Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

 

Dorie Barton makes her writing and directorial debut with “Girl Flu,” a hilarious yet wonderfully accurate look at a young girl as she begins the process of becoming a woman.  Yep, she gets her period.  Precocious 12-year old Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) and her mother, recent transplants from “The Valley” now live with Grandma on the other side of town.  Adjusting to her new school and environment is one of the many challenges for Bird.   Jenny (Katee Sackhoff), Bird’s mom, isn’t going to win the coveted Mother of the Year Award—not by a long shot.  In fact, it’s frequently Bird who is more  mature than Mom!  Jenny is a self-centered, pot-smoking yet loving mother who believes the world revolves around her.  Jenny’s boyfriend, Arlo (Jeremy Sisto), gives some stability to this chaotic family,  but when Bird, a bit of a geeky outcast at school, gets bullied and then humiliated as she (wearing white pants) gets her first period, an explosion of emotions occur, warranting both mother and daughter to begin growing up.

“Girl Flu” is a no holds barred look into what every  mother and daughter have experienced on some level.  And you brothers/fathers/husbands have gone through it as well just by your mere presence in the background.  Now we have a film that lays it all out there to laugh and empathize with all parties involved.  While some of the situations are obviously over-the-top, it does so in a way to call attention to the situation and make you laugh.  Pettyjohn is extraordinary in her performance, giving truth and comedy to this point in a girl’s life.  This wonderfully developed character not only has to figure out her own life, but also find a way to help her mother all the while attempting to wrangle her first crush feelings.  Oh, to go back to that time in your life…would be a curse!

Barton hones in on this time “period” perfectly with succinct writing and precision direction of this talented cast.  The dialogue she creates is fast-paced, smart, and unbelievably witty as well as relatable.  Every word out of Bird’s mouth has either been said or at least thought by every  female out there!  And if you’re a mom with a daughter who has already gone through this, it’ll be even more hilarious!  Barton is bold with a

 topic matter that I don’t think has been broached in such an incredibly inventive way before.  

Jenny and her best friends seem to provide her with all the aspects of motherhood, but even Jenny’s friends see that it’s time for her to step up to the plate.  With pressure from Arlo, Jenny has hit a wall and having a hormonal teen on her hands is more than she can handle.  Her responses are wildly strange (and hilarious) as she throws a coming of age party and attempts to show her how to insert a tampon.  It’s a journey for all involved as not only do Jenny and Bird grow up, but the film addresses love, peer pressure, identity, confidence and bullying as well as first love.  “Girl Flu” is a simply charming, sweet, honest and comedic look at what happens to us all, shown with vivid imagery.

“Girl Flu” is a rite of passage that gets it right!  It’s a film for every mother and daughter to see and if you guys want to get a glimpse of what we go through, check it out!  You’ll be enlightened and wonderfully entertained.  Now available on Video on Demand.

The documentary film, “The Experimental City” by Chad Friedrichs, will be a part of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival taking place in Chicago from October 12-26 at the AMC River East.  The film, a part of the Spotlight: Architecture program, is a bold, innovative, and entertaining discovery of an almost lost and forgotten story of Athelstan Spilhaus.  Spilhaus lead a team of scientists attempting to develop MXC, the Minnesota Experimental City in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This endeavor, targeting the results of climate change actually garnered state funding and political support, but just as quickly as it was considered, it fizzled out and was buried…until now.  Friedrichs unlocks the treasure of information and provides audiences with the opportunity to know Spilhaus as well as to ponder the era and the outcome.

Friedrichs talked with me about his discovery of Spilhaus and the arduous journey in making this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening film.

UNCOVERING SPILHAUS

I think outside certain sections of Minnesota, [the Experimental City] has been a largely forgotten subject. I came to it as I was searching for a topic along the lines of retro-futurism which is what people in the past used to think the future would look like…I came across some articles about Athelstan Spilhaus who is this scientist [and] academic…[and] this comic that he had written called Our New Age which of course is featured in the film…The very first ‘Our New Age’ that Spilhaus ever wrote in 1958 was about climate change.  He talked about [the fact] that we lived in a greenhouse and the carbon dioxide that is being emitted from our burning of fossil fuels is on the increase with the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere thus creating warming. And the last panel of that ‘Our New Age’ is NYC under water.  The very first one that he ever wrote!   But it’s one thing to do a profile on an individual, it’s another thing to try and define something far greater.  I actually looked it up on Wikipedia (You never know what you’ll find there!)… it mentioned that he had been a part of this project called the Minnesota Experimental City.  I’m originally from Minnesota, so this was something that I kind of cued in on…and you go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and you start reading about this very futuristic sounding city.  Now, of course the Wikipedia article doesn’t give you any where near the kind of depth that we eventually arrived at, but it gave me enough of an indication that  there might be something really cool here.    

AUDIO RECORDING DISCOVERY

When I began this project, like all projects, you have no idea what this thing is going to look like, but…once I read the story of the MXC…[I thought] I’ve got to make this story somehow.  And I didn’t even know that those archival recordings were out there.  Walter Van den Broeck…who was one of the leads on the project donated all of these recordings and all of his materials associated with the MXC to the Northwest Architectural archives at the University of Minnesota.  A quick internet search revealed that they had these boxes. We didn’t know what was in these boxes, but it did mention that there were some reel to reel audio recordings.  Those are the kind of things that can change a film…when I say recordings, probably 40 or 50 reel to reels, and it says Steering Committee meeting, July 1967…this is going to be Spilhaus and all the rest talking about it and sure enough it was.

That was the first find and then the second find was when we went down to Texas to interview Louise O’Connor, Spilhuas’ friend. She mentioned off-hand that she had these recordings when she compiling his biography…In her recordings with Spilhaus, [he was] drinking heavily during the recording… he could say whatever he wanted, he was liberated. That was fun to listen to! That really gives you a sense of this character… we had 200 hours of audio…We had way more audio that we ever knew what to do with.  It’s a wonderful problem to have, but it is a problem.

REINACTMENTS USING ARCHIVAL AUDIO

The people (shown seated from the neck down) who are reading the MPCA transcripts at the end of the film, they’re all family members.  Even through editing, that was always the question mark, were audiences going to accept it? The idea: I’ve seen a film called “The Arbor,” that has lip-syncing involved. I didn’t have either the chops or the budget to pull off something like that. Another obvious choice would to be to do comics, to do an animation, but for some reason I just wasn’t feeling that.  And I really wanted to make sure that those recordings didn’t feel abstract.

So when you’re exposed to all this archival footage, all these still images…it’s going to distance you away from that audio…it just doesn’t have that same kind of immersion  when you’re actually seeing people talk even if you know in the back of your mind that those people aren’t real.

It’s the documentarians burden I’ve struggled with all my career.  Sometimes you have fabulous material from one aspect of the film but then you have to find ways to fill in the other aspects of the film, in this case, the visuals. 

WHAT IF MXC WAS BUILT?  WOULD OUR WORLD BE BETTER?

It’s tempting to look at that.  Let me give you my point of view on that.  I always, from the very beginning, try to strike a balance.  I always want audiences to come out kind of  a 50-50 split. I want audiences to see virtues of both sides. The people from [Minnesota] absolutely had to do what they did.  I mean it’s crazy to think that the city would come in, and if you believe in where you live is a good place, that’s the last thing you want to do is have that taken away… It’s very possible that this could have ameliorated some issues that created climate change today.  It’s very possible that it may not have done anything and become a ghost town after 20-30 years.  It does show [that] Spilhaus very early on was aware.  He was on the fence.  They knew that some sort of change was going to be taking place, but throughout the 70’s they weren’t sure whether it was going to be the climate change that we know or things were going to get cooler because of particulates in the air from pollution and that would block sunlight and it would have gotten cooler.  So he was on the fence.  To cast Spilhaus as this totally prescient person about our predicament today, is to do an historical injustice to him.  He was operating on the best information he had at the time.

RELEVANCY TODAY

A lot of people expect relevance out of documentaries…[However], this film is a kind of time piece as well.  It captures the spirit of a toxic era, so I wanted to remain true to that era  I didn’t want to move it forward to the 21st century.  It was a story about the 1960’s and ’70’s…At the same time, I think it’s great that people find relevancy that makes your work fresh; it keeps it interesting. 

GOALS

Number one, I want people to be entertained. There’s a burden that’s placed on documentary filmmakers to have this larger social outcome from a film.  That is not my desire, nor is it my particular talent.  Mine is making the movie and then letting other people use it as a tool.   The reason I got into this is that I’m attracted to the story…if audience walks out of it and they’re happy and entertained or sad and entertained, that’s enough for me.

chasing the blues

The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, October 12th-26, has one of the most memorable line-ups in its history.  Unique to this festival, CIFF features “City & State” films showcasing “local characters and settings” and this year, there are 6 standout films in the category.  “Chasing the Blues,” starring Grant Rosenmeyer, Jon Lovitz, and Steve Guttenberg and co-written and directed by Scott Smith is just one of the truly wonderful films to see.

“Chasing the Blues” takes us into the life of Alan (Rosenmeyer) who is behind bars.  This soon-to-be released convict, previously a teacher in Chicago, has his story to tell as to how he ended up in this lowly state.  Lincoln Groome (Lovitz) visits Alan just before he’s released to dangle a carrot, hoping to entice Alan to look for the record album that landed him in prison 20 years ago.  The temptation is too much and Alan takes the bait.  We take that journey with him as he recounts to a random (and beautiful) fellow bus traveler the sordid and simply hilarious details of a mythical 1930‘s blues musician, a cursed rare record, and his rivalry with a fellow collector.film_chasing-the-blues_1200x800

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

I had the opportunity to talk with Smith, currently a filmmaker as well as a creative director at Leo Burnett in Chicago about making this Windy City independent gem and  creating the mystery and intrigue of the fictional blues legend Jimmie Kane Baldwin.

Pamela Powell (PP):  Tell me about your background and how you got into filmmaking.

Scott Smith (SS):  Long ago, when my interest in filmmaking started to get more present in my life, I decided to shoot a couple of spec commercials for myself to see what it was like. I came up with these fake commercials for a fake yoga studio…targeted to men.  There are two guys who are calling a baseball game, but there’s a rain delay.  To show something, they went out to this yoga competition and they had to announce the [it].  It’s them trying to understand what’s going on.

PP:  That sounds hilarious!

SS:  It’s a 30 second thing and it was done with a couple friends that are improv actors.  Eventually, I wrote a short film about a guy who breaks all ten commandments (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0429172/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_12) in a couple minutes!  That one was the one that really encouraged me and validated my interest and belief that I could have some sort of competence.  And that short allowed me to compete in the third series of Project Greenlight.  I was one of three director finalists in the third season…I didn’t win…[but] it boosted my confidence and my ability to do something semi-worthwhile.

PP:  “Chasing the Blues” isn’t your first feature though.

SS:  It’s the first narrative feature.  The first feature was a documentary feature called “Being Bucky.”  “Chasing the Blues” was based on a short story that my friend wrote.  He and I wrote the screenplay…John Fromstein, the executive producer, was reading an anthology of short stories about Blues in Chicago and he read this one and said, “Oh, my God!  You have to read this.  It would be a really great short film.”  I read it and I looked at the author and said, I’m pretty sure I know Kevin Guilfoile.  The first thought I had was, yes, this would be a great film, but it would be a great feature.

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Smith shared that he and Kevin would take turns writing a scene and passing it back and forth, but then the project sat on a shelf for several years.  Then, 3 years ago, they picked it up again and began rewriting it as well as beginning the fundraising process.

PP:  You have a great cast.  Tell me about getting Lovitz and Guttenberg on board.

chasinglovitzSS:  Our first goal was to keep everything in Chicago.  When we weren’t finding what we needed, we expanded out…Steve Gutenburg came to us and was really interested in playing the lead…he wanted to be a part of the project and ended up being “Diamond Dan” and his agent is the same as Jon Lovitz’.  I started re-imagining the role before he actually came on—just the potential and the possibility of it.  We had a phone call.  He was totally into it.  He wanted to put on a southern accent [and] he signed on.

 

PP:  That’s great that you focused on keeping as much as possible in Chicago and it really has the flavor of our city.  What says “Chicago” most to you in this film?

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SS:  Record stores here in Chicago.  When we were shooting at Val’s (Records) in Oak Park, that was a really fun scene to shoot.  Just being in there, to me it really reflects the depth of music in Chicago.  Chicago has 15-20 record stores that are prominent and busy with a great knowledge.  Re-creating the studio scene, Cicero Studios, felt Chicago-y to me.  It gave it that historic blues feeling.  And approaching the three flats… the apartment and Mrs. Walker felt very uniquely Chicago to me.

 

PP:  Your actors who played Paul (Ron Connor) and Alan were polar opposites, but so wonderfully compatible in their roles!  They really seemed like they were having fun while they were antagonizing one another!

M.+Walker

SS:  The three of us rehearsed a bunch [and] luckily Ron Connor is from Chicago…we went through a lot of the scenes and pre-blocked [them].  They did bring a different energy to it and we capitalized on it.  They were really fun together and there was a lot we had to cut out!

PP:  There’s something special about filmmaking in Chicago, don’t you think?

SS:  One of the things John and I wanted to do is to really emphasize Chicago and really use a Chicago crew; support Chicago as much as we could.  There was a conscious effort to keep it here and use people from Chicago.  It’s like a family.  It’s all the same attitude:  let’s get it done [with] enthusiasm.

Energy, quick wit, and definitely enthusiasm can be found in “Chasing the Blues.”  Check out the trailer and the video that had me believing in the myth of Jimmie Kane Baldwin right here:  TRAILER   JIMMIE KANE BALDWIN VIMEO

TICKETS INFO AT CIFF

SWING AWAY
Director: Michael Achilles Nickles
Cast: Shannon Elizabeth, John O’Hurley, Manos Gavras, Renos Haralambidis, Karl Theobald,
Alexandros Mylonas, Olga Damani, Christos Sourgaris introducing Viktoria Miller
Screenplay by: Paul Robert Lingas, Julia Wall
Story by: George Elias Stephanopoulos, Paul Robert Lingas
Producers: George Stephanopoulos, Stamatios Tom Hiotis, Costas Lambropoulos, George Kiriakos
Distributor: Freestyle Digital Media

“Swing Away” takes a swing at American investors, men vs. women, and family heritage and hits a hole in one!  Zoe Papadopoulos (Shannon Elizabeth) has a major meltdown on the golf circuit, finding herself suspended.  Attempting to regain her game and composure, she goes back home to Greece, melting in the comfort of grandparents, great food, and familiar surroundings.  What she doesn’t come prepared for is the fight of her life to help a little girl and the entire town protect itself from big business.  Her game of golf just might help them all…and her!  Check out the trailer below and watch for the full review soon!

Theatrical Release

Coming to Theaters and Video On Demand on Friday, October 13th!

 In Major Cinemas for a Limited Time

Check Box Office for Showtimes

New York, NY – Kew Gardens Cinemas 6
Philadelphia, PA – AMC Cherry Hill 24
San Francisco/San Jose, CA – AMC Mercado 20
Washington DC – AMC Hoffman Center 22
Los Angeles, CA – AMC Burbank Town Center 8
Providence, RI – CW Theater
Chicago, IL – AMC South Barrington 30
                    Pickwick Theater
Salt Lake City, UT – Megaplex Jordan Commons
                              Megaplex Thanksgiving Point
                              Megaplex The District
Detroit, MI – Emagine 18
Vero Beach, FL – The Majestic 11
Denver, CO – Harkins Northfield 18
Tampa/St. Petersburg – Centro Ybor 10

Exclusive Screenings

Boston, MA – Regent Theatre-October 14th, 2pm, 7:30pm    
Toronto, ON – Innis Town Hall-October 15th, 4:30pm
Columbia, SC – AMC Dutch Square 14-October 15th, 3pm
New Haven, CT – Bow Tie Cinemas-October 19th, 7pm
Dallas, TX – Studio Movie Grill-October 19th, 7pm

Video On Demand

Swing Away  will be available on all cable and satellite platforms as well as:
Amazon Instant Video  – FandangoNow – Google Play – iTunes – Vudu – YouTube Movies – Xbox

 

 

BladeRunner 2049

BLADE RUNNER 2049 picks up 30 years after its predecessor, “Blade Runner”  which starred Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer in one of his best roles ever.  The original, based on the science-fiction king Phillip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” was so novel in its day that it created  a cult following, highly anticipating this sequel.  “2049” continues the premise of rogue “replicants” (artificial humans) who need to be “retired” (killed), but  this time it’s Ryan Gosling who’s the LAPD Officer, “K,” aka the assassin.  If you’re wondering whether or not you need to see the 1982 version first, the answer is a definitive yes!

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

This will be a completely spoiler-free review as I do not want to give ANY plot points or twists away.  “2049” is dark and foreboding as it looks into the future of mankind, possibly predicting what we have done to our environment, our world.  We see snow in L.A.  The water levels have risen, and any sort of plant life is all but extinct.  Protein farming (aka bugs) and synthetic food is the mainstay.  Humans have fled earth to go “Off World.”  As you watched the original film, taking place in 2019, you can’t help but wonder how much of this new film will be an accurate prediction of our coming world.

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The entire 2 hours and 43 minutes experience is dark and misty, void of color and light, creating a feeling of hopelessness as we query what it means to be human.  The social relevance cannot be overlooked as there is discussion of “purity” of humankind and “a wall.”  Pondering these issues is at the core of the film as we become acquainted with “K” and his life and goals.  Finding answers to perplexing riddles of humanity takes “K” and the viewers down a forbidden and foreboding path filled with dangers lurking at every corner.  The film has all the markings of a great sequel, but the emotion of the film, unfortunately, falls flat.

 

The true stars of the “2049” are the special effects and Harrison Ford who returns as “Deckard.”  Technology has come a long way in filmmaking since 1982, the release year of the original “Blade Runner” and without this, “2049” would have little to hold on to.  (The studio has asked not to have any of these effects revealed in reviews in order to allow viewers to experience them first-hand.)  These visually interesting scenes  wake us up from a plot that seems lost in the darkness of the film,  but many of these effects seem unnecessary as they really have little to do with driving the story forward.  It’s not until Ford becomes more of a focal point, that “2049” finally picks up the pace and the interest level.   And for those of you who enjoyed the religious symbolism in the first film, there’s plenty more, most of it quite obvious, in “2049.”

 

Gosling is the perfect leading man in films like “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “The Notebook,” but he’s just not strong enough to  carry “2049.”   His robotic characterization of “K” neither connects us to him nor entertains us.  This rather dull performance can’t maintain our interest in a 2 hour and 43 minute film.  Thankfully, from the ashes of the first half of the film, Ford brings new life to “2049.”   His performance is exactly what we expect and need to resuscitate the story.  His energy and depth of character immediately connects us to him.  Writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green also bring a Daryl Hannah “Pris” type of character into this new version with Mackenzie Davis portraying “Mariette,” the long, lanky blonde with jester-like make-up.  She, like Hannah, gives us a moment of intrigue, but her screen time is quite limited.  Jared Leto, always an interesting character, plays Niander Wallace, the new corporate leader who is simply heartless.  Robin Wright has such potential, but her role and dialogue are simply stunted, never allowing her to shine.  While the musical score is every bit as important in this sensory film, it is frequently overpowering and heavy-handed, sometimes obliterating a scene.

 

“Blade Runner 2049” cinematically does shine, but it’s not all about the camera.  It’s about the story and the story falls short.  Gosling’s lackluster performance is a wrench in the system and not even the talented and charismatic Harrison Ford can completely save the film.  That’s not to say this sequel isn’t worth seeing in the theater.  In fact, if you see it, that’s the only way to do it.  It’s big.  The effects are even bigger and the music, while it’s overpowering, allows you to experience the movie in a visceral way.  The topics and questions it brings to mind are well-worth discussing, but if you wanted originality and an captivating story, you’re out of luck.

 

 

2 1/2 Stars

poster_sept28_oct8_2017

Who votes for films in the Oscar nominations?  Well, YOU can!  As an attendee of the Manhattan Shorts Film Festival on October 6,7, and 8 at the Wilmette Theatre (1122 Central Ave, Wilmette), you not only view the 10 final short film contestants, but vote on the “best actor” and “best film” as well.  Theaters around the world will be voting at the same time and the winners go on to participate in the qualifying theatrical run in Los Angeles.  That means a possible chance of winning that coveted little gold statue in February.

This one-of-a-kind global film festival which started in 1998, received over 1600 short film entries from 75 countries with only 10 going on to be a part of the festival.  The finalists’ countries include Italy, Georgia, Latvia, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, Syria, the U.K. and the U.S.A. For a complete list of films go to:  http://www.manhattanshort.com/finalists.html

The films will all be shown in a 2-hour time period on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with voting taking place immediately after the final credits roll.  While this festival has only been at the Wilmette Theatre for three years, Executive Director Wendy Sharon witnessed the attendance grow significantly last year thanks to Chicago’s very own Mike Pusateri who came to introduce his film “Ella Gets a Promotion?” which won the 2016 MSFF for Best Actress.

Sharon said, “I’m always looking for opportunities to bring people together…and this (the MSFF) is one of the things that just spoke to me.”  She continued, “It’s a way to participate in a festival without a major investment in time and energy.”  Citing the diversity of films from different countries and genres, Sharon is confident that “there’s something for everyone.”

Sharon felt that her programming mission is to “add value” to her communities film-going experience, particularly when competing with the big blockbuster venues.  As she said,  “See something different.”  An event such as the MSFF also is a way for people to be “…more knowledgable about how they look at film and how they evaluate them.”  Seeing them on the big screen adds yet more value in being a part of this cinematic experience.

For more ticket and programming information, go to  https://ticketing.us.veezi.com/sessions/?siteToken=bclQlQh1gkmW47aQVQljkg%3d%3d  Tickets are only $10 each and helps support this not-for-profit venue.

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American-Made

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

4 STARS!

 

victoria poster

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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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