Review: The Hot Rock

The Hot Rock (1972)
Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand, Moses Gunn, Zero Mostel. Written by William Goldman (based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake). Directed by Peter Yates.

The Hot Rock opens with John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) going through the procedures for his release from prison. It’s clear he knows what he’s doing and that he’s done this before. The warden, with whom Dortmunder is on a first-name basis, says something to the effect of “See you again,” which the newly free man does not dispute, although he does claim to be rehabilitated. “You couldn’t really go straight?” asks the warden.

“My heart wouldn’t be in it, Frank,” Dortmunder responds coolly. It’s a good establishing scene for this character, who isn’t out a day before his brother-in-law Kelp (George Segal in an excellent supporting role) lets him in on a job. Dortmunder is a pro who seems to be careful about what he gets into, so he resists at first, but he takes the challenge of stealing a precious diamond on behalf of an African nation who claims it was taken from them generations ago.

What follows is a charming steal-the-diamond, lose-the-diamond, find-the-diamond caper flick about Dortmunder and his three handpicked cohorts. It would be ho-hum stuff if not for Redford’s and Segal’s charisma and a few touches that make it go down easier for a guy like me. Yes, there are explosions and hot pursuits and guys knocking out cops so they can take their uniforms (which fit perfectly, of course), but in one car chase, the passengers are clearly (but subtly) terrified, and in a helicopter scene, the same passengers look like they’re about to throw up. It’s guided with a light hand and a light sense of humor without tilting over into silliness.

At 100 minutes, it’s about the right length for a story like this, but it still feels a little draggy to me in several places. It could have been a really tight 90 minutes or a more interesting 100 minutes. There’s no real character development beyond Dartmunder’s seemingly unflappable demeanor, which is not everything he lets on, and there’s no emotional stuff at all.

Enjoyable enough if you happen to come across it, ‘though maybe not something worth pursuing. The source novel is the first of a popular long series, and I would have been down to see what these guys get into next, in a sequel. Christopher Guest (whom I could not locate) and Charlotte Rae have small roles.

5/10
56/100

Review: The Martian

The Martian (2015)
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover. Written by Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir). Directed by Ridley Scott.

U.S. astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, presumed dead by his team who has aborted its mission and fled the planet. Watney figures his best shot for rescue is to rendez-vous with the next mission in four years, but he’s only got one year’s worth of food. What follows is a classic man vs. the elements survival story, but with the added element of serious problem-solving with life-or-death stakes.

Survival stories are great, but they tend to be one physical challenge after the next. In The Martian, Matt Damon plays a man confronted not only with literally alien terrain on a planet where he is the only human, but with a succession of seemingly impossible puzzles. In the face of one such problem, he explains in the video journal he’s keeping that he needs to “science the **** out of this.” Damon is a pleasure to watch as always, but the problem-solving by Watney, NASA, and the rest of Watney’s team perked me up and had me riveted through each of (so far) three viewings of this movie.

Damon is unquestionably the film’s greatest strength, but there’s a lot more to recommend it. The planet itself is a mind-blowing beauty to behold, mostly stoic and still, but menacing just by not being Watney’s home. The score by Harry Gregson-William is fantastic, communicating the stillness and loneliness of space while giving enough room for Damon to emote without manipulating the audience. This is what a film score should do.

Acting by others in the cast is solid. Jessica Chastain, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis (whom I had not heard of until now) put in especially good performances. I keep forgetting how much I like Jessica Chastain as an actress.

Some viewers might think not enough is explained in this science-fiction: there are a lot of never-defined acronyms and some of the science is shown without any elaboration, as when Watney performs some surgery on himself using surgical tools I don’t think we’ve seen before. I’d argue that the film explains enough, and any more would bog things down. The film finds a good balance here, although I can see why some would disagree.

A very good film, one I will probably have to purchase because I can’t see myself tiring of it.

8/10
88/100

Friday 5: Scattergories 7

From here.

What random letter was generated by the online random-letter generator (this doesn’t really count as one of your five questions)?

V.

  1. What’s something gross whose name begins with the letter?
    Vomit. I haven’t vomited recently, but I gagged almost to the point of vomiting on Tuesday, when we had a blind coffee-tasting in the office to see if we wanted to change our coffee service. It was a change I had been pushing almost since they day I got here. Our coffee service delivers Lion Coffee, which I hate almost as much as Yuban.
    So we had this blind tasting. I tried the first cup (labeled “black” for the thermos it was served from) and it wasn’t great, but it was drinkable. It had a kind of ashy front end, like cigarette butts, with faint, fruity tastes I couldn’t identify. I hate fruity coffee, but this was only barely fruity. The overall flavor was kind of thin and weak, which highlighted the lingering, ashy taste. Then I tried the second cup (“white”) and as soon as I got it in my mouth, I gagged. I ran to the door thinking I might have to spit it out, but I got it down, coughed a few times, wiped the tears from my eyes, and said, “Not that one.” I cast my vote for black. Then I have to admit I was deeply worried that, since I’ve sorta lost my taste for coffee in the years since I went to college on Hawaii Island, where there’s great coffee all over the place, I really couldn’t tell the difference as well as I thought I could and had voted strongly in favor of the coffee I had been complaining about. That was a very good possibility. But in a couple of hours it was announced that we would be switching coffee services. Black had won by a vote of 22 to 7. Whew.
  2. What’s something crunchy whose name begins with the letter?
    Veggies. I’ve been having broccoli with breakfast and lunch nearly every day this week. It’s one of my favorite foods, although I admit most of the time I blanch it until it’s still firm but not exactly crunchy.
  3. What’s something (or who is someone) you wouldn’t mind hugging whose name begins with the letter?
    My classmate Vicky. We’ve been sort-of friends since seventh grade and real friends since the end of high school. For a while when we were both attending UH Manoa, I drove her home when we were done with classes and our campus jobs. We’d both gone to church at Nuuanu B.C. through intermediate and high school, but the college group was kind of lame, so I switched to FSBC Pearl City, and after a few months there, I brought Vicky along too, where she was immediately better liked than I was. If you knew her (or if you knew me, really) you’d understand. She’s super likeable.
  4. What’s something whose name begins with the letter and can be found on a passenger airplane?
    I’m tempted to say vomit again, but that’s boring, so let’s go with vents. I’m one of those people who almost always needs to feel air moving past me in order to feel comfortable, so I like to have my air vent on all the time, as open as I can get it. It cuts down on the feeling of being stuck in a confined space with people I don’t know, but it’s also really gross. I hate that air.
  5. What’s something (whose name begins with the letter) you could purchase at a hardware store?
    Velcro. I’m a big fan of those little dots of adhesive Velcro, which I most recently used to anchor my bread machine in place on the small shelf in my kitchen where I keep it. Those machines do a lot of vibrating, and sometimes the machine walks itself right off that shelf, which is alarming and (on one occasion) a waste of good bread ingredeints because the still-being-kneaded ball of dough oozed out of the on-its-side bread machine before I could rescue it, blobbing out onto the kitchen floor. Four heavy-duty adhesive Velcro dots and everything is fine now. So far.

Friday 5: In Your Head! In Your Head!

From here.

  1. Which mythical monster would you most enjoy discovering (first- or second-hand) is real?
    The ones I would least enjoy discovering are real are the Nightmarchers because that’s a little too close to home, and the marchers seem scary as heck. I guess I wouldn’t mind discovering the Loch Ness Monster, something I had a fascination with when I was in elementary school. One of my first short stories was called “The Search for Nessie,” which I wrote in fifth or sixth grade for a class. It just seems like a really cool beast. Plus it’s far, far away from me.
  2. When did you last exhibit monstrous behavior?
    I think it’s been a rather long time. I’ve learned to be mellow in my adulthood. Oh, I know. A couple of years ago I brought home a Costco rotisserie chicken with plans to eat it with mashed potatoes for dinner and take the leftovers for lunch the next day. Instead, I got it home and just tore into it (with a knife), eating it right there at the dining room table right out of the plastic box. It felt rather savage, the hungry way I devoured that thing.
  3. What do you think of monster trucks?
    I think they’re so cool! I doubt I would ever go to a monster truck show, but if I were ever given the opportunity to drive one, I would take it.
  4. If you like monster movies, what’s a monster movie you dislike? And if you dislike them, what’s a monster movie you like?
    I’m ambivalent about monster movies, so I’ll name one I dislike and one I like. I kinda liked the original Godzilla (the all-Japanese one, not the American adaptation with Japanese footage) and of course The Toxic Avenger. I disliked Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), but I last saw that when I was a teen. I’d be open to giving it another chance someday.
  5. What song about a monster (or with the word monster in the title) do you really like?
    I hate to continue the Godzilla theme, but I really do like Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” (“He picks up a bus and he throws it back down, as he wades through the buildings toward the center of town…”), and of course there are a thousand great songs about Satan. Maybe my favorite is Extreme’s “It(‘s a Monster)” which I think is about sex, or at least a young man’s sex drive. Here’s a pretty good live video of the song. Pat Badger (bass) and Nuno Bettencourt (guitar) really groove on this (especially Pat during Nuno’s solo), and Nuno looks great.

Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016)
Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Directed by David Mackenzie.

I can think of a few things I might have done to make Hell or High Water better, but I can’t think of anything it does wrong. One of the best things about always finding something to complain about in a movie is that when a film comes along and I can’t think of a single legitimate gripe, it becomes something really special. And while it doesn’t have quite the emotional heft of other no-complaint movies like Beauty and the Beast or Casablanca, Hell or High Water has an emotional and visual ambience to put it in the league of The Shawshank Redemption.

Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger a few weeks from retirement. Unsure what he’s going to do with himself when he’s no longer part of the action, he seems to earn a break from thinking too much about it when he and his partner investigate a string of small-town bank robberies. We’re spared too much of the procedural stuff but we get a glimpse of Hamilton’s sharp mind and long experience, as well as his tendency toward rude insults and humor, mostly at the expense of his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The robbers are Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Although they are poor, it’s not greed that has either brother putting on a ski mask and picking up a weapon. Hamilton picks up on this and the chase is on.

The movie is stylistically a cross between the first season of True Detective and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. I wouldn’t be surprised if writer Taylor Sheridan was a Springsteen fan, because there are some themes here that sound like they come right off the lyrics sheet. Which is to say it’s really, really good.

The dialogue, story, music, acting, and cinematography are all on the upper end of excellent. Although I might have liked a liiiittle more development of the Hamilton-Parker relationship and a liiiiittle more of Tanner’s backstory, especially with his ex-wife and sons, if fleshing these out would in any way have messed with the pacing, I can do without them. This is a movie that manages to take its time while also hurtling you and its characters to the finish.

I’ve heard people complain about the last scenes of True Detective season one, and although I don’t agree with the complaints, I understand the point. I kind of picture them all, on seeing the end of Hell or High Water, standing up in their seats and saying, “THAT is how you end a great story!”

I’ve now seen most of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2016, and I’m quite sure this is the best of them.

93/100
9/10

Review: Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2012)
Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Charlotte d’Ambroise, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen. Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Directed by Noah Baumbach.

Frances and Sophie are the kind of best friends who fall asleep in each other’s beds and who seem to be more excited about talking with each other on the phone than with their boyfriends in person. Every conversation is laden with inside jokes and silly gestures that crack them both up, and at first Frances Ha seems like it’s going to be a movie about this friendship, and you kind of want it to be.

But it’s really a movie about Frances, a sort-of professional dancer who good enough to be sort-of a professional dancer but maybe not much better, and although she’s graceful in performance, she is awkward just about everywhere else. In the middle of conversations at parties with people she’s just met, she blurts out strange monologues about what she’s always wanted in life. When a possible suitor touches her shoulder, she makes the buzzing game-show sound of rejection—aloud—while she flinches away from the offending hand.

Frances stumbles her way from one living arrangement to the next, struggling financially and interpersonally, balancing precariously somehow between joy and depression, between destitution and scraping by. What Frances wants and whether or not she has what it takes to get it isn’t nearly as interesting as what we want for Frances as we see her struggle. I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to achieve, but I knew that I really, really wanted her to be happy. Placed in weird parties with normal people, Frances can’t seem to say or do anything that makes sense, but the same behaviors in the midst of other friends, including Sophie, make her shine.

Presented beautifully in black and white, the technical decisions in the film are almost as impressive as the writing decisions, and if you get a chance to see the Criterion Collection release of this film, short presentations on both aspects are offered as extra features. The extra evening it might take you to view the few but fascinating extras (including an interview of Noah Baumbach by Peter Bogdanovich) is totally worth it, and they make a second viewing even better than the first.

81/100
8/10

Review: Full Frontal

Full Frontal (2001)
Julia Roberts, David Duchovny, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Hyde Pierce, Blair Underwood, Jeff Garlin, Brad Pitt. Written by Coleman Hough. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Well here’s something you don’t see every day. A 101-minute film by an Oscar-winning director, shot on the prosumer-level Canon XL-1s and edited in Final Cut Pro. It’s Sundance in its tech but Hollywood in its pedigree, something noticeable to any audience within the first minute of the film, giving it a total indie look and feel.

I’m not sure at all what the film really is. The strructure is a movie-within-a-movie, the details of which might spoil the movie, so I won’t elaborate. But there are extra layers leading one to believe it may be either two separate movies within a movie, or a movie within a movie within a movie, and there’s a scene at the very end that makes one think there may be yet another movie. Or else it’s kind of like that Escher painting with the steps that only go down and down and down even as they circle around on themselves again.

I don’t always mind being baffled by a movie, if there’s enough there to let me try to figure things out as they go along. That’s not my problem with Full Frontal. My problem is that despite its excellent and interesting cast, the film is mostly horribly boring. Which it shouldn’t be, because it has some interesting story elements.

  • Catherine Keener is leaving her husband, David Hyde Pierce. Pierce works at a magazine where he inappropriately asks his coworkers questions about pornography.
  • Keener’s sister Mary McCormack is a masseusse looking forward to a trip to Tuscon, where she is planning to meet someone she met online. She seems to have had some bad luck in relationships, which Keener never lets her forget.
  • One of the characters, maybe Pierce’s, is producing a play about Hitler.
  • Julia Roberts is a writer, interviewing Blair Underwood for some Hollywood publication.
  • Blair Underwood is in a movie where he plays Brad Pitt’s sidekick, but he wants to break out of this second banana stuff and produce his own movie.
  • Jeff Garlin is an executive named Harvey at Miramax, obviously (or merely probably) Harvey Weinstein (he mentions his “brother Bob”). He’s the funniest person in the movie.
  • Almost all of them are planning to attend a birthday party for a film executive named Gus, played by David Duchovny.

Yet most of the film is kind of a drag. According to Wikipedia, Richard Roeper wrote that it was “like the Special Features disc of the DVD without the original movie.” That’s a pretty good description! I can’t decide if I dislike this movie while admitting it’s probably great, or kind of like it while acknowledging that it’s terrible. Seriously, there is somehow a fine line between those, and I’m right on it.

Jeff Garlin’s tiny part is the highlight, but I also kind of like Catherine Keener and Mary McCormack, whom I suspect may be the main characters, the real people this movie is about.

4/10
44/100

Friday 5: Off Balance

From here.

  1. What most recently made you giddy?
    My high-school reunion was at the beginning of July. Because I was heavily involved in its planning and execution, I didn’t get a chance to be excited in anticipation,
    but when it was all over, I’d enjoyed seeing my classmates so much that I was on a giddy high. My classmates are the best people I know, and spending this time with them was a truly happy experience.
  2. What most recently left you agog?
    Short version: I have this friend Cindy. A few years ago, she broke up with a guy, and another mutual friend Jackie (not really her name) told me she had a guy in mind for Cindy. So I told Cindy, hey. I know it’s early, but later, if you’re interested, Jackie says she knows a guy. I only kind of saw what Jackie saw (I knew the guy too)
    but it wasn’t a ridiculous suggestion for matchmaking. Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago. I ride with Cindy to see her husband’s band perform at Hawaiian Brian’s,
    and at first I don’t recognize the drummer, a lifelong friend of the husband, but he insist he knows me. When we each figure out who the other is, I’m kind of floored.
    The drummer is the guy Jackie had in mind for Cindy. This episode has me rethinking my long-held opinion that matchmaking is hogwash.
  3. What most recently left you aghast?
    Nothing personal if you’re among the people I’m going to call out here, okay? A couple of weeks ago, a kind of posh condo in Honolulu was on fire. A guy who works in the next office lives there, so when I saw the news come though on Twitter, I called him and asked if he knew his building was on fire. He thanked me for my concern and said I was the third or fourth person to contact him about this. The part that had me kind of aghast was a little later, when people gathered in this spot on campus where you could see the fire. Some colleagues saw one of the balconies (more than twenty stories up) collapse. I don’t blame anyone for watching a building fire. It’s not the kind of thing you see everyday in our town, and it was dramatically kind of huge and visible, and it’s a well-known residence. But people’s lives were on fire (figuratively and literally, it turns out, but none of us knew that at the moment), and I was kind of aghast that people wanted to stand there and watch them burn. I wanted to look anywhere but in that direction.
  4. What in your life is the most higgledy-piggledy?
    Definitely my work schedule. My main gig is fine, but finding time in the rest of my life for the rest of the work has been super super super super super challenging.
    I’m always feeling like I’m running to catch a bus I missed by seconds. Not pleasant.
  5. What was your week a mish-mash of?
    It was a mish-mash of several different kinds of work (which I like), a few feelings of near-panic that some of it might not get done on time (which I don’t), too many late nights because of Camp NaNoWriMo, and the pleasure of seeing a few interesting things come out of my keyboard. Overall a good week but I need July to be over so I can get back into my routines.

Review: The Natural

The Natural (1984)
Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen. Written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry (based on the novel by Bernard Malamud). Directed by Barry Levinson.

I first saw The Natural only a few years ago at a friend’s house. We had a nice conversation about it after. I’m sure I mentioned things I liked and things I didn’t care for. But as I recently went through a list of 1984 film in hopes of seeing good ones I missed, I stopped on this one and realized I couldn’t remember a single thing about it, except two particular home run scenes because they get played all the time in sports TV.

So I saw it again, with strangely fresh eyes. I’d read the novel (which I now cannot really remember either) in the fall of 1993, a particularly rough and memorable season in my life, something that may also have affected my first viewing. Unburdened by whatever, I grabbed some trail mix and got comfy.

How did I forget that Barry Levinson, a director I really like, directed this picture? It has a lot of the Levinson stuff, with city streets where all the cars look the same, and those gauzy daylight shots in fields where fluffy stuff is floating around in the air, and kids carrying shoeshine boxes while calling people “mister.” The look and feel of this movie is one of the best things about it, something I was happy to rediscover.

I close my eyes and I can still hear the soundtrack, and I swear it’s by someone like James Horner, but it’s Randy Newman. Dreamy.

The baseball stuff in a baseball movie is very important to me. I don’t care if what happens on the field is improbable, but I want to believe that a baseball game is being played. The baseball stuff here mostly passes the test, but one major scene (this isn’t really a spoiler) is nearly ruined for me. In the scene where Robert Redford hits a homer that smashes the scoreboard clock (where Glenn Close stands up and people yell at her to sit down), I think it was ESPN’s Adnan Virk who pointed out that the Knights are the visiting team, so Hobbs hits a walk-off homerun when he can’t actually hit one. I played the scene three times and there’s actually a little bit of room for benefit of the doubt. Nobody in the stands gets up to go, indicating that the game isn’t over. We do see reporters rush onto the field for photographs and interviews, and that’s certainly not realistic, but that’s more likely than Cubs fans staying in their seats minutes after the game is over.

What a cast, and what solid acting. I especially enjoy the scenes with Roy and Iris in the last act of the movie. Levinson lets Redford and Close take their time, leaving comfortable but uncomfortable pauses between lines. Stuff is not being said, and stuff is being said that’s waited a long time, and both characters are being careful, for their own safety and for each other’s.

I watched it twice this week, and I don’t think I’m likely to forget it again. It’s a lovely movie.

8/10
81/100

Friday 5: Let’s Get Physical

I hate that song. But the 5 come from here.

  1. How confidently could you turn a cartwheel right now?
    I’m pushing 50, but I can turn a cartwheel pretty confidently. It’s not as pretty as it once was, but if someone came up to me and said she’d give me twenty bucks if I could turn a decent cartwheel then and there, I’d get those two sawbucks.
  2. How (physically) flexible are you?
    I used to pride myself on being especially flexible, but those days are gone. I’m hoping to get it back, as well as some of my balance. Last year, when I was out walking late every night, I could feel my balance getting better when I walked on low walls. I’m moderately alarmed that I can’t make my body bend the way I used to.
  3. How are your Frisbee-throwing skills?
    I don’t understand. I just can’t fling a Frisbee. I’ve seen people instruct others on doing it, and beyond just a quick, straight laser shot, I can’t throw a pretty Frisbee. I want to throw those long, floaty beauties that travel fifty yards and then drop straight down. But I suck.
  4. Which carnival game do you have the best shot at winning?
    I do pretty well at the water gun games; used to win those all the time. I think I’d be pretty good at those shoot-out-the-black-dot games too, but I’ve never tried them.
  5. How good are you at toss-the-paper-in-the-wastebasket?
    Probably about average, but I have more fun with it than most people. I set up trick shots, and if others are around, I call my shot aloud: “Off the wall, off the rim of the wastebasket, and into the can!” My students sometimes got a kick out of it. They sometimes got annoyed. So it was perfect for my classroom!