REVIEW: “Amy”

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I know this will kill my chances of being the coolest guy in the room, but I couldn’t name you one Amy Winehouse song. That’s not a slight to her. I’m simply not into newer music like I once was. But despite that I certainly knew who Amy Winehouse was. From 2003 through 2011 Winehouse became an international music sensation. Her powerful vocals and jazz-influenced sound gave her a uniqueness that was embraced by millions around the world. Unfortunately her life was also troubled which led to her sad and untimely death in 2011 at the age of only 27.

Asif Kapadia’s documentary simply titled “Amy” seeks to shed light on the young woman behind the music and the headlines. It offers viewers a chance to reevaluate Winehouse by diving deeper into her personal life, close relationships, and intense emotional struggles. Music is a key part of the film, but this is first and foremost an individual inner-exploration. And as someone who knew more about Winehouse from news headlines, this is an insightful and eye-opening look.

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Amazingly so much of Winehouse’s rise to fame and eventual tragic slide was caught on video. Kapadia gained access to hundreds of hours of footage highlighting her life much of it never before seen. Some of the footage comes from performances including her disastrous final show in Belgrade, Serbia approximately a month before she died.

Juggling this wealth of real-time information must have been a formidable undertaking, but Kapadia’s decisions on what to include and what to omit couldn’t have been much better. And then there are segments pulled from over 100 interviews. Kapadia’s approach along with Chris King’s impeccable editing create a fluid and cohesive narrative that will undoubtedly shed a new light on a talented young woman scared by her past and overwhelmed by her present.

“Amy” tells the singer’s story while also looking at a number of other pertinent topics such as aggressive media obsession, drug addiction, alcoholism, harmful relationships, and destructive personal lifestyles. These topics aren’t  wielded as weapons of judgment towards Amy Winehouse. They are respectfully used to explain and put her troubled life into perspective. But at the same time you can’t help but sense the subtle warnings Kapadia is showing us. These elements combine to give us an interesting and challenging documentary that transcends the simplicity of music or entertainment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “All the Bright Places” (2020)

BRIGHTposterTeen dramas are a dime a dozen and finding a fresh one out of the enormous batch isn’t always an easy thing. Too often they mimic other movies or follow all-too-familiar formulas. The new Netflix original “All the Bright Places” does a little of both. But at its heart lies a thoughtful story about the teen experience that deals with weighty issues and has the guts to stick with its convictions.

The movie is an adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s 2015 young adult novel. It’s directed by Brett Haley from a screenplay written by Niven and Liz Hannah. The story takes a delicate and earnest look at teen mental health, grief, and suicide through the unlikely friendship/romance of two young people in very difficult places. The movie is sympathetic and well-meaning but also honest. So anyone sensitive to these issues should be cautious.

Elle Fanning plays Violet, once a social butterfly but now withdrawn from her friends and family following the death of her older sister from a car accident. By sealing herself off Violet has no release for her grief which leads her to the ledge of a bridge where she  considers ending her life. But then she has a chance encounter with classmate Theodore who goes by Finch (Justice Smith). Out for an early morning jog, Finch sees the silhouette of Violet (Elle Fanning) standing high on the ledge. He talks her down setting their complex relationship in motion.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Finch works hard to get Violet to open up but in the process we see he has his own troubles. He’s an outsider at school and known as “the freak” due to his bursts of erratic, disruptive behavior. His “dark moods” leave him feeling isolated and out of control. During these times even the best efforts of his guidance counselor (Keegan-Michael Key) and sister (Alexandra Shipp) can’t seem to break through. And much like Violet, he keeps his feelings bottled up leading to him often being misunderstood by those around him.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t get into diagnosing illnesses and disorders. It’s much more interested in the emotional toil and looking almost exclusively at the human side of the struggle. It’s can be ugly and messy. Often there is no quick fix. Thankfully the movie does have its moments of light. Violet and Finch partner up for a class project highlighting hidden landmarks across their home state of Indiana. As the two “wander” together it brings them closer and a romance sparks. Not the sappy sentimental kind. It’s more cathartic and entirely earned. At the same time a cloud of uncertainty hovers overhead.

Fanning and Smith are good-looking leads with a nice chemistry. They keep their characters grounded, navigating their complexities with empathy and intelligence. At times you can see Smith working a little too hard, but he’s charismatic enough to win us over. His cool, charming side shows a kid who listens to vinyl, quotes Virginia Woolf, and has a therapeutic affection for Post-it notes (not the off brand mind you). But Smith really digs into Finch’s darker side showing the weight of the character’s emotional burdens.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Fanning has great instincts, showing off a dynamic range but with enough subtlety to keep Violet firmly planted in reality. It’s a role that could turn schmaltzy in a flash, but neither Fanning nor the material allows for that. Sure, there’s a little sap here and there, but not enough to gripe about. Depicting any type of mental illness is touchy territory, but the sincere and measured approach (starting with the young actors) leads to an authenticity that’s crucial to our investment.

While the story itself is a roller-coaster of feelings, Haley does a good job keeping things at the right temperature. Meanwhile composer Keegan DeWitt’s soothing mixture of gentle piano chords and elegant strings moves gracefully between enchanting and melancholy. And while the movie carries some of the lightweight genre appeal you would expect, “All the Bright Places” deserves credit for not just having serious intentions, but actually showing them on the screen.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Apollo 11” (2019)

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The Apollo 11 space mission and mankind’s first ever walk on the moon has been covered exhaustively through books, television, and movies (both dramas and documentaries). So a new film chronicling the lunar landing and the events surrounding it may not sound all that alluring on the surface. But don’t be fooled. “Apollo 11” is not only a riveting look back at a major historical moment. It’s hands-down the best documentary of 2019.

Todd Douglas Miller directs, co-produces, and (most impressively) edits this documentary that takes a very unique approach to telling a very familiar story. “Apollo 11” (mostly)follows the timeline completely through archived footage, much of it never before seen. Miller was given access to hundreds of reels of film ranging from 35mm to newly discovered 70mm footage. Even more, he and his team went through 18,000 hours of uncatalogued audio, all to create the most authentic portrayal to date.

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© 2019 Neon CNN Films

You immediately notice “Apollo 11” consists entirely of real footage and audio. There is no voice-over narration or contemporary interviews. The only slightly modern touches are a handful of simple line-drawn animations meant to clarify certain mission details. But even these few scenes are inspired by the 1971 Theo Kamecke documentary “Moonwalk One”. So the entire doc tells the story exclusively through the lenses and voices of its time.

At the same time, one of the most astonishing accomplishments is the amazing quality of the footage. Digitally scanned and meticulously restored, there are moments where the images could easily pass for current day. From the early shots showing masses of people gathering miles away from Kennedy Space Center just to get a glimpse of history. To the scenes capturing the careful and precise teamwork at Mission Control in Houston, Texas. And of course, the space and moon footage which can be exhilarating.

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© 2019 Neon CNN Films

But what may be the most surprising element of “Apollo 11” is Miller’s ability to not only build suspense but maintain it. It’s truly wondrous considering we already know the details of how this mission plays out. And the movie acutely captures the human element particularly with the three astronauts who manned the mission: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins. It’s no deep emotional dive but the film deftly humanizes them through the very mission action itself.

The Apollo 11 space mission brought mankind together during a year full of conflict and tumult. For nine days NASA overshadowed all of the world’s troubles, showcasing the insatiable power of the human spirit. Todd Douglas Miller captures that in the simplest but most profound of ways – through the actual sights, sounds, and words themselves. No modern day talking heads. No excessive exposition. He simply sucks us into the actual experience. And the results are breathtaking, whether you’re old enough to remember those days in July of 1969 or you’re younger and coming at it with fresh eyes.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “A Fall from Grace” (2020)

GraceposterNot everyone deserves grace“. Apparently that includes the audience. Actually those dual-meaning words slide across the screen in the trailer for Tyler Perry’s latest thriller that just debuted on Netflix. “A Fall from Grace”, front-ended with Perry’s familiar brand tag, marks the twentieth film where the entertainment heavyweight has served as writer, director, and producer. And it’s yet another film of his that would feel right at home on a Tyler Perry version of the Hallmark Channel. But to be honest, even Hallmark would send the film back to him for much needed re-shoots.

I don’t want to be too harsh because there is a lot to admire about Perry and his contributions to a community he clearly cares for. He works tirelessly and pours in a ton of his own resources and efforts to create opportunities in areas that sorely lack them. Those are all great qualities despite what Spike Lee says. I just wish Perry’s movies were better.

For what it’s worth, “A Fall from Grace” is never boring and it navigates its often shaky material on the back on one particularly strong performance from Crystal Fox. She plays Grace Waters who is set to go on trial for the murder of her younger husband Shannon (Mehcad Brooks). A freshly minted attorney named Jasmine Bryant (Bresha Webb) works for the Public Defender’s office and is assigned Grace’s case by her indifferent boss Rory (Perry). It seems pretty cut-and-dried. Grace wants to plead guilty, Jasmine is to manage the plea deal, case closed.

But Jasmine is encouraged to dig a little deeper much to the chagrin of her grumpy boss. She learns from Grace’s best friend (Phylicia Rashad) that she was a Sunday School teacher, sang in her church choir, and baked cookies for the neighborhood children. She urges Grace to share her story and through their conversations (and a series of flashbacks) were learn about what put her prison. We learn Grace, divorced and lonely, was swept off her feet by the young hipster Shannon. But all was not what it seemed and the scamming Casanova made Grace’s life a veritable hell.

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Image via Netflix / Charles Bergmann

I’ll leave the story there but suffice it to say Grace is convinced to let Jasmine fight for her which leads to a final act courtroom drama that is mind-blowing but not in a good way. The later court scenes not only look stunningly cheap but play out like the whole thing is on a time clock. Not to mention it features some of the most astonishingly bad lawyering I have ever seen in a movie or on TV. Watching half a season of Law and Order would have led to a better case than Jasmine presented.

In fairness the movie was shot over the course of five days and unfortunately you can tell. So many scenes desperately need more attention and certain overlooked details stick out like a sore thumb. And boy has the internet been quick to point them out. Take the much talked about bad wigs which sometimes take wildly different forms within the very same scene. And then there is a diner scene where extras sitting in the background stare directly into the camera, drink water from empty glasses, and eat invisible food. I’m not making this stuff up.

I hate to be so hard on “A Fall from Grace” because my wife and I actually got a kick out of watching it together. The problem is much of our enjoyment came at the film’s expense. The cast gives it their all and you have to applaud them for working hard with some pretty bad material. But the story is riddled with head-scratching moments and I haven’t even talked about the ludicrous ending. Add in the production value which highlights the low budget rather than overcomes it and you have a movie that doesn’t exactly herald Tyler Perry’s arrival to Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Ana” (2020)

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Hurricane Maria was a massive Category 5 storm that made landfall in September 2017 and was responsible for catastrophic damage and loss of life. In Puerto Rico alone at least 3,000 people died, there was an estimated $95 billion in damage, 80% of its agriculture was destroyed and much of the commonwealth’s economy was left mostly in ruin.

In director Charles McDougall’s “Ana”, post-Maria Puerto Rico offers a compelling setting and is a key player throughout the film. Its residents struggle to get by any way they can while corrupt congressmen exploit the crisis for political gain. To add an even uglier layer, American mainland con-artists swoop in to swindle gullible locals desperate for some semblance of hope. The movie was shot entirely in Puerto Rico by a Puerto Rican crew who capture not just the island’s hardships but also its immense and diverse beauty. Shot after shot is brimming with local character and flavor.

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Slightly subverting the rich visual portrayal of Puerto Rico is the story itself, a tender little drama with a very measured comedic sensibility. Andy Garcia plays Rafa, a struggling used car salesman in San Juan who discovers 11-year-old Ana sleeping in one of the vehicles on his lot. She’s played by Dafne Keen, the mutant youngster from 2017’s “Logan”. Ana had slipped away as her mother was being arrested and now has no place to go.

You know pretty quickly how things are going to go: Ana will take a liking to Rafa, he will push back but eventually warm up, and the two will develop a heart-warming relationship. That’s essentially what happens here. But McDougall and writer Chris Cole make it all about the journey these two take, both individually and as friends. Much like the island itself, Ana and Rafa’s lives are troubled yet they navigate their circumstances the best they can.

The two embark on a road trip of sorts to find someone to take care of Ana but also to drum up $5000 after Rafa runs up a gambling debt with a shady local shark (Ramon Franco). As the odd couple drives Rafa’s beat-up Lincoln TownCar across the island we get some pretty good laughs in large part thanks to Garcia and Keen’s sweet chemistry. But again what sets the film apart is Puerto Rico itself, always in the background slyly expressing some level of social and economic commentary through the camera’s lens.

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The movie does hit a speed bump in the second half when a popular local church is introduced into the story. It’s led by the charismatic Pastor Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a Miami-based prosperity preacher who peddles false hope for profit. While this does take the story into some interesting directions, it also causes it to lose a touch of its intimacy and parts of it gets a little far-fetched. But the movie does get back on track on its way to a warm and pleasing conclusion.

Releasing your film’s first trailer and then one week later dropping the movie straight to streaming doesn’t do much for expectations. But “Ana” turns out to be a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt movie. It’s full of warmth and its humor operates at just the right temperature. Best of all, the steady visual portrayal of Puerto Rico is full of character and beauty while also having some thoughtful and important things to say. That’s the piece that separates “Ana” from other movies like it.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

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In 2018 Morgan Neville gave us “Won’t You Be My Neighborhood”, a documentary that told the heartwarming story of children’s television icon Fred Rogers. The film brought back a rush of memories for many of us who grew up watching his program while introducing Mister Rogers to an entirely new and younger audience. Now Marielle Heller gives us an intriguing companion piece with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”.

Where Neville’s film was more about Rogers the man, Heller’s speaks more to the influence he had. Her film is inspired by a real-life encounter between Rogers and Tom Junod, an accomplished investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. At Junod’s request screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster changed his name to Lloyd Vogel and adjusted a few details of their story. Junod was brought to tears after seeing the finished movie which captures the very essence of their meeting and eventually friendship.

Tom Hanks (Finalized);Matthew Rhys (Finalized)

Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd, a successful yet notorious writer living in New York with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their infant son. Lloyd is harboring some deep, pent-up anger towards his father (played by Chris Cooper) who ran out on his family at the worst time imaginable. Lloyd’s bitterness shows up in his work which over time earns him a toxic reputation.

As Esquire magazine prepares to do a series on American heroes, Lloyd is given the job of profiling Mister Rogers. He thinks the assignment is beneath him, but it turns out Mister Rogers is the only one willing to speak to him. And his caring but adamant editor (Christine Lahti) insists believing it will do Lloyd some good. So he sets out to interview Mister Rogers on the set of his show at WQED studios in Pittsburgh.

I can’t believe it has taken me this long to mention that Mister Rogers is played by Tom Hanks. The quintessential good guy actor playing the quintessential television good guy. It’s such a perfect bit of casting with Hanks deftly channeling Rogers’ kindly tone, subtle mannerisms, and his inquisitive nature that is always born out of his compassion. It’s a supporting role but obviously it’s the one most people will be going to see.

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But that’s not to shortchange Rhys who gives a really good performance. Obviously the scenes he shares with Hanks are the highlights, but Rhys stands on his own and makes his character’s inevitable transformation both believable and uplifting. And when he does get with Hanks their characters’ connections are palatable and have an almost spiritual quality to them.

The picture we get of Rogers is that of a gentle genius at psychology and at getting children (and in this case Lloyd) to come to terms with and express their feelings. That really is the meat of the entire film and Heller is the right person to handle it. She has so many interesting touches (I absolutely love how she uses miniatures) and approaches the story with just the right sensibility. And in the end it’s kindness, hope, and compassion that wins the day.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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