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.

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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. 

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

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

'Popstar' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 3, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Akiva Schaffer; Jorma Taccone; Andy Samberg

Directed by: Akiva Schaffer; Jorma Taccone 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping represents the strongest extended skit Andy Samberg has developed since his SNL days. Despite the contrived manner in which conflict is resolved, Popstar stays fresh, rarely succumbing to its own silliness as it takes aim at the vapid culture surrounding top-brand pop artists in today’s music industry.

Of course it’s Samberg to whom we’re indebted the most. As he has volunteered himself as the honorary jackass, the simultaneous pro- and antagonist leading the charge in another satirical stabbing at the entertainment industry, he stands to lose the most. He plays Connor Friel, a name that just has to be modified for the stage — Connor4Real. So cheesy it just has to be fattening. Samberg thrusts himself into the spotlight as an ultra-successful, Billboard 200-topping artist whose morbidly obese ego won’t be lost on those who lap up anything with Kanye’s name on it . . . or maybe it’ll appeal even more to those who can’t stand him, I’m not entirely sure. (Don’t let the title fool you; this is a shakedown of the entire music industry, not just pop stars.)

Taking the form of a mockumentary, this feels like something you might catch on VH1, though you might have to tune in at 2 a.m. to get the fully uncensored version. It introduces Connor and his childhood friends Owen and Lawrence (co-writer/directors Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, respectively), the guys with whom he had found early success since his days with The Style Boyz. As the story develops, so do the tropes: the meteoric rise to fame, the fall from it, the varying degrees of success experienced by each former member thereafter.

We pick up in the present as Connor is preparing to release a follow-up to the sensation that was his debut album, Thriller, Also. Unfortunately said follow-up, Connquest, gets released to scathing reviews and in no short order it’s deemed a massive failure, even commercially. (Figures for the week are something in the thousands, as opposed to the predicted upper-hundreds of thousands, bordering on millions.) Before it’s all over Connor will be bidding embarrassing adieus to his agent (Tim Meadows), his girl (Imogen Poots), his dignity, even the loyalty of the only other remaining member of The Style Boyz.

That’s before he realizes the rift between the Boyz is the very thing that’s holding him back from true stardom. That’s before the epiphany hits: ‘gee, maybe I’m as much at fault for the fall out as the others. Maybe it’s time I humble myself.’ So they get back together again — a veritable bromantic moment that actually carries some weight thanks to the well-established personalities — for a reunion show/finale guaranteed to inspire Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus to step up their game.

The picture is not only energetic and engrossing (and ruthlessly satirical, in case that wasn’t obvious), but it’s efficient, clocking in at under 90 minutes. Popstar is poignant in the way it captures the various personalities in their natural habitats. Connor’s surrounded by his lavish worldly possessions (think: MTV’s Cribs); Owen can always be found behind his keyboard(s) and Lawrence, disillusioned by the entire music industry, opts for a more rural lifestyle. Now he lives on a farm, tending to his crops. (Pssst, it’s a Judd Apatow production so you know that ain’t okra.)

Even if the execution is largely by-the-numbers, the personalities are larger than life, and it is Connor’s that we’re concerned with the most. Ultimately it’s the only one that really matters.

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Recommendation: I’m unsure if there are any real takeaways from this comedy; you know, other than what any well-adjusted adult already knows to be true of certain celebrities. The vanity surprises no one here and as a result this isn’t exactly the most revelatory satire you’ll come across. To Popstar‘s credit, there’s no lecturing or condescension. It’s kind of a warning siren for stars on the rise Justin Bieber: don’t be a douche. Fans of Andy Samberg/SNL need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Ever since I was born, I was dope.”

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

Paul G — #4

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Last time we were here, Paul had plunged himself into a truly despicable role as a slave trader in Louisiana who played a fundamental role in the fate of Solomon Northup, a free man abducted in Washington D.C. to be sold into slavery in the south, where he’d remain for 12 years. Given that we’ve had two fairly nasty roles in succession, let’s move the discussion to a character who is a little easier to get along with, even if ultimately he, too, isn’t without a few tricks up his sleeve — a record producer who finds himself doing whatever’s necessary to keep riding the wave of success off the back of newly signed rap group N.W.A.

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Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The group N.W.A. emerges from the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California in the mid-1980s and revolutionizes hip-hop culture with their music and tales about life in the ‘hood.

Character Profile: A successful American businessman, record producer and the co-founder of Ruthless Records along with rapper Eazy-E, Jerry Heller’s most notable for his discovery and development of rap group N.W.A., something that led to him becoming inextricably linked to the emergence of west coast rap, including the birth of groups such as The Black Eyed Peas, Above the Law, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Heller came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s with his support behind bands like Journey, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Crosby Stills & Nash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, REO Speedwagon, and Styx, among others, placing him at the top of a very tall pillar of successful American producers. While his business acumen spoke for itself, Heller was also never short of a few self-serving schemes. The eventual fall-out between Eazy-E and the producer spoke to the level of frustration that members of the group had started to feel towards Heller’s exploitation of their popularity. Parting ways with N.W.A. proved to be a painful, bitter and somewhat protracted process, and it got ugly enough to inspire Ice Cube to lay down a few raps specifically calling out Heller and the way he mistreated the others.

Why he’s the man: While I can’t say this is a character that no other actor could make suitably smarmy, Jerry Heller is brought to life entirely effortlessly by Paul Giamatti’s natural gravitation towards playing untrustworthy types. Here is a man we start off on the right foot with immediately and it takes so long for cracks in the façade to appear. But, unfortunately, they eventually do and Giamatti reminds us once again why he’s so good at playing these types of people. He makes it far too easy to buy into the tricks Heller shows a group of up-and-coming talented rappers, but soon enough he’s taking a bigger cut of the royalties than what he initially said he would take and he’s having clandestine meetings with Eazy-E and making moves to try and manipulate the direction of the group. Never trust Giamatti, especially when you can’t even trust his hair color.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Straight Outta Compton

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Herman; Andrea Berloff

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

F. Gary Gray’s first directorial outing in six years debuted last weekend to the most successful opening for a musical biopic in cinematic history. Ignoring the 20 years that have elapsed since the tragic passing of N.W.A founder Eazy-E the occasion might not seem auspicious, but for anyone who has been keeping track they would hardly describe the film’s release as straight out of nowhere.

It probably would help make an already solid production even more absorbing if I weren’t so ignorant to the history and culture this iconic group were simultaneously being molded by and molding themselves. To me, Gray’s latest seemed like a random and trivial release. That’s why it has taken me a week to get to it. And though it still feels more random than commemorative there’s very little about its raw power and dynamic beat that feels trivial. Straight Outta Compton is a very good film, made so by the fact that you don’t need to dig hip hop to appreciate the gravity of this story.

Its total run time of two and a half hours at first seems daunting — ultimately it is a little too long — but the number of scenes in which checking one’s phone is tempting is kept to a surprising minimum. Like N.W.A in the prime of their hard-hitting and layered lyricism, the narrative is a well-oiled machine, boasting fluid pacing, lasting momentum and confident direction. More importantly, since there will be far more than gangsta rap fans in attendance, the chronicle is straightforward and digestible, navigating the tumultuous formative years through to the crescendo of success and ending, as many musical biopics do, on a bittersweet note as the group fragments.

Compton requires a modicum of patience, particularly in the opening third where Gray takes his time developing by-now highly recognizable personalities in the form of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (played by his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). Interestingly Arabian Prince, despite having a role in the formation of the group, was deemed too much of a peripheral character to warrant inclusion. The opening sequence sees Eazy-E flirting with death during a chaotic police raid on a drug den, a nod toward an alternative future a few of these young men might have faced were it not for the forthcoming tête-à-tête shared between E and Dre in a night club, the same club in which the latter had been struggling for some time to get himself recognized as a DJ/producer.

It’s not long before the pair are able to spin an argument that will convince Cube to leave his current group, C.I.A., as well as the high-spirited DJ Yella and loyal MC Ren to offer their talents to this mix of raw, surprisingly focused talent. A rudimentary sound studio becomes quickly filled with groupies and curious listeners. And then E is approached by music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), with whom the rapper co-founds their first label, Ruthless Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

Giamatti could have been the x-factor in Compton as his celebrity status, despite his affinity for disappearing into his roles, flagged up a potential distraction. But once more he pulls a Houdini, seemingly comfortable with a striking wave of white hair and that glint in his eye that gives us pause for concern whether he is a man to be fully trusted. You can almost picture an honorary gold chain necklace draped around his neck but fortunately this is not a movie built upon stereotype or offensive fabrication (despite the real Heller’s reactions to his portrayal).

There is a caveat to that, though. Or, I guess a second. The biopic isn’t immune to all forms of stereotype; that it focuses so intensely on the group (read: the trio of E, Cube and Dre) means there are casualties of Gray’s fixations. Women — special shout-out to Felicia! — fare worse than the police, coming in droves, forming the requisite mise-en-scene once the group starts stockpiling dollar bills faster than ideas for potentially future hit singles. But given the lyrical content of much of N.W.A’s work, is the visible misogyny all that shocking?

This could be controversial, but I argue that the harmony between Compton‘s scantily clad extras and Cube’s verve for undressing and (swear-word)ing them umpteen to the dozen doesn’t quite ring alarm bells like the racial tensions that ever more define the thrust of the narrative. A well-timed insertion of footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent fall-out inspire outrage, an outrage that strengthens our bond with these characters. If N.W.A’s personal experiences with the hostile LAPD didn’t create a united front then this disturbing news reel is the insurance Gray needed. The acquittal of the officers on obvious charges — abuse of power and excessive force, the mechanism that drove songs like ‘F**k Tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ — signals a low point in the sociopolitical climate specific to the film and the decade it damns in its final act.

Compton is consistently compelling, becoming a party as quickly as it turns ugly, examining extraordinary lives in perpetual transition. While it’s not always fun to watch it is important and the three-act structure serves the material well. The voices of Compton needed more microphones, a bigger stage. In Gray’s testament to the power of music they get both.

Recommendation: Straight Outta Compton is a very well-acted and confidently directed tale that serves its unique subject well. It’s a testament to the quality of Gray’s direction that it remains a highly involving story even when knowing next to none of the lyrics that have popularized N.W.A since 1986. I highly recommend giving this a watch on the big screen as these personalities, as influential as they have been, somehow feel even larger than life in this format.

Rated: R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”

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

Love & Mercy

Release: Friday, June 5, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Oren Moverman; Michael Alan Lerner

Directed by: Bill Pohlad

Capturing the life of one of rock’n roll’s most luminous figures in The Beach Boys’ very own Brian Wilson poses obvious challenges. Painting broad strokes risks missing all those curious little imperfections, while delving into a day-in-the-life could yield a movie so large a mini-series event would seem a better format. There’s also the issue of casting the part.

Bill Pohlad’s love letter to the heyday of The Beach Boys phenomenon opts for the general specific, briefly opening a window into two different phases of Wilson’s colorful life, offering intimacy before slamming shut and locking forever once again. Despite aching with nostalgia Love & Mercy‘s potency actually stems from its uncanny ability to translate a simple cause and effect into an immersive experience. How Wilson’s young star (Paul Dano), brilliant but troubled, begets an aging, broken man (John Cusack), housebound and saddled with a routine that sees him less functional and more conforming. Some might describe it as a typical downfall, but typical isn’t the word I’d use to describe Wilson.

Pohlad might have gone the documentary or mini-series route, but then he’d have missed the opportunity to showcase Oscar-worthy performances from his leads, both of whom are clearly smitten by the chance to simultaneously dramatize this most peculiar musician. In the sixties, following the critical and commercial successes of albums like Surfin’ U.S.A. and Today!, Dano is magnetic. He becomes Wilson, dropping his trademark and quite contradictorily unsavory appeal in favor of an effusive personality tailored to fit the profile of musical genius. He’s pushing for a new Beach Boys sound as the band enters its eleventh studio album in Pet Sounds, a production that didn’t see the warmest reception on American shores due to its detouring into the . . . well, weird.

Love & Mercy provides ground-floor access into a studio that can’t hope to contain all the ideas young Brian Wilson, already fragile, has pouring out of him. But the story moves beyond those walls and into the eighties, embracing Cusack’s forty-something version, a character who, while representing a stark contrast from Dano’s, arguably is a more crucial component. Similar to young Brian’s often happenstance discovery of unique acoustics (the aforementioned 1966 release certainly hints at a memorable recording experience), older Brian’s stumbling into a car dealership has profound implications for his life post-Beach Boys.

Elizabeth Banks’ Melinda Ledbetter isn’t aware to whom she is potentially selling a Cadillac in an opening scene. Cusack is unabashedly sincere, playing a man mellowed almost to the point of self-denial, though he’s polite and charming. Melinda will be his saving grace, an oasis of beauty whose infatuation is reciprocated across a number of romantic escapades. In middle age, Brian has deteriorated considerably and is kept watch over by his suffocating psychotherapist, a Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, also fantastic). Supposedly the man is Brian’s legal guardian after the death of his father. As Melinda spends increasing amounts of time with Brian she realizes there is a great deal more to the story behind his darting eyes and weary smile.

Love & Mercy isn’t quite like its subject; it doesn’t exactly reshape the biopic if even subtly. There are tropes and there are predictable resolutions. Yet the two timelines complement one another so well the journey resonates on a much deeper level than average entertainment. Beyond superb performances from an engaging cast, Love & Mercy lives up to its title, offering up an abundance of both in its intense scrutiny of a figure many shouldn’t be blamed for assuming is a perpetually upbeat, satisfied human being. Melinda’s introduction is hardly a product of genius screenwriting but let’s not dismiss her as a product, period. Banks — as does Cusack — breathes life into her character, committing some of her finest work to date.

Pohlad’s fascination with the enigmatic also gives fans new context for some of The Beach Boys’ less recognizable tracks as well as those that have been played mercilessly over and again. We are privy to Wilson’s iconic vocals as much as we are to the tension he creates between his bandmates as his grip on reality slowly but surely loosens. Love & Mercy is as much an auditory sensation as it is visually arresting. Settings and wardrobe take us back several decades; tranquility eventually wins out over the disturbing, often painful psychological and emotional bruising. In many senses it is heartbreaking. Uplifting. Intoxicating. Bound to be a classic.

Brian Wilson’s cinematic treatment may never convince major theaters it’s worth their while but it won’t need to. Love & Mercy is a biopic gifted with a massive fan base already built in and, impressively, doubles as an eye-opening experience for general audiences as well as those leery of the California dream.

Recommendation: Love & Mercy isn’t a film just for fans of the legacy of Brian Wilson and/or The Beach Boys, though it’ll no doubt help elevate the experience. This is a profoundly touching experience, one that I couldn’t help becoming more enthusiastic about in the days following. It may not haunt you the same way it has me, but may I recommend this one on the strength of its performances at the very least. A very welcomed surprise in the middle of this summer blockbuster bash. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We’re not surfers, we never have been, and ‘real’ surfers don’t dig our music anyway!”

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

Frank

Release: Friday, September 5, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jon Ronson; Peter Straughan

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Any film that strives to turn Domhnall Gleeson into a thoroughly unlikable character is one I’m uncomfortable watching. Frank is just such a film.

Focusing on an aspiring musician who stumbles upon an eccentric pop band with an unpronounceable name (they call themselves The Soronprfbs), this oddball comedy does its best to distance itself from an audience looking to make connections with key characters. Its best is more than enough.

After witnessing a drowning at a local beach, Jon (Gleeson) finds himself being ushered into the band. They have a show to play that night and they need his help filling in on keyboards as that was in fact their keyboardist trying to drown himself. Excited for the opportunity, he shows up for a bizarre display of nonconformist musicianship, the heir apparent to a suicidal keyboardist — what a great guy.

Jon initially assumes his role in the band would be that of a temporary hired-gun. His involvement soon extends to filling in on a more permanent basis as The Soronprfbs seclude themselves in an isolated cabin in the Irish countryside to record a full album. Jon bemoans the fact no one told him this would be more than a weekend gig, citing he has to return to work as soon as possible. His kidnappers don’t much care though, for they have a lot of work to do. Seemingly this is now his job, trying to find a way to fit in amongst a crew of ragtags who themselves don’t fit in elsewhere.

There’s the dude who first offers Jon the chance to play, Don (Scoot McNairy). His determination to become someone he’s not is simultaneously driving him mad. We’ve got the non-English speaking Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar), who don’t do much beyond moping about and remaining wary about Jon’s presence. Then, chief among the antagonists — I’m sure none of these people are meant to be perceived that way but let’s just say these are some talented actors here — is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara, a nutcase who takes an instant dislike to Jon and makes life in the band a living nightmare for him. Her role is akin to that of someone you come across in your early grade school years who constantly picks on you, but all along the bullying is that person’s way of saying they dig your vibe.

Unfortunately the only person’s vibe I can really dig in this oppressively odd film is Michael Fassbender and his papier-mâché head/mask. As Frank, Fassbender is simultaneously the leader of The Soronprfbs and the stand-out acting talent. He’s empathetic given the obviousness and severity of his mental condition. He’ll never remove the head/mask, a fact that yields all sorts of questions ranging from his ability to function in social settings to his general hygiene. Answers to a few of these are admittedly provided with a compelling, brutal honesty when Jon is able to convince the band to make an appearance at the SXSW festival, where he hopes their efforts to represent a very . . . different . . . music experience will finally provide them an audience willing to reciprocate their uniqueness. It’s an undertaking that does not at all go according to plan.

Despite few of the members being likable on any level, it’s clear there are sides to be taken in this awkward, personal tug-of-war. Jon’s main purpose is to become the wedge between Frank and the rest of the band. Amidst the hostility and intolerance that defines The Soronprfbs’ dysfunction there exists this competition to be ‘the next Frank.’ It’s a mentality that explains Clara’s treatment of Jon — she doesn’t believe he has any talent or originality whatsoever and is trying too hard to be like Frank; a mentality that also sums up the fates of other members who have stepped out of the band.

Abrahamson’s fourth directorial effort manifests as a sincere reflection of mental illness but sadly this is a production difficult to enjoy or even sympathize with. An hour-and-a-half featuring people arguing and making something akin to music. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn about any of it.

Recommendation: If kinky films are what you dig, then maybe Frank will be something you might enjoy. With disagreeable characters, languid pacing and a band that makes no sense, it is a difficult one to recommend to anyone else. Even though the characters are largely detestable, my bigger issue is that it combined that with a theme of social anxiety that didn’t really work. Plus the film feels so much longer than 95 minutes would suggest. I was prepared for a different kind of watch, but maybe not one this repellent. It’s almost as if the film was actively trying not to be enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Stale beer. Fat f**ked, smoked out. Cowpoked. Sequined mountain ladies. I love your wall. Put your arms around me. Fiddly digits, itchy britches. I love you all.”

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

Danny Collins

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Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Directed by: Dan Fogelman

Perspective is a tool we come to wield better with age.  As months beget years and years decades, we can look back and reconsider things we could have or shouldn’t have done. I’d like to not put too fine a point on it by calling this process regret; at a certain point all of us end up looking into a mirror and realizing that physical changes can sometimes be the least noticeable ones.

That’s a complete cliché and this blogger knows he’s used his fair share since beginning to write about movies but in this instance, where the tribulations of fictitious folk singer Danny Collins have been irrevocably affected by the 40-years-belated reception of a note penned by John Lennon, reflecting upon the past turns out to be a potent storytelling device. Al Pacino’s hard-drinking, hard-partying 60-something celebrity isn’t built completely out of fabricated material, however; he’s based upon English folk singer and songwriter Steve Tilston. The note Lennon actually wrote said something to the effect of “being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think.”

The letter addresses a then-21-year-old Danny who was interviewed by a magazine at the beginning of his success and reported that he was in fact terrified of what his career might bring him — fame, fortune . . . the sort of stuff many of us would drool over while fantasizing about our new wardrobes, our new social circles, our new everything. And that was his fear, how these things would affect his ability to craft quality music.

Danny Collins is the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Tangled; Cars) and features Pacino in a decidedly less destructive role but with Pacino being Pacino you are unable to dismiss the choice as wayward from the glory days (cough-cough, Robert De Niro). There I go with comparisons again. Not that they’re difficult to make as De Niro has become an easy target and Pacino is that rare kind of performer who just stays excellent (though, granted, perhaps I need to experience his Starkman before I can accurately make that statement). His charisma as a musician stagnating in his latter years, reduced to playing the same hits every night, largely defines this picture.

It’s his manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) who brings the letter to Danny’s attention. After a typical night of boozing and using Danny decides he wants to reverse the course of his self-destructive habits, start writing songs again (after a three decade hiatus) and maybe even get in touch with his son who he has never met. He moves into a random New Jersey hotel, managed by the charming but guarded Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) who repeatedly rebuffs Danny’s offers for dinner. The first time they meet remains a highlight moment, dually serving as affirmation that Fogelman can write great dialogue. The banter between them is something that doesn’t fail, even if the film overall nearly collapses with sentimentality as a jelly doughnut does with too much filling. (Yes, I’m a firm believer doughnuts can have too much filling.)

Fogelman’s first directorial effort is undoubtedly elevated by experienced actors making mushy material work so much better than it really ought to. Predictability is a bit of an issue, as are character archetypes that are visibly influenced by script rather than the almighty charm of Pacino’s musician. Bobby Cannavale plays Danny’s son Tom. Jennifer Garner is his wife, Samantha. They’re raising what first appears to be a precocious young daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) but as time goes on she’s revealed to suffer from severe hyperactivity and has learning disabilities because of it. They’re trying to get her into an educational institution where her needs will be met. Cue Danny’s first opportunity to get back into his family’s life. It won’t take great acting for us to realize there’ll be some resistance. But Cannavale is superb and erases his character’s strictures with ease. We empathize with Tom perhaps more than we should. Garner is also solid, although she has very little to do but win the race of who’s-going-to-forgive-Danny-first.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before, but this is a stage far removed from the spotlights of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone. Pacino has demonstrated a capacity for tolerating questionable material — things of the Gigli and Jack & Jill variety — as well as a willingness to embrace extremes (he makes for quite a charismatic Satan in Devil’s Advocate). He’s not above anything and that kind of attitude may very well be the reason he’s regarded as one of cinema’s greatest American icons. It’s evident that being rich hasn’t changed his experience in the way he thinks.

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3-5Recommendation: Al Pacino and a talented, intensely likable supporting cast give Danny Collins‘ weaker moments a pass, though this is far and away Pacino’s film. Depending on your level of enthusiasm for the guy, this is a must-see in theaters or a rental you cannot miss. It’s a solid adult dramedy, one of an elite few so far in 2015.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Well, you look . . . slightly ridiculous . . .”

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