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

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones


Smile...you're on catastrophe camera!

Smile…you’re on catastrophe camera!

(2014) Found Footage Horror (Paramount) Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Renee Victor, Noemi Gonzalez, David Saucedo, Gloria Sandoval, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratt, Juan Vasquez, Alonso Alvarez, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Wallis Barton, Lucy Chambers, Jessica Tyler Brown, Diana Danger, Gigi Feshold, Molly Ephraim, Maralyn Facey. Directed by Christopher Landon

If you believed the movies, supernatural terror only takes place in creaky old Victorians or lily-white suburbs. I don’t think it has occurred to Hollywood to put many of their horror movies in urban settings which is senseless; urban audiences make up some of the largest segments of the horror film audience.

However, the honchos of the Paranormal Activity franchise aren’t fools. They’ve set this film within the continuity of their franchise but with a completely different setting and cast. Here, we are brought to Oxnard, a racially diverse town 35 miles west of Los Angeles in Ventura County. While there are some lily-white suburban sorts in Oxnard, there is also a pretty sizable Latino population (about 73.5% of the overall population).

In a working class apartment complex lives Jesse (Jacobs) who has just graduated high school along with his best friend Hector (Diaz). He lives there with his grandma (Victor) who speaks little English and apparently his dad (Saucedo who appears very little in the film). He gets a compact video camera for his birthday and of course boys being boys has to record everything including the stupid stuff boys in their late teens do.

However, as all neighborhoods do, there is someone creepy in this case Anna (Sandoval) whom it is whispered is a bruja, a witch. Strange noises are often heard coming from her apartment whose windows have been taped over with newspaper so there’s no seeing inside. However when the boys rig up a spy cam to look down into the apartment, they are shocked – and delighted – to see a gorgeous naked woman…until a naked Anna comes in and starts painting strange symbols on her belly. The creepy neighbors where I lived never had gorgeous naked women in their house – at least as far as I know.

Anyway shortly after that Anna turns up dead and the class valedictorian, Oscar (Pratt) is the unlikely suspect. You would think it would be his gang-banging brother Arturo (Cabral) but no. And not long after that, Jesse finds a strange bite mark on his wrist. Strange how the word “strange” keeps popping up in the text.

Things start going sideways after that. Jesse develops super strength and a hair-trigger temper, not a good combination. People in the neighborhood start turning up missing…or dead. Jesse begins acting more distant, almost like he doesn’t recognize the people he’s closest too. Hector is very concerned as is the pretty and sweet Marisol (Walsh), Jesse’s cousin. They begin looking into what went on in that downstairs apartment and before too long Jesse’s camera begins to capture some pretty strange things. There, I’ve done it again.

The fifth movie in the franchise is a bit of a departure from the other four. It is set apart from the main films in the franchise although some of the characters from previous films – Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Molly Ephraim – all put in cameos. Think of it as an off-shoot (there is a Paranormal Activity 5 planned for this October) that follows a different path but has the same basics (it is still a found footage movie) and actually helps build up the mythology around the franchise nicely, which leaves future directors some latitude to play in.

You don’t go to see a movie like this for the acting, but there is some good chemistry among the leads, particularly between Jacobs and Diaz who banter as naturally as two guys who have grown up together and know all of the skeletons in each other’s closets. Walsh also is game although I have to admit that Cabral actually shows some promise. Hopefully he won’t be limited to tattooed gang banger roles.

However, you do go to a movie like this to get some scares and while there are a few they’re mostly of the misdirection variety (“oh look, it’s just a cat”) and while there isn’t a ton of gore here there are some relatively disturbing images. This is far from a game-changer for the horror genre sports fans. There is an acceptable number of scares but just barely.

There were some things I liked about this entry into the franchise but there were some I didn’t. It’s one of those movies that will not make new fans of the franchise nor should it send too many off the reservation either. Mainly, it’s kind of a continuation of things, a placeholder until the next big event PA film comes out which hopefully is the one in the pipeline for Halloween. The franchise could sure use one.

REASONS TO GO: Cool idea. Rounds out the franchise mythology considerably. Good chemistry between the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Not very scary and generally not well-acted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a crapload of foul language, some graphic nudity, some mighty disturbing images, some drug use and a fair amount of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs actually has several tattoos in real life in among other places his arms, hands and neck. While these were covered up for the film, while he is kneeling at the vending machine one of his tats can be seen just above the right knee.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Possession

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Vertical Limit