between interviews with the race directors, runners, family members, and physicians, we gain perspective from Buddhist monks whose centuries-old traditions of accepting a challenge to walk around a mountain, 60 miles each day for a thousand days.  Sanjay then transports us half-way across the globe, introducing us to Native Americans whose heritage and understanding of nature is quite similar to the monks.  And in between, Aalto and 11 others use mind and meditation to keep running, focusing on completion step by step.

We follow these 12 runners throughout the course of three weeks, watching as their exhausted muscles break down in the excruciating heat, trying to stay hydrated.  The strong of mind, body and soul persevere as others cannot endure.  We feel their pain and exhaustion, urging them to stay strong as they complete final miles. It’s a tension-filled ending, not knowing which one will cross the finish line first as we see the need for not just physical strength, but mental and spiritual.

“3100: Run and Become“ beautifully captures the heart and inspiration of all who close their eyes, take a breath, and open their hearts to life.   This transcendence run is fueled by meditation or as one director described it, “Running is a form of prayer.”  While many of us may never get up off the couch to run a 5k, we can all set a goal of becoming more aware of nature, what she gives us, and appreciate our surroundings as we walk on the Earth beneath our feet.  

Check out “3100:  “ opening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Sept. 21 through Sept. 27 and again on Oct. 6, the day before the Chicago Marathon.

“White Boy Rick” Gritty film deftly portraying injustices

September 14th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““White Boy Rick” Gritty film deftly portraying injustices”

“White Boy Rick” isn’t another “American Hustle” as promised in the trailers, but it is a movie based on the unlikely true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), a drug-trafficking teen who got his start as an informant-drug dealer for the FBI in the mid-1980s.

Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller co-wrote this crazy story with Yann Demange in the director’s chair, starring Matthew McConaughey, Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern.

It’s Detroit, 1984, and the city is suffering from every economic woe possible. Gangs and drug violence are just the tip of the iceberg in this decaying city run by corrupt politicians. Rick Sr. (McConaughey) is a gun dealer, using his shady ways to connect with and sell his wares, as he and his 15-year-old son bond over these illicit transactions.

To read the review in its entirety, go to https://www.daily-journal.com/life/entertainment/reel-talk-white-boy-rick/article_72f4a458-b6a0-11e8-9206-df3e6e258341.html

“Operation Finale”

August 29th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Operation Finale””

Theatrically, Ben Kingsley has and continues to do it all. Starring in “Operation Finale” as the Nazi “Architect of the Holocaust” and war criminal running from authorities, Kingsley perfects his skills to bring us a chillingly real and layered performance, First-time screenwriter Matthew Orton depicts, through painstaking research, the events of Israeli secret agents tracking down Adolf Eichmann based on a tip. Finding and confirming his identity and then abducting him was the easy part of the assignment. Getting him out of the Nazi supportive country of Argentina was death defying, taking 11 days with authorities hot on their trail. To allow Eichmann, aka Ricardo Klement, to leave the country, a signed written permission was necessary and one agent was compelled to rise above the techniques his slain family had received from Eichmann’s underlings in order to obtain this document.

The horrific stories from the Holocaust continue to arise, reminding us of the depths to which people can sink, taking away not only life, but humanity. Director Chris Weitz opens the film with strikingly raw information set in white type on a plain black screen to accentuate the information about the slaughter of Jews during WWII. After a brief yet impactful history lesson, we are introduced to the characters in the film. We are taken back to the late 1950’s when a young Jewish girl, Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson) begins to date the “son” of Eichmann, Klaus (Joe Alwyn). The identity of these young people is at first unknown to one another. By chance, Sylvia’s father (Peter Strauss) is suspicious of Klaus’ father’s identity and contacts authorities. The cat and mouse game has now begun.

The tension is immediately set and we quickly leap forward into the capture of Eichmann by the undercover team. With a major snag in this well-orchestrated plan, we see, day by day, the men’s personalities revealed and their motivation to bring this man back to Israel to stand trial.

Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) is the lone wolf in this pack, attempting to hold on to a sense of humanity and attempting to connect on an emotional level with Eichmann to obtain that signature. Malkin is also a loose canon as is indicated by references to past assignments. The real story lies between Malkin and Eichmann as the two assess one another and play each other’s psychological game. During the conversations, we are frequently brought back in time to Malkin’s nightmares and his loss of his sister and her children as well as his own errors resulting in other’s future nightmares. The guilt and the suffering is immeasurable and “Operation Finale” expertly portrays this through the dark images, suffocatingly closed in shots, and bringing to life the memories of war.

Kingsley’s performance is exceptional as we see him ever so subtly trying to manipulate his abductors. He also shows us there is more to Eichmann than a monster as he cares deeply for his wife and children. The cunning and manipulative skills of Eichmann are expertly depicted by Kingsley, particularly as the final scenes unfold. Isaac is adequate in this role, but at times there seems to be a lack of emotion, disconnecting the viewer from his performance. The pacing of the film is erratic at times as it errantly attempts to find a few chuckles between the characters and even a love story between Malkin and Hanna (Melanie Laurent).

“Operation Finale” brings us back to a time that should not be forgotten, particularly with the rise of White Supremacy in the United States today. The film creates a palpable hatred as we witness gruesome scenarios and still shots of memories of bodies piled high, children murdered, and pits of people awaiting their death. These disturbing images punctuate the realities of this war and the pain that these Israeli undercover agents have experienced.

While there are some issues with pacing and editing as well as Isaac’s performance, “Operation Finale” is an important part of history that should not be forgotten. Stick around for the credits to see footage and clips of the real story.

To read the review of this film as printed in the Friday, August 31st edition of The Daily Journal, go to
THE DAILY JOURNAL

3 1/2 Stars

“Juliet, Naked” Best Rom-Com in years

August 24th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Juliet, Naked” Best Rom-Com in years”

The Academy Award nominated writer, Nick Hornby, hones his romantic and comedic skills in “Juliet, Naked” as Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, and Evgenia Peretz create the hilariously off-kilter screenplay, starring Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O’Dowd. Jesse Peretz directs the film which focuses on Annie (Byrne) whose relationship with Duncan (O’Dowd) is failing thanks to his consuming hobby and interest in the elusive musician Tucker Crowe (Hawke). Just by chance, Annie writes a scathing review about a lost Tucker Crowe album only to connect with the star. Their long-distance communications become much more than that and Duncan may find himself kicked to the curb.

We meet Annie in a small town in England as she talks to the viewers by way of narration, describing her current situation. We find out her father passed away and now fills his shoes running the historical society. We also are privy to her dissatisfaction with her long-term relationship with Duncan and why. His obsession with and over-analyzing Tucker Crowe’s life and music provides plenty of comic relief for the viewer, but doesn’t leave much time for Annie and two have drifted apart. Annie and Duncan agreed to never have children, but Annie’s tune is changing, but with no communication occurring, it seems there’s no hope. When Annie discovers the lost album “Juliet, Naked,” and Duncan discovers a new colleague at the university, the stories diverge, and we follow them both along their new rocky and frequently funny new path.

The primary story is seen through Annie’s eyes, knowing her thoughts and emotions as well as her written communication via email to Tucker. These wonderfully creative thoughts expressed in emails cut to each of their cores, finding safety in writing their honest emotions to someone thousands of miles away. We understand her new-found diversion and secretly root for them to connect, but Tucker lives in the States and has a lot on his plate, too! The humor and anticipation builds as Annie and Duncan go their separate ways and Tucker then enters the picture, much to Duncan’s disbelief.

We are also privy to Duncan’s antics and witness Tucker’s crazy and chaotic family life. The dramatic elements are always there as this film delves deeply into relationships and how they fail, but never, ever does this film forget it’s a comedy. The use of uncomfortable situations that occur in the drama of life also create funny situations that connect you more deeply with the characters. What makes this film different and more relevant is that it integrates today’s technology and communication as well as all the different family trees structures possible.

Byrne has always been the supporting actress in films, and a strong one, but this time she proves that she can carry a film as the lead. From “Bridesmaids” to “Spy,” Byrne has a brilliant sense of comedic timing and now she is able to shine brightly. Of course, O’Dowd, also from “Bridesmaids,” is hilarious with his delivery and his seemingly off the cuff comments as he plays the oblivious professor and boyfriend. But it is Hawke that is truly surprising as he offers an ingeniously funny performance, laughing as much at himself as his character’s situations. He’s as real as he is witty, allowing us to see yet another side of this accomplished actor who’s getting to really show his abilities this year.

“Juliet, Naked” takes the rom-com genre to a refreshingly new level that I haven’t seen since Harry and Sally met. The film never loses its pace or its focus while it is relevant and makes you believe in romance in real life. It was a favorite at the 2018 Sundance film festival and stands the test of time, remaining a favorite film of the year.

4 Stars

“The Happytime Murders” Raunchy anti-muppet movie delivers what it promised

August 23rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Happytime Murders” Raunchy anti-muppet movie delivers what it promised”

There’s a lot of hubbub out there right now about the Anti-Muppet movie, “The Happytime Murders,” and for good reason. It’s certainly NOT a kids’ movie and it certainly IS “R” rated, although it’s for language, “drug” usage (sugar snorting) and sexual references because, let’s face it, puppets really can’t be sexually explicit, right? Tack on an racy, over-the-top trailer and a law suit from Sesame Street suing none other than Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, the director of the film, and you have yourself some free marketing and publicity, aka a public relations directors’ dream!

“The Happytime Murders” is written by Todd Berger who gave us the brilliant independent dark comedy “It’s A Disaster.” Now, Berger and Henson team up to create a story about an alternate universe where puppets and people attempt to live together and sugar is the black market drug. With a rash of puppet murders, specifically the original “Happytime Gang,” from a throw back television series, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and former partner turned Private Investigator, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) team back up with bad blood between them to figure out who-dunnit.

The film uses narration and a tone which immediately conjures images of 1940‘s Film Noir movies like Dick Powell’s “Murder, My Sweet” complete with a slightly disheveled detective and a gorgeous woman (puppet) in need of the detective’s “services” (double entendre here). Beneath the licentious jokes, vulgar insults, and lewd scenes, there lies a few not-so-subtle messages regarding equality, discrimination, and respect for others. The story plays out like any other murder mystery, but because these are puppets, the envelope is pushed to the max regarding sexual references and the crass and offensive language uttered from a puppets lips (which Edwards is unable to read for obvious reasons) jolts you within the first 30 seconds of the film as the f-bombs start flying. At times, you laugh out loud and at others, you roll your eyes. Given the fact that our lead is a woman, in fact all three main characters are female with Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks having the most human screen time, several jokes seemed to make only me laugh. Of course, I was surrounded by a predominantly male group who just didn’t understand what an effort it is to wear heels or pull of an all white outfit!

The pace of the film is fast with only a few lags, but the attention to detail, particularly the scenery, gives the film another element of humor. As this is a G-Rated paper, I’ll omit some of the signage of places Detective Edwards and Phillips went to gather information. Suffice it to say, there was alliteration and many more double entendres. Finding humor in every scene, even ones that went to the dogs as one puppet was killed by a few adorable terriers looking for the squeaker, the film kept its focus on laying the trail of breadcrumbs to find the killer. And you actually felt like these puppets were people very early into the film as you are filled with disdain for those who treated the stuffed creatures as second class citizens and you are shocked as you witness the “murders” with their fluffy innards laying haphazardly everywhere.

There’s no argument that this is a raunchy comedy, but you know that going into it. The puppetry is amazing as it, along with the editing and camera work, makes you believe the puppets are real. That really places a difficult task on the human actors to do well, and they do. McCarthy never disappoints as she develops a friendship with Phil the puppet. Rudolph, while her character of “Bubbles” doesn’t exactly push her acting skills to new levels, seems to have fun portraying this ditzy, lovable receptionist who’s head over heels in love with Phil. Banks, no stranger to this type of comedy (“Pitch Perfect”), creates the squeaky clean teen gone bad character with ease.

“The Happytime Murders” make “Bridesmaids,” “Trainwreck,” and “The Hangover” look pretty tame, but that’s thanks to the use of puppets. There are plenty of ill-humored, sexually explicit films that lack a story, but this isn’t one of them. There’s a story with a few relevant social issues addressed as well. Is it great cinema that we will hear about during Oscar season? Absolutely not. Is it fun, embarrassingly so? Yes. It pushes the envelope and a few buttons, but that’s exactly what it promised to do in the beginning. And thanks to this film, I’ll never look at licorice the same way again.

“Jake Squared” Displays ‘neurotic introspection’ with perfection

August 20th, 2018 Posted by Review, Weekly DVD 0 thoughts on ““Jake Squared” Displays ‘neurotic introspection’ with perfection”

If you could have a chat with your younger self, what would that younger version say?  Would he/she be disappointed or proud?  What words of wisdom would you give yourself now?  That’s exactly what happens in the new comedy “Jake Squared.”   Jake Klein is a 50 year old filmmaker who decides to throw a party while making a film about himself when he was young.  He hires a drop-dead gorgeous and chiseled young man to play this role and the two begin to film the movie at Jake’s home.  (Now, don’t hold that against Jake.  Who would YOU hire to play your younger version? I’d pick Kiera Knightley)  As the filming begins, confusion ensues, but in a completely entertaining way.  Jake appears to have many forms of his younger self appearing at different times, interacting with everyone and yielding many different reactions!  Are these people real?  Is Jake having a nervous breakdown?  Or is he just trying to sort through his complicated love life and past decisions?  

“Jake Squared” is absolutely hilarious while it still asks very important questions about life and how this character has chosen to live it.  Jake’s teenage daughter seems to have it more together than he does.  Many of their interactions are that of a typical father-daughter, but sprinkled into the mix is great maturity and knowledge on the part of  Sarah (Gia Mantegna).  There’s not a moment in the film that doesn’t entertain or enlighten you.  This is a smart comedy, happily pulling the viewer along, requiring you to pay close attention so you don’t miss any key elements.  Jake and his best girl friend, Beth (Virginia Madsen) frequently talk to the camera to break into the viewers’ world, helping you to decipher what is happening to Jake and why he has such a complicated love life.  

Elias Koteas has the arduous task of  playing Jake.  He’s also Jake at 40 and Jake at 30.  Having a conversation with these other versions in the same room was sheer perfection.  You truly believed that these other Jakes were there to question and at times antagonize Jake (50).  Throw in another version of himself at 17 (played by Kevin Railsback), a deceased father and grandfather as well as a young version of his mother to help him figure out why he can’t commit to love, and you have glorious chaos.  The conversations that these characters have with the Jake at 50 are really quite amazing.  He finds out information about his parents’ relationship as well as his own foibles.  He is unlucky in love, but maybe with a bit of “neurotic introspection” as Howard Goldberg, writer and director of the film termed it, he’ll figure it all out perfectly.

The entire cast in “Jake Squared” harmonizes together perfectly, never hitting a sour note.  The timing and interactions enable this film to be more than funny; it strikes a chord in your own life.  Jane Seymour resonates beauty, grace, and love in her role as Joanne.  It is Madsen’s character of Beth, Jake’s best friend with whom he shares his true thoughts and feelings, that completes the complicated circle of friends and family.  She is the epitome of a best friend of the opposite sex.  We can easily read her feelings as she and Jake talk, but Jake is so consumed by the strange events occurring that he is blind to what’s right in front of him.  Madsen portrays that inner struggle perfectly. And I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed watching the hot tub scenes focusing upon Mike Vogel as the young hired actor Jake.
“Jake Squared” is a fast paced, comedically intense film which capitalizes on the energy and talent of not only the cast but also the succinctly written script.  This is a very complicated story, but at the heart of it all it is really quite simple.  It’s about a high energy and confused man trying to find love and not make any more mistakes that he might regret.  Following the story-line feels a little difficult, but rest assured the loose ends are all neatly tied up for a completely satisfying film.  ”Jake Squared” is one of the most creative and unique films I’ve seen in a long time.  How many films have you seen that can make you laugh, sigh with empathy for a situation, nod your head in understanding, feel like the actors are addressing you from the screen, and make you think about your own life and decisions?  My guess is, not many.  Check out “Jake Squared” and enjoy the roller coaster ride of life.  Then ask yourself, “What would my younger self say to me?”

You can see JAKE SQUARED on DVD, iTunes, Amazon or stream it for free if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
4/4 Stars

“Pick of the Litter” Opens the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival

August 17th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““Pick of the Litter” Opens the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival”

Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr. are teaming up once again to bring viewers a meaningfully beautiful and emotional story with the 2018 Slamdance opening night film, “Pick of the Litter.”  The pair are also responsible for this critic’s favorite documentaries of year’s past such as “Batkid Begins” and “The Human Experiment.”  Now, they take us on a journey in the lives of 5 labrador retriever puppies who were bred with the intention of becoming a guide dog for the blind.  We join these puppies from the moment of birth to their final destination, but only the best of the best can make it as a guide dog.  Will any of these 5 puppies, Phil, Primrose, Patriot, Poppet , or Potomac, make the cut?

“Pick of the Litter” is a thrillingly heartfelt story as we get to know the puppies, the loving people who train them in their homes for a short period of time, and two visually impaired people who are hopeful of receiving one of these dogs to help them lead more independent lives.  Tears of joy and tears of sorrow are a constant in this film, just like “Batkid Begins” proving that this Dynamic Duo has done it again. 

We meet the “P” litter as they are literally being born.  3 black labs and 2 yellow.  Your heart immediately melts even though at this stage they look more like fat gerbils than pudgy little puppies.  We know from the very beginning that these dogs were bred for one purpose…to lead the blind.  The process is a long and tricky one as we see them grow into those adorable fluffy fur balls filled with energy and they begin their training by being placed in a home.  This, as we will see, is a tough aspect of the process as the temporary owners get quite attached to their new buddy.  And then we find ourselves predicting which one we think has all the right stuff to make it as a guide dog, rooting for each of them, and being surprised as their personalities develop and they mature.

As the viewer, we get to know these little guys and gals, their home-trainers, and the hopeful future owners needing assistance.  With candid and open interviews with all involved, we are able to walk in each of their shoes, understanding what it takes to love, raise, and then let go of these smart and loving animals.  I fell in love with Phil when he was 5-weeks old.  I can’t imagine raising him and then letting him go, but it is for the greater good—a blind person gaining independence.

The film captures the process of raising and training a guide dog with such exquisite skill that we feel we are a part of the journey.    The camera work brings you down to the dogs’ level and the storyline brings you to the humanity of it.   By the end of the film, it’s like watching a race, seeing which dogs will cross the finish and become the winner of helping a disabled adult.  Those that don’t make it become “career changed,” but that’s not a bad thing.  Perhaps they will become a breeder dog, or maybe just a great companion for someone.  But in your heart, you want each of these dogs to go on and fulfill their destiny, but you know that not all of them have the potential to do this.  This is where your tears begin to stream, most of which are happy tears.

Nachman and Hardy tell a beautiful, educational, and heartfelt story that lifts you up, reminding you of the importance of helping one another and how dogs can be an integral part of our lives.

The film opens tonight, Friday, Jan. 19 at 7 pm at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City.  For more information about tickets, go to Slamdance.com.

“Crazy Rich Asians” More of a travel ad than a love story

August 15th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Crazy Rich Asians” More of a travel ad than a love story”

Kevin Kwam’s novel “Crazy Rich Asians,” adapted for the silver screen by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim and directed by Jon M. Chu, gives us a fairy tale Cinderella story set in China as an American-Chinese woman falls in love with a Chinese aristocrat. The film poses the age-old question of “Can love conquer all?” or at least can Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) overcome an overbearing, judgmental mother to live happily ever after?

The charismatic Nick Young and the independent Rachel Chu are the epitome of the perfect couple, living their lives in New York City and enjoying this stage of their one-year relationship. Nick, unbeknownst to Rachel, is the son of one of the most prestigious families in China. She accepts an invitation to travel with Nick to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and to meet his entire family, but finds that she is completely unprepared for his way of life and his mothers’ attempts to not just unnerve her, but drive her away. It seems she is too American and not from “the right” family and will “never be enough” for her son.

“Crazy Rich Asians” focuses primarily on the extravagance and gluttony of the upper echelon with a lesser accentuation, unfortunately, on the cultural differences and difficulties of those who are first-generation Americans. It’s a slow start to this romantic film that attempts to find its way into the rom-com category with the help of Awkwafina portraying Rachel’s best friend from college, Peik Lin Goh, and her father played by Ken Jeong, but it never quite gets there. While they do add several laughs, particularly as Peik Lin shows up to a gala event in street clothes only to have labeled garment bags for every occasion in the trunk of her car (a trick I may replicate), the film’s slow pace never hits the accelerator hard enough until 3/4 of the way through the story. At this point, there is finally some interesting interaction between Rachel, Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, portrayed with stoic elegance by Michelle Yeoh, and his grandmother, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) which re-engages us with the main characters.

The superfluous side stories detract from our main characters’ story. Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her sometimes scantily clad hubby Michael (Pierre Png) have marital issues and the juvenile jealousies depicted by ridiculously catty behavior of the women are two non-sequiturs in this film. And I’m still disturbed by the creepy voyeurism of Peik Lin’s brother P.T. (Calvin Wong). While these sub-stories may have been an interesting departure in the book, they aren’t pivotal in driving the story forward.

The story may plod along, but Wu’s performance as Rachel endears us to her immediately as she attempts to wrestle with her upbringing, her education, and her heritage. It is her portrayal that allows us to more readily understand the cultural differences and difficulties associated with being a first-generation American. Working together with Golding, we see a wonderfully natural and genuine chemistry between them. And the spry 91 year-young Lisa Lu gives a credible and intimidating performance as the head matriarch of this wealthy family, aka “Ah Ma,” as she exudes the utmost wisdom and grace, just as you would expect in this story.

One of the unexpected highlights of this film is that it may entice you to book a trip to Singapore. Thanks to the cinematography, you can almost taste the sizzling food served from the gourmet food trucks and smell the aroma of fresh seafood from vendors, or feel like you’re walking down the energetic and colorful outdoor market aisles as you gaze up at the extraordinary architecture, enveloped by the vibrant city center’s heartbeat.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is a predictable love story that’s too slow to get off the ground. However, once it hits the road, the elements that create interest such as cultural differences, familial secrets and obligations, the love of a mother and her child , and of course romance, strongly shine through. The added bonus of great costuming and scenery help in forgiving a story-line that finds itself along too many tangential lines.

2 1/2 Stars

“BlacKkKlansman” is sure to start a conversation

August 10th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““BlacKkKlansman” is sure to start a conversation”

From the Friday, August 10, 2018 edition of The Daily Journal:

Spike Lee never has shied away from creating a pointed story about race and our current social and political status, and “BlacKkKlansman” is no exception to this rule.

From the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” to the more recent “Chiraq,” Lee has brought to the forefront our country’s racism and injustices in a dramatically bold way, creating more than art; he creates a platform to stimulate a conversation in hopes of change.

His newest film, starring John David Washington, Adam Driver and Laura Harrier, “BlacKkKlansman” takes us back in time to the 1970s, depicting the true tale of Officer Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the local chapter of a Colorado KKK to thwart an attack

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

“Dog Days” Predictable and sappy puppy love story highlights rescuing dogs

August 9th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Dog Days” Predictable and sappy puppy love story highlights rescuing dogs”

From the beginning of time, man’s (and woman’s) best friend has been by his (and her) side and Hollywood is happy to cash in on our love of these furry four-legged friends. From “Lassie,” “Petey” (“The Little Rascals”), and “Toto” (“The Wizard of Oz”) to “Benji,” “Beethoven,” “Baxter” (“Anchorman”) and even “Buddy” the basketball playing dog, creating a film about dogs brings in the viewers and even popularizes a particular breed. Now, we’ve got “Dog Days,” a romantic comedy that will popularize adopting rescues while it tugs on your heartstrings in this predictable and rather sappy, but enjoyable movie.

Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama pull out all the stops in writing this screenplay as Ken Marino directs his cast of canines and humans. The writers depict every scenario possible from abandoned and found dogs and runaways to problematic and aging dogs along with their owners’ love and life problems. The only thing missing were adorable puppies, but that’s not the underlying message in this film. It’s to rescue a dog and give him his “furever” home.

“Dog Days” is like a combination of every dog movie and “New Year’s Eve,” “Valentine’s Day,” or “He’s Just Not That Into You,” films with multiple storylines of love. This movie revolves around five very different sets of people (and story lines) who all become connected via their dog situations. Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev), a successful L.A television morning show host has her adopted dog Sam who’s depressed after Elizabeth’s boyfriend cheats on her. She meets Jimmy (Tone Bell) and after a rocky start, their love of dogs helps them discover love again. Dax (Adam Pally) is a starving musician tasked with the responsibility of caring for Charlie whose owner, Dax’s sister, just gave birth to twins. Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) finds a purpose in life and uses her degree for more than serving coffee as she finds Gertrude, a Chihuahua and connects with a dog rescue organization run by Garrett (Jon Bass). Grace (Eva Longoria) and her hubby (Rob Corddry) finally adopt a little girl who finds an elderly gentleman’s dog (Ron Cephas Jones), lost due to a wise crack from the young pizza delivery boy, Tyler (Finn Wolfhard).

If that sounds like too much going on, you’re right. It is. But eventually the stories collide in a very predictable and benign way and you find yourself rooting for the outcome that you absolutely know will happen. There are love stories, unlikely friendships and new families in the making, and the possible loss of a rescue organization’s home. “Dog Days” takes all of these topics and uses more sentimental strokes than Nicholas Sparks ever dreamed of. It’s one of those superficial feel-good films with little substance and total escapism however, there are plenty of laughs along, especially if you’re a mom and/or a dog owner. Unfortunately, there are also stilted and unsurprising moments, but in the end, if you’re a romantic at heart and a dog lover, it’s a sweet schmaltzy fun. You can even gloss over the fact that everyone lives in perfect homes, except Dax, and the newborn twins look to be about 3 months old. And if you’re wondering about the veterinarian’s diagnosis of the helmet-wearing Chihuahua, it’s accurate. I checked.

The human cast adequately fills their roles, but it’s Jasmine Cephas Jones’ voice that captivates you and you hope she’s in more scenes, listening to her sing in gorgeous dulcet tones. Bell and Dobrev have a natural chemistry on screen that pulls you into their relationship, suspending belief in the reality of love. Pally, of course, stands out as the comedic force, and Bass portrays that charmingly awkward underdog to root for while giving us a few chuckles along the way. Corddry, who’s usually hilarious, seems to miss the mark, being stifled by a lack of dialogue. Not surprisingly, the dogs are the stars of the film with remarkable camera work to hone in on just the right reaction to capture our dog-loving hearts.

“Dog Days” is exactly the movie you’re expecting filled with endearing stories about humans and their counterparts as it accentuates the love a dog can give to fulfill your life. Additionally, rescuing dogs from shelters is a main aspect that just may push viewers in the direction of helping a homeless pup find his or her “furever” home. Stick around for ALL of the credits as they roll the edits. You’ll laugh out loud and then wonder why they didn’t do more of this type of humor throughout the film. It would have created a much more entertaining film for adults. Parents, this is not a film for young kids! There are some drug usage references and the pace of the film is rather slow as it focuses on the human interactions and relationships so little tykes are not going to be entertained.

2 1/2 stars

“Puzzle” fits all the pieces together perfectly

August 3rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Puzzle” fits all the pieces together perfectly”

***WARNING:SPOILER ALERT***

The 2009 Argentinian film, “Rompecabezas” (“The Puzzle”) by Natalia Smirnoff, has been rewritten by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (“Norman”) to create a sublimely authentic American adaptation portraying a woman’s need for self-worth and identity while accentuating the influence of religion, specifically during the season of Lent. All of this is created by Agnes’ (Kelly Macdonald) newfound skill of puzzling. Who would have thought that a skill, thought to be more of a solitary endeavor, would lead to so much interaction and discovery!

Agnes is an introverted, unfulfilled, and sheltered wife and mother of two older boys. Her mundane and subservient life is turned upside down when she discovers a new outlet: competitive puzzling. As the family and her community prepare for the upcoming Catholic High Holiday of Easter, we see Agnes’ life unfolding to encompass many aspects of the Easter story including suffering, denial, betrayal, and a rebirth. “Puzzle” is an eloquently evocative film addressing current attitudes still ingrained in our society regarding women’s roles while utilizing the undercurrent of religion and a game.

In many ways, the concept of a woman’s role hasn’t changed in centuries. Women are still expected to be the nurturers, the caregivers, and the caretakers, ultimately putting their own needs not only on hold, but sometimes buried for good. We get a sense of this situation with Agnes in the opening scene as she scurries around during a birthday party, making sure everything is in order, waiting on everyone and ensuring their happiness. Moments later we surprisingly and sadly realize it is her birthday celebration. We later learn that she has sacrificed her own dreams and education in order to raise her children, one of whom belittles her with his words while watching his father do the same with his actions.

Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as one of her birthday gifts and sits down to easily put it together. Enjoying this different type of concentration, distracting her from her other responsibilities, Agnes ventures into New York City to purchase another one. Catching her eye in the store is an ad for a puzzle partner. Excitedly yet timidly, Agnes contacts Robert (Irrfan Kahn), a wealthy bachelor with whom she develops more than a friendship. Through Robert, Agnes’ eyes are opened to a whole new world filled with information and emotions to which she had previously been oblivious. In essence, this is the beginning of Agnes’ “transformative” experience.

Throughout the entire film, Agnes’ deep sense of commitment to religion is obvious, but it is religion and the celebration of Easter that truly drives the story forward, drawing parallel lines between this ancient story and Agnes’. The symbolism in the film punctuates the emotional tone as Agnes begins to discover herself. Early in the film, we see the daytime moon, a mythical reference that a storm is coming, but in religion, it is seen as the second and inferior luminary created by God. Both interpretations seem correct as the moon is prevalent in many of the scenes, Agnes always gazing upward toward it. She recognizes that she too is secondary in her family’s lives and feels inferior, but that “storm” that lies ahead will change her forever.

The polar opposites of light and dark are also vividly captured in “Puzzle” from the opening scene to the final one. Closed in, dark shots reflect Agnes’ life in the beginning, but as she opens up and explores her world and her own feelings, there is a brightness shined upon her. The open and bright surroundings are a direct reflection of who she is becoming, just as the season of Lent comes to a close with Jesus’ coming into the light and being resurrected. Agnes begins to stand up for herself, voice an opinion, and be more independent. This new attitude is shocking to her friends and family, but there is an inner lightness that is now evident in her.

Discussion and open ignorance about other religions create another interest in Agnes’ world. Buddhism and the concept of happiness strike a chord in her that will create a symphony of emotions later on. As Agnes ventures out into the world of puzzles with Robert, sneaking away from her family and her expected daily tasks, she begins to lie. While the guilt is evident, particularly when the Parish Father asks if she needs to have confession, she can’t begin to confront her own actions. Meanwhile, her son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) confesses his innermost fears and frustrations, looking to her for support and guidance. During several key scenes, Ave Maria is heard, accentuating the pushing and pulling toward and away from God and home. She has been blessed, with her sons, but will she renounce that in order to hear her own voice set to her own beat?

While Agnes may be more aptly compared to Peter of the disciples as she turns her back on her religion and her Catholic roots, betraying her husband as she falls into Robert’s arms, the burden of lying has become too much.
This is the darkest point in Agnes’ life, coinciding with Easter Sunday. The slow emotional death she was experiencing found a new spark of life and now, as the tomb is opened and Christ is risen, Agnes determines if she is reborn as well.

Kelly Macdonald demonstrates her versatility as an actress as she eloquently and subtly performs as Agnes. Her understated skills give Agnes the depth and believability that create a woman many of us understand if not even identify with. Macdonald’s relationships with her husband, Robert, and her sons create such authenticity that the dialogue becomes even more powerful, pushing you to tears particularly during the scene with she and Ziggy.

Relationships identify Agnes and it is these relationships that shine a light on the strength of all the cast. David Denman’s performance as Agnes’ husband brings a familiar strength to the screen, representing many marriages and father figures. Austin Abrams typifies so many teens and creates another realistic character in his youthful yet skillful way as Gabe, but it is Weiler’s performance as Ziggy that stays with you, long after the final credits roll. And Kahn is simply extraordinary as Robert finding absolute harmony with Macdonald in this film. The deft direction, exceptional writing, and extraordinary cast make “Puzzle” a film that will stand the test of time and will certainly speak to many of us, perhaps pushing us to find our own inner voices.

4 Stars

To read the interviews with Marc Turtletaub, go to

‘Puzzle’ director Turtletaub talks female-centric film, collaborating genders

and
http://www.daily-journal.com/life/entertainment/interview-with-marc-turtletaub/article_e48fd260-8e85-11e8-be1f-3fd8fd4477f8.html

“Maynard” Depicts a great American leader and first Black mayor of Atlanta

July 25th, 2018 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on ““Maynard” Depicts a great American leader and first Black mayor of Atlanta”

Samuel D. Pollard writes and directs “Maynard” depicting the extraordinary life of Maynard Jackson, Jr., Atlanta’s first Black mayor in 1973. With touching current personal interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, as well as documented archival footage, we understand this courageous man who was called upon to help set the foundation for racial equality in the South. Once again, thanks to the focused lens of filmmaking, we see our American history more clearly.

Maynard Jackson was bound for brilliance and service from the moment he was born and his grandfather, civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs knew it as he presented the newborn with the gift of a watch saying, “Time is important and he must know that.” In Jackson’s relatively short life, he created a more level ground upon which corporate Atlanta must play. While he struggled, ironically so, with time management, he utilized his charisma and intelligence to become involved in the political arena, gaining the respect of the people, both Black and white.

Finding his footing was no easy task as he initially struggled in law school at the age of 18. Thanks to the recognition of one professor, Jackson received the guidance he needed in order to find his path in life. Graduating with a law degree several years later at a different institution, Jackson plunged, at first unsuccessfully, into politics. His failure didn’t dissuade him; it only fueled his knowledge and honed his abilities to find the right course.

The film creates a beautiful linear story as it weaves together interviews from his children, his ex-wife, and his widow, as well as prominent figures such as President Bill Clinton, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. He was truly a “game changer” knowing how to unify and integrate people through intellect and common sense. He’s called the Father of Affirmative Action for a reason and the story is simply brilliant as to how he finds a way to do this. With impeccable integrity, Jackson brought Atlanta to a high point only to see one of the most scarring issues occur under his watchful eye: “The Atlanta Child Murders.” It was a grave time for the community and his response was criticized by many. The use of archival photos and newspaper clippings brought us into Jackson’s mind and heavy heart as he attempted to find the perpetrator. These difficult issues were balanced by giving us humor in the film as we learned about his love of food and how he spent time with his children. Of course, things are never all roses and this was true with his marriage as he divorced and remarried, but he never lost sight of being there for his children even when they clashed.

“Maynard” creates a realistic impression of this great man, communicating his flaws as well as his accomplishments. This approach allows the viewer to more fully understand and appreciate what he did, particularly during such racially volatile times in the Southern states. Perhaps Maynard Jackson continued to pave the road that Dr. Martin Luther King started, creating a less hostile environment for future Black and minority leaders. The respect and articulate lessons he provided in the short time he was here made a difference and we can certainly learn from him now.

“Maynard” is available on all digital platforms such as iTunes. Follow the film on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/maynardmovie, Facebook at https://m.facebook.com/maynardmovie/ or go to the website http://maynardmovie.com for more information.

“Mama Mia! Here We go Again” Light, sweet and fun!

July 20th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Mama Mia! Here We go Again” Light, sweet and fun!”

“Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” follows the story of the original, picking up 10 years later with Sophie (Amanda Siefried) attempting to have a grand opening of the hotel where her mother and she once lived. Donna (Meryl Streep), has passed away, leaving a gaping whole in everyone’s lives and Sophie, in her own love situation with Sky (Dominic Cooper) attempts to carry on with the help of Sam (Pierce Brianna) and all Donna’s cohorts. Simultaneously, the film tells the story of Donna, how she met her three gentlemen, all of whom may be Sophie’s father, and how she came to the Greek Island.

Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) creates a much richer story, set design, and overall product that the first “Mama Mia!” It’s stunningly beautiful with the bold color scheme, captivating you visually as you anticipate a familiar ABBA song. While there are a total of 20 ABBA songs, there are some deep unheard cuts along with several familiar ones, timed perfectly that will make you smile or even laugh aloud.

The story, unfortunately, has a rather slow start to it. To say it’s cheesy in the beginning is accurate with a rather lackluster introduction to both Donna (Lily James) and Harry (Hugh Skinner). It’s not until we meet Bill (Josh Dylan) that things get a little more interesting and we get to know Donna and her vibrant personality, her need and her longing to be loved along with a sense of adventure. From this point, you’re hooked as you love the songs and you are truly having fun watching the back story unfold running parallel to the current day plight that Sophie is experiencing.

Casting with the exception of Harry is extraordinary. James captures our hears with her song, her energy, and her charm. She externally represents what we all envision our youth to have been. She embodies the vibrancy and youthful carefree attitude we all long to get back. Additionally, it’s almost doppelgänger perfect for Tanya (Christine Baranski/Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Julie Walters/Alexa Davies). The film flawlessly and creatively bounces back and forth between the present and the past, gaining a greater understanding of the almost 40 years that have passed.

The sequel to “Mama Mia!” Is sheer fun and as you watch the actors, you know they are having a blast as well. As we see Skaarsgard and Firth holding one another at the bow of the boat in Titanic form, you can’t help but join them in a very broad smile. This is just sweet, care-free, good fun once you get past the first 30 minutes.

If you were a fan of the first one, you’re going to love this second one. To listen to Pamela Powell on The Mix 94.5 talk about this film, go to SOUNDCLOUD at ” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>MAMA MIA ON THE MIX

3 STARS

‘Unfriended: Dark Web’ brings genuine horror to the big screen

July 20th, 2018 Posted by Review, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “‘Unfriended: Dark Web’ brings genuine horror to the big screen”

Blumhouse Productions welcomes the millennial generation to their newest nightmare, “Unfriended: Dark Web.” This pitch-black horror film taps into technology to disturb the minds of anyone who uses the computer to stay connected.

As a group of college friends gather virtually for game night, Matias (Colin Woodell) fires up his “new” laptop only to find that a sick and twisted underground group is threatening all of their lives unless the laptop is returned to its original owner.

Stephen Susco, no stranger to horror films, wrote and directed this undeniably psychologically frightening film. Having created the “Grudge” series and “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” Susco hones his horror vision to give viewers the epitome of this genre in today’s computer-driven world. Building tension from the very beginning, Susco expertly introduces characters that we immediately care about.
To read the review in its entirety, go to The Daily Journal’s Friday, July 20th edition

http://www.daily-journal.com/life/unfriended-dark-web-brings-genuine-horror-to-the-big-screen/article_cdea7e5a-893c-11e8-9da2-47f264ffc173.html

“June Falling Down” A standout first feature film from Rebecca Weaver

July 18th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““June Falling Down” A standout first feature film from Rebecca Weaver”

“June Falling Down” depicts June, a small town girl, heading home to sort through the emotional loose ends she left behind a year ago after her father died.  Rebecca Weaver writes, directs, and stars in this award-winning and deeply personal character study film.  With a small ensemble cast and a crew of two, Weaver’s words and perspective will bring us all home again, to a place perhaps we all have a few loose ends to tie.

June has been traveling since her father passed away, but her best friend’s wedding is looming and she has no choice but to attend.  Filled with fear and remorse for things we are not yet privy to, June lands in her Midwestern hometown, feeling a sense of comfort with the view of corn fields, forests, and the lake.  But even within this environment, there is a feeling of loss, anger, and resentment.  As she reconnects with her old friends, confides in new ones, and lashes out at her mother, she must face that best friend, Harley (Nick Hoover) who, as any best friend would, confronts June, her decisions and the consequences thereof. 

“June Falling Down”  brings us all back to a time in our lives where we find ourselves at crossroads, but in this case, June’s tragedy in life pushes her into unfamiliar territory, a place we hope no young adult would have to experience.  Her emotions are honest as she roller coasters up and down, attempting to understand herself.  This is June’s journey, and it is one she must travel alone to find her individual answers and sense of resolution.

This is Weaver’s film debut and a remarkable one at that.  Her intuitive timing and dialogue paired with scenes capturing no dialogue at all, but eloquence in silence, elevates the film and the story.  Beautifully shot by her partner, Chris Irwin, who also created the outstanding soundtrack, the two bring life to a story that at times waxes and wanes, but always connects you.  Weaver is also responsible for editing this film which stood out artistically, allowing you inside her character’s heart and mind, and  creating a more complete and multidimensional character.

“June Falling Down” is Weaver’s first film, but it most certainly will not be her last.  Through life, she will have many more stories to tell and if “June” is an indication of her storytelling, she’ll be sharing many more meaningful tales in the future.

Check it out on iTunes available now.

“Skyscraper” Held together with duct tape

July 11th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Skyscraper” Held together with duct tape”

Ridiculous escapism continues this summer with Dwayne Johnson’s (aka The Rock) newest action thriller “Skyscraper,” written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber who gave us “We’re The Millers” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”  Unfortunately, his latest film doesn’t have the same comedic punch as these films, making it just a standard summer action film.  Think of it as “Backdraft” meets “The Towering Inferno” and all the “Die Hard” films combined, but without the intensity.  

Will Sawyer (Johnson) is a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran, suffering physically and mentally from a job gone deadly wrong ten years ago.  Losing his leg, but meeting the love of his love, marrying, and having two adorable children, Sawyer now has a new life and career.  As a securities specialist, he is hired to approve a new building’s security and safety measures for insurance purposes.  This Hong Kong building is the tallest in the world, pushing the envelope in every way, but Sawyer soon finds that there’s a conspiracy brewing that endangers his family.  As he physically fights off bad guys, he watches as the building is burning with his family inside.  He’s been framed and double-crossed, but he will go to any length to save his wife and children and clear his name including using duct tape.  Yes, duct tape.  It truly does do it all.

As you can already imagine, the bad guys are after something valuable and only Sawyer can save his family, but his wife, played by Neve Campbell, is one tough and smart woman, protecting her children and staying calm as a cucumber in the face of imminent death.  It’s great to see more roles being created for women and lines uttered by younger girls that are not the stereotypical damsel in distress utterances.  And Campbell and Johnson actually have some chemistry on screen making you believe in this family.  The remainder of the cast, however, are stereotypical with Roland Moller playing Swedish Kores Botha, the muscle of the bad guys, and the tough as nails Hannah Quinlivan whose hair doesn’t tussle as she does.  

“Skyscraper” misses the mark in what could have been a humorous action thriller.  Johnson has the comedic timing to do so and we do see a few glimpses of that, but there are so many missed opportunities that you wonder if Thurber was really trying to make us believe in what we were seeing on the screen.  The stunts are incredibly captivating as Sawyer drives a crane and swings a hook into a high floor of the building, jumping from this machine into the new opening hundreds of floors above, as he holds on with only one muscular arm.  Using his prostethic leg in inconceivable ways, he then uses duct tape on his hands and feet to scale the outside of the building.  Even his character audibly confides that it’s a stupid idea…which gets a chuckle out of the audience.  But alas, the film takes itself too seriously and the ridiculousness is just that—ridiculous.

The body count is high in this one, but the gruesomeness is generally left out.  It’s the camera angles and slick editing that create the intense moments in “Skyscraper,”  but the suspense just cant sustain itself as you look at your watch wondering if its been 2 hours.  There are plenty of old-fashioned fight scenes, some of which I still can’t fully explain where Sawyer can’t outmuscle a slightly built man in one scene, only to take out 5 combat trained thugs in the next scene.  But its Sarah (Campbell) that has one of the best punches of the movie which comes out of the blue making you cheer inside. 

 

“Skyscraper” isn’t going to be remembered a year from now and Dwayne Johnson will not be the next John McClane’s “Die Hard.”  It’s just a summer filler film, a way to get out of the summer heat and into a burning building to cool off. 

2 Stars

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Exchanges the humor for action

July 11th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ant-Man and the Wasp” Exchanges the humor for action”

 

It’s summertime, and you know what that means, don’t you? It’s sequel time!

And before “Mama Mia: Here We Go Again” arrives July 20, we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” the sequel to “Ant-Man” with returning director Peyton Reed and the familiar faces of Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Michael Douglas and Michael Pena.

What doesn’t return is the nonstop laughs, as the sequel falls into the footsteps of every other super-hero movie, dragging out the endless fight scenes, lulling us into boredom. What stood out in the realm of the comic book films for those of us who aren’t huge fans of the genre has become the typical Marvel film.

To read the review in its entirety go to The Daily Journal’s Friday, July 6th edition.

“Three Identical Strangers” Adoptees’ dreams become a nightmare

June 28th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Three Identical Strangers” Adoptees’ dreams become a nightmare”

Tim Wardle’s 2018 Sundance award-winning documentary tells the real life stranger-than-fiction tale of a set of triplets reunited after being separated shortly after birth, adopted into three different yet closely located families. It was just a matter of time before these boys “bumped into” each other. That day came in 1980. They were 19 years old and coincidentally, Bobby enrolled in the same community college that his then-unknown brother Eddy had attended the year before. Things quickly gained momentum and the twins were reunited and became a national headline. Shortly after, a third brother was identified, David, and the triplets were a television and print sensation.

This sounds like an unlikely fairytale, but there is a much darker side to the story. On the surface, it’s a beautiful tale, one of happenstance, however, as the young men delved more deeply into the circumstances behind their adoptions, it became twisted and sinister… an unethical human experiment.

 

 

Wardle eloquently uses interviews with Bobby and David, both telling their perspectives of what happened, recounting memories of their youth, their troubles, and their happy reunion. Wardle then intertwines re-enactments of various situations along with actual television footage, of which there is a lot, to seamlessly stitch together an unbelievable tapestry of not just these men’s lives, but perhaps countless others who were adopted through the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York City.

It’s a gripping tale that seems inconceivable; sets of children who were intentionally broken apart and placed in homes which were thoroughly researched and manipulated for the benefit of research. Dr. Peter B. Neubauer was at the helm of this project and we see through the eyes of Bobby and David how he has negatively impacted these men. Locating other sets of twins adopted from this agency and “enrolled” in the project, Wardle shows that the impact isn’t just with the triplets. Even more disturbing is the interview from Neubauer’s intern/assistant during 1968 as he shares his views and knowledge. It’s not just a need to know the answer to the age-old question of nature versus nurture, but it’s the moralistic and ethical boundaries that should never be crossed. Never.

“Three Identical Strangers” hit way too close to home for me. I’m from New York and adopted in 1964 at the age of 4 months from an orphanage and watching this film put more pieces of my own puzzle on the table before me. Visiting surrounding areas of my hometown, I frequently get mistaken for someone else. Do I have a twin? It’s something I’ve always wondered, but now, I also wonder if Neubauer had other assistants and continued the research in other locations of NY. As an adoptee, this film was eye-opening and devastating. And as a critic, the film is visually and intellectually compelling as the story unfolds like a mystery.

Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” is a documentary reeling into the realm of a mystery. It’s absolutely spellbinding. The crazy coincidence of finding a twin, happily reunited and then finding another to become long-lost triplets is beautiful…but the beauty soon dissipates into a chasm of darkness. As it raises more questions for those of us who were adopted, particularly in the NY area, it’s also a film for those who love to be entertained and enlightened by stranger-than-fiction tales.

”Three Identical Strangers” opens in limited release on June 29 and then wider on July 6.  Chicagoans can see this amazing film at the Music Box Theatre on July 6.  https://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

4 STARS

“Woman Walks Ahead” An unlikely love story capturing injustices and prejudices of an era

June 27th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Woman Walks Ahead” An unlikely love story capturing injustices and prejudices of an era”

WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, a favorite of both the Tornto International and Tribeca Film Festivals  opens this weekend in limited release.

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

Susanna White spoke with me about the making of one of the best films of the year.  Check out the interview at FF2 Media

“Boundaries” Finds forgiveness in father-daughter road trip film

June 27th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Boundaries” Finds forgiveness in father-daughter road trip film”

“Boundaries,” starring Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, and Lewis MacDougall, is a unique road trip film careening around the dangerous curves of honesty, anger, and resentment while searching for the signs of understanding and respite. Shana Feste writes and directs this frequently humorous father-daughter drama filled with candor, reminding us of the importance of family and forgiveness.

Laura (Farmiga) is a single mom of a teenage son with a unique artistic eye who also rescues and then lives with a menagerie of dogs and cats. Her love life is no less chaotic as she craves love yet never seems to find the right type of love or man. With her son creating havoc in school and her estranged father (Plummer) constantly calling, she attempts to find balance and understanding in her life through therapy. But the best therapy turns out to be bailing her pot-dealing father from his senior living center where he is no longer welcome.

Feste’s semi-autobiographical drama is beautiful, both visually and emotionally, capturing the traumatic scars that are visible in Laura’s life and how she raises her own son. Laura’s quirky yet lovable persona also captures our heart as we watch her struggle and make a few inexplicable decisions. Her relationships with Henry (MacDougall) is endearing as his character exhibits wisdom beyond his years, and at times, ties Laura and Jack (Plummer) together. It’s feels as if both Jack and Laura have put on the correct prescription of glasses to finally see one another for who they truly are.

The film gives us a complete story, with all three main characters experiencing growth and resolution. Given the fact that, as Feste indicated in a recent interview, this is based on her own life, the story takes on an even more touching and impactful meaning.

Farmiga’s performance gives Laura a whimsical touch as the mother who hasn’t yet resolved many of her own issues including her inability to understand her father’s lack of commitment to the family as she was growing up. She fluently conveys this as she is always questioning her every move in her adult life. Farmiga has a sense about her that is loving and kind, portraying Laura as the caregiver who never really remembers to care for herself. By the end of the film, we are so connected to her that we feel as if we know her as a friend.

Plummer, of course, is outstanding is this very unique role.  Feste stated to me, this “sophisticated” Shakespearean trained actor easily pulled off the creation of a drug dealing, selfish yet remarkably lovable father and grandfather. He creates a fun-loving character while attempting to make amends with his daughter and his past. And of course, that twinkle in his eye will charm you just as Feste said her own father had.

MacDougall who you might recognize from “A Monster Calls” completely discards his Irish accent for a convincing American one, and hones in his skills as a struggling yet mature son, taking his place in helping his mother and growing up along the way. The humor in the film comes from Henry’s interactions with Jack. We see Henry’s eyes opening as he helps his grandfather deliver weed to the various customers including Henry’s own estranged father, Leonard (Bobby Cannavale). Henry, too, must deal with his own abandonment issues. MacDougall’s skilled performance is both unexpectedly heartfelt and believable. He credits this, as he said in our interview, to something he learned from Plummer and Farmiga. “I learned about the importance of not to overact. You don’t need to do that. A lot of it is in the eyes really.”

“Boundaries” is a unusual road trip film, embracing the resiliency of relationships and the importance of forgiveness and understanding. The humor and love can be felt in every scene with an ending that is wonderfully satisfying. Feste’s exceptional writing and directing along with a remarkably talented cast give this film no boundaries when it comes to understanding family. And it’ll make you want to go out and rescue a cute little furry animal, too!

To read the interview with Feste, go to FF2Media.com

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