The Christmas Chronicles


He sees you when you’re sleeping…

(2018) Holiday (Netflix) Kurt Russell, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Steven van Zandt, Oliver Hudson, Vella Lovell, Jameson Kraemer, Solla Park, Seth Mohan, Kayla Lakhani, Glen McDonald, Danielle Bourgon, Tony Nappo, Martin Roach, Lamorne Morris, Marc Ribler, Jeff Teravainen, Elizabeth Phoenix Caro, JaQuita May. Directed by Clay Kaytis

 

Every year at Christmas time there is a plethora of made-for-TV Christmas films that generally are barely tolerable. Once upon a time though, major studios made Christmas films that were heartwarming, sent a positive message and were actually entertaining but frankly, there hasn’t been one like that in the multiplexes since Elf.

Netflix has the last couple of years looked to fill that gap, with this being the crown jewel in this year’s crop of four or five Christmas releases. It has a big star, a well-known name in family filmmaking behind the camera (producer Chris Columbus) and a fairly big budget for effects and such. Does this have the makings of a Christmas perennial?

Through a series of home movies we are introduced to the Pierce family. Doug (Hudson), a firefighter, is one of those guys who puts a ton of effort into Christmas. His kids adore him and his wife is head over heels for him. Firefighting is, sadly, a very dangerous occupation and one year Dad is not there at Christmas. His wife Claire (Williams-Paisley) works in the local Emergency Room and on Christmas Eve she’s called in to cover a shift. Times being what they are – single moms need to work all the shifts they can, particularly at Christmas – she puts teen Teddy (Lewis) in charge of moppet Kate (Camp) and off sh goes to earn a living.

Kate still believes in Santa Claus which Teddy finds to be an eye-rolling mess. Teddy has fallen in with a bad crowd and is doing some underage drinking and worse, stealing cars. Kate clings to Dad’s massively outdated camcorder like Linus clings to his security blanket. She manages to convince Teddy – who against all odds decides to stay and babysit rather than go out with his friends as he’d planned to – to set up the camera to catch Santa in the act. To Teddy’s absolute shock, they do.

Going outside to get a better look at the magical sleigh, the two are accidentally taken along when Santa (Russell) takes off for his next destination. When he discovers the stowaways, he is taken by surprise and in the process loses his magic hat (which allows him to deliver presents at lightning sped), his sack of presents, the flying reindeer and the sleigh itself which crashes to Earth – in Chicago. Had Alex Jones made this movie, Santa would have had to be packing in order to make it out alive.

In any case the two kids responsible for Santa’s nightmare have to help him reclaim all his items and deliver the presents before dawn or else Christmas spirit would be drained from the world. The last time that happened, Santa tells us, the Dark Ages ensued. Somebody needs to tell Santa that there’s a good chance that the Second Dark Ages have already begun.

On the way to rescuing Christmas Santa gets arrested (!) and performs a blues musical number with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in the jailhouse (!!) while Kate scrambles to find the elves who turn out to be Minion-like merchandising opportunities creatures who speak in an unintelligible language. But can these two kids help Santa save Christmas – and can Santa save this family in crisis? Duh – it’s Christmas!

Russell was an inspired choice for St. Nick. He’s not the jolly old geezer that we’ve seen in past films, nor the hot mess that Tim Allen made him to be. This Santa is a straight shooter, a bit rough around the edges and well, some female reviewers have taken to calling him “hot Santa” which was enough to curl the mistletoe in my home.

As a counterpoint though are the two children. The performers are okay but they needed to be more than that to carry this film, which ends up being a Kurt Russell-fest because of it. Not that it’s a bad thing mind you but the film spends a lot of time following the kids and quite frankly you don’t want to spend a lot of time with them after the first few minutes. Kate’s actions imperil Christmas but there are no repercussions, no remorse really on her end; it’s just “they made a mess and it got cleaned up so everything’s copacetic.” Worse, there are absolutely no consequences for Teddy’s crimes which is criminal for a family film, and in fact Santa participates in a carjacking himself! It’s enough to make an elf burst into tears.

The special effects lack the wow factor of previous Santa-themed Christmas films and the stock aerial footage looks outdated. Much of the action is fairly predictable and rote and while the blues number seems a bit against the grain, it’s actually one of the best moments in the film overall – Russell really brings it. Still, it really doesn’t hold up to the Christmas movies that we tend to watch year after year. This one might get an occasional viewing once you’ve seen it once but even the least discerning Netflix viewers will probably think twice about a second streaming session but Russell’s performance is worth viewing at least once.

REASONS TO GO: Russell makes for a terrific Santa.
REASONS TO STAY: Parents might want to consider the message the film is sending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and kid mischief.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kurt Russell grew his beard out for the role; that’s actually his hair and beard he’s wearing as Santa, not an appliance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lasso

Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story


Student and sensei: Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters.

(2017) Dramedy (Abramorama) Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Peter Butterfield, Jac Holzman, Maria Muldaur, David Sanborn, Sam Lay, Lee Butterfield, Mark Naftalin, BB King, Paul Shaffer, Al Kooper, Jim Rooney, Marshall Chess, Gabriel Butterfield, Buzz Feiten, Jim Kweskin, Joe Boyd, Clydie King, Happy Traum, Bonnie Raitt, Kathy Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Cindy Cashdollar. Directed by John Anderson

 

Not many modern music lovers – unless they cherish the blues and blues rock of the 70s – remember the name of Paul Butterfield and if they do, it’s only vaguely. Most have not heard his music. Butterfield was a Chicago bluesman who grew up in Hyde Park, a white enclave surrounded by African-American communities. There were dozens of blues clubs around him growing up and he got hooked on the sound early, trading in the flute that his classical music-loving father wanted him to play for the harmonica.

He would become one of the most influential musicians of his time. His band was integrated at a time when that was not common. He was a protégé of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, who both had the prescience to see that for the blues to grow it had to attract white audiences and in order to do that, white musicians. Butterfield was one of the best of those, even as the blues was taking hold in Britain and British musicians were enthusiastically promoting the American masters who inspired them.

The movie is pretty standard documentary filmmaking, stylistically speaking. There are plenty of interviews with friends, families and musicians although in this case, musicians who actually played with Butterfield and none who were inspired by him. There is a fairly notable lack of contemporary musical figures, although Raitt, Sanborn and Bishop are still active.

The performance footage from Butterfield’s early years and salad days is particularly of interest. He had a well-earned reputation as a blistering performer – bandmates routinely describe him as a “force of nature” and “as intense as it gets.” There’s no substitute for being physically present at a life show of course but the footage gives an idea of how dynamic a performer he truly was. There is also footage from later on his career including some from the last months of his life but they pale in comparison.

Some of the footage is from the ground-breaking Newport Jazz Festival of 1965 in which Bob Dylan famously went electric. Most people don’t know that it was Butterfield and his blues band – which at the time included Elvin Bishop and Howlin Wolf’s rhythm section of drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold – that backed up Dylan at the Festival. While it vastly offended purists who believed folk (and the blues, come to that) should be acoustic music, the genii was out of the bottle. They had influenced rock and roll and now rock was returning the favor.

Butterfield’s decline was as heartbreaking as it was inevitable. He had moved his family to Woodstock, New York (before the famous rock festival) and lived a simple country life with his second wife Kathy and son Lee (he had a son Gabriel from his first marriage) when he was home but that wasn’t often. Butterfield had never been what you would call a consumer of healthy food and years of hard drinking, drug abuse and stress had led to a painful digestive ailment called peritonitis. He essentially ignored it and continued to play and party hard, which led to Kathy and Gabriel leaving him. The disintegration of his family apparently weighed heavily on him. His career took a turn downward as the blues became less popular and as the 70s came to a close receded into the province of being a somewhat cult music rather than a popular one. While it remains vital today, it doesn’t capture the popular imagination as it did in Butterfield’s era.

He died far too young at age 44 of a heroin overdose. His legacy however remains, even if most people are unaware of it. I wish the filmmakers had taken the time to talk to those carrying on that legacy rather than those who were contemporaries; it might have urged more people unfamiliar with his music to give him a try. Those who might be interested should check out his self-titled first album and the second, East-West which also was one of the early shapers of jazz fusion.

At the end of the day, this is not really an essential documentary although I wish it could have been. Truly, this is going to remain a niche film, appealing mainly to fans of Butterfield and of the genre in general. It’s unlikely to convert many new fans which is a shame because the music speaks for itself. I myself am not a particular lover of the blues but I do respect the blues and those who play it well. Butterfield was one of the very best and his music ignites and inspires just as intensely now as it did when he was still alive.

The film is scheduled to play Orlando on November 14 at the Gallery on Avalon Island. For those not willing to wait that long or want to make additional showings, it will also be playing at the Cine-World Film Festival in Sarasota on November 2, 6 and 11 – all at the Burns Court Cinema, one of the two venues for the Festival. Tickets for the Festival can be purchased online here. Click on the same link for further information about the Festival which has an impressive line-up this year.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is mind-blowing. Fans of Butterfield and of the blues genre in general will love this.
REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Butterfield is a member of both the blues and rock and roll Halls of Fame.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howlin Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock and Roll
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker

Scorched Earth


Unlike Jesse Ventura, Gina Carano has time to bleed.

(2018) Sci-Fi Action (Cinedigm) Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins, Stephanie Bennett, Dean S. Jagger, Patrick Gilmore, Luvia Petersen, Patrick Sabongui, Nathan Mitchell, Alisha Newton, Daniel Bacon, Sarah Troyer, Bart Anderson, Kailey Spear. Directed by Peter Howitt

 

I’m all for B-movies, so long as they’re reasonably entertaining and have at least a scrap of originality or at least some imagination to them. Scorched Earth, a post-apocalyptic ecological action western (that’s a mouthful) probably doesn’t qualify for either and if it does only barely but I found myself giving it a fairly mixed review.

Bounty hunter Attica Gage (Carano) wanders the wasteland following a global ecological disaster (take that, climate change deniers!) after an event known as Cloudfall permanently polluted the planet with toxic chemicals leading a need for re-breathing devices that use powdered silver to work properly and tiny chemical pellets that purify the polluted water. In her era it’s a capital crime to drive a fossil fuel-burning vehicle and she collects bounties on offenders of that law, for instance Chavo (Petersen) who wears a cowboy hat with a couple of aces in the hatband. That’s what passes for eccentricity among the mass murdering set in the future.

Gage is one of those bounty hunters who always gets her man (in that case, woman) but she has a run-in with the sheriff of New Montana (population 24) whose sheriff (Gilmore) has misplaced her bounty until Gage “finds” it for him. Her only friend is Doc (Hannah), the town medic and a former bounty hunter himself until a knee injury did his bounty hunting days in. He tells her of the biggest bounty ever offered for Thomas Jackson (Robbins), the mayor of the town of Defiance – wait, wasn’t that the name of the town in a SyFy post-apocalyptic Western? – and warns her she won’t be able to collect it by herself as Jackson has a crew of ruthless killers. Of course she sets out on her own after him, confident she can impersonate Chavo by wearing her hat. Of course nobody really sees anybody’s face that often due to the re-breathers which are taken off regularly.

Anywho, it turns out that Gage has a personal connection to Jackson as well as his bar chanteuse and occasional plaything Melena (Bennett) who bears a passing resemblance to Gage’s dead sister Beatrice (Newton) who was kidnapped by Jackson years earlier. Jackson and his flunky Lear (Jagger) have plans to work an abandoned silver mine near Defiance but needs manpower to do it; what better way to get manpower than to kidnap slave labor from surrounding towns and caravans passing through? You know all this is going to lead to a reckoning between Gage and Jackson and let the best man – or woman – win.

It’s hard to believe that Howitt also directed the superb Sliding Doors but he did; this is definitely not his finest hour. The script is loaded with elements borrowed from other films and has little originality in that regard. That would be okay if the elements were handled in an original way but they’re not. You’ve seen this movie before kids, even if you haven’t seen it yet.

Carano was at one time thought to be a rising star in the action field in Haywire never really fulfilled the promise she displayed in that movie (which was not as good a movie as most people at the time thought) despite a couple of high-profile roles. Direct to home video seems the next step for her; I can’t imagine that this film will get her decent roles in future films. It’s not that she’s bad, she just has cringe-inducing dialogue to recite and most of her hand-to-hand combat is done with guns which is a failure to utilize her skills properly. At one point she tells Melena “Head to New Montana; it’s a better way of life” which sounds more like a slogan the Montana tourism board might utilize than something an actual human being might say.

For some reason Howitt has chosen to stop everything dead in its tracks by having Melena sing the blues in his saloon every so often. The music isn’t really all that scintillating and the tone is jarring enough that it takes the viewer out of the film. Worse still, the singer – who is obviously not Bennett – doesn’t lip-synch very well to the actress, or vice versa.

 However, Howitt does handle the action sequences with aplomb and they flow nicely. Also the deadly cloud effects with plenty of CGI swirlies and lightning are pretty cool in and of themselves. Those however don’t a great movie make and quite frankly watching Gage get up and walk away after being thrown over a cliff in a coffin that’s been nailed shut is the kind of taking-leave-of-their-senses logic that the screenwriters display all too often in this mildly entertaining but ultimately not really worth seeing film.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are handled pretty nicely. The cloud and storm effects are also pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The musical interludes are jarring and disruptive. This film has a definite case of the indestructible heroes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, adult themes and profanity herein
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gage was initially written as a male character with Sean Bean being considered for the lead; when that fell through, the part was re-written for a female character and Carano was eventually cast for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/18: 13% positive reviews: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Eli
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

Sidemen: Long Road to Glory


It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Hubert Sumlin, Marc Maron (voice), Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes, John Landis, Brad Whitford, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Susan Tedeschi, Bob Margolin, Gary Davis, Ilene Louise Smith, Johnny Winters, Paul Nelson, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bonnie Raitt. Directed by Scott D. Rosenbaum

 

Pinetop Perkins. Hubert Sumlin. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. They are three giants in the history of the blues and huge influences on the sound of rock and roll. Sumlin was the guitar genius behind Howlin Wolf while Smith and Perkins played drums and piano for Muddy Waters. They have influenced bluesmen like the late Johnny Winters and Bonnie Raitt as well as rockers like Eric Clapton, Joe Perry and the Rolling Stones.

None of those three men have really gotten their due; even in their own genre they were overshadows by the men they backed up. They were true sidemen, and while they wore the label with pride they also felt the injustice of it – referring to the bandleaders they played for, Perkins mused “They got all the money and we got all the scraps.”

This documentary aims to remedy that. Rosenbaum – who in his debut feature film The Perfect Age of Rock and Roll posited a blues all-star band featuring these three giants and later saw life imitate art when the three men created their own band that would eventually win a Grammy – celebrates the life and art of these three sidemen. There’s a good deal of testimonial from Raitt, Winters, the late Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa. Perhaps a little too much; the movie professes a little too much adulation and while the praise is richly deserved, it gets to be a bit much as we hear over and over how great these guys were. We get it; what I really wanted to hear was their story.

When the film is concentrating on the story rather than the talking heads, it really hits its stride. All three of the men are natural storytellers and as you might imagine they have some stories to tell. Smith in particular is a delight to watch with an infectious smile and contagious laugh. If one person stands out from this documentary, it’s Smith..

We get a pretty good history from these guys, from their beginnings as the sons of sharecroppers, to their move to Chicago to find better economic opportunities to their days playing for Wolf and Waters and finally after both Wolf and Waters passed away, their days establishing themselves all over again. Some of the stories have a bit of a name-dropping element to them, as when Perkins recalls the time that Jimi Hendrix unexpectedly showed up at a concert, and others are told with gentle affection, as when Sumlin tells about how Clapton got on the notoriously curmudgeon Wolf’s good side by asking him to show them how “Little Red Rooster” was played, even though he was thoroughly familiar with the song.

There is some lovely archival footage of Wolf and Waters which is worth its weight in gold and the audio clips of the great blues songs these men were part of will absolutely send chills up your spine. There is a bit of an elegiac tone to the film however; the interviews with Winters and Allman took place before the musicians passed away. Also the three blues men in question have all since passed away – within eight months of each other, Perkins less than a month after the three won their Grammy.

Although they are gone, their legend lives on. There is a very real effort underway to get them elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, none of whom are currently inducted in and definitely should be. This is a documentary that should have been made. I would have preferred to hear more from the three gentlemen in question and less from the talking heads, but to be fair Smith, Sumlin and Perkins were interviewed during their final tour back in 2010 and little interview footage otherwise exists. That’s the true shame – the stories and memories that the three men had between them are gone with them.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. Smith is absolutely delightful throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: More anecdotes and less adulation would have been welcome. The film over-relies on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins earned his only Grammy at age 97 (along with Smith and Sumlin) for Joined at the Hip which makes him the oldest Grammy recipient ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twenty Feet from Stardom
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Liza, Liza, Skies of Grey

A.K.A. Doc Pomus


This is how it's done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

This is how it’s done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

 

(2012) Music Documentary (PBS International) Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Jerry Lieber, Raoul Felder, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Kenny Hirsch, Dion DiMucci, Shawn Colvin, Willi Burke, Alex Halberstadt, Ken Emerson, Marshall Chapman, Mike Stoller, Dave Marsh, Robin Lerner, Hal Willner, Josh Alan Friedman, Jimmy Scott, Gerry Goffin, Penny Arcade. Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The name Doc Pomus is probably not one you’re all that familiar with unless you’re one of those music fans who reads incessantly about classic rock and pop. Even if you’re one of those people, you still might not know the name and if you do, chances are you don’t know much more than that.

Pomus started his career as a blues singer, and those who have heard his early recordings were startled to find out that he wasn’t an old black man from the Delta but a white Jew from the Bronx. He was perhaps the most unlikely blues singer ever but he certainly understood the blues. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc was on crutches or a wheelchair most of his life. Not the best looking of men, he was still attractive to women largely with the force of his teddy bear personality but also with his sensitivity and genius for expressing love simply and elegantly.

Pomus has written or co-written (with frequent partner Mort Shuman) some of the most beloved songs in the history of music, including “Save the Last Dance,” “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” “Young Blood” and “Viva Las Vegas” to name just a few. He started out as one of the Brill Building writers who brought hit after hit in the late 50s and early 60s. As writing their own songs became more en vogue for artists as the 60s grew more turbulent, Pomus became more of a gun for hire, continuing to write for artists as diverse as B.B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.

Pomus was also a tireless crusader for fellow writers and performers, making sure those who had been overlooked got breaks when he could arrange them. His efforts made him a beloved figure in the music industry and garnered him a lot of respect from those who knew about his behind the scenes work.

Pomus passed away in 1991 from lung cancer and was elected to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame the following year, honors richly deserved.  This documentary is a testimony to his lasting influence on music both as a songwriter but also as a champion for its preservation and as a mentor to literally dozens of writers who came after him, including such current hitmakers as Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin.

This is a pretty standard music documentary with performance footage, interviews both archival and modern and a few graphic goodies. It is a fairly informative documentary but I’m not sure if that’s because Pomus is so criminally not well-known or because the filmmakers meant this to be that way (it is after all slated to air on PBS). Still, one must applaud the filmmakers for bringing back into the spotlight someone who deserved to be there from the beginning so it gets extra kudos and points for that alone.

Making music documentaries is not a matter of just slapping some clips and interviews together and this is certainly not that; some care and thought went into this and certainly that’s appreciated. However, this isn’t an innovative entry into the genre so if you’re looking for something that ventures beyond the Behind the Music formula, this doesn’t stray too far from that path. However if you’re looking to learn more about a giant of the industry whose story isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve come to the right place.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific music, some of the most iconic in rock and pop history. Tells the story of someone who doesn’t get the recognition he should have.

REASONS TO STAY: Slow in places. Loses steam near the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use but mainly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pomus’ real name was Jerome Solon Felder.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie will be making festival appearances before an eventual airing on PBS.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sing Your Song

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: All the Light in the Sky and more coverage from the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Vanishing on 7th Street


Hayden Christensen isn't apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

Hayden Christensen isn’t apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

(2010) Horror (Magnet) Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore, Taylor Groothuis, Jordan Trovillion, Neal Huff, Larry Fessenden, Arthur Cartwright, Hugh Maguire, Erin Nicole Brolley, Stephen Clark, Caroline Clifford-Taylor, Shana Schultz. Directed by Brad Anderson

It is engrained in our nature to be afraid of the dark. That is a legacy from our caveman ancestors, who were terrified by things in the night that were likely to eat them as not. But we live in civilized times. There’s nothing malevolent in the dark is there?

Paul (Leguizamo) is a projectionist in a Detroit movie theater. Like many in that particular profession, he can get quite bored on the job, so he brings with him a book to read and a hat with a lantern on it to read by. When there’s a brief power outage, he is for a moment the only one with light. When the lights come back on, he is shocked to discover that every person in the theater has vanished, leaving behind their clothes, shoes and jewelry. They’re just…gone

He meets a security guard (Cartwright) who had a flashlight on when the lights went out. As they investigate, the lights go out again. Then the guard’s flashlight fails and a shocked Paul watches him disappear before his eyes. Then Paul’s light goes out…

Luke (Christensen) wakes up to find the city deserted. A tough TV news reporter, he heads to the station to see if he can piece together what’s going on. He thinks that there is something in the shadows and that the key to survival is light. Before he is forced to flee the station in the receding light, he sees a video from Chicago that indicates that the Windy City may well be safe.

Luke makes his way to a bar which is one of the few places with light left in Detroit. A portable generator is running them and a suspicious 13-year-old boy named James (Latimore) is the only one there. His mother, the bartender, had stepped out but should be back any moment, a scenario Luke finds highly unlikely.

In short order, they are joined by Rosemary (Newton), a junkie whose baby disappeared, and eventually by Paul who reappeared at a lighted bus stop when his lantern hat re-activated. He is grievously injured however and Luke is obliged to rescue him by the skin of his teeth.

It turns out that there is a malevolence in the shadow that is capable of fooling those who remain alive to step into the dark. With a supernatural darkness enveloping Detroit, Luke knows it’s a matter of time before the generator fails and the only choice they have left is to make a run for it to Chicago, but that’s a dangerous proposition. And as Paul has discovered, what has the events in modern day Detroit have to do with the lost Roanoke colony of the 17th century?

Director Anderson has some pretty impressive titles to his credit, including Transsiberian and The Machinist. While this isn’t on the level of those films, it is pretty nifty nonetheless. It’s a great premise – aren’t we all scared of the dark? – and doesn’t require a lot of gaudy effects to pull off.

His Achilles heel here was casting. While Leguizamo and particularly Latimore do solid work, Christensen and Newton overact without any conscience whatsoever. While I agree that frightened people can act in a hysterical manner, there just doesn’t seem to be any reality to their portrayals. It pulled me out of the movie several times. By the way, don’t look for any explanations as to what’s going on – you won’t find any. While there are some critics who complained about it, I think it puts the audience in the place of the characters who wouldn’t have known what’s going on either.

This is a bleak movie, which is a trademark of Anderson. Some may find it too bleak, but I kind of liked the tone. While I appreciate needing to put some name actors in the lead roles, Christensen and Newton aren’t the two I would have cast. With a couple of different actors as Luke and Rosemary, this might have been a much better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Genuinely creepy with good performances from Leguizamo and Latimore.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very bleak in tone. Christensen and Newton were poor choices for the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of swearing and some pretty grim and gruesome imagery.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film was a theatrical flop, more than one quarter of the box office came from South Korea.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a series of interviews conducted by Fangoria magazine.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $10M production budget; not the numbers the producers wanted.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pitch Black