Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Five Films for a Snowy March

As winter continues to behave like winter in these parts (yet another snowfall is expected tonight), my home screen has seen some use. Five mini-reviews of flicks seen since March 1 follow.

CBGB (2013) – This movie was bound to get a tough reception from critics, many of whom had frequented the iconic club CBGB in NYC. Among the ones who didn’t nevertheless are many of an age to have grown up with the music of the bands and artists who broke out on its stage: The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, The Police, The Dead Kennedys, Talking Heads, and many many more. The music of our youth always attaches to us in a special way, even if we remain open to new sounds. How deft would a movie about this club have to be without it seeming to be a sacrilege to its demographic, and without evoking cries of, “No, that’s wrong!”? More deft than this one. The Village Voice, whose band reviews in the 1970s helped put CBGB on the map, ran a review of this movie titled “10 Things the CBGB Movie Got Wrong.

All that duly acknowledged, the movie really isn’t as bad as all that. While flawed in more than 10 ways, it doesn’t deserve the wall of splats on Rotten Tomatoes. True, it does not provide any insight into the origins of punk and New Wave music, which reflected a collapse both of post-war “can-do” optimism and of ‘60s counterculture “flower power” naiveté. The movie does provide a sanitized, dramatized, but not entirely fabricated account of the accidental role that club owner Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) played in popularizing a new sound. Accidental it was: “CBGB” stands for “Country, Blue Grass, Blues,” which Hilly thought was the next big thing when he opened his dive in the Bowery in 1973. He was right, but it didn’t happen at his club; what happened there instead was something far more interesting.

CBGB is an inconsequential film with the feel of a made-for-TV-movie, but, if you’re not emotionally attached to the club itself (which closed in 2006) or to the scene it represented, you’ll likely find it amusing and perhaps even informative. Also, the music is good. On the other hand, if you personally stood in front of the stage in the 1970s (or the more hardcore 1980s), you’ll likely splat one of those tomatoes.

Thumbs sideways.

The Doors (1991) – Few movies set in the 1960s get the look, feel, and flavor of the decade right. The Doors is an exception. The film is pretty good beyond its general ambience, too. Lead singer Jim Morrison is played expertly by Val Kilmer and his fiancé Pamela Courson by Meg Ryan.

The iconic ‘60s rock band The Doors rises to fame after making a splash at the Whisky A Go Go in LA. Jim Morrison’s subversive appeal is the key to the band’s success, but he also poses the greatest risk to its existence. An all too familiar, but nonetheless well-told, tale of addiction and personal disintegration follows as Jim is unable to handle money and fame. Jim dies in Paris in 1971 at the age of (what else?) 27, apparently of a heroin overdose though this was never confirmed. Pamela died of an overdose in 1974 at age 27.

Thumbs up.

Birdman : or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) – This film received copious praise at the Academy Awards and elsewhere, and I’m not inclined to argue with it. Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is an aging movie actor who gave up his starring role in a lucrative superhero franchise (Birdman) in order to direct and star in an artsy Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Commercial and artistic success for the play depends heavily on an erratic lead actor (Ed Norton). Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) tells Riggan the play is a pretentious vanity production. Riggan’s alter ego Birdman tells him the same thing, much more persistently and rudely. Both have a point. Riggan might have telekinetic abilities that he hides from others. Or he might not: they might be a childlike fantasy to counter his self-esteem issues. In one scene (*mild spoiler*) he rises into the air, flies above city streets, and alights outside the theater; yet, a moment after he enters the theater, a cabbie runs in after him in order to collect his money. If that flight of fancy seems to answer the question of whether Riggan’s powers are all imaginary, it doesn’t. There are other reasons to wonder. Alejandro Iñárritu's direction of the film is unusual, with the bulk of it appearing (presumably through skillful cutting and splicing) to be a single shot.

Thumbs up.

John Wick (2014) – Are you looking for a movie as violent as Kick-Ass or Kill Bill but without the tongue-in-cheek humor? If the answer is no, don’t watch this. But if you find such fare cathartic, this action flick is about as well done as any. The anti-hero is John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a retired hit man for the mob whose wife has just died of natural causes. Unaware of Wick’s former connection to his dad, the chief mobster’s son along with some buddies breaks into his house, steals his car, and kills his dog, a present from his departed wife. So naturally, Wick has to kill everyone involved. It’s only right. It was his dog, man. Since the mobster tries to protect his son, this means taking on the entire mob, plus all the freelance killers out to collect the $2,000,000 bounty placed on Wick’s head. No problem. This is John Wick we’re talking about.

Thumbs sideways. Clarification: the film is fine by the standards of the action genre, but it takes itself too seriously for my personal taste. Also, Hollywood scriptwriters, stop making mob bosses Russian so often. It’s unimaginative and rude.

Forever Lulu (2000) – This film also can be found under the alternate title Along for the Ride. I’ve heard Melanie Griffith’s name mentioned at least a dozen times in the past couple of weeks, each time with the description “Dakota Johnson’s mom” appended. Fame truly is fleeting. One of Melanie’s better performances, however, can be found in Forever Lulu, which came from her own production company.

Lulu (Melanie) is a schizophrenic living in a halfway house. 16 years earlier she and Ben (Patrick Swayze) had a hot and heavy love affair that fell apart just as her mental health issues were intensifying. Unknown to Ben, she was pregnant when they broke up; she gave up the baby for adoption but made a deal with the parents to meet the boy when he turns 16. Ben is now a semi-successful writer married to a psychiatrist Claire (Penelope Ann Miller); he and Claire recently lost their son and are having marital problems. Lulu, on unauthorized leave from the halfway house, turns up and tells Ben about the kid. They go on a road trip to meet him. This disconcerts Claire who understandably does not have a professional detachment about the situation.

The movie received mixed reviews, with the film’s sentimentality making some reviewers uncomfortable. I’m not opposed to sentiment if it isn’t merely maudlin, and it isn’t here. Parts of this movie indeed are uncomfortable, but that is because the script and actors are credible.

Not for everyone, but thumbs up.


  1. A large part of the time, I'd rather see a documentary on rock music than a movie about it ie. Finding Woodstock vs. Woodstock (the doc). I feel the same way about all those CSI programs--I'd rather see Forensic Files, or the Investigation Discovery channel, although some of that stuff will curl the hair on the back of your neck and scorch your eyeballs. I don't know how detectives deal with it on a regular basis and wonder if they get depressed, but I guess it's a matter of perspective.

    Haven't seen CBGBs, but listened to the tuneage back in the day. I don't have a lot of interest in punk these days, but will listen to a Talking Heads record or something like that ever so often. But it could fool me since I'm a big music fan.

    The Doors film was fine, but seemed a little dated or handled a bit funny. I don't think it's one of Stone's better films, but if you haven't seen it worth a watch.

    I enjoyed John Wick more than you may have. There's not a lot to think about, but enjoyed the ride and escapism. I would enjoy a sequel.

    I'll have to keep Forever Lulu in mind. This winter has been something, and we get it mild down here.

    1. A documentary on CBGB definitely would be better, though it would be harder to do. Unlike today, cameras were not everywhere in the 1970s, so not that much was recorded. Interviews would be a problem: all the original Ramones, for example, are dead. Still, "harder" is not "impossible" and the result might be worth it.

      A friend who is a former EMS worker tells me that she, detectives, and fellow EMS workers folk developed a graveyard humor that they had to be careful not to let outsiders overhear. It sounds bad when they are joking, but it is just a human way of dealing with a difficult situation.