Death Race 2050


Marci Miller makes her point to Manu Bennett.

(2016) Science Fiction (Universal) Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Anessa Ramsey, Yancy Butler, Charlie Farrell, Shanna Olson, D.C Douglas (voice), Sebastian Llosa, Emilio Montero, Mark Doran, Karl Muse, Alberto Osterling, Robert Slattery, Daniela Vargas, Jonathan Fisher, Helen Loris, Hailey Livingston. Directed by G.J. Echternkamp

 

In all the annals of filmdom there hasn’t been anyone quite like Roger Corman. His oeuvre of cheap special effects and low budget with a dash of social satire and a low-brow tone has been with him through a nearly six decade career. The original Death Race 2000, made in 1975, was one of his biggest hits, starring David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. In many ways a live action version of the Saturday morning cartoon Wacky Races, it has been considered a cult classic for decades. In 2008, a remake entitled Death Race was made with Jason Statham starring. Eschewing the light-hearted satire of the original, it was a darker hued straight action movie that was successful enough to spawn three direct-to-home-video sequels, all without Statham.

This one, with Corman’s presence as a producer, is not so much a remake as a reboot. It returns to the slightly off-kilter feel of the original as well as the approximate plot. The Chairman (McDowell) of the United Corporations of America convenes the annual Death Race, the biggest sports event in the world. In it, five racers with souped up vehicles weaponized to the teeth race from Nuevo York to New Los Angeles. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who kills the most pedestrians along the way.

=You see, robots have replaced human workers in nearly every job and consequently there’s 99% unemployment and overpopulation. The Death Race thins the herd so to speak. To placate the masses, the Race also offers a Virtual Reality version in which viewers can be in the cockpit of the car of their favorite drivers through proxies who carry cameras and microphones, periodically interviewing their heroes.

The drivers are Minerva Jefferson (Olowofoyeku), a hip-hop artist; Tammy the Terrorist (Ramsey) whose name is self-explanatory; A.B.E., a robotic entry not unlike Knight Rider; Jed Perfectus (Grinstead), a buff sexually ambiguous genetically engineered athlete and the favorite, Frankenstein (Bennett) who is the reigning champion.

Curiously, fans of the drivers line up in an attempt to sacrifice themselves for their favorite drivers. And drivers steal these easy group kills from one another. As they make their way across the country big rivalries develop between Minerva and Tammy and especially between Perfectus and Frankenstein.

There is also a resistance out there who aim to disrupt and destroy the Death Race by any means necessary. They are led by former network executive Alexis Hamilton (Butler) who has a mole; Frankenstein’s proxy, Annie Sullivan (Miller). However the further they get into the race, the deeper the corruption becomes until Annie, whom Frankenstein appears ambivalent towards – he only wants to win – is unsure of what side she’s really on.

The humor here is dark and over the top as is the violence and gore. This is for sure a throwback to Corman’s heyday both in tone and in execution and for that the filmmakers are to be commended. I’m not sure how involved Corman himself was with this but his name is in the credits and in some cases on the title. I’m guessing that if he didn’t have his hands directly in it, they are there in spirit. Certainly the filmmakers understood his style.

The acting is about what you’d expect it to be, but a special shout-out has to go to Bennett. He proves that his work as the smoldering Slade Wilson in Arrow was no fluke. The man has a bright future ahead of him if he gets a few breaks and the right role. He’s got the presence.

The special effects and CGI are bargain basement and that can be an acquired taste. Modern audiences may not tolerate it when they are used to big budget effects. Admirers of classic B-movies will likely be more tolerant but these days that seems to be pretty much a niche group. I also found the soundtrack to be a bit overbearing. It became noticeable on quite a few occasions.

This isn’t for everybody but I suspect those who can appreciate the satire (the Chairman is certainly based on Donald Trump) and the humor, not to mention the gore will find this entertaining. The cheapness of the production which is an art in itself will further endear some. However – and I can’t stress this enough – those that don’t appreciate the art of B-movies will probably find this anachronistic and boring. Keep that in mind as you select it for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly satirical. It’s a throwback to Corman’s 70s and 80s films.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects may be too cheesy for some. The soundtrack is actually annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a butt load of violence and gore, some sexuality, some brief nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sneakers Jed Perfectus wears are Converse All-Star Hi-Tops.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cannonball Run
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The LEGO Movie: Batman

It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)


This hideout could use a cleaning service.

(2017) Dramedy (108 Media) Alan Thicke, Quinton Aaron, Leah Doz, Valerie Planche, Reamonn Joshee, Jesse Lipscombe, Allen Belcourt, Orin McCusker, Tony Yee, Elisa Benzer, Kevin Hanchard, Norma Lewis, Trevor Schmidt, Hillary Warden, Julia LeConte, Amber Lewis, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Mark Sinongco, Donovan Workun, Matt Alden, Erica Ullyot. Directed by Christopher Craddock

 

In our current society, self-help has been taken to new heights. We have become so self-involved, so self-focused that we have stopped seeing ourselves as part of anything larger. We’ve become all about getting everything we can for ourselves and everyone else can go screw themselves. It’s not a society that is pretty.

Patrick Spencer (Thicke) is a self-help guru who has gotten rich preaching “me first” to the choir. Masses of people have bought his books and attended his speaking engagements all chanting his mantra “It’s not my fault and I don’t care anyway” like robots, a means of absolving themselves of responsibility for anything. Patrick, a former alcoholic, is really good at that.

His daughter Diana (Doz) can attest to that more than most. Her relationship with her Dad is a rocky one indeed. She watched her mother (Frederick) grow more and more morose until she divorced Patrick; once she got the divorce settlement that would allow Diana to live decently, she took her leave of this life. Diana turned to drugs and sex.

Brian Calhoun (Aaron) grew up with loving parents, although things ended badly for them. Brian is called “Giant Man” around the neighborhood (not a terribly imaginative nickname) for his size which is impressive. It also comes with a price; Brian knows that his lifespan will be much shorter than most. Alone and miserable, Brian becomes a heroin addict and his size brings him to the attention of Johnny Three Fingers (Lipscombe), a vicious drug dealer and crime boss. Johnny needs an intimidator, something his right hand men Moose (Belcourt) and Lil’ Charles (McCusker) aren’t really capable of.

But Lil’ Charles has been seeing Diana and discovers her daddy is rich. When Johnny finds out about this, he decides a kidnapping and ransom would be in order. What he failed to reckon with that Patrick is so self-centered that he refuses to pay a ransom for his daughter; if she dies, after all, it’s not his fault and he doesn’t care anyway.

The two cops assigned to the case, Detective Elizabeth Stone (Planche) and her partner Smitty (Joshee) are dumbfounded by this but nonetheless go about trying to solve the case and, hopefully, rescue Diana. Brian who is really a gentle giant however doesn’t want to see her get hurt and together the two come up with a plan but it is a dangerous one.

This Canadian film is one of the last appearances of the late Alan Thicke, who is best known for playing the dad in Growing Pains, a hit sitcom back in the 80s. This is a far different role than Dr. Jason Seaver was for him. In a lot of ways, it’s a very savvy character particularly attuned to the modern man. He’s very charming but not always likable and I suppose that’s what our society values these days. Craddock, who based this on his own one-man play, picked up on that nicely.

The film is essentially told in flashback by four of the main characters in a kind of confessional way. Patrick discusses the incident at one of his self-help speaking engagements. Diana talks about it at a sex addiction group therapy session. Brian tells his side of the story during a police interrogation after the act. Finally Detective Stone is interviewed about the story by a journalist (Benzer).

The most compelling story belongs to that of Brian and in all honesty Aaron is the most likable actor in the group (with all due respect to Thicke). Aaron, who most might remember playing Big Mike Oher in The Blind Side, has a very sweet nature and while it’s hard to believe him as a heroin addict he manages to make the part his own anyway. His story tended to be the one I enjoyed the most.

There is a wry tone to the humor which is rather dry and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I enjoy the change of pace from most of the comedies we’ve been getting lately in which the humor is broad. However, it isn’t as funny as I would have liked and at times the energy is lacking. Part of the problem is that much of the film is static; we’re watching the characters sitting in chairs talking about the kidnapping and their lives up to that point.

This almost feels like a made for TV movie other than the graphic sex scene that comes out of nowhere and the fairly consistent use of profanity which one might expect from criminal sorts. Still, if you’re going to do that I think you need a little bit more punch. Not that there isn’t any – it’s just that there are so many talking head interludes that it disrupts the flow of the film.

Essentially this is available on VOD through various streaming services so that’s your best bet if you want to see this. It’s not a bad film but it isn’t very compelling either. I like that this is essentially about our move towards selfishness but it needed a bit more energy to make it work better.

REASONS TO GO: Aaron is a very compelling and likable performer. The humor is a little drier than usual which is quite welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film gets a little bit too maudlin. The energy is missing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some fairly graphic violence, some sexuality, drug use and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Thicke and Lipscombe penned and performed tunes on the soundtrack.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ruthless People
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Last Word

Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

decanted. a winemaker’s journey


The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

(2016) Documentary (Digital Cave) Steve Reynolds, Mike Martin, Julien Fayard, Anthony Bell, Heidi Barrett, Phillippe Melka, Arturo Irucuto, Aaron Pott, Michael Scholz, Andy Wilcox, Alex Mossman, Fred Schwartz. Directed by Nick Kovacic

First off, for the sake of complete honesty, I lived a good portion of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent many lovely days in the Napa Valley. A good friend of mine had a bed and breakfast there (the beautiful Country Garden Inn which she is sadly no longer connected with) and like many of those who live in the Valley, knew everyone (Napa is notorious for having a community in which everyone is at least on an acquaintance basis). I got to know several of the vineyards and even a few of the vintners (ah, V. Sattui, home of the amazing Gamay Rouge).

Wine has always been part of the civilized world. Something about a good glass of wine relaxes the soul and allows for contemplation. No other beverage on Earth is so analyzed, so beloved. Wine is the subject of rapturous prose and prosaic discussion. We can endlessly contemplate the difference between wines from one region with another, one varietal with another and never say all that there is to be said. Wine is a bit of madness mixed in with the civility.

When you think of American wine, you largely are thinking of California’s Napa Valley. Although it only produces about 3% of American wine, the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic soil produce some of the best wines on Earth. A whopping 95% of the wineries are family owned – only recently have beer brewers joined that party with the advent of craft beers. Napa/Sonoma has always been on the forefront of that.

But what makes a wine great? Now there’s a subject for discussion – everyone has different ideas about that. How a wine gets from grape to glass is another. This is ostensibly a look at that process as we watch the seasons change in Napa from harvest to harvest. While this film mainly centers on a start-up, Italics Winery started by Texan Mike Martin and managed by Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Family Winery, we also get commentary from Napa legend Helen Barrett who is an expert on blending wines that lead to bottles that retail for $1500 apiece to French immigrants Julien Fayard and Phillippe Melka as well as vintner Anthony Bell.

However the emphasis is on the charismatic Reynolds as he works to get Italics underway from the ground up. It’s not an easy venture and there are many parts and pieces that have to be in place; storage of the barrels has to be climate controlled and cool and there has to be enough of it to fit plenty of barrels but as they are digging a cave for barrel storage, the work is slow and not done by the time the grapes are harvested and pressed into what will eventually become wine.

We get a sense that the people portrayed here love what they do – there’s no doubting that. We also get a sense that the work is hard and unending. Sometimes we get a picture in our heads that Napa winemakers spend their days sipping chardonnays, eating amazing friends and having parties but the fact is that more time is spent in the fields, checking on the grapes to make sure that they are growing properly and not being affected by insects or disease, checking on the barrels to make sure the wine is fermenting properly and working in the labs to make sure that the blends are just right.

In fact, winemakers judging from the documentary spend a surprising amount of time in the laboratory and utilize a surprising amount of technology, examining their soil with infrared sensors, and utilizing various programs that help them determine which soil is best for which grape. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense; Napa Valley is close to another kind of valley – Silicon Valley. You would figure that some of the tech geniuses in that valley would turn their attention to Napa.

But much of the work is done by hand by humans and utilizing methods that go back hundreds of years, even thousands. There’s a continuity to winemaking that you don’t get in almost any other profession; even the blending is largely done by hand with a human being tasting various combinations until the right one is found. It is arduous work but at the end of the day, soul satisfying and you get that these winemakers get that satisfaction.

The big problem with the movie is that we only get a sense of things – the filmmakers tend to skip over a lot of detail (which I imagine they thought would be somewhat boring to the viewer) and we get mainly highlights. There are some truly beautiful images here – Matthew Riggieri and Nate Pesce are to be commended – but there is also a tendency to overuse fast-motion photography to denote the passage of time. Once or twice is fine but especially towards the end of the movie it becomes a bit tedious. In any case, I would rather the filmmakers given us a little more “nuts and bolts.” They certainly had plenty of time – the run time is only 82 minutes so there was certainly room to pad things a bit with more information. They had an opportunity to demystify and educate and chose not to take it. That’s a shame.

But the cinematography brought back many pleasant memories of lazy days hopping from winery to winery and I’ll admit that colors my perception here just a tad. There is a beauty in winemaking that for wine lovers – and I’ll admit I’m not so much a connoisseur so much as an admirer – is part of the overall enjoyment. I will say that wine is a highly social beverage; some of my best memories are friends and family, sipping glasses of wine around a table or a tasting room.

This likely won’t heighten your understanding of wine any, but it will give you more a sense of the pride and the joy of the people who make it. As such it fills a niche in wine documentaries that perhaps could use further exploration, but I was quite happy to enjoy what was delivered here. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a glass of Merlot with my name on it.

REASONS TO GO: The beautiful surroundings and the hard work involved are both well-captured. You get a sense that these people truly love what they do.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: SOMM
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Kill It

Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing


An act of cowardice.

An act of cowardice.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, Sydney Corcoran, Daniel Linsky, JP Norden, Paul Norden, Kevin Corcoran, Deval Patrick, Chief Eduard Deveau, Celeste Corcoran, John Tlumacki, David Filipov, Patricia Wen, Jim Allen, Sgt. John MacLellan, Eric Moskowitz, Cpl. Clark Cavalier, Kelly Castine, Herman Kensky, Daniel Abel, Kieran Ramsey, Sgt. Brandon Dodson, Katy Kensky. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

 

Most of us remember well the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. It hasn’t been quite four years but few of us have forgotten the shock of a terrorist attack on a major city, the loss of life and limb and the intensive manhunt for the bombers that followed.

It was also one of the most documented events of our time; security cameras not only caught the explosions but also were instrumental in helping law enforcement catch the two despicable wastes of flesh whose names won’t be mentioned here; one of the two died in a police shoot-out, the other was captured and sentenced to death – hopefully by having a homemade bomb strapped to his ‘nads and then detonated.

My feelings about cowardly scum who set off bombs in crowds of innocent people aside, Stern and Sundberg have assembled a massive amount of footage and helped piece together the events of the bombing meticulously and clearly. They’ve also followed some of the survivors in their efforts to overcome the horrendous injuries that they sustained both physically and psychologically. They’ve talked to the police who pursued the bombers and the reporters from the Boston Globe who covered the attack and who often received horrible emails and tweets because of it (some people felt the Globe was exploiting the attacks and giving too much coverage to the bombers themselves). The only ones not interviewed that I wish would have been were first responders on the scene – paramedics, ambulance drivers and ordinary people whose actions saved lives that day.

The filmmakers follow mainly Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, a pair of newlyweds who were standing by one of the bombs when it went off. Both had run the Marathon at one time; that year they chose to watch. Each lost a leg and Kensky eventually lost both after a valiant effort on her part to keep it. Both were plagued by depression and PTSD and eventually got help from the Walter Reed Hospital which treats those wounded in war by IADs and such. That particular segment is one of the most inspiring in the entire film and was the one that brought the most goosebumps and misty eyes on my part.

It also follows the Corcoran family who had several injured by the bombs; the impact of their agony led to some difficulties among those who were uninjured, including alcohol abuse and withdrawal from life. Celeste Corcoran lost both legs in the blast; she had been cheering on a sister who was running in the race. Sydney Corcoran had her femoral artery severed; only a quick-thinking veteran who reached into her leg and squeezed the artery shut saved her life or else she would have bled out on the sidewalk. That moment was caught by John Tlumacki, a Globe photography who received a great deal of criticism for capturing the moment even though it became a defining one of the entire incident. Finally there were the Norden brothers, Paul and JP, both of whom were gravely injured and taken to separate hospitals, forcing their mom Liz to have to go back and forth to each hospital as the brothers underwent several surgeries apiece.

One of the things that you may want to keep in mind when choosing to view this is that the footage of the bombing itself is largely uncensored; there is a terrifying amount of blood and some who are sensitive to such things may end up being disturbed by the footage. You get a real sense of the carnage and the chaos at the scene but thankfully only that – I can’t imagine the smell of gunpowder and blood and the screams of pain and fear that had to be going on that day.

This is a compelling documentary which could easily have been about humanity’s darker side. Instead, the filmmakers chose to make it about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and how a city stood up, joined hands and supported one another through a dark period. I’ve seen that first hand – not only in Boston but in my home town Orlando as well following the Pulse shootings.

It’s hard to capture all the details of an event as important as this in a single two hour movie but at the very least Stern and Sundberg have captured the essence of it and that is all you can ask of any documentary. It’s life-affirming and haunting and at times hard to watch but it is at the end of the day essential viewing.

REASONS TO GO: It’s very thorough in all aspects of the film both pre and post race. The stories are compelling and there are lots of good feels. The focus is on the survivors as it should be.
REASONS TO STAY: It would have been nice to get interviews from first responders on the scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images and descriptions of grisly injuries; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Boston Globe co-produced the documentary; their coverage of the event won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriot’s Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Patriot’s Day

Country: Portraits of an American Sound


Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

(2015) Documentary (Arclight) Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Henry Diltz, Sandi Spika Burchetta, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Lorrie Morgan, Rosanne Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Holly Williams, Jim Halsey, Raeann Rubenstein, Larry Gatlin, Dr. Diane Pecknold. Directed by Steven Kochones

 

Country music, whether or not you are a fan of it, has to be considered America’s soundtrack. Sure, rock and roll is just as American an invention but whereas rock became more of a world music, country has remained an essentially American sound. It is the music of rural America, the music of the working man (and woman) and one which has always held American values close to its beating heart.

Throughout its history, country music has been not only a music but a style and photographs have helped to not only capture that style but export it. There have been eras when country performers wore dazzling rhinestone-studded costumes onstage; other eras they have been dressed in their Sunday best and then there have been times when their attire of choice has been that of the cowboy – or the working farmer. There have even been times when country stars wore the latest fashions.

All of it has been captured by some of the great photographers of their era. Names like Henry Diltz, Les Leverett, Raeann Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner, Henry Horenstein and Michael Wilson have captured country’s biggest and shiniest stars in their lens. Through those lens, they didn’t just capture moments on stage, or posed publicity stills (although they did that too), but they captured the essence of who these artists were (and are). Through these pictures, we got to know the faces behind the voices and in a sense, got to know them as living, breathing people and not just talented musicians and singers.

Through the auspices of the Annenberg Space for Photography (a Los Angeles-based museum for the pictorial art and an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation, a charitable institution that supports the arts) comes this documentary gathering some of not only the most iconic photographs in the history of country music but also a variety of images that help illustrate the rich history of country as well as its ongoing contribution to American culture.

Veteran documentarian Kochones (who founded Arclight, a distributor of terrific documentaries as well as some non-fiction films) has a wealth of material to draw from but that is very much a double edged sword; the hour and a half running time is not nearly enough. It isn’t often that I see a film in which I wish it was longer but that is the case here. The material could easily have filled a mini-series and maybe it should have. One of the biggest drawbacks to this particular film is that it feels rushed. While some of the stars and subjects get an adequate treatment, others feel almost glossed over. Perhaps a mini-series would have given the filmmakers time and space to give all of the subjects the attention they deserved.

Although there are a galaxy of country stars interviewed here it is the photographs that are justifiably the real center of attention. Some of them are amazing, like Johnny Clash flipping a very intense bird at the camera, a fresh-faced young Dolly Parton at the beginning of her career (and there’s a star I wish they had spent time interviewing) and the Carter Family looking stiff and formal like Civil War-era photographs taken sixty years later.

Lyle Lovett talks eloquently about country music being less about songs than about stories and so it is with the stars who sing those songs. They all are stories in their own right with their own personalities and their own experiences. They bring those to each and every song that they sing. The machinery of the business can sometimes in its zeal to manufacture an image forget that the stories that got these talents to their attention are what attract the fans the most; perhaps that’s a bit naïve on my part but I think that it’s true. Image is important in ANY musical genre of course – it’s a kind of shorthand that invites the listener in and allows them to be captured by the music – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. These images however not only define those stars but in many ways allow those stars to be themselves for all to see.

This is definitely going to appeal to all true fans of country music, although they might not be satisfied with the snippets of songs that are played, but even non-fans will find this very educational. I am more an admirer of country than a lover of it – like rap music, it doesn’t speak to me as much as rock and roll does – but even someone who isn’t a true believer such as myself can respect the relationship the stars have with their fans and at the hard work and talent displayed not only by the musicians but by the photographers who created the images that helped establish them as stars.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is high quality. The images depicted here are an absolute treasure that will delight fans young and old of the genre.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit rushed; it might have been better served as a mini-series.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry has been performed in the Grand Ole Opry House; previous to that it was held at the Ryman Auditorium; during the winter months the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months November through January.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VuduYouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and  the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Gold

The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson