FROZEN II (2019)

November 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let it go. Forget the sisterly issues of the Oscar winning original from 6 years ago. Arendelle is now doing just fine under “Ice” Queen Elsa and Princess Anna. Well, at least until Elsa is beckoned to the foggy, off-limits Enchanted Forest by an ethereal voice that only she can hear. We know this probably isn’t good since the movie kicks off with a flashback to when the sisters were very young and their parents (voiced by Alfred Molina and Evan Rachel Wood) told them a historically significant story of the forest – a story with a vital missing piece.

Joining Elsa (voiced again by the wonderful Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) on this journey to the forest and a discovery of the past are more familiar faces from the first movie: woodsman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, who also plays Holden Ford in the excellent TV series “Mindhunter”), Kristoff’s loyal reindeer Sven, and everybody’s favorite huggable, philosophizing snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad back for an expanded role that provides more laughs).

Co-directors and co-writers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee return for the sequel and their script, co-written with Marc Smith, features the familiarity that we’d expect from such a successful original, but it adds pieces that will likely be too confusing for younger viewers. Trying to recapture the magic of their Oscar winning song “Let it Go”, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez seem to have a singing interlude approximately every 8 minutes or so. Olaf gets a cute song, and this time, even Kristoff has his musical moment with “Lost in the Woods” (Jonathan Groff is a Broadway veteran). Of course, it’s Elsa/Idina Menzel who provides two impressive power vocals. It appears “Into the Unknown” is getting the PR push, but personally I preferred “Show Yourself”.

Don’t think it’s all about the songs. There is an odd storyline that seems a bit preachy about making amends to past sins (politically and personally), and just how devastating it can be to discover that one’s family tree has some rotten branches. Whether kids “get” that nature’s balance must be restored, they will surely appreciate the two sisters: Anna’s inner-strength and determination matching Elsa’s magical powers. And all ages will enjoy Olaf’s comical fast-talking recap of the first movie – a scene itself worthy of admission.

While the songs might fall short this time around, and the story might be a bit more convoluted, there is no arguing that this sequel looks fantastic. The enhanced animation is quite stunning at times. As opposed to the blue and white color scheme of the first movie, this sequel features a palette that draws from Martha Stewart’s Thanksgiving table setting – the autumn colors are vibrant and gorgeous.

FROZEN II will have a bit more Oscar competition in the animated category than what its predecessor faced, as it will be going up against instant classic TOY STORY 4. The filmmakers are to be commended for bringing attention to natural elements of air, water, fire, and earth; however, a couple of the extended sequences will likely prove too intense for younger viewers. “Do the next right thing” may be the new Disney Golden Rule, but it’s difficult to imagine a non-talking gecko or terrifying Earth Giants will emerge as a new favorite toy. Parents should know going in that by the end, Elsa sports a new dress and hairdo, conflicting with an early song “Some Things Never Change”. And when parents realize a third “Frozen” movie is in the works, they should know that warm hugs help. Let’s just hope the next one isn’t called “Ice Cubed”.

watch the trailer:


MOUNTAINTOP (doc, 2019)

October 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado takes us more than 1.5 miles above sea level (8750 ft) to the Studio in the Clouds. It’s here where Neil Young and the band Crazy Horse have gathered to record yet another album in what has been a 50 year (off-and-on) musical relationship. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a band work out the finer points of their songs while in the studio.

Between deep hits from their oxygen tanks, these four musicians and producer John Hanlon deal with multiple takes, re-writes, and technical glitches. Sometimes the mood is quite tense, and other times quite laid back. Mr. Hanlon is suffering from a case of poison oak at the time of recording, making for a stressful environment when Neil Young scolds him for too much feedback, or not enough volume, or some other irritant that is likely related to as much to the artist’s general frustration with creating as it is to the antiquated wiring of the studio.

In addition to the expected guitar, piano, bass, and drums, an impressive array of instruments are utilized. Also in play here are: a pump organ, harpsichord, glass harmonica (very cool), and a xylophone. We even get to see Nils Lofgren tap dancing! Many will recognize Nils as a long-time member of Bruce Springsteen’s The E Street Band. Lofgren’s ability to keep Crazy Horse in step with Neil Young is underplayed here, yet still quite obvious.

“It doesn’t have to be good. It’s going to be great.” This is a line uttered as the band hears the playback on a particular song. It drives home the importance musicians put on performing, and perfectly complements what we see from Neil Young – love and commitment to the music. He’s still the amazing songwriter and rebel who wrote “Ohio” in a just a few minutes after seeing the photos from the Kent State tragedy in 1970. This current album proves his songs of societal awareness are not a fad, but rather a belief system.

The documentary is “In memory of Elliot Roberts, the greatest manager of all-time.” Mr. Roberts died in June of this year, and in addition to being Neil Young’s long-time manager, he also managed the careers of Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, and The Cars. A driving force behind the music phenomenon from Laurel Canyon in the 1960’s and 70’s, Mr. Roberts was a very popular and talented figure in the music industry. Although the vast majority of the film takes place inside the studio, we do get a few clips from Neil Young performing songs live, and periodic shots outside – mountains, sky, and clouds. With this being billed as ‘a film by Bernard Shakey and DH LoveLife, it should be no surprise that the real folks behind those names are Neil Young and his long-time partner, actress Darryl Hannah. The film may not be an extraordinary work of art itself, but it’s very interesting to see one of the most successful and dedicated musicians of the past 50 years hard at work, doing what he does.

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MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (2019, doc)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The idea of a PBS “American Masters” documentary on jazz great Miles Davis could be cause for concern. The series is known for its high-level and mostly favorable profiles of influential people. Would the series go “deep” enough?  Would it gloss over the dark side? Would it be able to capture the essence of an enigmatic man who changed the music world more than once? The final result is a documentary that acts as a terrific primer for those unfamiliar with Miles Davis, and one that should satisfy his most ardent fans as it chronicles each stage of the music. For this we can thank Stanley Nelson, a documentarian who has delivered several projects on the history of African-Americans.

By definition, the ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach limited to a 2 hour run time means certain aspects must be glossed over. We learn that Miles’ father was a dentist in East Saint Louis, allowing them to be the second wealthiest black family in the state. Of course, this did not shield them from racism and segregation, or even domestic violence within their home … a trait that Miles would carry throughout his own relationships later in life.  “Music comes before everything.” It’s a battle cry from the memoir, “Miles: The Autobiography”. The film features actor Carl Lumbly narrating many of Miles’ own words throughout the film – with Lumbly’s voice bearing a sufficient resemblance to Miles’ distinct sound.

Montages of photos are utilized, initially to kick off the film with shots of Miles performing on stage, and then to mark the specific social and political era as the timeline shifts (1944, 1955, 1969, etc). Interviews are conducted with East Saint Louis residents, Miles’ childhood friends, musicians – those he played with and those he influenced, writers, and historians. Each brings their own perspective to telling Miles’ story, and perhaps none is more insightful than former dancer Frances Taylor, who was married to him from 1968-78. This era and their marriage was a key element of the 2015 film MILES APART starring Don Cheadle. Ms. Taylor passed away in 2018, and her recollections hold much weight and insight into Miles off stage.

The advantage of a chronological recap of his career is that it allows for a clear grasp of just how often the music of Miles Davis evolved over the years. At age 17, he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and in 1955 at the Newport Jazz Festival he introduced a new style that shook the industry and landed him a lucrative recording contract. He took film score to a new place with Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS and later played with the great John Coltrane. Of course Miles’ seminal 1959 album “Kind of Blue” is discussed by many who note the impact it had on jazz and music in general. We hear from Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana as each tries to describe a sound that defies description.

As he himself proclaimed, Miles was all about the music; and because of this, it makes sense that the film focuses on his innovative approach. Director Nelson does not, however, ignore the dark side of the man. As far back as high school Miles was “a genius and weird”, but lifelong battles with drugs and alcohol, and his history of being a difficult and violent partner, put the personal side in stark contrast to the beauty of his music. His first two wives, Frances Taylor and singer Betty Mabry, both documented his violent temper, and it’s a little disappointing that his third wife, actress Cicely Tyson was not interviewed for the film. They were married from 1981-88. Ms. Tyson turns 95 years old this year, and is still a working actor. It was the younger Ms. Mabry that revamped Miles’ fashion and introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, helping usher in the jazz fusion era.

We do learn the story behind the recognizable raspy voice, and the film covers his time at Julliard, his first trip to Paris (where he met actress Juliette Greco), his collaboration with arranger Gil Evans, the influence of Clive Davis, and his performance with Quincy Jones not long before Miles died in 1991. It’s details like Miles Davis music provided the template for Hip-Hop that make the film click, but of course the real joy is derived from hearing his music from 5 decades of work. Someone in the movie states “I want to feel the way Miles sounds.” And we know exactly what she means.

watch the trailer:

 


BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (2019)

August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Last year we had Queen via BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and so far this year we’ve had Elton John with ROCKETMAN and The Beatles with YESTERDAY. Thanks to writer-director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), our latest musical genius to receive the cinematic treatment is The Boss … New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. While this one is not a biopic of Bruce, it is based on the memoir (“Greetings from Bury Park”) of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the script with Ms. Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges.

Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, a Pakistani Brit living in Luton during the economic downturn of Margaret Thatcher’s run as Prime Minister. It’s 1987 and Javed faces racism and the struggles of a first generation Pakistan family pursuing their American dreams. He is a wanna-be writer who creates recession-era poems and politically-charged song lyrics for his best friend’s pop-synth band. At home, his hyper-stressed father (Kulvinder Ghir) pushes to keep his ideals on track for the family – a vision which does not allow Javed to pursue a writing career.

Javed finds a supportive teacher in Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), and things really change for him thanks to his energetic Sikh buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) who introduces him to the music of Springsteen. Viveik Kalra is a relative newcomer, having only previously appeared in the TV mini-series “Next of Kin”. He shines in this role, and never more than when he conveys the near-religious experience of being touched by music the first time. The more he listens to Springsteen, the more he relates. The music helps him find his voice as a writer, and equally importantly, his place in society.

Another relative newcomer to the big screen is the terrific Nell Williams, who plays activist and rebellious Eliza. She also happens to be the love interest for Javed, and the two are quite fun to watch together. It’s a bit of a shame that the roles weren’t expanded more for both Ms. Williams and Mr. Phagura. Both characters could have contributed more to the story. Dean Charles-Chapman plays Matt, Javed’s long-time musician friend, and Rob Brydon has a comical appearance as Matt’s dad – one who appreciates Springsteen as much as Javed.

The film weaves in the cultural challenges of Javed and his family, as well as some of the Pakistan traditions and the accompanying pressures. Filmmaker Chadha doesn’t deliver a musical per se, but there are definitely some musical moments, including full production numbers that have us singing along. A few too many Jewish Springsteen jokes are included, and some may find the film a bit too light-hearted, but it’s crafted for mass appeal while blasting some classics from the theatre speakers: Promised Land, Badlands, Thunder Road, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, Because the Night, Prove it All Night, and yes, even “Hungry Heart”. These songs are the inspiration for the movie, just as they were for Mr. Manzoor. Sure, there are some silly moments, but mostly it’s an entertaining and inspirational message movie wrapped in BRUUUUUCE!

watch the trailer:


WILD ROSE (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! Yep, that unicorn is the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few obstacles to her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Ms. Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and be a mother to her kids. The scenes with Rose-Lynn and her kids are devastating, as she has no parenting instincts, and is solely focused on herself.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed to clean house by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track, and it quite comfortably fits into the “crowd-pleasing” category. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck. Either way, look out for Ms. Buckley.

** I saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s now getting a theatrical release.

watch the trailer:


YESTERDAY (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. A world without music from The Beatles? It’s hard to “imagine”. It’s not as simple as never having their classics played on the radio, as the number of musicians influenced by their work is roughly the size of the list of every musician who has ever written or sang a song over the past 60 years. Of course, that’s a bit too much to tackle in a movie, so director Danny Boyle (Oscar winner for SLUMBDOG MILLIONAIRE) simplifies things by serving up a 12 second global power outage.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”) is the epitome of a struggling musician. He plays kids’ parties and pubs where the only applause is from his small group of friends who enjoy busting his chops over his “summer” song. His lifelong friend Ellie (Lily James, BABY DRIVER, MAMMA MIA!, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) is also his manager and roadie … his only true supporter. There is an unrequited attraction between the two, and since the script comes from Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY), we know where this is headed.

When the global power outage hits, Jack is on his bicycle and a collision with a bus puts him in the hospital. During recovery, he stumbles on to the fact that he is the only person who remembers music from John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Quickly capitalizing on the opportunity, Jack frantically tries to recall the lyrics to the songs, and in short time is replacing his playlist post-it notes with the familiar (to us) song titles, and blowing people away with “his” formidable songwriting and incredible music.

Fortune shines on Jack and his new songs, and soon Ed Sheeran (playing himself) is helping Jack’s career, while at the same time being humbled by these songs. It’s at this point where Kate McKinnon joins in as the money-grubbing talent agent who recognizes a gold mine when she hears it. Additional comedy is provided by Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s new roadie; and a trip to Liverpool follows, as does a world tour and album recording session.

Danny Boyle is known best for his likeable, easy to digest films that are typically crowd-pleasers, but leave me wanting more depth and substance. This one fits right in. It’s funny (“Hey Dude”, Abbey Road is just a road) and has amazing music (of course). However, where Lily James plays her role perfectly, Himesh Patel – despite a fine singing voice – simply lacks the charisma and screen presence to carry the film. We rarely feel his inner turmoil in living this whopper of a lie, and the film never really clicks as a Rom-Com. In fact, the only thing we should be loving here is the Beatles music. The film plays a bit like Rod Serling decided to take “The Twilight Zone” into comedy. The real impact would be lost, but it would still likely draw a crowd.

watch the trailer:

 


ROCKETMAN (2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s billed as a musical fantasy. If you are familiar with Elton John’s discography and history, you’ll want to keep that in mind as the film unfolds. The reward is a colorful spectacle worthy of one of pop music’s most successful songwriters and greatest showmen. Director Dexter Fletcher (EDDIE THE EAGLE, 2015) and writer Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT, 2000) make frequent use of Elton’s music within the fabric of the storytelling. It’s no traditional biopic, nor should it be, given the wild ride of the man whose story is being told.

Taron Egerton tears into playing Elton John like it’s the role of a lifetime. And he succeeds in a way that makes it seem that could be true. Most of us first recognized Taron’s talent as “Eggsy” in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), though I’m not sure we expected such a dynamic step up so soon. This is not some actor merely mimicking the movements of a celebrity. This is an actor taking possession of a role. Without the costumes, Taron doesn’t look much like Elton John. He certainly doesn’t sound like Elton John … though his voice does justice to the classic songs. Despite those things, he is captivating on screen, both in the dramatic moments and the musical mania.

Elton’s childhood and the strained relationship he had with his parents (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Macintosh) are given much attention, as is the support and love of his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With two self-centered parents wishing he didn’t exist, the child piano prodigy might never have attended the Royal Academy of Music if not for grandmother Ivy. Of course, the professional relationship that meant the most to Elton’s career was his songwriting collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and much of the film is devoted to this prolific partnership – in fact, one of the most spine-tingling moments occurs as Bernie hands Elton the words to “Your Song” and Elton proceeds to set it to music right in front of us and Bernie. Whether that’s historically accurate or not, it provides a thrilling moment on screen for the creative duo.

Elton John in rehab is used as a framing device for the film. This allows him to walk us through his life … after admitting to having issues with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping and anger. In other words, one of the most successful musicians of all time was a mess. And we get to sit front row as he details his early sexual confusion, his desire to be loved, his early professional frustration, and finally a career that exploded – covering him with money, adoration, stress, and more frustration. We see the warts and all.

Supporting roles are filled by Richard Madden as John Reid, Elton’s lover and manager; Tate Donovan as Doug Weston, owner of Sunset Blvd’s Troubadour; Rachel Muldoon as Kiki Dee, Elton’s collaborator on  their big hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”; and Stephen Graham as Dick James, the famous music publisher who first signed Elton.

As someone whose favorite Elton albums are “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Madman Across the Water”, and “Honky Chateau”, it’s easy for me to appreciate the time period covered here (roughly 1970-1983), and also to recognize the ‘artistic license’ taken with the timelines and events. His 1970 gig at Troubadour features a rowdy version of “Crocodile Rock”, which wasn’t even written yet … although the scene makes for great cinema. Many of the songs that advance the story are used out of sequence, but it’s quite effective to see and hear them in context. His marriage to Renate Blauel and the rehab stint featured both occurred after 1983, which we can assume is the story’s stopping point given the use of the “I’m Still Standing” video as a finale. Even the use of John Lennon over Long John Baldry doesn’t really matter since this is all about the spectacle, and for spectacle, you’ve likely never seen costumes (including eyeglasses and headdresses) used to such startling effect … and so frequently. The baseball “uniform” Elton wore during his 1975 Dodger Stadium gig has always made me a bit uncomfortable, but it’s recreated beautifully for the film.

Given that comparisons to the recent BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are inevitable, it should be noted that director Dexter Fletcher rescued the final production of that film before finishing this one. Freddie Mercury and Elton John are two of the most fascinating figures in music history, and while both films are enjoyable, it’s ROCKETMAN that is willing to take the riskier path by highlighting the flaws of a creative genius. So criticize if you must, but you’ll probably still be singing in your seat.

watch the trailer: