Songwriter


Songs are weird things says Ed Sheeran.

(2018) Music Documentary (Apple Music/Abramorama) Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Julia Michaels, Johnny McDaid, Matthew Sheeran, Fuse Odg, Foy Vance, Ryan Tedder, Murray Cummings, Amy Wadge. Directed by Murray Cummings

 

Some movies are meant to appeal to niche audiences. This particular documentary is going to appeal to Ed Sheeran fans, for example; it isn’t likely to win any new ones and how you receive the film is going to entirely depend on how you receive his music.

Me, I blow hot and cold on Ed Sheeran. He has written some beautiful, amazing songs. He has also written some cliché pop songs that sound like they came off an assembly line. It’s okay – nobody is ever going to write songs in which every single one appeal to you. That just isn’t possible. However, I suppose that dichotomy of admiration has colored my perception enough to make this a mixed review.

The movie takes place during Sheeran’s 2016 hiatus. He had just finished touring off his second album Multiply and was preparing to record his third album Divide. Cummings shoots this entirely on hand-held cameras giving a fly-on-the-wall immediacy but strangely it lacks intimacy. It feels like everyone there is playing to the camera and nobody is being themselves. We rarely get any conversations with any depth to them during the course of the film, which is not a good thing.

That would be all right if there was something interesting going on onscreen but I’m afraid there really isn’t. The songwriting process seems to be Sheeran and various collaborators noodling about on guitars, keyboards or to a computer-generated beat and coming up with snippets of lyrics and couplets of songs. There does seem to be a process of building each song like a child with a LEGO set but oddly Sheeran never comments on the process and even more stupefying is that Cummings never asks him.

This isn’t a Dylanesque songwriter sitting down at a piano or with a guitar and letting inspiration come; Sheeran has collaborators (as many as nine) on each song which I suppose can generate some synchronicity but to be honest, a lot of the songs lack a human kind of spark. Personally I would love to see Sheeran lock himself in a room and let his heart do the writing but given that he proclaims near the end of the film “Anyone who doesn’t want to be bigger than Adele is in the wrong business,” which leads me to retort that anyone who doesn’t want to write songs that illuminate, or touch the heart of the listener is in the wrong business as well.

Keep in mind that Sheeran is a young man who achieved extraordinary success at a young age and perhaps his priorities are skewed because of it. He seems an affable young man with an easy grin and there are at least two songs on the album that I thought were incredible but most of the others were to put it bluntly sounded alike. The problem with modern music is that too many artists rely on formulas to create hits rather than revealing something of themselves. Formulas are easy; insights are hard and the latter are almost non-existent here.

Still, some of the musical sequences are lovely (particularly a heartwarming moment when he records at Abbey Road) and some are just goofy, most of that supplied by producer/songwriter/partner-in-crime Benny Blanco whose fear of flying causes him to take a transatlantic cruise ship. Sheeran tags along and the men turn one of the larger suites into a recording studio for the voyage which sounds better on paper than it does on film. This is not a great documentary but it’s an adequate one. Maybe that’s the best we could have expected.

REASONS TO GO: Sheeran fans are going to adore this.
REASONS TO STAY: I didn’t really find any insight into the songwriting process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cummings is Sheeran’s cousin; the two have been close friends since childhood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick Cave: One More Time With Feeling
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Minding the Gap

Brother’s Justice


Dax Shepard can't believe himself as an action star either.

Dax Shepard can’t believe himself as an action star either.

(2010) Mockumentary (Tribeca) Dax Shepard, Nate Tuck, Tom Arnold, Ashton Kutcher, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, David Koechner, Seth Green, Michael Rosenbaum, Ryan Hansen, Jess Rowland, Steve Tisch, Andrew Panay, Greg Siegel, Josh Temple, James Feldman, Laura Labo, Jordan Morris, Chevonne Moore, Rome Shadanloo. Directed by David Palmer & Dax Shepard

I have to admit that there are times I’m not sure what a filmmaker is up to. Dax Shepard is a case in point here. This appears to be a satire on the moviemaking process, the culture of enabling star egos and of vanity projects in general. I mean, that seems to be the case. But I’m not 100% certain after seeing this.

Basically, it’s a mockumentary starring Shepard, who has appeared in dozens of movies as a comic actor in supporting roles (like the oafish boyfriend in Baby Mama) as well as on the acclaimed TV show Parenthood. Here, he’s made the decision that it would be more lucrative for him to be an action movie star rather than a comic actor mainly because the competition is less fierce. He writes a Chuck Norris-style movie complete with drug dealers, bikers, sibling warriors and a climactic fight going down a mountain.

His aim is to star in it himself, even though he has no action skills whatsoever. He goes into training in a dojo whose sensei is less sure of Shepard’s prospects (and abilities) than Shepard is himself. Shepard’s pal Nate Tuck is there as a producer and inevitably gets stuck with the tab for expenses Shepard is racking up.

Trying to see this turkey to the studios proves to be formidable but Shepard is undaunted. He approaches A-listers like Favreau and Cooper as well as Tom Arnold to help lend credibility to his movie. At last he realizes that he is going to have to do it himself.

There’s plenty of room for laughs here, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of them. Part of the problem is that Shepard makes himself so unlikable, so egotistical and so out of touch with reality that you’re rooting for him to get his ass kicked. That can work in certain situations but not here and not now.

The cameos are basically the best part of the movie which is kind of a damning fact in and of itself. The bottom line here is that if you like Dax Shepard’s work, you’re going to love this. If you don’t – and I’m one of those who finds him more obnoxious than funny – than you’re not. And I didn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty cameos. Some nice satire on the Hollywood system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If Shepard isn’t your cup of tea you’re really going to hate this one. Sometimes makes you feel more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few violent scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was an Audience Award winner at the 2010 Austin (TX) Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for Guffman

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Fast & Furious 6

Hollywoodland


Hollywoodland

Adrien Brody gets ready to punch out this photographer in preparing for his next role as Sean Penn.

(Focus) Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Molly Parker, Robin Tunney, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano, Dash Mihok, Lois Smith, Zach Mills, Larry Cedar, Seamus Dever, Daisy Fuentes. Directed by Allen Coulter

Fame is a glittering object, dazzling and seductive. Many are seduced by the incandescent glow that promises immortality, adoration and wealth. Fame is also vain, fickle and cruel and it can turn on you, eat you alive from the inside and spit you out, a desiccated husk. It has happened in Hollywood too many times to count and the names of those who fell victim to the allure of Tinseltown is long. One name on it is George Reeves.

Reeves (Affleck) is an actor who once had a small role in Gone With the Wind. He came to Hollywood looking for fame and glory and finding it a political entity in which the major studios had absolute autocratic control. Trying to break in, despite his matinee idol looks and acting chops, is near-impossible. However, he does manage to land a role in a TV series that doesn’t have much of a chance for survival – in fact, it has no sponsor whatsoever, usually the kiss of death in the television landscape of the 1950s.

Still, Reeves needs the money and although he has doubts about the quality of the show and his role in it, he takes the paycheck and dons the grey and brown tights of – Superman. The show becomes a hit to everyone’s surprise and Kellogg’s Cereal takes the sponsorship of the show, allowing them to film in color (and allowing Reeves to don the more familiar blue and red tights seen in the comic books).

Reeves becomes a hero to million of kids and his life is forever changed. He chafes under the restrictions of the role and fears that typecasting as Superman will effectively end his aspirations for a serious acting career, fears that are realized after Superman is canceled. Despondent over what is apparently a dead-end dream, he says good night to some guests (which included his fiancee, Lenore Lemmon (Tunney) whom he was due to marry in three days) at a small dinner party in his home the evening of June 16, 1959, calmly walked upstairs and shot himself in the head.

The police called it a suicide and closed the case with unseemly haste. The victim’s mother, Helen Bessolo (Smith) contracts a private investigator to look into a case that the police have already written off. Louis Cimo (Brody) is a bottom feeder, reduced to accepting money from a delusional paranoid (Cedar) who believes with absolute certainty that his wife is cheating on him, despite the lack of any evidence to support his claim. Cimo, a headstrong headline-hunting investigator who prefers to do much of his work through the press, is divorced and living a squalid existence. When a police buddy (Mihok) steers Cimo towards Bessolo, he takes on what he hopes will be a high-profile case that might get him noticed, and in turn generate more business.

As he investigates further, he begins to find out more about the man George Reeves. He discovers early on that Reeves is having an affair with Toni Mannix (Lane), the aging wife of powerhouse mogul Eddie Mogul (Hoskins), a bigwig at MGM. She buys him a house and supports him in getting the part that he will forever become identified with, much to the delight of his agent (DeMunn). Still, George chafes at his situation; he doesn’t necessarily want to be a kept man.

As Cimo delves into the case, things turn ugly. He is given a terrible beating and warned to back off. He becomes disillusioned when one of his previous cases turns to tragedy, and he descends further into alcoholism, imperiling his relationship with his son (Mills) and his estranged wife (Parker). As he gets closer to the truth, he realizes that the truth is a dangerous commodity in a town built on creating illusion.

This is a film noir thriller at heart, one which relies on shadows and grit to create a mood. There is a certain degree of fatalism in the movie; the more we get to know Reeves, the more likable he becomes and the more tragic his death is. Director Coulter, whose background is in some of HBO’s most critically acclaimed series including The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Six Feet Under, recreates Hollywood in the late ‘50s nicely. Although the studios remain all-powerful, their grip is slowly slipping as the aging moguls rail against the TV monster that is evaporating their audience before their eyes. It is a town built on the dreams and the desperations of the young, and both qualities are captured nicely.

It doesn’t hurt that Coulter has a terrific cast to draw on. Lane, Brody and Hoskins are all Oscar winners or nominees, and they all do exceptional work here. Brody, in particular, has the most expressive eyes I think in Hollywood; often the expression in his eyes is far more telling than the dialogue.

Better still is Affleck, whose career has been on the downswing ever since his disastrous hook-up with J-Lo. He is charismatic, vulnerable and flawed and he makes George Reeves a real, breathing human being which is a difficult task given that most of us that remember him at all remember the smiling man in the horrible Superman suit. This is the kind of performance that can really turn things around for him and get him some roles that better suit his talents than the ones he has been reduced to lately.

The movie presents several of the theories of what really happened to Reeves to this day. Although suicide continues to be the official verdict, there are many who believe that Reeves was murdered, a belief that persists to this day. Eddie Mannix, who had mob ties, may have been responsible as well as his fiancee, whom it was rumored that George was going to break up with. Most who knew him couldn’t believe that he was suicidal; he had just started filming a new Alfred Hitchcock movie (which turned out to be Psycho – his scenes were refilmed with Martin Balsam in the role) and he was optimistic that he had a future as a director or producer.

The movie does seem to take a position at the very end (although the filmmakers are coy even with this) and you won’t walk out of the theater with a feeling like you know what happened. At this point, it is unlikely that the questions surrounding the case will ever be answered. Still, this is an extremely entertaining movie, well-acted and nicely put together. The language is a little raw, and the movie is a little short on lightness to balance the darkness, but all in all this is something I can confidently recommend to just about anyone. Note the “R” rating, however.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck nails his role, making Reeves feel both human and vulnerable as well as egotistical and frustrated. Director Coulter captures the period and the place nicely. Supporting cast is superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly grim. Anyone looking for insight into the death of George Reeve may walk away disappointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic violence, particularly in the depiction of Reeves’ death, as well as some sexuality and a great deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Alvis automobile that Reeves is shown washing is an extremely rare vehicle which the producers had a difficult time finding but eventually had one of the few remaining models shipped to the set for filming. Reeves actually drove an Alvis, although not the same model shown here.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bourne Ultimatum