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)