Seymour: An Introduction is an Illuminating, Intimate Piano Documentary (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 16, 2015 | 1 Comment

Seymour: An Introduction

Some documentaries can be sloppily filmed, perhaps slightly unclear, or maybe even poorly constructed and still win me over because of their captivating subjects. But the best docs accompany their fascinating stories with filmmaking savvy, a unique point of view, and possibly an inventive spin on the genre.

Seymour: An Introduction, which opened in limited release last week, falls somewhere in between those two categories. It’s an intimate, ponderous, lovely examination of music, work, and life, directed with surprising and attentive subtlety by actor Ethan Hawke. There’s not a lot of cinematic flair here, but that’s a good thing. Hawke is rarely on screen and, instead of turning the movie into a movie-star showcase, he lets his subject do the talking.

Several years ago, he was at a dinner party when he found himself seated next to Seymour Bernstein, a piano virtuoso who stopped performing live at age 50 to teach students his instrument. Impressed by his kind, conversational dining companion, Hawke confided a new fear of stage fright to Bernstein, who had experienced similar feelings. Eventually, the actor realized this guy would make for a fine film subject.

And he does. Warm and slyly funny, endlessly talkative and erudite, Seymour is exactly the kind of person you would want to listen to for 90 minutes. Hawke paints this portrait of his subject by weaving together several sequences: a lunch discussion between Bernstein and a former student/New York Times writer; footage of piano lessons; and interviews in the man’s home (he’s lived in the same NYC apartment, alone, for fifty years).

This simple, straightforward approach allows lots of time for Seymour to discuss his opinions on classical composers, concert tours, the beauty of nervousness, the intense correlation between an instrument and it’s player, and the primal necessity of music.

Most directors would try to fill us in on every aspect of Bernstein’s life, but Hawke avoids such biographical predictability (likely either because of his politeness or Bernstein’s privacy) in favor of an informative approach that feels more riveting than introductory. At times, Seymour: An Introduction has the charming comfort of a big, warm hug. It’s not all absorbing entertainment; Bernstein tears up discussing his experiences in the Korean War, and chances are you’ll do the same. The movie moves covers a lot of history and skips between several sequences, but it steadily holds onto a relaxed, low-key, but provocative tone. As soon as you’ve seen the movie, you’ll want to mull over it’s ideas with friends and family. And then? You’ll be itching to start practicing an instrument.

Seymour: An Introduction

So, that’s my take on the film, which I got the chance to see at NYC’s IFC Center. Afterwards, the audience was treated to a Q&A with Hawke and Bernstein no less insightful and delightful than the film. Hawke discussed his reasons for making the film, while Bernstein told sometimes hilarious, sometimes illuminating stories that were left on the cutting room floor. I walked away with a smile on my face and a head full of new ideas.

Life Itself (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 3 Comments

A young Roger Ebert celebrates winning the Pulizter Prize for Criticism in 1975

Early in this film, we hear a recollection of Robert Zonka, feature editor of the Chicago Sun Times, telling Roger Ebert that he would take over the job of the paper’s film critic. As he recalls in his memoir, Ebert was happy to have “a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise”. We should be happy too, because without him we wouldn’t have had one of the most opinionated and important film critics of all time. Hey, without his writing, I might not be writing this review now. His reviews were some of the first I read, and they inspired this blog in many ways.

Now we have Life Itself, the film tribute Ebert deserves, a loving yet unflinching documentary by filmmaker Steve James. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his life, using interviews, family photos, film clips, and footage James shot with Ebert in the last months of his life. In 1994, Ebert championed his basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which he called the “the great American documentary”.

As an only child growing up in Illinois, Ebert found a knack for journalism as a high school sports writer but blossomed as a reporter, and then editor, of the Daily Illini, while at the Univesity of Illinois. It was there he developed his thoughtful yet fervent writing style and, as colleagues attest to, his demanding, ambitious personality. It was there he even wrote one of his first movie reviews, for La Dolce Vita in 1961. Several years later, Ebert was a real film critic, writing during the early era of “New Hollywood”. He was one of the first to praise Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Oddysey. Ebert wrote about twenty-something art house auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog when they were just starting out. In the film, Scorsese talks specifically about the experience of being praised and panned by Ebert, and the surprisingly pivotal role the two played in each other’s lives. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975.

Ebert wasn’t without his problems, however. For years, he struggled as an alcoholic, trading insults and stories at O’Rourkes, a Chicago bar. The film covers this time in depth, drawing from the memories of Ebert’s drinking buddies and the bar owner.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel during the heyday of their movie-review show At The Movies

Some of Life Itself‘s best moments involve Ebert and his turbulent yet deeply important relationship with film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert, as film critic for the urban Sun Times, wanted nothing to do with (or even talk to) his new rival, who worked for the more urbane Chicago Tribune. By 1975, however, the two worked to cohost Sneak Previews (later At The Movies), inspiring a new generation of film lovers. James uses television footage, outtakes, and numerous film clips to illustrate their rivalry and friendship with hilarity, friction, and, ultimately, warmth. Interviews with At The Movies producer Thea Flaum lend context and history, while Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, tells some heart-rending stories.

Movie geeks will be particularly absorbed by a segment chronicling Richard Corliss fascinating but arguably unfair 1990 piece “All Thubs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” He writes about At The Movies: “It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. At The Movies is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism.” Ebert’s response, from “All Stars: Or Is There A Cure for Critcism Film Criticism?”: responded by saying “it would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around talking about movies—but we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.” This section of the the film is small, but memorable. With these think-pieces, Corliss and Ebert shone light on film criticism’s purpose-whether it is important to write lengthy reviews for the sake of integrity or to expand a television audience’s appreciation of film. As Martin Scorsese says of Ebert: “He made it possible for a bigger audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, because he really loved film.”

It may sound like this is a film focused on, well, films. And, because it is about Roger Ebert, movies are a central part of this story. But we learn about all aspects of his life: his drinking, yes, but also his personality, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the thyroid cancer that cost him his ability to eat, drink, or speak. Communicating through voice synthesizers on his computer and introducing himself to a new generation of readers (myself included) through his blog and Twitter, Ebert plowed on; showing his endurance and strength during times of extreme pain and despair. After multiple surgeries and a multitude of blogged movie reviews, Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. Obama Oprah, Spielberg, Redford, and many more praised him. In Redford’s words: he was “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” whose “personal passion for cinema was boundless”.

It was Ebert’s writing style that made him such an icon. Direct, encyclopedic, eloquent, and opinionated, his combination of old-fashioned newspaperman clarity, a film buff’s knowledge, and a TV host’s accessibility made him one of the most talented film critics of all time. Pauline Kael may have influenced the generation of New Yorker film critics that followed her, but you’ll hear Ebert’s impact in almost anyone writing newspaper movie reviews.

Back to Life Itself: how does it work as a movie? Steve James doesn’t break boundaries with his techniques, but cross-cutting between unflinching interview sessions with a hospitalized Ebert and a more conventional talking heads/archival footage documentary approach is a masterful move. Early on, the film suffers from Stephen Stenton’s dry readings of Ebert’s memoir and unfunny soundbites from Ebert’s old friends, making the early scenes feel like a weird combination of audiobook and television retrospective. But the film gets more insightful and affecting as it goes. Its two hour length feels exhaustively informative yet also brief considering how much happened during the man’s life.

Post-surgery Roger Ebert, still reviewing movies and living life

Ultimately, Life Itself‘s few flaws are overshadowed by it’s many strengths. Steve James and his team clearly have immense respect for Ebert, but they rarely shy away from giving us a warts-and-all study of the man. What we’re left with is a film about life and love, sickness and death, newspapers, criticism, and the movies. At times inspiring, poignant, hard to watch, and hilarious, Life Itself  tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh with joy, and will have both your thumbs pointed up.

The Big Interview: Cano Rojas and Enrico Rossini Cullen

Posted on | February 20, 2013 | Add Comments

We had the opportunity to interview the director, Cano Rojas, and producer, Enrico Rossini Cullen, of The Human Tower. We talked about how they managed to cut hours and hours into 75 minutes, the power of the towers, a chunk of the footage that they loved but cut, and more.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | May 18, 2012 | Add Comments

Jiro Ono ran away when he was nine years old. Now he’s over eighty years of age. He’s now been making sushi for over seventy years. This documentary features interviews with Jiro, his two sons, a food critic, and more.
Jiro is a perfectionist. Interviewees in the film say so themselves. The film might not be perfect but it’s still great. Anybody who likes sushi or who wants to learn about the greatest living sushi chef. If you’re not interested in learning about either one, you won’t have  as much fun.

One of the great things about the film is that it shows the sushi. We see the sushi (in focus)get placed on a plate. The background (out of focus) is the kitchen. David Gleb, the director of the movie watered my mouth, fulfilled my curiosity, and filmed it all with intensity that is leagues ahead from your average modern action movie. For anybody hoping to watch an intoxicatingly gripping documentary, this is for you. The interviews reveal much about Jiro: his childhood, his love of sushi, his sons, and how to massage an octopus for forty minutes.The music is dramatic and gives life to Jiro and his apprentices.The one criticism I have is that towards the end, the film got repetitive and I almost felt as if I was about to watch what I had already watched. But fortunately, Gleb serves us a delicious ending… And it’s right out of the oven.

My favorite character is Jiro because of his expansive knowledge of sushi.

My favorite scene is the end because it wraps everythting up and saves the film from being repetitive.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is rated PG but there is just about nothing inappropriate. The film is however, slow and younger kids may get bored easily.

A wonderful documentary; full of interesting facts and dramatic music. Best of all is Jiro is there in the center of it all.

Aliens of the Deep (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | April 2, 2012 | 1 Comment

4 stars

James Cameron, Marine and Astrobiologists and more travel 2 1/2 miles below the surface of the ocean. They encounter alien-like sea creatures and test scientific experiments.

The man that made the two of the highest grossing films of all time, Avatar and Titanic (both beaten only by Gone with the Wind) is also fascinated by the depths of the ocean. In 2003, he made the film Ghosts of the Abyss where he and Bill Paxton, an actor in Titanic traveled to the sunken ship itself. Then, in 2005, he directed Aliens of the Deep. It’s no wonder that James Cameron shows off his knack for visuals; while this film is a documentary Cameron does show off his talent, and that’s fine with me, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the documentary aspect of the film. Fortunately, it doesn’t. The creatures in the film are fascinatingly shown off in scenes that give us great cinematography and teach us interesting new things. It’s obvious that Cameron has talent, and he displays it, here but not in the way he did in Avatar. Here we actually learn something.

Cameron himself says, “Here’s the deal. I love this stuff.” That is completely evident here. I learned many new things that I didn’t know before. Absolutely nothing in the film is complicated (no brain work today buster!) but that’s not the point. Cameron is much more interested in trying to interest his audience. He does, brilliantly.aliensofthedeepThe film is basically two short films: the first half focuses more on the wonder and spectacle of the deep sea animals, while the second half focuses more on how Cameron and his crew traveled, explored and researched the deep sea. This is why the movie works well. Cameron doesn’t let his knowledge fall into a mess. No, no, he keeps everything organized. The whole film is organized. So perfectly. That’s actually my problem with the film: it’s so perfect. Only once do we see a failure with the crew. It would have been nice to see some more faults that occurred during the journey and that’s the problem with Cameron, he doesn’t want to show his mistakes or faults. A perfectionist as they call ’em, a perfectionist.

My favorite character (explorer) was Dijanna Figueroa because she was (like so many of the other explorers) clearly interested in doing what she was doing.

My favorite scene was when James Cameron and some other divers saw the squid because it summed up the spectacle aspect of the film and the creature looked unique.

Aliens of the Deep is rated G and I agree.

Aliens of the Deep is almost perfect, it’s a hugely rewarding experience; you’ll come out of the theater or your living room or where ever and you’ll wish you’d never come out. This is James Cameron at his best.

Pina (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | March 30, 2012 | 2 Comments

4 1/2 stars

Pina Bausch, a dancer and dance choreographer died in 2009. Her students pay tribute to her.

Pina is a tribute to Pina Bausch and it features nonstop dancing. That is all you need to know before going to see the film. If that is all you want to know before seeing the film, stop reading now. However, there’s no way to “spoil” the movie because after all it is nonstop dancing interspersed with Bausch’s students describing her. Helene Louvat, the film’s cinematographer uses the camera in an indescribable way. In all the movies I’ve seen, I’ve never seen anybody use a camera like this; Louvart is an important part of why the film works. Her use of the camera is stunning. Also the music, by various artists that include Thom Hanreich and Jon Miyake (the writer of the best track in the film, Lillies of the Valley) is catchy and jazzy, the perfect paring for a beautifully shot tribute to Bausch. A problem in many films these days is the length. At 103 minutes, Pina moves along quickly and rightly so; Wim Wenders’ film could get tiring after a while because the dancing is so mesmerizing.I didn’t see the film in 3-D, but I think that would add another layer to the film. That leads me to my next compliment of the film. The dancers in this film are amazing. However it’s obvious that Wenders adds another layer to the dancing. The dancing + the cinematography + the score + the costumes (which I haven’t mentioned, but are very good) = a cinematic delight. Wenders uses everything to make the dances more exciting, more vivid, more real. He brings a boulder, chairs, water and (best of all) a red jacket to life on the big screen.

My favorite character (dancer) is Pina Bausch because almost all of the dancers described her and yet so much was left unsaid, especially how she died making for an interesting portrait of her.

My favorite scene is the second scene in the film with the brown dirt, women, men and the woman with the red jacket because the use of color was so effective and the dance was very well done.

Pina is rated PG for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking, however it’s is appropriate for almost anybody (whether or not they’ll sit through it is a different matter).

Pina is provocative, full of color and a must see for any fan of cinema.

2012 Providence Children’s Film Festival: Man on a Mission

Posted on | February 20, 2012 | Add Comments

Flick interviews Rich about Man on a Mission on Day 3 of 2012 PCFF.