Tuesday, December 01, 2015

November 2015

In early November, I took a four-night Carnival cruise to Catalina Island (which I’ve never visited in my 20 years as a Los Angeleno) and Ensenada, Mexico. During the cruise, I binged-watched the first season of The Affair and began watching the current season afterwards. I also discovered the three-season British TV show The Street, which ran from 2006-2009 on the BBC. I also began to put feelers out for a new (used) car. Hopefully I’ll have a replacement set of wheels soon, as my 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee seems to be on its last legs. Here are the movies I saw:

CONTAINMENT (2015)—Not sure why I selected this apocalyptic sci-fi flick—possibly because it reminded me of 2011’s similarly titled Contagion, which is also about a mysterious epidemic that kills masses of people, and which I quite enjoyed. The plot of this (very) low-budget flick is that people in a large apartment building find themselves sealed in with no apparent way of escaping; they receive messages that help is on the way…but do the government medics plan to inoculate them or kill them? This is one of those “And then there were none” flicks—all of the major characters are bumped off in one fashion or another until practically nobody is left. Seen it all before. (5)

I SMILE BACK (2015)—I have always enjoyed books and movies (The Morning After, Requiem for a Dream) about addiction and dependency, so when one of my favorite performers, Sarah Silverman, was cast in an adaptation of Amy Koppelman’s novel about a housewife and mother of two who sinks into a pit of booze- and drug-fueled despair, I was stoked. The frosting on the cake: Her co-star is Josh Charles, formerly the star of my favorite TV series (Sports Night). Early reviews prepared me for a very somber, downbeat picture, and it’s nothing if not depressing. Here Silverman is the polar opposite of her hilarious standup persona—her character is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression, and she has some major daddy issues that are confronted in the course of the movie. It’s basically a tour-de-force for Silverman; if you like your drama as dark as night, this one might just be for you. (8)

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION (2015)—Poor reviews (11% on the Tomatometer) were enough to keep me away from this latest installment in the series that I have thoroughly enjoyed, at least until now. But Joan, who is loath to start something and not finish it, was curious to see how it all wound up (this is allegedly the final PA). Sure enough, this one is the least inspired—and least scary—of the bunch. (5)

CAROL (2015)—In this universally praised adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, well-to-do mother Cate Blanchette, who is going through a divorce, meets an attractive young sales clerk (Rooney Mara) at a Manhattan department store and begins having an affair with her. When the dalliance is discovered by Blanchette’s husband, he tries to use that as a way of gaining custody of the kids. This is a two-hour movie in which precious little happens; chopping 20 minutes out of the running time could improve it immeasurably. It’s one of those rare films that Joan liked more than I did (“It’s all about feelings!” she gushed). I could definitely have used a bit more action—a nice sex scene and a few heated arguments the female protagonists have with their respective male companions were memorable, but this mostly boring movie screams out for trimming. Sarah Paulson, remarkable as the conjoined twins on American Horror Story: Freak Show, has a small role as a former lover of Blanchette. Performances are first-rate throughout, especially the always magnetic Blanchette. Another debit: there was way, way too much smoking in the movie for me. I was impressed by Carter Burwell’s excellent musical score, which will surely be nominated for an Oscar. (6)

UNEXPECTED (2015)—The life of inner-city Chicago schoolteacher Samantha Abbott changes course dramatically when she discovers she is pregnant by her live-in boyfriend. (The film fails to explain how a woman as bright as Samantha could not know about, or at least use, birth control.) Simultaneously, Samantha learns that a very promising black student, Jasmine (Gail Bean) is also pregnant, and the two become fast friends as Samantha tries to encourage Jasmine not to give up on her dreams of college. This is a mild, gentle drama about Samantha, her lover (Anders Holm, the husband from The Intern) and her student, and the obstacles they all overcome. Sweet and mostly interesting, made all the more palatable by the fact that both Samantha and Jasmine are extremely very attractive. (8)

BROOKLYN (2015)—Irish author Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel becomes a film directed by John Crowley and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (An Education, About a Boy). It tells the story of plain-Jane Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who emigrates to the New York City from Ireland in the early 1950s to take a job in a Brooklyn department store. Although painfully shy and incredibly homesick at first, she gradually gains confidence, experience and a romance. The movie is generally engaging, although a trifle slow in spots, but we stick with it because we like Eilis a lot and want to see her succeed. Good acting, period setting, costumes, etc., in a very familiar emigration tale documented in countless other movies. Still, pretty good. (8)

SPOTLIGHT (2015)—Thought-provoking real-life drama about how reporters from the Boston Globe broke the story of Roman Catholic priests sexually abusing kids, and the cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese. Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams play the intrepid editors and reporters who work long and hard to get to the truth while the ever-powerful church does its best to bury the facts. Although it’s occasionally a bit draggy (reporting isn’t all that suspenseful), it’s still a riveting story of true journalism. (8)

Friday, November 20, 2015

October 2015

Despite being out of commission one week when I traveled to Lake Havasu and Las Vegas, I saw quite a few first-run movies in October. This was the month that I started watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and resumed my duties as Reading Partners tutor at John Muir Elementary School. On the music front, I “drilled and graded” new music by Janet Jackson, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez.
IRRATIONAL MAN (2015)—After learning that Woody Allen’s latest was one of his non-comedy “murder mystery” movies (i.e., Match Point), I totally lost interest—until Joan offered me a chance to see a free screening at Paramount with her. (I will see practically anything for free.) Since my expectations could not have been lower, I admit that I didn’t find the movie as worthless as I might have. Joaquin Phoenix is a college professor struggling with a personal crisis of purpose and identity when an opportunity to pull himself out of his funk presents itself. Beautiful Emma Stone lights up the screen whenever they point a camera at her, while my eye constantly goes to Phoenix’s weird lip scar whenever they show us his face. The murder part of the story won’t pass muster with even a passing fan of mysteries, since Phoenix leaves enough clues to sink a ship, but at least the movie isn’t too boring. More comedy, Woody! (7)
MIAMI CONNECTION (1987)—I was finally successful in luring Joan to accompany me to one of the RiffTrax screenings, during which they snark and mock awful movies from the past. This month’s offering was the dreadful Miami Connection, which involves a martial arts rock band battling a band of motorcycle ninjas. As usual, the commentary by Mike Nelson and his cohorts had me laughing hysterically. The movie earns a (1), while the riffing gets a (9).
THE INTERN (2015)—You can have Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Rebel Wilson—when it comes to film comedy, I will almost always choose intelligence over the lowbrow. I’m a fan of writer-director Nancy Meyer’s comedies for grownups, which include The Holiday, It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give. She casts the best actors around in the leads (Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton) and has a knack for letting other familiar actors shine in smaller roles. The Intern fits beautifully into Meyers’ canon; this time she’s got Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway to star in her latest film, and it doesn’t disappoint—it’s very warm and fuzzy, like having your belly rubbed for two straight hours. Hathaway is the head of a big, successful Internet company; DeNiro is her senior-citizen intern, and we watch them slowly bond from employer-employee to best friends. It’s funny, old-fashioned, charming and touching. It is a genuine pleasure to watch DeNiro act. He’s the greatest. (10)
THE MARTIAN (2015)—Director Ridley Scott has transformed Andy Weir’s marvelously informative, entertaining and exciting novel into an equally entertaining movie. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who is marooned on Mars and must learn to survive on the barren planet. Naturally, the filmmakers have to abridge some of the action for time’s sake (Watney doesn’t get to flip his rover, for example), but what’s left is still a grand-slam of science fiction. Damon is superb. (10)
HE NAMED ME MALALA (2015)—Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the face in 2012 by a Taliban gunman for having the audacity for wanting an education. I followed the story of her recovery and subsequent activism with some interest—she is a true modern-day hero and an inspiration to people all around the globe, including to me. Unfortunately, this documentary film about her life is a disjointed, non-linear jumble that throws a lot of stuff into the mix with very little organization. First of all, it assumes that the viewer knows everything about the incident going in—the filmmakers don’t even bother explaining what happened to her until about halfway through, which is preposterous. Worse yet, at least a third of the movie consists of boring animated footage intended to tell pieces of Malala’s backstory, and it practically put me to sleep. All of this is extremely unfortunate, because Malala is one of the few living people who could drag me to a theater to see a documentary. I’m bummed that it had to be this one. I did enjoy scenes of Malala in her home environment, giving speeches, etc.; they save the film from being a disaster. (6)
STEVE JOBS (2015)—Danny Boyle directed Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay about the late founder of the Apple computer company, and to say that certain liberties in the story were taken is a bit of an understatement. This is a dramatization of Jobs’s life consisting of conversations and confrontations that never occurred—all of them just prior to various product launches—so if you’re looking for an accurate depiction of the man, you’d probably be better off with Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, the documentary released a few weeks before this movie. On the bright side, Steve Jobs features excellent performances by Michael Fassbender (as Jobs), Kate Winslet as his long-suffering assistant Joanna, and Jeff Daniels as former Apple CEO John Sculley. The film is deftly assembled and at times even riveting—within, as I say, the boundaries of fiction. (8)
SICARIO (2015)—Emily Blunt is an Arizona law-enforcement specialst tapped by the FBI to help crack down on the Mexican drug trade. She answers to Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, whose roles and goals may not be exactly what they appear to be. The film has three or four very tense and violent scenes, but the rest of the movie is murky as we often appear to be just as in the dark as Blunt seems to be. The final scenes, which involve a “big reveal” of del Toro’s character, are the highlight of the movie—if only the rest of it had been as good. (7)
CRIMSON PEAK (2015)—I saw three movies in a row one Saturday, kicking off with the Benicio del Toro movie, and followed up by one written and directed by by Guillermo del Toro. (The two aren’t related.) Peak features a great beginning and an exciting conclusion, but the middle section tends to plod along. At the end of the 19th century, the daughter (Mia Wasikowska) of a businessman marries a mysterious suitor (Tom Hiddleston, the great villain of the Thor series) who whisks her to his huge, drafty mansion, where terrible things seem to be happening. Hubby also has a troubled sister (Jessica Chastain), and their sinister motives aren’t clear until the finale. It’s a very atmospheric and occasionally bewitching gothic chiller, but it just teases us for too long. (7)
BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)—Tom Hanks stars in Steven Spielberg’s real-life cold-war drama, about an attorney who defends a Russian spy…and eventually helps to negotiate a prisoner-of-war swap with the Kremlin. Although occasionally fascinating, at 141 minutes, it seems unnecessarily stretched out, as all three movies I saw on Saturday were. As usual, Hanks is excellent. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen; Alan Alda is seen fleetingly. (8)
EVEREST (2015)—I thought this real-life story of a bunch of folks to climb Mount Everest was going to be a tense, suspenseful and gripping saga, but it was more morose than anything. In 1996, a group of climbers head for the famous mountain’s peak, but extremely bad weather gets in the way, and a lot of them don’t make it. (One of folks on the expedition is Josh Brolin from Sicario.) I was excited to see Keira Knightley, but she plays the wife of one of the guys—her entire role consists of talking to people on the phone from her house. It’s a sad movie about people who take this whole “challenging the elements” deal to the limit, and pay the ultimate price for it. The movie will make you feel as uncomfortable as the climbers. (6)
ROOM (2015)—In the first half of the movie written by Emma Donoghue (based on her 2010 novel), the audience learns about a mother, Joy (Brie Larson) and her young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who have been held captive in some sicko’s garden shed for the boy’s entire life—in fact, he’s the product of her rape. She has told the child that nothing exists outside of their small habitat, and they are kept alive by the sicko, who brings them food and necessities in exchange for periodic rapes of the mother. When the kid turns five, Joy finally conceives of an escape plan, and the 15-minute (or so) part of the film where the plan is executed is by far the most interesting and compelling part, and one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in a movie. It should have ended right there. The second half of the movie is a dull mishmash that explores the aftermath of the escape, which forces the viewer to wonder if mom and son wouldn’t have been better off back in their “Room.” Despite my lukewarm reaction, Tremblay is excellent as Jack. (6)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

September 2015

In September, I finished binge-watching Justified (completing the final three of six seasons), which took a huge bite out of my movie-going activities. This was also the month that all of my current TV favorites came back on the air, which also lobbied for my entertainment time. My college friend David Kiser breezed into town, and the two of us enjoyed dinner at Genghis Cohen on Fairfax, followed by a Groundlings comedy show. At the end of the month, I flew up to San Jose to see a stagings of Sweet Charity, Fiorello! (which my friend Jay produced) and Broadway by the Decade: Songs of the 1930s (hosted by Jay). A very fun month—but only two movies. Hoping to make up for it in October.
BLACK MASS (2015)—To showcase the true story of Whitey Bulger, a mob boss and frequent murderer, Johnny Depp takes off the silly pirate costume and transforms himself into Bulger. Not only that, he’s actually acting again! How cool to see him giving a shit again after accepting so many insipid roles in garbage like The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the awful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He’s very good in this chilling tale of the sociopathic gangster and the FBI agent who tries to shield him from justice. (8)
THE VISIT (2015)—M. Night Shyamalan gets his umpteenth chance at a comeback, and tries to do so by tackling the “found footage” genre in this story of a couple of kids traveling to visit the grandparents they’ve never met before and encountering numerous troubling goings-on. There’s almost enough here to prevent this horror movie from becoming a total waste of time, although it’s extremely predictable and entirely too farfetched. Someday the Night man is going to give us another movie as thought-provoking and frightening as The Sixth Sense, but once again, this ain’t it. (6)

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

August 2015

August will be remembered as the month I tried to get my car fixed by Pep Boys, and ran afoul of the company's attempts to repeatedly defraud me. (The case in ongoing.) On the television front, I finished binge-watching American Horror Story (wrapping up the third-season's story arc, Coven) and started binging on Justified (completing three of six total seasons). Miraculously, I also got a chance to see a few movies:

SOUTHPAW (2015)—When Jake Gyllenhaal commits to a character, he goes all in. This time out, he plays a champion boxer who is challenged by competitor who is hungrier and fiercer. Sound familiar? It should. Though admittedly entertaining, Southpaw is a by-the-numbers boxing picture that gathers familiar tropes and cliches and shamelessly regurgitates them. Thankfully, Gyllenhaal is the kind of actor who can make this kind of standard boxing movie into something truly worthwhile. The always lovely Rachel McAdams costars. (9)

THE GIFT (2015)—Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall are a suburban couple menaced by a weirdo (Joel Edgerton) from his past in this Fatal Attraction-style thriller. What makes it slightly more Hitchcockian than other mystery movies is that writer/director/costar Edgerton throws the occasional twist into the tale. It may not make anybody’s “classic” list 10 years from now, but it does its job reasonably well. Bateman is outstanding, as always. (8)

ANT-MAN (2015)—The latest Marvel superhero franchise features Paul Rudd as a guy whose suit (invented by Michael Douglas) allows him to shrink down and rub elbows with the insect world. One or two of the Avengers characters make a cameo in a story that has to do with taking down a particularly insidious guy (Corey Stoll); like Iron Man, it’s one of the funniest entries in the Marvel canon, and scores greatly by not destroying major cities and jeopardizing the world’s population in the process, as tends to happen in most of these superhero flicks. Excellent popcorn entertainment. (9)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE—ROGUE NATION (2015)—Tom Cruise headlines the fifth big-screen outing in the franchise about missions that somehow always get completed despite their "impossibility." It’s a nonstop suspenser with plenty of action and adventure. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve seen it, and most of the plot details have evaporated from my mind…but like a roller-coaster ride, I do remember that it was great fun while it lasted! Rebecca Ferguson, as a mysterious agent who could either be good or evil, is a true standout, and she’s set to headline the film adaptation of a great book I read recently called The Girl on the Train. (10)

MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)—Greta Gerwig stars in the second movie to be written and directed by her boyfriend, Noah Baumbach. As with their previous effort, Frances Ha—and, let’s face it, every other movie she appears in—Gerwig plays a lovably daffy young woman with big dreams. Here she plays Brooke, a woman befriending and mentoring her future sister-in-law Tracy (Lola Kirke), and the film plays on their generational and personality differences against a hipsterish NYC backdrop. Brooke is positively bursting with ideas and goals and plans, and it’s a joy to watch Gerwig explore the character. There’s a fair amount of amusing and well-written dialogue as the film careens toward a climax that throws them in a house together with Brooke’s ex-boyfriend, his new wife, and several other people, and we watch Brooke’s dreams begin to unravel. The movie’s big problem is that no other characters come close to capturing even a fraction of the affection we feel for Brooke, and the film’s interminable final third tested my patience after a delightful and promising start. (The film sat on the shelf for a couple of years before finally being released.) Still, Gerwig continues to be a truly amazing performer, and I’m already excited to see her next movie, Maggie’s Plan, set to hit the film-festival circuit in September. (8)

DARK PLACES (2015)—Gillian Flynn’s suspenseful 2009 novel (published three years before her mega-hit Gone Girl) has been adapted into a so-so movie starring Charlize Theron as a woman haunted by her family’s massacre as a child. The movie is marred by awkward direction—Gilles Paquet-Brenner throws in questionable zoom shots that feel totally inappropriate. It’s not a bad thriller; just much less effective than the book—like Gone Girl. And, like Mistress America, this one gathered dust on the shelves prior to release. (7)

GRANDMA (2015)—Lily Tomlin is the grandma and Julia Garner is her pregnant granddaughter, whom she tries to help get an abortion while acting as a better role model than mom Marcia Gay Harden. When Tomlin’s on screen, the movie is wonderful; Harden is a bit of a caricature, and Garner just looks weird, with her unsightly curly hair and ever-present scowl. But Tomlin makes this family-oriented comedy-drama worth seeing. (8)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

July 2015

This month, I binge-watched the first two seasons of American Horror Story, having caught the fourth season live when it aired last year. The first season was a total bore, but things picked up magnificently in Season 2, dubbed Asylum. Meanwhile, my lunchtime breaks have been spent re-watching old Seinfeld episodes; they're just as funny the second time around. On the literature landscape, the audiobook of Finders Keepers, Stephen's King's sequel to last year's Mr. Mercedes, found its way onto my iPod, and I devoured it quickly and eagerly. I can scarcely wait for End of Watch, the third installment of the trilogy, due out next year.
Here are the movies I saw in July:

JURASSIC WORLD (2015)—Fourth entry in the Jurassic Park franchise is a sort-of reboot, since none of the performers from the earlier movies are around (many of them having been eaten) and the original theme park has long since been shuttered. In the new film, an all-new park called Jurassic World is gaining traction, but of course it’s only a matter of time—minutes, really—until the monsters get loose and it’s curtains for everybody. It’s astonishing, really, that nobody learned a lesson from the first movie, which Jurassic World is practically a remake of (dinosaur escapes from its cage and creates chaos, while evil humans with ulterior motives exacerbate the situation). All the ingredients are here: the suspense is ramped up by having some of the protagonists be kids; bad guys get their comeuppance; dinos fight each other and so on. The special effects are, as always, the main reason to see one of these movies—just turn off your brain and enjoy the amazing CGI. Casting Chris Pratt, fresh off his success with Guardians of the Galaxy, was the single shrewdest move the producers could possibly have made. (8)

BIG GAME (2015)—When Air Force One is shot down, the president (Samuel L. Jackson) crash-lands in Finland and hunted down by terrorists. Only a native boy hunter (Onni Tommila) can help save him. This is an outrageously preposterous adventure story, with a never-ending supply of plot holes and unimaginably ridiculous situations, but it zips right along and rarely drags. Some other respectable actors (Victor Garber, Felicity Huffman, Jim Broadbent) are slumming in this absurd action flick as well. Silly, escapist fun, full of comic-book violence and at times a bit campy. (7)

THE OVERNIGHT (2015)—A couple new to Los Angeles (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) meet some wealthy young neighbors (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) when their kids make friends at a local park. Dinner invitations follow for the two families, and then the creepiness starts being doled out: are the rich hipster friends looking to swing? And why is water-filtration magnate Schwartzman moonlighting as an artist who only paints people’s rectums (including his own)? The action largely unfolds as the four adults get increasingly drunk and high, and although much of the film gets by on a series of occasional cringeworthy jokes, the movie’s resolution is surprising and worth waiting for. Huge debit: Schwartzman and Scott skinny-dipping and dancing around with their schlongs flopping around—I had to remove my glasses so these scenes would be perceived in blissful blurriness. (7)

TANGERINE (2015)—Shot using iPhone 5s in West Hollywood, only a few miles from my house, this extremely low-budget movie traces a day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes—we get to know all about their johns, their jobs and their jollies. One of the gals, freshly sprung from the pokey, has an immediate goal: to hunt down the hooker who has been screwing her lover/pimp, drag her to him kicking and screaming, and generate some drama. For about three-quarters of the movie, the action shambles along at a leisurely pace, but things perk up considerably during the final showdown at Donut Time (located at Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave.). The movie, which tackles themes ranging from sex-trading to homophobia, is a mini-revelation, especially considering that the crew clearly didn't have two nickels to rub together. Moreover, the leads had no major acting experience, and the soundtrack seems to consist largely of classical and public-domain music. Directed by co-writer Sean Baker, with the multi-talented Shih-Ching Tsou pitching in as everything from producer and costume designer to acting as a cute but hapless donut slinger who has the cops on her speed-dial. As shoestring movies go, this is the dictionary definition of how to put one together. (9)

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2015)—Set in the mid 1970s, writer-director Maya Forbes’ film casts Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana as interracial Bostonian parents of two small girls. Early on, Ruffalo suffers a breakdown and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder; he then attempts to raise the kids while Saldana heads to Manhattan to study on a university scholarship for 14 months. The kids find his idiotic behavior annoying, and oh, so did I! The performances are fine, but the movie was a bit of a slog for me for two reasons. First of all, there’s practically no story in this movie—just a series of anecdotes showing how unfit Ruffalo is as a solo parent, and second, while I could barely tolerate Ruffalo’s often childish and embarrassing behavior, he chain-smokes through the entire film, and I just find that grotesque. (I grew up with dual chain-smoking parents, which has left me mentally scarred for life.) The film left me cold—I really wish there had been more story and no smoking. (5)

TRAINWRECK (2015)—Standup comedian-turned-TV-sketch-series star Amy Schumer now graduates to feature-film status with this comedy written by Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow. As usual, Apatow’s running time is unnecessarily bloated for a comedy (over 2 hours), especially for what is the merest wisp of an idea: Schumer plays a woman with the stereotypical characteristics of a slovenly male bachelor, i.e., interested only in drinking and one-night-stands. (Naturally, these values came from her pinheaded father.) So when Amy meets a nice, personable and eligible surgeon, she does everything she can to sabotage any chance of a long-term relationship. Will true love win out? What do you think? There are definitely some laughs in the film, but I found it extremely unlikely that Schumer’s boorish behavior would actually inspire Cupid’s arrows to shoot the surgeon (Bill Hader) as violently as they do. Also, after barely a couple of weeks, I have forgotten virtually every element of the movie. (7)

MR. HOLMES (2015)—This Sherlock Holmes story takes us to his twilight years, with lapses of memory and possible Alzheimer’s. Holmes (Ian McKellen), now 93, has long since hung up his deerstalker hat—actually, it’s established that he never really wore one—and is keeping bees in the countryside, his trusty housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son (Milo Parker) by his side. The film, in what can charitably be called a leisurely pace, concerns itself with Holmes’ struggle to remember the details of his last, unsolved case, as well as a secondary mini-mystery involving a Japanese man. (There’s another subplot involving the mystery of some dying bees in his hive.) This is a somewhat gentle movie that kept me absorbed despite its deliberately slow pace. (8)

Monday, July 06, 2015

June 2015

For two and a half weeks in June, I took up residence at the lovely Beverly Hills home of my friends the Newmans, who were vacationing in Europe. A change of scenery is always pleasant, and this one was a considerable upgrade from my studio apartment. Unfortunately, their shih-tzu, Mochi, is an uncommonly demanding animal that demands attention and love every second of every day, and by the time the Newmans came back home, I was deliriously happy to return to my dog-free sanctuary. June was also the month I binge-watched all three seasons of Orange is the New Black in about a week. It’s a fantastic comedy-drama about women in prison and filled with some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on TV.  Here are the movies I saw in June:

SAN ANDREAS (2015)—Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars in this throwback to 1970s disaster movies—specifically the 1974 Charlton Heston flick Earthquake. This incarnation doesn’t just double-down or triple-down on the chaos and destruction; there are so many related quakes (reaching from L.A. to San Francisco, along the same fault) and so much devastation that virtually no building is left standing in either city, and the death toll must be in the many millions. But on a more personal level, San Andreas wants us to be exclusively concerned about the welfare of a certain family, led by the Rock, his ex-wife and their daughter, along with some friends they make along the way. It’s all mindlessly entertaining, with special effects that truly stupefy the imagination. (8)

LOVE AND MERCY (2015)—Biopic about legendary Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson lurches back and forth between the 1960s and 1980s, with Paul Dano playing the younger Brian and John Cusack as the older version. Dano is a total ringer for the Pet Sounds-era singer-songwriter, and the scenes of him in the studio are pure magic. That could have been the whole movie and I'd have been happy. Unfortunately, John Cusack looks nothing like either Paul Dano or the older Brian Wilson, and the only real saving grace of the 1980s part of the story is staring at beautiful Elizabeth Banks, who is extremely easy on the eyes. Much of the movie plays like a Cliff’s Notes version of the story I am familiar with in much greater detail, and the scenes of the aging Wilson being treated by Dr. Eugene Landy are hilariously stilted, presenting only the Wilson side of the story and leaving out an entire film’s worth of relevant data. (I am certainly no fan of Landy, but he did get Brian healthy and making music again, and he provided therapy to scores of celebrities over the years. At the very least, must have had some amount of charm to be able to successfully attract so many famous clients—Paul Giamatti's role just requires him to be a complete and total asshole, and we never see how exactly Brian got ensnared in his web in the first place.) (7)

SPY (2015)—Rotund comic performer Melissa McCarthy goes from timid behind-the-scenes CIA worker to full-blown in-the-field operative in this zany sendup of James Bond-type action flicks. The movie has been populated with very talented people, but this was all a bit too full of fake suspense, gross-out punchlines and predictable plot twists for me to care about. Rose Byrne is very memorable as a delicate but foul-mouthed heiress. For me, the James Bond parodies peaked with Austin Powers. (6)

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (2015)—Here’s a comedy-drama for adults about exploring the possibilities of falling in love in one’s autumn years. Blythe Danner, still gorgeous at 72, plays cards with her buddies June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place, and enjoys her life as a widow…until she meets two extremely different men (Sam Elliott and Malin Akerman) and gets to know each. There’s not a tremendous amount of plot in this movie, but it succeeds on the charm of its sensitive screenplay and great performances. An unexpected delight. (9)

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (2015)—When pretty high-school girl Rachel (Olivia Cooke) gets cancer, a fellow student, Greg (Thomas Mann), visits her out of a family-fueled obligation, and a friendship develops. The first half or so of this teen drama, based on Jesse Andrews’ YA novel, is engaging enough, but our interest in the story gradually disintegrated along with Rachel’s health, as the focus stayed firmly on self-obsessed Greg and not enough on Rachel. (The movie would have been better off focusing on Earl, the third part of this not-so-gleesome threesome.) Greg’s voice-over narration in particular becomes tiresome; the engaging comedic talents of Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation are almost totally squandered in a one-joke role, and former Saturday Night Live cast member Molly Shannon has the misfortunate of playing Rachel’s mom as an absurd and vaguely creepy woman, more like one of her characters on SNL than as a concerned parent. (5)

INSIDE OUT (2015)—Although I consider The Incredibles, WALL-E and the Toy Story franchise to be among the very best animated movies ever made, Pixar’s output has been extremely hit-or-miss for me (I was particularly unenthused by Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo). The latest Disney/Pixar collaboration, Inside Out, has received such unanimously positive reviews that I thought for sure this was going to be one of the good ones. Unfortunately, while the film begins and ends strongly, the entire middle half is relentlessly downbeat, sad and cataclysmic, and often resembles a patchwork of everything I disliked about Monsters and Nemo. The movie is about Riley, a little girl who is uprooted from her beloved Minnesota neighborhood and forced to move to San Francisco. Her raw emotions are depicted literally by characters called Joy, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Fear (as if those are the only feelings people have), which live in her brain and pull all of her emotional strings. Riley’s mind is a phantasmagorical cross between a control room, storage facility and otherworldly theme park, full of ideas and crazy concoctions that never really quite worked for me. Bewilderingly, Riley’s psychological crisis makes for a movie that is bound to confuse and confound young kids who might otherwise take a shine to the cute Bing Bong character (Riley’s all-but-forgotten imaginary friend) but have no idea what’s going on—at times I really wasn’t sure what was going on. On a positive note, all of the voice characterizations, including Amy Poehler and Joy, Bill Hader as Fear and Lewis Black practically stealing the film as Anger, are top-notch. Not one of Pixar’s best, but infinitely better than Cars. (7)

TED 2 (2015)—Family Guy creator Seth McFarland’s sequel to his 2012 talking-teddy-bear movie delivers more of the same kind of laughs (and some of the same plot points), jettisoning Mila Kunis’s character in favor of a new love interest played by Amanda Seyfried. I have to admit I laughed out loud frequently at this, especially at a cameo featuring Liam Neeson. (8)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

May 2015

Highlights of this month included the creation of a work-related vlog and a trip to San Jose to see Jay Steele's production of Hairspray. I haven't settled on binge-watching a specific TV series at this time, but still shopping around. Here are the films I saw in May:

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)—The latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famous 1874 novel (published less than a decade after Lincoln was assassinated) features Carey Mulligan as the strong, independent farm woman who is courted by three different men over the course of a year or two. Although chunks of Hardy’s novel have reportedly been truncated, it’s still a beautifully filmed and totally absorbing drama. (9)

WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)—In the first of two consecutively viewed movies starring Ryan Reynolds, this one is the better and more rewarding—but it contains the inferior performance by Reynolds. Woman in Gold tells the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee from Austria whose family paintings were stolen by the Nazis in WWII and are now illegally owned by the Austrian government. Reynolds is an inexperienced attorney who sues Austria on her behalf in an attempt to return them to her. It’s an absorbing and sometimes even suspenseful film that uses flashbacks to maximum effect; the end is enormously moving. Film’s only debit is a wooden performance by Reynolds. (9)

THE VOICES (2015)—This is quite a 180-degree turn for Ryan Reynolds, who is in much better form playing an emotionally disturbed guy who, off his medications, can transform from shy charmer to murderous psychopath. The voices in his head are embodied by his real pets, a cat and a dog, who order him to commit his horrible deeds. The movie was described by one critic as a cross between Psycho, Dexter and Dr. Doolittle. Macabre but very entertaining. (8)

THE AGE OF ADELINE (2015)—This was recommended by my mother Tina, who had wisely touted Woman in Gold as a must-see. In a rare turn of events, Joan and I were split on Adeline (she liked it much more than I did). As Connie Ogle observed in her review, this creaky fable about how usually fatal contrivances serve to turn a woman immortal is filled with so many preposterous (and dumb) plot devices that it had me squirming in my seat for two hours while being bombarded by characters behaving moronically and illogically. Harrison Ford makes a very welcome appearance, along with Kathy Baker, but it’s not enough to save the picture. Includes some voice-over narration that, especially at the unbelievably predictable ending, is so heavy-handed and cringeworthy that it made me laugh out loud. (If you remember the old TV show conceit about a guy who suffers amnesia by getting hit on the head, only to be cured of it by getting hit on the head again, this is that TV show all over again.) At least the movie wasn’t boring. (6)

THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)—I have been overlooking the classics lately, so I opened the vaults first to a pair of John Steinbeck adaptations that have always prickled my interest. The first was this famous Henry Fonda movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published only a year before this was made. The film deals with the struggles of a family during the Great Depression; they lose their Oklahoma farm and head to California looking for crop-picking work and find only corruption, destitution, car trouble and hunger at every turn. It is an incredibly sad and depressing—but highly educational—experience. While it’s difficult to say you really “enjoy” such a profound downer, there’s no denying the power and effectiveness in this narrative. (8)

EAST OF EDEN (1955)—Where Grapes of Wrath was presented in stark, morose black and white, this second Steinbeck offering is distinguished by having been filmed in brilliant, colorful CinemaScope. It’s another California saga, based on Steinbeck’s novel from three years earlier. Directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden chronicles only a fragment of the novel’s sweeping story, ignoring the first half completely and focusing on the character of Caleb Trask and his family. (A lot of “mature themes” were watered down for this movie.) Cal is played by James Dean in his starring film debut—it was the only one of his three movies released during his lifetime. This is the second of his movies that I have seen, the first being Rebel Without a Cause, which I disliked. Dean does his brooding, troubled-teen bit here again, and it strikes me that playing this kind of character was likely the only one in his bag of tricks. Despite his annoying performance (he often behaves in an unrealistic and cartoonish manner), the movie is watchable enough, settling for a love story and brother vs. brother plot. One of my gripes about this film is that a great deal of the dialogue was obviously re-dubbed in the studio, and very poorly. I would greatly love to see a longer version of this book done as a protracted miniseries, with more of Steinbeck’s rich backstory intact. (7)

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)—Despite loving writer-director Joss Whedon and all three of the Iron Man movies, the first Avengers film left me cold. I’d hoped that Whedon could muster up a bit more excitement with the sequel, and for the most part, it’s an OK popcorn movie; it contained way too many fight scenes where entire cities are decimated and thousands of innocent citizens are almost certainly annihilated. (James Spader does a terrific job voicing the artificially intelligent evil robot villain, Ultron.) At this point, I need to confess that my viewing of the second Avengers was one of the most fun and memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, as it happened to take place at the AMC dine-in theater in Marina Del Rey—a daytime excursion that saw only two other patrons, an incredibly comfy reclining chair, outstanding wait service and mouth-watering Brett-type food (buffalo wings, spicy shrimp poppers, burgers, etc.). The movie itself was very low on the list of enjoyable items, but you can’t have everything. My rating reflects only the film—the theater gets a perfect 10. (7)

THE LIVING (2015)—Tense, occasionally gripping movie about a young man hiring a hit man to bump off his brother-in-law is saddled with a predictable and unsatisfying ending. But the movie features some good performances by its largely no-name cast; veteran character actor Chris Mulkey (Hank from Twin Peaks) plays one scary, sociopathic sumbitch. (7)

OUTRAGE! (1986)—Lately I have had a hankering to watch some of the many TV movies in my archive; this one was purchased as a VHS copy through eBay. It stars Robert "The Music Man” Preston in his very last role, as the father of a girl raped and murdered by a man who has confessed to the crime—and is released on a stupid technicality. Beau Bridges is given the task of defending Preston in court. It’s a TV movie all the way, but reasonably well-done, and it features pretty Linda Purl and Burgess “The Penguin” Meredith as a grizzled judge (the movie was released the same year as the original Rocky, in which Meredith played manager Mickey. (8)

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)—Two Burgess Meredith films in a row! This mid-Seventies horror flick has such a great cast, including Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis and Meredith, whose appearance is essentially a cameo, so I was curious about the movie despite its so-so reputation. I was really stupefied by how many plot details echoed The Shining, released four years after this: A guy takes his wife and kid to take care of a new residence much larger than their previous one; then he becomes increasingly delusional as he is haunted by a procession of ghosts. It even ends the same way, with his photo prominently displayed in the place after his gruesome death. Hell, The Shining is practically a remake of this (although admittedly far superior). This one dragged a bit and didn’t have nearly as much suspense. It’s always fun to watch Karen Black and Burgess Meredith, though. (6)