Jury Coordination and Notes

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

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

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: Another Type of Narrative: The Truth of Docs

February 16th, 2019

This has been a stellar year for documentary film. From fresh new voices telling compelling personal stories to veterans who continue to push the boundaries of storytelling, the form continues to evolve and grow into an exciting canvas for filmmakers to represent the world we live in. Join us as we discuss many of the questions and challenges inherent to nonfiction films, with the directors behind some of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year. They’ll explore how they go beyond letting reality unspool on screen to carefully crafting narratives that bring us closer to the truth.

Director’s Close-Up: Another Type of Narrative: The Truth of Docs
By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

In the world of cinema, there is a division between jobs, between mediums and between genres. Yet, no bigger division exists than that between the world of fictional films and the world of documentaries. The third week of Director’s Close Up examined the documentary world by creating a panel of some of the most premier documentarians of the last year. It featured Alexandria Bombach (director; On Her ShouldersFrame By Frame); Talal Derki (director; Of Fathers and SonsThe Return to Homs); Bing Liu  (director, Minding the Gap); Morgan Neville (director; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?20 Feet from Stardom); Sandi Tan (writer/director, Shirkers) and was moderated by Lisa Leeman (director; One Lucky ElephantOut of Faith)

Each documentary had its own unique challenges. Alexandria’s documentary is about Nadia Murad, a victim of sexual violence that was abducted by ISIS. The story had to carefully tell her story and discuss her career without victimizing the heroine and making her relive the nightmarish experiences that she suffered. Talal perhaps had the most dangerous experience where he gained the trust to follow a radical Islamic family for two years. Bing’s journey to make his documentary was brave and complex as he examines three friends living in volatile families in a small rust-belt town. Morgan, a highly seasoned and Oscar award-winning documentarian took up the challenge of telling the story of Fred Rogers and revealing the depth of what everyone assumed was a simple two-dimensional TV personality. Lastly, Sandi chronicles the discovery of  16mm tapes for a film she made over two decades ago, that were stolen by the film’s director and her journey of reconnecting with old friends.

Talal told many stories of his experiences portraying the level of dedication he had to his project. He talked about how he had to delete photos from social media and go on pro-jihadist syndicates in order to seem supportive of radical Islam. This sacrificed many friends, but he succeeded. His troubles did not end there though. He explained that he could never have too much cash on him out of fear of being kidnapped, and had to cut his stay in dangerous territory after he learned that bloodthirsty leaders began hearing about him and his filmmaking. During the entire project, it was simply him alone in very dangerous zones with a camera. He had no crew, no backup and no friends in the foreign land. His journey is a prime example of the levels of danger and dedication a documentarian needs to have in order to get the access to material needed to make the film.

Many of the panelists discussed changes they made in the process of creating their films. Neither Bing nor Sandi planned on being in their own films, until very late in the production process, with Sandi having to use every second of footage of her available. Bing’s film features skateboarding often and he discussed his style of filming skateboarders, where he keeps the camera at eye-level, causing the focus to be on the skaters and their emotions instead of on the footwork and the skateboard. Morgan stated the importance of sound in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, due to how meaningful music was to Fred Rogers. He also discussed the editing process and how to establish a certain mood, flow and style. He explained that “The Instructions for the film you are making are in the film you’re making.” Morgan also discussed how he wished to show the concept of nature leading to harmony and, at first wished to include many nature shots, but ended up deciding on one simple shot of a bird at the beginning to communicate his message. Their stories demonstrate so clearly just how much a documentary can change and how many elements must be considered in the filmmaking and editing process.

These five creators opened the eyes of the audience to the remarkable art form of the documentary. By bringing together such a varied group of filmmakers, Film Independent was able to show that, not only is each documentarian unique in their craft and the story they choose to tell, but also how unique their challenges are. Talal, in the Middle East had very different challenges from Sandi or Alexandria. It also shows how any scale of a story can be eye-opening. Alexandria’s story about Nadia should be listened to by all equally to Morgan’s story on Fred Rogers. The most captivating films are not ones of mass proportion, but – just as this panel demonstrated – are ones that are real, emotional, relatable and natural. 

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

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

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!

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical – The Electrifying Off-Broadway Musical Heads Out On Tour

January 25th, 2019

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical – The Electrifying Off-Broadway Musical Heads Out On Tour. Lightning struck Off-Broadway theater Lucille Lortel’s stage in the form of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical in early 2017. The updated hit musical garnered three Drama Desk Award nominations including Outstanding Musical and now brings its action, magic and music to a theater near you on a mammoth US tour beginning last fall. Based on the cult-classic Young Adult novel by acclaimed fantasy author Rick Riordan (which also spawned a feature film), the production may be aimed at a younger audience, but its self-aware humour, ubpeat pop rock score and satisfying special effects make it perfect for older mortals too.

Life is tough enough when you’re going though puberty, but Percy Jackson’s not only facing teendom with ADHD and dyslexia, he’s just discovered he’s a demi-god, son of the God Of the Sea Poseidon. In this epic coming of age tale, Greek myths are very much real! When Jackson’s human mom is kidnapped and the lightning bolt of Zeus is stolen by malevolent forces, the wonderkid and his newfound friends go on a quest to set the world to rights.

KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror Juanita Seon Leary comments, “I am a fan of musicals and this production is an excellent adaptation. It takes place in present day, starting out in Camp Half-Blood in Long Island, NY and moves to several places as it develops.” See her full review below.  

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical
Juanita Seon Leary, KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror     

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical opened at the Merriam Theater on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 and I was thrilled with the production. This musical is based on the books written by Joe Tracz and adapted by Rick Riordan.

I am a fan of musicals and this production is an excellent adaptation. It takes place in present day, starting out in Camp Half-Blood in Long Island, NY and moves to several places as it develops.

The story follows a young man, Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell), who finds out that he is half human and half god.  He struggles with being expelled from six schools in one year. Percy feels as if he cannot do anything right. After he learns that his father is Posiedon, one of the Twelve Olympians in ancient Greek religion and mythology, god of the Sea and other waters and of earthquakes and horses, Percy sets out to right a wrong caused by a war between the gods.

I enjoyed watching Percy Jackson as he joins the other half-bloods (children with one human parent and the other a god) in their quest. It was exhilarating to watch the cast of young actors work together to to prove that Percy did not steal the lightning bolt. 

One of my favorite scenes is when Percy and his friends Annabeth (Kristin Stokes) Grover (Jorrell Javier) set out on their quest and, while traveling on a bus that is bombed by the gods to deter them, confetti of gold strips of paper fly out into the audience. I received several bursts of confetti which was fun and exciting.

All the cast members are excellent singers, dances and actors. The sets and stage props are magnificent and well-constructed. This show has messages of friendship, never giving up and appreciating your life.

The Lightning Thief:The Percy Jackson Musical is now playing at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, PA Through Sunday, January 27, 2019. I recommend it is for ages 8 to 18, as well as adults and give it 5 out of 5 stars. For a complete list of dates and locations through July, 2019 go to: http://www.lightningthiefmusical.com/ – home

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: CAST AND CREATIVE

CAST
Chris McCarrell as Percy Jackson
Kirstin Stokes as Annabeth
Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Clarice
James Hayden Rodriguez as Luke
Jorrel Javier as Grover and Mr. D
Ryan Knowles as Chiron
Jalynn Steel as Sally

Understudies
Izzy Figueroa
Sam Leicht
T. Shyvonne Stewart.

CREATIVE
Book by Joe Tracz
Music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Choreography by Patrick McCollum
Set design by Lee Savage
Costume design by Sydney Maresca
Sound design by Ryan Rumery
Lighting design by David Lander
Fight direction by Rod Kinter
Orchestrations by Wiley Deweese and Rob Rikicki

Green Book: An Unlikely Bi-Racial Friendship In the 60s Deep South

November 23rd, 2018

Dr. Don Shirley is a world-class African-American pianist who’s about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip, a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation. KIDS FIRST! Reviewer Kimbirly O. comments, “American History is often not pretty. When it comes to Green Book, it is purely ugly and lovingly told. From the stereotypical Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx in New York, to the Deep South during the 60s, this film is based on a true story of unlikely friends.  See her full review below.

Green Book
By Kimbirly O., KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror

American History is often not pretty. When it comes to Green Book, it is purely ugly and lovingly told. From the stereotypical Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx in New York, to the Deep South during the 60s, this film is based on a true story of unlikely friends.  Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson) is a working-class Italian-American bouncer and sometimes “assistant” within the mob, who becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on a tour of venues through the 1960s American south. A classically trained virtuosic pianist, Dr. Shirley embarks on a journey to play for the wealthy throughout the south – the same people who will not eat with him, nor share a restroom, among other things. The title of the film refers to the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel book Tony and Shirley follow to guide them to “approved” hotels and restaurants during their travels. Dr. Shirley’s journey to and through the south is truly more than a drive of a thousand miles; it is a road to self-discovery for both men.

Tony “Lip”, not Tony the Lip, mind you, is a family man. He, like his father before him, is a hard-working proud Italian man, who lives in the same neighborhood as the generations who came before him. He is married (his wife is played by Linda Cardellini)) and they have two sons. He prides himself on being a “bullshit artist.” When he loses his job, he is recruited to serve as the driver to a renowned pianist, who just so happens to be African-American. Dr. Shirley, on the other hand, is estranged from his family and searching. The two men are cast perfectly and bring the best both offer and then some. There are some very touching scenes within this film.

I will not dwell on the racial stereotypes prevalent throughout the film, instead I will focus on the unlikely friendship, which continued throughout the lives of both men. This film is based on a true story. It is co-written by Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), Bryan Currie and Peter Farrelly, who is best known for films written with his brother Bobby and more sophomoric in nature (i.e. Dumb and Dumber). Peter Farrelly also directs the film.

Awards buzz – 18 wins thus far and the major film awards have not yet begun. This film has been the darling of 2018 film festivals with many audience wins. History shows us how The Academy loves true stories. I am looking for several names from this film on January 22.

I give this film 4.5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 12 to 18, as well as adults. There is a LOT of smoking, I mean SO MUCH SMOKING. It takes place in the 60s and everyone seems to smoke. There is also a lot of drinking in the film. Racism is prevalent throughout as it takes place in the Deep South where people were referred to as “colored” and segregated. There is also a brief scene, which intimates a sexual encounter between two men, although there is no true nudity. This film opens in theaters nationwide November 16, 2018. See it! Stay for the credits.

 

Photos by Universal Pictures - ©2018 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved

 

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms – From the Beginning, Your Senses Will be ALIVE!

November 1st, 2018

All Clara wants is a key – a one-of-a-kind key that will unlock a box that holds a priceless gift from her late mother. A golden thread, presented to her at godfather Drosselmeyer’s annual holiday party, leads her to the coveted key-which promptly disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. It’s there that Clara encounters a soldier named Phillip, a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three Realms: Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, and Land of Sweets. Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant Mother Ginger, to retrieve Clara’s key and hopefully return harmony to the unstable world. Kimbirly O., KIDS FIRST! Juror comments, “From the beginning of the film, your senses will be ALIVE! Every set looks edible with color and life. Truly, this live-action Disney film is a breath of fresh air.” See her full review below.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
By Kimbirly O., KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror

Do you remember The Nutcracker ballet? What about Cinderella? As I screened this film, both childhood memories came to mind.

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has brought the magic of Disney back to the big screen. From the beginning of the film, your senses will be ALIVE! Every set looks edible with color and life. Truly, this live-action Disney film is a breath of fresh air.

While you may know the story of The Nutcracker, your senses will be awakened by the colors, costumes, and scenery in this film. As with most Disney films, there is a theme of loss, yet it is also so alive!

Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is an amazing young protagonist. I found myself drawn to her curious nature and determination to live up to her mother’s curious nature. As a young girl, she plays a curious and adventurous spirit, who is also very mechanically inclined. She amazed me by her desire to succeed, and her courage.  She walks into dark spaces knowing she is enough, and encounters creatures who challenge her along a path of discovery. She encounters toy soldiers and magical mice – some of whom are not kind! Clara’s quick mind and wonderful, kind skills help her get through a lot of sticky situations!

Without giving too much away,the gist of the story is about a gift, presented by her Father, but left to her by her mother at Christmas. Her second gift is from her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) at his annual holiday party, which leads her to a coveted key – which promptly disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. From one world to the next, Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers and Land of Sweets, Clara and a soldier she meets named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key.

The Sugar Plum Fairy Sugar (Keira Knightley), we learn, is not to be trusted and at times, gets annoying with her over the top antics. But in the end, this film has all the feels (and reminds me of so many things) of a Victorian English Christmas, the beloved Russian ballet, lively forest creatures from Disney and the bond of family. Misty Copeland makes a magnificent addition to the film, showcasing her balletic perfection.

Hats off to the costumers and make-up artists! I give this film 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 4 to 18, as well as adults. You should know this film deals with the death of a parent. It opens in theaters nationwide November 2, 2018. Look for it! You’ll be glad you did.

Photos © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Photos © 2018 Walt Disney Pictures

Intelligent Lives – Eye Opener About the Power to Contribute Regardless of One’s Intellectual Ability

September 17th, 2018

From award-winning filmmaker Dan Habib comes Intelligent Lives, a catalyst to transform the label of intellectual disability from a life sentence of isolation into a life of possibility for the most systematically segregated people in America. Intelligent Lives stars three pioneering young American adults with intellectual disabilities – Micah, Naieer, and Naomie – who challenge perceptions of intelligence as they navigate high school, college, and the workforce. Academy Award-winning actor and narrator Chris Cooper contextualizes the lives of these central characters through the emotional personal story of his son Jesse, as the film unpacks the shameful and ongoing track record of intelligence testing in the U.S. Intelligent Lives challenges what it means to be intelligent, and points to a future in which people of all abilities can fully participate in higher education, meaningful employment and intimate relationships.

Intelligent Lives

By Terry Solowey, KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror

This documentary opens one’s eyes to the power of determination to contribute to society regardless of the label of “intellectual disability”. We follow three young adults through their personal journeys to make a life for themselves. They had me rooting for them throughout the entire film. I admire their chutzpah and determination.

What amazed me are the historical references showing how they would have been treated if born in the early 20th century. They would have been sent to institutions or might have been forcibly sterilized like the 60,000 that were before 1950. This was called the eugenics movement.  As recently as 1975, they would  have had no legal access to a public education.

This film’s mission is to transform the label of intellectual disability once known as “mentally retarded” into a life of possibility.  We watch Naieer, Micah and Naomie as they work through high school, college and the workforce to accomplish their goals. Micah, born in 1984, is determined to succeed. He goes to Syracuse University and graduates with a certificate from the school of education to become a teaching assistant. He gives us a new outlook and perspective on someone with an IQ of 40, being quite savvy with social media.  He is a constant reminder not to underestimate what people can do. After college, he learns to live on his own and becomes close with a fellow classmate, Meghan and helps her to advocate for herself.

Naieer, born in 1999, has a great talent for art, takes general education in inclusion classes, and is a great basketball player at a public high school in Massachusetts. Through the Art for Cultural Inclusion show, he creates six wonderful paintings.  Naomie is 25, loves to sing and dance at her church in Rhode Island with her hip-hop producer brother, and works toward and gets her first paying job through a job training program at a hair salon.

There are many poignant moments as we watch these three work toward their goals.  I have admiration for all of them. Their circles of support – the people,  teachers and family who work with them – have great patience and show great caring for each one of them. My favorite moments are seeing Micah visit Meghan’s family and socialize with her at a party, watching Naieer at his art show and cheering Naomie on  when she learns she has a position at a beauty parlor. Viewing this film gives you a real glimpse and sense of their individual personalities.

These three stories are brought together to examine the nature of intelligence by the actor Chris Cooper and his wife Marianne as they share the connection to the film and tell us about their son Jesse, whose intelligence has been questioned because he has cerebral palsy. Jesse however, became a high school honor student and a poet, before his death at age 17.

We see the fight against segregation based on ability in action.  Intelligence looks different for everyone.

This film gives one a new perspective on disability and labels. Differences make us stronger, not divide us. These three young adults show us what perseverance and chutzpah can to do to work through challenges. It is quite uplifting and makes a powerful statement. People of all abilities and talents can fully participate in life in an inclusive world.

I give this film 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 12 to 18, as well as adults. I highly recommend this film for the insights, knowledge, awareness and accomplishments that have been made by these young peoples who continue to do so. It opens in New York City on September 21, 2018 with a national release to follow.

Digimon Adventure Tri: Coexistence – Graphics and Action that Draw You In!

August 30th, 2018

The Adventure Continues…The arrival of the super powerful Meicoomon starts a countdown to the real world’s collapse. The DigiDestined are cast out of the Digital World, and even after returning to the real world, are driven away by people, due to their partnerships with the Digimon. Meanwhile, a cruel fate appears imminent for Kari, who has a more honest and sensitive spirit than anyone. KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror Kimbirly M. comments, “With the well-known Japanese anime style, Digimon-tri has sharp-edge graphics and action sequences that draw the viewers in.” See the rest of her review below.

Digimon Adventure Tri: Coexistence
By Kimberly Michelle Mullins, KIDS FIRST! Adult Juror

With the well-known Japanese anime style, Digimon-tri has sharp-edge graphics and action sequences that draw the viewers in. We see them dealing with educational and social struggles similar to those that many have to deal with, but with friends helping out.

This is a continuation of the popular Digimon-tri series. The storyline, generally about dark forces taking over, flows well. There are no lagging sequences that would bore the viewer. One becomes empathetic with the protagonist Kari and even the evil force overtaking Meicoomon. The vocabulary and concepts are appropriate for its intended age group and could further enhance vocabulary and concepts that the viewer may not understand. It portrays pro-social models such as when Kari feels that she might be responsible for a specific situation and one of the others reassures her that this definitely isn’t the case. This entire series is very good at displaying consequences of both negative and positive behaviors. There are also good models of problem solving such as when a Digimon character decides on an action and another vehemently opposes it. The rest of the group has to come to a general consensus to make a final determination.

The underlying message is about seeking out others when you are experiencing tough times. Life has complicated challenges, but you can overcome them. You should be aware that there are two things that make this more appropriate for older viewers. First, a character pulls out a gun, but there is no blast. And second, we see a powerful being shaped like a naked woman, although there are no graphic features. For that reason, I recommend it for ages 10 to 18, as well as young adults and give it 4 out of 5 stars. I would raise the highest age to 25 if I could, because it is so thought-provoking and intelligent. The DVD allows you to select specific scenes and has a bonus feature interview. Reviewed by Kimberly M., KIDS FIRST! Adult Reviewer

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