January 23, 2019

Hailee Steinfeld to Play Pop Star in ‘Idol’ movie

Hailee Steinfeld

Singer and actress Hailee Steinfeld is in final negotiations to star in and
produce the Netflix movie “Idol,” about a assistant for an iconic pop star who
tries to become her, in “All About Eve” fashion.

Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Academy Award for “True Grit,” has
since combined her acting and singing talents in the second and third “Pitch
Perfect” movies. In December, she appears in “Bumblebee,” the latest movie
in the “Transformers” franchise, and will be heard as the voice of Gwen Stacy
in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” She’s set to play poet Emily Dickinson
in an upcoming comedy series for Apple TV.

But before that, the “Love Myself,” “Starving,” and “Let Me Go” singer will host
and perform at the 2018 MTV European Music Awards, airing globally from
Bilbao, Spain on Nov. 4.

“The EMAs are a show where anything can happen,” Steinfeld said in a
statement. “I can’t wait to host a night filled with incredible artists,
performances, some surprises of my own – let’s do this, Bilbao!”

Israeli Film ‘Longing’ Explores Fatherly Love and Loss

Shai Avivi; Photo provided by Breaking Glass Pictures

In the opening minutes of Israeli filmmaker Savi Gavizon’s “Longing,” middle-aged bachelor Ariel Bloch gets news that’s not only shocking, it’s a double-punch to the gut. Meeting his ex-girlfriend Ronit at a café, he’s told that he fathered a son 20 years ago. Then he learns that the boy, Adam, is now dead, killed when his car plunged off a bridge. Reeling from the news, he begins a quest to learn more about the young man he never had the chance to meet.

The answers he gets are complicated: Adam was a talented musician and poet, but he was also angry and troubled, with a history of defacing property, dealing drugs, stalking his French teacher, and getting his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant. How Ariel deals with and processes these revelations as he meets people in Adam’s life and learns about himself in the process is at the core of Gavizon’s dark comedy.

Starring Shai Avivi as Ariel, Assi Levy as Ronit, and Neta Riskin as French teacher Yael, “Longing” was nominated for 13 Ophir Awards—Israel’s Oscar — with Gavizon’s script winning the award for best screenplay.

“This is a story about parenthood, about the desire to be a parent and the afflictions that come with it: identification and honor,” he told the Journal. “This is a journey that creates near-laboratory conditions for the examination of the hidden aspects of parenthood.”

The divorced father of two children, Maya, 25, and Yoav, 20, the Tel Aviv-based writer-director of “Nina’s Tragedies” and “Lovesick on Nana Street” explained his inspiration for his latest film.

“A few years ago, when I got divorced, my kids became the anchor in my life. I developed an obsession to be with them as much as I could. On their days with me, I didn’t allow them to go to their friends and surely not to sleep over. They had to stay with me. Instead of being a good father to them, I was a good father for me,” he said. “Issues of awkward parenthood began to bother me and these issues looked for their story to be told. These issues, I think, resonate in the heart of every parent.”

Bringing the story to the screen posed several challenges. “The essence of the story is the journey of the main character from cold to hot and from loneliness to being surrounded by people, from thinking about himself to [recognizing] others. So I had to design him as a very cold, selfish and lonely person.” It is a very hard step to begin with, he explained, so it was important that he cast the right actor. He chose Shai Avivi because of “his talent, warmth, gentleness and lovable quality that makes people relate to him, even as a difficult to like character.”

“Longing” artfully treads the line between darkness and light, deftly blending comedy and tragedy. “I’ve always wanted to create a film which is comprised of absurd situations, because they allow access to deep emotions without falling into the trap of sentimentality and cliché,” Gavizon said. “Perhaps this is why I’ve allowed myself, for the very first time, to be led to the very end by a singular pain and a singular passion. ‘Longing’ is a tragicomedy, paved with more absurdity than any other screenplay I’ve written to date.”

“‘Longing’ is a tragicomedy, paved with more absurdity than any other screenplay I’ve written to date.” — Savi Gavizon


As a director, he said the most significant challenge he faced was directing this film in an entirely realistic fashion, in order to provide “a solid emotional platform for those moments that touch on the extreme and the ridiculous.” He explained that classic comic drama usually starts funny, and gradually becomes serious and painful, but in this case, “I chose to do it in the other way around. The movie starts very sad, and becomes more and more absurd and comic. ‘An Extremely Sad Comedy’ is probably a title that suits ‘Longing’ better than any of my other films.”

While the the story he tells is very extreme and charts a dangerous path, Gavizon and his cinematographer, Assaf Sudry, kept the film’s visuals modest and functional. “But if you look carefully,” he said, “you can see the manipulation we made with color and light. It was very important for me not to leave the texture of the things as they are. It’s not really realistic texture. Assaf was the perfect guy to do it.”

Although Gavizon did not base any of the film on real people, he was inspired to include a real Taoist ceremony his girlfriend told him about after returning from a trip to Singapore. “When a son dies, [Taoists] try to find for him a girl who also died, and they marry them in a ceremony. They believe that this marriage will [allow] them to be together, wherever they are,” he said.

“I thought that it might be interesting and unique to create a story with these circumstances, [set] in a Western society. But what interested me more about this marriage was the parents; I was attracted to their psychological need to continue being parents and less in the mystic and metaphysical side,” he said. “I think this ceremony goes one step deeper and darker than the Jewish way that I know to mourn and deal with death.”

The Haifa native, who is not religious, said he does “study Judaism from time to time, and I have religious people in my family. I’m surrounded by Jewish culture and tradition. I have no doubt that these facts directly and indirectly affect my work.” Right now, he added, “I’m busy wondering what my next film will be about.”

“Longing,” now in theatrical release, will be available digitally and on DVD on Oct. 12.

Introducing my Son and The Father Complex

I have been writing Keeping the Faith for almost a decade. During that time, I have shared my life, including and most importantly, I have written about being the mother of a wonderful human being. Over thousands of blogs and columns, I have never once mentioned my son’s name. He has approved every word I wrote about him, but there have been no photos or words to say who he was. I have always been careful to protect his privacy because writing about me has been my job and my choice.

My son was 13 when I started to write for the Jewish Journal. He was a big part of why I started this blog, and the reason I am fearless with my sharing. It has been a love letter to him, and a documentation of my life as a single mom. It is a window into my heart, soul, world view, fear, hope, joy, and sorrow. It is a never ending search for things to help me keep the faith. My son doesn’t read every post, but one day he will, and he will understand the profound love I have for him.

My son is remarkable. Even if he were not my son, I would still think he is remarkable. He is funny and smart, kind and fair. He believes in equality and justice. He does not judge anyone based on color, religion, or sexual orientation. In fact, he simply does not judge. He is generous of spirit and works hard to make the world better, even if it means helping one person at a time. I am proud of him. I am impressed by him. I have watched him grow up and find his way. He is amazing because of me and in spite of me. I love him with every fiber of my being.

I never thought I would share my son’s name or face here. In fact, I was sure I wouldn’t. Until today. The funny thing is that many people who read my blog have seen my son, they just don’t know he is my son. He is an actor and has done a lot of commercials, guest stared on Nickelodeon, and been in countless student films. He is a talented actor, writer, and producer. He has perfect comedic timing and is a brilliant improv performer. He supports himself in his chosen profession and even though faced with rejection, has never given up on his dreams.

My son met his best friend in middle school, which means they have been best friends for as long as I have been writing this blog. They are like brothers. They both attended a performing arts middle school, then the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts together. They have been collaborating on projects since they met. The first time they performed together was when they sang Michael Jackson’s Black or White at an open house at middle school. They have been fiercely loyal to each other and always chased their dreams together.

Last summer they told me they were going to make a movie together. Not surprising, so I simply wished them well. Things have changed since they casually mentioned a movie in my kitchen. Since then they travelled across the country making their film. Today a trailer for the film The Father Complex was released. It features Tyler Cole and my son, Charlie Burg. The film is directed by Tyler and produced by Charlie. It is being released in partnership with Jaden Smith and his team at MSFTSrep. These boys have made a brilliant film and I’m proud of them.

I cried when I watched the trailer. I cried with pride at what they had accomplished. I also cried because I immediately understood that with this film, things would change. I will continue to write about my life, but my mentions of Charlie must be different now. With this film people will know I am his mother, so there is no more keeping it private. My son, Charlie Burg, will now be known on his own terms, by his own art, and his stories will be his to tell. I will watch his career with pride, finally sharing his accomplishments with all of you here.

It is my distinct honor to share the trailer for the film The Father Complex. It will be released later this year and I am excited for people to see it. It is a wonderful movie and I marvel at the talent of these two young men. It has been a blessing to have a front row seat to the process of making this film. To my beloved Charlie, this is the beginning and the end. The beginning of a wonderful new road for you to travel, and the end of your days being known as Snickerdoodle. Thank you for letting me share our lives here. I appreciate your endless kindness to me.

You never complained I shared too much. You never asked me not to post something. You stood up for me when trolls appeared. You held my hand when I shared personal and difficult things. You lifted my spirits through cancer. You promised me I would find love after my heart was broken. You never asked for anything when money was tight. You only ever asked me to spend money on myself when it wasn’t. You have been my child, friend, teacher, and inspiration. You are my heart. You are my sunshine. You are the reason I am keeping the faith.


Muvix Reinvents the Cinema Experience

Photo courtesy of Muvix

The demise of the movie theater has long been predicted but has yet to happen. The final nail in the coffin may be streaming services like Netflix and inexpensive 4K, flat-screen monitors (or even personal devices, which millennials often prefer), which make staying in with a bucket of homemade popcorn a cost-effective and convenient alternative to the cineplex.

Alon Nisim Cohen, a cinema buff and fan of the classic movie-theater concept, decided he wasn’t about to let a time-honored tradition become the latest casualty of the digital age.

Each room sports a large flat-screen TV and furniture designed to remind you of home.

Instead, he decided to bring digital smarts to the theater.

The result is Muvix,  a mashup of the comforts of home with the excitement of a night out on the town, all run by a mobile app.

While the Muvix Concept mini-multiplex at the Tahana — the old Tel Aviv train station — looks and feels like a movie theater, what the company really is selling is a cloud-based technology for on-demand, multi-theater synchronized screening.

Muvix has built 14 mini-theaters in a single open-plan building. Some accommodate only two people, others can hold a party of 20. Each room sports a large flat-screen TV and furniture designed to remind you of home (for instance, a couch and comfy armchair or two large double beds).

To book a screening, you first download the Muvix app and choose the movie from a list of 100 or so recent and classic films. At the theater, you get a pair of headphones to plug into your smartphone. The app tells you which theater you’ll be using. The Muvix software links the video with the soundtrack.

The core of Muvix’s technology is keeping track of hundreds of users watching potentially dozens of films at once, with the soundtracks streaming over multiple cellular phone networks (or at the Muvix Concept space, via Wi-Fi).

You don your headphones and the movie starts at the appointed time. If you want to order food during the film, you can call a waiter from within the Muvix app.

Muvix Concept in Tel Aviv is really a beta testing facility for Muvix’s eventual move on the U.S. market. So far, 5,000 people have seen a Muvix-powered film. The theater has been open to the public since July on weekends; the introductory fee is NIS 20 per person (about $5.70), including a free drink.

Muvix’s staff is small — only 15 people in nearby Petah Tikva — and the company has raised $6 million from several angels along with founder Cohen, who previously headed and took public CyberArk, one of Israel’s largest cybersecurity companies.

While Muvix aims to create a fun alternative to watching at home, where Cohen and Muvix CEO Nithai Barzam are going with the technology is not necessarily the movies. Barzam envisions Muvix software being used in corporate environments, where a series of pop-up theaters easily could be rolled out for a night or two. The “movie” might be company-provided content about its new product line or a team-bonding event.

Sticking with the Hollywood direction, a municipality could create a pop-up theater in the park, on a rooftop or at the beach with multiple screens. You pick your movie from the app, don your headphones and share the experience of being together while watching what you prefer.

Muvix could be implemented in a hospital waiting room, an airport waiting area, a live concert or a sporting event, Barzam suggests. All the controlling software is run from the cloud.

The Muvix experience can seem a bit isolating at first because you’re ensconced in your private sound bubble. If you want to talk to your friends, a private group audio button lets you speak over the soundtrack to others in your group.

Worried that your phone doesn’t have enough juice to last the entire film? Hit the call button on the app and a Muvix staffer will bring you a battery charger.

ROMAN J ISRAEL, ESQ *Movie Review*

“Roman J Israel, Esq.” isn’t quite as the trailers suggest.  It’s a redemption story of sorts as Roman (Denzel Washington) transforms from idealistic advocate into someone who is out for himself.

Colin Farrell also stars.

For more about “Roman J Israel, Esq.”, including some significant 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 Sony Pictures.


Kenneth Branagh stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Kenneth Branagh stars in and directs the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”.  It evokes the period setting while allowing for more modern cinematic moments.

Murder on the Orient Express” also stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz and Josh Gad.

For more about the film, including the significance of 3s, 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 20th Century Fox.

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.

What would you do? Operation Jericho

Jonathan Ball Operation JerichoWho is Jonathan Ball?

“He skipped the senior prom for boot camp and took his first plane ride to report in San Diego. The environment was challenging and purposely disorienting, but he loved it. He volunteered for all tasks and immersed himself in the training to gain experience and expertise over eight years of service, four on active duty (non combat) and four in the inactive reserve. At an early age as well as throughout his life, he watched as friends and family succumbed to death, and in training, he learned further how to desensitize. Yet Ball feels blessed he never had to carry the burden of killing someone in the line of duty.”

Read Operation Jericho

VIDEOOn the KTLA 5 News at 3, Marine veteran Jonathan Ball discusses his new novel, Operation Jericho, soon to be made into a film.

Who is a hero?

“Heroes, as seen through the innocent and admiring eyes of a child:
If you boil everything away, all the nonsense, the bureaucracy, the politics, then you are left with the total purpose of Operation: Jericho. Americans, no matter their color or creed, are still Americans. Iman and Hasim, as Arab-Americans, are out of place in and out of uniform. Imagine life as an outsider, always on the edge of trust but never gaining it completely. Imagine living on the cusp of society, in a world of anger and hate and death. Imagine the self-doubt in purpose for any mission and what the ultimate outcome could mean for you on any given day.
I think of that, and the excerpt that stands out for me the most right now (the one where I am the little boy, looking upon the faces of heroes and only seeing them as such- no color, no race, no religion- just American bad a**es going to do American bad a** things.” — Jonathan Ball

An excerpt from Chapter Two:

Exhausted from travel and shrouded in uncomfortable uniforms,
the men ached to get to their destination. Their trek
through terminals and corridors was unabated by the light foot
traffic inside the airport. However, the ends of their toes and the
bottoms of their feet burned at the confines of patent leather footwear.
Hasim was still a little groggy from his nap aboard the plane.
He rubbed at his eyes until he caught sight of a small boy.
The boy was visibly tired and less than thrilled to be in an
airport during hours that would otherwise be deep into his
bedtime. His small left hand clutched tightly to the comforts of his
mother’s right. Hasim smiled at the mother and child as their paths
crossed. The little boy, suddenly excited and apparently raised as a
patriot, rendered a salute to the Marines. Each of the men smiled
back and broke uniform protocol. They returned a playful salute
to the boy, and the child lit up. He was elated to have received the
military courtesy as he yelled, “Mommy, Mommy! Did you see?”
Iman and Hasim forgot about the pains in their feet. They dismissed
the itch of form-fitting collars and heavy ties. They discontinued
their silent complaints against the heavy wool of their uniforms.
Rather, they smiled with the slight bump of charging energy
that the child passed to them. Hasim said, “There’s a future Jarhead
right there.” Each laughed lightly as they arrived at baggage claim.
About Jonathan Michael Ball:
He was born in Dallas, Texas and spent his youth in the balance between a country boy loving the wide open space of a cattle ranch and a city kid finding his way through the roller coaster of fast living.At 17 years old, he joined the United States Marine Corps where he served as an Intelligence Analyst in the 1st Marine Division. He deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment; and his experiences abroad inspire his wide-reaching takes into character development and the realities faced outside of any bubble of comfort.Beyond experiences in the Marine Corps, Jonathan Michael Ball has climbed mountains, scaled cliffs, ascended frozen waterfalls, and explored various wild areas around the world. He is an accomplished professional, a devoted family man, and an observer of the human experience. He sets out in the great exploration of life’s adventures with the earnest effort of learning and driving forward in the knowledge that experience creates a great writer.

DUNKIRK *Movie Review*

Dunkirk is a rare movie that manages to use war as a setting without exploiting the blood and gore that traditionally accompanies the genre.  Instead, director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) relies on thematic opposites of silence and music, water and fire, to create a sense of dramatic tension that rarely falters for nearly two hours.

While inspired by a true story, fictionalized characters stand in for the real heroes of Dunkirk.  During World War II, Allied troops were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.  The troops were rapidly losing ground and couldn’t evacuate by water because the war ships were too large to venture close to the shore.  Desperate, the British requisitioned civilian boats to sail across the channel, bringing home more nearly 400,000 men.

This is not only their story, but the story of heroes who come in all shapes and sizes.  If Dunkirk manages to teach us anything, it’s that heroism is not relegated to a specific few and that bravery is a choice.

Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh.

For more about Dunkirk, 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.

Five iconic film locations you must visit in 2017

We’ve all got a favorite movie or two, and might even have daydreamed about starring in them from time to time. Unless we’re outrageously talented, lucky or driven (preferably all three and then some) we’ll never get to appear on the big screen, so the next best thing is to visit the scenes and sets. We’re lucky that many of the best movies of all time have been filmed in The States – including these five locations.

Hawaii – Elvis


The recent Disney hit Moana has brought Hawaii back onto the big screen, carrying on a long tradition of movies featuring these paradise islands. A quick snapshot would include Godzilla (which used 200 local people as extras on Waikiki Beach), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Hunger Games, 50 First Dates, Pearl Harbour, and the Jurassic Park Series. In Oahu, you can even pay for a 90-minute tour of many of the scenes from more than 50 movies.

Among those 50 are the works of The King himself – Elvis Presley. Perhaps the most well-known are Blue Hawaii from 1961, which was shot at the Coco Palms Resort in Kauai and featured the famous wedding scene. Although abandoned since Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and demolished last year, the hotel is currently being rebuilt as part of the Hyatt Unbound Collection – so disciples might choose to wait until then.

Girls! Girls! Girls! followed in 1962, while the final Elvis movie shot in Hawaii was the 1966 comedy Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and you’ll find a number of locations still remain including the Maui Sheraton Hotel and the LDS Polynesian Cultural Centre in Oahu.

Las Vegas – Ocean series


We probably think immediately of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Leaving Las Vegas when considering Sin City. But there’s a clearly whole lot more to be seen than these eponymous movies, and perhaps the movies that evoke certain scenes of Vegas locations are the Ocean’s series.

The original Rat Pack version sees Sinatra and co carry out an audacious heist on five casinos in a single night; sadly, only one out of those five is still there in its original form. The Sands was demolished in ’96 and replaced by the Venetian; The Sahara is now known as the SLS; The Desert Inn was closed at the start of the century and the Riviera was demolished in 2015-16. Only the Flamingo remains.

On to the sequels, and who wouldn’t want to recreate the glorious conclusion in front of the Bellagio Fountains in the remake? For that matter, catching a fight at the MGM Grand Garden is still a must for many fight fans, although you’re unlikely to see long-retired heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis in the ring again.

Fremont Street is the original location for high-stakes and heavy drinking, and has featured in Dodgeball to Honey I Blew Up the Kid to Diamonds Are Forever. On the Strip, Caesar’s Palace is one of the most used casinos. It features in Rainman and Iron Man, and devotees of the original Hangover might want to revisit the debauchery in flamboyant style in one of the grand suites.

Finally, if you just want to live like the movie star A-Listers, rooms at the Julius Tower start at just $1,949 a night, while some at MGM Grand cost up to $10,000. The Napoleon Suite at the Paris is so exclusive that there is no price tag.

New York – Taxi Driver


For the movie fan, a trip to New York is essential and unforgettable, although worth researching as it’s all too easy to simply walk past many of the more famous spots. As an example of the less obvious destinations, consider the 1976 vigilante movie Taxi Driver. The poster looks as if it could be taken anywhere in the city, but the actual location is the West Side of Eighth Avenue, just below West 47th Street. Looking for this is made that little bit more difficult by the fact that the adult movie signs in the background have long gone, to be replaced by pharmacies and information centers. The big shootout at the end takes place in a tenement block at 226 East 13th Street.

Other movies filmed in New York include The Seven Year Itch (with ‘that’ Marilyn Monroe scene); Big, with the famous duet between Tom Hanks and Robert Loggie on the giant keyboard (now in Philadelphia) and Where Harry Met Sally – at Katz’s Delicatessen in East Houston Street.

Fans of Ghostbusters will recall that two of the most famous scenes in 80s film history involved giant apparitions strolling through the Big Apple; the Stay Puft marshmallow man in the original, and an inhabited Statue of Liberty in the sequel. Surprisingly, the scene in the hotel where we’re first introduced to Slimer was actually filmed at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, so you won’t be able to stay there – but any one of New York’s many hotels will suffice for a tour of this great city!

New Orleans – Benjamin Button


The list of movies filmed in the Big Easy is as extensive, vibrant and diverse as the city itself. Bourbon Street witnessed a jazz/voodoo funeral in Live and Let Die in 1973; 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street filmed various scenes around Riverdale High School and Lafreniere Park, and various John Grisham book-to-film adaptations such as the Pelican Brief have been filmed on Riverwalk. Elvis filmed at the fabulous French Quarter in King Creole, which also hosted scenes from Interview with the Vampire on Royal Street.

Fans of the Brad Pitt movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button should head for Nolan House on Coliseum Street, the near 8,000ft mansion where much of the filming took place.
Apparently, director David Fincher was so set on using the house that he flew to Houston to have dinner with owner Mary Nell Porter Nolan, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Some scenes were also shot in (or designed to replicate) the numerous cemeteries in the city, while something more romantic might be found at the wonderful Newman Bandstand in Audobon Park, a popular venue for the wedding and private events.

Philadelphia – Rocky statue and steps

Quickly – what’s the name of the building with the 72 steps that Rocky runs up in ‘that’ scene? Even though it’s one of the most recognizable scenes in movie history, you might be unaware that the answer is the Philadelphia Museum of Art – which is well worth a look in its own right.

The Oscar-winning film series has given the sport of boxing and cinema history so much; from the iconic ring entrance music used by so many, to the unusual training techniques of chasing chickens and sprinting up snowy mountains. And it continues to flourish, with the latest iteration Creed 2015 sweeping more awards and picking up much critical acclaim.

While there, have your picture taken with the Sylvester Stallone statue, donated by Sly in 1980, although expect a small queue of other fight film fans eager to participate. The steps, filmed with a Steadicam to bring more realism, have been used in several of the movies and give an outstanding view of Eakins Oval, City Hall, and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

So lace up the gloves and get up those steps – you never know, the great man himself may even be around….



Zoe Lister-Jones puts ‘Band Aid’ on wounds of relationships

From left: Adam Pally, Fred Armisen and Zoe Lister-Jones in “Band Aid.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films

At the beginning of Zoe Lister-Jones’ debut feature film, “Band Aid,” a married couple bickers about the dishes piled up in their kitchen sink. Ben (Adam Pally) insists that just one of the plates is his; Anna (Lister-Jones) asks if he’s blind or “just retarded.”

He retorts that she’s a “dish Nazi.” She calls that “super offensive” because she comes from a “long line of Holocaust survivors.” Ben says that’s impossible because survivors constitute just one generation. And, he adds, using the word “retarded” is equally offensive.

Anna and Ben, both artists and musicians, continue to fight throughout the comedy-drama — until they discover that writing and performing rock songs about their tiffs proves healing for their marriage.

Lister-Jones, 34, who also stars in the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces,” certainly can relate. Her own relationships, which she was open and forthcoming about during an interview at a Sherman Oaks café, have been the inspiration for a number of her creative projects.

She said she’s been with her husband, writer-director Daryl Wein, since they met while studying drama together at New York University. Like most couples, they’ve had their ups and downs, which they explored in two previous film collaborations, “Breaking Upwards” (2009) and “Lola Versus” (2012).

They’ve been to couples counseling. And, yes, they’ve had fights that began with trivialities such as whose turn it was to do the dishes.

“I just think that relationships are endlessly confounding,” Lister-Jones said with a laugh. “My parents split up when I was 9, so this movie is very much about what it means to stay in a relationship and why couples choose to stay in long-term relationships. It’s been a question that I’ve always grappled with.

“This movie [also] is specifically about the way that couples fight … and the different ways that men and women communicate. Generally speaking, men can much more easily compartmentalize their emotions and women tend to hang on to things that have hurt or angered them. And that can create a lot of conflict when you’re sharing a domestic space.”

Lister-Jones said she chose to make the couple in “Band Aid” Jewish (albeit nominally so) because, “I draw on personal experiences in my writing, and [Judaism is] part of the fabric of my life. In this film, especially, it’s integral to the way that this couple communicates, mostly in terms of their humor.”

Lister-Jones’ mother, Ardele Lister, a video designer, is an Ashkenazi Jew, while her father, Bill Jones, a photographer and media artist, converted to Judaism before their marriage. She grew up in a kosher home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she attended Shabbat services weekly at the Park Slope Jewish Center, a Conservative egalitarian synagogue. When the actress moved to Los Angeles five years ago, she found the same kind of close-knit Jewish community at IKAR.

As a very young woman, Lister-Jones mostly dated Jewish men “because there was a kind of tribal attraction,” she said. When her first love broke up with her, she turned her devastation into an off-off-Broadway monologue, “Codependence is a Four-Letter Word,” in which she portrayed 11 different characters struggling with heartbreak.

She met Wein when she was 21 and he was 19. Though their bond quickly became serious, she suggested opening up the relationship about two years in. Wein felt hurt at the time, she recalled.

“But it felt intimidating to think of this as forever when we were still so young,” she said. “It started actually just by choosing days when we wouldn’t see each other, because otherwise one person would be insulted when the other would say, ‘I want the night off.’ Then it evolved to being able to see other people on those days off and not talking about it.

“For the majority of that year, neither of us thought the other was doing anything, naively. But when I started to understand that he was, I was surprised by my own jealousy.”

By the end of that year, Lister-Jones suggested closing the relationship again, and while he was reluctant at first, the couple did again become monogamous. They were married in a Jewish ceremony conducted by Rabbi Susan Goldberg, now of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in 2013.

Along the way, Lister-Jones and Wein worked out their feelings about their previously open relationship by writing and starring in “Breaking Upwards,” in which they played fictionalized versions of themselves.

“Lola Versus” was in some ways a follow-up to that movie, Lister-Jones said. In that film, Greta Gerwig portrays a woman who finds herself single again after her fiancé dumps her just weeks before their wedding. The movie was prompted by Lister-Jones’ discussions with Wein about how different their dating experiences were during their experiment with non-monogamy.

“His were really fun and easy … but I was emotionally tortured by most of the men that I was with,” she said. “And it just felt like there was this epidemic of amazing single women in New York City who were kind of being run around by men. And so Lola, the protagonist, was the Everywoman for me at that moment in my life, experiencing some of those traumas and then finding herself as an independent woman.”

Lister-Jones and Wein collaborated on a third film together, 2015’s “Consumed,” which tackles issues surrounding the use of GMOs — a distinct departure from their previous movies. They also worked on writing TV projects for hire, which Lister-Jones eventually found less than rewarding, so she decided to write, direct and star in her own project, “Band Aid.”

Lister-Jones, also a musician, wrote all the indie rock style songs that the fictional couple pen and perform in the film. She also hired an all-female crew to combat some of the limitations women encounter in Hollywood.

Throughout the film, the dripping faucet in the couple’s kitchen sink — the one where all those unwashed dishes are stacking up — serves as a symbol of what’s wrong with their marriage.

“It’s a metaphor for all the repairs that constantly need attention in long-term relationships,” Lister-Jones said. “When that repair is fixed, another one will generally pop up. … This film acknowledges that relationships are flawed and constantly in need of tending.”

“Band Aid” opens in theaters on June 2. 

Gal Gadot and the Jewish essence of Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot in the 2017 film “Wonder Woman.” Photo by Clay Enos/DC Comics

When Wonder Woman first appeared on the comic book scene in 1941, she entered as a kind of messianic figure.

She soared to life during World War II, when most of Europe was in shambles. The devastating human and economic losses of the war had taken a grave toll on the global order thanks to real-life villains Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. And male superheroes, such as Batman and Superman, entered an existential crisis — their hypermasculinities seemed a little too simpatico with the villains of the war, even as their ignorance of the gas chambers made them irrelevant. A shattered world called out for a new superhero, someone who could elevate the genre and redeem humanity from the ashes of Auschwitz.

Enter Wonder Woman.

Sculpted from clay on the all-female island of Themyscira, Diana Prince (her civilian name) is nurtured by Aphrodite and trained as an Amazon warrior. When U.S. Army Air Corps intelligence officer Steve Trevor crashes on her island, he tells her of a world at war and she feels a duty to try to stop it.

Fast forward to 2013, when the casting of Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot in the Hollywood reboot of “Wonder Woman” — which opens in theaters on June 2 — was no less momentous than the moment of the character’s creation. Surely, this was good news for the Jews.

“So exciting!!! Can’t express how happy I am :)))),” Gadot tweeted to her followers after the announcement.

Her elation was widely shared. The editorial board of The Jerusalem Post saw fit to write about why this casting choice was so meaningful: “Israel — and the Jewish people — need heroines such as Gal Gadot,” the editors gushed. “They present a picture to the world of the beautiful, sexy Israeli, countering the all-too-pervasive negative and ugly imagery of Israel and Israelis in the international media.”

Nowadays, superheroes don’t just save the world; they apparently can save Israel’s image. Or so went The Jerusalem Post’s slightly delusional logic.

The newspaper was right to acknowledge the occasion’s significance, though for the wrong reason. The real power in casting Gadot as Wonder Woman is that it offers the moviegoing public both a real and fictive revenge fantasy. It isn’t just a triumph for women that the new savior of the world is female; it is a triumph for the Jews.

“Wonder Woman was created in and for World War II,” Glen Weldon, author of “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography” said during a 2013 interview on National Public Radio. “That was her whole shtick, fighting the Nazis.”

Indeed, Wonder Woman’s first adversaries in the comic books are the military of the Axis powers, whose defeat is her raison d’etre. Though the new Hollywood version inexplicably changes the war from World War II to World War I, fighting Hitler is in the character’s DNA — but so is tikkun olam (repairing the world).

“She was created to be something of a contradiction,” Weldon said. “She is a warrior for peace. That’s tough.”

Ha! Not if you’re Israeli.

Besides the fact that Batman and Superman were emblematic of male power at a time when male power had left half the world in ruins, they also were psychological disappointments. As popular projections of divine, supernal power, Batman and Superman fell short. Not only had their “super-ness” failed the populace of Europe, they were ill-equipped to help survivors heal. The heroic imagination required a radical champion — someone with worldly qualities, like strength, but also divine qualities, like love. Power alone was not enough to prevail; a wounded world needed heart and soul.

Psychologist, feminist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston decided to create an antidote and alternative to what he saw as the “blood-curdling masculinity” of the superhero landscape. “A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life,” Marston wrote in a 1944 article for The American Scholar. So along came Wonder Woman, “with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman,” Marston wrote. She would be the new, epicene ideal of heroism: an amalgam of masculine might and feminine compassion.

How appropriate, then, to cast Jewish former Israel Defense Forces soldier Gal Gadot as the character originally conceived as a Nazi-crushing superheroine. Wonder Woman may not be the only superhero to take on the Nazis (see: Captain America), but it’s the first time an actor can arm such a character with real-world cultural vengeance. Gadot’s maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, which binds her psychically to her avenging character. In 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” her fighting spirit was so obvious that director Justin Lin added to her character’s backstory by making her a Mossad agent. “He really liked that I was in the Israeli military and he wanted to use my knowledge of weapons,” she told the Forward in 2011.

Tender, smart and strong, Wonder Woman was designed as a feminist archetype, but her current iteration also has come to embody Israeliness. In the Jewish state, it’s a national requirement for women to kick ass. And it is specifically within the micro-society of the Israeli military that men and women are expected to contribute equally, both serving in combat roles. This norm suggests that strength, skill and weaponry are the domain of both sexes, and reinforces equality of the sexes among secular Israelis. Mixed-gender army service also contributes to a national myth in which each soldier is a potential “superhero” whose duty is to protect innocents and fight evil (i.e., terrorists) who seek the country’s destruction.

Notably, the Hollywood “Wonder Woman” is the first superhero movie in over a decade to feature a female in the title role. It is also the first time a female director (Patty Jenkins) has helmed a superhero franchise, an effort to dispel conventional wisdom that a female-centric film can’t be a blockbuster (see: “The Hunger Games”).

Although, early on, Gadot was criticized for not having the appropriate body type for Wonder Woman — she was considered too thin and too lanky to be strong, her breasts too small to exude sexuality — she put those criticisms to rest with her real-life combat resume. When still others charged that Gadot couldn’t reconcile playing a strong female character while clad in a skimpy outfit, she shot back: “I think as a feminist, you should be able to wear whatever you like!” Gadot told The New York Times.

As Gadot herself has put it, one of the defining aspects of her character is that she transcends gender. “Feminism is about equality and choice and freedom. … And the best way to show that is to show Diana as having no awareness of social roles. She has no gender boundaries. To her, everyone is equal.”

Wonder Woman doesn’t inhabit an us-versus-them universe the way her male counterparts do. Instead, she serves as that “warrior for peace” — neither provocateur, nor pacifist — but one who only uses her strength against an unambiguous enemy. At least in theory, this also is the animating force of the Israeli army. Though Wonder Woman was conceived specifically to combat Nazism, her matchless qualities have turned her into a redemptive figure for humankind. She fights only when she must, and she loves just as fiercely.

By turning her over to Gadot, Hollywood is answering historical tragedy with a touch of irony: Wonder Woman is an Israeli Jew.

“Wonder Woman” opens in theaters June 2. 

Jason Drucker takes ‘Wimpy Kid’ lead in stride

Jason Drucker stars in the new film “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.” Photo courtesy of Erica Tucker

More than 2,000 boys competed for the starring role of Greg Heffley in the new film “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.” Jason Drucker of Miami, 11, got the part.

“I was a huge fan of the series. I never thought I’d be in the movie,” Jason said by telephone.

Jason began acting in 2013 with a recurring role on the Nickelodeon series  “Every Witch Way.” He’s also been on the TV show “Chicago Fire” and played the lead in a short film called “Nightmarish.”

His role as Greg Heffley was his most challenging yet.

“It was an incredible experience,” Jason said. “I never realized that being a lead in a film would be so demanding of my time. I realized I’m pretty good under pressure.”

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” the fourth movie in the franchise, follows Greg as he and his brother Rodrick convince their parents to take a road trip to their grandmother’s house for her 90th birthday celebration. Their true motivation, however, is to go to a video game convention. Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott play the boys’ parents.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking, but it was exciting when I booked it,” he said of his audition. “That happened two weeks after the screen testing. Then the shoot was around 10 weeks long.”

In the film, the Heffley family owns a pet pig that was “a bunch of fun to shoot with,” Jason said. “I never would have thought I could shoot a movie with a pig. Her real name was Charlotte.”

Jason is balancing his sixth-grade studies and acting by taking classes online and working with on-set tutors. It was especially challenging while shooting “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

“It was a bit too difficult to work out regular school with my acting career,” he said. “On set, it’s always a bunch of fun because I’m doing what I love and I’m able to pursue it. When I had any free time on set, they would have me in school. My tutor was there in case I needed help. That was definitely a life saver.”

When Jason was filming in Atlanta, his parents and other members of his family would stay with him on set. He is the second of three brothers, just like Greg Heffley. Though his siblings tried acting a few years ago, Jason is the only one still pursuing it.

“My close friends and my whole family are really supportive, and maybe more excited about the movie than I am,” he said.

Though he hasn’t begun preparing for his bar mitzvah, Jason attends Sunday school every week at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. “I go and learn about the Jewish culture and language,”  he said.

Jason and his family do not have plans to move to Los Angeles for his career, but he will be visiting the area to promote the movie.

“I don’t really prepare for the red carpet,” he said. “I get in my suit or whatever I’m wearing and I go out there with confidence and smile for the camera.”

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” opens in theaters May 19. 

‘Wedding Plan’ is a perfect match for Israeli actress

From left: Ronny Merhavi, Noa Koler and Dafi Alferon in “The Wedding Plan.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

From her earliest memories while growing up in Petah Tikvah, Israeli actress Noa Koler dreamed of becoming a performer.

“I wanted to be on a stage, and I wanted everyone to know me and see me and be talking about me,” the exuberant Koler recalled, laughing, during a telephone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. She even used to pretend she was on the news. “I would interview myself,” she said with another laugh.

Now 36, Koler finally has arrived as an actress, having earned her first leading role in a film, Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan,” which has been well received in Israel and the United States and opens in Los Angeles on May 19. Koler’s first turn as a romantic lead earned her the best actress prize at the 2016 Ophir Awards, the Israeli version of the Oscars. Now, she’s also the star of an Israeli TV series, a thriller called “Diaries.”

But before Burshtein came calling a few years ago, stardom had proved elusive for Koler. After graduating from the Yoram Levinstein acting school in Tel Aviv, she became an ensemble member of the Gesher Theater group and performed on Israeli TV series such as “Srugim,” about singles in Jerusalem, and “You Can’t Choose Your Family,” the Israeli adaptation of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

She said she always was typecast as a character actress, relegated to comic roles or to portraying wives and best friends until Burshtein entered the scene. The esteemed ultra-Orthodox filmmaker of 2012’s Ophir-winning “Fill the Void” was looking for a nuanced performer for her new film, “The Wedding Plan.”

Originally titled “Through the Wall,” the comedy-drama revolves around Michal, a single woman who had become religious in her 20s and, a decade later, finally is engaged to be married. When her fiancé (Erez Drigues) unexpectedly dumps her just a month before their scheduled nuptials, the determined Michal refuses to cancel her wedding plans. She buys a fancy white dress, rents a wedding hall and hopes God will somehow provide her with another groom.

After three auditions, Burshtein cast Koler as Michal; like her character, Koler also had a pipe dream —becoming a leading actress — that actually came true.

“[Noa’s] big break came at the age of 34, which is kind of a big deal for an actress,” Tammy Cohen, the film’s associate producer, said while helping to translate for Koler during the Journal interview.

Koler said she was drawn to her character, in part, because Michal “is strong and funny. … She’s afraid but nothing stops her. … She does things that I would never do … like getting married with no groom.”

Not that Koler didn’t ardently aspire to find a husband when she was single and in her 20s. In real life, she experienced a doomed romance with Drigues, her co-star in “The Wedding Plan,” who had been a fellow member of the Gesher troupe. After he broke up with her about 10 years ago, the former lovers wrote a play together, “One Plus One,” based on their romance and its dissolution, which was performed on the Gesher stage.

“It started out like therapy, to try to move on,” Koler said. “Now, we’re trying to make a TV show based on the same story.”

The pair appearing together in “The Wedding Plan” was an example of art imitating life.

“He broke up with me [in real life] and in the movie he breaks up with me again,” Koler said. But performing scenes opposite her ex wasn’t painful for the actress. “I was used to it,” she said. “It’s like I’d been there, done that.”

Some time after their parting, Koler wrote a letter to herself about what she hoped for in a future husband. “It was a story about a man who’s a carpenter and who cooks,” she said. Eventually, a friend introduced her to the man she would marry, who happened to enjoy carpentry as a hobby while also working as the owner of a hummus restaurant. They married when Koler was 27 and already pregnant with the first of their two children, now 6 and 1.

During one of her auditions for “The Wedding Plan,” Koler chose to wear a cheerful, flowery dress to reflect her sense of Michal as a basically happy person with just one thing missing from her life. “In Israel, usually when [filmmakers] do stuff about religious people, it’s much darker and serious,” Koler said.

Burstein liked her interpretation of the character and called back Koler for two more auditions. The third happened to be scheduled on the same day as her 99-year-old grandfather’s funeral about three years ago.

“But my father told me that I … didn’t have to come [to the funeral],” Koler recalled. “He said that my grandfather was thinking of me and asking me to stay with the audition. Afterward, I went to the cemetery, but [everyone had left] except my two brothers. The three of us just stood at the grave, and we spoke to him. … I said, ‘Saba, thank you. I auditioned and I think I got the part. Rest in peace.’ And it was a small, intimate moment for us.”

The secular Koler had numerous conversations with Burshtein in order to understand Michal and her faith; while she had previously looked down at the Orthodox matchmaking process, she came to appreciate that in the observant world “both people are set in the same direction, which is marriage and a life together, not just where they will end up that evening.”

But Koler disagrees with Burshtein’s belief, as conveyed in “Fill the Void” and “The Wedding Plan,” that a woman is incomplete without a husband. “It’s not about getting married; it’s about giving and receiving love,” she said. And [in that way] I think a woman can be complete.”

Yet something changed regarding Koler’s own faith after working on Burshtein’s movie. These days, she said, she addresses the Divine every night, “asking for help but also saying thank you.”

Her Ophir Award was grounds for giving thanks. When her name was called at the ceremony, “I was so nervous and happy, I lost my voice,” Koler recalled.

She made her Ophir acceptance speech “with a frog in my throat,” she added. “It was fun and funny and crazy, like a roller-coaster ride.”

“The Wedding Plan” opens in Los Angeles on May 19.

HBO’s ‘Wizard of Lies’ finds the family drama in Madoff investment scandal

Robert De Niro stars as Bernie Madoff in HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies,” while Michelle Pfeiffer plays his wife, Ruth. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

“Do you think I’m a sociopath?” Bernie Madoff, serving a 150-year prison sentence, asks visiting New York Times investigative reporter Diana B. Henriques in a scene from the HBO film “The Wizard of Lies.”

She doesn’t answer the question, but the title of the movie, which debuts on May 20 and is based on the book by Henriques, is enough to suggest her conclusion, practically defining a pathologically deceitful person.

Madoff, who marked his 79th birthday on April 29 at a federal prison in North Carolina, holds the dubious distinction of perpetrating the biggest financial fraud by an individual in American history. By the time of his arrest in 2008, Madoff had swindled his clients out of some $65 billion, mostly in fabricated gains, though “only” around $18 billion in actual losses.

According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among those left holding the bag locally were the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, to the tune of $18 million (which included $6.4 million lost by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles). Nationally, victims included the Hadassah women’s organization ($90 million), Yeshiva University ($140 million) and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity ($15.2 million).

In the years before his exposure, Madoff was hailed as a financial genius by the media and investors, and the famous and wealthy begged him to accept their million-dollar checks, no questions asked.

In reality, Madoff ran a giant Ponzi scheme, in which his clients earned dividends of 10 percent or higher like clockwork, year after year. This operation worked as long as a steady stream of new big-time investors channeled fresh funds to Madoff, allowing him to pay generous dividends to his old investors — and providing him with a billionaire lifestyle in Manhattan and Florida.

But in 2008, when the stock market plunged and large investors tried to pull their money from Madoff-controlled funds, the “financial genius” desperately scrambled for an infusion of new money. He failed and the Ponzi pyramid collapsed.

In a dramatic scene in “The Wizard of Lies,” Madoff confesses to having lived a lie to his immediate family members, who also pay heavily for his crimes. His wife, Ruth, is portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer as a once reigning society hostess now shunned by all. In the privacy of their bedroom, she asks only one question: “Why, Bernie? Why?”

He replies, weakly, “I didn’t mean to harm anyone. I just couldn’t stop.”

Two years after Madoff’s arrest, his older son, Mark (Alessandro Nivola), committed suicide by hanging himself, leaving behind a bitter note blaming his father. Even that was not the end of the family’s misery, as younger son Andrew (Nathan Darrow) died of cancer at 48 in 2014.

For “The Wizard of Lies,” veteran director Barry Levinson, whose resume includes such classics as “Rain Man” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” put major emphasis on the relationships within the Madoff clan.

His film follows ABC’s “Madoff,” a four-episode miniseries with Richard Dreyfuss in the title role and Blythe Danner as Ruth, which aired in 2016. It focused primarily on the mechanics of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme in particular and of Wall Street operations in general.

For the lead role in his film, Levinson chose Robert De Niro, not the first name that comes to mind to portray an aging, near-sighted Jewish swindler. But Levinson noted to the Journal that De Niro, with some minor hairstyling, looks a lot like Madoff.

More important, Henriques, who interviewed the real Madoff in his jail cell for her book and then De Niro in the film (where she appears as herself), told the director that the Italian-American actor uncannily “got” the persona of Madoff.

To the surprise of some worriers, the exposure of Madoff’s misdeed did not lead to any widespread anti-Semitic backlash, except among some fringe websites and bloggers. It probably helped that Madoff swindled Jews, Catholics, Protestants and agnostics with equal gusto and lack of remorse. The reaction against the Jewish community might have been a lot stronger if Madoff had targeted only gentiles, Levinson speculated.

Regarding Madoff’s clients, was it possible that they were, in effect, his accomplices by letting their greed overcome their normal skepticism about a deal that appeared too good to be true? Levinson answered by observing it was part of Madoff’s shrewdness that he didn’t overplay his hand. While some scammers might have promised investors returns of 40 to 50 percent, Madoff stuck to around 10 percent, thus passing as a relatively “conservative” money manager.

Possible investors also were disarmed by Madoff’s personality. “He was not flashy, not a big talker, not incredibly charming, but more of a quiet, reserved man — that was his con,” Levinson said.

In any case, the director doubts that Americans will absorb any permanent lesson from his film or from Madoff’s ultimate fate.

“After that scandal, we tightened some stock market regulations, but they are now being rolled back,” Levinson said. “We haven’t learned anything, so we will be screwed again. We’ll always have flimflam operators. … We now have a president who says things which are not true, but people believe him.”

“The Wizard of Lies” will debut May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO. 


GHOST IN THE SHELL is based on a 1989 Japanese manga (comic) by Masamune Shirow. Scarlett Johansson‘s Major is a human brain transplanted into an engineered yet human-looking body.  She’s designed as the perfect soldier in a future that makes us question the limits and benefits of technology.  Rupert Sanders (SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN) directs Juliette Binoche, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Pilau Asbaek, Michael Pitt, Chin Han and Lasarus Ratuere.  The diverse cast represents eight different nationalities.

Ever since Scarlett Johansson’s casting, the Internet has been abuzz with talk of “whitewashing”.  This process is substituting a white actor in place of another race, despite source material which seems to dictate otherwise.  It’s actually a bit ironic that American audiences have been so vocal about the casting. Manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are littered with characters who have distinctly Western features.  Japanese cultural norms are such that an entire population of women seek to fulfill a new standard of beauty based on Western media exports.

From a sociological perspective, this is certainly an issue within the country and will likely continue to be one for the foreseeable future.  However, in examining the movie from within this prism, Johansson’s casting is the perfect choice.

History dictates American audiences have no problems substituting one Asian actor for another.  Twelve years ago,  the distinctly Japanese story MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA cast a Chinese actress in the title role.  Ziyi Zhang is undoubtedly a great actress, but isn’t her casting just as egregious as Scarlett Johansson’s?

For more about “whitewashing” in GHOST IN THE SHELL, as well how gender and Japanese culture were integrated, take a look below:

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THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*

In THE LAST WORD, a retired businesswoman named Harriet (Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine) confronts her mortality as she sculpts her own obituary.  Harriet targets Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reporter, to distill her life into its final success story.  The pair take a metaphorical–and literal–journey with Brenda (newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee), a pre-teen who has as much to gain from the relationship as the other two.  The movie also stars Thomas Sadowski, Anne Heche, Philip Baker Hall and Tom Everett Scott.  Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, COLD CASE) directs.  

I spoke with director Mark Pellington about symbolism and themes in THE LAST WORD.  He sees the film as a study in mortality and what each of us leave behind at the end of our lives.  Pellington says:  “I want these characters to have suffered some degree of loss, yet I don’t want it to be through death.  I want them to be left alone in that they’re searching to become a little more whole, a little more complete.”

Harriet, Ann and Brenda come together as incomplete sides of the same coin.  Each is missing a specific person in their lives within the parent/child relationship, but lacks in other important ways, too.  For example, Harriet appreciates the qualities about Brenda with which she herself identifies.  However, these are the very characteristics she regrets in herself having let them rule her life.  Brenda’s ability to say anything and stick up for herself are laudable, though without a measure of regulation they will overtake her life the same way they have Harriet’s.

The women’s evolution is emphasized during a baptismal scene of cleansing as they go for a late-night swim.  Traditional film analysis looks at water from this perspective, and Pellington does as well.  “By the end, for her to take off her clothes, to let it go, to get messy is a change she was ready to go through because she had achieved these goals of seeing herself differently,” he explains.

The film shows that evolution is possible regardless of age or temperament and nothing is a replacement for personal connection.  Isolation comes in many forms.  The first shot of Harriet is standing in a dormer window looking out at the grounds of her home.  Ann sits in isolation, blaring loud music on her massive headphones, though she’s surrounded by coworkers.  Even Brenda’s first interaction sets her apart as she battles a recreation center supervisor.

The complicated relationship among the trio becomes an unexpected friendship in this coming-of-age story.  True to life, it is sometimes impossible to realize something is missing until you’re confronted by it.

For more about THE LAST WORD, including Shirley MacLaine’s thoughts on labeling women in Hollywood, take a look below:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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!

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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:

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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…

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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*

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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