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Lipstick on the Knee, 27 April 2015
8/10

Greetings again from the darkness. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first time the Kilgore Rangerettes took the field at halftime of a football game. Their iconic high-kicks have become popular all over the world and at many types of events. For those outside the world of Rangerettes and Dance/Drill Teams, the history has been mostly unknown … until this documentary from filmmaker Chip Hale.

On September 12, 1940 director Gussie Nell Davis sent her first line of Kilgore Rangerettes onto the field to perform at halftime of a football game. It was a performance that was to change the way halftime entertainment was handled in high school and college football, and later in basketball as well. Gussie Nell Davis spent the next 40 years as director of the Kilgore Rangerettes, and even today (she passed away in 1993) is remembered at every camp and competition held by the American Dance/Drill Team School – an organization she helped found.

Director Hale introduces us to three living members of that first line … 90-something's that are still friends and still proud of their time as Rangerettes. One even wears a sparkly shirt that states "Rangerettes Forever". There are also brief interviews of other former Rangerettes, plus the current director and assistant director. Taking up most of the screen time is a look at the training and tryout camp for Rangerettes "hopefuls" – the girls looking to make the step from high school pep squad to "the world famous Kilgore Rangerettes".

For those parents (like me) who have a daughter who danced, the workouts, practicing, rehearsal of routines, marking performances, and the extreme physical and emotional pressure that goes with all of it, is all too familiar … and brings back memories (some good and some not-so-good). For those new to the dance world, the physicality and extreme workout and practice schedule will probably be shocking. The combination of athleticism, grace, technique and tenacity necessary for success are comparable to anything that football (or any other sport) players must possess.

It's a slight disappointment that the film focuses so much on the pressure-cooker (one of the hopefuls calls it an "emotional massacre") that is the tryout process, as tracking down more former Rangerettes would have been fascinating. We get a few stories – successful business women, teachers, etc – but so much is made of the confidence and presence and self-esteem that the program delivers, it really would have been insightful to meet more of these successful women, and note their contributions to society.

As impressive as the high-kicks are to behold, the Kilgore Rangerettes program deserves to be celebrated even more for its development of role models and citizens who understand hard work and teamwork. These are people who go on to make a difference in society. They 'do their best, and do it with a smile'. In other words … "Once a Rangerette, always a Rangerette".

faith, family, forgiveness, 25 April 2015
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Film Festivals are often loaded with passion projects from filmmakers who have scratched and clawed to get their movie made – usually on a shoestring budget with the help of friends and family. All of this holds true for this film from writer/director Bill McAdams Jr, who delivers a Christian faith-based message movie … not one that preaches, but rather tells stories through its characters.

With a seemingly wonderful life – a beautiful wife, two terrific kids, and a new business started with his brother – Bob Collins (played by Ernie Hudson) experiences the worst tragedy imaginable in the form of a hate crime from a couple of local racist brothers (Rett Terrell, Frank Mosley) who call themselves "the Brotherhood". In response, Bob declares that he is "done with God", and quietly drops from society and isolates himself in the country.

The film's themes include faith, family, and forgiveness while also dealing with deep sorrow, anger, racism, revenge, alcoholism, and entitlement. It also reminds us that each of us has challenges in life, and periodically we need support or assistance. Maybe it's the little girl with a split lip, or the wife whose husband drinks too much, or even the angry young punk who lacks a proper role model.

The messages and approach are admirable, though the scenes featuring Ernie Hudson are clearly a step above all others. His expressive eyes hide nothing, and his transformation from happy father/husband to broken man provides a seminar on fine acting. Other supporting work is provided by Kevin Sorbo, (director) Bill McAdams Jr, Mary Jean Bentley (the director's real life sister), and Marcus Mauldin. With numerous child actors, it's young Megan Dalby as Puck who steals each of her scenes. Here's hoping Miss Dalby sticks with the acting profession.

From a film that lists Jesus in the closing credits under "Thanks", it's not surprising that nuance and subtlety are mostly absent from the script and especially from the score (which is entirely too prominent for the story). Still, the messages are worthy and quite welcome given the times and issues we face. It should also be noted that the post-screening Q&A was moderated by the energetic and always likable Stephen Tobolowski, who made clear his admiration for Ernie Hudson and the movie.

Slow West (2015)
Misguided love, Spot on humor, 25 April 2015
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then a movie catches us off guard as the tone shifts during the story progression. The first feature film from writer/director John Maclean is an example of this, and even more impressive in the manner that it delivers contradicting and overlapping tones through much of its run time. Balancing life and death tension with laugh out loud comedic elements requires a deft touch, and Maclean proves his mettle.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) stars as Jay Cavendish a young Irish man traveling westward across the old west Colorado frontier to find his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay's babyface, naïve approach and trusting nature make his survival dubious at best … at least until he hires a grizzled gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and protector. There is vital information about Rose known to all but Jay, which leads us to not be so trusting of Silas' motives in sticking with the young man.

The trail provides the expected hardships and a reluctant bond between the two opposites. Some of the tension is created by crossing paths with a couple of bounty hunters … one a long range dead-eye who sports a priest collar, and the other a nasty sort played by the always dangerous Ben Mendelsohn who leads the gang Silas once rode with.

Jay's mission to find Rose is quite a romantic quest, but the effective use of flashbacks and dreams tells us more of the story, and in particular, why Rose and her dad (Rory McCann) are on the run. So as this tension builds, the startling and abrupt use of off-the-wall humor takes us viewers out of our comfort zone and into the unusual place of utter surprise at the back and forth between violence, romantic notions and laughter.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are both excellent in their roles, and relative newcomer Pistorius oozes with potential. Jed Kurzel's (The Babadook) music effectively adds to both the drama and comedy, and the script is smart and funny – a rare combination these days. It's likely that viewers will feel guilty for some of the laughs, but that just adds to the ingenuity of Mr. Maclean. Even the body count tally forces one additional guilty laugh from us before leaving the theatre. Very well done.

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
The Father who went Looking, 25 April 2015
5/10

Greetings again from the darkness. The lure of the director's chair is sometimes too much for A-list actors to avoid. We have watched Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie and Kevin Costner have success behind the camera, and now we get Russell Crowe with a story tied to his roots in Australia. The film is scheduled to open in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), a day of national pride and remembrance.

Mr. Crowe also stars as Connor, an Australian farmer with a gift for finding water sources in the outback – hence the title. Connor and his grieving wife lost all three of their sons in the Battle of Gallipoli, when Britain and Allies invaded Turkey, resulting in the death of more than 100,000. Four years after the battle, Connor is forced to try and fulfill the promise he made his wife … travel to Turkey, find the bodies of their sons, and bring them home for proper burial.

Director Crowe, working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), delivers a film that looks exceptional … both in its widescreen vastness and beauty, as well as its more intimate moments (though the heavy dose of amber glow is a bit too much early on). Flashbacks play a key role and the battle scenes are brutal and realistic, as is a monstrous sandstorm that engulfs the young sons in a moment designed to convince us that Connor was a protective father, and carries the guilt of allowing them to fight the war.

Connor's trip into Turkey allows for the clash of cultures, as he is truly an unwelcome guest and a proverbial fish out of water. If not for the enterprising young boy that guides him through some tough spots, Mr. Connor's trip may have been short-lived. Instead he struggles through clashes with the British, the Greeks and especially Turkish Major Hasan (an excellent Yilmaz Erdogan).

While the cultural and personality clashes are entertaining, the stereotypes and simplifications are somewhat tougher to accept. A romantic interlude with the hotel owner (Olga Kurylenko) is maybe the most out-of-place segment of a dramatic movie we have seen in awhile. Crowe and Kurylenko are both fine actors, but this makes little sense and distracts from Connor's mission. We can only assume the Producers demanded a little romance to offset the downbeat war segments and cash in on Crowe.

Crowe shows promise as a director, and if the film has any box office success, we can hope he will have a bit more input into what stays and what goes in his next project.

Radiator (2014)
I remember so much pleasure, 22 April 2015
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut of writer/director Tom Browne might be best suited to live theatre, though it works just fine on the silver screen. So fine in fact, that is was named the Grand Jury winner at the Dallas International Film Festival. On the surface it looks like yet another glimpse at the miseries of aging; however, it doesn't take long before we viewers are entangled in this three-headed web of marriage, family, dominance and the struggles of growing old and losing control.

Fortunately the bleak subject matter is juiced with enough dark comedy that we actually laugh out loud periodically, while other times we manage at a smile for the smattering of sweet moments. Daniel (played by co-writer Daniel Cerqueira) is beckoned to the rural family home by his mother Maria (Gemma Jones) as she finds herself at a loss on how best to deal with Leonard (Richard Johnson), her husband and his dad.

This is a towering performance from Mr. Johnson, and he plays it full hilt as some odd type of tyrannical tragedy. See, Leonard's reign as a force in family and life is now relegated to wallowing in his own sorrow, pain and feces while committed only to lying prone on the sofa and bossing his wife about the house with menial tasks for which he demands perfection. When Daniel arrives, he is taken aback by the squalor and demeanor of his once powerful father. He does what any of us would do … he takes control by ordering a hospital bed, getting dad cleaned up, etc.

As viewers we initially see things through the eyes of Daniel and Maria – on the wrong end of Leonard's demeaning abuse. Somewhere along the way, there is a subtle shift in viewpoint and tone. The roots of love and marriage are revealed to run inordinately deep after so many years. An act of cruelty can somehow be forgotten and life can move on … even after situations that might never survive a shorter-term relationship. This shift is brilliant writing, and at a level we don't typically see in movies.

In fact, the film seems to disprove one of its more poignant lines: "The black moments smother any flicker of light", and instead builds on another: "Just because someone changes, doesn't mean you stop loving them". You will likely recognize all three lead actors, and each of them deliver excellent performances. Despite the subject matter, my takeaway is actually summed up in yet another line from the film … "I remember so much pleasure".

Manglehorn (2014)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A security lock, 22 April 2015
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who grew up with 1970's cinema, it's been painful to watch Al Pacino's career over the last two decades … with only a couple of exceptions. We have longed for the actor who became Michael Corleone, and cringed with each outing that seemed to parody his Oscar winning performance in A Scent of a Woman (1983). Along comes the latest from director David Gordon Green and with it a reappearance of that actor so worshipped by John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever.

A.J. Manglehorn is an elderly locksmith who lives each day under his self-designed cloud of despair. His droopy eyes, droopy shoulders and droopy social skills are eclipsed only by his love for Fanny the cat, and his daily letters to Clara – the long lost love of his life. The only other signs of life in Mr. Manglehorn are displayed when he is telling a customer that it's time to wash their car, when he is hanging out with his granddaughter, or when he is exchanging Friday flirtations with bank teller Dawn (a sparkling Holly Hunter).

Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and TV's "Eastbound & Down", and while this one (filmed in Austin, Texas) has some awkward and offbeat comedic moments, it would have to be categorized as a drama. Symbolism is everywhere as Manglehorn keeps his emotions "locked" away from his snooty yuppie son (Chris Messina) and retreats into his imaginary relationship with Clara, rather than embracing Dawn's brave come-on.

There are a couple of extraordinary scenes … Pacino and Messina talking around, rather than about, their relationship and the type of men they are; and the excruciatingly awkward and heart-breaking first date between Pacino and Hunter. The forlorn Manglehorn remains behind the locked door and allows the shadow of his dream girl to cast a pall, despite having a real life dream girl sitting across the table.

Pacino recaptures his mastery of the close-up. Such emotion from so little apparent movement is the work of a once great master who proves he still has it. Some may be put off by the lack of big action, but these are people living life and trying to make the best of it. There is a line from the movie, "When you choose this life, there is no one". It's a line that tells us so much about Manglehorn's daily approach. Whether he finds the right key matters to us for one reason … Pacino makes us care.

Tatiana tames Dr Pepper, 22 April 2015
5/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Priestley is well known for his acting career, and his first feature film as a director combines two of the more familiar movie paths – the odd couple and the road trip. Writer Jessie Gabe jolts the screenplay with enough comedy and poignancy that we overlook the air of familiarity and instead concentrate on the mismatched titular characters. Ms. Gabe also makes a memorable on screen appearance as a snippy receptionist.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Dr. Cas Pepper … yep, he is Dr. Pepper (I suspect that's why he goes by Cas). Thanks to the narration and early scenes, we quickly learn Cas is a widower, a 30 year doctor, and recently discovered to be terminally ill. Cas has perfectly worked out a plan to "head west" and go out on his own terms … if only he wasn't experiencing writer's block on his suicide note.

Worlds collide as Cas agrees to give Dylan Morgan (Tatiana Maslany, "Orphan Black") a ride to her boyfriend's trailer. Cas wrongly assumes that the energetic and fast-talking Dylan was visiting a relative at the hospital, and soon learns that she was experiencing "suffering vicariously through patients". See, Dylan fancies herself a writer and has developed a new genre, Action Romanture, which she is convinced will secure a publishing deal and rescue her from a world that doesn't appreciate her in the least.

An unexpected turn leaves Cas and Dylan on the road together, and quibbling like an old (and odd) couple. Nothing that follows is especially ground-breaking, and in fact, is mostly quite familiar; yet the two leads somehow captivate us with their banter and the understanding that this is leading right where we know it must lead.

Director Priestley wisely utilizes the stunning landscapes of western Canada, and allows the two actors to go at each other in a way that two different generations must – all the while building a friendship that we see long before they do. There are some interesting and effective song choices, but it's Ms. Maslany's spunk and depth as Dylan that allows the interactions to click. The legacy note may be the goal here, but the lesson is that no one should be alone … no matter if they be a 22 year old social misfit, or a sixty-something doctor near the end of life.

God Only Knows, 20 April 2015
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Beach Boys fans may struggle a bit with this one since the light-hearted, airy feel to the "Fun, Fun, Fun" music of the band is mostly absent. Instead, director Bill Pohlad pulls back the curtain on the emotional and mental struggles of visionary songwriter Brian Wilson … the band's creative force.

In an unusual artistic approach, Paul Dano plays Brian from the 1960's period that resulted in the revolutionary Pet Sounds album and the ongoing battle with his domineering father; while John Cusack plays Brian from the late 1980's - his most creatively bankrupt period and the subsequent debilitating influence of quackster psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The two periods are blended together as we (and Brian) bounce back and forth between the struggle of a budding musical genius working to release the sounds in his head, and a middle aged man so heavily medicated that speaking, eating and even getting out of bed are such overwhelming obstacles that music rarely registers. It's during the latter period that Brian is truly at the mercy of Dr. Eugene Landy. Giamatti sports a floppy wig and proceeds to rage at Brian while trying to charm Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), Brian's new romantic interest. Knowing this disgusting period was part of Brian's life only adds to the anger and frustration we feel … not just as fans, but as human beings.

What sets this biopic apart is actually the performance of Dano and the peek inside the process of Brian's genius. Watching Brian work the musicians and mold the music on the fly is breath-taking, even though we see the challenges of his early mental issues. It's a joy to see a tribute to the studio session players known as "The Wrecking Crew" … themselves the subject of a recent stellar documentary. It's during this period that the Wilson brothers' father (played by Bill Camp) constantly derides Brian and his "new" music. There is also some insight into the Brian vs Mike Love battles – Brian exploring his creative music, while Mike just wants to keep cashing in with their expected "fun" style.

Some may find the two-headed approach to be distracting, but it drives home the point of what a different man he was in comparing the mid-1960's to the late 1980's. Mostly, I found the 1960's portion to be an insight into what we hear from so many geniuses, regardless of their specialty. Brian says it's like "Someone is inside me. Not me." His struggles are non-relatable to others – even his brothers, and especially his dad. What is mostly a look at the darkness behind the "sunny" music, does come with real life redemption courtesy of Melinda's strength … and witnessed in the video shown over the closing credits.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
move forward, not back, 20 April 2015
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don't spend much time re-living our past, and we certainly don't go through the emotional turmoil of analyzing our early lives from a different perspective. This story puts actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) in those shoes and then we watch as she fights, claws and battles her way through.

Maria is a well-respected veteran actress who has been offered a role in the revival of the play that made her a star more than 20 years earlier. The play was written by her mentor, who dies suddenly as she is on her way to visit. Hotshot director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria for the role of the older woman, and this is difficult for Maria to accept since she played what she considers the far more interesting younger woman in the first version. Internal psychological warfare breaks out.

Maria's personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) struggles to keep Maria informed of today's world – celebrity gossip is especially key in their conversations. They also run lines together, and the parallels between the play and their real lives are so prevalent that the lines are often blurred between written word and spoken word. Things get really dicey when Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) enters the picture as the talented, extremely popular, personally out of control actress slated to play opposite Maria in the play.

These three actresses are exceptional … yes, even you Kristen Stewart haters will be impressed. They each bring extraordinary depth to their role, and all are a bit outside of what would be considered their comfort zone. Their exchanges are fun, but what's not said is every bit as exciting and key.

Filmed in the Sils Maria area of the Alps, the landscape is beyond breathtaking. Maloja Snake is the title of the play, and it refers to the fantastic cloud formations that snake through the peaks and valleys of this marvel of nature. The scenery is a nice complement to the emotional rides each of the characters take, and writer/director Olivier Assayas ensures that we have no shortage of talking points after the film.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Their cameras record history, 19 April 2015
8/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Sitting comfortably in our recliners or desk chairs, we have come to take for granted the exceptional work of photojournalists from inside locations we ourselves would never risk going. These folks risk their lives to capture otherwise unimaginable conditions and injustice from around the world. Co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli profile four courageous photographers from Afghanistan.

Documenting the truth with a camera seems so simple; however, as one of the photographers explains, he often finds himself running towards the spot from which everyone else is running away. Put yourself in this situation … you are taking photos of a solemn religious ceremony when suddenly a bomb explodes and bodies, limbs, blood and destruction are everywhere. Do you stay to record the fallout and help the injured, or do you run away from the scene in case another bomb is set to detonate? This film doesn't judge, but instead it matter-of-factly points out that these photographers understand the role they play in exposing such evil and cruelty. In other words, they stay.

One of the photographers profiled is Massoud, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his stunning photo of "The Girl in Green". Massoud is now head photographer of AP – Kabul, and he remains in touch with the girl and her family, while maintaining his mission of documenting history in his country.

The most heart-breaking and anger-inducing segment involves Massoud's wife Farzana, who is also a photojournalist. Yes, a female photojournalist in Afghanistan. Her personal story is so touching as she was a mere 13 year old girl when she had her first run-in with The Taliban, which had seized control in 1996 - making photography, education, history and any semblance of women's rights a thing of the past. She shares her story which serves as her inspiration to record the injustices toward women that remain in the country, despite the social improvements since The Taliban was ousted from Kabul in 2001.

This review is no place for all the details covered in this emotional and powerful and informative documentary, but to paraphrase one of the photographers … "my heart was crying but my eyes had no tears left". Please don't mistake what these brave people do with the personal infringements of the celebrity paparazzi. The only similarities are the cameras they carry. These photojournalists and the others like them around the globe understand that their "empathy brings meaning to their photographs", and that photographs are the only assurance that a segment of the population will never again be "voiceless".


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