Tuesday, July 05, 2016

June 2016

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

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

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

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

Here are the movies I saw in June:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2016

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

Here are the movies I saw this month:

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

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

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

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

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

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