Posts in Review

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!

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

January 20th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““Pick of the Litter” Opens the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our New President” Explores alternative filmmaking and “alternative facts” in politics

January 19th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““Our New President” Explores alternative filmmaking and “alternative facts” in politics”

Filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin has found a most unusual way of creating a documentary with “Our New President,” one of the opening night films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Taking archival footage only, from YouTube’s Russia Today (RT) and NTV, the two national and only television stations, this revolutionary filmmaker brings us behind the curtain to experience the power of the media upon the Russian people.  Video clips from these shows and from uploaded content posted by Russian citizens, we are brought back to the 1990’s when Hillary Clinton visited Russia.  The story is murky after this point as RT found that Hillary was cursed after this time, invoking fainting spells and other medical conditions.  The ridiculousness of the stories purported and supported by the handpicked newscasters would ordinarily make you laugh if the consequences weren’t so dire.

The film continues along a time line to bring us to the past year’s election, defining Trump’s rise to power.  We witness the democracy of the newspaper in Russia become a spokesperson for the government, threatening those who dare to go against Putin.  From ordinary citizens to representatives living here in the U.S to high ranking Russian officials, we are privy to eye-opening footage that if nothing else, makes you wonder about the realities we have come to accept in our world.

“Our New President” gives us an interesting perspective from which to view Trump and Clinton as well as punctuating the need for democracy within our news organizations.  Without this, we could end up looking at our Chakra’s and our horoscopes to determine the next global decision.

Be sure to check out this cutting-edge style of documentary and then decide for yourself what’s true, what’s real, and what’s an alternative fact.  If that doesn’t work, Mercury is in retrograde right now, so hold off on any major decisions.

 

2018 Slamdance Anticipated Standout Films

January 17th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “2018 Slamdance Anticipated Standout Films”

Park City visitors do have a choice when it comes to festivals in the coming days as both the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals will be showcasing their best submissions. Sundance gets all the glory, but Slamdance, co-founded by Dan Mirvish, will take place at the Treasure Mountain Inn (TMI) at the top of the Main St. beginning on Friday, Jan. 19- Jan. 25. The festival prides itself on giving new directors and filmmakers a chance to shine. Recognizable names such as Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Dunkirk,” “Interstellar”), Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”), Lynn Shelton (“Humpday”) and Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”) all started right here at the TMI in Park City. Who knows which film shown here this week will be the springboard for the next Nolan or Gordon! Reel Honest Reviews, through hours of research, is here to help you find that next great film. Without further ado, here is my list of anticipated highlights from this upcoming Indie Film Fest:

“Quest” tells the true story of a young, troubled graffiti artist with an abusive father (Lou Diamond Phillips) who finds resiliency and hope in his teacher and coach, Tim Moellering (Dash Mihok).


“Pick of the Litter” is Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr.’s newest collaboration documenting the journey of 5 newborn puppies bred to possibly make the cut in being a blind person’s guide dog. If it’s anything like “Batkid Begins,” it’s sure to be a heartwarming tale or should I say, “tail.”


“Human Affairs” takes a hot and controversial topic, surrogacy, and brings an element of emotional reality told from a successful couple’s and a young girl’s perspective. It’s bound to strike a chord in morality, judgment, and legal rights in this drama starring Julie Sokolowski, Kerry Condon, Dominic Fumusa,, and David Harbour.

“Company Town” looks at a small town in Arkansas whose main employer is Georgia-Pacific.  The town is dying.  Literally.  The cause seems obvious, but fighting huge lobbyists, the EPA, the Koch Brothers, and corporations isn’t for the little guy.  Natalie Kottke and Erica Sardarian write and direct this film that promises education and environmental awareness along with possibly a little bit of hope for the underdog.

Also on this critic’s list are: “Funny Story,” “Sunny Side,” “Lovers,” and the short film “Magic Bullet.” Speaking of short films, Slamdance brings things old school, the best way, by showing a relevant short film prior to the feature film. And like most festivals, the writers, directors, and talent in front of the camera will be on hand to ask questions of after the film.

For more information about the festival, go to SLAMDANCE

Sundance: A Gamechanger for Women Making Films

January 15th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, News, Review 0 thoughts on “Sundance: A Gamechanger for Women Making Films”

The Sundance Film Festival, founded in 1981, opens on Jan. 18 in the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah.  The festival will run for 11 action-packed days giving filmmakers, artists, actors, and patrons a non-stop film-related extravaganza including screenings, panel discussions, interactive programming, and even music.  While locals may find it difficult to navigate the narrow mountain town streets on foot or by car, the town’s guests continue to find Sundance one of the premiere festivals in the world.  Why? and What makes this festival shine?

To read the rest of the article as it was published in the January 2018 edition of Fete Lifestyle Magazine, go to Fete Lifestyle Magazine

"Kate Can’t Swim" A Standout at Slamdance by Pamela Powell

January 12th, 2018 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on “"Kate Can’t Swim" A Standout at Slamdance by Pamela Powell”

 

“Kate Can’t Swim” premiered at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival and will be available on VOD on January 23, 2018.  The film is co-written by Josh Helman and Jennifer Allcott.  Helman also directs and stars alongside Allcott, Celeste Arias, and Grayson DeJesus.  This first-time director and writing pair gives us a striking, complex and provocative film that typifies relationships and sexuality issues with unapologetic clarity.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Kate (Arias) and Pete (DeJesus) seem the happy, young couple, living a predictable life in NYC.  Em (Allcott) returns from living abroad with her new boyfriend, Nick (Helman).  The two couples travel to a remote area of New York to enjoy a weekend in the country in an effort to get to know Em’s new lifestyle and her new beau.  This peaceful backdrop promises to be anything but idyllic as the two couples plunge into the most terrifying place possible—their minds and emotions—putting into question their own morals, choices, and boundaries.

The two couples seem perfectly happy with one another, but it is these close quarters that bring out the true feelings including resentment, jealousy, and an unexpected love.  The film captures each of these characters’ true selves as they discover their own reflection.  Kate struggles with what she sees and how she feels, not quite understanding it herself.  The pressures of expectations Kate feels along with the complexities of sexuality and attraction are peeled away, allowing the viewer to see things from a new perspective.  As Pete, Em, and Nick see her true self, confronting her, it becomes more than she can handle.  Her response leaves the viewer breathless.

“Kate Can’t Swim” is a visually striking film that cinematically captures the atmosphere even when the story and the environment are in complete opposition.  Cinematographer Tommy Agriodimas brings you into the cabin, making you the 5th guest.    Helman and Allcott’s  script is powerful and succinct with tight dialogue and pacing that runs parallel to the emotion of the scene.

The story tackles the concept of love, sexuality, fear of the future, relationships of many types, and expectations within our society as well as within ourselves which sounds like a lot, but it is never overwhelming.  With the story-line focused upon Kate, the supporting cast adds their own stories, augmenting the main focus beautifully.

The cast is stellar with a natural chemistry between not only the two couples, but between Arias and Allcott.  Their gestures and unforced laughter creates a feeling of truly having grown up together.  Arias has a standout performance, skillfully portraying a very complicated character.  While we may not always agree with her decisions, we understand them and feel her pain and internal conflict. Her character development,  a testament not only to the writing and directing, but to Arias’ skills, unfolds beautifully.  Helman also finds a way to express such subtle nuances in his performance transforming himself with absolute ease from an intimidatingly intelligent man to a thoughtful, caring, and insightful one the next moment.  That unpredictability captures your attention and creates an undeniable tension, pulling you deeper into the muddied waters of relationships and truth.

“Kate Can’t Swim” is a standout film this year.  With skillful direction, creatively honed writing, beautiful cinematography, and an amazing cast, the film is one not to be missed.

For more information about the film, go to www.katecantswim.com

Check out the interview I had with Josh and Jennifer RIGHT HERE

 

“Molly’s Game” stacks the deck for a high-stakes game of life

January 4th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Molly’s Game” stacks the deck for a high-stakes game of life”

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, Olympic ski athlete turned high-stakes gambling ring leader, in the intensely complicated, fast-paced thriller “Molly’s Game” based on autobiography of the same name. Bloom has been convicted of leading an illegal gambling ring and is arrested by the FBI. Pleading innocense over the last 2 years, after having been arrested the first time, Bloom seeks the legal prowess of the upstanding high-powered and well-respected Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). It’s a fight that boils down to integrity and honesty that will leave you speechless.

The story begins in the middle as Bloom is abruptly awoken in the middle of the night to harsh and over-reactive FBI agents. We are then taken back in time to Bloom’s childhood where her parents, particularly her father, Larry (Kevin Costner), drive her to accomplish greatness in skiing. The opposition between the father-daughter duo is obvious and painful to watch, but as Bloom is narrating these scenes, you begin to understand where she gets her determination, strength, and single-mindedness. Pay close attention to every word Bloom utters as this intelligently crafted script brings everything around full circle.

When the audience is caught up to speed, we rejoin Bloom as she meets and convinces Jaffey to represent her in court. Again, to allow Jaffey (and the audience) to understand her current situation, we are brought back to Bloom’s life as she hit the crossroads after a life-threatening and athletic career ending accident. Choosing, against her father’s wishes, to go to L.A. and postpone law school, Bloom finds herself working for a gambling ring leader. With her intelligence and savvy skills, Bloom easily takes over the game and builds it to new levels.

Here’s where it gets complicated. The ring is comprised of high-profile actors, investors, and businessmen. We delve into the background of each of these remarkably interesting personalities and as we do, we learn more about Bloom, her choices, and eventually her final decision. Combining the complicated situations, the fast-paced dialogue and the intensity of the situation leaves you on the edge of your seat, captivated by every important word uttered.

“Molly’s Game” is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and given his brilliant direction, it won’t be his last. Known for his screenwriting skills with award-winning films such as “A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network,” and television shows such as “The Newsroom,” and “The West Wing,” it’s obvious with “Molly’s Game” that he has a vision and can bring that vision to life on the screen via his directorial skills as well.

The right cast is a must and this film is loaded with A-listers who bring humor and depth to even the smallest of roles. Michael Cera portrays “Player X,” a self-absorbed Hollywood big wig and Chris O’Dowd is the lovable loser. Graham Greene finds wisdom and believe it or not, humor, in his role as Judge Foxman and we find ourselves filled with anger as we see the effects of Costner’s harshness as a father to Molly. Every character actor stands out, each giving it all in their performance.

Then we have Chastain who is one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood. She finds that shrewd intelligence and edginess to her performance that we saw in “Miss Sloane” and the depth to her integrity she exhibited in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” With Molly, however, there’s a sage and jaded aspect that allows her to rise above those around her while she maintains a connection to her younger and more vulnerable and loving self. The story-line and the character are equally complicated and just as enjoyable as we peel away all the layers to her personality and her story..

In addition, there’s certainly a chemistry between Alba and Chastain on screen. It’s one of respect both in character and one that is exhibited naturally. They are both powerful personalities both on and off the screen and together they create mesmerizing interactions and dialogue. Both Alba and Chastain become their respective characters and deliver performances that are both memorable and meaningful.

“Molly’s Game” uses a non-linear storytelling technique to give us a complete picture. Editing is key in conveying the story, particularly one that is rather complex without making it confusing. However, given the film’s long running time, a bit more editing of non-essential information could have paired down the film, creating an even more intense film that doesn’t have any lulls. While this is a perceived flaw in the film, it is certainly not a detrimental one as the story and performances are exceptionally strong. Whenever you have a film that gives us a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ premise, it becomes an even more entertaining one.

“Molly’s Game” is an intense and unexpected thriller based on Molly Bloom’s life as a competitive Olympic ski athlete who then ran the largest and most high-profile gambling ring in the world. She must defend her changed and honest ways and has only one hope—her lawyer. Great performances, fast-paced dialogue and a unique storyline make this film one of the top films of the year.

3 1/2 Stars

Ridley Scott instantly creates one of the best films of the year with “All the Money in the World”

December 28th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Ridley Scott instantly creates one of the best films of the year with “All the Money in the World””

Ridley Scott, renowned director, has done the impossible in his newest film “All the Money in the World.” He took a film destined to drive audiences away and created a masterpiece that will surely elevate his status in the filmmaking world to levels previously thought unheard of. The film, originally cast with Kevin Spacey as one of the leads, J. Paul Getty, was slated to open December 22. Just weeks before the film’s opening, Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct, creating turmoil for the film and the cast. Scott decided to reshoot much of the film with a newly recast Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty. Scott not only did the impossible, he did it to such a level of perfection that it may just win him and his actors a few awards this season.

The story is based on the real-life story of the kidnapping of Paul Getty, J. Paul Getty’s grandson in the 1970’s. Transporting the audience back in time, we meet young Paul, his siblings, and his parents, Gail (Michelle Williams) and John Paul II (Andrew Buchan) who are struggling financially. Quickly, we learn how the richest man in the world could have a son who is unemployed and broke. Reaching out to re-establish a connection—and get a job in his father’s oil company—John Paul Getty II and his family move across the globe and start a new life. Years go by and a special bond is formed between the old miser and his grandson, but Paul’s parents find themselves in opposite corners. John Paul II is a drug addict and Gail divorces him…taking no money. Raising three children on her own, Paul, now a teen, has been kidnapped by one of the most dangerous gangs in Italy. What they don’t realize is that Gail is penniless and J. Paul Getty is one of the most cold-hearted cheapskates in the world.  It’s a harrowing tale of greed, family, and love.

This is Williams’ chance to shine in a film as the strong, independent, intelligent, and loving mother who attempts to find her son and pay for his release. She creates a multi-layered character filled with emotions most of us will thankfully never experience, yet we have such a connection with her and her situation. She drives the film without ever overwhelming any scene. Meeting with Mark Wahlberg’s character, Fletcher Chase, who is her father-in-law’s right hand man, the two must work together to find the truth behind the kidnapping. While this story-line in and of itself is remarkably intriguing, it is Plummer’s portrayal of the coincidentally Scrooge-like character that is simply chilling. He’s a business man with ice-cold gold coursing through his veins, seemingly devoid of the ability to love and have compassion. He’s shrewd and cunning with an edge to his voice that would make any person cower in his presence. His eyes seem almost soul-less as he worships the almighty dollar.

Charlie Plummer’s role of John Paul Getty III is just as captivating as he reels us in with his boyish yet cocky charm and then breaks our hearts as he finds himself struggling to survive and escape his captors. He’s still a boy at heart being used as a pawn for money.

Williams and Charlie Plummer have the on-screen ability to adeptly show that strong bond between a mother and her son. The captors, on the other hand, show us how sickeningly disturbing people can be when driven to such lowly depths. With one kidnapper, Cinquanta (Roman Duris) blurring the lines of loyalty and heart, we see the struggle of humanity and life from a different view point.  His character is one of the most complex as he does possess a moral compass and the ability to have compassion, but there is more to his life that directly conflicts with these attributes.

“All the Money in the World” is a chillingly brutal and spellbinding story about an iconic man and his family in our recent history. Williams and Christopher Plummer have Oscar-worthy performances and not surprisingly, the supporting cast is equally brilliant. Initially, one can’t help but watch the film, trying to find where the cuts have been made and how Christopher Plummer has been placed into this film, but quickly, you are transfixed by the story, forgetting about the reshooting and recasting of Plummer for Spacey. I can’t even imagine anyone but Plummer playing this part.  This could very well be, in this critic’s opinion, the best film Scott has ever directed. It is certainly the bravest and most daring film in his decision to recast Plummer and it might be his smartest one as well…the nominations are just starting to be named. 4 STARS

“I, Tonya” Review: Robbie, Janney pack a powerful punch

December 22nd, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““I, Tonya” Review: Robbie, Janney pack a powerful punch”

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and this is certainly the case in “I, Tonya,” the story of Tonya Harding and her alleged attack on fellow figure skating competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  For those of you who are too young to remember “the incident” or only recall the other event of that era (O.J. Simpson), let me refresh your memory.  Harding, a rough-around-the-edges and talented figure skater was the only woman in the world to successfully complete a triple axel in competition yet she was never consistently winning.  Apparently, she just didn’t fall into the classification of the “girl next door,” the image the U.S. judges wanted as a representative for the Olympics.  Now this is where things get a little dicey.  On January 6, 1994, Harding’s biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked and injured after practice.   Harding, along with her body guard, Shawn Eckhardt, and ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, were blamed for the attack.  “I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, take this bizarre story and create a captivating and hilarious movie using the truth and the real characters’ own words as a template.  As the opening scene states, “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Hardy and Jeff Gillooly.”  There is no way anyone could make this stuff up!

Harding (Margot Robbie) talks with us, the audience, in the current day.  Overweight, unkempt, and sitting in her kitchen, she begins to tell us the story of her life, from her perspective.  She takes us back to her upbringing, introducing us to her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) who makes Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” look like an absolute sweetheart as we see Harding go through the school of hard knocks.    We are transported back to Harding’s childhood at the age of 3, or as LaVona calls it, “a soft 4.”  LaVona is physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive all the while justifying and rationalizing her behavior.  We see the cruelty her mother invokes in every situation—there’s no edit mode and no thought that hitting your daughter repeatedly with a hair brush is wrong.  The verbal abuse and demeaning behavior is used to motivate Tonya to skate better and the depths to which LaVona sinks are unthinkable.  It’s shocking and quite disturbing yet explains Harding’s choices in life.

During this trip down memory lane, we also get to hear from the other characters in the current day and their viewpoint of history, all being very different and punctuating the fact that truth is truly stranger than fiction.  These interviews paired and edited perfectly with flashbacks is a masterful feat in creativity to give us the whole story.

Fast-forwarding to Harding at 16…she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) who rescues her from her mother only to find out that she has gone from the fire to the frying pan.  It’s an ugly cycle that unfolds before our eyes as we watch incredulously.  Figure skating competitions become more important as Harding gets older and the involvement of “body guard” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) pushes the story into the realm of craziness.  Hard Copy Journalist (Bobby Canavale) interjects his two cents into the matter, providing a balance of rationale as to what is completely outrageous.  His quotes are shockingly memorable throughout the film such as “We had no idea that something like this could be done by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs,” as well as poking fun at the outlet’s reputation being equivalent to today’s “respected” publications.

For those of us who recall “the incident,” it is simply shocking how each cast member is the embodiment of the actual person.  Robbie is remarkable as Harding from her  awkward late teen period to the younger 20-something woman.  How the make-up and wardrobe people were able to transform this stunningly beautiful woman into Harding is beyond comprehension, but much of it has to do with the subtleties of language that Robbie integrated into her performance.  Her body language lacked refinement and etiquette and her language usage matched that.  Robbie is Harding.  She does much of her own skating in the film, but did need a little help from the computer graphics department to help with that triple axel.  The transformations don’t stop with Robbie.  Janney, with a parrot perched on her shoulder, becomes LaVona.  Janney, a tall, beautiful, refined woman in real life, sheds her skin to become a crass and cruel woman, portraying LaVona with expert skill.  She, like Robbie, utilizes every aspect of acting to become her character.  Sebastian Stan’s performance as Jeff Gillooly  is spot-on with his looks and affect and Paul Walter Hauser could have been Eckhardt’s twin.  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the talented young actress Mckenna Grace as the young Harding.  Pulling off this character, giving viewers insight to how Harding was hardened, is no easy task for any actress, but to accomplish this at such a young age is extraordinary.  Grace deftly creates a heartbreaking portrayal of youth stripped away of all worth and shows us how her defense mechanism creates violence for survival’s sake.  

“I, Tonya” is a masterpiece in recounting the life and times of Tonya Harding.  Superb casting, excellence in direction, writing, and acting make this one of the top films of the year.  While it’s really a rather sad tale as we see the effects of abuse and how the cycle continues, Rogers’ script and the editing process make this biopic surprisingly hilarious, yet it does not demean the brutality and cyclical effects of abuse.

 

4/4 Stars

 

Escape to the Jungle, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” that is

December 19th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Escape to the Jungle, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” that is”

“Jumangi: Welcome to the Jungle” is one of the few reboots of recent years worth seeing as it brings viewers back to a time when a movie could provide laughs, adventure, and total escapism for a couple hours. My kids grew up with me reading the book to them and admittedly, I not only looked forward to the film starring Robin Williams, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as well! Now, my jaded view impacted walking into the theater and seeing this newest version. I had my doubts as sequels and reboots typically are disappointing. Thanks to the creative group of screenwriters, and the incredibly talented director Jake Kasdan, and comedically blessed actors, I was pleasantly surprised! I haven’t been this entertained since the original “Indiana Jones!”

For those of you who don’t recall the ending of the 1995 version of “Jumanji,” let me refresh your memory. Alan Parrish (Williams), the boy who disappeared into the deadly adventure game to slay creatures and save the island of Jumanji, returned to his home, and tossed the game into the ocean. Years passed and the game turned up, shallowly buried on a beach. The drums began to beat. This is where our newest version picks up. A boy in the year 1996 finds the game, opens it, and while board games are passe, the game is now a video game. Again, we hear the ominous drums begin to beat their deadly rhythm and Alex (Nick Jonas) is sucked into the abyss of Jumanji. Fast forward to the present day and 4 unlikely kids are being held in detention only to discover this long-forgotten video game. As a diversion to their mundane task at hand, the four begin to play. Now they find themselves in Jumanji as the characters or Avatars they have chosen. This is where the fun, humor, and excitement for them and the audience begins.

The premise of the game remains the same. The players must go through levels or challenges in order to complete the game and return to their lives. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” finds a way to be different in its ability to incorporate CGI, making us jump and gasp while we watch events unfold. And where this film stands out is in the characters’ transformation into the game’s characters. We see a skinny nerd, Young Spencer played by Alex Wolff, transform into Bravestone, Dwayne Johnson. (I’ll let your imagination do the work now.) The crazy and hilarious transformations continue with Young Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), the buff football player becoming Mouse Finbar, a zoologist played by the comedic and the comparatively diminutive actor Kevin Hart. To round out the shocking transformations, the gorgeous popular girl, Bethany (Madison Iseman) turns into a middle-aged, overweight, scruffy paleontologist portrayed by Jack Black. Only Black could take this gorgeous yet self-centered phone-toting “it” girl and continue her persona making us believe that he is actually Bethany! From discovering how easy it is to pee in the woods to teaching Martha (Karen Gillan) the art of flirting, Black makes every situation laugh-out-loud funny. Every one of these actors has great comedic timing and the ability to do physical comedy—The Rock’s (Johnson) facial expressions alone make you smile and laugh—put all of these actors together and it’s absolute magic.

With “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” there’s never a dull moment as the group attempts to figure out clues, rise to the next level, battle strange beast, get eaten alive, and then drop from the sky to continue their next adventure. The CGI scenes are sometimes shockingly violent, but knowing that it’s all part of the game and that they have 3 lives to use, makes it less gruesome. Although, seeing the evil nemesis Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) with long multiple legged bugs crawling in and out of his ears and mouth might have been the most disturbing visual effect in the film!

Each of the characters are given special skills, some are there purely for the comedy such as Fridge’s reaction or weakness to “cake eating,” others are there to move the story forward and allow the group to work together as a team. The kids all have their own strengths which they allow to rise up and help in certain situations such as Spencer’s knowledge of video gaming and the Fridge’s knowledge of football offensive and defensive tactics. Life lessons are learned as they band and bond together, but never do any of the characters lose their adolescent charm and innocence in these scenes. Seeing the Rock’s version of Spencer’s inadequacies and insecurities is at once sweet and hilarious. First love and first kisses are equally entertaining as are a few reactions to their first margaritas. All of this combines beautifully for a fast-paced, funny, touching, adventure film.

Never did I dream I would be excited to recommend a reboot of a film, let alone “Jumanji.” Escape to the jungle and enjoy a couple hours of laughing, gasping, and most importantly,total escapism from this crazy time of year.

3 1/2 Stars

*This is rated PG-13 for a reason. Please be advised that some of the “deaths” are scary and there is a little bad language and drinking.

“The Silent Child” Shortlisted for Oscar Consideration

December 18th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Silent Child” Shortlisted for Oscar Consideration”

Walking in another person’s shoes is nearly impossible until you are graced with the ability to see Rachel Shenton’s film “The Silent Child.” Directed by Chris Overton, Libby (Maisie Sly) is a deaf child, the youngest of three in a typical family, busy and pulled in many different directions. There’s  little time for young Libby who will be attending school soon.   A tutor, Joanne (Shenton), has been hired to help her get ready for school.  The story takes us inside Libby’s world as Joanne unlocks the doors of communication, yet outside influences make this film heartbreakingly real.

Gorgeously shot, we are brought into this family’s world as we meet Joanne riding her bike along country roads to her new job—tutoring Libby.  Familiar chaos is taking place at the breakfast table as everyone readies for their hectic day.  Joanne is thrust into the situation as she meets Libby who is not only non-communicative, she avoids any interaction at all.  It’s as if she is just existing in time and space and nothing more.  Sue (Rachel Fielding), Libby’s mother, reassures Joanne of Libby’s ability to follow everything using lip reading.  Now, this is where the filmmakers give us just a taste of Libby’s world as we see things from her silent and confusing perspective.  Joanne then skillfully assesses the situation and begins to teach Libby sign language.  As Libby begins to understand the world around her, the two are connected, reaffirming the necessity of communication.  Sign language unlocks the solid doors that Libby has been kept behind and now her world has been opened.  She begins to play, laugh, request things and share her thoughts with Joanne and her older siblings—all the things we take for granted.  The guilt and self-protection we see in Sue is disturbing, yet understandable but begins to interfere with Libby’s progress.  Quickly, we see how important this missing piece of the puzzle is for Libby in order to grow and learn, but without support, she will never reach her potential.

This short film conveys more heart and emotion than many full-length feature films.  To understand a situation from someone else’s perspective elicits empathy and once this is established, anything is possible.  “The Silent Child” powerfully places Libby’s shoes on us and creates heartbreaking empathy.  Sly’s performance is haunting as we witness her coming to life and then watching disappointment wash over her like a dark cloud through which no rays of sunshine will ever break.  We feel her pain and know what the future holds as our heart also breaks for Joanne, played expertly by Shenton.  This vital and pivotal role in Libby’s life accentuates the importance of connections that occur.   With stunning cinematography and the deft direction of Overton, it’s no wonder this film has won numerous festival awards.

“The Silent Child” brings into focus what it is like for a child who is deaf.  We are able to be a part of her world and walk in her shoes if only for a moment as we redefine the importance of communication and language as powerful components in life, learning, and happiness.   It’s a heartbreaking tale that unfortunately is not far from reality and an every day occurrence.

For more information about how to help a child with a hearing impairment, go to www.asha.org.  As a former speech-language pathologist, I worked with children ages 0-3 who were hearing impaired.   This film is a poignant demonstration for the need for support and education in this area.

Michael Stuhlbarg talks about his remarkable role in “Call Me By Your Name”

December 15th, 2017 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “Michael Stuhlbarg talks about his remarkable role in “Call Me By Your Name””

“Call Me By Your Name” seemed a sure-fire Oscar contender when I saw it months ago. Beginning the festival circuit at Sundance Film Festival back in January, the film received rave reviews. Now, almost one year later, the film is winning major film critic awards including Best Film and Best Director from the LA Film Critics Circle and numerous acting awards and nominations for its stars Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The film is an daringly bold and honest coming of age film about a 17 year-old boy, Elio (Chalamet) who is trying to find his identity back in the 1980’s. His family summers in Italy as his father is a professor of history, researching during this time period. When Oliver (Armie Hammer), the new college research assistant arrives, Elio’s sexual emotions are awakened and with a new-found flurry of thoughts, feelings and desires, he finds himself confused and struggling with his first love.

The cinematically stunning film boldly addresses the powerfully intense emotions that occur in a young boy and how his family perceives his situation from the outside. I had the honor of sitting down and talking with Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman, to discuss his career path, his own father’s influence upon his role, and how he hopes viewers will see this film.

Pamela Powell (PP): Your theater, television, and film credits are simply remarkable and you seem to have found a springboard recently to make a recognizable name for yourself with this film, “The Post,” and “The Shape of Water.” Can you tell me about your path?

Michael Stuhlbarg (MS): The drive to do this kind of work with my life, I don’t really thoroughly understand where it comes from. I’ve been doing it since I was 11 years old. non prof until 1989… I’ve always loved storytelling, I’ve loved making people laugh and think and feel. And I stand on the shoulders of giants, really, whether it’s been my father or professors or teachers I’ve had who gave me confidence or encouraged me or taught me something that was important. We all are on the shoulders of others who took an interest in us. Saw something in us perhaps a passion or a love or a talent and made us feel like we could perform miracles, otherwise we wouldn’t be here… certainly wouldn’t be here without the people who influenced me in my life. And with each opportunity you’re given, you hope that you gain a little more confidence about what you’re capable of, with each job, it’s like starting all over again, honestly. I never know what tools are going to be necessary for a new job and there’s always a great sense of insecurity and anxiety about will I be able to fulfill what’s being asked of me… So you just have to trust your collaborators, you trust your director, and they also have tremendous influence on you as well.

PP: This particular role of Elio’s father is one of compassion and understanding like I’ve never seen in a film. Tell me about preparing for this role, learning Italian and Greek history.

MS: In this case, I’m a Greek scholar who has an interest in history and art history…I met with a couple classics professors, talked to them about what it’s like to stand in front of a room and talk about encouraging students to know their latin and about coming off like you could speak italian. I took some [Italian] lessons in NY before I left. My tutor was from the South of Italy and then I learned that when I arrived [in Northern Italy] that the dialect and the meanings of some things are different than they are down south!

I loved what Luka said during the rehearsal process… He wanted this whole experience for the audience to be one of light, one of love, one of buoyancy. That idyllic summer that we may have been lucky enough to have had in our youth where we fell in love for the first time or we met someone we adored or we experienced something that just maybe encouraged us to take a particular path in our lives.

These are all great challenges and I think it’s a really good thing when you’re terrified at the beginning process. In some ways it puts a fire under you to do the best work that you can because you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t fulfill what the script is providing. Basically, you don’t want to screw up. So there’s always a fire there to always do the best I can. I guess you’re given a script, you mine it for what you’re responsible for and you do your best to learn all that you can so that you don’t have to think about it on the day that you’re shooting it. You just let it go, you let it fly.

PP: And it most certainly did fly! That final speech was extraordinarily moving. Was your relationship with your father an influence upon your performance?

There was a significant pause in Stuhlbarg’s response as I could see that perhaps this was a very emotional topic for him. As he took a deep breath, his eyes closed, he turned and looked at me and with a strong yet sombre voice said:

MS: My father was a wonderful man. He had a gravity about him and a wonderful sense of humor and he often said to me let’s solve the problems of the world. So I had an amazing example for a father in my life and I thought about him often, of course, in the making of the film. I think had the circumstances of my life had been similar to what Elio was going through, I imagined he would have been as compassionate and as open and as loving as Professor Perlman is to Elio. I feel like the luckiest kid in the world to have had such an example of wonderful parents, mother and father, to have encouraged me and have been open to anything that came into my life. So I feel like it rested and lived in a very natural part of who I am. I feel their blood in my blood and i feel like I had the kind of empathy that Professor Perlman has that I was blessed to have in my life.

PP: Thank you for answering that with such honesty and candor. I hadn’t realized your father had passed away…What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

MS: I hope they just go along for the ride…and also that they will perhaps see an example in what I get to say of a beautiful sort of view into the difficult balancing act that is parenting which is compassion and love and trust, but also providing a sense of a rock from which a child could feel grounded in the world. I think in this instance, in the speech you mention, Professor Perlman gets to offer aspects of perhaps his own experience in a round about way to Elio that he hopes will allow his son to find some comfort in the pain that he is feeling. So perhaps the audience sill take away a relationship of compassion and of absolute love and the advice or the words that are offered are coming from a place of experience and generosity and for him not to push away the pain that he is feeling because and how wonderful it is that he’s feeling what he’s feeling because those feelings are rare.

“Call Me By Your Name” opens in theaters in Chicago December 15 and will expand nationally in the weeks to follow.

Another “Star Wars” installment

December 12th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Another “Star Wars” installment”

We see the familiar words scroll up the screen, stars in the background and notes of a recognizable tune blast indicating that the saga of The Empire versus The Rebellion  is about to begin. The prologue of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” aka Episode VIII,catches you up a bit, but not enough, to recall where we are in the story and as soon as we see the new characters we have quickly grown to love and the old ones we hold dear, appear on the screen, we are immediately pulled back into that galaxy far, far away. If only the trip wasn’t so long!

We pick right up where “The Force Awakens” left off …Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island, asking him to come back with her as he is the Rebellion’s only hope. Meanwhile, back on the Rebellion’s planet, an attack is becoming evident from the 1st order, lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleason), under Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) direction and Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) lurking approval. The onslaught of explosions, zipping Tie Fighters and X Wing air crafts dodging blasts, and heroes meeting their fate begins in full force. Fin (John Boyega), our newest hero, is awakened and Poe (Oscar Isaac), the blast-happy fly boy who ignores Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) orders, recklessly attempts to be the solar system cowboy and save everyone.

For fair weather fans of the original film and all of its many, many sequels and prequels as well as prequel’s prequels, it would be beneficial to rewatch “The Force Awakens,” or at least read a synopsis of the film as the “who’s who” and who’s related to whom can easily be confused. That being said, the premise of this sequel is to save the Rebellion from certain destruction by the Imperial Forces and rebuild. Rey, Fin, and Poe along with his trusty side-kick BB8, are the team to give it their best shot fighting the evil, dark forces of Kylo Ren, Snoke, and Hux.

The haunting needs of Rey to find her parents while also becoming a Jedi awakens The Force within her as she seeks guidance from Skywalker. He resists teaching her the ways of a Jedi as his last attempt turned out to be a bit of a failure aka Kylo Ren. The connection between Ren and Rey builds as we see the strong, yet blurred lines of good and evil. We also find our own connections to all the old, familiar characters such as R2D2, C3PO, Yoda and more.

The story builds on new characters  who add a bit of zip and spice to the film as we meet and get to know Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), DJ (Benecio Del Toro) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Like “The Force Awakens,” an effort was made to have a plot line that had strong female leads and this sequel continues to bring women to the forefront. Fisher steps up to the commanding leader’s position, but her real life tragedy seems to cast a constant shadow on her performance. Ridley remains just as strong, smart, and brave in this version, but it is Tran’s character that shines with personality. She’s exudes humor and timing that engage the viewer as we anticipate seeing her in another scene. Dern, of course, has a strength and wisdom about her character that radiates confidence, allowing us to trust in her character.

Driver as Kylo Ren, has stepped up his game and has a standout performance. His portrayal of the betrayed son of Han and Leia is evident in every interaction as we see his conflicted thoughts surface to his impulsive outbursts. Hamill finds his inner-Luke and gives us exactly what we need and expect from him. Gleason’s talent is immeasurable as he can fluidly transform himself from portraying the “Winnie the Pooh” author, A. A. Milne in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” to an evil and frustrated understudy to Ren. He can almost elicit sympathy for his situation as he just can’t seem to get ahead in the bad guy game. And then we have Isaac and Boyega who pull their weight, but don’t have the personality we saw in “The Force Awakens.”

While this sequel keeps the saga alive, and I give great credit for the strong female and minority leads, the story is just way too familiar and repetitive. Initially, humor was interjected, making me laugh out loud, but that concept must have been sucked up into a black hole as the laughs quickly disappeared. And with up to 4 different sub-story lines taking place at the same time, you were constantly being shifted from excitement to dramatic conversations. And at a running time of 152 minutes, familiarity and non-stop blasting explosions paired with jarring storyline transitions creates disinterest.

Where the film truly shines is in the CGI and make-up departments; both absolutely stunning and mesmerizing. Serkis, once again, is completely unrecognizable as “Snoke.” His off-set eyes, creviced forehead, pocketed cheeks showing bones, tendons, and muscles are all wonderfully distracting. Of course, the film has a “party” scene, as it always does, to showcase bizarre creatures and this time it’s in a casino. And let’s not forget the Puffin-like bird creature that will be showing up on every toy shelf just in time for Christmas. Yes, it’s adorable and it’s Chewbacca’s sidekick. Need I say more?

So here’s the skinny on this 2 hour and 32 minute Star Wars sequel, “The Last Jedi.” If you’re a fan, you’re going to appreciate the story continuing (on and on). If you’re into make up and CGI, you’ll appreciate every minute of it. If you haven’t loved the sequels recently, avoid those comfy recliner seats for obvious reasons.

“The Shape of Water” A cinematically beautiful love story

December 8th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Shape of Water” A cinematically beautiful love story”

“The Shape of Water” is one of those movies that moves you from within as it stimulates every sensory system, blending the beauty of fantasy with the aversions of humanity and history.  Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor write this deeply moving film that delves into what it means to love, accept and be compassionate, no matter the consequences.

Sally Hawkins portrays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman at an experimental government facility with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who stumbles upon a creature which is undergoing brutal exploration by a team of researchers lead by Dr. Robert Hofstettler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and supervised by the demented and cruel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  As Elisa connects with this creature, communicating with him and eventually falling in love, she must somehow save him from certain death.

This is a fantastical film taking place in the era of the Cold War, and the opening scene sets the tone, giving us many clues as we hear Elisa’s quirky and caring neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), narrate the beginning.  The viewer is exploring an underwater home as Giles tells the viewer he is unsure of how to tell this story about the princess without a voice and a “monster that tried to destroy it all.”  While it may seem possible at this point, that this is a horror story, and there are horrific events that take place, it is truly a story about love and loss, as Giles says.

The serene feeling of the opening scene is transferred to the reality of Elisa’s apartment where her daily routine begins.  Nothing seems out of the ordinary as she readies for her job, but the brush of a hand over the scars on her neck indicate there’s an unknown previous tragedy.  On her way out the door, she walks down the hall, checking in on Giles.  Their sweet bond is immediately evident as they chat and fondly recall beautiful musicals on television.  When Elisa gets to work, we meet the characters that will forever change her life and in turn, she will change theirs.

The balance in this story is immediately evident when we meet Strickland.  He’s inhumane, self-righteous, and controlling.  He is the polar opposite of Elisa who embodies humility, compassion, and love.  Elisa’s inadvertent discovery of the creature is simply beautiful while Strickland’s interactions with him is unsettling and in many cases simply disturbing.  With Dr. Hofstettler obeying orders against his will and better judgment, we learn that he has a story of his own to tell.  And eventually, his story and Elisa’s intertwine.

While the story itself is remarkable, memorable, and meaningful, it is the way in which it is told visually that makes it stand out even more.  There film even pays homage to old, classic films and musicals.   The set design and careful use of a single color palate not only brings you back into the 1950’s, it also creates a certain mood and accentuates the sea.  There’s a certain comfort in the surroundings of Elisa’s apartment, reassuring you that there can be a happy ending.  But again, like the characters, the settings are in polar opposition as well.  The government lab is cold, harsh, and unsettling, reminding you that there are evils in this world that we may not overcome.

With such attention to detail, del Toro continued this with the music, sometime whimsical, sometimes daunting, but always coordinating with what we are experiencing.  del Toro’s expert direction of this characters is equally perfect.    Shannon seems to naturally embody that chilling effect and Stuhlbarg can perform any role.  As Dr. Hofstettler, his meek and mild manner draws us to him, and as his character is revealed, we are on his side no matter what.  And Spencer has played this type of role a thousand times, but it never gets old…she’s the best friend, the smart and bold friend who is loyal to the end.

It is Hawkins and Jenkins that truly shine in this film, pushing their skills as an actor to the next level.  As an actress who utters not a single word, Hawkins give an extraordinarily profound performance.  She creates an essence of beauty, from the inside out, as we understand her longing to be loved.  She’s strong and capable and oftentimes misunderstood, but her moral grounds are always high.  The compassion she shows for not only Giles, but the creature is breathtakingly beautiful.  We feel her connection to the creature grow and we become her for a moment, taking in the feeling of true love.

del Toro brilliantly creates rich and layered characters while addressing issues that still are in the headlines today.  Acceptance, tolerance, and understanding of those who may look different is one such topic.  Communication is yet another as Elisa shows us the importance of this.  And Giles, very similar in many ways to Elisa, has his own issues  to cope with and we see his regret and wish for a different time…a more open and accepting time.

“The Shape of Water” is an amalgam of a thriller, espionage, horror, and love story in the context of fantasy and reality.  The ending will begin a conversation and upon a second (or even third) viewing, you will pick up on subtleties that will make this film an even more powerful one.  It’s a film that has a lasting impression, full of beautiful images, hope, love, and most importantly compassion and understanding.

4/4 Stars

“Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” gives us hope for the future

November 30th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” gives us hope for the future”

The environment has been a topic of interest (and concern) since I was a child back in the 1960’s.  From Woodsy the Owl’s campaign, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” to Smokey the Bear’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” there was some spark within me that pushed me to appreciate, learn, and care about nature.  But now, in today’s global meltdown, literally, the environmental issues are staring us in the face.  No crystal ball is needed to see our future as we are seeing the effects of climate change all over the world.  From devastating and unprecedented storms ravaging many parts of the world including the U.S. recently to drought and famine creating a refugee crisis in Somalia, Syria, and Sudan, the future is a scary place.  Is it too late?  What difference will it make if I walk to the grocery store instead of driving?  What can I do?  I’m just one person.

As a film critic, I am drawn to documentaries and even a few narrative feature films that address the topic of climate change and the environment, but in so doing, it can leave me feeling overwhelmed and helpless.  Recently, Josh Fox’s documentary, the title almost as long as the film, “How To Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change,” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival created such anxiety in me that I wanted to curl up into a fetal position or go have a couple martinis.  I chose the latter.  This was followed by Jared P. Scott’s film “The Age of Consequences” and Al Gore’s sequel in 2017, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a little shorter title, but just as impactful.  The difference in the message of Gore’s film is hope.  There is hope.  And Jamie Redford’s newest documentary, “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” is more than hopeful, it is inspiring and brings the topic back to  the people accentuating that it is in our control.

Redford makes this film a personal journey, one in which we are invited along.  His lack of pretense and knowledge of renewable energy connects us to him, allowing us to identify with him and his motivation to learn more and bring that information to the forefront.   His daughter, just like my 20-something daughter would do, humorously refused to embark upon the adventure across the country to learn about the great strides and action our own states are taking in creating green, clean energy.  Redford does find company along the way as he meets and interviews high level military officers, government officials, energy experts, corporate leaders and regular citizens.

Redford starts that the very beginning—his own family and surprisingly, their connections to oil companies. We then see how his own very famous father and his mother set about a very different path.   But Jamie Redford’s  knowledge about energy  wasn’t something that was inherently known to him.  He does drive everywhere and as he admits, he’s not ever been into efficiency, comparing his preference of working out more instead of having less ice cream.  Sounds reasonable to me.  His knowledge base and lifestyle isn’t that much different from you and me and we learn with him on his adventure across America.

Have you ever really thought about where our electricity comes from?  Redford hadn’t either and talking with energy expert Matthew Nordan, Redford learns how to trace the lines of his own electricity to its source.  As with any puzzle in life, the more your discover, the more you realize you need to learn.  His journey to find the answers to more and more questions takes him to Texas where he meets a very conservative Republican mayor of Georgetown, TX   who sees the big picture of the benefits for his community in investing in and supporting renewable energy.  We then travel to Oregon, meet with Apple to learn about their 100% renewable energy commitment to every store, office, and storage facility, and then, very unexpectedly, we end up in Buffalo, NY—the new center for the solar industry.   Growing up just south of Buffalo, where I don’t recall many sunny days, this was simply shocking.  If Buffalo can do this, why isn’t every city!

Each and every  stop and encounter Redford has, including talking with activist and actor Mark Ruffalo and the Navy who makes their own energy, is simply uplifting.  From Nevada where the politics of big monopolies and government attempted to thwart the people’s efforts to go green to the fight they fought to protect not only their rights but the future of our world indicate that the people are speaking.  Redford finds that we are on our way to using clean energy.  He even went to the effort to evaluate his home, install solar panels (https://www.vivintsolar.com), and (are you ready for this one?) turn down his water heater two degrees.  Sometimes it’s the little things that matter.

Never before have I finished watching a film about our environment and its future and felt energized and positive.  There’s a first for everything!  “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” gives us an easy to follow lesson in electricity production, delivery, and how renewables are being seamlessly  integrated.  While our current political leaders may be denying  climate change, the people of this country recognize its validity and  that we can do something now.  As one woman said, “If Washington will not, we will.”  This documentary is as educational as it is inspiring.  Maybe that crystal ball isn’t as clear as I thought because  I now have hope.

The film will premiere on December 11 at 8 pm on HBO.

For more information about the film, go to www.redfordcenter.org/happening

 

“Mercury in Retrograde” deeply reflective study of relationships, trauma

November 28th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Mercury in Retrograde” deeply reflective study of relationships, trauma”

Three young couples, all at different stages of their relationships venture out of the confines of the Windy City to vacation in the deep woods of Michigan in Michael Glover Smith’s sophomore feature film “Mercury in Retrograde.”  The secrets that are buried deep within each of these characters are slowly uncovered as they reach for a branch to save themselves from revealing their true humanity.  It’s a brilliantly nuanced film that seeps into your very soul, staying with you long after the credits roll.

All but Peggy (Najarra Townsend) have known one another for a long time.  Her relationship with Wyatt (Shane Simmons) is new and fresh while Golda (Alana Arenas) and Jack (Jack C. Newell) have been married for 10 years.  It is quickly evident that Isabelle (Roxane Mequida) and Richard (Kevin Wehby) are in a troubled 5-year relationship.  As the couples sit around getting to know one another while Peggy reads everyone’s horoscope, the camera, always moving, allows us to see the reactions of each recipient of their horoscope, bringing us into the circle to be a part of this intimate group.

Each and every character is uniquely different and as we get to know them, we understand their personalities and reactions.  Jack’s lightheartedness with Golda’s gentle and caring nature is juxtaposed against Isabelle and Richard selfishness.  Wyatt is struggling to find himself, leaning on his guy friends for advice and guidance, but it is  Peggy who reveals pieces of her emotional puzzle in seemingly benign ways that leaves you wanting to know what truly lies beneath the surface.

The film dissects human communication and the insecurities that we all have, especially when we are in a relationship.  The individual characters all have secrets which get in the way of connecting and progressing, particularly with the women.  Cutting remarks spewed out with hurtful honesty masqueraded by humor reveal Isabelle’s true character as well as Golda’s resilience.  But much of what we see is from Peggy’s perspective as her narration allows us inside her thoughts, creating beautiful imagery and an understanding of her emotional state.

Interestingly, during many conversations, we are not seeing who is talking, but we are witnessing the group member’s reactions to what they hear.  This camera technique gives the viewer not only a different perspective, but a better understanding of who these characters are.  Pairing all of this with stylistic editing gives “Mercury in Retrograde” such deep insight,  bringing you, the viewer into the group to experience every thought, emotion, and reaction.

To gain this perspective, Smith utilizes his intuitive ability to create diverse and realistic conversations.  He eloquently weaves difficult subject matter into each scene, but the topic never feels overpowering.  It’s a delicate balance as discussions dig more deeply into who these people truly are.  Their individual histories add to their baggage, weighing more heavily as the weekend progresses.  This gorgeous portrayal of humanity at a young stage in life couldn’t be more sincere.

Finding the right cast to give such genuine performances could not have been an easy task, but Smith does exactly that.  Townsend creates Peggy with such precision as she peels away the layers of her personality, background, and eventually her truth.  We are immediately connected to her as she wants to fit into this new group of friends and get to know her new boyfriend.  But it is her final scene that leaves you breathless, completely understanding what she  subtly eluded to in previous scenes.

Equally powerful in her performance is Arenas.  There’s such beauty and honesty in her portrayal of Golda,  understatedly captivating in every scene and naturally balancing herself with Jack who portrays her husband.  Newell gives Jack the bit of levity needed as he almost appears as a guiding force, more mature than his buddies, but respectful of their situations.  The eventual inebriated interaction among the men while discussing the book ‘The Glass Key’ by Dahiell Hammet, allows us to see the inner workings of all of them.

What begins as a casual, fun weekend in a cabin in the woods, turns out to be revelatory for all of the characters.  Smith’s brilliant ability to create meaningful dialogue and use of foreshadowing as well as the casts’ skillful depiction of their characters makes “Mercury in Retrograde” a gorgeous, relatable, and realistic study about love, life, and understanding.

 

“The Disaster Artist” Breakout film and performances give meaning to “The Room”

November 27th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Disaster Artist” Breakout film and performances give meaning to “The Room””

How can Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” become such a cult favorite?  That question will never be apparent to me, but the new film directed by and starring James Franco, “The Disaster Artist,” captures the hilarity and ridiculousness with impeccable precision.  Seeing “The Room” or at least most of it (I never made it all the way through after three attempts) is a must before seeing “The Disaster Artist.”  Hate “The Room” or love it, Franco’s reenactment of how this film was born and who the actors are, what they went through, and the inside scoop from every angle makes this a breakout film of the year.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapt the book  “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.  The all-star cast couldn’t more accurately portray and seemingly become the main characters, Tommy (James Franco), Greg (Dave Franco), Juliette (Ari Graynor), Carolyn, the mother (Jacki Weaver), and Dan (Zac Efron).  In addition, the behind the scenes actors are just as high profile including Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Seth Rogan, and many, many more.  It’s obvious that the cult following must include all of these huge names in Hollywood as each of them truly shine in their respective roles.

The film has an actual story-line and narrative arc, unlike what I saw in “The Room.”  We meet Tommy (James Franco) and Greg (Dave Franco), both struggling actors who connect in a hilarious acting class lead by none other than Brett Gelman.  Greg’s admiration for this bizarre classmate and his lack of inhibitions connect the two and they move to L.A. together in search of making it big.  As they get to know each other,  Tommy’s exceedingly strange behavior, at times mimicking someone who has had brain trauma, lands him as an outcast in L.A.  With an limitless bank account from who knows where and how, Tommy writes a screenplay and casts his best friend Greg in the film.  The two embark upon what would be forever loved, for unknown reasons, as “The Room.”

“The Disaster Artist” is an unexpectedly funny and meaningful film as there is insight and discovery about a man who only wants to be loved…no matter how much it costs him.  He has found a friend in Greg and to Tommy, that is priceless, but he doesn’t understand relationships and basic interactions which causes more than hurt feelings.  James Franco’s portrayal of Tommy gives this unusual man depth and allows us to see the world from his very skewed viewpoint.

It’s also wonderfully entertaining and at times petrifying to see how the filming of “The Room”  took place.  Rogan as the cameraman Sandy Schklair states the obvious in many situations accentuating the unmistakable errors in filmmaking and ironically idiotic situations at hand.  As Tommy becomes volatile, hostile, and unpredictable, the cast and crew band together, seeing with their own eyes a film that will never be seen…or so they hoped.

“The Disaster Artist” is an unexpected treasure, making you laugh out loud constantly while feeling guilty for doing so as the main character obviously is misunderstood, bordering on pathetic at times, and has some issues that perhaps have never been identified.  There’s a certain sadness as you find the main point of the film is friendship and a longing to belong without an ability of how to do this.  It’s quite obvious that all of the cast of Franco’s film love what they were doing as the performances are captivating and eerily accurate when looking at scenes from the original film.  Speaking of, be sure to stick around for the credits where side by side scenes are shown from both films.  This, is just the icing on the proverbial cake and allows you to see what I have just described.

There’s not a weak link in this film with great acting and impersonations, remarkable direction, and  writing that takes a stranger than fiction story and brings it to living color.  Will the real Tommy Wiseau be able to handle what this film shows as he is somehow made an inadvertent comedic success from “The Room?”

Get ready for one of the most fun films of 2017, but remember, you really need to see (at least part of) “The Room” before you go.

3 1/2 Stars (4 possible) (only if you’ve seen “The Room”)

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a new “twist” on Dickens’ book

November 20th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a new “twist” on Dickens’ book”

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an expected part of the Christmas season, but did you ever wonder about why he wrote it? What was his inspiration and motivation? Where did he come up with these characters? Screenwriter Susan Coyne adapts Les Standiford’s non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas, bringing to light answers to all of these questions in the movie of the same name. Dan Stevens gives a full-hearted performance  to the main role of Charles Dickens with Christopher Plummer perfectly portraying the cold-hearted miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a unique spin on a classic, delightfully setting the stage for the upcoming Christmas season.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” takes us back to the successful year of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, 1839. Living in the lap of luxury, Dickens is woefully unsuccessful for the next three years and his purse strings need to be tightened to choking status. With a rambunctious brood of children and one on the way, not to mention a literary critic Chapman (Ian McNeice) always ready to point out Dickens’ failures, he needs to do something before his money completely runs out and his reputation is forever tarnished. His solution? A story about Christmas. The problem? It’s fall of 1842. Time is not Dickens’ friend particularly in finding a printer and illustrator for a rush order, but he doesn’t even have a story yet. He has faith in himself. He listens to standout phrases, names, and lets his imagination take him away as we witness the all-consuming and entertaining process of writing one of the most iconic books in history before our very eyes.

Coyne’s adaptation of this novel brings to life one of the most unique perspectives in writing to date. Scrooge’s character is born from a happenstance viewing of a man being buried in a cemetery with no one but a work colleague. Listening to the grave diggers’ conversation is all Dickens needs to get those creative juices flowing. Scene by scene, familiar characters pop up into Dickens’ life, inspiring the beautifully rich characters we all know and love. The birth of Jacob Marley and his chains, the Ghost of Christmas Past, and even Tiny Tim are all a part of Dickens’ life. You can’t help but smile from ear to ear as you recognize how these living characters become a reality in A Christmas Carol. What’s even more extraordinary is how all of these characters come to life in Dickens’ mind. They crowd him in his office, becoming a reality, offering advice on how to proceed, where the story should go, and what he’s doing wrong. They are as real as his wife and children and his uninvited, financially-dependent father. And Dickens has his own demons to deal with, perhaps using his writing as a tool for healing.

Stevens’ exceptional portrayal of Dickens allows us to know a man we could only imagine. He is brooding and temperamental,   heartwarmingly kind at times, and at others, lashing out, making us think that perhaps there’s a bit of Scrooge in Dickens himself. Quite interestingly, much of this tale is based upon fact. Dickens did have a father who went to debtor’s prison, he did work in a blacking factory, he was bullied, and much, much more. Knowing that much of what you see in the film truly was the inspiration for the book make this film that much more fun to watch.

Costuming and setting are as much a part of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” as the story itself. We are transported you back in time, becoming a part of the unfolding of the intriguing tale. While we all know the classic story, understanding the making of it and who Dickens was, will warm your heart all that much more this holiday season.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is much more than just a tale of one man. It’s an insight into one of the best holiday stories in modern times. With superb acting, writing, and directing, it’s a film that completes your holiday viewing list.

4 STARS

‘Strad Style’ a docu-thriller now available on VOD

November 18th, 2017 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on “‘Strad Style’ a docu-thriller now available on VOD”

Is there such a film genre as “docu-thriller?” If not, there should be as “Strad Style” is exactly that as it pairs an unlikely (dare I say) artisan with a world-renowned violinist, Razvan Stoica, who has requested a replication of a Del Gesù violin. The Stradivarius and Del Gesù violins are considered the most rare and best in the world and were produced in Cremona, Italy in the 1700’s.  Daniel Houck has accepted the job to duplicate this fine instrument, but there are a few glitches in this commitment.  He is a financially strapped young man, lacking education, no formal training in making violins, and “living in the middle of the country in the middle of a corn field,” aka Ohio, and is using a poster of the violin as his guide as he has never seen a Del Gesù.  Given Daniel’s circumstances, it’s a race against time as he finds himself committed to delivering this violin in person in Amsterdam for Stoica’s solo performance.

Filmmaker Stefan Avalos captures the day-to-day living of Houck whose candid demeanor is at once disarming, but also concerning as he seems to lack the means by which to survive let alone create a masterpiece of an instrument. Houck is disheveled, unorganized, and lives in a huge and perhaps at one time, a grand old home. With every step he takes, he is living dangerously as evidenced by the collapsing staircase and the clutter surrounding him. He has no heat and with his bipolar disorder, he appears to lack motivation and discipline. Houck is the exact opposite of what you would think a man who makes precision instruments would be like.

Houck’s progress and lack thereof is shared with Stoica as they talk about deadline, and somehow Houck is giving him reassurances of near completion. Stoica is completely unaware of what is actually happening. As the clock tick, tick, ticks, Houck seems to hit several bumps in the road to completion, many of which he admits, are of his own making. He does feel the pressure as he applies for his first passport, readying to travel abroad, but the level of anxiety isn’t close to what I felt just watching him stumble during the making of this violin. Avalos strings you along, rooting for this untrained journeyman all the while dreading what the possible pitfalls and grand finale may be. It’s an edge of your seat, nail-biter until the bitter end.

“Strad Style” is no ordinary documentary as the subject and narrative line have an unknown ending. All is riding on the outcome and Avalos creates great tension and suspense while connecting you to the main character. Editing this film must have been a painstaking process, but the final film is of extraordinary calibre. It’s a thrilling ride in the life of a seemingly ordinary man.

“Strad Style” had its premiere at the 2017  Slamdance Film Festival  and is now on Amazon, iTunes, VUDU and Google Play. For more information, check out the film’s website: www.stradstyle.com.

I had the pleasure of connecting with Stoica and briefly talked with him about the film experience. I have not included it in this review as this would spoil the ending.

To read the interview, please go to

Razvan Stoica shares his thoughts about “Strad Style”

Check out more informaiton about Houck go to houckfineviolins.com.

Pixar’s “Coco” is one of the greatest adventures yet

November 17th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Pixar’s “Coco” is one of the greatest adventures yet”

Get ready for Disney-Pixar’s greatest adventure yet! “Coco” hits theaters just in time for Thanksgiving vacation, reminding us about the importance of family. This vibrant, touching, and meaningful film takes place in a small town in Mexico during the celebration of The Day of the Dead. Young Miguel wants nothing more than to be a musician, but due to a dark family history, music has been banned from being played or heard. Miguel follows his dreams, leading him to cross “the bridge” into the land of the dead, learning important life lessons and reconnecting with those that love him. (Bring your tissues!)

It’s hard to imagine that Pixar could out-do itself after giving us “Inside Out,” but they have. We meet Miguel as he introduces us to his family members, some living, some gone, as the family prepares the mantle with photos of all who have passed away. We learn about Great Grandma Coco as a little girl whose father abandoned her and her mother, leaving them alone. Their father, known only to upcoming generations by a headless photo, was a musician. The hatred of music coursed through the veins of all the generations to come…until Miguel. His passion is unstoppable as he wants to participate in the town’s talent show. Stealing a special guitar from a museum magically allows him to cross over to the other side and he meets all those who came before him.

“Coco” is special on so many levels. The story is a multi-layered one that will entertain both children and adults. Our love and connection to family is at the heart of the film, but it is Grandma Coco’s small role that is remarkably powerful. As aging is a difficult process for anyone and any family to deal with, the topic of dementia is beautifully portrayed, particularly in the final scene. Of course, there’s the typical storyline of good guys and bad guys, and a race against time. While there are the typical aspects to the film, the writing is so deep and meaningful, the film is elevated to a higher dimension.

The story also integrates a tradition many of us don’t know much about, El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. “Coco” gives us the beauty, history, and meaning behind this cultural celebration as we consider our own ancestors, particularly those nameless faces in our own photo albums or shoe boxes filled with black and white or tin type photos. Embracing another’s culture and understanding its origins brings us that much closer to one another.

The animators at Pixar are equally astonishing in that they can bring an animated film to life. Yes, the story is key, but the animators connect us with the characters as we feel their emotions. How I was able to have empathy for a skeleton-faced musician and an old woman in a rocking chair with whiskers protruding from her chin is beyond me, but I did. Even as I write this review, I am fighting back the tears and getting choked up. The animators also made sure that younger ones, even given the longer run time of close to 2 hours, would be continually engaged. Using remarkably vibrant colors and fast-paced animation, sometimes bordering on frenetic, this film is visually stimulating as well. Combining these elements with beautiful music interspersed at just the right moments, “Coco” becomes perfectly orchestrated.

As I don’t want to give any plot twists away, I won’t go into great detail about the personalities behind the characters and who voices them. Suffice it to say that Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector), Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz), Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel) and the rest of the cast fit perfectly with their corresponding characters.

“Coco” is rated PG due to the topic matter, but it is a film for everyone to see as it reminds us of the importance of family, history, and traditions. With a superb story, a stellar cast, great music and extraordinary animation, “Coco” is a film that will have a long life ahead. See this remarkable film.

5 Stars out of 4!

“Wonder” is a film for the season

November 17th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Wonder” is a film for the season”

The holiday season is soon upon us which also means we have great movies for the entire family to see! “Wonder” is just one of the many films to put on your holiday must-see list.

Director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky adapts R.J. Palacio’s novel of the same name to send a positive message to viewers about love, acceptance and kindness. Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) stars as Auggie, a child with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder which deforms his face. Embarking on a new adventure by attending school, the lessons he, his family, teachers and classmates learn will break your heart and lift you up all at the same time. (Bring tissues!)

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

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Extraordinary dark drama

November 17th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Extraordinary dark drama”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has garnered a lot of hype already as it has made its debut at many recent film festivals. Can it live up to the critical acclaim? The answer is a resounding YES! Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell star in this dark crime drama and while it’s also classified as a comedy, this is pitch black and drama overrides comedy.

 

.Mildred’s (McDormand) teenage daughter has been raped and killed with no suspect in sight. Frustrated by the lack of law enforcement’s urgency to find this low-life perpetrator, Mildred sends a very loud and clear message to the local police force via three billboards. This most certainly rekindles interest in the crime, but it has a ripple effect she could never have predicted. Lost inside her own world of grief, the unorthodox tactics bring out a side of her she didn’t know existed.

“Three Billboards” is a raw depiction of a crime no mother (or father) could bear happening to her child. The backward little town provides the perfect backdrop to tell this sordid and harrowing tale filled with unique yet real characters, each well-developed, creating a story that is jaw-droppingly unpredictable.

The story revolves around Mildred, her interactions with Dixon (Rockwell), Chief Willoughby (Harrelson), Red (Caleb Landry Jones), James (Peter Dinklage), and her ex-husband (John Hawkes) who are all memorable characters with vital parts, allowing the gripping thriller to unfold at just the right pace. Taking place in a backward little town, the community is racist and seemingly uneducated, but there are just enough redeeming qualities in a few people, and sometimes unexpected ones, to allow us to have hope. And like all small towns, everyone knows everybody and their business and they have a long, long history together. This history and how the characters intersect creates a unique story that captivates and connects you to each of them.

Dixon (Rockwell) is a deputy officer who should never have been allowed to be a policeman. He’s the poster child of the “bad cop.” While much of what Dixon says and does is simply deplorable, it is his character with whom we emotionally connect.  It is also Mildred’s lashing out at this shamed officer that allows her to look within herself to understand her own actions. And Chief Willoughby is much more complicated that we first understand, but we quickly plunge into his issues at hand, gaining insight and compassion. These characters remind us that nothing is ever clear cut, black and white. Life and people are all shades of grey.

McDormand’s performance brings to light every possible emotion a mother could have while coming to terms with guilt and not allowing herself to move forward. She seems to have forgotten her teenaged son (Lucas Hedges) which also has repercussions. Mildred is more than rough around the edges—she’s harsh and at times, cruel, but given her situation, you can forgive much of this. The film is not a comedy, although there are comedic moments, it is a drama delving into the darkest of actions and emotions. McDormand’s foul-mouthed rants are shockingly captivating and offensively creative adding that special charm to the character’s personality. While it’s one of McDormand’s finest performances, Harrelson and Rockwell also shine. The film brings us into small town living…and dying…and all the difficulties in between. Be warned, this is a drama dealing with a tough subject…don’t be mislead by the trailers and think this is a comedy.

4/4 Stars

 

“Miracle on 42nd Street” an accidental success story

November 14th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Miracle on 42nd Street” an accidental success story”
“Copyright 2017 – Miracle on 42nd Street, Inc. – All Rights Reserved

Alice Elliott “Copyright 2017 – Miracle on 42nd Street, Inc. – All Rights Reserved

Imagine New York City without musicals. Without plays. Without theater, stand up, and art. Imagine it without Broadway. Times Square would be a “Pottersville” on steroids. And it wouldn’t be the New York we have come to know and love, would it? Thanks to a failed building investment back in the 1970’s, a last-ditch effort including Section 8 housing in Hell’s Kitchen—a famed neighborhood that fills your mind with images of thugs, drugs, and gangs—saved Broadway, according to the new documentary directed by Alice Elliott “Miracle on 42nd Street.”

Narrated by Chazz Palminteri, the film takes us back to the early ’70’s when inflation and unemployment was at a mind-boggling high. The area surrounding and including Times Square was completely undesirable, filled with massage parlors, empty buildings, street walkers and drug dealers. It certainly didn’t bring tourists in to see theater anymore. Something had to be done, but building planners acted a little too late and were hit hard by the economic times. We meet Irving Fischer, the building’s planner, who recalls taking a chance on integrating various socioeconomic renters, a percentage of which were artists—the very artists that would perform on nearby Broadway—and subsidizing a large portion of the rent in the building.  Angela Lansbury recounts that it was a social experiment. And this experiment set the tone for the success of New York City and is the unexpected blueprint for other failing communities.

“Miracle on 42nd Street” is more than a documentary. It’s a story of the power of community filled with unlikely mixes of people interacting and finding empowerment, love, and enlightenment. We hear from numerous stars who started out living there, able to afford the sliding scale rent, and then pay it forward when they hit their own financial and career successes. Giancarlo Esposito sits down with Terrance Howard, who Esposito mentored early in his career, and recounts his gratitude for such a place and his appreciation to give others the opportunity to live there as he payed full rent for a few years.

Larry David “Copyright 2017 – Miracle on 42nd Street, Inc. – All Rights Reserved

Giancarlo Esposito“Copyright 2017 – Miracle on 42nd Street, Inc. – All Rights Reserved

The stories seem limitless as we hear delightfully entertaining stories of Larry David and Kenny Kramer’s (note the last name on this guy) talent show, David’s lack of confidence, and how the two became best friends. Samuel L. Jackson was the doorman, and Alicia Keys may have never sat down at a piano had it not been for where she was living. We meet others in the building, one woman who just celebrated her 100th birthday and the community celebrated in style. The entire film gives you a sense of neighborhood and love that you wouldn’t think possible in a city like NY.

Each and every person who lived or lives in Manhattan Plaza or works there seemed to be positively impacted by the environment, even in times of sorrow. During the AIDS epidemic, the percentage of victims in this area was higher than any other, but this only deepened everyone’s connection. Reverend Rodney Kirk, another unlikely component in the equation as the building’s manager, made sure that this community supported one another. The outpouring of love and emotion from every resident interviewed was simply heartwarming.

The story continues through to the current day and the sale of the building. The film highlights the importance of having a mixed community and the strength it gives to those who live there and the surrounding areas.  Manhattan Plaza inadvertantly became an inventive concept, breathing new life into dying areas, and giving hope to places where emptiness once stood. With the success of The Manhattan Plaza, other dying cities have embraced the arts and as Fischer said, ““Manhattan Plaza is often called the ‘Miracle on 42nd Street’, and if I did nothing else in my life but be associated with that, my life would be complete. It is the type of place to live that has to be duplicated throughout the major cities of this country.”

“Miracle on 42nd Street” was a part of the DOC NYC Film Festival.  If you missed it there, be sure to watch for future screenings by going to   www.miracleon42ndstreet.org

 

“A Rodent of Unusual Size” invades DOC NYC this week

November 13th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““A Rodent of Unusual Size” invades DOC NYC this week”

Snips and snails and Nutria tails, that’s what Cajun’s are made of… If you don’t know what a Nutria is, you’re about to find out in the entertainingly bizarre documentary “A Rodent of Unusual Size” by Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer and Quinn Costello.  The Nutria is a large rodent ranging in weight about 15- 20 pounds.  Picture a cross between  a rat, a beaver, a rabbit and your dog.   While it isn’t a rat, it is referred to as a Swamp Rat.  With webbed feet and ever-growing teeth, the better to gnaw everything in its path, this rodent has taken over much of Louisiana.  The results are devastating to the people and the environment, turning the bayou into “dead zones” and losing miles of coastal wetland each year.

The film take us to the coast of this southern state and we meet the people who attempt to keep this animal under control.  It’s also a trip back in time as we learn about an innocent endeavor gone wrong. Using graphic artwork, the filmmakers create a backstory to better understand this nightmarish creature and how Louisiana finds itself in this predicament.   The Nutria was introduced to the Louisiana area many decades ago to create a fur source when the fur industry was at its highest.  Unfortunately, when an foreign animal is introduced to a habitat it is not naturally a part of, dire consequences can result, particularly when there are no natural predators.  With the fur industry becoming taboo, the Nutria population boomed and that is when the coastal areas of Louisiana began to see the immediate consequences of the Nutria’s insatiable appetite and prolific procreation.  Eating the roots and all vegetation it can find compromised the ground’s stability—storms simply and easily wash coastal shorelines back into the ocean.  However, Louisianans, as many of the film’s subjects state, are survivors and creativity is not lost with their novel control methods as they attempt to reclaim their land and save the environment.

Narrated by Wendell Pierce, “A Rodent of Unusual Size” is a film that, at every turn, makes you utter words of astonishment.  With your eyes wide open and mouth agape, you see first-hand what these critters are, what they have done, and how Louisianans attempt to manage the population.  We get to know Thomas Gonzales from Delacroix Island and his family who have hunted Nutria for generations.  His thick dialect endears you to him as he shares with us his love of his homeland. Eradication of this animal to restore the coast and save the environment is not possible, but managing it is.  With the novel approaches from Louisiana Wildlife, $5 per tail, the area has created a new economic base.  College kids can come in for the summer and make enough money to pay for their college tuition.  With 25 million Nutrias growing at exponentially fast rates, (they begin breeding at 6 months, and give birth every 4 months),  that allows for a lot of tuition reimbursement.  In addition, the indigenous American Indians recognized that waste of the animal should not occur.  Use of its pelt and meat are an option.  Cree McCree designs fur fashions for Righteous Fur and innovative chefs like Kermit Ruffin (also a talented musician) serve up Nutria BBQ.   While fur is still frowned upon, the pelt of this rodent is much like a beaver and a sustainable way to have a fur without the guilt.

“A Rodent of Unusual Size” is not for the faint of heart and many parts, particularly for animal lovers, are difficult to watch.  The well-balanced film does set the tone, however, of understanding that this rodent is an environmental threat as well as a hazard for the people, many of whom are economically challenged.  The rodent is moving inland to urban areas as well.  Imagine one of these creatures greeting you in your bathroom as it has found passage through the sewer system.  And the Nutria isn’t just invading Louisiana.  It can be found all over the U.S. and the world.  Louisiana, with its ingenious methods to control the population, is the leader in helping others save their land and environment.

As an animal lover and environmentalist, this film created an insightful and very unique story that is at once engaging, entertaining and informative.  The film will premiere at the DOC NYC Film Festival on Wednesday, November 15.  For ticket information, go to www.docnyc.net

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