‘Shine a Light’ – Martin Scorsese’s Concert Film on The Rolling Stones

I have never been to a Rolling Stones concert before. Shame on me for constantly missing out on the opportunity to see them live. Every tour they go on always feel like it will be their last. Even if no one gets all that excited about their recent albums, no one would dare miss seeing them perform onstage. Years after they formed, they still sell out seats like crazy in concert, and some are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get a decent seat. Heck, as long I have my binoculars with me, I am confident I can get a good view for less than what most people pay. But then again, I still have to spend a lot of money for even a crappy seat at a concert. Come to think of it, I haven’t been to a concert in a long time. Maybe I am saving up too much money!

Anyway, I caught the Rolling Stones documentary entitled “Shine A Light” which was directed by Martin Scorsese. Not only that, but I saw it in IMAX where movie screens don’t get much larger, visuals are never more visually extraordinary, and sound systems capture every single sound no matter how small. At I write this, this may be the closest I ever come to seeing a Rolling Stones concert, but it was still quite the experience. Even after being around for 40 or 50 years, they still put on one hell of a show like few others can. The band members have been beset in the last few years with legal and medical problems. Drummer Charlie Watts had a cancer scare, Mick Jagger continues to father too many children, and Keith Richards continues to astound medical experts everywhere who expected him to be dead by now. But here they are, and they are rocking as hard and with as much love as ever.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese (it is so nice to finally say this) is a master of musical documentaries, having directed one of the greatest ever with “The Last Waltz” which was about The Band at their very last concert ever and of how they (or Robbie Robertson anyway) wanted to get off the road before the road claimed their lives. “Shine A Light,” however, is not at a film about a band on its last legs. Instead, it is about a band which continues to play with the same love, passion and excitement they had when they started making music so many years ago. It is not an in-depth documentary about the band, but instead a celebration of one of the greatest rock bands ever and their music which even I cannot ever get sick of.

We see the band and Scorsese going over the details and where the cameras are going to be at this documentary’s start. There is even a moment where Scorsese is talking with Jagger via speakerphone and of how Jagger is worried all the cameras will be distracting not just to him but to the audience as well. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson don’t even get the set list of songs until just seconds before the show begins. Jagger and the band keep going over what songs to play, having so many to choose from. The one thing I have to give them credit for is how they don’t start off the show with one of their most well-known hits like “Start Me Up” or “Sympathy for The Devil.” I guess you could say it makes this more unique than hundreds of other concerts they have performed.

This particular concert was filmed at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, New York over a two-night period. When “Shine a Light” starts, it only appears as a small square on the enormous IMAX screen. I thought to myself, why did I spend $16 dollars to see this in IMAX? I could have seen it on a regular movie screen and saved myself a couple of bucks, you know? We see the band meeting with Bill and Hillary Clinton and also with Hillary’s mom. Hillary looks very happy here, so this all happened before her current presidential election. This turns out to be quite the star-studded event as Bill Clinton introduces the band himself, as this concert is actually a benefit for the awareness of climate change (which is very real everybody). If you look closely enough, you can see Bruce Willis out in the audience wearing a yellow hat.

But then the concert starts, and the picture goes from a simple box on the IMAX screen to encompassing 100% of it. From then on, we are instantly taken in at how the Rolling Stones is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. They may be eligible for senior benefits, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they perform. During this documentary or concert movie if you want to call it that, we get to see footage of the band from the past. Between songs, we see Jagger in a black and white interview in which he admits how he is surprised the band has lasted as long as it has. And that’s after the band has been together for two years, and he thinks that they will remain together for another year at best.

Seeing the band come onstage and perform their hearts out is inspiring. Age has not affected their love and passion for music, and I think it’s what makes this documentary especially good. No, it doesn’t get deep into the personalities of the band members and what makes them tick. Still, it does show how, even in their old age, they play rock and roll brilliantly. Even Keith Richards, who always looks like he might just keel over any second, still plays the guitar like a master. One too many cigarettes has not taken away from this man or his singing, and he gets his on solo and sings to us like a well-seasoned blues man.

This concert also features some well-known guests performing with the Stones. Among them are Jack White of The White Stripes who sings along with Jagger on “The Loving Cup.” White is no slouch on the guitar or on vocals, but we should have known this after the albums “Elephant” and “Get Behind Me Satan.” But the big treat was when Buddy Guy, one of the great bluesmen guitarists, came out to jam with the band. Richards was clearly a big fan because, at the end of the song, he ends up giving Buddy the guitar he was playing on. You can even hear Richards telling Guy, “It’s yours!”

Even Christina Aguilera is here singing with Jagger to a song which was first written and performed before she was even born. I haven’t bought any of her albums, but there is no doubt she has one hell of a voice. Does she even need a microphone? Her voice alone probably powered the extremely bright lights at the Beacon. That’s how good she was when she sang with Jagger and the others.

Kudos also goes out to the Rolling Stones for being backed up by an array of fantastic musicians. Among them are Darryl Jones of Living Color fame who has been the bass player for the band for over a decade now. There is also the great piano player Chuck Levell, and you may remember him brilliantly stealing the spotlight from Eric Clapton on his Unplugged session on MTV. Granted, the Rolling Stones don’t need all these people to sell out shows, but it certainly adds to this cinematic experience.

Scorsese and Richardson do a great job lighting the band and keeping up with them as they do their thing. The other thing which really added to this experience was the sound system in the IMAX theater I watched this film in. On top of the pristine visuals, the surround sound stereo system sucked you into the experience and made you feel like you were part of the crowd. You felt like people were clapping to the left and to right of you, and even behind you. There were points where I started looking around me to see if the people in the audience were applauding, or if it was just the sound from the film.

This all reminded me of when I saw “U2 3D” a couple of months earlier on the same IMAX screen. The 3D effects made you feel like you were in the middle of the concert. When people put their hands up onscreen, I almost told them to put them down so I could see. Then I realized it was all onscreen and not in the audience. Even though “Shine A Light” was not filmed in 3D, it didn’t need to be. I got sucked into this experience to where you can say you really felt like you were at this concert. It was also a loud film too, and this made me wonder why I didn’t bring any earplugs with me.

In the end, I’m glad “Shine a Light” was not a simple documentary which delved into the psychology of the band members and how they survived the record industry and drugs. The movie is about the fact of after so many years, the Rolling Stones continue to rock harder than ever. This is as certain as Johnny Depp’s character of Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of The Caribbean” movies was based largely on Richards. It does not, nor should it, matter how old these guys are, but that they rock on with the same love they always have had for rock and roll. You can hear it in their music and see it in their eyes. Jagger continues strutting across the stage as though he was still in his 30’s, Richards still plays the guitar without missing a beat, Wood plays a mean slide guitar, and Watts beats away at the drum as if nothing ever serios ever happened to him. Why does age matter when you have passion for what you do?

I hope I have the same love and passion in what I do as they do in music at their age. I’m pretty sure I won’t need a boatload of drugs to get there, and even Richards would agree with me on this. Or maybe not. I guess it doesn’t matter. Or maybe I should just shut up for now…

* * * * out of * * * *

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ – A Bit Too Cerebral, But Still Very Entertaining

Tenet” is a film which should come with Cliff’s Notes or its equivalent as it is more challenging than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Thankfully, I was able to follow the gist of the story which has the good guys fighting the bad guys in an effort to prevent World War III, but I am at a loss for explaining how the characters learn to manipulate the flow of time. I imagine it all makes perfect sense to writer and director Christopher Nolan and his good friend, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, but I have already watched this film twice and I still cannot fully understand all of which happened. While “Inception” and “Interstellar” did make a good deal sense over the course of a few viewings, it will take a few more for me to completely decipher all of which “Tenet” has to offer.

Black Klansman’s” John David Washington stars as a CIA agent who is only known as the Protagonist, and “Tenet” opens with him taking part in an extraction mission which ends up going awry as he is captured and ends up sacrificing himself after an extended torture session. But instead of arriving in the afterlife, he finds himself in bed and informed by his boss, Fay (Martin Donovan), that he has been recruited by an organization called Tenet which, as a word, can open the right doors and some of the wrong ones too.

The Protagonist’s meeting with scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy) helps him to learn about technology with inverted entropy, meaning technology which moves backward in time. At this point, I found myself digging this premise as it is always fascinating to find characters wondering if they exist not in the present, but instead a past which has been far removed from what is considered to be the future. It also calls into the question the concept of free will as the Protagonist is made to wonder if we are part of a story with a pre-determined ending. I love it when free will is dealt with as I am always rooting for it to be shown as real even in a work of pure fiction.

The rest of “Tenet” acts as Nolan’s version of a spy movie as the Protagonist seeks to infiltrate the treacherous realm of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who communicates with the future and is planning to give Earth a fate worse than nuclear Armageddon. In the process, he comes to meet Andrei’s wife, Katherine (“Widows’” Elizabeth Debicki), as well as Neil (Robert Pattinson), his partner in all things inverted or otherwise.

It is tempting to label “Tenet” as a time travel film, but Nolan has made it clear it is not. While Marty and Doc Brown can travel from one point in time to another in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, the characters here do not have the same power of instantaneous travel. To get to a certain point, they have to travel backwards in the past to get to it, and it is never an easy trip as the challenges prove to be quite draining physically. Keep in mind, this is one of the few motion pictures you will see where a character is saved from certain death thanks to hypothermia.

Like I said, I have already seen “Tenet” twice and still cannot explain all that goes on in it. We watch as characters live through moments portrayed both forwards and backwards in time, and the concept of inversion remains the kind of puzzle I am not quick to put together. With this film, Nolan may have bitten off far more than he can chew as the concepts here prove to be more cerebral than the first “Star Trek” pilot known as “The Cage.” Having said this, the film proves not to be too heady for me as such films can drive me to complete insanity or make me fall asleep while watching them. In the end, I am glad I did not come out of “Tenet” in the same way the average filmgoer came out of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” desperate to make a lick of sense out of the cinematic chaos they just witnessed.

Nolan employs many of his regular collaborators here such as cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, and they provide us with visuals which would have been great to see on the big screen or in IMAX had any theater in Los Angeles been open a few months ago. This is the first film from “The Dark Knight” director which I have been forced to watch on my television due to the never-ending Coronavirus pandemic, and it feels like such a missed opportunity to not have viewed it on the silver screen. Once movie theaters open up again, hopefully I will get another chance.

One Nolan’s newest collaborators on “Tenet,” other than editor Jennifer Lame, is composer Ludwig Göransson who won an Oscar for scoring “Black Panther.” Hans Zimmer was unavailable due to his commitment on scoring Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” but Göransson comes up with something as propulsive and percussive as what Zimmer would have likely given us. In many ways, his music is as much a character as any other in “Tenet,” and this is one of those music scores which deserves a more in-depth study than it has already received. Like Nolan, Göransson presents his music to us both forward and backward motions, and the result is endlessly fascinating to take in.

Right now, “Tenet” may likely be seen as lesser Nolan as its plot is more complicated than he would ever care to admit, but even the least of his works prove to be more ambitious and original than much of what Hollywood puts out on a regular basis. Even though I was a bit frustrated in trying to understand everything which unfolded before me, I was still deeply enthralled in what Nolan had to offer this time around.

When it comes to making sense out of this particular film, please keep a few things in mind: the word tenet is a palindrome, and the term Sator Square gave this film its title and is a two-dimensional word square which contains a five-word Latin palindrome. If you want to learn more, go online and find out for yourself. As much as I would like to explain everything for you, it is best you discover certain definitions on your own. The actor Andre Braugher once said that “if your vocabulary is limited, then your thoughts are limited.” Be like Braugher and don’t be limited.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Sully

sully-movie-poster

Tom Hanks has been the go to guy for playing American heroes and for good reason; he never plays characters as people gunning to become heroes at any given opportunity. Whether it is Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13,” Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia,” Forrest Gump or even Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own,” Hanks has long been the master of playing ordinary Americans who are just trying to get by in the rough and tumble real world the best way they know how. None of these characters set out for the adulation of others, but for a sense of purpose and justice in a world which at times seems devoid of it.

Now we can add Chesley Sullenberger to Hanks’ list of noble American characters with his excellent performance in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the airline pilot’s dramatic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. We all know this story of how the flight suffered dual engine failure shortly after takeoff due to a flock of Canadian geese flying straight at them, but Eastwood and Hanks dig deeper into what went on as Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are soon drilled by the National Transportation Safety Board as tests imply the left engine on the plane did not fail, meaning they still could have landed at LaGuardia Airport or one in New Jersey instead of on the water.

Sullenberger was quickly hailed a national hero for successfully landing the plane and saving all the lives aboard it, but this movie shows him more troubled by what he did than proud. He becomes plagued with nightmares and PTSD over how the flight could have ended in a catastrophic way. Also, with him and Skiles being thrown into instant stardom for their actions, Sullenberger ends up feeling isolated from everyone around him as people are eager to hug him or shake his hand in congratulating him for what he accomplished.

What I especially liked about “Sully” is how it shows the damaging effect sudden fame can have on an individual. While some might be super excited about appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman” or being interviewed by Katie Couric (who plays herself in this movie), Sullenberger finds him retreating from all the media attention as he never asked for it. While he constantly reaches out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), they are separated by thousands of miles as she resides on the other side of the country. Even as they talk on the phone, the space between them feels quite profound and loneliness soon becomes his best friend.

Hanks’ performance as Sullenberger reminds us of why we look to him to play those people we see as American heroes; they are people not quick to jump into the spotlight and appear unsure as to what to do once they are thrust into it. Hanks never sets out to impersonate Sullenberger, but instead seeks to capture his state of mind following this unforgettable incident. The Oscar winning actor does excellent work in showing how Sullenberger is beset by tremendous self-doubt as he is forced to wonder if he made the right decision in light of all the computer generated evidence presented to him.

Hanks is also supported by a strong supporting cast of actors whom can never be expected to let him or Eastwood down at any second. Eckhart is the definition of strong support as his character of First Officer Jeff Skiles stands by Sullenberger every step of the way. There’s also Laura Linney who plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who does her best to support her husband over the phone any chance she gets. While in some ways Linney has a thankless role to play here, she justifies Lorraine’s presence in the film as the character is the support Sully needs through the most trying of times.

One of the key things Eastwood gets across here as a director is how the human element has to take precedence of the technological one as not everything can be solved or reasoned out completely by computers. This is especially interesting as Eastwood is best known for directing movies which deal heavily in human nature and its ever-growing complexity, but this time he has some nifty tools to work with. Eastwood got to shoot much of “Sully” with IMAX cameras, and seeing this movie on the nearest IMAX screen is a must.

The plane crash sequence is masterfully directed as we see pilots and flight attendants at their most professional during a moment of crisis. While we all know how things will turn out here, it is still a pulse pounding scene as we are with everyone on this plane from when they take off to when they land on the Hudson. The sound of the engines dying down and of silence in midair is unnerving, and it’s not every day you see a commercial jet land in the water.

Eastwood also makes us remember how the human element plays as big part in movies as do visual effects. He has not set out to give us a biopic on Sullenberger, and that’s even though there are moments sprinkled throughout which show his beginnings as a pilot and other significant experiences which molded him into the pilot he became. Instead, he is far more interested in the impact this one miraculous moment can have on a person’s life and of the obstacles it places in front of them.

Thank goodness Eastwood did not put the term “based on a true story” at the beginning of “Sully.” We all know this happened. Does Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki play loose with the facts? Sure, but most movies like this do. The NTSB has objected to the way they have been portrayed here, and they do come across as overly villainous at times. But in terms of the story’s dramatic arc, it makes sense why they were portrayed as such here. To his credit, Sullenberger requested that the names of the real-life NTSB investigators, which were featured in the original draft, be changed as he felt it would be unfair to associate them with the changes in the story. Whatever the case, “Sully” is still a very compelling and gripping motion picture to sit through.

Some still question whether Chesley Sullenberger deserves to be called a hero as they believe he still could have landed at an airport. Others I know personally have accused him of using his pulpit to trash professional pilots for no good reason. But neither Eastwood or Hanks made this movie to deify Sullenberger as to do so would seriously cheapen the story for no good reason. They simply show us an ordinary man who was forced to make a quick decision in order to save the lives of many, and he was not out to call himself more heroic than others for his actions.

But also, “Sully” shows how an entire life can too often be boiled down, often unfairly so, to a single moment which renders all other accomplishments moot. In today’s media and technology saturated culture, people are never defined too broadly anymore but instead by specific actions more than anything else. The Buddha once said the merit of a whole life can be undone in a single moment. This could have been the fate Sullenberger would have been forced to accept, but he rose to the occasion and saved many lives in the process. As this movie shows, he was never out to be a hero. He was simply a human being doing his job.

And if nothing else, the movie shows Americans, especially those in New York, rising to the occasion and helping the passengers get to the shore safely. However which way you want to look at the story of US Airways Flight 1549, it did provide us with a happy ending we desperately wanted to have.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.