BAND AID (2017)

June 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Where words fail, music speaks.” Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote those words more than 150 years ago, and he surely never imagined a 21st century California couple would prove true the adage. Zoe Lister-Jones (a regular on TV’s “Whitney”) has been acting regularly since 2004, and this is her first “all in” film project where she is writer/director/producer/lead actress. Her talent as a writer is evident in a topic assumed close to her heart: thirty-something angst.

Ms. Lister-Jones stars as Anna, a disenchanted Uber driver who is married to super slobby slacker Ben played by Adam Pally (Slow Learners, 2015). These two seem perfectly matched – or would be, if not for the constant bickering over anything and everything. Before you assume this is a remake of the ultra-depressing Revolutionary Road (2008), please note that the two leads are incredibly funny people and masters of witty one-liners. They make marital squabbles quite entertaining, once they decide to form a band with the sole purpose of singing their arguments.

Admittedly, it’s a shaky premise, but these two manage to pull it off with help from neighbor/drummer/sex addict “Weird Dave” (Fred Armisen). Along the way, they take shots at their friends’ exuberance over babies, the Holocaust, a kid named ISIS, pizza, dirty dishes, a mousetrap, sex, drugs, and art. They even bring levity to a marriage counseling scene featuring Retta (“Parks and Recreation”).

Just as impressive as the humor is how the film balances the drama associated with lingering depression tied to the trauma of a miscarriage. This and the couple’s inability to communicate their emotions are what drive their marital challenges. For a short time, the ‘argument music’ seems to improve their relationship, but it’s obvious that the real issue must be dealt with. Enter Ben’s mom (Susie Essman), whose only scene serves the purpose of explaining women to Ben and all the dumb guys in the audience.

There are actually quite a few familiar faces (many with ties to “Life in Pieces”) that appear in only one or two scenes: Chris D’Elia, Ravi Patel, the aforementioned Retta, Majandra Delfino, Jesse Williams, Colin Hanks, Brooklyn Decker, Erinn Hayes, Jamie Chung, Hannah Simone, and Angelique Cabral. These quick hit scenes serve as a dose of reality, as “moments” are what make up life … even if many interactions are “crazy” (D’Elia) or creepy (Williams).

The film was well received at Sundance, and it immediately marks Zoe Lister-Jones as a filmmaker to watch. Her comedic presence is a rarity, and is complimented nicely by her musical talent, and her willingness to hit serious topics head-on. Here, she offers a woman’s perspective on having kids, being questioned about having kids, and traditional women’s roles within society and marriage. Her inspired observations (a spontaneous jam session at the kid’s birthday party) are a welcome addition to today’s cinema, while also offering a west coast contrast to east coast indie film.

watch the trailer:

 

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ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

watch the trailer:

 


ALL THINGS MUST PASS (2015, doc)

November 6, 2015

all things must pass Greetings again from the darkness. I do not envy those experiencing their childhood in this modern era. Sure, they have far superior electronics and hundreds more TV channels, but they also have very little independence (most can’t even walk alone to a friend’s house or a park) and they likely will never experience the pure joy of perusing the stacks at Tower Records (or any other record store) for hours … experiencing the thrill of discovering a new artist or style of music that rips into their soul. OK, I admittedly suffer from a touch of “old man” syndrome, but filmmaker Colin Hanks (yes, the actor and son of Tom) has delivered both a cozy trip down memory lane and a stark accounting of good times and bad at Tower Records.

With humble beginnings as little more than a lark, Tower Records began when Russ Solomon’s dad decided to sell used 45 rpm singles in his cramped Sacramento drug store. He bought the singles for 3 cents and sold them for 10 cents. Within a few years, Russ purchased the record business from his dad, and proceeded to run it as only a rebellious kid from the 1960’s could. From 1960 through 2000, the business grew each year. It expanded the number of stores (peaking at 192 worldwide) and constantly adjusted to the musical tastes and the delivery method – 45’s, LP’s, cassettes, CD’s, etc.

Using some terrific photographs and video clips, accompanied by spot on music selections, director Hanks brilliantly and generously allows the actual players to tell the story. The expected celebrity drops are present, and even the words of David Geffen, Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen and Sir Elton John carry emotion. However, far and away the most impact comes from extended interviews with the unconventional and charismatic Tower Records founder Russ Solomon and his devoted and forthright employee team. Their sincere recollections provide the roadmap through the phenomenal growth, as well as the devastating end in 2006. We understand how these stores became so much more than retail outlets … they were cultural hotspots for at least two generations. We also learn some things we probably shouldn’t … like the definition of “hand truck fuel”, and the reason Russ installed hot lighting in the listening booths.

Mr. Hanks surprises with his ability to balance nostalgia and the harsh realities of the downfall of an iconic cultural business. The film captures the key role Tower Records, while also pointing out that the crash was due to more than just Napster and digital music delivery. An interesting case study for business majors highlights the importance of vision vs debt. For more insight from Colin Hanks, check out the interview from film critic Chase Whale: http://www.hammertonail.com/reviews/documentary/a-conversation-with-colin-hanks-all-things-must-pass/

“No Music. No Life”. The motto of Tower Records was somehow inspirational, and fit perfectly for stores that featured mammoth album artwork on their store fronts, their own “Pulse” magazine, and staff that couldn’t fathom life without music … much less wearing a suit and tie to work. This was truly “a chain of independent stores”, and trust me when I tell you that hanging out at Tower Records was more fun than having hundreds of cable channels.

watch the trailer:

 

 


PARKLAND (2013)

October 15, 2013

parkland1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years of investigation and research have spawned an endless number of theories about what happened, how it happened, and why it happened, that tragic day in 1963. President John F Kennedy and his lovely wife Jacqueline had captured the hearts of many Americans, and on a trip to Ft Worth and then Dallas, the streets were lined with eager citizens who just wanted to catch a glimpse … hoping some of that Camelot magic would rub off. Instead, a city and a country, went spinning off into feelings of anger and devastation. Rather than show us what we already know, this is a peek at a few individuals impacted in ways you might not have previously thought about.

Vincent Bugliosi made a name for himself as the prosecutor in the Charles Manson Family murder case, and then penning the corresponding book “Helter Skelter” (subsequently made into a movie). Parkland (the name of the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was taken after the shooting) is based on Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy”.

parkland4 The main stories we follow are that of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale), their mother Margueritte (Jacki Weaver), Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), local FBI Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), and the emergency room doctors and nurses who treated JFK and Oswald (Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Marcia Gay Harden). You might think that’s too many stories for a single movie, and you are probably correct. However, it’s fascinating to see the frenetic pace and immediate fallout of just how these people were impacted. Sure, we would like more details and backstory, but that’s not the approach this film takes. It just provides a taste of the gut-wrenching decisions Mr. Zapruder has to make while grieving for his beloved President; and the shock of Oswald’s brother as reality hits; the jaw-dropping delusions of Oswald’s mother; the absolute frustration of the CIA and FBI agents knowing their historic failures will be their legacy; and the disparate emotions that enter the operating room with Kennedy and Oswald.

parkland5 The film doesn’t take any stance on the grassy knoll, CIA involvement, LBJ involvement, or number of shooters. This is not a crime solving story or research into conspiracy theories. No, this is a look at real people in extraordinary situations that no amount of preparation can pacify. There are so many little details revealed … one of the most powerful occurring at the Lee Harvey Oswald funeral, and another as the JFK casket is loaded onto Air Force One just prior to LBJ taking the oath. So many little things you have probably never before considered.

parkland6 If you were alive at the time of the assassination, you understand the impact. If you have read any of the stacks of books written about that day, you understand what happened and the messy investigation that followed. Bugliosi and director Peter Landesman effectively mix news reels from the day with dramatizations of the fallout, and the actors do a tremendous job of showing just how personally this affected those at the time. A different perspective brings with it interesting discussion … and a big thanks if your mother is nothing like Oswald’s!

**NOTE: Since I am a Dallas resident, I was relieved to see the film didn’t dwell on the hatred directed at the city following the shooting

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the stress and emotion experienced by so many after JFK was assassinated.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for another conspiracy theory in the mold of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgPjt_BRLvY