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Bohemian Rhapsody – It’s the Music

3 ½ Stars

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the kind of movie that critics hate and audiences adore.  The critics tend to dismiss movies that don’t follow a prescribed set of concerns they think are critical.  One such instance was the fabulous movie “The Greatest Showman.”  Critics were miffed because it was not historically accurate regarding the life of P.T. Barnum (well, folks, it was a musical).  Now they seem to be up in arms because “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not chronologically accurate or fails to explore the true depravity of Freddie Mercury’s homosexual life.  There is also the complaint that the movie glossed over the other members of the band who made up the phenomenal rock band known as “Queen.”

This is supposed to be the story of lead singer Freddie Mercury, marvelously played by Rami Malek.  Malek captures the wild antics of Mercury on stage as well as with his astonishing wardrobe, more in the fashion of Halloween than theater.   The reality is that, for all of his crazy on-stage antics and his novel sense of what makes music, Mercury was an allusive person in his private life.  And this film does little to shed much light on the whys and wherefores of his character.  We are still left in the dark as to who he truly was as a person.  One theme that is probably accurately presented is that of loneliness.  For the star who is known and loved but shut off from the world by his fame and fortune, there must indeed be moments of despair in that oppressive isolation.   Why else do superstars often surround themselves with hangers-on who never manage to obliterate the desperate aloneness?  This is why so many stars end their lives prematurely.  For Mercury, the premature end was caused by AIDS.

See this movie for the wonderful portrayal of Mercury by Malek.  But most especially see this movie for the music.  See this movie to learn how the iconic song Bohemian Rhapsody may have been created.  It was through Mercury’s vision that the bonds of the 3-minute tune is broken and words are manufactured from imagined sources to come up with a song that captured our imaginations in a way few songs had to that date.  [Disclaimer: The Eagles’ Hotel California didn’t appear until a year later (1976).  The Beatles’ Hey, Jude came out in the mid 60’s and barely preceded Richard Harris’ hit version of MacArthur Park.]

The magic of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is clearly in the closing moments of the movie where Mercury and his band, having reunited, play before the 1985 Live Aid benefit audience in Wembley Stadium in London.  That moment is magnificently recreated with live shots of the actual audiences throughout the world.  In all, 1.9 billion people are said to have watched the television production live across 150 nations.  It is the whole notion and recollection of that incredible performance that captured the hearts and generosity of a world to come to the aid of those starving in Ethiopia that still rings wonderfully in our ears and in our collective recollection.  And “Queen” was a great part of it.

Don’t come to this film expecting answers to long-standing questions about the real Freddie Mercury.  Come to be entertained.  Come to relive the innovative music of a group that captured our imaginations, our hearts and our curiosity.

WIDOWS IS DOA

2 Stars

“Widows” has something for everyone.  Normally, that might be a good thing.  But in the case of Director Steve McQueen (Oscar winner “Twelve Years a Slave”), it is more a blot on his reputation.  The fact that this film has no single message, has an unrealistic twist, and wastes the talents of a remarkable cast makes this unremarkable film worth missing.  Save for the performances of Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, the movie has little to offer.

While the basic premise of the film is to treat us to a women’s organized heist, getting there takes a bit of cinematic hocus pocus, several detours into the unscrupulous world of Chicago power politics (really?), a view of racism usually reserved for white folk (Director McQueen is African-American) with a black cast that is violent and corrupt and a white guy (Colin Firth) who is trying to atone for the corruption of his family while smuggling drugs.   If all this is difficult to follow, you get a view of the audience experience – it’s all over the place.

Davis plays the role of a black woman, Veronica Rawlins, married to a white king pin Harry Rawlins (Niam Leeson).  While she is wholesome and represents the local teacher’s union, he is a thief who manages a criminal gang of mixed colors and somehow keeps his wife apart from this sleezy side of his life.  In a robbery gone bad, Harry and his gang are wiped out by a SWAT team.  In the meantime, Firth is running for alderman in Chicago.  He is kind of a good guy if you can get by the dope smuggling, etc.  Firth is running against Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) – a black who manages a vicious mob.  Jamal had hoped to finance his run for alderman with the $2 Million which Harry Rawlins supposedly blew up in the heist.

In the meantime, the widow Rawlins has uncovered the secret book of her dead husband – which is a detailed record of all his former thefts along with one he never got to execute – worth $5 Million.  Manning threatens the widow unless she can come up with the cash he lost – thinking her high lifestyle must be bankrolled with ready cash.  For some unexplained reason, the widow is penniless.  So, she gathers the other women made widows by her husband and plans to carry out the heist. Blah, blah, blah.

There are chase scenes, breaking and entering, brutal murders, torture (I think) and lots of vice.  And that’s it.  The script is all over the place and there is simply no redemption for it.  So, see it at your own peril.

Can You Ever Forgive me? – a Brilliant Melissa McCarthy

The Story of Julius', the Famed Gay Bar in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

4 Stars

Melissa McCarthy gives a star performance as Lee Israel – the once best-selling biographer of Hollywood celebs.  We join Israel as she has fallen out of step with contemporary readership.  Lee is still stuck in the past researching the life of Fanny Brice – the subject of her next biography.  But her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t obtain an advance for Israel.  In fact, it is doubtful she can even find a publisher for Lee’s latest work.

Like the rest of the world, we are not inclined to give Israel the time of day, much less extend her even more credit. While she is clearly a brilliant writer with an incredibly quick mind and caustic wit, her temperament is so distasteful she is barely able to exchange simple pleasantries with the outside world.  She is a classic figure of a loner who prefers her own company or that of her cat’s to real human beings.  And in that self-imposed exile, she fumes and festers over the fickleness of a literary world that would advance the fortunes of a hack like Tom Clancy (Kevin Carolan) who turned the Cold War into gold.  She lives in a walk-up in relative squalor and is seldom found without a drink in hand.  In short, she cannot even hold down a mundane editing job because her personality and her personal habits are so off-putting.

To make ends meet, she sells a framed letter from Katherine Hepburn to a literary memorabilia vendor, Anna.  It fetches a sizeable sum.  When a vendor tells her that a letter she uncovers while researching Fanny Brice would be worth considerably more money if it reflected the actual character of the celebrity, Fanny sets out on a career of impersonating old acting and literary celebrities by writing little witticisms that reflect the characters or events of the would-be celebs.  The collectors love them.

She makes friends with an aging gay fellow alcoholic Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) who becomes her front man selling the fake memorabilia.  This appears to be the only way Israel has a ghost of a chance at making a living.  She is finally able to pay her back rent, get veterinary treatment for her aging cat, and even have a dinner out.

Director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) has put together a remarkable cast and has created a wonderful atmosphere for her film.  It is the sort of film which could easily be seen in black and white – though that might seem a bit too artsy.  McCarthy and Grant are brilliant in their roles – which also says quite a bit about the screen play written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.  There are moments of laugh-out-loud humor in the film (this may reflect my own sick sense of humor – as I seemed to be the only one laughing in the theater), and it is delightful the way McCarthy has that reserved dimpled smile whenever she is making a clever observation or a wisecrack.

As an indie film this is not likely to appear in your home theater, so catch it on Netflix or other streaming site.  It is star material for both McCarthy and Grant.

Free Solo – Climbing without a Rope

4 Stars

If you watch only one documentary in your life, you must see the National Geographic Documentary Film “Free Solo”- which tells the thrilling and unnerving story of famed mountain climber Alex Honnold’s historic climb up the formidable El Capitan cliff in Yosemite National Park – without a rope.

This kind of fool-hearty bravery is so beyond my comprehension that I was impossibly immobile in my seat as this stunning film unfolded the story of Honnold’s 3,000-foot climb up this sheer-faced rock.  But even more telling was a look into the heart of this adventurous loner – a totally captivating charmer whose sole purpose in life seems to be to chase the unfathomable – to flirt with and thwart death – at least for the moment.

This film provided a fascinating education for me as well about a sport I never knew existed – climbing a mountain without a rope.  Really?  Although the sport is incredibly daring, it is not quite as foolishly impulsive as I first imagined it to be.  Just as a trapeze artist practices his/her new routines with a net, there is a world of study and preparation in free solo climbing.  Honnold surrounds himself with like-minded people who understand and share his need to master summit after summit.  His world is filled with people – both present and past (meaning dead) – who experience the same yearnings and singleness of purpose – to master the next high adventure.  Free solo climbing involves intense physical and mental preparation and lots of practice.  Each climb is first taken with ropes and a team – so that every nook and cranny of a sheer mountain face can be examined and codified as to where a tiny purchase may be had – often clinging by fingers and thumbs or tips of toes.  Copious notes are scribbled in a climbing log so that each inch or foot of a climb is properly and fully annotated.

Documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi and world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin are very present in this film and offer insights into the incredible inner workings of these climbers; and even though the ultimate experience for the solo climber could be viewed as a form of isolation, in the making of this magnificent film, it seems to take a village.

Honnold is essentially a nomadic loner by most standards.  He lives in a camper, eats his meals from the pan in which they are made, and seems to have achieved a certain sense of peace with himself and his life-style.  It is only when he takes on a live-in girlfriend that things get a little out of kilter.  When you have no one to answer to but yourself, there seems to be less at stake in each climb.  But when there is another person in your life who is looking on in wonder and horror, each climb takes on another dynamic.  And how does that new person afford enough space for the loner to pursue his dreams – knowing that the ultimate outcome could always be death?

This breathtaking film is one of a kind and not to be missed.  The questions and insights it provides are far beyond merely hanging from a cliff without a rope.  It is a haunting and visceral experience.  It calls us to examine and experience life and longing in a totally new dimension.  We hang by our fingertips and look down at the world far below us – without ropes or harnesses – with a vulnerability that opens us to new vistas.  As we examine the life and motives of this singular person, we cannot help but examine our own place in a mysterious and dangerous world which constantly calls to us.

The Old Man with a Gun is a charming film

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford star in "The Old Man & the Gun." [Fox Searchlight photo]

2 1/2  Stars

Robert Redford, star of “The Old Man with a Gun,” claims that this will be his last starring movie role.  I guess we will see about that.  At the age of 82, not too many movies call for a leading man of that vintage.  Truth be told, I have seen lots of men in their 80’s who have weathered a lot better than Redford.  He seems to have earned every line and wrinkle in his extraordinary face.  And this film makes no attempt to dim the lines or fill in the wrinkles.  The close ups of Forrest Tucker show a man who has earned every last wrinkle with time.

This is not an extraordinary movie and one you might just as well skip and catch it on some streaming program for less than the cost of admission.  But it is an interesting little film fashioned after the real life Forrest Tucker who committed any number of bank robberies and escaped from prison no less than 17 times – including once from Leavenworth Penitentiary.  One might suspect that it was the escape from prison that drove him to robbery.

Sissy Spacek plays the love interest in the film.  And there is an interesting side-kick appearance by Danny Glover.  When did these people get old?  I guess I was not paying attention.

Tucker is a lifer who has spent most of his life in incarcerations – beginning with Juvie Hall.  What was most interesting about Tucker is that he chose relatively small neighbor banks to rob and came across to his victims as a real gentleman.  It seemed that they gladly and politely filled his brief case with bank notes of various denominations.  Such was the charm of his ani-hero.  But in the film, we are constantly rooting for him and hoping he will elude the roadblocks and multi-car police chases.   Along the way, he runs into Sissy Spacek who is a widow running a highly financially leveraged farm.  She finds it impossible to believe that the charming Redford could be up to his eyeballs with the law.  Casey Affeck plays the local cop who hopes to crack the case.  But, because bank robbery is a federal offense, the FBI steps in and grabs all the glory. There is just no justice in this film.

There is really nothing particularly memorable about this film, but it is a treat to see some of the old stars who have brightened our cinematic experiences throughout the years.  The plot line is interesting and humorous.  We are certain that the ending will not go well for Tucker – but we are quite willing to watch it to the finish.  Or is it the finish?  We’d like to think that more thrills await our hero – and perhaps another escape might be in store.

First Man – One Small Step

3 Stars

Viewing NASA’s early exploration of space through the vision of first man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) makes for an unemotional reaction to a highly dramatic and somewhat chaotic time in the days leading up to the first moon walk.  Apparently true to character, Armstrong was always the unemotional, strong, silent type.  His first wife Janet was quoted as saying: “Silence is Neil Armstrong’s answer…. The word ‘no’ is an argument. He is a very solitary man.”  So, it is no wonder that Gosling does not generate a lot of emotional enthusiasm in the role.  Blame that on the script, ostensibly based on the biographic book by James R. Hansen.  Armstrong was a man who always shunned the limelight.  This is nothing like “The Right Stuff.”  If you want attitude, watch Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) in this movie.

Armstrong’s wife Janet is played by Claire Foy in Director Damien Chazelle’s film.  And as a foil to her silent husband she comes across as really pissed off – and we can’t blame her.  Her husband works first as a test pilot and then as an early NASA astronaut when spacecraft seemed to be built with all the durability of an erector set.  Armstrong, however, seems totally removed from the humdrum task of staying home and raising a family – or even playing a vital role in the family dynamics – apart from the hole his absences leave.  Truth is, Janet’s role was much like that of many military wives – left alone on base to finish out her children’s school year while hubby was reassigned to another part of the country or deployed to some remote and dangerous land.  Let us at least have sufficient sympathy for the sacrifices Janet made in the case for space exploration.

In this film we are treated to scenes of the camaraderie among these early space explorers who are also pawns of a government bent on beating the Russians in the race for space.   But, even in these backyard gatherings, we always have the feeling that Armstrong is removed from the fray.  He doesn’t even drink a beer with any emotional appreciation.

What is so troubling about this movie is the exposition of the real dangers that these early explorers faced.  Some never even got off the ground before they met their deaths.  Others, including Armstrong, endured harrowing brushes with death in experimental craft that looked far better on paper than in actual life.  Imagine being confined to a tiny space capsule just before takeoff only to find that your safety belt won’t buckle.  The solution is called out: “Does anyone have a Swiss army knife?”  Frankly, the instrument panels seemed to consist of a series of switches and dials reminiscent of a 1939 Buick.  See for yourself at the Air Space Museum at the Smithsonian.

The scenes of these deadly and near-death experiences are the highlights of the movie and are artfully played out even in the opening frames.  I found myself gripping my chair and hugging my knees – trying to get through the terrorizing moments on the rink of oblivion.  But the most dramatic and emotional series of scenes are reserved for that first walk on the moon.  The music score is at its best here, and the photography is stunningly simple – a footprint in the powdery surface of the moon; a leaping run across the near-weightless terrain; a simple view of a wedge of earth as seen from the moon.  It is these scenes that make the film memorable.

We should be reminded that NASA is only 60 years old.  “First Man” memorialized the days of its infancy.  But they were exciting days of the exploration of this vast and new frontier called Space.  I remember, at the time depicted in the film, I was living on an Air Force pilot training base in Arizona.  Many of the pilots who lived on that base aspired to become astronauts.  They, too, were family men with dreams of a life I could never imagine.  And the dreams live on.  In my next viewing of this film, I plan to take along my son Jeff who is an aerospace engineer with NASA.  I’d enjoy seeing his reaction to the film – especially the primitive mechanics from that era.  No doubt, the dream still registers with him.

A Star is Born – Don’t Call it a Remake

A Star Is Born

4 Stars

In the arena of remakes, nothing compares with the 2018 rendering of debut director Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born.”  Lady Gaga plays the iconic young singer Ally who is discovered in a gay bar (no, she does not play a drag queen) by rock star Jackson Maine when he is desperately seeking a drink after a successful gig.

There are not enough accolades to put at the feet of these stars and this movie.  The casting is suburb; the script is engaging and the authors (Bradley among them) give credit to all the screen   writers who contributed to the three previous versions of this film (who does that these egocentric days?). The chemistry between Gaga and Bradley is palpable.  Even when they are each struggling to manage their own aspirations and demons, they sacrifice and claw to keep their doomed relationship together.  When they are on screen together, especially in the close-ups, they are mesmerizing.  The intimacy is so profound it makes you feel like a voyeur.

What puts this film in a category by itself is the music.  Kudos to the cinematographer and cameramen who place us directly in the midst of foot-stomping and raucous “live” performances.  We are on stage with the musicians yet part of the screaming and hand-clapping audience.  We want to sing along with words we have yet to learn.  Afterall, this is also a story about the magic and lift of music.  It is about the wonder of an incredible voice (Gaga’s) that can take us from the innocent quiet of a note to the incredible power of a voice igniting with energy and passion – enough to produce goose-bumps.

Without a doubt, the film’s musical track will hit the charts and collect many Grammys.  And give it up for Cooper – he actually does his own singing – and you will love it.  Both stars actually wrote much of the music with the collaboration of Lukas Nelson – son of Willie – and Nelson and his band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, appear in the film as Cooper’s back-up band.  As soon as I finish this article I am going to purchase the track.

I have no doubt that this film will result in any number of Oscar nominations and (give it up for Gaga) probable awards.  Clearly, this is the best film of the year to date.  If you do not see it on the big screen, no giant TV screen with surround sound will do justice to the viewing experience.

You need not read further than this if you are not interested in what sets this fourth version of the movie apart from its predecessors.  Let’s start with why the three previous versions failed to make the mark.

In the 1937 movie, produced by the iconic David O. Selznick, Janet Gaynor (yes, who is she?) and Fredric March starred as the aspiring actress and fading star (respectively).  The script was written by a host of writers – including director William A. Wellman and Robert Carson.  Although the movie was nominated for seven Oscars, the only Oscar it received was for best original film script.  Also, since technicolor was outclassed by black and white films during that era, a group of cinematographers nominated W. Howard Green for a special Academy award for color cinematography.

The second version in 1954 starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was touted as a musical with mostly Gershwin music.  The script was adapted from the 1937 original by Moss Hart. In this remake Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a talented aspiring singer, and Mason plays Norman Maine, a former matinee idol whose career is usurped by alcohol.  You know the rest of the story in which Garland does all of the singing.  In my mind, even though Mason received a Golden Globe as Best Actor, his entire demeanor could never classify him as a romantic lead.  He makes a much better villain.

The third version in 1976 starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  Streisand plays a rising singer and Kristofferson plays an iconic rock star.  Although nominated for some Academy Awards, the film was notable for a single song – “Evergreen” – which won a Golden Globe and Grammy.  The film was less than stellar – with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 32%.  Yes, it was that bad.  Even Streisand’s enormous talent could not save this film.  For historic purposes you may want to explore these movies – but if time and/or inclination do not permit – at least, see the current version.