Monday, September 26, 2016

SECRECY=SECURITY=VICTORY?: a review of "Snowden"

Based upon The Snowden Files by Luke Harding
Based upon Time Of The Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena
Screenplay Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
*** (three stars)

I suppose that I have always felt that the public and media's perception of Edward Snowden, the computer professional who leaked crucial and classified information from the NSA to The Guardian and is currently living in exile in Moscow, has been more than a little simplistic and sadly inherent of our dangerously "either/or" responses to superlatively gray moral areas. I have never felt it enough to label the man as either being a "hero" or "traitor" to the United States Of America but for that matter, I have, and still remain, somewhat indifferent to him because his actions, frankly, didn't reveal any information that I really feel that we, as a nation, should have already known.

Now that is not to say that I am especially politically savvy. I really am not. But, once The Patriot Act was enacted in 2001 by President George W. Bush, I just knew back then that the floodgates against our civil liberties were doomed and entirely in the supposed name of ensuring the security of the country. To say that I am skeptical of the government's intentions towards its citizens woud be an understatement and the fact that we have a constitutional right to protest against the government would be an even greater understatement at that. In fact, as my Father once expressed to me, "Of course, we're being spied upon! We've been spied on since President Hoover!"

With all of that being said, my curiosity was indeed piqued when it was announced that none other than Oliver Stone would tackle this subject for a new film. Despite the fact that Stone's filmography as of recent years has been less than stellar, almost existing as mere snacks compared with the sumptuous five course cinematic meals of his most celebrated and controversial works from "Platoon" (1986), "Wall Street" (1987), "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989), "The Doors" (1991) and "Natural Born Killers" (1994) among so many others, I would be hard pressed to think of another filmmaker who seems to be a perfect fit for such inherently difficult subject matter,from concepts of national security,the price paid for our collective freedoms as well as the figure of Edward Snowden himself.

With "Snowden," Oliver Stone once again does not return to his former glories but the film overall is not a let down either. It is a solid film, one that functions quite well as a slow burn of an espionage thriller but one that is filled with provocative themes to discuss, debate and digest, even while the titular subject comes off more a a symbol rather than a complex human being.  

"Snowden" stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in a strong performance that is eerily uncanny to the real world individual. Oliver Stone traces Snowden's life from his failed attempt in the Army Reserve due to shin splints and his subsequent employment for the CIA and as a contractor for the United States government.

Through his work, we witness his mounting paranoia and crisis of conscience as he discovers the extents to which the government has invaded the private lives of innocent United States citizens under the pretense of maintaining national security against acts of terrorism, to finally his actions which led him to copy and release classified information which revealed many global surveillance programs run by the NSA and with the cooperation of telecommunications companies and European governments.

Snowden's journey is chronicled alternately through the respective prisms of a clandestine interview in a Chinese hotel with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) as well as his precarious romance with acrobat/blogger/aspiring photographer Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley).

As previously stated, Oliver Stone's "Snowden" is not a great film, the kind of fire and brimstone, rattle-the-cages effort that we typically associate with this firebrand filmmaker. However, it is a good film, beautifully lensed by Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and filled with exceedingly strong performances from Gordon-Levitt, the excellent Rhys Ifans as Snowden's mentor/Father figure Corbin O'Brian, a dialed down Nicolas Cage and also the continuously surprising Shailene Woodley (who does indeed does the most she can in a somewhat one dimensional role).

Whee the film faltered for me was in its shallow depiction of its titular figure which made the film shockingly and unfortunately, more simplistic as a character study as Stone paints Edward Snowden as being somewhat of the last America Boy Scout with nothing less than a level of hero worship. In some ways, Stone's portrayal, despite the strength of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance, is one that essentially becomes equal to the so-called character study a la sheer right -wing propaganda as seen in Clint Eastwood's powerfully effective but dangerously irresponsible "American Sniper" (2014).

In Stone's cinematic eyes, he has envisioned Edward Snowden as an undeniable intellectual genius (and somewhat robotic) yet he is also the most earnest, sincerest of patriots, one who initially leaned politically to the right but whose patriotism never wavered, even while questioning the government. His actions were not only heroic but entirely selfless--even to the point of sacrificing his own health (as he was prone to epileptic seizures and apparently ceased taking his medications to ensure his mind worked at its sharpest) in order for the truth to be fully revealed. Certainly, the real Edward Snowden is more complicated than that! For that matter, and for goodness sakes, any of you reading this posting out there are more complicated than that!

Now, certainly Oliver Stone quite possibly sees a bit of a kindred spirit in Edward Snowden within himself as based upon his past films, especially the brilliant, freight train fever dream fury of his masterful "JFK" (1993) for which he was dragged over the hot coals due to the myriad of conspiracy theories and supposed factual errors contained within that film.

But, amidst the fervor of that whole controversy, I still strongly feel that the main argument of that film was fully lost on its critics. That all Oliver Stone was essentially saying was that he did not believe in the findings of the Warren Commission and therefore, believes that our government lied to him about President John F. Kennedy's assassination and furthermore, that we as citizens have the right and responsibility to question our highest authorities and speak truth to power in pursuit of the greater truth. That's it and that all. Yet, what did strike me about that time as I pondered that film was perhaps it is easier for a wide American public to try to believe in something as preposterously impossible as a "magic bullet," for instance than it is to believe in the unfathomable truth that your very government is secretly and in ways, more than openly conspiring against its citizens--even the President of the United States.

And it is on that level where "Snowden" succeeds strongly as the film works as a 21st century companion piece to "JFK" as it is a film that basically asks the very same questions and houses the same fears. With "Snowden," Oliver Stone is again asking us to ponder seriously what is the price of freedom? How much of ourselves are we willing to casually hand over with false promises of obtaining greater security? What does it mean to be free and if we even have to ask those questions are we, and have we ever been free in the first place? Questions that are extremely more prevalent than ever with our current nightmare election cycle during which logic, reason and facts has no value when compared to the cult of personality.

Now, the cinematic approach Oliver Stone utilizes as a filmmaker continues in his current style, which is much less incendiary as his classic films and much more cerebral and subdued--a tactic that has made his films as of late more than a bit underwhelming--although I do still have high marks for "W." (2008), Stone exploration of President George W. Bush. Yes, I do prefer Stone's hallucinogenic, operatic intensity that seemed to reach outwards from the silver screen and grab you with two fists and white knuckles--even for his more interior films like "Talk Radio" (1988). But, such as it is, Stone is not that filmmaker anymore, for better or for worse, depending upon whom you would ask.

With regards to "Snowden," Stone has crafted a feature that functions more like a 1970's conspiracy/espionage thriller like something in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974) and Stone does indeed generate a mounting Orwellian paranoia confidently. Also, Stone has made a strong cautionary tale a la David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) as "Snowden" contains its own provocative themes regarding the gradual loss of our collective humanity due to the rise of our continuously enveloping technology.

And yet, when it was all said and done, once "Snowden" concluded, I guess I still found my sense of indifference towards the man had unwavered. Yet, for the dark realities that we all now know about (and frankly, we should have all seen coming rapidly), I fear that our collective sense of complacency and even apathy will land us into a world that we never knew could befall upon us. Because of that, the need to question, to provoke and feverishly demand answers from our highest authorities has become more paramount with each passing year.

And to that end, Oliver Stone's "Snowden" speaks to that concept powerfully.

Monday, September 19, 2016

GOOD KID MAD CITY: a review of "Kicks"

Screenplay Written by Justin Tipping & Joshua Beirne-Golden
Directed by Justin Tipping
**** (four stars)

When I was perhaps 10 years old, my bicycle was stolen.

Growing up on the southwest side of Chicago during the 1970's/1980's felt to be...well..a normal upbringing. I was, more or less, able to go where I pleased without fear. My friends and I could roam the neighborhood from day until long past the streetlights illuminated my surroundings. By my teenage years, I often walked or rode my bike with headphones strapped to my ears without a care in the world.

Certainly, and knowing fully well that this was indeed Chicago, I did have to have a set of street smart wits about myself. I instinctively knew the locations to where I should not tread or how far I could or should actually venture from home. I knew the neighbors whom I could trust if my parents were not immediately available. Yet, even so, I was not immune to any sinister elements. There were older kids who bullied my friends and I once in a great while. And at some points, all of us, myself included, became involved in some sort of neighborhood fight. While gangs like The Disciples and The Blackstone Rangers were heard of, and even hushed about between friends, I can honestly say that I never saw any gang activity. But, the knowledge of their existence did inform me to look over my shoulder now and then and I seemed to develop an innate ability to know just how to avoid any and all hot spots, for if there was going to be any trouble, I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. Yet, as it happens sometimes, trouble found me.

Behind my house, there was a long alleyway where my friends and I would play every day and at the end of the block, there sat a vacant lot where we would play variations of baseball and kickball, ride skateboards and bikes, or do absolutely nothing at all for the entire day. One day, as we rode our bikes around and around, we noticed a small group of bigger, tougher boys who were unfamiliar to us riding into our lot. Taking note, we covertly attempted to quietly leave the vacant lot. I was last in line and before I knew it, one of the boys grabbed the rear handle on my bicycle, punched me in the side, knocking from my bike onto the pavement and rode away with my bike.

All of this happened in a matter of seconds and soon my friends returned to find me shell shocked on the ground. They led me back home where I told my parents what had happened. While my Mother phoned the police, my Father had other ideas. Grabbing not one but two Louisville Slugger baseball bats from the basement, he sternly said to me, "Let's go!" and off we went into the car on the hunt for the boys who stole my bicycle. I have no memory of how long we were gone but I can easily remember the heat from my Father's rage radiating from him as he was ready to bash in some heads. Me, on the other hand, was just a scared kid who already wanted to forget that anything had happened. We never found the boys. We never even found the bicycle, even after making an official report to the police. And again, I just wanted to forget all about it, as I just felt so weak and small, despite the heft of my size, and most of all ashamed that I was unable to defend and protect myself in front of my friends, my family or just for myself.

Those memories returned to me as I watched "Kicks," the stunning, harrowing debut feature film from Director Justin Tipping that explored and combined, to an often hallucinogenic yet powerfully primal degree, the coming-of-age film, an urban thriller, a dark fable, the cosmic, the surreal and the ruthlessly raw. Tipping provided an urgent sense of cinematic confidence that is rare for a first feature, one that pinned me to my seat in often sobering degrees due to its social-political aesthetic that was simultaneously dreamlike yet journalistic. Again, I urge you to stretch outside of your movie going comfort zones and seek out this small, independent film that will indeed provide you with a gut punch to send you reeling in more ways than one.

Set in urban California, "Kicks" stars the intensely charismatic and reticent Jahking Guillory as Brandon, a 15-year-old who announces to us within his subdued narration that "Even in dreams, I dream that I am being chased." In his environment, Brandon is indeed an outcast. With his long, flowing curls, and small stature, the boy carries an unintentionally androgynous appearance. He is quiet, unathletic, unpopular, nearly invisible to girls and a would be target for more dangerous types if not for the fact that he is quick on his feet, albeit in a pair of tennis shoes nearing disintegration. Despite having two best friends in the muscular, athletic, popular with the ladies Rico (Christopher Meyer) and the mouthy, would-be rapper Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace-son of the late Notorious B.I.G.), Brandon is often teased, hazed and constantly left behind to his thoughts, often occupied by the presence of a lonely astronaut floating away in the quiet of the very space Brandon wishes to escape to.

Desiring, something, anything to assist his acceptance among his peers, Brandon decides to purchase a pair of vintage Air Jordans. Collecting spare change around his home plus birthday gift money and earning funds some selling candy bars on the street, Brandon earns the money for the shoes but is discouraged that he is nowhere near the full retail price. While despondently walking home, Brandon is accosted by a neighborhood charlatan selling stolen goods from his van--including the very coveted pair of red and black Air Jordans, which he is then able to purchase.

Finally feeling a sense of pride, Brandon, now adorned with the shoes struts into  his surroundings with a newfound confidence with his friends as well as with girls. Yet, on his way home, on the very first day of wearing his new shoes, Brandon is surrounded and beaten to the ground by a group of older, tougher, meaner and armed boys led by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who ultimately steal his shoes.

Consumed with revenge, Brandon plots to track down Flaco and regain his shoes at any and all costs.

Justin Tipping's "Kicks" is as impressive and remarkable a debut feature as I have ever seen as the film greatly succeeds via a variety of elements from the double meaning of the film's ironically laced title, to its multi-layered moods and textures, the downright stunning, dreamlike slow-motion cinematography by Michael Ragen, Composer Brian Reitzell's evocative score and the first rate performance by young Jahking Guillory who conveys a world of emotions while armed with scant dialogue and riveting subtlety.

As Brandon, Guillory perfectly conveys the desperate inner world of a good kid trapped within an environment he never made who only wishes to fit in and is soon consumed by a blind rage and relentless tunnel vision yet without possessing any foresight to the larger consequences of his actions and how they will play out for his friends, enemies and his community at large.

Utilizing the fetishization of shoe culture as a metaphorical symbol of status, pride and manhood, "Kicks" explores the continuing desolation of the 21st century African-American communities within the inner cities of this nation. Tipping, without any sense of hyperbole but with a more journalistic, matter-of-fact directorial eye, presents us with an urban nightmare, eons away from the world I grew up in. Returning to the story of my stolen bicycle, I had my Father present to aid me (although the consequences if we had caught up to those boys would have been devastating to say the least). Furthermore, regarding the ones to stole my bike, I was only the recipient of a strong, surprising gut punch and not on the receiving end of a bullet.

Within "Kicks," adults of any positive influence are never seen and any conceivable opportunities to better oneself are even less so. This is a world where schools are an afterthought, job opportunities are non-existent, and drugs, alcohol, guns and violence rampantly permeate the neighborhoods. Every single character within the film addresses each other with all manner of racial epithets and derogatory language plus taunts, threats, humiliations augmented by sudden and surprising acts of explosive violence. And even when Brandon is beaten down and his shoes are stolen, his attack is filmed and later uploaded to You Tube. In a world such as this one, where hopelessness is abound, what is there left to do but to feed off of each other? "Kicks" presents us with the brutal realities that occur when living in an unforgiving landscape and people are forced to endure a merciless, Darwinian existence. Tipping nails the numbing inhumanity and devaluation and desensitization of life profoundly, therefore cementing the film's overall sense of humanity with a bubbling, burning rage.

Yes, the activities we see throughout the film are entirely self-destructive but "Kicks" is largely a story of survival within the death and dying of inner city African-American communities, making Tipping's film the next piece of a cinematic social-political journalistic think piece chronicling the life and times of our nation's Black neighborhoods as witnessed in films like The Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society" (1993), John Singleton's "Boyz N The Hood" (1991), Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and especially several "joints" of Spike Lee's filmography, including "Crooklyn" (1994), "Clockers" (1995), "Red Hook Summer" (2012) and "Chi-Raq" (2015). 

Furthermore, "Kicks" feels to be the perfect film to arrive in the still vibrant and righteously essential "Black Lives Matter" movement for as we regard Brendan and his environment, if one does not feel empathy, anger and shame for allowing American citizens to exist in such a cauldron in what is supposed to be the greatest country on the planet, then, we as a full American culture need to perform some deep cleansing and serious re-evaluation of our history and levels of intolerance and acceptance or lack thereof. The sights of such callous behavior and disregard for human life (a shot of an infant laying upon a bed just within reach of a loaded gun, for instance) with an endless cycle of abuse, degradation, despair, and of course verbal and physical violence should be more than enough to jolt viewers out of any self-induced stupor regarding our society and national community and Justin Tipping's "Kicks" seethes with world weary indignation. No wonder Brandon wishes he could be lost in space.

On a more individual and therefore existential level, "Kicks" utilizes the fetishization of shoe culture to represent a metaphorical symbol of status and manhood, specifically Black manhood in the ghetto. What does it mean to be a man in this fight or flight environment? For Brandon, who is constantly caught in the throes of peer pressure and the standard bouts of male bonding/hazing by his friends, the humiliation of having his shoes stolen combined with any sense of athletic/sexual inadequacy he feels inwardly provides the seriously misguided fuel for his revenge mission. Yet, throughout the film, Brandon is exposed to a full range of male behavior he feels forced to cloak himself within in order to retain his shoes. His pursuit of Flaco is utterly foolish yet surprisingly fearless as his every move is designed to prove to himself, plus his friends, his out-of-prison O.G. Uncle Marlon (an excellent Mahershala Ali) and community, that he is not weak or a pushover but on the contrary, one who has been decidedly underestimated. Yet, what he does not seem to realize that in this world, being a an will not end with the possible retrieval of his shoes. His battle will only continue as Flaco retaliates, potentially leaving either one or both of them dead.

And even so, the character of Flaco is far from existing as a one note villain as Tipping ensures that we gather an insight into his interior life. For you see, Flaco is a Father to a small son, and devotedly so, making the spoils of his thefts not only gifts to his child, they are symbols of his manhood as being able to provide for his family. If Brandon becomes successful in stealing his shoes back from Flaco, what does it mean to be a man in front of his own son who might witness his defeat, especially from someone who is physically smaller?

The war between Brandon and Flaco as presented in "Kicks" is concerned about much, much more than a pair of shoes and in turn, so is Tipping's briskly paced, visually striking, emotionally sobering film as a whole. Once again, I turn to you to stretch a bit regarding your movie viewing and just give some support to a motion picture that is riveting, exceedingly well acted, written and filmed and possesses an urgent voice and story of fierce originality and presentation.

Justin Tipping's "Kicks" is one of the best films that I have seen in 2016.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Executive Producers J.J. Abrams, Winnie Holtzman and Cameron Crowe
Created by Cameron Crowe
10 episodes
June 26, 2016-August 28, 2016

Dear readers, it was a terrible movie season this summer. Truly terrible. Aside from one documentary, Thorsten Schuette's "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words" and one indie comedy/drama in Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice," the summer of 2016 delivered one of the weakest times at the movies in recent memory. But truth be told, this entire year so far has not been one to write home about regardless of any shattered box office records.

What we are seeing at this time is everything that I have been writing about over and again upon this site and that is precisely the preponderance of all things related to big budget sequels, prequels, remakes, reboot, re-imaginings, franchises and anything that potentially possesses a built in audience from comic book characters to toys and video games and all at the expense of not only just creating films with honest to goodness characters and stories but films that are indeed wholly original or ones that represents a filmmaker's personal point of view with how they view the world in which we co-exist.

As weary as I get with the assembly line nature of these massive budgeted films, I do still take my hard earned money to see them and yes, for some, I do remain a fan. When the films are good, as with the ones that have been coming out of the Marvel Comics arena or what J.J. Abrams achieved with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015), the results can often be as exhilarating as ever. but, those films typically are not made to that high standard and more often than not, are simply designed to just take the money quickly and run, films that are completely disposable and guaranteeing sequels that no one but the Hollywood bean counters asked for.

I have also and often lamented the fact that some of my most favorite filmmakers seem to be having more difficulties than ever with getting their movies made from the likes of Terry Gilliam and Spike Lee, for instance, making the positions of other idiosyncratic filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson as anomalies. For Cameron Crowe, in many ways, his films have never been easy ones to necessarily classify as they do tend to stretch themselves between genres, but at least, there was a climate within Hollywood that allowed films like "Say Anything..." (1989), "Singles" (1992), "Jerry Maguire" (1996) and even "Almost Famous" (2000) to get made in the first place. Nowadays, as Crowe himself has expressed in interviews, a film like "Almost Famous" would never be able to find itself made within this current cinematic climate that stresses box office over originality and personal statements more than ever.

Crowe has indeed had a tough go at it in recent years, especially with his long gestating and critically crucified "Aloha" (2015) existing as his latest Hollywood wound. But, undeterred and forever intrepid, he carried onwards to the medium that may be more suitable for his specific storytelling needs, the world of cable television, where he teamed up with none other than J.J. Abrams and "My So Called Life" creator/writer Winnie Holzman to bring his first television series "Roadies" to vibrant, vivacious life this summer.

"Roadies" takes the audience on the cross country adventures of the behind the scenes road crew for the fictional arena rock group The Staton-House Band, currently embarked upon their "Capture The Flag" tour in promotion of their latest album "Consider The Stars." Under the leadership of Tour Manager Bill Hanson (Luke Wilson) and Production Manager Shelli Anderson (Carla Gugino), the roadies, which include, the brittle and caustic soundboard operator Donna Mancini (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the insecure and unkempt bass guitar tech Milo (Peter Cambor), gruff tour bus driver Gooch (Luis Guzman), the legendary Phil, the beloved King of The Roadies (Ron White), the self-described master of "guitars, people and coffee--in that order," Wes Mason (Colson Baker a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly) and finally, his twin sister, the self-conscious yet fearless skateboarding lighting rigger and hopeful photographer/filmmaker Kelly Ann Mason (the wonderful Imogen Poots) among others.

When The Staton-House Band's record label brings in a financial adviser to crunch the numbers of the tour in the person of Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall), his constant presence represents yet another threat to the purity of the music within an ever changing industry that rapidly reduces art to product while also consistently devaluing the very product they wish to sell--a conceit that troubles Kelly Ann greatly.

Over the course of 10 episodes, we follow the crew that follows the band from city to city with all manner of experiences along the way from hysterical to tender, triumphant to tragic, the romantic and ribald to the blissfully bittersweet all the while becoming deeply involved with the familial bonds between them, not forged through blood but through the shared love of music.

For me, Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" was the very best "feature film" I saw this entire summer--that is, if you thought of this series as being a 10 hour film divided into one hour installments each week. I felt "Roadies" represented Crowe's artistic vision at its peak, easily matching the specific heights when he embarked upon the amazing run that produced "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" and "Vanilla Sky" (2001). 

The television format served Crowe beautifully and brilliantly, as the extended time frame allowed him to delve into his characters, their respective stories, sub plots and sub-sub plots with aplomb and a level of ingenuity that one two-hour feature film may not be able to house as strongly. It was a show that set the stage, so to speak, wonderfully as a companion piece to "Almost Famous," most certainly, in its premiere. But soon, "Roadies" demonstrated how it was a series that would continuously reveal itself, characters and therefore, its soul over time, resulting in a conclusion that was enormously effective and undeniably emotional as my heart simply pounded urgently and achingly and this world brought me to my feet and reduced me to tears--often at the very same time.  

"Roadies" created a richly designed and staggeringly detailed multi-layered universe filled with running jokes and all manner of visual and conceptual accouterments that ensured the world created within "Roadies" was as complete as possible...a world that even extended itself outside into the real world (or the real world as presented on-line).

We were given wonderfully detailed recurring characters like Natalie Shin, the 21st century "band-aid"/stalker (as warmly portrayed by Jacqueline Byers), as well as Staton-House Band superfan Mike Finger (an engaging Ely Henry), creator of the fansite "The Blue and the Black" (incidentally a website fully created in the real world complete with band memorabilia, full discography, concert and album reviews, fan art as well as a link to the 'official' SHB website). We were given an insight into road superstitions and their supposed cures, most specifically introduced in episode 4 entitled "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken," yet the aftershocks continue to play out for the remainder of the series. We were even given a show within the show entitled "Dead Sex," a fictional cable series starring David Spade (and apparently now in its third season), a series all of the characters are obsessed with.  

But then, there was, of course, the music, and as always, Cameron Crowe showcased his impeccable taste with a lovingly curated soundtrack which ran wall-to-wall for each episode (and just so you are all aware, each episode's track list can be found on the official Showtime site as well as Crowe's website "The Uncool")! Furthermore, each episode of "Roadies" featured a "Song Of The Day" selection. And even moreso, we were given the running joke of The Staton-House Band being unable to keep a consistent opening act for the longevity of the tour, a tactic that allowed the series to not only showcase artists like Reignwolf, Lucius, Lindsey Buckingham, The Head and The Heart, Halsey plus others, it served as a means to allow the characters and the viewers at home to luxuriate in the act of listening to music!!

This was just one of the elements that flew directly into the center of my wheelhouse as I feel that for all of the music we are inundated with in society (on the radio, television, movies, clubs, ringtones, etc...), the act of just listening feels like an archaic act. It is as if the Crowe and his show are arguing that the entire listening experience has been lost and that people aren't connecting to music as people once did in the past as music has become nothing more than a fashion accessory. In fact, one character expresses in the series that at concerts, even applause is completely different because in one of everyone's hands sits a smartphone. Where is the space and the place where the music is able to flow so freely that it could possibly change someone's life? "Roadies" celebrates the people, all of whom whose lives have been changed by some song in their past, some song that has indeed led them to their chosen profession, a life on the road and ultimately to each other, this rag-tag rock and roll road warrior family.

And even then, there was the truly genius move on Crowe's part to not ever hear a Staton-House Band song or to ever see the band perform even once within the show, even though the songs, especially the track "Janine," are weaved into, and at times, propel the full 10 episode narrative. In doing so, Crowe was wise enough to leave what "Janine" sounded like to the imaginations of each and every viewer instead of running the risk of composing a real song that just may not fly, like the completely underwhelming symphony that concludes Stephen Herek's "Mr. Holland's Opus" (1995). Besides, this is yet another aspect which runs with the overall theme of the series about people connecting to the music and what that experience means rather than just hearing the song itself. 

Even with all of these elements that I loved so very much, the critical response to "Roadies," however, was mixed at best with many reviews being widely negative and nearly all housing criticisms that the show was too shallow, to uninformative about the life of roadies, and shockingly, a series that possessed underdeveloped characters and a condescending tone that was insufferable. For some of those criticism, I can easily bat them away, especially the ones that bemoaned any sense of informativeness "Roadies" could have offered or presented about the life and occupation of a roadie. To that, I say this:  "Roadies" is not a documentary. Case closed.

Yet, for the remainder of the criticisms...I just do not know and truthfully, I really don't get it. Its strange but I feel that here is where the cable television format has also succumbed to its own trappings, ones that make a creative figure like Cameron Crowe a difficult fit.

We can easily see how the motion picture industry is currently caught at a crossroads and is creatively stagnated because of it as the Hollywood execs do not seem remotely interested in making films about...well...people. I think cable television, as often brilliant as it is these days with programming that is deeply character driven and more visually stimulating and artful than most movies (Sam Esmail's stunning "Mr. Robot," for instance), the medium is also caught at a certain crossroads as nearly every show feels to be strictly tethered to its own specified darkness and collection of anti-heroes, villains and ever deepening levels of bad behavior. It makes me wonder if there is even a place in the visual medium for a artistic sensibility like Cameron Crowe's anymore, one that is unashamedly, unabashedly and unrepentantly earnest, sincere and means every single word of which his characters speak and believe, solely because it feels as if Crowe believes every sentiment himself.

Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" is truly an anomaly on cable television as it is a show of such warmth and generosity as well as a profound lack of cynicism and self-congratulatory hipster irony. In fact, and even for all of the sex and drugs that go with the rock and roll--this series returns Crowe to the R-rated raunchiness of his own "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (1982)--"Roadies" is actually quite innocent, unlike say Martin Scorsese's now defunct rock and roll series "Vinyl" (which I thoroughly enjoyed as well but for completely different reasons), which gleefully wallowed in the graphic, dark, violent, sexually explicit excesses of bad behavior...again which is now a cable television normality. I find it more than admirable that Crowe will remain "uncool" as much as possible just so he is able to tell his stories in the way he wishes them to be told. And to provide a sense of joy in an increasingly dark world so passionately to the point that it is a Quixotian act, makes his specialized brand of integrity so appealing and for me, heroic.

At its core, "Roadies" continues the classic Cameron Crowe theme of discovering and retaining one's integrity in a world where integrity carries increasingly less currency and respect. The roadies on this series are very much in line with past Crowe heroes as they are passionate believers in their chosen occupations, feeling that true success arrives through a certain spiritual deliverance that occurs when one finds their life's purpose, be it a love struck kickboxer, a sports agent struggling to live up to his own self-written mission statement, an aspiring journalist, rock musicians in 1990's Seattle or on tour in the 1970's, a grieving Father and zookeeper, a suicidal shoe developer or a rich playboy on a psychedelic odyssey through dreams, death and beyond.

The overt sincerity of "Roadies" does not mean that the series' lack of cynicism belies the real world struggles within the old and new ways of the music industry. In fact, it is that very struggle where the characters of "Roadies" find their heart and soul while Crowe is freely able to express his joys and laments through them.

In the series premiere episode entitled "Life Is A Carnival," we find The Staton-House Band in the middle of their "Capture The Flag" tour which is creatively stagnated. Their set list has not changed since the previous tour, which leads to some emotional stagnation for Kelly Ann, enough so where she is ready to abandon the rock and roll life on the road altogether for film school. It is within an early scene between herself and the roadie legend Phil, where she sadly expresses in a heart-to-heart moment that "I don't hear the music the same way. I don't feel like it's mine anymore...I don't know if the band is feeling it either....I have to be a fan of something or I'm useless. I'm worker bee on bus #1...My whole just starting to crack."

The power of belief and the purity of one's intentions. Really, dear readers, who can honestly find fault with a sentiment of that sort? Of course, whether we may or may not reach that belief system personally or individually in our own lives, what Cameron Crowe continues to present are characters where it is not enough to just perform a job. The belief in what one is doing fuels the belief in the self yet Crowe understands that such a journey is fraught with confusion, contradictions and all manner of tribulations.

By the conclusion the first episode, Kelly Ann's remarks do find their way to the band who reciprocates by expressing that she was indeed correct and they would begin to change up the concert set lists and now include the infamous and long unplayed "Janine," inspired by the very women who broke Christopher House's (played by Tanc Sade) heart years ago. This one act not only convinces Kelly Ann to remain on tour as a roadie but it also spirals into a myriad of directions, affecting the lives of the entire crew and musicians.

We have Bill Hanson, a lifelong friend to Christopher House, a recovering addict, and one who habitually engages in promiscuous sex with younger women across the country all the while masking his own heartbreak from a failed relationship plus his own increasingly budding romantic feelings towards Shelli Anderson, who is married yet may carry the same feelings in return. Speaking of Shelli, both she and Donna represent two women who feel more at home on the road than in their real homes with their respective families. And even within the band, Tom Staton (played by Catero Alain Colbert) has his young angry son Winston (Ethan MIchael Mora) on the road with the band yet never spends time with him whatsoever, leaving him in the care and guidance of the wildly unorthodox Wes, the guitar tech.

Even greater contradictions revolve around the crew and the band's relationship towards Kelly Ann, who is often criticized for being too self-serious and navel gazing, yet it is more than obvious that she is admired for her impassioned stance and integrity against the initial corporate presence of Reg Whitehead, whom Kelly Ann admonishes for "not understanding the brand that you're trying to sell." Certainly the initial tension between Kelly Ann and Reg leads to a romantic attraction, but even their dance informs the larger story about Red himself, who also reveals himself to be a much deeper, honorable, misunderstood and wholly endearing character than initially thought to be.

Much praise must be delivered to Crowe's wonderful cast, from top to bottom, for embodying these characters with such depth, humor, nuance, heart and soul with the stunning Imogen Poots as the series' rock solid center. I really do not believe that I have ever found Luke Wilson to be so soulful before and his seamless chemistry with Carla Gugino has been the first love story in quite some time to not only move me but one that truly has some heavy stakes at heart. Rafe Spall transcended what could have been a one-note character and beautifully portrayed his evolution to heartbreaking perfection.

And I cannot say enough good things about Ron White as Phil, truly the series' constantly held aloft flame to rock and roll. White's Hoyt Axton styled folksy humor, gravelly charm and demeanor gave way to a shattering gravitas on two of the series strongest episodes, "The All Night Bus Ride" and "The Corporate Gig," and leaving an astoundingly poignant presence upon the final episode "The Load Out," an installment that simultaneously functioned as an elegy to rock and roll as well as to the triumph of its everlasting spirit.  

But somehow, for some viewers and definitely the critics, all of this (and so much more) was just not enough and the critiques just kept coming throughout the season, which ultimately, I began to feel said more about the critics than it did for the show itself. Yes, "Roadies" received some harsh knocks for its depiction of two archetypal villains representing the "new way" of the music industry vs. the purity of the old.

In the episode "The Bryce Newman Letter," Rainn Wilson portrayed the titular character, a highly influential yet enormously arrogant music blogger who is truly an agent of the "industry of cool" as he writes reviews for albums he never listened to and concerts he never even witnessed. He is a blowhard of the utmost degree and when he visits The Staton-House Band tour, he receives his comeuppance. Frankly, for all of the criticism launched against the character, I easily saw him as being representative of the aspect of internet music writers (i.e the staff of Pitchfork) who are clearly not writing for any audience other than the writers they are wishing to impress themselves. They are so obvious with their vitriol and for whom they would launch it against on some misguided set of principles, that you can really know precisely what they will write about an album or band before you even read their reviews.

Another antagonist arrives in the episode entitled "Carpet Season," where Rosanna Arquette guest stars as Abby Van Ness, a world famous photographer whom Kelly Ann has cited as an inspiration, arrives on tour to shoot the SB for the cover of Vanity Fair. This would be a great thing if not for the fact that Van Ness is truly reprehensible and also deserving of her own comeuppance. Again, she represents the figure who has bought their own hype for so long in their career and life that they have completely forgotten what inspired them in the first place, what made them fall in love with their chosen medium of expression, never treating their talent as a gift but their level of celebrity as a right.

While both characters are portrayed in broadly comic fashions, this does not mean that Cameron Crowe has nothing to say through them regarding his themes of integrity and purity. Yet for the critics, they offered nothing constructive. Only snide remarks and insults, therefore fully proving all of the points Crowe was attempting to make! Of course, I wouldn't expect everyone to fall in love with this series as I did but if there is nothing pure within the criticism, then what is the purpose other than to tear something down? And with "Roadies," for all of its sincerity, it is the easiest target in the room, making the supposed cynicism and sanctimony the property of some of the program's detractors and not Cameron Crowe in the least.

Regardless, now, the series has concluded leaving a gigantic hole in my Sunday nights as I have grown so accustomed to hopping on that tour bus and venturing to a new city with a collective of characters who now feel like friends. For all of my confusion with precisely what critics and some viewers may have wanted from this series, Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" delivered to me more than I ever could ask for with the precise amount of dedication, fandom, appreciation, artistry, and of course, the very integrity and purity that has defined Crowe as an artist for decades. While Showtime, as of this writing, has not yet announced whether they will renew or cancel the series, I am deeply hoping they will allow the band, and especially this crew, to have one more go around.

If not, "Roadies" was a series with a definitive beginning, middle and ending that left me shouting "BRAVO!!!!" Of course, I want that encore but you know, maybe the very best encore would be to just watch this beautiful series all over again.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


What an absolutely dismal movie season we had this summer and how thankful I am that it is all mercifully over.

After enduring one of the weakest move seasons in recent memory, I am more than ready to place these three months or so long behind me as I look forward to the future. The fall movie season typically holds many features of (hopefully) higher quality, and in the case of this year, I am just happy to have some new films to actually feel a sense of some anticipation. While September, as I scroll through the releases, looks to be somewhat slim, I am curious about the following...

1. While Oliver Stone, who has long held a spot as one of my most favorite filmmakers, has not created the types of films that I have felt to be equal to his golden period beginning with "Salvador" (1986) and roaring through until "Any Given Sunday" (1999), I do become more than curious when he does re-appear since he is not nearly as prolific as in years past. My gut is telling me to wait to check out the tenor of reviews first but even so, I am curious as to his take on this especially controversial figure.
2. A Ron Howard documentary is something unexpected. But with "The Beatles: Eight Days A Week-The Touring Years," the unexpected has become something of extreme interest to me as this is indeed my favorite band of all time as presented through the filter of this veteran filmmaker.
3. Tim Burton makes his return to the big budget arena with his adaptation of the young adult novel and book series opener "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children." With Burton, it really is hit or miss (with many more hits than misses but those misses tend to be especially tough going), but I am rooting for him.
4. But then, there is this flick..."Yoga Hosers," the second installment in Writer/Director Kevin Smith's flat out bonkers Canadian set "True North Trilogy" is hopefully on the way to my city and I'd better catch it when I am able as I know it won't be here for more than one week. I don't care about the harshly negative early reviews. I just know that whether love it or hate it, Smith has regained his status as one of our most fearless and original filmmakers, so I have to check out whatever he plans to dish out.

And so, I begin again at this point. So, as always, please do send me your well wishes and I'll see you when the house lights go down!