FlixChatter Review – COCO (2017)

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Directed By: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Written By: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz , Matthew Aldrich & Adrian Molina
Runtime: 1h 49min

Before I get into this review, I want to address one of the main arguments I’ve heard about it: that Coco is a rip-off of DreamWorks’s 2013 film The Book of Life. I don’t think this is a fair assessment. The only major similarity is that they’re both centered around Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring the dead. Besides that, each movie has different storylines, tones, and animation styles. If there are going to be two movies about a holiday from an underrepresented culture, all the better.

The young protagonist Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez)

Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young aspiring musician whose family bans music from their home after Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter (Miguel’s great-grandmother, Mama Coco, played by Ana Ofelia Murguía) to become a famous musician. On El Dia de los Muertos, Miguel breaks into the tomb of his idol, the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), to borrow his guitar for a talent contest. As soon as he strums the strings, he is transported to The Land of the Dead, where, along with his new friend and guide Hector (Gael García Bernal) he learns more about his family and their past, and the role music has played in it.

Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt)

This is easily my new favorite Pixar movie. The story is so unique, and there are some surprisingly dire stakes and dark twists, but it’s still accessible to all ages. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, but it’s a kids movie that is centered around a holiday dedicated to the dead, which isn’t exactly a light subject. The film handles the subject beautifully, though, sending a strong message about the importance of family and remembering lost loves ones, passing stories from generation to generation. And, of course, the end of the movie will make you cry, because PIXAR THRIVES ON YOUR TEARS. If I had to nitpick, I’d say that some of the exposition about Dia de Los Muertos felt like someone reading from a Spanish textbook, not like a grandmother (Renee Victor as Abuelita) explaining it to her grandson (Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel), who would presumably know about the holiday already anyway. It’s not a huge deal, but it still stood out to me.

Renee Victor as the voice of Abuelita

A strong script like this requires a strong cast to bring it to life, and the cast of Coco is fantastic, but there are a couple actors who especially stand out. Anthony Gonzalez is incredibly talented for such a young actor; he manages to be endearing without being cloying and holds his own alongside veteran performers. Gael García Bernal (AKA my celebrity husband ever since I saw El Crimen del Padre Amaro in college) is wonderful as Hector, giving both excellent comedic delivery as well as genuinely touching, emotional performances.

In addition to the acting, the cast is made up of incredible singers. The music in this movie is easily my favorite thing about it, blending a mix of classic Mexican folk songs with original pieces. The styles range from ranchera to Golden Age Mexican cinema ballads, and it’s all masterfully performed by the cast. Anthony’s voice is angelic but surprisingly full; I was delighted when he first burst into “Un Poco Loco,” his big number he performs with Hector. I had no idea Gael could sing so well (my only experience hearing him was in the baffling cover of “I Want You to Want Me” in Rudo y Cursi), but he has such a warm, rich tone, and his lullaby version of “Remember Me” is heart-wrenching.

Miguel with Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal)

I didn’t realize Benjamin Bratt, the actor who voices famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz, could sing as well; I had to check IMDB after hearing his smooth, booming voice to make sure it was actually him singing (the insanely talented Antonio Sol sings for the character for “The World is Mi Familia” and “La Llorona,” but Bratt holds his own in “Remember Me” and “Much Needed Advice”). The musical show stealer, though, is Alanna Ubach as Mama Imelda. Her rendition of “La Llorona” toward the end of the movie is phenomenal. My only complaint is that its her only full song in the movie.

Miguel with Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach)

The only thing more vibrant than this film’s soundtrack is, of course, its animation. Pixar has really outdone itself with this movie. It’s as technically impressive as its predecessors, with incredibly realistic detail, but Coco is so much more colorful and imaginative than anything I’ve seen from them so far. Their interpretation of the Land of the Dead is breathtaking, and the way they animate the movement of its skeletal citizens is so creative. I especially love the brightly-colored alebrijes, these fantastical creatures ranging from cute and goofy to majestic and intimidating. There’s too much to take in in one viewing-so, obviously, I plan on watching this multiple times.

Not only is this my new favorite Pixar movie, it’s my favorite movie I’ve reviewed this year. It’s incredibly well-written, the acting is solid, the music is moving, and the animation is visually stunning. I strongly recommend checking this out if you get the chance. You will not be disappointed.

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Have you seen ‘COCO’? Well, what did you think? 

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FlixChatter Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

There are films you’d readily see just for the cast and this is one such a film. I’m familiar with Agatha Christie’s work though I can’t claim I’ve actually finished even one of her books from start to finish. I did however, see the episode from British ITV production of the Agatha Christie series starring David Suchet a couple of years ago, so the plot is still quite fresh in my mind. The latest adaptation featured Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian super detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh also served as director, based on a script by Michael Green (who’s had quite a year as he also wrote Logan and Blade Runner 2049).

The opening sequence in Jerusalem seemed too whimsical and decidedly over-the-top, and I’m not just talking about Poirot’s outlandish mustache. I read in a review somewhere that Branagh can’t decide which fake mustache given to him from the makeup department so he basically just wore them all in a row. I think that enormous mustache probably has its own trailer, too! That establishing scene introduced us to a god-like figure who’s an absolute genius in cracking criminal cases. It also revealed his quirky OCD personality, so obsessed he is with balance that when he stepped one foot on manure, he immediately had to do the same with the other foot.

For a story famous for being set on a train, the film took its time to finally get there. But once there, the train set pieces is really quite glorious, filled with lavish set pieces and even more gorgeous passengers decked in 1930s costumes. Despite the rather sluggish pacing, I enjoyed myself thanks to the amazing cast. A movie with Dame Judi Dench is an automatic must-see in my book, though sadly she didn’t get to do anything in this film. But to be fair, most of the actors here seemed to have spent more time in costumes than learning their lines. She’s still memorable here, as is Olivia Colman as Dench’s German maid.

It’s tough to be memorable in a large ensemble cast as this one, but I’d say the film’s MVPs are Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham, Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. Oh, and hello Tom Bateman as train director Bouc (never seen this tall, dark and handsome Brit before but I sure hope I’ll see more of him!) It’s interesting casting to have Johnny Depp as Ratchett given his dire reputation of late. Branagh’s performance is often borderline over the top as well which in itself can be distracting. But I thought his monologue after the big reveal is pretty good and provides the high emotional point of the film. I love La Pfeiffer in this scene too, I’ve missed seeing her in movies. She’s one of those veteran actresses I wish would still get many intriguing roles.

I’m not going to talk about the plot here, but Branagh took some interesting creative licenses with how the story came to the big reveal. He also tried to vary the scenes of each passenger interrogation as to not bore the viewers, some work better than others. I love Branagh’s direction in Cinderella but here he seems too preoccupied with camera work (esp. the bird’s eye view angle) that the film feels rather haphazard at times. The dynamic camera angles adds energy to an otherwise stuffy whodunnit drama, but at times can be quite distracting as well.

Overall it’s a decent adaptation, but I’m not sure if it’s really all that necessary. I feel like the rich story would’ve been better served as a miniseries. There are parts that feel emotional, especially as we get to know who the passengers really are, but I think the film lacks any real suspense. That said, I still enjoyed it thanks to the committed cast, the stunning set pieces and the gorgeous score from one of my fave composers (and Branagh’s regular collaborator) Patrick Doyle. The ending seems to hint at ‘Poirot will return’ a la another titular character James Bond. Not sure I’d be so eager to return to another Poirot adaptation from Branagh though. I guess I’d recommend this if you like the cast, though if you’re a Christie fan you’d probably be more satisfied with re-reading the novel.


Have you seen the latest adaptation of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: LADY BIRD (2017)

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Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Written By: Greta Gerwig
Runtime: 1 hr 34 minutes

So at this point I think that my opinion of Lady Bird is wrong – if it is possible for an opinion on a piece of art to be wrong. The vast majority of everyone seems to have decided that Lady Bird is a piece of subtle genius, a near perfect discussion of adolescence and mother/daughter relationships.

But the movie didn’t do it for me.

Lady Bird opens on a mother and daughter traveling in a car as the last several moments of The Grapes of Wrath fill the silence between them. The monologue ends and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) removes the cassette tape from the tape deck, puts it back in its case, and takes a moment to sit in a harmonious sniffling silence with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). It is one of the few moments of harmony between the two characters and, like every other such moment, it quickly devolves in an argument, which itself terminates with a very dramatic, perfectly indie exit from the vehicle.

Lady Bird’s primary asset is its perfect grasp on indie films as a genre. Lady Bird perfectly encapsulates the quirky real-world aesthetic that makes indie movies so much fun through muted cinematography, a subtle script, and understated performances.

The cast in Lady Bird was incredible. Beanie Feldstein was charming as Julie Steffans, Lady Bird’s best friend. Lucas Hedges played a heart rending Danny O’Neill. Laurie Metcalf (again, the mother character) broke my damn heart on her drive around the airport out of the park, which was an especially marked achievement considering that that portion of the story made no sense. Having loved Saoirse Ronan in movies like Brooklyn and Grand Budapest Hotel, I was surprised to find her completely uninteresting in Lady Bird. Ronan’s performance was a steady monotone, which was a jarring choice considering Lady Bird’s tumultuous inner life. Lady Bird is constantly rebelling, but her exterior is placid to a fault.

I also took issue with the development of two characters: Kyle Scheible (Timothee Chalamet) and Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf). Kyle Scheible was simultaneously filling two icky boyfriend tropes: the pseudo-intellectual and the popular kid, which meant that some of the best jokes were at his character’s expense, but also that he did not make sense as a person. Kyle Scheible always existed on the periphery of a group of beautiful people, ignoring them for books about philosophy or history.

Similarly, Marion McPherson, played to a tee by Laurie Metcalf, made no sense. Perhaps my own childhood, being the average thing that it was, did not prepare me to believe that it is possible for a mother to be so petty with so little reason, but don’t think that’s it. I can buy a mother who is a flawed human and says the wrong thing and, despite it all, is still probably a better mother than she had growing up. What I cannot buy (and excuse me for being vague – I am trying to avoid spoilers) is a mother who reacts in extremes that wind up hurting her more than her victims.

Worse, the end of the movie felt forced. One bad college party makes Lady Bird appreciate her upbringing and the values she was raised with. Although I understand the impulse to wrap the story up neatly, the reason behind the revelation was not there, so it just felt awkward.

Ultimately a few amazing performances and general indie charm are not enough to save Lady Bird. If nothing else interesting is playing, I would still suggest watching it. It’s worth it for the the constant stream of early 2000s nostalgia that runs through the entire movie and a few powerful moments: the hug between Lady Bird and Danny O’Neill (you’ll know it when you see it) and the mother’s drive through the airport are two such moments that come to mind.

Lady Bird has its moments.


hollyHolly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz.  She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times.  You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century. 


Have you seen ‘Lady Bird’? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review – THOR: Ragnarok (2017)

It’s been almost two weeks since I saw Thor: Ragnarok and I’m still giddy thinking about it. In fact, I had just seen Justice League two nights ago and honestly I’d rather write about the latest Thor movie, and this is one I’d readily watch again.

Let me preface this review with the fact that I’m a huge fan of its director, New Zealander Taika Waititi, ever since I saw What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople a year later. Those two rank as one of my favorite films of all time. In fact, even with an all star cast that includes my personal cinematic heroine Cate Blanchett, I’m most excited about Thor: Ragnarok because of Waititi. And boy did he deliver!!

It opens with our Asgardian hero, sans his Mjölnir hammer, being chained by a creature named Surtur who plans to destroy Thor’s planet by fulfilling the propechy of Ragnarok. Chris Hemsworth is definitely much more comfortable in the role, having played Thor half a dozen times by now. But here he gets to show off his comic chops as well. He manages to escape, gets his Mjölnir and fighting mojo back and he returns to Asgard. It’s always a hoot seeing Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (I actually like him more than Thor from the previous films). I’m not going to spoil it for you but what he discovers there is one of the most comical bits of the movie. Let’s just say Taika made a great use of a famous A-lister that could’ve played like an SNL skit if it wasn’t handled properly. Love seeing Sam Neill making a quick appearance too.

The following scenes takes Thor and his half brother Loki to earth, trying to figure out the wherebouts of his father. The scenes involving them and Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is funny stuff as well, peppered with Taika’s brand of quirky humor. As it turns out, it itsn’t just Loki who wants to take over the rule of Asgard, and this time she wouldn’t stop at that. With a name like Hela, of course she wants to rule the entire universe and unleash hell! Miss Blanchett relish on the opportunity to be a sexy, leather-clad, rockstar-ish goddess from hell, with another easy-on-the-eyes actor from Down Under Karl Urban as her lackey. Yes she seems to be purposely chewing the scenery but it works, and it’s fun to watch.

It’s clear the two brothers are no match for Hela and so Thor gets banished to a planet of scraps where his next crazy adventure begins! The new characters Taika introduced here, Valkyrie (bad-ass Tessa Thompson), the Grandmaster (the eternally amusing Jeff Goldblum), a rock creature Korg (voiced in a hilarious high-pitched voice by Taika himself) are all memorable! Even Rachel House (who was hilarious in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) got some hilarious one liners in the movie. I LOVE Valkyrie and Korg I wouldn’t mind seeing more of both of those characters in future Thor movies or even a spin-off! I also love seeing Idris Elba back as Heimdall, who became the loyal guardians for Asgardians. This is perhaps my favorite ensemble cast of all superhero movies.

I read that Taika has always wanted to make the latest Thor movie more comedic, whilst making some creative updates the character and its universe. Well he certainly’s done the job smashingly well! Yep, the term ‘Hulk Smash’ would apply to this movie and all the scenes with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), both as Bruce Banner and the big green creature, are massively entertaining. Everyone seems to be having a blast making this and it shows. But just because it’s chock full of hilarious bits, it doesn’t mean there’s no plot here. The story actually holds up and there’s even some nice moments between Thor and Valkyrie that points to her past as Asgard’s defender. There’s a hint there might be something less-than-platonic between these two and you know what, I’d welcome it! It’s certainly more interesting than Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane.

I’m glad that Marvel once again took a chance on an indie director (following the success of the Russo brothers with the Captain America movies) and Taika Waititi is one of recent filmmakers I discovered who I REALLY want to see making it big. I love that he pushed for more Indigenous representation in his films. Apparently he hired many Aboriginal crew members and the film was shot in Australia. There are quite a few in-jokes for Kiwis and Australians, like the Aboriginal flag colors and the spaceships named after types of Holden, Australian-made cars. My relative actually owned one of those when I was growing up in Indonesia!

SPOILER ALERT! (highlight to read) I don’t know if anyone else noticed this but the plot has a bit of social commentary about how the White people conquered a lot of the Indigenous land. When they’re inside the Asgardian palace, Hela said something about the dark history of Asgard… how Odin used to conquer different planets and wanting to rule the universe, with her by her side. But then Odin gained a conscience and became a benevolent ruler, thus banishing Hela because she didn’t share his vision. She said ‘where do you think we got all of this gold from?’ When I heard that, it sounded like a commentary about colonial privilege, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being the ‘stolen generation’ and white Australians living on someone else’s land. Even the Grandmaster’s line ‘slaves is such a harsh word, I prefer “prisoners with benefits”’ sounds like a sarcastic jab against people calling an awful thing differently as if that would actually lessen its awfulness.

Well, I’m curious if people notice those things or not. One thing for sure, this has become one of my all time favorite movie, not just my favorite Marvel movie. The actions scenes are definitely fun to watch. There are bombastic fight scenes but they don’t feel overlong or overdone like in some other superhero movies. There’s even an entertaining spaceship chase and of course the Thor vs Hulk battle promised in the trailer is still epic and fun! That ‘friend from work’ line is one of the many quotable quips from Taika Waititi’s movies I’d use again and again.

You would think it’d be tough to live up to the super fun trailer w/the rousing Led Zepellin’s Immigrant Song, but the movie manages to do just that… and then some! So yeah, Thor doesn’t just get a spunky new haircut but Taika gives him a whole new attitude and refreshing new take on his franchise. The funniest bits in the trailer is still hilarious in the movie, there’s so much joy and laughter in the whole theater. Like a joyful, thrilling amusement park ride, you can’t wait to get on it again as soon as it’s over!


Well, what did you think of ‘THOR: RAGNAROK’? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

FlixChatter Review: Only The Brave (2017)

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Review by: Vitali Gueron

Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) and is loosely based on an article in GQ, ‘No Exit’, written by Sean Flynn. The film stars Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale and features Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly.

What most people know about the Granite Mountain Hotshots is that they are a young crew of specialist wildfire fighters, tasked with job of fighting wildfires head on.

According to GQ:

Hotshots are invariably referred to as elite firefighters, which suggests years of training, high-end equipment, and a mastery of the mechanics of wildfires. But none of that is required. The entry-level qualifications are a few dozen hours of classroom instruction and a decent level of fitness, and the primary tools are chain saws and Pulaskis, a specialty tool combining an ax and an adze. Hotshots also tend to be young…and few of them make a long career out of it.

During a routine assignment of fighting a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona in June 2013, a total of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were lost to the wildfire and it resulted in the greatest loss of firefighters since 9/11. This was known as the Yarnell Hill Fire. The lone survivor from the 20-man crew was 21-year-old Brendan McDonough (Teller). The pace of the movie starts out really slow, as tells the real life story of Eric and Amanda Marsh (Brolin and Connelly), a married couple who struggle through normal relationship ups and downs, living on a ranch outside Prescott, Arizona. Eric “Supe” Marsh is the superintendent of a hotshot crew of firefighters who are training to be certified to fight wildfires for the Prescott Fire Department. His second-in-command is Jesse Steed (Badge Dale) and the young hotshot crew trusts the both of them with their lives.

Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly

After sever weeks of intense training, in walks Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Donut is the nickname given to him by the more experienced hotshots, the same way a pledge gets one from his fraternity brothers during pledging). Donut went to the firefighters post in Prescott, where the hotshots were headquartered, with a mission. He knew a couple of guys from an EMT class he’d taken at a community college and he’d overheard them mention that Granite Mountain was hiring. But he was a stoned kid, straight out of serving a three-day sentence for theft and those guys knew him, too. No jobs, they told him. The veteran yet overly cocky hotshot Chris MacKenzie (Kitsch) told him straight up, all the positions had been filed. But Eric Marsh overhead McDonough asking and offered to interview him on the spot.

You see, Marsh saw something in McDonough, something he saw when he looked at himself in the mirror — a former addict who was looking for a second chance. McDonough recently had become a father and had to clean up and take more responsibility. And with that responsibility came sacrifice. Yet little did McDonough know just how much sacrifice being a hotshot was really asking of him.

Miles Teller and Taylor Kitsch

As we get ever closer to the inevitable, harrowing ending in Yarnell, we get to see the hotshots for what they were – husbands, fathers, boyfriends and members of Prescott Arizona where Duane Steinbrink (played by Jeff Bridges) is not only the wildland division chief for the city of Prescott by day, but also a mighty fine singer at night with his country band called the Rusty Pistols (yes, Jeff Bridges sings for a bit in the movie). The entire hotshot crew celebrates that night as they bask in the glory of saving the ancient juniper tree during the Doce Fire.

The standouts of the movie are Josh Brolin and Miles Teller. Both actors show a broad depth of acting superiority and might. Brolin is fierce as Marsh, the hotshot superior — tough and calculated, yet humanly fragile, especially when confronting his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly at her best) with issues related to spending a long time apart. Teller is the rookie hotshot, out to prove himself after being known as junkie for all of his life. He brings a tender, yet sincere face to the hotshots and makes the audience feel like they can relate to him. As Donut is tasked with being the lookout for the hotshots in Yarnell, thus separating him from the other and ultimately sparing his life, Teller draws you in and makes you feel what he is feeling, deep down in your gut.

Miles Teller & Josh Brolin

Overall, Only The Brave is a must see movie, whether you want to honor those who gave up their lives to save others from wildfires, or whether you want to see some of the finest storytelling and acting out this year. I would be surprised if you walk out of that theater and don’t feel like you’ve been sucker punched in the gut from that real life human emotion, precisely the kind the producers and director want you to feel when it’s all said and done.


Have you seen ‘Only The Brave’? Well, what did you think? 

TCFF 2017 Reviews: Little Pink House + The Ballad of Lefty Brown

There aren’t enough days in TCFF to post all the reviews. In fact, I still have a few more TCFF reviews coming your way next week, which will be interspersed with new release reviews such as Only The Brave, The Foreigner and The Snowman.

Thanks to TCFF blog contributor Andy Ellis for these reviews. Definitely something to check out when it’s released near you.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown
review by Andy Ellis

If there is one thing that makes The Ballad of Lefty Brown stand out from other westerns it’s Bill Pullman‘s performance. The story itself is a different take on the revenge-type western, because the underdog takes center stage. Lefty Brown (Pullman) witnesses his partner get murdered in front of him, and vows to find the men responsible.

For a western it’s great. There’s plenty of gun fights and suspense to go around. And there are definitely scenes that allow the supporting cast to shine. Peter Fonda plays Edward Johnson, Brown’s partner, and does a great job with the limited screen time he has. Kathy Baker is great as his wife Laura playing a woman is suddenly dealing her husband’s death, keeping the farm going, and finding out who killed her husband. Tommy Flanagan shines as the hardened Federal Marshal Tom Harrah and a longtime friend of Johnson and Brown, who is still trying to overcome a tragedy from his past. Jim Caviezel and Diego Josef also have great supporting parts that make for very memorable scenes.

This, however, is Pullman’s film. If there ever was role that would should garner him some sort of acclaim from critics and awards voters, this would be it. He transforms into Brown, a sidekick with a who no one sees as someone who is capable of successfully avenging his partner’s death. He’s got a bad limp so he’s not always the smoothest at moving, may be mentally slow, and other peculiarties as well.

He overcomes all of that, with a few missteps along the way, with a determination to get justice for his friend. Even with everyone telling him someone else will take care of it, he’s going to get it done or die trying. Everyone can come along for the ride if they want.

Yes, the story is about revenege. But it’s also about one man with a really big heart. And despite all the obstacles in his way won’t even let the possibility of death get in the way of getting justice for his partner, a man who gave him everything.


Little Pink House
Review by Andy Ellis

Academy Award-nominated actress Catherine Keener (Get Out, 40-Year-Old-Virgin) may find herself in the running again with Little Pink House. Adapted from the book Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict, it’s centered around Susette Kelo (Keener) and the events that led up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Kelo vs. City of New London. The decision allowed the government to bulldoze neighborhood property for the benefit of a multibillion-dollar corporation.

The story consists of many characters, but there are two that stand out the most: Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn who plays Charlotte Wells. She’s hired by the governor of Connecticut to convince the citizens of New London to let the government buy their homes. Tripplehorn delivers a great performance as Wells who is undeterred by any obstacles put in her way, but you still really hope she fails.

Keener, who resembles the real-life Kelo pretty well, delivers a great performance of a woman starting over. She just wants to be able to live in her home, but when Wells and the government try taking that away she’s determined, passionate, and rarely loses her composure.

These two women lead a talented supporting cast including Aaron Douglas, Miranda Frigon, and Callum Keith Rennie. They and many others all contribute special moments to the film.

The fact that this is a true story makes it that much more powerful. It’s a story about defiance, courage, and hope. Despite its outcome, this is a movie that have you cheering from your seat.


Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?

 

TCFF 2017 Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri + Blue Balloons

It’s just two days left in TCFF and I’m playing catch-up with posting reviews! You might’ve noticed I’ve got to post a couple of things in a day at times… too many films too little time (both to watch and to review!)

Well, below are couple of reviews from Day 6 and 7.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
review by Andy Ellis

It’s described as a dark comedy, but writer and director Martin McDonagh’s newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has a lot more to offer. The film, led by Frances McDormand who plays Mildred who causes some small town chaos by using three billboards to ask local officials why they haven’t found her daughter’s murderer and rapist yet.

A subject such as this must be treaded upon carefully, and it’s done very well here. The humor comes from the fact that none of the characters hold anything back. Mildred has has no problem telling the local priest how she really feels, or anyone else for that matter. Sam Rockwell shines as Dixon,  a small-minded Sheriff’s Deputy with a short temper ends up costing him dearly in one key scene. If there’s a character who keeps his calm the best in the story it’s Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, the main target of Mildred’s billboard messages.

It’s also a film with a lot of heart in it as well, and it helps round out the characters. One scene causes causes Mildred to switch moods so fast you’ll realize that beneath that pissed-off no-nonsense barrier is a mother that just wants her daughter back. And this role may even earn McDormond some awards recognition, and then same goes for Rockwell.

The rest of the cast rounds out the story pretty well, too, with each one getting their own chance to shine—and they do. Lucas Hodges plays Mildred’s son Robbie who isn’t all on board with his mom’s methods, and Abbie Cornish plays the Sheriff’s wife Anne. Caleb Landry Jones has great scenes as Red Welby the owner of the billboards, and Peter Dinklage has a very small but memorable role. John Hawkes plays Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband, and Samara Weaving steals the show a couple times as Penelope, Charlie’s young girlfriend.

This film is a great mix of everything, and throws more than a few a surprises in there as well. The acting is superb and it’ll leave you wanting more. Now if only more films would grab a hold of you like this one did.


BLUE BALLOONS
Review by Ruth Maramis

This is one of the films with a Minnesota connection that I actually didn’t know much about. So I pretty much going in blindly about the story, other than the fact that the story deals with a terminal illness.

Right from the start, this film feels deeply personal. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but Blue Balloons is an honest, realistic story about a family gripping with the complexity of cancer. Written, directed and produced by Emily Troedson, who also acts as the eldest daughter Claire of the Kippson family, the story is told from her perspective. I like that it paints the day-to-day life of the family in a matter-of-fact, candid way… especially in the way Claire is questioning her faith and her existence in a devout Lutheran community.

Chari and Emily in Blue Balloons

The film’s pacing is a bit slow and really tries your patience at times. I have to say some of the acting by the supporting cast aren’t convincing (crying with no tears visible??), but overall it’s a well-crafted piece with genuinely poignant moments as well as interesting artistic choices. I wish there were more mother-daughter relationship being explored here, though I think the dynamic of the family is portrayed pretty well.

Chari Eckmann as Joanne

I connected most with Emily’s character and she did an amazing job juggling so many roles in the film. Being a daughter who dealt with an ill mother at a young age, there are parts that was hard to watch for me. I also have to commend Chari Eckmann‘s performance (as the cancer-stricken Joanne), her emotional transformation and deterioration throughout the film is believable.

Glad to see so many talented writer/director like Emily having their films at TCFF! I sure hope she continues to make films in the future.


There’s more films and festivities to be had at TCFF!

 

TCFF Reviews – ‘Legends of the Road’ doc + various short films in Comedy, Thriller, Global Perspective & Documentary short blocks

We have passed the halfway mark! What a hectic, whirlwind week it has been. I spoke to TCFF Managing Director Bill Cooper the other day and he said something about all the staff having ‘festival brain’ and that’s definitely how I feel. I’ve watched so many films it’s kind of a blur!

Thankfully I have awesome guest bloggers to help me out… such as Sarah Johnson who’s helped me with reviews of the short films, as well as the Legends of the Road documentary. Being a huge baseball fan, that’s the one Sarah couldn’t wait to see!

So here are her reviews:

Full disclosure: I am a big baseball fan and love the game’s history so am not the most unbiased person to review “Legends of the Road” and therefore I will not be giving it a rating. However, as soon as I saw this movie on the schedule I knew I wanted to see it. As a reviewer often has to see and objectively review movies that may not be appealing to them personally, I felt the opposite could also be true.

The film itself is well done, directed and edited by award-winning documentarian Gary Thomsen, who also happens to be a former Seattle teacher. It tells the extraordinary story of Thomsen’s students from Chief Sealth High School in Washington and their classroom project: to uncover the history of barnstorming, a baseball phenomenon from the early 20th century where all black teams traveled throughout the country playing in money tournaments against local white town teams for a cut of the gate. The project then culminated in a summer long re-creation of this era with a 5,100 mile, 71 day trip done on bicycle while playing 33 games along the way.

These ballplayers (some may have heard of the most famous ones including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson because they also played in the more well known Negro Leagues) helped dispel the notion of white supremacy, not just on the field, but in society, leading Martin Luther King to say that “they laid down the first plank in the civil rights movement.” This is where the film really shines – the story is about much more than baseball. Former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, who came to national prominence with his vivid descriptions of black baseball in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary “Baseball,” is also one of the stars of this film. “This is about the history of our country,” O’Neil says at one point.

One of the other large aspects to the film is another thing that is not new: adults underestimating what kids can accomplish and bureaucrats not in classrooms dictating how students should be taught. “This is not part of the curriculum, nor is it part of anything I’ve seen in vocational education. I don’t understand why you want to do this,” June Rimmer, the chief academic officer for Seattle Public Schools, said. I’d like to check back with the students involved in this project in 20 years and hear their memories on their breadth of work that was “not part of the curriculum.”

For this project, students conducted all of the research, honed public speaking skills to make presentations to companies in the hopes of securing sponsors for the trip, managed logistics of food, lodging and game preparation…as well as shot footage to be used in the documentary. There were two distinct groups of students involved with the trip – those on the logistics and production side and the baseball players who rode bicycles from town to town (often covering more than 100 miles per day) and then played in games throughout the trip. “It was incredibly challenging logistically,” Thomsen says at one point. Gee, you think? At one point I began to wonder if young people could have been the only ones to pull this off – the movie doesn’t mention anything about how (if at all) the bike riders went about training for this adventure. Perhaps that’s something you don’t need to worry about when you’re in high school – oh, to be young again.

The film is very comprehensive in covering all aspects of the project, from the origination of the idea to the celebration at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City at the end of the trip. Just because I’m a fan of baseball history, the one thing that left me wanting more was the end product of all of the research – where did all of that information end up? I’m assuming it was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame but even a mention of this at the end of the film would have helped. Baseball fans will certainly appreciate “Legends of the Road” but other audiences should also enjoy this addition to our nation’s ongoing conversation on race and education.

Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, being interviewed by TCFF host Amanda Day

SHORT FILMS reviews

Humbug

“Humbug,” the short film highlighting those with no holiday spirit, will appeal to those who greet that time of the year with dread. As I am one of those people, I appreciated the premise of this seven minute piece. When Scarlet (Jessee Foudray) crushes a gingerbread cookie offered by her peppy neighbor Betty (Milly Sanders, also the writer), Betty decides to embark on a series of steps worthy of a horror film to change her mind. “We’ll have to do this the hard way,” Betty calmly tells Scarlet.

The scenario is well played by both actresses and the mix of over-the-top Christmas imagery and ghastly bodily functions will satisfy those who have had enough December cheer to last a lifetime. The ending was a little too convenient for me but overall this short film is an entertaining one.

Girl Meets Roach

I have reviewed full length and short films for the Twin Cities Film Fest for several years and sometimes I come across a piece of work that I’m not sure if it was meant to be reviewed. Such is the case with “Girl Meets Roach,” the 17 minute short film by brother and sister team Alison Zatta (Writer and Lead Actress) and Christopher Zatta (Director). In his bio, Christopher writes that he formed King Fish Productions as a platform to write and direct independent material.

I can only hope that they are using “Girl Meets Roach” as practice to hone their skills. The premise and execution of this story are entirely cliché – girl gets dumped by her boyfriend, we cut to obligatory scenes of her listening to old messages while moping around her house, the best friend comes over, the jilted girlfriend plans revenge…it just goes on. I appreciate the role of film festivals to support new work by independent artists and hope “Girl Meets Roach” was merely a practice turn to get experience in this field.

Afterword

Describing “Afterword,” Director and Co-Writer Boris Seewald explains it as “A film about loneliness, self-discovery and one person’s pursuit of glory. It examines not only the wider journey of appreciation, but also the need to be heard by those who love and loved you, and the need to be heard by yourself.” Lofty goals for a ten minute short film.

What follows is a woman (Marama Corlett) bringing you into her world of philosophical ramblings on…well, pretty much anything. (One line in this film is “if you are a bird, watch where you poop.” I am not making this up.) The only highlight is the performance by Corlett – with her pageboy haircut, red beret and piercing stare she admirably draws you into her stream of consciousness. The rest of it still has me baffled.

Tagati

“Tagati” Director Bill Haley is upfront about his short film being a sort of trailer for a feature film based on the concept presented at the Twin Cities Film Fest. “The Sopranos” in a roadside diner is how I thought of the opening scene, as Aja (LaTonya Grant) meets with a hitman named only as Badass (Mark Simms) to do away with her husband.

It’s a peek into a stylish film noir thriller complete with pulsating music and expert direction. Trailers are supposed to get audiences interested and excited to see the full length movie – this piece certainly succeeded.

Marieke

“It’s not just a piece of cheese.” While there have been negative consequences about the advent of the internet and social media, one of the fun things has been the ability for people skilled in a particular niche to connect with others who share their passion. Such is the case in “Marieke,” the seven minute short film by Director/Editor Thomas Johnson, who profiles acclaimed Dutch gouda cheesemaker Marieke Penterman from Thorp, Wisconsin.

I am not a cheese connoisseur but I can relate to one’s appreciation for the finer aspects of a certain hobby or profession. (I am a big baseball fan and could spend all day talking about it.) Penterman cheerfully takes you into her cheese adventures, explaining how her cows have personality and the process that goes into hand painting a skin around the yellowish rounds to preserve it but still let it breathe. “Marieke” was a refreshing look into her world.

Science Olympiad

High school was a long time ago for me so watching films like “Science Olympiad” give me hope for the next generation. It not only features teenage students, it was also made by a teenage student, 17 year old Elise Tsai from the Twin Cities. She focuses on an extra curricular activity in which teams of 15 students compete in 23 events involving science, technology and engineering. The film focuses on Mounds View High School (a suburb of Minneapolis) and their incredibly successful team – winner of 11 state championships and five consecutive top ten finishes in the nation.

“You have to spend a lot of time looking up parts, trying them out and if it doesn’t work you have to try it again,” one student says. Seems like the work you need to put into anything in life to succeed. (Indeed, at the end of the film it notes that one of the participants is going to be studying Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.) Although their creations are fascinating, the kids are really the stars of the show and their positive energy and enthusiasm is infectious. As one student says, “at its core, it’s just fun.”

Double talk

What a delight this film was on a familiar but rarely highlighted craft! In “Double Talk,” director Jessica Bernstein-Wax features the work of Spanish actor Joan Pera, who has worked as an onscreen dubber for famous actors, most notably Woody Allen. Often denigrated as the ugly stepchild in the film industry, it’s clear Pera takes pride in his craft, especially in the scenes with his son who also works in the same line of work.

He and his son enjoy a friendly rivalry when the father is called in to dub some of his son’s work. “There’s always room for improvement,” the son says, critiquing the job his father did. “In my case it’s hard,” the father replies. I don’t speak Spanish (or Catalan, the regional dialect also featured) but, having seen many Woody Allen films, it’s amazing how Pera replicates Allen’s voice intonation and mannerisms. Bernstein-Wax’s first film has been well received, garnering the Jury Award for Best Short Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival earlier this year. I can see why.

The Courtesy of Angels

Created by a French filmmaker, Valerie Theodore, “The Courtesy of Angels” has taken a universal story around the world. It tells the story of Louise (Delphine Theodore), a young caretaking assistant, and her interactions with an amnesic old man, Mr. Vadim (Andre Oumansky). This short film is in French with English subtitles.

The theme of interconnectedness among generations is global and I found myself drawn to one of the movie’s main lines – “well being is the courtesy of angels.” Theodore ably highlights the fragility of life and good health, something that translates in any language.

Tourvall II: Into the darkness

I’ve said before in doing reviews on short films that sometimes I’m amazed how filmmakers are able to create a fully developed plot in under ten minutes. At only seven minutes, at first I felt that Writer/Director Sean Skinner’s “Tourvall II: Into the Darkness” was taking too long to get to the point. After watching the entire piece, I came to the conclusion that there isn’t a point. But to the film’s credit, that didn’t make it any less entertaining.

We see Sven Skarnestad (Mick Karch) visiting former pro wrestler Tourvall “The Terrible” Johannsen (Joe Berglove) on his deathbed and reliving some of his past glory. The film aptly spoofs the crazy world of professional wrestling and the interjection of Jorge Gundersen (Edward Linder), an eager convalescent home employee, was an unexpected and amusing touch. (As Sven is sitting bedside, Jorge hands him a brochure and says, “Please take a moment to fill out the survey. We would love to your Yelp review. We’re also on the Twitter: #notjustaplacetodie.”) Silliness for sure, but what’s wrong with that?


Hearts Want’s premiere

Hearts Want‘s main TCFF premiere is today, Thursday 10/26 at 5pm (with red carpet interview at 4:30). There are a few tickets left for tonight, but act fast before they’re gone. Click on the banner below to get tickets.


Coming up tomorrow…

Two Minnesota-connected films are playing back-to-back tomorrow night… Twin Cities is actually produced by the director of Hearts Want, Jason P. Schumacher!

Stay tuned for interviews with writer/director of Twin Cities David Ash and one of the main actors of Ruin Me, Alex Galick.


The daily TCFF coverage continues… 


TCFF 2017 Indie Film Spotlight: BUTTERFLY CAUGHT & interview w/ filmmakers/cast

One of the major perks of attending/covering film festivals is you get to see outstanding indie films long before you can see them on the big screen (that is if they even get distribution). That’s why I’m always on the lookout for films such as Butterfly Caught that I sure hope would get some kind of distribution after its film festival run.

Three aspiring actresses set out to break into the cut-throat world of acting in Los Angeles. Naomi is on the verge of stardom, Joe struggles to keep her head above water and Elsa is a fresh face on the scene. As each young woman is forced to face her deepest fears and insecurities, they all discover the lengths to which they will go to fight against failure. The promise of Hollywood is tempting, but what will they do when that promise is broken? How will they cope when pushed to their breaking points? Butterfly Caught offers a glimpse into the darker side of Hollywood’s bright facade, exposes the seduction of fame and captures the thirst for relevance in a city that cycles through talent and destroys ambitions.

My review:

This is a terrific debut from Manny Rodriguez Jr. based on his own script that draws inspiration from his and his wife’s Lisa (who’s one of the producers) own experience being in Hollywood.

The film started out with a monologue from an acting coach (great character actor Tony Plana) giving a sobering speech to his wide-eyed students, intercut with a an audition scene to a big studio film Blackbird. Naomi Baker (Alex Sgambati), Joe Jennings (Abigail Klien) and the new girl (Abigail Klien) are housemates, each trying to make their break through. The promise of success is tempting to be sure, but the taste of glitz and fame is even more seductive in Tinsel Town.

Alex Sgambati as Naomi

It’s a familiar story that’s made even more resonant and timely given the recent Weinstein scandal. But even without that in the media, I think the film would resonate to people who aren’t in the film biz because we’re all struggling to achieve something, and at times in that journey we are pushed to our breaking points. Even though I never dreamed of acting in Hollywood, I can relate to each of the characters.

Jess Jacobs as Joe

The three main actresses did a great job in the film, but so are the supporting actors Adam Ambruso, Jake Olson and Grant Liffmann. Casting is so crucial in any film, and they were all well cast. Kudos to the writer/director for making fully-realized characters, brought to life wonderfully by the strong ensemble cast. The struggle felt real and I was caught up in their journey.

Abigail Klien as Elsa

I also appreciate the fact that the film is tasteful in the way it depicts the dark side of pursuing fame, particularly in Hollywood, with all the seduction and temptations that come with that. It could’ve easily been exploitative in its depiction (in sexuality or violence) but I’m so glad it isn’t. I hope this film gets a decent distribution (maybe even theatrical release). It’s a captivating story that’s emotional as well as entertaining. This film certainly makes you pause and ponder, as well as inspire, those who’ve had artistic struggles in life (and really, who hasn’t?)

Q1. What’s the inspiration behind the story? Is it a personal experience or something that happens to someone close to you?

Q2. In light of the Weinstein scandal, your film becomes even more relevant and timely. Would you comment on this whole ordeal from your perspective as a filmmaker working in Hollywood?

Q3. Manny, you grew up under the studio system, but you’re now breaking free into the indie world. How has the studio background influence/help you in making this project?

Q4. You said in your press release that L.A. is full of talented people who never got their shot. So is your film sort of an homage to struggling/striving actors as well as a commentary about the frustration of the artistic process?

Q5. Tell me a bit about the significance of the title and the theme of metamorphosis as the film deals with personal growth of the characters.


One of the actors of the film, Jake Olson, who played Wil (Naomi’s teacher boyfriend) arrived from the airport just in the nick of time before our scheduled afternoon interview. I talked to him as well about how he got involved in the film and his own personal journey as an actor who moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles.


Check out the trailer below:


Thanks so much Lisa, Manny, Jake and Adam for chatting w/ me.
Stay tuned for my interview post w/ Adam Ambruso!

TCFF 2017 Day 4 – Two great film panels + Reviews of ‘Beauty Mark’ and MN-made drama ‘Cold November’

Saturday was a jam-packed day for me. I’m bummed that I missed the early Filmmaker Brunch as I wasn’t feeling well so I overslept (hey bloggers are humans too!), but my morning started with two great film panels, part of TCFF’s free Educational Programs!

The first panel was on Making, Distributing, Marketing & Watching: What’s the Impact of Digital? at 11:00am

Like many industries, the business of TV and Film distribution is certainly changing due to digital – whether you’re watching on your phone or tablet, dropping the cable package, making a web series or seeing a film online at the same time it’s in theaters…the landscape is shifting quickly.

I learned quite a few things from this very insightful panel… these are just small sampling:

  • Don’t create films in a vacuum
  • Make a beautiful film you believe in and passionate about, but also marketable
  • Marketing/PR is critical for film distribution even if your film is already on iTunes or some other platform, simply because most people don’t even know it’s there


The second panel is one I’ve been looking forward to as I’ve become a filmmaker myself this year…

Film Fatales in the Twin Cities

Members from the newest chapter of this global collective of female feature film directors discuss the power of collaboration in the fight for gender equality within the film industry. 

It’s so inspiring to learn from Lisa Blackstone, Melissa Butts, Norah Shapiro,Missy Whiteman, and moderator Melody Gilbert. Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences making films, and for inspiring aspiring filmmakers like me to keep on keeping on and not to give up on my dream of making my feature film one day!


Here’s my quick thoughts on the two films I saw on Day 4…

This is the kind of heart-wrenching films that’s hard to watch at times, but you’re glad you did. Inspired by true events, it’s a story of a poverty-stricken young mother forced to move out of her condemned house. Anchored by a harrowing, bravura performance by Auden Thornton, the film transports you into her painful reality of a life and forces you to wake up from your comfortable confines of your own.

The protagonist single mother Angie can’t seem to catch a break… taking care of her toddler son and alcoholic, overbearing mother with only sixty five dollars to her name. Slowly it’s revealed she has been abused as a child. As if that wasn’t tough enough, she realized he’s the only person with money she felt she could turn to.

Writer/director Harris Doran made you truly empathize with Angie despite some of her questionable decisions. It’s a truly gritty, upsetting and even haunting film that made you want to scream for the injustices the character suffers.

Spoiler alert (highlight to read) One thing I wish I didn’t see was the topless scene towards the end, given the topic against abuse and sexual objectification of women. Yes perhaps it’s a deliberate choice of the filmmaker, but I feel that there are SO many ways to show what the character does/show without actually showing it to the audience. It’d still be just as impactful IMHO because the character (and likely the actress playing her) has gone through so much in the film. That’s just my honest personal opinion anyways, others might feel differently about this.

In any case, it’s a well-made, phenomenally-acted piece that should be seen. I sure hope to see Aiden in more films as she’s definitely one of the best actresses I’ve seen in my years of covering TCFF.


It’s October, so Winter is definitely coming soon. No, I’m not looking forward to snow at all, especially during my commute. But watching this film makes me appreciate just how beautiful is the Minnesota Wintry landscape. The film centers on a midwestern matriarchy guiding 12-year-old Florence through the rite-of-passage of her first deer hunt.

Bijou Abas plays the young protagonist and this is her feature film debut. I learned that she was in an episode of In An Instant with Hearts Want’s lead actor Peter Hansen back in 2016. I thought she did a wonderful job giving a reserved but assured performance, where most of the time she has to communicate only with her facial expression.

I have to say being that I’m not into hunting at all (can’t even hurt a squirrel!), all I had to avert my eyes during all the deer skinning scenes. The scene of Florence all alone in the woods after she killed her first deer is also tough to watch for me. The rite-of-passage story is nicely-told, as well as the multi-generation familial connections. The story is supposedly told from Florence’s point of view, but I find the film’s lacking a sharp focus. Apart from her aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner), the supporting characters didn’t seem fully fleshed out. At 104 minutes, I also think the editing could’ve been much tighter.

Overall it’s a gorgeous film with a quiet grace. Filmed in Hibbing, Northern Minnesota, at times the film is so beautiful it could double as a Wintry skiing resort commercial. Kudos to writer/director Karl Jacobs (who also played uncle Craig) for creating a compelling MN family drama with a strong young woman that many girls can aspire to. At the Q&A afterwards, Bijou seemed really delighted to play the lead role and sounds like she, as well as everyone in the cast/crew, enjoyed making this, too!


What’s in store for Day 6

Boy, Monday is jam-packed with a ton of amazing films!! Four strong documentaries – ABU, Legends of the Road, Purple Dreams and She Started It. There’s also three feature films, Blue Balloons, Butterfly Caught and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

I’ll post my interview for the indie drama Butterfly Caught later this week!

So, stay tuned to more daily TCFF coverage!