Welcome to Me
Film Review by Kam Williams
Let’s say you’re a diehard Oprah fan who has always wanted nothing more than to have your own television series just like your idol’s. What would you do if you hit it big in the lottery and suddenly had the money to turn that dream into a reality?
That’s precisely the quandary confronting Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) when she has the good fortune to win $86 million in the California Stacks Sweepstakes. Trouble is she’s also a manic-depressive suffering from bipolar disorder who deludes herself into believing she no longer needs drugs now that she’s rich.
So, she informs her shrink (Tim Robbins) that she’s going off her meds before offering him a bribe to give her a clean bill of health. Next, she approaches the general manager (James Marsden) of a TV station specializing in infomercials about buying air time for the talk show about herself she hopes to host.
Concerned only about his struggling network’s bottom line, Rich gives his okay as soon as Alice comes up with the $15 million needed to underwrite the project. His brother/business partner (Wes Bentley) is less enthusiastic about taking advantage of the reckless mental patient until she unleashes her powers of seduction in his direction.
Alice appropriately names the program “Welcome to Me,” since she’s the topic of every episode. The themes range wildly, featuring titles like “Jordana Spangler – a Liar,” “Matching Colors to Emotions,” “Lucky Foods,” “I Can Still Smell You,” and “Regulating Your Moods with a High-Protein Diet.” All they have in common is that they invariably focus on some aspect of the narcissistic emcee’s life.
The emotional exhibitionist proves compelling enough to improve ratings and is allowed to self-destruct in front of couch potatoes who just can’t get enough Alice whether she’s nattering on about her orgasms or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But with a burn-rate of $150,000 per episode, it’s obvious that she’s in for a devastating crash-landing, eventually.
Directed by Shira Piven (Jeremy’s sister), Welcome to Me is a droll character-driven dramedy tailor-made for the tongue-in-cheek comedy style of Kristen Wiig. Alternately vulnerable and bizarre, but always endearing, the Saturday Night Live alum enjoys her best outing since Bridesmaids, here, as an anguished soul allowed, against her better judgment, to purchase a terribly-embarrassing, 15 minutes of fame.
Kudos to Kristen for baring herself, literally and figuratively, in deliverance of a poignant performance which could very easily have degenerated into the sort of slapstick she did on SNL.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for sexuality, profanity, graphic nudity and brief drug use
Running time: 87 minutes
To see a trailer for Welcome to Me, visit: https://www.youtube.com/embed/z251mQl-OLI
The “Helicopter Mom” Interview
with Kam Williams
Born in Winnipeg, Canada on September 24, 1962, actress/scriptwriter Nia Vardalos is best known as the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, her one-woman stage play which she adapted to the big screen in 2002. She also landed an Academy Award nomination for the picture’s screenplay, which grossed a quarter-billion dollars at the box-office, domestically.
Other movies on her resume include Connie and Carla, I Hate Valentine’s Day, My Life in Ruins, Larry Crowne, and McKenna Shoots for the Stars. On television, she starred in My Big Fat Greek Life, a short-lived sitcom based on My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Nia and her husband, actor Ian Gomez, live in L.A. which is where they are raising their daughter, Ilaria.
Kam Williams: Hey, Nia, thanks for the interview.
Nia Vardalos: Hi, Kam. Nice to talk to you, too. I apologize if I sound like a drag queen this morning, but I voiced an entire animated film in one day yesterday, and then went to see Barry Manilow last night.
KW: That’s why you’re whispering and sound so hoarse. Which film were you working on?
NV: Sorry, I can’t tell you yet. The title hasn’t been announced.
KW: I have to tell you how much I loved My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I must have watched it at least a dozen times. It was #2 on my Top 100 List for 2002.
NV: Thank you so much Kam. That means the world to me. It really does.
KW: I loved Connie and Carla, too. What interested you in Helicopter Mom?
NV: I was attracted to the idea of improvising a movie. I thought it would be a really great way of having a loose set. And it turned out to be exactly what I hoped for. The director [Salome Breziner] created a fun atmosphere and [co-star] Jason Dolley] was great to play with in his first film since doing the sitcom Good Luck Charlie. So, I was just very intrigued by the chance to do something so different.
KW: Gee, I was totally unaware that the cast was improvising. It flowed very naturally, so it never occurred to me that you didn’t have a script. The only thing that threw me was the ending which I don’t want to give away. It was a bit of a cliffhanger, and I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be setting up a sequel.
NV: [Chuckles] Yeah, I don’t know at all on that one.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: As a Canadian, I am honored to have the opportunity to ask you questions. You wrote and starred in your huge hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. There is a scarcity of female screenwriters and directors. Do you have another movie you would like to write and/or direct?
NV: Well, I’m actually headed to Toronto to do the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But the honest answer to Patricia’s question is that there isn’t a scarcity of female writers and directors. But there IS a dearth, a lack of their being hired. You could throw a rock in L.A. and hit somebody who’s talented who’s trying to break in. It’s up to us women to hire other women. What I do is instead of writing just 1 female character in my films, I’ll write 50, because I know how sad it is that women are having such a hard time finding roles. It’s a joy for me. I love my producers, who are the same ones from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We have the same set designers, the same everyone. As they say, we’re getting the band back together, as they say. It’s terrific that no one ever asks me, “Can this receptionist or this cop be played by a man?” They wouldn’t think of it since in the script the police officer’s name is Deandra.
KW: Patricia also says: I love raising the issue of female filmmakers. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow broke the glass ceiling with her movie, The Hurt Locker. She became the first woman director in history to win an Academy Award. In 2007, the Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category for Water, which focused on women issues. What is your opinion about this issue especially as an Oscar-nominee and what do you think it will take for female filmmakers to get more recognition for film projects concerning women's conditions?
NV: It was so sad this year, when the Academy failed to nominate even one film with a female story. It was so disgusting to me that not one female helmer was nominated for Best Director and that no film with a female protagonist was nominated in the Best Picture category either. I am not anti-man. I am married to a man… I have a father and a brother… I love men. But there is something really lacking when Cake is nominated. How does Julianne Moore win for Best Actress but her film isn’t nominated for Best Screenplay? How does Gone Girl become such a critically-acclaimed and box-office hit but its scriptwriter, Gillian Flynn, isn’t nominated for Best screenplay. It’s disgusting!
KW: What’s the solution?
NV: I think we need parity. The Academy needs more female members so that we can point this out and support ourselves and each other.
KW: It’s a shame because 2014 was such a great year for movies.
NV: There were so many amazing films last year. Theory of Everything was absolutely a master class in acting. And did you love The Imitation Game as much as I did?
KW: Yep, that was #5 on my Top 100 List.
NV: It broke my heart. And how about Guardians of the Galaxy? I spoke to the screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. She’s a huge comic book geek who was in the Marvel writing program. I just loved meeting her.
KW: One of the great things about this job is that I get a chance to speak with luminaries like you, and each experience is usually enriching and even moving because the person invariably has a lot to offer and is so much deeper than what I expected based on the image I had gotten from seeing them in movies and on TV.
NV: Thank you for saying that, Kam. I feel the same way when I meet somebody in Los Angeles, because I’m from Winnipeg. I’m just a very ordinary girl that something extraordinary happened to. So, I’ll go to an event and, say, stand next to Charlize Theron and be like, “Oh my God! This is incredible!” And then you get to talk to her and you find out she’s a real person. She’s a mom and very interesting. I’m constantly thunderstruck by people that I admire.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
NV: I see strength, and I see a tired mom.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
NV: Accidentally spray-painting my face black when I was about 6. I was trying to do a craft project in the garage with a board and a can of spray paint that was missing a nozzle. I stuck a nail in it, and it blew all over my face. [Laughs]
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
NV: Oh! Lately, I’ve been salting eggplant to take the bitterness out, and then layering it with tomatoes and a little bit of Parmesan cheese to make a low-rent Eggplant Parmesan without the breading and the tons of fat.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
NV: Peace, and geographical birth fairness.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person we see on the red carpet?
NV: Control top panty hose. [Chuckles]
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
NV: “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed. I love reading, and I read a lot. I’m constantly going through so many books. I just re-read a novel I loved called “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Oh, it’s so beautiful!
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
NV: I’m going to say integrity, because I want to believe that’s the case. But sometimes I’m surprised when someone who has achieved success is incredibly Machiavellian in their manipulations. So, while I want to believe it’s integrity, that might just show how naïve I am. I sometimes worry that I might not be shrewd enough to maneuver myself through the Hollywood system. And then I look at Playtone, the company that produced My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I call them my Playtoners. They are the kindest people who treated me like gold before that movie made a dime. We became personal friends. When I think about how lovely and wonderful they are that convinces me that you don’t have to make a deal with the devil to succeed. It’s a choice. As we know, there are companies like Monsanto filling the Earth with their genetically-modified poison, which makes me wonder how many people share our belief that it’s better to be good, Kam. [Earnestly] We have to change the world!
KW: We’ll see, with Bernie Sanders throwing his hat into the ring, the people will have a real choice. Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you'd like to star in?
NV: Yeah. On stage, I’d like to redo the Broadway musical, The Rink. And, onscreen, there are so many great movies to pick from… My brain is just fried right now… Let me think… Oh, I know. I would love to remake The Philadelphia Story with Hugh Grant. The chemistry between Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn is so delightful.
KW: Hugh Grant released a sweet romantic comedy with Marisa Tomei in February called The Rewrite. Did you catch it?
NV: I love her. I’d always admired her work and then I got to meet her recently. She’s great! She’s so delightful in person.
KW: What’s in your wallet?
NV: My wallet has both American and Canadian money, because I’m preparing to go to Canada to shoot. And as you know, I’m Canadian, so I have a bunch of loonies [one-dollar coins] in there.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Nia. Best of luck with the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I can’t wait to see it.
NV: Thank you, Kam. It was really nice to talk to you. You ask very interesting questions.
To see a trailer for Helicopter Mom, visit: https://vimeo.com/97173719
Days of Grace
Film Review by Kam Williams
Days of Grace is the title of Arthur Ashe’s moving memoir about his remarkable tennis career as well as his stoic battle with AIDS after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion. By contrast, Days of Grace, the movie, is a gruesome gansta’ saga set in Mexico City.
The intricately-plotted crime thriller takes place in 2002, 2006 and 2010 during the weeks when the World Cup is being played. Apparently, that’s a great time to break the law, since both citizens and the police are so focused on the games that they unwittingly lower their guard.
The film is constructed as a trio of discrete storylines, although all paint Mexico as a godforsaken environ run by mobsters and crooked cops. Because they unfold simultaneously instead of chronologically, it’s a little difficult to keep the casts of characters straight, especially if you don’t speak Spanish and need to read the subtitles.
One thread revolves around the frustrations encountered by a socialite (Dolores Heredia) desperate to free her husband (Juan Carlos Remolina) who’s been abducted for a $2 million ransom. Apparently there’s a lot of that going around south of the border.
Trouble is the detectives handling the case are so corrupt she’s even more afraid of them than the kidnappers. A second thread focuses on another kidnapped businessman’s (Carlos Bardem) ordeal while the third chronicles the friendship forged between an honest cop (Tenoch Huerta) and the at-risk 9 year-old (Jose Alberto Solorzano) he’s mentoring with tough love.
Written and directed by Everardo Valerio Gout, Days of Grace features gratuitous violence, graphic vivisection and slo-mo displays of senseless slaughter reminiscent of such masters of the genre as John Woo and Sam Peckinpah. If lingering looks at torture gets your juices going, this indulgence of bloodlust is probably right up your alley.
The best Mexican splatterfest since Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Excellent (4 stars)
In Spanish and English with subtitles
Running time: 121 minutes
Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio
To see a trailer for Days of Grace, visit:
Film Review by Kam Williams
Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) works as a computer programmer for Blue Book, the most popular internet search engine in the world. As the winner of a staff lottery, he is summoned to the secluded, hilltop retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).
Only after being brought there by corporate helicopter does the nerdy 26 year-old discover that his billionaire boss has a hidden agenda. As it turns out, the place is less a home than a high-tech facility dedicated to conducting research in artificial intelligence.
But before Caleb is allowed to stay, he’s forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising to keep secret what he’s about to witness. Nathan next explains that it’s an invention, an android he wants Turing tested, meaning examined for any software flaws revealing it as non-human.
He then introduces his curious guest to Ava (Alicia Vikander), the fetching fembot he wants studied over the course of a week. Caleb is surprised by her level of sophistication, since her brain is complex enough to discern the connotation of idioms like “breaking the ice.” He’s even more impressed by her non-deterministic nature, as she appears to have been successfully programmed with free will.
The plot thickens several days into the project when Ava senses Caleb has developed feelings for her. At that point, the attractive automaton quietly confides her fears about being expendable in the eyes of Nathan who wouldn’t have a second thought about wiping her memory banks clean once she’s no longer considered state-of-the-art. After all, that’s what he’s done to each of her mothballed predecessors in his relentless quest to build a better cyborg.
Where does Caleb’s loyalty lie? With the callous employer he suddenly sees as a heartless tinkerer? Or with the flesh-covered machine exhibiting a full range of emotions, including a seductive vulnerability? That is the dilemma confronting the anguished protagonist in Ex Machina, an intriguing sci-fi adventure marking the splendid directorial debut of Alex Garland.
Best known as the scriptwriter of 28 Days Later, the gifted Brit more than proves his mettle as a filmmaker, here, with a thought-provoking thriller guaranteed to keep you enthralled while reassessing the meaning of consciousness.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for profanity, violence, sexual references and graphic nudity
Running time: 108 minutes
Film Review by Kam Williams
Randy Rousseau (Julian Walker) claims to be straight, even though everybody thinks he’s gay basically because he’s effeminate, sings in the church choir, and is a member of Christian High’s drama club. The repressed 17 year-old has even confessed to his BFFs, Effie (Gary Leroi Gray) and Crystal (Nikki Jane), to waking up “soaked in sin” after nightly wet dreams in which he makes love to other guys.
Nevertheless, he’s so deep in denial, that he’s willing to take Crystal’s virginity to prove his masculinity. But that brief experimentation with heterosexuality is only momentary, while his choosing to co-star in Romeo and Julian, a gay-themed, school production of Romeo and Juliet, proves a tad more telling.
Perhaps Randy’s reticence to come out of the closet has to do with his horrible relationship with his parents, between an absentee dad (Isaiah Washington) he can barely recognize (“Who the eff are you?”), and a Bible-thumping mother (Mo’Nique) who calls him an “effing punk”. In addition, she blames her son for the mysterious disappearance of her daughter (Hannah Moye), and has faith that God will send her back home once Randy is purged of his gender-bending demons once and for all.
Directed and co-written by Patrik-Ian Polk, Blackbird is a coming-of-age musical adventure which walks the fine line between drama and comedy. That failure to commit is an unfortunate flaw which serves to undercut any serious message the picture intends to deliver about tolerance.
Another problem is that the overplotted production has too many sidebars distracting our attention away from the compelling question of Randy’s sexual orientation. There’s the return of his Prodigal sister, his mama proselytizing in the supermarket, a pal infected with an STD, a married man cruising at a gay Lover’s Lane, the suicide of a preacher’s (Tirell Tilford) daughter (D. Woods), and an exorcism.
Despite its failings, I’m still willing to give Blackbird a little credit for tackling a subject that remains taboo in the black community. A gospel-driven cross of Precious and Rent, only set in a sleepy Southern town that time forgot instead of New York City.
Good (2 stars)
Rated R for teen sexuality, profanity and drug use
Running time: 99 minutes
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
To see a trailer for Blackbird, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3KEVWeHPg8