Posts in Review

Writer/Director Peter Hedges talks about making “Ben Is Back”

January 17th, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “Writer/Director Peter Hedges talks about making “Ben Is Back””

You can’t miss newspaper articles, books, and even movies which depict the harrowing experiences of drug abuse in our world today. This year, two standout films tell an emotionally raw story not just about addiction, but of a young adult’s attempts to regain his life. “Beautiful Boy” and “Ben Is Back” both create these stories, but with Peter Hedges film, “Ben Is Back,” starring his own son Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts, he utilizes pieces of his own life as well as others’, to give us a sincere and poignant tale of a mother and son struggling for survival.

Peter Hedges was recently in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival where his film screened. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting this soft-spoken yet engaging, award winning writer and director to talk about making “Ben Is Back.”

Pamela Powell (PP): I understand that “Ben Is Back” is reflective of your own life in many ways.

Peter Hedges (PH): I grew up in a family that was decimated and then ultimately elevated because of addiction. My mom was an active alcoholic until I was 15 and then she left home when I was 7. I didn’t really know her full and majestic self —she was a remarkable woman—until she got sober when I was 15. The last 22 years of her life she devoted to helping other people and saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. …I saw from a family perspective what happens when a loved member of the family is engulfed by the disease of addiction. And so as I got older … I noticed that I was burying more and more friends and more and more people that I knew were at risk. A close family member nearly died and another family member did die and so I just wanted to create or tell a story that I felt could be a big part of a conversation that we need to have.

PP: You have a uniquely accurate way of creating a mother’s voice in your characters, especially with Julia Robert’s character of “Holly.” How do you do this?

PH: I had a remarkable mother and I’m married to a remarkable mother. My sister’s a remarkable mother. Most of my favorite actors are remarkable women of a certain age. Holly was not hard for [me to write]. … From the minute I started writing the mother in “Gilbert Grape” to the mother I wrote in “Pieces of April,” I like writing moms. I don’t know why, … nothing comes super easy for me, but they do. I think it’s my respect and awe and love for moms and mothers and women in my life. And my life has helped make that possible. … I was struck in reading Walt Whitman’s journals. When soldiers were dying in the war repeatedly, …. they never called out for their fathers. They never called out for their loved ones. They always called out for their mothers. I wanted to write a great love story. … I thought who would really go anywhere and will go everywhere for their child?

PP: Julia and Lucas have such a genuine connection. Tell me about their relationship and developing it to give such authentic performances.

PH: It’s a testament to both of them. They really like each other! … I mean what does one say about Julia Roberts? She’s the perfect actor to play Holly. She’s that mom. She loves her kids so much and she’ll do anything for them. What makes the movie so powerful to me is that Holly’s trying so hard to protect her child and Lucas is Ben is trying so hard to make up for his mistakes and I find that very moving that I’m going to beat this. And the fact that it’s that hard to beat is why the film’s important is because that’s what so many people are facing and some of us don’t realize how difficult it is. Someone that we sit next to at work, at school and they’re living everyday in this peril that Holly and Ben lives on this day.

PP: And what about working with your own son?

PH: He never called me dad. I mean one time he did. He came knocking on my door, he needed some money. (Laughs) But he stayed down the hall and I never went to his room. He came to my room a couple of times but I really tried to just keep the distance and give him his space.

PP: As a mother, I felt that I was Holly, walking in her shoes even though I, thankfully, have not gone through this experience directly. I had such compassion for her character.

PH: That’s the great danger of the time that we’re living in is that everything is “an other.” … when we lose our capacity to feel compassion for other people and we lose our ability or interest in understand other points of view, then we are descending toward more of a savage world, a cruel world. I think art at its best expands our capacity for compassion and maybe we’ll look a little differently at the people we’ve been writing off.

PP: Do you feel that this film is in some ways a healing process for you and your past?

PH: It is in some respects very much that. I think my mother and father who are no longer here in the physical sense and I know how much they would love this film and that makes me proud that that’s an extension of the work they were doing. And this is my attempt to be a part of something much bigger and more important. It’s definitely healing. It makes me want to keep moving in the direction of making urgent and necessary films.

PP: This topic touches so many lives directly, including my friend who lost her son. What have you seen so far of the impact of this film?

PH: The trailer came out and trailers always scare me and I was looking on the “Ben Is Back” Facebook page, and thousands of people are commenting about the trailer, but a number of [were] people saying, I don’t know if I can see this movie, I lived it, and then someone would say, this is a picture of my son that I lost and then there would be 14 comments from people all over the world saying I’m so sorry that that happened. He looked like such a great kid. … Somebody came up to me yesterday after the movie and said, I didn’t know what I put my mother through until I saw this movie and said, ‘I’m going to go call my mom.’ YES! … That’s the hard thing about the disease that you’re so caught up in it that you lose your capacity to understand that you’re hurting the people that you most love. When my mother got sober, she had to live with the fact that all the hurting she did when she was drinking. If she hadn’t have been drinking she would never have done those things. She would never have walked out on 4 children. She had to be drunk to do that. I understand there’s accountability … but they’re not themselves. And this friend of yours who lost her son, he wasn’t himself.

Film Rating 4/4 Stars

“Wale” Uses social perceptions to create intense and powerful thriller

January 10th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Wale” Uses social perceptions to create intense and powerful thriller”

First-time writer and director Barnaby Blackburn gives us “Wale, the story of a teen who made mistakes in is short life, paid for his crime, and is now on a better path as he attempts to start a business. Wale’s (Raphel Famotibe) first customer, O’Brian (Jamie Sives) will change Wale’s life forever.

Wale (Famotibe) appears to be a typical kid now, but his criminal record and time in juvenile lock up is a part that he wanted and was ready to put behind him. Living with his mother (Clare Perkins), we gain not only an understanding of his past, but also connect with this young man who wants nothing more than to make his mother proud and earn a living honestly. As he goes to the street market to advertise his skills as an auto mechanic, he bumps into O’Brian (Sives) who just happens to be in need of Wale’s services. Inviting the young man to his home, he treats him like a friend, and trusts him with his high-end car which has a “problem.”

In this short film, there is a constant feeling of impending doom even as Wale’s positivity attempts to shine through. His personality allows the viewer to forgive his transgressions and we root for him to succeed, but there is something off with O’Brian. The skilled writing creates this distrust in him, but we just can’t put our finger on what’s wrong until it’s too late. We discover the problem just as Wale does and gasp, never expecting to learn what we now know.

The story becomes a harrowing one, eliciting our own breathing to become shallow and our hearts to race as we put ourselves in Wale’s shoes. Each and every scene is an unexpected one, layering the tension to a point of explosion. These surprises don’t stop until the very end where Blackburn fades out.

“Wale” is one of the most riveting and intellectually stimulating short films this year. Creating viable circumstances while integrating social dynamics and stereotypes into the story generates plausibility. And Blackburn never allows you to see more than he wants you to, giving the film that incredible tension and stress.

Wale’s ensemble cast is comprised of two main characters who shine in their roles. Without giving too much away, Sives is extraordinary as we watch the subtlety of his performance and we discover his true self. Famotibe is equally skilled in his performance, portraying a young man with a second chance in life who is dealt a horrifying hand. His realistic reactions drive the story, never too much and never too little. It’s true perfection in a performance.

“Wale” is a short film that has the power of a feature, bringing to light societal prejudices while capturing an intriguing story. Blackburn’s writing and direction lay the firm foundation upon which his actors beautifully bring his words and tale to life. To think this is Blackburn’s first film is exciting as he has a grand future ahead of him.

4 Stars

“Odd Brodsky” An Uplifting & Quirky Comedy

January 9th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Odd Brodsky” An Uplifting & Quirky Comedy”

Discovering films made from the heart and filled with hope, humor, and even a positive message are far and few between, but Cindy Baer’s original film, “Odd Brodsky” is just that. As co-writer with her husband Matthew Irving, producer, and editor, Baer tells the tale of Audrey Brodsky (Tegan Ashton Cohan), a young woman living in L.A., stuck in a lucrative, but unfulfilling desk job, who decides to take a chance and chase her dreams of becoming an actress—a promise she made to her late mother as a teen.


From the moment we meet the younger version of Audrey, played with natural skill by Ilana Klusky, there’s a whimsical, light air to the story with a vibrant flare of color and energy. The narrator takes us back in time to Audrey’s birth and her childhood years as she attempts every creative endeavor possible. With the encouragement (and tolerance) of her parents, Audrey gives it her all even when she’s viewed as a bit of an oddball by her peers. Fast forward to the current day, and Audrey still has hopes and dreams of acting, but her current day job has stifled her creativity. Longing for more, she quits her job and she plunges into the unknown head first. The creative waters are deep and as she flails around, comedically, she refines and redefines herself and her goals.

This is a good, old-fashioned comedy as we connect with this ever-hopeful young woman who refuses to give up. Interspersed with many comedic situations, Baer reminds us of what women encounter regarding looks and perceptions…sobering information, but alas, Baer always remembers that this is a comedy, first and foremost. Goofy situations arise, many thanks to her constantly high roommate, Spuds (Scotty Dickert), and we get to know her eclectic group of friends and watch a love story unfold unbeknownst to Audrey.

Cohan creates this lovable and quirky character of Audrey with sincere honesty. Her tone of voice matched with her affect beautifully pair with the rich and colorful costuming and set designs. There’s a feeling of balance in the tone of this film, never losing sight of the final message while colorfully entertaining your mind and your soul.

The ensemble cast gels together, particularly her best friends with whom she can share her every thought, relying on them all whenever she needs them or they need her…exactly what women do. To give this group even more interest and fun, Sammy (Baer), Kitty (Christina Moses), and Zoey (Elana Krausz) all have rather whacky attributes. And the sweetness of Camera One played by Matthew Kevin Anderson cannot be denied as we see him fall head over heals in love with Cohan’s character.

Baer’s off-beat and engaging writing is swept up by cinematographer Irving’s highly stylized eye as each character is allowed to shine in their roles. The set design is gorgeous, never feeling that this is a small and independent film. Together, with a great cast, “Odd Brodsky” works. It’s funny, charming, and positive…the perfect escape.

“Odd Brodsky” is a film for anyone who has felt out of place, aka odd, or has lost sight of who they are and where they want to be. (I believe that speaks to all of us!) It’s a story of determination, resiliency, and growing to understand oneself, making a few mistakes and learning and laughing along the way.

You can see this film on multiple digital platforms such as iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

3/4 Stars

“Welcome to Marwen” lacks heart

January 5th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Welcome to Marwen” lacks heart”

Complete review coming soon

“Bathtubs Over Broadway” a charmingly unusual story of life, laughter, and love

January 5th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Bathtubs Over Broadway” a charmingly unusual story of life, laughter, and love”

The title of this documentary, “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” is an unusual one and you’ll never guess what this film is about based solely on those three bolded words. Steve Young, the former long-time comedy writer for the David Letterman show, hardened by his years of writing bizarrely funny bits for Letterman, is obsessed with a collection that turned into a passion project and resulted in a new-found love of life and those around him. The collection? Industrial Musicals.

What? You don’t know what that means? Neither did I nor does most of the population, but director and co-writer Dava Whisenant takes us along Young’s journey as he discovers long-lost records recorded by prominent companies in the ’60’s and ’70’s of sales and motivational productions. These productions, many of which were starting points for now well-known musical artists like Bob Fosse, dwarfed the budgets of Broadway musicals in an attempt to help corporations up their bottom line. Watch the trailer here:

Young scours the country, finding just a few like-minded individuals who know about this subject and begins to collect everything he can get his hands on. It isn’t until he delves more deeply into the people behind the productions that he discovers the meaningful relationships and the talent that evolved from these productions.

Whisenant provides us an opportunity to watch Young’s entire demeanor and even, perhaps, his purpose in life evolve as he befriends and gives affirmation to this long-lost art and artists. Filled with charming interviews along this journey with well-known actors like Martin Short who made ends meet by acting in these shows, entertaining video clips of productions about being a better sales person and manager, and his discovery of Sid Siegel in Buffalo Grove, IL who produced “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” the story comes together as Young gives credit to this unique art form by way of acknowledgment, understanding and appreciation.

“Bathtubs Over Broadway” is nothing that you expect and will be everything that you love. It’s narrative storyline initially points in one direction, only to take a beautiful and heartfelt turn that will leave you in awe and appreciation for Young and all those he has rediscovered. You’ll be swept away by the toe-tapping numbers, laughing along the way, while wiping away a few tears as you, too, have connected with these artists. Industrial Musicals and the talent associated with them may be a part of the past, but thanks to Young, it’s not lost. Thank you, Steve Young.

For more information about this film, go to

3 1/2 Stars out of 4

“Funny Tweets” shines new light on the power of Twitter

January 5th, 2019 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on ““Funny Tweets” shines new light on the power of Twitter”

Laurie McGuinness creates an undeniably funny yet somehow thoughtful documentary film depicting one of the many powerful uses of Twitter.   This social networking platform isn’t just to learn about how our country is being run or the next viral meme.  McGuinness  takes a different approach to this global communication device as he features Dan Duvall, a seemingly ordinary guy from a typical town in British Columbia who, via his comedic tweets, accesses and lands job opportunities with major studios and shows in L.A.  


McGuinness interviews several comedy writers who connected with Duvall via Twitter and follows the thread that stitched them all together.  We gain an understanding of the community networking and importance of how Twitter levels the playing field and opens the doors of opportunity that were once not only closed, but seemingly locked with a single gatekeeper.  While the story revolves around Duvall and how he managed his persona on Twitter over the years to find success, the candid interviews with established writers such as Matt Selman, Executive Producer an writer for “The Simpsons, Andy Richter, Announcer for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and Damien Fahey, writer for “Family Guy” give insight and maybe even hope to anyone from anywhere that if you’ve got the talent, you’ve got a chance.

“Funny Tweets” is truly laugh out loud funny as McGuinness generously sprinkles the story with hilarious tweets written by not only well-known comedy writers, but everyday people like this one from Elle Emmenopee (@ElleOhHell) about air travel. “Please remain seated until we’ve reached the gate, then feel free to stand hunched over weirdly sideways for 15 minutes while we do whatever.”  We also see how Twitter, with all its pros and cons, has been the subject matter of many shows, including “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” as McGuinness expertly splices in excerpts from these shows.  We even get a glimpse into why certain tweets are funny and the origins of comic style dating back to, believe it or not, Winston Churchill.

Most of us don’t think twice about our accounts on Twitter as we browse through various tweets every day (or every 5 minutes), but perhaps, thanks to the insight of this film, we can see Twitter as a positive tool to help build our businesses, our dreams, or attain a previously out-of-reach goal.  While social media platforms can seem overwhelming and unnecessary, “Funny Tweets” gives Twitter a different spin; one of positivity and acceptance of this digital world.

“Funny Tweets” is available to stream on-line via iTunes

3.5/4 STARS

“Mary Queen of Scots” Powerful women, powerful story

January 5th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Mary Queen of Scots” Powerful women, powerful story”

Margot Robbie has no fear of playing characters with an ugly heart, and her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in her newest film “Mary Queen of Scots” is a prime example.

The story, based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, adapted by Beau Willimon and directed by Josie Rourke, breathes life and understanding into an era of two women vying for the British throne. This previously inanimate time in history, forgotten or never known to most of us, comes alive with vibrant and rich characters and a story that is simply spellbinding.

You don’t have to be a fan of history or British history to love this film. You do, however, have to be a fan of a great story, and “Mary Queen of Scots” is a powerful one. We meet young Mary (Saoirse Ronan), recently widowed and returning from France in search of her home and homeland. She is the rightful heir to the British crown, but that seat is currently occupied by her barren, insecure and lonely cousin, the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie).

To read the review in its entirety, go to

Best Documentaries of 2018

January 1st, 2019 Posted by News, Review 0 thoughts on “Best Documentaries of 2018”

I cannot recall a more emotional, educational, and enlightening year in documentary filmmaking. 2018 may forever be remembered as the best in this genre as it tackled important political, global, social and even strange topics, allowing us to walk in another’s shoes, creating empathy and understanding, and most importantly, broadening our horizons as we see the world through a wider lens.

10. MINDING THE GAP by Bing Liu depicts three young men who bond and support one another via skateboarding. Their stories diverge as they grow, highlighting their environment and family background as they find resiliency to rise above.

9. FREE SOLO might be one of the most nerve-racking documentaries I’ve seen as I watched a young man, Alex Honnold, “train” to climb the face of El Capitan in Yosemite without any safety ropes. Stunning cinematography punctuate this death-defying endeavor with an unusual backstory. To describe it as gripping is both a pun and an understatement! Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. E

8. ON HER SHOULDERS tells the inspiring story of Nadia Murad who defied the social and gender confines of her culture and enlightened the world. With her efforts, this young woman, sometimes reluctantly-so is changing our understanding of ISIS, equality, and humanity. Directed by Alexandria Bombach.

7. PICK OF THE LITTER gives us insight into what it takes to become a guide dog for the blind. The dynamic filmmaking duo, Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, partner up again to tug on our heartstrings and keep us on the edge of our seats as we watch and root for these puppies who vie for giving a human the much-needed independence. It’s a captivatingly beautiful story that connects you with these pups, their training families, and with those who need their services.

6. SCIENCE FAIR gives us hope in our future leaders as filmmakers Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster follow nine young high school students as they attempt to be “Best in Fair.” This age is a complicated one, but compounding the typical emotional ups and downs is the heavy burden to prove you’re the most intelligent. “Science Fair” is a riveting story with humor as these kids race to the finish line.

5. DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES will awaken your senses as you begin to understand who the founder of Fox News was. The filmmaker, Alexis Bloom, creates a compelling story using found footage, childhood photos, and interviews from those who knew him best. As the story progresses, we see his true colors, changing the course of history for individuals as well as the United States.

4. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR is one of the most timely and heartwarming documentaries of the year as it depicts Fred Rogers’ life. Whether or not you were a fan of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” as a child, this film will inspire you and remind you of what’s truly important in life as you see this man’s life-long endeavor to help children in a volatile world. Have tissues handy! Directed by Morgan Neville

3. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS begins as a sweet and coincidental story that takes heart-wrenching and unbelievable turns, creating an incredibly bizarre and disturbing story. Triplets, separated “at birth,” are reunited, but the circumstances under which these babies were taken is the core of the story. Reminiscent of human experimentation, it’s an inconceivable unfolding of events with dire consequences. Directed by Tim Wardle

2. LOVE, GILDA is first-time feature filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito’s uplifting and comedic project showcasing the life of Gilda Radner. While the young comic’s life was cut short by cancer, D’Apolito brings her back to life with found footage of Radner’s childhood, photographs, and readings from her journal. Radner’s unique voice is heard as we are reminded of the importance of love and laughter. Available on CNN Jan. 1

RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, finds its way into the number 1 position, depicting the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This is nothing like what you might expect a film about a Justice to be as it is filled with wonderful humor, great sadness, compassion, and at its core, this is a love story. West and Cohen allow us into Ginsberg’s remarkable life creating a story about a true super hero who changed the world for women and equality. Her story is an important one to know and one which will inspire future generations of young women to stand up and be heard. After viewing “RBG,” be sure to see “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer and directed by Mimi Leder. To read my interview with Cohen and West for FF2 Media, go to

TIED FOR 11th PLACE: With so many great docs, it was tough to stick to just 10, so here are a few more to put on your list to see: FUNNY TWEETS by Laurie McGuinness, SOCIAL ANIMALS by Jonathan Ignatius Green, FAHRENHEIT 11/9 by Michael Moore, and DARK MONEY by Kimberly Reed.

“Social Animals” An Instagram story

December 27th, 2018 Posted by Review, Weekly VOD 0 thoughts on ““Social Animals” An Instagram story”

Instagram.  If you’re over 30, and I am, it’s an anomaly.  As a teenager in the 1970’s, popularity was assessed based on the number of carnations you received on Valentine’s Day during classes.  Now, it’s the number of public “likes” that can truly make or break you in high school.  Director Jonathan Ignatius Green followed three teens; an aspiring photographer in New York City, a Midwestern girl from Central Ohio, and a wealthy entrepreneur near Malibu, California.  The three are very different teens, but they all experience the emotional costs, both positive and negative of the impact of the social media platform of Instagram.

Green introduces us to Humza, a kid from the inner city of N.Y.  who develops an eye for photographs taken from forbidden vantage points.  Humza’s popularity blows up, but just at the peak of his popularity, he is vilified for revealing a subculture within the city.  Green interviews Humza before, during, and after his Instagram “success,” giving the viewers a keen insight to Humza’s rather mature and very candid expression of social media consequences.

Interwoven into Humza’s story, Green expertly incorporates Kaylyn’s unusual panache for engaging viewers with her style and look which eventually leads to greater opportunities.  Although, fame does have its drawbacks for her and her family, we are privy to the emotions at the time.  Matching Humza and Kaylyn’s story arc, we see that Green couldn’t have chosen a better representation for middle America than a small town near Cincinnati, Ohio with Emma who pays an ever greater emotional price as a negative spin is thrust upon her perceived persona.  

The pressure these kids feel is obvious, determining, in many instances, whether a teen has a sense of self-worth.  In fact, as the film reveals, purchasing “likes” and “followers” is also a technique used to increase their reputation as someone worthy of knowing.  As crazy as this might sound to someone outside of the Instagram realm, it’s a heady and real situation for kids, not to mention emotionally and financially costly.

Green tells each of these teens’ stories from beginning to end, allowing the viewer to walk in their shoes.  His ability to ask the right questions and create a trusting atmosphere for each subject to feel comfortable gives the film integrity and honesty.  These elements connect us to Humza, Kaylyn, and Emma as we watch them rise and fall and then hopefully find the strength to rise again.  Following these “kids” as well as having interviews with parents and other kids over the course of two years, Green allows you, the viewer, to arrive at your own conclusions about the impact of social media as he always takes the position of neutral observer, allowing the story to unfold naturally and honestly.

Initially, my hopes for the film were to be in some way to denounce social media platforms, justifying my inabilities to somehow master the medium, but Green doesn’t place a judgment upon it.   “Social Animals” expertly weaves together a compelling narrative, but more importantly, it allows everyone, no matter their age, to better comprehend the social pressures of today’s youth in a digital era.  It also serves as an avenue for teens to relate and perhaps even find comfort in knowing that they are all in the same boat.  


While I long for the days where it was only one day of a popularity contest and hoping that I wouldn’t get any green carnations (indicating “You bug me”), times have changed and “Social Animals” creatively communicates these changes.  Every parent, teacher, social worker and counselor would benefit from seeing this film.  While I no longer have teens at home, the film did allow me to let go of the pressure I feel as I attempt to “master” using Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.  Don’t even get me started on SnapChat!

For more information about the film and director, go to


You can see “Social Animals” on iTunes:    or on Amazon:

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: An interview with Barry Jenkins

December 25th, 2018 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: An interview with Barry Jenkins”

Barry Jenkins, Academy Award-winning director of the Best Picture Award in 2016 for “Moonlight,” is back in the writer’s and director’s chairs to give us a screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

The film depicts Tish and Fonny, two young black people in love, “soul mates” as Jenkins describes them, who experience heartache when Fonny is falsely accused of rape.

It’s a gorgeous portrayal of first love and family, as well as a brutally realistic representation of racial perception and the injustices of the judicial system, all seen through the lens of a young woman.

The film opens Christmas Day, starring Stephan James as Fonny and Chicago’s very own KiKi Layne as Tish. Film critic Chuck Koplinski and I had the pleasure of sitting down with this soft-spoken and engaging writer and director to learn more about the making of this evocatively relevant and poignant film.

To read the review in its entirety, go to

The Best of 2018

December 24th, 2018 Posted by News, Review 0 thoughts on “The Best of 2018”

This year, from my vantage point, has provided some of the most inspiring and poignant films in recent memory.  From documentaries punctuating the fact that truth is many times stranger than fiction and stories that give us hope to narrative features integrating politics, the environment, religion and accentuating the need for identity, it’s been a remarkable year.  

As I began to compile my “best of” list, I had more than 30 films so I created 2 categories:  Best Feature Film and Best Documentaries.  It seemed only fair.  But even separating them into categories didn’t help as much as I had wanted.  Many of my choices which didn’t make it, toggled back and forth between the top ten slots and as my film critic partner Chuck Koplinski says, “Tied for 11th place.”  The “winners” who made it into my top 10 were the films that in addition to being a great story told well (as Robert Redford always says), these are films which moved me the most and still evoke an emotional response even after viewing it more than once.  All of my “tied for 11th place” choices are great movies with amazing performances and outstanding cinematography, but the final decision weighed upon the lasting effects of the film.


10.  WHAT THEY HAD: Elizabeth Chomko’s writing and directorial debut depicts a family’s struggle with “doing what’s best” or Ruth (Blythe Danner) whose dementia is worsening.  Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon create a realistic sibling relationship as they attempt and frequently fail at agreeing on Mom’s care and Robert Forster gives us a remarkably memorable performance as Ruth’s husband.

9.  PUZZLE: Polly Mann and Oren Moverman recreate the Argentinian story of Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) whose insulated life as a mother and wife is awakened as she discovers a world outside of her own.  Mark Turtletaub directs this deeply layered story with religious elements and parallels that pushes the boundaries of storytelling.

8.  CAPERNAUM:  Taking place in Lebanon, a streetwise kid is suing his parents for neglect.  The film takes us on his harrowing journey that landed him behind bars and in the situation at hand.  Nadine Labaki directs young Zain Al Rafeea who gives a soulful performance that haunts you long after the credits roll.   

7.  ROMA:  Alfonso Cuaron pays homage to the strong women in his life, his mother, grandmother, and a live-in servant, in this sometimes surreal and always poignant memoir.  Cuaron finds a way to reinvent filmmaking with “Roma” as he finds and showcases the extraordinary talents of newcomer Yalitza Aparicio.

6.  THE GUILTY:  Gustov Moller writes and directs this one-man show taking place in a single room, but thanks to succinct and descriptive writing, your mind takes you to several location as you insert the various characters into the film.  Jakob Cedergren creates the role of Ashgar, a dispatch police officer who receives a call from a kidnapped woman.  His own baggage finds its way into the unfolding and incredibly tense story that has you on the edge of your seat, unable to predict the upcoming twists and turns.

5.  AMERICAN ANIMALS:  Unique storytelling techinques find their way into this film as Bart Layton recreates a Lexington, KY Transylvania University library heist.  Editing is key in this strange yet true story and Layton is a master as we watch these character spiral slowly downward.  Inserting interviews with the actual characters elevates the incredible story to make this one of the most entertaining and unusual films of the year.

4.  CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?:  The world seems to provide many strange stories for filmmakers to bring to the masses and Nicole Holefcener has found Lee Israel, a writer who’s hit rock bottom and finds she is quite talented in the art of forgery.  Marielle Heller directs Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as unlikely friends and business partners, each attempting to find meaning in their lives.  McCarthy is able to show us her dramatic talents in this complex and beautiful role while Grant uses his authenticity and style to give balance and provide levity and love in this heartfelt story.

3.  MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS:  Josie Rourke directs Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie who portray royal sisters, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, respectively.  Rourke brings history to life as we gain insight and understanding to a story of greed, power, and love all effected by religion and gender.  Ronan and Robbie are extraordinary as we learn about the centuries-old story of sisterly rivalry.

2.  FIRST REFORMED:  Paul Schrader writes and directs Ethan Hawke as a pastor wrestling his inner demons and understanding of life, religion, politics, and the doomed environment.  It’s an exquisite and eloquent story of hope versus despair pushing your intellectual and emotional breaking point to its limits.  This is, by far, Hawke’s best performance.

  1.  WILDLIFE:  Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano write the screenplay while Dano takes the director’s chair to tell the story of a young teen watching and dealing with his parents’ failing marriage.  Ed Oxenbould gives an Oscar-worthy performance of a boy who must grow up and understand his circumstances at much too early of an age.  Carey Mulligan’s performance is equally complicated and extraordinary as the flawed wife and mother who must find independence.  As a viewer, it’s difficult to watch the life-altering decisions, yet the characters are so rich that you immediately understand their every thought.  “Wildlife” is a film to watch and dissect each and every scene, learning what drives the characters and how the subtle and nuanced performances convey these emotions.

Watch for an upcoming article for the Top 10 Documentaries of 2018!

MARY POPPINS RETURNS- magical fun for the entire family

December 21st, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “MARY POPPINS RETURNS- magical fun for the entire family”

Disney’s Academy Award-winning musical, “Mary Poppins,” starring Julie Andrews, Angela Landsbury and Dick Van Dyke, turns 54 this year and what better way to celebrate than by creating a new adventure based on this classic family film?

The magical nanny is back in “Mary Poppins Returns” with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda stepping in to create an entirely new version of the story, while still maintaining the magic of the music, the dance and, most importantly, the story.

We meet the Banks’ family, who is comprised of two grown children, Michael (Ben Whishaw), and Jane (Emily Mortimer). While their parents have long gone, Michael, a widower, has two astute children who miss the comfort and guidance of their mom.

To read the review in its entirety as it appears in the Friday, December 21st edition of The Daily Journal go to

Netflix’s “Bird Box” serves as a powerful addition to the platform’s original films

December 18th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Netflix’s “Bird Box” serves as a powerful addition to the platform’s original films”

“Bird Box,” based on the novel by Josh Malerman, is written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Susanne Bier and stars Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes and John Malkovich.

While the film opens in theaters this weekend in New York and Los Angeles (think Oscar, here), this Netflix dystopian horror film then will become available to stream to your home via the digital platform on Dec. 21.

“Bird Box” delivers a powerful punch in the first scene as we see two young children blindfolded and being directed as to what’s expected of them. Your mind races, wondering if these children have been kidnapped as they are addressed as “Girl” and “Boy.” It’s gut-wrenching to watch these terrified-yet-precious little faces react to harshness from a woman, but then we are spiraled to five years earlier, and we find out how we got to this lowly place.

To read the review in its entirety as published in the Saturday, December 15th, 2018 edition of The Daily Journal, go to

“Roma” creates intimate memory of love, paying homage to the women in Cuaron’s life

December 14th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Roma” creates intimate memory of love, paying homage to the women in Cuaron’s life”

“Roma,” the new Netflix film which opened in theaters in order to qualify for Oscar, will be available via the online streaming service beginning today. The film already has begun gathering awards and nominations from prestigious film critic organizations across the country, including the Chicago Film Critics Association.

This artistic masterpiece has found an unusual storytelling method to create an homage to the women in writer/director Alfonso Cuaron’s (“Gravity”) life as a child: his mother, his grandmother and his housekeeper.

“Roma” takes us back to Cuaron’s childhood in Mexico City during the 1970s to tell this very intimate memoir as we meet his family during a time of personal and political chaos.

During the course of one year, we watch, like a fly on the wall, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio’s (Fernando Grediaga) marriage unravel, the children’s lives affected in various ways, but most importantly, the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and how this impacts and creates unexpected bonds.

To read the review in its entirety as it was published in the December 14th, 2018 edition of The Daily Journal go to

“Widows” gives a tried-and-true genre a new perspective

November 28th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Widows” gives a tried-and-true genre a new perspective”

Gillian Flynn of “Sharp Objects” and “Gone Girl” fame co-writes with director Steve McQueen the screen adaptation of “Widows” starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Liam Neeson. The thriller is set in our very own backyard of Chicago as four widows whose husbands’ criminal activities leave them in debt to the wrong people and must somehow pay it back.


“Widows” is an elemental thriller, tapping into all the right spots to give us a high intensity caper filled with a couple unexpected twists along the way. What makes this story a little different is that we have women leading the way. This adds a component of not yet utilized complexity as it delves into relationships and how these women strategize. While they may not have the braun, they’ve got the courage, intelligence, and emotional strength that just may be stronger than any physical muscle, and it makes for a much more interesting story! Don’t worry, though. There’s plenty of action, a crash and explosion or two, and a bit of violence creating a perfect balance in this good old-fashioned heist film.

We meet Veronica and Harry (Neeson) as the happy couple, living a high-end life, loving one another. We quickly find that we are looking into the past and the current times are tragic for Veronica, Linda (Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) as their husbands have all died in a violent car chase as they attempted to evade police after stealing millions of dollars. Veronica, dealing with the loss of the love of her life, is soon visited by the man her husband was to give this money to…a debt she now owes. Presented with information by her driver if anything should happen to Harry, Veronica finds herself in a precarious position and the plans to her financial freedom in her hands.

Veronica, reaching out to the other women whom she has never met, leads them in planning an intricate heist. Alice, a victim of spousal abuse, has been bullied her entire life as we see from her mother’s (Jacki Weaver) interactions. Linda is the victim of a lying husband as we see her means of living taken away in a moment’s time thanks to back money owed to yet another criminal group of men. Belle (Erivo) lives in the projects with no hope of escape until she meets these women. They are an unlikely group and have all hit rock bottom which makes their decision to pull off this robbery easier. The story becomes an empowering one as we see these women gain confidence in themselves as well as trust and friendship in one another.

Davis, not surprisingly, is powerful in this role as leader, but it is her character’s vulnerability and past emotional turmoil that allows her to give her character greater depth. This could have easily been a flat and undeveloped role, but with Davis at the helm, she creates a character we care about and one with whom we can identify. Rodriguez is finally given a role that has more complexity to it than in the past, showing us that she is an engagingly capable actress. Debicki shines in her role as we witness her approaching a crossroads in her character’s life. And Erivo is a name that will soon become a household one with her genuine attributes rising to give her character meaning and life. She stood out in “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she is strikingly memorable in “Widows.” Additionally, the dialogue and interaction among the women is not at all far-fetched as you might expect in a film in this genre. There is a realistic connection that we immediately see in their interpersonal communication, from hesitancy and frustration to loyalty, these women embody the strength of what women are capable of in crisis.

The women couldn’t have created the remarkable characters without an extraordinary script by Flynn and McQueen and under McQueen’s capable direction. While we remember that it is a thriller filled with scenarios that are impossible, the actuality of some of the situations bring it closer to reality. This is created with politics and politics in Chicago do have a certain sordid reputation. The long-standing powerful family of the Mulligans give us exactly what is needed to make the story more credible. Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his son Jack (Colin Farrell) are the perfect old school politicians, hungry for money and power as they battle newcomers Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) with his lacky and little brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). Forget everything you loved about the sweet face of Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and be ready for a menacingly convincing performance from him.

“Widows” is an intense, complex, and exhilarating thriller that takes a chance with women as the lead. With remarkably strong performances, an incredible script, and deft direction, you begin to see that gender changes can make things more interesting…and sometimes even better.

Check out a few interviews I had with the stars at the Chicago International Film Festival!

Chuck and Pam review 4 films on WCIA’s Morning Show: CREED II, ROBIN HOOD, THE FRONT RUNNER, GREEN BOOK

November 23rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Chuck and Pam review 4 films on WCIA’s Morning Show: CREED II, ROBIN HOOD, THE FRONT RUNNER, GREEN BOOK”

With so many films being released, film critics Chuck Koplinski and Pamela Powell chose 4 films to review this week on WCIA’s Morning Show: “Creed II,” “Robin Hood,” “The Front Runner,” and “Green Book.” Warning: The gloves come off in one of these segments!

WCIA Segment 1

WCIA Morning Show

“Robin Hood” misses the mark

November 23rd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Robin Hood” misses the mark”

The story of the thief who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, aka Robin Hood, has been around for centuries, literally. In film form, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland continued the legend in 1938, and since that date, there have been a myriad number of pastiches keeping the legend alive for kids and adults alike.

Even Ridley Scott jumped on the bandwagon with his version starring Russell Crowe as Robin Hood, but alas, this was not the last, as co-writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly give director Otto Bathurst a chance to recreate the origins of the tale, starring Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) and Jamie Foxx (“Baby Driver”).

In the beginning of the film, the narrator advises us to forget history and all we thought we knew about the legend of Robin Hood. We need to understand it is a “… story of a thief, but not a thief that you know.”

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

The filmmakers behind “Patrimonio” at DOC NYC

November 16th, 2018 Posted by Film Festivals, Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “The filmmakers behind “Patrimonio” at DOC NYC”

Each and every year at DOC NYC Film Festival, the films are extraordinary, providing insight and knowledge about topics, many of which were previously unknown. This year, we have a classic David versus Goliath tale in Baja Sur Mexico thanks to the dedicated talent and determination of filmmakers Sarah Teale and Lisa F. Jackson with their film “Patrimonio.” The film takes us on a journey located in a quaint Mexican seaside village, Todos Santos, where American investors attempted to not only create a vacation paradise, but also destroy a way of life for local residents. This David versus Goliath story is filled with surprise twists and turns as we peel away the layers of political corruption spurned by greed. With devastating environmental consequences, the town, initially set into division, bands together, reminding us all of the power of persistence, knowledge, and belief in doing what’s right for the right reasons. It’s one of the most inspiring and gripping tales of how sometimes money can’t buy everything.

I had the pleasure of talking with the filmmakers to learn more about the making of this uplifting documentary. Their candid responses gives viewers even more appreciation for their relentlessness in depicting the situation, their own personalities, as well as this how this beautiful film and story came to be.

***** Warning: Spoiler Alerts Ahead, but all very happy ones! *****

Pamela Powell (PP): How did the two of you first become connected?

Sarah Teale (ST): Lisa and I both make documentaries for HBO and knew about each other for years but in 2011 I invited Lisa to visit us at our farm in upstate New York. I was starting a cooperative for grass fed beef farmers and Lisa started filming the farmers and edited them into short films for the new co-op’s web site. We then realized that this was a much larger undertaking and their stories said a lot about the state of our food systems today. So Lisa kept filming. The result was the documentary Grazers: A Cooperative Story, which also screened at DOC NYC.

Lisa F. Jackson (LFJ): Also, I had just finished three docs in a row about rape and sexual violence and I jumped at the chance to spend time in the Adirondacks with Sarah and her cows.

PP: How did you first hear about Tres Santos and then decide to document the citizens fight to regain control?

ST: My husband has owned a house in Todos Santos for 35 years and I have been going there for years. In 2015 he noticed a huge foundation wall being erected on the fishermen’s beach and we heard about plans for a massive mega development starting on the fishermen’s beach. We also heard that the fishermen were fine with this but we decided to go and ask them and that started a three year odyssey in which the fishermen led an ultimately successful fight to stop the development.

LFJ: Sarah and I were looking for another project to work on together and she invited me to visit Todos Santos in the winter of 2015 with an eye towards researching a film about the Sea of Cortez, but the real film was closer to home. That day on the beach we met fisherman Rosario Salvatierra and his rage and passion was contagious: we knew we had our main character and the beginning of a story.

PP: Your film is refreshingly unusual in that we truly have a happy ending in a documentary about human rights. This “David vs. Goliath” scenario could have gone either way. As you watched the events unfold, as I’m sure this is true with many documentaries, is your story line constantly changing as you’re editing it in your mind?

ST: We had no idea where this story was going and mostly dreaded that the outcome would be as it had been in Cabo San Lucas. Cabo is just an hour south of Todos Santos and the developers have totally taken over the community. As with any cinema verité film you take off after a story and hope that it will pan out. Lisa and I grew up in the HBO stable of filmmakers where Sheila Nevins allowed you the time and the space to follow a story until there is a logical end so that is what we did. We are both rather stubborn.

LFJ: There were many times over those years when it indeed looked like the fishermen – and their supporters – would be crushed by the devious and unscrupulous developers – but I just stuck with the fishermen, knowing that they were not going down without an epic fight.

PP: Tell me more about gaining access to the citizens in this community.

ST: I think at first the fishermen were just grateful that someone had come to ask them their opinion. After that they were grateful that we just stuck around. Lisa speaks perfect Spanish and soon picked up their particular accent and prodigious swear words and after a while they more or less forgot that she was there. Todos Santanians are on the whole very open and trusting and I think they just trusted us to tell their story.

LFJ: We told the fishermen straight up that we wanted to follow their fight and I just kept showing up, both at the beach and at their homes. Total immersion was the only way to get the intimate footage that Patrimonio required: long days on the boat with Rosario, long nights shooting the blockade, endless meetings and rallies and vigils and never knowing if the next day would bring an intimidating lawsuit or a devastating high tide, a new baby or the death of a patriarch. I felt in a way that the fishermen were cheered by the camera, that it was validating their resistance and that we were all in it together.

PP: What was one of the most surprising hurdles you encountered and how did you tackle it?

ST: Lisa was sued along with five other people. It is mentioned in the film but we left out her name. On several occasions the police arrived at our house to serve her papers. This could have meant serious jail time and a massive fine and was not something to take lightly even though it was based on nothing. John Moreno kept on top of the paperwork and filing the right counter arguments and Lisa registered with the US Consulate but the only way to tackle such hurdles from a personal point of view is to carry on and try not to be intimated. Not easy.

LFJ: John’s jail time was hairy for everybody but the four of us who – along with John – had been sued by the company and threatened with arrest couldn’t help but wonder if we were next. Mexico is not a safe place for journalists and keeping my focus in the face of that was tough at times. One hurdle we couldn’t overcome was the developers’ adamant refusals to be interviewed, but their despicable acts began to pile up and in the end that told us all we needed to know about them. Another hurdle was the heavy logistical load of living in New York City while shooting a film 3,000 miles away, a problem I solved two years ago by selling the apartment where I’d lived for 30 years and moving to Todos Santos!

PP: When John was arrested and detained for months, can you share with me what was your thought process about the film and your ability to continue?

ST: At the beginning we did not think that John’s jail time would last too long but it was shock to everyone when he was denied bail. But it was in fact a gift for the film and a gift for the fight. Everyone in town was horrified and the developers revealed who they really were and how the were connected both politically and to the judiciary. John’s arrest united the community in the fight and gave our film a focus and ultimately a rather joyous ending.

LFJ: John and his family are friends of mine, and his arrest sickened all of us: in Mexico activists are routinely “disappeared” and things could have gone very badly. But after a moment of stunned paralysis the fishermen – and the town – just ramped up the fight and those responsible for having him arrested knew that we were all watching. Not continuing was not an option.

PP: I’m sure that as a documentary filmmaker, it’s hard to stay removed from the situation at hand, especially when you’re witnessing injustices. As documentarians, can you share with me some of the more difficult moments in this particular film, to stay removed?

ST: We asked ourselves that question a lot throughout this film but sometime there is simply right and wrong and we knew which side right was. The developers could have done the right thing at any time but with every step they made things worse and hoped that their aggression, their money and their political connections would win, as it usually does in Mexico and the United States. But the people of Todos Santos are very independent minded and fierce that they wouldn’t give up so we didn’t either.

PP: What is the message you hope viewers and even other “Davids” (vs. “Goliaths”) to take away from your film?

ST: We feel that the fishermen’s fight and the tactics used by John Moreno offer a blueprint for other communities and other fights. The fishermen stood up for their legal and human rights and kept that mission front and center at all times. They appealed to universal values and backed it up with law and they used every available outlet to get their information and their truth out there – marches, brochures, meetings, social media and ultimately lawsuits.

LFJ: The fight against Tres Santos was a rolling snowball and I think the film shows how the fishermen’s concern about their beach became a cumulative and collective outrage against this threat to the town’s very existence. It only becomes a David v Goliath story when the underdog decides to pick up a rock and put it in their slingshot and the audacity that the fishermen showed in speaking truth to power was that rock. It’s a simple story, but a universal one.

PP: What is it about making documentaries that appeals most to you as a creative filmmaker?

ST: Nothing beats real life for good stories. Nothing. It is scary but I also love that you never know what is going to happen and when. As with life, you just have to roll with it and hope. I have always loved documentaries and always will and was inspired by the generation before us who essentially invented the form.

LFJ: I have been involved in documentary filmmaking ever since I left MIT film school in 1971 and my career has been one where every project has been an immersion in a different reality, and the challenge and thrill of that hooked me immediately. My mentor, Ricky Leacock, was one of the fathers of cinema verite and his great advice to me was “get closer”. It’s been my great privilege to have spent over 40 years with that as my job description.

PP: And finally, as female filmmakers, how do you see, if at all, the environment changing for women in this industry?

ST: Lisa and I were lucky enough to work for a very powerful and dedicated woman at HBO. Sheila Nevins has done more to promote documentaries than anyone ever and she always supported women but more than that she supported good filmmakers wherever she found them and good stories. That was all that mattered to her ultimately and that was both very freeing and very challenging – she wouldn’t commission you just because it was you but only if you could deliver a good film. There are more opportunities these days for women and that is a very good thing but they still have to deliver and that will always be the ultimate challenge.

LFJ: Women are more technically hands-on than ever before and fearless about picking up a camera and just doing it. Documentary filmmaking has always seemed more egalitarian than the world of Hollywood fiction and it’s thrilling to see so many women taking up the challenge of telling the female-focused stories that we’ve been missing, and they’re seeing the effect that those stories can have. In the 70’s when I was starting out I didn’t have any female role models but I now see many women mentoring other women and that makes me sanguine about how far we’ve come and where we’re headed.

It is with absolute gratitude that I give to both Teale and Jackson for not being intimidated and to deliver such a cinematically courageous and inspiring film. If you missed “Patrimonio” in NYC, you’ll be able to see it on DVD and VOD in March, 2019 via First Run Features.

“Instant Family” Combines humor and drama with perfection

November 16th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Instant Family” Combines humor and drama with perfection”

The topic of adoption and foster care conjures images of troubled and lost children, but thanks to Sean Anders (“We’re the Millers”), we have a completely new look at the topic. Starring Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg as Ellie and Pete, Anders creates a hilarious yet heartfelt story inspired by his own “instant family” experience.

Pete and Ellie live a comfortable life as they flip houses until one day, thanks to a competitive sister, Ellie happens upon an adoption website. The couple, humorously decide that perhaps they are special enough to take on parenting and attend classes and an adoption fair where they meet an intimidating teen named Lizzie (Isabela Moner). Impressed, yet scared, the couple find she has two younger siblings and invite them all to be a part of their home.

“Instant Family” takes us on an emotional and unusual journey as Pete and Ellie navigate the unknown waters of foster care and adoption. Attending meetings to learn how to be foster parents and know what to expect, we meet all the expectant parents. Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro play the roles of social workers, Karen and Sharon, with an open and honest depiction while playing off one another’s personalities to create levity during intense informational scenes. Anders allows the viewer to learn about the foster care system while we are entertained and laughing. As the parents all have their trials and tribulations with their own situations, Pete and Ellie initially find it all to be a piece of cake…until the honeymoon period is over.

Pete and Ellie are thrust into the chaos of family life, upending their comfortably predictable life, only to find themselves deeply connected with all three of these kids. Of course, parenting a teen is no piece of cake and the situations they must deal with range from appropriate clothing and boys to respect and trust. That’s not to mention the younger kids’ development, temper tantrums, and picky eating. All three kids are very different, challenging Pete and Ellie’s skills and making them question their decision to adopt.

The film is so much more than a basic comedy as it addresses the public’s perception of adoption in a brutally honest way. Ellie’s family creates much of this open discussion, candidly stating what most would never admit to thinking. This, of course, creates more discourse and allows the plot to move forward as the family must now allow the kids to interact with their birth mother who had been incarcerated.

This superb balance between drama and humor in the film is present from start to finish. Just as a situation pulls on your heartstrings and you’re about to cry, Anders finds a way to put a safety net beneath you and you find yourself laughing. It’s a roller coaster ride of comedy and drama as we watch these parents and kids become a family.

Wahlberg and Byrne are a perfect fit as a regular couple who find themselves in over their heads. They portray a couple who is not perfect and who know one another better than anyone. Spencer and Notaro go together like peanut butter and jelly, a perfect yin-yang of comedic style. Of course, the little ones, Gustavo Quiroz (Juan) and Julianna Gamiz (Lita) endear you to them immediately, but it is Moner’s portrayal of Lizzy that stands out in this film. Her authentic performance creates a dynamic and complex character who must find a way to deal with the harsh realities of life while protecting her siblings. We feel her anger and resentment and understand where it comes from while we watch her wrestle with emotions that are far too difficult for a child to tackle. This ensemble cast who attempts to be a family on screen convince you that they are truly just that—a family.

Adoption and foster care are serious issues, but thanks to Anders’ experiences as well as his masterful skills as a writer and director, we see one of the best depictions of adoption in film. In a recent interview with Anders, he too felt that films didn’t portray the process or the children in foster care accurately. “…most of the movies that focus on foster care are these gut-wrenching dramas that reinforce these [negative] stereotypes about these kids. … I wanted to tell a more complete story that doesn’t shy away from those difficult areas, but gets into all the laughter, love, and joy that’s very real in these situations.”

And you will laugh a great deal while you shed a few tears as you watch “Instant Family.” And watch for Joan Cusack’s cameo which of course is laugh out loud funny! The film is coincidentally opening in November which is National Adoption Awareness Month. To read the entire interview with Anders, go to THE DAILY JOURNAL.

Melissa McCarthy shines in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

November 15th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Melissa McCarthy shines in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?””

Truth is always stranger than fiction and this newest film from co-writer Nicole Holofcener and director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) confirms this adage. Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a forgotten author living in New York who discovers she possesses a lucrative skill–forgery of personal letters from past literary geniuses. With sophisticated sarcasm and a toxic personality, she somehow also forges a friendship with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and together, the unlikely pair rises and eventually suffers the consequences of their actions. It’s a beautifully layered story that digs beneath the surface, eloquently revealing who these two characters truly are.

We meet Lee living in squalor, a dark and filthy apartment where she and her cat spend each and every day. With her rent past due, she attempts to sell books to a used book store, not only rejected, but to have salt poured in the wound as she is bluntly reminded of her failures. Desperately seeking an advance on a new book from her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtain), we learn more about the shortcomings of this once successful author who no longer sees the world from her high horse.

Lee is desperate. Clinging on to her want to write a biography about Fannie Brice, she finds what will eventually be her demise…a letter written by Brice which Lee sells. Learning of its value, Lee begins to write several letters from various deceased authors. The “business” flourishes and her new-found drinking buddy, Jack, gets in on the action. Together, two lost souls and friendless, seemingly drifting through life looking in the rearview mirror fondly, find solace and comfort in one another.

The friendship between Hock and Israel is one of the most striking aspects of this story. A gay man seeing his life pass him by and a woman who is so guarded that she doesn’t even allow herself to see who she is. They do see one another quite clearly and like a volcano rumbling, there is bound to be an eruption. There’s another element of love in this film, a love that Israel begins to discover for a bookshop owner. This endears us to Israel as we begin to truly understand who she is and more importantly, why she is the way she is.

The story unfolds as if peeling away layers, one supporting another, complicated with subtle tones to bring you into the Israel’s life and emotions. The dialogue, richly textured and eloquent, accentuates the delicate artistry of the actors’ skills. McCarthy embodies this astute and troubled writer, giving a performance that is not only unmistakably authentic, but also memorable. She is a master of drama, keenly using her comedic understanding of human nature to deliver a complicated character that we can all relate to and love. And most importantly, she reminds us that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover–everyone has issues with which they are dealing. Grant, in his role as Jack Hock, brings the laughs and levity to the film, balancing the gravity of each of the main characters’ situations. Grant and McCarthy are unexpectedly magical in this film and of course, McCarthy’s real life hubby has a cameo as well.

The style of filming and coloring of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” brings us back to an era, particularly of NYC. There’s a certain grit and grain that allows us to feel the environment. The green and brown hues that overlay the story, bring us into the dimly lit bookshops and the seedy bar environment. And one of the final scenes in the film taking place in the courtroom, could have easily been overdone with Hollywood flare, but there are unexpected developments, and with precision camera work and direction, it elicits a response within that makes you want to stand up and cheer!

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a brilliant story of a gifted writer, Lee Israel, whose life took an unusual path due to dire circumstances. McCarthy and Grant push their acting skills to a new and profoundly memorable level thanks to the skillful direction of Marielle Heller and a script that would probably make Israel herself proud. This story, told from a perspective that allows us all to relate to Israel and her situation, is a remarkably engaging and captivating story that will make it a top film for me this year!

4 Stars

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” tangles James Bond with Super Hero

November 14th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Girl in the Spider’s Web” tangles James Bond with Super Hero”

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the American sequel to David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” with Claire Foy replacing Rooney Mara as the lead role of Lisbeth Salander.

If you were a fan of Steig Larsson’s Millennium book series, this is the fourth novel in succession, but written by David Lagercrantz after Larsson’s death. This newest film, written by Steven Knight (“Woman Walks Ahead”), and directed by Fede Alvarez (“Don’t Breathe”), stands alone as a story, but, unfortunately, there’s not much story to be told.

Lisbeth (Foy), after suffering years of sexual abuse and escaping, leaving her sister behind to be subjected to the years of future abuse by her father, is now an adult with a single mission: to rescue abused women and mete out punishment to their abusers.
To read the review in its entirety as it appeared in the Friday, November 9th edition of The Daily Journal, go here.

Surprising answers found in Gabe Polsky’s newest doc “In Search of Greatness”

November 2nd, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Surprising answers found in Gabe Polsky’s newest doc “In Search of Greatness””

What makes the greatest of all athletes great? Is it genetic or is it something else? Gabe Polsky’s newest documentary “In Search of Greatness” delves into this very question, one that has not been asked before, to find the answers which just might surprise you!

Polsky interviews the football phenomenon Jerry Rice, soccer star Pele, and the legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky to find out what makes them tick and rise to an unprecedented level of success. Their candid, confident, and frequently humble answers to Polsky’s pointed questions reveals the unexpected: these standout athletes are perhaps not that much different from you and I. In fact, the film shows that some of the past’s greats actually weren’t physically able to rise to the top, yet they did. The difference in these men, Polsky finds, is in their creativity and upbringing recognizing the necessity of this attribute. Of course, these men and women, in the case of the Williams sisters, are driven in a different way as well. Polsky also explores the mental motivation behind their success which is yet another intriguing discovery in the film.

Polsky artistically uses old footage from all of these athletes to demonstrate each athlete’s atypical style or creativity in their sport. We watch Marciano train and fight and we begin to understand how Gretzky became the confident and innovative player that to this day stands above them all. With this found footage interwoven between insightful and candid interviews, we begin to see a pattern; a connective line or lines drawn between top athletes. But more importantly, we see how we can introduce the concept of freedom of creativity into our own lives and our children’s for success.

There are plenty of surprises in the film, particularly when it comes to the importance of statistics and reactions to shortcomings of top athletes. In a recent interview, Polsky found many surprises as he delved into the topic. In fact, as he said, “If it’s in the movie, it means it was surprising to me. I’m not going to put anything in there that I’m bored with.”

“In Search of Greatness” also included interviews with authors Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: The Power of Being Creative,” and David Epstein, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletes. These authors, their observations, and their research combined with the athletes’ interviews, give us seemingly concrete answers to the question of what makes a great athlete great.

“In Search of Greatness” is an vividly entertaining exploration of developing the best athletes. Ironically, you don’t have to be a sports enthusiast to enjoy and glean life-changing information from the film. As Polsky chuckled, “If you see this movie and you come out the same person, there’s something wrong with you.” This film truly gives viewers the tools to help ourselves and most importantly, help our children reach their potential across any and all platforms.

“In Search of Greatness” opens in theaters Friday, November 2 in major cities. Polsky hopes that coaches, teachers, and parents will all go see this film, especially as a group and use the hashtag #takeyourteam.

To read the interview with Polsky, go to The Daily Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars

The remake of “A Star Is Born” Shines brightly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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