The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)


“Tell me about your dreams…”

(2018) Drama (MenemshaSimon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Christoph Bittenhauer, Gerti Drassi, Rainer Woss, Thomas Mraz, Martin Thaler, David Altman, Tobias Ofenbauer, Erni Mangold, Tom Hanslmaier, Robert Seethaler, Angelika Strahser. Directed by Nikolaus Leytner

 

Figuring out who we are is one of the most difficult tasks that we undertake during our lifetimes. Many of us still haven’t got a clue even into our advanced years – and it’s well-nigh impossible for someone just starting out in life. Life is confusing even for the brightest and most experienced among us.

 

Franz (Morzé) is a bit of a dreamer. He lives in a bucolic Austrian village on the shores of Lake Attersee. It is 1937, and things in Europe are changing rapidly. Franz is 17 years old and lives with his mother (Fritsch). Franz has discovered girls, and spends much of his time swimming in the lake. He particularly likes to see how long he can stay submerged, but one day as he is enjoying the peace and quiet of the bottom of the lake, he sees flashes in the sky and realizes a thunderstorm is approaching. The one place you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm is in a lake, so he quickly emerges from the lake, high-tailing it for home and passing his mother on the way. She’s preoccupied with her lover giving her what-for against a tree; the lover finishes and decides to take a quick dip before the storm arrives. Not a good idea; a chance lightning strike in the lake punches his ticket for the express train to the afterlife.

Mama can no longer afford to feed her growing boy, so she sends him to Vienna to apprentice with another former lover of hers, Otto Trsnjek (Krisch) who lost a leg in the war and currently runs a tobacco store on a side street in the capital. At first, the two guys react to each other warily, but Otto is a kindly sort who is willing to sell his products to anyone – Jews, Communists, everyone – except Nazis, who come in looking for the party newspaper which Otto refuses to sell.

One of his customers is none other than the legendary father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud (Ganz) who comes to the shop to get his cigar fix. Franz is fascinated by what he does and determines to have Freud help him overcome his inability to find somebody to love. Freud, for his part, says ruefully that he is as confused about love as Franz is.

Things are going from bad to worse in the Austrian capital, but for Franz there is a saving grace; the beautiful young Bohemian Annezka (Drogunova) who works as a dancer in a cabaret and who seems to have lots of boyfriends. However, she and Franz hook up although when he gets serious, she backs away, leaving him bitter and confused. That’s the least of his worries, though, as the Nazis tighten their hold on Austria, people whose behaviors are disapproved of are whisked off of the streets, never to be seen again and prudent Austrians are finding someone with a swastika arm band to protect them – or make a hasty exit for less fraught environs.

Freud, as a Jew, is particularly vulnerable but he is not eager to leave his home. It falls upon Franz, who has become friends with the aging doctor, to try and convince him to leave before it’s too late. Franz is being forced to grow up quickly as he takes on more responsibility at the store and continues to pursue Annezka. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get by.

Watching movies about the ascension of Nazi Germany are doubly disturbing in these days of rioting, pandemic and increasingly authoritarian posturing by the current administration. The parallels seem inescapable and it’s likely the filmmakers are fully aware of that. Some may find it extra-disturbing.

This was one of Ganz’ final films (it is the final Ganz film to be released in the United States) and his performance is heart-wrenching. He plays Freud as a gentle man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, not at all the way most of us picture him. Morzé is handsome enough in the lead role, but his performance is pretty bland for most of the film, and by the time the character shows signs of growth the damage is done. Krisch does a good job as the kindly Otto, and Russian actress Drogunova adds a dash of sensuality to the movie.

Freud’s psychological theories are on display throughout the film, as we are treated to Franz’ dreams which are full of symbols; submersion, spiders, isolation, mother bonding, and so on. Some of the dreams have rich imagery, but Leytner relies on them a bit too much. They interrupt the flow of the story and obfuscate what’s going on.

The movie is based on a novel by Richard Seethaler, which was a massive best-seller in Germany. There is a literary quality to the film which is a little more common in European films but which mass American audiences tend to shy away from. We are invited to psychoanalyze Franz, although to be honest as the movie starts he’s basically genitals with legs and with not a whole lot of responsibility or ability to see beyond his own immediate needs. That changes as the movie goes along, but the effect is at least at the beginning akin to the emperor not wearing any clothes.

The movie might have benefitted from less time spent on the dreams, although some of the dreams are actually kind of fascinating. Still, they do tend to get in the way of the best part of the movie – the story of Franz’ maturation process as he discovers that the things that were important to him as a boy matter less to him as a man. It’s a lesson that not all of us actually learn.

The movie is currently playing as a Virtual Theatrical Experience. Among the Florida theaters benefitting from this pandemic-centric VOD delivery are the Tampa Theater, the Tropic Cinema (Key West), All Saints Cinema (Tallahassee), Corazon Café (St. Augustine), Pensacola Cinema Art, and the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Click on the link below to buy your tickets to benefit those theaters or others closer to where you might live.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganz is magnificent as Freud. Some interesting dream imagery.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story meanders quite a bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity, sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book Thief
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happy Death Day 2U

Long Day’s Journey Into Night


The more that things change, the more that they decay.

(2018) Mystery (Kino-Lorber) Wei Tang, Jue Huang, Sylvia Chang, Hong-Chi Lee, Yongzhong Chen, Feiyang Luo, Meihuaizi Zeng, Chun-hao Tuan, Yanmin Bi, Lixun Xie, Xi Qi, Ming Dow, Zezhi Long, Jian Jun Ding, Kailong Jiang, Kai Liang, Chuanren Lin, Xizhen Liu, Tongfu Long, Zhonglan Luo, Zhengfu Meng, Hongyue Pan. Directed by Gan Bi

 

Funny thing about dreams; they’re often more real to us than what we perceive as reality. Dreams reveal our true selves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Dreams can be beautiful, but dreams reveal the lives we wish we had led.

Luo Hongwu (Huang) is returning to the Southwestern China town of Kaili which he had lived in much earlier days of his life. He has returned there after the death of his father, the ne’er-do-well gambler nicknamed Wildcat (Lee). Luo finds a photo of a woman (Tang) hidden in a broken clock and vaguely remembers a relationship with someone who looked like her – and her name might have been Wan Qiwen. He goes in search of the woman.

Along the way he interacts with a rogue’s gallery of oddball characters from a crusty hairdresser (Chang), a precocious 12-year-old boy who lives in an abandoned mine, and assorted pimps, thieves, hookers, thugs and cops. Luo finds himself in a movie theater and sits back to watch the movie in 3D, putting on his 3D glasses. That’s when dreams become reality, and vice versa.

If you think I’m being deliberately vague about the plot, you’re not wrong. The thing is that this is something of a stream-of-consciousness film which has a kind of dream logic to it in which the laws of physics might just be suggestions. Director Gan Bi hit the critical radar in 2015 with his debut feature Kaili Blues which contained a single 40-minute tracking shot. He outdoes himself here with one that lasts close to an hour – in 3D yet – that takes up the entire second half of the film. It is a magnificent technical achievement but in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm (as spoken by the equally immortal Jeff Goldblum) he was so busy figuring out if he could he didn’t stop to think whether he should.

Bi is a visual wizard and the shots are so thoughtfully framed, so beautifully lit and the production design so exquisite that you realize that he’s heavily influenced by the great Chinese director Kar-Wei Wong. It’s a beautiful movie to watch and if you’re tempted to avoid reading the subtitles altogether and just let yourself float among the images, I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think that’s a good way to approach this movie because the dialogue is absolutely superfluous.

Movies in many respects are dreams given form and I don’t know about you but some of my dreams would make shitty movies. This is a long (nearly two and a half hours), slowly paced and often confusing film that, like a dog trying to settle down in its bed for a nap often turns round and round on itself before settling down, only to get up again and do the same thing all over again. In that respect this isn’t a movie for everybody except the most esoteric and avant garde of filmgoers. Mainstream audiences aren’t going to like this very much.

There is a very Noir tone to the film which is welcome; it is set in a city where the rainfall is constant, like Seattle on steroids. As a result, there is a sense of decay and entropy to the surroundings where water is wont to break through walls and create nifty little waterfalls. Most of the characters smoke like chimneys and not just because everyone in China seems to be a chain-smoker but because smoke and water go together as motifs. Incidentally, despite the title there is no connection here that I could see with the classic Eugene O’Neill play.

This should be approached as fine art; very subject to interpretation. The story isn’t the important thing which is something that will have most mainstream moviegoers headed for the exits. What matters here is the tone, the vision, the feeling and the thoughts provoked, but don’t say we didn’t war you about the whole art thing.

For readers in Miami the movie is currently playing this week at the Cinematheque before taking up residence at the AMC Sunset Place. Keep an eye for the visual cues as to when to put on your 3D glasses; there’s a brief graphic informing the audience to put on their glasses when you see the main character put on his.

REASONS TO SEE: The shot composition is outstanding. There is a definite Noir feel to the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog, figuratively and literally.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality and a crazy amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chinese moviegoers felt misled by the marketing campaign which billed the film as a Noir mystery and less as an art house experience leading to a good deal of Internet backlash.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Void
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Postal (2019)

Clinical


The line between doctor and patient blurs.

(2016) Thriller (Netflix) Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Nester Serrano, William Atherton, Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Dion Basco, Adrian Flowers, Trevor Snarr. Directed by Alistair Legrand

 

Sooner or later, all of us without exception must endure some sort of traumatic experience. These experiences help shape us and we all deal with them in different ways. Some of us tackle them alone and try to work our way through them without help. Some of us lean on family and friends and allow them to prop us up as we learn to adjust to them. Still others seek the professional help of a therapist or psychiatrist. One wonders though; how do psychiatrists get help when they undergo a traumatic experience themselves?

Dr. Jane Mathis (Shaw) is having to deal with this vexing question. One of her patients, Nora (Eisley) didn’t react to Jane’s treatment well. Jane believes in forcing patients to confront their traumas which is a controversial therapy in and of itself but in Nora’s case the patient went right over the edge. Feeling that Jane was to blame for her situation, Nora went to Jane’s office (which is part of Jane’s home) and in front of Jane’s horrified eyes slit her own throat. Nora survived fortunately but was confined to a psychiatric hospital after the bloody suicide attempt.

Jane struggled to pick up the pieces, seeing her mentor Terry (Atherton) as his patient. She also got involved in a relationship with Miles (Stanford), a police detective which begs the question: why do movie psychiatrists always have romantic relationships with cops in psychological thrillers? Anyway, Jane finds herself having a hard time concentrating on her patients’ problems which seem mundane and petty to her. She’s drifting along some – until Alex (Rahm) comes along.

Badly burned and disfigured in a car accident, Alex is having a terrible time adjusting. He has issues going out into public; he feels like he’s being stared at (and he probably is). Jane is intrigued by his case – her professional curiosity has been stimulated for the first time since, well, since Nora filleted herself in front of her. She begins devoting more and more time to Alex and is beginning to see some progress.

However, Jane is beginning to have some terrifyingly realistic visions of Jane, visions in which Jane is paralyzed and unable to move. Terry writes them off as a specific kind of dream but Jane is beginning to have doubts about her own sanity. If she’s not sane, can she help others to find their own sanity?

I can’t say I have a particular fondness for psychological thrillers although I do enjoy them when they’re done well. This one, unfortunately, is only half-done. The story is pretty similar to many most veteran film buffs will have seen already and quite frankly isn’t as good as most of those. There are plenty of logical misses and characters do insanely dumb things in order to further the plot along. While there are a few genuine surprises, most of the twists and turns experienced moviegoers will see coming.

Legrand does a good job with the atmospherics, keeping things nice and tense throughout although he relies a little too much on jump scares for my taste. He also managed to get together a decent cast with a few names like Atherton, who is best known for playing officious bureaucratic sorts putting in a notable role as a supporting good guy as well as Serrano who plays the officious bureaucratic sort here.

Rahm is an up and comer, getting some good supporting roles and a couple of decent lead roles on television. He grabs the most attention here and not just for his make-up; he does a terrific job as a man cowering from life and hiding an inner bitter core. It’s the kind of performance that can lead to better things for a young actor and I certainly that becomes the case here.

Shaw who most will remember from 3:10 to Yuma and the first season of Ray Donovan is a bit wooden here. I get the sense that this is a director’s decision to make the character closed-off emotionally but I think it is taken too far and eventually we as an audience feel disconnected from Jane as a character. I don’t think it was a particularly good decision and I know Shaw is capable of much better.

In short, this is a fairly middle-of-the-role movie that is reasonably entertaining but compared to other things Netflix has to offer a bit lacking in quality. I think if Jane had been a little bit less of an ice queen the movie would have been a lot more intriguing. As it is I can give it a mild thumbs up but not much more than that. If you’re looking for a thriller that will pin you to the edge of your seat, keep looking.

REASONS TO GO: The vibe is sufficiently creepy. Atherton does some strong work in a rare sympathetic role. Rahm is an up and coming star.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pedestrian. There are too many jump scares, plot holes and lapses in logic. Shaw is too wooden in this role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some gore, plenty of terror, some violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw previously played a psychiatrist on House, MD.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fourth Kind
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

Don’t Kill It


Dolph Lundgren casually gets ready for some non-lethal shooting.

Dolph Lundgren casually gets ready for some non-lethal shooting.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Archstone) Dolph Lundgren, Kristina Klebe, Michael Alan Milligan, Billy Slaughter, Aaron McPherson, Miles Doleac, Elissa Dowling, Sam Furman, Jasi Cotton Lanier, Tony Bentley, James Chalke, Michelle West, Tony Messenger, Toby Bronson, Randy Austin, Chaton Anderson, Milorad Djomlija, Thomas Owen, Kristin Samuelson. Directed by Mike Mendez

 

Demons are notoriously hard to kill. Oftentimes people don’t even believe they exist until it’s much too late and then the demon hunting shmoe sent out to kill the thing gets to say “I told you so.” Among the hardest demons to kill are those that jump from body to body however.

A small, picturesque town in Mississippi is battered by three triple homicides in less than a week. This kind of violent crime spike gets the attention of the FBI who sends Agent Evelyn Pierce (Klebe) who is from the area and was known locally as “Evil-Lyn” which is not a term she’s particularly fond of.

But also attracted to the carnage is Jebediah Woodley (Lundgren) who is – ahem – a demon hunter. Of course, announcing a profession like that meets with a lot of sniggers and of course a lot of incredulity but as the demon continues to pile up the body count, those who are possessed display pitch black eyes and a demonic scream that is unmistakably supernatural. Soon Pierce and the local police Chief Dunham (Bentley) are believers but Pastor Erikson (Chalke) thinks that the only thing demonic are the out-of-towners Woodley and Evelyn, who he has always distrusted.

As it turns out, the demon has a special attraction to Evelyn and the stakes get just a little bit higher but the FBI comes in at just the wrong moment and even worse, the vengeful and decidedly un-Christian Pastor has plans for Woodley and Evelyn that have nothing to do with charity.

This is actually not a bad little horror comedy. The sense of humor here is actually not so broad or over the top as to be cloying. Instead, it is almost subversive and while there is a whole lot of gore and not a whole lot of restraint, there is enough humor to lighten the mood without making the movie silly.

Now pushing 60, Lundgren has come a long way since Ivan Drago. He rarely gets a lot of dialogue (and he even quipped that he has more dialogue in this film than he has spoken over the past five years) and this is a performance that should change that perception that directors have of the man; I’ve actually begun to look forward to his appearances which I never would have thought would be a sentence that I’d actually utter considering some of the truly excruciating performances he’s given in some truly excruciating movies back in the 90s.

I mentioned gore and there’s plenty of it – none of it really groundbreaking but all of it perfectly placed to serve the story. Some might find some of it to be excessive but when you put it up against the horror films of the 70s and 80s it might even be considered a little tame. Sometimes it’s used for humorous effect but for the most part as I said it serves the story.

The story follows a fairly clichéd path but the conceit in which how the demon travels from body to body is clever and makes for a good story so you can overlook the clichés. Lundgren is engaging and funny and while the supporting cast is largely unknown, the performances are at least solid and never detract from the movie. I can understand why some might be reluctant to see this – horror comedies have a tendency to be too much one or the other and rarely are appealing as a complete film. This one is.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a subversive sense of humor. Dolph Lundgren has become a welcome addition to a film and whoever thought that would ever be a sentence? There are some nifty gore effects.
REASONS TO STAY: The story follows a cliché kind of path. The ending is a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, profanity, some fairly gruesome gore, sexuality and a bit of nudity. There is also excessive vaping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Once the production got the final green light, there were only 12 days of prep time before shooting started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shocker
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Love and Taxes

Strad Style


Danny Hauck in his home studio.

Danny Hauck in his home studio.

(2016) Documentary (1170 Productions) Daniel Hauck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Stefan Avalos, Rodger Stearns, Mary Hauck, Alfredo Primavera. Directed by Stefan Avalos

Slamdance

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some are more realistic than others. Then again, that’s what dreams should be right – to reach for the unattainable, the unlikely, the impossible?

Daniel Hauck is a bipolar man who lives in an isolated farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio. Since he was a young boy he has been fascinated by violins. More than fascinated, really; it would be more accurate to call it a passion or an obsession than anything else. He doesn’t really have the talent to play them so much but he develops an urge to build them.

Besides that he’s also into custom cars and car clubs but that’s really a hobby that is a bit more expensive than he can afford at present being unemployed with almost no prospects of anything coming along anytime soon. He lives a lonely existence by choice although he does have a computer in which he keeps up with social media.

It’s on Facebook that he meets Razvan Stoica, a concert violinist considered to be one of the best in the world right now, although he is not well-known in the States – yet. The two befriend one another and begin messaging each other. They talk about classic violins and Stoica mentions that he would love to play one of the most famous in the world – Guarneri del Gesu’s (a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari and a fellow resident of Cremona in Italy) Il Cannone, or the cannon, the violin made famous by Paganini. .Daniel, perhaps impetuously, offers to build him a replica of the instrument.

Daniel hasn’t built a violin of this caliber before and he has no training in doing so. Nonetheless, he goes after the project with a certain amount of joie de vivre and learns what he can from the Internet. He also gets the help and support of Rodger Stearns, a local violin maker and woodworker. While his mother Mary and cousin David Campbell give him various degrees of support, Daniel proceeds largely through trial and error using the tools he has and making homemade UV booths and other ingenious ideas to keep the process going.

In the meantime, Razvan has expressed that he wants to play the instrument during a series of concerts in June starting in Amsterdam. Can Daniel overcome the odds and produce an instrument up to the exacting standards not only of one of the greatest concert violinists of our time but also one of the all-time masters of violin making?

Hauck is an engaging subject, often self-deprecating and sometimes raging against the difficulty of his situation and of the task he has set before himself. He is in many ways a perfect documentary subject, candid and open about nearly every aspect of his life. He has a dream yes, and he is determined to fulfill it but like most dreams it isn’t an easy one and it wouldn’t have been hard to abandon it at any time.

Avalos does just about everything on the project, including running the camera, editing, directing, producing and interviewing the subject. It’s very much his show and it shows enormous promise. The cinematography is as good as any I’ve seen for a documentary in the last year or so and not only captures the clutter of Danny’s home but also the stark beauty of the Ohio landscape in winter, the gorgeous Renaissance-era architecture of Cremona, and the sensuous lines of the violin.

There’s an awful lot of instruction going on here as well as Hauck takes us through the making of his violin. He knows what to do – he’s just not always sure how to do it and not everything he does ends up in success. Still, it’s fascinating stuff watching the project go from pieces of wood to a beautiful musical instrument.

I don’t know that this is so much an inspiring story so much as a comforting one – human beings are capable of so much more than we ever think we are and this reaffirms that. I’m hoping that a distributor that knows what to do with good documentaries gets hold of this; it deserves to be seen by a large audience. The logline may sound a bit dry but this is nonetheless a documentary that leaves the audience feeling good after the end credits roll and at a time when so many documentaries are hell-bent on telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s nice to see what’s right.

REASONS TO GO: Danny Hauck is an engaging and fascinating subject. The film is actually extremely instructive on the difficulties of making a violin.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the editing is a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Avalos was originally doing a documentary about “new violins” versus “old violins” and met Hauck through the process of researching it. When he discovered Hauck’s story, Avalos elected to focus on that instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mao’s Last Dancer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 20th Century Women

La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

Sing


Ta-da!

Ta-da!

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Nick Kroll, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman. Directed by Garth Jennings

 

It is said by some, not without justification, that this is the golden age of animation. Studios like Pixar, Ghibli and Laika consistently turn out features that enchant, illuminate, entertain and excite. They don’t dumb down their movies to basic levels because these studios have more respect for kids than that; they create stories that address things that matter, create unforgettable characters and transport us to worlds that elicit wonder.

And then there’s Illumination. The studio, which has a long term deal with Universal, hit their first pitch out of the park with Despicable Me but their output since then has left a lot to be desired. Their world building has been haphazard and their stories basic, utilizing cliché over imagination and marketing opportunities over characters. It is, in every sense of the word, corporate animation.

Sing is meant to appeal to those who find American Idol and America’s Got Talent to be supreme entertainment. It sends a message that anyone, no matter how large or small, can achieve their dreams if only…if only…well, if only someone markets a singing contest, which Buster Moon (McConaughey), a koala with a somewhat slippery moral compass, organizes in order to save his theater which is overrun by creditors and about to be seized by the bank. However, his ditzy assistant accidentally ups the amount of the prize from $1,000 to $100,000. Oops.

And so all sorts of animals inhabiting Anthropomorphic San Diego come crawling out of the woodwork to audition, including put-upon piggy mom Rosita (Witherspoon) who is in a perpetual state of exhaustion from taking care of 25 piglets and a seemingly uncaring husband (Kroll) who takes her for granted like a boss; Mike (MacFarlane), an arrogant mouse who cons his way through life and croons like one of the rat pack. Then there’s Ash (Johansson), a punk rock porcupine determined to emerge from the shadow of her boyfriend, and Meena (Kelly) an elephant with a case of stage fright as big as…an elephant. Finally there’s Johnny (Egerton – who has the best voice in the movie) who is the scion of a gorilla criminal and has the leather jacket to prove it, although just because this is a kid’s movie, Johnny has absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever. Get that kids? Crime doesn’t pay!

There are something like 85 songs (mostly snippets) that have at least some vague familiarity and are mostly from the last five years or so. In fairness, most of them are sung well or at least competently but it points out another depressing flaw in modern culture; we have become all about the singer and give absolutely no thought about the song. Apparently dreams should be about becoming stars, not becoming artists. Make money, not a lasting contribution to our culture is the message here.

Egerton is an amazing singer and McConaughey’s voice is virtually unrecognizable but it is still a fine vocal performance. To be fair the movie picks up steam in the second half and the finale is pretty nice, if predictable. While most of the animation is fairly rote it is at least entertaining to the undiscerning and some of the images are cute.

And it is this last adjective that really drives the movie; they’re not going for great, they’re going for cute. They want to see these characters on action figures, video games, fast food meals and whatever cross-promotional activity they can think up. You’ll walk out of the theater remembering none of the characters who were in it, nor will you be affected by the story in any way. What you will remember are the songs and if that’s all you’re after, that’s fine but what this amounts to is a 90 minute karaoke contest that really isn’t going to inspire repeated viewings unless you are six years old or the parent of one. Unless you have a child who absolutely insists on seeing this, there is far better movies that deserve your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the animation is engaging and some of the performances are cute.
REASONS TO STAY: This is more of a marketing opportunity than a complete movie, with little thought given to characters other than how they’ll do as toys and absolutely no thought to story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor but nothing most parents would be offended by.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the first occasion that Illumination has released two films in the same year. It is also the longest movie to date that Illumination has produced.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: La La Land

The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

Presenting Princess Shaw


A pop Princess in the making.

A pop Princess in the making.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Samantha Montgomery, Ophir Kutiel. Directed by Ido Haar

The American Experience

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ephemeral things, ideas that we vaguely like but really don’t do anything about so they remain formless. Others are those we work actively towards and put our hearts and souls into. Those are the ones more likely to come true.

Samantha Montgomery, whose stage name is Princess Shaw, has a dream of being a singer. And not for nothing; she has a legitimate voice, beautiful and evocative. She’s also a crackerjack songwriter, her songs filled with longing and emotion so much so that they reach out and grab the listener, take hold of them by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go until they feel the same thing Princess is feeling.

Samantha works by day in a New Orleans elderly care facility. She is upbeat and cheerful and seems to love working with her patients and caring for them. Some nights, she goes to Open Mike shows at local bars, and once in awhile sings at nightclubs and parties. She uploads a capella versions of her songs onto YouTube where she has a channel that several hundred subscribers check out from time to time. She labors in obscurity but still hopes that one day, she’ll be discovered.

What she doesn’t know is that she already has been. Ophir Kutiel, who goes by the name of Kutiman, has made some Internet fame for himself as a remixer, taking elements from YouTube music videos, cutting and pasting them together to make a cohesive song – all without the knowledge of the participants until the new video is posted. He has, against all odds, discovered the work of Princess Shaw and has been captivated by it. He takes one of her songs, “Give It Up,” and layers percussion, guitars, brass and piano – and creates a song that has a timeless urban pop feel to it, taking elements of hip-hop, jazz, R&B and a little bit of rock and roll to make something really tasty. You can see the results of his efforts here.

&Israeli documentary filmmaker Ido Haar originally was going to look at all of the various components of the video but once he met Princess Shaw he knew he didn’t need any of the other musicians. Her story is compelling, with a background of being sexually abused as a young girl and continuing on into adulthood into an abusive romantic relationship, she has weathered some tough times. We find out most of this later on in the film; she’s really a blank slate as the film begins, which is a wise move. We only know the longing and loneliness she feels through her music.

We never find out what Samantha/Princess thinks is the reason she’s being followed by a camera crew. She was unaware of what Kutiman was up to although Haar was certainly in the know. I think that knowing what she thought was going on would have been beneficial to the film, but that’s really nit-picking. Then again, it would make some of what’s going on feel a little less staged.

Princess Shaw has an amazing voice but it is her heart that is at the center of this film. Not only is she upbeat despite the obstacles and difficulties she’s had to face, but she shows tenderness and appreciation for her patients, her family and those musicians she encounters around town (midway through the film, she moves to Atlanta to try and make her dream happen). One of the most special moments in the film is when Montgomery hears the Kutiman music video for the first time…and watches in absolute astonishment as the video approaches a million views.

The movie ends with Princess being flown to Tel Aviv to perform at a Kutiman concert there. She is absolutely delightful, hugging every musician like a long lost friend, taking delight in being somewhere she never thought she’d be. The concert is a bit anticlimactic, but it’s clear she’s a performer with a capital P. I don’t know what happened with her career after filming ended, but I’d like to think she’s getting representation and getting ready to record with musicians…and maybe touring. I’d pay to see her, and I don’t go to any concerts anymore.

It is stupid difficult making it in the music industry. People long to be stars but few are willing to put in the work to make it happen and fewer still have the talent to make it happen. Even if you have both of those qualities, that’s no guarantee you’ll make it in a business that’s as cutthroat and as insular as the music industry. As anyone who’s seen any episodes of shows like American Idol or The Voice can attest, the world is full of people with the dreams of pop stardom. It’s nice to see a movie about someone who actually deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Truly this is cinema of the heart. Montgomery has an amazing effervescent personality and a tremendous talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels a bit staged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Haar’s 2007 documentary 9 Star Hotel previously appeared on the acclaimed PBS documentary series P.O.V. in 2008.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

Marguerite


Not quite the voice of an angel.

Not quite the voice of an angel.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholbi, Astrid Whettnall, Vincent Schmitt, Christian Pereira, Martine Pascal, Grégoire Stecker, Jean-Yves Tual, Boris Hybner, Pierre Peyrichout, Joel Bros, Lucie Strourackova. Directed by Xavier Giannoli

Dreams are all well and good, but one must have the basic equipment to pursue them, else they become instruments of self-torture. That’s where delusion can be a blessing.

Marguerite Dumont (Frot) is a wealthy matron of the arts in Paris in the 1920s. Her husband Georges (Marcon) is a baron who depends on her wealth to keep his estates running. Marguerite is kind and sweet-natured and everyone loves her, particularly her chauffeur Madelbos (Mpunga), who also acts as her unofficial photographer.
Marguerite also loves to sing, opera in particular. She often holds recitals at her home for her circle of family and friends, or for the musical society she helped found. The problem is – she can’t sing a note. She has trouble holding the high notes and often sounds like a cat being smacked against a brick wall. It’s so unbelievably bad that when she practices, Madelbos often hands out earplugs to the servants around the estate.

Nobody is willing to break her heart by telling her since everyone adores her. At a private recital for war orphans, which she has been giving annually since the Great War ended, an opening act is invited – a beautiful soprano named Hazel (Théret) who is actually talented. Sneaking in are music critic Lucien Beaumont (Dieuaide) and anarchist and Dadaist Kyrill (Fenoy) to find out what goes on at these soirees for themselves.

When Marguerite, the main event comes on, the assemblage has to work hard to restrain their titters. Both Lucien and Kyrill have differing reactions; Lucien writes a review which is deliberately vague as to her talent; when Marguerite reads it, she interprets it as a vindication of her abilities and she determines to put on a public concert. Kyrill, on the other hand, sees Marguerite as a living refutation of art and offers to have her perform at Dadaist events, which she does – and it gets her thrown out of her own musical society.

She decides to enlist some help and Madelbos blackmails down-on-his-luck opera singer Atos Pezzini (Fau) to tutor her. He puts her into a rigorous training schedule, some of which is a little bit – unusual, to say the least. As the date approaches, Georges is encouraged to tell his wife the truth and spare her the humiliation, but can’t bring himself to do it. Nobody is willing or able to tell Marguerite with most of the people around her having an agenda of their own. What happens to a dream when you discover that you can never possibly achieve it?

Giannoli loosely based his latest work on the life of a real person, American diva Florence Foster Jenkins; you can hear her singing on her Wikipedia page and the Mozart aria “Der Hölle Rache” from The Magic Flute which is the first song Marguerite sings in the film. It is nearly a note-perfect rendition and has to be heard to be believed.

The production design is absolutely flawless, bringing back the Jazz Age in Paris to a T. We get the sense of wealth and luxury that is destined to come crashing down in just a few short years Still, it is an epoch regarded with some affection today and we are given a good taste of it thanks to the filmmakers’ eye for detail.

Frot is also amazing; she exudes charm and sweetness and never lets the ridiculousness of her character’s delusions devolve into ludicrousness. In fact, Marguerite is a sympathetic character but her delusions don’t make her ridiculous; rather they make her identifiable for most of us. I mean, I’d love to be a rock star but a portly balding 50 plus year old with a lousy voice isn’t exactly going to fill up concert halls. I still dream of rock stardom however, and watching Marguerite I find a certain wistfulness that makes my dreams seem less ridiculous by comparison.

The movie is a bit on the long side with a few unnecessary plotlines that could have easily have been eliminated for the sake of brevity. There’s also a drawing room stage-like quality that sometimes gets a little claustrophobic; Giannoli could have expanded his canvas a little bit and made the movie more palatable. Still, I liked the layers of the film; there’s a lot to think about here and a lot worth looking into.

Don’t be off put by the singing; it’s truly awful but it isn’t the focus here. What is that sometimes it’s better to tell a woman who asks you “Do I look fat in this dress” the truth; in the long run, it might be best for everyone concerned if those delusions get punctured as early as possible. However, this film has no delusions; this is a strong and worthwhile effort that any decent film buff will want to go see without delay.

REASONS TO GO: Frot gives a dynamic performance. Sumptuous production values.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the stage-y side. A little too much going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and a scene of brief graphic nudity, as well as a scene of brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character’s name is taken from the opera-singing foil for the Marx Brothers in their films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harvey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice