Thursday, July 20, 2017

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Great documentary that uses Francois Truffaut's invaluable book about Hitchcock as a launching pad to discuss Hitchcock's impact on filmmaking and the artistry that went into it. I know I'm not alone in considering Hitchcock the greatest director of all time, so hearing guys like Scorsese and Fincher and Richard Linklater gush about him was fun for me. ****

BABY BOY (2001)
I didn't really notice this as it got released, but I think it turned out to be one of John Singleton's best films. Tyrese Gibson stars as an aimless bike mechanic who starts hustling stolen goods, drifting through life with two different kids by two different women (one is Taraji P. Henson) while the adults in his life try to push him to grow up. I'm sorry, but I'm going to default to quoting Ebert again, because otherwise I'll probably just end up paraphrasing him: "Baby Boy is a bold criticism of young black men who carelessly father babies, live off their mothers and don't even think of looking for work. It is also a criticism of the society that pushes them into that niche [...] [it] doesn't fall back on easy liberal finger-pointing. There are no white people in this movie, no simplistic blaming of others; the adults in Jody's life blame him for his own troubles, and they should." The emotions and the performances are so raw that they elevate the film, particularly Ving Rhames. ***1/2

Melissa Rauch co-wrote and stars as a former Olympic bronze medalist in gymnastics, drifting aimlessly and living off of her local celebrity. She ends up coaching a local Olympic prospect, and we watch as this aggressively unlikable and self-obsessed person actually finds herself giving a shit about other people. I'm surprised to see just how badly this movie was reviewed. I don't know why this one got singled out as bad while a piece of garbage like Napoleon Dynamite was so beloved by critics, but this is why I don't pay attention to critics. I found it compelling and funny. ***1/2

Nigh unwatchable biopic of Hank Williams that spectacularly fails to make him interesting. Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen and Cherry Jones are all fine actors, but the movie is so unfocused that it's hard to care about what's happening, and it doesn't capture what is so appealing about Hank Williams that people still listen to him. *1/2

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Song of the Week: "Let the River Run"

My 41st birthday is tomorrow, and the first gift I received this year was a Carly Simon CD from Roger, so here's my favorite Carly Simon song. I knew who Simon was as a kid because my Dad always had a thing for her, and I liked the song "Coming Around Again," which had hit MTV two years before (and which I posted as a Song of the Week in 2015). I was 12 or so when this one came on the radio, written and recorded for the movie Working Girl, which is still a great movie. This one just filled me up in a way that still makes me feel good. Thanks for the gifts, Roger!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Look, the Sam Raimi movies are *my* Spidey movies, hearkening as much as they do to the spirit of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko years. And though a lot of the Lee/Romita spirit is in here, where this movie really excels is in modernizing that spirit in a way that keeps the character fresh for his second reboot of the past decade. (In a way, you could also say that it tempers some of that Bendis/Bagley edginess with the sincerity of the character from the '60s.) At times, the movie really captures the spirit of the original Iron Man as far as feeling not only new (it's a nice shot in the arm for the MCU), but also in having a character who revels in the things he can do and who is desperate to prove he can do good things with them. This is the old overwhelmed-but-well-meaning Spider-Man that I remember from the comics, and even though I'll always just want Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 4, I really enjoyed this one a lot more than I expected to. Tom Holland is an enthusiastic and likable Spidey, and Michael Keaton is a particularly nuanced version of the Vulture. In a lot of ways, it's Keaton's movie. I liked the way the movie combined pieces of the old mythos with Ultimate Spider-Man, in effect giving us new versions of the original characters, which provides a fresh, modern take (although I don't know why they turned Ganke into Ned instead of just letting him be Ganke), and it's especially nice to see Peter Parker living in an non-gentrified Queens. As for Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, I hear a lot of complaints that she's not the same as the comics, but it's 2017 and that complaint is freaking dumb. The high school kid who lives with his frail, elderly aunt is a post-World War II trope that doesn't work. Love the ending, too. Everything is such a new take on Spider-Man that I found it positively exciting. I'm rambling. Anyway, ****

THE VOID (2016)
Stylish, weird thriller about a group of people stuck in a nearly-abandoned small town hospital, surrounded by weird cultists. I don't want to describe it any more than that, because so much depends on mood and surprise. But if you dig Lovecraft, seriously check it out. ****

LOVE BY THE 10th DATE (2017)
So, the reason I watch Lifetime movies so often, besides the fun-dumb factor, is that I don't get a lot of chances to see actresses I like in prominent roles, particularly actresses of color. So I watched this movie starring Meagan Good as a graphic designer who gets a chance to work on an article about how long it takes for a man to realize he's in a relationship. And the movie also focuses on the relationships of her coworkers, played by Kellee Stewart, Kelly Rowland and Keri Hilson. Kudos for subverting the biphobia, but the take on open marriages was a little overdramatic, and the ending was... weird and didn't make sense to me, really. Otherwise, the whole thing is pretty predictable and cheesy. Good was good, though, and it avoids or subverts enough narrative traps. **1/2

BEACHES (2017)
The original wasn't good, either, and this is the breezy, Cliff's Notes version of that movie. Nia Long and Idina Menzel are pretty good in the roles originated by Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler, respectively, and of course it's always nice to hear Idina sing, but the whole thing is ephemeral and is gone from the memory the second it's over. I love Nia Long, though. Always have. **

BOY (1969)
Nagisa Oshima directed this movie about a boy in Japan who is being used by his father to run scams, pretending to get hit by cars in order to extort money from strangers. The family--his abusive, lazy father, his reluctant stepmother, and his innocent baby brother--as seen through his eyes in a sort of confused perspective, as the boy begins to realize their lives are not normal and he is hurting innocent people. Oshima's films are always so interesting, capturing the reality of post-World War II Japan for the young at a time when most of Japan's major filmmakers were making movies that were either asserting the strength of tradition or elegies for conservative values. Beautifully photographed and edited, and still vital today. ****

Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand followed up their masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where everyone sang their dialogue, with a true musical. Real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac play twins in small French town who wish to leave for Paris and work in music. A carnival comes to town one weekend, and it becomes a weekend of new connections, missed connections, opportunities, and the realization of dreams. Beautiful cinematography and art direction, and of course the music is wonderful. It's an old fashioned Hollywood musical spectacle, but filmed with the eye, sensibility and style of the French New Wave. Even Gene Kelly appears as a composer looking for inspiration. If anything, I found myself having a more magical time with this than I did with Cherbourg. ****

Dopey Lifetime movie with Dina Meyer as an FBI agent on a cross-country flight who sits next to a mysterious woman (Victoria Pratt) who informs Meyer that her family has been taken hostage and will remain so until she deletes a key piece of evidence in a criminal trial against a senator. The plan is so imbecilic that I have no idea how I'm supposed to believe any of this is going to work, so it kills any tension completely. Except for the two leads, no one's really very good here. (Poor Pratt is really trying to act the role hard, but the writing is so, so bad.) The whole thing feels like it was made on leftover porn sets with leftover porn actors doing some legit work on the side. It fills time and gives me an excuse to watch Dina Meyer and little else. *

BAD MOMS (2016)
Mila Kunis stars as an overworked mother who finds out her husband is cheating on her, kicks him out, and lets herself be a little less responsible for a while. For the first hour or so, the movie's hilarious, as she and her other mom friends (Kristen Bell and the indispensable Kathryn Hahn) get wild, but the last 40 minutes are the kind of predictable sitcom softness you expect. There's enough weirdness and genuine hilarity to make it a winner, but it doesn't really have the edge and insight to skewer the Perfect Mom culture in the way it thinks it is. It's a funny movie, though, it just had the chance to be more and didn't really go for it. ***

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Song of the Week: "Spider-Man"

Sure, I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, but it has the same flaw as every other Spidey movie: it doesn't use this track from Rock Reflections of a Superhero.

Silly? Maybe. But I love it.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Autobiography of a Frog, Part VIII: 1978 Begins

Well, whatever happens in 1978, let's just remember: my most favorite of candy bars, the Whatchamacallit, began life.

It’s January 1978, and there are blizzards in the Midwest and on the Atlantic Ocean, but I’m 16 months old and I live in Texas. I really don’t remember too terribly much of living in Texas; mostly I remember little images or feelings here and there. There aren’t a lot of pictures of me from this year, either, so you won’t be seeing as much of me.

1978 seems like a scary world, just looking at the historical events of the year. So much war in the Middle East, Zaire and Ethiopia. Even Vietnam was at war with Cambodia. So much unrest in Iran especially. And in the US, there are suddenly lots of fears about human cloning. That seems odd now. This is also the year of the Ford Pinto recall. So much can happen in a year.

There I am on the base with Dad: Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. We would go look at the old vehicles at the museum there. I see I'm wearing my old baseball jacket. I must’ve really dug that helicopter; I was definitely watching M*A*S*H on TV and probably not really understanding it, but I know I especially associated it with my Dad because he was in the Army. I’m looking at this picture now and thinking that this must be the reason why the helicopter right in the beginning of the M*A*S*H opening credits sparks something in me. I don’t even remember doing this, but part of me does, unconsciously. I totally thought M*A*S*H was where my Dad worked because, you know, 16 months old.

Dad seems to be having a good time with my Grandpa Sage here. Another good time: "Mr. Blue Sky" by Electric Light Orchestra, which hit the radio around this time. Talk about a song that always brings me up when I’m down! I do love ELO and their heavy orchestrated arrangements, and this one pulls clearly into perfection territory for me. One of my favorite songs ever.

(This is actually a great time for music that I count among my favorite: "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas, "Take a Chance on Me" by ABBA, "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty, "What Do I Get?" by the Buzzcocks, and of course the eponymous debut Van Halen album, 36 perfect minutes of glorious rock.)

... and of course, "Wuthering Heights," a haunting song. I just dig the video and the way Kate moves her body. Movement is something that’s always sort of fascinated me, just as someone who was once interested in learning everything he could about puppetry and special effects.

Also in January: Sesame Street spent five episodes visiting Buffy and Cody in Hawaii (something which made a huge impression on my in reruns as a little kid), and Kenner started putting out their Star Wars action figures. I still have some of those original figures, but none of the first vehicles. A friend of mine had that Landspeeder, and man, did I want that. It was Luke's hot rod!

But I guess this began my need to own Artoo Detoo figures. They barely change, but I almost always get an Artoo Detoo figure from whatever new movie. He is my favorite character, after all. (Pic via.)

In February, Roman Polanski fled the country but Ted Bundy was captured, the Hillside Strangler claimed his final victim, and the blizzards continued. During the blizzard, the first bulletin board system goes online, courtesy of Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, two computer hobbyists. It reportedly connected 253,301 calls before being retired. And now, today, we have message boards and chat rooms. I admit, it’s a mixed bag.

Another of my favorite episodes of All in the Family aired on the 15th: "Two's a Crowd" (Season 8, Episode 16). It’s an ancient comedy set-up: two characters who don’t get along get locked inside something and have to wait for rescue, and as they brush up against each other they learn more about each other. But this is probably the most powerful and effective I’ve ever seen it done. As Mike and Archie snap at each other in a cold storeroom, thing start off funny-but-predictable. As Archie starts to talk about his childhood in the Great Depression, the layers peel back. And as Archie starts to drunkenly reveal painful truths--that he inherited his racism from his physically abusive father--Mike understands one of the painful facts that the entire series is meant to confront: that inside a bigot there can be a child who who was hurt too many times, and all bigots start as human beings.

Also in February: electrical workers in Mexico City find the remains of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in the middle of the city, the first GPS satellite is launched, the game Simon was released (I remember playing that at sleepovers into the early 80s), and Genesis released one of my favorite songs of theirs: "Follow You Follow Me." I really love Genesis. That band made a big impact on me as a lad.

Heading into March there are wars in Africa and Israel, Larry Flynt was shot and paralyzed, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy began airing on BBC Radio 4, and Charlie Chaplin's remains were stolen. What was I doing? Probably watching whichever incarnation of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour was on Saturday mornings. And The Robonic Stooges. Jeez, does anyone remember The Robonic Stooges? I would recommend not remembering The Robonic Stooges. Just... why?

Also around this time, Lego introduced its Town, Space and Castle systems. I was a still too young for them, but they were a heavy part of my childhood. That makes this the year the Lego Minifigure was introduced, too.

Oh, and the Trapper Keeper was first introduced. Had those throughout my school career, until I started high school.

Me and Dad, playing in the park. My Dad told me this was my favorite park when we lived in Texas; I didn’t know until recently (because I was too young then to remember it now) that we lived on a street called Alamo Avenue.

On April 3, Star Wars won 6 of the 10 awards it was nominated for, but not Best Picture.

On April 7, in an important moment of sanity, President Jimmy Carter decided to postpone production of the neutron bomb.

On April 19, James Franco was born. Why does that make me feel old?

On April 20, one of the greatest films of all time, Dawn of the Dead, opened.

On April 22, Saturday Night Live aired what I've always considered the most perfect episode of the classic cast: Season 3, Episode 18, hosted by Steve Martin and featuring The Blues Brothers as musical guests. One of Martin’s best hosting efforts, this episode features “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber” and his classic performance of his single “King Tut,” as well as a Festrunk Brothers sketch, a Nerds sketch, and “Next Week in Review.” In addition to all that greatness, the Blues Brothers are the musical guest, Gary Weis’ short film features Toni Basil, and the episode features one of my top 5 sketches of all time, “Dancing in the Dark,” in which Steve Martin and Gilda Radner lock eyes across the room, everything pauses, and the two engage in a dance that is both funny and beautiful. Perfect. Episode.

On April 25, St. Paul, Minnesota, repealed gay civil rights. (Thanks again, Anita Bryant, much good may your loathing do you.) This was just a month after San Francisco had signed the most comprehensive homosexual rights bill in the nation.

One of Jim Henson’s best performances as Ernie is in this beautiful Jeff Moss song. I like the sentiment of this song: that no matter what place Ernie visits and no matter how far he goes, he will always want to return to the people he loves. This is just so lovely.

Some music from April: "Because the Night" by Patti Smith, "Magnet and Steel" by Walter Egan, and the wonderful album Stardust from Willie Nelson. Willie’s rough, gentle standards album--well, the first one--is an album his record company didn’t want to release, and they were wrong; when it became a success, they wanted more and more of them. But this album is the one that I’ve loved for a lifetime, and it never fails to comfort me. There’s a matter-of-factness to it that’s almost fatalistic, but that actually does comfort me. It sees that weariness and tradition can be beautiful.

Also in April: one of my favorite Playmates, Miss Pamela Jean Bryant. (NSFW link, obvs.) And the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was proclaimed.

Wish I had more personal pictures to share, but I don't, so let's just sum up May: Pete Rose hit his 3000th major league hit, wars and riots continue (including a civil war in Zaire), Charlie Chaplin's remains were found, Mavis Hutchinson became the first woman to run across the US, the first Unabomber attack occurred at Northwestern University, and the first legal casino in the eastern US opened in Atlantic City. I'm gonna stop there and pick up in June and head into my second birthday. If you've hung in until now, pat yourself on the back for enduring this.