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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!

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.

Tolkien – An Incredibly Heartwarming Film Telling How J. R. Tolkien Drew Inspiration for His Books

Friday, May 10th, 2019

Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. This takes him into the outbreak of World War I, which threatens to tear the “fellowship” apart. All of these experiences would inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Rohan F. comments, “Tolkien is an incredibly heartwarming film telling the story of John Ronald Tolkien’s life and how he drew inspiration for his books. This film is extremely entertaining for a biopic. It tells his life story in a way that shows how events throughout his life fueled his imagination to create his incredible fantasy stories.” Calista B. adds, “A mind like Tolkien is very intriguing. I was interested in how creativity and imagination are the central focus of the movie. As I writer, I get very excited when I hear how “creativity can change the world,” because that is something I believe in very deeply. So, I enjoyed that very much. “ See their full reviews below.

Tolkien
Reviewed by Rohan Foxe, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 13

Tolkien is an incredibly heartwarming film telling the story of John Ronald Tolkien’s life and how he drew inspiration for his books. This film is extremely entertaining for a biopic. It tells his life story in a way that shows how events throughout his life fueled his imagination to create his incredible fantasy stories. It brilliantly represents how people make connections with other people and events that inspire creativity.

Tolkien begins with J.R.R. Tolkien in a small camp in a WWI trench, where he is having visions of mythical creatures battling. It then cuts to him as a child and shows how he always loved these mythical creatures that he wrote about. Suddenly, due to a lack of money, his family is forced to move to the city where he has no friends. He and his brother are admitted to a prestigious school on scholarships where he makes some lifelong friends.

The use of imagery in this film is incredible. Lots of normal things are transformed by John’s imagination into incredible creatures from myths and legends. Many of the things that John experiences over the course of his life are mirrored by the events in his books. The film excels at showing that Tolkien was really passionate about his writing and the use of language. The war scenes in the movie are quite graphic and hard to watch, but show the inspiration for Tolkien’s epic battle scenes in his writings.

(From L-R): Nicholas Hoult, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

One thing I disliked is the way the movie starts. It begins with a scene of two CGI horses being ridden into battle. The CGI used isn’t that great and is a terrible choice for the opening scene, because it instantly turns down the audience and makes it just a little bit harder to get their support. However, the story is strong enough to compensate for that and you become quickly lost in the world of Tolkien’s imagination.

The moral of this film is that you should try to accomplish your goals and overcome obstacles. This is told throughout Tolkien’s journey. He constantly tries to accomplish different goals and is incredibly dedicated to finishing them. There is also an integral message about dealing with loss. This is shown in how he deals with the many devastating losses in his life.

The music in this film is great. It is exciting and conveys a strong tone that matches the film incredibly. It is very interesting and has a lot of variety. I give this movie 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 11 through 18, because it covers some heavy topics that are unsuitable for younger viewers. Any fan of the writings of JRR Tolkien will love this. It is one of my favorite films and I am certain I will watch it again. It opens in theaters May 10, 2019 so look for it.

Tolkien
By Calista Bess, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 15

At this point, it’s hard not to know about J. R. R. Tolkien. Given that The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings are behemoths in pop culture, you’ve no doubt heard of the author. Even though I’m not a Tolkien fan, I’ll admit this movie is quite interesting.

This movie is a biopic about the early life of J. R. R. Tolkien showing his high school years, him building his strong friendships, falling in love with Edith Bratt – all culminating in the creation of The Hobbit.

A mind like Tolkien is very intriguing. I was interested in how creativity and imagination are the central focus of the movie. As I writer, I get very excited when I hear how “creativity can change the world,” because that is something I believe in very deeply. So, I enjoyed that very much.

A big focus of this movie is about how friendships we build in school can push us and help us ascend to become better artist. Early in the movie, Tolkien befriends three boys – Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and Geoffrey Bache Smith. They form The TCBS Club which created such a strong brotherhood that it probably would have lasted a lifetime, if not for the war. Most of the scenes in this movie focus on their relationship and the performances really bring their friendship to life. Speaking of which, I really enjoyed the performances in this film. The two leads, Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, work really well together. Not only do they have a lot of charm, but they also have a lot of chemistry. There’s one scene where they’re in a restaurant and talking about Tolkien’s stories and languages. The dialogue feels very natural. Something about the whole scene is very immersive and charmingly romantic, without being cheesy, which is very rare in modern cinema.

I like how references to Tolkien’s future works are sprinkled throughout the film. From he and Edith going to see an opera about a magic ring, to a very well shot scene from Tolkien’s time in World War 1 where he sees fantasy creatures throughout the battlefield, it reminded me of how I picture scenes for my own stories.

I give this movie 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 13 to 18, plus adults. It comes out May 10, 2019. Look for it, especially if you are a fan of his literature.

Fighting With My Family – Captures Your Heart With Big Family Values

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige and her brother Zak are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training program, she must leave her loved ones behind and face this new cutthroat world alone. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star. KIDS FIRST! Adult Reviewer Kimbirly O. comments, ” When I heard about this film, I thought, “What a crazy title!” Well, it is not so crazy; it is enchanting.” See her full review below.

Fighting With My Family
By Kimbirly O., KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror

Florence Pugh stars as Paige in FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, . Credit: Robert Viglasky / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

When I heard about this film, I thought, “What a crazy title!” Well, it is not so crazy; it is enchanting. This film is based on a true story and follows the antics of a former wrestler and his family, as they make a living wrestling in small venues in northern England. The family is in the business, and the kids dream of making it in big in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

While wrestling is not my jam and the film is slow at times, it captured my heart with big family values – life lessons about believing in oneself and each member of one’s family. The sibling wrestlers Saraya (Florence Pugh) and Zak Knight (Jack Lowden) have trained for the big stage of wrestling since they were young. In fact, Zak reminds us that this was his dream since he was three. When they get the call from a WWE scout named Hutch (Vince Vaughn), it is a dream come true. On the other hand, is it?

Nick Frost as Ricky Knight and Jack Lowden as Zak Knight in FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Credit: Robert Viglasky / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Florence Pugh is fantastic and I cheered for her throughout the film. Her family brings a lot of comedy and grit to their roles. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in all the trailers and has some key scenes. He will definitely help sell tickets! It is great to see Vince Vaughn in a positive and upbeat role.

I give this film 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 8 to 18, as well as adults. The stunts are detailed and outstanding. The choreography is flawless. The casting is great. The costumes are authentic and there are many laugh-out-loud lines. You do not have to be clan of grapplers in Norwich, England to like this film! The film screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters nationwide February 22, 2019. Look for it!

See Jane Salon – Gotta Keep on Tryin’!

Sunday, March 10th, 2019

Shining A Spotlight on Women in Literature and Hollywood
Hosted by 72andSunny & LAI Communications

The 2nd Annual Black History Month celebration once again shines a spotlight on women and girls of color in Hollywood and media using literature as its entry point. The evening featured dramatic readings from the works by New York Times best-selling authors, Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, along with the newest release of the novel, Blurred Lines, by Courtney Parker and Mona Scott Young. An empowering panel discussion followed on the current state of women of color in Hollywood and media. The panel also highlighted recent research studies by Baylor University as well as Creative Artists Agency and shift7. The former study found that movies starring women of color had strong staying power (which equals profitability) in movie theaters on an average of 20 weeks. The latter study looked at movies, from 2014 to 2017, and found that films with female leads earned more than their male-led counterparts. With all of the great successes and progress for women in 2018, there is still more work to do. We “Gotta Keep on Tryin!”

Moderator: Madeline Di Nonno, CEO, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; Panelist: Yolanda Brinkley, Founder, Diversity in Cannes; Kellee Edwards, Travel Expert & Television Host; Sharon Liggins, PR Strategist; Tyrha M. Lindsey-Warren, PhD/MBA, Business Executive, Artist, Entrepreneur; Courtney Parker, VP Alternative Programming, Adaptive Studios and Co-author, Blurred Lines; Actors: Joni Bovill, Napiera Groves, Benita Krista Nall, Fredericka Meek

Gotta Keep On Tryin’!
By Samantha Marcus, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 19

I absolutely loved attending the stage reading and panel discussion about gender in media. It left me feeling empowered, driven and motivated. While there aren’t as many women in media as there are men, we can change that. After hearing about five successful women finding their voices and making a difference in the world, I can’t wait to do the same.

Hosted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, this event highlighted the dynamics of gender in media, shining an immense spotlight on women of color in literature and Hollywood. Women of different races, backgrounds and lifestyles gathered to view stage readings from two pivotal novels: Gotta Keep On Tryin’! by Virginia Deberry and Donna Grant, and Blurred Lines by Mona-Scott Young and Courtney Parker. Both novels illuminate the power of women and recognize how women need to be a driving force in changing the way they are represented in society today. The panel discussed their career paths and struggles within our ever-growing and diverse society

The panel consisted of Yolanda Brinkley, Keller Edwards, Sharon Liggins, Dr. Tyrha Warren and Courtney Parker. Each woman emphasized how never giving up is imperative in making your dreams come true. I admire how Courtney Parker, co-author of Blurred Lines, personalized her writing passions by sharing how she questioned Goldilocks and the Three Bears, when she was only four years old. Kellee Edwards developed her own show Travel Channel after she filmed herself traveling the world on YouTube.

My favorite part was meeting Geena Davis. She is such an inspiration to me and she was so happy to take a picture with me. I aspire to be like her when I grow up. The message of this event is to find your voice. It wasn’t easy for these women, but once they did, nothing was impossible. This event was appropriate for ages 13 to 18, as well as adults. Teenage years are divine in a young woman’s life, so make the most of them. To learn more about the Geena Davis Foundation, become a member and attend their monthly events, go to www.seejane.org. To all the young women reading this, promise me you’ll let nothing stop you. If men can do it, so can we!

Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made
Shining A Spotlight on Women in Literature and Hollywood
By Jordan M., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 12

On February 20, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media hosted a See Jane Salon celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made by New York Times best-selling authors Virginia Berry and Donna Grant. Held in honor of Black History Month, the event was a lively discussion about the state of people of color in media.

Founded by Academy-Award winning actor Geena Davis, the Institute is a research-based organization in the media and entertainment industry focused on eliminating bias, highlighting gender balance and challenging stereotypes.

The event featured dramatic readings from some of the authors’ most popular books including Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, Gotta Keep on Trying, What Doesn’t Kill You and Far from the Tree. Readings featured actors Roseanne Currry, Magaly Coleman, Lisa Wilkerson and Harry Lennix.

Each of the performances took the audience through a range of topics from friendships to a troubled marriage to young womanhood. Some of the scenes were humorous and others were more traumatic and emotional. It was interesting to see all of the books portrayed live, a much different experience than just reading them. It was like watching a play in action with each book a different scene.

The readings were followed by a panel discussion on the state of people of color in the media. The panel was moderated by Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Madeline kicked off the discussion by asking each of the panelists to share their journey to success, including challenges, and then provide advice for breaking into the industry and share their thoughts on where media is now. It was a lively discussion filled with humor and honesty.

Authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant shared their journey to becoming best-selling authors and the challenges of breaking into the literary industry as women of color. They discussed their journey from meeting as plus size models in the fashion industry, to becoming best-selling authors. Tyrha Lindsey-Warren discussed her experience working in television and film development with the Creative Artists Agency and Edmonds Entertainment. Actor Harry Lennix, currently on NBC’s hit show The Blacklist, discussed his process to becoming a successful actor from stage to screen. He noted that in order to become an actor, you need to study the work of those that you admire. Entrepreneur Yolanda Brinkley, discussed founding Beyond Borders: Diversity in Cannes. The goal of her program is to highlight diversity in independent film at the international festival each year. Yolanda discussed the importance of people of color in Hollywood having a seat at the table. Because Beyond Borders is not yet an official part of the festival, Yolanda stressed pushing hard to advocate for what you are passionate about doing. She is still striving to make it an official event, but shared how she works to reach out to actors and filmmakers of color to get the word out and the event is growing each year.

Talking with author Virgina DeBerry about the direction of women and people of color in the media, DeBerry stated “We need to continue to get better representation, especially for women in the media. We are so interesting and have so many facets and the media tends to pigeon hole people. We need to be able to break out of the slot and show all that we have to offer.”

The event and the panel discussion was inspiring. It was good for the audience members to not only hear the journeys of the panelists, but get their advice on how to begin journeys of their own.



Director’s Close: Up Thrill Seekers: Directing Dynamic Genre

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

With a new generation of critically acclaimed genre films making big bucks and becoming indispensable internet memes, ever wonder why certain movies just seem to keep you on the edge of your seat more than others? The final night of the 2019 DCU features a crack team of cutting-edge midnight movie mavericks, whose collected works have shocked and thrilled millions of audience members the world over.

Director’s Close Up: Thrill Seekers: Directing Dynamic Genres 
By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 16 

In the cloudy evening of February 27, 2019, Film Independent hosted the final panel of their month-long event, Director’s Close-Up. The event featured many directors in the horror genre such as Fade Alvarez (writer/director, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Don’t Breathe), Drew Dowdle (writer/producer, Waco, Quarantine), John Eric Dowdle (writer/director, Waco, Quarantine),  Aaron Katz (writer/director, Gemini, Land Ho!) and Daniel Stamm (director, Fear the Walking Dead, The Last Exorcism). The panel was moderated by Scott Mantz (film critic, Collider).

These filmmakers had no interest in monsters, giant bugs, ghosts, or ghouls. They all wished to invest their time into a much deeper side of terror. Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe made the audience afraid to move or make a sound. Drew and John Dowdle’s As Above causes viewers to feel claustrophobic, struggling to breathe and wishing for more room. While it may seem simple to terrify an audience, Stamm pointed out a fundamental crux of horror filmmaking:  There is only a finite amount of methods to scare someone, causing a completely brand-new concept in horror to be a rare sight. 

Horror has also been the place for many directors with smaller budgets to undertake. Drew and John attempt to make their film like a business for investors. They illustrate a detailed step-by-step plan that allows the film to have high chances of making a profit. Their strategy gives investors a clear end goal, motivating them to contribute to the film. They did add though, that a smaller budget can perhaps make a film even more terrifying, since the crew cannot afford to actually show what causes the fear. Merely hinting at the presence of something can greatly increase the intensity. Katz thought that dealing with a low-budget properly can make the film even more exciting and Stamm believed that a micro-budget and no budget gives you true creative freedom to do what you wish instead of running after investors. After receiving funding, all filmmakers go through a lengthy period of pre-production, but the exact details of what should occur in pre-production differed between panelists.

Alvarez personally only does storyboards if it works for the crew, such as a car crash that requires careful planning and coordination. The Dowdles similarly both opt to do them,  depending on what the scene has and they also added that they only show storyboards to department heads. Showing it to all the crew can lead to confusion if the director decides to skip or modify a shot. Katz prefers a different method entirely – overheads of the scene. He likes to go to the location where filming is taking place and see how the different shots of the scene work with each other. After planning and filming a movie, a filmmaker must now complete the tedious process of editing the project.

While most consider the film to be fully put together in the editing room, Alvarez believes that editing can only do so much. Production and pre-production make the film. No amount of editing can drastically raise the quality of the film. Drew Dowdle believes three films are being made – one in pre-production, one in production and one in post-production. Drew and John Dowdle added that you cannot begin to think about sound design until the editing room. In horror, sound makes up at least 50% of the quality of a movie. Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe and the year-old A Quiet Place by John Krasinski demonstrate the power of sound. In both films, the audience becomes terrified of every noise that comes from the screen. But this amount of intensity and fear only exists with masterful sound design and editing.

The panel added some important lessons for all filmmakers. Drew and John Dowdle stated that, “as a filmmaker, you cannot work on a film focusing on making money back, but must focus on the craft of cinema itself.” Stamm added the important lesson that many indie and new filmmakers attempt to make a movie look as close to “Hollywood style” as possible. In truth, good films are those that stand out and look different from the norm. The panel showcased the intricate art involved in causing fear in movies and the many lessons to learn when trying to create a film. 

Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up series, as a whole, truly showcases the deep complexities of being the director of a film and how much goes into making each film we enjoy on the screen.

Director’s Close Up: Independent Spirit: A Director’s Roundtable

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

At this year’s perennial favorite, 2019 Spirit Award-nominated directors discuss their craft, their journeys as artists and the ways in which they have been able to balance their artistic integrity while making movies that resonate with audiences.

Director’s Close Up Independent Spirit: A Director’s Roundtable 
By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 16

The grand gem of Film Independent’s Annual Director’s Close Up event is “The Independent Spirit: A Director’s Roundtable.” Hosted by Film Independent President John Welsh, this year the panel featured premiere directors from the industry including Bo Burnham, Debra Granik, Barry Jenkins, Tamara Jenkins, Boots Riley and Paul Schrader. The six highlight the modern world of moviemaking and how it is transforming for the next generation of directors. 

The panel began by discussing the image and color of the film. All six directors mastered color and style in their films  into something unique for each of them. Paul Schrader discussed how technology has improved so much to allow for a colorful, crisp, modern look of cinema with tablets and apps allowing cinematographers more opportunities in the light set up than ever before. Barry Jenkins shared just how many options filmmakers have now with modern cameras. He discussed how in Moonlight they reprogrammed the way the cameras processed color, in order to better reflect darker skin. Debra Granik discussed how modern cameras’ ability to read green color better allowed her to capture the forest beautifully in her film, Leave No Trace. Schrader also shared a story from the making of Star War:s Episode 1, where Liam Neeson and George Lucas disagreed on how a role should be played. When Neeson refused to do what Lucas wanted, Lucas simply changed Neeson’s face in post!

Boots Riley and Paul Schrader both discussed their experiences in taking inspiration from other films, with one example of Riley using inspiration from one of Shrader’s films. This fact demonstrates an important key aspect in cinema. It is collaborative, not competitive. Filmmakers can take from each other’s ideas and build their own unique strategies. 

The panel also debated heavily on the concept of rehearsals before filming. Paul Schrader was adamant about the cruciality of rehearsals stating, “It is for the director, not the actor.” Schrader discussed how it allows for the story to be rewritten, dialogue tested, interactions perfected and more. He believes that a director should not test things or figure things out on the day of shooting. Burnham disagreed. In his directorial debut, 8th Grade, he only rehearsed the daughter and father and left the rest to be done fully and openly. This strategy, coined the “Bo Burnham approach,” was supported by Barry Jenkins as well. While Jenkins did table reads that led to changes in the script, he, like Burnham, likes letting the actors explore the role in front of the camera. Tamara Jenkins had a different take on rehearsals. In her film Private Life, Tamara’s story revolves around a couple and, in order to get the actors to get along as a couple might, she simply made them do chores that a married couple would typically do, in order to get them to bond. In 8th Grade, Burnham had the challenge of portraying kids realistically and he discussed how it often isn’t the child actor’s fault for an unrealistic representation, but simply poorly written dialogue. All panelists agreed that each actor has requirements and strategies unique to themselves.

One of the most interesting parts of this panel was when each member delved into the philosophical side of their films and filmmaking as a whole. Barry Jenkins described how literature and film differ. Literature forces the brain to imagine all the senses, while film only connects to the visual and auditory. So, when trying to make powerful emotional scenes, Jenkins had to carefully structure the elements of his scenes to evoke emotions. Burnham discussed the connection we have to the Internet and how it is developing as years go by. He shared how he wished to capture our relationship we share with the Internet behemoth in his film, 8th Grade, as Bo felt that no film had truly captured the Internet and how we interact with it. One of the most powerful things he discussed was the times we use the Internet in the late evening before going to sleep. We always have a choice. We can close our eyelids, or we can open up our phone to the totality of human knowledge. “It is infinity or oblivion,” he explained. Panels like these show just how filmmaking has changed and adapted to new technology and artistic styles. Film, like all other arts, goes through a constant transformation and these six panelists are only one of the thousands of filmmakers all around the world finding new and innovative ways to express themselves and tell stories. Paul Schrader said it best, “a script is not literature – it is an oral tradition.” 

Director’s Close Up: The Storytellers: Writers and Directors

Monday, February 11th, 2019

By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

While the first week of Director’s Close Up featured the beautiful web of relationships between actor and director, the second week takes a look at much earlier process in a film’s production: the writer and director. The event included Jane Anderson (writer, The Wife, Olive Kitteridge) and Billy Ray (writer, Captain Philips, co-writer, The Hunger Games) as well as moderation by Robin Swicord (writer/director, Wakefield, writer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).  All three have both directing and writing experience and shared with the audience on how to best form a strong partnership between two of the most conflicted roles in the film industry.

Most known is the tension that exists between the writer and the director. Billy compared it to a track race. He related the writer to be the first on the track. You write your script and you finish the lap around the track and then hand it off to the next runner. The next runner starts running their lap and the success of the game falls in their hands instead of yours. A film shares many similarities – the writer runs first, the director runs second. This act of trusting another with a developed piece of art such as a script can lead to great conflict and tension or a great success.

Billy and Jane also shared strategies they use such as encouraging the director they’re working with to help them with parts of the script in order to build a solid foundation of trust. They also explained that, at the end of it though, the writer must give the reins of control over to the director and let them fly with the film themselves.

Both Billy and Jane shared their experiences with this. On Captain Philips, director Paul Greengrass and Billy had many different arguments and fights. Billy explained that he originally wished for the Captain’s wife to be part of the story. Paul disagreed and also wished for the Pentagon to have a side story, as they attempt to organize a rescue, much to Billy’s protest. Billy explained that it was Tom Hanks (Captain Philips) who told them both that the story should never leave the ship that Philips was on. This led to the Captain Philips we know today. 

Jane had her own experiences with writing and directing. Her script for The Wife took fourteen years for her to make and involved many rewrites and defeats. The film failed again and again in being produced, due to the simple fact that it has a female protagonist and the male characters of the story are secondary to her. Finally in 2018, we are able to see this incredible story. She said there were many troubles along the way, with many directors wanting her to change it to be more masculine with a male lead, but she was able to persevere. Robin shared her own stories and tips. She recommended to the audience to go outside their comfort zones and attempt to write something they would be fearful to direct.

Jane Anderson, Billy Ray, Robin Swicord  

The art of writing holds many challenges and all three shared tips in the craft. Billy related writing to marble. His analogy was that writing is like a block of granite. You start with the entire world in your screenplay, that is the granite, and chip away everything that is not the story. You are left with a beautiful statue that is your film. They also explained the challenges of an ending. Jane, Billy and Robin all discussed how, at times, the ending must be so perfect that it is sometimes necessary to go back and change earlier parts of the film to make the ending flow just right. Jane explained how the climax scene for The Wife took many rewrites and redesigns to get right, while Billy explained how the climax scenes in Captain Philips were one of the rare cases where both him and the director had no arguments, fights or disagreements. Jane also shared an important note to those who write and direct their own films. She said that many director/writers will write their scripts as directors, where they get immersed into the shot design, set design, actors and the many details a director has to deal with. She recommended that you write a script as a writer only, and you direct a script as a director only. Then, the story is completed preserved in the writing process and is held to the highest importance. 

The art of writing has many challenges and is one of the most under-looked places in the film industry. For every incredible motion picture ever made, there is a 120 page script that took weeks to years to write and polish. All three shared how the creator of this blueprint and the director who develops the blueprint are at times in conflict, but their goal never differs –  to tell an incredible story. Billy, at the beginning of the panel, said it best, “It’s okay to disagree about the how, as long as you’re not disagreeing about the what.”

Images courtesy of Getty Images and Film Independent

Director’s Close UP: Nicole Holofcener: The Land of Stellar Performances

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Film Independent’s 2019 Director’s Close-Up Series began this week with one of everyone’s favorite indie auteurs, Nicole Holofcener. It is often said that a director’s job is 90% complete in the casting room. Hear from both sides of the camera as Nicole, her long-time casting director Jeanne McCarthy and actor Thomas Mann discuss the art of casting and directing actors, and what it takes to bring memorable and believable characters to life. Panelists: Nicole Holofcener (writer/director; The Land of Steady HabitsEnough Said); Jeanne McCarthy (casting director; The Land of Steady HabitsPrivate Life); Thomas Mann (actor; The Land of Steady HabitsMe and Earl and the Dying Girl); Moderated by Karyn Kusama (director; DestroyerThe Invitation)

Director’s Close Up 2019 – January 30th
By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 16

The annual Film Independent’s 2019 Directors Close-Up began on January 30, eventfully with a deep and compelling discussion on the relationships between the director, casting director and writer. The panel included director Nicole Holofcener, casting director Jeanne McCarthy and actor Thomas Mann. All three have proven themselves over and again in the film industry as talented creators with a true love for cinema. Moderated by Karyn Kusama (director of Destroyer and The Invitation), the first night left every audience member with a fresh new perspective in the acting world of movies.

The evening began with Nicole and Jeanne discussing the role of a casting director. Some very interesting conversations emerged, mainly about finding the right person for the role. Nicole shared her many experiences of attempting to decide which person she felt was best for her stories and Jeanne shared her perspective in the casting director role of trying to find who she thought not only would be best suited for the part, but best suited for Nicole as well. It seems booking a role in a film does not simply come from the performance of a person, but their relationship with the director as well.

Nicole shared many examples of how she makes sure an actor and she can get along before ever stepping onto a film set. She discussed the necessity of meeting with the actors she is considering, in order to make sure that she will be able to work with them for lengthy periods of time and under heavy stress. Both Karyn and Nicole made it clear that an actor can be incredible at acting, but a character in a film will always reflect the chemistry of the actor and director, no matter the talent of either. Another point Nicole noted was the sad case where an actor does not make the performance needed. She stated that, after a certain amount of takes for a scene, she realized that she will never get the performance she wants and must just figure out how to make the best of it in the post room. Of course at times, the process may fail and an actor must be replaced. “It’s painful, but I do it,” Nicole said solemnly.

Thomas shared many experiences from the third angle, that of the actor themselves. Thomas and Nicole shared their experiences with rehearsals. For Nicole, she enjoys the fact that, not only does the time allow for her to build a stronger bond with the actors, but also time to understand different ways of running the scene and how the actors approach their characters. Thomas had a slightly different benefit, building a relationship with fellow actors. Thomas brought up the point that, very often the first shooting day can include very emotional scenes and it can be difficult to deliver a natural performance if the scenes are with actors who have never met each other. The rehearsals allow them to build their relationships in order to deliver a natural performance.

Of course, once on set, the relationship does not end there. The actual film must be made and the art of directing actors came up many times in the evening. Nicole honestly shared her many mistakes when she was starting out as a director. She often would give lines and lines of back story to an actor, explaining every detail, every reasoning for emotion and every single aspect of that character. She realized an actor doesn’t need all this. They need simple commands. Thomas also backed that up. While many first-time directors go the route of too many details, they both explained that, in reality, an actor simply needs to hear very basic instructions such as “do it again louder,” instead of the deep reasons why this actor in this specific moment must say that line louder.

The event held a much larger range of insight, advice and proverbs that enriched the mysterious process of choosing and working with an actor. Thomas also discussed the unique situation of being in a supporting role of a film, when you come in as the filming is already in progress and leave before the production is wrapped. Thomas explained that it creates an interesting challenge when the actor must hit the ground running and be prepared to handle the already established energy of the crew who have been there since the first day. This event lasted a couple of hours, but the panelists truly she a light into the hidden relationship between acting, casting and directing. This was another successful and memorable event hosted by Film Independent!

Luzia: A Waking Dream Of Mexico – A Spectacular Extravaganza That Will Bring You To Your Feet.

Saturday, February 24th, 2018

Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico takes you to an imaginary Mexico, like in a waking dream, where light (“luz” in Spanish) quenches the spirit and rain (“lluvia”) soothes the soul. With a surrealistic series of grand visual surprises and breathtaking acrobatic performances, Luzia cleverly brings to the stage multiple places, faces and sounds of Mexico taken from both tradition and modernity. KIDS FIRST! Juror Harold W. comments, “You will find yourself gasping, laughing and thrilling with joy as  you explore the themes and mythology of Mexico.” Lily L. adds, “Like a see saw, up and down, more people go from one swing to another. Their tricks are stunning. I really loved this performance and recommend that you should go to Cirque du Soleil every year.” See their full reviews below.

Cirque Du Soleil brings Luzia to Southern California
by Harold W., KIDS FIRST! Juror

Cirque Du Soleil brings the emotion and soul of Mexico’s spirit and culture to life in its newest surreal production, Luzia – A Waking Dream of Mexico. The show continued its tour this week, with a stop in Costa Mesa, California.

Your whole family will be engaged in this two and half hour escape into a wonderland of energy, movement, sound and color that takes you through more than a dozen scenarios of music, dance, comedy and gravity defying acrobatics. You will find yourself gasping, laughing and thrilling with joy as  you explore the themes and mythology of Mexico.

A comedic opening welcomes you to an unmatched plane flight that reveals a plunging sky diver unhooked from his harness and brought to earth.  The scene flows into a simple opening of plumaged dancers and mini-gardeners, pierced by the soulful music of a single Spanish guitar solo into a musical flocking of dancing robots, prancing colorful, acrobatic birds and a crescendo of sound that stirs you in your seat.

The walkway comes to life as acrobat after acrobat tumbles through the air, stabbing their bodies through the smallest hoops and landing in flips and motion in a colorful array. The stage clears and the moving animals arrive. Multi-person puppets and agile puppeteers bring us a parade of horses, dragons, snakes and beetles that entertain us as the whole stage is converted into a beach.

Enter the Strong Man. A powerfully built muscle man begins to balance himself on his hands in an ever-growing construction of skinny balance poles. First one length and two hands. Then two lengths and one hand. Then three lengths…four…five…six…until he is holding himself 30 feet above the stage on spindly poles with one powerful arm.

The music and songs blast through the tent in powerful sound to underscore the energy of the performances. The colors and themes provide a new appreciation for the culture and community of our neighbors to the south.  And the show continues. Dancers fly up and through the air at the hands of their partners.  A basic looking hoop dancer moves in circles that grow into fantastic energy and speed. A simple hanging rope turns into a flight of fancy by the talent of a woman flying through the air. A pair of soccer balls defy the laws of gravity under the footwork of their handlers. Spectacular water effects  create images and forms in sheets of droplets as they fall to the floor of the stage. Acrobats twist on balance poles as they stretch their muscles in parallel motions to the floor.  Trapeze artists take flight. Large tiger puppets bond with a spectacular aerialist as they present a surprise feature through the floor of the stage. A juggler’s fantastic speed creates a blur of pins charging through the air. A contortionist‘s body defies the rules of anatomy and bones.

And More.  All of this is wrapped up in a spectacular finale that brings you to your feet. Don’t miss this experience. My children, grandchildren and I all enjoyed it very, very much. Luzia is playing at the OC Fair & Event Center through March 25, 2018; in Washington DC at Tysons II April 12 – May 13; In Boston June 27 – July 29. For further information, go to:  https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/luzia

Luzia : Cirque du Soleil
By Lily Leffler, KIDS FIRST! Reporter, age 10

Cirque du Soleil’s performances all have unique strengths. The shows have been performing for 34 years. Each year they have a different theme. This year’s show is called Luzia and is inspired by Mexico.

It opens with birds coming in with robots while a band plays. Swordfish and dancers come onto the stage. The mini robots get out their maracas and the music becomes upbeat. Now the show.

Soon after that, birds flip through the air – in and out of hoops. In the third scene a woman is thrown, caught and passed by three men. This flexible woman is wonderful. Another woman descends from the ceiling on a rope. She gently wraps herself in the rope and a younger girl spins and twirls in a hoop underneath. They set up the stage while we are distracted by a silent and mysterious game. Then, a pole climber stacks sticks, climbing slowly and conquering the stacked sticks as he goes up and down in handstands.

The performers do wonderful soccer tricks in the rain inside the tent. In the eighth scene, a woman sings a lovely Spanish song while water falls from the ceiling in different patterns and shapes. Then, pole dancers flipped on poles, spinning and spinning. More amazing tricks happen all the time. Most of the performers come out with a tall, long swing. A man goes around on the swing like a gymnast. A man on a thin rope swings in the air, water dripping from his hair and his feat. A man starts to juggle with three pins that go up at least ten feet in the air. Then he has four and then five pins. This man is amazing. Six pins quickly zoom into the room. The juggler drops down to three pins and goes into the crowd. A contortionist literally bends in half. There are not enough words to explain him.

Like a see saw, up and down, more people go from one swing to another. Their tricks are stunning. I really loved this performance and recommend that you should go to Cirque du Soleil every year.

 

 

 

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