Movie Time: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

I seem to getting known as an “influencer” about movies. Well, me and a couple million other people. So, rather than wait for another screener to come around, or to be added to the Rotten Tomatoes reviewer panel, maybe I can discuss an older movie I picked out to watch.

There is among us popular culture mavens a desire to hold up some of worst performers to practice in the entertainment field. Perhaps we do this not so much to ridicule inadequate actors who are long dead and not able to defend themselves. Perhaps we want to celebrate the fact that against all odds, these people made “art” that has survived, that has flown in the face of homogenized corporate entertainment behemoths. Okay, perhaps we like to experience people who are less talented than ourselves.

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Movie Time: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Poster for "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote"

Can’t hide it: I’ve been an avid fan of Terry Gilliam’s work since his cutout animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sometime in the 1980’s, my college roommate Tim and I did a paper on Gilliam’s three latest movies at the time: Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. Regrettably, we lost that paper to the mists of time and maybe a Commodore 64 floppy disk.

So, I have followed the long and complex history of Gilliam’s attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. At first Gilliam planned to make this a time-travel fantasy. In the original script, marketing executive Toby Grisoni (Johnny Depp) would end up replacing Sancho Panza as Don Quixote’s squire. But the movie’s filming was beset by a nearly comic sequence of misfortunes. The actor playing Don Quixote took ill, the location was too close to an Air Force base, and then it flooded. Soon the completion bond agency took over, and shut the movie down. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who had been filming the standard “Making of…” supplement, turned the disaster into the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002).

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Movie Time: 63 Up

I am watching this movie as my first look at director Michael Apted’s “Up” series. I had been aware of it ever since Siskel & Ebert, in 1978, heaped praise on the “21 Up” segment of the series. So I had hoped to catch up on the now nine installments, but time and other issues got in the way. So now I have been offered a screener of “63 Up,” and can come into the movie with fresh eyes.

Background

To fill in: the first part of this series was “7 Up,” a documentary produced as part of a regular documentary series, “World in Action,” on Britain’s independent Granada Television. The original, only 40 minutes long, interviewed 14 seven-year old children, intended to represent a cross section of the classes in British society. This short was directed by Paul Almond, and narrated by Douglas Keay, with Michael Apted researching and choosing the children to be interviewed. Apted became director as he revisited the children in 1970’s “7 Plus Seven,” then followed with other documentaries in the “Up” series. While continuing to make documentaries, Apted also became a feature director in both Hollywood and the UK, having helmed the rock’n’roll picture “Stardust,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” and even a James Bond entry, “The World is Not Enough.”

Back to my watching “63 Up” as my first exposure to the series. I feel that I’ve not missed a thing: as each subject is introduced as they appeared at age 7, and further details of their lives are filled in by clips from later films. When we catch up to each of them at age 63, it’s like we already know them. And there is some cheer to be drawn from the stories, especially of children who grew up to break out of the roles that the British class system assigned to them.

The children

One example was Nick, a farmer’s son in the northern reaches, who was determined to become a scientist. He did, eventually moving to the U.S. to conduct nuclear research. His one mistake, perhaps, was in specializing in fusion energy, which ran into a dead end. Yet he is still teaching, even while fighting throat cancer.

We also caught up to Paul and Symon, two kids living in a group (foster) home in London. Symon, a mixed-race kid who was the series’ only person of color. He grew up, got a job, married, had kids, divorced, married again, and with his second wife, decided to become foster parents themselves. By the time of “56 Up,” Symon and wife Vionette had fostered over 100 children. Paul went to Australia with his father shortly after “7 Up,” and worked in the building trades. He managed to come back to England to catch up with Symon in the later installments. For “63 Up,” Apted arranged for Symon and Vionette to visit Paul in Australia.

This brings up what some critics have called a flaw in the movie series: the occasional manipulating of the subjects’ lives for the sake of the movie. Producers manipulating their subjects for the sake of ratings has become more accepted in the “Reality TV” era. But when this sort of movie making was considered Cinéma vérité, it was expected that the camera should be invisible.

Perhaps this was possible with the first film in the series. As it became apparent that the subjects would be revisited by Apted every seven years, it can’t be helped that he and the crew become a part of their lives. Usually they chat with Apted, asking questions just off-screen, like a family friend. It could be that they hoped to live their best lives, and to have a profound answer to his expected questions.

In interviews about the films, Apted expressed regret that he had only selected four girls in the original 14. One of those women, Suzy, complained vocally in “49 Up” that Apted kept asking the women about marriage and children, even at age 21. For the men, he had moved on to asking the men about their career plans and politics. Suzy reconciled to the idea that she had a sort of duty to the project, but ended up sitting out the “63 Up” installment.

Another mark of the fame the participants had endured was the case of Peter, a middle-class Liverpool native. After Peter criticized Margaret Thatcher in “28 Up,” the Murdoch tabloid press attacked him, and he quit the series. Peter returned for “56 Up,” as he now admitted, to promote his band.

One other participant, Charles, had quit the series, after “21 Up” and became a documentary filmmaker. One of the women subjects, Lynn, was revealed to have died in 2013, the first of the subjects to pass on.

I could go on about the subjects, but I should back up and look at the movie as a whole. It was a new thing back in the 60s to have someone’s life documented at regular intervals. Today, people obsessively chronicle every detail of the lives on phone cameras, but the “Up” series was a new thing. And it had placed all the details of its participants’ lives together in each movie. The children we met in black and white are now approaching retirement in widescreen and high-resolution video. The children were asked about girlfriends and what they want to be when they grew up; now many of them are married, some divorced and remarried, with grandchildren, looking at retirement or facing impending mortality. Despite its pedestrian subject area, this example from the “Up” series takes ordinary lives and makes them compelling.

"63 Up" is now in theatrical release, distributed via BritBox.

Movie Time: The Banana Splits

The Banana Splits Cut Up Again
 

 

Warner Brother Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.

Back in February, there was a news item on various TV and cartoon oriented boards that a movie was in the works featuring the Banana Splits. For anybody under the age of 55, these were four live-action costumed characters who hosted a “Laugh-In” comedy and cartoon show on Saturday mornings, starting in 1968. Only there would be a twist: the Banana Splits movie would be a “made-for-TV splasher flick!”

This provoked the usual comment section outrage. Mostly along the lines of “How dare they do this to my cherished childhood memories!” Well, yeah, I liked the show too, when I was a kid. But like a lot of these people, I rarely gave a second thought to my “cherished childhood memory” over the intervening 50 years. Besides, it seemed like a waste of effort to put Bingo, Fleegle, et al, in a pedestrian slasher movie. Maybe it would have a twist that would turn the genre on its ear, like the reimagined “Flinstones” and other Hanna-Barbera comic books DC Comics put out a while back.

When I was offered a preview copy of the movie, I said “send it on,” hoping to find a surprising new twist on a couple of tired genres.

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Woodstock 50: The “Woodstock” Song

So as it turns out, there is no “Woodstock 50” concert. The fact that its last gasp involved moving it to Maryland from upstate New York should have been the last nail in the coffin, but it kept on for a little while before the plug was pulled.

As I’m writing this, though, I’m listening to Bert Sommer’s set from Woodstock — As It Happened — 50 Years On, a streaming presentation from Philadelphia radio station WXPN. It’s running all of the archived music and announcements available, mostly from the 38-CD box set from Rhino Records.

But my Musical Cheese article is about a song that wasn’t performed at Woodstock, by an act that wasn’t there.

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One-Hit Wonder LP Parade: Sailcat – Motorcycle Mama

One-Hit Wonder LP Parade:
Sailcat – Motorcycle Mama

I’m starting what I hope will become a series of posts, which I think few people have done before. You can always find people looking over obscure LPs, but this series focuses on the LPs from which that wondrous category “One-Hit Wonders” can be drawn. Does the rest of the album explain why some of these bands dropped out of the record charts? Does the LP stand up to the single’s “One-Hit Wondrous-ness?”

Motorcycle Mama by Sailcat (Elektra) is one of those records that never seems to drop out of oldies playlists. The single was such a mishmash of laconic southern rock, with echoes of the “Singer-Songwriter” era, that automatically dates itself back to 1972, when it hit #12 on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart.

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Who’s Still Around for Woodstock 50?

A couple embraces at the Woodstock music festival.

Who Might Still Be Able to Unite for Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary?

Updated to note the death of Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor on August 19, 50 years and a day after his Woodstock appearance.

I asked this question on Quora: What acts from the original Woodstock might still be available for the 50th Anniversary festival, in their 1969 lineups?”

I got a lot of answers that missed the mark, like “The Who,” who are only half the Who they once were. So I decided to look into this myself.

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Movie Time: Untogether

Jamie Dorman and Jemima Kirke in "Untogether." Source: Freestyle Digital Media
Jamie Dorman and Jemima Kirke in “Untogether.”

Once more, I get to expand my “influencer” tag by reviewing a movie.

“Untogether” marks the directorial debut of writer Emma Forrest. It opens February 8 at the AMC South Barrington 30, following its premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

The romance follows a couple who fall into bed together, then try to decide whether they want to be a couple. Nick (Jamie Dornan [50 Shades of Grey]) admits he broke up with his previous girlfriend only upon meeting Andrea (Jemima Kirke [Girls]), at a party. Despite not wanting not to commit too soon, Andrea takes one of Nick’s shirts home with her, and Nick starts deleting other women from his phone’s contacts.

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Movie Time: American Street Kid

Today I am adding a “Movie Reviewer” hat to my rack. It seems my social media profile somewhere qualified me for this, so I have had the occasional offer of screeners for upcoming films. 

“American Street Kid” had a showing December 11 at Chicago’s Regal Webster Place, in advance of a wider run later. It’s a documentary that takes the often ignored subject of homeless children, here living in the streets of Los Angeles, around Hollywood and the Venice beach area.

Director Michael Leoni himself was rescued from a life on the street by friends and a girlfriend. He wrote a play based on his experiences, “Playground.” During its run, he discovered some homeless girls had been coming to see the play several times, telling him its was a realistic reflection of their own lives. But shortly after meeting Leoni, each girl was found dead on the streets.

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