Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Will Brittain, Zoey Deutch. Written and directed by Richard Linklater.

ews1Even knowing that my college experience was not like most people’s, I still have believed for decades that the college life portrayed in movies was just a Hollywood caricature, completely dissimilar to mine or anyone else’s. This is why I’m slightly dismayed by Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, a snapshot of the week leading up to the beginning of classes for a frosh on a college baseball team, on some campus somewhere in Texas. All the clichés are here. Drunken house parties, pretty girls hot for sex, pretty girls too smart to fall for smooth-talking jocks, bar fights, pranks, boring professors, falling asleep in lectures, and marijuana-fueled philosophical discussions? Yes to all.

ews2If Linklater’s film is a loving tribute to those crazy college movies of the past, he nails the vibe and then some. It’s a fun, funny movie with a great soundtrack, semi-interesting characters, and pretty girls from beginning to end, plus well-composed dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. In these few days, the central characters move from episode to episode like they’re going through rooms in a funhouse. Here’s the jocks’ off-campus house. Here’s the disco where they get in for free. Here’s a country western disco (complete with mechanical bull) where they go when they get kicked out of their regular disco. Here’s a house party thrown by theater majors. Here’s a house where the campus anarchists live. Against each new backdrop, our testosterone-laden athletes with two things on their minds: sports and girls.

ews3If instead this is a tribute to actual college life, I’m at a loss. I recognize the characters, but not the shenanigans. I’m not naïve enough to think everyone lived as tamely (some would say boringly, but I would beg to differ) as I did, but were my fellow Rainbows and Vulcans really doing this stuff? If they were, I need to see Animal House, Back to School, and Oxford Blues with a new set of eyes. And if this is an attempt at some kind of realistic (even if exaggerated) nostalgia, it’s still pretty fun even if I can’t find myself anywhere in this movie. Everyone and everything just looks so great, and they don’t write songs like that anymore.

7/10
78/100

Review: I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies

I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love by Tim Kurkjian (2016)

13475097_10155073767467818_1919828450667402095_oTim Kurkjian is my favorite person in baseball. There is nobody else in the wide landscape of sports commentary more knowledgeable, passionate, mystified, articulate, or amused by the game, and he is regularly cited as the person at ESPN most beloved by his colleagues. To hear him speak of the game, in either tree or forest view, is to be reminded of the boyish reverence many of us had as youngsters and to temper our sentimentality with the reality of millionaires playing a game in a park.

It’s far too easy to become cynical about professional sports, and baseball in particular, but Kurkjian refuses to go there, even while confronting the disheartening truths any honest fan faces. What I love most about him is the seriousness with which he talks about the game in its own context, while keeping the game in the larger context of real life. In I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies, he begins with a treatise on why baseball is the best game, then follows it with chapters about how difficult it is, how tough the players are, the poetic and musical sounds of the game at the major league level, and other particular interests he has in the game’s deepest crevices.

Much of the book is delivered in quick hits of curious anecdotes: a quick item about a peculiar game’s finish, followed by something funny Buck Showalter once said, followed by a little-known fact about Fenway Park. Some of those quick hits are great:

The Phillies in the 1960s had shortstop Bobby Wine and second baseman Cookie Rojas, a period known as the Days of Wine and Rojas.

Infielder Craig Counsell played parts of sixteen years in the major leagues despite looking like a librarian.

To not look at the data is foolish, but to look at the data as having all the answers is even more foolish. It is a collision of new-school statistics and statisticians against old-school managers, coaches, and instructors. Neither side is right, neither is wrong; there is so much to be gained from listening to both sides.

However, it pains me to say this because there are few things I enjoy in my media consumption more than listening to Kurkjian talk about baseball, but while each little story is fascinating, as grouped together in this collection, they are not very good reading. They lack the rhythm and flow of good baseball writing, which at its best mimics the rising and receding action of a good baseball game. Sloppy editing exacerbates the problem.

There are exceptions. The chapters on superstition and baseball’s idiotic “unwritten rules” are much better structured, with nice progressions of thought and more reflective commentary. Especially strong is his “Obits” chapter, in which he pays tribute to the late Tony Gwynn, Don Zimmer, Earl Weaver, and Mike Flanagan, and I enjoyed an entire chapter about the inside look at the official scoring of baseball, an aspect of the game seldom covered in baseball books.

Tim Kurkjian is famous for being able to recite such painstakingly specific lists at his top ten shortstops in history, or his ten best Yankees of all time. I can relate to his geekiness, for I’ve spent quite a bit of time composing and revising my own lists. Alas, although this is a decent read with a plus fastball and a crippling curve, it has trouble establishing a rhythm and it gets too distracted by the runner at first. It won’t be cracking my list of top ten baseball books.

Three stars out of five.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

the_circleI have a feeling I picked the wrong novel for my introduction to Dave Eggers.

The Circle is five hundred fairly quick pages of good pacing and good (not great) narrative about Mae Holland, a woman just out of college who accepts a job at the Circle, a Google-like tech firm. The Circle began as either a search engine or a social media platform, but has since grown to include all manner of services enabled by its accumulation of information about its users. Geolocation, messaging, commerce, archiving, life streaming, entertainment, and quantified living services (among countless others) combine to attract users to its functionality while driving the company’s mission of knowing everything that can be known.

Mae cannot believe how fortunate she is to work at such a bleeding-edge company, on a campus providing everything she could possibly need, personally or professionally. She has onsite healthcare, free samples of consumer products not yet available to the public, nightly entertainment, free meals, and even on-campus housing for nights when it’s just more convenient to stay at work than to drive home. Her college roomie is among the firm’s elite, affording Mae a status the other newbies can’t claim, and although the adjustment to this new work environment is tougher than she predicted, she is determined to do what she’s asked in order to move up from her customer experience position. Throw in a couple of potential love interests and an increasingly visible online presence, and her increased alienation from her family seems a small sacrifice.

The Circle is Brave New World and Animal Farm for the 21st Century, with a dash of Candide thrown in, as Mae plays the wide-eyed apprentice learning to embrace the Circle’s “Secrets are Lies” doctrine. While Eggers spins his cautionary tale, he seems to be worried that the stuff of a good novel might distract from his almost allegorical message. His main character is well conceived but poorly developed, so that she comes across as admirable, pitiful, and insufferable according to the needs of the plot, rather than as the driving force behind the plot. Because the power of the Circle is greater than the personality of the character, we care about Mae but find her difficult to like, and while that may be intentional, it makes for an unsatisfying read.

Mae’s shortcomings as a main character might still have worked with a more intricate or suspenseful plot, but Eggers plays it right down the line as might any writer of minimal skill and a casual familiarity with current technology news. The result is overly simplified, with only a nod in the direction of some of the issues’ nuances. Yes, the era of Big Data has some conflicts between utility and privacy, and yes, younger generations seem eager to give their privacy up, but it’s just not as easy as that. Today’s young adults don’t devalue privacy; they merely have a different concept of it, but nowhere does Eggers attempt to see privacy through the eyes of Mae’s generation. Instead, Mae gives up her privacy as this concept is understood by the generation before her, and while that works for the novelist’s intended message for his intended audience, it does little to help us understand either the issue’s many colors or Mae’s real motivations.

Two of five stars, or in the Circle’s parlance, “Meh.”

Review: To Helvetica and Back

To Helvetica and Back
by Paige Shelton (2016)

to helveticaThere are twenty-six chapters in Paige Shelton’s To Helvetica and Back. The first twenty-four are pretty darn good; the final two are a crime against the reader and a crime against the genre.

Those first twenty-four have all the makings. Clare is a smart, independent twenty-something woman who runs her grandfather’s shop. She repairs typewriters, restores old books, operates a Gutenberg-style printing press built by her grandfather, and prints custom stationery. She is a protector and restorer of the printed word, the kind of protagonist bibliophiles can’t help liking. Add a teenaged niece who helps in the shop, a snooty cat named Baskerville, a best friend and ex-fiancé who are both cops, and a handsome geologist who makes the best lasagna, and you can cancel your plans for the weekend, because you’ve got some comfy pages to get lost in.

A guy shows up, demands that Clare sell him another customer’s typewriter (an Underwood No. 5, of course), gets angry when she refuses, and sets off a nice string of events including danger to her family, a possibly thwarted new romance, a murder right outside her door, tension with her best friend, and the literal unearthing of long-held secrets. It’s all quite competently put together until the author breaks one of the unforgivable rules of the genre. So egregious is the writer’s transgression that it makes most of the good stuff irrelevant, and erases much of the enjoyment I got from most of the book. Shelton commits a lesser offense in the story’s climax, but I almost didn’t even notice it because her first breaking of the rules is so blatant.

I’ll allow the good stuff in this novel to serve as the background for the next in the series, but it does not make up for a horrible decision in this story.

1 star of 5.  I disliked its ending.

Review: Tomboy

Tomboy (1985)
Betsy Russell, Kristi Somers.  Directed by Herbert Freed.

toI’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.

mbYou’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.

oyIn 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.

3/10
33/100

Review: X’s and O’s

X’s and O’s (2007)
Clayne Crawford, Judy Marte, Warren Christie, Sarah Wright, John Wynn, Lynn Chen.  Written and directed by Kedar Korte.

exesI 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.

andSimon 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.

ohsSimon 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.

4/10
42/100

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill.  Directed by J.J. Abrams.

theIt’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.

forceAgainst 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.

awakensClearly, 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.

7/10
78/100

Review: Muppets Most Wanted

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!”

muppetsClearly, 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.

mostKermit 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?

wantedThe 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.

9/10
91/100

Review: Tre (2006)

Tre (2006)
Daniel Cariaga, Kimberly-Rose Wolter, Erik McDowell.  Directed by Eric Byler.  Written by Byler and Wolter.

tSomewhere 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).

rTre 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.

eThe 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.

5/10
52/100

Review: Ride Along 2

Ride Along 2 (2016)
Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, Ken Jeong, and Olivia Munn.  Directed by Tim Story.

rideI had no intention of seeing this film, especially since I never saw the first, but it just worked out that it was the most convenient for my schedule, and I knew I wouldn’t get a chance to see anything until after the weekend, so there I was, ready for the worst.

The worst never really showed up, because Ride Along 2 surprised me by being pretty entertaining.  Even at its least engaging or clever, it’s a well directed, well put-together film with characters I like.  The editing, visual effects, and even action sequences kept me interested, and although I honestly didn’t care how the story played out, I liked the mix of the film’s central characters and just enjoyed the ride.

along 2Ice Cube is a police detective in Atlanta.  Kevin Hart is his soon-to-be brother-in-law, just a month out of the police academy.  An investigation gone bad leads them to Miami, and although Cube plans to work solo, he brings Hart along in order to teach his sister’s fiancé the hard way that he just doesn’t have what it takes for detective work.  They join an ongoing investigation with Miami detective Olivia Munn, and with the help of computer hacker Ken Jeong, they try to figure out who killed the city’s port manager.

Really, it’s not about the story.  It’s about the interaction of the characters, and while I’ve never cared much for Kevin Hart, he’s well suited for second billing to Ice Cube’s tough guy.  Bring your willing suspension of disbelief and enjoy it for what it is.

7/10
70/100