Concert for George


Eric Clapton doing what he does best.

(2003) Concert Film (Abramorama) Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Joe Brown, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, Tom Hanks, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Gary Brooker, Billy Preston, Olivia Harrison, Jools Holland, Sam Brown, Ray Cooper, Neil Innes, Andy Fairweather-Low, Jim Capaldi, Carol Cleveland, Anoushka Shankar. Directed by David Leland

 

Most remember George Harrison as “the quiet Beatle” but the truth is that he was one of the great guitarists of his time as well as a sterling songwriter who wrote songs like “Something,” “My Sweet Lord,” “All Those Years Ago” and “Taxman.” He maintained a strong interest in Indian spiritualism and was a close friend to sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who taught him to play the instrument and who considered him to be a son.

Harrison died too young at age 58 on November 29, 2001 in the home of a friend after a long battle with lung cancer. His widow Olivia and close friend Eric Clapton (whom Harrison had known since childhood) organized a tribute concert which took place a year to the day of his passing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A virtual who’s who of British rock royalty, the concert had the benefit that all of the performers were close to Harrison in some way or form either personally or as performers. The music that was performed therefore was straight from the heart and it shows.

A documentary was made of the event but was never released theatrically as far as I know; it has been available off and on over the years on home video. Now, on the occasion of Harrison’s 75th birthday (which would have been February 25, 2018) music documentary specialists Abramorama have undergone a brief limited theatrical release of the original documentary (for local Orlando residents, it will be playing at the Enzian Theater on March 19).

There are interviews with some of the participants which are very brief; mostly director David Leland is content to let the music speak for itself which it does eloquently. In the interview segments, Harrison’s death is still pretty close in mind and for some the emotion is still raw but the event was a celebration, not an elegy and the overwhelming feeling you get is joy. As for the concert segments, music director Clapton wisely kept pretty close to the original arrangements that Harrison had so the songs remained familiar. The songs themselves range from music that influenced Harrison (like Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” performed by Starr) to his tenure with the Beatles and then his lengthy solo career that followed as well as his work with the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys.

There was also a comedy interlude in which former Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam performed “Sit on My Face” from The Meaning of Life and one of their signatures “The Lumberjack Song” in which they were joined by longtime Python associate Carol Cleveland, Bonzo Dog songwriter Neil Innes, actor Tom Hanks and the Fred Tomlinson Singers. Harrison was a huge Python fan and produced their final two movies through his HandMade Films banner which also produced several other memorable films as well. The levity is a welcome moment and makes a nice break during the concert.

There were some exceptions. Harrison had a great deal of affection for the humble ukulele so McCartney performed “Something” on it, a tribute he’d been doing on his own solo tour that year. The song then opens up into a full rock number with Clapton joining McCartney on vocals. Shankar wrote an original song for the occasion which was performed with his daughter Anoushka. Finally Joe Brown, a pioneering English rocker for whom the Beatles opened for back in the early days and for whom Harrison was best man at his wedding, played “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” one of the few songs not written by Harrison in the concert, on the ukulele. He was joined by nearly every musician that played in the show onstage for a touching finale.

Leland for some odd reason chose not to use onscreen graphics to identify the performers. That’s fine for widely recognized icons like McCartney, Starr and Clapton but not everyone knows who Gary Brooker is or what he looks for and the parade of rockers whose heyday was in the 60s (and in Joe Brown’s case, the 50s) are not always easy to recognize. Some are introduced verbally but mainly we never know who’s speaking in the interviews or performing onstage which is a bit irritating.

One thing that was a little-remarked grace note to the whole thing was the presence of Harrison’s son Dhani who played acoustic guitar on nearly every song. Dhani who was 24 at the time of the show is a dead ringer for his late father. Seeing him playing behind McCartney was oddly comforting, like a glimpse of the past. It is also good to see Petty, Shankar and Billy Preston playing again, all of whom have left us since this show took place as well as Sam Brown, a striking performer (and daughter of Joe Brown) whose career was sadly cut short when vocal issues forced her to retire.

In many ways this isn’t the most polished of concert films as the participants had little time to rehearse. Still, the fact that stars of this caliber made room on their schedules to be at this show is not only a testament to the respect they had for Harrison as a musician but for the love they had for Harrison as a person. That love shows up very plainly in the music they played that night and it certainly makes this worth seeing on the big screen if it plays anywhere near you; you can see where it is going to be playing here. If you can’t make it to a theater or it’s not coming to one convenient to where you live, take heart; the movie will be back on VOD and on various streaming services in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: Clapton’s star power is very much on display. The Monty Python interlude is nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used some identification for the various aging rockers.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Paul and Ringo had performed together on the same stage since the break-up of the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Concert for Bangladesh
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Commuter

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Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story

The Book of Life


Viva Mexico!

Viva Mexico!

(2014) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Genesis Ochoa, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Sandoval, Grey deLisle, Dan Navarro, Sandra Echeverria. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez

They say the only two sure things in life are death and taxes. That’s not strictly true; there is one other sure thing – that love wins out over everything. All three of those items however are sure things in all cultures although they tend to put their own spins on everything. Take Mexico, for example.

At a museum a group of snot-nosed little brats are given a museum tour by the bemused Mary Beth (Applegate). She brings them into an as-of-yet unopened exhibit on Mexico and presents to them the Book of Life, an amazing magical book that contains all the stories ever written and proceeds to present to them a story from San Angel, a small village in Mexico. The town lives constantly in fear of the reprehensible bandit Chakal (Navarro).

There Manolo (Luna) comes from a long line of heroic bull fighters including his prideful father Carlos (Elizondo) and an acerbic grandmother (deLisle). His closest friend is Joaquin (Tatum) whose father died a hero. Joaquin wants nothing more than to be the hero his father was, if not greater. With them is Maria (Saldana), a headstrong little charmer whose father General Posada (Alazraqui) is alcalde of the village of San Angel. Both boys vie for the hand of Maria, who is sent away to Europe to learn manners.

When she returns, she is a beautiful young woman. Joaquin has become a heroic soldier in defense of the town and in fact, all of Mexico. Manolo shows potential to be the greatest Sanchez of them all but longs to be a troubadour, guitar in hand and spends most of his free time playing mariachi music with Pepe (Iglesias) much to the disapproval of his father. The two young men resume their rivalry although they continue to be the best of friends.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the village, two rulers of the underworld – La Muerte (del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten – have taken interest in the situation with Manolo, Joaquin and Maria and have enacted a little wager. If Xibalba wins, he gets to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered which is an eternal fiesta. Given that the Land of the Forgotten is a depressing wasteland, he will do whatever it takes to win the wager – including to cheat. He makes sure that not only does Manolo lose the wager but that he is bitten by a particularly venomous snake in the bargain.

Manolo awakens in the Land of the Remembered where souls who are remembered and loved by someone in world of the living, a colorful land that gets even more festive on the Day of the Dead (which is when I happened to see the movie – how is that for smart planning?) when the fiesta turns epic. Manolo meets his mother (de la Reguera) as well as other deceased members of the Sanchez family including the opera singer wannabe Jorge (Domingo). However, Manolo doesn’t want to be dead. He wants to return because his love for Maria is so strong.

Realizing that Xibalba had a hand in Monolo’s premature demise, Monolo’s family agree to help him go see The Candle Maker (Cube), a jovial god who is in charge of maintaining balance in the universe.  But the way to his domain is a perilous one and in Monolo’s absence San Angel is in mortal danger. Can Manolo save the day after he’s already dead?

The visuals here are charming and inventive, colorful and arresting. Based on Mexican folk art particularly the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the characters resemble wooden marionettes with a curiously human overlay. You’ve never seen anything quite like this.

While most animated features are fairy tales, this is folklore (there is quite a difference) even though the story is essentially an original one, it’s roots are in characters and symbols that exist in Mexican folklore traditions. Although a bit sugar coated and watered down, there is still some kernels of Mexico here and carry a flavor of that country that is as real and vibrant as a properly made guacamole.

Gutierrez wisely casts actors with distinctive voices that make their roles personable and memorable. He also casts a good deal of Hispanic actors in the role some of whom might be unfamiliar to you but are stars in Mexico, like telenovela heroine del Castillo, leading man Luna (who has appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well), action hero Trejo and comedians Iglesias and Cheech Marin.

There are also several gringos in the cast – Tatum, Elizondo (who is of Portuguese descent), Saldana, Ice Cube and Applegate. All of the cast, Hispanic and otherwise, perform admirably. The plot may be paper-thin and resemble typical animated plots in construction, but the visuals and Mexican cultural overlay elevate the movie from the typical.

Now there may be a few who take offense at some of the images – a giant mustache on Mexico as the center of a universe that looks uncannily like a sombrero and the characters who nearly all look like something out of a theme park version of Mexico with serapes, sombreros and facial hair adorning nearly every character. There is also the old trope of a woman being fought over like she’s the Publisher’s Clearing House prize. However, I suspect that this is not done so much as perpetuating stereotypes as it is making gentle fun of them as the filmmakers treat these things with affection. It is part of the Mexican culture to be humorously self-effacing.

It is nice to see an animated feature that isn’t largely just like all the others. Even Pixar has put out one or two of these lately. In a year where family audiences have been under-served, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Hopefully families will embrace this movie rather than reject it because of its cultural element; the soft box office it has had leads me to suspect that there are some families who are choosing not to see it because they aren’t interested in the Mexican culture at all. I hope not, but I do have to wonder in a country that has not grown out of its racist tendencies yet (as evidenced by draconian laws in Arizona and a refusal to overhaul its immigration policies aimed squarely at keeping Mexicans out) that this beautifully made feature hasn’t been a bigger hit than it is – or deserves to be.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully inventive and beautiful animation. All the voices have character.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure if its making fun of racial and gender stereotypes or perpetuating them.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor and mildly scary images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Williams was approached to co-write a pair of songs on the soundtrack because director Jorge R. Gutierrez was a fan of his work in Phantom of the Paradise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corpse Bride
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ouija

Bedazzled (2000)


Bedazzled

This devil will make you do just about anything.

(2000) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O’Connor, Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein, Toby Huss, Gabriel Casseus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jeff Doucette, Aaron Lustig. Directed by Harold Ramis

Making a deal with the devil has become almost commonplace these days. I mean, how else can you explain Justin Bieber?

Elliot Richards (Fraser) is the guy at work that causes you to reverse direction, exclaiming “Oh my God! It’s HIM!!!” every time you see him. Socially awkward doesn’t even begin to describe him; if there’s a way of rubbing you the wrong way, Elliot is probably already doing it, perfectly unaware that he’s driving you crazy. In short, he’s a real nebbish.

His co-workers at the high-tech company in San Francisco where he works include the lovely but unattainable Allison (Frances O’Connor), for whom Elliot pines. However his every attempt (few and far between though they are) to talk to his dream girl ends in defeat every single time.

Enter the devil (Hurley), who in this case is a luscious, lurid wench played with more than a bit of a twinkle in her soulful eye. She promises him seven wishes, whatever he wants — including Allison — in exchange for his soul. Elliot readily agrees. As those who have ever made a deal with the devil can tell you, not a wise move on Elliot’s part.

Of course, the devil being what she is, the father of lies – oops, the mother of lies, the wishes go terribly wrong, one at a time. For example, Elliot wishes to be rich, powerful and married to Allison. He gets all that as a Columbian druglord whose wife is cheating on him and whose underlings are plotting to kill him. You get the picture.

This movie was made once before, in 1967 (and in turn was based on the legend of Dr. Faust), with Dudley Moore in the title role, and writer/director Peter Cook playing the devil. That version has a lot more wit and charm than this one, although Fraser has plenty of both, making the movie way more recommendable. Hurley is absolutely delicious as Beelzebub, not only easy on the eyes but veritably defining the word “naughty.” I was surprised I enjoyed her performance as much as I did; I thought she was OK in the first Austin Powers movie, but she certainly has the makings of a fine comedienne, which sadly she chose not to pursue.

Director Harold Ramis doesn’t have the deft touch that Cook does; he tends to use a bludgeon when a silk scarf will do. He has a formidable task, making essentially seven mini-movies with a linking device. Fraser pulls off seven completely different characterizations of the same man (with accompanying make-up and wardrobe changes) and that helps make this more palatable.

 As comedies go, Bedazzled isn’t bad – there are several good laughs to be found here. It isn’t as consistent as it could be, but the performances of Fraser and Hurley make up for it. G’head and rent it; if you don’t like it, well, the devil made you do it.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming performances by Hurley and Fraser. Some genuinely funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Vignettes are wildly uneven. Tends to use a cudgel when a rapier would be more suitable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual innuendo and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the beach scene, the Devil’s dogs are named Peter and Dudley, a nod to the stars of the original Bedazzled.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed, although there is an Easter Egg leading to a deleted scene which was more “R” rated due to drug use, foul language and sexual content. You may find it on the DVD by going to the second features page, highlighting the first item on the list, then clicking on your “go right” button. A devil should illuminate on Hurley’s shoulder; click on it and voila.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.4M on a $48M production budget; the movie more or less broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham.  Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.

Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.

The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.

He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.

Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.

At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.

As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.

As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?

Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.

Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.

Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.

As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.

We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.

Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.

It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.

REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead

Yes Man


Yes Man

Carl and Allison need to break out of their prison of negativity.

(Warner Brothers) Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp, Danny Masterson, Rhys Darby, Michael Higgins, Sasha Alexander, Molly Sims. Directed by Peyton Reed

We hairless apes can be a pretty negative bunch. We have a tendency to want to stick to our comfort zone, whether we are happy in that place or not. We rarely embrace the positive; we’d much rather say “no” to life than risk potentially making a fool of ourselves.

Carl (Carrey), a junior loan officer at a regional bank in Los Angeles, has taken this to extremes. Still emotionally stunted after a painful divorce three years earlier, he has blown off most of his friends, particularly Peter (Cooper), Carl’s best friend, who recently got engaged. Mostly he wants to avoid a chance meeting with Stephanie (Sims), his ex but in reality he’s stopped living.

When his boss Norman (Darby) asks him to a get-together, Carl says no. When someone hands him a flyer to see a band, Carl turns it down. Go out drinking with Peter and their other buddy Rooney (Masterson)? Forget about it. Carl would much rather cocoon himself in his apartment with a rented video before starting his dreary existence all over again the next morning.

That is, before Carl is dragged into a self-help group that worships the power of Yes. The guru of the group (Stamp) preaches the transformative powers of saying Yes to life instead of No. When Carrey appears hesitant (and endures a cult-like chanting of “NO MAN NO MAN NO MAN” from the seminar attendees), Carl is intimidating into accepting a covenant with the guru – that he must say yes to every opportunity that presents itself to him.

So when a homeless man demands a ride into a isolated hillside park? Carl must say yes. When the same man asks to use Carl’s cell phone? Of course, even though the homeless man drains the battery. Give the homeless guy all his cash? Si, amigo!

Strangely, this does prove transformative in Carl’s life, particularly when he meets Allison (Deschanel) who fronts a strange synthpop art band and runs a jogging photography class by day – how very quirky! However, one wonders how genuine the romance can be if one is required to say yes to everything the other suggests. Certainly Allison wonders when she finds out about Carl’s odd covenant.

This is a little bit too reminiscent of Liar, Liar for my liking – in that film, Carrey was a lawyer forced to say the truth no matter what by a magic spell. Here, it’s not so much magic as karma that goes after him; the first time he says no, he winds up falling down a flight of stairs and nearly mauled by the kind of dog that most apartment complexes won’t allow you to keep.

Carrey has never been my favorite comedian; he mugs a little bit too much and a little bit goes an awful long way. He really hasn’t varied his act much over the past 20 years going back to Ace Ventura Pet Detective and now approaching 50, it wears a bit thin. Still, when he reins in his more excessive tendencies (as he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) I actually do like him.

However, Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses. She has that quirky quality that indie film directors adore and she is also innately sweet, not to mention totally gorgeous. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie works and not just because of her beauty or her quirkiness. She plays off of Carrey nicely and the chemistry between them is genuine enough that it makes you forget the age difference which might have made the movie romance a little bit creepy.

The movie has an outstanding support cast. In addition to a pre-The Hangover Cooper and veteran actor Stamp, it has small screen talents Masterson (“That 70s Show”), Sims (“Vegas”) and Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) who is particularly engaging as the trying-too-hard bank manager Norman who has a penchant for nerdiness and Harry Potter.

Reed, who also directed The Break Up, shows flashes of brilliance in the director’s chair but is hamstrung by a script that follows Romantic Comedy formula 101 to a “T” which pretty much drains the movie of all its suspense. Also, the concept could have been tweaked a bit; Carl says Yes not so much because he has to but because he feels compelled to. It removes a bit of the dramatic tension that might have brought this movie a better rating.

For the most part, it’s fairly harmless and some of the humor that comes from the situations Carl gets into by saying yes gets more than polite chuckles. Given that I’m not a particular Jim Carrey fan may give you pause to consider that I might have rated this a bit lower than it deserves to be; certainly the work of Darby and particularly Deschanel make it worth checking out as a rental. However, at the end of the day this isn’t something I would watch again if I had a choice. That makes Yes Man a solid maybe.

WHY RENT THIS: Deschanel is one of the most engaging actresses in the business. Her chemistry with Carrey gives the movie added sweetness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit formulaic, particularly when it comes to the romance. When Carrey goes over-the-top, the movie gets a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor can be crude and juvenile at times, with emphasis on the sexual. There’s also some brief nudity and a smattering of bad language. All in all, this is probably acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel share the same birthday, January 17th – exactly 18 years apart (Carrey was born in 1962, Deschanel in 1980).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Both the DVD and Blu-Ray editions have music videos (which are in reality just full uncut takes of song performances) by Allison’s Munchausen by Proxy band, as well as a “Behind the Music”-like faux documentary on the band’s rise to fame. Norman gives us a tour of his bachelor pad/love nest and we see Carrey chug a can of Red Bull and give his spiel on Red Bull love on the Blu-Ray disc.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: In the Loop