Hearing is Believing


The joy of music.

(2017) Music Documentary (Gravitas/Foresight) Rachel Flowers, Dweezil Zappa, Keith Emerson, Jeanie Flowers, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, Andy Radford, Dan Flowers, Ian McDuffie, Frank Cavenee, Taylor Eigsti, Ellis Hall, Brian Hutchison, Vaughan Flowers, David Pinto, Benny Chong, Larry Tuttle, Joy Cavenee, Mari Kawaguchi, Leo Medina, Cynthia Gonzalez. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Maybe once in a generation (if you’re lucky) comes a musical prodigy who has the ability to be a game changer. That person for this generation might just be Rachel Flowers. An absolutely lights-out pianist, she is able to hear a song once and then play it, possessed of true perfect pitch. She is also similarly skilled on a multitude of instruments, including guitar and flute. She is an amazing composer, working in a variety of styles and genres including pop, progressive rock, jazz and Latin. She is, in short, the real deal.

What makes the 21-year-old musician’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she has been blind since she was a baby, having been born prematurely and developing retinopathy which caused her retinas to detach repeatedly until eventually her parents had to accept that she would be blind for the rest of her life. She lives with her mom Jeanie in a modest home in Oxnard along with her little brother Vaughan who seems a typical well-adjusted teen who admits that he lives in the shadow of his sister and then the film proves it by going virtually the entire rest of the film without him appearing on camera.

The documentary follows Rachel essentially for two years as her impressive YouTube videos garner her  notice from various music industry folks who begin to help her – some directly, some not – but she begins to get a following. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t already well-known; by the time she was 11 she’d been on 60 Minutes twice. However, until recently her notoriety wasn’t really translating into income to speak of as the small family lived hand-to-mouth, surviving on Jeanie’s paychecks.

She does get the blessing of some pretty impressive musicians, including jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, keyboardist Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) who seemed to hold a special place in Flowers’ heart – she performs several of his songs during the movie – and fellow blind prodigy Stevie Wonder.

She leads off the film performing the Walter Murphy disco-era pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” serving notice that not only is she into classical but she’s into pop in a big way. The movie follows her from an appearance at a local concert hall in Oxnard to a Las Vegas stage with Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his father Frank (some of the most difficult and demanding compositions of the 20th century) to performing in her church and an impromptu performance at a big box store trying out a variety of keyboards on sale in front of admiring shoppers.

Rachel is an engaging presence, smiling broadly whenever she is playing music (for the most part; for more somber pieces her expression is more serious) and charming all with her humble demeanor and her infectious giggle which you will either be annoyed by or look forward to depending on your tolerance for girlish giggles and she giggles a lot. She is clearly a talented performer but also her original music ranges from haunting to joyful. She is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and I can’t imagine that she won’t be getting multimillion dollar offers from big players in the coming months.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its subject. I haven’t seen DeStefano’s other documentaries but I sure hope they’re better than this one. He obviously adores his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are treated to multiple scenes of musicians and admirers praising Rachel effusively. It isn’t that she doesn’t deserve it but her music speaks for itself; we don’t need to hear people endlessly remark on how talented she is. We all know it.

To make matters worse, DeStefano packs his film with cinematic ephemera that do nothing to really give us any sort of insight into Rachel herself. We see her at a self-defense course for the blind with other blind folks but as we see person after person practicing their techniques I began to fidget and wonder what on earth any of this has to do with the woman or her music. Occasionally Rachel talks about her creative process and how she expands on snippets of melodies that pop into her head, but we don’t get a sense of how she tackles the act of creating music overall.

The concert footage is extensive, giving us a chance to listen to entire pieces of her music which is a nice touch; so many music documentaries go for more is more, giving us 15-30 seconds of a song before going on to the next one. Not so here and it’s a good thing; really the best way to get to know Rachel Flowers is through her music. I say that because that’s essentially the only way we get to know Rachel Flowers here; the filmmaker does a poor job of showing us who this woman is.

That’s too bad because you will want to get to know her better once you hear her music. Something tells me that the director got so close to her subject that he lost objectivity and as a result made some poor directing decisions. I love the music of Rachel Flowers; I can’t say I can recommend the documentary about her as wholeheartedly. See it for the musical sequences which are enthralling but be aware that this is a severely flawed presentation that might send you scurrying for YouTube to watch more of her performances. That might be a much less frustrating way to encounter her.

 

REASONS TO GO: Rachel Flowers is an exceptional musician and extremely likable person. The extended concert footage gives you more than a snippet of a song to enjoy.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is ragged; there’s way too many cinematic non-sequiturs and extraneous footage. There is a little bit too much fawning going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flowers will be playing at a tribute concert to the late Keith Emerson in Birmingham, England on July 28th with, among others, Rick Wakeman of Yes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Transformers: The Last Knight

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Tomorrowland


George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Michael Giacchino, D. Harlan Cutshall, Shiloh Nelson, Xantha Radley, David Nykl, Priya Rajratham. Directed by Brad Bird

The future is a subject that fascinates most of us. How we view the future tends to be a reflection of how we view the present; in the optimistic days of the early and mid-60s, the epoch of the New York World’s Fair, there was optimism. Things would get better and our ingenuity would get us there. The future was full of sleek buildings, mass transit via monorail, wondrous scientific advances, cities on the moon, flying cars, jetpacks and cheerful, smiling people without a care in the world. In short, a theme park.

These days the way we view the future is dark and hopeless. Inevitably in our view of the future civilization has collapsed, resources have been depleted and humanity is on the verge of extinction. There are no gleaming cities, no jetpacks, no cheerful, smiling people; just dirty, destitute denizens of a hardscrabble world desperate to survive in a world where survival on any given day is no picnic. Welcome to the 21st century, no?

In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, yet another Disney film based on a theme park attraction – or, in this case, an entire themed zone within a theme park – there is a return to that bright shiny future but in this particular case, the future isn’t all that it used to be.

Meet Frank Walker (Robinson). He’s a brilliant kid living out in the sticks who dreams of jetpacks and shiny cities and heads over to the 1964 World’s Fair with stars in his eyes and a (nearly) working jetpack under his arm for a competition for inventors. His invention is rejected but a little girl named Athena (Cassidy) gives Walker a pin and tells him to follow her and her group. Walker follows them onto the It’s a Small World ride via which he is transported to an alternate dimension, one in which the future is now. He has arrived in Tomorrowland, a place where humanity’s most creative minds, most artistic souls and most brilliant scientists have gathered to create a Utopia. In short, not unlike the SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

Flash forward 50 years and over to Central Florida where Eddie Newton (McGraw), a NASA engineer, is given charge of dismantling the launch site for the Space Shuttle after which he’ll be out of a job. His spunky daughter Casey (Robertson), who has a brilliant intuitive mind and is able to figure out almost instantly “how things work,” has been repeatedly sabotaging his efforts. One of her attempts at sabotage gets her caught and lands her in jail. When she goes to collect her things, there’s a strange pin among them – one she didn’t have before. Whenever she touches it, she is transported to Tomorrowland, although it is more of an immersive hologram of Tomorrowland. And there’s a time limit on the pin’s battery, after which it  ceases working.

Casey is obsessed with finding Tomorrowland and her search takes her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (Clooney), now a grizzled old hermit whose house looks dilapidated yet is taking in more electrical current than Walt Disney World. It turns out that Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland, and that he harbors a terrifying secret; while in Tomorrowland he built a machine able to look into the future and to his horror, it showed that the end of the human race was approaching. And it appears that Casey may hold the key to stopping it, but they have to get to Tomorrowland to do it. And there are some killer robots who are dead set on making sure that doesn’t happen.

Bird has created a marvelous universe that is brilliant to watch. Sure, it’s a bit of a retro vision but he has managed to make it visually stunning, an extension of the future worlds we saw 50 years ago (that are supposed to be now) but modernizing them somewhat. Tomorrowland thus becomes believable, at least to 2015 eyes.

In a movie in which ideas and dreams are extolled, Bird has several of his own and they bear thinking about. For example, he posits that because we’re conditioned to think that the future is bleak and awful, that we are making it come to pass. It’s a concept not without merit. The news about our present is unrelentingly bleak, when you consider climate change, income inequality, peak oil, religious fanaticism, water and food shortages, overpopulation and all the other issues that are affecting our survival. Hollywood also tends to make big budget sci-fi movies about futures in which mankind is not prospering. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are easier and cheaper to create than futuristic utopias, after all.

The constant Disney references in the movie are probably delightful to most Disneyphiles, from visions of Space Mountain on the edge of the frame during a visit to Tomorrowland, to the It’s a Small World ride in 1964 – which was actually filmed at the attraction in Anaheim, which is much longer than the original which was in the Pepsi Pavilion and not its own stand-alone facility. However, I’m betting those of you who have ridden the attraction are now cursing me because they know they won’t be able to get the song out of their heads for hours. In any case, there are references to Disney movies, Disney theme parks and Disney memorabilia throughout the movie and while most of it is subtle, some of it is blatant enough that it makes one feel like one is experience a 2 1/2 hour advertisement for Disney. But that isn’t the movie’s deadliest sin.

What I object to most about Tomorrowland is that the filmmakers have dumbed it down to appeal to a younger audience. Gigantic leaps in logic and common sense abound here as we get to watch a kid save the world. I don’t object intrinsically to having a kid be smart, but smarter than everyone else? Wisdom comes with experience; it isn’t something we are born with, something movies aimed at kids conveniently tend to overlook in order to stroke the fantasies of kids in that they’re smarter than the adults around them, and more able. While thankfully most of the adults in the film aren’t portrayed as buffoons as they often are in kid-oriented films, not one of them seems to have any sort of optimism within them whatsoever which defies the odds. I think making this too kid-oriented was a tremendous error. Look at the facts; on those Disney attraction-based films that have been completely kid-oriented (i.e. The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears) the box office has been anemic. On those that have aimed to be entertaining to all audiences (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) the box office was through the roof. Not all of it was Johnny Depp, mateys; a lot of it had to do with that most adults won’t watch Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel for very long.

Clooney puts aside his suave sex symbol image and plays an unshaven, pessimistic sort who out-Get Off My Lawns Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He doesn’t flash his trademark grin very often in the movie, but remains engaging and charismatic nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Robertson however. I get that her character is supposed to be optimistic to the point of mania but she comes off as cloying instead. Worse, she seems to be overacting throughout, using broad gestures and expressions where subtlety would have been more appreciated. The 24-year-old Robertson is playing a young girl in her mid-teens and I get that girls that age are generally more dramatically inclined and that playing it over-the-top is more realistic than subtlety but it takes me out of the movie as I am continually reminded that someone is acting here.

This will probably rank as one of the summer’s greater disappointments. I had high hopes for it and was hoping that perhaps a new franchise might be brewing. The movie is doing pretty well at the box office but given its monster budget will have a hard time recouping all of it at the rate it is going.. I think if Bird had taken a page from Gore Verbinski’s book and appealed less to the youngest moviegoing audience and more to a more mature audience, this could have been a huge hit; it does have some admirable ideas to think about and is visually impressive but at the end of the day the things in the film that are annoying trump the things in the movie that are worthwhile. A world of tears, indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty eye candy (not Clooney). Some fairly complex themes.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumbed down. Robertson overacts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, sci-fi violence (robots beating each other up) and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Casey confronts the holographic dog early on in the film, her footprints form a Hidden Mickey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mom and Dad Save the World
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Top Spin

Catfish


Catfish

Nev Schulman wonders what's chasing him.

(Rogue) Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Pierce, Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Abby Pierce, Vince Pierce.  Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

Like it or not, social networks like Facebook have become a major part of our lives. We interact through them, make new friends and sometimes, romances bloom. As someone who met his own soulmate online, I can certainly relate, but there is a darker side to online romance as well.

Yaniv “Nev” Schulman is a photographer who lives in New York City and shares an office with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, who are both documentary filmmakers. All three specialize in taking images, moving and otherwise, of dancers. After one of Nev’s photos end up in the New York Sun, he is surprised to find that the image motivated an 8-year-old girl named Abby Pierce to make a painting based on his photograph.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly through Facebook. Nev is a sophisticated New Yorker, Abby lives in a rural Michigan town called Ish…Ishpem…it’s a town, okay? In any case, he begins to talk with the girl’s mother, Angela who tells him that the 8-year-old prodigy is already selling paintings to various collectors and is hoping to open up her own gallery.

As the friends and family of Angela and Abby begin to flock to Nev, one in particular gets his attention; Megan Faccio, Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister. Their relationship deepens into a full-on long-distance romance. Megan, a songwriter, begins to compose songs for her new flame. Abby sends painting after painting. Angela describes Sunday morning family breakfasts, and Megan talks about buying a horse farm, having been working for awhile in a veterinary office.

All this is being documented by Ariel and Henry, who are fascinated by the whole Facebook phenomenon which they are admittedly both a part of. However, as the trio venture out to Vail, Colorado to film a dance festival, cracks begin to appear in the facade of Nev’s new relationship. He begins to have qualms and doubts about the people he has lately become so fond of. He decides that he needs to visit them in person to try and get the skinny on who his new friends and would-be romance are, so the three of them fly to Chicago and drive roughly 500 miles to Ish…Ishpem…Ishpeming. Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, once they get there they discover something surprising.

The movie received a good deal of buzz at Sundance and has received some notoriety because of its trailer, which depicts the secret in a sinister light, on the order of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. First off, this is not a thriller by any means, so don’t go expecting to find the Manson family living in Michigan.

What this actually becomes is an examination of how we interact in 2010. We have become totally dependent on very impersonal means of communication – cell phones, instant messaging, e-mails and so on. Face-to-face interaction has become much more of a rare commodity. We develop close relationships with people that in truth we barely know.

For the first hour of the movie, we only see Angela, Abby and Megan as voices on a telephone, text messages, or as messages on Facebook. We see far more of Nev, Ariel and Henry and really, most of it is Nev. Nev seems to be a genuinely sweet guy with a nice smile and a charming lack of self-confidence. Nev wearies of the constant on-camera existence and wants to pull out, although Ariel eventually talks him back into it – some would call it bullying. Still, it’s a good thing he did because we would have been deprived of a good movie otherwise.

The last half-hour belongs to Angela, and she is the focal point in many ways of what the movie is trying to get across. I am purposely going to be vague about what that message is because it’s difficult to articulate it without giving away the twist, and the movie is far more effective if the twist isn’t spoiled. I did pat myself on the back on the way out of the theater for having figured it out in a way that I thought was clever (if you ask me nicely I’ll tell you what I did) and in all honesty, those who have extensive experience with online relationships and certain movies and novels (again I’m being deliberately vague) may also see through to the end before the twist arrives. 

Is this a cautionary tale? To a certain extent, yes. We have a tendency to see what we want to see when it comes to online relationships, and we don’t always know what’s real and what isn’t. In the end, successful relationships – both online and off – are built on truth and trust, and when either is missing, the relationship fails.

There are those who believe that this movie is entirely a put-on, a hoax although the filmmakers deny it. For my money, I think that this is completely real, although I suspect some scenes were filmed after the fact to make for more compelling drama. However, that is neither here nor there; the movie could be real and I believe that it is. Maybe Nev is a little bit too good to be true, but I understand he is still single which I’m sure won’t last long; his stock as an eligible bachelor has certainly increased with this movie.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the pitfalls of modern romance in the age of the social network. Nev is very likable and the use of Google Earth-like graphics is rather clever.

REASONS TO STAY: The twist doesn’t really live up to the billing in the trailer. Some have found the movie narcissistic and condescending, although I personally don’t agree with that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong language with some sexual references; while the subject matter is a bit adult, it should nevertheless be compelling viewing to any teenager or older, particularly if they are on Facebook.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the subject of a bidding war at Sundance after noted director Brett Ratner endorsed the film.

HOME OR THEATER: This movie isn’t on very many screens and may be hard to track down, but the intimate vibe makes it adequate home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Role Models