Light of My Life

September 3, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

In the post-apocalyptic drama Light of My Life, Oscar winner Casey Affleck (as an actor in Manchester by the Sea) steps behind the camera for the first time since teaming up with Joaquin Phoenix a decade ago to make the music mockumentary I’m Still Here. His second film is a minimalist take that hangs firmly on the natural connection of its two main characters and its effectively bleak atmosphere.

Reminiscent of director John Hillcoat’s depressing 2009 drama The Road — although it’s doubtful any scene can be as grim as watching a father teach his son how to commit suicide — and last year’s powerful and emotionally complex drama Leave No Trace, Light of My Life is a slow-burning film that packs a similar punch.

Affleck stars as Caleb, a father surviving in the solitude of the wilderness with his young daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky), whom he disguises as a boy. His actions come after a global plague has decimated the majority of the female population, including his wife (Elizabeth Moss), who dies when Rag is an infant. He refers to Rag as his son whenever they stumble across someone amid their directionless journey.

Hoping to stay invisible on the fringes of the dystopic society, Caleb is conscious of the danger Rag is in if anyone discovers her true identity, although Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, steers clear of spelling it out. While he navigates some familiar territory, that takes nothing away from the father-daughter rapport he and Pniowsky share — a bond viewers will likely feel invested in as the narrative moves forward and the risk that they will be discovered increases.

Light of My Life feels the most alive during the seemingly calm scenes where we understand the intense reality that Caleb and Rag face. He’s willing to do whatever he must to prevent anything bad from happening to his daughter. The sense of dread that permeates the film never lets up, much as in Hillcoat’s The Road. Affleck’s ability to keep the nervous, albeit silent, energy consistent is an impressive feat.

Along with Affleck’s compassionate performance, what Pniowsky delivers as a curious 11-year-old is just as incredible. Like actors Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace, Caleb and Rag’s loving relationship is one of the most convincing pairings to hit theaters this year. Affleck has created an intimate film — one that speak on parental responsibility and the great lengths to which a father would go to protect his child.

Sword of Trust

September 3, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Independent filmmaker Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister) was no stranger to actor, writer, stand-up comedian and podcast host Marc Maron when she cast him in her new film Sword of Trust. She had already directed him in a few projects, including a couple of episodes of his namesake TV series Maron and his 2017 Netflix comedy special Marc Maron: Too Real. She was also a guest on his popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron two months prior from officially getting hired. It turned out to be the perfect choice to say the least.

Sword of Trust is a heavily improvised and sharply written dark dramedy that comes up short in the homestretch, but not before delivering a handful of funny and memorable moments. Maron stars as Mel, a pawn shop owner in Birmingham, Alabama, who makes a deal with some customers after they offer to sell him a peculiar relic. The “prover item,” as it’s referred to later in the film, is a sword said to be proof that the South won the Civil War. It has been bequeathed by a Confederate soldier to his granddaughter Cynthia (Jillian Bell).

Mel and his employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass) think Cynthia and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) are a pair of kooks for the yarn they spin — the women don’t buy her grandfather’s story either but need to make the sale. However, a quick internet search reveals a fringe group of conspiracy theorists who would pay top dollar for the weapon. After locating a buyer, Mel and the ladies decide to team up and split the money. But when the potential customer insists that he meets the sellers, Mel, Nathaniel, Cynthia and Mary find themselves riding in the back of a moving truck to an undisclosed location to do business with a probable racist.

On its surface, Sword of Trust is a whip-smart comedy that pokes fun of people who believe the Earth is flat and the existence of a shadow U.S. government. While much of the snarky script is ad-libbed, Shelton and co-writer Michael O’Brien (TV’s A.P. Bio) create a structure for the narrative that is deeper and more meaningful than an average satire. The emotional load is lifted by Maron, who expresses some of the most heartfelt and natural dialogue in a movie this year with an anecdote concerning a drug-addicted ex-girlfriend (Shelton) and the life he watched pass him by years ago.

Shelton’s film might cover revisionist history, but it’s also about the struggle to believe in something — or someone — when conflicting evidence is too convincing to ignore. Still, in Sword of Trust, Maron shows audiences how a little faith can go a long way.

Gaspar Noé – Climax

April 25, 2019 by  
Filed under Interviews

Provocative French-Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) might be the first to admit that his new horror-dance movie Climax isn’t necessarily something audiences haven’t seen before, but you might beg to differ.

In Climax, Noé introduces moviegoers to a large group of dancers who are celebrating a successful day of rehearsals with an after-party at their studio. The evening begins with the dancers enjoying each other’s company – gossiping, drinking, and dancing – but spirals out of control when they realize the sangria they’ve been consuming all night long has been laced with LSD.

From there, Noé’s scriptless dance party transforms into a nightmarish scenario where the dancers slowly lose their minds and find themselves participating in some of the most deviant behavior imaginable, including extreme violence, self-mutilation, and sexual perversions.

During an interview with me last week, Noé discussed where the idea for Climax originated, how shooting without a script was a liberating experience and why he decided to flip the camera upside down for long stretches of the film.

Where did the idea for Climax come from?
I was thinking of a disaster movie or a zombie movie. Some of those movies look so realistic when they’re shot in documentary style. I was thinking about a community that builds up something and then everything goes wrong. It could be a cult movie or a disaster movie or a horror-zombie movie. I started watching videos online of dancers in Paris and decided to mix these stories together. Even if [Climax] starts as a sort of musical comedy, it turns into something like a realistic horror movie.

I really like the idea of creating something beautiful and then destroying it in a horror film.
Yeah, if you’ve seen the movie Shivers by David Cronenberg, it’s about a perfect building that has been constructed for all the richest people in town and then something goes wrong. It’s like The Towering Inferno where the fire starts in the middle of the building. Human creations take a long time to build up and then it can all be destroyed. In this case, there is a substance (LSD) that is put into the sangria and everyone turns crazy and paranoid and aggressive. It’s about a whole community turning into reptiles because of their fear.

How difficult is it as a director to make a film as demanding as this without a script?
I’m lucky because [Climax] is produced by the best producers in France. They like cinema and they wanted the movie to exist, so they invested their own money. Without them, this movie would never have happened. I heard that [legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc] Godard could get financing for his movies with just two pages of a script. I always dreamt of being as free as Godard could be at that time. He was allowed to do movies in a way that weren’t usually done.

As a filmmaker, is it important to you to make audiences feel like they’re watching something on screen that they’ve never seen before?
Yeah, but there’s nothing new in this movie. You’ve seen many movies with crane [camera shots] over dancers. You could look at movies like La La Land or Fame. There are movies about dancers in a school where things go wrong. There’s been disasters movies where rich people are dying. There’s nothing new in this movie. It’s just kind of different, but I did not invent anything. The only thing I hadn’t seen before that’s in this movie is an upside down title card. I liked that idea.

Well, you also turned the camera upside down for long stretches of the film, too, which I don’t think I’ve seen before.
For a long time, I wanted to see a movie with the camera upside down. There are some painters who exhibit their painting and portraits upside down, but I had never seen that in a movie. I always wanted to see a whole scene in a movie upside down, so in this movie I finally did it. As a director, you get bored, so if you can find any new idea that makes you feel like you’re not replaying your own movies or someone else’s movies, it’s very enjoyable. I also had never seen a movie with the main credits in the middle [of the movie], so I did that, too. You have to have fun and amuse yourself.

I have to admit, during the long upside down scene, I cheated and turned my head upside down to watch for a while until I realized it was going to go on for a while.
(Laughs) Did it look better? If you put it in the right sense, there is less going on than if you put it upside down. Upside down seems scarier because you can’t really read the images.

How else did you keep yourself from getting bored making Climax?
For the first time I used a drone! We improvised the opening scene. Probably now I’ll be addicted to drones.

Was it ever an idea to allow your cast to become method actors and actually drop acid to shoot this film?
Nah, because we had such a short time to shoot it – 15 days. I didn’t want anyone to be drunk or wasted in front or behind the camera. We were all being very professional. We couldn’t fail. And to tell you the truth, most of these dancers are between the ages of 18-23 and when I asked them about drugs, none of them really used or tried any. They were all clean by choice because when dancers are wasted or drunk, they turn into bad dancers.

Jason Drucker – Bumblebee (DVD)

April 3, 2019 by  
Filed under Interviews

In what most critics are calling the best film in the Hasbro “Transformers” franchise, “Bumblebee” follows the titular robot character, a member of the Autobots who finds refuge on Earth as the villainous Decepticons attempt to track him down.

While on Earth, Bumblebee (AKA B-127) meets Charlie (Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld), a 17-year-old outcast who pulls the broken-down robot (disguised as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle) from a scrapyard and makes it her new car. She soon realizes that Bumblebee is much more than just an old junker when the Decepticons land on Earth with plans to destroy him and the planet.

There to support Charlie and Bumblebee is her family, including Charlie’s younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker), a funny and sarcastic kid who knows how to annoy his older sister, but is there for her when she really needs him.

During an interview with Drucker, who is also known for the Nickelodeon series “Every Witch Way” and the 2017 comedy sequel “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” talked about how much he knew about “Transformers” before landing the role, working with Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld for the second time and revealed the actor he would most like to work with in the future.

“Bumblebee” was released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 2.

I know you’re 13 years old now. How old were you when you shot “Bumblebee?”

I believe we began shooting in the summer of 2017, so I was 12. I think I turned 12 on set.

Does it feel like a lifetime ago?

It honestly does feel like a lifetime ago! I just remember waiting for the premiere. Waiting a year is pretty long. It might as well have been 10 years. We worked very hard on the film.

What was your initial reaction when you got the phone call that you booked the role of Otis?

I was in a complete state of shock. I got it on my first audition, so I thought that was already pretty impressive. And, I mean, it’s a “Transformers” film, so that is amazing. I never really imagined that I would be this fortunate in this industry. But I’m really grateful and thankful for all the things I’ve accomplished already.

You are way too young to have watched the original “Transformers” cartoon growing up, but did people tell you about it when you landed this role?

Yeah, my dad did. I’m pretty sure he watched them. He showed me a few episodes on YouTube. I just grew up with the 21st century cartoons and, of course, the films that already existed. I’ve seen the first, second and third ones. I was already a pretty big fan of [the franchise].

Well, personally, I think “Bumblebee” is easily the best “Transformers” movie of the franchise, and I’m not alone in that regard. How do you feel when people tell you it’s the best movie out of the bunch?

I feel really grateful because I am a part of a franchise that has been so successful. It seems like everyone is really liking [“Bumblebee”], including myself. It was such a blast to film. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it – that I’m in a “Transformers” film.

Your character, Otis, is a bit of a sarcastic kid. How close in real life are you to him?

(Laughs) Honestly, I think [Otis] has a big portion of my true personality. This is actually the third character I’ve played that almost resembles me – chatty and sarcastic half the time. Sometimes I can be a bit rude to my siblings like Otis is with Charlie. But, of course, like in the movie, I do become accepting of Charlie, so that resembles me, as well, in real life.

Something a young actor like yourself doesn’t always get a chance to do is work with an Oscar-nominated actress like Hailee Steinfeld. What was the experience like working with her?

Something a lot of people don’t know is that this is my second film with her. (Drucker and Steinfeld also starred together in the 2015 adventure-comedy “Barely Lethal”). Getting a second film with her was great. But like you said, she is very talented – acting and singing. She is very wise as well. A couple of times on set, she pulled me to the side and spoke to me about education and how my life was going. It’s always a blast to work with her.

What about someone like John Cena? Were you a wrestling fan at all?

I wasn’t a superfan like my friends were. It was actually my friends that got me into WWE and I watched it for a good half year. Of course, John Cena was my favorite wrestler. Now, he’s getting into movies as well. I’ve seen a couple of them. So, to be in a movie with him is just insane. Getting to meet him was awesome, too.

Can you give us any news on any sequel talk that might be out there?

For the most part, it’s all classified, but if there is a sequel, I would love to be in it.

Moving forward in your career, is there anyone you would like to work with specifically – and actor or a director?

Jim Carrey. He would definitely be an honor to work with. I’ve seen a bunch of his movies. I love his comedies. To be able to work with him or at least meet him would be an absolute dream.

What’s your favorite Jim Carrey movie?

“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” for sure. Actually, both of them. I just rewatched the second one (“Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”) two weeks ago. It’s even funnier the second time. Will Ferrell is also another one of my idols.

It’s too bad they already made an “Ace Ventura Jr.” movie a few years ago. You were too young to star in it back then.

Wait, they did?!

Yeah, it’s Ace Ventura, but he’s a kid.

Oh, dang! I’ve gotta watch that!

OK, so we know you’re definitely into comedy. Would you like to try another genre – maybe drama or horror?

Oh, a horror movie, for sure. I am a huge horror movie fanatic. I’ve seen every horror movie possible, so to be able to work on a horror movie would be insane.

Steve Carell & Robert Zemeckis – Welcome to Marwen

January 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Interviews

It’s seems like it has been a natural transition for actor Steve Carell to jump around genres—from comedy to drama and back—over the last few years. Best known in his early career for his role on the hit TV comedy series “The Office” and movies like “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell has also shown audiences his serious side in projects like “Beautiful Boy” and “Foxcatcher,” the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 2014.

Combining comedy and drama, too, has been something Carell has been successful doing in films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Dan in Real Life” and “Vice” where he portrays former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in writer/director Adam McKay’s political satire on former VP Dick Cheney.

In his newest film, “Welcome to Marwen,” by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), Carell is once again given the opportunity to mix comedy and drama (and some action sequences, too) with the true story of Mark Hogancamp, a New York man who, after a vicious attack leaves him brain damaged, finds comfort in interacting with a doll-sized, WWII-era town (and its action-figure residents) he builds in his backyard. Through this recreation, Mark is able to create a whole new world where he is the hero of his own story and uses the hobby as a way to heal.

During a sit-down interview with me, Carell and Zemeckis talked about what makes a film like “Welcome to Marwen” special and why Carell was the perfect actor for this touching story.

Steve, when you heard about Mark’s story, what resonated with you the most about what he had gone through and what he was doing with his life?

Steve Carell: What resonated with me the most was his sense of decency—the fact that he endured so much suffering and pain and that he was able to keep a sense of human kindness and generosity to his spirit. That, to me, was the sign of an exemplary human being. He’s like that in person. We went up and met him and I’ve stayed in touch with him since. He’s just a good, decent guy.

I know you had the chance to meet Mark. What was it like going into that backyard and seeing the town for yourself?

SC: Well, his whole house is very similar to the house that is depicted in the film. It’s a magical place. I won’t lie. He has such a fertile imagination. It’s all there. It’s surrounding him. It’s a world that he lives in and that he uses as a way of healing himself. At the same time, he is also very aware of how other people perceive it. It’s not like he’s just in this world and has no context for how odd it may seem to other people. He has a really good sense of humor about it.

Robert, what was it about Mark’s story did you feel lend itself to create this sort of hybrid live-action/animated film?

Robert Zemeckis: First of all, it was a heartwarming and heartfelt story about this guy who suffered this tragic incident and healed himself. That’s what appealed to me the most. There’s this whole story that goes on inside our hero’s mind where he’s got this adventure going on in this “doll world.” I thought it lent itself to being able to expand his story into something that could be a pretty interesting and compelling feature movie.

You hadn’t done an animation since “A Christmas Carol,” so did it feel good to go back to that?

RZ: Well, animation isn’t really the right word. Animation is where a bunch of artists create a character. We used performance capture. That means the actors who are playing the live-action characters and have a doll in the movie, their performance is what drives the doll. It’s a more sophisticated performance capture than what I did in the Polar Express days.

Has technology since “The Polar Express” blown you away?

RZ: Digital cinema is all based on computer power—horse power. So, it’s getting more and more sophisticated every moment.

SC: The two of us, actually, right now are performance captured.

RZ: We’re not really here.

SC: No, we’re not here. We’re still back in Los Angeles, but that’s how real this seems. It’s really good.

So, what was it like seeing your rendered character for the first time?

SC: How could you not love to see yourself depicted as a really studly doll? It was fantastic.

Robert, can you brag on Steve a little?

SC: Yeah, can you? Come on!

Why did you choose him for this role? What did he bring to the table?

RZ: Well, he brought a few things to the table.

SC: (Laughs)

RZ: He’s a magnificent comedy actor and a fantastic dramatic actor.

SC: Humanitarian. Kindness. I love animals.

RZ: And he’s got this kind of everyman quality. He fit the bill perfectly. I knew he could do both—the swagger and the fun of the doll and the empathy and bring the emotional power to the human character.

SC: It’s mostly about my swagger. I walk into a room and you just see the swagger.

Steve, everyone knew you for your comedic roles when you started off. Then, you came into drama and got an Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher. Has that been a seamless transition? How did that work for you as an actor?

SC: I didn’t really have an agenda behind it. I just wanted to do good things and be a part of movies and TV shows that illicit a response—whether it’s making people laugh or making people feel something. It’s been fun. Seamless? I don’t know. I just roll with it. I’m just thankful every day that I get to do this stuff.

You’ve been an action figure before. You can go out and buy Gru (his character in the “Despicable Me” franchise). You can buy a Brick toy (his character in “Anchorman”).

SC: Yeah, I’m sure there is a bobble head out there.

Which of your other characters in your career would you like to see become an action figure? Do you think it would be fun to play with a Donald Rumsfeld doll?

SC: (Laughs) Yeah, or maybe my character from “Foxcatcher.” the “Foxcatcher” action figure. I doubt that’s going to be a big Christmas seller.

Or “Little Miss Sunshine.”

SC: Sure, you could do the whole cast and have the VW bus. [Mark] was definitely my favorite because I get to play this alter ego. From Mark’s perspective, it’s the idealized version of who he would be in the world, and that’s kind of exciting. I think a lot of people would love to see that—to visualize that. It’s something that everybody does—imagine themselves in this kind of heightened state. So, [Mark], by far, is my favorite.

The Upside

January 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman
Directed by: Neil Burger (“Divergent”)
Written by: Joe Hartmere (debut)

American remakes of already wonderful foreign-language films can sometimes be a hard sell, especially when Hollywood’s take doesn’t live up to the original movie. For every Oscar-winning film like “The Departed” (a remake of the 2002 Chinese film “Infernal Affairs”) there is a badly-executed U.S. version of “Oldboy” (a remake of the 2003 South Korean film of the same name). It’s easy for things to get lost in translation when not enough attention is paid to the spirit of the preceding picture.

Such is the case in “The Upside,” a remake of the exceptionally charming 2011 French drama-comedy “The Intouchables,” one of the highest-grossing, non-English language films in cinematic history. The film is so beloved it has already been remade in India and Argentina, with a second remake in India in the works. Although “The Upside” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, it became collateral damage when allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced. The film was shelved, then sold and finally dumped out in January — the month where most studios send movies to die.

“The Upside” isn’t dead on arrival, but it’s nowhere near memorable. Directed by Neil Burger (“Divergent”) and adapted by first-time screenwriter Jon Hartmere, the film follows Dell (Kevin Hart), an unmotivated, jobless ex-convict who inadvertently gets hired as a live-in caretaker for Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a widowed, quadriplegic billionaire.

Through their professional relationship, which is frowned upon by Phillip’s loyal associate Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), the men form a bond where each of them opens one another’s eyes about personal issues that are keeping them both from living fulfilled lives. For Dell, it’s rising above his bad habits as an absent father to care for his estranged teenage son. For Phillip, it’s allowing himself to take chances in finding happiness.

While Hart and Cranston produce a few sincere moments, Hartmere’s script fails to build a strong enough emotional tie between the two to make audiences believe their friendship means much to either of them. When it’s time for them to step up and fully support each other, their good deeds ring false. Even the scenes they share together as employer and employee feel forced and lack real humor. In one scene, Dell reluctantly replaces Phillip’s catheter and refuses to utter the word “penis.” He finally says it after Phillip involuntarily gets an erection.

Despite “The Upside”’s struggles, Cranston is still able to tap into his character’s mindset and pull off a passable performance with what little the screenplay gives him. It is also noteworthy to see Hart dial down his usually brash personality, although this specific dramedy obviously wasn’t the right project for him.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

January 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: James Badge Dale, Happy Anderson, Robert Aramayo
Directed by: Henry Dunham (debut)
Written by: Henry Dunham (debut)

Give some credit to first-time screenwriter and director Henry Dunham on his attempt to make a steadily paced thriller reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s debut film, 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” without falling into some of the cliché trappings most novice filmmakers might deem enticing.

In “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek,” Dunham’s focus is on his characters and the interactions they have with one another throughout the film’s short, 88-minute runtime. Leading the all-male cast is actor James Badge Dale (“Shame”) as Gannon, an ex-cop who is now a member of a local militia group in rural Michigan that is not shy about their distaste for police.

Gannon and the rest of his fellow militiamen are called to meet one evening at their secret headquarters inside a lumber warehouse when they learn that a mass shooting has just taken place at a cop’s funeral. After slowly piecing together what occurred, the seven men realize that one of their assault rifles, grenades and other gear is missing from their arsenal. This, of course, leads everyone to believe a member of their own militia is responsible for the shooting.

With his law enforcement background, Gannon becomes the de facto investigator of his own crew and begins to interrogate each of the men to find out their alibis and whether they had anything to do with the killings. This includes Morris (Happy Anderson), an ex-Aryan Nation terrorist, and Keating (Robert Aramayo), a young recluse who never speaks.

As a writer, Dunham proves to have a way with words as he matches Gannon up against each of the men in different areas of the compound. In some cases, it’s a battle of the minds. In others, it’s all about which man can puff his chest out more. Either way, Dunham keeps the exchanges tense, although when the aforementioned Keating finally does open his mouth, his long-winded monologues are too clever for their own good. The dialogue-driven narrative stays grounded for the most part, but Keating’s ramblings are pretentious and overwritten.

Where “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” falters the most, however, is in its third act, which should have been the beneficiary of the strong buildup that came before. Unfortunately, the film veers off into a jumbled story with flashbacks and a litany of twists that aren’t nearly as interesting as Dunham would have audiences think.

Save for the impressive photography by first-time feature film cinematographer Jackson Hunt (he’s shot four Beyoncé music videos), any real consistency in “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is lacking from start to finish. There’s nothing wrong with finding inspiration from the best, but someone needs to tell Dunham to quit when he’s ahead.

If Beale Street Could Talk

January 11, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Directed by: Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)
Written by: Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of late African-American novelist James Baldwin, the socially conscious writer broke barriers throughout his career with stories about a host of complex and personal issues, including racism, religion and homosexuality. In 2016, the documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts, earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination and featured actor Samuel L. Jackson narrating Baldwin’s own ideas about American history and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The beauty of Baldwin’s writing, once again, resonates in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a drama by filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for screenwriting and a nomination for directing the critically acclaimed 2016 film “Moonlight.” In the hands of Jenkins, Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is adapted into an observant and touching story of young, requited love, but also one that shoots straight to the heart of how systemic racism has shattered black and brown lives for generations.

Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, “Beale Street” follows Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a black couple whose childhood friendship has blossomed over the years into true love. Their romance, however, is put on hold when Fonny is wrongly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison, where his fate hangs on the testimony of one racist cop (Ed Skrien) and a woman (Emily Rios) choosing the easiest route for justice. While locked up, Fonny learns that Tish is going to have his baby — a piece of news that makes Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) even more desperate to prove Fonny’s innocence before he fades into the prison system.

At times, “Beale Street” feels like we’re watching a stage production, with Jenkins’ approach to crafting conversations between characters allowing ample time for each line of dialogue to have its moment. But Jenkins always finds his way back to his cinematic roots. His distinctive style and framing are fitting for a film like “Beale Street,” where looking into the faces on screen is just as important as hearing the words they’re speaking.

Through its nonlinear storytelling, “Beale Street” controls its pacing and draws it out effectively. Like “Moonlight,” its slow-burning narrative pairs well with the deep-seated emotion Jenkins is hoping to tap into. In “Beale Street,” he has found the epitome of love as a tool for survival and the sacrifices a family will make to protect their own. Reteaming with “Moonlight” Oscar nominees Nicholas Britell and James Laxton for a stunning original score and pristine cinematography, Jenkins has transported audiences to a place where the only cure for hopelessness is fighting through the pain.

On the Basis of Sex

January 11, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Therox
Directed by: Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact”)
Written by: Daniel Stiepleman (debut)

Much like last year’s documentary “RBG,” the feature biopic “On the Basis of Sex” doesn’t depict current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s full contribution as an iconic legal scholar but manages to hit enough high points early in her career to deem it mostly inspirational. Still, for a film highlighting such an esteemed women’s-rights activist like Ginsburg, it is unfortunately much too conventional to make a worthwhile impression.

“OTBOS” begins with Ginsburg (Academy Award nominee Felicity Jones), a married mother of one, enrolling in Harvard Law School in 1956, where she was only one of nine women in her class (Harvard started admitting women six years prior). Her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) was also attending Harvard Law at the time, although their relationship isn’t given as much emotional weight as in the 2017 doc.

Written by first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ginsburg’s real-life nephew, “OTBOS” focuses on the challenges Ginsburg faced after she graduated from law school (she transferred to Columbia) and couldn’t find a firm that would hire her despite the fact she was at the top of her class. There are plenty of examples of mansplaining to choose from during OTBOS, but it’s during her time in college and while searching for a job as a lawyer that will spur the most indignation from audiences. In one scene, a potential employer explains to her that although her credentials are second to none, his firm couldn’t hire her because the wives would get jealous.

Along with her battle through the unapologetic trenches of New York City law, “OTBOS” follows Ginsburg, who at the time was a law professor at Rutgers University, as she preps for one particularly groundbreaking case — a 1972 lawsuit known as Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The case saw Ginsburg representing Charles Moritz, her client who was denied a tax deduction for caregiver expenses simply because the tax law only identified female caregivers as the rightful recipients of the deduction. She argued the gender-discrimination case in front of Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and won — thus opening the doors for other gender-discrimination cases to be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Frontiero v. Richardson, Ledbetter v. Goodyear and United States v. Virginia.

Directed by Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact”), who is a glass-ceiling destroyer herself (in 1973, she became the first female to graduate from the American Film Institute Conservatory), “OTBOS” plays it as safe as possible and misses an opportunity to package Ginsburg’s six decades of influence on the courts into an absorbing two-hour history lesson for mainstream audiences who only know her as the “Notorious RBG” or as a viral meme. Instead, Leder relies on simplistic storytelling and clichés to drive the narrative forward. Objection sustained.

CineSnob’s Top 10 Films of 2018

January 3, 2019 by  
Filed under CineBlog

It’s been a long year and a lot of movies. Here’s a look at what critics Jerrod Kingery, Kiko Martinez and Cody Villafana put on their list of the best movies this year.

JERROD KINGERY – Contributing film critic

10. Bumblebee – As fan of “Transformers” for as long as I can remember, the treatment the franchise has gotten at the hands of Michael Bay for the last decade has been brutal to endure. Enter Travis Knight’s “Bumblebee,” a soft reboot featuring discernable G1 robot designs, likeable human characters, a coherent plot, and—thankfully—no racist comedy or mindless tits and ass. Finally, I can look forward to a “Transformers” movie without a sense of dread.

9. A Star is Born – The moment Lady Gaga’s Ally takes the stage to perform “Shallow,” a shoe-in for best song of the year at the Oscars, “A Star is Born” takes off. Guided by the steady hand of director and star Bradley Cooper, the film is emotionally resonant enough to forgive its missteps, including an inciting event in the third act that may have flown in the days of Hollywood past, but not in the modern entertainment landscape.

8. Deadpool 2 – I didn’t laugh harder at any movie in 2018 than I did at this over-the-top, self-aware sequel. Coming just weeks after the release of “Avengers: Infinity War,” Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool takes the piss out of what is likely the resolution to the former’s climax that left half the movie dusted—even if the filmmakers had no possible idea that’s what they were doing.

7. Mary Poppins Returns – I was completely charmed by this unashamedly old-school Disney sequel, from its amazing 2D animation (complete with jagged edges) and the way it just sort of meandered through musical numbers. It doesn’t have much in the way of plot, and strangely, that’s just fine.

6. Black Panther – Leave it to director Ryan Coogler and his muse Michael B. Jordan to turn the factory-produced Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story into something brimming with depth and spectacle. Wakanda is a beauty to behold and Jordan’s Killmonger is a villain with a clear purpose, and a damn solid claim to back it up. Just look at Killmonger’s vision wherein he talks to his late father (a scene with two of today’s finest actors, Jordan and Sterling K. Brown) and you can easily understand the struggle.

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse – Yes, it’s the 7th Spider-Man movie in the last 16 years, but it might be the most essential. “Spider-verse” boils down years of spider-lore, both in comics, movies and the culture at large, and serves it up with a sharp sense of humor, an inclusive cast, and an unmatched visual style. Also, the end credits stinger is one of the funniest ever, and further proves that the filmmakers understand what makes Spider-Man special in pop culture.

4. The Favourite – Pitch-black and hilarious, “The Favourite” features razor sharp performances from its three leading ladies in Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman. But don’t sleep on Nicholas Hoult, who gets to sling some of the darkest arrows in the whole film.

3. First Man – Criminally underappreciated, “First Man” reteams “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle with his star Ryan Gosling for a gripping, focused look at Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. My colleagues here at CineSnob dismissed Gosling’s Armstrong as bland and unknowable—but that’s what makes the portrayal pitch perfect. In the years to come, people are going to wonder why this masterpiece was greeted with a shrug.

2. Vice – Speaking of critical missteps, the takes on “Vice” are mind-boggling to me. Like Armstrong, Dick Cheney’s inner workings are unknown to the common man. But where Armstrong was the hero who did what he had to do to get the mission done, Cheney is his polar opposite: a driven man content to play the villain. Written and directed by Adam McKay with a top-notch performance from Christian Bale, “Vice” is an indictment of early-2000s Americans’ political complacency when the issue of safety was on the line—something that is all too familiar today, because we never learn I guess.

1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – It isn’t often that a film can change my world view, especially now that I’ve hit 40. But Morgan Neville’s biographical documentary about TV’s Fred Rogers did exactly that. The late host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is the epitome of kindness and empathy, unafraid of the stillness that most children’s television strives to avoid. By the end of the screening I had shed tears and made a silent promise to myself to try and be a better human being. I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet, but I’ll forever be in debt to Mr. Rogers and this film for making me give it a shot.

Bottom 3:  1. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; 2. Venom; 3. The Cloverfield Paradox

KIKO MARTINEZ – Editor-in-Chief

After watching 235 movies this year, here are my 10 picks (and a few honorable mentions) for the best Hollywood had to offer.

10. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Besides praising three-time Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix’s striking turn as Joe, a disturbed veteran who works for a private investigator to track down missing girls, filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has created an unnerving and aggressive cinematic experience in You Were Never Really Here. There is a thin layer of grime that coats the narrative that is extremely hard to shake. There are scenes in the film where it almost feels like it could fade to black at any moment. As the dissonant and offbeat electronic score of Oscar-nominated composer Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread) pushes Joe to the brink, audiences may wonder if he will make things easier by simply removing himself from the equation. His self-hatred will make it tough for viewers to connect to the character on any meaningful level, but with YWNRH, it’s probably a good idea to keep a safe distance.

9. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)

It’s never ideal when a film has an agenda and then proceeds to beat viewers over the head with it. So, it’s quite unexpected when a film as preachy as First Reformed comes along and finds a way to be an exception to the rule. It’s a haunting, strange and lyrical narrative on one man’s spiritual and political resurrection from the darkest corners of his consciousness. First Reformed brims with insights on anger, guilt, faith and personal autonomy. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, the film revisits some of the more philosophical, character-driven elements of his early screenplay work, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Schrader taps into another tormented soul, and actor Ethan Hawke delivers a career-best performance. First Reformed is built to carry the burden of Schrader’s ambitious and inspired script, which includes a visceral final scene that will linger for weeks.

8. The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao)

Chinese-American writer-director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me) has taken a tender narrative and transformed it into a breathtakingly beautiful drama that shoots straight to the heart. Yes, the performances from some of the novice actors in supporting roles are unpolished, but the spirit that emanates from the setting, characters, relationships and direction is brilliant. In The Rider, Zhao taps former bronc rider-turned-actor Brady Jandreau to play the cinematic version of himself, Brady Blackburn, a young, Native American cowboy from South Dakota reflecting on his life after suffering a severe head injury. The Rider is Jandreau’s film, and he delivers a complexity and cowboy flair to the role that is unmatchable. Watching him train colts on the rugged Dakota landscape, confronting the idea of what it means to be a man and simply appreciating being alive is what makes the film so emotionally fulfilling.

7. At Eternity’s Gate (dir. Julian Schnabel)

In At Eternity’s Gate, a biopic on Vincent van Gogh, Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t take an antiquated concept and define mental illness as one specific thing or behavior. Everyone knows van Gogh suffered from some form of psychological disorder, so why play it up like other van Gogh films of the past? It’s one of the reasons Schnabel’s film is such an enlightening and unique experience. With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel, who is a famous painter himself, confronts van Gogh’s mental instability with inventive style and philosophical reflection. In doing so, he has given audiences one of the most creative and visually striking cinematic compositions about an artist in recent memory. Through handheld camerawork, distorted scenes and other stimulating experimental film elements, he allows viewers to see the world from van Gogh’s transcendent perspective.

6. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Favourite is unlike any costume drama you’ve ever seen. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if you know the eccentric and invigorating work of Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster. Although Lanthimos hands off script duties this time around, his fingerprints are all over it. The Favourite is an acerbic and abrasively funny period piece featuring three of the best female performances of the year. Set in the early 18th century, it is loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the sickly crowned head who ruled Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1714. Don’t expect a history lesson here, however. Lanthimos is more interested in the darker and comically absurd relationships Anne develops with her close advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Hostility and deceitfulness have never been this wickedly entertaining.

5. Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins)

Dark comedy is a tough subgenre to get right, especially when working off a script featuring uncomfortable subject matter that isn’t what most would consider knee-slapping material. For example, 2014’s Obvious Child and 2015’s Grandma are both well-written dark comedies about abortion. Director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) seems to hit the same kind of tone with Private Life, a dark dramedy that tells the story of Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a middle-aged married couple who are experiencing infertility and trying to have a baby through in vitro. Unsure about using a stranger as an egg donor, they turn to their 25-year-old step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) to see if she might be willing to help them conceive. Jenkins has crafted a genuinely touching and humorous human narrative about a husband and wife desperate for a family. It’s a poignant piece of filmmaking and Giamatti and Hahn have never been better.

4. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller)

It’s a welcomed career move to see actress Melissa McCarthy change things up in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her most dramatic role to date — and her most remarkable. Her character, late New York Times bestselling author Lee Israel, is well-matched to McCarthy’s self-deprecating wit and ability to make the flaws and vulnerabilities she brings to the role seem sympathetic and spirited. In Forgive Me?, Israel attempts to resolve her money problems by forging and selling fake, personal letters by deceased writers and actors. Directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and co-written by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), Forgive Me? uses a cynical and clever combination of dark comedy and drama that builds on the narrative’s stranger-than-fiction premise with a pitch-perfect tone. The film is the type of work McCarthy will hopefully search out more as she expands her range.

3. Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik)

There’s something very intriguing about watching an individual taking on Mother Nature with little at their disposal. 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 (Castaway) or one they have undertaken on their own to test themselves (Wild). 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, Will and Tom learn to master their solitary lifestyle until their attempt to hide from the outside world ends abruptly. Directed and co-written by Oscar nominee Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Leave No Trace is thought provoking and emotionally complex. Granik has captured an authentic dynamic between two characters who find themselves at an impasse with one another.

2. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

There’s no denying the beauty and timelessness at the heart of Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal drama Roma. It’s as close to cinematic poetry as you can get, and Cuarón, with an expert-level attention to detail, places us at the center of his story — watching, listening, waiting and cherishing every delicate moment. As with all his past films, there is an intimacy in Cuarón’s work that is unlike any working director today. It’s never been more apparent just how meditative his voice has become than with Roma, an autobiographical film based on his childhood in Mexico City during the 1970s and told from the perspective of the woman who helped raise him — his nanny (Yalitza Aparicio). Appreciate what Cuarón has constructed with Roma. Like other recent image-heavy films such as Tree of Life, Dunkirk and The Revenant, what Roma lacks in standard narrative substance, it makes up for in Cuarón’s skill as a visual storyteller.

1. Vice (dir. Adam McKay)

Vice, Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay’s biopic on former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale in an Oscar-worthy performance), is the most polarizing Oscar-contending film among critics since 2004’s Best Picture winner Crash. In Cheney’s world, McKay shows audiences just how much influence the VP had in the administration and does so with a sharp and scathingly witty script. Cheney’s wraithlike rise in the ranks saw him turn the “nothing job” of VP into one of incredible depth and power — like a cosmic comic-book villain who devours planets. Politics is a whole different game than McKay tackled in his last film, 2015’s The Big Short, on the imploding housing bubble, and he came ready to play. And like most politicians, McKay jabs low and hard and sometimes unfairly, but always promises an entertaining fight. His foray into political theater is captivating, outrageous, satirical gold.

And 10 Honorable Mentions: Capernaum, The Death of Stalin, Eighth Grade, Hereditary, I Am Not a Witch, Isle of Dogs, Lean on Pete, Searching, The Sisters Brothers, Three Identical Strangers

CODY VILLAFANA – Contributing film critic

1. Vice
2. Leave No Trace
3. Blindspotting
4. Boy Erased
5. Roma
6. The Rider
7. First Reformed
8. American Animals
9. Eighth Grade
10. Minding the Gap


  1. Vice
  2. Leave No Trace
  3. Roma
  4. The Favourite
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
  6. The Rider
  7. First Man
  8. Blindspotting
  9. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  10. Boy Erased


Marina de Tavira – Roma

December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In “Roma,” Oscar-winning writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film of his career, Mexican actress Marina de Tavira plays Sra. Sofia, the fictionalized version of Cuarón’s own mother, who was a supportive presence in his life growing up in Mexico City. “Roma” tells the story of Cuarón’s upbringing form the perspective of the woman who helped raise him, his nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

During an interview with me last week, de Tavira talked about why she feels Cuarón cast her for the role of Sofia and the message she hopes a film like “Roma” conveys about caretakers like Cleo.

Like Alfonso, you also grew up in Mexico City. How much of what he portrays happening in the city during that time are things that felt authentic to your own upbringing?

A lot of what was portrayed in the film was my childhood life—the movies, the streets, the music, the phones, the toys. It really took me back to my childhood. It moved a lot of things inside my heart.

What kind of conversations did you have with Alfonso about his mother and how he wanted you to portray her in this film?

We had very long conversations before we started. We talked a lot about her and her story and her biography and children. We talked about Cleo and when she entered [their family’s] life. I understood why he chose me. I could really relate to what he was talking about. It had a lot to do with my own mother’s story and my grandmother’s story and with my own story. He told me not to work from an outsider’s perspective and to trust that it was inside me. That’s how we worked together.

Did you know someone like Cleo growing up—someone who helped the family as a nanny or housekeeper or someone who helped take care of the kids?

Of course. It was part of my childhood and it is part of my life as a mother now. I didn’t have a “Cleo” that was there forever, but my mom did. She was called Nana Sosi. She took care of my mom and her sisters and she also took care of us and all the grandchildren. Right now, a woman named Guadalupe lives with me and my son. She is a woman from Vera Cruz and she is my family. My son and [Guadalupe] and I make life work every day. It’s part of our life. It’s the way we live.

Many times in the United States, women like Cleo and Guadalupe are pushed into the shadows because they are undocumented workers. In the age we’re living in right now and with this administration that is vilifying immigrants daily, do you hope a film like “Roma” will show people that many of these women are a big part of the cultural fabric of this nation?

This movie is sending the message about what we should acknowledge and what we should be grateful for. But I don’t think being grateful is enough. Being grateful means having responsibility and making changes and working in a direction where we can legally acknowledge this kind of work. We should work on their working rights and on their insurances and their schedules. They should be able to have a retirement. We should all do it. It’s about really making a change.

As a Mexican actress, how proud are you of Alfonso—someone from your home city that has found a way to break barriers and make quality films at the highest levels of Hollywood? Before Alfonso and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Guillermo del Toro came around almost 20 years ago, it was a rarity. It still is.

I think he is an incredible artist. He’s crossed the border and has been successful. Right now, what I most admire about him is that he came back and did a film in his country about his people and his family and his memories. He made a film that will be seen all over the world. That is what impresses me. He is putting this story in the spotlight and we are talking about it. That’s why I am so grateful for him.

When I was watching this film at the theater, it felt epic—watching these amazing black and white images on the big screen. When you’re making a film like this, does it feel as big as it looks? Can you feel the scope of it or does it feel more intimate?

It felt totally intimate. The big part came when we saw it. Alfonso works with us in a very special way. We are never aware of the camera. It felt as if we were recreating life itself. When I saw it, I certainly understood the purpose. He made the mundane and everyday life epic. That’s something very few artists can accomplish.

The final scene on the beach is probably the best scene I saw this year of any film. I don’t want to know how it was accomplished, so don’t tell me. I just want to know what that day was like on the set and shooting something so emotional?

It was particular. We had lots of rain and wind the day before. We weren’t able to do it. When we were finally able to do it, they had to build a very huge peer that was over the sea. We knew we didn’t have a lot of chances to get it. The light was perfect. This was the moment. I had very specific indications of when to go out and when to go in. My heart was beating fast because I didn’t want to be the one that got it wrong. There’s so much going on. Even if you have a small part, you have a huge responsibility. And that’s only the technical part. On the emotional side, Alfonso knew that was going to happen. He talked about it. We let the emotions flow and they came huge.


December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”)
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”)

There’s no denying the beauty and timelessness at the heart of Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal drama “Roma.” It’s as close to cinematic poetry as you can get, and Cuarón, with an expert-level attention to detail, places us at the center of his story — watching, listening, waiting, and cherishing every delicate moment.

As with all his past films — whether taking audiences on a road trip through rural Mexico in his 2001 masterpiece “Y tu Mamá También” or floating through the vastness of space in 2013’s “Gravity” — there is an intimacy in Cuarón’s work that is unlike any director making films today. It’s never been more apparent just how meditative his voice has become than with “Roma,” an autobiographical film based on his childhood in Mexico City during the 1970s and told from the perspective of the woman who helped raise him — his nanny Libo. (Yalitza Aparicio plays a fictionalized version named Cleo.)

In Cleo, Cuarón has created a character of pure devotion and human spirit, and Aparicio delivers a restrained, albeit passionate, performance. In “Roma,” Cuarón examines Cleo’s relationship with the middle-class family who employs her and the complex social dynamics that keep them separated. In comparison, Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert’s 2015 film “Que Horas Ela Volta?” (“The Second Mother”) does a better job presenting this theme, but Cuarón’s emphasis on a single character’s experiences is admirable as we observe Cleo not only performing tedious tasks but also comforting the children who are witnessing the dissolution of their parents’ marriage.

From a technical standpoint, “Roma” is second to none — from Cuarón’s brilliant direction and first foray into the role of cinematographer (usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki was not available) to the meticulous production design by Academy Award winner Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). The black-and-white 65mm film Cuarón utilizes gives an epic feel to the picture, and his tracking shots reveal a landscape full of life that is oftentimes overshadowed in other films by the shiniest object in the room. Instead, Cuarón makes the ordinary seem remarkable — soapy water gliding over a stone floor, laundry hanging from a clothesline, a lizard scurrying across the dry earth.

Appreciate what Cuarón has constructed with “Roma.” Like other recent image-heavy films such as “Tree of Life,” “Dunkirk” and “The Revenant,” what Roma lacks in standard narrative substance, it makes up for in Cuarón’s skill as a visual storyteller.

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