Hired Gun (2016)

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First there was Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 2002 documentary about a band of soulful Detroit-based musicians—the Funk Brothers—that backed dozens of Motown artists. Then came 2008’s The Wrecking Crew, a film which highlighted a core group of L.A. studio musicians that played on some of the biggest hits of the ’60s and ’70s. In 2013, 20 Feet from Stardom gave backing singers their due… and won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in the process. Now it’s the turn of Hired Gun, Fran Strine’s tantalizing tribute to an A-list assembly of session and touring musicians hired by the likes of KISS, Pink, and Billy Joel (and how many times have you wanted to use those names in a single sentence!?).
     The film dispenses with its definition early: “A hired gun is an assassin, the best available musician that gets hired to go on tour to deliver that music for that artist. Nobody’ll know who he is, but he gets the gig because he’s the elite player.” As such, Hired Gun shares a common agenda with the aforementioned films: to showcase the talents of a set of individuals who are “masters of their craft” yet who “live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight” and “whose stories have gone untold… until now.”
     The decentralized performers of Hired Gun—Liberty DeVitto, Jason Hook, Russell Javors, Steve Lukather, and Rudy Sarzo to name a few—might not be household names before (or even after) you’ve seen the film, but for 90 minutes they each get their 15 minutes of fame, more or less. Hook, who serves as one of the film’s producers, has one of the most glamorous back stories—from Hilary Duff to Five Finger Death Punch literally overnight! Metallica’s Jason Newsted also tells of how he scrounged change from his friends in order to attend an audition for the band. Fifteen years later he was still playing with them. But mostly these guys don’t get the luxury of a dependable paycheck.
     Speaking of guys, Hired Gun‘s cast list is large but occupies an extremely male-centric world. A couple of female performers get a brief look-in—guitarist Nita Strauss and bassist Eva Gardner—but the latter doesn’t even get to talk on camera. Headliners Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie each weigh in on what it takes to fulfill this demanding and often underappreciated role (especially by fans, when the performer in question is replacing a beloved band member, sometimes as the result of misadventure). According to Zombie, “Finding the right person for your band is almost impossible, because you’re looking for… three things. You’ve gotta find somebody who… is an excellent musician. Which… that’s the easiest thing; there’s… a million excellent musicians. Then you’ve got to find someone who’s really cool, who can stand on stage in front of, you know, 15-, 100,000 people and be amazing. That whittles it down to a smaller group. And then you gotta find someone you can stand to be around 24/7 ’cause, you know, you live with them, day in and day out. Then it shrinks down to about… here’s the three people in the music industry I can actually stand to be around so, no, that is… that is the trick.”
     Alice Cooper also rhapsodizes about how a bunch of these musicians should form their own band, and director Strine gives us a couple of spontaneous jam sessions to illustrate that point, including Derek St. Holmes (the voice of Ted Nugent) vocalizing on “Just What the Doctor Ordered.”
     Industry insider Strine keeps his movie fluid and involving by forever changing up his presentation and techniques. It’s very slick and very professional, much like its oddly ego-less subjects, most of whom seem genuinely in awe of the opportunities afforded them. It’s clear they love what they do. As musicians, they just want to play.
     What’s next at the multiplex I wonder?  Heavy Lifting: On the Road with Blur, Bon Jovi, and The Boss? You have to admit it’s probably time the lowly roadie got his day in the spotlight.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Revenant (2015)

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So, if you don’t want to watch a gruff and bearded Leonardo DiCaprio grunting his way through a harsh, unforgiving landscape for two-and-a-half hours, because you’re no fan of “art house” movies in general, or director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu specifically, and just want to get to The Revenant‘s good stuff, you should probably just Google the phrase “revenant bear attack” to see the part everyone’s talking about. Psych! If you do that, what you’ll get is some long-haired and long-winded Zeroh (first name Mike) talking about the bear attack for seven-and-a-half minutes, which might well be longer than the scene itself. There are technically three attacks in the film, one after another in rapid succession, all by the same bear, all at Leo DiCaprio’s expense, which only add to the lazy hazy craziness of it all, because just as the audience has heaved a huge collective sigh of relief after the first brutal encounter, the bear is back again to finish the job, and then back again a third time—enough already!—just to make sure Leo’s absolutely done. It really does appear to be toying with DiCaprio’s grizzled frontier explorer Hugh Glass, after it’s mauled him and bitten him and tossed him around some and dragged him down and sniffed his head and stomped on his back and left him for dead. Fortunately, a few of Glass’ comrades refuse to leave him, bundling him into a rough-hewn stretcher-type contraption as he grunts and wheezes and spits up blood. That bear gave him quite the going over but Leo eventually triumphs with a few jaunty knife thrusts to the jugular. Even in death, the 700-pound bear still gets the last laugh though, landing atop Leo after the two tumble down an incline together. According to Mike Z., this all happens in the film’s first hour, so you can safely skip the next 90 minutes. Mike also tells us that the (spoiler alert!) CGI bear is really good (it’s not a real bear). Actually, what he says is “What I really love about the scene is how real it felt. The CGI bear? It was done perfectly. Well, I gotta say, whoever was in charge of that CGI bear, it was perfectly well done. Sure, there were a couple of flaws in certain micro-sequences where it’s like, ‘Er, that kinda didn’t seem like how a bear would move, how a bear would necessarily look that up close…’ But you know what? About 95% of the time with this bear, in the bear attack scene in The Revenant, it was perfectly well done, probably one of the best CGI bears I’ve ever seen, honestly. I’m going to say that right from the heart here: best CGI bear I’ve seen in a long-ass time.” I perfectly well agree with Mike here. For that’s all people tend to talk about about The Revenant anyway. The bear attack. It is, after all, the explanation for the film’s title: “revenant [rev-uh-nuh-nt]. noun. a person who returns as a spirit after death; a ghost.”  I suppose the other thing they talk about is DiCaprio winning the Oscar—finally already!—for his performance in the film. He certainly throws himself into the role with gusto. However, post-mauling, DiCaprio is largely flat on his back, unable to move, much less able to speak—he moans and groans and gurgles and spits up and suffers terribly, bleeding up a storm. Nobody thinks he’s going to make it, and a couple of men (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter) and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) stay behind and promise to give him a decent burial when the time comes (as commanded by their superior, played by Domhnall Gleeson, also sporting a bushy beard). But eventually, after dramatic betrayal and abandonment, Glass can crawl through the dirt, straining all the while, and later still he’s up on his feet, almost, limping along with a branch for support. He catches a fish and eats it raw—awesome! Then he moves on to raw buffalo meat (some wolves bring one down, totally). He even rubs some gunpowder on his neck and ignites it to cauterize a wound. I’m glad they gave Leonardo the Oscar for The Revenant but it feels more like a critical mass decision to me (he’s been nominated four times previously but never won). Don’t ask my wife to do an impression of DiCaprio playing Johnny Depp’s disabled brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Leo’s first nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, in 1993). It’s not very charitable. Don’t get me wrong, Leonardo is good in The Revenant. Very good. And the CGI bear, of course, is also very good. But Hardy is good too, and Gleeson is good—even Poulter (We’re the Millers) is surprisingly good. I wish they had given Leo the Oscar before now though, for The Aviator, or for Django Unchained (he wasn’t even nominated for that one), or for The Departed (ditto that). But after The Revenant I guess one could say DiCaprio’s Glass is finally half full. Whoever was in charge of that CGI bear should have received some kind of recognition too. The film was nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, but I think Ex Machina got that one. Don’t get me wrong, Ex Machina had excellent visual effects (and Domhnall Gleeson). But it was singularly lacking in bears, CGI or AI or otherwise.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Uncle David (2009)

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In the creepily unconventional Uncle David, performance artist David Hoyle (Velvet Goldmine) and a headstrong throng of alternative artists called The Avant-Garde Alliance improvise a queer comic horror yarn (with songs!) in a caravan park on the Isle of Sheppey, that lump off the east coast of Kent that doubles as a birdwatcher’s paradise when it’s not chucking it down.
     Uncle David captures the ennui of the British holidaymaker to perfection, but what’s harder to watch is our titular uncle’s insistence—all in the name of love, of course—that his beloved nephew Ashley (porn star Ashley Ryder, often down to his skivvies) be as one with the stratosphere. And that’s just one of his bent avuncular convictions. There are hints, strong ones, that Uncle David has snatched Ashley up and away from his alcoholic mother for his own good, yet the infantile man-child—what grown-up asks his funny uncle to blow on his coffee for heaven’s sake?—has clearly been stunted by his protector’s tender victimization. He has learned to accept his father-figure cum lover’s world view, and accepts his role willingly.
     The central relationship is disturbing and petty, the setting imaginative and cold. The dialogue is random and contained, the cinematography crisp and bleak. The music is overbearing and effective, the sound design impactful and troubling. Yet it all works.
     As fascinating as it is tedious, the oddball Uncle David is not for all tastes and might not be for any one individual taste, demanding as it is one minute, distancing the next. But Hoyle & Co.’s unusual first feature is refreshing in its uniqueness and if you’re going to improvise a queer comic horror yarn (with songs!) in a caravan park on the Isle of Sheppey, there’re probably few better ways to do it.
     Straight uncles should be advised that the film contains incestuous behavior, gay porn on the telly in the background during a spontaneous dance segment, and general weirdness throughout.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Texas Heart (2016)

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Juniper, Texas. Population: 867. A town for which the word “sleepy” was probably coined. Or, as the curmudgeonly old gas station attendant puts it, “pretty much anybody that wants to live here already does.”
     But Peter is the exception. He’s played by Erik Fellows, channeling Eric Roberts, but still a lightweight performer despite his angular charms. After losing a big case back East, the corrupt defense attorney relocates to Juniper in a DIY witness protection attempt. Calling himself Frank and claiming to be a writer, he moves into the old Chigger’s place (Chigger shot himself on the front porch so the house has sat empty for a while) where it seems unlikely that crime boss Mrs. Smith (Lin Shaye) and her cronies will find him.
     Until, that is, Frank uncharacteristically sheds his disguise to defend Tiger, the “village idiot” (Kam Dabrowski), who’s been fingered in the disappearance of a young girl, played by Daniella Bobadilla (Charlie Sheen’s volatile daughter on TV’s Anger Management). John Savage puts in a rent-paying appearance as Carl, Alison’s boozy washout of a father.
     Texas Heart is not unlike a multi-car pile-up on the interstate (in which nobody, thank god, was hurt). You know it’s tacky to look, but you keep on looking just the same. Somehow the film drags you along to the bitter end—its characters are mostly well defined and its plotting mostly makes sense and everyone involved appears to be giving it their best shot, mostly.
     That Peter would risk everything to defend Dabrowski’s character might raise some dubious eyebrows, but Mark David’s film wears its heart so high on its sleeve that light bruising is inevitable. At the end of the day, however, you’re more likely to slope away from Juniper with a dismissive shrug than with a solid, heartfelt recommendation.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Open Your Eyes (2015)

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The Seva Foundation is a non-profit eye-care charity that partners with local hospitals and communities around the globe to develop sustainable, sight-saving programs. To date, it has successfully restored sight to four million blind people worldwide. Two of their success stories are documented in Irene Taylor Brodsky’s eye-opening Open Your Eyes, an HBO documentary short produced by Seva co-founder Dr. Larry Brilliant. Manisara and Durga are an elderly blind couple living in a remote mountain village in Nepal when a team of eye specialists offers them the chance to have their cataracts surgically removed for free. The corrective surgery takes all of six minutes—sixty operations are performed at the clinic the day Manisara and Durga are treated—and costs only a few dollars per patient. The film’s “reveal” is, of course, particularly revelatory, with our humble principals able see their grandchild for the very first time. For Manisara and Durga, the trek down the mountainside truly is “a journey from darkness to sight.” Humanitarian filmmaker Brodsky is no stranger to medically-relevant documentaries. Her feature debut, Hear and Now (2007), detailed her deaf parents’ receipt of cochlear implants, and her 2009 short subject The Final Inch, about the potentially crippling polio virus, was nominated for an Academy Award. In Open Your Eyes, Brodsky brings both sensitivity and insight to the global reality of cataract blindness, and the inexpensive ease by which it can be cured.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Makeover (2013)

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In a genial, gender-reversing take on George Bernard Shaw’s timeless Pygmalion, Julia Stiles plays elitist educational consultant Hannah Higgins to David Walton’s thick hick from the sticks Elliot Doolittle in The Makeover, a 2013 TV movie from the pen of C. Jay Cox, director David Gray, and the fine folks at Hallmark. After an unsuccessful run for political office, education reformer Hannah sees an opportunity to have her agenda furthered on Capitol Hill by grooming “man of the people” Elliot, an affable, blue-collar Boston beer vendor, in her stead. Elliot has moderate ambitions himself, but Hannah doesn’t exactly come clean on what she’s about—he simply thinks she’s agreed to help him talk proper (I’m a good boy I am!). Camryn Manheim (TV’s The Practice is engaging and effective as Hannah’s business partner, Colleen Pickering, but Frances Fisher (Titanic), as Elliot’s flame-headed manipulative mother, should have gone down with the ship. They say clothes maketh the man but Walton still looks like a lovable schlub even after the obligatory grooming montage, despite the fact that the actor is six-foot-four and went to Brown! I would have cast Josh Duhamel in this myself; perhaps he wasn’t available. As for Julia Stiles, I’ll watch her in any old thing—The Makeover pretty much constitutes that—and she doesn’t disappoint, despite the flimsy and predictable material. She also looks great, thanks to costumer Johnetta Boone, as does the city of Boston, where the film was so evidently shot. Will the prim and proper Hannah turn the now-presentable Elliot into a viable candidate for Congress and learn to feel a modicum of empathy for those less fortunate than herself in the process? Did I mention that this is a Hallmark Hall of Fame Production? Let’s just say they’re not known for salacious twist endings.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Muloorina (1964)

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Misspelled (as Muloornia on countless filmographies until it was posted on YouTube by its director David Cobham some fifty years after it was made, the John Barry-scored, British Petroleum-produced short film Muloorina chronicles the aborted attempt by British speed demon Donald Campbell (1921 – 1967) to break the world land speed record in his famous Bluebird CN7 in May of 1963. The venue was Muloorina, South Australia, a rugged outback settlement adjacent to the vast Lake Eyre. It hadn’t rained in the region for an eternity (estimates vary between nine and twenty years) and conditions were said to be perfect on the dried-up salt bed. Cobham’s spry, 27-minute film starts out by focusing on the Price family that farms this inhospitable land, raising livestock—patriarch Eliott Price narrates with a lyrical insouciance. Times are tough, belying the homestead’s name (Muloorina is Australian for “plenty of tucker”), and it is with some financial relief that the family welcomes Campbell and his entourage into their fold, providing food, shelter, and other resources for the latest world-record attempt. The film documents Campbell’s ramp-up towards the final run which never came to fruition, because the rains came instead. Light at first and then torrential, the storm flooded the area and caused the project to be abandoned. Campbell would return to Lake Eyre the following year, however, and finally fulfill his dream (403.10 mph) prior to his fatal world water speed record attempt three years later—I was only five years old at the time but can still recall the shocking footage of Campbell’s Bluebird K7 somersaulting on Cumbria’s Coniston Water in January, 1967. Wall-to-wall music, at times dramatic, playful, and somber, orchestrates Campbell’s first visit to Lake Eyre, and Muloorina proves a capable and fitting tribute to a man who just had to go faster.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com