Crown Heights

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, murder
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright Amazon 2017
The story of Damon and Pythias has exemplified friendship and loyalty since the time of the ancient Greeks. The story of Colin Warner and Carl King should stand beside it. King spent 21 years working to get Warner released from prison after he was unjustly sentenced for murder. A reporter for “This American Life” told their story, and now it has been adapted for the screen by former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King opposite the extraordinarily gifted LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” “Short Term 12″) as Warner.

The friends met growing up in Trinidad and then reconnected when both emigrated to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Writer/director Matt Ruskin and Director of Photography Ben Kutchins evoke the lively but volatile and gritty atmosphere of 1980 Brooklyn. Warner is not even in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is nowhere near the spot where an apparent revenge execution-style murder is committed. But the cops are overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to produce arrests and close cases. Archival footage of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush promising crackdowns on crime provide context.

It is possible that determination to be fair to as many people as possible costs the film some dramatic momentum, especially as it stretches over decades, with setback after setback and complication after complication, plus the various family stresses, particularly with King as his wife understandably gets frustrated with the time and money he is devoting to Warner instead of their children. But the dignity and sensitivity of the performances by Stanfield and Asomugha hold the story together. But the time King takes a job as a process server in order to better understand what kind of legal help they need, things begin to pick up. A tender romance and a touching expression of forgiveness give the film a quiet power that I hope will not always feel as timely as it does right now.

Parents should knot that this story concerns a wrongful murder conviction and includes peril, violence, abuse, strong language, some sexual references and situations, and some nudity.

Family discussion: Why does this film title refer to the neighborhood, not the people involved? Why didn’t Carl give up? Listen to the story that inspired this film on “This American Life.”

If you like this, try: “Conviction” and “Hurricane”

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I Do…Until I Don’t

C-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright 2017 Ways & Means
Hopes are high for Lake Bell after the delightful “In a World….,” which she wrote, directed, and starred in.  A terrific cast, a peek at the unfamiliar world of voice actors, and an endearing heroine made it an exceptionally promising debut.  Unfortunately, her sophomore effort retains only the superb casting and the affection for title ellipsis. “I Do…Until I Don’t” is more like an r-rated episode of the cheesy anthology series “Love American Style” than it is like “In a World.”

Bell clearly wants to explore the challenges of monogamy and marriage, a topic well worth exploring because most movies about romance end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” to be imagined.  Where “In a World…” benefitted from the sharp, vivid observations of a person who thoroughly understood a world that the audience had never seen before, in “I Do…Until I Don’t,” the barely-out-of-the-newlywed-stage Bell (she and her husband were married in 2013) is trying to explain marriage to an audience who have all literally lived in or with the experience of marriage as husbands, wives, children, and family members.  Her portrayal of three different couples is immediately apparent as superficial and unrealistic.

The entire premise is artificial.  Bell imagines a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) who is determined to expose the essential impossibility of the idea of marriage.  Her theory is based on the tired theory that the idea of lifelong monogamy was developed in an era when the average lifespan was less than four decades and is therefore unrealistic when we are living twice as long.  Of course when the lifespan was three decades marriages were more likely to be based on alliances of property and money than romantic love, which might have played into the expectations of the participants, but that has nothing to do with Vivian’s premise.  And of course she has a villainous British accent just to remind us that she’s the bad guy.

Three couples become the focus of her film.  Two of them are so unpleasant it is impossible for us to care very much whether they prove Vivian wrong, except to keep them off the market so they can’t marry someone nicer.  All three of them are so thinly conceived that even the very able work of an outstanding cast cannot give them any depth or reality, even in a heightened comic setting.

Bell plays Alice, married to Noah (Ed Helms).  Their business is failing. So are their efforts to become parents.  Alice tells Noah Vivian will pay them a lot of money to be in her film. It is a lie. She has to find the money somewhere, so she agrees to provide “happy endings” at a massage parlor run by Bonnie (the terrific Chauntae Pink).

Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) are middle-aged and constantly snipe at each other, especially Cybill, who puts real effort into it while Harvey is mostly playing defense.

The third couple is not married and has an open relationship because why not.  They are Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), free-wheeling hippie stereotypes.  Alice thinks Noah is into Fanny for no particular reason other than her own insecurity over not being honest with him about pretty much anything.

These people are not interesting and their realizations are completely unfounded.  My advice: don’t.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and explicit language, explicit sexual references and situations, prostitution, drinking, and marital problems.

Family discussion: Why is it so important to Vivian to be right about marriage? Which couple changes the most?

If you like this, try: “In a World…” from the same writer/director/star

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Notes from the Upside Down: Guy Adams on Stranger Things

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Author Guy Adams answered my questions about his new book, Notes from the Upside Down: An Unofficial Guide to Stranger Things available August 29, 2017. One reason for the popularity of the instant classic Netflix series is that it invites viewers to explore it on many levels. In the book, Adams talks the reflections and variations throughout “Stranger Things” of the influences that inspired the writer/directors, Matt and Ross Duffer, when they were growing up in the 1980’s. Adams also provides extensive background details on the music, the actors, and the ways that the show reflects and transcends genre. It is the perfect companion to rewatch the first season before season two premieres on Netflix October 27.

How long did it take you to watch “Stranger Things?” (I admit, though I very seldom binge-watch, I saw it all in less than 24 hours.)

I didn’t binge actually. I am the sort of writer who is constantly being beaten to a weeping pulp by one deadline or another — a fortunate problem to have I’ll admit, though the cats once staged an intervention when they caught me eating from their biscuit bowl as I didn’t have time to stop and cook.

My partner and I usually have a TV show on the go that we watch together for an hour of Not Work a few evenings a week, so it actually took me a couple of months or so. Naturally, when working on the book I did binge, cramming the lot in over a few days while making notes.

Can you give examples of influences/call-outs to Stephen King, John Carpenter, and “Poltergeist?”

Oh Lord… that’s a terribly big question. When talking about influence we’re really discussing the flavor of the show. You take a forkful, chew and say… “Is it just me or did you sprinkle some Firestarter in here, just to give it spice?” Aside from obvious nods — which are simply passing moments, in-jokes almost — it’s really a case of raiding your mental food cupboard and pulling out all your favorite foods and combining them. A big part of the book is discussing the resultant stew of all of that. Something that is a meal in and of itself but which retains the taste of the individual ingredients.

What is it with the food metaphors? Maybe I need lunch.

*Heads for the cats’ biscuit bowl*

I’ll throw a call-out to each your way just so I’m not dodging the question entirely.

In the fourth episode we see a state trooper reading Cujo; in the seventh episode science teacher Mr. Clarke subjects his date to Carpenter’s The Thing; In the first episode Will’s mum tells him she’ll take him to see Poltergeist.

Why did the Duffer brothers want the kids to face a science-based threat, rather than pure fantasy?

Their initial ideas for the show grew from fascination with secret government projects such as MKUltra and The Montauk Project (one of which is substantially more fictional than the other…. probably). So they were always coming at the story from the perspective of weird science rather than the supernatural. It’s always a great storytelling trick for horror and fantasy, of course, start from a perspective of science — from what may be real — and then let rip. Monsters can be more terrifying if you sell them in terms of a lab rather than a gothic crypt.

Of course the fact that that’s the case shows the fascinating way audience psychology has changed over the years. When you go back to the dawn of horror fiction, when readers were far more religious and spiritually inclined, terror was always to be found beyond the grave. Then, as the years — and technology — progressed we found more things in the real world to frighten us. The devil started playing with test tubes, atomic bombs, DNA… Where are the boogeymen of tomorrow I wonder? When will we start seeing terrorism couched in terms of horror fiction? Fundamentalist zombies, fighting against the moral crimes of the living…

What is it about Barb? Why did she become such a fan favorite?

She’s a perfect point of audience empathy I think. The girl who never quite did. She has one close friend, doesn’t quite belong, gets dragged into another dimension by a mucous-drenched, egg-laying kill machine… I mean, we can all relate.

Horror and fantasy have always played well to the outsider. Especially young outsiders. How many of these stories portray The Unpopular Kids at school, learning to battle their demons and winning? Proving themselves to their parents, their bullies, the beautiful people they really want to sleep with but can’t because ‘they’re out of their league’? It’s all wish-fulfilment, really.

I was an overweight, spectacle-wearing kid. First I wanted to be Peter Parker, then I wanted to be Carrie.

Now I want to be Paul Sheldon, having a nice relaxing lie down while someone waits on me hand and foot. Especially foot.

Do you have a favorite song on the soundtrack that is especially fitting for its scene?

I love New Order’s Elegia playing during Will’s funeral, a wonderfully haunting bit of electronic misery.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s soundtrack is a real joy throughout though. I never met a synthesizer I didn’t love. To the considerable misery of readers, I prove as much by offering a playlist of electronic-based movie soundtracks they may wish to subject themselves to.

Over the last eleven years or so of being a writer I’ve all but given up on songs, my iTunes is loaded with soundtracks. This upsets my partner no end. She can often be found staring at me from the door of the office, shaking her head sadly, ‘This… I don’t know what this is… but you can’t call it music.” I was listening to Bruno Nicolai’s soundtrack to All the Colors of the Dark yesterday, I think she came very close to leaving me.

The series’ biggest surprise is the way it blends genres, with elements of science fiction, horror, and both tween and teen coming-of-age. How do the Duffer brothers as filmmakers make that so seamless without jarring shifts in tone?

I’d argue that this kind of fiction always blurs those boundaries, though. You can find horror in its purest form in cinema, certainly, a solid eighty or ninety minutes designed to do nothing but scare. Generally though, horror is the theme you attach other narratives to. It’s a way of talking about other stuff. Family, relationships, love, faith, how difficult it is to be gay when you dream of a man with blades for fingers (admittedly that last one is quite specific but Nightmare on Elm Street Part II went there for us).

Perhaps I’m biased but I’ve always loved fiction that gleefully switches tone. Life is never a single genre. In any given day I try and hit all the major algorithms on your Netflix system: comedy, horror, fantasy, thriller, romance, nunsploitation… I don’t always manage of course, but one has to have a goal in life.

If you could have one item from the “Stranger Things” wardrobe closet for your personal collection, what would you pick? What items are especially evocative of the 80’s?

Well, I already have Dustin’s hair (I simply beat it into submission with scissors) but I can’t say I hanker after many of the clothes, I owned too many of them the first time round. What possesses someone to think ‘fluorescent’ and ‘clothing’ should ever go together? If you’re not trying to avoid being hit by a car at night there’s really no excuse for it.

Steve Harrington is certainly the character that pulls the look off best, in that hateful way horrendously attractive people can.

I especially appreciated your focus on some of the actors in the movie’s smaller roles. When we re-watch to prepare for the second season, who should we pay special attention to? Who do you hope will be back?

“There’s no such thing as small parts,” someone once said. Probably some poor actor holding a spear in a lousy production of Julius Caesar.

I was determined to shine the spotlight on as many people as possible, though. It’s easy to get distracted by the star performances but it would have been an empty and pointless set without everyone else.

As readers will know, I’m vaguely obsessed with Cara Buono as Karen Wheeler. There’s a whole different story happening there and we only get hints of it. I’m convinced she’s the town’s most thrilling person trapped in its dullest marriage. Surviving off chardonnay and occasionally picking locks to her children’s rooms. I have no doubt she’ll be back but I’d be most interested in her starring in a spinoff, a horror-tinged reboot of Scarecrow and Mrs. King. She could battle demons while her husband sits in his La-Z-Boy and dreams of chicken dinners.

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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James Cameron Mansplains Wonder Woman

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James Cameron wrote and directed some of the most successful and influential movies in history, including “Avatar,”  “Titanic,” and “Terminator.” But he really should have thought about it before speaking out on this summer’s top box office film, “Wonder Woman.” In an interview with The Guardian, he said “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards.”  This is especially puzzling because Cameron’s films are notable for their depiction of some of film history’s most notably strong, brave, intelligent women, from Ripley in “Alien” to Sarah Connor in “Terminator.”  It is particularly troubling because he not only insulted the people who made “Wonder Woman” but the people who saw and enjoyed it.

“Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins has responded: “James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.”

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Free Classic Movies from Focus: Fridays on Facebook

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Three great films from Focus Features will be streamed on Facebook Live over the next three Friday nights in August and September. #FocusFridays will take place each Friday night on the Focus Features Facebook Page beginning @6:00 PM PT.

Friday, August 25th: The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (“Al Otro Lado del Río”). Following an inspiring journey of self-discovery and tracing the youthful origins of a revolutionary heart, the Latin American continent is unveiled in all its glory as two friends experience life at its fullest.

Friday, September 1st: The Constant Gardener (2005) sweeps audiences along one man’s emotional and global journey to uncover the truth behind a personal loss and a worldwide conspiracy. For her performance opposite Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz won the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe, and Academy Award.

Friday, September 8th: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) earned Golden Globe Award nominations for its stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, in an unforgettable love story, a tumultuous relationship seen through a maze of memories. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

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