All posts by The Scream Queen

Kelsey Zukowski is an experienced and passionate screenwriter, actress, and model, specializing in the horror genre through dark examination. When Zukowski was 14 she began writing film reviews, greatly inspired by the late Roger Ebert's writing style and ability to relay the entire movie going experience in his reviews with such vivid emotion and intellect. While still in high school in Ohio, Zukowski's film reviews were being published in the California-based newspaper, The Valley Voice. She has been a published film critic for the past 7 years writing for a variety of websites including Criticsword.com, HorrorYearbook.com, FilmArcade.net, DirectorsLive.com, TheCelebrityCafe.com, and 8th-circuit.com. She's written TV recaps, music and movie reviews, news stories, and has conducted interviews with independent film makers around the world. She has covered and shown appreciation for all types of films from low budget independent to Hollywood mainstream and always eager to highlight foreign films or unknown gems. Zukowski has a Bachelors of Arts in Digital Cinema with a concentration in Screenwriting from DePaul University. Shortly after graduating, Zukowski became involved with the independent film scene. Some of her earliest roles were in various productions of crime writer, Kevin Jamison's intense serial killer depictions, the throwback horror anthology "Psycho Street", and the Autumn Offering "Born Dead" music video, which aired on MTV2's Head Banger's Ball. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3857479/?ref_=nmbio_bio_nm

Fear, Inc. (2016) Film Review

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Starring: Lucas Neff, Caitlin Stasey, Chris Marquette, Stephanie Drake, and Abigail Breslin

Written By: Luke Barnett

Directed By: Vincent Masciale

Grade: A-

Like most horror fans, Joe Foster (Neff), the lead character in the smart, surreal, and sadistically fun horror comedy, Fear, Inc., finds himself so hungry for a good scare this Halloween season, but feels constantly let down. Every haunt he goes to seems so predictable and not nearly real enough. After consuming so many gory, disturbing horror films and visiting haunts that put millions of dollars in to effects and art design to put you inside a hellish world, after a while it can lose the impact and feel like you’ve seen it all. How do you really outdo it? Especially some of these immersive horror theater experiences or even extreme haunts where you can get physically and possibly emotionally scarred? How far can you go in making a simulated living nightmare real when you know it is staged? Fear, Inc. plays with the question of what it would take for such a desensitized horror fan to really be immersed and believe in a personal horror coming alive around him and just how horribly wrong that could go. It’s quite an amazing feat just how many times the film pulls you back and forth between the mentality of this is real and this is just a masterful bloody, cruel illusion and all a part of the game. The end game is completely unpredictable, perhaps the real illusion our characters experience is control and any sense of safety.

Fear, Inc. is incredibly written, acted, and directed film,  especially being the first feature film by director Vincent Masciale. It has such a vibrant tone and energy I guarantee will be the fuel to the fire horror fans crave. I’ve been rather disappointed by a lot of horror films in the past few years and Fear, Inc. was really a breath of fresh air. It teeters between being pure horror homage fun and making you so invested in the horrors before you. It really is horror comedy perfection. The creators list Scream as one of their favorite movies and what they were looking to create something in a similar vein, they completely nailed it. There are about as many horror movie and genre movie references in this film that one could possibly fit, while still being its own unique story with relevant intriguing exploration on the current climate of the immersive horror theater and extreme haunt world.

The film is colorful, fun, witty, psychological, and most importantly is horror with a purpose. Horror comedy can be a very tricky thing to pull off, but Fear, Inc. excels at this too. The comedy doesn’t overpower the horror; you are utterly invested in it all. You care about the characters and are in the same position as them, enjoying it, but also realizing at a certain point this has to be real and you are horrified and fear for them greatly as the horrors unleash and the fun horror fanboy’s fantasy world and the grim, shocking reality collide and clash again and again. We are affected by this mind fuck just as much as Joe is so we are really experiencing this all through him, getting us to question what we would do in his shoes.

There’s some very interesting questioning of what crossing the line is with horror simulation, which I think is an equally fascinating and terrifying subject. It also questions would anyone of their right mind really want to be pushed so far to experience even seemingly real torment? And what type of person does a company like this attract, the people that willingly sign up to invoke real fear and a power play over someone in an environment where in a way they have permission to do this because the client “wanted this”. The nature of what Fear, Inc. as a company does is a bit different than extreme haunts, but it still is very obviously in the same realm and exploring it and inherent themes in their own way. With haunts and simulation experiences becoming more and more real, where there isn’t necessarily the safety net of thinking “Oh nothing can really happen to me, it’s all a show” if one seeks out an extreme enough production, Fear, Inc. tackling and really exploring these themes from many different angles is very interesting and offers great substance to the film. In fact, I think this subject matter is really its saving grace in retaining its individuality and having its own voice. Being an homage to so many horror films it would be easy to lose its identity, but I think it’s key that by the chosen subject matter, it manages to have it’s own identity and be its own surreal macabre journey.

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Things of course are pushed to the extreme here and you do need to suspend some disbelief that all this could be pulled off and the victim would perceive it a certain way, whether it’s fake or real. It’s well worth it to suspend that disbelief and play along, to lose yourself in the madness of it all. The one thing I wouldn’t have mind being dug in to more was this concept that this company made custom scares. I think it would have been more interesting to dive in to that client’s personal most crippling fears. I didn’t get a sense that anything that happened was Joe’s greatest fear he was being forced to face. Most of it was homages to all of his favorite movies and was fun for him to play and be a a part of it until of course things got a little too real. In some ways that limited his vulnerability and didn’t focus on fear itself as much as I would have liked. I think it could have been even more dark and fascinating, questioning the very nature of fear and how our own fears say so much about us and can push something out of us.

Hearing people who really do enjoy going to the most extreme haunts in the world, where they are being physically hurt and they come back again and again, this is why they say they do it; because it allows them to understand something about themselves and who they are in the face of true fear. Touching on that would have made the film that much more relevant, wise, and important I thought it might go there when I read “custom scares” were a part of the plot, but that would have just been a different way to go about it. Personally I think that could have propelled the film to greatness, but I totally respect that wasn’t the story they were quite looking to tell. Instead they took ones’ horror fantasies and twisted them on the person to show the devastation it could bring once it became more than a game. It was simply a different approach so I don’t have any real issues with this. As is it was quite an enthralling story.

fearincbreslinfear656The cast was absolutely incredible. Abigail Breslin, one of my favorite young horror starlets, had a great cameo in the opening that gave us a taste of what Fear, Inc. was all about. It was an intense, yet fun classic horror scene and let us in on the secret that this is not a game you can quit. Lucas Neff as the horror loving Joe was perfect. He nailed all of the comedic timing, he was loveable and relatable, and at times a bit insane, yet still realistic, for how much he relished in being the star of his own horror film by the hands of Fear, inc. Yet when it called for it the emotion and fear was there just as strong. I’ve been a fan of Chris Marquette’s for a long time and it was wonderful to see him in this as Joe’s right hand man and fellow horror buff, but much more cautious and the voice of reasoning. There were some great buddy moments between the two, but Marquette certainly held his own as well, especially when you consider the back and forth between supposed fiction and reality and how at times his character was on a different psychological playing field than the audience even realized.

This if my first time seeing Caitlin Stasey outside of The CW’s Reign and she was just as strong and at home in the horror realm with great emotional range. Patrick Renna (most well known for The Sandlot and The Big Green) brought his A creep game and the instigator for the warped world of Fear, Inc. to come in Joe’s life in the first place. There were a number of fun chilling moments with featured genre actors like Naomi Grossman and Maria Olsen. Really every actor gave a great performance, no matter how small the role was, which just made it feel like it was all that much more real and a compelling fight for your life adventure you could get lost in.

The film’s pacing really was a great strength as well. It gets higher paced and intensity as it goes on, eventually being a whirlwind of enticing meta slasher chaos. Yet it also takes its time and lingers on moments that deserve it. The escalating terror isn’t immediate of course, but the first act of the film doesn’t drag for a moment either. There was no one moment where I wasn’t totally engaged in the film. We spend time with our characters and really get a chance to connect and love them as well as just sit back and enjoy the wonderful horrorphile talk that really touches on the genuine love the characters, the audience, and clearly the writer and director feel for the genre, which really gives the film an infectious spirit that makes it an admirable horror entry among the likes of Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. This is a film not to be missed, it’s very much a film for the horror fans.

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Vampire Academy (2014) Film Review

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Starring: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky

Written By: Daniel Waters (Screenplay), Richelle Mead  (Novel)

Directed By: Mark Waters

Grade: C+

My initial viewing of Vampire Academy left me with very conflicted feelings. Part of me felt so let down and angered at Mark and Daniel Waters for bringing so little justice to the material of one of my favorite book series and dumbing it down in the process. Another part of me was so thankful and thrilled to have Rose and Lissa and the secret vampiric society they resided in before me on the big screen at all; something I had been craving for a long time. I followed this film coming to life every step of the way through development when it became clear it would become a reality. I wrote a review after seeing the film nearly two years ago, an extremely critical one, even attacking so many little details that in the grander scheme of things I now realize don’t have the damaging weight they seemed to at the time. I never published that review, because I think a part of me knew a lot of that was just the initial surprise of what the film ended up being after waiting to see it realized for so long. I knew a second viewing was essential to determine what my true views on the film would be. Luckily, during my second viewing I was able to enjoy the film a lot more, but that doesn’t mean the flaws weren’t still evident.

Rose Hathaway (Deutch) is on the run with her vampiric best friend, Lissa Dragomir (Fry), from their entire world. Lissa is the last in a royal line of moroi, a breed of endangered magic using, good-natured vampires. Rose is a dhampir, a breed of half-vampires/ half-humans who put their lives on the line to protect moroi. The biggest threat to the moroi are strigoi, the most lifeless, vicious eternal beings imaginable that the vampire legend was built around. There is not a shred of the humanity that once resided still in them; they are ruthless and extremely hard to kill. They are the poison of the vampire world; the worst fear come true that could end both the moroi and dhamphir species as well as turn the human world to complete destruction and chaos.

Rose has been trained to kill strigoi since she was a little girl as all guardians have. However, Rose’s allegiance to protecting Lissa at all costs goes deeper than the typical guardian responsibility. They’ve been best friends, practically sisters, for as long as they can remember. Their bond became even more intense when Lissa’s entire family died in a car crash and Lissa and Rose were the only survivors. They formed a literal mental bond, albeit a 1 way bond. What is going on in Lissa’s life will enter Rose’s mind at random times, but especially when she is hurt or in danger of any kind. It’s as if Rose is seeing it through Lissa’s eyes as she’s experiencing it in that very moment. Even when Rose isn’t seeing complete scenes, she can still feel her emotions, including fear. This comes in handy as Lissa faces many threats and Rose will die before letting anything happen to her.

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We catch up with the girls after they’ve been on the run for a year, living outside of the walls of St. Vladimir’s Academy, or as Rose likes to call it “Vampire Academy”. They were warned of a great danger to Lissa that lied inside the walls of the academy. They don’t even know the face of this danger themselves, but Rose decided to escape first and ask questions later. Rose does everything she can, but fate finally catches up with her in the form of an unbeatable guardian god, Dimitri Belikov (Kozlovsky). They are dragged back to the vicious, unforgiving gates of St. Vladimir’s to face the consequences from the head mistress and worse yet, teenage gossip and jealousy that quickly turns far more morbid and cruel than your average bullying. Someone is taunting Lissa, her life very well might be in great danger. Lissa, determined not to be a victim anymore, takes matters in to her own hands. She dives deeper in to her very complex and unknown magical affinity, which begins to take a bigger toll on her and rips apart the person she once was, the person Rose will never stop fighting for.

It’s still evident to me that the Waters brothers were ashamed of “Vampire Academy” for being in the vampire sub-genre. Once Twilight came out there was such enormous hype around it, it also created such hate and prejudice of these types of films from then on. The vampire sub-genre seems to continuously get shamed before people even know what the content of a particular book, show, or movie holds. Vampire Academy, as a film, is an unworthy victim of that, even victimized by its own creators.

I was initially quite thrilled to hear of Mark and Daniel Waters involvement as the first “Vampire Academy” book especially had some strong statements on the ugly side of human nature and the cruel battlefront high school can be. The Waters’ brothers being responsible for bringing us Mean Girls and Heathers, two very smart, fresh comedies on the viciousness of cliques and drastic measures sometimes needing to be taken, I thought they would really take to the material and elevate it to something that was intelligent, rich, and truly made an impact. Sadly, it felt like they got lazy with the film and were trying to hide the promising and intriguing themes and story by throwing as many dumb one liners as they could at us, especially relying on Rose’s sarcasm. That felt really cheap to me, like a bad Disney channel show, insulting the audience by suggesting we are much less evolved than we are. Some of these lines really are things that don’t need to be said. It’s a staple of storytelling that everything that doesn’t add to the story takes away from it. The artificial comedy really doesn’t belong and strips away the heart of the dark situations and compelling characters and the story they have to tell.

I also think the marketing is partially to blame for this bombing like it did. It almost seemed like they were trying to turn the vampire element in to a gimmick, rather than something of great complexity and originality that it was portrayed as in the book series. I get that they were trying to appeal to as many viewers who were new to the story as possible. With fantasy epics like this, it’s so costly that the film really has to blow up at the box office or it’s a complete failure. So trying to appeal to mass audiences makes sense, but it was the fans of the books that supported the film. They were the ones that went out to the theater and even when many weren’t thrilled, still stood by it. The marketing attempted to make it look like an oversexed dumb teen comedy and didn’t bring in the new audience they had hoped for. In fact, it probably turned away some people in the process and rightfully so, because if you came looking for that you would have been disappointed. Vampire Academy, at least the original novel, is really the anti-dumb oversexed comedy; it’s more about strong, fierce women (and men) who have a higher purpose than just as sex objects.

Luckily, the film itself had more depth to offer than what the marketing campaign made it seem like it had, but still, it was obvious the focus was all wrong. They shouldn’t have tried to make it anything other than what it already was; an incredibly unique version of vampire mythology in the modern world with compelling politics, social statements, and unique powers and realities. The original material showed seriously fierce and lovable characters battling with demons of their own in addition to the more obvious monsters that constantly kept them in fear and on the defensive. I don’t think the Waters brothers diminished that completely, that is all still there in this film, but I also don’t think they tried very hard to bring out compelling themes or deeper meaning creatively or intelligently. There are many things consistent with how the story unravels in the books, the material is so strong, it holds some power itself, but it wasn’t appreciated and explored nearly as well as it could have been.

I’m still not sure whether it’s better or worse being a fan of the series going in this film. Yes, I had to deal with a lot of the dumb one liners when I knew the material was far better than that, but I knew the depth behind everything without it needing to be said; the true spirit of these characters and all they were up against. I already loved these characters and felt such strength through them. I knew the significance of many moments the audience members who didn’t read the books probably did not. Since the film didn’t truly embrace and bring out this potential though, I was also a lot more let down than non-readers of the book series probably were.

We do get an overview of this world and to give it a little bit of a break, it’s not easy to fit all the complexities of this world in to an entire book series, let alone in the introduction of a film without seeming too exposition heavy. I think they did a decent job of showing us what the realities of this world were. As with many adaptations there are some moments where the significance is lost. One of these moments is the weight of a dhampir giving blood to a moroi not being very effectively communicated. In this society, many female dhampirs end up being what they call blood whores, basically a dhamphir women live in communes who are often fed on by rich, powerful moroi men for pleasure, but never for love or hope of a future. Blood exchange during sex can be nearly as exhilarating for both parties as the sex itself, if not more so. It’s extremely taboo though, especially since it takes away all credibility and purpose for a dhamphir. It makes them nearly worthless to their society.  The resistance to becoming a blood whore is one reason most dhampirs become guardians; trained fighters, defending the moroi at all costs. It’s their chance to do something that matters; to show strength, rather than weakness. Especially for someone as determined and fierce as Rose, it could destroy who she is at her core and everything she fights for; her entire purpose. When rumors of both Lissa and other moroi vampires in the school taking Rose’s blood spreads, it’s more than idle gossip. It threatens to break who she is, simply out of jealousy and resentment by over-privileged people with their egos bruised.  I don’t think that comes across at all in the film, thus the deeper layers are lost and it risks seeming like that trivial high school film that marketing made it out to be.

All that being said, it probably sounds like I hated this movie. On the contrary, I genuinely enjoyed it and will likely own it and revisit it. I would even welcome another film, especially since it would give us one of my favorite fictional characters- Adrian Ivashkov! This is unlikely to happen due to the failure the first was financially though. Which is a shame, because some of the best material is still to come.

When you compare the film to the book, even with lowered expectations, it falls devastatingly short. Once you can let go of what it perhaps should have been, you can accept it for what it is, an offbeat vampire high school comedy/action/ female-centric coming of age film that reveals the secrets of this world, letting us glimpse inside as bigger evils and fears are introduced.  As I’ve covered, there are flaws, but on its own, they’re fairly inconsequential. Some of the forced comedy and unnecessary, hollow lines, are really the biggest weakness. They often rubbed me the wrong way and took me out of what could have been a strong moment. Even as an immense fan of the series and coming in to my second viewing of Vampire Academy with a much lowered opinion, really the only moments that took away from the material were those one liners that irked me. This tells me the average viewer not comparing it to anything and feeling at a loss for what wasn’t delivered, just judging it for what is there, there being a few dumb lines of dialogue for attempted comedic relief when threats, darkness, and the unknown surround our heroines, really isn’t such a bad offence and makes me have a higher opinion of it as an enjoyable film. I have to admit some of the comedy does work too. It’s not the intelligent, witty comedy I expected considering the creative forces behind the film, but it does make it a fun adventure to have with these complex girls you can’t help but love.

Rose (of the books) was always a complete rebel at heart. She was feisty, had attitude for days, and wasn’t afraid to challenge anything in a world where even questioning the way they protected both species was so against their nature. “They come first”, them being moroi, were the words they lived by. Nothing else mattered. Rose never questioned that, but she did question the way things worked in other aspects. Rose is one of the strongest female characters in YA fiction I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and quickly came to love. She’s a character I hold inside myself and aspire to have a part of her come to life in my spirit and my own battles in life.

It’s hard not to feel like the fierceness of Rose was dulled down in the film, but we have to remember this is essentially just the first chapter and only so much can be portrayed in one film. We’re still at the point where Rose has never actually battled with a strigoi and is still in the shock phase when seeing one in the flesh, not to mention in many ways she’s still growing to be who she will become as a person. Readers of the books know Rose evolves and becomes so much stronger than she already is. We are just getting to know her. The truth is Rose’s defiant attitude and resilient spirit is shown in every frame of the movie, that was there from the beginning. Even among some of the less well written remarks she is given, the sarcasm matches her character perfectly. It also does a bit more than that. Rose is very much a part of this world, but she is not quite like anyone else that resides in it. With her never being afraid to challenge things or fight against every force that comes against her, even through poking fun at certain things or having sarcastic comments, in a way it binds the audience to her. We’re an outsider to this world, but through the eyes of an estranged warrior in training that essentially lives by her own rules, we feel more connected to it and are happy to have this adventure with her.

Any thoughts of Rose not being as fierce as she should be is really just the comedic flare sometimes clouding the more serious emotions and intensity that fuels through her. This tone is what the Waters’ chose to emphasize with her character in the film especially, but is also just the tone they choose for the film. It doesn’t make her any less fierce in reality. She is a warrior and we see the capability in her, but she is still learning and figuring out the person she will ultimately be. I initially had some regrets about Zooey Deutch playing Rose, but I think for who Rose was and the stage she was at in this film, Deutch did a fine job. She portrays everything Rose is from the spunky teenage girl to the relentless loyal spirit-bound guardian to the friend she could never bare to lose.

With any adaptation the actors are probably going to be a bit different than what you pictured for the characters. I have to say there’s something about Lucy Fry that didn’t quite match up to Lissa in my mind, but I really can’t have any complaints regarding her performance itself. She actually brought out quite a bit through her portrayal of Lissa. She was kind, a natural healer, emanated such a light, but was clearly a victim to the darkness, especially with how powerful she was and the unknown nature of the magic she carried within her. Even throughout getting sucked in to this darkness that took her victim, it was all because she didn’t want to be a victim. Rose protected her to the death. Most moroi knew the guardians were there to protect them and didn’t give another thought of fighting their own battles so to speak. She knew Rose would be there for her, but she didn’t want to depend on her, she wanted to take things in to her own hands. We see Lissa get lost and pulled away from her pure, kind- hearted nature. We see her flawed, confused, emotional, erratic, lost, and as she’s pulled out of this, she’s stronger for it, which should only make you love her more. Fry portrayed this all in a subtle, yet still powerful way.

Danila Kozlovsky made a great Dimitri, going with an authentic Russian actor definitely helped this truly feel like Rose’s favorite comrade. He portrayed the resolute, always 5 steps ahead, guardian powerhouse, while still letting that sliver of the man behind the stake come out. Rose is really the only one who he ever lets this sliver out for and even then it’s guarded, yet all the more precious when we see some deeper substance and charm from him. That is basically Dimitri in a nutshell and Kozlovsky nailed it. Overall, I don’t know if I saw their fiery passion and chemistry between Rose and Dimitri as much as it seemed I should, but it was definitely there, just more understated. Again, this is just the beginning, it builds, especially as Rose grows and they get deeper in to the danger that still lies ahead.

My favorite portrayal of all was Dominic Sherwood as Christian Ozera. I always was very intrigued by Christian in the books; I felt for him, understood him, and saw great strength in him. Especially regarding the Christian/ Lissa romance, there is no questioning how perfectly they compliment and support one another. She’s the vision of light to his perceived doomed darkness, but she has more darkness in her than others realize and he has more good. They balance this out in each other and bring out each other’s light. Despite seeming to be so opposite, they are like-minded souls who see something in each other that the rest of the word doesn’t. I must say Sherwood brought this character to life so perfectly. He brings out the outsider, somewhat creepy, and very misunderstood persona, but somehow in his portrayal it seemed so real and spoke to me in a deeper way than the character ever did in the book. His on screen presence is incredible and makes you gravitate towards him and the importance of his character holds so much more weight. Mr. Sherwood, I believe you are the one thing in this adaptation that exceeded the material in the books for me, well done. I officially have my eye on you.

I do appreciate that Daniel Waters was at least true to the story, keeping many iconic and memorable scenes from the first book. If it was just loosely inspired by the characters and the basic plot, without really telling the same story, I think there would be a lot more lost. One of the most notable scenes is when the allegations of Rose being a ‘blood whore’ come out and Christian being the bad ass, unlikely knight in shining armor he is, sets the deserving perpetrator on fire without moving a finger. It was portrayed just as it was in the books and is an example of how even if fans might be disappointed with some of the wasted potential, there’s a lot for us to appreciate too. Just the simple fact that these scenes aren’t just playing in our minds anymore, but on the screen before us, fully realized, is something pretty special.

Vampire Academy brings upon complex feelings for the existing fans of this story, where as those who are new to the story can likely watch it without all the baggage and issues and feelings of coming up short. However, they also will lose some of the depth and realization of just how remarkable it all is. Would I have liked to see what someone else could do with an adaptation of “Vampire Academy”, someone who truly embraced what it was, and wanted to expose and explore the strength, complexities, and power of this story? Yes, very much so. I also think they had the right idea with the new Shadowhunters series based on “The Mortal Instruments” books. It wasn’t as successful as a movie as it could have been, financially or creatively. It’s easier to get people to watch a TV show than to go out the theaters these days and a lot easier to be profitable. There’s so much more time to really spend the proper time on character development and gripping suspense, constant twists and turns, building the story in ways that are mind blowing and connect the audience to all that is going on. A lot of the setbacks in the Vampire Academy movie is that it is introducing a very different world and reality, very complex characters, and diving in to a rich, intricate story, that is really just the beginning of much bigger things. Even for someone who really wants to bring this material to the full potential, showing all the depth on hand, it’s not an easy task and a feature film with a world this expansive has limits. With that in mind, the shortcomings don’t seem so bad.

The characters are still infectious, multifaceted, and strong. We are still introduced to a very unique version of the vampire myth that not only exists hidden in our same world, but draws so many parallels with the politics of the vampire government and hierarchy to the more basic struggles of being a teenage girl in the hateful, backstabbing halls of high school. The only difference being that at vampire academy, vile, petty rumors become even more deadly by hiding the true enemy. Danger lies in the unseen shadows, which surround them. It’s a world and climate we can all relate to nonetheless. Some of the themes and importance of the story are ever so slightly hit on in these moments, which is something to appreciate. It reminds us this isn’t a hollow adaptation; it may not have the depth and importance of the books, but there is still some resonance and meaning there among a fun, imaginative world of vampires and spirited heroines who are just coming in to their own as they face the battles ahead of them. It may only scratch the surface of all that inspired the film, but even the surface is utterly captivating.

Life Itself (2014) Film Review

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Roger Ebert is the person who first got me to both understand and love movies. His words spoke to me greatly and got me to see movies as something more, to let them really have an effect. His words flew off the page and allowed me to experience so much through them. That was when I really learned the power of words, because his words changed my life. I clung on to that and wanted nothing more than to express the same understanding in such a beautifully vivid way. Since then I have always reveled in the challenge of putting together the puzzle pieces of thoughts and emotions after a film ends and it’s left a mark on you one way or another. Ebert awakened something in 14 year-old me, something that has become such a vital part of me. He inspired me then and he only inspired me more throughout time. Ebert touched so many lives, some I’m sure he realized, while some of these people he never met. Life Itself will offer closure for those of us who he had this impact on. It’s a heartfelt goodbye and one more chance to remain connected to this one of a kind film critic and man. The film reminds us how lasting his impact will remain through his memory, his work, and his infectious spirit. Even viewers who may not be Ebert fans will get a captivating story of one man’s legacy and they’ll begin to understand why many of us regard him so highly.

Life Itself is everything a film on legendary film critic, Roger Ebert’s, life should be. It’s gripping, honest, heartbreaking, inspiring, and even has comedy sprinkled throughout, matching Ebert’s wit. Most importantly it’s a movie that really hits you and makes you feel such raw intense emotion. Ebert held the classic films in high regard and was very analytical with a film’s technical and intellectual aspects, but what was even more important to him was the unique experience that a particular movie held and what it made him feel. Life Itself truly is an experience; one with gut-wrenching emotion on many different levels throughout.

Siskel & EbertThe film hits all angles, not just on the emotions and thought it invokes in the viewers, but showing us so many aspects of Ebert’s life. We are taken from Ebert’s childhood, becoming an editor by age 15, to getting a job at the Chicago Sun-Times right out of college and falling in to the open position of film critic 5 months later. The film follows his life as he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and reflects on more troubling times like his battle with alcoholism. Life Itself spends the bulk of the time on Siskel & Ebert and the love-hate relationship between the two critics that might have initially been more hate, but over time stemmed in to a mutual respect and adoration for one another. Siskel’s replacement, Richard Roeper isn’t mentioned at all in the film however nor is there a single interview with him, which does feel a bit odd. I would have liked them to touch on this stage in the show and Ebert’s life, but for whatever reason they excluded this from the film.

The film wonderfully showcases just how large of an impact Ebert had on so many people’s lives, a few mentioned in the film include Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris among many independent filmmakers who credit Ebert for drastically changing their careers and touching their lives. Scorsese talks about how he was at such a dark, low point in his life, ready to give up when Siskel and Ebert presented him with an honorary award at The Toronto International Film Festival, which he sites as a major turning point that drastically changed his life. Ebert saw the artistry, talent, and depth in Scorsese’s films, although he wasn’t always a fan of every film and didn’t hesitate to make clear just what he expected from him as a filmmaker. Scorsese says that at times Ebert seemed to recognize something in him that it took him years to discover about himself.

Life Itself is a very honest film. We are shown the true impact of Ebert’s outlook on film and the bigger picture, but we also see both Siskel and Ebert’s ego and relentless arguing (on and off screen) among their other flaws and complexities as individuals and together. Ebert didn’t want to portray anything but the truth about his life with this film. In an email to the filmmaker, Steve James, Ebert writes, “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality. I wouldn’t want to be associated. This is not only your film.” I think most of us will only respect him more for this. We are shown each chapter in Ebert’s life mostly in chronological order with various levels of Ebert’s fight with cancer weaved throughout.

LIFE ITSELFEbert sites his wife, Chaz, as the main reason he was able to go on fighting and still have such joy inside of him even when so much of the life he knew was being ripped away from him. Chaz is right there with him every step of the way with nothing but love and encouragement. We see a lot of lighthearted moments between them, clearly embracing each moment with the other and determined to keep the other’s spirits up. The film goes in to Roger and Chaz’s story, from when they met and how their love flourished from there. They saved each other in a way and their love is evident and completely heartwarming to witness.

There are so many wonderful little moments in Life Itself. It’s difficult to watch Ebert in the hospital and witness the struggle he faced. Some of these moments are the most touching though. This shows us his true character by allowing us to see him at his worst and there still being such a life to him. He never lost his love for film or his passion for writing and sharing that treasured cinematic experience with others. You can tell how much it killed him to leave his show, something that had become such a constant in his life for so long, but he didn’t let that defeat him. Ebert turned to his blog as his outlet and to his readers that were on this journey with him as the viewers of this film are. He acknowledged how difficult everything he was going through was, but we see such a spark of excitement when he got the chance to watch a film again. He explains how writing allows him to go in a zone, to escape from his troubles, and put his energy and spirit in each shot of a film he took in and each word he typed thereafter.

I’ve always respected that Ebert didn’t have the cynicism or prejudices towards certain film genres like other mainstream film critics. He still had a way of appealing to the masses. Ebert had such a vivid and emotional response to movies that you felt that much more connected to him, almost as if you experienced the film through him. He judged films for what he saw in them and what they made him feel even when it wasn’t a popular opinion or what others expected of him. Ebert was also fiercely loyal to the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago as a whole, which is nearly a character in the film itself. As he became more and more prolific he was given job offers left and right for the most well respected publications in the country. No matter how much money was thrown at him he never even considered it. He found his home and his colleagues were his family, there was no reason to look elsewhere.

Ebert could appeal to film scholars just as much as the average American; his reviews connected to people, spanning all ages and walks of life. A very important part of this is that he had a genuine love of cinema which is wonderfully celebrated in Life Itself. He wanted to like a movie going in to it and he was the first to recognize it when a film presented something of value, whatever it might be. He fought for the films he believed in. Ebert made friends with many filmmakers he respected, yet wouldn’t let these friendships cloud his judgment and his responsibility to give his audience an honest review. His voice would never falter or be compromised.

This made his work and perspective stand out from others, gave a new life to film critics, and even spawned a wider appreciation for film. This genuine love and voice that became such a vital part of Ebert never left him no matter how grim things became. He couldn’t talk, eat, or walk, yet he still lost himself in the movies and his craft again and again. In the film Ebert says that in his last year through his blog he became a stronger writer than ever. Most people would have lost the energy and drive, lost the passion, questioned why fictional character’s problems and the world they lived in mattered when their reality seemed so hopeless as their world was quickly ending. It would be so easy for him to flee from a medium that could likely remind him of his pain and suffering rather than giving him a way to fight through it. Not everyone is Roger Ebert though. His passion only became stronger, giving him something to hold on to dearly. He kept on writing and threw so much of himself in to it. Whether you admire Ebert’s writing and perspective as much as many did or not, his relentless determination to keep up with his passions, diving in to them even further, and letting his voice linger on for all those that cared to listen as well as for himself, is one of the most inspirational things I can think of considering all that he was up against. Ebert lost the ability to use his voice in one sense, but he never let his literary voice die. He had great strength and never lost that. Witnessing this is truly breathtaking. Life Itself is a moving cinematic experience I highly encourage all to engage in.

“The soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore but he soldiers on. That touches my life very deeply.” – Werner Herzog in Life Itself

Life Itself Roger Ebert

 

The Lifeguard (2013) Film Review

The LifeguardStarring: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, David Lambert

Written & Directed By: Liz W. Garcia

Grade: A

The Lifeguard is a completely heartbreaking and honest indie gem. It attracted me initially as an interesting character examination and something a bit different for Ms. Bell. It exceeded expectations. When embarking on the journey with our characters it held so much more raw emotion and grim and unsettling perspective. You go from witnessing a rough patch to having complete empathy for our characters, feeling it all with them as the anxiety and dread build. It’s almost unbearable to see how  things pile up and only seem to be getting worse for our already very lost and scared characters. We realize this is life. This isn’t just our confused protagonist; it’s everyone, young and old. No one really knows what’s right, but we all struggle for the answers among the chaos.

Leigh (Bell) has always had everything figured out. She graduated as the valedictorian of her class, thriving and ready to grab hold of the future. Fast forward 10 years she’s a journalist in New York City, coming far from her small town upbringing. It all means nothing without her happiness or any sense of understanding. Knowing she needs a change Leigh abandons her job and city life to move back in to her parent’s home at 29. She holds on desperately to having the remainder of the year before she’s 30. She knows she’s backtracking out of confusion, but the thought of simply remaining where she is without trying to find something more is more terrifying than how this might look like failure to others. Her parents aren’t thrilled about this, but try to allow her some time.

Leigh reconnects with her old high school friends and even takes on her old high school job as a lifeguard at the local pool. She even befriends some new friends, including 16 year-old Jason (Lambert) and his restless high school buddies. They’re very much in the same place she was, desperate to get out of town and start their lives. She wants to guide Jason, to share her melancholy wisdom so he doesn’t make the same mistakes she did. Leigh and Jason seem to connect out of sadness and feeling misunderstood. Leigh jokes that she’s “sucking up his youth like a vampire”. It’s partially a chance for her to revisit her youth, but it’s cathartic and reflective for them both. They’re there for another in a very unexpected way.

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This was a fantastic move for Kristen Bell, very different from roles that she’s played recently. It’s a stripped down, back to basics, painfully emotional role for her. I would argue it’s her best since Veronica Mars. There’s something about her character and the film that feels very organic and genuine, which makes it that much more painful to watch as it’s a fairly bleak tone throughout. It was wonderful to see Martin Starr in such strong, dramatic material. It showed his range and that he can be far more than just the awkward comedic sidekick. This just adds another layer to his potential as an actor.

Bell and Lambert in "The Lifeguard"
Bell and Lambert in “The Lifeguard”

Mamie Gummer’s performance is full of rich subtly to show us even once you do “figure things out”, holding it together can be so very fragile. Her character is trying to play her part and put on a happy face, but it just makes her realize she’s just as lost as Leigh. David Lambert (The Fosters) does an incredible job and hits so many crucial elements as Jason.  He comes off as the typical rebellious and angry teenager, eager to get away and never look back. Most of us have been there. There is a lot more pain and darkness surrounding his friends and him than it seems at first glance. He shows a certain spark in him with equal amounts of wreckage within. There’s an odd energy between Bell and him that almost shouldn’t be there, yet has a way of feeling so fitting. He definitely holds his own again Bell, which is pretty impressive among this material.

 

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There has been a lot of criticism on several elements of the film, which is a bit troubling to me. I hope people are able to take the film for what it is and soak it all in. There are complaints that it could have been better as a quirky comedy, but to me that would have been wasting the film’s potential. The dramedy is not an easy balance to tackle; often one element is sacrificed for the other. This is a dreary film with little peaks of light throughout. The whole point is that people are struggling to be more carefree and lighthearted and can’t seem to find their way back there. It is a bit depressing, but it’s refreshing that it is an honest exploration. There is hope and compassion in sight. It just takes a while to sort through everything to get there. Another major complaint among viewers is the taboo relationship between Leigh and Jason. I don’t think it is condoning this type of relationship or claiming it’s healthy, but it also isn’t treating it as black and white. The film recognizes it as something ultimately not right for either of these characters, but it’s also necessary in finding themselves again. In some ways, it’s a way to reverse the roles. At times Jason shows more maturity than Leigh does and they’re indulging in each other as they try to figure out the rest.

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The Lifeguard captures fear among nearly every character no matter their age or their stage in life. Everyone is so scared; of life, of failure, of being trapped, of not rising to their own expectations. It’s easier to make excuses than to really face it and let yourself be vulnerable. We only have one life to live. To make that a life worth living isn’t always an easy task. Actually it hardly ever is with so many burdens and things crippling your carefree joy and ambition. We forget that happiness in life is really the most important thing, more so than our job, income, or others’ perceptions of you.  That isn’t always something easy to come by and everyone has a different route to get there. Sometimes we have to take several steps back before we can move forward and tackle life again. The Lifeguard allows us to take this journey with our troubled, but good natured characters and gets us to step away from the film with some added perspective.

New Terror-Filled Carrie Trailer Released

The second trailer has been released for the upcoming Carrie remake, based off of Stephen King’s classic novel. Both Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as the cruel, controlling mother, really shine and give us a taste of what we can expect from the film. Moore in particular gives the trailer an utterly discomforting tone that oddly makes you yearn for more. While I’m not sure I buy someone as gorgeous as Moretz being that heavily ridiculed and ostracized, I can suspend a certain amount of disbelief due to the caliber of acting that is promised to go along with it. I have yet to see anything less than a stellar performance from Moretz and I expect no less of her in Carrie.

Most fans of the original may not have been initially all that excited for another rehashing of a horror gem, but the trailer gives the viewer intentions of staying true to the story with the gritty transition Carrie goes through from timid outcast to a fierce and vengeful woman among a disturbing atmosphere. Carrie is fittingly directed by a female filmmaker, Kimberly Peirce, and is set to be released in theaters October 18.

There is Only One Tree Hill and it will Live on in Us All

I have just completed One Tree Hill, the last season; the series in its entirety. I will never see these characters again. I have been with some of them for nearly a decade. I grew with them since I was in high school to adulthood, through my own heartbreak and passion, my own struggles and success, sadness and joy; a life of my own, but mirroring all that Mark Schwahn created and the show embodied and maintained in this series. It’s over. And I’m strangely okay with this. The series ended strong and without realizing it was the last episode at first (the last season only has 13 episodes for its 22+ episode norm per season), it felt right. I didn’t want anything to touch or tarnish this slice of perfection that the last episode portrayed with such understanding.

The last season had a huge impact on me. One Tree Hill was my favorite show for years. Somewhere around season 7 life got in the way and I got behind on the show. It was actually a year or so before I had the chance to catch up. Season 8 was extremely emotional and heartfelt and helped remind me why I loved the show so much in the first place, that raw emotion through characters that felt so real. It is remarkable that the show managed to stay strong besides some bumps in the road. Season 5 was definitely the biggest bump, but they took a huge risk with it so I can’t blame them too much. This was when the WB became the CW and One Tree Hill was one of the only shows that made the transition. Post-high school most shows end anyway since most people don’t end up in the same place after high school and the creator clearly didn’t want to start over with fresh characters in the same town either. So it took place 4 years later, after college, when the characters had accomplished and fallen from their dreams, realizing new desires that urged them back to Tree Hill. It was an off season, cheesy at times even and a lot of rehashing and some characters at lows, but it was a huge risk even continuing the show. It made it past this hurdle. Season 6 was a definite improvement and from there it went on to material and new characters that challenged the show and brought it to new levels, at the very least restoring the best things about it.

So few shows are able to end with dignity. They’re pushed past their limits and all the greatness is drained from them. When Chad Michael Murray and Hilary Burton, who play two of the leads and were always my favorites in the show left, there was definitely danger of this. While I miss them, the show rose up without them and reminds us that this One Tree Hill is not about one person or relationship, it’s about this small town which is just a slice of life; the life we all go through. It’s the pain and terror that we pray never happens to us or the ones we love, a perfect representation of the love we all crave and deserve, and the determination and dreaming within us all that can be realized. The show is about life and it portrays it in such a poetic way that is both tragic and inspiration, depressing and heartfelt, dark and beautiful; all of the darkness and light in this life. While these characters do come across a great deal of luck and success, more so than you can argue is realistic (NBA player, best selling novelist, touring singer, record label owner, high end fashion line designer, or even the couple who marries at 17 and getting pregnant at 18 happening to both have great success and fame and being able to afford a very nice and comfortable life which is certainly not the reality to most who marry or get pregnant in their teen years), I would still argue One Tree Hill is one of the most beautiful, vivid, and life-like series that we have had at least in this generation. It has certainly touched me greatly over the years in so many ways.

Season 9 was a definite change for the series; it is extremely dark and bleak. There’s abduction, mafia-induced pain and suffering, child abuse, police corruption, self-loathing punishment, mental and psychological conditions surface, attempted rape, harassment…the list goes on and on. There is so much physical and emotional scarring and suffering that these characters we love and feel for so deeply are forced to deal it is heartbreaking. It’s so real, it more or less feel that you are experiencing it. During the viewing their emotions become yours. I don’t know how many tears I have cried over the years during One Tree Hill viewings, but especially towards the last seasons. Since we feel these feelings of heartbreak and bliss, we think of what this reality would mean to us and those in our lives we care about most. These moments make us count our blessings and realize the magic and love we have in our lives. Not many shows or art forms of any kind can really have this type of an impact.

The last season was a huge shift in tone, sometimes hard for me to believe all of the darkness that was encompassing my beloved characters. Then again, the show has always had its shades of darkness. There has cheating, lying, and deception that happens in mankind, especially in high school, but there was also school shootings, suicide, murder (one brother to another), control, kidnapping, stalking, abandonment, death, and loss of all kinds. The show began to bring out inspiration, finding yourself, and the complex people that all young people are, whether they seem this way or not. Just look at Nathan or Brooke. They both were popular and seemingly had everything they could have wanted. They both had great family issues that pushed them down and prevented them from being themselves or finding happiness for quite some time until they were able to embrace themselves and what they wanted for their lives. One Tree Hill was always a show about complexities and taking a deeper look at things than seem to be there. By season 3 it just took a darker route with it. While season 9 felt darker than most seasons, it still felt right. It didn’t feel like the writers were trying to just do something completely different for the sake of being different and the need for other material for ratings or to keep the audience’s attention. All hell broke loose in ways I never imagined could have happened on this show, wrecking havoc to those who were really pushed to their edge, dangerously nearly the breaking point. It wasn’t relentless and without reason though. There was resolution, the calm reached them, and a completely new and fitting tone resurfaced when chaos had left.

***This will be the one and only SPOILER!!!

Some of the most dominate and intense feelings this series has invoked in me over the past 10 years was my hate for Dan Scott, Nathan’s controlling father and Lucas’ illegitimate and shameful father. He was very selfish, egotistical, and fueled with paranoia and hate. Every life around his that he touched was worse off because of it. He murdered his own brother, Keith,  then moved in on the woman Dan abandoned years ago who said brother was engaged to and was going to start his life with. He abandoned Lucas as a son and Keith was there to raise him and ensure he turned in to the man he should be. Dan was vile and tormented his wife, making her fear her life for some time. Dan pressured his son so much he put him in the hospital and once Nathan had the sense to get away and start a better life with Haley he set out to ruin their lives at any costs. Let’s not forget the murder! He was a disgusting man that fueled you to hate him with every ounce of your energy simply as a viewer let alone the people who really knew and had to deal with this man. So many lives were shattered because of him. Even before he killed Keith, you couldn’t help but hate him. Then once the dirty deed was done and he was the mayor and deceived everyone around him, this hate only grew, even when he got out of prison after only 4 years, he tried to get back in Nathan and his grandson’s life.

Up to the moment he was hunting for Nathan who we needed to be okay and come back so bad, I still couldn’t forgive him for what he was. I understood the need for him to be in Jaime’s (his grandson) life and I felt for Jaime who wanted him to be there. Everything he ever did was for Nathan, fighting to give him the best life he could have, even if it was all terribly misguided and the wrong approach to say the least. I have always known this, but even when he was putting his life on his line, hunting relentlessly for his son, I still didn’t forgive him. I have spent 10 years hating this man and I know for a fact that he’s a monster at his core; this is certainly what his actions have shown. Yet, somehow after all this time hating him and wishing for him to die, that seeming like the only just thing, when his time came, and he was about to die, I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for Dan Scott! I cried for him, I wished that somehow he would make it out okay. I wanted Dan Scott to be saved! I spent 10 years hating this man with such passion. Even a few episodes ago, but definitely a few seasons ago I would have been glorying in the man’s death and cheering it on. Instead, I had tears and remorse for him, not because he deserved it, I know he didn’t, but because he proved that even monsters have shades of gray in them. We all have a heart no matter how tainted and buried it may have been in the past. It is our last moments, in the heat of danger and death that truly define who we are and our love for others. I never thought I would be typing or even thinking these words but Dan Scott surprised me and passed the test.

Bravo to one of the best developed and complex characters and to Paul Johanson who through this character has given the best performance he will ever give. He has fueled so much hate in me and yet he still won me over in the end. Even before he did I could still see how real his emotion, remorse, regrets, and love were. He has hit every angle with this character. If nothing else he has invoked a hell of a lot of raw, fierce emotion through the character. Whether you hated or loved him, he made Dan completely real.

***SPOILER END, It is safe to read!

I’m a huge romantic at heart, but I rarely feel like true love is really captured in movies or television. The love I have seen in this show is one of the most overwhelming things I have witnessed in my life. It is so genuine, unconditional, and stands the test of endless complications. One reason for this is these characters are so well realized; they’re complex, multi-dimensional, and real. Who they are, their pasts, their passions, and their desires in life and in love are what make them who they are and are what makes the other person understand them so fully. Most of them took them quite a while to get there and a lot of heartbreak. Again, that’s life. We get it wrong, we take time to find ourselves, but we end up with such a passionate, all consuming, and understanding love that we know everything else that led to this moment was worth it to get here, to know ourselves and the person we’re blessed to call our other half. They fill our world while still shining bright in our own skin.

I remember the first time I ever watched One Tree Hill. It was the summer after the second season had aired. I heard a commercial on the radio about the episode, “Dare Night”. I was amused by it so I decided to check it out. From that point on I was completely and utterly hooked. Of course, I didn’t know all the history and reasoning behind it (when I did go back and watch the first season it was shocking, entertaining, and like I was discovering a past secret that put everything in to perspective). I remember thinking Brooke was such a cold bitch. My opinion now? I think she’s one of the strongest characters on the show:  beautiful, bold, immensely loving, ambitious, but ultimately a girl with simple desires such as the love of her friends and family and to give this love just as much as she receives it. Julian was a Godsend to her. He brings out the best in her and gave her every ounce of love she always desired. In return, she shows that unconditional love to him even when she’s scared, protective, and given reason not to. They have chemistry, such belief and inspiration in each other, and a love that is constantly bursting out of them. This is true of every relationship on this show, each shown in their own way, but always ringing so true and igniting so much emotion in the viewer.

 

I was a Peyton and Jake or “Jeyton” fan, but I can even appreciate Peyton and Lucas’ love. He was in love with her since he was 17. There was always something between them and they understood each other in ways most others never could. They certainly had many complications, fighting for each other at the wrong times constantly. I did get a bit aggravated with the Lucas-Peyton-Brooke love triangle, which was rehashed time and time again. Lucas would be with one of them and things would move towards one or the other developing feelings again, Brooke and Peyton’s friendship always at risk and worked to be mended every time he got in between them. Of course there were other things like Peyton following her dreams of pursuing music that could touch lives the way they touched hers, Lucas sometimes thinking more with his heart than his head and sometimes not with either as he had to go down the wrong path to find his way back to himself. Lucas’ book ended up bringing their love back again with Peyton putting everything on the line and fighting for him like hell even when it seemed he was the one who got away. That same book made Brooke and Julian realize their live and proved to be a great representation on how they all touched each other’s lives and what those early high school memories meant to not only their lives, but how relatable, human, and beautiful these moments were even to the masses (the eventually made a movie and TV show based on the book based on the lives we witness on One Tree Hill).

I can’t even think about mentioning One Tree Hill’s great perception and portrayal of love without mentioning Nathan and Haley. It is one of the strongest fictional examples of love I have ever witnessed. Most of the intensely emotional moments rely on Haley James-Scott in particular, a testament to the character and Bethany Joy Lenz clearly touching, real, and outstanding portrayal over the years. I have felt so much of her love and pain in the past decade. I think there’s a piece of Haley in us all, if so we should be so lucky. She is an incredible artist, wife, mother, friend, and woman all around. Most of her greatness is brought out through her family, especially her husband, Nathan Scott. He was the classic popular and talented jerk who got away with hell because of who he was; a basketball star with a guaranteed bright future ahead of him. He was just trying to get to his illegitimate and equally talented ball-playing brother, Lucas, by trying to get close to Haley in the beginning. She didn’t cut him any breaks and she never accepted any less than the kind of man she knew she deserved and she knew Nathan was deep down; eventually the man he became.

We all have our demons, she exorcised his and fought by his side every day to make sure they stayed away. They didn’t always. Post NBA and his drunken bar fighting recklessness years later, she had to take care of him when he didn’t take care of himself and didn’t care about anything anymore. Much like Haley when she had to deal with loss of a loved one that was like a best friend, guiding her, a loss that was so heavy on her heart that life didn’t seem to have any meaning or purpose any more, even those she loved and needed. They never gave up on the other no matter how bad things got, they were always there for each other. Haley saved him when he was 17 and she continued to save him, especially the terror and trauma that he endured in the last season. She struggled and fought for him, desperately needing things to turn out okay, for her to have him “always and forever”. There were troubles in them trying to figure out getting married and started a life out together so young and still having ambitions of their own, especially for Haley. She realized no matter how fulfilled, a life without Nathan, her first and only love, was no life at all. She fought for him and would continue to for the rest of her life. Luckily, it didn’t take that long and they started the next chapter of their lives together with their family and pursuing their passions with embracing their love for one another. They had everything together, but it took them awhile to get it right as well. They’re human like we all are. They just happen to be two humans that are so well suited for each other, keeping each other on track, loving and supporting one another, and embracing the romance and spark that will always glimmer in their eyes and surely their hearts.


The show started as a high school teen drama. I was this age when I started watching the show. I felt very misunderstood in high school, perhaps part of me always will. There was something in One Tree Hill that spoke to me, it was an outlet, it understood part of me that I might not have even understood myself. I always thought of myself as a bit of a mix of Peyton and Haley. At least at first they were both somewhat of artistic loners, they had their group of friends and Peyton was actually in the “popular crowd”, but they were pretty solitary people and unique in their desires, interests, and mindsets to those around them. I had Peyton’s style and personality, but Haley’s determination, belief, and heart. I think that remains very true today. I’m honored to embody a piece of the best of these amazing characters. Even more interesting though is despite both their lives changed throughout the show as well as my life and how much I have changed since then, those fundamentals of identity, who I am at my core, and more or less the people we all strive to be is still just as true 10 years later.

That speaks to the incredible characterizations on the show, but it captures something a bit deeper at the same time. In the last episode they’re reliving who they all were 10 years ago. Brooke is the one who seems to capture better than any of them that they’ve changed and went down the paths they were meant to in order to get where they are with all of the struggles and blessings. We change a great deal especially between high school to post-college to figuring out who we are and the lives we will live. Brooke acknowledges this, but also realizes that who they were then is more or less who they will always be deep down. As someone whose life has drastically changed in so many ways, I can honestly say who I was at my core then is the same girl I am today and who I always will be.

 

The show couldn’t have ended on a better note. In the last season, it challenged itself and was pushed to the brims of darkness and back to a much lighter, nostalgic, and loving place. It showed the worst and the best that life is capable of and will likely experience in great quantities, it has a way of being unpredictable like that. The TV show of Lucas’ book on their lives starting in production and the 10 year anniversary of Tric was the perfect opportunity to allow the viewers that closure that we desperately needed to say goodbye to such a remarkable show that we spent so much time with. For the anniversary of Tric, we get a goodbye from Haley, thanking us for being with her and performances from Chris Keller, Haley, and the one and only Gavin DeGraw. This show made me fall in love with Mr. DeGraw and his music and I ended up meeting him and you better believe the words One Tree Hill left my mouth during my brief moment with him. His music meant a lot for the show. He sang of being yourself among struggles whoever that  person is. His music embraced the love on the show. Whenever I hear “More than Anyone” I will always think of Haley and Nathan passionately kissing in the rain as Nathan professes his love shortly before they get married and replayed when they got re-married after combating struggles and grow closer. Even in their toughest times, the rain which signifies gloominess for most of us, was a romantic, thrilling representation for them that washed away the bad, replaced with their love powering over all else. Gavin DeGraw’s music and wisdom continues to inspire me in a number of ways as did many things that surfaced on this show.

Through the TV show some of the characters look at their past selves directly and really take in this journey, while realizing it is far from over. Gifts and dreams are passed on and the magic of believing is put in to action for the spirit of Tree Hill to live on as strong as it always has. This show has meant a great deal to me for love, life, human complexities, ambitions, understanding, and so much more. We all have experienced and craved these things and dread the inherent evil and suffering that will hunt us down. With the strength and love that characters have embodied in this show, we too will fight. One Tree Hill was a great show because it embodied so much of what life is, the good, the bad, the struggle, the hope, the people, the love, finding yourself and everything in between. It’s good to remember while we find all this and fight and embrace so much that we will always have a home and understanding in One Tree Hill. It was not a perfect series, like us all it was flawed but breathtaking, one beautiful depiction of life in the small town of Tree Hill, North Carolina. I know it will always have a place in my heart.

Review: Mother’s Red Dress (2012)

Starring: Timothy Driscoll, Alexandra Swarens, Alisha Seaton

Written By & Directed By: Michael Edgar Bravo

Mother’s Red Dress is the next feature from the collaborative team of writer/director Edgar Michael Bravo and producer, John Paul Rice. Their previous film, One Hour Fantasy Girl, was an incredible tale of the hardships of runaways in the deceitful land of Hollywood that swallows up young hopefuls looking for a better life. For me, One Hour Fantasy Girl is the better of the two although they follow some of the same themes and haunting pasts continuing to hold our characters back.

The film centers around Paul (Driscoll), a young man trying to start over after a traumatic event at home. His dad left him and his mother when he was only six years old. He has tried to be there for his mother as much as he could, but she has continued to struggle more and more in her life, men usually being the center of that, being both initially caring yet truly deadly. This progresses to a point where it’s clear there is no going back.

After that, he decides he needs to go somewhere new, get a new job, maybe get in to college and try to find if a new life with less damage and destruction is a possibility for him. Paul seems to particularly cling to a local coffee shop where a girl he quickly forms a crush on works. She’s hesitant, but he convinces her to give him a chance and give him a tour of the local college. She’s his main focus as things progress between them. His happiness can only last so long as his family puts all this to a stop. His mother tells him she’s sick; she only has a few months to live. Paul’s father has finally agreed to be a part of their lives, which doesn’t sit too well with him. He feels like he is being dragged back in, but he has no choice. He has to face things once and for all.

The best thing about Mother’s Red Dress is the mother and the incredible, Alexandra Swarens. She gives an outstanding, raw, and meaningful performance. She carries so much emotion and realism, we can really feel what she’s going through as heartbreaking it is as we realize she has more strength than she realizes and we desperately want her to hold on to that and fully fight back to set things right. Even the small things went so far with her. I really would have liked her to have been the main character although I realize what the film ended up being about at the end isn’t as centered on her despite her being a key component. I wanted to know more though; get deeper inside her troubles, motivations, and complicated psyche.

Swarens outshines everyone else acting wise, almost too much so. I really had trouble really feeling for any other character. A big part of this is there just wasn’t the depth in the performances there needed to be. Most people were pretty hollow without much range or real humanity. It seemed like they were mostly going through the motions of things without bringing any type of life to their characters or the world they were in. Especially for Timothy Driscoll, it made it hard for me to have any investment in Paul, who’s the main character. That was a huge issue that held me back from really being able to experience all the movie was going for. The romance seemed a little rushed and I just didn’t believe he was as consumed and in love with her as he seemed to think he was. If he simply viewed her as an escape I could see that, but there really didn’t seem to even be much battling of dark feelings from his past. His features are very stone faced and one dimensional, which makes it harder to understand what the character is supposed to be going through. He does shield the truth from himself for quite some time, but even when the final confronting comes out the realism and emotion in the realization is not there.

Towards the end, things get a bit confused. There are some major twists and things are presented in a very different mentality than they were before. The intentions behind them and the lifelong hardships this brings out definitely spoke to me. It shows the power of what that can do to a person. It just felt a little disjointed and sudden. I admire and am intrigued with the very real life horrific issues, emotions, and very human struggles that the film is centered around. In the case of the mother this spoke to me and made me yearn for more of her story. Unfortunately, most of the performances don’t portray this with the deserved mentality and emotions. In most cases, the execution is holding all of the potential back. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Again, one character is the embodiment of this and is radiating tragic truth in so many ways, this just isn’t the case across the board. Having these meaningful intentions at hand has worked wonders in the past for this team and I will still be interested to see their future endeavors.

Short Film Review: Familiar

Starring: Robert Nolan, Astrida Auza, Cathryn Hostick

Written & Directed By: Richard Powell
Reviewed by: Kelsey Zukowski (The Scream Queen)
Grade: B+

Familiar is a dark short film that immediately shows us the twisted fate at hand. It comes full circle, showing how we got to this point and reveals the uncompromising gritty reality behind it. Of course, this is really just setting the tone for what is to follow. At first glance, we really have no real understanding of what’s going on or the weight it holds.

John Dodd’s only escape from his family life misery is the hope o f being essentially free from fatherhood when his daughter goes away to college. He’s done his time and he’s nearly out now, needing freedom behind his residential prison more than ever. Life seems to have other plans though. John’s wife tells him that she is pregnant. It may be a miracle to her, but to John it’s a fate worse than death. He can’t just sit back and allow himself to be stuck again for another 20 years.  He still has some control and he’s not willing to go out without a fight. John resorts to abortion methods and drugs his wife. Things don’t stop there. John’s boundaries are clearly ripping off the seams. A darkness in him getting stronger until it completely takes over piece by piece.

Familiar is a beautifully shot film with excellent production levels, something I rarely see in low-budget  indie horror screeners like this. The acting is spot on and simply incredible. It is the glue that holds the film together. Robert Nolan as John as is clearly the stand out performance. He shows an outstanding range and real understanding of a character who is so teetering. He nails it all from the subdued, hollow, and distantly numb to the scared, out of his element individual who loses his grip on reality and is determined to go out with a fight no matter how viciously suffocating it might be. Astrida Auza gives a much more subtle performance as his wife, but it’s the little touches that really make it notable. She doesn’t seem like an actor, she seems like a real person who is somewhat content in life, but still struggles and aches for something more.

Familiar is constantly interesting and engaging. Each act of the film is significantly different from the previous, almost seeming like a different being altogether. Still, it all works as a progression. It just has you intrigued and not really sure what is going on. It weaves quite an intricate web and ends up revealing a nightmarish reality far beyond fears of fatherhood. Yet it is that fear of the loss of freedom that takes an entirely different horrifying physical manifestation. Or is it the physicality that brings light to the true terrors of parenting, and tragic domestic  living that are merely brought light to by more jarring visuals? That is up to you to decide.

Review: Second Star (2011)

Reviewed By: Kelsey Zukowski
Starring: Stephanie Sylvester, Troy Zitzelberger, Brittany Collins, Heather Dorff
Directed By: Derek Quint

Grade: B

Second Star is a short film about a homeless woman on New Year’s Eve. We follow her throughout the night as the lines between reality, fantasy, and past are blurred. It was inspired by J.M. Barrie’s book, “Peter Pan” as well as old and modern ghost legends.

Director, Derek Quint, follows a guerilla film style for a very realistic opening. For someone living in Chicago, it’s something you witness nearly every day, but are rarely a part of the way it is shown to us here. Once the party begins I liked how drastically the tone and atmosphere changed. The noticeable difference takes us in to a surreal cycle of events. We can’t be completely sure what’s real and what’s not, much like our protagonist who is scared and lost in the world she finds herself in.

The exploration of fiction and reality is among my favorite themes that can be explored through film. It’s the perfect medium to do so since film itself could be considered the blurring of fiction and reality. It’s not real, but is encompassed around reality; part of the reason film exists as a intelligent art form. Second Star takes advantage of this exploration and experiments with this character’s psyche.

The director even says he isn’t completely sure what happens, how it ends, or what is reality and what is fiction. This really emphasis the importance of the experience of Second Star; it really doesn’t matter what happens because the film is about something much larger. It’s up to you to decide what that is.