Posts in Review

“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

Chicago filmmaker McKenzie Chinn discusses her new film “Olympia”

July 18th, 2018 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “Chicago filmmaker McKenzie Chinn discusses her new film “Olympia””

Chicago area commercial actress and filmmaker McKenzie Chinn, creates an undeniably compelling story with her first feature film “Olympia” from Cow Lamp FilmsChinn’s tale, inspired by her own question of what it means to make the transition into true adulthood, takes us on a journey of self-discovery with the main character of Olympia who is dealing with a dying mother, a loving and committed boyfriend, and making momentous decisions.  Chinn’s vividly centered artistry shines through her layered characters, integrating graphic art and insightful humor as we are drawn into the character and struggle of Olympia.   We laugh as we identify with her and feel the pain of walking in her shoes while she makes her own unique journey through life. 

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Chinn, a vibrant young woman from Baltimore who moved to the Windy City in 2008 to attend DePaul University’s School of Theater to study acting.    She lit up the small coffee shop as her energy and smile were wonderfully infectious.  We openly discussed her background, the genesis of “Olympia,” and what it means to be not just female in the world of filmmaking, but also a woman of color.  By the end of the interview, Chinn seemed wise beyond her years and from my perspective, she is now standing firmly in the land of adulthood.

Pamela Powell (PP): Tell me about the musical group you perform with.

McKenzie Chinn (MC): We fuse lyrical narrative hip hop styles of poetry with music and sound and perform that…We tend to write a lot about identity … We spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be a black person in the world today, what it means to be a woman in the world today, and what it’s like to be a part of our generation.  I’m really interested in … the power of our own personal narratives and also how powerful it is  when you see your narrative reflected outside of you.  So when you see your narrative in the media, when you see someone who’s similar to you in a film or on TV, it’s validating in a way that’s really critical.

PP:  Do you think things are truly changing quickly thanks to the #MeToo movement or do you think things began changing prior to that?

MC: I think a little bit of both. I think the way that we get to tell our stories is changing very rapidly and the ways in which we get to tell them differently, that has been precipitated by the #MeToo movement.  For instance, in the early [2000’s], we had “Sex in the City” which was fun and great and spoke to a lot of people, but that show was very limited in its scope; limited in how we got to think of ourselves as women in the world.  Now we have shows like “Broad City” and platforms like “2 Dope Queens” [and] I feel like we are getting to encompass more of ourselves, we’re able to be more faceted  and more nuanced and way less apologetic about how we present.  I think the attitude about it is deal with it.  That’s not my problem any more, that’s your problem.  It’s incredibly empowering. I think [these shows] really changed how women get to talk about themselves and how we get to encompass our fuller selves.

PP:  When did you first start telling stories?

MC:  I’ve always been a story teller ever since I can remember.  One of the things I loved doing when other kids would play outside, I would just be writing little stories.  One of the first stories I ever wrote, I’ll never forget it, … was about a unicorn that got kidnapped.  And my sister did the illustrations.

PP:  Do you still have the book?

MC:  No.  I wish I still did.  I can still see my sister’s illustrations and we took it very seriously.  For the longest time, I thought I was going to be a writer.  I was going to study journalism, but then got pulled in the direction of theater which I found incredibly exciting and intoxicating. Then I went to graduate school and that was incredibly consuming. So writing as just an activity that got back-burnered in a really major way.  But when I finished school in 2011, I finished unemployed [and] we were still recovering from the recession. I have all this time and all this expressive energy and so I started writing [again].

PP:  That brings us to your film “Olympia.”

MC:  I got a fellowship that funded a large part of OLYMPIA. It’s called the Annenberg Artist  Fellowship and a component … of that fellowship is having an artist mentor and [Tarell Alvin MCCraney- “Moonlight” ] was my artist mentor. It’s so exciting to be in a moment where people get to encompass fuller selves, not just stereotypes and not just best friends, but to actually have a voice and have a story in an arc … regardless of where they come from… 

PP:  That’s amazing that this was your first project and it was through DePaul!

MC: This was my first foray into filmmaking.  I think I only take really big steps.  [laughs] Like Burnham, one of the architects of Chicago said ‘Make no small plans,’ and I think that’s just a part of my DNA as an artist. It never even occurred to me to make a short.  It was a huge learning curve, but I was smart enough to surround myself with people who I knew had much more experience and could help the vision come to life.

PP:  Tell me about writing “Olympia.”

MC: I wrote OLYMPIA shortly after turning 30 which felt like a major milestone in a way that I wasn’t expecting.    I feel like folks in my generation, the millennial generation, that we don’t have the same milestones that our parents had to move us into adulthood.  You know, my parents’ generation, sometime in their twenties, maybe their thirties, they got married, started a career that they would have for thirty or forty years, got a house,  [and] had children.  These are very recognizable mile markers that confer adulthood.  I felt like by the time people in my generation got to those same points, the rule book had completely changed… The economy has changed and what we’re able to do has changed.  If those things that were mile markers aren’t really the same anymore then what does it mean to be an adult? I found myself turning 30 and feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished what I should have by this age and I should have a much better handle on life.  I should have a 401k and all these things I really have not done much thinking about.’ … Olympia is trying to figure out her career.  She’s in this relationship that has gone really well but that she doesn’t necessarily feel like she owed anything to in terms of like putting anything into stone and her mother is ill.  All of these things are coming to a head.  It’s forcing her to make a solid choice and go in a specific direction.  I think there are variables, but she’s just never had to choose or has felt like it was important to choose until now.

PP:  In the film, Olympia is very connected with her mother who is dying.  Can you explore this topic a little further from a personal standpoint?

MC: While this story is not autobiographical, I definitely pull from my own sense of what’s important and what resonates for me. One of my most cherished relationships is with my mom and fortunately she’s still with me.  I think it would be so incredibly disorienting to me to not have that figure in my life… I remember feeling like that for me would be the breaking point. You have to make a choice now because you don’t have this thing you can lean on, you don’t have an escape hatch.  It’s you now.  For me that’s  adulthood.

PP:  I loved the Chicago drone shots and graphic art!

MC:  The Drone shots were Greg Dixon.  He was dead set on having those kind of shots.  The animation was his idea [too].  It’s collaborative…lifts it to a level that you never imagined.  It changed the whole tenor and tone.

PP:  Tell me about your cast.

MC: As a person of color, it was just very important to me that the story be … around other people of color.  That was very intentional. I think so many times when you’re a person of color in media, you get asked to lean into a stereotype or the tired type of idea like a maid.  Or how many times have I auditioned to be a slave? I’m just over it.  It felt really good to write and perform in a story that, yes, I’m fully black, all the time … I’m just a person living my life. You don’t have to divorce those things.  They can both be true.  And that every single thing doesn’t have to revolve around oppression and marginalization.

PP:  To be honest, I didn’t even realize that everyone was a person of color in the film. 

MC: Isn’t that great that we’re in that place now?  I think so many times we see movies where the cast is mostly black or people of color and people write it off as a black movie.  No, actually it’s just a movie.  It’s really so heartwarming to hear you say that!

Check back to find out where you can see this film!

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 STARS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Book Club” With age, comes love and laughs

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Terminal” a convoluted story lacking any substance

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

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

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

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

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

1 Star for great lighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 STARS

“Avengers: Infinity War” will please Marvel fans

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

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

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

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

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