Films I Neglected To Review: 100% Giuliani-Free!!!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/21/20 17:49:40
Please enjoy short reviews of "Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You," "Linda and the Mockingbirds," "Over the Moon," "The Planters," "The Sounding," "Synchronic" and "This is Not a Movie."
"Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You" marks the third project from the legendary rocker that has seen the release of an accompanying documentary, following "Springsteen on Broadway" and "Western Stars." While those projects were based around songs that were familiar to his fans, the new film, directed by longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, focuses entirely on new material as it shows Springsteen reuniting with the E. Street Band to record together live in the studio for the first time since a little thing called "Born in the U.S.A." The songs--we see ten of the album's twelve tracks (nine new and three dating back to the Seventies) performed--are muscular and moving in equal measure and have an elegiac feel to them that feels uniquely correct for this particular point in time even though the recording was done before everything went sideways. The glimpses of Springsteen and the band working on the arrangements of the songs are riveting, even if you aren't a hardcore fanatic, and perhaps the one major flaw of the film (besides not including the new recording of the unreleased Seventies outtake "Janey Needs a Shooter") is that it doesn't contain enough of those moments showing the songs being brought to life before our eyes and ears--I could have easily gone with more of this and perhaps a little less of the between-song philosophizing that Springsteen indulges in from time to time. Aside from that, "Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You" is an entertaining and occasionally illuminating look at the artistic process of one of the musical greats of this era and a reminder that rock ’n’ roll is, despite rumors to the contrary, still alive and thriving.
Even the most ardent fans of Linda Ronstadt might question the existence of a new documentary feature on her coming out barely a year after the release of the wonderful "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice." As it turns out, "Linda and the Mockingbirds" barely qualifies as a feature (it clocks in at just over an hour) and plays more like a supplement to that earlier film than as a competitor or sequel. One of the themes of that film was the importance of Ronstadt's Mexican heritage and its influence on her life and work. In this film, directed by James Keach, the focus is mostly on Ronstadt and her connection with Los Cenzontles ("The Mockingbirds"), a musical academy for young people specializing in Mexican music that has been run for the last 30 years by founder Eugene Rodriguez, a third-generation Mexican-American and musician. Along the way, we meet a number of the current students and follow as Ronstadt and Rodriguez, along with Jackson Browne, take them on a road trip to the small town in Sonora, Mexico where Ronstadt's grandfather was born and where her own musical heritage began. Because of her illness, Ronstadt is only seen performing in archival clips (though there is one moving moment where she is caught quietly singing along to herself to a song taught to her by her father as it is being performed by one of the students) but the film is packed with music throughout and most of it is glorious--many of the songs feel as if they were penned to comment specifically on the issues of today even though nearly all of them were written decades earlier. For Ronstadt fans, "Linda and the Mockingbirds" is more or less mandatory but any interested in a meditation on art, politics and heritage will find much of interest here.
Seeing as how 2020 has not exactly proven to be a bountiful year in regards to, among many other things, animated feature films--granted, you may have liked "Trolls: World Tour" more than I did but even the first of the year's two Pixar entries, "Onward," proved to be a bit of a misfire--I approached "Over the Moon" with perhaps a greater degree of anticipation due to the participation of late screenwriter Audrey Wells and Glen Keane, the Disney Animation legend (who contributed to the likes of "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," to name a few) making his long-awaited directorial debut with this freewheeling take on a classic piece of Chinese mythology. Still reeling from the death of her beloved mother four years earlier, brilliant young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) continues to be obsessed with the story that she used to tell about Chang'e (Phillipa Sou), a goddess who unwisely took an immortality potion and now lives on the moon in the kingdom of Luminaria yearning for her lost love. When her father (John Cho) begins begins dating the well-meaning Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), who comes equipped with oddball young son Chin (Robert G. Chiu), she decides that the only way to remind him of the love he felt for her mother is to build a rocket ship to the moon and bring back proof that Change really exists. Amazingly, she--along with stowaway Chin--makes it to the moon (do not try this at home, kids) and even manages to find Chang'e, though the goddess does not quite turn out as expected, before she is sent out on a quest that has her seeking a mysterious object that will allow her to return home, meets a gaggle of unusual creatures, including weird moon creature Gobi (Ken Jeong), and learns all sorts of valuable lessons about life and love in the process.
Visually, "Over the Moon" is pretty spectacular, especially once the focus shifts to Luminaria, which has a fantastic anything-goes attitude to its design that is so colorful and audacious that you may find yourself pausing the film in order to better absorb the colors and designs on display. The problem is that the other aspects of the film never quite manage to live up to its visual pleasures. Although the concept sounds initially promising, it takes more than 20 minutes of setup before the story proper finally kicks in to gear and once it does, it eventually seems more inspired by "The Wizard of Oz" than Chinese mythology. The film is also somewhat undone by the decision to make it into a musical, which becomes a problem here because a.) there are way too many songs on display here and b.) none of them are particularly memorable in the slightest--not even a performer as gifted as "Hamilton" copstar Sou is able to sell the material she is working with here. I'm not necessarily suggesting that you give "Over the Moon" a pass--little kids will like the bright colors and goofy humor (and might even learn a thing or two about processing and recovering from grief and loss in the bargain), older viewers will appreciate the artistry behind it and it certainly beats the hell out of the array of animated sequels and knockoffs that have been turning up with depressing regularity as of late. The film has certainly been made with good intentions but in the end, I found myself wanting a little more from it than I got.
Friends Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kocheff--both members of moviemaking families (they are, respectively, the daughters of Mimi Leder and Ted Kotcheff)--decided one day that not only would they break into the family business, they would do it entirely on their own terms with a production in which they, in addition to writing, directing and co-starring, would serve as their own crew by handling the sound and camera duties as well. Even in the DIY era, this is a considerable accomplishment (especially considering the fact that they were doing a narrative feature and not a documentary) and I just wish that the end result, "The Planters," had proven to be even a sliver as interesting as its backstory. Martha (Kotcheff) is a young woman living alone in a remote desert town who fills her days working as a spectacularly unsuccessful telemarketer selling air conditioners and shoplifts trinkets from a local store that she buries in the desert for people to find in exchange for a small fee for her efforts. One day, she meets Sadie (Leder), an odd young woman who has just been released from a recently shuttered mental hospital, and decides to take her in. This has one immediate benefit as Sadie is able to help Martha change her phone manner in order to connect with customers and finally land some sales. The drawback is that Sadie soon reveals two additional personalities--Emma, a child with certain toilet-related issues and Angie, an alcoholic refugee from a sex cult--that make things more complicated, especially after Martha meets one of her customers (Phil Parolisi) and ends up taking him in as well. The film is clearly trying to approximate the tone of detached whimsy found in the films of Wes Anderson but comes off more along the lines of a wan variation of "Napoleon Dynamite." Leder and Kotcheff seem far more interested in making the proceedings as quirky as possible instead of making them interesting and even at a slim 72 minutes, the end result will most likely test the patience of most viewers ;one before it concludes. In essence, "The Planters" is less a movie than the result of a challenge that Leder and Kotcheff set for themselves to actually go out and make a film entirely on their own. Now that they have accomplished that, perhaps for their next effort, they will set their sights on making a good movie.
When I heard the premise to the new indie drama "The Sounding," I quietly shuddered inside as it struck me that there was virtually no way that a good movie could possibly emerge from it. Then I sat down to watch it and I have to say that it pretty much lived up/down to those expectations and then some. The film centers on Liv (Catherine Eaton, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay), a young woman who has spent her life living in near-isolation in Maine with her psychiatrist grandfather, Lionel (Harris Yulin), and who has not spoken a word in years. For Lionel, this is fine--she just has no interest in communicating with the world--but with his imminent passing, he summons former student Michael (Teddy Sears) to be her advocate on the promise that he will not have her sent to any psychiatric facility. When he passes and Liv responds first by nearly drowning and then speaking only in the words of Shakespeare, Michael is compelled to break his vow and have her taken away for treatment. There, she riles up the other patients with her Shakespearian quotes (yes, there is a rebellion in the day room inspired by her recitation of the St. Crispin's Day speech from "Henry V") to the point where the doctors are about to put her away for good until the guilt-ridden Michael returns with a bold plan to help her regain her freedom.
Ugh. Does any of this sound remotely engaging or interesting to you? On stage, perhaps it might have worked with the Shakespeare-quoting gimmick fitting in with the already stylized manner present in the theatrical experience. Presented within the more overtly realistic parameters of the cinema, her affliction comes across like a gimmick--especially when she invariably comes up with just the right quote for every time someone speaks to her--and after a while, I found myself more interested in trying to see how many of the quotes I could identify (and it gets a lot easier as things plod along and the references become less subtle) than in why they were being said in the first place. This might not have happened if I had found myself interested in Liv as a character in the first place but she always feels like a conceit instead of like a real person. (I won't even go into the idea that this is evidently a film that inexplicably finds nobility in the notion of a woman refusing to use her own voice.) The wonderful character actor Yulin delivers a nicely understated performance that is unfortunately not too long for the film and soon replaced by the overly theatrical histrionics of Eato and Sears. Little more than another addition to the insane-people-are-the-only-truly-sane-people" sub-genre, "The Sounding is the kind of film that forces me to drop a Shakespeare quote of my own by stating that it is, as a wise man once said, "full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing."
Because a considerable amount of the appeal of the sci-fi head-spinner Synchronic" is derived from the considerable number of surprise twists and turns that the writer-director duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have in store for viewers, I will be extremely careful in what I reveal here. Suffice it to say, it centers on Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), a pair of New Orleans-based EMTs whose regular array of drug overdose calls take a weird turn when they start encountering victims with inexplicable injuries. The common link appears to be Synchronic, a new designer drug that has certain wild side effects, and when the outbreak ends up affecting Dennis’s teenaged daughter (Ally Ioannides), Steve starts investigating on his own and that is where I am going to stop in order to let you discover what happens on your own. Having already impressed moviegoers with such previous low-budget genre experiments as "Resolution" and "The Endless,” they have gone larger in size and scope with this effort without losing the bold experimental streak that made their earlier efforts stand out. The film also benefits from good performances from Mackie and Dornan that show that they are capable of more than the basic set of moves that they have been limited to in their more regimented franchise projects. I suppose that not all of the elements of "Synchronic" may quite add up in the end—though there is perhaps no real way that a film that includes everything on display here could ever completely balance out—but even if it doesn’t entirely make sense, having it rattling around in your head for a little while makes for a pretty entertaining experience when all is said and done.
With respect for the profession of journalism currently at an all-time low, the new documentary "This is Not a Film" could not arrive at a more ideal time. It chronicles the life and work of Robert Fisk, a Belfast-born and largely Beirut-based journalist who was inspired to become an ink-stained wretch by seeing Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" as a boy, became one himself in 1972 and has worked for a number of British newspapers. (Alas, in a sign of the times, his current outlet at the time of film is the online-only "Independent.”) Utilizing an array of digital minicams, director Yung Chang and his crew follow Fisk as he fearlessly goes into any number of current hotspots throughout the world--Syria, the West Bank, Serbia and Bosnia among them--while looking back on his past achievements. Although the film does not quite push Fisk on some of the more dubious moments of his career—--charges of antisemitism leveled against him by Alan Dershowitz and his claims that there was not a chemical attack in Douma, Syria in 2018--Fisk still comes across as a fascinating figure, especially in his determination to use his position to shine a light on the horrors of the world in ways that go beyond merely scoring headlines. For anyone still willing to believe that journalism is a force of genuine good in an increasingly convoluted world despite the constant barrage of attacks it receives from all sides, "The is Not a Film" is well worth viewing.