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2019 Fall Film Roundup Part 1

As I’ve said before, I haven’t been babbling much these days as I’ve been publicizing my new book Wilcopedia (available here). But that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen any new movies so this is my roundup of a handful of films that I’ve taken in lately.

JOKER (Todd Phillips)


It was funny that on the same day that the news that Martin Scorsese put down the whole superhero genre by saying, “That’s not cinema,” the most Scorsesean comic book movie ever was released. Phillips’ film borrows heavily from MEAN STREET, TAXI DRIVER, and THE KING COMEDY, even featuring those movies’ star, Robert De Niro. 

Dancing and cackling through all of this is Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, Joker, not “The Joker” like I thought going in. Set in a crime-ridden Gotham City in 1981, Phoenix starts the film as clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck, who, after getting attacked by thugs , suffers a series of setbacks which lead to him cracking up and killing two Wall Street guys on the subway. 

Phoenix is fully invested as Arthur Fleck/Joker in a performance that is as entertainingly disturbingly as you can get. However, this dark, and grotesque, and fearsome flick is ramshackle in its pacing and its message (is there one?) is muddled. I think its theme is something about the necessary of violence class warfare, but I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that Phoenix alone is why I’d recommend this film. 

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP

(Dir. Ruben Fleischer) 
It’s been ten years since the first ZOMBIELAND, but you wouldn’t know it from the returning cast, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin who all look about the same. Well, except for Breslin, who was 13 in the original. A good bit of the plot concerns Breslin’s Little Rock leaving the gang, and finding a hippy boyfriend (Avan Jogia). The others go after them, fighting zombies all the way, and meeting new characters or cameos in the form of Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, and Zoey Deutch, who brings a big sitcom element in the form of her typical dumb blonde role. 

While the first one featured a rollercoaster orgy of zombie blood, this time we’re treated to monster truck rally of a climax. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (meaning to strike the fatal blow to the undead twice), is roughly the same quality as its predecessor, meaning that its equally fun, and funny, but the zombie genre is growing a bit tiresome (at least to me). I do appreciate that they’ve tried to up the ante with elements like smarter zombies, dubbed T-800s, a slew of new rules that are spelled out on the screen, and “Zombie Kill of the Year” (it was “of the week” the first time around), but I’m hoping they’ll leave it there. However, maybe in 2029 I’ll want to see a third entry. Time will tell. 

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (Dir. Craig Brewer) 


Eddie Murphy makes his comeback in this delightful yet extremely profane biopic of comedian, filmmaker, and blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore. The film starts off in 1973, with Moore as a struggling comic/musician who considers himself a “total entertainment experience,” but can’t get his dated ‘50s-‘60s R&B singles on the radio. Moore’s luck changes when he appropriates the rhyming tales about a lewd pimp named Dolemite from a neighborhood wino (Ron Cephas Jones) and becomes a star reciting the raunchy routines with enthusiastic vigor at clubs and then on best-selling records. 

Before long, Moore wants to make a movie about the character, and recruits screenwriter Jerry Jones (Keegan Michael-Key), actor/director D’Urville Martin (a superb Wesley Snipes), producer Theodore Toney (Tituss Burgess), and singer Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) to perform the film’s theme song.


The movie is a lot of infectious fun that’s propelled by the determined D.Y.I. spirit and swagger of Murphy’s Moore. The funky film, which is full of garish ‘70s threads and groovy soul, may end with the trope of a triumphant movie premiere (see BADASSS, HITCHCOCK, and THE DISASTER ARTIST) but it completely earns its charming climax. Murphy owns his performance throughout as it’s a charge to see him reeling off reams of rhythmic profanity in his first R-rated role in 20 years. 


The hilarious and oddly inspiring DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is currently available streaming on Netflix.


More later…

Blu Ray Review: ECHO IN THE CANYON

Now out on Blu ray and DVD:
ECHO IN THE CANYON

(Dir. Andrew Slater, 2018)

 
This rock doc opens with the definition of the word “echo” – “a close parallel or repetition of an idea, feeling, style, or event” – while the shimmering guitar opening of the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” plays. We then proceed to hang with Jakob Dylan (leader of the Wallflowers; son of Bob) and Tom Petty (in his last film interview) as they check out guitars at Truetone Music in Santa Monica. 

From there the credits tell us that the film is paying tribute to the music of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, The Association, and The Mamas & The Papas. 

Exploring the the Laurel Canyon scene, where many of these musicians migrated in the ‘60s, this documentary depicts Dylan driving around Los Angeles to meet up with such iconic artists as Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr to casually talk about the area’s musical mythos. 

But that’s just half of it, as the rest of the film concerns a concert staged at the Orpheum Theatre in LA in late 2015 in which Dylan sings a roster of classic Southern California songs with the likes of Jade, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Cat Power (Chan Marshall), and Beck. 

At the start of the concert, director Slater, who had been the President of Capitol Records from 2001-2017, explains to the audience that they are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of when McGuinn exercised the most pronounced influence over rock music with only the opening notes of The Byrds’ debut album. 


Now that’s certainly true, but while there are a number of solid performances included from that star-studded event, I would prefer to see more vintage footage, hear more stories from the sunny hippy era, and see the doc give shout outs to more of the cast of notable characters who were residents of the Canyon. Especially since Frank Zappa, one of the first of the artists that made his home there, is glossed over, while Joni Mitchell and the Doors’ Jim Morrison aren’t mentioned at all. For a film that’s only an hour and 22 minutes long, that’s a real shame *. 

I still enjoyed a lot of ECHO IN THE CANYON, and can really feel Dylan, his interviewees, and director Slater’s genuine love for the wealth of historic rock music (or rock pop, or folk rock, or pop rock folk, etc.) so I’d definitely recommend this film to those that are interested. For those who aren’t, it might be a bit much of Dylan playing a bunch of ‘60s songs with his friends instead of a real breakdown of what made Laurel Canyon so tuneful.


* The Blu ray and DVDs of this doc contain no bonus material so that adds to the shame.

More later…

DOWNTON ABBEY: THE MOTION PICTURE

Now playing at arthouses, multiplexes, and drive-ins (okay, maybe not at drive-ins) everywhere: 

DOWNTON ABBEY (Dir. Michael Engler, 2019) 

The aristocratic Crawley family and their staff from the British TV smash, Downton Abbey, make the leap to the big screen in this fluffy, frothy, yet charmingly fine film which is currently the #1 movie at the box office. 

Taking place in 1927, three years after the events of the sixth season of the show, this update concerns the returning cast (nearly every member of the sprawling ensemble is back) dealing with a visit by the King and Queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) majestic Edwardian estate. 


The family, including Crawley’s wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), daughters Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael); is excited about the royal occasion while Crawley’s mother, Violet (Maggie Smith) spouts acidic wittisms just like you’d expect. 

That’s the upstairs, downstairs the servants, including the stern butler Carson (Jim Carter), housekeeper Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Bates’ wife, Lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), footman Joseph Moseley (Kevin Doyle), and cooks Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), and Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol); are fretting about nervously about how best to do their duties. 

Since Carson has returned from retirement to reclaim his butler position, this puts the film (and the series’) semi-villain Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) out of a job (a familiar predicament as his job was always on the line on the show) and he heads into town for his own little racy adventure. 

Then the staff finds out from the King’s crew that they won’t be need for the event as the royal staff will fulfill the duties of cooking, serving, cleaning, and the like. This leads to a plan to sabotage the visiting servants in comical ways so that they can do their treasured work to “restore Downton’s honor.” 

Meanwhile there’s also a budding romance between honorary Crawley family member and Irish Republican sympathizer Tom Brosnan (Allen Leech), and royal attendant Lady Bagshaw’s (Imelda Stauton) maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton); and friction between Smith’s Violet, and Lady Bagshaw over the family inheritance. 

There are a few other little subplots, but that’s all I’ll go into. DOWNTON ABBEY: THE MOTION PICTURE is an enjoyably breezy piece of glossy entertainment, but it’s really just a super-sized episode of the show. The only really cinematic moments, courtesy of cinematographer Ben Smithard, are when the camera circles the exteriors of the stately house of the title (in real life it’s Highclere Castle), and in some tasty angles in the large interiors. 

Also, with a cast so large like this, many roles are reduced to mere cameos. For example, Coyle’s Bates, a very significant character on the series, gets like three to four lines here. But screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, who created and wrote or co-wrote the entire series, mostly juggles the various strands deftly, and with plenty of well-earned humor. Director Michael Engler also handles the material with amusing aplomb, something he’s had a lot of experience with as he’s helmed choice episodes of such notable shows as My So Called LifeSix Feet Under30 RockThe Big CUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Downton Abbey itself. 

Fans of the show should love this film follow-up, and with its major success, it just may be just the beginning of a new franchise. 


The movie has been structured so that folks who haven’t seen the series should be able to find a way in, but I’d say that it will largely help to have some sort of working knowledge of what went down over those six seasons before taking it on.

More later…

Introducing my new book, Wilcopedia!

I’ve been majorly neglecting Film Babble Blog lately for one big reason: I’ve been working on publicizing my new book Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the Music of America’a Best Band

Covering the career of the critically acclaimed Chicago band Wilco, it just released yesterday and is available at most retailers that sell books – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even Walmart


I started a blog called, of course, Wilcopedia (The Blog), which features excerpts from the book, setlists from the bands current tour, and various related whatnot.


There’s also a Facebook page, which features examples of the press the book has been receiving. I hope you visit these forums to find out more about Wilcopedia as I’ve put a lot of work into it and think interested fans will really dig it.


Okay, so now I’ve plugged my book on Film Babble Blog. I’ll get back to babbling bout film shortly.

More later…

The Love Story Between Leonard Cohen & His Muse Marianne

Opening today in the triangle at Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill, AMC CLASSIC Durham 15, and Regal North Hills 14 in Raleigh:

(Dir.
Nick Broomfield, 2019)
This
is a quite touching treatise on the on again off again relationship between
iconic poet/singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his lover/muse, Marianne Ihlen
(the subject of Cohen’s classic “So Long, Marianne”).

It’s
also the best film yet by documentarian Nick Broomfield, who, in some of his
films (AILEEN WUORNOS, KURT & COURTNEY, BIGGIE & TUPAK) has come off as
a twit.

Not
here, however, as he tenderly relays the Norwegian Marianne and the Canadian Leonard
meeting on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, and how they immediately hit it
off. This is offset by Broomfield revealing that “for a short while, I became
one of her [Marianne’s] lovers.”

Marriane
and Leonard lived together for a bit, each feeding off the other’s self
conscious souls. Leonard began as a writer, an aspiring novelist, but didn’t
really make his mark until Judy Collins recorded his song “Suzanne.” Collins
persuaded him to overcome his stage fright and get onstage, and then, as Collins
says, “He was off to the races, Columbia signed him up, and was his label
forever.”

Meanwhile
Marianne deals with depression, loneliness, until she gets a telegram from
Leonard requesting she come to him with her son to the Montreal. From there,
they live in New York as Leonard’s star rises as we see via 1970 footage from the
Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and the legendary
Isle of Wight Festival.

We
also get some anecdotal evidence as to how much of a ladies’ man Leonard was in
the ‘70s, while he still spent time with Marianne, and Suzanne Verdal, who
inspired the aforementioned song of the same name.

If
it seems as though I’m spending more time on Leonard than Marianne, it’s
because that’s what Broomfield does. Marianne seems to whittle away years in
Hydra, which is depicted throughout the film home movie-style as a beautiful
seaside and mountainside village, before she decides to go back home to Oslo,
Norway, and begin a normal life.

Leonard
goes into a monestary at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California from 1994-1999,
but comes back to find that his trusted manager had embezzled millions from him
and he was broke. This made Leonard get back on stage to again make a living
and the shows were rousing successes (I saw him in Durham, NC, in 2009 and he
was magnificent).

Despite the couples imbalance, the film’s focus
is on their relationship and ends on a poignant note pertaining to Leonard’s
last love letter to Marianne received on her death bed in 2016; Leonard would
pass three months later.

MARIANNE & LEONARD is as moving as a documentary can get. It’s not as
poetic as the troubled people it portrays but it gets awful close to their
discomfort in making love last. By putting forth his most personal story yet,
Bloomfield seems closer to his subjects than in any of his previous works.


More later…

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an vintage cinema palace near you:


ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD
(Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2019)



Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film as director contains all of the elements that moviegoers have come to expect: snappy hipster dialogue, an ultra cool soundtrack of both classic and obscure pop and soul songs, eye-popping cinematography, stylish editing, multiple shots of women’s feet, and, of course, reams of gory, in-your-face violence.


Except for a sequence in Italy, the film is mainly set in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, in which actress Sharon Tate (the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski), and three of her friends, were murdered by members of the Manson family.

But Tarantino’s largely concerns the friendship between the fictional cowboy star Rick Dalton (a moody Leonardo DiCaprio), and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (a smug Brad Pitt). Dalton was formerly the lead of a Western television series called Bounty Law, but has been reduced to playing guest star heavies on a bunch of various TV shows.

The film also follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she attends a screening of her next to last film, the Dean Martin comedy spy movie, THE WRECKING CREW, at the Bruin Theater. Meanwhile Booth picks up a hitchhiking hippy girl named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and takes her home to the Spaun Movie Ranch, where Charlie Manson, who doesn’t appear, and his hoard of followers reside. Booth is skeptical of the set-up as he used to work on the ranch and a visit with the ranch’s blind owner, George Ranch (Bruce Dern) doesn’t quell that.

Despite his doubting hesitation, Dalton, along with Booth travels to Italy to make several Spaghetti Westerns, and ends up marrying Italian actress Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo).

When they return to Hollywood, the time of the murders approaches (times appear on the screen), and the killers approach in dark silhouettes that resemble the sinister shots of the four figures in the driveway in Jordan Peele’s US from earlier this year.

The climax is thrilling and funny in turns, but it might make the folks who found the instances of the intense, bloody, brutal action in THE HATEFUL EIGHT hard to stomach. It’s also an re-writing of history that recalls Tarantino’s sixth film, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in its concept of wish fulfillment.

As usual, Tarantino has assembled an excellent ensemble that includes Al Pacino as producer/agent Marvin Schwarzs, Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the murders; Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, another Western actor; Dakota Fanning as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Kurt Russell as stunt coordinator Randy (Russell also doubles as the film’s narrator). But ultimately it’s the terrific DeCaprio and Pitt whose movie this is.

ONCE UPON A TIME…is very enjoyable in stretches, but it has too many sequences in which characters just hang out (like in JACKIE BROWN, Tarantino wants us to hang out with the characters), and it has a rambling nature in which some scenes just go on and on – like the Spahn Ranch scene, for instance.

This is far from Tarantino’s greatest work, but it’s way better than his worst (meaning that it’s way superior to DEATH PROOF). With movie posters, lobby cards, and glossies covering nearly every wall, and segments from fictitious films rendered in the grainy, gritty film stock of the 60s-70s, the auteur filmmaker’s latest shows off his love of movies. It celebrates the era in which the golden age of cinema gave way to the exploitation movies that Tarantino takes many cues from.


Its effect is mostly infectious, but it doesn’t have much to say beyond “look kids, I can still bring it as a badass basher.” That’s great and all, but it’s way too meandering to come anyway close to being a masterpiece.

More later…

3 Poli-Biopics I’m Finally Getting Around To

Apparently because the nation has been enraptured by politics over the last several years, Hollywood has stepped up to produce a number of films covering controversial political figures from years past. Here I’m going to take a look at three of them – in chronological order, both by the years the films were released, and the years in history the movies take place. So that means we begin with:

LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016) 


Although it skips around through the early ‘60s, Rob Reiner’s 19th film largely concerns Lyndon B. Johnson’s experience in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Woody Harrelson, in heavy make-up and prosthetics, plays LBJ, who is suddenly thrust into the presidency, a position he wanted, but not under such circumstances. Harrelson’s LBJ argues with advisors (at one point while on the toilet), and Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), and has a few tender moments with his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has a fakes nose that is as pointy and down-turned as Harrelson’s prosthetic.

There are also choice turns by Richard Jenkins as the racist Senator Richard Russell, Bill Pullman as the smug, Senator Ralph Yarborough, and the dead on Jeffrey Donovan as John F. Kennedy (Donovan also played Bobby Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR). Harrelson does a admirable job as LBJ, but despite his facial embellishments he doesn’t really get lost in the Texan democrat’s persona.

Despite this, LBJ is Rob Reiner’s best film in years (maybe decades), but with its TV movie-style melodrama it’s far from essential.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Dir. John Curran, 2017) 


Jason Clarke (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FIRST MAN) portrays Senator Ted Kennedy in this tense treatise that depicts the 1969 (5o years ago this month) accident in which Kennedy drove his car into Poucha Pond in Chappaquiddick killing a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara (House of Cards, American Horror Story, THE MARTIAN). The flames of the budding scandal are fanned by the fact that Kennedy waited 10 hours before reporting the accident, and attending Kopechne’s funeral, wearing a neck brace, although he wasn’t injured in the incident.

Clarke’s Kennedy grapples with his guilt versus his ambition as his lawyers, including two comic actors in serious roles – Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as Paul F. Markham – who try to convince him to turn himself in. On the opposing side, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., (Bruce Dern) says to him “alibi.” Curran, whose seventh feature this is, has fashioned a historical thriller that’s compelling throughout. It’s also a devastatingly dark reminder of how much tragedy the Kennedy dynasty suffered in the ‘60s.

THE FRONT RUNNER (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2018) 


Unlike the previous two films reviewed above, this drama is about a now obscure political figure, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), whose chances of winning the presidency in 1988 went down the tubes when his affair with model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was exposed by the press. The film features a lot of consultants strategizing about Hart’s campaign, and his indiscretions, while the candidate repeatedly says that it’s none of anyone’s “goddamn business!” Speaking of business, one major factor in Hart’s downfall was a photo of him taken with Rice on his lap on a yacht named “Monkey Business.”

Surprisingly this photo isn’t touched on in this film, except in a few quick mentions. I was expecting a full re-enactment, and repeated showings of it when it got leaked. This surprised me because it was one of the aspects that people (like me) who lived through the scandalous events, most remember. The film’s editing, by Stefan Grube, is often choppy, yet the film is often drawn out and dull – a good 20-30 minutes could have easily been cut out. 

Under his obvious wig, Jackman is fine as Hart, but the part is underwritten with a lot of repetitive dialogue. Maybe thats accurate to the real Hart, but it makes for some shake your head moments.

But although the movie is the weakest of the three covered in this post, it has the strongest supporting cast. Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife, Oletha, J.K. Simmons works it as Hart’s campaign manager, Alfred Molina portrays the Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Kevin Pollack briefly appears as the Miami Herald publisher, and comedian Bill Burr smarms his way through a role as a reporter. THE FRONT RUNNER doesn’t have enough to say to make it truly worthwhile, but parts of it are watchable, and at least its attempt to make a statement about tabloidism infiltrating the political system show some admirable ambition.

Post note: At one point in THE FRONT RUNNER, Alfred Molina’s Ben Bradlee says to a group of reporters: “I swear this is true. New Year’s Eve, after Jack died, Lyndon Johnson sites down with a whole bunch of us, pulls us in close and says. ‘Boys, you’re gonna see a whole lot of women coming in and out of my hotel suites. I want you to pay us the same courtesy you did Jack.”

Whether or not this is true, it’s an element that isn’t included in LBJ, reviewed above.

More later…

Spider-Teen’s European Vacation

Opening today at a Marvel multiplex near us all:

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
(Dir. Jon Watts, 2019) 


So with this sequel to SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, we’re now at the end of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In what’s being called the epilogue to AVENGERS: ENDGAME, we catch up with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) eight months after the events of that bloated epic.

Peter, still a high school student despite Holland being 22 when the film was shot, joins his class on a two-week summer field trip to Europe where he finds that various locations including Venice, Prague, and London are being terrorized by ginormous monsters called Elementals.

Our web-slinging protagonist is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in his third appearance in a Marvel movie this year) to fight the Elementals with the help of Mysterio, a character from the comics, portrayed by an invested Jake Gyllenhaal wearing Roman centurion-style armor.

Peter often has to sneak away from his classmates, such as the returning Zendaya as MJ (Peter’s love interest), Jacob Batalon as Ned (Peter’s best friend), and Tony Revolori, to get caught up in overblown battles in which there’s much destruction and dizzying bombast. Between these battles, there’s some frothy rom com material where Peter competes for the affection of MJ with the douche Brad (Remy Hii from CRAZY RICH ASIANS who is over 30).

There’s also a bunch of comic moments courtesy of the also returning Martin Starr as Peter’s teacher, Marissa Tomei as Aunt May who is maybe beginning a romances with Tony Stark’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), and a new character named Mr. Dell (J.B. Smooth).

These breezy bits of downtime are much more amusing and watchable than the action sequences surrounding them. It’s like a teen comedy that has to cut to big bursts of spectacle every five to ten minutes.

FAR FROM HOME is only intermittently fun, and way less satisfying than HOMECOMING as it has lost much of that film’s fresh feeling. The villain, Mysterio, isn’t fleshed out enough to make much of an impact, and the concept behind the Elementals isn’t very compelling either. 

However it’s a competent summer superhero movie, and a decent entry in the franchise. I just doubt I’ll remember much of it months from now, or less. But that could be said about most of the Marvel movies.

More later…

YESTERDAY: Cutesy Yet Not Within Or Without Its Charms

Opening today from here to across the universe:

YESTERDAY (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2019)

Danny Boyle’s 13th full length feature has a very juicy premise. Imagine (sorry) a world in which the Beatles never existed. Well, that’s what happens when aspiring British Indian musician Jack Malik, played by the invested but maybe a bit too wide-eyed Himesh Patel (The Eastenders) gets hit by a bus while riding his bike, at the same moment that there’s a fantastical global blackout.

Shortly after he wakes up in a hospital with two teeth missing, he finds out that nobody knows any of the music of the Fab Four, and even think that their most famous song, “Yesterday,” is his own composition.

Jack’s manager, Ellie, played by Lily James (BABY DRIVER, DARKEST HOUR) gets him gigs in which to premiere the unknown tunes, but they don’t take off until they meet a producer named Gavin (Alexander Arnold). Gavin records some of Jack’s stolen songs at his studio named “Tracks on the Tracks” because it’s located by the railroad tracks.

Before long, it seems that the entire world knows the Beatles’ work as performed by Jack, with pop superstar Ed Sheeran (playing himself in an extended cameo), and dollars-in-her-eyes talent agent Debra Hammer (SNL’s Kate McKinnon) paying particular attention.

But Malik’s guilt increases the more songs he puts out there (Patel performs many classic John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison standards including “The Long and Winding Road,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Help,” and “Hey Jude,” which Sheeran wants to change to “Hey Dude”).

YESTERDAY also features a rom com element as Jack pines for Ellie, but she is frustrated by having waited a decade for him to make his move. They are a cute couple, and the film is cute itself – perhaps a bit too cutesy. It’s not without its charms, but Jack Curtis’ screenplay, from a story by Jack Barth, is padded instead of fleshed out and the last half hour doesn’t seem to know where to go with its story. It also contains an ending that’s too pat, with the resolution being less that satisfying

Boyle does his best to compensate for these shortcomings with a lot of flash such as locations’ names are shown in giant colorful letters that float through the air, and there’s a fantasy sequence in which Jack sees images of his fame, and impact. He almost makes it all work, but despite all the good lines, valid laughs, and likable performances – both of the acting and music – YESTERDAY is extremely watchable yet still a throwaway.

Yet, it’s touching that Boyle and company would make a movie with the message that the Beatles’ brilliance would shine even in a world devoid of their presence. Even if in the end, the love they make isn’t equal to the love they faked.


More later…

TOY STORY 4: The Rise Of Forky

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


TOY STORY 4 (Dr. Josh Cooley, 2019) 


When I first heard a few years after TOY STORY 3 that Pixar was possibly planning a fourth entry, I didn’t like the idea at all. 3 had such a beautifully emotional ending that felt like a perfect conclusion to the trilogy. It just seemed a bit cynical to milk the franchise any further.


But I must say that I fairly enjoyed TOY STORY 4. I still don’t think it was really necessary but with all the gags that land, the gorgeous animation, and emotional impact how can one care?


So nine years after the third installment, but just a few years later in the movie’s world, we catch up with our beloved gaggle of playthings in the care of preschooler, Bonnie, voiced by Madeleine McGraw, who we met at the end of the previous adventure. Woody, again voiced by Tom Hanks, stows away in Bonnie’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten orientation because he’s worried about her being overwhelmed.


After some mean kid takes Bonnie’s arts and crafts supplies and tosses them in a waste can, Woody retrieves what he can of them, along with some trash, and the little girl fashions a toy made out of a spork, a couple of mismatched googly eyes, a red pipe-cleaner for eyes, a little putty for a mouth and eyebrow, and popsicle sticks for feet. Bonnie names her new friend Forky, and he becomes her new favorite toy.


To Woody’s surprise, Forky, comes alive with the voice of Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep), with movable appendages. Problem is, Forky thinks he’s trash (which he is) and keeps jumping into trash cans to be back where he thinks he belongs.


Bonnie takes Forky and all her toys, including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), tricertop Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and plastic piggy bank Hamm (Pixar regular John Ratzenberger), on a road trip with her parents in a rented RV.


Still on his kick to get thrown away, Forky hurls himself out of the vehicle’s back window and Woody goes after him. Woody is able to find Forky and while walking to the RV Park that Bonnie’s family is staying, Woody is able to convince him that he’s more than trash – he’s a toy and has an important role. When they get to town, they come across a shop called Second Chance Antiques, where Woody sees Bo Peep’s lamp in the window.


Woody and Forky journey into the store where they meet Gabby Gabby, a ‘50s-era pullstring doll from the voiced by Christina Hendricks. Gabby Gabby is initially a sweet character, but it turns out that she’s the film’s villain, who’s plotting to steal Woody’ voice-box. Folks might be tipped off to this from her foursome of creepy ventriloquist dummies that follow her orders.

Also during this antique store segment, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who was absent from 3, so that their special relationship can be rekindled.


This is as far as I’ll go with the plot as the second half is a busy bunch of chase sequences punctuated by tender, and poignant moments, all of which are effective and fun. There are highly amusing cameos by Mel Brooks as Melephant Brooks, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as carnival toys Ducky and Bunny, Keanu Reeves as stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom, Carol Burnett as Chairol Burnett, and Carl Reiner as Carl Reineroceros which help the film keep its humor flow going.


While I originally didn’t want TOY STORY 4 – the full length debut by director Cooley – I have to admit that I found it on par with the rest of the series. Also I really loved Forky. He’s a hilarious piece of trash, I mean toy, that Hale voices wonderfully, and I’d love to see more of him. Dammit – I didn’t want 4 and now I’m pinning for 5? This is how Pixar gets you.

More later…

Jim Jarmusch Gathers His Friends Together For Some Zombie Fun

Now playing at the theater near me:

THE DEAD DON’T DIE (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2019)


J
im Jarmusch is a very weird filmmaker. His dozen or so films, neither of which feel like they take place in the same world, nor even the same universe, are populated with oddball characters, awkward but real seeming moments, and humor so oblique that people are unsure whether to laugh at it or not.


But this time around, he’s taken those elements and added zombies, and the result is, again, oddball, awkward, and oblique, but, you know, with the difference of the threat of the undead.


Bill Murray, who heads what the film’s tag-line calls “the greatest zombie cast ever dissembled,” as Police Chief Cliff Robertson for the sleepy, small, and fictional town of Centerville, Ohio (the film was actually shot in Upstate New York). Chief Robertson’s second-in-command, is Officer Ronnie Petersen played by Adam Driver who previously starred in Jarmusch’s wonderfully whimsical PATERSON (2016).

Because of “polar fracking,” that earth has been thrown off its axis, daylight hours are screwed with, pets disappearing, and the rise of recently deceased townsfolk from the morgue and graveyard. “This is going to end badly,” Driver’s Office Petersen repeatedly says to his superior’s annoyance.

The local police are alerted to the zombie situation after a few folks are found dead at a diner. The corpses have been largely eaten (yes, the film is gory), as remarked upon by Chief Robertson, Officer Petersen, and Officer Minerva “Mindy” Morrison, played by the very nervous acting Chloë Sevigny, who enter one-by-one to look at the savaged victims.

Each cop (and Danny Glover as the hardware store owner who found the bodies) has the same reaction: “Is it the work of some kind of wild animal? Or several wild animals?” – a bit of a running gag.


The zombies responsible for the killings are played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (no relation to Adam), who are both Jarmusch veterans (respectively Pop in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, and Sara Driver in too many to list here). Also in the Jarmusch repertory company is Tilda Swinton (BROKEN FLOWERS, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL), as a funeral home attendant who wields a fast slashing samurai sword; Steve Buscemi (MYSTERY TRAIN, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES) as the crochety farmer that most of the townsfolk hate; Rosie Perez (NIGHT ON EARTH) as a newscaster who fills us in on what caused the zombie apocalypse; and rapper RZA (GHOST DOG, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES.


But Jarmusch’s stand-out player here has to be Tom Waits, who has appeared in several of the director’s best known works including DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN, and COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (he also scored NIGHT ON EARTH). Here Waits portrays Hermit Bob, who lives in the woods, and watches the grisly events from afar, providing Waitsian commentary on what he sees. Over the course of the film, he more and more becomes the movie’s narrator.


As for the newcomers to Jarmusch land, we’ve got the aforementioned Glover, Caleb Landry Jones as nerdy gas station operator and pop culture peddler; Carol Kane (hard to believe she hasn’t been in a Jarmusch joint before) as a woman who dies and comes back to life chanting “Chardonnay,” and Selena Gomez, who happens to be travelling through town at the wrong time.


Oh, yeah – county artist Sturgill Simpson appears as a zombie dragging a guitar around who’s credited as “Guitar Zombie.” Simpson also contributed the title tune, which can be heard throughout, and is even referred to as “the theme song” by Driver’s character.


There are a few other meta moments like that as when Driver says he read the screenplay, and Murray says he only got his parts of it.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is far from Jarmusch’s best, but I enjoyed at quite a bit. Some of the dialogue, particularly the repeated lines reminded me of the Coen brothers circular wordplay, and I adored the laconic playfulness of many of its scenes. It’s a lark, but one with some solid laughs, and a stellar ensemble who are a lot of fun to watch.

Folks who don’t like zombie movies, even zombie comedies, may be turned off, but for those people who aren’t into decapitations that result in a bunch of black dust coming from the beheaded necks, bloody crime scenes with disgusting corpses, and in-your-face flesh-eating, I’ll just say that the great cast more than balances it out.


More later…

ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: Dylan & Scorsese Together Again!

Now available on Netflix:


Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his 2005 Bob Dylan
documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME, is a very different film from that examination
of the master musician’s early to mid-‘60s beginnings.


The two hour and 20 minute film, in which Scorsese paints a
vivid picture of Dylan’s mounting of the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, a
gypsy-style traveling circus of a concert tour in 1975-1976, is a much more
abstract, freewheeling work. It jumps around from a 1896 silent film by Georges
Méliès (the subject of Scorsese’s 2012 film, HUGO), to vintage TV clips of bicentennial
celebrations, and bits of speeches by Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter,
to, most importantly spectacular live performances by Dylan and his ferocious
backing band which he dubbed Guam.


Dylan may say, “I’m trying to get to the core of what this
Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue because it’s about
nothing! It’s just something that happened 40 years ago, and that’s the truth
of it,” but he actually has a good deal of insights to share throughout. He’s
pretty damn funny too.


So do other participants in the revue, such as Joan Baez,
Sam Shepherd, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who all
provide their often hilarious takes on the tour. Then there are interviews with
lesser known figures such as cinematographer Stefan Van Dorp, who shot the tour
(“I wanted to show the land of Pet Rocks and Super Slurpees from 7-Eleven”);
concert promoter Jim Gianopulos, who claims that the tour was his idea; and U.S.
Representative Jack Tanner, who talks about Jimmy Carter getting him a ticket for a Rolling Thunder Revue show.


But the thing is, none of these people are who they say they
are. Van Dorp is played by Martin Von Haselberg, who is a filmmaker but had
nothing to do with the Rolling Thunder tour. Gianopulos is a real person, but
he’s not a promoter – he’s a CEO of Paramount Pictures and also wasn’t on the
tour. The most interesting of these characters is Tanner – a character from the
Robert Altman/Garry Trudeau TV series, Tanner ’88, about a Presidential
candidate.


Why Scorsese added these fictional folks into this epic rock
doc is beyond me, but I was still highly amused by the conceit. When Sharon
Stone appears to talk about her flirtations with Dylan, and joining the tour,
it’s hard to believe anything she says. I learned later that this was a
justified feeling as Stone didn’t go on the tour, and it’s speculated that very
little that she says is true.


But what does that really matter when there’s so many great
musical moments. Dylan, mostly in whiteface makeup, performs incredibly
passionate versions of some of his greatest songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna
Fall,” “Hurricane,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley
Below),” and 
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (featuring a great bug-eyed duet with Roget McQuinn of the Byrds)But one real showstopper that stands out is an absolutely scorching
version of “Isis” from Dylan’s album Desire, which was released after the first
leg of tour. 

When the mind-blowingly powerful performance concluded, many
people in the audience at the screening I attended applauded like it was a real
concert. I’m not normally a fan of folks clapping at the movies, but this felt
seriously justified.


Despite the odd fictional elements, ROLLING THUNDER appears
to grandly capture the highlights of one of Dylan’s most vital, and essential
tours. With its epic length, it may be too much for casual Dylan fans, but
hardcore fans will wish that it never ended.



More later…

AVENGERS: The Never-Ending Game

Opening tonight at a multi-plex near us all:

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

(Dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo)
We’re now 22 films, and three phases into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began in 2008 with IRON MAN.

Apparently all three phrases are now known as “the Infinity Saga” since they largely concern the McGuffin of those glowing multi-colored Infinity Stones that major villain Thanos has been after since early in the franchise. So this is a specific storyline thats gone through most of a series that’s well into the double digits. Talk about never-ending, huh?

But to many casual movie-goers, that background matters less than if this blockbuster behemoth starring every Marvel character ever (well, close to it anyway) is worth its bloated three hour running time as the mega movie event of 2019 (at least until STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER comes along).

Well, I believe both hardcore and casual fans will be satisfied by ENDGAME. It often plays as a greatest hits of the series, and gives every Avenger and guest star their moment to shine. And that’s a lot of moments as there are lots and lots of characters to cover.

In the last entry, INFINITY WAR, Thanos (a CGI-ed Josh Brolin), having finally gathered all the stones, snapped his fingers, and made half the universe, including half of the Avengers, crumble into red dust.

Five years later, the characters that survived the snap including Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – who luckily are the leads, plot to attempt time travel in order to retrieve the Infinity Stones so that they can undo what Thanos has done.

Despite Ant-Man saying that “BACK TO THE FUTURE is a bunch of bullshit,” our superheroes run around through scenes from previous movies, most notably the capturing of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the first Avengers, in a manner that heavily recalls BACK TO THE FUTURE 2. These sequences are a lot of fun, and touching at times like when Downey Jr.’s Tony running into his father Howard Stark (John Slattery) in 1970.

After all of these time hopping shenanigans which, aside from BTTF also draw from many other movies that draw on the device (at one point, Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes/War Machine even reels off a list of time travel films including TIME COP!), we come to the big ass battle finale which, to me, apes the finale of yet another time travel movie, TIME BANDITS, but I won’t tell you how here.

Shit gets real as a couple of major players are killed off, and the somber finality of it all is plenty palpable. I mean, sure they can always reboot these characters later, but it’ll be with different actors/actresses and it just won’t be the same.

Yes, ENDGAME is way too long, but I guess it had to be to fit in all of these people and their individual storylines. But why have so much of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon, when he never says anything that’s particularly funny? Much better is Rudd, whose comic charm goes a long way, and Ruffalo who spends pretty much the whole flick inCGI-ed Hulk mode, because he finally found a way to work with his green alter ego.

There are so many characters that the epilogues for many of them just go on and on in the last half. That goes for much the chaotic climax too.

CAPTAIN MARVEL is still playing in many theaters, but Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is prominently featured here, maybe because she’s pointing the way towards phase four since all these old-timers are fading.

While I may consider it extremely overstuffed, I bet most audiences will find AVENGERS: ENDGAME to be a satisfying three course meal. Once again, the MCU has served up an impressive, blindingly shiny platter of their choice concoctions which scores of fans will be feasting on until, well, again, the next STAR WARS.


More later…

AMAZING GRACE: Even More Glorious Than I Expected

Opening today at a theater near me:
AMAZING GRACE (Dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack, 2018) 
This Aretha Franklin concert film, finally released after 46 years of legal wrangling and technical issues, is even more glorious than I expected it to be.

I had more than an inkling of its wonder as I’ve heard the live recordings, released on the 1972 Grammy-winning album, Amazing Grace, many times, but actually seeing the Queen of Soul at the height of her power, performing her vocal gymnastics, backed by Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir is a mind-blowingly emotional experience for which I wasn’t quite prepared.

The audience I saw it with at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival a few weeks back definitely agreed as they acted like they were at a real live Franklin show. They rapturously applauded after every song, and sometimes even during songs when the passion of Franklin’s unbelievable belting was hard not to respond to with loud clapping.

The footage of the original real live Franklin show was shot by Sydney Pollack over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The shoot well wonderfully, as evidenced by the resulting we have here, but Pollack failed to use clapperboards, which assist in synching visuals with sound, so it took decades before the problem could be solved via digital technology.

Former Atlantic Records A&R man Alan Elliott, who bought the film rights in 2007, had the sound remastered, and, with editor Jeff Buchanan, cut this pleasing 90-minute concert movie out of 20 hours of raw footage.

Meanwhile, Franklin sued to block the film’s release multiple times for reasons that differ in just about everything you would read about the film but seem to all come down to money.

But all that background aside, the film, that was “produced and realized by” (that’s an actual credit) Elliot, is one of the most joyous musical movies I’ve ever seen. Above I’ve called this a concert film rather than a music documentary as it’s a straight-up collection of performances from two nights, with only the context of opening and ending sum-ups. In a documentary there would be interview segments, and explanations to things like how it is that Mick Jagger came to be in the back of the church, but in this live documentation, Jagger’s just there dancing along with the rest of the congregation.

Too many highlights to list here (just basically look at the song listing and see all the highlights listed), but I was particularly moved by the 29-year old Franklin’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” her leading the choir through the rousing AF gospel standard “Old Landmark” (this is the song that James Brown performs in THE BLUES BROTHERS with the same choir btw), and her sweet sequeing of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” into Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” All show-stopping stuff. 

Rev. Cleveland should be also be noted as he confidently conducts both evening’s programs and adds his baritone vocal throughout.

For me, AMAZING GRACE is already up there with such concert film classics as STOP MAKING SENSE, THE LAST WALTZ , and GIMME SHELTER. It’s a shame Franklin never made peace with the production before she passed last year, and that Pollack was never able to get the film together before he passed in 2007, and that it took almost half a century for it to see the light of day (or darkness of a movie theater), but it’s here now and it’s a glorious must see. Even if you’re not religious (I’m not), or don’t like gospel (I like some), it’s still powerful enough to make an atheist say “Amen.”

More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Four

The fourth and final day at this year’s Full Frame may have been my favorite. That’s largely because of the Closing Night film, but I’ll get to that below. Here’s some takes on the films leading up to that. 

Avi Belkins’ MIKE WALLACE IS HERE started off my day. It’s yet another biodoc (not that I’m complaining – I love biodocs) of a famous figure told through the testimonials of family, friends, and admirers, and a large supply of footage, video, and photos. This time, legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace gets the treatment and we are taken through six decades of the man’s work, taking us beyond his best known work as the co-host on 60 Minutes.

I was unaware that Wallace, before he became one of the most feared TV journalists, had been an actor, a game and variety show host, and a commercial spokesman for many products including Parliament Cigarettes, something that came back to haunt him. I also didn’t know about the mid ‘50s late night interview show, Night Beat, which, from the clips shown here, looks like a ginormous influence on every hard-hitting interview shows.

I enjoyed all the bits from the many famous interviews he conducted throughout his career, the most notable being Salvador Dalí, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Streisand, Malcolm X, the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), and the eight U.S. Presidents he interviewed from J.F.K. to Bill Clinton – there’s even a snippet of a piece with a young Donald Trump, who says he’s not going into politics.

I would’ve liked Belkins to have gone deeper into Wallace’s suicidal dark period, touched on THE INSIDER, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about a controversial 60 Minutes segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower (Wallace wasn’t happy with how he was portrayed), and maybe a little something about his son, Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace, who is only mentioned in passing. Nevertheless, it’s a fine primer to the life of a television icon with a lot of choice cuts from his illustrious career. I can’t really say it’s another RBG or WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, but there should still be an audience out there for it.

Following that was Kenny Dalsheimer’s YOU GAVE ME A SONG: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF ALICE GERRARD, a portrait (yep, another biodoc) of the Durham-based folk singer Alice Gerrard. 

The lovingly crafted film takes us through the multi-instrumentalist’s history and love of traditional music largely through interviews with Gerrard, her family, a score of fellow musicians, and mostly photos as precious little footage exists from her early years.

Gerrard’s marriages to Jeremy Foster and Mike Seeger (both musicians) are explored, but it’s partnership with Hazel Dickens, who performed with her in the Black Creek Buddies, that is focused on the most. The duo battled sexism, and injustice while carrying the folk/country/bluegrass torch forward. In the ‘80s, Gerarrd extolled the values of her musical loves by becoming the editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald, a magazine devoted to trad tunes. 


YOU GAVE ME A SONG is a touching tribute to an extremely talented lady, whose name, and music I’ve heard often but never knew her background. It’s as insightful as it is a toe-tapper, but more importantly it’s a film festival crowd pleaser. Even if you don’t like this kind of music, it’s must see. 

Finally, the Closing Night Film that I mentioned above was Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s AMAZING GRACE, about Aretha Franklin’s legendary performance at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972. More a straight-up concert film than a probing doc, the movie is even more glorious than I had expected. 

Since the film will be released in my area next week, I’ll wait until then to post a review, so I’ll just leave you with the trailer right now. Watch it and I bet you’ll want to see it. If you don’t, I’ll just assume you don’t possess two ears and a heart. 

So that’s Full Frame 2019. I had a great time and saw some great docs. Of course, I always do at this Festival – that’s why I have gone every year for over a decade. I’m already looking forward to next year.

More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Three


There’s a lot to cover from my third day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year so let’s get right to them. These entries are more blurb-y than usual because it’s a long roster, and I’m exhausted from the onslaught of docs.

First up, David Hambridge’s KIFARU, which concerns James Mwenda & Joseph ‘JoJo’ Wachira, two Kenyan rhino caretakers, and one of their herd, Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world. 

At first KIFARU was killing me as it was drawn out and had a skimpy storyline mainly involving watching James and JoJo walk around with rhinos, but a compelling narrative forms, and I really began to feel for the 45-year old Sedan.

James tells us that when Sedan was born, “thousands of northern white rhinos roamed Africa,” but “violent wars and intense poaching drove these rhinos towards extinction.” Later in the film he concludes that “extinction is the definition of human extremes of greed.” But as heartbreaking at Sudan’s death as the caretakers and the audience, there is a silver lining in that the rhino’s DNA can be used by scientists to possibly clone the species. KIFARU * may have moments that make it the saddest doc I’ve seen at this year’s festival but it’s also among the most endearing. 


In Kiswahili, Kifaru means Rhino.


Following that was François Verster and Simon Wood’s SCENES FROM A DRY CITY, a 12 and half minute short about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. Massive drought hit the region in 2015, and continued in the years since forcing residents to pay for very limited quantities or seek elsewhere for water. But this fine film is more about imagery than information as gives us stirring shots of people struggling to find water by even dancing with flags to make it rain, bleak landscapes with dried up lakes, and police trying to enforce water regulations. 

Alexander Glustrom’s MOSSVILLE: WHEN GREAT TREES FALL, which came next, is about the town of Mossville, Louisiana, a community founded by former slaves that is threatened by a high concentration of industrial plants and their toxic emissions. 
One resident, Stacey Ryan, refuses to pack up and move from his house which is in the way of a large factory’s expansion. “Welcome to beautiful downtown Mossville – population: one,” Ryan sarcastically says at one point.

While security from the South African-based chemical company Sasol that’s creeping closer to his property harass him, Ryan also has to deal with sickness, no doubt caused by the chemical exposure from the nearby plant. Many moments in MOSSVILLE are rich with poignancy as residents lament about the history of their area, but overall it’s an angering portrait of how uncaring corporations can cause fence-line communities to crumble. Another devastating doc in a festival full of them. 


Stanley Nelson, who directed the day’s last film, MILES DAVIS: THE BIRTH OF THE COOL, is no stranger to Full Frame, having had several of his docs, including JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE, THE FREEDOM RIDERS, and THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF A REVOLOUTION, screen at the festival over the years (Nelson also won Full Frame’s Tribute Award in 2012).

Nelson’s latest is a musical biodoc of the jazz legend Miles Davis, which by its title made me think it was specifically about Davis’ work in the ‘50s as there was a compilation covering that period by the same name, Birth of the Cool. But, no, it’s a career overview that traces Davis’ history from his birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926 to his death in Santa Monica in 1991, via scores of engrossing performance footage, little seen photos, and testimonials by folks like Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter,

This material is decorated by narration provided by actor Carl Lumbly reading in a familiar rasp from transcripts of 55 hours of Davis interviews. There are also intriguing bits of studio outtakes from such as the master trumpeter’s iconic work, Kind of Blue. The film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ darkness – his drug use, and spousal abuse * are touched upon as much as his jazz innovations.


From the ‘40s bebop era to his electric period of the ‘70s, which was highlighted by one of his most successful albums, Bitch’s Brew, this doc provides a non flashy straight forward portrait of Davis for the uninitiated. It may be too formulaic a doc for the hardcore, but I bet even they will dig some of the rare treats within.

* Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor Davis, one of the most touching interview subjects here, sadly passed away late last year.


More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Two


The second day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was really rainy this year. One or more days during the event usually are stormy obviously because of the time of year, and I’m sure that I’ve made this observation before, but I’m not gonna Google myself to see. I’m going to just jump right into the films I saw at the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center on Day Two.

First up, Mike Attie’s MOMENT TO MOMENT, a 14-minute short about Carl Duzen and Susan Jewett, a long-married couple who first met as teachers – he was a physics teacher; she taught art. 

In 2014, Duzen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and one way he deals with it is to take apart old electronics to get to the copper within. Duzen then delivers it to his wife, who then makes art out of the twisted rolls of the red-brown metal.

The short has its share of sad moments like when Susan says of her husband’s dementia, “It’s pretty awful, and especially for a man I married especially for his mind,” but it has a good bit of happiness in it to as we watch the couple dance, reminisce about their first date, and open an exhibit entitled “Carl Duzen: Copper. Denying Dementia Its Due.” Of course, it has to end on a sad note but it’s also a poetic one that I’m sure will stay with me. 


Next up, Cameron Mullenneaux’s EXIT MUSIC about 28-year old Ethan Rice, who we are told up front was born with cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease that leads to severe lung damage and eventually respiratory failure. Rice, who lives with his family in Upstate New York, is a talented, appropriately cynical artist who composes music on his electric guitar and makes really cool-looking stop motion movies with his toys – excerpts of which are shown throughout the doc. Rice’s dad is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, who speaks about his family’s disease prone history. It’s not as depressing as it sounds, but, yeah, it is pretty depressing.

While EXIT MUSIC often plays like a sloppily stitched together collection of home movies, it builds to its inevitable conclusion with purpose. You probably guessed that Ethan is no longer with us, but from all the work we get glimpses of, it looks like he made the most of his time here. Seriously, those stop motion clips are awesome – the stuff he did with toy soldiers is so much cooler than the likewise toy soldier stuff in last year’s floptacular, WELCOME TO MARZEN.

One of my most anticipated docs of the fest followed, Janice Engel’s RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS, about the late, great legendary Texan columnist, humorist, and political commentator who certainly had quite the mouth on her.

  
The outspoken liberal scribe, who when working for the Minneapolis Tribune became the first woman police reporter in the city, was a hilarious woman with a very quick wit and there’s lots of it on display here from interviews she did on C-Span (lots of C-Span here), Late Night with David Letterman, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a number of speaking engagements. The woman’s work was often controversial and got her a lot of hate mail, but she appeared not to care or be scared. That also seemed to be her reaction to being diagnosed with cancer in 2000. During this period she wrote or co-wrote a a handful of well received books including two scathing books about her nemesis, George W. (“Dubya”) Bush.

RAISE HELL is a delightfully biting biodoc about a woman whose voice probably resonates now more than it did when she was alive (she passed at age 62 in 2007). My only disappointment with the film is that Ms. Ivins wasn’t there to come out for a Q & A at the end. 


I knew she had to be popular, but I didn’t know how much of a rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to Full Frame’s largely liberal audience before seeing the opening of Rachel Lears’ KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE. We see Ocasio-Cortez putting on makeup before going onstage at an event, and the crowd around went crazy and applauded. She hadn’t even said anything yet. Anyway, the film follows the 2018 congressional campaigns of New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, and three other progressive female candidates – Missouri’s Cori Bush, Nevada’s Amy Vilela and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin.

This poli-doc is very entertaining and has an undeniably inspirational spirit, but it’s a bit fluffy and can feel like reality TV at times. It’s so packed with the passion of these driven women that I’m going to let those quibbles slide. As expected, Ocasio-Cortez gets the bulk of screen-time, but the shit-kicking Vilela gets to steal the show a few times with such comments as “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming!”

Finally, I ended Day Two with Penny Lane’s HAIL SATAN?, which is obviously about Satanism – the Satanic Temple particularly and their ongoing fight for separation of church and state. 

The Church’s co-founder Lucien Greaves is the dominant voice here telling us about the religion’s mission – all very informative to me as I was unaware that the Satanic Temple existed (it founded in 2013 so I can be forgiven for not being up to date), and that there was any kind of movement.

One amusing thread (they’re all pretty amusing) in this film involves the Satanic Temple’s attempts to erect a statue of the horned demon Baphomet on Oklahoma and Arkansas state grounds. As you can see from the picture above, they succeeded. While the doc is very funny with a lot of lines that land, director Lane (NUTS, OUR NIXON), obviously gets where these people are coming from and gets us there too. She gives us enough insight into the ideology that when one of her interview subjects says, “As a Satanist, I believe that confronting injustice is an expression of my satanic faith,” it doesn’t come across as ironic at all.

Coming soon: Full Frame 2019 Days Three & Four. Also check out Day One if you haven’t already.


More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day One


It’s that time of year again. That’s right, once again it’s time for The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, four days of non-fiction fun in Durham, N.C., at the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center. Now, since I’ve been covering Full Frame for Film Babble Blog for over a decade, I feel like I’ve said it all before in these intros to my mini-reviews of the docs I saw daily. Like, for instance, using phrases like “non-fiction fun,” or mentions of the weather – it was nice today, not that that mattered to the hundreds of people watching films indoors – and, of course, the use of pictures just like that one above.

So let’s get right to the helpings of primo infotainment (yes, I’ve used that phrase before too) that I indulged in on Day One: 


First up, North Carolina-based, first-time filmmaker Jethro Waters’ F/11 AND BE THERE, which is one of those docs whose subject, in this case photojournalist Burk Uzzle (a Raleigh native!), is someone I didn’t think I knew anything about, but while watching it I realize that I’m well familiar with the man’s work.


You see, Uzzle shot the iconic image of the blanket-clad hippy couple which graced the cover of the soundtrack album for the Woodstock film in 1969, his photo coverage of Martin Luther King’s funeral contains many recognizable photos, and many of his pictures depicting Cambodian war refugees in the late ‘70s that I’ve seen in many a magazine over the years.

Tons of Uzzle’s eye-popping pictures, beautifully augment his life tales, with animations by Cable Hardin filling in the spaces in his stories in which there are no photos or footage of, like a great, gripping anecdote about covering a KKK rally. Almost as gorgeous as Uzzle’s photography is Water’s cinematography which crisply captures his subject at work, whether in his studio or out on the road. F11 AND BE THERE (a camera setting, and a quote about being at the right place at the right time) is striking biodoc that will likely give folks insights into many famous pictures that they’ve seen before, but never thought about who or what was behind them. 

Next up. Bill Haney’s JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH, another biodoc of a great guy behind the scenes. That would be Noble prize-winning immunologist Texan Jim Allison, who with his long grey hair and scraggly beard is a Jerry Garcia-ish looking scientist. Since his mother died from lymphoma, and his brother from prostate cancer, Dr. Allison has long been obsessed with curing cancer, and this film shows him getting damn close. But his struggles with getting funding from pharmaceutical companies get in the way.

In this informative film which is narrated by Woody Harrelson, we also see another side of Dr. Allison as a blues-loving harmonica player who makes friends with Willie Nelson, and even plays with him at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2016. But mostly we learn, via dark animation, about the T cell receptor, which fights cancer cells, and other infected cells, in order to help the body to fight these diseases. Dr. Allison is an inspiring figure, and now he’s got an inspiring film portrait to boot. 


The next doc, Heddy Honigmann’s BUDDY, is less heavy than the previous film yet it deals with some emotional material. It concerns the world of service dogs – you know, dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities – and follows six different individuals who have been paired with smart, capable canines that they repeatedly say that they can’t live without.

So the cast is made up of Mister and his human Trevor, an Afghanistan veteran, who Mister helps get through flashbacks; Makker and his human, Edith, whose blindness is aided immensely by Makker; Utah, and his human, the young autistic Zeb, who plays with Utah from behind a comforter; Missy and her also blind human Hans, who loves Missy more than anybody he knows; Kay and her human Annebel, who are inseparable; and Kaiko, and her wheelchair-bound human, Erna, who we watch in awe as Kaiko pulls off her socks by command.

BUDDY may be a bit formless, and disjointed, but it’s such a touching crowd pleaser that folks will look right past that, and into the eyes of these talented and devoted guide dogs. There are too many amusing, and touching scenes to pick a favorite but the one that shows one of the dogs retrieving a piece of paper from a printer, and taking it, by mouth, of course, to their respective human is definitely up there.


More later…