Tuesday, June 23, 2015

THE WRECKING CREW: AND THE HITS KEEP COMING…



One of the greatest things that has happened with the rise of documentary feature films as well as their release to DVD is getting credit to people who deserved it but never got it. The movie IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN let us know that a group of musicians who came to be known as the Funk Brothers performed all the music behind the biggest hits from Motown. MUSCLE SHOALS let us know about the history of those who performed at that now famous recording studio. Now we have another movie to add to that collection of films about music from our past. THE WRECKING CREW tells the story of the studio musicians who played on nearly everything to come out of California from the late 50s through the early 80s.



You say you never heard of The Wrecking Crew? They may not have been an actual band but this group of 15-30 musicians have filled your ears whether you know it or not. Let me prove it. Have you heard any of the following songs? “California Dreaming”, “Be My Baby”, “California Girls”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, “Viva Las Vegas”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Windy”, “Wichita Lineman”, “These Boots Were Made For Walking”, “Surfer’s Stomp”, “Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves”, “Love Will Keep Us Together”, “Strangers in the Night”, “Up, Up and Away”, “A Taste of Honey” or “The Beat Goes On”. How about the theme songs to TV series like Batman, Green Acres, Hawaii Five O or MASH? If you’ve heard one of these songs then you’ve heard The Wrecking Crew.



THE WRECKING CREW is a documentary made by Denny Tedesco, the son of Tommy Tedesco one of the driving forces behind the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The musicians got the moniker when they arrived on the scene in California. Wearing jeans and T-shirts as they entered the studio the old guard musicians said that they would wreck the music business, thus the name. The prophecy didn’t stick because most continued playing for the next 40-50 years.



Going back to the beginning Tedesco (Denny) looks at the early arrival of these musicians and how they worked in the business. Each was a skilled musician eager to work and able to read music at a glance. Where bands would form and try to learn the music being written for them by the producers who gathered them together, the Wrecking Crew could pump out hit after hit in no time flat. A great example in the movie is when Roger McGuin of the Byrds talks about how it took 3 hours to record “Mr. Tambourine Man” with the crew while it took 70 to record “Turn, Turn, Turn” with the actual band. The crew new how to record in the studio and that was what made them so valuable to producers and record companies.



On the plus side this meant that they were constantly in need, especially during the early sixties as rock and roll began to take over the airwaves. On the down side it meant that they rarely if ever received credit for the work that they did. Their names didn’t appear on the credits of nearly every album they ever played on. All of that has begun to change as historians and fans try to remedy that situation. Inductions into the rock and roll hall of fame have come as well as tons of recognition stemming from the release of this film.



Interviews with a number of those who were a part of this now famous group fill most of the movie along with pictures taken back when they were the biggest thing around even if it was behind the scenes. Sadly a number have passed since the making of the film. It’s great to know though that their legacy and memories have been captured for us to enjoy for years to come.



The entire time I was watching this film all I could do was marvel at all of them. I was stunned at their abilities, I was shocked that they never got the credit they deserved and I was filled with an abundance of joy while listening to some of the music that I grew up with and enjoyed time and time again, year after year. That’s the true lasting legacy of The Wrecking Crew, that the work that they did, the music that they created, will be here for centuries to come. It’s a lasting tribute that shows they were worth much more than the late recognition they finally received.



I can’t recommend this movie strongly enough, especially if you grew up in the 60s and 70s or if you love music. I’ve watched it twice already. And while there are probably more marketable and popular movies being released this week this is the one I would tell you to go out and buy, to watch over and over again. A great movie with great music that will put a smile on your face as each minute passes. 

CHAPPIE: THE ESSENCE OF LIFE



Count me among the fans of the film CHAPPIE. I saw this film when it first hit theaters and enjoyed it at the time. Having just finished watching it on DVD I can say that the movie got better the second time around. It touched me in so many ways, was never boring and was good enough that I look forward to watching it again and again.

The story takes place in the near future in Johannesburg, South Africa. Crime has increased beyond belief and to assist the police there robots have been designed to take the brunt of the damage and flying bullets leaving the real police to come in and clean up/help afterwards. Tetravaal, the company responsible for the robots has had a huge success rate with them and the police have just placed an order for 100 more robots.

All of this is good news for Deon (Dev Patel), the designer of the robots but bad news for Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), the creator of a different robot he hoped would be more sought after. Where Deon’s robots are more human like in structure Vincent’s is more akin to the ED-209 combat robots found in the film ROBOCOP, hulking monstrosities that instill fear in those who see them before it would launch the humongous amount of firepower it contains on suspects. Vincent becomes the catalyst for much of the problems that happen as the film unfolds.

Deon, dripping with success, ask the head of the company (Sigourney Weaver) if he can use a damaged robot to test his newest program, a program that will create a true AI (artificial intelligence) in the robots basically making them living creations who would be able to think, to grow, to learn and be more human than the current batch. Denied the chance to do so Deon steals the damaged robot with the intention of doing the test on his own.

Before that can happen though Deon is kidnapped by a trio of thieves intent on making some big money. Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika are in debt big time to the major crime boss and have just seven days to make the money he requires from them for a lost shipment of drugs they were responsible for. Thinking Deon can flip a switch and turn off all the robots they discover the robots aren’t controlled that way. Their thinking then turns to using this robot to aid them in a heist and allow Deon to program and wake the robot.

The robot wakes with the mind of a child, something Ninja doesn’t understand nor has time for. Yolandi grows attached to the robot, naming him Chappie, and sets out do as Deon says and teach him. As the film progresses all three members teach Chappie various things, everything from walking cool to cursing to shooting a gun. But Chappie has promised not to commit crimes. An angry Ninja turns Chappie loose in a bad part of town where he is attacked by thugs in the area, damaged and then captured by Vincent who is looking for the single programming key used by Tetravaal to program all robots.

Making his way home, feelings hurt (this is a sentient being now due to Deon’s programming), Ninja apologizes to Chappie and Yolandi while Amerika helps rebuild the robot. Finding a way to maneuver around the promise Chappie made he and Amerika train Chappie to aid them in various crimes with lies. While this is going on, Deon tries to find a way to retrieve Chappie to help him grow.

All of that is tossed aside when Vincent, now in possession of the programming key, shuts down every robot in operation and tries to delete their programming. With no robots around crime runs rampant. Vincent doesn’t see the downside but plays this up as a way to test out his battle ready robot. The question is will it be as effective or will Chappie have to save the day when push comes to shove.

What makes this movie work is Chappie himself. Not only do the special effects used to bring this robot to life amaze while watching, the humor and subtle movements of Chappie make for both touching and hilarious moments in the film. Before the movie is half over you find yourself rooting for Chappie and wishing you could take him home with you.

But the robot isn’t the only thing that makes it work. All performances on screen are outstanding, from the well know Patel and Jackman to the duo of Ninja and Yolandi, a rapping duo from South Africa who make their major debut in this film. The swagger Ninja displays as a tough guy feels real as does the caring and nurturing emotions displayed by Yolandi. As “mommy” and “daddy” to Chappie, the pair teach him things that come off funny, touching and in the end, more human than some of the actual human beings in the film.

By the end of the film you’ll be wanting to take Chappie home with you. You’ll want a robot just like him to help around the house and to take care of. You’ll find yourself wondering just where life and the soul truly come from. And you’ll want to go back to the main menu and start the movie over again because you had that much fun watching it. I know this is one I plan on keeping on the nearest shelf as opposed to just storing it. I think I’ll be wanting to watch it over and over again, I had that much fun with it.

One word of warning, the language and violence depicted, even though much of it is directed at a robot, are enough that young children shouldn’t be exposed to what is on screen here. I have little doubt it would be upsetting for them or the more sensitive viewer. Even though, the movie is one of the best to come out this past year. 

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

SERENA: TOO LOW KEY



Each week new movies come out, a number of which are highlighted as the best to choose from either online or as advertised in the front window or Redbox. You never know what to expect when you look at the picture and more often than not you recognize a face or two and let that be the deciding factor. That would be my guess why many will rent SERENA this week. It offers a lesson as to why you should look deeper.

The movie stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, two actors who have starred in two other movies together, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE. They’re both at the top of their game at present coming off these as well as other hugely successful films. I’m guessing their reason for starring here was that it was the original material that sparked their interests. The end result leaves much to be desired.

The story takes place in 1929 in North Carolina where George Pemberton (Cooper) owns and runs a logging operation. At present he’s in the midst of a battle to retain his company as there is a push to turn the land he owns into a national park. Pitted against a sheriff (Tobey Jones) who has no liking for him and a representative for the park service determined to take the land, he has his hands full.

On a trip away George meets Serena (Lawrence), a women with a damaged past who catches his eye and his heart. They marry and he returns with his new bride in tow to continue his battle for his land. She takes to the business easily and wins the respect of the workers there when she helps find solutions to things like the snake problem they find on the mountains. Adapting to this life is easy for her but the battles that are being waged will take their toll on both her and George.

Ghosts of the past come to haunt the couple. In her case it is the terrible tragedy, a fire that killed her family that left her scarred and filled with guilt. In George’s case it comes in the form of a baby boy given birth by a woman who he slept with when the need suited him prior to his meeting Serena. To ensure he remains with her Serena gets pregnant but that leads to other complications. George has secrets of his own as well when he kills a man trying to help the sheriff bring him down.

All of these threads come together with a resolution to each problem that some will see coming and other may not. The trip to get to that solution is well made and looks great with some fantastic shots of the landscape that is called into question from the very beginning of the film. And yet for me the journey lacked something.

There are no bad performances to be seen here in this film. Even those in lesser roles handle them with skill and ease making them all believable. The story seems to be well thought out, taken from a novel by the same name. The photography, as I mentioned, is breathtaking at times. And yet all of these strands to not come together to make a satisfying end product.

I had a hard time putting my finger on just what was missing. I did notice that the actors, though doing a great job, never seemed to have any passion. Maybe it wasn’t the actors but the characters they were playing. Their voice levels all felt so low key and subtle as to go overboard with that emotion or lack thereof. I can recall only one incident where a voice was raised in the entire movie no matter what was going on.

Thinking back I also realized that the music was that same low key tone as well. No rising tones to elevate a scene. Just to make sure I wasn’t just imagining things I went back to a scene where a worker has his hand cut off with an axe before being rushed to help. I was right. The music takes a sudden swell for a brief moment then goes back to softer tones with no sense of urgency as he is rushed to help. The importance of music is highlighted in this film and here it does little to help.

In the end the movie isn’t the worst thing ever made but I have a hard time recommending it to anyone. Fans of Cooper and Lawrence will no doubt want to add it to their collections. But with all the ability to carry a movie on display in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, a movie I loved, none of it can be found here nor would it have helped raise this one higher. Watch it if you choose but don’t expect the spark offered in that film.

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