One More Time with Feeling


Nick Cave in his element.

Nick Cave in his element.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Picturehouse) Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Susie Bick, Thomas Wydler, Earl Cave, Else Torp, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, George Vjestica. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Nick Cave is one of those artists who people either never heard of or fall in love with. His sonorous voice isn’t the kind you associate with pop music and while his songs are beautiful and haunting, they generally have a darkness to them that some find uncomfortable. It isn’t an accident that one of his best albums is entitled Murder Ballads.

Cave had begun the recording of his sixteenth album with his band the Bad Seeds when tragedy struck; his 15-year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff near his Brighton home and died of the injuries he sustained. Cave and his wife Susie Bick were devastated as you can imagine and work on the album stopped for a time.

Now the songs of the album are infused with the presence of the son who is gone. The lyrics are dark and bitter, like a coffee infused with burnt chicory. The tragedy becomes the elephant in the room and in order to keep from answering endless questions about it, Cave enlisted Dominik, whose film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was scored by Cave and his usual partner-in-crime Warren Ellis.

Most of the film is in black and white (there are a couple of color sequences, one involving Cave’s surviving son Earl and a sequence in which Danish soprano Else Torp lends her voice to one of the songs on the album) and that seems perfect for the somber situation, and for Cave’s catalog in general. That’s not to say that this is all ashes and sackcloth however; there is some teasing that goes on, particularly from Ellis who claims that Cave’s hair “never looked better.”

The music is at the center of the film and quite frankly, I was motivated to buy Skeleton Tree almost immediately after arriving home (thank you, eMusic) and I haven’t regretted it since. The music is haunting and beautiful and sad – sad can be intensely beautiful – and will stick with you for a long while. I’m still listening to the tracks from the album in almost constant rotation.

Speaking of constant rotation, one of the annoying things about the movie is that for nearly every song Dominik has his camera circling on a dolly around the piano Cave is playing or the microphone Cave is singing into. There are some lighting effects that go with some of the songs but Dominik could have changed things up a little more from song to song. Frankly I ended up closing my eyes and just letting Cave’s voice wash over me for most of it and maybe that’s the intent. Cave’s voice is raw and real; reading the lyrics on the page are fine and they reveal his anguish and grief, but to really get the truth of his pain one must hear his voice. There are few singers who are as emotionally communicative as Cave is.

Another issue I have with the film is the interviews with Cave, particularly early on in the movie. Often Dominik (I assume it is Dominik doing the interviewing; it could be someone else) interrupts Cave and finishes his sentences. Sometimes Cave says “Yeah, right” but other times he says “No, not really…” as Dominik tries to express what Cave is feeling. A cardinal rule of interviewing on-camera is to let the subject do as much of the talking as possible; you never interrupt them nor put words in their mouth. Your function is to ask a few questions and the occasional follow-up but to keep your mouth shut as much as possible, particularly when you have someone like Cave who is intelligent and thoughtful. I would have preferred to hear more of Cave and less of Dominik.

Dominik is, however, a gifted visual director and some of the images here are amazing and poignant, particularly as the film goes on. Dominik chooses not to say anything specific about the tragedy that clearly haunts Cave so if you were initially unaware of his son’s passing you may end up getting snippets of some sort of unexpressed trauma but it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie that Cave and his wife speak openly about the death of their son and they never tell you specifically what happened. The film’s final image – of the cliff where Arthur Cave spent his final moments – is a haunting one and will stay with you nearly as much as the music that precedes it.

This does make a fine companion piece to the album although I don’t know how much it is going to enhance the listening experience of sitting down in a nice quiet place, turning on the headphones and letting the music of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s expressive voice wash over you. If Dominick’s direction had been less intrusive this easily could have been a contender for best movie of the year. As it is it will certainly merit a certain amount of contention for my top ten list, although likely the second half. Skeleton Tree is more likely to vie for my favorite album of 2016 however, and you might feel the same after seeing this and more importantly, hearing the album.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely amazing. Cave is a thoughtful interview subject. A fascinating look at the creative process for what will be a landmark album. At times, the film is emotionally wrenching.
REASONS TO STAY: Dominik is too intrusive a director. The interviews are poorly conducted.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Other than a screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film debuted on September 8, the day before Skeleton Tree – the band’s sixteenth album – was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listening to Skeleton Tree in a nice quiet place.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Max Rose

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Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny

My One and Only


My One and Only

Renee Zellweger is courted by yet another unsuitable suitor.

(Freestyle Releasing) Renee Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Kevin Bacon, Chris Noth, Troy Garity, David Koechner, Eric McCormack, Steven Weber, Nick Stahl, Mark Rendall, Robin Weigert. Directed by Richard Loncraine

The road to growing up can often be a treacherous and confusing one, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes that road can take you to some really unexpected places and unexpected conclusions.

Ann Devereaux (Zellweger) is a willful, beautiful blonde Southern belle who is the trophy wife of bandleader Danny Devereaux (Bacon). He is best known for the hit song “My One and Only” (not the Gershwin song, for those who know the standards well). He is also a philanderer, the kind of guy who simply can’t help himself when it comes to women. When Ann comes home to Danny “entertaining” a young lady – in her bed – it’s the last straw. She cleans out the safety deposit box, buys a baby blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville and hits the road, her sons George (Lerman) and Robbie (Rendall) in tow.

Robbie is a closet homosexual who dreams of Hollywood; George is a bit more grounded and yearns to write. Ann’s only aspiration is to find a rich husband to support her and her boys in the manner in which they’ve been accustomed to.

This doesn’t go very well. Each stop brings another loser, from Wallace McAllister (Weber), a businessman who is nearly broke and who rifles through Ann’s wallet and runs off while she’s in the restroom. Then there’s Col. Harlan Williams (Noth), a rabid anti-Communist military sort who has a streak of violence in him that isn’t compatible with Ann’s gentrified soul. Old flame Charlie (McCormack) makes no bones about it – Ann’s shelf life as a bombshell has expired, and she is competing with younger women for the same scraps. This leads to a misunderstanding that gets Ann arrested.

Nonetheless, she perseveres, even though George outwardly doubts her decision making and making it clear he wants to go back to his dad, who is less than enthusiastic about taking him. Ann then determines to work for a living, but after disastrous attempts at waitressing and sales, Ann finally meets a paint retail tycoon named Bill Massey (Koechner) who looks to be the most promising suitor yet, but even that doesn’t work out as planned.

The movie is loosely based on the life of actor George Hamilton, who is as well known for his tan and his tango these days as he is for his acting career (he’s also the executive producer of the movie). While it doesn’t give you insight into his acting, the movie will at least give you some insight into the man.

The movie has a bit of a split personality, in a good way. The first part of the movie really belongs to Zellweger, and she carries it pretty well. Nobody does plucky, ditzy blonde quite as well as Zellweger (see the Bridget Jones movies, although Lisa Kudrow does nearly as well on “Friends”), and she captivates the screen throughout. Her Ann Devereaux is brave and terminally cheerful, but with a hint of diva in the background. It must have been a fun role to play and you can see Zellweger enjoying herself.

The second half is Lerman’s, and while his story is a bit more complex, he doesn’t quite rise to the challenge but neither does he fail utterly. Instead, he delivers a solid but unspectacular job that doesn’t measure up to the luminescent performance of Zellweger. Each of the suitors have their own charms, although Koechner surprisingly does the most memorable work here as the troubled tycoon. Some of his scenes have a poignancy that elevates the movie quite a bit, as well as the comic timing Koechner is better known for.

Loncraine does a really nice job of evoking the 50s; the setting lives and breathes in his capable hands instead of being something of a distraction as period pieces often are. This is an era that feels lived in, from the posh penthouses of Manhattan to the grubby motels on Route 66. While this is ostensibly a comedy (and there are some funny portions to it), the truth is the dramatic portions work better; you get the feeling Loncraine was going for a bit of a screwball feel (one review likened it to the work of Preston Sturges, which is a dead on observation).

This got a very limited release when it came out and largely flew under the radar. It deserves better; there are some very fine performances and some nice moments, enough to make this a solid recommendation. Check it out on cable or at your local home video emporium; you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Lerman does a credible job, while Koechner is surprisingly effective. The era is nicely evoked. Zellweger is excellent as the fading bombshell past her prime.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to be a screwball comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some sexuality here and there; nothing you should be ashamed of showing to a 13-year-old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to Merv Griffith, who helped Hamilton develop the project and shepherded it through filming, but didn’t live to see it completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Lorna’s Silence