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)