4/30/2018

Book Review: Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (2018)


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While many novelists refer to their latest works as “the book of my heart,” in the case of young adult author Kelly Loy Gilbert’s finely crafted, humanistic new effort Picture Us In the Light, that description is entirely justified.

Sensitively penned within the immediately convincing first person point-of-view of our main character, high school senior and aspiring artist Danny Cheng, the author pulls us into Picture’s picturesque world within the very first chapter.

After stumbling upon a mysterious box of his father's and going through it with gusto, Danny begins to wonder just how much his loving but secretive parents have been keeping from him.

Unable to come of age until he can come to terms with unexplained gaps and tragedies in his past, he enlists the help of his two best friends - only to discover that he can’t examine the lives of those closest to him without doing the same himself.

Balancing wry observations and deft characterizations with heavy subject matter, Loy Gilbert foreshadows big twists to come as we move further into the novel. And although it begins with a steady climb, Picture slows down just long enough to ensure that we feel as connected to the characters as they are to each other.

Now sure she’s got you, the author returns to full speed - moving like a bullet train from roughly the hundred page mark all the way through to its bittersweet but very satisfying final chapter.

Written during the tumultuous 2016 election and revised afterward, Loy Gilbert is right on YouTube when she acknowledges the vital role that stories play in this post election world where “facts don't matter,” due to fiction’s empathetic ability to introduce us to people, places, and plights we might not encounter otherwise.

Filled with so much internal and external dramatic mystery that in less gifted hands, Picture could’ve easily resulted in a messy collision of conflicts, although there are a few revelations about both the plot and our protagonist that we’re able to deduce long before he does, the author wraps things up artfully.

Dropping hints and red herrings into sentences and passages so gorgeous that I found myself making multiple notes throughout, Kelly Loy Gilbert never once lets us feel as though she’s taking a shortcut on her way to the book’s resolution.

Relatively new to twenty-first century post-Harry Potter young adult fiction, if I had not received this stunning Picture through Bookish First, I would’ve completely missed what’s since become one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year.  To put it another way, it’s a book of the heart indeed.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

4/27/2018

Film Movement Movie Review: Bye Bye Germany (2018)


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A film about storytelling and all the ways that fact and fiction have the ability to mingle together for justification, in jest, or just to help us all get by, Bye Bye Germany zeroes in on a group of German Jews at a 1946 US Displaced Persons Camp in Frankfurt.

Helping to establish its tone as halfway between darkly comedic and bittersweet, although it's based upon two novels by Michael Bergmann (which the author adapted alongside the picture’s director Sam Garbarski), Germany begins with a tongue-in-cheek Coen Brothers style disclaimer that the film “is a true story and what isn't entirely true is nevertheless correct.”


Much like the deliberate, rock-a-bye gait of the three-legged dog Motek – who seems to serve both as a motif and the first image we see – Germany's characters can't move fast enough to outrun the past.

Haunted by the horrors of the war with each step forward that they take, the film's main characters are eager to do whatever they can to get the hell out of not only the displaced persons camp but Germany in general.

And hoping to get his papers in order and save for his new life in America like his friends and neighbors, David Bermann (Run Lola Run's Moritz Bleibtreu) is stopped by US Army investigator Sara Simon (Man of Steel's Antje Traue) after she notices a number of irregularities in government documents concerning how frequently his name appears in SS files.


Joking that he was “always on time” to the concentration camp as one reason why, David quickly realizes that he can't joke his way out of this one. Determined to clear up any misconceptions that he was working against his own people as some sort of Nazi collaborator, David sits for a series of private interrogations with the attractive American official – spinning a colorful web that Sara Simon as well as the viewer aren't quite sure we can fully accept, no matter how beautifully entertaining it is.

Wildly charismatic, quick-witted, and a natural leader, while we don't want to believe the worst about Bleibtreu's David during the war, our familiarity with David after the war peddling linens to Germans along with a small group of friends he'd recruited in order to (at least) double their savings for the new world make us question his sincerity right from the start.


Relying on small time Paper Moon style cons to move as much linen as possible by telling each customer what they want to hear, soon enough David finds himself working overtime to keep his secrets hidden in order to prevent his friends from finding out about the investigation and vice versa.

David's plight becomes twice as dangerous when he gets involved in a revenge mission much riskier than just going after German citizens' wallets after he and the guys encounter a suspected SS officer hiding in plain sight.

Utilizing a powerful change of scenery to disrupt the static nature of flashback interrogations as David decides to show Sara an important piece of his past firsthand, Garbarski and Bergmann know precisely how much information to dole out to viewers and when.


One of the strongest Film Movement releases in recent memory along with In Between, this touching, surprisingly funny, and exceptionally humanistic feature is sure to appeal to fans of the Oscar winning foreign film, The Counterfeiters.

Effectively playing upon multiple emotions – sometimes numerous times within the same scene – Bye Bye Germany uses everything from clever motifs to gentle, compassionate humor to break through its moments of tragedy.

Whether Germany moves back or forth to make a verbal point in jest or a symbolic one just to get by, Garbarski’s thesis on the important role that stories play in our lives is more than justified.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

4/24/2018

Blu-ray Review: Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company to revere the text because after all, "the play's the thing," Ben Kingsley might not be much of an improviser but the man can do accents better than almost anyone. And thankfully for Backstabbing for Beginners, Kingsley (and his delicious Greek accent) manages to distract us from what is essentially a paint-by-numbers political corruption flick that could've only benefited from creative improvisation or outside-the-box thinking by its screenwriters.

Working off of government whistleblower Michael Soussan's explosive memoir of the same name, the American filmmaking debut of acclaimed Danish helmer Per Fly might claim to be based on a true story but in true Hollywood fashion, Backstabbing for Beginners is merely inspired by real events.

Seemingly bored by the material, Divergent star Theo James sleepwalks through his role as twenty-four year old UN diplomat, Michael Sullivan.

On his fourth try applying to follow in his late father's footsteps and serve his country, Michael is appointed the Special Assistant to Kingsley's Undersecretary General. In charge of feeding and providing medicine for a nation of twenty million Iraqi people, Kingsley's charismatic yet enigmatic Pasha runs the Oil for Food program with a questionable set of rules and justifications all his own.

The largest humanitarian program in UN history, the Oil for Food program was also a hotbed of corruption. And before he's long in his post, the CIA warns Michael about the kickbacks between leaders as well as the mysterious death of his predecessor in a scene reminiscent of The Firm.


Using standard genre tactics like cardboard character types we're not sure our lead can trust, we're quickly introduced to the film's obligatory potential love interest, Nashim (nicely played by actress Bel├žim Bilgin). A beautiful political activist with inscrutable motives, Nashim opens Michael's eyes to the bribery and fraud all around him.

Unfortunately there's zero chemistry between Bilgin and James or really anyone and James. Filling in for Hunger Games actor Josh Hutcherson after he pulled out due to valid concerns for location safety – considering that Fly was planning to shoot in Jordan and therefore had no locations planned for its eventual substitute Morocco – James seems like he'd rather be anywhere than here.

Although Backstabbing manages to pick up momentum for its relatively exciting third act, the bulk of picture doesn't offer conspiracy thriller fans much they haven't seen before. Unsure whether it wants to be a talky cautionary tale about governmental and corporate corruption or an ethical thriller with plenty of action and intrigue, it settles on very little of either (despite Fly's intentions as described in a behind-the-scenes Blu-ray extra).

Released straight to disc and digital, ultimately the whole production feels slapdash and routine. An uneven effort from Fly and co-scripter Daniel Pyne, Pyne has had much more success in previous genre collaborations from the Tom Clancy adaptation of The Sum of All Fears to The Manchurian Candidate remake, both of which fare much better than this one.

And though it might work on the level of a slightly above average made-for-cable movie, as a feature in its own right, not even Kingsley's masterfully accented and frequently flippant use of the F-word is enough to recommend Beginners.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

4/23/2018

TV on DVD Review: Disney's Zombies (2018)



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AKA: Disney Zombies; Disney Z-O-M-B-I-E-S

A zombified tale as old as time made trendy for today's junior Walking Dead audiences, the Valentine's week debut of Disney's Zombies marked a gutsy programming decision for a network well-known for its success updating the House of Mouse's popular 1960s bright, beachy, musical romcom formula for youthful twenty-first century audiences.

Based upon Zombies and Cheerleaders, an unaired 2012 Disney Channel pilot from screenwriters David Light and Joseph Raso, the 2018 feature length iteration brought back the two series creators, granting them the chance to infuse their clever concept with an even more contemporary twist.


Taking the idea of a wrong side of the tracks romance to bold new heights, Disney's Zombies opens with a vibrant animated prologue which brings us up to speed. Fifty years ago a power company accident with lime soda whipped up a contaminated haze potent enough to turn some of the residents of the formerly idyllic Seabrook into zombies. Fearing for their lives, those unaffected by the contaminant decided to build a Cold War, Berlin style wall to keep the two groups apart.

Fortunately, with their hunger for brains soothed by electro-pulses delivered throughout the day from a smartwatch dubbed a Z-band, the zombie students of Zombietown (including our charming main character Zed, played by Milo Manheim) are excited to follow through on a recent city council decision to allow zombies to attend school alongside the humans of Seabrook.


When his dream to play for Seabrook High School's football team is dashed by a fearful principal who vows to keep the students separated by segregating the zombies to a dingy basement, Zed decides to break free – thinking if people just met him (as well as his friends) – they would surely see there's little difference between them after all.

Although his optimism is temporarily crushed by a school-wide panic when a student spots Zed and sets off the zombie version of a fire alarm, he gets a second chance at a first impression when he meets a beautiful human in the form of aspiring cheerleader and fellow freshman, Addison (Meg Donnelly).

Taking shelter in the dark, the two engage in friendly banter before they even catch sight of one another (and despite her catching his eye earlier in the film). Yet while Addison's initial defensive response was to punch the tall, cute, green haired zombie on sight as soon as the lights came on, once she comes to her senses, she's just as fast with an apology, realizing that perhaps zombies aren't the horrible people her parents, cousin, and others believe them to be.


Particularly empathetic due to a genetic challenge of her own (which was revealed in an effective Ferris Bueller style introduction that broke the fourth wall in order to endear the characters to the viewer while also make us realize how right they are for one another), although all Addison wants is to be normal, she understands more than most how unfair it is to judge others just for being different.

Though it's not your average tween spin on Beauty and the Beast, you don't have to be a Z-band scientist to see where Disney's Zombies is going. And while it's safe to say that younger audiences are sure to enjoy the TV movie, some of the swing-for-the-fences performances and shout-tastic line delivery might drive away those old enough for iZombie or Disney’s big sister channel, Free Form.

Helmed by longtime Disney Channel veteran Paul Hoen (director of past original movie hits including The Mistle-Tones, Camp Rock 2, and Cheetah Girls: One World) and choreographed by Christopher Scott and Steven Vincent, it’s well-worth putting up with a few cartoonish moments to relish in some of the work's mind-bogglingly impressive song-and-dance sequences.


With echoes of everything from West Side Story to Bring It On and Michael Jackson’s Thriller to the Step Up series all blended together, it’s far more daring in its musical moments than it should've been from a storytelling perspective – missing ample opportunities for mild scares and stronger character development in order to push its topical themes even further.

And although it touches on present day allegory – namely the idea of a wall to keep out a population the “perfectly planned" community of Seabrook finds undesirable – and boldly begins to weave some real world applications into its clever plotline, unfortunately the zombiefied premise becomes increasingly Disneyfied as the movie continues. That isn't to diminish what Light and Raso did, however, as you do have to give them credit for even referencing these ideas at all in what most would consider just a light entertainment.


Given its impressive production design, which teaches film literacy by providing both zombies and human sets, costumes, etc with a specific and strict color palette right from the start before eventually letting the shades run together, it's an outstanding example of true creativity and proof why you can't simply write off these network titles as generic kiddie fare. And in addition to Disney's trademark motion picture level dance sequences, Disney's Zombies boasts a few surprisingly effective songs that surely helped attract nearly three million viewers in its February 16 debut.

Filling the DVD with audition footage, bloopers, deleted scenes, and a few fun zombified extras including a sheet of glow-in-the-dark tattoos, while this musical geek was hoping for more behind-the-scenes extras relating to the film’s audacious themes and choreography, it’ll definitely delight the young zombie fans in your life.

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Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

4/19/2018

Blu-ray Review: Shakespeare Wallah (1965)


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Although initially intended to serve as a metaphor for the disappearance of western (or more specifically) British culture from India in the mid twentieth century, 1965's understated Merchant Ivory offering Shakespeare Wallah has become even more thematically significant today on a global scale, considering the rate at which the arts are vanishing more than fifty years later in the twenty-first.


Of course, that's not to say that the work itself is overly heavy. Created at the intersection of fact and fiction, this lush yet free flowing collision of art and life was born when the diaries of traveling theatre troupe head Geoffrey Kendal provided James Ivory with the authentic perspective that he and co-writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala needed to get Ivory's idea for an story about Shakespearean actors in India off and running.

The second Merchant Ivory production after The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah was also the second of nine works to star their Householder lead, popular Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor. In an against-type role as one third of the film's love triangle Kapoor's local Indian man Sanju finds himself caught between the guileless and naturally gifted, Indian born British stage actress Lizzie Buckingham (played by Kapoor's real life sister-in-law Felicity Kendal) and Madhur Jaffrey's glamorous, vain, and self-involved rising Bollywood star, Manjula.


A crowd favorite, for her turn Jaffrey garnered a well-deserved Best Actress award from the Berlin Film Festival. And further foreshadowing Merchant Ivory's future strength in attracting marvelous talent, as the daughter of director James Ivory's offscreen turned onscreen source Geoffrey Kendal (who stars in the picture alongside his wife, daughters, and son-in-law), Felicity Kendal does a marvelous job serving as the production's Shakespearean muse.

While unfortunately her parents were unhappy with the metaphorical direction the film took because it was in stark contrast to their experiences traveling through India in the late 1940s, teenage actress Felicity Kendal was better able to differentiate between the offscreen reality of their memories and the onscreen drama of the film, given her largely secondhand knowledge of the events that had occurred nearly twenty years earlier.


Keeping things light and playful as much with a look as she does with the film's subtle – at times perfunctory – dialogue, which builds in waves for the moments it reaches a dramatic fever pitch, Kendal gives a performance that's doubly impressive when you consider both her status as a newcomer as well as someone juggling such complex family loyalty dynamics on both sides of the lens.

Given a budget low enough to necessitate that the film be shot in black-and-white, Wallah wound up benefiting from what most would consider a financial misfortune. Not only did the lack of funds inspire additional creativity but it also ensured that the behind-the-scenes movie magic used to generate some of the film’s most sumptuous sequences (such as the bright yellow smoke bombs needed to produce scenic romantic mist) would stay marvelously hidden from view.


Paying off beautifully, in this exquisite 2k digital restoration of Wallah made from the George Eastman Museum archive’s 35mm composite fine grain master, our senses are dazzled from start to finish. And while I’m obviously glad that the yellow smoke was kept out of sight, as a movie geek nearly blind from years of subtitle/closed captioning overload, I do wish some of the yellow color had stuck around to be used in place Wallah's small white font. All too frequently the words vanish into the white background similar to the way that theater audiences vanished from the Buckingham's performances in favor of Bollywood movies throughout the course of the film.

Nonetheless, from its instantly charming opening credit sequence to Satyajit Ray's affecting score, the film – which amazingly failed to find an American distributor in its initial release – went on to set the stage for the dozens of Merchant Ivory productions that would follow. And devotees of their movies are sure to appreciate the fact this new high definition restoration has arrived on disc just after James Ivory took home his first screenwriting Oscar for Call Me By Your Name after a lifetime of marvelous work.


Offering arthouse fans much in which to delight, the Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray includes two informative essays as well as a handful of special features salvaged from the title's earlier Criterion Collection release, which gives you the opportunity to hear the filmmakers breakdown their work in every stage.

Unlike other Shakespearean referential titles (including the lovely '98 Oscar winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love as well as any number of terrific adaptations), Shakespeare Wallah does much more than romantically celebrate Bard. Thanks to the film's stellar cast and crew as well as its use of art and cultural metaphor in building its own narrative through-line steeped in authenticity, Merchant Ivory's Wallah has grown that much more topical with each passing year.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

4/09/2018

Blu-ray Review: Braven (2018)

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Produced by and starring the charismatic Jason Momoa in a tailor made role that plays directly to his strengths, this solid, above average direct-to-disc and digital B-movie variation of Cliffhanger marks the feature filmmaking debut of veteran stuntman and coordinator turned TV helmer, Lin Oeding.

Opening with some stunning wintry shots of the pacific northwest care of cinematographer and co-producer Brian Andrew Mendoza, it isn't too long before Braven's color palette changes from snow white to blood red when the family cabin of Momoa's titular logger Joe Braven is descended upon by heroin smugglers, led by the loose cannon Kassen (well played by Justified and Raising Hope actor Garret Dillahunt).


Making the most of what he has with which to work, Oeding and his stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo execute some truly inventive and – in at least one instance involving a bear trap – entertainingly convoluted fight sequences as Joe and his mentally declining yet still badass father, Linden (Don't Breathe's Stephen Lang) try to outwit and out man Dillahunt's band of hired guns.

Straining incredulity at times – albeit right in line with the genre – one way that Braven sets itself apart is by giving us an under-utilized yet nonetheless refreshing female heroine in the form of Stephanie (Teen Wolf star Jill Wagner), Joe’s bow-and-arrow wielding wife who is so tough that although she initially heads up to the cabin to retrieve her young daughter and backup Joe, by the time the police reach the shootout, they actually follow her lead through the snowy woods.


Okay, okay, so while the rational side of me gets that it was a tiny logistical error to place the armed authorities behind a woman and child, it’s still a fun little girl power flavored gaffe all the same.

A predictable yet impressively well made actioner ideally suited for a Saturday evening double feature, Braven gets around the shortcomings of its familiar storyline thanks to a talented cast and exceptional crew, led by Momoa and Oeding.

Bolstered by its demo reel worthy professional polish and creative action choreography, although Braven doesn't break the mold of similar late ‘80s/early ‘90s fare, for its roughly ninety minute running time\ it holds our interest with the same ease that Momoa holds an axe.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.