Saturday, October 01, 2016

September 2016

In September, I traveled to San Jose to see Jay Steele’s excellent production of City of Angels (the cast album of which I spent the previous two weeks drilling into my head). Regrettably, the fun trip ended with my losing my prescription sunglasses (worth $350). I miss them so terribly! Cindy Newman and I also resumed our volunteer work as tutors at a Santa Monica elementary school. BOOKS: I am still devouring the excellent mystery series by British author Rachel Abbott (I’m on my fifth of six audiobooks, and it’s very suspenseful), and finally finished “sight reading” Henry Slesar’s The Bridge of Lions. I’ve now moved on to Evan Hunter’s pulp novel Don’t Crowd Me. TELEVISION: The new season has started, so I’m back to watching all of my favorites, including South Park, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, Modern Family, etc. I did also catch the first couple of episodes of The Good Place and American Horror Story: Roanoke; time will tell if I continue with those. MUSIC: I finished drilling and grading lesser-known singles from 1970 and will next work on 1976. But in the meantime, Robert Newman and Mark Weinfeld collaborated on an iTunes playlist for me consisting of album tracks by Elton John, which I am nearly finished grading.
Here are the movies I saw:

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016)—I saw this film by myself the first time. Then I dragged Norma Harris to a screening. Then I dragged Jay Steele during my trip to San Jose. Both of my friends enjoyed it—maybe not enough to see it three times (like I did). But for my money, this magical and deeply moving tale set during ancient Japan is breathtakingly beautiful—it’s the best movie of the year so far. It is brilliantly realized, smashingly animated (with stop-motion techniques) and awesomely voiced (by Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey). I would sit through it again, eagerly. (10)

LIGHTS OUT (2016)—This ghost story has earned a surprising amount of positive reviews, but it coasts by on a single conceit: you can’t see or be attacked by the spirits as long as the lights are on. As you can imagine, lights are constantly going on and off in this picture. Less than a month after seeing it, I’ve forgotten virtually all about it, but there were a couple of effective moments. Overall, though, pretty forgettable. (6)

HOUSE CALLS (1978)—Here is my latest bid to see as many of Walter Matthau’s movies as possible before I join him in the afterlife. This low-key comedy casts him as a widowed doctor who is extremely popular with the ladies (are they seeing the same jowly, hangdog face I’m seeing?). Then Glenda Jackson enters his life, and he is tempted with fidelity. There are some secondary characters (including a doctor played Richard Benjamin, who had co-starred with Matthau in 1975’s The Sunshine Boys), but the central focus is on the romance between Matthau and Jackson. They are both splendid in what is admittedly an unexceptional movie, but these veterans make it well worth watching. (8)

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU (2016)—The first date between young Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson becomes a romantic drama starring Parker Sawyers as Obama and Tika Sumpter as the future first lady. While neither are particularly strong lookalikes (or even soundalikes), they are both quite convincing. The movie was meticulously researched and based on factual data gleaned from numerous interviews, but what makes this a compelling film is that it would be fun to watch even without the historical implications. More than anything, it reminds the viewer of Richard Linklater’s beloved walk-and-talk Before Sunrise from 1995. (8)

QUEEN OF KATWE (2016)—I had seen the trailer for this true-life dramatization about four times prior to release, and was very excited to see the real thing, as the trailer is truly exceptional and moving. The story, about a teenage girl in Uganda who goes from living in poverty to becoming a chess prodigy, is perfect for Disney—it’s a genuinely uplifting and inspirational heart-tugger. Unfortunately, the movie is really the triumph I'd hoped it would be, but it's entertaining enough. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga (as chess champ Phiona Mutesi), Lupita Nyong’o (as her mom) and David Oyelowo (as her coach) are uniformly excellent in their roles, and nobody leaves the theater with dry eyes. (8)

SULLY (2016)—Another biopic, this one about the famous on-water landing by pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) in a crippled jetliner. The entire real-life flight lasted only a few minutes after a “bird strike,” so the rest of the film focuses on events leading up to, but mostly the aftermath of, the scary flight. The movie is also needly protracted by forcing to watch the whole airline adventure at least a couple of times. Sully was probably worthy of an hourlong drama; even at a brisk 96 minutes, it seems overlong. Still, the flight part of the movie is suspenseful, and I did learn a bit more than I did about our brave hero. Alas, talented co-star Laura Linney (as Mrs. Sullenberger) literally phones in her performance—her entire role consists of her talking to Sully on her cellphone! (7)

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)—I was invited to see this kid's movie only hours before the screening. It wasn’t really on my list of films I was especially interested in seeing (it seemed like a Harry Potter-type movie, and I’m not a big fan of fantasy pictures or movies with impossible-to-remember titles). Additionally, the director is the vastly overrated Tim Burton; I have disliked (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Beetlejuice) as many of his movies as I’ve admired (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd). So the “low expectations” factor undoubtedly helped considerably as I came away from Peregrine feeling sufficiently entertained. Yes, the story is unnecessarily convoluted, and it’s basically X-Men meets Groundhog Day with a Harry Potter flavor. Even so, there are so many interesting ideas, cool characters and twists bandied about that I found myself intrigued at every turn. There’s also a fair amount of imagery reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton produced), although I’m not sure how much of that was intentional. The excellent cast includes Terence Stamp, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Densch and Allison Janney, and the beautiful young ingenue Ella Purnell is truly bewitching as Emma. Unfortunately, the film’s biggest flaw is the casting of Asa Butterfield in the lead role—he’s pretty awful as Jake, the movie’s hero. (9)

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

August 2016

In August, I worked, I read books, I listened to audiobooks, I saw movies, I listened to music, I made lists of things, I ate too much and I watched MSNBC. A very typical month! I’ve also been enjoying the anticipation of the fall TV season, and for the cruise I’m going to take at the end of October. I enjoy looking forward to a vacation almost as much as the vacation itself, because the clock is always ticking during my time off—the sand is falling through the hourglass and I tend to be aware of it. But for now, it’s still off in the distance (59 days, but who’s counting?). BOOKS: After listening to Stranger Child, a riveting and suspenseful thriller by Rachel Abbott, I immediately burned through two more in her series (Nowhere Child and Only the Innocent) and enjoyed them very much; I’m already halfway through the next one, The Back Road. Meanwhile, as usual, I’m alternating audio with a “real” book, one by a favorite mystery author, Henry Slesar. The book, 1963’s The Bridge of Lions, is his third chronologically, and the second of his I’ve read. It’s a light espionage story with dollops of humor, typical of Slesar’s style. I plan to read the rest of his novels at some point, including The Gray Flannel Shroud and The Thing at the Door. TV: I’m currently re-watching 30 Rock, and am now enjoying Season 3. And, of course, I have been enjoying the gripping political drama that has continued to unfold, and will climax with the election in November. Most of my friends seem to agree with me that Donald Trump is a cancer on the Republican Party and on our society in general—here’s hoping we can eradicate him in the months ahead. MUSIC: I blogged separately about my 1970s musical project; in addition, I have finished grading every song in the Karine Polwart discography (thanks to Kevin Christian for turning me on to this extraordinary songwriter). Here are the movies I watched in August:

 HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)—Two Texas Rangers (including Jeff Bridges, who is soon to retire from the force) are hot on the trail of a pair of brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who are on a bank-robbing spree. There’s a slow spot in the last third, but it’s a mostly entertaining drama with a typically great performance by Bridges. (8.5)

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)—Meryl Streep portrays the real-life wealthy socialite in the 1930s and 1940s who loves to sing, but who is totally unaware of her (extreme) lack of talent. The wealthy (and generous) Jenkins is surrounded by enablers and yes-men who assure her that’s she has a musical gift while simultaneously bribing audiences to go along with the ruse and protecting her from the truth. In the words of my pal Connie Ogle, it’s a one-joke movie where the joke is good enough to support the movie, which contains an excellent turn by the hilarious Simon Helberg (best known as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory). (8)

SAUSAGE PARTY (2016)—Sometimes the remedy for a world of marshmallows and vanilla is to treat yourself to some Jalapeño poppers, or perhaps a Fireball & Apple Schnapps. But it’s probably not a good idea to chug a bottle of straight tabasco sauce. I’m going with a food analogy because Sausage Party is a Toy Story parody where it’s packaged hot dogs,  bagels and burritos that come to life instead of Mr. Potato Head and G.I. Joe. The film’s solution to the Disney-ficaiton of animated movies is to stuff practically every sentence with fucks, shits, assholes and cunts—if ever there was a movie with Tourette’s syndrome, it’s this one. It’s too bad, because there really is a good story at the center of Sausage Party that has to do with the eternal mystery of God, faith and the Universe…but the movie sabotages itself by ramping up the profanity to absurd proportions. I love swear words, but it’s far better to have a little pepper on your scrambled eggs instead of dumping the contents of the entire shaker on them. Otherwise, the movie is well animated and has a few good sight gags and genuine laughs; it’s just too bad that Seth Rogen and his stable of stoner buddies (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera—they’re all here) couldn’t ramp up the funny instead of overemphasizing the endless parade of dick jokes. (6.5)

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)—No sooner does a troubled foster child start bonding with his surrogate mother than she drops dead. The boy, Ricky (Julian Dennison) soon finds himself on the run from police in his native New Zealand’s wild bush areas, where he is joined by his would-be adoptive father (Sam Neill) as they try to stay alive while battling the elements. Universally lauded by critics, this is an example of a movie that really seems to click with most people, but which I tended to find tiresome and a little too silly. But it’s always nice to see Rhys Darby of Flight of the Conchords, even if he and Neill are basically unrecognizable due to all of their facial hair. There’s also a brief appearance by a beautiful young newcomer named Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, whom I hope to see in more films in the future! (6.5)

DON’T THINK TWICE (2016)—The song was better. This is another movie that critics adored, but that I didn’t really like. It’s the second picture by writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia, a standup comedian whose earlier film Sleepwalk With Me wasn’t much better than this. Don’t Think Twice has an engaging idea: members of a NYC improvisation troupe (exactly like The Groundlings) try to get hired by a late-night TV variety show (exactly like Saturday Night Live), and when a couple of them succeed, the others are naturally jealous and consumed with self-doubt. The movie gives us a glimpse into life behind the scenes of these two entertainment groups, and some of it is interesting, but the story as a whole bored me. The best performer, Kate Micucci (of Garfunkel and Oates), is given the smallest role, and that’s a shame. This is also the second disappointment I’ve seen this year starring Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame), the first being Keanu. (5)

PETE’S DRAGON (2016)—Disney continues to plunder its archive features for remake ideas; 1977’s Pete’s Dragon, which combined live-action and animation, is the latest in a steady stream in the series that also includes new versions of Escape to Witch Mountain, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians, etc. (Coming soon: Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins Returns, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone and uncountable sequels). What distinguishes this remake is that the story is radically different from its source material: there’s a kid named Pete and a Dragon named Elliot, but that’s about the only similarity. Actually, what this movie kept reminding me of was E.T., and not just because there’s a character named Elliot. (There are numerous other parallels.) This is a movie that families can enjoy—there’s stuff in here for both kids and adults. (Adults will love seeing Robert Redford in a pivotal role.) The only thing that bothered me about Pete’s Dragon is the fact that the dragon is mammalian rather than reptilian—whoever heard of a hairy dragon? The elusive creature seems to be a patchwork of saber-toothed tiger, Great Dane and various other beasties, and I kept staring at it, wondering why the dragon looks like it does. But that’s a small quibble. I certainly didn’t expect Pete’s Dragon to be one of the more entertaining movies I saw in August. I have to commend Disney for doing a remake that actually improves on the original film. (8)

DON’T BREATHE (2016)—It seems like every other movie released these days is a variation on the home-invasion thriller, and here’s the latest incarnation. It’s a creepy and genuinely suspenseful flick with a couple of twists up its sleeve. A trio of youths break into a number of homes in order to rob them, but their latest victim—a blind war veteran—outmatches them, and the hunters become the hunted. This movie deserves the many excellent reviews it’s received. (8.5)

Friday, August 05, 2016

July 2016

Ah, July...I kicked off the month by heading up to Kingsburg (by bus, train and finally rental car) for a boating event, during which I stayed in a trailer for three nights. That was “fun.” On the TV front, I started re-watching 30 Rock from the very beginning; that has made a nice lunchtime diversion. Musicwise, I finished “drilling and grading” every song by Fountains of Wayne and Chantal Kreviazuk, and started laying the groundwork for a future project: gathering unknown songs from the 1970s and 1980s. That’s a very ambitious project and could take numerous months to complete. Books: I began two very different mysteries: Henry Slesar's The Bridge of Lions and Rachel Abbot's Stranger Child. I had an unexpectedly good movie month, as most of what I watched was very good. I also enjoyed a typically hilarious evening with the Rifftrax guys as they reunited the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and made fun of several short films. Here are the movies I saw in July:

ME BEFORE YOU (2016)—The Fault in Our Stars meets Whose Life Is It Anyway? in this adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ popular romantic novel (which I did not read). Cute and lovable Emilia Clarke stars as caregiver to a smoldering young banker (Sam Claflin) who is now paralyzed following a motorcycle accident. The tried-and-true cliche of “first they hate each other, then they come to love one another” is played to the hilt, with moderately successful results. Anybody in the audience who doesn’t do backflips over Clarke’s super-sweet, super-cute character is missing a soul. (Connie Ogle assures me that this is a 180-degree turn from her deadly serious character on Game of Thrones.) The movie is modestly entertaining, but it’s difficult to imagine it being any good at all without Clarke (whose character also happens to be named Clark). (8)

HONEYMOON (2014)—In this very creepy sci-fi thriller, a young couple (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) head to her family’s cabin in the woods for a romantic honeymoon before things quickly go awry. Something inexplicable happens to Leslie in the forest that makes her act strangely and erratically; as the film unfolds, we start to get to the truth of what exactly happened to her. It’s not pretty. Decent horror movie that kept my interest throughout. (8)

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973)—Crime drama featuring the usually comedic Walter Matthau is directed by Don Siegel (whose Dirty Harry preceded this picture). Matthau is a huge favorite of mine—it would be great to make it through his entire filmography someday; this was my attempt to cross another title off the list. It’s one of the many stories that asks you to sympathize with the bad guy, which I normally have a problem doing, but Matthau makes it only too easy—especially since this is really a “nice” bad guy vs. a bunch of much more evil bad guys (including John Vernon, another of my favorite character actors—he was the nasty Dean Wormer of Animal House). Matthau plays a bank robber whose latest take consists of dirty Mob money. Suspenseful and intriguing! (9)

PATTERNS (1956)—Based on a popular TV teleplay, this big-screen version replicates Rod Serling’s script about an engineer (Van Heflin) going to work at a big New York firm run by ruthless Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane, absolutely perfect in this role). The movie introduces us to the dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. It is merciless, harrowing and terrifically entertaining! (10)

WISH YOU WERE HERE (1987)—Like Me Before You, it’s hard to imagine this movie working as perfectly as it does without the boundless charm of its young star, Emily Lloyd, who plays a feisty and unflappable misfit living in a British seaside town in the 1950s. She’s lewd, rude and completely unable to fit into normal society and a disaster in most jobs she accepts. But this teenager is closer than she knows to facing genuinely adult problems. Outstanding and unforgettable coming-of-age comedy-drama directed by David Leland. (10)

CAFE SOCIETY (2016)—Woody Allen’s 47th film as a director casts Jesse Eisenberg as the latest in an ever-lengthening list of Woody surrogates (actually, he did it already in 2012’s To Rome With Love). Here he plays a young man in 1930s New York who travels to Hollywood to go to work for his uncle (Steve Carell) and then falls for a beautiful girl (Kristen Stewart). Unfortunately, what he doesn’t know is that the married Carell is secretly involved with Stewart. This love triangle works for about the first half of the movie, but when Stewart chooses between the two, well, there’s really nowhere for the story to go, and my interest level took a nosedive. There’s almost no actual comedy in this allegedly romantic comedy, and one scene, in which Eisenberg deals with an inexperienced prostitute, is one of the most embarrassing and distasteful scenes in any Woody Allen film—or indeed, any film. (5)

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016)—Louis CK, Albert Brooks and a very talented cast of voice actors attempt to breathe life into this non-Disney animated adventure about a group of pets in search for one of their own. Although well-directed and full of great-looking scenery and characters, this is really for very small children who are not already familiar with the Toy Story and Finding Nemo movies, from which it unabashedly cribs plot points. There are occasional laughs for grown-ups, but this movie is strictly for toddlers. (6)

CREEP (2014)—Bonus points for truth in advertising! In this found-footage horror movie, Mark Duplass (The Mindy Project) plays a guy who hires a filmmaker to chronicle what are likely his last weeks alive as a keepsake for his as-yet-unborn child. But the filmmaker (Patrick Brice, who also directed) comes to find that there’s much more to Duplass’s character than he realized. An unnerving, suspenseful and yes, extremely creepy film, well worth checking out. (9)

HOME FROM THE HILL (1960)—I was so amazed by Everett Sloane’s performance in this month’s screening of Patterns that I was eager to check him out in another movie. This drama, released four years later, features Sloane in a much smaller role, but the movie is every bit as entertaining as the earlier one. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, whose Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend are among my favorites, this movie is all about wealthy Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum), whose adulterous affairs have made relations with his wife (Eleanor Parker) a tad frosty. Their son Theron (George Hamilton) wants to learn how to be more of a man, and Mitchum helps him achieve that goal. Ultimately, the family dynamic spins out of control, and the resulting melodrama is quite juicy. Also featuring George Peppard. I’m hoping to discover some more great Minnelli movies in the immediate future. (10)

STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)—Third in Paramount’s rebooted Trek series is full of action, starting with the age-old plot of the starship Enterprise getting hijacked along with its crew by sinister forces. Definitely holds your attention, although there are a few too many suspense-charged “9/11”-type events I could have done without. (This series desperately needs a little more humor in it.) And how many times do we have to watch the Enterprise being destroyed and rebuilt? Come on! Let’s hope the next outing has a little more originality. Having said all that, Algerian actress Sofia Boutella, as Jaylah, represents a great addition to the ensemble, and I continue to marvel at the casting of Chris Pine as Kirk—he perfectly captures the essence of the young William Shatner. (8)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

June 2016

I spent a big part of this month creating the August issue of Speedboat magazine. My friend Fiona also made her annual business trip to Glendale, and we had a nice dinner at Black Angus (she liked the salmon!). Fiona got to meet another friend of mine, Rachel, who joined us for a post-dinner scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at the Burbank mall. Also this month, Rachel and I saw (and greatly enjoyed) a stage musical, I Only Have Eyes For You, at the Montalban Theater, about the career of songwriter Al Dubin.

Books: After finishing 1952’s The Burnaby Experiments by Stephen Gilbert, a sci-fi novel about astral projection that I’ve been curious about since I was a child, I received the latest Dick Tracy comic strip reprint collection—this one encompassing the year of my birth—and tore into the detective’s early 1960s sagas. (The next edition officially kicks off Chester Gould’s famous space-travel series, featuring the Moon Maid.) From there, I started reading another sci-fi novel, Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. On the audiobook front, I devoured End of Watch, the outstanding final novel in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, and began listening to a collection of letters written by the late John Lennon.

TV: I finished binging on The Mindy Project, then binged on the excellent new season of Orange Is the New Black. I also watched several episodes of Masters of Illusion, a series featuring live magic acts. I had fun trying to solve the mystery of how each trick was performed.

Music: I worked my way through the catalog of Chantal Kreviazuk, grading all of her songs before moving on to Fountains of Wayne, which I’m currently working my way through. My list of musical artists’ discographies to binge on throughout the year includes Mike Viola, Warren Zevon, Coldplay, Paramore, Heather Nova, Karine Polwart, David Wilcox, Eddi Reader, Dusty Springfield and Jackson Browne.

Here are the movies I saw in June:

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016)—Riotously funny mockumentary about a full-of-himself white rapper, Conner4Real, played by Andy Samberg and featuring his band The Lonely Island. This will probably turn out to be the best comedy of the year. Full of great satire, equaling the uproarious levels of This Is Spinal Tap. Can’t wait to see it again. A standout: former Saturday Night Live actor Tim Meadows. (10)

THE ONES BELOW (2016)—Creepy psychological thriller about a couple with a newborn baby who greet the downstairs neighbors, an expectant married couple who seem nice enough…until a catastrophic incident changes the dynamic of their relationship, which is putting it mildly. Not exactly terrifying, but occasionally suspenseful. Good acting. (8)

THE NICE GUYS (2016)—Six years ago, The Other Guys—a buddy comedy about a couple of cops played by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg—proved so unfunny that I walked out before it was over. This year’s “Guys” movie is The Nice Guys, with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a couple of private investigators trying to solve a mystery while sending up the 1970s. Not nearly as hilarious as it thinks it is, the movie never really gelled for me and I longed for it to be over. However, I saw it in the ultra-comfortable iPic Theatre in Westwood, which was a great place to see a movie…I just wish it had been a good one. Pretty young up-and-comer Angourie Rice has some nice moments as Gosling’s daughter. (5)

THE LOBSTER (2016)—UGH! The worst movie I’ve seen in quite some time is sort of a futuristic romantic indie film about a society where love is mandatory, and if you don’t find a suitable “significant other,” you get turned into the animal of your choice. The point and any satire was clearly lost on me; it was a slog from beginning to end, alternately nonsensical and boring. A travesty. (2)

ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966)—Another movie that roped me in because it features an ocean liner. Frank Sinatra, Tony Franciosa and various others living in the Bahamas plot to hold up the Queen Mary—an idea so far-fetched that it might just work! Except it never could, and doesn’t. One of these movies that forces you to root for and sympathize with the villains, which is usually quite difficult to pull off, and in this movie they don’t. Contains lots of scenes taking place on the docks of a marina that is very obviously a sound stage. The early part of the movie asks you to believe that Sinatra, a diver, discovers and raises a WWII submarine single-handedly! Not entirely horrible, but nothing exceptional. (7)

THE INVITATION (2016)—A dinner party featuring several couples, taking place about a year after one of the couples lost their child in a freak accident, becomes a nightmare for all involved. Like The Ones Below, there’s some nice suspense in this passable psychological thriller, in which the central couple seem to be involved in a kind of cult. Interesting. (8)

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)—I absolutely despised director Jeff Nichols’ feature Take Shelter (2011), but his follow-up, Mud (2012), was a very well-put-together coming-of-age drama. With Midnight Special, he’s back on weirdo sci-fi turf, as Michael Shannon (star of Shelter) is on the run with his son, who has some curious superpowers that involve strange glowing lights coming out of his eyes. Oh, and he can make satellites fall out of the sky. I thought the basic setup and premise were interesting, and I can’t say it didn’t hold my interest, but none of it really adds up and the movie leaves you with more questions than answers. (7)

FINDING DORY (2016)—Thirteen years after Finding Nemo—a Disney animated feature that never truly charmed me as much as it did most people—comes the belated sequel in which Dory (memory-challenged Ellen DeGeneres) takes center stage. This is a movie tailor-made for those who thought Nemo was a great film; they’ve made it so much like the original that I honestly felt I was re-watching it. There’s more here for small children than thinking adults; I was pretty bored, although there are a couple of nice scenes. (6)

May 2016

It’s always great when a month kicks off with a cruise. On May 2, I took my third four-night cruise to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. By now, I am on a first-name basis with several crew members, so it’s almost like visiting family. As always, I had a blast, and was back in plenty of time to start working again. Bookwise, I finished Stephen Gilbert’s novel The Burnaby Experiments, and polished off the audiobooks of David Spade’s Almost Interesting and Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? (both hilarious) and also listened to Gasping For Airtime: Two Years In The Trenches Of Saturday Night Live by ex-SNL actor Jay Mohr. On the TV front, I finished re-watching all of The Larry Sanders Show, savoring every second of it, while I started watching The Mindy Project during the cruise at Connie Ogle’s recommendation, and have already sailed past her to start Season 4.

Here are the movies I saw this month:

KEANU (2016)—TV sketch comedians Key and Peele headline their first feature film, which is a crime-comedy hybrid in the tradition of 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. Unfortunately, the comparisons end there, because Keanu doesn’t have a fraction of the laughs or inventiveness of Eddie Murphy’s early efforts. The plot (about two guys going undercover to locate a cat) is pretty much secondary to the dumb jokes, the vast majority of which failed to amuse me. Less than a month after seeing this scattershot movie, I have already (blessedly) forgotten most of it. (4)

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)—The first modern-day Captain America film (2011’s The First Avenger) was a decent action flick that I graded an 8 back in 2012. I missed the 2014 sequel, and as of this year they’re already up to #3, so I figured it was time to see #2 in the series. This one makes a fleeting reference to Iron Man, but Captain America is joined only by fellow superheroes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (newcomer Anthony Mackie) in this picture, as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The new superhero villain is the Winter Soldier, whose true identity is telegraphed pretty early on in the film; Robert Redford is also on hand as a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader whose true motivations are revealed to be sinister. Again, this does not come as a surprise—even the most slow-minded filmgoer will pin Redford as the bad guy less than a minute into his character’s introduction. There’s a lot of action and violence in The Winter Soldier, but utterly no explanation of where Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, etc., are when the world faces a deadly threat. I guess I’ll never really understand that aspect of the Marvel universe, although I know that Iron Man and Ant Man are supposed to be in the third Captain America movie. (9)

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)—The cartoon violence and suspense continues in the third Captain America movie. This time, virtually all of the Avengers are back, minus Thor and the Hulk (Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is a no-show as well). Somebody has framed the Winter Soldier (aka Bucky Barnes) for a deadly bombing, which causes a lot of discourse among the Avengers. Basically the superheroes are split into two factions, and they start wailing on each other. It’s a decent entry in the series, but there are already too many superheroes, and several others (including Black Panther and Spiderman) are introduced in this one. Less is more, dudes. (8)

SING STREET (2016)—Writer-director John Carney, whose 2013 film Begin Again was one of my favorites that year, is back with another movie about songwriting and romance. This one takes place in Ireland during 1985, when Duran Duran, Joy Division and the Cure were on the radio (and subsequently on the soundtrack of this movie). Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a high-school kid who forms a band with various classmates, initially as a way to get girls. He sings, while his ragtag group of classmates are all somehow expert musicians, and it isn’t long before they’re coming up with songs and licks that display the maturity of a band in its 10th year together. But let’s don’t worry too much about how inexplicably flawless the group performs, or how their live school auditorium recital sounds like it was produced and mixed by Phil Spector. This is, at its heart, nothing more than an exceedingly corny love story—imagine the Beatles influenced not by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but by Simon LeBon and Robert Smith, throw in a romance for good measure, and you start to get an idea of what Sing Street is all about. (One of the two songwriters is played by an actor who looks exactly like the young John Lennon.) Extremely predictable and loaded with clichés, the movie is still unabashedly great fun, with tons of great old music and wonderful new songs. (9)

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016)—Super-beautiful Kate Beckinsale stars in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, about a widow in the late 1800s who attempts to disguise her various dalliances in true Machiavellian fashion. Chloë Sevigny plays her friend and confidant Alicia, Morfydd Clark is her daughter Frederica and Emma Greenwell plays sister-in-law Catherine. The entire cast is pitch perfect, although Beckinsale is probably a little too young to play Susan. This is one of those great stories where a character (chiefly Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin) blathers on about something so that the audience knows what’s going on while the character remains completely oblivious. It’s a charming and amusing comedy of manners with exceedingly good costumes and amazing period-perfect sets. I would probably enjoy this even more if I saw it again. (8)

MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)—Greta Gerwig is Maggie, a single woman who wants to have a baby. As the prospects of finding a husband look bleak (she can’t keep a lover for more than six months), the first of her plans is to inseminate herself with baby-batter belonging to a handsome pickle bottler. Almost immediately, she meets Ethan Hawke, who is married to Julianne Moore. A friendship develops; Hawke leaves Moore to have a baby with Gerwig, and that’s the basic setup that leads to her secondary plan, which is to get Hawke back together with Moore. Gerwig is, as always, wonderful to look at; the rest of the cast, not so much. Hawke is more than a decade older than Gerwig, and Moore is a decade older than Hawke. Plus, Moore is doing some kind of Danish accent—a total distraction since we know she’s not Danish—and to add more “comedy” to this romcom wannabe, the producers have cast two former Saturday Night Live performers (Bill Hader and Maya Rudloph) as an allegedly funny married couple who give advice to control freak Gerwig. At this point, it seems like Hader has done more movies than episodes of SNL, so his overexposure massively grates on me. Also, I never want to have to look at Maya Rudolph again for the rest of my life, as I find her exceptionally homely and rarely funny. And that’s the basic problem with Maggie’s Plan. It’s a comedy-drama that really, really needs to be funnier. As it is, it settles for being only very mildly good-natured—barely funny at all, despite the jocular, vaguely “Frenchy” soundtrack that is played throughout the film. To say that Gerwig carries this film is an understatement. She’s really the only thing I genuinely liked about it. Well, her and the pickle guy. (6)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

April 2016

I spent much of April putting together the June issue of Speedboat Magazine, which I needed to complete before going on my seventh Carnival cruise on May 2, which is  tomorrow. It was our annual swimsuit issue, and a lot of fun to create. As I worked, I listened to and graded every song by the late Kirsty MacColl, hunting for gems across her numerous CDs. I listened to and very much enjoyed the audiobook of Michael Koryta’s supernatural thriller The Ridge, and eagerly look forward to more of his work. I am also finally reading The Burnaby Experiments by the late Stephen Gilbert (of Willard fame). I have also been binge-watching The Larry Sanders Show (my third go-around on this series), in the wake of star Garry Shandling’s recent death. This month, we also shockingly lost Prince; he was one of my very favorite performers.
Here are the movies I saw this month:

HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS (2016)—I have been a fan of Sally Field going back to her days on The Flying Nun. She’s a dynamic and extremely talented performer, and although she’s a grandma now, she’s still something of a cutie pie. In Hello My Name Is Doris, she plays a shy spinster with few friends, a tendency toward hoarding, questionable tastes in fashion and zero socialization skills. Then one day she meets the hunky new executive (Max Greenfield) at the company where she works as an accountant, and she instantly develops an obsession with him. The rest of the movie concerns the lengths Sally goes to in order to win Greenfield’s heart, fantasizing about him Walter Mitty-style along the way. It’s the barest wisp of a plot, and full of awkwardness as we sympathize with Sally but realize she’s in way over her head. The movie would be a decent lightweight comedy/romance if it weren’t for several bits that ring horribly false (two characters who act supremely rude for little rhyme or reason), and then there’s the ambiguous ending, the kind of which I always despise. But the movie does feature super-sexy Anna Akana in a small role; almost any of her YouTube videos are funnier and more enjoyable than this movie. Akana desperately needs to have her own starring feature film. (7)

FRANK (2014)—This film got so many great reviews when it was released a couple of years ago that I was sorry I missed it. Now that I’ve finally caught up with it…I have to admit to being disappointed. This is about a band whose lead singer wears (and never removes) a large paper mâché head over his real head. An aspiring songwriter and keyboardist joins the band, starts to record music with them and begins to realize that they’re each dealing with various psychological challenges. Way too quirky for my tastes; not really satisfactory on any level. Very odd to cast Michael “Jobs” Fassbender in a role where you can’t even see him. (5)

DEMOLITION (2016)—Jake Gyllenhaal, the star of movies I’ve greatly enjoyed (Southpaw, Nightcrawler, End of Watch), stars as a man whose wife has just been killed in a devastating car accident. Numbed by the emotional pain, he slowly unravels, demolishing lots of stuff—refrigerators, bathroom stalls, even his own house in an attempt to “tear down the walls” of his old life. He meets a pretty single mom (Naomi Watts) whose troubled young son (Judah Lewis) helps him get a grip on reality. This is an interesting movie, but it seems as emotionally detached as its central character—I should have been touched by this film, but although I was willing to go along with the story, I was never moved. The fine acting almost, but not quite, makes up for the lack of real feelings. (7)

ZOOTOPIA (2016)—One of the best movies of this year, this Disney animated film hits all the right notes and features a sterling voice cast, including Idris Elba, Jason Bateman, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Shakira, etc. But Ginnifer Goodwin steals the show as a rabbit who dreams of becoming a police officer in a human-free world. There are sendups of a number of movie clichés—at least, I hope they’re sendups and not just clichés—but there’s so much great writing and humor in this great “buddy movie” that you won’t mind a few borrowed plot twists. I was intrigued and hooked from beginning to end. (10)

THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)—In anticipation of seeing the new live-action remake, Joan and I both screened the Disney cartoon version, which I hadn’t seen since I was 7, and she hadn’t seen at all. I think we were both equally charmed by the animation, music and story, which, by all accounts, is only loosely based on Kipling’s stories. This was the final animated feature that Walt personally oversaw production on—he was dead by the time it premiered—and he was single-handedly responsible for altering the story, making it more family-friendly and removing a great deal of the darker elements of Kipling. I’d say he did a good job. The voice cast—especially George Sanders as Shere Khan and Phil Harris as Baloo—is magnificent. (10)

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)—Because we can now make movie animals talk convincingly through the magic of CGI, The Jungle Book—like Charlotte’s Web before it and an upcoming remake of Animal Farm—was an obvious choice to re-create. I suspect Walt Disney would have disliked his studio’s new version, which embraces the story’s darker elements. It’s fun and suspenseful enough, but lacking the charm of the animated version (even though they do some of the songs). And oh, so dark. One animal is brutally murdered and the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Zootopia’s Idris Elba) has an interesting but ominous new backstory. Bill Murray is his typically fun self as the voice of Baloo the bear. Special effects are the best reason to see this movie. (8)

DARLING (2016)—In June of 2011, I blogged about a 1965 film called Repulsion. Filmed in black-and-white, this psychological thriller was the first film in English by famed director Roman Polanski. Screened at festivals last year and released wide this year, Darling steals liberally from both Repulsion and The Shining without coming close to achieving the terror or magnificence of either. What Darling does have is plenty of creepiness—lots of weird music, scary imagery, jump shots and bizarre “subliminal” inserts—and it looks fantastic. The movie’s pretty star, Lauren Ashley Carter, has Christina Ricci’s huge eyes and does a decent acting job, but this is really like a short film that’s been stretched out to feature length. (6)

THE MEDDLER (2016)—I rather enjoyed this gentle mom vs. daughter comedy, which is from the same general cinematic neighborhood as The Guilt Trip and Albert Brooks’ Mother. In this variation on the “overbearing parent” story, Mom is played by Susan Sarandon, who (like Alison Janney) grows more beautiful with each passing year. She speaks in a rather labored Noo Yawk accent—which I guess is part of the overall joke—and it takes a pretty long time for daughter Rose Byrne to catch up with the audience and realize she’s got a heart of gold. The always dependable J.K. Simmons adds a touch of romance to this delightful surprise. (9)

Sunday, April 03, 2016

March 2016

I guess the big event this month was a stupid online banking mistake I made that caused me to be overdrawn, even though I had the money. Basically, I tried to transfer money I had in my PayPal account to money in my banking account, but I accidentally did the opposite. It was extremely easy mistake to make—but completely impossible to reverse. Fortunately, everything was put straight, but only after I’d spent days and weeks agonizing about it.
I saw Jenna in Spamalot. It was my first exposure to this musical, even though I’ve seen the source movie (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) dozens of times. It has been so amazing to see my goddaughter grow up, becoming so beautiful and such a talent.
It’s been fun following the political sideshow. The Republicans are self-destructing so spectacularly…although it’s like a multi-car highway wreck in slow motion, it’s also the biggest and best news event of my adult life.
I’ve had a great deal of fun this month swapping music with Mark W., missing Cindy K. when she went to Mexico during Spring Break, and chatting with Phoebe B.
On the book front, I read and enjoyed Stephen King’s short-story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams and Gillian White’s psychological thriller Copycat. And I started reading All the Sky Together by Florence Engel Randall.
In movie news, I actually managed to squeeze in a few older movies in addition to newer offerings. Here’s what I saw:
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016)—Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and the late, beloved sitcom 30 Rock has been going the Steve Martin route on the movie circuit, pandering to lowbrow tastes with cheap laughs and material that is beneath her in an attempt (I assume) to increase her personal fortune. Occasionally, though, she lobbies to get herself into a slightly more serious movie, and this is her latest attempt. She plays Kim Baker, a fictionalized version of Ashley Gilbertson, a journalist whose memoir Taliban Shuffle, about covering the war in Iraq, was the basis for this movie. The film is half romcom, half war drama, and those two things go together about as well as you’d expect—i.e., not very well. There are fine moments, and Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman have good roles, but the movie is mostly a slog. (6)
FORTRESS (1983)—The extremely beautiful Australian actress Rachel Ward (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) plays a schoolteacher who, along with her young pupils, are kidnapped by a quartet of masked criminals for ransom. Using their wits, they attempt to escape their tormentors. It’s a quite frightening film in which the captors have to fight for their lives and use their survival skills. Based on Gabrielle Lord’s novel of the same name, which in turn was loosely based on a real-life event. Not bad for what it is; Ward is absolutely heavenly. (8)
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)—Producer J.J. Abrams, also responsible for 2008’s monster movie Cloverfield, has got himself a nearly perfect movie about a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) being held captive in John Goodman’s basement. The film is outstanding as a psychological thriller, until doing a 360 during the last 10-15 minutes. Joan and I were both disappointed by the resolution. Not bad, but what a great movie this could have been! (8)
JUGGERNAUT (1974)—Given my passion for ocean cruising, I decided to check out this thriller from the Seventies about a ransom plot to bomb a cruise ship. The acting is mediocre and the action slow-moving to nonexistent, but Richard Harris is pretty good as an expert in disarming bombs. Nice also to see David Hemmings, who I’ve loved listening to on the soundtrack to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jeeves for many years without being completely aware of what he looks like. And it was cool to see the inside of a vintage cruise ship, which much of the movie was filmed on. (5)
NOBLE (2015)—One of several movies I was looking forward to last year, but that I missed, Noble wasn’t in theaters for very long. It’s the true-life story of Christina Noble (Deirdre O’Kane), an Irish woman who travels to Vietnam with a dream of helping to shelter, nourish, protect and teach the poor homeless street children after the war. Through childhood and adolescence, she suffers unimaginable setbacks and tragedies, all of which help make her stronger in her quest to realize her goals. This movie is a powerful, moving and inspirational experience, and I cried practically through its entire 100 minutes. I wish everybody could see this movie, all about how much one person can truly make a difference in this world. (10)
EYE IN THE SKY (2016)—Helen Mirren is a military officer whose drone (flying over Kenya) spots terrorists in a small house planning a suicide attack. Obviously, U.S. and U.K. forces should bomb the house, right? Hold on…there’s a young, sweet, innocent girl in the yard who will be part of the collateral damage. Should we take her out too, in order to save potentially hundreds of other children who would die in the attack? That’s the question put forward by this suspenseful war thriller, which puts the viewer on the front line of the war against terror. There are never any easy answers in a situation like this, and director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert have assembled a great cast (including Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad and the late Alan Rickman) to tell this incredible and moving tale. (9)
MUD (2013)—After 2011’s massively boring and preposterous Take Shelter, I could not imagine sitting through another film by writer/director Jeff Nichols ever again. It even permanently soured me on his favorite actor, Michael Shannon, so deeply did I despise Take Shelter. But excellent word-of-mouth and terrific reviews got me interested in Mud, although I missed it when it was released a few years ago. I finally gave it a chance this month, and found it to have the same basic flavor of 1986’s Stand By Me (directed by Rob Reiner from a Stephen King short story). It’s a similar coming-of-age story about boys learning tough lessons about love, life, death and growing up. The entire cast—including snaggle-toothed Matthew McConaughey (badly in need of a shower), Sam Shepard, and especially the boys, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone,—are uniformly outstanding. Extremely well assembled and realized; hard to believe this is from the same guy who nearly extinguished my love of movies with Take Shelter. (9)