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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review




It’s been a long 2 years since the release of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens hit theaters and reinvigorated the slight tarnish on the Star Wars franchise at the time. Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly) the prequels left a bad CGI taste in many fans mouths as they failed to deliver on the massive heights of the original trilogy. Looking back almost twenty years after the Phantom Menace (yes it’s been that long) the thought that any new set of films could top the iconic characters and movie moments of the original 3 films seems nearly impossible. Which was all the more astonishing when The Force Awakens dropped and for the first time in what seemed like a long time ago actually felt like a proper Star Wars film.

Yes it’s tremendous success came largely at the expense of playing its safe with close homages to what fans have always loved about the originals. Swashbuckling action, characters we could emotionally invest in and root for, wonderful special effects and it’s ace in the hole, it was FUN. I loved everything about The Force Awakens when it came out as it hit all the right nostalgic nerves while taking the franchise in a seemingly new direction. When the film was over I genuinely wanted to see what came next for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, The Resistance, the First Order, and of course the long lost now found Luke Skywalker  Who the hell was Snoke? And of course, just who are Rey’s parents?

After The Last Jedi, I’m still waiting to find out.

Don’t get me wrong, I was beyond hyped when the first trailer for The Last Jedi hit the internet last year. The release of a new Star Wars trailer is like a mini Christmas for me as I unpack the trailers to glean every speck of detail and story from each frame as possible. This new film had new A-wings (my favorite ship!), a massive space battle, Rey kung fu Jedi training and an ominous Luke foreshadowing the end of the Jedi order. It looked great and I ready to jump on the hyperspace hype train all over again.

But I didn’t . News started getting out from directer Riam Johnson and even Mark Hamill himself that in order to preserve the story of the Last Jedi it was best to stay from the trailers as much as possible. It hurt, and it was difficult but I headed master Skywalkers words and decided that for this film, I would put myself into exile from the galaxy I loved and walk into the new film totally unspoiled. The first trailer laid subtle hints that something might be off about Luke and if he did turn to the dark side I didn’t want to see it coming. Or Rey, maybe she would go bad this time around. In my mind, anything could happen and I wanted to keep it that way. So with more willpower than I knew I had I sat down to watch The Last Jedi ready to be blown away.

The Force Awakens Pt. 2

About the only I did know about the Last Jedi was that it supposedly picked up right after the cliffhanger ending of the Force Awakens. It almost had to with the way Episode VII’s last shot of a awe-struck Rey handing Anakin’s old blue lightsaber to it’s rightful owner. And in that scene lies The Last Jedi’s critical flaw. It is in every way a continuation and carry over from the Force Awakens.

Say what you will about the prequels but at the very least they advanced the franchise’s story along. I was hoping The Last Jedi would pick up on that scene along the seaside cliffs of Ach-To then jump forward a few months or a year in time to see how the story moved forward. The Last Jedi doesn’t do this and instead takes place within the span of a full 72 hours after Force Awakens. Such a self inflicted time restraint really puts a damper on the plot as only so much can happen and change within 3 days of story.

And at the end of the Last Jedi hardly anything has changed from the end of The Force Awakens. Rey is still not a Jedi. Luke Skywalker is still pretty much absent. Kylo Ren still has a lot of growing up to do if he wishes to become Darth Vader, the First Order is again heavily devastated having taken major loses , and the Resistance is barely eeking out victories. If nothing much happens I ask then, what was the point of the movie? Main Star Wars films don’t come around that often (yet) and when we get an official episode it’s expected big things are in store. Instead with the Last Jedi we get a small after story better suited dare I say not for a comic book or video game. Not a full blown movie.

The film opens up with the Resistance in what could have been a desperate attempt to flee from their hidden base as the First Order, pissed at the loss of StarKiller Base, a MAJOR and recent event only mentioned once in the film, Seeing the rag tag members of the Resistance scramble to evacuate as the First Order bears down on them would have been a great way to reset the stakes and set the tone for the film. Instead we get the exac nearly completed and hotshot X-wing pilot Poe single handily jousting a Star Destroyer while cracking wise. It’s ok but could have been better. There is probably 40 seconds of a disappointing space battle that follows and the Resistance hyperspaces away to fight another day.

Or so it seems as the First Order has developed a way to track the Rebel fleet through hyperspace and catches them shortly after unable to fight back or run away for fear of being tracked down again then annihilated. How will the Resistance ever get out of this jam you may wonder? Easy, they fly away from the First Order fleet at a speed just fast enough to stay out of weapon range but too slow to break away with only the 72 hours of fuel they have left to find a way out. Putting a time constraint in a film is a cheap way to add tension but putting every action against a clock of dwindling urgency. But here it does the opposite by bogging the movie down into an extended and boringly drawn out slow motion chase scene. It can work well when done right, like in 2003’s underrated Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World but in the action packed Star Wars universe it doesn’t translate well.

Given the setup this could have been the Resistance’s version of Dunkirk.  Instead I’m convinced the only reason the chase was contrived was to fill up the middle of the movie with a pointless and convoluted sequence of hoops for Finn and new hero Rose to jump through and hence, something to do. It’s not worth mentioning in any detail suffice to say 30 nearly minutes is wasted sneaking onto a Monte Carloesque casino planet to find some renowned code breaker (so important I don’t think he is ever even given a name) so Finn can then sneak onto the First Order flagship to deactivate the homing tracker and allow the Resistance to escape. Problem is it’s all 100% pointless as the disarming of the tracker never happens and all that screen time was spent on nothing of consequence for the movie. Actually, this might be the most fitting part of The Last Jedi after all now that I think of it.

More time should have been spent with Rey squeezing some lesson out of old man and the sea Luke Skywalker. Like Harrison Ford’s Hand Solo in The Force Awakens, Mark Hammil is a welcome sight for fans as an older crustier version of Luke that still feels right. Luke’s crisis of Jedi faith is a plot point Hammil resisted at first but works here because it’s uncharted territory for the series and we want to see what it takes to break Luke to the brink and bring him back.

To the film’s credit, at the point where things begin to seem to drag on and become predictable the 2nd half of the 2nd act really kicks the legs out and goes headfirst into all sorts of crazy directions. Yoda makes a fun cameo, Snoke pulls a Darth Maul, Rey and Kylo have a super hero team up, the Resistance’s non-plan of escape was a plan all along, we watch the Battle of Hoth 2.0 and Luke does some Jedi stuff. This is when the movie goes fully off it’s well established rails and is at it’s most Star Wars like fun. Had the first half been more like the 2nd I’d be writing a much different review right now.

But good things aren’t meant to last and when the credits roll for The Last Jedi hardly anything has changed to our characters or the state of the universe. Because of this I have a feeling that when JJ Abrams comes back to helm Episode IX it will be more of a sequel to VII than VIII as there is simply more to work with from that film.

The Balance in the Force

That’s not to say I hated everything about the new film. Certain scenes are shot beautifully with the salt encrusted red dust last battle of Crait looking beautiful and fantastic. The penguin like Porgs that seem to have nested on the Millennium Falcon are scene stealers and the fight/duel with Rey and Kylo Ren in Snoke’s throne room was something I didn’t expect to see.

Other random thoughts I had while watching the movie.

  • The cartoonish banter between Poe and Hux in the first scene was cringe worthy and has no place in a Star Wars film, unless it was a call back to some of the slapstick of the prequels. In which case I again say it has no place in a Star Wars film.
  • Hooray for new A- wings! (my fav ship!)
  • Boo they only get 10 seconds of screen time
  • You’d think a big slow bomber crammed full of over-sized thermal detonators would come equipped with shields but no, those things light up like roman candles.
  • Why the First Order refuses to overwhelm enemies with it’s TIE fighters boggles my mind. They literally send just 3 to attack the Rebel cruiser at the beginning. But hey the Resistance just sent Poe by himself to do the same.
  • Also, why can’t the First Order just hyperspace it’s fleet just ahead of the Resistance and blow it up from the front?
  • At the same time, if the Resistance’s goal was always Crait, why did they exit hyperspace 3 days way from the planet?
  • How does Poe or Finn know how to get in contact with Maz Kanata considering Finn just met her days ago and Poe never has?
  • Those gamblers in the casino sure took the news of the destruction of the New Republic and First Order’s Starkiller base pretty well considering they both were likely major customers of their weapons and all.
  • Snoke was kinda growing on me until he, well you know.
  • Oh cool, Phasma is back! Until she well, you know.
  • Why does Yoda just show up now to bust Luke’s chops when he had 30 years after Jedi to jump in and give advice?
  • This is a Star Wars movie right? So where are all the Wookies, and Bith, and Greedo’s and Twi’leks?
  • The Falcon at Crait brought the biggest smile of the movie to me.
  • Why did they feel the need to sadistically whittle the Resistance down to just a handful of survivors at the end? Reborn?  No, I’d say more like on the verge of extinction.
  • Luke’s finale was fitting and considering Carrie Fisher’s recent passing, the franchise is entirely in the hands of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac. I really do wish these 3 and their characters got developed more.

The Last Jedi certainty isn’t the worst Star Wars movie but it’s no Empire, or even Force Awakens. It’s “just” a Star Wars movie and sadly I’ll have to wait yet another 2 years to see what finally happened next after the events of my beloved Episode VII.

Fittingly, there is a scene towards the end of the film where the Resistance, in a last ditch attempt at rescue, send out a distress signal to their friends waiting on the fringes of the galaxy for help. To their dismay, nobody answers it. Nobody comes. I guess they also are waiting to see what happens next as well.

“My Blind Brother” Review: A Shrewd Romantic Comedy at Tribeca

Helen Highly Recommends “My Blind Brother” as One of the Best of Tribeca 2016

Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in "My Blind Brother," shown at Tribeca 2016
Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in “My Blind Brother,” shown at Tribeca 2016

Droll “My Blind Brother” Premiered at SXSW and Cracks Up Tribeca 2016

“I’m a superficial narcissist”
“I’m lazy and judgmental.”

This is how the two romantic leads in the new romantic comedy, “My Blind Brother,” introduce themselves to each other, and I fell in love with them both immediately.

HelenHighly also wants to watch TV all day.
HelenHighly also wants to lay in bed and watch TV all day.

Then, when they both reveal that they perversely wish they could be invalids so they’d have an excuse to lay in bed all day and watch TV, I fell in love with screenwriter Sophie Goodhart. Add in a blind guy, jaded and bored with his own infirmity, who is smoking weed unabashedly in public, even with the police nearby, who says, “I could shoot up in front of cops and they wouldn’t do anything,” and I love this movie in full. It manages to be morbidly dark, joyfully funny and unsentimentally touching all at the same time. 

The storyline itself is genuinely fresh; unlike so many other films at this festival, I can’t think of another previous movie to compare it to. Robbie (Adam Scott) is a champion blind athlete and local philanthropic hero doted on by the community (and his parents) and seemingly incapable of wrongdoing. His apparently well-earned egotism is fed by his frequent, televised crusades to rise above his “disability” while also raising money for charity, where after each successful feat, he is surrounded by gushing reporters who never seem to notice that he tells the same, lame joke every time: “You look beautiful today,” Robbie the blind guy tells every female member of the press.

Robbie’s hapless, unassuming brother Bill (Nick Kroll) knows the real Robbie to be arrogant, selfish and rude, but he still guide-dog-faithfully runs every marathon by Robbie’s side and never makes a peep when he doesn’t receive any accolades, or when even his own parents continually criticize him. One night, Bill escapes the relentless Robbie-worship by hitting up the local bar, where despite his best efforts to present himself as unworthy and unappealing, he gets lucky with an attractive and like-hearted woman named Rose (Jenny Slate). Bill is guilt-ridden because Robbie’s blindness was the result of a childhood accident in which he was involved. Rose is a guilt-ridden because immediately after she told her fiancé she wanted to break up with him, he distractedly crossed the street and was hit and killed by a bus.

After one pitiful, anti-romantic (yet soul-soaring) night together, Rose flees without leaving her phone number. Nonetheless, Bill thinks his karma might finally be coming around and that he’s found his sad-sack love-match. But his fantasy is soon squashed when his brother introduces him to his own new paramour – the very same Rose, who (without knowing he is Bill’s brother) has started dating blind Robbie in an attempt to make herself a better person. Now Bill must decide if he will put himself second again or finally stand up to his blind brother.

"My Blind Brother" gives a new twist to the Love Triangle
“My Blind Brother” gives a new twist to the Love Triangle

Kudos to writer/director Sophie Goodhart for opting against a “when bad things happen to good people” script and instead going with “when good things happen to bad people.” Goodhart’s two, guilty, self-loathing characters are amazingly charming and lovable. Robbie makes a wonderfully heroic antagonist, whose capability and determination we slowly come to dislike more and more as the story unfolds. (The fact that actor Adam Scott looks quite a bit like a smugly smiling Tom Cruise doesn’t hurt.) And Goodhart’s ingenious twist on the conventional love-triangle takes the sentimental weight out of the usual wet blanket that hangs over traditional romantic comedies. This movie is bright and buoyant and makes us laugh at ourselves more than at mere jokes.

Goodhart’s head-on attacks of our socially-correct attitudes toward both the physically handicapped and noble self-sacrifice are deftly executed dark humor that captures what’s funny about resentment, bitterness, and condescension. Her sharp jabs at “those less fortunate” never feel like bullying and never fall into rude buffoonery. Even as the movie escalates into full-blown wackiness, it still maintains its shrewd edge.

Another strength to this film are the secondary characters. Rose’s prissy, eye-rolling, sarcastically unsympathetic roommate (Zoe Kazan) ends up with the stoner blind guy. Ha! It’s just another delightful quirk in this defiant film where apathy and under-achievement are treated as virtues and perfection is the problem to be overcome. Finally: a romantic comedy with mutually flawed lovers, where no sacrifice or self-improvement is necessary for them to win happiness and each other.

HelenHighly Votes Yes
HelenHighly Votes Yes

Just be fair, I will say that there are a few small spots where the script veers into impossible interactions – stupid things that could or would never actually be said. These mini-moments wouldn’t stand out so much if all the other moments in the script were not so true and all the other lines were not so witty. I am not usually a great lover of comedies, and the fact that I am calling this film One of the Best of Tribeca 2016 means it is truly something special. I predict that this film will not be soon forgotten.

News Update: Starz has won the bidding war over Sophie Goodhart’s SXSW premiere “My Blind Brother,” Variety reports. The acquisition will likely be the biggest sale out of this year’s South by Southwest and is estimated to be in the low seven-figure range. The comedy was reportedly sought after by distributors like Netflix, The Orchard, Sony and Gravitas Ventures. Click here for more on this news.


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

“Untouchable” Documentary Interview w/ Director David Feige and Editor Jay Sterrenberg

Helen, Highly Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in “Untouchable,” Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor.

Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, “Untouchable” is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.

Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.
Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.

“Untouchable” Film Synopsis: When the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. “Untouchable” chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed. 

Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a complex and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted, interconnected public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.

HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?

Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.

David Feige, Director of "Untouchable"
David Feige, Director of “Untouchable”

This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it – because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.

Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.

HH: And what is the status of the movie now? You won the Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca. Has the film been picked up for distribution or broadcast yet?

Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.

HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?

Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.

We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.

Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile
Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile

Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.

Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.

HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.

Sterrenberg: Right. That case resulted in the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act — the first national sex offender registry.

HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.

Sterrenberg: Yes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.

Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.

HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.

Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.

HH: And the irony is that the opposite of that suspicion is true. The facts as we all think we know them – have repeatedly been told are facts – are actually completely erroneous and unsubstantiated. The movie explains that the phrase “frightening and high recidivism rate” for sex offenders came from an old “Psychology Today” article in 1986, which was simply invalid and dead wrong.

Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the “Psychology Today” article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study. That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.

HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.

Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.

HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.

Feige: Correct.

HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.

Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.

Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.

HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.

Feige: Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.

Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.
Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.

HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.

Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.

If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime. That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.

HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.

Feige: And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.

That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.

HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.

Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.

Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.

HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?

Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.

HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.

Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.

HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.

Watch the trailer:


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Adventures at Phoenix Comic Con 2015


Phoenix Comic Con 2015

It’s difficult to define what the modern geek is. In the past the geek, or those that could be defined as such, were fringe characters. The preoccupations and passions of the geeky, nerdy sorts of people did not seep into the mainstream, and many of those who indulge in the nerdy side of life could find themselves maligned, insulted, and left out in the cold. A strange culture shift has taken place over the last ten years thats put the spotlight on the realm of geekdom, and nowhere else is this more evident than at Comic Conventions around the country. Thousands of fans flock to these gatherings to revel in their shared interests and passions and pop culture at large has taken notice. No longer are comic conventions merely gathering places for superhero lovers. Movies, television, books, video games and more take center stage at this comic cons with the definition of what it means to be a geek widening with each passing year.


Phoenix Comic Con is a four day event normally taking place at the tail end of May, or early June. A long weekend full of excitement and entertainment awaits those who dare to brave the thick crowds of enthusiastic pop culture junkies. Movie and television stars come to share stories and answer question, along with photo opportunities and autographs. Writers, artists and craftsmen and women bring their art and works to share with eager attendants. Vendors and exhibitors fill the lower hall as far as the eye can see, an endless supply of all kinds of pop culture memorabilia and collectibles. It’s really easy to overdose on the sheer number of exciting things there is to see and do. Or, at least, it used to be.


Having been to Phoenix Comic Con in the past, as well as speaking to people who have been going to the convention since it’s inception, it’s clear that this years event was lacking something. What could it be lacking, though? It had celebrities, writers, artists, vendors and more. How could an event with so much feel like it had so little? Quantity seemed to rule over quality this year. There was a ton of stuff there, but how much of it was worthwhile? The panels were shallow and little more than hour long pats on the back for those who enjoy a particular intellectual property. A video game room was advertised as a great place to come and play with other fans and have a great time, but even that was lacking. A dark room in the back of a hotel lobby filled with broken controllers and loitering children made the gaming environment feel unwelcome. Normally the convention has parties on Friday and Saturday nights, but those were conspicuously missing. The city of Phoenix closed down an entire street for the convention, but this wasn’t used to hold any kind of nighttime block party to give people something do once the exhibitor hall closed. Indeed, at seven o’clock the exhibitor hall was emptied and thousands of fans with nothing to do wandered two and fro like a herd of zombies.


Among the other events was the Masquerade Costume Contest. Cosplay enthusiasts of every skill level and variety entered with a shot at cash prizes and trophies. It was a light hearted, fun event hosted by a wise cracking, sarcastic old gent dressed as a Storm Trooper. As costumer after costumer took the stage I, along with the crowd, found myself dazzled and disappointed. Though, I suppose, if it’s the thought that counts then everyone who entered left a winner. The actual winners though, I’m sad to say, did not have the best costumes, but rather the best showmanship. I’m not at all discounting the winners, but it was a shame to see a costume with animatronics in the build lose to a group that simply dressed up and lip synced to a scene from the animated Disney film Mulan. Though great, I did not think that performance should have overshadowed a true craftsman.

Con4 As mentioned earlier geekdom is now a major part of pop culture at large. No longer can the tiny IP’s we held in so near and dear in our hearts fit neatly in our back pockets. With the likes of The Avengers and Batman bringing in billions at the box office, and The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Dr. Who ruling the television arena nerds can no longer lay claim to such geek fare as ours and ours alone. With a larger audience comes a need to make things as accessible as possible, and I think that is Phoenix Comics Con greatest strength and weakness. I saw more events geared for very young children this year than ever before, and in fact many of the panels I attended worked extra hard and making sure all the subject matter was as family friendly as possible. I saw just as many strollers as I did grown men dressed up like Spider-Man this year. To see throngs of people that otherwise wouldn’t identify as a nerd, or dare be caught in a comic book store of any variety attend a large comic book convention speaks volumes.

Con3 Con1

I would say that for the Phoenix Comic Con this years festivities were a great success. Attendance was through the roof, exhibitors were plentiful, and the celebrities and artists had fans truly happy and excited. A deeper view, and perhaps that of a cynical geek such as myself, still can’t help but be disappointed. It was, ultimately a great place to spend a lot of money. Next year I’d like to see more activities, more events. A nighttime block party with live music on Saturday night seems like an absolute must. A more robust gaming area (with working equipment) and panels led by hosts with greater credibility and credentials would be nice to see as well. Hopefully next year the convention will add less to buy and more to do. A nerd can dream.

Peggy Guggenheim & Janis Joplin in “Art Addict” & “Little Girl Blue”

Shipwrecked: Degenerate Damsels in Distress
Gotta Gotta Gotta

Peggy Guggenheim, "Art Addict"
Peggy Guggenheim, “Art Addict”
Surrealism is to Peggy Guggenheim as Heroin is to Janis Joplin?

I happened to see “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a documentary about famed art-collector Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, back-to-back with “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” a documentary about rock-and-roll star Janis Joplin, directed by Amy Berg. I never would have put the two together in my mind, but seeing their stories so close together, I was amazed at how many unlikely similarities there are. One film makes the case that Peggy Guggenheim was addicted to art itself, and I think the same can be said about Janis Joplin. And the parallels continue, adding up to a sort of double-wide (and double-deep) insight.

Janis Joplin, "Little Girl Blue"
Janis Joplin, “Little Girl Blue”

Initially, I had planned to compare Peggy to Diana Vreeland, whose daughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland made an excellent documentary about her mother, called “The Eye Has to Travel.” And now Lisa Vreeland has made this documentary about Peggy Guggenheim, using never-before-heard interview tapes of Peggy – with her classy, haut monde dialect (and this is reason enough to see the film). Given their shared filmmaker, it seems impossible not to compare the two female, trailblazing, cultural tastemakers from the same era – Guggenheim and Vreeland.

But the comparison between Peggy and Janis is more surprisingly and offers a different type of angle.

{For those who want a simple thumbs up or down: Yes, both films are worth seeing. “The Hollywood Reporter” writes that the film is “so stuffed with connections and allusions to fabled eras that it’s hard to imagine any [arthouse enthusiast] being bored.” Which film are they referring to? That enticing statement easily applies to both equally. These are both important and fascinating women who lived in legendary times. And both women could fairly be called “feminist pioneers,” although the films about them have a tone that is less historical and more gossip-column.

Neither film will win a Best Documentary award, because they cannot escape being dressed-up bio-picts, but if you care about art or artists, you will want to look into the lives of these women. And if you already have looked at these lives – through previous films or books, this is an opportunity to refresh your amazement. And both of these films do an excellent job and add new perspectives, or at least new interviews (or newly collected personal letters).

The Guggenheim film is a bit more studied and the Joplin film is a bit more sexy. Neither is as comprehensive or complex as it could be, but… still. Whether you are a fan of modern art or music, or just someone who couldn’t get in to whatever else is playing, Helen Highly suggests you see either or both films. You will be highly entertained and hardly even notice that you are also being educated.}

Now, let’s get to what is interesting:

The fundamental concept in both films is that “art is a drug” – whether making it or collecting it.

Janis Joplin, on stage
Janis Joplin, on stage

The Peggy Guggenheim documentary is actually titled “Art Addict,” and in it Peggy herself says “I became an addict and couldn’t help it” (and she’s maybe 1/3 joking).

Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder
Peggy Guggenheim, touching her Calder

A friend of hers says, “She had an intense hunger for life, and an undertone of unbeatable sadness.” Then Peggy explains how she literally is “most happy when connected, physically, with art,” and demonstrates by actually clutching a sculpture. Similarly, in the Joplin documentary, it is repeated again and again that Janis was happy only when on stage. The stage was a tangible touchstone for Janis, the way a thing of beauty was for Peggy. Nina Simone, whom Joplin highly admired, said that “Janis became an addict because she got hooked into a thing, and it wasn’t drugs. She got hooked into a feeling.” So, both these women felt a bodily attachment to their experience of art. (It was under their skin.) They reveled in these attachments; they lived in them.

But here’s where the plot thickens:

It was widely known in her day (and since then has been extensively written about and discussed) that Peggy Guggenheim had sex with many of the artists she patronized, as well as others in her literati circle – all the more scandalous because of her homeliness.

Peggy Guggenheim was homely.,
Peggy Guggenheim was homely.

“Peggy was in bed with Samuel Beckett for four days!” we are told. “She had an affair with Brancusi!” And Ms. Guggenheim made no effort to hide her sexual escapades. In the film, she calls herself “a nymphomaniac.” She claims (not entirely convincingly) to be proud of her immoral exploits, counted at roughly 400 in her own memoirs, and she doesn’t care that her friend Mary McCarthy wrote a very thinly veiled story that essentially called her a slut. The film provides torrid details such as “Peggy Guggenheim lost her virginity at age 23” (printed in text on the screen) and “Peggy had seven abortions.”

Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict
Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict

But Peggy explains in an interview that she loved these men because they were artists; for her, sex and art went hand in hand. (She collected both art and artists.) So: she was an art addict and a sex addict. And all these sensational details of Peggy’s sexual compulsions are relevant because…? Well, bed-hopping with artists + sexist backlash = damaged reputation. And this brings us to one of the central messages of this film:

Peggy Guggenheim’s addictive lust for art (and artists) cut into her credibility and ultimately obscured her accomplishments.

Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer
Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer

And the same is true of Janis Joplin, who is perhaps best known for being a drug addict.

Janis drinking on stage
Janis drinking on stage

Her heroin-and-amphetamine-and-bourbon fueled performances were the signature style that made her famous. And that drug use may have made her great. She was great, but certainly her reputation and legacy as an addict obscured her accomplishments, same as with Peggy. She’ll always have the word “junkie” attached in front of the word “singer.”  And finally, her addiction killed her; she died from an overdose in 1970.

In a way, both these women sacrificed their lives to their addictions … to art.

Both documentaries tells us that these women were defined in their youth by their unattractiveness and lack of desirability, and each is described as “insecure,” “vulnerable,” “self-conscious,” and “full of suffering” as a result. (The identical words are used in both films.) In both cases, the women’s indelicate and unconventional looks pushed them to explore new ways of defining themselves and gaining acceptance.

Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.
Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.

Janis Joplin was teased mercilessly by the boys in grade school, and as a cruel joke in college, the student newspaper named her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” She is described in the film as being “profoundly hurt, over and over.”

Peggy Guggenheim said, “My childhood was excessively unhappy. I have no pleasant memories.” In a classic Peggy story,  we are told that she hated, and when she finally tried to have it fixed, the plastic surgery was botched and she was left even more unpleasant-looking than before.

Peggy Guggenheim "gutsed out" her bad nose.
Peggy Guggenheim “gutsed out” her bad nose.

She decided not to fix the failed repair and just “guts it out.” She ignored her lack of beauty from then on and focused on her work – her work as a champion and collector of beautiful things. Even then, the documentary explicitly states that she was “the subject of ridicule and disparagement,” due to her perceived desperate attempts at recognition. She was called a narcissist, a pushy rich girl, etc.

Early on, both Peggy and Janis sought to escape their bourgeois lives. Janis called herself “a misfit.” She moved from Texas to San Francisco as a way of breaking out and being free. Peggy moved from the U.S. to Paris and became a bohemian as a way of finding herself. Peggy found herself in art, and Janis in music. Both dropped out of college in pursuit of an alternative life. Both were self-educated and self-made.

In the film, Peggy calls herself a “lost girl,” looking for something to fill her life. She was “the wayward Guggenheim.” She tells us that she used modern art to express her inner world and her emotions (and, we assume, to escape the outer world of social expectations and judgment). Peggy is described as “always a rebel,” so it makes sense that in Paris she started her art addiction with Dadaism – the language of disillusionment. Dadaism rejected logic and reason and prized the abstract and psychological. Dadaism was Peggy’s gateway drug into surrealism, which was similar in what it stood against, but was more a language of freedom. (Surrealism is to Peggy as Heroin is to Janis?) It is said that Peggy sought art that was “strange and outrageous.” She wanted to feel “the cutting edge.” (The same edge that appealed to Janis.)


Yet, there was no precedence for women working in the art world; this was Peggy’s own liberation. She created this new identity and purpose for herself. And she didn’t just follow movements; she followed her own intuitions and tastes. The film does make much of the fact that Peggy was advised by some very savvy artists – such as Marcel Duchamp, but Helen Highly suggests that being given advice is a very different thing from selecting which advice to accept (and then implementing it), as Peggy had already proved when she rejected her docile, dignified upbringing. Whoever first had the notion that a certain genre might have potential, is mostly irrelevant; history belongs to the one who Highly Devoted herself to it, who pursued the outlandish, developed the bizarre, and brought them to fruition.While some critics are questioning this film’s gossipy chatter about Peggy’s sex life, Helen is Highly concerned about the film’s continuous insinuation that Peggy was “perhaps” a dilettante who was molded by the men around her rather than a true guiding force in defining what we now call Modern Art. (The fact that Peggy suggests this herself is not valid evidence; self-report is never a credible source, especially when we know that Peggy was quick to tarnish her own reputation.)

Let’s just take three examples from the many artists that Peggy helped introduce to the world, who are now recognized as modern art’s greatest talents (a list very swiftly breezed over in the film):
1) Peggy gave Kandinsky his first show at her gallery. When she tried to persuade her uncle, a prestigious art collector, to purchase a Kandinsky, he foolishly refused and called it “trash.”
2) Peggy also presented the first Rothko exhibition.
3) Peggy is credited with discovering and essentially inventing Jackson Pollock.
Right there alone… (okay, let’s add in Mondrian, Dali, Calder, Miro, Magritte, and more), it’s almost as if without Peggy Guggenheim, there would be no modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings
Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings

And that statement is not entirely far-fetched, because one chapter in the loose and lascivious life of this Jewish-American princess is the tale (which is told in the film all too briefly) of Peggy remaining in war-time Paris as others fled, and assembling a collection of 125 modern masterpieces that Hitler officially deemed “Degenerate” and sought to destroy, and then narrowly escaping Paris two days before the Nazis marched into the city, and getting the art out too. Note: Ms. Guggenheim had first asked the Louvre to help her by storing the paintings and sculptures (which included Picasso paintings, btw), but they declined, saying that these pieces were not worth saving.

Brancusi "Bird in Space"
Brancusi “Bird in Space”

(Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture was among the pieces Peggy saved, and I personally would like to thank her for that one. Rumor has it that Peggy had to sleep with Brancusi in order to negotiate a price she could afford, and again I say: Thank You for Your Service.)

Peggy didn’t just devote her heart and soul to modern art; she put her life on the line for it. In addition, Peggy saved her lover, Max Ernst, who “didn’t give a damn for her,” by marrying him to get him out of Europe and into America. This makes her a noble figure – a savior of art and artists, even if she was a lonely lady with a disastrous romantic life.

Yes, in her day, she ruined her reputation by reckless fucking (a word Peggy used herself). But in today’s day, I would expect the documentarian to challenge the legitimacy of those judgements. (She liked to get it on with brilliant and talented men. That doesn’t make her stupid, or inept.) Lisa Immorino Vreeland tries to stand neutral at a place where Helen Highly believes she should assert her opinion. But I digress.

Peggy and Max Ernest
Peggy and Max Ernest

Let’s go back to: Peggy made a trailblazing transition in her collection and patronage – from surrealist painting, anchored in WWI, to abstract expressionist painting, anchored in WWII – bridging the divide between Europe and America, and she took the art world with her. She discovered new artists who were thinking and working in new ways, and she funded them and encouraged them and presented them to the world. She was a kind of collector that never existed before.

Peggy and Max at her gallery
Peggy and Max at her gallery

In “Little Girl Blue,” we learn that Janis Joplin made a similarly significant transition from folk to blues to rock. She started singing folk songs like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but their gentle sound did not suit Joplin. In San Francisco, Joplin hooked up with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and it wasn’t long before she assumed a leadership role in the band, where she became a pioneer of psychedelic rock. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s appearance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 received immense acclaim – particularly for their version (Joplin’s) of “Ball and Chain.” Janis’ wild style and raw, gutsy sound blew the collective mind of the audience. But all of the attention on Janis caused tension between her and her bandmates. Janis Joplin finally went out on her own and has been labeled “the first lady of rock and roll.” She was a kind of singer that never existed before.

Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy
Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy

Ottis Redding also appeared at the Monterey Festival, and Janis has said that she was strongly influenced by him and his “gotta gotta gotta … try a little tenderness” when she later sang “try try try … a little bit harder.” Both songs share a sense of urgent emotion, but Janis takes it to a whole new level.

Richard Goldstein wrote for the May 1968 issue of “Vogue” magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Stevie Nicks considers Joplin one of her idols, and says, “She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm and blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock and roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart.”

Janis Rocks Hard.
Janis Rocks Hard.

It’s worth noting that this documentary does not include a lot of Janis Joplin music. Unlike the recent movie about the Beach Boys, “Love and Mercy,” which had an inspiring and extensive soundtrack of true Beach Boy tunes, this film relies more on commentary and quotes, such as those above. And at its core is a collection of letters that Janis wrote to her family and friends, which do indeed provide a candid view of the troubled and tender person behind the famous name.

According to the two movies, Peggy had a lot more sex than Janis did (surprisingly). But both women were haunted by the same distressed efforts to find love and affection. Both suffered many romantic disappointments and are said to have lived very sad lives. Janis is seen onscreen saying:

“I want to be happy so fucking bad.”

And at another point in the film she explains that her career ambition is all about her “need to be loved.” One widely quoted critic wrote that Joplin had “desperate mating calls from every song.”

One more thing united these two unique women – their honest individuality. Janis said that her artistic ambition was to be true to herself. She sang raw because that was how she felt, and she wouldn’t pretend anything prettier. The film makes a point of insisting that Janis refused to “lie” in her music, or follow anyone else’s rules.

Of Peggy Guggenheim, her film stated that for all her eccentricities, she was a woman “without guile.” Her yearning and her passion were sincere, and she held herself to a high standard of honesty, especially because her mentor, Marcel Duchamp, preached the merit of being a self-actualized individual without artifice. The film quotes Duchamp as defining his code of “individualism” as “everyone for oneself – like a shipwreck.” It’s ironic that Peggy’s father died in a shipwreck; he went down on the Titanic, when the ship sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Peggy was barely a teenager, and she was forever traumatized by the event. (Just an interesting detail.)

So, where does this leave us?

  • Both women were sad and lonely and desperate for attention.
  • Both women were addicts.
  • But their insecurities and addictions propelled them to greatness.
  • They each accomplished something never-before done.
  • In response to their own addictions, each changed the world of art (otherwise known as “the world”).
  • And then their addictions ruined them.

And Helen Highly suggests that the least we can do, as recipients of their greatness and inheritors of their legacies – Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and all the soul-searching music that has been inspired by it since, and the war-and-peace-making avant garde art that Peggy Guggenheim nurtured and saved and promoted and shared, and all that came after and was inspired by those works…  the least we can do is remember them with appropriate respect and appreciation, and without judging with our traditional conventions and morality.

They suffered and we reaped the rewards. When we think of them, we should try a little tenderness.

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kapow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City.

Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” Review

“Mia Madre” by Nanni Moretti — an essay, more than a review

Italians understand Life and Death in "Mia Madre"
Italians understand Life and Death in “Mia Madre”

“Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not.”

When was the last time you heard a great last line in a movie? So great it made you burst into tears? The final line in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” is not a brilliant sentence in itself. (Then again, is “rosebud” profound in itself?) But in context – the way it references an earlier conversation in the film, as well as sums up the theme of the movie, and most importantly creates a definitive and meaningful end to the story (and endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers), in that way, this was an enormously powerful and stirring end – probably the best final line to a movie that anyone heard at the 53rd New York Film Festival. And it literally made me cry out loud.

Basically, this is a story about a woman whose mother is dying. But, don’t imagine grim or depressing. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It’s like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of pure emotion. And he does it so gracefully. The film is gently, deeply astute. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is such an elegant language. It’s all part of this organic sensation that comes from the film – this gorgeous feeling that grows out of my stomach and blooms in my chest.

In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually says that he wants the audience to feel that the movie is digging inside of them. That’s exactly what I felt. Or, I felt the movie carving into me. As I watched, I felt like I was being sculpted. I felt as if a great master, Michelangelo, was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and so he – the sculptor, the director, the writer – is making us – the audience – into his magnificent carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.

Except it really wasn’t “us.” It was just me alone and that movie. It was so intimate. I start off watching the movie from outside and thinking about it – thinking I will “review” it, and then I am in the movie. I am living it. It is living me. I am not audience observing a film; we are involved in each other in some palpable way. It’s almost physical – like I can literally feel it touching me. It brings me to life in an odd way; I can feel my heart inside my body.

Of course, the death of a parent is a universal experience, but this film manages to make it feel uniquely personal. I feel as if this director has been watching me in my life, with my family, and is now explaining myself to me. Although, I suspect it’s an explanation that will feel relevant or resonant to nearly every adult. Perhaps the film score helps me to feel so fully enthralled – a variety of music from Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Nino Rota, and Arvo Part.

Other critics may focus on the story that binds the film’s emotions together, but the movie is more about the emotions than the story. The lead character (played with glorious subtlety by Margherita Buy) is an Italian filmmaker who is shooting a movie while her mother is dying in a hospital. Actually, this is a semi-autobiographical film in that Mortetti had his mother die while he was shooting a previous film. However, I think that fact is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film; having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things.

“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”

In this movie, the story functions to bring in the outside world and its pressing realities and complexities. The specifics of what job the central character has are mostly inconsequential. Although, it is worth noting that the character’s persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment, after each vigil beside her dying mother, shows that life goes on.

John Tuturro provides comic relief in "Mia Madre."
John Tuturro provides comic relief in “Mia Madre.”

The story also serves by bringing smartly implemented humor. John Tuturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the film that our lead is trying to make. Tuturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie, and ultimately Tuturro’s excited approach not only works but becomes essential to Moretti’s message. I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.

Another running joke in the film is when our protagonist director repeatedly tells her actors to “be the character you are playing at the same time as you stand outside the character.” No one understands this instruction, and finally the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means. But I see this as appropriately consistent with my unusual experience of the film; I am both standing outside it — watching, and in it — experiencing.

Fundamentally, this is a story about emotion. It’s an exploration of humanity. It is life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where our lead character is stripped naked and exposed (metaphorically); she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes and sits silently beside her dying mother, and that gives her new life. It revives her. It saves her. Death is breathing life while life is killing her.

Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in "Mia Madre"
Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in “Mia Madre”

In the press conference, Moretti is talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I hear… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally feel it. I leave the theater feeling newly alive.
Update: After playing at the 53rd New York International Film Festival, this movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then virtually disappeared from the U.S. But look for it to return in March 2016, at your local art / indie /foreign-film theater.  The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival and won Best Non-U.S. Release at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.

News: The New York Times asks Nanni Moretti 5 Questions

News:  Moretti Film Canceled in Paris Attacks


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Our Favorite Movies Of 2015

The Best Of 2015. Our Favorite Movies

There were some great movies to come out in 2015. From Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, The Martian, Sicario, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was really a tremendous year for film.  Which is why we at the Film Box would like to look back at our very favorite movies of 2015. If you missed any of these over the course of the year don’t hesitate to catch up with them at a later date. These 2015 standouts are definitely worth your time.

del torro sicario


Joseph Jo: Out of all the films that were released in 2015, Sicario was eventually the one that had me in awe throughout the film. The only thing I knew about this film was Denis Villeneuve was the director where couple years back I had the chance to watch his earlier work, the Incendies, which is another one of my favorite. I’m usually one of those theater goers, where I wait until everything dies down, and thankfully I was glad I went to watch Sicario few months after the release, because this is one of those films where you just have to watch alone in the big screen without knowing nothing about it.

I knew from the movie poster that Emily Blunt was starring along with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Usually I don’t really care who’s in the picture, because ultimately I care about the story, structure, editing and how it was directed. And may all the deities bless the production team, because this movie made me feel exactly like Emily Blunt’s character throughout the movie, and that’s how I feel the movie was intended to be. If I had bothered to even read the tagline, I probably would have never felt the chill when Benicio’s character gave that eerie vibe when he said, “Welcome to Juarez.”


heart of a dog movie

Heart Of A Dog

Helen HighlyI would recommend Laurie Anderson’sHeart of a Dog” as Best Film of the Year. This 75-minute, poetic film-collage essay combines Anderson’s personal stories and musings with quotations from renowned philosophers, ink drawings on paper, printed words, animation, scratchy old 8mm home-movie clips, new footage of landscapes, surveillance camera footage with time codes, graphic images such as computer icons, and her ingenious use of music.

The movie is officially classified as a documentary and has rightfully been shortlisted (down to the final 15) for the Academy Award Best Documentary Feature. But it doesn’t feel at all like a traditional “non-fiction educational film.” It’s a playfully experimental memoir that is sometimes a meditation on how to go on living despite despair – “the purpose of death is the release of love,” an insightful (and not maudlin) reflection on America’s 9/11 attack, and also a witty tale on the nature of telling and remembering and forgetting. Ultimately, this is Laurie Anderson’s own love story – about her dog, her mother, her husband, and her city. It is uncommon and evocative film making and a true pleasure to watch

I think this may be the year of the documentary. There were so many interesting, important, and really well done documentaries that crossed over into mainstream film (or at least mainstream indie film). So I think it’s appropriate to name a documentary as “Best Of” this year. And the Laurie Anderson movie is truly beautiful and important as well as being surprisingly accessible (easy and fun to watch), once you start watching. And I also think this film has staying-power. It will still be relevant and worth-watching for years to come. It’s simply a great flick.

More of Helen Highly’s movie related rants and raves can also be found at

steve carell the big short

The Big Short

Matt Taylor: In a cinematic landscape filled with big budget disaster flicks it’s a rare thing for a movie to come along with actual, real world doom as part of it’s narrative. The Big Short is a sobering reminder, and revealing portrait, of the 2008 Economic Collapse. Directed by Adam McKay, who you may recognize as the wacky mind behind so many Will Ferrell films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, The Big Short presented it’s subject matter in such a lively, innovative way that it had to be my number one pick for Best Film of 2015.

The Big Short follows a handful of bankers who discovered the housing market collapse years before it happened. The film has us follow them as they attempt to expose and profit from this collapse. The irony and hypocrisy on display is what made the film compelling. Sure, there’s a few characters that are bleeding heart crusaders trying to do the right thing, but at the end of the day they’re bankers turning a profit. Even the best among those in the big banking machine are both whistle blowers and profiteers.
The film was made was with a documentary style, with none of the usual documentarian tropes i.e. interviews. The characters do break the fourth wall and address the audience to explain things, and most interesting is the directors use of celebrities and public figures to break down the really tough to grasp financial terminologies driving the story. For example there’s a quick cutaway to actress Margot Robbie in a bubble bath who explains the sub-prime mortgage problem leading up to the financial collapse. The use of cutaways, sound design, camera movement and character made this film about finance, which could have been extremely dull, a fast paced riveting look at one of the biggest disasters in American, and dare I say, World History. It is for those reasons that The Big Short is number one on my list for the year 2015.
More of Matt Taylor can be found at Twitter

the-woman-in-gold film

The Woman In Gold

Charles Soste: My favorite film for 2015 after much consideration, was The Woman In Gold. It was a well-acted, brilliantly directed story of an Austrian victim of World War II seeking to retain priceless art work that was stolen from her family by the Nazis.  The film was incredibly moving and what all great cinema should be.  Helen Mirren was at her unsurprising best in the lead role and Daniel Bruhl and Ryan Reynolds were excellent too.

I should also add that very honorable mention should go to Spotlight, Mr. Holmes and The Martian for me as well since they were all fantastic.

Rey and Finn star wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Cameron Dueker: Like many others, for me, my favorite movie was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’ve been a huge Star Wars fan since I was younger and the franchise has held a special place not only in my heart but in my life because of it. I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news the news that Disney had bought out Lucasfilm and the doubts that crept into my head shortly after. George Lucas was out. J.J. Abrams was in. Would it follow the Expanded Universe or blaze a new trail of it’s own? Could the original actors still play a role in their old age? Any New Hope that filled me was simultaneously checked with cautious trepidation of the still  recent mixed bag of the prequels.

Maybe the years of reverence surrounding the original trilogy  had simply set the bar for any new Star Wars films too high.

As information about the new film slowly leaked out it was clear to me these concerns were also weighing heavily on the cast and crew. You could just see the amount of love and care everybody involved was putting into The Force Awakens which only rocketed expectations into the stratosphere.

And when I finally saw the film I was blown away. It was a call back to 1977 true, but what is so wrong with that? The new characters were hugely compelling, the action was great, the story was intriguing and full of mystery’s still unsolved, and the feel was spot on with how WE all want a Star Wars film to be.

The Force Awakens may not be the best Star Wars film, Empire still holds that crown, but for me it was far, far away the best film of 2015.


Carrie Fisher and the Star Wars Review I Couldn’t Write

Helen Highly Recommends Carrie Fisher Quit Twitter
Change Your Galaxy!

Carrie Fisher has aged.
Carrie Fisher has aged.

Q: Is it true that HelenHighly, a self-professed socially-and-politically-conscious woman, walked out of the movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and immediately made a comment about Carrie Fisher’s body?
A: Yes. (Should I feel guilty? Not sure yet.)

Q: Was it rude and inappropriate for journalist Kyle Smith to publicly suggest to Carrie Fisher that she give up acting if she didn’t like continually having her body scrutinized and criticized by everyone and anyone due to the way she aged?
A: Yes. (I think we can all agree that disrespect is always the wrong approach for a professional when speaking about one’s subject, and certainly the wrong way to speak about a beloved Princess.)

Q: Did Carrie Fisher show us all up by replying with simultaneous wit, candor, and bada-bing punch, thus reminding those who criticized and/or gossiped that she is better than them (us), and that she still has it – “it” being bright, lively talent?
A: Yes indeed. Go Carrie!

Carrie Fisher Is Defiant
Carrie Fisher Is Defiant

But the harder question remains: That nasty reporter guy judged Carrie Fisher’s body, and HelenHighly also judged Carrie Fisher’s body. Am I that guy?!*

Here’s the story:

I am no “Star Wars” fan. However, I got an assignment to write about the new movie “Star Wars:….mumble.. whatever.” The assignment was for The Film Box, this mostly action-movie site, where I occasionally post commentary. (I provide balance.) To counter the geek perspective, Cameron had asked me to write from a non-fan woman’s point of view. But until now, I have written nothing about “Star Wars,” because I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say.

“Do I feel guilty? Hell no; Lucas made $4 billion.”

Correction: In an effort to deliver something, I did write a news blurb that unfairly attacked George Lucas, creator of “Star Wars,” for jokingly using the term “white slavers” in regard to the Disney Co., to whom he sold the franchise for $4 billion in 2012 and now is criticizing for their handling of his “kids.” And then I wrote another news story announcing that he had apologized, but I doubted his sincerity. So, I got two articles out of Lucas, both based on over-blown nonsense. Do I feel guilty? Hell no; Lucas made $4 billion selling overblown nonsense (named “Star Wars”). He’s filthy rich; his feelings don’t matter. (Although, it might bear mentioning that during this attack on what Lucas said, no one commented on what he looked like.) But back to this story:

I did want to see the movie just because it got so crazy-much attention in the media that I felt I was obligated to see it, as a U.S. citizen and occupant of our galaxy. I admit that the film itself did nothing for me, but I did enjoy watching the audience respond enthusiastically each time one of their old favorites (and old, favorites – with comma) – be it actor or spaceship – made an appearance.

The Beloved "Star Wars" Trilogy
The Beloved “Star Wars” Trilogy

These old favorites, brought back from the cult trilogy (1977 – 1983), include male leads, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. And also there is the female lead, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) – the adventure-heroine and super-hot It-Girl of the original “Star Wars,” and an idolized icon because of it. I am told that a generation of teenage boys grew up with posters on their bedroom walls of Carrie Fisher in a gold bikini– the same metal bikini she wore as a costume in the second film. That poster is from a photo-shoot Fisher did with “Rolling Stone,” back in 1983, when she was a 27-year-old starlet. (Pretty hip to be on the cover of “Rolling Stone” – twice, actually.)

Carrie Fisher Rocks with "Rolling Stone"
Carrie Fisher Rocks with “Rolling Stone”

Fisher has gone on to have a successful career in the industry – as an actress, producer, and screenwriter, including writing the semi-autobiographical film “Postcards from the Edge,” (based on one of her own hit books) in which the Carrie-ish character is portrayed by none other than Meryl Streep (the best actress ever). Carrie Fisher is Somebody.

Carrie Fisher: Once She Was Beautiful
Carrie Fisher: Once She Was Beautiful

But to the people in the movie theater with me, watching the latest “Star Wars” film-phenomenon, Carrie Fisher is and always will be Princess Leia, the great and legendary… (I don’t know; this is where they lose me). And those people literally cheered for Carrie Fisher – not only with excitement when they first saw her in this new film, but also after each scene in which she appeared.

So, Carrie: People love you. They love seeing you on screen. Don’t doubt that fact.

And I will say that, for me (and I believe for most others as well), Carrie Fisher brought an authentic warmth and humanity to a movie that is…  mostly metal. Okay, I probably stand alone with my “mostly metal” comment, but I challenge anyone to say they did not both enjoy and respect Fisher’s performance in this film.

“For Carrie to escape the unfair cruelties of this world, she would have to get on a spaceship and find another galaxy, far, far away.”

Well, I never wrote the film review because I decided that I am not Star-Wars-knowledgeable enough to say anything intelligent about the movie. And I was going to walk away and start writing my next commentary – slated to be a combo-review of two different documentaries about great women– Peggy Guggenheim and Janis Joplin (who seem to me to be surprisingly similar). But then, I couldn’t escape the buzzing news about the great “Star Wars” woman. Here’s what:

Carrie Fisher, Then and Now
Carrie Fisher, Then and Now

On Tuesday, January 29th, Fisher, age 59, sent a message to her 850,000 Twitter followers, asking them to stop scrutinizing and criticizing how she has aged over the past 30 years. Apparently there had been a relentless stream of unkind and insulting comments. To those haters she shockingly said that they could “blow us”. (!!!)
(“Us” means Fisher, her body, and her character Leia)

“Please stop debating about whether or not I have aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.”
[Twitter text abbreviations and jargon have been translated, but that was her message.]

Oh. My. God.
Oh. My. God.

Then Fisher re-tweeted statements from supporters who claimed that her co-stars, Harrison Ford – age 73 and Mark Hamill – age 64, do not face the same level of scrutiny. In another tweet, Fisher shared her sentiments that “youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy.”

Okay, my first thought was: That’s a Twitter Win for Carrie. Good for her.

But, my second thought was: Eegads. I remembered (and here I confess) that the first words out of my mouth when I left the theater were about Carrie Fisher’s body. (Am I a hater, like those others?!*) I commented that the film almost never showed her full body. As I recall (and I could be wrong, because honestly, the movie did not hold my close attention), it seemed to me that she was always in close-up – just her head. And at one point they (awkwardly, I thought) cut to a close-up of her hand. The few times that we did see her body were in distant wide-shots. So, I concluded, they must have used a body double for Fisher – someone thinner, and then only used her for head-shots, and hand-shots.

Carrie Fisher Before She Lost Some Weight
Carrie Fisher Before She Lost Some Weight

I noticed this because I had recently seen Fisher do the talk-show circuit and had observed that she had become a large woman (which is perfectly understandable; she is no spring chicken anymore). I hear tell that Fisher lost weight for the film and then unfortunately gained it back before her publicity tour. Hmm…even if true…Obviously, her starlet days are behind her (it’s been 38 years!). I was just wondering about why they chose not to show her true body in the movie – why they made her look thinner than she really is, or was. Are “Star Wars” royalty not allowed to gain weight?

I did also make the somewhat snarky comment that Carrie obviously “had a lot of work done” and it doesn’t look real. She’s so smart; I thought she would be wiser than to go that route. And so I judged that Carrie Fisher is vain and definitely looks worse for wear. And Disney is shallow (duh) and doesn’t want fat heroines. The company probably only cares about profit (as Lucas later accused). That was my brilliant sidewalk analysis.

“In the contest of brains and beauty, I always go with brains.”

I could think of nothing to say about the movie itself because… it’s not my thing. However, I personally have repeatedly gained and lost (and lost and gained) weight throughout my many years, and now I am almost as old as Carrie Fisher, and I have indeed considered the possibility of plastic surgery. I have nothing against it in principle. I just worry that it usually doesn’t look good and ends up making the person look older. My point is that: The Empire and/or The Alliance mean nothing to me. And the thing I could most relate to in the film was how Carrie Fisher (and I) have aged. (Am I her in this story?*)

Carrie Fisher Has Had "Work Done"
Carrie Fisher Has Had “Work Done”

A few days later, Kyle Smith, some nasty troll from the “New York Post,” rudely responded to what he called Fisher’s “Twittantrum” (Twitter-tantrum) with a message to Carrie that she should “quit acting” if she isn’t prepared to put up with her looks being judged. And he wrote:

“Fisher is a public figure. If she didn’t want the public to talk about her, she could have spent the last 40 years teaching kindergarten. As for whether it’s ‘messed up’ for Hollywood to prefer pretty people to appear in its films, Fisher made millions off being pretty. Far from being bitter about this, she and other actresses who profited nicely from their looks should be grateful they had a turn at the top.”


Eegads. That’s hard-core. (But doesn’t the part about “if you get rich off your work, you are fair game for unfairness” sound a bit like what I thought about George Lucas? Is this unfairness exclusively allocated to women?)

Carrie did not back down. She then tweeted:
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