Bad Reputation (2018)


Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon.

(2018) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Kathleen Hanna, Miley Cyrus, Ian MacKaye, Pete Townshend, Bill Curbishley, Mike Ness, Kristen Stewart, Dougie Needles, Alison Mosshart, Dana White, Sally Hershberger, Rodney Bingenheimer, Thommy Price, Carianne Brinkman, Cherie Currie. Directed by Kevin Kerslake

 

One of the problems we film critics have is that often with documentaries we have a tendency to review the subject as much as the film. I’m certainly guilty of that and the temptation to do that with an icon like Joan Jett is damn near irresistible.

You can’t help but admire Jett as a musician. In an age when most women were relegated to playing soft rock or folk music, Jett wanted to rock hard. She wanted to be like the boys onstage; like Pete Townshend, like Jimmy Page, like Clapton. People in the industry would look at her like she was from Mars. Girls don’t rock; they strum. They sing sweetly and they certainly don’t shriek

As a teen, Joan Larkin made her way from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to chase her rock and roll dreams. She hung out in the English Disco, an all-ages nightclub where glam rock was worshiped by men and women wearing way too much make-up. Joan stood out in that crowd and met Sandy West, a kindred spirit who wanted to be John Bonham. They added guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox and were christened The Runaways. Joan took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name and under the aegis of promoter Kim Fowley (whom Iggy Pop described as “like Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein’s monster was on Quaaludes”) they would go on to record four studio albums and one live album before breaking up acrimoniously.

The band was met by critical scorn and by outright hostility by male rockers who didn’t want to see their clubhouse invaded by girls yet performance footage (of which there is sadly far too little) show that the Runaways were as hard rocking as any male band of their time. When the band broke up, Jett was devastated. She self-medicated with booze and drugs, hanging out with people like Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungeon and Stiv Bators, most of whom as Jett puts it “are dead now.” She even thought of joining the military to get herself straightened out but it was rock and roll that saved her.

She was introduced to Kenny Laguna, a noted bubblegum pop producer who heard something in Jett. Putting together a backing band who became known as the Blackhearts, Laguna melded his pop sensibilities with Joan’s hard rock instincts to create a kind of hard pop. When no label would even consider them, Jett and Laguna founded heir own label, becoming a precursor to the DIY punk labels that started in the 80s. When pop mogul Neil Bogart heard their demo, he arranged to distribute their first album and it looked like a wise move when the first album did extremely well but Bogart died before they could follow up on that success and his label died with him. Undaunted, the band found another label to distribute their music and they hit the big time powered by constant airplay on MTV. While most of the band’s hits were covers (“I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover”) there were several that Jett and Laguna penned as well (“Bad Reputation”). Through the 80s, Jett became the Queen of Rock, a darker haired version of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

The rock business has always been notoriously cyclical and as label relationships soured, the Blackhearts were bounced from label to label but while Jett and her band would never recapture the popularity they had in the 80s they continued to have hits here and there through the 90s and into the 21st century.

Now so far I’ve reviewed the subject and certainly Jett is worthy of a documentary but the problem with this documentary is a lack of depth. It’s a bit more of a puff piece and Kerslake doesn’t seem inclined to examine some of the darker subjects, like the allegations  in Cherie Currie’s book that Fowley had sexually assaulted members of the Runaways – Jett is certainly aware of those allegations and you’d think in this MeToo era she would be at least wanting to comment on them, even if only to say “I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing going on so I can’t validate Cherie’s story.”

There is also astonishingly little detail in how the high school aged Joan got from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, whether she was able to reconnect with her former bandmates in the Runaways or even who her personal influences are as a musician. Watching this movie is very much like staring at a picture that has been put through a shredder and tossed in a trash can and then later reassembled at the city dump; there are lots of pieces missing and the ones that are there are incomplete.

Still, Jett is candid and engaging. She doesn’t address her sexuality – I don’t think she should have to – which has been a subject of gossip for decades. If anything, I think Jett is married to rock and roll and that’s the source of her sexuality and her creativity. It is her center and her savior, and often her curse. It is the greatest love in her life. And like all of our own relationships it has had its ups and downs but she is still loyal to it nevertheless. That’s pretty damn admirable if you ask me.

You likely won’t respect Jett as a musician any more after seeing this than you already do – or do not, if you are of that mindset. You may find yourself respecting her more as a person as I did. Overall I’d have to say that while Jett is indeed a rock icon who deserves every accolade she gets thrown her way, I might have wished for a better biography of her than this. She’s earned better.

REASONS TO GO: Jett is a marvelous subject; she’s candid and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit Music Documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, sexual references and gestures, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jett celebrated her 60th birthday just four days before the film was released.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

New Releases for the Week of April 2, 2010


April 2, 2010

Sam Worthington went from Pandora to Ancient Greece without so much as blinking a bicep.

CLASH OF THE TITANS

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelsen, Nicholas Hoult, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Louis Letterier

Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen was known as the King of Stop-Motion Animation, with many classic movies (including Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) to his credit. His last movie to date (he’s still alive, although he’s 90 years old at the moment) was the 1981 hit Clash of the Titans which depicted the mythological story of Perseus. Nearly 20 years later, Incredible Hulk director Letterier sees to remake it, albeit amped up on computer-generated steroids.

See the trailer, featurettes and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality)

The Last Song

(Touchstone) Miley Cyrus, Greg Kinnear, Kelly Preston, Bobby Coleman. Writer Nicholas Sparks has become a one-man band singing the praises for romantic South Carolina. This time, teen pop diva Cyrus plays a city girl forced to spend the summer with her estranged dad in a South Carolina beach town and finds romance, music and family. Amazing what washes up on the beach in South Carolina.

See the trailer, featurettes and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for thematic material, some violence, sensuality and mild language)

Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Janet Jackson, Malik Yoba, Jill Scott. The same eight college buddies from the first film are back and still struggling with the challenges facing married couples in 2010, only this time instead of facing them at a ski resort they are going to the Bahamas, which means bikinis instead of tight sweaters. Ah, the things we do for marital bliss.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including sexuality, language, drug references and some domestic violence)

Bolt


It's doggie deja vu.

It's doggie deja vu.

(Disney) Starring the voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Diedrich Bader, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton. Directed by Chris Williams and Byron Howard

Sometimes the world we live in isn’t what we think it is. That can be because we tend to believe what we want to believe, and other times it’s because we see what others want us to see. There are only two things that we can really rely on. The first thing is ourselves; the second thing is love.

Penny (Cyrus) is the daughter of a noted scientist who has been kidnapped by the nefarious Dr. Calico (McDowell), the Man with the Green Eye (just one). In order to get the scientist to give up information about the classified project he is working on, the evil Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) has decided to kidnap Penny to use as leverage. Thankfully, she isn’t alone. Before he was kidnapped, the scientist enhanced the family dog Bolt (Travolta) with super strength, super speed, heat vision and above all, a super bark. Despite all the black-suited minions on motorcycles, the high-tech weapons, the attack helicopters and fiendish traps set by the sinister Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) the duo of Penny and Bolt foil his evil plans every time, getting closer to finding where Penny’s dad is being held and once and for all foiling the plans of the criminal genius Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!).

At least, that’s what Bolt thinks. The reality is that all of that is a highly rated television show. In order to get a more natural performance out of the canine star, the Director (Lipton) has gone to great lengths to make the dog believe that the jeopardy is real and that his super powers are genuine. Every night at the end of shooting, Penny escorts Bolt to his trailer where he rests, occasionally getting tormented by a pair of cat actors who play the pets of the cat-aleptic Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!). Penny is not thrilled about this; she would rather spend time with her dog, but her smarmy agent (Greg Germann) convinces her that this is best for her career. However, the network is becoming restless; the ratings are slipping and people are getting tired of the same old formula; girl gets in trouble, Bolt saves the day.

The Director comes up with an episode which ends with the maniacal Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) successfully kidnapping Penny. Instead of Penny accompanying Bolt to his trailer, it’s a trainer in heavy padding looking not unlike one of the tyrannical Dr. Calico’s (BWAHAHAHA!) henchmen. In a moment of opportunistic synchronicity, Bolt escapes only to accidentally knock himself out and fall into a package filled with Styrofoam packing for a cross-country journey to New York.

Once in the Big Apple, he tries to find Penny but nobody seems to know who he is (New Yorkers are apparently too busy watching “Inside the Actors Studio”). A trio of clueless pigeons sends Bolt to Mittens (Essman), a feline con artist who has the pigeons giving her a cut of their food in exchange for not being clawed to pieces. Bolt, thinking that Mittens is an operative of the fiendish Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) drags Mittens along for the ride back to California after a desperate Mittens, seeing “Hollywood, California” on Bolt’s dog tag (it’s a good thing cats can read) steers the heroic canine in that direction.

The two embark on a journey across country joined by an astonishingly obese hamster named Rhino (Walton) who does know who Bolt is but like Bolt believes that the television show is real. Bolt’s powers are mysteriously not working; Bolt blames it on the Styrofoam which he has reasoned has some sort of dampening power, obviously a product of the dangerous Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!). The dashing dog must learn to be a hero as an ordinary dog.

This is the first Disney feature to be filmed in 3D and they use the technology wisely, making the 3D a more naturalistic part of the film rather than as a gimmick. Occasionally things come at you in flinch-inducing 3D glory but for the most part it simply adds some depth to the screen.

The voice actors are mostly unknown; only Cyrus and Travolta have any notoriety. Strangely, Travolta is a bit flat as Bolt. Bolt is determined to find Penny, but Travolta reads his lines almost in a monotone. Much better are Essman, who gives the abandoned and wounded Mittens street smarts and a curious dignity. Some of the most emotionally effective scenes are hers; even the climax doesn’t resonate as well as Essman’s work.

Now that Disney and Pixar have joined forces we might see the features from both animation studios start to look a bit alike, and there is definitely a Pixar stamp on this. It isn’t up to the quality of Pixar’s best work, not by a long shot. Still, it’s pleasant enough entertainment, sure to keep the kids happy and satisfied and while the adults might find themselves shifting in their chairs once in awhile, there’s enough here to make it worth their while as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The story never drags and carries a clear emotional center. Susie Essman is super as Mittens. The relationship between Penny and Bolt is heartwarming, charming and authentic. The Bond-like TV show sequences almost make you wish that such a show actually existed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Assuming your kids will let you pass on this, it doesn’t really stand out in a crowded field of animated features. Its pleasant entertainment, mainly aimed at kids but with little appeal to more sophisticated tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: Absolutely perfect for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The number on Bolt’s dog tag is actually the street address of Disney’s Burbank animation studios.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 4-minute animated short starring the lovable hamster that must save the kidnapped Bolt and Penny in “Super Rhino.”

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Served the King of England