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Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Courtesy of Universal Pictures
2017, 115 minutes 
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Review by Joshua Handler

Some "based on a true story" movies exist to be meditations or reflections on the world like The Social Network or the new (and excellent) Battle of the Sexes. Others simply want to entertain. Doug Liman's new film, American Made, falls squarely, proudly in the latter category. The film tells the story of Barry Seal, a cigar smuggler and TWA pilot who is recruited by the CIA to fly planes over South America to secretly photograph Communist groups. However, Seal's talents are also recognized by Pablo Escobar's nascent Medellín Cartel who begin to pay Seal obscene amounts of money to smuggle drugs into the United States from South America while on his government missions. As Seal becomes increasingly wealthy and used by both the US government and the Cartel, his life spirals out of control.

Liman has proven adept at creating fast-paced thrillers over the years with Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity, and American Made, while not as action-packed as the aforementioned films, is no exception. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli keep the film moving at a clip, never allowing it to slow down. Every few minutes something happens that further complicates Seal's life and gives the audience something else to laugh at or marvel at. As a side note, I'm curious about how much of American Made is true and how much was invented for the film, as the story on screen could easily have been played much darker instead of for laughs.

While American Made is a non-stop, frequently jaw-dropping story, it wouldn't work without a major star leading it. Thus, Tom Cruise was a perfect casting choice. Cruise brings a sense of charisma and confidence lacking in most actors nowadays. Every time Cruise steps in front of the camera, everyone else seems to fade away. While the character of Barry Seal feels less like a character and more like Tom Cruise, he works and carries the movie effortlessly.

Overall, American Made is solid piece of entertainment from a director and star who consistently deliver. It isn't groundbreaking or life-changing, but it is a fascinating behind-the-history story that should please both fans of Cruise and adults looking for a fun night out at the movies.


Friday, September 22, 2017


Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in STRONGER
Photo credit: Scott Garfield
Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
2017, 119 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity

Review by Joshua Handler

In the past 10 months, there have been two films about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013: Peter Berg's intense PATRIOTS DAY and now David Gordon Green's STRONGER. While these two share basic subject matter, they are very different from one another. PATRIOTS DAY focused around the bombing itself and the manhunt that followed. STRONGER has a brief scene of the bombing but mostly focuses around the physical and psychological effects it had on Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). 

Jeff was standing next to one of the bombs when it exploded, causing him to lose both of his legs. In the ensuing months, Jeff struggled with the trauma of the incident as well as the unwanted heroic designation his city gave him. 

Structurally, STRONGER is another inspirational film about a man struggling with adversity. However, largely due to Green's sensitive direction and careful handling of the love story at the film's center, STRONGER is elevated above other films of its kind. This isn't a "greatest hits" version of Bauman's story - Green isn't interested in that. He immerses the audience in Bauman's life and world, choosing to treat the more triumphant moments with equal importance to the smaller ones such as when Jeff and Erin sit on Jeff's roof enjoying each other's company - a rare moment of calm. 

Bauman isn't depicted as a hero. He is a flawed human being whose irresponsibility and consistent drinking are amplified by the trauma of the bombings. It is to the credit of Green and screenwriter John Pollono that Bauman's personal troubles aren't glossed over and that he isn't depicted as the hero that he never wanted to be. With Jeff's overpowering yet loving mother (Miranda Richardson in yet another performance that proves why she's one of the most versatile actresses working today) straining his relationship with Erin and his increasing reliance on alcohol, Jeff's life takes a downturn, plunging him to new lows. Jeff bounces back, but when he does, it's treated as a series of small triumphs, not one large moment of triumph where the music blares and the camera swoops. 

Gyllenhaal and Maslany individually give performances of quiet power individually while complementing each other together. The internal torment and physical challenges that affect Jeff throughout the film are brought to life with a sense of dedication, dignity, and realism by Gyllenhaal. There's never a moment when this performance feels like a performance. Erin is Jeff's rock and his most consistent support and Maslany conveys this with grace and subtlety. Watching Gyllenhaal and Maslany track the highs and lows of Jeff and Erin's tumultuous yet committed relationship form the emotional core of this film, keeping the audience consistently engrossed and engaged.

Overall, Stronger is a familiar story told with skill and a genuine sense of care. There's a good chance audiences will dismiss this as either another inspirational drama about overcoming the odds or another Boston Marathon bombing movie which would be unfortunate, as this is an unexpectedly unconventional film that could inspire not through contrivance and cliché but rather through the sheer integrity and perceptiveness of the work of those who made it. 


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RISK Review

2017, 87 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Laura Poitras has long been a respected documentarian, but in 2014, she achieved a new level of fame and importance with her Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR in which she interviewed Edward Snowden as he blew the whistle on the US government. The film was history in the making and kept a secret until a few weeks before its surprise premiere at the New York Film Festival.

CITIZENFOUR was made while Poitras was a few years into making RISK, a documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that’s as unnerving and essential as CITIZENFOUR. In 2011, Poitras began interviewing Assange, continuing for multiple years. The footage is unsurprisingly jaw-dropping, with the most memorable being when Assange disguises himself and flees to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (where he remains to this day).

RISK originally premiered in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival to mixed-positive reviews. But, the story of Assange and WikiLeaks kept taking dark twists and turns, and Poitras decided to restructure and recut the film, adding new footage and information as recently as two weeks ago. As revelations about the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election were revealed, Poitras reportedly made the film less favorable to Assange and WikiLeaks.

Like CITIZENFOUR, RISK takes that which we read in the news and makes it personal. Poitras very responsibly (you’ll know why I use the word “responsibly” when you view the film) inserts herself into RISK with voiceovers, adding some much-needed commentary to the film that further distinguishes it from any others that will likely be produced about Assange. 

While Poitras captured some stunning footage, Assange largely remains frustratingly elusive. We do not gain many deep insights into his thought process and don’t entirely understand him better by the film’s end. That being said, when the information and footage are this riveting, flaws like the above don't detract much from the overall film.

RISK is an important piece of work both for the questions it raises and for the historical value of its footage. Anyone with any interest in world news should not miss this film. Poitras continues to be the foremost filmmaker on docs about government whistleblowers and surveillance, and given that RISK was produced over a period of six years, one only wonders what bombshell Poitras is working on now.


Friday, July 29, 2016


Courtesy of STX Entertainment
2016, 101 minutes
Rated R for sexual material, full frontal nudity, language throughout, and drug and alcohol content

Review by Adam Gordon

You would assume that the title says it all. You've seen that bloody awful trailer and have already dismissed it as idiotic. What was Mila Kunis thinking? You saw the TV ad and thought, "Who are they kidding with that derivative crap?" And you saw the poster and were appalled! But then something strange happened. The unbelievable occurred. A shocker. A real Hollywood mystery. The word-of-mouth on Bad Moms was quite good and the reviews coming out now are quite positive.

Stop reading instantly if you are not one to suspend disbelief and let go of your inhibitions. Just enjoy a fun 90 minutes of old-fashioned raunchiness. In the vein of an Old School, Anchorman, or Wedding Crashers, but playing more like a Trainwreck or Bridesmaids companion, Bad Moms is the story of Amy (Mila Kunis) an over-committed housewife whose marriage breaks up right as she is about to break. She joins forces with two other stressed-out moms played by the brilliant Kathryn Hahn and sly Kristen Bell, and the trio run out on the PTA meeting, liberating themselves from all the motherly and family duties. Of course, this puts them right on course for a showdown with Bitch Queen Head Mother of the PTA (the ever-hot Christina Applegate), the school itself, and their own families.

While the script to Bad Moms has nothing on the likes of Trainwreck or Bridesmaids, it does have many, many laughs and will leave you feeling good. It won't change your life, or the human experience, but it does show that we have progressed far enough to say that it is impossible to be a perfect mom, and it is damn hard to have it all!

7 out of 10

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DON'T THINK TWICE: Tribeca Review

Courtesy of The Film Arcade
2016, 90 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Many films have been made about the art of comedy, but few, if any, have been as expertly executed as Mike Birbiglia's newest film, Don't Think Twice, an ensemble film about The Commune, an improv troupe whose members face resentment when one of their members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), is hired by Weekend Live (a parody of SNL) and the rest of the members aren't. 

The film revolves around the theme of improv being something that only happens for a brief moment in one's life before leaving. This bittersweet theme informs the tone of the film, creating something that's alternately laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking. With Don't Think Twice, it's almost as if Birbiglia has captured lightening in a bottle. The main ensemble is in perfect sync, the jokes land hard, and the drama stings. It's like a comedic symphony.

Birbiglia has not set out to simply make his audiences laugh - that would be far too simple. His film is a complex storm of emotions that, not unlike Jill Soloway's devastating Transparent, often mixes hard laughs with moments of harsh drama. But, like his characters, Birbiglia never forgets that at the end of the day, no matter what has transpired, we all need to laugh. Through scenes both improvised and scripted, Birbiglia and cast earn every laugh, and laughs were in ample supply at Monday evening's New York Premiere.

Also of note are Gillian Jacobs' performance as Samantha, Jack's girlfriend and Commune co-member, and Joe Anderson's naturalistic cinematography. Jacobs' performance is the beating heart behind the film, and with raw messiness, Jacobs carries much of the film's emotional weight. Her (and the film's) climactic scene are nearly transcendent.

Anderson, a very talented cinematographer whose work on Andrew Renzi's previous two films (both Tribeca world premieres), Fishtail and The Benefactor (previously titled Franny) was nothing short of astounding, does more excellent work here, using fluid camera movements to capture the loose nature of the comedy.

Overall, Don't Think Twice is not only one of the best of the dozen or so films I've seen thus far at Tribeca, it's one of the most insightful films about comedy to have been made. Birbiglia has created something very special, something that comedians will appreciate as much as general filmgoers. This is a universal story about friendships and the lines we all must walk when navigating them. When Don't Think Twice releases this summer, it's very important that you see it. Small indie films like this one need all the support they can get so that filmmakers like Mike Birbiglia can continue creating gems like Don't Think Twice.


Saturday, April 16, 2016


The cast of SING STREETCourtesy of The Weinstein Company
2016, 105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking

Review by Joshua Handler

If every movie was like Sing Street, the world would be a happier place. A blast of perfectly-calibrated joy, energy, and charm, John Carney's brilliant new film is his third music film and is so wonderful that it can be mentioned in the same breath as his 2007 Oscar-winning masterpiece, Once. The film follows Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teen who starts a band to impress a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), against the backdrop of 1985 Dublin. Music becomes an outlet for Conor to escape his school and family troubles, eventually becoming a way for him to break free. 

Few films capture the youthful optimism that Sing Street does. This film is obviously a personal project for Carney, and he infuses it with a rare kind of authenticity, especially through his and Greg Clark's soulful, energetic soundtrack (it would be very easy to mistake a number of their songs for authentic '80s pop hits) and the performances of the cast. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a major new talent. As the lead of the film, he makes us all believe in and cheer for Conor. Walsh-Peelo captures the kind of I-can-do-anything ambition that only teens have when starting their lives. 

As Raphina, Lucy Boynton is alluring, seductive, and sweet. She and Walsh-Peelo made me feel as if I was first falling in love all over again through their convincing chemistry. And, Jack Reynor provides much of the film's emotional core as Conor's troubled brother, Brendan. His quiet yet naturally charismatic performance makes every second of his limited screen time potent.

Too few films celebrate creativity as much as Sing Street does. Carney has made a film that promotes creative risk-taking and how it can lead to a richer life. While with this message he doesn't say anything new, it's still refreshing to see a film executed this perfectly with a message like this one.
I could sing Sing Street's praises for months to come. There's truly nothing negative I can say about this film. I walked out of Sing Street with a huge smile on my face and will likely rewatch it many more times.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

KEEP QUIET: Tribeca Review

Czanád Szegedi and Rabbi Boruch Oberlander. KEEP QUIET, directed by Sam Blair and Joseph Martin. Photo credit: Gábor Máté, Courtesy of AJH Films & Passion Pictures

2016, 92 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

The Tribeca Film Festival has become known as a prime hub for documentaries, and Sam Blair and Joseph Martin's Keep Quiet is further proof as to why that is. The film tells the story of Csanád Szegedi, a leader of Jobbik, a far-right, anti-semitic political group who, upon finding out that he's Jewish, goes through a major identity crisis and turns himself around.

Keep Quiet chillingly and movingly explores whether a person can ever truly change and what the motive for that supposed change is. Blair and Martin make great use of archival footage from Szegedi's political days along with footage he shot when he interviewed his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. 

But, the film's most powerful scene comes when Szegedi visits Auschwitz. It's a scene that ranks along with The Act of Killing's finale as one of the most revealing and raw in recent documentary history. Rarely do we get to witness someone's mind almost literally splitting open and changing heart, but we see it on full display in this shattering sequence in Keep Quiet

Throughout the film, Blair and Martin feature interview footage that they shot with Szegedi and it's riveting. He's a dream interview subject, as he's very open and vulnerable on camera. Lots of credit must go to Blair and Martin for never judging Szegedi. They're capable enough filmmakers to allow their subject and material to speak for themselves and allow us, the audience, to come up with an opinion of what we've seen. 

Keep Quiet is undoubtedly going to be one of the most hotly-debated films playing at Tribeca that should (if distributors are paying attention) be acquired for distribution fairly fast. Festival play should be good for this one, both at doc and Jewish film festivals. If possible to make the Tribeca screenings for Keep Quiet, go with friends and plan dinner afterwards, as this film will provide plenty of post-screening discussion. 


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

5 Tribeca Films Worth The Ticket Price

5 Tribeca Films Worth The Ticket Price
By Joshua Handler
The Tribeca Film Festival is back, and I am once again covering. This year, as always, has many great films to offer and likely many more to discover. Without further ado, here are the films that I think are well-worth the ticket price:

LIFE, ANIMATED (Dir. Roger Ross Williams) – Winner of this year’s Sundance Directing Prize for Documentary, Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated tells the story of Owen Suskind, an extraordinary young man who has autism. At the age of three, Owen stopped talking and became withdrawn, but his parents discovered that they could get him to talk again through Disney’s animated films. Through this discovery, Owen finds normalcy in his life and a path to reconnection with the rest of the world. Life, Animated is a universal film that’s moving and heartbreaking, and it’s animated sequences are transcendent.

MIDSUMMER IN NEWTOWN  (Dir. Lloyd Kramer) Midsummer in Newtown had the potential to be a downer, but while it certainly is heart-wrenching, it is also a clear-eyed, optimistic, powerful look at how art can transform lives, even in the shadow of unimaginable tragedy. The film follows a group of New York theater creators who go to Newtown, CT to produce a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast primarily made of local students, many of who were directly affected by 2012’s Sandy Hook school shooting. The show has a profound impact on the children's lives. Unmissable.

HIGH-RISE (Dir. Ben Wheatley) – Ben Wheatley’s surreal class war drama, High-Rise, is completely crazy and ridiculously entertaining. Since its premiere last fall at TIFF (where I first saw it), High-Rise has proven to be one of the most polarizing films on the festival circuit, but it's the audacity and uncompromising way in which Wheatley directed this film that made me fall in love with it. Tom Hiddleston leads an incredible cast that includes Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, and Elisabeth Moss. If you want to be adventurous, see High-Rise. It’s one of my personal favorite films to be releasing in the next month or two.         

KEEP QUIET (Dir. Sam Blair, Joseph Martin) – Bound to be one of the most-discussed and widely sought-after docs at this year’s festival, Sam Blair and Joseph Martin’s Keep Quiet is about a far-right anti-semitic political leader in Hungary who changes his ways to become a practicing Jew after finding out that he himself is Jewish. Daring and non-judgmental, this film about a man fighting to leave behind a hateful past is essential viewing and epitomizes why Tribeca is one of the premiere festival hubs for docs.

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (Dir. Taika Waititi) – Taika Waititi has been on a roll as a director with last year’s hilarious What We Do in the Shadows (which he co-directed with Jemaine Clement) and then Thor: Ragnarok, which is being released in 2017. Between those two films, though, he made the delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which stars Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison (in a breakout performance) as a grouchy old man and his foster kid, respectively, who go on the run after the former’s wife dies. With a huge heart and an odd sense of humor, this film is a charmer that will be loved by many.


Kristin Bell (front) and Melissa McCarthy (behind) in The Boss
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

2016, 99 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, language and brief drug use

Review by Adam Gordon

Other than 2014’s disaster Tammy, Melissa McCarthy can basically do no wrong in my eyes. Her new collaboration with her husband, producing, writing partner, director Ben Falcone proves to be no epic, but if you let its sophomoric, lowbrow, crude humor wash over you as you turn your mind off, you can have pretty reasonable time at The Boss.

The film follows the exploits of Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), introduced to us as a self-made billionaire with basically no soul. When she is faced with a reversal of fortune,and faces prison for insider trading for several months, she ends up destitute on the streets of Chicago with no friends or family to speak of. To her rescue comes her former assistant, Claire (the ever-lovely Kristen Bell) and her young daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). What transpires from here is almost obvious - the three form a family bond, Michelle discovers that Claire has an amazing skill for baking delicious brownies, and Michelle goes to build a new empire around these brownies. From this we get an incredible set-up for a low-down dirty fight between Rachel’s Dandelion Girls (not unlike the Girl Scouts) and the Mothers - it’s an overblown fight, choreographed with slo-mo and swords, vile language and gore. But it's riotous.

You also get Michelle’s first taste of family, from her growing bond with Claire, as business partners, as well as Rachel, with whom she gets her first taste of what it would be like as a grandparent. Here the film finds its soul and stride. It also finds some of its funniest moments when it lets McCarthy get physical Bell and their brassieres.

The Boss is far, far from perfect, or even maybe good, though it is totally watchable and enjoyable for what it is. And it does star one of the great living comedians, Melissa McCarthy. For that, The Boss earns a passable C-

Friday, April 8, 2016


James Rolleston (left) and Cliff Curtis (right) in The Dark HorseCourtesy of Broad Green Pictures
2016, 124 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, and drug use

Review by Joshua Handler

It's amusing that this film is being released less than a month away from another acclaimed film with the same title, save for the word the in the title. That other film is Louise Osmond's Sundance Audience Award-winner, Dark Horse, which, unlike this film, actually is about a horse. And while that inspirational crowd-pleaser is highly recommended (Sony Pictures Classics will release it May 6 NY/LA followed by a nationwide expansion if you're interested), James Napier Robertson's The Dark Horse also gets a high recommendation.

The Dark Horse is an inspirational true-life drama about Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a mentally-ill former chess champion who decides to run a chess club for at-risk youth. While the film is entertaining, touching, and well-directed, it is Cliff Curtis' quietly empathetic performance that makes The Dark Horse worth spending the time and money to see. Curtis' internalized performance paints a bone-deep portrait of a good man forced to fight with his own mind. If this film were being released by a major studio and if Curtis was a well-known actor, he would be a serious Oscar contender.

The ensemble is also perfectly cast. They give surprising, impactful performances that dot the film. The most notable, other than James Rolleston as Genesis' nephew, Mana, is that of Wayne Hapi who plays Genesis' brother, Ariki. A key scene between Curtis and Hapi is a brilliant acting showcase - it's so powerful and filled with subtext that acting coaches could use it in classes. 

The Dark Horse is a film that all audiences will enjoy. While the film certainly doesn't do much that's new, it does what it does with such skill and subtlety that the fact that it doesn't do anything new doesn't matter.