Friday, November 03, 2017

October 2017

It was a mostly peaceful month. Cindy and I started tutoring again on Halloween. BOOKS: I finished A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapina, the second thriller of hers I’ve read this year (following The Couple Next Door). I was also delighted to discover that a new Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey collection had been published. MUSIC: I have been grading the entire Kinks discography. This was also the month that I discovered the YouNow website, making friends with some of the musicians who perform there. Here are the movies I saw in October:

AMERICAN MADE (2017)—Tom Cruise plays pilot Barry Seal in this biopic about the infamous Nicaraguan Contras drug smuggling cartel in the 1980s. It’s an exciting and informative true-life drama about greed and corruption. Cruise is typically winning and handsome. You’ll learn a lot about the Iran-Contra affair, but it’s always entertaining. (8)

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017)—The 2014 action-comedy spy spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service gets a strong sequel. Colin Firth—seemingly killed off in the original—is miraculously resurrected and reunited with co-star Taron Egerton; many cameos (including Elton John), help make this second installment of the franchise great fun. I’m looking forward to the “threequel”! (9)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017)—Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) ups the ante with his follow-up film by working with a somewhat larger budget—but that much larger. Instagram star Bria Vinaite plays a prostitute and mother of a young girl (Brooklynn Prince) who are living in a run-down motel in Orlando; the film follows their day-to-day life in a series of mini vignettes. It doesn’t feature a traditional plot—it’s more of a “slice of life” presentation. The entire cast is first-rate, including Willem Dafoe as the motel manager who has to deal with everything from bedbugs and perverts to late-paying customers and a group of rambunctious kids. (8)

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017)—Charles Martin’s 2011 survival novel has been adapted into an exciting film starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet as passengers of a small plane that crash-lands into a snowy mountain wilderness and must survive through extremely harsh weather conditions. The movie clicks on virtually every level—at least until the interminable final act. Two points subtracted because of the last 15-20 minutes, which make the film go from great to second rate. (8)

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017)—A marvelous cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are short-changed in this plodding, overlong family drama that never quite gels. The excellent performances are wasted in director Noah Baumbach’s aimless story of three adult siblings who bicker, and sometimes even come to blows, among themselves while dealing with their aging, eccentric father (Hoffman). There are a few excellent scenes, but the movie just goes nowhere. Piano score by Randy Newman. (5)

MARSHALL (2017)—The early career of civil-rights champion Thurgood Marshall is explored in this courtroom drama that focuses on an early case involving a black man unjustly accused of rape in the 1960s. The movie is above average but rarely exceptional; it’s like a really good TV movie. There are a few amateurish touches, but its heart is in the right place. I’d like to see a movie about how Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice...or a case where Marshall actually gets to testify (in this particular courtroom case, the racist judge mutes him so he doesn’t really have a lot to do). (8)

SUBURBICON (2017)—Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen originally wrote their script for Suburbicon in 1986; George Clooney has championed its production many years later…and has directed a below-average film of it. What a waste of time! The usually reliable Matt Damon stars in this crime drama about murder and the Mafia. About a third of the film involves a barely connected story involving how racism destroys the lives of Damon’s black neighbors. Violent and not very stylish. (5)

WONDERSTRUCK (2017)—Parallel stories track two different deaf children’s cross-country odysseys as they hunt for their respective parents in different timelines. Most of the time, it’s relatively engrossing, but it’s occasionally show, about 20 minutes too long and complicated by lapses of logic. (There was absolutely no reason to make the main kid deaf except to make the movie longer by having too many people write long notes to him.) Curiously, as with Suburbicon, actress Julianne Moore is cast in a dual role. (7)

September 2017

September’s highlights included my trip to San Jose to see the South Bay Musical Theatre production of The Bridges of Madison County; a trip to the doctor to get my hand X-rayed because of some pain in my pinky finger (still no prognosis); and assembling shelves in my bathroom and kitchen. TV: The new season is in full swing; I have cycled Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek tribute The Orville into my viewing regimen, which already includes Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Good Place, The Mindy Project, South Park, This Is Us, The Simpsons, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Great News. (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Stranger Things and Mom premiere over the next couple of months.) BOOKS: I read Gilly McMillan’s What She Knew and Madeleine L'Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. MUSIC: Listened to the cast album recording of The Bridges of Madison County and Shania Twain’s new CD, Now.
Here are the movies I saw in September:

INGRID GOES WEST (2017)—Aubrey Plaza is a troubled soul with an obsessive personality disorder. She has gotten into trouble by stalking a woman in the past, and now she’s desperately trying to befriend an L.A.-based Instagram celebrity. This Single White Female-type saga is alterantely dramatic and hilarious; Plaza is totally believable and often chilling. (9)

IT (2017)—Half of Stephen King’s bloated 1986 horror novel arrives on the big screen after TV’s hit Stranger Things—which strongly recalls the essence of King—has become a major hit on Netflix. (The young actor Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things is on hand to further underscore the similarity of the two stories.) This trimmed-down version of the King story works reasonably well, but the boys drop so many “f-bombs” that it becomes distracting. Reasonably entertaining, but not King’s best plot. (7)

MOTHER! (2017)—Director Darren Aronofsky scored with two disturbing dramas, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, so hopes were high that this Jennifer Lawrence movie would be another classic. Alas, this home invasion-style thriller gets more and preposterous and surreal as it goes on—it’s a Biblical allegory that didn’t really make a great deal of sense. Loud, garish and pointless. (4)

BRAD’S STATUS (2017)—I like Ben Stiller. His old TV sketch-comedy series was pure genius, and I have also enjoy the occasional movie he stars in (Meet the Parents, There’s Something About Mary). So it’s discouraging that the vast majority of his movies are terrible. How wonderful it is, then, that Brad’s Status is the rare Stiller movie that knocks it out of the ballpark. Stiller is Brad, a fortysomething dad who’s preparing to send his son to college. Their journey to check out a variety of campuses is a thought-provoking odyssey that lays out Brad’s various self-esteem and professional jealousy issues—he’s even envious of his own son. This is a comedy/drama that presses all of the right buttons. Co-stars Michael Sheen, Jenna Fischer and Luke Wilson are used minimally, but they’re very well cast. (9)

BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)—This biopic tells the story of the 1973 tennis match between arrogant Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and all of the drama leading up to the match. I remember the original saga, but this film does a good job of providing a lot of details I wasn’t familiar with. It’s watchable and reasonably well done, although many of the side characters are one-dimensional—Billie Jean’s manager (Sarah Silverman) is just there to kvetch and smoke cigarettes; Riggs’ crony (Fred Armisen) is just there to feed him pills; and plenty of other characters appear just to do their one single thing. One clip of the real-life Howard Cosell has been electronically manipulated to show him interviewing one of the actors in the film, which was almost worth the price of admission. Lots of TV comedians appear—Silverman, Armisen and Chris Parnell were all former cast members of Saturday Night Live; Wallace Langham was on The Larry Sanders Show; Tom Kenney was on Mr. Show With Bob and David, and so on. Stone, who’s a little too pretty to play Billie Jean, is typically excellent; her lesbian love affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) is the heart and soul of the movie. (8)

CASS TIMBERLANE (1947)—This was my one movie from the vaults this month. An adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel, Spencer Tracy is the title character, a judge, whose affair with a much younger woman (Lana Turner) sends him on an emotionally charged journey. Excellent comedy-drama. (9)

August 2017

I spent August assembling the September issue of Speedboat. I was pleased by how it came out. Part of the content was based on a trip I took at the beginning of the month to Indiana to report on a boat race. After the race, I visited my friend Merf in Wisconsin. This was the month I started to feel a pain in my left hand, which is still there—I am concerned that it might be arthritis or tendonitis. I also listed a bunch of stuff on eBay and sold some of it. Meanwhile, Cindy and I saw Baby Driver (her first time, my second) at Century City, while Emma and her friend saw Annabelle. BOOKS: I listened to the audio CD of Behind Closed Doors by Kathryn Croft and started the short-story collection Don’t Read Alone by Paul Finch. TV: I have been enjoying reruns of 30 Rock and The Andy Griffith Show during meal times; I also saw a couple of episodes of Room 104.  MUSIC: I drilled several Broadway show-tune albums, including Little Me, Something Rotten and Dear Evan Hansen; the latter score was particularly memorable.
Here are the movies I saw in August:

CIMARRON (1960)—I settled on this Western (it’s one year older than I am) because of Austrian co-star Maria Schell, who was so charming in a great Western I screened last month called The Hanging Tree (from 1959). In this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1929 novel, she is paired with Glenn Ford, whom she has recently wed. He plucks her from her well-to-do Kansas City home during the late 1800s to settle in the Oklahoma Territory. It’s a long trip, and once they get there, it’s quite rugged. They make friends, experience various hazards, encounter some truly mean people and are generally challenged by a number of life-altering events. They have a son, Cimarron, who grows up and disappoints his mom by falling in love with a Native American woman. It’s a fun flick, satisfactory soapy and exciting, with some uncanny special effects. Well acted. (9)

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939)—Like the previous movie, this is a remake of an earlier screen effort. This one stars Bob Hope in what has become a very cliched story about a group of people who gather in an old house for the reading of a will…and then murder and frightful things start happening. But with Bob Hope in the lead, it’s really more of a comedy than a chiller, although there are tense moments throughout. Paulette Goddard is the love interest. Mildly entertaining; Hope has a fair amount of good one-liners. (7)

TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)—Yet another remake, this time of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None. Like the previous movie, it’s another story about a group of people who come together in a mysterious house where people start getting murdered. I’d always been curious about it, as it’s been filmed numerous times, and it’s supposed to be one of Christie’s best stories. Well…I can’t say I disliked it, but I doubt I will remember much about it in the foreseeable future. (7)

MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940)—Merf selected this screwball comedy for screening during my visit to Madison, WI. The only problem is that I’m not a fan of screwball comedies. Cary Grant is a guy whose first wife has been declared legally dead, so he marries another woman. Then the first wife reappears on the scene. The movie’s big joke is that Grant is too nervous to tell the news to his new bride, so he makes up 10 million excuses to avoid the subject. Forgettable fluff. (6)

DESK SET (1957)—Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, arguably the most reliable screen couple in all history, are paired up as an efficiency expert and a reference librarian. He’s gathering information that may lead to the replacement of Hepburn’s team by a huge computer. The movie is based on a stage play, and looks every bit of it. The story is merely passable, but Tracy and Hepburn are always fun to watch, no matter what they’re in. (8)

WIND RIVER (2017)—This was the revelation of the month, by a mile. It’s a chilly murder mystery that recalls Fargo, only without the dark humor of that film. Director Taylor Sheridan (writer of last year’s Hell or High Water) pairs wolf tracker Jeremy Renner with FBI operative Elizabeth Olsen, who are trying to solve the murder of a local Wyoming woman. Intense, chilling and quite suspenseful! (10)

LOGAN LUCKY (2017)—Great reviews brought me to this heist caper, which mostly served to remind me that I’m not crazy about heist capers. This one gets by completely on the charm of stars Channing Tatum and (especially) Daniel Craig as hillbillies trying to steal concession money from a race car event. Hilary Swank is outstanding in a small role, but Seth MacFarlane turns in an embarrassing performance as a race car driver with a phony-baloney Cockney accent. The entire heist plot is beyond implausible, and the main story gets bogged down by too many characters and subplots. (7)

SO BIG (1953)—Inspired by Cimarron, another movie based on an Edna Ferber novel, I approached this one hoping to be seduced by a similar story about a strong woman making her way in the late 1800s. (It, too, is a remake of an earlier film.) Jane Wyman is at a boarding school when her father dies, leaving her penniless. She gets a job as a schoolteacher, gets married to a farmer, and they have a son (nicknamed So Big). Then her husband dies, leaving her to bring in the crops by herself. There are some strong thematic similarities to Cimarron—Mom gets let down by her son’s choices—and I enjoyed it almost as much. (8)

Monday, July 31, 2017

July 2017

July was quite a movie month! In addition to an even dozen films seen in theaters, I caught a couple of classic old movies on my iPad. Major events occurring this month included house-sitting for the Newman family—where I was continually losing my car keys, my wallet and even my aforementioned iPad. Fortunately, I found everything, but for a while, I felt like I was losing my mind. I’ve also started feeling moments of dizziness, which I should probably tell my doctor about. We’ve been having a record heatwave in July, so I’ve had to keep the A/C cranked to maximum capacity. TV: Merf and I simultaneously binged on This Is Us, a family drama starring Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore. Otherwise, I mostly paid attention to movies. BOOKS: The latest volume (#22) of collected Dick Tracy comic strips arrived in my mailbox this month; they’re up to 1965. I had fun reading that. I also finished listening to Al Franken’s audiobook, Giant of the Senate—it was informative, entertaining and hilarious! MUSIC: Although Randy Newman’s album Dark Matter officially comes out next month, NPR has been streaming it online, so I’ve been enjoying that. LOOKING FORWARD: In early August, I’m supposed to travel to Michigan City, IN, for a boat race, with a side trip to visit Merf. We’ll also see the first film based on Stephen King’s series of Dark Tower books, as well as a TV version of his great novel Mr. Mercedes. 
Here are the movies I saw in July:

THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)—Often uproarious 14th Century sex farce about a group of nuns whose world changes when an attractive young servant (Dave Franco) takes up residence in their convent. Full of blasphemous jokes, and the cast is loaded with hilarious TV actors—Nick Offerman, Paul Reiser, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Adam Palley and, from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shannon and Fred Armisen. (9)

THE BEGUILED (2017)—Remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film casts hot Nicole Kidman in the role previously essayed by scowling, unattractive Geraldine Page as the head of a Civil War-era boarding school. Actually, most of the female characters are recast by much more attractive actresses, although drop-dead gorgeous Jo Ann Harris is replaced by drop-dead gorgeous Elle Fanning. (14-year-old Oona Laurence, so impressive in Southpaw, Lamb and I Smile Back, continues to steal practically every scene she’s in.) Directed by Sofia Coppola, this new version of the story is very faithful to the original film and very entertaining. (9)

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)—Absorbing character study pits spiritual healer and massage therapist Salma Hayek against a Trump-like land developer (John Lithgow) when they are both invited to the same dinner party. Inevitably, the bleeding heart liberal clashes with the hawkish Republican when he boasts of killing a rhino (via a cell-phone photo, which he gleefully shares with his fellow guests). The dinner contains some high drama and awkward humor; sadly, the movie’s ending falls totally flat. Too bad—what preceded it was very entertaining. (8)

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)—Final installment of the excellent reboot trilogy—which has been not only more plausible than the original but with far better special effects—is about 20 minutes too long. It’s much more of a generic war movie, with one of the two warring factions only incidentally being talking apes. Still, it’s an engaging “guy movie,” just a little overlong. And I feel like the writer of the film score really hit us over the head with the repeating 12-note theme, played incessantly throughout the movie. But I enjoyed the little “easter egg” references to the original trilogy, i.e., how the female character in this one gets the name Nova, and how the orangutan character is named Maurice (after Maurice Evans, who played the 1970s chapters). (8)

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)—I have never been interested in Spider-Man as a superhero; thus, I have never seen one of his movies. But Marvel rebooted his story in the last Captain America movie, which I liked. So I was tempted to give this movie a try—especially since reviews were so good, and because my favorite superhero, Iron Man, makes some appearances. Michael “Birdman” Keaton once again gets a bird-centric role, but this time he’s the evil Hawk instead of a superhero role. The movie is fun and briskly entertaining, and the best parts belong to Robert Downey Jr., whose Iron Man is his definitive lifetime role. (8)

THE HERO (2017)—Here’s a low-key drama featuring two of my favorite actors, Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon (the latter a regular on Orange Is the New Black). Elliott plays an aging actor who is being honored with a lifetime achievement award; he has just learned he’s got cancer, and so his struggling to face his mortality. There’s a bit of romance and family melodrama, as he tries to repair his fractured relationship with daughter Krysten Ritter (Jane of Breaking Bad). An absorbing character study, very well done, and the acting is predictably outstanding. Featuring Sam Elliott’s real wife, Katharine Ross. (9)

BABY DRIVER (2017)—WOW! Here’s the summer’s best thrill ride, a nonstop action movie starring the weirdly named Ansel Elgort as a kid working as a getaway driver for the evil but magnetic Kevin Spacey, along with bank robbers Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza González. While working off some kind of debt to Spacey, Elgort falls for waitress Lily James (“Cinderella”). The movie is pure fun, and I’ve never seen a film whose soundtrack is so perfectly in tune with the action on the screen. Stylish direction from Edgar Wright keeps things lively and engaging (although, at times, the action is wildly implausible). Even the outstanding reviews could not have prepared me for how much fun this was. Paul Williams has a small but memorable role. (10)

A GHOST STORY (2017)—It’s kind of funny that I saw this movie directly after Baby Driver. It’s like going on a rollercoaster, and then immediately having to sit in detention for two hours. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are a married couple, but Affleck dies very early on and becomes a ghost—not the Patrick Swayze kind, but a guy in a Halloween-style sheet with black holes where the eyes should be. He basically haunts the house, even after his widowed wife moves out and other families move in. Mostly the spirit silently observes, but occasionally he can throw a poltergeist-type fit, tossing dinner plates around or spooking the kids. This is a movie full of long static shots where nothing happens—if Rooney Mara needs to pull an old chest to the sidewalk for trash delivery, you see her struggled across the whole lawn, walk all the way back to the house, and then the audience sees a two-minute static shot of the house Rooney Mara has just re-entered. There’s a lot of these sequences: Rooney Mara eating an entire pie, Rooney Mara washing the dishes, etc., all while the ghost stands there watching her. It’s maddeningly boring, and it all comes to very little. The most mysterious thing about this movie is why I sat through the entire thing! (3)

THE HANGING TREE (1959)—Author Dorothy M. Johnson’s Western stories “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “A Man Called Horse” were made into successful films in 1962 and 1970, respectively. Before either of those, her story “The Hanging Tree” became this film, starring Gary Cooper as a doctor in the 1860s who sets up shop during the gold rush. Karl Malden plays a Michael J. Pollard-style creep, and Maria Schell is a gorgeous immigrant whom Cooper nurses back to health after her covered wagon is attacked by thieves. It’s an old-fashioned Technicolor movie that earns the phrase, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.” Would be great to see this on the big screen, but my iPad got the job done. (9)

LANDLINE (2017)—Comedy-drama featuring Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn as sisters of parents Edie Falco and John Turturro, each with his or her various professional and romantic problems. The main subject here is infidelity, with dad and older sister each cheating on their respective main squeezes. The upside is the story of how the sisters slowly bond after sniping at each other, sibling-rivalry style. The downside is that there are too few characters to like here—there seemed like enough smoking, drug use, cheating and puking for two or three movies, and although this was supposed to be a comedy, I don’t think I laughed once. The first third is very rough going, but it does gradually improve. (7)

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)—This is sort of a half-Western, half-suspense thriller starring the great Spencer Tracy. He plays a mysterious one-armed guy who arrives in a tiny town in the Southwest, and the handful of people there are extremely suspicious of his agenda. Everybody in the movie has a secret, and practically everybody except Tracy is a bad guy—including Dean Jagger, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. Very tense at times; unfolds at its own pace, but totally absorbing. (9)

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)—Who is the most beautiful woman in the world: actress-model Cara Delevingne or actress-model-singer Rihanna? I can’t be sure, but I sure didn’t mind wrestling with the question during this 2 hr. 20 min. sci-fi fantasy epic, which features both women. (Let’s just agree that Cara is the hottest white woman; Rihanna is the hottest black woman.) No, this is not a great movie. It needs to be trimmed a bit, and it’s something of a mess. It steals from everywhere (Avatar, Star Wars, Blade Runner) while retaining its comic-book pedigree (it’s based on the popular Euro-comic Valerian and Laureline). But visually, Valerian is a dazzling feast for the eyes—the expensive CGI and special effects are in every frame, and it’s a work of art. It must have cost $100 billion to make. And speaking of works of art, Rihanna’s brief role is simply amazing. Anyway, my expectations had been dialed way down, since this film is a bonafide box-office bomb, but it’s perfectly fine if you accept it as a space opera with some allegorical lessons for modern politics and some incredible eye candy. This did not deserve to be the summer’s biggest bomb—I think I’d actually like to see this again! (8)

DUNKIRK (2017)—Director Christopher Nolan does a great job of "putting you on that beach," as one critic put it. He conveys the sense of dread, horror, fear and hopelessness as soldiers stand like sitting ducks on the beach. But I guess I must not be a war movie fan. I prefer to have stories and character development along with my conflict, and Dunkirk contains precious little of that. Almost the entire movie consists of:
1. Pilots in planes chasing other planes, shooting at them and crashing them into the sea.
2. Terrified British soldiers ducking as bombs and artillery burst around them.
3. People in pleasure boats frantically trying to rescue humans stranded in the water.
There is a wisp of a genuine human drama involving a kid in a boat vs. a shell-shocked soldier. For me, that was the most interesting part of the film. If you want to know what it was like being at Dunkirk during the war, you won't be disappointed. As another critic wrote: “Too much spectacle and not nearly enough humanism—a truly special effect that money cannot buy. It's the equivalent of dry, stale bread.” (6)

BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)—Kyle Mooney, the nerdy guy from Saturday Night Live, plays nerdy James Pope, a kid living in an underground bunker with adults he thinks are his parents, but who kidnapped him as a child. Like Jack in Room, or the title character in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, James doesn’t really know much about the outside world. His “parents” (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) have created a myth about an apocalypse and poisoned air to keep him shielded from society. Fake Dad has also created an insipid TV series just for him called Brigsby Bear that he’s the ultimate fan of—strictly speaking, the only fan of. And suddenly, cops descend on the bunker, the fake parents are arrested and James is reunited with his real parents. Only…now what? The new parents have to deal with James’s off-the-charts fanboy obsession with the home-brew fantasy TV show (there are 700+ episodes—all on VHS!). Should they encourage his obsession of filming a sequel, or encourage a psychiatrist (Claire Danes, who’s in the movie for about three minutes) to wean him off it? Assuming you can overlook an alarmingly high number of unlikely and/or ridiculous plot elements, it’s a sweet movie about the nature of creativity. Greg Kinnear has a nice part. (8)

Saturday, July 01, 2017

June 2017

This was a comparatively busy month for me. On 6/3, I flew to San Jose to see South Bay Musical Theatre’s productions of Chess in Concert and My Fair Lady, the latter starring the famous Jay Steele. Together we watched nearly a full season of The Great Australian Bake Off. Meanwhile, Joan and I saw Henry Phillips perform at the Improv on 6/10, where he sang “The Things in My Car,” an older song we’d never heard before.
I have not had a lucid dream since the early 1990s, but I had one on 6/15. I became aware I was dreaming during the dream, which is an exceptionally rare occurrence. But on the following night, I had an elaborately plotted dream about babysitting a very tiny fifth daughter of Cindy Newman’s who was named Faith.
After returning from a trip to Asia, Cindy invited me to join her, daughter Emma and Emma’s friend Julia for a day trip to Knotts Berry Farm on 6/22. Julia and I rode on some fun roller-coasters, while Cindy and I went on the baby rides. We all dined at TGI Friday’s for lunch. A spectacularly fun day!
On 6/24, I joined Joan for a reunion of the Dr. Demento radio show crew at The Smoke House in Burbank. A few days later, I joined a smaller version of the group at Paramount, which was attended by John “Bermuda” Schwartz of Weird Al Yankovic’s band.
Cindy and her family flew to Orlando at the end of June, so I spent a few days dog- and house-sitting for her in Beverly Hills.
BOOKS: I burned through The Grownup (Gillian Flynn), Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King and Richard Chizmar) and am currently approaching the end of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, which is a hugely entertaining account of Franken’s time as a performer on Saturday Night Live, and later as a Senator. I am enjoying it so much that I purchased an earlier Franken book called The Truth. I have also been working the puzzles in a bunch of Jumble books.
TV: The regular TV season is officially over, and even two of my favorite cable shows (Better Call Saul and Fargo) have also drawn to a close for the year.
Here are the movies I saw in June:

AN INSPECTOR CALLS (2015)—As a fan of mystery/suspense thrillers, I was naturally curious to check out the famous J.B. Priestley play. A film version starring the great Alastair Sim was made in 1954, but I chose to watch the 2015 BBC film because of another great actor: David Thewlis, who has been greatly entertaining as the sleazy villain in this year’s season of Fargo. Here he plays a mysterious inspector who interrupts a family’s dinner and accuses each one of driving a young woman to suicide. It’s filled with a host of rather uncanny coincidences, the but acting is fine and it was worth a look—even if the material seems a trifle overrated. (8)

RIFFTRAX SUMMER SHORTS BEACH PARTY (2017)—Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett—the performers of RiffTrax—were joined by numerous guest stars (including Trace “Dr. Forrester” Beaulieu and comedian Paul F. Tompkins) to make fun of various old short films from the 1950s and 1960s in a live Fandango theater broadcast. (Among the shorts: Rhythmic Ball Skills, Ricky Raccoon Shows the Way and The Griper.) I have attended many of these and always laugh harder than during any “regular” comedy film. (10)

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)—Richard Matheson’s classic horror novel became this film starring Roddy McDowell and Pamela Franklin. Despite being fans of all these folks, I have never seen this ghost-story movie. True to my suspicions, it’s really not that great, which is why it doesn’t seem to have a “classic” reputation. But at least I finally scratched that itch. The poster is scarier than the movie! (6)

WONDER WOMAN (2017)—What a cool surprise! I enjoy some of the Marvel comic-book hero movies (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange), but have never cared much for the DC hero movies and characters (Batman, Superman, etc.). That includes Wonder Woman, whose 1970s TV show I never watched. But this new series, starring Israeli actress/supermodel Gal Gadot, is a masterpiece of girl-empowerment excitement. Physically, Gadot is a dead ringer for Lynda Carter, the most famous Wonder Woman of TV, but this time she’s surrounded by great writing, excellent acting and first-rate special effects. Takes place during WWI, but the modern-day tag suggests the sequel will be set during the 2010s. Actually, WW will appear in The Justice League movie later this year, but I’m more interested in the standalone sequel. (9)

THE BOOK OF HENRY (2017)—I had been looking forward to this movie since last year, when I got wind that Sarah Silverman (a favorite comedian) would be appearing in it. In fact, her part turns out to be quite small. This is a movie about a gifted boy (Jacob Tremblay) whose single mom (Naomi Watts) is a waitress and almost completely dependent on her son to handle the finances and other things that require intelligence. Then the kid gets sick. Before he dies, he hatches a plan for Watts to murder the jerk next door (Dean Norris), who is apparently molesting his stepdaughter. Watts is always fun to watch; the movie is generally interesting, but it’s a bit farfetched and little more than a diversion. (7)

MAUDIE (2017)—Sally Hawkins, whom I have enjoyed in several movies (including An Education, Blue Jasmine and Made in Dagenham), turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Canadian artist Maud Lewis, a timid arthritic woman who is hired by a fish peddler (Ethan Hawke) to keep his microscopic house clean. They marry and we see their modest lives unfold. It’s a very low-key but still very moving story. (9)

THE BIG SICK (2017)—Wow! Second cool surprise of the month. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani (from TV’s Silicon Valley) writes and stars in this autobiographical comedy/drama, in which he chronicles his romance with Emily (Zoe Kazan). When she falls ill, Nanjiana bonds with her parents (Ray Romano an Holly Hunter). It’s a simple story with a huge heart and a lot of great comedy. Every performance in this film is superb, and the blending of comedy, drama and romance really took me by surprise. So far, this is the surprise hit of the year. I have previously enjoyed Kazan in Ruby Sparks, In Your Eyes, It’s Complicated and Me and Orson Welles. (10)

ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR (1985)—Perhaps not a movie in the strictest sense, but this TV adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 comedy is certainly movie length, so I’m including it here. This version features familiar faces like Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers) and Geoffrey Palmer (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) and takes place on three consecutive Christmas Eves in three different kitchens. It’s a riotously funny evening of comedy! (10)

OKJA (2017)—This Netflix drama reunites the director (Joon-ho Bong) and star (Tilda Swinton) of Snowpiercer, and adds high-profile actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Paul Dano and Giancarlo Esposito to the mix. But the real stars here are 13-year-old Seo-Hyun Ahn and her pet Okja, an immense creature that’s supposed to be a genetically modified pig, but more than anything resembles a hippo-and-dog hybrid. Okja is, of course, a highly impressive CGI effect, but Seo-Hyun Ahn brings real humanity to her role of a Korean girl whose pet is being kidnapped by evil corporate bigwigs from America. For the first 20 minutes, it’s a spectacular show full of adventure, reminding one of a variation on E.T. The Extraterrestrial. But the story soon gets bogged down when the action moves to the USA, where Swinton and especially Gyllenhaal give performances that are so off-the-charts silly that they resemble cartoon characters (one critic dubbed this movie King Kong Meets The Hunger Games). There’s a cool story and message in here, though, beneath the bloated evil-company shenanigans. (Another curiosity is who this movie is for—it seems to be a children’s film, but is loaded with numerous F-bombs.) Seo-Hyun Ahn and Okja are marvelous; too much of the rest is disappointing. (7)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

May 2017

This month, Cindy and I came to the end of our tutoring sessions for the semester at John Muir Elementary School. I had been tutoring Jace, a 7-year-old boy, in reading. He is a smart, very cute kid, and we had made considerable progress over the passing months. A week ago, the program threw its annual “tutor celebration,” where I got to meet the boy’s brother and mother. It was a bittersweet moment, capping off my fourth year as a tutor but saying goodbye to the child I’d gotten close to. It was probably the highlight of my month. BOOKS: I listened to audiobooks of One Perfect Lie (Lisa Scottoline) and The Sixth Window (Rachel Abbott), and am currently two-thirds of the way through The Cellar by Natasha Preston. I abandoned The Good Girl by Mary Kubica halfway through, since it was maddeningly slow. In other news, I have been working on lots of Jumble puzzles in the series of popular Jumble books...for what that’s worth. TV: My network shows (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, The Simpsons, Modern Family, Saturday Night Live) all ended this month, while a couple of my cable favorites (Better Call Saul, Fargo) continue on—at least for a few more weeks. I started watching Great News and The President Show and have enjoyed both; I also binged on Crashing, which was occasionally very funny. Twin Peaks has returned, and that has been a surreal experience, to say the least. I’ve also been collecting, but have not yet watched, numerous cable series that have gotten great reviews but haven’t had time to watch (The Handmaid’s Tale, Scream Queens, House of Cards, Big Little Lies, Sneaky Pete, Dimension 404, Victoria, This Is Us, Good Behavior and The Missing). Another series, 13 Reasons Why, is based on a novel I read a year or two ago. MUSIC: I liked the new album by my #1 idol, Todd Rundgren, and also enjoyed albums by Harry Styles and Paramore. Right now I’m catching up on a bunch of current hits on the Hot 100 charts.

Here are the movies I saw this month.

THE DISCOVERY (2017)—This Netflix science-fiction movie sounded a lot more interesting than it turned out to be. Robert Redford is a scientist in the not-too-distant future who somehow discovers evidence of a human afterlife, or at least proof that “something” happens after you die. This leads to a huge spike in suicides. Jason Segel plays Redford’s son, who tries to stop a young woman (Rooney Mara) from killing herself. It takes way too long for anything interesting to happen in this movie, and by the time more revelations arise from Redford’s mysterious “discovery,” it’s too confusing to really comprehend. (4)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017)—The follow-up to Marvel’s 2014 summer smash comic-book movie is very nearly as funny and exciting as the original. A couple of new faces join the crowd, including Kurt Russell as Chris “Peter Quill” Pratt’s daddy. The entire cast is fantastic in this nonstop thrill ride. (9)

THE LOVERS (2017)—Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are a middle-aged married couple who are both cheating with their respective lovers. Unfortunately, good performances can’t save this slower-than-molasses movie. Sexy Jessica Sula did prevent me from falling asleep more than halfway through the movie. (5)

PARIS CAN WAIT (2017)—Eager to wash the previous Sunday’s boring movie experience from our minds, Joan and I were looking forward to a more “normal” movie. This turned out to be more of a travelogue and cooking show than a real movie, but the presence of Diane Lane more than made up for a lack of a plot as she is chauffeured through the south of France by the charming Arnaud Viard. It’s always nice to experience Europe with the eternally youthful Lane, who only gets more beautiful as she gets older. Actually, this film would make a great companion piece to the first Diane Lane movie I ever saw: 1979’s A Little Romance, which also saw her romping through France with a charming local lad. Memo to self: watch more movies starring this enchanting lady! (8)

BLACK BUTTERFLY (2017)—A variation on the “home invasion” genre pits Antonio Banderas as a washed-up writer inviting a mysterious younger guy (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to stay a few days in his remote cabin near some woods. They play a tense game of cat and mouse that culminates in one of the most outrageously unbelievable plot twists I’ve ever seen. At times gripping, at others totally nonsensical, but Meyers is perfectly cast as the menacing houseguest. Banderas, meanwhile, is laughably miscast. (7)

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)—Second Alien prequel (a follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus) is so much like a movie I saw a couple of months ago (Life) that it gave me a weird feeling of déjà vu. Although large portions of it are acceptably escapist popcorn monster-movie fare, the twists in this sci-fi slasher film are all too predictable—there’s really nothing new here. This is, after all, as a prequel to the Alien series, it’s not like there’s any chance whatsoever that the  monsters are going to be eradicated. Thus, the ending is a foregone conclusion. (7)