When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Shallow

It feels like only yesterday the world fell in love with Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, the third and most recent remake of the classic ill-fated romance between two lovers in showbiz whose career trajectories are trending in opposite directions. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the two years it has actually been considering how thirsty the internet still is for that Cooper-Gaga hook-up IRL. Their rendition of their hit single “Shallow” at the Oscars that year helped calm exactly no one down. In Cooper’s modern update, one that changes the discipline from acting to singing/songwriting, Gaga takes on the role originally portrayed by Janet Gaynor in 1937 while the writer/director mimics Fredric March.

While it is always going to be remembered more for the doomed romance (as it perhaps should, for Cooper and Gaga give us an on-screen couple for the ages), you just can’t sleep on A Star is Born‘s soundtrack. There is so much quality music in here — actual musicianship, not catchy ear-worms (even though those are good too!) — that you basically get two forms of entertainment for the price of one. I could probably have chosen other songs to highlight here. Cooper’s opening rock anthem “Black Eyes” is a real barn-burner that kicks the movie off with some good energy. And Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way,” with its really beautiful vocal inflections layered on top of a haunting melody, is maybe the next strongest candidate.

However no song blew up quite like the sentimental ballad “Shallow,” which you could hear playing on any given radio station throughout the rest of the year and well into 2019. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando, the lyrical content of “Shallow” is rooted at the very heart of the movie, with each character asking each other whether they feel comfortable being the person they are. The intimate duet received widespread acclaim from critics, landing at the top of many music charts across the globe and providing Gaga her first Oscar win when it took home Best Original Song at the 91st Academy Awards. It also snagged a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media and a Golden Globe Award. Of all the things the movie does well, it is the fact that a song ultimately secured A Star is Born‘s lone Oscar win (out of a total of eight nominations) that proves what a massive success “Shallow” turned out to be.


Shallow (lyrics by Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson)

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for a change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoah

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now


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The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

A Star is Born (2018)

Release: Friday, October 5, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Eric Roth; Bradley Cooper; Will Fetters

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper has been a star for some time, but alongside the inimitable pop star Lady Gaga he seems to burn even brighter. Legitimately honing another craft within the framework of one of his best acting showcases to date, Cooper, aided by a beard, a guitar and a mic, manages to hit all the right notes, on both ends of the camera.

With A Star is Born, the 43-year-old isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb when it comes to finding a subject for his directing début. Famously A Star is Born tells of two careers in showbiz trending in different directions — one star rising as the other fades. The luminous Judy Garland beat Lady Gaga to the role by more than half a century (that film, although about a woman yearning to become a Hollywood starlet rather than a world-touring singer/songwriter, is the template I’m told this one adheres closest to) while Cooper shares a similar arc with the likes of Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in years past. So yes, the story Cooper is telling has already been told several times before, but that doesn’t mean his version has nothing to offer. The craftsmanship and character work make the movie worth savoring. That Gaga and Cooper make quality music together is the cherry.

In the 2018 rendition Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a big time performer who sold out stadiums in his prime and whose tired eyes and gravelly, baritone voice have seen and sung it all. Years of demanding tour schedules have taken their toll on him physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol have become better roadies to him than his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Each successive gig finds Jackson deeper and deeper into a bottle, until one night there is no more and he’s compelled to scout local dives to quench his thirst. As fate would have it, he stumbles into the same drag bar Ally (Gaga) spends much of her free time singing and dreaming of a different life. Worlds collide when Jackson is permitted a meet-and-greet. A deep connection is formed and instantly.

Nowhere is the evolution of a classical romance more apparent than in Cooper’s casting of Gaga as the meteorically rising Ally, who has been told ten times too many how people like how she sounds but not the way she looks. Mother Monster, as her fans call her, is of course the embodiment of a modern culture and a modern industry, a chameleonic performer whose flashy stage presence often obscures reality. Not that all the colorful accoutrement tell an untruth, but there is certainly a sense of dressing down, or a veil being lifted both in terms of wardrobe and in her performance as she confesses her insecurities to a sympathetic stranger. And it isn’t just in this first intimate moment, some of her own numbers at the piano (“Always Remember Us This Way”) feel like revelations in their own right.

The film features an assortment of impactful performances, evidenced by smaller but still significant supporting turns from the likes of Dave Chapelle as Noodles, an old drinking buddy who has cleaned himself up but still finds himself having to help a spiraling Jack out of the gutter, and Andrew “The Dice Man!” Clay as Ally’s father who once imagined himself a knock-off Sinatra. Still does. But none hog the gravitas all to themselves like the mustachioed Elliot as Bobby who is helpless, like Ally, to do anything about the demons that continue to plague his younger brother.

Quite honestly Elliot deserves an entire paragraph dedicated just to him. He is that good here and that voice of his always deserves more press. But this isn’t his show. This is unequivocally Cooper and Gaga’s time. A Star is Born dramatizes aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the tug-of-war between artists and their vision and managers/producers who have their own agendas, as well as the stresses of not simply finding success but trying to make it last. More fundamentally though this is a love saga and the enduring power of love. If there is any justice, this movie too shall endure.

Recommendation: A Star is Born is given a modern facelift with the innately likable Bradley Cooper and a revelatory Lady Gaga, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Beyond the professional fakery, the music is genuinely good. Who knew Rocket the Raccoon had such pipes? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Can I touch your nose?”

Song played most frequently during the writing of this review

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Blade Runner 2049

Release: Friday, October 6, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Hampton Fancher; Michael Green

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve proves himself a worthy heir to Ridley Scott with his hauntingly beautiful and poetically told Blade Runner 2049, a narratively and emotionally satisfying expansion of Scott’s 1982 classic. It proposes an even darker version of an already grim future reality in which a potential war between humans and an advanced race of A.I. known as replicants could break out after an unlikely discovery is made on the property of a farmer.

Over the better part of the last decade Villeneuve has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise to prominence resulting from a string of blockbuster-level successes. From his award-winning debut film curiously titled August 32nd on Earth in the late ’90s to last year’s awe-inspiring Arrival, the Québécois has been riding a wave of momentum à la Britain’s very own Christopher Nolan, delivering consecutive heavy-hitters in Incendies (2011), Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Villeneuve has entered a point in his career where he just might have forgotten how to truly disappoint an audience. The man has a knack for detailing heavy, sometimes profound stories with genuine humanity. Which brings us to the Blade Runner sequel.

It went virtually unnoticed at the box office, taking in roughly the same amount as The Emoji Movie in the U.S. — thus confirming reality is far more depressing than any dystopian future, even one imagined by Philip K. Dick. Yet there’s no denying Blade Runner 2049 is a seismic sequel, one that not only justifies the ambition but all those years spent waiting (or not waiting). Hampton Fancher returns to screenwriting duties and is joined by Logan scribe Michael Green on an original collaboration that expounds upon key themes and introduces a few compelling new characters. Fortunately at this point in the calendar I’m somewhat less terrified of possibly revealing spoilers so it’s also time to mention how a big part of the experience is the way in which Harrison Ford returns like a childhood memory — though, if you’re like me and it took the news of a sequel being developed just to see the original, maybe it’s more of an implanted memory.

We are returned to a rotting carcass of a planet that, through the lens of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, suffocates under blood orange skies dripping their silver acid down upon the lonely and the damned. The Los Angeles of 2049 continues to play host to a claustrophobic theater of misery, its streets crammed to the curb with imposing edifice and huge holograms. Away from the über-metropolis we have turned to worm farming as a source of protein — it’s important to maintain a sense of nutrition even post-apocalypse — and it’s over these mechanical monstrosities of desperate agriculture we initially swoop in, to arrive at a critical point in the saga.

A few important details first: In the interim, the job of the blade runner (or LAPD officer of the future, if you prefer that vernacular) has been updated. There’s a new level of discretion being applied to targeting suspects as the majority of the replicant population has been integrated into the rest of society and given “purpose” as slaves and servants. These updated Nexus models are the scientifically and aesthetically perfected products of new-sheriff-in-hell Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seeks a way of expanding intergalactic colonization. This new sinister figure has of course risen out of the ashes of the fallen Tyrell Corporation.

Meanwhile, a young blade runner named ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is preparing to interrogate a Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista in a fantastically nuanced performance), one of the last remaining old-model replicants who have apparently gone rogue in the aftermath of a nuclear blast some time in the 2030s. There on Morton’s worm farm he finds the remains of a female replicant who apparently had died during childbirth, and after some digging learns that the child is in fact still alive. His commanding officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), fearing an all-out war between the two factions, orders K to destroy all evidence and find a bullet-shaped solution to the problem. Will he succeed, or will an even more interested party get there first?

Blade Runner 2049 is nothing if not itself a beneficiary of major technological advancements. This is a much sleeker, sexier presentation that feels somehow more lavishly detailed than its predecessor. We may have lost the scrappier, more primal aesthetic of old, but this is nevertheless the Sistine Chapel of modern science fiction cinema. Villeneuve also is afforded a longer leash than most when it comes to introducing computer-generated graphics — in part because they are so convincingly integrated into their environment but more importantly because they have purpose and are sparingly used.

None are more the beneficiary of that kind of movie magic than Ana de Armas portraying Officer K’s live-in girlfriend, the attractive product of a mathematical algorithm designed to keep citizens from feeling quite so hopeless. The Wallace Corporation has manufactured entire lines of robots suited to meet your every need. The Cuban actress may be confined to a supporting part, but her fleeting performance does more to advance the plot than her official movie credit would suggest. Her warmth offers dramatic contrast against an otherwise bleak landscape. De Armas has described her character as something of a cheerleader for Gosling’s beleaguered blade runner. I see her avatar as something more: a spirit guide for those who roam seemingly without purpose.

In taking over the reigns from Sir Ridley Scott, Villeneuve digs further into the fascia of what makes us who and what we are. In Blade Runner 2049 we are beyond the days of primitive experiments like the Voigt-Kampff Test. They are no longer helpful in separating the flesh from the synthetic. The facsimile has in fact become so convincing we hire real people as surrogate vessels (like Mackenzie Davis‘ Mariette) to live out our fantasies. The question is no longer “what makes you believe you are real?” It is now: “what reality makes you feel less alone?” As K inches ever closer to an understanding of his role in the larger scheme of things, Gosling increasingly appears to inhabit the soul of his wizened co-star. His enigmatic qualities suit this role perfectly, while the trajectory he fulfills offers a compelling new wrinkle in the narrative.

“You’ve never seen a miracle,” Sapper Morton sighs before succumbing to the inevitable. I’d beg to differ Mr. Rogue Replicant, sir, because Blade Runner 2049 is something of a miracle for those of us who carried in a healthy skepticism of sequels, both as a rule and specifically when it comes to updating a veritable classic. While some of that fear is actually confirmed in the sequel — for all the ambition, Villeneuve’s predicative never quite strikes the emotional depths of what was offered more than three decades ago, particularly in the closing moments on that rooftop in the rain — this is a logical next step that proves there’s much more story to tell. Indeed, I have seen things in this movie you people wouldn’t believe.

Recommendation: A science fiction sequel that does the brand justice. Packed to the gills with visuals that will haunt you for days and a star-studded team of accomplished actors wholly devoted to the cause, Blade Runner 2049 does the almost unthinkable in becoming not only a worthy spiritual and physical successor but as well suggesting that perhaps the greatest hurdles still lie ahead. An exciting-in-the-extreme entry for lovers of smart sci fi.   

Rated: R

Running Time: 164 mins.

Quoted: “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Decades Blogathon — 12 Angry Men (1957)

It has been an absolute delight getting to deliver a third round of film reviews for the Decades Blogathon! On behalf of my excellent co-host Mark, of Three Rows Back, I would like to give everyone another round of applause for taking the time to write something for our little event. You guys make it possible. With any luck we’ll be back again for another, so if you found yourself missing out this year, keep those eyes peeled. Without further ado, here is my take on Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men


Release: Saturday, April 13, 1957 (limited)

[On Demand]

Written by: Reginald Rose

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Something I didn’t expect to take away from Sidney Lumet’s astounding feature debut 12 Angry Men was just how much perspiration would be involved in the deliberations. An equally fitting title would have been 12 Sweaty Men. Of course, the drama here is in the details and without the pit-stains, malfunctioning fans and the regular employment of handkerchiefs and cough drops throughout, we’d have a much different movie.

It’s the summer of 1954. While humidity hangs in the air thick as molasses, the fate of an 18-year-old boy hangs in the balance. These 12 men have been summoned by the New York City public court system to determine whether the accused stands guilty of murdering his own father. Because this is a murder trial a unanimous decision must be reached.

Each juror is further reminded they must set aside personal judgment in order to render a fair verdict. Behold, the crux of this particular legal drama. One particular detail worth mentioning is that the boy’s ethnicity is never explicitly stated. It’s less of an accidental omission given the film’s position on the timeline of American history. Set several years prior to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, 12 Angry Men sticks a thermometer into the waters we were treading prior to one of the darkest decades in American history. According to what we witness in the Jurors Room, that water was already boiling.

Lumet, adapting from the 1954 teleplay of the same name created by screenwriter Reginald Rose, cracks open the file with a simple but incredibly effective establishing shot that pans up the building’s exterior, its towering pillars of justice and the cavernous enclave inside. In these rare moments outside the Jurors Room there’s great reverence for the power of the American judicial system. The deliberate framing of the shot(s) a reminder of the weight that is placed upon anyone so lucky to have their number called upon for jury duty.

The brilliance of 12 Angry Men is — well duh, it’s the screenplay — but specifically, the way it crafts drama out of simple debate. Of course, the nature of the discussion itself is far from simple but the premise isn’t much more than finding a way to reach a unanimous decision on whether an 18-year-old non-Caucasian male should receive the death penalty for actions it has been presumed he has taken. In fact that’s the only thing we’re here to discuss: the presumption of guilt.

Or, at least Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 is wanting to talk about it. A lone sheep amongst wolves, he simply asks if there should at least be some discussion about the decision to send a kid to the electric chair. In an early vote, the majority of which assume will be the only one necessary, Juror #8 is the only one to cast a dissenting opinion. The film famously sets about exploring the myriad points of view that have gotten us to this point — where only one man considers otherwise and in so doing becomes the antagonist. What kind of justice is this? That’s a question Fonda would love to have answered.

12 Angry Men uses these jurors to offer a cross-section of the American public of the time. These are individuals from wildly varying walks of life and with different sets of skills, values and personal histories, and while each of them have an important part to play the real stand-outs boil down to a foursome, excluding Fonda’s pivotal Juror #8. Lee J. Cobb plays Juror #3, a loud-mouthed, self-made man who has estranged himself from his own son, perhaps fitting as he is the juror who is also the most resistant to reason and logic; Joseph Sweeney plays the elderly Juror #9, the first to change his vote after hearing #8 out; Jack Klugman as Juror #5 exudes a meek and mild personality but his rough upbringing helps the case immeasurably; and last but not least there’s E.G. Marshall as Juror #4, a man who prefers dispassionate, deductive reasoning over emotional gut-reactions.

As the debate intensifies, certain aspects of each juror’s lives prove influential in ways that are both helpful and distracting. Cobb’s bigoted Juror #3 is the biggest perpetrator of potential wrongdoing as his absolute certainty courses as a venom throughout his body. His views on the matter are both outspoken and dangerous. Other jurors of course have their reasons for holding their vote, but as we come to learn, some opinions are more shakable than others.

The performances, especially from Fonda, are magnetic. This is a film whose heart-pounding action is generated by the spirit of the discussion. Often its ferocity. 12 Angry Men is a movie about arguing, and it swallows your attention whole as it jumps dynamically and effortlessly from one consideration to another, maneuvering the minefield with deft precision you’d think this were actually written by someone with experience in case-building. But fundamentally the film isn’t as interested in the minutiae of legal proceedings as it is in finding the humanity, finding decency. Finding justice.

Recommendation: A scintillating, razor-sharp screenplay and some fine performances from a versatile and impressive ensemble make 12 Angry Men a legal drama for the ages. Hands down one of the best of its genre and one of the better movies from the ’50s in general. How it has taken me until the Decades Blogathon to watch this thing is beyond me, but am I glad that I have finally. An epic saga that unfolds in a single room and over the course of an hour and a half.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Janis: Little Girl Blue

'Janis - Little Girl Blue' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 27, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy J. Berg

Directed by: Amy J. Berg

Janis: Little Girl Blue isn’t the whole puzzle but it offers up a lot of significant pieces in its exploration of the life of iconic blues rocker Janis Joplin. The account offers a celebration of a life cut tragically short, packing in as much fascinating archived footage and interviews with famous faces as a 100-minute treatment can afford. Driven by a narrative that entwines tour/concert/backstage footage with letters she wrote to her family about her experiences, the film earns an emotional heft that also makes an otherwise broad documentary feel more intimate.

It’s a travesty that Joplin’s story feels so familiar. Her succumbing to a powerful drug addiction becomes downright surreal when you consider the company she keeps. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Alan Wilson — all gone at 27. And that was just the ’70s. You would think a sense of inevitability would actually ruin the experience, and at times the knowledge of the tragedy and that this has happened so many times before (and since) does indeed loom larger than what’s taking place in front of you. Perhaps it is better, then, to think of the overdose in the motel room not so much as a destination but as just another terrible thing that happened to her. (Lest we forget her being voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in a local college paper before Janis Joplin became Janis Joplin.) Of course, it would be callous to write off her death as a footnote. The point is that this life, as writer-director Amy J. Berg thankfully recognizes, represents much more than a statistic.

Because it doesn’t focus on her passing or use the documentary format as yet another platform for stigmatizing drug abuse (though it certainly doesn’t support it), Little Girl Blue is more often than not upbeat. The singer is larger than life both in personality and reputation, her presence exuberant and ubiquitous. People surround her, if not fellow musicians and bandmates then strangers hoping some of her rubs off on them. Whenever there’s a chance for her to mug for the camera, she does. In frame she’s alluring, a rebellious spark of energy that betrays her small-town-Texas upbringing. Out of frame of course, she’s an entirely different story. When reflected upon, she’s a character in a Shakespearian tragedy.

We start by walking through her high school days where she became a target of vicious bullying not only for her physical appearance — Joplin never was the poster child for femininity but the antithetical nature of her image is partly why the world fell in love with her in the first place — but for her advocacy for racial integration in schools as well. Interviews with younger siblings provide some color to her home life and what motivated the future industrial icon to break free of her Port Arthur roots.

From there it’s a jump into Joplin’s first experiences in San Francisco. We head to North Beach and then to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, a hippie hot spot, where she’d hook up with many likeminded individuals who took notice of her natural inclination to hang out with the guys rather than the pretty Californian women. Her first stint on the west coast wasn’t great. She became heavily involved with drugs and ended up on a bus back to Texas where she’d vow to overhaul her life and adopt a lifestyle more befitting of her parents’ expectations. As history would have it, that wasn’t meant to be either.

More anticipated chapters unfold soon hereafter. We chat with members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, a psychedelic rock group on the rise (at least as far as the local counterculture of the mid-60s was concerned) and to whom Joplin fully committed herself having gained recognition for the power in her voice and the pain with which she expressed herself having endured a tortured and confusing adolescence. The story then tackles head-on the turbulence of the following years with grace and dignity: the post-BBHC fall-out, the press surrounding her decision to form a new back-up band (who remembers the Kozmic Blues Band?), flirtations with Dick Cavett, the Woodstock gig and fleeting female lovers. The ebb and flow of an infatuation with drugs and alcohol becomes more flow than ebb as romantic prospects similarly come and go.

Away from her personal troubles, mounting pressure within the industry generated by speculation over what Joplin should do with her career continued to drive the nail deeper. What is a girl to do when she becomes bigger than the band she is a part of? One might naturally assume cultural evolution would eventually create an atmosphere of acceptance and comfort. Someone with talent of this magnitude should never have to feel alone but time and again we are reminded of Joplin’s sense of isolation and helplessness as she, as some interviewees put it, grew into a caricature of herself. How much imitation is considered flattery? Was she trying too hard to be the next Aretha Franklin? Should she have stayed with BBHC?

If Joplin were any less interesting an individual Little Girl Blue would suffer from its cookie-cutter design. Along with her spunky personality it’s the little things that help set it apart. Contemporary American singer-songwriter Cat Power gives voice to Joplin’s telegrams. A view from the back of a train as it winds through California hills becomes a motif. And of course the interviews are (mostly) unique to this production. In truth, it just wouldn’t be a bonafide rock-and-roll documentary without a few well-worn edges. Almost obligatorily we have to explore beyond what’s captured on camera. Misery as a motivator. The irony and general strangeness of fame and popularity. Like with a great many acts, Joplin had a serious problem with the post-show comedown. Walking onstage is a totally different experience than walking off of it.

Berg’s efforts shouldn’t be taken as the definitive account of such a pioneering woman, but she has created mandatory viewing for anyone looking for a way to get to know the person behind the music a little bit better. The regular rhythms of a documentary based on the life of a famous person are always present but here they are as powerful as the subject is empowering.

janis-joplin-gq-17jul14_rex_b

Recommendation: Documentary takes viewers on a tour of the many ups and downs of the life and career of one Janis Joplin. While doubtful there’s anything here that long standing fans of the blues/folk rock singer haven’t already been exposed to but the film will be a good crash course for anyone who doesn’t have much history of her. Highlights: loads of archived footage including concert performances and awkward talk-show appearances; great interviews. Lowlights: very little about the overarching narrative comes as a shock. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this is a retrospective, not a fluff piece. Nor is it a hagiography.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 mins. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.nerdgeist.com 

Hell or High Water

'Hell or High Water' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: David Mackenzie

The day after you’ve watched something is probably not the time to proclaim that thing an instant classic. It would be wise to allow the infatuation phase to run its course before declaring your undying love for your partner. Unfortunately for me, I trade in hyperbole and sensationalist journalism so I have a very hard time calming down when I see something as enjoyable and well-crafted as David Mackenzie’s hybrid post-modern western/heist thriller.

Contrasted against a fairly weak summer slate of cinematic offerings, perhaps Hell or High Water is destined for a spot on the top shelf it might not have earned in another year but there’s no denying this is a film crafted with care and precision and featuring some of the year’s most enjoyable (read: believable) performances in a leading trio featuring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges as surly West Texans caught in a fascinating, morally complex game of cat-and-mouse (okay, cops-and-robbers if you want to be more accurate).

Two brothers — the divorced Toby (Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Foster) — set into motion a master plan to save their family’s farm from foreclosure by relieving a string of Texas Midland Bank branches of large sums of cash. These are the very banks that have been slowly but surely milking the Howard clan dry for decades. Despite their efficiency and a knack for finding new getaway vehicles, they soon find themselves on Marcus Hamilton (Bridges)’s radar, a local ranger on the verge of a long-overdue retirement. He’s hungry for one last chase and strings along for the ride his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

All goes according to plan until the brothers Howard hit a bank in Post, where the locals aren’t so submissive, despite Tanner’s best efforts to terrorize. (An unsettling yet frequently amusing psychopathy renders his criminal history entirely unsurprising. In this world there aren’t good cops/bad cops, there are good robbers/bad robbers and Tanner is decidedly more the latter.) Unprepared for resistance, they find themselves scrambling to escape a bloody scene that turns a once-righteous deed into an unintended murdering spree. All the while the rangers remain only a half-step behind, distracted only by the fact Marcus is fated for a rocking chair and greener pastures come the end of the week. The two narratives, compelling in their own right, eventually coalesce into a spectacular, oft unpredictable showdown that eschews traditional heroics and villainous archetypes. Think No Country For Old Men meets Robin Hood.

In a film filled with stellar acting turns, Pine’s quasi-transformative, ski-mask-wearing thief might just outshine the rest as his bedraggled countenance bears the brunt of the film’s moral quandary. Toby’s obligations to family — a financially struggling ex-wife and two teen boys — trump any obligation to abide by the law of this crumbling wasteland, a place where old granny’s fixin’ to blow ya off the front porch with her 12-gauge just for trespassin’. (That particular scene doesn’t happen but you can imagine it happening.) A place where the hustle and bustle of cities like New York and L.A. may as well be happening on another planet. Captain Kirk Pine finds much room for personal growth in a script that believes in full-bodied characters and thoughtful story development. His devotion to his sons may justify a few smooth robberies, but does it justify the violence later on? How far should a person go to protect the ones they love?

Hell or High Water isn’t simply a case of an amateur robbery gone awry, although there is very much an element of bumbled professionalism at play. Think of these guys more as skilled amateurs, dabbling in the art of robbing from the corrupt and redistributing to those who are destitute. What inspires their actions is very much an indictment of corporate America and how that unstoppable locomotive frequently flattens any poor sod who happens to be standing on the tracks (i.e. anyone who has been unfortunate enough to put their trust in banks who consistently loan money, their money, to others who can’t possibly afford to repay the debt). Indeed, if you wish to dig deeper into these scenes juxtaposed against a rugged, wildly unpredictable American west, you’ll find hints of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes as well. The pain. The outrage. Tension’s palpable, manifested especially in Toby’s final confrontation with a ranger who thinks he has him figured out.

Hell or High Water is impeccably performed, a reality reinforced by the brilliance of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that allows the entire cast to put their best cowboy boot forward. Even bit-parts such as a stubborn waitress who refuses to hand over her $200 tip as evidence because she has a roof to keep over her and her daughter’s heads and an elderly local who ain’t threatened by “thugs” become precious commodities. Bridges doesn’t really need the pampering but he’s par excellence. Amidst a rather bleak mise-en-scène, Sheridan finds ways to wring out a kind of naturalistic, borderline farcical sense of humor that assures levity while never distracting from the more shocking drama that awaits in a climactic stand-off. A bickering repartee between two sheriffs drives the entertainment value sky-high, while Foster runs away with his role and in all the best ways.

You might describe the portrait as stereotypical of the image non-locals have already painted in their mind of a place they perceive to be backwards and lawless. This place is hostile and the people tough, resilient and pretty stand-offish. But the film isn’t  so reductive as to parody life in these parts. It focuses upon real people living out real lives in the only way they know how, desperate to make something work in a nation described in the Pledge of Allegiance as undivided, with liberty and justice for all. The ever-captivating mystery invites us to form our own opinions of these people and communities. And suffice it to say, and while difficult at times, it’s best to reserve judgment until the very end.

My judgment is thus: Hell or High Water is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and satisfying films 2016 has to offer. By turns nostalgic for a bygone period in cinema — that of the classic John Wayne shoot-em-up — and hungry to forge new frontiers with a riveting story that, while not categorically unpredictable, explores boundaries few films bother exploring anymore. It’s a grand adventure, something that will undoubtedly offer up something new to discover upon repeat viewings. This is how you make movies, folks.

Jeff Bridges in 'Hell or High Water'

Recommendation: Hell or High Water, an uncommonly (and unexpectedly) solid bit of modern western action, refuses to stoop to the lowest common denominator of reducing drama to bloody gunfights and cheesy quips. It’s a heist film executed almost to perfection. Fans of the cast are sure to love it, particularly Pine who continues to show he has more talent than just fulfilling an iconic leadership role on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is undoubtedly his best work yet, slurry southern drawl and all. And I hate to keep making Star Trek comparisons, but on an entertainment scale, Pine’s misadventures here are far worthier of your time. This goes beyond where many modern westerns have gone before. Two Roger Ebert thumbs up.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: ” . . . go f**k yourself.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon – Taxi Driver (1976)

 

Mark closes out the 2016 Decades Blogathon with a fantastically written piece on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 crime drama Taxi Driver. Be sure you don’t miss it by visiting the link below! Thank you.

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Decades Blogathon Banner 20161976So this is the end; the final day of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition. Thank you once again to everyone who made this such a great blogathon. My biggest thanks goes to my partner in crime on this enterprise – Tom from Digital Shortbread. We had a blast with this in 2015 and this year’s event has been just as much fun. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade and it’s my turn to focus on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

Looking to the Academy Awards as a critical barometer for the best films of a given year is, for the most part, as redundant an exercise as swimming through treacle.

The list of Oscar clunkers is long and ignominious and among the most glaring is the dearth of statuettes awarded to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A…

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Decades Blogathon – Stand By Me (1986)

1986

 

My apologies for a late posting today, folks. But better late than never, right? Joining in the discussion today we have Courtney from On the Screen Reviews. That site is a great one to go to if you’re looking for a variety of film reviews and yearly Top Tens. Check it out if you haven’t already, you won’t be sorry! Thanks again for helping us make this blogathon a great one Courtney, the floor is yours! 


Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread are hosting the Decades Blogathon, a 10(ish) day event in which film critics take a look at movies from different decades. This month we’re choosing films from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016), and there’s no restrictions.

For my contribution, I’ve chosen to cover the coming-of-age classic that made the train dodge a timeless pastime, Stand by Me.

You guys wanna see a dead body . . . ?

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“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in 1959, a long time ago, but only if you measure in term of years.”

With the overhaul of pre-teen movies that force your brain to regress in order to comprehend, it should be unanimously agreed that Stand by Me follows a blueprint of movie making that seems impossible to recreate. Recent movies like Super 8 attempted to capture youthful nostalgia, but didn’t dig deep enough to reach the gritty reality of adolescence. Stand by Me offers no gimmicks, no aliens, no gadgets, but raw human emotion.

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Stand by Me is a movie about four 12-year-old-boys living in a small town in Oregon around 1959 who go on a total boy adventure Labor Day weekend to find an undiscovered dead body. It’s narrated in present-day by a novelist (Richard Dreyfuss) who recalls the weekend that inspired his writing. (That old 80s computer tho! If that doesn’t resonate with you, I don’t know what will!!!)

Their weekend journey is the first taste of real life for the four boys and the last real taste of innocence; I think this is what resonates with viewers like myself the most. It eliminates the awkward introduction of girls into their lifestyle (because they haven’t reached that point in life yet), and focuses on more pertinent philosophical questions of that age like “Do you think Mighty Mouse can beat Superman?” Conversations around the campfire seem endless and pinky swears seem bound in blood.

The movie takes another risk filmmakers refuse to take today — it’s rated R! It’s unpretentious, hilarious and absolutely genuine with its plot and dialogue. Kids at the age of 12 are going to swear as much as this movie suggests, so why bleep it out? Stand by Me keeps it real, most notably with it’s script, which translates to some of the best scenes by young actors in cinematic history.

Here are some of my favorites scenes:

Teddy’s Freakout

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The movie really hones in on small town life and what it’s like to know everybody. In the junk yard scene where the crotchety man calls Teddy’s (Corey Feldman) father “a looney,” Teddy erupts, “I’m going to rip off your head and shit down your neck!” Firstly, what a creative and vulgarly descriptive insult! Teddy’s father allegedly stormed the beach at Normandy, and despite his father being total garbage to Teddy, he has the utmost respect for him. That’s commendable, and it unfolds layers of Teddy’s character that are deeper than one may anticipate. If it isn’t obvious, this movie really shows that boys have emotions too.

Kiefer Sutherland in any scene

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Kiefer Sutherland is a bona fide badass in this movie, and he’s one of the most believable assholes on screen in the 80s! It takes effort now-a-days to convince me that a character is the scum of the Earth, mostly due to poor acting or casting decisions, but Sutherland embodied every aspect of the sociopath Ace. Despite stealing every scene he’s in, the most character defining scene comes at the end where he affirms that he’s willing to kill a kid to get what he wants. Great acting and character embodiment by Sutherland. I would not fuck with him.

Train Dodge

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The train dodge scene is probably the scene most associated with the movie and one of my personal favorites. What I love about the train dodge is the giant metaphor being slammed in your face that the train is your life — it’s coming no matter what, and you damn sure better be ready for it. Not only is it one of the more hilarious, heart-pounding scenes, but it’s an affirmation that some kids can handle it and some can’t.

The Deer

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The deer scene comes as a breath of fresh air in-between dramatic scenes offering a reflection for both the character of Gordie and the audience. It showcases Gordie’s consciousness as a child in that he is in-tune with his creativity as an aspiring writer. There are also subtleties of the scene that I love — his smirk, the comic book he’s reading, the fact that no one else saw the deer and that he keeps the moment to himself . . . until now.

The Closing Scene

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“Chris did get out. He enrolled in the college-courses with me. And although it was hard, he gutted it out like he always did. He went onto college and eventually became a lawyer. Last week he entered a fast food restaurant. Just ahead of him, two men got into an argument. One of them pulled out a knife. Chris, who would always make the best peace tried to break it up. He was stabbed in the throat. He died almost instantly. Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever.”

I think the last scene of the boys is probably one of the most relevant for the actors. The final shot of Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) walking into the distance slowly fading away is an eerie premonition of his actual fate of an overdose at the age of 23. The final scene really shows how friends grow apart in life, and that’s okay. The boys all have revelations that each is struggling with something whether it’s being bullied over weight or having an abusive parent . . . they all persevere and it shapes their characters. The character of Chris Chambers is one of my favorites, because despite coming from a crappy family situation, he had the ability to make his life better. It may sound cliche, but it shows the power of perseverance without the director making it overly showy.

This is a movie that resonates with me long after viewing and it’s really never left me.

Let me know your favorite scenes from the movie!  GIF 6


Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon – The Battle Of Algiers (1966)

 

Hey all, head on over to Three Rows Back for a review of The Battle of Algiers, brought to you by Marta, who runs the show over at Ramblings of a Cinephile. Thanks a lot!

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1966

Welcome to another day of the event of the year: the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I are running a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post) and for Super Tuesday it’s the turn of Marta from Ramblings of a Cinephile, who turns her sights on the masterpiece that is The Battle Of Algiers (1966).

The gritty and rather bloody story of the uprising that led to the independence of Algeria in 1962 is shot by Gillo Pontecorvo in a compelling style.

Commissioned by the Algerian government less than a decade after the facts, it shows both sides in an unforgiving way – from the terrorist attacks of the Algerian militants to the tortures of the French army. Pontecorvo…

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