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The 18th Annual Phoenix Film Festival is well underway and what a year it has been so far!  While it’s impossible to see all of these films, the weekend has proved to be absolutely spectacular.  Check out the capsule reviews below and watch for full reviews in the coming weeks of the highlights so far.

“The Hero”

Brett Haley, the talent behind the writing and directing of “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” brings us yet another poignant commentary on life and aging with “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott.  Lee Hayden (Elliott) finds his life’s work of acting waning as he ages, but when he receives a cancer diagnosis, his future seems dismal.  Attempting to  right therohe wrongs in his life, he finds that the future is what you make it.  Filled with introspection and humor, Hayden finds that life can still be meaningful even after the age of 70.  The humor, sometimes bittersweet, balances this beautiful story and Elliott shows us that he is the quintessential leading man, no matter his age.  (Opens in theaters June 9)  THE HERO Trailer

 

 

 

“Brave New Jersey”

Brave-New-Jersey-movie-7This quirky and star-filled spoof takes us back to the night that Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 “War of the Worlds” aired in the small farming town of Lullaby, New Jersey, just miles away from the supposed attack.  As this sleepy little town must now awaken and take heed, the true personalities of each are revealed.  It feels like a reunion of great comic television actors who have found a way to have a blast as they create new and frequently over-the-top characters in a solid and unique story.  Clark (Tony Hale) is madly inlove with Lorraine (Heather Burns) who is married to the mayor and bully, while Reverand Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl) attempts to lead his congregation, but is more lost and irreverent than his followers.  And Sheriff Dandy (Mel Rodriguez) shines as the hapless law enforcer.  This sweet love story/dramedy will have you in stitches as you laugh and root for the underdog.  BRAVE NEW JERSEY Trailer

 

“Quaker Oaths”

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Divorce is never easy, but throw into the equation the Quaker rules and it becomes an almost insurmountable yet hilarious task.  Joe (Alex Dobrenko, “Arlo and Julie”) and Emily are married under Quaker tradition which includes all guests signing their marriage certificate.  The couple having lived apart for five of the six years of marriage,  decide to finally call it quits officially.  Upon Emily’s parents’ request, the two road trip across the country to get each guests’ signature crossed off.  As Emily and Joe reconnect and with each guest they  try to convince to cross off their name, they discover a little bit more about one another and themselves.  Filled with miscommunications and comedic situations as well as unusual characters, it’s an entertaining journey about life, love, and all the bumps in the road.  QUAKER OATHS Trailer

 

 

 

“The Midnighters”

First-time filmmaker Julian Fort creates a heart-pounding crime thriller taking you into the life of ex-con Victor who can’t resist one last bank heist…with his son, Danny (Gregory SimThe Midnighterss).  Victor (Leon Russom), sees that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but the Danny (Gregory Sims) is in way over his head.  This intense story will keep you guessing as the plot twists and turns and as you watch the characters’ motives unfold.  Skillful editing and cinematography add to this stylized drama.  What makes this particular film stand apart from many others like it is its ability to create sympathy and empathy for Victor.  We truly care for this man who continues to make one bad decision after another, but he is also a father who loves his son.  This is one impressive first-time feature film.

 

 

“Second Hand Hearts”

secondhandheartsYoung love.  We’ve all been through it, but what happens when you meet your true love only to find out it’s your girlfriend’s sister?  As Ben (Ben Isaacs) is in Japan as a freelance photographer, he bumps into Emily (Mallory Corinne) and there is an immediate spark and much, much more.   It’s a classic love story, but with a higher dose of reality making it much more relatable than most films in this genre. “Second Hand Hearts” is a non-linear story allowing us to be in the present as we understand what has happened in the recent past.  While there are some pacing issues and the character of Jaime seems a little inconsistent, it’s a film that is intriguing, keeping you invested in wanting to know how this ends.   SECOND HAND HEARTS Trailer

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Dave Made A Maze”

Director Bill Watterson co-wrote this extraordinarily unusual film with Steven Sears about a grown man who builds a maze out of a cardboard box in his living room whildave-made-a-maze-4e his girlfriend is away for the weekend. Upon her return, she finds that he is “lost” in this box.  Gathering a rescue team comprised of his friends, the group ventures in to a world in which they are not prepared.  It’s a gruesomely hilarious romp with exaggerated characters and a touch of charming sweetness.  The set designs will blow your mind as these creative storytellers take advantage of your childhood nightmares in this mesmerizing film.   DAVE MADE A MAZE Trailer

AN INTERVIEW WITH WATTERSON, THUNE, and KUMBHANI

 

 

“Killing Ground”

imageAustralian filmmaker Damien Power creates a chilling psychological thriller in “Killing Ground” as a young couple ventures out into the country for a weekend camping trip.  Noticing another campsite not far away with no activity for hours, the couple looks for clues as to where they might be.  As they find a toddler wandering nearby, their greatest fears don’t begin to compare to the horror that lies ahead.  Power sets up the perfect situations in this film that give you a sense of dread, pushing your every sense to a tipping point.  It is not a classic horror film; it is much more.  It’s clever and unpredictable as you face some of your own biggest fears.  The cast is stellar witha brilliant script and cinematography bringing you into the characters’ world of the “Killing Ground.  KILLING GROUND Trailer

 

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There are still many days ahead at the PFF with opportunities to see these films and many more!  Be sure to put “Norman,” “Graduation,” and “Tommy’s Honour” on your must-see list this week!  Go to www.phoenixfilmfestival.com for more information and screening times.

 

 

imageAnne Hathaway has spearheaded this unique, genre-bending film written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo in which she and Jason Sudeikis star.  Combining  biting humor with dramatic horror, “Colossal” brings us into the psyche of two friends, Gloria and Oscar, from childhood.  How powerful is our mind?  ”Colossal” answers that question in epic proportions as these two fight for survival.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Gloria (Hathaway) is a party girl, living or should I say, sponging off of her successful boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) until one day, he has had enough and kicks her out.  With just a sac on her back, appearing a bit like a hobo, she returns to her hometown to live in her parents’ abandoned house.   Resolving to quit drinking and partying, she runs into her old chum Oscar (Sudeikis) who runs a local family tavern.  As the two reconnect, a horrific event occurs half-way around the world in Seoul, Korea.  Eventually, she determines there’s a connection, but is it too late?  Wrestling the demons from within prove to be just as difficult as the ones that stand before her on the playground from her past.

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“Colossal” is one of the most unexpectedly ingenious films of recent past.  While it has the elements of a good, old-fashioned monster story, stomping buildings and scattering pedestrians, it also incorporates the most deeply human internal conflict imaginable into the story.  Initially, it feels like an ordinary break-up/love story, but I can assure you it is anything BUT that!  Gloria and Oscar appear to be old buddies, particularly as Oscar shows her his chivalrous side, helping in anymaxresdefault (1) way that he can.  But he is much more complicated, as is Gloria, both carrying so much baggage from their past.  We get to know these two, their history, and who they truly are all the while attempting to find out how they are connected to the beast wreaking havoc in Korea.

The story finds a way to incorporate horror, drama, and comedy that on the surface, the horror seems preposterous, and it is.  However, the writing and acting is so captivating that you forget that this could never actually happen.  It’s a film that you are happy to suspend all belief and just sit back and enjoy.  Initially, you’re perplexed about how and why the events are occurring, but like a puzzle, all the pieces become apparent and you have fun putting it all together.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny one moment, and thoughtfully sad the next.  And then you’re jumping in your seat and gasping at what has just occurred.  It’s truly an innovate and well-rounded story.

FullSizeRenderWhile the script is quite original, the acting is equally as inspired as we see both of these big name Hollywood stars in roles like never before.  It’s refreshing to see a female lead that is strong and independent, but has gotten there by way of a very bumpy road.  Sudeikis shines in this dark, very dark, role.  We all knew he could do comedy and if you’ve seen “The Book of Love,” you knew he easily creates a dramatic role, but his portrayal of Oscar is seriously dark and he relishes in it.

Hathaway lit the fire to start this film and her spark and energy are captured in her role, all the while being 15 weeks pregnant.  Talking with Hathaway at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival revealed that she believed in the script and in Vigalondo.  She is an advocate of female-centered films and said, “If you want to see more women in movies, support the movies that have women in them.  I try to do my part be getting them made and hopefully making them fun to watch.”  From this reviewer’s perspective, she has succeeded.

“Colossal” is such a sheer joy to watch as you become engrossed in every character and what motivates them.  Hathaway and Sudeikis give us unusual performances allowing us to see another side of these talented actors.  Under the keen direction of Vigalondo, “Colossal” creates a new genre of film with a female in the lead.  Now, that’s a giant leap forward!

For the interview with Hathaway, Sudiekis, and Vigalondo go to http://www.reelhonestreviews.com/?p=3824

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For TIFF coverage from RHR, go to FLM

 

 

 

 

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Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis star in the upcoming genre-bending film “Colossal,” the brainchild of Spanish writer and director Nacho Vigalondo.  The film finds Gloria (Hathaway), a young woman with a drinking problem, hitting rock bottom as her boyfriend kicks her out and she returns to her hometown.  Bumping into her childhood chum Oscar (Sudeikis), their friendship is renewed, but the deep, dark secrets ever so slowly are revealed as, coincidentally, a monster is wreaking havoc in Seoulmaxresdefault (1), Korea.  The ingeniously creative film is a new spin on good, old-fashioned monster films integrating psychology and horror into one amazingly entertaining movie.

I had a chance to talk with Sudeikis and Hathaway at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and Vigalondo just recently about creating this monstrously fun yet meaningful movie.
The origins stem from Vigalondo’s love of the science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick.  While the concept of the film began as a note on a scrap of paper put into a drawer for a later date, Vigalondo certainly sees the similarities in the completed “Colossal” with Dick’s books.  With larger than life backgrounds, the characters, initially seeming rather ordinary, become extraordinary.

Hathaway and Vigalondo each shared with me how she become connected with the script and while they both eventually had the same story of her agent finding him, it is Vigalondo’s fanciful recollection that was quite humorous.  “I would love to tell you an amazing story right now,” he said.  “Like I decided to go to her place and bring drinks and my guitar.  And I sang a song in front of her porch and she fell in love with me,” he laughed out loud.”  He confided with a bit of remorse, “If I was the kind of person I would want to be, that story would be real.”

nacho-vigalondo-6Being able to create this film, according to Hathaway, couldn’t have been done in her early career.  She said, “I felt ready to take on that responsibility.  I was ready to stand up and say this is my sense of humor. This is what I believe in.  This is a filmmaker I’m backing [and] this is a script I think should be made.”  Regarding women taking on more lead roles and being more proactive in the film industry, Hathaway said, “So much of it’s on the audience.  If you want to see more women in movies, support movies that have women in them.  I try to do my part by getting them made and hopefully making them fun to watch.”

In the beginning, “Colossal” appears to be the fun, light-hearted, predictably sweet reconnection between  Sudeikis and Hathaway’s characters.  Not the case.  In fact, it’s quite

FullSizeRenderthe opposite.  While the film is at all times entertaining, there are actual fight scenes between the two actors, who reportedly are very good friends off-screen.   Vigalondo recalls rehearsing these scenes, “…to shoot it so that nobody is going to be hurt.”  Sudeikis had reassuring words, “There’s a lot of movie magic…No Hathaways were harmed during the filming of this project.”  Thankfully, as she was in her second trimester of pregnancy during the shooting of “Colossal.”

Sudeikis is not his typical, funny, sweet self in “Colossal.”  He’s dark—like we’ve never seen him before.  Vigalondo said, “It’s really exciting when you are giving a talented actor the first villain of his career.  He’s not the kind of…villain that everybody wants to play in a movie.  He just acted like a real asshole that’s really scary [and gets] darker and darker.”  Sudeikis said, “I guess he (Vigalondo) saw this guy in me!”  He laughed that he wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not.

Both Hathaway and DSC_0790Sudeikis described Vigalondo in rather unusual but very positive ways as they recalled the director took dressing up for Halloween during filming to all-time new level (picture a cat suit with ears), however, the seriousness of one of the film’s topics was addressed…abuse.  Hathaway said, “Nacho’s purpose for making this movie was showing how unnecessary toxic macho energy is.”  She continued to explain this idea, “…where it’s gone too far [and there’s a] toxic pattern of abuse and remorse.  I think we need to examine that as individuals, as a society, and we should not be afraid of doing better.”  Vigalondo said, “The movie deals with some very delicate [and] deep issues…violence in relationships” and he wanted to be sure to be respectful of these issues.

While the film deals with some deeper and very meaningful issues, there’s a lot of laughter, suspense, and fun in the film as well.  “Colossal” transports you to an impossible situation and you willingly suspend belief as the characters and the story take you on a most entertaining trip that you won’t soon forget.  Vigalondo wanted to share one last thought with potential viewers.  “To people who haven’t seen the film, don’t worry.  Even though you’ve read a lot of spoilers, the movie still has a lot of surprises for you.”

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The 17th Annual Phoenix Film Festival (PFF) is one of the biggest celebrations of film in Arizona, attracting high profile celebrities, movies from all over the world and more than 25,000 participants. This 8-day festival, taking place April 6-13, screens more than 175 films under one roof—the Harkins Scottsdale 101 Theater in Phoenix.  This easily navigable festival welcomes the public and is known as a home for independent filmmakers.

PFF has a unique personality, always striving to improve year after year.  Festival director Jason Carney said, “We want to be the best version of our festival we can be.  That means being better than the year before…”  Carney has his pulse on the film industry, recognizing the changes needed and this year, he and his team have created a new program called Unified by Film.  Carney stated, “We wanted to get unique perspectives from filmmakers from different communities [so] this year we have categories for Native American, African American, and Latino American directors.  This will give our audiences an opportunity to see some stories from other perspectives.  Additionally, we had programmers with similar backgrounds select those films to make sure it was personal.”

Carney and his 200 volunteers seem to run like a well-oiled machine, coordinating every detail to make this a premier festival.  The line-up has diverse topics by diverse filmmakers, creating films to appeal to evTommy's_Honour_Posterery palate.  From documentaries and dramas to comedies, horror, and short films, PFF has just the film for you.

Finding just the right film can be daunting, but I have several recommendations to get you started.  PFF’s opening and closing night films are not to be missed—”The Hero” and “Tommy’s Honour.”  Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman star in “The Hero,” a story about  life’s regrets and living life to its fullest.  Elliott’s compelling performance is spell-binding and Offerman’s off-beat verbal cadence and unique perspective reminds us to laugh.   THE HERO Trailer   “Tommy’s Honour” is a father-son story and a love story within the roots of the game of golf.  You’ll have  a new perspective on this once raucous game. TOMMY’S HONOUR Trailer

Sandwiched in the middle of these two exceptional films are more entertaining gems you won’t want to miss.

DAVE MADE A MAZE builds on a child-like concept of getting lost in a box in your living room, making you laugh and gasp while you are in awe of the amazing set design.

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THE KILLING GROUND

The Midnighters 3KILLING GROUND is an Australian psychological horror film that will make you think twice about that camping trip in the wilderness.  It’s gruesome yet brings you to question your own psyche.

GRADUATION is another moralistic conundrum by the famed Darden Brothers as a father attempts to protect and “help” his daughter after being physically attacked near her school.  To what lengths will a parent go to remedy his guilt and make things right again?

IN LOCO PARENTIS is yet another heartfelt journey into parenthood, but these teachers are much more than their title indicates.

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THE MIDNIGHTERS

NORMAN is written and directed by Joseph Cedar and stars Richard Gere as the hapless New Yorker who tries with all his heart to make connections.  It’s beautifully eloquent and meaningful yet whimsical as it portrays this one man’s life and direction.norman poster

Quaker Oaths,” “The Midnighters,” “Fallen,” and “Secondhand Hearts,” are all recommended, but check out the festival schedule and description for even more great films.  PFF Schedule   Don’t miss out on one of the best festivals in the country.

Tickets can be purchased individually or in a package.  For more information, go to PFF Tickets

 

 

 

 

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First-time filmmaker Julian Fort will premiere his crime thriller “The Midnighters” at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival (PFF).  Starring Leon Russom (“True Grit”) as Victor, a 35 year ex-convict and expert safe-cracker, and Gregory Sims as his long-lost son, the two are reunited to pull of one last and very profitable bank heist.  Filled with unexpected twists and turns, this cinematically gorgeous film will leave you guessing until the bitter end.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

Victor (Russom), is released from prison and is reporting to his parole officer whose rote and obligatory directives are both condescending and dehumanizing.  Victor attempts to follow the rules and walk a straight and narrow path, but finding his way and a job in this very different world is not working.   The-Midnighters-2-700x450Desperate, he visits an old friend who was to have kept an eye on the profits from his last job and finds that time has not been kind…to his friend or his money.  Vince is then approached by his son with whom he has had no contact in years as he and his 3 Russian “partners” need Victor’s unique skills to pull of this heist.  This seemingly no-fail robbery is more temptation than he can resist and the two slide down the slippery slope of greed.

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“The Midnighters” creates the perfect balance of love and disdain for Vince.  As the tension builds gradually, we grow to truly care for this ex-con, but still see that he is making one bad decision after another.  His love for his son may be the ultimate crime for which he may not be prepared to pay the price.  Filled with crossing and double-crossing, it’s a wonderfully intense thriller—a roller coaster ride of drama.

The dramatic scenes creating just the right mood are captured through concise cinematography.  The dark and foreboding background, always giving the feeling of impending doom while there is still a hope of positive resolution through the dialogue.   In addition, creative editing and segues are beautifully shot, augmenting the progression of the story.

While the story’s premise may not be unique, it is the unusual sympathy Fort develops for his main character, Victor.  Russom exhcropped-slide8ibits this lovable sweetness that allows you to see who he might have been 35 years ago.  His struggle to do what’s right is palpable as the carrot of gold is dangled in front of him.  With his gruff exterior, he eloquently elicits such sympathy that you find yourself wanting someone to give this man a second chance.  Sims and Russom seem a natural fit as father and son as the two sort out years that have been lost.  Sims creates a complex character that is at times unexpected, but always understood.

“The Midnighters” is an impressive first attempt at a full-length feature film creating a true crime thriller.  Great editing, skillful direction, and a more than competent cast elevate this film to a competitive level.  Fort has a bright future ahead of him.

CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS AT PFF

 

3 1/2 Stars

 

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Chris Evans isn’t donning a shield or  a uniform for  his role in “Gifted.”  In fact, he’s outwardly a typical, blue collar boat repairman.  It’s what lies beneath that makes him just as strong and powerful as Captain America as he portrays Frank,  6 year-old Mary’s (Mckenna Grace) uncle and father-figure.  In a custody battle with Mary’s maternal grandmother, everyone’s motives and abilities are put into question, revealing a troubled past, debatable motivations, and regrets.  While the story may be somewhat predictable and familiar, it’s still one that captures your attention and your heart as you laugh and shed a few tears, completely invested in this struggling young mgiftedan and his precocious little girl.

Watch the trailer here

Frank (Evans) has decided to send his brilliantly mathematically gifted 6 year-old to public school to learn more than he can teach her—social skills.  From the moment Mary sits at her desk, utterly bored, she unveils her profound gift at calculating equations  (and lack of respect) as her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) checks the results on her calculator.  As the adults have other plans for Mary’s education, it comes down to a fight for what’s best for Mary, but those lines of right and wrong are blurred.

“Gifted” is a love story on many different levels.  It’s a father-daughter love story as well as a sweet attraction between Frank and Mary’s first grade teacher.  We also see the connection and loyalty between siblings and how a bond between a mother and child can sadly be broken.  While it is Mary and Frank’s story, these ancillary stories add a beautiful depth to the film.  gifted-2017-chris-evans-octavia-spencerFrank’s genuine and unyielding love and protection of Mary is unparalleled as he melts our heart.  He loves this little girl and is weighted with the responsibility of doing what is best for his sister’s child.  His sister would have wanted Mary to have friends her own age, not just Roberta (Octavia Spencer) and Fred, the one-eyed cat.

jenny-slate-gifted-chris-evansWhat makes “Gifted” a different take on a familiar topic is the court proceedings and allowing the viewer into the struggle that Frank is facing internally.  Every parent asks the question, “Am I making the right decision?”  We all the do the best we can with what we are given and Frank is no different.  He’s not a super hero.  He’s very ordinary, but that’s what makes him so special.  In Mary’s mind, he’s not perfect either.  We watch the two work out a few typical parent-kid issues, sometimes in very messy ways, but all very honestly.  The court process is frustrating as we find ourselves almost shouting to route for our hero, Frank.  But again, life can be very messy and unfair and we don’t know how this is going to end.

Creating a genuine bond between Frank and Mary is evident in every scene.  It feels real and it sounds real.  Roberta is the neighbor every parent would want as her maternal influence creates a wonderful balance in Mary’s life.   While Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) is our evil character in this story, she’s not just one-dimensional.  She is just as Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adcomplicated with her guilt and remorse as anyone else in the film; it’s just that her motivation isn’t inspired by love. And Bonnie and Frank’s relationship provides a bit of humor in the film, although much of it feels a bit stilted and contrived after the first humorous interactions.

Evans shines in this dramatic role, proving that he is much more than a flat comic book hero.  He can be sensitive, kind, and loving as well as frustrated and scared.  He finds the ability to portray all of these emotions without ever going over the top.  Mckenna Grace is simply outstanding, particularly at this young age.  Her eyes and expressions immediately connect you to her as she effortlessly pulls on your heartstrings.  Finding someone of this age to carry this film could not have been easy and without the skill of this talented girl, the deft direction of Marc Webb, and the connection between she and Evans, this film would have flopped.  It didn’t.

Relationships and life are sticky, particularly when you involve children and “Gifted” shows us just how tumultuous life can be. Beautifully filmed with music to augment each emotional scene makes this an engaging film  filled with love and compassion, reminding us of what’s important and how to be sensitive and compromising.

While this is a story about a child, there is some language in the film not suitable for younger ears.  The pace of the film isn’t geared toward younger attention spans either.

 

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The movie poster elicits thoughts of humor and while comedy is an underlying concept of the film, the message is one of grave seriousness:  democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech.  The very basics upon which our country was founded.  This film takes place in Egypt over the course of several years in the life of Bassem Youssef, cardiac surgeon turned professional comedian and talk show host—the Jon Stewart of Egypt.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

As the opening credits roll, you’re already laughing as the narrator (Youssef) is warning the audience that “…speaking out against oppressive regimes may cause side effects such as…” and the list is filled with ironically humorous possible scenarios.  Little do you know, some of these side effects are an actuality in Youseff’s future.  (He doesn’t seem to suffer from vaginal dryness, thankfully.)

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We meet this charismatic star of the talk show “The Show” as he strolls through the streets of Cairo during a revolt against military rule.  Donning a surgical mask, he and his cameraman interview protesters as we witness

the effects of military intervention.  It’s shocking, to say the least.  But what is even more shocking is the fact that he is documenting the truth of the events while the media spins it in a completely different way.  The parallel lines and similarities to events in our own country do not go unnoticed.

Just 10 months earlier, patients were visiting Bassem for heart surgery.  Now his slicing is one that is verbal.  Sarcasm and speaking out against the government allows him to cut “..without spilling any blood.”  His journey begins on Youtube and then on to television which garners tens of millions of viewers each week.  As his show grows over just a couple of years, we see the rise and fall of one dictator, the promise of democracy, and then the installation of another dictator.  The film captures the danger and the need for humor and truth TIcklingGiants1within any institution, but the dangerous situation he places himself, his family, and his television crew prove to be insurmountable.

While we laugh at Youseff and his antics, there’s another side to this daring, intelligent and thoughtful man.  He candidly reveals his fears and his sometimes crushing responsibility to the people who have come to depend on him.  His love of his country, his family, and his want for his daughter to live in a free world are an integral part of this man.  His comparison to Jon Stewart seems to be quite accurTicklingGiantsJonate and he is a guest on the show.  Their camaraderie is endearing to us, but more than that, it is inspiring to the people of Egypt.

Inspirational and brave individuals like Youseff don’t come around often.  ”Tickling Giants” allows us to know this man and those that support and surround him.  While there is devastation everywhere, the film beautifully integrates humor and hope with its behind the scenes footage and interviews of regular people.  Counterbalancing that are the news reports, “talking heads,”  and the hatred of this man who in many ways is leading the dictator’s opponents with his hope and humor.

“Tickling Giants” is a must-see as it is perhaps a look into a crystal ball for countries who have leaders with less than admirable aspirations for its people.  It’s also a reaffirmation that the people need to be heard, democracy is needed, and above all, freedom of speech is a necessary right.  (Hundreds of journalists are still behind bars in Egypt for speaking their minds.)  Unlike many documentaries tackling serious issues, the film is entertaining and informative as it allows us to laugh while we learn about a small country in Northern Africa.  Stick around for the credits because the film starts with humor and ends that way as well.

For a list of upcoming screenings, go to ticklinggiants.com

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Chicago native and Second City alum Matthew Aaron writes, directs, and stars in the new, wildly funny LGBQT film “Landline.”  The film captures the ups and downs of marriage, the stresses of work life, and what happens when we give up technology in today’s world, all as it embraces the host city of the film, Chicago.  Ted (Aaron) loses a big promotion at his PR agency who represents the Chicago Cubs to a young, hip tech savvy and very caddy young man.  Wallowing in his sorrow, Ted rebukes modern gadgets like cell phones and attempts to not only win back his husband, but get his job and rightful promotion back as well.

The film begins as we meet Ted who has been arrested as he appears to be a wandering vagrant in a rural area.  He attempts to explain to the police officer who is more than annoyed at the fact that he has been pulled away from watching his favorite TV show (and the DVR is full so his wife can’t make it work), as to why he was wandering aimlessly.  As Ted begins to explain, we are transported back to the beginning…the day that changed his life.

Ted is banking on being the lead on the Chicago Cubs account, but when he learns that  Fiona (Betsy Brandt), his boss, has given the promotion to a lesser qualified, yet tech savvy and snotty young colleague, it is more than he can handle.  Twitter, Facebook, followers, and anything else on the phone is just not his ball game.  This is just one of the hurdles placed in the path of Ted and Jack’s (Patrick Hartigan) marriage.  Ted then quits his job and surrounds himself with friends who lack a bit of drive and motivation, to say the least.  Looking for answers, Ted meets a stranger who is carrying a sundial.  Who needs a watch?  This stranger’s influence on Ted pushes him

v1.bjsxNTYyMTc3O2o7MTcyOTg7MTIwMDsyMjQ4OzE2ODYinto a new realm of life as  things get a little fuzzy for him.   One bad decision seems to beget another until he finds himself with no phone and in a lock up cell.

The characters in “Landline” are wonderfully exaggerated, no matter their relationship to Ted. Betsy Brandt portrays the epitome of an overworked boss and mother-figure with incompetent and juvenile employees, set to pounce on one another to get ahead.  The three colleagues’ overly dramatic and comedically sarcastic personas play off of one another and are balanced by Ted’s seemingly rational outlook.

Jim O’Heir and Tom Arnold have significant roles as Ted’s uncle and father creating a wonderful side story that is as funny as it is endearing.  Their camaratom30jim1000x600derie is so natural it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that much of their dialogue is off the cuff.   Relationships are at the core of this film and seeing a gay couple experiencing the same issues as any other couple is quite refreshing, even if much of what happens is over-the-top.  Aaron and Patrick Hartigan (Jack) are equally believable as the married couple, miscommunicating, fighting, and living day to day, as we all do.  There is also a genuine and very natural connection between the two.

“Landline” pays tribute to so many wonderful treasures in the Windy City.  From well-known icons such as the Cubs and plenty of cameos from the legendary Ryne Sandberg to lesser known gems like Stan’s Donuts and Ann Sather’s cinnamon rolls, “Landline” is a Chicago film.  Although some of the scenes feel a bit stilted and some of the edits a bit abrupt, these don’t take away from the entertainment this film provides.  Rarely do you see an LGBQT film that allows itself to be so comfortable in portraying relationships  in a very ordinary way.  The gay relationship really isn’t even a part of the story, it’s just who these two men are.  And their ordinary interactions are things we can all relate to…I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my husband he’s not going to wear THAT shirt out!  The story truly is just fun escapism, and a jaunt through Chicago’s north side,pushing the envelope of what could happen if one person rejected today’s technology in the work place and in life.

Aaron is able to carefully balance the job of writer, director and lead actor in this funny and bold film.  Incorporating veteran comic actors such as O’Heir and Arnold add a level of professionalism to this film without overwhelming it.  While there are a few rough parts of the film, it still shines, giving Chicago a lot of pride in our city, our diverse population, and our filmmakers.

 

 

 

zoo posterWhen you hear the name Antonina Zabinski, most of you won’t associate her with anything.  I certainly didn’t, but after seeing “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the book by Diane Ackerman, it’s a name that will elicit hope in humanity.  The unassuming Zabinski family was the only hope for many captive Polish Jews during WWII.  Starring Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, and Johan Heldenbergh, the film gives light to a little known story about hope in the face of death and destruction.

Watch the trailer here

Antonina (Chastain) is in her element as she cares for her family and her animals.  It’s evident that she is less comfortable with people particularly as she is introduced to the Berlin leading animal researcher and zookeeper  Lutz Heck (Bthe-zookeeper-s-wife09ruhl).  This initial tension is just the beginning of what’s to come.  Poland’s geographical position and Jewish population made it a heavy target for invasion by Nazi Germany.  The Zabinski’s zoo became a German military camp where the family watched in horror the atrocities of the vile actions against not just people, but  animals and children as well.  As the bombing begins and many of the Zabinski’s friends are captured, it is Antonina and Jan’s (Heldenbergh) resourcefulness and intuitive nature that balance the dark and disturbing nature of war itself.  Rescuing others from the “Ghetto” using deceptive measures and hiding them in underground tunnels and basements using piano playing as a communication device is just a glimpse inside this courage young families endeavors.

I had a chnikicaro2ance to talkwith Niki Caro (“The Whale Rider”), the director of this emotional yet factual film.  Research into the events was pivotal to bring the viewer into the story.  Caro said, “We only looked at documentary evidence…It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into the office of my colleagues to find people weeping.”  She added, “I think a lot of our war stories on film are naturally from the male point of view, but it occurs to me that war happens to women also and it happens to children and it happens to animals.”  “The Zookeeper’s Wife” brings all of these issues to the forefront, sometimes disturbingly so, but this is a reality of war, of WWII.

The film captures humanity on every level—from its most exalted to its most inhumane.  As the family attempts to rescue more and more Jews held captive in the “Ghetto,” thf78-600x292ey put themselves in more and more danger.  The anxiety this creates is unnerving, yet it gives you hope that people in dire circumstances can do the right thing.  Antonina’s willingness to sacrifice so much, particularly when interacting with Heck, is pivotal in demonstrating her courage.

When I asked Caro about some of the more disturbing scenes, she had this to say, “Ursula, the rape of the child, you never see it…You see the damage done to that child so that she is rendered non-human…[Antonina] uses her instincts to protect her and bring her back into the human race.”  Caro passionately added, “Jessica [Chastain] and I are both extremely trothe-zookeeper-s-wife06ubled by rape scenes in films.  No part of me wants to be gratuitous about this.  Therefore, this is something you never see in this movie, but you see the damage and then you see the healing.”

While there is the horror of war, there is also beauty and cinematically, this film captures every scene beautifully.  We feel the bombing, we feel the love of life; both of humans and animals.  It’s truly a visually striking film, eliciting exactly the emotional reactions necessary to tell a complete story.  While the story seems to lag in some parts, the ability to connect you each of the characters is so strong that you feel invested in them, wanting and needing to know how this small yet important story ends.

Chastain is simply sublime in her portrayal of Antonina.  Her genuine love of animals is evident from the moment she interacts with a lion cub to caressing an elephant’s trunk to reassure it.  Caro stated that there was very little CGI used in this film.  She felt that using fake animals “…would not have worked for me and I don’t believe it would work for the film.”  In fact, Caro added, “…when you see [Chastain] with an animal, she is with the animal.  There is no double for Jessica Chastain…The trust she had in them and they in her, it’s a rare quality and it’s a quality that she shared absolutely with Antonina.”

Johan Heldenbergh’s performance as the sometimes conflicted, but morally bound Jan is equally as powerful as Chastain’s, giving us a realistic picture of Antonina’s husband.  And Bruhl’s exquisite performance found the right balance of humanity as this (d)evolved throughout the film.  The characters could have easily been over-the-top, but in no instance did this occur.  There was a sense of genuineness from all of them, embodying each character and bringing this little-known story to life.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an extraordinary story told with exceptional sensitivity and care.  WWII and war itself is seen from an unusual perspective creating a beautiful sense of the importance of humanity.  In making this film, Caro said, “I don’t know that I will ever be quite the same which is a small gesture in the scheme of things.  The intention was so much to honor those millions who died in the holocaust by celebrating the hundreds that survived and the extraordinary work of Antonina and her husband…People exist who would not have exited.  Children were born who would never have been born.”  And at the core of this film is its message—the healing and the humanity that remain.

To read the interview in its entirety go to FF2 Media

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AS PUBLISHED IN THE MARCH 28 ISSUE OF FF2 MEDIA:

 

Unknown stories of war heroes, particularly WWII, seldom are unearthed, but the stories of heroines of that era seem to be even more rare.  The name Antonina Zabinski will soon be a recognizable name thanks to the film “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the book by Diane Ackerman of the same name. The film, starring Jessica Chastain as the lead character, Antonina, had an overwhelming number of women at the helm including the director Niki Caro (“The Whale Rider”) with whom I had a chance to talk about her perspective of this historically significant story.

 

Niki, initially unaware of the higher than average number of women associated with this film, felt that it was “…appropriate given that it is the story of a woman in war time.” However, Caro said, “I hire the best person for the job, always. It just so happens that many of these were women, remarkably.” Recognizing that war films are typically from a male’s point of view, she said, “…but it occurs to me that war happens to women, it also happens to children and it happens to animals.”

READ THE ARTICLE IN ITS ENTIRETY HERE