With Dumbo, Tim Burton Proves He Still Knows How to Give Us What We Want

It was Tim Burton’s dreadful, garish, and bafflingly profitable live-action retooling of Alice in Wonderland that helped kick off the Disney-remake craze nearly a decade ago, so it’s understandable to expect the worst from DumboThe director has never handled sentiment well, and the original 1941 Dumbo is, in some ways, the softest and simplest of the first wave of Disney animated classics; the idea of that compact, understated tale of friendship and maternal love somehow fueling another ornate, bloated Tim Burton super-production sends chills up the spine. But the new Dumbo, as compromised as it is, somehow turns out to be one of the director’s better films of recent years — even as it reveals some of his more frustrating shortcomings.

Not unlike Alice, this live-action take on Dumbo only borrows the bare bones of its story from the original. Dumbo is still a big-eared Asian elephant born in a circus and initially dismissed as a freak, but his companions this time are humans, primarily World War I vet and amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two kids, Joe and Milly (Finley Hobbins and Nico Parker), all of whom work for a traveling circus run by the boisterous and slightly shady Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The movie also takes from the original the tender bond between Dumbo and his protective mother, who is exiled after she rampages and kills a particularly harsh circus trainer. (And yes, we do get to hear a wonderful, new variation on the achingly tender song “Baby Mine.”)

The Farrier kids take over most of the narrative duties handled in the original by the scrappy Timothy Q. Mouse, who was basically a poor man’s Jiminy Cricket. But they’ve been given a lot more to do here. In the 1941 version, Dumbo doesn’t really fly until late in the story, a development that has the quality of a release, a catharsis. Here, it comes early — and as soon as the adorable little thing takes wing (or should that be “takes ear”?), Max gets a visit from V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a flamboyant, hot-shot New York carnival impresario, who whisks Dumbo and his human companions off to the infamous, massive Coney Island amusement park Dreamland.

The real-life version of that park, by the way, had already burned down by the year 1919, which is when Dumbo takes place, but I did get a kick out of the film’s attempt to recreate the place — and to give us an alternate, fictional reason for the cataclysmic fire that engulfed it. The colorful world of Dreamland and its many attractions might also remind viewers of Disneyland itself, which prompts interesting thoughts about what Burton might be saying here, as Dumbo gets exploited by the rapacious, seemingly kid-friendly capitalist Vandevere. Could the picture be an allegory for the director’s own time toiling in the Disney factory? Maybe, but Dumbo doesn’t lend much to that reading — most of the story and the dialogue here are pitched at the level of children’s fantasy, simple and direct and subtlety-free. And don’t expect any of that sly, irreverent edge of grown-up cynicism that Burton brought to so much of his early work. This is not the man who gave us Edward Scissorhands, and he hasn’t been for a while.

But here’s the good news: The circus settings do liberate Burton, giving him the opportunity to stage elaborate, bizarre acts with grandiosity and verve. Whether we’re watching Dumbo hoisted along a fake burning building to launch himself off a collapsing platform, or trying to navigate an ill-advised trapeze act, whenever the spotlights come on and the crowd roars, Dumbo comes to life. It helps also that Burton never lets us forget that we’re watching an elephant flying. The way the creature bops along awkwardly with each flap of his ears enhances the weirdness. We want to cheer, but we also want to laugh at the absurdity of it all. And the spectacle never gets tedious or tiresome (as it did in Alice and Dark Shadows) or confusing (as it did in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). I could watch the circus scenes of this film forever, and thankfully, there are plenty of them.


Pro-life Movie “Unplanned” Generating Controversy Before Its Release

At a time when legal experts say it’s increasingly likely that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, the film Unplanned about former Planned Parenthood director-turned-pro-life-activist Abby Johnson is generating controversy and even an “R” rating.

The Motion Picture Association of America assigned the film, which opens March 29 at 800 theaters nationwide and is distributed by Pure Flix, an “R” rating for some “disturbing/bloody images” depicting the abortion process.

The writers and co-producers — Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman who made God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 — note the film contains no profanity, nudity, sex, or violence, and argue that the MPAA’s rating seems to indirectly endorse the film’s pro-life position that abortion is an act of violence.
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“I think (the MPAA rating) is great because, essentially to me, that just means the MPAA agrees with us, that abortion is a violent, disturbing act because they didn’t give us an ‘R’ for nudity, not for sex, not for profanity, for none of those things,” actress Ashley Bratcher, who plays Johnson in the film, told The New American. “They only gave it to us for violence, so that means they agree with us.”

Solomon says the film explores the most controversial issue in the world.

“Mother Teresa said when abortion ends in America, it’ll stop across the world,” Solomon said in a statement. “That’s how influential what goes on in America is. So, this is a desperate struggle here.”

Konzelman says the film explores the “third rail of American culture.”

“This is the one subject that pastors are afraid to bring up in their churches,” Konzelman said in a statement. “This is the one subject that priests are afraid to preach about for fear of alienating members of their congregation. When a subject becomes that taboo, there’s got to be something really, really important going on. And that’s where we’re taking this in our society. So, someone has to address this.”

The movie, which features top-notch acting, excellent cinematography, and explosive revelations about the shocking reality of abortion, is based off the 2012 bestselling book by Johnson entitled Unplanned: The True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Courageous Choice in Favor of Life.

The movie tells the story of Johnson’s transformation from an abortion clinic manager to a pro-life activist. Johnson, who started out as a volunteer in college and rose through the ranks to become director of a Planned Parenthood facility in Texas, quit her job after witnessing an ultrasound of an unborn baby attempting to escape an abortionist’s suction tool.

“Ultimately, I left [Planned Parenthood] after witnessing a live ultrasound-guided abortion procedure where I saw a 13-week-old baby fight and struggle for his life against the abortion instruments only to lose his life, and I knew that there was humanity in the womb,” Johnson told The New American. “I knew that for all these years, I had essentially put the rights of the woman above the rights of the unborn child, and it became very clear to me in that moment that our rights should be equal — that one shouldn’t supersede the other.”

Johnson went on to start a ministry called And Then There Were None — helping abortion industry workers leave the industry and start new lives.

The film comes as much of America has been shocked by New York and other states moving to legalize abortion up until the time of birth. At the same time, legal experts told The New American that at least 20-abortion-related cases are working their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court that could result in a decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion.

With President Trump’s appointment of two new conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and the possibility that he may make other appointments if one or more of the aging, liberal justices die, experts say abortion activists are expressing growing concern that the case could be overturned soon.

“I think we are living in times where we could see Roe v. Wade overturned in the Supreme Court and pro-choice legislators are saying that as well,” Johnson says.

A survey by The Marist Poll in late February found Americans are now as likely to identify as pro-life (47 percent) as pro-choice (47 percent), a double-digit shift from January when The Marist Poll found Americans more likely to identify as pro-choice than pro-life by 17 points (55 to 38 percent).

“I think the [new law in New York] is just very reactionary and now we’ve seen the latest Marist Poll that now even more Democrats are identifying as pro-life,” Johnson says. “I think it’s because these pro-life legislators have swung the pendulum so far that they are now really out of touch with their democratic constituency. I think they’ve exposed their hand and gone too far. They’ve shown too much, and it’s causing people who were once even supporters of them to rethink their thoughts on abortion.”

Here is the official trailer for Unplanned:

The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum review – Matthew McConaughey lands the role of a lifetime

In Harmony Korine’s wild, witty yet tender new film, the often miscast actor scales new heights as a pot-smoking poet

Harmony Korine has built a reputation by throwing audiences full-bodied into worlds of taboo, pleasure and depravity. Whether it’s the recklessness of the jaded New York teens in Kids, or the neon-colored rampage of bikini-clad co-eds in Spring Breakers, Korine dares audiences to revel and empathize with characters who risk being written off as cartoons or cautionary tales. In The Beach Bum, the writer-director turns his observational eye and provocateur verve to a Miami community of misfits, who chase bliss in sex, drugs and misadventures. The result is a film that is joyous, outrageous and slyly mournful.
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Matthew McConaughey stars as Moondog, a once successful poet who has fallen out of the spotlight, coddling himself in clouds of pot smoke, rivers of booze, and the forgiving cushion of his rich wife’s fortune. At a glance, you’d never know Moondog isn’t a vagrant. His long, scraggly blond hair frames a face perpetually cracked open in a mad guffaw, exposing a broad smile and a dead tooth. His conversation swings from the peculiar to the prophetic and profound. One moment he’s cooing over a kitten, proclaiming it “angel pussy”. The next, he’s having sex with a busty stranger in a burger joint’s kitchen, calling out to the diners who look on in mild bemusement. Moondog is a free spirit whose wealth insulates him from many of life’s troubles. That is, until it’s gone.

In the blink of an eye, he goes from eccentric millionaire to homeless weirdo. Faced with financial ruin, Moondog must clean up his act and complete his dormant novel. In doing so, he will hang with a slew of colorful characters: a pyromaniac/“prayer warrior” (Zac Efron), a dolphin-obsessed sea captain (Martin Lawrence), a suave marijuana-connoisseur (Snoop Dogg, not playing himself), and a world-famous singer who has made a career off beach bum appeal (Jimmy Buffett, playing himself). Moondog’s is a world rich in color, splashed with vibrant beachwear, vivid sunsets and the bright lights of Miami. Its vibe is so warm and inviting, you can practically feel the sunshine on your skin and smell the weed in the air. For the first act, Korine is happy to just follow Moondog as he follows his bliss, giving impromptu poetry readings, cackling with friends, or turning up to his daughter’s wedding dressed in a flame-print swim-trunk-and-blazer combo that looks like it came straight from a Guy Fieri fashion line. But there’s a creeping melancholy beneath Moondog’s giggles.

Throughout The Beach Bum, there are moments that puncture its revelry: an unexpected death, the mention of a crippling war wound, the fear of being forgotten or alone. With each, Moondog swirls, dances, rhapsodizes or seduces, not blithely or obliviously. A tender tear rolling down his face gives us a window into how his happiness is a choice. Moondog might seem a clown or a mad fool. But he’s a savage sage who sees the world for what it is, a place capable of great pain and great pleasure. And he chooses the latter. Again and again, whatever the cost.

As Moondog, McConaughey seems to revel in aping his public persona. He struts around in banana hammocks, playing bongos nearly in the buff, smoking up, getting off and getting by. Moondog “just keeps living” – McConaughey’s personal motto. But in quiet closeups, McConaughey reveals the emotional labor behind this choice. We see Moondog take in a situation, a flirtation, a farewell and see him process the pain of it. Then he slides into something sweeter – a pool, a puff, a holiday, or a hook-up. While he laughs and dances and makes his mirth contagious, the ache sinks beneath the surface. Moondog becomes a metaphor for the human condition, where we are painfully aware of the horrors of life and our own mortality, yet persevere to find joy anyway. In that way, The Beach Bum is glorious inspiration. But more than that it is a spirited sermon.

Moondog is a high priest of the power of pleasure. His mass is one of house parties, fireworks and visceral poetry. His parishioners are wannabe pirates, party people, a coke-addicted parrot and victims of fate. His hymn is a jam session between Snoop and Buffett (the former of whom proves to be a surprisingly natural actor, the latter smoothly leaning into his brand). And his God is bliss, elusive and glorious. To seek it out, Moondog preaches with raised hands and a captivating cackle. And seek out The Beach Bum.

The Beach Bum is showing at SXSW and will be released on 29 March

‘The Beach Bum’ Review: Harmony Korine and Matthew McConaughey Team Up For an Alluring But Aimless Journey

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum is an ode the enchantingly uninhibited. A Florida stoner folk legend about chasing life’s ever-euphoric bliss at all costs, torn straight from the pages Jimmy Buffett’s secret diary. As Korine remarked during the film’s SXSW introduction, his latest lime-garnished cinematic cocktail is formulated as a direct response to negative forces that’ve defined mainstream culture over recent years. Mission accomplished – for damn sure – but there’s a stark irresponsibility to the message put forth by Korine’s titular karmic renegade. This wasted-away Margaritaville vagrant who strolls through life, tall-boy in hand, and has everything worked out.

Viewed purely as a device to distract from negative vibes, you couldn’t shoot a more vividly beautified 90-minute substance bender – as aimless as it is gorgeously cinematic. A warning, description, and guiding tagline that shouldn’t surprise fans of Korine.

Matthew McConaughey stars as greasy-haired rambling “stoned guy at the party,” aptly dubbed Moondog (“Well Hung” painted on his junkyard barge). His life is one of pleasure, especially when dancing through lover’s rhythms with his enviously wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher). He’s a poet by trade, happiness seeker by choice, and weed aficionado thanks to kingpin best friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). From start to finish, The Beach Bum is about Moondog’s pursuit of his American dream and the completion of a long-teased poetry collection – with enough marijuana smoke worth an audience contact high.

Korine’s orchestration of wayward sunburnt bar-hopping is not without trippy-as-sin highs that mirror Moondog’s situational elation. Zac Efron’s portrayal of a preacher’s son – self-dubbed “Tiger” – who befriends Moondog during a brief rehab stint leaves no stone unturned as Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets To Paradise” defines their relationship. Martin Lawrence appears as Captain Wack, a dolphin enthusiast whose sightseeing boat tours have only killed four(ish) people so far – rather astonishing considering his poor judgment. Snoop? A revelation as Lingerie, Jimmy Buffett, and Moondog freestyle a Moondog-themed musical tale while sailing the seas on a tech mogul’s dream yacht (complete with topless female companions and heat-packing security). Moondog’s party never ends, and the guests who join him only add more insanity (and bonded crotch grabbing in Jonah Hill’s case).

Benoît Debie’s cinematography takes Floridian locales from Key West to Miami and color saturates with the most divine neon hues. No matter Moondog’s meandering nature – holed up in another dive, swimming while holding a joint above water, blasting fireworks during a nighttime celebration – The Beach Bum is a travel and tourism bureau’s picturesque daydream. Poolside lazy days and beachfront properties glisten under the sparkling warmth of southern shines, deep aqua blues and flashy garment accessories popping like rainbow starbursts scene by scene. Say what you want about Moondog’s careless journey, but The Beach Bum is astonishingly alluring.

Moondog sings a siren’s song of listless wandering, given how the unashamedly upbeat poet’s “live or let die” attitude never wavers in its liquor-sippin’ glory. When interviewed, asked what makes Moondog different, McConaughey’s modern bard remarks that life is hard enough as is. “Fun is the gun,” and those who embrace uncontested enjoyment nurture glowing auric souls. This rhetoric, again, coming from the privileged caucasian man who’s tied to Minnie’s estate (conflict challenges this golden parachute, of course)? It’s a tempting notion, and not wrong – lord knows we all need a little Moondog in our lives nowadays – but there’s something odd about watching schemes and general dumbfuckery continue to pay off for this hobo caricature.

Korine targets social constructs of 9-5 mundanity and “dependability.” A long-running gag continually knocks Joshua Ritter’s “dependable” husband to Moondog’s daughter (played by Stefania LaVie Owen). “You’ll never be brilliant like my father,” she says in a matter of words to her newlywedded partner. Moondog’s constant ragging on those who buy into corporate rigors and scripted everyday safety is, again, something that makes one think about “saying hello to the sun” now and again, but it’s also oddly framed given Moondog’s circumstances? No blowback, no consequences, and a poster manchild for stumbling upwards through life – to a satirical degree – anchored by advantages abound. Moondog’s shenanigans are epic, although repetitive and shanty whimsical for only so long.

It should come as no shock to note how McConaughey’s acoustic-scored tour through tropical fantasy worlds is a sight to behold – howling at the sky, adapting sex stories with Minnie into objectively touching art, and getting away with everything but murder. A blunt in one hand, pounding away at an old-fashioned typewriter with a single left-handed finger punching key by key. No one wears a captain’s hat better, no one loses themselves to the primality of hippie spirit Gods as transcendently, and no one summons civil abandon like this moonshot maniac who doesn’t see clothes defined by gender. FYI, y’all are gettin’ a heapin’ helping of bronzed McConaughey thong cheeks.

The Beach Bum is a pier dweller’s story of riches to rags to riches with zero stakes. Harmony Korine terrorizes social classes and challenges audiences to find their inner zen beach, yet runs thin on magic despite Matthew McConaughey’s charismatic jester performance. Self-fulfilled cleansing thrives in anecdotal humor, but when credits hit – leaving Moondog exactly where we’ve met him – it’s hard to feel like we’ve experienced anything more than a taste of unrealistic “bliss” (money doesn’t buy happiness). Not all films are meant to be deeply analyzed, but it’s hard to escape finding overall meaning, which will certainly not work for all audiences. The Beach Bum tries for better and worse, but doesn’t quite succeed.

Finding Steve McQueen

Film Review: ‘Finding Steve McQueen’

The mystique of Steve McQueen hovers (though not enough) over a heist movie that turns a Nixon-era bank robbery into a slapdash ’70s caper.

“Finding Steve McQueen” is a ramshackle indie heist drama that has a little bit (but not much) to do with Steve McQueen. The film’s central figure, a green-behind-the-ears thief named Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), idolizes the squinty star of “Bullitt,” for all the reasons one might have back in 1972, when most of the movie is set. McQueen was then at the height of his popularity, but his star cachet, going back to films like “The Great Escape” and “The Cincinnati Kid,” predated the counterculture, and that was the mark of his mystique. In a New Hollywood overrun with shaggy idols like Warren Beatty and Elliott Gould, McQueen, with his baby-faced scowl, was the last neo-’50s maverick romantic stud, a guy too square to be hip and, for that reason, too hip to be square.

“Bullitt,” the movie that launched a thousand car chases (half a century later, we’re still chasing it), was the rubber-meets-the-road apex of the McQueen swagger, and in the early scenes of “Finding Steve McQueen” Harry styles himself in the image of that movie, wearing shades and a turtleneck and doing slow-mo flying-up-from-the-blacktop cruises in his 350 horse-power Pontiac GTO (a car he drives in lieu of the Mustang 390 GT that McQueen commandeered in “Bullitt”). Harry has a concrete blond look that’s sexy in a male-mannequin sort of way, but when he does his signature mime of cocking and shooting a gun, he could hardly be less McQueen; he’s got the baby face without the scowl. The Australian actor Travis Fimmel looks like Bill Pullman’s wholesome younger brother and acts with a smiley nervous flaky manner that suggests, at times, that the movie should have been called “Finding Eric Roberts.”

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Steve McQueen was the essence of a certain brand of gleaming heartless cool, but “Finding Steve McQueen,” as directed by Mark Steven Johnson (whose journeyman credits range from the action fantasy of “Ghost Rider” to the indie sentimentality of “Simon Burch”), is an uncool movie in almost every way. It’s one of those films in which the period atmosphere relies too much on an official array of groovin’ ’70s rock songs (“Draggin’ the Line,” “Funk #49”), as well as the kind of cheesy “light” caper music you used to hear on TV soundtracks of the era. And though the movie is based on a burglary that actually occurred (it was the largest bank robbery in the U.S. up until that time), “Finding Steve McQueen” is overly invested in the broad comic irony of half a dozen bumbling yokels from Youngstown, Ohio, pulling off the crime of the decade.

The bar for heist films is high. They either need to be convincingly gritty street dramas, like “Rififi” or “Reservoir Dogs,” or entertainingly intricate Rube Goldberg whirligigs that revel in their mission impossibility, like “The Killing” or the best “Ocean’s” films. “Finding Steve McQueen” goes the down-and-scuzzy route, but nothing in the movie feels quite genuine, from the signposted ’70s macho dialogue (“That hippie chick on ‘Mod Squad’? Wouldn’t mind slippin’ her the high hard one!”) to the cheeky slapdash tone that suggests a B-movie Rip Van Winkle trying to make a heist caper that’s so weirdly pre-Tarantino it reduces every potential moment of danger to fake cuteness.

Harry is the film’s sidecar hero, but it’s his cousin, Enzo, played with lounge-lizard style by William Fichtner, who masterminds the heist, gathering up a group of hotheads, only one of whom, played by Louis Lombardi from “The Sopranos,” has a forceful presence. (“You ever read that ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’?” he barks. “You know, you’ll never look at those c—ksuckin’ birds the same again.”) Enzo is a Midwestern yob who hears a rumor, right out of the mouth of Jimmy Hoffa, that Richard Nixon has been amassing illegal campaign contributions and storing them in a dirty-money fund. Enzo figures that if they can rip off a president who’s ripping off the system, then no one will come after them. So he sets out to rob the United California Bank in the Orange County suburban hamlet of Laguna Niguel.

The heist is simplicity itself. The men use dynamite to blow a hole through the bank’s concrete roof, clogging the ancient alarm system with surfboard gel. In a few moments, they’re in, lifting cash and bonds from 500 safety-deposit boxes. By the end of the night, they’ve made off with close to $10 million. But are they going for the score, or are they trying to sock it to Nixon?

One of the many fuzzy aspects of “Finding Steve McQueen” is that the Nixon-slush-fund angle starts off as a practical motivation for the crime (it’s a way not to get caught), but once the robbery is successful, the idea that they’re trying to mess with Nixon as payback for his political sins (Vietnam, screwing with the unions) comes to the fore, even though it doesn’t totally parse. Enzo, in his greasy cantankerous way, is a Nixon hater, and the president’s crimes get nudged closer and closer to the center of the action. Everyone starts gabbing about Watergate (in a way that no one at the time quite did — the dialogue has a hindsight on-the-nose-ness), and Mark Felt (John Finn), the FBI Associate Director who turned out decades later to be Deep Throat, is on hand to lead 100 agents in an investigation into the bank robbery.

The real history of this heist is that the robbers didn’t hit the bank they thought they were hitting. (Nixon’s branch was the Bank of America in San Clemente.) And though the film sticks close to the logistics of what happened, there’s little suspense to either the robbery or its aftermath. Forest Whitaker plays an FBI agent who detects things in his own melancholy Zen space (it’s a fun performance, if not exactly an authentic one), but the solving of the crime comes down to a fluke: In the mansion the men rented, just across a golf course from the bank, they leave a dishwater full of dirty dishes, which gives their fingerprints away. (That is, in fact, just what happened.)

The only one who escapes is Harry, who clearly wasn’t drinking soda out of a glass that day. The film’s framing device follows his love affair with Molly (Rachael Taylor), the world’s most unconvincing “Bonnie and Clyde” fan, right up through 1980 (cue “Drivin’ My Life Away”), when Harry finally reveals to her who he is. Every one of these scenes is dudsville, forcing us to admit that however much the movie might have set off to find Steve McQueen, it never gets close to him.

Film Review: ‘Finding Steve McQueen’

Reviewed online, March 10, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Momentum Pictures release of an Identity Films, Paradox Studios production, in association with AMBI Media Group with Marvin Productions, AIE and Premiere Pictures. Producers: Juan Antonio, Garciá Peredo, Alberto Burgueño, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Alexandra Klim, Anthony Mastromauro. Executive producers: David Rogers, Jason Garrett, Kim Winther, Matthew Helderman, Ali Jazayeri, Mikael Wiren, Mark Steven Johnson, Travis Fimmel.

Crew: Director: Mark Steven Johnson. Screenplay: Ken Hixon, Keith Sharon. Camera (color, widescreen): José David Montero. Editors: Julia Juaniz, Kathryn Himoff. Music: Victor Reyes.

With: Travis Fimmel, William Fichtner, Rachael Taylor, Forest Whitaker, Louis Lombardi, Rhys Coiro, Jake Weary, John Finn, Lily Rabe, Molly McQueen.

Faith, Hope & Love

FILM REVIEW: Faith, Hope & Love

By Giuliana Harris

Faith, Hope & Love is a heartwarming film, sharing the message of all three title themes, which premiers March 15, 2019 and stars Robert Krantz, of Greek Descent, and Peta Murgatoyd, of Dancing with the Stars fame. The film centers on “Jimmy Elpidas” played by Krantz and “Faith Turley,” played by Murgatoyd, each of whom are going through their own personal tribulations. When fate brings them together by way of a “Pro and Schmo” dance competition, they enter into a partnership where they each are able to be a mentoring force to one another in different aspects of life. Krantz’ character Jimmy is a recently widowed father who is struggling to keep up with the demands of his career and parenting his two young daughters. On the other hand, Murgatoyd’s character Faith is a dance teacher whose studio is in jeopardy. What both Faith and Jimmy bring to one another on the dance floor contributes to each other’s restoration.

Peta Murgatoyd (L) and Robert Krantz (R) in Faith, Hope & Love (Photo Courtesy of Ellinas Multimedia).

Krantz not only stars in the film, but filled the roles of Director (along with JJ Englert), Writer, Producer, and Editor while Murgatoyd also holds credit as one of the Choreographers of the film. Krantz eloquently weaved the Greek-American culture and Greek Orthodox faith into the film, depicting his character Jimmy’s values, morals, ethos, and catharsis in ways that are familiar and resonant. Especially for anyone who has ever walked through tragedy with the prospect of hope. Krantz performs Jimmy with perfect emotional nuances, conveying a mixture of raw emotion and humor – each at separate points. His facial expressions and delivery provide a naturalism that is extremely well-done. You cannot help but root for, and embrace, Jimmy Elpidas throughout the film.

Murgatoyd shines as Faith, who characteristically is a perfect blend of realism and optimism. Her mentorship to the young girls at her studio and instructional partnership in the competition with Jimmy, showcase a confident, kind, and selfless being. With Faith’s own hurts from her past, Murgatoyd excellently portrays feelings of mistrust, yet still holding on to the hope of building trust again. She especially shines in the dance numbers, exemplifying her mastery of fluidity and control simultaneously.

Peta Murgatoyd (L) and Robert Krantz (R) take the dance floor in Faith, Hope & Love (Photo Courtesy of Ellinas Multimedia).

On-screen together, Krantz and Murgatoyd’s scenes demonstrate a visible connection. With Murgatoyd’s profession of dance and Krantz’ overall zest for dancing, they move seamlessly together. Of special note, seeing Krantz’ character teach Murgatoyd’s to do a hasapiko, adds to the kefi of the film! There are numerous pieces of the film that contribute to the various aspects that make it flow so well. The comedic scenes are especially supported by way of Michael Richards (“Cosmo Kramer” of Seinfeld) and Jimmy’s Bible Study group member Ed Asner (“Lou” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and “Santa Claus” of Elf). Adding to the familial backstory, Natasha Bure and Aria Walters each contribute to the Elpidas Family with a wonderful display of love for their screen-father and the Elpidas oikogeneia. Playing Jimmy’s boss, “Brian,” is Corbin Bernsen (of L.A. Law) who offers a stellar performance of tough love with compassion. Special cameo appearance by Maksim “Maks” Chmerkovskiy, Murgatoyd’s husband, for all you Dancing with the Stars/Peta & Maks fans out there!

The film carries multiple messages that are best to be viewed and experienced, that are more than applicable to daily life and are soul-filling. Whether it’s a laugh, a cry, or a smile, there’s something for everyone. With characters spanning multiple generations, each of whom has their own story to tell. Thematically and cinematically, Faith, Hope & Love successfully combines the virtues of faith, hope, and love in a way that is both realistic and inspiring. For screening locations and showtimes,

Apollo 11

“Apollo 11,” Reviewed: A Found-Footage Documentary With No Sense of Discovery

It’s a special sort of achievement to take a collection of footage of the Apollo 11 mission, much of it previously unseen and much of it in the 70-mm. format, and render it dull. That, unfortunately, is what the director and editor Todd Douglas Miller has done in the documentary film “Apollo 11,” which relies almost entirely on archival materials—other film and video footage, plus contemporaneous news reports. (The only additions are some onscreen graphics to provide an explanation of events being shown, as well as a musical score composed by Matt Morton.)

Yet the movie manages to turn the material into visual boilerplate. The most familiar use of such archival material is illustrative—a movie covering the time period of Apollo 11 (July, 1969) or the subject of space travel may deploy some brief clips not to convey specific aspects of the mission but merely to indicate that it occurred. The movie “Apollo 11” manages to capture that feeling of displacement, of nonspecificity, from a few familiarly decorative clips and to extend it through the length of the entire hour-and-a-half feature. Despite the attempt to focus on the heroic actions and extraordinary experiences of its three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and Michael Collins, and to display the vast concerted effort on the ground that their flight required, Miller manages only to provide sketches and overviews of the historic event, only intermittently and fleetingly illuminated by a telling or surprising detail.

To begin, the concept of a film composed entirely of found or preëxisting material is a radical one. It calls attention to the material’s specificity, to its privileged authority deriving from its archival status and essential connection to history; it asserts that the material deserves to be treated as something special and invites an artistic approach that’s similarly distinctive. The composition and the editing of “Apollo 11,” by contrast, have no identity, no style or form that reflects the discovery of the material, the sheer wonder of its very existence. Rather, the movie sketches the story of the mission in haste, hitting dramatic high notes and scooting onward, and formulates the episodes of the mission superficially, in familiar chronological and dramatic terms, as if working from the encyclopedia.Throughout the film, the voice-over of Walter Cronkite, taken from news reports at the time, describes and explains, in grave tones and high-flown prose, the succession of events as they unfold onscreen; the effect is to borrow and retransmit the long-sedimented version of the Apollo 11 mission rather than redefining and reconceptualizing it on the basis to what the filmmaker experienced and discovered in the newly found footage itself.

That sense of personal experience is what’s missing from “Apollo 11.” (Peculiarly, the graphics, which provide intermittent breakdowns of particular stages of the mission, often have a greater sense of immediacy and drama.) Miller’s guiding principle appears to be shoehorning as much and as varied an array of footage as possible into the movie’s brief span and to edit it into a slick, smooth unity. He hardly works closely with the images themselves; there’s little visual analysis or emphasis by way of effects, such as slow motion, frame-by-frame advance, digital zooming in, isolating portions of the image, or freeze-frame. His interventionism is of the never-conspicuous kind—the severe trimming of images to help impose an artificial, comprehensive uniformity on the fragmentary and diverse sources. (Miller does occasionally use split screens, putting two or even three images side by side, with the result of further distracting from the specifics of each.) The musical score, which often resembles the sort that could be found in an action film, and which isn’t distinct from the kind often found in other documentaries, is further applied to cushion the images in “Apollo 11” and fit them into the standard audiovisual flow of Hollywood and television.

The figures who suffer most from Miller’s naturalizing and normative approach are the three astronauts themselves. “Apollo 11” conveys mainly a sense of official portraiture; it remains remote from the astronauts’ character, their personalities, their own sense of experience. The one time the movie does try to get close is a woefully misjudged montage, patched into a sequence of the astronauts suiting up that shows a brief flurry of their personal still photographs, depicting in flashes the Kodak moments of their earlier years, as if suggesting that, at the moment, those memories passed through their minds. The concept is as banal and superficial as is its realization.

Some of the movie’s most striking footage shows the hundreds of people who worked in Mission Control during the course of the mission: rows and rows of scientists at long tables, each staring at monitors, panels of pushbuttons, and banks of switches, some taking notes on paper. These images recur, and one in particular, a long tracking shot revealing vastly many rows of technicians, tightly arrayed in long lines, is awe-inspiring—and the speculative wonder that it inspires is instantly thwarted, because Miller never conveys the slightest sense of what any one of them is doing, what functions their switches and buttons control, what structure of consultation and command keeps them working together. It treats them not merely as bit players in the drama but as extras.

Their appearance is nonetheless fascinating—precisely because these scientists, concentrated on their work, all wearing white or blue shirts and ties, are obviously paying no exceptional attention to their appearance. The focussed and distracted casualness of the scientists at work is the kind of fleeting documentary discovery that makes the lack of individuation, the lack of specificity of any one scientist’s actions and efforts, all the more conspicuous.

Such incidental details are the most vital and telling aspects of “Apollo 11.” As the three astronauts prepare for the mission, they get into their spacesuits—which are white with red and blue connectors—and the pure whiteness of those suits has an eerie, otherworldly, pristine brightness that, more than any gesture or expression, suggests the momentous strangeness of the mission at hand. (Also, the photographers snapping with still cameras and cinematographers with hand-held movie cameras are themselves wearing sanitary suits and caps.) The elevator and jib that stand next to the rocket on the launchpad are also a stunning white, set off by the bright, artery-like red of the tubing that runs its entire length.The terrifying burst of flame at lift-off, the crinkly gold mylar seeming duct-taped to the legs of the lunar module, the sight of boot prints on the lunar surface, and the peculiarity of a long and wiggly cable that tethers Armstrong’s camera to the craft are among the idiosyncratic details that hint at a strangeness of experience that most of the film breezes past.


‘Sonchiriya’ movie review: Solid performances guide the way through the Chambal ravines

Abhishek Chaubey’s 1970s-set film, about an imploding gang of dacoits, stars Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Manoj Bajpayee and Ashutosh Rana.

Abhishek Chaubey’s movie about an imploding gang of dacoits in the Chambal region is intentionally messy, unfortunately unwieldy and undeniably ambitious. The 1970s-set Sonchiriya is an elegy in the mould of Sam Peckinpah’s films to an era of men bound by a code of honour and working beyond the confines of conventional law.

To this mostly male sub-culture, Abhishek Chaubey and writer Sudip Sharma add a female element in the shape of a woman who escapes her oppressive family along with a child victim of rape. Soon, she goes from extra baggage to conscience keeper.

The girl might remind some viewers of Phoolan Devi, the dacoit who was among the starkest symbols of gender violence and caste cruelty in the 1980s. She is referred to as Phuliya in Sonchiriya, and among the movie’s most stirring scenes is the one that channels Phoolan Devi’s mythos.

Sonchiriya has many absorbing moment that worthy of being examined more closely. The film itself is a tangle of ideas, and works better as an existential mood piece than the heavy-duty action drama it often resembles. The dirge about the decline of dacoity sits uncomfortably with the numerous chases and shootouts that propel the plot. The filmmakers throw caste tensions into the mix, but the effect is too studied to have its desired impact.
Sonchiriya (2019).

Abhishek Chaubey has previously directed Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab – all slick if somewhat cold films rooted in realism, populated by strongly etched and morally flexible characters and superior to the average mainstream entertainer. Sonchiriya continues Chaubey’s interest in Hollywood-style storytelling, and resembles more of a revisionist Western than an Indian dacoit drama. The movie is set in 1975, when Indira Gandhi imposed an internal emergency on India. Democracy was restored after two years. But for the dust-covered and raggedy outlaws of Sonchiriya, time is running out to the beat of the plangent background score by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor.

Is the Emergency a stab at allegory, an over-the-shoulder look at a period in history marked by the perversion of authority and the onset of uncontainable lawlessness? Sonchiriya has too much going on to always justify its dateline.

A bracing opening sequence, which echoes the picking apart of ants in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), indicates that Sonchiriya isn’t your average romanticised celebration of the rebels of the ravines. The legend of Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his raggedy posse, including Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) and loyal lieutenant Vakil (Ranvir Shorey), is tempered by grievous mistakes and bad decisions. A formidable adversary, Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana) – an avenger in police uniform seeking to settle an old score – is yapping at their heels.

Lakhna broods over the meaning of justice, and finds some direction with the sudden arrival of Indumati and her young companion. In a non-heroic narrative filled with nihilist violence, morally tentative men and women and symbols of the afterlife, Lakhna provides solidity and a motive for the subsequent runaround in the ravines.
Daaku Anthem, Sonchiriya (2019).

The harsh ravines, where it is as easy to get lost as it is to hide, create a vivid metaphor for the precariousness of the way of the outlaw. The apt locations and the clunky weapons enhance the period detailing and effectively evoke a world that has been altered for good.

Among the standout characters is Ranvir Shorey as Vakil, Man Singh’s dedicated follower and keeper of the ancient code of honour. As the gang of ravine pirates wanders adrift, Ranvir Shorey’s ability to play complex characters never wavers. Sonchiriya needed more of Shorey, as it did of Ashutosh Rana, who is underutilised as the blood-thirsty policeman avenging a perceived caste slight.

Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar represent the conventional hero-heroine dyad, and despite spirited efforts, neither character is convincing enough. Jatin Sarna is one of several actors wasted in a movie that has far too many people running around and not enough work for each of them.
Bhumi Pednekar in Sonchiriya. Courtesy RSVP Movies.
Bhumi Pednekar in Sonchiriya. Courtesy RSVP Movies.

Manoj Bajpayee’s casting as Man Singh has a dual edge: he is modelled on real-life bandit Malkhan Singh. Man Singh shares his name with another real character played by Bajpayee in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994). Kapur’s depiction of Phoolan Devi’s battle for justice was contentious, but he tackled the links between caste, rebellion, and unfulfilled liberation with a directness and simplicity that are missing in Sonchiriya. The caste lines were more neatly drawn in Bandit Queen, with Phoolan Devi’s low-caste identity emerging as the biggest reason for her brutalisation.

Caste is an underexplored catalyst for the duels of body and soul in Sonchiriya. Unlike Tigmanshu Dhulia’s acclaimed biopic Paan Singh Tomar (2012), which single-mindedly explores the inability of a former dacoit and champion athlete to outrun his destiny, Sonchiriya packs a bit too much into 146 minutes. A quiet scene is interrupted by a melodramatic flourish, a sharply observed moment jettisoned by a plot twist that leads nowhere. Vishal Bhardwaj’s songs pop up in scenes that do not require them.

The movie’s reach exceeds its grasp, like the outlaws it follows through the ravines, sometimes glimpsing them in their rebellious glory, and sometimes losing them in the service of yet another thrilling chase sequence.