INSPIRED by true events, the first inspirational short series by ACE Pictures - a subsidiary of ACE Holdings Berhad – follows the story of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Agilan Thani from Malaysia.

The shorts – of the same name as the former ONE Welterweight World title challenger – tells the struggles of a bullied overweight young boy who turns into a fighter that goes by the moniker The Alligator, who plays himself in the ACE Group’s first inspirational short series.


The series won the grand award in the web videos category of Television & Corporate Media Awards 2021 at the 22nd World Media Festival in Hamburg, Germany – marking a historic win for ACE Group, said ACE Pictures president and director Peter Wong.

The World Media Festival honours and celebrates excellence in television, corporate film, online and print productions on an international scale. This year, the festival received 811 entries from 41 nations.

“The inspiration behind the short film represents ACE Group as a whole and what we stand for as a company,” said Wong.

“Our philosophy is about helping talents who are passionate, disciplined, and able to persevere in their desire to achieve their full potential, which is what this story hopes to tell.”

The award-winning video is one out of three cinematic short stories that was produced as part of ACE Group’s corporate branding.


While corporate videos tend to be represented in a more rigid and neutral structure in terms of cinematics and narration, ACE Pictures sought to inspire by using storytelling as a key element.

Featuring an eclectic TV commercial crew, a complete in-house post-production team and music by local musicians, the three shorts took 12 days to shoot.

Meanwhile, the other two videos showcase the story of GT race car driver Zen Low and drone-racer Amir Haziq.

While the former is presently in post-production, the latter has just been released and can now be viewed on [ACE Group’s official YouTube channel].


“We hope these videos will inspire everyone to believe in themselves and that amazing stories and transformations like these do indeed exist in real life, and not just in movies.

“All you need is some confidence, and the right support – be it a coach, a teacher, your family or friends,” said ACE Pictures chief executive officer Johnny Chang.

ACE Pictures also shared that these three videos are merely a warmup as the company rides out the pandemic.

With various projects in the pipeline, the team at ACE Pictures is more than ready to dive straight back into their main business: international film productions.

It is also keen on going full steam ahead with bringing productions not just from the United States but Hong Kong, South Korea and more back into home ground – once the pandemic situation stabilises – to further boost Malaysian filming industry.

For more information, visit

View the videos here:



A household name in the world of sports - and throughout the world, there is no one quite as intriguing as the legendary Datuk Nicol David, one of Malaysia's most decorated star athletes of this generation. With 8 world titles and a record of 108 consecutive months as title holder of World No.1, Nicol is undeniably one of squash's most celebrated players.

Yet little is known outside her career as one of the world's most illustrious sportswoman. And that's what ACE Holdings Berhad's subsidiary, ACE Pictures Entertainment - a Malaysian digital media and film production investment company, hopes to change. Having secured exclusive rights in the development and production of Datuk Nicol David's biopic, the film is set to inspire not just Malaysians, but the world by bringing audiences deep into the untold personal life of our national heroine.


(Photo by Steve Cubbins)

According to Peter Wong, President of ACE Pictures, "Hearing Nicol speak about her life story gave us a completely different view into the sacrifices that had to be done in order to achieve her remarkable level of success. While we believe many are willing to go beyond the ordinary for their careers as a pro athlete, the love and dedication Nicol has for the sport exceeds normal understanding. This is why her biopic will not be about an underdog's rise to success - she was and always has been an established icon - but about a woman's will and dedication so profound, it becomes life itself, and the complex struggles one has to face when confronted with the reality of having to let go of something so deeply apart of herself."

Presently, production details are being kept tightly under wraps, but the team at ACE Pictures reveals that the biopic will be produced in English with a Hollywood actress set to be cast as Nicol's coach, Australian Liz Irving. As for the role of Nicol, a nationwide casting will be hosted by ACE Pictures in both East and West Malaysia.

Following various past film projects such as "Clemency", ACE Pictures has once again chosen to take more active steps in advocating gender equality by both choosing to focus on a female pro athlete and inclusivity in their production. The screenplay is currently in development under the reigns of two high profile female screen writers - a Malaysian lauded for her credentials and high reviews on several well-known screenplay coverage services in the US, and a US-based writer with a several film festival titles under her belt.

"Both masters of the craft, we believe that the collaboration between the two writers will bring about a deeper dimension and more values into the screenplay," says Wong.

This biopic will not only cater to local audiences, but also key markets in the US and Europe as ACE Pictures has distribution networks and connections to sales agencies in these regions. The team aspires to introduce Malaysia to the international stage as a leading film destination by bringing Hollywood filmmakers here; and at the same time, showcasing some of the best of our local talents to the world.

Learn more about ACE Pictures, their films, and awards at



PRODUCING a film is no easy feat, let alone juggling the roles of producer and financier at the same time.

Playing a crucial part in every creative and financial aspect of a film, ACE Pictures has been very particular in the selection and approval of its projects, especially due to the amount of involvement often required, as well as the potential returns that could easily go sideways in such a volatile industry.

At ACE Pictures, screenplays are read and analysed by a coverage team who will provide necessary pointers to improve plotlines.

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ACE Pictures president Peter Wong (left) and business affairs vice president Emma Lee (right) with the cast from Daniel Isn’t Real (standing, from second left) director Adam Mortimer, actress Hannah Marks, producers Elijah Wood, Lisa Whalen, Daniel Noah, (front row) actors Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger.


“We try our best to give constructive feedback, but there is, of course, a fine line between asking for adjustments to address a plot hole, and asking our writers to alter the gist of the story based on our own whims and fancies.

“Respecting each other’s work is of utmost importance to us, so we try to avoid any major changes if possible as it is never our intention to control the vision of the writers but merely to suggest practical improvements, ” says ACE Pictures president Peter Wong.

Although the overall workload paired with the frequency of travelling spent between attending film festivals and project markets, as well as having to oversee production is deemed tedious, the passionate team at ACE Pictures considers all of it an important part and parcel of showbiz.

Supporting gender equality

While gender imbalance is commonly related to the film industry, there is no gender discrimination at ACE Pictures as it has fought for the creation of a level playing field where support is extended to female talents in front of and behind the camera.


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(from left) ACE Pictures business affairs vice president Emma Lee, president Peter Wong, Blush director Debra Eisenstadt, ACE Pictures chief executive officer Johnny Chang and creative affairs vice president Timur Bekbosunov at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.


With more than half the writers, directors, producers and lead actors on their first slate of films being women, ACE Pictures is ever ready and excited to work with more female talents.

This is because inclusivity and diversity are deemed important aspects to the team and they are committed to continuously creating awareness of gender equality through its filmmaking process.

Currently, ACE Pictures is taking into consideration potential films that are highly commercial and appealing to the international audiences with no restrictions on story setting and censorship.

Those who have a screenplay or film idea that meets the above requirements and is set within the genres of action, horror, psychological, crime thriller or science fiction, can submit a pitch to with short answers to “Tell us about yourself” and “Tell us why we should listen to your pitch and the significance of your pitch”, along with a logline of the screenplay and samples from previous work done.

Do note that each of the four item categories has a maximum of 50 words. Emails exceeding the 200 word limit will be disqualified automatically.

This article is the last of a three-part special focus on ACE Pictures. Find out more about ACE Pictures’ films and awards at



AFTER sharing about its venture into Hollywood, ACE Pictures sheds light on its future plans.

Despite the global impact of Covid-19 which has certainly affected ACE Pictures’ original plan, its dedicated team continues to be in high spirits in preparation for the post pandemic era.

As countries began to ease lockdown measures, the homegrown digital media and film production investment company is working on producing its second slate of films.

(From left) ACE Pictures creative affairs vice president Timur Bekbosunov, President Peter Wong, vice president business affairs Emma Lee, producers Bronwyn Cornelius and Julian Cautherley at the set visit of Clemency.


According to a statement from ACE Pictures, various countries are currently offering attractive incentives to lure international productions and restore their economy, many of which have started establishing clear standard operating procedure for the film industry to resume activities.

With that, the team is constantly on the lookout for the best opportunities and locations to kickstart production, with a particular interest in untapped Asian territories.

Behind the scenes during the filming of Daniel Isn’t Real.


“We’re currently in discussion with our producing partners in the US and prospects are looking bright."

“We’re also hoping to bring some of our productions to Malaysia to help boost its post Covid-19 economic recovery."

“Our aim is to create a healthy and robust creative content ecosystem by inputting what we have learned in Hollywood into positioning Malaysia as a preferred filming destination in South-East Asia."

“However, the viability to it will strongly depend on local government support as well as the 3Cs of film production – calibre, capacity and cost, ” said ACE Pictures president Peter Wong.

Boosting local talents

ACE Pictures firmly believes that the film making industry in Malaysia harbours tremendous potential and leveraging on it not only benefits local creative talents but also gives the economy a much needed boost.

In fact, Malaysian talents are the ones working on the music, sound design and mixing, visual effects and poster design of Measure of Revenge, starring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo and Bella Thorne, one of the many films under ACE Pictures. A majority of this film’s editing is also currently being done in-house in Malaysia.

Finding talented crew

Working towards creating a conducive creative environment to help Malaysian talents thrive, ACE Pictures has opened recruitment for its international production crew through a series of assessments.

A majority of the editing for Measure of Revenge is being done in-house in Malaysia.


Identifying and nurturing talents are managed by the company itself so once talents have acquired the necessary skill sets and knowledge, the team at ACE Pictures will then hand pick an exclusive group to continue working on their international productions.

“We’re looking for talents who are honest, humble and willing to learn."

“From best practices of standard film operating systems to expertise on working with film makers and communications protocols, among other major aspects, we hope to share as much as we can with the local community."

“So, if you are spotted, be sure not to miss this opportunity by responding to us as soon as possible, ” added Wong.

For those interested in offering their film production and post production related services, submit profile details including area of expertise, years of experience, samples of work and relevant documents to, along with a short answer to “Tell us why we should consider you” in not more than 50 words.

For writers or producers who are interested in pitching film projects, watch this space for more to come.

Find out more information on ACE Pictures’ films and awards at



WHAT do Angelina Jolie, Alfre Woodard and Nicholas Cage have in common?

It might come as a surprise, but these Hollywood A-listers have starred in award-winning films produced by Malaysian company ACE Pictures Entertainment (ACE Pictures).

Established in 2017 under ACE Holdings Bhd, the homegrown digital media and film production investment company has ventured into Hollywood to make a name for itself and make Malaysia proud.

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Wong, Chang and ACE Pictures business affairs vice-president Emma Lee at ACE Pictures headquarters with the awards won by the company's productions.


Under its belt are productions such as ClemencyDaniel isn’t Real, and Color Out of Space, which have won awards globally with showcases in some of the most well-known international film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the SXSW Film Festival among others.

What exactly does ACE Pictures do?

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Clemency is Ace Picture's first financed movie in Hollywood.


Malaysia- and California-based ACE Pictures focuses on providing financing solutions to diverse film projects around the globe.

A strong believer in diversity and inclusivity, ACE Pictures aspires to be the ideal partner to creative talents by helping them turn their filmmaking dreams into reality.

That said, practical considerations like potential returns on investment are still significant to the private company, as profitability is key in ensuring it remains sustainable to continue funding and producing awesome films.

What sets ACE Pictures apart from a typical film investment firm?

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Wong has received a producers mark (p.g.a) from the Producers Guild of America for his contributions to one of the films.


ACE Pictures is often heavily involved in the production of its chosen films. As a financier-producer, its team does not shy away from getting their hands dirty in the creative filmmaking process - from due diligence and negotiations, to cast member approvals and even the selection of project department heads. It has vetted 600 screenplays to date.

In fact, ACE Pictures president Peter Wong has received a producers mark (p.g.a) from the Producers Guild of America for his contributions to one of the films, further cementing the company’s involvement in the production process beyond the realms of just funding.

How did ACE Pictures get into the ranks of Hollywood in such a short time?

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‘Hollywood for us was not just a dream, it became an instinctive starting point – to learn from the best, you go to the best,’ said Chang.


“For most film and production-based companies, learning from one of the world’s best and oldest film industries is the ultimate experience, and this was the same for us at ACE Pictures."

“As financier-producers, we were not just making a calculated investment choice, but were also interested in creating internationally acclaimed movies with the ultimate goal of eventually integrating Malaysia into the foothold and breeding more cross-cultural collaboration."

“Hollywood for us was not just a dream, it became an instinctive starting point – to learn from the best, you go to the best, ” said ACE Pictures chief executive officer Johnny Chang."

However, starting off knowing almost nothing about the industry in Hollywood was certainly overwhelming for the team.

As the saying goes, there are no shortcuts to true success.

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(From left) Chang, Wong, ACE Pictures business affairs president Emma Lee and creative affairs vice president Timur Bekbosunov at the set visit of Daniel Isn’t Real and Measure of Revenge in July 2018.

The team’s venture into Hollywood took over a year of extensive research, networking, determination and uncountable cold calls to independent producers and agencies.

After a lot of blood, sweat and tears topped with perseverance and a willingness to learn, ACE Pictures landed its first potential film Clemency, a project that had eluded many other well-known investors for years.

Clemency thus became Ace Picture's first financed movie in Hollywood.

Fast forward three years later, it will be interesting to see what ACE Pictures has in the pipeline, after the successful completion of its first slate of films for 2020 in the face of the current pandemic situation.

Find out more information on their films and awards at



Bohemia Media, the UK distribution company launched in January by Phil Hunt and Lucy Fenton, has made Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency its first acquisition.

The film will be released on July 31 via a revenue-sharing model between premium VoD, independent cinemas, racial justice organisations and POC (people of colour) film organisations across the country.

During the digital theatrical window, Clemency will be available on Bohemia Media’s own VoD platform. Viewers will be asked to select a local cinema or preferred film collective to receive an equal split of the revenue.

This innovative release format has been spearheaded by gender equality agency Birds Eye View, and inspired by Kino Lorber’s recently-launched Kino Marquee VoD platform in the US.

A ‘conscious consumerism’ campaign to back the release will launch on social media from July 17, the International Day of Justice 2020.

The film will then be available on mainstream VoD platforms from August 24 via Trinity Media.

“[Clemency’s] social message about the toll of the death penalty on all involved is poignant. We are delighted to be supporting the important work of The Death Penalty Project with this film; the London-based charity provides free legal representation to those facing execution and a lifeline to those whose right to life, to a fair trial, and to humane treatment is at stake,” said Hunt and Fenton.

“It is essential that [cinemas] can find other revenue streams and find new ways to participate in showing films,” said Birds’ Eye View’s Mia Bays. “This film and this approach are socially, culturally and commercially significant, and this is a new way for the film industry and audiences to be an ally.”

Clemency debuted at Sundance 2019 where Chukwu became the first black woman to win the grand jury prize. It stars Alfre Woodard as a prison warden who is confronted by her own psychological demons as an inmate faces a death sentence.

It is produced by ACE Pictures Entertainment, Bronwyn Cornelius Productions, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong and Timur Bekbosunov.

Chukwu was motivated to tell the story by the case of Troy Davis, a Georgia State prison inmate who was executed in 2011.

Woodard received nominations at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, Independent Spirit Awards and NAACP Image Awards for her performance, with Chukwu receiving screenplay nominations at the latter two.

Chukwu’s upcoming projects include Americanah, a series based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel.



Choosing a movie to watch isn't a fraught decision if you know who to trust. That's the simple idea driving this list, which will be consistently updated and meticulously rearranged throughout the year. With some films getting their release days moved and others premiering early on VOD because of the ongoing global pandemic, this is already a strange, challenging year for the movie industry. But, like last year, we'll still do our best to keep you in the loop on the explosion-filled blockbusters you can't miss and the more intimate smaller films you must seek out. If it's good, we want it on here.

From skin-crawling horror movies to hard-hitting documentaries, there should be something on this list to satisfy your highly specialized cinematic cravings as the year goes on. We recognize that you're busy and there's a lot of forces fighting for your attention at the moment, so we pledge not to waste your time. These are the best movies of 2020.

For more movies and shows to watch, check out our rankings of Best Horror Movies of 2020.

9. Bad Boys For Life

Release date: January 17
Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Paola Núñez 
Director: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Black)
Why it’s worth watching: In what hasn't exactly been a great year for action movies so far, Bad Boys for Life has to be the biggest surprise. Given its lengthy production history, its January release date, and the departure of series director Michael Bay the action auteur gets a winking cameo here, perhaps taking a break from shooting Netflix's 6 Underground  this movie could've been a disaster. Instead, Smith and Lawrence easily slip back into the roles that made them action movie icons in the '90s and the writers find a way to update the garish, over-the-top aesthetic of the series for the franchise era. In a wise decision, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah don't even bother trying to top the excess and mayhem of Bay's Bad Boys II.Bad Boys For Life is a gentler, sillier movie than its predecessor, less interested in moments of vulgarity than in scenes of sitcom-like human connection and familial melodrama. There are explosions and car chases through the streets of Miami and jokes about getting too old for this shit, but the material is given a light touch that lets the two stars do what they do best. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)


8. The Way Back

Release date: March 6
Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar
Director: Gavin O'Connor (The Accountant) 
Why it’s great: Disciplined in its approach and unapologetic about its contrivances, Ben Affleck's basketball coach in crisis drama The Way Back is a sports movie that understands the fundamentals. What it lacks in flashiness or ingenuity the underdog narrative of a crappy team hitting its stride under the leadership of a gruff coach hits all the requisite Hoosiers notes it makes up for with an oddly enthralling downbeat craftsmanship. Little details, like the freeze-frame when the scores of games pop up on screen or the click-clack percussion-heavy music, accumulate emotional power over the film's brisk runtime. Playing a washed-up ex-athlete with an immediately apparent drinking problem and a number of strategically hidden personal demons, Affleck delivers a weary performance that resonates with his off-screen persona (and his recent tabloid headlines) in ways both obvious and surprising. In brief stretches, director Gavin O'Connor, who helmed the similarly intense melodramas Miracle and Warrior, pulls off the ultimate sports movie trick of making you believe the character's redemption isn't inevitable. Every win is a battle even if you know the results going in.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)


7. The Assistant

Release date: January 31
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh 
Director: Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet)
Why it’s great: The systemic culture of indifference and cruelty that often forms around a powerful serial abuser gets put under the microscope in this studiously observed New York office drama, which draws inspiration from the behavior of Harvey Weinstein while intentionally blurring some of the details. We never learn the name of the tyrannical boss in the story and the exact nature of his crimes are never fully revealed; instead, Julia Garner's assistant Jane, a Northwestern grad fresh off a handful of internships, provides our entryway into the narrative. The movie tracks her duties, tasks, and indignities over the course of a single day: She makes copies, coordinates air travel, picks up lunch orders, answers phone calls, and cleans suspicious stains off the couch. At one point, a young woman from Idaho appears at the reception desk, claims to have been flown in to start as a new assistant, and gets whisked away to a room in an expensive hotel. Jane raises the issue with an HR rep, played with smarmy menace by Succession's Matthew Macfadyen, but her concerns are quickly battered away and turned against her. Rejecting cheap catharsis and dramatic twists, The Assistant builds its claustrophobic world through a steady accumulation of information. While some of the writing can feel too imprecise and opaque by design, Garner, who consistently steals scenes on Netflix's Ozark, invests every hushed phone call and carefully worded email with real trepidation. She locates the terror in the drudgery of the work. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)


6. Bad Education

Release date: April 25
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan 
Director: Cory Finley (Thoroughbreads)
Why it’s great: A chronicle of greed, status, and vanity, Bad Education shares more than a few qualities with Martin Scorsese's financial crimes epic The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of another Long Island striver with slicked-back hair. Trading the stock market for the public education system, director Cory Finley's wry docudrama, which takes its inspiration from a wild New York Magazinefeature from 2004, charts the tragi-comic downfall of Roslyn School District superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), a charming and beloved administrator in a rising wealthy area. When his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janey) gets caught allowing family members to make personal charges using the school's credit cards, Frank's world of healthy smoothies, expensive suits, and gleeful deception begins to unravel. Using a high school newspaper reporter as an audience surrogate (Geraldine Viswanathan), the script withholds key details of Frank's life for large sections of the runtime, allowing Jackman to give a performance that gradually reveals new layers of emotional complexity and moral emptiness. Like the tweezers Frank uses to dutifully pluck his nose hairs, the movie takes a surgical approach to its subject.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Go (Watch the trailer)


5. Sorry We Missed You

Release date: March 6
Cast: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor
Director: Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)
Why it’s great: The modern gig economy is set up so that the customer rarely has to think very much about the person delivering a package to their door. Sorry We Missed You, the latest working class social drama from 83-year-old English filmmaker Ken Loach, is a harsh reminder that those piles of cardboard Amazon boxes have a human cost. The film follows married couple Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbi (Debbie Honeywood) as they attempt to raise their two kids, keep their humble home in Newcastle, and and hold down jobs stripped of conventional protections. As Ricky's domineering boss tells him at the beginning of the movie, he's not an "employee." No, he's his own small business owner and independent contractor. Loach finds dark laughs and absurdity in the the convoluted language of precarity, particularly the way management attempts to sell poor working conditions as a form of empowerment, but he also captures the tender, intimate moments that occur in even the most soul-sucking jobs. Ricky and his daughter find joy in knocking on doors and leaving notes; Abbi, who works as a nurse, genuinely cares for her patients like her own family even if the company she works for refuses to pay for her transportation. Though the script leans too hard on melodrama in its final stretch, setting up scenes that don't always deliver on their dramatic potential, Loach never loses his moral grasp on the material.
Where to watch: Available to stream via Kino Marquee (Watch the trailer


4. Color Out of Space

Release date: January 24
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer
Director: Richard Stanley (Hardware)
Why it’s great: For a certain type of moviegoer, any film where Nicolas Cage says the word "alpacas" multiple times is worth seeking out. Luckily, Color Out of Space, a psychedelic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's short story from 1927, offers more than just furry animals and unhinged Cage theatrics. Mixing hints of science-fiction intrigue and bursts horror movie excess, along with a couple splashes of stoner-friendly comedy, Richard Stanley's proudly weird B-movie vibrates on its own peculiar frequency. Cage's Nathan, a chatty farmer with a loving wife (Joely Richardson) and a pair of mildly rebellious kids, must contend with a meteoroid that crashes in his front yard, shooting purple light all over his property and infecting the local water supply. Is it some space invader? A demonic spirit? A biological force indiscriminately wreaking havoc on the fabric of reality itself? The squishy unknowability of the evil is precisely the point, and Stanley melds Evil Dead-like gore showdowns with Pink Floyd laser light freak-outs to thrilling effect, achieving a moving and disquieting type of genre alchemy that should appeal to fans of Cage's out-there turn in the similarly odd hybrid Mandy. Again, you'll know if this is in your wheelhouse or not. 
Where to watch it: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)


3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Release date: March 13
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold
Director: Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats)
Why it’s great: The Port Authority bus terminal provides the backdrop for a good deal of the drama and the waiting in Eliza Hittman's powerful portrait of a teenager traveling from Pennsylvania to New York to have an abortion, a procedure she can't receive in her home state. Quiet and watchful, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) observes the world around her from benches, bus seats, and doctor's office chairs, dragging an enormous suitcase through the drab interiors of various midtown locations. She doesn't tell her parents about her pregnancy or her trip. She's joined by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who wants to be a supportive friend and sounding board. Still, the two don't talk much. The movie's most striking image shows the two holding hands in a moment of shared vulnerability, like their bond transcends language. As a filmmaker, Hittman is most interested in behavior and gesture, approaching her story with the type of careful rigor that allows for poetic moments to emerge in unexpected places. It's a style that's especially suited to the challenging emotional terrain of the material. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)


2. Bacurau 

Release date: March 6
Cast: Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino
Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Why it’s great: When a movie tells a story about a community joining together to fight off outside invaders, there are certain shots, moments, and heroics you want to see. Bloodshed, vengeance, and justice all have a place in Bacurau, a feverish, quasi-dystopian genre mash-up centered around a fictional Brazilian city in the country's Northwestern region, but the film doles out its cathartic showdowns in an inventive, dizzying manner. After a stretch exploring the geography, political realities, and daily routines of the city, a scheming American villain arrives and, in an inspired bit of casting, he's played by B-movie staple Udo Kier, reveling in the cruelty and complexity of the role. He's leading a team of aspiring would-be commandos, the type of people who view killing as a novel thrill. (The movie would make for a revealing double-feature with its more outright silly American counterpart The Hunt.) Exposition gets tucked in odd narrative corners; the tactical demands of the situation shift; scenes play out in tense, curious confrontations. Eventually, the movie explodes like a volcano, bursts of stylized gore and righteous indignation flying everywhere. Both visually hallucinatory and morally centered, Bacurau excites and inspires in equal measure.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)


1. First Cow

Release date: March 6
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, René Auberjonois, Toby Jones
Director: Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women)
Why it’s great: First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's evocative and wise tale of frontier life, begins with the discovery of two skeletons in the woods. An unnamed young woman (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) and her dog echoing the human-and-canine pair at the center of Reichardt's 2008 road story Wendy and Lucy come upon the bones in the modern day Pacific Northwest. Then we flash back to a time when the Oregon territory was far less developed, an era of perilous opportunity and rampant exploitation, and meet Cookie (John Magaro), a bashful and unassuming cook for a team of unruly fur trappers. Eventually, he befriends the wandering King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who claims to be fleeing some Russians. The two stumble on an opportunity to make some money: a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones) brings the first cow to the region. Cookie and King-Lu decide to steal the cow's milk at night and use it to bake sweet honey biscuits, which they sell at the local market. The story has an allegorical quality, gently pulling at classic American notions of hope, ambition, and deception. Reichardt, who chronicled a similar historical period in 2010's neo-Western Meek's Cutoff and an equally rich male friendship in 2006's buddy comedy Old Joy, has a gentle human touch that never veers into sentimentality. On a literal and metaphoric level, she knows where the bodies are buried.
Where to watch: Released in theaters on March 6; will be rereleased later this year (Watch the trailer)



Alexis Manya Spraic was one of the many filmmakers who was set debut her film at SXSW. M For Magic is a documentary about the Magic Castle, an iconic Los Angeles institution founded by Milt Larson and home to talented magicians and so many people are dying to experience it. With Neil Patrick Harris as a producer and a riveting story about how the Larsen family created this (magical (literally) empire, it was set to bow at the Austin confab before the coronavirus outbreak happened. SXSW was canceled, and Spraic, along with a long list of filmmakers, were left hanging with a film without a premiere.

 “We were disappointed, of course i don’t think any of us fully understood the magnitude of the COVID-19 situation, it has been so fluid,” Spraic told Deadline. “It did feel like the right decision and we all took it in stride.”

She said she is also disappointed for her fellow filmmakers and artists as well as SXSW Film Festival director Janet Pierson and her team. “I will always regret not having the memory of sitting in a theater in Austin with what should have been the film’s first audience and taking it all in,” Spraic admits. “But I am so glad that the festival didn’t become an anchor for this virus to spread further and faster.”

Shortly after the SXSW shutdown, Spraic was heartbroken to learn that the Magic Castle closed its doors indefinitely due to the outbreak, not just because it is a beloved institution but because so many people who have worked their for decades are now out of work.

“I know as long as the castle can come back that they can go back to their old jobs, but  worry about what they and so many others in their position are going to do in the meantime,” she said. “It’s also been a place that has supported magicians and given them work even when the magic business was not thriving. They can’t support their performers in that way now, so it is a devastating blow for the community. The castle is often thought of by guests as a special occasion place, but for the members it really is home.” Spraic will continue to support the Magic Castle and the Larsen family. She also maintains high hopes for her documentary and remains in high spirits.

“I am still planning to save my airline credit to visit Austin when it is OK to travel again,” she says. “I’m hoping some good BBQ will help take the sting off everything that’s happened when we are on the other side of this crisis.”

Deadline talked to Spraic about her connection to the comprehensive legacy of the Magic Castle, the impact of the cancellation of SXSW, and how M For Magic is more than a film about magic.


DEADLINE: You’re a native Angeleno and the Magic Castle is an institution in the city, but were you into magic before you planned this?

ALEXIS MANYA SPRAIC: I had a more casual appreciation of magic going into this, but it really evolved in making the film. I love stories about outsiders and underdogs, so I was drawn to the world of the castle – an international community of creative people who came together because they share a love of magic. I had first gone to the castle as a kid and loved it ever since. As an Angeleno – four generations of my family grew up here. I was also fascinated with how it had managed to survive for what is now nearly 60 years. As I got to know the community and specifically the founding family the Larsens, four generations of magicians who are essentially magic royalty, I knew I was onto a once-in-a-lifetime kind of story. The idea for the castle was a crazy one to begin with and the backstory is larger than life.

DEADLINE: Did your approach to the documentary change as you were filming it? If so, how?

SPRAIC: I started this film when I thought the castle might become another ghost of Los Angeles’ churning landscape and I wanted to find a way to preserve it. As fate would have it the castle survived and I put the project on hold for several years as it felt less urgent. In that time so much of what became the heart of the story transpired as I was also getting closer to the family. By the time the project was revived inspired by a very fortuitous approach from ACE Pictures, we had a much better story to tell as the castle had made a comeback and the two younger generations of the Larsen family had found ways to redefine the family legacy and make it their own. While we were shooting the documentary I got pregnant with my first child, my daughter Sofia and had her while I was editing the film. That really influenced the direction of the storytelling as I leaned much more into the female relationships in the film and found the emotional core of the story.

The story I knew coming in was of two brothers Milt and Bill Larsen, honoring their father’s unrequited dream. With the third co-founder, Bill’s wife, Irene, this trio galvanized the international magic community and gave them a home. The story is very much that, but it is also the story of four generations of women who have sustained this community in the face of a lot of adversity and without a lot or recognition. It made the story timely and personal in ways I did not expect when I started.

DEADLINE: How did Neil Patrick Harris get on board?

SPRAIC: Neil is a big part of the story. When I started the documentary the future of the castle looked uncertain. Neil had been a longtime member of the castle going back to when he was a teenager in the junior program and one of the castle founders, Milt Larsen, asked him to join the board of directors hoping to turn the ship around. It was during his time as President of the board that the castle went from its near demise to a bigger and better comeback than anyone could have imagined. He was so hands on and he and Erika Larsen, the daughter of the castle founders were so determined to bring the club back to its former glory. I don’t know if there would be a Magic Castle today without their resolve. We knew his passion for magic, variety arts and love of the castle would bring a lot to the film and to helping us share it with the world. And happily for us he was excited to be a part of the project.

DEADLINE: What made SXSW the perfect fest for M for Magic to debut?

SPRAIC: First of all, it was Erika Larsen’s dream place to premiere the film so of course, I was thrilled to be able to deliver on that. Having premiered other films at SXSW I also know firsthand how great the audience and festival experience are. It is a great festival to invite people from the documentary and the community we had so many people coming! We had even planned to put on a special Brookledge Follies performance, an underground variety arts show that Erika Larsen usually stages in her family home’s 1920s antique jewel box theater.

DEADLINE: After SXSW was canceled, what was your biggest concern?

SPRAIC: At the time my concern was for Austin and the future of SXSW knowing how devastating it would be for their economy and how much goes into keeping SXSW going. Now those concerns have expanded to so many more places and things because we are all being impacted in a myriad of ways.

DEADLINE: M For Magic is an acquisition title, but now that it won’t be exhibited at a platform like SXSW, how did you adapt and persevere?

SPRAIC: The distribution landscape is in flux right now in so many ways, but fortunately demand is high and maybe even more so as we are going to be spending more time confined to our homes. We are fortunate to have great interest from buyers and I am glad to be able to put an inspiring story that celebrates community out into the world at a very dark time.

DEADLINE: Why do you think film festivals like SXSW are important?

SPRAIC: For the same reason that the Magic Castle is important experiences are important and community is important. It creates a platform for so many artists, musicians, and thinkers to not just showcase their work, but to connect with each other. It goes to the core of what the human enterprise is all about connection.

DEADLINE: What was it like hearing that the Magic Castle closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak? 

SPRAIC: I was heartbroken. This is the first time the castle will be closed indefinitely and so many people are now out of work, people who have worked there for decades. I know as long as the castle can come back that they can go back to their old jobs, but I worry about what they and so many others in their position are going to do in the meantime. It’s also been a place that has supported magicians and given them work even when the magic business was not thriving. They can’t support their performers in that way now, so it is a devastating blow for the community. The castle is often thought of by guests as a special occasion place, but for the members it really is home

DEADLINE: How has the magic community been affected?

SPRAIC: I recently checked in with one of the magicians in our documentary, Fernando Velasco, who just had an upcoming tour canceled. He started in the castle’s Junior Program through his father, Oscar, a busboy at the castle for over twenty years who found a magician at the club to mentor Fernando as a kid. He said his dad is remaining positive, but said being an employee there was like being part of a family. The closing really feels like the break up of a family. I trust that it will be a temporary one, but having gotten to know the history of the castle inside and out, it takes a lot of work and fortitude to create the illusion that that place will always magically be there. And the family knows how many times they’ve been to the brink having to mortgage their home to keep the doors open, or how many years Irene Larsen, one of the founders showed up every night to welcome people without earning a penny to keep the community going and gird the castle’s success.

It’s a lot of pressure on the next generation of the Larsen family to find a way back – they don’t run the castle anymore – there are no Larsens currently on its board of directors, but they are still the heart of the club. It started out as a family business and is at its most successful when it can retain the vestiges of that. And amazingly they are unwavering in their dedication to keeping it alive. When castle founder Milt Larsen gave me his blessing to do the documentary, he said “if it’s good for magic, it’s good for me.” I am glad the film will be coming out when the community needs it the most, even if I am disappointed to miss out on a splashy festival premiere.

DEADLINE: Do you feel that M for Magic has even more meaning now because of the current climate?

SPRAIC: Yes, in ways I didn’t directly intend. I did not see a global pandemic on the horizon when I made this documentary, but it has really laid bare how interdependent we all are. We are living through this moment where we are depending on each other for our well-being and also asked to do so in relative isolation. I started this documentary because I believed that the Magic Castle deserved to be remembered, but in this current climate I realize how vital its survival, as well as that of every local bookstore, bodega, etc… will be to defining who we are and how we live in the next chapter of our lives.

The story of M for Magic is an aspirational one that I hope can be a compelling and uplifting reminder of why community is worth protecting. It’s a comeback story at a time when we need to make a comeback. I keep thinking of this moment in the John Sayles’ film Sunshine State – a group of men are golfing and one of them says, “Nature is overrated.” And his friend responds, “Yeah, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone,” as a soaring golf ball recedes into the sky. In recent years it has gotten easier and easier to say no to everything from live entertainment, to buying movie tickets, to supporting public spaces, to knowing the people who deliver our mail or bag our groceries, and the list goes on. We are getting a taste of what a world without those things is like. I am pretty sure we’ll miss it when it’s gone.



Neil Patrick Harris helps explore the history of the awe-inspiring Magic Castle in ‘M For Magic’ documentary

Neil Patrick Harris was enchanted by Los Angeles’ famed Magic Castle before he ever set a foot inside.

The actor — and longtime magic enthusiast — was a teenager living in small-town New Mexico when he learned of the sprawling private club sitting atop a hill in Hollywood where generations of magicians perform.

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Neil Patrick Harris shares his experiences at the Magic Castle in "M For Magic."(M For Magic)

“My father, who was an attorney at the time — his secretary had gone to Los Angeles, and she regaled me with stories of this magical place where walls open up when you say magic words," Harris told the Daily News last week. “I was just completely hooked. As soon as I got to Los Angeles, I tried to find out how I could go.”

The castle is now the subject of a new documentary, “M For Magic,” that explores the colorful history of the club created by Milt, Bill and Irene Larsen in the early 1960s that opened its doors to countless magicians and celebrities over the years.

Harris, a former president of the club’s board of directors, wasn’t yet 21 — the age required to visit the Magic Castle — when he moved to L.A., so he joined a group for junior magicians that allowed him to attend monthly meetings.

"Once I turned 21, I was there a lot more often,” Harris, 46, said.

The “How I Met Your Mother” star served as an executive producer on the documentary, which shows how multiple generations of the Larsen family turned the towering castle into the international mecca for magic.

“It’s really pulling back the curtain behind something that has been kept intentionally quiet for a long time," Harris said of the film. "You get to see the showrooms. You get to learn about the histories behind it. Lots of great classic footage from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s of magicians performing. It is an interesting thing because it’s a private club, so you can’t just go knock at the door and go in.”

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The Magic Castle in 2005.(Barry King/WireImage)

Harris, Jason Alexander, Dick Van Dyke, Colin Farrell, Yeardley Smith and Laurence Fishburne are among the celebrities who share their experiences at the venue in “M For Magic.”

Also featured in the film are Bill and Irene’s daughter, Erika Larsen, and granddaughter, Liberty Larsen, who continue to keep the legacy of the Magic Castle alive.

“M For Magic" was originally scheduled to premiere in March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas; the event was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. The Magic Castle itself has closed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The documentary’s director, Alexis Manya Spraic, says “M For Magic” has received considerable interest from potential buyers since.

“My hope is that it can come out around the time that the castle looks toward reopening and really helps, not just as a rallying cry for that community, but I think because it is a larger-than-life story that is really entertaining and engaging ... as we learn to live with COVID or we get to move on past it, how do we preserve a world that supports niche communities, independent businesses, family businesses?” Spraic said.

Several of Harris’ TV characters have practiced magic, including Barney Stinson on “How I Met Your Mother." The actor is currently writing the fourth book in his “The Magic Misfits” series.

His love of magic started at a young age.

“I was looking for a hobby, a way to pass the time, that was rewarding in multiple ways,” Harris recalls. “Not as single-minded as collecting comics or collecting stamps, where you acquire and then just keep. I wanted to acquire a skill that I could keep, and also present. In magic, you find that.”

He considers the Magic Castle the “preeminent location” in its field due to its multiple showrooms and bars, full restaurant and immense library.

Although the club is reserved for its members and guests, Harris says there are ways for people who show great interest in magic to get in.

“I highly recommend the NPH Old Fashioned," Harris said with a laugh. “Have a drink in my honor. I can’t wait to have another.”