Category Archives: Film

“A DOG NAMED GUCCI”— “Justice is a Dog’s Best Friend”

a dog named Gucci

“A Dog Named Gucci”

“Justice is a Dog’s Best Friend”

Amos Lassen

“A Dog Named Gucci” is the story of one dog that changed a law and proved justice is a dog’s best friend. Director Gorman Bechard looks at animal abuse laws in the United States. The film will be released on DVD and digital platforms on April 19th, just days after the release of the film’s closing credits song “One Song”, the film’s anthem that features the voices of Norah Jones, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, Lydia Loveless, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and Queen’s Brian May.

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The film is a documentary about a 10-week old puppy that was doused with lighter fluid and set on fire. Hearing the puppy’s cries, college professor Doug James ran to help. After he chased away chasing away the abusers and at the request of Gucci’s young runaway owner, Doug took the puppy in as his own. Here began a 16-year odyssey of love, devotion, and perseverance. Together with legislators, Doug and Gucci worked to create what became known as the “Gucci Bill,” changing Alabama law, and making domestic animal abuse a felony. While the film is just one story, it is ultimately a positive and uplifting look at one victim who went on to become a hero. The story is one of triumph.

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We see three other dogs that have had an amazing impact on the laws that protect animals (of course with the help of their owners). We meet Louis Vuitton, from Montgomery, Alabama, the first dog to test the Gucci Law; Susie from North Carolina, who has a felony abuse law named in her honor and was the 2015 American Humane Association’s Hero Dog of the Year; and Nitro from Queens, New York whose ultimate sacrifice in an Ohio kennel led to the state’s first felony animal abuse laws. To give you an idea of how important laws protecting animals are the completely crowd-funded film has an extensive social media presence with 68,000 Facebook fans, and tons of followers on Twitter and KickStarter.

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Gucci was the face of animal cruelty in one Alabama town. And what happened to him saved the lives of countless others because he gave a voice to the voiceless.  This is a film that speaks to the man on the street and shows that if we care about animals then we need to bombard state legislatures and get the prosecutors to prosecute, and even more importantly get the judges to just not throw it out cases like this out. House Bill 2150, an animal cruelty bill, has advanced in the Senate. As it stands, the bill would exempt farm animals, including horses, from the anti-cruelty code and would place them in a separate statute. Critics argue the bill boasts separate but unequal treatment of farm animals and pets. This bill simply lessens the abuse laws to non-domesticated animals so it really does not do anything good. Whether it’s a cow, horse, or a dog named Gucci, animals can’t argue for themselves. The statistics speak for themselves. In spite of felony laws in all 50 states, over 1 million domestic animals are still abused every year. Less than 10 percent of those cases are reported. Less than a thousand are prosecuted,” it states in his film.

“SHEBA BABY”– A Chicago P.I.

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Sheba, Baby”

A Chicago P.I.

Amos Lassen

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Pam Grier is a Chicago private detective, Sheba Shayne. She goes home to Louisville, Kentucky when her father’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by vicious thugs trying to run him out of business. They  work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s father and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker) haven’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives.  Sheba goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles and as she does, she has physical altercations with the thugs. However this film is light on the mayhem and violence front. The few murders that we see are bloodless.

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Grier is charismatic with a lot of sex appeal and that is all you really need for a film like this. She was one of the top three or four black movie stars in 1975 and an actress who was one of the two actresses (along with Barbra Streisand) whose name above the title could guarantee a profit on a film with the right budget. Pam Grier is strikingly beautiful and emits a kind of healthiness and a lot of stamina. This is her movie and although I would love to have it tightened, I am just glad I finally got to see it at all.

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Unfortunately, however, the film is routine in many aspects. The more outrageous characters are just too stereotypical to take seriously and the bad guy comes across as a wimp and does not seem threatening. Sheba is one-woman-war against organized crime to revenge the death of a family member. This time her father gets gunned down after refusing to sell his loan-company to some criminals. Then when her father is killed, everything seems to fall apart.

‘PRAY FOR DEATH”— One of the Last Ninja Movies

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“Pray for Death”

One of the Last Ninja Movies

Amos Lassen

Sho Kosugi became a star making Ninja movies during the 1980s. One of his films was “Pray for Death” directed by Gordon Hessler. The film begins in Japan where we’re introduced to the ‘Black Ninja’ . one of the true evils in society. He is involved in battle here or so we think until we realize that we are simply watching a TV program in which he stars. The show is being watched by two young Japanese kids, Takeshi Saito (Kane Kosugi) and his brother Tomoya Saito (Shane Kosugi) and they both agree that the Black Ninja looks like their dad, a peace-loving businessman named Akira Saito (Sho Kosugi). After discussing things with his lovely wife, Aiko (Donna K. Benz), they decide that it’s time for Akira to be his own boss and so the family soon moves to America where they buy a home in an awful neighborhood in Houston and almost instantly run into trouble with some local bad guys.

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Akira just wants to be left alone with his family to get his restaurant business on track but it turns out that a bunch of crooked cops are using the backroom of his place as a storeroom for stolen merchandise. One piece of the merchandise is the very valuable Van Atta Necklace which a local mobster wants to own. When one of the cops swipes the jewels, the mobsters figure it was Akira and so they take it out his wife and kids forcing him to put on his ninja suit and take deadly action against those who would harm his family. The fight scenes are quite violent and the film id basically a copy of ”Revenge of the Ninja”. There are two things that distinguish this film— it is Kosugi’s last role in a movie where he plays a ninja, and it is infamous for being his most violent and sadistic. Kosugi find’s himself going head to head with James Booth, who plays a gangster psychopath that enjoys beating old men to death, torturing Kosugi in front of his kid, and raping and killing Kosugi’s wife towards the end.

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Their final scene is memorable realistic and is grittier, rougher, and more barbaric than in other films. Sho actually intended to start a restaurant and bought an old place in a bad part of town. He was no aware that crooks were using the building to hide some stolen loot in and when it turns up missing, Sho’s family becomes a target. As the movie moves forward, dangers escalate and there is blood and violence.

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This is not my usual kind of movie but I must say that I was impressed by the special affects. Remember this was made in 1985 so there was not yet the technology that we have today.

“FLOWERS”— Love, Loss and Memory

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“Flowers” (“Loreak”)

Love, Loss and Memory

Amos Lassen

Ane (Nagore Aranburu) lives a quiet life and she feels the pressure of being trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage. She suddenly starts to receive bouquets of flowers anonymously. Tere (Itziar Aizpuru) wants nothing more than a grandchild, but her only son Beñat (Josean Bengoetxea) and his wife Lourdes (Itziar Ituño) have other plans. A sudden, tragic event changes their lives and brings into a new reality, and flowers start to appear anonymously and they represent an emotional memory.  

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Directed and co-written by Spain’s Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garaño, themes are reflected through the unexpected reverberations of a tragedy that impacts three women very differently and the themes of romance, loss, remembrance and missed connections affect each of three women very differently.

The image reflected upon my flowers express many different feelings and emotions depending who gives flowers, where they come from, the contest when they are given and who they are meant for. “Flowers” is Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards and is the first movie submitted in the Euskara (Basque) language that is indigenous to the Basque region of Northern Spain and Southwestern France.

“Flowers” looks at   the influence that a few vases of plants exert on a handful of people who’ve reached unhappy occurrences and what might have been different. As the film begins, Ane learns that she’s entering menopause even though she barely appears to be in her early 40s. She feels as if she’s been robbed of her youth and did not get the chance to enjoy being middle-aged. She had already felt unnoticed.

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The audience learns that Ane is already a woman who feels unnoticed, as she’s in an unhappy marriage that might be cooling, while working at a construction site anonymously behind a desk as others hover high in the sky in the company crane. Out of nowhere, she receives a vase of gorgeous flowers, with no card to indicate who sent them she and continues to receive vases, once a week, week after week, until something happens to stifle their arrival. She feels wonderful about the flowers because to her they mean that she is finally being noticed.

There’s a wonderful scene in which one of Ane’s co-workers at the construction company where her job is located, Beñat looks down at her from the crane and Ane briefly takes her helmet off while searching for a lost piece of jewelry. The way the two look at each other is beautiful. From that point on, Ane gives Beñat a little pleasure and we learn that his marriage is also not doing too well. Ane provides Beñat with a dosage of “quotidian transcendence”, which, of course, is what the flowers come to offer Ane. This symmetry is fitting and we, the viewers, become fairly certain that it is Beñat who’s sending Ane the flowers.

The film is a melodrama that is performed subtly and lets the viewer understand the sadness of the characters. We understand that Lourdes and Tere, are lonely and adrift, even though they hide it with alienating behavior that ironically reinforces their conditions.

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The filmmakers show the resonances of the flowers as they circulate through the various characters’ lives. The film explores the existential reverberations of death. The three women we meet here are consumed by different emotions. One is caught up in yearning, another in loss, and the third by the need for closure to pain. Flowers play a central and important role in their lives, especially as they deal with the death of a person who leaves behind a series of mysteries.

When Benat dies in an automobile accident, the three women are unable to react and they also come to know each other. The film shows the vulnerability and fragility of our lives and that we heal when we make others feel important. What we really see is that flowers and the emotions they arouse within us are very important.

“I CAN BE PRESIDENT: A KID’S EYE VIEW”— Children Talk About the President

I can be president

“I Can Be President: A Kid’s-Eye View”

Children Talk About the President

Amos Lassen

A diverse group of children talk about what they think it would be like to be president of the United States. They share what they think about what being president entails and through the kids we are reminded that one can always have dreams. The film that was originally shown on HBO is a sixty minute look at youngsters in elementary schools whose hopes are both very funny and yet very touching. The film brings it all to life through animation (the wonderful work of Michael Sporn). While the responses from the youngsters are simple, they are quite profound in their simplicity. They have something to say about diversity, war, being a leader and becoming an adult. I felt a promise for the future while listening to them.

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Kids have hopes and dreams and many times these are just as significant as those that adults have. When a child wishes for free ice cream for all, he is saying something about equality. At first we might think that the responses are humorous but they are also promising and a look to the future. Kids understand about discrimination and they know that we do not have the right to discriminate. They know that Obama is our first black president—as one little girl says, “He was black and all the other past presidents were white. And even though he was different from the other past presidents, he still wanted to try because he wanted to do that job.” Another expresses a profound idea— being a better person now makes one a better person later in life. And yet another child says that once sworn into the presidency, she would be kind to all citizens.

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We truly see the beauty of youth here and director-producer Diane Kolyer and director-producer-animator Michael Sporn have made quite an amazing little film. The kids are wonderful, the length of the film is just right and the animation is beautiful. But this is a kids’ movie and we are just invitees. We need more films like this— we learn then and youngsters are validated.

“SKY’S THE LIMIT”— Looking for Love

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“Sky’s the Limit”

Looking for Love

Amos Lassen

Jason (Timothy J. Cox) is a young father whose wife has recently died and he and his son are dealing with that loss. Jason is not content to be alone for the rest of his life so he has begun meeting new women via the Internet and this has causes him to not give his son, Frankie (Joseph DiStefano) all the time and love that he needs. Frankie really wants to be with his dad especially because it is just them. Seeing that this does not work, Frankie retreats into the fantasy world of Sky King but he is unable to get his father involved in this. In fact, there is very little connection between father and son.

Jason gets a date but the babysitter cancelled at the last minute so he had to take Frankie along on the date which was not the greatest idea. Basically the film is about dealing with tragedy and we see both characters struggle each in his own way—Jason to the Internet and Frankie to fantasy.

Directed by April Schroer, I found it hard to identify with the characters and that was due to the limits of time. As Jason, Cox is great but I really wanted him to deal with his son who so clearly wants him in his life. It took his going out on a date and taking Frankie with him to realize what was important. Jason understands that he is wrong in his priorities and that his relationship with his son is suffering. This is a beautiful story made stronger by good performances and I found myself totally involved in what was going on.

 

“THAT TERRIBLE JAZZ”— Where is the Sax Player?

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“That Terrible Jazz”

Where is the Sax Player?

Amos Lassen

Nicky (Timothy J. Cox) is a bar owner who called private detective Sam Sellers (Ephraim Davis) to track down his sax player, Wynn Dumont (Gyasi Howard), in the house band who has been missing. The band is scheduled for a gig at the bar and they need their sex player and as Seller works on the case it seems that the truth about what has happened to the player is not what anyone wants to hear. Writer-director Mike Falconi’s new short noir film is shot in black-and-white photography with good performances and even though we have seen similar films like this before, “That Terrible Jazz” really gets things right.

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In a very short fifteen minutes, Sellers meets several suspicious characters including the player’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Alksne), band mates (John Rifici and Thomas Schmitt), and a former band member (David A. Rodriguez and each of this could have the clue that Sellers is looking for. As is characteristic of noir, we feel that we are not getting all that is needed to solve the case.

Sellers uses what he hears from the people he interviews to put pieces together and of course it would have been easier for him if he had a back-story but he has to rely on what he has been given. Because the film is short, those details would not work here and we get the feeling that we are seeing part of a larger story and that perhaps Falconi is planning to make this into a full-length feature. As Sellers investigates we become aware that alcohol, anger, jealousy, and lies tend to make this a difficult case.

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Davis’ Sellers is perfect—he is man dealing with his own demons and cigarettes and alcohol are two of them. Nonetheless he is set on solving the case for his friend Nicky so that the mysterious “terrible jazz” will stop haunting the club and he will be able to get on with his life. I love the noir approach and hope that perhaps we will be seeing more films of this kind again.

“THE RUNAROUND CLUB”— A Question of Morality

the runaround club poster

“THE RUNAROUND CLUB”

A Question of Morality

Amos Lassen

When two thieves set out to rob a battered suburban family, they had no idea what was waiting for them. The family’s father is a controlling person and as the situation heats up, there are a few surprises.

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Lucas (Ariel Zuckerman)  and Sam (Jack Lynch) are ready to make a heist and they seem to have everything down pat—they look for a house where the residents are gone and they plan to break-in, take what they want and head out. However, the house they choose is actually a bit more difficult than they had planned on. The family consisting of father, Frank (John Depew) who they learn is abusive and dominating and he is there with his two daughters, Linda (Asts Paredes)  and Eliza (Caitlyn Parker) ) come back sooner than expected. The two men separate once inside the house and Sam is stopped unfortunately by the father. Soon things get wild and both the robbers and the family are affected.

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Written by Andrew Gleeson and Director Matt Rindini, this short film is a twist in the classic house robbery and instead of just a short sixteen-minute movie about a robbery, we get a morality tale. We see what happens when what starts off as a planned bad intention turns into something completely unexpected.

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“WEINER”— Exposing the Weiner

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“WEINER”

Exposing the Weiner

Amos Lassen

What can I say about Weiner that will not get me in trouble? We have had our laughs about and at Antony Weiner but it is really so sad to see a person self-destruct and not know he is doing so. Just the thought of his name almost calls for a punch line from someone

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg had planned to make a film that would examine the disgraced New York Congressman’s campaign for mayor with a focus on today’s political landscape. However Anthony Weiner has been caught in one scandal after another since 2011. The filmmakers found themselves caught in the middle of the drama just as they were preparing to film their documentary and so when the scandal came to light the cameras were ready.

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If you remember, Anthony Weiner was a man who built a career on his ability to be combative on television and yell on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Now he lives a quiet life, consulting for clients on federal regulations through his advisory firm, Woolf Weiner Associates. He’s trying to get funding for a charity project to train low-income residents of Far Rockaway, in Queens, N.Y to get into the restaurant business. The main focus of his life is his 4-year-old son, Jordan, whom he takes to school and ice-skating. He’s assumed responsibility for preparing dinner, meals that are ordered by his wife, Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin.

However, Weiner can’t avoid attracting attention. On January 24, 2016, “Weiner”, a documentary that chronicles the demise of the former Democratic congressman’s 2013 New York mayoral bid amid a sexting scandal—his second—will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Josh Kriegman, formerly Weiner’s district chief of staff, the movie has been acquired by IFC and Showtime, which are planning a theatrical release in the spring and a TV airdate shortly before the presidential election.

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The film is the result of a deal Weiner cut with Kriegman: total access to the former congressman’s mayoral campaign, including Abedin, in exchange for footage the candidate could use in campaign ads. The timing of its release, some three years after it was filmed, threatens to draw unflattering attention to his wife as the presidential nominating contest takes off. Weiner is a guy with lots of energy, big ideas, and a lot of smarts. Regarding his scandal he has said, “I have no choice but to not let it debilitate me.”

Weiner’s most unwelcome publicity came in September, when he was dropped by MWW Group, a public-relations firm in New Jersey that had hired him to expand its New York presence. Weiner was pushed out in part because of his continuing activity on Twitter, the vehicle for his first sexting scandal in 2011. (That began after he posted a link to a photograph of his erect penis, concealed in a pair of boxer briefs, to his public feed rather than sending it via private direct message.)

After getting the MWW job, Weiner, who also is a political commentator on the New York local news channel NY1, posted tweets critical of former Governor George Pataki, a Republican. MWW Chief Executive Officer Michael Kempner declined to comment on the circumstances of Weiner’s departure from the firm.

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When Weiner was asked why he doesn’t just quit social media, he says that it is his right as a citizen. “Weiner” gives an look at the implosion of Mr. Weiner’s mayoral campaign and an inside account of the couple’s interactions in the aftermath of his second explicit texting scandal. In case you do not remember it, when the story broke of Weiner’s sexting using the name Carlos Danger, his wife Huma Abedin maintained a steely calm.

The movie shows the grit and resolve that Huma has developed. Hillary probably isn’t happy about reminding voters of yet another Clinton-involved sex scandal. Multiple parties who saw earlier cuts of the movie, which documents the N.Y. congressman’s comeback following a sexting humiliation, say Clinton’s team is seen trying to pressure Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin — Clinton’s closest adviser — to cut ties with him, fearing the scandal will hurt her presidential campaign.

“SECUNDARIA”— Cuba and Ballet

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“Secundaria”

Cuba and Ballet

Amos Lassen

Ballet is as much a part of Cuba as cigars. It can be a way out of a dismal life of poverty and you will see its power in “Secundaria”. This documentary immerses us sensually and deeply into the world of teenage Cuban ballet.

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The film follows one high school class on its journey through Cuba’s world-famous National Ballet School. The teens love to dance and for many of them dance is also their sole escape from a life of poverty. The documentary begins as an observational portrait, but in their third year of school the main character, Maryara, takes charge of her destiny in an astonishing way. What began as a simple portrait takes a dramatic turn as Mayara’s action surprises everyone: teachers, friends, family and, ultimately, the filmmaker Mary Jane Doherty.

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We see the artistic and social challenges for the pupils and the institution, moving from a sensitive examination of the physical and creative demands of dance to a more dramatic study in political repression and personal choice. Maryara makes a momentous decision about her future. She defects to the United States while the troupe is on an international tour. The film chronicles the shockwaves sent among the girl’s family, friends, and teachers.

“Secundaria” is a strong documentary, even if some of its most interesting material isn’t about the ballet itself. Many of the world’s foremost companies have Cuban performers taking lead roles and many of them trained at an internationally renowned academy in Havana. This film follows three who entered the three-year program in 2007: Maryara, who lives in a small apartment with her mother and brother and rides a bus for an hour each way to get to the school; Gabriela, who by contrast comes from a comfortable background (her mother is a hotel accountant and her father is in the military); and Moises, a new friend of Maryara’s who comes from one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. At the start of each year, students are ranked by how they perform in a competition, and while Gabriela is thought to be the most talented, Maryara surprises everyone by coming in second for the whole school.

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That’s the story’s starting point, and filmmaker Mary Jane Doherty followed the characters for the full three years. The three have a good balance of dedication to their craft and they are “good kids”. One of the trio does emerges as the star of the story. When an American makes a documentary in Cuba over three years there are many challenges. What Doherty brings us is a lot of fun to watch and quite a look at Cuba. However, I would have liked to know a bit about the history of the School of Dance in Havana.