Monday, July 31, 2017

July 2017

July was quite a movie month! In addition to an even dozen films seen in theaters, I caught a couple of classic old movies on my iPad. Major events occurring this month included house-sitting for the Newman family—where I was continually losing my car keys, my wallet and even my aforementioned iPad. Fortunately, I found everything, but for a while, I felt like I was losing my mind. I’ve also started feeling moments of dizziness, which I should probably tell my doctor about. We’ve been having a record heatwave in July, so I’ve had to keep the A/C cranked to maximum capacity. TV: Merf and I simultaneously binged on This Is Us, a family drama starring Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore. Otherwise, I mostly paid attention to movies. BOOKS: The latest volume (#22) of collected Dick Tracy comic strips arrived in my mailbox this month; they’re up to 1965. I had fun reading that. I also finished listening to Al Franken’s audiobook, Giant of the Senate—it was informative, entertaining and hilarious! MUSIC: Although Randy Newman’s album Dark Matter officially comes out next month, NPR has been streaming it online, so I’ve been enjoying that. LOOKING FORWARD: In early August, I’m supposed to travel to Michigan City, IN, for a boat race, with a side trip to visit Merf. We’ll also see the first film based on Stephen King’s series of Dark Tower books, as well as a TV version of his great novel Mr. Mercedes. 
Here are the movies I saw in July:

THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)—Often uproarious 14th Century sex farce about a group of nuns whose world changes when an attractive young servant (Dave Franco) takes up residence in their convent. Full of blasphemous jokes, and the cast is loaded with hilarious TV actors—Nick Offerman, Paul Reiser, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Adam Palley and, from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shannon and Fred Armisen. (9)

THE BEGUILED (2017)—Remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film casts hot Nicole Kidman in the role previously essayed by scowling, unattractive Geraldine Page as the head of a Civil War-era boarding school. Actually, most of the female characters are recast by much more attractive actresses, although drop-dead gorgeous Jo Ann Harris is replaced by drop-dead gorgeous Elle Fanning. (14-year-old Oona Laurence, so impressive in Southpaw, Lamb and I Smile Back, continues to steal practically every scene she’s in.) Directed by Sofia Coppola, this new version of the story is very faithful to the original film and very entertaining. (9)

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)—Absorbing character study pits spiritual healer and massage therapist Salma Hayek against a Trump-like land developer (John Lithgow) when they are both invited to the same dinner party. Inevitably, the bleeding heart liberal clashes with the hawkish Republican when he boasts of killing a rhino (via a cell-phone photo, which he gleefully shares with his fellow guests). The dinner contains some high drama and awkward humor; sadly, the movie’s ending falls totally flat. Too bad—what preceded it was very entertaining. (8)

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)—Final installment of the excellent reboot trilogy—which has been not only more plausible than the original but with far better special effects—is about 20 minutes too long. It’s much more of a generic war movie, with one of the two warring factions only incidentally being talking apes. Still, it’s an engaging “guy movie,” just a little overlong. And I feel like the writer of the film score really hit us over the head with the repeating 12-note theme, played incessantly throughout the movie. But I enjoyed the little “easter egg” references to the original trilogy, i.e., how the female character in this one gets the name Nova, and how the orangutan character is named Maurice (after Maurice Evans, who played the 1970s chapters). (8)

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)—I have never been interested in Spider-Man as a superhero; thus, I have never seen one of his movies. But Marvel rebooted his story in the last Captain America movie, which I liked. So I was tempted to give this movie a try—especially since reviews were so good, and because my favorite superhero, Iron Man, makes some appearances. Michael “Birdman” Keaton once again gets a bird-centric role, but this time he’s the evil Hawk instead of a superhero role. The movie is fun and briskly entertaining, and the best parts belong to Robert Downey Jr., whose Iron Man is his definitive lifetime role. (8)

THE HERO (2017)—Here’s a low-key drama featuring two of my favorite actors, Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon (the latter a regular on Orange Is the New Black). Elliott plays an aging actor who is being honored with a lifetime achievement award; he has just learned he’s got cancer, and so his struggling to face his mortality. There’s a bit of romance and family melodrama, as he tries to repair his fractured relationship with daughter Krysten Ritter (Jane of Breaking Bad). An absorbing character study, very well done, and the acting is predictably outstanding. Featuring Sam Elliott’s real wife, Katharine Ross. (9)

BABY DRIVER (2017)—WOW! Here’s the summer’s best thrill ride, a nonstop action movie starring the weirdly named Ansel Elgort as a kid working as a getaway driver for the evil but magnetic Kevin Spacey, along with bank robbers Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza González. While working off some kind of debt to Spacey, Elgort falls for waitress Lily James (“Cinderella”). The movie is pure fun, and I’ve never seen a film whose soundtrack is so perfectly in tune with the action on the screen. Stylish direction from Edgar Wright keeps things lively and engaging (although, at times, the action is wildly implausible). Even the outstanding reviews could not have prepared me for how much fun this was. Paul Williams has a small but memorable role. (10)

A GHOST STORY (2017)—It’s kind of funny that I saw this movie directly after Baby Driver. It’s like going on a rollercoaster, and then immediately having to sit in detention for two hours. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are a married couple, but Affleck dies very early on and becomes a ghost—not the Patrick Swayze kind, but a guy in a Halloween-style sheet with black holes where the eyes should be. He basically haunts the house, even after his widowed wife moves out and other families move in. Mostly the spirit silently observes, but occasionally he can throw a poltergeist-type fit, tossing dinner plates around or spooking the kids. This is a movie full of long static shots where nothing happens—if Rooney Mara needs to pull an old chest to the sidewalk for trash delivery, you see her struggled across the whole lawn, walk all the way back to the house, and then the audience sees a two-minute static shot of the house Rooney Mara has just re-entered. There’s a lot of these sequences: Rooney Mara eating an entire pie, Rooney Mara washing the dishes, etc., all while the ghost stands there watching her. It’s maddeningly boring, and it all comes to very little. The most mysterious thing about this movie is why I sat through the entire thing! (3)

THE HANGING TREE (1959)—Author Dorothy M. Johnson’s Western stories “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “A Man Called Horse” were made into successful films in 1962 and 1970, respectively. Before either of those, her story “The Hanging Tree” became this film, starring Gary Cooper as a doctor in the 1860s who sets up shop during the gold rush. Karl Malden plays a Michael J. Pollard-style creep, and Maria Schell is a gorgeous immigrant whom Cooper nurses back to health after her covered wagon is attacked by thieves. It’s an old-fashioned Technicolor movie that earns the phrase, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.” Would be great to see this on the big screen, but my iPad got the job done. (9)

LANDLINE (2017)—Comedy-drama featuring Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn as sisters of parents Edie Falco and John Turturro, each with his or her various professional and romantic problems. The main subject here is infidelity, with dad and older sister each cheating on their respective main squeezes. The upside is the story of how the sisters slowly bond after sniping at each other, sibling-rivalry style. The downside is that there are too few characters to like here—there seemed like enough smoking, drug use, cheating and puking for two or three movies, and although this was supposed to be a comedy, I don’t think I laughed once. The first third is very rough going, but it does gradually improve. (7)

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)—This is sort of a half-Western, half-suspense thriller starring the great Spencer Tracy. He plays a mysterious one-armed guy who arrives in a tiny town in the Southwest, and the handful of people there are extremely suspicious of his agenda. Everybody in the movie has a secret, and practically everybody except Tracy is a bad guy—including Dean Jagger, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. Very tense at times; unfolds at its own pace, but totally absorbing. (9)

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)—Who is the most beautiful woman in the world: actress-model Cara Delevingne or actress-model-singer Rihanna? I can’t be sure, but I sure didn’t mind wrestling with the question during this 2 hr. 20 min. sci-fi fantasy epic, which features both women. (Let’s just agree that Cara is the hottest white woman; Rihanna is the hottest black woman.) No, this is not a great movie. It needs to be trimmed a bit, and it’s something of a mess. It steals from everywhere (Avatar, Star Wars, Blade Runner) while retaining its comic-book pedigree (it’s based on the popular Euro-comic Valerian and Laureline). But visually, Valerian is a dazzling feast for the eyes—the expensive CGI and special effects are in every frame, and it’s a work of art. It must have cost $100 billion to make. And speaking of works of art, Rihanna’s brief role is simply amazing. Anyway, my expectations had been dialed way down, since this film is a bonafide box-office bomb, but it’s perfectly fine if you accept it as a space opera with some allegorical lessons for modern politics and some incredible eye candy. This did not deserve to be the summer’s biggest bomb—I think I’d actually like to see this again! (8)

DUNKIRK (2017)—Director Christopher Nolan does a great job of "putting you on that beach," as one critic put it. He conveys the sense of dread, horror, fear and hopelessness as soldiers stand like sitting ducks on the beach. But I guess I must not be a war movie fan. I prefer to have stories and character development along with my conflict, and Dunkirk contains precious little of that. Almost the entire movie consists of:
1. Pilots in planes chasing other planes, shooting at them and crashing them into the sea.
2. Terrified British soldiers ducking as bombs and artillery burst around them.
3. People in pleasure boats frantically trying to rescue humans stranded in the water.
There is a wisp of a genuine human drama involving a kid in a boat vs. a shell-shocked soldier. For me, that was the most interesting part of the film. If you want to know what it was like being at Dunkirk during the war, you won't be disappointed. As another critic wrote: “Too much spectacle and not nearly enough humanism—a truly special effect that money cannot buy. It's the equivalent of dry, stale bread.” (6)

BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)—Kyle Mooney, the nerdy guy from Saturday Night Live, plays nerdy James Pope, a kid living in an underground bunker with adults he thinks are his parents, but who kidnapped him as a child. Like Jack in Room, or the title character in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, James doesn’t really know much about the outside world. His “parents” (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) have created a myth about an apocalypse and poisoned air to keep him shielded from society. Fake Dad has also created an insipid TV series just for him called Brigsby Bear that he’s the ultimate fan of—strictly speaking, the only fan of. And suddenly, cops descend on the bunker, the fake parents are arrested and James is reunited with his real parents. Only…now what? The new parents have to deal with James’s off-the-charts fanboy obsession with the home-brew fantasy TV show (there are 700+ episodes—all on VHS!). Should they encourage his obsession of filming a sequel, or encourage a psychiatrist (Claire Danes, who’s in the movie for about three minutes) to wean him off it? Assuming you can overlook an alarmingly high number of unlikely and/or ridiculous plot elements, it’s a sweet movie about the nature of creativity. Greg Kinnear has a nice part. (8)

Saturday, July 01, 2017

June 2017

This was a comparatively busy month for me. On 6/3, I flew to San Jose to see South Bay Musical Theatre’s productions of Chess in Concert and My Fair Lady, the latter starring the famous Jay Steele. Together we watched nearly a full season of The Great Australian Bake Off. Meanwhile, Joan and I saw Henry Phillips perform at the Improv on 6/10, where he sang “The Things in My Car,” an older song we’d never heard before.
I have not had a lucid dream since the early 1990s, but I had one on 6/15. I became aware I was dreaming during the dream, which is an exceptionally rare occurrence. But on the following night, I had an elaborately plotted dream about babysitting a very tiny fifth daughter of Cindy Newman’s who was named Faith.
After returning from a trip to Asia, Cindy invited me to join her, daughter Emma and Emma’s friend Julia for a day trip to Knotts Berry Farm on 6/22. Julia and I rode on some fun roller-coasters, while Cindy and I went on the baby rides. We all dined at TGI Friday’s for lunch. A spectacularly fun day!
On 6/24, I joined Joan for a reunion of the Dr. Demento radio show crew at The Smoke House in Burbank. A few days later, I joined a smaller version of the group at Paramount, which was attended by John “Bermuda” Schwartz of Weird Al Yankovic’s band.
Cindy and her family flew to Orlando at the end of June, so I spent a few days dog- and house-sitting for her in Beverly Hills.
BOOKS: I burned through The Grownup (Gillian Flynn), Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King and Richard Chizmar) and am currently approaching the end of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, which is a hugely entertaining account of Franken’s time as a performer on Saturday Night Live, and later as a Senator. I am enjoying it so much that I purchased an earlier Franken book called The Truth. I have also been working the puzzles in a bunch of Jumble books.
TV: The regular TV season is officially over, and even two of my favorite cable shows (Better Call Saul and Fargo) have also drawn to a close for the year.
Here are the movies I saw in June:

AN INSPECTOR CALLS (2015)—As a fan of mystery/suspense thrillers, I was naturally curious to check out the famous J.B. Priestley play. A film version starring the great Alastair Sim was made in 1954, but I chose to watch the 2015 BBC film because of another great actor: David Thewlis, who has been greatly entertaining as the sleazy villain in this year’s season of Fargo. Here he plays a mysterious inspector who interrupts a family’s dinner and accuses each one of driving a young woman to suicide. It’s filled with a host of rather uncanny coincidences, the but acting is fine and it was worth a look—even if the material seems a trifle overrated. (8)

RIFFTRAX SUMMER SHORTS BEACH PARTY (2017)—Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett—the performers of RiffTrax—were joined by numerous guest stars (including Trace “Dr. Forrester” Beaulieu and comedian Paul F. Tompkins) to make fun of various old short films from the 1950s and 1960s in a live Fandango theater broadcast. (Among the shorts: Rhythmic Ball Skills, Ricky Raccoon Shows the Way and The Griper.) I have attended many of these and always laugh harder than during any “regular” comedy film. (10)

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)—Richard Matheson’s classic horror novel became this film starring Roddy McDowell and Pamela Franklin. Despite being fans of all these folks, I have never seen this ghost-story movie. True to my suspicions, it’s really not that great, which is why it doesn’t seem to have a “classic” reputation. But at least I finally scratched that itch. The poster is scarier than the movie! (6)

WONDER WOMAN (2017)—What a cool surprise! I enjoy some of the Marvel comic-book hero movies (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange), but have never cared much for the DC hero movies and characters (Batman, Superman, etc.). That includes Wonder Woman, whose 1970s TV show I never watched. But this new series, starring Israeli actress/supermodel Gal Gadot, is a masterpiece of girl-empowerment excitement. Physically, Gadot is a dead ringer for Lynda Carter, the most famous Wonder Woman of TV, but this time she’s surrounded by great writing, excellent acting and first-rate special effects. Takes place during WWI, but the modern-day tag suggests the sequel will be set during the 2010s. Actually, WW will appear in The Justice League movie later this year, but I’m more interested in the standalone sequel. (9)

THE BOOK OF HENRY (2017)—I had been looking forward to this movie since last year, when I got wind that Sarah Silverman (a favorite comedian) would be appearing in it. In fact, her part turns out to be quite small. This is a movie about a gifted boy (Jacob Tremblay) whose single mom (Naomi Watts) is a waitress and almost completely dependent on her son to handle the finances and other things that require intelligence. Then the kid gets sick. Before he dies, he hatches a plan for Watts to murder the jerk next door (Dean Norris), who is apparently molesting his stepdaughter. Watts is always fun to watch; the movie is generally interesting, but it’s a bit farfetched and little more than a diversion. (7)

MAUDIE (2017)—Sally Hawkins, whom I have enjoyed in several movies (including An Education, Blue Jasmine and Made in Dagenham), turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Canadian artist Maud Lewis, a timid arthritic woman who is hired by a fish peddler (Ethan Hawke) to keep his microscopic house clean. They marry and we see their modest lives unfold. It’s a very low-key but still very moving story. (9)

THE BIG SICK (2017)—Wow! Second cool surprise of the month. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani (from TV’s Silicon Valley) writes and stars in this autobiographical comedy/drama, in which he chronicles his romance with Emily (Zoe Kazan). When she falls ill, Nanjiana bonds with her parents (Ray Romano an Holly Hunter). It’s a simple story with a huge heart and a lot of great comedy. Every performance in this film is superb, and the blending of comedy, drama and romance really took me by surprise. So far, this is the surprise hit of the year. I have previously enjoyed Kazan in Ruby Sparks, In Your Eyes, It’s Complicated and Me and Orson Welles. (10)

ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR (1985)—Perhaps not a movie in the strictest sense, but this TV adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 comedy is certainly movie length, so I’m including it here. This version features familiar faces like Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers) and Geoffrey Palmer (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) and takes place on three consecutive Christmas Eves in three different kitchens. It’s a riotously funny evening of comedy! (10)

OKJA (2017)—This Netflix drama reunites the director (Joon-ho Bong) and star (Tilda Swinton) of Snowpiercer, and adds high-profile actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Paul Dano and Giancarlo Esposito to the mix. But the real stars here are 13-year-old Seo-Hyun Ahn and her pet Okja, an immense creature that’s supposed to be a genetically modified pig, but more than anything resembles a hippo-and-dog hybrid. Okja is, of course, a highly impressive CGI effect, but Seo-Hyun Ahn brings real humanity to her role of a Korean girl whose pet is being kidnapped by evil corporate bigwigs from America. For the first 20 minutes, it’s a spectacular show full of adventure, reminding one of a variation on E.T. The Extraterrestrial. But the story soon gets bogged down when the action moves to the USA, where Swinton and especially Gyllenhaal give performances that are so off-the-charts silly that they resemble cartoon characters (one critic dubbed this movie King Kong Meets The Hunger Games). There’s a cool story and message in here, though, beneath the bloated evil-company shenanigans. (Another curiosity is who this movie is for—it seems to be a children’s film, but is loaded with numerous F-bombs.) Seo-Hyun Ahn and Okja are marvelous; too much of the rest is disappointing. (7)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

May 2017

This month, Cindy and I came to the end of our tutoring sessions for the semester at John Muir Elementary School. I had been tutoring Jace, a 7-year-old boy, in reading. He is a smart, very cute kid, and we had made considerable progress over the passing months. A week ago, the program threw its annual “tutor celebration,” where I got to meet the boy’s brother and mother. It was a bittersweet moment, capping off my fourth year as a tutor but saying goodbye to the child I’d gotten close to. It was probably the highlight of my month. BOOKS: I listened to audiobooks of One Perfect Lie (Lisa Scottoline) and The Sixth Window (Rachel Abbott), and am currently two-thirds of the way through The Cellar by Natasha Preston. I abandoned The Good Girl by Mary Kubica halfway through, since it was maddeningly slow. In other news, I have been working on lots of Jumble puzzles in the series of popular Jumble books...for what that’s worth. TV: My network shows (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, The Simpsons, Modern Family, Saturday Night Live) all ended this month, while a couple of my cable favorites (Better Call Saul, Fargo) continue on—at least for a few more weeks. I started watching Great News and The President Show and have enjoyed both; I also binged on Crashing, which was occasionally very funny. Twin Peaks has returned, and that has been a surreal experience, to say the least. I’ve also been collecting, but have not yet watched, numerous cable series that have gotten great reviews but haven’t had time to watch (The Handmaid’s Tale, Scream Queens, House of Cards, Big Little Lies, Sneaky Pete, Dimension 404, Victoria, This Is Us, Good Behavior and The Missing). Another series, 13 Reasons Why, is based on a novel I read a year or two ago. MUSIC: I liked the new album by my #1 idol, Todd Rundgren, and also enjoyed albums by Harry Styles and Paramore. Right now I’m catching up on a bunch of current hits on the Hot 100 charts.

Here are the movies I saw this month.

THE DISCOVERY (2017)—This Netflix science-fiction movie sounded a lot more interesting than it turned out to be. Robert Redford is a scientist in the not-too-distant future who somehow discovers evidence of a human afterlife, or at least proof that “something” happens after you die. This leads to a huge spike in suicides. Jason Segel plays Redford’s son, who tries to stop a young woman (Rooney Mara) from killing herself. It takes way too long for anything interesting to happen in this movie, and by the time more revelations arise from Redford’s mysterious “discovery,” it’s too confusing to really comprehend. (4)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017)—The follow-up to Marvel’s 2014 summer smash comic-book movie is very nearly as funny and exciting as the original. A couple of new faces join the crowd, including Kurt Russell as Chris “Peter Quill” Pratt’s daddy. The entire cast is fantastic in this nonstop thrill ride. (9)

THE LOVERS (2017)—Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are a middle-aged married couple who are both cheating with their respective lovers. Unfortunately, good performances can’t save this slower-than-molasses movie. Sexy Jessica Sula did prevent me from falling asleep more than halfway through the movie. (5)

PARIS CAN WAIT (2017)—Eager to wash the previous Sunday’s boring movie experience from our minds, Joan and I were looking forward to a more “normal” movie. This turned out to be more of a travelogue and cooking show than a real movie, but the presence of Diane Lane more than made up for a lack of a plot as she is chauffeured through the south of France by the charming Arnaud Viard. It’s always nice to experience Europe with the eternally youthful Lane, who only gets more beautiful as she gets older. Actually, this film would make a great companion piece to the first Diane Lane movie I ever saw: 1979’s A Little Romance, which also saw her romping through France with a charming local lad. Memo to self: watch more movies starring this enchanting lady! (8)

BLACK BUTTERFLY (2017)—A variation on the “home invasion” genre pits Antonio Banderas as a washed-up writer inviting a mysterious younger guy (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to stay a few days in his remote cabin near some woods. They play a tense game of cat and mouse that culminates in one of the most outrageously unbelievable plot twists I’ve ever seen. At times gripping, at others totally nonsensical, but Meyers is perfectly cast as the menacing houseguest. Banderas, meanwhile, is laughably miscast. (7)

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)—Second Alien prequel (a follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus) is so much like a movie I saw a couple of months ago (Life) that it gave me a weird feeling of déjà vu. Although large portions of it are acceptably escapist popcorn monster-movie fare, the twists in this sci-fi slasher film are all too predictable—there’s really nothing new here. This is, after all, as a prequel to the Alien series, it’s not like there’s any chance whatsoever that the  monsters are going to be eradicated. Thus, the ending is a foregone conclusion. (7)

Monday, May 01, 2017

April 2017

“April…come she will…When streams are ripe and swelled with rain…” How many times did that Simon & Garfunkel chestnut emanate from my stereo back in the 1970s? We didn’t have much rain here in April, and the month seemed to zip by. Following spring break, Cindy and I resumed our tutoring at Santa Monica’s John Muir Elementary School, where I teach reading to a first grader named Jace. (We only have a handful of sessions left, and I’m going to miss it when it’s over.) This month, Ray Lee and I shot a dozen boats at Lake Elsinore with five swimsuit models. It was a fun day and would provide content for Speedboat magazine for months to come. AUDIOBOOKS: After finishing While You Were Sleeping (Kathryn Croft), I moved on to The Girl Before by (Tony Strong writing as JP Delaney), Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn) and Traitor (Pete Johnson). I am now listening to One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline. TV: Homeland finished its sixth season, while the network shows I watch faithfully are all barreling toward their season finales. MUSIC: After grading various hits of 2016-2107, I listened to albums by Radiohead and Charlie Puth.
Here are the movies I saw in April:

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017)—Schindler’s List meets We Bought a Zoo in this true story of a couple in Poland who hide Jews in the basement of their zoo in Warsaw. Jessica Chastain, as the character, is perfectly cast as the woman who must use her sexuality to distract the local Nazi (deliciously nasty Daniel Brühl). Entertaining, but my strongest memory is of Joan saying during the closing credits, “I want to see if they mention that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.” Sure looked to us like there was plenty of animal harming! (8)

COLOSSAL (2017)—Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who discovers a most unusual ability: she is somehow controlling the movements of a gigantic Godzilla-type monster that’s terrorizing Seoul, Korea. But the movie is more concerned with Hathaway’s relationships with two men: boyfriend Dan Stevens and a friend from her childhood (Saturday Night Live alumnus Jason Sudeikis). The story of how these characters—and the monster—are intertwined are the subject of this unusual fable, which is just quirky enough not to be unlikable, and just original enough to overcome its flaws. Sudeikis really shines as a man with many layers—most of them slimy. (7.5)

MOKA (2016)—A French psychological thriller about a mother trying to track down the hit-and-run drivers who killed her teenage son. There are some unforgettable twists in this drama, and some great performances. Based on a novel by multilingual Tatiana de Rosnay (Sarah’s Key). I adored this deeply moving story. (10)

GIFTED (2017)—Chris Evans (better known as Captain America) plays the uncle of Mary, a 7-year-old girl whose mathematical mind exceeds Einstein’s. Evans has been raising the kid following his sister’s death. Enter Evans’ mother, a bitch who sues him for custody. Mckenna Grace is astonishingly convincing—and cute as a button—as Mary; she makes us believe that she really is a child prodigy. What a great little actress! Meanwhile, Lindsay Duncan is perfectly cast as the grandmother. (9)

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)—The manga-turned-anime franchise, which dates back to 1989, has been transformed into a full-blown live-action sci-fi epic starring Scarlett Johansson. The result is a cyberpunk-looking movie for robots—or for humans who thought Blade Runner and Terminator were too warm and fuzzy. ScarJo plays a Bionic Woman sort of character (human brain in a robot’s body) who has been trained as a commando…until she starts to realize that the people she’s working for may not be the good guys after all. (It’s the age-old “Heel Realization” trope, as depicted in Iron Man and most recently in the great Men Against Fire episode of Black Mirror.) Approximately the first half of GITS is flashy but dull, loaded with great FX and noisy sound effects, but too little story. I debated walking out, but finally, when the Big Twist is revealed, things got interesting enough to take me to the end. But man, that first hour needs work. (6.5)

THEIR FINEST (2017)—During WWII, the British government sought to ease tensions among its bomb-ridden citizens by promoting a specific type of propaganda: movies featuring war heroes and a dubious connection to the truth. To better connect with the women in their audiences, the British Ministry of Information hires a female writer (gorgeous Gemma Arterton) to do some of the writing on a movie about the famous Dunkirk evacuation. There’s a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Not bad, but not as engaging as I’d hoped. (8)

BORN IN CHINA (2017)—This Disney-produced nature documentary focuses on four animal families: snow leopards, snub-nosed monkeys, pandas and antelope, in descending order of interest. The photography is exquisite, and much of the action captured is simply uncanny. The snow leopard and monkey sequences have the most to offer in terms of an ongoing story, and the leopard section (involving a mama leopard and her two cubs) is genuinely heartbreaking. Disney, as usual, does a bit too much anthropomorphizing (“Tao Tao finally realized he’d grown up a lot that day!” says narrator John Krasinski), but this is an undeniably educational and awe-inspiring film. NOTES: My friend who actually works for Disney in China informed me that the film was not widely seen in her country. Also, the poster depicted is not the more popular Panda-only version; this one is better and more accurate. (8)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

March 2017

Although I first used my Fitbit (a birthday present I’d received in January) in February at the Miami Boat Show, I didn’t properly start walking again until this month. So my Fitbit has been “counting my steps” for the last couple of weeks. Now that it’s not cold outside anymore, it’s been nice to take my evening strolls again. Because of these evening strolls, I’ve been listening to more audiobooks than usual. In March, I burned through Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (outstanding), The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft (good, but with a disappointing ending) and The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (excellent). I am also fast approaching the halfway point in Croft’s latest mystery, While You Were Sleeping. It occurred to me a few hours ago that I have had a more pleasure experience reading than watching movies, and that I should probably focus on writing a reading blog. The only problem with that idea is that it would curtail me from reading—I have more than 50 audiobooks in the queue! On the non-audio front, I have been reading plays. First up was Larry David’s Broadway comedy Fish in the Dark, followed by Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a very ambitious linking of interrelated plays with 16 possible endings. TELEVISION: I am still working my way through all of 30 Rock again during mealtimes, and am still enjoying my favorite broadcast series (Big Bang Theory, Mom, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Modern Family, Homeland, The Mindy Project, Real Time With Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and my favorite nightly political shows on MSNBC. MUSIC: I spent a lot of the month “drilling” hit songs from 2016 and 2017; among the tunes that got four-star ratings: “When We Were Young” (Adele), “Closer” (Chainsmokers), “We Don’t Talk Anymore” (Charlie Puth), “Hymn for the Weekend” (Coldplay), “Let Me Love You” (DJ Snake), “Exes and Ohs” (Elle King), “Starving” (Hailee Steinfeld), “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” (Meghan Trainor), “Same Old Love” (Selena Gomez), “Treat You Better” (Shawn Mendes), “Cheap Thrills” (Sia) and “I Feel It Coming” (The Weeknd, doing an uncanny impersonation of Michael Jackson). Mark Weinfeld has also continued to turn me on to alternative rock songs via our monthly music exchange.
Here are the movies I saw in March:

 GET OUT (2017)—Following up last year’s infantile cat-comedy Keanu, writer Jordan Peele (of the comedy duo Key & Peele) turns his attention to horror…and it turns out to be a much more suitable genre for the comedian. Peele not only writes but directs this time; it’s an engaging thriller with a few well-placed moments of comedy. Mostly, though, it’s a kind of conspiracy shocker in the tradition of The Stepford Wives, with an excellent cast that includes Daniel Kaluuya as the black boyfriend of white-girl Allison Williams, who takes him home to her very liberal parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). But are they as tolerant of their daughter’s African-American squeeze as they let on? After Keanu, I had pretty much written off Peele, but he does an excellent job with this kind of material—mostly playing it straight, but with brief moments of comic relief. (9)

LION (2016)—Roughly the first half of this real-life drama is superb. A young Indian boy wanders onto a sitting train, falls asleep and gets separated from his older brother. When he awakes, the train is well on its way to Calcutta. When he arrives, hundreds of miles away, he can barely make himself understood to anybody by speaking his native Hindu. Adopted by an Australian family, he grows up and is approaching 30 before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his family. It was at this point, where the young man (Dev Patel) becomes detached from his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and his adoptive parents that I found myself getting bored for the next 25 minutes or so. But when the film plays its final hand—Patel finally puts the pieces of his childhood together—the movie recovers, and it’s time to reach for the tissues. It’s a real pity that the entire movie couldn’t have been as electrifying as the beginning and end. Note: Lion reminded me of two different films: The first is one that I saw in elementary school: Escapade in Japan (1957), which also involved a boy separated from his parents and getting lost in a foreign country. Then there’s the excellent French picture Forbidden Games (1952), in which a young girl, suddenly orphaned after a bomb drops, wanders around the countryside and forced to connect with strangers. (8)

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)—An unabashed monster movie for kids, with respected stars like John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and Richard Jenkins slumming it up for an easy paycheck. I went to see the special effects, which were very good, but there’s barely any story and some of the dialogue had the audience members giggling nonstop. Samuel L. Jackson is on hand to play the one character he knows how to play. John C. Reilly provides adequate comic relief. The real stars here are the island full of monsters—dinosaurs, giant spiders and, of course, the giant gorilla. Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but worth seeing for the FX. (7)

MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE (2017)—It seems a bit pointless to create yet another documentary about the inherent evil of Scientology, but that’s just what writer/star Louis Theroux has done with this entertaining exercise. He and director director/cowriter John Dower gather up several ex-cult members, who explain the machinations of how the group continues to exist, despite repeated charges of outlandish behavior behind the scenes. It doesn’t break a great deal of new ground in the wake of 2015’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, but it does have its low-budget charm and its own unique perspective. The film centers most of its focus on former Scientology senior executive Mark Rathbun, who honestly and methodically tells how the “church” works—and how he was, for many years, one of those who strong-armed members as a kind of “mess cleaner.” It’s a horrifying adventure, well made and quite unnerving—we’re left with the sickening revelation that brainwashing people is confoundingly simple to pull off. (9)

THE RED TURTLE (2016)—Of the five 2016 films nominated for Best Animated Feature, this was one of two that I had not seen. Completely wordless, it’s an island castaway story in which a magical (?) beached turtle transforms into a woman, providing our stranded hero with companionship. On the plus side, the movie is exquisitely rendered—one of the best hand-drawn cartoons I’ve ever seen. The animation is truly amazing; long stretches of it are flawless, and there are moments of gripping suspense. Like Cast Away, contains moments of intense drama, along with some lighthearted touches. The major problem for me was the fantasy angle: I couldn’t get past the turtle inexplicably turning into a woman. I can accept many supernatural and fantasy conceits, but the turtle-woman bothered me. Amid dozens of enthusiastic reviews on, I was pleased to find one fellow who echoed my sentiment: “It's poetic and moving, but makes no sense on a literal aspect.” I should also mention how slow-moving the film is—I was able to watch a great deal of it at 1.5x on my iPad, and it was still very slow-moving. (7)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)—The 1991 Disney animated romance is one of the studio’s most perfect movies, with rich characterization, gorgeous cartooning and a beautiful love story, all augmented by the memorable songs of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Now that Disney’s raking in the cash by making live-action versions of its previous animated successes (Jungle Book, Maleficent, 101 Dalmatians, etc.), it was only a matter of time before they got around to plundering this classic. And man, did I have mixed feelings about it. On the upside, there are numerous scenes of exquisite beauty, lavish sets and, best of all, Harry Potter graduate Emma Watson as Belle. All of the original songs are here, as well as a bunch of wholly superfluous new ones. This could have been a masterpiece. But this so-called “live action” version totally overdoes it with the CGI—a little of which goes a long way, at least for this viewer. In particular, the “Be Our Guest” segment is so overdone with flying anthropomorphic objects and fireworks that it becomes garishly cluttered and is completely missing the charm of the original movie—I could feel myself become furious by the utter disarray of it all. (This sequence is “nothing but visual noise,” confirms Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.) The Beast is rendered largely via CGI, and it’s not perfect; he looks almost as much like a cartoon as the Beast from the original movie. Next problem: The huge Gaston, the guy with the rippling muscles, is portrayed by the perplexingly miscast Luke Evans, an actor who does not begin to satisfy the demands of the role. Finally, updating the racial element to include not one but two interracial couples made my eyeballs roll heavenward—it’s political correctness of the most distracting kind. This movie, which is enjoyable at various stretches, is nonetheless the most disappointing feature of the year so far. The best things about this movie are the poster and the end credits, which are extremely well done. Note: The controversy about making Le Fou a “gay character” was laughably overblown. (7)

LIFE (2017)—This reasonably well done Martians-will-get-you shocker is a total Alien ripoff with one or two twists, but it very closely follows the same basic plot—astronauts on a ship (this time a space station) are stalked by an otherworldly presence that happens to be homicidal. (This one is also super-intelligent and indestructable.) Like its predecessor, it’s a sci-fi slasher movie. Watchable, occasionally exciting, but derivative beyond the telling of it. On the other hand, it was light years better than Interstellar. (8)

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017)—On a lovely Saturday morning in March, I set off to see two indie films that had gotten a bunch of decent reviews—but neither of them was particularly good. The Sense of an Ending, starring the great Jim Broadbent, is about an elderly man looking back on his life and facing some of the bad decisions he made in his youth. Thus, the movie is loaded with flashbacks. That wouldn’t necessarily be terrible, except the movie is generally very plodding and doesn’t have much of a payoff. Also, pretty much every female character is incredibly annoying, especially his two former romantic partners, played by Charlotte Rampling and Harriet Walter. The acting is decent, but the script (based on an acclaimed novel by Julian Barnes) is slow-moving and not particularly engaging. It’s always nice to see lovely Michelle Dockery, though—she plays Broadbent’s daughter. (6.5)

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017)—I made the mistake of trying to sit through Clouds of Sils Maria, a French movie starring Kristen Stewart, a year or two ago. I didn’t make it more than halfway through that boring, artsy flick (you called it, Connie Ogle!), and somehow I made the rookie decision to see another movie by the same writer-director (Olivier Assayas) that also stars Stewart. (In my defense, I did not realize that Personal Shopper was another Assayas movie.) All I knew was that this one was a ghost story. In this film, Stewart’s brother has died, and she’s trying to get in touch with his spirit. Well, let me tell you, a more boring ghost story has never been made. Literally 30 minutes of the film concerns Stewart being cyber-stalked by a creepy unknown person via text messenger (he says stuff like “I want you, and I will have you”). And even though this entire sequence is little other than them texting each other, it’s probably the most interesting part of the movie! That might have made a decent psychological thriller, but eventually we return to the ghost story, which is quite dull and full of ambiguity. Worst of all, the ending is a  colossal “HUH?” Kristen, get the hell out of France. It’s ruining your career! (4)

Monday, March 13, 2017

February 2017

February sent me back to South Florida for the annual Miami International Boat Show, one of several disruptions from my normal schedule that prevented me from watching a lot of movies. After having recovered from bronchitis only a month ago, I came back from Miami with a cold—I’m so sick of sickness! This was also the month of the Academy Awards and the now-infamous incorrect announcement of La La Land as Best Picture (Moonlight turned out to be the real winner). At the time of this writing, I have still not seen Manchester By the Sea or Lion. This was also the month I saw comedian Brian Kiley with my friend Rachel in Burbank; after the show, I found that my passage back to West Hollywood was blocked because of a fatal accident on the 101 Freeway. Not able to drive home, I headed back to the AMC 16 theater to see a late showing of A Dog’s Purpose; afterwards, traffic had cleared. I had to return to Burbank only a few hours later to pick up Joan and see Moana, followed by Split. BOOKS: I finished the audiobook of The Girl With No Past by Kathryn Croft and continue to read short stories by John D. MacDonald. MUSIC: I have been drilling and grading various recent releases, including albums by Ariana Grande, Ingrid Michaelson, Jonatha Brooke, Fifth Harmony, Look Park, etc.
Here’s what I saw in February:

A DOG’S PURPOSE (2017)—A family picture geared mostly for very young audiences. This dog-reincarnation story was a lot more juvenile that I had expected, and parts of the plot are exasperating to mature viewers who possess the power of logic. But at least it killed time while I was waiting for traffic to clear. (6)

SPLIT (2017)—Although M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller captured some decent reviews and was a sizable hit, Joan and I felt cheated by a story that started strongly but gradually fizzled. The ending is incomprehensible. (5)

PUNCHING HENRY (2017)—Sequel to comedian-songwriter Henry Phillips’ Punching the Clown is a better movie—and not just because he’s filled out the cast with A-level performers like J.K. Simmons and top-tier fellow comedians Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro and Doug Stanhope. It’s a funnier film, better made, and Henry feels much more comfortable as a leading man—even if the character he plays is the same “rambling troubadour extraordinaire” who finds success in being a hapless schlemiel. It’s truly amazing how many different ways Phillips finds to tell the same basic joke: Are they laughing with me or laughing at me? Well, as long as they’re laughing, and lord knows I was. (Typical joke: A comedy club owner invites Henry back: “The door is always open,” he says, adding, “It’s a $10 cover, two-drink minimum.”) There’s plenty of dissing, humiliation and embarrassment for Henry, and his chagrin is our pleasure. It seems like I waited years to see this, and my patience was rewarded. I look forward to the third film in the trilogy. (9)

HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)—The real-life story of pacifist Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who volunteered to act as a medic in WWII, but refused to carry or shoot a gun. At first he is bullied and jeered by his fellow soldiers, but he soon gains their respect by bravely saving numerous lives in the heat of battle. The movie is at times unimaginably gory and bloody. Teresa Palmer is quite fetching as Garfield’s love interest. (7)

January 2017

I started the month struggling to get rid of the bronchitis I’d contracted around Christmas. It took entirely too long to get rid of. Consequently, I didn’t return to movie theaters until well into January. At least I survived the month—to our great sadness, Cindy’s teacup poodle, Cassie, passed away this month.
MUSIC: I’m taking a break from reviewing oldies while I focus on more contemporary music. I drilled and graded every song released by Rihanna, then started working on various other albums by favorite artists that have been piling up (by Ingrid Michaelson, Jonatha Brooke, Fifth Harmony, Monkees, The 1975, Alicia Keys, Radiohead, Ariana Grande, etc.).
BOOKS: I finished listening to The Stranger Within by Kathryn Croft, a mystery-melodrama on audio, while reading various mystery short-stories on the printed page, including several by John D. MacDonald.
Other highlights this month: Jenna was terrific as Sally in the YADA production of  You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; I saw comedian Brian Kiley perform at Flappers comedy club; the Academy Award nominations were announced. Looks like I have a few films to watch before the ceremony, including Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and Manchester by the Sea. Among the lowlights: my car needed a $500 repair. GROAN!
Here’s what I saw in January.

FENCES (2016)—Going in to my screening, I was unaware that Fences (directed by and starring Denzel Washington) was an adaptation of a play, but it sure didn’t take very long to figure it out. Turns out it’s based on August Wilson's 1983 stage drama, which won a Pulitzer Prize; it co-stars Viola Davis as the long-suffering wife of Washington, who plays a kind of a bitter douchebag. The movie, while rather long, is full of great performances and has some genuinely touching scenes; the last 20 minutes are so are in serious need of some trimming. Otherwise, very well done. (9)

MOANA (2016)—Disney’s 45th animated feature film has a lot going for it: a first-rate voice cast led by Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson and Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement; a terrific fable-like story; interesting characters; great humor; and songs by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. What more could you want? Nothing, that’s what! This is a nearly perfect film, full of wonder and magic and melody, all about a girl who sets out to save her Polynesian island from a terrible curse. The film follows Zootopia, another perfect Disney animated confection from 2016. Can’t wait to see this one again! (10)

PASSENGERS (2016)—Two space pictures came out at the end of 2016: Passengers, which was mostly panned by critics (31% TM) and Rogue One, cheered by considerably more (85% TM). And yet, I found Passengers to be the far more entertaining movie. No, it’s not perfect, but I was never bored, and it has a comprehensible, uncluttered story, good performances and an upbeat ending. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence—two wonderful, always engaging stars—headline this sci-fi romance movie in which Pratt, one of 5,000 passengers on an interplanetary journey, is inadvertently awakened only 30 years into his 120-year trip. Although the film asks the viewer to swallow some pretty preposterous plot developments, it held my interest throughout. (8.5)

ROGUE ONE (2016)—This first Star Wars “anthology” film is basically a prequel to 1977’s A New Hope; it might as well be called Episode 3.5. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel fighter trying to extract some secret plans for the fabled Death Star. The movie is jam-packed full of evil Storm Troopers shooting deadly laser guns at our heroes, our heroes shooting and killing many Storm Troopers, innumerable spaceships flying around and crashing, and a couple of scenes with Forest Whitaker that manage to short-change his incredible talents even worse than Arrival did. I found most of the movie unbearably boring, despite great special effects. The original Star Wars movies (the first two, at any rate) were great fun as well as action-packed, but the filmmakers of this movie have opted to put none of that fun into this anthology film. (SPOILER ALERT—stop reading if you haven’t seen it.) And every single good guy in the movie has been killed by the end—what an unbelievable bummer! (6)

JACKIE (2016)—Here’s the good news: Natalie Portman makes a lovely, convincing Jacqueline Kennedy. She captures the accent, the mannerisms, the very essence of Jackie. Unfortunately, the performance is trapped within the confines of a dreary, slow-moving, plotless, flashback-ridden movie that doesn’t do anything and doesn’t go anywhere. A total bore. (3)

LA LA LAND (2016)—Even though this movie won an avalanche of Golden Globes and is poised to win many Oscars, it seems like a lot of people run hot and cold on this movie. Well, I loved it. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone act up a storm in this old-fashioned musical, and while it’s true that Gosling’s character is kind of a dick in the first half, he does redeem himself. I would agree that there are some slow spots, but the dancing and energy and rapport between the leads more than make up for it. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) scores again! Too bad J.K. Simmons’ part is so small, but he is great in the very short time he’s around. (10)

SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (2016)—I found this film included on several “Best Movies of 2016” year-end lists. It’s a fun, pastoral, heartwarming story for the entire family, based on a 1930s novel (and taking place at that time). The wonderful Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, Black Mirror) is simply marvelous in a plot about a widow whose four children embark on a sailing adventure in the middle of a lake, which contains an island with several secrets. A gem! (10)

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)—True story about three brilliant black women who helped NASA succeed in the 1960s space race against the Russians, and how they paved the way for landing a man on the moon. The movie clobbers the viewer over the head with numerous racist acts and laws during the era of segregation (the ladies have to use separate restrooms, coffee dispensers, etc.). That’s a small quibble—these things really did exist—but there are times when it seems like all of the white people in this movie fall into two categories: the racist and the super racist. Still, this is a moving, inspirational biography about women deserving of a memorial. The leads (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) are first-rate, and Monáe is a real dish to boot. (9)