Friday, January 30, 2009

"Yonkers Joe"

"Yonkers Joe" is a coming of age story set in the world of professional gambling. It is an ode to the old time gambling establishment and distant fathers. One producer was drawn to the project because he related to the emotionally distant gambler father and the authentic details of the gambling world that were drawn from director/writer Robert Celestino's own life experiences. It is entertaining to watch the ins and outs of dice tricks and gambling scams.

Slight of hand, dice artist Joe (Chazz Palminteri) is given the opportunity to conduct a big casino heist. The plan is complicated when he must care for his mentally challenged son who has been thrown out of his special needs facility for violent and inappropriate behavior - just before he is to be promoted to an adult group home. This further motivates Joe to do the heist (which could land him in jail) to pay for a classy care center for his son.

This film is about the struggle to become a man when you have a distant (and often absent) father. This transition is made more difficult when your male role model is a petty criminal. Joe thinks nothing of introducing his son to the family business. To Joe it is a legitimate way to make a living. He explains, "There are no free rides." Needless to say, he isn't a positive father figure. He doesn't show love for his son or his scam artist girlfriend Janice. (Though he is protective of both.) In fact, he is embarrassed of the boy. When one of Joe's victims catches on to the dice scam, Joe Jr. tackles him. Joe Sr. loses his temper and must be pulled off of his son by his co-swindlers.

His partners in crime (made up of an impressive array of character actors) actually get a kick out of Joe Jr. and nudge Joe to treat his son better. There is a certain honor among criminals when it comes to family matters.

Chazz Palminteri (A Bronx Tale, Bullets Over Broadway, The Usual Suspects), delivers an edgy performance. He is in turn distant, impatient, frustrated and quick tempered. But there are moments when he is amused by Joe Jr's inappropriate stories. He eventually gains a grudging respect and affection for his son. Joe Jr. learns an important lesson from his father, "Men make mistakes" but a man is responsible for those mistakes.

Tom Guiry (as Joe Jr.) catches the mannerisms and nuances of a high functioning down syndrome man and gives a touchingly real performance.

Father and son have some pretty ugly traits. It is the job of Joe's girlfriend Janice, played by a luminescent Christine Lahti (Running on Empty, Chicago Hope), to help us see their good side. If she likes them, they can't be all that bad, right? Lahti is a bit too luminescent - almost angel like. I would have liked to have seen the one female character be a little more multi-dimensional with some weaknesses of her own.

"Yonkers Joe" almost could have been a family film aside for some hard language and disturbing situations. But if you are into heist films or coming of age stories, please, attend "Yonkers Joe" as soon as possible. It is only playing for one more week at the Loft in Tucson.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Happy New Year, film lovers!

I've heard some reviewers complain that this has been a bad year for film - some of the same reviewers that think a film can't be art unless it's edgy and vile. But if you love films that move and inspire you or films that are true expressions of the filmmaker's artistic vision (even if they make you work for it) - then this was a great year for film!

It is a pleasure to present Reel Inspiration's MOST INSPIRING FILMS 2008. This list is compiled of films that have been promoted through our reviews on Reel Inspiration's blogs. Diverse films with entertaining, powerful stories that uplift, challenge, give hope or inspire. Some weight has been given to films that are particularly relevant to the issues of our time.

I realize that there are many definitions and opinions on what makes up an inspiring film. I would love to hear them! That's why I'm giving you a chance to share your favorite inspiring films in the comment section.

Wishing you many movie blessings in the New Year!
Jana Segal


11. Director Mike Leigh is known for using improv to develop his scripts and to get natural dialogue and performances out of his actors. His film, "Happy Go Lucky" goes beyond that. It had me thinking after I left the theater. How many current comedies can you say that about?

10. Charlie Kaufman's film, "Synecdoche, New York," is as challenging as the name. Kaufman literally creates a whole world and realizes his uncompromising (though somewhat depressing) creative vision. Some of the images stayed with me for days and I had real a longing to see it again.

9. The touching film, "Under the Same Moon" puts a human face on the heated debate about illegal immigrants and border issues.

8. "Slumdog Millionaire" was hard for me to sit through - watching all those horrific scenes of Indian slum children being abused. But the highly innovative story builds to a strong ending with the worthy theme of how good triumphs over adversity when you stay on your true path.

6 and 7. Music transcends racial differences and initiates human connections in, "The Visitor" and "The Bands Visit." "The Visitor" also reminds us that kindness is it's own reward - earning it the number 5 spot.

5. "The Secret Life of Bees" is a coming of age story set in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. A runaway white girl learns to cope with the painful truth and find forgiveness through the unconditional love of this uniquely liberated black family. I wanted to stay in the world of this heartwarming film and join the family.

4. In the opening scene, we see through magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s point of view as he awakens from a comatose state. It is as if we are inside his head, seeing through his one good eye. We experience his confusion and claustrophobia after becoming paralyzed with a rare illness called “locked-in syndrome.” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” is a metaphor for how he is trapped in his body, but his mind soars as it creates glorious scenes which explore imagined experiences. As Bauby recuperates, he dictates a memoir through the blink of his eye with the aid of his nurses.

3. "Frost/Nixon" is based on the famous news special in which English talk show host, Frost, tried to coax a confession out of Nixon for his part in Watergate. This is a particularly timely piece since many Americans can relate the feeling of losing faith in our government. I found myself rooting for this second rate talk show host to convince the intellectually superior Nixon to finally take responsibility for the cover up and hurting the American people. Compelling writing and acting. I wasn't watching actors, I was watching Frost and Nixon.

2. "Starting Out in the Evening." Andrew Wagner's sheer love of writing radiates in this deep and touching adult drama set in the dying literary world. It might be because I'm a writer, but this film lives in my heart.

1. Harvey Milk's life as the first openly gay elected official is inspiring enough. But actor Sean Penn (living the role of Harvey Milk), writer Dustin Lance Black, and director Gus Van Sant elevate "Milk" from a biopic to art.

You can find full reviews of these films below.



 Sean Penn won Best Actor and Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay for "Milk."

"Slumdog Millionaire" won Best Picture, Danny Boyle won Best Director, Simon Beaufoy won Best Adapted Screenplay, Anthony Dod Mantle won Best Cinematography, Chirist Dickens won Best Editing for "Slumdog Millionaire." 

Mike Leigh won Best Original Screenplay for, "Happy Go Lucky." 


OK. I'm sappy when it comes to our country. I cry when I hear the national anthem. I wept as I watched the airplanes crash into the World Trade Center not only for the lost lives but because I suspected it would result in some loss of our freedom as Americans. And I still have unresolved feelings of anger that our country was misled and polarized by the Bush administration.

There are two biopics in theaters now that deal with presidents who shattered Americans' trust in our government. I believe that biopics can be very powerful when they deal with our unresolved issues. I went to these films to find some kind of understanding and resolution. Unfortunately, the film "W" doesn't begin to deal with my issues with Bush. Oddly, director Oliver Stone seems to make excuses for Bush. No matter what he did, party boy George could never win his daddy's approval. Maybe I'm not there yet, but I have no need to sympathize with the spoiled rich kid portrayed here. This shallow justification was just as unsatisfying as the acting. I was always keenly aware that I was watching an actor (Josh Brolin) playing the President.

"Frost/Nixon" is based on the famous news special in which British talk show host, David Frost (Michael Sheen), tried to coax a confession out of former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) for his part in Watergate after he is pardoned by President Ford. Media savvy David risks an insanely huge sum of money for the interview in hopes of getting commercial sponsors and more credibility so he can get back his New York talk show and his table at Sardi's. I found myself rooting for this second rate talk show host to convince the intellectually superior Nixon to finally take responsibility for the cover up and for hurting the American people. I discovered, along with Frost, the importance of uncovering the truth as a much needed resolution. The acting and the writing (Peter Morgan) are thoroughly compelling. I wasn't watching actors, I was watching Frost and Nixon. It was a pleasure watching them in their "no holds barred" debate.

I found "Frost/Nixon" infinitely more satisfying than "W". Director Ron Howard wisely saw America's need for the truth and addressed it. Hmm. Perhaps we could use a "Frost/Bush" interview...

Movie Blessings!
Jana Segal


Frost/Nixon Won Best Picture, Frank Langella won Best Actor, Ron Howard won Best Director, Peter Morgan won Best Adapted Screenplay, Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley won Best Editing