Music Hath Charms

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“What is the soundtrack of your life?”

Shedrick “B,” an inmate presenter at the TEDx Sing Sing I helped organize a few years ago, asked that question of the audience of 100 or so civilians and inmates. He went on to explain that music has the power to transport him back to certain moments in his life: holding hands with his first girlfriend, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Christmas Eve with his family, being booked for the crime that landed him in prison. When he hears the songs he remembers, he returns to those moments, good and bad.

With the invention of the MP3 player and iPhone, music could indeed become the soundtrack of our lives. Suddenly we had instant access to thousands of songs that used to be piled in a shoebox or stored in the wrong jewel case in a closet back home. And with music-streaming platforms like Pandora, we have access to thousands more songs that we haven’t even purchased. We can listen to music when we’re walking, driving, biking, talking, waiting, even sleeping. When I go hiking, the station I select — sometimes upbeat ’60s, sometimes a mellow Coldplay, sometimes classical or Broadway or hymns — controls my mood and thus my experience. It was inevitable that a movie would take that ubiquity and turn it into a giant of a movie. That movie is Baby Driver.

Baby isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta.

Other films have toyed with the concept; Woody Allen is known for the jazz pieces he selects for his soundtracks. Music stands out in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the protagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy (also 2014), listens to an ’80s mix tape his mother made for him as he gathers the energy to save the universe. The soundtrack was the best part of Guardians, and fans couldn’t wait to hear the selections for Guardians Vol. 2. Even calling it “Volume 2,” like an album, instead of “Part 2,” like a movie, acknowledges the importance of the music as a main ingredient of the franchise’s popularity.

But music isn’t just the soundtrack of Baby Driver; it’s the driving force. Baby (Ansel Elgort) can’t function unless his earbuds are delivering exactly the right playlist of high-octane music to his brain, even when his life depends on getting the hell out of there now. Baby is the highly skilled getaway driver for the mastermind, called Doc (Kevin Spacey), behind a series of bank and post office heists. He isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta while dodging cars, cops, and bullets. The music is perfectly synchronized with the actions and gestures of the characters, even when they’re sitting around a table having a conversation. It all creates the sense that we’re watching a choreographed concert as much as a movie.

Despite his childlike name, Baby is cooler than cool. No matter how many times he loses his sunglasses (or someone takes them) he has another pair in his pocket to replace them. He carries multiple iPods loaded with music for any occasion, and he doesn’t flinch when his life is endangered. When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) heightens the fun with unexpected edits and background details. As Baby leaps through the streets to a chorus of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the word “Yeah” is seen spray-painted on three successive trees, exactly in time to the music. In the window of the bank that’s being robbed, we see a poster advertising college loans — a kind of bank robbery itself, and a life sentence for many students who get in over their heads. When Baby is at a laundromat, the clothes cycling around in the dryer become a 45 record spinning us into the next scene. Baby uses sign language to communicate with his rheumy-eyed foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) who looks blind, not deaf.

When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

We soon learn that Baby isn’t really a bad guy at heart. He’s gentle and thoughtful with Joseph. He’s in love with a sweet young waitress (Lily James), who is just as anxious to blow this town and start a new life as he is. But he owes a debt to Doc, the cool and sadistic mastermind, and he has to do one last job to be free of the debt. If you know anything at all about film scripts, you know that the words “one last job” can be deadly.

So Baby is enlisted for one last heist, driving Doc’s newly organized team (John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez); as expected, things begin to go deliciously, suspensefully wrong. Baby takes a few wrong turns and a few right ones as he tries to extricate himself from Doc’s employ while protecting the two people he loves — and always with exactly the right music and the right pair of sunglasses to motivate him for the job. In my opinion the film jumps the shark toward the end, when a glaring red haze demonizes a particular character and culminates in the virtual fires of hell, but I can forgive that over-the-top indulgence. The entire film is over the top, and that’s what’s keeping it at the top of the box office. Baby Driver is a winner from the word “Go.”




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How to Succeed by Failing

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While Hollywood remains determined to commit financial suicide by focusing on their never-ending stream of superhero flicks (such as the recent Suicide Squad), film lovers can still find satisfying fare by looking beyond the major studios. Florence Foster Jenkins is a case in point. Produced by BBC Films, it is utterly delightful — and it delivers an important message about passion and dreams to boot.

The film is set in 1944 New York, where Madame Florence (Meryl Streep) is a popular socialite and patron of the arts, a woman who has established several music clubs to further the careers of budding composers and musicians. She also loves to produce tableaux and small operatic concerts with herself in the principal roles. The only problem is that she can’t sing. The solution, for her, is that she is blissfully unaware of how painful her voice is, and her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant) is determined to keep it that way. He sits in on her lessons, hires only the best voice coaches and pianists, and invites “members only” to her performances while keeping the legitimate press away.

This ruse becomes more difficult when Florence books herself at Carnegie Hall, and St. Clair has to work even harder to protect her from learning the truth about how she sounds to others. (Evidently there is more than one way to get to Carnegie Hall; while most musicians have to “practice, practice, practice,” “money, money, money” can be just as effective.)

Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

As Madame Florence prepares her new accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), for their “rigorous” training schedule, she warns him, “I practice an hour a day — sometimes two!” She hires the likes of Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) as her voice coach, and St. Clair sits in on the lessons, smiling contentedly as she sings. We in the audience wince painfully, and Cosmé can barely control his embarrassed laughter — until he realizes that St. Clair is as serious as Florence about her singing.

Soon, however, Cosmé is drawn to Florence’s eccentric charm. So are her numerous friends. And so are we. From the flowery froufrou and feathers of the self-designed costumes on her matronly figure to the bathtub full of potato salad for her lunchtime soirées, we can’t help but love her free spirit.

Because Florence has a chronic health condition, she and St. Clair have a platonic marriage. But their love is palpable. He protects her and cares for her with a tenderness that transcends the tear-off-her-clothing kind of love portrayed in most movies. And she returns his affection with the confidence and sincerity of a woman who feels adored. Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

Hugh Grant made his career playing the young and somewhat bumbling British heartthrob with the self-effacing demeanor and dazzling boyish smile. Then, in Music and Lyrics (2007), at the age of 47 he played a washed-up singer almost as an aging parody of himself, as though he couldn’t imagine himself as a believable love interest any longer. Happily for us, he was coaxed from a self-imposed semi-retirement by the prospect of playing opposite Meryl Streep. Actors have said that they love performing with Streep; she is so fully engaged in her character that they can become more completely engaged in their own. In this case Grant seems to provide that same emotional depth for Streep, who as Florence Foster Jenkins gives what I think is her finest performance ever — and this is a woman who has been nominated for 19 Oscars and has won three of them.

Madame Florence hears the voice of an angel when she sings, and that is the subtle message of her story: embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards. It made me think of the many people this month who, fueled by the passion they’ve seen in the Olympic athletes, donned track shoes or swim suits and began “training” for the Tokyo Olympics four years from now. I remember the skating moms I knew when my daughter was a competitive figure skater, and how each of us imagined our daughters would stand on that ultimate medals platform — even though we knew, deep down, that the chance was pretty slim.

I also remember performing in Oklahoma! many years ago and being so surprised when I saw the video of the show — I had danced with the heart of a Rockette, but in reality I had barely left the ground. Still, I love to dance, and I’m perfectly happy never to see what I look like. In my heart and my mind, I’m a pro. As Madame Florence confesses with a smile, “They may say that I can’t sing, but they can never say I didn’t sing.” So sing your heart out. Or run. Or do whatever it is that brings you joy. Don’t let what others think keep you from doing what you love.

Embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards.

Just how bad was the voice of the real Florence Foster Jenkins? When Streep began to sing, I thought she was exaggerating the squawkiness out of fear that modern audiences, raised on pop culture, wouldn’t know a well-sung aria from a flat one. I thought that no one could really sing that badly. But as the credits were rolling at the end of the film, a recording of the real Florence’s voice was played, and I have to hand it to Meryl Streep — she nailed it. It was godawful. But the film is brilliant. Don’t miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Florence Foster Jenkins," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2016, 110 minutes.



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From Compton to Congress

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There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian," but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.

The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA ("Niggaz Wit Attitude"). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.

At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA's music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.

Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

One of the most powerful moments for me was seeing the direct parallel that the film draws between police brutality against Rodney King and the LA Riots in 1992, and the brutality and coercion with which business "deals" were conducted as relationships fell apart among Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The culture of violence from the streets of Los Angeles spilled over into every other part of these guys' lives, even while they were all working to leave the dangers of that life behind. The film makes it abundantly clear that this wasn't what any of them wanted and they weren’t proud of it.

More importantly, however, Straight Outta Compton contains one of the most powerful defenses of free speech that I have ever seen in cinema.

As I grew up with a love of music and entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember a lot of people talking about the events depicted in the film. But I was a bit too young and, as a white kid in rural Nebraska, too disconnected from the gangsta rap scene blowing up around the country to fully appreciate it at the time. The thug image cultivated by NWA and its successors was a huge source of consternation for authority figures. Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

But the history that a lot of people have forgotten was that NWA rose to prominence at the fever pitch of a new censorship movement that started with outrage over sexually explicit lyrical content in pop music such as Prince's "Purple Rain" and the supposedly "Satanic" lyrics of heavy metal.

The congressional hearings make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun.

In 1985, a group of four "Washington Wives" — Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius — created an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center ostensibly to persuade the music industry to "voluntarily" adopt a ratings standard that would protect children from hearing what these women called "porn rock." These influential ladies convinced the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to convene a hearing to discuss the issue on September 19, 1985. Even though his own wife founded the PMRC, then-Senator Al Gore features prominently as a speaker in these hearings, instead of recusing himself as he obviously should have done, given the blatant conflict of interest.

The full hearings are completely maddening to listen to, but they are worth watching or reading because they make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun. At the time, my own state's Senator from Nebraska, Jim Exon, had an exchange with Frank Zappa that perfectly makes the point:

Sen. Exon: "This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation. To some extent recognizing the problems with free rider expression and my previously expressed views that I don't believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to, but I really believe that the suggestions made by the original panel for some kind of arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry is the correct way to go. So if it'll help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings and others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation unless the free market system — both the producers and you, as the performers — see fit to clean up your act."

Frank Zappa: "Ok, thank you. . . . Ok, so that's hardly voluntary."

Quite so. Similar to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1930 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954, these ratings systems and the so-called "voluntary" censorship instituted by industry groups have often come as a direct result of threats from the government.

So just a few years later in 1989, when NWA and gangsta rap gained popularity, the old "seduction of the innocent" fears were already a major issue in American politics. In 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a "Parental Advisory" labeling system to warn parents of explicit or otherwise unsavory lyrical content, in no small part because of the music being released by NWA, Ruthless Records, and Lench Mob Records. But parental advisory warnings weren't enough for a lot of people in America, and throughout the film, we see activists smashing records, protesters picketing concerts, the federal government issuing threats, and even police officers in Detroit specifically dictating to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

NWA played it anyway and they were arrested.

What follows in the film is a press conference sequence that contains one of the most rousing defenses of free speech I've seen in a film in a very long time. Ice Cube explains that the lyrics to their music were not endorsing gangs or gang violence. Instead, he defends NWA's words as "a reflection of our reality" and asserts that no one has the right to control what they write, say, or perform.

Police officers in Detroit specifically dictated to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

Technically speaking, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) is gorgeous to look at throughout. And with Ice Cube's own son playing his character, the casting is shockingly spot on, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Where the film suffers a little is in editing the stories of the three main protagonists together. While several clear themes and character arcs stretch across the whole movie, there are also a few disconnected scenes that don't entirely matter to the story — although one such scene involving Dr. Dre is one of the most emotional moments of the movie. The biggest problem is that once the band starts to split up and the guys go their separate ways, it's not always totally clear whose story the film is really telling.

But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fantastic movie where violence and gang life ultimately give way to legitimate business and freedom of expression with a surprising amount of heart, drama, humor, and a ton of great music.

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Editor's Note: Review of "Straight Outta Compton," directed by F. Gary Gray. Circle of Confusion / Cube Vision / Legendary Pictures, 2015, 147 minutes.



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Advance Notice

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With 150 feature films, 106 shorts, dozens of panels and live presentations, nine days, a dozen theaters, thousands of volunteers, and 72,000 attendees, Austin’s SXSW film festival, presented this year from March 13–21, has grown to one of the most important festivals of the season. Many of the best films of the year are introduced there.

It can also be the most frustrating festival of the season, with its policy of not selling advance tickets to any screenings. Attendees purchase a badge (costing several hundred dollars) for the entire festival and then line up according to the kind of badge they have chosen. Locals can purchase a wristband for $90, but their line is the last to gain entrance, just ahead of the misnomered “rush” line of stragglers hoping to find an empty seat for ten bucks after all the others have gone inside. (During the entire week I saw only two screenings where rushers were able to get in.) Badgeholders are allowed to pick up an express pass for up to two films per day, but that often means being in line by 7 a.m. and waiting for the express line to open at 9.

The Road Warrior was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular.

For some, however, that’s part of the fun at SXSW, and friendships are often made in line. I talked with one young filmmaker whose goal for the week was to meet a particular director and talk to him about a project. On the morning of the first day, there was the director he wanted to meet, sitting next to him on the floor waiting for the express line to open. They chatted for nearly two hours and shook on the deal. Who would have thought it possible?

Many films with theatrical release schedules were screening at SX, but I spent most of my time seeing documentaries and smaller films that I won’t be able to see at my local Cineplex in the next month or so. The one exception was a screening of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2),the 1981 postapocalyptic cult classic, newly remastered for the festival and introduced by director George Miller himself. What a treat to see this film on a gigantic screen in an old-school theater holding nearly a thousand enthusiastic viewers. RW was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular. It’s a great story too, demonstrating the kinds of communities that arise under anarchy. Max is a lot like Paul Newman’s character in Hombre, just trying to make his way, barter for gas, and protect what little he has. We were hoping to see a “surprise” screening of the new sequel, Fury Road, afterwards (why else would they have brought back a 34-year-old film?) and indeed, we were treated to several chunks of the new movie. But even without that, Road Warrior was easily the most fun I had at the festival.

Here are some documentaries you might want to watch for on Netflix over the next year:

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, (directed by Alex Gibney, 127 minutes).When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the whole world mourned the loss of the man who brought us the personal computer and the magical triplets that reside in our pockets or under our pillows: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.But, according to the many people who were interviewed for this doc, Jobs was not a particularly lovable man. He could be ruthless, selfish, and unfair. He was a man of complex contrasts, “a monk with Zen-like focus but no empathy” who fancied himself to be enlightened and asked to be canonized as a monk. He was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities (unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Bill Gates); his factories polluted rivers in China; he arranged for backdating of stock options to increase the income of key employees (including himself); and he created offshore companies in Ireland to reduce the company’s tax bill (nothing illegal about that, but the filmmaker suggests it’s unethical or improper for Apple not to pay “their fair share”).

Jobs wanted to change the world, and he did. At one point the narrator asks cynically, “Is creating a product that makes buckets of money for its shareholders enough to change the world?” I would answer emphatically, “Yes!” but not because of the money. Everything we do is different now, because of the magic box we carry in our pockets, embed in our Google Glasses, and wear on our watches. Even getting around town is easier today — it was less than ten years ago that I carried a large street map in my car and had to pull over to find my way. This week, navigating around a large and unfamiliar city, I never once got lost, because Siri told me when to turn and even how to avoid traffic. Right now I’m writing this review on my iPhone. I can look up details about the films instantly. The iPhone has indeed changed my world.

Jobs was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities.

Jobs created something beautiful and useful, and he created buckets of money in the process. We love our iProducts. We caress them. We even sleep with them. We love them because they connect us to a wider world and family far away. But they also tend to isolate us from those who are near at hand. The narrator sums it up well when he acknowledges, “I love my iPhone. My hand is drawn to it in my pocket the way Frodo’s hand is drawn to the Ring.” Indeed, many folks today create “phone free zones” when they are together, in order to resist the powerful attraction of the ‘net. Jobs himself might not have been a beautiful man on the inside, but he certainly created a beautiful product.

Peace Officer (directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, 109 minutes) was the most powerful and important film I saw all week, and it rightly won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. I am hoping to bring it to the Anthem Film Festival at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in July. It chronicles the deadly results of militarizing our police agencies through SWAT teams and “1033” programs that provide new and used military equipment to local police forces.

The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong.

William “Dub” Lawrence is the central figure of the film. A likable, personable man, he was the police chief of Farmington, Utah, when he started Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975. (He also is the man who broke the Ted Bundy serial murder case.) He thought it would be an effective way to reduce the drug trade in his sleepy little community. In 2008 that same SWAT team killed Dub’s son-in-law over a domestic dispute that escalated into a standoff that involved over 80 police officers. Because of his connection to the police department, Dub had access to police cameras that revealed a scenario different from the one reported to the media (that the young man had taken his own life). He quit the police department and spent the next several years piecing together the actual timeline of events calmly, methodically, and with a megawatt smile that belies the pain he feels from the death of his daughter’s husband.

Peace Officer tells several stories of law enforcement turned aggressively non-peaceful and non-protective. “A peace officer should be a trusted friend,” Dub explains. “But today they no longer ‘serve and protect.’ Now they are trained as soldiers, and we are the enemy.” The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods, according to the film, and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong. Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, acknowledges in the film that this isn’t entirely the police officers’ fault. “Laws and programs have set up these conflicts and turned them into soldiers,” he suggests.

One of the laws that has led to the most serious invasions of privacy and safety is the “no-knock warrant,” which allows SWAT teams to barge into a home in the middle of the night, rifles drawn, screaming at anyone in the house to back off. Awakened and terrified, the homeowners try to defend themselves from what appear to be home invaders, and they are often killed rather than arrested. The father of one young man who is dead because of such a raid (and who admittedly was growing marijuana in his basement) asks angrily, “What were they protecting us from? Marijuana plants?”

Several things are wrong with our law enforcement system, and Peace Officer reveals many of them. It’s an important, timely documentary that should keep the conversation going about the growing abuse of police power.

Raiders! (directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 95 minutes). In 1982, three 11- and 12-year-old boys undertook an ambitious project: as fans of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, they would recreate the Steven Spielberg masterpiece shot-for-shot. This was before the film was available on VCR; amazingly, the boys were able to recreate the entire film from watching it in a theater and reviewing the story in a “Raider’s” comic book one of them owned. Over the next seven years, from middle school through high school, they would enlist their friends to serve as cast and crew, commandeer their parents’ houses as movie sets, and spend their summer vacations filming the project. By the time they graduated from high school, all but one scene was finished: the one in which Indie and Marion fight off a German airplane mechanic while a WWII airplane rolls around in circles with propellers running. Now, 33 years after beginning the project, they have gone back to film that missing scene.

Raiders! documents the project from start to finish, incorporating footage from 30 years ago along with the scenes of the new project. How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself. These background stories are told with unabashed glee and deadpan humor. As grownups the filmmakers faced a host of new obstacles, including funding the project, getting time off from their fulltime jobs, and dealing with days and days of rain that threatened to end the filming before it even began. Still, they were determined to finish this project. It’s an amazing story of perseverance, creativity, sacrifice, and pursuing one’s dreams. The film is funny, smart, and inspiring. I’m also hoping to bring this film to the Anthem Film Festival this summer.

How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (directed by Eric Zala, 107 minutes). After watching the documentary about the making of the greatest fan-film ever made, audiences were treated to the film itself. These kids were remarkably skillful in recreating Spielberg’s actual shots, including the dialogue, the costumes, the camera angles, and even the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch their ages change, as many of the scenes were filmed out of sequence. And of course, it’s hilarious to see them emerge from the underground temple nearly 30 years older in the newly finished scene, still wearing the same clothing! The Adaptation has developed a cult following since it premiered at Harry Knowles’ “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” at the Alamo Draft House in Austin several years ago; now, partnered with the documentary about its completion, it is going to grow in stature. You can get a copy by donating to their crowdfunding campaign at raidersguys.wix.com.

Finders Keepers (directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweet, 82 minutes).If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show Storage Wars, you know that the strangest things often show up in storage units. When people don’t pay the rent on their units, the facility owners are entitled to sell the contents to the highest bidders. Most of the time they end up with household furnishings and personal effects. Occasionally they might find an expensive piece of jewelry or a cache of valuable collectibles. When Shannon Whisnant bid on the storage unit rented by John Wood, he had no idea that he would find a human leg inside Wood’s smoker grill.

The two men argued for several years over who was the rightful owner of the leg (amputated when Wood was injured in an airplane crash). Whisnant wanted to put it on display and charge people $3 to look at it. ”The cholesterol was dripping right out of it!” he says with glee as he describes discovering the leg. Wood simply wanted to keep it and have it buried with him some day. They were invited to tell their bizarre story on talk shows worldwide and even ended up on an episode of Judge Mathis. But Finders Keepers is not so much about the legal battle to determine ownership of the leg as it is a study of these two backwoods North Carolinians (you know you’re in the deep South when subtitles are required for people who are speaking English). As presented by the film, both struggle with addictions, Wood the traditional kind (drugs and alcohol) and Whisnant of a less tangible kind — he craves attention and longs to be on television making people laugh. “I’m pretty smart,” he says shortly after describing the events that “perspired” regarding the leg. “I’m pretty sure you’ve figured that out by now. “ He thought the leg would be his ticket to fame and fortune.

This colorful and engaging documentary was a favorite with the SXSW audience. It’s funny without being exploitive, and bizarre without being gross. Participating in its making was life-changing for both men, but not in the ways they expected.

Brand: The Second Coming, (directed by Ondi Timoner, 125 minutes, festival headliner). Russell Brand is another character from a poor socioeconomic background who craves attention on the world stage. Best known for his deviously charming smile, his outrageous wit, and his raunchy and irreverent stand-up routines, a few years ago Brand decided to “re-brand” himself as a serious thinker with a plan to change the world through books, op-ed pieces, impassioned speeches, and a stand-up comedy tour that focuses on his four new heroes: Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera. (For an example of Brand’s unscripted humor, google Russell Brand/Morning Joe to see the interview in which he completely overwhelmed three veteran MSNBC TV anchors.)

Brand’s number-one goal is to end inequality. He has no idea how to do that, however, other than to say that rich people have too much and poor people have too little and that isn’t fair. He doesn’t understand how the world works, and believes the old mercantilist philosophy that “where there is profit there is deficit.” He simply doesn’t understand that the pie can be made bigger. But he has millions of followers (mostly of the “Occupy” ilk) who think he’s right. Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand’s epiphany occurred after seeing children in Africa digging through garbage dumps in search of recyclable goods to sell. To his credit, his heart was broken by the sight. But then he opines, “I live in a mansion, and these children dig around in a garbage dump. And the same system put both of us there.” Of course, he’s wrong about that. The system that put him in a mansion is based on Western values, capitalism, and free markets. Audiences chose to spend their money enjoying the entertainment that he provides, and it makes him wealthy. The system that put those children into a garbage dump is anything but market based or embracing of Western values. Moreover, selling his house and living in a tent is not going to change their plight.

Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand makes a solid case for decriminalization of drugs, and if he used his celebrity to focus on that one cause, he would probably be quite successful in his goal to “change the world.” He also turned one of his building complexes into a self-sustaining rehab center, which is pretty impressive. Addiction is a topic he knows well, at least according to his own reports. “Prison isn’t working!” he proclaims, and he is right. “As long as it is illegal, they will continue to use dirty needles and back-alley doctors. . . . Drug laws penalize the people at the bottom of the scale.” He did his homework and presented a strong case at the UN meetings in Vienna. I wish he would continue to lead that charge.

Brand should stay with what he does well — unscripted, irreverent comedy — and focus on causes with which he has valid, knowledgeable experience, such as the problems of drug addiction. He is no Messiah, and his knowledge of economics is laughably shallow. But I think he is a good man at heart who sincerely wants to make a difference in the world.

Love and Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad, 119 minutes).This biopic about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, was one of only two narrative films that I caught during the festival. I was expecting to see a feel-good story about a feel-good band from my youth, but I was sadly mistaken. It is a horrifying story that left the audience in absolute silence at the end. It is true that Wilson suffered from mental illness and was away from the music industry for several decades because of it. But this film is so unrelentingly sad that I walked away convinced that I will never be able to enjoy hearing a Beach Boys song again without thinking of the nightmares Wilson experienced while creating them.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era.

Wilson is played by both Paul Dano (1960s) and John Cusack (1990s). The decision to use two actors who don’t look at all alike instead of simply aging Dano through prosthetics seems odd, but it serves to emphasize Wilson’s schizophrenia — not only does he hear voices in his head, but we see two different people inside his skin. Young Wilson is plagued by an abusive father who seems to exacerbate his illness, while the older Wilson is abused by his tyrannical psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who eventually lost his medical license for his mistreatment of Wilson.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era. We see him in the studio, pressuring the musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head, and while it is amazing to watch him at work, it is also devastating to see the agony he experiences while trying to get it right. This is the kind of film that could end up winning numerous awards, while earning very little at the box office. It is just too sad to endure.

I had marked dozens of other films that I wanted to see, but there wasn’t enough time and the films I wanted were often scheduled in conflict with each other. I was also distracted by multiple other features of the festival, including a four-day interactive gaming and creative technology show, live music performed at nearly every corner, and crazy good food that you can only get in Austin, and often only from a truck. It was a great experience, and I will definitely be back.




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To Praise or to Push?

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“No two words are more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job.’” So says Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) when asked why he humiliates and browbeats his students. Fletcher is the menacing, profanity-spewing, name-calling, face-slapping, chair-hurling, off-balancing dictator of the Shaffer School of Music, who also happens to be the most sought-after band coach in the most sought-after music school in New York — which, as everyone knows, is the same as saying in the world.

Fletcher uses tactics more common to a football coach or a drill sergeant than a musician. Members of his elite studio jazz orchestra cower beneath his scrutiny, stammer uncertain responses to such basic questions as “Were you out of tune?” and avert their eyes in terror as he surveys the group. Yet these are among the most skilled young musicians in the world! And not one would willingly yield his spot in the group. They have struggled and practiced all their lives just to be selected by this tyrant.

If someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing?

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a student drummer who has been tapped for the studio band by His Greatness, Sir Fletcher. But to maintain his spot, he must compete every day, every practice, every song, with the drummer he is trying to replace and with the drummer who is trying to replace him. This constant competition drives him to practice until his hands are bloody, his body is dripping with sweat, and he is as utterly exhausted as a marathon runner. And still he doesn’t measure up. The taunting, jeering epithets rain down on him from the pompous coach, daring him to quit, daring him to fight back, daring him to prove that he is the best.

This kind of pressure is typical in sports and elite military training, but if applied in the music world, it causes the viewer to contemplate the balance between encouragement and abuse. How much is too much? If “good job” and “self-esteem” can lead to complacency and mediocrity, won’t constant humiliation lead to discouragement and giving up? Fletcher would say that anyone who gives up never had the talent and the drive in the first place. But if someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing? When is it time to push? When is it time to praise? These are important questions that every parent, teacher, and coach should consider.

Miles Teller certainly pushed himself to greatness for this role. A drummer in high school, he returned to training as he prepared for filming and practiced four hours a day, trained with a professional jazz drummer three days a week, and played until his hands were blistered and bloody (that’s Teller’s blood on the drum and the sticks in the film). His Andrew is timid around his new coach, just as the other band members are, but there is an extra spark in his determination to maintain the drum stool. He will not give up, no matter what. Teller’s scars (he suffered major cuts to his face and body when he was thrown through the window of a car as it crossed three lanes of traffic and then flipped eight times), though never mentioned, become a subtle metaphor for the psychological scars Andrew has suffered at the hands of family members who only value “manly” pursuits such as football and girls.

J.K. Simmons usually plays the gruff but lovable father types — the curmudgeon hiding his heart of gold — so it is terrifying and refreshing to see him in a role that is so completely vile and demonic. Fletcher revels in his power, his control, and his absolute belief in his own rightness. He is the perfect match for Andrew in this contest of wills as they battle for the same goal: to develop Andrew into a musician who will be remembered long after he is dead — the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

As good as these two actors are, the music is the true star of this film. As Andrew takes a solo and builds it to a climax, his body sweating, his hands bleeding, his face “a look of agony” (to quote Dickinson) so focused that nothing can distract him, the performance becomes a sensual experience, almost erotic, and it practically explodes off the screen.

It’s even more impressive that a director so young could draw so much from his main characters.

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle, who filmed it in 19 days of shooting and completed the entire work in just ten weeks. As a film festival director I always caution filmmakers not to rush post-production just to meet a festival deadline, but in this case it worked: Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. It’s also worth noting that when Chazelle couldn’t get funding to make the whole movie, he made a short version, won the Jury Prize for best short narrative at Sundance (2013) and on the strength of that win was able to secure funding to make the full length feature later that summer. Sounds as though Chazelle has a bit of Andrew Nieman’s dedication and persistence himself.

Whiplash is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s even more impressive that someone so young could draw so much from his main characters, one of whom is a relative newcomer and the other is a seasoned pro who might have felt that he had nothing to learn from someone so inexperienced. Instead, Simmons threw himself into this character and could be practicing acceptance speeches in the next couple of months.

“Good job”? Oh, yeah.


Editor's Note: Review of "Whiplash," directed by Damien Chazelle. Bold Films, 2014, 107 minutes.



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Recreating the Unique

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“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Get on Up," directed by Tate Taylor, executive-produced by Mick Jagger. Imagine Entertainment / Jagged Films, 2014, 139 minutes.



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Ain’t That a Shame?

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“You’d be like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much.” Is there a more perfect lyric in the world, one reviewer asks. The lyrics of the Four Seasons expressed all the yearning of unrequited love. I can still remember the party where my adolescent heart was stirred while that song played in my mind. “Can’t take my eyes off of you,” I hummed softly, but his eyes adored someone else. Oh what a night — the music of our youth stays with us and has the power to evoke long-dormant memories and emotions.

That’s one reason that Jersey Boys (like Mamma Mia) has had such a long and successful run on Broadway, playing to people who often sing along (to the annoyance of the person in the next seat). The Four Seasons were the “other” ’60s sound — not rock and roll and not Motown but simple, true lyrics sung in clear, clean harmonies with that strong countertenor of Frankie Valli set in just the right key for female teenyboppers. I learned how to sing harmony with the Four Seasons. They were a sound you could play in front of your parents.

Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally.

Their personal lives were another story, however — normalized at the time but recently placed in another light by the Broadway musical and now the film. As represented by the movie, the boys from Jersey — Tommy, Nicky, Joe, and Frankie (Bob was from a nicer background) — were little more than hoodlums, knocking over delivery trucks and breaking into jewelry stores when they were supposed to be in the library. They knew the beat cops by name, and for some of them the local detention facility was like a revolving door, as the characters gleefully admit in the film. Of course, this is the way it’s remembered by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, executive producers of the film; Tommy, Nicky, and Joey might remember it quite differently.

“There were three ways out of the neighborhood,” Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) tells the audience. “Join the army, join the mob, or become famous.” The first two could get you killed, so singing was the ticket out. Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally. Their photos are set in a double frame and stand like a shrine of hope on the living room shelf of Frankie’s childhood home.

The first half of the film focuses on the boys’ backgrounds and their slow rise to fame through seedy nightclubs and bowling alley bars. Waiting over an hour for the first familiar song to appear in this film heightens the drama at its unveiling. I was tapping my foot impatiently. But when it finally arrives it reminds us of how sublime their harmonies were, and how simple their lyrics: “She-e-e-rry, Sherry baby, She-e-erry, Sherry baby. She-eh-eh-eh-eh-erry baby. Sherry baby. Sherry, won’t you come out tonight?” Sheesh! How did that ever make it to the radio? Yet it topped the charts and was followed by hit after hit that told our stories in song.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage.

The lyrics of the songs tell the story in the film too, although it all works better in the stage musical, where the production numbers are showcased. Instead of using the lyrics to carry the story forward as most musicals do, Eastwood inserts them almost like a sidebar to the story he prefers to tell. In the film the songs often play in the background, and often while the characters are speaking, so the effect is lessened.

The huge theater where I saw the movie held exactly four viewers at the 7:15 show on opening night. Four Fans for the Four Seasons. Sigh. With the popularity of the Broadway musical (and Clint Eastwood as the producer and director) the film had a disappointing turnout for its opening day. But there’s the rub: Clint Eastwood. Who would have thought this talented octogenarian director known for his spare direction and raw drama would turn to the Broadway musical genre this late in his career? Oh wait — he already did, and it was a disaster. Eastwood starred as the singing prospector who shares a wife (Jean Seberg) with his partner (Lee Marvin, who has purchased her from a polygamous Mormon) in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), a movie based very loosely on the 1951 play that ran for only 289 performances. Eastwood was ridiculous in that film, and he brings no genuine experience to the filming of this musical. He also uses actors with no genuine experience on screen, intensifying the problem.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage. With only one familiar face — Christopher Walken as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, who acts as a kindly godfather to the Jersey boys — there is no name other than Eastwood’s to attract film audiences. The four who play the Seasons are actually pretty good, (Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, Erich Bergen as composer Bob Gaudio, and Tony-award-winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli), but they aren’t, well, they aren’t seasoned. Renee Marino, who plays Frankie’s wife Mary onstage and in the film, is simply annoying with her exaggerated movements and wild outbursts of emotion. I actually went home and looked up her background, expecting to learn that she is Eastwood’s newest girlfriend, but she isn’t. (Remember those godawful movies from the ’70s and ’80s when Sondra Locke was his main squeeze? They were every which way but right.) The most interesting actor is Joseph Russo, also a newcomer, and only because he plays Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci. He’s credited in the movie with bringing Bob Gaudio into the group, back when Pesci was just another kid from New Jersey. Eventually Tommy DeVito went to work with Pesci, and Pesci took Tommy’s name for his character in Goodfellas.

The problem is that acting for the screen is quite different from acting for a live audience. A movie screen is 70 feet wide, making the actor much larger than life. The flick of an eyebrow or twitch of a finger can relay emotion and communicate thoughts. Stage actors, on the other hand, must play to the balcony. Their actions are broad, even in tender moments. When Mary leans across a diner table with her butt in the air and her lips pouting forward as a come-on to the inexperienced Frankie, it works for the stage but is comical and unrealistic for the screen. And Eastwood should know, because he is the master of unspoken communication. In interviews Marino gushes about how relaxed and easy-going Eastwood was on set, but she needed direction. Desperately. “I need you, baby, to warm the lonely nights” can be said without words and bring tears to the eyes. Keep it simple, and keep it real. As Frankie says to Bob Gaudio about the arrangement of a new song, “If you goose it up too much it gets cheesy.”

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore

Overall Jersey Boys is a good film that provides interesting background about the music industry. Touring and recording isn’t all glitz and glamour; it’s mostly packing and repacking, eating in diners, staying in nondescript hotel rooms where you aren’t sure which direction is the bathroom in the middle of the night, missing family events, and in the end getting screwed over by unscrupulous money managers. It’s tough. But the film doesn’t give us much perspective about the Four Seasons and the time period in which they wrote. They were the clean-cut lounge singers who made hit after hit side by side with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. They held their own during the tumultuous ’60s, just singing about love: “Who loves you? Who loves you pretty baby?” They paved the way for a whole new sound in the ’70s when they added a brass orchestra.

Despite the hardships of the touring life, that wonderful music makes it all worthwhile. When asked to describe the best part of being the Four Seasons, Frankie responds simply, “When it was just us four guys singing under a street light.” Anyone who sings knows that feeling. It’s the joy of making music together.

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore at the end of the Broadway musical. Wisely Eastwood used the recordings of the original Four Seasons for the closing credits instead of the voices of the actors who play them in the movie. The difference is profound. Valli had such a glorious bell-like quality to his falsetto, while Young’s is simply false. He tries hard, but the effort shows. In the first hour of the film, when people react to his voice as he is “discovered,” it’s almost puzzling. What’s so great about this nasally voice with the slight rasp that makes you want to clear your throat? In the closing minutes of this film, listening to the original Four Seasons, it all makes sense.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jersey Boys," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 134 foot-tapping minutes.



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Oscar Shrugs

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Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.

This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.

Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.

Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.

Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.

Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)

This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"That's everything?"
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."

But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.

In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.

Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.

A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.


Editor's Note: Review of "Inside Llewyn Davis," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2013, 109 minutes.



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Two Years

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Today the three women belonging to the band Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” a charge that resulted from a brief protest they staged in a Moscow cathedral last winter. They were sentenced to two years in prison.

The women, who have been held by the authorities since their arrest last March, will now disappear into the bowels of the Russian prison system. A few hundred Russians held a protest outside the courtroom. The crowd, which included former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, was quickly broken up by police, and Kasparov was arrested. As this is written, there are unconfirmed reports of beatings.

According to a New York Times dispatch from Moscow, defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said the following in her closing statement:

To my deepest regret, this mock trial is close to the standards of the Stalinist troikas. . . . Who is to blame for the performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and for our being put on trial after the concert? The authoritarian political system is to blame. What Pussy Riot does is oppositionist art or politics. . . . In any event, it is a form of civil action in circumstances where basic human rights, civil and political freedoms are suppressed.

Two years. A severe blow to liberty was struck in Moscow today.




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Free the Grrrls!

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Liberalism, in its better sense, hardly exists in Russia. Male chauvinism, gay-bashing, and other aspects of cultural reaction are rampant throughout contemporary Russian culture. Tolerance for edgy and avant-garde cultural expression has improved only slightly since the days of Communist rule. A prime example is the response to the antics of the Russian grrrl band Pussy Riot. Last February 21, three members of the band — Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — entered the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and gyrated before the altar for about 40 seconds. The women were taken into custody and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” for which Russian law provides a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The verdict in the case will be announced tomorrow.

That Russia’s thug-president Vladimir Putin and the Russian patriarch Kirill I have led the way in condemning Pussy Riot should surprise no one. What is somewhat surprising is the lack of sympathy for the women in Russian society generally, including among so-called liberals. The three women maintained a stoic front during their trial, which has only exacerbated the hostility toward them expressed by many Russians. That women should act up and then refuse to show remorse or beg for mercy clearly touches a nerve in a society still dominated by hypermasculine posing. It has been left to the so-called international community to take up the cause of Pussy Riot. A broad mix of prominent organizations and people — including Amnesty International, German parliamentarians, and Madonna — has helped put Pussy Riot’s plight on the world’s front pages.

The international uproar has had some effect. President Putin stated recently that the women’s punishment should not be too harsh. Apparently a not guilty verdict was never a possibility. As for the punishment, we shall know tomorrow how severe (or not) it will be.

The women of Pussy Riot are not especially talented. Compared to PJ Harvey or even Bikini Kill, they are rank amateurs. And they probably exercised poor judgment by making a scene in the cathedral. But in a normal, civilized, liberal (in the best sense) society, they would face trespassing charges and a small fine. In Russia they face the prospect of several years’ imprisonment for what amounts to a harmless prank.

The Russians are a great people with a tragic history. And in general I believe that the internal affairs of other nations are none of my business. But the Pussy Riot show trial is a blatant affront to artistic expression and individual freedom. Libertarians should join the Pussy Riot Global Day protests that will be held tomorrow, August 17.




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