‘Zappa’ Provides the Story of the Man Behind the Mustache

Leave a comment

Zappa (CREDIT: Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Frank Zappa and Friends

Director: Alex Winter

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But I’d Go with a Light PG-13, for Semi-Indulgent Rock Star-ness)

Release Date: November 27, 2020 (Theaters)

Zappa is like a lot of rock docs, but different. Which makes sense, as its subject is Frank Zappa, who was in many ways very similar to other rock stars, but in other ways, very different. Directed by Bill & Ted star Alex Winter, Zappa follows the standard playbook by relying upon archival clips mixed with interviews with the people who knew the man, while establishing its unique appeal through unlimited access to the Zappa family trust. If you’re a fan of Behind the Music and its ilk, you will surely find something to enjoy here. If, however, you prefer that documentaries try to be at least a little formally inventive, you might be disappointed by the straightforward approach. But it’s impossible to be completely let down by the story of someone who absolutely refused to be pinned down by any categorization.

Zappa the Film keeps pounding away at the message that Zappa the Man was full of contradictions. Unlike so many other rock stars, he was totally straight-edged when it came to drugs, though he supported decriminalization. There was a thoroughly goofy streak to his artistry, but he was also constantly giving off a self-serious vibe. He mixed rock with jazz, or jazz with rock, and whatever else was bouncing around his head, but it would be too simplistic to consider his discography any clearly defined fusion of those genres. As one interviewee perfectly sums it up, “What the hell is it? It’s Zappa.” After watching this movie, you probably won’t be able to peg him any more easily than before, and that’s kind of the point.

Those contradictions extend right through to Zappa’s personal life. This film is no hagiography. Many times, it had me thinking, “Zappa was an interesting guy, but I wish he had been a better husband and father.” In one clip, he pretty much justifies his infidelities by saying that he is a human being who spends plenty of time on the road. We do see his love for his wife Gail and their four kids, but it seems like he tends to get bored of them after a while. It’s ironic then that perhaps the biggest hit of his career was the novelty track “Valley Girl,” a collaboration with his then 14-year-old daughter Moon that more or less defined a stereotype.

Frank Zappa gave the world plenty that we should be thankful for: weird and undefinable music, anti-censorship crusades, appreciation for his musical forebears. But as always, it’s important to be aware that the story behind all that is a lot messier than we might want it to be.

Zappa is Recommended If You Like: Contradictions

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Mothers of Invention

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 11/20/20

Leave a comment

Hulu Animaniacs (CREDIT: Hulu/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Belushi (November 22 on Showtime) – A documentary about Belushi, John.
Happiest Season (November 25 on Hulu) – Directed by Clea DuVall and starring a cast of some of my favorite funny people!

TV
Animaniacs Reboot Premiere (November 20 on Hulu) – The Warner Brothers – and the Warner Sister – are back to run amok once again!
Marvel’s 616 Docuseries Premiere (November 20 on Disney+)
Saved by the Bell Reboot Premiere (November 25 on Peacock)
-The National Dog Show (November 26 on NBC)

Music
-Ariana Grande, Positions – This came out a few weeks ago, but I somehow missed it when that happened.

‘Sound of Metal’ Review: Riz Ahmed Fights to Retain His Hearing and Sobriety

Leave a comment

Sound of Metal (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric

Director: Darius Marder

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, Mainly

Release Date: November 20, 2020 (Theaters)/December 4, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

The premise of a rock ‘n’ roll drummer rapidly losing his hearing offers plenty of storytelling possibilities. But when you also throw in prior drug addiction, well then, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the story is headed in one particular direction. In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, the drummer in question, who is robbed of his most important sense suddenly and instantaneously. His bandmate girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) is worried about him, but she’s more freaked out when he steps out to smoke a cigarette, as it could portend a relapse into something a lot more fatal. Ruben soon finds his way to a sober living program for deaf people, run by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing from a combat explosion and then chased away his family with his alcoholism.

At the core of Sound of Metal is a question of trust, or rather, several questions of trust. Can Ruben buy into the system he suddenly finds himself thrust into? Can Joe accept into his fold someone who’s so resistant to his program? Ruben is clearly more interested in fixing his ears than his head, while Joe’s agenda is very much the inverse. But with a cochlear implant costing tens of thousands that Ruben doesn’t have and no other deaf-targeted sober programs anywhere, he doesn’t have any other good options. Eventually, a moment comes in which Joe tells Ruben that he’s irrevocably broken his trust, and while I believe that Joe sees it that way, I have my doubts that Ruben deserves the full blame, as the strict standards were never the best fit – or any fit – for him.

If you choose to see Ruben and Joe as two reasonable people who just aren’t working together (as I do), then Sound of Metal‘s conflict becomes less about the untrustworthiness of the addicted mind and more about how water and vinegar may not mix, but they can co-exist. Ruben’s ending is so surprisingly happy that I initially thought I must have missed something. He recovers his hearing as best as he can, he and Lou remain together, and Lou reunites with her semi-estranged father (Mathieu Amalric). It’s almost like they’re a perfectly happy and healthy family! But it’s not quite perfect, or at least it’s not as natural a fit as it once was. The music career is in flux, and while Ruben’s hearing may not have disappeared completely, he does have to learn how to adjust it to a new reality. It’s an askew conclusion because it’s actually an awkward beginning

Sound of Metal is Recommended If You Like: Navigating thorny life crises

Grade: 3 out of 5 Decibels

Romanian Documentary ‘Collective’ Gets Incisive on a Tragic Scandal

Leave a comment

Collective (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Journalists, Doctors, and Government Officials

Director: Alexander Nanau

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (It would probably be a PG-13-level for graphic medical images)

Release Date: November 20, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

I have a confession to make: I didn’t realize that Collective was a documentary until after I finished watching it. (The press notes had touted it as Romania’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, which I had neglected to realize could include docs.) I’ll go ahead and turn that into a compliment by saying that I was impressed by its strong sense of verisimilitude. That’s not always easy to accomplish when telling a true story on screen, whether it’s in the form of a docudrama or an actual documentary. Collective presents a story of government and corporate corruption and medical malfeasance in Southeastern Europe, but if you’ve been alive  anywhere in the world in 2020, you’re surely acutely aware of the scourge of those ills no matter where you live. The fight to expose all of the terrible decisions is kind of Sisyphean, but it’s reassuring to know that there are still people who are willing to fight that fight.

The tragedy that sets everything off is a fire at a Romanian nightclub that killed about a couple dozen people from burns and smoke inhalation, with the number of the dead more than doubling in the hours and days following the conflagration. It quickly becomes clear that a lot of these deaths could have been prevented if not for common dangerous practices at the medical facilities, as multiple fatalities are tied to disinfectants that were diluted to save money, thus allowing bacteria to spread to dangerous levels. We discover what this means in quite stark terms with the shot of a human body crawling with maggots on a hospital bed. Amidst it all, a group of journalists keep asking the questions that need to be asked for the public to hear. They’re hardened by the corruption, but not numb to it; widespread incompetence is the day-to-day muck they know that they have to wade through.

There is a clinical, procedural approach to the material in Collective that is quite dry, but it gets the point across. There’s a lot of talk about “pyocanic bacteria,” surely more than in any other movie I’ve ever seen. (You might think that surely this tone would have tipped me off to the fact that this was a documentary. I guess I just assumed that this was the Romanian way, or at least the way of director Alexander Nanau.) If you’re tired of getting outraged at the scandals in your own country but still want to be angry, Collective offers you plenty to get worked up about. It won’t assure you that this world will be fully redeemed anytime soon, but you might come away a little optimistic that redemption is somewhat possible at some point in the future.

Collective is Recommended If You Like: Real-life journalists doggedly reporting on the worst of humanity

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Epidemiologists in the Pocket

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 11/13/20

Leave a comment

LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special (CREDIT: Star Wars/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Freaky (Theaters) – A bloody good body swap slasher.

TV
Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun Season 1 (Premiered November 11 on Netflix) – Sitcom/sketch hybrid from some silly Australian dudes.
His Dark Materials Season 2 Premiere (November 16 on HBO)
-The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special (November 17)

Music
-AC/DC, Power Up

Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton Get ‘Freaky,’ and a Bloody Silly Time Will Be Had By All

1 Comment

Freaky (CREDIT: Brian Douglas/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Alan Ruck

Director: Christopher Landon

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Stunningly Over-the-Top Gore and Bluntly Disturbing Profanity

Release Date: November 13, 2020 (Theaters)/December 4, 2020 (On Demand)

When the elevator pitch for a movie is “A serial killer swaps bodies with a teenage girl,” how could its title be anything other than “Freaky Friday the 13th”? Maybe litigiousness was a concern, or perhaps brevity really is the soul of witty knifeplay, as co-writer/director Christopher Landon and company ultimately settled on the shorter moniker Freaky for this breezy and deadly concoction. Landon is best known for mashing up slashers and time loops in Happy Death Day and its sequel, and now he’s got another unlikely complement for his preferred horror subgenre. The hallmarks of the two formulas mix together mostly seamlessly, as mystical mumbo-jumbo and a race to a point-of-no-return countdown are punctuated by buckets of gore.

The teenage girl in question is Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), who’s been going through life in a bit of a daze ever since her dad died about a year ago, while the serial killer (Vince Vaughn) is known as the Blissfield Butcher, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about him. Freaky‘s slasher approach is most directly inspired by the Friday the 13th franchise, particularly the early sequels in which the be-masked Jason Voorhees’ motivation gradually drifts away from revenge and more towards a general unquenchable thirst for killing. For Newton, that means playing the Butcher in Millie’s body as mostly a silent stalker, while occasionally dropping piercingly vulgar threats of violence. If the Butcher is motivated by anything, it’s shiny objects, as he is positively entranced by a beautifully kitchen knife, while his fashion sense leads him to outfit Millie’s body in a striking blood-red jacket.

Vaughn has a much more effervescent role to play, which he tackles with a level of relish that is always ready to be tapped whenever he’s given the right material. With arms akimbo and his heart on his sleeve, he nails the looseness of someone who suddenly finds herself a foot taller and about one hundred pounds bigger. Millie’s fascination with all the nooks, crannies, and appendages of her new body is infectious and an inspiration for all of us to celebrate the vessels we’re currently living in, body swap or no. Good on Vaughn for being so fully up for anything!

As for the actual story, Freaky lacks the emotional oomph present in the best of the body swap genre (or the best of the slasher genre, certainly). The thematic heft of the body swap tends to be driven by the swappers ultimately coming to an understanding with each other, but that’s not exactly going to work when one of them is basically an embodiment of pure evil. So we must be sated by the goofball charm, of which there is plenty, and the absurd graphic violence, of which there is even more. Landon is clearly here to revel in the most baroque excesses of the slasher world, as the Butcher utilizes the likes of a toilet seat and a tennis racket in profoundly lethal ways. Also there’s apparently a cryogenic chamber in a high school locker room. All that AND there’s a “Que Sera Sera” needledrop. Quite frankly, I think Freaky knows exactly who its audience is.

Freaky is Recommended If You Like: Friday the 13th Parts 3 through 6, Grindhouse-style gore, The continued relevance of Vince Vaughn

Grade: 3 out of 5 Magic Daggers

‘Ammonite’ Review: Love on the Rocks

Leave a comment

Ammonite (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones, James McArdle

Director: Francis Lee

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Quite Graphic Bedroom Scenes

Release Date: November 13, 2020 (Theaters)/December 4, 2020 (On Demand)

Man, if you’re into rocks AND forbidden love stories, you’re gonna love Ammonite. Me personally, I can certainly enjoy the latter, though they can be heart-wrenchingly bittersweet. As for the former, rocks definitely serve their purpose here on Earth, but I’m not particularly inclined to spend an entire day studying them. Nor am I particularly inclined to watch a movie that dedicates a good portion of itself to people doing just that. But I always aim to be open-minded, so I decided to give Ammonite a chance to see if it could win me over. Ultimately, it all went about exactly as I would have expected, with the paleontology scenes making me go, “Wow, Kate Winslet sure does enjoy studying fossils a lot more than I ever would” and the romance scenes making me go, “Wow, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan sure do trust each other enough to get really, really explicit.”

It’s the 1840s on the Southern English coast. Winslet plays Mary Anning, who is now officially the most passionate paleontologist I’ve ever heard of. She supports herself and her mother by selling fossils to tourists, and one of those folks, geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), offers her something rather unique. His wife Charlotte (Ronan) is suffering from one of those vague 19th century illnesses that result in general exhaustion, and he’s entrusted Mary to caring after her. Mary and Charlotte proceed to spend plenty of time alone, thus awakening passions that are generally not spoken about in polite British society.

Like most other recent period queer love stories I’ve encountered, the affair between Mary and Charlotte is able to thrive in a little pocket of the larger world. There’s even a hint that it could last indefinitely. So I’m fascinated that the ultimate roadblock for these two is less about society frowning upon them and more about the struggle to bridge the gap between their very different lives. Mary is so married to her work that she cannot imagine uprooting herself in any way (there’s also the matter of supporting her mother). With Ammonite so firmly foregrounded in the literal ground, it comes off as rather quotidian and even dispassionate (though certainly not shy). So in conclusion, I haven’t suddenly been inspired to start studying fossils myself, but I am still heartbroken when two star-crossed souls can’t quite make it work.

Ammonite is Recommended If You Like: Fossils, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rocks on the beach, Walks on the beach

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rocks

‘Come Play,’ Says the Leggy Monster on a Tablet

Leave a comment

Come Play (CREDIT: Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features)

Starring: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr.

Director: Jacob Chase

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Spooks and Terror

Release Date: October 30, 2020

Did The Babadook fully sate our appetites for creepy bedtime story characters breaking out into the real world to spook a little boy and his mom? Come Play sure hopes that there’s room for one more! But it’s going to be very hard for it to avoid being referred to as “The Babadook, but the dad’s alive.” There’s even a moment when Gillian Jacobs echoes Essie Davis almost exactly when she shouts, “Can you just be normal for one second?!” There are some elements about Come Play that are worth recommending, although while I was watching them, I wondered if I was enjoying them mainly because of residual positive feelings for The Babadook. That’s far from the worst thing in the world, though. It’s at least better than resenting it for its resemblance.

The vibe of the game in Come Play is disconnection. Sarah (Jacobs) and her husband Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) have been struggling to communicate with their non-verbal autistic son Oliver (Azhy Robertson) his whole life. Really, though, it’s Mom who’s bearing the brunt of the struggle. It comes down to the typical split of household labor. Marty is mostly fine with the way Oliver currently talks, which is by pushing word buttons on a cell phone that vocalizes for him, but Sarah is constantly frustrated, partly because she spends a lot more time at home. Into this angst-filled situation crawls Oliver, a long-limbed creature on a tablet who would like his tale told to the end so that he can become a real monster who can be friends with Oliver forever and ever.

As Larry makes his presence more and more known, he spreads to Oliver’s parents and friends as a sort of supernatural infection. He’s like the Entity in It Follows or the certainty of death in She Dies Tomorrow: once you’ve been exposed, you cannot deny his existence. Voices of reason try to insist that this is just a case of powerful empathy with Oliver, which almost seems to be playing out as a sort of shared delusion. Of course, we know it’s not that, because the terms of the genre that we as audience have agreed to assure us that Larry is as real as any monster can be. But the emotional tethers that Oliver is attached to and the terror transported along them are quite telling. Larry represents and draws upon loneliness. Anyone lacking connection or fighting so hard to maintain an emotional bond is vulnerable. He can sting your heart, and that’s what really makes him memorable.

Come Play is Recommended If You Like: Horror Movies That Remind You of Other, Better Horror Movies But Still Have Enough to Say on Their Own

Grade: 3 out of 5 Legs

I Have One Important Thing to Say About ‘The Witches’ (2020)

Leave a comment

The Witches 2020 (CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Codie Lei-Eastick, Kristen Chenoweth

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: October 22, 2020 (HBO Max)

There’s one thing I really want to mention about the 2020 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It’s something that caught me by surprise, and I was happy to have it. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I had seen the trailer ahead of time, but I still would have been delighted by it nonetheless. I’m talking about Chris Rock’s narration! I had no idea he was playing the older version of our hero (who’s named Hero). But oh yeah, I totally approve of the flavor that he added to the mix. And at the end when we got a glimpse of him in the flesh, I was thrilled to see what he’s up to now. The rest of the movie is mostly more-or-less standard kids adventure fare. I would have hoped for something a little weirder from Bob Zemeckis taking on Roald Dahl. Maybe I missed some hidden weirdness!

Grade: 5 Giant Chickens Out of 3 Mice

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 10/23/20

Leave a comment

Eric Andre Show Season 5 (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (October 23 on Amazon) – If you’re in the mood for a Very Nice evening.

TV
The Eric Andre Show Season 5 Premiere (October 25 on Adult Swim)
American Housewife Season 5 Premiere (October 28 on ABC)
Superstore Season 6 Premiere (October 29 on NBC)

Music
-Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You

Comedy
An Evening with Tim Heidecker (October 23 on YouTube) – Should be as funny as 5 bags of popcorn.

Older Entries