Bored in the U.S.A.


Just sittin’ and talkin’ ’bout things.

(2018) Drama (Old Academy) Kelly Lloyd, Chris Milner, Bryan Preston. Directed by Mike Finazzo

 

Sometimes what we need is to just talk. Not just talk, but also listen – an actual adult conversation about things that are important. You know, life things. Relationships, dreams, disappointments – the things that keep us going and the things that keep us crying.

Kelly (Lloyd) is married. She stays at home and takes care of the house; she and her husband Bryan (Preston) don’t have kids and there doesn’t seem to be a horizon where that is likely. Their sex is desultory and passionless. Kelly is filling her days as best she can but her friends are busy with their own lives, lives that make hers seem empty and small.

Chris (Milner) is a Londoner living in Baltimore but he’s preparing to return to the UK. He’s engaged to be married and is joining his fiancée back at home. He is in the process of selling his things in preparation for his departure. Despite this, he feels some uncertainty that he is making the right decision.

Kelly and Chris had met years earlier at a party. When they bump into each other, they remember their initial meeting. They get to talking and a cup of coffee turns into spending the day together. Their reflections on how their lives turned out force them to evaluate their past and the decisions they’ve made – as well as their futures.

This is a quiet film that mostly relies on the chemistry and conversational skills of the two leads. For the most part, it works. These are discussions that most of us have had at one time or another, or at least on the subject matter. Of course, your wording may vary. As someone who is interested in words, I enjoyed the ones that Kelly and Chris were uttering in general, and well-written dialogue is always a plus especially in indie films that rely on it. The exception is that Kelly is constantly making reference to the fact that this is set in Baltimore. I get the love Finazzo has for the place – Baltimore ain’t called Charm City for nothin’ – but it’s unnecessary and distracting.

There is a little bit of pretentiousness here; the decision to film the movie in black and white really doesn’t add anything to the film but it doesn’t take anything away. At one point, one of the characters says that “life is simpler in black and white” and that may be, but simpler isn’t necessarily better. Also the soundtrack is littered with French pop songs, bringing to mind film students arguing the merits of Jacques Tati while smoking clove cigarettes and drinking overpriced coffee.

That pretension will likely turn some people off but if you can get past that, this is actually a delightful little film. I wouldn’t say it’s terribly insightful; what you’re getting here are more experiential observations and they may not match your interpretation of them but that’s fine. It’s a healthy thing once in awhile to hear some differing opinions of the things you are going through, have been through or might someday go through.

REASONS TO SEE: The conversational aspect works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is on the pretentious side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex, drug use and crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a filmmaker, Finazzo is also a standup comedian.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Reinventing Rosalee

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Sollers Point


McCaul Lombardi looks like he just walked in on something.

(2017) Drama (Oscilloscope) McCaul Lombardi, Jim Belushi, Tom Guiry, Zazie Beetz, Everleigh Brenner, Imani Hakim, Wass Stevens, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ashley Shelton, Lynn Cohen, Greg Crowe, Liam Hughes, Pete Papageorge, Michael Rogers, Kazy Tauginas, Grace Doughty, Brieyon Bell-El, Vincent De Paul, Maya Martinez, Hilary Kacser, Marin Ireland. Directed by Matthew Porterfield

Redemption isn’t easily obtained. It requires a genuine determination to change and to make amends which requires hard work on the part of the seeker. Sometimes – often, in fact – even the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

Keith (Lombardi) has just been released from prison and has transitioned from incarceration to house arrest. He has moved in with his father (Belushi) who is wary of his son who had made a lot of mistakes and had hung out with the wrong crowd. A low-level drug dealer for local Baltimore gangs, Keith wants to put that life behind him and make something of himself.

He is not on good terms with his ex-girlfriend Courtney (Beetz) who also has his dog, or at least that’s how Keith sees it (she sees it as she’s got their dog which is at least equally hers). Some of the gang bangers from his past have come back, intimating that he owes fealty to them but Keith turns down the offer to rejoin, angering Aaron (Guiry) who harasses Keith in an escalating series of confrontations.

Keith’s biggest obstacle, however, is Keith himself. He wants to learn a trade that his father would find honorable like air conditioning repair but Keith misses the first class and is late for the second which gets him thrown out of class. He does some odd jobs here and there but he finds that in order to make real money he has to skirt closer and closer to his old life. Lonely, he initiates hook-ups with strippers that he knows which leads to a further falling from grace. And as Keith’s temper begins to get the best of him, he finally crosses the line and may bring his freedom to a crashing halt

This is Porterfield’s fourth film, all of which are set in his hometown of Baltimore. While there’s clear affection for the city coming from the director, it is not unconditional love – he sees its issues clearly and without sentiment. There is crime, racial division and an erosion of the ability of the working class to find jobs and dignity. Most cities have the same types of problems, particularly those that relied heavily on industrial economies in decades past.

Lombardi is a find; he’s had supporting roles in high-profile indies up to now but this is his first lead and he hits a home run. Facially a cross between John Cena and Mark Wahlberg, he carries the latter’s charisma and the former’s physicality. It makes for a very promising performance; keep his name in mind as I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Beetz, who has a high-profile role in the upcoming Deadpool 2 comes off less impressively. Perhaps her character was written with less to work with than Lombardi’s but she came off flat and without energy for most of the film; I couldn’t for the life of me see what Keith saw in Courtney at all. The chemistry was much stronger between Lombardi and Belushi although to be fair they had a lot more screen time together. While I was disappointed in her performance here – she’s done some compelling work in Atlanta – I’m hoping she does better the next time out.

Jim Belushi has come a long way from The World According to Jim and he shows some pretty serious dramatic chops here. There’s a scene with him and Beetz in which he pleads with her for the sake of his son, made all the more poignant for what Keith is doing at that moment. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie for.

This isn’t the first film to explore the reintegration of ex-cons into society and the hurdles facing them. In many ways, this is a well-trodden path. Keith though is his own worst enemy; he loses his temper when he should keep it, he is passive when he needs to stand up for himself and he does the wrong things for the right reasons – and sometimes, the wrong reasons. He isn’t a guy I’d probably want to hang out with for very long. It is a testament to Lombardi’s charm that the audience still ends up rooting for him. While I wouldn’t say this is Porterfield’s best film yet, it is nonetheless a solid one that is elevated by the strong performances from Lombardi and Belushi.

REASONS TO GO: Lombardi has some potential. There are some sweet and satisfying moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Beetz didn’t impress me at all. The character of Keith doesn’t have a whole lot going for him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Porterfield and Lombardi visited a state prison to get ideas on how Keith would behave in certain situations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Crimes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Fade

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Rat Film


Oh, rats!

(2016) Experimental Documentary (The Cinema Guild) No cast listed. Directed by Theo Anthony

You dirty rat. Rat bastard. Rat fink. The fact is, rats are not looked on fondly by our society. They are symbols of decay and rot, of filth and poverty. Rats are bringers of pestilence; it is said that they brought the Black Death to Europe but in fact, it was parasites living on the rats that carried the plague. Have rats been getting a bad rap?

Well, no. Rats do carry a variety of diseases and thrive in urban decay. Anthony’s debut feature documentary – or feature experimental documentary to be more accurate – is not so much a feature but a collection of shorts thrown together, sometimes incomprehensibly, with an overall theme of rats in Baltimore – and even that isn’t always true.

The movie is narrated by a female voice that sounds a bit like a distaff Stephen Hawking or more to the point, a primitive bored-sounding Siri. There is also an odd popping sound on the soundtrack throughout that I’m thinking was put there intentionally, if for no other reason than to further annoy the audience which Anthony probably thinks of as “challenging the audience.” Maybe he’s right.

There are a lot of vignettes that may or may not have anything to do with anything else; we follow a city-employed rat exterminator (none of those who appear in the film are named) who is both humane and philosophical; “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” he opines during a break from visiting homes in Baltimore’s poorest areas, “It’s a people problem.” That is apparently because the city of Baltimore more than a century ago set out to divide the neighborhoods by desirability and then focus services on the desirable area. Those in the redlined areas were essentially left to rot and rot they did.

There are sequences where a computer-generated Baltimore is created from a rat’s point of view. Where there are gaps in the program, star fields are shown. Here, the film seems to say, there be rats. Or perhaps more accurately, here there be software glitches. Take your pick.

The sequence showing doll house crime scene recreations from the 30s that are still used today for CSI training (and can be viewed by the public in a museum setting) was interesting. The CGI rat in a maze was not. There is no flow to the film; at times it just seems like Anthony is throwing things at the screen and seeing what sticks. I termed it cinematic masturbation when I saw it; after having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure I was right but I can understand why others might think so

The movie was deeply polarizing. Friends of mine have been singing its praises; others think it’s one of the worst films to ever play the Florida Film Festival. I’m not a fan; perhaps I prefer my documentaries to be more traditional and am not ready for this kind of challenge. I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer however if I didn’t point out that this really isn’t for everybody; some of the scenes (such as amateur rat catchers luring rats from a garbage-strewn alleyway with turkey slices smeared with peanut butter on a fishhook and then beating them to death with a baseball bat, and the final scene in which a snake devours a helpless baby rat) may make sensitive audience members uncomfortable, and the sensory assault of the computer graphics may also do the same.

I would never tell anyone not to go see a movie, even one that I absolutely loathed. I don’t absolutely loathe this one. The exterminator is an interesting character study and there are moments here and there that I found fascinating. While the linking of rats to urban blight and racism felt more obvious than perhaps was intended, the filmmaker shows a certain sympathy towards the rats. I only wish he’d had a little more for his audience.

REASONS TO GO: The city exterminator is an interesting guy and his story is the most compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has absolutely no flow; it’s a bunch of images thrown up on the screen without any sort of rhyme or reason. There is a popping sound on the soundtrack that was most annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity present as well as scenes that may make animal lovers a bit uncomfortable..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is composed by electronic music star Dan Deacon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sans Soleil
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Archer

Sleepless in Seattle


An affair to truly remember.

An affair to truly remember.

(1993) Romance (Tri-Star) Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Ross Malinger, Rita Wilson, Carey Lowell, David Hyde Pierce, Barbara Garrick, Frances Conroy, Tom Riis Farrell, Rob Reiner, Gaby Hoffman, Dana Ivey, Calvin Trillin, Michael Badalucco, Kevin O’Morrison, La Clanche du Rand, Tom Tammi, Valerie Wright, Caroline Aaron. Directed by Nora Ephron

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-5

Back in the 90s (and who knows, maybe it’s still true) radio call-in shows were big. Many of them provided a kind of social service, therapy for those who couldn’t afford a therapist and didn’t mind thousands of people (and maybe millions in the case of syndicated talk show hosts) listened in on their problems and phobias.

Annie Reed (Ryan) is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She doesn’t really believe in romance, although she believes that she doesn’t want to be alone. She’s engaged to Walter (Pullman), a nice enough guy who clearly adores her but she just doesn’t feel inspired, particularly as Walter is allergic to – um, everything. She listens to the Dr. Marcia (Aaron) show late at night and yaks about it with her good friend and editor Becky (O’Donnell) the next day.

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) – not one of the lost Baldwin brothers – is in a deep funk. His wife Maggie (Lowell) succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago but things just aren’t getting any better, not even after moving to Seattle from Chicago with his son Jonah (Malinger). Jonah worries about his dad, who can’t seem to get past his wife’s death and resume living and maybe even find happiness. Sam is skeptical about it – he knew he had found his soulmate from the first touch. “It was magic,” he muses, “You don’t get that lucky twice.”

Jonah is so concerned that he phones in the Dr. Marcia show and calls his dad to the phone. Reluctantly he gets on and tells his story and as Dr. Marcia coaxes his feelings about Maggie out of him, Sam is so eloquent, so heartfelt, so lost that he stimulates the maternal instincts of every woman listening. From then on he gets bags of mail from women proposing marriage or just wanting to meet.

One of the listeners is Annie who is drawn to his story. After watching a rebroadcast of An Affair to Remember she impulsively writes an expressive letter to Sam, proposing that they meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. At the urging of Becky (who also mails the letter after Annie chickens out), she flies out to Seattle to ostensibly do a story on the talk radio phenomenon but primarily to find Sam. However, after seeing him with his sister Suzy (Wilson) she gets the mistaken impression that he has a girlfriend and flees back to Baltimore, ready to marry Walter.

In the meantime, Jonah reads Annie’s letter and tries to get his dad, who by now is dating a co-worker (Garrick) that Jonah hates, to make the rendezvous but Sam refuses. Instead, Jonah writes Annie as Sam and tells her that he’ll be there.

More I will not tell you. Either you know what happens so there’s no point in recapping the plot further, or you don’t know and I don’t want to ruin the expert heartstring tugging you’ll undergo. Romantic movies tend to be very much formulaic these days, but this one is certainly not. Yes, it does borrow liberally from classic romances (particularly the aforementioned An Affair to Remember) but it’s smarter than most rom-coms and treats its audience as intelligent people while gently poking fun at how men and women express their emotions.

The interesting thing about this movie is that Hanks and Ryan spend very little screen time together but are often considered to be one of the prime screen couples of the last 20 years – yes, it’s been two decades since this came out. The characters are so compelling thanks in no small part to the sterling performances by Hanks and Ryan that people root for them to be together with unbridled fervor. The chemistry between the two is often discussed when this picture comes up for discussion, but maybe people are channeling their performances from Joe vs. the Volcano which they both previously starred in. They would go on to do one more movie together but for many they are the greatest screen couple since Hepburn and Tracy.

The interesting thing is that Walter, Annie’s fiancée, is really a nice guy whose only fault is that he’s not Tom Hanks. Pullman and O’Donnell both deliver solid supporting performances. The only acting letdown belongs to Malinger and it’s really through no fault of his own; the script (particularly during the last third which focuses more on him) calls on him to do more precocious things and instead of being cute it becomes painfully obnoxious. He’s one of those screen kids who knows better than adults and outwits them, often with the help of his friend Jessica (Hoffman).

This is one of the classic romantic movies. There are women who get misty-eyed at the mere mention of the film. As Valentine’s Day cuddle movies go, you could certainly do much worse. Undoubtedly putting this on the TV and snuggling up together with some microwaved popcorn and a couple of glasses of wine could lead to a memorable evening of your own.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Hanks and Ryan. The prototypical multi-hankie modern romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kid can be a bit obnoxious.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The radio call-in listener Desperate in Denver is voiced by Nora Ephron.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The most recent limited edition Blu-Ray includes a separate score only track as well as a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $227.8M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Affair to Remember

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The LEGO Movie

The Raven (2012)


The Raven

Edgar Allen Poe or John Wilkes Booth? You decide.

(2012) Thriller (Relativity) John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Shannon, Sam Hazeldine, Pam Ferris, Brendan Coyle, Adrian Rawlins, Aidan Feore, Dave Legeno, John Warnaby. Directed by James McTeigue

 

It is no secret that Edgar Allen Poe was one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature. He was the Stephen King of his day, his interests tending towards the macabre but while King is a superior storyteller, Poe was the better writer (assessments I think both King – and Poe – would have agreed upon).

The death of Edgar Allen Poe is shrouded in mystery. He was discovered raving in the streets of Baltimore (on a park bench according to this film but history doesn’t give us that kind of detail) and died in a Baltimore hospital four days later. To this day the cause of death is unknown. This movie gives us one theory.

As the film opens Poe (Cusack), a raging alcoholic, is flat broke trying to get drink on credit in a bar. Few know who he is; fewer still his accomplishments. His critical essay on Wordsworth’s most recent book has been killed by Henry (McNally), the editor of the Baltimore Patriot. Poe is desperate for the funds; Henry wants something along the lines of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe is well-aware that his best days as a writer are behind him and despite the encouragement of a sympathetic typesetter (Hazeldine), he is unsure he has another great story in him.

In the meantime, Det. Fields (Evans) of the Baltimore Police Department, has stumbled onto a grisly murder. In a locked room, a mother has been found with her throat slit and her daughter stuffed up the chimney having been strangled. There’s no way in or out and the officers entering the room distinctly heard the door lock before they broke in. How did the killer get away? The detective discovers an ingenious latching mechanism on  the window which had appeared to have been nailed shut. Fields recognizes the set-up of the murder, but from where?

After some research, he discovers that it is similar to a story written by one Edgar Allen Poe, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He calls Poe in for consultation, and when Poe’s literary nemesis, Rufus Griswold (Warnaby), turns up cut in two – by a blade hanging from a pendulum – he realizes that there is a killer on the loose bent on recreating murder scenes from Poe’s work.

Poe would rather concentrate on wooing Emily Hamilton (Eve), with whom he is deeply in love (and who loves him right back) but her father, the hot-headed Captain Hamilton (Gleeson) would much rather use Poe for target practice with his revolver. Nonetheless, Poe is ready to announce his engagement to his beloved when she is kidnapped by the dastardly fiend who makes his game with Poe far more personal. Poe will have to use clues discovered on the bodies of the victims to find his fiancee before time runs out – and the killer might be closer to him than he realizes.

Keep in mind when watching this that it is meant as pure entertainment. If you’re one of those looking for historical accuracy, you’re in the wrong theater. McTeigue, best-known for V for Vendetta, has concocted a nice little yarn that puts Poe in the position of being Sherlock Holmes but quite frankly, Poe is overshadowed in the detective department by Fields who is more Holmes-like.

It is also no secret that John Cusack is one of my favorite actors and he isn’t disappointing, although he seems a bit more prone to chewing scenery here than he is normally. He bellows like a rampaging bull from time to time and tends to overplay. Still, few actors grasp the nuances of their characters better than Cusack and his regret, frustration and general pessimism bring Poe to life. Cusack’s Poe is a weary man, resentful not that he finds himself unable to write but that he is largely responsible for the mess that he’s in with his drinking and debauchery. The death of his first wife weighs on him heavily and there is a sense that Emily might just be his only way to salvation.

There are some wonderful scenes here, like one where Poe is drinking with the killer and the movements of the two men are literally mirror images of one another. There is also a chase through a misty forest which has a surreal quality that Poe might have approved of. However, for all the good scenes there are a few that don’t work very well, such as the ball scene where Emily is kidnapped. It seemed a bit too formulaic.

Eve is a little bland as Emily; it’s hard to see how Poe would have fallen in love with her. Gleeson gleefully chews scenery and seems to be having a great time. Evans has a thankless job of being the stolid heroic Fields but his heroism must remain second fiddle to Poe’s. I wouldn’t mind seeing a film about Fields somewhere down the line although given the anemic box office of this film that is about as unlikely as finding out the real cause of Poe’s death is.

The movie carries a decent entertainment value which overshadows the unevenness of the structure and the sometimes egregious liberties with history and fact that the writers chose to take. Again, one must remember this wasn’t intended to be a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe but a fanciful tale of what might have been. It doesn’t always work but for those deciding what to see if The Avengers is sold out, this makes a pretty decent alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you interested from beginning to end. Cusack channels Nicolas Cage a bit here.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven in quality. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the murders are pretty gruesome and there are some pretty disturbing images from time to time; definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released online on the anniversary of Poe’s death (October 7, 1849).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Hell

EDGAR ALLE POE LOVERS: The character who was murdered via “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Rufus Griswold, was an actual person who actually survived Poe. Griswold had a vendetta against Poe and was inexplicably named as his literary executor, using his position to assassinate the character of Poe after his death, portraying him as a drug-addled, depraved madman, using “letters” purported to have been written by Poe but later proven to have been forgeries as proof.  His murder was more wishful thinking than fact-based in this context.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: FriendsWith Benefits

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo and Friend

(2011) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney, Martin P. Robinson, Bill Baretta, Jim Henson, Bob Keeshan, Kermit Love. Directed by Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

 

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some dream of being an artist, or an astronaut or a hero. Other dreams are smaller than that – some in fact downright pint-sized. Some dreams come covered in fur and foam.

Ever since he was a kid in Baltimore, Kevin Clash dreamed of being a puppeteer. One look at Sesame Street and he was hooked. So much so that he made his own puppet – out of the lining of his father’s overcoat. Rather than getting a spanking, he got encouragement which I believe qualifies his parents for instant admission to heaven right there.

While most kids in his working class neighborhood were playing sports, Kevin was putting on puppet shows. His early shows caught the eye of a children’s show host in the Baltimore area and before long Kevin was performing on television.

After graduating high school, he went to New York City to work on the old Captain Kangaroo show as an onscreen actor and puppeteer but his heart still belonged to Jim Henson and the Muppets which were just starting to take off. Kevin had learned everything he knew from watching Sesame Street but he needed to know more.

For that he needed a mentor and he couldn’t have asked for a better one than Kermit Love. Love was one of Henson’s go-to guys in terms of building and designing Muppets and although the name recalls one of Henson’s other creations, Kermit the Frog was actually created by Henson years before he met Love.

Love encouraged the young African-American puppeteer and gave him good career advice throughout Clash’s career. With Love’s encouragement, Clash got to work as a puppeteer on a Sesame Street Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float which led him to getting a gig on Sesame Street itself.

It was there when a frustrated senior puppeteer threw a furry red Muppet at Clash and said “See what you can do with him” that Elmo was born. With the piping high voice and the insatiable need for hugs, Clash immediately saw that Elmo represented love. Children all over the world responded to Elmo, realizing that he needed them as much as they needed him.

This would take a toll on Clash’s marriage and home life. Although his relationship with his daughter seems to be pretty good, he expresses regret that he missed a lot of her childhood. Unfortunately, not a lot of that is explored to any extent in the documentary. In fact, we don’t even learn when or why his marriage ended (although given the time demands on Clash and his insistence that he do everything Elmo-related himself the reasons seem somewhat clear).

In fact it could be said that the documentary doesn’t really deal with anything negative at all. We get a sense that Kevin had a difficult time in establishing his career, but it’s mostly glossed over. We are told he got teased as a child but we don’t get to hear what he thought about it.

Clash is an intensely private and shy person who doesn’t really like talking about himself which is awfully ironic because he plays a character who certainly isn’t shy about expressing his feelings and actually teaches kids how to express theirs. We never hear about how or even whether his ethnic background was an issue in his career – one thinks not, but his is the only African-American face we see among the puppeteers in the movie with the exception being an aspiring puppeteer – a young girl from Atlanta whom is looking for mentoring from Kevin the same way Kevin looked to Kermit Love.

The stories are heartwarming at times – enough so I probably rated the film a little bit higher than I would have normally. We see Kevin’s reaction to a dying child wanting to meet Elmo, or Kevin’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson – but there is little flesh added to the story. We hear the how, the who, the when, the what but rarely the why. It took the filmmakers six years to film this and it’s disheartening that I know little more about Kevin Clash than I could have read in his online bio.

On the surface, Kevin is a great subject for a documentary but this isn’t a great documentary. I would have liked to get inside Kevin’s head and heart a little bit more, find out more of the process that brought Elmo from felt and foam into flesh. In that sense, this film could have learned from Henson himself; the characters should be more than just what you see on the surface. They are made real by what animates them. I would have liked to have discovered more about what animates Kevin Clash.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely heartwarming. A few tugs at the heartstrings.

REASONS TO STAY: The documentary structure asked some questions I wanted answers to late in the film and bounced back and forth in the linear timeline a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a drug reference and a couple of mild swear words but okay for most Sesame Street-aged kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: Should probably be seen at home, although if it is playing in a local art house it wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit of support.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill begins!