Wednesday, October 30, 2019

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.


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Sunday, October 13, 2019

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.

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Monday, September 23, 2019

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...