Brigsby Bear


Luke Skywalker trains a young Jedi in the ways of children’s television programming.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Christopher Sullivan, Alexa Demie, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Chris Provost, Claire Danes, Chance Crimin, Beck Bennett, Andy Samberg, Kate Lyn Shell, Kiera Milan Hendricks, Ellery Davidson, Ashlyn Brooke Anderson, Marilee Crockett. Directed by Dave McCary

 

We are a product of our upbringing and so much of what we experience as children makes us into the adults we become. Those of us who grew up with certain children’s television shows bear the marks of the lessons they taught us, even if we only got them subconsciously.

James (Mooney) has grown up in an unusual situation. He has been isolated by loving parents (Hamill, Adams) who have encouraged him to watch Brigsby Bear, a sci-fi television show in which the titular character fights alongside the Smiley Sisters against the nefarious Sunstealer. While the lessons are a little unorthodox, James is completely enchanted by the world of Brigsby Bear and has every episode on tape. That is, until his world comes crashing down on him.

He finds himself in a different situation with the knowledge that the world he previously inhabited was not what he was led to believe it was. Even his beloved Brigsby Bear was fake – the show didn’t exist. Alone, rudderless, without any sort of anchor, James remains obsessed with Brigsby Bear. He decides that he alone can finish the show properly and he endeavors to do just that.

There is a lot going on in this movie. Part of it is a commentary on the obsessive fandom that dominates our pop culture at present. Some of it is about the power of imagination to change one’s circumstances. Some of it is a pure nostalgia rush. All of it works.

Mooney, a current cast member on SNL, has an off-beat charm that allows the character of James to be childlike without descending into mawkishness. Mooney manages to surround himself with a terrific cast; Hamill is at his very best in a brief but important role and then there’s Kinnear who plays a sympathetic policeman. Kinnear is one of the very best actors working today especially when it comes to being likable onscreen. I think Hollywood takes him a bit for granted; he hasn’t gotten the role yet that will take him to the next level but he has the capability of getting there.

The bargain basement SFX may look a bit primitive to most viewers but they work in the context of the story. Some critics found that the movie descended into sweetness but I have to disagree; it needed that sweetness, otherwise it becomes just another cynical stab at fandom. I suspect that most critics don’t understand the whole concept behind fandom simply because critics are supposed to be objective. Fans are most assuredly not. Yes, there can be a negative side to obsessive fanboy-ism but there is also a positive side as well. There is nothing wrong with believing in something when there is so little to believe in these days.

This is one of my favorite films of the year. Not everyone will agree with me – it may be a little too out there for some. Others, like the critics I referred to, think it might be a little too light and sweet for their tastes. Me though, this works to perfection. It hits every emotional note dead on. This is one of three films that I think is the best of 2017. Whether it will finish first, second or third will likely depend on my mood when I go to assemble my list. If I’m thinking about this movie however, you can bet my mood will be getting better by the moment.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of those rare movies that hit all the right notes. Those who grew up with 80s children shows will certainly get the warm fuzzies. Mooney has a real offbeat charm. Kinnear is one of the most underrated actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a little too obscure.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug usage and teen partying, brief sexuality and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCary is a writer on Saturday Night Live who is making his feature directing debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death to Smoochy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

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Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk


The scene is a monster.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop (narrator), Jello Biafra, Laurence Livermore, Tim Armstrong, Kathleen Hanna, Brett Gurewitz, Ian Mackaye, East Bay Ray, Fat Mike, Ben Weasel, Kirk Hammett, Lars Fredricksen, Mike Dirnt, Sergei Loobkoff, Kevin Seconds, Penelope Houston, Tre Cool, Duff McKagan, Kamala Parks, Honey, Miranda July, Ginger Coyote. Directed by Corbett Redford

 

The nature of music is that every so often there comes a confluence, a mixture of talent, opportunity and inspiration that coalesces in a single location. The rise of Motown in the 60s, the British invasion, the Seattle grunge scene, the jangle pop scene in Athens, GA, the Madchester era and the Minneapolis of Prince, the Replacements and Soul Asylum are all examples of this.

There are other scenes that are evergreens; they are generally large cities that have a steady influx of talent. Los Angeles, New York City, London and San Francisco are all consistently churning out great artists and inventing (or reinventing) new sounds. Sometimes these large city scenes are like black holes, drawing in everything in a 50 mile or more radius.

The East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area has always existed on the edge of San Francisco’s orbit. While Oakland has always had a thriving rap scene, the suburbs of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties have largely been garage band territories that have from time to time produced some fine bands.

During the 80s as the punk phenomenon was in full swing in San Francisco with bands like the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and Flipper making important music something happened; the scene began to fade as hardcore skinhead bands began to suffuse the scene in violence. The editor of seminal punk ‘zine Maximumrocknroll Tim Yohannon wanted a venue that punk rockers of all ages could watch their favorite bands in safety – but also gave the bands the freedom to be themselves. He found such a space in Berkeley in a converted warehouse at 924 Gilman Street.

The 924 Gilman scene became a thriving punk scene that supported a wide variety of bands. The most famous bands to come out of the Gilman scene were Rancid and even bigger was Green Day whose success became a sticking point for many of those who felt that signing with a major label and making any sort of money was in effect selling out.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong approached Corbett Redford who went to high school with him looking for archival footage from the halcyon days of Gilman for a film that Armstrong wanted to make documenting  the scene. Not only did Redford have the footage that Billie Joe was looking for, he volunteered to direct the thing as well.

The result is one of the most exhaustively thorough music documentaries I’ve ever seen. Essentially chronicling the story of San Francisco Bay Area punk from its early beginnings to the break out success of Green Day in 1994, the movie contains footage of the bands who played the Gilman regularly and interviews with literally hundreds of people associated with the scene, from the musicians who played there to the volunteers who worked there to the writers who covered the scene to the artists who grew out of the scene. The film clocks in at about 2 ½ hours so it’s not something you sit in without some sort of commitment.

The length of the movie may be daunting to some; it’s hard to sit through 155 minutes of talking heads and snippets of songs but the frenetic editing pace makes it palatable. In fact, I was left wondering if with additional footage this couldn’t have been a mini-series rather than a movie although I have to admit a movie was an easier sell to something like Netflix than a miniseries based on a specific scene. Still, one has to admire the passion of all those involved from the filmmakers to the interviewees who made this happen.

The footage is in many cases extremely rare and unavailable anywhere else. For me, there was a nostalgic appeal in seeing bands like Operation Ivy, Neurosis and Kamala and the Karnivores, bands that figured in my Bay Area rock critic days and who now existed for me only as worn-out cassette tapes and memories – until now.

Redford utilizes animation sequences masterminded by Tim Armstrong of Rancid fame that recollects the artwork of the great punk zines. The animations are some of the best and most entertaining segments in the film and are worth seeing on their own.

One can’t understate the importance of Gilman as the ultimate expression of the DIY philosophy and of taking the punk ethic to the next logical evolutionary step. Not everything that came out of Gilman was amazing and life-changing but there was always an energy that radiated from the bands that played there regularly that were not present anywhere before or since. The Gilman is still there; some of the people who have been there since the beginning are too but for the most part, it’s a new generation trying not necessarily to live up to the accomplishments of those who came before them but to blaze their own trail while holding true to the tenets that have guided the Gilman collective since the beginning.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; people who find the music discordant and irritating doubtless will not find much to like here but it isn’t just the music that is important but the society that sprang from it. Love Green Day or label them sell-outs; they were an important part of the Gilman Street Experiment (almost said Experience there) and because of their success or maybe in spite of it, they are able to wield the clout to get a movie like this made. Punk scholars will appreciate this most of all.

REASONS TO GO: The concert footage is indispensable. The animated sequences are zine-like and cool. The Gilman scene gets the due it richly deserves.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much information coming at you in a documentary that’s a good half hour too long. There is an overabundance of talking heads here.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redford and the members of Green Day all went to Pinole Valley High School although two years apart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Monster Project