Saturday, April 01, 2017

March 2017

Although I first used my Fitbit (a birthday present I’d received in January) in February at the Miami Boat Show, I didn’t properly start walking again until this month. So my Fitbit has been “counting my steps” for the last couple of weeks. Now that it’s not cold outside anymore, it’s been nice to take my evening strolls again. Because of these evening strolls, I’ve been listening to more audiobooks than usual. In March, I burned through Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (outstanding), The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft (good, but with a disappointing ending) and The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (excellent). I am also fast approaching the halfway point in Croft’s latest mystery, While You Were Sleeping. It occurred to me a few hours ago that I have had a more pleasure experience reading than watching movies, and that I should probably focus on writing a reading blog. The only problem with that idea is that it would curtail me from reading—I have more than 50 audiobooks in the queue! On the non-audio front, I have been reading plays. First up was Larry David’s Broadway comedy Fish in the Dark, followed by Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a very ambitious linking of interrelated plays with 16 possible endings. TELEVISION: I am still working my way through all of 30 Rock again during mealtimes, and am still enjoying my favorite broadcast series (Big Bang Theory, Mom, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Modern Family, Homeland, The Mindy Project, Real Time With Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and my favorite nightly political shows on MSNBC. MUSIC: I spent a lot of the month “drilling” hit songs from 2016 and 2017; among the tunes that got four-star ratings: “When We Were Young” (Adele), “Closer” (Chainsmokers), “We Don’t Talk Anymore” (Charlie Puth), “Hymn for the Weekend” (Coldplay), “Let Me Love You” (DJ Snake), “Exes and Ohs” (Elle King), “Starving” (Hailee Steinfeld), “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” (Meghan Trainor), “Same Old Love” (Selena Gomez), “Treat You Better” (Shawn Mendes), “Cheap Thrills” (Sia) and “I Feel It Coming” (The Weeknd, doing an uncanny impersonation of Michael Jackson). Mark Weinfeld has also continued to turn me on to alternative rock songs via our monthly music exchange.
Here are the movies I saw in March:



 GET OUT (2017)—Following up last year’s infantile cat-comedy Keanu, writer Jordan Peele (of the comedy duo Key & Peele) turns his attention to horror…and it turns out to be a much more suitable genre for the comedian. Peele not only writes but directs this time; it’s an engaging thriller with a few well-placed moments of comedy. Mostly, though, it’s a kind of conspiracy shocker in the tradition of The Stepford Wives, with an excellent cast that includes Daniel Kaluuya as the black boyfriend of white-girl Allison Williams, who takes him home to her very liberal parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). But are they as tolerant of their daughter’s African-American squeeze as they let on? After Keanu, I had pretty much written off Peele, but he does an excellent job with this kind of material—mostly playing it straight, but with brief moments of comic relief. (9)


LION (2016)—Roughly the first half of this real-life drama is superb. A young Indian boy wanders onto a sitting train, falls asleep and gets separated from his older brother. When he awakes, the train is well on its way to Calcutta. When he arrives, hundreds of miles away, he can barely make himself understood to anybody by speaking his native Hindu. Adopted by an Australian family, he grows up and is approaching 30 before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his family. It was at this point, where the young man (Dev Patel) becomes detached from his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and his adoptive parents that I found myself getting bored for the next 25 minutes or so. But when the film plays its final hand—Patel finally puts the pieces of his childhood together—the movie recovers, and it’s time to reach for the tissues. It’s a real pity that the entire movie couldn’t have been as electrifying as the beginning and end. Note: Lion reminded me of two different films: The first is one that I saw in elementary school: Escapade in Japan (1957), which also involved a boy separated from his parents and getting lost in a foreign country. Then there’s the excellent French picture Forbidden Games (1952), in which a young girl, suddenly orphaned after a bomb drops, wanders around the countryside and forced to connect with strangers. (8)


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)—An unabashed monster movie for kids, with respected stars like John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and Richard Jenkins slumming it up for an easy paycheck. I went to see the special effects, which were very good, but there’s barely any story and some of the dialogue had the audience members giggling nonstop. Samuel L. Jackson is on hand to play the one character he knows how to play. John C. Reilly provides adequate comic relief. The real stars here are the island full of monsters—dinosaurs, giant spiders and, of course, the giant gorilla. Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but worth seeing for the FX. (7)


MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE (2017)—It seems a bit pointless to create yet another documentary about the inherent evil of Scientology, but that’s just what writer/star Louis Theroux has done with this entertaining exercise. He and director director/cowriter John Dower gather up several ex-cult members, who explain the machinations of how the group continues to exist, despite repeated charges of outlandish behavior behind the scenes. It doesn’t break a great deal of new ground in the wake of 2015’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, but it does have its low-budget charm and its own unique perspective. The film centers most of its focus on former Scientology senior executive Mark Rathbun, who honestly and methodically tells how the “church” works—and how he was, for many years, one of those who strong-armed members as a kind of “mess cleaner.” It’s a horrifying adventure, well made and quite unnerving—we’re left with the sickening revelation that brainwashing people is confoundingly simple to pull off. (9)


THE RED TURTLE (2016)—Of the five 2016 films nominated for Best Animated Feature, this was one of two that I had not seen. Completely wordless, it’s an island castaway story in which a magical (?) beached turtle transforms into a woman, providing our stranded hero with companionship. On the plus side, the movie is exquisitely rendered—one of the best hand-drawn cartoons I’ve ever seen. The animation is truly amazing; long stretches of it are flawless, and there are moments of gripping suspense. Like Cast Away, contains moments of intense drama, along with some lighthearted touches. The major problem for me was the fantasy angle: I couldn’t get past the turtle inexplicably turning into a woman. I can accept many supernatural and fantasy conceits, but the turtle-woman bothered me. Amid dozens of enthusiastic reviews on IMDB.com, I was pleased to find one fellow who echoed my sentiment: “It's poetic and moving, but makes no sense on a literal aspect.” I should also mention how slow-moving the film is—I was able to watch a great deal of it at 1.5x on my iPad, and it was still very slow-moving. (7)


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)—The 1991 Disney animated romance is one of the studio’s most perfect movies, with rich characterization, gorgeous cartooning and a beautiful love story, all augmented by the memorable songs of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Now that Disney’s raking in the cash by making live-action versions of its previous animated successes (Jungle Book, Maleficent, 101 Dalmatians, etc.), it was only a matter of time before they got around to plundering this classic. And man, did I have mixed feelings about it. On the upside, there are numerous scenes of exquisite beauty, lavish sets and, best of all, Harry Potter graduate Emma Watson as Belle. All of the original songs are here, as well as a bunch of wholly superfluous new ones. This could have been a masterpiece. But this so-called “live action” version totally overdoes it with the CGI—a little of which goes a long way, at least for this viewer. In particular, the “Be Our Guest” segment is so overdone with flying anthropomorphic objects and fireworks that it becomes garishly cluttered and is completely missing the charm of the original movie—I could feel myself become furious by the utter disarray of it all. (This sequence is “nothing but visual noise,” confirms Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.) The Beast is rendered largely via CGI, and it’s not perfect; he looks almost as much like a cartoon as the Beast from the original movie. Next problem: The huge Gaston, the guy with the rippling muscles, is portrayed by the perplexingly miscast Luke Evans, an actor who does not begin to satisfy the demands of the role. Finally, updating the racial element to include not one but two interracial couples made my eyeballs roll heavenward—it’s political correctness of the most distracting kind. This movie, which is enjoyable at various stretches, is nonetheless the most disappointing feature of the year so far. The best things about this movie are the poster and the end credits, which are extremely well done. Note: The controversy about making Le Fou a “gay character” was laughably overblown. (7)


LIFE (2017)—This reasonably well done Martians-will-get-you shocker is a total Alien ripoff with one or two twists, but it very closely follows the same basic plot—astronauts on a ship (this time a space station) are stalked by an otherworldly presence that happens to be homicidal. (This one is also super-intelligent and indestructable.) Like its predecessor, it’s a sci-fi slasher movie. Watchable, occasionally exciting, but derivative beyond the telling of it. On the other hand, it was light years better than Interstellar. (8)


THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017)—On a lovely Saturday morning in March, I set off to see two indie films that had gotten a bunch of decent reviews—but neither of them was particularly good. The Sense of an Ending, starring the great Jim Broadbent, is about an elderly man looking back on his life and facing some of the bad decisions he made in his youth. Thus, the movie is loaded with flashbacks. That wouldn’t necessarily be terrible, except the movie is generally very plodding and doesn’t have much of a payoff. Also, pretty much every female character is incredibly annoying, especially his two former romantic partners, played by Charlotte Rampling and Harriet Walter. The acting is decent, but the script (based on an acclaimed novel by Julian Barnes) is slow-moving and not particularly engaging. It’s always nice to see lovely Michelle Dockery, though—she plays Broadbent’s daughter. (6.5)


PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017)—I made the mistake of trying to sit through Clouds of Sils Maria, a French movie starring Kristen Stewart, a year or two ago. I didn’t make it more than halfway through that boring, artsy flick (you called it, Connie Ogle!), and somehow I made the rookie decision to see another movie by the same writer-director (Olivier Assayas) that also stars Stewart. (In my defense, I did not realize that Personal Shopper was another Assayas movie.) All I knew was that this one was a ghost story. In this film, Stewart’s brother has died, and she’s trying to get in touch with his spirit. Well, let me tell you, a more boring ghost story has never been made. Literally 30 minutes of the film concerns Stewart being cyber-stalked by a creepy unknown person via text messenger (he says stuff like “I want you, and I will have you”). And even though this entire sequence is little other than them texting each other, it’s probably the most interesting part of the movie! That might have made a decent psychological thriller, but eventually we return to the ghost story, which is quite dull and full of ambiguity. Worst of all, the ending is a  colossal “HUH?” Kristen, get the hell out of France. It’s ruining your career! (4)

Monday, March 13, 2017

February 2017

February sent me back to South Florida for the annual Miami International Boat Show, one of several disruptions from my normal schedule that prevented me from watching a lot of movies. After having recovered from bronchitis only a month ago, I came back from Miami with a cold—I’m so sick of sickness! This was also the month of the Academy Awards and the now-infamous incorrect announcement of La La Land as Best Picture (Moonlight turned out to be the real winner). At the time of this writing, I have still not seen Manchester By the Sea or Lion. This was also the month I saw comedian Brian Kiley with my friend Rachel in Burbank; after the show, I found that my passage back to West Hollywood was blocked because of a fatal accident on the 101 Freeway. Not able to drive home, I headed back to the AMC 16 theater to see a late showing of A Dog’s Purpose; afterwards, traffic had cleared. I had to return to Burbank only a few hours later to pick up Joan and see Moana, followed by Split. BOOKS: I finished the audiobook of The Girl With No Past by Kathryn Croft and continue to read short stories by John D. MacDonald. MUSIC: I have been drilling and grading various recent releases, including albums by Ariana Grande, Ingrid Michaelson, Jonatha Brooke, Fifth Harmony, Look Park, etc.
Here’s what I saw in February:


A DOG’S PURPOSE (2017)—A family picture geared mostly for very young audiences. This dog-reincarnation story was a lot more juvenile that I had expected, and parts of the plot are exasperating to mature viewers who possess the power of logic. But at least it killed time while I was waiting for traffic to clear. (6)


SPLIT (2017)—Although M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller captured some decent reviews and was a sizable hit, Joan and I felt cheated by a story that started strongly but gradually fizzled. The ending is incomprehensible. (5)


PUNCHING HENRY (2017)—Sequel to comedian-songwriter Henry Phillips’ Punching the Clown is a better movie—and not just because he’s filled out the cast with A-level performers like J.K. Simmons and top-tier fellow comedians Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro and Doug Stanhope. It’s a funnier film, better made, and Henry feels much more comfortable as a leading man—even if the character he plays is the same “rambling troubadour extraordinaire” who finds success in being a hapless schlemiel. It’s truly amazing how many different ways Phillips finds to tell the same basic joke: Are they laughing with me or laughing at me? Well, as long as they’re laughing, and lord knows I was. (Typical joke: A comedy club owner invites Henry back: “The door is always open,” he says, adding, “It’s a $10 cover, two-drink minimum.”) There’s plenty of dissing, humiliation and embarrassment for Henry, and his chagrin is our pleasure. It seems like I waited years to see this, and my patience was rewarded. I look forward to the third film in the trilogy. (9)


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)—The real-life story of pacifist Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who volunteered to act as a medic in WWII, but refused to carry or shoot a gun. At first he is bullied and jeered by his fellow soldiers, but he soon gains their respect by bravely saving numerous lives in the heat of battle. The movie is at times unimaginably gory and bloody. Teresa Palmer is quite fetching as Garfield’s love interest. (7)

January 2017

I started the month struggling to get rid of the bronchitis I’d contracted around Christmas. It took entirely too long to get rid of. Consequently, I didn’t return to movie theaters until well into January. At least I survived the month—to our great sadness, Cindy’s teacup poodle, Cassie, passed away this month.
MUSIC: I’m taking a break from reviewing oldies while I focus on more contemporary music. I drilled and graded every song released by Rihanna, then started working on various other albums by favorite artists that have been piling up (by Ingrid Michaelson, Jonatha Brooke, Fifth Harmony, Monkees, The 1975, Alicia Keys, Radiohead, Ariana Grande, etc.).
BOOKS: I finished listening to The Stranger Within by Kathryn Croft, a mystery-melodrama on audio, while reading various mystery short-stories on the printed page, including several by John D. MacDonald.
Other highlights this month: Jenna was terrific as Sally in the YADA production of  You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; I saw comedian Brian Kiley perform at Flappers comedy club; the Academy Award nominations were announced. Looks like I have a few films to watch before the ceremony, including Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and Manchester by the Sea. Among the lowlights: my car needed a $500 repair. GROAN!
Here’s what I saw in January.


FENCES (2016)—Going in to my screening, I was unaware that Fences (directed by and starring Denzel Washington) was an adaptation of a play, but it sure didn’t take very long to figure it out. Turns out it’s based on August Wilson's 1983 stage drama, which won a Pulitzer Prize; it co-stars Viola Davis as the long-suffering wife of Washington, who plays a kind of a bitter douchebag. The movie, while rather long, is full of great performances and has some genuinely touching scenes; the last 20 minutes are so are in serious need of some trimming. Otherwise, very well done. (9)


MOANA (2016)—Disney’s 45th animated feature film has a lot going for it: a first-rate voice cast led by Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson and Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement; a terrific fable-like story; interesting characters; great humor; and songs by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. What more could you want? Nothing, that’s what! This is a nearly perfect film, full of wonder and magic and melody, all about a girl who sets out to save her Polynesian island from a terrible curse. The film follows Zootopia, another perfect Disney animated confection from 2016. Can’t wait to see this one again! (10)


PASSENGERS (2016)—Two space pictures came out at the end of 2016: Passengers, which was mostly panned by critics (31% TM) and Rogue One, cheered by considerably more (85% TM). And yet, I found Passengers to be the far more entertaining movie. No, it’s not perfect, but I was never bored, and it has a comprehensible, uncluttered story, good performances and an upbeat ending. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence—two wonderful, always engaging stars—headline this sci-fi romance movie in which Pratt, one of 5,000 passengers on an interplanetary journey, is inadvertently awakened only 30 years into his 120-year trip. Although the film asks the viewer to swallow some pretty preposterous plot developments, it held my interest throughout. (8.5)


ROGUE ONE (2016)—This first Star Wars “anthology” film is basically a prequel to 1977’s A New Hope; it might as well be called Episode 3.5. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel fighter trying to extract some secret plans for the fabled Death Star. The movie is jam-packed full of evil Storm Troopers shooting deadly laser guns at our heroes, our heroes shooting and killing many Storm Troopers, innumerable spaceships flying around and crashing, and a couple of scenes with Forest Whitaker that manage to short-change his incredible talents even worse than Arrival did. I found most of the movie unbearably boring, despite great special effects. The original Star Wars movies (the first two, at any rate) were great fun as well as action-packed, but the filmmakers of this movie have opted to put none of that fun into this anthology film. (SPOILER ALERT—stop reading if you haven’t seen it.) And every single good guy in the movie has been killed by the end—what an unbelievable bummer! (6)


JACKIE (2016)—Here’s the good news: Natalie Portman makes a lovely, convincing Jacqueline Kennedy. She captures the accent, the mannerisms, the very essence of Jackie. Unfortunately, the performance is trapped within the confines of a dreary, slow-moving, plotless, flashback-ridden movie that doesn’t do anything and doesn’t go anywhere. A total bore. (3)


LA LA LAND (2016)—Even though this movie won an avalanche of Golden Globes and is poised to win many Oscars, it seems like a lot of people run hot and cold on this movie. Well, I loved it. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone act up a storm in this old-fashioned musical, and while it’s true that Gosling’s character is kind of a dick in the first half, he does redeem himself. I would agree that there are some slow spots, but the dancing and energy and rapport between the leads more than make up for it. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) scores again! Too bad J.K. Simmons’ part is so small, but he is great in the very short time he’s around. (10)


SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (2016)—I found this film included on several “Best Movies of 2016” year-end lists. It’s a fun, pastoral, heartwarming story for the entire family, based on a 1930s novel (and taking place at that time). The wonderful Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, Black Mirror) is simply marvelous in a plot about a widow whose four children embark on a sailing adventure in the middle of a lake, which contains an island with several secrets. A gem! (10)


HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)—True story about three brilliant black women who helped NASA succeed in the 1960s space race against the Russians, and how they paved the way for landing a man on the moon. The movie clobbers the viewer over the head with numerous racist acts and laws during the era of segregation (the ladies have to use separate restrooms, coffee dispensers, etc.). That’s a small quibble—these things really did exist—but there are times when it seems like all of the white people in this movie fall into two categories: the racist and the super racist. Still, this is a moving, inspirational biography about women deserving of a memorial. The leads (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) are first-rate, and Monáe is a real dish to boot. (9)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Best & Worst Movies of 2016

I saw 73 movies last year. Of those, 50 were released in 2016. I saw fewer movies overall than in 2015—22 fewer first-run movies, in fact. On  my 1-10 scale, I awarded only four first-run films a perfect "10" in 2016. (This downward trend has continued over the past several years.)

Unfortunately, I missed many of the better films released at the end of 2016 due to sickness and other factors. I need to catch up on numerous 2016 films that fell through the cracks (see below).

The best movie I saw in 2016 was Kubo and the Two Strings. I saw it three times in the theater—an unbelievable rarity.

The rest of my “perfect 10” movies were Hail Caeser, Zootopia and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Awarded 9/10 were Deadpool, Eye in the Sky, The Meddler, Sing Street, Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children, Denial and The Edge of Seventeen. 

WORST MOVIES OF 2016: The Lobster, Keanu, The Nice Guys.

VASTLY OVERRATED MOVIES OF 2016: Moonlight, Don’t Think Twice, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Arrival, Loving

BEST OLDER MOVIES I SAW IN 2016: Joy (2015), Noble (2014), Mud (2012), Wish You Were Here (1987), Patterns (1956), Home from the Hill (1960).

SORRY I MISSED YOU:
Moana (Viewed in 2017)
La La Land (Viewed in 2017)
20th Century Women
Rogue One (Viewed in 2017)
Fences (Viewed in 2017)
Manchester by the Sea
Jackie (Viewed in 2017)
Lion
Hacksaw Ridge 
Silence
Julieta
Passengers (Viewed in 2017)
Why Him?
Little Men
Gleason
The Witch
13th
The Handmaiden
The Little Prince 
A Monster Calls
Demon
Kung Fu Panda 3
Desierto
Hush
Wedding Doll
Hostile Border
The Great Gilly Hopkins
Miss Stevens
Zoom
Generation Startup
The Good Neighbor 
Swallows and Amazons
The Fits
Toni Erdmann
A Bigger Splash
Mountains May Depart
Wiener-Dog
Sunset Song
The Neon Demon
Our Little Sister

December 2016

With a plethora of high-quality offerings opening in December, my list of must-see movies was getting rather unwieldy. Unfortunately, a variety of factors prevented me from seeing a single one of the many films on that list. These included:
1. A massively heavy workload that ate up a lot of my free time, including weekends;
2. Television-related distractions;
3. Various other obligations;
4. Christmas vacation in Florida;
5. Sickness. I caught back-to-back head and chest colds—complete with a persistent, hacking cough—that kept me away from the theaters. I didn’t want to ruin anybody’s moviegoing experience, so I stayed home and watched TV. It’s Jan. 1 as I write this, and I still haven’t shaken this damned thing.
The month started off happily enough, with a lovely dinner (with Joan Manners) on Dec. 2 at Rao’s Restaurant, where I bid adieu to restaurant hostess and Speedboat swimsuit model Rupa Begum. She and her honey Andrew Gates were about to move to Las Vegas—best of luck to both of them!
December means holiday music, and keeping with tradition, I attended chorale performances featuring Rachel Aviles (in Burbank, Dec. 3) and Jenna Rose (in Beverly Hills, Dec. 7); both were typically delightful and engaging. Meanwhile, Joan and I caught Roy Zimmerman at the Coffee Gallery on Dec. 6.
On Dec. 20, I flew to Florida and hung out with the Steele family, as per tradition. I was back on Dec. 26, and (also by tradition) moving into the Newman household to dog-sit for them during their holiday excursion to Hawaii. TV: During the Florida trip, I binge-watched the excellent series Stranger Things; later, I started watching episodes of the comedy-drama anthology series Easy, also via Netflix. MUSIC: I finished drilling and grading lesser-known singles from 1971; highlights included “Talk it Over in the Morning” by Anne Murray, “Jennifer” by Bobby Sherman, “Carey” by Joni Mitchell and “No Good to Cry” by the Poppy Family. Next up, I will tackle 1979.
Here’s the only movie I saw in December:


ELLE (2016)—Director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall) directs this French thriller starring 63-year-old Isabelle Huppert as a video-game company CEO who is brutally raped—and subsequently learns that her masked attacker might just be someone she knows. It’s a compelling movie with a couple of well-placed twists; not a perfect movie, but I liked how pretty much all of the characters were all flawed and uniquely human, rather than being purely heroic or perfect. Huppert gives a great performance. (8.5)

Thursday, December 08, 2016

November 2016

This was a fun month, although not a great movie month. In late October, I set sail for my 17th cruise (on Carnival’s Miracle ship) to Mexico, and returned on Nov. 5. During that time, I binge-watched season 3 of Black Mirror, which was enormously entertaining. (I ended the month binge-watching the revival of Gilmore Girls, which was also a great deal of fun.) This was also the month of Thanksgiving, and Cindy Newman and her family did their usual bang-up job hosting, entertaining, cooking and serving. A great time was had by all! Meanwhile, on the literary front, I finally finished reading Evan Hunter’s early novel Don’t Crowd Me (an old paperback copy), while enjoying some of Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories in audio format. Finally, I spent part of the month recording some music (covers of Randy Newman songs) and seeking out pianists via Craigslist to perform some songs from the 1800s by the Hill sisters (famous for “Happy Birthday to You”) and a song from my own back catalogue. They are still in production...I’ll provide an update next month! 1970s PROJECT: I have been “drilling and grading” songs from 1971. Have found the usual amount of cool tracks and turkeys; will be finished in December sometime for sure. I’ve found that it’s taking me two months to thoroughly “drill” a single year of music from the 1970s. Meanwhile, here are the movies I saw in November...a pretty mediocre lot, I must say.


DR. STRANGE (2016)—Marvel’s latest superhero launch is played by…Benedict Cumberbatch? Yup, Sherlock himself has hit franchise gold! This one contains a bit more “mysticism” than most of the others, which means they can really ramp up the special effects—and they are pretty mild-blowing. The always phenomenal Tilda Swinton costars, meaning that the movie is vastly improved just by adding her to the cast. The action moves pretty-much nonstop in this fine comic-book adaptation. (8)


THE ENTERTAINER (1960)—This acclaimed film, written by John Osborne (who based the screenplay on his hit play), tracks the failing career of Archie Rice, a B-list singer-dancer (played by Laurence Olivier) in a British seaside town. His father, stepmother, sons and daughter are also around to squabble with him and each other. This is one of those “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s that are gritty, squalid and depressing on every level. Well written and a genuine critical darling, but kind of a downer. (7)


LOVING (2016)—Dramatization of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that took the laws prohibiting interracial marriage off the books. A documentary about the case would probably have been more interesting than this slow-moving film about Richard and Mildred Loving of Virginia—as portrayed by Joel Edgerton, Richard Loving struck me as a maddeningly simple-minded oaf; his hobby seems to be staring off into space for hours at a time. I found the movie to be a total bore. (4)


ARRIVAL (2016)—Here’s another one of those movies everybody is raving about, but that we just found to be plodding, illogical and a genuine letdown. When mysterious spaceships appear, linguist Amy Adams tries to decipher their weird smoke-ring language to determine what it is these bizarre octopus-elephants want. Futuristic but slow-moving in a 2001 way, we’re finally given a “payoff” that doesn’t make much sense—just like 2001. Cool special effects, but it doesn’t really add up to much of anything, and it seemed more than a little like Contact. (5)


NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)—An Amy Adams double-header! Unfortunately, that’s not a great thing. In this film, Adams is given a manuscript to read by her ex-husband. It’s a terrifying and suspenseful thriller involving a kidnapped wife and daughter, and this story-within-a-story is really the best part of this movie. The “outer shell,” all about Adams, her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and matters involving her “real” life, are fairly dull. (6.5)


ALLIED (2016)—WWII drama with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard fighting the Nazis…or is she really a German spy? That was, as Joan correctly pointed out, the only question not answered by the film’s trailer, which we saw several times and which all but spoils the movie. We would have enjoyed this a lot more had we not seen the trailer. Not bad for what it is, and Cotillard is always worth staring at for any amount of time. (7.5)


THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)—James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons) produced this comedy-drama about a teenage girl (True Grit’s Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld) experiencing a wide range of personal and emotional problems—including bullying, her father’s death, unrequited love, intense sibling rivalry, an inability to connect with her peers and, ultimately, thoughts of suicide. The movie deftly and candidly shows the audience the error of her ways and allows us to empathize with her mistakes. Although it’s by no means perfect, first-time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig fills the script with enough humor and pathos to make for a thoroughly enjoyable film. Steinfeld is perfect, and Woody Harrelson is a gem as her patient teacher. The best movie I saw all month. (9)


HOW DO YOU KNOW? (2010)—Inspired by The Edge of Seventeen, I sought out this comedy written and directed by James L. Brooks, which received fairly poor notices upon its release and consequently dropped off my radar. But Reese Witherspoon is worth watching in anything, and this has the added bonus of being the last movie Jack Nicholson made before retiring. I have another connection with this film, which is that I got to ask Brooks a question about it, prior to its release, on CNN.com, and it was a huge thrill to be able to interact with this industry giant, howsoever remotely. Anyway, this is sort of a love-triangle rom-com; it isn’t great or anything, but it is sporadically engaging, has very nice performances across the board (including Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson as rival objects of Witherspoon’s affection). It did make me laugh out loud several times, and Reese is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous in this movie—you can’t take your eyes off her for a second, and you can’t help falling more and more in love with her. Nicholson's last film. (8)

Monday, November 07, 2016

October 2016

October climaxed with a six-night Carnival cruise to Mexico (on their Miracle ship). It was a Halloween cruise, and I celebrated by dressing up as a cowboy and performing Josh Turner and Brad Paisley songs at karaoke. I only saw three movies this month (although I walked out of a fourth, called Certain Women). TV: I started watching a new series, The Good Place, starring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell; it is quite amusing, which is not surprising, given that it’s from Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur. Books: I finished Sleep Tight (Rachel Abbott) on audio, but her latest thriller isn’t available for purchase in this country on audio! I have also been reading an old pulp novel called Don’t Crowd Me by Evan Hunter. Music: I’ve been drilling my 1976 playlist..to be continued in November.

Here are the movies I saw in October:


 DENIAL (2016)—Based on a real-life court case, this outstanding low-budget drama features Rachel Weisz as an author who is sued for libel by a notorious Holocaust denier (played by the great British actor Timothy Spall). Quite thought-provoking and absorbing—one of the year’s best. (9)


THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)—Although I noticed a few modifications to the original Paula Hawkins novel, which I read and greatly enjoyed about a year ago, the filmmakers have stuck pretty closely to the source material. Reviews were mixed, but the film version is quite enjoyable, with a stellar cast. For some reason they changed the setting from the UK to the USA, but at least Emily Blunt represents at least part of the Englishness of the story. Very good psychological suspense thriller. (8.5)


MOONLIGHT (2016)—Once every year or two, a film is released to universally positive acclaim, but it just strikes me as boring garbage. Recent examples include The Lobster and Beasts of the Southern Wild, both of which were absolute torture to sit through, and yet they earned rave reviews. Another was This Is Not a Film, a documentary that made me want to boycott the theater. (It currently holds a 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) This year’s sleep inducer is Moonlight, a movie that resembles Boyhood in that it’s a coming-of-age story tracking the life of a child as he grows into manhood. The boy in this case is Kevin, a shy, largely non-communicative black youth wrestling with his homosexuality. In the first two parts of the movie, he is bullied in elementary and then high school; in the last part, he’s an adult reconnecting with a classmate from Part 2. Both Joan and I found this movie excruciating to sit through—especially the interminable third section, which was devastatingly slow-moving and dull. Another debit: bafflingly, the three actors chosen to essay Kevin look utterly nothing like each other! However, I should mention that Naomie Harris was excellent as Kevin’s mother. (3)

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)