Sunday, May 19, 2019

Action, Humor and Pathos in "Endgame"

Avengers: Endgame is breaking box-office records around the world. At this point, the release of a Marvel superhero film has become an event. Unlike many other movies these days, when viewers are content to wait for a home video, on demand or streaming release, audiences flock to see these films on the big screen. In the eleven years since the original Iron Man opened in 2008, the studio has built a “Cinematic Universe” across twenty-two movies, culminating with release of this magnum opus. Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War told the first half of this epic story. Super-villain Thanos collected a group of “Infinity Stones” which gave him absolute power over time and space. His goal was to use the stones to eliminate half of all life in the universe, thereby assuring the remaining beings would have unlimited resources and enough space in which to live. Despite the opposition of our heroes, Thanos succeeds, and wipes out millions of beings with the snap of a finger.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans
Endgame is a worthy follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War. We get to see the effect Thanos’ actions have on the world. Half of the population has disappeared, including some of the Avengers and their allies. The emotional toll suffered by everyone remaining on Earth has not left our heroes untouched. Some have stepped up to help people in the wake of the catastrophe, while others have retreated from the world, or descended into anger or depression. Then, someone who was missing in action during the events of the previous film brings a ray of hope to the team. This hero may just have a way to save the universe, but undoing the damage done by Thanos won’t come without a cost.

The movie has action, humor, and real emotional depth. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (who also helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War) manage to provide fans with some powerful moments during the three-hour running time. Endgame is a visually rich and stunning film. This is an epic tale with a sweeping scope, writ upon a large canvas. There are scenes throughout the movie that will make you smile, laugh, and cry; and during an epic battle towards the end of the film, you might just want to stand up and cheer. But the true heart and soul of these stories are the characters. Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor all have emotional and compelling scenes, and they’re just part of this excellent group of actors. At this point in the series, everyone knows their characters intimately. They're able to provide well-rounded, fully fleshed-out performances, even with a less screen time among such a large ensemble.

Avengers: Endgame brings this cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to an end, but there are more movies to come, including a new Spider Man adventure, Far From Home, that's being released in July. Endgame is a true valentine to Marvel Comics (and film) fans everywhere. If you’re a long-time Marvel devotee who’s been watching these movies since the beginning, you’ll be delighted to catch a host of cameos and Easter eggs throughout the movie. Avengers: Endgame really is a must see for fans. I will admit to feeling that the hype machine went into overdrive on this one, but that's a consequence of the modern entertainment world we live in. The movie is a fantastic superhero adventure with a heart and a soul. Finally, a note on spoilers: the film has been out for a few weeks now, but I chose to stay largely spoiler free in this review for those who still haven't seen the movie.  Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcMBFSGVi1c.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot: An Adventure with Character

Sam Elliott as Calvin Barr
When you see that a movie's title is The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, you might think you know what to expect, but writer-director Robert D. Kryzkowski’s genre-twisting tale subverts our expectations at every turn. The movie is a World War II adventure and a monster flick, but it’s also a powerful study of an older man reflecting on his past, and the difficult choices that he made in life. The script is a well-written rumination on the nature of heroism, and how the meaning of being a hero has changed over the years. Heady stuff for what on the surface seems to be a simple B-movie, but the film transcends its catchy title to provide us with an entertaining mix of action adventure story and character study.

The movie centers on Calvin Barr, a man quietly living out his older days in a small town during the 1980s. Barr is haunted by memories of his former career as a special agent in World War II, during which he was tasked with a mission vital to the Allied war effort. In a top-secret operation in the final days of the war, Barr was sent to assassinate Hitler. Barr succeeds in killing the Nazi leader, but his mission is covered up. His dedication to his career as a special ops agent had a devastating affect on his personal life. In the present, Barr’s only meaningful relationship is with his brother Ed, who’s the town barber, and his loyal dog.

Barr’s past meets up with his present when a pair of government agents visit him and ask him to complete one last mission: they want him to track down and kill Bigfoot. It appears that Bigfoot is the carrier of a lethal virus that will wipe out mankind, unless the monster is destroyed. Barr is reluctant at first, but ultimately agrees to find and kill the legendary creature. As he prepares to hunt down Bigfoot, we’re treated to further flashbacks of his life before and during the war, which illustrate just what he had to give up to serve his country. When Barr is faced with the choice of killing Bigfoot, or letting him go, what will he do? Will the final confrontation with the monster cost him his life?

Sam Elliott is enjoying a career renaissance recently, with high profile roles in several films, including the recent remake of A Star Is Born. He’s wonderful as Barr, quietly communicating the regret and emotional turmoil the man is suffering, while simultaneously showing us he can still be a badass. Elliott is perfectly matched by Aidan Turner, who plays the WWII version of the character. Turner doesn’t simply copy Elliott’s mannerisms; he truly inhabits Barr’s younger self. Comedian Larry Miller offers a subtle, low-key performance performance as Barr’s brother, and Caitlin Fitzgerald, Ron Livingston and Rizwan Mani are very good in supporting roles. This is a movie that’s rich in small moments, which will surprise and delight you.

Writer-director Kryzkowski and his crew do a masterful job with the film; it’s remarkably old school in its look and feel. There are some striking images, courtesy of cinematographer Alex Vender. The talented director had some high-profile help while working on the movie. Writer-director John Sayles and special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull are executive producers on the film. Both men have mentored Kryzkowski, and are big fans of his work. Trumbull even assisted with some of the effects sequences for the film. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is a remarkable film that has its own quirky charm. It’s clear that everyone involved was passionate about this project. Give it a try if you’re looking for something unique on movie night. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and various on demand platforms. You can take a look at the trailer by following this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doE2ZjceDRU.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Celebrating the "Summer of Love" Era

Cover Image Courtesy of JEM Records
The music and artists of the 1960s continue to dazzle, enrapture and entertain fans of all ages. One of the most memorable moments of the era was the Woodstock Music Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To honor that momentous occasion, veteran musician Glen Burtnik is hitting the road with his Summer of Love tour, which pays tribute to the memorable music of that classic era. He’s a talented rocker and songwriter who is a founding member of the excellent Beatles-inspired group The Weeklings. Burtnik has also played with Styx, The Orchestra (featuring members of ELO) and many other notable artists. Burtnik conceived the concept for the Summer of Love experience along with music industry veteran Tony Pallagrosi.

The Summer of Love show focuses on songs from the year 1967 through the iconic Woodstock concert. The timeless music of artists like Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Sly and The Family Stone is performed by a terrific band featuring top notch vocalists and musicians who have sung and played with bands such as Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes, Bon Jovi, Moby and 10,000 Maniacs. It’s clear that these talented artists are as passionate about this wonderful music as we are, and their incredible performances will thrill and astonish you. Not only will you find yourself singing along for the whole show, you'll relive a lot of wonderful musical memories. There's also a psychedelic light show by Marc Rubenstein that adds an eye-catching backdrop and a truly vintage aura to the performances.

In addition to checking out the current incarnation of the Summer of Love show on tour this summer, there's also a live album being released from a fantastic 2018 show by the band. On May 31st, you’ll be able to get yourself a copy of Glen Burtnik’s Summer of Love Concert, “Live Love.” The two CD set from JEM Records captures a stellar performance at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in New Jersey. Songs on the release include “Happy Together,” originally done by The Turtles, “Touch Me” from The Doors, Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" and the iconic Joe Cocker version of  “With A Little Help From My Friends” impeccably performed by band member Remember Jones, aka Anthony D'Amato. Every member of the Summer of Love group truly puts their heart and soul into performing this enduring music, and their talent and commitment adds immeasurably to the thrill and enjoyment of seeing these songs performed live.

The 17 tracks on this amazing disc will instantly take you back to the era when the songs of Procul Harum, The Mamas and the Papas, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young floated out over the airwaves and forever became a part of the fabric of our lives. From the magnificent recreations of tunes such as Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” to a stunning take on Ike & Tina Turner’s version of the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Proud Mary” this live release perfectly captures the energy and essence of the incredible live show. The two CD set will also be available digitally from outlets like iTunes. The Summer of Love band provides an unforgettable experience for audiences, as they experience the music of the 60s, authentically and masterfully recreated by a fantastic group of musicians. Head out to see a show during the tour this summer, and make sure to pick up a copy of "Live Love." For more info on the Summer of Love tour: https://www.summerofloveconcert.com. The JEM records website can be found here: http://www.jemrecordings.com. For a look at a video sampler of the live show, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-gAtruQ0ro.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

"WHERE TO?" is a Compelling Journey

Jennifer Monahan wrote a thought-provoking and fascinating account of her journey to become a shamanic healer in her 2016 memoir, This Trip Will Change Your Life. She shares the next chapter of her incredible story in her new book, WHERE TO? How I Shed My Baggage and Learned To Live Free. Jennifer’s personal odyssey continues as she makes the courageous decision to leave her successful job in the corporate arena. She shifts her focus and follows her heart in a quest for personal and spiritual rebirth. This new chapter of her story involves travel to sacred sites in places such as Japan and Cambodia, on a self-described “global walkabout.” She opens up her soul to the wonders and gifts our world has to offer her, and truly accepts the messages the universe is sending to her soul with an open heart.

As Jennifer re-invents herself and renews her spirit, she makes plans to live in Guatemala for a few months while writing her new book. Inspired by the beauty and positive energy she finds there, Jennifer ultimately decides to stay in Guatemala for an extended period. Not only does she have some life-changing moments working with local shamans and spiritual guides, she forges meaningful personal relationships with her neighbors and fellow residents. As readers, we get to experience Jennifer’s awakening to a more authentic style of living. We share the joy she feels as she immerses herself in the beauty of Guatemalan culture, and this portion of the book provides some truly enjoyable and enthralling moments.

But Jennifer’s journey is not without its difficulties. As the title of the book suggests, she needs to “shed her baggage” both literally and figuratively. There are some roadblocks obstructing her development, in the form of difficult events in her life from the past, which are still affecting her. She needed to make peace with these negative experiences and move beyond them, before attaining true balance and harmony in her life. Jennifer candidly conveys these powerful, reflective and transformative moments in the book’s most emotional and moving passages. I know this part of her story will strongly resonate with anyone who’s had to overcome adversity in their own lives.

WHERE TO? How I Shed My Baggage and Learned To Live Free is a beautiful, engaging and insightful book. What you realize after reading this amazing story is that Jennifer’s journey isn’t over yet. Her lovingly written account of her adventures just might empower you to reflect on your own life experiences, and start your own journey of discovery. WHERE TO? How I Shed My Baggage and Learned To Live Free is now available on Amazon, in both print and digital formats. Jennifer's first book is also available there for purchase. You can learn more about her shamanic work at her website: https://spiritevolution.co. I highly recommend sharing this awe-inspiring journey with Jennifer by reading her remarkable books.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Very Good "Bad Times at the El Royale"

I first became a fan of Drew Goddard’s work back when he was writing episodes of the television series Buffy The Vampire SlayerAngel and Lost. The talented and prolific writer, producer and director also created the Netflix version of Daredevil. He wrote the first two episodes of that series, and scripted an episode of the Netflix super-team spinoff, The Defenders. Goddard also penned the screenplays for Cloverfield (2008) and The Martian (2015), and made his directorial debut with the entertaining genre-bending horror film The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which he co-wrote with Buffy creator Joss Whedon. His most recent film, Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), is a noir-infused thriller set in the late 1960s. The story concerns a disparate group of people who come together at the El Royale, a hotel that sits on the border between California and Nevada, which has seen better days. There's a dark history hiding behind its doors.

As the story begins, several people arrive at the hotel, including Daniel Flynn, a priest; Darlene Sweet, a singer; Laramie Sullivan, a salesman, and a tough young woman named Emily Summerspring. After the clerk, a nervous young man named Miles, checks them in, we begin to learn about the backstories of these characters, and what brings them all to the El Royale. Not everyone is who or what he or she seems to be, and everybody has an agenda. When the charismatic (and murderous) Billy Lee shows up, things spiral towards a climactic confrontation. As a rain-drenched night drags on, alliances will be formed, secrets will be revealed, and conspiracies will be unearthed. When the dust settles, not everyone will leave the El Royale alive.

Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo
Goddard’s clever screenplay both hews to and subverts the conventions of multiple genres. The story takes some unexpected twists and turns, weaving together elements of film noir, heist thrillers, conspiracy tales, and music industry stories. Even with all of those elements, Bad Times at the El Royale still manages to throw a couple of other thematic curve balls your way. The performances are letter perfect, with Jeff Bridges offering his usual strong work as Father Flynn, and Chris Hemsworth doing a fantastic job as Billy Lee. Cynthia Erivo is excellent as Darlene; she contributes several amazing vocal performances throughout the course of the film. Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny and Lewis Pullman are also impressive in supporting turns. Hamm is a particular delight in a role that plays on his Mad Men persona in humorous and surprising ways.

Goddard’s direction is excellent, and he’s got a stellar crew behind the scenes. The stunning production design by Martin Whist and the incredible cinematography by Seamus McGarvey contribute immensely to the film’s success. The El Royale is a masterpiece of set design and the use of color is outstanding; the hotel really becomes another character in the film. The music choices are inspired, from the songs performed by Erivo to the selections played on the hotel’s jukebox throughout the film. The one factor that works against the movie is its length. At two hours and twenty minutes, it does feel a bit overlong. But that’s a minor quibble. If you are a fan of film noir or neo-noir, Quentin Tarantino films, or twisty tales with multiple characters, you definitely need to book a visit to Bad Times at the El Royale. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7wzBVARwaU.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Take a Ride to Murder at "99 River Street"

Evelyn Keyes and John Payne
Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) is a former prizefighter who was forced to quit the ring after a permanent injury to his eye. He’s eking out a living as a cab driver in New York City. Ernie’s wife Pauline is not thrilled with their bottom dwelling lifestyle. He may think he’s got it rough already, but Ernie doesn’t know just how bad things are going to get in 99 River Street, a tough as nails thriller directed by genre veteran Phil Karlson. This hard-hitting film takes place over the span of one fateful night, as Ernie learns just how far his spouse will go to escape her low-rent existence.

Pauline has hooked up with a criminal named Victor Rawlins, who’s just pulled off a diamond heist. She plans to skip town with him, and find herself a better life. That decision will have deadly consequences. When Victor goes to see his fence Christopher (with Pauline in tow) the man isn’t happy that a woman is involved, or that Rawlins killed the owner of the diamonds. He tells the thief to scram. Victor later kills Pauline and frames Ernie for his wife’s murder. Meanwhile, Ernie’s gotten mixed up with the good-hearted but ambitious Linda James, an aspiring stage actress who tells him she’s killed a man and needs his help. But there’s more to her story than meets the eye, and it doesn’t bode well for Ernie.

Things go from bad to worse as the police hunt for Ernie in connection with Pauline’s murder, as well as a scuffle which he got into with the producers of Linda’s show. Both Ernie’s pal Stan, who runs the cab company, and Linda try to help him evade the cops until he can find out the truth about his wife’s murder. Meanwhile, Victor Rawlins has forced Christopher (at gunpoint) to give him cash for the diamonds, and is planning to flee the country by boat. But the fence doesn’t plan to let Rawlins get away that easily. Everyone comes together at the title address, located at the docks, as their fates intertwine for one last time. Who will survive the climactic meeting at 99 River Street?

John Payne turns in a good performance as Ernie, who just wants a chance at a better life, and is thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. There are some familiar faces in the strong supporting cast, including Brad Dexter as Victor Rawlins, Frank Faylen as Stan and Jay Adler as Christopher. But this film really belongs to the ladies. Peggie Castle as Pauline and Evelyn Keyes as Linda manage to steal the movie right out from under their male co-stars. Castle is perfect as Pauline and brings some added nuance to the standard role of the scheming wife. Keyes is equally good as Linda, whose heart is in the right place, even when she makes some bad choices. She gets a great scene late in the story when she has to charm the slimy Rawlins at a dive bar.

This swiftly paced noir is well directed by Phil Karlson, who also worked with star Payne on Kansas City Confidential and Hell’s Island. The excellent cinematography is by Franz Planer, who imbues the film’s night-time NYC settings with a real sense of menace. The screenplay by Robert Smith manages to sneak a couple of decent twists into a relatively by the book crime thriller. While 99 River Street isn’t an iconic or ground-breaking noir like Double Indemnity, The Killers or Out of the Past, it’s an enjoyable 83 minute ride for fans of the genre. The film is currently available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber home video, featuring an audio commentary from Eddie Muller, the host of Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies. You can take a look at the film's trailer at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYY48zTTsDk.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

"Poppies" Delves Into Psychedelic Rock

Rock and roll’s psychedelic era produced quite a bit of memorable music. Though the genre has gone in and out of fashion over the years, it has a cadre of loyal fans, including bands such as Tame Impala, Pond and The Flaming Lips, who celebrate the cool vibes of this classic music, and are the current keepers of the flame. There have been some excellent collections of psychedelic music, including the seminal Nuggets series. Craft Recordings, the label responsible for well-received archival releases from artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Otis Redding, has put together a fantastic compilation from the era of incense and flower children entitled Poppies: Assorted Finery From The First Psychedelic Age. It’s a wide-ranging collection, featuring a wide range of artists, including singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, and some early work from performers best known for other genres, including Jerry Jeff Walker, of “Mr. Bojangles” fame.

Cover image courtesy of Craft Recordings
You’ll find touches of rock, pop and folk resonating throughout the thirteen tracks on the record. Influential alt-folkie Sainte-Marie provides the ethereal title tune. The pop-flavored “Smell of Incense” by Southwest F.O.B. floats along on lovely harmonies and Farfisa organ. Two members of that band, singer and sax player Dan Seals, and keyboardist John Colley would later re-invent themselves as England Dan and John Ford Coley. They scored some chart success in the 70s with songs like the Todd Rundgren penned “Love Is The Answer.” The foreboding “Sorcerella” by Jefferson Lee, is a darkly hued slice of garage band-style rock. Circus Maximus, featuring country icon Jerry Jeff Walker (who started the band with guitarist Bob Bruno), is represented by “Bright Light Lovers,” a track that begins as Beatlesque pop, then explodes into guitar-driven, down and dirty, Rolling Stones-y rock and roll.

Other standouts include “Stand In The Shadows” by the Michigan-based outfit The Frost, an epic, eight-minute protest song powered by the guitars of band members Dick Wagner and Don Hartman. Sot Weed Factor’s “Say It Isn’t So,” a fantastic psyched-out folk rocker, comes from a band who originally hailed from the wilds of Tuscon, Arizona, and later moved out to Hollywood to find fame. The Pasternak Progress, fronted by Jeff Pasternak (son of famed movie producer Joe Pasternak) provides us with “Flower Eyes,” a track that feels like a combination of Doors-style poetic rock laced with some early prog-rock flourishes. “Oracle,” by California’s Chapter VI, is one of the most striking tracks on the disc, featuring philosophical lyrics and layers of spiraling, spacey sound.

One of the best things about this release is that most of this music hasn’t been featured on previous compilations, so you’re not getting the umpteenth inclusion of “Incense & Peppermints,” undeniably a great song, but pretty familiar to fans. You’ll be exposed to a whole new world of psychedelic masterpieces on this well-curated collection. The album features informative and comprehensive liner notes by producer Alec Palao. The disc will be released in several configurations, including an exclusive translucent red vinyl version for Record Store Day on April 13, followed by CD and digital versions on April 19. Poppies: Assorted Finery From The First Psychedelic Age is one of the best archival releases I’ve heard this year. It should have strong appeal for devotees of 1960s rock. These tunes and their kaleidoscopic vibes will definitely get stuck in your head, and the album is truly worth adding to your music library. The folks at Craft Recordings promise us there’s more to come, so start your hallucinatory journey now! You can get more info at the Craft Recordings website at: https://craftrecordings.com.