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  • “The Eagle Huntress” documentary shines in storytelling and cinematography

    The uniqueness of documentary films affords us with an unfiltered, first-hand glimpse into a person’s life adventures.  These “reality” movies place us—the filmgoer—directly into the world of non-actors doing what they do best being themselves.  Through these documentaries, we partake in history as it’s recording, warts and all, starring those who making it all happen. In “The Eagle Huntress,” we are invited into the nomadic culture of one family living in the snow-covered Altai Mountains of Mongolia near the border with China.  This film’s deeply powerful and rich story develops as a young girl attempts to enter the competitive Mongol world of eagle hunters. Narrated by “The Force Awakens’” heroine Daisy Ridley (who played Rey in the “Star Wars” classic), “The Eagle Huntress” introduces viewers to a 13-year old girl named Aisholpan, as she learns the 1,000-year old trade skill of training golden eagles to help a tribe hunt for elusive foxes … a desperate source of food and clothing in Mongolia’s harsh 40-degrees-below-zero climate.Tackling strong stereotypes and the custom of male-only eagle hunters, this young girl must convince her father to alter her family’s twelve-generation practice of a patriarch teaching his son the time-honored art of taming predatory birds. Gorgeous cinematography educates and inspires throughout.  With today’s over-reliance upon computer-generated imagery to create the perfect shot, it’s breathtaking to see a movie captured on the big-screen using only natural, postcard-quality outdoor scenes. In fact, while this film’s story is largely singular and focused solely on Aisholpan’s attempt to become the first woman to earn the coveted eagle huntress title, the English subtitles and amazing photography masterfully transplants us deep inside the nomadic tribal lifestyle.Combined with its feel-good underdog narrative and mesmerizing images resides a galvanizing soundtrack that warms one’s heart and soul.  No music is more stirring than Sia’s song, “Angel by the Wings,” booming during the film’s credits and final still shots of Aisholpan.  

  • Taking a Punsch at the Tough Luck Club

    I suppose it was tough luck on that winter night in 1988 when three punches, which I never even ordered, made me $150 richer.I was tending bar at the legendary Bum Steer when a fight broke out, and as my employee manual directed me to do, I broke it up. It was then that I learned about the bar’s “lucky punch” policy, which paid employees $50 for every hit they took in restoring order to the scene.Having been the recipient of three hard ones in that melee, I ended my shift with an extra $150 in my tip jar, courtesy of the Steer’s code of compassion.Thankfully there’s a different kind of punch that’s trending at bars today, and what a difference an “s” makes.Punsch, a liqueur that originated in 18th Century Sweden, is suddenly relevant again as evidenced by its presence in many of Southern Arizona’s cocktail bars. Swedish Punsch can be distilled from fermented coconut flower sap, rice, fruits, or sugar cane and introduces a unique flavor profile to a range of cocktails.Local barman Robert Gillies’ fascination with the spirit began nearly 10 years ago when he started reading vintage cocktail books, an interest which intensified when he considered his family’s lineage.

  • From father to daughter, Trattoria Pina is still serving inspired Italian cuisine after 23 years

    Bright, late afternoon light beams in through the wide windows, illuminating the orders of food on the pass line. An open kitchen allows patrons to see how each dish is carefully constructed. A muffolatta panini piled high with thinly sliced cold cuts and a rich pesto is delivered to a man celebrating his 100th birthday. Customers linger over post lunch coffee and tiramisu soaked in rum and espresso. This is just a day in the life of the homey yet sumptuous Italian restaurant Trattoria Pina.“Originally, I did not want to get into the restaurant business,” said owner Pina Colosimo, “but I am so glad that I did.”In fact, Colosimo’s parents insisted, at first, that she stay away from the family business. Running a successful and busy eatery is hard work, and they should know. Her folks, Cosmo and Nana, ran DaVinci’s on Ft. Lowell Road for over 28 years and her uncle owned Michelangelo’s, which opened back in 1972. To say the least, owning an Italian-inspired restaurant is in her blood and she just couldn’t stay away, even though she tried.“They wanted me to enjoy my life, work a nine-to-five job and not have to live in a restaurant,” Colosimo said. “But after five years in the corporate world I knew that I wanted to open my own place.”With the help of her husband, Fedele, who was also thrown into the chaotic world of the restaurant industry by becoming chef, they found a perfect spot on the corner of Swan and Sunrise, and in 1993 Trattoria Pina opened. Twenty-three years later, we are so glad she decided to be the rebel.Some call Trattoria Pina a “hidden gem” even though it is hiding in plain sight. A vivid yellow awning looms over the heavy wood front doors, which are usually open, inviting all to step inside. Once there, you know you are in for something special. The restaurant itself is quietly upscale, but extremely comfortable which absolutely reflects the cuisine. Soft, warm, open, subtle yet filled with activity and the smiles of the servers, chef and, yes, owner, who can usually be found at the host stand greeting customers and showing them to their table. 

  • “The Founder” serves up McDonald’s history

    Sixty-three years ago, they owned the fast food hamburger market outpacing even Burger King (Insta-Burger King at the time) nationally. Soon, McDonalds offspring popped up along almost every U.S. main street nearly as fast and efficiently as their burgers, fries and milkshakes arrived at the front counter of each franchise restaurant. Now the burger giant serves 1 percent of the world’s population. Every day. “The Founder” traces the chaotic mid- to late years of Ray Kroc, the Illinois salesman who sold milkshake makers—and just about everything else—back in 1954. Academy Award winner Michael Keaton nicely plays Kroc, the future head of The McDonalds Corp., as business plans and relationships form to develop the nation’s model for fast food customer service. While this chronological true story feels documentary in style, it doesn’t usher many outward emotions from viewers, either good or bad. Mostly informative in nature, only a few times during the movie are we given glimpses behind the golden arches into the unpleasantness of Kroc during his dramatic rise to franchise King status.The film’s interesting story parts boil down to the relationships in Kroc’s life at the time. Case in point: His discovery of the McDonalds brothers in San Bernardino, California, soaking up their revolutionary business model and floor plan ideas. Both ingredients key to an assembly line of burgers so fast, efficient, and successful it would make Japanese car manufacturers stand up and applaud in envy. This movie is not a glaring 2-hour promotional commercial for McDonalds. Aside from its business merits and trendsetting fast food branding, the tense relationships between Kroc and his wife (Laura Dern), the financiers, and the original McDonalds franchise owners are the best dishes served on the film’s menu. The less endearing picture painted of Kroc is underscored by his hijacking of the McDonalds trademark name and his ruthless negotiations that made it happen.Viewers go from supporting Keaton’s earnest salesman character and franchise vision as Kroc, to switching restaurant tables to watch his troubles get unwrapped from afar.

  • Sold Pueblo visions

    Michael Cajero has never been an artist of muted views. An expert at making desolate figures out of burnt papier-mâché and twisted wire, Cajero has created a scorched installation summing up his fears about America’s new political era. Displayed at Conrad Wilde Gallery in the aptly named show Resist! The Art of Disruption, Cajero’s nearly life-sized tableau features a scary brute wielding a club; below him a body lies beaten on the ground. Above, a blackened ladder has been severed in two, a farewell to a world where the 99 percent had some chance of climbing up to a better life. Invited to submit works pushing back against the “obscenely un-presidential and pathological,” 16 artists made “direct, heavy-hitting stuff,” says gallery director Miles Conrad, art that challenges the proposed policies of the new president. Crafted in media from video to photography to the scorched paper of Cajero, the pieces rage against economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction and curbs on reproductive freedom. The show continues through Feb. 25; reception is 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4. Conradwildegallery.org. Resist is not the only show on the crowded spring arts calendar that touches on politically charged issues. Northern Triangle at the University of Arizona Museum of Art does a deep dive into the tragedy of woman and children fleeing the violence of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and seeking refuge in the United States. The installation, by the Borderland Collective, opens with a reception from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Feb. 2. Opening at the same time is a solo exhibition for noted Tucson painter and muralist, David Tineo, whose vivid expressionist works champion Mexican-American culture and heritage. Both shows run through April 2. www.artmuseum.arizona.edu. And at the eastside Tucson Desert Art Museum, three exhibitions document the World War II-era internment camps that imprisoned men, women and children of Japanese descent—many of them U.S. citizens. One show zeroes in on the camps in Arizona, including the Prison Camp on Mount Lemmon. At a moment when some Americans have suggested interning Muslims, the shows are a welcome reminder that fear can subvert the Constitution. www.tucsondart.org.But art, as always, also offers solace and delight. Many of this season’s exhibitions honor beauty; some planned arts events are downright fun. The Center for Creative Photography is staging a birthday party for the late Ansel Adams from 1 to 4 p.m. on Feb. 18 (he would be 115 on Feb. 20 were he still among us). The free festivities include a print viewing of his lovely black-and-white landscape photos (the CCP owns the lauded photographer’s archive), a talk by chief curator Becky Senf, and, of course, a birthday cake. www.creativephotography.org.  Davis Dominguez Gallery’s Play of Light, opening Jan. 27, is all about beauty. Joanne Kerrihard delivers serene, color-filled paintings, Carrie Seid turns up with luminous sculptural boxes rendered in silk, and Andy Polk shows inkjet prints. Through March 11. www.davisdominguez.com.

  • The White Snake may not satisfy wholly but it’s a brilliant visual delight

    Theaters, like most every other entity, work hard to create their brand. From the beginning, the folks at the Rogue Theatre had a pretty clear vision about what they wanted their brand to be. If I had to name it, without reaching into their statements of purpose and articles of incorporation, I would say it is this: thoughtful plays, thoughtfully done. There’s a strong cerebral nature to the Rogue’s choices of plays, and that cerebral quality also guides how they conceive their onstage imagination of them. Rogue has been true to its brand and has found a sizable audience to whom it appeals. Still, that doesn’t mean the brand isn’t above a too self-conscious rendering.Fortunately, the Rogue  seems to know when to loosen their librarians’ bun, sometimes allowing a flutter of fancy to overtake the stage. That is what we see in their luminous current production, The White Snake, by Mary Zimmerman. It’s based on a Chinese myth in which the White Snake has worked for centuries to learn how she fits into the scheme of things. Perhaps her chief lesson is that her place is not in the world of men. Oh, but still she wants to see the “other side,” the sights and sounds and scourges of what she is not.So she and a friend, although warned this was a bad idea, both come down from the mountain, the White Snake (Patty Gallagher) assuming the form and temperament of a sweet young lady and the Green Snake (Holly Griffith) assuming the role of her comic sidekick. And what do you know? Almost immediately a young man (Ryan Parker Knox) catches the White Snake’s eye and his image takes up residence in her heart. He is a poor man with nothing. Frankly, she has a few tricks up her sleeve, there appears a way their match can be made.In this particular account, the journey is visually beautiful. It is this aspect that delivers the most delight of the production. Utilizing the simplest of hardware, the show demonstrates the magic that is the hallmark of theater: sheets of shimmering material, large and small, colorful and breezy, become rivers and rain and the passing of time; paper umbrellas are put to both utilitarian and fanciful use; lanterns on poles create an immediate and striking impression of a celebratory gathering; Chinese characters on a scrim magically begin to glow; actors become part of a locale with a bell and a sign. Snakes are rod puppets, operated by their actor-beings, and there’s a bit of a suggestion of shadow puppetry and spirit animals. Invention and whimsy create the means by which the tale delivers its import.  And all of this is supported by the thoughtful music devised by Jake Sorgen, and performed by Sorgen, Karen Falkenstrom and Callie Hutchison.

  • “The Two Amigos” a load of laughs at The Gaslight Theatre

    When travelling entertainers Reynaldo and Paco are invited to perform in the village of Santa Feliz by Comandante Maxino, the two men – also known as the Two Amigos – accidentally involve themselves in the village’s local political turmoil. With the people of Santa Feliz seemingly trapped under the comandante’s boot, a hero must be found.The most recent show to premier at The Gaslight Theatre, “The Two Amigos” is another well performed, laughter-inspiring performance well within the vein of melodramatic excellence for which the establishment has been known. A western themed comedy ride, “The Two Amigos” draws from several well-known sources within the genre’s history, even a famous, masked sword fighter with a penchant for the final letter in the alphabet.Leading the cast as the production’s protagonist is the always energetic Jake Chapman, a member of the Gaslight family with nearly a decade under his belt. Aside from his role as Reynaldo, Chapman also dons the vestiture of the masked hero, El Bandito. A fan of playing the hero, Chapman said he dons his greatest gravelly voice to fill a more serious note at times, though his contagious spirit on stage shines through in both laughter and splendor from the audience and actors alike.Reynaldo’s love interest, Angelita, is played by fellow Gaslight ace Janée Page, who said that the enchanting atmosphere of the theater is present throughout the show.“There is a certain magic that happens on stage that is indescribable,” she said. “You can feel the energy of the people who feel that magic, and reciprocate it. …You’re a part of this thing that is fun and beautiful and entertaining.”Whether riding on wooden horseback, fighting an exciting duel of blades or finding love, “The Two Amigos” is as engaging and hilarious as any show at The Gaslight. Other regular faces of the Gaslight cast include Mike Yarema, Todd Thompson, Jacob Brown, David Orley, Jake Coffin, Heather Stricker and Erin Thompson. Whether in duet, in group as a full cast, the songs in between the scenes are as impressive as the acting.

  • “Patriots Day” an engrossing thriller on Boston Marathon bombings

    No one right now in Hollywood is sharper at crafting heroic true-life stories onto the big-screen than Clint Eastwood or Peter Berg. Both directors have powerfully depicted ordinary people doing extraordinary acts of bravery.  Each visionary storyteller is so keen at providing a deep history behind actual events, that viewer blood pressure gets elevated as one’s overall fingernail length is nervously reduced. Eastwood’s tributes have shined bright with his “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “American Sniper” and “Sully” under his watchful eye. Whereas Berg’s game has been raised of late with his own heart-racing true tales: “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and now “Patriots Day.” All chaotic films, at times, funny—but each a rather large truth tablet for moviegoers to swallow in their willingness to learn more.Based upon the book “Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph over Tragedy,” this film focuses on the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings and the ensuing massive federal, state and local inter-agency investigation. The real star of “Patriots Day” is the city of Boston. As evidenced by Mark Wahlberg’s role as a police sergeant molded into a compilation of nearly 20 Boston Police Department officers, his character the dedicated face of many—as well as the key thread woven into the film’s chilling manhunt fabric.Roman philosopher Seneca once scribed that “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Nothing demonstrates our post-9/11 world and lessons learned more graphically than Boston’s coordinated, fast-paced and lethal investigative response to an attack during their 117th annual race. To see that city’s first-responders and medical personnel react in the same manner as their New York City brothers and sisters in September of 2001, is both awe-inspiring and heartwarming. Capturing the numerous lives affected by those twin blasts near the finish line, “Patriots Day” leaves us with a better understanding of the dangerous world we live in and more thankful for the people charged with responding to those dangers.  From the fire, police and military racing towards the explosive epicenters, doctors and nurses making life and limb decisions at surrounding hospitals and heads-up Bostonians reporting tidbits of information, “Patriots Day” underscores the city’s strength, readiness and resolve that brought swift justice to a pair of sinister culprits wearing a “black hat” and “white hat”.  Aside from the stellar job by Wahlberg representing Boston PD, “Patriot Day” shows off a collaborative team effort by law enforcement sleuths that use their combined expertise and skillsets in a successful manner that resembles a U.S. military special operations unit in its efficiency, order, and lethality. Even knowing the eventual outcome to this true narrative, viewers will find the background stories on the real bombing victims, law enforcement officers and terrorists fascinating—yet heartbreaking—to watch unfold. But everyone should see “Patriots Day” because that will help keep America Strong.  And ready.Grade: A

  • “Manchester by the Sea” rolls in grief and guilt

    Casey Affleck’s spectacular performance is this film earned him a Golden Globe on Sunday, and should end any further speculation as to which Affleck brother has the best acting chops.  Sorry, Batman. Chatter from the Left Coast early last year told us film critics to expect a particularly stunning job from the younger Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”.  More times than not, these self-pronounced premerits of greatness by studio execs only translates into hyperbole and unmet expectations in the end.  That’s not the case in this movie about grief and family relationships.Carrying significant guilt and apprehensive upon his shoulders, Affleck’s divorced Lee Chandler character returns to his hometown of Manchester after the death of his brother, Joe. Complicating matters for the blue-collar repairman is Lee’s startling reintroduction to his now teenage nephew, Patrick, and his first contact in years with an ex-wife (played by Michelle Williams).  “Manchester by the Sea” is a slow storyline reveal that works by tossing in timely flashbacks of a better time and life for Affleck’s handyman Lee. As guardianship issues for his nephew must be legally worked out, Uncle Lee’s uncomfortableness returning to Manchester swings constantly between heartache and remorse. Equally entertaining is the job Lucas Hedges does portraying the role of the now fatherless Patrick.  Together, Affleck and Hedges create a tension-filled relationship as neither wants to have their life completely upended because of the sudden death of their loved one.The movie does a lot right.  It somehow makes a slow plot reveal work without losing viewers, mostly due to its believable acting and a mysterious storytelling rollout. The film poignantly explains the extended family dynamics and its unimaginable past, delving deeper into Casey’s relationships with not only his nephew, but others. It even injects a grown-up Ferris Bueller, aka Matthew Broderick, into a small scene.  This realistic and exceptionally well-acted endeavor, though, has a few glaring problems. Joining an irritable rash of late 2016 films like “Moonlight” and “Nocturnal Animals”, this northeast narrative sports an interesting beginning only to culminate in an unremarkable and bland ending.  When it’s all over and done, a memorable “Manchester by the Sea” journey by moviegoers never fully materializes.  Casey Affleck’s character lets down his brother, and, ultimately us with a timid, lackluster finale. 

  • A go for launch: “Hidden Figures” film shines

    Moviegoers’ first reactions to seeing “Hidden Figures” will be to ask themselves how did America not already know this incredible true story? This NASA film is an exhilarating and positive narrative deeply rooted to one of our nation’s greatest feats: Successfully launching a human into space to orbit the Earth and return safely. “Hidden Figures” is a feel-good history lesson that needs to be seen to believed.Director Ted Melfi (“St. Vincent”) gathers an extremely talented ensemble to tell the true NASA story of three brilliant African-American women who played major roles in our nation’s space program during the 1960s. The cast is led by Octavia Spencer, who gives a poignant portrayal as the computer whiz Dorothy Vaughan. But the mathematical genius and rocket fuel behind “Hidden Figures” resides in the purposeful and resilient talents of Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson and Kevin Costner as NASA manager Al Harrison. Viewers will be enamored watching this trio of inspiring women fight prejudice in the male-dominated workplace through their skillful persistence and smarts. Each marvelously solving spacecraft launch and recovery math equations to earn the trust of viewers and astronaut John Glenn. Together, they helped our space program and country keep pace with the Soviet Union before charging ahead—ultimately accepting and answering President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by that decade’s end.Yes, it’s about time these pioneering women are no longer hidden from the history books. Their encouraging and remarkable story broke the glass ceiling of space. They overcame discrimination and social issues with expertise and talents that couldn’t be ignored or segregated any longer based on their gender or race. In each movie scene, these three women (and the audience) know they’re the smartest minds in the room. It’s how they handle and respond to that knowledge that makes “Hidden Figures” such a compelling and richly satisfying movie experience.Look for “Hidden Figures” to garner several Academy Award nominations come the morning of Jan. 24. Despite a strong field of leading and supporting actors and actresses in 2016, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Hanson have better than even odds to capture nominations. The film also deserves Best Ensemble and Best Picture considerations from all the end-of-the-year awards shows. 

  • The Top 10 Films of 2016

    Here are the year’s best films in storytelling and performances:10.  Sing Street Director John Carney, who gave us the 2007 romantic music trifecta of guitar, piano and vocals in the Irish movie “Once,” returns to Dublin for a stellar encore performance involving a teenage boy dealing with the pressures of school while starting up a rock band to get closer to a girl. Carney knows how to bring music and romance together better than anyone else and we find a heartfelt story that feels both charming and real at the same time.  An above average cast and a 1980s soundtrack launch this movie into instant classic status and into the Top 10 list for 2016. 9.  Captain FantasticThe vastly talented Viggo Mortensen (“Lord of the Rings”) stars as the earthy patriarch of the Cash family, living off-the-grid while raising his well-read children deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. A stirring drama on human interaction and one family’s attempt to cope with loss, individual beliefs, and real life. Every parent, at some point, wonders if they’re raising their child the best possible way. “Captain Fantastic” offers us one unmistakable, yet riveting, parenting route. 8.  Hidden Figures

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