Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2

The Fault in Our Stars


In order to make an omelet...

In order to make an omelet…

(2014) Drama (20th Century Fox/Fox 2000) Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Emily Peachey, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saladna, David Whalen, Milica Govich, Allegra Carpenter, Emily Bach, Tim Hartman, Bethany Leo, Alexis Hodges, Jean Bressard, Carly Otte, Elyse Alberts. Directed by Josh Boone

Life in general is rarely fair, but for teenagers who must deal with a deadly disease it is particularly unfair. Watching their lives ebb away, knowing that in the end their stay in this life will end prematurely, they try to find some meaning in their brief lives. It is hard to find much drama in the ins and outs of teen angst when you know your death is just around the corner.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is unable to breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank. At age 13, she very nearly died, her tearful mother (Dern) whispering that it is okay to let go but that’s not in Hazel’s DNA. She’s a fighter and she survives, managing to stabilize her deteriorating situation by undergoing an experimental treatment that she refers to as her miracle.

She is withdrawn and reads the same book incessantly – An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten, a reclusive American author who has exiled himself to Amsterdam. The book intrigues her because she can relate to the cancer-stricken heroine but also because it ends mid-sentence, indicating that the heroine has died. She wants to know what happens to the supporting characters after the lead character has expired but van Houten has consistently refused to answer questions of that nature despite many entreaties by fans of the book to do so.

She reluctantly attends a support group that meets at a local church with a well-meaning youth pastor (Hartman) who rolls out a giant rug with a portrait of Jesus and abjures his group of cancer-stricken kids that they are literally meeting “in the heart of Jesus.” Hazel isn’t really looking to reach out and make friends – what’s the point – but she attracts the attention of Augustus Waters (Elgort), a free-spirited survivor who was there to support his friend Isaac (Wolff) who is soon to have surgery that will render him permanently blind. Isaac at least has the comfort of a girlfriend (Peachey) who asserts that she’ll love him “always” but is eventually freaked out by the reality of his situation and dumps him.

Augustus had bone cancer which eventually cost him the use of one leg. Before the amputation, he had been a star basketball player in basketball-mad Indiana. An unlit cigarette dangles rakishly from his lips to symbolize that he is embracing his cancer but not giving it power over him. Not the most realistic of symbols, but he’s a teenager and entitled to do things that in the long run don’t accomplish the desired effect.

She attempts to keep the irrepressible Augustus at arm’s length but we all know (including Hazel Grace herself) that eventually he will win her over. Her mom and dad (Trammell) are both overjoyed that Hazel has connected to someone else. The two grow closer but the real kicker comes when Augustus uses his wish with a Make-a-Wish type group to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet van Houten (Dafoe). Hazel would have used hers but at 13 she had used it instead to go to Disney World. Priorities, after all.

While the meeting with van Houten doesn’t go exactly as planned, it still ends up being a memorable trip although it concludes with devastating news – Augustus’ cancer, which had been in remission, has reappeared and it has spread everywhere. They both know that Augustus has been given a death sentence but they are determined that now that they are comfortable with being in love with each other that they will make the most of the time they both have left.

This is a movie that I am conflicted about in many ways. As most of you know, the movie is based on the bestselling novel by John Green that in turn was based on his experiences working with support groups of the sort Hazel made fun of early on in the film (and Hazel herself is based on a real person, Esther Earl, who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16. Green, who was very involved in the production of the movie, pulled no punches in the book although for time constraints some of the suffering  at the hands of the disease that the protagonists had to deal with had to be left out – but then again, the movie isn’t about their suffering per se.

Shailene Woodley is one of the best young actresses working today and already has an Oscar nomination under her belt. She may well get another one here although Academy voters are not known for remembering good work from summer films. She captures the many dimensions of Hazel and keeps her real. A role like this could easily lose its humanity with actors trying to play her too heroically or not heroic enough. Hazel is an ordinary hero, a young girl living with lungs that don’t work properly and the prospects of a short life. She does tend to push people away but as it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her heart in the least.

Elgort is a handsome guy with an engaging grin, but the part is rife with cliches – the free-spirited dying kid who is full of life. Not that there aren’t kids like that running around, but there are a disproportionate number of them in Hollywood. Hazel narrates that she’d like to say that Augustus kept his sense of humor (after the cancer returned) but that wouldn’t be true, but then the writers go ahead and make it true. Don’t say that a character changes without having them change. It’s dishonest. None of that is Elgort’s fault by the way – and I don’t doubt he has a fine career ahead of him.

You need to keep a couple of things in mind when seeing this movie. First of all, it’s manipulative. Holy Christ is it manipulative! How could it not be, considering the subject matter? Brave kids facing a painful death? And yes, you will be anywhere from misty-eyed to outright sobbing when the end credits roll. Expect it and deal with it.

Secondly, this is a movie aimed very squarely at young teen and pre-teen girls. Augustus fits into the young female fantasy of a sensitive, caring boy who happens to be breathtakingly hot and free-spirited, willing to accept the love of his life as she is and wait for her when she’s not certain. He’s loyal, loving, affectionate, funny…if he pulled out a guitar and played a love song he wrote for every girl in the audience he couldn’t have been more perfect. And of course Hazel herself is brave, beautiful, and of course in mortal jeopardy but never backs down for a moment, fighting for her life with dignity and grace.

There are those who sniff that this movie isn’t about cancer, but that’s disingenuous. No, the movie isn’t about cancer – you’re not going to learn the ins and outs of the disease from watching this film – but cancer informs this movie. There’s no movie (or book) without it. This movie isn’t about cancer in the same way The Godfather isn’t about the Mafia.

There are some beautiful truths here to be had here but you have to plough through some fairly predictable elements to get to them. I would have liked to see the characters be less perfect and more human. I would have loved to see Augustus scream at the faulty stars at the raw deal he’s getting. I would have liked to see Hazel lash out more than she does. I would have liked to see the movie pander less to the target audience and respect them more. However, that doesn’t mean this movie won’t satisfy their needs and strike a powerful chord in their hearts, and who am I to dismiss a movie that can accomplish that as well as this one does?

REASONS TO GO: Woodley shows off her Oscar-nominated form. Not a typical teen romance.

REASONS TO STAY: Manipulative and maudlin and unnecessarily so.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, occasionally salty language and mature thematic content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title is a reference to a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50/50

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Miss Bala