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Posted by on Mar 27, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Malcolm X

 

malcolm-x

 

Writer’s Note:  Why am I writing a review about a movie released 28 years ago?  Well first, I’d never seen this movie until last night.  Second, I think there are some lessons to be learned by watching, even all these years later.  Third, it seems there’s still a deep divide on the way we perceive people and history.  Even though we grow up in the same country, things are not always as clear as Black and White.

 

MALCOLM X (MOVIE REVIEW)

This is a hastily-written short review I feel compelled to share.

I have no clue as to why I’d never seen Malcolm X, the biopic of the iconic Afro-American civil rights political activist who was assassinated in 1965. An oversight, perhaps.  It was on TCM last night, so I watched the final 90 minutes.

Directed by Spike Lee, this is clearly a very personal project for virtually all who were associated with the film.  Released in 1992 to nearly universal critical acclaim, this film may even be more important now than it was initially shown.

Indeed, Malcolm X never reached the pantheon of inclusion along with other political thrillers or biographies, perhaps unintentionally revealing the continuing divide and misunderstandings on race in America. I believe if this film had been about a white activist/hero, it would have been up there with movies like Patton. But we rarely hear Malcolm X mentioned in the same breath as films on so-called “American heroes.”

Side Note:  Consider the way Malcolm X is remembered by Blacks versus Whites.  Even today, Whites do not view Malcolm X favorable, proving we will have a long way to go.  Read More:  MALCOLM X REMEMBER FAVORABLY BY BLACKS BUT NOT BY WHITES

Denzel Washington is outstanding in the title role. Mesmerizing even. (He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Al Pacino that year for Scent of a Woman that year). The characteristics are subtle, but Washington disguises his real NY accent well and speaks identically to Malcolm Little (ne “X”), who was actually from the Midwest (Omaha, NE). It’s uncanny how much Washington sounds and speaks with the same dictatorial syncopation as Malcolm X. These are little details, but when you hear the nuances, it’s remarkable.

Predictably, the film diefies the controversial leader, but it also reveals the flaws of its subject. Malcolm X lived a very modest life, which caused considerable disharmony at home (he was married and had five children). He also made a number of inflammatory statements that aren’t exactly endearing, including the infamous “chickens came home to roost” comment after the JFK assassination. But given the context of his life and greater struggle, we’re inclined to dismiss some missteps.

I’m generally sympathetic to Malcolm X as a historical figure. I’m appalled at the religious trappings of the movement, but given churches (including mosques) are the primary community centers in most Black areas at the time, the alliance is understandable.

The movie has its flaws. There are some campy scenes that don’t belong and detract from the overall seriousness of the film. But these blips are overcome by the strength of Washington’s performance and the weighty subject matter.

I must now say this: The last 15 minutes of this film is stunning. It’s brilliant. We see the assassination filmed in old newsreel style, and then gradually Washington’s portrayal becomes interspersed with real B/W photos of the leader, speaking his own words, and then eulogized by others. There’s also a surprise guest appearance at the end of the movie which is monumental in scope and meaning, which I will not give away if you haven’t seen the film. I can’t stress enough how powerful the final minutes of this film is to watch. If I was moved, I can only imagine the feelings inside by those much more closely attuned to the subject matter and movement.

Also, the film credits seem to go for 10 minutes, as Spike Lee intentionally listed every conceivable contributor to the film, from the violin player in the soundtrack to the drivers who worked on set. It’s consistent with the message of inclusion.

I wish more people, especially White people would see this movie. It was understandably embraced by Black culture, which resonates to this day. But I think we can *all* learn something by understanding something of the life of Malcolm X.

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Posted by on Mar 22, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Movie Review: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

 

the andromeda strain

 

MOVIE REVIEW: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

 

I first saw The Andromeda Strain at a drive-in when I was nine. Despite my youth, the thriller left an indelible impact on me nearly half a century later, even to this day.

The film instilled an early appreciation for science. Graphically, sometimes horrifically, it illustrated what a true horror movie was (and is) — a forgotten reminder that the gravest threats to our safety, security, and human civilization are not monsters nor distorted fictional figments of the imagination, but rather very real hidden dangers we can’t see, nor hear, nor measure.

Given the current coronavirus crisis, a reflection of the 1971 film on a killer epidemic is both timely and fitting.

The movie is based on Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel of the same title published in 1969. Then, only 27 at the time of the book’s release, Crichton would go on to write books that inspired 11 movies in all, including The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and State of Fear.

The Andromeda Strain was directed by Robert Wise, then one of the most commercially successful directors of the time, evidenced by West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. This was clearly a movie guided by stellar writing and artful direction. The only criticism from a studio standpoint was, it might have been too dark, and too realistic for most audiences.

The Andromeda Strain opens with top-level scientists being summoned to a secret underground test lab in Nevada, tasked with researching biological hazards. Though somewhat dated now fifty years later, everything about this film still looks plausible. One can imagine facilities like this which certainly do exist.

There are some remarkable technical marvels in the film. Since it was made long before CGI, hologram-type figures had to be shot in multiple layers. Lasers also factor into the story. There are also some disturbing scenes with animal testing which were so upsetting that I was compelled to research exactly how they were filmed. Without giving too much away, the animals in the lab subject to testing were filmed in a chamber and breathed carbon dioxide. Then, when they pass out (this is a very disturbing scene), a team of vets rush onto the set and revive the creatures with oxygen off-camera. The film makes it appear they’re dying from the virus.

And speaking of the virus — never has anything looked so frightening as microscopic specs crawling around inside a petri dish. Watching the virus grow and the explode out of control in the lab is terrifying, especially in these contemporary times.

The film’s very best scenes document the laborious testing procedures which end with one dead end after another, as the clock is ticking on humanity. Since the virus has infected a small town and can spread, it’s up to the scientists to put in 20-hour days, testing and re-testing to try and save the planet. There’s one astounding scene when one of the scientists is working alone in the lab watching a monitor when the virus suddenly explodes into something resembling the bubonic plague. It’s absolutely terrifying.

Arthur Hill plays the lead researcher, but Kate Ried steals the movie. The original book had mostly all-male characters, but the production changed one of the researchers to a female. That turned out to be a wise creative adjustment. Think of a badass intellectual Sigourney Weaver, only bookishly realistic.

The Andromeda Strain is by no means a perfect film. It’s flawed with faux-suspenseful scenes that really aren’t necessary. For instance, we really don’t need a chase scene within the top-secret Wildfire biological bunker. The virus is scary enough without the added Mission Impossible-like countdown to self-destruction.

On a more personal note, I have seen The Andromeda Strain perhaps twice since my initial viewing as a child. I saw it again about 25 years ago and then watched it another time on TCM a few years ago before anyone thought it was a modern-day commentary. Each viewing gave me a different perspective. I was struck by one of the final scenes which shows the researcher (Arthur Hill) testifying before Congress on the aftermath of a viral outbreak. In what is a very plausible scenario we’re going through today, Hill essentially says we’re focusing on the wrong enemies. The more serious threats to us all are those things we can’t see and know way too little about.

How prophetic that warning turns out to be.

Note:  I recommend giving 1971 “The Andromeda Strain” original film a viewing. I cannot recommend the remake, which I have no interest in seeing.

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Posted by on Feb 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Parasite — A Short Move Review

 

Parasite-Movie

“PARASITE”

A Short Movie Review

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I made the mistake of seeing Parasite last night, a week after it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. All the accolades for the South Korean film catapulted my expectations to an unreachable height, no fault of Bong Joon-ho, who co-produced, wrote, and directed this gritty capper masterpiece.

My expectations were lifted even higher by the enthusiastic comments and recommendations of people I trust on social media and friends who I know have discernable taste in movies. Some of the posts on Facebook first brought Parasite to my attention a few months ago. I wish I had listened to their recommendation sooner.

Parasite is a well-crafted thriller, texturally engrossing, with heavy undertones of class struggle — the privileged versus the desperate. There are no “good guys” in the film. The story’s the thing.

I rate the first half of the movie as brilliant. A masterful black comedy set in Seoul, South Korea — but which could take place anywhere in post-modern urbania where gross inequities exist. The guilty pleasure of watching a mannerless viper’s nest of lowlifes-turned-con artists who methodically integrate a rich unsuspected family of victims with their own demons and secrets is shocking and often hilarious. The writer-director’s juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is a marvel of perfectly paced moviemaking.

The second half of the film, when the mood turns considerably darker and more violent doesn’t match the brilliant set up. I also had some doubts as to believability towards the end of the movie. But these criticisms weren’t enough to dissuade me from saying it probably deserved the Best Picture Oscar.

I tend to like movies about con artists and scams. When they’re done right, they’re among the more enjoyable topics explored in cinema. Parasite will take its rightful place alongside films like The Sting, American Hustle, and others as a caper where we don’t know who to cheer for.

In the end, I suppose the lesson is — we’re all parasitic in one way or another.

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Posted by on Dec 24, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 1 comment

Movie Review: Marriage Story

 

A Marriage Story

 

 

Marieta strapped me to the sofa.  No jokes, please.

Actually, she put out a bottle of something 15.3 alc. strong from Paso Robles and forced me into watching the 2-hour and 15-minute, Marriage Story, which I’d tagged as a painful something to avoid, one of those quirky chick-flicks where all the men are assholes and all the women look like Scarlett Johansson.

Man, was I wrong.

Marriage Story is entirely held together by the two essential elements of crafting a great movie — 1. a brilliant script with witty dialogue, and 2. standout performances by the leads surrounded by an ensemble cast of supporting actors at the very top of their game. In short, the writing and acting are both stellar.

Scarlett Johansson, a frustrated mother trapped in an unfulfilling marriage gives the performance of her career. Yet it’s not the big scene-stealers full of rage and tears that define this complex role, but rather the small facial reactions, the minor annoyances, and some sense the camera never blinks and therefore can’t peer away from Johansson, not because of her beauty, but because this was such a marvelous performance to savor.

Worth noting and seeing: There are a couple of Alfonso Cuaron-esque scenes — extended monologues and dialogue dagger duets — where there are no scene cuts. Johansson and Driver are pushed to their limits. Anyone who has been in a marriage and experienced blowup fights will totally empathize with how small arguments can easily spin out of control. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) was the first movie to accurately portray marital discord with angst realism. Parts of this film are every bit as compelling.

Adam Driver, her husband, is equally as good. I knew next to nothing about Driver (was he in Star Wars?). During the first 20 minutes of the film, I hated him being cast because he just didn’t look the part. But over two hours I was converted and by the end of the film, Driver had me totally captivated in a believable portrayal of a frustrated dad desperately trying to keep things together which are crumbling all around him.

If all this sounds depressing, it isn’t. Remarkably, the film has several comedic moments. Juxtaposed against the story of a break-up, this remains very much a love story. Striking this delicate balance was achieved thanks to Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty (remember Airplane?) who co-star. Each is perfect as the quirky sidebars to a film that might otherwise have been cruelly voyeuristic. We laughed at least a dozen times, sometimes with the salty sadness of tears in our eyes.

Marriage Story runs a little too long, but that can be forgiven. Perhaps 15-20 minutes could have been trimmed. I also found the long scenes with the child a bit tedious. But these were minor annoyances given the payoff in emotional satisfaction. And, let me just add without any spoilers the ending was both entirely realistic and brilliant.

Barring something on the horizon I haven’t seen yet, Scarlett Johansson deserves the Oscar for this performance.

GRADE: 8/10

 

 

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Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Movie Review: Elton John Musical Biopic “Rocketman” Crashes and Burns

 

"Rocketman"

 

Elton John’s preeminence as a flamboyant rock n’ roll troubadour is deeply grooved into our vinyl consciousness.

His mesmerizing 1970’s songbook is arguably the most astounding output of any solo artist over the past 50 years.  While his gold records revolved at 33 rpm, his fame spiraled at 78 speed.  His eccentricities, outlandish stage costumes, a sham marriage when he tried to play it straight, and hypersexuality were fodder for ceaseless gossip and scandal.

His musical career soared to extraordinary highs, packed sports stadiums, and survived craterous lows.  His celebrity remains indisputably global, gender neutral, cross-generational, and yet all of his music is crassly commercial.  To millions of fans and even those who aren’t, but can’t help but hum the harmonies to his hit songs, Elton John isn’t just a stylish trendsetter.  He’s painfully honest, wallowed in imperfection.

“I have taken every drug; I have fucked everything that moves,” Elton John once told a startled interviewer.

So given these realities, a well-documented public life, combined with Elton’s John’s unapologetic openness about his private ordeals, how is Rocketman, the purported collaborative movie biography, such a misfire?

There’s no excuse for this.  None.  I should have loved Rocketman.  Ostensibly,  I’m the target audience.  This movie was custom-made for devoted fans who grew up with his music.  Consider Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John’s 1973 double album masterpiece, was one of the first records I ever purchased with allowance money.  I recall the excitement, hastily unwrapping the new album jacket encased in cellophane, the smell of the record, carefully placing vinyl discs upon the family turntable so as not to scratch it, hoisting the needle, sprawling myself across the shag carpet, and then following along with liner notes penned by lyricist Bernie Taupin as Elton John’s music took me to imaginary places that seemed otherworldly.

How could they possibly blow this?

There are so many things annoying about this movie, I don’t know where to begin.  So, let’s start at the beginning.

In the opening scene, Elton John enters rehab.  He’s been on a steady decline for a decade.  He joins a group therapy session at what looks to be an AA meeting.  Inexplicably, he’s dressed in full stage regalia — looking something like a giant insect that swallowed a court jester.  Yet no one in the group seems to think it’s a big deal that Elton John, one of the most famous people in the world at the time, is sitting there, about to tell us his life story.  Are these people alive?  The rest of the addicts just sit there the whole time like they’re listening to Joe the Plumber apologize about drinking way too many beers at the company picnic.

So, the next two hours of therapy are utterly dominated by this self-centered superstar obsessing about his life, causing me to wonder — hey, what about the other poor souls who have their own addiction problems?  Don’t they get some talk time?  Do they have to sit here for two hours and listen to this guy babble?  I guess so  — because it’s Elton John.

Snippets of Elton John’s many hits appear throughout the film, although he sings none of them.  More on that creative oddity in just a moment.  Most of us will recognize every song.  There’s no filler, nor experimentation here.  We get a predictable stream of best sellers.  The movie soundtrack has all the originality of a “Greatest Hits” compilation.

The songs intend to stitch together some hopelessly disjoined biographical timeline when none actually exists.  To illustrate the awkward misuse of music, when Elton John launches into his lengthy confessional by reminiscing about his early childhood growing up as Reginald Dwight (his real name), a flashback transposes us into a 1950s street dance overlapped with The Bitch is Back, off the 1974 album Caribou.  How did this scene make it past the first draft?  Why is a 7-year-old boy from Middlesex barking out The Bitch is Back?  That was the first instant I leaned forward in my theater seat and went — “huh?”

That bizarre opener pretty much obliterated any appreciation of artistic expression.  Elton John’s hits are recklessly scattered all over the storyline.  Wherever any lyric might coincidentally connect to a real event in his life, it’s exploited to the max, though in no way reflected what was going on at the time.  For instance, we hear the early songs, mostly composed when Elton John had no discernable demons nor any destructive bad habits, which are misused contextually so as to imply that each song was a cry for help, the emotional intensity magnified by the succession of each album.  Moreover, Elton John’s song lyrics — so often sweltering in pain and loss — was almost entirely the creation of collaborative co-writer Bernie Taupin, who for the most part escaped his songwriting partner’s voyage aboard the paparazzi parade branded the Titanic.  Taupin may indeed have projected some emotions onto Elton John, the performer.  But the film’s quilting of music and narrative is disingenuous.

To the film’s credit, all songs were re-recorded and sung by Taron Egerton, who does quite an admirable job playing Elton John.  Egerton, not widely known before taking this role, was a bold casting decision and he delivers both commanding vocals and convincing performance.  Egerton’s challenges cannot be understated.  Other rockstar movie bios usually miss the target, often embarrassingly so, which is tough to hit when the superstar is as prominent a public figure as Elton John.  However, Egerton nails both the incomparable musical demands and the swaggering persona.  Even more impressive, the actor gives a credible performance transforming into the self-destructive rock icon over the span of a decade, meandering back and forth between a joyously contrived onstage performer juxtaposed against the miserable misanthrope left alone in hotel suites with a bottle of vodka and spoon piled with cocaine.

Way too much of the movie focuses on Elton John’s continuous slide into addiction — with drugs, alcohol, and sex.  It’s an all-too-familiar story we’ve seen before.  There’s nothing new here.  While Elton John’s personal problems do make for an empathetic confessional, I’d have preferred greater insight into his songwriting and the creative collaboration between John and Taupin.  The movie cheapens what must have been a grueling artistic process — releasing ten gold albums in just six years — grossly oversimplifying the effort it took to create so many memorable pop songs.  Artistic revelation is reduced to the pianist taking a sheet of paper with lyrics scribbled by Taubin and then composing a near perfect melody within 15 seconds.  Frankly, it’s ridiculous.

Audiences may have some difficulty commensurating with Elton John’s problems.  By the mid-1970s, the rock icon was reportedly pulling in $85 million a year.  He had everything going his direction — prodigal talent, fame, riches, and the creative freedom to do anything he wanted.  Yet, Rocketman crashes and burns.  Yes, this did happen.  Just don’t expect me to be sympathetic.

The film goes to painstaking lengths to convince us Elton John’s emotional breakdown was borne out of a childhood void of love.  His parents, who divorced, are reduced to cruel caricatures.  Neither are appreciative of his talent or success.  In real life, Elton John has spoken affectionately about his parents, especially his mother.  A 2013 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on NPR provided the revelation that even when young and confused about his sexual orientation, Elton John’s mother was emotionally supportive.  So, either Elton John was lying then in the interview or the filmmakers now have taken their artistic license and run off a cliff.

Rocketman does manage to take its touchiest subject and portray it in a manner so as to be both true to the subject matter while not ruffling feathers of the conventional mainstream.  Portraying homosexual acts on film does pose a serious dilemma for filmmakers.  Whether we’ll admit it or not, that remains taboo in cinema.  Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which somehow managed to brush the gay Freddie Mercury completely under the rug, this film portrays Elton John’s steady romances and flings with credibility, without the exploitation and sensationalism.  Straight men won’t wince.

Rocketman has received mostly positive reviews.  Perhaps this speaks to the evergreen nature of Elton John’s immense musical catalog.  Or maybe, critics rightly perceive this film biography as honest to its subject matter.  Then, there’s Taron Egerton’s magnificent performance.  There are things to like about Rocketman. 

Unfortunately, this marvelous musical journey is marred by unnecessary distractions and way too many voids.  By the final scene where Elton John enters the MTV age and performs what turns out to be the self-prophetic I’m Still Standing, a catchy ripoff of Gloria Gayner’s mega-hit I Will Survive, we’ve gained no added insight as to the man behind the glittery glasses nor his music.  Never mind that I’m Still Standing was written years before Elton John entered rehab in 1990 and had nothing all to do with the recovery process.   Like more than a dozen annoyances in this film, the truth isn’t bent.  It’s broken.

Perhaps the gravest falsehood in the film is an early scene when Elton John is asked by music publisher Dick James what stage name he’ll take for his first record.  On a whim, the young pianist says “Elton”……and then “John” as his eyes wander and fixate on a photograph of John Lennon hanging in James’ London office.  Fact is, Elton John actually took his stage name from London bluesman Long John Baldry.  So, why lie?

Quoting Elton John, the appropriate description of Rocketman is indeed a sad situation:

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd.
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.

MY RATING:  I give Rocketman 3 stars out of 1o.  This film is a pass, even if you’re a big fan of Elton John’s music.

 

Image result for rocketman movie poster

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