The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen 

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.

Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.

The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).

Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.

Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.

Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world  — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.

The best daggum chompers you ever did see on a cowboy

Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”

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

La La Land

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Release: Friday, December 9, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Damien Chazelle 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle 

Damien Chazelle’s critically-acclaimed modern musical is being hailed as one of the most original movies in years. That’s not surprising given the cinematic environment into which it has been born. It’s hard not to appreciate the oasis in a sprawling desert. While Disney animation in particular continues to inject original song and dance into each new incarnation, barring one or two high-profile exceptions the traditional musical has been all but banished from contemporary cineplexes. La La Land represents a change of tone from the writer-director’s previous exploration of creative obsession, and the scope has been broadened with the way he interrogates aspects of life beyond the singular pursuit of perfection. What he presents in 2016 is a lively, upbeat jazz musical that revisits several familiar themes.

Viewed through the lens of career ambition (okay, yes — obsession), the city of broken dreams offers an uncanny backdrop. Approximately 60 L.A. locales were used, ranging from dilapidated trolley stations to infamous stretches of freeway near the bustling metropolis. Coupled with the bright, neon lights and iconic landmarks, La La Land is a romantic outing in more ways than one. It is visually spectacular, an ambition unto itself. And while many of the musical interludes won’t leave any lasting impression, two of them — the catchy opening tune ‘Another Day of Sun’ and Emma Stone‘s stand-out solo ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ — are absolutely fantastic. These are certifiable “Oscar moments.”

La La Land tosses several significant and believable obstacles in the paths of our protagonists, once more asking viewers what we would sacrifice to ensure our dreams become realized. Our story, as it were, is constructed out of the interactions between two star-crossed lovers — Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) — as they evolve from strangers with road rage to significant others. In their third romantic pairing (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad being the others), the actors feel entirely natural together. Under the guidance of Chazelle the two really are wonderful. They’re first spotted in the very traffic jam that opens the film in a surprisingly thrilling fashion. They’re not exactly amiable towards each other at first, with Sebastian blaring his horn at Mia having grown tired of the woman in front of him not paying attention to her surroundings.

Quite serendipitously the two will meet again, first at a small restaurant where Sebastian has just been fired for disobeying his manager (J.K. Simmons in a cameo) who told him explicitly not to play any jazz, only the Christmas jingles. This encounter is also far from pleasant. Later the two meet again at a couple of L.A. parties, where they could be meeting anyone. I would have rolled my eyes more but Chazelle writes so well forgiving these nagging coincidences is not only easy, it’s mandatory. Cheesiness is part of the fabric of the musical. Despite feigning disinterest in one another via the film’s obvious centerpiece — a beautifully choreographed dance number near Griffith Observatory synchronized with a setting sun that bathes the valley in royal purple — the two share an irresistible charm that reminded me of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s affectionate ribbing in Eternal Sunshine.

As the two eventually entwine their lives together they attempt to motivate each other to make their dreams become realities. A passionate jazz pianist, Sebastian sees himself opening his own club one day, despite how he barely gets by on the gigs he plays right now. The aforementioned fall-out at the restaurant finds the musician relegated to playing synth for an 80s cover band at birthday parties. His girlfriend scratches her head when she sees him stooping to a new low by going on tour with a mainstream band headed by a high school acquaintance named Keith (John Legend). “Do you like this kind of music?” Mia asks during a heated exchange over a candlelit dinner. Sebastian stabs back with a reminder that her acting career has yet to take off. Refreshingly, this relationship isn’t perfect. Matters of practicality vs. idealism begin creating friction. Sebastian maintains he is doing whatever he can to make ends meet. He no longer can afford to be so idealistic.

In La La Land conviction is everything. Enthusiasm and vigor prevent the production from descending into schmaltz. It’s a quality that applies to virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, from Chazelle’s emphatic direction to the complicated dance routines that give characters as much soul as any awards-baiting monologue ever could. From the meticulous location scouting to the cinematography that makes Los Angeles bleed colors we haven’t seen since Nicolas Winding Refn lit the place on fire with 2011’s Drive. The songs won’t make you want to sing in the rain like Gene Kelly, nor are they quite as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as anything Julie Andrews did . . . but hey, they’re still catchy. And given the inexperience of the cast — Gosling learned to play piano and tap dance for his part, while Stone reportedly had some balance issues — the fact that we catch ourselves moving our feet in rhythm speaks volumes about the harmony of the post-production process. La La Land comes together very well, despite several familiar elements.

The film’s music is almost always fantastical, in some instances even ethereal as a lone spotlight falls on the singer of the moment while the rest of the world fades to black. But the fantasy doesn’t subtract from the authenticity of the emotions on  display.  Impressively the story stays rooted in reality, and the experience is not exactly pain-free. Chazelle is a passionate advocate for jazz music, clearly. I mean of all things, he landed on a jazz musical, in a day and age where country singers and pop stars are being manufactured on game shows. In an era of jaded 20-year-olds who think jazz is just music stuck in the past. And while thematically it feels like the writer-director is somewhat treading water post-Whiplash, ultimately he inspires simply because of the gamble he just took to realize his own ambitions.

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4-0Recommendation: La La Land, a film with enough verve and color to supply at least five other major productions, lingers in the mind because of the fascinating combination of modern actors performing arguably outmoded roles in an era where the musical is no longer popular. It’s a film for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fans and jazz lovers alike. It’s a film for romantics. But if you’re heading in expecting Damien Chazelle to up his game from Whiplash, you might find yourself disappointed. Because that film was a stroke of genius. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 128 mins. 

Quoted: “You could just write your own rules. You know, write something that’s as interesting as you are.”

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 

Moana

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Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jared Bush

Directed by: Ron Clements; John Musker; Don Hall; Chris Williams

Moana might just be Frozen‘s spiritual, tropical sequel. But to be honest, I’m only just guessing that — I never saw Frozen. Couldn’t stand the hype. When hype for a film made by a film company I generally do not care for reaches Frozen levels, I tend to break out in hives. So I, you know, let it go.

I was similarly skeptical of Moana but eventually was won over by the casting of The Rock as a demigod named Maui, a boastful but affable caricature of the man himself who plays a major role in Moana (newcomer Auli’i Carvalho)’s voyage. Turns out, Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly. These two are wonderful together and they make a thoroughly clichéd adventure more palatable. (Plus Maui sports tattoos that come to life and with which he frequently interacts. Such was the novelty of the concept I was left wondering what Mike Tyson’s face tattoo would say or do.)

Moana is a film about empowerment and finding your higher calling in life — not exactly a first for Disney. But their latest finds separation by not only introducing a confident young woman but through an exploration of a culture that is woefully underrepresented in modern cinema. The Mouse House has often gotten by with formulaic storytelling dressed up in different outfits, and in Moana we don the cloth of a deeply spiritual Polynesian tribe. Our heroine, in a time-honored tradition, must confront her own limitations by putting herself through a series of physical and often emotional tests that will determine not only her future but that of her own people, a once-proud band of intrepid voyagers who have come to settle on the island of Monutui.

Moana, heiress to and the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), has a great fondness for the ocean. She’s captivated by its beauty and its infiniteness. Constantly drawn to the water’s edge as a child, she one day discovers a gem stone in the shallows, which happens to be the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. The stone was stolen by the demigod Maui in his attempt to gift humanity with the power of life and in a resulting fight it was lost to the depths. Now the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana as the one to restore it and to rid the Pacific islands of the darkness that has slowly been spreading ever since, a darkness that eventually hits Monutui.

When vegetation on the island starts dying off and fish become scarce, Moana suggests venturing beyond the reefs to search for what they need. Her father angrily rebuffs her, reminding her that her place in society is not on the ocean, but rather on land to take care of her people. With the encouragement of her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) who shows her a secret cave in which a fleet of boats have been permanently stored away — proof positive of her people’s history — Moana sets out on the open water, along with a mentally defective rooster named Heihei, to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti’s heart. When she finally encounters the demigod she starts to gain an understanding of what she has gotten herself into.

You see, Maui has lost his hook. And no that’s not a euphemism for him going insane. Although he is a bit kooky. Wouldn’t you be, though, if you had been stranded on a desert isle for an unspecified amount of time? Look what happened to Tom Hanks. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment; it has turned a pro wrestler into a legitimate American Idol contestant. That’s right: The Rock can sing. And he can sing well. His moment comes in the form of ‘You’re Welcome,’ an upbeat little diddy that, resist as you might, will get your toes tapping. In it, he regales us with tales of badassery and tattooery. He’s “a hero of men.” But he’s lost his hook, the thing that gives him power to physically transform, to the monsters dwelling in the black depths of the Pacific.

Thus we get yet another one of those “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” subplots that Disney Animation animated films are so fond of, but rather than pad the run time the journey to the briny bottom gives us more insight into the mystical qualities of this universe. Down there we also get to meet Jemaine Clement‘s vainglorious crab Tamatoa. He gets a musical number of his own, also fun. Maybe now is a good time to point out how neither of these songs quite measure up to that of Carvalho’s ‘How Far I’ll Go.’ In fact ‘Shiny’ feels tedious when compared. Carvalho is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Her singing only serves to reinforce her character’s mental tenacity. It’s actually pretty inspiring. And every bit as empowering.

Moana is 100% devoted to character. The adventure itself not only builds it, but the film centers around a strong, likable young female. Not a damsel in distress. Not a drama queen. A real human being with hopes and aspirations, quirks and flaws. Apparently there were efforts made by the filmmakers to reduce the role gender would play in the narrative. A first draft, written by Taika Waititi, identified Moana as the only daughter in a family of five or six brothers, a detail that was later changed to her being an only child so greater emphasis could be placed on her journey of self-discovery. Despite those efforts Moana has a distinctly feminist lean. Many female characters play a crucial role in the film, be they the village crazy, a giant Monterey or an angry deity. Best of all, Moana’s success or failure isn’t measured based on her ability to attract a love interest. There’s nary a romantic subplot at all, for that matter. That feels more refreshing even than a splash in the ocean on a hot sunny day.

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4-0Recommendation: Fun, lively, visually spectacular, and boasting some great (original) music, Moana is a great one for the whole family. Even when I don’t typically go for Disney Animated Studios stuff, I had a blast with this one. I’ll thank Dwayne Johnson and a fun supporting cast for that. The film also serves as an impressive calling card for the Hawaiian newcomer. Highly recommended. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “If I was called Sebastian and had a Jamaican accent, you’d help me.”

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 

A Very Murray Christmas

A Very Murray Christmas movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sophia Coppola; Mitch Glazer; Bill Murray

Directed by: Sophia Coppola

A Very Murray Christmas is kind of an odd package. It’s a fairly self-indulgent vanity project but only in the best way possible. I mean, how do you say ‘no’ to Bill Murray?

It’s a movie but not a movie; a musical but not really a musical; a short story without much of a tale to tell. It’s roughly an hour of Murray lamenting being left alone for Christmas Eve as he’s holed up in the famous Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan as a blizzard rages outside, preventing anyone from traveling anywhere and from taking part in his Christmas Special in which he is to live broadcast a number of classic tunes for the masses to enjoy.

Then the weather intensifies and shuts down the production, leaving him to his own devices in the hotel lobby, where he slowly starts gathering random hotel guests and staff members together for an impromptu session of Christmas caroling. In essence, this is Murray’s way of saying Happy Holidays without resorting to social media. It’s a live recording of him nudging even the grumps into the holiday spirit. He starts off the film in a lousy mood and slowly overcomes his depression as said guests gather round in drunken merriment.

Despite the aimlessness of it all, A Very Murray Christmas is a good bit of fun. It’s cozy and will fill your heart with warmth come the surprisingly entertaining introduction of Miley Cyrus and George Clooney in a bizarre dream sequence that results after Murray collapses in the hotel lobby after drinking one too many shots of tequila.

It’s a who’s who of the Murray entourage. The guest list is rather impressive: Amy Poehler, Paul Shaffer, Jenny Lewis, Maya Rudolph, Michael Cera, Demitri Dimitrov, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, David Johansen, Miley Cyrus, Julie White, Chris Rock, George Clooney (he seems to be owing Murray a favor after Murray did Monument’s Men) and members of the band Phoenix all donate their time to the cause.

Ultimately this is nothing you will regret having missed but for the Murray faithful, this Christmas special makes one feel as though this is the closest they can get to actually interacting with the great Bill Murray. That in itself is a gift.

A Very Murray Christmas

Recommendation: Fans of Bill Murray are going to greatly enjoy this while anyone else who isn’t so much a fan are probably going to find it a chore to sit through. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 56 mins.

Quoted: “I don’t even know how to express my shame in this moment. The Murricane skulking down the back stairs like some $25 an hour, Twin Cities hooker.” 

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.theguardian.com 

Decades Blogathon – A Night at the Opera (1935)

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The fifth day of the Decades Blogathon, being hosted by Mark of Three Rows Back and yours truly here at DSB, gives you a review from James, who runs the fantastic Back to the Viewer which you need to browse over if you haven’t before. James is taking a look at the 1935 comedy/musical A Night at the Opera


A huge shout out to Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread for hosting the first Decades Blogathon, a blogathon dedicated to films released in the fifth year of each decade since the turn of the 20th Century. There are some fantastic films up for review so be sure to check them out when the festivities kick off on Monday 18th May.

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“And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined.

Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons,

and necking in the parlor.”

The Marx Brothers are up to their usual buffoonery in this timeless piece of comedic Americana.

Adored in the world of comedy for their slap-your-leg-laughing slapstick, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx bring a conventional tale of zero-to-hero to life with a whizz bang of one-line gags and a bucket load of nuanced charm.

Whisked straight into ‘High Society’ following opening credits of old, Margaret Dumont is seated alone in a lavish restaurant awaiting the arrival of one tardy Otis B. Driftwood. In the comfort of his own whimsy Groucho asserts himself in true Groucho style, with a leap from his chair, bend in his knee and one-liners on parole. Hired by Mrs. Claypool to make her a noteworthy member of the upper echelons of society Driftwood has a plan to satisfy her obtuse desire. Driftwood has agreed with Herbert Gottlieb, a representative of the New York Opera Company, that Mrs. Claypool will invest $200,000 into the signing of Lassparri, the next greatest opera tenor. As her life of high society flashes before her eyes Gottlieb whisks her away to the opera to see her investment in action.

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Cutting to the stage we enter the opera house and catch our first glimpse of Harpo and Chico, as Tomasso and Fiorello respectively. Donning his typical zany allure, Harpo is quite aptly dressed in Lassparri’s clown costume. Returning to find Harpo bumbling about on his dresser Lassparri chases him out of the room as Harpo reveals costume after costume layered a-top his humble civvies. Stumbling out into the hallway a sympathetic Rosa, Kitty Carlisle, picks him up and dusts him down before returning to her dressing room. Ricardo, Allan Jones, soon comes knocking and the love interest is secured, simultaneosly establishing Ricardo as the down-on-his-luck character, the zero if you will. Carlisle and Jones have great chemistry and it soon becomes clear the rest of this whimsical roller coaster rests on their capable shoulders.

It’s when Chico returns that the whole affair receives a boost. Bowling into the opera house he engages in a little light raillery with the mailman when he spots Tomasso. Like a princess awaiting her knight he slides down the staircase and bounds into the arms of his comedic partner in crime. After a brotherly embrace they part ways and Chico makes his way backstage to find his long time friend, and adept tenor, Ricardo. Offering, partly in jest, to represent Ricardo as his manager Fiorello gets Driftwood caught up in a baffling scheme that sets the four of them off on a journey to New York.

Every film has its moments, the moments that define it as a classic, promote a cult following, cause a tickle, or downright have you in stitches. With a smorgasbord of comedic delicacies to gorge on A Night at the Opera becomes the best night of your life as Groucho jests, Chico schemes, and Harpo honks their way across the Atlantic, getting into all sorts of Marx Brothers mischief.

This is early talkie comedy at its finest, and following Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera had a lot to live upto. The Marx Brothers are defined by their comedic timing, individual character traits and wacky storylines, but A Night at the Opera serves up a healthy portion of charming sincerity when Chico, Harpo and Jones get caught up in musical festivities aboard the S.S. Americus. Laying low in Driftwood’s stateroom the three stowaways go on the hunt for food. Stumbling across a spread fit for King Theoden the faces of the three are a joy to watch as they shuffle excitedly over the ship’s deck before breaking out into spontaneous musicality. Harpo jumps on the Harp, Chico slides onto the piano stool and Jones rises as tenor. Rousing the deck into a right ol’ song and dance the trio capture the feel of the moment and treat the audience to moments of sweet sincerity and humour.

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This combination of zaniness and charm elevates A Night at the Opera above lesser Marx Brothers tenements by building upon the established repertoire, fine tuning performances, and whittling the silliness down into a more human fuelled experience disguised beneath the recognised and revered trademarks.

Catapulting A Night at the Opera into the high society of classic comedies Groucho is on top form in his finest performance as Otis B. Driftwood, Chico plays off his younger brother’s quick wit and Harpo bounces around like a ball on a string. The best scene of the film involves all three crammed into a tiny stateroom, a scene which has become one of comedy’s greatest landmarks. For the sheer ambition combined with Groucho’s endlessly quotable introductions the execution is sublime and makes for hilarious viewing.

Culminating in an act that sees Chico and Harpo amusingly, inventively ruin an opera and Groucho play hide-and-seek with the opera ushers the film ends on a high note with Rosa and Ricardo united on stage while the bumbling contract neogtiations extend beyond the closing credits.

Without a doubt one of cinema’s greatest additions to the classics list, where it should remain as a Timeless Classic for generations to witness, adore, and remember.

Decades Blogathon – Tommy (1975)

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Hello all, for the second entry I’d like to introduce Carly Booth of Carly Hearts Movies. She decided to take a look at a 1975 picture that I personally have never heard of. It’s called Tommy. Check out her review below and please give her site a look! Thank you Carly!


Directed by: Ken Russell

Written by: Ken Russell (screenplay) and Pete Townshend (rock opera)

Starring: Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed

A psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind boy becomes a master pinball player and the object of a religious cult because of that.

Distributed by: Columbia Pictures

Looks like Rocktober came early this year!

What do you get when you take one of the greatest rock bands of all time (i.e., The Who), Robert Stigwood, Ann-Margret, every ‘70s rocker and their mother, and mountains of cocaine?

You get one of the weirdest movies to come out of the ‘70s, and this is the decade that brought us Eraserhead.

Then again, I was born in 1994, 19 years after Tommy came out. Who am I to judge cinema of the ‘70s?

A large part of my childhood was spent rummaging through my parents’ CD and record collection, and among my mother’s albums was The Who’s Tommy.

I forgot my parents had such awesome taste in music until I was 15, when I actually listened to their albums. I loved all of these discoveries, but I specifically remember Tommy blowing my mind. The lyrical content made no sense but simultaneously intrigued me, and I loved the music on its own. Around the 3:20 mark of “Amazing Journey?” Sheer bliss.

Around that same time, I sought out the film, and when I finally sat down to watch the thing, I had this look on my face like “What the hell was that?”

How timely of me to review this movie for the Decades Blogathon, and not just because my local art-deco theater is showing the documentary Lambert & Stamp. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Ken Russell’s musical mind screw, which (believe it or not) was nominated for two Academy Awards. Even with that in mind, the film is criminally ignored.

Tommy is a star-studded affair, with lead singer Roger Daltrey as Tommy, Ann-Margret as Tommy’s exploitative mother, Oliver Reed as his oafish stepdad, and a busload of ‘70s rockers including Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner (in a role meant for David Bowie) and the band’s late drummer Keith Moon as Tommy’s alcoholic/pedophile uncle. Jack Nicholson even makes an appearance as a doctor who tries to cure Tommy’s condition. You ever dance with a pinball wizard in the pale moonlight?

Given Ken Russell’s previous track record (Women in Love, The Devils), Tommy is also Russell’s most family-friendly film. You know, if you consider child molestation family-friendly.

So if you have no idea what this rock opera is about, that’s okay because neither does anyone else! It’s about a boy who sees his father die in front of him and becomes deaf, blind, and mute from the shock. Then quite suddenly, the little boy grows up!

Hold on, let’s take a look at actual movie stills here.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

I know special effects in 1975 were rudimentary compared to today’s CGI, but I would like to think that there was at least some technology back in the day to keep the lead actor’s eye color consistent!

I’d normally be skeptical of a band casting their lead singer in the title role of their own rock opera. That’s a bit like casting your siblings in a Super 8 remake of Friday the 13th, but you know what? I can’t complain, because Roger Daltrey isn’t that bad an actor! Don’t believe me? Watch his cameo on the musical episode of That ‘70s Show as Fez’s curmudgeonly choir director. It’s on Netflix, last episode of season four. You’re welcome.

This is just my humble opinion but I must throw it out there: Roger Daltrey is one of the sexiest frontmen of any rock band ever. If not in my top three, he’s easily in my top five. Need I say more?

…(slowly backs away)…

Anyway, back to the plot. After suffering years of abuse at the hands of relatives, he discovers pinball and becomes a master. Tommy then becomes a religious figure and hilarity doesn’t ensue.

Tommy is almost entirely sung through, and the arrangements are quite different from the original rock opera. They sound like a marching band crossed with a cat walking all over a vintage Casio keyboard, but the more I listen to those arrangements, the more I like them.

There are even a couple of songs in the movie that aren’t on the original album, and boy howdy are these numbers a doozy. Tommy’s mother, overwhelmed by her son’s newfound fame, sings “Champagne,” a scene which infamously ended in Ann-Margret writhing around in baked beans. Later, Ann-Margret and Roger Daltrey sing a mother-son duet with incestuous subtext, appropriately titled “Mother and Son.

Yeah, have fun watching this movie with your parents.

And can we talk about some of the hilariously ’70s visual effects? Just look.

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Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 2.31.42 PM

Eh, still better than the VFX in The Legend of Hercules. 

It’s impossible to describe this movie in words and do it justice. You must see it to believe it. Sure it’s a weird, creepy movie and (as a whole) not very good. Some may even go so far as to call it a cash grab, but as someone who loves both The Who and weird, creepy movies, I will defend Tommy to my grave.

RATING: 3.5/5

Whiplash

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Damien Chazelle 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

I know that Terence Fletcher wouldn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about any kind of critique of his performance or his teaching methods. So we’ll keep this between us, okay? I don’t want a chair thrown at me, thank you very much.

In this surprisingly emotional and powerful musical drama from Damien Chazzelle, Miles Teller has grand ambitions of becoming one of the world’s elite jazz drummers, and J.K. Simmons’ unforgettable Fletcher has every intention of breaking those dreams into teeny, tiny little pieces. A maestro he may be, but he’s also the kind of authoritarian who prefers breaking the spirits of his pupils (and occasionally the odd instrument or piece of equipment) as opposed to fostering an environment of nurturing. He is made all the more terrifying because there is method to his madness; he knows exactly what he is doing to anyone who dare step foot inside his practice room. Fletcher is a bully who takes pleasure in scaring his students, but he is no anarchist.

One of the great things about Whiplash is the amount of time you’ll spend trying to figure out whether or not he’s a sadist. He wants to push his students to a higher place, but of what does he know about limitations on that front? Given the amount of blood, sweat and tears his players regularly and literally lose during practice, evidently not much. Everyone’s favorite Farmer’s Insurance agent imbues this character with an intensity that almost seems to come out of left field. In addition to bulking up substantially for the role, he draws upon the cumulative strength of an entire career’s worth of emotion and energy. Never before has J. Jonah Jameson seemed like such a harmless and movable object. (R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman had better watch his back, too.)

While Simmons’ is the performance that arguably makes the movie, it’s the behavior and conceptualization of one particularly talented and ambitious student that matters more, though that’s not to downplay the younger actor’s performance. What Teller has been able to accomplish here to break from his days of Project X and the like is nothing short of thrilling. (Mostly because of the fact it means I probably won’t have to resort to reviews like these anymore.) Here he’s not exactly lovable but he is leagues more defined as an individual rather than the booty-chasing cretins he’s portrayed up until now. The fact Teller has grown up playing drums certainly lends itself to his most matured outing to date.

The driving beat of this thriller-esque drama — yeah, jazz drumming and adrenaline rushes, whodathunkit? —  picks up notably after the pair’s first encounter. The film opens with Andrew, isolated, practicing meticulously on a small kit in a room at the end of a deserted hallway. The harsh clashing of drumsticks against the toms reverberates methodically and certainly rhythmically as well, but there’s more aggression and urgency presented before we even see anyone on screen. He’s interrupted briefly by a fairly imposing-looking dude with a jet black shirt and a perfectly bald head. The man demands to see what the kid can do, and after a few seconds of appearing moderately entertained he just as abruptly exits, leaving the exhausted Andrew to wonder what that had all meant. For a fleeting moment at least, we are Andrew. We have to think this will not be the last time we see this man.

This teasing is not the subtlest way of introducing tension, but for Whiplash‘s purposes it works, since the last thing the film wants to give the impression of being is passive. Indeed, this is a film that will not submit itself to audience expectation; if anything it is the other way around, and we must submit ourselves to the whim of the terrifying and brutal jazz conductor who demands absolute perfection of his students. And we must submit ourselves to Andrew’s unwavering devotion to become more than what he currently is, even if that is a perfectly acceptable human being who may be a bit stubborn at times.

On the merits of committed performances, Whiplash earns a passing grade. Better than that, it’d easily earn (okay, maybe not easily) the approval of the world’s toughest jazz instructor. There’s no way J.K. Simmons can’t look back on what he’s laid down here as one of the proudest moments of his career. It is a little anticlimactic, then, coming to realize at the end that we could have seen this scenario play out this way from the beginning. It’s not a predictable screenplay as much as it is a walk through familiar hallways, a more emphatic way of cautioning the difference between self-improvement and self-destruction.

All the same, Whiplash‘s ability to sock the viewer in the gut with two riveting performances is more than enough to warrant a recommendation.

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4-0Recommendation: The biggest draw for this film hands down is the performances. If you have been a fan of either Mr. Simmons or Mr. Teller for some time, you have absolutely no excuse to put this one off. But if it’s music you are into, you are equally responsible for your own sense of having missed out if you don’t check this one out and pronto, as it probably won’t hang out in theaters for long. Narratively, this is not the most creative thing out there, but this is an acting showcase. And what a beautiful one at that.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”

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 

Begin Again

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Release: Friday, June 27, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

A disgraced record label executive has a chance run-in with a down-on-her-luck musician at a bar and the two forge a friendship that inspires more than great music — it reinvigorates one another’s thirst for life.

The Hulk takes a chill pill as Mark Ruffalo fits himself back into a decidedly more human outfit in John Carney’s musical romantic-comedy Begin Again. Instead of wreaking havoc on everything around him in a physical manner, Dan’s going about the same by butting heads with top execs at the label he started up years ago. His idealistic approach to talent management and discovery is viewed as a product of a bygone era in this company and it puts him at odds with the future of the label. His life quickly unravels.

The film’s secondary focus is Keira Knightley’s emotionally fragile yet three-dimensional Gretta, a guitarist from England whose longtime boyfriend is finding massive popularity in America, particularly in Los Angeles. Begin Again spends much of its second act detailing the spiraling downward of this at-once mesmeric and repulsively stagnant relationship between two musicians struggling to find themselves. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine juggles being Knightley’s heart throb and heart ache impressively as Dave, a man whose artistic integrity as well as devotion to Gretta slowly disintegrates as his star brightens.

Gretta, on the other hand, refuses to bend in the wind. Her firm grasp on her own creative control rings more authentic than manipulative; the choice more a microcosm of an entire population of aspiring artists or even successful ones who have remained true to their roots. So it’s no surprise when she becomes embroiled in drunken conversation with a man who claims to be a formerly successful record producer (yeah, this Dan guy) that we can almost feel it as the stranger smacks straight into the brick wall that is Gretta’s defense mechanism in the face of this awkward business proposition. She claims she is no performer; rather, she creates music at will.

Despite her biting tone, her discomfort seems to stem less from Dan’s crash-landing in her life as it does from being in the present moment. Her very existence here in this spot is the problem. Owed mostly to the ingenuity of the way Carney has constructed this tale, her backstory is explained and introduced in a wholly satisfying way, one that provides the bar scene a greater depth that’s often missing in these ‘when boy-meets-girl’ encounters.

Along with a pair of wonderful lead performances (Ruffalo and Knightley share the kind of chemistry that’s seemingly only developed over many a season of working together) Begin Again also distinguishes itself by not settling for the typical rom-com story arc. It certainly follows structure, but whereas most tend to fail as far as providing surprises is concerned, this little slice of life as a musician in the big city has some wiggle room in terms of deviating from the norm. An unconventional dynamic between the musician and record producer is largely responsible for this. Sidelined for much of the running time is Dan’s estranged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) who work their way onto the fringe as Dan attempts to pull his life back together.

Indeed, Dan and Gretta may be down but not down for the count. Inspired by the sound Gretta was able to produce with an acoustic guitar and just her voice — yes, that bit from the previews is every bit as charming in the film, especially since it’s prolonged — Dan starts coming up with ideas about what to do next with his career. Will the chance run-in with this talent be enough to turn things around in his life or has he back-peddled too far?

The exploration of the soul through the prism of music is not particularly inventive, but when done right it is rewarding. Doubly so when the music and the story against which its set as a backdrop are both high in quality. Now and again Begin Again contains a few music video-esque sequences (look to the songs ‘Coming Up Roses’ and ‘Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home’) that seem to heighten both the visual and audio senses. It’s a unique sensory experience that seems to verify Carney’s talents as a genre director. Many will say his 2006 production Once is the superior film to this, considering the thematic and tonal similarities each share. It may be a lesser film but there is no denying the feel-good vibes. These are the kinds of films we can’t really tire of.

At least, not quite as quickly.

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3-5

Recommendation: Featuring a plethora of good songs and talented performers to back up these songs, Begin Again offers an interesting cinematic experience that succeeds in pleasing genre fans, Ruffalo fans, Knightley fans and fans of rich acoustic melodies. Though not always the most original tale, Carney’s drama often overcomes through sheer likability.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I’m not a performer, I just write songs from time to time.”

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 

Breathe In

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Release: Friday, March 28, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Watching a film like the claustrophobically personal yet largely insignificant Breathe In is the same experience I get going into art museums and being told a painting of a horse is worth $3 million. I can appreciate the view, but what is there to understand? It’s a picture of a horse. This movie is a situational farce that should have been avoided. Pretty plain and simple. And though that sounds critical of the film’s quality, it’s more a comment on the underwhelming simplicity of the story. It’s not necessarily bad that it exists, but it’s a picture of a damn horse and I want my entrance fee into the museum refunded because I’m feeling kind of ripped off.

For what it’s worth, the film’s stars are not only well-matched, they bring much light (and life) to what would be considered an anorexic drama piece without them. Guy Pearce is Keith Reynolds, a man who, as he settles into middle age in a small community in upstate-New York, is unhappy with the way his life has turned out. He doesn’t find much satisfaction in his job and his home life feels less rewarding than it should with the familiarity of his wife (the ever-reliable Amy Ryan) and an inability to connect with his only daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), who is athletic and chooses to swim, rather than learn any musical instrument as he prefers she would.

Everything is as cool as a cucumber in the Reynolds’ household up until they go to pick up 18-year-old Sophie (Felicity Jones), a British foreign exchange student whom they’ve agreed to host for the semester. Lauren shares her room with her, and despite the open hospitality from her and particularly Mrs. Reynolds its clear that Sophie doesn’t seem excited to be where she is. Her original vision of traveling to the States had her staying in a high-rise apartment in the city, or at the very least being a little bit closer to the outskirts. One can cut the tension with a knife the moment Sophie steps foot inside their home.

It’s a tension that continues to grow stronger as her reluctance to engage many of the people around her paints her as stand-offish and antisocial. Refusing to show up to the class Keith teaches at school, Sophie claims she doesn’t have interest in concert piano. Keith would like her very much to at least attend class the next day, despite Sophie’s insistence that the principal will have her name off the roster by that very evening and that she should have no such obligation to attend a class she isn’t enrolled in. She also turns down invitations to hang out with Lauren initially. One is left questioning what exactly she is doing in America at all, given how she is introduced.

However, she slowly begins to come out of her shell when she takes an interest in this quiet and mysterious Mr. Reynolds, who never seems to her to be truly at peace with his position in life. Though an exact time frame is never really clear, one thing that is clear after awhile is that Sophie and Keith are beginning to feel the tug of a mutual attraction, one that poses a significant threat to the harmony in the house. . .and within Keith’s family. Even though the turn of events make us uncomfortable, nothing happens that isn’t slightly predictable. Foreshadowing, particularly with the film’s intrusive score, is a technique the director perhaps relies on too much here.

Meanwhile, character development’s an asset that Drake Doremus can pride his newest film for really valuing. Boosted by solid performances from both Pearce and Jones, this suggestive little indie film features characters that are complex and so very human, even though they are ultimately hard to comprehend, much less empathize with. But whether or not the cast is playing a likable bunch of characters isn’t the issue that causes Breathe In to choke. It’s the actions thereof that do. Actions that are hardly defensible; in fact, they almost defy logic given the context of the story. If there is in fact a take-away from this most emotionally underwhelming of cinematic experiences, it’s that one should lose faith in the foreign exchange program. It seems to be a pretty good free-for-all in terms of who you might get if you choose to host someone in your home for a few months. You could get a partier, you could get a book-worm. You could even get a home-wrecker. But don’t tell that to the Reynolds, wherever you may find them now.

While not completely offensive to watch, Breathe In is a pretty pointless film.

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2-0Recommendation: Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones fans, here’s one where they are both in a film together. For anyone else, there are other movies. Avoid this one if you can help it, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing you accidentally rented either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “One day you’ll be free.”

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 

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

“A folk singer with a cat. Is that part of your act? Every time you hit a C-major, does he puke a hairball?”

For whatever it’s worth, this line delivered by John Goodman’s character was intended to hurt Llewyn Davis’ feelings, not the cat’s. I suppose if the poor feline had to audition for its (substantial) role as Llewyn’s traveling pants, it probably managed to develop a thick skin (fur?) and wasn’t quite as sensitive as all the other Garfield-looking actors who didn’t get the part.

If that’s not a strange enough introduction to throw you completely off-balance, then you definitely need to see this film. Somehow the intro will seem more fitting and less like a rambling filler paragraph. The Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) step forward into the limelight once again with a darkly comical week-in-the-life of a permanently embittered yet talented musician who constantly fumbled in his attempts to make something of himself against the backdrop of the folk music scene in 1960s New York City. If Greenwich Village (largely a residential borough of west Lower Manhattan) was the rose garden in which young artists blossomed, Llewyn would be the thorn of thorns growing on the tallest rose stem. Antisocial and abrasive, the character is not the kind one would immediately associate with potentially award-winning storytelling.

Ordinarily that presumption — that miserable characters tend to make for bad times at the movies — is a good one to keep in the back pocket; why pay money for an experience that’s going to ultimately irritate or rub you the wrong way? While that reservation is still understandable here, writing off the Coens’ latest gem as not a good film because the main character doesn’t appeal would be a mistake.

For starters, missing this film means missing out on Oscar Isaac’s sharpest performance to date, and it also means missing a chance to see/hear Justin Timberlake do some real singing. (For the readers who are choosing to stay through this review even after I have mentioned that name, I thank you kindly. And yes, I do accept tips.) In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to see this film is for the music. That the performers have a chance to incorporate their musical inclinations is surprisingly rewarding; Isaac’s voice is incredible. Timberlake is quite tolerable since his contributions are minimal, yet they endure as much as Isaac’s mopey face; and the film serves as a great showcase for Carey Mulligan’s beautiful voice as well.

However great the many musical imbuements are (and they really are something), all they do is factor into the story — a story of a struggling musician trying to be noticed in a world filled with competing interests and, perhaps, more favorable personalities. These interludes demonstrate these people at their best. When the spotlight turns off of them (particularly Llewyn) though, the Coens’ carefully constructed tone and mood — even the cityscape — seems that much darker.

Isaac portrays a character loosely based on the music and experiences of folk singer/songwriter Dave Van Ronk. Indeed, there was no such folk singer named Llewyn Davis — a reality that is difficult to accept considering the power of Isaac’s essence. Instead, the Coen brothers drafted up a period piece so rich in detail they created real, breathing human beings; even fictitious acts like Davis, like Al Cody (Adam Driver), like duos such as Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan) (who actually were based on the real-life duo of Jim Glover and Jean Ray) are byproducts of a fully-realized script that epitomizes one particular point in music history.

Such is the value of the ticket into this particular Coen production: the sense of time and place. Steeped in a little corner of America that was brimming with talent in a much-overlooked genre, Inside Llewyn Davis transports the viewer to what’s ostensibly the 60s; so much so, that the story presented comes in second to the ambience. Llewyn was once part of a duo himself, but after his friend and fellow songwriter decided to commit suicide, he has been left in an aching hollow, a dark melancholy from which he seemingly cannot awaken. His last album (which he recorded with his late friend) hasn’t sold well at all, rendering him completely broke. So he bounces from couch to couch, finding increasingly desperate ways of securing the next gig that may or may not tide him over for awhile. Llewyn doesn’t so much live as much as he exists.

On top of his real-world issues, Llewyn has a myriad of ideological problems that don’t seem to help his cause. He can’t fathom why audiences are taking to other acts more than his own; why does everything he touch seemingly fall to pieces? His jealousy of Jim and Jean might be understandable on a more personal level, and yet, for him, it’s so much more. Llewyn doesn’t like people, clearly. Painfully ironically, he has plenty of kind-hearted “friends” and acquaintances who have been trying to help him out and get him off of his feet. (Hey, at least there’s the cat. . . .he won’t help to pay rent or whatever, but, meow. . .)

The directorial duo of brothers weave a slight, if daydreaming, narrative in between rousing on-screen performances and tremendous stage presences. It’s difficult to believe Isaac and Mulligan — and, yes. . .okay, Timberlake, get in here too — are this talented, musically as well as visually. We don’t see Llewyn do much other than mope around between apartments he’s staying in, smoke cigarettes and complain; but we do meet a full cast of characters who do more than their fair share of bringing this story to life. John Goodman adds some color (as per usual) as Roland Turner, a jazz musician Llewyn meets on the road who might be more obnoxious than he is; Garrett Hedlund makes a brief appearance as Turner’s driver, cigarette un-sharing, beat-poet Johnny Five; and F. Murray Abraham plays up the big whig (or as big as they get at this point) Bud Grossman, a potential label representative Llewyn has been eyeing in Chicago, his possible ticket for getting out of all of this mess.

The Coens won’t make it easy on the viewer (after all, they did hire Justin Timberlake. . . but in all honesty, he’s nothing to worry about here). Inside Llewyn Davis suffers from a minor case of anti-hero. However, in this case, the viewer must be able to distinguish between bad person and great performance. Isaac turns in an affecting performance; arguably one of the more memorable of 2013. Capturing the drama and the anxieties of working in this kind of market during this time in this place is a task left up to Joel and Ethan Coen. And they deliver, as only they can.

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4-0Recommendation: Inside Llewyn Davis may very well appeal to far more fans of Coens’ previous work than to newcomers, but it should also have a strong sway with anyone who loves good music. Packed full of great little songs, a few of which are sung to perfection by the cast, the film is a real joy to watch unfold, despite it’s rough-around-the-edges subject and the circumstances surrounding him/it. The performances are stellar, and, unless the Oscars are completely and unabashedly fixed (maybe they are), they should receive at least some sort of recognition come February.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

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