Posts in Review

“Richard Jewell” A story from the past and for our current times

December 10th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Richard Jewell” A story from the past and for our current times”

Just in time for Oscar consideration, Clint Eastwood throws his hat into the ring with “Richard Jewell,” the story of the security guard who was unjustly blamed for the 1996 bombing in Centennial Park during the Olympics in Atlanta. Eastwood knows exactly what makes a good film—start with a good story and then tell it well. There are no fancy bells and whistles, just a jaw-dropping series of events, all derived from Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article and Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin’s book “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle.”

We meet the hapless Jewell portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser who you may remember from “I, Tonya” as he works as a supply clerk in a law firm. His off-beat eccentricities make people uncomfortable, but the driven loser has his eyes on the prize—becoming a police officer. Time goes by and his “eccentricities” get him ousted from law enforcement, a devastating blow for him. Living with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), he works as a security guard during the Olympics. His intense focus and “by the book” inflexibilities actually allows him to identify the bomb placed in the park during a concert, resulting in hundreds of lives being saved. He’s a hero…for a day. The FBI, ATF, and other agencies attempt to find the bomber only to leak information to an unscrupulous reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who detonates her own written bomb. And this is where the story really begins.

Jewell’s personality and lifestyle tick off all the requisite boxes describing a bomber. He’s a loner, lives with his mother, collects guns, is a wannabe police officer, etc. Unbeknownst to Jewell, he is now a primary suspect and is duped by the FBI (Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez) to “make a training video.” Jewell begins to realize he’s the suspect and calls Watson Bryant, the only lawyer he knows having met him 10 years prior during his days as a supply clerk. The FBI attempts to make Jewell fit the profile with Bryant trying to protect him. If only Jewell’s trusting and respectful nature and need to talk incessantly wouldn’t get in the way of it. As we get to know and understand Jewell, we see him as a harmless teddy bear bringing in an element of ironic humor in an otherwise intense drama.

At the heart of the story is the lack of journalistic integrity and the fallout from it. The intensity with which the story is told is captivatingly disturbing. The unethical behavior from not just the journalists, editors, and FBI, but major networks who are running with a story that gets viewers’ attention adds to the disappointment in these entities. It’s a devastating series of misfortunate events and while many of us remember the ending, there are still plenty of surprises for you.

To say that this is a strong cast is stating the obvious, but Hauser is not only a dead ringer for the real life Richard Jewell, he demonstrates the emotional and physical characteristics of this man. He’s meek yet seeks an authoritarian role, but never really earns the respect of others. His odd interactions and physical attributes find him at the butt of everyone’s jokes. And within all of this, we are sympathetic to him as we watch his emotional status devolve. Hauser is Jewell and shows us he can skillfully lead and support a complicated film. Of course, having Sam Rockwell as your right hand man can’t hurt. Rockwell, again like Hauser, fits Bryant’s description to a T. He creates a laid back Southern lawyer who ironically has utter disdain for authority and rules. Together, Rockwell and Hauser create the perfect pair allowing us to understand this series of unfortunate events.

Wilde is wild in her role as Scruggs. She’s incredibly energetic, disrespectful, and uses her wily ways to gain access and information. Bates comfortably melds into her role as the loving, protective yet strict older mom. Any mother will relate to her as the increasing helplessness overwhelms her. And Nina Arianda as Nadya, Bryant’s assistant, adds a bit of levity to the film as she becomes more involved in helping with the case and its inconsistencies.

“Richard Jewell” is a story from the past, but one for our current times as well. It reminds us all of the importance of journalistic integrity and our need for trust in authoritarian agencies such as the police and FBI. Eastwood tells this almost-forgotten story with style, but never in a heavy-handed way. Allowing the details to unfold effortlessly while the actors give evocative performances is exactly what the film requires to engage and entertain its viewers. Eastwood is a master of finding a personal story and telling it well. No fancy bells and whistles are needed when you have a good story and “Richard Jewell” is a great one.

4/4 Stars

*Eastwood is currently being sued by the Atlantic Journal-Constitution newspaper for falsely portraying the paper and its personnel.

“The Aeronauts” – A breathtaking adventure story

December 5th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Aeronauts” – A breathtaking adventure story”

Looking for a film that will make your heart race in a thoughtfully beautiful story? “The Aeronauts” is just your ticket as Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are reunited to tell this fictional tale inspired by true events. The wildly mismatched team comprised of pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) takes us to new heights as they make not only scientific discoveries, but self-discoveries as well.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Wren is a wreck. She has experienced a devastating loss and she’s not coping well. It’s the mid-1800’s and she’s late for an important engagement: piloting a hot air balloon. The spectators go wild as she bursts onto the scene, but her partner, scientist Glaisher, isn’t quite so pleased with her. Her infectious energy can’t be thwarted by this dower man. She’s a dare devil who quite literally made me scream aloud in a crowded movie theater, but beneath that flamboyant exterior lies a troubled and regretful young woman. Glaisher, on the other hand, is her polar opposite as his tunnel vision and fortitude push him further to attain his goal in weather discovery and prediction. Claiming he is a “meteorologist,” Glaisher is the laughing stock of the scientific community, but that doesn’t stop him from his research. Together, they embark upon a journey that will forever change the world and each other.

Traveling higher and higher in this balloon, elevating the passengers in a basket that certainly wouldn’t pass any safety standards in today’s world, we, the viewer, are along for this breathtakingly dangerous ride. Thanks to the skillful cinematography, we truly feel that we are in that basket with them. As Wren leaned over the edge of the basket one too many times for my timid heart, my palms were sweaty as I gripped the armrest and pushed further back into my seat, attesting to the brilliant skills of the cinematographer. It’s also an emotional roller coaster ride of a story as it hurls us back in time, allowing our senses and fear of heights to relax, as we discover who Wren and Glaisher are. Balancing the thoughtful backstory with the heart-pounding adventure gives us a film that is engagingly thrilling and entertaining.

Wren is a pioneer, reportedly based upon the young aeronaut named Sophie Blanchard, who not only takes on a profession not typical for a woman, but pushes the boundaries of the perception of gender equality. She’s tough, but Jones finds extraordinary skill in allowing us to see her tenderness beneath that hardened exterior. What Jones provides in this role is a sense of reality thanks to not only her skills, but that of her director Tom Harper. Unlike many other adventure films, this heroine goes through the wringer and doesn’t come out looking like a super model. Thank you for that! Of course, Jones and Redmayne have incredible chemistry on screen, but this role is different for each of them. These are individuals with independent stories who allow one another to reveal their true selves; their fears, regrets, and hopes. The characters undergo a metamorphosis over a short balloon ride as they fight for their lives, and battle the demons within. The question is, which battle is the most difficult?

As I eluded to earlier, the cinematography is stunning. Capturing the beauty of Mother Nature, the earth and the sky, there is an inner peace that is elicited by the views. A calmness settles over you as you breathe deeply, soaking in the wonders of the world. Shifting gears, we thank our lucky stars for Wilbur and Orville otherwise, none of us would have the courage for air travel. The stunts will quite literally take your breath away and even the simplest of angles makes your heart race or your inner voice scream, “Get away from the edge!”

With many aspects of this film based on facts, it’s eye-opening to think that the science of weather prediction was once thought of as nothing more than hocus-pocus. The passion that Redmayne exhibits for this new-found science is as infectious as Jones’ energetic portrayal of Wren. Redmayne is the yin to Jones’ yang, precisely balancing one another. He gives Glaisher such deeply layered attributes as a soft spoken man who is socially awkward. We also find his heart of gold as he compassionately interacts with his ailing father and worried mother. His tenacity and determination rise to the top as he refuses to listen to his esteemed colleagues, trusting his knowledge and his gut instincts to strive for more in this new profession he has coined as meteorology.

Harper and his writing team do an extraordinary job of blending factual information into this fictional tale. Pairing Redmayne and Jones together gives us the perfect storm as their relationship is an unexpected and welcomed one. The cinematography makes this one worth seeing on the big screen. If you miss it there, “The Aeronauts” will be available to stream on AmazonPrime beginning Dec. 20.

Read the interview with Redmayne and Harper in The Daily Journal.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

“The Irishman” – Rich, complex, a masterpiece

November 26th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Irishman” – Rich, complex, a masterpiece”

“The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s reunion with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and the theme of The Mob, has been garnering praises from critics and viewers alike. This 3 and a half hour Netflix masterpiece could not have been created without the years of experience from these Hollywood icons who are able to look in the rearview mirror of life for a clear picture. While many hold “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” and “Good Fellas” in the highest regard, “The Irishman” is like the fine wine of this genre; aged, rich, and much more complex which in turn elicits an evocative and insightful story.

“The Irishman,” based on “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, a true crime novelist, is recreated for the silver screen by Steven Zaillian. No stranger to transforming hefty written material to film (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gangs of New York”), Zaillian creates the consummate screenplay, but no one but Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino, all in the hands of Scorsese, could have possibly brought it to this pinnacle of filmmaking.

The story is Frank Sheeran’s (De Niro) as he tells us his version of his life in the mob and how he is responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Teamster Leader Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran narrates the film intermittently, initially introducing us to himself as a seasoned veteran in the crime service, his wife, Russel Bufalino (Pesci) and his wife as they road trip from New York to Detroit, making a few important work-related stops along the way. To get us up to speed, Sheeran takes us back in time to meeting Bufalino as Sheeran’s meat delivery truck breaks down. This is the crossroads in Sheeran’s life and the point at which we get to see movie-making magic take place with the de-aging technique.

From this point, the film bounces back and forth through the decades, allowing us into Frank’s life as Bufalino’s right-hand man who follows order as if he were still in the military. We see how his past paved the road for his current career choice and how it impacts his relationships with his wives and children. Sheeran explains his decisions and opens the door to the mob, revealing the inner-workings from his point of view. Bufalino introduces Sheeran to Hoffa (Pacino) and the complexities of this triad is what makes this mobster movie a uniquely emotional one as it allows the viewer to connect with these morally deplorable people. It’s simply incredulous that I felt myself almost walking in Sheeran’s shoes, feeling his discomfort and conflict, but it is just this emotion that gives credit to the extraordinary writing, directing and acting: I am not a mobster, yet I can still relate to this man. Incredible.

The film takes its time, that is obvious by the running time, but in no way could this complicated and multi-layered story been cut to anything less. Scorsese peels away each layer of not just the story, but each character to reveal and more potent level beneath the exterior. And Scorsese’s direction pulls us into each and every scene. We feel that we are a part of the film, tagging along, walking through the hallways and trying to peer around the corner as we hold our breath. It’s this intensity and a personal point of view that punctuates the connection with the characters, particularly Sheeran.

De Niro has never been better. This role was meant for him and like that fine wine, I drank in every savory moment to better understand this man and his situation. He portrayed utter perfection as Sheeran as we read his subtle expressions conveying intense meaning ranging from hope, regret, remorse, and love of a friend. While obviously never condoning what he did, I did understand it. The era and the pressures are as much a part of the film as the story itself. Women were not a big part of it, but interestingly, Frank’s oldest daughter seemed to be a haunting figure for him. Perhaps she is his conscience and morality barometer, and while her character never developed fully, she certainly has a profound impact upon her father.

Pesci and Pacino are the complete package with De Niro. Pesci surprisingly has a more understated role, but an extremely powerful one. He’s the reigning lion and no one wants to intentionally anger him. The communication among all of them, relatively brief, but wholly succinct. It was a different era—a handshake, a man’s word—a time of loyalty and camaraderie. Pacino is also at the top of his career as he delves deeply into one of the most influential teamsters and organizers our country has ever seen. With his charisma and personality quirks, Hoffa is brought back from the dead for us all to see and understand. It’s a history lesson most of us never fully knew or understood.

The entire all-star cast seems to understand the depth of the film, giving outstanding performances no matter how small their part. Bobby Cannavale as Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio fits comfortably in his role and Ray Romano as Bufalino’s lawyer son Bill works with the precision of a surgeon, slicing words to make them work in a court of law. Of course there is humor woven into this story, but its found in unlikely places. Also expected is violence and there is, but unlike the aforementioned mobster films, the violence is a part of the story, propelling it forward and feeling real and not gratuitous. It is not violence for violence sake making “The Irishman” a cut above them all.

“The Irishman” is a compellingly complex narrative that takes us into a world we know little about as it uncovers and discovers Sheeran’s involvement in history. With exceptional performances, deft direction, and exquisite writing, this is a film that will find its place in its own history. It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking made possible only by the actors who have the experience and wisdom to do so.

4/4 Stars

“The Great Green Wall” Solutions to Climate Change Have Already Begun

November 25th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Great Green Wall” Solutions to Climate Change Have Already Begun”

“Water is wealth.” These three words not only define our future, but also our world today, according to the new documentary film “The Great Green Wall” by filmmaker Jared P. Scott. His previous film, “The Age of Consequences,” laid out in visual detail the road map of climate change and all it will and is currently impacting; the devastation permeating every aspect of life. Now, “The Great Green Wall,” the counterpart to his previous film, offers a gorgeously uplifting message giving us hope while it soothes our soul with incredible music from Malian artist Inna Modja.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Scott follows Modja, a majestic singer and songwriter, as she travels across Africa’s Sahel Region, between the Sahara Dessert to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. Over the past decade, this 7000km swath of dessert land is beginning to transform itself back to its original state thanks to committed local inhabitants who are joining a collaborative effort to make a positive difference in the environment. The seemingly simple effort of planting trees then, in turn, gives economic stability as it returns the area’s environmental health. As Modja travels the region, recording songs with other talented artists along the way, she raises awareness and helps inspire the youth in these regions. Speaking with the indigenous people who witness the atrocities that climate change has already created, we see first-hand the impact of damaging our environment. Violence, safety, and en masse exodus are all a result of those who take advantage of poor communities.

What she discovers is at times disturbing; young women are abducted and forced to marry; violence taking over communities and taking advantage of poor situations; and vast migration of young people abandoning their homeland in search of a more prosperous life elsewhere. The “desertification, insecurity, and conflict” of areas such as Modja’s homeland of Mali is unfortunately quite typical, but she finds hope along the way. Witnessing the effects of communities undertaking the planting of trees, it seems that miracles do happen. In a relatively short period of time, these communities prove that taking responsibility of their own futures, being respectful of and understanding Mother Nature, balance can be restored.

The beauty of this film is undeniable with original songs from Modja and Didier Awadi, a pioneer of West African hip hop, and native musician Dakar, the dulcet tones and rhythms reach your soul, emphasizing the beauty of humanity. Modja’s thoughtful conversations directly with you, the viewer, and interviews with other musicians gives this film an intimate feel. We comprehend the strife and begin to ignite hope for our future. Her honesty as she speaks to you and others, sometimes questioning the overwhelming goal of creating a swath of green more than 14,000 miles long, echoes our own thoughts. It’s this sincerity that connects us with her, even though we are tens of thousands of miles away.

As with all of Scott’s documentaries, the amount of information provided is mind-boggling, but not overwhelming. We learn about a previously unknown area, its people, traditions, and cultures. We discover new heroes who reside in everyday environments, sparking a movement that just might save our world.

Scott’s “The Great Green Wall” counter balances his previous film, encouraging us to take responsibility for our future and most importantly plants a seed of hope. The glorious musical overtones throughout the film are the through-lines, uplifting our spirits as we look introspectively to find solutions in our own back yard.

4/4 Stars

“Knives Out” is an ingeniously funny and smart whodunit movie

November 24th, 2019 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““Knives Out” is an ingeniously funny and smart whodunit movie”

Writer and director Rian Johnson changes gears from “Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi” to his newest film “Knives Out,” an ingenious, whip-smart comedic thriller with an incredible all-star cast. This old-fashioned “who-dunnit” crime story takes us on a ride of mystery, intrigue, and puzzle-solving while laughing the entire time. This is a standout film of the year.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is the family’s patriarch having made his fortune writing murder mysteries. Coincidentally, the old man dies in his palatial mansion and his family, focused on the inheritance and not shedding a tear, are stopped short of the treasure chest as the famed Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. This, of course, would change the cause of death from suicide to murder and now puts each and every family member under the microscope as suspects.

Oh, what a family this is! Timing the release perfectly for Thanksgiving, you’ll find that your own family isn’t quite so dysfunctional after watching this one. Johnson covers all his family relationship bases with an ex-wife, a trust fund, shallow grandson named Ransom (Chris Evans), a controlling daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Valley Girl Joni (Toni Collette) as well as the disappointing son Walt (Michael Shannon). There are plenty of in-law issues beginning with Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) and strange grandchildren. We even have the Keystone Cops lead by Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield).

It’s evident from the beginning that we are in for a rip-roaring good time as the interrogation begins. Flashing between each of the suspects, a lone man slouches off in the corner at a piano, intermittently hitting a single key. Confusingly funny, the subjects make comments as to this man’s presence. We see the tangled web of deceit has been spun perfectly and now the players are all accounted for. The story then takes us back in time using a non-linear storytelling technique to put the pieces of the puzzle in proper order to solve the mystery of who killed Harlan Thrombey…or was it a suicide?

“Knives Out” keeps you on your toes with its clever unveiling of clues while distracting you with these bizarre and over-the-top characters who all have a motive or two. Collette and Evans take on roles and perform like you’ve never seen them before adding to the unexpected twists and turns as well as the hilarity. Johnson’s genius writing is always a step ahead of you, never putting all the pieces of the puzzle together until he wants you to.

The film, in all is jocularity, actually finds a way to address a common theme of movies this year: the haves versus the have-nots. Of course, with this wealthy family comes the topic of entitlement and work ethics, but these heavier subjects are all boiling well beneath the surface, fostering the hilarious situations and consequences.

While all the characters and performances are uniquely strong, the commonality among them is the actors truly seem to be having fun, elevating their performances to the highest level. Plummer just gets better and better, showing audiences that he truly can take any role and bring it to its ultimate potential. His character of “Harlan” is smart and strong with great wisdom and verve all delivered with a knowing twinkle in his eye. Each actor’s character gets a moment in the spotlight, allowing us to know who they truly are and what drives them. Two surprising performances come from Craig as he stuns us with his comedic timing. It’s a dry humor, the writing creating a strange interaction to make us laugh, but it it Craig’s interpretation and presentation that adds just the right touch. And then there’s Evans who certainly doesn’t come off as Capt. America. He’s a narcissistic, entitled, blue blood who is despicably condescending—but all of these attributes are presented in unexpectedly delightful ways.

Another surprise is a relatively unknown actor who has a lead in this film, Ana de Armas who portrays Marta Cabrera, the nurse and caregiver for Harlan. Her storyline stitches all the characters together while the social issue of immigration plays every so perfectly into this narrative. de Armas’ performance hits all the right notes as she invites us to walk in her shoes. She’s remarkably engaging, honing her ability to connect with the audience no matter her circumstances.

As you can see, there is one enjoyable and entertaining surprise after another. Its fast pace never lets you catch your breath as you happily try to see the full picture, but alas, Johnson is the driver of that car and you’ll get there when he wants you to. To find such an entertaining murder mystery with the feel of a film from days gone by is an absolute treasure. This incredibly smart and funny film with standout performances from actors who are having as much fun as the viewer is sure to be tops on not just critics’ lists, but yours as well.

4/4 stars

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is what the world needs now

November 17th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is what the world needs now”

What the world needs now is exactly what “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” provides. Starring Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s television show host Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, a talented yet jaded journalist who must interview Rogers for Esquire Magazine, much to his chagrin, for the “Hero” issue. “Neighborhood,” co-written by Micah Ritzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) tells Vogel’s story and how Rogers’ impacted him in this brilliantly creative story that will change your heart and make the world a kinder place for all who see it.

WATCH THE TRAILER

Can a movie really do that? Change your heart? I challenge you to prove me wrong as the “Fred Effect” is a powerfully positive one. And if you’re thinking this is just going to be a narrative feature film based on the phenomenal 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” it’s not. We begin the tale, inspired by journalist Tom Junod’s Esquire1998 article “Can You Say… ‘Hero?’” in the Land of Make-Believe. The camera sweeps in to an incredibly elaborate design of Pittsburgh and then takes us on to the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred (Hanks) welcomes us as he calmly goes through his routine of taking off his shoes and putting on that red cardigan that has become synonymous with love and kindness. Just when you think the film is going to be a reenactment of the show, Mr. Rogers introduces us to our main character, Lloyd, whose beaten face is uncovered beneath Picture Board’s doors. We are then magically transported to Lloyd’s world in NYC and how he came to this angry state.

“Neighborhood” builds on these juxtaposing tones of positivity and negativity, aka real life, with deft skill. Lloyd, hearing that his new assignment is not hard-nosed investigative journalism, but a puff piece about a kids’ show host, makes him quite angry; not realizing that this will change his life forever. Reluctantly, he arranges a meeting with Rogers and each subsequent interaction Lloyd finds frustration, disbelief, igniting his long-buried internal. It’s a revelatory narrative arc of growth for Lloyd that will resonate with us al.

The story is incredibly powerful as the writers masterfully take us into both Lloyd’s and Rogers’ worlds. One moment we are laughing aloud, the next tears are streaming down our faces with joy and sometimes sadness. It completes all the emotional ranges we are capable of expressing. To describe scenes such as the subway or the dream scenes would be spoiling your fun so I will only alert you to them.

Attention to detail is evident in not only the script, but the set and sound design. Mr. Rogers thoughtfully explains the very dark topics that he addresses on his show and why. Lloyd is the devil’s advocate and bluntly states what many of us are perhaps thinking only to get a remarkable answer in return. Their chemistry is sometimes uncomfortable, but always genuine. It feels as if you are watching real-time events unfold, not a movie.

The interactions between Lloyd and his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) reveal where Lloyd’s anger stems and we get a clear picture of his past and what he must overcome. It is during these painful memories and current interactions that there is a tinnitus or high-pitched sound that bombards Lloyd, sending him into his angry and unbearable world. The emotional roller coaster then quickly jettisons us into the next scene from NYC to Pittsburgh and back using extraordinarily detailed sets imitating the Land of Make Believe. These are the small, no pun intended, but important details that accentuate the creativity of all who are involved in this film giving the intense story a way to bounce into a safer emotional state.

All of this could not be possible or believable if it wasn’t for the fact that Hanks becomes Rogers. From the moment we meet him going through the door of the set at WQED in Pittsburgh, he is Mr. Rogers. His body language, affect, mannerisms, speech pattern and cadence and most importantly, his expressive eyes all replicate the man millions of children (and now adults) have come to love and admire. To resemble another person for a film is a grand accomplishment, but to become him, making the audience believe in him, is quite another. Hanks is sublime.

Rhys performance is equally as powerful, balancing the story in a difficult way. It’s real and one with which most of us can connect. Cooper has a stand out performance as well and Enrico Colantoni’s role as Rogers’ right-hand man Bill Isler is a small role, but one that has heart and comedy as well. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast adding just the right dose of personality to make this film come to life.

Director Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a brilliant work of art as Hanks captures the heart, soul, and essence of Fred Rogers. Make no mistake, this is Vogel’s story. Heller found a gem of a tale to retell and gives audiences a powerfully uplifting story based on reality. Her ingenious imagination and creativity keeps us grounded in Fred’s world as we walk in Lloyd’s shoes, experiencing an empathy with this character like no other and hopefully, ultimately changing us. It’s a metamorphosis of a character and maybe even of us as viewers.

4 STARS out of 4. (I’d give it more if I could!)

“Ford v Ferrari” So much more than a car racing movie

November 15th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ford v Ferrari” So much more than a car racing movie”

No other movie this year will rev your engine and make your heart race as well as pull on those heartstrings more than “Ford v Ferrari,” directed by James Mangold and starring Christian Bale as race car driver Ken Miles and Matt Damon as car designer Carroll Shelby.

Based on a true story, and all car aficionados will recognize the story immediately, “Ford v Ferrari” features Shelby and Miles, hired by Ford, the man (Tracy Letts) and the company, to create a car that would beat the competitor, Ferrari, in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1966.

The film transports us back in time to meet Miles, a cantankerous perfectionistic car mechanic, struggling in business and itching to get back into car racing. The talented driver, as we see immediately and throughout the film, has a temper, is impulsive, but above it all yearns to drive, race, compete, and most importantly, win.

To read the review in its entirety as published in the Friday, Nov. 15th edition of The Daily Journal, go to:
THE DAILY JOURNAL

“Waves” Interview with Writer/Director and Stars

November 14th, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““Waves” Interview with Writer/Director and Stars”

Trey Edward Shults boldly plunges in to his second full-length feature film “Waves,” starring Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“Luce”), Taylor Russell, and Sterling K. Brown depicting a suburban family dealing with an unexpected tragedy and must find a way to forgive and ultimately heal. This personal film explores the emotional range of a young black man never quite seen on the silver screen before. Shults, Harrison Jr., and Russell were all in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival and sat down with me to discuss the making of this tragically beautiful and visceral film.
*(Edited for space and clarity)

Pamela Powell (PP): I know your first film, “Krisha,” was a very personal one, based upon your own life’s expereinces. Is “Waves” also?

Trey Edward Shults (TES): Yes, it was. This one probably more myself or starting with myself and things I’ve actually lived and gone through…and the collaboration with Kel (Kelvin). It was a kind of very narrow, personal point of view and understanding other perspectives as well.

PP: Was this a type of therapy or catharsis for you?

TES: My mom and my step-dad are both therapists. I think that could go both ways, but I actually feel very blessed to have two parents as therapists because I think I would have been a total mess and they put up with me pretty well. (Everyone laughing) I think everything I’ve done so far is working something out. I genuinely believe that with this movie [I] was putting a lot of past experiences, some present, and everything that I believe and feel as a human being, spiritually, creatively, emotionally, where I’m at right now, into a movie. It was an incredibly cathartic experience; every different stage of the movie.

PP: Kelvin, tell me about your input and collaborating with Trey.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (KHJ): He pretty much already had an idea of what the movie was going to be and at the end of “It Comes At Night,” he said he was going to make this high school movie and I was like well then maybe I should be in it.(Laughs). So then about a year later, he came and he was like, ok, I’m ready. And so let’s talk about it. …. the collaboration became this, like Trey said earlier, therapy for us. Rehashing out our childhood and our upbringing and relationships and experiences with our fathers and my sister and our romantic relationships and just trying to figure out who are we and what would it feel like to be a young man. What were the struggles of just trying to find our identity in that moment, just trying to understand and love yourself. It was like honest and this universal truth so then me coming into it, just explaining to him what it was like to be an African American and throwing in those experiences, him just being such a great listener.

PP: Forgive me if I’m unaware, but I really haven’t seen an African-American family portrayed in this way before.

Taylor Russell (TR): No, I think you’re incredibly intuitive. We were at a Q&A and it was a mixed audience … What was lovely is that somebody said, he wasn’t Black, this story doesn’t feel like a Black story, it feels universal. On the other side, a Black person said, this feels like so tailored to the African American experience. … It’s very rare that you see a person of color who you see all the nuances and the tones of what it’s really like to be a real person who is African American, who’s upper middle class or who has all the different levels as human beings. I think because of the fact that it’s universal and about a Black family, we really haven’t seen that before and I think it’s really important.

PP: Kelvin, tell me about creating such evocative scenes and which one spoke to you?

KHJ: To be honest, I think it’s the scene with Tay in the bathroom. I think it’s because, first of all in terms of masculinity and black masculinity that was something we really wanted to explore …I look at Denzel and he does it so well, but then there’s that strength behind it [and there’s] always this idea that I’m going to hold it together because I have to. One of my favorite movies is Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” and even him in this movie, it’s still like, be tough, get through it. … I think we see, they’re playing the truth of what this is to be a Black man, and it speaks on the progression of where we are and what the youth are like. … they have the opportunity to be more vulnerable and be less fearful.

PP: Trey, tell me about creating an unexpected yet now favorite scene.

TES: When Tay and Lucas meet, that, I wasn’t even going to shoot the scene that way because that seems very unorthodox where it zooms in on her. It was just going to be a two shot, solo shots the whole time, but I let the scene keep running. We zoomed back out and we kept playing this whole scene with this nice awkward take where you see the body language. It feels really special because of that.

PP: The cinematography is uniquely dramatic. Can you tell me about that, especially driving and capturing these sometimes dizzying scenes.

TES: I [try] to make them (the cameras) feel hidden. Sometimes they are far away or were tucked behind something, but sometimes they’re right here, spinning (hand in front of Kelvin’s face) in front of their faces, but we’re trying to not get in their way. We want to set up the environment for freedom so I hope for them, it feels like the camera isn’t even here any more [that] we’re just playing.

“Waves” opens Friday, November 15 in limited theaters.

“Ekaj” tackles youth, homelessness, and compassion in NYC

November 6th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ekaj” tackles youth, homelessness, and compassion in NYC”

Writer/director Cati Gonzalez hones her professional photography skills and brings them into the filmmaking arena with “Ekaj.” The avant-garde and visceral film depicts Ekaj (Jake Mestre) in an inhospitable city desperately trying to not only survive, but find love, sometimes in all the wrong places. Gonzalez boldly delves into the gritty streets of NY to reveal the underbelly of society that most of us overlook. With humanity, we see these characters in a different light, feeling their loss and uncertainty in their future of tomorrow.

Gonzalez has a uniquely artistic eye which shines in this film. It is with this that a sad and eye-opening portrayal of life is told in a raw and unforgiving way. Initially we aren’t sure about Ekaj or his “friends.” And while we may not be able to relate to his situation, scamming people to make it through the day, we do identify with his need for love. It’s a heartbreakingly dark tale as Ekaj helps a friend with AIDS whose condition is worsening and Ekaj finds himself in an unhealthy relationship. The humor, as dark as the situation at hand, punctuates the overall tone of the film giving us an authentic view of homelessness, mental illness, and the inequities of our society.

There’s an experimental feel to this film both in structure and style which is a daring choice for Gonzalez, but it works on many levels. While the story itself is more of a character study and slice of life, it’s certainly one that puts Gonzalez on your radar of upcoming and visionary filmmakers.

3/4 Stars

“Harriet”

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Harriet””

My heart broke for Minty aka Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) in the very first scene as we are witnessing her memory of her family being violently pulled apart. Freedom for slaves south of the Mason Dixon Line is nothing but a dream and this first scene paints the background for the atrocities imparted upon anyone who is of a different color and held in ownership.

The film brings us back in time to Minty’s situation prior to escaping to the North. Her owners treatment is despicable, but filmmaker Kasi Lemmons doesn’t protect us from seeing it…we immediately sink into the same inescapable emotional abyss. But it’s clear that Minty—her name before her escape—is different. She has visions and these are caused by yet another sad event in her life. The story takes us on Minty’s harrowing journey to freedom, but this is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning.

While many of us know the name Harriet Tubman, a woman who was integral to the Underground Railroad which assisted slaves to escape into freedom, but “Harriet” takes us further into her story, discovering the tenacity, strength, and determination of this woman and how she came to possess these remarkable attributes. Additionally, the film imparts historical knowledge that admittedly I was unaware.

Embodying Harriet Tubman is the talented Erivo who gives a richly textured performance. It’s impossible to leave the theater and not think that you now know who Harriet Tubman was as a person, not just a hero. And this is thanks to Erivo’s passionately subtle portrayal which elicits immediate sympathy and an indescribable connection.

With every hero, there must be the anti-hero and in this film it comes with Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess the juvenile who becomes Minty’s master. His lack of humanity is chilling as he delivers repulsive lines with absolute conviction. And when the two actors are on screen together, there is a sense of fear that courses through your veins, dreading when and how that proverbial shoe is going to drop.

Making this film stand out are the unlikely characters in the story, aspects of history that most never knew. Understanding how Congress passed laws which further drove Blacks north and anyone of color, free or not, fearing for their lives. These details in the film bring the subject and time into clear focus allowing us to not only understand what happened, but to feel it in our hearts.

This dramatic action film accentuates the tension-filled situations that will be more than memorable. It will leave you with a sense of awe and admiration as you find yourself questioning what you would have done under similar circumstances. There aren’t many of us who could be true heroes, but Harriet Tubman certainly is.

Cinematically, the film shines, but there were issues toward the conclusion of the film that felt more forced and unnatural. Perhaps it is at this point that historical facts are given license to divert slightly. This, however, does not take away from the overall impact or importance of the film or this story. In fact, it will motivate you to learn more information about this woman, checking to see if she truly did have visions (she did) and the route she traveled to save hundreds of people who might have otherwise never lived (it’s daunting).

“Harriet” is filled with memorable situations and performances, but more importantly, it gives us a more complete understanding of American history. Lemmons’ direction takes what could have been a typical biopic and breathes a sense of urgency and life into it. This is a film for everyone to better understand our country, humanity, compassion, and the need to stand up for those who cannot.

3 ½ Stars

“Motherless Brooklyn”

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Motherless Brooklyn””

“Motherless Brooklyn” has so much going for it with an engaging old-fashioned story of mystery and intrigue in gritty film noir style. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Edward Norton is the writer, director and lead in this thriller. Unfortunately, there is one misstep from my point of view. He used the disorder of Tourette’s Syndrome as his comedic trope, accentuating the most severe and unlikely symptoms and associated behaviors and disorders. The film would have benefitted had he found a different way to make us chuckle.

We are introduced to Lionel and his buddies as a possible shake down is about to occur. We also find out more about Lionel as the story is narrated by and seen through his eyes. Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Lionel sit in the car awaiting further instructions. Are they both buffoons or is there more than meets the eye as Lionel perseverates on a loose thread in the cuff of his sweater. Danny (Dallas Roberts) helps him out, with a few reprimands, as Lionel utters a few repetitive words and rhymes. It is at this point that Lionel, through voiceover, explains to the audience what if feels like to have this “problem” which is severe Tourette’s Syndrome. Given the era this film takes place, the syndrome was not widely diagnosed, but the film does elude to some pretty awful therapies executed by the nuns where he and Frank were raised.

A murder occurs and Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) crack detective team, Danny, Lionel, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Gilbert, must put the pieces of the puzzle together to solve not only who the murderer is, but more importantly, the why of it all. With a sprinkle of a love story, a bit of humor although it is at the expense of a man suffering from Tourette’s, and a tight script not to mention the gorgeous jazz music at the foundation and sometimes as the focal point, it’s a story that keeps you guessing. Norton doesn’t give too much away too soon, teasing you to try to figure it out before his character does.

These characters, the costuming, and situations are all over-the-top, just as you would expect from this genre of film. And these are the elements you also love in this style of film. Alec Baldwin plays the heavy with dialogue you can’t help but imagine his muse is Donald Trump. Leslie Mann has fun with her role as the widow who surprisingly isn’t too sad about losing her hubby, and Bruce Willis brings a mellow, easy tone as leader of the pack. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s power of presence fills the screen and inexplicably forbids you to look away. Her character of Laura is the love interest or perhaps femme fatale as she fights to equalize social and racial injustices. The entire cast including Willem Defoe, Fisher Stevens, Cannavale, Michael Kenneth Williams as the engaging and talented trumpet player, and Josh Pais elevate the story to its finest level.

Norton’s direction called for multiple closeups, pushing the viewer to crawl into the mind of the subject at hand. It’s a tactic that works as you never have a moment to have your thoughts wander, but unfortunately, there was a projection issue during my screening which became distracting as portions of the screen were omitted. The chase and fight scenes, however, were tightly filmed with tension at the forefront giving the film the element of intensity at just the right moments.

While the running time is close to 2 ½ hours, there’s not a dull moment. Overall, it’s a complicated story that unfolds beautifully, but it’s too bad that this very smart story had to mock an actual disorder to try to make us laugh.

3 stars

“Fantastic Fungi”- The scientific magic of mushrooms

October 16th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Fantastic Fungi”- The scientific magic of mushrooms”

Hope. It’s what we’re missing when it comes to the future of the Earth, of humanity, but “Fantastic Fungi” is exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s this dose of hope that will inspire, educate, and renew your faith in Mother Nature and her ability to right the world. If this sounds like it’s too good to be true, think again and then take a moment to watch this visually arresting, entertaining, and thought-provoking film by Louie Schwartzberg, debuting at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, October 18, 2019.

Schwartzberg tells the story of mycelium or the mushroom in this new documentary. He explores the often overlooked, but massive and interconnected magical kingdom responsible for delectable delights, decomposition of organic matter, increasing the soil’s nutrient base, and even curing diseases. Using time-lapse macro cinematography, “Fantastic Fungi” is simply mesmerizing, captivating you, as you find yourself forgetting to breathe. Schwartzberg’s masterful camera work is equally as engaging as the layered and complicated, yet easily understood scientific information. The research expressed via narration and interviews lays the necessary foundation for us to easily build a fortress of understanding. We learn about the true cycle of life, from the beginning of time to our current day and our future as well as the more immediate circle of life as living organisms die and prepare the ground for new life.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

The film’s focus, mycologist Paul Stamets, brother of Chicago film critic Bill Stamets, has devoted his life to the discovery of mushrooms and their potential to solve humanity’s problems. His interest in the topic is a story in and of itself, but his discoveries and knowledge, all gained in atypical ways, has opened the previously locked doors of life’s secrets. We also gain further knowledge with interviews from author Michael Pollan, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Johns Hopkins neurologists and psychologists, giving great credibility to the information at hand.

Learning that the base that supports all life is an interconnected microorganism called a fungi, there are more than 1.5 million types of these organisms. Without them, you (we) wine drinkers, beer imbibers, and whiskey connoisseurs, would find our cocktail time uninviting. On a more serious note, the hundreds of thousands of types of mushrooms, a part of this fungi family, promises to have the potential to solve our climate change issues and help develop cancer treatments. “Fantastic Fungi” reveals the real magic kingdom, showcasing this organism’s potential as well as its roots—pun intended–as it appears that we are all interconnected. It’s a symbiotic relationship among all living organisms with a more complicated communication system than ever before realized, but it’s up to us to unlock the code and discover the answers literally beneath our feet.

When Mother Nature created mycelium which, without getting into the science behind it all in this review, takes any organic material and can process it. Think about targeting a cancer cell with this and eliminating this lethal cellular machine. Or using a type of fungi to decompose an oil spill, turning the environmental disaster into a haven for new life. Schwartzberg’s painstaking research unfolds before your eyes in wonderfully entertaining ways as you witness the wonders and magic of the mushroom.

With so many doom and gloom documentaries about the future of our world, “Fantastic Fungi” gives us hope in a future. Our Earth is a precious space that is in dire straits, but stopping to listen, see, and open our minds to a new way of learning just might prove that we have a chance after all. I was swept away by this film, its imagery, and its potency. It has inspired me to learn more about mushrooms and what might be right outside my back door in my very own yard. I am inspired, but even more importantly, I am hopeful.

Do not miss “Fantastic Fungi,” one of the most beautifully powerful and intellectually stimulating films of the year and perhaps even the decade. Paired with “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” it’s a match made in heaven to give you a greater scientific understanding of the balance in which we need to strive.

For more information about this film, visit Fantastic Fungi
For ticket information at the Siskel Film Center where the film will screen Friday October 18th and 19th with Schwartzberg in attendance and through October 24th, go to Gene Siskel Film Center
4 Stars

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” A disturbing mess not intended for children

October 16th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” A disturbing mess not intended for children”

The witch is back in Disney’s sequel “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This convoluted dark mess with an unknown target audience continues the saga of Maleficent with misguidance and misdirection from the mega studio. While the story picks up and recaps the events from the first film, “Maleficent,” a much more benign and children-friendly film, this new rendition has only enough content to fill about 30 minutes of the nearly 2-hour running time.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” begins with the young Queen Aurora (Fanning), Maleficent’s human daughter, and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) from the neighboring and previously warring kingdom, planning their upcoming nuptials, much to both their mothers’ chagrin. Caught in the middle of trying to please her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), and persuading Mom to hide her horns and behave, she finds that there are evil ulterior motives lying beneath her new mom’s intentions.

Initially, the film has a few laughs, particularly with Maleficent’s commentary of the human race, but these snarky quips quickly fall to the way side to make room for disturbing content that will surely spark a few nightmares for little ones. Queen Ingrith begins to reveal her true colors showing that she may not possess the magical powers of Maleficent, but she does have the devil in her heart. As the story twists and turns, we see the tone of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale (“Little Briar Rose”) brought to everliving color, but even the Brothers Grimm might cringe with the disturbing darkness that Disney has ensnared.

Queen Ingrith has devised the means to complete the genocide of two races. She is threatened by them, seeking power, and misunderstanding them because they are different. While there are wonderful lessons to be learned about embracing others’ differences, this is not the way a children’s film should do it. Disturbingly, we witness a little fairy being turned to dust before our eyes using a chemical invented by the evil queen. We also watch as all the little creatures are lured into a church under false pretenses only to be slowly gassed to their death. There are also plenty of battle scenes and the body count is high.

The story does, predictably, push us to root for not only the young couple in love, but also for the Queen of Evil, Maleficent. She’s got a temper, but thanks to her human child, she has learned to love, dampening her roiling rage. Jolie beautifully exudes this inner conflict, sometimes with sarcasm, and we find ourselves more emotionally connected to her than to Aurora. Fanning’s forgettable performance illustrates a milk toast character that is undeniably flat—it’s a total disappointment in Disney pushing forward with female empowerment. Pairing perfectly with Fanning is the princely love interest who is equally dull. The culprit of these disappointing performances is most likely an unimaginative script. And unimaginatively, the film appears to have directly “borrowed” scenes from other films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Lord of the Rings” to mention just a couple.

On the positive side, makeup, costuming and set design are incredible, but unfortunately, this cannot carry a film. Jolie’s sharply protruding cheek bones and clavicle which supports her talon-topped wings, and her sleekly silhouetted black garb, accentuating her strikingly strong physique, are simply mesmerizing. And Pfeiffer’s bejeweled and flattering royal dresses just might start a fashion trend.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is a disappointing live-action sequel that lacks content, but more importantly, it is a distressing and disturbing film not intended for youngsters. We also have grown to expect Disney to entertain the adults as well as the kids, but this one doesn’t fit the bill in either category.

1 Star

“Red Penguins” – An interview with director Gabe Polsky and subject Steven Warshaw at TIFF

October 3rd, 2019 Posted by Film Festivals, Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““Red Penguins” – An interview with director Gabe Polsky and subject Steven Warshaw at TIFF”

Who could possibly create a documentary about Russia, hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Mafia that is funny, educational, and insightful? None other than Gabe Polsky who gave us “Red Army” in 2016. While you might be thinking that this is just an extension of his first film, think again. This is one of the most bizarre, underreported, and unfathomable sports stories in history. Polsky’s subject, Steven Warshaw, a marketing genius, took it upon himself to attempt to save the Russian hockey program and create interest and financial stability for this Red team. What he found was corruption, embezzlement, and mind-boggling sordid situations proving the adage that truth truly is stranger than fiction.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chicago native Polsky and his subject, Steven Warshaw, for an entertaining and insightful conversation about the making of this film.

Pamela Powell (PP): How did you two become acquainted?

Gabe Polsky (GP): I was promoting “Red Army,” …at one of the festivals in NY and Steve came up to me afterwards and told me that he has a great story [and] that it’s also about this Red Army team, but it’s about the ’90’s and what happened afterwards. … But I told him, “Look, I’m not interested in even going near Russia or hockey again.” I just did this big film and I was kind of mad, actually, about the idea of doing something like that. Anyway, Steve asked for my address and I did give it to him. (Chuckling) He didn’t look like a creepy guy. He was a little strange (more laughter) … I got this huge box of materials, videos, documentation, photos, all this stuff about this story and I opened it up and looked through it and was kind of amazed and shocked … but then I pushed it away again.

PP: What made you open it back up and delve into the making of this film?

GP: It was the kind of thing that even to this day I was reluctant to go for because

Steven Warshaw (SW): This is the antithesis of what he had seen. [He] documented maybe the greatest hockey team in history and now he’s going to look at the train wreck that ensued after the Soviet Union. And we were that train wreck.

PP: And you were the engineer? (Laughing)

SW: No, I was the conductor, the engineer, and the toilet cleaner! (Laughing)

PP: Why did you hold on to all of this stuff?

SW: I am a pack rat. I save everything that’s flat. … I don’t save plush animals or hockey pucks. If it’s flat, I save it. Photos, tickets, contracts, archival material, artwork, anything that I can stack. And this was a really important part of my life. I fell in love over there, not just with the team, but I fell in love with a fantastic Russian woman. I was 34 at the time. I fell in love with the culture. … When we were just blown out of there, it hurt. It was like getting your doors blown off in a romance. … I always saved my love letters from my girlfriends, maybe I’ll be able to resurrect this too. So that’s why I did it.

PP: They say that with age comes wisdom. This is a two part question. What would you tell your younger self and would you do anything differently?

SW: Second question first. I would much rather have gone to Italy or Spain or done this in a better country. You look back and I had attributed it to just youthful insanity. In retrospect, obviously, it was crazy. I should have taken the other job offer I had … I had two offers at the same time. Either go to Russia or to come to Canada. So in retrospect I should have definitely gone to Vancouver and had a beautiful life in Canada instead of this crazy mad [one], but then Gabe wouldn’t have had a film. (Laughing) There you go. It was intriguing for us because we were young and stupid so the danger element was almost an adrenaline rush for us. Yes, you look back, I didn’t have kids so I could take chances back then. Now I wouldn’t, of course.

PP: What did your mother think?

SW: She thinks I [was] a greeting card salesman! (Laughs). Actually, they came to see us in (Russia). They came on Revolution Day. Nov. 7, 1993 … They had a great time over there. They didn’t see all of the criminal elements. They didn’t know about it. I didn’t tell them.

GP: Now they’ll know.

SW: Now they’ll know they raised a stupid kid. (Laughs!)

PP: Steven, how did all of this influence your future career and choices?

SW: I made a lot safer decisions. Blue chip type of deals instead of wild fantasy deals, but I still think I’ve got one more in me before I check out of here so maybe I’m looking at some other crazy, third world country and bringing badminton or I don’t know. There’s one more chapter in me … for you (looking to Gabe)!

PP: Gabe, there was one particularly chilling scene in the film where you discovered someone lurking behind you; you were being watched and followed when you were in Russia. Did this give you pause about completing film and presenting it publicly?

GP: It did! The answer is yes, I did feel kind of weird being in Russia at that time. Sanctions were going strong and the sentiment toward Americans wasn’t great. I wouldn’t say just regular people. The government position was pretty clear, but people were generally warm. I don’t know why, but when I was there, I felt a little bit paranoid and I’m not a super paranoid guy, but I felt weird. And when that happened, it was a WTF moment. Yes, I’ve been thinking a little bit about … the danger.

PP: Given today’s political environment, what do you think viewers will take away from this very timely piece even though this took place back in the 1990’s?

GP: I would hope that first of all, understanding the history and what happened in the ’90’s has relation to what’s happening now and their views toward Americans. Our working relationship, I think this is a good example of what [was] happening to all companies that were coming to Russia at the time. … and as soon as they saw success, they saw almost insurmountable challenges from encroaching interests. But more than even that, it’s this idea to understand the Russian psychology and behaviors in a deeper way. We read a lot of facts and allegations about that, but no one really gets to see how people behave and talk and deal with people. I think this story, by experiencing the story, we get to know the culture a lot better. Not just their culture, but ours too.

PP: Steven, when you watched the film, the interviews with those who spoke about you, what did you think or feel when you heard what they had to say?

SW: I’m still shocked that Goshen’s still breathing oxygen. That guy, he’s a walking heart attack. And everyone else died, except him.

PP: What does that tell you? (Laughing)

SW: That he’s Rasputin. He’s the devil! (More laughter) To me, it was frightening because I didn’t know how crazy I was back then. I wasn’t a kid, I was 34. We just threw caution to the wind and we were just worried about accomplishing our mission, to fill the arena and sell sponsorships, create tours, merchandising, a great story.

GP: But when you saw those other characters, the KGB guy and even Gusev, how did you feel? How did you feel?

SW: I wasn’t really shocked because I had lived it. But the one shocking element to me that I learned from the film was just how close the Mafia got to Gusev, my Russian partner. They really read him the riot act that he’s gotta leave Pittsburgh. I didn’t know that until I saw the film. I didn’t realize the Mafia was so deep into Viktor Gusev’s life that they had threatened him.

PP: But there’s that haunting laugh from Goshen.

GP: Yeah, how do you feel about that scene?

SW: It’s vintage Goshen. He’s brain damaged from alcohol. He’s had heart attacks, he’s been in car accidents, he’s been in prison. I mean the guy’s had an incredible life. So to me, he’s the perfect foil.

GP: Why is that vintage Gushen? What is that laugh?

SW: It’s demonic. He’s the evil empire that Reagan referred to. He’s a cartoon character that came to life and I’m just flattered that he said he’d still be my friend! (Laughs!)

PP: Flattered or scared?

SW: Scared! The same thing is that he would rather fail on his own that succeed with the [Americans]. I think that’s the critical point. They had such pride and that’s why they couldn’t take it. … It was embarrassing for them because it took foreigners to come in and do their job for them. They resented us for that and they actually rooted against us.

4 out of 4 Stars

Be sure to check back to find out how and when you can see this timely and entertaining film.

“Joker” A vengeful origin story that hits too close to reality

October 1st, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Joker” A vengeful origin story that hits too close to reality”

“Joker,” winner of the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival has created more than an Oscar stir. The controversial film is also igniting anti-gun organizations’ political battles as Warner Bros. stands behind this origin story of The Joker. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the deranged, unstable and anti-social sociopath, director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) creates one of the franchise’s darkest and most disturbingly sinister back stories that actually rings true to the graphic novel. While this certainly isn’t a film for every viewer, Phillips gives this genre’s fans a story that may change the DC Universe forever.

The opening scene sets the shockingly dark tone of this film as we see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), dressed as a jester who becomes the recipient of a random act of violence. Fleck is a broken man trying to support his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) in a dirty, dilapidated tenement building. He dotes on her, sacrificing for himself in an effort to make her as comfortable as possible, but he seems to have a target on his back as he is constantly pummeled with verbal and physical abuse by co-workers and strangers alike. Receiving social welfare benefits and medical aid for his condition, it’s pitiful to watch this poor man getting squished beneath the shoe of mankind as no one really seems to care about him. Actually, no one seems to care for anyone but themselves. When Arthur inadvertently receives a revolver, his brain snaps and so too does his trigger finger.

The world around Arthur in the dark world of Gotham is out of control. The political figures are vying for power, promising a brighter, safer world. And it is within this political world displayed through the medium of television that the tentacles of connection reach out and betray Arthur. Believing in a story told by his mother, Arthur begins to search for the truth about his own background, leading him down a path that will change him and Gotham. And as they say, with knowledge, comes power, but in this case, it’s an extraordinarily evil power.

The film stays true to the graphic novel, but adds so many deeply realistic elements to the story that it hits a little too close to home. “Joker” addresses our current political state with the hatred and division and more importantly, the power of the 1%. We also see how our system is failing so many who desperately need help, particularly the mentally ill. The social service programs are cut in the film’s story and this is a key aspect to Arthur’s deviation and of course, we see this happening in our world today. Gun violence, access, and regulations are also at the heart of the film as is the power of media and celebrity. It’s a complicated story that truly touches upon our current world, sitting upon a fragile precipice.

With all of these underlying components, the film also depicts the lack of humanity and compassion, an integral part of the survival of mankind and a way for Joker to rise. Without this compassion, chaos is unleashed, finding the perfect breeding ground for evil and rebellion, the two perhaps not so definitively separate. Creating a film that has all of these aspects, but also setting up one of the most well-known good vs. evil super heroes scenarios in this universe is a huge undertaking that Phillips capably creates, but it is Phoenix’s performances that will ultimately haunt you long after the credits roll.

Phoenix provides all the layers of his character as we watch him go through a metamorphosis. Our hearts break for this man, watching him suffer with no support and the subject of ridicule. He devolves into the Joker and while we do not agree with what he does, we have an understanding for him—now that’s a tough character to so artistically and evocatively create.

Media plays a hefty role in this film as well, particularly with the Johnny Carson type of talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Within this role, De Niro brings a cutting humor, reminding us of the power of words and that sarcasm creates ill will and not laughs. As the tension builds around Arthur and Franklin, the outside forces are also bubbling to the surface; a volcano about to erupt. While the story focuses primarily upon Arthur, there are several sub stories that occur, all intersecting at the most intense time, giving a sense of dread and discomfort throughout.

Conceptually, socially, and intellectually this film is disturbing, but the startling and realistic violence was more than unnerving. It was distressing. There were plenty of scenes that I wanted or perhaps even needed to cover my eyes, but those images will forever be ingrained in my mind. And perhaps if so many of these issues weren’t so relevant today, the violence wouldn’t have been as upsetting. But they are and it is.

As a piece of art, and film is an art form, “Joker” masterfully finds a voice for the brutal and believable backstory for The Joker. Phoenix gives this character incredible realistic depth which may help you see others who struggle in a more compassionate way. In the end, however, this is a film for super hero fans. It stays true to the graphic novel and creates an incredibly realistic persona and world that hits very close to home; perhaps too close. The shocking violence seems to be used for shock value alone rather than for the use of the plot. Oh, and the running time is, of course, too long. That seems to be a super hero film’s MO.

3 1/2 Stars (for fans of this genre)

“The Goldfinch” can’t soar even with its star-power

September 13th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Goldfinch” can’t soar even with its star-power”

“The Goldfinch,” a best-seller by Donna Tartt, makes its cinematic debut with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Ansel Elgort portrays Theo, a young man whowrestles with the trauma from his childhood, losing his mother in a terrorist attackat an art museum. Taken in by a wealthy family, Theo’s journey will require great fortitude and resilience, but there’s much more to the story than we initially believe.

We meet Theo as an adult, in a depressed state, narrating how he came to this point in his life. We are then taken back in time, meeting Theo as a child (Oakes Fegley)on that fateful day. Experiencing the explosion, Theo is in a state of shock and is taken in by the Barbour family. The Upper East Side socialites have their own sordid issues but graciously take Theo in. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), cold, distant yet polite begins to melt thanks to the joy that Theo seems to bring to thefamily, particularly Andy (Ryan Foust) who brings such personality to every scene.

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

Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken” is a fresh look at fast food that will leave a sour taste in your mouth

September 12th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken” is a fresh look at fast food that will leave a sour taste in your mouth”

Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” from several years ago shed a light on the fast food industry, specifically McDonalds, and now he’s back with “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken.” Spurlock has a new target and initially it appears to be the entire fast food industry, but he narrow that focus with laser precision on Big Chicken—and you thought Big Oil was powerful! Wait till you see what a handful of Foul Magnates can do to the food industry and consumers in our country.

Spurlock identifies the issue of fast food appearing to have become “healthier” and questions the validity of this concept as he dives head first into the murky waters of the industry, becoming a “part of the problem.”

As with any documentary, we find ourselves walking, or in this case, driving alongside the subject as he researches his topic, interviews those in the know and on the ground, and develops a new concept in fast food. From farmers, bankers, lenders, marketing specialist, and chefs specializing in new fast food recipes, Spurlock takes us on his journey to uncover and discover the billion dollar industry’s recipe for success…or perhaps disaster.

Spurlock “takes a fresh approach” to “Holy Chicken,” joining the fast food industry as he tries to create the new chicken sensation while maintaining his integrity as he attempts to be transparent about what he’s serving. Starting from scratch, Spurlock finds a willing chicken farmer to lease him space, acquires thousands of chicken eggs, raises the fluffy little buggers that grow faster than a weed (not a good thing) and researches the production of a delectable delight all under the glow of the “Health Halo.” Jargon, new terms, aka deception, are all carefully folded into each layer of this film’s concept and while we are clucking at our own willingness to be duped into palatal conformation, salivating at the mere thought of a “crispy” chicken with aioli sauce, Spurlock tugs on our heartstrings and yanks the rug from beneath our straw-covered feet to reveal the true price of the Big Chicken Business…the farmers.

Spurlock has a penchant for topics that matter and have a lasting impact and “Holy Chicken” is no exception as he creates humor and entertainment, building upon the layers to educate and enlighten the viewer as to how we’re being duped into justifying our poor eating habits. As he plucks the feathers off of the squawking façade and reveals all the fat and fluff below aka Purdue, Tyson, Koch Foods, we see the fast food industry with undeniable clarity. Never before has an apparent monopoly, the resulting health risks, and marketing deception been so clearly defined. But what hits home is Spurlock’s discovery of how these components are hurting the farmers who are responsible for growing the food we eat and in the end, how our health is unwittingly damaged. Spurlock also finds a way to connect us with real people in this film; Jonathan a chicken farmer who is squeezed out, and the everyday workers trying to make ends meet, working 2 minimum wage jobs with no future. “Holy Chicken” becomes a 3 course film, but the dessert, in the end, just doesn’t set well although that’s exactly what Spurlock wants.

Knowledge is power and Spurlock provides the factual statistics and information to make your own decisions. See this film. Make your own decision. I’ve made mine…My chickens will now come only from my farmer friend.

4 Stars

Available on digital platforms Friday, September 13, 2019

“1982” Premieres at TIFF

September 11th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““1982” Premieres at TIFF”

“1982” transports us back to a time in Lebanon where political unrest and imminent war loomed overhead. Writer/director Oualid Mouaness creates a beautiful story of Wissam’s (Mohamed Dalli) school crush amidst the tension of the teachers and the news they are hearing.

Nadine Labaki (“Capernaum” director) stars as Yasmine whose relationship with fellow teacher Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman) is strained all due to differing political views. This is a multi-tiered story as the teachers and administrators prepare for graduation of their students, attempting in every way to maintain a sense of normalcy. Final exams are underway and off in the distance, the beginnings of an attack are evident. Finding stability among the adults is tested which ultimately makes it difficult to create an emotionally safe environment for the children.

“1982” begins with wide landscape shots, capturing the peace and beauty of the land. Artistically, as the story comes into sharp focus, the shots become more constrained, giving a more visceral sense of the ever-increasing tensions of the people near Beirut on the cusp of an invasion. Religion and cultural differences as well as expectations and prejudices play an important role among both the adults and the children on this momentous day.

It is the dialogue between our main characters of Wissam (Mohamad Dalli) and his best friend Majid (Ghassan Maalouf ) that endear us to them, reminding us of how special and, in many ways, how universal that feeling of first love is. The two discuss the plan for Wissam to let Joana (Gia Madi) know his true feelings despite the geographic, religious, and cultural differences. And these issues are explored with utmost care and even humor as Abir (Lelia Harkous) attempts to intervene.

On the other end of the spectrum is the more complicated interaction of Joseph and Yasmine. Love is never easy, no matter your age, but we see how our beliefs supersede this emotion in our older years while love does seem to conquer all when you’re young.

As the fear of the inevitable comes to reality in this film, it’s interesting to note how much emphasis we place on the need for routine. It’s our safety blanket, shielding us from the impact of that next shoe dropping and in this case, it’s much more than a shoe. That tension is palpable as we see Yasmine clinging on to the completion of her students’ exams. She will not give in to what’s happening around her and her emotional overload is conveyed in her voice and body language with deft skill. Mohamad Dalli is exceptional in this layered and sometimes very nuanced role. He’s silly and optimistic during this time, perfectly portraying the innocence of youth.

“1982” uniquely examines the core of people, no matter their age, as the world unravels. With extraordinary performances, we are not only given the opportunity to walk back in time, but to also walk in another’s shoes in a world where the future of tomorrow is truly unknown.

3 ½ out of 4 stars

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” creates understanding and compassion in an unlikely hero

August 22nd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Peanut Butter Falcon” creates understanding and compassion in an unlikely hero”

Zak runs away from his care home to make his dream of becoming a wrestler come true.
Written and directed by Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, and Dakota Johnson

If you’re looking for an inspiring, uplifting, and inclusive film, this is it! Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has Down’s Syndrome, is a ward of the state and living in a nursing home.  He wants more from life and after watching countless hours of his wrestling hero, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), he escapes thanks to his roommate’s (Bruce Dern) help.  Meeting the troubled fisherman, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), Zak begins to live life like never before.

The message within the film is readily apparent, but never too much.  It’s NOT a Hallmark movie! As Tyler treats Zak like anyone else who has certain strengths and weaknesses, we see this young man in a different light.  Their relationship is incredibly genuine and heartwarming, both of them helping one another in the most unlikely ways.  This is one of LaBeouf’s most authentic roles, creating a realistic yet flawed character with a heart and a troubled past.  Gottsagen’s performance is incredible as he captures our hearts with his smile and us to see who Zak truly is.   The all-star cast is an indication that the message this film sends is an important one as its beauty  has the power to change our perception of others in a positive way.

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

“The Nightingale” An interview with Aisling Franciosi

August 21st, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““The Nightingale” An interview with Aisling Franciosi”

It’s 1825 and a young Irish convict, her husband, and infant son live in the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, surviving each and every day. What lies ahead is one of the most unpredictable and tortuous tales of resiliency and love as a mother is set on vengeance for rape and murder. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, Aisling Franciosi stars in the lead role of Clare, creating an evocative and realistic story that delves deeply into the human psyche and the dark history of colonialism. The power within the character of Clare is immediately evident and builds throughout the film. I had a chance to sit down with Franciosi to discuss the making of “The Nightingale.”

Pamela Powell (PP): How did you prepare for such an emotional and difficult role, both physically and psychologically?

Aisling Franciosi (AF): I prepared by doing a lot of research myself, but also Jen (Kent) and I were in contact all the time about what to watch and what to read and obviously I read some history books for historical content on that side of things, but I also read this incredible book called “Trauma and Recovery.” The clinical psychologist who’s attached to the project, she suggested that I read it. She’s just really fascinated with how the brain of humans come up with survival mechanisms . … I also, from a practical point of view, I learned how to horse ride, wood chop, shoot a musket, but then when I got to Sydney, I went to the Center for Domestic Violence and I talked with the social workers there and some real life victims of rape. That honestly did a huge amount of work for me, emotionally preparing myself because I instantly had this weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

PP: Why did you want to portray Clare?

AF: I think it has something to do with how the truth drips off the page when you’re reading a Jennifer Kent script. She’s just an incredible writer. … I’m a little bit worried about that I might not get something like that again. It’s hard to find roles like that … and the more I researched it, the more I got into it, and … the angrier I got about the convict history of Australia. …I knew that convicts were sent to Australia, but I didin’t know how many of them were sent there for pretty much nothing. Stealing some food to survive. They were the rif raf that they wanted to clean up. Of course, there were some real, terrible criminals that were sent there, but women in particular were basically sent there, their job was to finish their sentence and populate this colony. And that really, really, really bothers me. That all added to this need to tell this story.

PP: Let’s talk about the rape scene. It was incredibly difficult to watch and that’s an understatement.

AF: Whenever I think of that scene, it’s instantly physical. I’m not thinking anything in particular, but when I watched it, I started crying. I think people want to describe it as a rape revenge film and I think on paper, I can see why people would think that, but please watch ours because it’s so much more. … they have to deal with this horrible loss and trauma and damage their sense of self and self-worth and PTSD. …You know what? If you’re going to show a rape, you better make sure that people feel devastated by it. In the past it’s been spoken about almost as if it’s a sexual deviancy. It really isn’t about sex. It’s a weapon and power and dehumanizing someone. There’s a reason that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s a very powerful, dehumanizing and destructive that has a long lasting effect. I’m really proud, and I know it’s not easy to watch, but even with the violence in general, our attitude is, it’s abhorrent. …. You’re forced to looking at how devastating it is.

PP: Jennifer must have set up a situation for you and all the actors to feel safe during that scene, right?

AF: Jen is just wonderful. first things first, she had her clinical psychologist on set, and [she] was there to kind of like take breaks and chat with us afterward about how we were feeling …. There was talk initially that maybe Sam and I, wouldn’t it be interesting if we didn’t really interact that much before shooting because there would be this weird distance between us and obviously she (Clare) hates him but is forced into having a very odd relationship with him and a very damaging one. No, we have to spend AS MUCH TIME AS possible together. I couldn’t have done those things with someone I didn’t feel, … [who] made me feel super safe.Those were really hard, those days. We were in tears in between takes and obviously it’s hard for me, but it’s terrible for the guys. … We were taking a break from the cabin scene, and [the psychologist] said do you mind talking with the guys? They’re really cut up about you. Can you show them that you’re ok? … I gave them a hug and everything and they were in bits.

PP: Tell me about training for all the physically challenging skills like horseback riding. Had you done that before?

AF: No, I didn’t. Someone even said to me, like, you’re Irish. I’m so sorry to disappoint you. It’s not like we’re all on green fields in Ireland on horses. I had never even been around horses at all. They flew me to Sydney to train. … [And] The wood chopping. It’s one of my new favorite things. You relieve so much tension. It’s why I loved that. I had the Tasmanian Wood Chopping Champions couple teaching me! …And then shooting the musket was, God those guns weigh so much! That scene where the four Aboriginals … awful, awful scene. 
The weather was terrible. We had a lot of first-time actors and my only job for that whole time was to hold my gun up against [Billy’s] back. Like at one point (quivering hands). Jen was like, no I want you to hold it like, (mimes taking gun) and [she said,] “Oh, my god this is heavy!” I know! (Laughs!)

Jen organized Taekwondo and boxing, not because I do any boxing or Taekwondo in the movie, but it was important for us. She wanted to get the physicality of Clare right and she’s a very tough, super working class West Ireland woman. …So before we’d do certain scenes, basically the stunt man would hold up two pads and I would beat them before “action!” It really helped.

PP: Can you tell me about the Aboriginal people in the film?

AF: People are always a a bit cautious when it’s a white woman telling the story of an Aboriginal, but she wanted to make sure that we had an Aboriginal elder on set and she got blessings from lots of different aboriginal elders from different communities. We definitely don’t fall into the White Savior category. It’s the other way around. Billy’s (Baykali Ganambarr) broken too. He’s got his own trauma. It’s what he sees … so he has his prejudices too and I love that. Yeah, we’re very different and there’s this fear of the other all the time but really there are people with their own pain and we’re so much more similar than we are different no matter how much we want to tell ourselves otherwise.

“The Nightingale” is an incredible and haunting story of power and resiliency with extraordinary performances from Franciosi and the entire cast. Kent’s remarkable writing and directing will make this film one of the best of the year.

4/4 Stars

“Ready or Not” is a bloody good game

August 20th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ready or Not” is a bloody good game”

Ready or not, let the games begin! The directors of “V/H/S,” Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, have upped their game with the intense horror-thriller “Ready or Not” starring Samara Weaving, Andy MacDowell, Mark O’Brien, and Adam Brody.

As a new-comer to the Le Domas gaming mogul family, Grace (Weaving), on her wedding night, must participate in a game and as the card is dealt, Hide and Seek means that Grace must fight not just to win, but to live.

The premise sounds quite sinister, and it is. The patriarch of the family, through generations, has made a pact to play a game chosen by a long-deceased colleague, stating that any new additions to the family must play in return for wealth. From benign games like Old Maid and Checkers to the deadly card drawn of Hide and Seek, the family’s very life depends upon playing the game to its bitter end: Hide and Seek requires the target to be killed before dawn or the family will all die. Refuse to play and death knocks on your door.

Writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy masterfully set up the story, allowing us to get to know this young couple, Alex and Grace. She’s beautiful and he’s rich and they’re madly in love. Alex’s dismissal of his blue blood roots is endearing and Grace’s sad background of being raised by foster parents is equally engaging. They’re a match made in heaven, but can they endure the hell to come?

We also get to know each of the family members, appearing more like a caricatures of the rich and famous than shrewd business leaders. With Aunt Helene’s (Nicky Guadagni) permanent scowl as she lurks in every corner, Father’s (Henry Czerny) less-than-regal demeanor, and Emilie’s (Melanie Scrofano) need to be coddled by mummy and daddy, it’s a recipe for comedic disaster almost as if characters from the board game Clue just came to life.

The consequences are dire, but there are so many unexpected hilarious moments, too. These incredibly shocking situations are set up and timed to also bring an element of humor to the scene. Imagine laughing as a woman gets a crossbow through the throat! And yes, we root for the young bride to make it till dawn and question the curse or pact that this crazy family has operated under for a century or so. “Ready or Not” plays the ridiculous card at precisely the right time, too, as it questions the validity of the very premise of the story.

This is Grace’s story and Weaving carries it effortlessly. Her expressive eyes and her character’s resilience, intelligence, and survival instincts become more intensified as the story unfolds. While the remaining cast supports her, and they are caricatures, they aren’t so over-the-top that we are taken out of the context of the film. Alex’s big brother Daniel (Brody) is a bit of a cad, married to a power-hungry wife and Emelie’s juvenile behavior accentuated by her drug use typifies what we might envision that .1% to behave like. MacDowell brings a touch of southern charm and superficiality to her portrayal of a loving mother who sacrifices for her family, but it is Kristian Bruun’s depiction of Fitch that gives us a punch of humor no matter the situaiton. His comedic timing and delivery is sheer perfection.

The genre of horror blended with mystery, comedy, and thriller is a tough combination, but with great writing, cinematography, directing and more importantly, a cast who can deliver, “Ready or Not” is a film to please several palates. This tension-filled, disturbing, yet hilarious film expertly makes every move, pulling us in to the story as we root for Grace to conquer all. If you think you know how this ends, think again. It’s one surprise after another. Of course, as in any horror film, the special effects are a part of the story, but never does it over-power the film; it punctuates the situation just as it should.

“Ready or Not” is pure horrific fun and while we have seen the premise in many other movies, how they get to the final scene is filled with unexpected and mind-blowing situations.
The humor, standout performances, and skillful writing and directing makes “Ready or Not” a film to see.

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” Is a comedic-action gem

July 31st, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” Is a comedic-action gem”

“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” is a spin-off of the franchise bringing two familiar faces, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham), to the screen for one of the best, most humorous and visually captivating of any of its predecessors. Directed by David Leitch who gave us “Deadpool 2,” the film delivers so much more than anticipated with great banter, preposterous stunts, and interesting characters; it’s the fuel injection this sequel needed to cross the finish line reigniting your faith in summer blockbuster flicks.

If we can forgive the opening scene typical of most of the “Fast & Furious” films of close-ups of women’s nearly bare butts, etc., and I did, we find our stars aka heroes leading two separate and polar opposite lives. Hobbs, the elite muscle-bound physical specimen and father of an adorable 9 year-old, Sam (Eliana Su’a), discusses school and the lack of knowledge of the family tree. Half-way around the world, Shaw, whose more refined and sophisticated British ways, leads an orderly and solitary life. They’re re-enlisted into their respective governmental intelligence agencies to team up, much to their utter distaste for one another, to find Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent who has gone rogue and stolen “Snowflake,” a globally lethal virus. Hot on this agent’s trail is “Brixton” (Idris Elba) the ultimate bad guy. It’s sure to be an explosive, high intensity showdown among them all.
TRAILER

While this certainly sounds like a formulaic, we’ve-seen-it-before, storyline—stolen weapons, save the world, all against the clock—and it is, it also breaks the mold with a focus on the characters’ chemistry, backstory, and hilarious banter between them. Co-writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce never let that comedic aspect cease. They know the pacing and balance of the film to entertain all audiences and find the right beats throughout this 2 hour and 15 minute film. While it is a bit long and after the 100 minute mark, perhaps an edit to a few action scenes would have helped, the stunts are still extraordinarily captivating and I truly cared about the characters.

It isn’t necessary to know anything about the other “Fast & Furious” films, making this a stand-alone spin-off, and there are plenty of unexpected surprises with cameos as well as unanticipated relationships. ***No spoilers here for you! *** If you’re expecting over-the-top and outrageous stunts, they’re here, but instead of making you roll your eyes, they make you laugh. This film laughs at itself, acknowledging the impossibility of it all and uses it accordingly.

For action fans as well as car enthusiasts, “Hobbs & Shaw” doesn’t disappoint either, staying true to what this F&F Franchise started out as. The stunts are also incredible, mind-boggling, actually, as you wrap your head around what’s real and what’s not. Sliding under a bus, jumping a line of cars, all on a motorcycle; careening around corners and cliffs high above the water’s edge, and so much more, creates unfathomable situations that glue your eyes to the screen. Equally captivating is the global travel, particularly as the chase leads them to a familiar country for Johnson, paying homage to his ancestral roots.

“Hobbs & Shaw” has its moments of seriousness as Brixton shares his reasons for going to the dark side. The underlying realities of our world, the environment, and politics drive the plot forward, but never does it overshadow the lightness of this film. Quite surprisingly, the violence is quite rampant, yet no more than a bruise or a little redness on a forehead is ever seen. There’s not grotesque blood-spurting; just a lot of hand-to-hand, well-choreographed fight scenes allowing our heroes to shine. Brixton, a combination of man and machine, showcases his unique abilities and features, highlighting the differences among all of them.

The key ingredient in this film is Johnson and Statham’s explosive chemistry. With an intuitive sense of comedic timing and the ability to somehow bring nuanced performances to a story typically not requiring this, they breathe fresh air into what could have been an ordinary, repetitive, action film. Johnson is more than just a bulky persona and we connect with him and even feel empathy as we see his feelings are hurt, looking more like an adolescent who has been picked on by a bully. And beneath the tough exterior of Statham, lies a sweet teddy bear with a big heart. Statham and Johnson are the epitome of a dynamic duo. The entire cast is exceptional as we see Eddie Marsan honing his skills as the confused and physically inept scientist and Alba creating a villain like no other. Another standout in this film is how strong and smart the character of Hattie is with a layered backstory which Kirby skillfully portrays.

“Hobbs & Shaw” is an unexpected blockbuster gem capitalizing on the strength, skills, and personalities of its stars. Hilarious, thrilling, and fun are exactly what a summertime movie should be and this pushes the pedal to the metal to give us total entertainment.

3 out of 4 Stars

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” – DiCaprio and Pitt are sheer magic

July 24th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” – DiCaprio and Pitt are sheer magic”

The much-anticipated summer blockbuster, “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood,” written and directed by the exalted Quentin Tarantino and starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie, brings us back in time to the late ’60’s, recounting the fictitious events and friendship of an actor and his stunt double and blending it with the horrors of historical reality. It’s a slow-burn that sometimes fizzles as it choses style over substance. Overall, however, it creates a haunting yet vibrant revisionist history, filled with nostalgia, humor, and of course, QT’s signature “Spaghetti Western” graphic violence.

It’s 1969 and Rick Dalton’s (DiCaprio) career as a cowboy in a hit television series is long gone. He’s wrestling with the possibility of being on the brink of being a has-been. Finding roles is becoming increasingly difficult, but he continues to pay his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) to drive him and basically take care of him. The two are inseparable, yet are as different as night and day. Cliff, a loner but loving dog-owner, is confident as he lives in the present, never seeming to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rick, on the other hand, is incredibly insecure, needing constant external positive reinforcement from anyone to make him happy. One of the sweetest, yet saddest moments in the film is when a child actor (Julia Butters) tells Rick that was the best acting she has ever seen. We immediately know how fragile this man is.

There are three seemingly independent storylines occurring in this film, but they eventually intersect in dramatically violent ways. Sharon Tate (Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) live next door to Rick and their fate is the ever-looming shoe above, ready to drop at any moment. Meanwhile, there are a group of “dirty hippies” living on an old man’s piece of property. As tough-guy Cliff meets one of the hippies, he’s determined to make sure his old acquaintance Charlie (Bruce Dern) isn’t being taken advantage of. Dern’s performance as the crotchety old man, napping in order to stay up for his girlfriend’s favorite TV shows, is simply hilarious. While Dern has little screen time, it’s a standout and memorable performance. Of course, the situation develops into a violently comedic one and we begin to see the writing on the wall.

Tarantino certainly takes his time in weaving this story together. It’s not until well past the half-way point that we begin to put the clues together to understand where this story might be going. This, to me, was somewhat frustrating as a more succinct technique could have accomplished the same result. However, Tarantino’s punctuation of style in every scene is his signature in this film as he pulls out the grit, color, and texture of this by-gone era of Hollywood. This stylistic choice is certainly a creative one, but comes to the forefront of the film and overpowers the story-telling.

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is in every way a buddy film. Two grown men, depending upon one another, floundering, making mistakes, but always there for one another. DiCaprio and Pitt are sheer magic together. While DiCaprio skillfully creates this unsure, alcoholic actor, always gambling with his choices and trying to play the Hollywood game, Pitt’s assured demeanor perfectly balances the pair. His smirk and confidence draws you to him, even after learning of his sordid past. The two have an undeniable chemistry, but unfortunately, Tarantino takes away from this solid foundation by focusing upon on-set filming for Rick’s show. The behind the scenes interactions are pure gold, but these scenes are significantly less by comparison.

As the film meanders its way to its apparent conclusion, for those who remember the fate of Sharon Tate, Tarantino finds a way to pull the rug out from under you, creating a very unexpected twist. This tone and feel isn’t consistent with the spirit of the film, however. It becomes graphically brutal and shocking, but the concept of the over-the-top violence is all a part of Tarantino’s signature. We do see how he skillfully brings all the apparent loose ends created at the beginning of the film together into a well-tied if not very messy bow.

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is in many ways an homage to television, but it is also a social statement about how the filmmaking industry influences its audience and vice versa. The two are inseparable, much like the main characters of Cliff and Rick, and both very fragile ecosystems. Interestingly, Tarantino also depicts those behind the camera as much stronger than those in front of the camera, always needing to have their egos stroked. Perhaps that’s how he sees his world.

3 out of 4 stars

“The Lion King” Same heart, incredible new technology in animation

July 11th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Lion King” Same heart, incredible new technology in animation”

Disney has released yet another remake from their wonderful world with Jon Favreau in the director’s chair. After the success of the incredible melding of real life with animation in “The Jungle Book,” many anticipated equally extraordinary visualization of the memorable film “The Lion King.” Varying little if at all from the original story, this new version of “The Lion King,” a “photo-real” production is mesmerizing throughout thanks to the artistic and technological worlds colliding in beautiful harmony.

The story begins with the familiar Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones) attempting to impart words of wisdom upon his adorable, fluffy, and feisty cub Simba (voice of JD McCrary). Doom and gloom ensues as Scar, always jealous of his older brother’s strength and place in life, plots to take down the king and in so doing, inflict seemingly irreparable damage to young Simba. Years pass and the missing heir to the thrown has made a new life, Hakuna Matata style, but he must follow the path his father and ancestors’ have paved for him.

While those who are familiar with the original animated version of the story will always cherish it, this new and visually impressive version tells the same father-son story, keeping all of the same key songs, but using the terminology of today and giving each of the characters a new, fresh voice.

The film is visually entrancing from the beginning, but it doesn’t really find its pacing until after the first third of the film when Simba meets Pumba (Seth Rogan) and Timon (Billy Eichner). Each of these characters are familiar yet their respective voices create new and interesting personalities as they help Simba get through each day. With laugh-out-loud moments, the film is a Disney multi-colored world of happiness and fun. Disney movies are known for their ability to make both kids and adults laugh and this updated version does exactly that, perhaps even more so than the original. Although the final portion of the film is much darker and more intense, and perhaps even scary for younger ones because it does feel and look so real, there’s also a message of environmentalism and honor as Simba stands up for what’s right and best for all.

With any remake, particularly Disney classics, you roll the dice when you cast a new voice for a beloved character. We saw mixed reactions to “Aladdin” (Will Smith vs. Robin Williams), but “The Lion King” thankfully continues with James Earl Jones as Mufasa and expertly or perhaps wisely casts Rogan and Eichner for incredible comedy and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the voice of Scar who formulates incomparable intimidation in his voice so that you can almost see the scheming and evil emanating from his character’s lips.

Zazu is voiced by John Oliver who brings us his own signature style and JD McCrary brings a youthful innocence to his character of young Simba. Growing older, Danny Glover takes over this part, spinning Simba in his own way, especially while he sings.

While many may argue whether or not a remake was needed, no one can argue this film’s astoundingly magical animation technique. Favreau reportedly blended “live-action filmmaking techniques with photo-real computer generated imagery” as the environments were designed within a game engine or VR (Virtual Reality) set up. Favreau’s vision and his team have revolutionized the world of animation and because of this we are in constant awe as we see the detail of the lion’s whiskers and fur, the graceful gallop of the giraffes, the rough and symmetrical ridges of the antelopes’ antlers, the intensity of the hyena’s dark and hateful eyes, or the billowing dust randomly rising and falling as we can almost feel the particles settle on our skin. The details are mesmerizing, capturing our attention and almost drawing it away from the story itself. Where the line of reality and animation blur is up for grabs as you cannot tell what is real and what is not. This truly gives the sense of anthropomorphism of the animals and immediate empathy for their lives.

Favreau masterfully creates an amalgam of worlds, real and animated, to retell a beautiful and familiar story which will mesmerize children and adults alike. With the skill, talent, knowledge and artistry involved in creating such a visual accomplishment, it’s too bad Disney didn’t put its efforts into creating a unique and original story to go along with it. However, fans of “The Lion King” will find that same heart of the original.

4 Stars

Hulu’s CULTURE SHOCK director Gigi Saul Guerrero talks about the reality and horror of her new feature episode

July 3rd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Hulu’s CULTURE SHOCK director Gigi Saul Guerrero talks about the reality and horror of her new feature episode”

Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror episodic series is underway and first-time feature director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Culture Shock” will be available to see on July 4th. It’s a timely release as the film tackles Mexican border crossings and the American Dream as the two collide in unimaginably horrific ways.

Guerrero was recently in Chicago to discuss not only the film, but how she personally connects with it and how it resonates with anyone who has a dream to live a better life.

To read the interview as published in the Wednesday, July 3rd edition of The Daily Journal, go HERE

Archives

    

Know if you should go, subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Thanks for visiting! Please join my email list to get the latest updates on film, my festival travels and all my reviews.

CONTACT

Bourbonnais, Illinois
www.reelhonestreviews.com

site design by Matt K. © All rights belong to Reel Honest Reviews / Pamela Powell