October 15, 2018

‘This Is Us’ Creator Brings Family Drama to Big Screen

Oscar Isaac andOlivia Wilde in "Life Itself." Photo by Amazon Studios

The movie “Life Itself” is a multigenerational story, set in multiple time periods, with scenes playing out from different characters’ points of view. There are shocking twists and plenty of tear-inducing moments, stemming from both sadness and joy. If this sounds like an episode of “This Is Us,” that’s because the film’s writer and director is Dan Fogelman, creator of the hit NBC drama.

“I’ve always been fascinated how different people can have different perspectives of the same event, but also that life is wildly unpredictable,” Fogelman told the Journal. “In any given hour, your life can alternate between sad and joyous, mundane and important. It can change on a dime. This film is about life and regular people, but the most ordinary lives can be really romantic if you look at them through a wide enough lens.”

The film has an ensemble cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas and Samuel L. Jackson.

“[It’s] a little bit darker but we explore some of the same themes” as “This Is Us,” Fogelman said. “It’s a group of people who are connected by difficulty and loss, but there’s a lot of optimism in the big picture.”

Fogelman began writing the film four years ago, “without much forethought or inspiration,” but came to realize that he had been unconsciously inspired by two incidents a year apart: the sudden passing of his mother 10 years ago and meeting the woman he would marry.

Fogelman also recognizes the tangential influence of a favorite writer, Philip Roth, in that his characters write or talk about writing, and that a comedic kitchen table scene “feels like it could have been a scene out of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ ” he said. “[Roth is] more in my bones than someone I’m trying to consciously emulate.”

“I’ve always been fascinated how different people can have different perspectives of the same event, but also that life is wildly unpredictable.” — Dan Fogelman

Fogelman said his second time directing a film  (his first was 2015’s “Danny Collins”) was quite challenging. “[The film] plays with tone. Going from romantic comedy scenes to tragic scenes is a real balancing act,” he said.

Half of the movie was shot in Spain, in Spanish with a Spanish crew, so Fogelman worked with a translator and took lessons to communicate with them.

“I enjoy working with actors but I’m more of a writer at heart,” he said. “Directing means a lot of time spent outside, being really cold or really hot, really early in the morning or late at night, none of which I like. I direct only when it feels important that I do it to tell the story.”

Fogelman said that while “Life Itself” reflects the darker side of life, it also depicts “a beautiful, romantic experience filled with love and family. Hopefully, it can be a reminder in these times that the human experience is not as divided and divisive as we see on the news. We all experience love and loss and joy and tragedy, and there’s something beautiful in that amid all the darkness.”

THIS IS US – Season: 3 – Chris Sullivan as Toby, Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson, Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson, Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, Justin Hartley as Kevin Pearson, Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson, Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth Pearson (Photo by: NBC)

As for “This Is Us,” 12 of 18 scripts have been completed and six have been edited for the third season, which has a “new beginnings” theme, Fogelman said. The premiere on Sept. 25 picked up on the Pearson siblings’ 38th birthday, “and they’ve reached a point where it’s time to move on to the next chapter.”

Kate (Chrissy Metz) will try again to get pregnant; Kevin (Justin Hartley) begins a romance with sister-in-law Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) cousin; and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) “is still looking for a purpose in life,” Fogelman said. We’ll also see the courtship of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), Jack’s time in Vietnam with his brother Nicky (Michael Angarano), and go with Randall back to the future.

Fogelman promised answers to at least some big questions midway though the season, revealed in “a slow burn. You’ll be hard-pressed to know exactly where the storylines are going to go. People shouldn’t get complacent about paying attention because there’s stuff coming that will be water cooler-ish.”

The series’ success raises the bar, but Fogelman doesn’t feel the pressure.

“Our crew, actors and department heads are so good at what they do. We feel confident. We always had a plan,” he said. “We know what will happen to each character and roughly when. We’ve had that plan since the beginning.”

There are several new series this season in the “This Is Us” vein, but Fogelman chalks that up more to network marketing than what the creators had in mind. “Human family dramas are not new,” he said. “I root for those shows. That’s the kind of stuff I like.”

Describing himself as “a very secular Jew,” Fogelman stopped attending Hebrew school after he became a bar mitzvah, but he attends High Holy Days services and can “still follow along in Hebrew.” He remains close with the Jewish friends he met at summer camp. “I’ve created a Jewish community with them,” he said.

Launching “This Is Us” while promoting “Life Itself” has Fogelman dreaming of a vacation. “We’re going to do some press in Europe at some point and hope to get some time there. We’re talking about renting an RV and driving up the West Coast,” he said. “I shot the movie after the first season of [“This Is Us”] ended and edited it while shooting the second season.

“If I don’t take a break, my wife might leave me,” he joked, noting that he isn’t writing a new movie script. “I need to recharge my brain before I go off half-cocked and write something that I don’t really want to do.”

“Life Itself” is in theaters now. “This Is Us” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC.

A Story of Orthodox Twins Buried in the Past

A scene from "They Father's Chair." Photo by Antonio Tibaldi.

The Brooklyn home of two Orthodox Jewish twin brothers is a shocking, chaotic scene that could be straight out of the TV show “Hoarders.” Stray cats roam through the home’s bug-infested maze of garbage and junk. An overwhelming stench of old kitty litter and spoiled food fills the air. A cleaning crew in protective suits and masks begins the Herculean task of cleaning out the place, under protest from the brothers, who had reluctantly agreed to the cleaning only because their upstairs tenant threatened to stop paying rent.

The home, inherited from their late parents, has become a prison for the brothers.

This sad state of existence for the twins, Abraham and Shraga, is the subject of “Thy Father’s Chair,” a cinéma vérité-style documentary opening Oct. 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The home, inherited from their late parents, has become a prison for the brothers, who are in their 60s, as they obsessively cling to objects from their past.

“Their parents died. They never married. They were never taught how to take care of a house,” filmmaker Antonio Tibaldi said of the twins. “What I felt was interesting was this attachment to objects. Abraham looks at his father’s chair and says he’s not sure if he’s allowed to sit in that chair, and he’s not sure he wants to. To me, that encapsulates the essence of the film: the weight of what you’re supposed to
carry through.”

Nicole Levine, an Israeli acquaintance who owns the cleaning service Home Clean Home, tried to interest Tibaldi in filming an infomercial for her. He declined, but when she later shared photos of the brothers’ disaster-area home, he was intrigued.

Filming took place over 10 days in late 2014 and three days in 2015, followed by eight months of editing. The shooting conditions were difficult, but extracting a narrative thread from many hours of footage was even more challenging, as Tibaldi had just let his camera roll, with no interviews. “I knew when I had good moments,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure what it would add up to.”

Those moments include Abraham talking about the titular chair, Shraga discussing the existence of God, and the brothers’ interaction with the cleaning crew leader, an Israeli named Hanan Edri.

“[Hanan] became almost a father figure” to them, co-director Alex Lora said.

The epilogue ends the film on a brighter note, showing the twins reading Torah in their tidier home.

But the story didn’t end there: Shraga died in late 2016 from complications after back surgery. Tibaldi has tried to contact Abraham a couple of times this year, to no avail.

Lora and Tibaldi have been collaborators since they met at City College of New York when Lora was a student in Tibaldi’s film class. They hope “Thy Father’s Chair” makes an impact with audiences.

“It’s a claustrophobic story in the sense that it’s one location and these guys are not the most appealing guys on the surface,” Lora said, “but I hope [people] connect with them and their humanity and their wish to get a better situation.”

Tibaldi thinks the film raises provocative questions.

“What is identity in terms of connection to your heritage, whether it’s religious or cultural, and what choices do you have in relationship to it?” Tibaldi said. “How are you able to separate from your origin or what you believe is your identity? What is left if you rebel against these things? All this is very interesting to me.

“What we filmed is very specific to [the brothers], and a Jewish audience may have specific interest, but hopefully the fact that it’s so specific can make it universal.”

“Thy Father’s Chair” runs Oct. 20-26 at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, screening at 5 and 7:20 p.m.

AMERICAN MADE *Movie Review*

American Made showcases all of star Tom Cruise’s major strengths: the charisma, the winning smile and the lovable cockiness.  While the story may be vaguely based on the experiences of government informant Barry Seal, this is a Tom Cruise movie through-and-through.  Every character fades into the background as little more than poseable set dressing.  It isn’t that the actors aren’t good in their roles, but that they haven’t been given parts other than as hangers-on.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from American Made is the product placement connected to Tom Cruise.  He’s a star who knows the value of branding and, as such, rarely allows any recognizable products in a scene with him and certainly not in his own hands if possible.  So, when he mentions Harley Davidson motorcycles by name, it’s a far bigger shock than any of the plot.

For more about American Made and product placement, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All film photos are courtesy of Universal Pictures.

8 interesting films to see this summer

"Churchill" Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Some of this summer’s more notable films explore Middle East terrorism, World War II battles and global warming, while others tell the life stories of seminal figures in music and photography. And there’s a bittersweet movie that is mainly in Yiddish to top it off.


The campaign to expose the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the Euphrates River, is the subject of “City of Ghosts.” Using their cellphone cameras, a small collection of amateur journalists, who call their group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slowly (RBSS),” photographed the atrocities by ISIS troops bent on establishing a caliphate in the city. These citizen reporters then uploaded the footage to the internet for the world to see what was happening in their homeland.

In the production notes, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is quoted as saying he learned of the group in 2015, made contact with it, gained its members’ trust and began filming interviews with them and using their videos and stills. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal verité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS.

“Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, enabling the caliphate to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS’ footage — including some that has never been released — provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa,” he said.

The film traces the RBSS movement back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when Raqqa was a center of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some 15 friends began reporting on the protests, using their phone cameras and their computers.

Then, in 2014, ISIS troops rolled into the city and quickly instituted a reign of terror, with public executions (shootings and beheadings) and dead bodies strewn on the streets. But, wanting to project an image of a peaceful, beautiful life in the city, ISIS produced increasingly sophisticated videos, disseminating them largely for recruitment purposes.

In reaction, the small band of lay reporters formed RBSS, a website and social media presence, and went undercover to record the brutality. When it became dangerous, some fled to Turkey, then to the relative safety of Germany, where the documentary shows them continuing to receive footage from secret operatives in Raqqa and to post the images on the internet.

“The contrast of ISIS’ videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns,” according to Heineman’s statement in the press notes. The filmmaker adds that the film’s themes broadened beyond the war into “the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”

In one particularly horrific section, the group member named Hamoud watches a video of his father, who is tied to a post, being shot to death by ISIS. Although Hamoud remains stoic, blood begins spurting from his mouth.

Todd McCarthy, in his Hollywood Reporter review, writes, “Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.”

“City of Ghosts” opens July 14.


A largely unknown view of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is presented in Jonathan Teplitzky’s World War II drama, “Churchill.” The action takes place just days before D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, on June 6, 1944.

As the film opens, Churchill (Brian Cox) is strolling near the seashore and suddenly has a vision of the water running red with blood. The movie portrays Churchill’s unwillingness to accept the Allies’ invasion plans, fearing catastrophic losses, together with his own emotional issues and depression.

During an interview with the Journal while on another shoot in Australia, Teplitzky said he was invited onboard the “Churchill” project late in the movie’s development and was very drawn to the story.

“In many ways, in my view, his personal struggles only made his public and political achievements all the more remarkable and substantial, because he stops being a myth and we can see him more as a human being with human flaws,” the director said.

Cox re-creates Churchill’s physicality and his speech patterns, but Teplitzky said he and the actor wanted much more. “Brian and I both wanted a complex and deeply layered character, one whose humanity, vulnerabilities and flaws reveal themselves to us and the audience. We wanted to use the iconic stuff, the physical look and mannerisms, his speech rhythms, etc., as a doorway into this intimate human portrait. His big obsession, I think, comes from guilt in his role in a number of operations, and in particular Gallipoli, which resulted in massive loss of life.”

Churchill was a commander at the Battle of Gallipoli, a World War I disaster that cost hundreds of thousands of British, French, Australian and New Zealand casualties.

“But by now in 1944, with the U.S. in many ways running the Allied war effort, Churchill was somewhat sidelined, so it diluted his influence and ability to enforce change,” Teplitzky said. “This coupled with his depression, the two working off each other and fueling each other, was a big factor in his psychological state. I also think there is an element in the film which is about a man getting old and questioning his relevance.”

Churchill’s reservations about D-Day led him to clash openly with the supreme Allied commander, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), as well as British Gen. Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and other officers. The prime minister succumbs to one of his periodic attacks of depression and self-medicates by drinking excessively.

It is his strong, assertive wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), feeling overlooked and marginalized by her husband, who reminds Churchill that Eisenhower, Montgomery and the others have a great deal of war experience — just as he has.“Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth,” she says.

Ultimately, Churchill is reconciled to D-Day, and when the Allies start winning, he broadcasts a speech over the BBC, telling the nation they have pushed back the Nazis. He states this is not a war for glory, but a war for freedom in which England will never surrender.

Teplitzky believes the film still has much to say about contemporary issues. It explores a man “at the center of momentous events, who presents a flawed but brilliant personality and the way such a personality impacts on people’s lives. We can only understand and learn from history if we look at it from many points of views, not just from a prescriptive and often conservative angle.”

“Churchill” opens June 2.


The documentary “Long Strange Trip“ examines another form of personal demons as it chronicles the 30-year run of the iconic rock group the Grateful Dead and the troubled life of one of the band’s co-founders, Jerry Garcia.

Some audiences may find the four-hour length, broken by an intermission, somewhat intimidating, but the group’s die-hard fans, known as Deadheads, undoubtedly will hang on every word. In addition to many interviews, the film is replete with archival footage, photos, macabre cartoons centered on images of death and, of course, the music.

However, director Amir Bar-Lev, a fan of the band since he was 13, is quoted in the promotional materials as saying he wanted the film to appeal to an audience beyond Deadheads.

“For decades, when Deadheads were pressed as to what was so special about the band,” he states, “they could simply answer something along the lines of, ‘I can’t explain it. You have to go to a show to understand.’ I wanted to challenge myself to do better than that, so I reached out to the most articulate people I know around the Dead scene.”

Just as the band’s music was largely improvisational, the film has the feel of being loosely structured. Band members, a music producer, Garcia’s daughter and others offer unique perspectives on the band and its fans.

The band itself was eclectic, with the original members coming from various musical traditions, so the Dead’s music encompassed jazz, R&B, folk, blues, rock ’n’ roll and other genres.

Garcia, the group’s de facto leader, eschewed the idea of being in charge and envisioned the band as a collective with no preset rules. The disparate bunch he assembled in 1965 was called the Warlocks at first, but when they learned another band had the same name, they became the Grateful Dead, a phrase they found in the dictionary. Early on, they began using the mind-altering drug LSD and soon moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, home to the burgeoning Beat-influenced counterculture of the period.

From there, the film follows the band’s unsuccessful first steps under contract to Warner Bros. Records, its eventual recording triumphs and its decision to focus on being a touring band. There is footage of the now legendary performance at London’s Lyceum Theatre on May 23, 1972, during which Garcia performed a guitar solo of “Morning Dew” with tears running down his face.

But things ultimately got out of hand due to the group’s lack of structure, as well as the unwieldy party atmosphere that evolved among the fans.

There also was heavy drug use. Garcia became increasingly isolated and dependent on heroin until, in 1995, at age 53, he died in his sleep of a heart attack at a rehab center in Marin County.

In the press notes, Bar-Lev responds to a question about whether he was aware that the history of the Dead in many ways mirrors the history of America in the second half of the 20th century. The filmmaker answers by referring to what he calls Garcia’s “radical pluralism” and pointing to the “traveling counter-cultural city” that the band inspired.

He concludes, “It all strikes me as quintessentially American. The Grateful Dead are the musical Statue of Liberty.”

“Long Strange Trip” opens May 26.


On a softer level, we have filmmaker Errol Morris’ homage to 80-year-old portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. With this documentary, Morris departs from his usual weightier fare. His past projects examined such figures as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who admits his mistakes regarding the Vietnam War in “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and Fred A. Leuchter (“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.”), an adviser to prisons on executions who wrote a report denying that gas chambers were used for mass murder at Auschwitz.

With “The B-Side,” Morris has crafted a gentle, sweet work that becomes something of a memoir for Dorfman, one of the last photographers working in an analog format when most photography has gone digital. As the movie progresses, she brings out photograph after photograph and reminisces about her life and work.

After college, Dorfman got a job in New York as a secretary at Grove Press, and there she met famous Beat Generation writers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend and frequent photographic subject.

As a self-described “nice Jewish girl” from Massachusetts, Dorfman says in the film that the New York world of artists was too much for her, so she returned to Cambridge and went into teaching. It wasn’t until she was 28, in 1965, that she started taking pictures — and in the early1980s, she began using Polaroid’s giant 20×24 camera, shooting large color portraits.

Although Dorfman never garnered the fame of such photographers as Richard Avedon, Milton Greene or Annie Leibovitz, she nevertheless photographed many luminaries in addition to Ginsberg, including poet, painter and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayist Anaïs Nin, musician Bob Dylan, poet W.H. Auden, and radical feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin.

She also took a series of self-portraits and added captions at the bottom of the photographs. On her cyberjournal, Dorfman writes: “I make self-portraits on my birthday and every now and then when I have only one shot left in the case of film. (I think it is good for me to experience what my subjects are going through — and it is wild to see how I have changed.)”

Whenever she photographed paying clients, she shot two exposures. The customers would choose the one they liked and she would keep the other one, which she dubbed “the B-Side,” hence the film’s title.

Unfortunately, Polaroid went bankrupt and stopped making film for the 20×24 camera. So, as the movie was being shot, Dorfman was facing retirement.

She sums up her approach by saying on her cyberjournal that she doesn’t try to uncover people’s souls. “As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people’s lives. I don’t try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don’t try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it’s mine.)

“For me the key word is ‘apparently.’ All I hope my photographs say is this person lives and this person was here.”

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” opens June 30.


“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” — This film is a follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore made his case for the need to reverse global warming. The sequel tracks the progress made in addressing climate change. The documentary follows Gore as he continues to inspire people to get involved in the movement for alternative, safer forms of energy. Opens July 28.

“Dunkirk” — Here is another World War II film. This one focuses on the evacuation of 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, as the Nazis invaded. The Allied soldiers were saved with the help of every available British military and civilian ship. Director Christopher Nolan is quoted in Variety as saying, “Dunkirk and the legend of it is something that British people grow up with — it’s in our DNA.” Opens July 21.

“13 Minutes” — Returning again to the second world war era, this movie from Germany is based on the true story of a free-spirited German carpenter, Georg Elser, who planted a bomb set to go off during a speech given by Adolf Hitler on Nov. 8, 1939. But Hitler unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the explosion, and eight unintended victims were killed. Although Elser acted alone, the heads of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police believed he was part of a larger plot and had him tortured, hoping to get the names of co-conspirators. When no names were forthcoming, Elser was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then to Dachau, where he ultimately was executed. Opens June 30.

“Menashe” — Loosely based on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig (a YouTube comedian), the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community and is filmed almost completely in Yiddish. The title character, who works in a kosher supermarket, has become a widower and, according to tradition, cannot raise his son without a woman in the house. Pressured either to find a wife or let his married brother-in-law raise the boy, Menashe struggles to prove himself worthy of being a parent. Opens July 28.

MOONLIGHT *Movie Review*

MOONLIGHT is a coming of age story that follows Chiron during three stages of life as he learns who about himself while he struggles with sexual identity.  During each stage, he is called by a different name, either Little, Chiron or Black.  MOONLIGHT was written and directed by Barry Jenkins.  It stars Mahershala Ali (HIDDEN FIGURES), Janelle Monae (HIDDEN FIGURES), Naomie Harris (SKYFALL), Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.  Brad Pitt produced.

This is a really beautiful movie that’s more quiet and methodical than anything else.  Each scene feels unhurried, as though the audience is really experiencing a piece of life.  By leaping ahead and showing Chiron over three different stages of life, there’s a strong sense that life goes on and we as an audience are only privy to certain parts of it.  

While I was willing to accept the narrative gaps, at the same time I wanted more, particularly from Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae).  Chiron’s story and life were interesting, but so were they. 

For more about MOONLIGHT, including how the color blue is used as a theme throughout, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


FENCES *Movie Review*

FENCES is set in the 1950s and is about a family torn apart by its patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington).  Troy is so caught up in his own suffering at the hands of society and his life circumstance that he cannot allow himself any happiness.  Though trying to escape his father, Troy becomes him.  Viola Davis plays Troy’s wife, Rose.  Both Washington and Davis won Tonys for their work in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play upon which this is based.

For more about the themes in FENCES, including what fences mean to the movie and how food plays a role, take a look below:

—>Trying to find the video directly?  Click here.

Middle Eastern filmmakers don’t filter through lens of Arab-Israel conflict this year

"Sand Storm," Israel's submission to the Oscars, is about a Bedouin community.

To headline readers and TV news watchers, the Middle East is a region constantly roiled by conflicts, with nonstop fighting between nations and among their militant factions.

But if the movies, particularly those submitted by 85 countries for Oscar recognition, are an indication of popular tastes and concerns, then the Israel-Arab standoff and other hot and cold wars are all but ignored by the region’s filmmakers.

Checking out this year’s Academy Award entries from Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, all but one forgo nationalistic bravado or hostile propaganda in favor of themes familiar to most Hollywood fans.

Israeli filmmakers have rarely struck any military poses in the past but have frequently come up with highly critical portraits of their own society. By contrast, this year’s entry “Sand Storm,” is a sympathetic and sharply observed picture of a Bedouin community in the Negev in the midst of generational changes. All the picture’s dialogue is in in Arabic.

Lebanon’s entry, “Very Big Shot,” takes a satirical look at the country’s politics and endless infighting. The comedy is about a small-time Beirut drug dealer who tries to pull off one big coup by posing as an important film producer.

The Palestinian entry, “The Idol,” is a variant on the venerable Hollywood storyline of “A Star Is Born,” but with a local twist. Director Hany Abu-Assad based the picture on the true story of Mohammed Assaf, raised in Gaza, who fulfills his burning ambition to travel to Cairo and compete in the top-rated TV show “Arab Idol.” He wins, becomes a singing sensation and a symbol of hope for his fellow Palestinians.

Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” triggered a heated debate in 2005 about whether the originating entity should be listed as Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories or Palestine. Since then, all sides seem to have tired of the controversy and “The Idol” is credited simply to “Palestine.”

One rarely thinks of Saudi Arabia in terms of romantic comedy, but “Barakah Meets Barakah” sets a precedent. In a kingdom where unchaperoned contact between the genders is prohibited, the attempt by a young civil servant to meet up with a girl takes on a Chaplinesque flavor. However, as in the case of Israel’s “Sand Storm,” on a deeper level, the Saudi picture explores the clash between traditional values and the modern world.

The grimmest entry is Egypt’s “Clash,” centering on the 2013 Cairo riots, triggered by confrontations between the military government and followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The action is seen mainly from the perspective of various Cairo residents, crammed inside a police paddy wagon.

Among all of Israel’s neighbors, only Jordan’s “3000 Nights” has a pronounced anti-Israel slant in the story of an arrested Palestinian woman having her baby in an Israeli prison.

One caveat in viewing these movies is that an American outsider might overlook some of the clues to more fervent nationalistic emotions boiling beneath the innocent-sounding themes. This holds particularly true for “The Idol” and director Abu-Assad, who earned Oscar nominations with two of his previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” both focusing directly on Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

In a phone interview, Abu-Assad observed, “To the Palestinians, particularly those living in Gaza, the victory of one of their own in the ‘Arab Idol’ show became a symbol of hope and pride.

“For 60 to 70 years, their lives have been characterized by defeats. Suddenly they had a voice to sing and speak for them.”

The directors and casts of these six films from the Middle East have at least one emotion in common: their disappointment in being eliminated from the Oscar race by the selection committee.

The ultimate winners will be crowned at the Feb. 26 ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.


SPLIT *Movie Review*

SPLIT stars James McAvoy as Kevin who has dissociative identity disorder, better known as multiple personality syndrome.  One of his personalities kidnaps three young women, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, and takes them to his home.  The three try to figure out where they are and make an escape.  Kevin’s therapist Dr Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley, can tell something is going on with him and tries to piece together the mystery as well.  SPLIT was written and directed by M Night Shyamalan who is known for his twist endings.  It was produced by Jason Blum who is behind the production company Blumhouse and movies such as WHIPLASH.

James McAvoy is fantastic creating what seem to be fully realized characters for each of the personalities.  It’s obvious he has shifted characters before he even opens his mouth.

Pay attention one of the early lines in the movie that’s said by Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Claire.  She declares “I’m not a monster” as a set up to everything that comes next.

For more details about themes in SPLIT, along with some product placement notes and eagle eye details to watch for with M Night Shyamalan’s style of filmmaking, take a look below:

Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


Take a look below for my Top 8 Movies of 2016 along with 4 Honorable Mentions.  When you’re through watching, let me know what your favorites were!

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


JACKIE *Movie Review*

In JACKIE, Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy consciously controls history’s memory of JFK’s assassination and presidency through her calculated interview with a reporter played by Billy Crudup.  The movie also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and John Hurt.

There’s a line in JACKIE that stuck with me.  It’s when Jackie says “for royalty you need tradition and for tradition you need time”.  It perfectly encapsulated the movie and Jackie Kennedy’s ultimate goals for her family.  In the midst of the horror of JFK’s assassination and Jackie Kennedy’s own combination of sadness and guilt, she wants her husband—and by extension herself—not to fade into oblivion.

The movie balances showing both sides of the formidable Jackie Kennedy, who is seemingly in control, with the inner turmoil she faces as she struggles to keep herself afloat.  The cinematography reflects that struggle through the use of a shaky, hand-held camera during specific scenes.  It also felt like Jackie was an outside observer of her own life; she was present physically but still apart.

The use of light also reflects Jackie’s inner turmoil.  When she greets the unnamed reporter at her home, she opens her door and sees bright light.  In fact, the light is so blown out that it offers a sense of heightened realism, as though Jackie’s looking into the light but cannot get there yet herself.  I also interpret it as an unforgiving light, representing how she feels about herself at the time.  These interpretations are reinforced during the movie multiple times.  For instance, during a flashback when someone tells Jackie that she has her whole life still ahead, she remarks that it’s a cruel comment.  As bright as her life might seem having been First Lady or looking back knowing about her subsequent marriage to Aristotle Onassis, at this point she is a young mother who has lost two children, she’s lost a husband, she has no home of her own and fears she will have to start selling off furniture just to feed her children.  Her desire to build a legacy for JFK is means for securing a future for herself as well, an inclination that is hard for her to even admit.

Jackie’s internal struggles are also literally reflected back to her during specific scenes with mirrors, which represent multiple facets of a person and personality in traditional film analysis. For more about these scenes and other themes in JACKIE, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


This week I review HIDDEN FIGURES.  HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women in the 60s who work at NASA and their successful, historic rise through the ranks as they break barriers of race and gender.  Taraji P. Henson (EMPIRE, HUSTLE AND FLOW) plays Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer (THE HELP) plays Dorothy Voughn and Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson.  Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons (THE BIG BANG THEORY), Kirsten Dunst and Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) also star.

One of the difficulties inherent in making a true-story period piece that focuses on a hard time in history is showing the hurdles the real-life counterparts went through without balancing it with the good in life, too. Or, on the flip side, glossing over the difficulties so much that what the women had to overcome starts to seem easy. HIDDEN FIGURES manages to strike the perfect balance.

There are two particular lines in HIDDEN FIGURES that reference space as an analogy rather than a location. At the beginning of the movie in present day 1962, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are stranded by the side of the road with car trouble on their way to work. There’s a great line “don’t stare into space” which serves a dual purpose of saying to pay attention, but also as a deeper analogy of not aspiring to do or be more than the 60s typically allowed of African-American women. The second line about space comes when Katherine’s three daughters fight over which of them will sleep alone as there are only two beds.

There were also two scenes with people looking up into space. One is at the beginning when the women look up with the police officer who stops to help them. The officer talks about being watched by Russia and they all stare upwards in a moment of contemplation. It not only reflects how space travel will affect them, but how limitless—or limited—they may all feel. Later, Dorothy sees a series of people standing by cars looking into space as they watch for John Glenn. It recalls that earlier scene and how things have changed.

Another direct reference to an earlier scene is when Katherine’s school teacher hands her a piece of chalk to work a mathematical equation on the board. In that shot, the teacher’s hand seems almost larger than life and Katherine’s small size is emphasized. Later, Katherine’s handed another piece of chalk and her hand is equal in size. So, another direct reference to her growth and evolution. HIDDEN FIGURES uses the repetition of these scenes to recall earlier moments and the changes that have taken place over time.

Costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus says Katherine’s costumes mirrored her journey from timid to confident mathematician and if you watch her clothing evolve you’ll see how it allows her to stand out more among the uniformly-attired men.

For more about themes in HIDDEN FIGURES as well as behind-the-scenes info about the design of one of the NASA office buildings, take a look below…

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

LIVE BY NIGHT *Movie Review*

LIVE BY NIGHT is Ben Affleck’s latest “all in” as writer, director, producer and star.  It’s the story of Ben Affleck’s Joe, a war veteran, who returns home to Boston where he then switches sides of the law and becomes a criminal.  A series of events lead him to Ybor city in Florida where a partnership with Cuban rum runners help cement his presence as the unofficial mayor of the area until things take a turn for the worse.  The movie also stars Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Sullivan, Chris Cooper, Brenden Gleeson and Anthony Michael Hall.

While this is a little bit GODFATHER and mafia, it’s actually more current political commentary than expected, an unintentional dimension since it was written and shot a year ago.  Racism, interracial romance, the KKK all feature prominently.

One of the big themes in LIVE BY NIGHT is parent/child relationships.  Joe’s relationship with his dad, played by Brendan Gleeson, as well as the father/daughter relationship between Chris Cooper’s Chief and his daughter Loretta, played by Elle Fanning who, for the record, delivered the most stand-out performance of the movie.  She was absolutely fantastic.  These familial relationships are important because they address the question of unconditional love, how you show love, tough love and who deserves love.  I don’t think the parallels between these two relationships are unintentional as evidenced by the fact that it’s Loretta’s words that close the movie.

I saw this at a special screening that included Ben Affleck and key department heads including the production designer, editor and cinematographer.  So, I have some special insight into the movie straight from the people who made it.  For more about what Ben Affleck and his Oscar-winning crew had to say, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with Zoe Hewitt on social media @RealZoeHewitt on Twitter and Instagram.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

LA LA LAND *Movie Review*

LLL d 29 _5194.NEF

LA LA LAND is the story, in musical form, of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who wants to own a jazz club.  While there’s a romance between the two, it’s a deeper story about how goals and ambitions change over time and how certain decisions can alter the course of your life.

What’s key in this movie is that while you may have multiple paths in life and the course of things may change, it doesn’t mean the outcome is worse—it’s just different.  There’s a tendency for movies that show two different paths to make one the ideal but LA LA LAND doesn’t make that mistake.  It shows that happiness doesn’t mean forgetting all that has come before and that our history is what makes us who we are today.

LA LA LAND contrasts a vibrant, technicolor color palette with a more muted one to show the evolution of the characters and their story.  At the beginning, the characters all wear bright colors which seem to jump off the screen.  It feels very larger-than-life and passionate, since passion is at the beginning of any relationship.  As Mia and Sebastian’s relationship and lives evolve, the colors shift into browns and more muted tones.  A great example of the shift that you can watch for is the color of Mia’s bag.  At the beginning notice how she carries a bright, reddish-orange bag and then watch for when the color changes into a dark one.  It doesn’t mean the feelings or story is dark, but represents the maturity that comes with life.

Mia herself is the epitome of life, energy and growth.  In her first real interaction with Sebastian she wears a bright yellow dress with flowers on it. Later, after she moves in with Sebastian, there’s a scene with no fewer than four potted flowering plants in his previously empty apartment—and all appear in the same shot with Mia.  If you compare their apartments you see her vibrancy as well.  Her apartment is packed with people, color and things.  His is stark until she moves in and then slowly things start to change.

Damien Chazelle, whose 2014 film WHIPLASH won three Oscars, wrote and directed LA LA LAND.  He says he wanted to do a traditional musical in a contemporary way.  It does feel completely timeless and I found myself wondering about the time period before reminding myself that it was present day.

LA LA LAND pays tribute to an older style of filmmaking in three distinct ways through the cinematography.  First, there are a lot of camera push-ins during which the camera moves closer to the subject, more than we normally see in modern filmmaking.

Second, there are a lot of long shots without camera cuts.  It puts more pressure on the actors because good takes cannot be pieced together.

Finally, the third element of stylized cinematography is the use of frequent Swish pans, which is when the camera movement is so fast that everything becomes a blur.   These aren’t styles that are used a lot today and create a distinctive period feel.

Interested in more analysis about LA LA LAND?  Wondering about the Fellini-esque elements and some of the more obscure locations used in the Los Angeles area?  For more about LA LA LAND, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with Zoe Hewitt on social media @RealZoeHewitt on Twitter and Instagram. Looking for the direct link to the video? Click here.

SOLACE *Movie Review*

SOLACE is the story of FBI Agent Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who asks his friend and former colleague John (Anthony Hopkins) for help in solving a series of bizarre murders with the use of his psychic abilities.  They soon realize they’re on the hunt for Charles (Colin Farrell), another psychic, who may have abilities more powerful than John’s own.  The movie also stars Abbie Cornish.

The overarching theme in SOLACE, as evidenced by the title itself, is comfort: who needs it, who gets it and who gives it.  Also, what does it mean to provide comfort to someone and how can that action mean different things?  The point of the movie, though, is for a bit of self reflection since sometimes it’s possible to gain more from the act of comforting than the recipient does.

The cinematography is really interesting in SOLACE as well. Not only are there a lot of unusual shots, but mirrored reflections are frequently used.  In traditional film analysis, when you see a character’s reflection in something it’s supposed to symbolize another side, either a piece of themselves that they might be hiding from the other characters or even from themselves.  Pay attention to the characters who wind up in mirrors or on reflected surfaces the most.

This idea of reflection and having another side is further emphasized in two other ways.  First, watch when Joe wears glasses and when he doesn’t.  Glasses, similar to a reflection, generally show that a character either has something to hide so they are like a disguise—think of Clark Kent and Superman.

For more about glasses and how religion is employed in SOLACE, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

LOVING *Movie Review*

LOVING is based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, played here by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, whose interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia in 1958 even with a valid marriage license from Washington DC.  Their arrest and subsequent banishment from the state led to the American Civil Liberties Union, or the ACLU, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court where a unanimous ruling declared Virginia’s law unconstitutional, along with similar ones in 23 other states.  The movie was written and directed by Jeff Nichols and also stars Michael Shannon and Nick Kroll.

I was looking forward to LOVING pretty much because I enjoy love stories and that’s what this boils down to in the end.  In the movie as well as in the true life story of Mildred Loving she said that although the ACLU took on the case, it wasn’t about civil rights as much as being able to return home and love who she wanted to without restriction.

Another true-to-life line is that Mildred says living in DC is like living in a cage.  Perhaps without even meaning to, Mildred realizes that living is DC is no different from being trapped in a jail cell–a cage–because neither one allowed her to make decision for herself.  The movie emphasizes the differences between Virginia and DC through the use of nature.  When the Lovings are in Virginia there are lots of quiet shots of fields, mountains and greenery as compared to DC where, when they arrive, there’s only a small plot of overgrown grass in front of their new home.

The other thing the natural elements in LOVING served to do was show how Mildred and Richard’s life was full and vibrant.  One of the early scenes with the couple is when Richard shows Mildred an acre of land he has purchased where he wants to build a home for them.  Right behind him is a large field with crops, evidence of growth, life and vitality.  The movie even opens with Mildred telling Richard about her pregnancy, in and of itself a statement of life.

There’s a balance between sensationalizing a time period and simply depicting it and LOVING felt like it didn’t do either one accurately, much to its detriment.  Presumably, life wasn’t easy for Richard and Mildred as an interracial couple in a state where their relationship was against the law, yet no one other than the judge who sentences them really seems to care.  I think it’s entirely possible that Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed the movie, was trying to strike a balance of tension without turning the movie into a sensationalistic experience.  By not showing any sexual scenes of Richard and Mildred’s relationship and no dramatic run-ins the movie became sterile and lacked the dramatic tension that must have been so much a part of the Lovings’ lives.

For more about LOVING, including how the drag racing scenes parallel the action of the story, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

MOANA *Movie Review*

In the latest Disney animated film MOANA, the title character voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, is features a young woman who goes on a quest to save her village and finds herself in the process.  In her journey she must seek out the demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, a mother earth goddess who created all of the islands from her heart.

This is the time of year to start handing out awards and I am ready to give MOANA the best animated feature Oscar.  Disney managed to recapture their magic to create a beautiful story with fantastic characters and gorgeous music.  Of course, the fact that MOANA is a fabulous female role model doesn’t hurt, either.

This is a girl who is strong, brave and smart.  She follows her heart and stands up to her father and everyone else who tells her that the greater world beyond the shoreline is dangerous.  Moana trusts that the ocean has chosen her to save her people and readily takes up the quest.  Pay attention to just how often Moana’s discouraged in her journey.  Her father and Maui in particular, both in song and speech, tell her that the world is scary, that she is only a young girl, and that she needs to stop dreaming.

Pay attention, too, to all of the conch shell symbolism throughout the film.

For more about conch shells and what they mean and other MOANA information, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video? Click here.


WED  |  NOV 23


Come experience a rarely seen Stephen Sondheim musical, based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The story focuses on a talented composer of Broadway musicals who turns his back on his songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood movies. Nov. 23-Dec. 18. Previews $29-$89; then $49-$110. Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 746-4000. FRI  |  NOV 25


“On the Map,” which tells the story of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s 1977 European Cup championship, begins its theatrical run. Israeli Academy Award-winning filmmaker Dani Menkin helms the saga of an against-all-odds quest set against the much broader story of Israel and the Jewish people during the Cold War. The film recounts how the underdog Israeli team beat CSKA Moscow, a team that refused to play in Israel. Just after this historic win, Israeli-American basketball player Tal Brody said, “Israel is on the map, not just in sport, but in everything.” Featuring interviews with NBA legend Bill Walton and former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who both played on the team. Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Visit laemmle.com for show times and more information. (310) 478-0401. SUN  |  DEC 4


Join an intimate conversation between Gloria Steinem and Jill Soloway, two extraordinary women who have devoted themselves to changing despair into hope. Steinem — a writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organizer — includes among her areas of interest the origins of sex and race caste systems, nonviolent conflict resolution, gender roles and child abuse as roots of violence. Soloway is the creator of the Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning show “Transparent.” She also co-founded the community organization East Side Jews and is the author of the memoir “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants.” Presented by CAP UCLA. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $29; $15 for UCLA students; $25 for UCLA faculty and staff. Royce Hall, UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. MON  |  DEC 5


The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony Education Outreach Program presents “A Patchwork of Cultures: Exploring the Sephardic-Latino Connection,” a free cultural program geared toward helping third-, fourth- and fifth-graders discover the music and cultures of our Spanish ancestors. There will be an “Instrument Petting Zoo,” where children can explore the instruments that make up an orchestra. The concert will feature Cantor Marcelo Gindlin. 11 a.m. Free. Space is limited; RSVP to (818) 646-2844. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. 



Prepare for a night of food, drinks and many laughs. Special guests include Greg Hahn, Jimmy Brogan, Dwight Slade and Cathy Ladman. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before the show at 6:30 p.m.; 7:30 p.m. show. $100. Yeshiva High School, 1619 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 203-0755. TUES  |  DEC 6


“Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal, and Raging Egos,” by Clancy Sigal, is the hilarious memoir of the author’s escapades as a young Hollywood agent. Peddling writers and actors in a blacklist-crazed movie industry during the 1950s, two FBI agents pursued him in hopes of being set up with starlets and becoming famous. Once banned from a studio, Sigal used a bolt cutter to break through a chain-link fence in order to make a deal. With clients such as Humphrey Bogart, Donna Reed, Jack Palance, Peter Lorre and Barbara Stanwyck, Sigal is one of the few remaining witnesses and reporters of this time. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. THURS  |  DEC 8


George Geary’s “L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants: Celebrating the Famous Places Where Hollywood Ate, Drank, and Played” is an illustrated history of landmark eateries throughout Los Angeles. Learn everything about classics such as Musso & Frank and The Brown Derby in the 1920s; Chasen’s, Romanoff’s, and Ciro’s in the mid-20th century; and the birth of California cuisine at Ma Maison and Spago on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s and ’80s. Geary will lead you into the glamorous restaurants through a lively narrative of anecdotes, illustrated with vintage photographs and historic menus. The book contains more than 100 iconic recipes and also showcases the allure of drive-ins, drugstores, nightclubs and hotels. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. SAT  |  DEC. 17


This full-length musical comedy features the silly sensibilities of the folklore of Chelm (a fictional town of fools) underscored by an invigorated, klezmer-infused orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” with original lyrics that celebrate Chanukah. The Chelmniks relate eight stories that pay tribute to the holiday, sprinkling in dancing dreidels, singing sufganiyot and surprise guest stars. Dec. 17-Jan. 1. Early offer tickets $45; regular tickets $72; seniors, youth and students with ID $63. Gindi Auditorium, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (408) 404-7711. WED  |  DEC 21


Stop by the “Holidays” gallery to see rarely displayed Chanukah lamps. There will be something for everyone to enjoy — designs ranging from Looney Toons to the Liberty Bell. 2:30 p.m. Free with museum admission. Also 2:30 p.m. Dec. 22. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. SAT  |  DEC 24


One of the biggest Jewish singles events in the nation is getting bigger! Kicking off its 30th year, MatzoBall sets the stage for the ultimate party experience. Don’t miss out on what USA Today called “The Number 1 Holiday Party of the Year.” 9 p.m. $30. Tickets available on eventbrite.com. 21 and older. Location TBD, Los Angeles.



FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, written by JK Rowling, takes place within the Harry Potter universe, but 70 years earlier than Harry, Hermione and Ron attend Hogwarts.  It follows Newt Scamander, author of a book within the Harry Potter world by the same name as the movie, as he travels to America.  Ostensibly, his trip is to track down a particular magical creature, but in reality that’s not what happens as his own creatures get loose and he’s pulled into a multi-faceted plot that involves tracking them down, intrigue and double crossing at the Magical Congress of the United States of America, an illegal romance with a nonmagical person and a movement to bring back the Salem Witch Trials.

The themes in the film are as surprisingly relevant in today’s world as they would have been in the 1920s when it takes place and include interracial marriage, a female president, and mass extermination.

The film is the first of a planned five-part franchise that serves as a prequel to the HARRY POTTER series.  It stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell,  Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol.  It’s directed by David Yates.

For more about the movie’s themes and other plot details, take a look below:

—>Looking for a direct link to the video?  Click here.

ARRIVAL *Movie Review*

This week I review ARRIVAL.  The movie stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited to help communicate with aliens who arrive in 12 cities around the world.  She’s joined by scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.  Forest Whitaker also stars.  Denis Villeneuve directs this Oscar-contender.

ARRIVAL is a fairly quiet film without a lot of fanfare that’s more reflective than action-packed.  The screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer who is known for movies such as FINAL DESTINATION 5 and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. ARRIVAL is a different type of movie entirely, though.  It’s mind-bending and self-reflective and contemplative in its themes and storyline.  The screenplay is well-written in that it doesn’t get in its own way with too much unnecessary dialogue.

The big theme here is time and the motif to represent it is the circle.  If you look at traditional interpretations of them, they represent wholeness, eternity and timelessness.  Louise tells us herself that the movie is about time and that these circles are no coincidence.  In the opening lines of the movie she says “I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”.  Circles are everywhere in this movie.  One of the first shots in the movie is of Louise’s hand with her gold wedding ring on it.  It’s a simple, unbroken band of continuity and time.  Circles are everywhere—the hallway in the hospital is curved like the side of a circle, the student tables in the hall where Louise lectures are curved facing her like a circle, the quilting on her jacket later in the movie looks like waves up close but from further away looks like giant embroidered circles.  Ian, the scientist Louise works with at the alien site in Montana, wears a watch with a large circular face.  The circular face stands out in particular during a scene when he looks at the alien transport vehicle with binoculars, themselves a set of circles.  The door to the alien ship opens every 18 hours—even the choice of 18 involves two stacked circles.

For more about the themes and symbolism in ARRIVAL, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to this video?  Click here.


This week I review DOCTOR STRANGE.  The latest Marvel superhero movie is about the mystical rather than the physical.  When Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon, loses use of his hands following a car accident, he travels to Nepal to see The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) as he learns that she may be able to help him.  The movie also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Benjamin Bratt with the requisite cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee.

Time plays an interesting role because usually when time is used as a major theme it has to do with not having enough of it.  I think the bigger theme here had to do with how time can be a blessing and, perhaps even more so, a curse.  The differentiation is important because lack of time is a common concept; there isn’t enough time to do work or to relax or to spend with loved ones.  We don’t tend to consider that more time isn’t necessarily better.  For instance, if you live forever then you’ll have the heartache of watching everyone you love die since the whole world cannot live forever. Immortality and limitless time and life continue to be things we long for as a whole, but sometimes without acknowledging the consequences.  It’s interesting, too, how DOCTOR STRANGE uses time as a punishment, so pay attention for that element as well.

Water and how it cleanses and represents rebirth is another theme in DOCTOR STRANGE.

For more about water, religious symbolism in DOCTOR STRANGE and product placement deals, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


This week I review JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK.  It’s the sequel to the 2012 movie JACK REACHER also starring Tom Cruise in the title role.  This time around he teams up with Major Susan Turner, played by Cobie Smulders (“Agents of SHIELD”, “Avengers”) as they both try to clear their names after they’re wrongfully accused of crimes they didn’t commit.  It’s directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Danika Yarosh and Aldis Hodge.  The franchise is based on a book series of the same name written by Lee Childs.

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is a bit like the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise only more violent. It has a grittier feel to it, but otherwise it’s Tom Cruise doing what he does best. There’s a plot that’s vaguely understandable, but it’s almost beside the point. This is action and adventure. This is not suspense; I never once worried that Jack Reacher would get hurt, and I don’t think anyone in the movie did, either.

There are definitely some laughable plot points and things that don’t add up quite right, but it’s a go-along-for-the-thrill type of movie and they don’t have to. In fact, they probably even make slightly more sense than other movies in this genre.

There was an interesting theme of family in the movie that I hadn’t quite expected. There’s a subplot with Samantha, who may be Jack’s daughter, and she runs around with him and Susan during their adventures. The threesome make a ragtag family; it’s the quintessential allure of turning the loner into a family man.

Speaking of family man, there was something else that stood out to me as well and it may sound surprising but it was that this movie was very much a feminist piece. There were three main characters who were all women who played key roles. They didn’t use sex appeal to get them anywhere even though there was a scene with both Jack and Susan walking around shirtless for no particular reason. There was even a scene in which Samantha, the teenager, asks Susan if she’s a lesbian because she thinks all women in the military must be. Susan’s response that it’s just like real life where some are and some aren’t is pitch perfect. Susan and Samantha aren’t wallflowers who wait to be rescued by Jack and they’re not there simply to cater to his every whim. They’re smart, they fight, and they talk back to him. Out of all the movies that try to be feminist or try to make a point, here comes JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK quietly leveling the playing field.

This is also the perfect jumping off spot for a product placement discussion once again. If you’ve followed my reviews , you know that I used to work in the field and so let me share something about Tom Cruise. He knows what brand endorsements are worth and how much his face is worth connected to them, so he is one of the few actors who is powerful enough to make sure that he’s absolutely not connected to any brand he doesn’t want to be seen with. Pay attention in the movie to how hard the prop master and set decorators have to work in order to keep brands out of his hands and out of the shot with him. Just as brands never appear by accident, they also don’t disappear by accident. In this movie, you can watch for a couple scenes in particular that emphasize just how far Tom will go to make sure he’s not indirectly endorsing any brands.

For more about JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, take a look below:


—>Looking for a direct link to the video?  Click here.


This week I review THE ACCOUNTANT. THE ACCOUNTANT is about an accountant who is as brilliant with numbers as he is with discretion. Christian Wolff, played by Ben Affleck, has made most of his money as the trusted accountant to cartel leaders and other criminals. In the midst of working a legitimate job he finds a discrepancy that endangers multiple lives. The movie also stars Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”), Jeffrey Tambor (“Transparent”), John Lithgow, JK Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart and Cynthia Addai-Robinson.

The character of Christian is supposed to have Aspergers, which is a high functioning form of Autism. He and the other characters who have this diagnosis alternately made me think their acting was uncomfortably fantastic and wondering if they were going too far. I noticed in the credits that five different people were listed as ‘Autism Consultants’ so I do believe that they worked hard not to make the portrayals caricatures. Overall, I think the acting was really good and that Ben Affleck managed to convey a lot of emotion through very little dialogue. Anna Kendrick shone, though her storyline didn’t do her any favors. Family is a huge theme in the movie and it’s emphasized repeatedly: how important family loyalty is as well as the question of what makes a good parent. There are several parent/child roles in this movie that you can watch for, not just the biological ones, but the ones that can occur in even a boss/employee relationship.

Despite the big theme of family, you can also track the theme of compartmentalization, or more specifically shutting yourself off from things. Instead of cells in jail, there are dividers; there’s a train you can spot going around the Christmas tree during a flashback to Christian’s childhood, Christian keeps an airstream trailer in a storage unit—so a container within a container.

The music was also fantastic. It stood out to me from the very beginning, particularly when it managed to balance the feeling of eeriness without going overboard into cheesy or predictable.

I am really good at suspending my disbelief. I’m very willing to go along with the premise that’s set up, I wouldn’t be in a movie otherwise. But, I was pulled out so many times with regard to how certain characters were treated and even during the big final climax that I had to wonder how someone could have put together a movie that was Oscar-worthy and laughable without noticing the discrepancies. Since I don’t want to give away any spoilers, I won’t say more than that, though as always I’m happy to continue the discussion in the comments!

I’ve talked before about movies that don’t seem to know what they want to be and while I think THE ACCOUNTANT was well enough directed and acted to make up for any shortcomings, I think the movie would have done a bit better to decide if it was more suspense or more action. The action was heavier than I’d expected from the previews and I admit that I covered my eyes at two different times. I’m not sure all of it was necessary. That said, the movie is just over two hours long and goes by in a flash.

For more about THE ACCOUNTANT, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is based on best-selling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins. It’s about a divorced woman who likes watching the homes in her old neighborhood as she rides the daily train. When one of the women she watches disappears, she gets involved on a personal level.

The movie stars Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney and Lisa Kudrow. It’s directed by Tate Taylor (THE HELP).

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN does everything right from a technical standpoint. Everyone’s acting is fantastic and the cinematography is particularly wonderful with some beautiful and unique shots. So, by most accounts that should make it a good movie. It really depends on your definition of good movie, though, because what stood out as much as the great technical details was just how unpleasant every single person was in the film. There was not one sympathetic character and I felt an equal amount of distaste for everyone.

I couldn’t help but think, too, that Emily Blunt is starting to develop a career out of characters who may be intriguing but who aren’t pleasant to be around, all the way back to her star-making role in DEVIL WEARS PRADA and including her role in SUNSHINE CLEANING as well.

There were lots of interesting parallels between and connecting the main characters in the movie. It reminded me a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which I actually wrote a paper on in college talking about how the two strangers were connected in an X-shape, with each character “reaching out” to the other side. That’s how THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is also structured and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the first things on screen is an X drawn in the condensation on the window of a train that we then see Emily Blunt’s eye through. The theme of X is continued with an email written by Tom and played across the screen as Rachel walks through a train station. I don’t want to give away too many details for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but definitely suggest paying attention to them.

For more about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is based on a trilogy of the same name written by Ransom Riggs. It’s about a boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield) who discovers his late-grandfather’s tales of children with unusual talents and stories about a woman who can turn into a bird are all true. The children are hunted for their p

owers and Jake steps in to help. Tim Burton (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BIG EYES, BIG FISH, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND) directs this adaptation.

However, this is less ‘adaptation’ than it is ‘very loosely inspired by’ as the entire second half of the movie is different from the books.  The pacing of the movie is actually remarkably similar to the books: slow.  The action sequences feel muted and the expected build in intensity never happens. Most of the movie is shot with a blue filter, so everything feels very cold and stark, though the filter also gives things an almost heightened sense of reality, which also work to slow the passage of time.

For more about MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, including notable performances of cast and crew, take a look below:

—>Looking for a direct link to the video?  Click here.

QUEEN OF KATWE *Movie Review*

QUEEN OF KATWE is based on the true story of a girl named Phiona from the slums of Uganda.  She learns to play chess and uses it as a means out of poverty. It stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as her mother, David Oyelowo as her coach and introduces Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. It’s directed by Mira Nair.

The theme of this hero’s journey is one that spans cultures. While it’s an inspiring and interesting story about Phiona herself, the message translates to anyone. You don’t have to be a certain color or gender to connect with this story and the deeper messages that even the small can become big. Many of the words of wisdom come from Phiona’s chess coach who says things like: if you use your mind and follow your plans then you can find safe squares; losing does not mean you’re a failure it takes time and stamina is the key; and sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong, which is one of director Mira Nair’s recurring themes.

Mira Nair is a fantastic director and a lot of her work is about feeling out of place, which is the situation each of the three main characters are in. There’s Phiona, a young girl who learns about a life that she never ever knew existed. She struggles as she’s torn between world that she wants to be part of with the one that exists. Like the real Phiona, the film version’s Madina  Nalwanga also grew up in the slums of Uganda. This is her first film and she conveys such a subtle depth of emotion with her eyes that I was ready to hand her an Oscar. Her performance was utterly moving.

Lupita Nyong’o, plays her mother, and David Oyelowo, as her chess coach, were also amazing. One of the things I loved was that while this is the story of Phiona at first glance, the characters of her mother and Robert were treated equally. They each went through their own evolution and weren’t strictly relegated to cardboard supports. Too often there are supporting stories that can compliment the main one but which are never fully realized and these were. Having these three circle the same theme of self discovery made the film that much more successful.

The style, the locations and the saturation of color and sound make it feel like you can walk directly through the screen and into this world!

For more about QUEEN OF KATWE, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

SULLY *Movie Review*

SULLY is based on the true story of a US Airways flight that did a controlled water landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.  The flight was piloted by Captain Sullenberger, affectionately known as Sully, played here by Everyman Tom Hanks.  It’s directed by Clint Eastwood and co-stars Aaron Eckhart.

A movie like this could have gone in two directions.  It easily could have become a bit of a sensationalistic disaster movie causing the audience to rethink ever boarding a plane without Sully at the helm.  Instead, it was handled more deftly and uniquely as the story of a man who was thrust into the spotlight for a single decision at the end of 42 years of flight experience.  The choice to follow the storyline in this way elevated the movie and turned it into nuanced filmmaking.  That said, there’s no doubt that this movie is solely and completely about Sully and his actions.  The bits of humanity that are injected into the passengers are the weakest point in the story.  They’re expected, right down to the mother with the baby on her lap.

The only spot that it disappointed me was Aaron Eckhart’s character, Sully’s co-pilot.  He doesn’t have a lot to say in the movie and while his acting is good, he’s more a living prop than anything else.

Casting Tom Hanks was as expected as it was imperative.  There’s no other actor who plays Everyman as well as he does, almost to his detriment.  I believed every second of his performance, every grimace, every questioning look and every ounce of relief at hearing everyone survived.  But, it becomes difficult in separating the good acting from the actor himself.  Tom Hanks is so tied to his image and indeed his reputation of the kind Everyman that I didn’t quite known if I was watching Tom Hanks or if I was watching the most amazing performance ever.

There’s a great scene of Tom Hanks’ Sully talking to his wife on the phone and questioning if he did the right thing in landing on the Hudson.  It’s shot with half of his face in shadow, a great bit of cinematography and direction showing exactly what he’s going through at that moment.  In fact, the entire movie is well done.

For more about SULLY including eagle-eye details to watch for, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video? Click here.

MAX ROSE *Movie Review*

MAX ROSE is the story of a man (Jerry Lewis) who loses his wife of more than 60 years and then questions if she had been having an affair.  He learns to navigate his relationships with his adult son (Kevin Pollak) and granddaughter (Kerry Bishe) while searching for answers.

I’m going to start with the good: the music, acting, and technical aspects of the movie are well done.  There is no doubt that MAX ROSE was well conceived and put together.  There were a couple of moments that were so beautifully done that they particularly stood out.  The first was during a flashback when Max and his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom) are in bed together talking about their combined ages.  They feel very real together and it’s a relationship that I wanted to learn more about, aside from the flashbacks that were included.  The second time is at an assisted living facility where one of the men talks about how his wife has been gone for more than 20 years and yet he still misses her.

That said, there were some gaps in the story that went unanswered.  This came across as more of an extended character study than anything else.  There is a difference between a movie that leaves ou with questions because of gaps in the story versus contemplation about the themes.

What I didn’t love about MAX ROSE has to do more with preference than anything else.  Ironically, it’s exactly what I discussed last week in SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, an indie that didn’t fit the traditional “indie vibe” because it was so upbeat.  MAX ROSE fits that exact “indie” category where it may be a realistic look at life, but it’s not a pleasant one.

For more about MAX ROSE, take a look below:

—>Looking for the full video? Click here.


A romance is a romance and that’s the ultimate take-away from writer/director Richard Tanne‘s SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU.  The movie depicts President Barak Obama’s first date with his now-wife, Michelle.  Regardless of your political affiliation, this is a romance that won’t disappoint.  It’s well made and well acted.

One of the qualities I appreciated the most about SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is that there weren’t big moments added for dramatic tension.  A lot of times indie movies with real stories translate ‘real’ to ‘misery’.  Rather than going that route, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU provides an escapism movie threaded with meaning, themes of forgiveness, learning what you want from life, not judging, and striving for more even if you don’t know what that ‘more’ is at the moment.

Tika Sumpter stars as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barak Obama and it’s their chemistry that carries a film which is otherwise walking and talking.  As the movie unfolds, viewers get to enjoy how the pair get to know each other, prickle at each other and see the best in each other.  It’s truly like going along on a good first date.

For more about the film’s themes and eagle eye details to watch for, take a look below:

—>Looking for the full video?  Click here.


KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS succeeds in creating a story that feels Japanese while being written and helmed by Americans.  It’s mystical in a way that feels both possible and magical at the same time.  The choice to do this as a combination of claymation and digital animation fit the style and worked well.

This is a story of a boy who goes on a quest to find three pieces of samurai armor his father owned which will help him defeat the Moon King.  He’s accompanied by Monkey and Beetle.  Kubo himself possesses magic of his own when he plays his enchanted shamisen.  It stars the voice talents of Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei and Art Parkinson as Kubo.

While it was definitely very good, it was missing that final element to make it magical.

As someone who lived in Japan, I am always curious to see how the culture is addressed by American filmmakers.  For more about KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and the Japanese culture reflected in particular, take a look below:

—>Looking for the full video?  Click here.


Meryl Streep stars as Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie of the same name.  She’s a wealthy woman who wants to be a singer, despite her terrible voice.  Meryl Streep is always good, but this movie really belongs to Hugh Grant.  The love his character, St Clair Bayfield, felt for Florence was apparent in every scene.  This is perhaps the most real that Hugh Grant has ever been on screen.

The set decoration and costume departments also stood out with their use of rich textiles such as raw silk and chenille.  The movie was lush with textures.

The movie poses itself as a lesson in adversity, Florence against the world in her quest to perform despite her vocal shortcomings.  However, she has been completely insulated from the truth of her singing voice by her husband, friends and teachers.  Can she really be considered brave when she doesn’t know what’s a bad singer?

For more details about themes, symbolism and eagle eye details to watch for in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, take a look below…

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.