Category Archives: Archived Movies

THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW

Producer: Tarik Karam and Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Director: Peter Livolsi
Writer: Peter Livolsi
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Maude Apatow, Fred Armisen and Michaela Watkins
Studio: Shout! Studios

B-

An adolescent odd couple bond over punk rock in “The House of Tomorrow,” a pleasantly quirky adaptation of Peter Bognanni’s novel by first-time writer-director Peter Livolsi, which employs a fine cast to sidestep most of the afterschool-special pitfalls the material invites.

Asa Butterfield uses his skill at playing awkward and quizzical—which he earlier demonstrated in “A Brilliant Young Mind” (also known as “X+Y”) and “The Space Between Us”—as Sebastian Prendergast, a sheltered sixteen-year old who has lived most of his life in a geodesic dome outside Minneapolis with his grandmother Josephine (Ellen Burstyn), a disciple of Buckminster Fuller who uses their home to introduce visitors to her master’s ideas. Home schooled and as devoted to Fuller’s theories as his grandmother, Sebastian has had little contact with the outside world.

One day a group of youngsters from a Lutheran church, led by Alan Whitcomb (an amusingly laid-back Nick Offerman), tours the place. Alan’s son Jared (Alex Wolff) challenges Josephine about the reasonableness of Fuller’s belief in the possibility of human progress, and she suffers a minor stroke, leading Alan to accompany her and Sebastian to the hospital. Jared goes along, and he and Sebastian strike up a conversation, at one point sharing some punk rock on Jared’s phone. Sebastian is hooked, and Alan invites him to visit their house sometime.

Jared, you see, needs some friendship, because he’s rebelling against the structures imposed by a recent heart transplant—a regimen Alan is insistent on his following. Jared’s only joy is in practicing the guitar up in his room. When Sebastian shows up unannounced, he’s initially annoyed, but is soon won over by the shy kid’s newly-found passion for the music he loves. Before long Sebastian is strumming on the guitar as well, and the two will plan on starting a band, a scheme that involves Sebastian borrowing another instrument from the church without Alan knowing.

Naturally Sebastian’s absences from the dome cause Josephine to wonder about what he’s up to, and lead to a breach between them. Eventually Alan will take him in, but at the same time he’s concerned that allowing the boys—who now refer to themselves as “The Rash,” a decision that’s probably their most significant achievement toward becoming a real band—to perform at the church talent show will exhaust his son, who has already suffered a crisis after ceasing to take his medication. That leads to their decision to take drastic action to find a performance space.

This could easily be the stuff of a Nickelodeon cable movie, and in truth there are moments when it threatens to fall into that trap, most notably in the last reel, where things turn out well in a whole variety of unlikely ways. That it never goes completely off the rails is due largely to the charm exuded by Butterfield and Wolff, and the chemistry they have together. But Offerman’s concerned but somewhat clueless dad is a plus as well, and Maude Apatow adds a solid turn as Jared’s sister, who at first acts like a typically surly sibling but turns out to be much more supportive than she seems. Michaela Watkins contributes a poignant note in a virtual cameo as Alan’s heavy-drinking wife, who is living apart from the rest of the family.

And then there’s Burstyn, who delivers a nicely nuanced performance as a true Fuller believer. A brief black-and-white clip of her with him occurs at one point among the archival footage assembled as an educational tool for Josephine’s lectures (the narration is provided by Fred Armisen, employing a bland professorial voice); it’s no technical trick, since Burstyn actually knew and worked with him in earlier days. The picture, shot in Minnesota at a dome house in Dayton inspired by Fuller’s ideas (and partially funded by the Film Program of the Sloan Foundation, which promotes movies about scientific progress), boasts nice cinematography by Corey Walter. The other technical work is solid as well, and Rob Simonsen provides an agreeable score, complemented by plenty of punk numbers.

“The House of Tomorrow” may not break much new narrative ground, but it treads fairly familiar territory with a nicely light touch, adding some inventive tweaks along the way. And the excellent cast makes it go down easily.

ITZHAK

Producer: Alison Chernick
Director: Alison Chernick
Writer: 
Stars: Itzhak Perlman, Toby Perlman, Alan Alda, Amnon Weinstein Styefan Valcuha, Billy Joel, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zuckerman, Evgeny Kissin, Mischa Maisky, Martha Argerich, Barack Obama, and Benjamin Netanyahu
Studio: Greenwich Entertainment

B

On the evidence of Alison Chernick’s able but unexceptional documentary, Itzhak Perlman is not only a marvelous musician but a lovely human being who has overcome enormous obstacles to build a career most other violists would envy while devoting himself to philanthropy and teaching as well as concertizing. Watching “Itzhak,” which is getting some theatrical exposure before migrating to television (it will be broadcast as part of the PBS American Masters series), one cannot but be charmed as well as amazed by Perlman’s virtuosity, energy and sheer humanity.

A major part of the film is, of course, simply biographical. We learn of his birth in Tel Aviv to parents who had emigrated from Poland to Israel and soon perceived his musical talent. His progress was hampered, however, by the fact that he’d been stricken with polio at age four and wore braces that prevented him from standing while he played. Potential teachers often perceived him more as a curiosity than a true prodigy. Still he persevered, and by his teen years was studying at Juilliard—one of his teachers there expresses her amazement at his talent, while looking back he admits that he found her open mode of instruction irritating then but uses it now with his students—and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, playing part of the Mendelssohn concerto.

His ascent from there to iconic status among violinists gets only cursory coverage, but much time is devoted to his marriage to the vibrant Toby, who gets fairly thorough biographical treatment as well and is shown discussing the contributions she has made—and continues to make—to his career. In many ways this is a joint biography, with Toby emerging as an equal partner (though not, of course, in the musical sense), and her outspokenness is no less engaging than his gregariousness.

Interspersed with the purely biographical material are scenes of Perlman playing in concert with Zubin Mehta, or practicing Bach sonatas with Martha Argerich and a Schubert trio with pianist Evgeny Kissin and cellist Mischa Maisky and sharing jokes with them as they later enjoy some Chinese take-out. Food is also featured in a session with guest Alan Alda. Perlman cooks for him (“garbage soup” he calls the dish), and Alda tells him about his own bout with polio as they share memories of the different treatments—most of them painful—that they endured.

Then there are sequences of Perlman as teacher, encouraging his young charges and then using the Socratic method he once found unhelpful. But these are juxtaposed with plenty of glimpses into Perlman’s life—waiting for a sleeping homeless man to be escorted from a recording studio restroom so he can use it; navigating his electric cart through a snow-covered New York sidewalk; playing the national anthem at a Mets game, or what he says is the most requested item in his repertoire, John Williams’ theme from “Schindler’s List”; visiting a violin store, where the owner shows him an instrument with a swastika and the year “1936” written inside the case, and a repairman who looks over his own beloved Stradivarius; meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu before receiving an award; being awarded a medal by President Obama (while Steven Spielberg, the director of “Schindler’s List” and also a recipient, looks on alongside Barbra Streisand; performing genially in a concert rehearsal with Billy Joel.

“Itzhak” mixes together these various elements, and more, to tell Perlman’s inspiring story, shifting from one to another in a rather random fashion that leaves the movie feeling, to be a honest, a mite shapeless. That’s an adjective, the film demonstrates, that could never be applied to Perlman’s playing; he molds phrases with absolute precision, while filling them with the emotion you can see on his blissful face as he plays. Those moments alone are worth the price of admission—or, if you prefer to wait a bit, turning on your television to your local PBS channel.