Thursday, August 7, 2014

Get On Up (along with somewhat shorter comments on Guardians of the Galaxy and Hercules)

             Say It Loud … I’m Great and I’m Proud
                        Review by Ken Burke              Get On Up
An energetic biography of fabulous entertainer James Brown, showing the roots of both his dynamic presence on stage and his often-troubled-life in many personal matters.
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You’d think that if I’m trying to limit myself to 1 focused film review per week (plus some shorter comments on others)—as I keep pledging to myself to do—that I’d go with the big dog at the box-office, Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn), but I’ve put that one in the Shorter(er) Takes collection this week so as to focus on Get On Up (Tate Taylor), the James Brown biopic (which, along with such fare as Ray [Taylor Hackford, 2004] and Walk the Line [James Mangold, 2005] I feel could legitimately be called Musicals—under the subgenre of Revues—in that the songs used are so useful in propelling the other elements of the narrative and they provide a catalogue of tunes appropriate to the topic just like more traditional Revues, such as The Broadway Melody [Harry Beaumont, 1929] and 42nd Street [Lloyd Bacon, 1933] did in cinematic days of yore), because I have a bit of a personal connection to “The Godfather of Soul” in that his was the first concert that I ever attended, in the autumn of 1965 in Galveston, TX during my senior year at Ball High (or Knee Deep as we sometimes called it) School, when a friend of mine, Pat Fant, and I actually had a weekly 1-hr. radio show on the local Top 40 station with news from the city’s junior and senior high schools and the debut of the week’s Top 10 records; the station manager had arranged for us to have a telephone interview with Brown on the day of the concert, so I just had to go that night to see him for myself (by then he was well-known even to the racially-naïve-teenage-White-audience—very much including me—from songs such as “Please, Please, Please,” “Try Me,” along with 1965’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”).  So, off I went to experience live music from a hot-pop-performer (well, not exactly the first time, because I had attended a nightclub show of The Kingston Trio in summer 1964 with my parents in Las Vegas—one of the few things an underage guy was allowed into in Sin City—but James Brown gave a full-blown-concert, with me there completely on my own); I’m sure my mother would never have let me out of the house that night if she’d known who James Brown was but she didn’t so I soon found myself as 1 of about 3 honkies in the entire large-but-crammed-building, giving me my first taste of what it’s like to be in a distinct minority where your very presence profiles you as being noticeably different.  (A good life lesson for those of us in the ever-decreasing-"majority," along with learning from direct exposure that this auditorium-full of Black people meant me no harm, that we were all there just to enjoy the music despite all of the social tensions already in play by this time in the turbulent Civil Rights era of my adolescence.  By the way, in fairness to my mother, while she did have her racist tendencies at times, she wasn’t a die-hard-segregationist and would have been more concerned about me being in a place so packed with alcohol-fueled-adults, no matter who they were, if she’d known better what I was up to that night; even when alcohol wasn’t the factor, though, Southern mothers could show concerns in those days for their precious kids being at huge musical events—because they “know what goes on at those places” (?)—the reasoning that kept me the previous year from taking a bus to Houston to see The Beatles and my-eventual-wife, Nina, from seeing the Liverpool Lads in San Francisco on that same tour (her mother was from Georgia, just as determined as mine to "know what's best" for her children.)  Anyway, I had a great time at the 1965 James Brown concert, saw this guy give his all as truly “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” and retained a respect for Brown that carries over into this very effective current film of his complex life, on stage and off.

Taylor manages to make Move On Up into as energetic a film as what his constantly-moving, profusely-sweating subject provided so effectively on stage by rearranging Brown’s life into a good number of non-chronological segments that then provide flashback context for later scenes as we realize how what we’ve seen before impacts the partial segments previously shown of what’s happening now, which is sometimes reinforced by brief echoes of those earlier depictions.  When you unscramble it all, here’s what we’re offered about James Brown’s long life (1933-2006), much of it spent in the public eye:  1939 Little Junior (watches his dysfunctional parents, Susie [Viola Davis] and Joe Brown [Lennie James], fight then flow right into sex); 1949 Music Box (arrested for stealing a suit from a car, gets a 5-13-year-sentence, paroled through the help of gospel singer Bobby Byrd [Nelsan Ellis] whose alternate-lifestyle-R&B-act James joins); 1955 Mr. Please Please Please (the group finally get a record but the company has decided it’s by “James Brown and His Famous Flames” so all but Bobbie quit [this is about where Brown also picks up his manager of the next few years, Ben Bart [Dan Aykroyd, in a role that doesn’t particularly call for him but he had a great fondness for Brown after working with him in The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980) so here he is]; a few years later JB contributes part of the costs to get his label to record his explosive show at The Apollo in Harlem, leading to a very successful live album); 1962 Mr. Dynamite (after the Apollo show his mother shows up for the first time in years after leaving him as a young child); 1964 The Famous Flames (big hit at the T.A.M.I. pop-music-extravaganza [find this film and watch it if you’ve never seen it; a fabulous catalogue of mainstream musicians of the time], shows up the Rolling Stones even though they’ve been given the prized last slot in this multi-performer-megashow); 1965 The Hardest Working Man in Show Business (JB changes the pop-music-game by promoting his own concerts, keeping most all of the profits, quickly becomes very rich); 1968 Soul Brother Number 1 (performs in Viet Nam for the benefit of the troops although forced to bring only 6 musicians instead of his usual 22); 1968 His Bad Self (band quits due to non-payment of salary, no days off, tired of being fined for rehearsal/ performance infractions, worried about being impacted by IRS problems with various Brown businesses); 1971 Paris, Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk (Bobby talks about doing some solo work, James insults him, Bobby finally walks out)1988 Augusta, Georgia (Brown uses a rifle to frightens a group in a strip mall he owns because one of them used a bathroom that connects with his office area, Man’s World Enterprises—even though it’s a common facility between the 2 “suites”; this results in a car chase with police and imprisonment); 1993 James (tries to reconnect with Bobby, offers him and his wife tickets to a concert that night, sings “Try Me” which impacts Bobby; end credits note Bobby did perform with him some until JB’s death).

James Brown’s life was no picnic for anyone close to him (he’s abusive to both wives that we see, Velma [Jacinte Blankenship] and DeeDee [Jill Scott], for reasons of his own, not because of their actions, such as hitting DeeDee after a Christmas event at his house, where they were giving out money and candy-apples to the neighborhood kids, just because men were ogling her in her Mrs. Santa costume, even though he surely approved of her wearing it before he lost control of the lust hovering in the atmosphere outside of his home—there was much more like this that could have been shown, although the film doesn’t really have time nor cause to go into the legal hassle over his estate after his death involving 2 other wives and more of his kids than we see much of in Taylor’s version of Soul Brother No. 1’s life [the main child we know of on-screen is Teddy, who dies in a car accident]; he worked his band into the ground striving for the perfection that made his live shows so memorable; he could accept no criticism of his methods, even from someone like Bobby who stuck by him all those years, so Bobby just sucked up the insults because he was willing to enjoy the results of all of the work needed to reach those pinnacle performances) nor even for himself (no matter how much fame, material wealth [represented by a Cadillac, a private plane, luxurious living conditions], and accolades he acquired he never seemed satisfied, as if he were never able to forget his roots of poverty, racism, and abandonment by his parents [after Susie left, Joe joined the Army, leaving little James with Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) at her rural brothel]).  This was a constantly troubled man, channeling his demons on stage (and struggling with them in his private life, what little he allowed himself to have), using the anger and determination stored inside himself to propel his amazingly-physical-emotionally-engaging-performances.

As with the other musical biographies that I noted briefly above, I’m not going to question the factual accuracy of every event we see (the long-standing-relatively-limited-running-times-format of movies doesn't allow much of that level of historical nuance anyway) nor criticize Taylor for using a device similar to Walk the Line in beginning and ending his film: in the Cash story we see Johnny prior to his famous concert at Folsom Prison, essentially trying to overcome the seeming stage fright generated by memories of the various hardships in his own life before coming out in front of the toughest audience you could imagine, even with these convicts incessantly calling out for him, then as the film progresses quite a bit Cash finally takes command of that heralded appearance; in Get On Up we get a similar situation with James Brown shown at the beginning from the back in a splendid red suit walking through the dark backstage tunnels of an unknown venue with the crowd shouting his name (shown in the photo with the previous paragraph), then finally after all of the events depicted we understand that he’s on his way to yet another assault on his own body and the decorum of his audience (even in his quieter moments, as this is the event that Bobby attends and is tearfully touched by James’ ballad-style-delivery of “Try Me”), even though the man was just into his 60s by this point (an acknowledgement that he continued to push himself out onto the stage when he could easily have claimed accomplishment enough for 10 retirements, part of what made him such a legend in the music and entertainment worlds, what makes him such an idol to so many others in these businesses—it’s been recounted already how Mick Jagger, of those long-ago-shown-up-Stones, no stranger himself to pushing his now-70s body to the limit for the benefit of his fans, was instrumental in getting this film into final production because of his respect for Brown).  What I am going to do is praise the acting ability of Chadwick Boseman to so powerfully revive the presence and impact of the actual Godfather of Soul (and giving me another avenue of understanding about that term, with his depiction of Brown’s somewhat-mumbled-style-of-speech, reminding me of the even-more-famous-godfather, Vito Corleone, while imagining how Brown’s band members would have reacted had he made them “an offer they couldn’t refuse”); I may not yet be willing to call Boyhood (Richard Linklater; review in our July 31, 2014 posting) the best film of 2014 (one of the best, certainly, but we’ve got a few months to go), but I’ll be amazed if there are 5 other male actors who do a better on-screen-job this year than Boseman, adding to his already-impressive-work last year depicting another timeless legend, Jackie Robinson, in 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013; review in our April 18, 2013 posting).  

        At one time Spike Lee was supposed to direct this James Brown biography (produced then, as now, by Brian Glazer, with Jagger added later as another producer [you can read  conflicting accounts as to why that didn’t happen]) starring Eddie Murphy; at the rate he’s going, Boseman may end up someday playing Murphy too (although I think that SNL’s marvelous resident-mimic, Jay Pharoah, would be an even better choice), so maybe if that happens they could include a fictional rehearsal scene where Eddie auditions for Spike (maybe played by Kevin Hart if they put him on downers for about a week first) in the not-made-Brown-project (in fact, based on his great work in Dreamgirls [Bill Condon, 2006] Murphy might well be in line to do his own biopic of Little Richard, another legendary showman shown in Get On Up [played by Brandon Mychal Smith, with his own great rendition of “Tutti Frutti”] as an early encourager of James and the Flames).

The other early-Oscar-consideration that comes from Taylor’s film would be for Viola Davis as Best Supporting Actress, in that sometimes those Supporting statues go (especially in the Actress races) to someone who has one key, impactful scene.  Here such a scene occurs when we finally get back to long-ago-Mama Susie surprising James backstage after his triumphant conquering of the Apollo crowd in 1962.  This is one of those times where Taylor’s use of previous scenes with their embedded flashbacks provides the needed information to make the present one really resonate, as when she first showed up before we were taken back to a time when young James sees her after she’s been gone for a few years from his life but she’s now making a living as a prostitute so she denies knowing the child when asked by an inquiring john.  The hurt that Davis is able to convey in the post-Apollo-scene is so restrained-yet-overt, along with the sad reality that she’s there as much (probably more so) to get financial help from her long-lost-son as she is to reconnect with him (having finally had an easy chance to find James, just taking a subway ride from her current home in Brooklyn); he angrily gives her cash which she doesn’t hesitate to take, then throws her out (although he’s not all heartless as he gives instructions that she’s not aware of to Bobby to make sure that she’s taken care of, just as we can somewhat understand her situation back in Georgia when she could no longer tolerate living with Joe yet he wouldn’t let her—at gunpoint, no less—take the child with her, then when she does see James later she knows that her livelihood depends on being accepted for her available body which isn’t a situation in which she feels she can accept nor maintain a child).  These are miserable situations bound to burden anyone on either side of them, with the ensuing pain and anger well shown in this standout scene, which I hope might lead to Oscar consideration for Davis (that would be a nice balance for her working again with Taylor and Spencer, as they all did previously in The Help [Taylor, 2011], the film that led to Spencer’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar in a role that was written as bigger and more imposing than Davis’ restrained character, a choice that was difficult for voters [I'd assume], so maybe Davis could balance the ledger this time, depending on what else she has to contend with by year’s end)—she doesn't have a lot of screen time in Get On Up, but when she's there Viola Davis really owns the scene even when she's not saying anything.

In my analysis of Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood; review in our May 27, 2014 posting) I acknowledged that while I enjoyed the more-somber-interpretation that Eastwood brought to what had been more energized on stage, audiences more familiar with the Broadway-version might be just as satisfied to buy a Greatest Hits CD of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons because the music was still what made this story enjoyable, more so than the serviceable-but-not-remarkable-acting and tempo of the ever-negative-skewing-movie-scenes (plus, while the singing in any version of Jersey Boys that I’ve seen is quite reasonable as a Four Season facsimile there’s still something distinctive about Valli that no imitator has quite captured yet).  In Get On Up, as with Ray, there’s no attempt for the lead actor to imitate the well-known-vocalizations-and-tonalities of James Brown (or Ray Charles) so you get nothing but original recordings, which might make you think again about an online music purchase (but if you do, please consider buying from a local store instead; these businesses need your support desperately, as Amazon and its ilk have already claimed more than their share of the retail-sales-spectrum—damn, I’m sounding like Wavy Gravy’s “If you don’t think capitalism’s that weird” entreaty to the assembled masses to help out a hamburger guy whose stand almost completely burned down in the Woodstock [Michael Wadleigh, 1970] documentary) rather than a movie ticket, but I encourage you to get to a theater soon to see Get On Up.  It may be James Brown’s voice coming out of Chadwick Boseman’s mouth (with a marvelous job of lip-synching, so that it seems as natural as you could ask for), but it’s still his body on display commanding those concert stages in a commanding manner that takes my often-foggy-memory back very clearly to that autumn evening in Galveston almost 50 years ago when I was lucky to witness a performance for the ages (but just 1 of so many that Brown did for joyful audiences everywhere—including the 1 depicted in the film on April 5, 1968 in Boston, the night after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, when Brown insisted on performing for free to give people in at least 1 city the opportunity to come together as a community united in something other than angry revenge, a successful decision on his part that helped prevent a Northeast occurrence of the riots that plagued much of the rest of the country in those dark days right after the killing).

Soul, funk, fusion, hip-hop—even those early years of rhythm and blues and whatever else James Brown’s musical career has been associated with over the ensuing decades—may not be your favorite type of music, nor may you have a positive attitude toward a man who had plenty of personal flaws and ego-driven-disasters in his life (some of which are shown in Get On Up, others are just alluded to or ignored—after all, this film doesn't have the running-time-span of a TV-mini-series) or seemed to turn his back on many of his own followers by supporting Nixon in the 1972 election (also not depicted here), but if you want to appreciate how he was able to take what could easily have been an unremarkable life that could have simply stopped at the level of bigotry, poverty, petty crime, and frustrated ambitions that he lived through up to the end of his teenage years then blasted himself into the stratosphere of public entertainment acclaim, you’ll find it presented in a marvelously-embraceable-manner in Taylor’s approach which ditches a linear plot in favor of dynamic impact—“soul” if you like—for a result that many of my fellow critics just haven’t caught up with yet (78% positive from Rotten Tomatoes, 71% score from Metacritic, more details from both in the links below; these results are favorable but could be much more so in my opinion) but maybe those other guys just don’t have the right memories to build on.  I always wrap up my main review(s) with a Musical Metaphor, which this time just has to be “Please, Please, Please” at from that legendary T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International) show, done at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, October 28-29, 1964, then edited into the film released at the end of that year, in which we get the commanding performance that I’d see live about a year later, complete with the multiple-cape-coverings-and-returns-to-the-microphone (a bit that I copied a few years later, using Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” [1962 before your time? Here’s a wayback-machine-refresher for you at]—using a beach towel for a cape—with some musician friends in college when we’d perform, as The Original Sin, in local coffeehouses and bars), as Brown pleads with a woman to give him just one more chance, something he always wanted with every audience, another opportunity to leave them with the memories of a lifetime as he gave his all up on the stage.  (You think anything less of his ownership of the event?  You try doing those leg splits every night!)
Short(er) Takes
Given that you’ve had an opportunity to read about 10,000 other reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy by now, there’s probably not much I could say at this point to convince you one way or the other on it (given its hugely-impressive $94.3 million U.S. opening plus another $66.4 million in 43 other markets—including Russia, the U.K., and Mexico, with prime possibilities still awaiting its debut in places like Australia, China, and France—accounting for 50% of the international market during its opening weekend [more on this here if you like]); actually, I wonder if there’s anyone left still deciding if they’re going to see it or not so I’ll just leave this latest box-office-behemoth to the realm-of-extended-passing-mentions with the bottom line for me being that I enjoyed it a lot, could forget about it completely by the time I got out of the theater, and know there will be more of this funkier brand of Marvel fantasy to come in future years to build on the solid foundation that this one established.  (I’ll also know that with Disney now owning Marvel—except where other studios still have command over Spider-Man and the X-Men—that Mickey Mouse won’t be hurting for cheese in the larder for many moons to come.)  Honestly, being one of the many (admitted, even by the Marvel/Disney marketers—or is that “marketeers”?) uninformed-potential-viewers of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), taken from Earth in 1988 as an 8-year-old-boy by space pirates just after his mother died, and his rag-tag-band of commandoes—which includes what appears in the previews to be a sarcastic talking raccoon (Rocket, voiced well by Bradley Cooper, actually the result of genetic experiments crossing a forest species with a human one) and a Wookieish-walking tree (Groot, voiced with 1 short repeating phrase by Vin Diesel)—I had no initial interest anyway in what looked like a low-budget-version of The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting)—although that Guardians … $170 million budget turned out not to be so throwaway-low after all—especially when the 5-oddball-heroes looked to me to be a rip-off of Hans Solo and some random pickups from the Mos Eisley Cantina.

 The other 2 in Quill's gang are Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)-famous Zoe Saldana as fierce-combat-assassin Gamora (this time Saldana’s green, for Cameron she was blue—you know, it’s hard enough to get Black/Hispanic actors into leading roles that don’t essentially require them to be identified just for their non-Whiteness so I wonder how much it counts for positive-role-model-multicultural-awareness that in 2 of her most-seen-roles so far you wouldn’t even necessarily know what she really looks like?  Yes, I know that the original character from the Guardians comics is green-skinned, but I just hope that Saldana stands out enough in many viewers’ minds from the rest of her large ensembles in such movies as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl [Gore Verbinski, 2003], Star Trek [J.J. Abrams, 2009], and Star Trek Into Darkness [Abrams, 2013; review in our May 24, 2013 posting] that she doesn’t become completely thought of as just an exotic alien [especially with Cameron in preparation with her on 3 more Avatars for 2016-18] but at least will be remembered also from the Star Trek world as Uhura, officer of the Starship Enterprise and a woman of notable African descent—as if I should be the one raising this issue, but I'd like to echo a bit the concerns of those who wondered why no appropriate Black director could be found for Get On Up, although I have no qualms with what Tate Taylor delivered; I can see, though, why Black audiences might be getting weary of him being the one to tell stories more relevant to their experience even if, like me, he has a deep respect for James Brown as well as the maids in The Help) and WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, a powerful guy—but like all of the rest of them, except Groot, not truly superpowered—on a revenge mission because Ronan (Lee Pace), a despicable villain, killed his family before he entered this story's flow.

The plot here, set in 2014 far from Earth, revolves around a small orb which contains an Infinity Stone, a source of immense power (yes, you’ve seen something like this in The Avengers and connected Marvel superhero movies before) which Ronan plans to use to destroy the planet of Xandar, then the rest of his galaxy (it’s not clear to me where he intends to live after that); essentially, everyone wants the orb—either for mercantile, destructive, or protective reasons—which unites the Guardians at first for various greedy needs after the movie begins with a series of betrayals in all directions, then sets them in league against Ronan in a plot that truly feels like it came right out of a comic book (a compliment in this case) rather than being upgraded in seriousness for an intercontinental-release-movie, but at least the effects here are marvelously rendered, the humor is constant and self-effacing, while the general impact is effective because the whole experience seems intentionally slap-dash and cheesy rather than the more serious situations that the Avengers (whose universe these guys share so there’s bound to be a crossover interaction at some point), Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, etc. constantly find themselves in.  There’s lot of well-choreographed-action, a nice sense of chemistry between Star-Lord (when he can actually find somebody to call him that) and Gamora, a sentimental “Come on, kids, let’s save Tinkerbell” subplot to re-root Groot (so to speak) after he extends his wooden body to protect his comrades as their spaceship crashes on Xandar, and a general sense of tapping into the sarcasm, personal-integrity-despite-public-distrust-attitude, and ordinary humans pushing themselves to the limit despite having only one truly superhuman (or plant) character in the collective that worked so well for DC’s Watchmen (although more lauded in their print version than in the movie adapted from it [Zack Snyder, 2009]).  By the time all of the furious action in Guardians of the Galaxy has come to a halt, Ronan’s been destroyed by Quill’s ability to manipulate the power of the Stone (turns out his father isn’t human; more revelations to come in the sequels, I’m sure), the Guardians have found mutual respect and are off to new adventures (with Groot growing again from a twig), and the ultimate enemy, Thanos (Josh Brolin, in performance capture), is the new target, with hints in the blogosphere that eventually these successful-second-stringers will somehow overlap with the Avengers stories.  It all makes for a pleasant enough diversion (with a brief appearance in the end-credits-sequence of George Lucas’ biggest sci-fi-flop-character [like Marvel, a Disney acquisition], Howard the Duck [yes, even worse than Jar Jar Binks, because at least he was surrounded by a better plot overall, or—if you’re really desperate for rationalization—the presence of Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson … and Yoda!]) but for me not the gushing reception it’s received from the critical world in general (a whopping 92% positive from Rotten Tomatoes; I’m more in line with the 76% score from Metacritic, with a likely 3 ½ stars of 5 if this were an official review)Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun, but the same can be said for rubbing your fat cat’s tummy when he’s in the mood for being affectionate, so just take it for what it is, don’t try to rationalize it to a higher level of accomplishment, and we can all move on to the next planet without anyone getting hurt.

If you want to know more about Guardians of the Galaxy, I encourage you to visit the official website and the trailer, along with seeing it for yourself, if there are any seats left, to draw your own conclusions.  I think a lot of my critical colleagues have gotten too giddy about this movie simply because it’s more entertaining than superhero stories that are running out of ideas such as Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013; review in our May 11, 2013 posting) or Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor; review in our November 14, 2013 posting), even though Guardians of the Galaxy will likely end up being one of the most-profitable-hits of the year (yet, it’s still got a lot of more weighty [Captain America: The Winter Solder (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo; review in our April 10, 2014 posting)] or silly [Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay; review in our July 2, 2014 posting)] entries ahead of it at this point; see this for more details if you like), which is appropriate given its appropriation of Han Solo-mentality as its chief focus rather than the more-high-minded-Luke Skywalker-ambitions, a useful diversion when our real world in general is still absorbed with atrocious-ethnic-cleansing-wars, the U.S. government has gone from gridlock to vacation while the Middle East burns, and the movie world is so out of balance that something as goofy as Hercules (Brett Ratner) could gross over $52 million in 2 weeks while something as sublime as Boyhood (Richard Linklater; review in our July 31, 2014 posting) has made only about $7.4 million after a month in release—but at least that’s double its budget while Ratner’s spectacle is only halfway to breaking even—we could probably all use a good escapist laugh, so if that’s what you need then Guardians of the Galaxy could make for a great flight into its active 3-D scenes, enhanced by air conditioning on a hot summer day, where you’ll find the additional pleasure of top-rated-actors such as Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio del Toro having a great time in their various minor roles, just as you likely will in watching them cavort around in this ode to sci-fi-silliness with occasional pauses for body-bashing-action from our no-quest-left-unanswered-misfit-protagonists.

Finally, we move from “The Hardest Working Man” in 20th-century show business and possibly the hardest-working-hustler off somewhere in the galaxy (unclear to me which one—Milky Way or farther afield) to who was probably the hardest-working-mythological-demigod-warrior-hero of the ancient world in Hercules to find yet-another (in this case, mostly-former-WWE-star—although he did reclaim the championship belt again for a few months in early 2013 as a prelude to a calculated loss to John Cena at the pay-per-view-extravaganza of WrestleMania 29)-well-known-wrestler taking on a muscleman role, this time the ultimate-warrior-hero (and possibly the son of Zeus) with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson providing a commanding presence in a generally-useless-movie with this latest version of Hercules (not to be confused with another 2014 attempt at this superhero but with more connection to the original myths, The Legend of Hercules [Renny Harlin], a total flop at the box-office, unlike this even-more-recent-one of Ratner’s, which has racked up a good bit of cash, if not much love from the critics [Rotten Tomatoes, 62% positive reviews; Metacritics, 47% overall score]).  The premise here is that the mighty-man is more like “Star-Lord” Quill, a mercenary with a band of 4 followers who hire themselves out to kingdoms in trouble to solve their problems, with a lot of what propels their success being the legends that have grown up around the big guy as spun by his nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), so that even the fantastic 12 Labors are largely hyped-up-stories to help sell confidence in these confidence-men (and 1 woman, the Amazon Atalanta [Ingrid Bolsø Berdal]).  In this version of the mighty warrior’s deeds he goes to help the nominal ruler of Thrace (ancient kingdom that included parts of modern Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey), Lord Cotys (John Hurd), put down a rebellion only to find out that he’s been hoodwinked, that the ruler he’s worked with is actually a tyrant who wants the vacant crown for himself so he first needed to nullify the opposition, then imprison Hercules and his colleagues when they don’t leave voluntarily after discovering the truth of the situation.  Soon, heroic determination has awakened in the heart, soul, and biceps of this emerging defender of the downtrodden, the cruel Cotys has been overthrown (actually, crushed by the head of a gigantic statue of Hera toppled by Hercules, bringing to closure any problems he might have had with the Queen of Olympus if indeed he really was sired by Zeus in one of his many affairs with mortal women—sounds a bit like Quill’s situation in Guardians ..., at least until we find our more in coming years), and the mightiest of the heroes of legend is now a moral victor as well, especially after finding out that the wicked king of Athens, Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes), had Hercules’ wife and children killed in a manner that looked like the family man did it himself in a drunken rage, so this grim despot is dispatched as well, while the sun shines brightly on a renewed Thrace where honor is now given to Hercules as the people’s liberator.

If all you want is swords, muscles, and one constant battle after another, then maybe Hercules would be entertaining for you, but I can’t really encourage you to rush out to see it because while it has some humor it’s not as intentionally silly as Guardians of the Galaxy nor does it find a tone of better interest than an ordinary comic book (which is what this particular movie is based on, from a Radical Comics series, but unlike the Guardians … comics adaptation this one feels like it wants to be more than that but just never finds its proper stride because it has little to offer beyond new means of mayhem every few minutes on screen).  If this were a formal review I’d say at most a generous 2 ½ stars of 5 (very similar to the Metacritic score of 47%, although the Rotten Tomatoes folks were surprisingly supportive with a 62% positive average), despite my desire to keep encouraging a successful movie career for Johnson, a very pleasant screen presence, especially on the rare occasions when he gets a script that can support his charming, light-hearted abilities (although he’s also quite effective when his irritation leads to cocking the [Rock’s] People’s Eyebrow as well, so don’t ever count him out as an action-enforcer)Hercules has the requisite amount of hand-to-hand-combat, exposed skin, and victory-speech-rallying-cries that you’d expect from this sort of thing, but pseudo-mythological or not, it’s no Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) or Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000), although it matches up well with the well-loved Hercules (Pietro Francisci, 1958) and Hercules Unchained  (Francisci, 1959) of days of old, with their impressive-musculature-scenes and presence of the great Steve Reeves.  However, if you want to know more about the current Dwayne Johnson Hercules and its inspirational message that “You just have to believe you’re a hero” in order to succeed (even by pulling yourself free from being chained in a dungeon and killing 3 wolves with your bare hands), you might want to consult the official website and the movie's trailer (But please, if this inspires you to be in a bodybuilding-contest, I implore you [I'm back to my Wavy Gravy-like-editorializing again] to train the hard way like Johnson did for 8 months to enhance his already amazing body, don’t take shortcuts with steroids, a level that some of our pro-athletes have stooped to in recent years; his physique may be the only stupendous sight in this movie not created on a computer, but he got there with rigorous training, not chemicals.  Don’t risk his wrath if he catches you cheating in your physical regimen; I don’t think you’d care to smell what The Rock is cookin’ in those circumstances.)
If you’d like to know more about Get On Up here are some suggested links: (1:23:51 documentary biography of James Brown, Soul Survivor—The James Brown Story, directed by Jeremy Marre [2003], with footage from his performances and other aspects of his life, commentary from him along with excerpts read from his autobiography, to give you a basis of comparison to the docudrama of Get On Up)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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