Sundance ’14 Dramatic Spotlight: Dear White People

In my final cinematic recap for Sundance 2014, I would like to take a look at the film Dear White People.

Dear White People, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Dear White People is the directorial debut for Justin Simien, uses the setting of a fictional elite university to examine issues of racial identity and conflict in a ‘post-racial’ America.

The film looks at the dynamics of various subgroups on the campus by focusing the dorm life of the predominantly African American Armstrong/Parker house and contrasting it with the “establishment’s” university humor magazine The Pastiche. The interaction within and between these two organizations sets the stage for increasing tension and conflict that culminates into a major incident that touches all of the main characters.

Speaking of characters, instead of looking through the lens of one principal character, Simien wants to challenge our perceptions by creating a multi-protagonist story, meaning that at any given time, the narrative is being controlled by a different character or set of characters. Projecting the narrative from these various points of view is a clever device that takes the edges off of a sensitive topic, allowing the film to accessible to a diverse audience.

For the most part, this tactic works. While I obviously am not able to relate to every single perspective, based on the strength and ability of the performance, I was more or less convinced of where the various characters were coming from. Although the depth of character development for some characters slips at times, I do think there is enough there ‘there’ to show their motivations and actions are not just coming out of thin air but rather are affected by circumstance and experience.

Overall, I liked the film for what it was aiming to do. In many ways, it brought me back to my own college days (way back when) and my observations of the racial politics and how they operated (or not) on a major campus. In relating to the subject matter, I dare hope I was able to find deeper levels to the humor presented in the film.

Clearly the subject matter and content was something that folks at Sundance were clamoring for, as the buzz generated from the film meant I was seated in a packed house for the screening I attended. At the conclusion of the film, we were treated to a few words from the director and members of the cast during a post-screening Q&A.

Kudos to filmmaker Justin Simien for charging out of the gate with a film that tackles a provocative and timely topic while still managing to inform us AND make us laugh.


Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Sundance ’14: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Two men, six meals in six different places on a road trip around Italy. Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and ending in Capri.

With The Trip to Italy, director Michael Winterbottom brings us back on the road with comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in his follow up to 2010’s The Trip, which saw Coogan and Brydon go on a similar tour of the tastes and sights of northern England.

Without question, this is simply a film you just sit back and go with. I mean it is set in Italy for goodness sake! I really do not think that there is a way to shoot the splendor and beauty of Italy in a bad way. And when you add what can only be described as food porn to the mix, you have my interest AND my attention.

Aesthetics and culinary convention aside, the banter between stars Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan seems almost effortless and will leave you in stitches. In fact during the Q&A that followed the screening I attended, Coogan and Brydon said a lot of what we see on screen was the result of taking the moment and seeing where it led, all while the camera was rolling.

But it is not all laughs and giggles as some of their life’s complications enter the mix. But they are handled quite well and offer a nice balance that contrasts all the laughs that are to be in the movie.

Although this narrative of The Trip to Italy involves a fictionalized version of the actors’ real lives, this parallel live portrayal of theme as public is always something fascinating to watch. I feel that it must be quite fun for a performer to play because it allows you to exaggerate or dampen those parts of yourself that you might want to suppress or express in your actual life.

As a member of the audience The Trip to Italy sure is a fun ride that is guaranteed to entertain, leave you hungry and make you want to go out and purchase Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.


Photo Courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Film Synopsis Courtesy of IFC Films

Let’s Do the “American Hustle” (2013)

For some reason my review of this film has been sitting in my inbox for longer than should have. But never you mind, I am on it now so without further ado …

american hustle aa jlaw

Image: Sony Pictures

To quickly recap, American Hustle is the latest outing for director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and is based in part the actual FBI ABSCAM operation (look it up for the deets) that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The films stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams as New York City con artists ‘strongly encouraged’ to work with agent Bradley Cooper or face the full wrath of the feds. Their job? To take part in a multi-layered sting operation to catch corrupt politicians in the act. One target is the popular mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner). Rounding out the cast is Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s neurotic wife, who among many of her idiosyncrasies, really loves the smell of a particular brand of nail polish. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are several things to like about the film, including:

  • The performances: all the actors acquit themselves quite well., which should come as no surprise given the talent Russell has assembled.
  • Authenticity: a problem with a film like this is that it can fall prey to is creating a lack of  ‘trueness’ to the time and place presented in the story. From the costuming, hair, makeup, music, EVERYTHING frankly, American Hustle nailed the era down to a tee.
  • Equilibrium: American Hustle balanced the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative very well. I know that it is a dramatization of actual events, but if there was an inkling of these happenings in the true account of the operation, I can easily see how the dramatic tension of the situation can be balanced with some levity. After all, truth is often stranger than fiction.
  • Things are not always as they appear. There are some very pleasant (and unexpected) twists and revelations to the plot that will keep you engaged in where the story is going.

Now onto the bad(ish) news. Oddly enough, my reservations almost have nothing to do with the film itself as much as to my response to the praise and accolades thrust upon it subsequent to its release. I admit my bias but when I compare it to the other noteworthy films (that I have seen) of 2013, American Hustle lacks the gravitas of these films it is competing for several awards with. Is it entirely fair for me to base my reservations solely on this? As I stated, probably not, but it is a feeling that I had when leaving the cinema and has stuck with me ever since.

I hope in reading this assessment, your want to see this picture is not diminished, because, again, it is a really entertaining cinematic excursion. I only lead with this bit of advice: sit back and take it for what it is …

How do you feel about American Hustle? Hit the comments section to share your thoughts and views.

Sundance ’14: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself is a documentary based on the late writer and film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. This Sundance Documentary Premier was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive produced by Ebert friend Martin Scorsese.

The film takes passages from Ebert’s memoirs and weaves them with interviews and footage from Ebert’s battle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. In a way, Life Itself is part biography/ part tribute, examining a man who lived life to its fullest and left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape by making the art of film criticism available and palatable to the masses.

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

To distill the documentary to its most resonant moments, presents quite a challenge for me. I never claimed or even thought I knew much about the man, beyond what I saw on TV or read on his website, but the level of depth and insight I gained, from his early rearing to his professional and personal triumphs and setbacks was very engrossing and well executed.

And as we the audience move through these various stages of his life, we get to a point where we see how he ultimately impacted and influenced others. An especially poignant moment that speaks directly to this is the story shared by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who recounts in the film her first meeting Ebert as a girl outside the Academy Awards and her remembrance of the kindness bestowed upon her then and years later as she emerged as an up and coming filmmaker.

Another part of the film that I liked was how to delved into the impact of Ebert’s popularization (commercialization) of film reviews and presented the critique many of his contemporaries had with how his success (re)defined the trade, which up until then, enjoyed a solidly didactic and academic reputation.

Particularly in the latter stages of his life, Ebert really embraced the populism that the ‘interwebs’ and social media provided in terms of everyone getting their message and opinions out there. I can only speak for myself when I say if not for this, I am sure I would not have 1) the agency or 2) the desire to express myself on this or any platform.

At the time of this writing, Life Itself does not have a theatrical distributor but the cable network CNN has television distribution rights and will air on their network following its theatrical release.

Check out the film’s official website for special screening events.

Her (2013)

I honestly have so many places I can go with this review post, so pardon me in advance if it comes off as a shambolic rambling …

Simply stated, I LOVED this movie. Her is proof positive that at their best, trailers do not a movie make …


While I was intrigued by the premise based on the trailer, it did not do the film justice in presenting the amount of humor and levity that this interesting story – that of the romantic relationship between a milquetoast (Joaquin Phoenix) and his software operating system (voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson).

Our Mitty-esque hero, Theodore Twombly (Phoenix, in an understated, moving performance) lives in a near futuristic Los Angeles, where he works at a company that writes custom letters for its clientele. After enduring a recent breakup with wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he goes about his days in a very non-descript manner, that is until he purchases and installs his new, highly advanced and adaptable operating system, in the voice of Samantha (Johannson).

What starts off as give and take, with Samantha’s main directive being the managing of life, develops into something more intense and seemingly more enduring.

In the process, the film attempts to challenge our very deeply held perceptions of love and what it means to love and be loved. The emotional consequences (as many are well aware) can be euphoric and devastating, regardless of with whom (or in this case) what we form that unrelenting attachment to. It is a wonderful thought-provoking presentation that stays with you long after the credits roll and you leave the theater.

While Phoenix and Johannson are the heart of Her, there are appearances by the likes of Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde (among others).

I would never consider myself either an aficionado or follower of the films of Spike Jonze (having only seen Being John Malkovich), but this is clearly the work of a really good director. This definitely merits a revisit of his oeuvre.

Ironically as I worked on the initial draft for this piece, I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode Lonely featuring Jack Warden. In this, Warden’s character is placed on a prison desert planet, his only companion that of a female robot companion. Over time he comes to form an unbreakable attachment with the artificially intelligent being. While the robot in this case is believable, in so much as it is a physical manifestation, the idea of love and what it means is a subject of debate here as well.

There are moments you actually forget that Samantha is not a sentient being, but a machine programmed to be as close to human as possible. The film is a perfect balance of dramatic tension and levity.

I would say this was quite possibly the best film I saw last year.

Don John (2013), Written, Directed and Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt

As far as directorial debuts go, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon is quite an auspicious one.

A rather unconventional romantic comedy, Don Jon follows the romantic travails of the eponymous Jon (played by Levitt), I suppose one would classify him as a “stud,” and who balances his structured life with an unhealthy relationship with a very specific form of “online entertainment.”

All of this comes awry when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) a seductive woman who has her own perspective on love and romance and with all of her best efforts tries to find that ideal in the form of Jon. She wants her ‘happily ever after.’ For the filmgoer, these characters represent dueling sides of expectations for love, sex and relationships. Between the laughs and these somewhat divergent views there is an ambivalence that resides in the middle, replete with life’s ups and downs. This is why the film ends the way it does – “real talk” in the truest cinematic sense.

Film Title: Don Jon

Performance wise, everyone serves his or her roles quite well. JGL seems an unlikely “player,” but he acquits himself well. His leading lady, ScarJo goes back to her “Noo Yawk” roots and plays a manipulative vixen very well. In a small, but key to the plot supporting role, Julianne Moore does what she does best. Other performances of note include Brie Larson as his silent yet observant sister and Tony Danza, as the tree from whence Jon comes. Finally, as an added treat, there are a couple of cameo appearances in the film.

Film Title: Don Jon

All of this aside, are there aspects of the narrative that I wished were more fully formed? Of course – in particular, as an exercise in exploring a very paradoxical cultural fascination with female sexuality (often in its most explicit form), I am not sure the film will resonate with any but the most self-aware of individuals. Still, it is start. I think that this type of artistic refinement is a skill that will come with practice. Hopefully, JGL will continue to hone his craft and become a skillful and effective storyteller.

Film Title: Don Jon




i luv cinema Pick: Blue Caprice (2013)

Blue Caprice is director Alexandre Moors’ debut feature and tells the story of Beltway Sniper, John Allan Muhammed (portrayed by Isaiah Washington) and his protégé/accomplice, teen Lee Boyd Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond).  While the film centers on the events 2002 reign of terror, there is also a strong emphasis on the twisted ‘father/son’ bond that developed between the two men.


Moors, through his steady handling of the subject, succeeds in creating and maintaining a high level of dramatic tension while also weaving into the film archival footage from the events that terrorized the metro Washington, D.C. area in October 2002. Although we know WHAT is going to happen, the story captures its audience by telling the HOW and (possibly) WHY.

I for one was watching in anticipation for that flashpoint which could have possibly marked the point of no return for the main characters (on film and in real life, which I am guessing was one of the director’s intentions when pursuing this project).

Obviously for purposes of the narrative, some of the information and details have been slightly altered and/or condensed, but not in any manner, at least by my opinion, that takes the story in any exploitative direction. The film could have gone the route of showing in graphic detail the horrors of the shootings, but instead handles the subject in a tactful manner all without minimizing the sheer terror surrounding the incident

For my part, as the credits drew to a close,  the one thing I think the film does make abundantly clear is Muhammed using Malvo as a pawn and proxy for the murderous rampage – by falsely representing things noticeably absent Malvo’s life: a father figure and stable home life. It was a compelling and ultimately sad thing to watch unfold onscreen.

While Washington and Richmond dominate the action on screen with aplomb, Tim Blake Nelson and Joey Lauren Adams each put in solid performances as Muhammed’s army buddy and wife, with whom Muhammed and Malvo stay as Muhammed grooms Malvo to execute his plan.

Even before seeing this film, it had made my list of films of note from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Its thoughtful execution reaffirms this.

Blue Caprice is currently in select cinemas and available for rental/streaming through SundanceNow.

‘Touchy Feely’ Left Me Feeling ……

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Keeper, Safety Not Guaranteed), Touchy Feely stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais as a sibling pair that could not be any more dissimilar.


Abby (DeWitt) is a Seattle-based masseur renowned for her ability to heal her clientele through her remarkable touch. Her brother Paul (Pais) on the other hand is a dentist with a practice that is fledgling, to say the very least. He is assisted in office by his equally emotionally awkward daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), with whom he has a strange co-dependent relationship.

Everyone’s lives are turned upside down, when almost simultaneously – Abby develops a crippling aversion to human bodily contact, while Paul sees his business thrive with reports of his having the ability to heal all ailments of the mouth. As one can imagine this reversal of fortune on the professional front has reverberations on their emotional and personal lives. Abby’s ‘touch-o-phobia’ hinders her relationship with boyfriend (Scoot McNarry). Contrastly, Paul begins a  journey to discover the source of his newly gained powers, thus bringing him into the sphere of Bronwyn (Allison Janney).


While it had its funny (and emotionally resonate) moments, I should readily admit that this type of film is not necessarily my cup of tea – too high a ‘quirkiness quotient.’ Don’t get me wrong, the performances are well delivered and evoke a degree of sincerity, but in the end, I felt like in trying to be offbeat, Touchy Feely missed a beat, leaving me exiting the screening with more questions than I was happy with. For example, the B-story of Jenny (Page) seems a bit trivial and inconsequential to the overall plot mechanics in my opinion. In many ways, it feels like it was an add-on to put Page’s acting on display. This quibble also relates to a larger problem I had with the film – the pacing and editing sometimes left me WHERE I was in the story and how one moment connected to another. This did not occur frequently, but the unevenness cropped up enough to give me pause for the duration of the film.

Ultimately, Touchy Feely is a well-intentioned film but its heavy-handedness in the direction of the unconventional, make it a miss for me.


Short Term 12 Delivers on All Levels

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton took his own personal experience as a worked in a California group home as the basis for his latest project, Short Term 12. A standout at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (and based on Cretton’s 2009 Sundance short), Short Term 12 offers a personalized and harrowing insight into the lives of the staff and residents of a children’s ‘short-term facility’ in California.

brie_larson short term 12

At the film’s opening, we are introduced to Grace (Brie Larson), by way of Nate (Rami Malek), the newest staff member. Grace heads of the very young staff a staff that surprisingly appear very close in age to their charges. As the story progresses we meet other members of staff and residents of the campus, including Marcus (Keith Stanfield), Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) and Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), Grace’s coworker and boyfriend.

Often in ensemble pieces, it is hard to connect with many of the characters we encounter. Here that was not the case. I really felt that the loved was shared among all and felt a profound connection to the characters’ lives. Cretton accomplished this by not just focusing on an individual/story for an elapsed time, he gives his audience just enough information at points of the narrative that allow us, over the film’s run time, to create a complex and complete picture. It was done exceptionally well.

keith stanfield

The performances of the students in the group home, many of them with limited or non-existent previous screen credits; they leap off the screen and connect with the viewer on a raw, emotionally charged level. In his turn as the emotionally troubled, ‘about to age out of the system’ Marcus, Keith Stanfield has a standout performance.

Simply put, Short Term 12 is a moving story, well told and featuring some really good performances across the board.

Short Term 12 is currently showing in select cinemas across the country.

The Boys are Back and Headed to “The World’s End” (2013)


I cannot imagine any better place to catch at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY (more on this later) for the final installment of Edgar Wright’sCornetto,” a.k.a “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy, The World’s End.

For the uninitiated, the trilogy started in 2004 with the hilarious zombie (we don’t say the zed word!) installment, Shaun of the Dead followed a few years later by the police spoof Hot Fuzz. Headlining each of these films are Wright’s frequent partners-in-crime, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. If you are worried that you have to catch up on these films before catching this feature, DON’T; this series is a trilogy in the loosest sense – many of the key players happen to be the same but the stories are totally different and not interconnected in any way. However, that said, you would do yourself a great cinematic disservice if you chose not to catch the prior two.

Now that this is all settled, here is my summary of the action that takes place in The World’s End:

The year is 1990 and in the suburban U.K. enclave of Newton Haven, five buddies decide to celebrate the end of school by embarking on an epic pub crawl. Sadly they fall short of their quest, with the last pub on the list, The World’s End eluding them. Fast forward roughly 20 years later, and we seen the boys, now men (obviously) in their adult stations, far away from the days of reckless youth – they are responsible husbands, fathers, career men – with the exception of Gary King (played by Simon Pegg). Gary is a manchild, who never moved past those halcyon adolescent years. Despite years of estrangement, he decides to “get the band back together” to finish what they started oh so many years ago. The crew includes Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan). After convincing them to return to Newton Haven to complete the long-delayed mission, they notice that things are not quite as they remember them and soon find themselves on a mission of an entirely different sort …


At this point, the film descends (ascends) into a race against time to save humanity, really. It achieves this while making us laugh. In addition, there is theme that strikes a chord with the film’s target demo – it is a piece that underneath the surface includes some retrospective on vanished youth and lives approaching middle age, often at a pace that is a little more rapid than one wants.

My thoughts? The balance of comedy sci-fi works in a way similar to how the previous films revised and re-imagined the zombie and buddy-cop film genres respectively with the same, enjoyable result. Obviously Pegg (who again co-wrote with Wright) and Frost are the most recognizable performers and as always deliver the goods (I am especially a fan of Mr. Frost’s performances), it should be duly noted the rest of the cast, including (among others) Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan are equally effective at bringing the right amount of laughter and enjoyment to the proceedings.

The Wright-Pegg stable of comedy films (and television shows) definitely carry a certain cache with them, in this case making an end product that has a VERY loyal following who share their fan-boy devotion to many of Generation X’s cultural milestones. I say this because, as always, it may not be suited to everyone’s taste and some of the comedy MAY (just may) be lost in translation to moviegoers not familiar with some of the cultural references in the film. In my mind, this is another reason you may want to see the first two films before The World’s End. In fact, this is exactly what I did.

As part of the promotion leading up to the release of the film, cinemas nationwide were running Cornetto trilogy marathons, exhibiting the three films in a row. I tell you, I think sitting in the theater with a large group of like-minded folks was the perfect way to usher in the screening of The World’s End. Just wanted to put that out there.


At this late date, I highly doubt you will able to have this experience of seeing all three on the big screen; regardless, The World’s End is recommended viewing.