DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT (2018)

July 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being neither an alcoholic, an artist nor a quadriplegic, I found myself wondering if I would be able to connect at all with the real life story of John Callahan. At most, I figured another stellar, oddball performance from Joaquin Phoenix might keep me engaged. It turns out, director Gus Van Sant (GOOD WILL HUNTING, 1999) focuses more on the quite interesting road to sobriety … a road that also happens to lead directly to a reason to live.

Based on Mr. Callahan’s autobiography, the film stars the enigmatic Mr. Phoenix. First seen as a 21 year old (a bit of a stretch) slacker who constantly needs a “fix” of alcohol, no matter the time of day, the talented actor excels after the alcohol-induced car accident that robs Callahan completely of the use of his legs, leaving him only minimal function with arms and hands. Even this doesn’t inspire Callahan to give up the bottle. However, a vision of his mother does. Callahan’s mommy issues are a key element of the story, as she gave him up for infant adoption – leading to many years of drowning his self-pity in whatever type of alcohol was in the glass.

The film picks up some momentum once Callahan begins attending AA group therapy sessions conducted by Donnie (Jonah Hill). Donnie is part Zen sponsor and trust fund guru. It’s a wonderful performance from Mr. Hill, who makes the most of each of his scenes. Others in the group include a terrific (musician) Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame), (German icon) Udo Kier, Ronnie Adrian and Mark Webber. Individually they don’t have much to do, but they do make for a fascinating group. Also appearing are Tony Greenhand as Callahan’s attendant, the fabulously talented Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s physical therapist-turned-girlfriend. Ms. Mara is especially short-changed in the script.

It was 1972 and Callahan was 21 when the car accident left him a quadriplegic. Slowly, he discovered his talent as a cartoonist – albeit a controversial and darkly funny one. In today’s climate of political correctness, it’s likely Callahan would find no audience, but at the time, he developed a national following. This was the time of other single panel cartoonists like Gary Larson and Bill Watterson.

Attempting to avoid the traditional and familiar biopic structure, director Van Sant (who has a cameo) chops the movie into bits that work better individually than as a whole. At times it plays like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. But some of the bits are outstanding. The film is somehow both funny and sad, and includes a terrific scene near the end with Callahan and Jack Black’s Dexter reuniting for the first time since the accident. It’s a powerfully honest scene.

A destructive lifestyle doesn’t always lead to good things, and substance abuse is not very entertaining – though, the road to recovery can be. Getting of glimpse of the 12 step program, we see that not drinking is merely the beginning. It’s like a runner who must first lace up his shoes before beginning the actual run. Callahan died in 2010 at age 59, but his impact continues.

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MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 10 years since director Phyllida Lloyd presented the crowd-pleasing MAMMA MIA! movie. It was a box office hit (over $600 million worldwide) and was, for a few years, the highest grossing musical of all-time. Most importantly, it was extremely entertaining and a joyous cinematic romp for viewers. This year’s sequel is directed by Ol Parker (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and husband to actress Thandie Newton), and though the melancholy is slathered on a bit too thick, it also fulfills its number one priority – entertaining the fans.

The story begins with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) putting the final touches on the house-turned-hotel in preparation for the upcoming Grand Opening. It’s named Hotel Bella Donna in honor of Sophie’s mother (Meryl Streep). What looks to be a straight-forward story surprises us with a flashback to Donna’s 1979 graduation, which features not only the first song-and-dance number “When I Kissed the Teacher”, but also the first of two ABBA cameos … Bjorn Ulvaeus as a professor. The young Donna is played brilliantly by Lily James, and she effortlessly captures the free-spiritedness that led to the conundrum of the first movie – 3 possible dads for Sophie.

Those 3 dads return not only as Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), and Colin Firth (Harry), but also as Jeremy Irvine (young Sam), Josh Dylan (young Bill), and Hugh Skinner (young Harry). In fact, most of the run time is dedicated to the backstory of these characters and how they first met as youngsters. Each has a segment (and song) with young Harry featured in “Waterloo” accompanied by Benny Andersson (ABBA cameo #2) on piano. Young Bill is the charming sailor who saves the day for Donna, while young Sam assists her with saving a storm-shaken horse (kind of humorous since Mr. Irvine starred in WAR HORSE).

Also back are Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie’s true love, who can’t decide between romance and career, and Donna’s life-long friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who are also part of the flashback as Jessica Keenan Wynn (excellent as young Tanya) and Alexa Davies (as young Rosie). New to the cast are Celia Imrie in the graduation number, Andy Garcia as the hotel manager, and drawing the biggest applause of all … Cher as Sophie’s grandmother (and as my viewing partner commented, an early peek at what Lady Gaga will look like as a grandma)! It’s best if you experience Cher for yourself, and it should be noted that this is her first big screen appearance since BURLESQUE in 2010.

Of course, the songs are key and many of the ABBA numbers from the first movie are featured again this time. In particular, “Dancing Queen” is a nautical standout, and “Fernando” is a show-stopper. While it may not be quite as raucous as the first, it’s a treat watching Lily James, and there is a wonderful blending of “old” and “new” in the finale. The only real question remaining is, did the casting director do the math before casting Cher (age 72) as Meryl Streep’s (age 69) mother?

*As a special treat, there is a “most interesting” cameo near the end of the film

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THE KING (2018, doc)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us in the United States have always loved a rags-to-riches success story … it’s the personification of the American Dream. The only thing we seem to enjoy more is tearing down the pedestals that we build for those folks, and then ripping apart their legacy. Acclaimed director Eugene Jarecki (WHY WE FIGHT, 2005) strains rigorously in his attempts to connect Elvis Presley selling out his talent for money with the transformation of the U.S. from a democracy to a crumbling capitalistic empire (likened to ancient Rome). The really interesting thing is that the film, despite being a staccato mess, is quite fascinating.

Director Jarecki’s gimmick here is that he is taking a musical and historic road trip in the 1963 Rolls Royce once owned by Elvis. Along the way, he picks up passengers – some of which are musicians who perform in the backseat. The passenger list includes James Carville, John Hiatt, M Ward, Linda Thompson (ex-girlfriend of Elvis), Immortal Technique, and “best friend” Jerry Schilling (a comical description if you’ve read his book).

Chuck D from Public Enemy is interviewed due to his famous lyric: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s**t to me”. The contradictions from this interview fit nicely with the contradictions throughout the film. George Klein takes Jarecki on a quick tour of Humes High School, and Ashton Kutcher babbles about fame – though he makes one spot on remark regarding the prison of fame, something much of the film seems to ignore. Producer Ethan Hawke spends a good amount of time on camera and in the front seat, while author and activist Van Jones seems narrowly focused on cultural appropriation and angry that Elvis never used his clout to help the minorities that influenced him.

Filmed in 2016, the film works hard to include the Presidential election, and we even see the sanctimonious Alec Baldwin adamantly proclaiming that Trump won’t win. Jarecki is himself an activist, and here he stretches to prove his points – tying together everything from Elvis’ induction into the Army to the Trump election more than a half-century later (and 40 years after his death).

The road trip kicks off in Elvis’ birthplace of Tupelo, where we meet some locals who talk about the lasting impact of Elvis on their town – a town still drenched in poverty. Memphis is next, and we hear about the 3 local kings: BB, Elvis and MLK. Jarecki even inserts a shot of the Rolls next to the Lorraine Motel. There is a terrific bit with the students from Stax Music Academy who perform “Chain of Fools” in the backseat. We then head to NYC and Nashville, capping off the musically creative portion of Elvis’ career. Next up is Hollywood, Hawaii, and finally Las Vegas.

At times, the film is just flat out weird. One segment force feeds parallels with the 1933 KING KONG movie (yes, really), then Elvis as a tourist, and finally, Dan Rather’s all too familiar voice performing “America the Beautiful” … each piece featuring the Empire State Building. But just when a Bernie Sanders rally makes you want to turn off the film, we get an insightful Mike Myers effectively pointing out the hypocrisy of the American Dream as sold by the government, or David Simon questioning the choice of the Rolls over one of Elvis’ prized Cadillacs, or Sam Phillips’ (Sun Records) son re-telling the story of how his father lost Elvis to the carnival-barker Colonel Tom Parker (neither a Colonel nor a Parker).

Jarecki and co-writer Christopher St. John try to weave a tapestry of fame and money with cultural and societal shifts. Some segments work, while others fall flat. The editing of talking heads sometimes gives the feel of a debate, but often the scattered and choppy film meanders through multiple messages whilst driving the backroads of the country. We get clips of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show and getting his famous locks sheared in the Army, and the 1968 comeback special; however, there is little mention of Priscilla, Lisa Marie or Graceland.

Judging Elvis for money grab without seeming to take into account his young age (he was 21 when he first appeared on Sullivan, and 23 at his Army induction) and his extreme poverty of youth, much less the power of his domineering agent, seems to be harsh judgement in an era that had never seen such media giants as the Kardashians or Justin Bieber. When Jarecki’s road chief admits, “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing” (when Jarecki asks him what he thinks he’s doing with the movie), it’s the first time we can actually relate to what someone has said. Despite all of that, you’ll likely be glued to the screen for the full run time – either enjoying the songs, watching the clips, or trying to see if Jarecki’s puzzle pieces even fit together.

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SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

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SHOCK AND AWE (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film begins with a Bill Moyers quote about the importance of a free and open press, has a line about ‘reporting stories for families who send their kids to war’, and is directed by liberal activist Rob Reiner … who labels the film as a true story. So it’s no surprise that the approach is to paint the folks at Knight Ridder News Service as the sole saints on an island of integrity … even as it is blessed with perfect vision in hindsight.

Written by Joey Hartstone, who also collaborated with Mr. Reiner on LBJ (2016), which also starred Woody Harrelson, the film continues the recent cinematic trend of placing the media on a pedestal of righteousness and beacon of truth as it serves the role as a check on political process and power. In this case, the ‘spotlight’ is on the Bush administration and the questionable decisions that led to the war in Iraq. The film begins with a 2006 Veterans’ Affairs Senatorial committee hearing where a wheelchair bound soldier ends his statement by asking the committee members a fair and legitimate question, “What the hell went wrong?”

We then flashback to September 11, 2001 and the aftermath of the bombings. Patriotism, pride, activism, volunteerism, and charitable contributions all increased, as did the Bush administration’s focus on going to war. Was it a war to get those responsible for the bombings or was there another agenda? Knight Ridder reporters Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) are dedicated to finding the truth, and are led down the path of discovery by D.C. Bureau Chief John Walcott (played by director Rob Reiner).

This is presented as a time more extreme than the mainstream media not often questioning the administration, but the film actually labels The New York Times as a shill or puppet of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Powell/Rice regime.  Only these two courageous Knight Ridder reporters (Strobel, Landay) were questioning the administration’s efforts to turn the focus from Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. My how times have changed since the most recent election. Though it could be argued that rather than questioning the current administration’s policies, it might better be described as written and verbal attacks.

The preaching here is relentless, especially by Reiner’s Walcott, who is posed as something of a truth guru. Missteps abound in the presentation, and the film is crushed under the weight of the obvious and necessary comparison to ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (an influential era noted by the characters). The banter between Strobel and Landry often seems forced like what we see in buddy flicks, and the needless and distracting romantic interlude plays like a meager attempt by director Reiner to humanize the message with a grinning Jessica Biel. The same could be said for Tommy Lee Jones’ curmudgeonly portrayal of respected military reporter Joe Galloway.

We really want to commend the filmmakers for bringing light to inexcusable government actions, but the manner in which it does this is so aggravating that kudos can’t be justified. The incessant patronizing wears thin quickly. The story deserves to be told without the sermonizing. Somehow we and the reporters are supposed to be stunned that political corruption, misleading statements from government officials and power struggles even exist. With this discovery, the reporters seem as ‘shocked’ as Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in CASABLANCA when he is told gambling is occurring (even as he pockets his winnings). With a stated emphasis on truth, we should never forget that politicians and the media are both selling something … and it’s still caveat emptor.

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YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968, animation) revisited

July 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It was 50 years ago, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. OK, I know that’s not the lyric, but 50 fits better than 20 when we are talking about the latest re-mastered 4K version of the classic animated YELLOW SUBMARINE from The Beatles. Originally released in 1968, the story is by Lee Minoff and is based on the Lennon-McCartney song of the title. Additional dialogue and story elements were contributed by (at least) four other writers, including Erich Segal of LOVE STORY fame, and after all these years, the film not only remains quite entertaining, it has attained a certain legendary status.

Directed by George Dunning (animation producer), also instrumental in The Beatles “unaffiliated” animated TV series of the same era, the film requires a bit of historical perspective to bring the full picture into focus. This was the year before Woodstock, and the Beatles were no longer the four fresh faced lads from Liverpool. Their songs had not only changed the music world, it had changed them as individuals. Much of their charm had turned to cynicism, and drug use was prevalent. The band reluctantly agreed to allow production of this animated movie for the sole purpose of fulfilling their 3 film contract with United Artist (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!). Other than the songs and a closing segment, they were barely involved … not even voicing their own characters.

The true legacy is what we see on screen, and after 50 years, it remains magical. The psychedelic pop art visuals were unlike anything most of us had ever seen. The colors and images seemed to explode in vibrancy and come alive before our eyes. Some have mistakenly credited pop artist Peter Max as the man behind the colorful images, and fans of Monty Python (especially Terry Gilliam) will easily recognize the stylistic influence. Sharp ears will pick up references to Beatles lyrics not included on the soundtrack, and much of the dialogue captures the droll tone of Lennon or the whimsy of McCartney. However, we never stop thinking about how much more effective this could have been with John, Paul, George and Ringo providing the voices.

An extended opening sequence provides the basics of the story – The Blue Meanies are coming (!) and they intend to expunge all music and color from Pepperland. The only way to stop them is with Beatles music. Once we ‘understand’ the story, we hear Ringo’s vocals kick off the title song over the opening credits. Through the adventure we meet some fascinating and creative characters, see an abundance of green apples (the logo for Apple Records), play spot the icon (with actual photographs), laugh along with Ringo and his “hole” in the pocket, and catch the essence of Beatles wit, though the dialogue is sometimes a bit muddled.

Of course, beyond the animation, it’s the music that matters. Two songs that stand out because of the corresponding animation are “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  Some of the 11 Beatles songs mish-mashed from various albums include:  “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “All You Need is Love”, “All Together Now”, and “When I’m Sixty-Four”. There are also a couple of George Harrison songs that aren’t otherwise available, and a personal favorite, “Hey Bulldog”, which has its own sequence, and was originally only included in the UK movie version. We also notice the beautiful orchestra music composed by long-time Beatles producer George Martin.

At the time it was released, hippies would claim the movie looks better when you’re stoned, and it’s likely for those folks, that sentiment held true for most things in life. The message of the day and one present in much of the Beatles’ work, is that of Love. It’s a message that rings true today, and also part of why the film works so well for both kids and adults. Although we may be a bit disappointed that the fab four don’t provide the voices of their characters, the stunning visuals and classic songs make this a film for everyone. The short live action sequence at the end where we see the real John, Paul, George and Ringo is simply the cherry on top … or is that an Apple?

watch the (U.S.) trailer:


BOUNDARIES (2018)

July 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the more recent cinematic trends has been stories involving an adult child facing the plight of caring for an elderly parent. Some have chosen the comedic route, while others lean towards the all-too-real burden carried by care-givers. Writer-director Shana Feste (COUNTRY STRONG, 2010) continues her streak of tolerable fluff in this tale of a stressed single mother raising a challenging teenager while also dealing with daddy issues, and the octogenarian daddy at the source.

The film opens with said stressed mother Laura Jaconi (played by Vera Farmiga) in the midst of a therapy session as she talks through those long-simmering daddy issues … and we get the feeling these same discussions have occurred numerous times over the years. As an actress, Ms. Farmiga is at her best in frazzled mode, and here she’s a perfect fit. Her son Hoyt/Henry (Lewis McDougall, who was so good in A MONSTER CALLS) is a social misfit at his school, thanks in part to his mostly unwelcome and quite vivid artwork depicting faculty (and others) in various unclothed states. When he is expelled, private school becomes the best alternative, and Laura’s need for cash coincides with her estranged father’s (Christopher Plummer) simultaneous expulsion from his retirement center … for morality reasons.

Daughter Laura has her dad listed as “Don’t Pick Up” on her cell phone, and we understand before her that he is a rascal with a criminal streak. He even serves up an extremely rare pedophile joke – at the expense of his grandson. Laura’s ongoing challenges are intensified when circumstances require her to drive her and her son cross country in a classic Rolls Royce that never comes close to blending in with the surroundings. The purpose of the road trip is so the father/grandfather can make secretive pot-selling trips along the way. This allows for cameos from such recognizable folks as Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Bobby Cannavale, the latter of which is Laura’s ex-husband and biological father of her son.

Adding to the frenzy is Laura’s commitment to her real lot in life – that of serial animal rescuer. Dogs are EVERYWHERE throughout the film – to the point that her father labels her the Pied Piper of mange. These type of interactions, along with the ruse of adult diapers and a bow and arrow sequence keep the film on the verge of slapstick; however, we can never accept that we are supposed to get a comedic kick out of Laura’s too-much-to-handle lot, since it’s mostly depressing.

Kristen Schaal as Laura’s sister and insecure California goofball is always a welcome addition to any film, and Yahva Abdul-Mateen II brings a nice touch to one of the few characters we’d like to get to know better. Lousy childhood memories connected to present-day adult troubles just don’t combine for effective humor in the light that the filmmaker seems to be aiming for. Though well-acted, a grown woman still in need of daddy’s approval is just a bit too predictable and too much of a downer to work.

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