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Mr. Soul! Focuses How Ellis Haizlip Used His Program To Show Black Talent In Positive Ways

Friday, September 11th, 2020

Mr. Soul! is right on time given the subject – Ellis Haizlip – and his accomplishments as America’s first Black nighttime talk show host during the Civil Rights Movement/Black Power Movement from 1968 – 1973.  It is a rich story that will resonate with audiences across the nation and across generations.  With Black Lives Matter and the current state of our country and our communities addressing racism in a meaningful manner – Haizlip’s story and his inspiration is now even more important.   Ellis was innovative, political and gay. In his personal fight for social equality, this man ensured that the revolution would be televised. Along with the incredible music performances from Gladys Knight, Al Green, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder  and more; historical interviews with folks like Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Kathleen Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte   and others; and performances from Sonia Sanchez, George Faison, The Last Poets, Alvin Ailey and more, MR. SOUL! captures this monumental movement in America, at a time when the whole nation was going through a change.  This time now feels very familiar. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Tiana S. comments, “This movie focuses on African American music, dance and literature and how Mr. Haizlip used his program to show Black talent in positive ways.” See her full review below.

Mr. Soul!
By Tiana S., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 11

The documentary Mr. Soul! is entertaining and touching! It is remarkably interesting and makes you want to research more about Ellis Haizlip. He made a huge difference in the way African Americans were shown on television by creating his own show called “SOUL!. This movie focuses on African American music, dance and literature and how Mr. Haizlip used his program to show Black talent in positive ways.

OK – 3/10/14

Mr. Soul! is a movie about Ellis Haizlip’s life as the creator, co-host and producer of an TV show featuring Black performers called SOUL!. It tells the story of Haizlip, the show, and the talent he showcased. You hear about his life and accomplishments from the performers he had on SOUL! and from his friends. You also see different footage from SOUL!, and pictures from Haizlip’s  personal life. The documentary also demonstrates how Haizlip went from being the producer of the show to also hosting it.

The main character is Ellis Haizlip. I love how kind he was and how he always made SOUL! fun for everyone. He gave so many differaent people opportunities to show off their talents on SOUL!. The director, Melissa Haizlip, is a talented storyteller. She uses different elements such as a narrator (Blair Underwood), videos from SOUL!, interviews from the shows’ guests, and testimonies from his friends to tell Mr. Haizlip’s incredible story. The movie includes great music from different Black culture genres such as Gospel and R&B. There are incredible dance numbers and bands shown that were also on the show. The film has some funny parts, and it will take you through different emotions, which makes it more interesting. I was incredibly surprised to learn that Mr. Haizlip was a television host before Oprah Winfrey and that he was a musician before he became a TV host.

The message of this film is that anything is possible and that sometimes you have to take risks to get where you want to be in life. For example, when Mr. Haizlip’s friend decided not to host the show anymore, Mr. Haizlip took a risk and became the host and made history. Parents might need to look out for the use of the “N-word” in the beginning in a short video clip from one of the show’s acts and mentions of suicide.

I rate Mr. Soul! 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it for kids 13 to 18. Adults will love it as well! You can find Mr.  Soul! playing in the America Black Film Festival, October, 2020

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Dragons: Rescue Riders: Secrets of the Songwing * Excellent Animation and Cast

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

When a musical dragon with a beautiful voice hypnotizes the dragons and people of Huttsgalor, the Rescue Riders have to find a way to break the spell. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Katie F. comments, “I really enjoyed this new, exciting film, Dragons: Rescue Riders: Secrets of the Songwing! The cast and animation are incredible!” See her full review below.

Dragons: Rescue Riders: Secrets of the Songwing
By Katie Francis, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 11

I really enjoyed this new, exciting film, Dragons: Rescue Riders: Secrets of the Songwing! The cast and animation are incredible!

The story follows Melodia (Renée Elise Goldberry), a songwing dragon who tries to hypnotize the town of Hudsgalore with her beautiful singing voice.  When Aggro (Marsai Martin) and Zeppla (Cassidy Naber) are hypnotized, the dragon gang have to help stop Melodia’s song. To the rescue come Winger (Zach Callison), Summer (Skai Jackson), Burple (Noah Bently) and Cutter (Andre Robinson) as they save their friends and the rest of the town of Hudsgalore. Alongside the dragons are brother and sister Dak (Nicolas Cantu) and Leyla (Brennley Brown) in this musical special that fans of Dragons:  Rescue Riders will love.

The animation in this musical special is excellent, although there are some parts where the sound seemed that it is out of sync with the character’s mouths a few times.

The message of the story is that you shouldn’t use one of your best qualities  — such as the gift of being able to sing like Melodia can — to trance everyone else and make them do what you want.

I recommend Dragons: Rescue Riders: Secrets of the Songwing for ages 4-13, but it is a family-friendly film so adults will also enjoy it. I give this film 5 out of 5 stars as it is very enjoyable. You can find this film on Netflix on July 24th. Dragons: Rescue Riders: Secrets of the Songwing is definitely worth the watch!

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I Still Believe * A Sincere and True Love Story With Subtle Messages

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

The true-life story of Christian music star Jeremy Camp and his journey of love and loss that looks to prove there is always hope. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Arjun N. comments, “The message of this film is to always keep the faith and stay close to those you love. They make us for who we are, and unfortunately, tragic things can happen. It’s best that we stay close and not waste any day with them.” See his full review below.

I Still Believe
By Arjun N., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 18

I Still Believe is a sincere and true love story, held down by clichéd dialogue and plot development. The subtle messages and radiant leads stick their landing without feeling preachy. Adults and kids will admire this faith-based tale, perhaps in a matinee and a box of tissues.

This story brings the true-life story of Christian music star Jeremy Camp (KJ Apa) and his remarkable journey with his wife Melissa (Britt Robertson). Their faith in God is tested when Melissa is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Still, Jeremy believes there is always hope and a faith worth sharing through his music and memories.

The two leads share great chemistry allowing for a believable relationship. KJ Apa, as Jeremy Camp, steps into the shoes of the Christian music singer, through his original music and devotion towards his wife Melissa. Speaking of which, Britt Robertson, as Melissa, is the best performance nailing the emotional gravitas of the real-life counterpart’s plight. She fares much better in emotional scenes, and while KJ has great screen presence, he could improve his emotional chops. Both characters absolutely deliver a heart-warming dynamic that makes the ending all the more tragic, but also reminiscing. Nathan Dean, as Jean-Luc, adds a love-triangle dynamic that feels more at home in a CW show than a dramatic real-life story. Still, his character is charismatic and relatable in his struggles. Gary Sinise, as Tom, is Jeremy’s father, adding more heart to Jeremy’s unwavering love and choices.

Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin return after directing the Christian film I Can Only Imagine. The Erwins have a good grasp on not being preachy and instead, focus on the human relationships that bind. However, this film’s first half panders with one instance of egregious product placement, unbecoming of its more mature second half. It feels tonally inconsistent in spite of KJ and Britt’s natural chemistry. There’s a scene involving a broken jar of pickles where the film becomes thoughtfully complacent about its conflicts. This is where the film began to click, and it ends up being moving and lyrically heartwarming.

The message of this film is to always keep the faith and stay close to those you love. They make us for who we are, and unfortunately, tragic things can happen. It’s best that we stay close and not waste any day with them.

I give this film 3.5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 8 to 18 due to strong thematic material. The movie is available now on Amazon Prime and elsewhere. Be sure to check it out.

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2020 Director’s Close Up: Week Five

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

The final week of Film Independent’s five-week-long Director’s Close Up focused on one of the most crucial aspects of cinema, an aspect that easily makes up half of the movie-going experience, an aspect that the viewer rarely notices, but exists across nearly the entire run time of every film ever made. That aspect? Sound design and scoring. Benh Zeitlin, director of Wendy, and Dan Romer, composer of Wendy, unveil the massive impact of cinematic sound. 

Sound design involves the process of creating naturally occurring noises anyone would hear in the real world. This can include footsteps, creaking floors, squeaking doors, rustling leaves and far more. Even though such additions may seem minuscule in the long run, they have a tremendous impact on how realistic the cinematic world feels. Imagine watching Star Wars without the wooshes of TIE fighters, the hums of pod racers, or the buzz of lightsabers? The film would lose many of its immersive qualities. So, director Benh Zeitlin puts careful attention into sound design. As an example, in his previous film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, the sounds of Hurricane Katrina can be heard with the growling wind, the shrieking shaking shutters and the pounding rain. While very little rain or lightning appears on the screen, the audience feels terrified by the audible aspect of the hurricane. Such elements can also help keep the budget to a minimum as rain machines and lightning visual effects can increase the cost of production dramatically, but taking out a microphone and recording a thunderstorm has a near-zero price tag.

Composer Dan Romer does a similar job with the score of a film, a lengthy musical work that helps guides the emotional tone of certain scenes as well as the entire story. For Wendy, because it re-imagines the classic Peter Pan story of children who never grow up, the score mimics a child’s perspective. That means that it must be epic and orchestral when the children do seemingly minor things, like play in the mud or chase each other. Zeitlin stated that he took inspiration from his own childhood when he would mentally play the grand Indiana Jones soundtrack while he did the small task of looking for an ant in the grass. Dan Romer also tried to mimic a local band in the instrumentation of the orchestra, by having a mix of traditional symphonic orchestral instruments and instruments found in smaller bands such as steel drums. This gives it a grounded feeling that agrees with the world the children come from. Music can also reflect tone shifts in the film. In the beginning, when the story takes place in the normal world, the music has a searching, almost wanting quality. Yet, once it goes to the magical world of Neverland, it explodes in triumph. At times, assembling an entire orchestra can be outside of a film’s budget. So, Romer hired and recorded individual musicians and combined their performances on a computer. This allowed the entire film score to require only nine musicians and a small room, versus a dozen or more musicians and a symphony hall.

Sometimes, score and sound design merge as it does in Wendy, when the audience meets a large sea creature called Mother. This involved so many layers of sound design that the production of Wendy hired a sound designer from Animal Planet to create whale noises for the creature. On top of the sound design, Romer composed an ambient score that adds to the grandeur of the creature being displayed on the screen. Such challenges can require unconventional methods. For example, the score utilizes whirly tubes, a children’s toy that makes a humming sound when spun. This, on top of the whale sounds, creates a mysterious but peaceful atmosphere around the sea creature.

While it receives little attention in award shows, critiques or from the average moviegoer, the sound and score of a film make up half the experience. Benh Zeitlin said it best, “it’s impossible for the film to speak in any way” without the sound to assist in communicating the character’s perspectives, emotions and tone.

Wendy opens in theaters on February 28, 2020. For more information on Film Independent, go to https://www.filmindependent.org/

If you are interested in more information on sound in cinema, check out my interview with Midge Costin, director of the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound at https://youtu.be/zvlChCb138Y

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17 

Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 17
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2020 Director’s Close Up: Week Four

Friday, February 7th, 2020

How does a director make a film? How has filmmaking changed? Week Four of Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up answered those very questions. The panel featured Lorene Clermont-Tonnerre (Writer/Director of The Mustang), Alma Har’el (Director of Honey Boy), Lorene Scafaria (Writer/Director of Hustlers), Lulu Wang (Writer/Director of The Farewell) and Olivia Wilde (Writer/Director of Booksmart). All films share one common feature, a visible passion for the story being shown. Yet, to get to that stage requires dedication and painful patience.

The Farewell

Filmmakers must first choose what topics to bring to the big screen. Many take inspiration from the real world. Scafaria’s The Hustlers transforms an article on a criminal ring into understandable and relatable individuals. Wang’s The Farewell shows Wang’s true family tragedy and Har’el’s Honey Boy visualizes Shia Lebouf’s dark and painful past as a child actor.  

Whatever the topic may be, filmmakers must also ensure that investors feel the passion they do. For Wang, this took many, many years as The Farewell features a runtime almost entirely in Mandarin and a set almost entirely in China. This made any investor believe the film should be produced by a Chinese company, despite being from the perspective of an American. Scafaria had other issues in making Hustlers. After Scafaria’s script had been approved for production, it took close to a year to convince executives to even consider allowing Scafaria to direct the script she wrote. 

Booksmart

The challenge of making a motion picture has only begun once production begins. Wilde’s Booksmart featured many Steadicam shots with very few cuts. That meant every actor shown on camera had to recite as much as “four pages of scripts” at once, as well as every aspect of blocking and rhythm. For The Farewell, the problems only begun at long shots. Because the film’s production took place predominantly in China, many cultural contrasts became quickly apparent. China had no way to shut down streets, meaning production had to occur in public as individuals walked in and out of frame. Assistant directors (ADs), who traditionally keep production on schedule, have different roles in China. The film features scenes in Mandarin and English, so most actors and most of the production crew needed to speak both languages fluently. Other productions may have to struggle with animals – with The Mustang featuring dozens of horses and a lead actor who could not ride horses. Other films have to cast and write children into highly adult-oriented scenes, as Honeyboy did.

After editing, coloring, VFX, sound editing and so much more has been completed, the director sits down with the composer to create the music for the film. Some films create stunning original soundtracks, others license them from modern artists. Some filmmakers decide to go to the music of centuries ago, as Scafaria did by having the The Hustlers score consist of music composed by Frederic Chopin, the 1800s pianist and composer. Sadly, Chopin’s genius requires the most talented pianists and, because of that, few recordings exist. So, production went on a copyright-riddled Easter egg hunt of trying to hunt down Chopin pianists to acquire rights for his treasured pieces. Wang’s The Farewell has classical pieces as well, which made sense as Wang then revealed she has a background in Classical piano – specifically Chopin.

Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 17

While cinema has always had the passion and talent seen today, change can be seen in every way. The process of production has become faster and faster, with some panelists quoting 60 day production schedules or even 29 day production schedules. The lengthy steady-cam shots seen in every film featured would not be possible without modern stabilization technology. Har’el’s Honeyboy incorporates Wi-Fi-powered lighting setups, allowing the gaffer to turn on and off lights while a scene occurs, giving far more flexibility to the cinematographer and director.

Most of all, filmmaking has changed socially. This panel consisted entirely of female directors, a sight that could never be seen twenty years ago, and a sight that shall become increasingly common as the next generation of filmmakers make their first films. 

For more information on Film Independent, go to https://www.filmindependent.org/

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17

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Variety Boys & Girls Club of Boyle Heights’ New Family Resource Center

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

On December 18, 2019, the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Boyle Heights dedicated their new Gonzalez Family Resource Center to Patricia (Pat) Gonzalez.

Pat has long been a supporter of the community. Her achievements include raising over $2 million from silent auctions for Variety, the Children’s Charity of Southern California, where she is co-chairperson. She is also on the board of directors for the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Boyle Heights. Her work led her to receive Studio Movie Grill’s Opening Hearts and Minds Award earlier this year.

The neighborhood, Boyle Heights, nestled east of Downtown Los Angeles, has long struggled with providing resources for families, with only 5% of residents in the neighborhood having earned four-year degrees. To improve conditions for families, many film executives support the club including Pat Gonzalez, Senior Vice President of In-Theater Marketing at Paramount Pictures; Scott Forman, Executive Vice President and General Sales Manager of Warner Brothers; and Studio Movie Grill, known for their in-dining movie theaters across the country.

Brian Schultz, founder and CEO of Studio Movie Grill once said, “I don’t like calling it charity, we like to actually support sustainable causes.” This philosophy can be seen in action at the Variety Boys and Girls Club, where children receive assistance with education, college preparation and much more. Outside, the club has gardening sites where children not only learn to grow fruits and vegetables but also receive training in the culinary arts, just two examples of the many activities that children may participate in. 

Beautiful murals created by the children themselves fill the walls around the gardening site. Elsewhere, the club’s encouragement of creativity can also be seen. In the art space, children learn art styles ranging from the Renaissance to Postmodern art. The kids’ accomplishments can be seen in sports as well; the entrance to the club is lined with dozens of trophies.

The Family Resource Center will go beyond helping the children and help entire families with career and college assistance. By doing so, “we break the cycle of poverty by ensuring that our parents and our members’ parents have access to resources so that they are able to secure higher-paying jobs and be able to provide for their family,” explained Patricia Siqueiros, Executive Director of the Variety Boys and Girls Club. The center also contains the club’s brand-new library where children can read books ranging from Dr. Seuss to literary classics such as the works of Jules Verne. Plans in the future include potentially forming a partnership with the University of Southern California to provide dental care for residents.

The film industry has begun giving back in many ways to ensure the health of their local communities. Outside the glamour and shine of Hollywood, many residents of Los Angeles still lack access to base necessities. The work done by Pat Gonzalez, Studio Movie Grill and others can only build a better future if every individual helps improve their communities whether it is in the form of monetary donations, donations of goods or volunteering. 

You can support the Variety Boys and Girls Club at http://vbgc.org/ and you can support the Variety Children’s Charity at https://varietysocal.org/.

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17

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The Two Popes * Fascinating Topic, Filled with Humor and Great Performances

Tuesday, December 17th, 2019

Offers an intimate story of one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the last 2,000 years. Frustrated with the direction of the church, Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) requests permission to retire in 2012 from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). Instead, facing scandal and self-doubt, the introspective Pope Benedict summons his harshest critic and future successor to Rome to reveal a secret that would shake the foundations of the Catholic Church. Behind Vatican walls, a struggle commences between both tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, as these two very different men confront their pasts in order to find common ground and forge a future for a billion followers around the world. Inspired by true events. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Katherine S. comments, “I love this movie. Even though the subject of this movie is based on a religious story, it is filled with humor, sport and a fascinating storyline. The acting is also magnificent and the best part of the movie.” See her full review below.

The Two Popes
By Katherine Schell, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 11

I love this movie. Even though the subject of this movie is based on a religious story, it is filled with humor, sport and a fascinating storyline. The acting is also magnificent and the best part of the movie.

The Two Popes is inspired by true events telling the story of Pope Benedict being elected following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and Pope Francis being elected in 2013 when Pope Benedict resigned.  During this time, the Catholic Church is losing followers and is in the midst of various scandals.  Cardinal Bergoglio, who ultimately becomes Pope Francis, is one of Pope Benedict’s harshest critics as he is frustrated with the Catholic Church and wants to retire.  Pope Benedict invites Cardinal Bergoglio to Rome not to discuss his retirement, but to discuss other matters, including a scandal that the Catholic Church is facing that could ruin its stability.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would and I learned a lot about the Papal election process. Even if you are not Catholic, you will still like it. The movie also uses real footage of some of the events.

Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis) and Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict) are absolutely brilliant playing their parts.  As a bonus, they even look like the real life popes that they are playing. My favorite character is Pope Benedict because he slips a joke in whenever he can – even if the joke is not funny.

The message of The Two Popes is that it’s okay to have different opinions and if you work hard enough together you can find common ground. This movie has some bad language, some disturbing violent images and some discussion of child abuse.  It is rated PG-13.

I give this movie 5 out of 5 stars. I recommend this for ages 12 to 18, and adults will really like this movie. This movie is on Netflix December 20, 2019.

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Reflections on Infinity Festival 2019 By Gerry O.

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

The 2019 Infinity Festival, celebrating “Story Advanced by Technology,” took place November 7 – 9th at Goya Studios in Hollywood, culminating with the 2019 IF Monolith Awards ceremony, presenting awards for technology and narrative arts to the best in the industry. Voted on by a body of professional peers, the Monolith Awards recognize excellent accomplishments in narrative arts and technology that showcase the concept of storytelling. These unique awards are prestigious in that they are given to companies and individuals that are paving the way in the ever evolving film and technology industries. The winners are innovative and have utilized new and futuristic technology to create content that can be experienced at a whole new level.

“Advancements in technology have enabled artists to tell their stories in new, exciting and often unexpected ways,” said Hanno Basse, Chairman, Infinity Festival. “The Infinity Festival Monolith Awards celebrate new versions of content enabled by technology and the inventions  that make them possible. Selected from a panel of their professional peers, these awards truly honor those who showcase the future of technology in storytelling and its incredible impact on how audiences will enjoy content. These awards are unique, because they recognize new ways of storytelling which may not fit into more traditional categories.”   See Gerry O.’s commentary below.

Reflections on Infinity Festival 2019 
By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17  

It seems what can be done with technology never ceases to stop changing as society continues to innovate. While the masses marvel at what becomes capable, the entertainment industry monitors on how to implement these new inventions into the art of storytelling, and the Infinity Festival showcased just that – the new possibilities in cinema.

Creators have been experimenting with the new format of virtual reality for several years now, with impressive results. Gloomy Eyes Vol. 2, an animated short film that can be seen on the HTC Vive feels nothing like a traditional film that can be watched in theaters but in its unique way, manages to tell a whole, well-designed story. Structured like a diorama, the animated film happens around the viewer in a series of scenes that carefully guide the viewer where and how to look. While the experience can still be improved, the immense detail and rich storytelling serve as an example that virtual reality movies can be made, in some capacity.

Simulated Reality showed an educational use of this technology with 7 Miracles which allows the user to travel back in time to ancient Jerusalem and experience the life of Jesus Christ. The experience, however, fails in its limited video quality –  in standard “flat” cinema, cameras have delivered crisp video since the 1960s; virtual reality, on the other hand, looks grainy and the user can see individual pixels, to the point where it distracts from the experience. Looking in the future however, the possibilities of physically traveling to historic faraway locations have profound educational opportunities. Students can travel to different planets to learn about our solar system, or to different wars in history. They can take tours of the Louvre for art class, or walk among a Viennese symphonic orchestra for music class.

Intel attempted yet another strategy for films in virtual reality. This experience combines virtual reality with a moving chair to create “virtual reality theaters,” which allow someone to both see and feel the digital world. In an experience set in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, the viewer gets carried by a dragon through a beautiful and exciting adventure, but at the end one feels as if they experienced a carnival attraction that belongs in a theme park, not a film that belongs in a theater.

Outside of virtual reality, other technologies promise to help streamline the filmmaking process. Lenovo presented demos of their augmented reality headset, Think Reality, which attempts to use advanced glasses to project objects on walls around the user. In concept, this can be a beautiful tool for productions – the Assistant Director could have schedules and shot lists on their display. The Assistant Camera Operator could use augmented reality to help keep shots in focus. Yet, this technology exists in its infant stage today – the demo scarcely worked and, in a complicated environment like that of a film set, it would be far too unreliable due to the current dimness of the projections. 

In post-production, one technology keeps being referenced – machine learning. One concept called AuVive, part of the Immersive Media Challenge at the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, theorizes a system in which machine learning can scan a video and produce an auditory description for those with impaired vision. While the concept sounds like the work of science fiction, many aspects of the technology already exist today, most notably with Adobe VoCo that can synthesize human speech from very small samples.

As the boom of technology continues to amaze and dazzle, one must remember that each new advancement does not mean revolutionary change. While virtual reality has created a whole new sector of the entertainment industry, its capability in storytelling remains limited. Augmented reality exists in mere infancy and requires years of development to be anything close to usable for individuals. While the Infinity Festival may have presented the newest hallmarks in the entertainment industry, it also shows just how much more development is needed before these new advances surpass their status as exciting gimmicks.

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The Farewell – Everyone Can Relate To This Film in Some Way

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

A headstrong Chinese-American woman returns to China when her beloved grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see grandma one last time. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Jolleen M. comments, “This film rocked everyone’s emotions. Although there are multiple instances where the film is a bit slow, the overall emotional impact is great. There are moments of comedic relief throughout. I think that everyone can relate to this film in some way. I made connections with some of the ideas and scenes even though I am not Chinese.” See her full review below.

The Farewell
By Jolleen Mejia, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 14

This film rocked everyone’s emotions. Although there are multiple instances where the film is a bit slow, the overall emotional impact is great. There are moments of comedic relief throughout. I think that everyone can relate to this film in some way. I made connections with some of the ideas and scenes even though I am not Chinese.

The Farewell is about Billi and her family’s reunion in China. They reunite because their grandma has developed lung cancer and the doctor says she only has weeks to live. The family chooses not to tell Nai-Nai (grandma) that she has lung cancer. Instead, they tell her that they are reunited for a wedding. Billi’s family tells her that the reason for not telling Nai-Nai is that it’s not the cancer that kills, but the fear. The film is all about appreciating the time you have on earth and with your family. There are many moments of stillness, included watching the wind blow through the trees, for 30 seconds or more. I find this aspect of the film beautiful, as it reminds me of the phrase, “stop and smell the roses.” But others might interpret these moments as filler scenes and pointless.

Awkwafina, as Billie, is an exceptional actress. You can feel the emotion she conveys through the screen, even if she doesn’t say anything. For her role she needs to show the audience that she is deeply troubled, but also show that she tries to hide her feelings from her grandma. That is very difficult to do and she does it perfectly. Without this, the film would lose a lot of its emotional impact.

The music sets the mood very well for some scenes, but in others silence and black screens are  set the mood. Sometimes it’s the noise of nature, like the wind blowing through the leaves. Scenes like these are what makes the film divergent.

The message of this film is about being appreciative of all aspects of life. Billie begins to realize that while she spends time with her family in China. Every moment is a gift. I love that the film is quite simple yet it has such a powerful effect.

I give this film 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 11 to 18, as well as adults. There are innuendos, use of alcohol, cigarettes and some bad language. Despite this, the film will move you to tears so check it out! It comes out July 12, 2019 in theaters!

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Toy Story 4 Annie Potts Interviewed by Katherine S.

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019
Annie Potts (Anne Hampton Potts), and Katherine S., Toy Story 4

Anne Hampton Potts  is an American actress. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Corvette Summer(1978) and won a Genie Award for Heartaches (1981), before appearing in  GhostbustersPretty in PinkJumpin’ Jack FlashWho’s Harry Crumb? and Ghostbusters II. She also voiced Bo Peep in the Disney and Pixar animated films Toy StoryToy Story 2 and Toy Story 4.

Toy Story 4 is an American computer-animated comedy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures as the fourth installment in Pixar’s Toy Story series, and the sequel to 2010’s Toy Story 3. Annie Potts stars as the voice of Bo Peep and is joined by the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack and more. Toy Story 4 will be theatrically released in the United States on June 21, 2019, in RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema, and IMAX.

KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Katherine S. attended a special Disney event in Orlando, FL June 7 and 8 where she got to screen the film and meet some of the talent. A highlight of the weekend was having the delightful opportunity to interview film star Annie Potts about her role in Toy Story 4! Here is what she learned.

KATHERINE: How was your preparation different for  Toy Story 4, compared to a live action movie?

ANNIE POTTS: In a normal movie, I get the chance to read the script ahead of time.  But for this movie we read the script at the studio and we never had the full script.  We normally record alone in the studio but this time I spent a lot of time with Tom Hanks in the studio recording our scenes.

KATHERINE:     That’s interesting. Do you change your voice when you play Bo Peep?  Can you give us an example?

ANNIE POTTS: Yes, I do change my voice a little bit.  I try to make it more “breathy,” like “Hi, Woody” and “Oh, Woody.”

KATHERINE: What is your favorite song from this movie?

ANNIE POTTS: “You Got a Friend in Me.”  It always makes me a little teary.

KATHERINE: Yes, I love that song too! What would you like people to take away from this film?

ANNIE POTTS: First, love is so important.  Second, you have to be able to move on in life.

Later at the Press Junket with Mark Nielson, Jonas Rivera, Josh Cooley, Christina Hendricks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves…

KATHERINE: It’s amazing that the first Toy Story movie came out 24 years ago and yet there are a core group of actors and characters that star in all the Toy Story movies.  This question is for all of you, what do you do to help make new actors and new characters feel like they belong?

JOSH COOLEY, DIRECTOR: That is a great question. With the new toys in this film, we looked at the toys we grew up and played with.  If you look at the original Toy Story some of those toys are more classic toys like Slinky and Mr. Potato Head.  So we went more to the 70s and 80s in terms of toys and then we just tried to figure out characters that weren’t there on the screen just to be characters, but actually helped the story move along and supported Woody as much as possible.  And overall, entertaining as well.  So it’s a great question because it’s really hard to do if you loved Toy Story already and then tried to introduce new characters and hope you like these characters just as much. Hopefully you do.

JONAS RIVERA, PRODUCER: You don’t do it just for the fun of it.  Gabby Gabby for example –  the story would not work without Gabby Gabby.  She’s an echo of Woody and we needed her to be this legit and real and truthful human character.  Same thing for Duke Caboom and Giggle and everybody new.  They’re not just for fun, although we love them, but this movie would not work without them.  And that’s kind of our metric.

Later at the Press Junket with Mark Nielson, Jonas Rivera, Josh Cooley, Annie Potts, Tom Hanks, Tony Hale

KATHERINE: For Mr. Tom Hanks, thank you for photo bombing me. 

TOM HANKS: Oh, you’re Katherine.  Stand up so I can see you.  Now was that actually, did I photo bomb you when you were presenting?  Sorry I photo bombed you. 

KATHERINE: (blushes) I just want to know if you think Woody and Bo Beep will get married because they are the cutest couple.

TOM HANKS: Awwhhhh.  Well… 

ANNIE POTTS:  Wait, this could be [Disney] talking points. 

TOM HANKS:  I will say that Woody has known since 1994 that Bo was the figurine for him.  He just always knew.  And let me check these talking points.  (Audience laughs) (Tom Hanks pulls out paper with Disney provided talking points) 

ANNIE POTTS: They’re getting harder and harder to find. 

TOM HANKS: (Reads from paper) Toy Story 4 reunites Woody and his long lost friend Bo Peep who’s become an adventure-seeking free spirit.  They discover that they are worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy and yet, they know that fate is an odd thing and there is no substitution for love in this crazy kooky confusing world.  “Come on gang!”

Here’s Katherine’s summary of her awesome visit to the event…

And here’s her review of Toy Story 4 which opens nationwide June 21, 2019.

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