Actors of Sound

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 10:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Brief archival footage has some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2016 Freestyle Digital Media

It’s the climax of the film. The hero and heroine finally kiss. The power of the moment comes from the emotion built up by the story, by the acting talent and screen charisma of the performers, by the heart-tugging swell of the music — and by the sound of the kiss itself, probably so subtle you don’t notice it, but if it wasn’t there, you would notice its absence. That sound was not made by the tender touch of two beautiful movie stars’ lips. It was made by a Foley artist, the “actor of sound,” whose profession is the subject of this documentary.

Skip this next part and go to the next paragraph if you want to preserve the illusion: the slight smacky sound you hear is probably some burly guy kissing the back of his hand. And when a beautiful actress walks down a hall or street in high heels, that same burly guy is probably wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and high heels, stepping on one of the dozen or so different surfaces in the studio to match the shot. The sound of the trudging footsteps of the enormous football player in “The Blind Side” was created by a woman, who explains, “I had to become a 300 pound man who was feeling alone and like no one cared about him…I gave myself a sense of heaviness.” Another woman “was” Mr. T in “The A-Team,” at least the sounds of his feet.

The Foley artist is the person who provides everything from hoofbeats on dirt to the clacks of high heels on a wood floor, from the sound E.T. makes when he walks to the sound of Walter White taking off the mask he uses for cooking meth to the sound Robert de Niro makes when he slams a baseball bat into a guy’s head in “The Untouchables.” That last one, we learn in this fascinating and engaging documentary, was made with a combination of a raw turkey (gizzards still inside) and a coconut. We learn about sounds like the snap of Batman’s cape, the flutter of paper floating through the air, and the “hyper-real” coin toss in “No Country for Old Men.”

Foley was a real person, a pioneer in the field. While the technology for recording and editing the sounds has advanced along with most other aspects of filmmaking, the technology for creating the sounds has not. They are still using the same kinds of props — and sometimes even the exact same props — that go back to the heyday of radio. If it’s a period film and someone needs to dial a phone, you’re going to need a dial phone to create that sound. And nothing beats corn starch for the sound of walking on snow.

The documentary includes archival footage showing how sounds were created for some of the most iconic moments in film history. ET’s walk? Let’s just say that when the Foley artists were served Jello at lunch, it gave them a good idea. It also includes Foley artists from around the world and some discussion of how changes in the industry and technology may affect the future of the profession.

All of the participants are wonderfully imaginative and dedicated, and their stories and perspective make this essential viewing for anyone who is interested in film. “The sound has to pan, too,” to help create the illusion of movement. And they will do anything to get the sound just right — even a condom over the microphone.

As one of them says, a Foley artist has to be “an athlete, a musician, and an actor all in one,” and as another says, they are “painting a picture with sound.” So far, no one has been able to produce sounds digitally or via a sound library that feel real, not robotic. Being a Foley artist requires “imagination, tempo, coordination, and love,” and this film is filled with all of that as well, a welcome appreciation for an essential and often overlooked profession.

Parents should know that this film includes brief violent footage from films being discussed.

Family discussion: What movie sounds do you remember? How will this movie make you listen more closely?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Lillian”

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The Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Posted on January 24, 2018 at 2:23 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medical tests
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, zombies, guns, chases, crashes, and explosions, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 26, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 22, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

These dystopian teen sagas generally run out of steam after the high concept of the first one. While this third and final chapter of “The Maze Runner” series is better than the muddled second one, it does not rise to the level of the existential drama original concept of teenage boys (and finally one girl), their memories wiped, forced to try to get through a booby-trapped maze.

Once they get out of the maze, thanks to the leadership of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), then there’s just a “Hunger Games”/”Divergent”-style race to the center of operations for the evil and corrupt regime (sometimes involving a lab with white-coated scientists torturing people) to rescue characters we know, some who make it and some who don’t, and also rescue the whole world.

The Jeremy Bentham/Trolley Problem issue of having to decide between the greatest good for the greatest number versus saving the people you care about is raised, which is intriguing, but not in a particularly thoughtful way. It also briefly raises the intriguing issue of how you can reboot a civilization to prevent the mistakes of the past, but spends most of its time on chases, explosions, zombies, evil scientists, and, as in all movies of this genre, the idea that hot teens are all that can save us. “If there’s even the slightest chance to save him, we have to take it, no matter what the cost,” Thomas says, which sounds great, but can that really be true? Doesn’t it mean risking the lives of many to save one? You can’t count on the movie-standard running through the bullets to work every time. But we cannot expect too much from a movie where the bad guys work for a corporation called WCKD.

The action scenes are dynamic and exciting, but there are too many of them and as the film edges past two hours it all gets numbing. There isn’t much help from the grim dialogue, which has a numbing effect as well: “We started this thing together. Maybe we’ll end it that way, too.” “They can only poke the hornet’s nest do long before they get stung.” “It’s amazing what people can accomplish when their survival is at risk.” This movie plays less like their survival is at risk than that they were just trying to make it to the end.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images involving zombies, guns, chases, explosions, and medical torture, as well as some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide whether a few get sacrificed to save the rest? What is important about the way Thomas is different from the others? In these films, “Hunger Games,” and “Divergent,” how did well-intentioned efforts to solve past problems create bigger problems?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Maze Runner” films and “The Hunger Games”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Series/Sequel Stories about Teens

Phantom Thread

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 5:49 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Poison
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 10, 2018
Copyright 2017 Focus Features

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” is the story of a selfish, headstrong haute couture designer who likes to leave small, secret, embroidered messages concealed within the lining of his meticulously constructed gowns.  If Anderson has left a message within the lining of this meticulously constructed, exquisitely performed, but ultimately self-indulgent and morally vacant film, it is better kept secret.

There is so much potential here. The relationship between the designer and the women who make, model, and wear the gowns brims with intriguing concepts about who is in service to whom. Clothing is art, commerce, and self-expression and it is also practical. It has to fit when one stands, sits, and walks, to protect us from the elements while it defines us and tells the world who we are and at the same time who the designer is as well. Not much of that is explored here, any more than the philosophy side of the charismatic leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Anderson’s “The Master” was. Like that film, this is about the drive of the central character more than the motives or ideas. And so, in a story about a man driven by the impulse to create, it is curiously empty about what it is to have or to struggle with a creative vision. We see more of the designer’s inner life in his jealous reaction to a customer who is buying dresses elsewhere and his irritated reaction to toast being buttered too loudly.

The designer is Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says is his final role, and reportedly inspired by the European designers of the 1950’s, before designer ready-to-wear began to take over the market. The opening scenes, as a fleet of impeccably smocked seamstresses arrive in the elegant London townhouse that serves as his home, studio, and showroom, is breathtakingly staged and kaleidoscopically entrancing.

We see that Woodcock tires easily of his live-in lady friends, and that it is his omni-capable sister Cyril (a gorgeous performance by the always-brilliant Lesley Manville) who not unkindly informs this latest in what appears to be an endless line rotating in and out that her services are no longer required. Woodcock visits the country where a waitress named Alma (Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps) catches his attention. Soon he is literally taking her measure, fitting a gown to her, and she becomes the next lady to rotate in. She has no intention of rotating out.

Like Elizabeth Taylor with Mercedes McCambridge in “Giant” and Joan Fontaine with Judith Anderson in “Rebecca,” Krieps plays a young, innocent woman who comes into a grand house with a mysterious, imperious, magnetic, and wealthy man only to find that there is already in the house a woman in charge. The dynamic between them would have made a better movie. Instead, we are alerted in a foreshadowing scene as it begins that this is about the relationship between Alma and Woodcock. She says to someone we cannot yet identify, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return, every piece of me.”

It’s a more literate, better acted, more tastefully presented version of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” all lush settings and “the sub is truly the dom” dynamics. Without some understanding or or even some representation of Woodcock’s aesthetic vision or what creating means to him, he is just a narcissistic diva who adores being adored. The nutso ending really sends it over the cliff.

Day-Lewis is extraordinary, of course. No one commits more fully to a character. It is mesmerizing to see the way he brushes his hair and pulls up his socks, the mercurial shifts from being overwhelmed by having other people near him to a visceral need for attention. Manville’s Cyril is shrewd but not unsympathetic to the people she has to finesse. And Krieps is fine as Alma, who wants to please Woodcock but despite the “every piece of me” line, she wants it the way she wants, not necessarily the way he wants. Like “mother!” though, this is a movie by a self-conscious auteur about how the tortured existence necessary for creation depends on the willingness of devoted, uncomplicated, lissome females that cannot even make a case for the value of the art. If there is a hidden message in the lining, it is just: “Me.”

Parents should know that this film includes some very strong language, sexual references, and very risky behavior with some harm.

Family discussion: Why did Reynolds approve of what Alma was doing? What did Cyril and Alma think about each other? What did Alma mean about “giving him all of myself?”

If you like this, try; “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review

The Commuter

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language
Profanity: Brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including drinking to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, guns, knife, fights, explosions, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 12, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 16, 2018

Copyright LionsGate 2017
Sigh. Another January, another dumb Liam Neeson action movie. This one is on a train.

Liam Neeson is The Commuter, a devoted husband and father named Michael who reads every book his teenage son is assigned in school. Every day he wakes up at 6, cuddles with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), and gets on the same train at the same time to go to his job selling insurance. Until one day is different.

First, he gets laid off with no notice and no cash severance. He has a few drinks with his former partner from the days when he was a cop, and then gets on his usual commuter train for the ride home. After ten years, he is very familiar with the routine, the conductors, and the passengers, greeting many of them by name. But this time, something is different. A woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga, magnetic and disturbing) offers him a hypothetical proposition that quickly turns real: for $100,000. Michael needs money badly. And Joanna says all he has to do is “one small thing” — identify a passenger on the train carrying a bag and known only as “Prynne.”

This isn’t one of those “it makes no sense but it doesn’t matter” movies. This is one of those, “it makes no sense and that is really annoying” movies. The twist/revelation of the bad guy is ridiculously obvious. The premise that a commuter on a New York train, no matter how regular, would be on a first-name basis with the other passengers is more ridiculous. The premise that someone like “Joanna” would be able to exert complete control over every element of the situation and yet still need Michael to figure out which passenger is Prynne, much less that he would have the capacity to do so based on the limited information he has is even more ridiculous. And then we get to the really “you’ve got to be kidding” section, basically the whole last half hour.

Remember “Non-Stop?” Same director. It’s pretty much the same movie, and it wasn’t so good the first time out. Both puts Neeson in what is essentially a locked room in motion and force him to solve a puzzle from an omniscient villain while also risking his life a dozen times in crazy fights and stunts. The fights are okay, the stunts are pretty good, the camera work makes good use of the claustrophobic setting, with only one gratuitous Speilbergian dolly zoom. But if Michael was as observant as he is supposed to be, he would have noticed right away that this script goes off the rails long before the train does.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed including murders, fights, knives, guns, some disturbing images, corruption, some strong language, and alcohol, including drinking to deal with stress.

Family discussion: What would you want to know before accepting Joanna’s offer? Would you claim to be Prynne?

If you like this, try: “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” (original version), “Speed,” “Source Code,” and “Runaway Train”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray movie review

The Post

Posted on December 25, 2017 at 11:01 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Some wartime violence
Diversity Issues: Some sexist treatment
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 16, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post, is going over a list of financial and legal documents once again, rehearsing her answers to the questions she will be getting from bankers about selling shares in the company to the public for the first time. This job is one she never anticipated and never wanted. Her father had handed the business over to her husband and she had been perfectly content to be a mother and a socialite, hosting gracious parties and enjoying friendships with people who were important but never being important herself. But her husband has died — no, she reminds a colleague, he committed suicide. And so this is the job she has, even though the men around her are not sure she can do it and she is far from sure herself.

Daniel Ellsberg (“The Americans'” Matthew Rhys), a top aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), watches his boss tell reporters that the military was making progress in Vietnam, exactly the opposite of what Ellsberg had told him moments before. Later, working for the RAND Corporation think tank, he would take 47 volumes of reports on the government’s lies about the military efforts in Vietnam and send them to the New York Times. When the Nixon administration got a court order to stop further publication, it was shy, inexperienced Mrs. Graham who would have to decide whether she would risk her reputation, her family business, and even her freedom to continue to print the story.

And that, my friends in journalism, is why The Post, about the real-life publication of the Pentagon Papers, is not about the New York Times, which published them first, but about the then-considerably second-tier Washington Post and Mrs. Graham, who risked the collapse of the crucial deal to secure their finances, published second. This is about a woman who did not have greatness thrust upon her; she became great when greatness beckoned. And in playing Graham, we see a woman who began great and is still getting greater.

I know, I know, we’re all kind of over how great Meryl Streep is. She has given us so many decades of impeccable performances and inevitable awards nominations that we just take her for granted. But Streep’s performance in “The Post” is worthy of special attention because it shows us exactly what makes her the best actor of her generation. There’s nothing especially flashy about it. She did not have to learn a new language or transform herself as she has done in the past. Yet she is, as always, astonishingly precise in this film as Katharine Graham, a very private 1970’s socialite who is not yet aware of how fundamentally she is changing to become the leader of a major media outlet.

The very best actors convey a mixture of emotions. In “The Post,” the play of thoughts and feelings in Streep’s face as she seeks the courage to stand up to the men who are telling her what to do is like a master class in acting. She is nervous but resolute, insecure about her ability, unsure of her role, but certain about her commitment to the paper. We see how devoted she is to her family and her friends, the tribute she pays to the guest of honor at a cocktail party in the garden of her Georgetown mansion, her concern for her good friend Robert McNamara as he cares for his ailing wife, the way she softens in the middle of a tense conversation when a grandchild chases a ball into the room. But we also see her growing in the realization of the power of The Post and her own power as well.

Streep is not just superb at creating characters. She is a true ensemble player, never showboating but always seamlessly matching the rest of the cast, whether she is playing a notoriously awful singer in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a house band front woman in “Rikki and the Flash,” or a British Prime Minister in “The Iron Lady,” to mention just a few of her most recent roles.

In “The Post” she once again blends into the ensemble and she plays a character who is used to deferring to men. So it is easy to overlook how specific and layered she is in showing us a woman who was quiet, unsure, and, frequently condescended to by the men she worked with. As the shy heiress who unexpectedly became the publisher of The Washington Post when her husband committed suicide, Streep shows us the struggle, the spirit, and ultimately the determination of the woman who took the paper from a small local publication to fearless coverage of Watergate that brought down the Nixon administration.

As the movie begins, Graham is practicing for the biggest challenge she has had since taking over the paper that her father had given to her husband. The company is going to go public and she will have to persuade the bankers that even with the family maintaining control it is going to be a good investment. She is hyper-diligent; as one of the men points out, she is the only one who has read through all of the technical financial and legal documents, and she has made extensive notes for herself. We see her rehearsing her answers and when the time comes and she cannot get the words out, we see how hard she is trying and how much she wants to be the business executive the company needs. Watch Streep as Graham becomes in each scene less of the shy socialite who was unfailingly gracious to the paper’s sources, subjects, and rivals. Watch her become not just an executive but a journalist and a passionate defender of freedom of the press as she spars, first tentatively and then hitting her stride with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) over his own blind spots in putting friendship before reporting the story. Watch her as her close friend, whose reputation she is about to help destroy, shocks her by showing her his own fundamental integrity, and just try to look anywhere else as she reads aloud a note from her daughter and as she quietly but firmly and authoritatively does at the end of the film what she could not do at the beginning – thinks for herself and makes a decision based on her own sure sense of what is right for the paper and the country.

This movie brings us back to a time when trust in government and media was high. The Pentagon Papers was the first major leak of the modern era, followed by the Cointelpro documents revealed which revealed abuses by the FBI and led to major reforms and increased oversight. The discovery that three Presidents and their administrations had lied about the prospects of success in Vietnam was the political equivalent of “the call is coming from inside the house.” It had a seismic effect on Americans already in the midst of one of the country’s most tumultuous periods of protest and upheaval.

This movie makes it clear that the press had its own credibility issue at the time. Mrs. Graham points out to Bradlee that his close friendship with President Kennedy compromised his integrity as a journalist, as he asks her not to let her close friendship with McNamara compromise hers.

On top of all that, and its uncanny timeliness, it is whalloping good story about secrets and honor and Bob Odenkirk all but steals the film from two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history with his performance as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter with a hunch and a Rolodex who tracked down the papers for the Post. The last scene cheekily sets it up as a prequel to “All the President’s Men.” We can hope both are a prequel to future films about reporters dedicated to telling the story.

Parents should know that this film includes brief footage of the war in Vietnam, reference to suicide, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Mrs. Graham change and why? What did Ben Bagdikian mean about being part of a revolution?

If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and Mrs. Graham’s superb autobiography

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