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)

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