Movie Review: Seth Rogen puts himself in “An American Pickle” — twice

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You pick up on a big drawback to the Seth Rogen comedy “An American Pickle” the first time he shows up in two guises on the screen. Here’s a movie that abandons most everything that makes Rogen special in its very conception.

A near legendary and legendarily profane and pot-friendly riffer and comic reactor, Rogen plays opposite himself in most of the scenes in this daft but DOA fantasy. Neither Seth has much that’s funny to say or do, and Rogen apparently couldn’t goose the performances or the dialogue to make anything better happen.

He’s no damn good playing off himself.

The pitch was promising enough. A ditch-digger and shtetl survivor — think Tevye from “Fiddler” but without the singing or dancing — woos and marries Sarah (Sarah Snook) and after one Cossack pogrom too many, escapes with her to 1920 New York.

Herschel (Gogen) takes a job smashing rats in a pickle factory, and dreams not just of affording seltzer water, but of a day “100 years from now,” when his descendants have ascended the ladder of prosperity and the name “Greenbaum” will be “biggest in all of America.”

He even buys a big cemetery plot against that day, and to ensure that family and legacy and Judaism remain the driving force of their descendants.

Damned if he doesn’t fall into a pickling vat the day the factory is condemned, only to be released and revived 100 years later. A scientist (Sean Whalen) explains “how” in a press conference, which narrating Herschel wisely summarizes without detail, “hees logeek satisfying everyone.”

Herschel meets his one living descendent, great grandson Ben (Rogen again) is a “freelance mobile app developer” whose “conscientious shopping app,” BoopBop, isn’t quite ready to sell. His job becomes, for a while, to explain the changes in the world, America and Brooklyn to bearded relic Herschel.

“Interracial couple,” Ben says to Herschel’s surprise, “totally cool now…in parts of the country.”

In formula terms, this Simon Rich script is a “fish out of water” comedy, in this case, about a Greenbaum out of brine. Take the stranger in this strange land, introduce him to the “organic” (over-priced) markets, Williamsburg (NY) metrosexuals, Prius taxis and Twitter. Let the hilarity ensue.

It never does.

 

Rich’s script avoids taking the easy route and instead sets us up for an endless succession of not-that-funny scenarios that grope around for a payoff.

Herschel feuds with Ben over Ben’s agnosticism, Ben’s timidity about selling his app or keeping up the family cemetery. He blanches at the over-priced produce and starts making “artisanal” pickles out of dumpster produce, discarded jars and salt and genuine New York city “rainwater.” He goes “viral” in the process.

Ben? His only purpose becomes foiling his backward great grandfather’s enterprise.

On the page, there’s a little “find your heritage” arc to Ben’s story, and that’s it. There’s precious little “growth” for Herschel, even though the mild shock of hearing Rogen speaking Yiddish and tossing around how “Hashem” has blessed Herschel in this way or that one is a novelty.

And there is literally no other character given any chance of making so much as an impression. What, did they pay Rogen twice and not have the cash for co-stars, actors who would require meatier roles from the screenplay?

I counted maybe three laughs in the thing, and one is an after-the-credits scene and involves a recent Rogen co-star and Jewish showbiz legend. Another?  Herschel narrates about how much he and his Sarah have in common.

“Her family was murdered by Cossacks, MY family was murdered by Cossacks!”

Rogen vs. Rogen is roughly half as amusing any the least amusing Rogen character ever. And the “rediscover your heritage and traditions” stuff isn’t original enough to make it past a table read for “The Goldbergs.”

Nice period detail, a few cute situations, one half-interesting character and three laughs, that’s the pickle this picture puts itself in.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and rude humor

Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone, Carol Leifer

Credits: Directed by Brandon Trost, script by Simon Rich, based on his short story. An HBO Max release.

Running time:

 

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Movie Review: Another Ayer ride-along, this time with “The Tax Collector”

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You can’t blame screenwriter turned writer-director David Ayer for going back to his greatest hit whenever he’s in a pinch.

Hell, Howard Hawks wasn’t shy about repeating himself, again and again.

Ayer wrote “Training Day.” “End of Watch,” “Harsh Times,” even “Bright” were just variations on that “buddy picture” and “screen good guy turns villain” formula.

That’s all “The Tax Collector” is — an LA gang tale that’s advertised as a Shia LaBeouf thriller, but it isn’t. It’s a Bobby Soto star vehicle.

Soto (“The Quarry”) is the family man and the guy with the title role, that of the guy who picks up protection money from 43 different gangs that run all the drugs, stolen goods and sex workers in their corner of LA.

“Creeper,” played by a tatted-up, buzzcut-with-shades Shia? He’s the muscle.

It is David’s family business. He’s the one who picks up the payoffs, hands it off to his courier-cousin Lupe (Chelsea Rendon) and makes the threats if the payment is lacking.

“If your tab’s short, go rob a bank! Rob your own mother!”

Backtalk or failure to pay means Creeper shows you his power drill, dons the white coveralls of a car painter, spreads the plastic sheeting on the floors and walls and spills a LOT of your blood on it.

David is also a peace keeper, interrupting “personal” beat-downs to remind this guy who caught that guy sneaking around with his girlfriend that “This ain’t Vietnam, Homey. We got BUSINESS” with his gang.

Opening scenes establish David as a family man, living large, with a beautiful wife (Cinthya Carmona) and two tweenage kids and a big house and a few cars, including a collectible one.

They make an effort for big family gatherings. He’s willing to apply a little pressure to score his niece her desired Quincenera dress from a reluctant retailer.

Ayer takes pains to make David a show-Catholic, debating theology and abortion with Creeper as they ride-along to various pickups. The family hugs, kisses and prays together. But it also preys together.

Uncle Louis (a painfully unconvincing George Lopez) is old school, running a garage/tire store that’s basically for money-laundering. We hear how David was born into the family gang business, put there by his father. And we see how all the other family members either look the other way at where the money comes from, or help with the books like David’s wife, Alexis.

Ayer paints a portrait of family values, vice, violence and venality which David, at some point, will recognize. All this corruption eats at the soul, or so you’d think.

First, though, there’s all this collecting and lots of Boys-n-the-Suburban banter between stops.

“You’re going to hell, man.”

“Yeah, I’m at peace with that.”

And then the interloper, a Satanist/Santeria-practicing monster from the past (Jose Conjeo Martin) shows up, fully-formed with a gang to back up his power grab.

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Soto  holds his own as a tough guy and a family guy. But LaBeouf is so much better at the banter thing, the swagger and dead-eyed killer look that one is reminded of the sort of spark and pop an actor needs to become a movie star. Soto may develop it. For now, he’s just leading man handsome with bit player charisma and stagecraft.

He is our “explainer,” our tour guide for this confusing world, and making out everything he says (an enunciation issue, not an accent one) is a chore.

But “The Tax Collector” fails on Ayer’s watch. The script is something of a muddle, with abrupt, illogical turns and too much time spent immersing us in Ayer’s version of LA Latinx culture, with a gang twist.

Yes, it’s “Scarface” with Mexican Americans, Latins filtering their traditions and tastes through American gaucherie. We get it.

Every so often, a line — of gangster-to-gangster flattery or what-not — makes you cringe.

“You’re a candle in the darkness.”

And the finale is a horror of violence, unexplained coincidences and divine (gang) intervention.

If you’re going to recycle “Training Day,” you’d best cast leads of equal skill, if not equal footing. Mixing up the formula is fine, but not if you lose track of what’s made it work every other time you’ve used it.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: apparently unrated, worth an “R” for graphic violence

Cast: Bobby Soto, Shia LaBeouf, Cinthya Carmona, Jose Conejo Martin and George Lopez.

Credits: Written and directed by David Ayer. An RLJE  release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Review: “Waiting for the Barbarians”

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“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a dusty, grim colonialism fable based on a novel by the South African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee.

The “waiting” ostensibly is the comeuppance facing an unnamed “empire” whose brutal high-handedness will lead to a third act reckoning. But the “barbarians,” our hero comes to see, are the “civilized” faces looking back at himself and his kind when they shave each morning.

It’s a sort of old fashioned movie, as 19th century period pieces set in forts in the desert inevitably are, but more intimate than grand in scope and scale.  The literary qualities and a very good cast make it work, despite “FABLE” being spelled out in capital letters as Colombian director Ciro Guerra (“Embrace of the Servant”) and the novelist-screenwriter never let us forget its Great Book origins.

Mark Rylance is The Magistrate, an imperial functionary too-long-on-the-job at a frontier outpost to wield the jackboots of authority. “One grows to feel a part of the place,” he says, shrugging off his “leave well enough alone” attitudes to his superior, Col. Joll, played with a quiet menace by Johnny Depp.

Joll is all about the jackboots, traveling in the comfort of a coach with similarly black-clad imperial troopers. His only concession to the desert is his exotic eyewear, “the latest thing,” sunglasses.

The setting could the Himalayan foothills where the British, Russian and Ottoman Empires collided, or the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where the French Empire held sway, and the actual filming location. But the idea is that racism and the “colonial” impulse are timeless, the ugliest part of human nature, no matter if you’re German, Japanese, American or Belgian.

Joll is curious about “threats” from across the border and why The Magistrate has done nothing about them. The Magistrate has been there long enough to dismiss that “hysteria” as nothing more than gossip. He sees the nomadic neighbors as a minor nuisance at worst, eternal in that they’re just waiting for this latest “empire” to leave them be.

“I kept the world on its course,” he says of his duties there, explaining why he never built a jail as he shows the Col. two sheep-stealing nomads they’re holding for trial in the fort.

But Joll is here to crack the whip, bring the boot down and “interrogate” the prisoners. The Magistrate’s protests of “What could they possibly know?” fall on deaf ears. There is a “set procedure,” applying “patience and pressure to get to the truth.”

Thus is the order of this quiet, peaceful backwater shattered, the violence escalating towards war — to confine the “barbarians” to the distant mountains.

It plays out in an understated, if author-underlined fashion. What is war,” one junior officer (Sam Reid) notes, but “compelling a choice on someone who would not otherwise make it?”

There are screen “chapter” headings such as “Spring: The Return.” There is The Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), a torture victim whom The Magistrate nurses and tries to return to her people.

All for naught, as reinforcements and Robert Pattinson, as Officer Mendel, arrive and an ill-conceived “campaign” is mounted, barbarism piling upon barbarism.

You have to have a high tolerance for characters as archetypes, for an author channeling Franz Kafka in his dismay at the misdirected, misguided and misanthropic machinery of state, to embrace a movie such at this.

The “Lawrence of Arabia/Beau Geste” setting notwithstanding, Guerra never reaches for Cinemascope grandeur. A desert trek, complete with sandstorm, is his only concession to that.  These are ordinary men committing atrocities in a drab place no one should be fighting to rule.

The Oscar-winning Rylance is perfectly-cast as the “one just man” Joll insults him for wanting to be. He’s quite good at conveying innate decency.

Depp could be dismissed as just a name and a costume who got the film financed, but his Franco-Teutonic take on Joll never quite crosses into caricature. It’s good to see him putting in the effort. Pattinson? His tiny part basically is just a name and a costume who got the film financed.

Greta Scacchi plays a woman of the garrison, a role that must have had more to her in the novel.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” may keep Coetzee’s fable elements intact, but wonders if something richer might have come from it with another screenwriter adapting the book, or perhaps a director with a bigger reputation behind the camera.

Yes, we get “the moral of the story.” It’s embossed and burnished, if not quite beaten into us. But you can’t help feeling there should have been more here to make “Barbarians” worth the wait.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody violence, torture

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Greta Scacchi and Sam Reid.

Credits: Directed by Ciro Guerra, script by J.M, Coetzee, based on his novel.  A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:52

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Movie Preview: End of August laughs? “Get Duked!”

Eddie Izzard headlines this “anarchic” Scottish comedy.

Looks loopy enough. See it Aug 28.

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Movie Review: Skarsgard is haunted by a youth spent “Out Stealing Horses”

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We never know what we’ll be able to brush off or force ourselves to forget and what will eat at us until our dying day.

We can’t even know, as Dickens’ David Copperfield mused, “Whether I’ll be the hero of  my own life.”

But Trond, the old man “hero” of “Out Stealing Horses,” still wonders if his father, long ago, got it right when as a boy Trond refused to pull up thorny nettles on Dad’s farm.

“You decide for yourself when it will hurt.”

The film is Per Petterson’s novel is as intimate as a memory play, with the scale of a chamber drama and the scope of half a century of personal and family history. It’s an essay in Scandinavian stoicism set in a coming-of-age story remembered by an elderly Norwegian widower (Stellan Starsgärd) who has resettled in Sweden.

He has “lived to be alone in a place like this,” and now — two years widowed — he is out in the Swedish boondocks, alone with his dog and his thoughts. Only one of those is any comfort to him.

Weeds — nettles included — take him from the 1999 present to 1948, his father’s Norwegian hobby farm parked in the woodlands of the Norwegian-Swedish border. Trond (Jon Ranes) was 15, and he has his and Dad (Tobias Santelmann) are to bond over a summer in a remote corner of the world where farming is still largely done by hand and neighbors are obliged to help neighbors.

The foreboding that hangs over this bucolic scene is the recent past — World War II, when Norway was occupied by the Germans and Sweden a Nazi-friendly neutral — life-altering accidents and Trond learning things about himself and his father that will haunt him into his solitary dotage.

Adapter-director Hans Petter Moland (“In Order of Disappearance”) skillfully cuts back and forth in time, from the wintry present, where Trond becomes reacquainted with a neighbor from back then and muses over what they both experienced, and the tensions the adult Trond recognizes now that his 15 year-old self was slow to discover.

His favorite teen idyll was going “out stealing horses” (in Swedish and Norwegian, with English subtitles) with a neighbor boy, which meant figuring out ways to mount another neighbor’s herd without benefit of a saddle, or the horses’ cooperation.

But the one day aged Trond goes back to in his mind is troubling and scarring, and not just because he got tossed into barbed wire by a mount. Somebody died. Something about his father and a neighbor lady (Danica Curcic) came to light.

Moland has been wise to stake so much of his career on Skarsgärd, even if this adaptation is the weakest of their collaborations.

The director leans too heavily on voice-over narration, but that has a little something to do with a big theme of this story. Every character acts repressed, reluctant to say out loud or openly express their longing, hurt and worry.

Guilt is the one characteristic that everybody shares, from the little boy who survived a traumatic childhood accident to become Trond’s new neighbor (Bjørn Floberg) to a married woman almost mortally betrayed by her then husband, a father who knows he will abandon his family and a kid who grows up to see his guilty part in everybody else’s unhappiness.

The most moving moments surround a death, with no one — adult or child — equipped to speak about it. The smallest boy literally runs away from his responsibility for it, even at the funeral.

All that said, “Out Stealing Horses (Ut og stjæle hester)” is too subdued for its own good, too stuck in Trond’s head, with his narration, to ever break through. The odd moving moment in a stunning setting — set pieces center around the dangers of small-farm logging — is surrounded by a lot that’s implied, and too little that’s shown. 

And what incidents there are play mostly as straight-up melodrama.

Moland has made a movie as repressed as his characters, and even the “triumph” of that becomes a bit much for the viewer to bear.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes, some violence

Cast: Stellan Skarsgärd, Danica Curcic, Jon Ranes, Bjørn Floberg, Tobias Santelmann

Credits: Written and directed by Hans Petter Moland, based on a novel by Per Petterson. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:03

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Bingeworthy? Diego Luna’s “Pan y Circo” pairs Mexican cuisine with hot button Mexican issues

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Only decades of affection for the wonderful Mexican actor Diego Luna‘s screen performances and a recognition of “Well, his heart’s in the right place” can temper the tone of any review of his new chat show/series for Amazon, “Pan y Circo, (Bread and Circus).”

Blame it on the timing, round table (actually rectangular) discussions where experts and advocates discuss Mexico’s seemingly intractable social, cultural and political problems might have been a better idea, pre-pandemic.

And yes, there’s a Zoom meeting/discussion about COVID-19 and the country’s response to it, shoehorned in as a seventh episode of what must have been planned as a six episode series.

But the framework, the top tier of thinkers, activists, scientists and politicians discussing poverty, gender violence, drugs and environmental catastrophe at multi-course sit-down dinners prepared by Mexico’s finest chefs? What the hell was he thinking?

Amazon has produced a slick, shiny and topical docu-talk show that could very be the most elitist program in the history of Mexico.

I’m not sure of the order the programs will appear in on Amazon’s menu, as the preview copies of all the shows were mislabeled when sent to me. But “#NiUnamas (Not One More),” is so shockingly tone-deaf you’d think the guy signed on for a musical without taking singing lessons.

A wealthy, famous actor hosting six women — activists, a rapper, a mother of a “femicide” victim, government and NGO officials — in a discussion of Mexico’s culturally entrenched mistreatment, sexualization, dismissal, abuse and violence against women, just plays…wrong.

The discussion itself, intercut with clips of TV news coverage of protests and murders, the silly presentations of women in film and on TV (weather forecast stripteases and the like), is far ranging, pointed and civil. But over the course of three courses, and 40 minutes, you have to wonder “What’s the point?”

And that’s the least elite panel of the seven that Luna gathers. The rest of the series, underscored by free form jazz drumming, has a President of Colombia and others fairly high up the ladder talking about the social fabric fraying that leads to a decades-long “war on drugs,” which the panel generally agrees (in Spanish, with English subtitles) “has been lost.”

The chat, peppered with statistical graphics and illustrative video of slums, climate catastrophes, abortion, “round trip migrants,” drug violence and the like, is generally enlightened, if limited in scope. And then there’s a chef — Enrique Olvera, Alexander Suástegui — serving up another course and describing the molé or what have you as she or he does.

It’s jarring and grating at the same time.

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The effect is not unlike the first time you run into any TV series from another culture. You try to approach it on that culture’s level, recognize the different values, ways of thinking and approach. The production values are sparkling, the amount of information packed into each show’s opening (narrated by Luna) impresses.

But then Luna’s pal and sometime co-star Gael García Bernal shows up for the dinner panel on drugs, and you just throw up your hands.

The only way this could be more ridiculous is if George Clooney was hosting, and invited Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to talk about climate change and sustainability while visiting the finest restaurants of say, Italy.

Rich Latin elites solve Mexico’s problems over 40 minute chats eating haute cuisine — WTF TV.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Diego Luna, Zara Snapp, Juan Manuel Santos, Elena Reygadas, Enrique Olvera, Alexander Suástegui, Gael García Bernal many others

Credits: Created by Diego Luna, directed by Greg Allen. An Amazon series.

Running time: Seven episodes @ :38 minutes each.

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Movie Review: A Peruvian lament, “Song Without a Name (Cancion sin Nombre)”

Stark, poetic and somewhat frustrating, “Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre)” patiently weaves together several story threads to capture what life was like during Peru’s 1980s collapse.

It was, as headlines show us, a country awash in corruption and violence, with hyper-inflation, racial strife and attacks by the Shining Path guerillas crushing the culture and hitting the very poor the hardest.

It is this world that Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) and Leo (Lucio Rojas) are about to bring a child. The film begins with a ceremonial baby shower, Catholic blessings and ancient Incan incantations, garments and dance by friends and relatives in their treeless village high in the mountains.

Each day, they trek into town — him to labor in a produce warehouse, her to buy potatoes which she then hawks on the streets for money that is worth less every day she earns it.

Hearing repeated ads for the San Benito Foundation and its “free” childbirth clinic sends Georgina to Lima for her first doctor’s visit, and then back — by bus and in labor — to give birth. Only she never sees her daughter. It is “in the hospital for tests,” the women tell her. “You’ll see her tomorrow.”

Georgina’s cries and shrieks don’t move them, and she’s hustled out the door, screaming “Where have they taken her?” into the night.

Mountain people of the Quechua can’t get the attention of distracted, disinterested police. It’s only when she cries her way into the offices of “La Reforma,” a newspaper, that someone will listen. Pedro (Tommy Párraga) is a brooding loner, a reporter dragged from scenes of Shining Path members slaughtered by government troops and government scandals to this strange crime.

He hears her out, and the secretive Radio Mundo DJ who doesn’t want to allow him access to the “client” who bought the ads and a dismissive family court judge processing shady adoptions overseas in bulk all sugges to him that he’s on to something. The threats tell him it’s something big.

And Pedro has his own secrets, which the presence of a handsome Cuban actor (Maykol Hernández) in his building, always running lines from “The Glass Menagerie,” reveal.

Melina León’s debut feature, a Camera d’Or nominee at Cannes, is filled with striking images of fog-shrouded mountainsides, treks through a moonscape of sand, dirt and poverty.

The human drama battered in this landscape is one long lament, symbolized by the sad songs of Georgina and her people, and the contemptuous nursery rhymes of children at the mysterious, disappearing “clinic,” jump-rope chants about how little value women have there.

Georgina and Leo’s relationship will be grist, ground up in the racism that gives them no help, only contempt, when they seek police intervention. Such treatment is eye-opening to the very poor, who are ripe for recruitment to any group that promises to upend an evil, repressive system.

León’s dawdling storytelling gives short shrift to Leo’s radicalization and robs the babynapping investigation of its urgency. We barely give a thought to fearing for Pedro in a country where journalists are just as susceptible to “disappearing” as babies of the indigenous poor.

The whole gay romance in a homophobic culture angle plays like another distraction, something else that slows “Song Without a Name” down when it’s barely moving as it is.

But Mendoza’s turn as a naïve, “not in the system” young mother whose present and future are literally stolen from her is just heartbreaking. Almost every moment León wanders off to show us, at her leisure, something or someone else, “Song Without a Name” forgets the words and the music of the lament her film is singing.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández

Credits: Directed by Melina León, script by Melina León, Michael J. White. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:37

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Documentary Review: Disney remembers “Howard,” the lyricist who made cartoons sing

It was the late 1980s when the idea folks at Walt Disney Animation had their first meeting with the man who was to bring Disney Animation back from the dead. After an insistent courtship by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mr. “Little Shop of Horrors,” Howard Ashman, was taking a look at the story problems vexing the team starting production on “The Little Mermaid.”

“He literally taught us how to tell a story with a song,” one animator present recalls. Ashman, a lyricist and playwright by trade, broke down the need for “a want song” in the first act, which became Ariel the Little Mermaid’s sweeping “Part of Your World” in the film, a song he had to threaten to quit the film over to keep Disney’s suits from cutting.

The villain? Let’s base her on Divine, the drag queen John Waters made famous in “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester” and “Hairspray.” Give her a real “show stopper.” Cast an old broad of Broadway to play her.

And Ariel needs a sidekick. We’ve got this crab…

“Why not make him Jamaican?”

Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg get much of the credit for “saving” Disney in the ’80s. But as the documentary “Howard,” directed by “Beauty and the Beast” producer Don Hahn makes clear, it was their most inspired hire that made the Mouse matter again.

Most anybody watching the finished “Little Mermaid” could pick a moment where “it” happened. Grown women and men burst into tears at Jodi Benson singing the soaring “Part of Your World.” Children sat slack-jawed in awe of evil Ursula (sung by Pat Carroll) as she cried crocodile (OK, octopus) tears over those “Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”

And when Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright) Jamaican-vamped through lyrics like “When the sardine begins the beguine it’s music to me,” we were hooked, the die was cast and Disney had the first of a string of blockbusters that took the company out of the crapper and put it on course to become the world’s greatest and most valuable entertainment brand.

“Howard” is an over-due and delayed (it was finished in 2017) appreciation of the musical theater genius who lit up Broadway and then announced that “the last great place to do Broadway musicals is animation,” and put his mind to “Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the Holy Trinity of the Disney Animation Revival.

It’s a warm story with a tragic end, taking us from young Howard’s early enthusiasm for staging “vignettes” for his family (sister Sarah Gillespie is a major interview subject here), his high school and college immersion in the greasepaint of the theater, his rise to stardom and his untimely death, a gay man killed by the plague of the ’80s and ’90s, AIDS.

We hear a lot from his main writing partner, Menken, from various Broadway and Disney folks in awe of his talent, slow to see his illness, quick to recognize, in his frantic final months, that “the work really did keep him going.”

Archival TV interviews of him capture him in the middle of his early Off-Off Broadway success, starting his own theater company, turning a Kurt Vonnegut story, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” into a musical, conjuring up a blockbuster out of the daft cult horror film “Little Shop of Horrors,” putting everything he had — money included — in adapting the dark comedy about beauty pageants, “Smile,” for the stage — only to see it fail.

But one of the stars of his big failure was remembered when he signed on at Disney. Jodi Benson became a household name thanks to “The Little Mermaid.”

Ashman’s personal life is explored, from childhood through the adult relationships — both nurturing and self-destructive — that shaped him. The irony of him doing press, and a major public Q & A about “Mermaid” on the day he was diagnosed, stings.

We see footage of Ashman coaching actors through songs and most gloriously, hear his “demo” versions of those songs — singing to Menken’s accompaniment on piano through “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Prince Ali” (from “Aladdin”) and others.

“Howard” doesn’t reinvent the documentary biography, and once we get past his college friends, it can seem seriously Disney “in house.” But it is still a lovely appreciation of the man and his singular talent, wit that he channeled into lyrics that have become a monument to his genius in the decades since his death.

On the screen, on the stage, and back on the screen again, “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” still brings viewers to tears, the ultimate testimonial to a mercurial talent taken away too soon.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, general audiences

Cast: Howard Ashman, Paige O’Hara, Sarah Gillespie, Alan Menken, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider.

Credits: Written and directed by Don Hahn. A Disney+ release.

Running time: 1:34

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Documentary Review: A masterpiece, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” makes its restored return

Bert Stern only directed one documentary. But “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is widely considered the greatest jazz performance documentary ever, a 1959 classic that was designated to be preserved as part of the Smithsonian’s National Film Registry.

The film, newly-restored and heading back into virtual cinemas Aug. 12 (stream it through your favorite indie theater), is a glorious celluloid time capsule. None of the grit and grain of black and white or the pixelated blandness of today’s digital. Stern captured one place at one moment in time, and does so with an artful and fun movie shot in the fluid beauty of  motion picture film — Color by Deluxe.

Jazz had already been eclipsed by blues, rock’n roll and folk when the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival rolled around. Blues shouter Big Maybelle and rock progenitor Chuck Berry were on the bill. And when the film was finished, it didn’t figure in the Oscars, didn’t even premiere in the US. Sweden got first crack at it, because jazz hadn’t faded in Scandinavia.

But here are Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarten, with Armstrong’s “All Stars,” popping through improvisation-rich standards, Dinah Washington taking “All of Me” for a spin, Sonny Stitt and George Shearing and Chico Hamilton and Thelonious Monk leading ensembles through signature numbers.

Mahalia Jackson, O’Day, Maybelle and Washington perform, dressed to the nines in summer wear of a more conservative age — white gloves and in Maybelle’s case, a white tiara to match.

That’s half of the glory here. It’s not just the music, which became a best-selling jazz concert (soundtrack) LP. It’s the look, the feel, the optimism of this moment in time. Integrated audiences sitting (mostly) in rapt attention, men in sport coats, women in hats, performers on stage dressed for the occasion as well. Watching this documentary, you could sense a country of reasonable, smart people ready for any change the world threw at them.

Stern intercuts other summer 1958 Newport, Rhode Island events with the festival stage footage — kids and parents on the beach, bands jamming in the ancient seaside boarding houses (Rheingold beer at hand), a Dixieland combo riding through town in a Beverly Hillbillies jalopy (staged for the movie) or jamming at seaside or on a tiny train at a children’s fairground.  Collectible cars from the “brass automobile” era (pre-1920) toodle down the streets.

And offshore? The sea was filled with sails as spectator boats crowded Rhode Island Sound to watch the lovely 12 meter yachts race in the 1958 America’s Cup — Britain’s “Spectre” vs. America’s “Columbia.”  It was “Columbia” 4, “Spectre” 0, for those keeping score at home.

Stern turned out an important concert film, documenting Chuck Berry at his pre-arrest peak, playing before slack-jawed jazzmen on stage as he duck-walked through “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Shearing losing himself in a bossa nova with his combo, Maybelle blasting through “All Night Long.”

But “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is a work of beauty in and of itself — gorgeous images, an America at its serene and confident peak, with integrated Newport stages and audiences far from the civil rights struggles erupting in the rest of the country — all filmed and edited into an 85 minute movie that captures both a moment, and the possibilities that moment promised.

4star4

MPAA Rating: unrated, general audiences

Cast: Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Mahalia Jackson, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan

Credits: Directed by Bert Stern. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:23

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Movie Review: Gemma and Gugu get lost in “Summerland”

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Seaside locations on the scenic Kentish coast, a period piece story set “during the war” and a stellar cast can’t quite make the debut feature of playwright-turned-writer/director Jessica Swale come off.

She’s probably kicking herself over “Summerland” as it is, what with wasting a rare pairing of Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. So I’ll leave my boots off for this review, no matter how disappointing the film.

It’s a sad, drab tale told by pretty faces in a pretty place, a slow-footed story wrapped in the most boring part of myths and legends — the academic study of them — and a love story tested by too-convenient coincidences.

We don’t have to ask who took lots of notes during “deus ex machina” week at playwrighting school, in other words.

An impatient older woman (Penelope Wilton of “Downton Abbey”) smokes and types away in 1975. Something gives her a case of the flashbacks, and she remembers a long ago summer in Kent, when she was even grumpier.

Alice Lamb (Arterton) is a loner who won’t let a little thing like World War II keep her from hunting for “the reality” behind famous bits of folklore and myth. She’s hated in the town, and her nicknames are many, which the headmaster at St. Nicholas School (Tom Courtenay) will list, when prompted.

“Bad apple,” “the beast on the beach,” “the witch,” “a Nazi” — that’s what the kids, and the adults, all say about her. Stomping about in trousers, chasing schoolboys who sabotage her mailbox and making littler kids cry are what “provoke” the locals. Not that she cares.

Then she’s abruptly “assigned” a little boy (Lucas Bond) who’s been evacuated from London, as children were in the early years of the war. All her outraged protesting gets her is a “We’ve all got to do our bit” lecture that lasts about as long as that sentence.

Her “find somebody else to take him” and “Don’t expect me to cook for you” barking isn’t what a lonely child needs to hear in a stranger’s home in a remote village. But she’s Miss “You’ve got to toughen up…Nobody likes a coward.”

But but “I always have milk before bedtime.”

“Good for you.”

Oh, she’ll soften. Maybe. A little bit. Eventually. His constant questions are the start of it, his thin grasp of her research — about King Arthur, Morgan Le Fay, “floating castles” (mirages) — makes her a teacher, whether she wants to be, or not.

“Summerland” is a piece of pagan myth that gives the film it’s title, and little else. Viking heaven? Kind of.

That’s kind of interesting but thinly developed. Even less screen time is devoted to his equally reluctant “partner” at school, Edie (Dixie Egerickx). She’s “an individualist” who doesn’t believe in “partners” or “sharing.” It’s all a pose. They become pals.

Alice spends part of each day rummaging through the kid’s things, picking up his story and reminiscing — yes, there are flashbacks within the flashback — to her long lost college friend (Mbatha-Raw) who was her one true love, back when both were flappers.

As her connection to Frank grows, she shares a little of that past with him.

Arterton does her utmost to make Alice funny-mean and lonely by choice. The script doesn’t give her many good moments, just a lovely deflated look when Alice gets the news that women often got “during the war” and most movies set “during the war” feel the need to replicate.

Mbatha-Raw has absolutely nothing to play, and whatever promise might have come from casting these two opposite each other is wiped away in flashbacks that serve a structural purpose, but fail to give them the emotional connection we need for us to feel the pain of their separation.

Courtenay and Wilton are similarly wasted, accomplished actors who sparkle when given a sliver of a chance, but so limited in screen time as to smother their contributions.

Even the kid with, his anachronistically long hair, fails to register.

Swale did some of her homework in setting her story mostly in 1942 or 1943. But no way this doctoral student of hers would have the petrol to galivant about looking for mirages when “there’s a war on.” Not that early in the war.

But it’s not period detail that lets “Summerland” down. It’s not moving beyond the story’s naturally watchable qualities (cast, setting, period) to give us a film that ever feels it doesn’t need one contrived situation after another just to stagger to its feet. Not that it ever moves those feet once it does, mind you.

2stars1

MPAA Rating:  PG for thematic content, some suggestive comments, language, and smoking

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu MBatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay.

Written and directed by Jessica Swale. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:39

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