Laff’s guide to Waterfront Film Festival 2014

June 12th, 2014 at 2:19 am by under Entertainment
Waterfront Film Festival 2014 poster

Waterfront Film Festival 2014 poster by Ron English

The 16th annual Waterfront Film Festival is almost here

The Lakeshore tradition is back in South Haven for its second year!  After moving from Saugatuck the year before, the 4-day festival of film, food, music, and fun hopes for better weather (free of power outages) and attendance numbers around 16,000.   More than 70 films will be shown at the non-competitive film festival with 21 movies making Midwest premieres and 13 playing in Michigan for the first time.  The slate of movies is a mix of comedic, dramatic, and thriller feature films, thought provoking documentaries, and dozens of short films.  At many of the screenings, cast members, directors, producers, and/or writers may be present to discuss their movie and film making with the audience.

Opening night
Those thousands of people can start Thursday night with the opening night party at South Beach, gates open at 6:00pm featuring music from Tony Ferrari, Bradley Wisk, Valentiger, and Alexis.  Then at dusk, on a 50-foot inflatable screen you can watch the “Shorts Spectacular”, a screening of 6 short films.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday 
Friday morning at 9:00am the screenings begin at three locations around townSouth Haven High School (600 Elkenberg Street – 2 venues inside), Michigan Theater (210 Center Street – 3 venues inside), and Foundry Hall (422 Eagle Street) and the last movies start at 11:00pm.  There is a short film that plays in front of most movies, usually 5-10 minutes long.  The schedule is similar on Saturday and Sunday. If you don’t want to just see movies all day, you can also do some sightseeing, shopping, or eat at one of the many restaurants or eateries around the area.  Almost everything is in walking distance.  But there is also a free shuttle service if you prefer to park in one spot and then branch out to the other venues.

Get your tickets early for the Networking Event held Saturday at 2:15pm at South Haven City Hall (539 Phoenix Street).  You can meet, ask questions and get advice from celebrities and industry insiders; actors, directors, writers and producers.  Many of the names listed below will be taking part in this event.

Many well known movie, TV, and entertainment industry stars will be attending this year’s WFF, keep your eye out for:

Jason Ritter

Jason Ritter

Jason Ritter returns to Waterfront for the second time with his new movie “Wild Canaries”.  He was also here in 2009 for his movie “Peter and Vandy”.  2014 will mark the fourth time that one of his movies have screened here: also “A Bag of Hammers” (2011) and “Free Samples” (2012).  The Primetime Emmy Award nominee TV and film actor has nearly 80 credits, including in films “Freddie v. Jason”, “W.” “The East” and NBC’s hit “Parenthood”.

Melanie Lynskey Melanie Lynskey 

Melanie Lynskey returns to West Michigan with her new movie “Chu and Blossom”.

She filmed the movie “Touchback” in the Grand Rapids area in 2010.  She is an award-winning actor with more than 55 credits during the last 20 years, including “Up in the Air” with George Clooney, as Rose opposite Charlie Sheen on TV’s hit “Two and a Half Men”, with Drew Barrymore in “Ever After”, and with Kate Winslet in their explosive film debut “Heavenly Creatures” directed by Peter Jackson.

Eddie Jemison Eddie Jemison

Eddie Jemison is at Waterfront Film Festival with his new movie “Coffee, Kill Boss” as well as “King of Herrings”, for which he was the writer, director and lead actor.

He’s an actor with more than 60 credits who has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He is widely known for his role as Livingston Dell in the “Ocean’s Eleven” series opposite Brad Pitt and George Clooney, as well as roles in “Bruce Almighty” opposite Jim Carrey and “The Informant” opposite Matt Damon.

Blake Robbins  Blake Robbins

Blake Robbins is attending WFF with the film “Sublime and the Beautiful”, which he directed and stars in.

He is an actor with more than 55 credits and best known for playing Tom Halpert on the NBC hit “The Office”, as well as for his role as C.O. Dave Brass on the critically acclaimed HBO series “Oz”. He also appeared in the film “The Ugly Truth” opposite Gerard Butler.  Additionally, Blake co-authored the book “Acting Qs: Conversations with Working Actors”.

David Lascher David Lascher 

David Lascher is attending Waterfront Film Festival as the director of “Sister”.

He is an actor with more than 30 credits, including the film “White Squall” and series regular roles in “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Hey Dude” and “Blossom” among others.

Christine Elise Christine Elise McCarthy

Christine Elise McCarthy has been involved with Waterfront Film Festival for years as the the festival’s programmer.

She is a well known actor, director and writer with more than 60 credits, including her recent film “Bathing & the Single Girl”, which has been expanded and adapted into a full-length memoir, as well as for main roles in “Child’s Play 2”, and on TV hits “Beverly Hills 90210” and “ER”.

Bradley Wisk Bradley Wisk

Bradley Wisk is a professional opera singer who was a contestant on “America’s Got Talent” and is a current contestant on “The Bachelorette”.

He is performing at the opening night concert.

The movies - Features
“Aboard the Carousel” (Midwest Premiere)
“Arlo and Julie” (Michigan Premiere) - Official Selection, SXSW Film Festival
“Being Awesome” (Midwest Premiere)
“BFFs” (Michigan Premiere)
“Boy Meets Girl” (Midwest Premiere)
“Cas & Dylan” (Midwest Premiere)
“Chu and Blossom” (Midwest Premiere)
“Coffee, Kill Boss” (Midwest Premiere)
“Copenhagen” (Michigan Premiere) - Audience Award, Best Narrative Feature, Slamdance Film Festival
“Craters of the Moon” (Midwest Premiere)
“Empire of Dirt”  (Midwest Premiere) - Special Jury Prize, Toronto International Film Festival
“Father-Like Son” (Midwest Premiere)
“Finding Neighbors”  (Michigan Premiere)
“I Put A Hit On You”  (Michigan Premiere)
“Jake Squared” (Michigan Premiere)
“King of Herrings” (Midwest Premiere)
“Knuckle Jack” (Midwest Premiere)
“Lawrence & Holloman” (Midwest Premiere)
“The Odd Way Home” (Michigan Premiere)
“Rezeta” (Midwest Premiere) - Grand Jury Prize, Best Narrative Feature, Slamdance Film Festival
“Sister” (Midwest Premiere) - Official selection, Tribeca Film Festival
“The Sublime and Beautiful” (Midwest Premiere) - Best Narrative Feature nominee, Slamdance Film Festival
“Wild Canaries” (Midwest Premiere)

The movies – Documentaries
Several documentaries that played at previous WFFs have gone on to receive Oscar nominations and even a win.  There are 11 feature length documentaries this year:
“Brave Miss World” (Michigan Premiere)
“Bronx Obama” (Midwest Premiere)
“Fight Church” (Michigan Premiere)
“Kidnapped For Christ” (Michigan Premiere)
“Little Hope Was Arson” – Best Documentary Feature nominee, 2014 Slamdance Film Festival
“Love Child”  (Midwest Premiere) - Grand Jury Prize Nominee, World Cinema Documentary, Sundance Film Festival
“No Cameras Allowed” (Midwest Premiere)
“Small Small Thing” (Michigan Premiere)
“This May Be the Last Time” (Midwest Premiere) – Official selection, Sundance Film Festival
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” (Midwest Premiere) - Official selection, Sundance Film Festival
“Who Took Johnny” (Michigan Premiere)

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Review: “Locke” is a tense one man show

June 6th, 2014 at 8:28 am by under Entertainment
"Locke" poster courtesy A24

“Locke” poster courtesy A24

“Locke” (2014)
Rated: R for language throughout
Runtime: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Genre: Drama/Thriller

My spoiler-free review:

One man on a 90-minute drive on British freeways into London for a life-changing event sounds simple enough, but writer/director Steven Knight and actor Tom Hardy make it great!  The story, the character development, the style, the production values are all top notch and worthy of some first half of 2014 awards… I give it 8.9 out of 10.

Warning to parents: its rated R for language throughout

90 minute drives on the freeway can be boring… or white knuckle.  In this movie, we are immersed in Ivan “Locke”‘s increasingly stressful storm of problems both personal and work related… and through mostly dialogue and Hardy’s superb performance, we become about as uncomfortable as you can be without big action sequences, dizzying camera movements, or special effects…. just interpersonal drama.

We follow along as Locke drives from his work towards what is slowly revealed to us as a big deal in his life, missing out on what others in his life think are more important… and in very little time we begin to understand why he’s making the drive and why none of the other characters will probably be able to talk him out of it.

The device this movie uses has been done before, but not as well as here: one character or one cast confined to one location (inside his car) that begins to feel smaller and smaller as the story flows forward despite no physical changes to the location.  Sure he’s driving, but he spends 99% of the movie inside the vehicle, because of time and safety concerns he can’t get out, much like he can’t escape the dozens of phone calls he makes and receives during the movie, interacting with the other characters that want him to speed up, slow down, change his mind, need his help, etc.  So this device of being stuck in the car clearly comes with its own set of rules: there’s a set distance ahead of him, even going a little bit faster isn’t going to get him to his planned destination any earlier, if he wants to get there in good time, he can’t makes stops or turn around, he can’t move out of the driver’s seat, his communication is limited to his bluetooth enabled mobile phone calls, etc… its a well planned out idea that works because its so familiar to any of us who have made a lengthy trip on the interstate.

The story told in that device’s set of rules is compelling… and we get plenty of depth for both the main character and the ones we only hear…. the dialogue and the unspoken physical communication add to the sense of helplessness we have.  Hardy is great as the everyman here, its a wonderful performance to add to his growing filmography of outstanding work, one that would likely win my first half Oscars (for movies in the first 6 months of 2014).  Through his performance and Knight’s pacing that is slowly building up to the end, we are feeling his stress, his frustration, his desperation in the effort to do the right thing, especially considering his past.  He’s trapped – he can’t get comfortable – confined by his space as are we the audience in our small space in our theater seat.   The movie and Hardy are also playing on audience emotions… circumstances that most adults can understand, if not relate to… family, work, career, finances, morals – blended with themes of communication troubles and helplessness of being miles apart from the troubled situation.  As we slowly build, cracks start to show in the otherwise well put together character.  But its not just Hardy who portrays the responsible family man and dependable worker, but even the unseen characters and their actions that are vividly portrayed… like that of a top notch radio announcer perfectly painting the picture of the sports events for our imagination.

This is a much better “one man” movie than “Buried” (2010) but second only to “Duel” (1971) as the best one man driving movie (not including “Drive” (2011) because he doesn’t spend the majority of the movie in the car, or by himself).

Sure its a gamble for the entire movie to rest on the shoulders of one actor’s performance… but rest assured, Tom Hardy’s got this.

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Review: “Maleficent” twists the classic fairy tale

May 30th, 2014 at 12:01 am by under Entertainment
"Maleficent" poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Maleficent” poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Maleficent” (2014)
Rated: PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Family/Fantasy/Romance

My spoiler-free review:

From evil villain to central character, Disney turns “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) on its head 55 years later with “Maleficent” (Mah-lef-i-cent) lead by an inspired performance from Angelina Jolie and some stunning visual effects, this movie is a storybook come to life, albeit a different version – according to the narrator: the “story is not quite as you were told”…. I give it 8.0 out of 10.

Warnings: it is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images, probably safe for kids 10 and up, depending on child

In the beginning narration of “Maleficent” we are told that they are going to “Tell A Story Anew“, which by definition means it will be different.  Not only does the movie’s title focus on the villian from the 1959 animated film, so are most of the scenes, giving us the perspective from Maleficent’s point of view and giving us a different take on why things were happening the way they did in the “Sleeping Beauty” story that has been around since first published in 1697.

Jolie was a perfect choice to play this character… morphing from good fairy and protector of her land when she was young … to the evil sorceress at the story’s iconic scenes.  She had the voice down, matching the tone and sound of Eleanor Audley from Disney’s animated version and the scene at the christening felt nearly identical to that version.  But she also gives this iconic character, described  as “one of the most powerful villains in Disney history” – a heart, a softer side, a backstory that actually makes you kind of root for the character we’ve always thought was the villain… or at least care for her and understand her emotions.  She was a protector and despite her walk down the dark path, she still has this calling to be a protector.  The movie makes Aurora’s dad – King Stefan – Sharlto Copley more of a bad guy – as the slightly deranged ruler who is obsessed with protecting his daughter and will, even as the animated version implied – stop at nothing – to protect her from the curse.  But this movie, through Copley’s capable hands, lets us see more of Stefan’s obsession and paranoia to protect his people and himself from Maleficent.  This version is certainly an interesting twist on the classic Disney fairytale this time about love, power, greed, and revenge.  Although after Jolie, Copley, and Elle Fanning (as Aurora), there was a bit of a shortage of star power for the rest of the cast.

Good marks for story, character development, and the effects.  Whether the movie becomes a new classic Disney tale remains to be seen, one thing is clear… the visual effects teams deserves an Oscar nomination.  They created a magical enchanted land with all kinds of mystical creatures from tree people, to wooden dragons, fairies, pixies, mushroom creatures, and more.  They pulled it off in a Avatar-meets storybook style that works.  The only stumble was the motion-capture or morphing they did to make the actresses playing the fairies that raise baby Aurora… but since they’re fairies… the odd look is something that can be forgiven considering the rest of the wonderful world and residents inhabiting the home of Maleficent.

Finally, this movie is familiar enough to be comfortable but different enough to keep you interested to find out how the story will end.

*Maleficent’s raven was Diablo in the 1959 animated Disney movie, the raven is Diaval in this movie
*She has a gold-looking staff in animated, constructs a staff out of wood and changes it to a solid black now
*Scene at the christening of baby Aurora seems like it was nearly word for word in-step with the 1959 version, but with a few changes, one noticable change in the spell put on the baby by Maleficent (not spoiling) and the absence of Prince Phillip (and another spoiler)
*The lopsided colorful birthday cake the fairies make for Aurora’s 16th birthday makes a brief appearance in the movie

*The fairies who protect Aurora were Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather in animated, they are Flittle, Imelda Staunton, Knotgrass, and Thistletwit in this version
*Maleficent’s minions are now more of the creatures working for her from her homeland that dark mindless goblins, trolls, etc.
*We see a lot more of the years when Aurora is in hiding, away from the castle and her name is not changed to ‘Briar Rose’
*Gives us more of a glimpse at how the spell directs Aurora to prick her finger on the spinning wheel needle
*”True love” gets a different definition just like in “Frozen” (2013)

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Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is really good, but…

May 24th, 2014 at 9:56 am by under Entertainment
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" poster courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” poster courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014)
(updated 5/28/14 – added to continuity issues)
Rated: PG- 13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language
Runtime: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Superhero/Fantasy/Sci-Fi

My spoiler-free review:

In the modern superhero movie genre audiences have come to expect big action sequences, cool costumes and makeup, a compelling story, great visual effects, and good writing/acting, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” gets an “A” on most of these categories, but with some of the dialogue and acting just average for this genre plus a running time past 2 hours… I give it 7.5 out of 10… its really good, but I had my hopes high with the return of Director Bryan Singer (“X-Men” and “X-Men 2″) plus the combination of original cast and returning cast with time traveling had me expecting the next great superhero movie, but it fell short of that sky high expectation.

Warning: the movie is not for little kids as it is Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language

We’ve come so far since the 1978′s “Superman: The Movie” laid the path then 2000′s “X-Men” made the genre legit… superhero movies are now the biggest summer budget blockbusters are we’re getting several of them each year (at least 4 in 2014, 5 in 2013, 3 in 2012).  So when the franchise that really started the golden age of superhero movies comes back bigger (cast and budget) you expect it to be better than ever.

Don’t get me wrong this movie is really really good, but not great… I liked the action, the effects, the overall story, the appearances of characters, the time traveling, but in 2014 I expect more from my superhero movies than I did in the 2000s.  This is the biggest ensemble cast of superhero characters ever – I counted 20 supers in all (plus the non-super supporting characters).  The cast boasts about a dozen actors who have won/been nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, or Tonys.  You can’t just bring back Singer, the original cast, the cast of “X-Men: First Class” (2011), and some new characters and time travel between 2023 and 1973 and call it good… you have to give those award caliber actors interesting things to say and do!   Not just sit or stand around… c’mon Singer you directed the genius movie “The Usual Suspects” (1995), one of my favorite movies of its kind!  You know that even a few good lines of dialogue can make a good actor better and a great actor amazing.  A few stanzas of Professor Xavier speeches aren’t enough…. all the actors we expect to be interesting need to be interesting… not just window dressing via a nostalgic cameo.

Continuity with other X-Men films: A bigger issue was the problem inherent with the franchise, not just with this installment.   Constantly trying to resolve in my mind the events of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009), “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), and “The Wolverine” (2013) and how they fit with this movie was an act of patience and frustration. The Professor X in the future doesn’t fit with the events of “Last Stand”.  Bolivar Trask in DOFP vs X3.  Xavier/Magneto/Mystique relationship in past versus X1, X2, X3.  Future Wolverine’s claws.  Director Singer recognized errors in continuity in a May 14 article, saying “Some of these I hope the audience will forget about…”.  Really?  A franchise rebooted with pop icon characters that you’ve built up during a 14 year period and you want us to forget ‘some of these‘ things.  Seriously, I want to drop my rating a full point for that!  Changing the actor who played Pyro between X1 and X2…okay.  Maybe I can accept the 4 different ages of/actors playing Stryker in “Origins: Wolverine” (2009), ”First Class” (2011), X2, and the 1970s Stryker portrayed in this movie don’t fit together.  But the chronological issues created by “Origins: Wolverine” (2009) or “Last Stand” (2006) and even “The Wolverine” (2013) have to be addressed somewhere on screen!!  My only acceptable explanation, but it wasn’t on screen: that “First Class” and “Days of Future Past” have created a different timeline that we are now on.

Other issues: I also had problems with what Ellen Page’s ‘Kitty Pride’ can do in this movie… her performance was fine, but in talking to my Marvel experts (“nerds” or “geeks” to some), she never had the abilities she does in this movie.

But… Singer did a good job trying to undo the damage and problems with those non-Singer movies tying up many of the loose ends (not all) and trying to point the future/past on a different trajectory.  Now that I’ve seen the movie, the second watch may be easier knowing that many of the “problems” are fixed on the space time continium.

Also… the gravity of the apocalyptic future is clear with the mortality of some characters showing us just how important the time traveling mission needs to be successful.  Its something rarely seen in these movies and the comics.  The scenes with Quicksilver are great, well thought out and executed, especially the big action sequence… which is probably the scene that evokes the most pure fun for me.  There were a lot of little inside jokes and things that tied this movie and the others together plus some comic relief, but the sub-par dialogue/acting, the ominous tone and some briefly explained plot devices keep this movie from being one of the best of it’s kind.

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Review: “Million Dollar Arm” is a really good sports drama

May 16th, 2014 at 12:01 am by under Entertainment
"Million Dollar Arm" poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios

“Million Dollar Arm” poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios

“Million Dollar Arm” (2014)
Rated: PG for mild language and some suggestive content
Runtime: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Genre: Biography/Sports/Drama

My spoiler-free review:

The feel-good sports movie of the year so far, “Million Dollar Arm” combines themes of baseball, drama, comedy, romance, and family/parenting.  With its smile inducing plot, its hard not to enjoy for both baseball fans and non-sports fans.  While its no “Moneyball” (2011), its certainly one of the best baseball-themed movies since 2000… I give it 7.0 out of 10.

I love baseball, so baseball movies can either hook me… or bug me.  This one, although a little bit predictable and quite stereotypical of Hollywood’s portrayal of India and Indian culture, was a story I had never heard of before and it was a pleasure to watch.

Based on actual events in 2008 (although some details were changed), the struggling sports agency ‘Seven Figures Management’ – run by ‘JB Bernstein’ (Jon Hamm) and ‘Aash’ (Aasif Mandvi) is desperate and looking for the next big thing.  They left the big company and “don’t want to go to work on the Death Star”.  ’JB’ comes up with the idea to tap into India – the last big market for athletes.  The idea is to find a couple baseball prospects out of the billions who play cricket and have them tryout for Major League Baseball teams in hopes of getting a minor league deal and keep their struggling sports agency afloat.

This movie works whether or not you’re a baseball fan because its ultimately about the relationship between a businessman who only sees the financial possibilities of this endeavor and the young men who leave their families in poor towns/villages of India for the bright lights and economic riches of the United States.  There’s plenty of character development for the main cast and supporting cast and we get to see a character arc for several of them by the end of the movie.

Much like a baseball team, the cast is a team of characters from the charismatic manager of this group ‘JB’, played well with all the charm and confidence by Hamm.  Bill Paxton oozes gruff experience as the veteran coach ‘Tom House’ who focuses on the psychological part of the game as much as the physical.  Alan Arkin is perfect as always as the retired scout ‘Ray’ who is so good, he can gauge the speed of the pitch by how loud it hits the glove.  Tzi Ma and Darshan Jariwala add the very different degrees of businessmen involved in the deal.  Lake Bell adds a potential romantic interest as ‘Brenda’ for our main character, but also the one character who challenges him to be different and start to think about the impact of his actions.  The possible prospects ‘Rinku’ and ‘Dinesh’ are played great by Suraj Sharma (“Life of Pi”) and Madhur Mittal (Jamal’s older brother in “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)).  And we get some comic relief from Mandvi as JB’s partner ‘Aash’, Allyn Rachel as the assistant ‘Theresa’, and Pitobash is hilarious as the translator ‘Amit’.  ’Amit’ is also a huge baseball fan, who always wanted to play but was still happy for their opportunity – gives a speech to his Indian brethren before one of the tryouts – “I’m seeing my dream in both of you”.  He also hopes to inspire them saying, “now small boys in India can dream to be like you”.

The movie is hard not to like with its fish out of water feelings for both sets of main characters, plus the bonding and growing chemistry among our team members, “Million Dollar Arm” sets up to target your heartstrings.  It certainly spoke to me maybe more than others because I played baseball, I love the game, took a sports psychology and coaching classes in college, I understand that the mental part of the game is just important as the physical, and I understand that the boys missed home and felt out of place and needed someone to believe in them… and our main character was in need of some growing up as well.  It all leads up to a smile inducing potentially eye watering ’9th inning’.

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Kalamazoo Tornado May 13, 1980

May 13th, 2014 at 1:22 am by under Entertainment, News, Weather

kalamazoo tornado woodtvkalamazoo tornado twokalamazoo tornado map   Click on the images to enlarge – Thirty-four years ago today, an F3 (158-206 mph) tornado cut an 11-mile path from eastern Van Buren right through downtown Kalamazoo. In 20 minutes, the storm left 5 dead and 79 injured. Damage totaled 50 million dollars (that’s 1980 dollars). Three hundred homes and 150 businesses were severely damaged or destroyed.  There was significant damage to Gilmore’s Dept. Store and dozens of trees were toppled in Bronson Park.  Here’s lots of information on the twister. More info here. and here. Here’s more pictures, and here’s a map of the tornado’s path. Here’s a slide show from YouTube. Here’s a first-hand account of the storm.  Please feel free to share a comment or a link to your pictures of the tornado or its aftermath.

Review: “Legends of Oz” is a rental at best

May 9th, 2014 at 12:01 am by under Entertainment
"Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" poster courtesy Clarius Entertainment

“Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” poster courtesy Clarius Entertainment

“Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” (2014)
Rated: PG for some scary images and mild peril
Runtime: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Genre: Animation/ Family / Musical

My spoiler-free review:

The little kids (8 and younger) will enjoy it, but they’re also not in charge of your budget… because “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is not worth the $50 (or more) that a family of four might be shelling out for this mediocre sequel to the “Wizard of Oz” (1939).  Despite the talented cast of actors providing the voices here, this movie is at the level of a TV movie or a straight-to-video, not a theatrical release… I give it 6.0 out of 10.  Its not worth the 3-D dollars and its better to wait for it at a second-run theater, or until its released to rent.

Based on the 1989 children’s novel ’Dorothy of Oz’ by Roger S. Baum (the Great-grandson of L. Frank Baum, the original creator of the “Oz” series of books), ”Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is supposed to immediately follow the events of the classic movie when Dorothy has recently returned to Kansas and the town is dealing with the aftermath of the tornado.  Since she left, time has passed much faster in the alternate dimension of Oz and the Emerald City is in need of her help, again.

The filmmakers were smart to start in Oz because the animation of the whimsical characters and their world look like a storybook come to life, but the animation in Oz is more believable than the humans back in Kansas.

The casting choices aren’t in doubt, but the decision of which character some of the actors were chosen to voice IS for me.  James Belushi was a good choice for the Lion.  Lea Michele worked as Dorothy.  Martin Short was perfect as The Jester/The Appraiser.  Oliver Platt and Hugh Dancy were great as Wiser and Marshal Mallow.  Megan Hilty, Patrick Stewart, and Brian Blessed were solid as the China Princess, Tugg, and Judge Jawbreaker.  But Dan Aykroyd and Kelsey Grammer should have switched in their roles as the Scarecrow and Tin Man, while older (sounding) actors should have been used to voice Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, perhaps Bernadette Peters, who didn’t sparkle as Glinda.

The development of those characters is the best part of this movie as we once again meet new characters along the yellow brick road – and we quickly understand who they are and why they would want to help Dorothy get back to the Emerald City.  The tie-in between this movie’s villain The Jester and the Wicked Witch of the West in the original “Wizard of Oz” story was also a smart move.

Memorable characters, not memorable songs…. the musical score is good, but the songs were mostly forgettable, eventhough some were written by Bryan Adams.  This is certainly not another soundtrack chart topper like “Frozen” (2013).

Not a bad first movie made by Summertime Entertainment and first movie distrubuted by Clarius Entertainment, its cute with plenty of stuff that kids can enjoy and lots of little jokes for adults, set in a world that’s familiar to anyone who has seen the original movie, but different enough to make it interesting…. however, it felt a lot more like a made-for-TV cartoon movie.

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Review: “Amazing Spider-man 2″ bigger than it should have been

May 2nd, 2014 at 8:23 am by under Entertainment
"The Amazing Spider-man 2" poster courtesy Columbia Pictures

“The Amazing Spider-man 2″ poster courtesy Columbia Pictures

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ (2014)
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Runtime: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Genre: Action/Adventure/ComicBook/Superhero

My spoiler-free review:

The vision for this Spider-man movie was just too grandiose.  Too many villians, subplots, and slow-motion action sequences, this easily could have been two movies… or one very long music video.

The action is great, the acting is really good, and dealing with three villians while dealing with personal issues does create some serious challenges for our friendly neighborhood web slinger… but it loses the focus and charm that the last one had in 2012.  Sure for comic book fans its keeps pretty close to the comics (I’m told) and its original enough to keep the fanboys’ interest (introducing several of the ‘Sinister Six’ lineup).  I was entertained, but the web was just too full and had too many music video-like slow-mo action sequences for me to say its better than the 2012 version… I give it 7.0 out of 10 … its worth seeing on the big screen, but save some bucks and skip the 3-D or more expensive formats.

In his defense, Director Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012), “(500) Days of Summer” (2009)) got his start in and continues directing music videos and documentaries, and I like both of his other big screen movies very much, but the three villains, the issues Peter Parker is dealing with after the events of the last movie, his personal drama with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and Aunt May, his estranged parents, was just too ambitious.  I give Webb and the writers and the cast and crew credit for trying, but it was just too much.

I know.  I know.  The fans want more… then I say something like that.  The acting was really good, something we’ve started to expect and enjoy, but still need to appreciate how this genre has changed in 30 years.  (mild spoilers if you don’t know the comics and/or haven’t seen any teasers for the movie)  Andrew Garfield is really more like the Spider-man of the comics with his youthful confidence and comedy as he tries to appeal to the public as a good guy, not a vigilante… but at the same time he shows us the weighty internal struggles that Peter Parker is dealing with from his past and the present.  Emma Stone is more than just a damsel in distress as Gwen Stacy, she’s headstrong but sweet and caring.  Sally Field gets to show more range of her acting in this chapter as well as the concerned Aunt May but there’s a lot more going on with her this time around.   Then we get three Oscar-caliber actors as the three new villains: Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino), and Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn/Green Goblin).  Foxx’s character really becomes charged up after he takes on his new persona, DeHaan shines as the socially awkward and steaming mad son of Oscorp’s founder, but Giamatti mostly just yells, snorts, and destroys things.

This second chapter in this “Amazing” franchise has significantly more action and is darker like many other successful sequels, plunging Spider-man into a lot of trouble and a lot of emotional upheaval.  And these new villains at the same time create a lot more peril for our hero than just the one we got in the last, which was stronger, but more of a personal conflict for Peter than being outmatched.

Sometimes when you have a good thing going, you gotta save a little for the next outing… maybe the scenes with Harry Osborn are merely a tease… maybe the extra ending stuff with Aleksei Sytsevich could have been more of an extra scene in the credits (like other marvel movies, teasing ahead to the next movie and the “Sinister Six”).  I don’t know, but it felt like the filmmakers, maybe were under intense pressure from the studio (Columbia Pictures, owned by Sony) to build their version of blockbuster superhero team-up movies like, but separate (because of copyrights) from Disney’s “The Avengers” (2012) or Fox’s “X-Men: First Class” (2011).  Either way this movie was fun and exciting and does set up for more sequels and spinoffs if that’s what the studio wants.  We get some direct and indirect references to ‘The Sinister Six’ with ‘Green Goblin’, ‘Rhino’, “Electro’, ’Doctor Octopus’, ‘Vulture’, plus ‘Lizard’ is still out there and apparently ‘Kraven the Hunter’ and ‘Mysterio’ were also teased via the Shazam app during the credits.

But sometimes business can get in the way of great filmmaking…. more isn’t always better and the music montages combined with too many slow-mo sequences wore thin… one of each would have been successful but too many times and it loses its uniqueness … even for Spider-man.


PS – at our screening, the “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (Fox) teaser was not attatched, maybe because Sony, the company behind Spider-man was not going to promote another company’s product during screenings that Fox isn’t footing the bill for.  That teaser doesn’t necessarily mean a crossover between the two properties, here’s the deal reported by Variety in a nutshell: Director Marc Webb was under contract at Fox Searchlight to do another movie after “(500) Days of Summer” and to make both sides happy after the 2012 Spider-man movie, Sony (Columbia Pictures) agreed to let Fox promote their new X-Men movie at the end of this Spider-man movie.

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Geek out: Star Wars 7 cast announcement!!!

April 29th, 2014 at 7:28 pm by under Entertainment
"Star Wars" logo courtesy Lucasfilm

“Star Wars” logo courtesy Lucasfilm

(UPDATED 4/30/14)

Tuesday Lucasfilm and Disney announced what Star Wars fans were waiting for… the main cast for the next episode in the Star Wars franchise: “Star Wars: Episode VII”… 5 days before international Star Wars Day (May 4th… ’may fourth be with you’).


Episode 7 is the current working title for the movie, which is supposed to be set 30-35 years after the end of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” (1983)(Episode 6).  It is planned to be the first of three new Star Wars movies… following the children of Luke, Han, and Leia and the next generation of heroes in the Star Wars universe.

The production is being led by Director J.J. Abrams, who ironically brought us the last two Star Trek movies.  The script was written by Abrams and “Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back” (1980) screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.  Filming is set to begin in May, but there are rumors that some filming has already started and is supposed to take place in England’s Pinewood Studios and in rumored locations in the Middle East.  Star Wars creator George Lucas will act as creative consultant.  Academy Award-winning composer John Williams will be back to compose the music for the film.

Disney plans for the movie to hit theaters December 18, 2015… 32 years after “Jedi” blew up the box office. Episode 8 is scheduled for 2017 while Episode 9 is scheduled for 2019.   There are also planned spinoff films to release between the main movies, but the character focus of those movies has not yet been announced.

"Star Wars Episode VII" script read courtesy Lucasfilm

“Star Wars Episode VII” script read courtesy Lucasfilm

The main cast is a mix of new comers: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow.  The only role we know is that Driver (“Girls”) was cast as “the villain”.  We do not yet know the name of the character or his affiliation to the force… or the old Empire, Rebellion, etc.  The rest of the new-to-Star Wars cast includes some familiar faces: veteran actor Max von Sydow (“Minority Report”, “The Exorcist”), Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1&2″) and John Boyega (“Attack the Block”).  Ridley is a newcomer, just starting her acting career last year in the U.K.

And the returning cast: Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), and Kenny Baker (R2-D2).   Notably absent is Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian).


The returning cast members range in age from 57-79 years old: Harrison Ford (71) is rumored to play a “gigantic” part in this movie as Han Solo.  Carrie Fisher (57) reprises her role as Leia (likely dropping the ‘Princess’ title).  Mark Hamill (62) returns as Luke Skywalker, the only known surviving Jedi of the bunch at the end of Episode 6 so he’ll likely mentor the young Jedi in this movie.  Peter Mayhew (69) returns as the 7’2″ Chewbacca and best friend of Solo.  Anthony Daniels (68) is back as the protocol droid C-3PO, he and Kenny Baker (79) as R2-D2 are the only actors in the credits of all 6 of the Star Wars movies made so far!

John Boyega courtesy IMDB

John Boyega courtesy IMD

John Boyega is rumored to play a young Jedi (in the script read photo above he is sitting next to Oscar Isaac on the left side of the photo approximately 10 o’clock)

He is 22-years old

Boyega is a British actor born in London

Best known for ”Attack the Block” (2011) and “My Murder” (2012)

Upcoming movie: “Imperial Dreams”  (2014) – ironic title, I know!

He is 5’7″

Daisy Ridley courtesy IMDB

Daisy Ridley courtesy IMDB

Daisy Ridley is rumored to play either a descendant of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Han Solo and Princess Leia’s daughter, Jaina Solo from the Expanded Universe books, however Disney and Lucasfilm recently announced that much of the expanded universe would be dissolved like Palpatine did to the Imperial Senate “the last remnants of the old republic” were “swept away”

(click on the script read photo above to make it bigger – she is sitting between Harrison Ford (Han) and Carrie Fischer (Leia) about 2 o’clock – either a picture is worth a thousand words, or this is an incredible coincidence)

Her actual age is not currently public info, but Ridley’s rep based in London’s official website says the actress’ ‘playing age’ is 16 to 20

She only started acting last year, beginning with guest roles on British TV shows like “Youngers” and “Mr Selfridge” and acting in short films.  Her first movie role will be in “Inbetweeners 2″ (August 6 in the UK and Ireland)

Ridley is 5’7″

Adam Driver courtesy IMDB

Adam Driver courtesy IMDB

Adam Driver was announced in February as the main villain of the movie, while we don’t have a name, the one thing we were told is that the character is said to be in the vein of iconic “Star Wars” villain Darth Vader

He is a 30-year old American actor

Since 2012, Driver has portrayed Adam Sackler on the HBO series ‘Girls’, but he has also appeared in several recent movies: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) and “Frances Ha Frances Ha” (2012)

He is 6’3″

(in the script read photo above he is sitting about 11 o’clock looking to his right at Boyega and Isaac)


Oscar Isaac courtesy IMDB

Oscar Isaac courtesy IMDB


Oscar Isaac is playing an unknown character at this point

He is an 35-year old American actor and singer born in Guatemala, who was raised in Miami, Florida

Last year he received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for his role in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

Isaac is also known for “Drive” (2011), “Robin Hood” (2010)

He is 5’9″

(in the script read photo above he is sitting about 9 o’clock between Boyega and Serkis, who is wearing glasses and reading the script)

Andy Serkis courtesy IMDB

Andy Serkis courtesy IMDB

Andy Serkis is playing an unknown character at this point, but we also don’t know if he’ll be in a suit, acting via motion capture, or showing his face in the movie

He is a 50-year old English film actor, director and author born in London

Serkis is a performance capture veteran best known for playing Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” movies (2001-2003) and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012), he also played Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) through newer motion capture technology

He also appeared on camera in movies such as “Inkheart” (2008), “The Prestige” (2006), “13 Going on 30″ (2004)

He is 5′ 8″

(in the script read photo above he is sitting about 9 o’clock wearing glasses and reading the script, Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels are to his right)

Domnhall Gleeson courtesy IMDB

Domnhall Gleeson courtesy IMDB

Domhnall Gleeson is playing an unknown character at this point

He is a 30-year old an Irish actor, director, and writer from Dublin, Ireland

He is the son of actor Brendan Gleeson

Best known for his roles in “About Time” (2013), “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ (2011), “True Grit”  (2010), and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1″ (2010)

Gleeson is 6′ 1″

(in the script read photo above he is sitting about 6 o’clock sitting in his own chair with his back to us to the right of Anthony Daniels in the plaid shirt)


Max von Sydow courtesy IMDB

Max von Sydow courtesy IMDB

Max von Sydow is playing an unknown character at this point, and he’ll bring some veteran acting credibility to the film just like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing brought to “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977)

He is an 85-year old Swedish actor

He has 2 Oscar nominations: Actor in a Leading Role – “Pelle erobreren” (1987) and Actor in a Supporting Role – “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011)

von Sydow has more than 100 acting credits, including: “The Exorcist” (1973), “Minority Report” (2002), ”Shutter Island” (2010), “Robin Hood” (2010), “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011), plus he’s no stranger to Sci-Fi and big budget films: “Flash Gordon” (1980), “Conan the Barbarian” (1982), and “Dune” (1984).

(von Sydow is not pictured in the script read photo above)

There are rumors and anticipation that another big announcement regarding the movie will take place on May 4th, of course known to fans worldwide as Star Wars day… maybe the title?  Character names? Additional cast? (Ian McDiarmid and Ewan McGregor are rumored for cameos)  More filming locations?  We’ll have to wait to see!

The Official Announcement:

The Star Wars team is thrilled to announce the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII.

Actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow will join the original stars of the saga, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker in the new film.

Director J.J. Abrams says, “We are so excited to finally share the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.”

Photo gallery of the casting announcement: http://interactives.woodtv.com/photomojo/gallery/12018/1/

I met Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) in 2008:

Aaron with Peter Mayhew in Grand Rapids at Celebration! North 12-6-08

Aaron with Peter Mayhew in Grand Rapids at Celebration! North 12-6-08

And Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) in 2010:

Aaron and Anthony Daniels on the set of eightWest at WOODTV Studios in Grand Rapids 7-13-10

Aaron and Anthony Daniels on the set of eightWest at WOODTV Studios in Grand Rapids 7-13-10

And I got to interview him on eightWest that day (click link to watch)!



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Review: “Heaven is for Real” is a test of faith

April 24th, 2014 at 10:57 pm by under Entertainment
"Heaven is for Real" poster courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

“Heaven is for Real” poster courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

“Heaven is for Real” (2014)
Rated: PG thematic material including some medical situations
Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Genre: Drama/Family

My spoiler-free review:

“Heaven is for Real” is a cute and funny story about some heavy subject matter – life and death and what happens after… its all handled with care in the movie based on the New York Times best-selling book about the true story of a boy that tells his experience of visiting heaven.  The movie sets a new bar for small budget* faith-based movies to aspire to – with a solid script, good acting, likeable characters, and not overly preachy… I give it 7.5 out of 10.
Its a faith challenging movie, and if you let it, a faith inspiring story.

You just can’t help but smile at Connor Corum.

For a 6-year-old (playing 4-year-old Colton), he’s got a lot of charisma and can hold the audience with his maturity next to a veteran actor combined with his innocence of youth and his character’s “faith like a child”.  Connor is a good little actor, looking comfortable with several lines of dialogue at a time and at ease with on screen dad Greg Kinnear, the two clearly have good father-son chemistry.

Kinnear shines as Todd Burpo, Colton’s father and small town pastor of the Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska.  Kinnear aptly depicts the doubt, the dilemma as a preacher, and the challenge his family and church face in believing or not believing what Colton says happened to him.  Kinnear’s Pastor Todd is very personable, very good at his job, a great speaker until he faces physical, emotional, and major career adversity.

Pastor Todd, his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), daughter Cassie (Lane Styles), and the church deal with this adversity in different ways.  Thomas Haden Church adds depth and dry comic relief as Pastor Todd’s best friend ‘Jay’, while Margo Martindale is solid as hard nosed church board member and piano player ‘Nancy’.

While its surprising how quickly some members of the church react negatively to Colton’s story, all the characters represent a theme of how people react to things that challenge them – some literal, some figurative, some are inspired, some are afraid, others confused for different reasons, Pastor Todd surmises – “some may be afraid there is no heaven… or they’re afraid there is”.  The sermons that Todd preaches ironically apply to what they are going through and once he realizes he needs to listen to his own teachings, his character, the last you’d suspect would need to change, goes through several changes during the movie.

Director Randall Wallace does a good job presenting Colton’s experience in heaven as a true event that happened, not some fantastical special effects wizardry with flash and fireworks, the tone of it makes sense – important, yet humbling.

But to say that “Heaven is for Real” is a movie just for Christians is a shame.  Sure its a story presented in a away that will be best received by believers, but its also a message about family and community, appreciating and respecting the people around you, and letting people know they’re not alone in whatever struggles they are dealing with in life… something that everyone can understand.

While the movie tries to present Colton’s family as a normal middle america non-Biblical family highlighted with a cute scene where the singing in the car goes from “This Little Light of Mine” to “We Will Rock You”, it also goes a little too far with spicing up the husband-wife relationship both in conversation and wardrobe.   I also had some troubles accepting the true depth of the financial hardship depicted in the movie.  Some scenes are a little predictable.   But its still a solid family and/or faith-based movie.

*estimated budget: $12 million

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