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Jakob Dylan and band (foreground) play a tune by the Byrds

“ECHO IN THE CANYON”  My rating: (Opens at the Fine Arts)

82 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: I may not be the ideal individual to review “Echo in the Canyon,”  Andrew Slater’s doc about the musicians who lived and created in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon from 1965 to ’67.

We’re largely talking about the  Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, two groups with which I’ve been semi-obsessed for more than 50 years. So, yes, I’m a fanboy and “Echo…” is like a dream come true.

That said, I don’t think you have to be of any particular age to appreciate this narrow but flavorful slice of pop music history. Divided almost equally between talking heads and musical performances, this doc is tuneful, insightful and, yeah, awesomely nostalgic.

Our guide is musician Jakob Dylan (yep…Bob’s son) who in 2015 produced a tribute LP of songs from the Laurel Canyon era and followed that up with a concert of the same material.

He interviews lots of folk — producer Lou Adler, musicians like Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, Graham Nash and Tom Petty — for their memories and impressions.

Among the artists who re-interpret the classic songs are Fiona Apple, Beck, Norah Jones, Cat Power and Regina Spektor.

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Andrew Garfield

“UNDER THE SILVER LAKE” My rating: C (Opens July 19 at the Screenland Armour; also on Amazon Prime)

139 minutes | MPAA rating: R

David Robert Mitchell’s “Under Silver Lake” looks so good while evoking a palpable aura of dread (despite its sunny setting) that it pains to report that the movie makes no damn sense.

If you had to categorize it, “Silver Lake” might fall in the “amateur sleuth” category — a twenty something Los Angelino goes looking for his missing neighbor (an eroticism-radiating beauty, naturally) and discovers things he was never looking for.

To be charitable, Mitchell’s screenplay is much more about the search than the solving; still, after nearly 2 1/2 hours of wandering through a world of pointless parties and bizarre developments it’s a disappointment not to get some answers.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is jobless and aimless. He’s facing eviction and the repossession of his car, but doesn’t seem overly concerned. Instead he eavesdrops on the female residents of his apartment complex. There’s the lady who tends to her pet birds topless. And especially there’s the gorgeous blonde who likes late-night swims.

Her name is Sarah (Riley Keough…Elvis’ granddaughter); she’s obsessed with classic movies and while swimming likes to strike poses that mimic those of Marilyn Monroe in a famous poolside photo shoot shortly before her death.

Sam is invited to her apartment to watch one of her faves (“How to Marry a Millionaire” with Marilyn, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable). The evening ends chastely, and the next day Sam is puzzled to find the apartment empty. Sarah is missing; so are her roommates, all the furniture. All that’s left behind is a box of snapshots.

And the chase is on. Continue Reading »

“THE LION KING” My rating:  B- (Opens wide on July 19)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The original 1994 “Lion King” was classic Disney animation featuring hand drawn backgrounds and characters — or if  computers sometimes were used, at least the final product appeared to be hand drawn.

A quarter century later we get a “Lion King” redux done in a live-action format…though one cannot begin to figure out what (if anything) is live and what rendered through the ones and zeroes of digital animation.

There are moments, especially early on, when Jon Favreau’s updating of the beloved yarn offers such a sumptuous  visual feast that the eye and mind struggle to take it all in.

Against an absolutely believable African landscape lifelike lions, elephants, impalas, hyenas and other creatures do their things.  Your senses tell you that these are real animals filmed in action (after all, the great Caleb Deschenal — “The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Passion of the Christ” — is credited as cinematographer)…except that invariably these creatures do something no animal ever could.

A lion tamer with years to refine his act could never get actual big cats to hit their marks, strike perfect poses and execute complicated action sequences. Not to mention move their mouths to utter dialogue in human voices.

Indeed, I have no idea how this was done. Were live animals filmed and then digitally diddled to make them do the impossible?  Do the backgrounds even exist? Or were they built entirely in the computer?

Let it be said up front that “The Lion King” is one of the most amazing-looking films of all time. The work Favreau did a couple of years back on the similarly-rendered  “Jungle Book” looks a bit  primitive by comparison.

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Jesse Eisenberg

“THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE” My rating: B- (Opens wide on July 19)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Martial arts build character, hone physical strength, enhance self defense skills and instill discipline and obedience.

That’s the sales pitch, anyway.

But as we learned from the thuggish dojo rats who tormented Ralph Macchio in  “The Karate Kid” (not to mention the Bushido-inspired atrocities of World War II-era Japan), those attributes also make martial arts a fertile breeding ground for fascism.

In “The Art of Self-Defense” writer/director Riley Stearns delivers a deadpan black comedy that turns the whole self-improvement scenario inside out.  A milquetoast wimp (Jesse Eisenberg, always the very essence of cinematic wimp) trains so that he can stand up to bullies; in the process he becomes that which he hates.

Casey (Eisenberg) is a sad, lonely misfit.  He’s an accountant at a firm where the other employees regard him as an odd duck (if they take notice of him at all). His sole relationship is with his sad-eyed Dachshund. He dreams of going to France and in fact is studying the language, but even there he anticipates defeat. Currently he’s working on the phrase “I don’t want any trouble, sir. I’m just a tourist.”

Nearly beaten to death by a gang of cycle-riding assailants, Casey takes indefinite sick leave and retreats to a life of booze straight from the bottle and failed masturbation attempts (he can’t do it while his dog’s watching).

He fills out the paperwork to purchase a handgun, but before he can pick it up he stumbles into the strip mall dojo run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola in what may be his best role ever).

Sensei (real name Leslie, but we won’t learn that until much later) talks nonstop martial arts platitudes. Karate, he bloviates, is a language, a way of communication. “We form words with our fists and feet.”

With his mix of serene philosophy and physical menace Sensei comes off as the love child of the Dalai Lama and a Marine drill instructor. The wonder of Nivola’s blowhard performance (and Stearns’ writing) is how those woo-woo banalities slowly but surely shift into  threatening machismo. The entire film is a slow-building study in insanity.

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Jessie Buckley

“WILD ROSE” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The struggling young artist with an impossible musical dream has been a movie staple since the advent of sound.

Tom Harper’s “Wild Rose” recycles many of the usual tropes before putting a distinctive spin on the genre; above all else this Scottish film heralds the arrival of Jessie Buckley as a major talent.

We’ve seen the Irish-born Buckley before. In 2013’s “Beast” she played a withdrawn girl who falls for a boy who may be a serial killer; she was terrific but the movie was too much of a downer to create much buzz.

This is not the case with “Wild Rose.”

We meet Buckley’s Rose-Lynn on her last day in prison on a drug conviction. Outfitted with an ankle monitor (which she hides inside a pair of white cowboy boots) she returns to the two young children she left behind — though not before a quick shag in the park with her ex and a visit to Glasgow’s version of the Grand Ole Opry, a country music emporium that was once her home base.

The homecoming is strained. Her son and daughter have all but forgotten her and her mother (the great Julie Waters), who has been caring for them in Rose-Lynn’s absence, is more than a little dubious of her errant daughter’s commitment to responsibility.

Here’s the thing: Rose-Lynn isn’t just an accomplished screwup (though she is); she’s also  a country music fanatic whose forearm bears a tattoo reading “Three chords and the truth,” her explanation of country music’s essence. All her life she has dreamed of singing professionally…but a Scottish country singer? C’mon.

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“TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM”  My rating: B

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

It’s about time.

At age 87 writer/editor/educator Toni Morrison has won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize and her novels — Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and Jazz — can be rightly said to have made major contributions to American literature.

But there’s never been a major documentary about Morrison, an oversight director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders corrects with “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

Drawing upon a small army of big-name admirers –among them Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz  and her editor Robert Gottlieb — Greenfield-Sanders intersperses talking-head observations with vintage newsreels, family photos and Morrison’s own testimony (recorded in sessions going back to the ’70s) to create a panoramic history of her life and career.

We hear of her childhood in Loraine Ohio and get from the author an amazing story about her grandfather, who boasted of having read the Bible at a time when Negro literacy was illegal in some states. In another story she recalls how an obscenity scribbled on the sidewalk outside their house infuriated her mother.

Both incidents, she recalls, taught her that “Words have power.”

College, a failed marriage, two sons…and a job editing at a small publishing firm that was absorbed by book giant random house. Morrison edited other writers’ books while working on her own (usually in the hours before sunrise, while her children were still sleeping).

Early criticism of her work was, in retrospect, borderline racist. White critics admired her style but cautioned that as long as she insisted on writing “just” about the black experience she was doomed to the literary fringes.

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Himash Patel

“YESTERDAY” My rating: B-

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

As gimmicks go, “Yesterday” has a killer.

A struggling Brit musician gets creamed in a roadway accident and wakes up to a world where no one has ever heard of the Beatles. He starts performing all those great songs (like the rest of us, he’s committed them to memory) and is hailed as a pop music genius. Only problem is the guilt he feels for getting rich and famous off the talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who apparently never existed.

The big question here is whether “Yesterday” has anything to offer beyond its clever premise and its collection of gobsmackingly great Beatles tunes.

Kinda.

As written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Pirate Radio”) and directed by Danny Boyle (possibly the most diversified filmmaker working today), “Yesterday” is an affable romantic comedy/fantasy with a nice star turn by  Himash Patel (a British TV actor making his big-screen debut). Patel not only embodies an in-over-his-head innocent but has the pipes to deliver in the musical sequences.

We meet our hero, warehouse worker Jack Malik (Patel), on the verge of giving up his dream of ever becoming a successful musician. He has a manager — actually, it’s his childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) — but the only gigs coming his way are kiddie parties and open mic nights at various seedy pubs. He does get to play in a regional tent at a big rock festival, but most of his audience consists of a handful of friends who come to all his shows.

No sooner has he told Ellie that he’s packing it in than the lights go out all over the world for about 12 seconds.  That’s enough time for the bicycle-riding Jack to collide with a bus.

In the accident’s aftermath, though, weird things happen.  He drops references to the Beatles (one of the film’s cleverer aspects is that it shows how many phrases from the Fab Four’s lyrics have become common parlance…sort of like quotes from Shakespeare) and is bewildered when nobody seems to know what he’s talking about.

When he plays “Yesterday” for some pals they are blown away and want to know why he’s been hiding such a great tune.

A trip to Google confirms Jack’s worst fears.  A search for “The Beatles” turns up only entomological websites. (One of the film’s running gags is that over time Jack discovers that other aspects of his old reality have vanished.  For instance, there is no Coca-Cola, only Pepsi, and nobody has ever heard of cigarettes; one assumes that public health has improved immeasurably.)

The film’s strongest moments come early on as Jack discovers his situation and finds himself being propelled into worldwide notoriety. He tours with Ed Sheeran (playing himself quite effectively) and even “debuts” “Back in the U.S.S.R.” at a Moscow concert.

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Luciano Pavarotti

“PAVAROTTI” My rating: B+ 

114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

One needn’t be an opera fan to be swept up in Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti,” a sympathetic but never sycophantic documentary about the man (1935-2007) widely regarded as the greatest tenor ever.

Sure, the film’s two hours are crammed with great music, but perhaps even more importantly, “Pavarotti” provides an indelible study of an outsized personality who, at his best, showered joy on just about everyone he encountered.

Through liberal use of archival footage and photos, Howard’s film describes Pavarotti’s rise, fueled by that incredible voice (he could  hit a high C that would raise the hair on the back of your neck).

It describes how he became a phenomenon in the U.S. giving recitals in small towns (William Jewell College in Liberty MO hosted the tenor on several occasions), how he teamed up with manager Herbert Breslin (often described as the most ruthless man in opera), who promoted his client from mere singer to world-recognized figure. (“A nice guy needs a bastard,” one talking head observes.)

Indeed, Pavarotti appears to have been a genuinely nice man, which is not to say he was perfect.

We learn that he was capable of bad moods and could be demanding. He traveled with a huge entourage — not out of ego (he appears to have been disarmingly modest) but because he hated being alone on the road.

That in part explains the joy he felt as one of the Three Tenors, sharing the stage with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras for innumerable concerts and recordings.

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Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson

“LATE NIGHT” My rating: C+

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The funniest moments in Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” depict the consternation of a bunch of Ivy League-educated white-guy TV joke writers upon earning that they have to share their workplace with a woman.

A woman of color.

A woman who is as nice as they are jaded.

“Late Night” was written by (and stars) comedy phenom Mindy Kaling, who knows what it’s like to be the only minority woman in the joint. While in interviews Kaling has taken pains to point out that she personally was never treated as badly as her character is, her depiction of life in a male-dominated writers’ room roils with sexual conflict and class consciousness.

In other words, on certain topics the film is as timely as hell.

Alas, in other important areas it feels tired, cliched and passe.

The ever-watchable Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, long-time host of a late-night TV talk show.  Early on she’s paid a visit by a network bigwig (Amy Ryan) who almost gleefully informs her that she’s being replaced with someone hipper, funnier and more willing to push the envelope.

Faced with a career that is circling the drain,  Katherine makes a rare appearance in her show’s writers’ room to stir up the troops. She doesn’t really know these guys and in fact  has banned them from the set.  Unwilling to learn their names, she assigns each of them a number.

Perhaps some diversity would help. How about a woman writer?

Enter Molly (Kaling), an aspiring comic who works in a chemical plant and only gets a job interview because the same conglomerate that owns her factory also owns the network.  Against all odds — and with absolutely no professional resume —  she’s hired.

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Taron Egerton as Elton John

“ROCKETMAN” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from “Rocketman” — probably just another musical biopic — but this retelling of the rise and near-fall of Elton John is nothing short of terrific.

Oh, sure, it has the standard-issue narrative — musical genius rises from nothing to fame and fortune, then almost loses it all in a whirlwind of drugs, drink and ego — but writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and director Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle”) keep finding inventive, eye-popping ways to tell the story.

It doesn’t hurt that they had access to the Elton John musical library of hits (at one time he was selling nearly five percent of all albums worldwide) or that young star Taron Egerton (of the “Kingsmen” franchise) is absolutely riveting in the transformational starring role.

Toss in a slew of very fine supporting performances (especially Jamie Bell as Elton’s long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin) and you have one of the best musical biopics ever made, one that blows “Bohemian Rhapsody” out of the water.

The film begins with the flamboyantly attired Elton (orange sequined jumpsuit, red angel wings, horned helmet) charging into a rehab group session.

As he “shares” with the other addicts, the film shoots back in time to the boyhood of little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley), keyboard genius and unloved son of an emotionally numb military man (Steven Mackintosh) and a borderline floozie mum (Bryce Dallas Howard, utterly convincing as a working-class British mater).

The first sign of just how off the rails this film is willing to go comes early with a scene set in the local pub where the teenage Reggie (now played by Egerton) witnesses a bar brawl and in one complex, uninterrupted shot stumbles out into the streets singing “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fightin’,” weaving in and out of dozens of gyrating dancers.

It’s a bacchanal of music and sex and heavy-breathing (it’ll leave audiences breathless) and announces that “Rocketman,” though remarkably factual, will at times be played like a Felliniesque musical fantasy. (At times I was reminded of Julie Taymor’s Beatles tribute “Across the Universe”…and that’s a very good sign.)

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Jimmie Falls (at right)

“THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO” My rating

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Less a conventional narrative than an extended tone poem, Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is bursting at the seams with color, movement and, quite often, stillness.

It dabbles in big contemporary issues (race, gentrification, crime, dead-end machismo, the changing urban landscape) but never makes a big statement, preferring just to sit back and soak it all up.

Most of all it’s the story of a friendship between two men — African American men — who share a dream against the odds.

In a sense, this is a love story about a man and a house.  Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is quietly obsessed with a Victorian gingerbread home on one of San Francisco’s scenic streets. He has been told — and he absolutely believes — that this imposing structure was hand-built by his grandfather in the late 1940s.

The family somehow lost the property, but now Jimmie is determined to get it back.  He’s so committed to this project that he frequently sneaks onto the property when the current owners aren’t around to paint and make repairs.

Sharing his vision is his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). Montgomery is a fish monger by trade, a playwright by avocation.  (Neither of these guys is dumb, which makes their devotion to the cause all the more touching.)

Currently Jimmie is living with Montgomery and the latter’s blind grandpa (Danny Glover); a typical night at home usually involves an old noir movie with Montgomery providing a running commentary on the action so the old man can appreciate the visuals he can no longer see. Continue Reading »