July Blindspot: Swingers (1996)

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

→YouTube

Written by: Jon Favreau

Directed by: Doug Liman

It is all too easy to assume certain things about a movie titled Swingers. Oh, how does that expression go? The project that launched the careers of both its leads as well as the director is, yes, very much a “dude-flick” preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of women, but the way in which it extracts genuine, honest emotion out of such simple ambitions is really impressive.

Steeped in the Swing Revival period that swept over America in the late ’90s — a curious echo of the 1930s and ’40s when Benny Goodman was King of Swing — Doug Liman’s break-out comedy is both an homage and a movie of its era. Sampling everything from contemporary revivalist groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to ’50s jump blues icons like Louis Jordan, Swingers builds much of its swagger through its eclectic soundtrack. Luckily there are performances to match the up-tempo musical stylings.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a comedic dream playing struggling actors in Tinseltown who spend their days looking for work and their nights for a good time. Trent (Vaughn) is the quintessential Ladies’ Man whose sense of connectedness to this earth is defined entirely by his gift of gab. He’s not the type to invest his energy into anything long-term, anything real. The only commitment he knows is to playing the field. His prototypical extrovert stands in stark contrast to Favreau’s Mikey who, six months after the fact, is still reeling from a break-up from a longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York in pursuit of his dreams out west.

Whereas Trent only looks forward to the future (and his next cocktail), Mikey can’t stop looking back. His obsession with the past has really done a number on his self-esteem and his ability to connect to others in the here and now. Favreau’s nuanced performance captures the pain of being socially graceless and, perhaps because his character is also uncannily me, should have received more than a Best Newcomer award. His A-list status today may somewhat belie his true talents. The role is proof that Favreau is an actor first and a director second. Who knew the guy could do awkward and repressed so convincingly?

After an impromptu trip to Las Vegas* fails to revive a heartbroken Mikey, Trent and a few other actor friends — Rob (Ron Livingston, also playing a version of himself as a fresh hopeful in the City of Broken Dreams), Charles (Alex Désert) and a boy named Sue (Patrick Van Horn) — decide that enough is enough. It’s time to rally around their fallen comrade. Famously the refrain becomes “You’re so money, baby, you don’t even know it.”

Though it is a collective effort, it’s really Trent who tries to instill in Mikey all that he knows about the “unwritten rules” of the social scene. However, when push comes to shove, none of the advice seems to help. His boy is too much of a “nice guy,” which concerns Trent because he knows nice guys finish last. But Swingers (Favreau‘s first screenplay) posits this is an outmoded attitude, even in the ’90s. “Finishing last” could mean meeting a Lorraine (Heather Graham, whose well-placed cameo suggests that timing is the only thing that really matters). Ever so subtly the tone shifts away from crassness and towards something approaching genteelism. It becomes apparent after awhile that there are actually drawbacks of being a Trent. It’s probably a stretch to call the film socially responsible, but its flirtation with romance is a wholly unexpected diversion.

Swingers is a movie of simple pleasures and it’s decidedly low-budget. On first watch you’ll probably notice some technical stuff like the shadow of the camera-man against the wall as he climbs stairs in pursuit of the actors. Visible boom mics in a number of shots. Some of the effects are badly dated. If you ask me, all of this adds to the purity of the experience. The movie has such a big heart it just barely manages to wear it on its sleeve. Its passion is persuasive. Its enthusiasm contagious. Swingers is a born winner. And the music ain’t bad either.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

* Fun trivia: the scene that takes place on the side of the highway on the return trip wasn’t shot legally. Permits for shooting are required, and the production team neither could afford one nor would have ever been able to acquire one for this particular location for red-tape-related reasons. So Liman had to improvise and make it appear as though they weren’t working even though they were. Apparently as the undercover shoot took place local cops were standing by, just out of frame.

Recommendation: Fun, uplifting, unexpectedly wholesome. You won’t want to throw it on for family movie night, but if you’re going through a rough patch Swingers is one hell of an antidote. Whether you’re a Trent or a Mikey there’s a lot to be gained out of this treatise on social dynamics — and though times have definitely changed, our innate desire to find happiness in another person has not.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “So how long do I wait to call?”

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.youtube.com 

Dream Theater’s The Astonishing — Live

On Wednesday, October 19, 2016 the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark hosted Dream Theater for ‘An Evening With’ as the progressive-metal giants played in its entirety their brand new album, the sprawling odyssey that is The Astonishing — an epic tale of betrayal, loss, hope and redemption set in a dystopian future circa 2285 in an America not that dissimilar to the one you find in The Hunger Games.

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The Astonishing represents the band’s 13th studio release, and their third since the departure of original drummer and one of the band’s founding members Mike Portnoy in 2010. While the album certainly features all of the elements and ingredients that have helped maintain the band’s longevity (they’ve been rocking since 1989), The Astonishing is undoubtedly their most ambitious and most exhaustive undertaking to date, featuring 34 tracks and running over 2 hours in length over the course of two discs overflowing with virtuosic musicianship, deep emotional hooks and conceptual grandeur. It’s quite unlike anything the band has tried before and they have tried a lot of things in their 30 year history. Rumor has it that guitarist John Petrucci has ambitions of turning it into a Broadway play . . . although I’m not sure Broadway is ready for something like that. Or ever will be.

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For those curious about what’s established here in The Astonishing:

The Great Northern Empire of the Americas would look eerily familiar yet terrifyingly primitive to the people who occupied roughly the same territory three centuries before. After a great calamity precipitated a gradual societal collapse, medieval-like feudalism reemerged alongside the relics of technology and “progress” from a now all but forgotten era. Safety in servitude replaced ambition. An aristocracy replaced nobility. The ever-watching omnipresent NOMACs (Noise Machines) broadcast an empty cacophony; all that remains of music and creativity in this dystopia. But in Ravenskill, a village situated on Endless Isleland, a lone voice heralds the arrival of a reawakening in human consciousness. Freedom of expression finds a way, in the purest of musical outpourings not heard in generations, to stir the hearts of the people and shake the very foundations of power.

For more, you should visit the band’s official website at dreamtheater.net.


So the Newark show was actually my fourth time seeing the band and while I can’t quite say it ranks amongst my favorite shows this experience reaffirmed the notion that Dream Theater is simply a band you have to see in the live setting. There’s something electrifying about seeing Petrucci take center stage when he dives into one of his incredibly complex solos, even if you are like me and don’t exactly count yourself amongst the elite musicians of the world (I can’t even hold a guitar the right way). The power of that musician is in itself astonishing. Every time I’ve seen the guy play — be it in Atlanta, Cleveland, Asheville or Newark — I’ve been amazed how effortlessly the guy manages to seduce his audience, holding thousands in the palm of his hand as he unleashes a maelstrom of sound through those ever-reliable Mesa Boogies.

Then of course there’s the lead singer, Canadian James LaBrie, who is a character unto himself. The number one complaint I’ve heard from people I have tried to recruit into Dream Theater Land is that they have an issue with the vocals. Why does the singer sound like that, they wonder. And I never have the right answer, other than the default “well, he’s sung opera before . . .” Come out to the live show and listen to him then. There’s a good chance he will persuade you. And last but absolutely not least the other musicians — bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini — surround these guys with their own brand of face-melting awesomeness. It is such a complementary band, one fully attuned to its own idiosyncrasies. There’s no one quite like DT and they know it. That’s why they can get away with selling out major venues as a single act playing their new album from start to finish. How many other bands can get away with that these days? How many have albums that are long enough to sustain the length of a concert?

With all that in mind, I have to concede that The Astonishing represents my least favorite of the band’s thus far. In fact I hadn’t even listened to the entire album before seeing them reenact it on stage, a span of almost ten months. But that actually gave me a unique opportunity to treat the show as my proper introduction to the album and all that it entails. I don’t think I have ever had that experience before. Of course, that also meant not being able to sing along and anticipate some of the highs — those Petrucci solos seemingly came at random and largely caught me off-guard —  but in the end I don’t know if I would have had it any other way. This was such a different way to experience a concert, even if it ultimately hasn’t really had much of an impact on what I think of the new work. There are some good bits here and there but structurally I’m not a fan of it. And when I heard Petrucci comparing the album’s concept with that of something like Game of Thrones, I cringed. I mean, this has never been a band to float the mainstream. If anything has changed since the departure of Portnoy, it’s that they have flirted more with that line. It has gotten a little scary at times. I’m hoping with their next album we’ll revert back to stuff that’s a little more original.

The Astonishing — Live! also provided me a chance to share my love for this band with my dad, who had been getting into them ever since I introduced him to their 2005 album Octavarium some years ago. Getting him in to his first DT show was a bucket list item for me absolutely, and it feels great to be able to tick that off. There were a lot of nerves before the curtain went up for me, and I think that stemmed mostly from the fact that I was greatly anticipating how he would react. In the end, I needn’t have worried.

dream-theater

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. 

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

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

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Justin Krook

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, not to be confused with Mike Hodges’ British crime thriller starring Clive Owen, is a globetrotting documentary following around popular EDM deejay Steve Aoki as he prepares for the biggest show of his career. It promises a unique look at a unique life, but unfortunately it suffers from the same identity crisis nonpareils of iPod-shuffling-based music do. Very little about the piece ends up distinctive, much less memorable.

That’s a shame given the subject gives an altogether different impression. Aoki, born in Miami to fairly traditional Japanese parents Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki and Chizuru Kobayashi, is a fountain of perpetual youth. One thing that’s apparent even to the uninitiated is his inability to stand still, to release his foot from the gas pedal as he continues jamming as many live performances into one calendar year as possible despite being nine years deep into a career one might reasonably describe as exhausting. The Guinness Book of World Records has him pegged as the planet’s most well-traveled deejay based on miles logged in the air alone. And in the live setting, where he regularly plasters raging fans with birthday cake (while he himself gets plastered by chugging whatever liquor he has handy), Aoki is a 21-year-old stuck in an almost-40-year-old body. Put simply, he’s an enigma.

Justin Krook is clearly an admirer. His film is concerned with all things Steve Aoki, slowly separating out the personal from the professional, but the profile doesn’t quite evolve into something truly compelling. You get this sense that the background checks — the majority of which boils down to a fairly stock E! True Hollywood story based upon artists who spent their lives trying to crawl out from the shadows cast by their parents — have been obligatorily stitched on, as if Krook knows the majority watching is far less interested in where Aoki comes from as it is in where he’s going next. The end result is a muddled assemblage of timelines both past and present that culminates in a unique (and, of course, massive) show that takes over the streets of L.A. in celebration of Aoki’s latest release, the double-album ‘Neon Future.’

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is at its most fascinating when talking Steve’s ultra-ambitious father. A wrestler-turned-restaurateur, Rocky seemed to live a life that was the stuff of dreams. As if founding popular Japanese cuisine chain Benihana wasn’t enough, Rocky became obsessed with pursuing high-risk outdoor activities like hot air ballooning over the Pacific and off-shore powerboat racing. The latter nearly killed him after a high speed accident under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1979, at which point he recognized his limitations. His refusal to provide his musically-inclined son any sort of financial support isn’t really surprising when you learn more about the man. The tension between Steve and his father becomes the quintessential story of self-motivation, despite a consistently supportive mother who never told her children not to follow their passions.

The film pulls interviews from a variety of industry staples, the likes of which might mean something to those who have immersed themselves in this cacophonous culture. They attempt to illuminate Aoki’s influence upon the scene but intelligible commentary becomes so obscured by empty descriptors like “fucking rad” and “epic” and “extreme” that it’s difficult to glean much of a message behind the words. The gist is that very few deejays work as hard as Steve Aoki. More so than his free-flowing hair, it’s his work ethic that has come to define him both as a person and as a professional. That’s pretty cool. I guess.

Recommendation: If you listen to this kind of music (I don’t, or at least not with any degree of regularity) you might get a kick out of this behind-the-scenes look at the life of one Steve Aoki. But even then fans might find it disappointing how hollow the experience is. After spending nearly an hour and a half with someone we should feel like we get to know that person but that’s just not the case here. Exclusively on Netflix.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 79 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.steveaoki.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.”

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

Paul G — #4

Paul G logo

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):


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

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

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 

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.”

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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 . . .”

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

Whiplash

whiplash-1

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