The Bucket List
There's nothing appallingly awful about Rob Reiner's latest about two elderly strangers who find out they both have only a few months left to live and decide to spend it together as kindred spirits carrying out a list of everything they've wanted to do before they die. One is billionaire hospital mogul Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson); the other is mechanic Carter Chambers (professional narrator Morgan Freeman), who has worked every day of his life with only his loving wife and family to show for it. Cole, on the other hand, has an estranged daughter and a persnickety assistant named Thomas (Sean Hayes) to show for his life's work. When the two men end up in the same hospital room, they concoct their master list of things to before they kick the bucket, and Cole sends Thomas to arrange activities such as skydiving, riding a motorcycle across China's Great Wall, sitting atop the Great Pyramids, eating the finest food and racing sports cars around a racetrack.
Sounds like fun, right? The problem is the movie violates my number one truism about films in general: there is nothing more boring than watching other people have fun. Granted, when the people are Freeman and Nicholson, things are a little less tedious, but that doesn't take away from the fact that simply observing these life-changing events one after another grows tiresome. With Reiner at the helm, you might expect the film to be overly jokey, but the truth is the film is sometimes too sentimental for its own good at the expense of humor. Subplots about Freeman trying to trick Nicholson into reconciling with his daughter and Freeman's wife chastising him for not spending his final months with the family really drag down this tale, which is a tough thing to do in a film that barely cracks the 90-minute mark. But The Bucket List's goals are far from lofty, and I'll admit I feel a bit guilty coming down on it so hard. The truth is I liked seeing these two Oscar-winning pros together in a film; they play off each other nicely. Freeman's "gentle-soul" routine softens Nicholson's characteristic wise-ass persona, while Nicholson inspires a bit of edginess in Freeman. Both adjustments are greatly appreciated.
Rob Reiner crossed the 60-year-old milestone last year, and I can't help but think that this film (from a script by Justin Zackham) is meant to commemorate that in some way. He's never been a subtle filmmaker with either his dramas or his comedies, but when he succeeds in entertaining (which he did as recently as his last film, Rumor Has It), for some reason it makes me happy. He made some of the pivotal films of my youth (This Is Spinal Tap; Misery; Stand By Me; The Princess Bride; and When Harry Met Sally, to name a few). I hardly think I'm cutting the man any slack with this review of The Bucket List, but the truth is I was entertained by it more than I wasn't. That's hardly a rousing endorsement, I know, and that's because this film doesn't quite deserve it. But it's an easy film to watch, even if doesn't rock your universe as much as another film on the subject of "How to Spend Your Final Months on Earth" potentially could.
Pointing out the flaws in this passable Ice Cube-Tracy Morgan comedy is a bit like going to the beach and singling out individual grains of sand. The plot about two desperately broke men who rob the church coffers is chock full of sincere positive messages about forgiveness and community, and it's just as loaded with incredibly irresponsible themes about lying to the police about being held hostage at gunpoint just because the robbers/hostage takers turn out to be good guys going through a rough patch. But First Sunday is one of those films that has just enough going for it to at least be moderately entertained by it. I'm in no way dismissing the film's homophobic humor, stereotypes and low-class treatment of women, but there are a handful of actors and scenes that made this movie bearable.
As much as Ice Cube has effectively abandoned his career as a serious actor, Tracy Morgan finally has something resembling a chance at film roles. He's very funny here and even gets a couple scenes in which he emotes a little. Also capturing my eye is comic Kat Williams, who is growing on me one bad film at a time. This is the first time, however, that I thought he added something to the proceedings as the church's flamboyant choir director…yes, I said flamboyant. On the more serious side of things, I was happy to get a mini-"Boston Public" reunion with Chi McBride and Loretta Devine pulling down the heavy dramatic moments playing the church preacher and loyal church member, respectively. These two actors are on my short list of people I just love seeing in anything; they've both been in their share of junk, but they are so rarely bad, I'm almost overjoyed to see them.
The film comes to us courtesy of writer-director David E. Talbert. Although this is his first feature film, Talbert is one of the more recognizable names in writing and directing black theatre and "inspirational" musicals. He still has a ways to go as a strong filmmaker, but Tyler Perry made the transition from stage to screen work, so why not Talbert too? First Sunday is a dud with moments of inspiration that add up to enough for me to recommend the film, but there have already been worse crimes committed against screens in America this year than this movie.
Kurt Cobain: About a Son
Making the film festival circuit since the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and the art house circuit since late last year is this insightful and sometimes chilling profile of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. It's almost impossible for me to believe that we're coming up on the 14th anniversary of Cobain's suicide, but as I watched this curious documentary, I was reminded of the many reasons I found the man such a fascinating and frustrating creature. Without the rights (or at least to money to acquire the rights) to any Nirvana songs and almost no images of Cobain in the film other than a few intense black-and-white shots of Nirvana in concert, director AJ Schnack (who made the fantastic They Might Be Giants' doc Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns) has compiled a wholly different kind of music biopic. More like an impressionistic film about Cobain's world, About a Son allows Cobain to narrate his own story by compiling excerpts from more than 25 hours of audio interviews he did with music writer Michael Azerrad, who wrote the book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (which features interviews with all three band members).
You could spend days psychoanalyzing Cobain's often moody and temperamental exchanges with Azerrad, but it's clear he probably felt more free and open talking to this man above all other journalists. People have tended to focus on the more than one occasion that Cobain makes reference to "blowing his brains out," but there are far more tragic passages in this film, especially from later in his career when the press decided to make him and wife Courtney Love a target of ridicule and misinformation. The bombardment clearly made him understandably paranoid. Visually, Schnack chooses to show images of modern Seattle and surrounding Washington towns where Cobain lived and grew up in an effort to piece together an atmosphere of the singer's history rather than simply give a series of photos or video images of Cobain the child or budding young musician. It's an unusual way to make a film like this, especially since you don't even see Cobain's face in the film until about an hour in. Music documentaries are probably my favorite kind of docs, and I see so many conventional ones in a given year that it gets a bit tiresome. About a Son takes a bit of getting used to, but any shortcomings the movie may have seem overshadowed by so many uninterrupted minutes of listening to Cobain's articulate, confused, pained, funny, angry and uncensored voice. The film quickly made me realize how much I'd heard "about" him without actually hearing "from" him. This is a rare and essential film for any Nirvana and/or Cobain admirer. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival
If you're a fan of concert films, then the name Murray Lerner is probably familiar to you, for it was he who first captured Bob Dylan losing his mind and going electric in front of a hostile crowd and an enraged Pete Seeger (if you believe the stories) at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 in the legendary film Festival. Lerner also captured the Isle of Wight Festival featuring Jimi Hendrix and The Who in rare form, but it is for the Newport event that many people remember him best. Released on DVD at the end of 2007 and now playing for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning today, The Other Side of the Mirror shows the first stage of Dylan's evolutionary process (the first of many) by highlighting performances he gave from 1963 to 1965. He is but a mere boy in '63 playing and joking his way through "Talkin' World War III Blues" or in a duet with Joan Baez "With God on Our Side" at an afternoon workshop. But you see hints of defiance during a solo evening performance of "Only a Pawn in Their Game."
The 1964 show marked the transition from protest singer to poet as he debuted the as-yet-unreleased "Mr. Tambourine Man" and absolutely floored the crowd with his marathon "Chimes of Freedom" closer. Perhaps one of the coolest pieces of footage in a film so rich with previous unseen performances is a snippet of Johnny Cash paying tribute to one of his favorite new singers in a rendition of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." But the film's highlight is the surprise appearance of Dylan with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on two songs ("Maggie's Farm" and "Like a Rolling Stone"), which he quickly (almost apologetically) followed with acoustic takes on "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." The film enthusiastically chronicles not only Dylan's sloppy first steps into rock music but also the reaction from the crowd. For a bunch of anti-status-quo hippies, they sure wanted Dylan to stick to their preconceived notions of what style of music he should play. It's an interesting bit of '60s hypocrisy. The film's stark black-and-white look makes anyone on stage in the lone spotlight look about as isolated as humanly possible. And for Dylan, that seems entirely appropriate. Festival has always been one of my all-time favorite music documents, and this companion work isolates the performer who perhaps best represents why Newport Folk was such a pivotal festival event during this period. This isn't a movie you should just see; you should own this baby.
Love Lived on Death Row
If you're a fan of documentaries, the Gene Siskel Film Center is in the midst of an impressive selection of doc premieres under the label "Stranger Than Fiction." Some of the higher-profile works are getting week-long runs, while others are getting two plays. Love Lived on Death Row is a powerful effort from director Linda Booker about the Syriani family, whose first-generation immigrant patriarch Elias killed his wife in 1990 in North Carolina and was sentenced to death, partly on the testimony of his then-young son, who saw the murder. Fourteen years later, the grown children of Elias petitioned the governor for clemency after a long and painful process that led to them forgiving their father's deed and wanting desperately not to lose both parents. This unlikely set of circumstances stemmed from a letter-writing effort by Meg Eggleston, who was inspired by Sister Helen Prejean's (of Dead Man Walking fame and who does appear in this film) belief that communicating with death row inmates not only comforted them but often made them take steps toward asking for forgiveness.
The family's highly publicized fight to keep their father alive got them on "Good Morning America" and "The Larry King Show," and eventually got them a face to face with the governor, which is quite rare in these cases. Their campaign and emotional journey is impossible to imagine, but Booker does a fantastic job of capturing the ever-changing mindset of these children (one of whom was pregnant during the weeks leading up to the scheduled execution) as they are reunited with and struggle to get to know their father again. The film's only shortcoming may be that we don't hear anything from anyone who favors Syriani's execution by lethal injection, but the family makes an excellent point that they were the only ones hurt by this crime, so the fact that they forgive their father should hold a great deal of weight with the justice system. The unveiling of this story is done nicely with just the proper amount of suspense tossed in to keep you on the edge of your seat about the outcome (the filmmakers did not follow these events while they were happening, so the participants are all remembering the events, which does undercut the drama slightly).
Love Lived on Death Row will play Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8:00pm, and Monday, Jan. 14 at 6:00pm. Director Linda Booker will be present for both screenings, while Meg Eggleston with members of the Syriani family are tentatively set to be present for discussion at the Saturday screening. This is clearly the screening to get tickets for early.