‘XX’ review: New horror anthology plays fast but does the genre proud

Image of a scene from the horror anthology film XX.

A scene from “The Box”, the first short in the new horror anthology “XX.” PHOTO CREDIT: Magnet Releasing

“XX” not only features women behind the cameras(and keyboards, pens, or whatever other writing tool), but each of the four short films that comprises the anthology features a strong female presence in the lead role. Scanning through the credits, it becomes evident that there were several female crew members involved in at least a few of the films as well. And to tie it all together, Sofia Carrillo created animated sequences for the anthology opening and interludes between the different shorts. Each of the films goes down its own uniquely macabre route, making “XX” a lighting-fast, but satisfying, watch.

“The Box” uses a child’s precociousness during the holiday season as a catalyst for it cerebral madness. With Christmas gifts on the brain, a boy asks a man on the subway about a fancy gift box he’s holding.  His mother urges him towards decorum, but the man happily plays along.  After peering inside, the boy’s demeanor slowly transitions from happiness to fear, and then to stoic indifference. The effect of the package contents slowly starts affecting his daily routine, and after he shares the secret of what he saw with his sister and his father, they start exhibiting the same symptoms.  This leaves his mother desperate to unravel the mystery. Writer-director Jovanka Vuckovic’s film is based on a story by Jack Ketchum.

“The Birthday Party” is as much a dark comedy as it is a horror short, a fitting description since the director and co-writer, Annie Clark, admits that horror films scare her. Best known for her music(she records under the name St. Vincent), the short film marks her directorial debut. Melanie Lynskey(“Up in the Air”) plays a woman starting her day on the eve of her daughter’s party. She brings coffee to her husband, only to find him unresponsive at the desk in his study. Well, he’s more than unresponsive – he’s dead. Determined not to let this particular predicament ruin the birthday party, she goes to lengths to cover up the proverbial elephant in the room.

“Don’t Fall” features a quartet of twenty-somethings camping out in the desert. When they discover pictographs from Native American settlers while hiking, they realize they might be trespassing on sacred ground. The uneasy feelings soon prove warranted when one of the women wakes up in the middle of the night, feeling not quite herself. Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin(who also co-wrote “The Birthday Party”) draws inspiration from the creature feature, using shadows to effectively tease looks at who – or what – is haunting these campers.  These glances are just enough to induce chills, making “Don’t Fall” one of the stronger efforts in this collection.

“Her Only Living Son” revolves around another age-related milestone. A woman is both reluctant and eager to celebrate her son’s eighteenth birthday. But when he starts to exhibit strange and violent behavior, warnings from the past come back to haunt her. Written and directed by Karyn Kusama(“Jennifer’s Body”, “The Invitation”), “Her Only Living Son” explores themes similar to “Rosemary’s Baby” – if Rosemary’s baby was coming-of-age.

In a time of digestible streaming media, “XX” easily finds its place on the menu. Even with the brief interludes between the shorts, the runtime is only about 75 minutes once the credits start to roll. It also blends horror tones and themes quite well; there is a little something for everyone here, including a splash of blood and gore. Carrillo’s stop-motion animation between films is a welcome treat also – it lives in a world of a child’s nightmare, where the dollhouse furniture comes to life and possesses the dolls(and whatever else it desires). “XX” proves that the best genre film isn’t always going to be found at the local multiplex. For the best horror release out right now, one just has to look towards their local independent movie theater, or their On Demand platform of choice.

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‘The Salesman(2016)’ review: Asghar Farhadi crafts another complex character drama

Image of a scene from the movie The Salesman

Emad(Shahab Hosseini) looks on in a scene from “The Salesman.” PHOTO CREDIT: Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi uses his characters like no one else. His screenplays are often constructed on one mere occurrence, one action that could be considered almost seemingly random. He then relies on his characters to take the story the rest of the way, letting their reactive emotions run their course and drive them to action.  This one seemingly inconsequential moment quickly becomes a catalyst for the entire rest of the film.

This structure brought him Oscar gold in 2012(for “A Separation”).  His intermediate film, 2013’s “The Past”, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.  Now, he is once again nominated for an Academy Award for his latest film, “The Salesman.”  And when it comes to his unique brand of character focus, his latest project is no exception.  It also feels reminiscent of the work of Michael Haneke: a thinking man’s(or woman’s) picture, but perhaps with less bursts of violence.

“The Salesman” focuses on Emad(Shahab Hosseini) and Rana(Taraneh Alidoosti), a couple who share stage time as the husband and wife in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. However, the film’s first scene is at their home.  Shouts punctuate the opening, as they are forced to abandon their apartment building. It seems the structure might collapse, and the camera focuses on a pair of windows right before they start to crackle, the glass splintering away. Needing a place to stay, a fellow cast member offers them a space in the building he manages. He lets them occupy the apartment for free until they can find a permanent residence.

There is only one potential hiccup: the former tenant has left a whole room of belongings behind, and keeps making excuses as to why she’s delaying retrieving her stuff. Fed up, the manager unlocks the bedroom door, and Rana and Emad move most of the furniture out of the room, but leave her clothes and some of her other personal effects as they are. The couple also meet some of their new neighbors, and seem to be settling in quite nicely, but the peace does not last.

The brief synopsis of “The Salesman” on IMDB does not do the film justice, as it merely states the couple’s relationship starts to turn sour during their time performing the play. That isn’t quite the whole story, but this is one setup that deserves to be kept under wraps before seeing the film. Since Rana and Emad are suddenly occupying this apartment, a case of mistaken identity befalls them, and their relationship starts to strain in the aftermath of that event.  Just check out the symbolic imagery in the film still above:  the crack in the window representative of the cracks in their foundation as a couple.  The former tenant’s personal effects also become a symbol, as her stuff lingering behind represents the presence that won’t leave, and ultimately had a part in the mistaken identity.

The film’s use of the ongoing Death of a Salesman is apt, as Rana and Emad start to embody the tired weariness and poor communication of their stage roles in their real lives.  By the time the credits start to role, the couple barely know themselves any longer.  The final shots of “The Salesman” require a little bit of interpretation, but the viewer eventually realizes they fit the theme perfectly.  The two see more recognition in their on-stage roles than they do in their real lives when all is said and done.

If there is a single word to best describe “The Salesman”, it would probably be ‘cerebral.’  Human change doesn’t happen overnight, and Farhadi doesn’t rush things, letting the characters set the slow-burn pace of their own dysfunction.  This requires patience on behalf of the viewer, and even the payoff isn’t instant gratification.  The viewer is going to have to mull this one over for awhile, letting their interpretations and opinion develop organically.  Anyone willing to trust Farhadi and follow him down the rabbit hole will be rewarded with a thought-provoking and discussion worthy experience.  There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t dive right in.

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‘Stray Bullets’ review: Indie crime thriller winds up firing blindly

Image of a scene from the Screen Media Films release Stray Bullets.

Three criminals on the run get more than they bargained for in the new film “Stray Bullets.” PHOTO CREDIT: Glass Eye Pix

“Stray Bullets” is pure indie filmmaking. The finished work is a testament to multi-hyphenate Jack Fessenden’s keen eye and technique. Fessenden not only wrote, directed and edited the film, but he also stars as Connor, classmate and confidant to Ash. It is also worth noting that he is only sixteen years old, or was at the time he made “Stray Bullets.” But while many an independent feature is built on the solid foundation of a would-be coveted screenplay, it is the writing that ultimately proves to be this project’s Achilles heel.  Fessenden’s first attempt at writing to feature length has to hobble its way across the finish line.

Ash and Connor seem to be sneaking around someone’s property in the opening scene.  Slipping inside somebody’s house, they start going through some packages. They check the contents, grab the boxes, and manage to sneak away without leaving a single packing peanut behind. The bounty? A paintball gun and a ton of ammunition.

There is a reason behind all of this secrecy, and it isn’t nearly as devious at it seems, but elaborating more would spoil the fun…and a future plot development. This stop is merely a detour as the two teenagers are on their way to clean out Ash’s father’s trailer so it could ‘possibly’ be sold. The paintball gun would merely provide some entertainment value during their walk, when they aren’t chatting up their local classmates and Connor isn’t quoting iconic 70’s films.

Meanwhile, three criminals are coping with the spoils of a deal gone wrong. The one silver lining: they make off with a briefcase, presumably full of cash.  With one nursing a bullet wound and fading fast, the trio aren’t entirely sure where they are going and what their next move might be.  To make matters worse, their getaway vehicle starts acting up.  They find a quiet place in the woods to lay low and figure out a game plan. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the place they found is the same trailer that Ash and Connor are supposed to clean.

With a classic setup of impending confrontation in place, “Stray Bullets” inexplicably stalls once the boys happen upon the criminals in the trailer. Their friend and cohort is bleeding out, but the supposed brains of this crime mini-empire spends a lot of time sitting around not doing anything. This is only amplified by a sequence that aims to do little more than highlight a piece of the musical score. Shots cut to each of the criminals as they sit in the trailer, doing absolutely nothing.  The film is quite short as is, so this reflective time-out seems ill-advised, and sort of like writer’s block manifesting itself onscreen.

The screenplay had a great premise locked and loaded, but much like its characters, it spins in circles for a spell, unsure of what to do next. From there, it retreats to an awkward foot chase that ends up traversing through a public park(of all places). This is clearly not Fessenden’s first filmmaking rodeo, but it is his first feature-length project. The screenplay betrays him of this fact as it simply appears to run out of gas, and it hobbles along to an 80-minute finish with barely the slightest climactic tremor.

“Stray Bullets” has some of the stunted acting seen in many an amateur film, and the scene where Ash and Connor run into a couple of their female classmates feels awkward from more than just the teenage angst. But this brief moment doesn’t derail the film, and the impressive cinematography(the film was shot by Jack’s father Larry, who also stars) and composition indicate that Fessenden clearly has talent. But “Stray Bullets” starts firing blindly once all the pawns arrive on the chess board that is the mobile home in the middle of the woods.  Fessenden said he drew inspiration from Jeff Nichols’ “Mud(2010)”, but that thriller took its time to develop its characters; it could because the screenplay knew its destination.  “Stray Bullets” has a similar aesthetic, but couldn’t emulate the well-rounded screenplay.

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‘Toni Erdmann’ remake news highlights bizarre remake culture, art clashing with business

An image of a scene from the movie Toni Erdmann.

A scene from “Toni Erdmann.” Photo courtesy of Image.net

“Toni Erdmann” is a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, so naturally, it is a newer film. In many markets, it probably has yet to project a single shot on any theater screen, and may never. The film just recently landed in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, and this city is the third largest(populous-wise) in the country. It was supposed to open in the UK market early this year as well.  I have yet to see it, and aside from some film stills and seeing the theatrical one-sheet(in layman’s terms, movie poster), I have avoided the trailer and any discussion regarding the film. I would like to be surprised when I first sit down to watch it.

The simple synopsis: a man tries to reconnect with his adult daughter through his practical jokes and pranks.  Hence, the image accompanying this post.

One of the big stories to hit the entertainment media in the last few days has been Jack Nicholson’s return to acting. It would be his first film role in about seven years. But there is another story here: the role would be in the already-in-planning-stage U.S. Remake of “Toni Erdmann.”  The rights to the remake are currently being negotiated.

This remake is just another in a long line of ones stemming from the era of ‘Instant Remake, or How Hollywood Has Run Out of Ideas and Learned ToSnags Remake Rights to Interesting Concepts Almost Immediately.” But this is ridiculously quick. The projector bulb hasn’t even cooled off yet on the theatrical run of Maren Ade’s original feature, and U.S. Production companies are already chomping at the bit to redo it. It opened in a limited US market on Christmas Day(read: probably a couple theaters in New York and L.A., especially to qualify for awards season), and originally hit theaters in Germany last July.

Now comes a statement from writer-director Ade herself, and the production company of Komplizen Film. They confirm that rights to the remake of their film are currently being negotiated, but neither the filmmaker nor the production company will have any sort of involvement in the remake. They also ensure that they state they are happy with their film the way it is. This definitely feels a little bit like biting of the tongue and taking the high road, doesn’t it?

It is always frustrating to have one’s moment of glory cut short when others try to mimic your work or take your idea and pass it off as their own. It certainly has happened to all of us in the working world. But in the corporate world, it is not uncommon for a business to claim ownership of everything done within working hours on the business’ equipment(a fancy little term called intellectual property). It is expected, so it is a little easier to brush off when it happens.

Now imagine having a passion project, and spending years of blood, sweat and tears to finally see that project become a reality. And all with the flick of a pen and an electronic funds transfer, another writer, director, and studio will be paid to take your vision and do with it what they will. “Toni Erdmann” is still in the running for an Academy Award, so Ade could very well have an Oscar-winning film on her hands. But before that happens, someone could already be at work remaking her idea in their image.

Unfortunately, this is the nature of the movie business. Whether it is a big-budget blockbuster or small independent film, it is usually the desire of the filmmakers to get their projects in front of the eyeballs of as many people as possible. And for that to happen, you usually need a distributor who can put up the cash to get the movie shipped out to theaters, not to mention marketing the project as well. If you want your film to open in international markets, that usually requires a separate distributor. You could pay to book a theater and screen your film yourself, but that certainly wouldn’t be as effective of an outreach.  And as a filmmaker, you lost your rights to your own film a long time ago, once the production company, distributor or whoever else put up the money to even make the thing a reality.

From the perspective of a film studio, it is certainly a better bet to front your money on a proven concept as opposed to something entirely original, which is what makes remakes(and reboots are really just a fancy way of saying remakes) and sequels so enticing. Even streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are finding it much easier to roll up to a big film festival and drop cash on a word-of-mouth hit as opposed to financing a new production. But in the meantime, it is the movie-loving public that has to suffer the lack of originality. And the original filmmakers have to suffer the spoils of dealing with the devil(or in this case, the distributor. Until studios start prioritizing original concepts, and once again are willing to roll the dice on a fresh script or rookie director, things are going to remain the same. From this side of the multiplex screen, it’s a fun business. But at the end of the day, it is still a business, and the art side of it will sometimes have to ride in the back seat.

And when it comes to buying and hawking remake rights, can we at least be less uncouth about it?  At the minimum, let’s wait until the season is finished before we start seeing how much we money we can squeeze out of a buzz-worthy awards favorite.

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‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ review: Vengeful hitman sequel delights in doing everything bigger

Image of a scene from the Lionsgate film John Wick Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves once again steps into the dapper duds of the titular character in “John Wick: Chapter 2.” PHOTO CREDIT: Niko Tavernise

“John Wick: Chapter 2” might have the most relentless action sequences since “The Raid: Redemption.” And as a follow-up to last year’s origin story, it takes all the joy of the no-holds-barred gun play and hand-to-hand combat, and doubles right down on it. Heck, when John Wick isn’t plowing through hired henchmen, he’s prepping to take on the next batch, securing weapons and getting fitted for bulletproof three-piece suits.  Seeing Keanu Reeves wield an automatic rifle again will bring to mind images from the iconic lobby scene in “The Matrix”, but here the gun battles don’t rely so much on visual effects.  They certainly aren’t slowed down, and they feel much more intense.

Writer Derek Kolstad continues crafting Wick’s narrative, and his sequel script wastes no time in getting down to business, as the film’s title cards give way to an immediate car chase, sans explanation. For a moment, the viewer is uncertain whether it is just another studio card, until a motorcycle comes skidding into the frame, upended on its side. Who has the time for exposition?

This second chapter finds our titular hero still cleaning up some loose ends. After dispatching some sweet vengeance in the first film, John is still on his way to retrieve the retro Mustang that was stolen from him, which explains the vehicular massacre from the outset.  This is much to the dismay of the original thief’s uncle, since the car is currently in his possession, and he has heard all the stories.  After all,  Wick did catch up with his nephew, so he definitely believes in the legend of the highly effective assassin. Peter Stormare plays the uncle, and once again manages to deliver a humorous, memorable character in a limited amount of screen time.

After all the eye-for-an-eye, John hopes to settle into retirement. But the concrete covering his weapons and money stash isn’t even dry when the doorbell starts ding-donging. Santino D’Antonio(Riccardo Scamarcio) has come to visit, but this is considerably heavier than just a social call.  When John wanted to escape the business and settle down with his wife many years ago, D’Antonio pulled some strings to get him there. They made a blood pact, and now he wants John to return that favor. When John refuses, the guy doesn’t blow his lid, but instead blows up John’s house. Fortunately, John is thrown out of the building by the initial blast before two more rounds have the entire structure ablaze.

Now homeless and needing advice, Wick seeks sanctuary at the Hotel.  After consulting with ‘The Manager'(Ian McShane), John learns he has no choice but to return D’Antonio’s favor and complete the blood pact.  D’Antonio wants John to travel to Rome and assassinate his sister, so he can take her place at the high table.  And his ambitions go much higher, as he’s looking to take over New York City once he gains a little bit of power.  John must take his unique skills global, without drawing the attention of an entire international circuit of payday-hungry contract killers.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” has just the right amount of story to counterbalance all the mayhem and gunplay. It airs on just the right side of logical, even if it all does feel a bit convenient(especially when D’Antonio appears so soon after John gets back home).  It’s almost an in-joke, as even the hotel concierge Charon(Lance Reddick) comments on Wick’s quick return to the fray.  Surely nothing is wrong with action for action’s sake, and director Chad Stahelski has proven himself more than worthy of delivering on that front(the stuntman-turned-director also helmed the original). But the myth and the lore building inside the “John Wick” universe ground it a little bit, which helps…especially when there are some laughably tongue-in-cheek fight scenarios.

A little meaning to the mayhem goes a long way, but viewers will still find themselves chuckling in delight at some outlandish action moments.  This is especially true when the camera takes certain angles to hint where the fight will move to next, as it does during a particular mano-e-mano between Wick and another of the firm’s assassins(Common).

Lionsgate(and its Summit distribution label) has the makings of a hit franchise on its hands, and “John Wick: Chapter 2” has the warmth of a summer action blockbuster in the cold, dark month of February.  Keanu Reeves doesn’t have to spend a lot of time emoting, but his performance is almost entirely physical: the studio claims that he performed 90 percent of his own stunts.  Fairly enough, there are a couple of scenes of quiet reflection where John reminisces about his late wife.  But like a shotgun butt-slam to the sternum, the story quickly tears John away from these moments to get him back to doing what he does best.  From the impressive car chase-slash-taxicab-demolition-derby opening sequence to the final showdown, this movie unapologetically lets the bullets, knives and pencils(yes, pencils) fly.

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‘I Am Not Your Negro’ review: James Baldwin’s literary letter comes to life in powerful new documentary

Photo of writer James Baldwin

James Baldwin in the new documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” PHOTO CREDIT: Bob Adelman

“I Am Not Your Negro” recently received an Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category, and it certainly deserves it. It could be argued that the country needs to pay a fresh visit to writer and activist James Baldwin’s ideas now more than ever, as in recent years it has become clear that racial division is just as prevalent as it has ever been. The film forces the viewer to take a cold, necessary look at segregation and discrimination throughout the history of the United States. It is one of the more challenging documentary films released in recent years, and this realization makes it an absolute must-see.

Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words, his voice low and deliberate. The core of the documentary’s narrative is a letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent in 1979. It was supposed to describe his next project, titled Remember This House, but after the recent deaths of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Baldwin’s mind was elsewhere. He had only finished thirty pages of the new manuscript.  Instead, the letter gave the writer an avenue to process his emotions, and he doesn’t hold back.

Along with his letter, the film also uses footage of one of Baldwin’s talk show appearances, as well as some climactic dialogue from a speech he gave to a packed house. Baldwin is charming and charismatic at points during his television appearance, but he pulls no punches when discussing the plight of African Americans and the challenges and tribulations he witnessed, and dealt with, every day.  He does not mask his anger, openly discussing the hate he often felt in his heart when people were victimized, and when he learns of the deaths of Evers, MLK and Malcolm X.  This raw, emotional honesty is what makes “I Am Not Your Negro” stand apart from other documentaries exploring the civil rights movement of the period.

Director Raoul Peck said he wanted a familiar voice to read Baldwin’s words, but this almost feels like a subdued Samuel L. Jackson. Here, that is more than appropriate.  Baldwin’s writing and his ideas are all the voice that this documentary needs.  They are the fuel, and Peck steers the narrative with visuals, often through historical photographs. Many of which prove to be damning, like some of the more racially-charged advertisements of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  It is impossible not to cringe at these images.  The film also uses imagery from more recent events like the unrest in Ferguson and the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant(which was portrayed in Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film “Fruitvale Station”), which are a sobering reminder that there is still work to be done.

“I Am Not Your Negro” would be an excellent documentary in any decade, but its timing feels especially noteworthy giving the current state of affairs. This is a film for every American to process, and hopefully it finds its way into school curricula throughout the nation.  James Baldwin was never able to finish his last book, as he passed away in 1987. However, this film feels like a somewhat fitting epilogue for the author’s ideas.  This reviewer wasn’t too familiar with the man before seeing the film, so this will be an opportunity for his words to find a new audience. And that will ensure that his legacy lives on.

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‘Midsummer in Newton’ review: A portrait of healing from Sandy Hook

An image of a scene from Midsummer in Newton

‘Midsummer in Newton’ follows the staging of a musical as a means to cope in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy. PHOTO CREDIT: Participant Media/Vulcan Productions

“Midsummer at Newton” is a celebration of the resilience of life; a story of a community doing whatever they can to try and move forward after a tragic event. In the year following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a group of New York artists decided to travel to Newton, CT.  Their goal?  To create a stage production with the children from the Newton school system.  It was to be Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with a decidedly more modern interpretation of the musical score. The documentation of the project certainly exudes the healing and positive aspects of this activity. But as a documentary film, “Midsummer at Newton” may be a little too subjective, far less comprehensive.

The film follows three families, two of which have children who are involved in the play and were survivors of the fateful December day.  The third is a family who lost their daughter in the tragedy.  Since the play actually involves children throughout all the schools in the district, perhaps there were only a select few from Sandy Hook.  This would explain the decision to include a third family, but it makes the main subject matter seem like it isn’t enough to carry the film on its own, and perhaps it wouldn’t be.

The documentary also tells the story of Jimmy Greene and Nelba Marquez-Greene, who lost their six year-old daughter Ana in the tragedy.  As Jimmy was a successful traveling musician before settling down to raise a family, his story fits in with the overall theme.  Jimmy decides to stage his own musical performance in honor of his late daughter, scenes of which are shown late in the film.

Perhaps “Midsummer at Newton” was created with television in mind. Director Lloyd Kramer(who most recently made the disastrous TV movie “Liz & Dick”) has had his career roots firmly implanted in television, and this documentary feels like it would be right at home on PBS.  And the amount of content surrounding the play feels like just enough to cover a one-hour time block.

“Midsummer at Newton” is all about healing, but that healing is selective. It would have been nice to hear from more families who had children involved in the play, or at least had some reactions from others in the community as to how the play touched them.  Certainly there are two stories here, but both revolve around healing. There are those healing through the play, and those who aren’t. Both would be worthy of their own feature, and it appears that there would be more subjects falling into the second category.  Kramer tries to blend the two together, but still barely inches toward 80 minutes of content.

Arts-as-a-healing-mechanism certainly isn’t a new concept, but “Midsummer in Newton” is a human story, first and foremost.  It is a quick and emotional journey through the lives of just a few of those the Sandy Hook massacre affected.  Since the documentary centers on the particular stage production, it addresses only a small number of those reeling with the tragic events of that day.  Perhaps a more comprehensive portrait of Newton and the Sandy Hook aftermath will come around someday.  In the meantime, this smaller piece of the puzzle will have to do.

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Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter paces itself in early episodes

An image of a scene from the Studio Ghibli series Ronja the Robber's Daughter.

Ronja and her friend Birk in a scene from Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter. PHOTO CREDIT: Amazon Prime Video

This is one that might be for the older kids.

After viewing the first two episodes of Studio Ghibli’s Ronja(the ‘j’ is silent) the Robber’s Daughter, it’s fuzzy if the series will connect with a younger audience, or those not familiar with the book. The Amazon Prime edition of the series is cut into 26 pieces, but the singular narrative is stretched across all of them.  With a lot of space to fill, the series takes its time crafting its story, and therefore, the first two episodes are a little slow-going.

The titular character is just that; she is the child of a man who robs the coaches of travelers passing through town.  Interestingly, his wife seems to be okay with it, even chastising him for skipping out on ‘work’ early to feed Ronja. When Ronja begins exploring the forest on her own, she meets another child named Birk(and it takes awhile for him to show up in the series as well). The two become close friends, but Birk happens to be the son of the leader of the rival coach robbing gang. This dynamic becomes the main plot point for the series.

Each of the first pair of episodes takes its time; for instance, Ronja isn’t even born until nearly two thirds of the way through the first. By the time she is going to first venture out into the forest on her own, it’s at the end of the second(which is aptly titled “First Trip to the Forest”). This makes the viewer want to jump right into another episode, in a sort-of need to find the next big plot point. But this presents a bit of a quandary, as binge-watching streaming services might not be such a good idea for the younger children(or perhaps any homo sapien, but who are we kidding?).

Even though this reviewer was just going to watch two episodes for this review, he found himself compelled to continue. In typical Studio Ghibli fashion, the viewer is introduced to some interesting creatures which inhabit the woods, including harpies and some evil-looking, hypnotically-gazing dwarves. There is probably more to these creatures than just their initial hostility, and one can look forward to exploring their history(and hopefully getting to know them better) as the series progresses.

Perhaps this reviewer doesn’t know the youth of today all that well, and they will gravitate towards the series. That would be a good thing, if for nothing more than getting them interested in the studio(there are many great Ghibli films out there waiting to be discovered anew). And the first couple of episodes are truly lean on story development, but if one can summon the willpower to avoid binge-watching, there might just be a big payoff in being patient and absorbing the series slowly. There is even a natural commercial break about half-way through each episode(probably left over from the Japanese television broadcast), so perhaps that can aid in the pacing when showing the program to younger viewers.

After a slow start, viewers of Ronja the Robber’s Daughter might be itching for big story developments. As long as the series finds a groove once all the setup is in place, Ronja is certain to be an epic tale destined to satisfy. But if it continues to take its time or has to stretch its story thin, viewers might be prone to walking away from the series and not coming back. Young children might be a hard sell, but the show could be a hit with the older ones, and even adults.  Time will tell whether or not viewers of Ronja end up feeling like they were the ones robbed – of their leisure time.

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting today.

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‘Gold’ review: Inspired McConaughey performance isn’t quite enough to make new film a treasure

Image of a scene from the movie Gold starring Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey stars as gold prospector Kenny Wells in the new film “Gold.” PHOTO CREDIT: The Weinstein Co.

“Gold” features another fine performance from Matthew McConaughey, who starts the film looking like he just came from shooting “Dallas Buyers Club.” That’s to say, a little on the thin side. By the end of the film, he looks more akin to his character from the first season of True Detective, with decidedly more weight around the midsection. Aside from his inspired acting, “Gold” feels too much like a story the viewer has already seen before(even if it is (loosely) based on true events). It seems to shoot for being the “The Wolf of Wall Street” of gold prospecting, minus the illicit drug use and shock factor. The irony is McConaughey already briefly starred in that film.  And as a finished product, “Gold” feels like it is trying to do too much, when all it really had to do was pause, find a groove, and let Kenny Wells be Kenny Wells.

McConaughey stars as Wells, a gold prospector working in his father’s firm. It is 1981, and his father has been quite successful. Unfortunately, his father dies shortly after assigning Kenny to a big project. Kenny doesn’t have the same amount of luck that his father did, and by the time 1988 rolls around, the commodities markets are at a downturn as well.  Sales are sluggish, and once-clients of his father don’t want to meet with Kenny.  He now works out of a local bar to save money on office rent(which he probably couldn’t afford anyway), along with a few of his trusted colleagues.  Fortunately, this is before the days where most office work was done on a personal computer requiring a network connection!  Although it is hard to say why there were so many phone lines available at the local watering hole.

One night Kenny has a dream about a particular spot in Indonesia, and he wakes up certain that there is gold to be found there. He gets in touch with a educated geologist named Mike Acosta(Edgar Ramirez, of films like “Domino” and the recent “The Girl on the Train”) who has had success in the region, and the two realize they both have equal amounts of bull-headed passion. Kenny believes in his dream, and Mike will do anything to prove his intuitions right.  With nothing but a dream and some borrowed money behind them, the two start mining.

A promotional clip for “Gold” was just released, and it features a scene where Kenny gets locked into a cage with a tiger.  To what end?  To prove his masculinity, of course. At first, the scene just feels reminiscent of something that would happen in “The Hangover”, but thinking about it further, it just seems unnecessary. And this is what “Gold” tries to do: it takes the basic narrative, and tries to punch it up with something outrageous.  But the scene ends up coming off derivative of other films, and doesn’t do anything to advance the plot. The characters themselves are a little too stable. Kenny Wells may like to drink and smoke a lot, but he’s no Jordan Belfort.  Nor should he try to be.  And if it isn’t throwing in superfluous scenes, it’s chasing a cliché, like when his longtime girlfriend(played by Bryce Dallas Howard) decides she doesn’t like all the wealth and wants to go back to her simpler life.

While the character of Kenny Wells is not actually inspired on a real, live human being, McConaughey embodies the character fully and gives Wells a soul. His performance is about more than just physical transformation and running around in tighty-whities(and there is plenty of that). Kenny’s story is partially formed through narration, as the viewer realizes that Kenny is being interviewed by somebody. It is at the end of the interview(and close to the end of the film) where the viewer can see a different side of Wells. Throughout the entire film, Wells lets it all hang out(both physically and in terms of his personality), but it begs the question of whether he really was something of a prodigy, or just a loose cannon operating on blind faith.  It is one of the best moments of McConaughey’s career, to be certain.

“Gold” is entertaining enough, but the ambitious screenplay tries to do too much in a tight two hours, and it feels like director Stephen Gaghan(“Syriana”) lets it get away from him.  Screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman have spent the majority of their careers writing for TV, and “Gold” sometimes does have the pacing of a miniseries, as opposed to a two-hour feature.  The ending almost tries to turn the film into a mystery, and why did it take until halftime before the viewer is let in on the fact that Wells is being interviewed, and is recalling his story to somebody?  Odd screenplay choices such as these overshadow McConaughey’s work here, and his performance alone isn’t enough to fully recommend “Gold.”  Better to wait for a cheap matinee showing on this one, and use the hot weekend ticket to catch up on one of the Oscar-nominated films.  “Gold” has a lot of polish, but its flaws certainly hinder its ability to shine.

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89th Academy Award nominations announced(video)

Image of Jimmy Kimmel for the 89th Academy Awards

Jimmy Kimmel will host the 89th Academy Awards, which air live February 26 on the ABC network.

The 89th Academy Awards nominations were announced this morning, and aside from the list of films recognized, one of the biggest surprises was the new format.  Breaking with the tradition of a more formal ceremony, the nominations were read by several different actors and filmmakers interspersed with footage of past nominees(including Marcia Gay Harden, Jason Reitman, and Gabourey Sidibe) reminiscing on their Oscars experience.  Even with a break in the middle, the broadcast was complete in under twenty minutes.

La La Land” landed 14 Academy Award nominations, tying the single-film record.  It is now in the esteemed company of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve” and James Cameron’s “Titanic.”  It landed in all major categories, including nods for Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle(directing and for his screenplay).

Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” was aptly quiet in the major categories, but did receive one nomination for Best Cinematography.  “Nocturnal Animals” didn’t play much of a factor after a relatively popular Golden Globes.  Tom Ford’s second film only received one nomination, and a shocker at that:  Michael Shannon was nominated for his role in the film, and his co-star(and recent Globe winner) Aaron Taylor-Johnson was left out of the category altogether.

The Best Supporting Actor proved to perhaps be the most surprising category.  Lucas Hedges was nominated for his performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea.”  Hedges’ billing on the film was so low it requires a click through to the full cast on the movie’s IMDB page.  He will certainly be a dark horse come Oscar night.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” managed to land two nominations on the production side of things, as did the Star Wars spinoff “Rogue One.”  Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” landed a nod in the Costume Design category, and the recent (critically panned)Sony flop “Passengers” landed two nominations.  Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” managed to score nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing.

The 89th Academy Awards will air live on ABC on February 26.

Click below to replay this morning’s live stream of the 89th Academy Award nominations:

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