Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Different Kind of Meaningful

Since I started writing reviews of inspiring, meaningful films for Reel Inspiration, I've struggled with whether to review films with sex, drugs and violence. I know this content puts off some of the Reel Inspiration audience and I certainly don't want to do that. However, these issues are a real part of many people's life journeys. And people find inspiration in many different places.

"The Wackness" is a perfect example of this dilemma. On the one hand,
it is a sweet coming of age story dealing with being disappointed with your parents and with love. On the other hand, the main character, Luke Shapiro, is (gasp!) a drug dealer. The original twist, is that Luke's psychiatrist is one of his best costumers. (Audible gasp!)As the film started, I shuffled uneasily in my seat. This is the kind of film that makes parents (like me) uncomfortable as they contemplate their own teen getting high and having sex. However, the teens in the audience seemed to relate to it. It occurred to me that it must be life affirming to see your experiences reflected on the screen - especially those your parents don't accept.

Josh Peck portrays the drug dealer as a sympathetic character. The film subtly shows the negative ramifications of being a teenage drug dealer. His customers appreciate the drugs, but they never accept the supplier into their party crowd. He is always on the outside. Sex and drugs play an important part of the theme. It seems that the characters can't cope with everyday stress and frustration without self medicating with booze, drugs, or sex. His psychologist (Ben Kingsley living the role) encourages Luke not to numb his pain with prescription drugs, but, "Embrace your pain. Make it a part of you."

Another film I struggled with was "Garden State." The excessive drug use made me uncomfortable
. But the drug use was important to the theme - that in our society we are numbing ourselves with drugs.

There a several powerful films where the main character must hit rock bottom before finding redemption. That often includes doing drugs or getting in dangerous or violent situations. I had a huge breakthrough on my perspective of inspiring films after experiencing, "Crash." "Crash" is loaded with extreme violence, but it is vital to the theme. I left the theater feeling spiritually inspired.

How do I decide if a film qualifies for a Reel Inspiration review? The biggest determining factor is whether I come away from the film feeling some sense of hope or catharsis.
Did the character grow or change? Did the film experience enrich my life?

Now I write reviews of inspiring, meaningful films for a variety of tastes: feel good films, spiritual films,
an exceptional political thriller, smart dramas and comedies. I leave some of the edgier fair to reviewers I trust like Josh Valentine. (See Josh's excellent review below.)

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal
Reel Inspiration's mission is to encourage and promote the production and theatrical success of diverse films with entertaining, powerful stories that uplift, challenge, give hope or inspire the human consciousness.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"The Wackness"

Poster art for "The Wackness."

Reel Inspiration Review: The Wackness.
Guest Reviewer: Josh Valentine of Indie Bum

In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival has been known as the essential prognosticator of the following year’s great independent movies to come. The festival has brought us great cinema such as “American Splendor,” “Once,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “The Station Agent.” That latter film won the Audience Award in the Dramatic category as did the recently released drama “The Wackness.” While the fest has been losing credibility since last year’s misguided praise for the horrid “Rocket Science,” this new piece is not only one of the best things to ever come out of Sundance, but one of the better coming-of-age tales since “Almost Famous” and “Ghost World.”

The film stars once child star now budding actor Josh Peck as Luke Shapiro, a drug dealing high school grad living low in the East End of 1994 New York City. Dealing with the confusion of teenage sex drive and not used to being “the cool guy” after years of being terribly unpopular, Luke’s about to learn a whole lot about life. One mentor is his psychologist Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who actually turns out to be Luke’s number one customer. Luke becomes acquainted with his pothead shrink’s daughter, the wildly sexy Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) and soon enough she becomes the unreciprocated love of his life.

The film is deceptively simple. While the plot doesn’t exactly draw in its audience, it is the excruciatingly profound characters that both excites and titillates. Sharply written, and both strangely comic and touching, “The Wackness” is an awe-inspiring vision of teen angst and a huge step forward for its two young stars and a wonderful re-emergence of its legend.

It is wondrously refreshing to see an actor Peck’s age with such a resume (he’s most well known for his debut in “Snow Day” and the kiddie series “Drake and Josh”) taking on a role like Luke Shapiro. He was featured in 2004’s dark tale “Mean Creek” as the schoolyard bully accidentally murdered by his victims, however this role in “The Wackness” called for much more than his previous indie effort. Peck is surprisingly wonderful. Luke tries desperately to be cool, and while his attempts do not have a comic effect they are instead rather moving. The actor shows he wants to make an impression in the new world of indie filmmaking and exhibits terrific showmanship in an obviously researched role. He delivers an honest performance, one of young Brando-esque quality.

Also captivating is Thirlby, who is much more impressive and shows a different range than her turn in the indie-comedy “Juno” as the title character’s best friend. Her performance is at times wildly addictive and extremely seductive. Stephanie is an absolute tease, although curiously as confused and lost as her admirer. Thirlby intertwines these characterizations with ease and is effortlessly becoming the new (Sorry, Ellen Page) indie “it-girl.”

As for the legendary Ben Kingsley, he delivers nothing but one of his best performances. He exhibits a bizarre peculiarity and throughout the entire film it is obvious that he fully savored the juicy role from beginning to end. The character of Dr. Squires is actually the most profound accident within “The Wackness.” His realization of what he believes to be an empty life is heartbreaking and through what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance that deserves exhaustive recognition, Kingsley scores.

The most appealing aspect is the remarkable chemistry not between Peck and Thirlby, but between the young man and his doctor. Their relationship blossoms into cinematic moments of perfection. It is a joy watching each character learn about life from one another whether it’s through drugs, music, laughter, or sex. Seeing them together on screen is honestly the best part about the movie and in some ways the best scenes on film in 2008.

With his first major feature film, writer/director Jonathan Levine has achieved a definitive new classic. The film sparkles with originality and has inventive detail. At times we’re allowed into the mind of Luke Shapiro, and through visualized bubble dream sequences and fun set pieces Levine has craft ed a terrifically offbeat style of storytelling. With its limited time period and setting, the film would seem to have a niche audience, but transcends into a widely accessible work. Also, in some ways it is matchless in its genre in terms of its portrayal of the real misery of growing up in terms of love, heartache, and happiness.

At times the film is a bit predictable and somewhat formulaic, but it is the heartbreaking realizations of the characters of Luke and Dr. Squires that carry the entire piece. Also, the film has a relatively strong ending, coming full circle to add closure but also keeping somewhat open.

The Wackness” is a breath of fresh air in a dead year of independent film, and its under-the-radar nature is truly a crime. Kingsley is Oscar-worthy, and hopefully this will open a veritable number of doors for its younger stars. Like this film’s motif – the heat of the summer – this film gets hotter and hotter and so do its stars. Go see “The Wackness,” yo.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


OK. I had my misgivings about seeing, "Kenny." This mockumentary, set in the world of waste management, had the potential to be the grossest of gross out flicks. My stomach wasn't up for it. I was pleasantly surprised by his sweet natured, hilarious film. Certainly, there are plenty of ripe Australian euphemisms for poop. But filmmakers Clayton and Shane Jacobson wisely chose to steer clear of the big chunks and focus on the human aspects.

OK. I have a crush on Kenny. (Shane Jacobson) What's not to like about a brawny Australian bloke who philosophizes and cracks wise about the trials of maintaining porta potties during festival season.

"It takes a certain kind of person to do what I do... No-one's ever impressed, no-one's ever fascinated.... If you're fireman, all of the kids will want to jump in back of the truck and follow you to a fire. There's going to be no kids willing to do that with me. So, I don't do it to impress people. It's a job, it's my trade, and I actually think I'm pretty good at it. "

Kenny is just a decent bloke with a real camaraderie
with his co-workers on the splash down crew. He takes pride in doing a good job. And somehow manages to keep his dignify in the most undignified situations. He treats others with kindness and respect even when it isn't reciprocated. After he retrieves a wedding ring from the toilet, the relieved women doesn't even acknowledge her knight with slimy plunger. Kenny is sorely in need of a little respect.

Unfortunately, there is no respite at home. He is separated from his domineering wife and she has custody of their son. She shows open disdain for Kenny's chosen profession - even though it allows him to be close to his son. Still, Kenny awkwardly encourages his pre-teen to speak respectably to his mother.

Kenny does his best to gain his family's respect. He spends his whole day off taking his son to see his grandfather. Grandpa then spends the entire visit berating Kenny for being a "glorified turd burglar" in ear shot of the boy. But the true test of character comes when Kenny is forced to bring his son to work with him on one of the busiest days of the year.

This premise may be a little thin for a feature length film, but there are always strange new festivals and sewage dilemmas to keep it interesting - if not fresh. For instance, the splash down crew must deal with drunken car rally enthusiasts tipping over potties.

Kenny is finally rewarded for his hard work with a trip to Nashville for a fancy Porta Potty Convention. It came as no surprise to me when a pretty stewardess gets a crush on our boy. (Of course, he is too naive to see it.)

Director Clayton Jacobson puts it best, " He's the Dalai-Lama of waste management - eternally optimistic and always ready to put others before himself. Kenny represents the humbling nature of common decency."

Hey, if you still believe in human decency, please, show the poor guy a little respect and check out "Kenny."

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

For a trailer, go to:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

" Henry Poole Is Here"

Sorry no water stain. Couldn't find an uncopyrighted still shot. 
On a marque crammed with tired summer offerings of over-the-top comedies and action films, I spotted the sweet, small film, "Henry Poole is Here." Like a name sprawled under an aqueduct bridge, it was barely noticeable.

"Henry Poole is Here" is a quiet little film with a big premise. What do you do when you're an atheist and you learn you have six weeks to live? If you're Henry Poole, (Luke Wilson), you buy a house in a neighborhood where nobody knows you, numb yourself with booze, and wait around to die - alone. Henry's plan to fade away unnoticed is disrupted when his neighbor, Esperanza, (Adrianna Barrazza) starts worshiping a water-stained image of Christ she sees on his stucco wall.

To make matters worse, Esperanza is moved to share this miracle with her church and friends. A silent little girl tape records Henry's pleas to be left alone. But Henry never gets his wish. The little girl and her luminescent mother (Radha Mitchell) enter his life to show him that we are all here for a reason. In fact, the whole neighborhood is there for him - whether he likes it or not.

The director, Mark Pellington, leaves it for us to decide whether we believe it's a miracle or not. At first, we don't even get to see what Esperanza is looking at. Later, we see the stain, but the face is kind of illusive - sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. The film doesn't tell you what to believe. But it shows the strength in believing and especially our belief in others.

Hopefully, this film doesn't fade away unnoticed amidst the jungle of summer releases. Hopefully, it finds a community that believes in it. This is a movie about hope, after all. I, for one, believe.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Swing Vote"

What if the election of our next president came down to the vote of one ignorant, apathetic American? This is the premise of "Swing Vote" a film starring Kevin Costner at his sloppy, likable best.

If you can go with the contrivances that set this story in motion, there is a sweet subplot about this flaky father and his empathetic, politically adept daughter (played admirably by Molly Johnson.)
Madeline realizes that her father, Bud, has become the voice of Americans. She takes this responsibility to heart, while he is too busy enjoying the perks of his new found power. Spineless politicians try everything to sway him to their side - even altering their positions on the issues to match his. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a position. He doesn't even know what the issues are. The media portrays him as the embodiment of America. And America has become a big joke.

The movie tries to go for our patriotic heartstrings, but there's not much at stake for our country. There doesn't seem to be any pressing issues the newly elected president needs to resolve. And since the politicians have no convictions or vision, it doesn't matter who wins. But there is something important at stake for our hero - the respect of his daughter who still believes it's not only our right to vote - but our privilege and responsibility. The premise feels dated - the residue from the 2000 Bush/Gore election and all the dirty politicking that left many Americans apathetic. What may have been a good political satire had it bared some teeth, flashes a decayed sweet tooth instead.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Sunday, August 03, 2008

"Brick Lane"

"Terrific! This is a film that reminds you why you love movies. Beautifully acted and written." - Kirk Honeycutt, THE WASHINGTON POST

"A lovely movie! Sarah Gavron is a filmmaker to watch." - David Denby, THE NEW YORKER

"Graceful and tender. Keeps on surprising us, right to the end." - Rogert Ebert, THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

Everyday Nazneen scrubs her foggy window pane trying to peer out of her dingy Brick Lane flat. She longs to return to her childhood home of Bangladeshi where she and her sister ran free through the lush woods before her father forced her to marry an older man living abroad. Nazneen has been raised not to question her fate, so she does her best to fulfill her duty to her husband and family. Her husband, Chanu, (Satish Kaushik) does not come off as a stereotypical tyrant but a chubby optimist who prides himself in being a western "educated man." He has instructed his daughters to assimilate into Western culture, yet expects to be treated as undisputed ruler of the household. This irony is not lost on their teenage daughter, Shahana, who disrupts the household by challenging her father. (Naeema Begum is pitch perfect as the average "mouthy" teen.) Nasneen does her best to shield (literally) her daughter from her father's retaliation. But the girls have no role model in their submissive mother. Nasneen's only connection with the outside world is what her husband shares with her. Unfortunately, he has absolutely no insight into the needs of his wife or daughters.Nazneen finally decides to facilitate their trip back to her homeland herself by taking in sewing. The handsome young man (Christopher Simpson) who delivers the garments cracks open a window to the world. Director Sarah Gavron shows Nazneen's awakening through the subtle complexity of Tannishtha Chatterjee's performance.

When 9/11 ignites racial tension in the diverse neighborhoods of Britain, Nazneen must ask herself, "What is my true home
?" Nazneen finds that home is where you find your strength."Set in multicultural Britain, "Brick Lane," is a truly contemporary story of love, cultural difference, and ultimately, the strength of the human spirit." (Quote taken from synopsis on official website.)

Don't miss this breath taking cinematography while it's still on the big screen. Bring your friends to one of the best films of the summer.

Movie Blessings!
Jana Segal