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.

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Austin Screening Pass Giveaway: BLOW THE MAN DOWN

Austin Screening Pass Giveaway: BLOW THE MAN DOWN

Source: Amazon

TVR is giving away passes to an advance screening of this movie in Austin, TX, scheduled for Thursday, March 12 at 7:00 p.m.  NO PURCHASE IS NECESSARY. Must be 18 or older to enter. See this movie early and free of charge in a theater before it streams on Amazon!

Welcome to Easter Cove, a salty fishing village on the far reaches of Maine’s rocky coast. Grieving the loss of their mother and facing an uncertain future, Mary Beth & Priscilla Connolly cover up a gruesome run-in with a dangerous man. To conceal their crime, the sisters must go deeper into Easter Cove’s underbelly and uncover the town matriarchs’ darkest secrets. 

Go to http://amazonscreenings.com/BTMDTrueViewReviews to claim your passes. Be sure to print the passes and bring them with you to the screening. Do not hesitate as there may be a limited amount of passes available. Arrive early to the theater as seating is not guaranteed and done on a first come, first serve basis. Please spread the word!

THE CLIMB

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

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

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.

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