Gloria Bell


Gloria Bell’s life is in a whirl.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (A24) Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett, Holland Taylor, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sean Astin, Chis Mulkey, Caren Pistorius, Cassi Thompson, Tyson Ritter, Barbara Sukowa, Jenica Bergere, Sandra Rosko, Sonia Gascón, Aileen Burdock, Janet Sherkow, Ari Schneider, Cristobal Tapia Montt, John Luder, Jennie Fahn. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

Laura Branigan’s 80s pop hit “Gloria” despite its sprightly synthesizers, upbeat melody and delicious pop hooks is not a happy song: “Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’/If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?” Gloria is a lonely and desperate lady; such is the fate for Gloria Bell.

Gloria (Moore) has been divorced for several years, an amicable parting that has left her alone (husband Dustin (Garrett) is remarried to Fiona (Tripplehorn) and Gloria is friends with both of them) but not ostensibly lonely. She works as an insurance claims adjuster/mediator and at night hangs out in clubs where she can dance to the pop hits of her youth. It is on one of those nights that she meets Arnold (Turturro) who is recently divorced.

Arnold is a gentle and loving man and Gloria dares to hope that he might be someone she can commit to. However, Arnold soon begins to show some character flaws; he is still tethered to his ex-wife and unemployed adult daughters both as a provider and as an emotional punching bag. Arnold turns out to be something of a weakling and at times chooses the path of least resistance rather than standing up for what he truly wants out of life. He is a man crushed by the weight of his perceived obligations. Can Gloria have a future with a man like that?

In a year where women as filmmakers are becoming more visible, so are stories that put women front and center and this one has much to recommend it. First and foremost is Julianne Moore; she is an actress who I (and I’m not alone on this) consider essential. Nearly every performance she gives is a clinic and this one is one of her best in recent years, including her Oscar-winning role in Still Alice. There are plenty of critics who say that her performance here exceeds those of the nominees for Best Actress at the most recent Academy Awards but like them, I’m skeptical that her performance in March will be remembered when nominations are being considered in January of next year. Moore brings a kind of inner light to the character that makes her excessively attractive.

Turturro also brings some humanity to a role of a feckless loser, making the character almost sympathetic despite some of the spiteful and spineless things he does, although to be fair Gloria herself doesn’t always make the best decisions; the occasion of a birthday party for her bitter and somewhat mean-spirited son (Cera) leaves Dustin feeling ignored and unwanted which isn’t much of a stretch for him who has self-image issues to begin with. I liked the performance but I can see where the character might make it hard for some audiences to relate to him.

In fact, most everybody n the movie is flawed in some way and Gloria herself as I mentioned is known to make decisions thee and me would consider questionable. She is big-hearted however and perhaps a little more optimistic (Da Queen thought “hopeful” would be a better word here but you draw your own conclusions) which leaves her open to be hurt. As together as she often seems, she is at the heart of things extremely vulnerable.

Lelio makes the clever move of using the soundtrack – which is wonderful by the way – reflect Gloria’s mood at the moment. When she is hurt, we hear Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” When she feels hopeful that her relationship with Arnold is becoming something real, we hear Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights.” At the birthday party we hear the whole family singing Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” which displays her feeling of isolation. Olivia Newton-John’s “A Little More Love” is an early melancholy moment. Moore sings along with many of the songs here – off-key on most of them.

Gloria is the kind of character that life can’t get down for long as the ending clearly shows. There is an element of triumph despite the setbacks that she suffers and while some critics have complained that there is no growth in the character over the course of the film, I disagree; the character manages to stand tall despite having her heart broken and that can’t be discounted. In any case, how much growth do you expect from a 50-something character? It’s not that someone that age can’t change, it’s that those changes are often subtle and seemingly insignificant.

I found the movie incredibly charming and occasionally moving and it’s largely due to Moore’s scintillating performance. I suspect a lot of the movie-going public is going to give this a miss because we’ve become conditioned to big blockbusters and movies with big emotional pay-offs. You don’t get either of those elements here but this is nonetheless a satisfying movie-going experience you deserve not to cheat yourself out of.

REASONS TO SEE: Moore remains an essential actress. The soundtrack is excellent, reflecting Gloria’s on-screen moods.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turturro is a great actor but his character here will drive you crazy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, some nudity, a fair amount of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All About Eve
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hurley

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Book Club


In any decade, nobody parties like Candice Bergen.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Mircea Monroe, Tommy Dewey, John Shartzer, Ravi Kapoor, Lili Bordán, Marisa Chen Moller, Amanda Martin. Directed by Bill Holderman

 

Four literate ladies have been friends for ages and have seen the curvature of their lives move towards the downward slope. One of the hallmarks of their friendship is their regular book club meetings in which the four women read a book and then discuss it the following week. The membership includes Vivian (Fonda) the somewhat oversexed owner of a boutique luxury hotel chain; Sharon (Bergen), a divorced judge who is notoriously career-driven; Diane (Keaton), a recent widow whose bossy daughters (Silverstone and Aselton interchangeably) want her to move to Scottsdale into a basement apartment even though she’s perfectly happy and capable of supporting herself in Los Angeles and finally restaurateur Carol (Steenburgen) whose husband (Nelson) has been notably absent in the bedroom of late – corresponding with his retirement. The reading of Fifty Shades of Grey inspires them to ramp up their love lives.

This is one of those films that perpetuates the myth that senior sexuality is at best cute and at worst a colossal punchline to a bad joke. Being that I’m climbing towards those rarefied age climes, perhaps I’m a little more sensitive to that sort of thing but with modern medicine allowing us to live longer than we used to, sex drives are correspondingly lasting well into our sixties and seventies, sometimes even into our eighties. While there may be those who still giggle at the thought of Granny and Grampy getting busy, it’s not realistic anymore to expect that they don’t.

At least Holderman, a veteran producer making his directing debut, doesn’t waste the talents of his cast. All of these pros deliver performances that range from strong to terrific. Bergen in particular brought to mind past glories as we’re reminded watching her that there has never been another Murphy Brown and there likely never will be.

The film suffers from having too many characters and not enough backstory; I would have been much happier with fewer but better developed characters in the mix. Still, I’m glad that these ladies are still drawing a paycheck and I would love to see much more of them, albeit in better films than this one. At least it has a killer soundtrack going for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The great cast also gets a great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The myth that senior citizens having a sexual life is ridiculous is perpetuated here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references as well as other sex-related content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bergen, Fonda and Keaton all dated Warren Beatty at one time or another.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Patient 001

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

Almost Christmas


Danny Glover is never too old for this sh...stuff.

Danny Glover is never too old for this sh…stuff.

(2016) Holiday Comedy (Universal) Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Jessie T. Usher, John Michael Higgins, Gabrielle Union, Nadej Bailey, Alkoya Brunson, Marley Taylor, D.C. Young Fly, Keri Hilson, Gladys Knight, Chloe Spencer, Gregory Alan Williams, Tara Batesole, Jeff Rose, Tara Jones, Rachel Kylian. Directed by David E. Talbert

 

Christmas is a time for family. When a family member is taken from us, it can leave an awfully big hole. Sometimes trying to fill that hole can only make it deeper.

Walter Meyers (Glover) is the patriarch of the family and he is gathering his family together for Christmas, but it will be the first one without his wife Grace (Kylian), who passed away recently. She was the one who did most of the cooking and her box of recipes was filled with absolutely magical dishes, in particular the sweet potato pie that Walter adores. Sadly, nobody can find the box and so Walter is left to try to recreate the pie recipe with unfortunate results.

Still, the family does gather – divorced Rachel (Union) who is trying to put herself through law school but the financial means just aren’t there. She and her more successful sister Cheryl (Elise) can barely speak a civil word to one another, but Cheryl’s husband (Smoove) isn’t exactly a catch. Christian (Malco) is mounting a political campaign which keeps his cell phone twittering but also may require him to make compromises that will put him at odds with his father. Finally, there’s the youngest – Evan (Usher) – who’s a college football star. He’s just recovered from an injury in time to play in a holiday bowl game, but continues to take the pain meds he’s addicted to, partially to numb the pain of his mother’s loss.

Also present is Aunt May (Mo’Nique) who has made a career as a backup singer to some of the biggest stars in music but which has kept her on the road for too many Christmases. Now she’s trying to help Walter adjust by providing some exotic meals which the family isn’t quite prepared for, and by keeping the alcohol flowing.

Add to the mix Rachel’s old flame and next door neighbor Malachi (Epps) and a houseful of kids and you have a recipe for chaos. However, the rivalry between Rachel and Cheryl threatens to upend what good feelings there are there and tear the family apart. It would take a Christmas miracle to repair the damage.

In the 70s, we were treated to sitcoms about African-American families like Good Times and The Jeffersons and in a lot of ways this movie owes its pedigree to those pioneering shows; the former in vibe, the latter in layout. The family economic circumstance is (with the exception of Rachel) in the comfortable middle class.  The family is used to a heart-warming Christmas of lots of food, nice presents and a comfortably big home. It’s the kind of Christmas we all dream about.

Most of us want a heavy dose of heartwarming with our Christmas movies and Almost Christmas delivers on that front, thanks largely to Glover whose personality fits this role like a (‘scuse the pun) glove. It is also nice to see Mo’Nique onscreen. The Oscar winning actress is onscreen far less than I would like; she’s an amazingly gifted actress who elevates roles that could be campy and gives them heart, as she does here. While to my mind it is Danny Glover who makes the most of his role, the entire cast is top notch and takes each of their roles and run with them, even though there is an element of cliché to the film. Yes there are family squabbles and crises, but you just know it will end with the family pulling together. Nobody wants to see a Christmas film in which the family implodes.

I would have liked to have seen a little more background context, particularly to the Rachel/Cheryl feud which is never explained, for the most part we get fully fleshed-out characters which is something of a Christmas miracle given the size of the cast. Quite frankly, I expected this to be a rote Christmas movie with really no meat on the bones but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong on that score. No, this isn’t reinventing the genre to be sure but it does confirm the best aspects of it. For a lot of people this is going to be a perennial Christmas movie. Count me among those people.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of Glover’s best performances in years. This will definitely give you a case of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Very much a been-there done-that kind of movie. Some of the family dynamics shown here don’t really have any rhyme or reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third time Usher has played a football player onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gathering
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Office Christmas Party

Sisters


Sisters partying like it's 1989.

Sisters partying like it’s 1989.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Bairnholz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell, Emily Tarver. Directed by Jason Moore

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For one thing, they’re really, really funny and when paired up, even funnier. As a matter of fact, they might just be the best all-female comedy team of all time. Think about it; how many all-female comedy teams are you aware of? There definitely should be more of them.

So this is their second movie together after the successful Baby Mama and it has kind of a John Hughes-like scenario. Two sisters – Kate Ellis (Fey), a 40ish foul-up who is brash and sexy, and Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse with a charitable compulsion that sometimes leads to awkwardness – are summoned home to Orlando (although only one scene was filmed here) to their ancestral family home which their parents (Brolin, Wiest) are putting on the market so that they can move into a retirement community and divest themselves of most of their possessions. The girls are meant to clean out their rooms so that the sale can be finalized the following Monday.

Much nostalgia ensues as the girls decide to throw one last blow-out party like the ones they threw in high school…when Maura would be the responsible one and Kate would party hard. With the realization that Maura never got laid in her own bedroom and the window of opportunity closing, Kate decides to snare James (Bairnholz), a hunky neighbor, to seal the deal.

Kate offers to be the designated party Mom and stay sober, which is a new role for her. She does have a teenage daughter (Davenport) but their relationship is rocky. In fact, the daughter has left the nest, exasperated by her mom’s irresponsibility and party party party attitude and she refuses to tell Kate where she is. Determined to prove herself responsible, Kate throws herself full tilt into her new role.

And that’s really it for plot. If you’ve seen one high school blowout party movie, you’ve seen them all and this is essentially a middle aged riff on that. It has that 80s John Hughes movie kind of vibe which isn’t a bad thing at all, but lacks the really laugh-out-loud consistency that Hughes was able to create for his movies. There’s more of a Farrelly Brothers consistency in which everything is thrown at the comedy wall and whatever sticks does, the more outrageous the better. There are more bra jokes in this movie than I think have been in any movie in cinematic history, and some drug humor (although nothing like a Seth Rogen film) for people who don’t do drugs. There is most definitely a been-there done-that feel to things, and while that can make for cinematic comfort food, it really isn’t what you want out of talents the likes of Poehler and Fey.

The good thing is that Fey and Poehler are one of the greatest comic teams in history – not just female, but any. Their chemistry is undeniable and the two play off of each other better than anyone working in the movies today. It’s at the center of the movie (as well it should be) and makes their roles as sisters thoroughly believable. Da Queen, who has a sister, agreed that it was a realistic portrayal of the dynamic between sisters.

There is a cornucopia of supporting roles, from SNL veterans (Fey, Poehler, Dratch, Moynihan, Rudolph) to WWE wrestlers (Cena) to Daily Show stars (Bee) and sitcom regulars (Bairnholz, Brolin). Most of the roles are essentially one-dimensional who are there to add a specific element (angry rival, studly drug dealer, drugged-out class clown, Asian pedicurist) to the proceedings, but like the leads are given very little to do that is really genuinely funny. Bairnholz shows some promise as a comic leading man though, and Rudolph manages to express every annoyed expression that it is possible for a human face to make.

Don’t get me wrong; this is entertaining enough that I can recommend it, largely due to Fey and Poehler, but this isn’t as good as it could and should have been. A pedestrian plot and lack of actual laughs turn this from what should have been a showcase for two of the most talented comedians working today into a just average comedy with too many characters and not enough character.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between Fey and Poehler continues. Some fine supporting performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laugh-out-loud jokes. The plot is too been-there done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude sexual content, a fair amount of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brolin and Wiest also play parents in last year’s indie film Life in Pieces.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Brothers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Won’t Back Down

Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road