Actors of Sound

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 10:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Brief archival footage has some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2016 Freestyle Digital Media

It’s the climax of the film. The hero and heroine finally kiss. The power of the moment comes from the emotion built up by the story, by the acting talent and screen charisma of the performers, by the heart-tugging swell of the music — and by the sound of the kiss itself, probably so subtle you don’t notice it, but if it wasn’t there, you would notice its absence. That sound was not made by the tender touch of two beautiful movie stars’ lips. It was made by a Foley artist, the “actor of sound,” whose profession is the subject of this documentary.

Skip this next part and go to the next paragraph if you want to preserve the illusion: the slight smacky sound you hear is probably some burly guy kissing the back of his hand. And when a beautiful actress walks down a hall or street in high heels, that same burly guy is probably wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and high heels, stepping on one of the dozen or so different surfaces in the studio to match the shot. The sound of the trudging footsteps of the enormous football player in “The Blind Side” was created by a woman, who explains, “I had to become a 300 pound man who was feeling alone and like no one cared about him…I gave myself a sense of heaviness.” Another woman “was” Mr. T in “The A-Team,” at least the sounds of his feet.

The Foley artist is the person who provides everything from hoofbeats on dirt to the clacks of high heels on a wood floor, from the sound E.T. makes when he walks to the sound of Walter White taking off the mask he uses for cooking meth to the sound Robert de Niro makes when he slams a baseball bat into a guy’s head in “The Untouchables.” That last one, we learn in this fascinating and engaging documentary, was made with a combination of a raw turkey (gizzards still inside) and a coconut. We learn about sounds like the snap of Batman’s cape, the flutter of paper floating through the air, and the “hyper-real” coin toss in “No Country for Old Men.”

Foley was a real person, a pioneer in the field. While the technology for recording and editing the sounds has advanced along with most other aspects of filmmaking, the technology for creating the sounds has not. They are still using the same kinds of props — and sometimes even the exact same props — that go back to the heyday of radio. If it’s a period film and someone needs to dial a phone, you’re going to need a dial phone to create that sound. And nothing beats corn starch for the sound of walking on snow.

The documentary includes archival footage showing how sounds were created for some of the most iconic moments in film history. ET’s walk? Let’s just say that when the Foley artists were served Jello at lunch, it gave them a good idea. It also includes Foley artists from around the world and some discussion of how changes in the industry and technology may affect the future of the profession.

All of the participants are wonderfully imaginative and dedicated, and their stories and perspective make this essential viewing for anyone who is interested in film. “The sound has to pan, too,” to help create the illusion of movement. And they will do anything to get the sound just right — even a condom over the microphone.

As one of them says, a Foley artist has to be “an athlete, a musician, and an actor all in one,” and as another says, they are “painting a picture with sound.” So far, no one has been able to produce sounds digitally or via a sound library that feel real, not robotic. Being a Foley artist requires “imagination, tempo, coordination, and love,” and this film is filled with all of that as well, a welcome appreciation for an essential and often overlooked profession.

Parents should know that this film includes brief violent footage from films being discussed.

Family discussion: What movie sounds do you remember? How will this movie make you listen more closely?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Lillian”

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Pitch Perfect 3

Posted on December 21, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language and some action
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic/action violence, peril, explosions, fire
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 19, 2018

When a franchise runs out of ideas, it’s time to stop, even if the characters and music are still delightful. When a franchise descends to having its own characters wink at the audience with jokes about how it’s run out of ideas, and resorts to just (literally) setting things on fire, not once but twice in it’s 90ish minute runtime, it’s one movie past time to stop. Not that the previous two films had much of a storyline, but compared to this one, they were the Iliad and the Odyssey. It wasn’t fun to hear Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) tell Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) that she’s stupid one time. It borders on agonizing by the third time.

The music is still delightful, exquisitely harmonized and choreographed covers of songs that it is surprising and fun to hear performed that way, especially in the obligatory riff-off, where this edition’s twist is that the other groups don’t care and use — gasp! — instruments!

The original Bellas are all out in the working world and not very happy about it. When Emily, who is still in college and performing with a new group of Bellas, invites them to a “reunion,” they think they are being invited to sing but learn they are just there to cheer on the new group. They decide that finding a way to sing together again is the most important thing in the world, and Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they contact her dad in the military to perform for the USO. Chloe (Brittany Snow) points out that there doesn’t seem to be much point if there isn’t a competition. Wink!

And so the Bellas go to Europe to perform for the troops, along with a country group called Saddle Up and a very sophisticated female rock group led by Calamity (Ruby Rose). And DJ Khaled (playing himself) is going to pick one of them to be his opening act because, oh, who cares that it makes no sense; at least Chloe gets to feel that she’s in a competition. Continuing to scrape the bottom of the storyline barrel, the movie then gives us not one but two distant daddy issues, neither of which matters at all, though it’s always good to see John Lithgow.  And there is barely a flicker of love interest with a couple of guys who are so generic they seem to have wandered in from a Hallmark Christmas movie.

By the time we get to the end more than one character has made a choice that is completely inconsistent and/or nonsensical because no one seems to be paying attention to anything but the musical numbers, which continue to be delightful. Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, and Adam Devine escaped this mess, and anyone who is not a major fan of the franchise would do well to do the same.

Parents should know that this film includes some very crude sexual references and language, some comic peril and action including martial arts and explosions.

Family discussion: Why did the Bellas want to compete so badly?  Were you surprised by Beca’s decision?

If you like this, try: the first two movies in the series and listen to a capella groups like Pentatonix and Home Free

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Posted on December 14, 2017 at 9:22 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence including slaughterhouse and bullfights.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 12, 2018
Copyright BlueSky 2017

I warn you — a “however” is coming, maybe more than one.

There’s a lot to like in “Ferdinand,” an affectionate version of the book by Munro Leaf about Ferdinand, the bull who did not want to fight; he just wanted to smell the flowers. WWE star John Cena provides a warm, inviting voice for the title character, and Kate McKinnon steals the show as his “calming goat.” The artwork is imaginative and colorful. However, the slight story of the book has been expanded to fill out a feature, and some of the choices are worse than just padding; they are misguided, distracting, even disturbing, especially for the youngest viewers.

Leaf’s original story and the lovely Oscar-winning 1938 Disney animated short are beautifully simple. While most bulls are ferocious and proud to fight matadors, Ferdinand is a gentle soul who just wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. The men who are looking for the fiercest bull of all arrive just as Ferdinand reacts to being stung by a bee. Mistakenly believing that he is a powerfully furious animal, they bring him to the bullring, where he refuses to fight.

The Disney film is eight minutes long and tells the entire story. This version, from Blue Sky, gives us a meandering tale about Ferdinand, bred in a facility that supplies bulls for bullfighters. As a young calf, he is bullied by the others, especially the alpha bull, Valiente, who suffers from what me might term bovine toxic masculinity.

Ferdinand adores his kind-hearted father (Jeremy Sisto), asking him, “Can I be a champ without fighting?” “I wish the world worked that way for you,” his father says before he leaves for the ring. He never returns home.

Ferdinand runs away and finds a perfect home, a flower farm.  He is adopted by Nina, who is so devoted to him that she has him cuddle on the sofa next to her and sleep in her bed, even after he grows to the size of an SUV.

After an adventure that includes a cleverly-constructed scene in yes, a china shop, Ferdinand ends up back at the ranch, where Lupe (McKinnon), his calming goat, declares that she will be his coach for outsmarting the matador.   Ferdinand learns that the only options for the bulls are the ring or the slaughterhouse. He must rescue two of the bulls who taunted him before they are turned into hamburger, and then find a way to survive the bullring.

McKinnon has the same lighting-fast fluidity of mood and character that made Robin Williams an ideal choice to provide the voice for the genie in “Aladdin.”  She is in constant conversation with her many selves, and it is hilarious.  However.  The palpable padding of the storyline would not be a serious problem except for the misjudgment about the presentation of the fatal options available to the bulls.  It is impossible, even for a child, to watch the rescue from the slaughterhouse without recognizing what all of those scary-awful machines are designed to do.  Parents who do not want to answer some tough questions about dinner — or reconcile themselves to a vegetarian menu — should stick with the Disney version.

Parents should know that this movie has peril and violence, including low-key depictions of a slaughterhouse and a bullfight, as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why were the other bulls mean to Ferdinand? Why were the horses mean? Why did Ferdinand want to rescue bulls who were mean to him?

If you like this, try: the book and the Disney animated version of this story and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series

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Darkest Hour

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 5:48 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 Focus

A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted on November 27, 2017 at 6:37 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic violence, characters injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017

I sing the rage of Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who is not so much consumed by righteous fury as filled with a desperate need for it to consume everyone else around her. There is no better actor to convey fury than McDormand. When she is good, she is very, very good, but when she is mad she is better.

It is seven months after Hayes’ daughter was raped and burned to death and there have been no arrests. There are three billboards near her home in Ebbing, Missouri that are crazy quilts of tattered leftover, shredded images from layers of advertisements brightly urging drivers to buy Huggies or visit the Ozarks. She visits Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who is responsible for renting out the billboards and gives him $5000 for one month. On oxblood-red backgrounds, the stark white letters now say, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That provokes a visit from the police chief (Woody Harrelson) who is compassionate and frank. There were no witnesses. The DNA does not match anyone in the system nationwide. He wants to find out who did it, but there is not much he can do.

The billboards are unsettling to the town, especially Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is the kind of dim, resentful guy who expresses his insecurities by abusing others, especially African Americans. Only Willoughby sees that Dixon could be a better man. His angry, racist mother spurs him on to worse behavior.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) has a savage humor and an ear for the poetry in the way real people speak. In this film, he shows a warmth and humanity we have not seen before. In one scene, Hayes’ fury is instantly defused when a character shows unexpected vulnerability. In another, she has a conversation with a deer who wanders over to one of the billboards as Hayes is planting flowers. McDormand has always been one of our finest actors and here she gets a chance to inhabit one of her most complex characters and does it beautifully. Whether she is striding around like a warrior in a denim jumpsuit and a bandana wound around her head or unable to conceal a small smile at the ruckus she is creating, she is a force of a nature and a wonder to watch. Everyone in the cast is outstanding, with special mention of Harrelson and Rockwell and of newcomer Jones, a breakout this year in films including “American Made” and “Get Out.” Hayes’ fury is like a firework lighting up the sky, but it is only when it is out that we can see the stars in these deeply compassionate portrayals.

Parents should know that this film includes references to a horrific rape and murder of a teenager and it shows serious violence with severe injuries, as well as very strong and crude language, drinking, and smoking.

Family discussion: Did the billboards help? What else could she have done? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “In Bruges,” “Fargo,” and “Olive Kitterige”

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