The Song of Sway Lake

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Relationships between family members can sometimes be complicated. Add death to the mix and things can turn dark and almost unbearable. In the new film The Song of Sway Lake, we get a wild mix of not only a life lost but of troubled souls struggling to make sense of their lives and forming new yet awkward bonds. This is a smaller movie than most but it has a wide scope and deals with a myriad of important issues. The location is gorgeous, the acting top notch, and the direction really quite special. The film recently screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, earning high praise from those who were fortunate enough to view it.

Sway Lake focuses on two young men: Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) and Nikolai (Robert Sheehan). Ollie’s father has committed suicide and as an act of anger, Ollie plans to steal a vintage 78 record from his wealthy grandmother Charlie Sway (Mary Beth Peil), who resides in a house on, you guessed it, Sway Lake. During the heist, Charlie shows up and over the course of a few days, the three form a special connection, especially free spirited Nikolai who develops romantic feelings for Charlie.

A human drama, through and through, Sway Lake is filled with colorful characters and interesting plot points. The performances by the three leads are great and Ari Gold’s (Adventures of Power, Helicopter) direction is a thing of absolute beauty. Rory Culkin (Signs, Mean Creek) leads the cast and shows that he is more than just Macaulay Culkin’s kid brother. The man actually has acting chops. The same can be said for Robert Sheehan (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Road Within) who really steals the show as a carefree Russian who eventually falls for Charlie. Tony-nominated actress Mary Beth Peil adds a touch of class to the proceedings as Ollie’s well-to-do and graceful grandmother who looks back on her husband Hal (voiced by Brian Dennehy) who is sadly out of the picture.

Filmed in upstate New York, the setting of Sway Lake is as much a character in the film as the people in it. The lake is calm and quiet and perfect for driving boats, going for the occasional swim, and even striking up a romance. During the course of the film, Ollie meets Isadora (Isabelle McNally), a young lady who lives in the area and together, their adorable courtship makes for some really endearing cinema. There is even a great yet understated performance from Charlie’s housekeeper Marlena, played by the late Elizabeth Peña. Though they are supporting characters, they leave a significant impact on the film.

Last but not least is the music in Sway Lake which is without a doubt one of the film’s best features. Singer-songwriter John Grant provides some awesomely authentic vocals, transporting the audience to the 1930s. There is an almost timeless quality about the film and for this reason, viewers are in for a real treat. All of the pieces of the production work in concert, putting together a picture that is not only beautiful to look at but is a pleasure to listen to. The Song of Sway Lake is not just a good film, it’s a moving experience that must be taken in, digested, and remembered fondly just like Charlie remembers her beloved Hal.

The Beguiled

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Historical dramas can go one of two ways. They can either be syrupy, melodramatic snoozefests or they can be absorbing and utterly exquisite works of art. With The Beguiled, we get something more in sync with the latter and with an absorbing story and strong performances, we have a film that goes beyond the average cinematic work and leaves an indelible impression on its viewer.

The Beguiled has a long history, starting in 1966 when author Thomas P. Cullinan’s penned the book. Known also as A Painted Devil, the book was so impactful that it inspired a motion picture in 1971. Fast forward to today where gifted filmmaker Sophia Coppola has made The Beguiled her own and presenting it to audiences of the 21st century. It is a unique story that has endured and undergone many interpretations.

Set in rural Virginia during the Civil War, The Beguiled focuses on Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier who has taken refuge under a large tree in the forest. He is soon discovered by a young girl picking mushrooms. McBurney is then taken to an all girls school to recuperate. The school is led by the uptight Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who has sheltered all of the young women in the house and is cautious about allowing McBurney to stay there. Eventually, sexual tension arises, resulting in a very dark and disturbing series of events.

While The Beguiled is a very quiet film, it has a lot to say. The main conflict is intense and revolves around the young women which includes a very subdued Kirsten Dunst and a seductive Elle Fanning. McBurney is thrown into this female-only world and with an injured leg and no hope for departure anytime soon. This sets the stage for one interesting yet controversial plot.

Filmmaker Sofia Coppola has taken the tried and true story of The Beguiled and really injected life into it. Her unique style and way of shooting has made this Civil War drama something really special. The look is great, being very authentic to the time period and the set, which is basically a creaky old house is utterly terrific. Every sound the floors make hints at something either very sinister or very sexy or both.

Colin Farrell is a knockout here and his performance as the hurt soldier in a foreign realm is a fantastic showcase for the gifted actor. Nicole Kidman is also is fine form as the prim and proper headmistress. We also get a decent performance from Kirsten Dunst who plays a teacher at the girls school riddled with emotional turbulence. Elle Fanning also shines as a young girl at the school.

With the book released half a century ago and a film adaptation made over 40 years ago, this is a more than appropriate time for a remake. Due to Sophia Coppola’s fresh approach and the actors all performing beautifully, The Beguiled is a gripping and exciting film that is guaranteed to impress. It’s also worth noting that this is yet another remake Colin Farrell has starred in. He was in reimaginings of Fright Night and Total Recall and he is set to star in Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo which is currently in pre-production.

The Big Sick

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When a standup comedian makes the sometimes lackluster transition to feature films, it can be a risky move. The comic stage and the movie screen are obviously very different and sometimes, comedians’ success doesn’t transfer over. Thankfully Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, Adventure Time) has made a smooth move to film and the new romantic dramedy The Big Sick highlights his talents, not only as an every/funnyman but as a sensitive actor who draws the audience in.

The Big Sick is a romantic comedy with shades of seriousness. It is even actually based on Nanjiani’s real life. In the film, Kumail plays a Pakistani standup comedian who struggles with parents trying desperately to set him up on arranged marriages. He meets various Pakistani women who “happen” to stop by his parents’ house, so that they can eventually court Kumail. This serves as a constant annoyance and Kumail is actually seeking love elsewhere. One night, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) while performing a set and the two immediately hit it off. However, Emily is a white American and definitely not what Kumail’s parents are looking for. The romance is a little rocky and when Emily gets sick, Kumail comes to her side and forms a unique bond with her parents.

While The Big Sick doesn’t exactly break new ground in the romantic comedy department, it is a strong film with decent performances. Nanjiani is quite good here serving as star and writer. His true story about how he met his wife is presented adequately and is cute enough to serve as the film’s crux. Nanjiani’s dry, sarcastic delivery is really fun to watch and he is actually very unique in terms of comedic timing and dramatic skill. Zoe Kazan is cute as ever here as Emily and she also has a very charming way about her. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play Emily’s down-to-Earth middle-class parents and they are without a doubt, some of the best features of this film. This is the actually first time I’ve ever appreciated something Ray Romano has done, that and being from Queens.

With so much junk out in theaters during the summer, it really is refreshing to find a movie as funny and smart as The Big Sick. The story is cute and the performances solid. Kumail Nanjiani is a pleasure to watch and he has proven here that he can carry a film exceptionally well. It’s also really nice to know that this film is based on a true story. That makes its impact a little stronger and more interesting to watch. Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, The Big Sick is a quality film through and through. It isn’t a laugh fest all the time and there are some serious issues presented (i.e. racism and illness) but there is a balance and the actors and crew maintain that balance. Couples looking for a movie to watch without explosions, pirates, or robot aliens fighting in 3D will appreciate The Big Sick for a being not only a movie about people but a movie about love, acceptance, and sacrifice.

The New York Pops Plays the Music of John Williams – Recap

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When it comes to film music, one name seems to pop up no matter how much of a movie aficionado or novice you are. He is a man with numerous awards and accolades to his name and he is responsible for scoring some of cinema history’s greatest titles. That man, of course, is John Williams and on June 8th, 2017, the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, NY hosted The New York Pops as they performed Williams’ music in a glorious concert setting. It was a truly lovely evening featuring music played expertly in a more than special venue.

Built in 1923, Forest Hills Stadium was originally a glorious tennis court and in the 1960s, it became a glorious concert venue. The Beatles, Barbara Streisand, and Frank Sinatra were just a  few of the big names that performed in the space. Once the 90s hit, the stadium grew quiet. But in 2013, the venue was revitalized and for purposes of this article, the New York Pops graced the stadium with their presence and played Maestro John Williams’ iconic movie music.

The weather of the evening was perfect and the energy in the air was electric. The program of the concert included pieces from Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Hook, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Star Wars films. Each movie’s score was brilliantly performed and with a gifted and charismatic conductor / musical director in Steven Reineke at the helm, the evening was certainly to remember. Leading the orchestra and providing a mini synopsis and history for each film, this only elevated the evening to much higher level. There were even special appearances by Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, Kylo Ren, and Jawas (people in costume, I hope.)

John Williams is by far, Hollywood’s most well-known film composer and his collaborations with filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have provided audiences with some of the  most loved film music of all time. Forest Hills Stadium was the perfect venue for this concert and hopefully, more film composers’ works will be featured here. Being from Forest Hills myself, I was especially proud to be in the audience that night. With each piece played live, I got chills and I formed new memories of this incredible concert. The New York Pops and Forest Hills Stadium are responsible for this, those and of course Mr. John Williams.

Beatriz at Dinner

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Guess who’s coming to dinner. This is what is on everyone’s mind in the new offbeat dramedy Beatriz at Dinner, a quirky little film that not only presents an amusing premise but actually tackles some very timely issues. The film stars Salma Hayek in a role that seems tailor-made for the gorgeous actress and John Lithgow is in fine form here as he simply chews up the scenery. The film is smart, funny, full of terrific performances and really in a league of its own.

Beatriz at Dinner follows the titular character (played by Hayek), a natural healer / masseuse who has a strong connection to nature and animals. When her car breaks down at a wealthy client’s house, she is soon invited to stay for a small dinner party with rich snobs. The party is basically a less than subtle attempt to woo the host’s billionaire boss Doug Strutt (played by Lithgow), a macho mogul who immediately rubs Beatriz the wrong way due his pride in hunting defenseless creatures and an apparent disrespect for mother nature. Much of the film focuses on these two characters’ strong personalities and how they clash in many ways.

While Beatriz at Dinner is mainly about Hayek and Lithgow, the supporting cast is also really quite strong and I kind of wanted to see more of them. Connie Britton plays Beatriz’s well-to-do client who seems to genuinely want Beatriz as a friend. Her bloodsucking husband is played by gruff David Warshofsky and the other dinner guests include a young and ambitious couple comprised of Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker rounds out the cast as Strutt’s slightly ditsy trophy wife. All in all, it’s one of the better casts in recent dramedies and their chemistry with one another is really very special.

The luxurious house and dinner party are the main set for this unpredictable adventure in social conflict. Lithgow’s Doug Strutt is the atypical older white rich man, a less than subtle mirrored image to our current commander-in-chief. This has got to be one of Lithgow’s finest performances since you can totally believe him to be this arrogant, harsh, and at times, unlikable person. Beatriz challenges him in many scenes and the results are really fun to watch.

Mike White (School of Rock, The Good Girl) has conjured up a fantastic script here with each actor turning White’s words into pure gold. One can even imagine Beatriz at Dinner as a staged play since it features a small cast and one primary “stage”. The tension is palpable in many scenes but a unique brand of humor keeps things light and somewhat cheery. Fans of Donald Trump will probably get a little offended by this film and Lithgow’s role and his unofficial representation of the Republican party. Beatriz at Dinner pokes fun here and it is because of this, the film is really entertaining. It’s not an in your face satire of rich white people but it gets its point across. Salma Hayek portrays a minority here and her challenging of a “superior” race and social class is what makes this film shine very brightly.

New York Philharmonic: John Williams’ ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ in Concert – Recap

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There have been many collaborations throughout cinema history that have made a memorable and profound impact on moviegoers. Creativity can only mushroom if likeminded individuals join forces and put forth great art together. Legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg is one such individual and he has been working with maestro and genius composer John Williams for over 40 years now. Their work has gone beyond just art and continues to endure in the collective consciousness of society. The New York Philharmonic recently brought the Spielberg / Williams masterpiece E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to vivid life as they performed the orchestral score live while the 1982 film screened simultaneously.

Now, in case you have been living under a rock for the past 35 years, E.T. tells the beautiful story of young Elliot (Henry Thomas), a lonely boy who encounters an alien creature and soon becomes friends with it. When the shady government learns of E.T.’s existence, they quickly try to capture him. What then transpires is an adventure like none other with a powerful friendship at the forefront between boy and alien lifeform.

During the weekend of May 12th, 2017, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City played host with conductor David Newman conducting the New York Philharmonic for this truly wonderful concert. John Williams’ music was brought to glorious life by all the players and the audience went on a journey both musically and visually. Actor Robert MacNaughton (who played older brother Michael) was actually in the audience as a special guest and this only added to the already magical evening.

The New York Philharmonic puts on concerts like this fairly regularly and the next performances to feature John Williams’ music will be in September with the Star Wars films. Click here for more information. An absolute treat for the senses, the New York Philharmonic certainly knows what they’re doing and if you are a fan of John Williams or film in general, then these concerts are definitely for you.

Big Apple Comic Con 2017 – Recap

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With every year, comic cons get increasingly popular. At this point, they are pretty much a staple of modern society and why shouldn’t they be? They bring people together, people with similar interests and a passion for all things pop culture. This past March saw the return of the Big Apple Con, a fun little con that has been around since 1996. The Penn Plaza Pavillion in New York City has once again played host to the con and once again, the results were pretty great. Movie, tv, comic book, and wrestling stars delighted attendees with their presence and it was certainly a weekend to remember.

Frank Miller, Jon Bernthal, Elden Henson, Jason David Frank, Barbara Eden, and Johnny Brennen, Taimak, and The Amazing Kristin were just some of the great talent that made it to Big Apple Con. There were vendors, Q&A’s, and cosplay contests. Fans would show up dressed up as their favorite fictional characters and bask in the warm glow of geekdom and being a geek myself, I felt right at home.

The Big Apple Con is the longest-running comic convention in New York City and retailer Michael “Mike Carbo” Carbonaro is mainly responsible for its inception in 1996. Those who might get overwhelmed by the massive size of New York Comic Con’s Javits Center will probably feel more comfortable at the Penn Plaza Pavillion. The venue is much smaller but the nerdy ambiance is just as strong. There isn’t anything flashy about the Big Apple Con and that’s just fine. It’s just a small space with big stars, quality merchandise, and fans connecting with other fans and their idols.