Now Available Trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company to revere the text because after all, "the play's the thing," Ben Kingsley might not be much of an improviser but the man can do accents better than almost anyone. And thankfully for Backstabbing ...

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  1. Blu-ray Review: Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)
  2. TV on DVD Review: Disney's Zombies (2018)
  3. Blu-ray Review: Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
  4. Blu-ray Review: Braven (2018)
  5. Film Movement Movie Review: In Between (2016)
  6. More Recent Articles

Blu-ray Review: Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company to revere the text because after all, "the play's the thing," Ben Kingsley might not be much of an improviser but the man can do accents better than almost anyone. And thankfully for Backstabbing for Beginners, Kingsley (and his delicious Greek accent) manages to distract us from what is essentially a paint-by-numbers political corruption flick that could've only benefited from creative improvisation or outside-the-box thinking by its screenwriters.

Working off of government whistleblower Michael Soussan's explosive memoir of the same name, the American filmmaking debut of acclaimed Danish helmer Per Fly might claim to be based on a true story but in true Hollywood fashion, Backstabbing for Beginners is merely inspired by real events.

Seemingly bored by the material, Divergent star Theo James sleepwalks through his role as twenty-four year old UN diplomat, Michael Sullivan.

On his fourth try applying to follow in his late father's footsteps and serve his country, Michael is appointed the Special Assistant to Kingsley's Undersecretary General. In charge of feeding and providing medicine for a nation of twenty million Iraqi people, Kingsley's charismatic yet enigmatic Pasha runs the Oil for Food program with a questionable set of rules and justifications all his own.

The largest humanitarian program in UN history, the Oil for Food program was also a hotbed of corruption. And before he's long in his post, the CIA warns Michael about the kickbacks between leaders as well as the mysterious death of his predecessor in a scene reminiscent of The Firm.


Using standard genre tactics like cardboard character types we're not sure our lead can trust, we're quickly introduced to the film's obligatory potential love interest, Nashim (nicely played by actress Belçim Bilgin). A beautiful political activist with inscrutable motives, Nashim opens Michael's eyes to the bribery and fraud all around him.

Unfortunately there's zero chemistry between Bilgin and James or really anyone and James. Filling in for Hunger Games actor Josh Hutcherson after he pulled out due to valid concerns for location safety – considering that Fly was planning to shoot in Jordan and therefore had no locations planned for its eventual substitute Morocco – James seems like he'd rather be anywhere than here.

Although Backstabbing manages to pick up momentum for its relatively exciting third act, the bulk of picture doesn't offer conspiracy thriller fans much they haven't seen before. Unsure whether it wants to be a talky cautionary tale about governmental and corporate corruption or an ethical thriller with plenty of action and intrigue, it settles on very little of either (despite Fly's intentions as described in a behind-the-scenes Blu-ray extra).

Released straight to disc and digital, ultimately the whole production feels slapdash and routine. An uneven effort from Fly and co-scripter Daniel Pyne, Pyne has had much more success in previous genre collaborations from the Tom Clancy adaptation of The Sum of All Fears to The Manchurian Candidate remake, both of which fare much better than this one.

And though it might work on the level of a slightly above average made-for-cable movie, as a feature in its own right, not even Kingsley's masterfully accented and frequently flippant use of the F-word is enough to recommend Beginners.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
 
    

TV on DVD Review: Disney's Zombies (2018)



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AKA: Disney Zombies; Disney Z-O-M-B-I-E-S

A zombified tale as old as time made trendy for today's junior Walking Dead audiences, the Valentine's week debut of Disney's Zombies marked a gutsy programming decision for a network well-known for its success updating the House of Mouse's popular 1960s bright, beachy, musical romcom formula for youthful twenty-first century audiences.

Based upon Zombies and Cheerleaders, an unaired 2012 Disney Channel pilot from screenwriters David Light and Joseph Raso, the 2018 feature length iteration brought back the two series creators, granting them the chance to infuse their clever concept with an even more contemporary twist.


Taking the idea of a wrong side of the tracks romance to bold new heights, Disney's Zombies opens with a vibrant animated prologue which brings us up to speed. Fifty years ago a power company accident with lime soda whipped up a contaminated haze potent enough to turn some of the residents of the formerly idyllic Seabrook into zombies. Fearing for their lives, those unaffected by the contaminant decided to build a Cold War, Berlin style wall to keep the two groups apart.

Fortunately, with their hunger for brains soothed by electro-pulses delivered throughout the day from a smartwatch dubbed a Z-band, the zombie students of Zombietown (including our charming main character Zed, played by Milo Manheim) are excited to follow through on a recent city council decision to allow zombies to attend school alongside the humans of Seabrook.


When his dream to play for Seabrook High School's football team is dashed by a fearful principal who vows to keep the students separated by segregating the zombies to a dingy basement, Zed decides to break free – thinking if people just met him (as well as his friends) – they would surely see there's little difference between them after all.

Although his optimism is temporarily crushed by a school-wide panic when a student spots Zed and sets off the zombie version of a fire alarm, he gets a second chance at a first impression when he meets a beautiful human in the form of aspiring cheerleader and fellow freshman, Addison (Meg Donnelly).

Taking shelter in the dark, the two engage in friendly banter before they even catch sight of one another (and despite her catching his eye earlier in the film). Yet while Addison's initial defensive response was to punch the tall, cute, green haired zombie on sight as soon as the lights came on, once she comes to her senses, she's just as fast with an apology, realizing that perhaps zombies aren't the horrible people her parents, cousin, and others believe them to be.


Particularly empathetic due to a genetic challenge of her own (which was revealed in an effective Ferris Bueller style introduction that broke the fourth wall in order to endear the characters to the viewer while also make us realize how right they are for one another), although all Addison wants is to be normal, she understands more than most how unfair it is to judge others just for being different.

Though it's not your average tween spin on Beauty and the Beast, you don't have to be a Z-band scientist to see where Disney's Zombies is going. And while it's safe to say that younger audiences are sure to enjoy the TV movie, some of the swing-for-the-fences performances and shout-tastic line delivery might drive away those old enough for iZombie or Disney’s big sister channel, Free Form.

Helmed by longtime Disney Channel veteran Paul Hoen (director of past original movie hits including The Mistle-Tones, Camp Rock 2, and Cheetah Girls: One World) and choreographed by Christopher Scott and Steven Vincent, it’s well-worth putting up with a few cartoonish moments to relish in some of the work's mind-bogglingly impressive song-and-dance sequences.


With echoes of everything from West Side Story to Bring It On and Michael Jackson’s Thriller to the Step Up series all blended together, it’s far more daring in its musical moments than it should've been from a storytelling perspective – missing ample opportunities for mild scares and stronger character development in order to push its topical themes even further.

And although it touches on present day allegory – namely the idea of a wall to keep out a population the “perfectly planned" community of Seabrook finds undesirable – and boldly begins to weave some real world applications into its clever plotline, unfortunately the zombiefied premise becomes increasingly Disneyfied as the movie continues. That isn't to diminish what Light and Raso did, however, as you do have to give them credit for even referencing these ideas at all in what most would consider just a light entertainment.


Given its impressive production design, which teaches film literacy by providing both zombies and human sets, costumes, etc with a specific and strict color palette right from the start before eventually letting the shades run together, it's an outstanding example of true creativity and proof why you can't simply write off these network titles as generic kiddie fare. And in addition to Disney's trademark motion picture level dance sequences, Disney's Zombies boasts a few surprisingly effective songs that surely helped attract nearly three million viewers in its February 16 debut.

Filling the DVD with audition footage, bloopers, deleted scenes, and a few fun zombified extras including a sheet of glow-in-the-dark tattoos, while this musical geek was hoping for more behind-the-scenes extras relating to the film’s audacious themes and choreography, it’ll definitely delight the young zombie fans in your life.

Check Out the Soundtrack



Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
    

Blu-ray Review: Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

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Although initially intended to serve as a metaphor for the disappearance of western (or more specifically) British culture from India in the mid twentieth century, 1965's understated Merchant Ivory offering Shakespeare Wallah has become even more thematically significant today on a global scale, considering the rate at which the arts are vanishing more than fifty years later in the twenty-first.


Of course, that's not to say that the work itself is overly heavy. Created at the intersection of fact and fiction, this lush yet free flowing collision of art and life was born when the diaries of traveling theatre troupe head Geoffrey Kendal provided James Ivory with the authentic perspective that he and co-writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala needed to get Ivory's idea for an story about Shakespearean actors in India off and running.

The second Merchant Ivory production after The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah was also the second of nine works to star their Householder lead, popular Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor. In an against-type role as one third of the film's love triangle Kapoor's local Indian man Sanju finds himself caught between the guileless and naturally gifted, Indian born British stage actress Lizzie Buckingham (played by Kapoor's real life sister-in-law Felicity Kendal) and Madhur Jaffrey's glamorous, vain, and self-involved rising Bollywood star, Manjula.


A crowd favorite, for her turn Jaffrey garnered a well-deserved Best Actress award from the Berlin Film Festival. And further foreshadowing Merchant Ivory's future strength in attracting marvelous talent, as the daughter of director James Ivory's offscreen turned onscreen source Geoffrey Kendal (who stars in the picture alongside his wife, daughters, and son-in-law), Felicity Kendal does a marvelous job serving as the production's Shakespearean muse.

While unfortunately her parents were unhappy with the metaphorical direction the film took because it was in stark contrast to their experiences traveling through India in the late 1940s, teenage actress Felicity Kendal was better able to differentiate between the offscreen reality of their memories and the onscreen drama of the film, given her largely secondhand knowledge of the events that had occurred nearly twenty years earlier.


Keeping things light and playful as much with a look as she does with the film's subtle – at times perfunctory – dialogue, which builds in waves for the moments it reaches a dramatic fever pitch, Kendal gives a performance that's doubly impressive when you consider both her status as a newcomer as well as someone juggling such complex family loyalty dynamics on both sides of the lens.

Given a budget low enough to necessitate that the film be shot in black-and-white, Wallah wound up benefiting from what most would consider a financial misfortune. Not only did the lack of funds inspire additional creativity but it also ensured that the behind-the-scenes movie magic used to generate some of the film’s most sumptuous sequences (such as the bright yellow smoke bombs needed to produce scenic romantic mist) would stay marvelously hidden from view.


Paying off beautifully, in this exquisite 2k digital restoration of Wallah made from the George Eastman Museum archive’s 35mm composite fine grain master, our senses are dazzled from start to finish. And while I’m obviously glad that the yellow smoke was kept out of sight, as a movie geek nearly blind from years of subtitle/closed captioning overload, I do wish some of the yellow color had stuck around to be used in place Wallah's small white font. All too frequently the words vanish into the white background similar to the way that theater audiences vanished from the Buckingham's performances in favor of Bollywood movies throughout the course of the film.

Nonetheless, from its instantly charming opening credit sequence to Satyajit Ray's affecting score, the film – which amazingly failed to find an American distributor in its initial release – went on to set the stage for the dozens of Merchant Ivory productions that would follow. And devotees of their movies are sure to appreciate the fact this new high definition restoration has arrived on disc just after James Ivory took home his first screenwriting Oscar for Call Me By Your Name after a lifetime of marvelous work.


Offering arthouse fans much in which to delight, the Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray includes two informative essays as well as a handful of special features salvaged from the title's earlier Criterion Collection release, which gives you the opportunity to hear the filmmakers breakdown their work in every stage.

Unlike other Shakespearean referential titles (including the lovely '98 Oscar winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love as well as any number of terrific adaptations), Shakespeare Wallah does much more than romantically celebrate Bard. Thanks to the film's stellar cast and crew as well as its use of art and cultural metaphor in building its own narrative through-line steeped in authenticity, Merchant Ivory's Wallah has grown that much more topical with each passing year.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
    

Blu-ray Review: Braven (2018)

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Produced by and starring the charismatic Jason Momoa in a tailor made role that plays directly to his strengths, this solid, above average direct-to-disc and digital B-movie variation of Cliffhanger marks the feature filmmaking debut of veteran stuntman and coordinator turned TV helmer, Lin Oeding.

Opening with some stunning wintry shots of the pacific northwest care of cinematographer and co-producer Brian Andrew Mendoza, it isn't too long before Braven's color palette changes from snow white to blood red when the family cabin of Momoa's titular logger Joe Braven is descended upon by heroin smugglers, led by the loose cannon Kassen (well played by Justified and Raising Hope actor Garret Dillahunt).


Making the most of what he has with which to work, Oeding and his stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo execute some truly inventive and – in at least one instance involving a bear trap – entertainingly convoluted fight sequences as Joe and his mentally declining yet still badass father, Linden (Don't Breathe's Stephen Lang) try to outwit and out man Dillahunt's band of hired guns.

Straining incredulity at times – albeit right in line with the genre – one way that Braven sets itself apart is by giving us an under-utilized yet nonetheless refreshing female heroine in the form of Stephanie (Teen Wolf star Jill Wagner), Joe’s bow-and-arrow wielding wife who is so tough that although she initially heads up to the cabin to retrieve her young daughter and backup Joe, by the time the police reach the shootout, they actually follow her lead through the snowy woods.


Okay, okay, so while the rational side of me gets that it was a tiny logistical error to place the armed authorities behind a woman and child, it’s still a fun little girl power flavored gaffe all the same.

A predictable yet impressively well made actioner ideally suited for a Saturday evening double feature, Braven gets around the shortcomings of its familiar storyline thanks to a talented cast and exceptional crew, led by Momoa and Oeding.

Bolstered by its demo reel worthy professional polish and creative action choreography, although Braven doesn't break the mold of similar late ‘80s/early ‘90s fare, for its roughly ninety minute running time\ it holds our interest with the same ease that Momoa holds an axe.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
    

Film Movement Movie Review: In Between (2016)


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AKA: Bar Bahar

"Once you express your worldview and your manifest, there's no turning back. Either do something real or don't do it at all. At least that is the way I see things," writer/director Maysaloun Hamoud explains in an interview quoted in Film Movement's press notes for her passionate first full-length feature In Between.

Nominated for a dozen Israeli Oscars (and garnering two wins for her female-centric cast), it's safe to say that much like she believes her "heroines bring their dreams to the screen," she's doing the exact same thing as a filmmaker.

Eager "to bring more Palestinian female representations" to cinema's emerging Arab New Wave, Hamoud’s award-winning breakout festival hit In Between is the epitome of her desire to tell stories in which "a woman is staged in the center and not just behind the male characters."

Revolving around not one but three very different Palestinian women who come to share an apartment in the Yemeni Quarter neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the aptly named In Between illustrates their struggles to reconcile their personal, cultural, and religious beliefs in a city they mostly feel at home in at night while exploring the underground club scene.


Of course, that would be all except for the devout, younger Muslim university student Nour (an excellent Shaden Kanboura) who arrives out of the blue shortly into the film, having been invited to stay by Nour’s cousin – a former, unseen resident, whom we gather never shared those plans with her roommates.

Fortunately not the types to leave a woman in a lurch, while her dorm is being renovated Nour is given what we deduce is her cousin's old room to complete her computer science degree in peace, which is a welcome respite from an otherwise two hour commute from Jaffa.

Though hesitant at first, over the course of the film, Nour (and the audience) grows closer to her free-spirited new friends, Laila (played by scene-stealer Mouna Hawa) and Salma (the delightful Sana Jammelieh).

A criminal defense attorney by day turned queen of the club scene by night, Laila and Salma – a communist bartender and DJ who hides the fact that she’s a lesbian from her Christian family – soon become surrogate big sisters to the less worldly Nour. And nowhere is this relationship more evident than in a heartbreaking yet beautifully moving sequence when they try to help Nour on a night when things go very wrong.

Filmed in an intimate, small space while pulling back enough to offer the women privacy as if we're in the apartment as well, in this scene, Hamoud avoids the rookie mistake of telling us what we're seeing – wise enough to know that when it comes to raw emotion, actions speak so much louder than words.


Drawn to their strength and resolve to the point that we find ourselves wanting to know more about not only the enigmatic main characters but their fascinating friends as well, all in all, it’s a fast moving, powerful, feminist work about life as a modern Muslim or Christian Palestinian woman in a world that may not be ready for them. And sadly, this idea was carried offscreen as In Between earned its brave writer/director a Fatwa.

Obviously this isn't helped by the fact that some critics have foolishly dubbed the film Palestine's Sex and the City, more for the character setup (and in order to score easily accessible pop cultural clickbait points) than anything else. And while admittedly on paper, the character combination of the wild friend, the militant rebel, and the more modest one has been used repeatedly throughout film and television history, Maysaloun Hamoud is up to the creative challenge.

Managing to leave the archetypes behind, Hamoud crafts three largely believable, three-dimensional heroines within the universally relatable context of friendship and sisterhood in what the filmmaker told Vogue (in a fascinating, though spoiler heavy interview) is the first picture of a planned trilogy.

Putting women at the heart of the story in such a powerful way, now that she's shared her worldview with a film and characters that are very real and uniquely her own – just like she's said – there's no turning back.


Text ©2018, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screening link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
    

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