Buena Vista Social Club: Adios


The music of Cuba is timeless.

(2017) Documentary (Broad Green) Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ry Cooder, Nick Gold, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos González, Barbarito Torres, Gilberto “Papi” Oviedo. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

In 1997, American musician Ry Cooder discovered the seductive rhythms and melodies of Cuban music. Gathering together a group of aging Cuban musicians who continued to make vibrant and amazing music from their native land, he put together an album with literally an all-star group of Cuban musicians in what was a love letter to the island. German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a documentary about the tour that surrounded the album. The documentary he made, Buena Vista Social Club which was also the name of the album, were worldwide phenomena and made international stars out of the musicians that were portrayed, garnering major awards including Oscars and Grammys.

That was then, this is now. 20 years has passed since the first album and many of the musicians from the first film, who were already elderly when the album was recorded, have since passed on. This documentary acts both as prequel and sequel, giving us a little more insight to the development of son Cubano music and the people who made it stars, particularly Ferrer and Portuondo, the royal couple of Cuban music. The first third of the film concentrates on that, showing the two as they appear in variety show footage from the 50s and in Cuban commercials of that era, leading up through the revolution that changed the island forever and the eventual slide into obscurity – Ferrer was shining shoes two doors down from the studio where the BVSC album was recorded.

The middle third chronicles the rise of the Buena Vista Social Club and the effect of the album, tour and film on their lives and the fame it brought both to the music that in many ways defined Cuban culture and the musicians who created it. The concert footage is particularly joyful; there are outtakes from the original Wenders film included here (Wenders was one of the producers on this film although he declined to go behind the cameras for it) that remind us how the best music comes from the soul. Even if you’re not a fan of Latin music you can’t help but be seduced by the lovely melodies, insidious rhythms that almost compel you to dance and the lyrics which reflect the universal struggles and triumphs of life.

The final third is somewhat more melancholy, something of a “where are they now” segment as we follow the lives of the primary people chronicled in the first film in the years after the movie was released. Ferrer and Portuondo are the main subjects and they are engaging and delightful personalities. Ferrer passed away in 2005 and his death was mourned throughout Cuba but also in the international music community as well.

We also see the state of Cuba as being hopeful as it appears that relations with the United States are at long last going to be normalized during the Obama administration; sadly since the making of the film it appears all that will be for naught as the new President seems more inclined to leave things the way they are vis a vis Cuba. That adds to the melancholy.

I am myself of Cuban descent and although my father passed away in 1986 he loved to play the Cuban songs he loved as a young man on the piano in our home. I can still here those lovely melodies echoing in our living room as he would play. As I watched the movie in the theater, I could feel his presence and that of my grandmother who also loved the music well. Perhaps that makes me a little more inclined to overlook the faults of the film which to be quite honest isn’t nearly as good as the original documentary and doesn’t carry with it quite the same feeling of joy.

This is a somewhat bittersweet movie; there is some hope for the music as new musicians have moved in to play the same songs and perhaps writes some new ones. The music continues to thrive in Cuba and although it hasn’t had quite the success here in the States can still be found in places where Cubans congregate, particularly in Florida.

The best music comes directly from the soul as I said – and clearly the music of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios comes from that place inside these musicians that pulses with life and celebration. It also comes from the place that simmers with regret and disappointment. We all know these aspects of our lives and it is somewhat comforting to know that there is a soundtrack for it. Whether or not you are of Latin descent, music like this speaks to you on a primal level. We can relate to it because we are all human. Music like this is timeless and beyond borders; it goes to what makes us who we are. If for that alone, this is a documentary that should be seen. Sure, you can see it without having seen the first but to be honest I would recommend seeing the first if you are only going to see one of the two.- but you should see both.

REASONS TO GO: The music is timeless and amazing. The personalities of the musicians is exuberant and unforgettable.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t quite hold up to the original documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some material that’s a bit suggestive and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original movie and album were named for a Havana dance hall patronized by poor Afro-Cubans. The dance hall no longer exists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hecho en Mexico
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: LA 92

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Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Scream 4


Scream 4

Sometimes, a rave in a barn can be a Scream.

(2011) Horror Comedy (Dimension) Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella, Eric Knudson, Marley Shelton, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Mary McConnell, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell. Directed by Wes Craven

 

New generation, new rules. The Scream franchise made its reputation for slyly skewering the conventions of horror movies (as well as any number of good-looking 20-somethings playing teens) while retaining a certain amount of hip cachet.

But that was back in the ’90s. Depending on who you talk to, Scream set off a whole new generation of innovative new horror films or were the final hurrah of a golden age of horror films (the 70s and 80s). Since then, horror films particularly in Hollywood have degenerated into mostly remakes of standards or soap operas about vampires (although there is a very strong underground horror movement in which exciting and innovative films continue to be made, some here in the United States but also in Europe and Asia). So, is it a ripe time for writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven to bring the Ghostface out of mothballs and turn their poisoned pens on a moribund industry again?

Woodsboro, the bucolic small town of the first Scream trilogy, has been immortalized and yet traumatized by the murders there 15 years earlier. The survivor of the murders, Sidney Franklin (Campbell) is returning after a ten year absence to promote her book. Gale Weathers-Riley (Cox) has settled down and married Dewey Riley (Arquette) who is now the sheriff. Gale, whose books became the lucrative basis of the Stab motion picture series, is suffering from writers block and might be just a hair jealous of Sidney’s success.

A pair of comely high school girls are murdered by Ghostface and evidence planted in Sidney’s car, leading her to be forced to stay in Woodsboro much to the chagrin of her agent Rebecca Walters (Brie). Sidney is staying with her aunt Kate Roberts (McDonnell) and her cousin Jill (Roberts) who is dealing with break-up issues with her boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Tortorella). Jill and her friends Kirby (Panettiere) and Olivia (Jaffe) have received threatening Ghostface phone calls. They enlist the local movie club president Charlie Walker (Culkin) and Dewey’s Keystone Kops (or in this case, Demented Deputies) Hicks (Shelton), Hoss (Brody) and Perkins (Anderson) to keep Sidney alive and catch the killer. However, this is a reboot and the rules, if any, are far more different.

There are those who complained that the originally trilogy of Scream films overstayed their welcome and I have to admit that there’s a point there. The first movie was massive fun, marvelously self-aware and yet managed to have its cake and eat it too in that it made fun of all of the clichés of horror and yet it used them too when it suited the movie.

There is an attractive cast here but the movie is dually focused on Sidney’s gang (Campbell, Cox and Arquette) as well as Jill’s group (Roberts, Panettiere and Culkin). That might sound like Craven’s trying to pass the torch to a new generation but that really isn’t the case. At the end of the day, this is Sidney’s story to tell and Neve Campbell for better or for worse is Sidney. I’ve never found the character of Sidney to be anything more than the generic plucky horror heroine and to be honest I’ve never really thought Campbell has imbued the character with much of a personality, which to be fair has always kind of been the point – most of the quips and snappy dialogue have really gone to other characters in the series.

Arquette, always the comic foil of the series, still plays Dewey like a kind of stoned Barney Fife. It can be endearing in places, and annoying in others. Still, I think Dewey has kind of matured in a way the other characters here haven’t which is a bit of a plus.

The main question is whether the traditional teen audience for horror films will get behind a movie that features lead characters that are essentially in their 30s and even (gasp) 40s and I don’t think they really embraced the franchise the way the previous generation did. The reveal of the true identity of Ghostface, supposed to be a shocker, didn’t really deliver the punch the first movie’s reveal did and by the time the movie ended I was actually kind of bored.

The movie captures enough of the essence of the first film that I can give it a recommendation with some caveats in that the original still delivers the goods, even if the audience for it has moved on. Revisiting Woodsboro isn’t a bad thing in and of itself however, and if a Scream 5 is ever made I’ll probably see it (although Da Queen won’t). Not a glowing testimonial I know, but it’s all that I got.

WHY RENT THIS: Actors settle into their roles nicely. Great seeing Campbell-Arquette-Cox combo again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Didn’t really capture my imagination. Seems a bit “more of the same.”

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of blood, gore and violence (as you would predict from a Wes Craven horror film), a bit of bad language and some teen drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The third consecutive movie in which Rory Culkin has been in a movie that Emma Roberts was in (the others being Lymelife and Twelve

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a promo for the Scream 4 video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $97.1M on a $40M production budget; the movie made a bit of a profit at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scary Movie

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Tillman Story

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma

New Releases for the Week of September 25, 2009


 

 

 

Bruce Willis reacts to finding out that this isn't the next Die Hard movie.

Bruce Willis reacts to finding out that this isn't the next Die Hard movie.

SURROGATES

 

(Touchstone) Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames, James Cromwell, Boris Kodjoe, Francis Ginty, Michael Cudlitz. Directed by Jonathan Mostow In the future, people will experience life through surrogates, mechanical constructs that are linked to their user directly through the brain, allowing them to feel and experience everything the surrogate does. This allows people to do things they never could in the flesh, things too dangerous in reality because while the surrogates can be damaged and even destroyed, it is perfectly safe for the user; that is, until a pair of users turn up dead. It is the first homicide in 15 years, and for a detective who hasn’t left his home in at least that long, suddenly he is embroiled in something far more sinister and far-reaching than he could imagine. Based on an acclaimed graphic novel, directed by the man who gave us U-571.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene)

Bright Star (Apparition) Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Thomas Sangster, Kerry Fox. Respected director Jane Campion returns with this period romance about the legendary English poet John Keats, and his affair with Fanny Brawne. Starting out at odds as two people from different stratum of society, they are drawn together as soulmates. As Keats’ eventually fatal tuberculosis worsens, he is moved to write some of the most astonishing and romantic poetry ever penned.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking)

Cold Souls (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Lauren Ambrose. Is your soul weighing you down? No worries! A new high-tech company can remove your soul and store it for you. Actor Paul Giamatti (playing himself…sorta) stumbles across an article in the New Yorker that convinces him to give it a go. All is going well until his soul is stolen from the storage facility, and he must chase after it to Russia, where a smarmy, talentless soap opera actress has possession of it. A black comedy in the tradition of Being John Malkovich.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for mature sexual content, language and thematic material)

Fame (MGM) Debbie Allen, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth. One of the most iconic movies of the ‘80s gets a remake…or perhaps more accurately, a sequel. The movie that made a star (briefly) of Debbie Allen sees her return to the New York City High School of Performing Arts, this time as principal. A new generation of artists, dancers, actors and singers takes on the hopes and heartbreaks of the most prestigious public school for performance in the country.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language)

It Might Get Loud (Sony Classics) Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge, Bono. Documentary director Davis Guggenheim, who gave us An Inconvenient Truth, switches gears and focuses on three maestros of the electric guitar; Led Zeppelin’s guitar god Page, U2 virtuoso The Edge and up-and-comer White from the White Stripes. The three get together and discuss their love for the instrument that has dominated music in the last 50 years and above all, play those instruments. Playing music that inspired them as well as new compositions that haven’t been released (at least at the time of the documentary’s initial limited run), watching this may profoundly affect the way you hear music.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, brief language and smoking)

Pandorum (Overture) Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Norman Reedus. Two astronauts wake up on a spacecraft, alone and disoriented in the pitch darkness with no memory of who they are or what their mission is. As they explore the ship, they soon come to realize they aren’t alone. And as the mystery deepens, it soon becomes clear that their actions will either save mankind – or doom it.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong horror violence and language)

The September Issue (Roadside Attractions) Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Andre Leon Talley, Oscar de la Renta. The September issue of Vogue magazine is the most critical in the fashion industry. It is the largest issue the magazine publishes, over four pounds by weight. The size of a big city Yellow Pages directory, it establishes what is fashionable for the upcoming year. At the heart of this is Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the woman who was the basis of the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada. She allowed unprecedented access to documentarian R.J. Cutler (The War Room) who shows us what goes into making the most important magazine in the $300 billion fashion industry.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)