Friday, June 21, 2019

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.

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Friday, June 14, 2019

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)

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.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

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...

Thursday, April 25, 2019

AVENGERS: The Never-Ending Game

Opening tonight at a multi-plex near us all:


(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 that
s 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.

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Friday, April 19, 2019

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.”

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Tuesday, April 09, 2019

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…

Monday, April 08, 2019

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...

Sunday, April 07, 2019

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...

Friday, April 05, 2019

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...

Thursday, April 04, 2019

SHAZAM!: A Winning Mix Of BIG & The Greatest American Hero

Opening tonight at a multiplex near you:

SHAZAM! (Dir. David F. Sandberg, 2019)

Despite having watched the ‘70s Saturday morning TV series, Shazam!, when I was a kid, I knew very little about the character. I learned when CAPTAIN MARVEL came out last month that DC and Marvel both had characters by that name. But now, I found out that DC’s version was the first, having debuted in 1940 as a competitor to Superman which led to multiple legal battles.

Marvel obtained the copyright to the name and started putting out comics in 1967 featuring a very different incarnation of Captain Marvel than DC’s. DC licensed the character in the early ‘70s, but they couldn’t use the name as it was trade marked by Marvel so the superhero became Shazam! Got it? I think I finally do.

So here’s SHAZAM!, which is the seventh movie in the DC Extended Universe, and one of the better entries in the franchise. That’s because it’s largely a light-hearted, and often hilarious comic book adaptation with a likable cast and a spirit that more resembles Marvel’s SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING or KICK-ASS than any other of the mostly dark (WONDER WOMAN is an exception) DC film fare.

The film concerns a 14-year old runaway named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who is searching Philadelphia for his long-lost mother. After getting in trouble with the law for stealing a police car, Billy is taken to a foster home where he meets Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a nerdy, wise-cracking paraplegic, who immediately becomes his best friend. 

Through a freak occurrence when riding the subway, Billy is transported to some dark ancient temple (called the Rock of Eternity) where a mystical wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) asks Billy to put his hands on his staff in order to transfer power to him.

Billy becomes an adult superhero (Zachary Levi, best known as the lead in the 2007-2011 NBC series Chuck) in red tights, a white cape, and a yellow lightning bolt on his chest. Screenwriter Henry Gayden gets a lot of mileage out of the levity of Levi’s talking and acting like a teenager as he learns what powers what powers he has in a farcical sequence set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (because of course it is) in a one of several sequences that make the move come off like BIG meets The Greatest American Hero.

The villain here is the marvelously sinister Mark Strong (also the villain in KICKASS and SHERLOCK HOLMES) as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who visited the Rock of Eternity in the film’s ‘70s set epilogue. Sivana, whose baldness can't help but recall Superman's nemesis Lex Luther, wants Shazam’s powers so the second half of the movie involves a power struggle between the two climaxing in an epic, yet overlong, showdown at an amusement park.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with SHAZAM!, but there are a lot of origin story tropes that have become tiresome even with the amusing banter between Levi and Grazer, and what’s with there seemingly always being a convenience store robbery in these movies for our hero to thwart?

But overall I enjoyed Director Sandberg's (the filmmaker behind LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION funnily enough) SHAZAM! a lot more than CAPTAIN MARVEL, though I doubt it’ll come anywhere near the $1 billion than that movie has made so far. It’s an understatement to say that the output of the DC Extended Universe has been a mixed bag, but with attempts to explore different, more comical tones like this, they might just get their shit together after all.

More later...

Friday, March 08, 2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL: Spectacularly Adequate But The Cat Steals The Show

Now playing everywhere:

(Dirs. Anna Boden & Ryan K. Fleck, 2018) 

The 21st movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces a new character, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Actually, a new old character as she’s been around for 50 years, so she’s new to the MCU, and new to me. I’ve, of course, heard of Captain Marvel, but didn’t know about her back story, or powers, or, well, anything really.

But I’ve been here before. Whenever they put out a new movie featuring characters I wasn’t previously familiar with, I head to Wikipedia and learn the basics so I at least have an inkling of understanding going in.

In this origin story, we are introduced to the lead character played by Brie Larson as Vers, a member of Starforce (that’s Starforce, not Spaceforce) on the planet, Hala, which is inhabited by the alien race, Kree. We also meet Vers’ mentor, Yon Rogg (Jude Law) who is training her to fight the shape-shifting, green-skinned Skrulls, who have been endlessly warring with the Kree.

Larson’s Vers, who is plagued with visions involving Annette Bening as Supreme Intelligence (that’s her actual character name, well, one of her character names here), gets captured by the Skrulls, and escapes in a pod that crash lands in 1995 Los Angeles (through the roof of Blockbuster Video, mind you). From here on out, the movie’s soundtrack is all ‘90s hits – Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Elastica’s “Connection,” Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” etc. (Larson even wears a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt at one point).

Soon after, S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Phillip J. Coulson (Clark Gregg), show up on the scene, both digitally de-aged (there’s always gotta be some digital de-aging in these flicks, you know?). Then there is simultaneously a foot chase on the LA Metro, a car chase, and a bunch of furious fist fights. Fury and Vers team up to, you know, save the world from an alien threat, the twist being that the ones we thought were the good guys may not be. Not that that is much of a twist.

Danvers and Fury find one of her old friends, fellow fighter pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who joins them on the adventure, and Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who turns out to be not so bad, also comes along for the ride – oh, and to save his fellow Skrulls. Oh, and the McGuffin is once again the Tesseract (it’s been in around half of these Marvel movies), a cosmic, blue-glowing cube that can control matter and energy.

Vers begins to figure out something that most moviegoers will figure out right off that bat – she was an Airforce fighter pilot named Carol Danvers (the “Vers” come from her dogtag getting fractured in a plane crash that gave her her powers (I’m not going to explain anything more than that).

It’s a zippy adventure that fun to watch, even if you can pretty much guess everything right before it happens. The one element I didn’t expect was a cat named Goose who totally steals the show. 

The cat stows away on the military plane that Danvers and Fury commandeered, and even follows them up into space. That’s where we learn that Goose isn’t a cat, he’s a Flerkin, which are alien creatures that resemble ordinary earth cats except when they shoot masses of tentacles out of their mouths, or swallow whole objects or people.

Goose could be seen as an update of Jonesy from ALIEN - think orange cat on a spaceship – but if Jonesy could annihilate hoards of attackers. Now, Jackson is always really funny, but I’m not sure he’s ever been as funny as he is here talking cute and lovey to Goose.

I like Larson quite a bit, and think she won the Oscar for ROOM for good reason. She puts in a solidly stoical performance in the title role here, but sometimes I felt maybe she was taking it all a bit too seriously. No matter, the character still works despite than when I squint she looks like Supergirl. The plot is no great shakes, story beats can be seen way in advance, and some of the MCU tropes seem a little stale, but it’s still a fun superhero movie with enough cleverness to keep most entertained.

The audience I was in for this film were with it big-time because the regular roster of MCU characters that fill in the margins of the studio logo was replaced with a montage of images of Stan Lee’s many cameos throughout the franchise. It got big applause – the first time I’ve seen a logo get that kind of response. Of course, there was also his obligatory cameo later in the film (he had shot a bunch of cameos for upcoming films before he passed last November).

Except for Goose the Flerkin, CAPTAIN MARVEL is, at best, spectacularly adequate. That still means, like most Marvel movies, it’s well worth the price of ticket. Just make sure that, like always, you stay for the end credits stingers. But, of course, you know that; everybody knows that.

More later...

Monday, February 25, 2019

Oscars 2019: My Worst Score Ever!

“I mean every time somebody's driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement!” – Spike Lee

I haven't gone back through all my Oscar scores over the years, but I'm pretty sure that this was my worst score ever. I got 13 out of 24, which is pathetic. I underestimated BLACK PANTHER (3 Oscars!), thought GREEN BOOK would only win one Academy Award® - Mahershala Ali. Ali did win, but the film also got Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and the big one, BEST PICTURE, which shocked me and I bet a lot of folks since just about every list of predictions I saw had ROMA winning.

Anyway, here's the ones I got wrong:


Olivia Colman for THE FAVOURITE (I had gone with Glenn Close for THE WIFE) This was a shocker.


BLACK PANTHER (just like the last category I had THE FAVOURITE down for this - sigh) 

RBG had this in the bag) 


12. FILM EDITING: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (why did I think VICE would win this? I really can't remember)

BLACK PANTHER (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK really felt like the no brainer for this category, but BLACK PANTHER-mania cancelled it out I guess) 

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (FIRST MAN didn't have a chance one can see in retrospect)

GREEN BOOK (another shocker - THE FAVOURITE seemed so much to be a  shoo-in.)

24. BEST FOREIGN FILM: ROMA (I didn't pick ROMA here because I thought it was going to win BEST PICTURE. COLD WAR, which I enjoyed much more than ROMA, looked to me like a surefire winner, but like just about every category this year I was way off.)

Okay, that's enough Oscars '19 for now (or ever). With hope, I'll do a lot better next year.

More later...

Friday, February 22, 2019

Hey Kids! Funtime 2019 Oscar® Predictions!

Yep, here we are again. The 91st Academy Awards® Ceremony is coming up this Sunday night, so, as I always do on the Friday beforehand, here's my predictions for who and what will win. Now, I have a feeling I'll do worse than last year when I got 17 out of the 24 categories right (my best score was in 2014: 21 out of 24), but we'll see. I just have the feeling that this year may be more full of upsets than any other Oscar race in recent memory.

Anyway, here are my picks/guesses:


2. BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón


4. BEST ACTRESS: Glenn Close for THE WIFE




Alfonso Cuarón)




12. FILM EDITING: VICE (Hank Corwin)

13. MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: VICE (Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe,  Patricia Dehaney)

14. VISUAL EFFECTS: FIRST MAN (Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter,  Tristan Myles, J.D. Schwalm)


16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Shallow” from A STAR IS BORN



19. SOUND EDITING: FIRST MAN (Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou)

20. SOUND MIXING: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, John Casali)

21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: THE FAVOURITE (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: BLACKKKLANSMAN (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee)



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

More later...

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Film Babble Blog's Top 10 Movies Of 2018 Part 2

And now Part 2 of Film Babble Blogs Top 10 Movies of 2018. Included are memorable lines, or exchanges from each film. For Part 1, featuring entries 10-6 click here.


Robert Shafran: “I guess I wouldn't believe the story if someone else were telling it, but , I'm telling it and it's true, every word of it.”

4. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (Dir. Boots Riley)

Langston (Danny Glover): “Let me give you a tip. You wanna make some money here? Use your white voice.”

3. COLD WAR (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

Zula (Joanna Kulig): “Are you interested in me, because I have a talent or in general?”

2. BLACKKKLANSMAN (Dir. Spike Lee)

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington): “Then why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, brother?”

1. FIRST REFORMED (Dir. Paul Schrader)

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke): “The man who says nothing always seems more intelligent. Why couldn't I just keep silent?”

So that's 5-1 of my Top 10 of 2018. Next up, my Oscar predictions. Stay tuned to this space.

More later...