Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

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Paul Taylor Creative Domain


An expression of love.

An expression of love.

(2015) Documentary (Resident Artists) Paul Taylor, Amy Young, Andy Labeau, Michael Trubnovec, Robert Kleinendorst, Sean Mahoney, John Tomlinson, Michelle Fleet, Annmaria Mazzini, Michael Novak, Peter Elyakim Taussig, Sean Gallagher, Parisa Khobdeh, Bettie de Jong. Directed by Kate Geis

Dance is the most physical of art forms. It is all about the human body but it is also about the human soul. The athletes who practice it must be physically fit, but also deeply in touch with their emotions. Those who choreograph these dances must have exceptional understanding of the human form, but also of human beings. The best choreographers are the best observers of our species.

Perhaps the most revered choreographer of modern dance is Paul Taylor, whose career spans six impressive decades. He danced for Martha Graham as a soloist and as a choreographer has such iconic works as Esplanade, Dust and Company B. He was, as Graham characterized him, “the naughty boy of dance” and has explored topics as diverse as incest, American imperialism, the afterlife, the effects of war and the natural world and mankind’s place in it.

He has always kept his creative process somewhat close to the vest, but granted documentarian Geis extraordinary access to his 133rd piece, one which would eventually be titled Thee Dubious Memories which has a bit of a Rashomon-like oeuvre as it explores the same events seen by three different sets of eyes. It takes us from the casting through the rehearsals and the film culminates with the performance of the piece.

Those who love dance will need to see this. Geis wisely lets her camera roll through the rehearsals and just captures Taylor at work with his dance company. The dancers themselves are a little bit star-struck and while most of their interviews are essentially excuses to heap praise and adoration on Taylor, some of the dancers – particularly Amy Young – reveal a good deal more about working for him and the demands involved. The filmmakers are clearly reverent about the man and while at times you get a sense that they are gushing a little bit, the respect is clear to see.

Taylor is extremely soft-spoken and to be honest at times almost lulled me to sleep. He is not particularly an exciting or vibrant interview although to be fair, he is a living legend in the dance community and doesn’t especially need to prove anything to anyone. For those who want to see a more exciting presentation of Taylor, they should look no further than the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary Dancemaker.This is meant to be more about his creative process and at times, he seems to rely more on the dancers to spark some sort of inspiration in him than providing inspiration for his dancers to work with. The thing about a creative process however, is that it is of more interest to the creators than to those observing the creation. Caveat emptor.

The rehearsal sequences can be fascinating; you get the sense that Taylor notices everything and some of his notes to his cast show an amazing observational acuity. The dancing sequences both at the rehearsal and through the performance are absolutely magnificent; true devotees may miss the intimacy of a live performance but this remains a testament to Taylor’s genius and preserves one of his works for posterity, so that’s a very good thing. Those who don’t love dance may find this tedious.

At the end of the day, the only thing you really need to understand about dance is what you see onstage and how that makes you feel. Movies are very similar in that regard. What I saw was at times mesmerizing and at times, stupefying. I don’t know that I got a ton of insight into what makes Taylor tick, but I do know I got to learn a little more about dance and who can possibly say that’s a bad thing?

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful dancing. Clearly reverent.
REASONS TO STAY: Offers little insight into the man. Little or no context. A little bit boring in places. More for people who love dance.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some sensuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since this film was shot, Taylor has gone on to choreograph nine more works as of this writing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :First Position
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: A Walk in the Woods

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood

Crazy Heart


Crazy Heart

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges hold each other in a romance that could easily have been a country song...oh yeah, it is.

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, James Keane, Rick Dial, Jack Nation, Ryan Bingham, Ryil Adamson, J. Michael Oliva, Debrianna Mansini. Directed by Scott Cooper

As humans, we all make mistakes and it is sometimes the case that we pay for those mistakes for a very long time. That we sometimes pay more than we think we owe is part of the human condition and is part of what we all have in common, one of the five universal truths of our existence.

Bad Blake (Bridges) is 57 years old and nearly broke. He was once a bright star in the country music scene, making songs that have retained a certain amount of popularity, enough to keep him on the road going from dive to dive, playing his songs with local musicians backing him in front of audiences ranging from disinterested to star-struck. He is even reduced to playing bowling alleys, where he is not allowed a bar tab but is given, enthusiastically, all the free bowling he desires.

Bad is an alcoholic, a product of too many years on the road, too many disappointments. He is constantly butting heads with his agent (Keane) who clearly has affection towards his client but is just as clearly frustrated with his antics. The drinking has prevented Bad from writing new songs in several years; it has just as surely destroyed most of the relationships in his life. Mostly these days he drifts from one nameless one-night-stand to another, a different drunken encounter with past-their-prime women in each small town he plays in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico one of the musicians he has been assigned, a proficient keyboard player named Wesley Barnes (Dial) asks Bad if it would be okay if his niece Jean (Gyllenhaal), a writer for the local paper, interviews him. Bad is not real crazy about doing press, but he recognizes that he needs every bit of it he can get so he says yes. There is something about Jean that immediately connects to him. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her familiarity with the music he grew up with. Maybe it’s just that she has a smoking hot body. Either way, Bad develops a hankering for her, one that leads to romance.

One of Bad’s protégés is Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who once played in Bad’s backup band and has since broken away to become one of the biggest stars in country music. The two have had a falling-out since then, with Bad seemingly resentful of Tommy’s success, but still maintaining a grudging admiration for the man. For Tommy’s part, he is certainly aware of Bad’s role in his career and is willing to help, even if his record company isn’t so keen on the idea. Tommy arranges for Bad to open for him in Phoenix, giving the road-weary legend renewed exposure to the big time.

On the way back from Phoenix Bad decides to stop back in Santa Fe and visit Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy (Nation) who has bonded with Bad, but on the way there he falls asleep at the wheel – very likely because he’s had too much to drink – and crashes his truck. He wakes up in a Santa Fe hospital with a broken ankle and a concussion. He is in no condition to drive back home to Houston, so he convalesces with Jean. He begins to experience a sense of what it’s like to be part of a family, the kind of life he gave up, along with a son who is now grown and that he hasn’t seen since he was Buddy’s age.

However, Jean is disturbed by Bad’s excessive drinking and smoking, and asks him to tone it down around Buddy. Bad, ever-cheerful, promises to do so but he has a hard time doing it. As he is getting ready to head back home, his agent calls with the news that he has signed a contract to do some song-writing for Tommy Sweet. This could mean some real money, the first in a long time for Bad. After a tender good-bye, he drives home to Houston.

He is welcomed home by his friend Wayne (Duvall), the owner of a bar that he plays in from time to time. Inspired by his relationship with Jean, Bad begins writing some of the best songs of his career and invites Jean to visit him in Houston with Buddy. Can Bad really make a go at it this late in the game, or will his vices come boiling up to the surface with another installment payment on his sins due?

Jeff Bridges has emerged as the favorite (and, having never won one despite three nominations, the sentimental favorite as well) to win the Best Actor Oscar and with as much certainty as one can ever predict such things, will do so. We’ve seen the broken-down drunk country singer in countless movies and CMT music videos; in Bridges, we believe it. We see him seemingly hit bottom only to find a way to descend even further. He means well, and he’s not really a bad guy, he’s just possessed by the bottle.

The surprise is that Gyllenhaal emerges with a performance which stands up to Bridges. She is given the role of a much younger woman falling for a man that on the surface there is no reason for her to fall for. He stinks of cigarettes and booze, is clearly not the best-looking rider in the rodeo and can only be counted upon to mess up. Still, she manages to make us believe that the romance which is at the core of the movie is real and believable, even if we can’t quite see how it is happening.

The temptation here would have been to use music that had some pop potential, cranked out by slick Nashville songwriters or Hollywood pop producers. Instead, the filmmakers enlisted T-Bone Burnett, a producer/songwriter/performer who has never hit it really big but is well-respected within the music industry. He has managed to craft songs that have elements of Leonard Cohen, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt and even a little bit of Ryan Adams in them. The soundtrack is truly incredible, equal parts country, blues and rock. Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts (including a duet) and they do a credible job, Bridges’ gravelly road-weary voice sounding exactly what you would think a whiskey and cigarette-roughened throat would produce. It’s quite simply one of the better film soundtracks ever.

As someone who has spent enough time in bars and clubs in my days as a rock critic, I can vouch for the authenticity of the movie. I’ve been to shows where performers from days gone by come in all their faded glory to play for an audience looking to recapture their youth for just a few hours, balanced out with a select few who merely want to touch something magical while its still there. It is an environment of desperation and determined battle against the demons of drink and age. You can almost smell the roadhouse perfume of stale beer and tobacco, with a vague whiff of vomit permeating the movie. This would certainly have made the top half of my Years Best list had I seen it during 2009; I may wind up granting it an exception to appear on my 2010 list because it deserves to be lauded.

Every so often a movie comes along that just grabs your imagination and holds it, and the result is that you experience a kind of magic that changes you or at least your perception. While Crazy Heart has a few cliches in its genetic makeup, it still accomplishes that magic that occurs when the performances, filmmaking and music all come together in a perfect blend. This is Bad Blake’s journey and while it isn’t an easy one, it is a compelling ride to be sure.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime, and Gyllenhaal a powerful turn that nicely offsets his. The music for this movie is wonderful and the soundtrack worth seeking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally veers into territory that has been well-mined in the past, and it is never clear why Jean falls for him in the first place.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rather blue here, and there’s some sexuality, but more than that there is a lot of drinking (and the consequences of it) and smoking. Probably a little rough for the younger ones, but mature teens should be okay with this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The big Phoenix concert scenes were filmed between sets at a Toby Keith concert. Keith is thanked in the credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie is small and intimate, nonetheless the concert sequences work better on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: English as a Second Language