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’

Out of Blue


Questions in a world of blue.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Mamie Gummer, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Gary Grubbs, Alysha Ochse, Yolonda Ross, Thomas Francis Murphy, Tenea Intriago, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Lawrence Turner, Carol Sutton, Brenda Currin, Deneen Tyler, Devyn A. Tyler, Elizabeth Elkins, Garrett Kruithof, Elizabeth Pan. Directed by Carol Morley

 

As this film begins, we see the quote “We are not in the universe. Rather, the universe is in us.” When you consider that the make-up of our bodies is essentially created from the same elements that stars emit, that’s not far from the literal truth.

Detective Mike Hoolihan (Clarkson), a recovering alcoholic lesbian whose one of the better practitioners of detection, is called to an observatory to a homicide. Pretty astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), the daughter of a prominent New Orleans family, has been shot dead. She can’t help but notice that the modus operandi of the killer is eerily similar to a slate of unsolved murders from decades earlier known as the .38 Caliber Killings. She also can’t help but notice a vintage shoe, a discarded sock and an open jar of a face cream popular decades earlier.

She has no shortage of suspects. Jennifer’s colleague Professor Ian Strammi (Jones) is a bundle of nerves and shows signs of having been in a struggle. Jennifer’s boyfriend (and also a colleague) Duncan J. Reynolds (Majors) is also behaving a bit oddly. Then there’s her grieving father, Colonel Tom Rockwell (Caan), a Vietnam War hero, local politician and electronics company proprietor who seems a bit tightly wound. Only Jennifer’s mother Miriam (Weaver) seems remotely grief-stricken and even she is showing signs of dementia.

Hoolihan is dogged in her pursuit of the truth but the case haunts her in unexpected ways. Jennifer, a vocal proponent of the “we are stardust” school of thought, is an expert on black holes and posits that we all exist because a star died somewhere billions of years ago. Jennifer’s own sense of wonder and relentless pursuit of her own scientific truth touches Hoolihan, perhaps reminds her of herself as she navigates the twists and turns of the case.

Based on a Martin Amis novel, the film has more than a little noir element to it. There is very much a literary feel to the movie; some of the dialogue is probably a better read than it sounds spoken aloud. That’s a shame because the cast which has some pretty impressive names in it is essentially left to trying to say some of these lines with a straight face and not always succeeding, as when Weaver’s character chides Hoolihan “Have you thought about dressing like a woman, dear?” There are plenty of references to the scientific quandary Schrodinger’s cat which makes the film esoteric to the point of either pretentiousness or brilliance – I’ll leave it to you to decide which.

The soundtrack is also reasonably impressive although it leans a bit too much on Brenda Lee’s version of I’ll Be Seeing You.” Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score is also a definite plus. What isn’t a plus is the overuse of incidental imagery used as linking devices between scenes. It makes the movie feel a bit too busy, a bit too pretentious (there’s that word again).

All in all, the movie comes off as a particularly uninspiring episode of C.S.I. Despite the best efforts of Clarkson and cast, the movie feels somewhat tired and somewhat lost. While I don’t mind the concept of the film and I like Amis as an author very much, the movie doesn’t do Amis’ source novel (Night Train) much justice which is pretty much par for the course for adaptions of his work.

REASONS TO SEE: Clarkson and Weaver deliver fine performances. The soundtrack is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is stretched out too much. There are far too many unnecessary incidental shots; the filmmakers don’t overburden themselves with self-restraint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigerland

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table


Ella Brennan, the grande dame of New Orleans cuisine.

(2016) Documentary (Iwerks & Co) Ella Brennan, Patricia Clarkson (narrator), Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, Ti Martin, Daniel Boulud, Tim Zagat, Jeremiah Tower, Leah Chase, Frank Brigtsen, Dickie Brennan, Paul Prudhomme, Ralph Brennan, Drew Nieporent, John Pope, Alex Brennan-Martin, Gene Bourg, Lally Brennan, Julia Reed, Marcelle Bienvenu, Meg Bickford. Directed by Leslie Iwerks

In no other American city save for maybe San Francisco is a city’s culture so tied up in its cuisine as New Orleans. In the Big Easy there is one family who have dominated the city’s gastronomic landscape like no other.

The Brennan family has been a household name in Louisiana since the 1940s when Owen Brennan bought a struggling French Quarter restaurant called the Vieux Carré and made it a rousing success. In an era when the classic French restaurants like Antoine’s ruled the New Orleans roost Brennan – who was told that an Irish man had no business cooking authentic New Orleans cuisine – put his whole family to work in the restaurant. As it became more and more successful, it was clear a larger space was needed and they found it over on Royal Street. The move took place during lunch service with employees and diners carrying pots, pans, chairs and whatever else they could carry to the new digs. A jazz band followed them down the street; only in New Orleans, no?

The new space was renamed Brennan’s and it became famous for its signature creation – Bananas Foster, which happens to be Da Queen’s favorite dish of any sort. Ella showed a knack for running the business and was soon the restaurant’s manager and after Owen passed away, she was essentially the family business’ chief executive. But a schism developed; Owen’s widow Maude wanted more control over their namesake restaurant and Ella was forced out after having built the restaurant into a thriving business.

Undaunted, she bought a property in the Garden District called Commander’s Palace which had been a less popular drinking and dining establishment for decades after being an important eatery at the turn of the 20th century. She painted the property a bright blue to make it distinctive among the genteel mansions of the district and installed an executive chef by the name of Paul Prudhomme who would himself go on to be one of the true members of the New Orleans culinary pantheon.

Under Prudhomme’s kitchen leadership, Commander’s Palace grew to be one of the best restaurants not only in New Orleans but in the country. Prudhomme was taking Cajun cooking and elevating it, ushering an age where Cajun cooking was ascendant in American cuisine. After some years went by, Ella urged Prudhomme to open his own restaurant and he did: K-Paul’s, which remains a New Orleans institution to this day. Prudhomme also put out his own line of spices which helped make him a multi-millionaire.

Replacing Prudhomme as executive chef was a young man named Emeril Lagasse. His natural charisma made him a natural on-camera personality and he frequently appeared on local TV shows cooking various dishes from the Palace’s menu. Emeril took the focus off of Cajun dishes and while many of Prudhomme’s recipes are still on the menu, Emeril added his own stamp to the Palace. As with his predecessor, Ella urged Emeril to strike out on his own and as one of the Food Network’s earliest celebrity chefs, Emeril has since gone on to found a restaurant empire that rivals that of the Brennan family.

The documentary is certainly a love letter to Ella and her accomplishments which are considerable considering that she faced extra resistance because of her gender. Not only did Ella break through the glass ceiling, she shattered it and paved the way for many women to become successful restaurateurs. Ella is an absolute icon in New Orleans and her influence on New Orleans cuisine cannot be overstated. Commander’s Palace has been a fertile breeding ground for great chefs who have gone on to open incredible restaurants of their own.

The stories that are told about the Brennan family are classic and one gets a sense that the closeness of the family – the schism between Maude and the rest of the family notwithstanding – is one of the reasons that their restaurants are so successful; those who go there are made to feel like family. I can attest to that personally; we had travelled from Orlando to New Orleans to celebrate Da Queen’s birthday some years back and we went to a trendy eatery in the Quarter for the actual day. It was an utter disaster; the restaurant was badly designed with sound bouncing all over the place and it was so loud that we had to shout across a table for two to be heard. The food was good but overpriced and not one mention of my wife’s birthday was made until a manager chased after us as we left to shout out a very tardy and not well-received happy birthday.

The next night we had reservations for Commander’s Palace and when we arrived there were balloons and decorations. Throughout the evening Da Queen was made to feel like an actual queen and we ordered the prix fixe tasting menu. When my wife asked if she could substitute the Turtle soup for the one on the menu, she was told they would add the turtle soup and so they did, at no charge. She was given a chef’s hat at the conclusion of one of the most amazing meals we have ever had (second only to the one we had at L’Atalier du Joel Robuchon in Paris) and given a menu autographed by Toby McPhail, the current executive chef. We have been back since and we make a point of going every time we visit New Orleans. Something tells me that’s exactly what Miss Ella intended from the get-go.

One of the things I really like about this documentary is that Iwerks doesn’t just make it about Ella Brennan, although she would be forgiven if she had – Ella is an engaging personality who thinks nothing at 90 years young of dancing in the aisles of her restaurant during her famous jazz brunch. But Ella is tied in very much to New Orleans and the city is a presence throughout the film. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina also plays a role – Commander’s Palace was severely damaged by the storm and was closed for almost a year. The citizens of New Orleans are a particularly amazing bunch and the film acknowledges it not only through how they got through Katrina but how they celebrate life and Ella Brennan helps with that in a very significant way.

So perhaps yes, my judgment is impaired by the good memories I experienced at Commander’s Palace but I think I am being fair in saying that Ella Brennan’s story is inspiring and Iwerks, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, presents it in an entertaining way. Certainly viewers will be more likely to visit both Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace (the Brennan family owns something like 15 different restaurants as of this writing) and well they should; both are well-known for serving unforgettable meals that are in fact unforgettable experiences. This isn’t just an ad though; it is a story that represents the best of America, how someone can overcome odds and obstacles to create a business that is not only successful but iconic. Ella Brennan did that and it deserves to be celebrated – preferably with a great meal at her restaurant.

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful stories are told. Iwerks wisely makes New Orleans an integral part of the film. You can almost taste the gumbo.
REASONS TO STAY: This might not mean as much to anyone who hasn’t visited the Crescent City
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly acceptable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2013, the Brennan family re-acquired Brennan’s restaurant; Ella, who hadn’t set foot in it for forty years, returned and ordered Bananas Foster.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Cries From Syria

The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back


Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

(2016) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Judd Lombard, Jason Douglas, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Anthony Molinari, M. Serrano, Nicole Barre, Jessica Stroup, Sharon E. Smith, Teri Wyble, Sean Boyd, Austin Hébert, Sabrina Gennarino, Ernest Wells, Lizbeth Hutchings. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Most of us have some sort of moral code. It might not be straight and narrow and it might be more flexible than most, but it’s there. For most of us, there are things that just cannot stand. Then again, there are those whose codes, for better or worse, are about as flexible as the Rock of Gibraltar. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

Jack Reacher (Cruise) was once in charge of a Military Police investigative unit until he retired from the armed forces. He prefers to live off the grid, moving from place to place and living off his pension which he collects in cash. He hitchhikes to get from place to place. He’s a loner by nature and will never initiate a conversation without reason to, but if you get up in his grill he absolutely will mop the floor with your carcass.

His successor in the unit is the ramrod-tough straight shooter Major Susan Turner (Smulders) on whom Reacher asks a favor from time to time. The two have developed a friendly, semi-flirtatious repartee that doesn’t seem to have much expectation that anything will come of it, but there is clearly mutual respect between the two and Reacher doesn’t respect a whole lot of people. After she arrests a group of human traffickers operating from a military base (and rescuing Reacher from being arrested himself for assault in the bargain), he tells her that he owes her a dinner and she can collect the next time he’s in D.C.

But by the time Reacher gets there, things have turned upside down; Major Turner has been arrested for espionage, something Reacher thinks smells fishy. And the more he talks to her commanding officer (McCallany), the fishier the smell. Pretty soon, he discovers that two of her direct reports in Afghanistan turned up dead. Quickly Reacher’s nose indicates that there’s a nasty little conspiracy going on and that Major Turner – whom he scarcely knows but considers a friend – is not safe in jail. He breaks her out and goes on the run, pursued by – well, everybody including a black-gloved assassin (Heusinger) with no name who might just be Reacher’s equal in hand-to-hand combat.

To further complicate matters, there’s a teenage girl (Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter and because she might be, she’s in the crosshairs of the killers. Whether she’s his progeny or not, he can’t just leave her in the hands of the wolves, so Reacher knows he’s going to have to do what he does best – kick ass and dig until he finds the truth, assuming you can handle it (see what I did there).

The Reacher book series penned by author Lee Child is at 21 books as of this writing and continuing to climb. The series has a fairly rabid fan base, not all of whom are especially pleased over the two films that have been adapted, particularly as the hero is 6’4” in the book, nearly a foot taller than what Cruise is in real life. Short of budget-busting special effects, nothing is going to make Cruise that tall. He is then forced to take up the slack with attitude.

And to a certain extent, it works. Reacher feels dangerous here. Maybe it’s the way he looks at you sideways or the coiled spring tension in Cruise’s body language but you get a sense that rubbing this guy the wrong way would be a bad and potentially fatal idea. I will give Cruise that – he gets the attitude of Reacher right.

But that makes it a bit of a hard sell. Reacher as written isn’t the sharing kind. He’s taciturn, sullen, often hostile. He’s smart in a predatory kind of way. He’s also self-disciplined as you’d expect for an elite military officer but that doesn’t mean he can’t explode into violence when the need arises. It’s the kind of character that Clint Eastwood might have owned a few decades ago, or more recently maybe Schwarzenegger. In many ways, Jack Reacher isn’t much different than a number of action hero loners with faulty social skills and therein lies the rub.

Much of the movie (particularly in the second half) requires Reacher to be something of a father figure and it just comes off…wrong. Reacher is loyal to a fault but that doesn’t make him an ideal family man. The interactions between Reacher and Samantha (said sullen teen whose moral compass is a bit shadier than his) are awkward as they should be, but that ends up making you feel uncomfortable, like listening to Florence Foster Jenkins singing karaoke.

The action sequences are decently staged, although unremarkable in and of themselves. The climactic fight between the assassin and Reacher on the rooftops of the French Quarter (and it must be said that the Big Easy looks pretty great here) is lengthy but it feels predictable. I’m not saying that it’s horrible, it just didn’t wow me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many action movies.

All in all, this is entertaining enough to recommend but not enough to recommend vigorously. I think that a good movie can be made from the Child novels but thus far the movies have been decent but not memorable. They make for some nice time fillers if you’re bored and want to kill a couple of hours, but if you’ve got a yen for an action movie that’s going to leave you breathless with your heart pounding, this isn’t the one to select.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty decent action sequences highlight the film. The filmmakers utilize the New Orleans location nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: For the most part the film is pretty unremarkable. It loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and action movie goodness, a bit of profanity, some adult themes and a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the eighteenth book in the series; its predecessor was based on the ninth book.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Out for Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Denial

Gleason


Steve Gleason and son.

Steve Gleason and son.

(2016) Documentary (Open Road/Amazon) Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Ryan Gootee, Scott Fujita, Mike McKenzie, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Jesse Jackson, John Elway, Rivers Gleason, Kyle Gleason, Gail Gleason, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Blair Casey, Stephen Kantrow, Paul Varisco Jr., Paul Varisco Sr., Vinnie Varisco, Kevin Dedmon, Jim Eutizzi. Directed by Clay Tweel

 

Steve Gleason was a football player. Although a star linebacker in high school and again at Washington State, he was considered undersized and the NFL essentially turned their back on him. Unwilling to give up, he went to the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp only to be let go. Then, he joined the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints and there was something about the way he played, the way he left it all out on the field on every single play that impressed the Saints coaching staff. They signed him up and he played in NOLA for seven years as a part of the special teams unit, which takes the field for kickoffs and punts.

As a Saint, he was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in team history. On September 25, 2006, the Saints took the field at the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in 21 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the stadium and the team. In the first quarter with their opponents the Atlanta Falcons punting, Gleason broke through and blocked the punt which was recovered in the end zone by teammate Curtis Deloatch for a touchdown. The play brought the stadium to its feet and the city to its knees in joy. It was a symbol that not only were the Saints back, so was the city of New Orleans. They would go on to have the best season in team history to that point.

Although Gleason retired the season before his team won the Super Bowl, the respect his teammates and the organization had for him was such that he was given a Super Bowl ring but that was shortly after the devastating news that he had been afflicted by Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease because it was this that felled the Yankees slugger. Six weeks after the diagnosis, his wife Michel discovered she was pregnant.

Knowing that by the time his child was cognitive it was extremely unlikely he would be able to communicate as ALS attacks the neurons that control the involuntary muscular system, affecting the ability to move, speak, eat and eventually, breathe. He decided to make a series of video blogs for his child, a son named Rivers who would be born in October 2011. He would try to give his son advice about life, death, the difference between right and wrong and the importance of never giving up – things important to him but also things any father would want to pass on to their son.

]Using this footage as a backbone, documentarian Clay Tweel (Make Believe and Finders Keepers) was given extraordinary access, documenting the ex-football player’s physical progression as he is ravaged by the disease, as well as the toll it takes on his family. Wife Michel is forced to be caregiver to Steve while also being a new mom; eventually the strain overwhelms her and they add a neighbor (and self-described “hero worshipper”) Ryan Gootee to do the heavy lifting. His indefatigable attitude mirrors that of Steve himself at times.

And don’t get me wrong, Tweel absolutely refuses to paint the ex-Saint as a saint. There are times that he is literally howling in anguish at the betrayal of his body (even simple bodily functions become logistical nightmares). There are particularly heart-wrenching moments when Steve confronts his dad Mike, a genial guy but a rock-ribbed Christian whose beliefs are very much different than his son’s; in fact, Mike as a strict enough parent that his son had some resentments that percolate and bubble over while we watch (perhaps feeling a bit like voyeurs as we do) and one where he and his wife have a late night argument when she is clearly exhausted.

Gleason also is dedicated to his foundation, Team Gleason which not only helps fund ALS research but also provides the technology to ALS sufferers who can’t afford it to have more productive, fulfilling lives as well as providing “bucket list” items that patients are on a sort of deadline for; think of it as a Make-a-Wish Foundation for ALS patients making sure that they get what they need and what falls through the cracks of their insurance and government assistance. In fact, Gleason’s foundation spearheaded legislative efforts to help ALS patients get the technology they need covered under insurance and Medicare. It’s a worthy and noble cause but Gleason’s devotion to the foundation sometimes seems to supersede his dedication to his family, which disturbs Michel no end.

This is a movie that touches the human spirit and makes one proud of the species, something awfully difficult to do sometimes when all you see on the news are terrorist attacks, political hackery and mass shootings by disturbed loners with AR-15s. While I get that some critics will grouse about this being manipulative, holy crap if a story like Gleason’s can’t get to you emotionally, you really have to be something of a sociopath. Of course it’s manipulative. EVERY story is. That’s the nature of stories, particularly the true ones and this one is almost mythic in some ways when it comes to the courage and drive to live that Gleason displays and the support his family and community gives him. Personally, I thought Tweel gave a very balanced presentation of Gleason’s story, but if I’m to be manipulated, this is the way I want it to be done. At least it is emotion genuinely earned, as is the respect you’ll feel for the Gleason family and their supporters.

REASONS TO GO: There are few films that are this inspiring and uplifting. It never pulls its punches, showing Gleason’s vulnerabilities and at times, failings. Tweel keeps the talking head footage to a minimum. Cinema verité at it’s very finest.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film may end up being a bit too emotionally raw for some viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough foul language to net this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gleason played seven years in the NFL, he was never drafted – he signed on with the Saints as a free agent. However, he was drafted by the short-lived XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts as the 191st player picked in their one and only draft in 2001.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Florence Foster Jenkins

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!

The Chaperone


Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

(2009) Action Comedy (Goldwyn/WWE) Paul Levesque, Ariel Winter, Annabeth Gish, Kevin Corrigan, José Zúňiga, Kevin Rankin, Enrico Colantoni, Yeardley Smith, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Darren O’Hare, Lucy Webb, Jake Austin Walker, Cullen Chaffin, Taylor Faye Ruffin, Conner Ann Waterman, James DuMont, Nick Gomez, J.D. Evermore, George Wilson, Kate Adair. Directed by Stephen Herek

Prison can do two things to a person; it can make them even darker, finding more reason to hate society in general, or it can make one long to turn over a new leaf and become a better person. Ray Bradstone (Levesque, better known as WWE wrestler Triple H) has opted for the latter course. One of the best getaway drivers in the business, he wants to make amends to his ex-wife Lynne (Gish) and be a better father to his teenage daughter Sally (Winter). However, when he is released from prison and visits his former family’s home, he is essentially sent packing – neither one wants anything to do with him.

Unable to find work, Ray is in desperate mode when approached by Philip Larue (Corrigan), the leader of the bank-robbing crew Ray used to work for. He agrees to drive one last time but changes his mind at the last minute. This leads to problems for the heist, which Larue blames Ray for. In order to get away, Ray agrees to act as a chaperone for his daughter’s high school field trip to New Orleans, unknowingly taking the loot for the gang along with him. This as you might imagine doesn’t sit well with Larue and in short order they are after the kids and Ray and the ex-con knows that his daughter’s only chance to make it out is for him to take on his ex-gang, but the odds are most definitely against him.

At the end of the last decade, the World Wrestling Federation wanted to expand its brand and determined that a good way to do that was to put its wrestlers in films. Some of them got exposure (The Marine) while others sank without a trace. That initiative continues today, albeit in a much reduced form. While the WWE hasn’t turned out any new actors the caliber of Dwayne Johnson, they have plenty of performers with natural screen charisma.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque is one of those. He certainly shows a good deal of promise in his performance here. While he is something of a raw talent and in need of polish, he has flashes of charm and plenty of presence onscreen. Unfortunately, his natural gifts are given a Russian leg sweep by a script that lacks any sort of inspiration whatsoever. Nearly everything in the movie is by-the-numbers, giving the audience little reason to be invested in the characters or the action.

Even the action sequences are uninspiring. The villains don’t ever feel more than mildly threatening; in the ring Triple H could flex one bicep and they’d head for the hills. And in all honesty, most of the kids here are annoying enough that you wish the villains were better shots. The critics hated this movie, although not as much as the audience which stayed away in droves. It’s likely made at least some of its losses back in home video; I honestly think that while this isn’t great entertainment, it’s at least decent enough and no worse than some of the things that were box office blockbusters. It’s certainly one of those “no harm in taking a look” movies worth checking out if you’re bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Levesque has some genuine charm. New Orleans setting is cool.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cliche-ridden. Virtually no depth.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action violence, some rude humor and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Ray is breaking up a fight at the school, one of the boys in the scene is wearing a “Lemmy” t-shirt. Lemmy Kilmister is the lead singer of Motörhead, the band that plays the ring entrance song for Triple H.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprising number of features considering that this is an independently made feature that bombed at the box office. There’s a blooper real, a music video by Ariel Winter, a look at the kids in the film as well as a featurette on the dinosaur exhibit, a video diary by Winter and a photo gallery.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,400 on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindergarten Cop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Chalet Girl

Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant