My thoughts on the James Brown biopic “Get on Up” and Brett Ratner’s “Hercules”

As a film festival and independent film journalist, I don't generally review studio pictures. I do occasionally see Hollywood movies, however, and am perfectly willing to comment on them -- just not on this site. That said, I saw two this week that reminded me why I prefer indies. So while I won't review them here I will post some thoughts, as it were.    

On Wednesday night I attended a screening of Get on Up, the James Brown biopic from Tate Taylor, who wrote and directed 2011's The Help. And "help" was the word I kept uttering to myself throughout this picture. Get on Up? That's exactly what I felt like doing. Readers of this site know how generous I am to filmmakers...I tend to like just about anything I see, and have never walked out of a movie. But I came close this time. I don't know where to begin. There's not enough space. I'll stick with the one thing that ruined it for me the most...the editor (Oscar-nominated Michael McCusker) must have been kidnapped and replaced by some stoner who found the stuff that got James Brown put in jail.

I've had this conversation with people about my biggest editing pet peeve...the jumps in time that take a flashback and turn it into multiple layers of confusion. I'll say this at the outset...I have NO problem with a non-linear narrative. Heck, 99% of the films I see are indies and over half are foreign, and a good percentage of those certainly jump around in space and time. But if you open with a prologue followed by "six years earlier..." you'd better prove to me that it was necessary.

Okay, sometimes it makes sense to get a sense in your head of where the characters are today, then we see how they got there. It's a device that writers use to help establish how a character came to be the way they are. But do it once and move on. I saw a film recently that opened in the present day, followed by "15 years earlier," then "5 months earlier," then "10 years later..." That was it. At that point I was gone. It would have taken an utter masterpiece to get me back into the picture. I don't mind working a bit mentally to follow the action but when the first few minutes of the film are so convoluted in time travel I just never get a handle on where my head is supposed to be. Cerebral chess games usually don't work within the first five minutes.

Get on Up opens in the 90s. After less than a minute we flash back to 1988. After a couple of minutes it flashes back to 1968. Okay, fine. First show the crazy, later James Brown...then flash back to the height of his success. But no, a couple of minutes later it flashes back to 1939. Okay, now I'm getting annoyed. Two minutes later we flash forward to 1964. Now I'm ready to walk out. Then it's back to 1939, then 1965, then 1955, then 1964...seriously, that's how this film was edited.

There are plenty of instances where this makes sense. Seeing what helped form an individual through the use of occasional flashbacks can be a powerful thing. But this felt like some producer spoonfeeding the audience out of fear they would lose interest or wouldn't "get it." Whenever a movie opens with a prologue followed by a flashback I always wonder, "what if it had started THERE?" Most of the time, when I talk to the filmmakers, I find out that some suit somewhere thought the opening was too slow and wanted to pull some action from later in the film and tack it onto the beginning. Sometimes it's just a red herring. Usually it causes the viewer to sit there through the whole movie waiting for that moment to come up. It's patronizing and, more often, it's laziness on the part of the filmmakers.

Let me be perfectly clear. I love the work of editor Michael McCusker. He's cut some of my favorites, including Walk the Line (for which he received an Oscar nomination), 3:10 to Yuma, Australia, Hesher, Knight and Day, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Wolverine. He was an assistant editor on many other wonderful movies, including Independence Day, Speed 2, What Dreams May Come, The Patriot, Kate & Leopold, Identity, The Day After Tomorrow, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Captain America: The First Avenger. He's a pro and among the best in the business. That's why I was so upset tonight.

All through this movie I kept imagining it being done in a linear fashion, putting the segments together in my head as it went along, wondering how the film would have looked if it started in 1939 and just followed his life. Is the audience that stupid that they can't remember the events from 1939 once we get to 1965? Someone made the decision to edit it this way, and I seriously doubt it was the editor. It didn't appear to have been the intention from the outset. Someone watched it in its original linear structure and thought it would be clever to chop it up this way. It's a shame because it might have been a good film, but I'll never know. Not unless I take it home and re-edit it myself. Hmm...now there's an idea...

Less than 24 hours later I found myself at a screening of Brett Ratner's Hercules in 3D. The good news is, it made up for the previous night's debacle. I don't think I could have taken two wasted nights in a row. Even better, it made up for the "other" Hercules fiasco earlier this year when I sat through what had to be one of the worst movies I've ever seen, Summit's slo-mo rotoscope version. The only thing that made that Hercules movie tolerable (and kept me from walking out) was the fact that I was sitting next to two film students who (thankfully) carried on a scathing, running commentary throughout the entire picture. It was the one time I was thrilled to have people talking around me. Also, not surprisingly, a number of people at tonight's screening had also seen the earlier Hercules and felt the same way. One said it was guaranteed to show up on his 10 Worst Films of 2014. I don't do that sort of thing but, if I did, I'd probably place it on there, too. So, if for no other reason than that it redeemed the Hercules myth for onscreen purposes, it was a success.

Dwayne Johnson is The Rock y'all know and love, doing what he does best -- kickin' Greek butt and taking names. He travels with a motley band of oddfellows (and lady) who provide a good deal of comic relief. In fact, the best thing about this film is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. I'd even venture to call it a light comedy. The special effects are impressive, with several "oh wow" moments, and the relatively bloodless slaughtering of thousands makes it a bit less gruesome (and kid-approved) -- although the woman who brought the baby in a carriage, who cried on and off throughout the entire movie, should have been hit by a stray arrow. I'm not sure the five-year-old boy who sat squirming next to me really belonged there, either, but I guess that's what you get when it's a free press/word-of-mouth screening. I really don't think the level of violence makes this film appropriate for that age. The language is sanitary, though (there's one very well-placed F-bomb) and a brief glimpse of a female posterior. It's a novel script...a story that takes the legend into account but creates a narrative out of whole cloth, with enough twists to keep the adults satisfied through closing credits. I could have done without the 3D -- it was a conversion and probably best seen in 2D. But a worthy popcorn flick and a fun, surprisingly fast two hours. A joint release of Paramount and MGM.



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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