August 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Lee Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow, Kate Moss
Directed by: Ian Bonhôte (debut) and Peter Ettedgui (debut)

During a scene in the 2009 dramedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” an inexperienced fashion magazine assistant played by Anne Hathaway complains to her boyfriend about the pretentious nature of the fashion world. The magazine’s callous editor had berated her for an innocent, albeit clueless, remark she made about accessories.

“They all act like they’re curing cancer or something,” she says of the fashionistas. “The amount of time and energy that these people spend on these insignificant, minute details, and for what?”

If moviegoers can identify with Hathaway’s initial attitude about the garment industry — that putting something as frivolous as fashion on a pedestal is a pointless fascination — it’s probably safe to say that they’re not “Project Runway” fans nor are they likely to care about the difference between weft and warp knitting.

That doesn’t suggest, however, that, like Hathaway’s character, they can’t appreciate the hard work and effort it takes to construct something like an A-line skirt or cardigan jacket. Even if the names Christian Dior or Donatella Versace mean little in the grand scheme of things, one must recognize the artistic ability needed to be a successful fashion designer. That theme couldn’t be truer than in the documentary “McQueen,” a touching and deeply personal, rags-to-riches story of the late British fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. A fascinating tribute to McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010, the doc delves into his brilliant career and the inspiration behind his collections, and explores his devastating depression that ultimately led to his death.

Directed by first-time feature documentarians Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, “McQueen” represents the vision of the title protagonist through intimate home recordings, heartfelt interviews with family and friends and, most importantly, video of the intricate runway shows the highly-skilled designer staged. Like the cinematic equivalent of his couture pieces, “McQueen” is stunning and conspicuous. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is unconventional.

“McQueen” follows the standard documentary blueprint featuring a tortured artist and does so with satisfying, but not revolutionary, results. In recent years, films that have fallen under this category include 2012’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” 2014’s Academy Award-nominated “Finding Vivian Maier” and the Academy Award-winning 2015 Amy Winehouse doc “Amy.” “McQueen” isn’t able to reach those heights mostly because, as storytellers, Bonhôte and Ettedgui don’t match the creativity of their subject.

Bonhôte and Ettedgui attempt to customize the narrative by breaking it up into different sections (for example, “Tape One: Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and “Tape Three: It’s a Jungle Out There”), but it turns out to be a meaningless exercise in editing. Also unnecessary are transition shots of gold skulls melding with flowers that the directors use as some kind of metaphor linking life and death, which feels like an afterthought. Then, there’s the overdone piano score by British composer Michael Nyman (“The Piano,” “The End of the Affair”). Nyman’s music is lovely, but is out of place in “McQueen,” especially when the swelling classical arrangements overwhelm scenes where it would be more interesting to watch McQueen work meticulously in silence.

Despite some of these less than effective decisions, “McQueen” is at its best when the fashion designer, his thoughts and the clothes themselves are front and center. Secondary interviews with McQueen’s mother Joyce, sister Janet and some of his colleagues are illuminating, but nothing speaks to how McQueen was wired as much as the archived footage of him interacting with fabric and transforming it into something dramatic for the catwalk. It’s like watching a much more grounded version of Daniel Day-Lewis’ fictional fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in last year’s “Phantom Thread.” Both are driven by the desire to create something wholly original and perfect, even as it pushes them to the brink.

This obsession is evident when looking at McQueen’s entire catalog — from his stints with high-end fashion houses like Givenchy and Gucci to his own label. With these platforms, McQueen transcended the industry and gave audiences some of the most bold, controversial and thought-provoking works of art, which were inspired by everything from murder to mythology to technology. In one of his most famous shows, McQueen converted the stage into a psychiatric ward and blurred the lines between beauty and madness. In another, he sent his models down the runway dressed as rape victims, a decision that received backlash from critics for its heavy misogynistic tone.

But McQueen, as always, pressed on and refused to allow anyone to dictate the messaging he wanted to put forth as an artist and designer — unfiltered ideas that were many times conjured in the darker side of his psyche. If anything, “McQueen” the movie is a worthy testament to McQueen the man and illustrates the passion he had for his elaborate craft.


August 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
Directed by: Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”)
Written by: Spike Lee (“Bamboozled”), Kevin Willmott (“Chi-Raq”), Charlie Wachtel (debut) and David Rabinowitz (debut)

Filmmaker Spike Lee is angry. Actually, he’s seething. His ire for the Trump administration was evident this past May at the Cannes Film Festival where he repeatedly called the U.S. President a “motherfucker” for his weak response to the white nationalism seen during the protests in Charlottesville last summer. Lee’s rage is more than evident in his newest film, “BlacKkKlansman” – a cinematic return-to-form for Lee and his most significant and politically-jarring work since his 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.”

Directed, produced and co-written by Lee, this true-life joint stars John David Washington (TV’s “Ballers”) as Detective Ron Stallworth, an ambitious, black rookie cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. In 1979, Ron saw a newspaper ad looking for men to join a local Klu Klux Klan chapter and decided to call up the number and pose as a racist white man interested in the organization.

Once he set up a line of communication, Stallworth teamed up with one of his white fellow detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to be the face of his invented bigot and infiltrate the group when they invite him out to meet. While Flip poses as Ron and collects intel on the KKK, Ron continues to speak over the phone to the group’s leaders, including KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Not long after, Ron (and Flip posing as Ron) are named head of the chapter.

In real life, Stallworth kept the undercover investigation a secret for almost 30 years, until 2006, when he revealed it to a reporter, and then, eight years later, released his book “Black Klansman.” Now, Lee has taken full control of Stallworth’s story as an activist filmmaker and uses it as an indictment on the president, his administration and the shameless, racially-divisive hotbed America has become since Trump started campaigning more than three years ago. Lee punches, and he punches hard.

It is obvious he has an agenda, so if you’re part of the Trump base, you’re not going to like what the Honorary Oscar winner has to say and how he parallels the current racial tension in this country to what Stallworth uncovered during his own daring mission. As apparent as it is, however, Lee’s intent doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship of his direction and the convincing tonal shifts that make “BlacKkKlansman” pivot from intriguing crime caper to biting contemporary satire so fluidly.

Also noteworthy is that during the more humorous scenes, Lee never steps outside the real-world situation in which “BlacKkKlansman” lives, unlike filmmaker Quentin Tarantino does with his hilarious KKK scenes in 2012’s “Django Unchained.” Lee keeps things grounded and seems to know when to jab and when to let the disturbing narrative speak for itself.

Christopher Robin

August 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings
Directed by: Marc Forester (“Finding Neverland”)
Written by: Alex Ross Perry, (“Nostalgia”), Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) and Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”)

If you get a sense of déjà vu when you hear that there’s a new Winnie the Pooh movie called “Christopher Robin,” bear with us. Last year’s drama “Goodbye Christopher Robin” was a biopic on English Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne and the inspiration that led him to write children’s books. In “Christopher Robin,” we return to the fictional world of Pooh, 30 years after Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien as a young Christopher) is sent to boarding school and leaves behind his fluffy friends in the Hundred Acre Wood in Sussex.

Ewan McGregor (“Moulin Rouge!”) stars as an adult Christopher, all grown up with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael) and heaps of responsibility as an efficiency manager at a struggling luggage company in London. His daughter is heartbroken when he has to skip out on their family vacation because his boss orders him to overhaul the budget on his weekend off.

It’s a theme we’ve seen countless times before: the balance of work and home life, and a father who can’t seem to understand which is more important. None of it rings very original in “Christopher Robin,” although the scenario is more complicated since Christopher is faced with not only family obligations, but also having to “put away childish things” once again when the huggable, anthropomorphic Pooh comes for a surprise visit, which leads to Christopher traveling to Sussex to get him home.

Directed by Marc Forester, who explored this same type of narrative in the 2004 fantasy biopic “Finding Neverland” about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, “Christopher Robin” doesn’t break any new ground with its human characters, but there is plenty to love when Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang come out to play.

The appearance of these computer-generated, vintage-looking stuffed animals is flawless, and their interaction with Christopher provide some of the best examples where live-action meets animation in recent memory. It feels like the actors and animated characters are inhabiting the same realm, which is a testament to the incredible creativity and realistic design by VFX studios Framestore and Method Studios.

As a family-friendly film, some viewers might be a bit turned off by the gloomy, quiet nature of the picture as a whole (“Christopher Robin” is more “Where the Wild Things Are” than it is “Alvin and the Chipmunks”), but the charm is never lost when Pooh is delivering one of his clever Poohisms (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day”) or even when Eeyore is sulking in sadness. If anything is impossible, it’s not being enchanted by the film’s many adorable qualities.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

August 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara
Directed by: Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”)
Written by: Gus Van Sant (“Last Days”)

Three-time Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) stars as quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” a conventional biopic stifled by a screenplay that doesn’t allow its main character to flourish or make meaningful relationships.

Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”), who made one of the most memorable biopics of the last decade in 2008’s “Milk,” works off his own script based on John’s memoir of the same name.

Although writing has been, at best, an inconsistent endeavor for Van Sant in the past, what saves “Don’t Worry” from losing its footing completely is Phoenix’s portrayal of the controversial Callahan, who we see in the film through flashbacks as an alcoholic 21-year-old kid from Portland, who becomes paralyzed in a drunken car accident in 1972.

Most of “Don’t Worry” focuses on John’s physical and emotional recovery after the crash as well as his effort to kick his drinking habit by finding support in Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA, he meets Donnie (Jonah Hill), the group’s leader whose easy-going demeanor keeps John’s addiction in check. Despite the importance of Donnie and the other AA members, Van Sant’s script keeps them at an arm’s length away and never really acknowledges their value.

The same can be said with the way Van Sant handles John’s love interest Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish physical therapist who feels like an afterthought as soon as she leaves the room. An hour into the film and it’s almost like John has been alone the entire time. Even more problematic is the fact that because of the way the narrative is constructed, John’s artwork, the most fascinating thing about his life from a cinematic standpoint, only makes an impression in the second half of the story.

When his cartoons are given their moment to shine, however, is when “Don’t Worry” becomes a charming inside look into a man’s comically dark and clever mind through the politically-incorrect doodles he creates on issues like physical disabilities, race, religion and anything else that would cause conservative readers to gasp. Van Sant enhances some of these scenes by having John’s drawings come alive on paper. The subtle animations of his scribbly characters bring a happiness to the picture that balances the sobriety storyline well.

Still, it’s too little too late for “Don’t Worry” when we get to anything that resembles a significant part of who John really is – from his artistic abilities to his friendships to some of the personal baggage that weighs him down. Phoenix gives a triumphant performance, but “Don’t Worry” needed more color – something like 2003’s superior “American Splendor.” Van Sant, unfortunately, thought it adequate enough to scribble in pencil.

Eighth Grade

July 27, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Directed by: Bo Burnham (debut)
Written by: Bo Burnham (debut)

Unless you are actually a teenage girl facing the anxiety and angst of adolescence head on, chances are you have no idea what the experience is like in 2018. But if you wanted to get close to understanding, Eighth Grade is probably your best bet. It’s an honest, heartfelt and often-times cringe-worthy exploration of one girl’s last week of middle school, a place that hasn’t been very kind to her for the last three years.

At the center of the story is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a socially awkward, 13-year-old girl who wants more than anything to show people she isn’t the shy, introvert everyone pegs her to be. Raised by her loving, single father (Josh Hamilton), who basically annoys her every time he opens his mouth, Kayla finds some solace on the internet when she posts YouTube videos where she gives advice to kids her age about how to be confident and “put yourself out there.”

These aren’t topics, of course, that Kayla is necessarily an expert to be speaking on. She gets tongue tied trying to talk to cute boys and has a panic attack at a pool party, but she is trying her best to step outside of her comfort zone and prove that there is an outgoing, happy-go-lucky person hiding underneath all those insecurities.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Bo Burnham, who got his start in the entertainment industry when he became YouTube famous himself in 2006 after posting comedy videos that went viral, Eighth Grade feels like it is coming from a place of pure love. At first glance, Burnham might not be the person who should be telling this story, but the authenticity, sincerity and dark humor flows from the narrative so naturally, one might surmise that Burnham could have been a teenage girl in a former life.

Of course, much of this realism comes from him working in congruence with the remarkable Fisher, whose past film credits include the first two Despicable Me movies and MacFarland, USA. Her performance is funny, adorable and purposefully clumsy and nervous, and there’s not a moment that goes by where you’re not rooting for Kayla to get whatever she wants out of life.

At a time when teens are inundated with limitless tools that keep them from making substantial connections with one another (when did an emoji replace actually telling someone how you feel?), Eighth Grade is a classic in the making. It might be a movie of its time (who knows what YouTube is going to look like in 30 years), but like the best that director John Hughes offered in the 1980s, Eighth Grade will span generations.


July 20, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, Lewis MacDougall
Directed by: Shana Feste (“Country Strong”)
Written by: Shana Feste (“Country Strong”)

It’s nothing new in cinema when an eccentric old man is put in a car and dragged across a few states while he attempts to make a meaningful connection with another person in the vehicle. What better way to learn about someone than to spend a few days on the road together?

Actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte do it exceptionally well as a father and son traveling to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet 2015 film “Nebraska.” Alan Arkin won an Oscar for playing a heroine-addicted grandfather on an adventure with his dysfunctional family in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” With enough screen time, a sharp-minded senior citizen can usually impart some life lessons and words of wisdom for those willing enough to accept it.

Laura Jaconi (Vera Farmiga) is not, in fact, one of those characters. She’s not interested in anyone stepping into her lane, especially if that someone is her estranged 85-year-old father Jack (Christopher Plummer). When Jack is kicked out of his retirement home for growing weed, she has two options: let him move in with her and her rebellious teenage son Henry (Lewis MacDougall), or put him on a plane to Los Angeles to live with her younger sister JoJo (Kristen Schaal).

She chooses option two, but consents to making the drive from Seattle to L.A. when her father agrees to pay for Henry’s private school. Jack, however, has ulterior motives. With $200,000 worth of weed in the trunk of his vintage Rolls Royce, he recruits his grandson to help him unload the product during their trip down the West Coast, which includes a stop to meet Jack’s old friend Stanley (Christopher Lloyd) and Henry’s loser father Leonard (Bobby Cannavale).

While some complex themes like abandonment and redemption are touched upon lightly, there’s not much room for anything else to breathe with Farmiga’s exaggeratedly neurotic character overshadowing some of the more interesting relationships that should’ve been given top billing. Farmiga’s performance, in itself, is not bad, but Laura’ character is cliché, obvious and far from nuanced. She is an animal lover who takes in every single stray dog that she finds, a metaphor for the trauma she’s experienced throughout her life with an absent father.

Even then, “Boundaries” writer/director Shana Feste (“Country Strong”) never explores the troubled dynamic between father and daughter. We’re told Jack was a less-than-stellar dad — and we definitely see the effects of the flawed upbringing in Laura’s personality — but Feste fails to get to the heart of the issue. By the end, no one has grown emotionally or identified the root of the problem or learned anything about themselves or the people they love. Sadly, closure only happens because the credits start to roll.

Sorry to Bother You

July 20, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer
Directed by: Boots Riley (debut)
Written by: Boots Riley (debut)

Embrace the absurdity. That’s the best advice anyone could give moviegoers who walk into the bizarre, dark comedy “Sorry to Bother You,” written and directed by rapper Boots Riley. It’s one of the most original films you’ll likely see all year, which, depending on your threshold for certifiably crazy storylines, could be a rewarding experience or one that frustrates you.

“STBY” is really an indie movie told in three substantially different acts, all of which progress (or digress, if you refuse to go along for the ride) into a stranger narrative than the one before. To begin, we’re introduced to Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man desperate to find a job and move himself and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of his uncle’s garage apartment.

He gets the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder when he takes a job with a sketchy telemarketing corporation that promises him a bright and prosperous future if he is able to work his way up and become one of their elite “power callers.” With a promotion comes the opportunity to rub elbows with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the coke-snorting CEO of a controversial company that profits from slave labor.

The first act is clever and funny as we watch Cassius make sales calls and transport into the houses of the people he is trying to pitch. It’s an inventive way to show the intrusive nature of Cassius’ position and how little power he wields as an insignificant voice behind a telephone. Cassius starts to get the hang of it, however, when a veteran coworker (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” when speaking to customers. The trick works, and Cassius skyrockets to the top floor, to the frustration of his co-workers who hoped he would support their efforts to unionize so they could demand higher pay and benefits.

Seen as a sell-out — a theme Riley also explores with Detroit, an aspiring performance artist — Cassius pursues his capitalistic self-interest, which leads him to the discovery of what “power callers” are actually selling their clients, and calls into question Cassius’ own sense of moral responsibility. Riley piles on the surreal, politically charged metaphors and satirical scenes at a frenetic rate, so if you keep up, you’ll probably enjoy most of the insanity.

It’s the third act of “STBY” that’ll certainly be the defining moment for viewers who are on the fence about whether Riley lets his sometimes unfocused ambition as a first-time filmmaker get the best of him. What “STBY” has going for it in these final scenes is that it never loses its identity as a bat-shit ridiculous concept that doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously. If anything, it’s refreshing to know there are creators bold enough to attempt something so risky and anarchic.

Three Identical Strangers

July 13, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, Eddy Galland
Directed by: Tim Wardle (“Lifers”)

The first 20 minutes of the stranger-than-fiction feature documentary “Three Identical Strangers” are joyous — a real-time retelling of the jaw-dropping scenarios that led to the reunion of three brothers who had been separated at birth 19 years prior.

“When I tell people my story, they don’t believe it,” Bobby, one of the triplets, says as he shares the incredible account that starts with him stepping onto the campus of a community college for the first time in 1980 and being immediately mistaken for who he would later learn is his long-lost brother Eddy. The tale becomes even more astonishing when a reporter writes a human-interest article on the boys, which quickly leads to the discovery of a third identical brother, David.

Directed by British documentarian Tim Wardle (“Lifers”), “Strangers” begins on an upbeat albeit bizarre note as we watch the lives of Bobby, Eddy and David meld into one. From countless TV appearances and interviews to a cameo in Madonna’s 1985 comedy-drama “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the triplets ride a wave of media frenzy and become overnight stars.

Beneath the fairytale, however, is something malicious. While the brothers seem content with simply knowing they have found each other, their parents begin to ask why none of them were told they were adopting a child with identical siblings. The truth starts to slowly trickle out and takes a dark turn to reveal a surreal narrative that centers on the psychological debate over nature vs. nurture and how hereditary and mental health factor into one’s sense of identity.

Without delving into some of the shocking twists in “Strangers” (it’s better if audiences know as little as possible about the triplets’ story when they walk into the theater), Wardle proves to be an expert in pacing. The way the film rolls out feels like a thriller. It’s reminiscent of other unexpectedly peculiar documentaries in recent years like 2010’s “Catfish” and 2012’s “The Imposter” but manages to shift into an even more somber tone than anyone could’ve imagined.

At the root of this story is Louise Wise Services, a now defunct adoption agency operating in New York that was considered the best agency on the East Coast for Jewish families looking to adopt. Through surprisingly candid interviews with a couple of people who worked for the agency in the 1960s and knew of the perverse incidents taking place, along with heartfelt interviews with the siblings, their families and other adoptees, Wardle has produced a documentary that is equal parts fascinating and disturbing.

By the film’s end, there are plenty of unanswered questions that might leave some viewers wishing things could have tied up a bit more definitively, but chances are this isn’t the last time “Three Identical Strangers” will make headlines. These families deserve more, and it’s Wardle’s highly engaging film that could get them the closure they seek.

Leave No Trace

July 13, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”)
Written by: Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) and Anne Rosellini (“Winter’s Bone”)

There’s something very intriguing about watching an individual taking on Mother Nature with little at their disposal. That’s probably why the Discovery Channel’s critically acclaimed reality series “Naked and Afraid” is currently in its ninth season.

In cinematic form, these stories work best when there is an intimate narrative attached to those characters hoping to survive a situation they either have no control over (Tom Hanks in Castaway) or one they have undertaken on their own (Reese Witherspoon in “Wild;” Emile Hirsch in “Into the Wild”) to test themselves.

The latter is the case for military veteran and single father Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in the compelling drama “Leave No Trace.” Living off the grid in a nature preserve outside Portland, Oregon, Will and Tom have mastered their solitary lifestyle — sleeping in tents, foraging for food and occasionally traveling into town to buy groceries with the money Will makes by selling his unused prescription drugs to other drifters.

Not only is the father-daughter duo able to live off the earth, they also live with the mindfulness that, if not careful, someone could accidentally discover them living in the wilderness. To avoid this, they run through escape drills just in case a park ranger or random hiker gets too close to their basecamp. Their attempt to hide from the outside world ends, however, when a jogger inadvertently spots Tom and reports it. This leads to the involvement of state officials who, at first, separate Will and Tom so they can get answers about their living arrangements, but later help them find sufficient housing and adapt to a regular life.

Directed and co-written by Oscar nominee Debra Granik, who formally introduced audiences to actress Jennifer Lawrence in the deeply moving 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone,” the thought-provoking and emotionally complex film is adapted from author Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment.” With top-tier performances by Foster and newcomer McKenzie, Granik has captured an authentic dynamic between two characters who find themselves at an impasse with one another.

“We didn’t need to be rescued,” was the most instinctive thing Tom could have said when she and her father were discovered in the woods. But it’s amazing to watch her come into her own, experience life in a completely different way and realize that she, at least, did need to be saved.

A Kid Like Jake

July 13, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Silas Howard (TV’s “Transparent”)
Written by: Daniel Pearle (debut)

Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) are like any other parents of a four-year-old child. They want their son Jake (Leo James Davis) to get a good education, have friends, be happy and express himself creatively in any way he sees fit.

They come to a defining moment in their lives when they receive advice from Jake’s preschool principal (Octavia Spencer): when applying for private schools for the following year, they should include in their admissions essay a few anecdotes about their son’s vast imagination and interest in “gender-expansive play.” That might help him land a spot in the competitive New York City school system.

The fact that Jake likes to play with dolls, watch Disney princess movies and has his heart set on dressing up as Rapunzel for Halloween never struck the Wheelers as a trait they should call attention to. But they realize it’s something they have to confront now that he’s older. The Wheelers (Greg is a therapist and Alex is a stay-at-home mom and former lawyer) want to protect him from the cruel world. And they don’t “want to send him to kindergarten labeled.”

Adapted from his own stage play of the same name, playwright and first-time screenwriter Daniel Pearle and director Silas Howard (TV’s “Transparent”), who is a transgender man himself, find a way to let the compassionate narrative triumph by the film’s end.

However, they miss sharing a perspective that would’ve allowed the story to resonate even more – the viewpoint of the title character is missing.

As Pearle and Howard tell the story, “A Kid Like Jake” should have instead been called “Parents with a Kid Like Jake” since it’s the adults who are always deliberating, arguing and worrying without giving Jake time to project any actual emotion himself. It’s obviously a purposeful decision (in the play, Jake is an unseen character), but it’s flawed, especially for the screen. Instead of allowing Jake to question things like any inquisitive boy would, the Wheelers talk about what it’s like for them to hear him question things. Instead of getting to the root of who Jake actually is, we’re spoon-fed information about his personality.

Luckily, Danes, Parsons, Spencer and Anne Dowd, who plays Alex’s slightly overbearing mother, give strong performances in a handful of scenes where adult discussions about Jake’s well-being feel genuine. The most realistic scene takes place when Alex and Greg go out to dinner with friends and the banter between them shifts from cordial to uncomfortable when the subject of Jake’s “creative roleplaying” comes up. Watching adults complicate an already complicated situation is good theater, but what “A Kid Like Jake” needed more of childlike wonderment. With it, it could have been a film with deeper impact, not just a conversation starter.

Bart Layton – American Animals

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Interviews

In his 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” filmmaker Bart Layton added reenactments to support the interviews he conducted with the film’s real-life subjects to tell the story of a French con artist who impersonated a missing boy from San Antonio in the late 90s. He flips the format with “American Animals,” the first feature narrative of his career, by enhancing the film with documentary elements.

“American Animals” follows four college students who plan a heist to steal an assortment of rare books and manuscripts from inside their university’s library.

I caught up with Layton last week to talk about his new film, the legwork it took earn the trust of the main players and why he decided to tell this story in a way no one has ever really tried to tell a true-life story before.


How did you come across this story in the first place?

Initially, I read about it in a magazine. I was intrigued by the story. It was extraordinary and already sounded like it was a movie instead of reality. The more I read about it, the more bizarre it became. The perpetrators weren’t the usual suspects. They were fairly well educated, smart young men from good families.

How did you connect with the young men to see if they’d be interested in having a film made about what they did?

I wrote to them while they were in prison trying to understand more about their motivation for doing it. I already thought it was a great story, but I wasn’t sure it was a story that warranted being turned into a film or something that I wanted to spend a couple of years of my life doing. But when I received letters back from them and they talked about their motivation and their misguided search for answers, I realized that it was a more personal story.

Were you surprised that you received responses from them?

I was confident that we would get to them and that they would respond favorably. At that point, we were just making conversation. I began this very unusual pen pal relationship with all four of them. I knew they had all done very stupid and self-destructive things, but I was really surprised by the people I met through these letters.

Why did you decide to include documentary elements in the film? Was there precedent for a narrative like this?

No, there really wasn’t a precedent. That’s why it was so exciting to me. There’s not a template for something like this. The reason I wanted to do it like this was because it was an extraordinary true story, but if you turn it into a narrative, it becomes a more disposable story. You have that suspicion that everything has been adapted with a very healthy dose of artistic license. With [“American Animals”], I wanted people to be constantly reminded that it is a true story with real people. When you invest in them and the story, you engage in a slightly different way. I think it was important to see who you are dealing with – the real people. Most of us come out of the cinema after seeing “I, Tonya” or “Molly’s Game” and immediately we start Googling the real people wondering, “What do they really look like?” and “What do they really sound like?” With [“American Animals”], the intention was to make sure you felt like you really connected to the characters.

Do you think it takes away from a film that is based on true events when you find out the characters aren’t like the people in real life and that more artistic license was taken in those aspects?

In my opinion, it really does. If you’re watching something that is supposed to be a true story and you’ve invested in it for that reason and then you realize you’ve been given a Hollywoodized version of it, it certainly takes away from it. Don’t you think?

Yeah, I think certain aspects of a story can definitely be overdone by studios. Did you find yourself having to make those kinds of decisions with “American Animals?” Is anything Hollywoodized?

That’s what was the amazing thing about the story. You really didn’t need a whole lot of exaggeration or embellishment. Of course, I wrote it and in doing so you have to condense a couple of years into two hours, but I was very keen to the accuracy of [the story].

I agree with you on the overall outcome of the film. I think the most Hollywoodized part of it was done on purpose where the guys fantasize about what a perfect heist would look like. Was it fun shooting your own short “Ocean’s 11” movie for that scene?

It was absolutely great fun. That was exactly the idea of it. At that point, they’ve gotten so far into the movie, they’ve become unattached to reality. That was one way to illustrate that.

Do you think your documentary “The Imposter” could’ve been shot in the same style as “American Animals” or do you think that the film’s main character was just too bizarre to not have him on screen for most of the film?

Yeah, I think you’re right. I also think that [“The Imposter”] was so preposterous of a story and so unbelievable on so many levels. When that film came out, there was a bidding war for the remake rights. Of course, no one has figured out how to do it as a fictional version because it’s so hard to believe. So much of it is about ambiguity and what people believe. A lot of it is about self-perception.

As you move forward in your career, do you think these stranger-than-fiction type narratives are going to continue to be the ones that resonate with you the most or would you like to branch out into something else?

I think probably, but the next thing I’m doing is not a true story. It does exist in a similar space. There is this sense of moral confusion with the central character. For me, I want to find a story that is a real page-turner that you desperately have to know what happens next. At the same time and more importantly, I want something that takes you to an interesting conversation about the culture and how we live. [“American Animals”] is a story about how we have to leave a mark on the world and how we have to be special and do something remarkable or you may as well not exist.

Esai Morales – Superfly

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In “Superfly,” a remake of the 1972 Blaxploitation film “Super Fly,” actor Esai Morales (“La Bamba”) plays Adalberto González, the new leader of a Mexican drug cartel who supplies product to the mentor of the movie’s lead character Priest (Trevor Jackson). Morales said Adalberto “fancies himself as a cool, calm and collected version” of the previous cartel head.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel with this character,” Morales, 55, told me during an interview last week. “I’m providing the weight that is necessary in a story to know that the stakes are high.”

During our interview, Morales talked about the criticism that comes for Latino actors who choose to play drug cartel characters, why he thinks TV shows and movies about the cartel industry are currently popular and whether he’ll follow in the footsteps of his “Superfly” director, who goes by the moniker Director X, and change his name. We also talked about the U.S. administration’s delayed response to the tragedy Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico late last year.

I’m sure you know about the criticism that comes any time a Latino actor plays a character in a drug cartel. Benecio del Toro is getting it for reprising his role in the “Sicario” sequel. The popular Netflix show “Narcos” gets criticized for its portrayal of Latinos. Do you think the criticism is valid?

Well, at one point I agreed with [the criticism]. But I realize now that drug dealers are kind of cool, not in real life, but the personas have been glorified and humanized. You realize that the biggest and the most powerful drug dealers on Earth are not Latino or black. Latinos and blacks did not invent the drug business. We’re the scapegoats. The biggest ones are corporate and governmental. Look at any one of the major, big pharma companies that have been fined for criminal activity.

Did you shoot your scenes in Mexico?

I don’t know if I can answer that, but no. But we made it look like Mexico.

I was wondering because last year one of the location scouts for “Narcos” was kidnapped and murdered. A location scout for the “Sicario” sequel was also kidnapped while in Mexico.

I just worked in Mexico in Tecate, which is about 45 minutes east of Tijuana. It was extremely safe. When you’re in big productions, maybe you draw attention. The film I was in was very small and it wasn’t about the drug industry.

What do you think it is about these kinds of TV shows and movies that have studios making so many of them recently? I mean, besides the “Sicario” sequel, “Narcos” and “Superfly,” there was “Gringo” earlier this year; “Loving Pablo” is coming out soon; Netflix’s “Drug Lords,” “Kingpin,” “Cocaine Grandmother” with Catherine Zeta Jones. Why so many?

I think it’s because of the success of shows like “Narcos” and others. We can really go back to Tony Montana in “Scarface”…

…which is getting remade.

Well, good luck. I hope it goes well, but it’s hard to touch that one. But I think [there are more cartel movies and TV shows because] it’s a trend – power, violence, extreme risk, danger. These are the elements of the classic gangster films. In the 1930s, you had James Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Now, we have different personalities portraying the Pablo Escobars of the world. Our society is obsessed with power for better and for worse. The power of the cartels is immense, and it is mesmerizing and is something audiences, obviously, have not gotten tired of. Because that’s where the industry is going, people like Benecio and myself are not going to get left behind when there are good characters to portray. If anyone likes to say we’re extenuating stereotypes, I would say that I agree with you except we play more than that. We play presidents, matriarchs, billionaires, business leaders. I’ve played the chief of police of the Chicago PD on “Criminal Minds.” I would understand if [cartel members] were all we played, but right now it just happens to be in vogue. I would be more reluctant to play these characters if they were written terribly as just people to hate. So, calm down. I don’t want to be incarcerated into playing roles that only appease our community. I don’t want to be limited to that.

Is there any chance you could follow in your “Superfly” director’s steps and change your name to Actor Equis?

I like the name Director X. It has a revolutionary feel to it. Many years ago, I thought about changing my name to something more understandable or mainstream or Italian. But I decided that instead of changing my name, I wanted to change how people with my name were viewed. I wanted to try to broaden what it means to be a leading man or character actor by keeping Morales and Esai.

You’re originally from Puerto Rico. We now know that there were a lot more deaths in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria than first reported by the U.S. government. What do you want to see this country do to help its citizens moving forward? It feels like they’ve been abandoned by this administration.

I’m very dismayed by the response, despite all the real efforts of a lot of great people that are there that gave their all. I know people that went to visit folks with FEMA. I know people with the Coast Guard and the National Guard and Army reserves over there. I went there quietly. I didn’t want to make it about me, but I wanted to assess the situation and figure out how I could help. It’s a complicated situation. I do believe the president could be more conscious of who Puerto Ricans are and had a quicker and more adequate response so the death toll would’ve been minimized. But I don’t think we can shame or insult this administration to doing what we believe is the right thing. I think we have to outclass our opponents and ignore opportunities to engage with them in ugly debates.

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