Movie Review: Dave Made a Maze

Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze (C-) is puzzlingly one-note, like a student film stretched incessantly to feature length and a bit too pleased with its random acts of peculiarity. When a frustrated thirty-year-old (Nick Thune, unconvincing) builds a cardboard labyrinth in his apartment and unwittingly “boxes” his hipster friends within a walled garden that starts taking on a life of its own, metaphors and minotaurs are unleashed with reckless abandon. The acting is largely unconvincing and sometimes insufferable, but there are some nifty practical effects and epic moments of stoner whimsy sure to charm. It’s hard to completely dislike a film in which the ensemble is temporarily re-cast with paper-bag puppets. There are a few surprises around some of the corners, and Meera Rohit Kumbhani is fiercely committed to her underwritten role. Ultimately the story simply can’t support its playful premise and starts to feel more like a dumpster dive than a flight of fantasy.

Note: A hit at the Slamdance Film Festival, DMAM was featured as the opening night movie of the 41st Annual Atlanta Film Festival. #ATLFF

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: CHiPS

These sleazy riders receive a citation and a C grade for being decidedly middle of the road. Dax Shepard wrote, directed and stars as Jon opposite Michael Peña’s Ponch in the buddy comedy film based on the vintage TV show CHiPS, and the West coast chill vibe is so pervasive that the movie nearly forgets to identify a protagonist or conflict. By the time it introduces eyebrow-raising vulgarities and daredevil motorcycle stunts, the flourishes seem largely superfluous. Peña is the comic find here, playing against his usual stoic dramatic type to quite enjoyable effect. Shepard exerts occasional wit and flair behind the camera and proves a deft physical comedian. Together the central duo has good chemistry but not much to do. 21 Jump Street did this same shtick better.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Despite being overstuffed and overproduced, Emma Watson is by far the best special effect in Bill Condon’s live action Beauty & the Beast (B-) as the luminous leading lady who enlivens the fairy tale proceedings with enchanting radiance. Attempts to color outside the lines of the 1991 animated musical’s story and to lovingly re-create iconic classic sequences are both a mixed bag: the opulent “I want” song called “Belle” is simply smashing, awash with propulsive joy and resplendent color, but by the time an awkwardly unappetizing “Be Our Guest” is served up by curiously stilted anthropomorphic antiques, it’s more of a test of endurance than the whimsical showstopper that played out as a cartoon. A star-studded cast is squandered; set pieces seem limited to one village, one castle and one CGI forest; and the awkwardness of an inter-species romance feels a little strange when everyone isn’t rendered in line art. Luke Evans is quite good as Gaston, and there’s some new back story that provides intrigue for those concerned this will simply be a shot for shot remake. It’s good source material, so the original Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are a delight (the new Alan Menken/Tim Rice song snippets aren’t as good). See it mainly for Watson’s game take on a Disney heroine (better still, see this actress in Perks of Being a Wallflower). Otherwise, there’s not much here that wasn’t there before.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

In the latest case of CGI taxidermy, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (C+) plumbs a menagerie of good ideas but doesn’t zero in on any of them well enough. Set in the post-Vietnam War era, a band of American explorers sets sail to an uncharted land filled with mythical creatures and must confront if they are the peacekeepers or oppressors of their new jungle. Early sequences have a fabulous Raiders of the Lost Ark or Rocketeer type vibe but devolve into video game overload style anarchy. The film is notable for the sheer randomness it allows its cast members to bite the dust. Frankly, others could have joined them. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are among the charmless ensemble. There were two to three spectacular action sequences stitched together with a lot of awkward exposition in between. I’ve had better times with animated apes at Showbiz Pizza.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Logan

It’s an encore from a legend worthy of the bows and two-clawed applause. And although it may not quite justify its extended running time, James Mangold’s Logan (B+) is elegiac and electric, giving Hugh Jackman’s blade-limbed hero a fitting farewell. It’s the first superhero of the sandwich generation as Boomer Wolverine becomes dual caretaker for a senile Professor Xavier, gamely reprised by Patrick Stewart, and a pint-sized mutant played by Dafne Keen. The film is largely a chase movie from a Mexican border town upwards through the U.S. to a Canadian outpost called Eden. Set in a dystopian future, the film features X-Men comic books as clues to part of the story. There’s intriguing background mythology, high stakes action, graphic violence, exciting fight choreography and a badass villain played by Boyd Holbrook. The film absolutely delivers the goods for fans of the X-Men Movie franchise and of the Wolverine character in particular. In fact, it’s the dramatic high point for the series. Jackman is wonderful, and Mangold gives the film magnificent lived-in flourishes.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Get Out

Prepare your senses for the clock-woke orange pulp confection of audacious moviemaking to hit a nerve in some time. Funnyman-turned-first-time-director Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller Get Out (A-) is a suspenseful and lively tale of a twentysomething black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting the suburban family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), and the maiden voyage is a mindbender. Let’s just say that after the home tour, the events that follow will leave you guessing about a whole lot more than who’s coming to dinner. From the spot-on casting of Williams’ ultra-progressive parents to the sustained sense of dread around the townspeople and groundskeepers, Peele depicts the mounting terror that may be afoot in the neighborly facade. It’s like Shining-era Stanley Kubrick got an all-out David Lynching. Themes about the appropriation of race and culture are seamlessly marinated into a savory stew of a storyline; and the acting, music, sounds and setting all work in harmony to incredible effect. Catherine Keener is a standout as a therapist with unconventional hypnotic techniques, brilliantly rendered. As a horror film, it’s less gory and more allegory. But it’s edge of your seat material and sure to be the conversation starter of the year!

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Posted in 2017

Industry News: Oscar Predictions in Eight Major Categories

UPDATE: Moonlight was the upset Best Picture winner, and Casey Affleck prevailed as Best Actor in one of the most unusual awards ceremonies of recent years!

 

Original Story:

The countdown begins until Academy Awards weekend!  2016 ended up being a pretty good year for movies, with a slate of outstanding films vying for top honors Sunday night at the Oscars. Below are the nominations for the main prizes in acting, writing and directing along with my predictions of the expected winners.

Best Picture

The nominations are:

La La Land is a celebration of Hollywood and romance among films with heavier and darker themes. It has swept most of the precursor awards and is expected to win the top prize. If there is an upset, it could be crowd-pleasing Hidden Figures, a surprising box office hit with historic gravitas and an empowering message. Moonlight, Manchester, Hell or High Water and Arrival are my favorites. And I’m a loner in my tepid response to Lion, which is the only head-scratcher on the list.

Best Director

The nominations are:

This is likely a year when Best Picture and Best Director will match, thus a win for Damien Chazelle. After he emerged on the scene with the critically lauded Whiplash, his La La Land continued to make a profound mark in a great young career. Barry Jenkins also created a masterpiece with Moonlight, but it’s less showy.

Best Actress

The nominations are:

There’s talk of an Isabelle Huppert upset, but I’ll stick with a prediction for Emma Stone, who in her one-take “audition scene” transforms from everywoman to transcendent movie goddess. It was a great year for actresses, and I wish Annette Bening were in the mix for 20th Century Women.

Best Actor

The nominations are:

I’m on Team Affleck or Team Mortensen for their magnificent portrayals of unexpected dads, but my prediction is for Denzel Washington who acted and directed himself in August Wilson’s domineering daddy of a role in Fences. The chance to honor the actor with a third statuette and induct him into a rarefied pantheon of multiple winners seems enticing to the Hollywood chattering class.

Best Supporting Actress

The nominations are:

She campaigned in the wrong category, because Viola Davis would have won for lead or supporting actress for her role in Fences. She is superb. In a different year, we’d be toasting Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams for their wonderful working class performances, but Washington and Davis have an August Wilson script and Tony awards already and have been refining these immortal roles for a while.

 

Best Supporting Actor

The nominations are:

As the drug dealer with a heart of gold, Mahershala Ali appears in only the first third of Moonlight, but he is unforgettable. This could be an upset category for Dev Patel or any of the nominees, but Ali stands tall in a noble role and sends a strong anti-bullying message.

Best Original Screenplay

The nominations are:

This category is a great chance to honor Lonergan, a journeyman playwright and screenwriter who penned a corker of a script this year with Manchester by the Sea. Or, Academy voters could just check every box for the Hollywood musical. I predict Lonergan and Manchester in this category.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominations are:

  • Arrival (Eric Heisserer, based on a short story by Ted Chiang)
  • Fences (August Wilson, adapted from his play)
  • Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly)
  • Lion (Luke Davies, based on the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose)
  • Moonlight (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, based on the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney)

This category is a great chance to honor Moonlight; and if there is an upset in Supporting Actor, there should be a win here for this moving coming of age film. After last year’s #oscarssowhite, this year’s ceremony should bask in a bit more of the rainbow.

 

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Posted in 2017, Industry News

Movie Review: The Lego Batman Movie

Director Chris McKay shows audiences exactly where a famous caped crusader gets those wonderful toys in the whimsical mini-fig laden animated feature The LEGO Batman Movie (B). A spinoff of 2014’s similarly hilarious The LEGO Movie, this new movie’s creators prove the novelty behind these films is not a one-brick pony. Will Arnett successfully voices a braggadocio Dark Knight and enriches the legend with a story about the hero’s solitude and emerging pangs for a community of his own. Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, Rosario Dawson as the new police commissioner of Gotham City and especially Michael Cera as Robin help create a lively surrogate gang of foils and family. The humor is nonstop with anarchic delights as McKay and his team plunder both the DC and Warner Brothers canons for an endless parade of cameos ranging from Martian Manhunter to Stripe Gremlin. Like a Richard Scarry book come to life with Wonder Woman twirling her lasso in one corner of the frame while Zan, Jayna and Gleek do a conga line, there’s more visual feast on the screen than can be absorbed. The film’s builders demonstrate an uncanny knowledge of the superhero films preceding this one and even pull from a Superman universe plot line to propel the narrative. There’s enough action, comedy and heart to please the palettes of all who attend; and although it’s hard to top the novelty of the first film made of bricks, these pegs have legs. Save Save Save

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Posted in 2017

Industry News: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Announces First-Ever Jury Award Winners

After 23 days and a record 202 screenings, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) celebrated its Closing Night on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 with the announcement of its first-ever Jury Prizes, which were deliberated by an esteemed panel of filmmakers, journalists and experts. In addition, the festival revealed its annual Audience Award winners, which are set for a day of encore screenings in March.

The AJFF Inaugural Jury Prizes went to best Narrative Feature, Documentary Feature and Short, as well as the categories of Emerging Filmmaker, Building Bridges and Human Rights. The Emerging Filmmaker Prize was awarded to a rising creative talent whose film shows exceptional skill and artistry. The Building Bridges Prize honors the film that most exemplifies the mission of AJFF, informed by founder and partner American Jewish Committee, to foster understanding among communities of diverse religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Rounding out the list is the Human Rights Prize, awarded to the film that most powerfully captures the perseverance and strength of those guided by a sense of justice in the face of bigotry, inequality, or persecution.

With the regular festival complete, upcoming AJFF programming includes special encore presentations of the 2017 AJFF Audience Award winning films on Sunday, March 5, at GTC Merchants Walk Cinema. Fanny’s Journey, the story of a brave, resourceful young girl who leads a small band of orphans through Nazi-occupied France, won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, while The Freedom to Marry, a thrilling and inspiring insiders’ look at the greatest civil rights movement of today, nabbed Best Documentary Feature. Winning the Audience Award for Best Short Film is Oscar®-nominated Joe’s Violin, the story of how a musical instrument unites a Holocaust survivor and a Bronx schoolgirl.

 

The complete list of the 2017 AJFF Jury Prize Winners is below. Each panel also included a film student juror from Emory University.

  • JURY CHAIR

    • Arik Sokol (Producer, Opus Media Productions)

 

 

Narrative Feature Jury Prize Winner: FANNY’S JOURNEY

The moving, beautifully realized story of a young Jewish girl, who led a group of children to safety during the Holocaust. Compellingly acted by young leads and elegantly directed by Lola Doillon, Fanny’s Journey adeptly balances the brightness of the human spirit with the darkness of its depravity.

 

Documentary Feature Jury Prize Winner: AIDA’S SECRETS

The affecting account of two long-lost brothers, one raised in Canada and the other in Israel, who discover each other and attempt to uncover the story behind their separation after the Holocaust. Both historical and deeply personal, Aida’s Secrets is a powerful human tale about the meaning of family.

 

 

Winner: Eran Kolirin for BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS AND HILLS

Beyond the Mountains and Hills shows an Israeli family in the throes of various crises that intersect in surprising and illuminating ways, giving us new insights into the contemporary Israeli landscape. The director seamlessly interweaves realistic and poetic imagery to create a cinematic picture of life at the edge of change.

 

  • BUILDING BRIDGES JURY

 

Winner: THE 90 MINUTE WAR

When all else fails, the unthinkable becomes plausible. The 90 Minute War depicts, in small and large ways, the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through its realistic characters and complex parallel narratives, the film illustrates — with occasional humor and nuanced wit — that anything besides compromise in this conflict would be absurd.

 

 

Winner: THE FREEDOM TO MARRY

This film is an insightful examination into the history behind the struggle for marriage equality. Even though viewers may well and probably do know the outcome, it keeps them engaged and invested in learning the critical journey and the key players in the extra-legal battle. The film helps the viewer understand both the legal process in taking a human rights case to the Supreme Court and the need to galvanize public opinion.

 

 

Winner: THE LAST BLINTZ

It is no easy feat to juggle themes such as gentrification, Jewish history, community activism and personal loss within the confines of a half hour. But that’s exactly what this film does, using the setting of an old New York establishment to explore the way memories come to define iconic locations to the point where change seems unthinkable — and then arrives, no matter how much resistance there is to stop it. For its ability to present a powerful ode to nostalgia and a wistful portrait of the march of time, we award our top prize to The Last Blintz.

More than 37,500 moviegoers attended the 2017 AJFF. The festival was thrilled to have successfully delivered an improved audience experience this year: more screenings of in-demand films, and at more convenient show times, translating to greater access and an improved onsite experience for all audiences. The experience furthers our mission to foster cultural understanding through the power of cinematic storytelling.

As always, AJFF’s guest speakers and panel discussions brought out the best of the 2017 lineup, including discussions with filmmakers, scholars, and other experts throughout the festival. The 2017 AJFF featured a range of international films that included a host of dramas, family-friendly fare, charming comedies, sports-themed films, and a variety of topical subject matter, overall considered by many to be the festival’s most well-rounded lineup to date.

For more information, visit AJFF.org, or stay connected via social media on Twitter @ATLJewishFilm and on Facebook and Instagram at /atljewishfilm.

AJFF’s mission is to entertain and engage diverse audiences with film through a Jewish lens. In so doing, AJFF fulfills its vision to inspire communities to new levels of social and cultural understanding. Seeking to use the power of film both to entertain and educate, AJFF challenges conventional perspectives on Jewish culture and history, life in Israel, and the work of Jewish artists—particularly where these stories intersect with other communities.

AJFF features an international collection of more than 70 narrative and documentary films (in both feature and short form) that connect with the Jewish experience. The festival brings to Atlanta major films representing more than two dozen countries each year. No screening is without a guest speaker or panel discussion, led by filmmakers, actors, authors, academics and/or other experts.

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival was founded in 2000 by the Atlanta Regional Office of American Jewish Committee (AJC), a global advocacy organization that enhances the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel through education, outreach and diplomacy. Through the power and shared experience of cinematic storytelling, AJC and AJFF foster stronger bonds within the Jewish community, and intergroup relations with Atlanta’s diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities. Today, AJFF is an independent non-profit arts organization that continues an active partnership with its founding agency, American Jewish Committee.

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Movie Review: The Women’s Balcony

Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony (Hebrew Title: Ismach Hatani) (B+) is an often jubilant dramedy about taking a stand, especially when oppression manifests with a seductive face. After a flimsy women’s prayer balcony in an aging Jerusalem synagogue topples and the temple’s senile rabbi is too infirm to oversee the renovation, the men of the tight-knit congregation turn to a charismatic young ultra-Orthodox leader, convincingly played by Abraham Aviv Alush, to guide the rebuild. His new ideas are actually old ones and involve setting the women of the church back in terms of their ability to think, pray and express themselves with any sense of modernity. Radiant actress Evelin Hagoel is the primary protagonist, magnificent in her decency and defiance. The entire ensemble of feisty women is remarkable, and it it is in their light and often humorous approach that a powerful parable comes to compelling life. A bit more muted than the similarly themed Spike Lee movie Chi-Raq, this Israeli film handles gender and religion with a deft touch and a splendid depiction of community. Ultimately it’s a celebration of enduring traditions and the power of progress in standing up for equality.

Note: The Women’s Balcony is the closing night presentation of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and is making appearances at many film festivals around the world this season.

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