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7/10
Film Offers New Road Through Tired Genre
16 April 2018
When filmmakers title their project The Long Dumb Road, it's a nod to potential viewers - a tongue-in- cheek way of saying: "Yes, it's another road movie, but we think we've got a fresh take that will amuse you."

In this case, the secret weapon is Jason Mantzoukas (The Good Place, Dirty Grandpa), the current go-to actor for nutty but endearing characters. The Long Dumb Road is a showcase for Mantzoukas, who moves into a lead role after stealing scenes as a supporting actor in earlier films and television shows.

Mantzoukas' straight man is 21-year-old Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel). He plays Nat, who is leaving the family nest and driving from Texas to Los Angeles to begin art school.

Engine trouble brings Nat together with Mantzoukas' Richard, an itinerant mechanic in his 30s who has simply bounced around since he was Nat's age. After Richard gets Nat's minivan running again, the kid agrees to him a lift to a nearby town.

Circumstances conspire to extend their trip together to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and then north to Albuquerque. Along the way, Richard's antics yank Nat out of his comfort zone, effectively demonstrating the things he can and can't control and forcing him to overcome unexpected challenges.

The two men are bookends for young adulthood. Nat has a plan he thinks he can follow. Like many of us of a certain age, Richard looks into the mirror and wonders: What the hell happened?

A number familiar faces pop up during the trip: Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) as Richard's old flame from high school, Grace Gummer (Mr. Robot) and Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story, The Bling Ring) as sisters the guys pick up in a bar, Pamela Reed (Parks and Recreation) as a good Samaritan and Ron Livingston (Office Space) as Richards's frenemy Francois.

Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that it's not the type of conclusion one usually sees in this sort of movie. Credit writer/director Hannah Fidell and cowriter Carson Mell (Silicon Valley) for finding that fresh take on a tired genre.
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7/10
Sinatra Helped Shape an Oasis in the Desert
15 April 2018
The documentary Sinatra in Palm Springs focuses on Frank Sinatra during the last two decades of his life, when he held court in the Southern California desert. You won't see his kids, who were adults by then, or much of the Rat Pack, which was his Las Vegas posse. It does offer stories of his legendary temper, but far more about his generosity.

The film takes its audience to the settings of those stories, the lavish homes and unique restaurants in which the singer/actor spent his time. It looks at the period architecture and furnishings in the residences; at the restaurants, you see the tables and foods he favored and hear from the colorful men who owned and managed the places.

Filmmaker Leo Zahn scored a lengthy interview with Sinatra's fourth wife, Barbara, shortly before her death and uses clips throughout the documentary.

At 95 minutes, the film runs probably 25 minutes too long, repeating some of the footage and belaboring some of its points. But viewers with particular interests in Sinatra or the history of Palm Springs will find plenty to like.
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8/10
This 'Hidden Figure' Was Hidden in Plain Sight
27 February 2018
Warning: Spoilers
With all respect to the women portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures (2016), an earlier "hidden figure" was hidden in plain sight - in Hollywood, no less - with her figure being part of the façade.

The world knew movie star Hedy Lamarr for her looks and the movies they graced during three decades in film. Very few knew Lamarr as the inventor who conceived technology that paved the way for Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth.

Lamarr's life story could have been a movie itself, and now it is: the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

On one level, Bombshell is a tale of escape - from Lamarr's native Austria-Hungary as it fell under German domination; from her first husband, a controlling man who manufactured and sold weapons for Hitler and Mussolini; and from a 1930s immigration system stacked against refugees. But the story rises to a higher level amid the current debates about feminism; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for women and gender inequality in the workplace.

Filmmakers Alexandra Dean and Adam Haggiag were about six months into their Lamarr documentary when they made an amazing discovery: Reaching out to reporters who had written about Lamarr in the past, they contacted former Forbes writer Fleming Meeks. "I have been waiting 25 years for somebody to call me about Hedy Lamarr," he responded, "because I have the tapes."

It was back to the drawing board for the filmmakers, because suddenly Lamarr could narrate her own story. To add context, the filmmakers spliced in interviews with her children and friends, as well as well as entertainment figures such actress Diane Kruger, who is producing a TV miniseries about Lamarr, and director Mel Brooks, whose admiration for the actress led him to famously name Harvey Korman's Blazing Saddles character "Hedley Lamarr." (Brooks' laugh lines seem rather stale in today's #MeToo environment.)

Born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in Vienna to Jewish parents, Lamarr was a quintessential "daddy's girl," which later may have contributed to her many failed marriages. Early on, she discovered that her looks enabled her to influence others. As teenager, she left school to pursue a career in acting. During the early '30s, she appeared in five German and Austrian films and started going by her nickname, "Hedy." In the last of those, Ecstasy (1933), she performed nude, which was considered shocking. It contributed to her rising fame but likely cost her respect, and opportunities, later in her career.

After fleeing Austria and her marriage, she made it to London and met legendary producer Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was there to scout European actors and actresses fleeing fascism. She persuaded him to give her a contract with MGM, and he persuaded her to change her name, settling on "Lamarr," at the suggestion of his wife, to honor silent-film star Barbara La Marr.

Patriotism and Perfidy

Hoping to bring her mother to America, Lamarr became concerned about the the number of ships being sunk by German U-boats, which eluded counterattacks by jamming the radar of Allied torpedoes.

Though Mayer kept her busy with 14 films during the war years, Lamarr, a lifelong inventor, made time to study torpedo guidance and came up with "frequency hopping," the idea of transmitting radio signals by rapidly switching among many frequencies known to both transmitter and receiver. She worked with avant garde composer George Antheil to turn her theories into reality; they obtained a patent in August 1942 and made it available to the Navy.

But the Navy wasn't impressed, suggesting Lamarr could do more for the war effort by pitching war bonds. (She did, and quite successfully.) It was years later that the Pentagon's perfidy would be uncovered: The government repaid Lamarr's patriotism by labeling her an enemy alien and seizing the patent, which it proceeded to use in subsequent years. Neither Lamarr nor Antheil made a dime.

She was just as headstrong about her movie career. After getting out of her MGM contract, Lamarr set out to produce her own movies, which was rare in the studio era. But she had another powerful weapon, herself. She produced and starred in The Strange Woman (1946) and Loves of Three Queens (1954), in some cases spending her own money to get the projects done. For making her own career choices, Lamarr was said to be "difficult," a label still used today to punish women who don't toe the line in the entertainment industry.

So by the end of 1965, Lamarr had given away her greatest invention, refused to sit quietly on the Hollywood gravy train and been through six failed marriages. (The film suggests she found several of her husbands "boring" because they couldn't engage her intellect.) On top of all that, she became addicted to prescription drugs under the care of Dr. Max Jacobson, Hollywood's infamous "Dr. Feelgood."

Her later years were marred by strange arrests for shoplifting items she could afford, repeated plastic surgeries that did not produce the desired effects, and increasingly reclusive behavior.

Bombshell paints Lamarr as a brilliant woman who was too far ahead of her time in a couple of America's most combative arenas: entertainment and war. It holds a viewer's attention throughout by convincingly tying the actress' life experiences to issues that remain relevant, even controversial, today.

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Stu Robinson does writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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Final Girl (2015)
5/10
'Final Girl' Tries to Flip Tropes of Slasher Movies
8 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
In the context of slasher films, the term "final girl" has a specific definition. It refers to the last character – almost always female – left alive to confront the killer. She tends to be a virgin and/or remains fully clothed and eschews smoking, drinking and drugs. Finally, she is usually a brunette, often in contrast to a promiscuous blonde who is killed off.

But mostly that's not the case in the 2015 thriller Final Girl, starring Abigail Breslin. Her antiheroine Veronica may be a virgin, but not for lack of effort. Liquor and hallucinogens are among her weapons. And she's very blonde – all the better to draw out her prey.

Instead, the film's Netflix synopsis gives away the whole story:

"A group of sociopaths that's been killing girls in the woods for sport sets its sights on a teen who turns out to be a trained assassin."

Oops.

Did they make a prequel film about Helena from BBC America's Orphan Black? Or perhaps a horror/comedy, something along the lines of Club Dred (2004)? Nope, Final Girl is neither of those.

In fact, the synopsis tells a potential viewer all he or she needs to know. There is nothing for me to spoil: no twists, no context and little suspense for a thriller.

The first half concerns Veronica, an orphan, being recruited as a child and trained until young adulthood by mysterious handler William (Wes Bentley). A stripped down version of 1990's La Femme Nikita, it offers no explanations of why or for whom.

In the second part, William puts Veronica in the field to take down four high-school "bros" whose idea of fun is to lure a pretty girl into the forest at night for a radically simplified version of 1932's The Most Dangerous Game. There is no real hunt; the guys just run after the girl until she tires or falls, and then kill her.

Never explained: why they are on the case; how William knows about the killers; and the necessity of having them avenged by one of their prey. The locals are aware that girls are missing but aren't motivated to ask the most basic questions. Law enforcement is not in the picture, literally.

So what does the film offer?

Director Tyler Shields presents a small-town slasher movie through a noir lens. Much of the film is set at night, at a classic diner or in the woods. Veronica's training appears to take place mostly in empty warehouses. The girls wear prom-like dresses while William and the boys wear black suits. The characters drive classic cars from the 1950s or '60s. It's all very pretty, in a dark sort of way.

Filtered through the noir, the plot has a past-among-present setting – kind of like Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990) without the delayed reveal. Meanwhile, the dapper brociopaths exchange pretentious dialogue – like the Life & Death Brigade from Gilmore Girls, but homicidal.

The result is a mildly interesting perspective on the slasher genre, but not interesting enough to overcome a story that plays like it came in a two-page outline rather than a fleshed-out script.

The other thing Final Girl offers is an outstanding performance by Breslin, who has been criminally underutilized recently as whiney Chanel No. 5 on Fox TV's Scream Queens. She carries the plot and even manages to mine a little humor, betrayed by a glint in her eyes. It's as though her precocious preteen character from Zombieland (2009) got older and more dangerous.

If you are a real cineaste who enjoys exploring variations on common genres and tropes, you might enjoy Final Girl. If you're looking for entertainment on a Friday or Saturday night, watch Club Dread or Zombieland instead.

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Stu Robinson does writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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8/10
Film Looks at Quirky Talisman of U.S. Currency
28 April 2017
You probably have one in stashed in a drawer. Or wadded up in a corner of your wallet. And you're not sure why.

Live, from 1976, it's the $2 bill!

Yours may still be crisp, with its bust of Thomas Jefferson on the front and, on the back, it's detailed etching of the Declaration of Independence's presentation to the Continental Congress. And, according to The Two Dollar Bill Documentary (2015), what you think you know about it might be wrong.

"It's not a stretch to say that most Americans are decidedly misinformed about the $2 bill," says John Bennardo, who produced and directed the film.

Indeed, one of the Frequently Asked Questions on the Treasury Department website is: "Why did the Treasury Department remove the $2 bill from circulation?"

Well, it didn't. There are about 1.2 billion out there.

Like many niche pieces of Americana, the $2 bill has its fans.

"People have decided it's a kind of talisman (and treat it) in a way that they don't treat other money," says David Wolman, author of "The End of Money."

The Two Dollar Bill Documentary looks at why.

Following a brief history of $2 notes in the United States, along with a look at design elements unique to the bill, Bennardo interviews MIT graduate Erik Mintz, who conducted a survey of why people think a $2 bill is somehow special and worth holding onto. The top three responses were:

1. The misperception of rarity (46 percent); 2. A sense of nostalgia (29 percent); and 3. Belief they are lucky (11 percent).

In fact, the two is rare only in comparison to other denominations. But does have some design elements that set it apart. The front bears the image of Jefferson, a man widely regarded as quirky – like the $2 bill. The second president first appeared on the 1869 U.S. note. The same image has appeared on subsequent Federal Reserve notes.

The first "modern" version, issued in 1928, had a front similar to the current bill but with the serial number and Treasury seal in red. The back featured an etching of Jefferson's Virginia home, Monticello, a structure as quirky as he was. After minor, cosmetic changes in 1953 and 1963, the notes were discontinued in 1966.

By 1976, the federal government wanted to save money by printing fewer bills while keeping the same value of money in circulation. The answer: Replace some singles with twos. The political cover? Celebrate the Bicentennial! Those disparate motivations gave birth to the current $2 note, which has a similar front but with the serial number and seal in green.

It is the rear of the 1976 note that really draws the eye. It features an altered image of the John Trumbull painting "Declaration of Independence" engraved in an older, more-complex process known as intaglio. The result is a bill that many consider too beautiful to spend.

"There is a lot more intaglio printing on the two than on the other denominations," says Charlene Williams, manufacturing director at Bureau of Printing and Engraving facility in Fort Worth, Texas. "It kind of goes back to the old style of currency. People love the intaglio print."

The sense of nostalgia prompted by the $2 bill often, but not always, stems from where or how a person received one. Many are passed from one generation to the next, so they evoke memories of beloved parents or grandparents. But the film also includes heartwarming stories of twos from World War II and 9/11.

The perception of luck associated with the two swings both good and bad. Racetracks took $2 bets and often paid off winners in twos. Of course, those winners didn't always want to tip off others that they'd been hanging out at the track. Some folks claim to see an image of the devil on the bill; others identify clues they believe link twos to the Illuminati.

There is a perception that merchants don't like to accept $2 bills – that there is no place for them in a cash drawer and that vending machines won't take them. But the issue appears to be more with a merchant's knowledge and attitude. Those that don't mind twos manage to find a place for them, and modern vending machines that accept paper money have the capacity to accept twos – they simply must be programmed to do so.

The film offers jaw-dropping stories of merchants who simply don't believe $2 bills are real. At one Best Buy, store employees accused a customer who tried to use them of counterfeiting and called police; an officer actually took the man to jail before someone called the Secret Service and got the facts.

Which brings us to the uniqueness of a $2 bill transaction: the opportunity it offers to start a conversation.

Bennardo illustrates this by interviewing a man named Matt Zaklad, along with the proprietor of a food truck he patronizes. Zaklad makes a habit of spending twos, and both men recall how quickly the food-truck workers began recognizing Zaklad and remembering his usual order.

Groups as diverse as marijuana activists, 2nd Amendment enthusiasts and Clemson University football fans have used $2 bills as political props to demonstrate their economic impact.

In the end, The Two Dollar Bill Documentary appears to tell us that the note is worth, to each of us, whatever we impute to it. For most folks, as well as banks and merchants, that value is $2. But for some individuals, the two represents a loved one, a memory or a cause. It's hard to put prices on those.

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Stu Robinson does writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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Bodom (2016)
6/10
"Lake Bodom" serves up interesting twists but ends badly.
8 April 2017
This film (in Finnish with English subtitles) riffs off a real-life unsolved crime in 1960, in which two teenage couples were stabbed and bludgeoned during the night while camping by Lake Bodom, near Espoo, Finland. Three of the four were killed, the fourth injured severely.

In the movie, directed by Taneli Mustonen, another set of teens – two girls and two guys – camp at the site where the 1960 incident took place. The guys ostensibly want to re-enact the crime to test a theory. To lure the girls into coming along, the guys tell them they're going go a party at a lakeside cabin. The girls play along but have their own agendas.

It's never clear that the characters are two couples. Elias (Mikael Gabriel) and Nora (Mimosa Willamo) swim together in their underwear and then retreat to the tent, but the film is ambiguous about what, if any, shenanigans take place therein. Ida (Nelly Hirst-Gee) and Atte (Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä) hang out by the campfire until they decide it's safe to join their friends in the tent – that Elias and Nora probably are done doing whatever they were doing.

But if that last point implies that Elias and Nora were fooling around, one might expect them to die first, according to convention for slasher films. Instead, socially awkward Atte is the first to go, stabbed from behind while poking his head into the tent to speak with Ida, who can't see the attacker.

Elias is the alpha male, a heavily tattooed, Polynesian-looking guy who seems out of place in rural Finland. Atte is a geek, a long-haired guy with self-esteem issues. Ida is a stunning blonde trying to emerge from a dark period in her past, her face masked in sadness. Her friend Nora is wild, tomboyish brunette.

Like many Scandinavian films, Lake Bodem is visually dark and austere. The production quality is professional, and there is some interesting camera work.

As the various teens' agendas emerge, the plot takes a number of surprising twists, perhaps too many. I found the conclusion to be muddled, with little explanation or motive.

Variety reported in February that the AMC Networks-backed genre streaming service Shudder had picked up the rights to Lake Bodom and would start streaming it in May 2017.

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Stu Robinson does writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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Vampire Clowns Menace Baltimore – and John Waters Isn't Involved
8 April 2017
"The Night Watchmen," named Best Horror Feature at the 2017 International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, is the movie equivalent of tasty junk food – the cinematic counterpart to fried Twinkie or an Oreo churro. (The latter available at the theater concession stand.) It's a ridiculous tale of vampire clowns terrorizing a Baltimore newspaper office. And, apparently, legendary Baltimore filmmaker John Waters had nothing to do with it.

The co-creators, Ken Arnold and Dan DeLuca, play two of the security guards. Arnold's Ken is the nominal leader, while DeLuca's Luca is the mysterious, scary one. The team of watchmen is rounded out by Kevin Jiggetts, playing Ken's sidekick Jiggetts, a pot-loving African-American Jew, and Max Gray Wilbur as a washed-up rock musician in his first night on the job.

Following their mysterious deaths while performing in Romania, Baltimore icon Blimpo the Clown and his troupe are shipped home for medical testing. After a delivery mix-up leaves Blimpo's coffin at the newspaper building instead of the medical facility down the block, pervy newspaper owner Randall (James Remar, the only cast member that a viewer is likely to recognize) forces is it open, releasing Vampire Blimpo.

The four inept night watchmen and hot-chick newspaper editor Karen (Kara Luiz) must band together like sad-sack Guardians of the Galaxy to fight off the vampire clowns and the newly undead newspaper employees they have created.

During the Q&A after a screening at the Phoenix Film Festival, Arnold said he and DeLuca dreamed up the project to amuse themselves between jobs and that their overriding priority was to make people laugh. That they don't take themselves or their movie too seriously is obvious from the look of the film, the cheesy dialogue and the silly subplots.

Along the way, however, The Night Watchmen lampoons the conventions of the horror, vampire and zombie genres. The movie gushes bodily fluids, but in a manner that is silly, not scary, goofy, not gory. At one point, after encountering some really disgusting vampire clowns, Karen grumbles that she watched every season of HBO's "True Blood" and it was nothing like this.

It's worth noting that, for fans of horror, vampire and zombie movies, The Night Watchmen is full of Easter Eggs that pay homage to previous films in those genres. Besides amusing themselves, the writers clearly are offering middlebrow comedy for a highbrow audience. They hit their mark.

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Stu Robinson does writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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Copenhagen (2014)
7/10
'Copenhagen' Takes Love to Dark Places
23 February 2017
Warning: Spoilers
It took me a few days to process the movie Copenhagen, which took home the Director's Choice Award for Best Feature – Drama from the Sedona International Film Festival. The movie held my interest and piqued my curiosity but left me feeling a little dirty.

It tells its story from the perspective of 20-something American tourist William. After a buddy trip to Europe is sabotaged by his friend's manipulative girlfriend, he finds himself in the Danish capital alone and angry.

There is only one thing on his "to-do" list – find his grandfather, about whom he knows nothing, and deliver a letter from his late father. It's not a done deal, either. All he has is a very old address.

Played by British actor Gethin Anthony, William is not looking forward to this errand. For him, the trip always was about getting laid. While he stews in the hotel lobby, he spies a blonde walking outside. The next morning, she winds up being his waitress in the hotel café.

Things get messy when she spills coffee on the envelope, blurring the address. He berates her until she says she got a look at the address and remembers it. Suddenly, he needs her help, but it's hard for him to shift gears from nasty to nice.

He pays the price, as Effy (20-year-old Copenhagen native Frederikke Dahl Hansen) sends him on a wild goose chase. Later that day, he finds her hanging out near the hotel and confronts her. A bit sheepish, she says she'll take him to the correct address. When they get there, they find not William's grandfather but the man's brother.

It's not a happy homecoming. Uncle Peter is hospitable enough but tells William that his grandfather was a terrible man – a Nazi collaborator who was imprisoned after the war and later disappeared. His wife, shunned in Danish society, had emigrated to America with her young son.

The uncle gives William some black-and-white photos of his father as a boy. Over the next couple of days, Effy leads William to the places where the photos were taken, snapping pictures of him striking the same poses as his father. Over the course of the visits, we find out that William's father had abandoned his family when William was a boy.

The Baby Elephant in the Room

How does Effy find so much time for William? She describes her hotel job as a sort of internship, part of her school's curriculum. He assumes – or at least tells himself – that she is a college student, yet he doesn't try to bed her instantly as he has every other nubile woman since we met him.

Despite her frequent claims that she needs to get home, she never actually goes. One starts to get a creepy feeling. Is she hiding from a hellish home life? Does she even have a home? (She never seems to change clothes.) She does make a vaguely negative reference to her mother's boyfriend; is he forcing himself on her or pimping her out?

Eventually, she reveals that she's only 14 years old. That's when things get really creepy, because by this time moviegoers are invested in their developing relationship.

Confronting Reality

Around this time, the voice of reason arrives when William's erstwhile travel buddy, Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto), returns to Copenhagen, having been dumped by the girlfriend in London. The attention Effy gives to Jeremy makes William jealous, leading to an argument during which Jeremy learns the truth about Effy and calls them out.

To William: "Nobody likes you. You connect with teenagers."

To Effy: "He's that stranger you're not supposed to talk to."

When the men start to scuffle, Effy flees. Jeremy storms off, leaving William alone once again.

After a couple of pathetic conversations with Effy's voicemail, William heads out to a nightclub, where the film takes on a shadowy, race-against-the-night quality. He's about to score a threesome with two American girls – a home run for pre-Copenhagen William – when Effy turns up, having finally listened to his messages. He walks away from the Americans to focus on Effy. Is this a sign of progress for William?

Some of the club staff greet Effy with familiarity, raising more questions about her lifestyle now that we know her age. Another man at the bar recognizes her and drags her out. William pursues and forces the man to let her go. As they flee, Effy tells William it was her mother's boyfriend.

A brief stop at Effy's home to get her laptop reveals little, though the darkened apartment certainly doesn't convey a happy home life. Effy's mom emerges when her boyfriend arrives, but they are too focused on each other to notice Effy and William sneaking out.

By this point, William and Effy have admitted their romantic feelings for each other. Back in his hotel room, they begin to act on their hormones.

With a normal movie romance, the audience usually roots for the couple to … couple. But given the characters' ages, we are left to squirm as they start disrobing. Will they ignore the elephant in the room and consummate their fantasy relationship? Or will William acknowledge that, as the movie's website puts it: "When the girl of your dreams is half your age, it's time to grow up."

There are two epilogues to Copenhagen, both of which take place in the light of day. William makes a final effort to locate his grandfather and learn why the males in his family are so screwed up. We see Effy, looking and behaving very much like a teenager, waiting in class to present a report including photos she took of William – and curling up with her mother on a couch at home.
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Lucky Stiff (2014)
6/10
Musical 'Lucky Stiff' Belongs on Stage, Not on Screen
23 February 2017
As I sat through a screening of the musical "Lucky Stiff" at the Sedona International Film Festival, I kept asking myself: "Why isn't this a stage production?"

The answer came afterward, in a Q&A with actress Pamela Shaw: It was. The off-Broadway production ran for 15 shows in 1988 and was reprised in London's West End in 1997.

The follow-up question, then, is why make the movie? Crickets chirping.

The only clue – provided by Shaw, who plays crazy boyfriend-killer Rita LaPorta in the film – is that wine might have been involved.

A cast of well-known musical theater talents emotes like crazy, exactly as one would expect for actors projecting from a stage. Gaps between scenes are filled with throwback animation reminiscent of "The Pink Panther" movies from the 1960s and '70s or the theme from "Bewitched." I think the animation actually works, but "Lucky Stiff" is still a stage show that somebody decided to film.

For a contrast, check out "How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song" (2012), which won the audience award at the Phoenix Film Festival. It is an example of how to do a modern musical in motion-picture format.

"Lucky Stiff" is about Harry Witherspoon, a down-on-his-luck English shoe salesman played by Dominic March in his film debut. March is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company with a couple of BBC television shows under his belt.

Harry receives a telegram saying that he stands to inherit $6 million from an American uncle he never met. Of course, there is a big catch: To get the money, he must take his dead Uncle Anthony (Don Amendolia) on a dream trip to Monte Carlo. If he fails to comply with any of the detailed instructions, the money instead will go to the uncle's favorite charity.

Yes, it's "Weekend at Bernie's" goes to Europe!

I would have loved to see the same cast perform "Lucky Stiff" on stage. As a movie, however, it likely will be remembered as the late Dennis Farina's last film. Farina ("Law & Order," "Get Shorty") died from a pulmonary embolism in 2013. In "Lucky Stiff," Farina plays the mysterious Luigi, who always seems to turn up in key situations.
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8/10
Valerie Harper Shines in 'My Mom and The Girl'
23 February 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Writer/director Susie Singer Carter's short film My Mom and the Girl asserts that not even Alzheimer's disease can suppress the human ability to comfort others.

Four-time Emmy winner Valerie Harper (Rhoda, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) stars as Carter's mother, Norma, while Carter plays herself. The plot comes from experiences Carter had as a caregiver to her real-life mother, also named Norma.

The film doesn't sugarcoat the effects of Alzheimer's on Norma, a retired jazz singer. It starts with her pounding on her daughter's bedroom door in the middle of the night, demanding to know what Susie has done with her "baby." She curses Susie repeatedly before eventually recognizing that adult Susie is, in fact, her baby.

The language is ugly, but Harper demonstrates that the rage stems from the fear Norma experiences when she wakes up and doesn't recognize the world around her.

Harper has battled lung cancer since 2009, but you wouldn't know it from the strength she puts into Norma – or the enthusiasm she displayed at a post-screening Q&A during the Sedona International Film Festival.

In a voice-over following the opening scene, Carter explains that she took in her mother for a year as the Alzheimer's spread – and doesn't regret it. The film shows that when Norma is lucid, and even when she is foggy but contented, she remains the entertainer she was, lifting the spirits of those around her.

When she leaves the house with her caregiver, Irlanda, we see her flirt with a young parking valet, serenade a man on the bus and enjoy a merry meal with Irlanda's family.

'Dedicated to the Caregivers'

Portraying Irlanda, Liz Torres (The John Larroquette Show, Gilmore Girls) dives so deeply into the role that she's virtually unrecognizable. Irlanda has a professional understanding of Norma's condition, but she can't avoid befriending Norma and becoming a character in her inner drama.

During another late-night episode, Norma flees out the front door. Setting aside the fact that she's wearing a bathrobe, Irlanda grabs her keys and follows out the door and down several blocks into in a commercial area. Eventually, Norma finds herself waiting at a crosswalk with "The Girl" from the movie's title, played by Harmony Santana (Transparent).

Actually, the audience has met The Girl already; she was on the bus, waiting in the aisle while Norma serenaded the man who boarded in front of her. Recognition prompts her to speak to Norma, when many folks would avoid even eye contact with a disoriented woman on the street.

A slightly calmer but still-grumbling Norma laments how horrible things are for her. Noting Irlanda hovering a few steps away, The Girl unloads some reality on Norma, telling her how it feels to truly be alone – and marginalized for being transgender.

Norma's reaction is astonishing. It's as if a light bulb goes on in her mind, and her own fears are pushed aside by the need to comfort another human being in pain. The grandma inside Norma emerges as she tells The Girl she is beautiful and assures her that she'll be OK.

After pumping up The Girl's self-esteem, Norma suggests her go-to treatment for the blues: ice cream. When we last see the women, Irlanda, Norma and The Girl are crossing the street, arms linked – women of disparate backgrounds linked by empathy.

Shot in just four days, My Mom and the Girl is a bit long for a short film. Officially it runs 23 minutes, but it seemed more like 40. That was OK, though, because I was so invested in the characters and their story.

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Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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9/10
'Duck Stamp' Artists Are a Special Breed
23 February 2017
The Million Dollar Duck profiles the special breed of artists who compete annually in the federal Duck Stamp Contest.

Under the purview of the Fish and Wildlife Service rather than the Postal Service, the contest selects the art for each year's Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, better known as the Duck Stamp.

Under a 1934 law signed by FDR, all waterfowl hunters age 16 and older must annually purchase the stamp, the proceeds from which are used to purchase and protect wetlands across the country. Since then, some $800 million dollars has gone into that fund to protect more than 5.7 million acres of habitat, according to the FWS. Actually, anyone can buy the duck stamp, which also can be used as an annual "pass" to national wildlife refuges that charge entry fees. It generates about $25 million a year.

The Duck Stamp program actually benefits all of the wildlife in a wetlands ecosystem, but few of those species would look as good on a stamp as ducks.

There is a commonly held misconception that the winner of each year's contest takes home a million-dollar prize. That's not true, but the winner can license the image to sell merchandise.

The Million Dollar Duck follows several entrants and their works from conception through competition. Among them are:

• The three Hautman brothers from Minnesota – James, Joseph and Robert – who collectively have won the contest 12 times and earned a shoutout in the movie Fargo.

• Adam Grimm of South Dakota, a professional artist and father of three who has won the contest twice.

• Holiday window painter Tim Taylor from New Jersey. He and Grimm are buddies and work together during the early stages to stalk and photograph birds.

• Rob McBroom, an abstract mixed-media artist from Minnesota and Taylor's nemesis.

• Dee Dee Murry from Washington state, who taught her blind dachshund, Hallie, to paint (abstracts) and sold the works to raise money for a dog-rescue organization. "I thought I had a good year last year, but my blind dog sold more art than I did," Murry says. "I'm going to have to win the contest to get my name back."

• Rebekah Nastav, a young postal carrier from Missouri who won the Junior Duck Stamp Contest and is ready to take on the big boys.

The year the documentary was made, the finals were held at Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio, just outside of Toledo, my hometown.

Filmmaker Brian Davis does a nice job of acknowledging the quirkiness of the contest without ridiculing those involved – many of whom are dedicated to competing year after year. Along the way, viewers learn about conservation and get a peek at a federal program that works.

The Million Dollar Duck can be streamed on the Animal Planet website and is available for purchase or rental on iTunes or Amazon.
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4/10
Consequences Clear, but Filmmakers Couldn't Stop Themselves
23 February 2017
The Age of Consequences makes a strong point about the connection between climate change and global instability … and then belabors it to death.

The documentary begins with a parade of military leaders and civilian defense and diplomatic experts, all reinforcing that connection – as if trying to drown out the politicians who pretend it is open to debate.

The filmmakers list a number of ramifications – land loss, shortages, migration, civil unrest and international conflict, to name a few – but then make the same, or very similar, points for each one.

This documentary examines an important topic, so it's a shame that I was nodding off about three- quarters of the way through. Really, though, you could get the gist of it from viewing the trailer.

###

Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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7/10
Title Is Misleading, but I Didn't Care in the End
23 February 2017
"Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405" is not about Los Angeles traffic. It's 40-minute documentary short about a mentally ill artist, her past and how her work with cartoons and sculpture helped her break out of her shell.

I can't fault the misdirection in the title because the description above probably would not have lured me into the theater. Were that the case, I would have missed out on a surprisingly compelling portrait of a woman who has persevered on the edge of sanity.

"Mindy Alper is a tortured and brilliant 56-year-old artist who is represented by one of Los Angeles' top galleries. Acute anxiety, mental disorder and devastating depression have caused her to be committed to mental institutions, undergo electroshock therapy and survive a 10-year period without the ability to speak," writes Director Frank Stiefel in his summary. "Her hyper self- awareness has allowed her to produce a lifelong body of work that expresses her emotional state with powerful psychological precision."

During a Q&A following a screening at the Sedona International Film Festival, Stiefel explained that he met Alper when she was his wife's art school classmate. I commend him for recognizing an opportunity and delivering a fascinating story. Check out this film if you have the opportunity.
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7/10
Cameos Put 'Baby Baby Baby' over the Top
17 July 2016
Two struggling young artists in Los Angeles.

He's an actor, mostly in commercials; she's a painter, tending bar by night. They meet cute; fall in love; move in together; fall out of love and try to figure out what went wrong.

That's the setup for writer/director Brian Klugman's romantic comedy "Baby Baby Baby."

The multitasking Klugman plays Sydney, the actor, while my fellow Toledo, Ohio, native Adrianne Palicki (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Friday Night Lights) portrays Sunny, the artist. The plot is nothing extraordinary, but both deliver engaging performances.

What is extraordinary? The totally unexpected celebrity cameos!

As Sydney attempts a transition from actor to writer, Klugman offers up three, once-scene vignettes to illustrate his thoughts – each acted out by celebrities. There is an Oscar winner, a cultural icon, an A-list leading man, an enduring beauty, a former comedian/sitcom actor; and a TV president/insurance pitchman. I have no idea how Klugman persuaded them to appear in his indie romcom, though I'm told that if you put in the time in Hollywood and aren't an asshole, you can generate a lot of goodwill.

Kelsey Grammar (Cheers, Frasier) also appears, in more than a cameo, playing a European gallery owner who gives Sunny her big break.

"Baby Baby Baby" is okay romcom with some drama. But it's the brilliantly written, brilliantly funny scenes with the celebrity cameos that put it in the "worth seeing" category.
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6/10
One's Own Outlook Will Color 'Welcome to Happiness
17 July 2016
I didn't attend the Phoenix Film Festival screening of Welcome to Happiness for the subject matter. I went because the cast includes two of my favorite actresses: Olivia Thirlby (The Wackness, Juno and The Wedding Ringer) and Molly C. Quinn, the daughter on ABC's Castle.

Then there was the reference in the synopsis to "a mysterious door in his closet that only allows certain people to enter." For me, that evoked images of Being John Malkovich.

So I really didn't see it coming when the film turned out to address a question with which I've struggled most of my life: Just what is "happiness"? See, I'm one of those folks who has trouble simply "being" in the moment; there always seems to be something more out there. It's an inability to be confident and satisfied in myself, my accomplishments, my health, my relationships and whatnot.

A Curious Setting

That doesn't seem to be a problem, at least initially, for Woody Ward (Kyle Gallner from American Sniper), who lives in an unusual apartment the walls of which are adorned with curious murals.

Residence in the unit comes with a responsibility. Periodically, the silence is shattered by the clattering of a 1980s-era printer in the hallway – followed quickly by a stranger knocking on the door. Woody must verify the visitor's identity with information from the printer, guide him or her into the closet with the mysterious door and then leave the person to await admittance. Like the old Black Flag Roach Motel ads, guests check in but they don't check out.

Woody has lived there for years and hasn't seemed to mind the ritual, but there are signs that it's starting to wear thin:

-- He tells one guest, Leah, that not everybody (i.e., him) gets to pass through the door. -- Following a meet cute with neighbor Trudy (Thirlby) at the mailbox, their initial date is interrupted by the printer and someone at the door. -- He encounters Leah on the street – the first time he's ever seen someone again after he or she went through the door – and she intimates that whatever is on the other side offers the chance to right some wrong in the past. This particularly rankles Woody, whose parents were killed by a drunk driver.

Despite the awkward ending to the first date, Trudy is smitten by Woody's ingenuousness and the fact that he makes his living writing children's books. But it isn't happily ever after; Woody has writer's block and is under pressure from his agent, Priscilla (Paget Brewster from TV's Criminal Minds).

Then there is his growing resentment that he somehow isn't worthy of passing through the door. It comes to a head when Woody tells Trudy and her friend Farrah (Chauntal Lewis) about the door. Determined to prove it in the face of their skepticism, he badgers Farrah, who had lost a hand in a car accident, into trying the door in the hope she might be able to alter the past. But as we've seen with Woody himself, he doesn't get to decide who passes through. His misbegotten effort simply alienates Trudy and Farrah.

The Other Side

Unlike Woody, the audience gets to see life on both sides of the door.

Pulling the strings on the other, Oz-like side is the eccentric Proctor (Keegan-Michael Key of Key and Peele), helped by his quirky assistant, Lillian (Quinn). This side is supposed to be "happiness," a surreal setting of brightly colored buildings amid landscape that looks a lot like the Arizona desert. From there, Proctor and Lillian engineer a subplot in which they manipulate two characters with a dark connection from the past.

The only character who acts in both worlds is Woody's landlord, Moses (Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation), who is privy to the apartment's special qualities. Moses' presence is measured and calming, compared with Offerman's comedy roles.

Quinn, too, plays against her TV persona. Colorful and quirky, yet almost hypnotic in her movements, Lillian is the opposite of Alexis on Castle.

Welcome to Happiness offers an interesting take on what it means to be worthy. It also tries to illustrate happiness, but falls short. Behind all of the color and kookiness are the usual clichés about the grass always being greener on the other side and appreciating your life as it is.

That said, the film's approach to those issues is original and creative – which works because the acting is superb. The characters of Woody, Lillian and Proctor (as well as the two portrayed in the subplot by Josh Brener of TV's Silicon Valley and Brendan Sexton III of The Killing) are richly drawn, and the ways in which the actors bring them to life a key to capturing the audience. It wasn't surprising, then, that Welcome to Happiness won Phoenix Film Festival's award for Best Acting Ensemble.

What doesn't work is a sharp New Age, Kumbayba-type turn near the end. What to that point is a nuanced portrayal of individuals runs smack into a big group of people embracing in unison some sort of common belief in solidarity against the real world – represented moments earlier by Trudy and Priscilla, clad in black, trying to yank Woody back to his reality. It just doesn't fit.

Still, Welcome to Happiness offers many of the qualities integral to an independent film that seeks to avoid the tropes of the genre.

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Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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It Follows (2014)
7/10
'It Follows' Doesn't Follow Teen-Horror Rules
17 July 2016
"It Follows" (2014) is almost the opposite of the typical teen horror flick.

It's an indie-style suspense film rather than a slick, studio slasher romp. No himbos or playmates in an exotic locale, just average-looking teens in a blue-collar suburb of Detroit. It has a gritty, low- budget look that fits its setting, without bloody special effects. The cast includes nobody you've ever heard of, though lead actress Maika Monroe appears in this summer's "Independence Day: Resurgence."

"It Follows" upends the horror-morality trope in which the sexually active die first and only the pure survive. In this case, the "haunting" literally is a sort of STD (sexually transmitted demon). One passes it to another, who then will be stalked by the zombie-like presence.

Our heroine, Jay Height, has back-seat sex with her new boyfriend (not on the first date). Afterward, she wakes bound, with the now-panicked boyfriend telling her she needs to pass on the haunting to someone else. She's a chick, he basically says; it should be easy for her to find another guy willing to have sex. He urges her to do it quickly, too, because if she died first, the haunting would revert back to him.

The moral dilemma, then, is whether she should do unto others as he did to her – or, with the help of her friends, find some other way to shed the haunting.

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Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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Burning Bodhi (2015)
6/10
'Burning Bodhi' Eyes Mortality, Offers Priorities
5 June 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Friends who have drifted apart reunite to mourn the death of one of their own.

Losing somebody close for the first time is not a new premise for film. During a post-screening Q&A for the independent film Burning Bodhi at the Sedona International Film Festival, several people referenced The Big Chill (1983), in which middle-aged Baby Boomers who met at the University of Michigan occupy a beach house following a peer's suicide.

I never saw the latter film. Combining Boomers, the maize & blue and an expensive vacation home screams a bigger sense of entitlement than I can stomach.

In Burning Bodhi, written and directed by Matthew McDuffie, it's the millennials' turn to engage in some navel-gazing – or, as it happens, tattoo-gazing. The title refers to the cremation of a guy named Bodhi – a sort of hippyish, pot-smoking man-child seen only in still photos – who dies suddenly from a brain aneurysm.

The characters here are younger and less affluent than those in The Big Chill. Two have relocated to Chicago, but the rest are drifting around their hometown, Albuquerque, N.M.

TV sitcom star Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) gets top billing, though her role is a supporting one. The actors doing the heavy lifting are Landon Liboiron (TV's Hemlock Grove and DeGrassi: The Next Generation) and Cody Horn (Magic Mike).

Liboiron's Dylan is arguably the most mature of the group. He's moved to Chicago, has a job and generally eschews the drugs offered by his friends. He is attempting an adult relationship with girlfriend Lauren (Meghann Fahy from soap opera One Life to Live). But Dylan overthinks everything, and his analysis paralysis renders him frustrated and angry.

Horn plays Ember, who represents the way things were. She is in Bodhi's hospital room when he dies, and she wants to get the gang back together for what she calls a "FUN-eral," basically a hippie wake. On an emotional level, Ember wants her friends to be the people they were in high school.

Ember is a bit flaky, but she is the remaining "glue" in the circle – the one who gets her friends where they need to be, when they need to be there. She operates with a cognitive dissonance, dealing with people as they are today while less-effectively steering them toward the past. Her bong appears integral to making this work.

Both Dylan and Ember are fixated on Katy (Cuoco), Dylan's old girlfriend.

Ember idealizes Dylan and Katy as the inseparable high-school couple who represent what she thinks a happy relationship should be.

In reality, Katy has had a child out of wedlock, spent time in jail and remains, as Ember puts it, "a drug bunny." When she's not binging on narcotics in a friend's trailer, she nominally resides in her grandmother's cinder-block house because it's the only way she can see her son, of whom she has lost custody.

Yes, Ember knows all that; she also realizes she has her own unrequited feelings for Katy. What she doesn't know, as she pushes Dylan and Katy together, is that they broke up because Katy cheated on him with Bodhi. The guy whose memorial they are organizing. And who Ember also slept with before coming out. Awkward.

What Dylan doesn't know is that his trip home also will bring him face to face with another woman who betrayed him: his mother (Virginia Madsen). She left the family for another man when Dylan was a teen; he cut her from his life and nursed a grudge. When Dylan finds out his father (Andy Buckley) has taken her back, he goes ballistic. Forgiveness is not on his agenda.

Dylan's roommate, grad-student Miguel (Eli Vargas), is the anti-Dylan, a guy who acts unquestioningly on emotion. His gratitude to Bodhi and the old gang for accepting him make the trip home a no-brainer. While driving across county, Miguel hooks up with beautiful, pregnant hitchhiker Aria (Sasha Pieterse from TV's Pretty Little Liars), who is heading to California to find happiness but has no realistic expectations. He arrives in Albuquerque hand-in-hand with Aria, already lobbying her to return with him to Chicago.

With Ember's prodding, all these subplots play out in Albuquerque, where, with the exception of Dylan's parents and Miguel, the characters from Dylan's past appear to lead hardscrabble lives with no visible means of support. There are:

• The remaining friends' efforts to understand their feelings for Bodhi, as well has his sudden mortality.

• Dylan's issues with Katy and his mother, as well has his future with Lauren.

• Ember's search for what to do with Bodhi's ashes and her feelings for Katy.

• Katy's destructive cycle of making bad choices, realizing it and then punishing herself by making more bad choices.

• Miguel's too-quick courtship of Aria.

Some are resolved; some aren't; at least one leaves the audience with a surprising twist but no resolution. For Dylan, in particular, things seem to come together a little too quickly given the amount of anger he reveals for most of the story. Liboiron does well in Dylan's quieter scenes but overacts a bit when the character vents his rage.

The movie's theme – articulated by Dylan's mother as she seeks his forgiveness – is that real love means putting the other person's interests ahead of your own. It's a good philosophy as long as it isn't taken too far. In varying ways, it applies to all the characters. Some need to try it; others do it too much; some need to give it more thought.

While the film isn't entirely satisfying, I believe it's worth seeing – particularly for people in their 20s and others who have dealt with some of the issues it examines.
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10/10
'Official Rejection' Spotlights Film Festival Circuit
5 June 2016
After I started reviewing films from local festivals, I decided it was about time I screened Official Rejection (2009), writer/director Paul Osborne's documentary that peeks behind the marquee of the festival circuit.

Screenwriter Osborne took his camera along as he and director Scott Storm hit the road to promote their 2006 thriller Ten 'til Noon. They foresaw a bright future ahead on the circuit. "We might as well have believed in Santa Claus," Osborne says.

"The biggest misconception that filmmakers have about film festivals is they're going to go there. They're going to show their movie. Someone's going to buy it. They're going to have a million dollars. And they're going to have a great career," Chris Gore, author of the Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, tells the camera. "And it's not that."

To underscore the point, Gore sits for the interview wearing a T-shirt that proclaims: "YOUR MOVIE SUCKED ANYWAY." Indeed, Official Rejection tackles its subject with wit and a healthy dose of gallows humor. Those interviewed include not only director Kevin Smith and actress Jenna Fischer (The Office) but also porn-turned-B movie actress Traci Lords, Hollywood gadfly Andy Dick and prolific B movie producer Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger).

From the very start, Osborne and Storm encounter the hurdles facing independent filmmakers hoping to screen their work:

• Lack of connections – Despite giving lip service to showcasing new voices in independent film, several of the best-known festivals have been effectively co-opted by The Man – rather, the movie industry with all of its agents, executives and financiers. Thus, many of the films that get the attendant media buzz really aren't quite independent.

• Costs – Almost all film festivals levy non-refundable submission fees ranging, approximately, from $50 to $200. The filmmakers also must pay for press kits and screening copies of the movies. Few festivals cover the full cost of travel. Most expect filmmakers to bring their own promotional materials, and some want them to publicize the screenings. Osborne also points out the emotional and professional strains – time away from family and absence from so-called day jobs.

• Festival politics – "Which festival you play your movie at (or, rather, where you have your movie premiere) is the biggest issue in film festival politics," Osborne says. Filmmakers face a Catch-22: Do they wait to hear from the elite festivals? Or do they commit to smaller festivals, which could make their films less attractive to the big guys? "What if you don't get in?" asks Damon O'Steen, co-creator of 29 Reasons to Run (2006). "And then you've turned down other festivals that would've been an opportunity for a lot of other people to see your film."

"You can't hold onto the film too long," says John Daniel Gavin, whose film Johnny Montana hit the circuit the same year as Ten 'til Noon. "You have to make a choice."

It's hard to know why a movie does or doesn't make it into a festival.

"There are so many reasons why a film gets rejected that have nothing to do with the pure quality of it," says producer Jacques Thelemaque. "They have programming objectives, or it may be a length thing. And then it is very subjective: (Maybe) it just doesn't strike whoever is making the decisions."

So why would filmmakers put themselves through this?

"Of all the things we'd been struggling to achieve with our movie, the most important was finding our audience," Osborne says. He illustrates that elusive connection with Justin Hoffman, a guy the filmmakers meet while trying to promote Ten 'til Noon on the nearly deserted campus of the University of California, Riverside. He couldn't make that evening's screening at the Riverside International Film Festival but showed up a month later to see the movie at the San Fernando Valley International Film Festival. And, later, when the movie plays at the Newport Beach Film Festival, Hoffman shows up again and brings friends.

"If you can make a personal connection with audiences, you can do pretty well," says Jordan Marsh, a programmer for the Newport Beach festival.

Films are like trade shows, Osborne tells us. Attending them is a way to build credibility and publicity; generate reviews and feedback; and, in some cases, win an award.

"It's all part of building a pedigree for a film," says Patrick Ewald, a foreign sales rep. "That, in a sense, becomes like having … an A-list star – because to the distributors it says: 'Okay, I have a theatrical movie.'"

Ultimately, Osborne and Storm chose to premiere Ten 'til Noon where they were wanted: the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

"Although they were small and off the beaten path of the business, they had a reputation for quality films," Osborne says. Still, he and Storm arrived to find that their screening was at a secondary venue on a side street. They had to engage in a day of sidewalk marketing to gin up their own audience.

As the documentary follows Ten 'til Noon around the circuit, it shows how a festival scene can be very good, very bad and something in between.

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Stuart J. Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications (www.lightbulbcommunications.com).
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Lost & Found (III) (2016)
7/10
'Lost & Found' Is Rare Indie for Whole Family
5 June 2016
Independent films often involve edgy subjects that can make them inappropriate for young people. With Lost & Found, however, writer/director Joseph Itaya has delivered an indie that a whole family could watch together.

After breaking the law, teenage Andy Walton (Justin Kelly) is sent to live with a mysterious uncle his father had never told him about. His younger brother, who senses an opportunity for adventure, begs to go along. They arrive on a creepy island bearing their family name, where they learn that their grandfather was a renowned codebreaker who amassed considerable wealth but disappeared leaving no record of his fortune.

After uncovering clues left by the grandfather, the brothers embark on a treasure hunt under the nose of a developer who hopes to steal their family legacy. Along the way, they must overcome the developer, a spooky forest, early 20th century gadgets and their uncle's loss of hope.

You'll likely recognize only two of the cast members: Benjamin Stockham, who played the titular boy in NBC's About a Boy, portrays younger brother Mark Walton. Jason Patric (The Lost Boys) plays Uncle Trent, a functioning alcoholic who runs a bait shop and constructs ships in bottles. Patric is good, but Stockham provides the bursts of energy that keep the plot moving.

It's a beautiful picture, with glorious aerial shots of the Washington coast. During a post-screening Q&A at the Sedona International Film Festival, Itaya said he wanted to film the whole thing in the state but couldn't afford to do so. Instead, he shot in Canada.

Canada also gifted Itaya two last-minute replacement actors: Kelly, who had been on Canadian TV series DeGrassi: The Next Generation, and Celeste Desjardins, who plays Claire, the developer's daughter and Andy's romantic interest. Amazingly, Itaya said Desjardins had no acting experience, not even a school play. She is arrestingly beautiful, however, and manages to handle the moderate challenges of the part.

I saw the film with a friend in her 20s, and we agreed that Lost & Found – though somewhat predictable at times, particularly in regard to the treasure hunt – exceeded our expectations. The hunt will entertain younger viewers, while the family dynamics – including an original plot twist – should keep adults interested.

Lost & Found has an important message for young people – that fortune takes many forms other than money.

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Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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Favor (2013)
9/10
Film Features Faustian 'Favor'
5 June 2016
There is an old maxim: "A friend helps you move. A good friend helps you move a body." That's the basis of Favor, a new film from writer/director Paul Osborne (Official Rejection, Ten 'til Noon) that had its world premiere at the 2013 Phoenix Film Festival and won the award for Best Screenplay.

The movie begins as its poster suggests. Successful advertising pitch man Kip Desmond (Blayne Weaver) pays a late-night visit to a childhood friend, unemployed couch slouch Marvin Croat (Patrick Day). The small talk is awkward. Kip obviously has moved up in the world and left Marvin behind. And Marvin is self-conscious about it, repeatedly apologizing that he can only offer Kip beer, not scotch.

Kip finally gets to the point: He's been carrying on an extramarital fling with a waitress named Abby (Rosalie Ward). Following sex in a motel room earlier in the evening, he says, she started pressing him for some commitment. During the ensuing argument, he pushed her; her head slammed into a nightstand; and she was dead on the floor. Now he's asking his old buddy Marvin – who always was down for anything – to help him dispose of her body.

Kip drives Marvin to the motel and shows him the body, then they return to Marvin's house for materials. Marvin says he has a good idea of what needs to be done and tells Kip to go home to his wife because it would be suspicious if he were gone all night. Marvin assures Kip he'll clean up the mess.

The first half of the film is somewhat predictable. In the morning light, we see Marvin holding a shovel and staring at a newly filled grave in the desert. A little later, Kip is at home with his wife, Claire (Cheryl Nichols), lying about how busy he is with work and promising to make it up to her. But that's not why he promises to make her breakfast while she showers. He does that because he's glanced out the window, seen Marvin sitting out on the curb and needs her to go a away for a few minutes.

Marvin is acting oddly, expressing concern about who will feed the dead woman's cat. Kip just wants him to go away.

And therein lies the essence of Kip.

He used Abby, who was beneath him in more ways than one, then is concerned only with disposing of her – literally.

Now he wants Marvin to go away, telling him they need to lie low and that he'll be in touch in a few days.

Marvin agrees, but keeps showing up: at Kip's home; at Kip's office; at Kip's favorite diner. Marvin may be a schlub, but he isn't a fool. He's noticed Kip's lack of empathy for the cat, not to mention for Abby. Kip's only regret is that the incident briefly threatened his executive lifestyle.

When Friends Grow Apart

Marvin creates an escalating series of dilemmas in which Kip must choose between a lifestyle that has no place for Marvin and appeasing Marvin to protect that lifestyle. I could see this coming because of the movie's basic premise, but at some point the plot veers off the tracks in a dark but powerful way. It strips Kip to the bone, asking him – and by extension the audience – what we value most and what we're willing to sacrifice to protect that.

During the post-premiere Q&A, Osborne said one of his inspirations for Favor was the rise of Facebook. The social media platform has led users to retain, or even renew, relationships that previously would have died on the vine.

Most of us have that one friend from our past who's never really moved on. We maintain the friendship out of loyalty or nostalgia, even though we no longer have anything in common with the person. We can live with the occasional online update. But what if we found that person sitting on the curb in front of our home?

Day does an amazing job of making Marvin relatable even as he grows into a monster, kind of like the plant – "Feed me, Seymour!" – in Little Shop of Horrors. Day is director of the Young Actors Space, a school in Los Angeles for child and teen performers. During the Q&A, he said his biggest challenge in playing Marvin was figuring out how to make the audience like Marvin, at least on some level. Early in Favor, Marvin appears pleased that Kip needs him for something – anything. That gives credibility to the subsequent rage when he realizes just how little Kip values him.

Weaver does an nice job as Kip but had less of a challenge than Day. A major point of the film, after all, was the discovery of just how shallow Kip is. For most of the film, he seemed to channel a young, pre-drugs Jeff Conaway (Grease, Taxi, Babylon 5). In the final scene, however, he offers a piercing image of Kip as a man utterly devoid of conscience.

Favor may focus on a relationship between strong male characters, but a couple of actresses deliver spot-on performances. Nichols and Christina Rose – as Kip's wife and office assistant, respectively – are strong women puzzled by Marvin's sudden ubiquity, and even more so by Kip's inexplicable indulgence of it. Their portrayals of annoyance and confusion escalate along with Marvin's intrusiveness. In a metaphorical sense, of course, they reinforce social chasm that has formed between the childhood friends. The women are attainable for Kip, but out of Marvin's league.

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Stuart J. Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.
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The Yank (2014)
7/10
'The Yank' Lampoons Ethnic Self-Stereotypes
18 April 2015
Ethnic pride is part and parcel of American society. So much so that people drop the "-American" in daily conversation. Filmmaker Sean Lackey reminds us in The Yank, his farcical take on cultural identity, that there is a difference between Irish and Irish-American, Korean and Korean-American – just about any nationality and its hyphenated-American spawn.

Lackey multitasked on The Yank, writing, directing and acting. He plays the male lead, Tom Murphy, a union painter in Cleveland.

An awkward opening scene at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has Tom getting dumped by his girlfriend over his obsession with Irish band U2, making an ass of himself and getting thrown out – but not before costing curator Vanessa (Niki Spiridakos) her job.

Back at the pub, Tom's friend Marty (Allen Kellogg) introduces his Irish bride and says they are getting married in Ireland. The best man will be Tom, and the maid of honor will be – shock! – Vanessa, who walked in moments before.

When a movie telegraphs its destination in the second scene, it's incumbent upon the filmmaker to make sure the audience remains entertained. Somehow – despite the multitasking and despite this being his first big film project – Lackey pulls it off!

The forced proximity of the wedding cycle keeps Tom and Vanessa together through pre-wedding festivities in Cleveland, the ceremony in Dublin and the free time afterward in County Clare on Ireland's West Coast.

The thing about Tom is: His family really, really celebrates its Irish heritage. Never mind that fact that neither he nor his parents (comedy veteran Fred Willard and Maryann Nagel) has been to the Emerald Isle. Willard runs with his role, hosting a Six-Months-'Til-St. Patrick's Day party and gleefully making up Irish and Irish-American history.

Tom's folks not only embrace every Irish-American stereotype but also pressure him to marry an Irish girl. Willard waxes hysterically on this over lunch with Tom's friends Marty, Fred (Kevin Farley, Chris Farley's brother), Steve (Cody Dove) and Ricardo (Spencer Jay Kim). Much of that deli scene was improvised, Lackey said during a Q&A at the 2015 Sedona International Film Festival. That's not surprising; Lackey met Willard while doing improv comedy with Second City's Cleveland troupe.

Tom's mother is less tolerable. She is a bit of a harpy and is rude to Vanessa – "that Greek girl" – when she visits the Murphy home.

As for Vanessa, a Greek-American who befriended the bride while actually living in Ireland for a time, she admits to Tom that she left a really serious boyfriend because her Greek father didn't approve. Spiridakos plays her with a wonderful range of emotions – from exasperated to amused to intrigued.

Arriving in Dublin, the boys' first stop is the Guinness brewery, where the guys – particularly Fred – are put out to discover that the tour includes just one free draft.

Marty then drops off Tom at a bed and breakfast that's no pastoral idyll. Irish-born Clevelander Derdriu Ring is hysterical as the over-the-top, domineering innkeeper who appears to see, and treat, Tom like her estranged son, who found a job far away on other side of Ireland.

By this point, Tom is realizing that Ireland isn't what Irish-Americans in Cleveland believe. If any doubts remain, they are erased when he looks up a distant relative, cattleman Fintan McGuire, played by Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, Layer Cake and Under Siege). Over the course of a few days, Fintan helps separate the reality from the fantasy of Ireland.

"It's a melting pot, like all of Europe," Lackey said in Sedona. "But a lot of Americans don't realize that." For him, the tool to make that point was a joke, not a sledgehammer. "The whole movie is a farce. The message is there, but it's a farce."

At one point, Tom thinks he might have found his Irish lass in Molly Sweeney, the vivacious clerk at a store he visits. Molly is portrayed by Lynette Callaghan, who appears in only a few scenes but steals them all. But she can't steal Tom's heart; his attempts to woo her are distracted by his emerging feelings for Vanessa. He does make Molly mad, though – sparking a confrontation at the pub with her intimidating brother. A brawl appears inevitable, but Farley's impulsive Fred, of all people, steps in to defuse the situation.

Even while satirizing ethnicity, "You don't want to give in to the stereotype," Lackey said.

In the end, Tom wins over Vanessa without even realizing it – through a seemingly unrelated act that goes to the core of who he is.

Lackey filmed not only the first half of the movie in greater Cleveland but also many of the indoor scenes set in Ireland. Like many states, Ohio offers financial incentives for filmmakers. On top of that, in Lackey's case, Cleveland officials went out of their way to help a local guy. They enabled him to film at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on blocked off city streets – even on the tarmac at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

"They wanted to help," Lackey said. "I just asked." Usually, he said, they gave him what he wanted for free – no small consideration for an independent filmmaker.

For the Irish exteriors, Lackey and cinematographer Keith Nickoson do a nice job of showcasing the beauty of County Clare, where towns and countryside extend from central Ireland west to the coast. They use sweeping shots of the beaches and cliffs in comparison and contrast to the movie's opening shot, a flyover shot of downtown Cleveland from Lake Erie.

The Yank, which was named Best Comedic Feature at the 2014 Manhattan Film Festival, is a good-natured romcom with a message about broadening one's horizons and managing expectations.
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