Wednesday, August 27, 2014

As Above/So Below

Tonight I saw As Above/So Below, starring Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman.

Scarlett (Weeks) is a woman on a mission to find the philosopher's stone and prove that it's real. She convinces her ex-boyfriend (?) George (Feldman) to accompany her on the exploration, along with a shaky cameraman and some locals she finds to lead the way, who claim to know their way around.

If I forgot to mention, said stone is supposedly buried deep beneath the earth in the ever-creepy Paris catacombs. Hidden far beyond where the tour guides take travelers.

As they descend, the music gets louder and the lines get cheesier. I'm delighted to jump a few times in the name of "gotcha" reveals, but the cues were so obviously laid out there was no way they were ever going to be a surprise.

The 'love' story, if it could be called that, doesn't have time to develop because the camera isn't still long enough to to concentrate on the characters. Except when they're getting scared, or hurt, or discovered for the first time.

And the claustrophobia. If you have it, don't go near this. If you don't have it, you may develop it. Either way, enduring such a directionless, predictable film is not worth your time.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alive Inside

Today I saw the Michael Rossato-Bennett documentary Alive Inside.

Social worker Dan Cohen was commuting to work one day when he heard a story on the radio about iPods. This made him consider that it may be helpful to use the music players with some of his eldery clients in the nursing homes where he was assigned.

Soon, lives were being changed.

Dan began loading the residents' favorite songs onto iPods and saw evidence of the soul waking. Patients with dementia that never interacted with people began making eye contact, singing and dancing. Memories came alive and they began sharing them. The caretakers were stunned by their responsiveness.

Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks appears in the film to help explain why music can ignite parts of the brain that simple dialog cannot. Apparently we begin hearing music in the earliest days of our formation as embryos, and music bypasses other parts of the brain that fail when humans are stricken with ailments such as Alzheimer's.

Music allows patients to connect with the world in ways that may have gone dark for several years prior. Cohen soon sees the depth of positivity this is bringing to the nursing home community and begins a crusade to bring iPods to all U.S. nursing homes.

At first he is met with resistance (how can something considered a luxury be equated as medicine?), but soon transforms several communities and the groundswell for change begins.

The result is a nonprofit he founded called Music & Memory. The organization gathers donations of iPods, then trains students to go into the nursing homes and work with the residents to develop their ideal playlist.

His work reminds us that a little change in our way of thinking about therapy and treatment can make a world of difference.

This film will tug at your heart—and then leave you scrambling to find out how you can help.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

Tonight I saw the documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

Created by the same team that made the award-winning Paradise Lost series, this film has a similar storytelling style, rich with candid conversations, court transcripts and aerial shots of the star city (in this case, Boston).

The work examines volumes of official documents pertaining to the case against legendary Irish mobster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, interviewing attorneys from both sides as well as witnesses, journalists and family members of Bulger's victims.

At the heart of the argument is whether or not Whitey was ever really an informant for the FBI.

Thought it's been believed for years he was a "rat," there is compelling evidence to suggest FBI agent (and Bulger childhood friend) John Connelly was so smitten with the mobster that he falsified records to look as if he was, but he wasn't.

Truly, the corruption goes deeper and deeper—all the way to a safe at the Boston FBI headquarters that has since been removed (so we think, based on the 82-year-old secretary's testimony). It used to hold documents that were strictly protected with every regime change, but no longer exists. Those documents also illuminated the fact that Bulger was never really an informant, but was protected by the FBI at the highest levels.

Some of the most compelling moments of the film are the phone calls we get to hear between Bulger's defense attorney and Bulger himself. Whitey's voice is as sharp, clear and confident as one may expect. In some sequences, it's hard not to believe the words coming out of his mouth, as they're stated with such conviction.

Whatever your beliefs on the matter, the arguments here are guaranteed to spark questions, and the sadness of the people he harmed will pull at your heartstrings.

One can only hope that with him finally behind bars, justice has been served.


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

Today I saw Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Stanley (Firth) is a jaded magician brought to a wealthy mansion to disprove the psychic readings of Sophie (Stone), a flirtatious American with a meddling mother.

When Stanley arrives in the South of France, Sophie immediately gives him a reading that is accurate, yet vague. He is unconvinced and determined to prove her con.

Though annoyed by the hassle of the situation, handsome-yet-arrogant Stanley is admittedly drawn to the attractive medium and invites her on a road trip to Provence to visit his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). On the trip, Sophie gets at some of the most intimate details of his aunt's private life and his belief system is turned upside down. He submits to the unknown and shares a romantic evening with Sophie en route back to the mansion.

And then: A conventional, not-so-surprising, yet-still-welcome,Woody Allen twist.

In the midst of the dance of sarcastic dialogue and fluttering eyelashes, there's genuine heart here, pulled out by the flawless performances of the leads. To say more would commit spoiler crimes, but I'll admit to leaving the theater smiling and satisfied.

I've come to expect no less from Allen's sunshine-kissed, European-set romps.


Deepsea Challenge 3D

Last night I saw the documentary Deepsea Challenge 3D, about the journey James Cameron takes to a deep section of the ocean floor.

The director asks himself on screen whether or not he's a filmmaker who explores as a hobby or an explorer who makes films as a hobby. This film suggests the latter.

After seeing two men journey to the bottom of the ocean on television as a child in the 60s, Cameron held on to the dream of doing it himself until he had the means to duplicate the mission. That chance came a few years ago, when he commissioned the construction of a new submarine that would not only take him to those impressive depths, but also possess the capabilities to film and collect sediment samples during the journey.

A great portion of the film is spent watching Cameron, known for his tough treatment of employees, pushing the engineers and scientists to finish the build and fix the problems that keep surfacing (no pun intended). He can't be blamed for wanting them to get it right (after all, it is he who will perish if they don't); but I'm not sure viewers need such exploration of the preparation. For at least an hour, I was saying to myself "just get down there already."

After personal tragedies and systematic failures of epic proportion during testing are behind them, the trip finally takes place in 2012. The journey is long (over 35,000 feet) and insanely dangerous. It's hard to picture anyone but Cameron with the patience and passion to actually risk his life to do it—lucky for us it is him, and he does a beautiful job of capturing what he sees and experiences.

Though it could be argued that the sea life he encounters at elevations higher than his final mission are more illuminating than the desolate space at the bottom, there's an instant peace you can't help but experience, placing yourself for moments in his pod-like contraption and watching the quiet existence of nothing that is a magnificent something, wide-eyed in wonder.

If you've ever wanted to feel for a moment that you were part of an alternate world, treat yourself to this one-of-a-kind documentary. And enjoy the mysteries of the earth that are still yet undiscovered.