Star Light


Scout Taylor-Compton looks for guidance.

(2020) Horror (1091Scout Taylor-Compton, Cameron Johnson, Robert Adams, Liana Ramirez, Garrett Westton, Chandler Rachelle, Hagen Mills, Tiffany Shepis, Kevin Jiggetts, Bret Roberts, Geoff Callan, Darryl Phillipy, James M. Jennings, Gregory Dean French, Victoria Graham. Directed by Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings

Horror movies are undergoing a kind of renaissance of late; there have been some real game-changers out there. One of the benefits of this kind of quality is that it tends to inspire other filmmakers to do better, taking sometimes cliché ideas and characters and elevating one, the other or both. The average horror buff only benefits from this kind of thing.

Dylan (Johnson) is a fairly typical high school kid; he’s not sure where his future is leading him and his main interests are in playing video games, listening to music – particularly that of his pop crush Bebe A. Love (Taylor-Compton) – and hanging out with friends, much to the disgust of his single mom (Shepis) and her judgmental pastor boyfriend (Jiggetts).

On the way home one night, he literally runs into a terrified girl who has been injured in a car accident. Unsure of what to do, he takes her over to his friend Nick’s (Adams) house, where a few stragglers are left after one of those graduation bashes that occur when the parents have left the area. Dylan’s BFF Casey (Ramirez), hot-headed Monty (Mills), jock Tex (Westton) and slutty Sara (Rachelle) all remain as it soon becomes apparent that the injured girl is Bebe.

But then her handler/driver/manager Anton (Roberts) shows up, demanding that the teens turn over the pop star to him. And he is creepy enough that Dylan says “not a chance in Hell,” not realizing that Hell is a lot closer than he thinks. Anton lays siege to the remote party house. Can Dylan really impress Bebe enough to get a relationship going? Who will survive the night? And what is the thing in Anton’s trunk?

This is a movie that is occasionally frustrating – it establishes some plot threads that seem interesting, but then does nothing with them, for example, but Altieri and Cummings did assemble a pretty fine cast of veterans like Taylor-Compton and Shepis, and some really strong up-and-coming talent, like Johnson and Adams.

The movie starts off with plenty of teen angst as we get the sense that things between Dylan and his mom aren’t too cool, but the movie morphs into an occasionally dazzling horror fest. Roberts makes an extremely creepy villain, and while the twists aren’t exactly world-shattering, the plot keeps humming along and a pretty frenetic pace and the strong performances enable you to care about characters that are essentially teen slasher stock characters – although you won’t believe for a moment that these are high school kids, which is a sin a lot of teen-centric horror movies commit.

By no means is Star Light a game-changing horror movie, but it is solid and entertaining with enough to recommend it to fans and curious souls alike. Yes, there are movies out there that are far more innovative and maybe even more over-the-top but the filmmakers stick to what works and if they don’t take chances, they at least get the execution down properly. Not all horror movies can say that.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, reasonably scary and utilizes teen angst and slasher film tropes with equal gusto.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most of the characters are kind of stock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen sex and teen drinking, as well as some violence, terror and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Altieri and Cummings are two-thirds of the Butcher Brothers, horror specialist directors (The Hamiltons).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Attack of the Unknown

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song


Denise Ho lights up New York.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino-LorberDenise Ho, Jeffrey Ngo, Victoria Hui, Janny Ho, Margaret Ng, Anthony Wong, Henry Ho, Harris Ho, John Tsang, Jelly Cheng. Directed by Sue Williams

Hong Kong has been in the headlines a great deal over the past decade. The Umbrella Protests of 2014 illustrated that the promises of Beijing to allow Hong Kong to self-govern once the city went from being a British colony to be returned to Chinese control in 1997, were complete falsehoods. Following a law that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, further protests erupted last year.

This documentary of one of Hong Kong’s most outspoken pop stars who has become a pro-democracy fixture in that country was released just a day following a repressive new Chinese law that essentially criminalizes the protests in Hong Kong which seriously threatens the pro-democracy movement. It also comes out at a time when our own country is rocked by protests calling for racial equality and an end to police brutality. Although unstated by director Sue Williams, the parallels Between the protests in Hong Kong and in the United States is unmistakable.

Williams does a very good job of showing the progression of events that led to the protests still occurring in Hong Kong. In parallel, the film examines the career of Ho; how she was born to two schoolteachers in Hong Kong who moved to Canada when she was eleven; how her education in Montreal primed her for a future of thinking for herself. She returned to HK in 1996 to compete in a singing contest which she won; the grand prize included a dress worn by Cantopop legend, the late Anita Mui who would eventually take Ho under her wing. Although some of the advice she got was a bit problematic (“you’re a girl, you need to wear dresses” which Ho did early on in her career), she speaks of Mui, known as “The Madonna of the East” and who sadly passed away of cervical cancer in 2003, with great reverence and affection.

But Ho had to go her own way and after breaking away from Mui to start her own solo career, she slowly let go of the trappings of pop stardom; her popularity, however, was indisputable and she regularly sold out stadium shows with her big-scale concerts, full of dancers and elaborate costumes and sets. Ho realized that wasn’t her and she began to change; her songs had always had a bit of revolutionary to them, and she found herself in sympathy with the protesters once they began to arise. After coming out, she found that tour sponsors were pulling out, significantly L’Oréal which bowed to pressure from the mainland Chinese government, not their finest hour.

Once Ho became aligned with the protests and indeed, became something of a spokesman for the movement, she was banned from performing in China, and her records were no longer sold there; when you consider, as her Music Director (and brother) Harris Ho comments, that the bulk of her revenue came from the Chinese market, it became very difficult for Ho financially. She began performing in smaller venues in Hong Kong and throughout Asia, including a show in New York which is shown here. When about to sing a song about Montreal, Ho visibly breaks down, unable to sing because of her strong emotional attachment to that city.

While we get some interviews from fellow activists and some brief snippets from family members, and of course from Ho herself, there isn’t what you’d call a ton of insight into what makes Ho tick. While we hear a lot of her music with the lyrics helpfully translated, the translations – onscreen in a cursive font – can be hard to read. Her progression from pop diva to activist, though, isn’t really examined very thoroughly so it becomes somewhat jarring when it occurs.

Overall, though, the movie does a good job of explaining what’s going on in Hong Kong and why it is important to the rest of us. It gives us an overview of Ho’s career, but that seems almost secondary to her status as an activist although her music very much reflects her views judging on what I heard and read. While this is going to appeal much more strongly to Cantopop fans it is nonetheless a worthwhile viewing for those interested in Hong Kong.

The film, released on Virtual Cinema by Kino Marquee benefits independent theaters, including the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida and the Coral Gables Art Cinema near Miami. To benefit either of those worthy establishments, just click on their names; for a list of other cinemas outside of Florida benefiting from virtual screenings, click on the link below where it says Virtual Cinematic Experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a good deal of background information about what led to the protests in Hong Kong. Ably displays the activist’s passion and emotion.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the lyrics are difficult to read.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of violence from the protests.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2012, Ho became one of the first Cantopop stars to come out as LGBTQ publicly. Many of her fans, however, had already figured it out due to clues in the lyrics of her songs.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Prodigy

The Wedding Plan (Laavor et hakir)


Here comes the bride!

(2016) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Noa Koler, Dafi Alferon, Oded Leopold, Ronny Merhavi, Udi Persi, Jonathan Rozen, Irit Sheleg, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi, Odelia Moreh-Matalon, Erez Drigues. Directed by Rama Burshtein

 

The desire to find the person to love, cherish and spend the rest of our lives with is pretty much endemic to every culture but in some ways, the Orthodox Jewish community puts a little extra emphasis on it. Single women of a certain age are subtly looked down upon as if there is something defective about them.

Michal (Koler) is a 32-year-old convert to the Breslov sect of Hassidic Judaism. She is a veteran of the dating scene in Israel and has the emotional scars to prove it. Finally, though, it seems like she’s found the man of her dreams – Gidi (Drigues). Michal has arranged to rent the catering hall of Shimi (Tamam) and they are sampling some of the food that is offered for various wedding parties when Gidi drops a bombshell; he doesn’t love her.

Although the wedding is off, Michal decides to keep the booking at the catering hall for the eighth night of Hanukkah. She’s tired of the searing looks that she gets from married women bringing their children to the mobile petting zoo she runs (I didn’t know that was a thing) and the nagging of her mother (Sheleg). She wants to settle down and be with someone she can share the rest of her life with and if God could part the Red Sea, He could find her a husband.

But she figured God helps those who helps themselves so she sets herself up a matchmaker who sets her up on dates with Hassidic men, each less suitable than the last. She decides to take a break to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (founder of her particular sect)  in the Ukraine and overcome with emotion, prostrates herself on the grave. She is comforted by Yoss (Zehavi), an Israeli indie rock singer who sets many a female heart to fluttering. Although she is star-struck, she strikes up a relationship with the man.

As the days start to dwindle towards Hanukkah, Michal continues to prepare for her wedding even though those around her are beginning to have their doubts. Shimi, who is in a marriage that has slowly begun to implode, offers what support he can and even though her deadline is approaching with her no closer to finding a groom than she was when Gidi said “I don’t,” her faith remains steadfast.

This is a movie that takes Hollywood romantic comedy conventions and turns them inside out while in some ways, remaining true to the gist of them – for example, most rom-com junkies will figure out the ending well in advance of the end credits. Still, world movie enthusiasts will appreciate the slice of like look at Israeli Hassidic culture, a world not often glimpsed even in Israeli cinema.

Koler is an engaging performer and she gives Michal just enough personality to give us a rooting interest. Michal is emotional almost to the point of hysteria in places and she spends a good deal of the movie crying. Her decisions don’t always make logical sense but she is always true to her emotional framework. Some will see this as misogynistic in the sense that the view of women is that their place in life is to be married to a husband who has essential control of the relationship but at the same time Michal is a fairly independent sort who seems to be able to take care of herself pretty well without a husband. One wonders if Burshtein who is also Hassidic is making a sly-handed comment on the somewhat archaic view of the role of women within the Hassidic community.

Like many rom-coms, the premise is unrealistic in many ways; while Michal has a great deal of faith, she also seems logical enough to understand that faith alone isn’t going to cut it. And yes, while she does take steps to find herself a groom, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between her religious faith and her independence. I’m not saying that independent women can’t be religious, only that the independent women I know tend to be practical as well and putting one’s faith in God in this manner doesn’t seem terribly practical. I honestly think this is more a commentary on how unmarried women are looked at in the Hassidic faith rather than a primer on what to do to find a husband.

In any case, I suspect that those who love romantic comedies are going to enjoy this, even though it is less a comedy than a slice of life. Those who enjoy exploring different cultures through the movies will really enjoy this. Fans of Israeli cinema will also enjoy this a great deal. Those who don’t like any of those things will likely not find much to like here, although if they are more adventurous souls who like to see movies that don’t necessarily have superheroes, aliens or car chases in them might well be pleasantly surprised.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives us some insight into the orthodox Jewish culture in Israel. American rom-com conventions are given an Israeli twist here.
REASONS TO STAY: This is somewhat unrealistic. The film is about 20 minutes too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here are of an adult nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Koler and Tamam both appeared on the Israeli television show Srugim as former spouses.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 29 Dresses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Letters from Baghdad

Celeste and Jesse Forever


There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, Chris D’Elia, Will McCormack, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Shira Lazar, Matthias Steiner, Rebecca Dayan, Janel Parrish, Rich Sommer, Rafi Gavron, Mathew del Negro, Kris Pino, Rafi Gavron, Zoë Hall, Lauren Sanchez, Ashli Dowling. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Cinema of the Heart 2016

It is said that it usually isn’t clear when love begins, but it’s always obvious when it ends. Sometimes couples that seem to be made for each other don’t make it; staying in a relationship in the 21st century is no easy task and requires sometimes a lot more of ourselves than we’re willing to give.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) have been married for six years and they’re everybody’s favorite couple. Celeste is essentially the breadwinner, owning a trendy L.A. agency that has just landed Riley (Roberts), a brand new super-hot pop star. Jesse is an artist but doesn’t seem to have enough gumption to actually produce much in the way of art. Still, they clearly care for each other and share a great deal of love. Everything is perfect – except they’re getting divorced.

Their impending divorce is not terribly well-received by their friends, for whom they have been something of an icon; if these two can’t make it work, how can the rest of us? But most are puzzled by the way the two hang out together all the time, how Jesse lives in his artist studio shed in their back yard while Celeste sleeps in her own bed at night. Why don’t they hate each other? And why oh why are they breaking up in the first place?

However, this idyllic circumstance of two best friends begins to change as things inevitably do. Jesse, whose slacker existence was an issue for the more controlling Celeste suddenly finds himself in a situation that changes his outlook. Celeste is unable to handle the change in Jesse and suddenly finds herself adrift, not ready to move on as Jesse had not been ready to move on initially.  Now it is obvious that Celeste and Jesse aren’t forever.

Jones wrote the film with Will McCormack who has a supporting role as a pot dealing friend of the couple. The film has some smart writing, realistic dialogue (i.e. the characters say things real people actually say) and a hefty dose of heart. It also has a surfeit of indie cliches that definitely reduce my affection for a film that could easily have garnered more of it.

Jones and Samberg are at their best here; both are enormously likable actors who get roles here they can sink their teeth into. Samberg in particular comes off as a much more multi-dimensional performer than he had shown previously on SNL and the Adam Sandberg movies he had done. He has enormous star potential which he shows here and some of his Funny or Die clips. He’s one good role away from the A-list.

Jones has been one of those actresses who never seem to deliver a subpar performance. I’ve always thought her immensely talented and this is one of the first roles in which she really shows off her potential. Celeste is very complex and in some ways unlikable; one feels throughout the movie that Celeste is taking a good thing and tossing it in the waste basket but eventually we begin to see that things aren’t that simple and a lot of that has to do with Jones’ emotional performance.

The movie works when we get into Celeste’s head; Jesse seems to be mainly an instigator for the various things going on there. When the movie tries to be indie-hip, it drags – there is a mumblecore sensibility here that doesn’t quite jibe with the overall mood. When the film gets away from that sense, it works.

Some relationships are meant to be and others, not so much. It is how we handle the not-so-much that prepares us for the next ones down the line and makes us better partners. Not every relationship is forever even though we want them to be; letting go can often be the hardest thing we ever do.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones and Samberg make an engaging non-couple. Cute in a quiet sort of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times feels like there’s nothing going on. Overloaded with indie cuteness to the point of distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of bad language, plenty of sexual content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title was Jesse Loves Celeste before it was decided that the focus of the film was going to be on Celeste.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage and a Q&A from the premiere, and also footage of Chris Pine, whose tiny role was cut from this film before he went on to star as Captain Kirk.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an $840K production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Break-Up
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

The U.S. vs. John Lennon


The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono express their First Amendment rights.

(Lionsgate) John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Gore Vidal, Walter Cronkite, John Dean, Noam Chomsky, Carl Bernstein, Angela Davis, David Peel, Tom Smothers, Paul Krassner, Leon Wildes. Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

I’ve made no secret that John Lennon is one of my all-time heroes. You would think that a documentary of the man’s life would be like catnip to me.

And in many senses it is just like catnip, albeit somewhat diluted. The movie focuses on his post-Beatles days to a very great extent, particularly on his anti-war activism and resulting attempts from the United States government to get the ex-Beatle deported as an undesirable alien.

John Lennon was never one to stand still for injustice, even when it was being perpetrated on himself. He fought back and would eventually win in a story that is fascinating and indeed inspiring, although you get little sense of it here.

The documentary starts with Lennon’s defense of former MC5 manager (and anti-war radical) John Sinclair who was sent to jail for ten years for selling an undercover cop two joints, which even then seemed excessive. Lennon would perform at a benefit concert for Sinclair, who would wind up serving 29 months of his ten year sentence thanks largely in part to the high-profile supporters like Lennon which would pressure the Supreme Court of Michigan to overturn the law Sinclair was convicted on as unconstitutional. However, the negative fall-out was that the federal government began to take an interest in the pop singer.

For his part, Lennon’s introduction and eventual marriage to Japanese artists Yoko Ono would help to direct his energies to anti-war efforts and pro-peace. This would lead to highly publicized stunts like his bed-in honeymoon; Lennon was fully aware of his celebrity and how to use it properly, and he was quite willing and able to use it that way.

This was intolerable to an administration that wasn’t averse to fighting dirty as well, and at the impetus of a group of conservative politicians led by Senator Strom Thurmond, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began proceedings to deport Lennon due to a marijuana conviction in England years earlier as an undesirable.

The actual fight against the INS and, by extension, the U.S. government, was more or less one of attrition as most of the fight consisted of hearings, delays, stays and legal maneuvering by the government lawyers and Leon Wildes, Lennon’s immigration lawyer. In reality, that aspect of the story was rather boring so the filmmakers more or less overlook it.

Unfortunately, what the filmmakers do rely on is a barrage of talking head interviews with people like G. Gordon Liddy (one of the few giving the opposing viewpoint, which while not a requirement for a good documentary can make a documentary better), Yoko Ono, Black Panther Bobby Seales, authors Vidal and Chomsky as well as other luminaries of the period and later giving their opinions on what Lennon was doing, or possibly thinking.

What’s missing here is a real sense of who Lennon was. We mostly see the events here through Yoko’s eyes which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing – she was his soul mate after all, and knew him better than anybody did – but it turns more or less into the Yoko show, opining that Lennon wasn’t a fully realized human being until Yoko wandered into his life which seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Still, while this could have been a much better documentary, there are things worth seeing in it, like the archival footage of Lennon’s protests and snippets of the man’s music. However, the movie spends too much time on its own agenda – that of comparing the anti-war efforts of Vietnam to modern anti-war efforts against Iraq and painting Yoko Ono as Lennon’s adult conscience – to really bring the story of John Lennon to life. I think for the time being we’ll have to continue to rely on his own music to do that for us.

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful footage brings the anti-war efforts to life, and illustrates Lennon’s passion for the cause.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images of sensuality and violence, some drug references and a few bad words, but by and large this is fine for mature teens, who should be seeing works like this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lennon’s early years will be depicted in Nowhere Boy, to be released in October 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted footage is scarcely notable, the scenes here that went on the cutting room floor contain a myriad of interesting scenes, including assassin Mark David Chapman’s 2000 parole hearing, Lennon’s final rehearsed concert and some footage on his early years.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant