Archive for August, 2016

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“The Light Between Oceans” is based upon M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name.  The screenplay is written by Derek Cianfrance who also directed this long, dull film about a lighthouse keeper and his wife rescuing and keeping a baby they find adrift in a row boat.  With a stellar cast of Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz, you have hope that you will be entertained by a spellbinding story and their performances.  Unfortunately, the only way you’ll enjoy this film is if you like preposterous stories and cardboard performances.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Tom (Fassbender), a veteran who seems quietly troubled, attends an interview for the position of lighthouse keeper at the home of a local political figure, Bill Graysmark (Garry Macdonald).  The enchantingly beautiful daughter, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander) becomes immediately smitten with the rather detached Tom and the two quickly wed.  Their happiness is like something out of a fairylight tale as they go about their daily routine at the lighthouse in sheer bliss.  Until one day, Isabel has a miscarriage.  And then another.  It is more than she can take and the two seem despondent.  That is, until they rescue this baby who has washed ashore in a boat with her dead father.  Isabel’s need to be a mother washes away all common sense in both  she and Tom, and they keep the baby.  Did anyone think about the biological mother and where she might be?  Nope.  That concept (you know the one, the one where there’s both a father AND a mother) crossed neither of their minds.

Babies, puppies, and kittens.  According to this scenario, they’re all the same.  As we sail through the lives of this couple in painstakingly slow motion, the consequences of their actions and the guilt they endure comes to a head.  It was like watching a typhoon approach the shore, frame by frame, only to realize that you were looking through the lens backwards and it was just a little wave that gently glides over your toes.  Perhaps I’m being realistically cynical, but let’s have just an ounce of reality in this story.  Or here’s an even better idea.  Let’s develop the characters.  It was as if Cianfance took the first and last sentences, ok, I’ll be generous and say paragraphs, lightlucyof each chapter of Stedman’s book and made that one scene.   What you end up with is a story devoid of characters you know and if you don’t really know them, it’s tough to care about them.  The saving “grace” was little Lucy (Florence Clery and others) who simply melted your heart as a baby and as an adorable and talkative little girl.

Fassbender portrays a quiet soul carrying a lot of baggage.  His performance was remarkably flat except when he was interacting with Lucy.  He seemed to come to life and become a person as he portrayed the father.  Vikander’s very subtle performalightweisznce was also unremarkable, coming to life in an exaggerated and unrealistic form toward the end.  Wiesz plays the broken-hearted mother, but again, this could have and should have been a complex and emotional role, and that just wasn’t conveyed to the depth it required.

Cinematically, the film is a standout.  Painstaking care is taken with each and every gorgeous shot, from the framing to the panning, it’s simply spectacular.  Adam Arkapaw, the director of photography, finds a way to convey meaning in every frame.  We feel the isolation of the lighthouse.  We sense the safety of the town.  And we long for the simple pleasures in life—all due to the cinematography skills of Arkapaw.

“The Light Between Oceans” is a long, drawn out, ridiculous portrayal of what is probably a very emotionally loaded and beautifully written book.  With subpar performances and what feels like missing information creating a lack of connection with the characters,  this film misses the mark.  However, I know you romantics are out there and if you’re a Nicholas Sparks film fan, you’ll enjoy this one too.  And if there are any social workers out there wanting to see this film, it’s a social worker’s nightmare.

1 1/2 Stars  because the cinematography was outstanding

 

 

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“Career Opportunities in Organized Crime” opens with a written indemnification of the filmmakers and the theater from any legal liability.  That certainly catches your attention.  We are almost promised that by watching the film, we are putting ourselves in eminent danger.  Cut to Vladimir Kaminsky, “District Manager, Clan Khordorkovskoi.”  Questions immediately rise to the surface as to whether or not this is an actual documentary about the Russian mob!  You see, Vlad is making a recruitment video for his organization, hoping to appeal to the younger generation with computer skills.  His marketing strategies, however, are a bit, how shall I say this, “unappealing.”  No, “petrifying” is more appropriate.  As the guy behind the camera begins to fear for his life as he captures  the mob’s most intimate workings, he realizes he must complete his job in order to survive.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

This virtual reality “mockumentary,” written and directed by Alexander Roman Oshmyansky, stars Rick Irwin (“The Good Doctor”), Malcolm Mills (“Tenured”) and Andrzej Krukowski, is a shockingly dark comedy with a bit of exaggerated reality in the dialogue and storyline.  We see the characters, no matter their initial moral compass, swing to polar extremes, as the local mob is being “evaluated” by the homeland.  Their new recruit turns out to be the nerdy pharmacy tech, Nicholas (Mills) who was Vlad’s son’s best friend back in high school.  After being rejected by a girl and continually told by his parents that he is a loser, Nicholas pulls the trigger and joins the Clan.  His computer skills allow this branch of the Clan to improve their bottom line, bolstering his position not only in the Clan but in Vlad’s eyes.  The sibling rivalry between the two “boys” and Nicholas’ need for other’s approval create a sinister yet somehow funny scenario that will leave your jaw agape.

Mills and I had a chance to talk about his role in this pitch black comedy earlier in the month.  After hacareer oppsving seen him in a favorite Tribeca Film Festival movie, “Tenured,” which is also an off-beat comedy, I wanted to know why he wanted this role as “Nicholas.”  You could hear the energy in his voice as he quickly responded, “I love playing villains and mad scientists!”  It turns out that he is inspired by Jack Nicholson with his performance in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and several of Willem Defoe’s characters.

Much like his character of “Nicholas” who is initially a sweet young man, lacking confidence, but quickly changes as he receives a dose of positive reinforcement, Mills began acting as a child, doing improvisational routines at the local mall before getting his first real acting gig.  He chuckles as he recalls recreating adaptations of films and fairy tales to all who would gather.  This adorable sounding youngster has honed his acting skills as we see his career taking off.  In “Career Opportunities in Organized Crime,” Mills handily shows us the spectrum of characters he is able to portray with uncanny believability.  Mills has a standout performance in this film as he goes from the innocent boy next door to a heartless mobster.  This transformation happens before your very eyes as Mills changes his body language, expressions, and even his vocal quality very subtly to create this different persona.  Krukowski also has a memorable performance as he too possesses the ability to horrify you with his actions, yet appeal to your sympathy in the next scene.

The script is clever, intelligent, and above all uniquely funny.  We are always watching through the lens of the documentary camera, giving it the story an even sharper edge.  It is reminiscent of “Arrested Development” but seeing the dark side of it.  The situations and dialogue create the humor and the underlying tone bring it to a violent level.  Coordinating all of this in perfect harmony is the result of skillful direction. Mills shared that one of his favorite aspects of this film is the climactic scene has a huge twist of betrayal.  From my perspective, there were plenty of those twists of betrayal that were more than unsettling—they were downright startling, which just adds to the overall appeal and enjoyment of this unusual film.

“Career Opportunities in Organized Crime” is a violently dark comedy that will shock and entertain you as well as make you laugh.  Be sure to check out this film, available on demand on Wednesday, August 31st on Reelhouse.org on iOS, Android, and desktop.

 

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“Half A Man,” part of the Toronto International Film Festival ‘Short Cuts’ program, packs in full-length emotion in under 20 minutes.  In this beautifully shot film directed by Kritina Kumric and written by Maja Hrgovic depicting her personal story about the effects of war in a very different way.  It’s the impact upon the family seen from a child’s perspective which is not typically acknowledged let alone portrayed in film.  We see how war changes everyone in a family,  how you look at life and how you live it.  “The short film is the winning project of the competition ‘One picture from the Homeland War,'” a part of the Croatian Adiovisual Centre and the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs.  It is also a part of the book ‘Zivjet cemo bolje’ (‘We Live Better’) authored by Hrgovic as well.  “The film is a result of a nationwide competition seeking to address the traumas sustained by war veterans and their loved ones.”

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

We are introduced to two young girls: 10 year old Mia, an unbelievably feisty and tenacious girl and the more diplomatic, introverted 12 year old Lorena.  Both girls deal with the day’s big event of their father returning from a 3-month captivity at a prisoner of war camp.  As they rehearse for a recital approaching, we immediately see, even in this activity, how the girls have dealt with the absence of their father as well as the unknown truth that lies just moments in front of them.

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Upon Father’s return, it is evident that he is not the same person that left not that long ago.  From Lorena and Mia’s mother’s reaction to the girls and friends who gather, everyone approaches the father from a different angle, but none of them are quite sure how to navigate this unfamiliar territory.  It’s a harsh look at life and the unexpected, yet most likely very common, consequences of war in our lives.

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From the opening scene, the style of filmmaking pulls us into the situation, allowing us to be a part of what’s happening so that we can feel the emotion that pours from each character.  Mia’s anger and yearning to fight anyone who disagrees with her, somehow endears you to her.  Her expressions of “don’t mess with me” cover deep within a scared little girl who needs to be sheltered from what’s to come.  As the song “I Need A Hero” by Bonnie Tyler appropriate plays in the background, we hear each of their reactions to this rather catatonic war veteran and perhaps get a glimpse into the crystal ball predicting all of their futures.

The story is a powerfully poignant one, with rich characters who are real yet complex.  These two children, particularly “Mia,” give such heartfelt performances, it is as if they are drawing upon real life experiences.  The intensity and keen understanding of the “Mia” character is as mesmerizing as it is commanding.  With this type of performance from all of the actors, the story is irresistibly compelling.  The insightful dialogue will take your breath away as the words shatter your heart.  This short film is worthy of any full-length feature as it allows the viewer to not only understand the story, but to somehow have empathy for the characters.

HalfGirls“Half A Man” will strike a chord that resonates within all of us whether or not we have directly been effected by the horrors of war.  Skillful acting, directing, and writing bring you an unforgettable story of family, love, and survival.

If you’re lucky enough to be at the 2016 TIFF, be sure to put this film on your list:

Saturday, September 10, 10 pm at Scotiabank 14 (World Premiere)

Friday, September 16, 9:15 pm at Scotiabank 14

(Press & Industry screening on Sunday, September 11, 11:15 am at Scotiabank 6)

For more information about the film, go to tiff.net/films/half-a-man

 

 

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Fede Alvarez and Stephen Lang joined me along with fellow Chicago film critics Pat McDonald from HollywoodChicago.com and Jon Espino from The Young Folks to talk about the new horror/thriller film “Don’t Breathe.”

Watch the video here

To listen to the interview with Fede Alvarez and Stephen Lang, GO HERE

To read the review, check back for the Friday, August 26th  edition of The Daily Journal here

 

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C STREET

Written by Brett E. Lewis

Directed by Peter James Iengo

Starring Evan Hall, Dylan Walsh, and Shaun Licata

“C Street” is quite the political parody, finding a way to take several jabs at the election process, its candidates, and the workings of Washington, while making you laugh and root for the good Guy.  Throw in a love story and you have the makings of a funny and relevant story that just might make you wonder if it actually is too far away from the truth!

Guy Poppet (Evan Hall) is climbing the political ladder in Washington as he uses sex to get ahead.  Now, just wait.  It’s not like that. You see, Guy is a “facilitator” of sorts.  He arranges rendezvous for all the high power politicians, but when his unrequited love, Hayley (Shaun Licata), gets involved in the equation, his moral compass spins in circles.  This hilariously chaotic scheme to rise to the top of Washington also involves scheduling his apartment as the rendezvous point creating yet another layer of confusion and comedic opportunities.

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The story is over-the-top in the situations and energy as you try to keep up with what’s happening and why.  We see the true motivation of Big Oil, Tobacco, and Dairy (yes, Dairy) and you might think it’s just money, but it’s not.  There is a  comic book feel as the characters are introduced via graphic art while you can almost imagine this taking place on a stage as these exaggerated individuals pop in and out of every scene.  While the amplified lines are extremely funny, it’s ironically funny (and a bit scary) that some of these lines have been recently uttered by a certain presidential candidate.

The film is just plain fun and the actors appear to take total enjoyment in portraying these crazy characters.  Hall shines as Guy, the sweet and sometimes confused young love-struck man with a heart of gold.  His expressions and physical comedic timing is essential to this role and he nails it.  Dylan Walsh creates a beautifully smarmy, sex maniac Senator Fallon who possesses absolutely no moral compass.  But he’s petrified of his wealthy, cut-throat wife played by Carey Lowell.  Familiar faces abound in this raucous romp around Washington’s political playground.  Don Stark (Super), Michael Gross (Governor Appalachia), Bruce Altman (Governor Empire), and a personal favorite, Sondra James, as the nosey and opinionac streetfallonted neighbor Mrs. Plumbcott are all a part of this crazy and down-right entertaining film.

 

Writing a spoof on Washington  while keeping it light and never preaching is quite an undertaking, but Brett E. Lewis always brings us down the perfect path.  It’s smart.  The quick pace and the intelligently written dialogue keeps you on your toes while you’re laughing out loud.  We hear Senator Fallon as he describes the “vast left wing dry cleaning conspiracy” in reference to Monica Lewinsky, and “Together we will build that moat along the Mexican boarder!”  These are just a couple of examples depicting the reality of comedy which is stitched like a golden thread throughout this film, bringing it to a higher level of humor. cstreetman

 

If you’re looking for an escape from Hillary and Clinton and want to laugh and perhaps even get a new perspective on your candidate, check out “C Street.”  It’s where everything is happening!

 

 

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Chad Hartigan and Craig Robinson

Writer and director Chad Hartigan and actor Craig Robinson joined me to talk about their hit indie gem, “Morris from America” which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.  Watch the clip from the interview  here   and listen to the interview in its entirety here.   The full review and interview will be available on Friday, August 26, 2016 when the film will be released in theaters.  Lucky DirecTV subscribers can watch this film now, on demand.

Read the review and interview as it was published in the Friday, August 26th edition of The Daily Journal here

 

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Travis Knight, CEO Laika Productions, Director “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Watch the video: Travis Knight tells us what to expect from Kubo and the Two Strings

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is not your typical kid flick.  Yes, it’s animated using stop-motion technology, but the heaviness of the topics is anything but childish.  Sitting down with Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika Productions and director of this epic undertaking, the energetic filmmaker best stated what he hopes kids and adults will take away from this film.  “There is something at the core of [“Kubo”] about loss and healing and compassion and forgiveness and love and what it means to be a family.”  The film tackles all of these issues while visually mesmerizing you with its artistry and fantastical imagery. And with voice over performances from Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, and Matthew McConaughey, this film bursts with life.

To read the entire review and interview, check out the Friday, August 19th edition of The Daily Journal, link coming soon.

To listen to the interview with Travis Knight, go HERE

 

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Meryl Streep has found yet another glorious starring role in the film “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the true story of a New York City heiress who uses her position (and money) in the ’40s to perform opera — despite the fact that she possesses no singing talent. Co-starring Hugh Grant as her manager and “husband” and Simon Helberg as the innocently confused pianist, the film delves harmoniously into this previously unknown story. Written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears (“Philomena”), the pair bring us a good old-fashioned tale that will make you laugh and cry, as well as learn a little about true philanthropy.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AND INTERVIEW HERE as it appeared in the Friday, August 12, 2016 edition of The Daily Journal.

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Jeff Bridges finds a genuine comfort zone as Marcus Hamilton, a soon-to-be retired police officer/Texas Ranger in the dry, desolate podunk towns in this modern day Western that isn’t just a crime thriller, it’s a social commentary.  “Hell or High Water” finds two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) who team up to rob a few banks in order to save a family farm. The two stay two steps ahead of Hamilton and his side kick, Alberto Parker(Gil Birmingham) and the man hunt intensifies as the motivational and psychological puzzle reveals itself.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Toby and Tanner couldn’t be any more polar opposite in personality or intelligence.  Toby seems to make poor decisions, this latest one to team up with his psychologically imbalanced brother, taking the cake.  Tanner’s impulsivity and thrill with the quest at times counterbalances Toby’s thoughts, but the two are brothers and blood is thicker than water.  On the other side of the law are Hamilton and Parker, tohell-or-high-water-chris-pine-ben-foster (1)wo grown men who, at times, seem like brothers as well.  With their goading of each other and antagonistic behavior, particularly from Hamilton as he jabs Parker with racial Mexican and Indian slurs,  there’s a true sibling love hiding just beneath the craggy surface of each of these men.  Their banter is at times surprising and at others, just plain juvenile, yet laugh out loud funny.

 

Jeff-Bridges-Hell-or-High-Water-793x526“Hell or High Water” finds a way to typify not only the poorest and most depressed areas of the flatlands of Texas, but also the gun control versus open carry laws of the land. Creating a realistic scenario that at times hits you over the head pertaining to banks and the housing crisis that is still effecting citizens, gives us a rather deep and thought-provoking tale perhaps not far removed from reality.  The story is also a creative one about two sets of brothers, if you will.  Each on other sides of the law, but both appear to be family, blood or not.  The film is a true modern Western with varying degrees of complexity with each of the story’s layers.  How the writers balance the characters with sublime skill allowing us to laugh throughout the film is mind-boggling.  Obviously, the performance of the actors accompanied by skillful directing is the icing on the cake to create entertainment, tell a unique and socially relevant film, and make you laugh.

Bridges fits the role of “Hamilton”  to a “t.”  His unique speech pattern, slow and methodical mannerisms, and keen sense of comedic timing create a character we trust.  It’s the depth of his acting, finding such intrinsic and available emotion to display, that brings “Hamilton” to life.  Birmingham’s ability to convey sense and sensibility with his character of Parker, is the personality yang to Hamilton’s yin.  And Foster doesn’t disappoint as the impetuously reckless brother whose hasty actions leave you with a sense of shock.  Pairing Foster with Pine is pure genius as the two have a natural chemistry allowing us to imagine the two growing up together.  Pine gives us an outstanding performance, allowing us to see what he is truly capable of.  Not since the little known “Z for Zachariah” have I seen this level of acting from him.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely outstanding performances of Katy Mixon as the waitress in one diner and Margaret Bowman in the other “restaurant.”  Individually, the two create their own special scenes worthy of laughter, applause, and awe.  These are two phenomenal characters portrayed with the utmost of finesse.  Now tell me, “What don’t you want.”

“Hell or High Water” is a fluid story full of surprises and intelligence in the midst of anger, bloodshed, debt, and death.  It creates a story with characters that may not be all good or all bad, much in the way real life exists, but we care about them all.  When you find a film that has social relevance, makes you think about current law debates, and can entertain you (and even make you laugh), you have a winner.  Superb acting, directing, and cinematography give us one of the standout films of the year.  How did Hollywood go right?  I guess they listened to we viewers when we said what we didn’t want.

Come Hell or high water, go see this film, but be warned that it is violent in parts and it justifies its “R” rating.

 

4 Stars

 

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By: Nick Capezzera, Evan Mascagni, and Shannon Post

Directed by Evan Mascagni & Shannon Post

I like to think that I maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating right and exercising every day.  crop_dustingLiving in Central Illinois, I enjoy biking the country roads, breathing fresh air, and hearing the birds chirp and the bugs buzz.  But breathing fresh air has become a bit of an exercise in frustration here.  Just the other day, my quick 12 mile ride turned into an 18 mile one as I rerouted several times to avoid the spraying of some insecticide on the corn and bean crops.  I swear I heard the engine of the tractor shift from 3rd to 4th gear while I attempted to jump my speed to 25 mph and not breathe in any of the peppery smelling chemicals.  I failed.  If that wasn’t enough, I  then attempted to out-ride a crop duster.   As the plane came zipping down toward me (yes, I know it was toward the field…I just happened to be near it),  I imagined the pilot as a WWII fellow, complete with scarf flapping in the wind with a leather cap and round black goggles as he laughed hysterically at my inept efforts to out-ride his poisonous plumes.

“The Circle of Poison” focuses our attention to the very fact that  insecticide and pesticide usage in agriculture is common practice all over the United States, but even more upsetting is the fact that we produce agricultural pesticides that we deem unsafe for our use here and then export them abroad.   23 of our 50 states produce harmful chemicals for export.    Illinois is one such state that practices this.  The loophole in the law allows companies to continue production for export, but with the FDA inspecting only 2% of the imported produce to the USA, how much of this has been treated with the chemicals that we have banned and then returned to us in the form of a coffee bean or a banana?  In addition to this moral question, you Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 5.14.21 PMmust also ask yourself if the manufacturing process of this product is harmful to our environment.  These are all alarming questions posed to us by the  “Circle of Poison” as it  traces back  the history and “need” for pesticides, the harmful effects, and currently, the catastrophic results to the communities that receive our “goods.”

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

The Circle of Poison” brings to light what David Weir, author of book of the same name, declares to be a problem that we have created and will “…pay for as a species for generations to come.”  The film interviews Weir and many other environmental specialists and farmers around the world to give us a clearer image as to how we have arrived at this state.  We see first-hand the results of the pesticide application of Endosulfan, for example, banned in the US, but exported abroad to a community of cashew farms.  The animals and bees began to die and then this village began to witness the visible human impact:  a staggering rate of birth defects such as hydrocephaly,Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 5.16.34 PM missing limbs and organs growing on the outside of the body.    Traveling on to Costa Rica, a banana farmer and his 800 employees all became sterile…a known effect from exposure to the banned pesticide exported to “help” his crop.  The film continues its research and findings in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and even in Louisiana USA in a corridor called Cancer Alley.Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 5.15.19 PM

In traveling the world, “Circle of Poison” talks not only with experts and  community  leaders and activists, but to doctors,  mothers, and fathers.  Their situations are heartbreaking, but their determination and strength is inspirational.  The US Government, regulations, and powerful lobbyists seem to be in the center of the target zone of blame Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 5.14.59 PMon this one.  Interviews with former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Patrick Leahy enlighten us to the fight they have fought for more than 3 decades.  Clips of Senate hearings support their endeavors and while they never gave up, their hope now lies with  educating the American public.  Even Noam Chomsky and His Holiness the Dali Lama chime in their thoughts, hopes, and suggestions.

“Circle of Poison” is a powerfully enlightening yet maddening documentary that can make a difference in this world if we choose to listen and learn.  Problems are articulately documented with the artistry of filmmaking as we also learn about solutions.  This film can start a dialogue and with dialogue, change can occur. If you watch one documentary this year, make it “Circle of Poison.”  Available on VOD on digital platforms such as iTunes in late September.

For more information about this film, go to www.circleofpoisonfilm.com

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