4/29/2014

DVD Review: Cry Danger (1951)


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A feature filmmaking Jack of All Trades, Robert Parrish first broke into the movies acting in such classics as the 1930 antiwar Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front as well as Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet romance City Lights.

Later apprenticing as an editor while working on multiple John Ford films including the definitive Great Depression era John Steinbeck dustbowl epic The Grapes of Wrath, after eventually winning an Oscar of his own in the field of editing roughly a decade later, Robert Parrish put all his varied experience on both sides of the camera to good use by launching his directorial career.


Transitioning nicely into the role, Parrish sought out crackling original scripts with memorable dialogue, helming two Film Noirs in his first year on the job, both of which had been penned by screenwriter William Bowers.

While his second film The Mob is mostly notable for marking the onscreen debut of Charles Bronson, it’s his first effort – the razor sharp, briskly paced double crossing thriller Cry Danger (which Bowers adapted from a story by Jerome Cody) that remains just as fresh and deliciously complex more than sixty years later.


Filmed in just twenty-two days on location in Los Angeles, Cry Danger which looks better than ever in this Olive Films DVD release that serves up the Film Noir Foundation funded 2010 UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration to dazzling effect, is bolstered by the sizzling one-liners delivered with the right kind of no-nonsense, devil may care dry wit of Dick Powell.

One of film history’s greatest (yet most painfully underrated) Philip Marlowes given his stellar turn in Edward Dmytryk’s gritty adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely in Murder, My Sweet, Powell commands every scene he’s in in Danger.

An ingenious after-the-fact heist picture, Cry Danger finds Powell released from prison at the start of the film, after serving five years for a crime he didn’t commit.


Eager to settle the score, identify the people who framed him and find out their reasons, Powell’s search for not only truth but also the whopping hundred thousand dollar loot that had disappeared (and been blamed on him) leads him to face some truly shocking revelations about the people he’d assumed were on his side.

Followed by the police as well as other hoods anxious to make a play for the money before he can, Powell finds himself dodging gunfire and endless lies until he at last realizes that what put him behind bars was one hell of a complicated plan rather than a simple miscarriage of justice.

Dialogue-heavy yet distinctly Noir in mood and spirit, Cry Danger makes one hell of a stylish first impression for Parrish’s technical and artistic promise as a cinematic teller of stories.

And while from a storytelling perspective, it may tip its hat a bit too soon early on as we’re able to piece together clues and catch onto danger much faster than our hard-time hardened Hitchcockian wronged man hero, fortunately Bowers and Parrish remedy this as the movie continues.


Respecting the audience enough to keep us in suspense as the stakes are raised in the fast-moving midsection, while it grows increasingly complicated eventually Danger’s secrets are revealed in an elegantly simple yet heartbreaking twist as Powell (and by extension the viewer) learns not only the whereabouts of the loot but more importantly, the person who’d been manipulating him from the start.

A forgotten Noir that’s been given new life in this fresh presentation, Cry Danger is sure to find a new audience in viewers whose favorite film genre is filled with tough guys backlit with smoldering beauties amid heavy shadows, where danger lurks just around the corner.


   

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Blu-ray Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)


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As a freewheeling celebration of the limitless potential and life-altering power of the imagination, director Ben Stiller’s remake of the classic 1947 eponymous film (adapted from the original story by James Thurber) is one of the most stunningly creative works to come out of the Hollywood studio system since Stranger Than Fiction.

Sublimely lensed by the cinematographer of The Piano (Stuart Dryburgh) with incredible special effects by Soho VFX, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which languished in development hell and passed from one helmer to the next for roughly twenty years found its ultimate storytelling team in the form of Pursuit of Happyness scripter Steve Conrad and a top-of-his-game Stiller.

Building off what he’s learned and explored onscreen in his own twenty year directorial career, Stiller crafts what is his most truly cinematic work to date.


A triumph that was lost in the over-crowded shuffle of too many Oscar-bait films filling the multiplexes alongside blockbusters raking in dough during the holiday moviegoing season, Mitty is an underrated dazzler that‘s sure to gain a larger fanbase on this gorgeous Blu-ray disc.

The type of film that plays that much better the second time around, Mitty is especially satisfying to discuss with others while dissecting just how intricately Stiller, Conrad and company managed to weave together so many seemingly disparate threads to craft such a beautiful, humanistic tapestry.


Walking a fine balance between a wholesome old fashioned approach both in the structure and characterization with some truly audacious techniques that (while risky) pay off in a big way, Stiller elevates the deceptively simple story in which he also stars.

As the titular Life Magazine photo department employee, Stiller’s head-in-the-clouds Walter Mitty finds himself actually embarking on the type of adventures he usually only dreams about, urged on by his crush on a lovely coworker (played by Kristen Wiig).


While the heroic journey storyline is often utilized, because Walter is a character who lives out elaborate fantasies in his mind – forever imagining he had the guts to say what he wants or live like he does in his dreams) Stiller uses a bold magical realism laced approach of expressionist filmmaking where for example we’re given the ability to see the things he usually only imagines come to life.

As he gradually dares himself to act as the film continues, Walter’s real life becomes far more extraordinary than his wildest daydream as evidenced by the way he sees Wiig’s face cheering him on at different points along the way including a staggering sequence wherein she sings “Ground Control to Major Tom” and it results into a big veritable leap of faith for Walter.


That leap of faith comes at a pivotal moment, taking the viewer along for the ride as we realize that the more he participates in life, the more we discover that every daydream he’s had foreshadows something that will pay off later in an unexpected way.

Paying homage to the world of mysteries with various clues that help reveal the larger truth – acknowledged aloud first by Wiig when she gives Walter (and by extension us) key wisdom learned in her mystery writing class – Mitty is a marvel.


Using creative storytelling to the absolute fullest and transcending its rigid scripted confines to make a much more layered work, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty should appeal to those who responded to the same blend of old and new, visual and written spinning of a good yarn on display in everything from Amelie to Eternal Sunshine to the Spotless Mind.

A wholly satisfying picture that marks his most inventive work thus far, with Walter Mitty Ben Stiller has done the unthinkable; he’s turned a studio remake into a big budget art movie with multigenerational, universal appeal.

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4/28/2014

Blu-ray Review: Black Nativity (2013)


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As diverse as director Kasi Lemmons’s impressive yet varied filmography has been since the actress turned filmmaker burst onto the scene with the masterful indie Eve’s Bayou (which she later followed up with the misunderstood, ambitious yet uneven Caveman’s Valentine and the terrific underrated Don Cheadle starring Talk To Me), Lemmons has always been attracted to tales of complicated family relationships.

Usually centered on a fractured dynamic between father and child (with a particular focus on father/daughter dramatics), it’s no wonder that Lemmons has stated that her favorite film is Denmark’s debut Dogme 95 dramedy feature The Celebration from director Thomas Vinterberg, in which grown children square off against their abusive patriarch.

Yet as drawn as she is to the heavy-hitting tales of domestic woe, Lemmons also has a strong appreciation for the power of music to convey what words cannot – similar to the way she uses the tools at her disposal via her cinematographer’s camera and editing eye to tell a story in a multitude of ways that require multiple senses to understand.


To this end, she confessed to NPR that the Fox Searchlight distributed Once from director John Carney is the one film she could watch a million times. And what better place to merge her love of music with the topical themes that fuel her work than Fox Searchlight, where she spent nearly six years working to get her own adaptation of poet turned playwright Langston Hughes’s holiday themed gospel pageant production Black Nativity to the big screen.

A stellar achievement due to the talent on both sides of the camera given the star-studded cast of Oscar award nominees and recipients from Forest Whitaker to Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson combined with music producer Raphael Saadiq, Black Nativity is a lovely if understated musical adaptation. As such, it does in fact owe more to the influence of Carney’s naturalistic Once than the genre razzle dazzle of recent musical theater cinematic interpretations like Dreamgirls, Chicago and Nine.

Using Langston Hughes’s own life and legacy to inspire in addition to the landmark nativity play, Lemmons sets out to honor his version of Harlem (wherein he once famously stated he’d rather be a lamppost than the governor of Georgia).


Resisting the temptation to set the film in the past, Lemmons compromises with a presentation of contemporary life that’s been heightened with both magical realism and old-fashioned wholesomeness. And even though it tackles issues from teen pregnancy to crime, Black Nativity reminds us that while times have changed, the same issues facing pervade regardless of race, class or religion.

Rather than opting to go for a straightforward adaptation of the African-American retelling of the birth of Jesus, Lemmons infuses the themes of the storyline in a new narrative as we’re introduced to Jennifer Hudson’s hardworking single mother Naima.

After being evicted and doubling up on jobs and shifts over the Christmas holiday, Naima reluctantly sends her teenage son (aptly named Langston and played by Jacob Latimore) to stay with his estranged grandparents in the form of Whitaker’s proud reverend and Bassett’s supportive wife.


Desperate to uncover the truth about his mother’s own relationship with the two who, despite being pillars of their community given their well-attended sermons at Holy Resurrection Church, have never been a part of their daughter and grandson’s life, the angry Langston finds himself in the middle of a family mystery involving his own birth.

And while admittedly you can see one key plot twist coming as inevitably Langston crosses paths with his own father (whom he has never met), Lemmons does an admirable job of layering the two interrelated plot strands together so that all of the characters cross paths in a dramatic finale wherein the secrets of the past that are still holding everyone back are finally revealed.

Less focused on divine intervention than on delving into the interpersonal relationships of the main cast and empowering her strong characters so that they can finally find peace, Lemmons has succeeded in making a film that champions the power of the human spirit and the importance of love, family and friendship in a way that’s never preachy or heavy-handed.


And by walking that fine line, she’s made a much more spiritually inclusive picture that can attract film fans of any (or indeed little) faith, where – like Vinterberg, she places people first while following her own directorial dogma by incorporating the same family-centric themes that first attracted us to Eve’s Bayou with her love of music on display in the DJ-biopic Talk to Me.

Weaving in the author’s own quotations while paying tribute to his strong sense of community pride, Kasi Lemmons’s gorgeously lensed holiday work that honors the man who taught us to “hold fast to dreams” moves fast enough for us to forgive some minor musical genre contrivances and a slightly wooden performance from Latimore.

And by hitting a chorus of sweet-sounding notes both gospel-based and its cinematic approach where we see reflections of characters in Christmas ornaments and carolers sing “Silent Night,” Black Nativity serves up a slice-of-Harlem-life according the praiseworthy gospel of Lemmons and Hughes.


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4/25/2014

DVD Review: Sleep, My Love (1948)


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Perhaps inspired by his own background as a German-born filmmaker who left his homeland to protect his Jewish wife from the clutches of the Nazis due to Adolf Hitler’s pre-World War II rise to power, one of the most frequent themes that recurs throughout Douglas Sirk’s filmography revolves around individuals who are made to feel like outcasts in their homes and/or society.

Whether they’re being persecuted by majority suburban rule in the court of public opinion in All That Heaven Allows or finding themselves stopped by a roadblock in the form of a cruel twist of fate on their path to the American dream via Magnificent Obsession, Sirk’s films are filled with tales of (predominately female) lives that have been interrupted by the actions of others.


And similar to the way that his ‘50s Written on the Wind heroine Lauren Bacall began feeling unsafe in her own home in that Oscar winning masterpiece, actress Claudette Colbert goes through a similar experience of even greater Gaslight inspired proportions in 1948’s Sleep, My Love.

A long out-of-print Sirkian melodramatic thriller based on Leo Rosten’s novel, Sleep, My Love found the director working in the genre of Film Noir (that first gave Wind star Bacall her big break) with this slight yet gorgeously shot domestic mystery.


Lensed by Hitchcock’s three-time cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine and intriguingly released only a few days after Valentine’s Day – although Sirk dismissed this decidedly anti-Valentine blend of Gaslight and Hitch’s Suspicion as a failure, there’s still enough style (if not substance) in this Mary Pickford production to seduce Sirk’s legions of fans.

After waking up on a train with a gun in her purse and no memory of how, why or when she’d left her New York City home, Colbert’s understandably traumatized housewife finds herself in one alternately confusing and terrifying situation after another.


Is she being pranked, driven to insanity or is she really going mad?

While it doesn’t take Perry Mason or her Perry Mason costar Raymond Burr to figure out that something is rotten in Denmark (or actually New York), Sirk shows his hand far too early as we’re quickly introduced to suspicious conspirators including a Gilda lookalike and a bespectacled optometrist by day turned tormentor for hire by night.

An admitted B-movie that's been lovingly released on disc by Olive Films, Sleep, My Love is nonetheless salvaged by Shadow of a Doubt cameraman Valentine’s shadow-heavy visuals and a strong cast.

Yet while it’s one of Sirk’s weaker works, in its depiction of a woman who finds herself persecuted by an unknown villain to the point that her home is no longer the peaceful, happy place she’d always known, we see an early glimpse of a subject that would obsess the filmmaker in the next phase of his impressive if sadly underappreciated career.

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Film Movement Blu-ray Review: Forgetting the Girl (2012)


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“If you’re watching this, you discovered something you shouldn’t have,” we’re told at the start of Nate Taylor’s feature film debut Forgetting the Girl, in which our eerily obsessive, eerily haunted, yet eerily normal main character Kevin Wolfe (played by Argo’s Christopher Denham) talks directly to the audience via a video camera, while explaining/narrating along with his slideshow.

Even without the filmic medium, there’s almost always a camera that serves as a barrier between us and Kevin Wolfe that he perpetually hides behind, snapping head shots in his studio of an endless parade of beautiful girls who’ve come to New York from elsewhere to become an actress, a model, a dancer, a whatever, a somebody – anybody other than whoever they currently are.

And that desire to change is why a majority of the girls don’t even give it a second thought when they decline the date that the man holding the camera inevitably asks them on... because the last thing they want to be is just someone’s girlfriend.


Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and a few lovely girls take him up on the date. Yet as we’re quick to discover, unfortunately many more of the women say yes initially only to decline later with a phone call and a flimsy excuse as their Midwestern sensibility prevents them from being cutthroat enough to say no directly to his face, even with the barrier of the camera between them.

But for every moment of heartbreak endured by the persistent cameraman, he in turn confesses that he must complete some kind of ritual (from binge-watching DVDs to going camping with his depressively suicidal Goth girl assistant Jamie) to help Wolfe go about forgetting each girl.


Having spent his lifetime trying to forget the first girl he loved that left him via the mystery drowning death of his beautiful baby sister, Kevin just can’t bear to remember all of the rejection he’s faced. Emotionally exhausted, it seems he's recently realized that he’s running out of new rituals that manage to do the job.

Needless to say, there's something quite dark lurking beneath the surface of our aptly named Wolfe. And while unfortunately the film’s DVD and Blu-ray packaging alerts you to precisely what it is before you’ve even pressed play, director Taylor does a masterful job of bringing award-winning author Peter Moore Smith’s eponymous short story (which was adapted by the scribe himself) to life.


Originally collected in the anthology collection of Best American Mystery writing for the year 2000, Taylor and Smith have kept that sense of mystery intact, resulting in a work that’s as disturbing both in its subject matter as it is in its lyrical, nearly poetic beauty that goes hand-in-hand with the world of a man who brings gorgeous images to life.

Augmenting the alternately sinister yet unquestioningly lovely look of the film is Smith’s crisp screenplay which is so pitch perfectly on display in Wolfe’s narration that it’s actually guilty of being a bit too self-consciously literary at times.

Obviously, that’s a flaw that’s easy to overlook given the artistic ambiance of the piece that nonetheless still harks back in spirit to Martin Scorsese’s quintessential New York tale of masculine alienation and loneliness, Taxi Driver.


And given the way that Wolfe goes through life far-removed from it (with that camera barrier), the film does a great job of bringing that same sense of irritable tension to cinematic life, inviting us to view events from the point-of-view of not only Wolfe but the other outsiders that populate the film including his mentally unstable assistant and his obviously twisted landlord.

While some aspects of the film are a bit confusing, particularly with regard to Wolfe's relationship and history with his grandmother that might have been clearer in the story, overall Girl is a fascinating work of experimental filmmaking.


Challenging and questioning our first impressions of the characters (as well as any prejudices we might have about them) including whether or not we’re willing to easily defy traditional protagonist-centric storytelling and see Wolfe in a wolfish light early on, Taylor and Smith go against the grain of formulaic suspense in one thought-provoking debut that’s sure to inspire ample post-film discussion.

Released onto a lush Blu-ray by Film Movement’s sister company RAM Releasing, Forgetting the Girl (which also boasts a commanding yet understated turn by the powerful Denham), is the type of narratively challenging, high caliber independent filmmaking that’s as easily, undeniably impressive as it is hard to forget.


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DVD Review: Birds of Paradise (2010)


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AKA: Free Birds 

While there’s not a whole lot about this English language dub of the Argentinean original animated 3D endeavor that’s worth recommending, the work (which was co-produced by the Oscar winning Best Foreign Filmmaker Juan Jose Campanella of The Secret in Their Eyes) does have one great twist that sets its premise apart.

A gender-flipped version of the ugly duckling storyline that typically follows a plain female who longs to be more beautiful in order to get attention from the opposite sex, this anthropomorphic reimagining of the idea centers around an average male sparrow named Jack (voiced by Drake Bell).

Tired of being snubbed by the lady-birds he covets, Jack wishes he had the type of exotic, aesthetically pleasing feathered appearance that the more superficial of his female acquaintances flock after on a regular basis.


After he flies down a chimney and lands smack dab into a pile of paint cans that shower the bird in vibrant topical hues, Jack emerges looking like he’s set to star in a Rainforest feathered production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Thrilled by his colorful looks, Jack eagerly takes advantage of his second opportunity to make a new and improved romantic first impression on the fairer sexed flockers.Willing to risk the damage that paint inhalation could have on his lung power and ability to sustain flight, Jack takes part in a great race in an effort to not only impress but get a taste of what life is like from the faux point-of-view of the beautiful, privileged and exotic fliers he envies.

Yet while he would give anything to be exotic, one of the world’s most authentically exotic and expensive birds would give anything to live the normal, free-flying life he’s been taking for granted as one of the flock.

A seven hundred thousand dollar beautiful canary that’s been sold to a selfish and cruel owner, Aurora (Ashley Tisdale) has been trapped in a cage for most of her life.


While inevitably the two opposite birds that both have a yearning for a new type of life eventually cross paths and learn some hard character lessons along the way (from themselves, each other as well as their colorful collection of sidekicks), it’s a flimsy story all around.

And despite some terrific comic relief by Ken Jeong, Jane Lynch and Jon Lovitz, Bell’s shallow, social-climbing character isn’t nearly as sympathetically likable enough as the traditional ugly duckling formulaic archetypes from which the screenplay was derived.

When you add this with a surprising abundance of gloomy overtones that add a grim timbre to the film’s second half (which unravels the tapestry they’d been attempting to weave together with the two contrasting plotlines in the beginning), it’s a safe bet that your children are going to grow restless pretty fast with this tonally uneven picture.


Bolstered by an energetic opening and vibrant animated visual style that can sadly only take it so far, this lackluster production that was timed to coincide with the theatrical release of Rio 2 as well as the home entertainment premiere of Free Birds is weaker than some of Lionsgate’s recent English language translations overseen by Mychal Simka.

While the voice work is at least much more consistent than what's on display in Simka’s latest offering Snowflake, the White Gorilla, all in all Birds of Paradise fails to live up to his surprisingly effective and vastly superior Planes tie-in Wings.

Nonetheless, you have to give Birds credit for its impressively modern revisionist take on ugly duckling tales where only female characters worry about their looks since questions and concerns about fitting in are universal in every culture, language and gender, whether human or feathered.


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4/24/2014

Movie Review: Fading Gigolo (2013)


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There’s an old saying that when it comes to filmmaking success, everything depends on who you know. And obviously John Turturro has met, worked with and befriended his fair share of very powerful people throughout his impressive career on both sides of the lens as not only one of our greatest character actors but a filmmaker in his own right as the director of four acclaimed independent films.

Yet when it came to developing what would become his fifth film Fading Gigolo, the road from idea for finished screenplay did wind up having a lot to do with who Turturro knew – although instead of a studio head or a power player, the man most responsible for getting Gigolo off the ground was none other than his own barber.


Amused by the clever concept that had first been brainstormed as a hypothetical, improvisational joke shared over lunch with a friend, Turturro’s barber later shared the story he’d been told with another filmmaker client of his in the form of Woody Allen who was so intrigued by the promising potential that he contacted Turturro out of the blue to learn more.

Helping Turturro refine the witty pitch into a viable plotline that would eventually find Allen costarring as well, Fading Gigolo began to take shape, evolving from something wholly comedic to a warmhearted, highly personal, moving dramedy that handles the provocative subject matter with the utmost sincerity and maturity.

Caught off guard when his beautiful dermatologist (Sharon Stone) asks her client Murray (Allen) if he knew anyone who would be interested in having a threesome with her and her fiercely independent friend (played by Sofia Vergara), the fast-talking retired rare bookseller decides to pimp out his best friend Fioravante (John Turturro) on the spot.


A part time florist who’s always done well with the ladies – although he’s initially hesitant to become Murray’s ho, curiosity and flattery not to mention the prospect of an impressive payday eventually win him over as Fioravante gives in, making a first “date” appointment to show up for a one-on-one trial with Stone’s even more nervous doctor.

Attempting to play the part, Fioravante shows up with a floral arrangement as if he were there for a real live date before taking the plunge.

Dancing with the lonely women in the daytime, Fioravante’s attentiveness pays off as before long, the sensitive man’s man finds himself in demand as the opportunistic Murray begins cruising yoga classes in Central Park looking for new clients.


Although at first uneasy about taking money from vulnerable women, Murray is quick to tell him isn’t nearly as bad as preying on the misery of others like a bartender since he’s building up the women’s confidence after all.

And using the same sales pitch that describes his friend’s gifts as akin to healing, Murray finds a potential customer in Avigail (Vanessa Paradis), the lonely young widow of a deceased Hasidic Rabbi whose own primal need for intimacy has been ignored for way too long.

Unfortunately the suspicious behavior of Murray arouses the suspicion of Liev Schreiber’s jealous Hasidic community officer who’s spent his entire life pining after his lovely neighbor Avigail and puts their impromptu operation in jeopardy.


Understanding that it would have been both disrespectful and entirely too farfetched to turn the devout Avigail into just another client in need of sexual release, Turturro uses compassion and class onscreen and off by handling their complicated dynamic with sophistication as the lonely mother of six weeps openly as he massages her back, admitting that she hadn’t been touched in years.

Awakening a sensual side of Avigail that we suspect had been dormant long before her husband passed away, Gigolo infuses the second, more emotionally involving half of the film with a tender exploration of how their relationship unexpectedly affects both parties. And at the film continues, it results in a humorously bittersweet yet fitting payoff that invites you to read into the charmingly ambiguous final sequence for yourself.

While it makes the most of its New York setting in some breathtakingly beautiful scenic shots of fall leaves, carousels and bookshelves – by spending so much time in the Hasidic community in addition to giving us the point-of-view of an unexpected middle aged gigolo – there’s also a unique sense of detachment to the work that makes it seem like a foreign film shot on American soil.


And although admittedly you do have to suspend your disbelief regarding the drop-dead beauties to whom Fioravante is pimped out to throughout – all in all it’s rooted in enough reality that the sweet yet sexy infusion of a bedtime fantasy story best begun with the words “Once Upon a Time” still results in a lovely cinematic surprise.

Refreshingly devoid of cynicism, while some filmmakers would’ve approached the topic with a much bleaker worldview of humanity and/or women in general to make a statement on sex and commerce, it’s evident that Turturro’s heart is in the right place from the start.

Feel-good filmmaking that springboards off its inventive premise to truly invest us in the plight of its multiple lonely outsiders, Gigolo evolves into a stylish, well-acted ensemble dramedy the likes of which Turturro would have easily gravitated to as an actor even if it had been helmed by someone else.

And much like the word-of-mouth that helped get the film made offscreen and earned Fioravante clients onscreen, Fading Gigolo is sure to attract an even bigger audience in its spring theatrical release as this delightful Gigolo offers something for everyone.




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Blu-ray Review: Cowgirls 'N Angels 2: Dakota's Summer (2014)


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Alternate Titles: Dakota’s Summer; Cowgirls ‘N Angels: Dakota’s Summer

Improving upon the same Flicka-inspired cowgirl coming-of-age formula established by the previous 2012 installment that first introduced viewers to the trick-riding Sweethearts of the Rodeo, writer/director Timothy Armstrong returns with a newfound filmmaking confidence and a much stronger character arc for this impressive straight-to-disc Fox studio sequel.

Revisiting the same themes, a few supporting characters as well as the clever family mystery plot device served up in the earlier Cowgirls which found its younger heroine running away with the rodeo while on the hunt for the father she’d never met, Dakota’s Summer takes a much more ambitious approach to its older eponymous teenager’s family tree fueled journey of self-discovery.


Having always wondered why she didn’t look more like her older, blonde sister (played by Arrow fan-favorite Emily Bett Richards) or had the natural genetic ability of her rodeo legend grandfather Austin Rose (Keith Carradine), shortly into the film, Dakota (Haley Ramm) finally learns the secret that her family has been keeping from her since birth.

Still reeling from the shock, Dakota travels to her grandfather’s ranch to process the revelation and do a little Nancy Drew-like digging in the process.

Gradually letting her guard down the more time she spends helping out with the running of a miniature horse camp that Austin hosts on his ranch for orphans and troubled tweens, Dakota soon finds an unlikely friend and kindred spirit in a young, mischievous girl named Summer (Jade Pettyjohn) whose love of horses rivals her own.

With the lesson that success has more to do with heart than biology, Dakota musters up the courage to literally and figuratively get back on the horse after stumbling in her own life as well as at the rodeo -- rejoining the Sweethearts after the life-changing summer reminds her that what she was looking for she had all along.


Handling a contemporary identifiable dilemma with realism as well as maturity, Armstrong deftly tackles difficult terrain involving self-made vs. biological families and the importance of good friends who are there to help play that role when times get tough.

Admirably avoiding the easy way out by refusing to treat certain characters like one-dimensional villains or opt for an overly sugar-coated fairy tale approach, Armstrong instead depicts all sides and points-of-view regarding the topic of adoption, therefore ensuring that there will be much for families to discuss together after the movie given his more humanistic treatment of the subject.

While obviously because the main storyline is so rich, some of the supporting characters get lost in the shuffle and a few plot points get resolved a bit too conveniently in the nick of time including a disappointingly protracted conclusion to Dakota’s ongoing rivalry with a former childhood friend turned trick-riding antagonist. Yet in the end, Dakota’s Summer is just so darn lovable in its wholesome approach that its minor flaws are easy to overlook.

Beautifully transferred to Blu-ray, the film’s visuals radiate the warmth reflected in its title as well as its script. Shot with an emphasis on the bright colors of a golden rayed sunshine, Dakota’s Summer is filled with the same feel-great key-lighting that harks back to the old-fashioned girl and her horse coming-of-age films of decades past from which the series was initially inspired.


A superior sequel that easily transcends its dated origins thanks to its intelligent handling of a more contemporary plotline, Dakota’s winning combination of heart and horses keeps the briskly paced girl power film galloping along.

Highly recommended, Dakota’s Summer is sure to become a replay-worthy favorite on your daughter’s upcoming summer vacation, thanks to the convenient inclusion of a digital high definition portable device copy of the film with the Blu-ray release that will enable you to bring Austin’s miniature horse camp with you wherever you go (no saddle required).

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