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Films I Neglected To Review: How Sweet The Sound
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Amazing Grace," "The Chaperone," "Crypto," "Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy," "Missing Link" and a preview of this weekend's Doc10 festival

In January of 1972, Aretha Franklin appeared at the New Bethel Baptist Church to record two performances for what was going to be a live album of gospel songs and to properly commemorate the event, director Sydney Pollack was hired to film the shows for a documentary to accompany the album. The record, ''Amazing Grace,'' would go on to be one an instant classic and one of the top-selling gospel album of all time. As for the film of the same name, it was never released for a number of reason--ranging from severe technical issues to Franklin's inexplicable refusal to sign off on the final version--and would prove for decades to be a source of frustration for film and music fans alike, who could hear the performances that Franklin gave but were denied the chance to actually see them for themselves. Finally, all the issues have been resolved and ''Amazing Grace'' is hitting theaters at long last and it proves to have been more than worth the wait. This is a straight performance film--there are no interviews with the participants to break up the flow--and the cinematic style employed by Pollack is as simple as can be. However, with a performer like Franklin at its center, even the most elaborate visual pyrotechnics would come across as puny and inadequate next to her. Running through such standards as ''What a Friend We Have in Jesus,'' ''Precious Memories'' and, of course, ''Amazing Grace,'' she conveys such power, passion and emotion merely through her voice that even a performer like Mick Jagger (who is spotted in the audience a couple of times) would be forced to bow down to her mastery. Even if your taste in music does not extend to gospel music, it is virtually impossible to watch her sing with all the energy she can muster (and there are numerous moments when you can seen the sweat on her forehead) without being alternately moved and stunned. It may have taken more than 45 years to finally hit movie screens but now that it is here, it can finally take its long-denied place as one of the great concert films of all time.

''The Chaperone'' is one of those movies that has an initial premise that sounds so good when you hear it that you end up feeling kind of befuddled by how the whole thing doesn't quite work. Based on the 2012 novel by Laura Moriarity and set in 1922, the film opens as vaguely dissatisfied Kansas housewife Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) impulsively volunteers to accompany the 15-year-old daughter of a local woman on a trip to New York, where she is going to study for the summer at the prestigious Denishawn School. This may not sound too exciting on the surface but it turns out that the young woman is none other than Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), only a few years before she would become a movie star and international sex symbol. Besides trying to keep an eye on her charge, who is reveling in the attention that her looks and free-spirited manner inspires in virtually every man that she encounters, Norma has an ulterior motive for taking the trip--a orphan herself, she returns to the local orphanage that she was adopted from in the hope of discovering information about her real mother. This search leads her to a handyman (Geza Rohrig) with whom she makes an unexpected connection and an older woman (Blythe Danner) whose ultimate identity I would not dream of revealing here.

Between the notion of seeing what could be considered the Louise Brooks origin story and the reunion of director Michael Engler and writer Julian Fellowes, who previously collaborated on a little thing known as ''Downton Abbey,'' ''The Chaperone'' seems like a can't-miss proposition and while it never quite becomes an outright stinker, it just never comes together into anything that is remotely satisfying. You would think that a story with a personality like Louise Brooks at its center would be inherently fascinating but neither her story nor Norma's adds up to very much--the dramatic revelations and resolutions are anything but and things get resolved in ways that are far too pat for their own good. (The story is framed via scenes set about twenty years after the story that are handled in an especially clunky manner.) The best things about ''The Chaperone'' are the two central performances. McGovern, a wonderful actress who has not always gotten the chance to properly display her talents on the big screen, manages to overcome the cliched writing that her character has been saddled with and brings a genuine sense of feeling to the role. As for Richardson, who has lit up the screen in such films as ''Columbus,'' ''Support the Girls'' and ''The Edge of Seventeen,'' she is face with one of the most unenviable tasks that an actor can be asked to undertake--play the part of a well-known celebrity with a very distinct public persona--and beautifully pulls it off in the way that she demonstrates the raw talent and energy that the real Brooks must have had at that time while at the same time suggesting the bold and defiant personality that would both break her career and make her a legend. It is an excellent performance and one deserving of a far better showcase than this particular film.

With a list of ingredients that includes the Russian mob, a pro-cryptocurrency agenda, pretentious art galleries, a Gilmore Girl, a save-the-farm subplot, a severed tongue and a lesser Hemsworth brother, there are times while watching ''Crypto'' that I thought I was actually looking at New York's third-hottest nightclub. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate but it comes far closer to achieving that goal than it does to be the gripping, torn-from-the-headlines techno-thriller that it clearly thinks itself to be. Beau Knapp stars as an oversight compliance officer for a major bank whose dedication to his job gets him booted to the hinterlands to go through the records of a small branch to look for improprieties--to make things even more amusing, it is the very same small farming town that he escaped years ago, much to the disdain of his father (Kurt Russell) and the resentment of his hotheaded brother (Luke Hemsworth). With the aid of an old friend who has become obsessed with the pure, beautiful and financially viable world of cryptocurrency, our hero stumbles onto a series of strange transactions involving a modern art gallery that appears to be a front for laundering Russian mob money. I suspect you can probably fill in the blanks from this point on and I also have a feeling that you will do a better job of it than the writers here did.

''Crypto'' marks the first feature film from director John Stalberg Jr. since the deathless 2010 comedy ''High School'' (you can look up the particulars for yourself) but not only have his cinematic skills not flourished in his near-decade absence from behind the camera, they seem to have actually atrophied. Granted, when one is making a film inspired by cutting-edge technology, there is always the chance that it is going to eventually come across as ridiculously dated, sometimes even before it manages to hit theaters. That isn't quite the case here but that is only because the cryptocurrency concept that seems to be the basis of the film only turns up in a couple of scenes in which the action (such as it is) stops to allow the characters to talk amongst themselves about what a great thing it is for everyone and how the banks are trying to ruin it for ordinary people with their fancy-pants accounting and buyouts and whatnot. No, the main narrative focus is on a plot that is so generic and devoid of surprise that you keep half-hoping that it is trying to lull you into some state of complacency before going full-tilt gonzo--a notion that makes sense at the time when you start to notice that every single character is acting as if they had been possessed by an alien. As for the performances themselves, they are universally terrible--Knapp is a complete non-entity as the lunkheaded hero, Alexis Bledel is unable to make anything of her largely pointless role as the seemingly innocent lass who could not possibly be harboring a big secret and on the grand scale of acting brothers, Hemsworth lacks the raw screen charisma of Gummo Marx. You want to know how bad this movie is? Even Kurt Russell--Kurt Freaking Russell--winds up delivering a dull and completely uninteresting performance, a feat that I never dreamed he was capable of accomplishing. On the bright side, ''Crypto,'' a film whose only real surprise is the fact that Bruce Willis {i}doesn’t{/i} turn up at some point, is likely to disappear from view so quickly and completely that very few people are likely to notice.

At the end of ''Ip Man 3,'' the latest installment of the increasingly elaborate martial arts film series, the arrogant and unscrupulous Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) challenged the titular character for the right to call himself the grandmaster of the Wing Chun fighting style, only to be thoroughly defeated in the ensuing battle. As ''Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy'' kicks off, a chastened Cheung has abandoned fighting entirely in order to open a humble grocery store and raise his young son. This withdrawal from fighting lasts until he comes across the path of local gang leader Sai Kit (Kevin Chang) threatening an opium addict (Chrissie Chau) and the friend (Liu Yan) who has arranged to pay her debt and demolishes the thug’s minions. Although Cheung still does not want to fight, this move causes him to run afoul of Sai Kit, his equally ruthless but more refined sister (Michelle Yeoh) and a local restauranteur (Dave Bautista) who just might have something to do with all the criminal activity in the neighborhood. In a shocking turn of events, Cheung eventually decides that it is slightly more fun to smack around bad guys than it is to do nothing.

If you have never seen any of the previous ''Ip Man'' films, you will still be okay to watch ''Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy''--outside of a brief flashback at the beginning to remind viewers of Cheung's humiliating defeat, this story goes off in an entirely different direction. Whether you would actually want to see it, regardless of your past familiarity, is an entirely different question. The storyline does have a tendency to wander about without ever really coming into focus and Cheung's return to full-on fighting is born less out of a convincing conclusion to his character's arc of redemption and more out of the sense that the screenplay has decided that it is time for him to finally kick ass. That said, there are a number of bits and pieces throughout that add enough wit and excitement to the proceedings to keep things from bogging down. There is a impressive sequence in which Cheung and some opponents battle among the neon signs hanging above the street that is oddly reminiscent of the single memorable scene of the Marx Brothers's cinematic swan song ''Love Happy.'' Although the presence of Dave Bautista is initially incongruous, to say the least, he is amusing throughout and his big fight scene with Zhang is impressive. Best of all is the regal presence supplied by Michelle Yeoh, who has one scene with Zhang in which they shove a drink back and forth at each other in increasingly elaborate ways without spilling a drop that is worth the price of admission all by itself. ''Master Z: The Ip Legacy'' is no masterpiece and anyone who doesn't get around to seeing it won't be missing too much but those with a taste for martial arts cinema or are member of the Michelle Yeoh fan club should come away from it feeling reasonably satisfied.

''Missing Link'' is the latest stop-motion animation film from Laika Animation Studios, the people behind such acclaimed works as ''Paranorman'' and ''Kubo and the Two Strings'' and if it doesn't quite compare to those earlier efforts in terms of narrative ambitions (and it doesn't miss that admittedly high mark by too much), it more than makes up for that deficit with its sheer entertainment value. Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is a Victorian-era adventurer desperate to make a discovery astounding enough to allow him admittance into a snooty British club. (His attempt to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, chronicled in the opening scene, had me laughing longer and harder than I have at any movie in recent memory.) After receiving a letter suggesting that he can find the legendary Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, he makes his way there and not only discovers the creature but finds that it speaks perfect English (in the voice of Zack Galifianakis) and actually wrote the letter in the first place. The lonely creature, now known as Mister Link, wants Lionel to take him to find his distant relatives, the Yeti, so that he can be among his own at last. The two set off on the journey, accompanied by Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a rich widow with a past connection to Lionel, and when the reactionary head of the adventurers club (Stephen Fry) hears about what Frost is up to, he sends a sleazy mercenary (Timothy Olyphant) to stop him by any means necessary.

At first glance, ''Missing Link'' might strike some observers as being a step down for a Laika effort--the storyline lacks the grand and dramatically ambitious stylings of their previous efforts (even their one outright failure, the mystifying ''The Boxtrolls,'' at least swung for the fences throughout) and feels more like a video game narrative with several helpings of ''Around the World in 80 Days'' included for good measure and the character designs may strike some as being a little too close to the ones from Aardman. And yet, once you get past those elements, there is much to love here. As I said earlier, there is one scene at the beginning that I laughed at so much that I almost thought I would need to leave the screening room to collect myself and the rest of the film is a consistently engaging collection of laughs, both big and small, that nevertheless still manage to serve the storyline. More impressively, when the story shifts to more heartfelt material, it deftly manages the change in tone so that those moments don't seem awkwardly shoehorned in--in this regard, the film is aided mightily by the contributions of its splendid vocal cast. Visually, the film is quite striking throughout--while the road trip nature of the story may be slightly disappointing from a narrative perspective, it does allow the animators to offer up a wide variety of settings for the action that they have brought to life in beautiful detail. In short, ''Missing Link'' is an absolute delight--the kind of film that is perfect for the entire family (though a couple of the action beats might be a tad intense for the younger ones) and is worth turning up for even if you don’t have any kids to bring along as an excuse.

Starting today and running through April 14th at Chicago’s Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Avenue), the Doc10 Film Festival, now in its fourth year, presents the local premiere of 10 new documentary films as a way of helping to promote a form of cinematic storytelling that sometimes goes overlooked. Last year's lineup alone contained such future favorites as ''Won't You Be My Neighbor?,'' ''The King,'' ''Minding the Gap'' and ''RBG'' and this year's collection looks equally promising. I was able to preview half of the films being presented this year and they alone more than live up to the festival's already considerable standards. ''Anthropocene: The Human Epoch'' (April 13) is an alternately beautiful and startling work by co-directors Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier (both of whom will attend the screening) that takes a look at the damage that humanity has managed to wreak upon the planet in the name of progress in eye-opening and jaw-dropping detail. ''Hail Satan'' (April 13) is a very funny and incisive film by Penny Lane (who will be attending the screening) about the group known as The Satanic Temple and their offbeat approach to political activism, especially in regards to their determination to help preserve the increasingly eroding separation of church and state.''The Infiltrators'' (April 14) finds co-directors Cristina Ibarra and Alex Riviera blending together fictional and documentary approaches to tell the true story of a group of activist Dreamers who snuck into ICE detention centers with the aim of preventing their fellow inmates from being deported. ''Mike Wallace is Here'' (April 12) sees director Avi Belkin examining the life and work of the legendary television journalist entirely though archival footage that has been assembled in a way that does justice to a complex man without ever turning into mere hagiography. The most notable of the films being screened this year, however, is the one taking the opening night slot tonight, Rachel Lears's eagerly anticipated ''Knock Down the House,'' in which the filmmaker observes four women who chose to mount insurgent campaigns for Congress in 2018 that pushed an unabashedly progressive agenda. As it turns out, Lears had the incredible luck to select the then-unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one of her subjects and to watch her as she goes from the earliest moments of her campaign to the applause-inspiring moment when she learns that she has actually won is to watch a genuine political star being born before our eyes. While she will obviously prove to be the biggest draw for the film (which premieres on Netflix next month), the stories of the other three women--a nurse in Missouri, the daughter of a coal miner in West Virginia and a mother in Nevada still grieving the death of her daughter that could have been prevented with a sensible health care system--are just as engaging and the end result is a work that both informative and wildly entertaining. For information on tickets, schedules and additional films screening at Doc10, go to their website at www.doc10.org


link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4175
originally posted: 04/11/19 12:17:22
last updated: 04/11/19 14:18:48
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