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Queen of Katwe Movie Review

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QUEEN OF KATWE: Disney, director Mira Nair, and an A-list cast of color deliver an inspiring true story out of Africa

QUEEN OF KATWE may have flown under your radar up until now, but it’s time to find out why you should see this new release. When a woman who has directed such successful indie classics as Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair, and The Namesake, makes a movie for Disney, fans of both Mouse House live action flicks and gorgeously filmed, sophisticated cinema should stand up and take notice. Director Mira Nair chose to tell a story that takes place in Uganda, the country she’s called home for over 27 years, and where she founded a film school for East Africans.  Several of the hottest actors, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars A Force Awakens) and critic darling David Oyelowo (Selma) signed on to co-star, and that should say something of their enthusiasm for the project.  Is your curiosity piqued?  It should be.

The film is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a young chess prodigy who came to the game through working with civil engineer turned chess club coach Robert Katende in Katwe, the poorest slum of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Phiona lives with her mother, widowed Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) who struggles to feed and support her family through hard physical labor.  Nine year old Phiona herself spends her days, not in school, but selling vegetables to help feed herself and her siblings. Over the next few years, Katende teaches her and other students, and she becomes one of the top chess players in the country.  As an illiterate, growing young woman, how can Phiona make a better life for herself?  How can Katende help her do so, and how will her mother Harriet find a way to embrace change and trust in the hope of a better future?

Both Nyong’o and Oyelowo are fully capable of bringing the intensity and authenticity to their roles representing inspiring real-life characters, and once again show why they are two of the top actors being hired today. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga warms to her role a bit slowly, but eventually nearly meets Oyelowo and Nyong’o as an acting equal, which is no small feat. English is her second language, and she literally had never acted before landing on set for this major feature film.

The story itself, as it is presented through the script, is build into something rather formulaic, always dipping only slightly into the darkness and despair the people in this story clearly must have suffered as they grew and risked themselves in their struggle towards a better life. On the other hand, Queen of Katwe is so beautifully filmed, shot for shot, scene for scene, it is like watching art made into action.  The audience gets to see aspects of Africa as a continent, and Uganda in specific, that show its color and beauty in full measure.  It also presents a real-life family in their experience, working trapped in poverty, but showing pride, honor, and grace.

I can’t say it reaches the level of poignancy and depth one of my favorites of the year, Dark Horse, also based on a true story about young chess champions shepherded by a passionate teacher.  It bears more than a passing resemblance to that film, which was also released in 2016, albeit by coincidence of timing.  Suffice to say, one could easily have a double feature about plucky downtrodden kids from the worst circumstances, that through chess, rise up and gain self confidence and a way out of a dark, hopeless future.

Dark Horse is independent to the degree that its budget was under three million dollars.  However, as Queen of Katwe was made by Walt Disney Studios for an estimated fifteen million, it also qualifies as having a comparatively small budget.  However, is being promoted and pushed by the studio enough that it actually has the potential to do well at the box office.  It should.  Even with its erring to the positive, it’s a inspirational story of triumph, filmed absolutely beautifully, directed by a woman, and almost exclusively featuring people of color.  We could use a few more of those coming out of Hollywood.

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Interview: QUEEN OF KATWE’S Lupita Nyong’o on self-doubt, equality, and the importance of dreams

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Any young lady looking to find inspiration on their path towards being an actor, or any job about which they feel passionate, would do well to pay close attention to the career and attitude of co-star of Disney’s upcoming film Queen of Katwe and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Queen of Katwe director Mira Nair has known about the rising star for quite some time.  Her husband and Nyong’o’s father have been friends for decades, so she was aware of the young lady from her early youth.  It wasn’t until Nyong’o was searching for places to work in film production as an undergraduate, that her father told her he knew the director.  Nyong’o subsequently worked for her as an intern, both in New York and at her film school Maisha Film Lab in Kampala.  When Nair took on the story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, recruiting screenwriter William Wheeler, she always had Lupita Nyong’o in mind to play Phiona’s mother Harriet, and the role was written for her.  When we spoke to Lupita Nyong’o she revealed her motivation for taking on the role:

“Playing a mother was very challenging and that’s the reason why I took this role. I was so surprised when I got the script that Mira was asking me to be the mother, who had her first child at the age of 15. She’s a teen mom and struggling to keep her family together, and I don’t have any children and what do I know about taking care of 4? I love that kind of challenge, something that asks me to do something completely different from the thing i’d just done. This is the movie I shot right after Star Wars.  I love how uplifting the story is and how inspiring and I was keen to play someone who sees the world entirely differently than I do. Someone who is afraid of dreams and quite suspicious of them and fearful of how they can easily lead to disappointment.”

She talked about how she got connected to Mira and started working with her:

I actually didn’t know Mira.  I met her when I was an undergrad.  My parents have been friends, my dad had gone to school in Uganda, but I never met her. It wasn’t until I was an undergrad and looking for an internship trying to figure out what I wanted to do in the film industry that I asked my dad whether he knew anyone that I could talk to, and he said “oh! a very good friend of mine is married to a filmmaker Mira Nair, have you heard of her?” and I thought, “I can’t believe that! Because i’d watched her films and I was shocked and said why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Of course I went immediately to reach out and try to get an internship with her in New York, and I did, and that’s where our relationship started and I was a post-production intern on her film The Namesake. I got her a lot of tea as she edited the film.  She had just founded the Maisha Film Lab that I then went to work in as a production coordinator.  That was ten years ago, and now I’m in her film. She’s a director that i’ve always admired and respected and i’ve been dying to work with her so when she emailed me and said “I wrote this with you in mind”, it was a dream come true.  Then to learn it’s something so homegrown in a place where she’s lived for over 27 years, a place she loves so much and a story out of Africa we don’t get to see very often especially not with this kind of platform, I mean it was a no-brainer.  I had to do it.

Lupita Nyong’o credits her parents a great deal for her success.  She spoke of their unflagging support, and the power of their guidance.

My dad used to act himself and so he used to recite Shakespeare to us. He told us stories very animatedly.  My mom made us create these dream charts for ourselves over the summer. It felt like homework then but now I really appreciate it, because she was asking us to think of our lives in the short, mid, and longterm and think what we’d want for ourselves and she had us cutting out from magazines these images and quotes that would represent everything and then she’d put them on the wall where we could see them and every day as we went to school.  It taught me to dream out loud and how to be deliberate about creating a vision for yourself. 

Nyong’o may have already won an Oscar, but she herself says that doesn’t erase the self-doubt inherent to each time she is beginning a new role:

Because i’m an actor, i’m constantly facing beginning again. It doesn’t matter how successful the one before was, this is totally different. I’m a beginner and i have to apply my craft to a new process and it’s about gaining the confidence within that new process. It always begins with self-doubt.  But what I have learned is to not let self-doubt stop me from trying to do the thing i’m trying to do.  It’s just one of the hurdles you have to jump over, and if it appears again on the horizon, you jump over it again. It’s a thing to work through rather than a thing to stop you from being able to move forward.

When asked what inspires her choices as an actor, she was clear that she based her selections on what she calls her inner compass, regardless of how far removed from her own experience the roles may be:

I always have to get back to why I am doing what I do as an actor. It’s not for the accolades, It’s for the love of the art, it’s for the love of the thing that I do, which is investigating human nature, and that means allowing myself to fail.  Because failure, like we learn in Queen of Katwe, is not the end of the road.  It’s just a stop on a path to something else. I’m just more powerful and useful when I feel passionate about the stories I tell, so if I can continue to only tell those stories, I think it’s better for everyone involved.

Recently Nyong’o had a starring role on Broadway in the critically acclaimed play Eclipsed, which was written by Danai Gurira who is both a writer and actress, starring as Michonne in The Walking Dead. The play was also directed by a woman, Liesl Tommy.  She was very eloquent about the importance of equality in gender, and working for diversity on the stage and in film:

This year has been a very female empowering year for me, I’ve worked with two amazing female directors. One of Broadway and of course  Mira Nair on this film.  On the stage show Eclipsed we were all women and it was a fully female story and it was so empowering to be able to do that work and to be able to change the nature for a season of what was going on on Broadway being the very first all-woman creative team and all black as well! It’s been an empowering year.  The world is better when we can realize the full potential of everyone in it.

To discriminate against someone on basis of gender, I just don’t understand it. I was very fortunate to be raised by a father who’s a feminist and he raised us to speak our minds and to pursue our dreams and our goals and to be productive. My father would say “it doesn’t matter if you’re a janitor, just be the best janitor there is.” Strive for greatness no matter what. That is my outlook and the way in which I choose to work with directors, both male or female. People who have the same philosophy, that your gender should not effect your productivity.

Alvin-izing BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Movie poster artist John Alvin and the Disney classic

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September 20th is the release of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Beauty and the Beast on blu-ray, as part of the 25th anniversary of the film.  There have been some great commemorations, the latest of which included a heartwarming rendition of the song Beauty and the Beast sung by Angela Lansbury, who still has that star quality at age 90. There should be, as part of the nostalgia and celebration, a inclusion of the work of John Alvin on the captivating and memorable movie poster he created for the adult movie campaign. 

John Alvin had only worked on one Disney movie before Beauty and the Beast, which was Rescuers Down Under.  His input was limited on that project, but was subsequently brought onto the new film to work with Fred Tio, who had recently moved to Disney from Warner Brothers.  John had always loved Disney and according to his wife Andrea was thrilled to be asked to help in creating a new advertising strategy for their animated films.

Disney wanted to create a poster specifically geared to the adults who might be interested in seeing the newest feature. To quote Andrea from her book “The Art of John Alvin”, “Other illustrators could do a montage of characters, but John’s ability to create an iconic image with a sense of atmosphere and mystery was unique and that is why he was selected for this project.”

It was actually Fred Tio who first coined the word “Alvin-esque” to describe the style unique to the artist that John himself called “the promise of a great experience”. Again, from the book, Tio is quoted as saying, “John always brought this magical, almost romantic quality to his work,” Tio added. “His sense of light and capturing a moment was spectacular… Not only was he a great illustrator, he was a great thinker. He was so passionate about his craft.”

About the actual work of creating the poster, here is an excerpt reprinted with Andrea Alvin’s permission:

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“There were many concept sketches done of the two main characters in various settings and poses, both by the staff at Disney and by John. John’s method of working on this aspect of a job was to do very rough thumbnails of various ideas. From that point he would do a larger sketch, around 8.5 x 11 inches, with more attention to detail and composition. He would then move on to color sketches and color comps.

John did not do too many small color comps on this film. Instead, he did several medium size paintings as color comps and at least two paintings that would be considered finishes. One was the couple dancing in front of a stained glass window featuring a rose, and the other was an image of the couple bathed in an ethereal light. The second was the image used on the one-sheet. 

The poster was done before the film was complete and the characters were not completely finalized when John started painting. That was one of the reasons to have them in somewhat of a silhouette. His technique to create the mood was to begin with a dark background and bring the subjects into the light. He applied the paint with an airbrush, building his paint in transparent layers, similar to a watercolorist. Most airbrush artists use a number of elaborate friskets or masks to protect the areas they don’t want painted at that time. However, John felt that light didn’t have hard edges, and so his painting shouldn’t really have hard edges. It was a game for him to see how few friskets he could use in a piece of finished art. He was fascinated by what he called “heavy light”—the light Steven Spielberg had used in E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That was the look he was trying to emulate in the Beauty and the Beast art.

The final piece was a hit and John was very pleased with it. The printers had some difficulty reproducing the magentas in the art, but in the end did a beautiful job. It was the beginning of a long and successful relationship with Disney feature animation.”

With all the more recent images released by companies like Mondo and the like, it’s hard to imagine a time when traditionally illustrated art was still king, and the imagery by one artist was put into widespread use to promote the film and actually influenced its success, but such is the case with John Alvin and his image for Beauty and the Beast.  We’re glad this beloved Disney blockbuster is part of his legacy, and that his poster  for it will always be an important part of the history of film. 

“Beauty and the Beast” 25th Anniversary Edition releases Sept. 20th on Blu-ray™ and DVD.

You can buy The Art of John Alvin by Andrea Alvin on Amazon HERE. You can also see all of John’s work for sale as well as an interview with the artist, HERE.

The Voice of Belle: Paige O’Hara on 25 Years of Being Belle

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This Tuesday, September 20th, the 25th anniversary edition of the classic from the new golden age of animation Beauty and the Beast is being released anew on blu-ray. Many know it won two Academy Awards, one for best song, the other for best original score, and was also the first animated feature to get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. What many don’t know is those inside Disney working on the film knew from early in the production they were creating something very special. This included the voice of Belle herself, Paige O’Hara. She has memories of a screening when the film was just coming together, when she saw for the first time they had made Belle’s eyes the exact color of her own. On behalf of Animation Scoop, I talked to her about that, and other recollections and experiences being the voice of the beloved Disney princess.

The animators transferred a lot of what they saw in the recordings of Paige performing as Belle into the film. I asked her what of her own mannerisms and quirks she saw in Belle.

“One thing is I often emote with my hands. I stretch them out, or cross them over my heart. I did that in the studio when I recorded and sand “I want adventure in this great wide somewhere”. Belle does that. Also the eyebrow raise she does looks exactly like mine. The thing is animators are actors with their pens. I think Belle is me, writer Linda Woolverton, and artists Mark Henn and James Baxter mixed together. We are all in there, for sure! The brown eyes are mine, of course. You have no idea how much fan mail I’ve gotten there’s a princess that looks like me, with brown hair and brown eyes. The first time I saw that she had brown eyes was also the first time I saw Belle actually animated and my voice coming out of her. It was the opening segment and I was actually taken aback. It was like watching a young me! She is the oldest, and they say she’s the oldest princess and in her early twenties where most of them are teenagers.”

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We talked about the shift in how Paige experiences Belle as her own life has changed.

“I was like her then and I’m like her now, but the perspective changes 25 years later. What stands out to me more. I watched it recently at the Academy and what struck me was that scene where she gives up her life for her father. My parents are gone and the father daughter relationship is a lot more poignant to me now. The whole experience is different now. I go to signing events and people will come up to me and hug me and kiss me and start crying. The reaction is still phenomenal..that this movie has such an impact on these people, and that it will be doing that long into the future even after I’m gone. I think it really holds up. A lot of movies are meant to be “of the time” like Aladdin with Robin Williams’ humor but this is more like Snow White. It’s timeless.”

paige-oharaShe spoke more about her memories of her parents and sharing the experience of being in Beauty and the Beast and Enchanted Christmas with them.

“I was raised by my stepdad and my mom, and my stepdad had cancer and would go in and out of remission, and my mom also had health problems, and so she saw the movie in Ft. Lauderdale but couldn’t come to the premiere. My stepdad did go to the premiere with my sisters and shared that with me. There was a long time when I was doing Enchanted Christmas and I was recording in Ft. Lauderdale while taking care of them. Disney hired a studio engineer in Ft. Lauderdale to help me, so that was really good. The singing was done in Vegas and LA, but a lot of the dialogue I got to do at home so I could be there for them. They gave them headsets and they’d listen.”

I asked Paige about the difference between being onstage and voice acting, how she experienced being a voice actor, and she talked about how essential, yet challenging it was for her to learn to exposing herself emotionally.

“How they directed me, because I’d never done that, I’d done voice-overs for commercials but i’d never created a character, they just said treat it as though you’re on camera. Once I grasped that, it made all the difference. Robby Benson really helped me with that, because once he was hired, we were in the same room, and he’s such a great actor that I adapted to what he was giving me as we were performing together, and it made me better. Everything shows in your voice. Your heart has got to be genuine. Your intention has got to be genuine. Even the smallest difference in inflection can change the intent. Robby told me, “You ARE her.” The directors told me the more I put Paige into the character, the more they loved Belle. To be honest with you, it was really hard to let the walls down, let my guard down at first. Once I did, although it took me a few weeks because I’d never played someone that close to myself before, it made a huge difference. In live theater, I’ve done very well hiding behind or inside a character, but Belle was different. It was a really powerful learning experience about myself.”

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When questioned further about live verses voice performance, she went on to talk about one key aspect of voice acting.

“In voice acting, you do expose yourself more and being completely real and authentic it is important. That inspires the artists and the writers in how they are going to interpret her physically. (Supervising animator for Belle) Mark Henn talked about it to me and said the little inflections I’d have would create whole new ideas for him. It’s very different than performing in person. Some people have it and some don’t, and it was luckily something that came and comes natural to me.”

It is unusual for actors performing characters in an animated film to be recorded together, as Paige and Robby were. I asked Paige if there were any improvisations as a result, between them or with any of the cast.

“My biggest regret, because Howard Ashman’s favorite song was “Human Again” that it was cut from the original movie for time. In that Human Again, segment Robbie and I pretty much acted that whole scene with her teaching him how to read and all of that, then Linda fixed it and we went back and fixed it, but the idea was ours. There were a lot of little things in there because we’d feed off each other. One example of brilliant improv is Cogsworth. I tell you, David Ogden Stiers ad-libbed so much that a lot of the funniest lines in the movie are his. Like the line, “Flowers? Chocolates? Promises you don’t intend to keep?” and “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it”…That was David. Not only is he a classically trained actor, he’s a true comedian. They think like that. Robby and I did a lot of little things. One big thing that we almost did was when he turned back into a human and she’s stroking his face. I said, “Do you think you could grow a beard?” They loved it, but ultimately they didn’t use it.”

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Beauty and the Beast had a female screenwriter in Linda Woolverton and a great protagonist in Belle. Paige talked about both the film and the lead character as the start of stronger, more independent female leads, and about Linda’s part in that.

“I think in a lot of ways Beauty and the Beast was revolutionary. It was the first Disney heroine that was really her own woman, she was looking for adventures she’d read about all the time. She was an avid read, not looking for a man. She had the guts to turn Gaston away and be very strong with him. She just paved the way for so many heroines that came after her. Of course they went to another level with Mulan. Belle was the first one, and the reaction was phenomenal. To this day. There’s one girl I’ll never forget. She said she was suicidal, that no one loved her, that she felt weird, she read all the time, she was intellectual, and made fun of, and she said she saw the movie and said it made her stop having the feeling she didn’t want to be in this world. I feel like hearing that even just once…Belle really paved the way. and Linda, who continues to write great scripts. Linda is Belle as much as I am. I have to say that because it really is her character, her personality. Linda was hands-on the whole way through the making of the movie. She, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, Don Hahn, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. They were all hands-on and popped in and out all the time.”

Belle was designed with lots of influences, but Paige loves that she can see herself in her, and that she

I remember seeing when they sent drawings over of what she was finally going to look like. I had seen a wall the artists had with all the influences of who inspired the way she was going to look. There was Liz Taylor, Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Angelina Jolie, and of course, Linda Woolverton, and then I saw my funny picture on the wall with them all. I thought, “what’s wrong with this picture?” They said, “Your face is going to be in there, too!” In the first concept drawings of the character, she looked like those beautiful starlets. She was so gorgeous and so perfect. Then they decided to make her more identifiable and quirkier. If she’s too pretty and too perfect, how can anyone relate? I think that’s one great thing about both Ariel and Belle. They are the first average, normal looking girls that people can say, “Hey! that looks like me!” Unlike Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, who I loved, but always seemed perfect to me.

Paige O’Hara, in addition to being an actress, has painted her entire life. Recently she started working creating images of official licensed art they called “Belle Paints Belle”. She talks about being around and learning from the 2D animators she got to know when the film was being made, and the honor of being asked to create art for the digital download of the 25th Anniversary release.

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“They are all such amazing artists. I mean, the patience it takes to spend an entire week drawing twenty seconds of film, which was four years in the making. That’s hand drawn animation! I love it and I miss it, and I have a great appreciation for it. I didn’t get to see them working very much, but when I was in LA I would go and hang out and watch them. One thing I learned was a lot of them use their fingers for blending skin tones. I’ve always just instinctively done that, and I got a chance to really watch how they did it. I don’t have the training these great artists have and every time I was near them, I learned so much. They are all so multifaceted. It was such an honor to be able to create a piece of art for this new release. They wanted a conceptual painting that people could use as a screensaver so it didn’t have to be exactly from the movie like I usually do. I painted the sky with the rose in it. It’s one of my favorite moments in the movie where she takes his hand and puts it around her waist before they dance. That touch. It’s called “Tale as Old as Time”. Of course!”

Speaking of that, when we were done with the interview and just chatting, I asked Paige if she and Robby Benson had ever actually waltzed the way Belle and the Beast did. She laughed.

“No! You know, maybe we should just make that happen. I’m going to see him next week in New York for the big event. We should absolutely make that happen!”

“Beauty and the Beast” 25th Anniversary Edition releases Sept. 20th on Blu-ray™ and DVD

Bridget Jones’s Baby: Delivers laughs and charm aplenty

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How often do you see a chick-flick release these days? How often do you see a promoted studio film made for 35 million these days?  Well, BRIDGET JONES’S BABY is kicking it old school in these and many other ways, and to great, often hilarious success.  We all know guys are largely going to avoid this movie in droves, which is too bad.  It’s funny, sweet, and fun, and nary a gun, explosion, or car crash in site.

12 years after the catastrophically awful BRIDGET JONES sequel BRIDGET JONES: THE AGE OF REASON, Renee Zellweger and crew, including many of her friends and certainly her Mark Darcy, Colin Firth, erase all the bad blood of the second installment, and remind filmgoers and the studio powers-that-be there’s still room for a funny, sweet, and delightful film that is not only helmed, but fronted and co-written by women over 40.  With 46 year old star Zellweger, the director of the blockbuster original BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY Sharon Maguire, and co-screenwriter and co-star Emma Thompson onboard, if there’s the remotest chance BRIDGET JONES’S BABY is worthy of support, it is incumbent upon all those who want a less ageist, and more diverse cinematic landscape to do so.

Gratefully, it’s even better than a gaggle of chicks gathering for a fun night could possibly imagine.  I brought two girlfriends who spent most of the movie laughing. Though it suffers some moments of great unbelievability, it’s truly funny, without the smut, grit, or lowbrow humor that, for better or worse, has become part of the more recent female-fronted fare. Since the pocketbook power of female moviegoers continues to prove films made for, or focusing on them might be a good idea, especially in the nearly non-existent mid-budgeted film category, BRIDGET JONES’S BABY comes at a great time.  It may prove to be a call to arms to producers and beancounters all over Hollywood.  Women have movie cash and they aren’t afraid to use it, provided a movie is funny and entertaining.

Everything about the original film seems anachronistic and out of date. At this point, is there even a “chic-lit” section at the local Barnes and Noble? Are there even any local Barnes and Noble stores to check? Fortunately, Bridget has grown with the times. The first scene proves as much, when, instead of wallowing in self-pity to the strains of All By Myself, she switches the music to House of Pain’s Jump Around, and dances in her jammies.   Attagirl, Bridge. Still silly and unabashed after all these years. That sets the tone for viewers to root for her forward movement, however beset by bad choices in need of correction. Bridget is now a successful producer with new thirty-something bestie Miranda (Sarah Solemani).  Her pals from former movies are present, but nearly MIA, with the early nights and playdate exhaustion inherent to child rearing. When Bridget goes ‘glamping’ with Miranda at a music festival, she meets dashing too-good-to-be-true billionaire Jack (Patrick Dempsey).  A near instantaneous connection leads to a one night stand, only to be quickly followed by a reminiscence of the physical kind with her ex Darcy (Colin Firth).

The ultimate 40-something baby-loving singleton fantasy ensues when she turns up pregnant with not just one supremely eligible and moneyed potential Daddy, but two. Thank goodness the film is full of laugh-out-loud moments, some of the best of which involve Emma Thompson as Bridget’s OB-GYN, or the scenes between Zellweger, Firth and Dempsey. Look too closely at the storyline, and you’ll be pummeled with practical questions and find yourself calling out convenient plot devices aplenty.  Gone is any real concern about the dangers of pregnancy over 40, missing is the level of transparency essential to the multi-parent multi-partner situation posited in this movie, as is concern about pregnancy in the workplace leading to unlawful dismissal, among many other things.  Credulity is stretched repeatedly as exampled by Bridget’s supposedly genuinely accidental appearance in Jack’s tent shortly after their meeting at the music festival, (although kudos to the set decorator and production designer for tricking it out like the tent in Raiders of the Lost Arc on acid.) Jack is way too perfect, even being generous for cinema’s sake.  Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver offered a real cad audiences could love to hate, (and the explanation of his whereabouts is one of the funniest moments in the film), but one assumes Bridget has finally moved on from her attraction to things truly bad for her.  In fact, she focuses mostly on the baby itself, regardless of the men swirling around her with coffees and flowers.

BRIDGET JONES’S BABY is really a 124 minute trip into a fantasy world, where considering reality is counterproductive.  However, those willing or wanting to suspend disbelief and enjoy watching an independent woman, however awkward, basically breeze through a 40-something pregnancy with two gorgeous, wealthy suitors in her wake, will enjoy the time spent immensely.

B

SULLY Movie Review: Precarious Landing

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SULLY, the new film directed by Clint Eastwood which stars Tom Hanks as heroic pilot Chesley Sullenberger, takes viewers through the experience of “The Miracle on the Hudson” and its aftermath, showing it as far more than just the harrowing yet successful landing of 155 passengers and crew in the frigid waters of the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009.  With its focus on the event itself and the immediate days that followed, including a review and investigation by the NTSB, SULLY encapsulates that short period of time and its effect on the pilot.  Is it a feel-good movie about an unprecedented feat of aviation skill, or is it a cautionary tale that no good deeds go unpunished? Either way, is it a movie that deserves to attract an audience?

Tom Hanks leads a great collection of actors, all of whom represent real people, and while beyond sporting Sully’s snow-colored head of hair, Hanks looks nothing like Sullenberger, he captures his self-effacing yet quietly confident personality.  He is truly the main reason anyone should go see SULLY.  He portrays the difficulty Sully had dealing with press, his own trauma from the incident, and his nagging fear he didn’t do the right thing with subtlety and grace. Laura Linney, as his wife Lorraine, does as much as she can with the screen time she’s given, although she is in peril of being pigeonholed in the long-suffering wife role. Aaron Eckhart plays co-pilot, friend, and fellow survivor Jeff Skiles straightforwardly and with sincerity.  A cavalcade of character actors you’ll recognize portray cast and crew members.

The problem is SULLY can’t decide which story to tell.  There is the one about the amazing success of keeping 155 people from dying in a horrible plane crash, and the joy that erupted around the country and world afterwards. That one would include getting to know and seeing the various experiences of not only Sully himself, but all the surviving passengers and crew, the air traffic controller involved, the first responders, and their families, and even the people of New York, who, as mentioned in the film, deserved good news relating to a low-flying airplane.  That would be more like an AIRPORT movie based on real-life.  Then there’s the story about the investigation that threatened to ruin the career of a man who had done something no one had ever done before, after an incident that had never been recorded, causing officials to search for pilot error.  That would involve more of those conducting the investigation, including the various members struggling to do their job in the face of such positive press and public celebration.  In attempting to tell both of the above, it tells neither to great satisfaction.  Sometimes telling rather than showing is done, as exampled on the several occasions when reporters actually do the task of stating things that could have been leveraged through story or character, like the statement one made about needing a good story involving an airplane in New York, since it was less than a decade after 9/11.

The film essentially vacillates between presenting Sullenberger in slice-of-life experiential fashion, as he awkwardly navigates the days following his “forced water landing”, and repeatedly showing the “miracle on the Hudson” from different vantage points, perspectives, and simulations, almost Rashomon-style. As such, the pacing becomes an issue, as does the editing and flashbacks.

It also doesn’t give any other people involved in the experience enough depth, backstory, or screen time to give their part in the proceedings emotional context for the viewer.  If screenwriter Todd Komarnicki and director Eastwood chose to show bits of story about certain passengers, or wanted to show us a bit of what Lorraine Sullenberger was going through, including how she was processed almost losing her husband and dealing with the press camped outside their house, they would have had to commit to those choices, not toss them in partly formed.  Asking co-star Laura Linney as co-star to play almost exclusively against a phone isn’t beyond her skill sets, it’s just a waste of her talent.  The way Eastwood and Komarnicki chose to represent the incident itself, first in parts, through Sully’s nightmares, then in simulations when the investigation is attempting to prove he could have safely landed at a nearby airport, then from beginning to end, with the actual experience played with the voice recording, becomes repetitious in the extreme.  The exclamation of “Birds!” was said so many times it threatened to become funny, which, if you ask anyone who survived this event, is the last thing it should be.

To be sure, there is a celebration of skill and humble heroism, as well as the survival of no less than 155 people with loved ones and lives to live on which viewers can focus. There is also the ever-impressive acting prowess of Hanks capturing spot-on the reticent real-life hero, whom we actually get so see onscreen at the end of the film, as well as the recreation of the event itself, as terrifying as it must have been, captured with impressive believability with special effects.  Editing and tonal inconsistencies notwithstanding, if those aspects sound compelling, it might be worth the price of admission.

C+

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS review: Awash in Sadness

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When a movie’s tag lines includes “love demands everything” and “let love lie”, you’ve been warned. While those words declare the film a love story, they are also code for “bring tissues”. 

When that movie stars three Oscar nominees, the idea is it will be worth it.  THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, based on the bestselling novel by M. L. Stedman, hopes to start the awards consideration a bit early and act as counter-programming for the glut of summer superhero and comedy flicks in theaters.  It is written for the screen and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who helmed acclaimed Indie bummer BLUE VALENTINE and studio bummer THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, so he knows a thing or two about bleakness on film. Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender, and Rachel Weisz are three actors also known for fearlessly approaching dark subject matter. Do they bring enough thespian star power to attract “serious” film fans in the last dog-days of summer?

It’s 1918.  Shellshocked WWI soldier Tom Shelbourne (Fassbender) takes on the solitary job of lighthouse caretaker off the coast of Australian, and for months sits alone weeping from his memories of battle.  Into this darkness a light is introduced in the form of Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to seek new joy, despite mourning the loss of her two brothers. They fall in love and marry.  At this point in the film, the audience can enjoy a brief respite between heartbreaks, a sort of light between two oceans of tears.  All too quickly we are submerged is sadness again, when Isabel unsuccessfully tries to bear children. When a small boat carrying a dead man and a baby drifts within reach of the lighthouse, they decide to keep the little girl as their own.  Tom wants to report it, but when Isabel asks “Can we just leave it a while?”, we know no ultimate good can come of where they’re headed…Sure enough, after a few years of guarded joy for the makeshift family, everything goes to pieces.  Weisz plays Hanna Roennfeldt, the woman who can put an end to their happy family life. Sadness and sacrifice, regret and recriminations, and copious tears shed with alarming frequency ensue. 

While there’s repeated heartbreak, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is not as tortuous as you might imagine… All the characters are driven by loss and loneliness and love. Though at its heart the story is simple, the characters, and their motivations are complicated. 

As such, it is imperative that many of the morally ambiguous choices the audience watches these people make be,  if not justifiable, certainly understandable. We don’t, however, get to see Isabel’s suffering or mental deterioration enough to really get why Tom makes the decisions he does later in the story.  Without imposing our own perceptions of her suffering, the way she is represented might make Isabel seem less fragile and more self-absorbed.  Indeed a number of the choices these characters make seem questionable, in the way viewers might shout at the screen for them to pull themselves together and for god’s sake make better choices!  It’s hard for a story with this level of predictability not to devolve into a sort of movie-of-the-week. If, regardless of the gorgeous, naturalistic backdrop of sea and sky, it becomes less like Oscar bait and more like a B-list BBC miniseries with an A-list cast, it is through no fault of the actors.   

Fassbender portrays Tom Shelbourne the same way he does many of his roles.  It seems he subscribes to the Ingrid Bergman school of acting. She famously told her daughter Isabella Rossellini to “keep it simple. Make a blank face, and the music and the story will fill it in.”  Up to this point in his career, his stillness and simplicity have worked as choices, so perhaps Bergman is right.  Thank goodness for the chemistry between the two stars.  Vikander Fassbender are beautiful together.  Also, she and Weisz are both authentic and believable. They raise the material beyond what it might deserve, as do perennial Australian film favorites Brian Brown and Jack Thompson, who co-star. 

As romantic tragedies go, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS fits the bill pretty well, if one is looking for such a thing, and is greatly benefitted by the actors and landscape.  Certainly the visual reference to Heathcliff of WUTHERING HEIGHTS is intentional, as exampled by a scowling Fassbender climbing hundreds of stairs to the lighthouse, the wind whipping his long-tailed overcoat up around him.  Swoon? Perhaps.  But it’s too hot for swooning without a really good reason right now. 

2 1/2 stars

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Movie Review: Capturing the Best First Date Ever

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Let’s be real here.  SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU may be a sweet story of an epic first date largely devoid of political discussion, but that date is between Barack and Michelle Obama.  Given the contentious and exhausting politics of the presidential election which Americans will be subjected to through November, few who aren’t already missing the coolest of first couples will be drawn to this indie romance.  For those who have wondered what is behind that way Michelle and Barack look at each other, and how it all started, this movie reveals much about their beginnings.  It suggests they may have been destined to be for each other what most romantic idealists hope to find for themselves. As such, for fans of the Obamas, it’s either great inspiration to keep searching for the someone who brings out their best, or a great date movie for progressives already happily coupled.

Helmed by first time director Richard Tanne, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU plays a bit like a based-on-real-life version of slice-of-life auteur director Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE.  Much like that meandering tale of a man and woman slowly getting to know each other over one day, this new release takes place on one summer day in 1989.  It follows Obama, then a magnetic young law associate (Parker Sawyers) as he attempts to woo attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), who is his advisor at their law firm. She is guarded with Obama, as she is hyper-sensitive to how her colleagues see her, a black women on the rise inside the firm.  His plan to charm and win her over involve taking her to an art exhibit, a community-building meeting of members from his Chicago neighborhood, and a screening of DO THE RIGHT THING. He shows himself to be a thoughtful, passionate, and curious person, and the two tease each other, argue, speak about their fears and goals, and just generally fall deeply in like.  Although the conversation is scripted and imagined, the events themselves were pieced together from news articles and a video of the first couple recounting the date and courtship. Even their first kiss is based on an interview with Barack Obama.

It must have been a fascinating challenge to play two of the most scrutinized public figures in the world, especially as both leads are onscreen the entire film.  If their choices fell flat, the audience would be living with them for all of the 84 minute running time.  Fortunately they are up to the task at hand. Sumpter’s Michelle Robinson is straightforward and reticent, but Sumpter (who is also the film’s producer) doesn’t try to imitate mannerisms as much as capture the mix of her elegant composure, and her analytical yet compassionate nature. Given his worldwide recognition, Obama’s portrayal by Sawyers had to have been tricky.  He not only nails it, but embodies him so well the audience will never find chinks in believability. He especially gets Obama’s skills as an orator and what seems to be his easy comfort with himself.

The best romances, the great loves, are those where two people clearly become more together.  What is most fascinating is we as the international public know just how well it turned out for them, and how truly well they went on to compliment and support each other.  It’s the sort of happy ending that makes the story of their first steps towards each other all the more compelling to watch unfold.

4 out of 5 stars

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life Review

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Playing for a week in four theaters across the country and available on blu-ray and on iTunes August 26th, FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE is a delightful and fascinating documentary about “Disney Legend” Norman, who is widely regarded as the first African-American animator, hired at Walt Disney Studios in 1956.  The tagline for this movie says “Animator. Storyman. Troublemaker.”, and whether you are one of Floyd’s many friends in the animation industry, or someone experiencing him for the first time through the documentary, there’s no question all three labels are equally true. The term “floydering” was coined in reference to this man, who continued to go to Disney every day after he retired, to draw, visit, and interact with other artists all day.  He is equal parts an easygoing, gregarious, friend-to-all, and a rabble-rouser who doesn’t suffer fools or bullying of those around him, regardless of the source.

It’s easy to find much to appreciate in the way Norman’s life is presented without too much interference by the filmmakers.  The kudos for that go to co-directors Erik Sharkey and Michael Fiore. It’s Norman himself and the people who know him best who do the narrating.  The audience is able to get a real sense of the man as the sum of his past experiences and how they have informed his current life.

The film begins with Norman’s wife Adrienne, also an artist and currently at Disney, as she describes what it’s like to go to work at Disney publishing with her retired husband only to find him hours later in the office he has adopted for his “post-retirement”.  What she jokingly calls squatting he reframes as a friendly face, visiting and giving helpful hints.  Since Norman has been working with Disney on and off as an animator and story artist since the 50s, it’s advice they should consider very carefully. He was let go and rehired repeatedly, and each time he departed, he went off to do something fascinating and noteworthy.  In the 60s, he started a production company that wound up capturing the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on film.  If you saw footage from that time, it was probably his company that filmed it.  His company was also responsible for creating the animated sequence in the opening of the famed dance show Soul Train. Even now, he’s a fixture at San Diego Comic-Con, a part of an extremely popular panel called  “Quick Draw” with his friend Sergio Aragones of Mad Magazine fame. He was also on my panel this year about diversity in the history of animation, and you can get to know him a bit here, and see why you might want to know all about his life and experiences:

As someone who knows Floyd, his family, and animator friends, it’s hard not to be biased towards the celebration of his life. In fact, when I know a filmmaker, I tend to be even more critical, just to make sure i’m not seeing through ‘rose-colored glasses’.  However, FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE has twists, surprises, and the sort of story arc that even the most objective viewer can appreciate.  These attributes are no less essential to a good documentary than to the best fictional releases, and they exist here without feeling forced or contrived.  The audience is treated to a wide variety of celebrities and artists talking about the man that is often labeled “The Forrest Gump of animation”. There is a balance of intimacy, when he, his close friends, and his family consider some of the more difficult times of his life, and humor, especially in the animated sequences by various artists that offer a nod to Norman’s own often satirical comic illustrations.

Incidentally, it’s those comic illustrations he’s been doing since the 50s that have propelled him into all sorts of new adventures.  They speak to his acerbic wit and willingness to fearlessly speak his mind, but as the best artists do,  through his art.  The most inspiring aspect of FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE is the fact that as straightforward and opinionated as he is and always has been, he has still succeeded and thrived as an artist.  One might even say those traits are some of his greatest gifts.  In this day of tiptoeing around the corporate world, and staying silent to stay safe, Floyd Norman proves there is a way to be kind, be true to yourself, and be honest, all at the same time, and live a long happy life by continuing to doing so.

A

Hell or High Water review: August Indie Excellence

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Releasing this week, and in need of fans and supporters to voice their appreciation at the box office, is the Indie buzz magnet HELL OR HIGH WATER.  Directed David Mackenzie, the director of English award winner STARRED UP, this film was originally released as COMANCHERIA, based on a script by SICARIO writer Taylor Sheridan, which topped the Hollywood script blacklist in 2012. Since another movie created from that year’s list is the award-winning WHIPLASH, it is in good company.

The story is of the Howard brothers, cavalier ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and thoughtful divorcee with two teenaged sons Toby (Chris Pine) who are systematically robbing the Texas Midland banks to stave off the foreclosure of their dead mother’s ranch.  Even with all their planning, they are unaware that a Texas Rangers, soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and the partner he mercilessly teases, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are hot on their trail, and slowly figuring out their next move.

It is the script of HELL OR HIGH WATER that makes it such an exceptional watch.  The world has seen enough from the “heist gone bad” genre to last several lifetimes, but Sheridan brings new life to this particular cat and mouse game.  He manipulates the pacing, builds character through scenes with each sets of characters, the two formerly estranged brothers and the rangers.  Also, through much of the action, Sheridan raises questions of moral ambiguity.  There isn’t any clear right or wrong with most of the characters. They are constantly sliding up and down the spectrum.  Director MacKenzie knows just how to lay on the heat, visually and emotionally, easing it into the perfect low simmer.  While there’s a great balance of intensity and humor, viewers know it’s only a matter of time before something explodes.

The chemistry between men within each twosome is essential to audiences investing completely in the story.  This caused me to consider this group of actors, what their histories brought to this movie.  What made for such connectivity? Was it acting, their personal histories, or both?

Three of the four have fascinating and storied histories of life in Hollywood as children, two with well-known fathers in the acting field.  Jeff Bridges is the son of Lloyd Bridges, who appeared in over 150 movies and starred in a number of tv series, including SEA HUNT, where both Jeff and his actor brother Beau appeared as children.  Chris Pine is also from an acting family, the son of TV actor Robert Pine, who among many other roles, co-starred in CHiPs.  HIs grandmother Anne Gwynne acted in Hollywood, and was known as one of the earliest scream queens.  Ben Foster comes by his typecasting as an intense overachiever honestly. He wrote, starred in, and directed a one-act play that won him third place in a worldwide competition when he was only 12 years old.  Gil Birmingham is the odd man out in this quartet, in terms of when he started acting.  Of Comanche heritage, he fell into the profession when he was asked to be in a Michael Jackson video while bodybuilding.  Pine and Foster have a history that helped build the foundation for playing brothers, having worked together before on Disney’s THE FINEST HOURS. Bridges and Birmingham, on the other hand, found connection onset by playing guitar together between takes.  However it is these co-stars found ways to connect, it’s clear all four approached their acting craft in HELL OR HIGH WATER with an intensity and commitment of spirit that shows in every scene.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is a great example of what happens when all the components of a film come together in cooperative fashion.  The acting, writing, and direction, along with other creatives working below the line have created one of the year’s best films, and it deserves to be seen, so see it, come Hades or hurricanes.

A