Film Review: “The Chaperone”

THE CHAPERONE

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by: Michael Engler

Rated: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

PBS Distribution 

Period drama “The Chaperone” is a delightful little film that’s as much about a married woman seeking out who she is as it is a study about the early life of iconic dancer/actress/writer Louise Brooks (1906-85). A native of Cherryvale, Kansas, Brooks moved to Wichita in 1919 where she began a dance career that would lead her to the legendary Denishawn School in New York City. It’s during that transitionary period that we meet her as well as the older woman who chaperones the then 16-year-old on her journey.

Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American author Laura Moriarty, “The Chaperone” takes us back to a time when modern dance was still establishing itself. This newfangled artform is alien to the folks of Wichita who have difficulty appreciating its artistry. That is except for Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), the clearly unhappy wife of prominent lawyer Alan Carlisle (Campbell Scott) and the adopted daughter of a Kansas farm family who claimed her when she arrived aboard an orphan train from New York City.

Norma may be straight-laced, but she is more cosmopolitan in 1922 than her neighbors, some of whom casually talk about joining the KKK at dance recital to maintain purity. Revolted by such sentiment and looking for an adventure, Norma jumps at the chance to chaperone Louise (Haley Lu Richardson, “Five Feet Apart,” “Split”) to New York City, where Norma hopes to learn who her birth mother was. Her traditional values and quiet nature are a stark contrast to Louise who struts around like she is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Louise becomes a fast-rising star at Denishawn, which only feeds her free-spirited, sometimes petulant attitude, played with unmistakable charm by Richardson. Director Michael Engler, who has helmed episodes of “Empire” and “Downton Abbey,” insures Louise doesn’t become too unlikable by harnessing the tangible chemistry between McGovern and Richardson to reveal to us just how damaged the young dancer was. McGovern’s infuses her character with subtle bravery and humility, making Norma that much more admirable as she becomes a source of encouragement for Louise, not to mention an inspiration as she tracks down her past and finds new love. Famous for her bob haircut, Brooks, whose actual first name was Mary, is resurrected on the silver screen with wonderful flair as Richardson not only captures the look of the famous Kansan, but also her sexual complexities even at such an early age.

Although filled with marvelous period costumes, “The Chaperone” does fail to go into real depth about the social conditions and inequalities of the era, and is therefore a missed opportunity by the filmmaker. Still, “The Chaperone” provides a nice change of pace from commercial epics involving caped heroes and purple-skinned villains.

Michael Biehn and “Aliens” coming to Omaha

The month of May is known for many things. Flowers. The first beginnings of summer. And, here in the Midwest, another great Classic Film Screening presented by Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford.

Over the years, Bruce has put together some amazing screenings, including “Jaws,” “The Godfather,” “Young Frankenstein” and many more. On May 24th Crawford will present a special screening of James Cameron’s sci-fi classic “Aliens,” with the film’s co-star, actor Michael Biehn, in attendance.

The screening will be held on Friday, May 24, 2019 at the beautiful Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street in Omaha. Mr. Biehn will address the audience prior to the film and will have a meet and greet autograph session with fans after the show.

Tickets go on sale Thursday, May 2nd for $24 each and can be purchased at the customer service counters of all Omaha-area Hy Vee food stores. Proceeds will benefit the Nebraska Kidney Association. Tickets are not sold by the Joslyn Art Museum. For more information  call (402) 932-7200 or (308) 830-2121 or click HERE.

TFF Film Review: “Ask Dr. Ruth”

ASK DR. RUTH
Starring: Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer
Directed by: Ryan White
Running time: 100 mins.
Hulu/Magnolia Pictures

Dr. Ruth Westheimer–or as the world knows her simply “Dr.Ruth”–is an icon of modern pop culture both for broadening the discussion of sexuality in the mainstream as well as her larger than life personality. At just 4’7″, the diminutive German radiates a warmth and sense of humor that easily draws people to share their deepest personal concerns with her. Dr. Ruth has been on the world’s radar since her debut radio show “Sexually Speaking” in 1980 but at ninety years old, there is so much more of her story to be told. Fortunately for film goers, director Ryan White has chosen to take a thorough look into this extraordinary woman’s history. This internationally loved figure survived the Holocaust and time as a sniper in war-torn Jerusalem all before she reached Ellis Island to begin life in America as a single mother at a time when that was far from the norm. And then she took the media by storm. The documentary itself is as accessible and often light-hearted as its titular sex therapist while not shying away from her tragic beginnings.

Dr. Ruth was born in 1928 as Karola Ruth Siegel to Orthodox Jewish parents in Germany. As WWII was brewing, Karola saw her father arrested and she was sent away by her grandmother as part of the Kindertransport to an orphanage in Switzerland. The small Karola did not know she would not see her parents again but she kept up writing letters with them as long as they could in addition to her detailed journals. Dr. Ruth’s own records are a boon to this doc and her diligence in conserving them is rewarded with some lovely animation work that White introduces to bridge the time before she came to the public eye (though White’s choice of an unaccented young American woman reading her diaries is at times jarring). The film also has a nice blend of her home movies chronicling her life as she finally reached America.

There’s no doubt that the strength of this documentary is owed to its magnetic subject. Watching Dr. Ruth query an Amazon Alexa in her uber-thick accent (and it takes a few tries for the electronic helper!) is a pure delight. Fortunately for White, Dr. Ruth also surrounds herself with equally well-spoken company. Her two grown children, her quartet of grandkids and even her first “boyfriend”, a fellow Holocaust survivor, are welcome additions to rounding out her life off-camera. Finally and naturally, White doesn’t skimp on emphasizing her media impact. There’s highlights from the times she embraced a certain kitsch take on her pop persona–I am guilty of first being aware of her as a kid due to that cheesy ‘sex-noises’ Herbal Essences ad from the 90s–as well as the more critical role she played in the conversation during the AIDs crisis. There is so much of the human experience packed into Dr. Ruth’s tiny frame that this documentary is an embarrassment of riches.

Ask Dr. Ruth has its New York premiere tonight as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Fest screenings will be followed by a limited theatrical release on May 3rd and will debut on Hulu on June 1st.

Film Review: “Avengers: Endgame”

AVENGERS: END GAME
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 3 hrs 1 min

I think it’s ironic that the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is opening the same week that the 25th James Bond film is announced.  James Bond first hit the screen in 1962 with “Dr, No.”  The MCU began in 2008 with “Iron Man,”  And while some of the Bond films have been hit or miss (I’m looking at YOU, “A View to a Kill”), I don’t think I’ve ever given an MCU movie a rating less than four stars.  Sadly, our rating system only goes up to five, because otherwise I’d give “Avengers: Endgame” six!

NOTE:  THIS WILL BE A SPOILER FREE REVIEW

“Endgame” picks up where “Avengers: Infinity War” ended…with half of the world’s population vanishing in a literal puff of smoke after the evil Thanos (a superb Josh Brolin) has donned his gauntlet, studded with the Infinity Stones, and snapped his fingers.  Unfortunately half of the people eliminated included some popular figures from the MCU, including Black Panther and Spider-man.  Those that have survived mourn their lost colleagues, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr, the backbone of this franchise) taking the loss of Peter Parker badly (I will say that, of all the characters that were lost in “Infinity War,” the loss of Parker hit me he hardest – Tom Holland has really inhabited the character).  The remaining Avengers gather and try to figure out how to return their world to the way they knew it.

I really can’t share any of my favorite moments for fear of giving away a plot point.  I will say this; you will laugh.  And you will cry.  And you will go through every emotion in the middle.  For the last eleven years we have met, and grown with, these characters.  We are as protective of them as we know they would be of us.  And the final chapter of this saga is one for the ages!

RLJE Films Acquires the Nicolas Cage Action-thriller “A Score to Settle”

Photo by Jessandy Studios www.jessica-andy.ca @jessandyphoto

Following the success of ‘Mandy,’ Nicolas Cage reuniteswith RLJE Films.

LOS ANGELES, April 23, 2019 – RLJE Films has acquired the action-thriller A SCORE TO SETTLE. Written by John Newman (“Get Shorty”) and directed by Shawn Ku (Beautiful Boy), produced by Goldrush Entertainment’s Eric Gozlan (Beautiful Boy) and Minds Eye Entertainment’s Kevin DeWalt (The Humanity Bureau), and Danielle Masters (The Recall), the film stars Nicolas Cage (Mandy), Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange) and Noah Le Gros (Wolves). A SCORE TO SETTLE will be In Theaters and On Demand on August 2, 2019. Mark Ward, Chief Acquisitions Officer for RLJE Films, made the announcement today.

“We are excited to collaborate for the fifth time with the legendary Nicolas Cage,” said Ward. “Following the success of Mandy, we cannot wait to take audiences on another adventure.”

In A SCORE TO SETTLE, Frank (Cage), a former mob enforcer, is released from prison after serving 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Now free, he sets out on a path for revenge against the people who wronged him.

Ward and Jess De Leo from RLJE Films and Arianne Fraser and Alana Crow from Highland Film Group negotiated the deal on behalf of the filmmakers. Highland Film Group is also handling international sales.

Fraser commented: “After our experience collaborating on Terminal, we are delighted to be partnering again with Mark and the team at RLJE Films. A SCORE TO SETTLE has found its perfect home and we can’t wait for audiences to experience this action-packed ride come summer!”

“We at Goldrush Entertainment are thrilled to have worked with Nicolas Cage whom brilliantly embodied the complex character of Frank Carver,” says Producer Eric Gozlan of Goldrush Entertainment. “We are ecstatic to have found a home for A SCORE TO SETTLE at RLJE Films!”

“It has never been more difficult to produce a truly independent film,” says Producer Kevin DeWalt of Minds Eye Entertainment. “We are delighted to have amassed such an outstanding cast for A SCORE TO SETTLE and to be working with great distribution partners such as the Highland Film Group and RLJE Films.”

A SCORE TO SETTLE is a Goldrush Entertainment and Minds Eye Entertainment Production and was produced by Spartiate Films in association with Paragon Media Productions. Produced by Eric Gozlan, Kevin DeWalt and Danielle Masters, the film is Co-Produced by Benjamin DeWalt and the Executive Producers are Nicolas Cage, Richard Iott, Mark Weissman, Robert Bricker, Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern, Daniel Negret, Stephen Dailey, Simon Williams, Silvia Schmidt, Sam Ai, Mike King, Jeff Rice, Luke Daniels and Co-Executive Producer Ryan Winterstern.

ABOUT RLJE FILMS

A privately-owned subsidiary of AMC Networks, RLJ Entertainment, Inc. is a premium digital channel company serving distinct audiences primarily through its popular OTT branded channels, Acorn TV (British TV) and UMC (Urban Movie Channel), which have rapidly grown through development, acquisition, and distribution of its exclusive rights to a large library of international and British dramas, independent feature films and urban content. RLJE’s titles are also distributed in multiple formats including broadcast and pay television, theatrical and non-theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, and a variety of digital distribution models (including EST, VOD, SVOD and AVOD) in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Additionally, through Acorn Media Enterprises, its UK development arm, RLJE commissions and co-produces new programs and owns 64% of Agatha Christie Limited. For more information, please visit RLJENTERTAINMENT.COM.

Full Moon Features Takes on Bold Venture In Interactive Feature Filmmaking With “Deadly Ten”

Live-Streamed Production of Ten Original Full Moon Feature Films

HOLLYWOOD, April 20, 2019 – DEADLY TEN is an immersive cinematic initiative that will see Full Moon Features boldly producing a series of ten original genre films, live-streamed in front of fans. These ten films will include sequels of beloved Full Moon franchises, a spin on classic cult favorites, and daring soon-to-be essential genre films. Principal photography will begin shooting in June 2019 and continue throughout the year in Europe and North America. Release for the DEADLY TEN is slated for Spring 2020, and will premiere exclusively on Full Moon’s Amazon Prime Channel.

In an unprecedented move, Full Moon will be giving fans an all access pass to this unique production by providing an inside peek into the magic of genre filmmaking. Fans will be able to log into the DEADLY TEN website (www.DeadlyTen.com) and watch the current motion picture being shot in real time. Live feeds, exclusive on-set interviews, special effects secrets, pre-and post-production videos, interactive director’s blogs and more. Through this immersive experience, cineastes and budding young filmmakers can delve deep into mechanics of the movies and learn first-hand all about the joys, struggles, creativity, and hard work that goes into making a fully produced, independent feature film.

“This is one of the most exciting Full Moon production initiatives since our ’90s video store heyday,” says Full Moon founder and cult movie legend Charles Band. “It’s ambitious, high concept, a bit insane and there’s never been another interactive filmmaking concept quite like this. As Full Moon thrives in the new terrain of streaming and takes viewers to places not many have gone before, we hope fans will love being a part of our new adventure!”

The DEADLY TEN film slate will include:
BLADE: THE IRON CROSS (Dir:John Lechago)
BRIDE OF THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY (Dir: Charles Band)
NECROPOLIS: LEGION (Dir: Chris Alexander)
SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA 2 (Dir: David De Coteau, Brinke Stevens)
BLOOD RISE: SUBSPECIES V (Dir: Ted Nicolaou)
HALLOWEED NIGHT (Dir: Danny Draven)
THE HOURGLASS (Dir: Ryan Brookhart)
FEMALIEN: COSMIC CRUSH (Dir: Lindsey Schmitz)
THE SHADOWHEART CURSE (Dir: Charles Band)
THE GRIM RAPPER (Dir: Billy Butler)

ABOUT FULL MOON FEATURES
Founded in 1989 by iconic independent film producer and director Charles Band, Full Moon is the successor to Band’s groundbreaking Empire Pictures Studio from the 1980’s. With Empire, Band created now-classic horror films like RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND and GHOULIES. Band’s films helped launch the career of many of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Demi Moore (PARASITE), Helen Hunt (TRANCERS), and Viggo Mortensen (PRISON), to name a few. With Full Moon, Band has produced over 150 films, including the PUPPET MASTER franchise, SUBSPECIES, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, CASTLE FREAK, DOLLMAN, DEMONIC TOYS, PREHYSTERIA!, EVIL BONG and many more. As well as feature films, Full Moon produces original series, toys, collectibles, merchandise, comic books and publishes the popular horror film magazine DELIRIUM.

Film Review: “Family”

FAMILY
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Brian Tyree Henry, Kate McKinnon, Allison Tolman, Bryn Vale
Directed by: Laura Steinel
Rated: R
Running time: 85 mins
The Film Arcade

At the start of Laura Steinel’s Family, we find hedge fund manager Kate (Taylor Schilling) getting beaned in the head with a bottle of orange soda at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It’s an ambitious and fitting start for a film whose primary appeal is celebrating outcasts. As it turns out, Kate is hunting for her niece, Maddie (Bryn Vale), a middle school oddball who was entrusted with her aunt for the week while her parents dealt with grandma’s hospice care. Overworked city-dweller Kate is not the least suited for childcare but winds up being the kind of outside perspective that Maddie needs in her life while her hover-parents are distracted. Though it strays unnecessarily at times, at its best moments Family works as a well meaning tribute to letting your freak flag fly.

Kate is some sort of financial guru who’s climbed the corporate ladder by presumably shirking personal attachments and steadily getting drunk with important clients. It’s the kind of movie where office drones scramble over gaining or losing “THE IMPORTANT SOUNDING NAME ACCOUNT!” but you never know what they’re actually doing because it doesn’t matter. If that set up makes you roll your eyes, I get it, I’m really reluctant when it comes to the “cold career woman softens up with a kid” trope. That said, Schilling does well by leaning into how honest and awkward Kate can be. She says what’s on her mind without the finesse demanded by social mores and even if she’s right–and she sometimes is!–her coworkers ostracize her. I sympathized with Kate despite some of her callousness because Schilling can be so funny and charming and it rings absolutely true that a woman in this environment can more easily fall off the tightrope that is the line between “speaking your mind” and being pegged as a bitch. Her work life is interrupted when her brother calls on her for babysitting duties and she’s saddled with 14 year old Maddie. Kate is supposed to be picking her niece up from ballet but finds her instead in an adjacent karate studio where she’s been secretly studying under sensei Pete (Brian Tyree Henry, just one of a number of strong supporting cast here) for weeks. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the disconnect between how Maddie’s parents are raising her and where her actual interests lie.

Kate and Maddie’s relationship is definitely the strong point of the film. Bryn Vale brings a frankness to Maddie that allows Kate to open up to her. Maddie knows who she is, she knows why the other kids mock her and while she might avoid them, she is not even attempting to conform to them. Instead, Maddie takes a shine to fellow weirdos at a convenience store who introduce her to the Insane Clown Posse despite Kate trying to shoo them away. An ill-fated attempt at a makeover from Aunt Kate is a standout sequence. There’s also something very endearing about this awkward niece looking at Kate hopefully when in actuality she’s falling apart inside her business-attired exterior. The trouble comes when Steinel’s script attempts to go off on tangents with Kate–a random meetup with her father in rehab, a tacked on subplot with a nosy neighbor (Kate McKinnon)–when she should have stuck with the Maddie-Kate relationship. It’s as if Kate has to make amends with literally everyone in her life before the credits roll instead of allowing her to simply have her heroic juggalo transformation for the love of her niece.

Film Review: “The Aftermath”

THE AFTERMATH
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke
Directed by: James Kent
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I can still vividly recall the first art-house film I reviewed professionally – the 2000 British drama/comedy “Topsy-Turvy” at the Tivoli Cinemas in the Westport area of Kansas City, MO. Sadly, the Tivoli, an arthouse institution in our fair city for nearly 40 years, has permanently closed its doors. So, it was poetic that the last film I reviewed there would be another period British drama, “The Aftermath.” While it has its share of flaws, “The Aftermath” proved to be a decent swan song before the proverbial final curtain came down at the Tivoli.

Directed by James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) and based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Welsh author Rhidian Brook, “The Aftermath” is set in Germany just months after the end of World War II. With the ruins of Hamburg as a backdrop, where an estimated 40,000 civilians died in a firestorm created by ten days of heavy Allied bombardment, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives at a train station to meet her husband, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). It’s a subdued meeting at best and we can instantly tell that something is amiss between the two.

Colonel Morgan has been assigned to command British forces in Hamburg who are tasked with keeping the peace and helping to rebuild the city. Similar to how the British Empire forced American colonists to house their soldiers, Colonel Morgan and Rachael commandeer the home of widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgrd), a former German architect with no love lost for the defeated Nazis. However, the British see all Germans as the enemy just as much as Stephen’s teenage daughter sees all Brits as villains. Colonel Morgan, much to the dismay of Rachael, invites the Luberts to remain in the upper story of their home to avoid sending them to a tent camp in the middle of winter.

Rachael is desperate to have her husband again, but he remains mostly stoic despite the pain he carries with him. In addition to his emotional distance, Colonel Morgan is often called away to deal with Germans protesting over how little there is to eat and increasing guerrilla warfare violence carried by the SS’s, young Germans still devoted to Hitler’s cause. Increasingly starved for affection, the two wounded souls belonging to Rachael and Stephen become drawn to one another despite their differences. The question then becomes can Colonel Morgan save his marriage before Rachael runs away with Stephen.

In a partially successful effort to create suspense, and to give Colonel Morgan something to do besides having awkward conversations with Rachael, the script presents the aforementioned side story of young German men, presumably former members of the Hitler Youth, brandishing the number 88 burned into their arms. “The Aftermath” never goes too in-depth about it, but these 88s are an allusion to a real-life military organization the Nazi hierarchy tried to create towards the end of World War II with a program called “Werewolf.” While the goal was for trained soldiers to commit acts of sabotage behind Allied lines during the war, and to keep up the fight even after it was over, the Werewolf never amounted to anything more than just a lot of propaganda. The members of Werewolf were improperly supplied and more importantly, had little stomach to continue fighting once Nazi Germany had officially surrendered.

The dramatic presentation of the SS in “The Aftermath” murdering British soldiers in a last-ditch effort of defiance is a fallacy. While films do sometimes have to take dramatic license to make a story more entertaining for the masses, the mis-telling of history often leads to misperceptions of actual events and therefore can cause ignorance on a broad scale. I would make the argument that filmmakers who choose to play fast and loose with historical facts in order to liven up a story should state at the end of their creation that what the audience has seen is historical fiction. At least it would be more honest than giving lip service that it has been “inspired by/based upon true events.”

The overall performances are entertaining and there is solid chemistry between Knightley and Clarke. The latter delivers the most powerful scenes of the film playing a man sick of death and destruction. Kent’s pacing is a little choppy at times, but it all leads to a conclusion the audience can savor. “The Aftermath” deserves praise for at least exploring a time frame rarely done before as war movies are usually all about blood, guns and guts. For a refreshing change, we get a tale involving what happens in the aftermath.

Thank you, Tivoli Cinemas. It was a pleasure seeing art-house films there for the past 18+ years. Hopefully the aftermath of your ending won’t be as despairing.

Film Review: “Penguins”

PENGUINS
Narrated by: Ed Helms
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Rated: G
Running time: 1 hr 16 mins
Disney Nature

I don’t know what it is about penguins that make them so damn cute!  Is it the way they walk?  The fun they obviously have when they slide across the frozen tundra of the Arctic?  The excessive fuzziness of their young?  I really don’t know but I’m pretty sure they could do an all-penguin remake of THE EXORCIST, complete with projectile vomiting and self-gratification with a crucifix and people would go “awwwww.”   Which is exactly the sound I made many times during a recent screening of “Penguins.”

Steve is an Adelie penguin looking for love.  He and the other males in his colony are on a trek to find a mate.  But the road to love isn’t easy.  Especially when your pals are stealing parts of your nest in order to attract that special gal.  And what are you supposed to do when you finally meet her?

A beautifully shot (over an almost three year period) film that manages to be both heart-warming and thrilling, “Penguins” gives the audience the “birds-eye” view of life in Antarctica.  And it’s a pretty chilly one.  Whether it’s having to walk miles upon miles to find food or teaching your chicks how to play dead when a leopard seal tries to eat them, it’s a hard knock life.  Yet, it’s also one full of love and adventure. 

Like “March of the Penguins” before it, “Penguins” is a film the entire family can enjoy.  Kids will love it for the penguins; parents for the story.  Nature is on full display in this film and it’s one I highly recommend.

Film Review: “The Haunting of Sharon Tate”

THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE
Starring: Hillary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst
Directed by: Daniel Farrands
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 34 mins
Saban Films

As a child of the 60’s, I grew up in a time full of tragedies.  Some of these events (among them, the assassinations of JFK and RFK) intrigued me to the point of learning everything I could about them.  Another were the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends at her home in August 1969.  Which really made me want to see the new film, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate.”

In 1969, Sharon Tate was on her way to becoming a movie star.  With roles in films like “The Fearless Vampire Hunters,” where she was directed by her future husband, Roman Polanski, and “Valley of the Dolls” she proved to be a very beautiful woman whom the camera loved.  A year earlier, during an interview, Sharon Tate spoke of a premonition she had of her death, one that was very disturbing. 

After a brief clip from the aforementioned interview, the film picks up in August 1969, when Sharon Tate (Duff) returns from London, where she is visiting her husband while he prepares for his next film.  8 ½ months pregnant, Sharon is happy to be home, surrounded by her best friend, Abigail Folger (Hearst), Folger’s boyfriend, Wojceich Frykowski (Pawei Szadja) and family friend (and Sharon’s former lover) hair stylist Jay Sebring (Bennett).  One day a knock on the door reveals a small, bearded man asking to speak to “Terry.”  Despite being told that Terry no longer lives there, the man drops off a package and leaves.  Sharon is told that the man and his friends has been coming by constantly, looking for the former owner of the home, record producer Terry Melcher.  That night, Sharon has a vision of a very violent encounter with the mystery man, one that continues to grow in violence and intensity.

I’m completely torn in how to review this film.

On the plus sign, I give much credit to writer/director Daniel Farrands, who has done an incredible amount of research and ensured that everything noted in the film, from the red mailbox at 10050 Cielo Drive to the name of Sharon’s dog (Dr. Sapesrstein) is faithful.  There were a few factual errors but, creative license being what it is, I’m not going to quibble.  The performances are also strong.  Though Hillary Duff looks nothing like Sharon Tate (while Ms. Duff is certainly attractive, I can honestly say that, at the end of the 1960s, Sharon Tate was one of the most beautiful women in the world), she gives a fine performance of a woman slowly descending into a nightmare she cannot prevent.  The supporting cast is also well cast and deliver good work. 

On the negative side, the film is horribly violent.  A quick intro using actual news and crime scene footage opens the film, and the murder scene including Sharon Tate’s body is shown, though her body has been retracted from the image.  However, as Sharon’s vision continue to grow, so too does the violence.  In the real attacks, Ms. Folger was stabbed almost 30 times…Mr. Frykowski over 50…and you get to witness almost every one of them.  That and the fact that Ms. Tate was pregnant make the violence horrific to watch.  Eventually you become numb to the violence being inflicted, taking away from the horror of the situation.

So I’ll leave it up to you, the reader.  If you’re looking for an interesting take on a very familiar story, you might want to check this film out.  If you’re not a fan of multiple murders, repeatedly depicted, you may not.  Or, like me, you’re just waiting for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming take on the story, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Film Review: “The Mustang”


THE MUSTANG
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins
Focus Features
 
Robert Redford is no stranger to being involved with projects that explore the American West (“The Horse Whisperer,” “Jeremiah Johnson”) or the hardships of prison life (“Brubaker,” “The Last Castle”). It’s no wonder then that the Hollywood icon, under the title of “executive producer,” is prominently featured for the new prison drama, “The Mustang.” It makes perfect sense as a means to market the film, but this occasionally emotional story proves to have legs strong enough, thanks to its lead actor, to not need Redford’s name as a carrot.
 
In a powerful, career-defining performance, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) plays Roman Coleman, a convict in a rural Nevada prison who prefers solitary confinement over being with the general population. Roman admittedly does not play well with others as his inner rage often gets the best of him. A caring psychologist (a drastically underused Connie Britton) sees him as a challenge and decides to give him a second chance, whether he likes it or not, by providing him a rare opportunity to rehabilitate.
 
Roman finds himself thrust into a program in which wild mustangs are saddle broke and then sold, something that’s currently done in real life at several prisons throughout the West. A grizzled horse trainer named Myles (“shockingly” played with grit by Bruce Dern) offers Roman a deal to move up from being a manure shoveler to a trainer. The catch is that Roman must stay in the ring with a mustang that’s as seemingly untamable as Roman. It’s a tall order yet the outcome is predictable.
 
Despite guidance from a veteran, horse training prisoner (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), Roman’s achievement is short-lived as his temper rears its ugly head and he treats his mustang as a punching bag. Back to solitary Roman goes while at the same time his estranged, pregnant daughter is trying to get him to sign over some property so she can use it to start a new life. A storm as fierce as Roman and his mustang unexpectedly rolls in, giving Roman a second chance at redemption, but as expected, nothing comes easy in this tale.
 
As the first, feature-length film by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (“Rabbit”), “The Mustang” captures the essence of the Western landscape and the power, and even grace of the wild horses who populate it. It also presents an all-too brief glimpse at a prison system that in general has no intention of rehabilitating criminals. It’s only rare exceptions like the mustang program that a chance is given, but those seem to be skating on thin ice as they are poorly funded and snickered at.
 
Schoenaerts is a revelation. His performance is fueled with tangible fury against the world and himself. It covers a pain he gradually comes to face and Schoenaerts fleshes it out with nothing short of perfection. However, Clermont-Tonnerre beats us over the head with the whole, Roman-and-the-horse-are-reflections-of-each-other thing. Events within the story are also often foreseeable so don’t expect any genuine surprises or originality where that’s concerned.
 
In the end, “The Mustang” is worth the ride because of Schoenaerts’s performance alone.

Film Review: “Shazam!”

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong and Asher Angel
Directed By: David F. Sandberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 132 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

While I have yet to watch “Aquaman” at the time of this review, it’s safe to say that “Shazam!” is the most endearing and feel-good of the new batch of DC films, known as the DC Extended Universe. Instead of brooding, cries of pain, and mothers named ‘Martha,’ all it took was a little heart, humor and family for “Shazam!” to solidify itself as a top tier superhero film. Not only is it a solid origin story, it also manages to remain serious despite being light in tone, and keeps things simple while building a fresh new DC world around its title character.

When we meet Billy Batson (Angel), he’s been arrested and sent to child services after committing a petty crime. He’s been in and out of foster homes dozens of times ever since he was separated from his mom at a carnival. While most adults who encounter him view him as a wasted youth, those who see past his troubled past see a compassionate orphan who’s afraid of being abandoned and hurt again. One day he finds himself transported to the Rock of Eternity where a wizard, played by Djimon Hounsou, crowns him as a new champion of good, Shazam (Levi).

The film doesn’t begin with his origin story though; it begins with the villain’s origin story. An adolescent Thadeus Sivana in 1975 (Ethan Pugiotto) is offered a chance at becoming Shazam, but instead shows the wizard that his heart can be easily corrupted. Statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, perched nearby at the Rock of Eternity, tempt him. When Thadeus is banished back to reality, he’s resentful that he wasn’t given the ultimate power. Now as an adult, Thadeus (Strong) doesn’t specifically seek the powers of Shazam, but the powers of those seven deadly sins who once whispered promises of vengeance in his young ears.

The juxtaposition of Billy and Thadeus isn’t lost on the audience. Both deal with their own childhood traumas. Billy is lost in the worst possible way by his mother and Thadeus is emotionally and verbally ridiculed by his uncaring father. In two tales of abandonment, we see how two different circumstances can lead to two different outcomes. In that regard, “Shazam!” speaks more about the human condition than nearly any other contemporary DC film, save for “Wonder Woman.” Not everything is peachy about “Shazam!” though.

It’s not that it’s too long, but it’s just that some of the middle of the film sags a bit as opposed to the beginning and end. There’s a lot of odd editing and set changes, along with some odd choices on how exactly Billy learns about the true meaning of being a superhero. There are also some stylistic choices that I could have done without, like the handful of horror scenes that don’t quite mesh with the family friendly tone of the film. These are just some nitpicky things, in an otherwise wholesome movie that’s sorely needed.

The character of Shazam is a blend of childhood innocence, teenage curiosity, and the more G-Rated elements of other superheroes like Deadpool or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even with those influences, Levi and Angel propel Shazam to another level, not only creating a physical superhero force that could physically go toe-to-toe with Superman, but also a relatable man-child that’s equally harmless and adorkable. It’s hard not to love Shazam as he becomes acclimated with his power, but it’s when the audience watches him mature and open up his heart that we as an audience welcome him into ours.

It’s safe to say that Warner Bros. and DC have officially washed their hands of the bleak, overly dark Zack Snyder comic book vision. Snyder’s name doesn’t even appear under the producing credits of this film. After a morose beginning to the DC Extended Universe, “Man of Steel,” “Batman V. Superman,” and half of the “Justice League” film, it appears that the secondary characters of this universe may end up salvaging it. It also might be a realization, especially after “Avengers: Infinity War,” that fans will only warm up to a dire and tragic storyline after years of sugary visual goodness and uplifting storylines.

Film Review: “The Wind”

Starring: Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles and Miles Anderson
Directed By: Emma Tammi
Rated: R
Running Time: 86 minutes
IFC Midnight

When it comes to horror in the Old West, there aren’t a lot of great examples, or even average examples. That’s peculiar because of how isolated people were in those times, complimented by the fact that urban legends and tales of the unexplained permeated the landscape. That brings me to “The Wind,” a film that doesn’t take long to introduce the audience to Lizzy (Gerard), who’s alone and distant from any signs of civilization. She only has one neighbor and they’re several miles away, far enough away in fact that she can barely see their cabin dot the horizon. Compounding her isolation is the fact that her husband is constantly gone, weeks at a time. She also suspects she isn’t alone.

“The Wind” is told, sometimes wordlessly, in a nonlinear fashion, forcing the viewer to piece together a tragic sequence of events involving Lizzy’s failed pregnancy, failing marriage, and the possibility that her mental health is deteriorating. Or maybe there is something howling with the wind at night. The nonlinear storytelling choice can be confusing, even for astute viewers. The single setting and bland landscape sometimes fail to help highlight at what point in time we’re at in the story. Some of the only signs that we notice we’re in the past is when Lizzy is sporting a soon-to-be miscarriage. On top of that, the film leaves various breadcrumbs surrounding the supposed evil entity lurking in the empty prairie lands surrounding her cabin, as well as what exactly has transpired to where Lizzy has found herself in such a precarious situation. It’s difficult to reveal too much in a short film that builds towards a harrowing final few minutes.

Since actress Gerard is left alone in many scenes, just like Lizzy, it’s up to her to pull off a solo performance that’s not only captivating, but also keeps the plot moving forward, and she nails it. Gerard does a magnificent job at handling both the fear and frustration that Lizzy is surely enduring. Even though she is relatively alone and without a life preserver in the great unknown, Gerard never paints Lizzy as a damsel in distress or shows any signs of helplessness. Instead Gerard beefs up that steely reserve that Lizzy must muster to overcome whatever comes at her, supernatural or not.

There’s an underlying commentary about how women have been mistreated, and not just in the 19th century. Lizzy is constantly ignored and her concerns are mocked. Instead of lending an ear and/or investigating her claims of something sinister stalking her cabin at night, she’s told to be quiet and to keep up with her wifely duties. It’s also implied she’s treated worse after losing her child. While the written story doesn’t hit the right notes, the visual story on screen is masterful. Director Emma Tammi, in her feature film debut, shows a knack for building a dread-filled atmosphere through hair-raising cinematography. This is the kind of freshman outing that promises better films down the pipeline.

Interview with Oscar Winner Richard Dreyfuss

With my 15th birthday approaching, my father asked me what I wanted to do.  Having been intrigued by the television commercials for a new film, “Dog Day Afternoon,” I told him I wanted to see that movie.  On Sunday, September 21, 1975, my father dropped me off at the University Square Mall Cinema in Tampa to see the movie.  Sadly, I didn’t know it was rated “R” and was told I couldn’t buy a ticket.  As I began to dejectedly walk away, the girl in the ticket booth called out to me “have you seen JAWS yet?”  I hadn’t.  124 minutes later, my life was changed.

I include this because of what I did after the film.  Like a normal kid, I wrote fan letters to the three stars.  I soon received a letter from Richard Dreyfuss’ cousin, Arlene, who informed me that she ran Richard’s fan club.  If I wanted to join, it would cost me $5.00 (a week’s allowance at that time).  I immediately sent her the money, along with a note saying “if you ever need any help.”  Within a few months, I was helping her with the club – basically I handled the fans east of the Mississippi river.  It was a great time for a teenager.  I’d scour the newspapers for articles about Richard and each month would send out a packet to the fans, which usually consisted of Xeroxed newspaper clippings and the occasional photograph.  Not sure how many members were in the club, but when it disbanded in November 1978, shortly after the release of “The Big Fix,” I was dealing with almost 1,000 fans.

A collection of photographs sent to fans

I’ve been very fortunate to have met Mr. Dreyfuss twice in my life.  Once, in Baltimore, when he was on the set of the film “Tin Men,” and in July 2017 when we were both guests at a Hollywood Celebrity Show.  At that show I was able to stand near his table and listen to him tell the most amazing stories.  I mention this because Mr. Dreyfuss is currently traveling around the country, offering fans the opportunity to take in AN EVENING WITH RICHARD DREYFUSS.  He will be in Kansas City this week (April 4th) and I have been honored to have been chosen the moderator of the event.  Call it practice, but I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Dreyfuss and ask him some questions, a few of which may be included when we’re together Thursday night.

Mike Smith:  What led you to pursue a career in acting?

Richard Dreyfuss:  Wow!  I don’t know….what leads someone to follow what they love?  I don’t think I really had a choice. 

MS:  Was there a film or performer that inspired you?  I acted a lot through my 20s but couldn’t make a living at it, but the inspiration came from wanting to do what YOU did.  I know you’re a fan of actors like Charles Laughton, Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy, among others.  Were they the catalyst?

RD:  They were, of course.  I have no memory of NOT wanting to be an actor.  I think the first time I got on record was when I was nine years old.  We had just moved to California from New York, and I said to my mother, “I want to be an actor.”  And she said, “Don’t just talk about it.”  So I went down to the local Jewish Community Center and auditioned for a play.  And I really never stopped.  I realistically never had more than ten days when I wasn’t acting in a play, or a scene or a class or a job until I was 27. 

MS:  You made your film debut in two very different films in 1967 – “The Graduate” and “The Valley of the Dolls.”  What do you think is the biggest difference between filmmaking then and today?

RD:  There are so many.  The general level of quality for an actor has plummeted.  When I was younger I never hesitated telling young actors to “go for it”…to pursue it.  And now I don’t say that, because the real rewards are so rare…so few and far between  The quality of scrips, from an acting viewpoint, suck.  The sequel syndrome that we’re in, which we can’t seem to get out of, has really lessoned the level of quality of writing.  Of story.  And it seems more arbitrarily decided upon as an element of chicanery and thievery, even for a business that’s famous for it, it goes on.  Film acting is not something I really recommend.  If you want to be an actor in America you can live a very great and satisfied life if you never think about being a star.  You can have a great life in Kansas City.  Or St. Louis.  Or a million other places.  But if you want to go for that kind of brass ring, which I would question – if you do want to go for it, go to therapy first – you’ve got to go to L.A. or New York.  And those towns are pretty sick.

Mr. Dreyfuss’s break-out role – Curt in “American Graffiti”

MS:  You famously almost turned down your role in “Jaws.”  Are there any roles you turned down and then later regretted your decision?

RD:  Oh yeah.  I was once watching a movie and I kept thinking, gosh, this seems so familiar.”  I thought “oh, shit,” and then I remembered why.  And I didn’t ALMOST turn down “Jaws,” I did turn it down.  I turned it down twice.  And then I changed my mind and begged for the part.  (NOTE:  The story goes like this.  After turning down “Jaws” – twice – Mr. Dreyfuss saw his upcoming film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” and thought his performance was so terrible that he’d never work again.  He then called director Steven Spielberg and accepted the role.  Of course, when “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” was released, Mr. Dreyfuss received rave reviews for his performance, even being named Runner Up as the Best Actor of 1974 (tied with Gene Hackman for “The Conversation”) by the New York Film Critics Circle.)

I will never tell you the ones I turned down that became hits.  Thank God there aren’t that many of them!

As Matt Hooper in “Jaws”

MS:  What fuels the passion for your work?

RD:  If you asked me a question about my process – how do you do this…what’s your method? – I would completely be unable to answer that.  And I’ve always known I’d never be able to answer those kind of questions.  But I know that, in a business where if you’re a successful actor you want to direct, I’ve never wanted to direct.  So I didn’t.  I wanted to act!  I had made a decision when I was very young, which probably wasn’t the most strategist thing to do in the world, but it was the way I chose to live.  Which is to day, if I do a drama, then I’ll do a comedy.  Then I’ll do a drama.  Then I’ll do a comedy.  That’s basically what I tried to do.  And the mistake in that is that I don’t think I ever did something enough times to establish a kind of signature recognition of what I do.  I did both.  I did lots.  And I thought that was the best way for me to pursue my life.  And that’s what I did for sixty years. 

MS:  Where do you keep your Oscar? (NOTE:  Mr. Dreyfuss received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Elliot Garfield in “The Goodbye Girl.”  At age 30, he was, at the time, the youngest actor to win that award).

As Elliot Garfield in “The Goodbye Girl”

RD:  For the most part, in the refrigerator.  (laughs).  I always want people to know about it, but I don’t want to brag.  But I figure that sooner or later they’re going to open the refrigerator. 

And I’m also very aware that the list of actors who were ever nominated or won an Oscar is as great a list as the ones who never were.  It’s a wonderful evening, but it’s rarely more than that.  It’s a great evening.  You’re aware of the film work because the audience for film is in the millions.  But I make no distinction between film and theater.  And, of course, the audience for the theater work I’ve done will be 1/100th of that of the film audience.  But to me, it was always – if not equal than more important –so that is something that I travel with.  I have a little bucket list of things that I check off every once in a while.  “OK, you did a Broadway show…check.”  From the time I was nine, into my teenage years, I was always in acting classes.  At acting schools.  I was always with actors.  And they would always talk about a “National” theater.  And I would say, “There’s never going to be a National theater in this country.  However, there could be fifty “State” theaters.  And, as someone who lives in Kansas City, I would say to you that, something that people should not ignore, is the fact that we are from so many different places…so many different cultures…that we come together as Americans only when we’re HERE, and we learn to be Americans.  And each of us, whether you live in Seattle or Mississippi, you have different strains of a culture.  And I have always wanted each state to have its own theater.  And, in a state like California, which is huge, you could have two, anchored North and South.  And, instead of trying to get everyone to agree on A National Theater, we could have one in every state.  It’s silly to think we can’t afford a State theater, to be able to see how Missourians and Floridians and North Dakotans approach theater.  I think that would be a great endeavor and a great thing to do.  Only because we teach so few things that we share. We’ve actually given up on the notion of teaching things that are of shared values.  And that’s causing this terrible breach in the country.  And we should try to find things that we can share.  And one of them could just be the artistic endeavor of a State theater. 

MS:  That makes a lot of sense.

RD:  And they’ll never do it (laughs).

MS:  Quick follow-up to the Oscar question, one of your fellow nominees that year was Richard Burton.  When Sylvester Stallone read the name of the winner, and you heard “Richard” did you think Burton had one?

RD:  My competition was Burton, Marcello Mastroianni, John Travolta and Woody Allen.  There was no easy answer.  But I just knew I was going to win it.  (laughs)  That’s all I cared about. 

Richard Dreyfuss with his Oscar – named Best Actor of 1977 for “The Goodbye Girl”

MS:  Me too, that night.  I always wonder how people sometimes vote.  You were also nominated for “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but I thought you were most deserving four years earlier for “Once Around.”

RD:  It’s probably the easiest vote to define.  There are two ways people vote in the Academy.  One is, you vote for your friend.  Or, you vote for who you think is best.  In that order.  It’s simple.  You may not be able to predict it, but that’s the way people vote.  And it’s the reason why people do vote.  It’s not a mystery.  The only thing wrong with the Oscars now is that there are too many other awards, and it’s cheapened the whole thing. 

For more information on attending AN EVENING WITH RICHARD DREYFUSS, either in Kansas City or at a later date, click HERE.

NOTE: Mr. Dreyfuss wanted me to stress that, even though his appearance will be followed by a screening of “Jaws,” he will be discussing his entire career. So whether you’re a fan of “American Graffiti,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” or want to know about his fantastic cameo in “Piranha,” come on out and listen to some amazing stories.

Film Review: “Dumbo”

Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
Directed By: Tim Burton
Rated: PG
Running Time: 112 minutes
Walt Disney Studios

My recollection of “Dumbo” is incredibly brief and simple, and may even be a false memory. I believe I watched the 1941 classic when I was four- or five-years-old. I’ve never had an interest in rewatching it even though it is a relatively short animated classic, clocking in at barely over an hour. That’s a lot easier to digest than this Burton-ized remake, which has ballooned to nearly two hours, relies heavily on green screen and CGI, and has removed the talking animals element. Instead the story of Dumbo is told with the help of the humans around him at the circus.

Ringmaster Max Medici (DeVito) has recently purchased a pregnant elephant, believing that a baby animal could draw curious eyes to his traveling circus which has currently set-up shop in Joplin, Missouri. Much to his dismay, the baby elephant is a “freak.” Max believes the oversized ears will draw laughs instead of affectionate, “Awhs,” and he’s not wrong. Believing in the blue-eyed baby elephant though is Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), the children of Holt (Farrell), a WWI veteran returning home without an appendage and attempting to adjust to his sad new life as a widow. Milly and Joe also know about Dumbo’s talent as a flying animal.

There’s actually a lot to like about “Dumbo,” but it fails at doing two vital things, connecting emotionally with the audience and telling a story about acceptance. The components are there, but they never come together. Since the animals can’t talk, we’ll never know what Dumbo is actually thinking, but Burton does an odd thing. He never really shows pain, frustration, or loneliness etched across Dumbo’s face once he’s separated from his mother. Instead he has the human actors state how they think Dumbo is feeling. There are a few moments between Dumbo and his mom, but nothing on the level of the original.

As for accepting others for their differences, it feels more like a theme that’s left to simmer on the film’s backburner. Instead of hammering that point home through allegory, the film feels more interesting in introducing ancillary characters and distracting viewers with visual effects. It’s an odd observation because director Tim Burton is known for allowing his weird to overtake his more normal productions, as he fights for the voice of the bullied or marginalized hero. This might be his least weird movie, settling for a cookie cutter style, instead of his usual gothic imagery juxtaposed against mainstream aesthetics.

But like I said, there’s a lot to like in this movie. Despite its PG rating, it’s perfectly safe for kids of all ages and there’s nothing really terrifying. The children at my screening appeared to adore it. It may be nearly two hours, but it never feels boring or dull. It never stoops down to an Illumination level of humor and has several legitimate jokes. The green screen is very impressive considering and every adult actor manages to gnaw on that green screen while the child actors are believable most of the time in their roles. I just don’t see children rewatching this over the years and eventually showing it to their kids one day.

There’s one interesting part of the movie that I really enjoyed and it even gave me pause as to where or not Disney executives watched the final product. I say this because Burton seems to take a subtle jab at the Disney media conglomerate through the film’s villain, V.A. Vandevere (Keaton). He’s an “entrepreneur” that buys up other unique entities so that he can expand his amusement park empire called Dreamland. He has several rides and attractions that feel very reminiscent of Disneyland/Disney World properties. It’s almost as if Burton isn’t just commenting on Disney’s recent purchases of Marvel, “Star Wars” and Fox, but also their current trajectory of buying popular brands to financially exploit instead of giving a voice to fresh, young animators and filmmakers. Or maybe Burton realized that he’s become Hollywood’s tolken weirdo for oddball franchises (“Alice in Wonderland” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) and wanted to remark on what’s become of the film industry. The intentional/unintentional metaphor certainly won’t be lost on adults in theaters who’ve spent a pretty penny on Disney’s “reimagining” that falls short of living up to the original.

Originality is no longer valued at the Walt Disney Company. The last original movie was under their Pixar brand, the film “Coco.” That was November 22nd, 2017. The next original idea? That isn’t until March 2020, another Pixar film. So in between this two-and-a-half year amount of time, one of the largest companies in the world is going to throw out every sequel and remake they can think of at moviegoing audiences, because that’s all that can guarantee the company billions of dollars. Maybe I shouldn’t be voicing my frustration about that in this review of a children’s film, but I find it necessary for you to be prepared for my and other’s annoyance at the litany of live-action remakes and sequels that continue to pour out of the Disney factory like a river spilling over its banks. Back in 1941, the House of Mouse took a brave attempt at something new and unique. That’s no longer the case.

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