Posts in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

Watch the trailer here

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

Laverne Berry, Photo Credit: Nelson Walker III

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4/4 Stars

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

“Ready Player One” Fun-filled Easter Eggs

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

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

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

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

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

The prize? Halliday’s fortune and OASIS itself.

To read the review in its entirety, go to

THE DAILY JOURNAL

“All I Wish” finds life for overlooked demographic

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Unsane” is insanely thrilling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the review in its entirety, go to:

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

“Game Night” All Fun in Typical February Style

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

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

https://youtu.be/fNtLIcyjsnI

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of Sundance 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Slamdance Film Festival Highlights: An Exceptional Year

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

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

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

PICK OF THE LITTER:

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

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

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

QUEST:

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

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

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

COMPANY TOWN:

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

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

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

HUMAN AFFAIRS:

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

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

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

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

“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.

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