Friday, December 20, 2019


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

(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...

Sunday, December 15, 2019

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...

Thursday, November 28, 2019

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...

Friday, November 22, 2019

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...

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. 

(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. 

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...

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Now out on Blu ray and DVD:

(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


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...

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

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.

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Thursday, August 01, 2019

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...

Friday, July 26, 2019

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

Now playing at an vintage cinema palace near you:

(Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

3 Poli-Biopics I'm Finally Getting Around To

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

LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016) 

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

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

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

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Dir. John Curran, 2017) 

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

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

THE FRONT RUNNER (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2018) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later…

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Spider-Teen’s European Vacation

Opening today at a Marvel multiplex near us all:

(Dir. Jon Watts, 2019) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, June 28, 2019

YESTERDAY: Cutesy Yet Not Within Or Without Its Charms

Opening today from here to across the universe:

YESTERDAY (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

More later...