Sunday, July 28, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

Documentarian Morgan Neville's entertaining film 20 Feet From Stardom artfully describes the lives and loves, successes and failures of about a dozen women, mostly women of color, whose voices as background singers have enhanced (in some in...stances immeasurably) hundreds of pop, rock and soul recordings since the early '60s. Among them Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer. All of these women are gifted vocalists whose stories and backgrounds differ quite a bit, but whose musical heritage can be traced to black churches. Many of the performers and music historians tell Neville that the spirited interactions among choir members and soloists was the key to the background singers' success on the stage and in the studio. And yet, these women's dreams of individual stardom have nearly to a person been deferred -- some by circumstances and some by chicanery. The story of Phil Spector's treatment of Darlene Love is especially infuriating. The film is blessedly free of rancor; it's actually more of a celebration. Though the stories of these women's lives is inspiring, it's the music that makes this wonderful film such a resounding treat. Highly Recommended.

The Wolverine

James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma was a cinematic highlight of 2007, and his 1999 character study Girl, Interrupted, was a strong film, for which Angelina Jolie won the Oscar for best supporting actress. Mangold is probably not gifted, but he is talented, as is evidenced by earlier works (including the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) and the latest in the Marvel comics film franchise, The Wolverine, which stars  the estimable Hugh Jackman. In this outing, Wolverine has disappeared into the wild after killing his true love, fellow X-man Jean Grey / Phoenix, after her mutant telekinetic powers went berserk and threatened to destroy the planet (or at least a sizable portion of it) in X-men: The Last Stand. Blessed / cursed with exceptionally long life because of his ability to heal from mortal wounds, Wolverine is summoned out of seclusion to the bedside of a dying friend, whom he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki in World War II.  The friend, the head of a power Japanese family and biomedical concern, hopes to persuade Wolverine, who has occasional dreams of joining his beloved Jean in the after life, to pass along his healing abilities and restore vigor and vitality to the dying man. Layered on throughout the narrative are threads involving corporate intrigue, kidnapping, family jealousy, social status prejudice, and a secret society of Ninja warriors in league with a poison spitting dominatrix named Viper. It's a real goulash and not an entirely satisfying one but I would wager for fans of the X-men series it will be entertaining enough.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan is the heart and soul of Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, an engrossing and distressing recounting of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a Bay Area  man aching for redemption after doing prison time for drug dealing who is killed by a police office in the early morning of New Year's Day 2004. As Coogler presents it, Grant was not entirely mended but was determined to create a life for himself, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter, Tatiana, (Ariana Neal), when random elements converged on a BART train while Grant, Sophina and a group of their friends were returning from a New Year's Day celebration in San Francisco. One of the more devastating scenes in the film (aside from the fatal shooting on the BART station platform) is the recreation of a prison visit between Grant and his mother (a masterful Octavia Spencer). The truth pealing throughout the scene, the crystallization of a mother's uncompromising love for her damaged and damaging child, is deafening. Jordan will most assuredly get an Oscar-nod for his passionate portrayal of the doomed Grant, who was felled by fate and fear but whose end resonates through the Bay Area (and now the world) to this day. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Conjuring

James Wan's The Conjuring, a mostly refreshing take on an old ghost story, is not the slam dunk its able cast could have delivered. It has a good number of jolts and more than a handful of supremely creepy set pieces but also more than its share of "don't-look-in-the-basement" moments that, even if true to the actual events upon which the film is based, are exasperating. The film features Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga as Vatican-approved real life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (they of the Amityville Horror) and Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor as the Perrons, the proud owners of a big and battered farm house into which they and their five daughters move. In no time at all, the family dog is dead, birds are crash diving into the side of the house and Mama Perron (Taylor) is waking up with mysterious bruises. All of this, of course, is because of some heinous events in the house's past that has trapped an especially malevolent spirit. She's out for blood. The Warrens, renowned for their ability to record spectral events and rid haunted premises of cranky phantoms, move in with the Perrons, which only makes things worse. The Conjuring is a pretty solid scarefest but not recommended for little ones.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

This poster is taken from a scene in the prologue to Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim,  the summer's undisputed blockbuster to beat. The poster depicts a crippled gargantuan robot pulling itself out of the surf, its electronic innards dangling, bits falling onto the beach. It's bent but not destroyed. Two small figures at the lower left-hand side of the poster are diminished by the goliath. Those folks are us. The moviegoers. And the robot is, well, the film. Audiences will be awed and overwhelmed by this picture because of its size and, well, elegance. Del Toro, a true cinematic visionary (witness Pan's Labyrinth), has crafted an enormous and enormously engrossing multi-culti adventure tale of the human race's refusal to give in to what appears, based on the numbers, to be certain annihilation. Leading the intrepid battle is Stacker Pentecost, played by the redoubtable Idris Elba. Pentecost is one of the veteran "pilots" of the gigantic robots, called Jaegers (as in -meister) that have been battling a species of really nasty amphibious beasts (kaijus) from the center of the earth. These malevolent creatures use a portal that leads them to us and because they are aquatic they've wreaked most of their havoc on coastal cities. The suits have about had enough and want to build a wall too big for the kaijus to scale rather than continue to fund the jaeger program. Pentecost isn't hearing it and goes to ace pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy) to coax him out of retirement (he and his brother were at the helm of the damaged Jaeger on the poster) to wage one last attack on the kaiju's portal and save humankind. It's Class A story craft with an abundance of grace notes provided by a world class assortment of featured characters played by Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Ron Perlman. The heart of this greatly affecting film is in the relationship between Elba's Pentecost and junior pilot Mako Mori (the lovely Rinko Kukichi). Loud, cartoonish violence, but little blood. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me's cute and cuddly Minions are the shape and color of sinus capsules -- tubular and yellow.  Not the most obvious choices for phenomenally infectious animated characters but a winning formula nonetheless (with a major assist by Steve Carrell as diabolical mastermind turned single parent Gru). Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud made another brilliant move by putting at the center of sequel's narrative a sinister plot to turn all things cute and cuddly (a/k/a Minions) into ravenous, fright-wigged beasties. D M 2 picks up where the original film left off, with Gru and his three adopted daughters (Margo, Agnes and Edith) settled in "suburbia." Now the former moon thief is trying to launch a line of jellies and jams but things aren't going well. Introduced into the mix is a hyper-kinetic secret agent  and potential love-interest named Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who recruits Gru for an assignment to uncover the identity of the mad monster who wants to de-cute-ify the world. It's delightful, screwy and frantic fun and highly recommended.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...