New films: Transcendence, Bears and Dom Hemingway

Keep reading, there’s a positive review at the end! Transcendence Directed by Wally Pfister There’s a scene early in “Transcendence” in which Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster refers to another group of characters as having limited logic but plenty of irony. And, thus, “Transcendence” becomes the latest in a long line of films that manage to write their own internal reviews. There’s something very odd, and ironic, about films with plots involving super intelligent beings or artificial intelligences in that they so often turn out to be pretty stupid. Here we have an artificial intelligence with human roots which can’t seem to think as clearly as a fairly average person with regard to what people might want or feel comfortable with. The basic plot involves a scientist whose reasoning and memories are uploaded to a supercomputer and then given a network connection – with none of those pesky bandwidth limitations. It seems glossy and hip, and is more up to date than some similar, earlier stories, but there’s very little that actually manages to seem original. For example, we’ve seen computers and agencies with access to the entire web on such mediocre fare as “Eagle Eye” and last year’s better “Closed Circuit.” The man interfacing with machine elements were seen 20 years ago in the “Lawnmower Man” films and the idea of a brain being […]

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New films: Draft Day and Oculus

Draft Day Directed by Ivan Reitman OK, I’ll admit it again – I have a soft spot for Kevin Costner. Despite one or two stinkers on his resume (don’t we all?), he’s been delivering solid performances for decades and on the one occasion I interviewed him, he couldn’t have been nicer. I’m predisposed, not to like his films, but to want to like them. So it was with some trepidation that I attended “Draft Day” because Costner’s been making a bit of a comeback of late, but his last film “3 Days to Kill” was pretty awful (albeit not because of him). “Draft Day” starts a little slowly and I wasn’t quite feeling it at first, as Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr. has an awkward morning encounter with his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), as they walk outside into what felt like a low budget General Motors commercial. But the movie picks up pretty nicely after that and kept me both entertained and absorbed throughout. It’s fair to say this is probably the movie that has left me with the biggest positive buzz of the year so far – which surprised me given its subject matter and style. Sonny is the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns and he’s trying to secure the team’s future on the National Football League’s draft day – the day that teams […]

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Sacramento Ballet’s Good Fortune with ‘Carmina Burana’

There’s no Pat Sajak or Vanna White anywhere near the spinning Wheel of Fortune in “Carmina Burana.” No, the fickle wheel is more about good luck and bad, love and loss, and win or lose in the cosmic sense. Lady Luck (or Fortuna, as the monks who wrote the collection of poems that comprise “Carmina Burana” called her), is a force to be reckoned with — feared and obeyed — by frail humans whose very existence she rules. The poems were written by monks in the 11th and 13th centuries and are secular, not sacred, in nature. They were discovered in 1803 in the medieval Bavarian monastery Benediktbeuem (Beuem, for short) . They were written primarily in Medieval Latin and Middle High German. In 1936, composer Carl Orff set them to music, and “Carmina Burana” became a staple of  the classical music repertoire. In 1991, Sacramento Ballet choreographer and co-artistic director Ron Cunningham, set the music to dance, and it has become the troupe’s most popular ballet. Between 1991 and 2010, the ballet has been performed here six times. A seventh production opened Thursday night and will continue through Sunday at the Community Center Theater. A stunning production, “Carmina Burana” is performed on a bare stage against a  backdrop, and with Fortuna’s Wheel as the main prop. Dramatic lighting (by Steve Odehnal), exciting costuming (by Theresa Kimbrough) […]

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New Film: Noah

Noah Directed by Darren Aronofsky “Noah” is a difficult film to review, for assorted reasons. It’s a story that is integral to many religious groups and their collective teachings, although the story varies across those groups. Meanwhile, for those who aren’t religiously inclined, or who are religious but don’t read scriptures in a literal sense, it’s still a very familiar story but not an especially complex one. Taken in its basic form, as represented in the Book of Genesis, it wouldn’t make for much of a movie, at least not one that would appeal to vast numbers of modern movie-goers – there’s no villain and no dramatic love story, for example, and the entire plot is well known. [Oddly, this is true of that other great boat story, “Titanic” – which also needed to have a villain and a love story added in order to garner mass appeal. And if your only goal is to watch a story about people fearing death by drowning who end up on a vast, allegedly unsinkable ship, you could always watch “Titanic” backwards. But let’s not go there.] Consider the source material, the basis for this adaptation. The Noah story is most closely associated, typically, with the Book of Genesis. But Genesis itself has multiple sources and those who don’t read it as the exclusive writing of Moses, generally […]

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New films: Divergent and three very funny comedies

Divergent Directed by Neil Burger “Divergent” is the latest adaptation of a novel (of the same name) about a teenaged girl coping with life in a futuristic, dystopian society. And that’s also its biggest hurdle, that it’s one of several and bound to be both compared with the others and second-guessed as to whether or not the timing is ideal. In that sense, one has to wonder how this film would be received if it had come before “The Hunger Games,” “The Host,” the similarly targeted “Twilight” franchise, and even the more boy-oriented “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” series. Comparing and contrasting is fair game, but the film itself isn’t at fault merely because other similarly themed or targeted films have come before it unless it is nothing but derivative of those earlier projects. The closest themed and targeted of all are “The Hunger Games” books and films, with both looking into ways in which societies have developed in order to control the general population in a futuristic America, approximately a century ahead. In this context alone, I think “Divergent” is the better story and far more logical and credible. “The Hunger Games” asks readers or viewers to believe that a successful approach to controlling the masses, for at least seven decades, has been to rip children away from families on an annual basis and […]

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Retired ballerina, Isha Lloyd, returns as lead in Carmina Burana; Talks ballet, defying odds, and the future

Retired ballerina, Isha Lloyd, couldn’t stay away. After retiring just a few months ago in fall 2013, she’s back to play the lead in Sacramento Ballet’s powerful and popular Carmina Burana (March 27-March 30). “I couldn’t resist,” Lloyd said of her decision to return for this performance. Lloyd retired from ballet due injuries she sustained over the years. In addition to enduring congenital cysts in her feet and knees—and a foot surgery in May as result—she was in a terrible car accident a year before joining the company. That accident put her in a coma and left her with a broken leg, broken pelvis, brain trauma, and a surgery to put a titanium rod in her femur. “My doctor said I would never dance again,” recalled Lloyd. “I took that to heart, but I knew that professional ballet was in my future and I absolutely did not let that happen…I said I would prove him wrong and I did.” Lloyd defied all odds and not only danced again, but also went on to have a remarkable 7-year career with the Sacramento Ballet, playing roles in performances such as Bolero, Romeo & Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. While it was difficult to leave, Lloyd knew retiring was the best decision for her body. But when the Sacramento Ballet […]

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New film: Need for Speed

Need for Speed Directed by Scott Waugh This film might as well have been called “Need for Morality,” Need for Compassion,” or “Need for Something Other than Callous Disregard.” It’s a loud, fast film with some great car related action, but it’s also logically flawed in the manner in which the character development and the plot are almost hypocritically opposed. We’re given a couple of keys characters: Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is the hero – a good guy who tries to right wrongs; and Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) – the villain with no conscience. The inherent problem is that our hero acts in way that flies in the face of this basic dramatic conflict. He’s loyal to his friends and inclined to prove Dino’s bad actions, and yet he’s also a guy who loves to street race under conditions that show a callous disregard for other road users. Tobey is the solid hometown guy who stayed and helped his father in the family auto shop. Dino is the kid who made it in the big leagues of racing, despite everybody thinking Tobey is the better driver. Everything about the film is geared towards us rooting for Tobey and yet the writers have him behaving reprehensively in terms of the chaos he leaves in his wake. We’re supposed to be OK with him leaving countless other […]

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New Films and Revised Histories

History (or lack thereof) at the movies. Two movies with historical themes opened this week, aimed at very different audiences. But neither are likely to thrill history teachers. Mr. Peabody and Sherman Directed by Rob Minkoff The latest animated movie aimed at kids is a retread of the adventures of two television characters from c. 55 years ago. That’s an odd marketing move as the original segments are probably too old even for most young kids’ parents and so it’s a property that has to create its own new appeal. It might well do that as it’s light and cute and, more importantly, doesn’t have a lot of kid competition at the box office. Mr. Peabody is a dog – but not just the smartest dog in the world, he’s the smartest anything in the world. With one of the outcomes being that he has been allowed to adopt a human boy, Sherman. (Somewhere, a gay marriage opponent is screaming “Slippery slope!”). In order to help educate Sherman, he has invented a time machine that allows them to travel back and experience moments and people from history. Despite the normal time machine concerns about changing events and therefore the future, Mr. Peabody and Sherman don’t just observe the past, they interact with it – taking part in, and even shaping, such events as the French […]

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17th Annual Jewish Film Festival Offers Unique Films and Celebration of the Jewish Experience

The Crest Theatre is excited to present a carefully selected array of unique films celebrating the Jewish experience at this weekend’s 17th Annual Sacramento Jewish Film Festival. According to Sid Heberger, Co-Producer of festival and General Manager of the Crest Theatre, the festival is the brainchild of Margi Park-Landau, who approached Heberger with the idea after growing tired of traveling to San Francisco to participate in their Jewish film festivals. Heberger loved the proposal and, seventeen years later, continues working with Park-Landau in organizing the festival and choosing films. Films for the festival are selected on a non-formulaic, staying-power basis. “I’m always looking for high quality films that grab your attention and once you watch them they swirl in your brain for hours afterwards. That’s my criteria,” Heberger said. After watching a film, Heberger asks herself if she’s still thinking about the film 3, 4, or 5 hours later. Or even 3, 4, or 5 days later. And if she is, then she knows it’s a good film. The festival attracts film lovers, film festival supporters, curious newcomers, and, of course, a large population of Jewish people—some affiliated with the Judaism and some who identify only with their cultural heritage. That being said, diversity is another important factor Heberger and Park-Landau consider when choosing films. “Every film takes a look at a different aspect of […]

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New films: Stalingrad and Non-stop

Stalingrad Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk “Stalingrad” is an interesting film and subject matter, on multiple levels, although much like the recent “The Monuments Men” it may actually be more interesting to read about and discuss than to watch. But it’s also likely to attract some film fans who find some of the unique aspects of the production appealing. For example, it’s the first non-American film shot in IMAX format, the first Russian film shot entirely in 3D, and it has broken box office records in Russia. The plot centers around the Battle of Stalingrad and the Russian military’s attempt to recapture the city from the Germans. But rather than take a macro look at that entire battle or campaign, the film centers at a micro level on the struggle to control a single strategically important building near the shore of the Volga, which separated the bulk of the Russian forces from the occupied city. This is an interesting choice to make as it makes the film more about personal struggles in this microcosm of the war in general rather than conveying the larger struggle. This probably works better for Russian audiences than for many others as this was a critical moment in WWII and is well understood and celebrated at the national level. Put simply, the Battle of Stalingrad and the campaign it was a […]

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