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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Seymour: An Introduction – A Film Review


            Last night, I attended an advance screening of Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about pianist Seymour Bernstein, directed by actor Ethan Hawke. The film is a loving tribute to the emotional power of music, and to a charming and talented man who has dedicated his life to performing and teaching classical piano.

            Bernstein is 88 years old, and has lived in the same New York City apartment for 57 years. His home is modest, yet full of small trinkets and character, like a ceramic Chihuahua by a lamp or cooking pans hanging on the kitchen wall. Bernstein is confidant and funny, a short plump man with a kind face. He teaches advanced students out of his home, and helps them through pushing them in a positive way. He may tease them by saying they played a piece better than he did, or coach them by telling them to not rush ahead of the music and play with emotion and breath.

           Hawke had met Bernstein at a dinner party, and Bernstein had put him at ease while they discussed their anxiety as performers. Bernstein spoke about how he had stopped playing publically in his fifties, because the act of pretending not to have anxiety perpetuated a feeling of going insane. He was tired of stage fright, he was having musical blocks, and it was causing him to have memory slips while performing. He hadn’t performed in 35 years, but through his friendship and mentoring of Hawke, he performs at a private gathering that is a joy to watch.

            The film discusses the ideas of artistic geniuses, and why many noted artistic geniuses are awful people in their personal life, or are “monsters.” Hawke brought up Marlon Brando as a theater example, while Bernstein spoke of Glenn Gould as a neurotic, eccentric mess who was a piano genius.  They spoke of how the interpreter of an artist’s work gets the major credit for a performance, not the artistic work. So that audiences would come away thinking,” Wasn’t Glenn Gould great?” instead of “Wasn’t Chopin great?” Bernstein spoke of the interpreter as self-indulgent, as “in service of something higher than themselves.” It was a fascinating way to look at an interpreter of an artist’s work, and how a incredible performer can get the credit, with the artist’s contributions undermined.

His kindness and patience puts students at ease, and there is a sense of calm while watching the film, a slow, relaxed feeling of listening to beautiful piano music. There are many beautiful and touching quotes throughout the film from Bernstein. On the emotional power of music: “Music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.” On music and its relation to religious worship: “Music is intangible, yet it has penetrating effects . . . most people don’t tap that resource of the God within.” And on the unique interpretations of music: “Every piano is like a person. They are built the same way, but they never come out the same.” Bernstein carries a sense of peace and tranquility with him that is enviable, but admirable at the same time.

The screening, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed with a Q&A with Bernstein and Hawke. Hawke opened up a lot about his own anxieties as an actor, and having self-doubt and disillusionment despite his success over nearly thirty years as an actor (and coming off of a recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Boyhood). He spoke of not having felt anxious as an actor until he was reaching middle-age, and not knowing how to handle his nerves. Bernstein gave helpful advice. “Accept nerves as a natural component of what you’re about to do.” Anxiety is normal for a person, and it fuels them to do better. When they aren’t feeling nervous is when a performer should worry, because they have become complacent.  “Our talents are autonomous,” said Bernstein.  “To persevere in spite of doubts gives us a sense of self worth.” That is good advice for anybody striving for success, not just for performers dealing with anxiety.

Hawke made a good point about making a film about an elderly man in a culture that is obsessed with youth. That has become much more prevalent, with people over age 35 being seen as “so old,” and social media that mocks older people for not knowing current technology or not being as popular as the current youth. By contrast, Bernstein’s simplicity and acceptance of himself is refreshing, and much more thoughtful and interesting to listen to than a much younger person who puts all of their self-absorbed thoughts on social media every few hours. Hawke may have made this film in part of dealing with his own middle-age (he makes reference to having anxiety and changes upon turning 40, and not always understanding his teenage children’s lingo and text-speak), but it is a selfless gesture that he made in directing this documentary about a fascinating and wonderful man. Seymour Bernstein concluded the Q&A with this insightful statement: “when we are searching for our identity, our identity is in whatever talent you possess . . .the person and the artist become one and the same.” His talent and class was a true joy to behold for that evening.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Highlights of European Version of Leon/The Professional

The European version has more scenes of Leon and Matilda going out on their hit jobs, and it's more darkly funny, as well as developing their relationship more closely beyond the scenes in his apartment or the hotel room. The scene where they go on their first job together and he's coaching her as the target looks confused as hell was funny. I could see why Portman's parents had requested some scenes to be cut, as there are moments where Matilda is flirting with Leon and trying to kiss him and he backs off. There is a good scene in a restaurant where they go out to celebrate a successful hit and she's getting drunk on champagne and alternating between acting like a giggly little kid and trying to act like what she thinks a grown, mature lover would be like, which comes off as uncomfortable as you'd think.

It is weird to write about it without it sounding gross, but in context, it made sense. I also really liked a scene that goes into Leon's backstory with an old girlfriend of his from his youth, explaining part of his reason why he is resistant to love and keeps to himself a lot with few friends. It's a great movie, but these extra scenes made it even better for me.

Selma - A Film Review

I saw Selma last month. It was very good. It was very sad, obviously, but the scenes of activists pushing to have voting rights for black citizens of Selma were powerful and heavy to watch. I thought the film portrayed King in a very fair and humanistic way, showing him as a real man and not as an untouchable saint. David Oyelowo was incredible in this. I also really liked the actors who played his fellow activists (even Common, who I didn't think could act before), Carmen Ejogo's stirring performance as Coretta Scott King, and Tim Roth was very good as George Wallace. Oprah Winfrey was also very good in her small but pivotal role, and I was happy to read that her character was based on a real person who fought back against bigotry and lived to be 100 years old.
Afterwards, I looked up some of the civil rights activists who were portrayed in the film, and appreciated the film's rich attention to detail, despite it's controversies over the portrayal of LBJ. I knew about the Selma march, the Birmingham Church bombing, and one of the white activists who died, but didn't know the inner story or more history about the civil rights activists who aren't household names. So this film was very educational to watch.
It is a shame it didn't win Best Picture. I liked Birdman, but didn't think it was the best movie of the year. And it is a shame that it wasn't nominated in the directing and a ting categories. I am happy to see that Ava DuVernay, who had been a big success at Sundance and in the indie world, got people like Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, amidst others, to produce her film and make it seen nationwide, that is awesome for an indie film director. The film will probably be shown in schools for years to come, and that is a very good way to further educate youth on the civil rights movement.

Raves About Christopher Walken in The Prophecy movies

Christopher Walken as Gabriel in The Prophecy and its sequel does some of his best work ever. I know these movies got mixed to bad reviews, but I really like the urban fantasy story of angels warring with each other and humans getting caught in the crossfire. Walken is just great as Gabriel, a dark angel wreaking havoc on earth. Even when he has his trademark Walkenisms (awkward pauses, stuttering, random high voice inflection on words), he still brings menace and intimidation to the role, and makes him both evil and sympathetic at the same time. I think the first two movies are awesome, due to Walken's performance, the dark fantasy elements, and the solid casts.

The Prophecy movies, as they progressed, went from having a talented cast (the first movie had Elias Koteas, Viggo Mortensen, Eric Stoltz, and Virginia Madsen) to a marginally talented cast (the last movie had Kari Wuhrer, Jason London, and Jason Scott Lee). The second movie had Russell Wong, Jennifer Beals, and Brittany Murphy in it, and while they were more b-level, I still thought they were all good in it. I even appreciated how the heroes were racially diverse (Beals' character is Hispanic; Wong's character is an angel, but played by an actor of white European and Chinese descent). Walken just delivered a great performance in these movies, even if they were seen as low-rent dark thrillers about angels warring with each other. He is fantastic.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Explorers - A Film Review

Explorers is a 1985 science fiction adventure movie for children. It was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins,The HowlingInnerspace), written by Eric Luke (who wrote several episodes of Tales From the Crypt), and starred River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, and Jason Presson. The story is about three adolescent boys who are fascinated by science (both real science and science-fiction), and they build a spacecraft together and fly it into space. The film has a magical quality about it, a tribute to a childhood where children can explore off on their own, use their imagination, and have amazing adventures.

Wolfgang (River Phoenix) and Ben (Ethan Hawke) are nerdy best friends who love science and science-fiction (especially pulp comics and low-budget movies from the 1950s),and are fascinated by space travel. They get picked on by school bullies, but it doesn't deter them from following their passions. They meet a fellow kid, Darren, (Jason Presson), who is a little rough around the edges and thinks their science passions are weird, but finds kinship with them as fellow outsiders.

The film showing the home lives of the boys is an example of how some 1980s children’s films attempted to make their characters more realistic by showing their family’s lives being messy and unconventional. While Ben comes from an average suburban nuclear family, Wolfgang’s parents are German immigrants who are quirky and nice (played adorably by James Cromwell and Dana Ivey), and have a messy house with young kids making noise and stuff strewn all over. The home looks lived-in, like a real family’s house. Wolfgang has his own science lab in the basement.  He makes “voice sensors” for his lab rat,which allows it to speak English by hitting certain pedals. The rat even says, “Go to hell,” at one point. The rat is named Heinlein, after the science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote many stories about young boys experimenting with space flight.

By contrast, Darren comes from a trouble single-parent household, whose dad is unemployed and ill-tempered (“What does he do?” “He hauls junk.”) Various kid movies in the 1980s would show kids with the following home lives: single-parent households (E.T),living on the poverty line or losing their home (The Goonies), arguing parents on the brink of divorce (The Monster Squad), unemployed parents, etc. It feels more like a real kid’s life, especially for kids who didn't grow up in “perfect” households.

Ben is having dreams when he receives messages from mysterious beings from outer space, giving him the diagrams for circuit systems to build a flying spacecraft. The dreams look inspired by Tron’s inner computer world, with grids and wires. He tells Wolfgang about it, who is the budding scientist of the group (while Ben wants to be an astronaut), and they and Darren develop their project. They create the circuit boards; have the same dream one night where they all receive the alien messages; create a bubble that can move at incredible speeds with no effects from inertia, hence using it to power their spacecraft, and put their spacecraft into effect, naming it Thunder Road, after the Bruce Springsteen song.

The flying machine is successful, soaring through the night sky, and it is a magical scene, of making the impossible dream a reality. The boys soar past a drive-in theater playing a pulp sci-fi movie; past Ben’s romantic love interest, a girl who he is unaware likes him back; and over a diner and scaring their bullies. Even when it mistaken fora UFO by the US government, it doesn't deter the boys from trying again to reach their mysterious friends and go further in their adventure. The scene even includes a sly reference to Dante’s previous film, Gremlins, with a newspaper headline as “Kingston Falls ‘Riot’ Still Unexplained.”

Dick Miller has often appeared in Joe Dante’s films, and has this kind presence to him that  him immediately likable. It’s his well-worn, raspy voice and crinkly face that makes him very familiar in a warm way. He plays a US government helicopter pilot who spotted the spacecraft and boys, and had mistaken them for aliens in a UFO (their oxygen masks looked like alien faces to him). He is determined to prove this UFO existence, as he says he had seen a UFO as a boy. He’s not a villain, however. When he meets Ben and realizes he’s the “spaceman,” he initially has his instinct is to go after him, but when he sees the boys take off in their spacecraft, he says with pride, “Nice going, kid.”

The boys’ spacecraft,when it breaks through orbit, is then powered by their alien friends and sent at warp speed to their vessel. What they find there is completely unexpected, and the third act is a letdown after so much build-up and excitement as the boys built their spacecraft and planned their journey. It’s not so terrible, but it seems very out of place with the film’s childlike yet serious tone.

Joe Dante is obviously paying tribute to his own 1950s childhood love of science and pulpy science-fiction books and movies, and he does it in a way that feels genuine to 1980s children who are interested in science and old movies. Phoenix and Hawke were both excellent at capturing the innocent joy and intellectual wonder of their characters, and Presson was excellent at playing a cynical and tough kid who was happy to have real friends he could trust.

There was controversy with the film’s production, as the studio changed hands and wanted the film much out earlier than Dante expected. Dante wasn't finished with the rough cut, but the studio wanted to rush it out anyway and took it over from him, not allowing him to add in footage he had on the cutting room floor. They ended up releasing it on the same weekend as the Live Aid concert aired on TV, and the film was barely noticed and bombed in the box office. It earned $9.8 million on a $25 million budget. Dante has said that while he appreciates the cult love for the film from audiences, he can’t look at it because it isn't the film he wanted to make. It is an unfinished product that was released without his permission. It still is a wonderful film, but if there is extra footage on the DVD of unreleased scenes, that would be a treat to see, to see more of Dante’s creative vision.

Explorers is a wonderful film that encourages children to be creative, to take an interest in the sciences, and to use their imagination and intelligence to push further in whatever passions they have. It is a special film, and even if it wasn't a major success at the time of its release, it is still a magical gem of a film to many people, and that is what counts.

Knights of Badassdom - A Film Review

Knights of Badassdom is a comedy that was made in 2010, but not officially released until 2013, due to production issues and difficulty finding a distributor. It is about a group of LARPers (live-action role-players) who accidentally resurrect a succubus during a game (they recite from an ancient spell book as part of their role-playing, thinking it was a prop book that they bought off the Internet), and the succubus is killing people while a game is going on. It is up to the gang to defeat the succubus, and believe in themselves as real heroes.

It stars Steve Zahn, Peter Dinklage, Jimmi Simpson (a McPoyle from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Summer Glau, and Ryan Kwanten. I really liked it. It is silly and fun, with a good cast and good action and comedy, and done with passion for the LARPing community. It looks very cheaply-made, with cheesy special-effects, and looks as if the movie was made in just a couple of weeks, done with a small cast and filming nearly everything in a woods location. It is worth checking out on Netflix.

Mercenaries - A Film Review

I watched Mercenaries, this Asylum ripoff of The Expendables with female action stars. Zoe Bell, Kristanna Loken, Vivica A. Fox, and Nicole Bilderback played convicts hired by a government boss (Cynthia Rothrock) to be a team to save the President's daughter from the villain (Brigitte Nielsen), who wanted ransom money to get and sell weapons. It was cheap, with bad dialogue, wooden acting, and had choppy fight scenes, but was fun to watch as an action B-movie. Zoe Bell still stood out as the hero and can carry a movie, while Loken is just pretty but blank, Bilderback was just okay (too many Asian jokes in the script), and Vivica A. Fox looks rough and out of shape. Rothrock only appears in the beginning and end, and Nielsen just hammed it up. So it was fine to watch, just a cheap Expendables knockoff.