Echo in the Canyon


This concert is for the Byrds.

(2018) Music Documentary (GreenwichJakob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Fernando Pedromo, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Matt Tecu, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater

One of the mysteries of music is how often it coalesces in a single location – Liverpool and Greenwich village in the early 60s, Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle and Manchester in the 90s – where all the right conditions of talent and opportunity create a marvelously creative Petri dish that gives birth to a new sound, reinvigorating the now 60 year old hoary beast that is rock music.

For an astonishingly narrow era – 1965 to 1967 – one such place was in Southern California and specifically, Laurel Canyon. Today the Canyon is a tony mixture of trendy hipsters and wealthy consumers that frequent coffee houses and boutiques at the base of the Canyon. Back then, however, it was a musician’s colony and bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield and even the Beach Boys (who were already big stars dating back to the surf era) were headquartered there. They would hang out at each other’s houses, share meals and drugs as well as play stuff they were working on for each other. The cross-pollination of the music that started with the Byrds’ foray into electric folk – which came to influence Folkie Number One Bob Dylan himself – and changed pop music forever, paving the way for seminal albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Dylan’s progeny Jakob, himself a rock star with the Wallflowers, undertook the documentation of that scene after watching a French film called The Model Shop that starred Canadian actor Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam draftee wandering around L.A. and taking up with a French model who was trying to get back home to Paris. He started out interviewing the movers and shakers of the scene – David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He also spoke with some of those who were heavily influenced by the so-called California Sound – Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Ringo Starr of the Beatles, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 2017.

This is a movie that had to be made now as most of those musicians from back then are in their 70s and 80s and so many of those who shaped that scene are no longer with us. Director Andrew Slater – a former music journalist and CEO of Capitol Records – peppers the soundtrack with some of the most amazing music of any era, showing off close harmonies, and the simple yet unforgettable sound of a well-played 12-string Rickenbacker.

Dylan would organize a tribute concert in 2015 at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater in which contemporary stars like Beck, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor played the hit songs of that era. Rehearsal footage and concert footage of the upstarts playing the iconic music of their predecessors illustrates how timeless that music remains.

My only real problem with the movie is that you begin to wonder if this is a labor of ego more than a labor of love. Dylan conducts all the interviews and is often nodding sagely at the remarks of his subjects. He is front and center at the tribute concert and much of the time the camera is focused on him. Dylan’s career has hit a plateau of sorts and one wonders if this isn’t a means for him to re-energize it. A little less Jakob Dylan and a lot more anecdotes from the original musicians would have been much more appreciated. Also, the film focuses on the more successful bands of the era. There were plenty of other bands in the Laurel Canyon scene whose music could have also been shared. Strangely, the Doors – who also lived in the Canyon – are not mentioned at all. I suppose their music wasn’t folk enough to mix with the ethos Slater and Dylan are creating here.

The movie’s demarcation point is Neil Young’s decision to leave Buffalo Springfield in 1967 which would see Crosby follow suit. Just two years later the innocence of the era would be cruelly shattered when a group of cultists went to the home of actress Sharon Tate in neighboring Benedict Canyon and brought the Sixties crashing to a halt. Still, the music that came before those grisly events remains and continue to influence artists to this day. The contributions of those who made it deserve to be properly acclaimed and recognized for what it was – the beginning of real innovation in rock and roll.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is, of course, fantastic. The stories that the musicians tell are mainly more compelling than the rehearsal and concert footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels more like a labor of ego than a labor of love.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clips from the 1969 movie Model Shop were used to add a sense of what it was like in Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles in the late Sixties.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Concert for George
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Little Woods

Ted


Ted

When W.C. Fields said never act with children or animals, he couldn’t possibly have had Ted in mind.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Giovanni Ribisi, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Patrick Warburton, Jessica Barth, Laura Vandervoort, Sam J. Jones, Joel McHale, Matt Walsh, Norah Jones, Bill Smitrovich, Patrick Stewart (narrator), Tom Skerritt. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

 

Wishes can be tricky things. We may think we want something, but we rarely think through the consequences of actually getting it. We are so rarely prepared to get exactly what we want.

Young John Bennett is a lonely, outcast little boy in the suburbs of Boston. He’s so despised by the kids of his neighborhood that even the Jewish kids undergoing a beating from the other kids in the neighborhood don’t want him to join in. One Christmas he gets a Teddy Bear the size of a toddler, one who says “I love you” whenever you press the right button; well, the only button. John is enchanted. He loves his new friend – he just wishes that his new friend were real and would be his friend forever. Lo and behold, he gets his wish.

Of course, that takes the world by surprise. After all, who the hell gets their wishes to come true? Ted (MacFarlane) becomes a minor celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and cracking him up). But much like all celebrity, it fades – ask Corey Feldman and soon life turns back to normal for the kid and his living teddy bear.

Flash forward to 2012. John (Wahlberg) is 35 now, still living with Ted but also living with Lori Collins (Kunis), his super-hottie of a girlfriend. She’s a VP at a marketing firm; he works the counter at a rental car agency (I’d love to find out the story of how the two hooked up, but it’s not in this movie). They’ve been going together for four years and she’s ready to move on to the next step but John is in no hurry. Besides, he’s still spending as much time doing weed and drinking beer with Ted.

This doesn’t sit well with Lori who wants more of a boyfriend than an ambition-challenged slacker with a teddy bear. She’s had to fend off the advances of her boss (McHale) and defend him to all and sundry and at last it’s time for Ted to go. Reluctantly, John tells his bear to go and although Ted isn’t happy about it, he makes the best of it, getting a job at the local grocery store and banging the attractive check-out clerk Tami-Lynn (Barth) on the produce pile in the back for kickers.

Still, even that doesn’t seem to motivate John to grow up, blowing off an important event for Lori to go party with their idol Sam J. Jones – Flash Gordon himself, playing himself – at Ted’s new apartment. That night goes terribly wrong and Lori and John split up. John realizes how much he loves Lori and Ted realizes he’s gone too far. They’ll both do whatever it takes to save the relationship, but there’s a creepy dad named Donnie (Ribisi) trying to get Ted for his son – and he’ll do anything it takes to get the living teddy bear all to himself.

MacFarlane is best-known for creating “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” among others. His humor tends to push the boundaries of television and given the lack of broadcast standards here, he goes whole hog for some of the most disgusting humor imaginable. If you ever wondered what “Family Guy” would look like on HBO, ponder no more. He even pulls out references to characters from the show – Ted’s go at a posh British accent sounds uncannily like Stewie and he snorts at one point “What do I sound like, Peter Griffith?” Well, as a matter of fact, no.

Wahlberg is a master at portraying a basically nice guy at heart with rough edges. John isn’t a bad guy, really – he’s just immature. The trouble is, he’s 35 and his girlfriend has no desire to be with an adolescent. She, understandably wants a man – and if you look like Mila Kunis as Lori does, you pretty much get what you want. And Lori does, sorta.

And that’s the beauty of the movie. Yeah, the plot is kinda generic but MacFarlane goes about it in a pretty roundabout way. He pushes the humor way way way over the line without missing a beat, and throws in a ton of pop culture references. He throws in some characters that are kind of outside of the box, a good deal of affectionate ribbing in the general direction of Boston and voila! A summer movie that may cure the summer comedy doldrums. For those who are really missing a Judd Apatow film or one of the Hangover movies, here is the movie to go see.

REASONS TO GO: One of the funniest comedies thus far this year. MacFarlane milks every joke for all its worth.

REASONS TO STAY: May make some feel like they’ve spent two hours in the gutter.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of crude content (albeit very funny) as well as plenty of foul language, not to mention a fair amount of drug use and plenty of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While a variety of teddy bears were used for stand-ins on-set, Ted’s movements were performed by MacFarlane as motion capture.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are kinda mixed but more towards the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harvey

TRASH TALK LOVERS: Few cities produce as many great trash talkers as Boston does and we get to see – and hear – some gems.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Big Stan

My Blueberry Nights


My Blueberry Nights

Nothing like a cup o' joe to finish your evening.

(2007) Drama (Weinstein) Jude Law, Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Adriane Lenox, Benjamin Kanes, Chan Marshall, Hector Leguillow, Chad Davis, Katya Blumenberg, John Malloy, Frankie Faison. Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Love is no easy thing. It chews you up and spits you out like a burnt blueberry pie. Time and distance can give us perspective and sometimes even lessen the pain, but it is a conscious choice to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on with our lives.

Elizabeth (Jones) is recovering from a relationship breakup after her boyfriend cheats on her. She finds refuge in the diner owned by Jeremy (Law), where she is the only customer who orders his fresh-made blueberry pie. The two start to converse; it turns out that Jeremy is a broken soul as well. Jeremy begins to fall for Elizabeth but she flees from New York before he can establish a beach head.

He searches for her meticulously and desperately, knowing only that she’s gone to Memphis. He makes calls and sends postcards to nearly every restaurant in the Memphis area trying to find her. He must have missed the one where she’s at, working as both a waitress (by day) and bartender (by night) as Lizzie. It’s at the bar she meets Arnie Copeland (Strathairn), an alcoholic ex-cop who pines for his wife Sue Lynn (Weisz) who persistently and openly cheats on her husband from whom she is separated. His struggle seems to resonate with Lizzie who befriends him, and when he threatens Sue Lynn one night with a gun, the resulting tragedy sends Lizzie off west to the desert.

Now known as Beth, she meets up with Leslie (Portman), a professional poker player who’s had a run of bad luck. She does have a car, which Beth needs but she needs a stake in the big poker tournament. Beth agrees to stake her in exchange for one third the winnings if she wins and her car if she loses.

Leslie plays in the tournament and eventually reports back to Beth that she lost. She asks if Beth could give her a ride to see her father, from whom she’s been estranged. They arrive in Las Vegas only to find that Beth’s father died the night before. They’d just missed him. Leslie confesses that she actually won the tournament and wants the car back for sentimental reasons. She gives Beth the money which is more than enough to buy a car…and Beth heads back east, having made a journey to evade love – had it found her anyway?

Chinese director Wong Kar Wei is known for being one of the most visually arresting filmmakers in the world, and in his English language debut retains that distinctive visual style. The neon lights make for a colorful backdrop in Manhattan and Memphis while the loneliness of the desert vistas are magnificently captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji.

And this isn’t case of images over story either; the movie depicts a journey, an evolution as it were, of Elizabeth from a scared, broken-hearted little girl into a wise, self-aware woman. Casting Jones, a singer with no acting experience in the role was a bold move but one that paid off. She has an interesting face, which is a Wong Kar Wei trademark – he utilizes close-ups better than any director working today, so in that sense she suits him well. She also proves to be at least competent as an actress; clearly she can use some improvement if she decides to prove a dual career with the music business, but she has the potential if she wants to go that way.

Law is solid in a part that doesn’t require much of him but to look soulful. Strathairn, the talented veteran character actor is most impressive as the broken-hearted alcoholic who desperately loves a wife who has given up on him. It’s a performance that is as soulful as it is poignant; I thought it was one of the best of his career. He and Weisz had real chemistry together.

The movie is only 90 minutes long so there is an economy here that’s refreshing – Wei does no more and no less than he has to do. The brevity works in the movie’s favor; the constant barrage of symbols (keys play a big part in this movie) grew annoying after awhile. But of course American sensibilities are different than Asian ones obviously. Some find that level of layered nuances challenging and gratifying on an intellectual level.

This is a movie that should be experienced rather than seen. I found that letting the images and story wash over me was helpful in my enjoyment of the movie. As Wong Kar Wei movies go, this isn’t his masterpiece…but it may make a good jump-in point for American audiences to be introduced to this amazing director.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all of Kar Wai’s films, this is a visual treat for the senses. Strathairn brings great poignancy to his role. Jones is a capable actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is symbol-heavy and not all of the vignettes are as striking as the Strathairn/Weisz one.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, but also a good deal of drinking and smoking as you might expect in a movie where so much of the action takes place in bars.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chan Marshall, who plays Katya, is better known as Cat Power, a leading indie musician. This is also her feature film acting debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Wong Kar Wai conducted by the Museum of the Moving Image that lends fascinating insight as to his philosophy of moviemaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie almost certainly made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ahead of Time