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Jeff Simon

From 'Rambo' to 'Downton Abbey' - new films offer something for everyone

Jeff Simon

I love show business - so much so that I've always thought Billy Rose was right when he said "everyone has two businesses - his own and show business."

There's almost always something unintentionally merry and infectious about the vulgarity and blatancy of show business' attempts to appeal to a wide audience. I'm not saying that the results of those attempts aren't often appalling on the level of "Sharknado" or "Dean Martin's Christmas at Sea World" or "Bachelor in Paradise." I'm saying I find it hard to resist a chuckle when hearing about the attempt.

Take, for instance, the shamelessness of the outlay at your local movie megaplex this weekend - a broad-based cannon blast at audience affections if ever there was one.

Consider a new Sylvester Stallone "Rambo" movie, which is called "Rambo:Last Blood" even though its star and co-writer Sylvester Stallone will cheerfully discuss the possibility of another if you broach the subject. There's also "Downton Abbey" in which writer Julian Fellowes brought back more withering things for the incomparable Maggie Smith to say as Lady Violet Crawley despite the fact that the British TV series stopped going upstairs and downstairs four years ago.

And "Ad Astra," the excitedly reviewed James Gray sci-fi combination of jaw-dropping visuals and psychological perplexities in which Brad Pitt continues his audience's pleasure in him as a film actor and presence after Quentin Tarantino's reminder  of how abundant they could both be in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

Put all of those together and you have a demographic bonanza with each one individually revealing a great deal about the intuition and cunning of film executive's who said "yes" to each film and coughed up the wherewithal to make it.

My own buttons are pushed a good deal more by some of these movies than others. I'm not much of a "Downton Abbey" fan, but some of my oldest friends are, so I'm not going to argue with them.

I was never much of a "Rambo" lover either, although the only one I didn't review - Ted Kotcheff's original "First Blood" - was more than pretty good. I must confess that Stallone's cheerfully trashy way of keeping himself and his movie career well-muscled at the age of 72 seems both inventive and admirably tenacious.

Any actor who kept a franchise going by turning Rocky Balboa into a variation on Burgess Meredith as Mickey and who re-started a new senior citizen action franchise called "The Expendables" gets my vote for good-humored and knuckle-headed persistence. Whatever his films turn out to be, I've always found Stallone's sense of humor about himself irresistible.

Gray has never been one of my favorite filmmakers, but from everything I've read thus far on "Ad Astra," it seems like the most apt movie yet for the director to park his positively Russian manic-depressive streak.

With all the big, audience-tickling new stuff coming out this weekend, permit me to put in an admiring word for two movies  that opened last week - "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice," the terrific new documentary about Ronstadt's sad late-life career defeat by Parkinson's now playing the Dipson Eastern Hills Mall, and Lorene Scafaria and Jennifer Lopez's surprising off-the-wall triumph in "Hustlers," a sort of feminist variation of Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." (And a more original and appealing movie.)

The latter seemed to shock all sorts of people when it piled up enough tens of millions in first weekend box office to get any movie businessman's attention. Of course, it did, I said to myself, after the box office registered orthodox surprise. What else would you expect from a semi-feminist movie about stripper-turned-nightclub scam artist starring Jennifer Lopez, in its first half hour, working a strip club pole with rather arresting skill.

It's a movie so attuned to the currencies of the Internet that it found a substantial role for rapper and ex-stripper Cardi B and another for viral web favorite Lizzo. While they were at it, they made one of the movie's more vivid set pieces, a visit by Usher to a strip club so that he can rain down dollar bills on every dancer in the place.

The film is based on a 2015 New York magazine piece by Jessica Presser called The Hustlers at Scores. Those with a long memory will think back fondly to New York magazine's previous success in finding a nightlife movie subject going all the way back to Nik Cohn's piece, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," which became "Saturday Night Fever."

My guess is that current movie critics haven't been eagerly awaiting a new film from Scafaria, but I have. Scafaria's first script I was aware of was for a surprisingly convincing teen comedy called "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." (Just as in that one, her new film gets weird comic mileage out of a young woman with a very delicate stomach tossing her cookies a lot.)

Much more important in Scafaria's resume is a movie called "The Meddler" which, despite its misleading and offputting title, was a moving showcase for Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne.

Scafaria has been an accomplished filmmaker for a while despite her name not being featured in marquee lights. I wouldn't claim that "Hustlers" is a better film than Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street,"  but there's no question about which of the two films I'm going to remember more fondly.

One thing more might be mentioned beside a Lopez' performance which is one of her best by far.

It's a mark of how much feminism has changed so many hypocritical old rules that the opening publicity wave of this film was accompanied by all manner of media stories everywhere showing Lopez celebrating her 50th birthday.

Once upon a time, it was ersatz chivalry to avoid mentioning a woman's age. In the 21st century, a veteran star like Lopez who can play raunch and sensitivity with equal conviction and deftness, is likely to celebrate the number of birthday candles on her cake everywhere she goes especially when she has, in tow, former Yankees short stop and third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

The ending of the Ronstadt documentary is almost guaranteed to moisten the eyes of anyone who has ever loved the voice and music of that magnificent singer who has, for all professional purposes, been silenced. The movie's final scene of Ronstadt singing a Mexican song as much as advanced Parkinson's will allow her to, along with two male members of her extended family, will get you.

The movie was produced by James Keach, the actor/producer/director brother of actor Stacy Keach and it's an even better portrait of the glories of Southern California folk rock than the recent documentary about the musical life of Laurel Canyon.

The movie, appropriately, shows off Ronstadt's ability to sing anything and everything. I wish it had made more of her once-jarring decision to record a huge chunk of what we've come to know as The Great American Songbook. What is far too easily forgotten was how innovative that was. Many folk and rock performers since have done it, but only after Ronstadt paved the way (yes, even Bob Dylan has done it). Ronstadt did it first with total success. We learn here that she explained her once-eccentric endeavor to her record company superiors by telling them she wanted to take "this music out of the elevator" (i.e. out of its usual existence in elevator Muzak).

She wanted to give it a big passionate voice again - hers.

The film confirms many times over that singers don't get much purer than Linda Ronstadt.

Imagine, if you can, a documentary portrait that fully does her justice - and along with it completely respect those of us who have always been in her audience.

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