"Michael Jackson's This Is It" **** (112 minutes)

Thursday November 5, 2009

Music has always been a passion-having attended hundreds of concerts in my lifetime-from classical to blues to rock. Back in September 1984, I took in the Jacksons' controversial Victory Tour concert at Washington D.C.'s RFK stadium-which ended up being their last tour of the U.S. & Canada. Jackson's popularity was at a peak with "Thriller" still riding high on the charts (it remains the best-selling album of all time). I was swept up in the Jackson mania and thought this was a great opportunity to catch a legend at his peak.

I remember the concert as being just so-so; and as his bazaar behavior continued to multiply each passing year, it diminished my respect for his artistry and his music. So, when he died last July, I was ambivalent at best. My opinion of him was that of a brilliant artist who became nothing more than a cultural oddity and side-show.

When news of this documentary first came out, my impression was that here was a last ditch effort by the promoters to bank on his name and untimely death. So when I started hearing and reading the positive buzz on the film my interest perked. I decided to put all my negativity aside and go into it with an open mind. What did I find? Hands-down one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen, and, as a result, I now view MJ as an extraordinary artist who tragically died way before his time.

Director Kenny Ortega (director of the latest "High School Musical" incarnations and who was the choreographer for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" & "Dirty Dancing") was also the director of the MJ tour that was never to be. What he was made here, however, is a snippet of what might have been one of the most exciting musical/theatrical events ever.

Going in, I expected a lot of talking heads with scattered behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage that showed Jackson setting up the show. I expected, maybe 50-60% percent music. I got 90%-and what a 90% it is! Shot at rehearsals held from April-June 2009, the seamlessly edited musical numbers are nearly complete compositions that focus on Jackson giving an intimate concert-like performance-sans thousands of screaming fans. Here was a consummate artist who gave his all even when it didn't "count".

Despite an absence of 9 years, his voice (never his strong point; for me, his standout was always the movements) is as competent as ever and his dancing still impeccable. I remembered how frail he looked on the tabloid TV shows over the last several years-being wheeled into courtrooms during his infamous trials. That Jackson was not present at all on screen.

We are also treated to the ideas that would never come to fruition: the elaborate staging is merely hinted at, and pieces of the production, such as using blue-screen to insert MJ into old movie clips are shown during the rehearsal sequence in such a way that I yearned to see the final product. A final number that illustrates Jackson's love of the planet using a filmic clip of the rain forests cradling a young child as trees are bulldozed around her is effectively heartbreaking. As is the final gathering of all the principals holding hands in a circle to show their camaraderie for what was supposed to be Jackson's swansong concert tour-probably shot mere weeks before his demise.

A short segment in the beginning concentrates on the worldwide search for the dancers that would mirror MJ's style and talent. Many expressed a lifelong dream to be performing with Jackson. Tryouts reduce the thousands to a handful lucky enough to be selected. I kept thinking how devastating they must now feel that their dream vanished so suddenly.

But what really wowed me is the backup band that promised to be nearly as special as the front man. Ortega used HD quality sound (seeing it in a theater with a decent sound system is a must!) to show that the talent on screen matched the best pop bands I have ever seen live. The standout is 23 year-old Australian guitarist Orianthi Panagaris who was hand-picked by Jackson after viewing her on YouTube, and has played with Prince & Carrie Underwood, as well as being named as one of the 12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarist. She's featured on a couple of numbers and you realize that this tour would be the showcase that could launch a career.

Jackson always lamented growing old and so, ironically, he has departed the planet without doing so. However, as the credits rolled, I was overwhelmed with sadness. We will never know whether or not the heinous molestation charges were true. However, viewing this, I do know that his "King Of Pop" moniker was well-deserved and will remain unchallenged-a tribute to a one-of-a-kind entertainer and celebrity.

Orianthi Panagaris & Jackson

"The Blind Side" ** (126 minutes)

Wednesday November 6, 2009

By now, most sports fans in general, and NFL fans in particular, are familiar with the incredible real life story of Michael Oher. Most everyone else who have turned on a TV recently, have been bombarded with the trailer of this film starring Sandra Bullock as the no-nonsense mom who adopted the homeless 300+ lb behemoth African-American teenager and who guided him to become, not only a college graduate, but also the Baltimore NFL Football Raven's first round 2009 draft pick.

Phenomenal feel-good story. Not so phenomenal movie. In fact, as an extremely passionate sports fan, I was thoroughly disappointed in this manipulative Hollywood schlock. The film is based on the 2006 novel "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" by Michael Lewis and it is entertaining on some levels (in fact, the Baltimore preview audience collectively seemed to love the film); but as a gritty true-to-life expose, it fails miserably. And to be honest, I'm not surprised. What should have been titled "The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story", this is numero uno on why, generally, I favor independent and foreign films.

Sandra Bullock dons tight clothes (you'll see her in about 20 different form fitting outfits) and sports a blond mane to portray the no-nonsense wealthy Republican fireplug-giving a one note performance that is nauseatingly clichéd from start to finish. (Someone suggested she should be nominated for an Academy Award. If so, I'll eat this review!) And I just loved the scene when Sandra confronts Michael's homeys in the Memphis projects with a sass that would have probably gotten her killed in a real setting.

The subject of the film, played by first timer Quinton Aaron, is so low keyed throughout, you wonder how in the heck he ever attained anything in life. I desperately wanted some insight into his psyche or how he ever managed to survive the streets of Memphis before being "rescued" by The Tuohy's-which would have really been a much more interesting storyline for me. Instead, we get the usual Hollywood gloss-over with only a passing mention of his drugged-out mom & absent father.

Playing opposite his better half is country singer Tim McGraw, whose role is merely to be a doormat for his spouse. And to bring even more levity to the proceedings is the Tuohy's precocious preteen (played annoyingly to the nth degree by Jae Head) whose main job is to be the spokesperson for his mostly mute "brother".

Writer/director John Lee Hancock has made a career tacking sport themes, directing the 2002's critically acclaimed "The Rookie" and screenwriting 2008's well-received "The Express". But somehow the decision was made to completely dummy down what could have been a real socially conscious blockbuster. Like I said-there is entertainment value here but the true-to-life feel-good story on the screen is too sugarcoated for my tastes.

Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) & adopted son Michael
Oher (Quinton Aaron) in the halls of Ole Miss

Sean Touhy (Tim McGraw), Coach Cotton
(Ray McKinnon), & Leigh Anne Touhy
discuss Michael's performance
on the high school team

"The Road" *** (119 minutes)

Monday November 2, 2009

Off to the AFI Silver Theater again for another special preview with a post-screening Q&A with Australian Director John Hillcoat, who burst on the scene with one of my favorites from 2006, "The Proposition". This post-apocalyptic tale, first scribed by American novelist Cormac McCarthy (for which he received a Pulitzer in 2007), is a nice, but flawed, 2nd effort.

The story is basically a tale of love between a father & his son, and their effort to survive an unnamed event that has made rubble of our cities, and burned-out embers of our forests, while the populace is reduced to archaic roving gangs in desperate search for food and water.

The film opens with The Man (earnestly played by Viggo Mortensen) and his pregnant wife (sparsely utilized Charlize Theron) witnessing the beginning of the end of civilization from their bedroom window. The action quickly skips forward some 10 years later where The Man and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "Romulus, My Father") are living on the street pushing a cart carrying what's left of their belongings. For the next 2 hours, the story involves them avoiding capture for purposes of slavery or as a meal, while following "the road" that will take them to the coast-where, supposedly, life will be better.

And that's the main problem-that 2 hour running time where there is virtually no suspense build up to the scenes of fury. In-between we see, and get, the love connection between the two principals but the repetition of the relationship gets tedious-especially when there is no substantive oomph to the action scenes.

So why the respectable 3 star rating? Namely the acting, especially by Mortensen (look for a possible AA nod); the outstanding production values by production designer Christopher Kennedy ("The Proposition) & art director Gershon Ginsberg; the effective dreary cinematography created by Javier Aguirresarobe ("The Others", "Talk to Her", & "The Sea Inside"): all make it worth recommending. A nice score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave complements the visuals.

However, the series of scenes never come together to form a cohesive whole; and Theron is somewhat wasted in the scant flashback scenes that are supposed to signify The Man's sense of longing for a happier time and help to explain why she flew the coop. Although the story does offer some semblance of hope in the end, be prepared for a totally grim experience that, unfortunately, might be closer to reality than we'd like to think.

Dimension Films releases "The Road" nationwide on November 25th.


After the screening, AFI Silver Programmer Lori Donnelly moderated the Q&A with Director Hillcoat who revealed that he got Cormac's manuscript before it was published. He also stated that although Cormac was on set with his son, he never asked to review the script. John noticed that their father and son interraction was source of inspiration for the 2 fictional characters.

Some of John's interesting revelations:
-His directorial style involves giving utmost attention to the details.
-Kodi's 6'6" father was an extra (he played one of the cannibals).
-One of the references he used for the film was the Italian classic "The Bicycle Thief".
-The film presented technical challenges where at times he had to resort to CGI to block the sun, jet streams, birds, & blue sky.

Viggo Mortensen & Kodi-Smit McPhee ponder their
reflection in a scene from "The Road"

AFI Programmer Lori Donnelly & Director John Hillcoat

The documentary "The Horse Boy" (***) OPENS 11/6 IN BALTIMORE

I screened this film at this year's AFI SILVERDOCS Film Festival last June. It opens at The Charles for what will probably be a limited run. Here is a repeat of my review:

There always seem to be stories in the news about the lengths people take to try and find a cure for an illness when conventional medicine fails. "The Horse Boy" (***-94 minutes), based on Rupert's book, is one of those stories-and the illness is autism. The parents of autistic child Rowin are Rupert and Kristin Isaacson who are an engaging couple, he from Liverpool, she from Texas where the couple met and married. Their 2 1/2 year old son was first diagnosed with the mysterious ailment which the medical community has no consensus as to cause and treatment. They sought out all of the available resources but saw no sustaining progress. Currently he was a social worker who had professionally trained horses while Kristin was a psychology professor. Rupert had also written about the African Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and he had witnessed several shamanic ceremonies. When he saw how Rowan had calmly taken to Rupert's horses and how much joy he exhibited when riding horseback, he got the idea that maybe a trip to Mongolia to seek out a shaman or 2 might be the key to unlocking the autistic mystery and help cure his now 5- year-old son-something conventional doctor's in the States couldn't accomplish. To his classically schooled wife this idea seemed preposterous. It took a ton of convincing on Rupert's part but off they went with fellow Texan and novice film maker Michel Orion Scott to record the 4-week journey. And what a journey it was! The film shows progress and setbacks everyone encountered along the way and, in the end, there, indeed, seemed to be major changes in Rowin. Questions are raised such as whether these positive changes were due to the spiritual healings of Shaman, the affects of undertaking such incredible journey never experienced by the child, his interactions with children along the way. Combinations of these or other reasons, or were they just imaginary short-term results? Whatever the reason or reasons, the visual and spiritual journey is amazing and well worth the trip. The stunning cinematography is utterly captivating as most viewers will enter a world far removed from their usual habitat & experience. At the Q & A the film maker stated that Rowin is making progress but still suffers from the malady. However, both parents believe that the trip was life-changing for all involved. The film has been picked up by Zeitgeist Films with a September 11th limited U.S. release date.