Posts in Review

Tye Sheridan shines in “The Night Clerk”

February 22nd, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Tye Sheridan shines in “The Night Clerk””

Bart (Tye Sheridan) is an unusual boy, living in his mother’s basement, dining alone while she does the same just a floor above. His atypical characteristics don’t stop there, but it’s not until he goes to his job as a night clerk at a hotel that we witness just how different he is and why. Bart, rigging up video surveillance systems in several rooms, places beautiful women in each. His motives aren’t what you think, but he unwittingly witnesses a murder. Unsure of how to process what he’s seen, Bart digs himself a deeper hole as the police become involved.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

There are several stories taking place at the same time in “The Night Clerk.” The first is a race against the clock to clear Bart’s name. The second is a love story, but it’s the third story that adds a twist to the first two. Bart is on the spectrum of autism. His voyeuristic tendencies aren’t malicious. In fact, he uses this technique to help him learn and rehearse interactions allowing him to sound more “normal” in situations. It is his strained relationship with his mother (Helen Hunt) that gives us the additional information we need to better understand Bart and the story to come.

Following the murder, another guest checks in, Andrea (Ana de Armas). In an effort to protect her from her predecessor’s fate, Bart shares his deepest secrets. In return, Andrea’s kindness and understanding of Bart is misinterpreted which elicits emotions and reactions that are at best confusing to him. His black and white world has been flooded with color that he is ill-equipped to process.

Writing a story where the main character has Asperger’s Syndrome is no easy task. The dialogue and Sheridan’s performance carry the load of success for “The Night Clerk.” The perfectly placed conversations between Bart and Andrea gives us great insight into what being on the spectrum means. He sees and processes information differently, but his need to love and be loved is exactly like anyone else’s. Sheridan’s portrayal of this seemingly emotionally flat character connects us to him to not only understand him but to also care about him.

“The Night Clerk” also uniquely sets up situations which allow us to see the world through Bart’s eyes. Gaining that specific knowledge base, we are in tune with Bart and when he makes those awkward and sometimes very dangerous wrong decisions we understand why he’s doing it. And as the cops, lead by Detective Espada (John Leguizamo), close in on the prime suspect, the intensity increases as we only want Bart to be safe, but with his communication style and inabilities, it’s a tension-filled final act.

Although “The Night Clerk” is a crime thriller at the core, its branches spread much wider as we walk in another’s shoes, gaining understanding and empathy. Sheridan’s deft portrayal of someone “on the spectrum” takes us into an interior world previously unknown to us and by the end of the film, we have emotionally connected with him. When a film can open our eyes and our hearts to perhaps be more compassionate to others while it entertains us with a uniquely suspenseful story, it’s a film worth seeing.

3 1/2 stars

“Top End Wedding” delivers laughter, tears, and life’s true riches

February 11th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Top End Wedding” delivers laughter, tears, and life’s true riches”

If you’re expecting a typical rom-com, you’re going to be disappointed because “Top End Wedding” is so much more than that. Sure, it’s a love story between two young people, Lauren (Miranda Tapsell) and Ned (Gwilym Lee) as they  plan a wedding, but more so, this is a love story of family and heritage.  In between uproarious laughter  you’ll be shedding tears of joy as you embark upon this journey with Lauren in search of her mother who has gone AWOL.  It’s a treasure hunt that ultimately delivers more of life’s riches than you could have ever dreamed.

 WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Lauren and Ned are two young professionals until Ned decides being a lawyer just isn’t his calling.  Lauren is in a high-powered profession with a boss, Hampton(Kerry Fox) aka Cruella Daville, and is at work’s beck and call.  Ned works up the gumption to propose, but “forgets” to add in the fact that he is now unemployed.  Thinking long engagements are silly, Lauren is graced with 10 days of unpaid vacation to get it all wrapped up.  Northern Australia is calling her home and this is where she wants the wedding to take place, but as she and Ned arrive home,  Dad (Huw Higginson) is in a nearly catatonic state.  Mom has run away because even her own daughter won’t answer her calls. (There’s a guilt trip for all you daughters reading!)  Lauren and Ned follow the clues that Mom as left behind and they begin to discover much more than just why Mom left home.

“Top End Wedding” starts off as you would expect–light, fluffy, and oftentimes silly.  Lauren’s boss Hampton creates much of the humor as the uptight controlling woman expecting perfection from Lauren.  Lauren, however, isn’t perfect as we see in the first scene, breaking her heel and eating a powdered sugar pastry with a black suit on just before one of the most important meetings of her young professional career.   Many of the characters are over the top, but this just adds not only to the appeal, but also to the balance of the story.  There are tragedies within many of the characters’ background, reeling us back into a reality that connects us with them.  And just as quickly as we find that connection, we are let loose on funny bits such as a grieving man who misses his wife and hides in the pantry as he listens to a Chicago song repeatedly.  (You’ll never listen to “If You Leave Me Now” the same way again!)  As our emotions ride this roller coaster, the story also finds a way to weave into it a through line of the importance of family and our ancestry.  Lauren and Ned, of course, find quite a few literal and figurative bumps in the road as they track down dear old mom, but as Lauren gets into close proximity, this is where the heart and soul are splayed open, inviting you to relish in the wonder of love and forgiveness.

****SPOILER ALERT****

The film could be a travel journal as Lauren explores the “Top End” of Australia.  It’s beautiful in its own way and the camera captures the land, the vistas, and the people.  As we get to the Tiwi Islands, Lauren’s family is comprised of many of the aboriginal people here.  We see their culture, their ceremonies, their artistry.  It’s an homage to ancestry and the importance of maintaining language and traditions.  Co-writers Tapsell and Joshua Tyler develop a heart-felt and stunning story of true love while remembering the humor that is an integral part of life.  Tapsell has both a comedic delivery as her character, but there’s also a physical one.  She allows her character to develop, turning inwardly to discover the layers beneath and then growing emotionally.  It all happens seemingly naturally, not at the drop of a hat and while there are plenty of stereotypical rom-com scenes, there are just as many non-traditional ones that make this a leader in the  genre.

Tapsell and Lee have the chemistry it takes on screen to make us believe they are a couple who know each other from every angle and still love one another.  They’re not perfect which creates a lot of the humor, but it’s all relatable humor.  And when we can laugh at ourselves as we watch this, it makes it all the better.  Tapsell and Lee have a rhythm which invites the other characters to enter their orbit and add their own flare.  Higginson as Trevor (Dad) is a sad sack, but he’s also hilarious in his sadness.   The disdain he has for his future son-in-law is evident immediately, but again, there is humor in this.  Sometimes Higginson is able to speak paragraphs with just a single look!  With a strong supporting cast, Tapsell and Lee have the perfect groundwork beneath their feet to truly soar.  Additionally and perhaps more importantly, what will remain in my heart and my memory is the beauty of the people of the Tiwi Islands.   I can’t remember a film where I was so emotionally impacted that I was speechless and happily so!

3 1/2 Stars

“Human Capital” A morally complex and intriguing story

February 7th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Human Capital” A morally complex and intriguing story”

Stephen Amidon’s novel has been recreated once again for the silver screen, but for American audiences this time. Initially an Italian film, it depicts the destinies of two families from vastly different socioeconomic classes whose lives are irrevocably changed after a cyclist is hit and killed just before Christmas. The American version, rewritten by Oren Moverman, stars Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Marisa Tomei, and creates a similar scenario where two families’ children and their underlying stories are intertwined on that fateful night of an innocent cyclist being killed in a hit and run accident.

The story is told from several different perspectives, Rashomon-style. We are introduced to Drew (Schreiber), a real estate agent and father as he drops off his teenage daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke). It’s obvious from the beginning who the have’s and the have not’s are in this scenario and Drew’s unrefined interactions with Jamie’s (Fred Hechinger) parents, Carrie (Tomei) and Quint (Sarsgaard). This sets the foundation for the ensuing tensions and poor decision making that put all the pieces into place and drive the story forward.

As part of the 99%, Drew thinks he has hat the jackpot and asks Quint to get in on his action–hedge funds. Leveraging every cent and item he has, the game has begun, but this is a big boy’s game and Drew isn’t ready. Needless to say, life devolves, spiraling out of control for him. Later that evening, after both families have gathered at a school event, the accident takes place. Each and every character may have done it, and they all have their own version of what happened that night.

From this point, we get Carrie’s, Quint’s, Shannon’s and Jamie’s perspective of what happened over the course of the previous 24 hours. Sharing all their inner-most thoughts and secrets, like a fly on the wall, we see the events of the fateful night unfold. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together is chilling, unearthing the depths to which humans will go to save themselves and/or their loved ones.

It’s an interesting cast, all playing pivotal roles and having their time to shine in the spotlight. Sarsgaard portrays a pompous, deleterious narcissist, who cherishes money more than his wife. Tomei, a side character for much of the film, has a few scenes that give us more depth to peel away the superficial layers of her character. She proves that money cannot buy happiness and her performance connects us with her, creating sympathy for her situation. Hawke and Alex Wolff, a troubled teen, bring us all back in time where we made those bad decisions in love. Their honest portrayal is simply engaging with a storyline that could be in any town, highlighting the social issues that plague our current day. Schrieber’s former character of “Ray Donovan” is difficult to shake as his character of Drew is the antithesis of Ray. Initially awkward, Schrieber eventually finds the right tone and I’m able to see him as a man-child who is impulsive and not the brightest bulb in the box. This is a stretch for him and always walking a tightrope of authenticity.

This version of “Human Capital” takes us along a little different path, but the results are the same–it’s fight or flight as our autonomic nervous system kicks in. This engaging film, filled with social issues and consequences, is at once thought-provoking as we are challenged intellectually and emotionally. Ultimately, we place ourselves in each of the roles, predicting our own responses and when a film can do that, it’s worth seeing.

3/4 Stars

“The Gentlemen” is pure fun

January 30th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Gentlemen” is pure fun”

We start this tall tale, “The Gentlemen,” with a “pint and a pickled egg” and the strange word combinations, analogies and euphemisms continue throughout this sly action crime thriller written and directed by Guy Ritchie. With his signature style splashed lovingly throughout the film, like the blood that splatters across a table after a hit, Ritchie creates a complicated, sometimes convoluted but necessarily so, storyline that keeps you on your toes and even if you think you’ve guessed the ending, you’ll be blown away by how you got there.

Michael Pearson aka Mickey (Matthew McConaughey) is a street smart, high-volume and high class weed grower and dealer. His entrepreneurial skills, honed at a young age across the pond, allowed him to climb the social and financial ladder, but not without enemies who are always trying to knock this king off his throne. We meet Mickey at what appears to be close to the end of the film, but then thanks to Fletcher’s (Hugh Grant) storytelling to Mickey’s right hand man, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), we begin to meet the vast number of characters as he recounts the events of the last several weeks. And with the precision of a scalpel, Ritchie neatly intertwines every character’s story.

Fletcher is a part of the lower class attempting to rise and we see this with his different English accent and his less than fashionable attire. He’s slimy, but maybe, just maybe, he’s one up on the elite thugs. He seems to be everywhere and to know everything as he attempts to extort Ray for millions of British pounds, threatening to reveal all these luscious details he has painstakingly gathered. As Fletcher reveals his knowledge of the events over several expensive glasses of Glenfiddich, told in proper writing style as he points out our main protagonist and how stories should be told—old school—we find that Mickey may not have covered all his bases and the cast of characters may not survive the finale.

“The Gentlemen” is a good old-fashioned story told with more style than Tom Ford. The pace is fast which not just encourages you to pay close attention, it demands it. The layers of this complex story are peeled away, layer by layer, revealing only what Ritchie wants you to see, making sure he is at least one step ahead of you. The cuts or as the character “Fletcher” refers to them as “smash cuts” thrust you into the next scene and we begin to piece the puzzle together until the core is revealed. This is pure fun.

McConaughey’s Mickey is our main character, but the entire narrative is driven by Grant’s performance as Fletcher. Changing his accent to fit the bill and finding the subtleties required to become this sleezy character, Grant shines as the host of the story, finding all the right beats to create an engagingly repulsive character. McConaughey’s performance doesn’t push the envelope although it is a believable one as the charming, whip-smart king of the proverbial forest. Henry Golding gives us an intimidating tough guy persona that ultimately allows you to despise him and that’s a tough feat. Hunnam’s performance as the calm, cool, and collected “Ray” is the glue that binds it all together, but it is the initially unrecognizable Colin Farrell as “Coach” that will shock and make you laugh aloud as you support his tenacity and integrity even amidst some unfathomable acts.

“The Gentlemen” isn’t for the faint of heart. It is a crime and action flick so there’s a bit of violence and blood, but it is all a part of the story, driving the plot forward. And Ritchie doesn’t give us one character who’s above board, but that’s ok because we find the best of the worst and connect with them. With quick dialogue and narration which is a stylistically perfect choice paired with Ritchie’s quick editing and unique visual interjections we laugh aloud at the preposterous situations. Ritchie even finds a way to squeeze in gun and drug law issues, too.

There’s also great attention to detail in this film from set design to costuming which punctuates the class and type of characters in the story. Standing out in this is Coach and his cohorts, the choreographed hip hop dancers/fighters all dressed in plaid who bring an element of humor to what would have been just a group of thugs. It’s these little surprises throughout the overall feel of the film and that’s fun.

Guy Ritchie doesn’t disappoint in “The Gentlemen.” Great action, smart dialogue and story development give way to a suspenseful, oftentimes humorous, old-fashioned thriller that will keep you engaged and entertained.

3 1/2 Stars

“Three Christs” makes you a believer in the need for compassion

January 9th, 2020 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Three Christs” makes you a believer in the need for compassion”

“Three Christs follows Dr. Alan Stone who is treating three paranoid schizophrenic patients at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, each of whom believed they were Jesus Christ. What transpires is both comic and deeply moving.”

Based on the book “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by Milton Rokeach, Director Jon Avnet takes an incredibly talented cast and creates a mesmerizing tale of three men all identifying as Jesus Christ in a mental institution in the 1950’s. As Dr. Stone (Richard Gere) bucks the system of over-medicating and using electroshock therapy, his revelatory and purely experimental therapy techniques push the professional limits and moral boundaries. Fighting against the administration and the use of physically punitive measures, Stone protects these three men and attempts to intervene, using them as a part of a research study. Placing them together, they must confront their true identity and this is where the story picks up the pace and the complexity of human nature and varied personalities makes this story one worth watching. Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins), and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) all believe they are the savior, but it is Stone who must delve into his own psyche to not only better understand himself but his patients.

“Three Christs” delicately balances humor and the dramatic need for human connection as it expertly explores the disorder of paranoid schizophrenia. There is a gentle and almost charming friendship that develops among not only the three patients, but also with Stone. Goggins is almost unrecognizable as Leon and Whitford’s verbal eloquence even as he demeans his roommates, floods your senses with a certain calmness. Dinklage has a standout performance and we connect most with him as he searches for a part of himself that is forever lost.

There are a couple of side stories that seem somewhat irrelevant, however they make Stone a more well-rounded character. It is the naturally developing relationship among all four men that is most intriguing and at times, heartbreaking and we root for approval of Stone’s more humane approach to intervention and expelling the barbaric therapeutic techniques used in this era.

“Three Christs” finds an unpredictable path to take in telling this true story and as mental health continues to be at the forefront of our society, we can better understand the need for compassion for those who suffer.

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2019

December 31st, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “TOP 10 FILMS OF 2019”

The 2019 Year in Film has come to a close and while the domestic box office totals are down about 4%, that still means it was an $11.4 billion year. Of course, Disney’s “Avengers: Endgame” ($357.1M) and the live-action remakes many of which pulled in more than $100M, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” ($363M), and Warner Bros. “Joker” ($1.06B), contributed mightily to the year-end total, but none of these films made my Top Ten Films of 2019 list. To me, the big box office hits aren’t necessarily my favorites. 2019 was a year of literary adaptations and films based on true stories and these are the stories that hit home. Without further ado, and starting with #1—I know you’d glance at the bottom of the list for #1 so why not start with it?—the Top Films of 2019.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: This is a story about Lloyd Vogel, a jaded and emotionally hardened journalist whose life is touched and forever changed by the children’s television icon Fred Rogers. The story is an unusual one from an equally unlikely perspective that makes us laugh and cry, but more importantly, it reminds us of the power of kindness and the healing attributes of love. Imaginatively created, Marielle Heller takes the director’s reigns and allows Tom Hanks to bring Rogers to life while capturing this compelling and entertaining story based on the Esquire Magazine article by Tom Junod. (In theaters now) WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

THE IRISHMAN: A surprisingly emotional mobster story about right-hand man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who looks back on life through his own rearview mirror, recalling his relationships with mob leader Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Based on Charles Brandt’s true crime book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” Martin Scorsese directs this compellingly complex narrative, taking us into a lesser known world while allowing us to somehow develop a connection with Sheeran, a man with regrets and lacking a moral compass. While it is violent, it’s a part of the story and never gratuitously, but somehow it also frequently finds humor as well. (Now on Netflix)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

DARK WATERS: This isn’t the first film about how large chemical companies disregard regulations or put their bottom line before the health and safety of its workers and communities and it won’t be the last, but Rob Bilott’s (Mark Ruffalo) story in “Dark Waters” will change your life. As a film, it’s a slow-burning thriller keeping you on the edge of your seat as you watch the events unfold feeling consumed as if by a tidal wave of emotion and information. It’s a current-day “Erin Brockovich” that doesn’t effect just one area of WV, but each and every person in the U.S. Based on Nathaniel Rich’s article in the New York Times Magazine, you’ll think twice when you hear DuPont’s familiar slogan, “Better living through chemistry.” (Available on Amazon and iTunes Dec. 31)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

JOJO RABBIT: Only director Taika Waititi could take author Christine Leunens’s book “Caging Skies” about a little Nazi boy during WWII whose pretend friend is Hitler and make it into a socially relevant dark comedy that both entertains and educates. Roman Griffin Davis stars as Jojo who finds that there’s a young Jewish girl hiding in his attic. Wrestling with being a good little Nazi, Jojo grows up and opens his eyes to the reality of the world surrounding him. Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson co-star in this utterly bold and daringly funny coming of age story. (In theaters now)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

FORD v FERRARI: The mere title alone makes you think this is a car racing movie, but it is so much more than that. Based on the true story of race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), director James Mangold revs up our engines as we witness history and the true meaning of friendship and loyalty. It’s a fast-paced story allowing both Bale and Damon’s chemistry to shine and give humor and depth to this story. The stellar cinematography puts you in the passenger seat making this film a winner. (In theaters now)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

PAIN AND GLORY: Like “The Irishman,” this film looks back on a life filled with uncompromising and raw honesty, but unlike the Netflix film, there is beauty and love packed into this suitcase of life and regrets. Pedro Almodovar writes and directs this film, a depiction of his own life, as Antonio Banderas has the lead role of Salvador Mallo, and it’s one of the most evocative performances of his career. This multidisciplinary approach to film with layered complexities about social acceptance, expectations, relationships and following our hearts allows us to know Salvador as we reflect on our own lives. Flashbacks develop situations that will become heartbreaking in the current day, but in the end, we see that this has made Salvador who he is today. Isn’t that all of our stories? (Available on Amazon Jan. 14, DVD Jan. 21)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

THE MUSTANG: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s prison story stars Matthias Schoenaerts as Roman, a violent criminal who is given the opportunity to participate in a horse rehabilitation program. This revelatory and gorgeously shot film reassesses humanity and our need for connection seen through the lens of the withdrawn inmate. Schoenaerts captures the dark void of hopelessness and slowly finds a connection and life through a wild mustang. Bruce Dern has one of his best performances in recent years as a horse trainer, giving heart to his gruff and jaded exterior. (Available on Amazon and on DVD now)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

JUST MERCY: Attorney Brian Stephenson’s novel is adapted for film starring Michael B. Jordan as the litigator fighting for the rights of wrongly accused men on death row. Like the book, which I highly recommend, the film portrays many men’s stories, but the focal point is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) whose story is comprised of racial bias and blatant racism. Jordan’s understated performance and Director Destin Daniel Cretton bring this true-life gripping crime story to full light, opening your eyes and your heart. (Opening in theaters Jan. 10)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

OPHELIA: Shakespeare and feminism rarely go hand in hand, but thanks to the clever adaptation of Lisa Klein’s book, Director Claire McCarthy allows Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) to tell the classic tale of “Hamlet” from a different point of view. With plausible backstories of Claudius (Clive Owen) and Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), the plight of Hamlet and Ophelia not only makes sense, but is a captivatingly tragic love story. And the ending would make Shakespeare himself proud. (Available on Amazon Prime now)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

THE REPORT: Adam Driver has had quite a year, but his performance as Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones is a standout. Based on the true story of a nearly 7,000 page document called “The Torture Report,” writer and first-time director Scott Z. Burns brings this chilling tale of discovery from our not so distant past to life. With incredible relevance to today’s political world, we dig deeply into the underpinnings of our system. It’s a complicated one, but thanks to the deft writing and storytelling, we understand the truth behind what was meant to never be seen. It’s an all-star cast comprised of Jon Hamm, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll and Driver who give performances of their career. (Available on Amazon Prime now)
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Tied for 11th Place: “Knives Out,” “Richard Jewell,” and “Clemency.”

“Corpus Christi” a tale of Christ in today’s dark world

December 22nd, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Corpus Christi” a tale of Christ in today’s dark world”

Poland’s official submission to the 92nd Academy Awards is the powerfully intense “Corpus Christi” written by Mateusz Pacewica and directed by Jan Komasa. The story wrestles with the reality of one man’s life and its intersection with the Catholic Church. The parallel lines the film draws between Jesus and Daniel are unmistakable, no matter how darkly masked and steeped in the harsh setting of today’s world the story becomes. It’s a disturbingly beautiful portrayal of denial, compassion, forgiveness, and love set in an unlikely place by an equally unlikely character.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is at a juvenile detention center with some of the most barbaric young men imaginable. During the attendance of a required mass, Daniel has an epiphany; a transformation which sets into motion a dire need to change his life’s direction. He feels he is called to become a priest. Unfortunately, and quite ironically, the young man is denied access and entrance to applying due to his past crimes. As he is released on parole, Daniel evades officers and becomes an impromptu stand-in for a small town’s parish priest.

This street-smart kid finds a new purpose in life as he is charged with doling out the responsibilities of a priest who needs assistance in this little town. Learning about the tragedy of a car accident killing six youth in a head on collision with a lone driver, the town is torn, angry, and resentful. It’s the perfect set up for Daniel to take advantage of and make a profit from, but the wheels are turning differently in his head now. Something has changed. We see him tempted by the cash from the offering plates as it calls his name, but there is a louder voice that now leads him; one that is from his heart or high above. Circumstances beckon him to not only perform the duties of a priest, but he follows his voice to help this town heal in very unorthodox ways.

At each and every turn, we are filled with turmoil, the tension building to insurmountable levels as this complicated and layered story unfolds. In our minds, we worry that he will be found out to be a fraud, nervous that he won’t know how to deliver someone’s last rites or that his past will catch up with him. But more than this, we want him to succeed and help this town forgive and learn to love again. Daniel has tapped into a part of himself he didn’t know he had, leading and teaching the townspeople, but more importantly, teaching himself. The road by which Daniel gets to this final point is a rough one filled with detours, but all a part of the necessary ending as it perfectly bookends the beginning.

Bielenia’s intensely captivating performance finds a rhythm and tone which creates an authentic and evocative character. His understanding of his character’s background and situation is evident in every word he utters and move he makes which in turn, allows us to know him as well. As Bielenia’s “Daniel” evolves, there’s a never fading shadow cast over him, allowing us to see that his mistakes will always be a part of him and perhaps he isn’t above making new ones. We see it in his huge, intensely expressive eyes, frequently darting from side to side as he awaits the next shoe to drop. Rarely do we see Daniel’s mind, body, and soul relax, but when he does, we mirror that feeling, letting down our guard for a moment and connecting more intensely to him. But we are mere helpless bystanders, unable to interfere as we predict his next move. He must make his own choices and pay for his past sins. Bielenia finds an unparalleled raw strength in a final pivotal scene, reminiscent of “First Reformed,” as his character’s world and all who are a part of it experience devastation, relief, and completion.

“Corpus Christi” powerfully sets up what is seemingly a simple story of a teen running from his fate, but quickly we see that it is so much more than that. Writer Pacewica masterfully lays the ground work with a succinct and captivating story and Komasa deftly directs not only Bielenia, but the entire cast to create more than just a story; it’s a hauntingly and impactful experience.

An interview with writer Andrew McCarten for “The Two Popes”

December 18th, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on “An interview with writer Andrew McCarten for “The Two Popes””

Academy Award nominated writer Andrew McCarten (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Darkest Hour,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) undertakes one of the most elaborately creative stories imaginable…the changing of the Catholic Guards. As the conservative Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) begins to consider stepping down, a feat not undertaken for centuries, he discusses his hopes for a future of Catholicism with future Pope Frances (Jonathan Pryce), the antithesis of Benedict. “The Two Popes,” streaming on Netflix beginning December 20th and in theaters, is a surprisingly touching and eloquently imaginative film that restores your faith not only in religion, but in finding peace between one another.

Creating this script that is unexpectedly funny takes the genius of someone like McCarten whose credits exhalt him to the highest level. In a recent opportunity, I, along with several other film critics, attended the LA premiere and chatted with this gifted and down-to-earth writer about the inspiration and background of the film. Here’s what he had to say:

Pamela Powell (PP): How do you consistently create such multidimensional portraits of characters?

Andrew McCarten (AM): It’s something that’s evolved since doing Stephen Hawking and then Churchill. It’s a bit like you put a canvas there and your subject’s there. (Motions with his hands.) The first thing you have to do is study the subject and you can’t stop digging at a superficial level, you have to go into their deepest stores and imagine what their fears are, what they had for breakfast, what are their mannerisms, what are their foibles, and eccentricities. You get to a certain point you think can I start work and you go, yeah I think we’re good to go. Then you start playing with it a little bit. I need to know what Frances thinks about homosexuality, but I also need to know what he likes for breakfast. Does he eat with a knife and a fork? We’re all very rich and multidimensional.

Paul Salfen (PS): The other films were biopics and [this film] doesn’t fit that genre.

AM: I’m not sure everyone would agree with you, but I would. This is bigger role in terms of the style of or the extent to which I’m using artifice because we don’t know that these two had these debates in these rooms. They probably didn’t, but what I did is take what one said in one room and what another said in another room and I open two doors and bring them in and put those stated positions into play with each other. So that’s the artifice of the [film] and it seems to work.

Question: We’re curious about the whole pizza, the Fanta, or even the beer and watching the World Cup.

AM: Here’s the origins of those things. My wife is German and so I can make jokes about Germans. Laughs. She had a personal friend who once had dinner with Pope Benedict when he was archbishop of Munich and everyone was drinking wine and he called for a Fanta. When asked why he said that’s all I drink with evening meals because during WWII Coca Cola was banned and for some reason they allowed Fanta. So kids who grew up there in that period of Nazi Germany were all addicted to this fizzy orange drink and he’s still addicted to it.

The football thing was, Pope Francis was a world famous futbol fan…there was one picture of the two of them from behind watching TV. You couldn’t see what was on the TV and I remembered thinking, I hope that World Cup Game between Germany and Argentina happened just after Frances became pope because that would be a wonderful way to end. I remember googling it and going PLEASE! And it was played two months after he became pope. And I think it’s justified by that photo of them watching TV

Question: Your background is Catholic. Tell us about its influence on the film.

AM: I lived it. I grew up in this. It’s a culture you grow up in and it was all-ecompassing. Church was the center of the community. We went to church every day or two it seemed. I was an alter boy to the preposterous age of 15! The little surplus thing came down to here. I used to look at my mother like Come on! And she’d go no, it’s great, it’s great. I used to do it for her because it made her happy.

I’m very sentimental about the institution and I know it from the inside. I was raised by nuns and catholic brothers and I saw these honest, well-intentioned, good workers, humble workers in the vineyard of the Lord, and they were selfless. They gave their lives to other people. And when I open every newspaper, it’s a horror show and no one’s ever told the story for a long time about what’s really going on in that institution that’s 2000 years old. It does a ton of good work, but no one’s hearing about it.

I’m showing two insiders and they obviously are not going to say, “Let’s burn the place down. He’s a revolutionary. The center of the whole thing is between a liberal and a conservative. I think the reason it’s having the impact it is is because it’s speaking to the fiery debate that’s happening in the world. We can’t seem to find the middle ground. The middle seems to have collapsed to me. We have to regain the high ground in the middle.

Question: How did Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins prepare for these roles?

AM: I can only tell you about their preparation because I’ve sat on panels and listened to them. I think the way they express it is that Anthony Hopkins is a classical pianist and Jonathan Pryce is a jazz pianist. 5 months before they started filming Anthony Hopkins said at my age I’m going to learn these lines once, ok? Don’t change anything. And Jonathan is more improvisational so I’ll learn the lines, but I’m going to play and be open and be loose. So these two styles meet and it’s actually so fitting for this movie where you’ve got a traditionalist and a progressive and you see that, actually, in the score of the piece where you’ve got classical music and then [jazz]. The idea is to bring jazz into the classical arena. That’s what he represents is someone who is a populist.

Question: What’s the Catholic Church’s reaction to the film?

AM: Various members of the clergy whenever we were screening, they come up with a mixture of gratitude and relief. I mean, they must be expecting the worst and if you see any Hollywood movie about the Catholic Church so I think they stagger out of there quite relieved.

Question: Did you film in the Sistine Chapel?

AM: No, we built it. It’s actually 5 inches bigger than the real Sistine Chapel. I think there was a joke on the part of the designers, they wanted the world record for the biggest Sistine Chapel. (Laughs)

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” a mere shell of a story

December 18th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” a mere shell of a story”

The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga.

***Capsule Review: Full review coming in this week’s edition of The Daily Journal***

This is a special effects film that far exceeds expectations in that category. If only it could have been equivalent in the story telling category as well! This lackluster continuation of a saga that has been a part of generations pulls at our nostalgic heartstrings, but even this isn’t enough to keep us focused on the shell of a story and its “new” characters. When you connect more with Chewbacca and the emotional trauma he or any of the droids go through than with the humans, it’s not a good sign. While Daisy Ridley portrays Rey, a strong woman attempting to be the next Jedi, her co-horts comprised of Poe (Oscar Isaac) who is completely miscast, and Finn (John Boyega) who finds one note throughout the film and plays it, unfortunately she can’t carry the film. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) have some of the best scenes, but there aren’t enough of them. With a couple nostalgic twists and turns, this newest and very long final (?) installment will be as memorable as “The Phantom Menace.”

1 Star

“Bombshell” blows the lid off what happened behind the closed doors at Fox News

December 17th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Bombshell” blows the lid off what happened behind the closed doors at Fox News”

Fox News’ Roger Ailes continues to make headlines years after his dismissal from the Fox Network in Jay Roach’s ( “Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents”) new film “Bombshell” with the all-star cast including Charlize Theron (Megyn Kelly), Nicole Kidman (Gretchen Carlson), Margot Robbie (Kayla), and John Lithgow (Roger Ailes). The story focuses upon three women; Kelly, Carlson, and the fictitious amalgam character Kayla, who all come forward to tell the truth about the years of lascivious behavior Ailes and the men who learned from this master.

Roach and writer Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) take a unique approach to telling this tale which begins before the 2016 election when Kelly first challenged Donald Trump during the presidential debates. The film “breaks the 4th wall,” a technique not new, but certainly associated with “The Big Short,” as Kelly gets us up to speed about the history and work environment at Fox. We meet the main characters whose stories are initially independent, but ultimately intertwine. Carlson is at a breaking point and has slapped Ailes with a lawsuit, and Kayla is diving into unknown waters as she climbs up the competitive anchor ladder. We watch as each of these women battle Goliath, but it is Kelly’s story that is the primary focus here.

Kelly, as most of you know, was a leading powerhouse at Fox. She lets us inside her world and we are privy to the set up of women being pitted against one another and the sexual expectations and consequences of non-conformity. With the confident Kelly at the top of the heap, we get a sense that she somehow skirted around Ailes misconduct. The story unfolds at rapid-fire pace as the three women’s stories become connected, not only does it anger us, it enlightens us through inventive and insightful storytelling.

While all of these women at Fox suffer from the Ailes dictatorship regarding looks, dress, and if you want to be a star, you pay the price, it’s the language these women all report to have heard that is simply heartbreaking and disgusting. We see that if they don’t buy in, they’re out.

There are two scenes in this film that will forever haunt me; Kayla as she is asked to twirl and show her legs, higher and higher for Ailes, and Abby Huntsman’s (Ashely Greene) bar scene as she lets us in on her thoughts while dancing around turning down her boss’s proposition. This, in fact, is Rudi Bakhtair’s true story and one of the most insightful ones of the film as we understand what she’s thinking and feeling and how she tries to retain her job without offending her boss’s proposition. She is fired and this promising reporter never works in news again.

All of these women’s stories along with a myriad number of other reports so creatively stitched into the film eloquently tell the ultimate demise of the king of media. Taking into consideration that the women at Fox, lead by Gretchen Carlson’s initial leap, all occurred before the #MeToo movement began and the Harvey Weinstein unveiling, we better understand the courage these women had to pave the path for us all.

The story can’t hold water, though, unless it has credible performances and without exception, “Bombshell” certainly does. Kidman’s authentic and tenacious portrayal of Carlson gives us a firm foundation of what it took to take on one of the most powerful men in the industry. Additionally, Theron and Lithgow’s transformation is jaw-dropping as they become their characters. Using extraordinary make up is one key element, but more than that, these actors have thoroughly studied their characters. We see them using unique mannerisms, expressions, and even vocal quality to bring Kelly and Ailes to the screen. Lithgow’s performance sends chills down your spine and this new spin on Kelly allows us to have compassion for her even if you’re not a Fox News fan. Robbie’s portrayal of sweet Kayla who dreams of not just being an anchor but a Fox News anchor, has her eyes opened to the dangers of being a beautiful female who is ambitious and talented. Her scene with Ailes is devastating to watch, powerlessly, as she loses her self worth.

The number of recognizable stars in this film is overwhelming, hinting at the strength of the story and the importance of its message. Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Connie Britton and many more play supporting roles and bring the film’s message to light. In a recent interview with Roach, he shared that, “…women should be safe at work…” and that is the heart of the message.

“Bombshell” finds the right pacing and tone to deliver and tell the tale of women in media, the men who kept it going, and what it took to bring it all tumbling down. The key flaw, however, with this story is it feels one sided, not “fair and balanced,” as many of us watched Megyn Kelly during this time period. She is made out to be a hero and while she may be in this particular situation, there are plenty of viewers that recall how she stirred the proverbial political pot, creating her own brew of disaster. Overall, the film is an exceptional insight into women in media and why things are finally changing.

3 1/2 stars

“Richard Jewell” A story from the past and for our current times

December 10th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Richard Jewell” A story from the past and for our current times”

Just in time for Oscar consideration, Clint Eastwood throws his hat into the ring with “Richard Jewell,” the story of the security guard who was unjustly blamed for the 1996 bombing in Centennial Park during the Olympics in Atlanta. Eastwood knows exactly what makes a good film—start with a good story and then tell it well. There are no fancy bells and whistles, just a jaw-dropping series of events, all derived from Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article and Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin’s book “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle.”

We meet the hapless Jewell portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser who you may remember from “I, Tonya” as he works as a supply clerk in a law firm. His off-beat eccentricities make people uncomfortable, but the driven loser has his eyes on the prize—becoming a police officer. Time goes by and his “eccentricities” get him ousted from law enforcement, a devastating blow for him. Living with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), he works as a security guard during the Olympics. His intense focus and “by the book” inflexibilities actually allows him to identify the bomb placed in the park during a concert, resulting in hundreds of lives being saved. He’s a hero…for a day. The FBI, ATF, and other agencies attempt to find the bomber only to leak information to an unscrupulous reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who detonates her own written bomb. And this is where the story really begins.

Jewell’s personality and lifestyle tick off all the requisite boxes describing a bomber. He’s a loner, lives with his mother, collects guns, is a wannabe police officer, etc. Unbeknownst to Jewell, he is now a primary suspect and is duped by the FBI (Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez) to “make a training video.” Jewell begins to realize he’s the suspect and calls Watson Bryant, the only lawyer he knows having met him 10 years prior during his days as a supply clerk. The FBI attempts to make Jewell fit the profile with Bryant trying to protect him. If only Jewell’s trusting and respectful nature and need to talk incessantly wouldn’t get in the way of it. As we get to know and understand Jewell, we see him as a harmless teddy bear bringing in an element of ironic humor in an otherwise intense drama.

At the heart of the story is the lack of journalistic integrity and the fallout from it. The intensity with which the story is told is captivatingly disturbing. The unethical behavior from not just the journalists, editors, and FBI, but major networks who are running with a story that gets viewers’ attention adds to the disappointment in these entities. It’s a devastating series of misfortunate events and while many of us remember the ending, there are still plenty of surprises for you.

To say that this is a strong cast is stating the obvious, but Hauser is not only a dead ringer for the real life Richard Jewell, he demonstrates the emotional and physical characteristics of this man. He’s meek yet seeks an authoritarian role, but never really earns the respect of others. His odd interactions and physical attributes find him at the butt of everyone’s jokes. And within all of this, we are sympathetic to him as we watch his emotional status devolve. Hauser is Jewell and shows us he can skillfully lead and support a complicated film. Of course, having Sam Rockwell as your right hand man can’t hurt. Rockwell, again like Hauser, fits Bryant’s description to a T. He creates a laid back Southern lawyer who ironically has utter disdain for authority and rules. Together, Rockwell and Hauser create the perfect pair allowing us to understand this series of unfortunate events.

Wilde is wild in her role as Scruggs. She’s incredibly energetic, disrespectful, and uses her wily ways to gain access and information. Bates comfortably melds into her role as the loving, protective yet strict older mom. Any mother will relate to her as the increasing helplessness overwhelms her. And Nina Arianda as Nadya, Bryant’s assistant, adds a bit of levity to the film as she becomes more involved in helping with the case and its inconsistencies.

“Richard Jewell” is a story from the past, but one for our current times as well. It reminds us all of the importance of journalistic integrity and our need for trust in authoritarian agencies such as the police and FBI. Eastwood tells this almost-forgotten story with style, but never in a heavy-handed way. Allowing the details to unfold effortlessly while the actors give evocative performances is exactly what the film requires to engage and entertain its viewers. Eastwood is a master of finding a personal story and telling it well. No fancy bells and whistles are needed when you have a good story and “Richard Jewell” is a great one.

4/4 Stars

*Eastwood is currently being sued by the Atlantic Journal-Constitution newspaper for falsely portraying the paper and its personnel.

“Dark Waters” finds new depths in corporate greed

December 5th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Dark Waters” finds new depths in corporate greed”

Trust. It’s a word that seems to represent a sparse commodity these days and director Todd Haynes takes New York Times’ journalist Nathaniel Rich’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” and shows us just how very true this is.

Mark Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer whose firm represents large chemical companies, but a visit a farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) from Bilott’s hometown in West Virginia turns Bilott’s world upside down as he finds himself on the other side of the legal bench, fighting against one of the most powerful chemical companies: DuPont. The story becomes a legal thriller as Bilott uncovers and discovers the coverups from this massive industry who appears to value the bottom line over human welfare.

Bilott is an unassuming and seemingly typical lawyer in the corporate world, but immediately upon his exchange with Tennant, we see he is a man with integrity. It helps that Tennant knows Bilott’s grandmother, affectionately referred to as “Gramers,” and Bilott strives to appease her. Bilott ventures from Cincinnati to Parkersburg, WV to visit Gramers and then Tennant’s farm filled with haunting scenes of catastrophic proportions as Tennant shares his theory of DuPont poising the creek water that runs through his farmland. This is when the mystery begins and Bilott plunges in head first. This will become a decision that will affect him, his firm, family, and ultimately an entire community and their futures in ways he could have never predicted.

Taking place over decades, Bilot carefully gets his feet wet, slowly wading into the tidal wave of information as we witness the youthful Bilott initially trusting all with whom he contacts in DuPont. This youthful naïveté is soon shaken as Bilott is then swamped by an endless number of boxes containing the requested “disclosures” from the chemical giant. Meant to deter him from proceeding, Bilott just dives right in, his tenacity keeping him afloat as he strives for justice. From our vantage point, these discoveries are encouraging but at the same time simply horrifying.

Director Haynes dissects this story with the precision of a surgeon, slicing ever so delicately to expose the truth creating one of the most compelling storytelling styles imaginable. The film is an intellectually stimulating one as we, along with Bilott, learn the necessary components of chemical bonding and product development as well as the regulations of the EPA. It’s engrossing and captivating, and sadly, as this film is based in truth, we see the dire consequences of big money steam rolling over the everyday Joe. On the other hand, the film gives us knowledge and with that comes power; the power to make changes and raise awareness to protect ourselves.

Ruffalo is the star and champion, bringing Rob Bilott’s personality to life. This humble and driven man isn’t your typical hero, but his integrity, loyalty, and willingness to go against the grain in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves makes him one. His body language, never confident and certainly not stereotypical of a high-powered corporate lawyer, endears us even more to him. Anne Hathaway portrays Sarah, Rob’s wife, and while her role is small, it’s vital in giving Rob a fully developed character. Their home life is affected by this case and we see the sacrifices she has made for him, the children, and herself in order to support her husband. Without her realistic performance, Bilott’s character would have felt more two-dimensional.

Adding to the authenticity of the film and the dire feeling of what is revealed is the cinematography. Creating and capturing those hauntingly disturbing images of affected livestock, children, and even pets, is punctuated by the endlessly grey skies. The sun seems to never shine, creating an atmosphere that is as haunting as the images we see.

This isn’t the first film about how large chemical companies disregard regulations or put their bottom line before the health and safety of its workers and communities and it won’t be the last. However, not since “Erin Brockovich” (2000) have we had an important narrative feature film about the subject. There are innumerable documentaries which address similar subjects all around our country, but perhaps we needed the star power of the man who is more widely known as The Incredible Hulk to shed a light on what’s happening in our own back yards and help prove that “better living through chemistry” isn’t true.

“Dark Waters” is a powerful, compelling, and necessary story to tell as it has you on the edge of your seat, mesmerized by each and every scene. With incredible performances that are never showy and a story that is gripping, it’ll change how you view your own world and your own definition of “trust.”

4/4 Stars

“The Aeronauts” – A breathtaking adventure story

December 5th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Aeronauts” – A breathtaking adventure story”

Looking for a film that will make your heart race in a thoughtfully beautiful story? “The Aeronauts” is just your ticket as Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are reunited to tell this fictional tale inspired by true events. The wildly mismatched team comprised of pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) takes us to new heights as they make not only scientific discoveries, but self-discoveries as well.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Wren is a wreck. She has experienced a devastating loss and she’s not coping well. It’s the mid-1800’s and she’s late for an important engagement: piloting a hot air balloon. The spectators go wild as she bursts onto the scene, but her partner, scientist Glaisher, isn’t quite so pleased with her. Her infectious energy can’t be thwarted by this dower man. She’s a dare devil who quite literally made me scream aloud in a crowded movie theater, but beneath that flamboyant exterior lies a troubled and regretful young woman. Glaisher, on the other hand, is her polar opposite as his tunnel vision and fortitude push him further to attain his goal in weather discovery and prediction. Claiming he is a “meteorologist,” Glaisher is the laughing stock of the scientific community, but that doesn’t stop him from his research. Together, they embark upon a journey that will forever change the world and each other.

Traveling higher and higher in this balloon, elevating the passengers in a basket that certainly wouldn’t pass any safety standards in today’s world, we, the viewer, are along for this breathtakingly dangerous ride. Thanks to the skillful cinematography, we truly feel that we are in that basket with them. As Wren leaned over the edge of the basket one too many times for my timid heart, my palms were sweaty as I gripped the armrest and pushed further back into my seat, attesting to the brilliant skills of the cinematographer. It’s also an emotional roller coaster ride of a story as it hurls us back in time, allowing our senses and fear of heights to relax, as we discover who Wren and Glaisher are. Balancing the thoughtful backstory with the heart-pounding adventure gives us a film that is engagingly thrilling and entertaining.

Wren is a pioneer, reportedly based upon the young aeronaut named Sophie Blanchard, who not only takes on a profession not typical for a woman, but pushes the boundaries of the perception of gender equality. She’s tough, but Jones finds extraordinary skill in allowing us to see her tenderness beneath that hardened exterior. What Jones provides in this role is a sense of reality thanks to not only her skills, but that of her director Tom Harper. Unlike many other adventure films, this heroine goes through the wringer and doesn’t come out looking like a super model. Thank you for that! Of course, Jones and Redmayne have incredible chemistry on screen, but this role is different for each of them. These are individuals with independent stories who allow one another to reveal their true selves; their fears, regrets, and hopes. The characters undergo a metamorphosis over a short balloon ride as they fight for their lives, and battle the demons within. The question is, which battle is the most difficult?

As I eluded to earlier, the cinematography is stunning. Capturing the beauty of Mother Nature, the earth and the sky, there is an inner peace that is elicited by the views. A calmness settles over you as you breathe deeply, soaking in the wonders of the world. Shifting gears, we thank our lucky stars for Wilbur and Orville otherwise, none of us would have the courage for air travel. The stunts will quite literally take your breath away and even the simplest of angles makes your heart race or your inner voice scream, “Get away from the edge!”

With many aspects of this film based on facts, it’s eye-opening to think that the science of weather prediction was once thought of as nothing more than hocus-pocus. The passion that Redmayne exhibits for this new-found science is as infectious as Jones’ energetic portrayal of Wren. Redmayne is the yin to Jones’ yang, precisely balancing one another. He gives Glaisher such deeply layered attributes as a soft spoken man who is socially awkward. We also find his heart of gold as he compassionately interacts with his ailing father and worried mother. His tenacity and determination rise to the top as he refuses to listen to his esteemed colleagues, trusting his knowledge and his gut instincts to strive for more in this new profession he has coined as meteorology.

Harper and his writing team do an extraordinary job of blending factual information into this fictional tale. Pairing Redmayne and Jones together gives us the perfect storm as their relationship is an unexpected and welcomed one. The cinematography makes this one worth seeing on the big screen. If you miss it there, “The Aeronauts” will be available to stream on AmazonPrime beginning Dec. 20.

Read the interview with Redmayne and Harper in The Daily Journal.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

“The Irishman” – Rich, complex, a masterpiece

November 26th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Irishman” – Rich, complex, a masterpiece”

“The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s reunion with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and the theme of The Mob, has been garnering praises from critics and viewers alike. This 3 and a half hour Netflix masterpiece could not have been created without the years of experience from these Hollywood icons who are able to look in the rearview mirror of life for a clear picture. While many hold “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” and “Good Fellas” in the highest regard, “The Irishman” is like the fine wine of this genre; aged, rich, and much more complex which in turn elicits an evocative and insightful story.

“The Irishman,” based on “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, a true crime novelist, is recreated for the silver screen by Steven Zaillian. No stranger to transforming hefty written material to film (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gangs of New York”), Zaillian creates the consummate screenplay, but no one but Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino, all in the hands of Scorsese, could have possibly brought it to this pinnacle of filmmaking.

The story is Frank Sheeran’s (De Niro) as he tells us his version of his life in the mob and how he is responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Teamster Leader Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran narrates the film intermittently, initially introducing us to himself as a seasoned veteran in the crime service, his wife, Russel Bufalino (Pesci) and his wife as they road trip from New York to Detroit, making a few important work-related stops along the way. To get us up to speed, Sheeran takes us back in time to meeting Bufalino as Sheeran’s meat delivery truck breaks down. This is the crossroads in Sheeran’s life and the point at which we get to see movie-making magic take place with the de-aging technique.

From this point, the film bounces back and forth through the decades, allowing us into Frank’s life as Bufalino’s right-hand man who follows order as if he were still in the military. We see how his past paved the road for his current career choice and how it impacts his relationships with his wives and children. Sheeran explains his decisions and opens the door to the mob, revealing the inner-workings from his point of view. Bufalino introduces Sheeran to Hoffa (Pacino) and the complexities of this triad is what makes this mobster movie a uniquely emotional one as it allows the viewer to connect with these morally deplorable people. It’s simply incredulous that I felt myself almost walking in Sheeran’s shoes, feeling his discomfort and conflict, but it is just this emotion that gives credit to the extraordinary writing, directing and acting: I am not a mobster, yet I can still relate to this man. Incredible.

The film takes its time, that is obvious by the running time, but in no way could this complicated and multi-layered story been cut to anything less. Scorsese peels away each layer of not just the story, but each character to reveal and more potent level beneath the exterior. And Scorsese’s direction pulls us into each and every scene. We feel that we are a part of the film, tagging along, walking through the hallways and trying to peer around the corner as we hold our breath. It’s this intensity and a personal point of view that punctuates the connection with the characters, particularly Sheeran.

De Niro has never been better. This role was meant for him and like that fine wine, I drank in every savory moment to better understand this man and his situation. He portrayed utter perfection as Sheeran as we read his subtle expressions conveying intense meaning ranging from hope, regret, remorse, and love of a friend. While obviously never condoning what he did, I did understand it. The era and the pressures are as much a part of the film as the story itself. Women were not a big part of it, but interestingly, Frank’s oldest daughter seemed to be a haunting figure for him. Perhaps she is his conscience and morality barometer, and while her character never developed fully, she certainly has a profound impact upon her father.

Pesci and Pacino are the complete package with De Niro. Pesci surprisingly has a more understated role, but an extremely powerful one. He’s the reigning lion and no one wants to intentionally anger him. The communication among all of them, relatively brief, but wholly succinct. It was a different era—a handshake, a man’s word—a time of loyalty and camaraderie. Pacino is also at the top of his career as he delves deeply into one of the most influential teamsters and organizers our country has ever seen. With his charisma and personality quirks, Hoffa is brought back from the dead for us all to see and understand. It’s a history lesson most of us never fully knew or understood.

The entire all-star cast seems to understand the depth of the film, giving outstanding performances no matter how small their part. Bobby Cannavale as Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio fits comfortably in his role and Ray Romano as Bufalino’s lawyer son Bill works with the precision of a surgeon, slicing words to make them work in a court of law. Of course there is humor woven into this story, but its found in unlikely places. Also expected is violence and there is, but unlike the aforementioned mobster films, the violence is a part of the story, propelling it forward and feeling real and not gratuitous. It is not violence for violence sake making “The Irishman” a cut above them all.

“The Irishman” is a compellingly complex narrative that takes us into a world we know little about as it uncovers and discovers Sheeran’s involvement in history. With exceptional performances, deft direction, and exquisite writing, this is a film that will find its place in its own history. It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking made possible only by the actors who have the experience and wisdom to do so.

4/4 Stars

“The Great Green Wall” Solutions to Climate Change Have Already Begun

November 25th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Great Green Wall” Solutions to Climate Change Have Already Begun”

“Water is wealth.” These three words not only define our future, but also our world today, according to the new documentary film “The Great Green Wall” by filmmaker Jared P. Scott. His previous film, “The Age of Consequences,” laid out in visual detail the road map of climate change and all it will and is currently impacting; the devastation permeating every aspect of life. Now, “The Great Green Wall,” the counterpart to his previous film, offers a gorgeously uplifting message giving us hope while it soothes our soul with incredible music from Malian artist Inna Modja.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Scott follows Modja, a majestic singer and songwriter, as she travels across Africa’s Sahel Region, between the Sahara Dessert to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. Over the past decade, this 7000km swath of dessert land is beginning to transform itself back to its original state thanks to committed local inhabitants who are joining a collaborative effort to make a positive difference in the environment. The seemingly simple effort of planting trees then, in turn, gives economic stability as it returns the area’s environmental health. As Modja travels the region, recording songs with other talented artists along the way, she raises awareness and helps inspire the youth in these regions. Speaking with the indigenous people who witness the atrocities that climate change has already created, we see first-hand the impact of damaging our environment. Violence, safety, and en masse exodus are all a result of those who take advantage of poor communities.

What she discovers is at times disturbing; young women are abducted and forced to marry; violence taking over communities and taking advantage of poor situations; and vast migration of young people abandoning their homeland in search of a more prosperous life elsewhere. The “desertification, insecurity, and conflict” of areas such as Modja’s homeland of Mali is unfortunately quite typical, but she finds hope along the way. Witnessing the effects of communities undertaking the planting of trees, it seems that miracles do happen. In a relatively short period of time, these communities prove that taking responsibility of their own futures, being respectful of and understanding Mother Nature, balance can be restored.

The beauty of this film is undeniable with original songs from Modja and Didier Awadi, a pioneer of West African hip hop, and native musician Dakar, the dulcet tones and rhythms reach your soul, emphasizing the beauty of humanity. Modja’s thoughtful conversations directly with you, the viewer, and interviews with other musicians gives this film an intimate feel. We comprehend the strife and begin to ignite hope for our future. Her honesty as she speaks to you and others, sometimes questioning the overwhelming goal of creating a swath of green more than 14,000 miles long, echoes our own thoughts. It’s this sincerity that connects us with her, even though we are tens of thousands of miles away.

As with all of Scott’s documentaries, the amount of information provided is mind-boggling, but not overwhelming. We learn about a previously unknown area, its people, traditions, and cultures. We discover new heroes who reside in everyday environments, sparking a movement that just might save our world.

Scott’s “The Great Green Wall” counter balances his previous film, encouraging us to take responsibility for our future and most importantly plants a seed of hope. The glorious musical overtones throughout the film are the through-lines, uplifting our spirits as we look introspectively to find solutions in our own back yard.

4/4 Stars

“Knives Out” is an ingeniously funny and smart whodunit movie

November 24th, 2019 Posted by Film Festivals, Review 0 thoughts on ““Knives Out” is an ingeniously funny and smart whodunit movie”

Writer and director Rian Johnson changes gears from “Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi” to his newest film “Knives Out,” an ingenious, whip-smart comedic thriller with an incredible all-star cast. This old-fashioned “who-dunnit” crime story takes us on a ride of mystery, intrigue, and puzzle-solving while laughing the entire time. This is a standout film of the year.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is the family’s patriarch having made his fortune writing murder mysteries. Coincidentally, the old man dies in his palatial mansion and his family, focused on the inheritance and not shedding a tear, are stopped short of the treasure chest as the famed Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. This, of course, would change the cause of death from suicide to murder and now puts each and every family member under the microscope as suspects.

Oh, what a family this is! Timing the release perfectly for Thanksgiving, you’ll find that your own family isn’t quite so dysfunctional after watching this one. Johnson covers all his family relationship bases with an ex-wife, a trust fund, shallow grandson named Ransom (Chris Evans), a controlling daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Valley Girl Joni (Toni Collette) as well as the disappointing son Walt (Michael Shannon). There are plenty of in-law issues beginning with Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) and strange grandchildren. We even have the Keystone Cops lead by Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield).

It’s evident from the beginning that we are in for a rip-roaring good time as the interrogation begins. Flashing between each of the suspects, a lone man slouches off in the corner at a piano, intermittently hitting a single key. Confusingly funny, the subjects make comments as to this man’s presence. We see the tangled web of deceit has been spun perfectly and now the players are all accounted for. The story then takes us back in time using a non-linear storytelling technique to put the pieces of the puzzle in proper order to solve the mystery of who killed Harlan Thrombey…or was it a suicide?

“Knives Out” keeps you on your toes with its clever unveiling of clues while distracting you with these bizarre and over-the-top characters who all have a motive or two. Collette and Evans take on roles and perform like you’ve never seen them before adding to the unexpected twists and turns as well as the hilarity. Johnson’s genius writing is always a step ahead of you, never putting all the pieces of the puzzle together until he wants you to.

The film, in all is jocularity, actually finds a way to address a common theme of movies this year: the haves versus the have-nots. Of course, with this wealthy family comes the topic of entitlement and work ethics, but these heavier subjects are all boiling well beneath the surface, fostering the hilarious situations and consequences.

While all the characters and performances are uniquely strong, the commonality among them is the actors truly seem to be having fun, elevating their performances to the highest level. Plummer just gets better and better, showing audiences that he truly can take any role and bring it to its ultimate potential. His character of “Harlan” is smart and strong with great wisdom and verve all delivered with a knowing twinkle in his eye. Each actor’s character gets a moment in the spotlight, allowing us to know who they truly are and what drives them. Two surprising performances come from Craig as he stuns us with his comedic timing. It’s a dry humor, the writing creating a strange interaction to make us laugh, but it it Craig’s interpretation and presentation that adds just the right touch. And then there’s Evans who certainly doesn’t come off as Capt. America. He’s a narcissistic, entitled, blue blood who is despicably condescending—but all of these attributes are presented in unexpectedly delightful ways.

Another surprise is a relatively unknown actor who has a lead in this film, Ana de Armas who portrays Marta Cabrera, the nurse and caregiver for Harlan. Her storyline stitches all the characters together while the social issue of immigration plays every so perfectly into this narrative. de Armas’ performance hits all the right notes as she invites us to walk in her shoes. She’s remarkably engaging, honing her ability to connect with the audience no matter her circumstances.

As you can see, there is one enjoyable and entertaining surprise after another. Its fast pace never lets you catch your breath as you happily try to see the full picture, but alas, Johnson is the driver of that car and you’ll get there when he wants you to. To find such an entertaining murder mystery with the feel of a film from days gone by is an absolute treasure. This incredibly smart and funny film with standout performances from actors who are having as much fun as the viewer is sure to be tops on not just critics’ lists, but yours as well.

4/4 stars

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is what the world needs now

November 17th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is what the world needs now”

What the world needs now is exactly what “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” provides. Starring Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s television show host Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, a talented yet jaded journalist who must interview Rogers for Esquire Magazine, much to his chagrin, for the “Hero” issue. “Neighborhood,” co-written by Micah Ritzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) tells Vogel’s story and how Rogers’ impacted him in this brilliantly creative story that will change your heart and make the world a kinder place for all who see it.

WATCH THE TRAILER

Can a movie really do that? Change your heart? I challenge you to prove me wrong as the “Fred Effect” is a powerfully positive one. And if you’re thinking this is just going to be a narrative feature film based on the phenomenal 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” it’s not. We begin the tale, inspired by journalist Tom Junod’s Esquire1998 article “Can You Say… ‘Hero?’” in the Land of Make-Believe. The camera sweeps in to an incredibly elaborate design of Pittsburgh and then takes us on to the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred (Hanks) welcomes us as he calmly goes through his routine of taking off his shoes and putting on that red cardigan that has become synonymous with love and kindness. Just when you think the film is going to be a reenactment of the show, Mr. Rogers introduces us to our main character, Lloyd, whose beaten face is uncovered beneath Picture Board’s doors. We are then magically transported to Lloyd’s world in NYC and how he came to this angry state.

“Neighborhood” builds on these juxtaposing tones of positivity and negativity, aka real life, with deft skill. Lloyd, hearing that his new assignment is not hard-nosed investigative journalism, but a puff piece about a kids’ show host, makes him quite angry; not realizing that this will change his life forever. Reluctantly, he arranges a meeting with Rogers and each subsequent interaction Lloyd finds frustration, disbelief, igniting his long-buried internal. It’s a revelatory narrative arc of growth for Lloyd that will resonate with us al.

The story is incredibly powerful as the writers masterfully take us into both Lloyd’s and Rogers’ worlds. One moment we are laughing aloud, the next tears are streaming down our faces with joy and sometimes sadness. It completes all the emotional ranges we are capable of expressing. To describe scenes such as the subway or the dream scenes would be spoiling your fun so I will only alert you to them.

Attention to detail is evident in not only the script, but the set and sound design. Mr. Rogers thoughtfully explains the very dark topics that he addresses on his show and why. Lloyd is the devil’s advocate and bluntly states what many of us are perhaps thinking only to get a remarkable answer in return. Their chemistry is sometimes uncomfortable, but always genuine. It feels as if you are watching real-time events unfold, not a movie.

The interactions between Lloyd and his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) reveal where Lloyd’s anger stems and we get a clear picture of his past and what he must overcome. It is during these painful memories and current interactions that there is a tinnitus or high-pitched sound that bombards Lloyd, sending him into his angry and unbearable world. The emotional roller coaster then quickly jettisons us into the next scene from NYC to Pittsburgh and back using extraordinarily detailed sets imitating the Land of Make Believe. These are the small, no pun intended, but important details that accentuate the creativity of all who are involved in this film giving the intense story a way to bounce into a safer emotional state.

All of this could not be possible or believable if it wasn’t for the fact that Hanks becomes Rogers. From the moment we meet him going through the door of the set at WQED in Pittsburgh, he is Mr. Rogers. His body language, affect, mannerisms, speech pattern and cadence and most importantly, his expressive eyes all replicate the man millions of children (and now adults) have come to love and admire. To resemble another person for a film is a grand accomplishment, but to become him, making the audience believe in him, is quite another. Hanks is sublime.

Rhys performance is equally as powerful, balancing the story in a difficult way. It’s real and one with which most of us can connect. Cooper has a stand out performance as well and Enrico Colantoni’s role as Rogers’ right-hand man Bill Isler is a small role, but one that has heart and comedy as well. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast adding just the right dose of personality to make this film come to life.

Director Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a brilliant work of art as Hanks captures the heart, soul, and essence of Fred Rogers. Make no mistake, this is Vogel’s story. Heller found a gem of a tale to retell and gives audiences a powerfully uplifting story based on reality. Her ingenious imagination and creativity keeps us grounded in Fred’s world as we walk in Lloyd’s shoes, experiencing an empathy with this character like no other and hopefully, ultimately changing us. It’s a metamorphosis of a character and maybe even of us as viewers.

4 STARS out of 4. (I’d give it more if I could!)

“Ford v Ferrari” So much more than a car racing movie

November 15th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ford v Ferrari” So much more than a car racing movie”

No other movie this year will rev your engine and make your heart race as well as pull on those heartstrings more than “Ford v Ferrari,” directed by James Mangold and starring Christian Bale as race car driver Ken Miles and Matt Damon as car designer Carroll Shelby.

Based on a true story, and all car aficionados will recognize the story immediately, “Ford v Ferrari” features Shelby and Miles, hired by Ford, the man (Tracy Letts) and the company, to create a car that would beat the competitor, Ferrari, in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1966.

The film transports us back in time to meet Miles, a cantankerous perfectionistic car mechanic, struggling in business and itching to get back into car racing. The talented driver, as we see immediately and throughout the film, has a temper, is impulsive, but above it all yearns to drive, race, compete, and most importantly, win.

To read the review in its entirety as published in the Friday, Nov. 15th edition of The Daily Journal, go to:
THE DAILY JOURNAL

“Waves” Interview with Writer/Director and Stars

November 14th, 2019 Posted by Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““Waves” Interview with Writer/Director and Stars”

Trey Edward Shults boldly plunges in to his second full-length feature film “Waves,” starring Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“Luce”), Taylor Russell, and Sterling K. Brown depicting a suburban family dealing with an unexpected tragedy and must find a way to forgive and ultimately heal. This personal film explores the emotional range of a young black man never quite seen on the silver screen before. Shults, Harrison Jr., and Russell were all in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival and sat down with me to discuss the making of this tragically beautiful and visceral film.
*(Edited for space and clarity)

Pamela Powell (PP): I know your first film, “Krisha,” was a very personal one, based upon your own life’s expereinces. Is “Waves” also?

Trey Edward Shults (TES): Yes, it was. This one probably more myself or starting with myself and things I’ve actually lived and gone through…and the collaboration with Kel (Kelvin). It was a kind of very narrow, personal point of view and understanding other perspectives as well.

PP: Was this a type of therapy or catharsis for you?

TES: My mom and my step-dad are both therapists. I think that could go both ways, but I actually feel very blessed to have two parents as therapists because I think I would have been a total mess and they put up with me pretty well. (Everyone laughing) I think everything I’ve done so far is working something out. I genuinely believe that with this movie [I] was putting a lot of past experiences, some present, and everything that I believe and feel as a human being, spiritually, creatively, emotionally, where I’m at right now, into a movie. It was an incredibly cathartic experience; every different stage of the movie.

PP: Kelvin, tell me about your input and collaborating with Trey.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (KHJ): He pretty much already had an idea of what the movie was going to be and at the end of “It Comes At Night,” he said he was going to make this high school movie and I was like well then maybe I should be in it.(Laughs). So then about a year later, he came and he was like, ok, I’m ready. And so let’s talk about it. …. the collaboration became this, like Trey said earlier, therapy for us. Rehashing out our childhood and our upbringing and relationships and experiences with our fathers and my sister and our romantic relationships and just trying to figure out who are we and what would it feel like to be a young man. What were the struggles of just trying to find our identity in that moment, just trying to understand and love yourself. It was like honest and this universal truth so then me coming into it, just explaining to him what it was like to be an African American and throwing in those experiences, him just being such a great listener.

PP: Forgive me if I’m unaware, but I really haven’t seen an African-American family portrayed in this way before.

Taylor Russell (TR): No, I think you’re incredibly intuitive. We were at a Q&A and it was a mixed audience … What was lovely is that somebody said, he wasn’t Black, this story doesn’t feel like a Black story, it feels universal. On the other side, a Black person said, this feels like so tailored to the African American experience. … It’s very rare that you see a person of color who you see all the nuances and the tones of what it’s really like to be a real person who is African American, who’s upper middle class or who has all the different levels as human beings. I think because of the fact that it’s universal and about a Black family, we really haven’t seen that before and I think it’s really important.

PP: Kelvin, tell me about creating such evocative scenes and which one spoke to you?

KHJ: To be honest, I think it’s the scene with Tay in the bathroom. I think it’s because, first of all in terms of masculinity and black masculinity that was something we really wanted to explore …I look at Denzel and he does it so well, but then there’s that strength behind it [and there’s] always this idea that I’m going to hold it together because I have to. One of my favorite movies is Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” and even him in this movie, it’s still like, be tough, get through it. … I think we see, they’re playing the truth of what this is to be a Black man, and it speaks on the progression of where we are and what the youth are like. … they have the opportunity to be more vulnerable and be less fearful.

PP: Trey, tell me about creating an unexpected yet now favorite scene.

TES: When Tay and Lucas meet, that, I wasn’t even going to shoot the scene that way because that seems very unorthodox where it zooms in on her. It was just going to be a two shot, solo shots the whole time, but I let the scene keep running. We zoomed back out and we kept playing this whole scene with this nice awkward take where you see the body language. It feels really special because of that.

PP: The cinematography is uniquely dramatic. Can you tell me about that, especially driving and capturing these sometimes dizzying scenes.

TES: I [try] to make them (the cameras) feel hidden. Sometimes they are far away or were tucked behind something, but sometimes they’re right here, spinning (hand in front of Kelvin’s face) in front of their faces, but we’re trying to not get in their way. We want to set up the environment for freedom so I hope for them, it feels like the camera isn’t even here any more [that] we’re just playing.

“Waves” opens Friday, November 15 in limited theaters.

“Ekaj” tackles youth, homelessness, and compassion in NYC

November 6th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ekaj” tackles youth, homelessness, and compassion in NYC”

Writer/director Cati Gonzalez hones her professional photography skills and brings them into the filmmaking arena with “Ekaj.” The avant-garde and visceral film depicts Ekaj (Jake Mestre) in an inhospitable city desperately trying to not only survive, but find love, sometimes in all the wrong places. Gonzalez boldly delves into the gritty streets of NY to reveal the underbelly of society that most of us overlook. With humanity, we see these characters in a different light, feeling their loss and uncertainty in their future of tomorrow.

Gonzalez has a uniquely artistic eye which shines in this film. It is with this that a sad and eye-opening portrayal of life is told in a raw and unforgiving way. Initially we aren’t sure about Ekaj or his “friends.” And while we may not be able to relate to his situation, scamming people to make it through the day, we do identify with his need for love. It’s a heartbreakingly dark tale as Ekaj helps a friend with AIDS whose condition is worsening and Ekaj finds himself in an unhealthy relationship. The humor, as dark as the situation at hand, punctuates the overall tone of the film giving us an authentic view of homelessness, mental illness, and the inequities of our society.

There’s an experimental feel to this film both in structure and style which is a daring choice for Gonzalez, but it works on many levels. While the story itself is more of a character study and slice of life, it’s certainly one that puts Gonzalez on your radar of upcoming and visionary filmmakers.

3/4 Stars

“Harriet”

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Harriet””

My heart broke for Minty aka Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) in the very first scene as we are witnessing her memory of her family being violently pulled apart. Freedom for slaves south of the Mason Dixon Line is nothing but a dream and this first scene paints the background for the atrocities imparted upon anyone who is of a different color and held in ownership.

The film brings us back in time to Minty’s situation prior to escaping to the North. Her owners treatment is despicable, but filmmaker Kasi Lemmons doesn’t protect us from seeing it…we immediately sink into the same inescapable emotional abyss. But it’s clear that Minty—her name before her escape—is different. She has visions and these are caused by yet another sad event in her life. The story takes us on Minty’s harrowing journey to freedom, but this is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning.

While many of us know the name Harriet Tubman, a woman who was integral to the Underground Railroad which assisted slaves to escape into freedom, but “Harriet” takes us further into her story, discovering the tenacity, strength, and determination of this woman and how she came to possess these remarkable attributes. Additionally, the film imparts historical knowledge that admittedly I was unaware.

Embodying Harriet Tubman is the talented Erivo who gives a richly textured performance. It’s impossible to leave the theater and not think that you now know who Harriet Tubman was as a person, not just a hero. And this is thanks to Erivo’s passionately subtle portrayal which elicits immediate sympathy and an indescribable connection.

With every hero, there must be the anti-hero and in this film it comes with Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess the juvenile who becomes Minty’s master. His lack of humanity is chilling as he delivers repulsive lines with absolute conviction. And when the two actors are on screen together, there is a sense of fear that courses through your veins, dreading when and how that proverbial shoe is going to drop.

Making this film stand out are the unlikely characters in the story, aspects of history that most never knew. Understanding how Congress passed laws which further drove Blacks north and anyone of color, free or not, fearing for their lives. These details in the film bring the subject and time into clear focus allowing us to not only understand what happened, but to feel it in our hearts.

This dramatic action film accentuates the tension-filled situations that will be more than memorable. It will leave you with a sense of awe and admiration as you find yourself questioning what you would have done under similar circumstances. There aren’t many of us who could be true heroes, but Harriet Tubman certainly is.

Cinematically, the film shines, but there were issues toward the conclusion of the film that felt more forced and unnatural. Perhaps it is at this point that historical facts are given license to divert slightly. This, however, does not take away from the overall impact or importance of the film or this story. In fact, it will motivate you to learn more information about this woman, checking to see if she truly did have visions (she did) and the route she traveled to save hundreds of people who might have otherwise never lived (it’s daunting).

“Harriet” is filled with memorable situations and performances, but more importantly, it gives us a more complete understanding of American history. Lemmons’ direction takes what could have been a typical biopic and breathes a sense of urgency and life into it. This is a film for everyone to better understand our country, humanity, compassion, and the need to stand up for those who cannot.

3 ½ Stars

“Motherless Brooklyn”

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Motherless Brooklyn””

“Motherless Brooklyn” has so much going for it with an engaging old-fashioned story of mystery and intrigue in gritty film noir style. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Edward Norton is the writer, director and lead in this thriller. Unfortunately, there is one misstep from my point of view. He used the disorder of Tourette’s Syndrome as his comedic trope, accentuating the most severe and unlikely symptoms and associated behaviors and disorders. The film would have benefitted had he found a different way to make us chuckle.

We are introduced to Lionel and his buddies as a possible shake down is about to occur. We also find out more about Lionel as the story is narrated by and seen through his eyes. Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Lionel sit in the car awaiting further instructions. Are they both buffoons or is there more than meets the eye as Lionel perseverates on a loose thread in the cuff of his sweater. Danny (Dallas Roberts) helps him out, with a few reprimands, as Lionel utters a few repetitive words and rhymes. It is at this point that Lionel, through voiceover, explains to the audience what if feels like to have this “problem” which is severe Tourette’s Syndrome. Given the era this film takes place, the syndrome was not widely diagnosed, but the film does elude to some pretty awful therapies executed by the nuns where he and Frank were raised.

A murder occurs and Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) crack detective team, Danny, Lionel, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Gilbert, must put the pieces of the puzzle together to solve not only who the murderer is, but more importantly, the why of it all. With a sprinkle of a love story, a bit of humor although it is at the expense of a man suffering from Tourette’s, and a tight script not to mention the gorgeous jazz music at the foundation and sometimes as the focal point, it’s a story that keeps you guessing. Norton doesn’t give too much away too soon, teasing you to try to figure it out before his character does.

These characters, the costuming, and situations are all over-the-top, just as you would expect from this genre of film. And these are the elements you also love in this style of film. Alec Baldwin plays the heavy with dialogue you can’t help but imagine his muse is Donald Trump. Leslie Mann has fun with her role as the widow who surprisingly isn’t too sad about losing her hubby, and Bruce Willis brings a mellow, easy tone as leader of the pack. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s power of presence fills the screen and inexplicably forbids you to look away. Her character of Laura is the love interest or perhaps femme fatale as she fights to equalize social and racial injustices. The entire cast including Willem Defoe, Fisher Stevens, Cannavale, Michael Kenneth Williams as the engaging and talented trumpet player, and Josh Pais elevate the story to its finest level.

Norton’s direction called for multiple closeups, pushing the viewer to crawl into the mind of the subject at hand. It’s a tactic that works as you never have a moment to have your thoughts wander, but unfortunately, there was a projection issue during my screening which became distracting as portions of the screen were omitted. The chase and fight scenes, however, were tightly filmed with tension at the forefront giving the film the element of intensity at just the right moments.

While the running time is close to 2 ½ hours, there’s not a dull moment. Overall, it’s a complicated story that unfolds beautifully, but it’s too bad that this very smart story had to mock an actual disorder to try to make us laugh.

3 stars

“Fantastic Fungi”- The scientific magic of mushrooms

October 16th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Fantastic Fungi”- The scientific magic of mushrooms”

Hope. It’s what we’re missing when it comes to the future of the Earth, of humanity, but “Fantastic Fungi” is exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s this dose of hope that will inspire, educate, and renew your faith in Mother Nature and her ability to right the world. If this sounds like it’s too good to be true, think again and then take a moment to watch this visually arresting, entertaining, and thought-provoking film by Louie Schwartzberg, debuting at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, October 18, 2019.

Schwartzberg tells the story of mycelium or the mushroom in this new documentary. He explores the often overlooked, but massive and interconnected magical kingdom responsible for delectable delights, decomposition of organic matter, increasing the soil’s nutrient base, and even curing diseases. Using time-lapse macro cinematography, “Fantastic Fungi” is simply mesmerizing, captivating you, as you find yourself forgetting to breathe. Schwartzberg’s masterful camera work is equally as engaging as the layered and complicated, yet easily understood scientific information. The research expressed via narration and interviews lays the necessary foundation for us to easily build a fortress of understanding. We learn about the true cycle of life, from the beginning of time to our current day and our future as well as the more immediate circle of life as living organisms die and prepare the ground for new life.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

The film’s focus, mycologist Paul Stamets, brother of Chicago film critic Bill Stamets, has devoted his life to the discovery of mushrooms and their potential to solve humanity’s problems. His interest in the topic is a story in and of itself, but his discoveries and knowledge, all gained in atypical ways, has opened the previously locked doors of life’s secrets. We also gain further knowledge with interviews from author Michael Pollan, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Johns Hopkins neurologists and psychologists, giving great credibility to the information at hand.

Learning that the base that supports all life is an interconnected microorganism called a fungi, there are more than 1.5 million types of these organisms. Without them, you (we) wine drinkers, beer imbibers, and whiskey connoisseurs, would find our cocktail time uninviting. On a more serious note, the hundreds of thousands of types of mushrooms, a part of this fungi family, promises to have the potential to solve our climate change issues and help develop cancer treatments. “Fantastic Fungi” reveals the real magic kingdom, showcasing this organism’s potential as well as its roots—pun intended–as it appears that we are all interconnected. It’s a symbiotic relationship among all living organisms with a more complicated communication system than ever before realized, but it’s up to us to unlock the code and discover the answers literally beneath our feet.

When Mother Nature created mycelium which, without getting into the science behind it all in this review, takes any organic material and can process it. Think about targeting a cancer cell with this and eliminating this lethal cellular machine. Or using a type of fungi to decompose an oil spill, turning the environmental disaster into a haven for new life. Schwartzberg’s painstaking research unfolds before your eyes in wonderfully entertaining ways as you witness the wonders and magic of the mushroom.

With so many doom and gloom documentaries about the future of our world, “Fantastic Fungi” gives us hope in a future. Our Earth is a precious space that is in dire straits, but stopping to listen, see, and open our minds to a new way of learning just might prove that we have a chance after all. I was swept away by this film, its imagery, and its potency. It has inspired me to learn more about mushrooms and what might be right outside my back door in my very own yard. I am inspired, but even more importantly, I am hopeful.

Do not miss “Fantastic Fungi,” one of the most beautifully powerful and intellectually stimulating films of the year and perhaps even the decade. Paired with “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” it’s a match made in heaven to give you a greater scientific understanding of the balance in which we need to strive.

For more information about this film, visit Fantastic Fungi
For ticket information at the Siskel Film Center where the film will screen Friday October 18th and 19th with Schwartzberg in attendance and through October 24th, go to Gene Siskel Film Center
4 Stars

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” A disturbing mess not intended for children

October 16th, 2019 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” A disturbing mess not intended for children”

The witch is back in Disney’s sequel “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This convoluted dark mess with an unknown target audience continues the saga of Maleficent with misguidance and misdirection from the mega studio. While the story picks up and recaps the events from the first film, “Maleficent,” a much more benign and children-friendly film, this new rendition has only enough content to fill about 30 minutes of the nearly 2-hour running time.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” begins with the young Queen Aurora (Fanning), Maleficent’s human daughter, and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) from the neighboring and previously warring kingdom, planning their upcoming nuptials, much to both their mothers’ chagrin. Caught in the middle of trying to please her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), and persuading Mom to hide her horns and behave, she finds that there are evil ulterior motives lying beneath her new mom’s intentions.

Initially, the film has a few laughs, particularly with Maleficent’s commentary of the human race, but these snarky quips quickly fall to the way side to make room for disturbing content that will surely spark a few nightmares for little ones. Queen Ingrith begins to reveal her true colors showing that she may not possess the magical powers of Maleficent, but she does have the devil in her heart. As the story twists and turns, we see the tone of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale (“Little Briar Rose”) brought to everliving color, but even the Brothers Grimm might cringe with the disturbing darkness that Disney has ensnared.

Queen Ingrith has devised the means to complete the genocide of two races. She is threatened by them, seeking power, and misunderstanding them because they are different. While there are wonderful lessons to be learned about embracing others’ differences, this is not the way a children’s film should do it. Disturbingly, we witness a little fairy being turned to dust before our eyes using a chemical invented by the evil queen. We also watch as all the little creatures are lured into a church under false pretenses only to be slowly gassed to their death. There are also plenty of battle scenes and the body count is high.

The story does, predictably, push us to root for not only the young couple in love, but also for the Queen of Evil, Maleficent. She’s got a temper, but thanks to her human child, she has learned to love, dampening her roiling rage. Jolie beautifully exudes this inner conflict, sometimes with sarcasm, and we find ourselves more emotionally connected to her than to Aurora. Fanning’s forgettable performance illustrates a milk toast character that is undeniably flat—it’s a total disappointment in Disney pushing forward with female empowerment. Pairing perfectly with Fanning is the princely love interest who is equally dull. The culprit of these disappointing performances is most likely an unimaginative script. And unimaginatively, the film appears to have directly “borrowed” scenes from other films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Lord of the Rings” to mention just a couple.

On the positive side, makeup, costuming and set design are incredible, but unfortunately, this cannot carry a film. Jolie’s sharply protruding cheek bones and clavicle which supports her talon-topped wings, and her sleekly silhouetted black garb, accentuating her strikingly strong physique, are simply mesmerizing. And Pfeiffer’s bejeweled and flattering royal dresses just might start a fashion trend.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is a disappointing live-action sequel that lacks content, but more importantly, it is a distressing and disturbing film not intended for youngsters. We also have grown to expect Disney to entertain the adults as well as the kids, but this one doesn’t fit the bill in either category.

1 Star

“Red Penguins” – An interview with director Gabe Polsky and subject Steven Warshaw at TIFF

October 3rd, 2019 Posted by Film Festivals, Interviews, Review 0 thoughts on ““Red Penguins” – An interview with director Gabe Polsky and subject Steven Warshaw at TIFF”

Who could possibly create a documentary about Russia, hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Mafia that is funny, educational, and insightful? None other than Gabe Polsky who gave us “Red Army” in 2016. While you might be thinking that this is just an extension of his first film, think again. This is one of the most bizarre, underreported, and unfathomable sports stories in history. Polsky’s subject, Steven Warshaw, a marketing genius, took it upon himself to attempt to save the Russian hockey program and create interest and financial stability for this Red team. What he found was corruption, embezzlement, and mind-boggling sordid situations proving the adage that truth truly is stranger than fiction.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chicago native Polsky and his subject, Steven Warshaw, for an entertaining and insightful conversation about the making of this film.

Pamela Powell (PP): How did you two become acquainted?

Gabe Polsky (GP): I was promoting “Red Army,” …at one of the festivals in NY and Steve came up to me afterwards and told me that he has a great story [and] that it’s also about this Red Army team, but it’s about the ’90’s and what happened afterwards. … But I told him, “Look, I’m not interested in even going near Russia or hockey again.” I just did this big film and I was kind of mad, actually, about the idea of doing something like that. Anyway, Steve asked for my address and I did give it to him. (Chuckling) He didn’t look like a creepy guy. He was a little strange (more laughter) … I got this huge box of materials, videos, documentation, photos, all this stuff about this story and I opened it up and looked through it and was kind of amazed and shocked … but then I pushed it away again.

PP: What made you open it back up and delve into the making of this film?

GP: It was the kind of thing that even to this day I was reluctant to go for because

Steven Warshaw (SW): This is the antithesis of what he had seen. [He] documented maybe the greatest hockey team in history and now he’s going to look at the train wreck that ensued after the Soviet Union. And we were that train wreck.

PP: And you were the engineer? (Laughing)

SW: No, I was the conductor, the engineer, and the toilet cleaner! (Laughing)

PP: Why did you hold on to all of this stuff?

SW: I am a pack rat. I save everything that’s flat. … I don’t save plush animals or hockey pucks. If it’s flat, I save it. Photos, tickets, contracts, archival material, artwork, anything that I can stack. And this was a really important part of my life. I fell in love over there, not just with the team, but I fell in love with a fantastic Russian woman. I was 34 at the time. I fell in love with the culture. … When we were just blown out of there, it hurt. It was like getting your doors blown off in a romance. … I always saved my love letters from my girlfriends, maybe I’ll be able to resurrect this too. So that’s why I did it.

PP: They say that with age comes wisdom. This is a two part question. What would you tell your younger self and would you do anything differently?

SW: Second question first. I would much rather have gone to Italy or Spain or done this in a better country. You look back and I had attributed it to just youthful insanity. In retrospect, obviously, it was crazy. I should have taken the other job offer I had … I had two offers at the same time. Either go to Russia or to come to Canada. So in retrospect I should have definitely gone to Vancouver and had a beautiful life in Canada instead of this crazy mad [one], but then Gabe wouldn’t have had a film. (Laughing) There you go. It was intriguing for us because we were young and stupid so the danger element was almost an adrenaline rush for us. Yes, you look back, I didn’t have kids so I could take chances back then. Now I wouldn’t, of course.

PP: What did your mother think?

SW: She thinks I [was] a greeting card salesman! (Laughs). Actually, they came to see us in (Russia). They came on Revolution Day. Nov. 7, 1993 … They had a great time over there. They didn’t see all of the criminal elements. They didn’t know about it. I didn’t tell them.

GP: Now they’ll know.

SW: Now they’ll know they raised a stupid kid. (Laughs!)

PP: Steven, how did all of this influence your future career and choices?

SW: I made a lot safer decisions. Blue chip type of deals instead of wild fantasy deals, but I still think I’ve got one more in me before I check out of here so maybe I’m looking at some other crazy, third world country and bringing badminton or I don’t know. There’s one more chapter in me … for you (looking to Gabe)!

PP: Gabe, there was one particularly chilling scene in the film where you discovered someone lurking behind you; you were being watched and followed when you were in Russia. Did this give you pause about completing film and presenting it publicly?

GP: It did! The answer is yes, I did feel kind of weird being in Russia at that time. Sanctions were going strong and the sentiment toward Americans wasn’t great. I wouldn’t say just regular people. The government position was pretty clear, but people were generally warm. I don’t know why, but when I was there, I felt a little bit paranoid and I’m not a super paranoid guy, but I felt weird. And when that happened, it was a WTF moment. Yes, I’ve been thinking a little bit about … the danger.

PP: Given today’s political environment, what do you think viewers will take away from this very timely piece even though this took place back in the 1990’s?

GP: I would hope that first of all, understanding the history and what happened in the ’90’s has relation to what’s happening now and their views toward Americans. Our working relationship, I think this is a good example of what [was] happening to all companies that were coming to Russia at the time. … and as soon as they saw success, they saw almost insurmountable challenges from encroaching interests. But more than even that, it’s this idea to understand the Russian psychology and behaviors in a deeper way. We read a lot of facts and allegations about that, but no one really gets to see how people behave and talk and deal with people. I think this story, by experiencing the story, we get to know the culture a lot better. Not just their culture, but ours too.

PP: Steven, when you watched the film, the interviews with those who spoke about you, what did you think or feel when you heard what they had to say?

SW: I’m still shocked that Goshen’s still breathing oxygen. That guy, he’s a walking heart attack. And everyone else died, except him.

PP: What does that tell you? (Laughing)

SW: That he’s Rasputin. He’s the devil! (More laughter) To me, it was frightening because I didn’t know how crazy I was back then. I wasn’t a kid, I was 34. We just threw caution to the wind and we were just worried about accomplishing our mission, to fill the arena and sell sponsorships, create tours, merchandising, a great story.

GP: But when you saw those other characters, the KGB guy and even Gusev, how did you feel? How did you feel?

SW: I wasn’t really shocked because I had lived it. But the one shocking element to me that I learned from the film was just how close the Mafia got to Gusev, my Russian partner. They really read him the riot act that he’s gotta leave Pittsburgh. I didn’t know that until I saw the film. I didn’t realize the Mafia was so deep into Viktor Gusev’s life that they had threatened him.

PP: But there’s that haunting laugh from Goshen.

GP: Yeah, how do you feel about that scene?

SW: It’s vintage Goshen. He’s brain damaged from alcohol. He’s had heart attacks, he’s been in car accidents, he’s been in prison. I mean the guy’s had an incredible life. So to me, he’s the perfect foil.

GP: Why is that vintage Gushen? What is that laugh?

SW: It’s demonic. He’s the evil empire that Reagan referred to. He’s a cartoon character that came to life and I’m just flattered that he said he’d still be my friend! (Laughs!)

PP: Flattered or scared?

SW: Scared! The same thing is that he would rather fail on his own that succeed with the [Americans]. I think that’s the critical point. They had such pride and that’s why they couldn’t take it. … It was embarrassing for them because it took foreigners to come in and do their job for them. They resented us for that and they actually rooted against us.

4 out of 4 Stars

Be sure to check back to find out how and when you can see this timely and entertaining film.

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