INSIDE THE MIND OF LEONARDO (2014)

December 17, 2014

inside the mind of leonardo Greetings again from the darkness. Whenever you start to feel confident – even a little cocky – about how good you are at your job, stop for a moment and consider Leonardo da Vinci. How is this for a dose of humility? Even today, Leonardo is still considered one of the foremost painters, sculptors, inventors, engineers and mathematicians. This despite no formal education … and dying almost 500 years ago! It makes you wonder what he could have accomplished with computers and the internet.

History Films and director Julian Jones were provided access to Leonardo’s private notebooks, drawings and journals … more than 6000 pages that range from shopping lists, to mechanical inventions, to nature drawings. This Docu-Drama is presented in the unique manner of casting actor Peter Capaldi (“Dr Who”) as the interpreter of Leonardo’s words and works. He facilitates the movements between Leonardo’s childhood (as an illegitimate kid) in Tuscany, his move to Florence at age 16, his nearly two decades in Milan, and subsequent return to Tuscany where he spent 15 years painting a merchant’s wife … a painting now known as the “Mona Lisa”.

Playing very much like an educational tool designed for junior high and high school students, the film is also is an engaging way to present some insight into history’s single most observant and curious deep thinker. We see and hear Leonardo’s thoughts on war strategy and weapons, the geometrics of the human face, tips on fitness (“eat only when hungry”) and of course, his obsessions with human flight and anatomy. Beyond that, the journals offer a taste of his sense of humor and thoughts on sexual desire. It’s clear his thoughts bounced from topic to topic, and his sense of wonder created a never ending flow of ideas. While we often term it observation and analysis, Leonardo’s words are translated into experiencing something and then seeking out the cause. Newly filmed images are blended with Leonardo’s own drawings to keep the viewer on track.

Vitruvian Man is one of the more iconic images seen throughout society, and Leonardo’s painting “The Last Supper” has been copied and reproduced frequently. Although he died in France at age 67 having finished only 21 paintings, and having most of his inventions survive in theory only, the breadth of his knowledge and writings explain why the phrase “Renaissance Man” was coined to describe Leonardo (as well as Michelangelo). The film offers an entertaining and engaging introduction to Leonardo da Vinci, and today’s “thinkers” will undoubtedly be inspired to learn more.

watch the trailer:

 


WILD (2014)

December 14, 2014

 

Wild Greetings again from the darkness. The best movies expertly provide a visual representation of quality writing. However, the film medium is somewhat limited, and especially struggles, in displaying the complexities of human introspection … something the best writers are able to capture with words on a page. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (An Education, High Fidelity) are simply unable to capture the guts of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” – despite the likely Oscar nominated performance of Reese Witherspoon.

It’s quite likely, given the steady stream of rave reviews, that my lack of connection with the film is firmly planted in a small minority of movie goers and film critics. On the bright side, it’s a real pleasure to see Reese Witherspoon follow-up her no frills supporting role in Mud with a strong portrayal of uber-flawed Cheryl.

The story picks up with Cheryl getting ready for her 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995. Her lack of trail experience is obvious from the unwrapped, shiny new contents of her “monster” backpack. While walking alone with her thoughts, memories are triggered by such things as a song, a horse, and even a phrase. It’s through these flashbacks that we learn the reasons for Cheryl’s trek towards self-discovery. The illness and death of her beloved mother, a childhood marred by an abusive father, her own crumbled marriage brought on by her promiscuity (“I cheated on him a lot”), and her attempts to dull the pain through heroin abuse, have led Cheryl to the trail head of re-discovering her true self.

Cheryl’s mother is played by Laura Dern (a terrific performance) and while her inspiration is obvious, there is one especially poignant scene that takes place in the kitchen … Bobbi tells Cheryl that she fully understands their plight, and refuses to let that define her life. That powerful scene is negated by the awkward and unexplained relationship Cheryl has with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), the underdeveloped best friend support shown from an intriguing Gaby Hoffmann, and the voice mail connection with her brother (Keene McRae). More of these key people and fewer flashbacks might have allowed us to better relate to Cheryl as a person, rather than someone who hasn’t dealt well with a few life obstacles.

The familiar guitar strumming of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” is heard throughout, as are numerous literary quotes that Cheryl used to leave her mark in the trail journals. There are, of course, similarities here to other films such as Into The Wild, 127 Hours, and Eat Pray Love. Also present is the element of a solitary woman in the wilderness … every male presence is greeted with anxiety from Cheryl, especially in contrast to the warm greeting she offers another female hiker.

The biggest missing link for me was Cheryl’s apparent epiphany. We witness a couple of emotional breakdowns along the trail, plus big time blisters, damaged toenails, rain and snow, and nature’s beauty. What’s not explained is her personal growth and self-discovery – the moment when Cheryl put the past behind and went “above her nerve”.  While her desire and efforts are commendable, the real story would be her inner thoughts … those conversations going on inside her brain (and in the book) that led to a conclusion of which we aren’t privy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a likely Oscar performance from Reese Witherspoon (including frequent use of the F word)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a damaged toenail makes you nauseous

watch the trailer:

 


THE BAREFOOT ARTIST (2014, doc)

December 14, 2014

barefoot artist Greetings again from the darkness. Those who strive to make the world a better place deserve their moment in the spotlight. Lily Yeh is an artist with whom you may be familiar if you’ve ever stumbled upon the Village of Arts and Humanities in northern Philadelphia. Perhaps you have seen her beautification projects in other parts of the globe – Rwanda, Kenya, Taiwan, Mexico or numerous other areas that once desperately needed a facelift.

Ms. Yeh is a spry 70 year old who was born in China and college educated in the United States. Her father was a general in the Chiang Kai-shek army, and was a natural leader and brilliant war strategist. Because of this, she was raised in prestige and with respect. Much of her early motivation came from her father’s inspiration and she clearly worshipped him. It wasn’t until Lily had her (beautifully detailed) landscape paintings ignored by the public in favor of the pop art of the 60’s did she come to realize that true art must come from within. And thus began her journey of self-discovery.

The film is co-directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub. Mr. Traub is Lily’s son from a failed marriage, and as with many documentaries, his closeness to the subject is both a blessing and a curse. The film is a bit awkwardly divided into two segments. By far the more interesting is the story of Lily’s global work in bringing “art to places lacking in beauty”. One of her projects is a memorial for a mass grave in a Rwandan Genocide Survivor’s Village. Her efforts turn a shabby lean-to into a beautiful setting for reflection and peace.

The other story line plays as more of a home movie than a documentary. We follow Lily as she chases her father’s history through his journal entries. His writings take her back to her birth country of China as she uncovers a family secret that leads to more surprises. It’s understandable why co-director Traub sees the value in documenting this, but it doesn’t really play for the rest of us.

Lily Yeh is a fascinating woman who has made a real difference in many part of the world. She states “beauty is intimately engaged with darkness” and follows through on her vision. When the movie concentrates on Lily’s philosophy and wisdom, we get gems like “broken places are my canvas”. Her personal journey of self-discovery is where her value lies. She confesses that she “was the one who needed help” and “was missing something”. Bringing art and beauty to those places and people lacking, is what allowed Lily to find her own center. And that’s a beautiful thing.

watch the trailer:

 

 


EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

December 12, 2014

Exodus Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE COLOR OF TIME (2013)

December 11, 2014

 

color of time Greetings again from the darkness. It’s either a most unusual biopic on Pulitzer Prize winning poet CK Williams, an example of how director Terrence Malick has influenced the next wave of filmmakers, or a self-congratulatory exercise disguised as a class project. Regardless of your final take, most cinephiles will muster at least a modicum of interest in a film with 11 directors and 12 writers … each NYU film students during James Franco’s time on campus as an adjunct professor.

We see the life of CK Williams through the flashbacks and memories of James Franco (as an adult Williams prepping for a reading of “Tar”). Williams as a child, as an adolescent, and as a college student (played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) offer a glimpse into the girls and events that helped shape his poetry. The sequence of Williams as a child is so similar to Malick’s Tree of Life, that we viewers experience our own flashbacks … right down to Jessica Chastain recreating her scenes from that movie (this time as Williams’ mother).

Mila Kunis plays Catherine, Williams’ second and current wife, and it’s clear – in a modern expressionist kind of way – that they are very happy together. There are a couple of disjointed sequences that come across as created simply to provide an outlet for Zach Braff and Bruce Campbell. However, when dealing with poetry, rules don’t apply … at least that seems to be what this group of young filmmakers would have us believe. The washed out colors, fuzzy focus, shots of nature, and muted emotions dotted with monotone dialogue are all elements of artsy films. Whether these are the foundations of artsy films is a separate topic. Interspersed throughout are a couple of clips of CK Williams with his own readings.

Experimental filmmaking is always a risk and should not be discouraged. It’s given us every advance in the medium for a century. It is a bit worrisome, however, when experimental film appears so similar to the work of a current master. Let’s hope that’s just the first step in the process of developing filmmakers. This one also acts as a reminder that turning poetry into actual images often defeats the purpose of the written words.

watch the trailer:

 


A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL (Theater review, 2014)

December 9, 2014

** Theater review – this site is normally reserved for movies, but since the touring stage musical of one of my favorite movies is playing in Dallas, it seems like a good fit.

a christmas story musical Bob Clark’s 1983 film based on Jean Shepherd’s novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” has become a precious Christmas tradition not just for my family, but also countless others. The Broadway musical received three Tony nominations in 2013 (including Best Musical) and when the touring production was announced as part of the Dallas Summer Musicals 75th season lineup, it was certain to become one of its most popular.

What a joy to watch the pre-show sea of smiling ticketholders jostling to have their picture taken with a glass case display in the theatre lobby. The featured attraction was one of three original “leg lamps” used in the movie … direct from the private collection of Dallas Summer Musicals President and Managing Director Michael Jenkins. This set the mood for a most delightful presentation of a familiar story presented in a manner most of us had not previously experienced.

A film-to-stage adaptation is made more challenging when transitioned into a musical format. The music and lyrics were written for Broadway by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and the songs bring a nice, upbeat touch without disturbing the flow of the story. Chris Carsten plays the Jean Shepherd role, and instead of an unseen movie narrator, he is an active stage participant intertwined through many scenes. With a voice more reminiscent of Brian Doyle Murray than Jean Shepherd, it takes awhile for us to adjust, but Carsten’s animated descriptions are a real asset to the production.

Of course we all know what really matters … Ralphie Parker and the outrageous situations he and his family find themselves. For this show, Ralphie was played by Evan Gray (rotating shows with Coulten Maurer), and his slightly clumsy movements were effective for the comedy moments, and his singing voice was sufficient and consistent throughout the show. Christopher Swan as The Old Man sounded remarkably similar to Darren McGavin at times, while Cal Alexander was spot on as little Randy, especially when screaming “I can’t get up!” in a very popular scene. Susannah Jones was a real standout as The Mother, and her beautiful and soothing singing voice perfectly complemented the sweet demeanor necessary for the role.

The musical numbers benefited from a very talented group of youngsters, and the fact that the songs helped push along the story. The “A Major Award” song and dance sequence seemed to last a couple minutes longer than necessary, and that was probably because it was missing kids through most of it. Miss Shields (played wonderfully by Avital Asuleen) had an explosive and slightly seductive dance that was a bit uncomfortable to watch given the close proximity of the kids, but it was quickly forgiven as the “On Santa’s Lap” portion was colorful and lively and hilarious.

Somehow, most of the iconic moments were captured on stage: the pink bunny pj’s, the triple dog dare on the playground, Higbee’s display window, the furnace battle, Scut Farkus, and of course the leg lamp/major award. The Chinese restaurant scene is a bit awkward these days and probably should be re-written to avoid the racist tone, but we were treated to live bloodhounds romping across the stage as the Bumpus pups, and the presence of the Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model with a compass in the stock kept Ralphie’s dream alive.

Matt Lenz takes over the direction from Broadway’s John Rando, and Jordan Sparks handles Warren Carlyle’s crisp choreography. The orchestra performed well throughout, and a couple of the kids were exceptional in their tap solos. At the core of the story, and what allows so many to connect, is the nostalgia associated with simpler times and life as a kid combined with the heartfelt emotions that go with being a parent. It seems we all dream of a major award, but what we really want is for our family to be happy … and that’s true whether on a movie screen or through singing on a theatrical stage. HO-HO-HO!!

If you want more information on Dallas Summer Musicals, visit: http://www.dallassummermusicals.org/

 


THE BABADOOK (2014)

December 7, 2014

babadook Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing more frightening than the thoughts that occur within the recesses of our own mind. And therein lies the problem with so many “horror” movies. We may squirm and cover our eyes while watching the latest slasher film, but to stick with us as real horror, a film must tap into those internal, psychological fears that we each carry. This first feature film from writer/director Jennifer Kent does that so effectively that I am hesitant to write much more than … go see this one (but of course, I will).

Ms. Kent has fully developed her award winning short film Monster from 2005. With a limited budget of around $2 million, she has figured out a way to utilize many horror staples: a misfit child, the family dog, an old house with creaky floors and doors, a musty basement, old reliables like under the bed and in the closet, open windows, and the always effective knocks on the door. Combine these touches with an incredibly creepy and dramatically graphically illustrated children’s book, and terrific characters in the mom and her young son, and all the elements are in place for a suspenseful and terrifying film that is a throwback to the good old days.

It’s easy to spot the influences of such classics as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but Ms. Kent has her own style with the camera and expertly creates an atmosphere of widely disparate mood swings grounded in believable characters. Essie Davis (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) delivers an extraordinary performance as Amelia, whose husband died en route to the hospital as she gave birth to their son. Noah Wiseman plays Samuel, the now 7 year old boy who has behavioral issues, fears the monster under his bed, and recognizes the resentment his mom feels towards him as a constant reminder of the death that occurred on the day of his birth. Wiseman looks like a cross between Elijah Wood in Witness and Danny in The Shining … only he is much more energetic and animated than either of those characters.

The suspense builds as Amelia’s lack of sleep progressively wears her down, as her job and parenting responsibilities rob her of any down time or relaxation. She can’t even get through a solo release in bed without her frightened son barging in for security. The dynamic between mother, son and dead husband/father elevate this to a level of psychological thrills that we don’t often get on screen. There are so many superb moments to “enjoy”. The amount of blood present is minimal, especially in comparison to modern day slashers. It’s much more about how grief and stress can affect us in sinister ways. In addition to the influences already listed, there is also a tip of the cap to pioneer Georges Mêlies and his use of magic in the early days of film. Babadook may be an anagram for “a bad book”, but it’s also now synonymous with a really good horror movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a true horror film fanatic

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you already sleep with the lights on

watch the trailer:

 


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