PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Rolling Stones: "Some Girls" Live in Texas '78 (A-)
U.S.: Eagle Rock Entertainment, 2011
It was 1964, the summer after my senior year in high school, and the song blasting out of the juke box at the Arctic Circle, a frozen custard drive-in and major high school hang-out in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, was "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. With its unforgettable Keith Richards fuzzy riff, its driving Charlie Watts drumbeat, it ace backup by Brian Jones and Bill Wyman, and its cynical lyrics, pungently and bluesily sung by Mick Jagger, it hooked me.
While I don't remember hearing "Satisfaction" in the new live concert feature The Rolling Stones: "Some Girls" Live in Texas '78, made at a vintage 1978 Stones concert show in the Will Rogers Memorial Center on July 18 in Fort Worth, Texas, it doesn't matter. The movie, a record of the Lone Star/Stone Star State gig of the American tour done in support of the recent release of their now-classic album Some Girls, is priceless show, one of their best on film.
The show contains many Stones standards -- including the scorcher "Jumping Jack Flash," the matchlessly horny rocker "Honky Tonk Women," the screaming but suave "Brown Sugar," the peerlessly rock 'n' rolling "Tumblin' Dice" and, of course, a number of the prime cuts from Some Girls -- from the jaunty torch song "Miss You" (a disco piece for people who usually dislike disco) and, one of my all-time favorites, the yearning, howling "Beast of Burden." There's also some present-day remembrances from Mick Jagger, jabbering away in a new interview.
The Some Girls lineup was slightly altered from the one I first heard: This time, it's Jagger on vocals and miscellany, Richards and Ron Wood on guitars, Bill Wyman on bass and the unbeatable Watts on drums -- plus the Stones' usual top-class sidemen. Mick wails and shouts. Keith explodes. Woodie blasts. Bill makes the bottom go right through you. And jazz fan Charlie pounds and crashes and never skips a beat. They all kill you.
The songs, great rockers all, are by Jagger and Richards, with some covers of Chuck Berry and others. The night looks hot and the band plays hotter. It's a fantastic concert. And they've been making great music ever since that great day I heard Mick wail out "Satisfaction" from the Arctic Circle juke box -- and make my summer day.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (B)
U.S.: Rob Marshall, 2011, Disney, Blu-ray/DVD combo
Johnny Depp isn't acting at full pressure in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- the fourth in the lucrative comedy pirate adventure movie series inspired by the great Disneyland theme park ride. But then, how may actors do?
In his fourth go-round as Captain Jack Sparrow, the fey buccaneer, scourge of the seven seas and all the mascara shops in Hollywood, Depp might be accused of not trying too hard, of stepping back and letting director Rob Marshall's production team and the CGI experts and the rest of the cast (newcomers Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane as well as old salts Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally), and especially composer Hans Zimmer do most of the work.
In a way, that's a fair complaint. Depp is coasting a little, even though, with designated lovers Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley having sailed off into the sunset, Jack is now both this Pirates of the Caribbean's main leading man/romantic interest (with Cruz) and, as always, its scene-stealing comical/piratical character star.
Who could blame him? The Pirate series may be at the height of its production expertise here, it may look better than ever, and it may have recaptured some of the initial light, breezy touch. But, script-wise, it's clearly running out of planks to walk.
The movie's central plot device is, not surprisingly for a Hollywood film, the Fountain of Youth -- coveted by the decadently plump King George of England (played by Richard Griffiths), coveted also by King Ferdinand of Spain (Sebastian Armesto), and subject of a three-cornered chase by the roguish, gravel-faced Barbossa (Rush), sailing for King George; a seagoing Spaniard (Oscar Jaenada), sailing for Ferdinand; and the bottomlessly black-hearted, most evil possible pirate, Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane, sailing for himself, damn your eyes!
Captain Jack has been shanghaied aboard Blackbeard's ship, which he promptly incites to mutiny, and which also carries a zombie crew and the flashing-eyed temptress Angelica, Jack's old flame and maybe Blackbeard's daughter -- played by the estimable Ms. Cruz. Also mixed up in all this is Jack's longtime doormat, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally), plus angel-eyed clergyman Philip (Sam Claflin) and the even more angelic-faced mermaid of Phil's dreams, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), both doing secondary romantic duty, in the absence of Orlando B. and Keira K.
The Fountain itself requires a lot of stuff to unlock its secrets, including chalices and mermaid's tears. And eventually, we make the scene that Ponce de Leon couldn't.
There's a lot of characters and a lot of exposition, all devised by the series' constant screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and repeated by their characters so lucidly and often that you'll never forget them. There's also a lot of slashing swordfights, sea-going adventuring, rum-soaked escapades, and dives off cliffs, plus dashing romancing and swishbuckling antics by Jack. Jack's designated godfather and role model, the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, shows up again as Captain Teague.
But one thing, this "Pirates" does have, despite its chaotic swordfights, is narrative clarity. If you don't make unreasonable demands on the movie, it's fun.
Larry Crowne (C+)
U.S.: Tom Hanks, Universal Studios, 2011
In Larry Crowne -- a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts that should have been a timely, funny show, but isn't -- Hanks plays the title character, an up-from-working-class managerial guy suddenly cut adrift from his life and forced to try to find a new one. Casting around at a local community college, he takes a class from Roberts, as a discontented teacher who can maybe help Larry, if she can first straighten out her own problems: alcohol and a worthless husband. After a while, Larry looks better and better to her.
This is the kind of role Hanks seems perfect for: a hard-working, decent, smart middle-American guy, a likable Ordinary Joe coping with severe, but all-American, problems. It's a role he actually dreamed up and wrote for himself. Hanks not only directed and produced this movie; he co-wrote the script, with Nia Vardalos, the writer-star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which Hanks and wife Rita Wilson produced).
Larry Crowe is a longtime U.S. Navy veteran (a cook), who got his job at U-Mart -- which sounds like a Wal-Mart knockoff, but apparently sells big boxes -- right after military service. He has been there ever since, working his way up the U-Mart ladder, and he's become a well-liked manager who wins scads of Best Employee prizes. Suddenly the door is slammed in his face. Summoned to talk to his bosses (who include Dale Dye, the military advisor on Forrest Gump), Larry is told that his lack of a college degree means that he can't rise any higher in the organization, and therefore has to be let go. In a matter of minutes, Larry is gone.
Affable Larry enrolls at a local community college, the fictitious East Valley C.C. -- and there he meets Julia Roberts as discontented Mercedes Tainot. Beautiful, discontent, borderline alcoholic, she's the teacher who may change his life, or at least provide the classy romantic comedy we're all waiting for.
There are other colorful East Valley students and teachers around too: prickly economics professor Matsutani (played, in a John Houseman mood, by Star Trek's George Takei) and a batch of multi-ethnic fellow students, all young, plus a motor scooter club Larry joins at the behest of the sensationally cute Tali (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), to the consternation of her sometimes friendly, sometimes surly boyfriend Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama). Also there is Larry's philosophical neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and Lamar's wife B'Ella (Taraji P. Henson), who always seem to have a yard sale going.
You can tell where this story is going almost as soon as Larry gets fired. But that's not really the big problem with the movie. Most of us probably want Larry to start putting his life together again, and most of us probably also want him to end up with Julia -- though apparently Hanks had qualms about the older guy-younger women romances and had to be coaxed into it. The problem with Larry Crowne is that it just isn't well-written, or surprising, or funny, or compelling, or moving enough, though God and Gump know, it tries to be. Hanks sometimes nails those qualities with his direction -- which is, as you'd expect, affable and easy and generous. The show's heart is in the right place, but not its mind or its funny bone. It's nice but dull -- and it's way too obvious.
The Trip (A-)
U.K.: Michael Winterbottom, 2011, MPI
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon -- or very clever comic facsimiles -- take a road trip through provincial England to gather material for a compendium and analysis of England's finest off-the-beaten-path restaurants. The food looks good, the roads are long and winding, and the scenery is green and pleasant. But what results is more like a compendium of England's finest Michael Caine impressions.
Not that that's a bad thing. Coogan and Brydon (whatever their deficiencies as drivers and as loyal uncomplaining friends) are killer comic gabbers, inspired improvisers, superb impressionists and absolute masters of humorous insult. In addition, neither of them drool while they eat, a crucial point for this film, which has more conversation while sitting and dining, than in any other motion picture of my memory since My Dinner with Andre. And, most important of all, both stars do a mean Michael Caine imitation.
Try it yourself after you watch the movie. Caine's accent is not exactly straight Cockney, and there are hints of Stanley Holloway and Terence Stamp and even Julie Andrews in the first act of My Fair Lady. Actually, I think Brydon's Caine is a little better than Coogan's, even though Coogan is richer and more famous, and taller, than his little buddy. But they're both impressive. I don't think that even Michael Caine does himself quite as well.
The film that these two jokers -- Coogan and Brydon that is -- make, or make up, with the help of director Michael Winterbottom, is definitely one of the funniest out this year. And, compared to the screenplays for those idiotic, vacuous so-called comedy movies they keep shoving at us every week, I bet this script cost zilch. (Extras: deleted scenes; "making of" featurette; behind-the-scenes footage; trailer.)
U.S.: Evan Glodell, 2011, Oscilloscope Laboratories
Bellflower -- a Sundance sensation reportedly shot for only $17,000 by first-time writer-director-costar-co-editor Evan Glodell -- introduces us to a couple of dudes, Woodrow from Wisconsin (first-timer Glodell) and Aiden from the neighborhood (first-timer Tyler Dawson), who live north of L. A. and are obsessed with Mad Max, the coming apocalypse, muscle cars, WMDs and two hotties named Milly and Courtney (Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes). They all meet up at a barroom cricket-eating contest, which Milly wins. They dally awhile. Then Bellflower pulls us down into screaming, ink-black, bloody, macho-creepo, pathology-drenched hell.
The movie fakes us out. At first it looks as if it's going to be a funny-sad romantic comedy about twenty-somethings on the fringe, with a lot of bar scenes, four-letter talk and onscreen sex, and then it descends into road warrior-ish, violent, over-the-edge fantasies.
While I didn't like it all that much, I've got to admit that Bellflower is an incredible achievement for a Z-budget indie. Glodell and his cinematographer, Joel Hodge, get a strong visual style; they shoot their Valley scenes with a custom-built (by Glodell and guys) digital camera that makes everything look smeary and hot and dirty. The actors simultaneously play their scenes sort of Cassavetes-real and B-movie-overblown, and there's a scary, edgy feel to it all.
In the first part of Bellflower (the name of a street where part of it the picture is set), the main story is a quadrangle, or a pentangle, surrounded by slackerisms. Woodrow loves Milly, who cheats on him and splits with Mike (co-editor Vincent Grashaw), and so the distraught Woodrow takes up with Courtney, who's the big crush of Aiden.
Aiden, meanwhile, seems to love Woodrow as much as his muscle car. He devotes himself to building and fine-tuning that custom baby for his best bud (a black hipmobile with "Medusa" slash-painted on the side) and also to exotic weaponry (including a flamethrower). Since Glodell and his company apparently rebuilt the custom cars and the custom cameras and maybe even the flamethrower, we can see why this movie is so hipped on outlaw technology -- especially technology that has a cult movie source, like Mad Max.
The unease we feel, though, is not always pleasurable. Some of the last act is so bloody-violent and misogynistic that a number of Bellflowers' partisans have felt compelled to explain or excuse the gory, nutty-seeming climax by saying that it's all a fantasy. But I'm always glad when somebody makes an American indie breakthrough. More power to Glodell and his gang. I'd be astonished if this movie doesn't get him bigger chances and higher budgets, and he deserves them. (Extras: documentary, featurette, outtakes; trailer.)
Germany: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978, Olive
R.W. Fassbinder made Despair -- an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel about a candy manufacturer in '30s Germany who's going crazy and thinks he's found his doppelgänger -- in the middle of his greatest period, 1978-1982, the time of The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen and Fassbinder's masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz. But it's not as strong as those pictures, and for a movie set in Germany during the rise of Hitler, it sometimes seems unsettlingly disengaged. It wasn't the English-language breakthrough he wanted.
It's a very good film anyway: an intelligent, high-style examination, of decadent lives and a civilization about to plunge into Fascism and madness too. In a way, Despair is a homage to Luchino Visconti, another gay art film master, and to the movie Fassbinder once named as his all-time favorite, Visconti's 1969 epic of moral and social collapse The Damned -- whose star, Dirk Bogarde, here stars for Fassbinder as the deranged candy man Hermann Hermann. (Shades of Humbert Humbert in Lolita.) With Andrea Ferreoll, Volker Spengler, Peter Kern and Bernhard Wicki (who directed the classic German anti-war film The Bridge). Photographed, smashingly, by Michael Ballhaus. (Extras: documentary The Cinema and Its Double, with interviews with Fassbinder, Stoppard, Ballhaus, Ferreol and others.)