Breaking a Monster


There's still room for a purple haze.

There’s still room for a purple haze.

(2016) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Annette Jackson, Kevin Jonas, Tracey Brickhouse, Moe Dawkins, Johnny Karkazis, Tabitha Dawkins, Douglas Wimbush, Q-Tip, Nile Rogers, Samantha Sacks, Jolene Cherry, Gary Adelman, Jimmy Webb, Ernestine Charles, Gloria Atkins, Annette Van Duren. Directed by Luke Meyer

 

The music industry is an absolute bastard to break into. Finding success in it is nearly impossible, particularly now in an era of digital downloads and pirated tracks. Success isn’t a function of how hard one works or how talented one is; the road to success is littered with the carcasses of hardworking, talented performers who simply didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Few other careers have luck play as important a factor.

Three young Brooklyn boys have had a yen for heavy metal ever since their dads took them to wrestling matches where the ring entrance music of the wrestlers is almost always metal; also their favorite videogames tended to have a metal soundtrack. Soon Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins – three lifelong friends – began to put together a band of their own. Doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Throw in that all three are African Americans (a rarity in the metal world which is almost uniformly white) and that they all hadn’t reached their teens as of yet and you’ve got something different. Add in that they are extremely talented musicians not just for their age but period and you have something special.

The boys practiced in their basements and eventually went to Times Square to play. A passerby caught their performance on video and uploaded it to YouTube. That video went viral and soon it caught the attention of industry veteran Allan Sacks, who on paper wouldn’t sound like a particularly good fit. In the 70s he was in the television industry and helped create the classic sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and by the 90s had switched to the music industry where he helped discover Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. He flew out to New York from the West Coast and signed the band to a management contract. Good fit or not, his clout helped open doors and the septuagenarian manager soon had the band signed to a two-album contract with Sony for a cool $1.8 million.

Most of the film takes from the contract signing onward and gives us a good idea of how the work really begins after the contract has been notarized. The boys meet with stylists who select clothes for them to wear onstage and Malcolm gets a vocal coach which he sorely needs. One of the worries that Sony has about the band is that Malcolm’s voice hasn’t dropped yet so it’s impossible to know what his voice is going to sound like when it does and whether or not he’ll be an adequate singer; for the time being his vocals are…let’s just say raw and leave it at that.

Plus we’re talking about 8th grade kids, not seasoned professionals. The label wants them to do interviews, festival appearances and promotional interviews; the boys just want to play videogames. Malcolm in particular likes to skateboard which gets Alan and Sony all up in arms; the risk of injury is too great and could put Malcolm’s career in jeopardy if he injures his arms or his head. Skateboarding is henceforth forbidden, which turns Malcolm’s mood extra-sour.

Compounded with that is that the band wants to make a record and Sony doesn’t think they’re ready for it. Consequently they put pressure on Alan to get them into the studio and while he counsels patience, have you ever tried to tell a young teen boy to be patient? Ain’t happenin’ folks.

The boys themselves are engaging and charming. They are a bit more focused than the average 13-year-old but that’s not saying much. You don’t get a sense that the fame and money has changed them much, although they do sometimes express that it has changed the way others perceive them which is to be expected. They seem genuinely nice boys and one hopes that the pitfalls of the music industry don’t sour them too much; it’s a cutthroat industry and it takes a tremendous ego to survive it.

What matters most is the music and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. Not good for kids their age but good period. The single that they do record, “Monster” has a terrific hook and some nimble guitar work. Even if you don’t like metal, you can’t help but admire the skill that went into the song. Producer Johnny Karkazis (better known as Johnny K) works with Malcolm patiently trying to get the vocals down, even helpfully suggesting that he clench his fist and pump it during the final chorus to get the right tone. It works.

In fact, I have to say that the overall tone works for the film as well. This isn’t a story that is all that different than any other “making of the band” documentary has covered other than the fact that these are African-American kids trying to make it in a world of grizzled old white guys. In fact, when the point is raised that Sony may have signed them because of the novelty of their situation, in one of the more charming scenes Brickhouse acknowledges it but also follows that with “I don’t care!” Any means of getting the foot in the door will do and Brickhouse at 13 is worldly enough to realize that. In and of itself, that may be the most impressive thing about him of all.

REASONS TO GO: The subjects are engaging and likable. Meyer is wise enough to be an unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
REASONS TO STAY: In many ways, this territory has been covered before.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlocking the Truth continues to play as a band today; however they were dropped by Sony shortly after filming was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Southside with You

Lucy


Lucy in the sky with data streams.

Lucy in the sky with data streams.

(2014) Action (Universal) Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Loic Brabant, Pierre Grammont, Pierre Poirot, Bertrand Quoniam, Pascal Loison, Claire Tran, Sifan Shou, Paul Chan, Laura D’Arista (voice). Directed by Luc Besson

What would it be like if we could be smarter? What kind of miraculous change in our lives would we be able to affect? What sort of secrets would we unlock?

The myth is that we only use 10% of our brains – according to Scientific American that’s simply not true. We actually use all of it, which debunks the science in this movie thoroughly. So, let’s play a game of “let’s pretend” that Besson’s assertion here is true, that we go through our lives only using 10% of our potential.

Hard-partying grad student Lucy (Johansson) might not even use that much. She hooks up with Richard (Asbaek), the sort of guy who would set off all sorts of alarm bells in any rational person but apparently that particular function of her brain is inactive. He is supposed to deliver a brief case to Mr. Jang (Choi) in a posh Hong Kong hotel but wants Lucy to do it instead. She is reluctant and they spend the first seven minutes of an 89 minute film arguing about it. Think of a movie starting with an old style Life cereal commercial “I’m not gonna try it you try it” “I’m not gonna try it – hey let’s get Lucy! She won’t like it! She hates everything!” “She likes it! Hey Lucy!”

 

Actually she is forced to do it when he cuffs the briefcase to her wrist and tells her that Jang is the only one who can remove it. Jang turns out to be a ruthless criminal and Richard, instead of saving his own skin, ends up being the first to exit stage left. Lucy is hustled up to a swanky suite where Jang has just finished murdering a couple of people, stepping over corpses and washing his blood soaked hands in front of an understandably panicky Lucy.

She is knocked out and when she wakes up, there is an incision in her tummy and she is told she is to be a drug mule, transporting a new drug called CPH4 which Jang’s suave English speaking flunky (Rhind-Tutt) assures her that the kids in Europe are going to love. However through a set of unforeseen circumstances, the bag of drugs begins to leak into her system. Lucy begins to learn at an amazing rate, develops powers of telekinesis and control of magnetic waves. She is able to wave her hands and have people fall asleep. The more of the drug that’s absorbed into her system, the more her powers develop. She goes from 20% to 30%, 30% to 40%.

She is easily able to escape from Jang’s thugs and makes her way to a Hong Kong hospital where she demands that the bag be removed from an astonished surgeon, doubly astonished when she shoots the patient he’s operating on dead, telling him “You couldn’t have saved him. The tumor’s already spread.” Even though there still remains about half a bag of the stuff, the damage is done. Lucy can feel her cells reproducing at an accelerated rate. She estimates she has about 24 hours before her body dies.

She flies to Paris to enlist the aid of Professor Norman (Freeman), an expert on the development of the human brain, as well as Parisian detective Del Rio (Waked) whom she brings aboard to protect her but also to nab three other drug mules sent by Jang to other European cities. She needs the drugs they are carrying to complete her work which is now essentially to download everything she knows, which is growing more considerable. As she inches towards 100% neither Professor Norman nor even Lucy herself knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Besson, who has written or directed some of the most compelling action films of the past 20 years (including The Fifth Element, District B-13 and The Professional) channels Stanley Kubrick a little bit here. He inserts mostly vintage clips of all sorts of things like animals mating, magicians creating illusions and cameras travelling through canyons and across endless oceans to denote the gradual increase in Lucy’s powers and knowledge. He is fairly liberal about it when he should have used it a bit more sparingly; it does get distracting and in a film this short feels like filler it doesn’t need, particularly when he could have used the time to build relationships.

Johansson has never been an actress who has played “smart” but this year with roles in Under the Skin as an alien with a superior intellect, and as the operating system in Her she has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is more than an agent of SHIELD. The trouble is that once the drug enters Lucy’s system Johansson’s expression essentially doesn’t change and she speaks in an emotionless monotone. I’m not sure why it is that in science fiction that evolution of the human species seems to be that we move past our emotions. I would argue that our emotions would evolve along with our intellect but that’s another fight for another day.

The special effects are nifty, with Lucy able to see trees absorbing nutrients through their roots, or streams of data travelling from cell phones to the satellites above. Near the end of the movie she takes a journey backwards through time in a sequence reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Tree of Life only with a human element involved – Lucy meets the first known human ancestor, also named Lucy (not a coincidence with the names, that) – going all the way back to the Big Bang and before.

 

But for all the scientific gobbledygook, my favorite sequence in the film is the most human – a phone conversation between Lucy and her mother (D’Arista) in which Lucy tearfully tells her that she can remember everything – even things she shouldn’t have been able to, like the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. It is a sense of saying goodbye, and it is a poignant moment because Lucy knows that she will be evolving past the feelings shortly and not long after, departing this Earth entirely.

The movie is largely unsatisfying. We get Hong Kong-style gun battles and the car chases Besson is known for but little development in the way of the characters. Besson likes to move things along at a frenetic pace and that’s not a bad thing but we get no sense of human connection – other than that one scene I just described – between Lucy and the world so when that connection begins to drift away, there is no sense of loss. Certainly there is some fine eye candy but eye candy alone doesn’t make for a substantive and ultimately satisfying film experience. Besson is certainly capable of delivering on those sorts of films but in this instance he fell short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice premise and some nifty special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Directing misfires. Johansson misused. Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, some of it disturbing, some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angelina  Jolie was originally cast in the title role but had to drop out due to directing commitments and Johansson was cast in her place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Limitless

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Fluffy Movie

New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love

Day Night Day Night


Day Night Day Night

Luisa Williams thought she was playing blindfolded musical chairs on the Ellen Degeneres Show but she was so wrong.

(IFC First Take) Luisa Williams, Josh Phillip Weinstein, Gareth Saxe, Nyambi Nyambi, Tschi Hun Kim, Annemarie Lawless, Frank Dattolo. Directed by Julia Loktev

We read about suicide bombers in the Middle East every day. One has to wonder what kind of person would do such a thing; even more to the point, would it be possible for an American to contemplate doing such a thing?

A young 19-year-old girl (Williams) is more than contemplating it. She has made the decision to detonate a bomb in Times Square. She is picked up at the bus station by an Asian driver and taken to an anonymous hotel room where she meets her handlers, all of whom wear black ski masks. She herself is often blindfolded.

The conversation is almost blindingly banal. She is told she must fit in without standing out. She asks for pizza. She waits by a cell phone for periodic calls from her handlers. Eventually, they bring a backpack filled with explosives and she is once again driven to Times Square. There, she walks around, stopping to snack once in awhile, summoning up the courage to detonate the bomb.

That is the movie in a nutshell. Director Loktev deliberately withholds as much information as she can; we’re never told why the girl, who is identified only as “She” (except on her fake ID on which she is called Leah Cruz), is doing what she wants to do. We know nothing of the organization that is preparing her for the task. We don’t know why Times Square was chosen (other than the obvious) or even what kind of statement the terrorist organization is trying to make.

What Loktev does is concentrate on the bomber’s face. She is young, elfin and not unlike any other girl you might see in a college dormitory. Her eyes do not reflect madness or obsession; they are sad and frightened, or dull and resigned. She lapses into whispered prayers from time to time although it isn’t clear who she’s praying to or even why. The effect has been compared to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc which isn’t inaccurate. There, as here, there many tight shots of the actress’ face and rarely is there a shot where her face isn’t visible.

Williams’ face is the canvas that Loktev chooses to use to tell her story and I think that canvas is deliberately made to be austere and nearly blank. We are made to choose our own conclusion, which is a lot of work for a movie-going public which tends to prefer having their ideas handed to them, neatly wrapped with a bow.

Loktev does a magnificent job of creating a great deal of tension when the girl is loose in Times Square. We don’t know from moment to moment if she is going to decide to stop and pull the trigger. When she seems about to, one actually flinches.

Unfortunately, the movie is a victim of its own conceit. In trying to juxtapose the banality and boredom of waiting for the task at hand to be performed and the tension and brutality of the act itself, we are left with far too much emphasis on the former. I will admit that it does make the latter more effective, but I think we spend far too much time watching the girl eat, read, and scratch herself. It numbs the mind and allows the focus of the viewer to wander, never a good thing.

Loktev is clearly a talented and gifted writer/director, and I expect that in years to come we might be hearing a great deal from her. This isn’t Oscar material mind you, but it is a solid effort – flawed, but solid. Those who like their movies a little more challenging might well enjoy this. Those who prefer to be spoon-fed in the cinema should probably steer clear.

WHY RENT THIS: An innovatively told look at a suicide bomber on American soil. The tension mounts as the movie lurches towards its conclusion.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are a lot of scenes meant to portray the banality of the moment juxtaposed with the seriousness of the situation, but at times it gets to be too much and winds up being a bit boring quite frankly.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is unrated, there is a little bit of foul language; the subject matter is a bit adult and the storytelling method may be a bit much for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the second feature to be directed by Loktev; her first was Moment of Impact in 1998.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Last Chance Harvey