This heartfelt and illuminating documentary follows the life and work of Raymond Scott who worked as a musical composer, inventor, bandleader and electric music pioneer throughout the 20th Century. In the 1950's, he serves as host/orchestra leader of the TV show "Your Hit Parade," but he was quite shy, so there weren't any close-ups of his face, and his colleagues had to find ways to mak him to smile on set while being filmed. He spent the beginning of his career as a music performer/recorder, but soon focused his attention on writing music and inventing machines, namely, the polyphonic sequencer.
Raymond Scott certainly was an important pioneer in the music industry, but what was he like as a human being? Everyone has a life front stage and a life backstage. His son, director Stanley Warnow, not only provides you with background information about his father as well as letting you hear his music, he also shed light on what he was like as a father and, according to his first and third wives, what he was like as a husband. In other words, he gives you a rare glimpse of what Raymond Scott was like backstage. Concurrently, given that Raymond died in 1994 and that he seldom was around to bond with his son, there's not much of an opportunity to grasp all of his backstage life. The little bits of juicy info that you do find out---such as Raymond's incompetence with taking care of his finances which led to him being nearly broke around the time of his death---helps to make Raymond seem complex in ways that avoid making the film seem like a pedestrian, sugar-coated infomercial about him. Sure, Stanley honors and celebrates his father which he has every right to do in Deconstructing Dad, but he also respectfully shows just how fallible he was as a human being. Such honesty and pure, unadulterated compassion are rare traits in documentaries, so that makes Deconstructing Dad all the more extraordinary.
Mort (John Malkovich), a drunkard, returns to his family home in the suburbs of Chicago where his sister, Eileen (Dana Delany), lives with her teenage son, Abe (Jacob Zachar). She lets him stay over in hopes that he sobers up, a task that's easier said than done for an alcoholic. Abe wants to buy a dilapidated boat from two salesmen, Mr. Fletcher (John Goodman) and Morley (Jim Ortlieb), but he needs an adult family member's signature to finalize the sale. His mom happens to be away for a few days, so in the meantime he bonds with uncle Mort and persuades him to sign for the boat.
What could have easily been a powerful family drama instead turns into a strained, inert drama that fails to pack an emotional punch. It has the right ingredients that could have turned into something so much more, namely, its highly flawed yet kindhearted characters who are far from one-dimensional. More scenes with Abe, Mort and Eileen together would have also given the film more meat on its bones. Unfortunately, just when you think the second act feels lazy already, the third act comes along and seems rushed and even lazier with its abrupt ending. You might find yourself asking, "What?!? That's it?" once the end credits start rolling. The audience deserves a much more emotionally and intellectually rewarding form of closure rather one that leaves them feeling so frustratingly underwhelmed.
In all fairness, all of the actors, especially the always-reliable John Malkovich, give solid performances which will keep you ever-so-slightly engaged in the proceedings. Had director/co-writer Bob Meyer and co-writer Randy Buescher fleshed out the dynamics between Abe and his uncle with more depth and realism, the undercooked Drunkboat would have had much more to offer than just good acting.
Family Portrait in Black and White
Farewell, My Queen
Set during the French Revolution of the 18th Century, Farewell, My Queen follows Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the servant of the Queen, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Her job is to read to the Queen, but the longer she spends with her, the more she observes that there's more to the Queen than meets the eye. She even notices a steamy love affair between the Queen and Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), whom the Queen seems to like more than her. Tensions rise as the French Revolution continues to escalate, threatening their relationships as well as their own lives.
Writer/director Benoît Jacquot, with co-writer Gilles Taurand, has made a stirring period piece that's refreshingly easy-to-follow, sexy and surprising. Some costume dramas tend to be somewhat lengthy, dry and, well, just plain boring. Or they could suffer from style over substance/story Farewell, My Queen captures your attention from the very first frame and doesn't let it go until 1 hour and 40 minutes later. Most importantly, it has a lot more to offer than just beautiful set and costume design that pleases your eyes; it also offers a consistently compelling drama/romance that unfolds between the Queen and her lover, Gabrielle de Polignac. Jacquot boldly doesn't shy away from showing nudity and sex scenes, but those scenes are sensual in nature rather than pornographic.
At its core, Farewell, My Queen is a story about human relationships involving love, seduction, romance, betrayal and loyalty. The French Revolution that transpires throughout the film merely serves as a backdrop for the story. Don't expect any intense action scenes. Inevitably, though, that backdrop does eventually affect the characters' lives and relationships. Jacquot wisely doesn't let that intensity overshadow the tension that arises from the evolving dynamics of the relationships between the characters. Unlike some films where actors tend to hog the camera and/or ham their performances in, everyone onscreen gets a chance to shine while giving un-hammy, believable and well-nuanced performances that add even more layers of richness to Farewell, My Queen.
It's the Earth, Not the Moon
Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) works as an assistant for Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver), a University Professor who specializes in debunking individuals who claim to exhibit paranormal powers. One such individual happens to be Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) who appears to be psychic and to have the ability to bend spoons with his mind. He even performs those acts on a stage in front of a large audience who he may or may not be duping. It's up to Tom and Dr. Matheson, with the help of graduate student Sally (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ben (Craig Roberts), to get to investigate Simon's so-called powers and to debunk him. Not surprisingly, Simon doesn't let them have their way so easily. Toby Jones co-stars as Shackleton, the chairman of Dr. Matheson's Psych Department.
It's safe to say that the American movie industry has a short supply of mystery thrillers nowadays, perhaps because we're living in the Age of Stupid, so anything resembling a mystery would go over mainstream audience's heads. What we desperately need is a clever mystery thriller; sadly, Red Lights fails to rise to that call. Writer/director Rodrigo Cortés, who previously directed Buried, takes an initially intriguing and suspenseful premise and turns it into a sophomoric and nauseating experience that only gets increasingly preposterous as it goes along. The first 30 minutes or so are quite watchable and have, for the most part, plausibility. Once one of the characters you liked gets killed off, Red Lights's momentum as a thriller deflates like a punctured balloon.
The investigation of Simon should have been filled with fun, clever and surprising moments, but there's no fun to be had when the surprises lack internal logic. Moreover, one of the major twists is foreshadowed early on which means that perceptive, intelligent viewers won't be shocked at that particular third-act revelation. Yet another major twist occurs, and leaves more questions than answers because it comes so far out of left field that you'll feel as though there were a dozen endings written for the film, and Cortés merely chose this one at random without rhyme or reason. Ultimately, Red Lights is unsatisfying even if you're able to check your brain at the door and to suspend disbelief for 2 hours.