Dustin Hoffman Films I’ve Seen, Ranked

I guess I haven’t seen as many as I thought I have. Titles are divided in tiers. Something like very good, good, okie-dokie, and just north of bad.

hoffmanAll the President’s Men (1976)
Rainman (1988)
Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Tootsie (1982)
Barney’s Version (2010)

Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Hero (1992)
The Graduate (1967)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Outbreak (1995)
Wag the Dog (1997)

Review: Stripes

Stripes (1981)
Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, P. J. Soles, Sean Young, John Larroquette, John Candy, Judge Reinhold. Written by Len Blum, Harold Ramis, and Daniel Goldberg. Directed by Ivan Reitman.

stripes1I’ve finally seen the supposedly legendary Stripes, a film that in 1981 won my high-school newspaper’s back-to-school survey asking for the best film of the summer. It beat out my favorite from that summer, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bill Murray is in some of my favorite movies of all time, including Lost in Translation and Groundhog Day, but Stripes reminds me of a classic Murray line from another beloved project with costar Harold Ramis and director Ivan Reitman: “Okay. So she’s a dog!”

This movie was more popular with my schoolmates than Raiders of the Lost Ark? Who in the world did I go to school with?

It’s a barely decent screwball comedy. Murray plays John Ringer, kind of a slacker amateur photographer who convinces his best friend Russell Ziskey (Ramis) to enlist in the army with him. They bump heads with their drill sergeant and they bump other body parts with attractive MPs (P. J. Soles and Sean Young), somehow bonding with the others in their platoon as they survive basic training.

stripes2Nothing in the plot is remotely believable, but there are some good laughs because while the story they inhabit is ridiculous, the actors behave with earnestness and sincerity, and because they are talented comic actors, humor emerges anyway, and this is the movie’s one strength.

Murray does something better than almost any other screwball actor I’ve seen. He ties himself to another character like a kite on a string, so that he can dip, dive, and spin according to his creative whim while maintaining a grip on reality, such as it exists in a given film. He told Ivan Reitman while the film was casting that he would do the role if Reitman would cast Ramis in the other part, and you can see why. There is an obvious trust, not only between their characters but between the actors as well, and we the audience can believe in Ringer enough to laugh with him, because Ziskey so convincingly believes him too.

stripes3The acting is excellent almost all around. John Candy as Ox is sincere and sweet, and John Larroquette has a few moments that should have been throwaways, but he adds convincing touches that make him somehow almost real even though nothing his character does is remotely real.

The romance in this story is preposterous, excused perhaps only because the love interests are pretty, and the actresses know their stuff. The entire third act is outlandish and dull. In fact, just about every decision in this film after the first act is wrongheaded, including the stupid spinning magazine covers that tell us what happens to our characters later, and the idiot Czech soldiers at the border. I’m not even a fan of the iconic drill routine at the platoon’s graduation.

There is one film-saving moment in the middle, when Ziskey and Ringer get into a fight while Ringer attempts a desertion, a reminder that amidst all of this stupidity is being held up solely by some really good actors who somehow take this stupid plot seriously.

stripes4The DVD I watched had an extended version, with several deleted scenes placed where they were originally intended. Most of them are easy cutting-room decisions, but there is a moment, when Ringer is making the case for enlisting, when he straightens up and tells Ziskey, “I’m falling apart here.” Almost everything you need to know about how in the world this movie manages to be watchable is in these few seconds. Murray and Ramis don’t just show up and go wild. There’s acting going on here, real acting that perhaps performers in these kinds of films don’t get enough credit for, and I wish this moment had been left in. It’s a great reminder of how special even the stupidest comedy can be when actors like this know what to do with it.

This is a mostly terrible movie with a great cast.

5/10
47/100

Night is Calling, and I am Falling

img_7839I went back through Chinatown Wednesday night to get a photo of the dance studio. Something about it felt like something I needed to document in a visual way.  The three windows on the second floor are apparently the studio.  There were two women, each silhouetted in a window, one seeming to be on the phone and the other looking like she might be smoking, but there was a very large SUV parked in front of that pile of trash, and its passengers were getting into it, so I had to wait for them to get out of my way to get a shot.  By then, the silhouettes were gone.  Annoying.

Stores in Chinatown put their trash out at the curb every evening, and early each morning, a city crew comes along and picks it all up.  I’ve been down there many times when the garbage crew is making its rounds.  By the time they get there, the trash has been sitting out all night, and people have picked through it and spread it out on the sidewalk and stuff.  I love Chinatown, but aesthetically, it leaves a lot to be desired between nine in the evening and five in the morning.

You can see what I mean about the sign in the upstairs window and the awning.  I either forgot or never noticed that there’s also a sign in the window downstairs (I have made the image clickable if you’d care to see it larger), so if my short-term friend the other night had somehow found her way down there, she might have been able to work things out for herself.

img_7841A block and a half down, I was reminded that Thanksgiving was the next day.  Lee’s Bakery is kind of famous for being open late the night before, so people can get pies for their potlucks and family gatherings.  The bakery is right at the bus stop where I usually got off when I was still working with the engineers, and I would often grab lunch there, usually a couple of manapuas (char siu baos), which they make really well there.  It’s an inexpensive, convenient, filling, delicious lunch.  Lee’s does several things well, but I never thought the pies were worth standing in line for.  Forty of my fellow residents disagree, however.  It was 9:20 when I went by, and that’s how many people were in line.  The photo-ruiners in the SUV must also disagree, because they were carrying the telltale boxes tied with string as they got into their vehicle.

It was a nice walk.  I went about seven and a half miles total that night, and definitely felt it when I got home.

Review: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)
Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Adam DeVine, Zac Effron. Directed by Jake Szymanski.

mandd1If you can’t disconnect your brain and just enjoy four good actors being goofy and stupid, there’s really no way to appreciate a film like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, unless, like me, you are a deep admirer of the actors themselves. My fan-love for Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza is so deep that it almost doesn’t matter what the film is, and I know for certain that many people feel this way about Zac Efron.  A movie like this isn’t so much a story as a witness to an execution of comedic over-the-top acting chops, if there is such a thing, and if you can appreciate Anna Kendrick sobbing her poor young heart out while George Clooney awkwardly pretends to sympathize in an Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air, why not go along in the opposite direction as she shares a bunch of MDMA with the bride the night before a wedding, and then takes her clothes off so she can cavort with a corral of hotel-owned horses she decides to set free?

mandd3Adam DeVine and Zac Effron are Mike and Dave, two idiot brothers whose younger sister is about to be wed. They’re warned by their family—the bride included—that they are expected to have dates for this wedding, because they have a history of coming to family events stag, and then embarrassing everyone with life-endangering stunts and guest-insulting flirtation. The family hopes that dates will keep the young men in line. Because they’re idiot horndogs, at first they resist, but because they love their sister (nearly as much as they appear to love each other), they acquiesce, putting an ad on Craigslist, searching for dates to the Hawaii wedding.

mandd2The Hawaii part of the deal inspires a lot of responses, as well as an appearance on The Wendy Williams Show where Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) see them. The ladies are having problems. Alice, recently abandoned at the altar, repeatedly shows up for her waitressing job drunk. Tatiana, her best friend, joins Anna in her drunkenness, and they are both fired. A trip to Hawaii could help them reset their lives, so they make up fake identities, Tatiana declaring she’s a teacher, and Alice claiming to be a hedge-fund manager. Just the sort of nice girls Mike and Dave know will please their family.

My friend Dawn (holding the drink) is an extra in several scenes.  Another reason to see this film.
My friend Dawn (holding the drink) is an extra in several scenes. Another reason to see this film.

All that setup seems unnecessary for a pretty thin story, but I suspect it serves to loosen a viewer’s brain, a kind of focused stretching before a basketball game. First, get to like the characters, understanding that they’re basically nice people, if stupid and misguided. Then, get used to the possibility that their likeable stupidity means they are about to do some really stupid, unbelievable stuff for the sole purpose of making you laugh, or (alternately) be reminded that Kendrick and Plaza are super cute, and that Effron is a hunk. You paid for the rental; you might as well stick around for that.

This is the second Kendrick-Plaza movie and the third Kendrick-DeVine movie, and these are good team-ups, and this is where the film mostly works, because goodness knows there aren’t a lot of genuine laughs. The hope that there might be some singing, with three of the four principals starring in hugely successful musical projects, might be another appeal, and some of that is delivered as well. There’s a happy pleasure in seeing this young talent get a little crazy and have fun, and if one can forgive the characters for promising more than they deliver, shallowly motivated by a trip to Hawaii, one can certainly excuse the actors for doing the same thing.

5/10
51/100

PS: This is not Pitch Perfect or High School Musical. Screen it before you watch it with your kids.

Friday 5: You, Too

From here.

  1. What are you too short to do?
    Man.  I’m too short to slam-dunk a basketball on an eight-foot rim, something that embarrasses me more than you’d think.  I once went to a park with some friends to shoot some slam-dunk video on an eight-foot rim, from angles that would make it look like a regular ten-foot rim.  I very quickly became the full-time videographer when it became clear I was the only guy there who coudn’t slam it home.
  2. What are you too smart to do?
    Listen.  I don’t care what anyone else calls it.  I’m too smart to go sky-diving or bungee-jumping.  The greatest minds of human history have been devoted to defying gravity.  Giving in to gravity seems like the opposite inclination to me.
  3. What are you too fearful to do?
    I’m certainly not too fearful to jump out of a plane or off a bridge, if that’s what you’re thinking.  That’s about being too smart, not being too fearful.  What I’m really too fearful to do is sleep with my bedroom lights out.  I won’t get into it here, but this is not merely a matter of preference.  I much, much prefer sleeping in total darkness, but for the past ten years or so, I need to leave the lights on, and it’s for a stupid reason that someday I am pretty sure will no longer be true.  One of my favorite things about camping in a tent or vacationing in a hotel is that they are some of the few places I can safely turn out every light and just sleep.
  4. What are you too lazy to do?
    My city has bulky-item trash pickup once a month, and I have a couple of things that need to go.  I’m just too lazy to haul it to the curb on the designated day (you’re supposed to put it out on a specific day, and not earlier, to spare your neighbors the eyesore).  I’ve got to do it soon, though, as I’ve been making slow progress toward a clean house, and this stuff has to go.
  5. What are you too young to do?
    The easy answer is that I’m too young to retire, alas, but I should be able to come up with something more meaningful than that.  Okay, I got it.  I’m too young to be as preoccupied by death as I am.  I’m too young to give up on certain lifelong ambitions I have, especially about my writing.  And I’m too young to have seriously put together a bucket list.

    I had a brief chat with my dad last weekend, during which he said his bucket list has been checked off, and it has been for a long time.  He’s enjoying being retired and not having to do anything, so I didn’t suggest what I wanted to, which is that he should come up with a couple more things.  I’m not sure why I feel that way; I mean, if you’re satisfied with what you’ve done and you’re enjoying what you are, why keep adding to the list just to keep doing stuff?  Something to think about when I’m not so tired.

 

Two to Tango

img_7821My late-night walks usually skirt the downtown/Chinatown area.  It’s just not the best place to be at night, especially for someone who wants solitude and some semblance of quietude.  It isn’t nearly as rough or dangerous as it used to be; in fact, I can think of a lot of neighborhoods where I’d feel less safe walking around.  At least there’s a police station right at the corner of Hotel and Nuuanu, and there are cops all over the place.

Plus, these past two decades, a kind of gentrification has spread, beginning on Bethel Street across the theater, working its way down Hotel Street toward the Chinatown part of Chinatown, so that the stretch of once-seedy, once-crumbly spaces that used to be strip clubs and porno shops are now bars I’m too old to feel comfortable in.

Seriously, that stretch of Hotel between Bethel and Smith?  It was so sleazy in the Eighties!  I used to catch a bus home from there when I was twelve, and I learned a lot of stuff my parents didn’t know I was learning.

So that’s where I headed the other night, planning to walk right through on my way to Kapahulu, where I’d maybe get a cheap snack and ride the bus back home.  It’s about six and a half miles, and it’s been my routine lately, six nights a week, although I try to vary the route to keep it interesting.

I had a few extra quarters in my pocket (not an everyday occurrence) and have been collecting photos of neighborhood liquor stores, and I had one in mind, on Hotel between Smith and Mauna Kea.  The gentrification is still oozing its way westward on that block (but it is oozing, if you haven’t been down there lately).  I was pleased to find a 20-oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi for only $1.77, at least a dime less expensive than in most places.  That’s a big dime, I tell you.

There was a woman ahead of me at the cash register.  She was a thin, young Chinese woman, asking the proprietor for directions somewhere.  I politely didn’t pay any attention, but then a line was building up behind me, and it seemed to me that this Chinese woman was having trouble communicating with the Korean owner.  I could hear that the owner was trying to explain how South King Street is over that way.  She pointed.

The people who made decisions about how our fine city would be laid out once upon a time were idiots.  Major streets running east and west have “north” and “south” designations.  North Hotel.  South Hotel.  North Vineyard.  South Vineyard.  North Beretania.  South Beretania.  Which doesn’t make any sense, because yeah: the streets go east and west.  And the spine in this weird book of streets is Nuuanu Avenue, a storied and important street which was singled out for some reason as the origin.  Stand on Nuuanu and look north, and the addresses begin in single digits on your left for North King, North Beretania, North whatever, and they also begin in single digits on your right for Sourth King, South Beretania, and South whatever.

Even though this part of town is a lot safer than it was, it’s not a place I’d advise a young woman to be wandering around alone, especially when she didn’t know where she was going.  So I stepped forward and said, “What are you trying to find?”

She showed me her smartphone.  It had a low-numbered address for North King.  I didn’t recognize the address, but I knew where it had to be.  Then I saw that a few lines up, there was the name of a dance studio.

The dance studio is in the unlikeliest of places.  You could walk right past it every day for a year and never know it existed.  It’s on the second floor of an old building, above tailors, tiny restaurants, and importers, and the only sign is in a second-story window, completely invisible from the ground outside because of the awning.  You have to be across the street and looking up to see the sign.

I’ve been across the street many times these past couple of years.  I knew exactly where it was.  So I said, “I’ll take you there.”  She smiled and said thank you.

We stepped out, squeezing past cans of Spam and several guys I’m pretty sure weren’t living on Hotel Street but on Hotel Street.  A couple of them each had a 12-oz. can of Steel Reserve and a single dollar bill.  I’m filing that away for future use.  That’s a rather potent brand of malt liquor, popular among the indigent and I suppose many of my neighbors for the bang it delivers for the (apparently literal) buck.

As I led her to the nearby corner at Mauna Kea and then toward King, she said, “I’ve never been here at night.  Everything’s different.”

“You have to be careful around here at night,” I said.  “Please don’t come by yourself next time!”

We chit-chatted as we walked.  I asked her if she was in a dance class.  She asked me if I lived around there.  I told her that it’s not super dangerous, but she should still be careful.  She told me that she needed wifi for her maps app to work, and she couldn’t find any down there.

Hotel Street has diurnal and nocturnal lives, at least before you get to the Mauna Kea intersection.  King is practically dead after seven in the evening, and it was getting close to nine.  Not only were all the storefronts locked up (really, really locked up), but the sidewalk was dark and damp, and it didn’t look like anyone had any real reason to be there.  I knew we were getting close, even though I didn’t know exactly how we were supposed to get to the second floor.

I stepped out into the street so I could look up, over the awning, and there it was, yellow lights coming out of a couple of upstairs windows.  I led her a few doors down, pointed to a window on which was painted the address she’d been looking for.

“I’m not sure how we get in, so we may have to look around,” I said.

I saw a double door that looked in the dark like it opened into a foyer, rather than into a store.  It didn’t look welcoming or even open, but when I tried the doorknob, the door swung open.

“Aha,” I said.

“Ah!” she nearly echoed.

I closed the door behind her, and led her halfway up a narrow stair.  There was a landing midway up, and a small sandwich-board sign that said TANGO on it, and some other words I didn’t get a look at.

“Here we are,” I said.  “Have a great class.  And please don’t go home alone!”

“I won’t.  I’ll ask someone from the class if I can go with them when we leave.”

I thought the best thing would be to walk her all the way to the studio, but it didn’t seem necessary, and I didn’t feel like having to say hi to anyone.  She was safely at her destination.  She thanked me, a hand stretched toward me, palm facing the floor, almost like a gesture of casual friendship.  I waved and wished her a good evening.

I continued my walk.  By the time I got to the park behind city hall, I was in tears.  This is how I’m going to do my part, I kept thinking.  Not with marches or anger or fear, but with kindness.  Somehow, in my strange, broken soul, I’ve turned acts of kindness into my weapon against whatever happened two Tuesdays ago.

“Take that,” I kept thinking, trying psychically to project my small act of goodwill and my refusal to embrace fear in the direction of those people who don’t see something beautiful about a Korean woman selling twelve-ounce cans of Steel Reserve for a buck each to guys who will get their only pleasure of the night from them, or a Chinese woman looking for a dance studio above a Vietnamese restaurant, or a middle-aged half-Japanese loner counting steps on a phone app.  I pleaded, “What are you so afraid of?”

I’m still working a lot of stuff out, as I keep saying.  Whatever my response, it will not be hateful, angry, or fearful.

Okay, maybe it will be angry.  Those tears were tears of anger, not at a man or a voter or a state, but at a failure.  My failure.  Our failure.

The Star Trek Films Ranked

From best to worst.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) (pretty bad)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) (bad)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) (the only one that’s truly awful)

I haven’t seen Star Trek: Generations (1994). It’s at the top of the queue.

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella, Idris Elba. Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Directed by Justin Lin.

beyond1James Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise travel into an unstable nebula to help the captain of a disabled starship recover her crew. Things go horribly wrong, the crew is forced to abandon ship, the officers are separated by circumstances into pairs, a new ally is encountered, new enemies announce themselves, and everyone including thousands of people living on a brand-new space station is threatened by a horrible bio-weapon.

beyond3The Star Trek people are just crushing it with this reboot film series. These new stories, this new cast, and the new look and feel of the Enterprise combine to make some of the best escapist sci-fi I’ve ever seen. The films build upon the good feelings people already have for Captain Kirk and his crew, so that even while we’re watching new actors in old roles, everything feels fresh and familiar, rather than recycled or tired. The characters’ new facets feel exactly right, either because of underexplored elements from earlier work—such as Uhura’s relationship with Spock, slightly teased in the first few episodes of the classic television series—or because of new knowledge about the overall Star Trek universe, as when Sulu’s homosexual relationship pays tribute to original Sulu actor George Takei.

beyond2I’m not even a real Trekker, but my affection for the characters is so strong (and honestly, I don’t know where this came from) that when Kirk addresses his crew at the outset of a journey into uncharted space, he says, “The Enterprise has something no other ship in the fleet has: you,” and it’s a touching and inspiring moment. This dependence on his crew, and its members’ dependence upon one another, is a recurring theme. As the movie progresses, different combinations of crew members drive home the message that they respect, admire, love, and count on each other, and that this is why Enterprise has endured for these many decades. Add the real-life death of actors Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, whose Checkov will not be recast in future films, and a lovely voiceover on the “Space: the final frontier” intro, and it’s nearly impossible not to feel a warm nostalgia or an almost urgent desire to see more films with this cast.

beyond4The Chris-Pine-Zachary-Quinto partnership is again excellent here, but there are also great scenes with Quinto and Karl Urban, Pine and Yelchin, and Simon Pegg with Sofia Boutella, who plays a crash survivor joining the Enterprise crew against its current enemy. But props to the whole cast, every one of whom (except maybe Idris Elba) does a terrific job. Star Trek movies never get their due during awards season, but I will be royally peeved if there isn’t an ensemble nomination somewhere this time around.

8/10
82/100

Double Stuff

A friend of mine wants to give me her car. The text message she sent said, “There’s that thing about ‘no such thing as a free puppy,’ but want my T-Bird?”

I know what she means. I inherited my first wheels (an old Ford pickup) when they were ten years old, and things kept breaking. But I would love just to have something for doing the things I can’t do right now. However, I can barely afford my monthly bus pass, so I certainly can’t afford even just to own a car.

So I said I really appreciated it. But until I get a regular gig, there’s just no way.

She said she’s not planning to just get rid of it, so as long as it’s running, her offer stands. She’s picked up a “younger, blacker, sexier one with 200K fewer miles.”

I have nice friends.

I sent a follow-up email to one of the places where I’ve recently applied, and got an immediate response asking for some writing samples (something I suggested in that follow-up). The person wanted samples in styles unlike my ready-to-go samples, so it took half a day to figure out what to send, and then to format it and stuff. I managed to send it just before close of business Friday. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve had a painful week. It’s not just this election stuff, but for some reason I’ve been dredging up some old stuff that I usually manage to keep buried way, way down. I’m having something of an existential crisis (brought on by this election), and it’s causing me to rethink a lot of important stuff about who I am and how I live, and whether the things I believe are reflected adequately in all kinds of other stuff, like my interactions with people, my stewardship of resources such as time and ability, and what I want my life to look like in a few years. It’s difficult stuff (I think that’s the seventh time I’ve used the word stuff in this paragraph), but I feel as if I’m on the verge of something important.

So, you know. Painful, but not in a horrible way.

Gotta spend most of the rest of my weekend writing. I’m still behind on the paid stuff. I’m going to get slightly ahead on my two hard deadlines this week so I can focus on some of that soft-deadline way-too-late stuff.

I just finished my 48th week of that stupid new year’s resolution step-count goal. Five weeks to go to make it a year. Yeah, I know that’s 53 weeks. I started the last week of December. I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. I’ll spend time reflecting, once I either complete the year or mess up and fall short of the weekly goal. There are things to say about it.

Review: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea (2014)
Voices of Brendan Gleeson, David Rawle, and Fionnula Flanagan. Written by Will Collins. Directed by Tomm Moore.

sots1Ben is resentful of his little sister Saoirse, who still cannot speak at the age of six and who is little more than a thorn in his side.  His father and grandmother are of very little comfort, and it seems all Ben has are the stories his mother told him when he was younger. Sometimes, Ben shares these stories with Saoirse, more to frighten her than encourage her, but these legends of Ireland seem to resonate with Saoirse even more meaningfully than they do Ben.

sots2Song of the Sea has a lot in common with the earlier film by Tomm Moore, The Secret of Kells. Both are rich with the folklore of Ireland, both are highlighted by beautiful artwork and music, and both reach into the sensitivities of their young audiences, touching on cultural identity and familial loss. Maybe it doesn’t take as much courage as I imagine for a storyteller to wriggle into those spaces where children are vulnerable, but I find it admirable when he or she executes it in non-gratuitous, effective ways. The sentiments are so genuine that I would caution parents to screen this film first before deciding whether their children are emotionally equipped to handle its themes.

sots3The story, art, and larger themes are perhaps just a click or two below The Secret of Kells, but Song of the Sea spends more time than its predecessor on character development, offering a slightly more satisfying experience. This may be nitpicking, though, because both are lovely to look at, although this film is a lot cutesier, which may be an improvement or not.

I like it.

7/10
73/100