Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music


The city of music, and a river runs through it.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockTerrence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Ivan Neville, Sting, Robert Plant, Arthel Neville, Manny Fresh, Herlin Riley, Ben Jaffe, Jon Cleary, Alan Light, Steve Gadd, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Cosimo Matassa, Michael White, Earl Palmer, Keith Richards, Allen Toussaint, Branford Marsalis, Irma Thomas, Charmaine Neville. Directed by Michael Murphy

 

New Orleans is a city unique to itself. Alone among cities in the United States, it has influences from France, Spain, Africa, and indigenous natives; all has blended into a flavor that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. New Orleans is well-know for its cuisine, for the beauty of its French Quarter, it’s resilience following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina but perhaps most of all, for its music.

New Orleans musicians had a hand in creating jazz, blues, rock and roll, and hip-hop. The music is infectious in the Crescent City. It is not music to sit down and contemplate your navel to – it is music to get up and shake your booty to. This documentary captures the spirit of the music perhaps better than my words ever could. Michael Murphy has crafted a documentary worthy of its subject, and that’s no easy task.

We get a sense of the history of how music had always been a big part of New Orleans, from slaves drumming in Congo Square, to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, (whom many believe is the greatest gospel performer who ever lived and yes, she started out here) to the gumbo rock of the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Radiators and Dr. John to the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Wynton Marsalis, Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton, to the unforgettable rock/R&B stylings of pioneer Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint.

The passion for the music and the love of its residents for the city and each other is more than evident; it makes you want to move down there and be a part of it. You want to get out and dance in the streets with a brass band that just happens to wander by. You want to hang out at Preservation Hall and listen to the music that made New Orleans what it has always been. You’ll even want to share a plate of red beans and rice with some of these men and women who are musical royalty but also incredibly down to earth.

There’s enough material in the subject matter to do a mini-series (somebody please call Ken Burns) and you get a sense that the filmmakers are just touching the surface, but it’s nonetheless a satisfying movie with some wonderful archival footage of legends like Armstrong and Domino, along with more current footage of Mannie Fresh and the Radiators, as well as some performances by local heroes and legends but the amazing thing is the music. It’s the kind of music that was meant for a party, and best of all, we’re all invited. This is an essential documentary for anyone serious about American music.

For those looking to check it out at home, follow this link to order the film through the Enzian’s On Demand program. 50% of the rental fee goes to support the Enzian whose doors are closed currently due to the pandemic. While they have a lot of great films available for your viewing pleasure (eight at any given time), this is the one to order if you can only order one.

REASONS TO SEE: Amazing music. Fascinating historic footage. Captures the unique quality of New Orleans and the fierce devotion of its residents. Extremely informative. Leaves you wanting to explore the music of New Orleans further.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is a bit unwieldly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blanchard, whose father was an opera fan, will be the first African-American composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York later this ear.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ken Burns’ Jazz
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Dumplin’

Gelateria


Seduction comes in many forms.

(2019) Art (Tropical GreyCarrie Getman, Tomas Spencer, Christian Serritiello, Daniel Brunet, Jade Willis, Simone Spinazze, Joulia Strauss, Arthur Patching, John Keogh, Melissa Holroyd, Julie Trappett, Myra Eetgerink, Ben Posener, Seumas F. Sargent, Laura Wilkinson, Mike Davies, Darren Smith (narrator), Wencke Synak. Directed by Arthur Patching and Christian Serritiello

 

Art isn’t easy. It isn’t meant to be spoon-fed to the observer; it is meant to engage them. It requires thought, emotion, whimsy – sometimes all at once. Making art requires focus and determination, a willingness to leap before you look, and a very thick skin.

There’s no plot here per se and I guess it would be fair to say there’s not really a concept either unless you choose to supply one of your own. The main “storyline” here – an artist is given a show at a gallery on a remote island and ships her art there. When she doesn’t hear anything for months, she becomes alarmed and sets out to the island to find out what happened to her artwork. There…stuff happens. Eventually, the movie ends.

The storyline I speak of doesn’t kick in until 35 minutes into the film. Before that there are a series of vignettes – a guy (Serritiello) on a train to Zurich with a girlfriend he no longer loves (and who no longer loves him) and whose face he no longer can see clearly gets off the train and finds himself in a weird, strange place. He ends up dealing with his past which isn’t all rose-colored; when in a jazz club he sees a jazz vocalist there who was once as close as a brother to him but whom he abandoned. When confronted, all the man can do is murmur “I’ve changed.”

A performance artist uses a real gun n her performance art. A party engages an Italian speaker to speak to them, even though none of them speak a word of the language. Apparently, that’s a thing there as there is a Speaker’s Agency from which you can rent foreign language speakers. People eat. People scratch. People laugh. People move about until the man’s story is left behind and we follow the artist and her journey – which starts out as an animation.

The directors are apparently fond of extreme close-ups; they are employed relentlessly throughout the film. The thing about extreme close-ups is that they tend to distort features and make even the most beautiful people look ugly. It gets to be repetitious.

But then, repetition seems to be a theme here. Lines of dialogue are repeated several times (and sometimes more than that). Lines are repeated by Greek choruses of background performers. There is something very La Dolce Vita about the whole thing. A secret, though, about repetition; sometimes it’s not creative; it’s just repetitive.

I’ll be honest with you; my taste in cinema tends to be a bit more mainstream and so it was difficult for me to sit through the film at times. I can say in defense of the filmmakers that there is a great deal of imagination shown throughout; in one scene people are caged like birds and instead of voices coming out of their mouths, chirping and birdsong comes out. I found that to be funny in a renegade kind of way.

I can’t say this is for everyone. The average viewer will find it unfathomable and difficult to watch, and they aren’t wrong. All I can say is it requires a commitment on the part of the viewer to actually use their brains and any opportunity to do that in this day and age where stupid really is as stupid really does is welcome.

Gelateria has yet to play on an American screen although there are plans to take it onto the festival circuit once theaters reopen and film festivals are up and running again, so those who are fond of the avant garde may want to keep an eye out for it. While the filmmakers are concentrating on Europe, there are plans to have it in North American festivals and eventually, on a streaming service of some sort.

REASONS TO SEE: At times, very imaginative with a subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Falls prey to needless repetition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to their iMDB entry, the movie has played exclusively at European film festivals to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/120/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Un Chien Andalou
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Shoplifters

Django (2017)


Django Reinhardt doing what he does best.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Under the Milky Way) Reda Kateb, Cécile De France, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mireté, Johnny Montreuil, Vincent Frade, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois, Esther Comar, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, Hugues Jourdain, Hono Winterstein, Etienne Mehrstein, Levis Reinhardt, Nestle Sztyglic, Ulrich Brandhoff, Clémence Boisnard. Directed by Etienne Comar

 

Django Reinhardt was one of the greatest jazz guitarists – jazz musicians of any instrument in fact – of all time. His music has helped define the music of France in the decades since he burst onto the club scene of Paris in much the same way as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry defined American music.

Django (Kateb) is really a pretty laid back guy; before a big concert in Paris in 1943 he is late arriving because he’s too busy fishing in the Seine. Once he gets there, he captivates the crowd with his virtuoso style, fingers dancing over the fretboard in his unusual style (he didn’t have the use of two fingers on his left hand after his hand was burned in an accident as a young man, so he had a peculiar three finger style). We are reminded that this is occupied Paris with all the Nazi uniforms in the audience and a stern admonition of “No Dancing.”

Django is married to Naguine (Palya) who is devoted to him; his mother Negros (Merstein) also lives with him. Django was born in Belgium to Romani (what some would call gypsies although that’s a politically incorrect term these days) and the gypsies, along with the homosexuals and of course the Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis. One of Django’s fans is Louise de Klerk (De France) who as it turns out is part of the French resistance and she warns Django that the Nazis are rounding up the Romani all over the country. She admonishes him about a German tour he’s about to undertake; he responds that he doesn’t care who’s in the audience so long as they respond to his music.

Soon Django’s apolitical stance is put to the test as it becomes clear he needs to get his family out of France and that his protection because of his international stardom wouldn’t remain for much longer. He heads to a Romani encampment near the Swiss border and his perceptions of politics are changed forever.

Kateb took some intensive training to learn how to duplicate Reinhardt’s distinctive style and he looks pretty authentic on-camera. Oddly, a modern jazz group dubs the sound of Reinhardt and his Paris Hot Club Quintet; neither the on-camera musicians nor Reinhardt are heard on the soundtrack which seems a little odd that in a movie about a great musician we never actually hear his work.

Kateb is a fine actor and he does a decent job here but he isn’t given a lot to work with. There’s little character development for anyone else around me, including the fictional De Klerk (who for the purposes of this film was also his mistress) and the very real Naguine. The music is amazing but you’re never given the opportunity to care about the people playing it.

Mostly we get a generic World War II suspense piece that has elements of Casablanca (not a bad thing), music documentary (not a bad thing) and Schindler’s List (still not a bad thing) but never quite pulls together as a movie that grips and excites the viewer. I don’t feel like I know anything more about Reinhardt than I would if I just listened to a couple of his albums.

On the positive side, the filmmaker does call into focus the persecution of the Romani people which other than the Jews suffered the most in terms of the number of dead. There is a chilling but moving photo collage of the missing that is the last image shown in the film and a fitting memorial for those who died. Django no doubt would have approved.

I don’t think he would have approved of this movie which lacks the passion that he consistently displayed in his music. Certainly the musical sequences are dynamite and there are also some really nice camera shots in the film but overall, you would profit better by downloading some of his songs onto your playlist and giving them a listen.

REASONS TO GO: The music is incredible. Some of the cinematography is spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is surprisingly pallid and uninspiring. The soundtrack could have used some actual recordings of Reinhardt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the fictional novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Battle of the Sexes

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

A United Kingdom


A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante

 

We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith


Watching the world go by - and photographing it as it does.

Watching the world go by – and photographing it as it does.

(2016) Documentary (Lumiere) Carla Bley, Steve Reich, Sy Johnson, Dan Morgenstern, Bill Crow, David Amram, Phil Woods, Harry Colomby, Steve Swallow, Freddy Red, Ben Ratliff, Sam Stephenson, Charles Harbutt, John Morris, Harold Feinstein, Robert Northern, Chuck Israels, David Rothman, John Cohen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Carman Moore, Vicki Goldberg. Directed by Sara Fishko

Florida Film Festival 2016

From the 50s into the 60s, New York City was legitimately the center of the universe. It almost glowed with a creative vibe, with poets, writers, photographers, musicians…everything was happening in New York. It was an exciting time to be alive.

That era is gone, although New York continues to throb with artistic activity. However, nobody can deny that the era I referred to was something of a golden age. In a small loft on Sixth Avenue, jazz musicians would come and jam and hang out in the apartment of Hall Overton, a Julliard instructor and composer of classical music who was discovering jazz. Folks like Zoot Sims and Thelonious Monk were regular visitors and painter Salvador Dali would drop in from time to time. Young musicians like Carla Bley and Steve Reich (ho would eventually become a noted composer) also were regulars.Next door, acclaimed Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith documented everything, not only in photographs but also on audio tapes.

Smith was already a former war correspondent and currently a successful photographer for Life with his photo essays winning awards and acclaim. However, his obsessive and compulsive tendencies led him to leave his suburban home and family for a dilapidated building in the Flower District not zoned for residential use. There, jazz musicians would gather for all night jams without fear of waking the neighbors.

The footage here is not just of Smith’s incredible photos, although they are the centerpiece, but there is also film footage from the era as well. While the extraordinary talents that were making music in the loft made for subjects that span time, for me part of the fascination is Smith’s use of his window as a kind of peephole into the lives of those on the streets below as he documented people going about their business, unaware that their image was being preserved forever. People simply going about their day doing mundane things…I don’t know why, but that kind of thing creates a connection for me that spans across the decades and makes the era relatable. Maybe there are pictures of you and I somewhere that we don’t know about, in an era even more obsessed with documenting everything than Smith was.

But mostly, the attraction are the musicians. Smith went to great lengths to make sure he captured everything, installing microphones everywhere, even drilling through the floor into the loft above to capture rehearsals and jams. When discovered, there were more than 40,000 negatives and 4,000 hours of audio tape recordings ranging from the banal to the sublime. Monk spent two weeks in Overton’s apartment arranging the music that would eventually become The Thelonious Monk Orchestra Live at Town Hall, one of the most iconic works of the jazz legend’s career.

Produced initially as a ten part series on WNYC radio, the producer of that series made the transition to documentary and wisely lets most of the material speak for itself. However, there are some fairly dry passages that feel more like an academic lecture than a film. But all in all, this is a fascinating look at a bygone era and at the luminaries who provided an entire city – and the world – with its energy and creative vibe.

My mom and dad met in New York City during that era and lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side briefly in the late 50s, moving to the suburbs shortly after I was born in 1960. My dad is gone, but my mom still speaks very fondly of that place and that time. Judging from what I saw here, I can see why.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival footage of a glorious era. There’s a temptation to close your eyes and just listen to the music.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a seminar than a film.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Smith’s material from this period currently resides at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Road
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mad

Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver