THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

watch the trailer:

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BLAZE (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” “I don’t want to be a star, I wants to be a legend.” The first quote comes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and the second is drawled by Blaze Foley as he snuggles with his muse and lover in the back of a pickup truck. We can imagine the first quote inspired many stories over the years by those who knew Blaze, and it might also have served as a driving force for writer/director Ethan Hawke as he crafted this graceful tribute to an underappreciated songwriter and his too short life.

Mr. Hawke is a 2-time Oscar nominee as an actor, and his best known previous turn as director was for CHELSEA WALLS (2001). He (a distant relative of Tennessee Williams) has also been twice Oscar nominated as a writer (BEFORE SUNSET, BEFORE MIDNIGHT), and his movies are often music related or influenced. His latest is a biopic of a mostly unrecognized country-folk artist, and Hawke collaborated with Sybil Rosen to adapt her memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”. It’s Ms. Rosen who shared the bed of that pickup referenced in the first paragraph above.

Ben Dickey plays Blaze and Alia Shawkat plays Sybil. Not only does Dickey capture the spirit and sound of Foley’s music, but the scenes with Blaze and Sybil as a couple are some of the most touching and realistic relationship sequences we’ve seen on screen. We understand their connection … and their disconnection. It’s proof that two people can be both ‘made for each other’ and ‘wrong for each other’. Director Hawke utilizes different time periods, as well as a framing device in the form of a radio interview. None of this works in traditional biopic manner as the interview features the great troubadour and musical poet Townes Van Zandt (played exceptionally well by Charlie Sexton) recollecting the times (both good and bad) he spent with his friend Blaze. He’s joined by another Foley friend and collaborator, Zee (Josh Hamilton) as the two color in the blanks to ensure the legendary status desired by Blaze. The DJ is voiced by Ethan Hawke, who is only seen from behind.

In addition to the radio interview and the relationship with Sybil, we also have multiple scenes of Blaze’s final live show being recorded at the old Austin Outhouse. The nearly two hours of music and philosophizing were turned into a record release that remains (nearly 30 years later) a mesmerizing listen. These 3 very distinct pieces fit together to bring Blaze into focus as both a songwriter and troubled man – one who found himself in too many fights and, ultimately, on the wrong end of a gunshot in 1989.

Philosophy and homespun wisdom and catchphrases flow from Blaze during his songs and even when he’s just hanging with his buddies or Sybil. The real Sybil Rosen plays her own mother in a scene where Blaze meets the parents, and there is a touching moment in the film where Blaze plays for his estranged dad (a wonderful, albeit brief performance from Kris Kristofferson), the founder of The Singing Fuller Family where Blaze got his musical start. It’s these kind of touches that elevate the film into a must see whether you are familiar with Blaze Foley or not.

BLAZE FOLEY: DUCT TAPE MESSIAH is a 2011 documentary that would nicely compliment Mr. Hawke’s film, although this version contains much more humor – including cameos by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell as Zephyr Records executives. With Louis Black (founder of SXSW and a former film class TA of yours truly) as an Executive Producer, and songs by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, this little gem is likely to awaken viewers to a bygone era of music that tends to be remembered only for Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and Merle.

watch the trailer:


40 YEARS IN THE MAKING: THE MAGIC MUSIC MOVIE (2018, doc)

August 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, I readily admit to being spoiled. Attending university in Austin, Texas meant (cheap) access to some truly amazing bands and music. Some of these performers went on to various levels of success, while others just kind of vanished. Because of this, I easily relate to Lee Aronsohn’s nostalgic and emotional mission to document the history of his favorite band, Magic Music, and pull off a nearly miraculous reunion concert some 40 years after the band broke up. Sure, his roots are Boulder, Colorado in the early 1970’s, but the connection he feels is universal.

When an early title card informs us that the film’s soundtrack consists of various unreleased songs from 1970-76, you will likely wonder why you should have any interest in a local Colorado band from five decades ago – especially one that never even had a recording contract. When we hear the music for the first time, we begin to understand. It’s a mixture of The Byrds, The Hollies, and CSNY with a dose of Grateful Dead. These hippies produced some beautiful harmonies! And hippies they were. Name another band that was formed at Pygmy Farms, a naturalistic living commune. The band members often lived in school buses in the mountains, only returning to Boulder to play music – often on the college campus.

The history of the band is fairly interesting, and over the years, it was made up of 7-8 different guys with nicknames like Tode, Flatbush, Poonah, and Spoons. They were the opening act for both Jesse Colin Young and Cat Stevens, and turned down their shot at a record deal because they steadfastly refused to add a drummer. Of course, 40 years later, they admit that “drums are pretty cool”. A total lack of business sense stood in the way of the wide world hearing their music. We’ve often known of bands breaking up due to a battle of egos, and this one is no different. After the breakup in 1976, the band members spread out across North America, their music only a distant memory to those who had heard them play live.

Enter TV writer/producer Lee Aronsohn, known for two mega-hits, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men”. When Mr. Aronsohn became a father, he found himself singing Magic Music songs to his young daughter. Since he could never escape the music of his college years, he decided to see if he could recreate it. This is as much a personal journey for Aronsohn as it is a history of a band that never “made” it. His efforts to track down the band and arrange for the 2015 reunion concert are impressive and quite emotional. While you are likely unfamiliar with Magic Music, there is a certain pleasure and satisfaction in imagining one’s favorite band getting back together for one last jam. It’s obvious this meant a great deal to Mr. Aronsohn, and it’s a reminder of the power of music … and the magic.

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:


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:


DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL

December 7, 2017

Opening Night December 5, 2017

Winspear Opera House – Dallas, TX

 

 It’s pretty easy to tell if a stage production is “working”. For a tragedy, we hear sniffles emanating from the audience, and for a comedy we hear laughter. When it comes to the re-telling of a family Christmas classic, we watch to see if the kids are engaged. Near the end of this touring version of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical”, most every kid in the theatre is yelling “Christmas” at the stage in a desperate attempt to feed the floundering Grinch the correct line. Of course, Philip Bryan as The Grinch knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s a brilliant gesture to allow the kids in the audience to believe they are participating … just as we believe The Grinch’s heart has grown as he learns the true meaning of Christmas.

The Dr. Seuss book was first published in 1957, and the iconic animated TV short first aired in 1966. In 2000, director Ron Howard delivered his live-action feature film, and Broadway was home to a hit run in both 2006 and 2007. Since then, there have been numerous tours of the hit stage musical, and many kids and families have been entertained by seeing The Grinch, his dog Max and the Whoville residents brought to life on stage.

“Welcome, Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” are the two songs familiar from the TV show, and both were written by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss. There are new elements to the story, and seven new songs with music by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason (book and lyrics), including “Who Likes Christmas?”, “One of a Kind”, and “It’s the Thought that Counts”. All the songs contribute to the story-telling, but none are especially memorable on their own. There is a twist in approach, as we first meet Max the dog … a much older Max. He acts as our narrator recalling his days with The Grinch, as they are acted out around him. Bob Lauder stars as Old Max, and has a wonderful voice for narration and singing.

Little Cindy-Lou Who and the rest of the Whoville folks are decked out in a pink, red, and white color scheme compounding the chaotic feel created by the holiday season and by having Christmas stolen while they sleep. The Whoville songs are often difficult to understand, despite being performed energetically. The sets (designed by John Lee Beatty) remain true to the original Dr. Seuss book and the centerpiece Christmas tree is especially wonderful.

Of course, what everyone comes to see is The Grinch. His green costume (designed by Robert Morgan) with creepy long fingers is a sight to behold, and Mr. Bryan takes full advantage of the spotlight, both with his physicality and his wide-ranging voice. At various times he reminds of Michael Keaton in BEETLEJUICE (1988), Jim Carrey from the 2000 film, and even The Joker from THE DARK NIGHT (2008). The kids are especially attentive while The Grinch is on stage, as are the much older kids (known as adults) in the audience.

Any production of The Grinch is challenged to overcome the iconic voices of Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft from the TV version, as these men possessed two of the most recognizable and iconic voices in entertainment history. Director Matt August has been behind both Broadway productions and numerous national tours, and he certainly puts on an entertaining show – assisted here by the live orchestra conducted by Peter Nilson, and some contemporary touches including a laugh-inducing belch, and a hashtag for the milennials. It’s been 60 years since the book was published, and the mean old Grinch and his dog Max can still entertain us.


LIVING ON SOUL (2017, doc)

December 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Barely a year after the 1969 Woodstock festival, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead. Fortunately, the movie cameras were rolling to capture their electrifying performances for generations to come. A few years later, director Martin Scorsese (an assistant director on WOODSTOCK) was there to capture on film the final live performance of The Band (and many famous friends) in THE LAST WALTZ. Jump ahead to 2014 and co-directors Cory Bailey and Jeff Broadway were at the historic Apollo Theater to capture the 3 night sold out shows honoring Daptone Records.

The Harlem venue and stage has seen many memorable performances from icons such as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, but even according to historian Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell, this was an event for the ages. Among those delivering the highest level of soul, funk, gospel and R&B music were The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Naomi Shelton, Como Mamas, Antibalas, The Budos Band, and of course, the great Sharon Jones.

In addition to the energetic and energizing performances, the film mixes in some back story for many of the artists, plus insight from Daptone Records co-founders Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) and Neal Sugarman (they know plenty about funk!). If the on stage dynamics weren’t so amazing to watch, we might wish for even more history being told, but not much can compete with Sharon Jones kicking off her shoes for a rousing rendition of “Get Up and Get Out”.

I promise you’ve never heard a cancer-free proclamation like the one from Ms. Jones, who was also front and center in the 2015 documentary MISS SHARON JONES!. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and she passed away a year after the Apollo shows. It should also be mentioned that Charles Bradley, a centerpiece of Daptone Records passed away just a couple of months ago (September 2017). We can celebrate their performances just as much as the mixture of black and white who perform together on stage, while the cheering and dancing in the crowd comes from a surprising blend of the same. It’s a stark reminder of how music can unify even while most of society fragments.

watch the trailer: