Archive for December, 2016

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Why does it take Hollywood to tell us about U.S. History?  Shouldn’t we be learning about key historical figures that influence our way of life in school?  Shouldn’t we know the entire story, not just bits and peices?   The answer is yes, but at least someone is telling the story and this particular one comes from Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, the screenwriters who adapted Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name.  During the racially harsh and biased times of the 1950’s, the race between Russia and the U.S. to get to the moon was in full throttle.  Three mathmatical geniuses, called “computers,” helped N.A.S.A. and the U.S. win this coveted title of being first to the moon.  Without these women, who were African-American, a significant portion of our history would have changed.  Overcoming extreme prejudices, these women trudged forward, not only proving their value, but representing their gender and their race tooctavia make all of us proud.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a gifted child, recognized and encouraged to develop by attending a prestigious school that allowed women of color to be educated.  (To write that seems absolutely antiquated, and to realize that this happened in our very recent past is unsettling.)  Katherine’s intelligence earned her the admiration of others in her fieldkatherine, those who computed, but it was her assignment to assist in developing a mathematical equation to allow for the space mission to continue that is one of her most valuable contributions.  Her story is told and a part of history is unveiled for all to see…and to appreciate…in “Hidden Figures.”

Immediately, you get a sense of understanding of the times as the three women, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are broken down on the side of the road and a police officer comes up from behind.  Initially, you’re happy they’re going to be helped by the officer, but then you realize that the race issue is going to hit hard and heavy.  The three friends, using their intellectual skills, quell the possible negative outcome and persevere.   This situation is just one of many to arise as the women tolerate such bigotry and hateful behavior due to their skin color AND their gender.   But not even the white women support them due to their race.  Imagine having to run a mile in heels and a skirt just to use a particular restroom.  Or not being able to drink from the same coffee pot as all the white men.  These are just two examples of the everyday racism these women endured.

While we know the outcome of the project, it is the journey that we see these women travel that makes this such an engaging film.  Although the script is quite black and white in terms of people’s actions and perceptions, it definitely conveys the period’s inability to accept one another.  I would like to think that not everyone back in that time period saw things in that manner and one character, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gave us that glimpse of possibility.  Perhaps people did  have a few shades of grey to allow for compassion and understanding, but this clear-cut division makes the film and the message work and hit home even harder.

Lidya Jewett plays the Young Katherine and while she doesn’t get a lot of screen-time, she is perfect in her part.  Henson creates the older version of Katherine with seamless style and confidence.  Her strength and determination are powerfully portrayed on the screen, yet we still have complete understanding of her fears and hesitations.  Octavia Spencer is always a joy in any role she takes and the role of Dorothy Vaughan is no different.  She brings a level of real-life comedy to her part and her delivery and body language punctuate her every line with utmost skill.  She could easily be a leading actress, but Henson is lucky to have such an extraordinary actress supporting her.    Monae is a striking beauty on the screen, but she brings so much more than that to any part she plays.  She has a quick wit and a sharp tongue in this role which is conveyed as being quite natural.  The three women together are all very different, but augment one another as beautifully as an evening meteor shower—and just as awe-inspiring.

While “Hidden Figures” conveys a very important part of our history and the acting is engaging, it is the side story of Katherine’s love interest that doesn’t mesh as well with the rest of the film.  It’s an important part of Katherine’s life, but really doesn’t do much to move the story forward.  In fact, these scenes seem a bit stilted.  This isn’t a major drawback to the film, but one portion that just doesn’t add up quite like the rest of the film.

Films like “Fences,” “Loving” and “Hidden Figures,” all take on a socially relevant topic of race and history.  Unfortunately, times may not have changed as much as we had hoped they had.  Perhaps seeing these films will allow us to take a more careful and closer look at race, prejudice, and the importance of acceptance, compassion, and empathy.

4 Stars

 

 

The Best of 2016 by Pamela Powell

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2016 was an impressive year for films and festivals.  While some of my favorite films (“Maudie,” “Katie Says Goodbye,” “Tramps,” and “Colossal”) won’t be out until next year, there’s a great array of films that you can see in theaters and VOD/DVD right now that have made my top list for 2016.  You’re going to see a few titles that aren’t on any other film critic’s list (and that’s a good thing), as I try to seek out the hidden independent gems in film.  Be sure to read the full reviews of each of these films as not every film is going to be for everyone.

fences1TOP 10 FILMS OF 2016:

1.  FENCES (review)

2.  INDIGNATION

3.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (review)

4.  LION (review)

5.  HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (review)

6.  DON’T THINK TWICE (review) (link to interviews)

7.  ARRIVAL  (review)

8.  CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (review)

9.  LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (review)

10.  THE DRESSMAKER (review)

Honorable Mentions Include:  “Morris From America” (review), “The Infiltrator” (review), and “Hell or High Water” (review),”La La Land” (review), “Nocturnal Animals,” “Jackie,” “Loving,” “Little Men,” “Hidden Figures” and “Midnight Special” (review) (interview with Jeff Nichols)

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TOP 10 HIDDEN INDIE GEMS of 2016

1.  WELCOME TO HAPPINESS (review)

2.  PUSHING DEAD  (review)

3.  BFFs (review)

4.  HONEYBUDDIES/BUDDYMOON (review)

5.  GRAND UNIFIED THEORY (review)

6.  THE TAIL JOB (interview)

7.  DO OVER (review) (NOT the Adam Sandler one…the Gina Field film!)

8.  THE FATHER AND THE BEAR (review)

9.  THE AMERICAN SIDE (review)

10.  HOW TO TELL YOU’RE A DOUCHEBAG

Honorable Mentions Include:  “Stevie D,” “Bear With Us (review),” “Where We’re Meant to Be (review),” “The Arbalest” (review) “Jessica”  (review)“Dating Daisy” (review) “Red Christmas”  (review), “Comfort” (review) , “Honeyglue” (review), and “Career Oportunities in Organized Crime” (review)

 

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TOP 10 DOCUMENTARIES of 2016:

1.  COMMAND AND CONTROL  (review)

2.  RESILIENCE (review)

3.  CIRCLE OF POISON ((review)

4.  SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO 4 (review)

5.  LIFE, ANIMATED

6. NUTS!

7.  CITY OF GOLD (interview) (review)

8.  WHERE TO INVADE NEXT (review)

9.  HOW TO LET GO OF THE WORLD AND LOVE ALL THE THINGS CLIMATE CAN’T CHANGE  (review)

10.  THE SYNDROME (review)

Honorable Mentions Include:  “Bugs” (review), “Do Not Resist” (review),”Visitor’s Day,” “Women He’s Undressed” (review) “Love Thy Nature”  (review), “Bugs,” “Rwanda & Juliet” (review)“I Am Bolt,” “Denial” (review)“Packed in a Trunk” (review) “I am the Blues” (review) “Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story” (review) “Hope for All,” and “Sonita”

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TOP 10 FOREIGN FILMS OF 2016

1.  PERFECT STRANGERS (PERFETTI SCONOSCIUTI) (review)

2.  TONI ERDMAN

3.  AFTER THE STORM (review)

4.  THE WAILING (review)

5.  MOTHER (review)

6.  THE UNKNOWN GIRL

7.  JULIETA

8.  THE CLAN

9. L’ATTESA (review)

10. PARCHED (review)

Thanks to everyone for checking out this list and for reading my reviews throughout the year.  2017 looks to be quite promising!  I’ll be covering Sundance, SXSW, Phoenix, Tribeca, and Toronto again this coming year to keep you abreast of all the great films coming out.  And the Waterfront Film Festival returns in South Haven, MI which always finds wonderfully amazing indie gems that I’ll be able to share with you.

Cheers and Happy (Healthy) New Year to everyone!

 

 

 

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Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel star as Saroo, the young and older version, in the new film “Lion,” based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley.  This true story depicts a young Indian boy, separated from his family bylion-sunny-train thousands of miles.  Now in Calcutta and not speaking the language,  Saroo has no way to locate them.  His street smarts enable him to survive and eventually be adopted by a loving Australian family.  His quest, as a young adult, is to find his biological family.  This is an emotionally raw, gritty, and beautiful demonstration of the need for family and identity that will surely capture Oscar’s attention early in 2017.

WATCH THE TRAILER

Saroo (Pawar) is a ragamuffin, living in an extremely remote and poverty stricken area of India.  His mother picks up rocks for a living.  The family relies on the older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and Saroo to steal coal from

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moving trains to trade for the bare necessities of food.  It’s dangerous, but Saroo idolizes his older brother who teaches (and tolerates) his little sidekick. Although the children must fend for themselves much of the time, the love among the family is unmistakable.  As Saroo tags along with Guddu for a night job, the two are separated and Saroo is stuck on a train for days, traveling to a distant and foreign part of India.  Saroo fends off would-be human traffickers, thieves, and finally lands in a place of relative safety.  But his journey isn’t over.

 

Now a young man, Saroo feels a sense of loss of identity.  It isn’t until he is in college, discussing his background, that he realizes his desparate need to belong and know his roots.  With the advent of Google Earth and some bright friends, Saroo begins his journey of identity.  This all-consuming task has its consequences, not only on Saroo, but his adoptive family as well.

 

The story strikes every emotional chord possible.  As a mother and someone who has been adopted, this film resonates with me on the same level as “Philomena.”  As a viewer, you are pulled into this story as the young Saroo captures your heart with his sweet little voice and mischievous yet angelic big, brown eyes.  Watching this little guy not only survive, but fend off people with ill will, is a gut-wrenching experience.  Knowing that this is based on a true story, brings an even deeper level of care and love for this young boy whose intelligence brings him success.  Never have I watched a film whelion-sunnyre the younger version of a character was equally skilled as the adult version.  Pawar, somehow in his young mind, understood the character perfectly and gave us an impassioned and simply outstanding portrayal of a lost child with the tenacity to live.

 

Patel seamlessly takes over the part of Saroo as the adopted son of Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).  Patel creates a witty, charming, and bright Saroo, exactly what we would have predicted, under the care and love of this Australian couple.  The subtleties needed to believably portraylion-dev1 a young man struggling with his love of his adoptive parents and his need to know is simply extraordinary.  Within this second half of the film, it is actually Kidman’s small, but exceptionally evocative scene that brings the film to an even higher level as she explains her decisions about adopting not only Saroo, but his “brother” as well.  Perhaps there is a part of Kidman in this scene that makes this such an emotionally eloquent conversation, but whatever it is, it is a lasting impression that you will never forget.  The only weak spot to this film is Rooney Mara’s role as Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy.  Her character seems unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot or interest of the story.  However, this small hiccup in the film doesn’t take away from the power of the story.

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“Lion” is an exceptional screenplay adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley.  Extraordinary performances, particularly from young Pawar and Kidman create a memorable and emotional story of family, identity, and the need we all have to not only be loved, but to belong.  Be sure to stick around for the credits as you will see actual footage from Saroo’s life—not to be missed!

 

4/4 Stars

10/10 Reels

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“Fences” is based on the stage play by the renowned playwright August Wilson.  Denzel Washington takes on the task of not only directing this intensely powerful production, but starring in it as well.  In an interview with the co-stars, Jovan Adepo (Cory) and Stephen Henderson (Bono), Washington and Wilson began working on this screenplay many years ago.  Wilson, who passed away in 2005, wrote the screenplay and approached Washington to bring this to the silver screen.  As Hfences5enderson stated, “We wanted to be as true to August as possible…and by Denzel because he was being honorable to August.”
“Fences” is about family, relationships, and breaking cycles.  Taking place in the racially volatile 1950’s, Troy (Washington) works as a garbage man in the city of Pittsburgh with his best friend Bono (Henderson).  At the end of the week, with not a penny to spare, Troy comes home to his adoring, hard-working wife and teenage son.  There’s an air of tension among the characters as Troy and his buddy wax and wane prophetic, drinking a bottle of booze in the backyard where much of the film takes place.  There’s a live theater feel to this film as the camera pivots gracefully around to capture the robust dialogue and soliloquies.  We see Troy become quite the story-teller, the more liquor he ingests.  His wife, Rose (Viola Davis), calls him out on his exaggerations, and the bond between the two is bPictured: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) & Viola Davis (Rose)eautifully evident.  But life isn’t just a bowl of cherries and we know this family will reveal its true colors.
The story brings us back to a time when the men wore the pants in the house and children were to be seen and not heard.  While we initially see a great amount of care and love between Rose and Troy, we quickly learn that there is a certain amount of fear as well.  This is evident as we meet Cory (Adepo) who wants nothing more than to gain his father’s approval, but as Troy attempts to steer his son in one direction, Cory rebels, reaching a limit and wanting independence more than approval.
The script and performances are remarkably powerful, almost intoxicating, as we discover each of the characters thoughts, desires, and heartbreak.  Each exquisitely written line, verbal exchange, and emotional oration breaks through the tough exterior to reveal the complexities and commonality among us all.  We travel life’s journey with Rose, Troy, Bono, Gabriel, and Cory.  We feel what they feel, and as they cry, we cry.  But there is laughter too…it is a true slice of life, allowing us to see the raw and brutal side of us all.
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Adepo and Henderson both conveyed that there is easily a part of them in their characters.  Adepo, a young actor, given “…a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said, “I had my own idea for how I wanted to live my life…Me and my dad may not have had a shared concept, but it’s a conversation I think is important for every young man and his father to have.  That’s just a part of becoming a man. I can definitely relate to Cory in that sense.”  Henderson, a seasoned actor of both stage and film, found that as he gave advice to “Troy,” he brought a regret of a love lost from his own past.  “I realized I could use that for a genuine nature…I know from what I speak.”  He continued, “It allowed me to really know just how true August’s words were.”
This story easily one of the most poignantly astute portrayals of human nature brought to the screen with the utmost of care and originality.  The small, but extraordinary ensemble cast creates a bond with the audience that cuts you deeply and changes how you see the world and those near you.  Davis, Washington, Adepo, and Henderson all shine brightly giving us the performance of a lifetime as they explore a myriad number of social and personal issues and witness the impact of their actions and reactions.
The end will leave you speechless, but as Henderson revealed an event that occurred in the final scene, you will have an even greater appreciation for Washington honoring and staying true to Wilson’s script and message.  Henderson shared that the gate in the fence, built to keep people out as well as keep people in, opened and closed by itself in the final scene.  “That’s the most fortuitous and spiritual event..,”  Henderson said.  When you witness this and see the cast’s reaction, this is truly something special.  As Adepo said, “You can’t fake that.”
“Fences” is a brilliant masterpiece perfectly transported from the stage to the screen.  With powerful performances and adept direction, it’s an emotionally raw film that reminds you that “you gotta take the crooked with the straights.”
4 Stars (I’d give it 10 more, if I could)

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Muslim Girl founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.

In the aftermath of one of the racially divided and prejudicial presidential races in U.S. history, the fear of even greater harm and prejudice toward Muslims is also unprecedented.  To counteract this “Islamophobia,” Joshua Seftel brings us “The Secret Life of Muslims.” This new “digital series that uses humor and empathy to confront Islamophobia” actually does much more than that.  It educates and entertains while it awakens you to see how truly silly prejudices are.  Yes, this is about the Muslim religion (it is a religion, people), but the concept can be applied to any religion and any group of people to whom there are negative stereotypes.  “The Secret Life of Muslims” is a brilliant concept that, in under 5 minutes, could change your perspective and views.  I told you it was brilliant!

 

Each week through February, 2017, this series will launch a new episode available on a variety of on-line digital platforms.  This innovative distribution model allows viewers to see or listen to  these short stories on Vox, The USA TODAY Network, CBS Sunday Morning, and PRI’s THE WORLD.   Seftel interviews a wide range of people living in the United States who are Muslim.  From comedian Ahmed Ahmed who will have you laughing out loud (Watch his episode here) to female journalist Dena Takruri who will bring to you a keener insight to the difficulties in reporting the news (Watch her episode here), and many other notable public figures such as NYPD Muslim Chaplain Khalid Latif (Watch his episode here) and actor Iqbal Theba, these Muslims who look, talk, and act just like everyone else, tell you their story.  Watch, listen, (laugh) and learn.

Check out the first episode here

Seftel explains that, “After such a divisive election, we need to come together to start telling stories that add truth and nuance to what was stoked on the campaign trail.”  Seftel knows about prejudice as he recalls facing “… anti-Semitism growing up Jewish in Upstate New York and that stayed with me.”  With the anti-Muslim discrimination that is occurring here in the U.S., it is his hope is to create an understanding about the religion and the people.  He adds, “…so if we can help create understanding in some small way, that would be a great step.”

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With 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, 3.3 million of them living in the United States, this series will definitely create understanding as well as correct misconceptions surrounding the Muslim religion.  Thanks to Seftel and the key support from the Ford Foundation/Just Films, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, The New York Community Trust, Pillars Fund, and many more, this uniquely informative and creative concept is free to everyone to see.  Here’s the link to view all of the episodes: www.secretlifeofmuslims.com

 

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The Star Wars franchise continues with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” There’s no doubt this cash cow will continue to produce green buckets for Lucasfilm, but does their $200 million investment give them a golden story? No. This lackluster attempt at delivering a prequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” provides little information, characters with no personality, except for a droid, and all its golden eggs in the special effects basket.

 

For those of you who are not avid — and, I mean, truly avid — fans, you’re going to need a tutorial before you see this film. I recommend seeing the very first Star Wars film released, which is actually “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” from back in 1977. It will give you the right mindset for this latest installment.

 

Otherwise, you’ll be asking the same questions I was, such as: “Which spaceships are the bad ones?” “He looks familiar. Was he in one of the other 50 Star Wars movies?” “What’s the difference between the Rebellion and the Resistance, or was it the Alliance?” Trying very hard to recall “A New Hope,” I attempted to find some logic behind this prequel, but alas, there was none until the very end. The more-than-two-hour running time was not worth how they gathered up the loose ends and put a sloppy bow on top.

To read the rest of the review as printed in the Friday, December 16 edition of The Daily Journal, go HERE

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STEVIE D

Written and directed by Chris Cordone

Starring:  Chris Cordone, Torrey DeVitto, Kevin Chapman, John Aprea, and Hal Linden

Stevie DiMarco (Chris Cordone), aka Stevie D, is the arrogant, obnoxious, misogynistic son of a well-connected L.A. construction magnate.  His heavy drinking ways get him into trouble when he accidentally kills a crime boss’s son.  Revenge by means of retaliation is the only payment that can settle the score.   Stevie D is the prime target and his father, Angelo (John Aprea), hires a look-alike actor to play his son’s role, setting him up to unknowingly take the hit while the real Stevie D goes into hiding.  As Michael Rose (Chris Cordone), the actor, successfully fills in, the consequences are not what everyone expected.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Immediately, we do not like Stevie D.  He’s crass and self-serving—a spoiled rotten adult brat.  After the accidental murder of the son of a mob boss, Angelo and Lenny (Kevin Chapman), his right hand man, stumble upon an actor in a commercial who is Stevie D’s doppelgänger.   This well-meaning, but broke actor is convinced to play tsteviehe role of Stevie D and surprises everyone with his kindness, generosity, and overall goodness.  The relationships benefit everyone, including Lenny who wants to be an actor, taking a few pointers from Rose.  A budding romance blossoms between Angelo’s lawyer’s daughter and Rose, and the real Stevie D could easily be forgotten if it weren’t for the two bumbling hit men sent to snuff out this fine young man’s life.  It’s a cat and mouse game filled with humorous situations, serendipity, and a few miscommunications along the way.

“Stevie D” is a wonderfully entertaining film that connects you to the exaggerated characters we meet.  Each one of them has an alternative personality that we find endearing—even the hit men and their love of fine dining.  With the exception of Nick the crime boss and the real Stevie D, every character has heart and we thoroughly enjoy getting to know them.  Lenny is a favorite character, a hard-nosed  mobster who melts as he gets to know Rose,  wanting nothing more than to break into show biz.  And the romance between Daria (DeVitto) and Rose gives the story-line just the right touch to balance the cat and mouse game.

chapman The plot is simple, but complex situations create the fun twists and turns in the story.  Cordone does an extraordinary job not only writing and directing this film, but also taking on two roles as Rose and Stevie D.   His adept skill at portraying two very different characters is equally remarkable as, initially,  I really thought they were two different people.  Chapman nails his role as Lenny and brings a level of lovability to the character.  Phil Idrissi and Darren Capozzi are the comic relief with their insatiable appetites and unexpected work ethics and priorities.  And it’s always a pleasure to see Hal Linden in any role as he portrays the old-time lovable talent agent Max Levine.  The entire cast clicks as we watch this story of mistaken identity unfold.screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-9-54-38-am

“Stevie D” creates a light-hearted mobster film complete with a love story that is engaging and just down-right fun to watch.  The quick pace and interesting characters, although a bit over-the-top, make it that much more endearing.  “Stevie D” is now available on VOD via iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and other digital platforms.

 

3 Stars out of 4

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LA LA LAND

Starring:  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

Written and Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) continues to be a cutting edge and driving force in his very young writing and directing career.  His newest endeavor is a musical, “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  The two are young and struggling talents in Hollywood, trying to make a go of it while they dance and sing their way into each others hearts and arms.  It’s a throw-back to a romantic and imaginative time in Hollywood yet set in the current times.  It’s not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but the story and creativity far out-weigh what the stars lack in singing and dancing prowess.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

There’s no denying what this film is going to be as we immediately get a taste of beautifully choreographed dancing in rush hour traffic in L.A.  Mia (Stone) is a struggling actress and Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist not willing to sell-out and compromise.  Mia dreams and dances her way through everyday life as she is repeatedly rejected in auditions.  Sebastian wants nothing more than to own, once again, his own jazz club.  When the two finally connect, they lift one another as they reach for the stars.  You can’t help but adore this young couple as they completely mesmerize you, transfixing your gaze upon their interactions,  struggles, and romance.

 

“La La Land” takes a chance by inviting the audience along for this remarkable journey.  While the singing and the dancing from our leads aren’t up to Astaire and Rogers’ standards, the rest of the cast acrobatically sweeps you off your feet.  Gosling and Stone, their third love story together (“Crazy, Stupid, Love,” and “Gangster Squad”), have a chemistry that is palpable in this sweet film.  Stone embodies the persona of the “girl next door,” with her big green eyes and freckled face as she continually tries to make it in this unforgiving world of movie making.  She readily captures your attention and your heart as you root for her to succeed.  Gosling is the more refined, moody, and temperamental leading man who perfectly balances Stone’s positivity and can-do attitude.  The two are blissful harmony when they’re together.  And what they lack in singing and dancing skills, they easily make up for with their on-screen presence.  And the hands you see playing the piano are reportedly Gosling’s.  Impressive.lalapiano

 

In true Chazelle style, he’s  daring in combining this old-fashioned concept with a bold story.  Is it a new story?  Not really, but it’s told quite differently making it a uniquely symphonic blend of filmmaking.  There is definitely predictability, but it’s in a  very charming way.  And Chazelle knows how to reel in an audience and then blow them away with unpredictability.  This skillful amalgam of old and new with seemingly far-fetched fantastical scenes somehow works with Chazelle at the helm.  Chazelle also has a keen attention to detail which elevates the quality of this stunning film.  It’s  shot  using a 1950’s style, wide screen CinemaScope which is why we feel an even deeper connection with a by-gone era of musicals.  And to say it’s in technicolor is putting it mildly.  It’s truly a visually striking and beautiful film.

“La La Land” is a wonderful romp back into the dreamy time of Old Hollywood that will make you smile the entire time.  The story is simply stellar with brilliant cinematography augmenting the film.  While Stone and Gosling are a great on-screen presence, one can’t help but wonder if two other actors who’s strengths are dancing and singing would have been even more magical.  We will never know.  But we do know that  making a musical is a bold and daring move and Chazelle has a winner…again!

 

4 Stars

 

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Collateral Beauty

Written by: Allan Loeb

Directed by David Frankel

Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren

“Collateral Beauty,” blends a little bit of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to give us this new film about love, loss, and what’s important in life. Howard (Will Smith) is a charismatic and extremely successful entrepreneur with a heart of gold until he loses his young daughter.  This devastating event plummets him into an emotional hell, leaving his business and partners in financial shambles.  In an effort to help Howard and the business, his partners hire actors to respond to his letters to the Universe including Love, Deacbnortonth, and Time—the concepts he feels are responsible for taking the most precious gift from him.

WATCH THE TRAILER

We meet Howard before his 6 year old dies.  He’s upbeat and charming, an amazingly gracious and giving leader of his ever-growing company.  The story quickly jumps to the current day as we see a withdrawn, depressed, and unresponsive man who has physically aged much more than 2 years and now just going through the motions in life.  His business partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena), hatch a plan to employee three out-of-work actors as the characters to whom Howard is writing.  Brigitte aka “Death” (Helen Mirren), Amy aka “Love” (Keira Knightley), and Raffi aka “Time” (Jacob Latimore) visit Howard to either wake him up or document his crazy behavior in time to save the company.

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“Collateral Beauty” is an emotionally touching film as we embark upon not only Howard’s journey of loss and healing, but  each of the partners’ troubled lives as well.   It’s a reminder that we are all connected and that no one truly knows our inner-struggles unless we are willing to look.  We all have a story and it’s ok to need a helping hand every once in a while.  While it is a rather predictable story, there are a couple of surprise twists that may just warm your heart and put a smile on your face.  cbwill

 

Smith, although the lead, has comparatively fewer lines than his co-stars.  It’s his mere presence and how he sleepwalks through life captivates you as you imagine his hell on Earth.  Smith brings believability to this character and creates empathy from the viewer.  While Norton, Winslet, and Pena do an adequate job, it is, unsurprisingly, Mirren that pulls life into the film, ironically as the character of “Death.”  The young Latimore also has a convincing role to play allowing us to see just a bit of the range this talented actor is capable of.  And Ann Dowd (“Compliance”) is always a pleasure to see in any film, finding a way to bring a bit of humor and personality to the small, but vital part of the unassuming investigator.

 

“Collateral Beauty” may not be the next Oscar contender in any category, but it is a wonderful re-creation of what the holiday season’s message should be—cherish one another as we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  Even with a predictable and rather familiar story, you might find a few pleasant surprises along the way as well.

 

3 Stars

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The “Star Wars” franchise continues with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Ben Mendelsohn along with several more high-profile actors.  No doubt that this cash cow will continue to produce green buckets  for Lucasfilm, but does their $200M investment give them a golden story?  No.  This lackluster attempt at delivering a prequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” provides little information, characters with no personality except for a droid, and puts all their golden eggs into the special effects basket.

WATCH THE TRAILER

For those of you who are not avid, and I mean truly avid, Star Wars fans, you’re going to need a tutorial before you see this film.  I recommend seeing the very first Star Wars which is actually “Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope” from back in 1977.  It will give you the right mindset for this latest installment.  Otherwise, you’ll be asking the same questions I was, such as:  “Which space ships are the bad ones?” star-wars-rogue-one-970x539 “He looks familiar.  Was he in one of the other 50 “Star Wars” movies?”  “What’s the difference between the Rebellion and the Resistance or was it the Alliance?”  Trying very hard to recall “A New Hope,” I attempted to find some logic behind this prequel, but alas, there was none until the very end.  The 2 hour and 16 minute running time was not worth how they gathered up the loose ends and put a sloppy bow on top.

If you go and if you’re not a huge fan, here’s the basic premise.  Jyn Erso (Jones) witnesses the murder of her mother and the capture of her father (Mads Mikkelsen) as the family attempts to flee the Empire’s representative, the evil, heartless Krennic (Mendelsohn).  15 years pass and Jyn has been raised by the rebellious outcast Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and she now finds herself in a situation/position to confront her father (sound familiar?), find the truth (again, sound familiar?), and save the galaxy from the possible development of the Death Star…yeah, it’s that nasty, dreaded Death Star again.  So, with lots of help from her rag-tag team of bandits and Force Fighters (you know, the guys who follow the Force), Jyn wings a plan to  thwart evil.  It’s a non-stop battle to the end.

“Rogue One” fails on the most basic level—the story.  While the beginning seems promising, the film quickly goes into a tailspin, taking us into the blackhole of story-telling.  “Rogue One” is more of a showcase of special effects and highly choreographed fight scenes than it is a set-up to one of the most popular films of

k2so-1024x433all time.  When the voice of a droid named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and a blind martial arts fighter, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) are the most animated and interesting characters in a film with a myriad number of characters, that’s a poor reflection on the writing, directing, and acting from the rest of the cast.  Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook) attempts to give us a bit of an entertaining character, but never seems to quite know how far to take it, dialing it in and out unexpectedly.  Even Mendelsohn’s unusual persona can’t find a way to shine in this one.   Jones’ performance is even less stellar as she flatlines her dialogue and Luna is just a non-descript sidekick.

roguemartialThe special effects are simply extraordinary, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing!    It becomes dull and monotonous, exactly the two descriptors for “Rogue One.” And one particular special effect is downright creepy, but I won’t spoil it for you.  However, there is a blatantly obvious good thing that as a female film reviewer, I need to point out.  The lead character and hero (or heroine) is female.  She is the leader and savior and for that I commend the writers; Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is sure to make fans of the epic franchise happy as they have yet another film to see.  For those of you who are not able to recite the names of the all the Imperial-occupied moons and the succession of bad guys, I’d recommend skipping this one.  But, if you need a nap and your significant other insists on going, be assured you can catch up on your zzzz’s.

 

1 Star out of 4