Monday, July 29, 2013

The Wolverine

The Wolverine (2013)
Dir. James Mangold

4 out of 5

When Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man established the axiom “with great power comes great responsibility,” it created an unwritten rule: superheroes don’t deal with small problems.  Origin stories aside, they are protagonists with huge macro-level worries about saving the city, the planet, or the corruptible soul of humanity.  Surprisingly, the second Hugh Jackman-starring X-Men spin-off The Wolverine doesn’t really have anything to do with the greater good.  It’s a simple matter of life and death and the personal responsibility of its titular character, a genuinely character-driven story that’s a rarity in this era of the onscreen superhero arms race.

Indeed, the only arms (and torso, sneer, and sideburns) of note in The Wolverine belong to Jackman.  Counting his cameo in X-Men: First Class, it’s the sixth time he’s played the prickly mutant soldier Logan - known colloquially as “Wolverine” for the prehensile claws that protrude from between his knuckles - and his affinity for the role shines through in this standalone story following the character to Japan, where Logan is summoned by Ichiro Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a man he saved from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki nearly 70 years before.  Yashida, now dying of cancer, covets Logan’s immortality and, somewhat insidiously, proposes a “transplant” that will allow Logan to age and die naturally while Yashida prolongs his own life.  But Yashida unfortunately doesn’t live to hear Logan’s answer, triggering an assassination plot against his handpicked heir, granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). 

Here The Wolverine becomes an elaborate chase narrative with Logan protecting Mariko - and Mariko’s childhood companion, katana-wielding mutant psychic Yukio (Rila Fukushima), protecting him as he discovers that Yashida’s enemies somehow managed to suppress his self-healing ability.  Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) constructs a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse while using the reverse-Highlander premise of mortal Logan to meaningfully explore the character’s pain and personal loss.  Yet for a film that is plenty dark - with its detailed depictions of nuclear warfare and Logan’s haunting visions of his dead lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) - it still finds room for kinetic action sequences (a fight staged on top of a bullet train ranks among the summer’s best) and a heroic arc that doesn’t feel rushed or perfunctory, thanks to the liberal sprinkling of character beats and the sudden removal of Logan’s invulnerability.

The Wolverine points to an intriguing “one-shot” paradigm for future comic book movies.  Given the super-sized cast of the next X-Men movie, it’s unlikely to metastasize anytime soon in this corner of the Marvel universe.  Still, Mangold and his team should be commended for demonstrating that the blueprint to an effective summer blockbuster can omit all the alien invasions and crumbling skyscrapers, and feature more of the moral rectitude and herculean burdens that actually define comic book heroism.  These days, any movie with a big effects budget has the power to become a large, clattering Doomsday Machine.  What’s admirable and ultimately memorable about The Wolverine is that it takes seriously the responsibility to find another way.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Catch-Up: Comic-Con 2013

I’m still a little woozy/dehydrated/sleep-deprived from my visit to this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, but it was all worth it.  I made some new friends, partied on a pirate ship, and was shooed out of a bathroom by Harrison Ford’s bodyguard!  

I also wrote a bunch of posts for Screen Invasion.  Check out my links, bro:

Ender’s Game had a big presence at the Con, with a “fan experience” walkthrough and a press conference, where even the professional journalists still ask Ford stupid questions about Han Solo.

- The South Park: The Stick of Truth panel devolved - as Comic-Con panels must - into a series of hyper-specific fanboy questions posed to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as captured in my live blog.

- Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright graciously answered questions about their upcoming film, The World’s End, in a series of down-to-earth roundtable interviews.

- I camped out in a hotel ballroom to confirm that the final season of How I Met Your Mother will indeed have a mother, and live blogged the remarkably organized True Blood panel.  Though it was arguably more fun getting caught up - via Wikipedia and in-person fan summaries - on the insane plotlines of the latter (I had stopped watching True Blood after Season 4, but it sounds like the show is finally returning to its roots).

- Shockingly, I managed to get a scoop from sitting in a cavernous room and letting Kevin Smith gab at me.  I covered his annual Q&A live from Hall H, where Smith gave details about a couple movie projects he’s currently developing: Clerks III and a quirky horror movie entitled Tusk.  I was later cited by /Film and Bloody Disgusting, premium linkage that’s almost as exciting as seeing your name in print.

Just a reminder that you can see all my non-Amblog work on Screen Invasion, in addition to tons of other great content.  We now returned to your regularly scheduled Amblogging...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Amblog and Friends: The Place Beyond the Pines

Welcome to "Amblog and Friends," a new feature showcasing special think pieces and deep analysis of movies from my Rolodex of fellow film lovers.  We kick things off this month with music and movie blogger extraordinaire Kenny Ng, who examines Derek Cianfrance's episodic morality play The Place Beyond the Pines.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
Dir. Derek Cianfrance

/by Kenny Ng

"He's my son, I should be around him. I wasn't around my dad, and look at the fucking way I turned out. I want to take care of my son, that's my job. Let me do my job."

In one of the early, and more affecting scenes in The Place Beyond the Pines, a picture is being taken in front of an ice cream parlor. An unconventional family is united for a moment with the timelessly retro image of childhood as Luke, the character played by Gosling (Just Gosling) tells the girl taking their photo to "just capture the mood"—an instruction that can be attributed to much of film's goals as a whole. This particular scene also most closely revisits the hyper-present, suggestive intimacy that constructed so much of director Derek Cianfrance's 2011 breakout, Blue Valentine. This sequence is paired directly next to a scene of irrational crime, the tender and violent played side-by-side, jolting awake feelings on the dual nature of human life—a technique used to similar effect in his last release. 

Visual symbolism is integral to the film, as when Luke, the handsome outlaw, arrives at Ro's (Eva Mendes) house in head-to-toe white, greeting the mother of his child mounted atop a white motorbike, with platinum blonde hair that, upon closer inspection, plays on the nuances of his white knight as the antihero—shirt turned inside out, tags visibly protruding, arms covered in tattoos, and dirtied clothes beneath the whiteness of it all. The imagery works at the reduction of good and evil into the grey in which most of us actually exist. With the birth of his son, Luke becomes a careless drifter who's found a reason to stay, and all the choices he makes thereafter are to be the father he never had, to show paternal care the only way he knows how. Much of the film's first act passes as sketches, like flashes of memories being told through narrative hindsight. The jumpy dialogue and excessive fades seem to piece together a general context rather than exist as presently-unfolding story—it, you could say, just captures the mood. 

A shift in perspective opens the second chapter, featuring Bradley Cooper's Avery as a young cop carried over from Luke's story who is struggling with a newfound heroism that tests his sense of self, and continues to pose questions of personal context and motive. Through a series of wrong turns that stem from not really knowing his own limits, he becomes involved in situations he never wanted to explore. Avery, like Luke, has a newborn, and the characters act as mirrors for one another, using the conflicting roles of the criminal committed to his son and the paragon of justice with a shaky sense of morals to hint that beneath our well-formed exteriors, we are all a few bad decisions away from each other. 

The conclusion of the police arc opens on a funeral, ushering the third and final portion of the film, with a time jump that completes the narrative set in motion by Luke's hypnotic opening scene. This is the most difficult section to talk about without infringing on the virtues of storytelling, but is also the most rewarding. Its focus is on two younger characters whose scenes together are ruthlessly tense, with a Shakespearean quality to a friendship built on the kind of easy camaraderie that you can't help but root for, however cursed it seems. Gosling is good, as is Cooper, but it's a testament to the framework of the story and direction that younger actors Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen's time on screen is just as, if not more riveting. Though criticism of the film usually points to this last section, it is the very glue that ties all themes together—it is meant to be taken whole. 

Cianfrance has a knack for stripping actors of their Hollywood facades, of digging deep to find what makes them human, and Pines is a film that works in spite of its big names, not because of it. The real star is its triptych structure, a balancing act of relentless plot and meditative visuals that push outside the lines of what we expect from a film of this kind, using its heightened reality to make ambitious connections. There is a pindrop intensity to the film that experiences moments of humor and terror with equal delicacy. It is completely insulated in its uncompromising, literary vision. Each frame affects the next, and builds from the last. There is a novel-like satisfaction to its completion, the closing of a whole that rides it out until the very end.

This is a film full of conflict, of forces that are constantly pulling at each other—even the score by Mike Patton floats between the peaceful oneness of human life, and the horror in what we do to attain the things we all want, when we don't know how else to get it. It puts forth questions of crime into a human context, and deals with moral ambiguity and the idea that really, everybody has his reasons. It's about what the circumstantial contrivances reveal about family, about legacy, about human nature; of a father's duty to his son, and a son's magnetic pull to his father. What do we inherit at birth and what do we pass on when we give life? 

The final shot, coupled with Bon Iver's "Wolves" (the same song used to similar heady effect in last year's Rust and Bone), is both moving and haunting, tying together the film's themes of inherited fortune and circular fate, and the question of destiny in our DNA. It comes as a purging of all the pain, a final exhale for the viewer after a windswept two-plus hour motorcycle ride—equal parts fear and careless freedom—that could give out at any moment. As the credits rolled (it's the kind that you sit all the way through), I couldn't help but think back to the first scene of Luke in a motorcycle cage, spinning round and round and round, not going anywhere but looping back to where he started. This film is life, it is death, it is all of our choices in between. 

Follow Kenny Ng on Twitter (@kennethjng) and keep an eye out for his new blog, coming soon.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (2013)
Dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

1 out of 5

Nicolas Winding Refn has described the difference between his new film, Only God Forgives, and 2011's critically-acclaimed Drive in terms of specific drug-taking experiences.  Whereas Drive was “like doing the best cocaine all night long” (and how!), Only God Forgives is a self-conscious acid trip that’s obsessed with locking itself and the audience into the present moment, with no hope of escape from the beautiful phantasmagoric nightmare.

What he’s forgotten is that drugged-out adventures often make for banal storytelling when you’re hearing them secondhand, a problem that plagues this flat, obtuse film about the seedy underbelly of Bangkok seen through glazed eyes.  Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, an expat American drug dealer and owner of a martial arts academy with the smartly appointed, GQ-ready wardrobe of Ryan Gosling.  His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is an even scummier drug dealer who murders a teen prostitute, then is murdered in turn by the girl’s bereaved father at the urging of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a corrupt machete-toting cop.  This act of vigilante justice kicks off a chain reaction of increasingly extreme violence as Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian and Billy’s foul creature of a mother, hectors her surviving son into seeking retribution against the architect of his brother’s slaying.

The film springs to life during the handful of scenes that play to Refn’s bloody aplomb (recall Gosling’s elevator stomp-a-thon in Drive).  But the film needs something more substantive than the occasional arterial spray to keep us interested, and the wafer-thin plot is just not cutting it.  Maybe it’s the heat in Bangkok, but Only God Forgives feels like lumpy, lackadaisical B-movie trolling from a director who’s capable of much better.  Refn wastes Pansringarm’s appropriately steely performance and the pitch-black comedy of Thomas’ intriguing gender-inverse character (she all but swings around a pair of novelty brass balls), instead pitching everything to Gosling’s muffled monotone and fatal inaction.  The result is a movie where the characters spend most of their time staring blankly at each other, as if searching for the modicum of tension required to make this story feel like an actual cat-and-mouse thriller.  (It isn’t, not when Chang and Julian locate each other with an ease that renders almost all preceding action meaningless.)

It’s not a sin to make a nihilistic movie, but it should be a crime to make one this lifeless.  Only God Forgives is doomed once its moral torpor seeps into the actual craft of the film.  Aside from the throbbing synths of Cliff Martinez’s excellent score, it’s tough to find a pulse in this sea of slack expressions, de rigueur brothel lighting, and interminable bouts of staring that rival the early installments of the Twilight saga.  Contrary to Refn’s statement, you don’t have to be high to sit through Only God Forgives - but it probably helps.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013)
Dir. Guillermo del Toro

4 out of 5

Calling a movie a “popcorn flick” has always been a kind of backhanded compliment, a friendly pejorative to describe the empty calories offered by less-than-intellectual cinematic experiences, as if we spent most of our free time consuming our cultural vegetables.  Pacific Rim is a special kind of treat, a movie that unabashedly embraces the identity of “popcorn” while offering something that’s increasingly rare in this age of convoluted, gritty blockbusters: functionality.  It delivers exactly what is promised, and does it with skill, panache, and a healthy dollop of humor.

A simple title card with two definitions is all that’s needed to construct the backdrop for the fulfillment of director Guillermo del Toro’s manga fantasies.  When giant alien monsters called Kaiju (Japanese for "great beast") rise from an inter-dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to terrorize coastal cities, humans fight back by creating the Jaegers (German for "hunter"), skyscraper-sized battle robots steered by a pair of neurally-connected pilots.  Though the Jaegers are initially successful in repelling the Kaiju, the monsters eventually adapt, forcing the humans to decommission most of their machines and construct a series of defense walls instead.  The last remaining Jaegers and their pilots gather in Hong Kong, where military honcho Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba) coordinates a last-ditch plan to end the Kaiju menace once and for all.

Our nominal hero, washed-up Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam, fighting a second battle with an American accent), leads the charge as he works his way back from a traumatic experience, seen in the film’s prologue, that took the life of his co-pilot brother.  Faster than you can say “Maverick,” he’s thrust into a character arc that bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of Top Gun, just one of the old-school blockbusters from the ‘80s/‘90s golden age of high concept that del Toro gleefully references here.  However, Pacific Rim is a movie for pluralistic times, and its depiction of heroism relies on a number of stock characters recast as a multinational fighting force, from the aforementioned Pentacost; to Becket’s new female co-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi); to scientist Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who provides insight into the motivations of the Kaiju along with some welcome comic relief.

But Pacific Rim is really the opposite of a serious movie, using blunt, effective storytelling to slam subtlety like it's the ugly mug of a rampaging Kaiju.  Its the reliance on the tried-and-true allows del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham to move quickly from one spectacle to the next, making it easy to forget any missed beats in the film's two hour-plus runtime.  And, oh my, is the action ever spectacular.  This is the cinema of the awesome: king-sized battles that resemble the embiggened monster fights of Power Rangers on steroids (and a major studio budget).  Yet unlike the casual destruction featured in many of this summer's releases, del Toro has given thought to how the external world is affected by this apocalyptic threat, from the people who worship the Kaiju as slate-cleaning world destroyers to black marketeers like Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) who scavenge the monsters’ corpses for profit.  Pacific Rim may be purposefully trite and corny and out of fashion, but that’s precisely what makes it work.  It's the first (and, so far, only) humanist blockbuster of the year, an infectiously optimistic disaster movie about the ability of human beings to overcome their differences in pursuit of a common goal and embrace diversity as the solution to their greatest challenges.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Catch-Up: Summer Art House Counterprogramming

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  (If it’s good enough for Wesley Morris, then it’s good enough for me!)  Here are some mini-reviews of indie fare targeted at filmgoers already exhausted by smashy summer blockbusters. 

Dir. Sofia Coppola

4 out of 5

Nipping at the heels of Spring Breakers for the year’s best distillation of twisted adolescent solipsism is Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.  Based on the real-life Hollywood Hills burglaries perpetrated by a group of fame-obsessed teens between 2008 and 2009, The Bling Ring seizes upon the malleable definition of “celebrity” in contemporary culture. Fixating on the exploits and wardrobes of socialites like Paris Hilton and Audrina Patridge, the criminals surmise - with a brazenly stupid logic that almost makes sense - that they can be like the famous and the beautiful by simply positing that they ought to be famous and beautiful too (an attitude slyly echoed in scenes where oblivious mom Leslie Mann homeschools her overprivileged brats with a curriculum based on The Secret).  Egged on by ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang), the gang makes multiple “shopping trips” to the homes of the stars they idolize, bringing away impressive hauls of clothes, cash, and other luxury items.

The sheltered narcissism and ubiquitous Valley-girl patois of the characters in The Bling Ring are ripe for satire, which Coppola delivers from a deadpan comedic stance that’s perhaps a bit too judgmental in places.  It’s hard to argue with the results, though - Emma Watson, in particular, does a spot-on impression of a media-addled manipulator who has a pile of rhinestones where her brain should be.  What’s great about The Bling Ring, though, are the readings resting beneath the surface: it’s a movie about the way peer pressure and groupthink can create binding relationships, about a gay teen’s identity crisis (empathetically portrayed by newcomer Israel Broussard), or about the baffling and persistent arrogance of the affluent classes.  These kids have better lives, materially speaking, than the majority of Americans, but still they crave more.  They’re young people making - and getting punished for - terrible mistakes, yet have no idea of the actual suffering of their peers who make similar choices but don’t have the necessary self-delusion or purebred superiority to ignore the consequences.

“The Bling Ring” is now playing in theaters.

Dir. Ryan Coogler

3.5 out of 5

In the early morning of New Year's Day 2009 in San Francisco, a BART police officer shot and killed the unarmed Oscar Grant as he was being detained for arrest.  Because the incident was captured on security cameras as well as the cell phones of many other commuters, there’s not much that Fruitvale Station can do to embellish the gut-wrenching impact of the slaying itself - it opens in vérité fashion with grainy camera phone-like footage of the event.  Instead, the film mostly eschews the crime to focus on the victim.  Fruitvale Station is a comparatively quiet character study of Grant on the last day of his life and a thoughtful dispatch from post-recession urban America.  It’s a slice of modest working class life that doesn’t romanticize its subjects yet makes it impossible not to empathize with them.  The film taps into the yearning, frustrated souls of the many rudderless young men like Grant via the portrayal of Michael B. Jordan - a revelation here, at least to those unfamiliar with his previous decade of work on TV shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights.  Directed by first-timer Ryan Coogler, who also scripted, Jordan gives an emotionally charged performance that, like the film itself, is as rich and riveting in its moments of domestic stillness as in its unimaginably swift descent into chaos.

“Fruitvale Station” opens today in limited release.

Dir. Sebastian Silva

3 out of 5

American drug tourist Jaime (Michael Cera) wants nothing more than to experience a mescaline trip from the fruit of the San Pedro cactus in Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus.  He’s come to Chile and hooked up with a group of three laid-back brothers (played by Silva’s actual brothers Juan Andrés, José, and Augustín) who humor the selfish gringo’s psychedelic desires out of little more than resigned boredom and morbid curiosity.  But their patience is tested further by the titular Crystal (Gaby Hoffman), a party-crashing sprite who mistakes Jamie’s condescension as a invitation to join his drug vacation; before long, she’s the fifth wheel distributing "magic pebbles" and constantly redefining her relationship to clothing.  The audience may feel the same exasperation with the film as it turns from a relaxed and humorous travelogue of shifting alliances - next to Jaime’s incessant douchebaggery, the brothers start to prefer Crystal’s harmless hippie quirks - to broad, unimaginative portraits of the Ugly American and the Space Cadet.  By the time Cera finally reveals the hint of human vulnerability hiding beneath his callous behavior, it can’t save the well-meaning but ill-advised tonal collision of Crystal Fairy’s final act, imposing a swift sobriety that doesn’t jibe with the movie’s otherwise enjoyably loopy vibe.

“Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” opens today in limited release and is also available via Video on Demand.

Dir. Sebastián Cordero

2 out of 5

The claustrophobic space thriller Europa Report aims to do for science fiction what Paranormal Activity did for horror, embracing a faux-survelliance aesthetic to tell the story of a privately-funded voyage to investigate signs of life on one of Jupiter’s moons - a trip that, in predictable fashion, goes terribly wrong.  The latest film from Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero, Europa Report discovers new depths of tedium in an already unwelcome visual trend.  In a movie like this, off-screen space can and should be used to build tension, but more often than not the static, unimaginative camera placement merely obfuscates the action taking place.  The talented cast, led by Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), works hard to salvage the material, though it’s difficult to buy into the premise when this crew of handpicked experts keeps making crucial (and ultimately fatal) mistakes.  Europa Report is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a piece of sleek, stripped-down entertainment, a deathly dull slog that renders its final message - that the smallest bit of success makes a harrowing physical and emotional ordeal worthwhile - highly ironic.

“Europa Report” is available now via Video on Demand and will be released in select theaters August 2.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Blog-iversary II: The Blog Warrior

My annual "I can't believe I'm still doing this" post is way tardier than last year's, but it also doubles as an apologia/explanation for said lateness.  For me, summer is as synonymous with travel as it is with disappointing mega-budget blockbusters.  If things seem light on the Amblog for the next couple months, it's because I'm escaping the sun-scorched streets of LA for locales more exotic than the local multiplex.  

But fear not!  You can use this extra time to peruse the highlights of Ambler Amblog, Year Two:

- 2012 in Review is a great place to start cherry-picking my better reviews.  (Spoiler alert: I really loved Django Unchained.)  More recently, Spring Breakers and Iron Man 3 are two films remembered fondly...and Movie 43 another that is certainly not.

- I've added The Catch Up as a semi-regular feature for mini-reviews of new releases alongside the more thematically minded Jump Cuts.  Expect new installments of both in the near future, to cover topics from summer art house counter-programming to fossilized action stars to an iconoclastic animation auteur.

- Unless you work for the NSA, you probably don't care about blog statistics.  But despite easing off the throttle since last spring, I'm proud to note that monthly pageviews are higher than ever: a five-fold increase from last July.  The most-viewed post last year - and all-time?  Let's say it together now: Argo fuck yourself.

- It's also my second year(ish) of happily contributing to Screen Invasion as a staff writer and film critic.  Since the Amblog is largely an exercise in solitude, I'm incredibly grateful to be part of another outlet that's the opposite: a talented team of pop culture writers with omnivorous instincts...and awesome press hook-ups.  Say tuned to Screen Invasion for exclusive material like Spoiler Forum and my upcoming San Diego Comic-Con coverage.

And I couldn't do any of it but for you, the readers.  You have truly created a monster.  Many thanks for all your comments, criticisms, and compliments delivered online and in person, and for continuing to indulge my obsession.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2013)
Dir. Drew DeNicola

3.5 out of 5

For anyone who experiences great success in the entertainment business, there are dozens - hundreds - whose hopes are dashed by cruel ironies.  Case in point: Big Star, the Memphis power-pop group that finally achieved the popularity it sought long after it ceased to be a going concern.  Big Star recorded a trio of albums that drew unanimous critical praise in the 1970s (all three later wound up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time) but failed to connect commercially; the band’s stripped-down instrumentation, lush Beatles-esque harmonies, and melancholic lyrics seemed out of place in a decade when rock stars were expected to strike the posture of swaggering, hedonistic demi-gods.  According to Drew DeNicola’s nostalgic documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Big Star was simply ahead of its time: their music influenced the introspective romantics of the 1980s and early 1990s “alternative rock” boom and helped shape the sound of modern indie music.  Singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock puts it best in the film: the music of Big Star “was like a letter posted in 1971 but not received until 1985.  It just got lost in the mail."

Apart from the requisite back-patting, though, Nothing Can Hurt Me is an examination of the difficult, sometimes tragic journey from underperforming critical darling to ex post facto cult favorite.  The artistic brainchild of Alex Chilton (who in 1967, at the age of 16, had already scored a number one hit with “The Letter” while fronting The Box Tops) and his Memphis rock scene contemporary Chris Bell, Big Star had a brief, promising career that was as snakebitten as they come.  The film pins some of the blame on the band’s label, Stax Records, which was trying to launch a rock music imprint while experiencing severe financial problems.  In many cases, sympathetic DJs found it impossible to acquire copies of the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City due to poor distribution.  Problems also came from within:  suffering from severe emotional distress after the failure of #1 Record, Bell quit the band while the remaining members - and their support team, colorfully rendered in candid interviews - continued to work and play as hard as the rock stars they were expected to become.

Nothing Can Hurt Me also must deal with the deaths of Bell and Chilton - the former in a 1978 car accident and the latter due to heart failure three years ago - placing it under the umbrella of myth-making “legacy" rock docs like Marley and Tupac: Resurrection.  Their absence likely explains why the film is short on creative insights about the songs apart from the hyperbolic hosannas of critics (Chilton does get to participate via audio of archived interviews).  DeNicola also doesn’t attempt to place the group or its music in a broader context, apart from the occasional sound bite from a musician influenced by Big Star and a humorous anecdote about a press junket that wooed rock critics by framing it as an attempt to organize a writers’ union.  What he does instead is construct an extensive personal biography that paints a portrait of a band that, despite its populist aspirations, could not help but follow its muse - particularly Chilton, who shook off the disappointment of Big Star with interesting forays into punk, art rock, and assorted avant-garde experiments.  It’s a soothing tribute does the band justice and, much like Big Star’s music, evokes a warm and bittersweet feeling that leaves the audience hopeful for the present while still longing for the clarity of the past.