Friday, May 08, 2015

April 2015

Having finally finished watching (or, in many cases, re-watching) the full runs of Frasier and Kids in the Hall, I got the opportunity to view the latest season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which—as usual—was crude but laugh-out-loud funny. I finally got my apartment nice and clean, and have worked hard to keep it that way. In book news, this was the month I finished "reading" (via audiobook) John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee mysteries. What a ride!

In movie news, here's what I saw:

IT FOLLOWS (2015)—Yet another in the endless procession of horror movies that somehow accrue an impressive number of positive reviews, only to leave me rather cold. A young woman is tracked by a ghost. Boo! There are a couple of tense moments, but overall, I found this mostly forgettable. (5)

HOME (2015)—Three of my favorite performers—Jim Parsons, Steve Martin and Rihanna—lend their voices to this animated science-fiction comedy adventure from Dreamworks. It's a lark, and contains some thematic elements that actually supply both kids and adults with something to think about. Excellent soundtrack features songs by Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez (which I had "drilled" prior to our screening).

ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975)—I don't normally include repeat viewings of movies in my blog, but in the case of films I saw as a kid, I think they're OK to blog about. In the case of this Disney sci-fi actioner, practically the only thing I distinctly remember is that I really enjoyed it, and that there were some decent special effects in it. Forty years later, many of the FX are embarrassingly dated, although some of them hold up pretty well. And it's still a cool escapist fantasy, involving a pair of orphaned siblings with special powers who are struggling to understand their place in the universe. Ray Milland and Donald Pleasance are good heavies, and Eddie Albert is a terrific protagonist who helps the children. (9)

RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1978)—My re-viewing of Escape to Witch Mountain was, in large part, an excuse to watch the sequel, which I'd missed during my high-school years. None of the adults from the first outing return; new baddies include Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. It's a similar formula, although this time around, the brother and sister are separated for most of the movie. Still, it kept me interested and absorbed. (9)

CHAPPIE (2015)—The trailer for this "robot with feelings" sci-fi flick was great, and it's from the director of the excellent District 9 (from 2009). Alas, the movie is a mess, with a lot of unnecessary violence and a weak plot. Good FX can't save this downer. (5)

McFARLAND USA (2015)—Having greatly enjoyed the last two Kevin Costner movies (Draft Day and Black or White), I hoped he'd continue on his roll, and he does not disappoint. Like Draft Day, this is a sports-centric story, but based on true events. High-school coach Jim White, heading up a hopeless football team made up largely of Mexican boys, notices that they are all great runners, so he sets out to organize a track team instead. This was precisely the movie I wanted it to be, executed just the way I'd hoped. This was a Walt Disney production, directed by Niki Caro. (9)

FUN AND FANCY FREE (1947)—Well, after three excellent Disney movies in a row, I was bound to hit a wall. This early animated effort is one of several released by Walt that consisted of stitched-together shorts; this one contains the occasionally amusing but tragically overlong story of Bongo the bear (based on a Sinclair Lewis story) that features songs by Dinah Shore and seems to go on forever. The second half is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk called Mickey and the Beanstalk, featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. It's really for very small kids. This second segment also includes interruptions by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppets; though blessed with a gift for voice characterizations, Bergen must be the worst ventriloquist I've ever seen. The musical segments in this film are godawful and boring. (5)

MATCH (2015)—Patrick Stewart, the memorably gallant captain of the Starship Enterprise from The Next Generation, plays a ballet instructor at Juilliard who is interviewed by a married couple, ostensibly for the woman's dissertation. However, their motives for quizzing Stewart are quite different than they initially let on. Based on Stephen Belber's 2004 play, this is a three-character drama with some interesting surprises and twists, succeeding largely on the performances of its stars, particularly Stewart. (8)

EX MACHINA (2015)—Like the previous movie, this science-fiction film consists almost entirely of three characters; like Chappie, it's about a robot with artificial intelligence. Unlike Chappie, though, this movie is more shrewdly assembled and thought-provoking. An extremely wealthy software magnate (Oscar Isaac) invites a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to tour his private lab, at which he has invented a sexy female android with artificial intelligence. Naturally, there would be no need for a movie if this scenario were conflict-free, and the problems that arise are the stuff of intelligent sci-fi—although nothing we haven't seen before, Dave. I had a number of minor objections to writer-director Alex Garland's plot, but it did keep my interest throughout. (8)

FAULTS (2015)—I was intrigued by the trailer of this black comedy about a man (Leland Orser) who "deprograms" brainwashed cult followers—including his latest challenge, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whom he kidnaps and takes to a hotel room at the behest of her parents. Although much of it is interesting, I was let down by final last quarter—particularly the twist ending, which I found a tad confusing. (6)

UNFRIENDED (2015)—This horror movie unfolds entirely on a laptop computer, where a group of kids text, Skype and message each other. Then they start receiving transmissions from the ghost of a girl they were each responsible for driving to suicide the year before. This could be called I Know What You Did Online Last Summer. This season of Modern Family pulled off a very similarly structured episode to great comedic effect; this movie does the same thing, but for horror. And quite decently, too. (8)

IDENTITY (2003)—A terrific cast—including John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet and John C. McGinley (of Scrubs fame)—find themselves holed up in a motel during a terrible storm...while being stalked by a serial killer. This one has a few twists that you'll never see coming. Tense, Hitchcockian fun. (9)

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964)—Although this is supposedly a sequel to my all-time favorite movie (Village of the Damned), I've never had the patience to sit all the way through the follow-up. Now that I have finally forced myself to watch the film in its entirety, everything about it continues to confound me. Although it does contain a number of conceits that tie it to the original—strange kids with glowing eyes and a title with the words the Damned—it really has nothing to do with the original story. It is, in fact, a completely different tale with a vaguely similar theme, and no mention at all is made to the events of the original Damned. In the first film, a dozen blond children who all look the same are born to mothers who have become mysteriously pregnant via unknown alien forces. As the children age, they develop powers of telepathy and mind control; as their sinister motives become more focused, it becomes clear that humankind's survival depends on their annihilation. In the second film, six super-intelligent kids of varying races are brought together for examination; they look nothing alike. However, as in the first movie, it is implied that at least one of them has no biological father. It is further revealed that the children (who annoyingly remain silent for most of the movie) also have the powers of telepathy and mind control, and they use their powers to kill humans. At some point, the movie bizarrely decides to switch tactics and adopt the peculiar perspective that man is the true enemy, that the kids are actually a sudden leap in man's own evolution and not, as in the first movie, aliens from another planet. Our ultimate extermination of this second crop of children turns out to be an accident—the filmmakers making some sort of antiwar statement regarding the dangers of bombs and weapons (I guess). The story tries to play it both ways, and it just doesn't work. At least the first film made it clear who the good guys were, and who the bad guys were. (5)