Ode to (Good) Boys: Tween Comedy Finds Its Sweet Spot


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Good BoysStealing a beer from my uncle’s fridge and running off to share it among the four of us behind the nearby grammar school used to be a thing for me, my two cousins, and my little sister (who we were corrupting, since we were tweens and she wasn’t). Then one day when they were going to come to my house for a sleepover, we stashed a beer in my sister’s purse where my mom discovered it. Busted. Sleepover canceled. Beer filching days over.

This I write as an intro to Good Boys, a film raucous and ribald and charming and absolutely locked into that moment of transition between childhood and full-on adolescence. Writers Gene Stupnitsky (who makes his feature directing debut) and Lee Eisenberg, both one-time The Office writers, have called forth their inner tweens to regale audiences with the tale of three sixth-graders who are trying to replace a drone they accidentally destroyed before anyone realizes it’s even missing, keep the molly that has fallen into their possession from the teenage girls it belongs to, and go to a kissing party at a cool kid’s house. If this all sounds like Superbad: The Junior High Years, well, Superbad star Jonah Hill and that comedy’s writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, are all producers on Good Boys.

Someone in the movie suggests that the lifelong friends at the heart of the movie are only BFFs because they live in the same neighborhood, have always gone to the same schools, and their parents are friends. There may be some truth to that as these kids—who call themselves The Beanbag Boys, because they share beanbag chairs—are so very different. Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) is the one in the group the cool kids recognize as one of their own and is the apparent future ladies man of the trio, currently nursing a crush on classmate Brixlee (Millie Davis). Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is tall for his age, making some people mistake him for someone older; grappling with family issues; and he would rather not get involved with some of his friends shenanigans since he likes following the rules. Thor (Brady Noon) is as blustery as his name suggests but also bullied in part because his angelic singing voice makes him stand out.

At heart, this really is a story about good boys. Max, Lucas, and Thor are sweet kids. Their hormones are raging and they try to feign sophistication none of them possess—several jokes revolve around all they don’t know about sex. Their troubles mostly stem from youthful ignorance of consequences (not to mention feelings of invincibility) and they labor under the childish conviction that while they’ve done a wrong thing, they can fix it, effecting a do-over and evading punishment.

The laughs are frequent and long—like Superbad, this is a comedy with scenes designed to make people laugh so hard they cry. And while this is a movie no tween can see—not without a parent or guardian, anyway—it’s one that embraces that age and its last gasp of innocence with affection. It also includes a scene from a middle-school production of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages that alone is worth the price of admission. A period of life most people would not choose to return to proves fertile ground for comic gold. Pam Grady


Conflict as fodder for comedy: Filmmaker Sameh Zoabi on TEL AVIV ON FIRE


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Tel avivTel Aviv on Fire is the name of a film. It is also the name of a soap opera within the film that has become appointment TV in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, set in 1967 in the months before the Six Day War and revolving around the affair between an Israeli officer and the gorgeous Palestinian spy sent to seduce him. Salam (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian who is the show’s Hebrew translator, gets bumped up to writer, a position he advances with covert help from Assi (Yaniv Biton), an Israeli border guard and superfan of the show.

Director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi’s third narrative feature is the rare film to come at the situation between Israel and Palestine as a comedy. Zoabi himself was born in Iksal, Israel, a Palestinian village near Nazareth. Tel Aviv on Fire is a Palestinian film that is a co-production of France, Luxembourg, Belgium—and Israel. It has been nominated for four Ophirs—the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar—including Best Screenplay and Best Film. It is a film arising out of the perspective of a filmmaker who is simultaneously an insider and an outsider.

Zoabi screened Tel Aviv on Fire at the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The following day he sat down with a cinezinekane to talk about the film, using soap opera to comment on Israeli and Palestinian societies, and his unique place within those societies.

Q: Where did this story come from of this odd partnership between a Palestinian writer and an Israeli soldier?

Sameh Zoabi:    The whole idea came to me, because of that personal dilemma that I lived as a Palestinian growing up inside Israel, making movies about Palestinians, and taking Israeli money to do it. So, you’re always in that dilemma with the Israelis, ‘OK, wait a second, is he a good Arab? Is he turning too Palestinian on us with his films?’ And the Arabs are like, ‘He’s taking Israeli money? Is he selling his soul to make his movies?’ Europeans always like, you know, they always want to be balanced, because they don’t want to offend anyone. But it feels like every film you make, you go through the same thing over and over. Nobody’s made a movie about this, about the politics and the people’s agenda or even if they don’t have any agenda, people’s perception of what should be and should not and what it means. 

Q: From the outside, people think of Palestinians as living in Gaza or the West Bank. They don’t think about the sheer number of people that actually live and were born and have grown up within the state of Israel.

Sameh Zoabi: That was my experience when I came to Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship. And so, it says, you know, in my files it’s always says he’s from Israel, because that’s what’s on my passport… I came to the US in 2000. People would ask, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I am from Nazareth.’ ‘Oh, you know, we have a lot of Jewish family in Israel.’ ‘But I’m not Jewish.’ And then then you go through explaining yourself and 1948 and how we were there.

I mean I always have to justify and explain that we exist and we’ve been there and we didn’t come from anywhere else, you know what I mean? And that’s why it’s very important for me as a filmmaker to separate that. I would say that’s an important part of also moving forward is acceptance. Like Israelis, sometimes are not comfortable or, or Jewish Americans are not comfortable with the Palestinian Israeli term. Like you are a Palestinian but you are Israeli at the same time. A lot of people are like, ‘You’re an Arab Israeli.’ Yeah, but I’m Palestinian. You don’t have to run away from it by accepting it. Acknowledging the other, you can move forward. But by denying all the time that we existed to start with and even calling us something else is not going to lead us to anything.

I guess my film career has been kind of dedicated to show that side of Palestinians who live in Israel, who speak Hebrew, they can manage their way. They’re trying to survive. My first film [Man Without a Cell Phone, 2010] was also about that, about a young guy growing up in an Arab village trying to go university in Tel Aviv, like the lives that we actually live in Israel. A Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank would never be able to write or make this film, because my experience is different. I grew up knowing what Israelis think of us and what I think of them as a Palestinian. And, of course, stereotypes are the best form of comedy. It’s about how everyone sees the other.

Q: What was your thinking in setting the soap opera in 1967 before the Six Day War?

Sameh Zoabi: It’s about how everyone sees the other. So, in the West Bank they’re writing the Israeli general in ’67, imagining what the Israelis were thinking at that time. And Assi wants to change the story, because he thinks they should think otherwise. And that, for me it is always fascinating how our Palestinian experience dictates also the variety of filmmaking that we do. And we should not be judging that. In essence, we should be celebrating, you know, the different points of view. We have a narrative now where in the West Bank, Palestinians don’t meet Israelis. They only see, soldiers. In Gaza, they don’t see Israelis or soldiers. They see bombs or helicopters. For me, as a Palestinian who grew up inside, I have more possibility to interact and that’s why I was able to do this. It doesn’t mean that it’s only a film that depends on a Palestinian perspective, but it’s one that plays on this knowledge of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Q: The show isn’t just a soap opera. It’s a show everyone watches on both sides of the border.

Sameh Zoabi: That is true, by the way. When I was growing up, there were only two channels, Israeli and Jordanian. And on Fridays, every Friday, Israeli TV showed Egyptian films.  And Palestinians from all over, from Gaza, the West Bank, from inside, they would all watch Egyptian films on the Israel channel and the Israelis would all watch, as well.

When I wrote the script, many people said, ‘Yeah, but that show never existed where Israelis and Palestinians both watched,’ but when I showed the film to Israelis, nobody questioned it. Because it’s not farfetched. It did happen. We had elements of it.

Q: What is this film to you?

This film captures the essence of what I’ve always believed in a sense. It’s very personal in a sense. It’s broad, it’s comedy, but it has things that Palestinians love. We just had a screening back home, in my hometown. All the Palestinian activists inside Israel wrote about how Palestinian the film is, how strong of a voice it has, how it makes fun of our reality that becomes so abnormal and tragic that we can accept the idea that someone wants to change a TV show. It’s such farfetched idea, but it’s so believable there because (of what goes on).

With Israelis, it’s the same thing. They can see through humor. I mean for me; I see Israelis and Jewish audiences responding to and following the journey of a Palestinian character and they really want him to succeed. That’s the core of it, seeing each other at this humane level. What we need is for the ground to change… We live in a reality of disconnect: Walls, checkpoints, them again us. That’s not going lead to peace, of course.

I always get a few questions about what do I think of the government? It’s like they are so busy keeping the status quo, they would do anything for people not to meet, because God forbid, if they meet they’re going to like each other. –Pam Grady

Sing a song of THE NIGHTINGALE: Q&A with Aisling Franciosi


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The Nightingale - Still 1Over the course of the past seven years, Irish actress Aisling Franciosi has amassed quite a resume, counting among her characters Marie in Ken Loach’s 2014 drama Jimmy’s Hall, an award-winning turn as a serial killer-obsessed teenager in the British series The Fall (2013-2016), and Lyanna Stark, mother to Jon Snow, on Game of Thrones. In The Babadook filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s savage revenge thriller, The Nightingale, Franciosi steps into her first starring movie role. Delivering a resonant performance as Clare, a 19th-century convict of the penal colony on the Australian island of Tasmania, Franciosi convinces as a woman pushed over her limits. Forming a partnership with similarly vengeful aboriginal Billy (dancer Baykali Ganabarr in his screen debut), Clare goes on the hunt for Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and other Australian officers who have done her wrong.

In San Francisco in April for the SFFILM Festival, Franciosi was ebullient and expansive as she sat down for a conversation about The Nightingale.

Q: The film is very much in your face in terms of the off-chart-violence. Was that intensity apparent even when you read the script for the first time?

Aisling Franciosi:  I knew it would be a tough watch no matter how it was filmed, but what even I was surprised at when I saw it for the first time on the screen and what makes it so difficult to watch is how human all the characters are and how as you watch the violence inflicted on them, you can’t escape the fact that they’re human beings. Whereas in other films, I think frequently we’re quite distant from the people who are being killed or slaughtered or whatever. In this, it’s a very intimate form of violence. And I think that that makes it really, as you say, in your face, but you know, if we’re going to show it and we’re going to, if you want to talk about violence, if you want to talk about sexual violence, well, then here it is. You know, let’s look at it properly.

Q: It’s not just the visuals. It’s the sound design, as well, that really underlines the brutality.

Aisling Franciosi: Yeah. It’s amazing. Jennifer told me, ‘I don’t think we’re going to have music. Actually, I think we’re going to just have sounds.’ We had an incredible sound designer. And I think it really adds to it, because in some moments it just completely feels suffocating and inescapable in the ways it should. And then other times, it just allows you to breathe and you feel that there’s a moment of respite. There’s nothing taking away from that. You know, breathe for a second in the same way that the characters are, the audience has given a moment to kind of go, ‘Whew!’

Q: You’re Irish, so you were not raised with that history.

Aisling Franciosi: I knew a little bit about the convict history of Australia, but you’re right, I definitely didn’t know the extent to which I know now. And also I didn’t realize how systematic it was, you know, or how particularly, at a certain point, women and girls were sent there. Lots of convicts were sent for extremely petty crimes, like survival crimes, stealing bread, stealing food. But women and girls were sent very, very young and essentially to populate the island of Tasmania in particular where there was an extremely low ratio of men to women. So, you can imagine what happened when these women stepped off the ship. They were sometimes bartered for a bottle of whiskey. They endured terrible violence and terrible lives.

I remember reading one book that said a British officer there to do a survey noticed that if you were a convict, you were, you know, the lowest of the low. But if you were an Irish convict, you were like dirt. Like you were at the lowest rank of all the convicts just for being Irish. And so, if you can imagine, not only are you Irish, but you’re also a woman and you’re a convict. I found learning about it so interesting, but also found myself getting very angry. You would be sent to to Australia and frequently you would finish your term, not in the jail, but you know, working for a sergeant or whoever and if you were raped and became pregnant by him, you would go to prison and your baby was taken away. And nothing would happen to the rapist. It was just a constant battle for survival for these convicts. I find it so incredible how resilient they all were to then go on and essentially, you know, build a nation.

Q: Well, it’s that idea of institutionalized rape, some that goes on in places even now.

Aisling Franciosi: What I’m really proud about in this film is if you don’t want to acknowledge it for what it is, we’re going to make you acknowledge it for what it is. I think it’s often brushed aside, whether it’s because of shame or just not wanting to accept it for how brutal and violent that it is or how destructive it is. But like, even as part of my prep, I was watching a documentary called The Invisible War. It’s fascinating and it’s about sexual violence and rape in the US military. It was appalling, it was shocking to me. And one of the quotes that you see on the screen at the very end of the movie was from a very highly ranked officer, and he says, ‘Rape is a hazard of the job.’ Getting shot, maybe, getting hurt in battle, maybe, but rape should never be a hazard of the job.

Q: One of the things that struck me about Clare is how strong she is. And I don’t mean just after everything happened, but even before, she’s much stronger than her husband.

Aisling Franciosi: Yeah. It’s so interesting people say to me, ‘Oh, she goes from timid to Joan of Arc.’ But if you really think about it, she is actually enduring so much for the sake of her family. It’s not that she’s not strong enough to stand up to Hawkins. I mean, it would probably cut her life short, but I think she would do it if she was just on her own. But she’s trying to protect her dream of a future with her family, the safety of her husband and the safety of her baby. It’s all on her shoulders and all just kept safe by her enduring, enduring, enduring. Endurance might not be the most glamorous type of strength, but it’s a strength and she has it in spades. Then it becomes a different kind of strength going forward. But yeah, I don’t, I don’t see her as going through this transformation. I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s just her unleashing all the rage.

Q: She also undergoes a different kind of transformation, because at a certain point, she’s just like every other white person in Tasmania looking at the aboriginal people through racist eyes until she’s thrown in with Billy.

Aisling Franciosi: Well, I think it’s beautiful that it’s two very traumatized and hurt souls kind of metaphorically holding each other’s hands and just going through it together. Yeah, she absolutely does (change). She initially is quite awful to him, but I like that Jen has portrayed Clare as being a human being with her flaws and showing the not-so-great sides to her personality. You know, I like that she’s a fully formed person. And I love that it’s essentially Billy and the compassion she gets from him and then the friendship that they have that makes Clare choose survival. –Pam Grady

That’s Entertainment! Show biz films in the spotlight at SF Jewish Film Festival


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The 39th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 18-Aug. 4, kicks off with Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof, the musical that became a Broadway phenomenon and later a 1971 Oscar-winning film. That opener sets the stage for a festival rife with films about the business of show, its personalities, indelible moments in entertainment history, and even a documentary about a camera beloved by filmmakers and its inventor. Here is a report on five of the most notable, followed by a list of the remaining show biz titles. –Pam Grady

Beyond the Bolex

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The world may be increasingly digital, but celluloid still exists, and the Bolex 16mm movie camera is still manufactured. The story of that camera and its inventor, Russian-born Jacques Bolsey, is the subject of this enchanting documentary. Made by Bolsey’s great-granddaughter Alyssa Bolsey, who had access to Jacques’ journals, schematics, cameras, and footage (generously employed throughout the documentary), Beyond the Bolex is both industrial history and the personal story of the Bolsey family. It is also, in a way, a fascinating detective story as Alyssa Bolsey unravels the enigma of a man she never knew but with whom she shares a deep love for the beauty of the analog image.



Director Michael Curtiz’s (Ferenc Lengyel) battles with studio and government interference over the production of his latest film, Casablanca, are only the start of the filmmaker’s troubles in this elegant, noirish Hungarian production. Supercilious government suit Johnson (Declan Hannigan) insists the movie should be wartime propaganda. Curtiz resists the reduction of his work to knee-jerk jingoism even as he wrestles with how to end the picture. Complicating matters is the appearance of his estranged daughter Kitty (Evelin Dobos), demanding attention he scarcely has time to give. Luminously shot in black and white (with the occasional red flourish to suggest shooting in progress) with an evocative score by Gábor Subicz, the drama does not gloss over the less savory aspects of Curtiz’s personality while also depicting him as a strong-willed artist unafraid of ruffling powerful feathers.

It Must Be Schwing – The Blue Note Story


Not to be confused with Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, the other recent documentary about the legendary New York jazz label, this entertaining German import more tightly focuses on the label’s founders, Alfred Lion (1908-1987) and Francis Wolff (1907-1971). United in friendship by their love of jazz from the time they were teenagers and Jews forced to flee Hitler’s Germany, the two made their passion into their business in forming the label that would record such artists as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, and so many more jazz giants. Eric Friedler’s delightful doc employs what one would expect from a film of this nature, a lot of archival footage, bursts of the music upon which Blue Note made its name, and interviews with music historians, Blue Note recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and plenty of musicians, including Quincy Jones, Sonny Rollins, and Hancock. But to fully tell Lion and Wolff’s story, Friedler turns to animation, a stroke of inspiration that brings the men and their fascinating story to vivid life.

Love, Antosha

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The actor, Anton Yelchin, who died in 2016 at 27, has 68 credits on the IMDB, an astonishing number for someone so young and encompassing shorts, TV shows, and movies ranging from small indies to the latest Star Trek franchise. Garret Price’s moving documentary, produced by Yelchin’s Like Crazy director Drake Doremus, suggests the promise unfulfilled: the parts he had left to play, the directorial debut he was planning, his immersion into photography. More vitally, this heartfelt film—chockful of clips from Yelchin’s films, including his own boyhood efforts—reveals Anton as a bright, curious, and caring personality in stories told by his friends, coworkers, and his heartbroken parents, figure skaters Viktor and Irina Yelchin.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

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In time for Pauline Kael’s centennial birthday comes Rob Garver’s documentary that will appeal to Paulettes everywhere, a film that spins the story of one of the last of the truly influential film critics. A poultry farmer’s daughter from Petaluma, she got her start on the radio at KPFA in Berkeley before pulling up stakes and heading East where she eventually rose to prominence at The New Yorker. Sarah Jessica Parker voices Kael’s words in a film that combines archival footage of Kael and others, clips from many of the movies that she reviewed, and interviews with her daughter Gina James and writers and filmmakers, including Camille Paglia, James Wolcott, Carrie Rickey, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Boorman.

More SFJFF show business-themed films:

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Before You Know It

Carl Laemmle

The Humorist

The Mamboniks

Shut Up and Play the Piano

Standing Up and Falling Down

Tel Aviv on Fire






Incandescent Jessie Buckley steps up to the mic in WILD ROSE


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Wild RoseIn a key moment of Wild Rose, aspiring country singer Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) travels to London—probably the farthest she’s been outside of her hometown of Glasgow—to meet one of her heroes, real-life BBC The Country Show radio host Whispering Bob Harris—who tells her that if she is serious about making it in country music she needs to write her own songs. It is a suggestion that flummoxes her; she feels she has nothing to write about. She can’t see what the audience sees: Her life is a country song. And so is this movie, the story of a working-class heroine who can’t seem to get out of her own way, whose life would utterly defeat most other people, but whose hope and big dreams remain undistinguished.

The juxtaposition of Scotland and Nashville, where Rose-Lynn hopes to eventually hang her hat, may seem incongruous, but Glasgow has a thriving country scene where Rose-Lynn has been a star at a local pub, which just happens to be named Grand Ole Opry, since she was a teenager. Country (not “country ‘n western,” Rose-Lynn emphatically insists) is also music that celebrates hardscrabble lives and hers has been more hardscrabble than most. The single mother of two before she was 18 years old—her daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) is eight and her son Lyle (Adam Mitchell)—she has never settled into the role of parent, to her mother Marion’s (Julie Waters) consternation. She drinks too much, breaks promise after promise, and places her own interests front and center, always.

Recently paroled from prison after spending a year there on a drug charge, the kids are last on her list of priorities. She is a heat-seeking missile of inchoate ambition, confident in her talent if utterly clueless on how to make what passes for her life plan a reality. A job as a maid with Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) feels like a big step backward, but Susannah is the first person out of Rose-Lynn’s own circle to recognize that the young woman isn’t fooling herself. She is the real deal, whether anything come of it or not.

Wild Rose is a movie with a big heart and a big performance at its heart. Buckley, who has extensive stage musical experience and who is best known to audiences from 2016’s War and Peace and the recent Chernobyl HBO miniseries, is electrifying. Playing a personality as vivid as her flaming red hair, she is by turns empathetic, entrancing, and enraging, forthrightly portraying the unsavory aspects of Rose-Lynn’s narcissism and neglect of her children.  And when it comes to the music (with many songs co-written by Buckley with screenwriter Nicole Taylor, singer-songwriter Ian W. Brown, and guitarist Simon Johnson), Buckley is the real deal. When she sings, she is simply stunning.

All roads eventually lead to Nashville and a moment of catharsis on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. But nothing in this movie is as it seems. It may have the contours of a Scottish A Star Is Born, but it confounds those expectations. What Taylor and helmer Tom Harper (Buckley’s War and Peace director) have created is more in line as a miniature portrait of what Robert Altman portrayed in his sprawling Nashville. Show business in general and Nashville in particular attract strivers and dreamers and Rose-Lynn is one of those. But she also has a life in opposition to her ambitions. It is a dilemma worthy of a heart-wrenching tune by Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette. And it is one that won’t leave a dry eye in the house as Rose-Lynn gives voice to that song. –Pam Grady

TOY STORY 4: Pixar visits the Island of Misfit Toys


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TOY STORY 4Rankin-Bass probably doesn’t have cause for action, but it is impossible not to feel the influence of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in this fourth Toy Story adventure. The world Woody (Tom Hanks) stumbles on where toys go unloved and unwanted is not an island nor toy world unto itself, but a dusty antique store where toys go unloved and unwanted. For Woody, beginning to contemplate his own obsolescence and a time when no child will call him his own, the place is a revelation. If this is truly Woody’s last roundup, he goes out in a blaze of laughter and tears.

There are five types of toys in Toy Story 4: the traditional playthings that belong to one child, represented by Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the usual Toy Story crew; the antique store misfits that include Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a talking doll with a broken voice box, and her army of spooky ventriloquist dummies; feral toys in the wild that any child may pick up and play with, the place to where Woody’s old friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now missing an arm, has fallen; unobtainable toys that are carnival game “prizes” that no one can ever win like Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele); and crafts, crude toys made by children themselves, in this case Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with mismatched googly eyes, a misshapen clay mouth, pipe cleaner arms, and Popsicle-stick feet.

It is Woody’s determination that Forky, the current favorite among the child Bonnie’s toys, not become lost during a family vacation that leads to the antique store and a reunion with Bo in a nearby park. Gabby Gabby, with an eye toward Woody’s working voice box, conspires to keep him near, while a Buzz Lightyear reconnaissance mission connects the toys to the carnival crew.

There is a lot of inspired hilarity in Toy Story 4. Allen’s Buzz Lightyear has some wonderful moments after misunderstanding what Woody meant when he tells him to always listen to his inner-voice if he is unsure what to do. Key and Peele delightfully reunite as the cuddly and cute and oh-so-aggressive stuffed animals who deliver some of the film’s most inspired comic moments with their vivid and cartoon-violent imaginations. Hale is both moving and howlingly funny as the little spork who is not sold on this toy business. And coming hot on the heels of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and Always Be My Maybe, Toy Story 4 adds to Keanu Reeves’ current moment with his brilliant and side-splitting turn as Duke Kaboom, a Canadian Evel Knievel-like stuntman toy who can strike a lot of poses but can’t quite nail his stunts.

But this is a Pixar movie and one that deals with a key moment in childhood, at that, when a child either outgrows or grows bored with a toy. It is set aside, never to be played with again. It happens to all toys sooner or later – the Island of Misfit Toys is real, only its residents aren’t just faulty; some are playthings that were once cherished only to be abandoned. That is what Woody is facing. Bonnie plays with him less and less and sometimes leaves him alone all day in the closet. She prefers a spork to his company. In Woody’s drooping posture, in his expressions, the toy’s sadness is evident. When he opens his mouth to speak, the poignancy is complete. This is Hanks at his best, suggesting the weight of the world resting on that little doll’s shoulders.

But cowboy Woody is not a pessimist by nature and he is a problem solver. What Toy Story 4 wrestles with is what comes next when you realize the life you’ve always known may not work anymore. It is a familiar situation and not just to toys. How Woody faces his future is at the heart of Toy Story 4 and it is his sometimes faltering steps to plan his tomorrow that is the beating heart of the movie. –Pam Grady

Tracking keystone species in THE SERENGETI RULES


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SerengetiNicolas Brown adapts Sean B. Carroll’s book The Serengeti Rules, at once paying homage to the five scientists at the heart of it, and explicating their theories in a handsome, engaging documentary. Like so many environmental docs that have come before it, it identifies a threat to our planet, in this case, the degradation to our natural world that ensues with the loss of biodiversity. But unlike so many films of its nature, it is more hopeful in tone. The scientists know what needs to be done to cure this particular malady; the trick is getting it done. The Serengeti Rules serves as a clarion call for action.

Working in disparate corners of the natural world—Bob Paine in the Pacific Ocean off Washington state, Jim Estes in the Aleutian Islands, Mary E. Power in the rivers and streams of Oklahoma, Tony Sinclair in Africa’s Serengeti, and John Terborgh in the Amazonian rainforest—the five scientists observed the same phenomenon: That when certain species are removed from an ecosystem, collapse follows. Paine, for example, constructed an experiment in which he removed starfish from an area of the seabed. With the predator gone, mussels proliferated while the overall diversity of species in the area dropped by half.

It was Paine who explicated the theory that the scientists ascribe to: That certain species, referred to as “keystones” and often predators, are vital to the health of communities. When they are removed from a system or die off for whatever reason, it upsets the balance and the entire system suffers.

Brown employs reenactments to illuminate his subjects’ work as young scientists. To this he adds interviews with the five, including Paine literally on his death bed, and commentary from Carroll to illustrate the keystone theory. It is not all doom and gloom. In particular, Sinclair has watched the renewal of the Serengeti after the wildebeest population rebounded with the eradication of the rinderpest disease.

The Serengeti Rules is also a spectacularly beautiful film. Tim Cragg and Simon De Glanville’s cinematography is gorgeous whether exploring the ocean floor, observing otters bobbing atop the current, following big mouth bass darting through murky water, peeking through foliage in the Amazon or Yellowstone National Park, or regarding the wildlife of the Serengeti. Those images are affirming—it really is a beautiful world we inhabit. But Brown is also making a point with such glorious depictions—it is a beautiful world and it is urgent that we pay more attention to it and the keystone species that support it. –Pam Grady

Living large in legend: Rolling Thunder rides again in Scorsese quasi-doc


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RollingThunder_Regan_1975_StudioA-1Fun fact: When Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan’s sole (and notoriously unsuccessful) foray into narrative filmmaking—a nearly four-hours-long fever dream combining vignettes with concert footage–opened in San Francisco in 1978, it was at the Castro Theatre. It is only fitting then that Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese that employs that same footage should have its one and only San Francisco screening before settling into its home on Netflix at the Castro. Complete with tastings of Dylan’s Heaven’s Door whiskey line, which is somehow perfect. The film, up to a point, anyway, is delicious. And so is the booze.

So, what happens when aging tricksters Scorsese and Dylan get together and make a movie? The short answer is an alternative history of a storied concert tour. Fact and fiction intermingle, leaving the viewer to parse the two and ponder just what constitutes truth, anyway. Billed as a doc, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story both is and isn’t that. Scorsese opens the film with early silent film footage of a magic act. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is the rabbit the director pulls out of his hat.

In reality, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour that rolled through New England and other points east in the fall of 1975 was seen by relativity few people, but it would live large in legend even if sound recordists and a camera crew hadn’t been on the scene to capture it. The backing band was one of Dylan’s best, an exceptional lineup that included former Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, a then unknown T-Bone Burnett, and violinist Scarlet Rivera. A lineup of guest artists and co-headliners joining him on stage and/or performing their own sets were Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Bob Neuwirth, and poet Allen Ginsburg.

The band was amazing, while its frontman was engaged, passionate, and clearly having a blast. The charisma Baez talks about in one of the new interviews in the documentary is on full display. Normally taciturn, Dylan is often downright ebullient, clearly enjoying his role as ringmaster. The joy is expressed in the music, a blend of Dylan’s back catalog, deep even then, and the new music he’d just recorded for his upcoming album Desire. Barn-burning versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Isis, ”Romance in Durango,”  and “One More Cup of Coffee” are among the highlights, while a section of the film is devoted to “Hurricane,” the song he wrote to bring attention to the flight of imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.

That concert material makes up a lot of Scorsese’s film and it is superlative, the music as vital today as it was nearly 45 years ago. To that the director mixes in footage from Renaldo and Clara, the tour’s side project where all the performers took a role, archival footage from adjacent history (particularly Nixon’s resignation the year before and the 1976 American bicentennial), playful silent era footage toying with the idea of masks, and new interviews, some real, some not. Dylan’s own seem to straddle a middle. At one point, he paraphrases Oscar Wilde’s epigram, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” He isn’t wearing a mask.

It is all wildly entertaining, but at the same time distancing. Talking heads like The Filmmaker (Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, perfect as a supercilious European auteur wannabe) and The Politician (Michael Murphy reprising his Jack Tanner role from his collaborations with Robert Altman) get far more screen time than any musician who isn’t Dylan or Baez. And most of the Rolling Thunder musicians aren’t represented at all. That is where the limits of Scorsese’s approach is felt most acutely. Where is T-Bone Burnett or Rob Stoner or Bob Neuwirth (Dylan’s longtime friend and the man Rolling Thunder guitarist J. Steven Soles credited in a recent Variety guest column with inspiring the Rolling Thunder Tour)? And what else did multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, the baby on the tour at only 19, have to say besides recalling Ginsberg’s crush on him and his surprise at discovering Rambin’ Jack Elliott’s middle-class Brooklyn roots?

Within its constraints, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is wildly entertaining. The few people who got to see that tour witnessed something that really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something Dylan has never recreated in all of his subsequent years of touring. For the rest of Dylan’s fans, the film is a gift–and a great advertisement for its star. After all, the 14-disc CD The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings just hit the streets on Friday. –Pam Grady


Not the Man They Think I Am At Home: ROCKETMAN’s Portrait of the Artist


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ROCKETMANAnyone expecting Rocketman–a film about the life and times of Elton John, executive produced by Elton John and produced by his husband David Furnish—to be a rock star’s vanity project, will be disabused of that notion in the dramatic musical’s opening scene. That’s when Elton (Taron Egerton), arrestingly attired in a skintight, bright orange jumpsuit with feathered wings and topped off with devil horns and rhinestone, heart-shaped glasses, bursts into what is unmistakably a 12-step meeting, sits down, and confesses to a long list of addictions. No, Rocketman is not a vanity project; it’s an anti-vanity project, a lacerating portrait of the artist as a young, self-loathing man. It is a movie that defies expectations, revealing the emptiness and inner turmoil hidden beneath such a glittering career.

It’s a balancing act for director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle and Bryan Singer’s replacement on Bohemian Rhapsody), screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, both stage and screen), and a game cast led by Egerton to put across an often scabrous story while offering eye-popping entertainment built out of John’s deep catalog. For the most part, Rocketman succeeds brilliantly, frank in its depiction of its lonely, needy, and sometimes monstrous protagonist but buoyed along by its incandescent production numbers. Regardless of how well it does or doesn’t do in its original theatrical life, expect the movie to have a brilliant second career as a sing-along—it’s just built that way.

The boy Reg Dwight (nine-year-old Matthew Illesley and 14-year-old Kit Connor) is caught between Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), his narcissistic mother, and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), the father’s whose love he craves and who lets him down at every turn with his cold indifference. Heady success comes early to the young man now called Elton John, but the pressure of success, poor romantic choices, and the constraints remaining closeted at a time when publicly declaring oneself gay is considered a career killer, don’t just keep his feet on the ground, his problems threaten to drag him under it. From the outside looking in at his spectacular rise, Rocketman could almost be an Icarus story where Elton soars so high his wings melt. But on the inside, he is still just Reg, looking for unconditional love, something he only finds it with his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, cinema’s original Billy Elliot) and they are not enough.

Anyone looking for a traditional biopic is likely to be disappointed by Rocketman. This is not that. John’s great band of the ‘70s—bassist Dee Murray, guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson, and percussionist Ray Cooper—is nameless and pretty much faceless in the film. His producer, Gus Dudgeon, is not a character nor are many of his famous collaborators with the exception of Taupin and his “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” duet partner Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon). The emphasis is on the personal and the effect is expressionistic and sometimes surreal with John’s famous tunes advancing the story and the history of his ‘70s era career told in the lovingly reproduced costumes that evolve from a dorky overalls number John wears in his America debut at LA’s famed Troubadour to his sparkly LA Dodgers’ “uniform,” satin shorts, sequined jumpsuits, and Elizabethan drag. His stage wear grows bolder and bolder even as he struggles in the strictures of the closet.

The supporting cast is excellent, down to the smallest roles, but this is a movie that rests on Egerton’s performance. The actor who rose to fame in Rocketman producer Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service as a guttersnipe who transforms into an elegant covert agent effects an even more startling metamorphosis here. He becomes Elton John, inhabiting both the quivering mass of man behind the curtain and the larger-than-life, charismatic superstar capable of holding the rapt attention of an arena full of fans. And unlike Bohemian Rhapsody where Rami Malek lip synced to Freddie Mercury’s vocals, Egerton makes the transformation complete, his own voice replacing John’s on all those familiar songs. It is a dazzling turn in a film that burnishes Elton John’s legacy by insisting on his fragile humanity rather than as his status as a musical icon. –Pam Grady

Bonus feature:

The film gets at Elton John’s talent for looking at a set of lyrics and being able to compose the music to complement those words. In this video from 1971, he talks about his method as he works on “Tiny Dancer”:


Justice denied in TRIAL BY FIRE


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_DSF4683.RAFNearly 28 years ago, on Dec. 23, 1991, three little girls died in a fire in Corsicana, TX. In short order, the authorities declared the blaze an arson and identified the children’s father, Cameron Todd Willingham, a local ne’er-do-well as the killer. Fifteen years later, the state of Texas executed Willingham by lethal injection. Those are the bare bones of the case that serves as the basis for the Edward Zwick’s (Blood Diamond, Defiance) new film, Trial By Fire, a tense true-crime drama that argues that an injustice has been done and an innocent man executed. Jack O’Connell as Willingham and Laura Dern, as Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright who worked on behalf of Willingham’s exoneration, lend their considerable talents to a riveting tale of justice denied.

English actor O’Connell (Starred Up, Unbroken) is particularly effect as the ill-fated, Oklahoma-born Willingham. There is no vanity to his performance as someone only too easy to accuse of committing a heinous crime. As husband to wife Stacy (Emily Meade), he is abusive. He is an unemployed rage-aholic well-known to local authorities long before the tragedy. But he also appears to have been a doting father with no actual motive for killing his daughters. Stacy believes he is innocent. No one else does, not even Peter Horton (Darren Pettie), his defense attorney—that is until Gilbert, first Willingham’s prison pen pal and later his advocate, gets involved.

Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who adapts a 2009 David Grann New Yorker article, meticulously lay out the facts of the case, from Willingham’s home life before the fire through Gilbert’s thorough investigation and her vain attempts to get Governor Rick Perry or anyone in the Texas justice system with the power to intercede to rectify an injustice. Dern is terrific in her depiction of a woman whose own domestic life suffers in her drive to do right by someone else.

The supporting cast is strong, particularly Jeff Perry in an arresting cameo as an arson expert who disputes the original investigators’ findings and Chris Coy as a guard who comes to view his prisoner in an entirely different light through their cellblock interactions over the years. Fletcher’s script is not without issues—fantasy sequences where Willingham converses with his seven or eight-year-old daughter (who was two when she died) are as hokey as they ineffective and the timing of a third-act catastrophe in Gilbert’s life is far too coincidental to be believable. (Indeed, while Gilbert did suffer a personal tragedy while working on Willingham’s case, it was not nearly so on the nose.) But those are minor problems in a film that offers a powerful indictment of a system that would rather kill an innocent man than admit error. –Pam Grady