Joker – The No B.S., Spoiler-Free, One-Paragraph Review

Tired of all the long-winded, unreliable nonsense on Rotten Tomatoes? Here’s all you need to know in 1 minute.

 
Both an effective study in mental illness and plausible origin story for the greatest villain in comic book history. A ‘70s movie in look and spirit (to the point of utilizing the old Warner Bros. logos), this is as dark and gritty a film as you will ever get from DC. You feel the sleaze and grime of a pseudo-Times Square Gotham City oozing off of every frame. Director Todd Phillips’ obvious influences range from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (with a very knowing turn from Robert DeNiro), to the bleak tone and psychological complexity of both the 1988 comic-book classic The Killing Joke and Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight. While the movie plays its hand for perhaps one scene too many, the story and overall vision remain compelling throughout. As for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, the biggest compliment I can pay is that his unique and deeply-committed portrayal more than justifies this post-Heath Ledger spin on the character. Expect an Oscar nod for Phoenix, as well as a different (and less Marvel-aping) direction for future DC offerings.

Final Rating:
Opening Weekend
First Theatrical Run
Discount Theater
4K/Blu-ray purchase
Redbox rental/Streaming
Free Telemundo premiere

Rambo: Last Blood – The NO B.S., Spoiler-Free, One-Paragraph Review

Tired of all the long-winded, unreliable nonsense on Rotten Tomatoes? Here’s all you need to know in 1 minute.

The original Superhuman action hero returns for a “final” round of gratuitous carnage. So the big question is, after apparently wrapping up the John Rambo saga with 2008’s satisfying Rambo, is Rambo: Last Blood worth the trip back to the well? At 73 years old, Sylvester Stallone is still convincing as a grizzled action star. He still has the aura and physicality. Unfortunately, the movie is a low-budget, cobbled together mess. If it was just another generic, straight-to-Netflix action-thriller, it would be semi-passable. However, the character of John Rambo deserved a deeper and more epic chapter this time around. The story is weak, as is the amateurish direction by Adrian Grunberg. It’s all a pretty cheap and by-the-numbers affair and by the time you get to the climactic bloodbath at the end, it carries about as much weight as Taken: Part 15. This is a shambolic finale that adds nothing to the mythology of the series, and it had the potential to be so much more. Stallone should have quit while he was ahead with the Rambo saga.

Final Rating:

Opening Weekend

First Theatrical Run

Discount Theater

4K/Blu-ray purchase

Redbox rental/Streaming

Free Telemundo premiere

Echo in the Canyon (Blu-ray) – The NO B.S., Spoiler-Free, One-Paragraph Review

Tired of all the long-winded, unreliable nonsense on Rotten Tomatoes? Here’s all you need to know in 1 minute.

As sunny and idealized as you’d imagine a documentary on the mid-60’s Laurel Canyon music scene to be. Brimming with the youth, beauty, and prodigious talent of the era, this serves as both an affectionate tribute and handing of the torch thanks to the larger vision of director Andrew Slater and time capsule tour guide Jakob Dylan. Part of Echo in the Canyon features interviews with luminaries such as Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Michelle Phillips, and other legends of the period (or those influenced by them, such as the last on-camera interview with the late, reverential Tom Petty). Another part showcases contemporary talent such as Beck, Norah Jones, and Cat Power interpreting peerless songs from the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Buffalo Springfield. The combination works well, illuminating the ripple effect of a bygone sonic and philosophical sensibility that will not be matched anytime soon. Echo in the Canyon shimmers as brightly as the twang of a 12-string Rickenbacker.  As for the Blu-ray version, I would have easily rated it a Purchase, but did not due to the total absence of extras (which this release was ripe for).

Final Rating:

Purchase

Rent

Use disc as coaster

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (Blu-ray) – The NO B.S., Spoiler-Free, One-Paragraph Review

Tired of all the long-winded, unreliable nonsense on Rotten Tomatoes? Here’s all you need to know in 1 minute.

Having long surpassed The Matrix as Keanu Reeves’ best movie franchise, the John Wick series makes a few key missteps in Chapter 3. While the set design, cinematography, and fight choreography remain incomparable (particular kudos to the ongoing, neon-noir visual motif), things are starting to veer into self-parody, much like the Fast and Furious saga did after part 5. The first 20 minutes are as sharp and suspenseful as anything in the previous two entries, sustaining the razor’s-edge paranoia and high-stakes of the brilliant Chapter 2. At 55, Reeves remains a physical wonder in this redefining role. His athleticism and next-level dedication (clearly seen in the Blu-ray extras) is at times jaw-dropping. Halle Berry, still super-fit and sexy at 53, also brings the badassery in an intensely physical performance. Where things start to go wrong is when the film waaay oversteps the line of plausibility in both plot and action (and that’s saying a lot with this series). There are too many moments of comedic relief, and instead of going for a tight, all-time great trilogy, the producers have decided to go the open-ended Bond route which will only lead to diminished returns down the road.  Entertaining and action-packed, but simultaneously disappointing. Blu-ray extras, however, are generous and essential viewing for die-hards. The creative team shines, while also showing the first signs of big-budget over-indulgence.

Final Rating:

Purchase

Rent

Use disc as coaster

 

IT Chapter Two – The NO B.S., Spoiler-Free, One-Paragraph Review

Tired of all the long-winded, unreliable nonsense on Rotten Tomatoes? Here’s all you need to know in 1 minute.

More creepy, King-style clowning around with an expertly-chosen adult ensemble supplanting Chapter One’s expertly-chosen kiddie cast. Plot, structure, and climax pretty much mirrors the first IT, right down to the separation and re-bonding of the Loser’s Club, but done with enough style, genuine darkness, and entertainment value to nearly justify the almost-3-friggin’-hour length. Bonus points for slightly less Pennywise screen time as it (no pun intended) spared the character from going full-on camp. Overall, the film retains the heart, humor, and creep-out factor of the first installment, while sticking the landing more effectively than the 1990 mini-series. On a scale from Opening Weekend, First Theatrical Run, Discount Theater, 4K/Blu-ray purchase, Redbox rental/Streaming, all the way down to free Telemundo premiere, I say go see IT Chapter Two during its First Theatrical Run.

Concert Review – Phil Collins gives fans One More Night at the United Center

Coming out of retirement has been one of the longest-running clichés in show business history. Many rock performers have even turned it into a running gag with “farewell” tours that clearly capitalize on the goodwill of fans (The Eagles’ Final Farewell 1 and Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tours II both immediately come to mind). For Phil Collins, one of only three musicians in history to sell 100+ million albums both as part of a group and as a solo artist (the other two being Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson), the motivations clearly ran deeper than money or the glamour of fame. Once a hyperkinetic, eager-to-please performer on stage, Collins has physically been reduced to a frail 67 year old, walking with the assistance of a cane due to back surgery and nerve damage. As Collins himself joked at the start of Monday night’s concert at the United Center (his first since the triumphant Genesis reunion tour of 2007), “Getting old sucks”. It was this kind of self-deprecating charm that went a long way towards bridging the gap between what he once was and what he is today.

Taking the stage alone to a solitary spotlight and greeting the sold-out audience, Collins immediately addressed his physical condition and let everyone know that he would be seated for most of the night. For many who weren’t aware of his ailments, it served as the first surprise of the night, but it also helped establish a unique intimacy and emotional connection that served, rather than hindered, the underlying pathos of most of his best songs. Also, the way Collins chose to bookend the evening was artful and heartrending. Opening with 1984’s “Against All Odds,” the lyrics immediately took on a new poignancy – against all odds, Collins managed to stage this late-career comeback and when he reached the vocal hook “Take a look at me now,” it was a brave statement (much like his recent solo catalogue reissues, which featured updated portraits of his aged visage on the covers in place of the originals).

 

phil-collins-album-covers-take-a-look-at-me-now-15.jpg
Both Sides, then and now

 

From there, the stage curtain lifted to reveal Collins’ stellar band for this cheekily-named Not Dead Yet tour (comprised of many longtime collaborators including guitarist Daryl Stuermer, the legendary Leland Sklar on bass, and childhood friend Ronnie Caryl on second guitar) and they immediately segued into the elegant shimmer of “Another Day in Paradise,” with tasteful nylon guitar licks courtesy of Stuermer. The song, like almost all of Collins’ best material, is rich in both mood and tasteful arrangement. And for most of the evening, Collins was in strong voice. Like most touring singers in his age group, there’s been some loss of his uppermost range, but he compensated by dropping the keys of many songs (something he also did during the 2007 Genesis tour) and taking full advantage of four soulful backup vocalists. Otherwise his distinctive, nasally tone still placed an unmistakable stamp on hit-after-vintage-hit (he sounded his absolute best on slower ballads like “Separate Lives” and deep-cut gem “You Know What I Mean”). His natural charisma also served him well throughout the night.

Along with early throwbacks to his very first solo album (1981’s classic Face Value), such as “I Missed Again,” he also slotted in a few Genesis hits like “Throwing it All Away” and “Follow You, Follow Me”. Played back-to-back, the latter two song choices seemed intentionally sequenced as musically, thematically and emotionally, both mirror each other perfectly and have always had a similar heart-tugging effect. Other, more up-tempo album tracks like “Who Said I Would” and “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” showcased the tour’s stellar horn section (a solo-Collins staple).  The musicianship throughout the entire show was first class and more than made up for Collins’ physical limitations.

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Which brings us to the wild card of the evening. In what could have been a blatant case of pure nepotism, Collins chose his own son Nicholas (or more commonly, Nic) to play his signature drum parts for this tour. His first show was at the age of fourteen as his father slowly re-entered public life back in 2015. It sounded suspect at the time, but in what turned out to be the night’s second biggest surprise, the now 17 year-old Nic Collins stole the show at the United Center. Inheriting his father’s talent on both drums and piano (as well as his onstage energy), Nic proved to be a dynamo all night. He had his father’s unique drum sound and fills down pat and he shone especially bright during the “Drum Trio” portion of the show, where he laid down thunderous rolls with percussionist Richie Garcia. Both drummers eventually joined Collins Sr. at the front of the stage and continued the rhythmic assault on Cajon boxes. It was great to see Phil Collins display his still-expert sense of timing and showmanship. Definitely one of the major highlights of the evening.

After a poignant version of the aforementioned “You Know What I Mean” (with just father and son on stage), the show reached perhaps its emotional climax with the one song everyone bought a ticket for: the still goose bump-inducing “In the Air Tonight”. Having already established Nic Collins as a major player on this tour, his take on the classic drum break in the song (so classic it undoubtedly made his father’s solo career) was necessarily faithful and powerful. It was also the one song Phil Collins bothered to stand for all evening, which perversely added even more drama and theatricality to the performance. The song’s potency remains undiminished.

From that point forward, the show turned into a high-energy, greatest-hits parade with Collins’ classic cover of The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Genesis’ “Invisible Touch,” his 1984 Philip Bailey duet “Easy Lover,” and the ubiquitous “Sussudio” all garnering the strongest audience responses of the night. By the time he symbolically closed the show with the elegiac “Take Me Home,” Phil Collins had turned a once-sad retirement into a bittersweet victory lap laden with subtle contemplations of aging and loss. It was a brave move, perhaps the boldest of Collins’ legendary career. For all of the syrupy sentimentality and silky-smooth aural sheen of his mid-late solo work, there is real grit to his survival and genuine devotion to his art. Phil Collins is Not Dead Yet and thankfully so.

 

Setlist:

  1. Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)
  2. Another Day in Paradise
  3. I Missed Again
  4. Hang in Long Enough
  5. Throwing It All Away
  6. Follow You Follow Me
  7. Can’t Turn Back the Years
  8. Who Said I Would
  9. Separate Lives
  10. You’ll Be in My Heart
  11. Drum Trio
  12. Something Happened on the Way to Heaven
  13. You Know What I Mean
  14. In the Air Tonight
  15. You Can’t Hurry Love
  16. Dance Into the Light
  17. Invisible Touch
  18. Easy Lover
  19. Sussudio

Encore:

  1. Take Me Home

 

Songs I wish he’d played (but didn’t):

  1. I Don’t Care Anymore
  2. Long Long Way to Go
  3. Man on the Corner
  4. That’s Just the Way It Is
  5. I Wish It Would Rain Down
  6. Tonight Tonight Tonight

Concert Review – Paul McCartney live at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre

At a spry and still-boyish 75, Sir Paul McCartney brought his career-spanning One on One tour to Tinley Park, IL for two shows this summer (and first-ever visit to the area). Of course, Beatle devotees could have easily filled a concert venue three times the size of Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, so it was a curious choice, though McCartney has been in the habit of visiting new places in recent years. A born showman, music and performing are in his DNA. This becomes abundantly clear when watching him perform. He obviously still loves what he does and basks in the interaction with his audience. And though he’s joked about one day being wheeled onstage to croak out yet another rendition of “Yesterday,” it is almost certain McCartney will keep playing for fans as long as he is physically able to.

Again, one can recite all of McCartney’s superhuman accomplishments ad nauseam. Along with Prince, he is perhaps the most musically gifted pop artist of all time. Had he been nothing more than the pretty pin-up idol who played all those amazing basslines on Beatle records, his legend would still rest assured. The fact that he was also a mutli-instrumentalist with a voice that could sing ballads and rockers with ease, as well as being one-half of the greatest songwriting partnership of all time is surreal. He’s been almost too good his entire career. He spoiled his audience with his genius at an incredibly young age and must now carry that weight a long time.

Even this he does with supreme grace. During the second of the two Tinley shows, McCartney opened with “A Hard Day’s Night”. A blinding spotlight caused him to miss his microphone stand, so he quickly stopped the show and, lifelong pro that he is, immediately charmed the audience with the offhand quip, “Hey, it’s live!” and started the show again. So we got to hear the iconic opening chord twice, which can only be a good thing. Once Paul’s voice kicked in, it was Beatlemania all over again for those in attendance.

McCartney followed up with a rocking “Junior’s Farm” from peak-era Wings, and then another early Beatles favorite, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Jet” from the classic Band on the Run album. All were delivered with great energy and the sound mix was excellent throughout. He also threw in an obscure (but well known among DJ’s) solo track “Temporary Secretary” from 1980’s synth-heavy McCartney II. Again, McCartney had to stop the show as the sequencer sample that starts the song was off-rhythm. And again McCartney joked that this was how the audience knew for sure that the band was really playing live. Having seen McCartney many times since he returned to regular touring in 1989, the early flubs added a refreshing spontaneity to what is normally a tightly-scripted and highly-polished show.

While McCartney has indeed lost part of his legendary upper register with age (as have virtually all rock veterans still on the touring circuit), he still delivered vocal moments that brought the house down. At one point near the end of “1985,” he nailed the signature belt and got rapturous cheers. Having shown up at the venue before the gates opened, I was able to hear his pre-show sound check of about 9 or 10 songs not in the regular set. All of them sounded great and his voice was still strong and commanding. For other songs in the set, the sound mix and great vocal harmonies, particularly from drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., made up the difference.

For all of his storybook achievements, McCartney still carries himself as a working musician. Touring with the same band he has since 2001, he works much, much harder than he has to. He hustles and sweats. As a living Beatle, McCartney could do the Dylan thing and come onstage, stoic and aloof, and go through the motions of a self-serving set list without any audience engagement. Most people would still go home happy knowing they got to see him and the iconic Höfner bass. Instead, McCartney takes you on a journey through music history with stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, the impetus for certain songs, as well as loving tributes to Linda McCartney, Beatles producer George Martin, George Harrison and John Lennon. He also swaps back and forth between bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano and ukulele (as a great tribute to Harrison on “Something”). It was an impressive display of his unmatched talent.

For an epic three-hour show, the pace flew by. There was an easy blend of moods and tones, from classic rockers to stately piano ballads and a nice acoustic interlude where McCartney played with casual flair as if in your living room or at the local coffee house. After the acoustic set, which included Beatle classics “And I Love Her,” “Blackbird,” and Quarrymen charmer “In Spite of All the Danger,” McCartney and company went back into full-band mode for the final third of the show that played like a jukebox loaded with the greatest of greatest hits: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Band on the Run,” “Let it Be,” pyrotechnic showstopper “Live and Let Die,” and audience sing along “Hey Jude”. The man’s back catalog  simply cannot be beat.

As if the set list was not generous enough, McCartney came back for an encore that played like a full show in itself: “Yesterday,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” “Hi Hi Hi,” “Get Back,” and the majestic Abbey Road finale “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” which climaxed with a blistering three-way guitar dual between McCartney, Rusty Anderson, and Brain Ray and perhaps McCartney’s greatest couplet, “And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make”.  As the final A chord reverberated from his sunburst Les Paul, the medley’s conclusion pretty much summed up the unflagging energy and optimism he’s radiated throughout his storybook career.

As the key custodian of the Beatles legacy, Paul McCartney gives his audience far more than they can reasonably expect from him at 75. His onstage energy and generosity of spirit continue to shine brightly. Of the four Beatles, he was always the most outgoing and eager to please, characteristics that have often made him an easy target for critics and certain rock purists. But there has never been an easy way to deny his staggering talent. Someone with his level of popularity will always polarize the public. The true legacy lies in the songs; anthems of peace, hope, compassion and love. Listen to what the man said.