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Inside Llewyn Davis: The Freewheelin’ Coen Boys

by Ethan Alter December 6, 2013 6:00 am
Inside Llewyn Davis: The Freewheelin’ Coen Boys

The Coen Brothers have gone on some remarkable runs over the course of their going-on three decades directorial careers. There's the early trio of Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing followed by the back-to-back '90s favorites Fargo and The Big Lebowski. For me though, the siblings' post-No Country for Old Men career has been their most fruitful and rewarding period, so much so that No Country (which won the Best Picture Oscar, let's not forget) stands as the weakest of their recent output. With their Oscars still clutched in their hands, the Coen's moved right along to Burn After Reading, a farcical gem that's also a political satire of Strangelovian proportions. Next came A Serious Man, a masterful treatise on faith and family, as well as the best film about Judaism I've ever seen. (Needless to say, it's a dark comedy.) True Grit followed that and it's their finest studio movie to date and a superior Western -- one that de-romanticizes that era (and that genre) as successfully as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Which brings us up to Inside Llewyn Davis, a soulful trip through the early '60s Village folk scene that's yet another home run for a pair of filmmakers who have proven incapable of striking a false note for four movies now.

Black Nativity: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Harlem

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
Black Nativity: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Harlem

In its original incarnation, Langston Hughes's enduring Christmas musical Black Nativity -- which premiered Off-Broadway in the early '60s and has been revived annually ever since -- was a straightforward re-telling of the Nativity story (you know -- manger, three wise men, virgin birth, the whole deal) featuring the not-at-all straightforward (at the time, anyway) sight of an all-black cast recounting the birth of Jesus through song and dance. That performance serves as the centerpiece of the new film version of Black Nativity, with the impressive ensemble -- including Oscar winners Forrest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, Grammy winner Mary J. Blige and… um, Tyrese Gibson -- participating in a recreation of the Nativity story that begins on a church dais before spilling out onto the streets of Harlem. Scored to soaring gospel numbers (sung in power-ballad fashion by Hudson et al.) and unfolding against an intriguingly hallucinatory urban backdrop, this sequence is the highlight of the movie and points to why the Hughes's stage piece has endured all these years. Unfortunately, the new stuff surrounding it is far less timeless, making the movie resemble a musty period piece from the '60s.

Metallica: Through the Never: Some Kind of Concert Movie

I'll say this for Metallica's film career -- the band has never made the obvious choice when it comes to the kinds of movies they choose to participate in. The 2004 making-of-an-album documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster could have been an extended behind-the-scenes featurette, but instead emerged from the editing room as an exceptionally intimate and invigorating exploration of the creative process, with the group's quartet of metal gods (who individually are vocalist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo on bass) opening their lives (and hearts) to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's cameras. And now, in the midst of a wave of glossy, content-free teenybopper concert movies like One Direction: This is Us and Katy Perry: Part of Me, they've gone and made Metallica: Through the Never, a deliberately strange and hyperbolically stylish IMAX-sized production that intersperses the requisite concert footage not with puff-piece backstage interviews and acts of clearly staged tomfoolery, but instead an expressionistic narrative that doesn't even feature any members of the band. I'd accuse Through the Never of not making a whole lot of sense, but I think that's precisely the point. It's a happening, man, one that's supposed to freak you out.

Indie Snapshot: 20 Feet From Stardom

by Ethan Alter June 14, 2013 11:27 am
Indie Snapshot: 20 Feet From Stardom

The new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom makes a nice companion piece to the 2002 rock doc, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which profiled the life and times of the previously unheralded Funk Brothers, the session band that played underneath so many Motown hits. Likewise, 20 Feet, seeks to spotlight a group of musicians whose contributions so often go unheralded: backup singers -- the men and women who stand in the recesses of the stage, providing vocal support to the frontmen and frontwomen whom the audience is screaming for.

Indie Snapshot: How Sweet It Is

by Ethan Alter May 10, 2013 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: How Sweet It Is

We're only halfway through 2013, but it's unlikely that we'll see an odder cast than the one at the center of Brian Herzlinger's low-budget musical comedy How Sweet It Is. In fact, the movie is almost worth seeing solely so that, years from now, if you ever get asked the trivia question "What movie musical starred Joe Piscopo, Erika Christensen, Paul Sorvino and Eddie Griffin?" you'll be able to provide the answer, plus a plot synopsis and maybe a few bars of the title number, with complete authority.

Why Katy Perry: Part of Me May Be Better Than You Expected

Following the example of Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers and many more teen-skewing pop stars before her, Katy Perry now has her own, slightly more adult, concert movie in theaters. There's only so much that you can do with one of these films -- what with the expected combination of standard backstage footage, interviews with family and friends and of course, the concert performances themselves -- but Part of Me really delivers on all of its... well, parts. It's an enjoyable film for Perry fans and may even bring her some new ones as well.

Rock of Ages: Nothin’ But a Mild Time

by Ethan Alter June 15, 2012 6:01 am
Rock of Ages: Nothin’ But a Mild Time

A musical scored to the head-banging, power-chord wailing hair rock tunes of the '70s and '80s may sound like the final nail in the coffin of Western civilization, but from most eyewitness accounts, the Broadway musical Rock of Ages is a silly, enjoyable lark -- a show that has a lot of love for its specific brand of rock 'n' roll but doesn't take it particularly seriously. It's easy to see how this material would play well onstage, where the audience can feed off the energy of the performers and unapologetically rock out to these cheesy classics like they're in an actual nightclub as opposed to a theater. But I'm sorry to report that the new movie version of Rock of Ages has all the energy and electricity of a lite-FM radio station's noontime "Smooth Jazz" hour. With the exception of a few musical numbers, the film curiously finds little joy in songs that are nothing if not pleasures to listen to. Guilty pleasures to be sure, but pleasures all the same.

Singers We’d Like to See in the Bodyguard Remake, and the Men Who Guard Them

Can you believe it's been almost 20 years since The Bodyguard came out? Whitney Houston was a youngish 29, and not yet crazy, and Kevin Costner played the man hired to keep the threatened pop singer safe. Well, now plans to remake the movie have resurfaced, and Warner Bros. is looking to cast an international pop star in the lead role. While Rihanna was suggested for the part almost two years ago, nobody is attached to this new iteration, so we thought we'd envision how the story might be tailored to today's biggest stars, and who might be hired to protect them.

Never Say Never: Should Justin Bieber Be the Next James Bond?

When MGM plunged into financial peril recently, the seemingly indestructible James Bond franchise was temporarily put on hold; it seems to be back on track now, with Daniel Craig returning for a third time as the super-spy, but perhaps some new blood would put the franchise (and MGM) on stronger financial footing? (Remember, Timothy Dalton only got two films, too.) Someone young, popular, maybe with the initials "J.B."... Hey, what about Justin Bieber? The kid is already everywhere, he's got plenty of good years left in him, and he's got some dance moves that could maybe come in useful in a parkour chase through a construction site. Plus, the title of his new concert film, Never Say Never, is already practically a James Bond title. We've plotted out his stint on the Bond franchise for the next decade

Miley Cyrus is Going So Undercover, and I’m So There

As the world mourns the loss of Undercovers on television (not really, nobody's mourning), others are getting ready to celebrate new undercover antics on the big screen. No, it's not the long-awaited sequel to 2002's Undercover Brother, although that would admittedly be awesome. No, it's the newest Miley Cyrus movie, So Undercover, in which she plays a "tough, street-smart private eye" who infiltrates a college sorority. First of all, OMG. Second of all, let's just break down why this is so fantastic.

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