A Ballerina’s Tale: Misty Copeland’s Unlikely Tale of Success

Image courtesy of blackfilm.com

Image courtesy of blackfilm.com

Something is afoot. And it is not the Presidential debates, a recovering economy or the latest salacious Kardashian tale of nudity, broken romance, or media overexposure. Some of the things may be important, but I am talking about something else.

The thing that is afoot is truth. And more and more documentaries are putting the truth, their truth, front and center. “A Ballerina’s Tale” is one such documentary about the truth, and more accurately Misty Copeland’s truth.

Socrates extolled, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And Nelson George’s truth-telling documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale,” examines the truth behind Misty Copeland’s rise to what some arts critics deem 21st Century breakout ballerina fame.

Image courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

Image courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

We’ve all heard the stories about Copeland’s rise from abject poverty to her ascension to become the first African American principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. Most folks have seen the Misty Copeland segments on “60 Minutes,” “The View,” and countless other talk shows and media outlets, not mention her internet-breaking “Under Amour” video. A lot of people are aware that she’s toured with Prince, had photo editorials in Italian Vogue, and recently starred as “Miss Turnstiles” on Broadway in “On the Town.”

All these accomplishments are worth noting, and for a ballerina, almost unheard of, especially in this age of short sound bites and 15-minute fame celebs that disappear almost as soon as they’re discovered. Still, George’s documentary goes way beyond Misty Copeland’s cross-pollinated media proliferation.

Image courtesy of nytimes.com

Image courtesy of nytimes.com

“A Ballerina’s Tale” is primarily a story about all the hard work that goes into becoming a world-class ballerina, particularly if that ballerina is a dancer of color. “A Ballerina’s Tale” is also about all the folks, especially the women of color, that have supported Misty Copeland in her groundbreaking rise to ballet stardom.

In “A Ballerina’s Tale” Nelson George brilliantly displays the daily grind of a ballet dancer’s life. From endless rehearsals, to the grueling touring schedule, to costume fittings, to performances, and in Copeland’s case her injured tibia rehabilitation. (Nelson’s capture of Copeland’s comeback from injury performance of “The Dying Swan” was especially poignant.)

For those unfamiliar with the constant pace of a ballet dancer’s life, this documentary leaves no stone unturned and details truthfully that the short moments of glamour and on-stage accolades are the result of an unbelievable amount of grit and hard work. Add the pressure of being a dancer of color in the isolating world of classical ballet and the obstacles seem almost insurmountable.

Image courtesy of img.com

Image courtesy of img.com

Still, this pivotal work goes beyond a dancer’s struggle and hard work. Several documentaries have expertly detailed this road less traveled before. Where “A Ballerina’s Tale” shines and in many ways is unique is in its connecting tissue of a ballerina’s daily grind—in this case, Misty Copeland—and all the women of color who coalesced around her in support of her dream.

From Filmmaker and Author Susan Fales Hill (board member of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and American Ballet Theatre), and Author and Magazine Editor Harriet Cole, to ballerinas Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Victoria Rowell (ABT Studio Company), and Robin Gardenhire (ABT, Cleveland San Jose Ballet), to her manager Gilda Squire, Nelson George ingeniously demonstrates that it takes a village, and in this case some mentorship from accomplished and strong black women to assist Misty at a time in her career when she was floundering.

Image courtesy of wsj.com

Image courtesy of wsj.com

At the core of all the support and hard work is Misty Copeland who throughout the many setbacks and challenges is relentless in her quest and lights up the screen with her 40-watt smile. And, true to form, the dancing is revelatory. Isn’t all truth!!

“A Ballerina’s Tale” is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. For more information go to, aballerinastale.com.

—William S. Gooch

“Get On Up”: James Brown on the Real or a Hollywood Portrayal?

getonup53ebe071c6679.preview-620It’s been a couple of weeks since the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” opened in movie theaters across the country. But debate is still raging—from casual fans to music experts— about the ups and downs of “Get On Up.” And the range of critiques is like reading a critical tale of two cities.

In one corner there are those who wholeheartedly praise the film directed by Tate Taylor for its captivating portrayal of James Brown—the Godfather of Soul—by actor Chadwick Boseman. Those in this camp—and there are many—insist that Boseman’s performance, coupled with electrifying musical sequences and accurate depictions of Brown’s hard-driving style in business and in the studio with his musicians, compensate for, or at least balance out, the film’s problems. (It should be noted that even those who are highly critical of “Get On Up” have lauded Boseman’s performance.)

It should also be noted there is also universal acknowledgement, even among those who otherwise praise “Get On Up,” the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is problematic, chiefly the decision to bounce the film up and down Brown’s timeline.

getonup628x471The Chicago Tribune, for example, said, “But the Butterworths fracture the order, fruitfully. They’re more interested in making musical and dramatic connections across time and space—something in the ’70s triggering a childhood memory, for example—than in laying them out predictably.”

The New York Times, referred to that aspect of the film as a, “crude mash-up of past and present forces.” But, for those who have criticized “Get On Up,” the issues go far beyond this issue.

For many, the wide range of complaints included moments—like the film’s opening—where the portrayal of Brown bordered on caricature, numerous factual inaccuracies and a decision to water down certain aspects of Brown’s life. Adding to this is a suspicion among some critics that this was the result of “Get On Up” having an all-white creative team (screenplay, director, producers) including rock legend Mick Jagger.

Which group is right?


getonup1-articleLarge-v2“Get On Up” is indeed a thoroughly entertaining feature film. Boseman’s performances as Brown from age 16 to 60 are riveting, electric and, the actor literally dazzles when it comes to recreating Brown’s legendary footwork and stage dynamics. Some critics have even mentioned Boseman as a contender when awards season rolls around and that notion doesn’t sound completely ridiculous. Boseman is that good.

But the other side of the “Get On Up” conundrum is that the film itself features plenty of show business gloss with little explanation of Brown’s complicated and sometimes contradictory and confusing life. Yes, his childhood in poverty and away from his abusive and neglectful parents would certainly explain some of his actions and egomania, but the film never actually draws that connection—we’re left to make the link on our own. One can also see a link between the pragmatism of the aunt who raised him while running a whorehouse and Brown’s own pragmatic approach to the music business, but again, the film simplifies this part of the story.

getonupde3a5c487cd7a34a56e7846e90772f39_LThere’s a lot in Brown’s life that goes unexplained, from his legendary over the top taskmaster role with his band members, to his drug-fueled behavior, such as the opening scenes showing a shotgun-toting Brown confronting an employee for, um, ‘doing a number two,’ in his bathroom.

And then there are the things not shown in the movie at all. While some level of creative license is the norm with film biographies, there are major changes and omissions in the narrative in “Get On Up.” Some of these are relatively minor, such as when certain band members actually left. But other things, such as Brown’s pattern of battering his wives, abusing drugs and having run-ins with the police, are only barely hinted at in “Get on Up.”

The film also doesn’t delve into Brown’s musical legacy and how he laid the foundation for today’s hip-hop music.

The biggest transgression, critics maintain, is that “Get On Up” barely deals with Brown’s role as a revolutionary figure during the Black Power Movement. The film shows two moments where Brown’s activism came into play, but Brown’s role was far more extensive than his concert after the slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr. and recording the anthem, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

AP_get_on_up_sk_140801_16x9_992Of course, the film also doesn’t deal with the confusing complexities of Brown’s life. “Get On Up,” for example, doesn’t show that Brown refused to perform that famous concert unless he was paid up front. And it also doesn’t show that in real life, the kids chanting in “Say It Loud” were mostly white and Asian.

There’s also no mention in the film of Brown’s controversial endorsement of President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. The decision so angered the black community that there were pickets outside of his concerts, and black militant groups called for a nationwide boycott of Brown’s concerts. Brown also unabashedly supported the avowed segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, saying in interviews that Thurmond was like a grandfather to him.

Perhaps showing those realities would have required more explanation than the film had time to explore. This is, after all, a Hollywood feature film. The narrative that has been crafted, while not entirely true, is nice and tidy in a way that Brown’s real life never was. And, as most Hollywood feature films do, “Get On Up” clocks in around the average two- hour mark, a crucial necessity in the realities of feature films.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

There may yet be more of the realities of James Brown’s life to be seen in an upcoming documentary about Brown, also produced by Jagger.

But “Get On Up,” while thoroughly entertaining, never gets to the heart of who the real James Brown was.

—Karyn D. Collins



“A Hard Days Night” Hits Fifty

Image courtesy of onthisdayinfashion.com

Image courtesy of onthisdayinfashion.com

At the movies, this is the summer of the ‘60s.

The Clint Eastwood–directed version of the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” is celebrating the 60s a la Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. The first of two films about designer Yves Saint Laurent is currently playing at indie houses across the country. And now there’s the re-release of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” The film stars the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, as well as British character actor Wilfrid Brambell.

The limited re-release of “A Hard Day’s Night” from July 4-14 in almost 100 cities across the country is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the film (July 6, 1964 in England; August 11, 1964 in the US). A newly restored version of the classic 1964 black and white film that includes a surround-sound mix is now in theaters and a Blu-Ray version of “A Hard Day’s Night” has also been issued and is now in stores.


Photo still  from “A Hard Days Night”

So far, “A Hard Day’s Night” has been playing to full theaters (okay, so they’re small indie houses) like the screening I attended on the 4th of July. While a packed indie house is nothing like the rapturous reception the film received 50 years ago when fans not only packed movie theaters but stayed to watch the movie over and over again, the re-release is still generating plenty of buzz.

Why the excitement? Music historian Robert Santelli, who is executive director of the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, said it’s not just a matter of nostalgia. “A Hard Day’s Night’ is considered to be one of the greatest rock and roll movies of all time. It elevated what was then known as the rock and roll teen flicks,” Santelli said.

THE BEATLESSantelli noted that up until 1964, there had been a number of rock and roll movies made in the 1950s and early ‘60s, most notably the string of movies starring Elvis Presley and the beach-themed movies which featured rather corny rock and roll as a backdrop. “But none of those could compare to the quality and cleverness and genius of what director Richard Lester put together,” Santelli insisted. “It was a film that beautifully married music and the Beatles’ personalities and this thing called Beatlemania. And it showed Beatlemania up front and personal.”

Photo Still from "Hard Days Night"

Photo still from “A Hard Days Night”

While the movie was scripted, it was based largely on the realities of Beatlemania. The inane questions the Beatles faced and their clever retorts during press gatherings were recreated for the movie (Journalist: What do you call your hair? George: Arthur; Journalist: Are you a mod or a rocker? Ringo: I’m a mocker!). Unfortunately, a legendary real life incident in which a journalist cut off a piece of Ringo’s hair when he had his back turned, was not recreated for the film. Also recreated straight from reality was the group’s daily routine of being isolated in hotel rooms while on the road.


Photo still from “A Hard Days Night”

There is also, in hindsight, freshness to this version of the Beatles. This was the 1964 Beatles—fresh-faced, before the acid trips and the bitter bickering that would lead to the group’s breakup by 1970.

And then there were the songs. In addition to the title song—which was written in one night after the group decided they liked the line (an offhand joke made by Ringo), the hits included “Tell Me Why,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” And I Love Her,” and  “If I Fell.”

"Hard Days Night" album cover

“A Hard Days Night” album cover

“I remember sitting in the theater watching the movie when it first came out. I sat through the movie with my father and we watched it I think three times in a row,” Santelli recalled. “Now, I see other things about it and can appreciate it, the little jokes and bits. But back then it was just the Beatles talking and singing and being themselves. It was magic, pure magic.”

—Karyn D. Collins


Forest Whitaker Speaks About What Is Special in “The Butler”


Forest Whitaker in "The Butler"

Forest Whitaker in “The Butler”

Finally, it’s here. After months of buzz, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens Friday nationwide.

The film, based loosely on the life of a real White House butler who served during eight Administrations, stars an astounding list of A-listers led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. The movie was inspired by a Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood about the late Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler and maitre d’.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in "The Butler"

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in “The Butler”

In addition to the supporting cast that includes David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, singer Lenny Kravitz and model/actress Yaya DeCosta, “The Butler” also features a lengthy list of A-listers making cameo appearances including Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan), John Cusack (as President Nixon), James Marsden (President Kennedy) and Robin Williams (President Eisenhower). But the real news about “The Butler” is that the film, written by Danny Strong (“Game Change”) is about more than its all-star cast.


Oprah Winfrey in "The Butler"

Oprah Winfrey in “The Butler”

“The Butler” stars Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, whose service to seven Presidents serves as a backdrop to some of the biggest moments in American history and the impact history has on Gaines, his wife —played by Winfrey, and their sons and neighbors. Despite the setting, “The Butler” tells history form Gaines’ point of view, emphasizing his life and journey through social and personal upheaval, the most intense being his ongoing conflict with his oldest son who travels his own turbulent journey from Freedom Rider to a Black Panther.

Lee Daniels image courtesy of leedanielsentertainment.com

Lee Daniels image courtesy of leedanielsentertainment.com

“This is a love story and a story about a father and son,” said Daniels, during a post-screening interview session hosted earlier this month by the National Association of Black Journalists’ national convention in Orlando. “The White House just happened to be in the background of the story about a father and son. I think the father-son story is universal and that’s’ what really attracted me to the story.”

Whitaker said it was the focus on the butler’s real life drama that attracted him to the project. “This was a story dealing with the love between a man and his family. It had intimacy. It allowed us to see the love of this black family in a way that was very special,” he said.

Whitaker said he also was taken with the different styles of struggle waged by father and son. Though the father, to a younger generation, appeared passive and subservient, the audience sees him waging his own, quiet protest, repeatedly risking his job to ask that the black help receive the same pay as their white counterparts at the White House. The son, meanwhile, insists that he wants more than what his parents have achieved.

butlereisenhowerandbutler“I knew it was going to be very special,” Whitaker said, adding, “And I always wanted to work with Oprah, so I just accepted the blessings and the opportunity.”

While there are a number of peeks at well-known historic moments and White House gossip and legends (LBJ’s bowel issues, for example), a large part of the film is devoted to the realities of the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of Louis, Cecil’s oldest son (played by Oyelowo) who goes from Freedom Rider and lunch counter sit in protester to a Black Panther. He ultimately runs for Congress and protests South African apartheid.

Images courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Images courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Daniels said the searing realities captured in some of the 1960s protest scenes were an intense experience for the cast as they endured some of what their real life counterparts had to endure.”We were on a bus that was not air conditioned, that traveled over a bridge where lynchings took place. I yell action and I look up and see all these Klansmen and swastikas coming, the cross is burning,” Daniels said, describing the filming of a scene depicting the Freedom Riders, volunteers who rode through the Jim Crow south  to rally support for the Civil Rights movement.

“Everybody in the bus is getting scared. They’re (the actors portraying Klansmen) are shaking the bus. They’re hurling obscenities and everything,” Daniels said. “I think that in that moment I knew what those kids had gone through (in real life) because there was nobody to yell ‘cut’ for them. I knew that they were heroes on the most profound level. They were willing to die. I don’t know that I could be on that bus.”

Daniels said he hopes “The Butler” serves as a tribute and reminder of those who endured the intense struggles for equality—whether working behind the scenes like the butler or in the heat of protests and marches like his son. “This is a way for me to speak to (a younger generation) about this,” he said. “I think this will rip off the scab of an ugly sore that’s affecting all of America.”

—Karyn D. Collins



In Michael Walker’s “Price Check” Middle Class Malaise Is Turned Inside Out

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” —Henry D. Thoreau

Economic instability and the reorder of things as we know them can cause a reflection on the choices the most people feel forced to make about their lives. The consequences of those choices is the driving force behind Michael Walker’s Price Check.

Pete Cozy, played by Eric Mabius of Ugly Betty fame, has resigned himself to a humdrum middle class existence working in the pricing department of a middling supermarket chain. Though he is struggling financially, Pete Cozy has settled into middle class malaise with his wife and young son until firebrand Susan Felders (Parker Posey) is hired to re-invigorate the pedestrian supermarket with innovative strategies that will raise sales margins.  Felders identifies Cozy has the one team player that can assist her in the revamp of the food store. Though Felders’ maniacal strategies and machinations cause discord and office intrigue, her passionate enthusiasm inspires Cozy and fellow office cohorts to new levels of performance and team spirit; but, at what price?

Director/writer Michael Walker ingeniously uses the mundane world of supermarket price gouging and industry practices as a jumping off point to expand his perceptions about the trappings of a suburban lifestyle. Particularly, when that lifestyle defers aspirations and dulls existence. And though there is a fair amount of supermarket pricing lingo in Price Check, Walker has cleverly not overburdened the film with market strategy nomenclature.

What Walker does do well is his use of the Long Island supermarket setting as a background for his commentary on middle class malaise, and the twisted humor in corporate America’s frenzied obsession with price margins and bottom lines, bereft of creativity and human interaction. Walker’s naturalistic dialogue does help move the action along and gives nuance and relativity to several of the film’s characters.

As Peter Cozy, Eric Mabius brings a measured performance that initially evokes the characteristics of a  bright, creative type who has resigned himself to a quiet, unfulfilled existence. With the arrival of Susan Felders, Mabius character superbly shifts from a mild-mannered worker to an aggressive executive.

As Susan Felder, Parker Posey continues her reign as the queen of independent cinema. Her unpredictable, slightly psychotic behavior creates a fantastic juxtaposition against the banality of supermarket pricing. Crude, irreverent, crafty and wacky are all the essential ingredients that Posey’s character needs to keeps audiences poised for the next outlandish verbosity or scheme. And Posey delivers every time and more. As Walker shifts the plot toward Mabius’s character, Parker Posey expertly culls down the extremes, revealing layers of insight and resolve.

As Susan Felder’s ex-boyfriend Ernie, Cheyenne Jackson is wonderful eye candy. Unfortunately, Walker doesn’t give Jackson much more than that, which is a waste of Jackson’s talent.

Images courtesy of Sidney Falco

Though Price Check does lose a little steam in the middle, Walker’s excellent cast carries Price Check to a wonderful conclusion. With Price Check, Walker has crafted a wonderful comedic dissertation on the price of trading in dreams and aspirations for corporate viability.

Price Check stars Parker Posey, Eric Mabius, Annie Parisse, Cheyenne Jackson, and Josh Pais, and opens in select theaters on November 16.

—William S. Gooch

In Farino’s “The Oranges” Holiday Time Has Never Been More Funny

It is almost that time again. That time of the year when movie studios bank on sentimental home-for-the-holiday films that remind moviegoers that the holidays should be shared with family, even if the families are off-kilter or dysfunctional.

Jodie Foster’s 1995 Home for the Holidays examined family dysfunction seen through the prism of unfulfilled dreams and family expectations.  While The Family Stone (2005) follows the quirks and misadventures of a Connecticut family when a favorite son (Delmot Mulroney) brings home his uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) for Christmas with the intention of proposing to her during the holidays.

The Oranges is primarily in the same vein as most holiday comedy films. However, screenwriters Jay Reiss and Ian Helfer have employed some classic elements from theatre to push the plot along and cause various characters in the film to re-examine their lives.

Set in a New Jersey suburb, the Ostroff and Walling families have been neighbors and friends for several decades. The fathers (Oliver Pratt and Hugh Laurie) jog together every morning.  Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) and Nina Ostoff (Leighton Meester) have been friends since elementary school. And both families share joint holidays.

While both families live in a state of supposed suburban bliss, under the surface there is discontent and middle-class malaise.  Enter free spirited Nina who has returned home for Thanksgiving after the demise of her engagement to slacker boyfriend Ethan (Sam Rosen). Nina conjures up submerged resentment from childhood friend Vanessa and overall mixes up everything and causes chaos and upheaval with both families.

The Oranges, like other holiday films of its ilk, causes us to look at family relationship and societal veneers more closely.  But unlike The Family Stone and perhaps even Home for the Holidays, The Oranges delves deeper into the artifice of suburban bliss and our quest for purpose, happiness, and independence. Helfer and Reiss, through the character of Nina, brilliantly employs the Pan/trickster archetype, spreading chaos and disorder, which can ultimately lead to resolution and wisdom. (Consider Danny Glover’s character in To Sleep with Anger.)  “For me the power of the film lies in its illustration of how people come together because they each need something real and valuable from the other person in order to move forward.  And in the idea that sometimes the most disastrous things turn out to be exactly what we need to wake up to our lives,” details producer Leslie Urdang.

This strong ensemble cast injects humor and pathos into a film that has very well-thought out characterizations and an excellent script. Oliver Platt as the suburban corporate dad who mostly finds enjoyment in new gadgets brings his incredible comedic talent mixed with middle-class melancholy. Hugh Laurie as the confused, co-conspirator with Nina perfectly combines pensive reflection with male menopause turbulence. As the moms, Allison Janney and Catherine Keener are appropriately maternal, funny, and wildly reactive.

Leighton Meester as Nina expertly melds her character’s wanderlust tendencies with a quiet reserve. And as the narrating protagonist, Alia Shawkat appropriately mixes post-college angst and listlessness with heartfelt vulnerability.

For those moviegoers looking for a different type of comedic holiday film, The Oranges will definitely fit the bill. And true to life, no holiday get together is without its blunders and closet skeletons and The Oranges has plenty to spare. Peel back the skin and The Oranges is ripe, succulent, and surprising!!

“The Oranges” images courtesy of ATO Pictures

The Oranges stars Hugh Laurie, Leighton Meester, Alia Shawkat, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, and Adam Brody and opens in select theaters October 5, 2012.

—William S. Gooch


Linden’s “10 Years” Looks Back at High School with Humor and Regret


Though many dread the thought of attending their own high school reunion, audience and movie goers can live their high school reunion vicariously through Jamie Linden’s  10 Years, an ensemble comedy about nine friends and their high school experiences a decade later. Like most reunion films, Linden through the prism of old friends reuniting examines high school angst and clicks and those who have moved on to fulfill their aspirations and those still emotionally stuck in high school. With an all-star cast including Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, Chris Pratt, Justin Long, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Anthony Mackie, Max Minghella, and Oscar Isaac there is sure to be a character that everyone can relate to from their own high school years.

The story enfolds as Jake and all of his former high school colleagues arrive at their ten-year high school reunion. Tatum (Jake)  comes to the reunion with his fiancee  Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). Though Jake and Jess have a great relationship, Jake still holds on to feelings for his old sweetheart played by Rosario Dawson. Although Jake and  his former sweetheart have both moved on to other relationships, old feelings resurface at the reunion.

Cully (Chris Pratt), Jake’s friend, who’s married his cheerleader girlfriend from high school and has been looking forward to the reunion to apologize to all the classmates he ‘s bullied. After far too many drinks, Cully gets sloppy and  resorts to old habits of ethnic and racial slurs. Some of these scenes are the funniest scenes in the film.

Between the classmates who were most likely to succeed to the ones who would be best friends forever, 10 Years is a heart-touching comedy that most moviegoers can relate to.  Despite the large ensemble cast and subplots, Director Jamie Linden has done a great job at detailing each character in 10 Years, giving audiences a variety of characters with which they can identify.


Tatum  with his boy-next-door- looks has mastered playing Everyman characters that  pull at audiences’ heartstrings. This role is in that same vein. Rosario Dawson seen more recently in such action-packed roles in  Unstoppable, Eagle Eye and Grindhouse, in 10 Years has gone back to the more sensitive, pensive  roles of her earlier career. Playing a level headed yet flirty Jess, Dawson brings a much softer side to her personality to bring out the authenticity of her acting. While  Chris Pratt (Bride Wars and the television hit Parks and Recreation), with his character  Cully stays true to similar other comedic roles.

Audiences are sure to enjoy this 21st century spin on the 1997 hit, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Whether you just graduated or are looking to attend your own high school reunion,  10 Years will resonate with your own high school experiences.

10 Years  is released by Anchor Bay films and opens in select cities September 14, 2012.

– Cory Orlando

Schreier’s Robot & Frank Takes a New Twist on the Help

In 2011 who can forget the life-as-art performances of Olivia Spencer and Viola Davis in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a moving drama about African Americans maids’ attempt to find a semblance of justice as the work in white households in the Jim Crow South. And as The Help takes a look back at the plight of African American domestics during a tenuous and heated time in American history, Robot & Frank takes a forward approach to what domestic service could be in the near future.

Concerned that their father can no longer live by himself, Frank (Frank Langella) is paired with a humanoid robot (voice by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him with his daily needs. Frank, an aging cat burglar, initially bucks at the idea that a robot will set discipline in his household and life, but later realizes that the robot is a possible asset to his re-entry to a life of crime. Frank’s robot is programmed to not only clean his house and manage his daily existence, but to also give advice on diet, extracurricular activities and keep him happy. Frank discovers early on that his robot has no moral compass and since thievery brings great satisfaction to Frank, the robot is willing to assist Frank as long as there is no risk of bodily danger.

In this unusual buddy movie, director Jake Schreier takes an interesting look at what life could be in the very near future as computers replace human initiative and ingenuity, and also serve as companions for the sick and elderly. Schreier juxtaposes human relationships against humanoid computer relationships and ask us in our singular, self-absorbed society to examine the nuance and value of our relationships with the elderly and things of the past. He also examines what happens to senior family members as they seemingly loose value in our society and their children try to provide for their well-being, though they have their own complicated lives and live far away.

Frank Langella manages to inject a lot of humor into a film that could have been heavily weighted down with aging issues. And he has a lot of help from the excellent ensemble cast. Liv Tyler has Frank’s well-meaning humanitarian daughter (Madison) who gallops around the world documenting indigenous cultures is funny, quirky and domestically outpaced by the robot. Susan Saradon is effective as the town librarian and Frank’s love interest who must adapt to changing technology that could easily put her out of a job. And James Marsden as the exasperated son (Hunter) successfully combines sincere concern with his futile attempt to rectify his troubled relationship with his father.

Still, the true star of this film is the relationship between Langella and the robot. Langella makes aging funny, desperate and hopeful all at the same time. It aint over til it’s over for Frank, and Langella uses all the supposed negatives that come with old age to his advantage. Forgetfulness is an excuse to do what you want; low energy is an excuse for lounging around, and a bad disposition is an excuse for candor and honesty.

Images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Though Robot & Frank is a funny, charming film, it does cause us to look at our own mortality and examine our relationship with those keepers of experience and wisdom.

Robot & Frank is released by Samuel Goldwyn Films is and currently playing select theaters.

—William S. Gooch

Robert De Niro Sees and Knows All in Cortes’ Red Lights

While most recent movies about paranormal phenomena lies in documentary cinematography—think  Paranormal Activity and Chernobyl Diaries— the psychological thriller Red Lights is sure to break that trend.

Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

University professor Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) team together to debunk claims of ghost whispering, faith healing, and other psychic phenomena. The two paranormal researchers look for what they call ‘”red lights,” signs or mistakes that suggest fraudulent claims of paranormal ability.

Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Buckley becomes intrigued as Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a legendary blind psychic, comes out of a 30-year retirement. Part of Silver’s charm and draw is that his blindness seems to increase his psychic ability and box office appeal.  Determined to defraud Silver, the obsessed Buckley leaves no stone unturned as he doggedly attempts to crack a series of seemingly uncrackable codes and “red lights” that could possibly reveal Silver as the penultimate psychic fraud .

Through climatic scenes down hallway corridors and tense visual double takes, Buckley goes on the wild goose hunt of his life tracking down ways to crack Silver. Using scientific methods and procedures to try and dissolve Silver’s career, Buckley has to reexamine his own beliefs that are juxtaposed between fact-based science and the supernatural.

Though there is an intriguing plot line and unexpected twists in Red Lights, the weak dialogue does little to develop the characters. However, Murphy, Weaver, and De Niro find ways to push the plot along and give noteworthy performances which is a testament their artistry. Still, if De Niro and Murphy’s characters were more invested in the final scenes of the film, the climatic ending would have carried more weight.

The distraught, yet determined Buckley is a  sharp departure for Murphy, who is known for his Scarecrow role in Batman Begins (2005) and Robert Fischer in Inception (2010). Playing dark and mysterious is nothing new to De Niro—consider roles in Raging BullGodfather II, and to some extent Casino.   The Simon Silver character lives up to De Niro’s trademark  screen characterizations of borderline psychotic personas, making the character believable.  While Weaver’s background in the science fiction genre qualifies her for this type of role, director and writer Rodrigo Cortes has given her some great witty one-liners that gives insight into her personality and brings some levity to her character.

Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Along side startling video direction and a melodramatic sound mix, Red Lights lives up to its genre’s unpredictability. Writer and director Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final unveiling of the masterful puzzle that audience members won’t forget.

Red Lights opens nationwide on July 20, 2012.

–Cory Orlando

Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle Finds Another Formula for Success

Summertime is box office heaven for major film studios. Most try to capitalize on school-free kids by churning out one action film after another or animated films. And that strategy is paying off this summer. Just look at the box office receipts from The Avengers, Men in Black 3, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Snow White and the Huntsmen. The one exception this summer being Rock of Ages; but with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Mary J. Blige in the cast, how can you go wrong.

Rob Reiner has opted for a different appeal in The Magic of Belle Isle. There’s no superhero, no cgi-wonderworks. Reiner instead has opted for a very good script, great casting, and Academy Award‒winning Morgan Freeman. This simple story of redemption, imagination and community contains ingredients that use to attract significant audiences to movie theaters, and in spite of the pyrotechnical feats that satisfies the ever-thirsty palettes of summer movie goers, there is still room for this type of film.

Famous Western novel writer Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) struggles finding his passion for writing while dealing with alcoholism and a paralyzing disability. Though confined to a wheelchair, Wildhorn’s nephew (Kenan Thompson) believes there is still hope and arranges a housesitting and dog keeping job for Monte in a small lakeside community. Next door, divorced mom Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three kids attempt to lift Monte’s spirits and reconnect him with his writing muse. Of the three kids, preteen Flora (Nicolette Pierini) has the most influence on Wildhorn’s cantankerous mood and gets him to consider writing again after asking him to be her writing mentor.

Reiner has taken a post-racial approach to this film. Though Morgan is one of the few African American in the small lakeside enclave of mostly white residents, there are no racial acknowledgement or references in the film. And though this idyllic setting could promote racial tolerance, in the real world we are not quite there yet. That said; the Magic of Belle Isle is no less charming. And for a feel-good summer movie, there is lots of genuine charm and good performances.

As Monte Wildhorn, Morgan Freeman does not allow the character’s grumpiness to overwhelm the nuance and arc of his performance. His masterful craftsmanship facilitates unearthing the polarity of Wildhorn; the good and the bad; the hopeful and the defeated; the strength and the weakness. And even the burgeoning romance between Madsen and Freeman characters though dubious, Freeman’s sincerity makes the relationship almost believable.

Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen in “The Magic of Belle Isle.” Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Virginia Madsen as Charlotte brings a levity and maturity to a film that just could have been another movie about the redemptive power of a child’s imagination. Though her part could have been meatier, Madsen makes a lot out of what she’s been given.

In The Magic of Belle Isle, director Rob Reiner proves that summer movies can be entertaining without a lot of bells and whistles. Good actors are key, but plot and good direction completes the puzzle.

The Magic of Belle Isle is released by Magnolia Pictures and comes out in limited release on July 6.

—William S. Gooch

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