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Robbie Robertson’s Biased Version Of The Band

Now playing somewhere near you, I bet:

ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND
(Dir. Daniel Roher, 2020)


When the legendary Canadian roots rock outfit, The Band, performed at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976, lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson conceived the event as the group’s farewell concert.


However, the other members of The Band, including drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko, and organist/keyboardist Garth Hudson (multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986), resumed touring in the early ‘80s and even went on to release three albums in the ‘90s.


But you wouldn’t know that from this new documentary as it only covers the period in which Robertson was a principal member of The Band. Now, that’s not surprising as it is right in the film’s title: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND. There’s also the credit that the doc is “Inspired by” Robertson’s 2016 memoir Testimony. This all gives us plenty indication that this is Robertson’s biased version of what went down from the late ‘50s to the late ‘70s.

Still, the doc too often glosses over crucial eras, and gives only passing mentions to the friction between Robertson and Helm over songwriting royalties and Helm’s disappointment over Robertson’s decision to end the group.

Robertson talks us through The Band’s evolution from a bar band named The Hawks, which had them backing rowdy rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins to being the controversial rock group that accompanied iconic singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on his legendary 1966 tour to creating a series of classic records including Music From the Big Pink (1968), and The Band (1969).

But as juicy as this material is, the film relies too often on footage that will be very familiar to fans such as segments from the epic 2005 Dylan doc NO DIRECTION HOME, and, of course, THE LAST WALTZ. Both of these films were directed by Martin Scorsese, who happens to be one of Robertson’s best friends (they’ve collaborated on 10 films together), so that makes sense, but the guys lived together in the mid ‘70s so that would be cool to hear about too. 


There are tons of photos sprinkled throughout, sometimes augmented with motion graphics by Charlie Shekter, and those alone will satisfy fans, but I bet they would prefer a deeper dive into one of the best Bands of the last half a century. I definitely would as I’m one of those fans and the film left me lacking.

In his later years before his death in 2012, Helm would complain about how THE LAST WALTZ was Robertson’s “vanity project.” The thing is that ONCE WERE BROTHERS, named after a song on Robertson’s 2019 album Sinematic, is much more of a vanity project than THE LAST WALTZ. 


In the future when fans (again, I mean me) reach for a film featuring The Band, it surely won’t be this one; it’ll obviously be THE LAST WALTZ. Despite Helm’s criticisms, it’s one of the greatest concert films ever which tells the story of The Band in so much more of a glorious package than Robertson’s self-promoting infomercial of a documentary.

More later…

THE PHOTOGRAPH: An Ambling Yet Very Charming Rom-Dram

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all:

THE PHOTOGRAPH (Dir. Stella Meghie, 2020)

A high quotient of charm and a low percentage of cheese make this a fairly solid romantic drama. Lakeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, KNIVES OUT) stars as Micheal Block, a journalist who falls in love with Issa Rae (LITTLE, THE HATE U GIVE) as Mae Morton, a photographer he meets while working on a story about her mother (Chanté Adams).


The narrative bounces both and forth time from present day New York to mid ‘80s New Orleans, in which we see the blooming romance between Adams’ Christine and Isaac (played by Rob Morton in the flashbacks; I’lan Noel in modern times).


Meghie, whose fourth feature this is, has lovingly constructed a film that feels like an adaptation of an involving novel. It ambles from scene to scene at times, but it’s got an easy-going sensibility largely due to these well acted characters being extremely appealing, and worth caring about. 

There are also amusing bits provided by comedian Lil Ray Howery (also a GET OUT veteran), as Michael’s best friend, and Mae’s friend, Rachel (Jasmine Cephas) Jones, hooking up with Michael’s coworker Andy, Kelvin Harrison Jr.


THE PHOTOGRAPH, which is titled after a picture of Mae’s mother that Isaac took back in the day, is an intriguing diversion even if its ending can be seen coming up the Mississippi River Delta.

More later…

DOWNHILL: Not As Profoundly Cringe-worthy As The Original

Opening this evening at a multiplex near us all:

DOWNHILL (Dirs. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2020) 

Although the end credits state that it’s “inspired by” the 2014 Swedish dark comedy FORCE MAJEURE, this new Will Ferrell/Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle still largely feels like a remake.

The dominant premise is the same: a family on holiday in the French Alps gets shaken up when an avalanche arrives during their lunch at a mountainside restaurant. The avalanche was controlled, and there was no danger, but the wall of snow smoke it created was scary enough to make Ferrell’s husband/father figure character Pete run frantically from the table, leaving his family behind.

This causes an awkward, chilly rift between Pete and Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie, as she can’t seem to get past her spouse’s cowardly behavior. It all comes out when the couple has drinks with one of Pete’s co-workers, Zach (Zach Woods), and his flaky hashtag-loving girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao). Billie describes the scene to their young friend’s astonishment and even gets their kids (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) to confirm her story when Pete disagrees with her take on the events.

Co-directors and screenwriting partners Faxon and Rash (THE DESCENDANTS, THE WAY WAY BACK), have faithfully recreated many moments from Ruben Östlund’s original, including entire scenes, but made some detours around the material with such tangents as Billie making out with her ski instructor (Giulio Berruti), and Pete making their kids uncomfortable with his aggressive actions on the slopes.

It’s probably accurate to consider DOWNHILL (not a very strong title) an indirect remake of FORCE MAJEURE. Even its ending, while considerably different, still reworks elements from its vastly superior source material. I was disappointed that Faxon and Rash felt that they had to have Louis-Dreyfus make a speech to sum everything up.


It’s often the case that American remakes feel the need to spell everything out instead of showing, and not telling. The characters’ expressions and actions, and the power of the chosen imagery can do so much more than some resolving address at the end.

FORCE MAJEURE, which was often devastating in its take down of delusional masculinity, is certainly the sharper and darker of the two films, but DOWNHILL has its merits in Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus’s performances. Both former Saturday Night Live veterans (from different eras) put in an invested and, at times, an excruciatingly convincing portrayal of a couple in crisis – I’ve felt the same cringes being around couples who are clashing in real life that I felt watching this.

There’s also worth in the film’s cinematography by Danny Cohen (LES MISÉRABLES, ROOM, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS) – possibly the one element that’s equal to the 2014 version in which Fredrik Wenzel did the Director of Photography honors.

DOWNHILL skates over the surface that FORCE MAJEURE cracked and took an icy deep dive into. It’s the Americanized family-friendly version of the acclaimed International hit that won many awards and should definitely be credited as more than just the inspiration here.

My advice is to seek out the original, and then decide whether you want to go DOWNHILL from there.


More later…

Oscars 2020: My Best Score Since 2015

I went back and forth as to whether to pick 1917 or PARASITE for Best Picture and Sam Mendes or Bong Joon Ho for Best Director, and I chose wrong, maybe even cynically as I didn’t think that the same voting body that went with GREEN BOOK (does anybody every remember that movie now?) over ROMA last year would make the bold edgy choice this time around.


I loved both PARASITE and 1917, but Bong is well more deserving of the big award than Mendes as his film is a brilliant blast of a black comic thriller and it’s really satisfying to see it get such high acclaim. I wish I had gone with my gut.

Otherwise, I did pretty good with my predictions scoring 19 out of 24. The last several years I felt like I was slipping as my scores got worse and worse. Last year I got 13 right and that was my all-time low. But I’m back – with only these being the ones I missed:

BEST PICTURE: My prediction: 1917 / What won: PARASITE

BEST DIRECTOR: My prediction: Sam Mendes /Who won: Bong Joon Ho

ORIGINAL SCORE: My prediction: Thomas Newman (1917) / Who won: Hildur Guðnadóttir

 (JOKER)

 
LIVE ACTION SHORT: My prediction: BROTHERHOOD / What won: THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW

SOUND EDITING: My prediction: 1917 / What won: FORD V. FERRARI


Alright! That’s another Oscars done with. Now I need to watch a stupid movie with no stakes to get this prestige shiznit out of my system. Doubt that’ll be too difficult to find.

More later…

Hey Kids! Funtime 2020 Oscar® Predictions!

Here we go again – and much earlier this time as the 92nd Academy Awards is taking place the earliest in the year that the ceremony has ever been held. On February 9, a show with no hosts will give out gold statues to mostly white folks, and celebrate 2019s most profitable, I mean memorable cinematic works. 

So below are my predictions. I went back and forth as to whether PARASITE or 1917 would win the big awards (Best Picture, Best Director), but I went with 1917 as it seems it’s right in the Academy voters wheelhouse – according to past years. Now take these guesses with a grain of salt as last year I had my worst score ever (13 out of 24), but I have some good years too (my best was 21 out of 24).

Anyway, here they are:

1.BEST PICTURE: 1917

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

3. BEST ACTOR: Joaquin Phoenix (JOKER)

4. BEST ACTRESS: Renée Zelleweger (JUDY)

5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Brad Pitt (ONCE UPON ATIME IN HOLLYWOOD)

 
6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laura Dern (MARRIAGE STORY)


7. PRODUCTION DESIGN
Barbara Ling, Nancy Haigh (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD)


8. CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins (1917)

9. COSTUME DESIGN: Jacqueline Durran (LITTLE WOMEN)

 
10. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: AMERICAN FACTORY

11. DOCUMENTARY SHORT:  LEARNING TO SKATEBOARD IN A WARZONE (IF YOU’RE A GIRL)

12. FILM EDITING: FORD V FERRARI

13. MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: BOMBSHELL 

 
14. VISUAL EFFECTS: 1917


15. ORIGINAL SCORE: 
Thomas Newman (1917)


16. ORIGINAL SONG: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” (ROCKETMAN) 


17. ANIMATED SHORT: KITBULL

18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: BROTHERHOOD

19. SOUND EDITING: 1917


20. SOUND MIXING: 1917

 21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:  Bong Joon Ho, Han Jin Won (PARASITE)


22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Taika Waititi (JOJO RABBIT)


23. ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: TOY STORY 4


24. BEST INTERNATIONAL (No longer FOREIGN) FILM: PARASITE

As I always say, tune in Monday to see how many I got wrong.

More later…

For Raleigh Film Fans, These Are Some Of The Saddest Sights In Town

Citing
plumbing issues, Mission Valley Cinema closed last summer after more than 45
years in operation. I’ve seen many many movies there since the ‘80s (I’m pretty
sure the first movie I ever saw there was the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte action
comedy 48 HRS in 1982) so I hate seeing the empty marquee whenever I go that
shopping center.

There
has been talk about the possibility of new owners, so there is some flicker of
hope that the five screen venue might re-open someday, but until then that image
above will remain a very depressing sight indeed.

Here’s
a picture of Mission Valley in happier times –
the opening of RETURN OF THE JEDI on May 25, 1983: 
I
wasn’t there as I was living in Chapel Hill at the time and saw the movie at
the Carolina Theatre on Franklin Street there – sadly that’s another venue that’s
no longer with us as it closed in 2005.

I never worked
at Mission Valley, but I worked for the same company – Ambassador Entertainment
– at the Colony Theater in North Raleigh from 2009 to when it closed in 2015. 
The two screen indie theater originally opened in 1969, and like MVC, I had
attended films there since the ‘80s (I’m pretty sure the first film I ever saw
there was the Billy Crystal/Danny Devito comedy THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN).

I still work for
Ambassador Entertainment at the Rialto Theatre (opened in 1942), and often
moviegoers will ask about whether the Colony will re-open. These hopes were
fueled by the Raleigh News & Observer in 2017 when they reported that
a permit had been issued for renovations. But that was three
years ago, and nothing has happened.

Since
I live fairly close to the Colony (or the Colony’s old location I should say), I see that sad blank marquee often (the
empty poster cases are pretty dismal looking too). Within the last week I stopped
by to look through the windows, and it was obvious that no work had been done
since the seats were ripped out of the floor five years ago.

On
more of an up note, here’s the Colony in happier times with one of my favorite
marquees.

Man,
I miss those yearly showings of THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The N.C. Museum of Art does a
good job with their LEBOWSKI events, but it’s just not the same as the Colony’s.

If
these venues don’t re-open in some fashion, I wish they’d take down those
marquees so film fans don’t have to see their blank faces for years and years.
But maybe it’d be worse if they took them away. At least they are reminders of
what was, and serve as some kind of marker. Maybe that’s why I made this post
with pictures of them.

Since Ive mentioned three theaters that have closed in this post, I guess the bottom line is: support indie theaters!


More Later…

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies of 2019

Usually I post these picks before the Oscar nominations are announced – which happened earlier this week – but things have been nuts lately. 2019 hasn’t been the greatest year for film, but any year that boasts two stellar Martin Scorsese movies shouldn’t be dismissed. So here’s my top 10 films with what I think are some of their crucial lines.

10. AMAZING GRACE (Dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack) 



Reverend James Cleveland: “Many of you who never had the opportunity to hear Aretha sing Gospel, you’re in tonight for a great thrill. She can sing anything!”

9. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (Dir. Craig Brewer) 

Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy): “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!”

8. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
(Dir. Edward Norton)

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton): “Okay, listen. I got something wrong with me. That’s the first thing to know. I twitch and shout a lot. It makes me look like a damn freak show. But inside my head is an even bigger mess. I can’t stop twisting things around, words and sounds especially. I have to keep playing with them until they come out right.”
(Dir. Taika Waititi)

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

6. US (Dir. Jordan Peele)

Jason Wilson (Evan Alex): Theres a Family in our driveway!

5. MARRIAGE STORY (Dir. Noah Baumbach)


Charlie (Adam Driver): “You were happy, you just decided you weren’t now”

4. UNCUT GEMS (Dirs. Josh and Benny Safdie)



Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler): Thats a million-dollar opal youre holding. Straight from the Ethiopian Jewish tribe. I mean this is old-school, Middle-earth shit.

3. PARASITE (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Kang Ho Song (Kim Ki-taek):So, theres no need for a plan. You cant go wrong with no plans. We dont need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it?
2. 1917 (Dir. Sam Mendes)


General Erinmore (Colin Firth):Theyre walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow mornings attack, if you fail, it will be a massacre.

1. THE IRISHMAN (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro): Whenever anybody says theyre a little concerned, theyre very concerned.

Spillover:

THE LIGHTHOUSE (Dir. Robert Eggers)


ROLLING THUNDER REVUE (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

LITTLE WOMEN (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

KNIVES OUT (Dir. Rian Johnson)

THE TWO POPES (Dir. Fernando Meirelles)

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

FORD V FERRARI (Dir. James Mangold)

THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Petra Costa)

More later…

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies of 2019

Usually I post these picks before the Oscar nominations are announced – which happened earlier this week – but things have been nuts lately. 2019 hasn’t been the greatest year for film, but any year that boasts two stellar Martin Scorsese movies shouldn’t be dismissed. So here’s my top 10 films with what I think are some of their crucial lines.

10. AMAZING GRACE (Dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack) 



Reverend James Cleveland: “Many of you who never had the opportunity to hear Aretha sing Gospel, you’re in tonight for a great thrill. She can sing anything!”

9. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (Dir. Craig Brewer) 

Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy): “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!”

8. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (Dir. Edward Norton)

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton): “Okay, listen. I got something wrong with me. That’s the first thing to know. I twitch and shout a lot. It makes me look like a damn freak show. But inside my head is an even bigger mess. I can’t stop twisting things around, words and sounds especially. I have to keep playing with them until they come out right.”
7. JOJO RABBIT (Dir. Taika Waititi)

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

6. US (Dir. Jordan Peele)

Jason Wilson (Evan Alex): Theres a Family in our driveway!

5. MARRIAGE STORY (Dir. Noah Baumbach)


Charlie (Adam Driver): “You were happy, you just decided you weren’t now”

4. UNCUT GEMS (Dirs. Josh and Benny Safdie)



Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler): Thats a million-dollar opal youre holding. Straight from the Ethiopian Jewish tribe. I mean this is old-school, Middle-earth shit.

3. PARASITE (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Kang Ho Song (Kim Ki-taek):So, theres no need for a plan. You cant go wrong with no plans. We dont need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it?
2. 1917 (Dir. Sam Mendes)


Theyre walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow mornings attack, if you fail, it will be a massacre.

1. THE IRISHMAN (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro): Whenever anybody says theyre a little concerned, theyre very concerned.

Spillover:

THE LIGHTHOUSE (Dir. Robert Eggers)


ROLLING THUNDER REVUE (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

LITTLE WOMEN (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

KNIVES OUT (Dir. Rian Johnson)

THE TWO POPES (Dir. Fernando Meirelles)

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

FORD V FERRARI (Dir. James Mangold)

THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Petra Costa)

More later…

The BAD BOYS Saga Concludes. Or Does It?

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

(Dir.
Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah, 2020)

The
17-year long wait is finally over as the third and final chapter in the mighty BAD
BOYS saga opens tonight. This entry has all the things you’d expect from a BAD
BOYS movie: it’s too long, it has many instances of crappy comedy, it’s decorated
with tons of sweeping shots of Miami (mostly in time-lapse), and it contains gunfire
and explosions galore.

Now,
the BAD BOYS series has always been about dumb fun as it’s delivered glossy
LETHAL WEAPON-style buddy cop action hijinks once a decade since 1995, so it’s
silly to be too critical of such a wannabe crowd pleaser, especially one released in
January, but I’m still gonna give it a go.

This
time, our heroes, Miami narcotics cops Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and
Mike Lowrey (Will Smith), realize that it’s time to hang up their badges and
guns and take it easy into old age. Well, not really. Only Lawrence’s neurotic character
is leaning that way, now that he’s a grandfather, but Smith’s smooth Mike is in
denial as jokes about his dying his goatee attest.

Shit gets real when Mike is gunned down by a mysterious motorcyclist, and he’s laid up for months in the hospital with Marcus waiting by his side (and helping to re-dye his goatee). When he comes to, just in time for Marcus’ daughter’s wedding, he is intent on revenge. With the help of AMMO (Advanced Miami Metro Operations), a group of heavily armed, high tech millennial cops (including Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Kate del Castillo, and possible Smith love interest Paola Nuñez), he hunts down the shooter who turns out to be the leader of a Miami drug cartel, Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio), and turns out to be something else, but no Spoilers here.

Lawrence
and Smith, both in their 50s, look pretty good in this last outing – well,
Lawrence looks a little pudgy, but that’s no real issue here. They still have
the argumentative chemistry they had at the beginning of the franchise, though
the shtick of them bickering while dodging bullets got way old in the second
one back in 2003. Luckily, there are a number of good lines and laughs to help us through the predictable formula.

Directors
Adil & Bilall do a good job replicating Michael Bay’s overly slick and jump
cut crazy aesthetics, but they don’t bring much of their own style to the
production. As big and cinematic as they want to go, these movies are really
overblown TV shows, and these Belgian filmmakers are not much more than
directors-for-hire here.

I
did enjoy seeing returning regular Joe Pantoliano as Captain Conrad Howard have
a more significant part than before, and I accepted most of the contrivances
with out much eye-rolling, but just about everything else went down exactly the
way I thought it would.

Maybe
I’m speaking too soon that this is the concluding chapter in the trilogy as
there’s a during the end credits scene (see? Even BAD BOYS movies are adapting to Marvel
methods) that indicates that the game may not be up. Okay, fine – go ahead and
flog this franchise. If there’s as much as a gap between entries as there’s been
in the past, our beloved duo will be nearing 70 next time. Maybe Lawrence’s
Marcus will finally learn the correct lyrics to Inner Circle’s Cops theme song “Bad
Boys” by then.


More later…

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Says Goodbye To STAR WARS For Now

Now playing at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

(Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2019)

So, here we are. The highly anticipated ninth episode of the Skywalker saga is here and it’s a chaotically overblown piece of pure spectacle. By the end of its two hour and 21 minute running time, I was too worn out to judge whether it was a satisfying conclusion to the series that started back in 1977, so I’ll try to hash that out here. 

This last time deals with the battle between the Rebels and The Empire – sorry, that’s the Resistance and The First Order. Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) discovers that dark lord, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen being thrown into the Death Star’s reactor by Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), is still alive and has assembled a massive fleet of Star Destroyers. 

After conferring with General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher in footage mostly cut from THE FORCE AWAKENS), our heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and the droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and the roly-poly cutie BB-8, set out to find a McGuffin, a Sith Dagger to be exact, that will possibly lead them to Palpatine. There is also another McGuffin, a Sith Wayfinder – a small pyramid shaped compass that also may lead them to the former Emperor of the Galaxy. I think. 

Amid these plot points are bombastic light saber duels between Kylo Ren and Rey, who still have the Force connection going for them, as well as some sexual friction; blaster-fire aplenty, and a ginormous space battle that is like the similar finales of STAR WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI times a hundred. 

I didn’t mind the obvious bits of fan service as it was fun to see Billy Dee Williams reprising Lando Calrissian, or Chewie cheating at holochess, Wedge, Ewoks, Jawas, and a few surprise cameos, but when it comes to Palpatine – is he really enough of a fan favorite to resurrect? I like McDiarmid, but it seems they couldn’t come up with a good enough villain and had to reach back 30 years for one. 

Director Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Terrio, has fashioned a spectacle-filled behemoth that equally overwhelmed and underwhelmed me – sometimes at the same time. Just as many times as I got thrilled with how they were recreating the STAR WARS from my youth, I got bored at how they were recreating the STAR WARS of my youth. 

I grew up with the original trilogy (1977-1983), then pretended the prequels (1999-2005) didn’t exist, but came back into the fold with THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) which captured the old vibe. I liked the followup, THE LAST JEDI (2017), more than most fans but will concede that its flaws are hard to ignore.


I enjoyed RISE OF SKYWALKER quite a bit, but I’m feeling fatigue from the whole damn series. I’ll still watch The Mandalorian (love Baby Yoda!), but after this exhausting and sometimes incoherent entry, I hope they take a long break between RISE and another STAR WARS movie. 

I feel that I, and the hoards of over-critical fans, deserve it.


More later…

The Nicest Living Man Plays The Nicest Non Living Man

Now playing:


(Dir.
Marielle Heller, 2019)

Firstly,
Tom Hanks, despite the recent revelation that they’re related, looks and sounds
nothing like Mr. Rogers. Yet that doesn’t matter much because within the first
few minutes, the nicest living man in the world convincingly embodies the
nicest non living man with winning grace and aplomb.

But
the real protagonist of this film by Marielle Heller (DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL,
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?) is journalist Lloyd Vogel, portrayed by Matthew Rhys,
mostly known for his role as a Russian spy on the FX series, The Americans.

Set
in the late ‘90s, Lloyd, who is a fictionalized version of writer Tom Junod, is
given the assignment by of profiling Mr. Rogers for an issue of Esquire about
American heroes. Considering it a “puff piece,” Lloyd is hesitant about doing
the piece on someone that “plays with puppets for living.”

Lloyd’s
editor (Christine Lahti) insists and soon the cynical scribe is the orbit of
the popular PBS children’s TV host with trips back forth from New York to
Pittsburgh (where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was taped), and many calls from
Fred Rogers to Lloyd, with even Lloyd’s wife Andrea (This is Us’s Susan Kelechi
Watson) getting some phone time with her childhood idol (Andrea: “Oh, God –
Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood”).

While
folks going in should not expect a dramatized version of last year’s excellent
documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOOR?, there are some recreations of moments
from Mr. Rogers’ long-running show including the funny scene in which the host
struggles with setting up a tent. Also, FORREST GUMP-style, Hanks’ Mr. Rogers
is inserted into clips with Arsenio Hall and Oprah Winfrey.

A
downside to the whimsical, life-affirming message of the movie is a subplot
concerning Lloyd’s blustery estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper). It’s a
clichéd premise, done to death, with Cooper desperately trying to make amends
with his son, and us knowing that Mr. Rogers’ teachings will lead the way to
love.

But
there are several nice touches that somehow make elements like that fit in the
framework like the use of miniature for nearly every exterior shot in the
tradition of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s colorful models.

The
edgy friendship which turns warm and fuzzy between Hanks’ Fred Rogers and Rhys’
Lloyd Vogel is endearingly well acted. They may be in the neighborhood of
make-believe, but there are some touching human moments even in the well worn
father and son side story.

With
its largely successful attempt to show how Mr. Rogers interacts from people in
the world away from his show, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a nice
companion piece to the documentary. It’s also a mediation on kindness, and how
much the world needs more of it now.


More later…

THE IRISHMAN: Marty’s Latest Masterpiece

Now playing on Netflix, and a smattering of indie arthouses:

THE IRISHMAN (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2019) 

Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited mob epic, THE IRISHMAN, has been a subject of controversy since its release for a couple of strong reasons.

First, there’s the use of de-aging VFX (Visual effects) to make its leads Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino look decades younger for lengthy flashback scenes.

Second, there’s the fact that the film is a Netflix production and after a brief, limited theatrical release it will be shown on the streaming service starting on November 27.

This reason is the one that heavily irks both the heads of major theater chains like Regal, Cinemark, and AMC, who passed on showing the film; and movie buffs who believe such a work by a world renowned master filmmaker would be best seen on the big screen.

Having seen it on the big screen, I concur with this sentiment as it’s a towering achievement that’s not only one of Scorsese’s best films, it’s a fitting finale to the director’s signature gangster game changers from MEAN STREETS to THE DEPARTED. But mainly it harks back to GOODFELLAS, and, to a lesser extent, CASINO, both of which starred De Niro, and Pesci.

Based on the Charles Brandt’s 2004 true crime novel, I Heard You Paint Houses, the film paints the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who talks us through his tale from a wheelchair in a nursing home, sometimes in voice-over; sometimes talking directly to the camera.

Sheeran, whose nickname was “The Irishman” tells us how he met Mafioso Russell Bufalino (Pesci), and became involved with such mob luminaries as Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), crime family boss, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, another Scorsese veteran), and Teamster lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Ramano), who was personal counsel for the infamous labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (a simultaneously under-acting and over-acting) Al Pacino).


In its sequences dealing with Hoffa, the movie treads over a lot of the ground as Danny DeVito’s 1992 biopic HOFFA, albeit in a much more entertaining manner. Overall, many scenes echo those of many a mob epic – the kills, the arrests, the intense exchanges full of dangerous doubletalk, etc. – yet somehow Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (who previously worked with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK) have been able to construct a narrative that makes these strands compelling all over again.


When it comes to the depiction of gangster Joey Gallo Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, oily portrayed by Sebastian Maniscalco, we are treated to the questionable scenario that Sheeran was his murderer. In this scene, I kept wondering if Scorsese was tempted to include Bob Dylan’s song “Joey” on the soundtrack as the track lays out Gallo’s Italian restaurant killing. But I bet since he just put out a three hour concert doc about Dylan, from the same period he put out “Joey,” I can see why he resisted.

As for the women in the cast (yes, there are women in the cast), there’s Stephanie Kurtzuba as Frank’s wife Irene Sheeran, Kathrine Narducci as Carrie Bufalino, and Welker White as Josephine “Jo” Hoffa, but they aren’t given much to do except be concerned on the side.

However, it’s a different matter when it comes to Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter Peggy Sheeran. Paquin’s Peggy highly suspects her father’s crimes, especially when Hoffa disappears and she is correct in her assumption that her father was involved. This causes a rift that continues well into his old age as we see in the film’s last 30 minutes.

THE IRISHMAN may appear to be daunting as its running time is three hours and twenty-nine minutes, but I never get bored or antsy. The performances are all top notch from the bit players to all of the A-List ensemble. The VFX didn’t distract me much either as it was convincing enough to make me forget about it. There were actually times when I felt like I was watching a De Niro movie made in the ‘80s or ‘90s.

It’s a poignant story about aging, but Frank doesnt appear to have any real regrets. Hes clinging to the old memories as they are all he has left after his family and friends have gone. This adds up to a powerful portrait of pathos and De Niro’s finest performance in ages. His partner Pesci, in his first film in nearly a decade, puts in a restrained and measured piece of work that hugely adds to the films gravitas.

Sure, it would’ve been nice to see this movie have a wider release so more people could see it on the big screen, but that it exists at all is reason to rejoice (Scorsese went with Netflix because Paramount Pictures back out over the huge expense – the film’s final budget was $159 million).

So whether you can find it at an arthouse *, or settle in for a night for Netflix viewing, you can take comfort that, no matter the venue, you’re in the great hands of Marty’s latest masterpiece.

* The film is getting some independent theater action, so I strongly encourage you to seek it out – its no doubt a must see movie on the big screen.

More later…

FROZEN 2 Isn’t As Fun As The First, But The Kids Won’t Care

Now playing everywhere that movies play:


FROZEN 2 (Dirs. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)
  


Since the first FROZEN was a massive hit – the top grossing film of 2013, the 15th biggest movie of all time, and the second most successful animated film ever – it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. Here it is, and while it’s undeniable that it will be a soaring smash too, I doubt it’ll come close to the boffo box office of the original.

For starters, the story isn’t as good. The computer-animated epic reunites the royal sisters Queen Elsa, and Princess Anna (voiced by Idina Menzel, and Kristen Bell); Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (voiced by Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff), his companion reindeer Sven (not voiced by anyone), and, most importantly to the movie’s comedy, the wacky Olaf the snowman (voiced by Josh Gad), who journey to a mythical enchanted forest in order to unravel the mystery behind Elsa’s icy powers, and to save the kingdom of Arendelle from dam-busting doom.

Along the way, they encounter the new characters of Lieutenant Destin Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), nomadic tribe leader Yelana (Martha Plimpton), tribe member Ryder (Jason Ritter), and Ryder’s sister Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews), who has powers of her own. While not new characters, Elsa and Anna’s parents are given new voices by Alfred Molina and Evan Rachel Wood.

The motions that the leads go through include a scary storm, ginormous stone monsters, flood-threatening tidal waves, and emotionally magical visions, none of which equal the impact of the first film’s fantastical sense of wonder. A subplot involving Kristoff’s farcical attempts to find the right time to propose to Anna also fails as it offers nothing new to a well worn sitcomish premise.

Then there’s the soundtrack which features seven new songs, none of which are very memorable, or have the potential to be big hits like the previous adventure’s top ten hit, “Let it Go.” Also, it isn’t very likely that any of the tunes will be award winners like the Oscar and Grammy grabbing “Let it Go,” let alone be nominated.

The only element that I found superior to the first FROZEN is that Gad’s Olaf has more funny moments.

But none of that means that FROZEN 2 isn’t a fair amount of fun. The pace is pleasing and never dull; the animation is vividly immaculate, and the cast provides their share of energetic entertainment. It also has the fact that it’s deliciously darker this time around.

I can’t say that I found the first one to be Disney’s best animated achievement – there are many much more solid contenders for that classic crown – but it was rightly beloved as it’s omph and infectious spirit were right on the money – literally as it made billions.

This sequel just can’t compete, as hard as it tries, and is bound to be seen as a second fiddle follow-up; an assistant appendage that isn’t likely to be remembered as fondly.

However, for the time being, one thing’s for sure – the kids won’t care about its quality. They’ll still eat it up.


More later…

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…