Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile' - 2004

"Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile'" - 2004
Dir. by David Leaf - 1 hr. 49 min.

"Beautiful Dreamer Smile" by David Leaf

by Clayton Hollifield

In the history of rock and roll, there are a handful of mythic albums that have never arrived, arrived after a ridiculous span of time, or never showed up intact at all.  We're talking about works like Guns 'n' Roses' "Chinese Democracy," Dr. Dre's "Detox," or whatever Lauryn Hill comes up with next, now that we're closing in on nearly two decades having passed since her lone solo masterpiece.  Or Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes," which is finally seeing release.  But before all of that, there was the Beach Boys' "Smile," which was not only an uncompleted masterpiece rumored to be on par with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," but also sent principal songwriter Brian Wilson insane and dependent on drugs (depending on which version of the story you believe), not to release even a single note of music for upwards of thirty-five years.  An album that was so heavy it literally broke one of the greatest American songwriters of all time?  You'd want to hear that, wouldn't you?

What "Beautiful Dreamer" is is a film documenting Wilson coming out of the fog, and playing his first concerts in three decades (he retired from touring in the 1960s, preferring to stay in the studio to craft the Beach Boys albums, while the rest of the band toured his songs).  And then, someone gets the bright idea of him playing "Smile" as a concert, even though the album was never completed (songs like "Good Vibrations" came out of those sessions, but the album was never sequenced and completed as a full album).  So in order to play these highly-anticipated, very sold-out shows, Wilson and his band would need to confront the beast that broke Wilson decades prior.

There are two ways to look at this film.  First is the way I ordinarily approach music docs: the "Behind the Music" test.  In that regard, there are a lot of ways that "Beautiful Dreamer" comes up short.  There's no actual footage or music used from the original era, just lots of slow zooms on photographs; all the performance footage is from the contemporary sessions.  Secondly, the interviews aren't particularly interested in being even-handed: Wilson is presented as a misunderstood genius, and the people who are presented as being the boogeymen of the story (chiefly Mike Love) are completely unrepresented in the film.  So there's not even the satisfaction of seeing the parties come to any kind of understanding.  This presents the biggest problem: yes, fans wanted to see what "Smile" would be like in a complete form, but the project that people wanted was not a Brian Wilson solo project, but a Beach Boys album, complete with harmonies by the voices that Beach Boys fans knew and loved.  What ended up happening is vastly superior to nothing at all, but it's not quite the same thing as "The Beach Boys' 'Smile'."

The other way to look at this film is that it's a Christmas miracle that it exists at all.  If this film had been made in 1999 instead of 2004, it would have been a vastly different narrative, chiefly about the cost of flying too close to the sun.  The notion that Brian Wilson would emerge from his lengthy hiatus from performing (much less composing) to slay the dragon that left him laying thirty-five years prior sounds like Hollywood shinola.  And I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that he was successful in the endeavor; it would be supremely messed up to make a film about watching a creative mind getting broken by the same batch of work twice.  The fact that Wilson is coherent, somewhat open about his lost time and what happened in the attempt to finish "Smile" in the first place gives "Beautiful Dreamer" value.

Yes, there are things that I wish were included (or even available to be included - as I suspect that the other Beach Boys who don't come off favorably here would be much inclined to lend okay to the use of any contemporary footage), and there are voices that I'd love to hear from in regards to the original recording sessions.  I wish there had been a good explanation of what happened to the tracks that Wilson finished, and how they were parcelled out for next couple of Beach Boys albums, and how bootleggers tried to cobble together what the project might have looked like from whatever sources they could.  But the fact that the resulting product is pretty damned good goes a long way to justifying this film's existence.  It feels good to watch Wilson finally get the love that his music generated, and in a way that he couldn't have without performing for a live audience.  The length of time it took is pretty much hard to explain, but ask yourself if "Chinese Democracy" lived up to it's expectations in the same way that Wilson's "Smile" has.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Italian Job - 1969

"The Italian Job" - 1969
Dir. by Peter Collinson - 1 hr. 39 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's been a while since I've watched "The Italian Job," but I had a distinct recollection that it was vastly superior to the remake.  That much is very true.  It's not a perfect film, but it's definitely better than the Edward Norton version, and has some very definite charms.  It's also very much a time capsule from 1969, which isn't always a bad thing.

Charlie (Michael Caine) is a criminal fresh out of prison, who's friend has died, leaving behind a nearly-intact plan for a heist involving $4 million of gold bullion.  It's up to Charlie to finance and staff the expedition, but the mental lifting has been done.  A decent amount of the film is dedicated to the staffing and planning of the heist itself, and the last act is the heist.  This isn't a terribly complicated film, folks.

One quick test: how much do the terms "Michael Caine" and "Carnaby Street" appeal to you?  One of the best reasons to check out "The Italian Job" is to see the fashion of the day on celluloid.  We may be dealing with criminals here, but they are not common street thugs, and they dress well to the man.  And, to the women, as the actresses are also quite fashionable.  Beyond that, the film also employs Mini Coopers (the old ones), which ought to appeal to car buffs.

I find myself without a ton to say about "The Italian Job."  I liked it this time around, too, but it's a fairly slight film (in the same way that Steve McQueen's "The Thomas Crown Affair" is), and the heist itself is less of a thriller than a slapstick sequence that could have appeared on Benny Hill's show (which is appropriate, since he has a decent role in the film).  It's long on style, goes by quickly, and has a fantastic ending.  The dialogue is snappy.  The clothes and cars are fantastic.  The best compliment that I can pay it is to say that the film recognizes it's strengths, sticks with them, and doesn't overly complicate matters beyond that.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Meatballs - 1979

"Meatballs" - 1979
Dir. by Ivan Reitman - 1 hr. 34 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I still don't know what "Meatballs" is about, or even why the film is called "Meatballs."  It's a product of a bygone era, a kind of genre film that doesn't really exist anymore: the summer camp comedy.  And to be entirely clear, I am not clamoring for a triumphant return of summer camp comedies.  I'm reasonably sure the only reason that anyone remembers or watches "Meatballs" at this point is because of Bill Murray.

A bunch of kids attend a $1000/week summer camp, I think (but that might be the rival camp?).  The guy who owns the camp is named Morty (Harvey Atkin), and is constantly being pranked by activities director Tripper (Bill Murray), who also is trying to woo Roxanne (Kate Lynch).  One of the kids, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), doesn't fit in, tries to flee, but is rounded up and befriended by Tripper.  Also, there's an Olympiad against the rival Camp Mohawk, a super-rich and snobbish batch of brats (so that must be the $1000/wk camp), consisting of a bunch of sort-of athletic events.

I had a hard time following the plot.  That's okay, no one watches a summer camp movie for plot.  Either you have a slasher cutting up dumb teenagers in the woods, or you're just hoping for hijinks and an occasional panty shot.  Although Tripper does tease a murderer in the woods during story time around a campfire, "Meatballs" is 90% hijinks, and maybe 10% panty shots.  But even then, the entire point of "Meatballs" is letting Bill Murray go HAM (in every sense of the term) for an hour and a half, the first real chance he'd had to do that.  And Murray totally seizes that opportunity.  Honestly, the film could probably consist of flyover footage of the Canadian tundra with Murray's dialogue as a voice-over, and things wouldn't have been much different.

In many ways, this is a proto-"Stripes."  It's not as good as "Stripes," but you can see Director Ivan Reitman and Murray feeling out some ideas that would come into play in their next film together.  Murray as charismatic leader? Check.  Big speech to rally the troops?  Check.

"It just doesn't matter!"

Taking on an impossible mission?  Check.  Murray giving some lady the old flapjack treatment?  Well, not literally, but he does spend an awful lot of time sweet talking Roxanne.  Granted, whatever ideas are in both films are universally done better in "Stripes," but "Meatballs" is where Bill Murray got some cinematic real estate to work out the sort of comedic character he'd play for the first phase of his career.  It's also worth noting that my favorite gag of the movie didn't involve Murray; one of the female camp counselors somehow manages to break her leg during a game of something (field hockey, maybe?) when she takes a wicked knee to her crotch.  In a real sporting event, you'd have announcers hemming and hawing and referring to a "lower midsection" injury, but we all saw the replays clearly showing a knee striking her lady-balls.  I don't know why, but I laughed harder at that than anything else in the movie.

I'd be shocked if I ended up watching "Meatballs" again.  It's got it's moments, and I can't get enough of Bill Murray, but there's a long stack of his films that are better viewing experiences.  I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing "Meatballs," especially if you've never seen it before, but it's just best to be aware of what it is that you're in for, exactly.  It's like catching a talented baseball player in AA ball, when you can see the tools and the potential, but things haven't quite come together yet.  At this point, we all know what comes next in Bill Murray's career, so going back and watching "Meatballs" feels a bit like a homework assignment, albeit one that you'll enjoy a bit.

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nightcrawler - 2014

"Nightcrawler" - 2014
Dir. by Dan Gilroy - 1 hr. 57 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

I hate to discuss the advertising of a film, but "Nightcrawler" is a perfect example of making really awful trailer, and then coming up with one that nails the film completely.  When I saw the first trailer, it was focused around the main character and this stupid line he says, apparently over and over and over in the movie, but there's not much more to take away than the guy's a bit creepy, out of control, and has an awful catchphrase.  I wasn't at all interested in seeing that film.  When the second trailer came out, it was clear that this was a thriller, centered around a conniving, scheming, disingenuous creepy little bastard, and that some cool things were going to happen.  That's the movie that I wanted to see, and I can say that it accurately represented the actual film.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sort of bottom-feeder in Los Angeles, although there's no explanation of where he comes from, or how he got there.  He's ambitious, self-educated, has a rap, and is looking for a career, while he's stealing fences and manhole covers to sell for recycling.  And there's something slightly off about him.  He stumbles across a car-crash on the freeway in the middle of the night, at roughly the same time some "stringers" show up - they're freelancers who descend upon whatever awful happens in the middle of the night with their video cameras, and sell the resulting footage to whichever news channel is the highest bidder.  This is the perfect job for someone who has a blurry moral compass, and who is a night owl anyways, so Lou begins his job in earnest (getting yelled at by nearly everyone along the way).  Lou gets in with one of the programming directors, Nina (Rene Russo), and his ambition (and increasing skill at the job) put him in some questionable situations.

It's tough to talk about the questionable situations, because the twists and turns of a thriller kind of depend on surprising the audience.  But that aspect of the film works very well.  Lou exists on a slippery slope, and has large ambitions - as he puts it, he wants to be the guy who owns the station - and things end up with very large stakes at play.  On the whole, I liked the story quite a bit, and felt it got better as the movie went along.  In particular, the second half of the film is pure dynamite.  Once Lou's character is established and starts making moves, it's off to the races.

Probably the biggest takeaway from "Nightcrawler" is that Jake Gyllenhaal totally knocks this one out of the park.  This film is designed to support a virtuoso performance; nearly the entire thing hangs on the lead performance.  That's not to say that the story doesn't function; it does, but so do the plots of many thriller films.  The point of "Nightcrawler" is how the Lou Bloom character makes you feel as the film is hitting plot points, and Gyllenhaal does such an outstanding job here that the results are all over the map.  Even in the most important sequences, I was torn between rooting for him to succeed and knowing in the back of my mind that he didn't deserve to, and that what he was doing was acting out of a lack of moral fiber.  Lou's success at any point literally means watching what amounts to a psychopath climbing the ladder on his wishlist, and I was aware of that for the duration of the film.  In addition to Gyllenhaal's performance, both Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed (as Rick, Lou's somewhat hapless assistant) do an admirable job of grounding the story in their reactions to Lou.

"Nightcrawler" is one of the better new movies I've seen this year.  It's a tight, effective thriller that benefits from a good plot that serves as a great platform for Jake Gyllenhaal's entry for crazy dude of the year.  The other actors in the film hold up their end, and by the end of the film, I wasn't sure who or what I was rooting for.  Regardless of that, I was engaged and interested, and couldn't wait to see where things were headed.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

C.H.U.D. - 1984

"C.H.U.D." - 1984
Dir. by Douglas Cheek - 1 hr. 28 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

Quick version: don't bother.  Longer version: "C.H.U.D." is so goddamned stupid.

It took two viewing sessions to get through this, and pretty quickly on the second session I needed to grab my laptop and idly surf the internet in order not to turn the movie off.  The only good things were Daniel Stern as a dope-smoking soup kitchen-running hippie, and a random appearance by John Goodman, as a policeman trying to put the moves on a waitress.

The only reason that I didn't give "C.H.U.D." no stars is because I was able to reach the end credits.  That's the ONLY reason.  Do not waste your time with this one.  It's not scary, it's not funny, it's not titillating.  The only thing it definitely is is 88 minutes of film.

.5 / 5 - Streaming