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extrememeasures

The Week in Silver: 20 Years a Critic Edition

Today, September 27, represents the 20th anniversary of the release of Extreme Measures, the Hugh Grant/Gene Hackman medical thriller, directed by Michael Apted, from 1996. This anniversary has gone completely un-remarked upon on movie sites and Film Twitter, and for good reason- it’s a totally forgettable movie with a generic title, which took a half-hearted stab at caring about medical ethics but was otherwise a nondescript flop. If it’s remembered at all, it’s as not one of the better films in the career catalog of its director or either of its stars.

I remember Extreme Measures for another reason: It was the first movie I ever reviewed in print.

It was my freshman year of college at Brandeis, and after taking a stab at writing sports articles for the student newspaper, The Justice and realizing that that entailed writing profiles of track and field competitors and game stories about volleyball, I decided to try the arts section instead, and was made aware for the first time of a wonderful thing called “press screenings.” I went into Boston, saw the screening — at the old Copley Place theater, I think — and reviewed it for the Justice that week (the archive of the actual review is lost to multiple server upgrades and thus to history, although I probably have the paper copy somewhere in either my basement or my parents’.)

It’s been 20 years and I never really stopped. I reviewed another movie and then another, and soon I was an arts columnist and later arts editor of the Justice. As years passed, my movie reviews would appear, in addition to The Justice and my own various blogs, at Hot Movie Ticket, American Dreamer Filmworks, The Trend/Trend Leader, Patch, EntertainmentTell/TechnologyTell, Patch again, Fox 29, Broad Street Review and Splice Today.

Reviewing movies has never been my primary job — there aren’t a lot of people left who can say that it is — but I do consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to do it, and quite an accomplishment that I’ve been able to convince multiple for-profit enterprises, including AOL and News Corp., to pay me money to see and write about movies. I’ve thankfully been able to continue doing this into adulthood, and through marriage and fatherhood as well.

So thank you so much to everyone who’s been reading all this time, or even for part of this time. Here’s to 20 more years, and if I ever get to the point where I’m no longer appreciative that I get to do this, then I’ll stop. But not until then. You can read all of my reviews since 2008-  all the ones with live links, anyway- at my Rotten Tomatoes page.

Speaking of movie reviews: I reviewed Snowden and Bridget Jones’ Baby, as well as Author: The JT Leroy Story and Eight Days a Week, all for Splice Today. The Leroy story includes some quotes from an interview I did with the director.

At Farm Dog Productions, I wrote about the new Raiders! documentary, which showed at two Philly theaters last week. And I also wrote about the recent Blue Velvet anniversary showing.

Going from film to food, I wrote for Broad Street Review about a pair of new books about Jewish food, and an author talk about them at the Gershman Y.

And at Screenrant:

I eulogize director Curtis Hanson, director of L.A. Confidential. 

Another obituary, for Radio Raheem himself, Bill Nunn.

People are going to die on the next Game of Thrones season.

Margot Robbie is hosting the SNL season premiere.

Jared Leto will join the long list of actors playing Andy Warhol in biopics- except this time it’s an actual biopic of Warhol as opposed to one of his associates.

Michael Giacchino is going to score Rogue One.

Preview of the Ice Cube/Charlie Day comedy Fist Fight.

Spike Lee is reviving She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix.

Jack Bauer could return- but only for a movie that will probably never be made.

And at Blasting News:

– No, that “Brock Turner speaking tour” story isn’t true.

– No, this isn’t the end of the birther controversy.

– Why it’s wrong to use the death of Jose Fernandez to attack Colin Kaepernick.

– Why Keith Olbermann’s return is welcome- but he’s not going to singlehandedly defeat Trump.

The West Wing cast isn’t going to either.

As always, follow me on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Clapping for two presidents

The Week in Silver: Turning 38 at the DNC Edition

I celebrated my 38th birthday this week, and marked the occasion by hanging around the Democratic National Convention for much of the week.

I was sadly denied a credential for the convention itself, but was able to spend two days in the city both covering the protests and ancillary events around the convention. And… I loved it. I hadn’t done political reporting in awhile and remembered that I really enjoy it.

Highlights of the week: I met, and was “interviewed” by- Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his puppeteer, Robert Smigel. I saw all manner of protests on behalf of various causes- with Bernie Sanders and marijuana by far the two most popular. And on Tuesday, I ended up about five feet away from Bernie Sanders himself, who happened to be walking down Arch Street with a small entourage. At that point that small cell of Christian fanatics I had seen the day before seized on him, with one even yelling at him to renounce Judaism.

And then, Friday, I attended a rally for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine at Temple University. This was a much different vibe from the Bill Clinton rally I covered back in the spring, in which the former president and a heckler yelled at each other; the whole room was with her, with the except of one heckler who called Hillary a murderer. Afterward I got to meet Kaine briefly.

Anyway, on to this week’s links:

– At Broad Street Review, I reviewed the “Politicalfest” exhibit around the convention.

– At Splice Today, I wrote about the protests on the first day.

Then, I reviewed “Jason Bourne” and “Bad Moms”

– At Blasting News, I went in on out-of-town reporters complaining about Philly.

I also took a look at a politician who doesn’t often get his due, Howard Dean:

And why the DNC’s Bradley Cooper controversy was stupid.

– And at Screenrant:

An update on Creed 2.

– A new edit of Arrested Development’s Netflix season.

– The death of Project Greenlight.

– The biggest buzz about of Comic-Con.

– The Bourne trilogy in 90 seconds.

– How the Millennium Falcon almost killed Harrison Ford.

As always, follow me on Twitter, and check out my Facebook page for my videos from the DNC.

The Week in Silver: “Okay, So You’re Brad Pitt” Edition

I’ve decided to start doing weekly roundups of all my published writing here each Friday; if all goes well perhaps I’ll turn it into a newsletter or something.

I plan to be loitering around the DNC and various ancillary events in Philadelphia throughout next week, so if you’re in town reach out and let me know.

Speaking of which, my favorite news story of the week involves two of my favorite journalists in town, both of whom I know slightly: Fox 29’s Steve Keeley confuses Phillymag’s Dan McQuade with a movie star:

Anyway, on to the links:

At Splice Today, because I didn’t see Star Trek Beyond yet, I review three movies: Cafe Society, Equity and Captain Fantastic. Stay tuned next week for Jason Bourne, Bad Moms and Can We Take a Joke? You can read all of my movie reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. 

At Mapquest’s Parachute, a look at the sports stadiums along the Delaware River- including a pretty gorgeous shot I took at the Philadelphia Union match last weekend:

At Blasting News, I wrote several pieces about the slow descent into madness that was the Republican National Convention

– Why you shouldn’t believe “shock polls” and Hillary is actually winning

– Why the theme of the first night was “be very afraid”

– Why the RNC didn’t mention the one true GOP triumph of the last couple of years

– And why “being un-PC” is no excuse for calling for the death of a rival political candidate.

Over at Screenrant, I was busy this week:

– I eulogized the great Garry Marshall:

– Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the movie, 15 things you may not know about Miami Vice:

Game of Thrones Season 7 will have 7 episodes.

– Bojack Horseman got a fourth season on Netflix:

– There will be more Powerpuff Girls, too.

Law & Order: SVU is making a Making a Murderer-inspired episode.

– The trailer for a new documentary about Leonard Nimoy.

– Star Trek 4 will not recast Anton Yelchin. 

The Emoji Movie has cast T.J. Miller:

As always, follow me on Twitter at @StephenSilver. 

Smaller Movie Roundup: Reviews and Backstories (The Mend, Time Out of Mind, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Sons of Ben, Deathgasm)

mendBefore I head out of town for a wedding, and then start a new job (More on that later), a look at a few of the smaller movies I’ve seen of late:

The Mend. 

Review: John Magary’s indie triumph is like a much better, next-level version of every mumblecore movie. Ostensibly the story of two brothers (Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett) making their way in New York City and failing to relate to the women in their lives, The Mend is actually much, much better: We’re not filled in on anything close to the entire plot, and the film instead functions as a bizarre character study. There’s a first-act party scene featuring many fascinating characters that we’ll never see again, and a dynamite performance by Austin Pendleton as an old man who’s a family friend. And Lucas- if you know him mostly as a romantic comedy lead and failed leading man, his performance here is an eye-opener.

The film’s best idea, of many, is that without women around for a short period of time, the two men slowly regress into savagery. This description doesn’t come close to doing the film justice; I highly recommend checking it out (Now on VOD.)

Backstory: After hearing about The Mend for weeks from my critic friends, I heard there was a one day, three-showing Philadelphia premiere on a Saturday a few weeks back, at PhilaMOCA (a Philly art gallery/exhibit space based in a former mausoleum showroom.) In the city with nothing to do after a fantasy football draft, I was the one and only customer for the 10 p.m. show- just me and the projectionist- and there were lots of times I couldn’t tell if a certain sound was coming from the screen or from the street outside. I recommend everyone see The Mend under those exact conditions.

Time Out of Mind

Yes, Richard Gere is playing the most incongruously handsome homeless person of all time. But this is still a powerful, very unique story of a homeless, possibly mentally ill man in New York City. What I really loved about this film was that it keeps things so unconventional- it’s much more character study than “social problem film,” and the film has wisely saved the political statements for the PR campaign. And the visual style is fantastic, full of nontraditional camera angles. It’s another triumph for writer/director Oren Moverman, who also wrote Love & Mercy earlier this year. There’s also room for a dynamite supporting performance from Ben Vereen. Now in theaters.

Backstory: I interviewed Gere, and Moverman, a couple of weeks ago, and you can read that here. Gere was charming and friendly, and Moverman especially interesting- a tall, bald Israeli Army veteran whose worldview is much more feminist than you’d think. And no, I didn’t ask Gere about you-know-what. I wasn’t specifically warned not to, but I’ve got a feeling if I had I’d have been ejected from the room immediately.

Sons of Ben

Review: This documentary looks at a very strange and unique corner of American sports culture: The Sons of Ben. They’re a group of soccer fans in the Philadelphia area who began gathering in town years before the city had a soccer team and advocating for a new franchise, and have emerged as the official fan club since the Philadelphia Union began play in 2010. The film, directed by Jeffrey C. Bell, lets us meet the original Sons and tells us their stories.

We’re introduced to a group of characters who were part of the original group, including one guy who’s a recovering addict, another who repeatedly talks about the pressure from his wife to scale back his involvement in the group (as his wife stands next to him), and one guy who fought and beat cancer. They all have different reasons for being drawn to the fan club of a team that didn’t yet exist, but their stories are the documentary’s most compelling aspect. And no, they’re not “hooligans” (see below); they’re mostly family men in their 30s and 40s who show not even a hint of violence.

It’s a short film, at around 70 minutes, and it raises a ton of issues- how and why soccer long struggled to catch on in America but finally has in recent years, how soccer fans fit into the wider culture of Philadelphia sports, the failed promise of a new stadium bringing economic development and opportunity to depressed suburb Chester- that it doesn’t have the time to address fully. But regardless, this is a winning and entertaining film, one that’s a must for anyone who cares about American soccer fandom or the Union. It’s out on DVD now.

Backstory: Long story short: Before experiencing a dramatic conversion 6 or 7 years ago, I hated soccer. Once, on my old blog, I mocked the Sons of Ben as “hooligans,” for which I was rightly smacked down in print by the since-deceased Philadelphia Weekly writer Steven Wells. A few years later Bell, the director, reached out to me about this exchange and even discussed interviewing me for the film, but that never come together for whatever reason.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

drunkReview: The world now cares enough about the history and craft of American comedy to sustain about 500 podcast episodes per week about that exact subject. This documentary, directed by Douglas Tirola, goes into the full story of one of the last century’s most important comedy touchstones, National Lampoon. It doubles as a study of the sad tale of Douglas Kenney, the late co-founder. And that poster? Best of the year.

The greatest takeaway from the doc is the sheer audacity of some of the stuff they used to get away with- unlike the flouters of the “PC Police” today, the Lampoon guys really did push the envelope, with the primary goal of being funny, as opposed to the primary goal of being assholes. The second-greatest takeaway-  who knew P.J. O’Rourke was once funny? If you’re even a little bit of a comedy nerd, this is a must. Now in (some) theaters.

Backstory: I could watch a whole other documentary about the long, sad decline of the National Lampoon brand. 

Deathgasm 

Review: A generally entertaining Kiwi-produced horror comedy about a group of young metalheads fighting zombies. I liked it- and had felt bad about missing the late-night screening when it played at SXSW in the spring- except when you get past the New Zealand stuff and Heavy Metal stuff- which is all great, by the way- Deathgasm is a pretty generic zombie movie. Now out on DVD.

Backstory: Deathgasm is without a doubt the only movie this year to namecheck the defunct, Boston-based grindcore band known as Anal Cunt.  

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight_Outta_Compton_poster“Straight Outta Compton,” the new biopic of pioneering gangsta rap outfit NWA, is very much a conventional music biopic, with many of the conventional music biopic flaws. It relies on cliche. It’s too long by about a half hour. It distorts history in some respects and de-emphasizes things in others. It’s much, much more sympathetic to the people in the story who cooperated with the production than those who did not.

That said- I was overjoyed myself the entire time. The film executes the established biopic formula to near-perfection, it’s well-acted and well-staged, and thoroughly enjoyable even when relying on cliche. And let’s not forget that the idea of a major Hollywood studio making a movie about NWA- especially one that so greatly emphasizes the role police brutality played in the group’s rise- would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

If not for “Love and Mercy”- another epic in which Paul Giamatti played the heavy- “Compton” would be the best music biopic of the year.

NWA- which stood, of course, for Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes- emerged from Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, led by drug dealer-turned rapper Easy-E, rapping standout Ice Cube and producer/performer Dr. Dre; DJ Yella and MC Ren rounded out the group. Plagued by poverty and seemingly non-stop harassment from police, the group emerged in the first Bush era, brought into major label prominence by possibly shady veteran manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti.)

The first half of the film, directed by F. Gary Gray, documents the group’s rise and brief time at the top, later undone by the departures of Cube and Dre and various infighting. The second half is mostly taken up by the group’s doings following NWA’s heyday, including Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s collaboration, Ice Cube’s solo work and eventual movie stardom and Easy-E’s death from AIDS complications in 1995.

Is it a bit too much, stretching the running time to nearly two-and-a-half hours? Yes. But that’s par for the course with these music films. And there’s some great stuff there, mostly involving Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) as a villain who’s more mob boss than music label boss. The group’s long-running feud with law enforcement is well-depicted and timely, especially its staging of the famous incident, in 1989, when NWA was arrested for singing “Fuck the Police” at a concert in Detroit. Again, it sort of puts the lie to all the fashionable “PC Police” crap these days- NWA didn’t get called “problematic” or criticized on Twitter for their lyrics. They literally got arrested, by the actual police, for the crime of performing song lyrics that the cops didn’t like.

The cast is fairly strong from top to bottom, led by Corey Hawkins as Dre, Jason Mitchell (a true dead ringer) as Easy-E and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his dad, Ice Cube. Giamatti plays Heller very well, as a charmer, and whether or not he was actually robbing the group blind is left unambiguous for most of the running time.

The film omits various things, most notably Dr. Dre’s much-reported-about history of violence against women, and that DJ Yella enjoyed a successful and prolific career as a pornographer. I don’t even remember seeing Arabian Prince, once a member of the group, in the film. One can’t help but notice that Dre and Cube- the two members of the group who are alive, successful and have the means to have shepherded the film to the point where they have producer credits- come across a bit more positively than anyone else.

There’s much less open drug use than I would imagine there probably was in real life, and the episode in which Heller enlisted the nutty Jewish Defense League against Ice Cube is mostly glossed over. There are a couple of continuity errors- in the opening scene, set in 1986, Eazy-E is wearing a White Sox hat that wouldn’t exist until several years later. And the actor playing Snoop Dogg, “Short Term 12”’s Keith Stanfield, looks nothing like him, even if he does have the voice down perfectly.

Still, “Straight Outta Compton” is ultimately a success, and if that music ever meant anything to you, it’s a must. I for one am rooting for its success so we get more definitive hip-hop biopics. Wouldn’t you watch a whole movie about Suge Knight’s life? Or Tupac’s? Chris Rock has talked about wanting to make a movie about a bunch of the original rappers, now living life as middle-aged men. Wouldn’t you want to see that?

“Notorious,” a biopic of Biggie, came and went a few years ago and isn’t well-remembered. “Compton” will likely be better-remembered.

Movie Review: “Ricki and the Flash”

Ricki_and_the_Flash_posterMuch like director Jonathan Demme’s last feature, 2008’s astonishing “Rachel Getting Married,” “Ricki” is the story of a flawed woman, awkwardly re-connecting with her estranged family, on the occasion of an unusually music-intensive wedding. Of course, the tone is much different. And so is the music.

If you’ve seen the TV commercials or trailers for the film, you likely think of it as “that Meryl Streep rock star movie.” But it’s really not that at all. It’s much deeper, and affecting than you’d think.

“Ricki” combines the styles and worldviews of director Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody, in a marriage that’s much more successful than you probably imagined.

Streep plays Ricki, a middle-aged dive bar rock performer who, years earlier, abandoned her family to chase rock star dreams that never came true. Working as a Whole Foods cashier by day and playing classic rock covers to small, aging audiences at night alongside guitarist/boyfriend Rick Springfield, Ricki seeks a second chance with her estranged family once her daughter (Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide.

The middle, and best, section of the movie consists of Streep’s visit to the opulent Indianapolis home of her former husband (Kevin Kline, again playing a repressed Indiana man 15 years after “In & Out.” And this is mostly due to a standard performance from Gummer, who- with clothes and hair that it appears are actually unwashed- is much more convincing as a depressed person than such characters typically are. After a sojourn back to California, the film concludes with a musical wedding not exactly like the one in “Rachel Getting Married,” yet good for much the same reasons.

The movie works largely due to the writing- Cody seems to have gotten over her obsession with painful, “honest to blog” phrasings- and the creation of outstanding, multidimensional characters who are allowed to be both good and bad, and right and wrong. And the portrayal of these characters- led by Streep, Gummer and Kline- is first rate across the board.

Streep is playing a very different type of character for herself- for one thing, I couldn’t tell you the last time she played a Republican- but she knocks it out of the park anyway, and she’s even an all-right singers. Springfield, suddenly ubiquitous as an actor with this and True Detective, gets to act and play music, both reasonably well. Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate have some good moments as Streep and Kline’s sons, as does Audra McDonald as their stepmom. And the 89-year-old Charlotte Rae- Mrs. Garrett!- has a killer one-scene cameo as Kline’s mother.

The other thing I liked about “Ricki” is that it reverses stereotypes and movie conventional wisdom by making the Indiana characters rich, eccentric and crunchy- complete with wedding RSVPs in which the food options are “vegan” and “vegan gluten-fee”- and the Californian as an unsophisticated rube with an American flag tattoo and a record of voting for George W. Bush. Regional differences aren’t actually as cut-and-dried as the movies usually make them, so I found that refreshing.

So yes: The “Meryl Streep Rockstar Movie” is much, much better than it looks.