I’m still getting caught up on film reviews from 2015. 2015 music thoughts are pretty close to done.
Saw the Super Bowl at my folks’ house, where my father and I both accurately predicted the Broncos would win. I hate the Broncos: they are my second-least-favorite team ever, but I love Peyton Manning, so of course I’ve been rooting all season for him to get his second ring. It wasn’t a great game, but I thought it was okay, and I enjoyed seeing Peyton hoist that trophy once more.
Now it’s the dry season between the end of football and the beginning of baseball, and as I have for the past couple of years, I welcome it. I need my Sundays back, and I need some time to make adjustments to my routine. I’ve been kind of looking around for a church option that doesn’t involve Sunday mornings or dealing with people I know. I have a few things on the list of consideration, but in order to make room for them, I need to slide something else into that Sunday slot that has been dominated for six months by football.
I was wandering in the downtown area Wednesday when, on Punchbowl Street, I saw an obviously homeless woman on the steps of the DOE building (I don’t think it’s called that or even if that’s what it is, but Don works for the DOE and his office is in that building). I was taking a photo of a cool little sculpture over the doorway when she approached me. She was nearly incoherent, just kept dropping the ends of her sentences in a way that made it impossible for me to tell what she wanted. She got frustrated, so I put my hand on her arm and said, “Listen. I want to help you, but you’re not telling me what I can do for you. Slow down, and let’s talk.”
She didn’t have shoes. She wanted to get a bus to the homeless shelter on the other end of town. I knew where it was, but I said, “You’re asking about the men’s shelter. You don’t want to go to the women’s shelter?” She said no; she’d been assaulted in the women’s shelter.
“Will they let you into the men’s shelter?”
“They will for meal time. And they will give me some flip-flops.”
Ah. It made sense now. It actually sounded like a reasonable plan. She needed me to escort her to the bus stop because she was afraid of being assaulted again. She took my arm, like I was walking to dinner, and we strode slowly past the gate to the governor’s mansion.
A few feet past the gate, she said, “Please just keep walking that way and don’t look back. I need to pee.”
She was hiking her dress up before she was done speaking, so of course I turned and walked slowly. I took the moment to get $3.50 out of my pocket.
“Here’s bus fare and an extra dollar, in case. Get on the 19 or 20.”
She thanked me. I didn’t stick around. Hope she made it.
Betsy Russell, Kristi Somers. Directed by Herbert Freed.
I’m not proud of having watched this, but in my years-long quest to see movies I wanted to watch but didn’t get to when I was a kid, there are going to be at least a few films that appealed to my baser instincts. Those instincts are still there, stronger in my memory than in my current, diminished-libido reality, and in some ways, I’m glad I crossed this one off my list, and I look forward to crossing off several more.
You’ve probably seen Betsy Russell before: she was the topless horseback rider in Private School (the Phoebe Cates film), and so when you see her name first on the movie poster, you kind of know why you’re paying to see the movie. She’s going to take her shirt off, and it’s going to be glorious, although she’s been in five of the Saw movies, and I don’t think this is true of those films. In any case, hats off to her for the length of her career. She’s earned any success she has.
In Tomboy, which may be her only starring vehicle, Russell plays Tommy, a mechanic who plays basketball with the boys, rides her dirt bike with the boys, and fixes cars better than any of the boys. She may be a tomboy in her interests, but she’s still a woman, and when she meets the race car driver whose poster decorates her garage, she gets pretty star-struck. She and her best friend Seville get invited to a party with the driver and the owner of his car, and a romance is born. But it becomes clear that to her new boyfriend, she’s a good driver and mechanic “for a girl,” and this doesn’t sit well with her. So of course, a race is arranged: Tommy driving her car, and her boyfriend driving his.
This is a terrible movie in which nobody behaves like a real person with any brains, but there are a few decent laughs. Seville wins a job as a spokesperson for a doughnut shop, and she’s paid in doughnuts rather than cash. The image of her convertible loaded with doughnut boxes is visually funny. Come to think of it, that might be the only laugh. Oh well.
X’s and O’s (2007)
Clayne Crawford, Judy Marte, Warren Christie, Sarah Wright, John Wynn, Lynn Chen. Written and directed by Kedar Korte.
I think one of the reasons I responded so positively to Ride Along 2 is that I’d seen so many indie films immediately before it that big-budget lighting, sound, editing, and cinematography, were a shock to my system. I’d forgotten how good a movie could look and sound. Even with mediocre content, the packaging was so nice, I was pleased just to experience it with likable actors. I wouldn’t say that Kevin Hart is necessarily a better actor than anyone in X’s and O’s or its ilk, but I imagine the actors in the Hollywood film had more rehearsal time and as many takes as needed to satisfy the director’s vision.
This is not to say that X’s and O’s is technically bad, but boy, is it noticeably indie.
Simon is crazy about Jane, but Jane has him friend-zoned so completely that when they say good night after dinner and drinks, she embraces him, kisses him right next to his mouth, and licks him a few times before they separate. His roomie Lorenzo doesn’t have this problem: he’s waking up next to a different woman every morning, although it seems the one he really wants is an ex who wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, one of their friends has a girlfriend but treats her like property while driving everyone crazy with exaggerated, faux hip-hop speech and mannerisms.
Simon has friend-zoned a fellow graduate student named Trese, who looks a lot like young Jennifer Lopez, which is interesting because Simon looks like young Ray Liotta. Trese is hung up on Simon, but she’s got a few issues of her own, mostly in the way men treat women in romantic relationships.
This is a lot of characters to juggle, and the script mostly handles it well. The problem with this film is that its semi-interesting characters don’t find enough interesting stuff to talk about or do, then they turn out not to be interesting either, and not very likable. Add an element that I find tiresome (slam poetry), and some strange stuff in a Christian dorm, and the whole thing is just kind of a dreary, annoying slog. If my power had gone out before it was done, I’m not sure I would have cared, and the only thing that kept me mildly engaged is the prettiness of the actresses.
Unless you’re trying to do what I’m doing (seeing everything Lynn Chen is in), take a pass on this one.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill. Directed by J.J. Abrams.
It’s thirty years after the fall of the Empire, and out of its ruins has risen the First Order, working on a new weapon of destruction. The First Order’s military leader is Kylo Ren, a tortured, possibly crazed villain with a chip on his shoulder. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa, receives word of long-missing Jedi Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts. With the assistance of Han Solo, the resistance seeks to destroy the new weapon, defeat Kylo Ren, and find Luke.
Against this backdrop emerge three new heroes: Poe, the best X-Wing fighter in the Resistance. Rey, an orphaned scavenger who appears to be much more. And Finn, a. deserting Storm Trooper moved by his conscience to assist Rey.
Clearly, it is J.J. Abrams’s goal to bring the Star Wars fandom back aboard the LucasFilm train, reminding it of all the reasons it loves the first three films while making amends for the errors of the second three films’ ways. He does this, with more than an adequate number of callbacks to the first trilogy. He also builds a reasonable transition into the new reality of possibly limitless sequels, tributaries, and spin-offs under the franchise’s new Disney umbrella.
The Force Awakens accomplishes all of these, and although Abrams goes back to the A New Hope well more times than necessary, his new characters are compelling and charismatic in ways that the first movie never attempted. Rey and Finn are people I want to root for, people I want to get to know. They’re tinged with mystery and fun to watch. I haven’t yet read any reviews of the film, but I imagine negative reviews will say themes are not merely derivative, but repetitions of those in the previous trilogies, at worst a recycling of stuff we’ve seen before. It’s a valid criticism. Still, I hope these next two films will take the momentum and goodwill from the public response to this one, and run in new directions. There’s no reason what comes next must necessarily mimic The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, and with the vast expanse of untapped creative territory at its disposal, it could be no time at all before we’re forgetting all about midi-chlorians, Ewoks, and Jar-Jar Binks.
Action sequences, except for one beautiful, nostalgic trip in the Millennium Falcon, are so-so: interesting but not thrilling. Weaponry and spacecraft aren’t a huge departure from the earlier films, but this is only thirty years after Return of the Jedi, so that doesn’t bother me much. A new droid, BB-8, is kind of a neat next-wave of R2-D2 technology. Effects are effective without being distracting, and there is a determined lack of CGI porn, thank goodness. The score, composed once again by John Williams, is perhaps one of the best things about this film. It’s the best score in the series since Empire, almost sure to win an Oscar this year.
This is just the warm-up act for what could very well be an impossible return to glory for a series nearly wrecked by its own creator. I have a good feeling about this.
I’m having some difficulty with the work schedule. I gave in to my vampire tendencies last week, and I was much happier, but I wasn’t more productive. I still need to produce, and I produce best almost anywhere but home.
I just think that if this is a long-term kind of situation, I need to learn to work within the four walls of my domicile. It’s impractical to keep going to tea cafes or coffee shops. I’m going to try it again this coming Monday, maybe compromising on the hours a little, and still getting out of the house in time to put in some good, productive hours wherever I can wring them out of myself.
The walking is nearly habituated. I get the itch to get up and get out at about 9:00 every night, and I’m usually out for three hours or so, unless I’m already out trying to get work done, in which case I just pack my stuff up and head homeward. I’m missing a lot of television, but honestly, I’m not missing it that much. I haven’t seen the new X-Files episodes yet, and pretty much miss anything that’s not football. Even when I’m home, I’ve tended more to listen to podcasts than to watch TV, because I can listen to them while I’m moving about, doing chores or whatever. I can’t do that with television.
I’ve also been watching more stuff on Prime, on the tablet during stolen moments of free time.
The cord for my laptop charger broke last week, another thing that’s put a damper on my productivity. I’m doing almost all my writing on the tablet now, which isn’t too bad when I’m just writing, but when I’m trying to assemble material, it can be a pain. There’s a replacement cord on its way (less than five bucks, and shipping’s free with Prime), so hopefully I’ll be back on Akemi (that’s her name) before another week’s up.
I hit a doldrums with my novel-writing during the Christmas break, and the laptop situation hasn’t helped. I’ve sorta carved out Monday evenings for personal creative writing, but that hasn’t caught on yet, with all the strange variations in my schedule lately, plus the laptop situation. *sigh*
I still know who I want to be as a writer, and YA novels are the space I want to be in. However, I’ve also been toying with the idea of attempting something in the “cozy mystery” sub-genre. I wonder if I could do that for a YA audience. Cozy YA mystery. Hm. Might have to bounce this off someone.
Muppets Most Wanted (2015)
The usual Muppets with Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey. Directed by James Bobin.
We’re doing a sequel! That’s what we do in Hollywood
And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good!
We’re doing a sequel! How hard can it be?
We can’t do any worse than Godfather Three!”
Clearly, I am going to have to revisit The Muppets, the much-heralded Muppetational return to the big screen that I only felt so-so about, because Muppets Most Wanted made me feel all the things I hoped to feel in that film, but did not. This is a Muppets movie through and through, one to give every fan hope for a potentially limitless future in these post-Henson, post-Oz years. Everything is here: cameos galore, sight gags, tributes to classic films, stupid puns, awesome puns, new Muppets, old Muppets, huge musical numbers, memorable songs, and massive self-awareness.
The film picks up right where The Muppets left off, with Kermit, Piggy, Scooter, Fozzie, and Gonzo wondering what they should do next. The answer, of course, is a sequel, and they immediately launch into a new song, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” with help from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. And the Muppetness just keeps going. The company meets with its new agent, Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy (“It’s pronounced bah-jee. It’s French”), who promises sold-out houses in all the major cities in Europe. Although Kermit is reluctant to commit when the Muppets have been out of practice for so long, his friends see dollar signs and adventure, so he goes along with Dominic’s plan.
Kermit bears an uncanny resemblance to the world’s most-wanted international criminal, and a mistaken identity situation (an old Muppets standby!) lands Kermit in a Russian gulag (administered by Tina Fey wonderfully affecting the worst Russian accent in movie history) while his doppelgänger disguises himself as Kermit, assuming an uncharacteristic hands-off management style his friends welcome, even while they’re puzzled by it.
I only have a couple of quibbles with this film. First, there’s not enough Kermit, because of that mistaken identity situation. The bulk of the action, by necessity, must follow the Muppets with their fake leader, which means that even Kermit’s scenes in the gulag are less than satisfying, because of course Kermit is at his best when he’s with his friends. Also, there’s really not enough of the old Muppets (although there is a surprising vocal solo line from Lou Zealand), something the film is aware of and even comments on. That’s pretty funny, but it doesn’t fix the problem. With all the exploding, they couldn’t find a quick line for Crazy Harry?
The songs are somewhat less than awesome, and while my expectations are unreasonably high, that bar was set by the Muppets themselves–where is there a less-than-awesome song in The Muppet Movie? The exception is Miss Piggy’s “Something So Right,” with an assist by Celine Dion and solo lines by most of the Electric Mayhem. That one is unusually pretty for a Piggy song, and easily the soundtrack’s highlight.
The film does almost everything else wonderfully, including a Muppet Show opening in Spanish. If that doesn’t bring a wistful tear to your eye and a warm laugh, I question your American-ness, sir or ma’am. And there is a reflective moment when Kermit, who has always hinted at a deep-rooted sadness and longing beneath his layer of green optimism (it’s what makes him so wonderful, that depth of character that Mickey Mouse and his friends never seem to pull off), expresses hurt and disappointment when he realizes his friends didn’t notice he was missing for so long. Oh, Kermit. How do you keep forgiving us?
Honestly, I can’t think of a recent movie that takes me so effectively to my childhood, that hits all the buttons exactly in the right way. This is what we call the Muppet Show.
Daniel Cariaga, Kimberly-Rose Wolter, Erik McDowell. Directed by Eric Byler. Written by Byler and Wolter.
Somewhere in the hills of California, Kakela spends her days writing a story. She considers it her job, even though she’s never made money at it, and she doesn’t need an income. She owns the house and property she shares with her boyfriend Gabe, who spends his days training horses and their riders. He does need an income, as he reminds Kakela once or twice. They’re hosting a friend going through a difficult time in her marriage, and in the film’s first scene, their pad is crashed by Tre, a longtime friend of Gabe’s, who’s been tossed out by either his girlfriend or his parents (I can’t remember which, but I remember the character well enough to know it could be either).
Tre is a first-class jerk, one of those guys who uses honesty as an excuse not to have any tact. He’ll say something incredibly hurtful with no apologies, and then later say something deeply compassionate, and because he’s so honest about the hurtful things, his friends assume he’s being sincere about the kind things. Is he? This is Tre‘s mystery, and it had the potential to be fascinating. Instead, it’s tiresome, as I imagine Tre is tiresome for anyone unfortunate enough to know him. Friendships are complicated things, and I would never tell people when they have to stop giving themselves to a person they care about, but I’m just a viewer of a film by a director whose Charlotte Sometimes I like and have great respect for. I have no relationship with Tre beyond the ninety minutes this film requires, and thank goodness, because even that is more than I wanted to give him.
The first half of the film is interesting, as the characters kind of set up their corners and give us little tastes of how they interact with one another, in different combinations and all together. As the characters take us (and each other) a little deeper, it remains interesting, but despite feeling sympathy for the characters, I can’t buy Tre’s actions or words in the final act. Sometimes a jerk, no matter what he might have been through or what he’s feeling, is just a jerk, and there’s very little here to make me feel otherwise.
As with Charlotte Sometimes, Director Eric Byler doesn’t spell everything out, which I appreciate, but where he leaves us at film’s end is unsatisfying. I like what he tried to do; I just don’t like what he managed to do.
Love & Mercy (2015)
Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti. Directed by Bill Pohlad.
Paul Dano plays the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in the mid-1960s, while John Cusack plays the same character in the 1980s in Love & Mercy, a film targeting specific times in the musician’s life, beginning with Wilson’s decision not to tour with his band anymore. Wilson has big plans for new recordings, and his anxieties make travel nearly impossible. His bandmates, who include his cousin Mike Love and his brothers Dennis and Carl, agree to go on the road without him, but when they return, they find a Brian so deep into his ideas, they fear the identity of the Beach Boys is being compromised. We are flashed forward to the mid-Eighties, when Wilson is incapacitated by his own demons and by the heavy doses of medication given him by his legal guardian, a psychiatrist named Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), whose treatment of Brian’s afflictions involves controlling where Brian lives, where he goes, and whom he associates with.
When Brian buys a Cadillac from Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, who should have been nominated for an Oscar), at first Landy is supportive, but Melinda sees quickly he’s taking incredible advantage of Brian, and wonders whether she should intervene or stay out of family business, and encourage Brian to stand up for himself instead.
The best moments in this film are when Brian is working with his band, and I have to admit I was surprised by the intricacy of the arrangements, not to mention the group dynamics. Yes, I’ve heard for decades about what a genius Wilson is, but I never heard it in the music, until seeing its creation played out on the screen. There is a fascinating scene where Brian and Mike come up with the idea for “Good Vibrations” and another where we see the band laying down the vocal tracks on that song. Mesmerizing. In the months since I saw this film, I’ve immersed myself in Beach Boys recordings, working forward from their debut in 1963, and I’m embarrassed not to have seen what was right there in front of me. Even years before Pet Sounds, Wilson’s acknowledged masterpiece, his brilliance (and to only a slightly lesser extent, his cousin’s) is clear. This movie has made a fan of me at age 46.
Dano’s performance is excellent, and Jake Abel as Mike Love is also compelling. People have praised Paul Giamatti, but he’s played this character so many other times that it’s difficult to see a character instead of an actor here (and I say that as a huge Giamatti fan). There’s almost no difference between Landy in this film and Jerry Heller, N.W.A.’s manager in Straight Outta Compson, and they are both at least cousins of Bob Zmuda in Man on the Moon and Paul Gill in Rock of Ages. I hate to say it, but almost anyone else would have been better in this role.
Cusack and Banks are a great on-screen couple, and Banks isn’t getting enough credit for a gentle, smart, restrained performance. Not enough is done to develop Brian’s relationship with Melinda, and it’s hard to say exactly why they are drawn to each other, or what makes it work for Melinda, but maybe she’s a caring, pretty woman and maybe he’s Brian Wilson, and maybe that’s supposed to be enough.
Things wrap up a little too tidily and with not enough explanation for my tastes, but I can’t deny that I felt great when the credits rolled over real-life Brian Wilson’s performance of “Love & Mercy.” This film opened my eyes to a whole new catalogue of music and it made me feel great. How often does that happen?
Tina Fey, Amy Poehler. Directed by Jason Moore. Written by Paula Pell.
I’ll pretty much take a look at anything Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do together, and they are the main draw in Sisters. The story is weak from its premise to its execution, but Fey and Poehler bring all their silliness, smarts, and camaraderie, and that’s pretty much all they need. Letting them do their thing is good enough to guarantee that the worst a film can be is mediocre.
This film is not the worst it could be. There are some pretty good laughs amid cheap plot devices (can we please declare a moratorium on adults performing some dance routine they worked out when they were kids?), such as a really funny exchange between Poehler and a Korean manicurist where each has an impossible time pronouncing the other’s names. Still, poignant moments that are supposed to tie together scenes of crazy partying just aren’t satisfying, partly because the film sleepwalks its way through an unimaginative, restricting story.
Fey and Poehler play middle-aged sisters returning to their childhood home to remove their belongings before their parents sell the house. Poehler’s life is full of charity and good deeds, but her lifelong good-girl-ness hasn’t translated well to post-divorce life, and she’s feeling the absence of romance, even if she won’t admit it. Fey is a single mom, ever the irresponsible hedonist who can’t hang onto jobs as a stylist. Her adult daughter is so tired of her flakiness that she refuses to live in Fey’s apartment. With prospects for both sisters looking kind of bleak, the last blast in their parents’ house seems like a desperate effort to relive days then each had more to look forward to than to look back upon, and their high-school classmate guests seem to be equally in need of such a reunion.
You can pretty much figure out the rest, and if you can’t, please see this movie. If you can, you should probably skip it unless, like me, you find the prospect of ninety minutes of Fey and Poehler, in even a yawner of a movie, irresistible.
The Big Short (2015)
Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling. Directed by Adam McKay. Based on the book by Michael Lewis.
I read half of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short but despite the writer’s talent for explaining complicated concepts through the use of narrative, the sub-prime mortgage scandal is so abstract that even people who were dealing in these mortgages didn’t really know what they were. Adam McKay, who co-wrote the screenplay, tries a few different tactics to get his audience to understand the heart of the product, including breaking the fourth wall and letting his characters use visual aides while walking each other through the concepts. And it’s still hard to grasp.
However, McKay’s purpose is really to reveal the villains in this story, to show how multiple levels of greed and self-preservation led to the collapse of some of the oldest financial institutions in the country, teetering the global economy on the brink of destruction. There’s a lot of blame to go around, and here’s why McKay is a good choice to direct this film. The director of Will Ferrell comedies Stepbrothers and Old School, McKay understands that a touch of whimsy and amusement is necessary here, or the effect of his movie on audiences will be to fill them with rage they can’t do anything about. What we get instead, thanks to his assortment of characters with their assortment of motivations, is the only thing we really have left: the ability to laugh.
This is no comedy, but it reminds me of a button I used to pin to my shirt when I was in high school during especially cynical moods. It read, “I used to be disgusted. Now I’m just amused.” The Big Short fills the viewer with disgust, tinged with anger, and lightened with amusement. It’s the right formula, and it results in a very, very well-made movie.
If there are any good guys, they are played by Steve Carell and Christian Bale, two investors who exploit a flaw in the housing market. Actually, it isn’t a flaw in the market they take advantage of: it’s the certainty by major banks that there is no flaw. So arrogant are the banks that they basically take what they consider to be sucker bets, offering huge odds in favor of the wagerers. With billions (billions!) of dollars on the line, the banks and their agents refuse to do any due diligence, and as explained in the voice-over in the film’s intro, all it took to bring the world economy to its knees was the willingness of a small number of people to look at what was there.
Acting is better than average all around. I was especially taken with Carell as an investor with a noble streak, and Bradd Pitt as a cynical investor who’s out of the game, but isn’t above backing two newbies with irrefutable evidence. McKay does a heck of a job with a daunting task, resulting in a movie that’s effective and convicting, one that begs to be seen at least a second time, and probably a third.