Friday 5: Don’t Go There

From here.

  1. Where were you forbidden (or too frightened) to go when you were growing up, and why?
    I lived on Waipahu Street, the main drag (well, sorta) through our neighborhood on which people drove really quickly. I was forbidden from riding my bike in the street,
    which I mostly stuck to. Occasionally a neighbor would have a car parked in his driveway, blocking the sidewalk, and I’d have to go around. I was supposed to get off my bike and walk it around the car, but of course I seldom did that. My dad actually saw me ride around it once, taking my bike right into the middle of the oncoming lane, and he yelled at me.
  2. What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve done in the past couple of years?
    For the past year and a half, I’ve gone on very long walks, sometimes late at night. Sometimes when I have to pee, I can find a convenient (and acceptably clean or safe)
    restroom, but sometimes I can’t. And since I am blessed to be a male, taking care of things isn’t that difficult. I’m sure I’ve violated a few ordinances behind trees in parks, on the sides of school buildings, and even on heavy machinery. Sorry.
  3. Under what circumstances have you gone into a place you knew you weren’t supposed to enter?
    I received a citation for walking through the campus of Honolulu Community College at about 10 in the evening. They usually reserve the trespassing ticket for someone up to something, but I was just cutting through the parking lot. So annoying. Also, I’ve squeezed through spaces in gates in order to find somewhere safe to pee.
  4. Which aisle in your supermarket do you just about never go down?
    There’s this aisle that has shampoo and other toiletries. I think I’ve been down it twice, looking for a bargain on this rosemary-scented shampoo I used to like. I still like it; I just can’t find it anymore. That aisle. I don’t go to my grocery store for soap and shampoo, although I guess maybe I should consider it if it means one fewer stop.
  5. Not counting traffic situations, when did you last willfully disobey something you read on a sign?
    There’s this short ramp on campus at UHM, between the campus mail room and Hemenway Hall. It runs alongside some steps, and walkers are supposed to use the staps while cars take the ramp. There’s a sign than says no human traffic on the ramp, and I hate that sign. I know why it’s there: it makes it safer for everyone if drivers don’t have to look for walkers first. But I’m smart. I have eyes. I can see when a car is about to come down or go up the ramp, so I can decide for myself how safe it is to walk up or down it. Stupid sign. I walk the ramp specifically to defy its ridiculous existence. I don’t mind a suggestion to be careful, but I won’t be told I can’t walk somewhere when the only reason I can’t is someone doesn’t trust my judgment.

    I cannot be tamed.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillen, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell. Written by James Gunn. Directed by James Gunn.

If you liked the original Guardians of Galaxy, you will almost surely like this sequel, Guardians ot the Galaxy Vol. 2, especially if what you liked was the stuff you don’t normally see in comic book superhero movies. The over-reliance on songs, the silly in-the-action conversation, the offbeat characters, and the creative action sequences are all here, in pretty much the exact quantities. It really does feel like a continuation of the first movie, in plot, theme, and presentation.

I have one new good thing and one new bad thing to say about this sequel, but I think they kind of balance each other out, so I’m rating this film the same as I rated its predecessor. The good thing is that I can’t think of a comic book superhero movie where the team of superheroes works as well together, especially in action sequences, as it does in this film. There’s an interdependence born of well-conceived characters that makes this an especially enjoyable film, not to mention a sweetness in what seems like genuine affection.

The bad thing is that there seems to be less of Zoe Saldana’s character than in the first movie. That’s going to happen sometimes in serial films, but I hate to see her relegated to a second-tier element in the story.

Small complaint, though, as it’s a fun and funny movie. I laughed more the second time I saw it, too, which is nice.

In this one, Peter Quill encounters his real father and is reconnected with his surrogate father. There’s a problem with his real dad, though, and the fact that he’s played by Kurt Russell isn’t it. His dad has immortal, god-like qualities that only have meaning if they are used (wait for it!) to take over the whole galaxy.

There’s another new character I at first found irritating but then really liked. Pom Klementieff plays Mantis, an empath with snail-like antennae, who’s even more socially clueless than Dave Bautista’s Drax. They make a fun partnership, and I hope Mantis makes it into the next sequel. She’s a nice foil for Zaldana’s Gamora.

A mid-credits scene shows Sylvester Stallone with a bunch of other Ravagers, including one who is clearly played by Michelle Yeoh. Yes. Please.

Fun! Entertaining!

7/10
74/100

Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka. Written by Kazunori Ito (based on the manga by Masamune Shiro). Directed by Mamoru Oshii.

I confess that although I’ve had Ghost in the Shell on my radar for at least ten years, I finally saw it because of the whitewashing accusations hurled at the 2017 live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, and I wanted in on the discussion. I don’t think whitewashing is as big a deal as some of my friends think it is, but I didn’t want to engage in the conversation without knowing what I was speaking about.

And you know what? Even if I did care about whitewashing, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of this one. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi, exists in a world where cybertechnology allows living brains to exist in cyber bodies. Further, it’s also possible for a human mind to exist in a cyber brain, the titular ghost in the shell. It’s unclear to me what in Motoko’s body and brain are the stuff she was born with, making ethnicity, race, and even biological sex meaningless. Yes, the film is set in Japan, but would an adaptation necessarily have to be, if we’re talking about some imagined world in some very distant future?

On a scale of meh to outrage, I rate the casting of Johansson in the Motoko role a meh, although my thoughts might change if I see the live-action adaptation.

The story is pretty complicated, and I had to pause the DVD several times so I could read the subtitles slowly, not so much in order to follow the plot as to get a grip on the multiple philosophical discussions. When the essence of your mind can inhabit a manmade physical brain, and when that brain can inhabit a manmade body, all kinds of issues related to the self come into play, and the film’s characters seem to spend a fair amount of time thinking about them.

A ghost in a shell can access information networks, apparently, and all the stuff this implies. If you’ve seen Her or Lucy, one wonders if Johansson is being typecast here, if such a role is typecastable. I know I’m being silly here, but consider the way actors like Wilford Brimley and Paul Giamatti are often cast, based not only on physical traits but a certain kind of chracter space they inhabit well, and is it so outrageous to cast Johansson based on acting history as opposed to skin color or the birthplace of her parents?

I’m not going to summarize the story because I don’t honestly know exactly what it is. This is not to say it’s not knowable. It’s just kind of complicated, begging for repeated viewings I couldn’t give it. I understand the major plot points, especially in the beginning and end, when I hit pause and rewind several times, so I’ll just say that the plot serves the philosophical mysteries pretty well, with a pretty decent balance between who-are-we-and-why-are-we-here conversation and i’m-going-to-shoot-you-with-this-blaster action.

The artwork is lovely if the animation is kind of rough at times. If one of the purposes of animation is to put you in an imagined world you wouldn’t see in real life, it accomplishes at least that goal beautifully.

Honestly, I kind of want more, except that I want a finite more, and this is the kind of plot that could go on and on with no real end. I don’t really want to get sucked into something like that. I still feel bad for having given up on The Big Bang Theory.

7/10
73/100

Review: Hook

Hook (1991)
Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Dante Basco. Written by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

The problem with Steven Spielberg’s Hook is that it’s too long, and parts of it are boring. A film with Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan returning to Neverland to fight Captain Hook shouldn’t ever be dull, but it’s painfully so in places where it shouldn’t be, and it takes too long, first to get Peter to Neverland and then to get him back home.

Add to that a weird decision to make Julia Roberts a kind of Lost Boys version of Tinkerbell, and the film has kind of a weird it’s-not-really-magic feel. I understand the rationale, as it is important for the audience to believe that Peter and his experiences are real, but why at the expense of Tinkerbell’s femininity?

Peter is unaware of who he is, although he is aware of the story of Peter Pan. His grandmother is the Wendy Darling in the story, and Peter thinks the oft-told story of Pan is an invention of his grandmother’s. So when Hook kidnaps his children, it takes Peter a while to understand the truth of his past, and even longer to embrace it. The Lost Boys and Tinkerbell try to help, but Peter is too stuck in his boring, overly cautious businessman ways.

Still, anything to save his children. And for that he must confront Hook, played with relish by Dustin Hoffman, who acts the heck out of his role and leaves me wishing someone else had been cast. The extreme camp of this portrayal doesn’t work for me against the humdrum of Peter’s real-world reality. Something a little less crusty, perhaps even younger, might have worked better.

I don’t think this is a spoiler, but if you’re sensitive to being spoiled at all by a 26-year-old movie, skip this paragraph. In my favorite scene, and the only one that really sticks pleasantly in my memory, Tinkerbell grows herself to Peter’s height, and she lets her hair down and looks pretty for the first time in the movie. She professes her love for Peter, even knowing that he loves his wife, and gives him a kiss. It’s the Julia we want to see in a movie like this, and it’s the Peter we want to see in a movie like this. I realized at this moment that what I really want to see is a romantic comedy with Roberts and Williams in the leads. Alas.

As an entertainment for children, it’s not bad, ‘though it feels like a Disneyland ad for some reason. A young Dante Basco plays Rufio and it’s an unexpected pleasure for me to see him this way. A friend who’s acquainted with Basco tells me that whenever she sees him, people yell “Rufiooooo!” at him, and I have to admit I’d be tempted in the same situation. It feels like a star-making role.

I’d watch it with my kids, but I would hope that they wouldn’t enjoy it too much.

5/10
50/100

Review: Beat Street

Beat Street (1984)
Rae Dawn Chong, Guy Davis, Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five, The Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, DJ Kool Herc. Directed by Stan Lathan.

In 1984 I was 15 and deep into my if-it-doesn’t-rock-it-sucks phase (of which my younger sister rightfully declared, “this new you sucks”), so that year’s Beat Street could have won an Oscar for Least Likely to be Seen by Me. But I was a child, and I spoke as a child, and I understood as a child, and I thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things. In this way, as I made a list of 1984 films to catch up on, and Beat Street came up in my exploration, I uttered an enthusiastic “Well, why not?” as I added it to the queue.

The central character, Kenny Kirkland (“Double K”), is an aspiring DJ, spending his days mixing in his bedroom and his nights performing at dances in abandoned buildings. His little brother Lee is the youngest but most promising dancer in a breakdance crew, and their neighborhood friend Ramon (“Ramo”) is a notorious street artist who specializes in whole subway cars. Each tries to make it in the hip-hop culture, even though they don’t have a real concept of what that looks like. In 1984 there’s no path to a career in graffiti, and breakdancing is little more than something to gawk at, misinterpreted even by the neighborhood police as aggressive behavior.

To its credit, the film does more than just try to capitalize on urban youth culture of the mid-Eighties. It dips its toes into the deep end of the pool, addresses easy stereotypes and a few other social issues. Kenny and Lee are young black men, but their closest friends are Latino, white, and black (alas, there is nary an Asian to be seen, but not every film can be set in a Benetton ad), and it’s not a big deal. Ramon has a girlfriend and an infant, and as his street fame grows, so do his responsibilities to his loved ones. His misunderstanding father is wrong about Ramon’s art, but maybe he’s right about getting a real job. When a pretty music student at the city college (Rae Dawn Chong as Tracy—oh wait! There’s our Asian!) invites Lee to do a demo at her school, Kenny goes recognizes it as a cultural appropration of Lee’s moves, biting in the worst way.

A film about any one of these three young men might have been a better approach so that we could get a little more depth at the expense of breadth, but the wide view of rapping, DJing, breaking, and street art as connected parts of a whole culture, isn’t a bad idea. The film gives props to some of hip-hop’s prominent pioneers, including some oft-forgotten leaders like Kool Herc and the Treacherous Three, whose socially-themed, kind of clownish performance of “Santa Rap” features one of my favorites, Kool Moe Dee rapping without his signature shades.

Beat Street makes a few bad decisions, mostly in its presentation of the performers. There is a certain live hip-hop sound that the film fails to capture. The performers lip-sync to their tracks, giving the musical scenes, of which there are many, a cheap MTV look, but without the production value. Just about every number looks like a rap performed by people who don’t rap, which in most cases just isn’t true. I’ve never seen Melle Mel live, but the Furious Five’s ending performance looks like the worst of the Solid Gold performances. This should not be.

The acting is flat almost throughout, except for Rae Dawn Chong, who’s quite good. In fact, the other actors are better when they’re in scenes with her. But you’re not watching the film for the acting, really. It’s the musical and dance sequences that carry the film, and as a time capsule of a certain angle on mid-Eighties hip-hop, a 100-level introductory course, it’s passable.

6/10
61/100

Review: I’m Through with White Girls

I’m Through with White Girls (2007)
Anthony Montgomery, Lia Johnson, Ryan Alosio, Lisa Brenner, Lynn Chen. Written by Courney Lilly. Directed by Jennifer Sharp.

Jay is a young comic book artist with a history of dating white women. He is immature in relationships, and his recurrent break-up method is to leave an apologetic letter to his girlfriend and sneak out the door while she sleeps. After one of these breakups, he swears he’s done with white girls, who he insists only date him because they’ve fetishized black men according to black-man stereotypes.

Yet he’s certain the reason he dates white women is that black women have some weird, media-inspired ideal of the strong, independent black man, an ideal he can’t live up to either.

I don’t know which movie did it first, but we are treated to that clichéd sequence of rotating dates where a Viewmaster-like parade of romantic candidates across a restaurant table each says something strange, frightening, or otherwise disqualifying. One of them is an Asian woman (played by Lynn Chen, the only reason I sought this movie), and the cliché gets a little more interesting here. We see her across the table as with the others, but in fetishized Asian woman stereotypes as Jay cycles her through his ideas of geisha women and anime girls.

Jay meets Catherine, a young up-and-coming writer whose new book is getting lots of buzz from all the good places, and we’re treated to the usual romantic comedy plot. There are some very thoughtful, creative moments as this film tries to step through some fresh territory about relationships and race, and this might have been an excellent film if the supporting characters were not so obnoxious or unbelievable. I admit it’s nice to see Johnny Brown (Nathan Bookman from Good Times) and Alaina Reed Hall (Olivia from Sesame Street) on a movie screen in 2007, but it’s not enough to make up for some bad decisions with plot and character.

I’m Through with White Girls is not a waste of time, but it feels like a wasted opportunity to do something great.

5/10
55/100

Review: Take the Money and Run

Take the Money and Run (1969)
Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Louise Lasser. Written by Woody Allen and Mickey Rose. Directed by Woody Allen.

Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run is mostly a mockumentary, but don’t analyze it too closely or you find all kinds of things that make it far more like a traditional narrative and not really a mockumentary at all. Unlike This is Spinal Tap, which has an on-camera interviewer and a camera directly addressed by its subjects, this movie has footage where there never would have been a camera, as when our main character Virgil Starkwell attempt to break out of prison with a fake gun made of soap and shoe polish.

Still, the absurdist comedy is fairly enjoyable if you’re the sort to laugh when the voiceover narrator explains that Virgil’s chain gang is fed one meal per day: a bowl of steam. Or when Virgil recounts how he met his wife, a woman whose purse he attempts to snatch, explaining, “After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse.” Honestly, a lot of this feels like the boring parts of Benny Hill or Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

I think this is the tenth Allen film I’ve seen, of the movies he wrote and directed, so there are no surprises here; nor are there any wows. The one revelation for me is Janet Margolin, who plays Virgil’s wife. She’s very, very, very pretty. Also a pretty good actor and quite possibly the best thing about this film. She was also in Annie Hall, which I have seen, but I do not remember her in it. Might have to bump that one up in the queue.

My major gripe is not with the film itself, but the format of the DVD I watched it from. I was under the impression that Allen didn’t want his films viewed in any format he hadn’t intended, which is why Manhattan is the first letterboxed movie I ever saw on TV. The DVD I saw had it in pan-and-scan, something that almost made me eject the disc before it even got started.

Not much to look at here, outside of Margolin.

4/10
42/100

Friday 5: Tiny Gestures

From here.

  1. What might you put in a small, pretty glass bottle as a romantic gift to someone?
    I’ve done something like this twice, both for the same recipient who was away from home for a few years. One was sand and ocean water from her favorite beach. I don’t live on a very big island, but the beaches have different qualities of sand and ocean water. Another was rain. I cheated a little on the rain, putting a small funnel in the mouth of the bottle, but I did stand out there in the rain until it was full.
  2. Someone you care very much for is leaving for a long time but will be back. What small object (not a photo) might you give him or her to remember you by?
    I think a lock of my long hair would be pretty funny. Or one of my guitar picks, maybe with a hole drilled into it so she could put it on a chain.
  3. If you were to leave a small mark in your current residence, as lasting evidence that you lived there, what would you leave, and where would you leave it?
    I think I could get away with my initials in black Sharpie, in my under-the-stairs closet. I might actually do this.
  4. What would you like to toss into the fires of Mount Doom?
    I have a bunch of old electronics I have difficulty getting to a recycling drive. I can see myself trudging up to Mount Doom and casting it into the fires. Old PCs in various stages of repair and disrepair. Old CRT monitors and a couple of flat-panel monitors. Batteries.
  5. Those adopt-a-star things are gimmicky rip-offs, but if they weren’t, and someone gave you one as a gift, what would you name it?
    Whenever one of my friends is expecting a child, I suggest Van Halen as a first name. I think Van Halen does with just about any last name, and you could name either a boy or a girl Van Halen, and it would be one of the coolest first names in the history of first names. A kid named Van Halen is already the baddest, coolest, possibly nicest kid in the classroom. And since no friend has ever taken my suggestion, I might as well give it to a star.

Review: Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy Theory (1997)
Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Patrick Stewart. Written by Brian Helgeland. Directed by Richard Donner.

I expected Conspiracy Theory to suck, but it was surprisingly entertaining and not a bad flick. Mel Gibson is Jerry, a cab driver in New York, and the publisher of a newsletter called Conspiracy Theory. He has all kinds of unprovable ideas about black helicopters, secret governments, and the Grateful Dead as intelligence agents. Turns out he might be right about at least one thing (he doesn’t know what) because some guy named Jonas, played by Patrick Stewart, wants to know what else Jerry knows.

Jerry seeks the help of Julia Roberts’s Alice, an FBI lawyer on whom he has a crush. He once saved her from a mugging, so she’s willing to give him a few minutes and hear his story, only his story doesn’t make sense. Now it’s apparently Jerry and Alice against the FBI, the CIA, and other nameless underground agencies.The setup is quite good. Gibson swings between one-step-away-from-unhinged and sad puppy dog, and manages to go through all kinds of fight and escape sequences without going into macho mode. Roberts does what she usually does, playing the smart, cool, independent woman carrying around vulnerability and sadness she only shows to a select few. It’s a really good combination and I would have liked to see it in a film with a better second half.

I want Julia Roberts to kiss people. It’s one of the reasons I watch a Julia Roberts movie. However, I didn’t want her to do it in this one, yet the film insists on setting up a romance that should never be. I’m not even sure (giving the writer the benefit of the doubt) Alice even has those kinds of feelings for Jerry, but even the stuff she gives him is just a bit too much. There’s an “I love you too” that’s maybe the worst, least believable “I love you too” I’ve ever seen. On screen, that is. I’ve received a few that were worse, at least in retrospect, and I may have utterered a few with less credibility.

The movie sorta devolves into the cat-and-mice action picture I expected, but it doesn’t suck because I like the characters. The film plays with darkness and cynicism in snack-sized bites I wouldn’t have minded in more substantial servings, although I understand why it doesn’t go there, and the strength of the performances is enough to keep me intrigued.

7/10
72/100

Friday 5: Straight No Chaser

From here.

  1. What keeps you on the straight and narrow?
    When I was a kid it had mostly to do with fear of pissing my parents off.  As I got older (like, in high school), it got to be a pride thing.  It was easy to be bad.  It was hard to be good.  I wanted to do the hard thing to prove I could.  In a way, I rebelled by being good.  Part of that informs my living today, really.  I don’t care for laws or rules; I care about doing what’s right.  And I mess it up just often enough to keep trying, if that makes any sense.  It’s hard to do good!
  2. Who in your life is a real straight shooter?
    I’m going with my friend Lauren, an amazingly beautiful, beautifully blunt musician who works in a bar.  When I need an honest opinion about something, if it’s something Lauren might be in a position to have an opinion about, I go to her.  But only if I really, really want an honest opinion.
  3. How straight are your teeth and hair?
    My teeth have been very straight for most of my life, except for a noticeable gap between my front teeth.  As I’ve gotten older, my two fronth teeth have spread apart (to the point where I’m self conscious about that gap now, although I have to say that Michael Strahan is giving me courage to be less concerned about it) while the rest of my teeth seem to be pushing together, causing some of them to go crooked.  I’m annoyed.  My hair is naturally curly, but usually only when it gets down to about collar length.  Not that it’s been that short in fifteen years, but still.
  4. What’s a good song with the word straight in its lyrics or title?

    I’m going with “Straight Ahead” by Amy Grant, from the album with that title. 1984 ish, I think. When I saw her in concert at the Waikiki Shell on the Unguarded tour, it was one of the better performances in the set. I think it was her last song before the encore.
  5. What’s something that needs straightening?
    I have a few stupid financial obligations I need to straighten out.  I think I owe back registration on a car I haven’t driven in three years before I can donate it to a charity.  I have things I want to do this year, things that burden my troubled soul in response to the elections last November, and they require my taking care of these stupid things first.