Posts in Review

“The Shape of Water” A cinematically beautiful love story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about the film, go to


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the interview, please go to

Razvan Stoica shares his thoughts about “Strad Style”

Check out more informaiton about Houck go to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Stars out of 4!

“Wonder” is a film for the season

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

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

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

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

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Extraordinary dark drama

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars


“Miracle on 42nd Street” an accidental success story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Murder on the Orient Express” with Kenneth Branagh conducting an all-star cast

November 9th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Murder on the Orient Express” with Kenneth Branagh conducting an all-star cast”

All aboard to see the newest rendition of “Murder On the Orient Express” based on Agatha Christie’s famed novel of the same name. If you haven’t read the book or seen the previous two movie versions from 1974 and 2001, you’re in for a mystery crime thriller filled with unexpected twists and turns that will derail your problem solving skills…in a wonderfully enjoyable way.

Detective Poirot (Branagh) must find who killed the disreputable antiquities dealer, Edward Rachett (Johnny Depp) aboard the snowbound train headed from Instabul to Europe. The deductive reasoning skills of this brilliant man are put to the test to find out “whodunnit.”

Kenneth Branagh takes a stab at directing and starring in the “Murder on the Orient Express,” written by Michael Green (“Blade Runner” “Logan”), using his keen sense of timing and theatrical background to punctuate the humor and elevate the surprise factor. Branagh portrays the most famous detective in the world (or so he says), Hercule Poirot with an all-star supporting cast: Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Michelle Pfeiffer who all shine brightly in their respective roles.

We are introduced to Poirot’s brilliant skills in the first scene as he solves the mystery of a stolen artifact. The accused are a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. (Yes, there’s a classic joke there that is comedically interwoven into the dialogue.) We get a glimpse into the astute observational skills of Poirot as well as his need for visual balance and symmetry—a key and humorous part of his skills and personality. The double mustache that dons his upper lip doesn’t go without a sprinkle of humor either. He’s not exactly a people person, but this just adds to his unique and intriguing personality.

Each of the characters are introduced to us much in the way we might see in a live theatrical production. From the strikingly gorgeous husband-seeking socialite Caroline Hubbard (Pfeiffer) to the judgmental, condescending, racist Professor Gerhard Hardman (Dafoe) and everyone in between, these unusual characters reveal just enough information to begin to put the puzzle together with the help of Poirot’s discerning eye. You feel as if you’re playing a live version of the board game Clue only to be surprised at the end.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is a captivatingly entertaining detective film, keeping you glued to the dialogue so as not to miss any integral clues. You feel as if you’re Poirot’s sidekick, wanting to solve the murder mystery with him. Paying close attention, the film speeds along as you enjoy every moment.

Branagh handles the dual role as lead actor and director with utmost skill—not an easy task. He’s a master at straight-man comedic timing while demanding precision performances from the rest of the cast. Having such seasoned and talented actors quite possibly makes the task less arduous, but make no mistake, Branagh’s signature style is evident in the final product of “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Cinematography is key in bringing the viewer into the tight spaces of a train compartment or hallway as overhead shots are used for a unique perspective of the events unfolding. Equally important is the panoramic and breathtakingly chilling views along the train’s passage, through mountains and valleys and as the avalanche cascades and crashes into the train. These perspectives engage the viewer visually, adding to the enjoyment.

Taking place in the 1930’s costuming is simply stunning, particularly since this is a wealthy person’s train. Dench, portraying a princess, not a stretch for her, is outfitted accordingly with rich velvets and Pfeiffer shows off the styles of the era, making you hope they will return.

“Murder on the Orient Express” brings you back in time to be a part of this murder mystery. Filled with just the right amount of humor, these larger-than-life characters create two hours of puzzle-solving entertainment. Branagh’s special theatrical touch along with a talented cast and crew make this a welcomed remake of a classic story and film.

“Last Flag Flying” meanders yet remains powerfully touching

November 9th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Last Flag Flying” meanders yet remains powerfully touching”

“Last Flag Flying” is Richard Linklater’s creation, co-writing and directing this statement piece about war and politics. Starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell, this gut-wrenching story about a father’s loss of his son in Iraq, is more mess than message.

Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Carell) shows up on bar owner Sal’s doorstep, reuniting the two after serving in Vietnam. There’s a certain quiet about Doc’s demeanor as the they reminisce. Seeking out their third buddy, Mueller (Fishburne) who has become a Baptist preacher, Doc reveals why he has come to them which then explains that quietness. He asks for their help in burying his son in Arlington National Cemetery.

What seems like a straightforward request becomes an ever-increasingly tangled web of missteps and misinformation leading to a road trip for the three men. There’s a hidden uncomfortable secret among them, haunting them for the past 30 years. Attempting to reconcile this with truth-telling is one of the goals along this adventure. Doc, a sweet, loving and simple man balances the two other extreme personalities. He has the devil, Sal on one shoulder, and an angel, Mueller on the other. The two counsel Doc in their very unique ways, both attempting to help their former Marine buddy.

The emotional devastation this film captures is undeniable. There can be nothing worse than losing a child. The film adds to Doc’s heartbreak  by creating military lies discovered and blunt conversations about the unnecessary wars and loss of young lives. It is no doubt that Linklater has a statement about this as the characters discuss Vietnam and all wars since. Whether you stand behind what the U.S. has done or not, the film becomes preachy and redundant.

Carell and Fishburne bring heart to their characters, but Cranston seems to be on stage performing with almost cartoon-like physicality.  This fun-loving alcoholic character is there for comedic relief as the story tackles a difficult topic.  Carell’s understated performance allows us to have  a true connection with him watching that dark cloud hovering over him.  Fishburne finds a way to balance the sullenness of Doc and the frenetic Sal and shines when he’s delivering humorous responses.  While there are some laugh out loud moments, the story, unfortunately, meanders too much, setting up ridiculous situations and repetitive conversations about race and religion stemming from Sal’s lack of social skills.

The saving grace of the film is its ability to communicate the bond between the Marines as a group. We learn about Doc’s son’s state of mind while he was in Iraq. We hear from his best friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) about the camaraderie in their troop. It’s insightful and we genuinely comprehend their position. It is this aspect of the film and getting to know more about this dead soldier that creates a powerfully touching film. “Last Flag Flying” starts out strong and ends on a remarkably moving note, but the guts of the film lack direction. A 20-minute edit would have done wonders for this film.

Never having served in the military, it is difficult for me to judge how this will be interpreted by veterans or those currently serving.  The film makes a statement using Sal as the mouthpiece to identify lies and deceit by the government, politicians, and the military.  But it also shows the bond that is never broken among men.

2 1/2 Stars


“Lady Bird” is just the beginning of Gerwig’s career in the director’s chair

November 8th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Lady Bird” is just the beginning of Gerwig’s career in the director’s chair”

Greta Gerwig, the meek and mild mannered actress whose signature style has landed her great supporting and lead roles in the acclaimed films “20th Century Women” and “Jackie” among many more makes her writing and directing debut and she’s knocking it out of the park. “Lady Bird,” stars Saoirse Ronan as the impetuous teen ready to leave the nest. Struggling with her family’s financial abilities to provide her the opportunities she so very much wants and her lack of dedication in the high school classroom, Lady Bird aka Christine attempts to figure out life and her future. Her senior year adventures take us all down memory lane, creating a poignantly funny and meaningful story.

The first scene sets the tone for the entire film. Lady Bird (Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are driving down the road discussing college plans and visits. What starts out as a nice conversation, quickly escalates and Lady Bird exits the conversation by opening up the car door and literally bailing. At once horrifying, but at the same time hilarious, we, as mothers or daughters have all been there. It’s the amplification of the classic eye roll.

The film is seen through Lady Bird’s eyes as she makes every attempt to leave her middle class California suburban life and go to edgy New York City for college. Pumping up her academic profile, she joins the theater group, but weighing out her new-found options, she ditches best friends and travels down a new, accelerated path. Along the way, she loses her virginity, discovers secrets, and constantly tugs and tears at those apron strings. It’s all part of growing up, and “Lady Bird” beautifully portrays this difficult and very important time.

The writing and the dialogue set this film apart from anything we’ve seen this year. The relationships, particularly with her mother and father are developed with a richness and sincerity that bring these characters into a sense of reality. She’s closer with her father than her mother, yet Lady Bird is a typical teen with her unending judgmental and explosive reactions. She’s still learning about life, obviously, but it is her growth as a young adult that is sheer beauty to watch unfold.

Gerwig’s skillful direction of seasoned actors gives the film charm and depth. Ronan transforms herself into a young Gerwig, complete with the same speech patterns and body language we’ve seen from Gerwig in the past. Ronan embodies a typical teen giving a nuanced performance that allows us to understand her and perhaps even ourselves many years ago. Tracy Letts is Larry, Lady Bird’s father who has hit upon hard times with work. He’s also the peacekeeper in the family as Lady Bird and her mother don’t see eye to eye…on anything. Being a parent is one of the most difficult jobs and both Letts and Metcalf exemplify the emotional tug of war that children make us play. Metcalf’s character is tough yet beneath that hardened exterior, we know she loves her daughter and is doing the best she can. Her words are harsh, cutting through Lady Bird’s delicate psyche with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. The damage is done, but with the softness and understanding of Lett’s character, there’s a chance for healing.

LadyBird’s friendships are key to her growth as she falls in and out of love with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) and Danny (Lucas Hedges), but it is her best friend Diana (Laura Marano) who takes the brunt of Lady Bird’s fallout as she gets dumped for the sake of the popular girls.  Lady Bird is in constant inner turmoil, wrestling with right and wrong, good and bad, and attempting to set and achieve her goals.  Everything she experiences reminds us as to why we would never in a million years go back to those high school days!

“Lady Bird” is a feel-good, coming of age movie that any teen or parent can relate to on many different levels. The heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking growth we witness in all of the characters will engage your very soul. Gerwig is making a huge impact with her debut film and I look forward to seeing whatever her sophomore attempt may be.

To watch an interview from the Austin Film Festival with Gerwig by Linda Lerner of, go to the interview

“Ask the Sexpert” a part of the DOC NYC fest

November 6th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ask the Sexpert” a part of the DOC NYC fest”

If you thought your parents were sexually repressed when it came to having “the chat,” wait till you see how various parts of India cope with teens and the sex talk.  Dr. Mahinda Watsa, an 93 year old sex advice columnist and former gynecologist, writes for the Mumbai Mirror, helping teens everywhere understand the basics of sex.  While he’s a bit of a celebrity in those parts of the world, his words of wisdom aren’t always welcomed. “Ask the Sexpert” takes us into Dr. Watsa’s life as we learn about his endeavors, those that he helps, and some of the resistance he encounters.

Vaishali Sinha directs this unique film as she opens more doors for conversation involving sex.  Dr. Watsa has been writing this sex advice column on a daily basis for the past 9 years.  He is known far and wide in India, a bit of a celebrity in many parts, and candid interviews show people gushing over him, taking selfies, and readily identifying through giggles, the page on which  his daily column appears.

We are introduced to Dr. Watsa as he sees patients (aka those needing direct answers to problems in the bedroom) and hear him read a variety of questions from the community, answering them with an honesty and wit that we might find unexpected for someone his age. Tackling topics from birth control to masterbation and homosexuality to virginity, Watsa has written and talked about it all.  Touring the country, Watsa talks with those who will listen and we, the viewer, are privy to the extraordinary gratitude teens, Millenials, and older adults exhibit.

Much of this film, on the exterior, is simply hilarious as the questions asked seem ridiculous, but it’s also very sad that these old wives tales continue to perpetuate false information among the next generation.  Questions such as Are two condoms better than one? and “How can I ascertain if the girl is a virgin?” as a young man is being pushed by his family to marry.   His answer to the latter question is an indication of his wit, insight and understanding of the equity of the sexes…”I suggest you don’t get married.  Spare any poor woman of your suspicious mind.”

Dr. Watsa’s editors and assistants are fully engaged in helping to educate the country where many areas have banned sex education.  He also has  adversaries who accuse him of contributing to the moral decline of India.   While the film addresses Watsa’s efforts to educate teens, we also see how helpful he is in helping those in marital distress.  Adults’ lack of understanding is a direct result of little information and the cycle perpetuates itself.

Watsa has seen it all and has answers to it all as well.    Equality between the sexes is also at stake and Watsa has a keen understanding of the need for women’s rights and needs, even in the bedroom.  His no-nonsense style as he lays it all on the line eloquently yet with candor and humor, allows others to gain a new understanding of the importance of sex and the true connection it can have in a relationship.

“Ask the Sexpert” captures Watsa and his role in India’s sexual revolution.  Perhaps “revolution” is too strong of a word…informed community may suit this better.  But Watsa’s age, as he is now in his 90’s,  is  of concern to his own children.   The film also delves into Watsa’s personal relationships, regrets, and hopes allowing us to understand this remarkable and giving man, but also shows us that everyone can learn  from his wisdom as he looks at life in the rear view mirror.

Even in the U.S., sex is still a conversation that most parents dread having with their kids…it’s not limited to India or Indian communities.  While access to accurate information is perhaps more readily available here, Sinha’s “Ask the Sexpert” may just open doors around the world to talk more freely about sex and educating teens and young adults.  His straightforward attitude and understanding of human nature is as refreshing as it is inspiring.

To see this film on Monday, Nov. 13 or Wednesday, Nov. 15 at DOC NYC, go to TICKETS AT DOC NYC

“Thor: Ragnorak” Humor can’t save CGI monotony

November 3rd, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Thor: Ragnorak” Humor can’t save CGI monotony”


If ever there was a perfect match of actor and director, Chris Hemsworth and Kenneth Branagh in “Thor” was it … or so I thought.

Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) sits in the director’s chair after the rather disappointing 2013 sequel “Thor: The Dark World,” attempting to bring the series back to life. But while Waititi’s unique wit and personality are evident, an overwhelming amount of CGI bogs down what could have been the next “Deadpool” of superhero films.

Hemsworth returns to carrying the entire galaxy’s future on his strong, chiseled shoulders. The opening scene shows him in a caged basket chatting with a “friend” made of bones on the other side, recounting his past endeavors and how he finds himself in his current predicament. His matter-of-fact tone accompanied by perfectly-timed stunts provides exactly the punch needed. He then spins around slowly in a circle, dangling on a chain, trying to talk with the evil character before him. Apparently, Thor likes to maintain eye contact while talking and has to wait for a complete rotation before continuing his dialogue. This jarringly hilarious situation knocks the intimidating pace out of his opponent, giving the audience time to laugh and him to prepare to fight.

 This is most certainly Waititi’s touch, and we see these off-kilter situations occur throughout much of the film, thanks to new characters: Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Topaz (Rachel House), Skurge (Karl Urban) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). To read the rest of the review as printed in the Friday, November 3rd edition of The Daily Journal go to THE DAILY JOURNAL

“LBJ” Woody Harrelson’s most subtle and nuanced performance yet

November 2nd, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““LBJ” Woody Harrelson’s most subtle and nuanced performance yet”


Rob Reiner is sitting comfortably back in the director’s chair for the historical depiction of LBJ starring an almost unrecognizable Woody Harrelson as the lead role.  The film takes place from 1959 through 1963, just beyond that fateful day in Dallas, Texas when JFK was assassinated. 

We get to know the powerful man who was the Senate Majority Leader after losing his party’s nomination for presidency.   Reluctantly he becomes the Vice President under JFK and it is during these crucial years, watching him manipulate the good ol’ boys club and delicately deal with big business and the racial tensions, that we see who LBJ truly is.  He’s  strong and unyielding on the outside, but as the story shows,  he so desperately wants to be loved.  The story unfolds to reveal LBJ’s realization of the importance of a positive legacy.  We watch him change before our eyes as he understands the burden of the future quite literally in his hands.  His views on civil rights initially are self-serving, but ultimately, he is a champion of this new proposed law.  We are truly connected to LBJ, the person, understanding who he was as President of the United States.

Unlike many historical films, it is emotion that is the underlying current of “LBJ.”  The facts are laid out for us, but the interpretation of pivotal situations and LBJ’s perception that is readily written on his face, his eyes indicating feelings of sorrow, fear, frustration, and even lack of confidence.  Keying into his tumultuous relationship with the younger Kennedy brother, Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), gives us yet another dimension of difficulty in the White House with LBJ.  It feels much like the old regime versus the new, young vs. old, neither really respecting the other.  In the political arena, LBJ was a formidable man as we witness what happens behind closed doors.  But it’s the final chapter of the film, the changing of the guard, that is most intriguing.  We are witnessing this on a personal note, not from a protected and filtered distance.

“LBJ” is one of Harrelson’s most subtle performances giving life to this rather scorned and perhaps misunderstood president.  He simply shines in this role that just might grant him an Oscar nod come January, 2018.  The makeup that transforms Harrelson into LBJ is a bit distracting, but not enough to take you out of the situation. 

Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays “Lady Bird” with reserved eloquence and heart, showing her strength, influence, and support of her husband…exactly what we would expect.  Unfortunately, Jeffrey Donovan’s wooden characterization of JFK, one of the most charismatic presidents in history, slows the pace of the film, pulling you out of an engaging scene.  While he resembles JFK, Donovan needed more energy and understanding of his role.  Richard Jenkins gives an exceptional performance as the Southern Senator Russell who we love to hate and Bill Pullman’s character of Ralph Yarborough is believable as the upstanding Senator in an ordinarily corrupt system.

Stylistically, “LBJ’s” non-linear story-telling style allows us to see their future, the day of the assassination and then transports us back in time to gain a better understanding of their thoughts and reasons behind decisions.  With succinct writing from Joey Hartstone, archival television footage, and facts from the times, Reiner uses his skills to give viewers not only a beautiful historical film, but an entertaining and enlightening one as well.

3 Stars

“Big Time” Changes The Big Apple and Architectural History

November 1st, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Big Time” Changes The Big Apple and Architectural History”

The New York City skyline will never be the same after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, but Danish-born architect Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG are bringing a new sense and light to the infamous skyline, including the now completed project VIA W57 and a proposed project at 2 World Trade Center.  The young architect is the feature of a new documentary, “Big Time” in which we learn about this avant-garde man who sees roadblocks as nothing more than new challenges to overcome.  Covering a 6-year time period, we are privy to visits with his parents and their inside stories, meetings at the proverbial drawing board, as well as personal and professional insights from Bjarke.  Getting to know him allows you to appreciate his work in a new light—it’s so much more than just brick and mortar. 


Director Kaspar Astrup Schroder takes us on this journey as we are introduced to Ingel’s parents at their flat-roofed home in Denmark.  It seems that  as a youngster, he got into trouble for playing on this great roof-top surface which may have been the cornerstone of his architectural career.  Recalling this incidence, Ingels said, “To me, it was a huge waste to have this awesome roof.  You had a great view up there.  It was unfair and a waste of resources. I think that inspired me in terms of our architecture.”  He continued, “Getting the most joy out of the area you have and letting life roam free…” 

This appreciation of life’s joys continued on through his young adult years, and as his parents indicated, he wasn’t exactly motivated in school.  His love was creating comic books,  but his parents knew this wasn’t going to happen.  Seeing him lay around and attend a few too many parties, they took matters into their own hands and “helped” him apply to an architectural school.  The rest, as they say, is not history because he’s still creating it in some of the most exciting, innovative, and of course, fun ways! 

To date, Ingels has completed extraordinarily unusual buildings in Denmark, utilizing unexpected elements yet retaining the functionality of the building.  The film captures in real time the process of design, the coordination with clients, and the bumps in the road.  We get inside the mind of this talented architect as he shares the ups and downs of the creative process as well as the actual nuts and bolts of building and living life.  Imagine presenting to a client that their clean energy building, just for the fun of it, will also puff out rings of steam or have a ski slope because Denmark doesn’t have any mountains.  Fun is what this talented architect is about as he incorporates life and living into his work’s final product.

The film follows Ingels to New York City as we witness how this town truly will become the “Big” Apple with his incredible changes to the skyline.  Blending together his sense of community, nature and the aesthetics demanded of high rise buildings in New York, this exceptional architect integrates every possible aspect at every level.   Working on the W57, a pyramidal shaped building capturing light, creating open space, and dramatically changing views from every direction, Ingels runs into licensing issues as well as material choice differences as he attempts to bring his “courtscraper” to fruition.  He’s tenacious, inciting a sense of stalwart determination that is as inspiring as it is endearing.  But then a health issue arises, life ticks by as he hits the ripe old age of 40 and he reflects upon where he is and where he hopes to be as well as what he has not yet accomplished. 

Ingel’s candid manner allows us an intimate look at one of the most revolutionary architects since Mies van der Rohe.  He takes us on his personal journey, learning about what makes him tick and who has inspired him.  Each completed project brings a smile to your face, making you anticipate what might come next.  His creativity seems limitless.  “Big Time” will make you look at every city’s skyline and even your own home in a different and more enlightened way. 

“Big Time” will be released in the Big Apple on Dec. 1 at the Landmark 57, one of Ingel’s designs and will screen as a part of DOC NYC on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 9:15 pm and Thursday, Nov. 16 at 10:30 am.  For more information about tickets for DOC NYC, go to DOCNYC.NET/FILM/BIG-TIME

FACES PLACES Endearing cinematic artistry that will make you smile from start to finish

October 23rd, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “FACES PLACES Endearing cinematic artistry that will make you smile from start to finish”

What happens when a 33 year-old photographer and an 89 year-old director team up together?  The answer, sheer beauty in the most humanistic way possible.  JR is a Parisian-born photographer who, thanks to a found camera in the NYC Subway, is now a muralist.  He crossed paths with an eccentric and equally innovative French filmmaker, Agnes Varda to create one of the most charming and heartwarming documentaries I have had the pleasure of viewing.  Their adventures as they travel the countryside, meeting everyday people and transforming their faces into works of art, allow us to see humanity and the world through a different lens…a most beautiful lens.

Through a light-hearted introduction, we see how these two very different people came together.  The process by which they develop this documentary is as casual and spontaneous as the trips they take.  Armed with a camera, specialized truck with scaffolding, and a small crew, their road trips bring them to small towns with histories and memories to share through the art of murals.  Some of the towns and people they encounter bring back fond memories for Agnes as we, too, join in their road trip down memory lane.  The film captures the “here and the now” just as beautifully as it does the past as we see giant murals of faces transforming old buildings into treasured pieces of art.  We are a part of the farm whose goats have horns and the farmer who farms 2000 acres by himself as well as the miners’ homes which are slated for demolition and all of the everyday people who are the faces of these places.  While taking this physical journey, there is also an emotional one that takes place as Agnes and JR get to know one another.  Their bond and connection has such great depth that mere words cannot describe it…but the film, as it captures their expressions, aptly does so.

“Faces Places” is a transformative piece of cinematic art that reminds us of the importance of others and how we see the world.  As JR, the sunglass wearing hat-donning hipster and Agnes, the woman with bicolored hair, connect, we, the viewer, develop a deep connection with each of them as well.  We admire their skills, insights, and unique perspectives about life.  And we wait with bated breath for the next topic of art to be found and the mural to be completed.  It is with awe that each piece is unveiled all the while being reminded that nothing is permanent.

Unlike most documentaries, this one finds a way to have not just one narrative, but two.  While the artwork that is completed is the driving force of the film, the secondary and perhaps even more important story is that of JR and Agnes’ relationship and what hopes she still looks most forward to— introducing her friend, Jean-Luc Godard to her new friend JR.  Her wonderfully rich past is as clear as a bell, but her future is a bit blurry.  With the prospects of eventually totally losing her sight, the kindness JR shows her by helping her to see is simple, yet so emotionally complex.

“Faces Places” is a rich and endearing journey that made me smile from the very beginning to the final scene.  Its engaging topics and unique form of creativity reminds us of the beauty of everyone and everything, never taking it for granted and treasuring our memories.  This is true cinematic art.

FACES PLACES opens on Friday, October 27th at The Music Box Theatre located at 3733 North Southport Ave. For further information, please visit  

"American Made" is Cruise’s best role yet

September 27th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “"American Made" is Cruise’s best role yet”


“American Made” gives Tom Cruise the role of a lifetime and it just might be his best performance yet.  With an amazing script based on the incredulous events of Barry Seal’s life as a TWA Airline pilot turned CIA recognizance pilot, then drug smuggler for the biggest drug cartel in the world, which turned into an additional job as gun runner to “help the war effort,”  the film takes us on Seal’s journey, seen from his perspective.  Reminicent of “Argo,” but with ironic humor and gripping action, “American Made” gives us a history lesson and an exciting adventure story that happens to be real.


We meet Seal (Cruise) as the successful yet bored airline pilot whose mundane job has a little spark to it as he smuggles illegal Cuban cigars throughout the U.S.  The CIA catches him in an awkward exchange that becomes the beginning of his life in government and of crime.  The two, it turns out, are not separate.  As one of the best pilots the CIA has ever had, his “responsibilities” grow, but his paycheck does not—typical government job.  Meeting a group of youngbarrypilot  entrepreneurs from Columbia (Pablo Escobar, et al) Seal sees a way to increase revenue and enables this drug cartel to grow exponentially, becoming President Reagan’s number one target.  The Iran-Contra Affair is at the heart of this film and little-known writer Gary Spinelli gives us the blow by blow in one of the most entertaining styles possible.


In “American Made,” there are no “good guys.”  There are bad guys and worse bad guys.  Told from Seal’s viewpoint, we definitely have sympathy for him as we see how one bad choice spirals out of control.  Greed seems to be at the heart of the motivation, but when you have to “rake up” the money that’s blowing around your yard after yoAmericanMadeEW2017-550x425ur dog digs it up, how much is enough?  While Seal may not be the brightest bulb in the box, he is a survivor and he loves his family, but the stakes grow ever higher.  The tension builds in the viewer as we want this guy to make it out.  We all know the story, but if you don’t it’s even more gripping.


Spinelli and director Doug Liman choose to tell the story in non-linear form as Seal has video taped his recounting of his life, looking back to the very beginning.  Intermittently, tbarryphonehese recordings appear enabling viewers to fill in all the missing pieces of the puzzle.  His interaction with the Contras, the Sandinistas, the Columbians, and the power of circle within these organizations.  Humor is found, generally in ironic situations or unexpected dialogue, with his wife (Sarah Wright) who is loving, but not trusting, and can see right through her husband.  The small town of Mena, AK that the Seal family moves to just before a police raid on their house in Louisianna, has it’s own characters that turn a blind eye to the events taking place under their noses.


It’s a near perfect script with the concise writing and acting, but the action just puts this film over the top.  Flight scenes (all performed by Cruise) make your heart skip a beat and you find yourself pushing back in your own seat as Seal attempts to take off from too short of a landing strip.  Cruise is stellar in this role where he is  the center of the film and not one scene takes place without him.  He is a seasoned actor who understands that there’s more to a character than being one-dimensional.  Cruise nails it with his portrayal of Seal.  This brilliant performance allows other characters to shine equally as bright including Domhnall Gleeson, a member of the CIA and Seal’s boss, Wright as the tough spouse, and Caleb Landry Jones as JB, the dimwitted brother-in-law.   I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the shocking look-alikes of George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer) and Oliver North (Robert Farrior) in their younger years.  We even get real footage of Nancy Reagan and her husband addressing the public about the War on Drugs and the “Just Say No” campaign.



“American Made” is an intensely entertaining historical recounting of a controversial era, uncovering and implicating high level officials in carrying out illegal actions seen from the viewpoint of Pilot Barry Seal.  It’s a thrilling film that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you get to know this man and understand his situation.  You even get a tutorial about the Iran-Contra Affair.  What more could you ask for in a film?




"Victoria & Abdul" Reunites Dench and Frears for historical harmony

September 26th, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “"Victoria & Abdul" Reunites Dench and Frears for historical harmony”

victoria poster

Stephen Frears is no stranger to depicting history on film or working with Judi Dench.  From “Philomena” to their newest collaboration, “Victoria & Abdul,” the pair are reunited to bring us a touchingly sweet and previously unknown true story.  In this film, Queen Elizabeth (Dench) befriends an Indian clerk, Abdul (Ali Fazal) who becomes her closest confidant and teacher, much to her family’s chagrin.  With the same artistic and emotional hand that garnered Oscar buzz for “Philomena” and  “Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Meryl Streep, Frears brings Shrabani Basu’s book and Lee Hall’s screenplay to life, allowing us to better know a key woman in history.


“Victoria & Abdul” takes us back to an era when British Royalty ruled the India and the Queen busied herself with unmemorable dinner events complete with special presentations.  One presentation included a ceremonial coin from India, presented by two clerks who were shipped to England especially for this event.  Abdul was chosen for no other reason than that he was tall.  His height changed the course of his life, and the Queen’s, forever.  Given strict instructions to never make eye contact during the presentation, Abdul inadvertently does so and there is an immediate connection of curiosity and kinship.  As time goes by, the Queen brings him into her inner circle, defying and challenging her entire staff and her self-serving grown children.  The prejudice and misundvictoriaabduljellyerstandings of those that surround the Queen accentuate her wisdom and intelligence.  She is progressive and a bit of a Renaissance woman as she finds a new lease on life—learning, laughing, and loving a new friend.

The story carries a heavier weight than just a sweet story about unlikely friends for many reasons.  First, it’s a true story based on Abdul’s diary found in 2010.  To imagine this high-powered woman having the openness and bravery to go against the grain in that time period is simply inspirational.  We learn about the personality of a woman that most of us think of only as an imprint on a coin.  While there are certainly parts of the story filled in with poetic license, the overall essence is that the Queen was revitalized thanks to the friendship of this kind man who cared deeply for her as a human being.  Secondly, and most unfortunately, that open-mindedness was not seen among any of the staff or her family and their ill-will toward Abdul and the Queen was shocking yet familiar in today’s society.  As our own misunderstandings of different ethnicities and religions are repugnantly evident, so too was it back in the early 1900’s.  Lack of knowledge was the key downfall, particularly as it relates to the Muslim religion…and this still holds true today.

As we are plunged into the breathtaking wealth and pageantry of royalty, we watch Dench in this role, knowing that it must have been written with her in mind as she seems to be  channeling the spirit of the beloved and feared Queen.  She skillfully portrays  this initially disinterested and bored woman who just gets through the day.

victoria-abdul-832064You feel her resentment and disappointment in life and love, but after meeting Abdul, she creates a subtle yet detectible twinkle in her eye.  She changes inwardly and  we grow to love this old woman as she reveals a greater part of herself.  Fazal fits the role of Abdul like a glove, truly embracing the characteristics of a gracious man from India.  The two together are simply magnetic, creating an energy force that is captivating.  His calm demeanor settles the Queen and her need to learn is quenched with Abdul’s far-reaching skills, particularly with languages.  It feels as if neither actor is actually acting—it’s an organic and genuine connection.

Of course, there’s humor in this film.  Dench is a master, well, at everything, but she uses her natural talents to convey humor at just the right moments.  With a wink of an eye or a pause in her speech, she makes us chuckle and therefore, connect with her character.  While we learn of the history during that time period and bask in the glory of the gorgeous costuming and elegance of the era, these are all secondary.  They are important to transporting us to England and India in the early 20th century, but at the heart of this film is two unlikely people who connect on a different and higher level.  The lessons they learn are ones that we could all use to make our current world and future history a more pleasant one.

The one drawback to the film is that the characters seem to be either all good or all bad, giving it a “Disney” effect.  The script, at times, is a bit too sappy, but somehow, with Dench and Frears, that is forgiven and we can look beyond that and just enjoy the story.

“Victoria & Abdul,” thanks to Frears direction and a stellar cast, is a wonderfully enjoyable film that will lift your spirits and teach you a little bit about history and perhaps even open your eyes to the way we treat others.  History doesn’t have to repeat itself.  (Bring some tissues.)



"Brad’s Status" is Stiller’s finest performance

September 22nd, 2017 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “"Brad’s Status" is Stiller’s finest performance”

brad poster

Mike White (“Enlightened,” “Beatriz at Dinner” and “School of Rock”) writes and directs one of the most poignant relationship films in decades. Starring Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams as father and son, the two take a trek from California to Massachusetts to tour prestigious universities. Filled with daydreams of what could have or would havebrad's status mike white been, this exceptionally powerful and entertaining film is a raw and honest look into what we all think but would never admit.


Brad (Stiller) and his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) lead a comfortable life with their teenage son, Troy (Abrams) in California.  It’s not lavish, it’s comfortable and as Brad and

Jenna lie in bed, discussing finances, it’s immediately obvious that Brad is not only questioning where he currently stands in life, but if he has made any correct decisions along the way.  In other words, he’s going through a mid-life crisis, but much of it is taking place deep within his mind and we, as viewers, are privy to his every thought and his imagination.


The film takes us on an external and internal journey of life as Brad and Troy fly from California to the East Coast to tour Brad’s alma mater, Tufts, and the other, the prestigious Harvard.  Each and every step along the way, Brad drifts into his imagination, comparing himself to his very successful college buddies brads-status-stillwho have made all the “right” decisions in life.  Keeping up with the Joneses, according to Brad’s imagination, has never been so difficult.  During this father-son trip, Brad does a little growing up, reconnecting with his younger hopes and dreams, and reflecting thoughtfully on his accomplishments.  At times, it appears that Troy is more grown up than his father, but then, as we all know, Troy hasn’t had time to develop doubts!


The process of growing up in “Brad’s Status” isn’t without growing pains.  In fact, these pains are awkwardly uncomfortable with cringe-worthy decisions, but wonderfully humorous.  The creative edge that this film has is reminiscent of Stiller’s other film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” as he plunges deeply into the waters of his make-believe life for himself and for others.  He imagines life without Melanie, life with two gorgeous college girls, running along the beach in Hawaii, much like he imagines his friend Billy (Jermaine Clement) to do on a daily basis.  The situations are endless creating a myriad number of comedic scenarios, but always touching upon the reality of what we all do in the privacy of our heads.  We truly get know Brad as he narrates his thoughts and dreams.


“Brad’s Status” expertly portrays what we are all thinking and feeling at this particular stage in our lives.  It’s honest.  It states the harsh, ugly, comparative thoughts none of us would dare to own up to.  His insecurities and jealousies undermine his own successes, but at the heart of this film is the beautiful relationship between Brad and Troy and discovering what’s really important in life.


Stiller is exceptional in bringing White’s eloquent words to life.  While he’s known more for his over-the-top comedic roles such as “White Goodman” in “Dodgeball,” he shows us the extraordinary depth and talent to give us one of the most powerful portrayals of an everyday guy.  Abrams equals Stiller’s skills and the two could easily be father and son on an emotional level.  Abrams performance is perfection as he comfortably demonstrates his frustration with and love of his father.  The balance is unparalleled.  The cast is full of great cameos including Martin Sheen, Jeanine Clement and Luke Wilson, portraying characters in Brad’s life and his imaginary one as well.


“Brad’s Status” is a sincere exploration into how we perceive one another and the pressures we place on ourselves for “success” as we age, losing our youth and perhaps opportunities.  It’s a creative and honest film that reminds us all what’s truly important in life making Brad’s Status is one of the best and well-balanced films of the year!


"The Gangster’s Daughter" to open the Asian Pop-Up Cinema Fall Festival

September 20th, 2017 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on “"The Gangster’s Daughter" to open the Asian Pop-Up Cinema Fall Festival”


On Wednesday, September 20th at 7 pm, the 5th season of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema Fall Festival opens with a charming, bitter-sweet thriller, “The Gangster’s Daughter.”  Directed by Mei-Juin Chen and starring Ally Chiu as Shaowu and Jack Kao as Kiego, the film brings to life a complicated father-daughter story.  Shaowu is a teen, living with her grandmother whengangstersdaughterdad her mother suddenly dies.  Shedding not a tear, a renewed interest in getting to know her father surfaces and the two, estranged for years, are reunited.  The life of a small-time gang leader isn’t exactly the perfect home to raise a teen daughter, but we can’t pick our family.  Shaowu struggles to fit in to her new home and school in Teipei, a drastic change from the remote area of Kinmen.  She longs to identify with her father, fully understanding exactly what he does for a living and using that information to help her fit in.  As any father would do, he sticks up for his daughter, but perhaps in ways most of us wouldn’t fathom.

The characters are wonderfully complex.   We truly get to know this mob boss, his own insecurities, and most importantly his love for his daughter.  Wanting her to be nothing like him, he attempts to guide her, but Shaowu admires him and wants to be his mirror image.  And Shaowu is a typical teen, looking for her identity, but this is complicated by her familial situations.  As they get to know one another, Kiego begins to understand that perhaps a life of crime isn’t in his future, especially when his boss begins to deal drugs.  Even he has a moral boundary that he will not cross.  Juggling his current situation while raising his daughter is profoundly difficult and the dangers are clearly evident.

Chiu is extraordinary in her role as tthegangstersdaughter-1600x900-c-defaulthe tough yet emotionally delicate and needy teen.  Kao personifies a dangerous and intimidating mob boss, but easily lets us see his sweet side just with his smile and a twinkle in his eye.  It is the two actors together that is wonderfully engaging.  They respond to one another with a deep love that only a father and daughter could have.  We grow to love and care about both of them as we watch their relationship develop.  There is something very special about a father and daughter that seems intangible, yet Chiu and Kao find a way to beautifully portray this.

Cinematically, the film is gorgeous.  Chen pays careful attention to every scene to bring us closer to the subjects, allowing us to feel the depth of emotion.  With precision editing, we are truly connected to these characters.  Chen orchestrates an engaging albeit unusual story with all of her filmmaking tools.  Telling a meaningful father-daughter story is no easy task and weaving into the story an element of violence heightens your every sense.

“The Gangster’s Daughter” is an expertly crafted film with extraordinary performances from Chiu and Kao.  While it is stereotypically violent (it is a gangster movie), there are many other elements to give the story charm, wit, and love all in perfect balance.  For tickets, go to  Films will be shown at the AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago

TIFF’s "The Swan" is a graceful and poetic portrayal of childhood innocence lost

September 11th, 2017 Posted by Film Festivals, Review, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “TIFF’s "The Swan" is a graceful and poetic portrayal of childhood innocence lost”


Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s feature debut is adapted from Guðbergur Bergsson’s novel of the same name.  Set in a rural, desolate area of Iceland,  a troubled young Sól (Grima Valsdóttir) is sent to her aunt and uncle’s farm to live and learn how to be a good girl again after being caught “thieving.”  This brilliantly creative girl witnesses the realities of farm life, relationships, and nature, and discovers the beauty as well as the repugnant aspects of the world around her.  Told from a child’s point of view, visually and cognitively, “The Swan” is truly a rare beauty, that allows us to not only see, but feel the pains of growing up.

We meet Sól as she and her mother lovingly cuddle in her bed.  It’s a magical moment between the two as Sól’s dependence upon her mother is genuine and sweet.  It is also within this very scene that we hear the cutting words that this precious little girl is no longer thought to be a good girl.  The harshness of these words is stunning and from this point, the viewer is a part of Sól, feelGríma Valsdóttir in THE SWAN - Courtesy of m-appeal (4)ing what she feels, and completely understanding her thoughts and actions. Sól is shipped on a bus by herself to meet her relatives where everything and everyone is foreign to her.  Her keen observational skills accompanied by the accompanying narration of her poetic thoughts and stories, create a uniquely wonderful character.

Sól is quickly introduced to the cycle of nature, human and animal, as she helps deliver a calf and then later witnesses its slaughter.  The realization of survival and the choices we make spill over into her understanding of her college-aged cousin Asta, (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir) with whom she wants desperately to admire.   However, Asta’s selfishness and morality  make it difficult for Sól to connect for any length of time.  It is her unexpected relationship with the introspective and handsomeFarmhand Jon (Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson) that allows Sól to understand what life is truly about.  There is a big brother feel to his interactions, but Sól teeters between little sister and having a crush on him.  He’s bitter and angry as he attempts to be a writer— the perfect person for Sól to look up to as she too loves to tell stories. Jon’s protective nature is at once evident, but his brutal honesty may be more than this little girl can handle.  This weakening grasp on childhood opens her eyes so she no longer is able to see the world through rose-colored glasses.  They are shattered into shards of reality, a point at which we all have gone through, but perhaps never in such a definitive way.Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir in THE SWAN - Courtesy of m-appeal

“The Swan” is cinematically stunning as it captures the essence of Iceland as well as the graphic brutality of survival. While the beauty is evident, the situation at hand cuts deeply through the superficiality of life to reveal the underbelly of human nature and nature itself.  Grima Valsdóttir is stellar in the role of Sól.  This young girl’s understanding of her role and the ability tGríma Valsdóttir in THE SWAN - Courtesy of m-appeal (1)o express such complicated emotions and thoughts without uttering a word is nothing short of remarkable.  Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir’s portrayal of the spoiled and conflicted young woman with a broken heart and sometimes heartless, is equally as powerful creating an amazing balance of personality with young Sól. Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson gives a meaningfully captivating performance as he too is trying to understand life and relationships.

“The Swan” is gorgeously poetic and deeply meaningful creating one of the most powerful, haunting, and mesmerizing portrayals of transitioning between childhood innocence and young adulthood.  With stunning cinematography, deft direction, and poignant writing, the story sweeps you away, reminding us of the balance in life and the complexities of growing up.Gríma Valsdóttir in THE SWAN - Courtesy of m-appeal (3)

Sun 10 Sept 1:45PM Jackman Hall, Public Screening (World Premiere)
Tue 12 Sept 11:30AM TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 4, Public Screening
Wed 13 Sept 4:45PM Scotiabank 6, P&I Screening
Sun 17 Sept 12:30PM Jackman Hall, Public Screening

"High Fantasy" confronts gender and race bias head on

September 8th, 2017 Posted by Film Festivals, Review, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “"High Fantasy" confronts gender and race bias head on”


On the heels of “Get Out,” the racially charged science-fiction/horror film comes “High Fantasy” delving into the poignant and socially relevant race and gender issues confronting the world today.  Jenna Bass directs and co-writes this feature film, her second, capturing 4 young adults on a camping trip in the Northern Cape of South Africa.  The care-free, fun-loving group find themselves having swapped bodies and deal with the emotional impact of seeing themselves as a different race or sex.  The social implications of such a situation are immediately intriguing if not insightful as the group attempts to find meaning behind the transformation.

While South African have their own stories and history of politics, wars, and rebellions, the concept of taking advantage of groups of people and how we view one another is quite universal.  Crossing all cultural boundaries, Bass brings to the forefront the concept of land ownership and reparations as she gives each of her characters a unique platform to show their perspectives.  All of this is captured using today’s universal technology and ideas—an iPhone and selfies.

It’s a carefree time for these young adults as they joke around, ready to start their adventure of camping on Lexi’s family’s farmland.  We quickly cut to individual interviews with a stark white background as we get a glimpse into their future events.  One by one, they report that the fun and laughter comes to a screeching halt when the four wake up one morHigh_Fantasy_04ning, realizing they have switched bodies.  The story flips back and forth between the events that occurred and the individuals’ recounting of their feelings about it.  The impact and sometimes lack of impact is simply enlightening at times and maddening at others.  The story unfolds rapidly as the four seem to have lost their edit mode, truly revealing their thoughts about race and gender.

“High Fantasy” doesn’t feel rehearsed—there’s an element of “Blair Witch Project” to it, but the story goes much deeper.  And the emotional range goes from one extreme to the other as do the personal revelations.  These young people are wrestling with their histories, their ancestry, and their futures, creating a complicated portrayal of life in South Africa.  Xoli (Qondiswa James) is the most outspoken and brash of the group, never shy about her opinions, but rather unseeing from another’s viewpoint.  Her judgmental and unbending perspective is representative of many people we all know.  All of these characters seem to be a compilation of someone we know.  Tatiana (Liza Scholtz) gives us a softer and more touching portrayal of what it means to be black and female in South Africa.  Tatiana becomes Thami (Nala Khumalo) and gains an even deeper understanding of the opposite sex.  Thami becomes female and his insight is the most poignant of the group, but it is Lexi’s understanding that creates the dynamic and jumping off point of conversation about race, racism, and our future.

This is a strong cast of characters.  Responsible for portraying  not only their one character, but also another’s personality within their body, as well as acting as camera person is remarkable.  The weight of the topic and the requirements for these actors is simply extraordinary and they each carry the weight with ease.  Thami andHigh_Fantasy_05 Lexi stand out as their personalities change the most.  They portray this with body movement, voice, and mannerisms, paying careful attention to the suprasegmental features of speech.  While we are seeing Thami and Lexi, we have no question that it is actually their inhabitants, Tatiana and Xoli, respectively.

To find a film that can start a deep and honest conversation while using an initially perceived humorous body swapping concept as the vehicle driving the concept forward, is a unique gem.  Stylistically, the film feels as if we are truly privy to the group’s camping expedition and the actors sublimely take on the personality of their inhabitants.  Race and racism as well as gender discrimination and male power is as much a part of the conversation as it was 100 or 200 years ago and just as vital to understanding.  “High Fantasy,” while frustrating in that there was more to be discovered by each character, it still starts a much needed conversation long after the credits roll.





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