This is the first Prince-Bythewood film I’ve seen (among her other work are Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees). She wrote the script for this, too, so it’s very much her production. The basic plot has something of a by-the-numbers feel ... young singer rises to the top, struggles with the lesser side of stardom, falls for a policeman, the usual. Toss in a mom who drives the daughter to succeed and you’ve got a movie. Prince-Bythewood does a nice job of showing things from the singer’s perspective, and there’s some good “beefcake is fair play” with Nate Parker, who looks like the former college wrestler he was whenever he takes off his shirt.
Mostly, Prince-Bythewood gets out the actors’ way and lets them show their stuff, which is a tricky move, since the plot turns are often melodramatic, which could take over the film. But nothing is going to get in the way of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who dominates the picture as the rising star, singing her own parts, giving a complex read of a character who is by turns confident, scared, and empty.
Minnie Driver does the Evil Mom with style, and Danny Glover, as the policeman’s dad, is properly subdued. But it’s Mbatha-Raw’s show. She’s the reason to watch. Other than her, there’s nothing special here. 7/10.
Quickie notes on a bunch of TV series I’ve been watching:
Supergirl: First two episodes were enjoyable. I haven’t given up yet. Some of the creators also work on Arrow and The Flash, which I don’t watch, but if you do, you might find some similarities in tone. I also don’t know much about Melissa Benoist, who plays the title character. Basically, I started on this because of some good reviews, and haven’t found any reason to quit watching.
Fargo: Not a new show, but it takes place in an earlier time period with a different cast from the first season (or the movie, for that matter). This is at least as good as Season One, and Season One was very good. It has an interesting cast that delivers in every case. There are people you know from other TV shows (everyone from Ted Danson to Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart to Michael Hogan). There are the people who will remember, but perhaps hadn’t properly appreciated before (Bokeem Woodbine is killing it ... I haven’t enjoyed him this much since The Big Hit). There’s even Kirsten Dunst, who gets top billing. This is definitely one for the binge-streamers among you.
Ash vs. Evil Dead: Delivers exactly what its intended audience wants. If you don’t know what the title refers to, you probably don’t want to watch this, but for the rest of us, it’s a fine continuation of the Evil Dead franchise, with Bruce Campbell returning to his greatest role. The gore on this is beyond excessive, to the point where people like me think it’s hilarious, but you’ve been forewarned ... this isn’t The Walking Dead.
Master of None: A new Netflix series from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. It’s a semi-autobiographical setup starring Ansari ... his real-life parents play his character’s parents on the show, and they are real scene-stealers. I’ve only watched the first two episodes and I’m already sold.
Plus the usuals, many of which are streamers or are currently in their off-season: Sense8, The Knick, The Leftovers, The Returned, The Walking Dead, Jane the Virgin. As is the norm for this period in television history, I can’t keep up with all of them ... heck, I just thought of a Hulu series I’m watching and liking, Casual, which I completely forgot about.
I thought I’d watch Monterey Pop again, after finding out that Dusty Baker was in attendance at the festival. Turned out my disc was unplayable, so I stuck in the supplemental disc and watched this short, which includes Otis Redding’s complete set.
The only Otis album I had as a teenager was Live in Europe, which I wore out from constant playing. I have always slept with the radio on, and I can recall a night in December of 1967 when I awoke to the sounds of Side Two of this album, in its entirety. It was the middle of the night, and there I was, figuratively jumping around in my bed to the music. After the songs were over, the DJ informed us that Otis had died in a plane crash. I made up for his loss by burying myself in Live in Europe. My favorite track was the last one, “Try a Little Tenderness”, which built from a soulful beginning to a frantic ending. After a false ending, you can hear the emcee pleading, “Help me, help me, release me, we’ve got to hear some more of Otis!”, after which Otis returned for a coda. In 2015, it’s easy to check YouTube and find this was the standard Otis performance of this song, but back then I had no idea. I knew “Try a Little Tenderness” was a favorite song of my Mom’s, probably in the Sinatra version, and I played her Otis one day. She was unimpressed, said he got the meaning of the song wrong ... it was OK at first, but it was about tenderness, and there was nothing tender about how Otis concluded things.
In the Monterey Pop movie, Otis was seen performing “Shake” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. He was great, but I was disappointed at the absence of “Tenderness”. A couple of years later, an album was released featuring Otis’ Monterey set, along with Hendrix on the flipside, and there I got to finally hear the Monterey Tenderness. If anything, it was more raw than the Europe version. At the time, I preferred the one I’d grown up with, although in retrospect, I don’t think it matters. One thing that did make an impression, and does to this day, is when Otis leaves the stage for the last time after saying, “I got to go now and I don’t wanna go.” He was dead six months later. It’s like at the end of “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers, when Duane introduces the band, finishing with “I’m Duane Allman, thank you!”, and every time I think about him dying.
Somewhere along the line, my favorite Otis Redding song changed to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. For one thing, the studio version is almost as good as the live versions, which isn’t true of “Tenderness”. It is the pinnacle of the soulful side of Otis Redding. It was featured in the original Monterey Pop movie, and it is the highlight of Shake! as well.
The disc comes with a good interview with Phil Walden, Otis’ manager (coincidentally, he was integral to the success of the Allmans, as well). Walden talks about the early days of Redding’s career, speaks with great love for the man. Peter Guralnick does two commentaries, one of which I listened to, where he discusses each song as Otis sings it. Both Walden and Guralnick try to put Redding’s Monterey appearance in the context of both Otis’ career and the crossing of soul music with the psychedelic audience.
Shake! suffers from the camerawork, although the sound is now excellent. Pennebaker must not have had useful footage of “Tenderness” ... until near the end, he gives us shots of various women, which isn’t so bad, but you want to see Otis. The music is a 10, but this short film is a bit lacking, for the reasons just mentioned. 8/10.
We were sitting around at a family dinner, and a cousin mentioned seeing this movie and liking it. None of us had even heard of it, so I put in on my request list and sure enough, it turned up on Amazon.
It’s a Swedish comedy, although it’s a slightly perverse comedy, and I’m not talking about sex. In the USA, it got an “R” rating, and again, we’re not talking sex. Nor are we talking about the kind of explicit gore you find in some movies nowadays. Instead, the violence, and in fact the movie in general, is reminiscent of Fargo. There’s a decapitation (and we see the head), there’s a guy who freezes to death, there’s a guy who gets squashed by an elephant.
The humor is also Fargo-esque, with few laugh-out-loud moments but plenty of cute stuff that is made more tolerable by the elephant squashing etc. Robert Gustafsson plays the title character ... how often do you see a movie where a middle-aged actor plays someone more than twice his age? Gustafsson is apparently very highly regarded in Sweden as a funnyman. The film is based on a best-selling novel ... the movie itself was a huge hit in Sweden.
Oftentimes comedies like this don’t translate well, and I’m sure there are jokes I, as an American, don’t get. But the general concept is enjoyable, even amiable when people aren’t being frozen to death. Besides reminding me of Fargo, there’s a Forrest Gump/Zelig angle going on. Through flashbacks, we find that the 100-year-old man met Franco, met Oppenheimer, met Truman, met Stalin, met Einstein’s idiot brother ... you get the idea. He spends a lot of time drinking with these various people. While he left school at an early age, his love of explosives and blowing things up means he has some useful advice for Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project.
I can see why my cousin liked this movie. I didn’t think it was anything special, but it was different, especially since I didn’t know the book. It was a bit more than a pleasant time-waster. It’s certainly better than that vile Forrest Gump. 7/10.
Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951). Unrelentingly cynical. Man gets trapped in cave, everyone acts poorly. Kirk Douglas plays a reporter who sees a big story that will return him to past glories. Jan Sterling as the victim’s wife is straight out of film noir, bad and spiteful. The masses are spectacle-seeking sheep. Local entrepreneurs see a chance for a quick buck. Spike Lee loves this movie, which is irrelevant but he does a short piece on the Blu-ray. It bombed at the box office ... apparently audiences didn’t want to pay to find out they were idiots. Its reputation among critics fluctuates ... right now it’s #739 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.
August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013). In which a bunch of solid movie actors take on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Tracy Letts. The best part of the movie is the contrasting acting styles of the various players. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts get the most showy roles, but while Streep wallows in the possibilities, Roberts holds back and picks her spots. Street is more obviously acting ... whether she is the better of the two is up for grabs (they both got Oscar nominations). Sam Shepard acts in the time-honored Sam Shepard style. Most of the other male actors follow suit (not by keeping to their own style, but by emulating Sam Shepard). Chris Cooper gets to have the one showy blow-up scene. I’m not the one to evaluate family dramas with bad mothers, so YMMV. Oh, some people say this is a comedy. I missed that. Trivia note: the three sisters are played by Julia (Roberts), Julianne (Nicholson), and Juliette (Lewis). #733 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10.
Bug (William Friedkin, 2006). It’s a Tracy Letts Film Festival! We watched this on Halloween night ... we like Ashley Judd, and we figured a movie called Bug with Michael Shannon must be scary. That was our first mistake. Bug eventually gets around to the horror, although “scary” isn’t the word I would use. I liked the homage to Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly ... Shannon spends the second half of the movie convinced that aphids are crawling all over him. This would probably be better if you didn’t stuff it into a horror category ... it’s a film of a stage play, and it has some kind of artistic intentions that prevent it from offering cheesy enjoyment (we had watched the pilot of Ash vs. Evil Dead earlier in the day, and again, that’s unfair, but this movie could have been better if Bruce Campbell had played the Michael Shannon role and Sam Raimi had directed instead of William Friedkin). If you are in the mood for a talky actors’ showcase ... well, August: Osage County was just as good in that department. Harry Connick Jr. is the best thing in the movie. 6/10.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014). Be careful what you ask for. While I liked the first Hunger Games movie, I wanted more socio-cultural stuff. I liked the first half of the sequel, which did have more of that “stuff”, but eventually we got another episode of the Games, so I was only half-fulfilled. Well, here’s part 3 (or part 3 – part 1, or part 3a), and guess what I missed? Action scenes. Mockingjay 1 really delves into the structures of the society and the need for revolution from below ... the film makers even skip the Games entirely, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. But I didn’t find much to like about the “good guys” ... this isn’t going to really be a revolution from below, the Good Guys think they have to manipulate the masses and want to use an Icon named Katniss to bend those masses to their wills. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know if ultimately the people will become something more than tools. In the meantime, there’s Jennifer Lawrence, who remains better than the rest of the movies, although she isn’t given as many opportunities to show why this time around. And, given that her entire reason for taking action is because she loves Peeta, I can’t help noting once again that the guys are all drips and Lawrence should dump all their asses ... she doesn’t need them. This sounds like a complete diss, but I’ve liked all of these movies. I just wish I loved them. For the third time in a row, 7/10. And once again, I’ll recommend Battle Royale for an alternate version of the same story. It’s not better, just different. (And not rated, while the Hunger Games movies are carefully PG-13.)