Highly original ‘Free Guy,’ is not just good, but great

After a long-awaited release, “Free Guy” hits theaters Aug. 13 from actor-producer Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy. The action-comedy is as unexpectedly meaningful as it is pure fun at the theatre, following Reynolds as a non-playing character in a video game who suddenly realizes there’s more to life than being in the background.

“Free City” is a smash hit interactive “Grand Theft Auto”-style video game supposedly created by Antwon Soon (Taika Waititi, his trademark hilarity on full display as a corporate boss). But there’s more to the story of the game, just as there’s more to Guy. 

The initial idea and code for a more human approach to “Free City” was created by Millie (Emmy winner Jodie Comer) and “Keys” (should-also-be-an-Emmy-winner Joe Keery), and “Free Guy” is just as much about their fight to get it back as it is about Guy’s journey from being a background character to something more.

Levy and screenwriters Matt Liberman and Zak Penn thankfully don’t feel the need to build a lengthy backstory about what happened with the coders, just as we don’t know exactly how Guy came to be – at first. They let the details unfold seamlessly over 115 minutes that are pure fun, even for non-gaming viewers. 

Maybe especially for them. In a year when many of us have been non-playing characters in a global tragedy and it feels like there’s an unstoppable bug in our game, Guy brought a sense of comfort: that we’ll get out of this loop one day, but we already have what we need in our programming. 

In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to laugh. A lot, which “Free Guy” ensures.

Comer, Reynolds and especially Keery are superb, with funny back-up in the form of Utkarsh Ambudkar and Lil Rel Howery. This is a Shawn Levy movie after all, and when he writes the code, there’s always a signature sense of humor and heart written into the fast-paced zeroes and ones. Think the adventure of “Night at the Museum” and the camaraderie of “Stranger Things,” with the combined action and humor of “Date Night,” and maybe most unexpectedly, the emotion of “This Is Where I Leave You.” Or at least the top-notch acting.

In this case, Levy and a talented group of writers and creators made a colorful, highly original “Free Guy,” which was not just good, but great. And worth the wait.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios

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Cumberbatch, Brosnahan Star In New Spy Drama ‘The Courier’

Opening March 19 in select theaters, “The Courier” brings a whole new meaning to the term “don’t shoot the messenger.”

Starring Emmy winners Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel Brosnahan, the Cold War drama based on true events screened a lifetime ago at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Then dubbed “Ironbark,” the film tells the story of how an ordinary businessman assisted MI6 in obtaining intelligence about the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

Russian informant Oleg Penkovsky (codename Ironbark, played by Merab Ninidze) has been filtering information from the Kremlin to UK and US intelligence officials through the hands of a seemingly innocent British businessman, Greyville Wynne (Cumberbatch). The events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis frame the narrative for the film, written by Tom O’Conner and directed by Dominic Cooke. With impressive imagery that makes it more artful than most spy genre films, “The Courier” tells an unbelievable, compelling true story with heartbreaking intensity.

Cumberbatch tells Wynne’s little-known story in “The Courier.” (Liam Daniel/Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

Cumberbatch brings the same signature humanity he exudes in other real-life roles, but Wynne is altogether unique from his previous Oscar-nominated portrayal of code-breaker Alan Turing, or the bullheaded inventor Thomas Edison. But his raw depiction of internal conflict is the same, which makes the audience care deeply what happens to him, despite lulls in the plot.

Highland Park native Brosnahan is steady as Emily Donovan, a determined U.S. diplomat who arranges Wynne’s meetings with Ironbark. The men’s work together leads to an unexpected friendship that propels the story forward, to surprising and sometimes painful-to-watch places.

Merab Ninidze co-stars as Ironbark. (Liam Daniel/Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

In a pandemic era that feels like its own form of wartime, with sides and death and sacrifice, “The Courier” also has the benefit of feeling relevant. Especially when audiences are forced to consider Wynne’s sacrifice – the risk he took to help other people who lived in daily fear of nuclear war.

Despite its lulls, Cooke’s film just might restore your faith in how ordinary people can make the world better – especially during a crisis. With slogans like “Stay Home, Save Lives” feeling incredibly distant in the rearview mirror of this year, Wynne and Cumberbatch’s portrayal are good reminders that you don’t have to be a government official or superhero to do something special with your life. Even if it means undergoing temporary suffering for the greater good. Even if you’re “just the messenger” – that’s worth something.

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‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ Review: Humanity In Heroism

The first episode of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” premieres on Disney+ March 19, with a surprisingly character-driven 45 minutes that seamlessly reintroduce audiences to Marvel characters Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). They were last seen just after battling Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame,” two years and what feels like a lifetime ago.

From the action-packed opening sequence that finds Falcon in flight assisting the U.S. Air Force, “quiet” and “character-driven” might not be the most obvious characterizations of episode one, directed by Kari Skogland and written by Malcolm Spellman. But while it contains just enough action to lay the groundwork for future episodes, the installment refreshingly takes the time to remind us of who Sam and Bucky are, where they came from and where they find themselves months after the epic battle that cost them friends and fellow heroes – but saved the world, a world one character calls “broken.”

Sound familiar?

Photos by Chuck Zlotnick © Marvel Studios 2020 All rights reserved.

With the looming shadow of Steve Rogers (who links the titular characters with shared history), the world is facing the challenges of healing after half its population vanished from existence for five years, an eerily understandable plight as the COVID-19 virus continues its deadly spread and vaccines offer glimmers of hope.

“The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” picks up where the film left off, but it thankfully zooms in more deeply to these vastly different men who have one thing – one Captain – in common.

“If the movies were a snack, this six-hour series is the meal,” Skogland said. “And yet, it has all of the wonderful things that come with the MCU—action, comedy, the high-octane pace, familiar faces and new characters. It’s all incredibly relatable.”

Sam is still grappling with the possession of Captain America’s shield, bestowed upon him by Rogers in the final moments of “Endgame.” His struggle with the implications of the shield – and how much his nation needs it – provides the springboard for Sam’s development as more than just the Falcon. 

“Sam considers the shield a representation of the country that we live in,” Mackie said. “There’s a lot of trepidation as far as how does a Black man represent a country that does not represent him?” The scenes that delve deeper into his family history – and the practical implications of the Blip – are far more interesting than any popcorn blockbuster action sequence. (Remember those?)

Photos by Chuck Zlotnick © Marvel Studios 2020 All rights reserved.

Bucky remains a cathartic example of the life-long toll trauma can take on a human – or, in his case, on a Winter Soldier brainwashed into a killing machine. At more than 100 years old, he finds himself for the first time without a fight – and it leaves him too much time to think about all he’s done, and what his purpose is in a post-”Endgame” universe.

“How does this character now function in the world?” Stan said of his character’s mindset. “What’s his life going back to Brooklyn? How is he meeting people? How is he interacting at coffee shops? Is he dating? Is he thinking about another career? Is he in therapy? There were all these questions about where we could take this character. There were a lot of fun and exciting things that came out of that exploration.”

“They’re both thoughtful and smart actors who bring tremendous history to their characters,” Skogland said of Mackie and Stan, who are infinitely watchable – and gave Marvel fans endless entertainment on “Avengers” press tours. Both are dynamic and subtle onscreen, bring a refreshing humanity to the hero narrative that is all too often forgotten.

With a timeliness its creators could not have predicted, “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” will likely grow to feel as necessary to our national conversation as “Wandavision” did this winter. Possibly even moreso, with themes of national chaos and what “American values” really mean.

And, maybe most importantly, how we move forward.

Photos by Chuck Zlotnick © Marvel Studios 2020 All rights reserved.
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ATX Festival celebrates the power of female partnerships

Article first appeared on FF2 Media on June 10, 2019

The eighth season of the ATX Television Festival was held June 6-9 in Austin, Texas, celebrating all aspects of the television medium. The Power of Female Partnerships was one of the first panels on the four-day schedule, presented by Vanity Fair. 

Panelists included Good Girls creator Jenna Bens and star Retta, along with TV agents Cori Wellins and Lauren Whitney. Co-Presidents of NBC Scripted Programming Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta spoke about founding NBC’s Female Forward Initiative, a program that pairs female directors with an onset mentor.

“Tracey and I two years ago were like, ‘It’s embarrassing that we have no female pilot directors.’ And so, how do you change that?” Katz said of the program, in which less experienced directors shadowed on up to three episodes of an NBC show before directing their own episode. 

“It’s about seeing there’s an issue and creating an opportunity and doing something actionable to make a difference,” Katz said. “And I think you can do that with directors, you can do that with writers, you can do that with executives, you can do that with assistants. It’s just about making that conscious choice. It’s really not that hard.” 

“There is room for all of us if you really want it,” Pakosta said. “Raise your hand and say ‘I want it,’ and then we can help you.” 

“It truly to me feels like there’s an infinite amount of opportunity, more than ever before,” Wellins added. “So you don’t feel like there isn’t room for both of you or all of you – it’s just actually putting forth the effort to take that next step.”

TV agents Lauren Whitney and Cori Wellins with Co-President of NBC Scripted Programming Lisa Katz spoke about founding NBC’s Female Forward Initiative, a program that pairs female directors with an onset mentor.

Bans praised the work of Female Forward class member Lee Frielander, who directed an hour of Good Girls. “That was our favorite episode,” she said. “It was someone who, looking at her resume, I would never have hired. I would have passed her over in favor of probably a more experienced guy because there are so many guy directors. But then we get the episode back and it’s so good and she so deserved that opportunity. To go from someone with barely a directing resume to being booked in television for a woman is insane.”

Whitney spoke to networks’ interest in employing female directors in recent years. “There’s been this focus on female directors because that was the place where it still felt quite inequitable,” Whitney said. “In the last three years it’s been, if you have an order of 12 episodes or 22 episodes, can half of them be female directors? And then all of a sudden what happened was, you couldn’t find a female director who was available to save your life. You wanted to hire every last one you could. That’s fantastic. That never would have happened another five years ago.” 

Other topics prompted by panel moderator Sonia Saraiya included balancing work with motherhood, the Bechdel-Wallace test, mentoring younger women and the need for more female friendship to be represented on screen. Bans mentioned the importance of employing female writers and directors on Good Girls, a series with three female leads and nine women in the writer’s room. “It’s just so much easier and there’s a lightness and there’s not a stress to it,” Retta said of working with other women. 

A discussion centered on female partnerships was a fitting start to the festival, an annual event co-founded by two women: Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson. This year’s lineup also featured panels on the female gaze and the anniversary of Lifetime, a female-driven network. Mutual support in a competitive industry was a common theme at each discussion. 

“There are so many women in this room who are so clearly interested in talking about this topic which makes me so happy,” said Whitney, who pitched the idea for the panel to festival programmers. “The part that I find so exciting is that for young women who are coming up now, they will see all kinds of examples ahead of them of women working together and not being pitted against each other and understanding that makes them stronger. And it just feels important to me to be talking about it as much as possible.

  “If somebody close to you has something wonderful happening for them…I don’t know if it’s biological or evolutionary or just how we’re socialized, but somehow the default response seems to be, ‘that’s happening for somebody else and not for me,’” she continued. “And if we can talk ourselves out of that mindset and really celebrate the things that are happening for each other, it just shifts the way that you look at other women and it shifts the way that you look at yourself and your own future. And if you start from there, I think it’s incredibly powerful.” 

TV agents Lauren Whitney and Cori Wellins, Co-Presidents of NBC Scripted Programming Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta, Good Girls creator Jenna Bens and star Retta spoke about founding NBC’s Female Forward Initiative, a program that pairs female directors with an onset mentor.
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