Is this thing on?

So yeah. My brain’s been a little drained lately, specifically the part that writes stuff. I get home lately, have a small dinner, and hit the sack. Consequently, this will probably be short and will undoubtedly be a bit shallow, not to mention ineloquent.

Reading. I just finished Flour Babies, something I picked up used at the annual Friends of the Library book sale. Proper review later, but it was an interesting read. I couldn’t decide until the very end whether I liked it or not. I did. Anne Fine, the writer, does something really strange, unless I misread the novel. She’s certainly a fine writer, but in the last five pages or so she really cranks up the writing, and it sounds almost like a different person. The last five pages are lovely, almost heartbreaking prose. I’ll probably skim it again to see if I missed something earlier.

I’m now in the middle of Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, my favorite book of the 2000s for sure. It received the Newbery Medal in 2006, the year I wrote my master’s thesis on the Newbury Medal, and honestly it’s the book I’ve been trying my whole life to write. It’s possibly better this second time through.

Amazon says I’ve purchased the book six times, which doesn’t include my original purchase at the local Barnes and Noble. I like giving it as a gift.

I saw Spider-Man: Far from Home last week. Fun movie! It’s really sweet, like a good teen flick, and the web-slinging is the coolest it’s ever been. And holy moly Marisa Tomei.

In the evenings before bed, I check my BP, but I have to sit still a while before I hit the button on the machine, and then I sit still a while more so I can take a second reading. Usually during this sitting still, I watch an episode of Silicon Valley, of which I’m nearly finished with season three. It doesn’t match the first two seasons’ creativity and genius, but it’s still pretty smart, and despite one story arc that’s distracting and stupid, it seems to have concluded that arc and done something pretty neat with the character involved. I’ve got season four on DVD on its way to my mailbox. Ordered it on physical media so I could pass it around.

Concert scene’s been a little dead after what’s been a pretty great previous twelve months. I’m okay with it, really. My last show was Michael Franti in early May, and I left the concert while it was still going on. I think he’s great but his audiences drive me crazy. I didn’t enjoy myself the last time I saw him a couple of years ago either.

But Keb’ Mo’ is coming next month, and he’s terrific, and last week I purchased tickets I can’t afford for Patton Oswalt in the lovely Hawaii Theater. It’s the night before my birthday so I couldn’t resist. Now I gotta find someone for the other ticket. Still on the fence for Keb’ Mo’. Gotta decide this week.

Review: Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, Toni Collette, Sasha Lane.  Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch. Directed by Brett Haley.

I’m always disappointed when music documentaries don’t show us the process of creating music.  There’s a bit of this in Dave Grohl’s Sound City, but I’m drawing a blank trying to think of another film that lets us in this way.  Hearts Beat Loud, if it had been about a real band, would have satisfied some of my yearning.

Nick Offerman is Frank Fischer, the widowed owner of a vinyl-only record store in Brooklyn.  His daughter Samantha is a few days from leaving for UCLA, where she’s an intended pre-med major.  Deeply immersed in studies for a summer course, Samantha resists her father’s pleading to join him in a jam session in their studio, but finally caves, and we’re treated to a no-dialogue sequence where father and daughter lay down tracks in the creation of a song called “Hearts Beat Loud.”

It’s a good song.  Frank is certain Samantha has it in her to make her living as a performing musician.  She’s laser-focused on UCLA. Frank secretly uploads their song to Spotify, and it quickly gets attention.

Hearts Beat Loud is loaded with well-conceived characters I won’t describe because they and the movie’s songs are pretty much the heart of the movie.  The story exists for character development, as do the settings and circumstances, and the movie’s joy comes from watching characters interact in different moments against different backdrops.

This is normally the kind of movie I love, but I have mixed feelings about this one, and I shouldn’t.  The acting is very good; I especially liked the supporting characters played by Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, and Toni Collette.  Kiersey Clemons as Samantha has future star written all over her, and Nick Offerman seems perfectly cast as the frustrated musician running a failing music store.

My problem is that for a film laden with emotional set-up, there’s just not enough emotional expression or confrontation.  What we really want is some kind of work-through for Frank, with his friend the bartender, his landlord, his daughter, and his mother, but we never get it.  I’m not asking for fireworks, but I’m asking for something, and we don’t even get that. We get setup and kind of an aftermath, and I want this to satisfy, mostly because I have similar problems in my own writing, but it doesn’t.  Also a problem I have in my own writing.

The acting and music are good enough to recommend it but not enough to love it.

7/10
71/100

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

If Beale Street Could Talk is adapted from a novel by James Baldwin.  It’s a discouraging film, but it’s a beautiful discouragement.

Tish and Fonny are a young black couple, friends since childhood, ready to begin life together in 1970s Harlem. She works at a perfume counter in a department store. He’s a talented sculptor. At a moment where things seem finally to be turning their way, Fonny is locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish’s family rallies to clear Fonny’s name.

Some themes are familiar, and this is not a movie for everyone. Yet I recommend it for excellent acting, the beauty of Baldwin’s prose (delivered intermittently in well-chosen voiceovers), and gorgeous filmmaking. When people say this about a film they almost always mean visuals, and while the visuals are excellent, the audio is stunning. Ambient sounds from distant record players playing jazz, mumbles of conversations through thin walls, traffic on distant streets below, and rain create a background against which you might expect intimate triumph or enormous heartbreak. I can’t remember when the background noise of a movie moved me this way.

One scene by itself will justify the cost of your ticket and make up for a couple of bad decisions by director Barry Jenkins. Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi in Atlanta on FX) was in six movies this year, and if you’re not familiar with him yet you’re about to be, because he delivers a monologue about the effects of prison on a man, and it will stop your heart.

82/100
8/10

Review: Aquaman

Aquaman (2018)
Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall. Directed by James Wan.

There was a point at which I almost said aloud, “This is completely ridiculous. How in the world am I supposed to believe any of it?”

Then in the very next second, I had a flash of some of my favorite movies, many of which would be unbelievable in any world outside the worlds created for them, for an audience ready to believe them. The Harry Potter movies, which I love, are in a fantastic world right against the real world. If I could accept the fantasy of Hogwarts, why not of Atlantis?

This is when my entire movie-watching self simply relaxed. I popped some Junior Mints into my mouth and eased comfortably into a world where a man speaks to fishes and his half-brother rides giant seahorses. Perhaps I’m ready to give The Shape of Water a try, now that I’ve seen and enjoyed Aquaman.

It’s a big, dumb, super-enjoyable movie, kind of a refreshing break from the darkness and ponderousness of DC’s recent films. Let Superman have his fortress of solitude and Batman his cave; Aquaman will do fine with a few enormous tankards of beer with his homies in the neighborhood bar.

Arthur Curry (the alterego I didn’t know Aquaman had) is the product of a romance between a lighthouse keeper in Maine and the queen of Atlantis. His half-brother, who sits on the throne in Atlantis, rallies the other undersea kingdoms for a war against the humans of the surface. To intervene, Aquaman must find the trident of his ancestor kings, so he might defeat his brother and claim his place as ruler of the sea.

Aided by Mera, a princess from another sea kingdom, and of course all the creatures of the sea, Aquaman chases the legend of the trident in something of a Temple-of-Doom manner. It’s all rather predictable but getting there is entertaining. The acting is fine, highlighted by Nicole Kidman and Amber Heard. Jason Momoa as the prince of Atlantis is like a better-looking Thor with slightly less acting talent.

It works for me, and it pretty much accomplishes exactly what it intends: brain disengagement and an escape from the sad ruminations of daily living, and who couldn’t use a bit of that?

7/10
70/100

Review: Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas (2014)
Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg.

Happy Christmas is the first film I’ve seen by Joe Swanberg, but this guy gets me, and I want to see more of his work. Starring Anna Kendrick (one of my favorite actresses) and Melanie Lynskey in mostly improvised dialogue, this is a good example of a movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet it goes so many interesting places that I look forward to seeing it several times more.

Kendrick plays Jenny, a twenty-something emotional cripple coming out of what seems to have been a very painful breakup. She moves in temporarily with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), themselves only recently out of their twenties and only recently new parents. It’s unclear where she’s moving from, but Jenny arrives in a cab from the airport, so she is a new part of this young family’s everyday life.

Jeff and Kelly seem to have a solid grip on the parenting. They’re careful but not stressfully careful, and they seem genuinely to enjoy their new duties as mom and dad. Only Jeff, however, seems to have figured out where fatherhood and his career as a film director fit together. Kelly, a writer who has published one novel, hasn’t worked out any time for her own career.

Jenny is the kind of upsetting force that will bring family issues to the fore. Everyone loves her, including the baby, but she occasionally self-medicates in dangerous ways, dangerous for her and for people around her.

Yet this is not that kind of movie. It’s not about Jenny’s drinking or weed-smoking, or about how emotionally needy and self-destructive she is, just as it is not about a young married couple trying to reconcile the needs of career and the duties of parenthood. Swanberg as director uses these premises instead to let his actors explore their connectedness, especially their compassion for one another at this moment in these lives.

Jeff and Kelly can’t undo their parenthood, but they can express their feelings about this moment, and with sympathetic hearts motivated by (I’m interpreting here) basic goodness, try to reconcile conflicting needs. Whether Jenny makes it happen for them, whether they all make it happen for each other, and whether they’ll continue to do so is irrelevant to this movie, something that may disappoint many viewers who expect cinematic closure. The fact that they are doing it in the moment, and that we can see how it happens, is what matters, and this is what makes Happy Christmas beautiful.

Swanberg is (according to his Wikipedia article) a major figure in the mumblecore school. This film has definite mumblecore filmmaking sensibilities, but it’s quite a bit less lo-fi than most movies I’ve seen in the genre. It still has indie written all over it, but despite its improvised dialogue, it doesn’t feel as messy as those other films while it maintains a kind of DIY vibe I enjoy.

Kendrick is an A-list Hollywood force now. I love that she still has room in her artistic life to do a film like this.

80/100
8/10

Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hollander, Mike Meyers, Priya Blackburn. Written by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Bryan Singer.

I had pretty low expectations going into Bohemian Rhapsody. I worried that it would overly prettify Queen’s surviving members’ stories or overly dramatize Freddy Mercury’s sexual preferences and his related death. There was plenty of the former, and not too much of the latter, and since there’s a decent amount of emphasis on the music itself, the movie feels pretty good.

The movie follows the biopic formula, and I suppose that’s a good thing. For those of us unfamiliar with the band’s origins and its musical ambitions, it’s enlightening to see how members of the band worked together to create the sound and feel of their music, how (for example) A Night at the Opera began with the concept of rock and roll performed with the scope, scale, and aspirations of opera, and how the band moved into a farm for the recording sessions.

One recurring theme is that Queen was a band. In one early scene, an interviewer begins a question with, “As the leader of Queen—” only to be cut off quickly and sharply by Mercury, who insists, “I am not the leader of Queen; I am only the lead singer.” Other scenes show individual creative contributions by bassist John Deacon, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May. For a rock and roll geek like me, this is the good stuff, if the content can be believed.

This is where I have my biggest issue. Some of the dialogue, especially in scenes where the band is talking about itself, feel like promo videos for Queen albums. Here’s some made-up dialogue that’s not in the movie, but it could very well have been.

May (to a record label executive): The first single must be “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Exec: The song is six minutes long! Radio won’t play it!
Deacon: They’ll play it because we’re Queen.
Mercury: They’ll play it because it’s beautiful.
Taylor: And if you don’t like it, we’ll leave right now!
Mercury: And you’ll forever be known as the guy who let Queen get away!

The band takes several such moments to demonstrate how rock and roll it was, how Queen wasn’t just Freddie Mercury and some guys, and how its members always knew what they wanted. The overall feel is horribly manufactured as if to present Queen in its best possible light.

And that’s not rock and roll at all.

My second-biggest issue is the issue I have with most musical biopics. There’s just not enough of the band creating the music, and there’s not enough of the band performing the music, although there’s a good amount of the latter. Not once do we see the band perform a song in its entirety, not even the track whose title is the movie’s. This is a crime. The film does get big points for showing us an enormous chunk of the Live Aid performance, but again: it would have been nice there to experience at least one whole song the way the audience experienced it.

That music, though, is as sweet as ever. If you love Queen, it’s impossible not to leave feeling good.

69/100
7/10

Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen (2018)
Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eliza González, Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger. Written by Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

It was difficult to ignore the trailer for Welcome to Marwen. It promised Steve Carell in his best, outsider mode, which I’ll sign up for every time. Robert Zemeckis is always a coin toss for me, but he did make several films I like very much (I have not joined the anti-chorus of haters for Forrest Gump ,a movie I still love) so I try to set my sights low before sitting down with my Junior Mints. In some ways my expectations were greatly exceeded. In a few ways they were a bit too high.

Carell plays Mark Hogancamp. We meet him three years removed from a vicious beating that wiped all his memories away. Suffering from extreme PTSD, Mark has learned to deal with his demons by creating a small, WWII-era Belgian town named Marwen. Marwen is populated by a G.I. Joe kind of doll who looks like Mark and is named after Mark, plus a half dozen beautiful women dolls, all counterparts of women in Mark’s real life.

Mark creates and enacts elaborate scenarios with his dolls, posing them for photographs coveted by collectors.

The setup is pretty creepy, but there’s some novelty here that make the premise itself mostly work. Most of the credit goes to Carell’s strong, tortured performance, Zemeckis’s audacity, and sympathetic supporting characters who indulge Mark’s eccentricities while keeping him anchored in the real world.

Yet the movie’s greatest novelty, an uncanny animation that brings Mark’s dolls to life, is its greatest weakness. Midway through the film, I silently begged the film to give us less—much less—Marwen and much more Mark. Alas, Zemeckis hits the accelerator hard, and at least half the film has us seeing the real world through Mark’s make-believe dramatizations, and it goes well past tired, into maddening.

Like most metaphors taken too far, Marwen gets cheesy, forced, and ridiculous. Mark is surrounded by people reaching out to him with genuine, human touch, and while it’s fully understandable that he would retreat further into his pretend world as his real world becomes increasingly stressful (in its most brutal sense), by now we get the picture and would much rather see the story from his real friends’ real perspectives.

The hobby shop clerk who sells Mark his dolls is clearly interested in him, liking him as he is, caring enough about him to deal with his damage. His employer patiently reminds him of his work schedule. His new neighbor, a very pretty woman named Nicol, genuinely wants to be Mark’s friend. What is Mark to them? We never really find out.

Instead we get a heavy-handed metaphor worn thin without any sense of the real struggle Mark goes through to put on his best self. We get rising action rising acting rising action climax oh man that’s how you’re going to get us there?

And now a word about Leslie Mann, whom I adore, who plays Nicol. Mann’s voice has a quality I cannot explain but it hits exactly the right nerve for me in a way rivaled only by Mary Steenburgen. I didn’t know she was in this movie until, so deeply in love with her voice was I after a few scenes, I snuck a peak at the movie’s Wikipedia article and saw that it was her. Here she has a head of deep red hair, which may be why I never recognized her, and her voice is quite a bit higher, but it retains a sweetness that all by itself makes this movie worth it to me. I understand this is a unique position, which is why I’m explaining it here. My rating of the film is going to be crazy biased. Emphasis on crazy.

Last month I gave a greatly flawed plot major make-up points for excellent performances in Green Book. The performances here aren’t quite as good and they have much more to make up for. Leslie Mann’s voice makes up for a lot, but not that much.

55/100
5/10

Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, and Liev Schreiber. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman.

There’s a lot to spoil about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so what I’ll say here will not tell you much about it. Still, I think it’s safe to offer a few thoughts in the interest of convincing you it’s worth checking out.

I kept saying holy moly. Leave your pessimism at the box office and meet Spidey where he is: at the crossroads of multiple universes, animated unlike any concept you have about what a comic book superhero movie looks like.

The story may sound like typical teen-angst fodder but it stands out because of what’s going on as the film tells it: multiculturalism, hyper-surreal visuals, and plenty of humor. I can’t believe the filmmakers get away with some of their bizarre decisions, but they get away with them all because once the movie establishes itself as a story where anything can happen, anything happens.

Audaciously imaginative and one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Kid-friendly. Just go.

8/10
81/100

Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner (2018)
Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kevin Pollack. Written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, and Jay Carson. Directed by Jason Reitman.

The Front Runner is Jason Reitman’s film about the candidacy of Gary Hart for the 1988 presidential election. There are a lot of approaches a filmmaker could take for a picture like this. It’s the rise and fall of an intellectual, good-looking senator. It’s the victimization of a young model aspiring to a career in government. It’s the turning point in our national discourse where a politician’s personal life becomes relevant for American voters. Or it’s the moment when American journalists stopped turning a blind eye to politicians’ dalliances and actively reported on them.

Reitman hits that last one, with dramatizations of conversations between publishers, editors, and reporters at the Washington Post and Miami Herald. The decision to pursue a story about Hart’s relationship with his alleged mistress Donna Rice is nothing shy of an identity crisis for everyone involved and for the institution of journalism.

I was confused and annoyed by the director’s decisions in the first half of the film. Some reviewers have called the overlapping dialogue, quick edits, and enormous number of characters Altmanesque, but I’ve never been this confused by an Altman movie. As the film progresses, a few key characters emerge (notably A.J. Parker, a fictional Washington Post reporter played by Mamadou Athie), and the movie becomes a lot less chaotic. I want to see this again to decide if I simply got used to the style or if Reitman deliberately creates an experience that becomes less confusing as the story progresses.

Hugh Jackman is excellent as Hart, and Vera Farmiga, as always, is terrific as well, playing Hart’s wife Lee. I’d never heard of Molly Ephraim, who plays a fictional Hart campaign scheduler and kind of Donna Rice’s handler when things get hot, but she’s an interesting actress in kind of a challenging role.

Although the film has its problems, when it ended I felt I’d come through an amusement park ride, baffling at first but strong and clear at the end, although Reitman seems deliberately to avoid making a statement.  Instead, he presents the moment as important and lets the viewer make the judgment. The film suffers some because of it.

I have a strong bias in favor of Reitman, who is probably one of my two favorite working directors, but I didn’t know he directed this until the end credits rolled. I clapped quietly when it was over, then felt kind of thrilled to see that it was Reitman I applauded.

7/10
71/100

Review: Green Book

Green Book (2018)
Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly. Directed by Peter Farrelly.

The Green Book, I learned early this year, was a directory published in the United States between the 1930 and 1960s, and listed businesses friendly to African Americans. Michael Wilbon, whose parents were from the South, said they didn’t travel home from Chicago without it. I’m disappointed in myself for not being aware of it, but it’s something that kind of hints at why a movie like this still needs to be made in 2018, and it excuses the film’s one major flaw.

Mahershala Ali plays pianist Don Shirley, who embarks on a tour of the Midwest and South with the other musicians in his trio, a white bass player and a white violinist. The record company insists he hire a white driver, someone who can keep trouble away from Shirley on the tour. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Vallelonga, “Tony Lip” to his friends and associates. He’s pretty much a mob-connected goombah whose work history includes “taking care of problems.”

Much of the plot here is predictable in events and tone. If you’re thinking what I thought when I saw the trailer, that this is kind of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, you’re not too far off, and this is the flaw. “Pandering,” “condescending,” and “preachy” came to mind as I tried to figure out my feelings midway through the movie, but none of them really hit the mark. Later, I heard someone refer to it as kind of an After School Special, and that’s it. It feels like it exists to teach me a life lesson.

Yet I just admitted I had no idea the Green Book existed, so how can I blame a film for thinking I should know about it? It doesn’t change my feeling that this tone is a huge flaw, but it softens it a bit.

What really redeems the film is the fantastic acting by Ali and Mortensen. Each is completely unrecognizable, painting his character with a fine brush, as compared to the sledgehammer offered by much of the plot. There is one heavy-handed Don Shirley monologue that in a lesser actor’s hands could be groan-inducing, but is instead heartbreaking. Shoot, even someone like Denzel Washington, who is by no means a lesser actor, would likely elicit groans here. Instead, Ali presents a lifetime of vulnerability and alienation in a short minute to his tough-guy companion and it’s an amazing thing to see.

Give some credit to the writers who, in one very tricky moment, turn Frank Vallelonga into the guy the film wants us to believe he is. “The world is a complicated place,” Franks says, and somehow it’s exactly right for Frank, for Don, and for the audience. A moment of gentle grace in a film that often has trouble finding it.

The acting is so superb that it makes the movie quite a bit better than it should be. The National Board of Review named Green Book the best film of the year. I can’t go that far, but it is the rare movie that rises above its script and becomes something special on the strength of its excellent acting.

8/10
80/100