MINARI

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

The American dream is a goal that not only natural-born citizens of the United States hope to accomplish, but is often, more importantly, a goal that immigrants hope to achieve. That is the main message of this beautiful and heartfelt movie about South Korean immigrants trying to survive during the 1980s. Based on the life experiences of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, Minari depicts the life of South Korean immigrants working hard to thrive and survive in rural America. It is an American tale as old as the age of this nation, but it is also a lovely reminder that this nation of ours can be the land of opportunity to those willing to work hard to get there.

Minari follows the Yi family, a Korean family who has moved from California to rural Arkansas where patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) desires to become a farmer, cultivating the vegetables often used by his culture. Living in a small, mobile home, the Yi's must adjust to their new environment, with Jacob promising that this move is a step forward for the family. To make this dream come true, Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) must also work for steady income at a local hatchery where they separate the female chicks from the males. As Jacob pursues his dreams, he and the family encounter several obstacles along the way. Though things appear bleak initially, Jacob remains undaunted in his goals, much to the consternation of his more pragmatic wife Monica.

This is truly one of the best films I watched in 2020. Lee Isaac Chung has made a film that plays out naturally and realistically without any artificial sweetness or heavy-handed melodrama. It is a timeless story that appeals to the human heart and soul. Though it will resonate strongly with American immigrants, it has a genuine heart that should appeal to audiences of various backgrounds.

All of the cast members give excellent performances, but three particular actors stand out for me. As Monica's mother Soon-ja, Youn Yuh-jung is wonderful as an unfiltered and outspoken grandmother. As Paul, Jacob's assistant in farming, Will Patton gives an incredible turn as a sweet and optimistic religious zealot who has some farming skills and previous experience. As David, the youngest child of the Yi family, child actor Alan Kim is an absolute joy to witness on the screen.

Minari is one of those films that is so timeless and always relevant. It is a movie that is sure to please and have an impact on audiences of various backgrounds, However, it will definitely resonate with immigrant audience members who know what it is like to adjust and assimilate to the United States and its people.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on the true story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the infiltration of the Chicago chapter of the party by FBI informant William O'Neal, writer/director Shaka King presents an all-too-real and dual-faceted example of our US government's oppression of Black America. Out-spoken and unfiltered, the Black Panther party made its presence known and heard during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Though this perceived threat to "American" standards served as a rallying shout to fight systemic racism and oppression, the Black Panther Party and their associates only fought for equal treatment, as promised by the law and Constitution. The FBI then resorted to utilize informants fearful of any prejudicial treatment by law enforcement. One such informant was criminal William O'Neal.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as O'Neal, a small time crook caught in the nasty web of law enforcement and the FBI who wish to use him to take down the Black Panther party. Approached by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), O'Neal is given the ultimatum of complying with the FBI or face harsher treatment for his petty crimes. The main target of the FBI is Chicago chapter leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a boisterous and charismatic Black Panther leader fighting hard for the advancement of the Black community. As O'Neal gets more involved with the Panther party and closer to Hampton, he becomes more conflicted with his role in the takedown of the activist.

Written by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah is an amazingly powerful movie that should serve as an eye-opener to anyone who blindly accepts or naively denies the evil deeds of which our government is capable and has committed. For the oppressed and anyone who has experienced any form of prejudice, it is a rallying shout to stand up and fight for what is right and just. King, his writers, cast and crew do an outstanding job in presenting this tremendous story. Given the problems that have troubled our nation for far too long, this film also screams the question, when are things going to completely change for the better?

The film has an incredible cast with both Kaluuya and Stanfield bringing passion, emotion, and humanity to their characters. The movie also features a beautifully realized performance by Dominique Fishback who stars as Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton's girlfriend. Jesse Plemons also gives an appropriately nasty and uncaring turn as O'Neal's ambitious FBI handler Roy Mitchell.

This is yet another movie that hopes to bring audiences more awareness of the racism and oppression that has infected our nation for far too long. I feel that I have written so many reviews about movies that tackle this subject. And I am sure it is a subject that other, more seasoned, veteran film writers have handled for decades before me. As I conclude this review, I have come to the sad realization that it is horrifying that we still need movies like Judas and the Black Messiah to keep reminding people that this is a problem that still troubles our country.

THE MAURITANIAN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi's memoir Guantanamo Diary, this film adaptation by director Kevin Macdonald does manage to deliver an emotional wallop, but gets undermined by a mostly dull, legal procedural approach to the material. The movie follows the legal defense and their investigation into the unlawful detention and torture of Salahi who gets suspected of playing a role in the attacks on 9/11. As a commentary on the lack of due process involved in the 9/11 investigations and the horrible methods involved in the interrogations, The Mauritanian works well enough. However, the rest of the movie proves to be a mostly trite exercise in story-telling and character development.

Jodie Foster stars as the tough and no-nonsense attorney Nancy Hollander. An advocate for international law and human rights, Hollander decides to represent Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) when she realizes he has been wrongfully imprisoned and held without the proper due process he deserves. Though Salahi may have had some loose ties with a terrorist involved in the 9/11 attacks on the US, he has been treated as a prime suspect undergoing intense interrogation and enduring the extreme tortures endorsed by the government and the millitary. While Salahi continues to wait desperately in his prison, the government and the military do everything they can to cover up any evidence of wrong doing which makes his case a most difficult and challenging battle.

With an adapted screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, director Kevin Macdonald presents a compelling, but flawed and occasionally weak movie that too often follows the legal process by the numbers. While this may come across as more realistic, it is a rather lacking approach when it comes to cinematic storytelling. That said, the film mostly works due to the strength of its intended messages and the impact of its depiction of the inexplicably inhumane treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.

In addition, actor Tahar Rahim brings a real and genuine humanity to the character of Mohamedou Salahi. It is a beautiful and inspiring performance that transcend all weaknesses of the script and direction. Jodie Foster gives a solid performance as attorney Nancy Hollander. Though the development of the character is a bit lacking in the writing. Foster's talent also adds to the character's translation on the screen. Shailene Woodey also performs well as the emotionally torn and tormented Teri Duncan, a younger and less seasoned attorney working on the case with Hollander. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as prosecuting attorney Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, but plays it so broadly that the character's development suffers further.

Though this movie has its problems, I still feel it is important that most Americans watch it to get a better perspective on the fallout of 9/11 and its impact on the rights of people. The film opens in theaters on February 12.

BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Barb and Star initially seems like an SNL sketch idea that never made it to the show and seems destined for failure in a feature treatment. Going into this movie, I tempered my expectations accordingly, but was ultimately pleasantly surprised with the delightful comedic results that this silly and goofy comedy achieves. Both Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who also co-wrote the film, obviously have much love for their characters and this love is clearly evident in their committment to them and their story. Director Josh Greenbaum also shares this love and admiration for the dynamic, middle-aged duo and presents their movie with much aplomb and glee.

Wiig and Mumolo star as middle-aged best friends Star and Barb. Star, who is a divorcee, and Barb who is a widow, both don't have much excitement in their lives and are in much need of a major change. After losing their comfortable jobs at Jennifer's Convertibles, the two friends decide to take a friend's suggestion and take a much-needed vacation in Vista Del Mar, Florida. While they are a initially a little out of their element at the lavish and colorful resort, lots of liquid courage helps spice things up after they meet a fellow vacationer named Edgar (Jamie Dorman).

What they don't know, however, is that Edgar is actually working as a pawn in a nefarious plot to destroy the resort. After a rather embarrassing and traumatic childhood experience in Vista Del Mar, the angry and vindictive Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also portrayed by Wiig) uses Edgar to infiltrate the resort where she will unleash a massive swarm of killer mosquitoes. As Barb and Star become more involved with Edgar, the lovesick, hopeless romantic becomes torn between his discovery of true love and his previous committment to his Sharon.

I had an absolute blast with this movie. Between the goofy antics of Barb and Star and the dynamic and hilarious comedic turn by Jamie Dorman, the exercise is silliness and utter absurdity offers pure comedy gold. Though the wicked plot by the villain is dumb and ridiculous, it never, ever overplays its role in the grand scheme of the film. The hilarious writing and tremendous comedic acting by both Wiig and Mumolo should be a masterclass of comedy and improvisation. Their skills are on perfect display here with two artists sharing incredible chemistry and timing.

As I stated above, Dorman is an absolute delight and jumps into his silly, but heartfelt role with a mix of wreckless abandon and sincerity. This is definitely a more exciting and inspired performance than any work he did in the mostly dreadful Fifty Shades movies. The movie also features great performances and appearances by Vanessa Bayer, Damon Wayans, Jr, and Wendy McLendon-Covey. I must also praise Kristen Wiig once again, but this time for her wicked fun and silly turn as the cold and calculating villain Sharon Gordon Fisherman.

This film was originally slated to be released in theaters last summer, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it got put on hold. It will be available for viewing via streaming and video-on-demand services on February 12. It is a movie that exceded my expectations and is sure to provide wonderfully comedic entertainment to anyone who gives it a chance.

THE MAP OF TINY PERFECT THINGS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

The idea of making another time loop movie actually is rather amusing if one were to think about it. In a time loop plot, a character or characters often repeat a day or a certain chain of events, sometimes with different outcomes, only to start over again. The end desire is to experience the day or certain period of time correctly or flawlessly to get better results. To make another time loop movie also seems redundant, given that it has been done before multiple times, but the goal is to set one's story or movie apart from others that have preceded it. In the case of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, writer Lev Grossman, who based the screenplay on his short story, and director Ian Samuels hope to bring something different to the subgenre, but end of treading upon thematic territory that is all too familiar. At the same time, the filmmakers do end up bringing a slightly more serious and poignant element that does manage to tug on some heart strings.

Kyle Allen stars as Mark, a young high school student who has been caught in a temporal anomaly/time loop that has him repeating one particular day for no apparent reason. As the film begins, Mark has already experienced this particular day so many times that he already knows what to expect. Things change majorly when he discovers that he isn't the only one aware of the this metaphysical phenomenon. A young lady named Margaret (Kathryn Newton) is also repeating the same day and the two decide to team up to get through this bizarre situation as best as they can.

Both Mark and Margaret discover that during the course of this remarkable day, there are many simple, but beautiful pleasures and experiences to behold. The two document these events in a little map of their town. Though these magical moments seem rather extraneous at first, they discover that the map and these patterns of remarkable events may hold to key to their escape from the anomaly.

Much like other movies that utilize this plot device, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things mostly uses the time loop phenomenon for comedic purposes. This works mostly well, but also loses its steam a little when things get a little redundant. On the other hand, a subplot (which I won't spoil) makes the film much more emotional and heartfelt than most other time loop movies. That said, the end result is a charming and sweet film that celebrates the many facets of life and reminds us to treasure the things we often take for granted.

Director Ian Samuels, cinematographer Andrew Wehde, and editor Andrea Bottigliero give the film a pace and flow that glides almost effortlessly in the beginning as the character Mark rushes through his day to get to the things he likes and desires the most. However, they start to slow things down beautifully to behold, admire and experience the beauty and magic that life often has to offer. The filmmakers show superb proficiency in presenting this otherwise familiar story and the actors also follow suit by committing heart and soul to their characters.

Both Kyle Allen and Kathryn Newton perform well in their respective roles, but seem to lack a genuine chemistry which holds the film back from making its full, intended impact. Still, they both earnestly bring much heart and longing to their characters, so that positive aspect helps alleviate any lack of romantic chemistry between them. Josh Hamilton also performs well as Mark's loving, but awkward father Daniel. Jorja Fox also has a brief, but impactful turn as Margaret's mother Greta.

So as far as time loop movies go, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things isn't exactly perfect, but it definitely is not horrible. It is an amiable and amusing movie that has a little magic of its own, but never quite reaches the heights of cinematic beauty as Groundhog Day or the level of hillarity as Palm Springs. The movie will be available for streaming via Amazon Prime on February 12. It gets a moderate recommendation from me.

HOPELESS ROMANTIC

By Laurie Coker

Rating: D+

Rarely does a film host six directors. But Hopeless Romantic, a film about treading through the ups and downs of romance does.  Directed by a group of women from the East Coast of Canada, Deanne Foley, Martine Blue, Stephanie Clattenburg, Latonia Hartery, Ruth Lawrence, and Megan Wennberg, Hopeless Romantic has great potential, but often plays off clichés and stock storytelling. It misses almost every beat for humor, relatability, and significance.

BLISS

By Laurie Coker

Rating: F

There is nothing blissful about Bliss, a convoluted sci-fi drama starring Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson. Writer/director Mike Cahill’s overly dark – thematically and visually – story of one man’s life in and out of reality plays out like a bad LSD trip and a messy rom-com simultaneously. A truly crazy blend of a science fiction fantasy and love-story, Bliss might have been something good, but this director fumbles his delivery terribly.

BLISS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 1.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Bliss's tagline, "Chase Something Real," invites the audience to follow its protagonist on a soul-searching journey as he attempts to define what is very real to him. However, the film unintentionally has the audience trying to make sense of a poorly developed concept, ambiguously confusing plot development, and some heavy-handed delivery with its messages. Writer/director Mike Cahill attempts a mind-bending exercise with his existential crisis movie Bliss, but mostly succeeds in bewilderment, frustration, and annoyance.

Owen Wilson stars as Greg Whittle, a depressed and dissatisfied regular guy, lost and frustrated with the cards life has dealt him. While trying to hold down a soul-crushing job, Greg constantly dreams of and vividly envisions a life he wishes he had or should be having. The only thing that brings Greg joy and happiness is the unconditional love of his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper). On one particular day when everything seems to go wrong, Greg encounters an alluring, but unusual stranger named Isabel (Salma Hayek). At the beginning of their seemingly fateful meeting, Isabel tries to convince Greg that most of what is around them is artificial and that he is trying to live in an artificial simulation where he doesn't truly belong. Though this idea initially doesn't make sense to Greg, Isabel convinces him otherwise. As what is real and isn't becomes more clear to him, Greg also begins to question whether or not the "real world" is actually a better place.

Even though writer/director Mike Cahill has an initially fascinating and inventive take on the virtual reality, science fiction story, his underdeveloped ideas and attempts to keep his audience in suspense and guessing ultimately fail. Deeply philosophical exercises in existentialism can be challenging when it comes to cinema. Ambiguity and misdirection can be effective on audiences, if performed meticulously, but Cahill's heavy-handed strategy comes across as a slap to the face. It is like having a bad teacher that presents a student a problem or dilemma with a lot of confusing information and instructs the student to figure it out, while screaming the answer into his or her ear.

As far as the acting is concerned, Owen Wilson seems to be totally on board for the ride and works his charisma well. However, his dedication and assured approach to the character never truly reassures. Salma Hayek, who protrays the one character who supposedly knows exactly what is happening, adds further to the frustration with this movie. Her acting choices here simply grate and frustrate. As physically attractive as she is, her take on the character nullifies any physical beauty and charisma she naturally exudes.

Bliss will be available for streaming via Amazon Prime on February 5, 2021, but it is a film I simply do not like and cannot recommend. Perhaps the studio and the filmmakers hope that people ignorantly go into this movie without question, but I do hope that my readers understand now that any ignorance about this movie does not offer any bliss whatsoever. Chase a better movie, please!

PALMER

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Justin Timberlake stars as the titular Eddie Palmer, a former football superstar whose life takes a hard detour after he makes a costly mistake. The movie might be a familiar redemption story, but is one with a more modern twist. Though the story obvious retreads similar material from other movies, it has indelible heart that is hard to deny. Despite all of the tropes and cliches Palmer embraces, it is hard not to be somewhat moved and compelled by this winsome and lovable film that offers a message of love and acceptance.

After serving a sentence for a crime he regrets, Eddie Palmer returns home to spend his parole and work on rebuilding the life he totally upended. Living with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), Palmer tries to start anew and stay out of trouble. Not long after his arrival, Eddie discovers that his grandmother helps care for her neighbor's son Sam (Ryder Allen) a sweet little boy whose mother Shelly (Juno Temple) struggles with drug addiction. Sam is not like any of the town's other boys. He tends to prefer things that girls his age love and enjoy. As Palmer gets to know Sam better, he becomes a good friend to the child and learns to accept Sam for who he is. The trouble is that the other children and adults in town are not as open and accepting of Sam's differences and this poses a threat to Palmer's need to say away from trouble.

Written by Cheryl Guerriero and directed by Fisher Stevens, Palmer may tread familiar territory, but does so with a big earnest heart that it is hard to deny its validity. It is a story of growth and learning that this world sorely needs. Thought the film isn't exactly an exceptional and shining example of love and acceptance, it still succeeds despite its weaknesses. The wonderful cast helps to deliver an impact with their heartfelt and genuine performances.

Justin Timberlake gives a lovely turn as Eddie Palmer, a passionate man atoning for his crimes. He tries to keep a low profile in town, but finds this difficult when he decides to help and support an outcast that most of the town looks down upon. June Squibb gives a delightfully stern, but lovable performance as Eddie's loving grandmother Vivian, a lady who obviously believes in second chances and unconditional love. As Sam, the young and talented Ryder Allen gives an outstanding performance as a sweet child who only wants to enjoy and love the things that make him happy. His life with his single mother has always been difficult thus far, and Sam finds much joy and excitement in things that only the girls in his town like.

Palmer is now available for viewing via AppleTV Plus and is a movie I moderately recommend. Regardless of the fact that this movie has much in common with other better and more original films, I still found much to love and enjoy within this hopeful and optimistic story.

THE LITTLE THINGS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2 (Out of 4 Stars)

From writer/director John Lee Hancock, comes a dark crime thriller that, at one point, tries to set itself apart from other similar films, but fails miserably to do so. Hancock goes through some very familiar motions, borrowing elements from other better detective stories and tries to pull the rug out from underneath it all to surprise and shock his audiences. However, his highly questionable twist choices fail to deliver a more definative message and makes the entire exercise a rather frustrating one. Starring acting greats Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto, The Little Things proves to be an utter disappointment.

Washington stars as Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon, a former Los Angeles police detective who, after a very troubling murder case, has decided to take a break from intensive police work and opted for a much quieter life in the County. While visiting the big city for some County related work, an investigation into a serial murderer catches his attention and inspires him to assist the department with the investigation. The brash and younger Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the head investigator of the case, knows of Deke's reputation and skills, and eventually welcomes his imput. As the two detectives delve deeper into the case, ghosts and demons from Deke's former life resurface, as this new case seems all-too-familiar and similar to the case that derailed his once successful career.

With The Little Things, Hancock has made a movie that starts off compellingly with some palpable tension, dark and moody psychological thrills, but never manages to completely escape the shadows of other similar movies that have obviously inspired it. Hancock also attempts to make a bolder statement about the tolls of police detective work and the impact it has on its investigators. This statement, however, gets mishandled so badly that it comes across as an exercise in "cop-splaining." This choice completely undermines all of the previous atmospheric groundwork and never really succeeds in giving this movie a voice of its own. Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzman may have created a gorgeous-looking neo-noir with fascinating characters, but definitely fail to stick the landing.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, Washington, Malek, and Leto all deliver fantastic performances. As the burnt out, troubled former detective superstar John Deacon, Washington gives a powerful and psycholgically tormented turn. As the younger, intelligent, but inexperienced Jim Baxter, Malek beautifully exudes the wide-eyed enthusiasm and passion that the detective has for his work. As the creepy and weird person-of-interest Albert Sparma, Jared Leto portrays the character with much aplomb and wicked zeal. Sparma loves toying with and tormenting the cops. It just remains to be seen whether or not he is the psychopath behind the murders.

As I stated above, this film owes much credit to other better dark detective stories such as Seven and Insomnia. The trouble is that The Little Things fails where those movies succeeded. The movie is getting released in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. It is not a movie I highly recommend; therefore, one is better off watching it at home if still compelled to experience the disappointment, bewilderment and frustration it succeeds in delivering.

A PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

By Laurie Coker

Rating: A

Doing effective wickedly dark comedy takes talent and writer-director, Emerald Fennell does it with a devilish flourish. Starring Carrey Mulligan, a Promising Young Woman, is a provocative, bleakly realistic revenge tale that digs deeply into serious issues. A clearly passionate lead actress and an excellent ensemble cast, coupled with Fennell’s well-woven and meticulously crafted story make A Promising Young Woman completely enthralling.

NO MAN’S LAND

By Liz Lopez

Rating: B

The new IFC movie, No Man’s Land, is by Texas filmmakers Conor Allyn (Walk.Ride.Rodeo) who directed, based on the script written by his brother, Jake Allyn (protagonist in this film) and co-writer David Barraza (Spanish TV series writer and executive producer for this film). This is not the first film to be released this month/year with a central theme about immigration into the United States of America, but it certainly does reflect the consequences of human life on either side of the border despite anyone’s opinion of the matter that continues to be a topic of discussion in all levels of government. No Man’s Land was the Opening Night Film at the recent GuadaLAjara Film Festival in Los Angeles. The filmmakers were present during the virtual Q&A where the Allyn brothers spoke of this personal project that they worked long and hard to make their story a reality based on the knowledge they had of the topic in Texas. The film is a simple but important story of how two families decide to handle issues with their sons as they deal with the conflicts that arise along the border. The film has some strong performances by both lead and supporting actors, although the somewhat predictable script could have used some tweaking for the supporting cast. Although the story line may be simple, there certainly are many scenes that feel authentic and not made to feel overly dramatic to head over to the television novela style.  

For fans of the Western genre, this film should satisfy the storyline of outlaws on the run and who end up south of the Texas border. The young man who makes a break for it, Jackson Greer (Jake Allyn), does so on his horse named Sundance, not to avoid the consequences of his action, but to seek forgiveness first. This modern - day Western genre story has many scenes of genuine beauty on each side of the border as captured in the cinematography by Juan Pablo Ramirez (I Carry You With Me/Te Llevo Conmigo that is currently in the film festival circuit, including the Sundance Film Festival this month).

Strong performances from the cast keep the audience engaged, starting with Allyn (The Baxters and Mayan M.C. TV series) who portrays a talented baseball player from Texas with a future in New York, but has a heart and is a character the audience won’t hate at the onset. Veteran actor and comedian George Lopez, stars as a Texas Ranger who is not bilingual in Spanish and is believable as he performs his law enforcement duties in each country. Jorge A. Jimenez (Alita: Battle Angel, Narcos TV series and Machete Kills) stars as the father of the young son who loses his life during the border crossing and his scenes of anger and anguish can be deeply felt by the audience. Andres Delgado is quite good as the young evil coyote and his performance is chilling, especially during a scene where a bus is forced to stop and passengers are threatened. Frank Grillo (acts and executive produces) and Andie MacDowell star as Jackson’s concerned parents and are a great addition to this supporting cast. They are believable as parents, but they don’t have excessive screen time to overpower Jackson’s story. One powerful though brief scene of McDowell has her recalling when Texans and Mexicans were kind to each other versus the dramatic shift that exists.

The PG-13 rated film is 115 minutes in duration. It opens in theaters on Friday, January 22, 2021, including the Austin area. Check local listings for a theater near you or when it is available On Demand.

Source: IFC Films

1982

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

With war as a background, many love stories have enchanted and enthralled audiences in the world of cinema. 1982 works its magic in a similar fashion, but does so within the context of the 1982 Lebanon War and focuses on the love stories of two different generations of Lebanese people in very different stages of relationships. Written and directed by Oualid Mouaness, this compelling and beautiful drama brings a real sense of urgency to a much needed love in a setting where war threatens to destroy all semblences of one of humanity's main sources of sustenance.

As Lebanon is on the verge of a very violent and destructive war, elementary school student Wissam's (Mohammad Dalli) only desire is to express his feelings of love toward his classmate Joana (Gia Madi). As the faculty and staff attempt to maintain some semblance of normality on a school day, Wissam makes several attempts to tell Joana how he feels; however, exams, his fears, and the impending threat of violence continue to interfere with the heart-to-heart conversation he craves. Meanwhile, Wissam's teacher Yasmine (Nadine Labaki) struggles with some troubles of the heart of her own. She and her current boyfriend, another teacher at the school, are at a crossroads where political ideology has caused a rift in their relationship. As the inevitiable doom of violence looms over the day, both Wissam and Yasmine must act before it is too late.

Lebanon's entry for last year's Best International Feature Oscar proves to be a film worthy of a nomination. Filmmaker Oualid Mouaness has made a movie that is utterly moving, beautiful, and haunting in so many ways. Though the film gets presented in a mostly realistic manner, some of the moment are presented through the hopeful and gorgeously imaginative eyes of its main protagonist Wissam. Wissam dreams and imagines of a more beautiful and hopeful world. He sees the world as an artist, and longs for love to permeate the world around him. The film offers a beautiful message, but also never downplays the tragedy and sadness that war brings with it. Mouaness and his editors pace the film superbly, never relenting on the inevitable threat that looms over the day.

The entire cast performs just as superbly, including the child actors who shine just as brightly as the adults. As Yasmine, Nadine Labaki beautifully expresses the stress and pain she feels while attempting to maintain a strong, brave face for her child students. As Wissam, Mohammad Dalli gives a tremendous performance as the amorously tormented young man attempting to muster the necessary courage to face the girl he truly loves. As Ms. Leila, the schools administrative secretary, Aliya Khalidi gives a standout supporting turn as the main school employee attempting to maintain control and order over the school's affairs.

Though this movie did not score a nomination for the Best International Film Oscar last year, it is still a remarkable and amazing movie. It has a timeless and familiar quality that will always ring true in the world of cinema. The movie is now available for streaming on Amazon and possilbly other streaming and On Demand services. Full of much heart and hope, 1982 is a film that should not be missed.

THE WHITE TIGER

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Currently playing in some theaters and available for streaming on Netflix on January 22, 2021, this Indian drama adamantly sets itself apart from another Indian underdog story (Slumdog Millionaire) by having its protagonist and narrator state that this isn't the same type of feel-good story. Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), an initially humble lower caste Indian living in poverty with his family and how he would eventually rise to become a wealthy and powerful businessman. Though the style and story have some familiarities, the solid writing and tight direction by Bahrani, in addition to an impressive turn by Gourav, allow this compelling and riveting film to stand on its own.

Born into poverty, Balrami Halwai has always dreamed and aspired to achieve the wealth and success that the people from higher castes have managed to maintain for generations. Much like his father, Balrami refuses to completely confirm to the class system that has hindered the impoverished of India for so long. However, he knows that he will definitely need to somehow infiltrate the upper class to accomplish his goals. He sees an opportunity when he first encounters the younger and more progressive son of his landlord, the charming and more Western Ashok (Rajkummar Rao)

Knowing that the only way someone like himself can get close to a higher class person like Ashok is by becoming a servant, Balrami ambitiously manages to get a job as a driver for Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). As he works the job with much enthusiasm and an eager-to-please attitude, Balrami takes to his job well, but soon discovers that the corruption that permeates Ashok's family could very threaten and destroy any of his hopes and dreams of climbing the social ladder. When an unexpected accident occurs at the fault of Ashok and Pinky, Balrami faces taking the blame for the tragedy.

Based on the novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, Ramin Bahrani's film is a sometimes dark and gritty underdog tale with a sly wit and a highly enjoyable sense of humor. At the same time, the film offers a smart commentary on the class system of India that continues to keep the rich and corrupt in power while squashing any opportunities for advancement among the poor. Balrami Hawai's background, though fictional, has some genuine foundations and inspiration in the stories of the real, lower caste people in India. The film offers these people a ray of hope, but also with some cautionary lessons. Balrami has to get his hands very dirty in order to rise above his situation.

This element makes the story feel all too real with just the right amount of dark underbelly. The movie's story makes good on its promise that this isn't Slumdog Millionaire. Balrami Halwai eventually gets into a position of power, but in order to do so, he must make his deal with the devil.

That's what really helps to make this movie come across as a genuine representation of real world problems. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani stays true to the realism of the story. And he presents the movie in a way that is polished, but still gritty and grimy. Even the more glitzy scenes have slightly hellish feel to them. As glamorous as the life of the wealthy is in the movie, everyone has their hands in the dirt, and not everyone is completely happy.

I was genuinely impressed with actor Adarsh Gourav who portrays the role of Balrami so well. To his character, he brings a take to the character that is richly layered. The audience sees the wide-eyed innocence blended with ambition, but also a sly attitiude of someone on the hunt for what he is lacking. The film also stars Priyanka Chopra as Pinky and Rajkummar Kao as Ashok. Both actors offer solid performances here with Kao being more of a standout. The actor superbly emulates the conflict he has within him. He wishes to bring more Western/American sensibilities to his family, but his family's strict adherence to tradition and the more archaic philosophies of the wealthy will never let Ashok forget who he is in India.

The White Tiger is definitely a movie I highly recommend. It is funny, tense, dramatic and realistic. Though it is no Parasite, it still offers a riveting story with great social commentary about a country with a class system that continues to keep its poor enslaved and powerless.

Review: BLOODY HELL

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Having been mostly immersed in awards season screeners, it was really nice to take a break and watch something more wild and subversive. This violent and bloody dark comedy is exactly what I needed. From Australian director Alister Grierson comes a modern-day grindhouse flick titled Bloody Hell. Grierson and writer Robert Benjamin take some fairly typical horror tropes and utilize them in some fun and entertaining ways. The result is an often raucuous, gruesome, but exciting ride that is sure to please fans of horror-comedy.

Ben O'Toole stars as Rex, a war veteran attempting to adjust to a quiet, regular life in his home of Boise, Idaho. Enamored with a particular bank teller (Ashley Lollback), Rex's latest visit to the bank proves to be more eventful than he had originally anticipated. When a violent bank robbery "forces" Rex to spring into action to save the day, things don't exactly go as he would've liked. After an innocent victim gets caught in the crossfire, Rex ends up paying for his heroics with a brief stint in prison. After getting released, the psychologically tormented badass decides to distance himself from his newfound fame and randomly selects Helsinki, Finland as his next destination.

Well, as Rex's bad luck would have it, this decision proves to be yet another mistake. Immediately after his arrival, the American visitor gets abducted by his cab driver. He awakens bound and tied in the basement of a bizarre Finish family who plan to feed Rex to an unknown beast residing in the home. Armed only with his wits, skills, and a more devilish personification of his mind, the former veteran must do what he can to escape yet another hellish situation.

Though Bloody Hell isn't all that strikingly different overall. filmmakers Benjamin and Grierson have a few tricks up their sleeves. The main running gag of the film involves Rex having his own personality as his best friend and confidant. This particular element makes for most of the entertainment of the movie and it works mostly well. However, by the final acts of the film, the gag has already run its course. That is not to say that the movie doesn't have any other funny or entertaining moments, but it feels like the filmmakers put a little too much stock into this one gag. While the whole "talking to himself" routine allows actor Ben O'Toole to shine in a dual role, the film needs more variety to keep things more exciting and interesting.

And as I just said, O'Toole is great as both his normal self and as his uber id personality. It is definitely a treat to see him run around freely as the imaginary friend who is obviously invisible to others. O'Toole definitely has the charming personality, as well as the comic chops and energy to perform both sides of the coin. As his main co-star, actress Meg Fraser is also enjoyable, but more for her more quiet and restrained demeanor. Fraser stars as Alia, a member of the twisted family holding Rex hostage who eventually becomes Rex's only ally. Alia is the one black sheep of the family who wants nothing to do with her family's sick and twisted activities. Fraser has a great screen presence though she definitely plays second fiddle to O'Toole's dual performance.

Overall, I did rather enjoy this movie. director Grierson presents the big picture in a non-linear way that helps generate more interest and keeps the audience invested. I just feel that the filmmakers needed to utilize their main gag a little less and maybe expand more on the mysterious villains perpetrating their heinous crimes. It is a movie I still highly recommend as it is a great time for people who enjoy some dark and wicked comedy mixed with action and horror. Bloody Hell is available for your enjoyment in theaters, drive-ins and On Demand starting January 14, 2021.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

By Mark Saldana

Rating:4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Talented actress Regina King makes an impressive directorial debut with this film adaptation of writer Kemp Powers' play of the same name. One Night In Miami serves as a fictionalized take of a meeting that took place in 1964 when boxer Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and football star/actor Jim Brown met in a motel room where they discusss the problems Black people face in America. Based on each person's life experiences, the gentlemen share a night of sometimes heated discussion and bickering, but each person leaves this night all the better for this experience. It is a very insightful and intimate film that examines various facets of the Black American experience.

On the night that Cassius Clay wins the boxing heavy weight championship from Sonny Liston, and at a time when Clay seems ready to make the conversion to religion of Islam, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) requests that Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) meet with him, so that they can discuss future plans to empower Black Americans. Under the guise of a celebration party, Cooke and Brown agree to join Cassius and Malcolm in a small, and not-so-glamorous motel where they plan to party in honor of Clay's victory. As everyone arrives, it soon becomes apparent that the meeting isn't simply an excuse to cut loose and blow off steam, but that Malcolm has a definitive agenda in mind. He wants to meet with Black America's successful celebrities in hopes of recruiting them for his cause.

This proves to be an initially awkward and later most emotional evening, as each Black man has some strong opinions and feelings regarding the plight that has kept Black Americans shackled and silenced for so long. Even though each person has a different take on the civil rights movement and how their freedom can be achieved, they all discover that despite their differences, they each would like to see some of the same goals and achievements made for Black Americans to advance in the United States.

With a screenplay by playwright Kemp Powers (Soul), Regina King has made an extraordinary movie with One Night In Miami. Solidified with insightful and astute character development, the film gives a very personal glimspe into the struggles that each remarkable celebrity faced to achieve their rises to success. While the movie is dialog driven, much like the play probably is, King shows great skill in making the scenes feel very organic and real. It truly is an outstanding adaptation of a play that rarely feels like one is watching a play on the screen.

In keeping with the big personalities they represent, the phenomenal cast performs accordingly. Eli Goree has the beautiful swagger and superbly captures the vocal cadence of boxer Muhammad Ali. As Sam Cooke, Leslie Odom Jr. shines charismatically and smoothly, but also gives audiences a more passionate glimpse at the singer when he is at a more emotional level. As Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge not only sounds like Brown, but also gives the celebrity a more reasonable and intelligent demeanor. I know all of this sounds wonderful, so far, but the real star of the film is Kingsley Ben-Adir who gives a tremendous turn as Malcolm X. Not only does he portray the activist as a strong-willed, opinionated figure, Ben-Adir's skills beautifully reveal a more tender, vulnerable side of a man struggling to maintain a courageous persona.

One Night In Miami is definitely one of my favorite movies of the year. It celebrates both the amazing public personas of these historical figures with all of their courage and strengths, and also realizes that they are and were real human men with fears, weaknesses, and flaws facing opposition and racism. The movie opens in theaters January 8, 2021 and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime on January 15, 2021.

HERSELF

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Abuse is a real human problem that requires strength, courage and determination to overcome. It seriously helps if one has a strong support system to help one accomplish this. These are the main themes of an empowering film that portrays one woman's struggles to rise above the scars and pain of an abusive relationship. Starring an incredible Clare Dunne, Herself presents a portrait of a tormented woman not only fighting a bureaucratic goverment aid program, but also the real psychological trauma that continues to haunt her as she attempts to start a new life.

Dunne stars as Sandra, a hard working mother and wife who has had enough of both the physical and psychological abuse she receives from her angry and violent husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). When it becomes more and more apparent that Gary is getting worse, Sandra and her two daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O'Hara) escape before things escalate any further. Sandra files a restraining order against Gary and attempts to use the government assistance program for proper housing. While working two jobs, and living in a hotel, she decides that the best way to provide a nice home for her and her children is to build it herself. This proves way challenging than she originally anticipates, but with some help from friends, one of her employers (Harriet Walter) and a sympathetic builder named Aldo (Conleth Hill), she discovers that anything is possible.

Written by Malcolm Campbell, Clare Dunne and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady), Herself proves to be a wonderful piece of empowering and emotionally moving cinema. Told from the perspective of its protagonist, the film takes the audience through the pain and obstacles Sandra must overcome to be not only a savior to herself and her children, but also a fine example to all women. As the audience follows Sandra on her uphill journey, we get to witness both the joys and satisfaction of accomplishments, but also feel the frustration and sorrow when things don't always work out as planned. It is a very intimate experience that the writers, director and actors execute almost perfectly.

As both co-writer and star of the film, Clare Dunne shines beautifully and powerfully. Dunne gives an amazing turn that realistically expresses the various emotions Sandra is feeling throughout this process, including the mettle to fight for what she wants most. As Sandra's more helpful employer Peggy, Harriet Walter not only serves as a generous and supportive friend, but also as a role model. Peggy is an older, retired woman who worked hard when she was younger to be come a medical doctor and still has that same unwavering pluck that she uses to help empower and focus Sandra. As the abusive husband Gary, Ian Lloyd Anderson gives a hauntingly disturbing performance.

And though the movie can be haunting and disturbing at times, the film in its entirety is a thoroughly moving portrait that is sure two win audiences over big. It is difficult not to empathize with Sandra's struggles, and actress Clare Dunne superbly personifies this character and her plight. It is a performance I feel is deserving of some acting nominations from various movie awards. Herself is currently playing in some theaters and will be available for streaming via Amazon Prime on January 8, 2021

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

If looking for something completely different this holiday season, or if one would simply much rather avoid anything holiday-related, look no further because Promising Young Woman might be the right film for you. Now, this type of movie probably won't appeal to everyone. It is a darkly comedic movie that deals with abuse, rape and the even more tragic impact this trauma can have on a person. I know that this sounds a bit too heavy for a comedy, but writer/director Emerald Fennell has managed to pull it off quite masterfully. It is a wickedly funny and delightful revenge fantasy that is sure to please anyone who has been a victim of any kind of abuse.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a woman driven to avenge the tragic death of a friend who has committed suicide after being raped in medical school. Cassie has since dropped out and spends her days working at a coffee shop. However, she spends her nights pretending to be drunk, so that male predators can easily target her. As they begin to cross a certain line, that is when Cassie strikes back.

Though Cassie feels some vindication through her nocturnal activities, she has yet to seek revenge on the ones responsible for her friend's abuse and suicide. Well, she gets the opportunity of a lifetime, when she runs into an old acquaintance from medical school, Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham). While the both Cassie and Ryan share an undeniable attraction and attempt to date, she also discovers that the man mainly responsible for her friend's attack will be celebrating a bachelor party. It is finally the opportunity for which Cassie has been waiting for so long.

As I stated above, writer/director Emerald Fennell has written and crafted an amazing film with Promising Young Woman. Though the movie deals with some dark and heavy thematic material, she manages to make the experience thoroughly entertaining while being compelling and riveting, all at the same time. With this film, Fennell delivers a razor sharp commentary on abuse and the shocking ways people are way too accepting or forgiving of this horrible behavior. People can be way too self-involved and are, therefore, too willing to look the other way. Fennell strikes hard against these toxic attitudes and does so with much fury.

Personifying this anger and fury is the wonderful Carey Mulligan, who shines brightly and beautifully as Cassie, a woman who is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore. Mulligan does an exceptional job with the character by reflecting the many layers of her personality. She may be bold, strong, driven, and vindictive, but she also reflects Cassie's sad, heartbroken, and fearful side. It really is a tremendous performance that deserves much attention and some love from the various awards committees.

And I also feel just as strongly about Emerald Fennell's script. I believe her blend of heartbreak, pain, but also wickedly funny vindication deserves much love and attention from the various film awards. Promising Young Woman may not be the typical holiday fare one would watch during the season, but that's when they chose to release it. It is a movie I must strongly recommend.

SOUL

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

From Disney/Pixar comes this magical movie that not only delivers laughs and entertainment galore, but also offers a deep and thoughtful reflection of life, death, and the true value of human life. Writer/director Pete Docter and co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers have crafted another animated masterpiece that is sure to wow audiences for many generations. Actors Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey lend their skills to voice the lead characters, and in doing so add much love, heart, and wit to the movie. Soul, so far, has been the best animated feature I have seen this year and is also one of the better films release this year, period.

Foxx stars as Joe Gardner, a school music teacher who continues to dream about becoming a jazz superstar, but has also had his share of obstacles to overcome. On one lucky day, Joe gets to audition for Dorothea Williams's band and gets chosen. However, a freak accident kills Joe, sending his soul to the "Great Beyond." Refusing to give up his life, Joe manages to sneak into the "Great Before" where newborn souls are bred and trained for future lives on Earth. This is where Joe encounters 22 (Fey), a soul that has struggled with her development and has been held back from living for so long. Joe and 22 strike up a deal where she will help Joe get back to his life while she gets to remain in the "Great Before" where she really wants to be.

I absolutely loved this movie. I laughed so much and felt my heart brimming with warmth and love. The film also celebrates the simple pleasures in life that people often take for granted. Soul is a wonderful comedic film, but just like all great Disney/Pixar features, it appeals to the mind and heart on so many other levels. Docter, Jones, and Kemp have written a tremendous script that has loads of heart, but also a vivid imagination that creates a beautiful world beyond our terrestrial home. The animators bring this world to life with vivid, bright colors and fantastic character designs.

In addition, the film features an appropriately otherworldly score Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that is simply magical and amazing. Jonathan Batiste also contributes some lovely and tasteful jazz compositions and arrangements for Joe's performances with his band. The mixture of music, colors, characters, humor, and love is a thoroughly beautiful experience to behold.

Both Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx bring their larger-than-life personalities to their characters, but also channel some more intimate and vulnerable sides. Both actors also utilize their comic skills and timing for the more riotous moments in the movie. The film also features great voice work by Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, and Angela Bassett.

Soul is getting released on Disney+ at the perfect time. While families will be stuck at home for the holidays, they will be able to enjoy and bond over a truly wonderful movie that will have them laughing, cheering, and perhaps crying a little. For sure, people will be talking about this delightful film and how it enriched their holiday season.

WONDER WOMAN 1984

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Filmmaker Patty Jenkins and actor Gal Gadot are back and they have arrived at a time when hope, love, and heroism are exactly what people are needing from movies. With 2020 being the dumpster fire it is, a movie like Wonder Woman 1984 is exactly what people have been craving in a year with very few blockbusters in its filmography. This is in no way an endorsement by me to go straight to cinemas to watch this film. If you do decide to risk it, protect yourselves. Yet, on the other hand, people will have the option to view this movie as it will be available for streaming via HBO Max. So regardless of which way one decides to watch this movie, Wonder Woman 1984 is an absolute treat which families can enjoy during the holidays.

Since the events of the last Wonder Woman movie, the demigod Diana Prince (Gadot) has survived through decades and yet still remains youthful looking. In 1984, she spends most of her time working for the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. as an anthropologist. She also spends some time fighting crime as Wonder Woman whenever a situation calls for it. When a mysterious artifact arrives to the museum, both Diana and co-worker Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig) become quite intrigued with it. The artifact turns out to be a magic stone capable of granting anyone one wish. Barbara, who is shy and insecure, wishes she can be more like Diana, while Diana wishes she could be reunited with her lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).

Though both ladies made these wishes half-jokingly, they soon realize that their wishes have come true. In the meantime, aspiring oil magnate Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) desperately searches for the "Dreamstone" and manages to manipulate it out of Barbara's hands. Lord's one wish it merge with the stone and use its powers to acquire power of his own. With this power comes some serious consequences, though. As he grants people of power their deepest darkest wishes, the world to fall into chaos, a chaos that can only be stopped by Wonder Woman.

Written and directed by Patty Jenkins, who co-wrote with Geoff Johns, and David Callaham, Wonder Woman 1984 is a fun movie so full of heart and optimism, it is so hard not to love it. Of course the main question people want to know is, how does it compare to the first film? Well, the movie does suffer from a bit of sequelitis, and that is to be expected. The filmmakers behind this film had big ambitions for this movie and that much is obvious, given its two and a half hour runtime. They obviously had a lot to say and wanted to develop their characters as best as they could in the limited time they had.

That is not to say that the movie is totally overstuffed. The movie has so much going on that perhaps one of the villains could have been eliminated. Yet, at the same time, I enjoyed how the writers developed each of the villains in conjunction with Wonder Woman. Still, the whole movie doesn't flow and work as well as it did the first time around, but the filmmakers get enough right to make the experience so much fun and enjoyable. I would compare Wonder Woman 1984 to Superman II (not the Donner Cut).

And I say this because in a lot of ways, it feels like an 80s superhero movie. Not only does the movie take place during the 80s, but some of the themes and its cheery optimism and sense of humor makes it feel just like a good Superman movie from that decade. And as we all know, there is only one good Superman movie to come from the 80s, and that is Superman II.

Now, as far as the acting goes, it should come as no surprise that both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are great in this. They pick up their roles as Diana and Steve as if their characters were their favorite comfortable outfits. Of course, a lot people want to know how the villains performed and I am happy to say that both Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal are great in this movie. Wiig shows some wonderful range here as her character evolves from a shy, awkward wall flower into a fierce, ruthless predator. Pascal also gets to shine as he portrays Maxwell Lord as a desperate addict, drunk and high on his new powers and laying waste as his addiction propels him on a path of destruction, both to self and others. It is a layered villainous turn that feels almost Shakespearian at times.

Going into this review, I had a bit of a hard time reconciling all of my feelings about this film. I feel like I have so much to say, but have to limit myself. Perhaps that was how Patty Jenkins and the writers felt. Wonder Woman 1984 has enough going on to perhaps begin a television series, but is constrained by its 2.5 hour runtime. Nevertheless, it is its indellible and beautiful heart that sold it for me. I feel that if anyone finishes this movie and doesn't feel pretty good afterward, they probably had a bad attitude from the get-go. Wonder Woman 1984 opens in theaters on December 25 and will be available for streaming simultaneously on HBO Max.

NEWS OF THE WORLD

By Laurie Coker

Rating: A+

Tom Hank’s News of the World blends relevant themes, rich storytelling, and remarkable characters into an awe-inspiring Western for the ages. Written by director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies from Paulette Jiles’s novel, News of the World demonstrates what true storytelling can provide in more ways than one. There are beauty and revelation in even the bleakest images from stark landscapes to the filthy townships, and even in sordid and varied people who inhabit this film.  Its pace is subdued, but never dull or boring. Intensity comes in each encounter whether it is threatening or intimate.

IT WAS THE MUSIC

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

As a kid, teen, or even college student, I was never all that into "Roots Music." I would later discover this genre and fall in love with it through a film. That film is Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. Now for those unfamiliar with the movie, The Last Waltz is a concert/documentary film about the Rock and Roll/Roots group known as The Band. This legendary group was definitely heavy into folk, country, blues, bluegrass. Their phenomenal musicianship and singing really sold me on the genre.

So when I was recently offered a coverage opportunity to review a new documentary series following a Roots Music duo, it was an offer I couldn't pass up. It Was The Music follows musical duo and married couple Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell. Though not exactly household names, both artists can boast performing with some bigger named musicians like Bob Dylan, Levon Helm (of The Band), and many others. Larry, a multi-instrumentalist, has worked with some heavy hitters in music. Teresa, a talented singer and guitarist, doesn't quite have the same resume, but still performs beautifully and puts her heart and soul into all of her work.

Director Mark Moskowitz has made a soulful series that is not only a portrait of a married couple of musical artists, but is also a bit of a history lesson when it comes to the influence of Roots music on Rock 'n Roll. Moskowitz intercuts live performances by Teresa and Larry with intimate glimpses into their personal life and the various challenges and struggles they face on a daily basis. It Was The Music is a lovely journey of music, artistry, passion, love, and life. While some of the personal footage is usually compelling and often moving, the musical performances offer pure exaltation.

The series starts off a little slowly, but once it gets sure-footing after a few episodes, it takes off in some genuinely beautiful ways. In addition to the footage of Larry and Teresa, the series also features performances and interviews with other artists such as Roseanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Lucinda Williams, and more. It Was The Music is a ten part series which began last Sunday, December 13, 2020 on Fans (https://fans.live). New episodes will debut every Sunday through February 7 (excluding January 3, followed by two episodes available on January 10). This is great musical series that I highly recommend, especially for fans of roots music. Huge fans of The Last Waltz will most definitely dig this show.

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM

By Liz Lopez

Rating: A

Many of us have heard of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as the last film performance by the late Chadwick Boseman and have highly anticipated it. The new Netflix film is directed by George C. Wolfe based on the acclaimed play by August Wilson, adapted by film and television series actor, Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Selma, American Gangster, Devil’s Advocate, Law and Order). The play is inspired by real life blues singer Ma Rainey and set in Chicago one day in 1927. The entire ensemble of cast members is excellent individually and together to make this poignant story one not to be missed. Without a doubt, it is Viola Davis and Chad Boseman who provide Oscar worthy performances. Davis is almost unrecognizable as Ma Rainey when she arrives late to the recording session. She is captivating and most definitely calls the shots on her time and talent. Boseman is Levee, a young and hotheaded trumpet player with Ma’s band, but he also has plans to lead his own band and is writing songs to record with musicians he selects. The dialogue for each artist is well - written and performed so spectacularly, that it leaves the audience wanting more at the end. As the credits roll, we sit quietly and remember.


Make no mistake, this film will lead audience members to feel an array of emotions from high to low and is quite an experience. Davis as Ma Rainey does not flinch at letting the recording studio agent and executives know exactly what she wants and will get if they want to use her talent. She is very aware of how things operate by white owned studios and she will remain in control of her music and talent as much as she can. Certainly, she has a “soft” side to her strong personality, but she is not allowing anyone to exploit what she knows is often done. Levee wants what he wants as well, but Ma Rainey rules it all. Boseman’s performances in the small room downstairs where the band awaits the boss and during breaks leave the audience mesmerized as he relates parts of his life to the elder musicians.


Ma Rainey’s band has experienced musicians, bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), led by Cutler (Colman Domingo). Waiting on the over - confident Levee to rehearse is an issue, as is his attitude with the elders. The scenes where the band waits contain the passionate monologues and some heavy emotion, so by the time Ma Rainey arrives with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), the emotional heat is already turned up. Added to this is are the scenes of the racial tensions of Chicago in 1927.
Boseman’s passing in August devastated many, and this film performance is not to be missed even though it is hard not to watch and feel heartbroken. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (94 minutes long and rated R) begins streaming on Netflix Friday, December 18.


Source: Netflix

GREENLAND

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

When I signed up to review this film, I had the strong feeling that I had selected a disastrous disaster film. What I mean by disastrous is that I just had a bad feeling that this would be another horrendous overindulgent spectacle of bad CG destruction and armageddon. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. The filmmakers behind Greenland have instead made a movie that focuses on their lead characters and how they come together to get though a global disaster in progress.

Gerard Butler stars as John Garrity, as structural engineer working hard to get back into the good graces of his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin). Recently, John and Allison have had some marital problems, mostly thanks to the infidelity of John. While they are in the process of working things out, an unthinkable situation arises. An interstellar comet dubbed Charlie, once reported to be benign, starts to wreak havoc on the world. As the comet slowly falls apart and parts of it begin to strike the Earth, Garrity receives an emergency presidential message indicating that he and his family have been chosen for evacuation, as the comet is about to cause a global disaster of major proportions. However, just as John, Allison, and their son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are about to evacuate their town, Nathan's medical condition further complicates matters.

Written by Chris Sparling and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, Greenland manages to defy all of my negative expectations. Sparling and Waugh have smartly chosen to develop their characters and story well and keep the disaster mostly in the background. That is not to say that there are no intense terrifying moments and visuals, but the filmmakers and their effect team utilize these moments only when appropriate and never get too overzealous with what they can do. The main focus of the movie deals with how humanity deals with the castastrophe.

The Garrity family must remain strong and put their troubles behind them to help each other get through the ordeal. The filmmakers develop their story realistically, but obviously make their journey the ideal example. On the other end of the spectrum, the film portrays the ugly side of humanity as other characters resort to nasty deeds, lies, and deception in their attempts to survive. The film doesn't get as ugly as it possibly could, but keeps it real enough to warrant a PG-13 rating.

I must also give some kudos to the cast who helps keep the drama and action feeling as genuine and real as it needs to be. Gerard Butler performs well as the strong and determined patriarch/husband John Garrity. The lovely and talented Morena Baccarin also gives an emotional and powerful performance as the strong and determined mother and wife. I was also impressed with young actor Roger Dale Floyd who performs tremendously as Nathan Garrity, the medically troubled and sweet-natured son of John and Allison. Greenland also can boast fine work by actors Scott Glenn, David Denham, Hope Davis, and several others.

The intense action and emotional drama might be a bit much for the younger members of the family, so Greenland is probably best watched by the more mature pre-teens and older members of the family. It is a movie I do highly recommend for a night of family bonding over the holiday break, but maybe on a night when the little ones are busy watching something more appropriate for their age level in another room. Greenland is now available on Video-on -Demand.

FATALE

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Both writer David Loughery and director Deon Taylor seem to enjoy making thriller flicks about psychotic obsessives, as this film isn't their first rodeo. Last year, the filmmaking duo made the fun melodramatic thriller The Intruder. Now granted, both The Intruder and their latest collaboration, Fatale, are not heady explorations of the human psyche, but both movies do deliver when it comes to tension, thrills, and soap opera-like antics. Fatale does greatly benefit from the performances of its leads Hilary Swank and Michael Ealy, whose earnest, straight-faced acting lends the necessary gravity to keep the film's silliness grounded.

Ealy stars as successful entrepreneur Derrick Tyler. Both Derrick and his business partner Rafe Grimes (Mike Colter) have achieved financial success and notoriety with their sports agency. Derrick should be tremendously happy with his life, but his marital woes with wife Tracie (Damaris Lewis) are what trouble him on a regular basis. Derrick gets a chance to get away for it all when he travels to Vegas with his buddy and partner Rafe for a bachelor party. At Rafe's behest, Derrick decides to take a "break" from his marriage and pretend that he is a bachelor once again.

This little bit of role playing has him crossing paths with divorcee Valerie Quinlan, a lady who initially seems immune to Derrick's charms, but eventually falls into bed with him. After they part ways, Derrick hopes that "what happens in Vegas will stay in Vegas." However, things don't exacty work out as he had hoped. When a harrowing home invasion takes place in Derrick's domecile, he and wife call the police. The detective charged with the investigation turns out to be none other than Valerie Quinlan, a woman with some serious personal troubles of her own.

Even though some of the ground that this film covers is familiar, to the credit of the filmmakers, the movie does have some surprises and originality of its own. At the same time, both Loughery and Taylor can't seem to avoid making the whole affair (no pun intended) silly and hokey. That is one of the main issues I had with The Intruder, and it is the same situation with Fatale. That said, Deon Taylor and his casting directors often choose their talents well, and it is the dedication and commitment of their actors which helps make the films so watchable and enjoyable.

Taylor certainly likes working with actor Michael Ealy, as he stars in both The Intruder and Fatale. Ealy does have great charisma and has an undeniable screen presence. He is also particularly great at being Taylor and Loughery's whipping boy. He somehow fits perfectly into the role of victim in both films, but gets to show a little bit more range in his turn as Derrick Tyler. As Detective Valerie Quinlan, Hilary Swank gets to show her villainous side, but doesn't portray her as a weakly developed two-dimensional character. The character desperately has her personal problems and these troubles greatly come into play as they strongly motivate Quinlan's evil deeds.

The film has a decent supporting cast, but no one in particular really gives any breakout turns. The film pretty much is a showdown between Derrick Tyler and Valerie Quinlan. All of the other characters/actors fulfill their roles adequately. In addition to Mike Colter and Damaris Lewis, both of whom I mentioned above, the movie features Geoffrey Owens, Danny Pino, and Tyrin Turner.

And much like The Intruder, I am moderately recommending Fatale. David Loughery and Deon Taylor have made another enjoyable thriller with some great performances by the cast. I wouldn't expect an intelligent thrill ride going in, but Fatale is a fun, occasionally silly ride. It's definitely better than the thrillers one can find on the Lifetime Channel. That is for sure! Fatale is now playing in theaters.

I’M YOUR WOMAN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Now available on Amazon Prime Video is a noir thriller that definitely had me on the edge of my seat with that utterly nervous feeling in my tummy. Actress Rachel Brosnahan shines brightly as a confused and frightened woman on the run with her child in tow. Though this isn't heart-warming holiday fare, this is the type of movie one might select if needing a break from the oversaturation of holiday material. It is a movie I must highly recommend, but is one not intended for the younger ones.

Brosnahan stars as Jean, the naive young wife of career criminal Eddie (Bill Heck), a man who has kept her mostly in the dark about his illegal activities. In a bold move, Eddie decides to take on the criminal powers-that-be. This places Jean and their baby Harry in a dangerous position which forces them to go into hiding. Eddie sends his friend Cal (Arinze Kene) to assist them, while they distance themselves from danger. As Jean, Harry and Cal travel, Jean begins to learn more about Eddie's past. Though they are temporarily safe, Eddie's enemies eventually pick up their trail.

I'm Your Woman may have a simple and elemental story, but the character development, particularly that of Jean is top notch. Written and directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the film with Jordan Horowitz, the movie is a genuinely compelling journey that leaves its audiences edgy and fearful for the protagonists. Director Hart utilizes that tension created by the writing and enhances it beautifully with outstanding pacing and timing. Both Hart and cinematographer Bryce Fortner show great skill and artistry in presenting this dark and harrowing journey. Though it is a familiar journey, the visual style and smart writing keep the material fresh.

In addition Rachel Brosnahan gives a fantastic and emotionally charged performance as an innocent wife and mother mixed up in a frightening and disturbing situation. Though initially out of her element, we the audience follows Jean as she is forced to wise up and mature for the sake of herself and her child. Brosnahan shows the necessary range to effectively portray this evolution.

Brosnahan also has some impressive co-stars in actors Arinze Kene and Marsha Stephanie Blake. As Cal, Kene portrays a strong, intelligent and good-hearted man, but one haunted by the sins of his past. As Cal's wife Teri, Marsha Stephanie Blake plays a similar type of character, as she too an otherwise good person, but has committed her share of crimes in the past. Both Blake Kene give tremendous performances and credibly portray a loving couple who have the skills to protect Jean and themselves.

As I stated above, I'm Your Woman is now available on Amazon Prime Video. It is a thrilling and tense piece of modern noir cinema that I believe will be a crowd pleaser. It is a fine example of solid writing, lovely direction, and excelllent acting.

WANDER DARKLY

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Wander Darkly, in more ways than one, is an apt title for this film. For audiences, the film can feel like wandering around in the dark, looking for light and clarity. Writer/director Tara Miele disorients her audience quite effectively and often frustratingly. The journey does eventually delve into compelling and moving territory, but then end with a somewhat hackneyed reveal. That said, I almost enjoyed this film, but that is thanks mostly to the galvanizing performances by lead actors Sienna Miller and Diego Luna.

Miller and Luna star as Adrienne and Matteo, a romantic couple who has yet to make the big leap to marriage, despite the fact that they have recently birthed a baby girl. Even though they share a love and an emotional bond, the two lovers find themselves more and more at odds as their lives continue. After a major trauma affects them both, the disoriented Adrienne and the more sure-footed Matteo revisit their history together in a bizarre and surreal journey. As they go through key moments in the their relationship, they attempt to figure out what is best for their future.

The movie plays out like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets A Christmas Carol, but without the imaginations of Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, or Charles Dickens. I can actually forgive the lack of originality in this story. However, what is hard to ignore is the fact the movie doesn't flow very smoothly and left me somewhat befuddled. Another problem is that the movie is supposed to be making a strong case as to why this couple should remain together and I feel that, while it does have its moments, it never completely convinces me.

As I stated above, both Sienna Miller and Diego Luna deliver great performances. Despite the limitations of the script, they performance earnestly and passionately. That is the main aspect of the movie what kept me compelled to keep watching. The other would have to be the mere curiosity behind the big mystery of it all. And that reveal left me more frustrated and irritated after all was said and done.

That said, I feel that even though this movie has some positive things going for it, and that it isn't all horrible, I feel there just isn't enough good here to justify me giving it a solid recommendation. As much as I like Sienna Miller and Diega Luna in this movie, I feel that their talents can be better appreciated in other better films. To be more fair to Tara Miele, she has a cool visual style and a flair for some dramatic and theatrical set pieces, but her script and story needed some major tweaking.

NOMADLAND

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

While Nomadland is mainly a character study of one woman's attempt to survive and endure past hardships, it is also a reflection of a group of people who have given up the traditional life that once failed them. Writer/director Chloe Zhao has taken Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century and has reimagined it as a powerful and compelling fictionalized piece that rings just as true as its source material. Frances McDormand stars in the lead role and gives a performance like no other in her career. It is a film that is sure to get much attention during the awards season and McDormand's performance is one that deserves the same amount of love and admiration.

McDormand stars as Fern, a sixty-something-year-old widow who has lost not only her husband, but the moderately comfortable life she once had to the Great Recession. Having lost both her home and job, Fern modifies her van and takes to the road in search of work. This trip serves as both an escape from the sadness and woes of her past and as a chance at survival in a new life. In her journey, Fern meets several others who have adopted this "gypsy" lifestyle and learns from their experiences and wisdom. This expedition proves to be a soul-searching experience for Fern, as she fights for own personal survival, by remaining undaunted in her quest for survival.

Chloe Zhao has made a beautifully pensive film with Nomadland. It is a movie that feels just as real and organic as the true story that inspired it. Zhao's elemental approach is reflected beautifully by the cinematography by Joshua James Richards. The whole experience feels perfectly subtle and gives its characters and settings the perfect breathing room to thrive naturally.

Frances McDormand is an actress that has taken on various kinds of roles, but has often had a penchant for strong-willed, forces of nature and also caricaturesque, larger-than-life figures. Fern is actually an atypical role for the actress, as it requires her to exercise some restraint and show a more introverted side. McDormand sublimely performs this different kind of character for her and does so superbly. It is a role that honors and celebrates her maturity and reflects a type of beauty that transcends the physical realm. The film has an assortment of wonderful contributions from other actors, but no one else's work can compare to what McDormand brings to this movie.

This is a film that is certain to be in the top five of many end-of-the-year lists, as it will be in mine. At this time, I am not sure if it will take the top spot, but I can definitely say that it will be a tough act to follow. Chloe Zhao also deserves much praise and admiration for her writing and direction, and I am sure her work here will not go unnoticed as well. Nomadland will be in theaters on December 4, 2020.

BLACK BEAR

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

The black bear is that elephant in the room that is the soul of humanity. It is the ugly, animalistic beast that often destroys, maims, and wreaks havoc when it escapes us. The black bear often emerges from within the hearts and souls of artists as they seek to create. That is the cruel irony of art, or at least that is what writer/director Lawrence Michael Devine expresses in a unique film about the creative process of art and its inevitable power to destroy.

Though the movie as a whole is an enigma of its own, it works as an expressive and sometimes powerful representation of the enigma that is the creative process. I know that sounds overly complex and possibly convoluted, but when separately considering the two vignettes that make up a sometimes confusing movie, it all makes sense in an abstract way. At the center of this film is Aubrey Plaza who portrays two different characters with similar motivations, but through vastly different personalities.

In the first vignette, Plaza portrays Allison, a filmmaker and retired actor seeking quiet and solitude in a cabin in the woods to begin work on her next project. The cabin is run by a married couple named Blair and Gabe. Blair is an expectant mother who believes in more traditional "values" while Gabe is a musician whose work as an artist has been mostly sidelined by the demands and responsibilities of husbandry and an upcoming fatherhood. During her first night at the cabin, Allison gets invited to a night of dinner and drinks with Blair and Gabe that starts off awkwardly, but then eventually gets ugly. As the drinks flow, so do the repressed feelings of both Blair and Gabe.

Just when things come to a head, the audience gets a bit of a reboot and the cabin in the woods becomes the set of a movie where the characters are similar to the characters of the first vignette. The difference is Allison is an actor portraying the "victimized" wife, while Gabe is the director of the film and Blair plays the role of the guest. In this chapter, Blair and Gabe toy and torment with Allison's feelings to get her to deliver a performance of a lifetime. Once again, things devolve into something ugly and disturbing with the "Black Bear" emerging to cause some real damage.

Now, I hope I didn't reveal too much in my synopsis, but given the complicated nature of the overall picture, this was a tough movie to summarize. Anyway, I have to say that this film, as a whole, is definitely a unique experience. As bewildering it is to reflect on the movie in its entirety, reflecting on its two vignettes offered me some clarity as to what Lawrence Michael Devine is trying to express. And with that clarity in mind, I really loved this film. It is a deeply introspective look at what artists experience, feel and often have to do to create their work. It is a pure and raw exploration of the cannibalistic/carnivoristic nature of art.

Devine's screenplay is incredible with some tremendous dialogue and character development. As a director, Devine channels the inspirations of Linklater and Altman (particularly in the second vignette), but definitely has his own defiant voice. Working with cinematographer Robert Leitzell, Devine gives the movie a starkly bleak look in the first part with a frenetic, nearly chaotic feel in the second part. The two parts have different energies and Leitzell knows how to beautifully capture these two different moods.

As this is a character-driven movie, with various types of characters, sometimes portrayed by the same actors, the film demands the performers to really earn their pay. Sarah Gadon impresses as does Christopher Abbott. These two talented actors portrays their different characters superbly and dynamically. The supporting cast which includes Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Jennifer Kim, and Shannon O'Neill never miss a beat, even in the chaotic environment of a film set.

It is Aubrey Plaza, however, who shines the brightest as both the conniving and drama-instigating filmmaker and also as the insecure and slippery slope-gliding actress. I have not seen Aubrey as dynamic and expressive, asshe is in this movie. The two roles she plays demand nuiance, volatility, and vulnerability. Plaza gives the movie what it demands and it is beautiful. This film should be the breakthrough role that allows her more versatility with her career.

My main concern, however, is that this art-house movie probably will fly below the public's radar. In this age of COVID-19, with people not going to the movies, and mostly watching movies at home, I fear this film will not get the attention it deserves. I must highly recommend that people seek this film out, as it represents a unique brand of filmmaking that only comes around so often. This will also give Aubrey Plaza the opportunity to expand the variety of work she clearly deserves. Black Bear opens in some theaters and on digital platforms on December 4, 2020.

The Mystery of the Pink Flamingo

By Liz Lopez

Rating: B+

Valencian filmmaker Javier Polo wrote the screenplay together with Sixto Xavier García about a sound engineer who always wears black and loves to record all different types of sounds in the environment on his time off from work. Coincidently, he begins to feel as if he is surrounded by pink flamingos, catching glimpses on buildings, along the beach or in freshwater, sensing a need to research what is the appeal of the pink bird to so many. This comedy documentary was an official selection in the Global category at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival and among other festivals, it opened the 35th Mostra de València this past October. The film features Rigo Pex, a musician and DJ also known as Meneo, in the lead character who journeys around Spain and then travels to the USA, starting in Miami and then California to interview people of interest and record their theories about the bird and what it means to them and others. Rigo Pex does a great job as he starts off as a very eccentric character and slowly transforms himself as he learns from the people he meets. Rigo’s wardrobe will never be the same.  

Among some of the interesting people ready to talk about the flamingos is the Spaniard actor and director Eduardo Casanova, very handsome and dressed completely in his pink suit and boots. The interview seems to change when Eduardo starts to analyze Rigo and his decision to wear all black, all the time.

When Rigo makes his way interviewing people in Florida, it is not long before we meet the late Allee Willis who passed away in December 2019. It is very evident that the artist and songwriter is having a grand time talking about her life and what she makes of the flamingos and kitsch. Willis is well known for co-writing the Earth, Wind & Fire songs, "September" and "Boogie Wonderland." She also wrote songs for the Pointer Sisters and Patti LaBelle, and more. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

Why stop there when the opportunity to interview cult filmmaker John Waters is an option? Famous for many films, including Pink Flamingos (1972), Waters appears to be more than happy to discuss his youth and career that led to the 1972 film, as well many other tidbits he shares!

The film also features internet sensation Pink Lady and pop band Kero Kero Bonito. I dig all the music in this film too.

It is now available on VOD & all digital platforms this month. For more information, read more on  https://www.facebook.com/mysteryflamingo/

Source: 1091 Pictures

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: STARDUST

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2 (Out of 4 Stars)

The fact that the Bowie estate disavowed this movie and did not allow the use of David Bowie's music was definitely a bad sign from the get-go. Nevertheless, the Austin Film Festival, a movie fest which celebrates and whole-heartedly supports the role of writing in filmmaking, chose this film as the closer. After watching the film, this choice definitely left me bewildered. While the screenplay wasn't particularly horrendous, I still found it rather dull and uninspiring.

And that is a huge shame, given the magnitude, given the impact David Bowie had and still has on music and musical artists. The movie is intended to portray a key time in Bowie's life and career where he is trying to reveal himself to the world, but is personally struggling with who he is and his discomfort with that identity. The intention was obviously a deep, introspective character study with a moment of metamorphosis. At the beginning of the film, the shy, reserved David Jones/Bowie (Johnny Flynn) is in a chrysalis stage of life, only to eventually emerge as the beautiful butterfly we all know and love as David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust.

While that is a great idea for movie, writer/director Gabriel Range and co-writer Christopher Bell take a truly dynamic and talented person and fail to portray him as a completely compelling character. The development of Bowie in the movie follow a lot of the familiar artist biopic tropes and never gives him a voice of his own. That is not to say that the movie is all bad. The story follows Bowie and his publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) as they embark on the artist's first United States tour. The road trip aspect of the story is probably the most endearing and entertaining part of the film. This, at least, kept me moderately entertained.

As David Bowie, Johnny Flynn looks a little like a young version of the artist, and imbues the character with a shy, but sly wit and charm. I certainly saw shades of talent and potential that were unfortunately restrained and, thusly, squandered for this movie. Marc Maron perfectly portrays the frustrated and befuddled publicist Ron Oberman, but seriously belongs in a better Bowie picture. As Angie Bowie, Jena Malone does her best, but it is her character that suffers the most from the writing, as she is portrayed as the cliche wife of a star who is unhappy with her marriage and stuck back home.

And it is the cliches and tropes that do this movie in and do David Bowie a great disservice. David Bowie was an artist that often defied conventions and expectations. He was a unique artist and individual. Stardust, while it has its minimal charms, simply isn't a unique and unconventional biopic. It is mediocre at best, and that is something Bowie was not.

News: Festival Internacional de Guadalajara in Los Angeles Celebrates the 10th Edition Rebranded

By Liz Lopez

The GuadaLAjara Film Festival in Los Angeles, presented by University of Guadalajara Foundation USA, Grodman Foundation, the Festival Internacional de Guadalajara and is formerly known as FICG in LA, announced a 100% virtual 2020 program reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival, celebrating ten years since its premiere in Los Angeles, also revealed its new name – GuadaLAjara Film Festival - as an homage to the two cities in which it was founded. Its mission remains unchanged: to showcase the best of Latin American cinema and continue to serve as bridge for Latino filmmakers between Hollywood and Latin America. The all-digital festival will run December 17-19, 2020.

This year’s festival will focus on Los Angeles - seeking to amplify the diverse voices of Latin films. The festival aims to further engage second and third generations of Latin filmmakers whose stories are fundamental to understanding one of the largest minorities in the United States, thus continuing to preserve the roots and language. Its goal is to profile the experiences of those who have lived on both sides of the border, to share, conserve and entertain the different ethnicities of Los Angeles, reinforcing the festival’s mission to encourage greater inclusivity.

Starting with this year´s 10th edition, the festival will pay tribute to the leaders behind vital organizations that help pave the way to a better future for all Latinos.  Its inaugural honoree will be Monica Ramirez, CEO and Founder of Justice4Women Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports migrant women and promotes better living and working conditions. 100% of this year’s net box office will be donated to the Justice4Women Foundation.

The festival curated films that represent individuals and institutions who work for the betterment of Latinos in the United States through enhanced quality of life, better education and equal justice. This year’s programming will center on stories around our commonalities across cultures:

Opening Night: NO MAN'S LAND from Director Conor Allyn, starring Frank Grillo, Andie MacDowell, George López and Esmeralda Pimentel. Migration is an issue that will always be fundamental when we talk about the relationship between Latin America and the United States. No Man’s Land addresses this problem from a human perspective.

Center Piece: 499, from director Rodrigo Reyes and stars Eduardo San Juan Breña as a 16th-century conquistador who begins an epic journey, documents stories of how the Spanish dehumanized the societies they encountered.

Closing Night:  SUMMERTIME from Director Carlos López Estrada, starring Mila Cuda, Paolina Acuña-Gonzaléz, Tyris Winter, Gordon IP, Marquesha Babers, Austin Antoine and Bryce Banks. A film that tackles the theme of being an “Angeleno,” representing the diversity in a big city in the United States.

“The festival’s new mission is to show the best of Latin American cinema, and open doors for emerging Latinx creators, with the intention of cultivating a borderless film industry” stated Festival’s Director Ximena Urrutia Partida.

The festival will showcase a selection of emerging LatinX talent, Ibero-America and Documentary shorts films. For schedules, details on all events offered and how to attend, visit https://www.ficginla.com

Source: GuadaLAjara Film Festival

UNCLE FRANK

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

From filmmaker Alan Ball (American Beauty, Towelhead, Six Feet Under) comes a moving and heartwarming film that is part coming-of-age and part coming to terms with the past. Ball offers some personal insight on the experience of being gay during the 1970s and what it is like to come from an ultra-conservative/Christian family in the South. Starring Paul Bettany and Sophia Lills, Uncle Frank examines the close relationship between an uncle and his niece, her discovery of her uncle's true identity, and her realization of the personal struggles he has experienced throughout his life.

Bettany stars as the titular Uncle Frank Bledsoe. Teenager Beth Bledsoe has always had a warm and amiable relationship with her uncle, though there is much about his life that she doesn't know. Intelligent, kind, but quite reserved, Uncle Frank has always had air of mystery surrounding him. Though he has never really fit in with the rest of the family, he has always been present for important family gatherings, despite the occasional mocking by her father and Frank's younger brother Mike (Steve Zahn) and the seemingly cold and disdainful treatment he usually receives from patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root).

When Beth turns 18 and is ready for college, she decides to move to New York and attend the institution where her Uncle Frank is a professor. Not long after she begins her studies, she discovers something that most of the family back home doesn't know. Uncle Frank is gay and is living with his lover Wallid (Peter Macdissi). Though surprised at first, Beth accepts her beloved uncle for who he is. The three of them get to bond on a road trip when Daddy Mac dies and both Frank and Beth must return home for the funeral. On the way home, Frank reflects upon some old memories that still torment him to this day.

Written and directed by Ball, Uncle Frank serves as a powerful examination of a character who has experienced fear and hate from people who should have loved him the most. As told mostly through Beth's innocent perspective, the film offers a fresh take on this experience, as Beth realizes that Frank's identity does not at all change the fact that he is a wonderful person. The story also presents a portrait of a man whose suffering has lead to self-loathing and self-destructive behavior.

Once again, Ball has written an extraordinary script with an outstanding development of its characters. As a director, Ball presents the story in a way that is both beautiful, and haunting, but with touches of hope and love. The result is a realistic film about a family coping with all of the unexpected turns and challenges that life has to offer.

I was first impressed with the acting talent of Sophia Lills when I enjoyed her performances as Beverly in It and It: Chapter Two. It came as no surprise that she shines beautifully as Beth in this film. Lills brings much heart and compassion to Beth with a charming awkwardness that feels perfect for the character.

Perhaps in an even more charming capacity, Peter Macdissi utilizes his natural charisma and wit as Frank's lovable partner Wallid. Macdissi's Wallid represents the ideal heart--the loving constant in Frank's life and the unconditional love that all people should share with one another. His character is almost too perfect, but still works within a realistic setting.

As the title character, Paul Bettany gives a beautifully emotional performance. He makes Frank a lovable, eloquent and heartbreaking figure who struggles with the idea of love along with the fear and hatred he has encountered throughout his life--especially from within his own family. I think it is highly possible that Bettany, along with Macdissi and Lills, could all have a chance at some nominations next year.

I also feel that Alan Ball and his wonderful film Uncle Frank could have a good chance at some nominations as well. The movie is a small, unassuming affair, but one that should have a profound impact on anyone who has the pleasure of enjoying it. Uncle Frank will be available for streaming via Amazon Prime on November 25, 2020. Though it isn't lighthearted family fare, it is a family movie that I feel most families (with mature members) should watch.

INSERT COIN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

In the 1980s, video game companies Bally/Midway and Williams competed fiercely for the big money generated by coin operated games. The two companies merged in 1988 when Williams took over Bally/Midway after mother company Bally decided to diversify into other ventures. This blend of brains, talent, and ingenuity would usher in a golden era for the game company as the 80s concluded and the 90s began.

Writer Andrew Hayward and director Joshua Y. Tsui have made a fascinating and wonderfully enjoyable documentary titled Insert Coin. The film shares the back stories and behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the guys who made Midway an economic titan when it came to arcade, coin operated games. The film also serves as a nostalgic trip down memory lane for gamers who grew up playing the games they created. Tsui presents their stories and interviews, along with archival footage with much zeal, enthusiasm, and love.

It certainly helps that most of these video game designers and engineers have vibrant, colorful personalities that keep the film exciting and amusing. This is a documentary that is tailor-made for gamers and people who were gamers during Midway's 90s extravaganza. The film probably won't interest anyone who has never been into playing video games, but it is somewhat possible that it could convert some people in the process.

As for me, I grew up playing video games since the 1980s. I actually started college in the 90s, but did spend some free time playing Midway's games such as Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. It gave me great pleasure to hear the stories about how these games were conceived and created, as told by the guys responsible. Insert Coin will be available for your enjoyment via Alamo On Demand and other Virtual Cinemas on November 25, 2020.

SOUND OF METAL

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Opening in some theaters on November 20, 2020 and available for streaming on Prime Video on December 4, 2020, Sound of Metal presents actor Riz Ahmed as we've never seen him before. But enough with the cliches, this powerful and emotional film features one of the top performances by a male actor this year. Ahmed takes the lead as heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone, a passionate musician whose life and career gets shockingly upended by hearing loss. It is a movie that delivers a well written character study, but also presents a positive and empowering story about people who live and thrive without hearing.

The movie begins with Ruben and his girlfriend/bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke) traveling in a bus from town to town performing concerts. The two make up the metal duo Blackgammon, with Lou growling lead vocals and playing guitar while Ruben backs her up on the drums. After one particular show, Ruben starts hearing a high pitched ringing in his ears that quickly devolves to actual hearing loss. Panicked and desperate to regain his hearing, Ruben seeks medical attention.

Sadly, however, the doctor informs him that he will eventually lose all ability to hear. As both Ruben and Lou struggle to cope with this new development, this shocking turn of events puts a strain on their relationship, along with Ruben's state of mind. A recovering addict, Ruben checks into a deaf community that helps hearing impaired people live their lives productively, but with a special section for people coping with addiction. Though Ruben learns how to cope with his condition, the fact that he denies its permanence affects his ability to face reality.

Written and directed by Darius Marder, who co-wrote with Derek Cianfrance, Sound of Metal delves into the real problems of loss and addiction without ever getting too involved in the specific details. We, the audience, come to realize that Ruben has his emotional and psychological problems, but never get to know the hows or whys. I don't necessarily consider that a flaw, or a strength, for that matter. However, Marder and Cianfrance remain focused on the situation at hand and how the main character attempts to face it head-on.

Without ever getting to know everything about Ruben, the audience learns plenty through his emotions and actions. The combination of the writing, direction and the performance by Riz Ahmed shapes Ruben into an empathetic character that we the audience wants to win. However, not only does Ruben learn something through his journey, but the audience also stands to gain from what he learns. Anyone who is hearing impaired, has a family member or lives with someone who is deaf, already is familiar with this type of life experience and can certainly appreciate the messages this movie delivers.

Riz Ahmed gives an awards worthy turn as a man who feels rage, desperation, pain, fear, and heartbreak. As Lou, Olivia Cooke has some limited screen time, but definitely makes an impact with the time she has. As Joe, the head of the deaf addict community, Paul Raci offers a lovely supporting turn as a recovering addict, former veteran, and man who has lost his hearing, but has the strength to live life as best as he can, accepting his inability to hear.

Though I overall loved this film, I found myself a little disappointed with movie's last act which sputters along to get to the climax. Still, I was greatly impressed with both Marder's direction and with the amazing acting by Riz Ahmed. Sound of Metal is a remarkable film that I must highly recommend whether one decides to see it theatrically or at home.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

When one sees the Oscilloscope Pictures label before a movie, they should know that they're in for a delightfully unsual treat. I cannot help, but sport a big grin whenever I see it and that's how I felt at the beginning of this odd, but hilarious comedic satire. Though my familiarity with Canadian history is limited, I still found much to enjoy and appreciate in the The Twentieth Century, a movie that gives a highly fictionalized version of William Lyon Mackenzie King's story. Touted as a cross between Monty Python and Guy Maddin, the movie serves as a spoofy satire of political aspirations and the trappings that politicians often fall into while pursuing and serving their vocation.

Dan Beirne stars as William Lyon Mackenzie King, a wide-eyed and earnest Canadian seeking the coveted office of Prime Minister of Canada. Not only is this seemingly lofty goal a dream of William's it apparently is the literal dream and prediction of William's ill mother (Louis Negin). Though William is sincere in his aspirations, he is afflicted with an odd and distasteful addiction of his own. As King's hard work fails to get him to his desired goal, his jealousy and disappointment lead him down a path that is not so righteous.

Written and directed by Matthew Rankin, The Twentieth Century is an often uproarious, but also bizarre experience with a surreal and cartoonish approach. Rankin and his crew utilize artificial looking sets and color the movie in such a way that gives the audience the experience of watching a very old movie. It is an approach that works well as a unique aesthetic. Though the messages of the story are a bit on the nose, the comedy makes the experience totally worthwhile.

The humor certainly embraces the absurd and bizarre. One doesn't necessarily have to be from Canada or very knowledgeable about Canada to appreciate all of the jokes and gags, but I do know that a few jokes did go over my head. Enough of the comedy works well enough to keep audiences of various backgrounds entertained. And much like Monty Python's antics, some of the gags go a little over-the-top.

Dan Beirne does a great job as the lead character, portraying King rather straight and earnestly with just the right shades of zaniness when necessary. As Lord Muto, the Governor General of Canada, Sean Cullen gives a riotously funny hammy turn. I also enjoyed Louis Negin who gives a gender-bending performance as William's mother. In addition Kee Chan chews a little scenery as the wicked Dr. Milton Wakefield.

The Twenthieth Century is one of those movies that may not find universal appeal. However, people who have a taste for the bizarre, absurd and surreal are sure to relish what this comedy has to offer. The movie opens in theaters on November 30, 2020. Fans of Oscilloscope Pictures will dig it the most.

ZAPPA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Four years ago, I was, for the first time, introduced to artisty and idiosyncratic behavior of one Frank Zappa. This introduction was not in real life, of course, but through a documentary titled Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words. Though this solid documentary gave me a sort of crash course to Zappa the artist and Zappa "the freak," I feel that the film barely scratched the surface on who the man was.

Director Alex Winter has a new documentary, simply titled Zappa. Though he kept the title brief, his film gives audiences and Zappa fans a more comprehensive and personal look at Zappa's life, philosophy, and his passions. It is a great documentary that offers much insight on not just the artist and "madman," but also the husband and father.

Winter definitely benefits from the Zappa family's blessings and support. The filmmaker had access to lots of archival footage and was able to interview some of the surviving friends and family who knew him best. It is a film that honors and celebrates Frank Zappa's underappreciated contributions to music and pop culture. It also acknowledges the artist as an intelligent and thoughtful activist who fought back when the U.S. government threatened the music industry with censorship.

One doesn't have to be a fan of Frank Zappa to appreciate this film. As for myself, I didn't used to be a fan of his music, but have grown to appreciate it more, having watched two documentaries about him. Without a doubt, Frank Zappa lived a fascinating life, rich with experience, and created music that continues to marvel people to this day. Alex Winter has made a wonderful and enjoyable documentary that Zappa and his fans truly deserve.

THE CLIMB

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on the short film of the same name by writer/director Michael Angelo Covino and co-writer Kyle Marvin, The Climb is an often uproarious, but also poignant portrait of two best friends during several stages of their adult lives. Loosely based on their real friendship, Covino and Marvin also star in the film, portraying fictionalized versions of themselves. Though this might sound a bit self-involved, the filmmaker partners have nevertheless created comedy gold with a large warm heart. It is a movie that celebrates the close brotherhood male best friends often share--through good times and bad.

The film opens on Mike and Kyle biking up a hill. At this stage in their lives, Kyle is preparing to marry his fiancee Ava. That is, until Mike reveals that he and Ava have been having an affair. Devastated by the shocking news, Kyle calls off the wedding and decides to end his friendship with Mike. Flash forward a few years later, Kyle and Mike bond again after Ava tragically dies after having married Mike. The movie follows the lives of the two friends as they often get themselves into trouble or embarrassing situations. However, through thick and thin, these two buds have each others' backs no matter what the trouble is.

I was both impressed and entertained with this movie. Both Covino and Marvin have chops when it comes to comedy buoyed with poignancy and Covino proves himself as a solid director. Both of these talented filmmaker also shine brightly as actors, have a wonderful chemistry together, and simply have excellent comic timing. The movie also features great performances by Gayle Rankin, Judith Godreche, Talia Balsam, George Wendt and Daniella Covino.

The Climb serves as a fine example of no frills, independent filmmaking . I feel that this movie deserves to find masses of fans and admirers, but may take some time to pick up some momentum. To my readers, I hope that you have the opportunity to watch this movie, as it is highly entertaining with just the right amount of earnestness.

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: THE BADGER

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

From Iran comes a stressful and gripping drama that can has great writing, even greater direction and superb performances by the talented actors in the cast. Writer/director Kazem Mollaie uses a tension-filled abduction story to a make a commentary on the world today. This is actually the only foreign-language movie that I was able to watch from this year's lineup, but I am definitely grateful that I selected it. It is one of the top films that I watched from AFF 2020.

In Tehran, Iran, forty-something, single mother Soodeh (Vishka Asayesh) already has her hands full working full-time and raising her only son Matiar when a highly stressful and trying situation arises. Matiar gets abducted by mysterious assailants who demand a hefty ransom for his life. Already strapped for money and continuously struggling to make ends meet, Vishka must seek help from mulitiple friends, family and estranged people in her life to guarantee her son's return. As her life seems to be falling apart, her beloved home also slowly crumbles, as it has a serious termite infestation.

I cannot say that The Badger is the most stressful film I have ever seen, but it is certainly quite tense. Through Soodeh, fillmmaker Kazem Mollaie honors and celebrates the strength, passion, and determination that women must have in order to protect what is dearest to them. Though she must struggle, soul search, swallow her pride and humble herself to seek help, it is that strength and will that helps her endure. Mollaie's approach to the direction is tastefully simplistic and elemental. He, cinematographer Majid Gorjian, and editor Babak Ghaem work wonders in capturing multiple facets of various settings while maintainin the buzz of activity and the tension of the scenarios.

In keeping with the mostly steady pace of the film, the cast members give tremendous performances and never miss a step. The absolute breakout star of the film is Vishka Asayesh whose tremendous portrayal of Soodeh is the real heart and soul of the film. It is a turn that displays a wide range of emotions that such a situation (in real life) would certainly elicit. Soodeh never comes across as overly likable, but is never truly hateful. It is a character realization that plays genuinely and is multi-dimensional.

Going into this movie, I was expecting another run-of-the-mill, by the numbers kidnapping story. The Badger is so much more than that. Though it has some familiarities, it never overplays or oversells the drama. Everything falls into place so naturally and realistically. And the movie definitely has one of those unforgettable endings that stays with you long after the film has concluded.

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: PAPER TIGER

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

We live in a sad and scary time when school shootings occur almost regularly. It seems like just when we are in the process of healing and recovering, another violent tragedy takes place. It is indicative of our inability to unite and help fight the causes of these dark and disturbing disasters that destroy lives. Writer/director Paul Kowalski takes on this complex and difficult subject with an outstanding film that offers an intimate look into these problems, and an insightful perspective that feels all too real.

Paper Tiger focuses on the lives of a single Chinese-American mother named Lily (Lydia Look) and her beleaguered son Edward (Alan Trong) who both face some tremendous challenges in the modern world. Both mother and son are still recovering from the untimely death of husband and father Michael (Mark D. Espinoza). Though Lily is crushed by the loss of her husband, it is Edward who has suffered the most after his father's death. Already troubled by an undiagnosed mental illness, Edward attempts to cope with life's struggles through the perception of strength that he believes he is discovering through his delusions and hallucinations. As his afflictions surface to the point that seriously concerns Lily, she attempts to help him, but in ways that won't bring shame to her or the family. This attempt to salvage her family pride proves problematic, as Edward's condition worsens to where Lily believes that he has the potential of becoming the next high school shooter to make the national news.

With Paper Tiger, Paul Kowalski has made a formidably powerful and emotional film that speaks volumes about a regular problem that could continue to disturb our world. Loosely based on a true story, the film feels genuine and realistic thanks to the tremendous writing and direction by Kowalski. The story and character development here is phenomenal. Kowalski never over plays any elements of the story to where his messages come across as heavy-handed. He develops his lead characters in ways that are highly relatable and empathetic. Even the Edward character is made relatable to where people who do not suffer from mental afflictions can understand how he feels. Though Edward is never truly portrayed as a monster, he is never elevated to the problematic role of hero.

As Edward, actor Alan Trong gives an excellent performance that is of much recognition and perhaps, accolades. It is a fully realized and fleshed character that, sadly, has a place in our real world. Lydia Look also gives a sublime and heartbreaking turn as Lily, a woman who is not only a victim of circumstances beyond her control, but is also a victim of her own selfish pride. Though not an abhorrent character, one can certainly feel frustrated and sometimes devastated by her decisions and actions. Lily is most definitely a sympathetic character, but one that ultimately comes to some disturbing conclusions.

This film is the second and last film that I watched at AFF this year to receive my highest rating of four stars. It is an excellent movie with important messages that I hope will reach mass audiences in the near future. I feel that the problem of school shootings will remain an afterthought until the next one occurs. I know that with COVID-19 our nation already has a lot on our plate, but everytime we sideline the issues of mental illness and gun violence in our schools, we are simply waiting for the next tragedy to happen. This film serves as a tragic reminder that this problem will not just go away. We must make efforts to remedy it.

Film News: Austin Film Festival Award Winners from the 2020 Entries

By Liz Lopez

The 2020 Film Competition Jury & Audience Award winners, alongside the Script Competition winners, were recently announced by the Austin Film Festival. Audience members cast their votes for the Audience Award after each screening as their Festival favorites among the slate offered this year.

The following Audience Award winners were selected by category:

Marquee Feature: Dave Not Coming Back, written and directed by Jonah Malak

Narrative Feature: Paper Tiger, written and directed by Paul Kowalski

Documentary Feature: The Book Keepers, written and directed by Phil Wall

Dark Matters Feature: Blinders, written by Tyler D. Savage and Dash Hawkins, directed by Tyler D. Savage [My film review is available in Spanish on this site under the tab “Events” and Mark’s review is available online as well.]

Comedy Vanguard Feature: Reboot Camp, written and directed by Ivo Raza

Texas Independent Feature: Horton Foote: The Road to Home, directed by Anne Rapp [My review is available in both English and Spanish on this site.]

Narrative Short: The Yellow Dress, written and directed by Alex Ko

Documentary Short: Little Rink, written and directed by Lisa Melmed

Animated Short: To: Gerard, written and directed by Taylor Meacham

Narrative Student Short: Molly Robber, written and directed by Austin Hall and Zach Visviks

Produced Digital Series Presented by Stage 13: Break In, created by Justin Gallaher and Samuel Roseme

In addition to the Audience Award-winning films, the following Film Jury Award winners were selected by category:

Narrative Feature: The Badger, written and directed by Kazem Mollaie

Documentary Feature: The Book Keepers, written and directed by Phil Wall

Comedy Vanguard Feature: Standard, written and directed by Fernando González Gómez [I viewed this film from Spain toward the end of the festival and the reviews will be posted for this very entertaining film. This filmmaker provided a very interesting and informative Q&A, stating he has an extensive list of shorts he has created and collaborated with many of his friends. This film is to be released in Spain in early December according to IMDb and hopefully it will have distribution in the United States too.]

Dark Matters Feature: The Blue Orchid, written by Carl Marott and Hans Frederik Jacobsen, directed by Carl Marott

Narrative Short: The Recordist, written by Indianna Bell, directed by Indianna Bell and Josiah Allen

Narrative Student Short: Home, written and directed by Adewale Olukayode

Documentary Short: Blood on our Side, written by Rodrigo Hernandez, Elpida Nikou and Gino Moreno, directed by Rodrigo Hernandez and Elpida Nikou

Animated Short: To The Dusty Sea, written and directed by Héloïse Ferlay

Produced Digital Series Presented by Stage 13: #martyisdead, created by Pavel Soukup

Enderby Entertainment Fellowship Award: 1,2,3, All Eyes On Me, written by Emil Gallardo and Derek Ho, directed by Emil Gallardo [I viewed this film and it is so moving as this one teacher and her class are  featured as they prepare to escape from the gunmen who appear on their elementary school campus.

The 2020 Script Competition Winners were chosen from a record field of 13,175 scripts entered in the Screenplay, Digital Series, Playwriting, and Fiction Podcast Competitions. Finalists were reviewed by an industry panel of judges including Raamla Mohamed (writer Scandal, Little Fires Everywhere), Richard LaGravenese (writer The Fisher King, Freedom Writers, Water For Elephants), Trey Ellis (executive producer True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality; writer The Tuskegee Airmen, The Inkwell) James V. Hart (writer Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Eric Heisserer (writer Arrival, Birds Box), Ashley Miller (writer Thor, X-Men: First Class), Alvaro Rodriquez (co-creator/executive producer Seis Manos; writer/co-producer Last Rampage), Mark Protosevich (writer The Cell, I Am Legend, Oldboy), Chase Palmer (writer It; writer/director Naked Singularity), Oren Uziel (writer 22 Jump Street, The Cloverfield Paradox), and Brian Yorkey (showrunner 13 Reasons Why, playwright Next to Normal) among others).

For more complete information on each film, you can visit the Austin Film Festival website for details and read our reviews posted to date here on Trueviewreviews.com.

Source: The Austin Film Festival

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: THE GET TOGETHER

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

A sort of spiritual relative to Can't Hardly Wait, The Get Together focuses on a group of twenty-somethings at a house party facing scary and uncertain futures as they attempt to fully embrace their lives as true adults. Shot in and around the Austin, Texas area, the movie does tread upon familiar thematic territory. To its benefit, though, the film displays the great sense of humor of its filmmakers and features an ensemble cast that shines brightly. As I write this review, I seriously consider the possibility that I may be a tad too generous with my rating, but the fact that I had such a great time watching it, makes me quash any of these second guesses.

As I stated above, the main setting of the movie is a house party attended by various characters, each with their own individual struggles in life. August (Courtney Parchman) hadn't originally planned to attend the party, but because she is a ride share driver, her last passenger's innocent mistake thrusts her in the middle of the craziness. Just after she dropped him off at the party, she realizes he has left his phone behind. As she searches through the wildness of the festivities, she discovers her roommate Gina (Elizabeth Trieu) had ditched her and their original plans, in order to attend this get together.

Meanwhile, her fare, Caleb (Alejandro Rose-Garcia), discovers that his ex-girlfriend Betsy (Johanna Brady) has decided to attend. Still harboring feelings for her, Caleb hopes to talk to Betsy in private, so he can win her love again. As for Betsy's current boyfriend Damien (Jacob Artist), this party has become an unexpected stop, as he has bigger plans for his date with his love. The night becomes a hilarious comedy of error for each of the stories protagonists as they hope to steer things in the right directions for themselves.

Written and directed by Will Bakke and co-written by Michael B. Allen, The Get Together has a wonderful mix of hilarious comedy and character development that help elevate this movie above others that follow this familiar formula. Though the story does wrap up a little too neatly, it is certainly hard to dismiss the solid foundation laid by the writing and the great follow through, made possible by the direction and acting.

The cast definitely sold me on this latest growth journey in a party setting. Courtney Parchman is a joy to watch and is quite relatable as a character struggling to adjust to change, but does so in both some hilarious and appropriately awkward ways. As Caleb, Alejandro Rose-Garcia (the musical artist better known as Shakey Graves) brings a natural charisma and drive to a character struggling to reconcile with problems of the past. As Damien, the unwitting victim of a night gone absolutely wrong, Jacob Artist gives an appropriately flustered performance that exudes determination and strength despite the challenges that he faces.

And I would have to say that challenges is the main theme of this highly enjoyable comedy. Each of the main characters faces their own challenge on a night that serves as their own personal turning point in their respective lives. Even though this idea isn't original, the filmmakers of The Get Together put their own creative spins on this story idea. Perhaps this is absolutely perfect, as this world sometimes presents similar challenges to its inhabitants. It is up to us to individually put our own spin on our futures in ways that serve the world in the best possible ways. It is a hopeful and optimistic idea, but nevertheless realistic.

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: NINE DAYS

By Mark Saldana

Rating 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

My festival officially began with this "Marquee" opener. I have seen several movies that envision or imagine the "afterlife.' Never before had I ever seen a film that presents the "before-life." Written and directed by Edson Oda, Nine Days gives its audience an visionary and highly inventive take on what comes before our lives on Earth. It offers the premise that the right to life on our planet must be earned and is determined by authorities who put prospective souls through a series of tests. Perhaps my description of the basic premise doesn't quite do the film justice, but please, trust me when I say that Nine Days is a deeply remarkable and beautiful movie that celebrates and reflects upon the joys, the sorrows, the wonderful surprises, and the utterly disturbing shocks that people face as they experience what the world has to offer.

Winston Duke stars as Will, a seemingly cold and not-so-personable being who spends his time selecting what he believes are the proper souls to bring to life on our planet. Will isn't God, or any kind of deity, but deems himself "a cog in the machine." He selects souls a handful at a time, and puts them through a series of interviews, trials and tests, from which only one will qualify to be born as a human on Earth. When Will isn't observing and testing subjects, he obsessively watches over the ones he has selected. This is how he learns from his mistakes and judgement errors, and he uses these results to toughen his criteria. The problem is, that no matter how much a perfectionist he is, the world is full of surprises (both wonderful and terrible), and there will never be a perfect candidate, no matter how hard he tries.

This deeply philosophical film absolutely captivated me and moved me in so many ways. Through mostly outstanding writing and skillful direction, Edson Oda takes a basic premise, simple no-frills approach to the presentation, but speaks volumes nevertheless. Though the premise is a bit odd, I love how Oda uses it to examine the frailty of life and the often haphazard and chaotic ways the world impacts our lives. The film asks the usual questions, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" or "When are people too nice to survive in this dog-eat-dog world?"

Oda argues that there is no perfect way to approach life. We can only do the best we can with what we have and what we can accomplish. There are no real guarantees other than the fact it will end for us individually some day. However, the film isn't as nihilistic or bleak as that last statement is. It simply reiterates the timeless belief that people must live the best lives that they can on their own terms and hope they can find happiness that way.

In addition to the exceptional writing and direction, every single member of the cast delivers a great performance. Besides Duke, who I will get to shortly, the film stars a wonderful assortment of talent. Benedict Wong gives a very personable and amiable turn as Kyo, another being who assists Will with his work, but has a much more positive outlook than Will. As the candidates up for selection by Will, Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz, Perry Smith, and Zazie Beetz are all wonderful in what they bring to their roles. Zazie appropriately stands out, as her character is beautiful and remarkable, and share a connection with Will.

And as Will, the main one in charge, Winston Duke gives a tremendous, award-worthy turn. Duke shows incredible depth and a beautiful range as a being tormented by his work, but nevertheless determined and driven to make the right choices. I have never before seen Duke take on such a powerful and emotionally charged role as this one. That is not to say that he hasn't been great in anything else I have seen him, but this particular character shows a beautiful side that he hasn't expressed in any other work.

So, as far as official festival openers go, I must say that the AFF programmers chose a winner. Though it isn't the best film I watched at the festival, it is definitely in the top five. This movie is Edson Oda's feature debut, and is an amazing way to make a big splash as a director. I do sincerely hope that this sleeper type of film gets the attention it deserves, because Oda deserves the opportunity to build a highly successful career from this solid foundation.

Film News: Austin Jewish Film Fest Returns for the 18th year November 7 – 13

By Liz Lopez

The Austin Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) celebrates their 18th year by presenting a large number of Jewish films from the U.S. and around the world - four times more programming. For this year, AJFF has produced a festival consistent with the needs during the pandemic, including secure, socially-distanced drive-in events for opening and closing nights at the Dell Jewish Community Center and a Virtual Film Festival for the rest of the week. The Virtual Festival will also offer the “Besti of the Fest Past” – movies from the past festivals, as well as filmmaker Q&As that can be viewed live or later through Vimeo.

There are approximately 70 titles from various genres, including dramas, documentaries, as well as niche films. Below is a small sample of this year’s lineup from the full slate of features and shorts, and the full slate is available on the website https://austinjff.org/ as well as information on how to view the films and the filmmaker Q&As with a Virtual Pass. You can also follow the festival on their social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

"The Crossing,” Opening Night Drive-In Event
Texas Premiere Director: Johanne Helgeland Film Followed by Live Filmmaker Q&A
The Crossing tells the story of the adventurous 10-year-old Gerda and her brother Otto, whose parents are in the Norwegian resistance movement during the Second World War. One day, just before Christmas in 1942, Gerda and Otto’s parents are arrested, leaving the siblings on their own. Following the arrest, they discover two Jewish children, Sarah and Daniel, hidden in a secret cupboard in their basement. It is now up to Gerda and Otto to finish what their parents started: to help Sarah and Daniel flee from the Nazis, cross the border to neutral Sweden, and reunite them with their parents. The Crossing is a film about the confidence, uncompromising loyalty, and great courage you can find in even the youngest of children. Winner of the 2020 Amanda (Norway’s equivalent of the Oscars for "Best Children's Film.")

Happy Times
North American Premiere Director: Michael Mayer Q&A with Director and Cast Members
Hebrew (with subtitles) A boorish Israeli-American couple plan a Sabbath dinner party for a group of fellow ex-pat friends and family in their Hollywood Hills mansion. What could possibly go wrong? Well, start with a deadly mix of alcohol, add inflated egos, some inappropriate lust, and top with raging jealousy, and the result is a cauldron of murderous mayhem. A shotgun, garden shears, kitchen knives, and even a garbage disposal are used as weapons of choice as these deranged guests turn on each other in director Michael Mayer’s outrageous and bloody comedy. Actors include Austin’s own Alon Pdut.

The Prague Orgy
US Premiere Director: Irena Pavlásková
Based on the Philip Roth novel. A famous American writer accepts a quest from a Czech emigrant to bring him back unique Yiddish manuscripts from communist Czechoslovakia. The writer accepts not only a dangerous journey to Prague, where he is watched at every step by communist secret police, but he also needs to face the emigrant’s flamboyant and wild wife. She is in possession of the manuscripts and very angry at her husband, as he left with his mistress for the US. She will not surrender the manuscripts easily.

The Dead of Jaffa
Texas Premiere
Director: Ram Loevy
Three children from the West Bank are smuggled into Israel, arriving at the doorstep of George and Rita’s house in Jaffa. Their mother is dead, and their father has been sentenced to life imprisonment. As Israeli Palestinians, George is afraid that hiding illegal aliens will endanger Rita and himself, while Rita believes the arrival of these children could give meaning to her life. Nearby, a foreign film is being shot. Jerry, an English director, is making a movie about his parents’ love affair in 1947, when they served in the British army in Palestine. George is invited to play a part in the film. When the two stories intertwine, tensions erupt.

Broken Mirrors
Texas Premiere Director: Aviad Givon, Imri Matalon
“Yet another standout performance by Shira Haas (Shtisel, Unorthodox), cementing her place as one of the best young Jewish actors today. This tale of a dysfunctional family is an intense, gripping drama.” Shadowed by a strict, military father who inflicts severe methods of punishment as a form of discipline, seventeen year old Ariella commits a grave error that her father isn’t willing to punish her for. Seeking a punishment of her own, Ariella embarks on a dark quest where she will discover a secret to her father’s past that will lead them to confront one another.

Thou Shalt Not Hate
Texas Premiere Director: Mauro Mancini
Simone Segre, a renowned surgeon of Jewish origins, lives in the city of Trieste in the north-east of Italy. He has a quiet life, an elegant apartment, and no connection with his past. One day he finds himself assisting a male victim of a hit and run accident. But when he discovers a Nazi tattoo on his chest, Simone abandons him to his destiny. Filled with guilt, he ends up tracing the man’s family: Marica, the eldest daughter; Marcello, a teenager plagued with racial hate; and little Paolo. The night will come when Marica knocks at Simone’s door and unknowingly asks for payback.

Winter Journey
Texas Premiere Director: Anders Østergaard, Erzsébet Rácz
Martin Goldsmith never knew what happened to his parents before they escaped from Germany in 1941. Over a weekend, he confronts his father, and we are brought back to the complex and confusing 1930s. His parents, talented musicians, are only able to perform as members of the Jewish Cultural Federation, a bizarre propaganda organization fully controlled by the Reich Chamber of Culture. Featuring Bruno Ganz as Goldsmith’s father in one of his last performances, this film to all intents and purposes seems like a documentary but is in fact a masterful recreation of Goldsmith’s book “Winter Journey.”

Aulcie, Closing Night Drive-In Event
Texas Premiere Director: Dani Menkin Film Followed by Live Filmmaker Q&A
The inspiring story of Aulcie Perry, an Israeli basketball legend recruited in Harlem in 1976, who went on to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv to an upset win in the European Championship. His rise to fame was precipitous, and his relationship with supermodel Tami Ben Ami became the subject of relentless media attention, solidifying his status as one of Israel’s biggest stars. Aulcie Perry converted to Judaism, adopted the Hebrew name Elisha Ben Avraham, and became an Israeli citizen. But behind the scenes, he had a growing drug addiction that culminated in his arrest and imprisonment. Since his release he has committed himself to uplifting those suffering from drug abuse and addiction. He remains a beloved Israeli sports figure. Menkin’s documentary tells the story of this legendary athlete and his amazing journey of redemption.

Bukra fil Mish-Mish
US Premiere Director: Tal Michael Film Followed by Live Filmmaker Q&A
Shortly after the death of his uncles, Didier Frenkel descends into the basement of their shared home and finds a treasure: an ancient archive of animated films from Egypt starring Mish-Mish Effendi, the Arab equivalent of Mickey Mouse, and others. His Jewish father and uncles created these characters but never got the attention they richly deserved. Didier begins restoring the films and unveils the story of the rise and fall of these pioneers of Arab animation. Surprisingly, Didier’s mother strongly opposes this project.

The Day of Wrath
Texas Premiere Director: Jacek Raginis-Królikiewicz
In the autumn of 1943, a young Jew named Emanuel Blatt, a refugee from a nearby ghetto, appears at a Polish monastery asking for help. Nazis are punishing Poles with death for hiding Jews. An SS squadron-leader in charge of a death squad comes to the monastery. The Day of Wrath is a full-of-tension blend of war thriller and morality play. Written by Polish writer of Jewish origin, Roman Brandstatter, the Holocaust and hope for survival are the main themes of this movie.

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: HORTON FOOTE: THE ROAD TO HOME

By Liz Lopez

Rating: A+

Anne Rapp (“Tender Mercies” script supervisor, among others) directed and produced the documentary, “Horton Foote: The Road To Home,” and the world premiere was at this year’s Austin Film Festival. For anyone who is not familiar with Horton Foote, he is a Wharton, Texas born playwright and screenwriter, who also started out as an actor early on in his career. Foote received an Academy Award for the Best Adapted Screenplay of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1963) and his script for “Tender Mercies” received the award for Best Original Screenplay (1984). He is also a Pulitzer Prize winner for drama for the Broadway play, “The Young Man from Atlanta.” He is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2000.

I recommend viewing this film that took years in the making. Rapp captured hours of footage when she and Foote drove around his hometown during the latter years of his life, before he passed away in 2009 in his 90s. He provides story after story about his family (and others) in his community, including the first story he created for his mother as a child. Among the interviewees in the film, is Robert Duvall who worked in Foote’s films, as well as playwright Edward Albee, a contemporary of Foote, Matthew Broderick, Richard Linklater, Bruce Beresford, Betty Buckley, and Elizabeth Ashley, as well as family and community members. One of my favorite parts of the film is the use of various actors giving voice to nine of Foote’s work in short monologues. It is through them that we learn so much more of Foote and his work, his community and experiences there that led to his award - winning career.

Among the diverse monologue performers are two Austin based actors, Yesenia Garcia (originally from McAllen, Texas), who performs as Alma Jean from “The Midnight Caller” and Rupert Reyes who performs as Will from the Pulitzer Prize winning play, “The Young Man from Atlanta.” Each of the actors were perfect for the roles they performed, but it is Reyes who brought so much depth and emotion to the character he portrayed. It definitely had me on the verge of tears as the camera focused closely on the actor. The cinematography by Mark Birnbaum and Bill Schwarz is excellent as they work the shots in both color and black and white, as they did for the monologues.

Serving as producer on the film alongside Rapp is the award - winning Austin-based filmmaker Miguel Alvarez (La Perdida, Tadpoles). He is Executive Producer for AFF's award-winning television show, On Story. Miguel holds both a BS in Mechanical Engineering and MFA in Film Production from the University of Texas at Austin where he continues to lecture today.  

The film is available for viewing during the festival and we will announce news of the next available screenings of the film as soon as it is received. 

Source: Anne Rapp, Austin Film Festival, Este Bandido

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: MURDER BURY WIN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Even though the programmers placed this film in the Comedy Vanguard category, this bloody and gory comic film could also fit in with the Dark Matters label, as the humor goes very dark, embracing gags of the gallows variety. That can be a very difficult line to walk, and unfortunately the filmmakers behind this movie obviously struggled with it. With awkward, clunky pacing, jokes that don't always pay off, and an ending that has no sense of humor at all, Murder Bury Win is an utter disapoppointment. Judging from my rating, one can tell that not everything goes completely wrong, but in the end, the story's inventive premise never truly pays off.

The film focusses on a group of creative friends who have come up with some rough ideas for a fun and exciting board game. Chris (Mikelen Walker), Adam (Erich Lane), and Barrett (Henry Alexander Kelly) have created a board game where players must choose their weapon, kill their intended target, and figure out the best way of disposing of the remains. After a crowd-funding campaign totally fails, the three buddies begin to think that their game idea will never see the light of day. That is, until Chris receives a call from a mysterious interested party (Craig Cackowski) When the guys meet with said interested person, they soon realize that he plans to buy their idea from them cheaply, only to claim total credit for its invention. This realization leads to an awkward confrontation resulting in the opportunist's accidental death. Desperate to protect themselves, Chris, Adam, and Barrett turn to their game to "solve" their current predicament.

I honestly feel that they are the ones to blame, because the cast members give solid performances and have comedic chops, but the material on paper and the direction just isn't there for them. The filmmakers had some great and wickedly humorous ideas, but the writing and direction do not use these ideas to their fullest potential. Granted, I did say above that walking the line between the realities of violence and copmedy can be difficult, but I feel that Lovan and Hart forgot that they were making a comedy film.

Murder Bury Win is definitely not one of the worst films I have seen, but it is a movie that never soars like it should have. I often find this experience more disappointing, as opposed to watching a film I already know is destined for failure.

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: BLINDERS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

I began my vitual film festival a day early with a screener for this entry in the "Dark Matters" category. For the uninitiated, this particular category features films that fall under the horror and dark thriller genres. Blinders certainly fits this bill. This movie puts a modern spin on the stalker flick, follows a seemingly familiar path, but then goes for the throat with some fierce surprises. Just when I thought I had been down this metaphorical road previously, writer/director Tyler Savage and his co-writer Dash Hawkins pull the rug out from beneath my expectations. The result is tension-filled ride full of dread, shocks and some well-played awe.

Vincent Van Horn stars as Andy, a young man running away from a messy breakup with his girlfriend and hoping to start a new life in a new city and state. Though Andy has no friends or family where he has moved, he is hoping to find peace and happiness there. On the plus side, he meets a sweet, attractive and delightfully charming young lady named Sam (Christine Ko). Sam helps get Andy out of his funk and back on the dating scene. However, just when things are starting to feel great again, a fateful run-in with a psychotic ride share driver (Michael Lee Joplin) begins to derail his path to happiness.

I genuinely enjoyed this dark, twisted, and mind-blowing thriller. The work of Dash Hawkins and Tyler Savage has the powerful effect of smoke, mirrors, and misdirection that helps them go for the real shocks and surprises. Even the familiar elements that are common in this type of movie still have their riveting and engaging moments. The three main players in the film certainly benefit from some great character development and solid performances by the actors portraying them.

Vincent Van Horn does a great job with the Andy character, as he plays a very likable and sympathetic victim that should have the audiences full support. It is difficult not to feel bad for the poor guy who has the chance to be happier and satisfyed, but has fallen prey to a psycho who simply torments him for his own amusement. Christine Ko is quite lovable as Andy's new girlfriend Sam. Though it initially seems like a throwaway role, Ko gets to show some incredible range as she begins to play a more prominent role in film's story. As Roger, the insane stalker driver, Michael Lee Joplin seethes unhinged anger and is absolutely unnerving as he displays joy and excitement at his dirty deeds.

Blinders is defintely a solid thriller that is guaranteed to entertain audiences and have them talking about it after. For those still watching films from the Austin Film Festival, I highly recommend this wicked slice of stalker horror. For anyone else, I would keep on an eye out for it, as it is a great flick worth watching with other horror fans.

Austin Film Festival 2020 Review: FUGITIVE DREAMS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

It has been a while since I have seen an indie art film that has blown me away like this one. I continued my virtual festival with a screener for Fugitive Dreams, a film that comes across as the love child of Andrei Tarkovsky and Jim Jarmusch. Shot in black and white, with a few scenes in vibrant impressionistic technicolor, this movie absolutely captivated me with its expressive artistry in the presentation and with the tremendous performances by the talented cast. This is the kind of film born and bred in film school by filmmakers obviously inspired by the legendary auteurs of the past. It is a beautiful and moving experience that has turned out to be my favorite film of the festival so far.

Written and directed by Jason Neulander, the movie follows two drifters named Mary and John and their journey together as they run away from their tumultuous pasts. Mary (April Mathis) is a sad and desperate woman who is about to give it all up. That is until John (Robbie Tann) accidentally interupts her suicide attempt. As Mary tries to run away from this awkward moment, John feels compelled to follow her and watch over her. The two jump a train bound for anywhere where they soon encounter drifters Israfel (Scott Shepherd) and Providence (O-Lan Jones) who obviously have problems of their own. As Mary and John continue to travel, their personal demons threaten to destroy them, but they soon discover that their new, though shaky, friendship may be all that they need to keep on keeping on.

Neulander's Fugitive Dreams is one of those films that comes along only so often. It is a true piece of art film that is certainly a tough sell to mass audiences, but is an absolute diamond in the rough. The writing and direction matched with the gorgeous and haunting cinematography by Peter Simonite make this film one for the ages. Based on the play by Caridad Svich, this movie does not at all look or feel like the typical play adaptation. Neulander uses the solid foundation laid by Svich and launches it into a whole new dimension. Often times, films based on plays fall short in the translation. Neulander, on the other hand, makes the film version a unique experience of its own.

Helping to bring this work of art to life are actors April Mathis and Robbie Tann who both perform tremendously here. Mathis portrays Mary beautifully with as a tough on the exterior, but hurting on the inside sensibility full of dimension and range. Mary has been a survivor, but is at a point where she is considering whether or not continued survival is even worth all of the pain she has endured. As John, Robbie Tann has a more dreamy optimism to his outlook on life, but it is a quality to which he is desperately clinging. He instead projects a more glorified memory of his past trauma, but as his story progresses, it becomes more apparent that his journey is not as joyful as he claims to remember. The film also features outstanding work by Scott Shepherd, O-Lan Jones, and David Patrick Kelly.

For sure this is a film that I must strongly encourage festival viewers to experience before the fest's conclusion. And I do sincerely hope that this beautiful movie gets the attention it genuinely deserves by mass audiences. I have not seen any other films by Justin Neulander, but I can guarantee that he has my attention from now on.

Sitges Film Festival Review: THE OLD WAYS

By Liz Lopez

Rating: B+

There have been several horror cinematic efforts to convey aspects of the Mexican culture when it comes to rituals for healing, often labeled as witchcraft by individuals who are not familiar with the culture and/or how some maladies are cured before modern medicine of the West was introduced.  Some scripts are not as successful when the healer or “curandera” is depicted as a “witch” who is there only to do harm. I recall as a child hearing the phrase “tiene el diablo por dentro” or “he has the devil within” when referring to a person who is quite meanspirited, malicious and in a habit of not doing the right thing.  Director Christopher Alender (“Muppets Now” TV series, “Memorial Day”) and screenwriter Marcos Gabriel (collaborator with Alender in TV/film) tell a captivating story in “The Old Ways” about fighting demons, not just the ones anticipated in a horror film, but also addiction, likely PTSD and finding a way back home. The film as a whole feels much more authentic than others with regard to the cast and characters. The protagonist, Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) and the locals in the remote village, her cousin, Miranda (Andrea Cortés), Luz (Julia Vera) and Luz’s adult son Javi (Sal Lopez). Someone unfamiliar with the rituals of healing individuals thought to be possessed (as seen in the film) will most likely label this as “brujeria” or witchcraft, but these healers are not there to do harm, in fact the opposite. The script is written well and keeps the audience engaged without heavy use of the bumps and thuds heard in similar films. The ending leaves the viewer ready to see what Cristina will do in the next chapter of her life. The casting of veteran actors paired with younger rising stars is perfect.       

A journalist in the US, Cristina goes to Mexico on an assignment convincing her employers she would be able to conduct research easily since she was born there and has sources, her cousin, Miranda (Cortés). What the audience soon learns is that Cristina has not been back to the village in at least two decades after witnessing an exorcism on her mother. Unfortunately, when she contacted Miranda about her job, she did not heed advice about wandering about. Cristina wakes to find herself held against her will.

Apparently, the visit in a cave that was forbidden by Miranda yielded an opportunity for a demon to take possession of Cristina. The people she assumes are kidnappers, Luz (Vera), the village healer and Javi (Lopez), are holding her to cure her by removing the evil inside. Cristina resists this notion and tries to escape from the shack and her life as she secures her small stash of drugs. The question may arise within the audience if there is a demon or is it the drugs that cause her to see and experience what surrounds her. The camera pans to the dark corners of the shack and the silence itself is frightening.    

Many of the scenes in the film take place in the small hut where she is held and the addition of chalk drawings of demons believed to possess the character enhances the design and what the audience may soon come to expect. Cristina has a fighting spirit throughout her experience, and she learns more about herself, the culture she left behind, and why the old ways should not be cast off and forgotten.    

Source: Soapbox Films




Q

ON THE ROCKS

By Laurie Coker

Rating: B+

Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, like her Lost in Translation, is a slow but entertaining burn playing out as a satisfying analysis of relationships.  Her stars Rashida Jones and Bill Murray offer realistic and witty portrayals as father and daughter maneuvering very different lives. Coppola, as she did with her freshman effort so many years ago creates a rich and appealing escape into the lives of others.

THE EMPTY MAN

By Laurie Coker

Rating: D+

Empty and idiotic about sums up the “horror/thriller” The Empty Man. Running an interminable two hours and seventeen minutes, writer/director David Prior’s vision never takes flight. Prior adapts his script from the popular graphic novel of the same name, but far too much goes unexplained and underplayed to garner attention or care.  From start to finish, The Empty Man bores without shame.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Fourteen years later, actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has returned as his most famous/infamous character, the often beloved, sometimes hated journalist from Kazakhstan named Borat. Call it serendipity or perfect timing, but Borat has returned to America at a crazy time. Going into this mockumentary, my obvious question was, how can Cohen pull it off again now that he is almost a household name? Well, the chameleonic actor still has a few tricks up his sleeve in additon to a new co-star who delivers a breakthrough performance.

After the initial release of his first film, Borat Sagdiyev did not achieve the great success he had anticipated. Instead of "making benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan," the film's portrayal of Borat and his people have brought great shame to his beloved country. After doing hard time and hard labor in prison, Borat is getting a second chance at glory. His government has tasked Borat with presenting a "prodigious" gift to the United States, hoping that this grand gesture will restore Kazakhstan to its former glory. As expected, there is a major snag in the plans, and Borat must replace the original gift with his fifteen year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova). But before she can become the proper bride for Mike Pence, Tutar has much to learn about becoming the perfect American bride.

Directed by Jason Woliner, Borat 2 delivers hearty laughs, superbly executed pranks, and a good amount of shock and awe. Though not as extraordinary as the first film, the sequel definitely comes at the perfect time, when America is in dire need of a proper skewering. And that is exactly what Cohen does so well. Some of the stunts come across as staged, but the ones that feel all too real are the ones that will either make people fall on the floor laughing or have their jaws drop to the floor.

At this point, it should go without saying, but Sacha Baron Cohen is a tremendous actor and performer, and he is just as good here, as he is in the first film. To help pull off his stunts, Cohen needed someone else less recognizable to take over sometimes. Enter Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. Though Bakalova is probably better recognized for acting in her home country, she is the perfect unknown in the United States to punk unsuspecting targets. Like Cohen, Bakalova, brings much heart and earnestness to her character. It is that straight-faced dedication that helps make these stunts successful. In addition, the introduction of her character, as well as her relationship with her father, further develop the Borat character.

The new Borat movie will be available for streaming on Amazon starting October 23. It is a movie I must hightly recommend for fans of the first film. Like I previously stated, I would not expect the exact same level of greatness from this sequel, but hell, all things considered, it comes pretty damn close.

TAKE OUT GIRL

By Laurie Coker

Rating: C+

Take Out Girl is a little Indy film that almost could have been - great. Director Hisonni Johnson can’t quite pull off the tension necessary to capture the heart of the deeply disturbing story of desperation and deceit. Rich characters and a solid cast offer promise but the film falls back on stereotypes and stock storytelling. Yes, the film makes its mark in a genre mired with too many sloppy movies to count, but more because of the cast and less because of anything fresh.

Synchronic

By Laurie Coker

Rating: C

Filmmaking partners Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, best known for off-Hollywood-type films, team up in Synchronic, a sci-fi mystery starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Playing on their knack for arthouse-style filmmaking, the directing duo delves into some dark places -physical and mental - creating what might have been a remarkable storyline but they fail to fully realize their vision.

REBECCA

By Laurie Coker

Rating: C

There is wonder in the escapism of classic literature. I love the beauty of a well-filmed period piece. Based on the riveting 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel, director Ben Wheatley presents a tale of love and secrecy set against the backdrop of breathtaking Hartland Quay in Devon and Hatfield House at Cranborne Manor in Dorset, England. Rebecca stars Lily James and Armie Hammer and the film’s imagery is as beautiful as the couple, but direction and pacing doesn’t always measure up.

James plays Mrs. De Winter, a lady servant to an obnoxious woman with no redeeming qualities. She appears trapped in an endless loop of caring for and being berated by Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) until she meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Hammer), a wealthy widow, who sweeps her off her feet. The couple marries and travels back to his ominous, seaside estate Manderley, run by a Nurse Ratched-type house manager, Ms. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Soon after her arrival, the new Mrs. De Winter realizes her predecessor casts a long and eerie shadow over the estate. Was Rebecca’s death at sea suicide, accident, or murder?

From Du Maurier’s pages, the story reads far more interestingly that does Wheatley’s telling. Adapted by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse the story, meant to be captivating and suspenseful, plods along at a sleepwalker’s pace, and Hammer’s Maxim is reduced to a brooding set piece. Still, there’s a raw honesty to the lead performances and Scott Thomas oozes distaste and disgust at Rebecca’s replacement. Frustratingly, little is left to intrigue and imagination. The interactions between the pair fall flat making issues with their relationship uninteresting and obvious. James is appropriately mousy, but not enough happens when she called to take charge and stand her ground to prove or support the transition.

While Rebecca certainly sets the scene for a late 30’s storyline, the writers seem to have pulled out all the elements that would have made the tale even more risqué and shocking for the times and now. Maxim marries far below him and while wooing his second bride, he calls her a “a little fool”, but their difference in status never comes into play. Instead the focus is on the unseen Rebecca and her specter haunting the halls of Manderley and an obscure plot that never surprises.

The first adaptation of Rebecca belongs to Alfred Hitchcock, whose iconic 1940 film, which garnered him his only Best Picture Oscar, stands as the decisive take on Du Maurier's gothic romance and it, like the character Rebecca, shadows Wheatley’s version. Were it not for the cast and the exceptional sets and costuming, Rebecca (2020) would be a complete wash. It manages to hang on with its visual attractiveness and stunning scenery. These are gorgeous period details and an inkling of an eerie atmosphere that please just enough. Rebecca earns a C in the grade book.

THE DEVIL HAS A NAME

By Liz Lopez

Rating: B+

The Devil Has a Name” is a fictionalized drama of true events in California. News in recent years have shed light on the practice of oil companies dumping toxic wastewater into vital waterways and director and Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos’ latest feature the Central Valley’s water contamination, based on a screenplay by Robert McEveety. The script is not the strongest at times when it veers away from keeping the focus on the villains, namely the corporations and the government, and the drama in some scenes appears a bit melodramatic. These may not appeal to all film fans, but one definite strong point is the cast and the how they make the most of their characters. The mood lightens up when they are on screen and indeed seem like a real friendship exists. Three to highlight are David Strathairn as Fred Stern, the farmer with the poisoned land, Edward James Olmos as Santiago, Fred's farm manager and confidant for over three decades and Martin Sheen as Ralph Wegis, the environmental lawyer who takes Fred's case to fight the oil company. There is no doubt these veteran actors with significant roles in many films throughout their careers will be a primary reason film fans select this as a production worth viewing.

The recently widowed farmer is approached by Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment), a representative of a Houston oil company who makes a minimal offer for his land. Stern is going to consider it, but Santiago (Olmos) is suspicious of the company and is firmly believes the land is worth much more than the offer made. They soon discover evidence of environmental pollution on his farm. Fred hires Wegis (Sheen) to hold the oil company legally accountable.

Pablo Schreiber’s character, Ezekiel, is a villain sent by the oil company to “fix” the situation with Stern. Ezekiel takes it to an extreme as he intimidates the oil company’s staff too, Alex (Osment) and manager, Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth). When Gigi does not have “control of the situation” as CEO Big Boss (Alfred Molina) wants, Gigi tends to go downhill emotionally. This part of the script comes across as excessive with repeat scenes of her actions in her apartment, appearing as another hysterical, emotional woman.   

Olmos’ Santiago, originally from Mexico, has a deep commitment to Fred and the land after spending 30 years of his life on it. Of note in this film, Santiago is fully bilingual, speaking English and Spanish with everyone. This is very common in California and Texas, so it is refreshing to see a character that represents this segment of the population, whether born in the USA or otherwise. Thus, an interesting point to this is that there are no sub-titles to any Spanish words that Olmos’ character speaks. The role is one that Olmos keeps the character vibrant and interesting, no matter if he sprinkles the Spanish within his daily activities. All the supporting staff provided a good solid performance for their respective roles.

The film’s world premiere was at the 2019 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, which Olmos co-founded over 2 decades ago. The 97 minute - long film is to be released in select US theaters on October 16, 2020, as well as through video on demand, and on digital platforms. View it soon!

Distributed by: Momentum Pictures

HUBIE HALLOWEEN

By Laurie Coker

Rating: C-

Keeping the kids entertained these can be nearly impossible and with all the CDC expectations for avoiding normal Halloween activities, parents are trying to get creative. Old favorites in spooky family fun are streaming and on-demand, but Adam Sandler and a host of other familiar faces, like Steve Buscemi, Rob Snyder, Kevin James, and Maya Rudolph, star in Hubie Halloween, a Happy Madison production airing on Netflix. Sandler, who promised the worst movie ever should he not get an Oscar nod for his showing in Uncut Gem last hear, and he’s almost done it.

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN

By Laurie Coker

Rating: B+

I love traveling with my grandchildren and together we enjoy listening to audiobooks. On one trip, my granddaughter and I, both huge animal lovers, listened to The One and Only Ivan, the story of a silverback ape raised in captivity. Disney+ brings the book, based on a true story, to streaming television. Thea Sharrock directs a stunning blend of live action and remarkable CGI with an excellent cast of real and voice actors.

TESLA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Writer/director Michael Almereyda tells the story of Nikola Tesla in a biopic that takes some novel approaches to its visuals and aesthetics, but ultimately struggles to maintain keep its audience engrossed in it. With Ethan Hawke in the plead role, I expected more from this film, but even the actors talents get held back by the film's weaknesses. Nikola Tesla's life story is truly a fascinating one, but Almereyda just doesn't succeed in proving it as such.

The film begins in 1884 when Tesla begins working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). As the two men offen differ in their visions and opinions, it proves to be a match made in hell. Eventually, after failing to make any headway in Edison's company, Tesla quits and decides to venture out with his new partner Anthony Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), hoping to change the ways electricity is harnessed and utilized. Tesla would proceed to do this, but his inability to look at the pictures of his career and life would lead to eventual failure.

Despite some of the bold interesting choices made by writer/director Almereyda, the writing, particularly the story and character development, fails to generate excitement and develop a real connection with its audience. It was as if Tesla himself, being extemely intoverted and narrow focussed, was telling the story himself. There are ways to express this mindset and personality type in more exciting and entertaining ways. However, Amereyda follows a mostly dull path that shows a lack of passion for his subject.

Ethan Hawke performs solidly in the role of Tesla, but just can't seem to transcend the limitations of the writing. I found Kyle MacLachlan more interesting and entertaining as rival Thomas Edison. I also enjoyed the acting of actress Eve Hewson who protrays love interest and the film's narrator Anne Morgan. The movie also features solid work by Jim Gaffigan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Rebecca Dayan.

I feel that Nikola Tesla deserves a more exciting and fulfilling biopic than any film that has already attempted to tell his story. I realize he probably wasn't the most charismatic and personable man, but I believe there are ways of portraying that compellingly. Tesla obviously does not succeed in doing so and leaves much more to be desired.

UNHINGED

By Laurie Coker

Rating: B

Academy Award winner Russell Crowe graces the screen as an utterly detestable and completely deranged man filled with rage and hatred. Director Derrick Borte with a script written by Carl Ellsworth, delivers an intense, shocking thriller, that speaks to the festering issues that silently plague people until all rationale leaves them.  Unhinged is stressful and madly mesmerizing watch andCrowe’s character captivates with his violent craziness.

WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on the novel of the same name by Julia Walton, director Thor Freudenthal's and screenwriter Nick Naveda's film adaptation offers a mostly moving portrait of a teen struggling with mental illness and the people who love him that are determined to see him persevere. Actor Charlie Plummer stars as lead character Adam Petrazelli, a meek and kind young man afflicted with schizophrenia, a sometimes debilitating condition that causes both visual and auditory hallucinations. Having tried multiple medications with no successful results, Adam, at the behest of his mother Beth (Molly Parker) agrees to go through a trial period with an experimental new drug. Though this new drug finally offers him some efficacy, the side effects are way less than desirable. As Adam pursues a romantic relationship with his classmate Maya (Taylor Russell), he decides to stop taking the medication all together. This strategy, of course, backfires badly when Adams hallucinations start occurring again.

Director Freudenthal and writer Naveda do some exceptional work in giving audiences some vivid and surreal looks int o the mind of character Adam Petrazelli. I have not actually read the novel on which this film is based, so I can only attest to how creatively the hallucinations get presented in the movie. It is definitely a strange journey that ranges between amusing and disturbing. The film does a mostly good job of balancing the humor and the drama, but goes somewhat melodramatic or grandiose at times. That is definitely the film's biggest weakness.

Regardless of this, the lead cast members perform quite well. Charlie Plummer brings a lovably sheepish and appropriately awkward charm to his turn as Adam Petrazelli. He certainly has the range to express the necessary emotions required by his character. Talented actress Taylor Russell first caught my attention in a remarkable movie titled Waves. I was really impressed with her presence and her ability to subtly express various feelings. As Adam's formidable love interest Maya, Russell continues to prove her abilities as a charming and passionate performer.

The movie also features lovely work by Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, and Andy Garcia. Three particular actors, however, manage to steal the show quite often in the the film. These three talents star as hallucinations that represent different facets of Adam's mind. AnnaSophia Robb, Devin Bostick, and Lobo Sebastian all perform exceptionally as Adam's non-existent friends. Though it is a technique that has been utilized a lot in other movies, it's one that works beautifully.

So, I would not be swayed by the fact that tthis movie is a teen romance based on a uoung adult novel. Words on Bathroom Walls has plenty of great things going for it in its favor. It is a film that will tap into a range of emotions, but might particularly resonate with peopke suffering from mental health disorders.

TRAIN TO BUSAN PRESENTS: PENINSULA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, who made a huge splash with his zombie flick Train To Busan, is back with a new installment, Peninsula. Yeon actually takes a page out of the career of zombie master George Romero and has created a sequel with different characters that takes place within the same zombie apocalypse universe. With Peninsula, the director and co-writer Park Joo-Suk go for an even more action-oriented affair that is obviously more fun, but less dramatic and tragic. The result is a fun and exciting movie, but one that lacks the emotional impact of the first installment.

Gang Dong-won stars as Marine Captain Jung-seok. The movie begins more or less where the previous installment ends. A virus that is turning people into violent zombies has rapidly erupted in South Korea, leaving its citizens frantically seeking shelter. Now that Busan is no longer the safe haven it once was, Jung-seok, his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew join the masses of people evacuating the nation. After an infected person manages to get on one of the escape boats, all hell breaks loose when the virus takes hold. Jung-seok and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) manage to escape, but their loved ones are not as fortunate.

Four years later, both Jung-seok and Chul-min continue to live in Hong Kong and cross paths again when they get offered a chance to escape their impoverished existence. A group of Hong Kong people are assembling a small team of people willing to travel to a quarantined peninsula in Incheon where a truck loaded with U.S. dollars is available for the taking. Both Jung-seok and Chul-min agree to participate, despite the risks of being attacked by the zombies that have taken over the peninsula. As the group proceeds with their plans, they discover that it isn't just zombies that pose a threat, it is the uninfected people who continue to reside there.

Written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho who co-wrote the film with Park Joo-Suk, Peninsula does offer audiences exciting action and fun, but lacks the emotional depth that makes the first movie so powerful. The story and character development also fail to achieve the same level of greatness and originality. It is an enjoyable and riveting journey, but ine that treads on all-too-familiar territory. The movie features a wonderful cast that performs tremendously despite the limitations of the script.

It is a movie I do recommend, but one for which ardent fans of the first installment should temper their expectations. Should Yeon Sang-ho decide to maje another chapter in this cinematic universe, I do hope that he and his creative partners will come up with something that will launch this franchise forward into more satisfying territory.

UNHINGED

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Russell Crowe, the person, has been known to lose his temper quite infamously. So, it came as no surprise to me that he was cast in a movie about a furious and deranged villain who victimizes someone who crosses him in an unfavorable situation. Now, to clarify, I am not saying that Crowe would actually go to the horrible lengths his character does in the film, but let's just say, it is a role that is not a huge reach for someone of his temperament. That said, Unhinged does offer some palpable suspense, excitement and shocks, but never rises high above similar material presented in Lifetime movies with similar themes.

Crowe stars as Tom Cooper, a middle-aged man going through a very bad time in his life. Though the movie never gives exact details, it does reveal that Cooper has recently gone through a divorce that has pushed him to a breaking point. Meanwhile, mother, and future divorcee, Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius) stuggles to adjust to her life as a single mom while in the process of her own divorce proceedings. On one particular morning going wrong, Rachel frantically tries to get her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school on time, but traffic and fate have other plans. When the frustrated Rachel honks her car horn when Cooper reacts too slowly at a traffic light, it is a decision she will regret during the rest of her soon to be terrifying day.

Written by Carl Ellsworth, and directed by Derrick Borte, Unhinged is definitely a thrilling, tension-filled rollercoaster ride, but never delves deep enough to be taken too seriously. The movie starts out well enough, but when the Rachel character starts making incredulously ridiculous decisions, I grew increasingly frustrated. As the film gets into its intense climax, that's when metaphorical sharks get jumped and the movie goes off the rails. It is sad to say that Lifetime movies have better handled climaxes than this movie. That isn't to say I wasn't entertained, or rather amused. Quite honestly, as this movie itself gets "unhinged," I was laughing hysterically.

As far as the cast is concerned, the performances work well enough for this caliber of movie. Caren Pistorius gives a solid turn, but portrays a character written as someone with limited intelligence. Russell Crowe brings the necessary intensity and rage to his character, but his character also lacks proper development in the writing.

As fun as this movie is, it never succeeds in making an intelligent statement on human affairs. The filmmakers throw in viral videos as examples of similar real events, but this technique comes off as pretentious, given the end result that is this movie. Unhinged is good for some thrills and laughs, but nothing more.

Movie News: PALMER

Source: AppleTV+

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – February 11, 2021 – Nathaniel Rateliff’s official music video for his track “Redemption” premieres today; watch/share https://found.ee/NRRedemption. Written for and featured in the Apple Original film Palmer, “Redemption” is garnering attention from Variety and Rolling Stone who calls it “cathartic.” Listen to/share “Redemption” https://found.ee/NRRedemption

Palmer, which is now streaming globally on Apple TV+, stars Justin Timberlake, Alisha Wainwright and Juno Temple. The film, directed by Fisher Stevens, is a hopeful and inspirational story about an unlikely pair who come together and find the family they were both missing.

On February 13, Rateliff will make his debut as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” with Regina King hosting. Rateliff’s latest single “Redemption” comes on the heels of his celebrated 2020 solo album And It’s Still Alright (out now on Stax Records).

The forthcoming “SNL” performance culminates a monumental year for Rateliff; And It’s Still Alright peaked at #3 on iTunes’ Top Albums chart, debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk chart, landed at #2 on their Current Rock chart and resided at #1 on the Americana Albums Chart for eight consecutive weeks. The lead single and title track was #1 for eight consecutive weeks at Triple A Radio, #1 for nine consecutive weeks on the Americana Singles chart and #1 for three weeks at Non-Commercial radio, while NPR’s “World Cafe” ranked the track #1 on their list of Public Radio’s Most Popular Songs Of 2020. Additionally, the single “Time Stands” peaked at #1 on the Americana Singles chart and appeared within the Top 5 at Triple A Radio. Rateliff also performed on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Listen to And It’s Still Alright https://found.ee/NRAndItsStillAlright-Album.

Rateliff’s band Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nights Sweats’ Platinum-certified debut album was released in 2015, followed by the critically lauded 2018 album Tearing at the Seams. The band have toured extensively worldwide. They’ve headlined shows at iconic venues both stateside and abroad, including six sold out Red Rocks Amphitheatre dates, as well as appearances at major festivals including Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, Coachella, Newport Folk Festival and more.

Movie News: PALMER

Movie News: PALMER

Source: AppleTV+ FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – February 11, 2021 – Nathaniel Rateliff’s official music video for his track “Redemption” premieres today; watch/share https://found.ee/NRRedemption. Written for and featured in the Apple Original film Palmer, “Redemption” is...

Movie News: 12 MIGHTY ORPHANS

Movie News: 12 MIGHTY ORPHANS

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS ADOPTS TY ROBERTS’ 12 MIGHTY ORPHANS STARRING LUKE WILSON, MARTIN SHEEN, VINESSA SHAW, AND ROBERT DUVALL NEW YORK (January 19, 2021) – Sony Pictures Classics announced today that they have acquired worldwide rights in all media to 12 MIGHTY...

Streaming News: WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE

Streaming News: WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE

AMAZON PRIME VIDEO AND BLUMHOUSE TELEVISIONCONJURES NEXT CHAPTER OF “WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE”FILMS COMING IN 2021 Final four films in the 8-film anthology are “The Manor”, “Black as Night”,“Madres” and “Bingo”  Genre thrillers continue to highlight female...

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Giveaway: NEWS OF THE WORLD

Giveaway: NEWS OF THE WORLD

ENTER HERE FOR A CHANCE TO WIN AT AT-HOME SCREENING

Source: Universal Pictures

ON JANUARY 15, 2021. NEWS OF THE WORLD WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON DEMAND.

Universal Pictures is proud to present Tom Hanks starring in News of the World, a moving story written and directed by Paul Greengrass, reuniting for the first time with his star from their 2013 Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips.

Five years after the end of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a veteran of three wars, now moves from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes, and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe.

In the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel, System Crasher), a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will.

Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two will face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.

News of the World is directed by Greengrass (the Bourne films, United 93) from his screenplay with Luke Davies (Lion), based on the National Book Award finalist and best-selling novel by Paulette Jiles. The film is produced by Gary Goetzman (Mamma Mia! franchise, Greyhound), Gail Mutrux (The Danish GirlDonnie Brasco) and Gregory Goodman (22 July8 Mile). The executive producers are Steven Shareshian and Tore Schmidt. The film’s music is by eight-time Academy Award® nominee James Newton Howard.

To enter for a chance to win, send entries to trueviewreviews2@gmail.com.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Entries must be received by Friday, January 15 to be eligible.

A limited number of entries selected via random drawing and notified starting January 15, 2021. One entry per person please.

MINARI

MINARI

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

The American dream is a goal that not only natural-born citizens of the United States hope to accomplish, but is often, more importantly, a goal that immigrants hope to achieve. That is the main message of this beautiful and heartfelt movie about South Korean immigrants trying to survive during the 1980s. Based on the life experiences of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, Minari depicts the life of South Korean immigrants working hard to thrive and survive in rural America. It is an American tale as old as the age of this nation, but it is also a lovely reminder that this nation of ours can be the land of opportunity to those willing to work hard to get there.

Minari follows the Yi family, a Korean family who has moved from California to rural Arkansas where patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) desires to become a farmer, cultivating the vegetables often used by his culture. Living in a small, mobile home, the Yi’s must adjust to their new environment, with Jacob promising that this move is a step forward for the family. To make this dream come true, Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) must also work for steady income at a local hatchery where they separate the female chicks from the males. As Jacob pursues his dreams, he and the family encounter several obstacles along the way. Though things appear bleak initially, Jacob remains undaunted in his goals, much to the consternation of his more pragmatic wife Monica.

This is truly one of the best films I watched in 2020. Lee Isaac Chung has made a film that plays out naturally and realistically without any artificial sweetness or heavy-handed melodrama. It is a timeless story that appeals to the human heart and soul. Though it will resonate strongly with American immigrants, it has a genuine heart that should appeal to audiences of various backgrounds.

All of the cast members give excellent performances, but three particular actors stand out for me. As Monica’s mother Soon-ja, Youn Yuh-jung is wonderful as an unfiltered and outspoken grandmother. As Paul, Jacob’s assistant in farming, Will Patton gives an incredible turn as a sweet and optimistic religious zealot who has some farming skills and previous experience. As David, the youngest child of the Yi family, child actor Alan Kim is an absolute joy to witness on the screen.

Minari is one of those films that is so timeless and always relevant. It is a movie that is sure to please and have an impact on audiences of various backgrounds, However, it will definitely resonate with immigrant audience members who know what it is like to adjust and assimilate to the United States and its people.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on the true story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the infiltration of the Chicago chapter of the party by FBI informant William O’Neal, writer/director Shaka King presents an all-too-real and dual-faceted example of our US government’s oppression of Black America. Out-spoken and unfiltered, the Black Panther party made its presence known and heard during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Though this perceived threat to “American” standards served as a rallying shout to fight systemic racism and oppression, the Black Panther Party and their associates only fought for equal treatment, as promised by the law and Constitution. The FBI then resorted to utilize informants fearful of any prejudicial treatment by law enforcement. One such informant was criminal William O’Neal.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as O’Neal, a small time crook caught in the nasty web of law enforcement and the FBI who wish to use him to take down the Black Panther party. Approached by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), O’Neal is given the ultimatum of complying with the FBI or face harsher treatment for his petty crimes. The main target of the FBI is Chicago chapter leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a boisterous and charismatic Black Panther leader fighting hard for the advancement of the Black community. As O’Neal gets more involved with the Panther party and closer to Hampton, he becomes more conflicted with his role in the takedown of the activist.

Written by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah is an amazingly powerful movie that should serve as an eye-opener to anyone who blindly accepts or naively denies the evil deeds of which our government is capable and has committed. For the oppressed and anyone who has experienced any form of prejudice, it is a rallying shout to stand up and fight for what is right and just. King, his writers, cast and crew do an outstanding job in presenting this tremendous story. Given the problems that have troubled our nation for far too long, this film also screams the question, when are things going to completely change for the better?

The film has an incredible cast with both Kaluuya and Stanfield bringing passion, emotion, and humanity to their characters. The movie also features a beautifully realized performance by Dominique Fishback who stars as Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s girlfriend. Jesse Plemons also gives an appropriately nasty and uncaring turn as O’Neal’s ambitious FBI handler Roy Mitchell.

This is yet another movie that hopes to bring audiences more awareness of the racism and oppression that has infected our nation for far too long. I feel that I have written so many reviews about movies that tackle this subject. And I am sure it is a subject that other, more seasoned, veteran film writers have handled for decades before me. As I conclude this review, I have come to the sad realization that it is horrifying that we still need movies like Judas and the Black Messiah to keep reminding people that this is a problem that still troubles our country.

THE MAURITANIAN

THE MAURITANIAN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, this film adaptation by director Kevin Macdonald does manage to deliver an emotional wallop, but gets undermined by a mostly dull, legal procedural approach to the material. The movie follows the legal defense and their investigation into the unlawful detention and torture of Salahi who gets suspected of playing a role in the attacks on 9/11. As a commentary on the lack of due process involved in the 9/11 investigations and the horrible methods involved in the interrogations, The Mauritanian works well enough. However, the rest of the movie proves to be a mostly trite exercise in story-telling and character development.

Jodie Foster stars as the tough and no-nonsense attorney Nancy Hollander. An advocate for international law and human rights, Hollander decides to represent Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) when she realizes he has been wrongfully imprisoned and held without the proper due process he deserves. Though Salahi may have had some loose ties with a terrorist involved in the 9/11 attacks on the US, he has been treated as a prime suspect undergoing intense interrogation and enduring the extreme tortures endorsed by the government and the millitary. While Salahi continues to wait desperately in his prison, the government and the military do everything they can to cover up any evidence of wrong doing which makes his case a most difficult and challenging battle.

With an adapted screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, director Kevin Macdonald presents a compelling, but flawed and occasionally weak movie that too often follows the legal process by the numbers. While this may come across as more realistic, it is a rather lacking approach when it comes to cinematic storytelling. That said, the film mostly works due to the strength of its intended messages and the impact of its depiction of the inexplicably inhumane treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.

In addition, actor Tahar Rahim brings a real and genuine humanity to the character of Mohamedou Salahi. It is a beautiful and inspiring performance that transcend all weaknesses of the script and direction. Jodie Foster gives a solid performance as attorney Nancy Hollander. Though the development of the character is a bit lacking in the writing. Foster’s talent also adds to the character’s translation on the screen. Shailene Woodey also performs well as the emotionally torn and tormented Teri Duncan, a younger and less seasoned attorney working on the case with Hollander. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as prosecuting attorney Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, but plays it so broadly that the character’s development suffers further.

Though this movie has its problems, I still feel it is important that most Americans watch it to get a better perspective on the fallout of 9/11 and its impact on the rights of people. The film opens in theaters on February 12.

MINARI

MINARI

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

The American dream is a goal that not only natural-born citizens of the United States hope to accomplish, but is often, more importantly, a goal that immigrants hope to achieve. That is the main message of this beautiful and heartfelt movie about South Korean immigrants trying to survive during the 1980s. Based on the life experiences of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, Minari depicts the life of South Korean immigrants working hard to thrive and survive in rural America. It is an American tale as old as the age of this nation, but it is also a lovely reminder that this nation of ours can be the land of opportunity to those willing to work hard to get there.

Minari follows the Yi family, a Korean family who has moved from California to rural Arkansas where patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) desires to become a farmer, cultivating the vegetables often used by his culture. Living in a small, mobile home, the Yi’s must adjust to their new environment, with Jacob promising that this move is a step forward for the family. To make this dream come true, Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) must also work for steady income at a local hatchery where they separate the female chicks from the males. As Jacob pursues his dreams, he and the family encounter several obstacles along the way. Though things appear bleak initially, Jacob remains undaunted in his goals, much to the consternation of his more pragmatic wife Monica.

This is truly one of the best films I watched in 2020. Lee Isaac Chung has made a film that plays out naturally and realistically without any artificial sweetness or heavy-handed melodrama. It is a timeless story that appeals to the human heart and soul. Though it will resonate strongly with American immigrants, it has a genuine heart that should appeal to audiences of various backgrounds.

All of the cast members give excellent performances, but three particular actors stand out for me. As Monica’s mother Soon-ja, Youn Yuh-jung is wonderful as an unfiltered and outspoken grandmother. As Paul, Jacob’s assistant in farming, Will Patton gives an incredible turn as a sweet and optimistic religious zealot who has some farming skills and previous experience. As David, the youngest child of the Yi family, child actor Alan Kim is an absolute joy to witness on the screen.

Minari is one of those films that is so timeless and always relevant. It is a movie that is sure to please and have an impact on audiences of various backgrounds, However, it will definitely resonate with immigrant audience members who know what it is like to adjust and assimilate to the United States and its people.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on the true story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the infiltration of the Chicago chapter of the party by FBI informant William O’Neal, writer/director Shaka King presents an all-too-real and dual-faceted example of our US government’s oppression of Black America. Out-spoken and unfiltered, the Black Panther party made its presence known and heard during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Though this perceived threat to “American” standards served as a rallying shout to fight systemic racism and oppression, the Black Panther Party and their associates only fought for equal treatment, as promised by the law and Constitution. The FBI then resorted to utilize informants fearful of any prejudicial treatment by law enforcement. One such informant was criminal William O’Neal.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as O’Neal, a small time crook caught in the nasty web of law enforcement and the FBI who wish to use him to take down the Black Panther party. Approached by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), O’Neal is given the ultimatum of complying with the FBI or face harsher treatment for his petty crimes. The main target of the FBI is Chicago chapter leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a boisterous and charismatic Black Panther leader fighting hard for the advancement of the Black community. As O’Neal gets more involved with the Panther party and closer to Hampton, he becomes more conflicted with his role in the takedown of the activist.

Written by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah is an amazingly powerful movie that should serve as an eye-opener to anyone who blindly accepts or naively denies the evil deeds of which our government is capable and has committed. For the oppressed and anyone who has experienced any form of prejudice, it is a rallying shout to stand up and fight for what is right and just. King, his writers, cast and crew do an outstanding job in presenting this tremendous story. Given the problems that have troubled our nation for far too long, this film also screams the question, when are things going to completely change for the better?

The film has an incredible cast with both Kaluuya and Stanfield bringing passion, emotion, and humanity to their characters. The movie also features a beautifully realized performance by Dominique Fishback who stars as Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s girlfriend. Jesse Plemons also gives an appropriately nasty and uncaring turn as O’Neal’s ambitious FBI handler Roy Mitchell.

This is yet another movie that hopes to bring audiences more awareness of the racism and oppression that has infected our nation for far too long. I feel that I have written so many reviews about movies that tackle this subject. And I am sure it is a subject that other, more seasoned, veteran film writers have handled for decades before me. As I conclude this review, I have come to the sad realization that it is horrifying that we still need movies like Judas and the Black Messiah to keep reminding people that this is a problem that still troubles our country.

THE MAURITANIAN

THE MAURITANIAN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, this film adaptation by director Kevin Macdonald does manage to deliver an emotional wallop, but gets undermined by a mostly dull, legal procedural approach to the material. The movie follows the legal defense and their investigation into the unlawful detention and torture of Salahi who gets suspected of playing a role in the attacks on 9/11. As a commentary on the lack of due process involved in the 9/11 investigations and the horrible methods involved in the interrogations, The Mauritanian works well enough. However, the rest of the movie proves to be a mostly trite exercise in story-telling and character development.

Jodie Foster stars as the tough and no-nonsense attorney Nancy Hollander. An advocate for international law and human rights, Hollander decides to represent Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) when she realizes he has been wrongfully imprisoned and held without the proper due process he deserves. Though Salahi may have had some loose ties with a terrorist involved in the 9/11 attacks on the US, he has been treated as a prime suspect undergoing intense interrogation and enduring the extreme tortures endorsed by the government and the millitary. While Salahi continues to wait desperately in his prison, the government and the military do everything they can to cover up any evidence of wrong doing which makes his case a most difficult and challenging battle.

With an adapted screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, director Kevin Macdonald presents a compelling, but flawed and occasionally weak movie that too often follows the legal process by the numbers. While this may come across as more realistic, it is a rather lacking approach when it comes to cinematic storytelling. That said, the film mostly works due to the strength of its intended messages and the impact of its depiction of the inexplicably inhumane treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.

In addition, actor Tahar Rahim brings a real and genuine humanity to the character of Mohamedou Salahi. It is a beautiful and inspiring performance that transcend all weaknesses of the script and direction. Jodie Foster gives a solid performance as attorney Nancy Hollander. Though the development of the character is a bit lacking in the writing. Foster’s talent also adds to the character’s translation on the screen. Shailene Woodey also performs well as the emotionally torn and tormented Teri Duncan, a younger and less seasoned attorney working on the case with Hollander. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as prosecuting attorney Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, but plays it so broadly that the character’s development suffers further.

Though this movie has its problems, I still feel it is important that most Americans watch it to get a better perspective on the fallout of 9/11 and its impact on the rights of people. The film opens in theaters on February 12.

Coming Soon To Blu-Ray And DVD: VALLEY GIRL

Coming Soon To Blu-Ray And DVD: VALLEY GIRL

EXPERIENCE THE AWESOMEST LOVE STORY EVERY TOLD WHEN “A classic love story…and a litany of ’80s hits.” Kate Erbland, IndieWire Valley Girl ARRIVES ONTO BLU-RAY™ AND DVD FROM METRO GOLDWYN MAYER PICTURES AND WARNER BROS. HOME ENTERTAINMENT Own it on Blu-ray...

Blu-Ray/DVD Release: THE WAY BACK

Blu-Ray/DVD Release: THE WAY BACK

Source: Warner Bros Home Entertainment Burbank, CA– Follow the road to redemption when “The Way Back” arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on May 19. Academy Award winner Ben Affleck (“Argo,” “The Accountant”) stars in “The Way Back,” directed by Gavin O’Connor (“The...

Multiplatform Video Release: LILYANA

Multiplatform Video Release: LILYANA

Source: ABRAMORAMA LIYANA is a genre-defying documentary that tells the story of five children in the Kingdom of Eswatini who turn past trauma into an original fable about a girl named Liyana who embarks on a perilous quest to save her young twin brothers. The...

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