REVIEW: “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” (2020)

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I would never qualify myself as a fan of 1970’s disco music, but I’ve always had an appreciation for The Bee Gees. I was just a young kid when the British-Australian trio of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb were topping the charts and earning their unwanted tag as the “Kings of Disco”. But I knew their music thanks to my parents and the 8-track tape player in their white Chevrolet Malibu. My parents listened almost exclusively to 1960’s “oldies”, so I knew The Bee Gees were a thing well before the disco era. But like everyone else, even my folks were drawn to the group’s infectious 70’s sound.

The Bee Gees became global sensations and sold well over $120 million records throughout their career. But there was a sad side to their largely successful story. The new documentary “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” chronicles their first taste of fame during the 60’s British Invasion, their breakup, and their eventual reunion which brought not only a brand new sound but also their rise to superstardom. They unwittingly became synonymous with the 70’s disco scene and despite their best efforts to keep themselves and their music from being pigeonholed, the label eventually became too much for them to shake.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Director Frank Marshall doesn’t break the mold with his new film. It very much plays like a traditional documentary, nothing flashy or innovative. But man is it a compelling and eye-opening biography of the talented Gibbs brothers and their inspired careers. Marshall puts together segments of a recent conversation with Barry Gibb with archived interview footage of his late brothers to give the film its smoothly edited personal touch. Old managers, studio engineers, and bandmates add some insider perspective while celebrities from the music world like Justin Timberlake, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and Noel Gallagher of Oasis testify to the trio’s influence and talent.

Marshall immediately pushes back on the reductive notion that The Bee Gees were nothing more than a simple “disco band”, a label they never embraced. He starts with their inseparable childhood days with older brother Barry and twins Maurice and Robin aspiring to be musicians. He documents their success in the 1960’s including two #1 hits and an early sound that drew comparisons to The Beatles. Marshall also explores their unexpected breakup brought on due to the burden of fame.

During their split all three got married and matured leading to their eventual reunion. The vocal harmony was instantaneous as if they had never been apart, but the world had changed and the interest in The Bee Gees had dried up. That was 1974, two straight albums had tanked and the group had to start playing clubs to make ends meet. It all led to Miami, 1975 where their new sound was born with the release of “Jive Talkin”. Marshall highlights the process behind the group’s musical evolution – the brothers’ desire to be a band rather than a trio, the influence of soul and R&B on their new sound, and the surprise discovery of what would become Barry’s signature falsetto.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

The movie spends a lot of time on the group’s highs including the pinnacle of their popularity following their work on the chart-topping “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. But it also hits on the lows, including the sudden and sometimes threatening backlash the group faced after disco was put in the crosshairs of a few rabid haters with platforms. This is best realized in 1979’s infamous Disco Demolition Night riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Due to their popularity The Bee Gees, who resented being branded a ‘disco band’, became easy targets. Soon radio stations quit playing their songs and they found themselves on the outs.

While the brothers would go on to write hit songs for major stars such as Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Pardon, their singing careers were never the same. It’s a sad reality especially considering there was nothing the trio could do to avoid it. Much more sobering is how the deaths of Maurice in 2003, Robin in 2012 and their younger brother Andy in 1988 looms over the entire film. Marshall doesn’t dwell on their passings, only mentioning it briefly. Still it’s knowledge that adds an emotional layer to their stories. “I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore,” Barry laments in the movie’s closing moments. It’s a heartfelt reminder that Marshall’s movie is about a lot more than great careers and great music. “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Black Bear” (2020)

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In “Black Bear” three people with truckloads of emotional baggage spend a weekend at a remote rustic lakeside lodge. At least that’s how it starts. But then with practically no notice whatsoever the story shifts, rearranging its characters and using the lodge as the location for a movie shoot. The two halves are threaded together by some light narrative trickery and your ultimate enjoyment of the film may hinge on how well the film’s final five minutes work for you.

“Black Bear” is branded as part drama, part dark comedy but mining the humor out of this biting indie is quite the task. The film starts as a searing “Virginia Woolf”-lite story, turns into an merciless deconstruction of the creative process, and then ends with a twist that left me impressed by its craftiness but unsure of how I was supposed to feel. In one sense I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen in large part thanks to the superb acting from the film’s central trio. At the same time it left me cold and emotionally detached from its characters especially after its mid-point switcheroo.

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Photo Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

In the film Aubrey Plaza plays Allison, an actress turned director with a deep disdain for compliments. She’s made a handful of “small unpopular films” and is currently writing the script for her next feature. But writer’s block has set in causing her to take some time off to hopefully find her inspiration. She arrives at the lodge-like country home that’s owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his rightfully insecure (and pregnant) girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon).

We quickly discover that both Gabe and Blair have hit their own set of roadblocks. He’s a struggling musician and her dancing career has sputtered. Even worse their relationship has hit a wall and neither can say a word without irritating the other. Allison not only gets caught up in the friction but sprinkles gas on the fire. Fueled by fiercely combustible back-and-forths, the dialogue-thick first half is simple in concept but really lets the characters uncoil and the three performances are in top form.

Then writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine hits reset. The second half starts with the same opening scene, Allison sitting on a dock blankly staring across the foggy water. But this time she’s filming a scene for a movie directed by a stressed out Gabe. This time Allison and Gabe are husband and wife while Blair is the intrusive third wheel. And instead of the first half’s more intimate three-person setting, now the house is filled with film crew members. None of them are particularly interesting and they nibble away at screen time that could have been better spent on the three main characters.

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Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

To be fair the second half is going for something different. It still revolves around a strained relationship and the same trio of characters are the centerpiece. But it also pays a lot of attention to the movie set and the filmmaking process. Admittedly some of it is interesting but it doesn’t have the same draw as the first half. There are also some wild swings at humor that don’t connect, such as a weird running gag where everyone keeps spilling coffee. Seems like it belongs in a different movie.

Ultimately too much of the film’s second half feels like something made for those who are ‘in the know’ when it comes to moviemaking. The performances remain top-notch throughout with Plaza doing some career best work. But the two halves, though cleverly explained in the final frames, clash more than connect. Both have similar toxic underpinning, but only one grabbed my attention and left me feeling something. “Black Bear” opened December 4th in select theaters and is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Black Box” (2020)

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It was roughly one year ago that we first learned Amazon Studios was partnering with Blumhouse to bring eight original movies to their Prime Video streaming platform. “Welcome to Blumhouse” would offer the (mostly) horror-centered production company the opportunity to highlight a fresh group of talented filmmakers. Founder Jason Blum assured that the eight interconnected films would feature the company’s signature chills and all will explore “family and love as a redemptive or destructive force” in their own unique way.

One of first films from the partnership is “Black Box” from director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. The story follows a young father named Nolan (played by the immensely talented Mamoudou Athie) who loses his wife and memory in a tragic car accident. In the few years that have followed he has regained a sense of the man he was in large part thanks to his mature-beyond-her-years daughter Ava (Amanda Christine). But despite his and his daughter’s best efforts, Nolan can’t seem to get back on track.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Ava has essentially taken on the parent role – running her father through memory exercises, prepping him for a meeting with his boss, chiding him when he pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “You don’t smoke!” But when Nolan forgets to pick Ava up from school for the umpteenth time, the threat of child services pushes him to seek professional help. His pal Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) recommends Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), a well-respected neuroscientist who urges Nolan to take part in her Cognitive Research Study. Skeptical but desperate, Nolan agrees to an experimental therapy which Dr. Brooks assures will reconnect him to his lost memories.

Dr. Brooks connects Nolan to what she calls her Black Box, a virtual reality-like experience that transports her patients deep into their subconscious to find and relive old memories. Once inside Nolan begins seeing fragments of memories of his wedding and of when Ava was a baby. But not everything is as it should be, most notably all of the people’s faces are blurred. Even worst, every time he enters the Black Box he is terrorized by a ghastly human-like creature with popping joints and crackling limbs. Certainly all of it means something, but Nolan can’t figure it out and Dr. Brooks dismisses it as part of the treatment. Ultimately he begins seeing things that leaves him questioning whether he’s really the man everyone says he is.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Light on gore and free of tired and overused jump scares, “Black Box” leans more into psychological thriller territory, underpinning its story with elements of science-fiction and horror. The script (co-written by Osei-Kuffour Jr. and Stephen Herman) takes a ‘just go with it’ approach to the science, explaining it but sweeping most of the details under the rug. And while it doesn’t telegraph it’s big twist, it all but draws a big bright circle around its antagonist. And by setting our eyes on the baddie early, it can’t help but undercut the suspense.

The story makes up for it in its handling of Nolan. Osei-Kuffour Jr. and Herman write a character that Mamoudou Athie can really sink his teeth into – someone with emotional depth and personal stakes worth investing in. And I don’t want to shortchange the film’s heady ideas and clever twist which adds a fun and unexpected layer. Also two thumbs-up to the eerie score from Brandon Roberts and Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s imagination and resourcefulness in navigating budget constraints while still maintaining a visually compelling style. It’s a solid effort from a first-time feature film director with a promising career ahead of him. “Black Box” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Books of Blood” (2020)

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In 1984 and 1985 author Clive Barker published his “Books of Blood”, a six-volume collection of thirty horror short stories. A total of eighteen of the tales were retold in the comic book series “Tapping the Vein” and several have been adapted into movies and a handful of television episodes. The latest came just in time for Halloween. Aptly titled “Books of Blood”, this Hulu Original anthology film attempts to capture the terrifying vision of its inspiration but only scratches the surface of Barker’s classic work.

The film is helmed by director and co-writer Brannon Braga, known most for his work in science fiction including the “Star Trek” franchise. Here he takes on a project originally planned as a television series but then whittled down into the first film of a possible movie franchise. You can tell. The three unique yet interconnected narratives only vaguely tie into Barker’s original stories. And despite flickers of macabre and gory goodness, the movie can never quite shake its underwhelming made-for-TV vibe.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

The film’s thinly linked stories center around three people, each with their name carved in the flesh-covered Book of Blood. We meet a troubled young woman named Jenna (Britt Robertson) who recently dropped out of college following a horrible undisclosed trauma. Off her meds and at odds with her parents, Jenna sneaks away from home and hops a bus for the West Coast. After a tall creepy fellow forces her off the bus she ends up in a cozy bed and breakfast ran by a strangely zen older couple. Other than a slight roach problem it seems like a great place to settle down. But c’mon, the movie is called “Books of Blood”. Things can’t be as ideal as they seem.

Then we move to an author and professor named Mary (Anna Friel) who lost her six-year-old son named Miles to leukemia. Embittered by her loss, she now works to disprove any belief in an afterlife. But then she’s approached by a medium named Simon (Rafi Gavron) who claims to have a message from her dead son. One eerie bare-butted séance latter and Mary’s skepticism begins to crack. But one thing horror movies have shown us, when you play with the dead you never know what you may find.

Both of these stories are book-ended by the weakest of the three joints. A hitman named Bennett (Yul Vazquez) knocks off a bookshop owner but not before learning the location of a mysterious and priceless Book of Blood. Seeing this as his potential last big score, Bennett and his partner go to the location told to them by the owner of the bookshop but find something far more sinister.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

Bennett is easily the most thinly sketched of the characters and his main purpose is to stitch all three stories together. To be honest, I did get a kick out of the final 15 minutes or so where Braga and his co-writer Adam Simon bring everything together in a fairly cohesive and utterly bonkers way. But getting to that point isn’t nearly as fun as the payoff.

While there’s nothing particularly terrible about “Books of Blood”, there’s nothing especially memorable as well. That’s because none of the characters get the treatment they need to stand out. The performances are fine especially from Robertson and Friel. But their characters are trapped inside narratives better suited for episodic television. If you’re able to watch the film from that point-of-view you can squeeze some fun out of “Books of Blood”. If not you may want to look elsewhere for your post-Halloween frights. “Books of Blood” is now streaming on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (2020)

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Whether you call it “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”, “Borat 2”, or go by its official title “Borat: Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premiere Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan” (and that’ll be the only time I’ll type it in its entirety), Sacha Baron Cohen finally got around to doing a follow-up to his 2006 box office smash. The first Borat movie was better at creating hilarious YouTube clips than actually gelling as a feature length movie. But people loved it and I’m sure many will fall for its sequel.

Yet there is something about “Borat 2” that has felt a little icky from the start. Purchased by Amazon mere weeks ago, rushed to their streaming platform ahead of the 2020 election, now getting loads of free publicity via major news outlets. It makes sense considering how politically motivated this film is compared to its predecessor (it even ends with the tag “Now Vote, or You Will Be Execute“). The first film offered a more rounded cultural, political, and social critique by holding up a mirror to American society. Cohen’s agenda-driven latest feels about 80% politics which doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else.

Obviously there is nothing wrong with having an agenda. Throughout cinema history there have been great movies built on agendas, many of them political. But “Borat 2” is what happens when your agenda becomes too transparent and it screams so loudly that it drowns out anything else your movie may want to say. Clearly in a country this bitterly divided Cohen’s film is sure to be candy for some. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating, especially when you see glimmers of the first film’s strengths.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The movie opens with Cohen’s Borat Sagdiyev in a Kazakhstan gulag serving a life sentence for humiliating his homeland with his first film. The country’s new Premier summons Borat and offers him a chance at redemption. Since he knows America, Borat is tasked with delivering a gift to Vice President Mike Pence in an effort to redeem Kazakhstan’s tarnished image. That gift – Johnny the Monkey, Minister of Culture and the country’s top pornstar (don’t ask). So Borat sets out on a cargo ship and 22 days later arrives in Galveston, Texas.

Once back in the States Borat quickly learns he has become a celebrity. Wishing to keep a low profile, he buys several costumes at a local Halloween thrift shop and then sets out to do his patriotic duty. In a twist too stupid to waste time on, Johnny the Monkey doesn’t survive the trip from Kazakhstan. Instead Borat discovers his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (played by 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova) stowed away in the monkey’s crate. Borat scrabbles and comes up with a new plan. He’ll give his daughter as a gift to America’s Vice Premier. This thrills Tutar who has long dreamed of belonging to a powerful man much like her idol Queen Melania. Yep.

This sets in motion a number of ‘encounters’ with unsuspecting victims as Borat prepares his daughter for her new “owner”. They include trips to a dress shop, a hair salon, and getting tips from an Instagramming “sugar baby”. Actually Cohen and Bakalova’s best moments are when it’s just them and the half-baked mockumentary gives way to the daddy/daughter story. But these movies are all about fooling unaware people and capturing it on camera. This time these supposedly unscripted scenes (and some are quite dubious) don’t land nearly as well as they did in the first film and some fall completely flat.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Take one of the movie’s biggest scenes where Cohen, dressed in a fat suit and a Trump mask, throws Bakalova over his shoulder (or is it a doll) and barges into an arena interrupting Mike Pence’s CPAC speech. It could have been memorable, but it’s too poorly shot and ends with an uneventful thud. Then you get a scene like the debutante ball which starts out funny but ends with a disgusting gross-out menstruation gag. It’s not the only low-brow shock jock ‘humor’ we’re forced to endure. Whether it’s Cohen’s lazy fixation on genital jokes or him running around in his underwear. He’s constantly repackaging and rehashing the same crass material.

And again, it’s frustrating because there are laughs that can be mined out of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”. There’s also a pieced-together semi-inspiring story of Tutar’s self-liberation that begs for more attention. You also have to admire Cohen’s ability to lure people into exposing their own bigotries through some of the most ridiculous conversations and interactions, his boldness in infiltrating a den of alt-right conspiracy theorists, and his crafty commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course most people are talking about the film’s finale featuring a prominent politician in compromising position, a scene made more salacious by what may be some rather strategic editing. Unfortunately there’s isn’t much else worth talking about. When in comes down to it “Borat 2” just can’t get out of its own way. Cohen’s work at exposing racism and misogyny is too often undercut by his insistence on overusing juvenile crudity. And this time around everything feels far more manufactured than with the first film. Ultimately you can’t help but wonder how many of the people on screen are actually in on the joke. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is now streaming on Amazon Prime”.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Blackbird” (2020)

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Director Roger Michell explores terminal illness and family dysfunction in his new drama “Blackbird”, an adaptation of a 2014 Danish film titled “Silent Heart”. Michell brings together a notable cast to tell the story of a family matriarch choosing to end her life rather than succumb to the degenerating effects of ALS. From that alone you can tell “Blackbird” is dealing with some weighty themes.

Screen vet Susan Sarandon plays ALS sufferer Lily, the matriarch of a progressive and (we quickly learn) rather distant family. She and her doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) live in a posh Connecticut seaside estate which is the setting for the entire story. With her ALS already taking away the use of her right arm and her prognosis progressively grim, Lily decides to end her life, determined to go out on her own terms and with her family’s blessing.

Her final wish is to have a weekend get-together with her family. Certainly not your run-of-the-mill trip back to see the folks. The first to arrive is the stuffy, controlling older daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), her dutiful husband Michael (Rainn Wilson), and their moody son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Their flighty younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives later along with her on-again/off-again flame Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Joining them all is Lily’s long-time best friend Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan). Everyone knows what’s about to happen and they all attempt to put on a good face. But as films like this have shown, old baggage always finds its way into the story.

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Photo Courtesy of Screen Media Films

By the way, when it comes to old baggage, everyone brings some. And I do mean everyone. Screenwriter Christian Torpe (who also wrote “Silent Heart”) starts with the illusion that everything’s alright, a little tense but okay. Then the grudges, hard feelings, and pent-up anger begin to fester, threatening to derail Lily’s carefully planned weekend. Once the first shot is fired, a near steady hail of barbs, insults, and cuts follow. And again, no one is excluded. Everyone ends up with some secret to reveal or some family axe to grind. It gets a little ridiculous, almost resembling a dark comedy spoof although one we’ve seen several times before.

Yet there are moments where Michell’s deliberately light touch brings some welcomed levity. Sarandon’s straight-shooting, no-nonsense approach to Lily opens the door for some sharp comical quips amid all the seriousness. And Wilson, though playing a dramatic role, is naturally funny. His character’s wealth of useless knowledge works well as a reoccurring joke. The rest of the cast is (as you would expect) rock-solid and collectively they carry the bulk of the load. You could argue the script depends a little too much on its stars. At the same time they do bring heart to their broad range of roles. And when the family chaos kicks in high gear threatening to sink the story, it’s the well acted characters who keep it afloat. “Blackbird” opens this Friday.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars