ALEX OF VENICE

VenicePosterSweet, earnest, perfectly-crafted first feature from actor Chris Messina about an LA family in transition. The delicate plot is graced with wonderful performances in all major and minor roles. Low-key and luminous.

Directed by Chris Messina. Screenplay by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton. Not yet seen by Rich. (JLH: 4/5)

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“Roger” (Don Johnson) is an LA actor who was once a TV star… but no more. He owns a ramshackle house near Venice Beach, which, like him, is comfy, messy, and a bit past its prime. Also living in the house are Roger’s daughter “Alex” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), her husband “George” (Chris Messina), and their young son “Dakota” (Skylar Gaertner).

Alex and George were teenage sweethearts, and when she got pregnant they stayed together under Roger’s protective wing. But after years of drift George now finds himself facing his 30s and he’s none too pleased about it. So George decides to find out who he is while there is still time.

While George has been running the house and caring for everyone’s needs, Alex has become an environmental lawyer, fighting the good fight with a fervent band of idealists lead by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is weirdly missing from the IMDb credits). One major plot thread centers on a case, with Alex and her colleagues up against a self-made African-American entrepreneur played by the charismatic Derek Luke.

Alex loves her son, she loves her father, and she loves her husband, but she is constantly on the go and never hands on with any of them. So when George leaves, Roger brings his other daughter “Lily” (Katie Nehra) back home to help pick up the slack, and then off he goes to audition for a part in a new production of The Cherry OrchardNewGeneration

Everyone stays busy, each in his/her own way, and like most people they ignore the obvious until it becomes clear to all that the old rhythm of their lives has changed forever. Nothing unexpected happens in George’s house; the pleasure comes for living there with them for awhile and coming to value each passing moment.

Chekhov in modern dress? Yes! Writing Don Johnson into The Cherry Orchard cast as “Firs” is a stroke of pure genius.

Screenwriter Jessica Goldberg also wrote and directed an adaptation of her stage play Refuge which had similar qualities. Goldberg and Messina–with their well-matched sensibilities–make a very strong pair!

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Middle Photo: “Roger” (Don Johnson) with his grandson “Dakota” (Skylar Gaertner). Is it just a coincidence that Johnson’s real daughter is also named Dakota???

Bottom Photo: “Alex” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and “George” (Chris Messina), still technically together, but already estranged from one another.

Photo Credits: © Melissa Moseley/Screen Media Films

Q: Does Alex of Venice pass the Bechdel Test? RedA

Yes.

Sisters Alex and Lily have very different personalities and it is clear that they have never been friends and never will be friends. However, they obviously care for one another, and Lily is clearly happy that Alex needs her help… perhaps for the very first time.

We learn the history of the Alex/George relationship primarily through their conversations, but these conversations are not “about George.” They are about Alex moving on and making a new life for herself, plus what to do about their father once it is clear that Roger’s health is growing fragile.

On the other hand, while Jennifer Jason Leigh embodies a strong, tough-minded, inspiring boss, she never has actual “conversations” with Alex (or anyone else). She mostly tells folks what she wants them to do, then counts on them to “make it so.”

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ANTARCTIC EDGE

Opens Friday in NYC. Review coming soon…

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BENEATH THE HELMET

Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front is fascinating look at five young men undergoing rigorous paratrooper training in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force).

Barely 18 years old and just out of high school, they are at a transformative moment in their lives. Who they meet along the way and how they react to the challenges that await will have a major impact on each and every future.

Beneath the Helmet is equally absorbing from two very different perspectives. On the one hand it is a very specific story about Israel and the people from many countries who make up the Jewish population of 21st Century Israel. How many non-Israelis know that a large number of Ethiopian Jews–like Mekonen Abeba (below)–now live in Israel? How many non-Israelis know that Jews from places as different as Peru and Switzerland join the IDF? If you think most Israeli Jews come from European backgrounds, then Beneath the Helmet will prove otherwise.

On the other hand, Beneath the Helmet is also a transnational, universal story about boys on the cusp of manhood, showing what motivates them, and how easily they can fall off track.

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Top Photo: Mekonen Abeba

Photo Credits: Jerusalem U

Q: Does Beneath the Helmet pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

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THE HUMAN EXPERIMENT

Human-X-Poster-SmallReview of The Human Experiment by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Dana Nachman’s documentary studies the correlation between chemicals in everyday products and the increasing health defects infiltrating America. The film intimately follows three women and their stories of infertility, autism, and painful skin conditions, along with other environmental issues lobbied for lawmakers to change. Although lacking definitive proof of the argument, The Human Experiment is emotional and thought provoking. (BKP: 4.5/5)

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The Sean Penn-narrated film opens with a set of alarming statistics: since 1945, the nation’s chemical use has skyrocketed by 2,000 percent; In 1999, one in 500 kids had autism versus one in 88, a decade later; The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested data on only 200 of the roughly 83,000 chemicals legally used to make products in the U.S. So is this a link to cancer? Is this a link to health concerns and birth defects? Nachman’s film tackles the issue by constantly using statistics and correlations between the amount of chemicals produced and the number of health issues facing the country.

However shocking the graphs and statistics may be, the film finds its heart by telling personal stories of multiple women: an infertile environmental health activist with POS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), a woman with an autistic brother, a breast cancer survivor, and a Latina maid with a painful skin condition advocating for nontoxic cleaning products. Particularly heartbreaking is one woman’s journey of a fertility struggle, choosing to let cameras into her home during some of the toughest moments of her life. Using data and information gives the film its credibility, but by using these women, it packs an emotional punch. Seeing their individual hardships and triumphs brings the argument to life and humanizes the issues that so many people ignore.

The documentary captures these women bravely arguing their viewpoint to lawmakers and lobbying for better regulations regarding synthetic chemicals found in everyday products: shampoos, cleaners, shaving cream, processed foods, etc. It makes the viewers reflect on their own ignorance and naiveties of thinking products are safe merely because they are sold in stores.

When illustrating how companies react after being blamed for selling harmful substances, one researcher uses an attention-grabbing analogy of a dog bite:

  1. My dog did not bite you (company denies wrongdoing)
  2. My dog bites, but it did not bite you (the product may be harmful, but average people are not exposed)
  3. My dog bit you, but it didn’t hurt you (people are exposed but not harmed)
  4. My dog bit you and it did hurt you, but it wasn’t my fault (company admits it was harmful, but the people decided to use it).

Using analogies and breaking down the issues makes The Human Experiment an interesting watch. Without proving any scientific hypothesis, the film simply supports a studied correlation. If nothing else, the documentary makes viewers think twice about what they buy and consume. It makes them rethink their habits and the chemicals they could potentially — and most likely — be putting in their bodies. If Dana Nachman changes the habits of one person, the making of this documentary will be well worth it.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (4/18/15)

Photo: Since 1945, the nation’s chemical use has skyrocketed by 2,000 percent.

Q: Does The Human Experiment pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Yes.

The entire documentary is focused on women and their different stories, their different backgrounds and their banning together for the greater good.

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LE CHALLAT OF TUNIS

Opens Friday in NYC. Review coming soon…

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THE ROAD WITHIN

TheRoadWithin1Review of The Road Within by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Gren Wells’ road trip dramedy tells the story of three young mental facility patients and their fun-filled car ride of misadventure, mayhem and their imminent friendship. However clichéd the plot, the well-intentioned film recovers thanks to its sincerity and performances from Robert Sheehan, Zoë Kravitz, and Dev Patel. (BKP: 3.5/5)

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The film opens with “Vincent,” (Sheehan) a young man with Tourette’s syndrome, reeling from the death of his mother. At the funeral, he uncontrollably shouts profanity at a priest and impulsively twitches as mourners gawk in silence. From the first scene, the audience gets a sense of Vincent and the world he struggles to live in. His emotionally distant father “Robert” (Robert Patrick) would rather dump him in a mental facility than deal with his disorder – and that’s exactly what he does.

After being dropped off at an experimental facility run by “Dr. Mia Rose,” (Kyra Sedgwick) Vincent befriends anorexic “Marie” (Zoë Kravitz) and his germaphobe roommate “Alex” (Dev Patel). Soon enough, the frustrated and rebellious teenagers steal Dr. Rose’s car and joyride their way to an unknown, oceanic destination. Predictably, the road trip provides a natural place to bond and verbalize insecurities about mental health disorders and the events that led each character to be there. Although all three come from diverse backgrounds and struggle with varied disorders, their commonalities ultimately bring them closer together.

Along with its genuineness comes the typical clichés of a road trip movie: the car trouble, the chase, the bonding, the fight, etc. What saves the film from its borderline-cheesiness is the acting from all three leads. Each brings a believable, endearing aspect to their alter egos, making them seem more like humans than caricatures of a mental disorder. Kravitz, who had to drop down to 90 pounds for the role, is particularly engaging and difficult to watch as her character lights up a cigarette instead of eating a morsel of food. Patel also diverts from his typical roles and transforms into Alex, the lonely young man struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Most impressive is Sheehan, realistically portraying the hardships of a teenager with Tourette’s syndrome.

As cringe-worthy as some moments may be, The Road Within takes a lighter look at mental health. The way Wells puts the characters into various situations is interesting to watch, using both humorous and heartfelt tactics for their individual evolutions. She makes Vincent, Alex and Zoe relatable to viewers unfamiliar with their disorders and sincerely succeeds in making the her theme of friendship and belonging shine through.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (4/16/15)

Top Photo: Zoë Kravitz as “Marie”

Bottom Photo: Robert Sheehan as “Vincent” with Zoë Kravitz as “Marie” and Dev Patel as “Alex”

Photo Credits: Greg Gayne/ GoUSA © 2015

Q: Does The Road Within pass the Bechdel Test?

Technically, yes, but on the outskirts.

“Dr. Mia Rose” (Kyra Sedgwick) and “Marie” (Zoe Kravitz) have a doctor/patient relationship, dealing with an eating disorder. When Marie steals Dr. Rose’s car, she later tells Vincent it was because of a fight they had. It would have been beneficial to actually see that scene instead of hear about. Unfortunately, there’s only a handful of scenes between the two women.

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EFFIE GRAY (BKP)

EffieWeighing in across the generations: Our respect for Oscar-winning screenwriter & beloved actress Emma Thompson is so great that we have written two review of her new film Effie Gray. Spoiler Alert: WE BOTH LOVE IT!

Click HERE for Jan’s review (with a “Real-to-Reel” bonus section). Brigid’s review is below.

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Review of Effie Gray by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Writer Emma Thompson sets her drama in Victorian-era London, telling the story of Euphemia “Effie” Gray, a young woman trapped in a passionless marriage. The endearing protagonist is brought to life by the supremely talented Dakota Fanning, making quiet Effie speak volumes through her subtle body language and dark, sad eyes. (BKP: 4/5)

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Director Richard Laxton opens the film in Scotland, with wide-eyed “Effie” (Fanning) excited for her impending marriage to art critic “John Ruskin” (Greg Wise), an older man she has known since childhood. Effie dreams of soirées, ballrooms and her happily ever after. But when 19-year-old Effie weds Ruskin, the two leave for London and live with his oppressive, dreadful parents. Sadly, Effie’s fairytale ending never materializes.

On their wedding night, stuffy Ruskin rejects Effie and refuses to consummate the marriage or even intimately touch her (that night, the next night, and even five years after that). But instead of focusing on Ruskin’s intimacy issues and his abnormal relationship with his wicked mother, Thompson focuses the spotlight on Effie and her tumultuous, lonely journey of feeling unwanted and unloved.

The engrossing story takes you along on young Effie’s journey as she endures a life she never prepared for, nor ever imagined. With bleak tones and dark settings, the audience innately feels her internal struggle. The only sigh of relief comes in the form of Emma Thompson, casting herself in the supporting role of art patron “Elizabeth Eastlake.” Although Fanning takes center stage, Thompson’s character provides the heart and soul of the film. Lady Eastlake is the light and relief that Effie Gray so badly needs to keep the story from delving into a deep, dark abyss.

Shot on location, cinematographer Andrew Dunn perfectly captures Effie’s world. The details in sets and costume design, along with Fanning’s convincing performance, bring you into her harsh universe. Although the story is set centuries ago, the feelings of these characters are timeless. If the audience does not quite relate to Effie, they can most certainly relate to Lady Eastlake and her yearning to help someone with seemingly no way out. Along with age-old themes, Thompson takes 21st century, feminist ideas and plants them in her believable, multi-layered characters.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (4/15/15)

Top Photo: Dakota Fanning as “Effie Gray.”

Bottom Photo: Writer Emma Thompson as “Lady Eastlake” with Dakota Fanning as “Effie Gray.”

Photo Credits: David Levinthal © 2015 (Adopt Films)

Q: Does Effie Gray pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Yes!

One of the most gratifying relationships comes in the form Effie confiding in Lady Eastlake about her marriage.

Although it is technically about Effie’s relationship with her husband, it is more so about the dilemma and less about John Ruskin.

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IT HAPPENED HERE

PosterScanReview of It Happened Here by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky 

Lisa F. Jackson’s timely documentary It Happened Here follows five young women as they share their testimonies of surviving sexual assault. Through intimate interviews, the film documents harrowing first-hand accounts of rape on America’s college campuses. (BKP: 5/5)

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Angie Epifano. Kylie Angell. Sarah O’Brien. Carolyn Luby. Erica Daniels.

Any one of those names could camouflage themselves on a list of college graduates, typical American girls who earned a Bachelor’s Degree in fill-in-the-blank. But thankfully, those five names stand out for a reason. Those successful, independent young women have been the victims of rape on their own college campuses. When they sought help, they were treated with apathetic attitudes and disbelief. But instead of hiding in the shadows or being shamed into silence, each woman has spoken out against the issue and has diligently fought for justice – with or without help from their universities.

Director Lisa F. Jackson and producer Marjorie Schwartz Nielsen center on three collegiate institutions and their responses to sexual assault: Amherst College (Angie Epifano), Vanderbilt University (Sarah O’Brien) and University of Connecticut (Kylie Angell, Carolyn Luby, Erica Daniels). Each of the five women describes their own story of surviving rape from an unsuspecting, trusted friend and the trauma they endured in the aftermath. Instead of feeling comforted and safe when they reached out to their school for help, their stories were questioned with skepticism and ridicule. When they tried to report the crime, they were met with retaliation from the authorities and were ignored as the attackers remained on campus.

The film documents the five women, angered and frustrated by the less-than-helpful reactions from their universities, as they climb their way up the ladder of justice. In their own ways, they fight against stereotypes and stigmas that come along with sexual assault. By organizing walks and campaigns to combat rape on college campuses and publicly sharing their stories, they act as representatives for people who feel like they don’t have a voice. Jackson follows the girls as they file a lawsuit against the University of Connecticut, focusing on the mishandling of rape cases and the prevention that can be taken for possible future occurrences. But instead of focusing solely on the details of the lawsuit, Jackson delves deeper and brings out the emotions of each woman interviewed. The subject is tackled with dignity and grace while packing a much-needed punch at universities that continuously mishandle rape cases.

Although all five stories are unique to each individual woman, they are interwoven with one central theme: do not be afraid to speak up. Jackson’s message shines through thanks to the raw honesty and authenticity of these five brave activists, unashamed of showing their faces and telling their stories to help others. They know there is a necessary need for change on college campuses and they are not waiting around for other people to do it.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (4/13/15)

Photo: Angie Epifano shares her inspiring story.

Q#1: Does It Happened Here pass the Bechdel Test?RedA 

Absolutely!

Q#2: Meet the activists: Who is Kylie Angell?

The Hot Pink Pen was fortunate enough to get an exclusive, in-depth interview with award-winning, registered nurse Kylie Angell. Her strength and determination through her hardships at UConn have made her into the activist she is today. Read our interview with Angell HERE!

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FREETOWN

AbubakarCropWell-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful dramatization of a true story about Mormon missionaries caught in the middle of the Liberian Civil War.

Directed by Garrett Batty who wrote the screenplay with Melissa Leilani Larson. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH. (JLH: 3/5)

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At great personal risk, a Liberian man named “Phillip Abubakar” (Henry Adofo) agrees to drive six Mormon missionaries from Monrovia (the capital of Liberia) across the border to safety in Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone).

Complicating the effort is the fact that two of the six “Gaye” (Phillip Adekunle Michael) and “Menti” (Michael Attram) have been working in a Monrovian suburb, and the other four are reluctant to leave without them.

This is a fertile field for high drama and the sincere religious convictions of all involved required respect for their predicament. However, instead of individuating characters, providing compelling back stories, and drawing the audience into a desperate situation, director Garrett Batty and his co-writer Melissa Leilani Larson settle for a routine action film with “good guys” chased by “bad guys,” none of whom are truly individuated. A lost opportunity. (JLH: 3/5)

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Top Photo (From Left): Phillip Adekunle Michael as “Gaye,” Michael Attram as “Menti,” with Henry Adofo as “Abubakar.”

Bottom Photo (From Left): Phillip Adekunle Michael as “Gaye” and Michael Attram as “Menti” with villagers facing a line up. The rebel commander is singling out members of the Krahn ethnic group. Menti knows that Gaye is a Krahn and therefore even though he is a Mormon Elder, Gaye likely to be slaughtered along with the other Krahns in the village.

Q: Does Freetown pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

There are very few female characters in Freetown, and they are all around the edges. Even the [unnamed] little girl in the photo above spends more screen time talking to the Elders than to her own [unnamed] mother.

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IN COUNTRY

VinhNguyenWell-intentioned by ultimately confusing muddle about a group of guys who tromp around the woods of Western Oregon pretending they are “on patrol” in Vietnam.

Co-Directed by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara. Not yet seen by Rich. (JLH: 3/5)

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Full-Disclosure: I am a member of the Vietnam War Generation. I fought about about the War in Vietnam with my beloved father (who was a WWII vet), I protested the War in Vietnam as a high school student, I welcomed combat vets back from Vietnam as a college student, and I married a man who spent 6 years in the Marine Corp Reserve (but never deployed because the war was already winding down by the time he finished Basic Training on Paris Island).

Since becoming a film critic, I have seen many, many war movies–both docs and features–from a variety of different countries and from myriad points of view. I have also done everything possible to convince my female readers–in particular–that they should see more war movies, to walk a mile in boots most of them will never have to wear. I have done this consciously and explicitly, but also without much effect.

So I went into In Country really hoping to learn something, but I left shaking my head at a well-intentioned project gone bad. Sorry to say In Country is nothing so much as a lost opportunity.

 

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Top Photo: Vinh Nguyen is a reenactor and a former member of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

Bottom Photo: Reenactors of the D 2/5 1st Air Cavalry Vietnam line up for duty in Salem, Oregon.

Photo Credits: Naked Edge Films

Q: Does In Country pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

In Country is totally about the guys. Some families members appear on the sidelines, but wives are never interviewed.

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