Film Review – “Halloween”

 

HALLOWEEN

Starring:  Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer and Will Patton
Directed by:  David Gordon Green
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 46 mins
Universal

 

There are a handful of films that can be pointed to and described as “game changing” in Hollywood history.  “Citizen Kane” broke all the rules as to how a film is made.  “Jaws” gave us the summer blockbuster.  “Star Wars” ensured that sci-fi fans would always have a voice.  And where do you start when you talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe?  In 1978, another film arrived and changed the face of the horror genre’ forever.  That film was “Halloween.”

We “meet” Michael Myers as an adult, standing alone in a squared-in area of a state-run mental institution.  He is being visited by a film crew working on solving a mystery:  why did 6-year old Michael stab his sister to death on Halloween night, 1963 and why, after escaping from captivity, did he return to his hometown 15 years later and kill again?

One thing to note here for fans of the series, or just those that are interested.  Despite a plethora of “sequels” to the 1978 original, they are treated here as non-existent, making THIS film a continuation of the original.  And I’ll say here that the film, with some tongue in cheek references to other films, works well.  The scares are legit and the performances, led by the amazing Jamie Lee Curtis, are well delivered.

I was surprised to learn that this film was co-written by the always funny Danny McBride.  Good job.  The script is solid, with some nice set-ups inter-spliced with some emotional family moments between Curtis’ Laurie Strode and her estranged daughter and granddaughter.  But you go to these films to see the boogeyman get his comeuppance.  So, what are you waiting for?

Film Review: “Blaze”

BLAZE
Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Running Time:  2 hrs 9 mins
IFC
 
Having grown up listening to the music of country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, etc., I was surprised I had never heard of Blaze Foley (1949-89). After watching the biopic of the obscure yet influential Austin-based singer/songwriter, I felt saddened that he did not realize the full potential of his artistry. “Blaze” is a tragic tale that flows like a sad country song with little in the way of silver linings. Based upon the 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” features a powerful breakthrough performance by musician Ben Dickey in an emotionally complex role. Unfortunately, writer/director Ethan Hawke’s endeavor is so draggy at times that it makes a meandering creek look like a raging river.
 
Hawke bravely chose to tell his tale from three different time lines – sometime after the death of Foley within the confines of a radio booth interview; the night of Foley’s death; and the beginnings of his life as an artist when he meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The To Do List”). The interview portion is entertaining as we watch Hawke, who never exposes his face, interview Foley’s friends – singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who had his own demons to deal with, and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Van Zandt embellishes to the point where you don’t know if he is telling the truth or creating the lyrics to another lonely country song.
 
The portions involving the night of Foley’s death are rather lackluster. Of course, some of the edge is taken off because we know what’s coming, but Hawke fails to make us feel like we are dancing along a razor. It plays more like a Hank Williams, Jr. tune that never made the final cut in the editing room. Dickey still manages to be a steady presence on the silver screen, but it’s the story of his innocent beginnings with Rosen that truly grab our attention and leave the most lasting impression.
 
Much of the story’s focus, and rightfully so since Hawke heavily used the real Rosen’s novel, is on the years when Foley and Rosen met, and lived for a time in a tree house. Dickey towers in these sentimental scenes like a seasoned veteran of the acting craft. While he sometimes forgets to maintain the limp Foley had, Dickey appears to capture the man’s essence with breathless ease. He hits every note with perfection as he portrays a man who fell hard from carefree joy and blossoming artistry into a dark haze of alcohol and drugs that cost him everything – love, career and life.
 
“Blaze” is a tragic story, yet if you subtract Dickey from the equation it feels stuck in neutral while cameos by a pair of stars, one a recent Oscar winner, feel contrived and over the top. Overall, it’s a story that could have used a lot tightening up and more cohesivity. Otherwise, Hawke’s effort falls short of his other tragic-musician tale in the form of 2015’s fantastic “Born to Be Blue.”
 
Having grown up listening to the music of country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, etc., I was surprised I had never heard of Blaze Foley (1949-89). After watching the biopic of the obscure yet influential Austin-based singer/songwriter, I felt saddened that he did not realize the full potential of his artistry. “Blaze” is a tragic tale that flows like a sad country song with little in the way of silver linings. Based upon the 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” features a powerful breakthrough performance by musician Ben Dickey in an emotionally complex role. Unfortunately, writer/director Ethan Hawke’s endeavor is so draggy at times that it makes a meandering creek look like a raging river.
 
Hawke bravely chose to tell his tale from three different time lines – sometime after the death of Foley within the confines of a radio booth interview; the night of Foley’s death; and the beginnings of his life as an artist when he meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The To Do List”). The interview portion is entertaining as we watch Hawke, who never exposes his face, interview Foley’s friends – singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who had his own demons to deal with, and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Van Zandt embellishes to the point where you don’t know if he is telling the truth or creating the lyrics to another lonely country song.
 
The portions involving the night of Foley’s death are rather lackluster. Of course, some of the edge is taken off because we know what’s coming, but Hawke fails to make us feel like we are dancing along a razor. It plays more like a Hank Williams, Jr. tune that never made the final cut in the editing room. Dickey still manages to be a steady presence on the silver screen, but it’s the story of his innocent beginnings with Rosen that truly grab our attention and leave the most lasting impression.
 
Much of the story’s focus, and rightfully so since Hawke heavily used the real Rosen’s novel, is on the years when Foley and Rosen met, and lived for a time in a tree house. Dickey towers in these sentimental scenes like a seasoned veteran of the acting craft. While he sometimes forgets to maintain the limp Foley had, Dickey appears to capture the man’s essence with breathless ease. He hits every note with perfection as he portrays a man who fell hard from carefree joy and blossoming artistry into a dark haze of alcohol and drugs that cost him everything – love, career and life.
 
“Blaze” is a tragic story, yet if you subtract Dickey from the equation it feels stuck in neutral while cameos by a pair of stars, one a recent Oscar winner, feel contrived and over the top. Overall, it’s a story that could have used a lot tightening up and more cohesivity. Otherwise, Hawke’s effort falls short of his other tragic-musician tale in the form of 2015’s fantastic “Born to Be Blue.”

Film Review: “A Star is Born”

A STAR IS BORN
Starring:  Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper and Andrew Dice Clay
Directed by:  Bradley Cooper
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 15 mins
Warner Bros.

To quote “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s a tale as old as time.  Big star on the way down meets rising star on the way up.  They fall in love.  One embarrasses the other and their love is tested.  The tale is so old that it’s already been told, very well, three times before.  But the fourth time may be the best!

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a popular singer who has lived his life on the road.  Once enjoying his time on stage, now he gets by with alcohol and drugs, showing up, plugging in then hurrying off-stage to the seclusion of his limo.  One night, while looking for a place to stop, he ends up at a drag club, where he gets the chance to listen to a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga – I was just going to put “Gaga” but I’m not sure how the first name/last name thing works here.  I guess I could have put “Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta” but that would probably confuse you even more.  Ally does an old Edith Piaf song and soon Jackson is mesmerized by her voice.  He invites her out with him, where they buy some beer and talk about music.  When he drops her off at home she figures that’s the last time she will see him.  It isn’t.

A familiar story with enough new twists and turns to keep it fresh, “A Star Is Born” is a triumph.  Much of this praise must go to my rival Bradley Cooper.  (I know my wife loves me, but if Bradley Cooper came knocking I would be just a memory J).  As a first time director, especially in a film starring himself, there is an opportunity to make everything BIG and LOUD and, worse of all, put yourself front and center.  Cooper directs with a restraint that is almost unheard of with newbies.  He frames the story almost as if he’s shooting a documentary, and that close, inside look draws you into the story.  As an actor, Cooper is equally up to the task here.  His voice low and gruff (there’s a great line in the film where Sam Elliott, who plays his brother and who was also a musician, accuses Jackson of “stealing my voice”), he gives quite possibly the best performance of his career, which is saying a lot for a man who has already been nominated for the acting Oscars already in his career.

As Ally, Lady Gaga is outstanding.  We already know she can sing.  I haven’t heard a lot of her songs but I still include the night she showed up at the Academy Awards and sang “The Sound of Music” as one of my favorite all-time Oscar moments.  Not only is she in great voice, she has incredible acting chops.  Both the 1937 and 1954 versions of the film earned Oscar nominations for its stars.  The 1976 version swept the Musical Film Category and I’m predicting that both Lady Gaga and Cooper get nods for their work here.  Great supporting work from Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle make the film even more enjoyable.

Film Review “Malevolence 3: Killer”

Director: Stevan Mena
Starring: Katie Gibson, Scott Decker, Adrienne Barbeau, Kelsey Deanne, Lela Edgar
Release Date: October 12th
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Mena Films

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

I have known Stevan Mena for over 15 years, dating back to his first film “Malevolence”. I had a feeling then that this guy was going to be a director to watch out for. Fast forward to today Stevan has finally been completed his planned “Malevolence” trilogy , which also included the second film, “Bereavement”, which starred Michael Biehn (“Aliens”, “Terminator”) and gave Alexandra Daddario (“Baywatch”, “Texas Chainsaw 3D”) her first big break. “Malevolence 3: Killer” has not had an easy road to getting made, including the tragic death of a major cast member which caused a big road bump. With all that being said, I was a little nervous what to expect with the third film…but holy cow was I wrong. “Malevolence 3: Killer” is easily the best in the trilogy.

I don’t think Stevan Mena has received the full credit that he deserves for these films. You can tell that he wears a lot of hats on these productions. They have no budget yet show a much higher production value. I feel like he really gets the horror genre and knows how to setup a shot for a great scare. The scares in “Malevolence 3: Killer” are so effective. Honestly, I feel like a lot of horror films these days don’t get the scares right. I always feel like they are actually afraid to make you scared and these movies waste these opportunities. Mena doesn’t disappoint and has the timing down perfectly. I would have loved to seen “Malevolence 3: Killer” in a theater. Credit should also go to the film’s fantastic score as well for helping achieve that incredible suspense.

This trilogy takes it all back to the beginning following Martin Bristol, the boy who was kidnapped 10 years ago (in the first film), but he is not the same boy anymore. After being tortured and abused by his captor, Graham Sutter (in the second film), Martin is out on a rampage now and is not able to be stopped. Special Agent William Perkins and his team try and hunt down Martin as he heads back to his hometown to brings down a wave of terror down on it. Looking back on these three films, I do feel that this one ties it all together so well. I almost even feel like you can get by with watching this one and not having seen the previous films.

Like I mentioned above with, Alexandra Daddario in “Bereavement”, Stevan Mena really has an eye for talent. This film’s lead actress Katie Gibson is a another fine example. She is a very talented actress and I see her going places! Scott Decker, who died during production, played Agent Roland and was great as well. I am sure it wasn’t an easy task to complete this film with losing one of the leads but it came together well. Horror icon, Adrienne Barbeau, shows up for a little bit as well and her cameos is a great treat for us hardcore horror fans!

Now that this trilogy is completed, I would like to see what Stevan Mena has planned next. Given that “Malevolence 3: Killer” hasn’t had an easy road to release, i really feel like it ended up being a very effective horror film with some great scares, gory kills and solid acting. Horror fans need to see this film for sure! It is our job has fans to get the word out on this film and get people to see it because I don’t think that they are going to be disappointed.

Film Review: “Where Hands Touch”

 

WHERE HANDS TOUCH
Starring: Abby Cornish, Christopher Eccleston
Directed by: Amma Asante
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 2 mins
Vertical Entertainment
 
The historical drama “Where Hands Touch” glances upon a subject that has been largely overlooked – the persecution of German citizens with African descent by the Nazi government. While their pre-World War II numbers were relatively small (less than 30,000), the Nazis still sought to isolate them socially and economically. They also implemented a barbaric plan of sterilization that was perpetrated against many African Germans. Much of this is brought to light in “Where Hands Touch,” but unfortunately the film, despite its’ horrifying subject matter, is often clunky and lacks the emotional impact of say a “Schindler’s List” or even “Defiance.”
 
We are introduced to Leyna (Amandla Stenberg, “The Hunger Games”), the daughter of an unnamed French African soldier and a German mother (Abbie Cornish, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Bright Star”), in the Spring of 1944 in the German Rhineland. She has recently turned 16 years old and the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret state police, has taken an interest in her. Desperate to keep her daughter out of harm’s way, Leyna’s mother flees to Berlin with both her and Leyna’s younger half-brother where she mistakenly believes they can disappear.
 
Leyna’s aunt and uncle don’t want her around nor does the school she briefly attends. All the while, Leyna catches the eye of Lutz (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”), a teenage boy who is an active member of the Hitler Youth and whose father (Christopher Eccleston (“Doctor Who,” “Thor: The Dark World”) is an officer in the Nazi SS. As she begins to fall under increased scrutiny, Leyna and Lutz develop a romance, much to the chagrin of Leyna’s mother who warns her it will only lead to their ruin. The budding teen romance, which becomes sexual, is suddenly halted when Lutz is called up to the Russian front by increasingly desperate Nazi regime and Leyna is hauled off to a concentration camp.
 
Historically speaking, writer/director Amma Asante (“Belle,” “A Way of Life”) does a sound job of portraying the ever-looming danger African Germans had to endure. Through Leyna’s terrified eyes we also see the atrocities committed against anyone else the Nazis deemed not human, best epitomized in a shocking execution scene. However, the damage caused by the bombing of Berlin by the Allies during the winter of 1943-44 is barely reflected on camera and the concentration camp scenes misfire.
 
Cornish delivers a performance that deftly captures a mother’s desperation and Eccleston shines as a father who makes a ghastly decision. Beyond that, the acting is mediocre at best and downright clumsy at worst. It often feels like an overly long, bad stage play, with uninspiring camera work in the beginning despite Asante’s good intentions. “Where Hands Touch” is certainly a work cinema brimming with good intentions as it’s a story that should be told amidst a myriad of Holocaust-related stories which should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, the quality of work is less than average.

Film Review: “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”

 

 

JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS

Starring:  Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and DickCavet

Directed by:  Susan Lacy

Rated:  Not rated

Running time:  2 hrs 13 mins

HBO Films

 

Here is my Jane Fonda story.  In 2005, Ms. Fonda was in Kansas City to promote a book she had written.  I had been able to get my name on the press list in the off chance of getting a few minutes with the Oscar winning actress for a quick interview.  I can’t remember what, but something came up last minute and I was unable to attend.  Imagine my surprise the next morning when my phone began wringing.  It seems that while she was greeting people in line, a former Vietnam War veteran named MICHAEL SMITH spit tobacco juice on her.  Somehow, my name and contact info was discovered on the press list and people assumed it was me.  I received over 1,000 emails, some thanking “me” and others condemning “me.”  I even was invited to address an upcoming Marine Corps reunion in California.  After about two weeks the furor died down, but it was pretty exciting there for a while.

 

It was almost exactly 47 years ago (September 19, 1971) that President Richard Nixon, on one of his many tape recordings, asked an aide, “What in the world is wrong with Jane Fonda?”

The honest answer?  Not a damn thing!

 

“Jane Fonda in Five Acts” takes a look back at the actresses life and career, beginning when she was just known as Henry Fonda’s daughter.  Along with James Stewart, no other actor so embodied the image of the normal American male than Henry Fonda.  He was, according to his daughter, “a national monument.”  But behind that image was a man who could not express emotions unless he was in front of a camera.  Ms. Fonda is shown a photo of the family at a picnic, to which she explains that the image is staged.  The smiles forced and phony.  She can tell by the look in her mother’s face that she is not happy (Ms. Fonda’s mother dealt with many mental issues and would eventually kill herself.  She and her brother, Peter, were told she’d had a heart attack.  It wasn’t until years later, when Ms. Fonda read about it in a movie magazine, did she learn the truth).

 

As a young woman in her early 20s, she makes her way to the home of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg.  He accepts her into his classes and, after a couple of months, puts her on the stage.  He recognizes her talents and encourages her to pursue them.  She begins to do small parts on television and in film while also modeling.  Tired of always doing the “cheerleader” roles, she heads to France, where she meets director Roger Vadim.  What follows is marriage, a child and a career changing role as the title character in “Barbarella.”

 

Back in America, she accepts a role in what she calls her first “real” movie, Sydney Pollack’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?<” earning her first of seven Academy Award nominations. (NOTE:  I didn’t see “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” until the mid 1980s at a tribute to Sydney Pollack.  If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you do).  Just as she is being taken seriously as an actress she does two things:  cuts her hair and visits Vietnam.

Fonda, shown here with Roy Scheider, won her first Academy Award for her role in the film “Klute.”

Depending on the age of the people you speak with, Fonda is either “a great actress” or “Hanoi Jane.”  There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.  She was one of the first major celebrities to speak out against the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.  If there is any criticism now it is some of the ways she spoke out.   In the late 1980’s she apologized to the veterans and their families if her actions make things tougher for them.  A chance meeting with former vet and anti-Vietnam activist Ron Kovic gives her the idea for the film “Coming Home,” which would win her her second Oscar.

 

Now married to activist Tom Hayden, she puts together films that speak to her beliefs.  Many people scoffed at “The China Syndrome,” a film that dealt with a fictional melt-down at a nuclear power plant.  However, two weeks after the film opened there was a real incident at Three Mile Island.  Nobody was scoffing then.  In one of the most emotional moments of the documentary, Ms. Fonda talks about the only film she did with her father, “On Golden Pond.”  She recalls how, during a scene in the film, she surprised her father with a slight touch of his arm, causing the actor to cover his eyes to hide the tears welling up in them.  This would be Henry Fonda’s last film and it earned him his first Academy Award.

 

As the years progress we learn more about the actress and her life.  Needing to raise money for an organization she and her husband had founded, she produced her own workout video, which today remains the most popular home video ever made.  We follow her through her divorce from Hayden and her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner.  She speaks highly of all three of her ex-husbands.  We also meet some of her children, who explain that growing up was not all limos and mansions.  However, in the end, you end up with an amazing story of an amazing person.  At age 80, Jane Fonda is still going strong.  Here’s to act number six!

Film Review -“Life Itself”

LIFE ITSELF
Starring:  Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde and Antonio Banderas
Directed by:  Dan Fogelman
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
Amazon Studios

If only all movies could begin like “Life Itself.”  A single camera shot but one that is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in all his glory!  You can’t help but laugh during the first five minutes of this film.  Which is a good thing, because you’re probably going to be crying for the other113 minutes!

We meet Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) in the middle of what seems to be an incredible relationship.  Living happily together with their dog (a dog with the greatest name ever used in film), it seems like their life together will be perfect for all time.  That is until fate steps in.

A well written but slowly paced film, the “Life Itself” poster tells us the movie is written and directed by the man who created the popular television show “This is Us.”  I haven’t watched it but my wife does religiously and, judging from the amount of Kleenex she goes through each week, I assume it’s a weep-fest.  This movie certainly is.  The film jumps around in time, showing the audience how Will and Abby met, their life together and their all too soon separation.  In between the vignettes you get to spend time with Will’s parents, played by Jean Smart and Mandy Patinkin.  It is their relationship with their granddaughter that makes up the second act of the film.  Act three is the longest – and the most drawn out.  It deals with characters who are peripheral to other two stories, though we are not at first sure how.  It takes place in Spain, where a wealthy land owner (Banderas) falls in love with the wife of one of his workers.  The various extended scenes not only begin to drag, they are delivered in Spanish, which means it’s going to be a long night reading subtitles!

As I mentioned, the film is well written.  I can see why it found itself on the 2016 list of the best unmade screenplays in Hollywood.  There are a few laughs, among them Isaac comparing the vocal stylings of Bob Dylan to the co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. Of course it’s even funnier to laugh if you know that Isaac is also a recurring character in the “Star Wars” film series.  And the rest of the cast are equally endearing.  The ending comes across as a little too far-fetched but still pretty well thought out.  But be warned, make sure you bring your Kleenex with you, because “Life Itself” makes “Manchester by the Sea” look like the second coming of “Airplane!”

Film Review “An American in Paris – The Musical”

Starring: Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope
Directors: Christopher Wheeldon, Ross MacGibbon
Producer: Stuart Oken
Trafalgar Releasing
Running Time: 2hr 40mins
Release date: September 20, 2018

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

In the mid 90’s, I was working at a old school mom and pop video store, which is where I also happened to meet my wife, I remember us having Gene Kelly binge fests before binging was a thing. We rented all of this movies including “An American in Paris”, the 1951 movie. The dancing! The music! This film was always a favorite of ours and it still stands the test of time. When the play was set to open a few years ago in Paris December 2014. I knew I had to see this production for sure. I was able to catch it on a National Tour and it was unforgettable. This live taping was filmed during the award-winning musical’s London run and features original stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope. If you haven’t had a chance to see this on a stage, I would say make that a priority but this filmed version is also so beautifully done and packs the magic that was brought from the stage performance. Worth checking out!

Official Premise: This breathtakingly beautiful Tony® Award-winning Broadway musical, inspired by the Oscar® winning MGM film, tells the impassioned story of discovering love in the ‘City of Light’. Featuring the gorgeous music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin (including the classic hits ‘S Wonderful and I Got Rhythm), stunning designs, and show-stopping choreography. With a record-setting 28 five-star reviews from critics, An American in Paris is coming from London’s West End to a cinema near you. 

One of the items on my bucket list is to definitely catch a play in West End. This recording came from a 2017 performance there and even though I couldn’t make it, we are able to still enjoy it at your local theater. I have been noticing that the recording of stage shows have been show in theaters much more commonly like last year “Disney’s Newsies” was released also in the same fashion. This production is simply beautiful. I have seen A LOT of shows on Broadway in NY and quite a few in Orlando, FL area also. But London is on point and really delivered such an beautiful magical journey with this play.

Honestly, I am just happy that the memory of people like Gene Kelly are still being preserved in today’s time where the old timers are fading away.  The music is so wonderful and I love how the songs are perfected for the musical format. The stars, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, have great chemistry together and what talent actors they are! If you don’t catch a chance to see this musical, I have feeling it is not going away anytime soon. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release will follow these screenings and I have a feeling we are going to have several more tours and revivals over the years for this musical. Experience the Broadway hit An American In Paris in cinemas September 20 & 23. Click here.

Film Review: “Lizzie”

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare
Directed By: Craig William Macneill
Rated: R
Running Time: 1hr. 45mins.
Roadside Attractions

In many ways, this is the perfect time of year to release Lizzie. As we enter the fall, the movie theaters turn to smaller dramas while basic cable crams its schedules with true crime and hauntings in the run up to Halloween. The axe murders of Abby and Andrew Borden have always figured heavily into the latter. So much so, it occurred to me while watching Craig William Macneill’s carefully crafted depiction of Lizzie Borden that I had never seen a version of this story that wasn’t hyper campy. A quick search on Youtube turns up ample “dramatic re-enactments” and even a Dance Moms routine. Perhaps anticipating that audience, director Macneill serves up Abby’s body mere moments into his film before rewinding back at the investigator’s prompt to Lizzie, “Did your father have any enemies?” Did he ever. What follows is a drama that simmers with tension between its small cast led commandingly by Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

In 1892, Lizzie shares a modest Massachusetts house with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Lizzie is old for being unmarried and her community—but her father most of all—isn’t shy about treating her as a pariah. Lizzie having a seizure (or “spell” if you’re old timey) in public only adds fuel to the case for sheltering her. Into their home comes an Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), who Lizzie forms a connection with. Before you can say steamy pizza rolls, they are passing notes and rendezvousing in the family shed.

As far as I can tell, the theory for Lizzie’s sexuality being a part of this case, aside from her never marrying, comes from a later in life “crush” on an actress of the time. Whether or not you buy into this particular take really isn’t the concern of this film which draws strength from the bond between Sevigny and Stewart. When Andrew turns predatory towards Bridget, Lizzie’s anger towards him is stoked as is her motivation to sabotage his affairs. Affairs which include compromising Lizzie’s inheritance. Likewise when Lizzie’s uncle (a snarling Denis O’hare, always a welcome addition) tries to intimidate her, Bridget makes her presence known and he sees himself out. Though their society is rigidly patriarchal, under this roof the men are outnumbered and Macneill makes great use of the confined space to reinforce that. The soundtrack remains sparse, giving dominance instead to the ambient sounds of the household. The creaking wood of the stairs and bedrooms might as well be a character unto itself, and gives the whole piece an extra level of claustrophobia. It works really well for this story which is essentially a slowly escalating war between father and daughter.

As we march on through the final acts, the story does slow down with some time jumps between the murders and the aftermath. It’s as though to let us see how an obviously guilty (in this telling of it anyway) Lizzie might sell her innocence to investigators when really that could have wrapped up more strongly with their credible—if still sensational— take on this infamous case.

Film Review – “Puzzle”

PUZZLE
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins
Sony Classics
 
It’s sounds cheesy I know, but there’s nothing puzzling about “Puzzle,” a wonderful new drama based upon a 2010 Argentinian film of the same name. Directed by Marc Turtletaub (“Gods Behaving Badly”), who is perhaps better known as a producer of such silver screen works as “Loving” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Puzzle” is an engaging tale about a woman’s empowerment after being taken for granted for at least all her adult life. The spark which fans the flames comes from nothing less than a 1,000-piece puzzle set.
 
Anges (Kelly Macdonald, “Brave,” “No Country for Old Men”) is a suburban, soft-spoken, anti-technology housewife stuck in the same routine every day – getting her husband, Louie (David Denman, “The Office,” “13 Hours”) up for work, cleaning, shopping, cooking for three men, and volunteering at church. That’s pretty much her entire life. She does know she is stuck in this monotonous cycle, but she is unwilling or unable to break free.
 
We get a taste of this right at the beginning when a birthday party turns out to be one she has thrown for herself, complete with a house full of guests and a cake. However, Agnes, for whom we instantly feel a great deal of frustration for, is more intent on fixing a broken plate than being around other people. Afterwards, she discovers a gift from a friend – an orange and brown-hued map of a world she has only dreamed of seeing. With the simple placement of one piece the art of puzzling suddenly becomes an obsession for her.
 
The thrill she gets gives her the confidence to text Robert (Irrfan Khan, “Jurassic World,” “The Lunchbox”), a champion puzzle player who is seeking a doubles partner. A wealthy inventor who spends most of his days watching catastrophes on the news, Robert is surprised by how fast Agnes is. It turns out, though, that they are both lonely souls. Robert is recently divorced while Agnes suffers from being constantly belittled and taken for granted by Louie. When sparks fly it sets Agnes’s world on fire and while it scares her to death it also gives her a newfound confidence.
 
Turtletaub has crafted an evenly-paced work of cinema with subdued colors throughout. The exceptions are often the puzzles themselves when color is emphasized. He also draws out an excellent performance from Macdonald, which could be the best she has delivered. Macdonald effortlessly fleshes out her character’s extreme timidity while infusing her with enough likability that you can’t help but root for her as she transforms into a ferocious butterfly. The physical chemistry between her and Khan comes off as awkward, but the dialogue they share is beautifully written and delivered. Throughout his career, Khan has often had a soulful, philosophical way of conveying lines and he doesn’t disappoint here.
 
“Puzzle” is certainly not a ground-breaking work of cinematic art nor will it probably rank among the pantheon of the best movies of the year. Still, it remains a sweet, delightful work that is as pleasing as finishing a puzzle on the porch while a gentle spring rain pitter-patters on the roof above.

‘ASTRO’ wins 2 Awards at the 14th Annual Action on Film International Film Festival

“Astro,” the latest film from filmmaker Asif Akbar, took home two awards  at the 14th Annual Action on Film International Film Festival which was held this past weekend in Las Vegas.

Actor Gary Daniels was named the Best Male Action Performer of the Year while the film’s costume design was given the Best Costume award.  “Astro” had received a total of (5) nominations, including Best Action Sequence, Best Fight Choreography and Best Sci-Fi Feature Film.

“The competition at this year’s festival was tremendous and we are proud and excited of our five nominations and two awards,” said Akbar, the film’s director and co-writer.

For a look at an exclusive clip, click HERE

 

 

 

“Maximum Impact” wins big at the Action on Film 2018 MEGAFest

 Russian Film Star and Action Legend Alexander Nevsky won big at the Action on Film 2018 MEGAFest over the weekend.  MAXIMUM IMPACT which Nevsky produced and stars in won “Best Action Film of the Year” along with wins for “Best Action Sequence” and “Best Special Effects.” 
 
In addition, Nevsky received the festival’s “Breakout Action Star of the Year” Award and co-star Matthias Hues received the festival’s Icon Award.

“MAXIMUM IMPACT is the biggest film in my career and I’m so glad it was recognized in such a great way! I’m also happy to receive the “Breakout Action Star Award” and would like to thank “Action on Film International Film Festival” and Mr. Del Weston for this honor. But I couldn’t be here without my idols Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ralf Moeller and Matthias Hues so I would like to thank them too for all the inspiration and support over the years!” said Nevsky.

 
Nevsky received his Awards from Dr. Robert Goldman and Michael DePasquale Jr at the star studded MEGAFest Award Shows which were held at the RIO Hotel Las Vegas and other area venues.

 
MAXIMUM IMPACT will be released in theaters September 28, 2018, and On Demand and Digital Video on October 2, 2018

Film Review: “The Happytime Murders”

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS
Starring:  Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale
Directed by:  Brian Henson
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 31 mins
STX Entertainment

It’s been almost exactly 35 years since I met Jim Henson.

In September 1983 I was at the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore, where one of the films being promoted that year was “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”  Knowing Mr. Henson was going to be in attendance I took a couple photos with me.  One of him and Kermit the Frog taken behind the scenes of “The Muppet Movie” and one from “The Dark Crystal.”  I tracked him down and he very graciously signed both.  I got lucky because he happened to be walking around with Gary Kurtz, who produced “The Dark Crystal,” so I got his autograph also.  He was very friendly and, in speaking with him, I could tell he had a great sense of humor.  Which tells me he would love his son’s latest film, “The Happytime Murders.”

(Ominous voice) “In a world where humans and puppets live together….”

Meet Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta).  He’s a former puppets cop turned private detective.  Actually, he’s been the ONLY puppet cop.  Due to a mishap that led to the killing of an innocent bystander, Phil was fired and a law was put into place forbidding puppets to be police officers.  One day Phil is hired by a mysterious lady-puppet.  His leads take him to an adult bookstore, where he runs into Bumblypants, one of the puppet characters of the popular 80’s kids show “The Happytime Gang.”  As Phil investigates another part of the shop, Bumblypants is murdered.  Soon, other members of the cast are also brutally murdered and the finger points at Phil.  Can he clear his name?  Maybe.

A fun combination of live-action and puppets, “The Happytime Murders” is an outrageously raunchy look at what life may have been like on a certain “Street” if that show had taken place in the worse part of the worse town ever.  In the world of “Happytime” humans and puppets co-exist, though the puppets are often horribly treated.  Call it “Apuppethied.”  Phil’s former police partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy) is called in to investigate the case and must reluctantly team up with Phil before the entire cast of the show is murdered.  Along the way they must deal with a world full of sex, drugs and violence.  This isn’t your parent’s “Street.”

Let me say this up front (or in the middle):  THIS IS NOT A KIDS MOVIE.  Don’t be fooled by the puppets and the bright lights.  Taking a child to this film will traumatize them for life.  So, again, unless you want to see a puppet re-enactment of Sharon Stone’s famous reveal from “Basic Instinct,” or want to explain to your little one what an eight-armed reach-around is, leave them home.  That being sad, THIS IS AN ADULTS MOVIE.  The jokes are funny, the visuals outrageous and the overall mood of the film will put a smile on your face.  The combination of human and puppet characters is well portrayed, and as the film goes on, you forget your watching puppets.  They become believable characters, which is what you need to make a film work, especially a comedy.  Like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the melding of human and non-human characters is seamless.  Well, except for the seams on the puppets.  J

Film Review: “Crazy Rich Asians”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yoeh
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Warner Bros.
 
Romantic comedies can often be a dime a dozen with about as much substance contained in the atmosphere of Mars. Of course, there are brilliant, diamond-like exceptions such as 2017’s “The Big Sick” or 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” While the new “Crazy Rich Asians” may not be nearly as creative or fulfilling as those movies, it’s still at least as good as an unpolished sapphire.
 
Directed by Jon M. Chu, best known for such “legendary” works as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Singaporean/American novelist Kevin Kwan. It begins in a flashback when Eleanor Young (Michelle Yoeh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is denied entrance into a posh New York City hotel when the white manager sees that she is of Chinese descent. What the racist manager doesn’t know is that Eleanor and her husband, whom we strangely never meet during the movie despite being very much alive, are the hotel’s new owners. It’s a scene that sets up her fierceness, which we later see in an unfavorable light.
 
Flash forward to present day when brilliant American economics professor Rachel Chu (played sweetly by Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat”) is invited by her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (British/Malaysian actor/model/TV host Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. However, charming Nick has not been completely forthright with Rachel when he reveals on the plane that he comes from a wealthy Singapore family, the scope of which she is too naïve to fathom yet.
 
Upon their arrival in Singapore, Rachel is swept away by a night out in Nick’s vibrant hometown with his best friend and his fiancé. Despite descriptions he gives of his family and their business empire, it’s not until Rachel visits her outlandish college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina, “Ocean’s 8”) that she learns just how influential the Young family is. The real problem, though, is not necessarily the vast gulf between Nick’s upbringing and hers. Instead, it’s the fact that she is an American of Chinese descent and not directly from China, which is something Eleanor is less than fond of.
 
So, between Eleanor and a myriad of jealous, petty Singapore girls who do everything they can to drive her off, Rachel has her work cut out for her if she wishes to see her relationship with Nick continue.
 
“Crazy Rich Asians” has nothing all that new to offer to the romantic comedy genre. It has all the prerequisite boxes you can check off like clockwork – resistant parents of one or both members of the couple; crazy, jealous exes; a goofy best friend that can always be depended upon; a goofy friend that no should ever count on; an impending marriage of some sort; etc. In that sense, “Crazy Rich Asians” is about as crazy as a block of wood.
 
Despite its stereotypical characters and plot we have seen a plethora of times in various forms, “Crazy Rich Asians’ still manages to be an entertaining flick. There are plenty of genuine laughs to be had, especially in scenes involving the hilarious Awkwafina and/or her character’s equally goofy father played by “Hangover” alum Ken Jeong. The romance itself will undoubtedly pull at some heartstrings plus there is a fantastic side story of eventual female empowerment that will make anyone feel good.
 
All in all, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a great date flick for any couple of any age, but don’t expect go into expecting to see something that truly separates itself from general, romantic comedy fair.

The Benefits of a Film Degree & How to Make It Work

Jakob Owens

The job outlook for film operators from 2016-2026 is projected to grow as much as 13%, which is faster than average, and other film-related jobs are showing similar growth. So, it’s no wonder that you might want to take your passion for film and turn it into a career. Film studies, film theory, production, screenwriting and cinematography are just a few of the areas in which you can decide to concentrate during your pursuit of a film and television degree.

Studying film and television in undergraduate or graduate school isn’t all about watching Netflix for “research.” Film degrees can provide you with a variety of problem-solving skills that you can apply to many different areas of work and life and you’ll leave school having developed a highly transferable range of skills.

What You’ll Learn in Film School

While areas such as screenwriting and cinematography have set rules and structures that have been and continue to be traditionally followed, by learning about film theory and history, you’ll gain a better understanding at how to bend the rules in a way that doesn’t break the mold too much to decrease your chances of success. Did you notice how Hitchcock breaks the 180° rule in Vertigo? By drawing attention to these moments of disruption in film school, you can get a clearer idea of how you can use traditional filmmaking practices to your advantage. You’ll also begin to view film in a completely different light as you become introduced to various theories, journals and other viewpoints.

The Skills You’ll Gain That Aren’t Film-Related 

Sure you’ll probably learn how to shoot and edit, but you’ll also gain valuable skills that will make you more employable in any industry, such as good research and communication, critical thinking, project management skills as well as the ability to organize your time effectively and work towards strict deadlines. The great thing about a film degree is not only the ability to apply these skills to a wide variety of jobs, but that your knowledge is suitable for a wide variety of industries. In the publishing industry, for example, you can write about films as a journalist. There is also work as a content manager or editor, a film archivist, a professor and many more that don’t require you to go into production if you don’t want to.

How to Finance a Film Degree 

Don’t stress. A film degree is an investment just like making a film is, and the quicker you learn how to budget and move your finances around in order to pay for your film studies, the better off you’ll be in a career in cinema or television. Just as you’ll find in the industry, various financing options exist. Around 60% of the country’s 20 million college students rely on student loans to see them through their degree, so opting for that route is one way to ensure you’re covered for the duration of your studies. Try not to worry too much about interest rates while you’re in school, as most loans won’t begin charging interest until you’ve graduated. And, once you’re out, you can look into refinancing as a way to lower your monthly fees.

Pursue Your Passion

Regardless of what area of film you’re passionate about, there’s a school and degree just for you. Don’t be scared off by the naysayers who try and discourage you from pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in the arts as research shows job growth in various areas of film and television. Work hard at fine-tuning your craft and repaying your loans and you’ll be on the track to super-stardom in no time.