Posts in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Book Club” With age, comes love and laughs

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Terminal” a convoluted story lacking any substance

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

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

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

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

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

1 Star for great lighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 STARS

“Avengers: Infinity War” will please Marvel fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

Watch the trailer here

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

Laverne Berry, Photo Credit: Nelson Walker III

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4/4 Stars

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

“Ready Player One” Fun-filled Easter Eggs

March 30th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ready Player One” Fun-filled Easter Eggs”

Review from the March 30, 2018 edition of The Daily Journal:

The future is bleak in “Ready Player One,” based on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name. It takes us to Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, when the world has taken an ugly turn to be litter-ridden, unsafe and poverty-stricken.

At least that’s Cline’s vision. Steven Spielberg’s film version is a fast-paced visual extravaganza, engaging both gamers older than 13 and those of us who grew up in the ‘80s. (There are more pop culture references in this film than Storm Troopers on the Death Star. Reportedly, even the crew of the film tried to plant a few surprises for their director!)

The world’s population does everything to escape reality, including venturing into a gaming world called OASIS. Playing is costly, and the world is addicted. This addiction lines the pockets of OASIS, but creator Halliday (Mark Rylance) has died, giving gamers an opportunity to find all the keys to his kingdom in a virtual race against one another as they become Gunters, or Easter egg hunters. (For those not familiar, an “Easter egg” is an unexpected feature in a piece of computer software, usually added as a joke.)

The prize? Halliday’s fortune and OASIS itself.

To read the review in its entirety, go to

THE DAILY JOURNAL

“All I Wish” finds life for overlooked demographic

March 28th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““All I Wish” finds life for overlooked demographic”

I am finding that wishes really do come true, even if they’re in the form of a movie.  As a woman in my mid-50’s, it’s simply refreshing to see a fun romantic dramedy about someone in my age bracket who’s still living life, still re-creating herself, and who can still be perceived as romantic.  We find all of this in writer/director Susan Walter’s new film “All I Wish,” starring Sharon Stone. 

According to Lesley Coffin’s interview with Walter in FF2 Media, “All I Wish” didn’t start out to appeal to audiences in my demographic.  With the financial and creative magic of Stone who was originally approached to play “Mom,” the project was transformed to hit a target audience who’s been completely overlooked in the past.  According to the FF2 Media article, Walter shared that Stone said, “Why not make [the film] about someone turning 50, who’s had a dream that’s been festering for decades?  Wouldn’t that be more interesting?”

Stone’s suggestion certainly did make for a much more interesting film.  Senna, Stone’s character, is a hip, bright, funky unattached woman—exactly the type of friend everyone loves to be around.  But she’s struggling internally with her achievements, particularly her work.  As a fashion designer who has not yet realized her potential, Senna finds herself without a job, floundering for a bit as she rights herself in the turbulent waters of life.  The film follows Senna, picking up on her birthday each year and we see a beautiful evolution exemplifying what it’s like to always have dreams…and wishes even women our age.

Senna’s very close to her mother, Celia (Ellen Burstyn), who is always the first to call and wish her daughter a happy birthday.  Their bond is sweet yet very real as it’s not perfect; her mother says and does (humorous) typical mom things and Senna’s reaction to them is spot-on.  Senna’s friendships are also endearing yet realistic as we watch and understand her interaction with Darla (Liza Lapira) whose life unfolds in a predictable way.  It’s Darla’s honesty and encouragement that pushes Senna to pursue her dreams that reminds us what best friends should be.

 

“All I Wish” is a romantic film as well, but Senna’s future and happiness doesn’t hinge on finding the right man as most romantic comedies portray.  It is a vital part of her life, but her independence and wisdom at this stage in her life allows her to continue to be who she is.  Tony Goldwyn plays her love interest, Adam, a bright and charming man who gives Senna a run for her money and we watch their relationship change on those mile marker birthdays.

What makes “All I Wish” unique is Senna’s age.  She has gone through all the typical growing pains of life, learned from them, yet still finds lessons to learn.  She has to go through the pain of loving and losing her mother, something many of us 50-somethings have had to endure. Rarely do you find a film that tells a story that encompasses this stage of life and living, but “All I Wish” does just that.

Stone’s portrayal of Senna seems to be right in her wheelhouse.   She doesn’t look her age and this vibrancy exudes from her character of Senna as she lives life to its fullest.  Stone allows the viewer to understand Senna’s innermost fears, relating to her outward confidence while masking some of the pain she is experiencing.  Of course, Burstyn shines as Senna’s mother as she embodies a loving mom we all would like to have.  Together, these women create an unbreakable bond while still finding a balance of independence. 

There is humor in the story as well.  It’s the irony of life; the situations we can all understand.  It’s perspective that comes with experience.  And there is the one scene at the beach involving a car trunk, a towel, and a misplaced set of keys that will make you laugh out loud. 

“All I Wish” is a heartfelt and relatable film filled with humor as we enjoy getting to know and grow with Senna.  The film confirms the fact that we’re never to old to have dreams, try new adventures, and start another chapter in our lives all the while holding on to a concept of love and sexuality.  In the end, it’s one of those movies you find yourself breathing a sigh of delight and just feeling good.

“Unsane” is insanely thrilling

March 23rd, 2018 Posted by Review, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on ““Unsane” is insanely thrilling”

Steven Soderbergh is a prolific producer, but his directorial resume is quite impressive as well, particularly with the more recent film “Logan Lucky” which unfortunately flew under the radar with both critics and viewers.  Now, Soderbergh takes a “stab” at his first horror film, “Unsane.”  But to label it as just that, does it an injustice.  It’s more of a psychological thriller with horror elements a la Stephen King.  Think of it as a bit of “Shutter Island” and “Misery” blended together with touches of reality versus paranoia and you have “Unsane”  all shot on an iPhone!  

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy-”The Crown”) leads a paranoid life, always looking over her shoulder, haunted or perhaps I should say, hunted, by a stalker.  As she seeks professional counseling in yet another new town where she works successfully as a banking analyst, Sawyer is inadvertently self-admitted into a psychiatric ward.  Unable to control her temper and “seeing” her stalker as a caregiver at the facility, she lashes out, increasing her observational time at the institute.  Attempting to get out, Sawyer befriends Nate (Jay Pharoah), contacts her mother, all the while unravelling from within with a little help from Violet (Juno Temple) and Nurse George (Joshua Leonard).  

“Unsane” sets the uneasy tone as we first meet Sawyer in her new surroundings, narrating what her thoughts are and giving us a few hints about her past.  A few ideological seeds are planted regarding her mental status creating a distrust between the viewer and this supposed protagonist.  The questioning continues throughout the film, even when we are provided with solid information and it is this intuitive writing that hones into the viewers’ psyche making “Unsane” insanely captivating.  

Foy plays a strong and smart young woman with nerves of steel whose very inner being is tested.  Each and every scene delves more deeply into her paranoia with just enough uncertainty that you begin to wonder what you would do in that same situation.  Could you endure the treatment?  How would you get out?  Could you just be quiet and try to assimilate until your insurance ran out?  (It’s the medical system so it’s all about the bottom line!)  Pulling the viewer personally into that situation makes your heart race as you audibly gasp at some rather chilling and horrific occurrences.  

Leonard has a dual role and again, he evokes feelings of trust as well as distrust in the first half of the film.  As the truth is revealed, the story plunges down that rabbit hole of panic, tapping into the fight or flight defense mechanism we all inherently have.  Pharoah stands out in his role as confidante, providing a bit of much needed levity and Temple is a natural in her role as psych patient with her bizarre mannerisms and lashing out unexpectedly.  

As with any thriller/horror film, it is the element of surprise that makes them fun and while I can’t say this is fun, it most certainly kept me guessing.  There were also some scenes that I simply couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen and I was thankful that I sat in the front row so that when I quickly sank into my seat to avoid what was coming at me visually, I didn’t kick the person in front of me.  Here’s a warning—there are some psychologically disturbing and gruesome scenes, particularly toward the end that may be too much for some viewers.

Now, back to the iPhone as the camera.  Knowing this when you go in, you take notice of some of the camera work initially, but you quickly forget about it as you are sucked into the plot and the characters.  Seeing a film from a writer/director/producer/cinematographer the calibre of Soderbergh who chose to film “Unsane” on an iPhone will surely inspire future filmmakers everywhere.  

“Unsane” is a brilliantly thrilling horror movie that any Stephen King fan would enjoy.  Its chilling premise, unflinching acting, and gut-wrenching elements of suspense allow even the jaded movie goer to feel like he/she has seen something new.  And without any spoilers, the end of the film is simply perfect.

3 1/2 Stars

“I Kill Giants” In theaters and VOD Friday, March 23

March 21st, 2018 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on ““I Kill Giants” In theaters and VOD Friday, March 23”

The action graphic novel “I Kill Giants” by J.M. Ken Niimura comes to life on the big screen starring Madison Wolfe as Barbara, the slayer of giants. Barbara is an outcast in her school, exhibiting bizarre behaviors brought about by her tumultuous home life. The story creates a portrayal of a teen’s inner and symbolic demons as she attempts to control both, coping with her inevitable future. While the pace of the story is meandering and slow at times, the payoff is worth the wait with its emotionally beautiful ending.

Three siblings, seemingly fending for themselves, live in a beautiful home along the coast. Karen (Imogen Poots), the eldest, takes on the role of mother as she works and cares for her younger brother and sister. Barbara rebels against her siblings and takes herself into the world of monsters and giants. It is here that reality and imagination blend together as we question the difference between the two. Bringing her back to reality and grounding Barbara is her new and only friend, a new girl in town, Sophia (Sydney Wade).  Attempting to  understand Barbara while navigating the angst of middle school, Sophia’s kindness is pushed to the brink.  Barbara’s inner monsters must first be addressed before she can find a way to sort through her own reality.

Wolfe carries this film as she portrays a character who lashes out, wielding her words like a sword.  She is, on the surface, weird and  insensitive, yet in her mind she is there to save the town from certain demise from the Giants. This is Barbara’s story and we are submerged in her world, trying to understand what she is truly grappling with. It isn’t until the final 30 minutes of the film that there is that long-awaited crescendo connecting us to this little girl. The supporting cast is just that, supporting. The adults in the film are integral to Barbara’s character and emotional growth, but the adult characters are never really developed. The story unfolds from Barbara’s point of view, but it also accentuates the importance of a consistent and caring adult in a child’s life and the impact upon her resiliency.  The consistent adult in this story is the counselor, Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana).

“I Kill Giants” is gorgeously shot, melding together the world of reality and make believe in magical ways. For those who have not read the graphic novel, it comes as no surprise  that this would be the inspiration, given the intensity and vivid images. Barbara’s imagination is brought into full focus, allowing the viewer to be a part of her fears and powers or lack thereof. In many ways, this film is reminiscent of J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” as it tackles adult issues thrust upon a child and the use of imagination as a coping mechanism.

“I Kill Giants” is a vibrant and bold depiction of a young teen’s imagination as she grapples with toxic stress. The film reminds us that knocking down the walls to truly understand a child who seems a bit odd is worth the time and patience.

3/4 Stars

“Son of Sofia” A hauntingly powerful story portraying a current day Oedipal conflict

March 12th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““Son of Sofia” A hauntingly powerful story portraying a current day Oedipal conflict”

“Son of Sophia” had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and is now a powerful part of the annual Chicago European Union Film Festival.  Written and directed by Elina Psykou and staring Victor Khomut as a young boy, wrestling with issues of betrayal, abandonment, and love as he leaves childhood behind.  This thought-provoking and psychologically deep film about a mother and her son creates an intriguingly insightful look at growing up in less than ideal circumstances.

Misha (Khomut), a quiet and reserved 11 year-old travels on his own from Russia to Athens to live with his mother, Sofia (Valery Tscheplanowa).  The two have been separated for years and their reunion shows the unfamiliarity but obligatory connection.  The living situation is just one of the many surprises for Misha as he learns that he and his mother will be living with an older gentleman, Mr. Nikos (Thanassis Papageorgiou).  This man, he will discover, is also his new stepfather.  It’s evident that Misha still needs his mother and isn’t ready for this new “father” in his life.  He is still a young boy at heart as we see him clinging to the comfort of fairy tales. Jarringly, he is then abruptly pulled into the world of an older boy with no parental influence.  The struggle is palpable as Misha grows up in this foreign land, not understanding the language and thrust into a surprising situation which push the envelope of emotional capabilities of any child.

“Son of Sophia” is a complexly layered story, delving into not just the growing pains of young Misha, but of the conflicting loyalty that Sofia now has.  She’s torn between the love of her son and the needs of her new husband as well as her financial dependency upon him. She is treated as less than a person, demands placed upon her, and commanding her son to do the same. This heartbreaking and internal  struggle is beautifully portrayed, demonstrating what many wives and mothers deal with on a daily basis.

“Son of Sofia” develops another story within the film as we see another viewpoint; that of Misha.  He longed to be only with his mother and finds Mr. Nikos to be a competitor.  It’s a classic representation of a boy with an Oedipus Complex, attempting to do away with his competition.  Misha’s new-found friend, Victor (Aremois Havalits) couldn’t be any worse of an influence, but with no parental involvement, Misha delves into inappropriate situations.  His ability to understand right from wrong seems to become less clear as do his skills in coping with losing his childhood.

Khomut is the lead actor, supporting the film completely with his nuanced performance.   Balancing on the edge of childhood’s imagination and the dark world of adults is intellectually difficult, but Khomut finds a way to do exactly this.  Tscheplanowa gives us a beautifully dramatic performance, creating a conflicted and apprehensive character.  She brings us a character who is not only real, but believable.  The interaction between the two is familiar and relatable while the cinematography gorgeously captures each and every mood and feeling.  The story-line does become disturbing, but it is required to do so in order to expertly bring the Oedipal Complex to its bitter-sweet conclusion.

“Son of Sofia” is remarkably haunting and dramatic as it captures the love between a mother and her son and his need to grow up.  Its complexities are revealed through deft direction and writing, allowing the cast to shine.

“All Square” A dark comedy at SXSW gives Michael Kelly a chance to shine in new ways

March 10th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““All Square” A dark comedy at SXSW gives Michael Kelly a chance to shine in new ways”

Remember when films took you away to a not so different place, yet one that let you escape your own life?  Movies that were filled with interesting characters, perhaps one that you could even identify with?  Or somehow, that imperfect character who was the focal point of the story allowed you to root for him even with all his flaws?  “All Square,” which premiered at the SXSW film festival, is just that movie.  It’s good old-fashioned storytelling complete with characters we love, identify with, and hope beyond hope that they make it across home plate.

Michael Kelly stars in “All Square,” the story of a small-town bookie, following in his not-so-successful father’s footsteps, after failing to be the town’s baseball prodigy oh-so-many years ago.  John (Kelly) is constantly behind the eight ball, attempting to collect on debts, having a heart when he shouldn’t and trying to be tough in all the wrong ways.  Caring for his elderly father, paying medical bills and for cigarettes (oh, the irony) John attempts to up the ante and score it big…in a youth baseball league gambling ring he has devised.  After a one-night stand with Debbie (Pamela Adion), a former flame, John connects with her son Brian, a pitcher with perhaps some skills yet to be mined.  John’s foresight is a bit lacking and his actions not getting any votes for stand in father of the year, his plan spirals out of control, with the fallout unpredictable—at least to John.

Kelly’s role as John, the lovable loser who never seems to learn a lesson, is certainly a departure from his typical roles as Doug Stamper in “House of Cards,” or numerous law enforcement agents.  He seems to comfortably slip into this role as blue collar worker with a heart as well his Carharts.  His comedic timing in this dark comedy allows him to show a different and very entertaining side of his skills which I hope we will see more of in the future. 

Partnering with a child actor who must have the skills to  lead Kelly’s character to develop is a tough act to find, but Sheps is a natural.  The love and antagonistic relationship the two develop give such depth to not only their characters, but to the overall story.  Sheps portrays “Brian” with touch of maturity while still maintaining his youthful innocence that John could only dream to have had at such a young age.  And Sheps never takes this role over-the-top as some films and actors might have done.  He always finds that level of reality to bring to the character, allowing the audience to somehow find compassion for both main characters.

The cast is exceptional as is the writing and succinct and deft direction by John Hyams. The storyline of “All Square” has a touch of drama and suspense as well as comedy, albeit most of it either ironic or pitch black.  With writing and characters that connect with the viewer, the film is sure to be an audience pleaser as it comes full circle.  Filming in Dundalk, MD, the understated suburb of Baltimore, the town’s personality shines through to accentuate the story and its message.  Adion, Josh Lucas, Harris Yulin, and a cameo from Yeardley Smith (interview coming soon) round out the talented cast of characters to create a story that is as engaging as it is entertaining.

 “All Square” will screen again at the SXSW Film Festival on March 13 and 15.  For more information, go to SXSW FILM SCHEDULE

Watch for the upcoming interview with Yeardley Smith, Producer (voice of Lisa Simpson from “The Simpsons”)

“A Wrinkle in Time” is a powerful story of love, family

March 9th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““A Wrinkle in Time” is a powerful story of love, family”

Director Ava DuVernay’s newest endeavor, “A Wrinkle in Time,” takes a departure from her usual, heavy, historical-based topics — “Selma” followed the Montgomery, Ala., voting rights marches and “13th” covered the 13th amendment — and embarks on a magical journey filled with beauty, love and a young girl’s strength and courage.

This departure just might be what audiences are in need of given the darkness of world events that surround us.

DuVernay interprets author Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” staring the young Storm Reid as Meg, a precocious young girl whose parents are prolific astrophysicists, breaking boundaries and bending minds in new directions. She’s joined by a powerful supporting cast including Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling (“The Office”), Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Doctor Who”) and Levi Miller (“Pan”), plus recent newcomer to the screen Deric McCabe.

To read the review in its entirety, go to:

http://www.daily-journal.com/life/entertainment/wrinkle-in-time-is-a-powerful-story-of-family/article_393eae03-e65d-5d40-8502-ed829015ea23.html

“Game Night” All Fun in Typical February Style

February 23rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Game Night” All Fun in Typical February Style”

February isn’t exactly known for being a month of Oscar-worthy films, although “Get Out,” released last year at this time is the exception to the rule.  “Game Night,” starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons, fits right into the expected level of film for the month.  That’s not to say it’s not worth seeing.  On the contrary. It’s pure escapisim from the doldrums of winter weather and February; especially if you live in Illinois!  “Game Night” poses a ridiculous situation revolving around a traditional past time filled with crazy antics that will have you suspending any sort of belief and making you laugh continuouslyjust what the doctor ordered for February. 

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

https://youtu.be/fNtLIcyjsnI

Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) are the adoringly cute couple living in a cookie cutter cul-de-sac in sunny California.  Hosting a weekly game night and excluding Gary (Plemmons) the next door neighbor who is a creepy cop as well as an ex-husband of a former game night participant, the couple finds it difficult to host wtihout being spotted by ever-watching eyes.  Enter Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the enviable, successful, and decidedly more handsome older brother who shows up for the weekly competition…now, let the real games begin.  With long-seeded sibling rivalry between Max and Brooks, a criminal past that will soon catch up with them, and a game gone awry, the crazy situations and quest to win the game interwine for slap-stick comedy and over-the-top silliness.

We meet Annie and Max the night they fall in love.  Their chemistry and common love of competition and all things games draws them to one another.  We fast forward through their romance days and then their wedding, finding ourselves in the current day’s situation—dealing with Gary and sneaking friends in for game night.  The friends are unique characters, bringing their own personality and craziness to the night, but the story takes a detour and this is where the fun begins.  As anyone with a sibling can attest to, there’s always an element of jealousy and competition.  Max and Brooks’ rivalry is so extreme that as an outsider, you find it funny, but there’s also an element of reality or relatability to it.  Annie and Max have their issues as well, and Ryan’s infatuation with the 20-something flavor of the month is as dispicable as it is funny.  The film hits as many notes as possible to reel the viewer in and keep you on the line until the credits roll.  (Stay for those as the ends end is worth it.)

The jokes all hit home, from Trump-isms to gender stereotypical comments set straight, this film takes you on a comedic ride with a few laughs you might be embarrassed to say you found funny.  The stand out in this film, however, is Plemons, as the awkwardly odd and somehow creepy cop next door.  His measured reactions combined with that sad little puppy dog demeanor is somehow just the right combination to make us feel sorry for him yet still not totally trust him.  Plemmons steals each and every scene as we try to figure out whether or not we should love him or be frightened of him.  And here’s the other scary thing…we’ve all had a friend or acquaintence who we have left out…it’ll make you think back and maybe even think twice about that friend you skipped over.

Surprisingly, the story does have a few unexpected twists and turns in the road coupled with a few exaggeratedly gruesome scenes that make you laugh more than cringe.  The pace remains high throughout the film as Bateman uses his oh-so-familiar comedic cadence to get a few chuckles.  McAdams seems quite at ease playing off of Bateman’s antics, but it is Sharon Horgan’s “Sarah” that female viewers will find reassuring as she expresses what we all think of men like “Ryan” (Billy Magnussen).

“Game Night” is a fun-filled adventure movie with crazy stunts, antics, and situations that will have you laughing even when you probably shouldn’t.  The tried and true friendly game night with friends just upped the ante and viewers can go all in for a couple hours of total escapism.  It’s not “Get Out,” but it is fun.

The Best of Sundance 2018

January 27th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on “The Best of Sundance 2018”

The 2018 Sundance Film Festival is winding down and having been a part of the first 5 days, there was a different feel to it this year. The streets weren’t as crowded with pedestrians. The traffic was much less congested. And the lines to attend the films didn’t seem too terribly long. Perhaps the addition of “The Ray” theater and better traffic management explains this calmer, more quiet feeling. Or has attendance dropped precipitously from last year?. Only the final numbers not yet available will tell, but I can attest to the fact that the energy level certainly seemed less intense, overall.

For women in film, that was certainly not the case as numerous panel discussions, presentations, and a significant number of female-written and -directed films were available to festival goers. In addition, the Women’s March took place in town drawing locals, festival attendees, and celebrities. Coincidentally, 6 of the top 10 films of the fest, from my viewpoint, were either written and/or directed by women. Here are my festival favorites:

THE TALE
Jennifer Fox adapts her own life story to tell the tale of sexual abuse as a child. Starring Laura Dern as “Jennifer,” we meet her as an adult, rediscovering through an old English class story her mother found, the reality of what happened more than 30 years ago. Her perspective as an adult and revisiting those memories, sometimes clouded by time and stitched together with the aid of others during that fateful summer, allows Jennifer to confront her thoughts, current fears, and most importantly, herself. Ellen Bernstein portrays Jennifer’s mother, adding a realistic and often-times humorous touch to the movie. But what is most heart-wrenching and painful is the visually emotional manipulation of an adult with a child. The film cuts deeply with the precision accuracy of a surgeon into the mind and emotions of a strong yet damaged woman. It’s a painful journey that is at once genuine, allowing the viewer to begin to understand the depth of sexual abuse.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER
Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, the film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (Lisa), a kindergarten teacher, mother of two teens, and wife, just going through the motions. She’s struggling with her disappointment in life and the world in general until she finds Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a child prodigy in the art of poetry. Lisa becomes overly involved in this child’s life and skills, crossing moral boundaries for the sake of nurturing a lost appreciation of art. The tension is palpable and the suspense almost unbearable in this uniquely introspective look at society and values. Gyllenhaal’s performance is breathtaking and the final words uttered leave you speechless.

JULIET, NAKED
Tamara Jenkins and her team of writers adapt Nick Hornby’s novel “Juliet, Naked” about a rock legend who inadvertantly falls in love with his biggest fan’s significant other. Directed by Jesse Peretz, this rom-com stars Ethan Hawke (Tucker Crowe), Rose Byrne (Annie), and Chris O’Dowd (Duncan) creating a hilarious situation with dramatic overtones that is thoroughly entertaining. It’s a current day romance that never loses its sense of humor and never a dull moment. I haven’t laughed and been this engaged in a rom-com since “When Harry Met Sally.”

RBG
Who could have suspected that a film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could be absolutely entertaining? Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West weave together Justice Ginsburg’s youth, law school career, marriage, family, and legal experience, portraying all the ups and downs of each and we truly get to know this petite yet intellectually formidable woman. At the age of 83 years young, she is more popular than ever, inspiring young women to make a difference in this world. By the end of the film, after a few tears are shed along with many, many laughs, I learned about history and our judicial system. But most importantly, I know the woman that changed my life and every woman in America. Without her, we would still be ironing our husband’s shirts, never feeling valued as a viable person in the workplace.

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY
Paul Rudd takes on an usual role, portraying the real life Moe Berg, a catcher in the professional baseball league and an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) spy. This brilliantly gifted man, speaking more than a half-dozen languages fluently, lead a very secretive life. No one ever really knew this man, but because of his skills, bravery, and intellect, the entire course of WWII may have taken a different path. Rudd immediately creates a believable character, always keeping his emotions close to the vest, but giving viewers those subtle features allowing us to see inside. This film has all the right components to create an informative yet entertaining story.

COLETTE
Kiera Knightley finds a revolutionary role in portraying Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a young woman lacking a dowry in the countryside of France. The older and more sophisticated Willy (Dominic West), woos and marries her, taking her to the refined city of Paris. There, the two battle one another as their financial woes worsen. Her eloquent writing skills become their life-line, but she is not allowed the credit. On the surface, it sounds like a typical time-period story, but Colette pushes the day’s viewpoint on sexuality, fidelity, and gender acceptance. It’s an unexpected story filled with beautiful surprises that are relevant even in today’s world. Knightley and West are magical together, even when they are oil and vinegar. Beautiful imagery and costuming bring us into this world as we are captivated by this true story.

LEAVE NO TRACE
Writer and director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) adapts Peter Rock’s novel of the same name to give us a slow-burn film about a father and daughter living off the grid in the gorgeous mountains of Oregon. AS they are forced to leave their unique “home,” Will (Ben Foster), suffering from PTSD, plunges more deeply into his inner-demons, affecting his relationship with his astute daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). This gorgeously shot film takes you deep inside the confines of society and one’s ability to cope in this world as it explores love, relationships, and mental health.

 

 

HEARTS BEAT LOUD
Brett Haley has done it again. He finds a voice that does not imitate his own reflection and creates a story and characters that we are all craving to hear. Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) and Sam (Kiersey Clemons) are a father and daughter, struggling with the next stage of life. Frank’s failing record store and seeing that Sam is ready to move across the country for college is more than he is able to bear. Discovering his daughter’s amazing songwriting and performing skills during their “jam sesh,” Frank tries to create a band via Spotify which goes viral. It’s a balancing act as Frank pulls Sam back and Sam attempts to cut the apron strings. The film explores topics of young love and sexuality as well as father-daughter relationships using humor and poignancy. Did I mention the music is simply amazing? It is! Haley stated that he is truly proud of this film…and he should be!

COME SUNDAY
Pentecostal preacher Bishop Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has a come to Jesus moment as he hears the voice of God one night. Finding a new way to interpret the Bible, Pearson begins to preach a different story—one that his congregation and mentors find to be heresy. Based on the true story originally told by Ira Glass on WBEZ’s ‘This American Life,’ director Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace,” “Complete Unknown”) brings us a human story with divine intervention. Ejiofor, Jason Segal, and Martin Sheen star in this revelatory story that may allow you to see Christianity in a new light.

THE OSLO DIARIES
Mor Loushy and Daniel Siven give us the untold account of two warring people, the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the representatives that secretly met in the hopes of establishing peace. This historical recounting of events in the 1990’s allow us to see the countrys’ attempts to negotiate as well as the conundrum of how to compromise and maintain the constituents’ support. Getting to know these men on a personal basis brings a level of humanity and understanding that we wouldn’t otherwise know.

Check out interview with Claire McCarthy (“Ophelia”), and Q&A responses with Brett Haley (“Hearts Beat Loud”), Julie Cohen and Betsy West (“RBG”) and Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace”) at www.reelhonestreviews.com

Honorable Mentions: OUR NEW PRESIDENT, THE LONG DUMB ROAD, WILDLIFE

2018 Slamdance Film Festival Highlights: An Exceptional Year

January 27th, 2018 Posted by News, Review 0 thoughts on “2018 Slamdance Film Festival Highlights: An Exceptional Year”

Since 1995, the Slamdance Film Festival has taken place simultaneously with the Sundance Film Festival in the same mountain ski town of Park City, Utah.  The festival, began “…when a group of cheerful, subversive filmmakers weren’t accepted into the Sundance Film Festival [and were] unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer…”  Since that time, the festival has grown exponentially, giving independent and innovative films a chance they may not have otherwise been given.  The fest prides itself on being “By Filmmakers For Filmmakers.”

The 24th annual festival has now come to a close with the winners having been announced.  “Rock Steady Row” won for Best Narrative Feature and Audience Award while “Mr. Fish: Cartooning From the Deep End” won for Best Documentary Feature.  These two films are still on my list to screen, but the winners from the several films I did see are:

PICK OF THE LITTER:

Dana Nachman and Tom Hardy, Jr., are back at Slamdance after a three year hiatus.  Their first documentary feature film that screened at the fest was the heartwarming “Batkid Begins,” a story about a child whose Make A Wish choice brings the entire city of San Francisco together to create a day of pure joy for a young boy.  Now the dynamic duo of Nachman and Hardy give us “Pick of the Litter,” another heartwarming yet educational film about the journey of 5 labrador retriever puppies born to attempt to become a seeing eye guide dog for the blind. 

The film is at once captivating (of course, they’re adorable little fur balls), but it is also thrilling as we see the love and heartbreak that occurs with the temporary owners who give these little pups their start in training.  Following them from home to home, interviewing the possible candidates about receiving a dog, we connect with the people and the animals, rooting for them all, but knowing, like people, they are all different.

This 20 month journey will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face as you watch this horse race of dogs attempting to cross that finish line of helping a blind individual become more independent.  Will it be Phil? Potomac? Primrose? Patriot or Poppet?  Check out the film, grab some tissues, and snuggle with your own little buddy as you learn and love what canines can do for their humans.

QUEST:

Becoming aware of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) thanks to James Redford’s film “Resilience,” allowed me to see the importance of  Santiago Rizzo’s  film “Quest” as more than just a wonderful, sweet story about a teacher going above and beyond for a child because he cared.  The film depicts the real life story of Tim Moellering, a teacher who was that one stable adult in a young child’s life whose home life consisted of an abusive step father, an absentee mother, and an environment filled with violence.

This is Rizzo’s directorial debut and also co-writing the story based on his life and Moellering’s.  Dash Mihok (“Ray Donovan”) embodies the look, heart, and “humility” as Rizzo described him to become Moellering.  Other recognizable faces include Lou Diamond Phillips and Lakeith Stanfield as they add their talent to an important story about the need to help a child who is struggling.  The young Greg Kasyan shines in the role depicting a boy who is pulled in different and dangerous directions yet yearning for the chance to succeed in a positive way.  The immediate and genuine connection between Mills (Kasyan) and Moellering (Mihok) evokes a sincere understanding of what it takes to be a teacher and the importance of their role in our children’s lives. 

“Quest” allows us to see that Moellering was an exception to the rule.  He made a difference in one boy’s life and most certainly many more.  We need more teachers willing to step up and into the troubled lives of our youth.  One teacher can and did make a difference.  “Quest” is a film every teacher should see.

COMPANY TOWN:

Directors Natalie Kottke and Erica Sardarian take us to the little southern town of Crossett, Arkansas where the big paper production company Georgia-Pacific resides, employing much of the town and the neighboring ones as well.  The town has a more than remarkable cancer rate, many of these victims working in the mill and/or residing next to contaminated water sources. 

The directors investigate the town, interviewing residents, government officials, and environmental agencies, concluding the obvious.  But big business owned by none other than the Koch brothers, Charles and David, is like fighting Goliath.  The filmmakers lay out the pieces of information as they sometimes candidly film situations and conversations, allowing us to be privy to the discovery, devastation, and frustration this town is experiencing. 

“Company Town” is just one example of how big business takes precedence over the every day worker.  It’s yet another “Erin Brockovich” that we need to be aware of, but more importantly, we need to stand up for and protect one another .

HUMAN AFFAIRS:

Surrogacy is a hot topic right now and filmmaker Charlie Birns takes this topic and delves deeply into how it affects a young couple and the surrogate, Genevieve.  Starring Julie Sokolowski as Genevieve, we experience her emotions and confusion as she becomes a part of Lucinda (Kerry Condon) and Sidney’s (Dominic Fumusa) family.  The boundaries that are crossed  create connections and sever others, bringing us closer to what could possibly occur between a surrogate and the expectant couple.

Sokolowski’s raw performance is unparalleled as she exudes a depth of emotion in this role.  Condon and Fumusa find beautiful compatibility with one another and exquisitely portray the difficulties in a relationship as things begin to spiral out of control.  While surrogacy is the vehicle which drives the plot, the film is ultimately about our relationship with one another and how our choices affect us.

Beautifully shot with an ending that is more than satisfying, “Human Affairs” is a brilliant depiction that exposes our innermost emotions in relationships.  This is Birns first feature film and given its depth and complexity, I certainly hope it’s not his last.

Check back for interviews with many of these exceptionally talented filmmakers!

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