31 Days to Scare ~ Ghost Stories

The Facts:

Synopsis: Skeptical professor Phillip Goodman embarks on a trip to the terrifying after being given a file with details of three unexplained cases of apparitions.

Stars: Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Jill Halfpenny, Jake Davies, Nicholas Burns

Director: Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It should be clear by now that I’m a fan of anthology horror.  If you don’t believe me, take a gander at my reviews of After Midnight, Cat’s Eye, From Beyond the Grave, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The Willies, Tales of Halloween, and the Creepshow films.  There’s something satisfying about compact tales of terror that are to the point and, if they aren’t your cup of tea, don’t overstay their welcome.  What you often have to deal with in these omnibus films are framing devices that are hackneyed and can have little to do with the interwoven stories.  This makes the overall experience feel choppy.

Why Ghost Stories is unique, aside from the fact that it’s adapted from a stage play, is that the interstitial scenes that tie everything together actually play a part in the tales themselves.  So there’s value in paying attention to what’s going on throughout. Even when the film starts to go off the rails near the end, it remains a cleverly crafted and unique entry in the anthology genre…and one that is often quite frightening.

A TV personality known for debunking supernatural occurrences, Phillip Goodman (writer and co-director Andy Nyman, Judy) is summoned to meet one of his childhood idols, Charles Cameron.  A leading paranormal investigator in his day, Cameron is haunted by three cases he was unable to solve and asks Goodman to take a look to see if he can figure out the mystery that surrounds them.  The first case involves a night security guard (Paul Whitehouse) working at an abandoned women’s sanitarium that might not be as empty as it seems.  Next, Goodman looks into a teenager (Alex Lawther, The Imitation Game) who has a literal run in with the Devil.  Finally, we’re introduced to Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, Black Panther) a man awaiting the birth of his child who arrives with…complications.

Each story has it’s own stable of shivers but it’s the first one set in the shuttered hospital that will really give you the chills.  With some great camera work and expert timing, Nyman and his co-director/writer Jeremy Dyson goose the audience with the right amount of scares to get the blood pressure up.  The subsequent investigations have nice moments of dread but are ultimately a bit more depressing than scary.  The outcome of Goodman’s inquiries are surprising and not exactly what you’d expect…just when you think you might know how it’s going to end (or when it’s going to end), Dyson and Nyman have another trick to unmask.  It’s not an entirely slam-dunk ending, to be honest, but it definitely wasn’t what I could have guessed at the beginning.

I can’t imagine how this was produced on stage and would have loved to see this one during its initial run in the West End where it played to great success for some time.  It subsequently toured through Europe but I’m unaware if it’s had a premiere stateside yet.  I would think it would be a special engagement show NYC audiences would get a kick out of but would take some expertise in staging regionally.  In any event, Dyson and Nyman have translated it to the screen with style and if the play is half as scary as the movie I’d bet the shrieks would be as loud as the applause.

Movie Review ~ The Sound of Silence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A successful “house tuner” in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Alex Karpovsky, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman

Director: Michael Tyburski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I know it’s a horrible thing, environment-wise, but I miss the feel and smell of paper.  I especially had a fondness for receipts, the kind that were in a pad that you could write, rip, and hand off.  Feeling that slip of paper in your hand was such a enjoyable thing and the smell of the ink just put me in a comfort zone, like the aroma of an old book that has sat in a library for years.  Early on in the new film The Sound of Silence, a man gives his client a receipt like the one I mentioned and for a brief moment I was transported exactly to where these characters were in New York City.  I could see the apartment, understood the environment.  It all made sense.  All because of that one slip of paper that evoked such a strong memory in my mind.

It’s the first and last time I connected with the movie.

I could say the movie was one-note.  I could say the characters were off-key.  I might mention the script had pitch problems.  I’d offer the directing was a tad tuneless.  All puns I will refrain from using when discussing this languid tale of a man that specializes in finding what’s sonically out of alignment in your home and making adjustments to help you lead a happy life.  Based on a 17-minute short film that has been unevenly expanded to feature length by the original creators, it’s a somber sit that’s not made any easier by mannered performances that grate on the nerves.

Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie) is a character that can only exist in an indie movie set in NYC.  A rumpled tweed jacket-wearing specialist that has clients around the city needing his particular talents in sussing out what underlying tones might be giving them any sort of malady from anxiety to insomnia.  When he’s not performing tune ups, he’s searching the city for hot spots of ambient sound that he can record to corroborate his long gestating research project about urban soundscapes.  With his tuning forks in hand and ready to clang, he can be found in the park, on construction sites, or wherever the heart of the city beats greatest.  Though he longs to publish his work, he also can’t bring himself to completely share it with the world.  What’s worse, he eschews the oncoming corporatizing of the work he does as in independent contractor so he feels like his days as a big fish in a small pond are numbered.

His newest client, Ellen (Rashida Jones, The Grinch), calls on Peter to figure out why she can’t sleep at night.  Recently broken up from a long term relationship, she’s living in a rent-controlled apartment surrounded by memories of a partnership that’s over and a future that’s never going to happen.  Peter thinks she needs a new toaster.  The rest of us know that Ellen needs a new apartment.  For some reason (namely because writer Ben Nabors says so), Peter intrigues Ellen, even though he’s exhibited no charm or warmth toward her.  When her problems persist, the two start seeing more of each other so Peter can determine where his original analysis was wrong, while at the same time his research falls into the wrong hands and his fragile psyche begins to fall apart.

I wonder how much better the movie would have been with another actor cast in the lead role.  I’m normally a fan of Sarsgaard but not in this case.  He’s so glum and inward facing that there’s no room for audiences to get any insight into his character.  We don’t need to like Peter but we should at least get a sense of who he is and where he’s coming from.  The way Sarsgaard plays it, who would want to spend time with him or invest in his research?  Jones also is unnaturally muted, providing a flavorless take on a woman grieving a loss who bounces back with a total dullard.  In small supporting roles, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Austin Pendleton (Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles), Alex Karpovsky (Hail, Caesar!), and Bruce Altman (Fifty Shades Freed) at least seize their opportunity to make some sort of impression with their limited screen time.

For an 87-minute movie, The Sound of Silence feels about twice that length.  It’s a bad example of a NYC-set indie that has people moping around in earth tones always speaking in ‘inside voices’ and desperately wanting to be taken seriously.  I’m fairly sure the filmmakers have made up Peter’s profession but the kernel of an idea they have isn’t a bad one, it’s just that it never grows into something that’s more interesting than it’s thirty second elevator pitch.  The characters aren’t interesting or worth investing in and the movie doesn’t end as much as it merely stops.  Kind of like this review.

Movie Review ~ Official Secrets


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, Adam Barki, Conleth Hill, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans

Director: Gavin Hood

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  You can almost set your watch by it.  Every year, the moment the summer movie season has made its last gasps (and with Brittany Runs a Marathon and Ready or Not sneaking in, what a fulfilling final breath it was!), the more serious-minded films are staging a not so stealth attack at cinemas.  It’s time to set aside the imaginary heroes that vanquish villains in other galaxies in favor of stories of true to life tales of champions of a different nature.  Come hell or high water, you will be exposed to one or more of these films in the next several months and you can only cross your fingers and hope it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

The first movie to step up to the plate is Official Secrets, a long gestating project that at one time was set to star such A-listers as Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, and Martin Freeman.  When it failed to materialize, the work bounced around until it was picked up by Academy Award winning director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) and attracted another tantalizing cast of UK favorites.  Taking a familiar page out of the Spotlight handbook and exploring a cover-up by that reaches deep within the government, Official Secrets has everything the equation of a pot-boiler needs to succeed.  What it doesn’t have is any spark to get a fire going.

In 2003, Katharine Gunn was a translator working at a British intelligence agency who is copied on an e-mail from the chief of staff of the NSA.  The memo sought to identify support for the illegal surveillance on six nations within the UN that could tip the scale in favor of war with Iraq.  Though information Gunn, her colleagues, and her bosses had about Iraq clearly indicated the reasons for the proposed war were flawed, there was little Gunn could do to stop a determined train that had already left the station.  However, she could expose the lie…but to do so would cost her everything.  Leaking the memo to the press, Gunn was eventually arrested and charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act.

While Gunn’s story is compelling and her bravery with sticking her neck out is to be applauded, I’m not entirely sure a feature film was necessary.  The screenplay from Gregory and Sara Bernstein doesn’t exactly make the case either, with the movie often devolving into a fairly standard David v. Goliath tale.  The only interesting wrinkle in this courtroom drama (that rarely sees the inside of a hall of justice) is that Gunn’s hands were often tied in her defense, since she would run the risk of violating the Official Secrets Act every time she discussed the case with her lawyer.  On the other side of the coin, Hood shifts focus to the offices of The Observer, the publication that got a hold of the leaked document and printed it as a cover story.  The characters at The Observer are arch, like a UK version of The Paper, and while the actors often acquit themselves nicely you can’t get around the feeling you can predict the next line of dialogue at any point.

With the screenplay lacking in dramatic heft, it’s up to the actors to do the heavy lifting and that’s where the movie finds a few sparks.  As Gunn, Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method) clocks a solid performance, shedding her normal period attire for a modern-ish drama where she can show a range that sits in a comfortable spot.  It’s not a huge performance, it’s not a muted one…it’s evenly pitched and effectively grounds the movie in some realism even as it starts to drown in cliché.  I also liked Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys) playing Martin Bright, The Observer reporter that breaks the story and almost gets swallowed up by the wave of backlash it incurs.  Continuing his streak of showing fondness for quirky, rumpled roles, Ralph Finnes (Skyfall) turns up as Gunn’s human rights attorney that goes to bat for her.

Less successful is Adam Barki, MyAnna Buring, and Rhys Ifans (The Five-Year Engagement) in underwritten roles that eventually become distractions.  Barki, in particular, has little chemistry with Knightley so their husband and wife characters never seem to gel.  When the movie implores us to care about this relationship, it becomes a big ask.  With Buring (Kill List) as, actually, I never quite understood what her relationship was to Knightlely, only that she was part of the group that helped get the memo out in the open. I’ve been intrigued by Buring in her previous roles and wish she had been given more to do. And Ifans, what can I say?  The Blustery Reporter with Conviction has been done countless times in better movies, though I did respond positively anytime we spent time in the offices of The Observer.

What’s good about Official Secrets when all is said and done is that it serves as a reminder that governments are not above the law or beyond reproach.  Some may look at what Gunn did as treasonous but in this current time of frustration with the truth being hidden behind a smoke screen of lies, there’s a particular thrill in seeing someone rebel against it all.  I’d have liked it if Hood had sharpened the movie more – it was never going to be a political mystery thriller but there was room to turn the volume up a bit.

Movie Review ~ Personal Shopper

The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolves around a ghost story that takes place in the fashion underworld of Paris.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Anders Danielsen Lie, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Pamela Betsy Cooper, Benjamin Biolay

Director: Olivier Assayas

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I think we’re getting to the point where we can get past that Kristen Stewart headlined the Twilight franchise, right?  I mean, it’s time to recognize that she wasn’t the cause of all that misery she just collected a paycheck for it.  Sure, her off screen persona is decidedly aloof and she doesn’t smile a lot…but to deny admitting she’s a strong actress seems so very 2012.  After directing you to 2014’s Clouds of Sills Maria, I’d introduce Personal Shopper as Exhibit B in my defense case in the People vs Kristen Stewart.

While Personal Shopper is a lesser film than Clouds of Sills Maria (for which Stewart won France’s prestigious Caesar Award, becoming the first American actress ever to do so), this second collaboration between Stewart and director Oliver Assayas features the actress in nearly every frame of the movie.  Capably holding our focus for the entirety of its running length, Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) finally headlines a project that seems not only to be her cup of tea but one that plays a game she’s fully invested in.  She disappeared halfway through Clouds of Sills Maria and her absence was felt but she’s entirely captivating here as Maureen, an assistant to a tabloid-friendly superstar we barely see.

Scarier than you might expect with some legitimate jolts to your nerves, Personal Shopper is both a ghost story and a plaintive drama wrapped up in one Gallic package.  Opening with Maureen alone in a creaking manse as she tries to make contact with a spirit thought to be haunting the joint, we eventually learn she’s trying to make a connection to her recently deceased twin brother.  Both twins had a touch of the medium in them and with his sudden death, Maureen needs closure before she can move on with her life.

As she waits for another opportunity to locate his spirit, she spends her days traveling through Paris and beyond to pick up/out clothes and accessories for her employer.  The deeper she digs the more compact the movie becomes and before you know it, mysterious texts from an anonymous phone number tease of something sinister afoot and soon she’s involved with a murder.  To say more would spoil what Assayas has in store for you but it wouldn’t give much away to say that, in typical Assayas fashion, much of the the mystery is left for the audience to decode on their own.

Perhaps a bit too slow for most (I could see this being a bang-up 50-minute short film), I wasn’t ever bored by the movie and the performances (including Stewart) are off-kilter just enough to keep you guessing without dismissing them outright as merely bonkers.  Much of the movie is focused on the lengthy text conversation between Maureen and the mystery caller and this could have been an interminable bore had Assayas’s script not been so taut. I definitely was left with some questions but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the questions were far more interesting than the potential answers — that makes for an overall rewarding experience.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstar

Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ The D Train

d_train

The Facts:

Synopsis: The head of a high school reunion committee travels to Los Angeles to track down the most popular guy from his graduating class and convince him to go to the reunion.

Stars: James Marsden, Jack Black, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White, Kathryn Hahn, Henry Zebrowski, Kyle Bornheimer, Adria Tennor, Russell Posner

Director: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I used to be a movie-goer that loved to see previews of coming attractions sometimes more than the feature presentations themselves.  I’d consider being late to a movie if even one preview had unspooled…but over time the fifteen minutes worth of trailers took their toll on me and I was exhausted before the movie even began.  A nice part of being a critic and seeing screenings of films in advance is quite often there won’t be any previews before a movie…cutting down on my exasperated saturation of seeing the same teaser over and over and over again.

I mention this right away in my review of The D Train because it was one of those rare flicks I went into without ever having seen a preview or reading much about it.  All I knew was that it starred Jack Black (Bernie), James Marsden (Robot & Frank), and Kathryn Hahn (Bad Words) and that was good enough for me.  While not the biggest Jack Black fan in existence (his shtick having long since worn out its welcome on me in the mid-2000s) I’ve come to appreciate that the actor has taken some risks at this stage in his career.

The D Train is another risk that’s paid off not only for Black but Marsden too.  While not graced with the most profound character arcs thanks to writer/director Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul’s almost fully formed script, the two actors deliver surprisingly effective performances that are even-keeled and grounded even with some unexpected twists and turns that pop up.

Black plays another middle-aged everyman but this time the actor makes his Average Joe a human being and not some overgrown man-child.  The head (more figurehead) of his high-school reunion committee, Black works for a non-descript boss (Jeffrey Tambor, The Hangover Part III) at a non-descript job in a non-descript office that isn’t even wired for high-speed internet.  Though he has a loving, high-school sweetheart wife (Hahn) and kids he’s flatlining and knows it.

That all changes when he catches a commercial late at night featuring a high-school classmate (Marsden) that moved to LA shortly after graduating.  Hatching a plan to up the reunion attendance and at the same time becoming a local hero by convincing the “star” classmate to attend the reunion, Black travels to California to reconnect with an old pal that can’t remember him.

Up to this point, Mogel and Paul have kept things pretty standard fare.  Even a hackneyed scheme for Black to get his company to pay for his trip out west seems like something out of an ‘80s comedy checklist.  When Black arrives in LA, though, things take an unexpected turn that I wouldn’t dream of giving away.  Needless to say, it instantly ups the ante of Black and Marsden’s comedic stock and elevates the picture from being just another screw-up-makes-good farce.

That’s not to say it’s totally smooth sailing from then on out.  There’s more than a few slow sections in the third act of the film and the resolution seems a bit too pat considering all the carefully placed turns that came before; however at the end of the day I was more impressed with the comedy than I thought I would be.  There’s a certain sweetness to it and Black makes for a charmingly hapless sad sack dealing with a lot of feelings he hadn’t planned on exploring.  Marsden is one of the gamest actors out there, willing to play against type and trade on his looks if the part calls for it.  Make no mistake, though, the actor is always 100% aware of what he’s doing, which at times means you can see him stretching to be acknowledged for coloring outside the lines.  While she’s become known for being a gifted comic actress, Hahn has dramatic chops to counter the laughs and those are put to good use here as well.

With its retro synth score and overall old school ambiance, The D Train would be a film I’d think ‘80s maestro John Hughes would have given his stamp of approval to.  In a season getting stuffed with big budget action lollapaloozas and high concept studio comedies, you’re encouraged to hop on the indie goodness of The D Train.

Movie Review ~ Seymour: An Introduction

seymour_an_introduction

The Facts:

Synopsis: Meet Seymour Bernstein: a beloved pianist, teacher and true inspiration who shares eye-opening insights from an amazing life. Ethan Hawke helms this poignant guide to life.

Stars: Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke

Director: Ethan Hawke

Rated: PG

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This sensitive doc from Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) is a good example of how to treat your elders…listen, learn, let them talk.

Famed pianist Seymour Bernstein may not be a household name to most because he hasn’t performed in public for decades, but after a chance encounter with Bernstein at a dinner party the actor became interested in learning more about the life-long New Yorker that imparts his wisdom to his students, his friends, and his contemporaries.

At a trim 84 minutes it’s less a biopic and more of a discussion with biographical context. We hear about Bernstein’s first encounter with music when a piano is brought into his house, which up until that point didn’t even have a radio to listen to.  Over the years his talent became evident, with only his mother fully supporting the musical prodigy her son was becoming.  Growing stage fright kept Bernstein out of the public eye for years, only occasionally playing for anyone outside his small one room apartment just big enough for a piano and pull out bed.

Hawke clearly found a kinship is Bernstein as the actor relays his own burgeoning stage fright these past years.  Perhaps making a film on Bernstein’s life and capturing on film his sage words was a way to exorcise some of those demons that plague many a creative individual.  No matter what the reason, Hawke’s portrait of Bernstein is as delicate as Bernstein’s technique, a technique Hawke shows in several working sessions Bernstein has with his students.  Quick to correct his pupils but just as quick to praise them, his attention to the smallest detail provides great insight into what it takes to achieve his level of musical sophistication.

A treat of a film, if there’s one drawback it’s that there’s no true momentum to be had.  Yes, Bernstein’s an interesting character and I think I could have sat through his entire master class, but the final result is an abridged autobiography conveyed on film.  Still, it’s so short that you can’t help but pay rapt attention and think about the Seymour Bernsteins in your own life.

Movie Review ~ Finding Vivian Maier

finding_vivian_maier

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on the late Vivian Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one the most accomplished street photographers.

Stars: Vivian Maier

Director: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: What I love about a documentary that isn’t focused on war or politics is that they don’t have to waste precious celluloid (does anyone still use celluloid?) in their attempts to humanize their characters. There’s less excuse making, less partisan grandstanding, and just a general lack of that brazen BS that accompanies any investigation into a hot button issue. No, what is so great about movies like Finding Vivian Maier is that they can interview people who knew our titular character and have them say how aloof she came across, how independent her spirit was, how downright mean she could be, and it doesn’t detract from the fact that this woman had a remarkable talent that she kept all to herself.

Filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (movie critic Gene Siskel’s son) have a good looking Oscar nominated documentary on their hands with a central subject so secretive and interesting that I’m actually glad her life remained a mystery until well after her death because to have any concrete answers from the source subject would have spoiled some of the magic.

When Maloof happens upon a box of Maier’s photographs and shares them with an art collector friend, there’s little interest until 2009 when Maier’s work took off like a rocket via the internet. Though she took thousands of pictures, Maier had hardly any developed either because of cost or lack of need. From what we learn, Maier was very much an in the moment photographer and the stunning snaps we see displayed show as much of Maier’s curious complexities as it does the seemingly mundane subjects she captured on film.

Maloof and Siskel’s film traces what little we know about Maier from her upbringing in New York as the daughter of immigrant parents to her days of working as a nanny for several families, many of whom are interviewed here. Maier was a tough taskmaster, relentlessly private, and kept her world very small…making the images she took over 40 plus years all the more interesting because they’ve locked engaging facets of humanity in a single frame forever.

Though she had two former charges that took care of her and paid her rent as she grew older, Maier’s personal life was also a mystery. When she died in October 2009 she had little worldly possessions…save for boxes and boxes of undeveloped film that would become her legacy. In discovering the treasures she kept hidden, Maloof and Siskel found more than an unknown’s life work…they found a valuable piece of history.

Movie Review ~ Boyhood

boyhood

The Facts:

Synopsis: The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18

Stars: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke 

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 166 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Director Michael Apted began filming a group of children in England when they were seven years old and has returned every seven years to check-in and see what dreams they have achieved, what losses they have suffered, and what obstacles they’ve overcome.  The last entry is 2012 was 56 Up and my advice is if you leave Richard Linklater’s equally impressive Boyhood wanting something in the same vein but with a pulse all its own and haven’t yet caught Apted’s eight film series to get on that pronto.

The comparisons between Apted’s decades in the making study of the class system in England and Linklater’s more focused following of one boy for twelve years are inevitable and both flourish on their own merits.  What truly bowled me over with Linklater’s three hour opus is that in the age of studios wanting films released faster and faster, he was able to take the time and resources to make this the way he wanted – and that’s something that should be applauded and admired.

It’s a simple set-up, really.  Find one young boy not too self-aware but still grounded and create a world with characters, situations, and ideas that explore how our experiences shape us as we grow.  Add two Hollywood actors that don’t mind a long-haul commitment with no guarantee for success and start filming!

There are so many factors with Boyhood that Linklater (Bernie) just couldn’t have known we he started the film.  Would the boy grow up to resent these yearly visits?  How would he fare on-camera?  What happens if six years in he decided to move to Tibet and take a vow of silence?  What if the Hollywood actors found a different gig that prevented their participation or they grew tired of the unique filming schedule?  Further…what sort of story would be told from year to year?

It’s clear from the finished project that this was a once in a lifetime sort of project and everyone involved knew it.  Yes, the quality of the acting from the boy (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) waxes and wanes and it’s no surprise to learn Lorelei wanted out after several years because her ambivalence to the material is evident through several years of the process.  Still, there’s a sense of “realness” within a dramatized story that gives the film street cred.

Coltrane’s performance grows more affected with each passing year and having seen the film on two occasions I did cringe both times at some of the line deliveries that come across less as in the moment observances and more as words successfully delivered without much weight behind them.  Still, that glint of curiosity that shines so brightly in the early years never really goes away, making each age more interesting as Coltrane and his character start to come into their own and grow into themselves.

Ethan Hawke (Sinister, and Linklater’s famous trilogy comprised of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) plays a good dad and any urge to portray him as a deadbeat or explore why he separated from his wife (Patricia Arquette) is resisted.  He matures right along with his children, moving from the divorced dad with the cool car to a remarried man approaching middle-age with a new baby and mini-van in tow.

Though the film is called Boyhood the heart of the film is found in Arquette’s terrific turn.  We see her go from being a single mother to returning to college in order to complete her education, then into her second marriage to an abusive alcoholic, before moving onto yet another doomed-to-fail-marriage to an army vet.  Through it all her maternal instincts never fade; sometimes she’s the cool mom but mostly she’s the mama bear who puts her children first and herself last in any situation.

Arquette is uniformly excellent throughout the film but goes above and beyond in two scenes at the end of the movie which I believe are worth the price of admission.  It’s in her final scene that she not only sums up the whole point of what Linklater is getting at with striking clarity but also verbalizes a painful truth every parent must feel at one time or another.  It’s a thrilling, Oscar-ready performance from an actress I had previously struggled with liking.

Yes, the running time is over 2 ½ hours but I’ve seen 90 minute films that felt four times longer.  I can’t recommend it higher – the most satisfying of films released in 2014.  And if Arquette doesn’t win an Oscar, I’ll be terribly disappointed.

The Silver Bullet ~ Willow Creek

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Synopsis: From celebrated director Bobcat Goldthwait comes this edge of your seat horror that will make you think twice before going into the woods.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Man, you can’t keep a Bigfoot down.  Though the legendary mystery has entertained many a youngster surrounding a campfire and inspired countless reality series hunting the big guy down, for me Bigfoot will always be best represented in the 80s comedy Harry and the Hendersons.  Director Bobcat Goldthwait directs this horror yarn and seems to be aiming for a more casual method of storytelling that might just maximize the tension while minimizing the goofball nature of the myth as a whole.  Though remembered first and foremost from his warbly voiced antics as an actor, as a director Goldthwait has put together several interesting films over the years.  I’ll track this one down.