It’s probably been two years since I’ve heard a single as catchy as the new song by Broncho, “Class Historian.” The last song that was as infectious must have been “How Do I Know” by Here We Go Magic. I relegated that to a simple Facebook post. But this single from Broncho, which has been making the interweb rounds for about a month now, deserves a special examination. It shows a fantastic growth by the Norman, Oklahoma garage band, and it plays with hooks in that smartly crafted, teasing manner that will have many hitting the repeat button.

There’s a clear evolution from the gritty, garage rock sound of the band’s noteworthy first album, 2011’s Can’t Get Past the Lips, to a more polished new wave post punk style. Even vocalist/guitarist Ryan Lindsey sounds different. He sings in a higher timbre that sounds like a young Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. It comes from the way he extends his vowels in the multi-tracked vocals and the casual way he tosses off the song’s title, “Class Historian,” by extending the first syllable of “Historian” and running the last three syllables together as quickly as the first.

The added studio sheen takes nothing away from the band’s smart song craft. In fact, it feels more advanced. Instead of driving along on a hook, they know how to cut it short to keep you wanting more. It’s a lazily strummed guitar line in sync with an almost mechanical drum beat but also so much more. At the start of the chorus, it shifts to a higher, brighter octave for a few measures that could have been right at home in a late-1980s-era Cure single. But before it overstays its welcome, it falls back into the rhythmic, propulsive state of the band’s garage rock origins. There’s this mixture of a cavalier attitude with impassioned playing that gives the song a sort of effortless quality.

But, of course, the elephant in the room is the rapid-fire stuttering da-dah-dahs that kick off the single and which the singer constantly toggles to, as an added layer of both rhythm and melody throughout the song. As with the shifting guitar hook, it’s a case hookus interruptus that keeps the vocal element from getting tiresome. The varied vocals, guitar sounds and incessant beat all combine to form a song that satisfies fans of pop on a pure level without over-the-top effects and using real, raw tools of the trade: guitars, drums and vocals.

“Class Historian” is the second track of what will be the band’s sophomore release, Just Enough Hip to be Woman, due out on Sept.16, 2014. The latest song released as a preview is also worth a listen (stream it above). “What” came out last week and opens the album and has an even more cheeky laid-back attitude, with dynamic guitar propulsion and Lindsey’s elastic vocal work. It recalls the best of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s rock, which simply makes it timeless.

Another new Broncho song you can hear now first premiered during the closing credits of the first episode of the last season of “Girls.” Broncho’s label said the track found its way to the show’s creator Lena Dunham, who decided to use it in the episode. Here’s “It’s On:”

Both of these other new songs show growth by the band in a good way, but there’s lightning to be found in the bottle of “Class Historian,” which some bands can only achieve a few times in their career. Based on the strength of these three songs, their new album should be worth picking up, and if you have a chance, see Broncho live. Get tickets to their upcoming tour, which kicks off August 24, bundled with new album in all sorts of formats (including colored vinyl) by clicking here (as with everything bolded in this post, that’s a hotlink). Unfortunately for us in South Florida, the furthest south the band’s coming is Orlando, on a Wednesday, but it may be worth a drive and a day off work…

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

me_and_you_posterWith its drama mostly unfolding in the cellar of a high-rise in Rome, Me and You (Io e te ) probably stands as legendary Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci slightest drama. But, beyond setting, the film is also slight in another way: it will not stand as one of his great films. Maybe it’s the many years waiting for the film’s arrival (his last was 2003’s The Dreamers) or the fact that this was supposed to be his first experiment with 3D film, which he later reneged on (Variety article). It all feels a bit anti-climactic, though the film is by no means a waste of time.

The film follows 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) who, after scamming his mother into thinking he’s on a school ski trip, secretly moves into the basement for a week. All he wants is to hide away from people, his only company being an ant farm. Then his 25-year-old half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) crashes his party after stumbling upon him by accident. She thinks she has found the perfect spot to beat her heroin addiction and go cold turkey. He is upset with being bullied into sharing his solitude with someone he doesn’t care for much or even know that well. In their self-imposed purgatory, the two are forced to confront old grudges and come to terms with them and maybe leave their confinement with a sense compassion for one other.

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Antinori resigns to his role as a newly pubescent young man, channeling a natural teen angst heightened on a superficial level by his pimply complexion and virginal mustache. The emphasis on his appearance is enhanced by the fact that we first meet him with his face turned downward during a session with a psychologist. Meanwhile, Olivia first appears in the shadows of the basement in a giant, woolly black coat out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. These enigmatic introductions beg for the audience’s projection, but in the end, the two become stereotypes: the withdrawn, socially awkward teenage boy caught between childhood and adulthood and the beautiful aspiring artist who is never taken seriously because of her good looks and her drug habit.

These are difficult roles to flesh out with the nuance demanded of them, but Bertolucci still musters performances from the actors that at least do not make the characters feel obnoxious. Both Antinori and Falco are making debut lead appearances as virtual unknowns in the cinema world, which again adds to the characters’ relatable quality. But on the other hand, the story is so intimate it begs for stronger performances. It does not help that the script feels a bit rote, based on the novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who is one of four other Io-e-tescreenwriters, including Bertolucci. The material demands a more personal hand, and though there are moments of conflict and reconciliation, it all feels so mechanical that it hardly leaves you with the haunting impression the film aspires to achieve. Some of it even feels forced and unconvincing, like a scene at dinner when Lorenzo asks his mother if, after some cataclysmic event happens to wipe out all of humanity except them, would she volunteer to re-populate the world with him (Bertolucci will never shake his penchant for incest).

Though the film is sumptuously shot, featuring outstanding art direction, the camera sometimes feels a bit aimless. You can almost imagine the swooping and twirling camera movements used during a few early establishing shots were conceived when Bertolucci was aiming to make a 3D film. Also, the manner in which the camera drifts and twirls around enhances a feeling that the director is acting without a sense of assured control, feeling out the film more that feeling confident about his shots.

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The film’s drama drives along with some close calls of the two being caught, Olivia screaming in the pangs of withdrawal and throwing up between moments of sharing her dreams and better times of living it up, as a rapt Lorenzo pays close attention and throws out casual questions that also speak to his fear of socializing. The climax of the drama comes with a David Bowie song, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (“Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”), which is actually the music of “Space Oddity” with Italian lyrics. Though Bowie sings the lyrics, they have nothing to do with his original lyrics inspired by the first moon landing. However, the Italian lyrics (by Italian lyricist Mogol) fit the film’s story better than “Space Oddity” ever would. As translated in the subtitles Olivia sings to Lorenzo:

Now lonely boy where will you go?
The night is a big sea
If you need my hand to swim
Thank you but tonight I would like to die
Because you know in my eyes
There is an angel, an angel that now does not fly any more

Yes, Me and You is a small drama, but it has some pretty moments. It just does not make for a whole, consistent experience. The most extreme action comes from scenes of Olivia throwing up. Still, she and Lorenzo eventually build a relationship where they can look beyond bitterness and accept their bond. It’s no surprise, but it’s also an example of how slight and indulgent art cinema can get. There’s a hint of suspense that nothing is permanent, and you are left hoping something will work out with these two, but then you’ll also just go on and forget this film soon enough. It probably would have been more interesting in 3D.

Hans Morgenstern

Me and You runs 97 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (it features mature language and drug references, however). It opens in South Florida as part of the on-going “Cinema Made In Italy” series on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. It runs through Aug. 21 (see Calendar here). It opens a few days later at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on Aug. 15 (see dates and times). For a look at other theater dates around the world, visit this webpage.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

ClosedCurtain-posterIt’s funny how the First Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to be jerks. They can protest homosexuality at soldiers’ funerals, harass women at abortion clinics and publicly be racists. Something fundamental is lost in the cloud of such sensational wrong-headedness. The right of expression, no matter how you feel about something, is a human right recognized by the founders of the United States. It’s an important cornerstone because no matter what the government does in this country, we are allowed to call it out for the sake of our humanity. Theoretically, things should grow from there, in the best interest of society.

With sensational extremists wielding the First Amendment, the common U.S. citizen might sometimes forget the power this right gives everyone on a protective level. From the First Amendment comes the right to not only say what you want but to start conversations that can change things for the better of our collective lives, and the government is not allowed to get in the way. That cannot happen in many countries outside the U.S. One of those counties is Iran.

As noted in my 2012 review for This Is Not A Film (Film Review: ‘This Is Not a Film’ highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest), Filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested and later banned from making films in Iran for 20 years. His crime? He and another director were busted in 2009 trying to document the Green Movement’s attempt to overthrow the country’s authoritarian regime through organized ClosedCurtain02protests. Panahi was sentenced to six years of jail time, placed on house arrest and, what he considers worst of all, denied the right to make movies for 20 years. This is the guy who was part of a group of Iranian filmmakers who brought attention to his country through powerful films like White Balloon (1995). Now he resides in a state of legal limbo, the threat of jail constantly looming over him. He treads lightly during rare interviews and with the two films he has made since his arrest. Therefore, it’s important to bring an open mind to his work, and be prepared to read between the lines for the rewards of obscured narrative.

Just as with his previous film, Closed Curtain (Pardé) needs to be approached as another abstract tribute to cinema without it even being a movie that features the narrative coherence most moviegoers are accustomed to. The film opens with a lengthy shot through a panoramic window obstructed by a black accordion security gate. This is the director’s villa in Iran. As he says in this recent interview with The Daily Beast, “They freed me from a small jail … only to throw me into a larger prison when they banned me from working.” The metaphor is not lost in the image. Through the latticework, we can see the Caspian Sea below a bright, clear blue sky. A tiny, distant taxi rolls to a stop, and two small figures get out. The trunk is opened, bags are carried, and eventually one figure walks up to the house. This unfolds over five minutes, in one lengthy unbroken shot. Don’t call this filmmaking.

Once inside, the older man with bushy, gray hair (this is Panahi’s longtime collaborator screen-writer and the film’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi), anxiously puts down his bags and closes the curtain. Then, in the obscurity, hidden from the outside world, comes the film’s first of many surprises: He pulls a dog out of one of his bags. The dog, named Boy, appears to be a mix between a Papillon and a collie and has a standout personality thanks to its naturaClosedCurtain04l grin and a rather surreal scene involving a TV remote. After the writer blacks out all the windows in the house by nailing up black, heavy curtains (a metaphor not only for the filmmaker’s ban but also Iranian culture) he settles in to work. But then someone turns on a TV. The writer rushes to the living room and finds Boy with his paw on the remote. On the television: a news report featuring truckloads of dead dogs, including a close-up of one bleeding from its mouth, gasping for air. The news reader’s voice over reveals that canines have been banned under a new Islamic law. The writer takes out the remote’s batteries and scowls at the dog.

With this disturbing but profound scene, Boy rises above the melodramatic ploy most threatened animals become in movies. He stands as a representation for something bigger. The dog is now elevated to the status of martyr. That he’s rather cute helps, but the stakes feel bigger. The liberty of the writer and his dog becomes a matter of life and death. Their solitude is not only enhanced with the layers of curtains that seal them in the large villa but also their silence. ClosedCurtain05Boy hardly barks and the writer speaks hardly a word. The only soundtrack is the writer’s shuffling walk, the click of light switches and the rustle of wrappers on non-perishable food items. Just as with his last film, the film features no score. That would be too cinematic. The images are, however, beautiful. Boy, with his fluffy black and brown coat of fur, blends into the home’s brown and red color palette of wood and brick. The green of Boy’s fuzzy tennis ball, a toy that only gets minimal use indoors, stands out in contrast to this subtle color scheme.

Before a mundane solitude is allowed to settle in, there’s a lengthy scene documenting the writer’s struggle to sneak out Boy’s litter box. When it seems his mission is accomplished, he turns around to find a young man (Hadi Saeedi) and woman (Maryam Moqadam), dressed in black standing in his foyer. They appear almost like apparitions. “How did you get in here?” asks the writer. “The door was open,” responds the young man. It turns out they too wish to hide, as the authorities are in pursuit after busting up a party, just one more of the many things people are not allowed to do in Iran.

Tension looms over Closed Curtain, but it doesn’t come from anxious cutting or heightened stylistic flourishes like music or camera angles. We never see this intruding couple’s pursuers, but we can hear them outside. Eventually, the authorities are thrown off by the house’s blackedClosedCurtain01 out windows and go away. When the man leaves the woman with the writer, he warns him, “and be careful. She has a knack for suicide.” It’s a surreal portent in contrast to this woman’s smile. She later identifies herself as Melika, the sister of the young man who has left her at the house, and she will come to haunt the film’s narrative in an almost spectral sense.

It all unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness, and it is by crafty design because, eventually we learn, once again— and I will not spoil the series of surprises that follow— this is not a film. Instead, it is a glimpse into the creative consciousness of a director whose irrepressible imagination is being stifled. That’s a key notion to “getting” Closed Curtain. It’s an essay on Panahi’s desire to make a film he cannot finish. It is process trying to burst through the frame for thematic context that can only gel with what the viewer brings to it. You need not be Iranian to do this, just be sympathetic to the appreciation of artistic expression via cinema.

Closed Curtain may be filled with metaphors, but it’s also filled with Panahi’s heart for his craft and love for his neighbors and peers in a place where he has been denied an important human right: to be the creative person he cannot but help to be. Call it surreal, abstract or obtuse. The images that will continue to unfold as the film carries on to a startling, layered finale are also soulful, expressive and rambunctious. Closed Curtain is again another test of the limits of filmmaking and a subversion of them to offer something grander and more important: the human right to express oneself.

Hans Morgenstern

Closed Curtain runs 106 minutes, is in Farsi with English subtitles and is not rated (though it has a brief scene featuring some disturbing images involving dead dogs on a TV screen). It opens in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 8, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. If you live outside of our area, check the film’s website for screening dates in your neighborhood here (that’s a hot link).

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Vincent Moon in MiamiI’ve been a fan of Vincent Moon since 2010, however, I had never heard about him until last week. Before then, I had spent countless hours watching La Blogothèque videos and other films directed by Moon but never paid attention to his name. I became aware of this videos by just searching for music that I like, which I often play it in the background, but there was something so unique about the videos from La Blogothèque. They are filled with a humanity that is usually absent from music videos, the type of incredible connection you can have to a musician during a live concert. These videos were also adventurous, often featuring some kind of action in the streets that just seemed very exciting and spontaneous. It was only until I listened to Moon talk about his artistic philosophy and filming style at an event hosted by the Indie Film Club last week that I understood how someone can encapsulate so much humanity into a very small video.

Last Thursday, July 24, I attended a retrospective on Moon’s work (read our preview interviews here). It sounded half bombastic to me: attending a retrospective for a guy who’s not 35 yet and has not released commercial work under the auspices of a big production house. Nonetheless, I was intrigued because of my own personal connection to the music that is in most of his work. The setting was The Screening Room, a small gallery in Wynwood, an unassuming room filled with fold out chairs and dozens of aspiring filmmakers.

The talk started as a friendly Q&A led by Diliana Alexander, Indie Film Club’s executive director, who admitted to the audience, “I’ve been trying to bring Vincent to Miami for years.” And there he was in front of an eager, capacity audience. He described his philosophy of making films as an artist would. He creates content that is free of charge and uploads it to Vimeo, YouTube or his own website for everyone to enjoy. His budgets are non-existent. “I believe it keeps things pure,” he said in a heavy French accent (he grew up in Paris, but has no specific home since about 2008). Indeed, the artist approaches each project from a human perspective, his goal, he described, is to make people look beautiful and showcase beauty through what they do: music. But much to my surprise he sees music as an expression of community and culture. He looks at musicians as generators of culture or providers of meaning as a cultural expression.

Vincent Moon and Diliana Alexander

Diliana Alexander and Vincent Moon

Moon quickly took over the conversation and often interrupted the discussion to share some of his favorite videos. In all of the highlights he shared, he described them as an experience that could not be replicated. Someone in the audience asked him about preparation ahead of each shoot. He said he travels around the world and meets with different musicians and people whom he records, but there’s no direction. When asked about research, he scoffed, paused and said that he traveled to each location without preconceived ideas. That’s when I understood the marvel behind the videos because you are experiencing with him something unique through his camera lens. One of my favorite videos he shared that night is the following. It took place in Argentina and you can see how it captures a moment in time that is quite special. The background sounds add an atmospheric layer that cannot be replicated– Moon mentioned it was firecrackers among other sounds that you can hear in the background adding an almost surreal percussive accompaniment.

As the night went on, a lot of the filmmakers wanted to know how he survives financially or how the artists themselves benefit, as his work is freely available to anyone for download. He was a little puzzled by the questions, just as puzzled as the audience about his disregard for “making it big.” He picks places based on a feeling and admits that his worry is the opposite. His concern is how big budgets actually take away something from his work. He relishes the freedom and challenge of working with minimal resources because limitations spark his own creativity.

I am only thankful to Indie Film Club for creating a space where directors like him can be featured at Miami venues. I leave you with my favorite videos (part I and II) from the Take Away shows. Shot in Colombia, featuring Bomba Estereo. I love how the music blends with the landscape…

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

BOYHOOD_finalposterIt could have just been written off as some gimmick. But in the hands of director Richard Linklater a film shot over 12 years becomes something much more profound. Boyhood is so much more than an honest chronicle of actors aging over the course of a film. Linklater knows something about developing a story in real-time to achieve a deeper existential snapshot of humanity while still engaging the audience. At one end of the spectrum there is the “Before” series (see my review here). And on the other there are experimental works like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Let’s also not forget Linklater has a terrific angle on youth, from little kids to high schoolers (Dazed and Confused [1993], School of Rock [2003] and Bad New Bears [2005]). All of his talents in those films blend together elegantly for Boyhood, a film bound to go down in his career as his masterpiece.

What sets this film apart from other family dramas is the liberty granted by time. Growth literally unfolds naturally, unencumbered by contrived obstacles or plot twists. When you consider the dictates of consistent character behavior over a period of years in most movies of such time spans, it demands the viewer suspend disbelief that it was actually shot over a period of a few months (usually a maximum of three). You can have makeup and effects, but a stagey quality, even on a subtle level, still hangs over the action.

Ironically, in Boyhood, what isn’t a special effect has a rather magical effect as real kids and adults grow up in front of our eyes. In Linklater’s sensibly crafted script, the characters are allowed room to be humanly fallible Still7not in a sense that feels necessary to move a plot along but in a feeling honest to becoming a person, which is really what Boyhood is about. Just like growing up should change you, a sense of time passing has a great influence on not just the title character but those who make up his family. They hardly seem to act. It feels like nature or skimming through a family photo album that covers a period of years.

One will be hard-pressed to find a film more concerned with the mundane that can unfold over nearly three hours and remain consistently engaging. Part of it lies in the ever-curious sensation the viewer will feel about watching the actors age, but another part is in the film’s light-handed craft. The plot is easy to sum up: 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up over the course of 12 years in a broken home with his similarly-aged sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mom (Patricia Arquette) while his dad (Ethan Hawke) pops in and out of his life. An imperfect life allows for the perfect drama for the boy at the center of the film. Add a few jerk stand-in father figures, the inevitable awkward transition from child to teenager and the friends and loves who pass through his life, and you have the film. Though Mason endures commonplace obstacles that are hardly the stuff of headlines, much less summer film spectacle, these are the events in life that stick through memory and shape us. Flipping through a lingerie catalog as a boy, breaking into a construction site with friends, finding your mother on the floor with your stepfather standing over her. Linklater treats these encounters with a respect that belies the impact of moments that shape persona. In a sense, Mason is riding the wave of growing up. That he does so with an often composed stoicism, speaks to the discovery of his power as a young man.

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Over the course of the film, the inconsistency of the fleeting nature of persona comes unobtrusively into focus. The idea of innocence lost between the ages of 6 and 18 need not be punctuated with melodramatic events. From our first meeting of the mostly quiet Mason, it is apparent he is a pensive child. His eyes are focused on the sky. As an older teen, he muses aloud about his place in life, the world and the universe and how it all connects. It’s almost as if we are watching the boy learn the language he needed to express himself.

Of course, Linklater does not forget the adults. There are moments for the parents to grow and learn. There’s an undeniable fear of fatherhood coming from the nomadic father. Exactly where he goes to work and live (rumors of Alaska) while Mason and Samantha attend elementary school under the care of their single mom, remains a mystery. All we can see is that the children like him when he’s around and hate to see their parents argue. Mom gets the unromantic raw deal. She spends every moment she can with her children, unlike the spectral father, who the children can easily romanticize in absence. Her desperate attempt to have a father for the kids and a husband for herself leads to some terrible choices. Meanwhile, Dad has a lot of growing up left to do before he can come to any understanding of his role as a father.

None of this could be sold without the acting. From a face loaded with silent wonder to the laid back delivery of Linklater’s script, Coltrane delivers. He approaches his character with a naturalism that feels authentic and endearing. Arquette also deserves a special mention for the thankless role of a mother Boyhood_HiRes_3who cannot seem to get the men right in her life and dishes out unconditional love for her seldom appreciative children, as if it is instinct. She also fluctuates in weight (ed: as does Hawke), but never makes it an issue as she ages with grace as a woman who indeed sacrifices for her children in a heroic manner without any histrionics but with a mix of sympathetic love, fear and duty.

There are many things to consider in the film. The witty cultural reference points from pop songs to the Harry Potter series offer sly time stamps that feel real and genuine. The film’s low-key color palette creates an almost impressionistic effect, inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks with memories of his or her own childhood or memories of their own children they have seen grow up before their own eyes. It’s worth noting that though shot over 12 years, the quality of the image remains consistent. Technology in filmmaking would change so much and so fast over the years this film covers, and Linklater’s decision to shoot in 35mm proved wise. The digital image has grown by leaps and bounds when you consider how dull it looked in 2002.

There are many ways to approach this film, but my favorite is to think of it as the blossoming of a young person’s consciousness. From the silence in the gaze of Coltrane at the start of the film to his rambling musings, which are something out of Waking Life at the end, possibilities seem boundless. Experiences both external and internal have shaped our hero, but there is also a sense of self coming into development. The film is so consistently interesting throughout, from one subtle yet profound growth spurt to the next, that, by the end of it, it will be hard to let these characters go. You almost hope that maybe Linklater will keep following up with these characters with a film about Mason’s adulthood. He surprised us by turning Before Sunrise into a trilogy, after all.

Hans Morgenstern

Boyhood runs 165 minutes and is rated R (for growing up). IFC Films invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

South Florida screening update:

Boyhood is expanding at indie art houses soon. Here are the following venues with scheduled screenings:

It opened at the following theaters in South Florida, Friday, July 25 (Note: the Coral Gables Art Cinema will have a live video-link Q&A with the star of the film, Ellar Coltrane, this Saturday, July 26, at the 6:15 pm screening of the film):

  • Coral Gables Art Cinema
  • Regal South Beach
  • AMC Aventura
  • Boca Carmike Palace 20
On Aug, 1, it expands thusly:
  • Miami:  AMC Sunset Place 24
  • Fort Lauderdale: The Classic Gateway Theatre
  • Hollywood: Regal Oakwood
  • Pompano: Carmike Broward 18 (Formerly Muvico Pompano 18),  Regal Cypress Creek
  • Sunrise:  Regal Sawgrass
  • Boca: Living Room Cinemas, Shadowood 16
  • West Palm: Carmike Parisian 20
  • Royal Palm Beach: Regal Royal Palm
  • Indian River:  Indian River 24
Finally, if you are outside my geographic area, go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

life-itself-posterIt takes a courageous sense of perspective for a filmmaker to get to the place necessary to make a review-proof documentary, and director Steve James deserves all the praise he has so far received for Life Itself. James burst onto the documentary scene in 1994 with Hoop Dreams, a film that has stood up so well 20 years later because the director showed a clear understanding of staying true to his subject no matter how distressing the picture became. With Life Itself, James turns his lens on film critic Roger Ebert during his final days.

A well-known seeker of humanity in cinema, Ebert comes across as the ideal subject for James, ready to open himself up to the film with as much honesty as he can humanly muster. It helps that Ebert’s trust for James began with Hoop Dreams. After all, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic championed the film when it first came out, giving it a four-out-of-four-star rating. To Ebert, a four-star film had to transcend the screen as something more than escapism. He opened his review with a typically bold statement for a movie bestowed with a perfect rating:  “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

James has now given Ebert the ultimate payback. The filmmaker employs his perceptive lens to document the writer’s life and the aftermath of his death with an empathy that is both a tribute to Ebert and a gift to those who will see this film. Ebert sidewalk Medallion. Photo by Hans MorgensternIt opens with a snippet of a speech Ebert gave during the dedication ceremony of his sidewalk “medallion” in front of the historic Chicago Theatre. “For me,” he says, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” James has certainly taken this to heart, as he seeks out the person that was Ebert over any sense of grandiose legend.

If there is any doubt of that, James gives us an unflinching scene while Ebert was hospitalized. A nurse uses a gastronomy tube to suction out Ebert’s throat (cancer left the writer without most of his jaw and robbed him of the ability to drink, eat and speak). In a brief but uninterrupted take, Ebert squints and shudders, his lower lip swaying without muscle or bone support. The sound of liquid rushing through the tube mixes with Ebert gasping for air. It’s quick but clearly painful and after the nurse removes the tube, our man slumps over exhausted but gives the nurse a thumbs up. Later that day, Ebert sends James an e-mail that reads, “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees:  Suction.”

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Ebert understood the role pain plays in appreciating life, so of course he would find a not-so-subtle way to encourage James to include the scene (Ebert is also the guy who wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valey of the Dolls, after all, so he also appreciated anything in-your-face or maybe over-the-top). In a way, James grants Ebert input in a gesture that acknowledges that this film critic knows the value of dramatic dynamism in telling a story. A film that’s supposed to cover a life in less than two hours needs resonant moments like these that may disturb to inform the lighter, more banal moments.

Throughout Life Itself James captures many sides of Ebert. He was a cocky young reporter, but he also knew how to empathize with his subjects at an early age. James does not gloss over the younger Ebert’s penchant for drinking and whoring but gives 4equal time to his decision to join AA and settle down with Chaz Ebert. His widow also comes clean for the first time that she too was in AA, and that was where she met her husband. It’s a gesture that shows how deep she loved Ebert; she understands presenting her vulnerability stands as testament to the love of her life. She now carries on that affection by managing his website, which continues to put out exemplary film criticism in the spirit of Ebert.

Of course much of the Life Itself spends time on his television work with fellow Chicago film critic and beloved nemesis Gene Siskel. James captures a rivalry full of humor and pathos that grows into a profound affection for the other. But Life Itself stands as something so much more than a movie about a movie critic. Though James spends time going into what drove Ebert’s aesthetic principles as a film critic, featuring insights from the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, this is a film less concerned with film criticism than it is humanity. Even these critics toss off observations about Ebert’s style on a personal level, as if Ebert’s writing was an extension of his persona. That’s the power of having a distinctive voice, that an essence of the author can exist in his words. For that, despite his suffering, Ebert is fortunate to have found a bit of immortality that will continue to touch readers, and Life Itself is a worthy cinematic totem to not only Ebert but the Ebert sensibility that lives on in much of film criticism.

Hans Morgenstern

Life Itself runs 118 minutes and is rated R (language and images of R-rated movies and stills). It opens in South Florida on July 11 at O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque, The Bill Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale. On July 18 it opens at O Cinema Miami Shores (which happens to be Roger Ebert day in Chicago). It has theatrical opening dates scheduled through October. Visit the film’s official website for details. Magnolia Pictures provided us with a preview screener for the purpose of this review.

Update: O Cinema has finalized a critics panel preceding Saturday’s 2 p.m. screening. Meet some of South Florida’s film critics (in order of how well I know them, from seeing almost daily to never having met). It starts at 1 p.m., and it’s free (you will have to pay for the film):
Miami SunPost’s Rubén Rosario (miamisunpost.com)
Miami New Times Cultist contributor Juan Barquin(dimthehouselights.com)
Reuben Pereira (filmfrontier.wordpress.com)
Kai Sacco (kaisaccofilm.tumblr.com)
Billy Donnelly (thisisinfamous.com)
Andres Solar (hudakonhollywood.com)
Marc Ferman (keepitclassic.com).

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

beginagain_1sht_final_v2[1][1]Sometime past the halfway point of Begin Again, ex-record executive and occasional drunk Dan (Mark Ruffalo) tells his new discovery, the British singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), something that could very well be the driving force behind director John Carney’s aesthetic. “Music turns everyday banalities into these transcendent pearls of wisdom.” In both this new film and his highly regarded 2006 movie, Once, Carney, a musician himself, leans so heavy on music for narrative, song lyrics mark moments of transformation in his characters’ lives that transcend exposition.

With Once, Carney brought together a self-conscious yet sincere Irish guitarist (Glen Hansard) and an animated yet awkward Czech pianist (Markéta Irglová). Though they get to know each other in conversation, they actually seem to fall in love through song. The film collected one of the better-earned Oscars for original song in many years because the ballad “Falling Slowly” was, unlike most original song nominees, so much more than accompaniment to an end credits sequence or a musical interlude in the film’s action. It resonated through the film on a narrative level while transcending the traditional narrative of a film. Carney granted the songs in Once, which were written by the movie’s leads, space to move the narrative by allowing them to unfold from the musicians for long sequences, like the equivalent of musical numbers. Once stands as one of the most subtle musicals of the post-musical era.

BEGIN AGAIN

Eight years later, Carney returns with a film built on a similar formula, this time in New York City and presenting two different stories of love, one of loss and another of redemption, which unfold against a slight critique of the music business. It’s not Once, which was set in Dublin and focused solely on the couple, but it still has elements that will charm many fans of Carney’s previous film. Despite a polish far removed from the low-budget intimacy of Once, at its core, Begin Again maintains the essential formula that made the former film beguiling. Many of the film’s turning points happen via song lyrics. Upon first-listen, Gretta’s music gives Dan renewed hope for his role in the music industry. Gretta also learns of the infidelity of her boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine) a few seconds into hearing a new song he has just recorded.

As much as the film is about this young creative couple in turmoil, Begin Again spends equal time following Dan, a divorcé who has lost faith in contemporary music (an early scene of him talking back to demo CDs and throwing them out his car window is hilarious in its take-down of pop music tropes). More emotionally crippling, however, is how little faith he has in becoming the father his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) needs. BEGIN AGAINThe gap between his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) has entered a place of ambivalent malaise, as the parents have resigned themselves to making a go of a sense of family for the sake of Violet, even though the father moved out of the house long ago. Gretta becomes less a love interest for Dan than a comrade in disheartened arms. She also has her own sense of cynicism about the world of music, as she has no interest in sharing her autobiographical songs outside of her former collaboration with Dave, who seems on his merry way to pop stardom without her. However, Dan and Gretta share a similar passion for music that will prove hard to keep them from working together.

It’s an easy relationship to buy, as within the film’s first few minutes, both the director’s and actors’ affection for these characters shines through, making the movie an easy film to ride along with and fall for, scene after scene. At the start of Begin Again, the morose, freshly-heartbroken Gretta hesitantly takes the stage at an open-mic night at the coaxing of a less shameful musician friend Steve (James Corden who frequently lightens the film’s mood as perky comic relief). She sings a song that not so subtly alludes to suicide by subway while most the bar’s patrons talk over it. Dan, however, seems captivated, and when the song, entitled “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” arrives at its quiet end, he’s the only one applauding. Just why is revealed in drawn-out flashback sequences, as we learn of both Gretta and Dan’s personal baggage leading up to their meeting in separate sequences. Though these Groundhog Day-like narrative turns might sound gimmicky, it works to keep the film’s sprightly pace and speaks to how important experiences are to the enchantments of a song that comes along at the right time. (L-R) KEIRA KNIGHTLEY and MARK RUFFALO star in BEGIN AGAINThough the song is a dreary affair, Dan is ripe to receive it after a rough day where he forgets Violet’s age, gets beat up in front of her for running out on a bar tab and is fired from his record label by his former business partner Saul (a slick and elegant Mos Def). By the time he arrives at the open-mic performance, Dan is primed to get lost in Gretta’s downer of a ditty. Despite the fact that she is only up there lightly strumming an acoustic guitar, he can hear and— in what may be too precious a fantastical representation— actually see an invisible arrangement, as instruments start playing themselves behind her spare picking and silky voice. Dan eventually convinces her to make a record with him, outdoors with the ambient din of New York City as just another element of her songs. Several songs unfold over the course of the film that show Gretta growing as a confident bachelorette while finding her voice. Meanwhile, Dan regains his personal confidence in both the industry and as a father and provider.

If there’s one thing lacking in Begin Again it lies in the strength of the songs, this time written by pop music songwriter Gregg Alexander, former frontman of the New Radicals and writer of hits for the likes of musicians from Santana to Boyzone. Outside of the film’s narrative context, Alexander’s songs come across as a tad saccharine and lyrically heavy-handed. That they work within the film, however, stands as testament to Carney’s filmmaking talent. There’s heart and humor between the film’s two leads, and the dialogue never feels forced. That their relationship never becomes romantic reveals a strength of their devotion to their music project, and the importance of their own private pasts, once again consistent to the dimension of the presence of baggage and experience that informs the music.

Though Carney is working with recognizable actors and high-profile musicians (including a scene-stealing CeeLo Green) celebrity never overshadows the film’s essential allure. (L-R) KEIRA KNIGHTLEY and ADAM LEVINE star in CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE?Levine’s character never has to do much to be the unlikable louse who breaks his partner’s heart. After their breakup, he grows facial hair, from awkward mustache to full-on bushy beard. As he grows both more obnoxious and distant, the facial hair becomes a grander barrier. Knightley, who also does her own singing, infuses Gretta with a natural, fragile charisma that never betrays the character’s strength as a confident musician.

The director juggles the characters well for the duration of the film, and the complexity of multiple storylines merging never throws the drama off balance. As befitting the abstraction of music as narrative element, Carney prefers working in montage to move the film’s action along. There must be about 10 montage sequences in the entire movie. Even without musical accompaniment, the film’s editing features cuts pregnant with action left off-screen but still resonant in the characters’ growth and behavior, as if every second of character development matters, even the moments off-screen. As in Once, Carney employs handheld camera that never feels jarring. It brings an earthy quality to the film that brings the audience closer to the characters. In the end, it’s all about intimacy and nothing captures it better than shared musical experiences, even if the songs can sometimes sound silly.

Hans Morgenstern

Begin Again runs 104 minutes and is rated R (for swearing). It opened in South Florida on Wednesday, July 2, at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach, Miami Beach
AMC Aventura Mall, Aventura
Cinemark Palace, Boca Raton
Carmike Parisian 20 at City Place, West Palm Beach

For screening information in other cities, visit the following link. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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