THE BEATLES: GET BACK (2021, doc)

November 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a lot of Beatles. The three episodes total more than 7 hours of run time. It will be likely be too much for most folks. Not for me. In fact, I envy Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson, who got to go through every minute of 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio from the 1969 sessions that led to the “Let it Be” album and documentary, as well as the band’s infamous rooftop live performance atop Apple Studios. The 1970 film won the band an Oscar for best original music, but unfortunately, that 42 minutes on the rooftop would be their final public live performance as The Beatles.

For those who have seen the 1970 documentary LET IT BE, you are aware of the discord amongst the band members during the sessions, but Peter Jackson’s project shows us there was much more to the story: pressure, expectations, creative forces, doubt, friendship, young men changing, and plenty of laughter and joking. And cigarettes. An incredible number of cigarettes. Keep in mind that even though they were the biggest band in the world, these lads from Liverpool still only ranged in age from the youngest, George at 25, to the oldest, John at 28.

One thing we notice is that there was a very small group involved with the daily activities. Outside of the band members, the faces we see most are Music Producer George Martin, the band’s long-time assistant Mal Evans, and renowned Sound Engineer Glyn Johns. It’s not really discussed here, but despite all the work we see Mr. Johns perform over the 22 days, it was Phil Spector who ended up with the production credit on the album. The director of the LET IT BE documentary, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, is seen quite a bit in the first two episodes, although he’s not as funny as he seems to think he is. Film Producer Denis O’Dell initially sets the band up at Twickenham Film Studios, which he rented as the location for his upcoming zany comedy THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN starting Peter Sellers and, yes, Ringo Starr. It’s this movie that has the Beatles on such a tight schedule, and it’s at Twickenham where Peter Jackson’s film kicks off.

PART 1 (2 hours, 34 minutes) provides a quick history of the band, dating back to 1956 when John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed The Quarrymen and invited George Harrison to join as a guitarist. There is a clip of the band performing at The Cavern, and a note on how Brian Epstein became the band’s manager. It was 1963 when George Martin began producing the band and that’s they year they hit #1 in Britain, kicking off Beatlemania. The following year took them to the United States for the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and it was 1966 when the band faced the backlash over John’s comment about “being more popular than Jesus.” That was also the year when the band decided against future tours, choosing instead to focus on studio work and albums. 1968 brought the death of Brian Epstein at age 32, and the infamous trip to India, where they spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So here they are in January 1969, with the goal of writing, rehearsing, and recording 14 songs, and then performing live over about a three week period.

Director Jackson uses the 22 days as a framing structure, going day-by-day to track the progress. Day 1 is kind of a feeling-out day as the band checks out the studio. Day 2 finds Paul in business mode, as the other band members poke fun at the Fan Club publication. Day 3 delivers the familiar setting of George being “annoyed” by Paul, but it’s Day 4 where “Get Back” is born, “Across the Universe” is introduced, and a terrific then-and-now montage of “Rock and Roll Music”. Day 5 gives us “I Me Mine”, as the band discusses ideas for the live show, and we learn code names for Ringo (Russian) and George (France). Day 6 finds Linda Eastman (not yet married to Paul) snapping photos in the studio while the band works on “The Long and Winding Road”, and “Let it Be.”. Day 7 is critical, as we get more “Get Back”, numerous mentions of Eric Clapton, and George leaving the band with “See ya’ in the clubs.” This is when we are subjected to our first Yoko Ono banshee screams. She has been attached to John’s hip for most every minute.

This first episode provides us our first look as the band works out songs on the fly. Ringo keeps amazing rhythm, while remaining mostly quiet. George’s insecurity and annoyance with his role (and Paul’s bossing) is beyond obvious (resulting in his leaving), and the band’s uncertainty about the best direction for the live performance is a bit unsettling. Despite all of that, it’s truly fascinating and humbling to watch and listen as they create the rough early versions of songs that we now know so well.

PART 2 (2 hours, 12 minutes) is probably my favorite episode of the three. For Day 8, with George having quit the band, Ringo is the first to show up as flowers are delivered for George from the Hare Krishnas. We eavesdrop as Paul (with Linda in tow) analyze the John and Yoko relationship, and we are privy to a secret conversation between John and Paul regarding George and the band. The rest of the day is spent rehearsing 3 songs, including Paul and John brainstorming fine-tuning “Get Back” lyrics. Day 9 has Peter Sellers stopping by – and likely wondering what the heck kind of mess he’s wandered into. This is Paul’s day to be irritated and stating they can’t go on like this. Day 10 reports on the band’s meeting at George’s house, which results in his return to the band and a shift from Twickenham studios to the Apple Studios on Savile Row, This throws a delay into things, and makes Day 11 a lost day.

Day 12 has the four band members back recording, despite technological challenges and a scathing article on the band in local publications. It’s this day when we hear an amazing version of “I Dig a Pony”, followed by “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, and “She came in through the Bathroom Window” (which would end up on Abbey Road). On Day 13, John recalls the Martin Luther King Jr speech, and the band gets a jolt of energy from keyboardist Billy Preston. Watching them perform “I’ve Got a Feeling” is pure musical joy. Day 14 stars strangely with more Yoko banshee screams, and Maxwell’s anvil is in the middle of the room, while the band solidifies the “Get Back” single. Day 15 offers discussions of Billy Preston as the 5th Beatle, while we get a Pattie Harrison sighting, and performances of “Two of Us” and “Polythene Pam.” Day 16 includes flashbacks to the trip to India, George working on “For You Blue”, the band’s first look at the rooftop, and early work on “Let it Be”. Once again, watching the creativity in action is simply mesmerizing.

PART 3 (2 hours, 19 minutes) begins on Day 17, which is only 3 days until the rooftop performance. George is assisting Ringo with writing “Octopus’s Garden”, which will end up on the Abbey Road album. Linda’s young daughter Heather bounces around the studio, and we can all relate to her cringing at Yoko’s latest banshee scream. We see John go hard on “Dig it”, while the band spends a great deal of time jamming to their favorite classics. These are musicians collaborating on the music they love – and enjoying every bit. Day 18 has George running through “Old Brown Shoe”, and John and Yoko celebrate her divorce being final. With Alan Parsons in the booth, the band goes through many takes of “Get Back”. On Day 19, George begins early work on “Something”, which would be featured on the Abbey Road album, and they wrap up the “Don’t Let Me Down” recording. With the live performance scheduled for tomorrow, Paul and John have a serious discussion about the payoff for all of this work. Is an album and one live show enough, if there is no TV special? As Paul’s brother Michael watches, we can’t help but think Paul was really hoping for another tour – one that would never happen.

Day 21, January 30, is when the rooftop performance actually happens. There are 10 cameras in place, 5 of which are on the roof with the band. Most of us have seen these performances, but director Jackson includes some of the ‘second takes’. The band opens with two takes of “Get Back”, followed by “Don’t Let Me Down”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “One After 909”, “Dig a Pony”, and second takes of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down”. Included here are some of the interviews from folks on the street, and we see the cops who are unsure how to handle the noise complaints. What’s obvious and thrilling is that John’s and Paul’s voices are in prime form, and the band is truly enjoying doing what they do better than any other band … despite the cold London weather. You can sense their pride as they head to the booth for the playback. Day 22 is the Final Day, and the band finishes the mostly acoustic recordings for the album.

Over the three episodes, we hear bits and pieces of more than 100 songs, and we witness the collaboration and tribulations of a band that reached heights of popularity previously unimaginable (remember Elvis never performed in the UK). It’s quite a privilege to witness artists at work during the creative process. Tension and disagreements are to be expected, and yes, they did occur. Perhaps those tensions drove the individuals to be even more creative and better at their craft. Regardless of your thoughts on this, one thing is certain … The Beatles “passed the audition”.

Now streaming on Disney+

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C’MON C’MON (2021)

November 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Not all filmmakers have something to say about human beings and human nature, but writer-director Mike Mills does … and he continues to prove it. His three previous feature films are all excellent. 20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016) was based on his experience being raised by his mother, while BEGINNERS (2010) was a tribute to his father. THUMBSUCKER (2005) focused on teen angst, and his latest is inspired by interactions with his own son and Mills’ documentary projects.

From the mouths of babes. Early on, we watch and listen as radio journalist Johnny (Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER, 2019) interviews kids in Detroit to get their opinions on all aspects of life and the world, including their hopes and expectations for the future. This and additional segments and the kids’ responses seem real, not staged, presenting a documentary feel – especially since everything is filmed in Black and White. In a rare phone call with his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, who will always be remembered as Ray’s daughter in FIELD OF DREAMS, 1989), Johnny offers to take care of Viv’s 9 year old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while Viv assists Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who battles ongoing mental health issues.

Viv is reticent to leave Jesse with Uncle Johnny, an unmarried man with no kids of his own. But she’s desperate for the help. Most of the film revolves around Johnny and Jesse spending time together and getting to know each other. Circumstances take the story from Detroit to New York City to Los Angeles to New York City to New Orleans. It’s a terrific journey that lacks any jaw-dropping cinematic elements. These two aren’t mountain climbing or spelunking. They simply walk and talk. This allows Jesse to experience a father-figure that’s been lacking in his life. For Johnny, he gains a perspective on parenting, which contrasts with his professional work interviewing kids. Jesse is whip smart and funny, but also manipulative and confused and downright quirky. The two of them together is quite something to watch as their relationship develops.

Viv shows up mostly in phone calls with Johnny and Jesse, but flashbacks help us understand the emotional break that occurred between she and Johnny. As the two siblings mend their relationship despite the distance, Mills and cinematographer Robbie Ryan effectively use the black and white palette to negate the excitement of big cities and travel, so that we focus on the personal interactions of the characters. The photography may be beautiful to look at, but it also reminds us that to a kid, a city is a city is a city, and what matters is an emotional bond and sense of security.

Young Woody Norman is a revelation as Jesse. He perfectly portrays a normal kid with normal issues in a grown up world. Gaby Hoffman doesn’t have as many scenes as we’d like, but we certainly wish she would work more frequently. As for Joaquin Phoenix, it’s a welcome change of pace and tone after JOKER. He plays a man learning to deal with his own vulnerabilities, and he really gets to show off his extraordinary acting talent. The script is filled with psychology and philosophy, but in a grounded manner – ways we recognize from our own lives. It’s a reflective film that shows the balance of trying to protect kids and shield them from some adult stuff, while also allowing them to explore and find themselves. The impact of adults on kids and the impact of kids on adults is on full display, but it’s also just a couple of guys getting to know each other. And that’s pretty special to watch.

The film had a limited opening on November 19, and expands to more cities and theaters on November 24, 2021

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HOUSE OF GUCCI (2021)

November 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never purchased or owned anything Gucci, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the heck out of Ridley Scott’s film that brings the longest, most expensive and dangerous real life episode of ‘Family Feud’ to the big screen. It’s co-written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, and is based on the 2001 book, “House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed” by Sara Gay Forden. Brace yourself for a (mostly) true wild ride, and for what is likely to be one of the year’s most divisive films – plenty of love and hate (just like the actual story).

What happens when a brand is so closely associated with a family name? The arguments begin on who ‘deserves’ to be a Gucci, who is a ‘real’ Gucci, and who should make the decisions that impact the Gucci family and business wealth and reputation. During the extended run time (2 hours, 37 minutes), we see many of the iconic Gucci items: the Flora scarf, the moccasins, the bamboo bag, and the watches. And though high fashion is always present, director Scott has delivered a spectacle of romance, family riffs, extravagance, greed, power, betrayal, revenge, and crime.

Lady Gaga (Oscar winner, A STAR IS BORN, 2018) stars as Patrizia, the newest Gucci. Hers is not blind ambition, but rather calculated and laser-focused. That she implodes a dysfunctional family is only a portion of the story. After marrying Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), Patrizia immediately begins manipulating her husband into reconciling with his family and taking on an active role in a business for which he previously had little interest. This is simply step two (the first was marriage) in her grand scheme to control the business and the money. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, 1990) is ailing, so it’s Uncle Aldo (Oscar winner Al Pacino, SCENT OF A WOMAN, 1992) to whom Patrizia directs her attention. She plays it like a chess match – only this is more entertaining to watch unfold.

Also in the picture is Paolo Gucci (a truly unrecognizable Jared Leto, Oscar winner, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), Aldo’s son, and a family outcast. Paolo is a wildly creative individual who tends to his pet pigeons and tries desperately to find his place in the family. Jack Huston plays Dominico De Sole, Rodolfo’s consigliere and the family attorney. Each of the characters is given their time in the spotlight, including a terrific breakfast scene with Pacino and Irons. Of course this is mostly Patrizia’s story, so it’s Lady Gaga’s performance that will attract much of the attention and commentary. I found her mesmerizing and twisted fun to watch as she proceeded with backstabbing and trickery. Driver’s quietly intense approach makes the perfect contrast to hers.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that Maurizio does eventually run the company, and he also tires of Patrizia’s family-crushing antics … which send him back into the arms of Paola Franchi (Camile Cottin, STILLWATER, 2021). This turns the campy and juicy melodrama factor up to 11 (on the Spinal Tap scale). Patrizia’s frequent trips to fortune teller and TV psychic Pina Auriemma (Salma Hayek) cause a massive tonal shift in the film, leading to the well-documented conclusion. If all this isn’t strange enough, Ms. Hayek is the real-life spouse of the CEO of Gucci’s present-day parent company, Kering. Reeve Carney (“Penny Dreadful”) has a small, yet vital role as up-and-coming fashion designer Tom Ford.

In this movie, it’s easy to describe some performances as hammy or over-the-top, but that’s likely to only hold as a first reaction. Leto’s characterization of Paolo sticks out so much from the others … but he was known as eccentric, and at best, was patronized by the family. It seems highly likely that his personality and approach stood in stark contrast to the old-school style of his father Aldo, or the more staid personalities of his Uncle Rodolfo and cousin Maurizio. Lady Gaga as Patrizia is cunning and shrewd in her calculated approach to re-structure the family and the business. She plays whatever games she must to get where she wants to be. I found her first half performance to be truly outstanding. Pacino is the actor who has trademarked hammy performances over the years, yet here, he fully grasps his role and character, and is a delight to watch.

Much of this is documented by history, though the Gucci family claims not all is or was how it seems. Whether the boost in counterfeiting/knock-offs went down in the 70’s and 80’s as it’s portrayed here, might be an area worth researching, but this is much less a case study in business principles as it is one in family dynamics. I’ll certainly understand those who argue against the story structure here, but the entertainment value proved to be enough for me. As the Gucci tagline goes, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten”, but the backstabbing and disloyalty is never forgotten – despite providing great theater (and fashion).

Opens in theaters on November 24, 2021

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KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME (2021, doc)

November 19, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the work really does speak for itself. Co-director and long-time Vonnegut friend Robert B Weide even admits the renowned author told him, “anything that is any good of mine is on a printed page”. The strange thing here is that by the time it’s over, we aren’t sure if we’ve watched a documentary on the life of Kurt Vonnegut or one about Weide’s friendship with and respect of the man.

Vonnegut, of course, is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. Born and raised in Indianapolis, he wrote novels, short stories, and plays, and his work was noted for his clever humor and detail. His big breakthrough came in 1969 when “Slaughterhouse Five” became a best-seller, and his other works include “Cat’s Cradle” (1963) and “Breakfast of Champions” (1973). As we see during the film, his live talks became ‘must-attend’ events due to his brilliance and ability to speak directly (and with caustic wit) about a world that he didn’t always maintain the greatest hope for.

Weide and co-director Don Argott address Vonnegut’s shortcomings as a family man, by allowing his daughters to tell Daddy stories in their own words. What’s clear is that Vonnegut being captured by Germans during WWII at the Battle of the Bulge, and subsequently held at Dresden was a driving force not just in his writing, but in his approach to life. He survived the Allied bombing by taking cover in … you guessed it … a freezer in a slaughterhouse.

Archival footage of Vonnegut and interviews with his daughters and biographers, give us a pretty complete looks at his life. Oddly, it’s Mr. Weide who seems to spend as much time on camera as anyone, leading us to wonder about his focus in what he terms a ’40 year’ project. Possibly the most interesting segment involves the various drafts of Vonnegut’s most popular work (“Slaughterhouse Five” was his 6th novel), and the specific comparisons of the author to lead character Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut passed away in 2007, and we have little doubt his response to that would be … “So it goes.”

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GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There is a reason musical acts like The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, and The Rolling Stones continue to pack arenas. We love our nostalgia and prefer it familiar and easily recognizable. The fans don’t show up to hear the new songs, but rather those ‘oldies-but-goodies’ that bring back pleasant memories. Writer-director Jason Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan fully understand this psychology as they deliver what amounts to a sequel of the original GHOSTBUSTERS movie released 37 years ago (and directed by Reitman’s father Ivan).

The hook in this updated version is that Callie (Carrie Coon), the adult daughter of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (originally portrayed by the late Harold Ramis), has been evicted from her apartment. She packs up the car and her two kids, and heads to the dilapidated farm house she inherited from the father she never knew. Callie has lived her life bitter and hurt that her father never reached out, choosing instead to isolate himself in Summerville in the “middle of nowhere”. Her kids are Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), an awkward teenager, and Phoebe (a stellar McKenna Grace), a science whiz who seems to be a near-clone of the grandfather she never met.

As they adjust to a new life, Trevor swoons over local girl Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), while Phoebe befriends another outcast self-named Podcast (Logan Kim), and Callie gets closer to Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a Seismologist “teaching” summer school with help from some age-inappropriate movies on VHS. As great as Coon and Rudd are (and both are great), the real fun comes from the youngsters exploring grandfather’s workshop and the mysterious mountain at the edge of town, which is actually a long ago abandoned mine run by the town’s founder.

Supporting actors include Bokeem Woodbine, JK Simmons, and Tracy Letts. Many of the elements will seem familiar as the kids begin to uncover the ghostly creatures unlocked thanks to Grandpa Egon’s research and tools. As with the original, busting the ghosts is fun, but it’s the one-liners and crackling dialogue that make this a joyous ride from beginning to end. A battered Ectomobile (Ecto-1) plays a key role, as do ghost traps, crossing streams, and a new generation of Stay-Puft Marshmallows.

Jason Reitman is a two-time Oscar nominee for UP IN THE AIR (2009) and JUNO (2007), but it seems clear his mission here was to provide a fitting tribute to the original film, his father, and the late Harold Ramis. He’s assisted along the way with some special effects and even more special appearances, though the missing Rick Moranis is notable (and expected). The original blockbuster spawned sequels, re-boots, toys, an animated series, video games, documentaries, and now … another sequel (one that mostly disregards everything but the original). There is a Spielberg feel as the scene is small town instead of NYC, and perhaps with this family-friendly focus on the kids, the best comparison might be THE GOONIES. It’s nostalgic, yet new and fresh, and we do get a look at Hook and Ladder #8, and the familiar tune of Ray Parker Jr’s iconic theme song. Hang on for the mid-credit and post-credit scenes, and just remember to take this for what it is … a rollicking good time.

Opening in theaters on November 19, 2021

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KING RICHARD (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sports parents. Band parents. Dance parents. Cheerleader parents. Drama parents. We all know THOSE parents … and many of us, whether we admit it or not, ARE those parents. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (JOE BELL, 2020) and first time screenwriter Zach Baylin bring us the story of the unconventional, hard-driving, flawed, well-intentioned father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

Will Smith portrays Richard Williams in a showcase role that he capitalizes on. Richard Williams is not a particularly likable man – his hustler mentality is eclipsed only by his stubbornness. But more than anything, Richard Williams was committed to giving Venus and Serena every opportunity to succeed in a tennis world that seemed like a different universe to the Compton neighborhood in which they were raised. Richard and his wife Oracene (an outstanding Aunjanue Ellis, THE HELP) coached the young girls themselves in public parks via instructional articles in Tennis magazines. Both parents balanced their jobs with this coaching, and Richard spent a significant amount of time “marketing” the girls to professional coaches, most who had no interest in taking on pupils who couldn’t pay.

Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and younger sister Serena (Demi Singleton) trust whole-heartedly in “The Plan” their father has in place. It’s a plan designed to place million dollar checks in their hands, and lead them to the top of the tennis world. Their first break comes in the form of John McEnroe coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus. The real fun begins when Richard cuts a deal with super coach/trainer Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal) to take on both girls and cover the families living arrangements in Florida.

What makes this film work is that so many of us can relate to just how difficult it is to be a parent, and never settle for less when it comes to the kids. Now, Richard Williams is an extreme example – and his enormously successful daughters have dealt his approach a hand of credibility. Richard and Oracene are presented as very protective of their daughters, but also obsessed with helping them excel at school, tennis, and life. Given that there are three other daughters living in the house, it’s surprising that we don’t get more details on the reactions from those girls to the favorable treatment of Venus and Serena. The family is presented as being very tight-knit and loving, but it’s difficult to swallow that jealousy didn’t rise up periodically.

This truly is the story of how Richard Williams remained focused on getting his daughters to the top, so don’t expect the tennis history of Venus and Serena. The young actors playing them are excellent, but this takes us through the foundation of their careers while overcoming adversity, not the professional highlights. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) makes the tennis look legitimate, while also bringing us the family intimacy. In fact, the scene in the kitchen is one of the more intense and well-acted scenes we will see this year, and the camera work amplifies the tension. On the lighter side, we get Will Smith singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, and the closing credits show actual clips of Richard, Venus and Serena, as well as a rundown of their impressive achievements. Director Green has delivered a crowd-pleaser with some poignancy and a few well-placed messages. It wouldn’t surprise to see a few award nominations attached to this one.

Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning November 19, 2021

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TICK, TICK … BOOM! (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Success comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it brings happiness, glory, and financial gain, while other times there is an emptiness or sadness. Who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) to direct the cinematic tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson? You likely know Larson’s name from his long-running Broadway smash hit, “Rent”, but this is his autobiographical project based on his early struggles in trying to write the next great American musical. It has been adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson (“Fosse/Verdon”).

Opening in January 1990, a full (i.e., long) version of Larson’s “30/90” song kicks us off with singing, dancing, and choreography. It’s important to note that this was the era of AIDS raging through the New York arts scene – people were dying, and friends were frightened. Andrew Garfield leaps into the role of Jon, sporting Cosmo Kramer hair, and a boundless, frenetic energy that overshadows his friends and loved ones. Jon is in full panic mode as his 30th birthday approaches and he rushes to finish his futuristic rock-musical “Superbia”, which he expects will be his springboard to stardom. In the meantime, he works at the Moondance Diner while remaining committed and obsessed with his art.

Director Miranda adds a structural element with cut-aways to Jon (Garfield) performing his own musical onstage at New York Theater Workshop. However most of the run time is focused on Jon’s writer’s block associated with the final song he must write. His idol, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) advised him of the importance, and we aren’t sure if the block stems from this or the fact that it’s the final missing piece. Garfield is exceptional as the self-absorbed, and obviously talented Jon. As his friend and roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, 2020) has surrendered his dream of art for a well-paying advertising job, it’s clear that Jon still believes art can change the world.

Alexandra Shipp (LOVE, SIMON 2018) plays Susan, Jon’s dancer-girlfriend. She also is considering the reality of a teaching job versus the dream of performing, yet Jon is too immersed in his own work to take heed of her warnings. He is so against ‘selling out’ that he even cruelly debates Michael on the pursuit of creature comforts. Of course, much of this would eventually lead Larson to write “Rent”, but this film doesn’t cover that period. Vanessa Hudgens (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise) and Broadway standout Joshua Henry perform much of the singing here, but Garfield holds his own on the musical and dance numbers.

Other supporting roles are filled by Judith Light as Jon’s agent, Rosa Stevens, and Richard Kind as a both-sides-of-his-mouth stage critic, while director Miranda makes a cameo as a short order cook at the diner. The challenges of New York City life in the art world are clearly shown here, and mostly this is a loving tribute to Jonathan Larson by his admirer Lin-Manuel Miranda … with an exciting performance from Andrew Garfield. It’s an entertaining production that never pretends to offer up inspiration or false hope to the dreamers in the audience.

Streaming on Netflix beginning November 19, 2021

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BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD (2021, doc)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Renowned music producer Don Was sits at a sound board and methodically begins to deconstruct the gorgeous song, “God Only Knows”. As the instruments fade, and he shuffles the isolated vocals, Was shakes his head in amazement all these years later. The man behind the song, Brian Wilson (founder of The Beach Boys), was and remains a musical genius, and in his case, one need not be concerned about applying that overused label.

If director Brent Wilson’s film has a structure, it comes in the form of multiple car rides and diner lunches featuring Brian and his friend, “Rolling Stone” editor Jason Fine. Due to Brian’s anxiety during sit-down interviews, car rides and chats with his friend provide more comfort and free him up to reminisce and discuss his life and music. On the drives, Brian chooses the songs he wants Jason to play, depending on the mood and the topic of conversation.

Mental Health is now treated much differently than in years past. At age 21, Brian suffered from ‘auditory hallucinations’ – he was hearing voices in his head. Over the course of 6 decades, he has attempted to deal with the voices in various ways: food, drugs, alcohol, therapy, etc. But his only real escape has been through music. Even today, Brian never really looks at ease unless he’s performing his songs. He rides along offering commentary as his friend Jason tenderly guides him through the past, including stops at his childhood home in Hawthorne, Paradise Cove where an album cover was shot, his home on Laurel Way that featured his piano in a sandbox, and the Bellagio Road mansion in Beverly Hills. Brian is not one to dwell on the past, but he has tremendous recall for different phases of life.

As you might expect, many musicians are eager to discuss how Brian’s music with The Beach Boys influenced their own songwriting. Included here are Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers and son of Bob), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Hawkins, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and even Nick Jonas. We presume the latter was included to represent the younger generation’s appreciation of music past. Elton may offer the most profound comment when he states Brian deserves accolades for his music AND his life. Each phase of Brian’s life is touched on, though we never dive too deeply. His demanding father (Murray Wilson) is heard through audio recordings, and the infamous “Landy years” where Dr. Eugene Landy literally controlled Brian’s life (right down to a sad story of spaghetti) are briefly dealt with, allowing us some insight into Brian’s many challenges over the years – including the death of two brothers, (and Beach Boys) Carl and Dennis.

But it’s the music that means the most to Brian and to us. We get some clips of live performances from the early days of The Beach Boys to the more recent live performances of Brian on stage. There is a terrific montage blending Carl’s and Brian’s separate singing “God Only Knows”, and Brian disclosing that “Good Vibrations” was recorded in pieces at 4 different studios to capture the sound he wanted. He also admits to being inspired by The Beatles and wanting to eclipse their work – which led to his writing the masterpiece Pet Sounds album, in turn inspiring The Beatles to write Sgt Pepper. There is a brief clip of Brian’s cousin, and fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine commenting on Brian’s immense talent, but as expected, there is nothing from Mike Love; although Brian graciously proclaims Mike Love was “a great singer”.

Brian’s Beach Boys music has brought so much joy to listeners and fans over the years, and it’s truly fascinating to see how he has battled through a life filled with sadness and obstacles. Watching him listen to brother Dennis’s solo album, learning how he re-worked his unfinished Smile album to finally release it in 2004, or seeing clips of his live Pet Sounds performance at The Hollywood Bowl helps us understand the healing power of music. Brian has been compared to Mozart, and his fellow musicians discuss how his genius and vision shines through in song structure and texture. Brian Wilson stands as proof that for a true artist, pain and beauty are often linked and dependent on each other. The film’s closing credits feature footage of Brian and Jim James recording a new song, “Right Where I Belong”, showing that the music (and the man) is still a force.

In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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THE FEAST (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s safe to say all seven deadly sins are on display in the first feature film from director Lee Haven Jones and screenwriter Roger Williams. In fact, by the time the end credits roll, it seems likely a few more sins have been added to the list. The film definitely serves as savage commentary on the attitudes of the elite class, especially the nouveau rich, while also scratching the itch of those who prefer their horror filled with creepy atmosphere.

We first glimpse Cadi (Annes Elwy, LITTLE WOMEN, 2017) as she staggers up to the front entrance of a home in the country. Looking wet and disheveled, Cadi is late for her gig as the help for a dinner party. Rarely speaking and often staring blankly at family members through mysterious occurrences, Cadi works with Glenda (Nia Roberts), the lady of the house, to prepare the three-course meal. We know something is off with Cadi and her ominous presence, but this is no normal family she’s contracted with. Glenda’s husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) is a Member of Parliament and the kind of guy who boasts about shooting the two rabbits on that evening’s menu … despite the fact that we know he didn’t. Their two sons are Guto (Steffan Cennydd), a guitar-playing drug addict who has recently moved back home after an overdose in London; and Gweiryydd (Sion Alun Davies), an odd young man training for a triathlon and enjoying his own spandex a bit too much.

The house itself is also a character. Stark, cold and modern, and displaying abstract art that represents the local land, it seems quite out of place on the farmland. So we have a house that doesn’t belong, a dysfunctional family that’s out of place, and Cadi who is the biggest outlier of all. Things get more bizarre once the guests begin to arrive. Euros (Rhodri Meilir) is a shady agent/businessman who we learn has helped Gwyn and Glenda reach a new level of financial success by leasing out their farm land to companies drilling for resources. It turns out the dinner party is a ruse to get their neighbor Mair (Lisa Palfrey) to join in the newfound riches. We quickly note that Mair’s dress, demeanor, and reaction to Glenda’s showing off this lifestyle, puts the two families at odds. Mair’s husband’s delay in joining the party is a more important detail than originally thought.

This is a rare Welsh-language folk horror tale, and though it’s not lacking in blood, its best elements are the excruciatingly slow-burn beginning as suspense builds in regards to Cadi’s motives/powers/intentions. This haunting pace with chilling scenes and odd characters keep us in an anxious and unaware state for the first 2/3 of the movie. This is no modern day Cleaver family, and the sons are no Wally and Beaver. The nuanced approach allows us to build disgust towards the family and how they’ve exploited the land and other people for their own success, while also trying to interpret Cadi.

Going against nature is becoming a more frequent topic in films these days, and the payback is often harsh and unkind. Cinematographer Bjorn Bratberg expertly captures the interior and exterior moments, while composer Samuel Sim provides eerie background accompaniment. Lee Haven Jones has not taken a traditional approach to horror, and the creativity and atmosphere will likely be appreciated by many.

In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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BLACK FRIDAY (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The horror-comedy genre boasts many movies that can be described as ‘a blast’ or ‘a wild ride’. Director Casey Tebo and writer Andy Greskoviak wisely jump on a topic that lends itself all too well to this genre: the whole mess we call Black Friday shopping. Ingeniously setting this in a toy store (“We Love Toys”), focusing on the stressed-out employees, and assembling what seems like the perfect cast, the filmmakers somehow come up short, due mostly to a paucity of effective one-liners and visual gags so necessary in a project like this.

Devon Sawa (FINAL DESTINATION, 2000) stars as Ken, the divorced father who is pained at having to drop his kids at his ex-wife’s house as he heads in for his Black Friday shift at the store. We are then introduced to others on the store staff, including Ivana Baquero (Ofelia in the Guillermo del Toro instant classic PAN’S LABYRINTH, 2006) as Marnie, Ryan Lee (SUPER 8, 2011) as germophobe Chris, Michael Jai White (SPAWN, 1997) as Archie the maintenance guy, and Stephen Peck as Bryan, the power-abusing Assistant Manager. Leading this group of misfits is the always-great Bruce Campbell (the EVIL DEAD franchise) as Jonathan, the Store Manager and corporate lackey.

In an early scene we hear a TV newscast that forewarns of an upcoming meteor event, and the science fiction element involves a gooey alien creature/substance that causes even more turmoil than the shortages of this year’s must-have toys. Shoppers are transformed into zombie-flesh-eating-alien-mutants, and the toy store staff teams up in an effort to stay alive. All of the actors do their part. Sawa is effective as the leader, while Baquero lends a strong female presence. White is the epitome of a nail-gun toting action hero, and Campbell delivers his comic force while donning a bow-tie and cardigan. The special effects work, and the only thing missing are searing and cutting quips and one-liners that would complete the picture.

ZOMBIELAND (2009), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016), THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019), READY OR NOT (2019), and the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy are all films in this genre that actually delivered what this one should have … what it teased. One Air Supply joke and a riff on corporate greed and out-of-control entitled holiday shoppers was a tremendous idea that would have benefitted from more humorous social commentary. It’s a letdown that may yet find a place the Midnight Movie slot.

Available in theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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