Tuesday, June 30, 2015

DOPE (2015)

Written & Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 21, 2015 5:30PM

"Dope" may not seem like your average teen comedy for you will find hip-hop clubs, gangsters, drug-related shoot-outs and the frequent use of the N-word. Oh, and a cast made up mostly by people of color. The writer/directer Rick Famuyiwa has made a visionary film that wants to find a place between the popular urban dramas of the 90's like "Boyz In The Hood", "Juice" and "Dead Presidents" while offering something deeper than the broad humor of Tyler Perry movies. "Dope" succeeds, for the most part, in expanding our ideas of what African-American cinema can be and opens viewers eyes to a world that is rarely represented.

In his first film role, Shameik Moore plays Malcolm Adekanbi, a high school senior. He lives in Inglewood with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) and doesn't remember his father who went back to Africa when he was an infant. Malcolm is not what you would consider one of the cool kids, with his hair shaped in a flat-top fade and wearing 90's hip-hop clothing unironically. His two close friends are fellow outsiders; Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a butch lesbian whose family continues to try and pray away her condition along with the anxious, Jig (Tony Revolori, last seen in "The Grand Budapest Hotel") who is small and inconspicuous. Together, they play in a punk-rock band, Awreeoh (get it?) trying to express themselves in a way that only nerds can understand.

Malcolm is a straight-A student and wants to get in to Harvard. But his school counselor Mr. Bailey (Bruce Beatty) informs him that his college essay on Ice Cube's "Today was a Good Day" is not going to get him there. After being advised to write something about himself, Malcolm is at a loss.

Like many of us at the time, Malcolm and his friends are just trying to get out of high school in one piece but being considered weird makes you an easy target. Not long after barely escaping a school thug trying to steal his shoes, Malcolm nearly loses his bike to the local drug dealers but catches the attention of their leader, Dom (hip-hop artist, A$AP Rocky) because of his unusual style. The two soon bond over music and ideas before Dom has Malcolm go relay a message to a girl to attend his birthday party. Taking one look at this attractive young lady, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz),  Malcolm wants to make his own private plans with her but feels far too uncool to make a move. Nakia is also curious about this odd kid in front of her. She agrees to go only if Malcolm will be there.

Being underage poses an obstacle but Malcolm is determined and drags Diggy and Jig along with him. Once inside the nightclub, the trio party hard and Malcolm even gets a dance with Nakia. Gun-fire breaks up the festivities and the next day, Malcolm discovers his backpack filled with a gun and thousands of dollars worth of Dom's drugs.

With a phone call from a locked-up Dom informing him what to do with the stash, the rest of the film has Malcolm trying to get rid of it before a rival gang catches up to him first. While there's much that happens in between this treacherous race, (and at times overwhelms the film), Mr. Famuyiwa keeps the action moving smoothly with sharp insight and imaginative direction. In between the myriad of high-speed chases, dangerous shoot-outs and wildly deranged characters, there are sweet, touching moments and dark but very funny humor. The cast in uniformly excellent with Famuyiwa also utilizing fascinating non-actors like model, Chanel Iman and rapper, Tyga which helps add to the unconventional nature of the film.

The director had some high-profile talent to help him put this together with Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker (who also provided narration) serving as producers. Like Mr. Famuyiwa's feature debut, "The Wood", "Dope" examines life on the streets of Inglewood where the director grew-up with people just trying to get through each day in their tough surroundings. Despite the difficulties, there is still a sense of community and honor to be found in the neighborhood.

Far from perfect but I think "Dope" ranks up there with other classic teen comedies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". While there is much more perilous menace and edginess here than those films, it's the film's heart and intelligence that makes it truly fit comfortably beside them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


The 2015 Outfest Film festival is set to begin on July 9th and conclude on July 19th. This annual celebration of LGBT cinema in Los Angeles will kick off with "Tig", a documentary on comedian Tig Notaro. The film by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York deals with Notaro coping with a cancer diagnosis while somehow finding humor in her situation while performing her stand-up routine. "Tig", which received rapturous acclaim at this year's Sundance Film Festival, will clearly be a strange mixture of anguish and hilarity.

The international centerpieces will be "Eisenstein In Guanajuato" and "The Summer of Sangaile". Filmmaker Peter Greenway ("The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover") examines Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein during a transformative trip to Mexico in the 1930's where he meets a handsome tour guide and begins a wild and passionate romance. "Summer", a Sundance winner of the World Cinema Directing Award for writer/director, Alanté Kavaïté, is a love story set in Lithuania between two very different young women. This is a surreal and visually breath-taking experience.

One of the documentary centerpieces is "Best of Enemies" by Morgan Neville ("20 Feet From Stardom") and Robert Gordon ("Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story"). It looks at two great minds with two very opposing points of views; Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley as they intellectually sparred on live television in 1968. Their verbal matches were combative, vicious and endlessly fascinating.

"54", a fictionalized story set at Studio 54, the notorious disco in the 1970's, was released in 1998 and became a critical and box-office failure. It turns out that writer/director Mark Christopher was forced to alter the film considerably which included removing a gay subplot. Now seventeen years later, Christopher has reconstructed "54" to reflect his original vision. This new cut will be screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on July 16th.

To celebrate the twenty years that Christine Vachon and her production company, Killer Films have been bringing queer independent cinema to audiences, Outfest will screen Todd Haynes' ode to gender-bending, glam-rock, "Velvet Goldmine" on July 11th. This amazing 1998 classic stars Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor. If you've never this on the big screen, you must check it out.

This is the tenth year of the Legacy Project which has been protecting and restoring essential LGBT cinema. Five important films will be presented; "Parting Glances" (1986), the first film to be restored, Greg Araki's "Totally F*cked Up" (1993), "Born In Flames" (1983), "Madonna: Truth or Dare" (1991) and the latest restoration, "Funeral Parade of Roses" (1969) about transgendered women in the 1960's Tokyo underground.

Finally, the closing night gala will be held at a new location, the theatre at Ace Hotel and the selection is the latest from one of my favorite filmmakers, François Ozon ("8 Women", "Swimming Pool"). "Une nouvelle amie (The New Girlfriend)" stars Romain Duris as a man who tragically loses his young wife and left alone to care for their infant. When Claire (Anais Demoustier), his wife's best friend, arrives to help him out, she discovers his secret life as a transvestite and they develop an unusual relationship.

For the complete list of films, venues and to purchase tickets, please go to:


Sunday, June 21, 2015

SPY (2015)

Written & Directed by Paul Feig

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 9, 2015 5:20PM

Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig together have altered the long-held perception of women in comedy. Mr. Feig has proven that if it's well-written and capable talent is brought on board, people will happily pay to see comedies with female leads while the very funny Ms McCarthy shows that she can be a major box-office draw even if she's not a size two.

They first came together in the bridal nightmare comedy, "Bridesmaids", with the actress in an Oscar-nominated supporting role and the film became a surprise break-out hit. In their next outing, McCarthy was given a bigger part and teamed-up with movie-star, Sandra Bullock in the female-buddy cop caper, "The Heat" and scored another home run. Their latest winning collaboration is "Spy", a spoof of the James Bond action-thrillers with McCarthy, front and center, becoming an unlikely secret agent. The film successfully merges together those common espionage staples involving fancy gadgets, exotic locations, thrilling car chases and bone-shattering brawls with suburban cat-lady disguises, wacky antics and insanely funny gags.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) sits behind a desk at CIA headquarters as the eyes and ears for agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) when he's out fighting the bad guys. Holding a secret crush on the handsome and debonair Fine, the plain and unremarkable Susan can only dream that he would ever notice her as a woman or that she would have a chance to work by his side as an agent.

After his attempt to track down a nuclear bomb that will be sold to Italian gangster, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) ended with the accidental death of his target, Boyanov (Raad Rawi), Agent Fine sets out to find his daughter, Rayna (Rose Byrne) who may know of it's location. But she's on to him, as well as the identities of other CIA agents, and takes Fine out for revenge.

Since the cover is blown for the field agents, Susan volunteers to go on the mission to follow Rayna and locate the bomb. Her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) is opposed to the idea but with few options and time running out, she agrees so long as Susan doesn't make contact.

It should be no shocker that Susan Cooper doesn't follow those instructions once she reaches her Paris destination and gets herself thrown in the mix. The inexperienced spy cons her way in to the inner circle of the deadly, big-haired, Rayna and travels to Rome and Budapest with her as she makes final arrangements to sell the bomb. Susan must find it's whereabouts before her identity is discovered and receives help from her friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart) back at the CIA headquarters, a contact in Italy, Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) who is your standard stereotypical Italian and the abrasive fellow agent, Rick Ford (Jason Statham), disgruntled and going rogue because he wasn't given this assignment, stalks her throughout the mission.

Feig's script follows a faithful blueprint of your average spy adventure but the brief bursts of graphic gore feel out of place for a zany comedy (even the 007 films keep the bloodshed at PG-13 levels). But what the director is really after is to flip the script on expectations and take us on a humorously thrilling ride from a female point-of-view and not from one that looks like Angelina Jolie. After the misstep of "Tammy", the jumbled mess of a comedy created by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone (who pops up here in a cameo), Feig guides the actress back on to solid ground as he's able to rein her manic energy in to coherent focus. McCarthy, with her sweet cherub face and the foul mouth of a demented sailor, doesn't fail to deliver the laughs but also brings warmth and quirky charm to help flesh out her character.

There are plenty of Brits filling out the roles here (and our Aussie, Ms Byrne, hilarious as our Bulgarian villainess) with the towering, Ms Hart, who is a comic sensation back home in England, perfectly giving Americans a taste of what they're missing. But it's Mr. Statham that surprises with sharp comedic skills. The no-nonsense action star hasn't had too many chances to show that he's actually quite funny and hopefully he'll get more opportunities to show that off.

"Spy" brings us plenty of thrills, danger but mostly giddy fun and that's exactly what you want in your summer popcorn fare. The good news is that Ms McCarthy and Mr. Feig are joining forces once again with an all-female reboot of "Ghostbusters". If it's anything like "Spy", I think it's likely we're in for amother hilarious treat

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The premiere showcase for independent cinema in Los Angeles, The LA Film Fest marks it's twenty-first year beginning June 10th with the festival running through June 18th. For the first time, the fest will present competitive awards that will be presented on closing night to help bring additional awareness to exceptional works.

The great Lily Tomlin has been chosen to be honored with The Spirit of Independence Award and her latest film, "Grandma" (which received plenty of buzz at Sundance) will be the Opening Night Film.

The fest has also added this year Nightfall, a line-up of indie-genre films making their world premiere and Launch, which will feature new talent creating fiction in digital spaces such as web-series, music videos and gaming. This is in addition to other programs including Master Classes (which brings prominent artists to give invaluable talks about their trade), Coffee Talks (that focuses on all aspects in the craft of film making), Diversity Speaks (a day-long convention of filmmakers and storytellers of color) and Music in Film Nights at The GRAMMY Museum that has live performances by some of the world’s most acclaimed musicians.

There will be free outdoor screenings available which includes "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" on June 12th and "Love & Basketball" on June 13th.

For the complete list of films, activities and venues, please click below:

2015 LA Film Fest

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Written by David Nicholls

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Where & When: E Street Cinema, Washington D.C.  May 18, 2015  7:45PM

I have never read the classic novel "Far From The Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy but I'm sure it's no where near as lifeless and uninspired as this latest film adaptation. The director Thomas Vinterberg began his career as a co-founder of Dogme 95 (along with the notorious, Lars von Trier), a radical Danish movement that brought attention to getting back to the basics of story-telling by not using modern visual effects. Since his terrific Dogme debut, "Festen (The Celebration)" (which won a well-deserved jury prize at the 1998 Cannes festival), Vinterberg has pretty much abandoned this adventurous concept and has settled into more conventional film making. His last film was the understated but powerful "Jagten (The Hunt)" which earned the director a 2012 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  "Far" has a much larger budget and delivers a grand, sweeping style but lacks a more imaginative approach in telling this enduring love story.

The film looks ravishing thanks to cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, production designer, Kave Quinn and the exquisite costumes by Janet Patterson. We also have on hand strong performances by the quite talented, Carey Mulligan taking on the fiercely independent, Bathsheba Everdene and the Belgium hunk, Matthias Schoenaerts as one of her suitors along with a fine supporting cast. But none of these wonderful elements come together to create the passionate romantic epic that was clearly intended. The result is more tepid at best with the colorless script by David Nicholls leaves the film feeling truncated and rushed.

Set in Victorian England, Bathsheba has a strong desire to remain unmarried, particularly strange for a young woman of this era. She is quite content working on her aunt's modest farm but catches the eye of Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a handsome shepherd. They become friendly and soon Gabriel asks her to become his bride. Despite her hasty rejection, this decision seems to quietly inflame his desire even more for this odd beauty.

Their lives take an unexpected turn as Gabriel loses his entire herd in a tragic accident, forcing him to sell what little he has left and leave in search of work. Bathsheba inherits an uncle's farm in a nearby village and becomes quite wealthy. Circumstances bring these two together once again but now Gabriel is hired to work for Bathsheba.

Bathsheba inadvertently attracts the attention of her neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), an affluent bachelor after playfully sending him a valentine. Taking this quite seriously, the lonely Boldwood's heart is awakened after years of dormancy.  He asks for her hand in marriage, which Bathsheba regrettably declines, but he's patient and willing to wait for her to come around.

Another admirer enters Bathsheba's orbit, a charming young sergeant named Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). With an act of seduction involving his sword, Bathsheba surprisingly falls under his spell and for the first time feels actual yearning. Fearful of losing the solider, she agrees to marry Frank. After the glow of matrimony dims, Bathsheba is soon introduced to the true man and with that, a dark secret surfaces.

As we witness Bathsheba's efforts to maneuver through as a steadfast woman, not wanting to lose herself in a decidedly man's world, we are shown how much our society has evolved and how much has stubbornly remained the same. Throughout all of Bathsheba's lapse of judgement, difficult adversity and tragic misfortune, Gabriel remained by her side, offering advice (whether solicited or not), guidance and friendship. She is the last to know what becomes obvious, that what you might be searching for has been with you all the time.

"Far From The Madding Crowd" is far from a bad film. It just doesn't feel necessary at least in the way it's been assembled. The film hits all of major points of the novel but it's cinematic structure is strictly by-the-numbers. With a lead character who was all about taking risks and facing challenges, it's surprising so little was taken here.

Monday, May 25, 2015


The 68th annual Cannes Film Festival came to a close with the selection of "Dheepan", the story of Sri Lankan refugees trying to make a new life in Paris, for the Palme d'Or . This understated film, directed by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet", "Rust and Bone"), was a surprise winner for this top film honor. The highly unconventional Holocaust drama "Son of Saul" by Hungarian director, Laszlo Nemes, took the Grand Prix or runner-up prize.

Another surprise was for Best Actress as there was a tie. Emmanuelle Bercot, who directed the opening-night film, "La Tete Haute (Standing Tall)", took home the acting honor for her deeply emotional role in "Mon Roi". Rooney Mara shared the prize for her impressive work in Todd Haynes' "Carol" which she plays a young lesbian shopgirl opposite Cate Blanchett's curious housewife.

Here is a partial list of winners from this year's Cannes Film Festival:

Palme d'Or: "Dheepan"

Grand Prix: "Saul fia (Son of Saul)"

Best Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, "The Assassin"

Best Screenplay: Michel Franco, "Chronic"

Best Actor: Vincent Lindon, "The Measure of a Man"

Best Actress: (Tie) Rooney Mara, "Carol" and Emmanuelle Bercot, "Mon Roi"

Camera d'Or (Best First Feature): "La Tierra y la Sombre"

Palme d'Or (Short Film): "Waves ’98"

Jury Prize: "The Lobster"

Un Certain Regard Prize: "Hrútar (Rams)"

Un Certain Regard Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, "Journey to the Shore"

Un Certain Regard Jury prize: "Zvizdan (The High Sun)"

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Written & Directed by Olivier Assayas

Where & When: Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood, CA.  April 25, 2015  1:40PM

"Clouds of Sils Maria" takes a look at a mature actress who has enjoyed a fruitful and acclaimed career on stage and screen. Now asked to join in a remake that made her famous, not in the role of the young girl she once played but of the damaged older character. The very thought brings out all of her fears and insecurities in an industry that holds aging in contempt, particularly for women. It may sound like another innocuous tale of Hollywood elitism but the latest by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas offers something far more intricate, dreamy and even mysterious. The director's films, especially his female-centric cult classics "Irma Vep" and "Demonlover", have been characterized as working within conventional themes before venturing towards a strange and unexpected course. "Clouds" certainly follows that path and while not entirely successful. it is well worth exploring.

It should be no surprise that Juliette Binoche, always one of the more compelling film performers working today, is absolutely riveting in the part of the actress. What is more of an eye-opener is Kristen Stewart as the devoted personal assistant. Never been much of a fan as I feel the young actress comes across far too sullen and detached on screen to be particularly engaging. The overwhelming fame she achieved from the "Twilight" series didn't help, seeming to cause her to withdraw even further. Although still not fully sold, I'll freely admit this is one of Ms Stewart's finest performances. She even earned the César for Best Supporting Actress for her work here, an impressive first for a non-French speaking actor.

An actress of international renown, Marina Enders (Binoche), travels by train to accept a career achievement award for Wilhelm Melchior, a popular Swiss playwright and filmmaker who gave the first major part to her in one of his early works, "Maloja Snake". In the middle of a nasty divorce, Marina would completely unravel without the sturdy assistance of Valentine (Stewart), who keeps her life organized, offers sound advice and holds her up during difficult situations. That certainly is required during this trip as she has the difficult task of informing Marina that her dear friend has passed away.

Distraught and unsure of whether to continue on to Zurich, Valentine convinces Marina to follow through with accepting the prize. While at the ceremony, the assistant talks her boss in to meeting with the in-demand director who wants her to star in a new stage production of "Maloja Snake". Having previously turned down the request to play the tragic role of the middle-aged woman who ultimately ends her life, the actress becomes more open but still reluctant to commit after some discussion.

Some time later at Melchior's chalet in the tranquil Swiss alps, Marina begins rehearsing for the play. With only Valentine by her side to help run her lines. Marina becomes increasingly more agitated as she digs further in to the role. Lost and unmotivated, she becomes wistful of her time as the ingenue. As for the acting rival that will be taking over her previous part, Marina is disturbed to find that Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a troubled but talented young starlet with a wild lifestyle that helps make the paparazzi very rich. When they finally meet, Marina is surprised to find a polished and thoughtful actress before her, filled with gushing compliments though still far from tabloid-free.

The most fascinating feature of the script by Mr. Assayas is the working relationship between Marina and Valentine. Far from simple and straightforward, it may not be strange for two people who spend so much time together to be close but boundaries become blurred, positions of power shift and words spoken to each other appear to offer alternative meaning. This is particularly the case as Marina and Valentine run through lines of the play, the dark and complex conversation between the characters appear to bleed through in to their own elusive connection.

The odd plot twist in the final act throws "Clouds of Sils Maria" out of whack and doesn't fully recover. Despite this brief set back, the film remains just as graceful and majestic as the airy clouds we see traveling through those mountains in Switzerland. The additional treat of watching these wonderful actresses display their great talent makes this truly a magical experience.