Thursday, October 24, 2013

Okay, Fine, I'll Bite, How DO You Get to Carnegie Hall?: "Music of the Heart" (1999)

Wes Craven directs Oscar winner Meryl Streep in a blood drenched tale of classical music, horsehair violin bows, and revenge...okay, not really.

Streep is Roberta, a recently single mother who moves back home with her mother (an underused Cloris Leachman), and decides what she needs to do next. She meets with old friend Brian (Aidan Quinn), and gets a tip about the needs for inner city music teachers, gathers her moxie and spunk, and wins over Principal Williams (Angela Bassett) and begins teaching violin to the youths. At home, her confidence is shattered as she deals with the break-up of her marriage, and Brian's fear of commitment, but her abrasive style at the schools wins the grudging respect of her students. After a few tumultuous relationships, students, and years, her position is threatened, and Roberta must go to extraordinary lengths to both help the kids and keep her job.

Based on a true story, which was documented in the film "Small Wonders," "Music of the Heart" is good. All caps GOOD. Craven took some heat for going outside the horror genre that made his career, and while his direction is not flashy (I am glad he didn't feel the need to make a point with a bunch of bells and whistles), it has no edge, as well. Same with the script by Pamela Gray. The story takes place in inner city New York City schools, but the PG rated film does not show us how these children benefit from the East Harlem Violin Program. When a situations arises (the angry mother, the jerk music teacher, a kid is shot in a drive-by), it is solved by Streep with a heartfelt monologue or hug, and then everyone goes back to rehearsing their violin. A tougher approach to the material might have made the program seem more beneficial to the viewer.

The Oscar familiar cast is pretty good, considering the material. Quinn is always reliable, but he doesn't play a character here, he plays a plot device. We need Brian to show us how Roberta toughens up and changes, and I did not believe he existed in real life for one second. The scenes leading up to a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall are beautifully done, and Streep is game to carrying the entire film. She isn't as ballsy as the real life Roberta came across in "Small Wonders," but she is still good. A younger Anne Bancroft would have had a field day with this role. Gloria Estefan is also good in her acting debut, but again, isn't given that much to do.

"Music of the Heart" is a treacly, awful title. It sounds like one of those horrible made-for-television films you find on basic cable at noon on a weekday. It's too bad Craven couldn't go the David Cronenberg route, able to parlay a horror career into even more interesting material. Instead, we get GOOD. He, and we, should demand GREAT. Give this one a look, get warm and fuzzy, and move on. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Movie Monsters in Scale: A Modeler's Gallery of Science Fiction and Horror Figures and Dioramas" by Mark C. Glassy

Mark C. Glassy is a scientist who considers himself cancer's enemy, admirably fighting the disease through research and development of scalpel-free treatments. But on the weekends, during the early morning hours, Glassy creates monsters and aliens with his own two hands- and then displays them depending on how much shelf space he has available.

Glassy is a rabid science fiction film fan, and his love of the genre has transformed itself into model building. He started as a youngster, gave it up for a few years while in school and having a family, but took it up again with such earnestness that he now has a website and this book. He was not formally trained in art, and this interesting book is not a how-to for modelers. Glassy shows off some figures of his collection, showing his appreciation of the cinematic arts through modeling arts.

The author does cover technique, telling the reader what has worked for him over the years. While my interest wandered, waiting for the good stuff, I kept noting how much Glassy loves this hobby of his. The pictures of his models begin, and he goes in chronological order, based on a film's release. The black and white photos of silent-era monsters like 1910's Frankenstein, Nosferatu, and Lon Chaney, Sr.'s Phantom and Quasimodo, are simply stunning. Glassy gives a synopsis of the film, credits the model's sculptor when he is able to, and talks briefly about the problems and solutions involved in constructing a specific model.

Glassy spends more time on the better known films of the talkie era, like "Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man," and even somehow has kits from the 1950's nuclear fright films consisting of giant insects, and aliens landing in Washington, DC. There are two color sections in the middle of the book, and I quickly wished the entire book was in color, since the models are so impressive.

The models begin to thin out toward the end, after covering the 1960's (the 1970's are represented by just two films), I think because from the 1970's on, there hasn't been enough interest in models of the harder science fiction and fantasy films. Hammer Studios is covered nicely, and I was most impressed with skeletal work from both "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Godzilla." Glassy mentions he is done with bones and skeletons, considering the amount of time and intensity involved!

The main drawback to the book is a functional one. Often, Glassy would be going into detailed explanations of how a model came together, and the reader must flip back or forth in the book to see the item in question. Also, aside from the two sections of color photographs, the majority of the pictures are black and white, negating Glassy's descriptions of getting a subject's coloring just right.

I built many plastic models back in elementary school, mostly vehicles and aircraft from World War II, before finding other interests. I confess that I do not have the patience to build one of those simple kits today, much less go into the kind of detail Glassy must use to bring his kits to life. His collection is a sight to behold, and his enthusiasm is infectious. You may not ever build one of these figures, but "Movie Monsters in Scale: A Modeler's Gallery of Science Fiction and Horror Figures and Dioramas" left me yearning to watch some old horror and sci-fi flicks. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

You'll Never Think of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' the Same Way Again: "Small Wonders" (1995)

An inspiring documentary that spawned an Academy Award nominated feature film, "Small Wonders" deftly avoids many expected cliches.

Roberta Guaspari is a music teacher who serves three different elementary schools in New York City. Because of budget cuts, her violin program is on the chopping block, but a benefit concert is being held at Carnegie Hall, and the film makers follow Roberta around as she readies her sometimes unruly kids for the big night.

Director Miller's camera is very unintrusive, and the talking heads are kept to a minimum. I did think Guaspari would be a pie-eyed teacher spending the film talking about the magical innocence of children, but she is tough with her students. They seem to respond, using the discipline of learning the violin to improve other areas of their lives. The film makers follow one student, Jose, and his family, but she calls him out on his errors just as often as she does the other children. One scene has her kicking a student out for forgetting her violin on practice day, and not missing a beat keeping the other kids in line.

The highlight of the film is the Fiddlefest concert, and a jaw dropping segment featuring over a dozen famous violinists paired with some of Roberta's students. The sequence is pretty amazing, whether you are familiar with classical music or not. Technically, the film is average. Shot on video, it looks older than it is. I would be interested in seeing an update about some of the kids we meet, and Roberta herself. This film was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, and spawned "Music of the Heart" starring Meryl Streep as Roberta. That film also garnered Oscar nods.

"Small Wonders" is a small film with a big voice. Some of the hippie-dippie staff and teachers at the alternative schools are funny, but Roberta plugs along, teaching her way. This film is a must for inspiring educators everywhere, and happens to entertain the rest of us as well. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, October 11, 2013

"Marvelous Sauce"- Marvelous Sauce

This new self-titled CD from a Canadian group is currently on many college charts around the country, although you have probably heard music similar to this before. Do you remember that "jazzy" streak that hit popular music in the middle to late eighties? Groups like Double, Spandau Ballet, Level 42, and Breathe made it big.

Marvelous Sauce brings back that era with the first song on the album- "Sister Knows What To Do." To get an idea of what this song sounds like, think of Breathe at their weakest. Next is "Animals on Bicycles," which starts out fine, but sinks with poor lyrics. The song seems like an inside joke: "Animals on bicycles...they're likable/Thoroughly respectable in overalls." "The Amended Will" tells an odd story of a man dying of a heart attack. The song sounds like something from The Replacements, complete with bouncy guitar melody. "Medium" is also helped by better music than lyrics. Heck, think of Breathe at their best in a song praising the virtues of anonymity and mediocrity. "Strength and Sobriety" is probably the best cut on the album. It sounds like an early Billy Joel song, with some great piano and vocal arrangements. "Talk About You" has everything but soul and feeling. Unmemorable, to say the least. "Move on Living" also falls into that category. "On My Floor" is better, thanks to a distinguished vocal arrangement, although the lyrics are a mystery. "Underwater"'s melody is everywhere. You will need a map to keep up. "Temporarily Aside" is another strong cut with strong lyrics and a wonderful organ riff.

The group's singer and lyricist, Stephen Barrick, has a nice range, although some of his lyrics seem silly. The rest of the band is very good, with Joe Rozier's piano, organ, and keyboards doing a fantastic job. Unfortunately, Rozier is under a "Special Appearance by..." credit. Strongest cuts on the album: "The Amended Will," "Strength and Sobriety," "Temporarily Aside," and "Medium." My grade for "Marvelous Sauce" - Marvelous Sauce: C+.

Lonely Video Reviews- "The Clan of the Cave Bear," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and "The Unborn"

So, my fiancee and I went back to the video rental store. We almost broke off our engagement as we wandered around arguing over what to get. After an hour, we had made up about three times and picked our choices for this issue.

"The Clan of the Cave Bear" is based on the best selling novel by Jean Auel. My fiancee has read it about a hundred times, and was finally going to see the movie. The heroine of the film is Ayla, played by Daryl Hannah ("Splash," "Steel Magnolias"), the first feminist Cro-Magnon cavewoman. She is adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals, who consider her ugly and bad luck. Pamela Reed ("The Best of Times," "Kindergarten Cop") has a great role as her adoptive mother. Ayla starts causing trouble by doing things like not bowing to the men and hunting on her own. The film was shot in British Columbia and is well done. The tribe communicate with grunts and gestures, which are all subtitled. My only problem is with Hannah, who looks like she strolled out of her hairdresser's salon to do this role. My fiancee liked it a little less, saying it was a disgrace to the book and Jean Auel. Yes, dear.

Next, we popped in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." We had never seen it before, so I guess that makes us "virgins"...but anyway, it was quite the experience. What can be said about this movie that hasn't been said so far? The plot, as it is, is indescribable. It is fun to watch big stars of today like Tim Curry ("Oscar," "Annie," "The Hunt for Red October"), Susan Sarandon ("Atlantic City," "Bull Durham," "Thelma & Louise") and Barry Bostwick (in just about every TV movie ever made) wearing corsets and stockings and having a jolly good time. Meat Loaf, that fat guy with the great voice, is also in this one. You've heard about it for years, just go rent it, you'll never forget it. My fiancee thought it was weird, strange, and kinky.

Finally, "The Unborn." Brooke Adams ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers") returns to the horror genre in a big way. The story is about this geneticist who is inseminating pregnant women with mutant sperm in order to build a master race. The gore is especially powerful because it involves alot of pregnant women and fetuses. It's a wild ride until the end, when bad special effects begin to unravel it. Of course, after seeing this, my fiancee doesn't want to bear any of my children after we are married.

Remember, go to your local video store and look for the lonely videos that no one else wants. And if you hear two people viciously arguing over whether to get "The Faces of Death" or "Porky's," just introduce yourself. My fiancee and I would love to meet you.

"The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986) 100 min. Grade: B
Directed by Michael Chapman; Screenplay by John Sayles based on the novel by Jean Auel; Featuring: Daryl Hannah, Pamela Reed, James Remar, Thomas G. Waites, John Doolittle, Curtis Armstrong

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) 100 min. Grade: A-
Directed by Jim Sharman; Featuring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O'Brien, Jonathan Adams, Meat Loaf, Little Nell

"The Unborn" (1991) 89 min. Grade: C+
Written and Directed by Rodman Flender; Featuring: Brooke Adams, Jeff Hayenga, James Karen, K Callan, Jane Cameron, Kathy Cameron, Kathy Griffin

Lonely Video Reviews- "Robot Jox" and "The Oval Portrait"

So, we decided that Zero Peaks needed a video or movie review. I opted for video, since I had no way to get to the mall. Me and my fiancee trekked over to the local video rental place for a night of alternative film viewing.

First problem: what is alternative? Do I have to check out "Blue Velvet" for the umpteenth time? Should I get that strange little film from Sri Lanka containing two characters who stab at Caesar's salads and contemplate life for two and a half hours? Maybe I should check out "Ernest Saves Christmas" and be done with it...well, anyway, it was Friday night and there wasn't a thing left to watch. My fiancee and I blindly went up and down each aisle, picking up something, and then putting it back. Finally, we decided we'll grab what we could get.

The two videos we picked were the ones nobody wanted- the lonely videos that you grab out of desperation hoping they'll provide a little entertainment, and maybe a few unintentional laughs. Anything, as long as the story even remotely resembles the picture on the video box cover.

Our picks for the night were "Robot Jox" and "The Oval Portrait." The first film was directed by Stuart Gordon, who directed "The Re-Animator," "From Beyond," and "Dolls." The story took place fifty years after a nuclear holocaust, as most science fiction films do. The two warring sides use huge robots, about ten stories tall, to decide feuds over territory. The robots meet in a giant arena in Death Valley, and whoever's robot is left standing gets the match. Right away, I expected silly special effects along the lines of the "Godzilla" series of films. Guys dressed in robot suits falling on snap together models of recent cars. Boy, was I wrong.

The story concerns a robot jock, who operates the robot, and his last fight with an evil robot jock. Their first match is a draw, so they meet again to fight to the death, but they don't...I can't explain, but the film wasn't that bad. The effects were well done for such a cheap picture, and fans of NBC's "In the Heat of the Night" get to see Anne-Marie Johnson's bare butt. My fiancee didn't think a whole lot of the film because the big robots "squished people".

We weren't so lucky with our second film, "The Oval Portrait." It was made in 1973, with a Spanish film crew and an English speaking cast. Based on a page and a half Edgar Allan Poe story, this mess was obviously put on video to make a quick buck. The flashback scene in the film takes forty five minutes, and the director's idea of scary filming is to constantly zoom the camera in and out of the scene. Now I think I know what a grand mal seizure feels like. The cover of the video makes this one look great, but we giggled through the entire last third of the movie.

That's it for this edition. Look for more lonely video reviews in future issues, or you can do what we did: rented "Ghost" the next night and had a good cry.

"Robot Jox" (1989) 84 min. Grade C+
Directed by Stuart Gordon; Story by Stuart Gordon, Screenplay by Joe Haldeman; Featuring: Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo, Robert Sampson, Danny Kamekona, Hilary Mason, Michael Alldredge

"The Oval Portrait" (1973) 86 min. Grade: D-
Directed by Rogelio Gonzalez, Jr.; Written by Enrique Torres based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe; Featuring: Wanda Hendrix, Barry Coe, Gisele Mackenzie, Maray Ayres, Barney O'Sullivan, Doris Buckinham, Pia Shandel