Posts in Review

“Skyscraper” Held together with duct tape

July 11th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Skyscraper” Held together with duct tape”

Ridiculous escapism continues this summer with Dwayne Johnson’s (aka The Rock) newest action thriller “Skyscraper,” written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber who gave us “We’re The Millers” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”  Unfortunately, his latest film doesn’t have the same comedic punch as these films, making it just a standard summer action film.  Think of it as “Backdraft” meets “The Towering Inferno” and all the “Die Hard” films combined, but without the intensity.  

Will Sawyer (Johnson) is a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran, suffering physically and mentally from a job gone deadly wrong ten years ago.  Losing his leg, but meeting the love of his love, marrying, and having two adorable children, Sawyer now has a new life and career.  As a securities specialist, he is hired to approve a new building’s security and safety measures for insurance purposes.  This Hong Kong building is the tallest in the world, pushing the envelope in every way, but Sawyer soon finds that there’s a conspiracy brewing that endangers his family.  As he physically fights off bad guys, he watches as the building is burning with his family inside.  He’s been framed and double-crossed, but he will go to any length to save his wife and children and clear his name including using duct tape.  Yes, duct tape.  It truly does do it all.

As you can already imagine, the bad guys are after something valuable and only Sawyer can save his family, but his wife, played by Neve Campbell, is one tough and smart woman, protecting her children and staying calm as a cucumber in the face of imminent death.  It’s great to see more roles being created for women and lines uttered by younger girls that are not the stereotypical damsel in distress utterances.  And Campbell and Johnson actually have some chemistry on screen making you believe in this family.  The remainder of the cast, however, are stereotypical with Roland Moller playing Swedish Kores Botha, the muscle of the bad guys, and the tough as nails Hannah Quinlivan whose hair doesn’t tussle as she does.  

“Skyscraper” misses the mark in what could have been a humorous action thriller.  Johnson has the comedic timing to do so and we do see a few glimpses of that, but there are so many missed opportunities that you wonder if Thurber was really trying to make us believe in what we were seeing on the screen.  The stunts are incredibly captivating as Sawyer drives a crane and swings a hook into a high floor of the building, jumping from this machine into the new opening hundreds of floors above, as he holds on with only one muscular arm.  Using his prostethic leg in inconceivable ways, he then uses duct tape on his hands and feet to scale the outside of the building.  Even his character audibly confides that it’s a stupid idea…which gets a chuckle out of the audience.  But alas, the film takes itself too seriously and the ridiculousness is just that—ridiculous.

The body count is high in this one, but the gruesomeness is generally left out.  It’s the camera angles and slick editing that create the intense moments in “Skyscraper,”  but the suspense just cant sustain itself as you look at your watch wondering if its been 2 hours.  There are plenty of old-fashioned fight scenes, some of which I still can’t fully explain where Sawyer can’t outmuscle a slightly built man in one scene, only to take out 5 combat trained thugs in the next scene.  But its Sarah (Campbell) that has one of the best punches of the movie which comes out of the blue making you cheer inside. 

 

“Skyscraper” isn’t going to be remembered a year from now and Dwayne Johnson will not be the next John McClane’s “Die Hard.”  It’s just a summer filler film, a way to get out of the summer heat and into a burning building to cool off. 

2 Stars

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Exchanges the humor for action

July 11th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ant-Man and the Wasp” Exchanges the humor for action”

 

It’s summertime, and you know what that means, don’t you? It’s sequel time!

And before “Mama Mia: Here We Go Again” arrives July 20, we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” the sequel to “Ant-Man” with returning director Peyton Reed and the familiar faces of Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Michael Douglas and Michael Pena.

What doesn’t return is the nonstop laughs, as the sequel falls into the footsteps of every other super-hero movie, dragging out the endless fight scenes, lulling us into boredom. What stood out in the realm of the comic book films for those of us who aren’t huge fans of the genre has become the typical Marvel film.

To read the review in its entirety go to The Daily Journal’s Friday, July 6th edition.

“Three Identical Strangers” Adoptees’ dreams become a nightmare

June 28th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Three Identical Strangers” Adoptees’ dreams become a nightmare”

Tim Wardle’s 2018 Sundance award-winning documentary tells the real life stranger-than-fiction tale of a set of triplets reunited after being separated shortly after birth, adopted into three different yet closely located families. It was just a matter of time before these boys “bumped into” each other. That day came in 1980. They were 19 years old and coincidentally, Bobby enrolled in the same community college that his then-unknown brother Eddy had attended the year before. Things quickly gained momentum and the twins were reunited and became a national headline. Shortly after, a third brother was identified, David, and the triplets were a television and print sensation.

This sounds like an unlikely fairytale, but there is a much darker side to the story. On the surface, it’s a beautiful tale, one of happenstance, however, as the young men delved more deeply into the circumstances behind their adoptions, it became twisted and sinister… an unethical human experiment.

 

 

Wardle eloquently uses interviews with Bobby and David, both telling their perspectives of what happened, recounting memories of their youth, their troubles, and their happy reunion. Wardle then intertwines re-enactments of various situations along with actual television footage, of which there is a lot, to seamlessly stitch together an unbelievable tapestry of not just these men’s lives, but perhaps countless others who were adopted through the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York City.

It’s a gripping tale that seems inconceivable; sets of children who were intentionally broken apart and placed in homes which were thoroughly researched and manipulated for the benefit of research. Dr. Peter B. Neubauer was at the helm of this project and we see through the eyes of Bobby and David how he has negatively impacted these men. Locating other sets of twins adopted from this agency and “enrolled” in the project, Wardle shows that the impact isn’t just with the triplets. Even more disturbing is the interview from Neubauer’s intern/assistant during 1968 as he shares his views and knowledge. It’s not just a need to know the answer to the age-old question of nature versus nurture, but it’s the moralistic and ethical boundaries that should never be crossed. Never.

“Three Identical Strangers” hit way too close to home for me. I’m from New York and adopted in 1964 at the age of 4 months from an orphanage and watching this film put more pieces of my own puzzle on the table before me. Visiting surrounding areas of my hometown, I frequently get mistaken for someone else. Do I have a twin? It’s something I’ve always wondered, but now, I also wonder if Neubauer had other assistants and continued the research in other locations of NY. As an adoptee, this film was eye-opening and devastating. And as a critic, the film is visually and intellectually compelling as the story unfolds like a mystery.

Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” is a documentary reeling into the realm of a mystery. It’s absolutely spellbinding. The crazy coincidence of finding a twin, happily reunited and then finding another to become long-lost triplets is beautiful…but the beauty soon dissipates into a chasm of darkness. As it raises more questions for those of us who were adopted, particularly in the NY area, it’s also a film for those who love to be entertained and enlightened by stranger-than-fiction tales.

”Three Identical Strangers” opens in limited release on June 29 and then wider on July 6.  Chicagoans can see this amazing film at the Music Box Theatre on July 6.  https://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

4 STARS

“Woman Walks Ahead” An unlikely love story capturing injustices and prejudices of an era

June 27th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Woman Walks Ahead” An unlikely love story capturing injustices and prejudices of an era”

WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, a favorite of both the Tornto International and Tribeca Film Festivals  opens this weekend in limited release.

 Written by Steven Knight (Locke Hundred Foot Journey) and directed by Susanna White, this story is also based upon an historical event.  Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a Brooklyn-based artist in the late 1800’s, travels to the Dakotas to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait.  Arriving in a hostile environment, she is unwelcome by the military, but with a determination not characteristically seen in women during this era, she perseveres.  The relationship she develops with Sitting Bull is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and the integrity she shows in fighting for Native American’s rights is inspiring.  Chastain is extraordinary, Sam Rockwell hones his skills as a dislikable misogyntist and racist, and Michael Greyeyes reincarnates a virtuous and complicated Sitting Bull.  The exceptional cinematography beckons you to see this on the big screen.  

Susanna White spoke with me about the making of one of the best films of the year.  Check out the interview at FF2 Media

“Boundaries” Finds forgiveness in father-daughter road trip film

June 27th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Boundaries” Finds forgiveness in father-daughter road trip film”

“Boundaries,” starring Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, and Lewis MacDougall, is a unique road trip film careening around the dangerous curves of honesty, anger, and resentment while searching for the signs of understanding and respite. Shana Feste writes and directs this frequently humorous father-daughter drama filled with candor, reminding us of the importance of family and forgiveness.

Laura (Farmiga) is a single mom of a teenage son with a unique artistic eye who also rescues and then lives with a menagerie of dogs and cats. Her love life is no less chaotic as she craves love yet never seems to find the right type of love or man. With her son creating havoc in school and her estranged father (Plummer) constantly calling, she attempts to find balance and understanding in her life through therapy. But the best therapy turns out to be bailing her pot-dealing father from his senior living center where he is no longer welcome.

Feste’s semi-autobiographical drama is beautiful, both visually and emotionally, capturing the traumatic scars that are visible in Laura’s life and how she raises her own son. Laura’s quirky yet lovable persona also captures our heart as we watch her struggle and make a few inexplicable decisions. Her relationships with Henry (MacDougall) is endearing as his character exhibits wisdom beyond his years, and at times, ties Laura and Jack (Plummer) together. It’s feels as if both Jack and Laura have put on the correct prescription of glasses to finally see one another for who they truly are.

The film gives us a complete story, with all three main characters experiencing growth and resolution. Given the fact that, as Feste indicated in a recent interview, this is based on her own life, the story takes on an even more touching and impactful meaning.

Farmiga’s performance gives Laura a whimsical touch as the mother who hasn’t yet resolved many of her own issues including her inability to understand her father’s lack of commitment to the family as she was growing up. She fluently conveys this as she is always questioning her every move in her adult life. Farmiga has a sense about her that is loving and kind, portraying Laura as the caregiver who never really remembers to care for herself. By the end of the film, we are so connected to her that we feel as if we know her as a friend.

Plummer, of course, is outstanding is this very unique role.  Feste stated to me, this “sophisticated” Shakespearean trained actor easily pulled off the creation of a drug dealing, selfish yet remarkably lovable father and grandfather. He creates a fun-loving character while attempting to make amends with his daughter and his past. And of course, that twinkle in his eye will charm you just as Feste said her own father had.

MacDougall who you might recognize from “A Monster Calls” completely discards his Irish accent for a convincing American one, and hones in his skills as a struggling yet mature son, taking his place in helping his mother and growing up along the way. The humor in the film comes from Henry’s interactions with Jack. We see Henry’s eyes opening as he helps his grandfather deliver weed to the various customers including Henry’s own estranged father, Leonard (Bobby Cannavale). Henry, too, must deal with his own abandonment issues. MacDougall’s skilled performance is both unexpectedly heartfelt and believable. He credits this, as he said in our interview, to something he learned from Plummer and Farmiga. “I learned about the importance of not to overact. You don’t need to do that. A lot of it is in the eyes really.”

“Boundaries” is a unusual road trip film, embracing the resiliency of relationships and the importance of forgiveness and understanding. The humor and love can be felt in every scene with an ending that is wonderfully satisfying. Feste’s exceptional writing and directing along with a remarkably talented cast give this film no boundaries when it comes to understanding family. And it’ll make you want to go out and rescue a cute little furry animal, too!

To read the interview with Feste, go to FF2Media.com

“American Animals” Truth is stranger than fiction, a top film of the year

June 8th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““American Animals” Truth is stranger than fiction, a top film of the year”

When it comes to movies, I am continually reminded of the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Such is the case with Bart Layton’s “American Animals,” the movie about a book heist from the small liberal arts college Transylvania University located in Lexington, KY. 4 young students learn of a valuable and relatively unprotected book collection authored by James Audubon on display at the University’s library. Together, the four plot “the perfect heist” using Quentin Tarantino’s movies as a guide.  It quickly becomes a sad comedy of errors, forever effecting their lives and futures.

We meet Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) as he is interviewing to attend this small university. He’s a sweet and gifted artist struggling to find his inner-purpose and motivation in the art world. Warren, a long-time friend who Spencer’s parents disapprove, is the college jock; a talented athlete, but not exactly an academic. Spencer, after visiting the library’s special Audubon exhibit, plants the seed of theft in Warren’s mind who then focuses all his energy on devising a plan. Watching movies, googling information from a University of Kentucky computer, he makes the plan come to fruition. Spencer, always hesitating, but never fully resisting, reaches out to two other friends with skills they need to complete the heist. As D-Day approaches, it’s obvious that the group isn’t exactly “Oceans 11” precise.

“American Animals” is an exquisite portrayal of youth, greed, and impulsivity, documenting the psychology of what happens in a group setting and making one bad decision after another. The film seamlessly incorporates the narrative story with interviews with the real main characters, professors, and parents. We get to really know these boys as they make error after error, knowing they should stop, but all it takes is Warren, the strongest of the group, to keep them going. The pain you hear in their words and see in their eyes as actors is punctuated by the exact same emotions emitted from the real characters.

As you first learn what these kids are planning, you wonder to yourself how could they possibly think it was a good idea. And that’s exactly what filmmaker Bart Layton is able to do—-take us through the steps, the interactions, and the entire process that got them to the final point. It’s an extraordinary feat of filmmaking and story telling to give such insight while still entertaining the viewer. Layton sets up the situation flawlessly, building mountains of tension as you ready youself for the craziness that’s about to come.

Keoghan portrays Spencer, an innocent and generally thoughtful young man. All of the actors portrayed their respective characters with skill and heart. The actors allowed you to know that they were conflicted, but greed got the better of them all. The panic set in at different points for each of them, depending upon their moral compass, but it was breathtakingly painful as we observed their dilemma. The performances were so engaging that as a viewer you wanted to help them make better decisions. You felt that they were good kids at heart, but knowing this wasn’t going to end well. Evan Peters deep and agitated performance as “Warren” shows us how he could lead the others astray.

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction and while there are plenty of movies out there that capitalize on these stories, “American Animals” tells their tale in a brilliantly creative and novel way, adding authenticity and heart to this film and creating a captivatingly heartbreaking story of greed, immaturity, and impulsivity.

If you’re in the Chicago area, “American Animals” opens at the Music Box Theatre.

4 STARS

“Oceans 8” Dive on in for this female-lead heist sequel

June 6th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Oceans 8” Dive on in for this female-lead heist sequel”

Gary Ross is back in his familiar director’s chair for yet another “Oceans” film, but this time, the crew is all female, lead by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), the ring leader of the famed Las Vegas heist films in the early 2000’s.  While the original “Oceans 11” starring Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra was made in 1960 and the remake in 2001 with two sequels all focusing on completing an elaborate robbery, this new “Oceans 8” is a stand-alone movie, no prior “Oceans” viewings are necessary.

Ross and Olivia Milch co-write the story starring Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, and Mindy Kaling.  It’s a star-studded action-thriller that is purely preposterous good fun.

Debbie is released on parole after serving more than 5 years behind bars thanks to her ex-boyfriends inability to keep his mouth shut.  Immediately upon release, with $45 in her pocket and the clothes she was arrested in, she proves that her intellect and confidence are all she needs to get back in the game.  Reconnecting with Lou (Blanchett), the two get the wheels turning in the most painstakingly intricate jewel theft ever conceived.  With the help of a few contacts all with their own special set of skills, the group of women target a Cartier necklace at the Met’s annual gala, the 1st Sunday in May.

Debbie’s plan is complicated and outrageous to say the least, but always intriguing and somehow believable.  Her attention to detail and her keen understanding of people, create outrageously funny situations.  Using A-Lister Daphne Kluger’s (Hathaway) jealousy of another actress (Dakota Fanning) to gain access to the coveted Cartier necklace and convincing Rose Weil (Carter) to design a dress for Kluger for the gala.  The heist plays out with precision accuracy, but will Debbie’s need for vengeance be that one glitch in the plan?  It’s a thrilling and captivating story that had me glued to the screen as I got to know these very different characters all working together for the big payoff.

Bullock leads the pack with confidence and grace and Blanchett creates a character that we feel has an interesting back story, inviting us to know more.  Together, the pair feel like old friends, understanding one another’s every move and thought.  Kaling’s character of an unmarried woman living under the watchful and judgmental eye of her mother is the comedic element that helps weave together a more light-hearted film.  Her timing and deliver balances the subtle humor of the other characters whose situations create the humor.  The standout of the film is Hathaway as she creates a narcisstic and not-too-bright lead actress, always wanting to be the center of attention.  Her reactions to men, competition, and body image are simply priceless.  It’s her performance that, in the end of the film, makes you realize she’s an actress’s actress!

While the story-line is truly ridiculous, it’s great escapism and entertainment.  It’s a formulaic film, following its male predecessors, but accentuating the interactions of women.  The line uttered by Bullock’s character, “A him gets noticed.  A her gets ignored.  For once we want to be ignored,” is one of the most memorable and timely of the film.  The rest of the story is great editing and watching all the pieces fall into place. There are also quite a few surprise cameos throughout the film and particularly at the end that will bring a smile to your face.  It’s a fast-paced, comedic, heist film that balances out the gender scales for everyone to enjoy.  It’s not too often that a sequel can shine like a Cartier diamond necklace, but “Oceans 8” pulls it off without a hitch.

3 1/2 Stars

“RBG” Earns its spot at the box office as the best super hero film for women

May 30th, 2018 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““RBG” Earns its spot at the box office as the best super hero film for women”

How often does a documentary find its way into the top 10 at the box office? The answer is never, until now! “RBG,” a film about the life of a currently-seated Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has grossed more than $6M as of May 28. It’s proof that we have a new super hero on our hands! Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West create a story that is exciting, dramatic, comedic, educational AND entertaining as they take us back in time to introduce us to the “Notorious RBG” in her youth and how she became the newest Wonder Woman at the age of 83.

The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews including mine as one of the best films of the festival. Having a chance to talk with West and Cohen about making the film, they shared, “We really felt that many of her millennial fans had no idea of the full story. They really didn’t know the role she had played in advancing women’s rights from a legal perspective and we also both knew about this amazing feminist love story that we thought would make a personal part of the film.”

Yes, this is a love story, too. We get a chance to meet Justice Ginsburg’s husband Marty who was the love of her life, capturing her heart with his humor. We get a glimpse into the connection the two shared as Ruth helped him through law school while he battled cancer and raising a young child.

The filmmakers create a foundation from which we see Justice Ginsburg’s determination, dedication, resiliency, and strength from a very early age. Elementary school friends talk about her as a child; her focus, intelligence and her admiration of her mother’s wisdom. We also meet Justice Ginsberg’s adult children and her granddaughter who has followed in her legal footsteps, and learn many charmingly sweet characteristics about this powerful judge such as the fact that “Bubee” wasn’t allowed in the kitchen to cook. That seems to be a running joke throughout the film. And humor is what connected two very unlikely judges—she and Judge Anthony Scalia. It’s a side of her that allows viewers to admire her even more. This personal story is wonderfully engaging as we not only understand the drive and fortitude it took to get to where she is, but to also have a wonderfully fulfilling life outside of work. But it wasn’t without heartache, as the filmmakers touchingly show.

Cohen and West artfully depict the legal side of Justice Ginsburg’s life as well. We are taken back in time to hear legal arguments from cases that began women’s rights for equality back in the 1960’s. The interviews with her legal opponents are comical as they recall being pitted against this formidable legal prowess. Justice Ginsberg’s unique perspective paired with her methodical and logical intelligence was exactly what the women’s movement needed to push us forward, little by little until she earned her seat on the Supreme Court. Here, too, Justice Ginsuerg helped in finding equal footing for all, frequently issuing a dissenting opinion, but always fighting for what she thought was right.

“RBG” sheds light and opens the doors of knowledge for viewers to get to know one of the most brilliant woman in American history. West finds that this film “…has a lot more resonance now with the #MeToo Movement, the #TimesUp Movement … Her story is even more inspirational for women who are trying to put their lives in the context for this long struggle for women’s rights…Had she not been the Supreme Court Justice, she still would hold a huge place in American history for what she did for women.”

“RBG” is not just one of the best documentaries of 2018, it’s one of the best films of this decade. It’s inspirational message as it recounts the obstacles of an era of just one woman, creates a momentum of hope for us all for true equality. Be inspired, educated, and most of all, be entertained.

To read the interview with West and Cohen from the DOC10! Film Festival in Chicago, go to FF2 Media

4/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Book Club” With age, comes love and laughs

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Terminal” a convoluted story lacking any substance

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

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

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

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

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

1 Star for great lighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 STARS

“Avengers: Infinity War” will please Marvel fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

Watch the trailer here

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

Laverne Berry, Photo Credit: Nelson Walker III

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 1/2 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4/4 Stars

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

“Ready Player One” Fun-filled Easter Eggs

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

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

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

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

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

The prize? Halliday’s fortune and OASIS itself.

To read the review in its entirety, go to

THE DAILY JOURNAL

“All I Wish” finds life for overlooked demographic

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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