A Talk with John Rubenstein of Pippin

Pippin poster

It may not be in the valley quite yet, but it’s still the hottest ticket at the box-office of ASU Gammage in Tempe.   Pippin, the Broadway musical first burst onto the scene at the Imperial Theater in New York on October 23, 1972, eventually closing on June 12, 1977.   It ran for 1,944 performances.   Now, more than forty years later, the show has returned in a glittering, colorful, eye-popping, re-imagined production with a brand new setting and a brand new cast… all except for one member.

John Rubenstein both originated and helped develop the lead role of Pippin in ’72 and now returns to the show forty years later, though not as a young man eagerly looking for his corner of the sky, but as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne who might not be the one to reveal what Pippin is looking for, but at least he can point him in the right direction, in a roundabout way.

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Recently I had the chance to talk with John Rubenstein regarding the show, the original production and how it was he became involved with the new production.   I began by asking whether he approached the show or if the show approached him.

“I happened to be in New York to speak at my 50th high school anniversary,” John explained.   “I spent the weekend there, and on Friday late, my agent called me and said, ‘Hey John, they want to see you Monday morning to audition for taking over King Carlemagne on Broadway for Pippin,’ and I said. “Wow, how fun.’   So he sent me fifteen pages of the song that I sing plus all the scenes that I have in the show, and I went in on Monday morning and I sang them the song, read all the scenes, and then they made me do it all over again, and then some weeks later I was opening on Broadway.”

Considering that the writer/director/musician and actor not only starred as the original Pippin but helped develop the character, was there a moment of adjustment while getting used to a new approach on something he already knew?

“Obviously I knew the play very well,” he agreed, “So it was sort of like coming home, but to a house that’s been entirely redecorated in which a completely new family is living.   So, I didn’t really have to adjust, I had to learn my part, I was rehearsed mostly by the assistant stage manager at the time and the dance captain and the lady who was the swing who is now playing my wife Fastrada in this touring production, and she was the swing and understudy to many shows on Broadway, but it was those three people mostly that I was working with, and then I was on.”

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Did John ever find himself biting his tongue when he witnessed scenes in rehearsal for the new production that he considered might not be working as well as he remembered them in the ’72 original?

“Well, yes, I guess so,” he replied after a moment’s pause. “But not really biting my tongue; I’m pretty outspoken.   I had a lovely talk with the director, Diane Paulus, and I was mostly asking her questions, because by that time I had rehearsed for about a week and a half and there were things that I was supposed to be doing that I didn’t quite understand.   So we had a long talk about it and I think it was very fruitful, you know, she listened to me and I definitely listened to her and some little adjustments were made, and that was very helpful, but, yeah, every now and then I get a little wave of wishing that the audience could experience this little moment or that little song or dance the way it was forty years ago, but that’s just an old man’s nostalgia, that’s nothing to do with live theatre.”

John had to learn a new talent for the role of the king and that was knife-throwing.   Was learning this most traditional of circus tricks difficult for him?

“Well, it is difficult,” he agreed, laughing.   “Every night it’s a new challenge.   It’s nowhere near as difficult as some of the things the other people are doing – jumping off of high places and catching each other an inch before they hit the ground, you know, and doing incredible works of acrobatics and juggling and amazing muscle work and trapeze work – but I don’t do anything like that.   But the throwing of the knives was challenging and, yeah, every night I hope to get it right.”

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The original production was an opportunity for director/choreographer Bob Fosse to showcase his particular style.   As this re-imagined production has fresh choreography, how much of Fosse’s original work is retained, if any?

John paused for thought.   “Hmm,” he began, and then paused again.   After another second or two he said, as if thinking out loud, “I would say – and I don’t know if I’m exactly correct – but there’s about thirty-five to forty percent of the choreography is really very close if not exactly Fosse’s choreography.   The flavor’s definitely there.   Chet Walker the choreographer joined the (original) cast of Pippin after I had left so I don’t know exactly when he joined it or how long he was in it, but he worked with Fosse then and subsequently, so he was very familiar with Fosse’s body language and motivational approach, so in working with these dancers he definitely did his own choreography throughout the show, but at key moments he went back to the original Pippin choreography.”

Those who saw the original show may remember how it ended, but newer productions have altered things, giving the meaning behind the musical and what happens to Pippin, his leading lady Catherine and her son Theo a different twist.   How did John react when seeing the new ending for the first time?

“To be very honest, I didn’t like it at all,” he said without hesitation.   “It didn’t originate with this production; it originated at least twelve or so years ago.   I saw a production of Pippin up in Seattle that a friend of mine was in, and it was a sort of usual Pippin and then suddenly at the end young Theo remained on stage and the Players came sneaking back up on and enveloped him in their sinister arms and took him away, and I thought that was terrible.   I think that the Pippin story that involves Pippin fighting whatever it is he’s fighting in the form of that Leading Player can be interpreted in a number of different ways.   But it’s definitely a fight, whether it’s everyman versus the devil or a Faustian thing, or else it’s a Macbethian kind of thing where the Leading Player is Pippin’s witches, his inner darkness that’s talking to him all the time, leading him into bad behavior, but the old Pippin used to vanquish that force and approach his life, sort of, like the end of The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman tears into the wedding and rips the bride out of her fiancee’ s hands and they run out and then they sit in that bus in the last shot of the movie, and one of the things that makes the movie so great is that they sit there, side by side, and look rather forlorn and say, uh-oh, you know, now what?   And Pippin used to have that ending.”

So, with that in mind, has he become used to the new conclusion?

“Now I’m a company man,” he said, “So I love the new ending.   And it’s not political, it’s what it is, you know, you get into a play and you have to believe what you’re doing on the stage or else you should be, you know, selling shoes somewhere.”

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How about the way the opening number begins?   Magic to Do had a distinctive look and style in the original and now it changes the whole tone of the show.   What was John’s first reaction when seeing the difference?

“The change is throughout,” he explained, “It’s not just Magic to Do.   Obviously Magic to Do is the first thing you see, so you notice it there if you know the old production and that’s your first exposure to it.   But basically it’s a re-imagining of the background, the format, the frame of the show.   Fosse had it sinister, dark and ballet dancing.   Diane has it very explosive, colorful and circus.   So, I accept that. I think it’s actually a brilliant idea that she’s had.   And the story still gets told very eloquently and beautifully.   So I think one of reasons the show hasn’t been revived in decades on Broadway is because of that, because of asking, ‘So how do we do it without just copying what Fosse did, how do we do it differently?’   Nobody could come up with anything until Diane got with Gypsy Snider and they said, ‘Hey, let’s make it be circus.’   So, my reaction from the beginning was very positive.   I liked it.”

And finally, how about audience reaction? I pointed out to John that he had played this new production on Broadway before beginning the national tour.   Does he feel something different between New York and the rest of the country and how audiences respond to the show?

“I would have to say, not really,” he replied.   “The thing that makes it different more than the geographical location of the audience is the shape and size and acoustics of the theatre.   On Broadway at the Music Box, which happens to be one of the smaller, more intimate Broadway houses, when we stand at the footlights the front row is literally three feet away from us and the rest of the house is quite shallow, it doesn’t go back very far, nor does it go very far to the side, nor does it go very high up to the Balcony, so we feel our audience right there with us.  Every laugh, every reaction, we hear every bit of it, so it’s a much closer relationship in that particular house.   The next place I played was in Denver, the Buell theatre in Denver.   Beautiful place; huge theatre.   The Orchestra goes way back, quite steeply up and you can barely see the back row.   Therefore, doing the same show, when you’re standing at the footlights, the audience is like in a vast football stadium in front of you.   They laugh and they react the same way but you just don’t hear it as clearly and it doesn’t come back to us so quickly.   And so, during the course of the show, it doesn’t feel as if the reaction is as big or as immediate.   But it is.”

Pippin arrives in the valley at ASU Gammage on Tuesday, December 2 and continues until Sunday, December 7.   For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage website.

Posted in Interviews

Fury – Film Review

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It’s April, 1945 in battle fatigued Europe and even though no one knows for certain, the end of the war is expected to be somewhere just around the corner.

US Army Staff Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) knows it.   “It will end soon,” he announces, “But before that, a lot more people gotta die.”   And he’s right, and he and his five-man crew in a Sherman tank will be among those doing a lot of that killing before the world’s nightmare is over in the violent, fictional World War ll action adventure, Fury.

The brutal opening begins not with gunfire but with a stabbing, followed by shots of hundreds of dead bodies in the mud bulldozed into an open grave, followed next by the sight of a bowl of blood being tossed from a makeshift hospital tent as though it was waste water.   The sight of killing and its aftermath never really stops.   It’s what Wardaddy and his men have been doing and witnessing ever since they landed and it’s what they’ll continue to do until the very end, which is not that far away.

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In a final, desperate push, knowing it was over but never wanting to officially acknowledge such a thing, Hitler populated his remaining army with young women and children and sent them out to battle the allies as American and British forces made their way through France, Belgium and across enemy lines into Germany.   As if to correspond that dreadful maneuver, US Army Private Norman ‘Cobb’ Ellison (Logan Lerman), a young twenty-something typist, is given the order to leave the safety of his desk job and report to Wardaddy in the field in order to join his men in battle.   “I’m trained to type sixty words a minute,” the young newbie who can hardly shave insists, desperately questioning why he is even there and naturally frightened to death.

The young Cobb’s inclusion into Wardaddy’s team doesn’t really make sense.   They never asked for him and he never asked for the transfer, plus he’s definitely not trained to be a part of such a mission, yet he’s there, not so much out of any military necessity, more as a writer’s story-telling device.   His fear and protests create conflict and drama, and it gives us the ability to get to know Wardaddy, his tank and his men through the young man’s petrified and inexperienced eyes.   Plus, as things change and Cobb hardens, there’s a chilling sense of achievement as he mows much of the enemy down with a machine gun.   “Good shooting, kid,” Wardaddy tells the youngster. “Keep stacking ‘em up.

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All of Wardaddy’s men are known by their nicknames, including the tank they’re riding in.   The word FURY is clumsily painted in block letters along its barrel for all the enemy to see.   These men are not just mismatched personalities thrown together, outside of the war they would never know each other, or want to know each other, particularly Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) who is nothing short of being an animal.   He was probably an animal before the war, but given a gun and the opportunity to kill repeatedly in the open arena of the European Theatre of deadly battle, his Neanderthal manner and attitude towards everyone else is allowed to foster.

There’s much to admire.   The battle scenes are well choreographed and hit hard and heavy, recreating that you-are-there feel with every shot fired and every shell blasted.   That early scene of bodies being bulldozed is horrifically astounding as is almost every other bloodied moment seen throughout the film’s 135 minute running time.   The image of hundreds of allied planes flying above, smoke trailing behind like long, cloud-like veils is an imposing sight, and a final, aerial shot that continues to pull further up, revealing piles upon piles of dead, German bodies surrounding the Fury tank is nothing short of astonishing.   It’s violent in a way that even Saving Private Ryan never achieved, but that doesn’t make the movie great.

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It might feel realistic, and God knows, who would want to be in the middle of such a thing, but displaying extreme violence appears to be the film’s major reason for being.   Fury is not a true story, it’s an adventure presented as if it was real, and without the blood and gore it’s not a particularly great adventure, merely okay.   What remains of a German soldier’s face is seen flattened like a pancake, his eyes still open, compressed on a surface as if someone had skinned the face alive and left it there.   We cut away to see young Cobb cleaning up the mess – one of his early duties – but then writer/director David Ayer shows us the same shot of the German’s face again, just in case we missed the horrific sight the first time.

Even though his character can’t help but seem like a humorless and weary extension of Lt. Raine in Inglorious Basterds, Brad Pitt is just right as the motley crew’s leader.  Despite the tabloid baggage that continuously accompanies him, Pitt is and always has been a good film actor, but even he can’t help the believability factor of the violent climax where a few men fight hundreds upon hundreds of attacking Germans from a tank that is already kaput and make it look anything more than movie-going, action wish-fulfillment.   It may be exciting, but watching this unbelievable and somewhat unlikely feat occur is reminiscent of the kind of fantasy Sylvester Stallone created for Rambo: a crowd-pleasing, revisionists’ look back at how things might have happened, but didn’t; not really.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  135 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Book of Life – Film Review

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You must have seen them;  unusual, skeletal figurines with painted death masks on a macabre parade standing in store windows.   They’re seen around the country in small doses displayed among other less demonic looking figurines, but personally speaking it wasn’t until moving to the south west that the significance of what these deathly looking characters represented or what their connection to November 2nd’s The Day of the Dead really was fell into place.   Which is why the present day introduction to the new animated feature from producer Guillermo del Toro, The Book of Life, is not only a smart way to start the film, for most audiences, particularly international ones, it’s also necessary.

What is it with Mexicans and death?” demands one of the gap-toothed, mischievous American school kids during a field trip to a local museum.   None of this small band of classroom outcasts wants to be there, but when a friendly, female tour guide invites a handful to slip away from the other kids for a special, secret tour of their own, the children follow.   “All the world is full of stories,” the guide tells her small but attentive audience, “And all the stories are in the book.”

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Beginning with a map that points out that Mexico is really the center of the world, once the guide opens the pages to the displayed Book of Life, like a multi-colored array of confetti exploding from a cannon, a dazzling new world of visual splendor springs to life.   At first sight it’s as though you’re looking through a giant kaleidoscopic telescope that does all the focusing for you and keeps going, displaying endless new patterns every few seconds.

What follows is a story of true love, adventure and heroism acted out by characters designed to look like old-fashioned, wooden toy puppets without the strings living in a Mexican village.   Like the gods on Mount Olympus who strike a deal and take sides on who will help Jason find the golden fleece, here the two leading deities of the spirit world, the motherly La Muerte (voiced by Kate de Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and the dark and devious Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the color-drained Land of the Forgotten, make a deal of their own.

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One will keep a watchful eye over guitar-playing Manolo (Diego Luna) while the other will do the same for tough soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum) both vying for the affection of the beautiful and feisty Maria (Zoe Saldana).   “You will stop interfering in the affairs of man,” La Muerte tells Xibalba if the deal falls in her favor.   If not, Xibalba will not only continue to interfere with human lives, he’ll also become the new ruler of The Land of the Remembered, and that would spell disaster for everyone, living or dead, forgotten or remembered.

Like most animated comedy features of late, developed over the years from the quick one-liners introduced in TV’s The Simpsons and taken further by South Park and The Family Guy, the script throws gag after gag at you faster than speeding bullets.   Much is funny.   When granny shows disappointment at Manolo for not wanting to kill a bull during a bullfight she complains, “Kids today with their long hair and not killing stuff.”   Occasionally the gags become a little more desperate when the need to keep the kickers coming for their own sake becomes obvious.   When Manolo reaches out for a sword to defend himself he’s handed his guitar instead.   “What?” asks the familiar voice of Cheech Marin as one of Manolo’s musician buddies, “You wanted a banjo?”

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Backed by an exceptional musical soundtrack including everything from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite to Mariachi inspired versions of Mumford and Sons’ I Will Wait, Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, plus original material from Gustavo Santaolalla with lyrics by Paul Williams, The Book of Life is an adrenaline-fueled adventure overstuffed with characters and conflicts decorated in an explosive visual splendor that can sometimes be simply overwhelming.

Every frame would make a handsome picture on a child’s bedroom wall, but sometimes it’s just too much.   The last fifteen minutes has so much happening and at such speed with new conflicts and villainous characters for the hero to overcome, it’s not simply a matter of being dazzled, you’re not always sure exactly what it is you’re looking at or why.   But up until that frenetic climax, the film with its continual flow of gags – some silly, many not, delivered nicely by well chosen voice talents and astounding animation rich with detail – is great entertainment designed to amaze.   It might wear older members out before its conclusion but a trip to see The Book of Life, with or without the rest of the family, will still supply worthwhile dividends.

MPAA Rating:  PG Length:  95 Minutes   Overall Rating:   7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

St. Vincent – Film Review

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How well does one person know another?   Usually, not that much.   That weird old guy you might remember when you were a kid who lived alone, kept to himself and was often made fun of by the other kids when he ventured out, what was his story?

In the hugely likable comedy St. Vincent, Bill Murray plays that guy; the grumpy, cursing, complaining ol’ curmudgeon whom others think they know, but don’t.   His name is Vincent and when we first meet him he’s trying to get some money from the bank using his house as equity, except that he’s borrowed as much as he can and now there’s no more to borrow.   Out of annoyance he tries to close his checking account and cash out, only he can’t.   He’s overdrawn by $112.   Once he pays what he owes he can close.

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He’s also having trouble paying bills.   His once-a-week, afternoon delight with pregnant Russian dancer and stripper (Naomi Watts) can only be partially covered.   “You know I’m good for it,” he tells her, only he’s not.

Then the new neighbors move in.   Single mother with struggles of her own, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) rents the house next door.   When the moving van accidentally hits Vincent’s front yard tree, resulting with damage to his car and garden fence, Vincent demands payment.   “This fence is twenty years old,” he declares, neglecting to mention that it was actually he who damaged the fence the night before when drunkenly parking his car and messing up, but he’s not telling his neighbor any of that.   Why bother with details when she’s willing to pay for damages?

Considering we rarely get the chance to see Bill Murray as often as we’d like other than a support or a surprising cameo here and there, a film like St. Vincent where he’s the lead in a part that could not be more perfect for Murray’s particular mannerisms, this film is a treat.   “Come on, coward,” he shouts down the phone, thinking that every call received is a telemarketer from India, “Try to sell me something,” then slams down the receiver.

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When the young son next door, twelve-year old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) first meets Vincent he looks to his mother and asks with concern, “That’s our new neighbor?” then sighs, “It’s gonna be a long life.”

Maggie has a job with the local hospital but works long hours and desperately needs a babysitter.   Vincent hates kids – he seemingly hates everybody – but he desperately needs money.   Even though in the real world, no self-respecting mother would ever think of leaving her child under the watchful eye of someone like Vincent after school, disbelief is suspended enough to accept that in desperation, Maggie would ask Vincent for help.   “Twelve dollars an hour,” he insists.

What follows are a few lucrative hours a day for Vincent and some unexpected life lessons for Oliver, including drinking, a little gambling, how to fight bullies not to mention the company of a pregnant Russian hooker from time to time.   “What’s a lady of the night?” Oliver asks Vincent.   “It’s one of the more honest ways of earning a living,” Vincent replies.

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What makes St. Vincent such a continual pleasure throughout – the kind where you might not always laugh out loud but at the very least you’ll sit there with a permanent smile – is the cast of players.   Comic actor Chris O’Dowd, who’s fast cornered the go-to Irish guy in Hollywood, plays it straight as Father Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher at his new school.   When Oliver states that he thinks he’s Jewish as a way of getting out of saying a classroom prayer, the teacher explains that the whole class is made of pupils from different religions.   “And I’m Catholic,” the father concludes, “Which is the best religion because we have more rules.”

This is also Melissa McCarthy’s best screen performance to date, beyond a doubt. Up until now, her TV persona and why audiences liked her was considerably different from many of the mean spirited, foul-mouthed roles she’s developed on the bigger screen.   Her recent Tammy and before that, Identity Thief were perfect examples of everything wrong with the comic’s wholly unlikable approach to film, but here in St. Vincent she plays it straight.   She’s completely sympathetic, believable and likable.   It’s easily her best part so far.

Plus there’s Naomi Watts whose stomach grows larger with every scene and a Russian accent that is both thick and comically effective.   She’s an unlikely character in an unlikely friendship, and even though she can be just as grumpy as Vincent, she’s just as much fun to watch.   Like McCarthy’s Maggie, Watts’ pregnant/dancer/stripper and part-time hooker is likable – not as believable, true, but still likeable.   In fact, they’re all an unlikely bag of mixed characters bouncing off each other in improbable situations, but the film works.

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The goodwill you feel towards everyone goes a long way to overlooking things that you know would and could never be, but here it doesn’t matter.   That wicked edge Murray brings to his crusty old man act stops the film from ever diving headfirst into mawkishness, which it sometimes looks in danger of doing.   And yes, those final scenes leading up to young Oliver’s catholic school project on what makes a real-life saint are undeniably sentimental, but again, by the time you get there you buy it.  Everything so far has been so entertaining that by the end, the film earns the right to be a little sentimental if it wants to be.

And make sure you stay to savor the end credits.   For a few minutes more you get the pleasure of watching Murray ad-lib in his yard with a garden hose while mumbling along with the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm.   It’s nothing spectacular, but like everything else in St. Vincent, it’s so much fun.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  103 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Men, Women and Children – Film Review

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According to the latest Pew Research Center study recently published regarding who is and who is not connected to broadband, approximately 70 percent of American homes have access.   The highest concentration of users is 18 to 29.   The older you are, the smaller the percentage.   Within a shockingly short amount of time, like it or not, all of our lives have become technically connected in one way or another, and while much of it is positive, a great deal of usage also results in negative effects.

In the new ensemble drama from director Jason Reitman, Men, Women and Children, the concentration is on the overwhelmingly negative.   Based on the book by Chad Kultgen, the film establishes from the beginning how in the grand scheme of the cosmos our little blue planet and all its inhabitants are quite insignificant.   This is illustrated by a lengthy introduction narrated with detached sounding clarity by Emma Thompson explaining what happened when the Voyager Space Probe launched in the seventies looked back at our solar system before finally leaving.   It took one last photograph of the Earth.   From the picture that was transmitted back, our planet was revealed to be simply a dot among millions of others.   Seen from this perspective, the film is asking, how can the problems, conflicts and daily issues of anyone be of any real, lasting importance?

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As with most large ensemble pieces of this kind, many of the characters we meet will never meet each other, yet at the press of the Enter button they’re all connected.   There’s the father (Adam Sandler) who has used his computer for so much porn, the build up of malware in his system now blocks further usage.   Instead, accompanied by his box of tissues when no one else is around, he uses his fifteen year-old son’s computer to get his daily fix, only to discover that his son has a long list of porn files of his own.

Then there’s the amateur photographer mother (Judy Greer) encouraging her cheerleader daughter’s desire to break into showbiz by taking pictures of the girl in alluring poses then posting them on-line on with instructions on how viewers can purchase them if they want.   On the other end of the spectrum is the over-bearing, over-protective mother (Jennifer Garner) who tracks every key stroke her daughter ever makes.   “Honey, you know I do this just to keep you safe,” she explains. “Now give me your phone.

Garner’s character also sets herself up as some kind of expert on the subject.   She runs an Internet Safety parent group in her living room where several parents gather weekly to discuss on-line issues they may be having with the children.   When Dean Norris as a divorced father has concerns regarding his son who spends too many hours playing video games, Garner warns him what will happen if the habit is allowed to continue.   “His school doesn’t matter and his friends don’t matter,” she explains, then leans in for the real emotional kicker.   “You don’t matter.”   She also has something for another parent.   “I wanna give you a pamphlet on the danger of selphies.”

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Being a large cast, there are several more stories to be revealed.   There’s the school kids who send damaging texts to each other, the bored housewife who accidentally comes across a dating service and begins an affair in a hotel room while telling the family she’s staying with her sister, the husband who on a whim types in his desired fantasy woman and ends up meeting her for the night.   Each story develops into something unbelievably sad; negative thoughts result with negative actions.   It’s a feeling that bubbles beneath the surface throughout the entire film.   A boy who quit the school football team just because it no longer seemed important becomes subject to emotionally damaging texts that will later inspire the permanent solution to a temporary problem, executed with a handful of prescription pills.

There’s a lot with which you may find yourself agreeing.   Parents with teenagers, vulnerable to the allure of instant messaging that can often be used to cruel and damaging effect will always be a cause of serious concern.   But as the film shows, parents are just as vulnerable.   The ability for instant communication and connection to others when abused can also result in disaster in ways an older generation without broadband and no intention of ever getting it could ever imagine.   The film underlines every one of those damaging possibilities to such a continual, down-beat extreme you dread what the next scene will reveal.

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The development of technology and the abuse of its use will always be fertile ground for storytelling, but the all-encompassing Men, Women and Children, while wanting to be taken as both earnest and profound drowns under the weight of its non-stop heavy-handedness.   Despite great casting – teenagers and adults alike are just right for their types – there’s little or no wit on display, plus there’s not a single attempt to show the positive aspects our lives have enjoyed by having our phones or computers connected.   Many of us pay our bills, find joy in keeping in touch with previously lost friends and lead richer lives by educating ourselves with information and instant feedback.   In this film we see none of that.

Book-ending the movie by seeing ourselves from the distance of a never-ending cosmos, Men, Women and Children leaves you with the feeling of complete hopelessness and ultimate insignificance.   That’s not a feeling with which you want to leave a theatre when what you were really hoping for was a possible solution, even if it was only a glimpse.   In the end, the film is asking what does anything matter if the only real answer is to switch off.   Short of a disastrous and unlikely solar flare that wipes out all of our planetary energy, that’s never going to happen.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  119 Minutes     Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Rudderless – Film Review

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“Not cool, blowing off your dad,” insists local businessman Sam (Billy Crudup) on his cell while waiting in a nearby bar for his college student son to skip class and join him.   It’s bad enough that his son, Josh, is late but even worse when all dad can get through to is voice mail.   And then he sees it.   On the TV above the bar; breaking news.   A shooting on college campus.   Six students dead.   Slowly fade to black.

In Rudderless, the impressive directorial debut from actor William H. Macy, Crudup plays a grieving, divorced father who, two years after that tragic event, now lives alone as an unshaven disheveled waste of space, spending his nights on a permanently anchored boat and his days painting nearby houses with guys he rarely talks to.

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From a brief, earlier scene where a mournful Sam slowly walks around his son’s bedroom after the funeral, looking at posters and artifacts, we can see from a framed picture of father and son that both once shared a common talent; they played guitar.   It’s only later, when Sam rummages through a box of Josh’s things cleared from the house, that a small pile of his boy’s personal recordings are found.   They’re acoustic backed songs Josh had written and recorded in his dorm room.   Surprised at the talent his son exhibited, Sam momentarily snaps out of his morose existence and strums along, recreating the sounds of the CDs.   From that moment, things change.   It’s a slow change, but its change all the same.

When watching Crudup – so good at this – strumming a guitar and singing those songs on open mic night at a local bar, you can’t help but be reminded of the character he played back in 2000’s Almost Famous, the rock ‘n roller and lead singer of the fictional band Stillwater.   It’s as if Russell Hammond had quit the business, married, became a suit and tie businessman in the real world and turned into Sam.   Only now, he’s at rock bottom.

Anton Yelchin, playing perhaps his most satisfying role to date, is Quentin, a young man with some secret baggage of his own.   On the one night Sam takes to the small stage, Quentin is there in the bar listening and believes he hears something special.   “You don’t write stuff like this if you don’t want people to hear it,” he tells Sam.   He believes this older guy before him wrote the songs, and Sam, who would rather be left alone, says nothing to make the over-enthusiastic younger guy believe otherwise.

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What keeps you hooked are not just the songs – they’re terrific, and you relish in the cathartic pleasure Sam soon develops while playing them – but the fact that you instinctively know there are still secrets to uncover.   Why does Sam continue to give the impression that the songs are his?   Why does he use a fake name in earlier scenes?   It’s only later when he begins to feel somewhat comfortable around Quentin and the other guys Quentin brings in to form a band that he tells them he’s really called Sam, but he never mentions his last name.

Then something that can only be described as a bolt from the blue occurs.   It happens somewhere during the middle act, just at the time when Sam and the band are on the verge of potentially bigger things, and when it comes it takes a few seconds to sink in.   It’s the equivalent of doing a double-take.   But once its there, all questions are answered.

“Damn!” exclaims, Laurence Fishbourne as Del, the owner of a small music store.   “I didn’t see that coming.”   And neither did we, and it’s the kind of change that alters everything.   But as you think back to what you’ve already seen and heard, the behavior of Sam, the emotional confrontation between Sam and his ex (Felicity Huffman) and the fact that his boy’s ex-girlfriend at college, Kate – Selena Gomez in a small though effective performance – declares, “How can you play those songs? Shame on you,” it all suddenly makes sense.

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Considering the downbeat premise, the opportunity to be overly sullen is always there, yet director Macy guides us through this emotional minefield with so many nice and humorous touches, Rudderless rises to something quite affecting, even charming.   Sam may want to be left alone to wallow in his justified misery, but that doesn’t stop him from urinating over the side of his boat in full view of everyone passing.   And after Quentin convinces the reluctant and stage-shy Sam to perform those songs with him, it’s Quentin throwing up in the toilet with nerves before the show, not Sam.   Plus there’s the name of the band.   The guys eventually agree on Rudderless after rejecting their first suggestion, a reference to Sam living on a boat, The Old Man and the Three.

Like the musical Once and the more recent Begin Again, characters in Rudderless overcome issues by communicating through a love of music.   During the early 60’s when the unknown singing duo of Simon and Garfunkel recorded an acoustic version of The Sound of Silence, then left the country to tour the café bars of England, during their absence a music producer took the tape, added drums, a bass and electric guitars and changed the sound of the song.   It became a hit.   Something similar happens here.   When the new bass player of what will eventually be Rudderless backs Sam’s acoustic strumming, followed by drums and Quentin’s electric guitar, the acoustic songs of the deceased college student come alive in a way Sam could never imagine.   It’s a wonderful moment.

The film ends with an acoustic song and it’s not an altogether satisfying conclusion when you’re really looking for something more.   After time invested with a character you feel you’ve come to understand so well – a combination of good writing, direction and performance – you might feel in need of something more than a final chord strummed on a guitar and a fade out with nothing to follow, but up until that moment, Rudderless captivates.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  105 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

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