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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jim: The James Foley Story

In my dogged pursuit to see all films that receive Academy Award nominations, I turn to Jim: The James Foley Story, a not very creatively-titled documentary about, well, James Foley, the journalist who was executed by ISIS. It is an HBO film by Brian Oakes that must have had a screening somewhere, because it got nominated for Best Song ("The Empty Chair," by Sting and J. Ralph).

When reviewing a documentary, especially one about such an emotional subject, it becomes easy to review the subject and not the quality of the film. Let me make it plain: James Foley, by all accounts, was a brave and good man. He was captured by rebels twice--one in Libya, where he was released, and once in Syria, where he was not. But this film edges into hagiography. Basically, it's nearly a two-hour valentine to the man, who everybody loved.

Oakes uses mostly the talking head method, interviewing family, friends, co-workers, and most interestingly, fellow hostages in Syria who made it out. No one has a bad thing to say about him, except maybe his brother, who says Jim wasn't much for financial responsibility. But what does come across, though nobody says it in so many words, is that he was addicted to danger. Exactly who, after being captured in one country, decides to go back to the front? James Foley.

The film also presents interesting notions about the state of journalism today. With newspapers in decline, most war correspondents are freelancers. Foley worked for a web site, but as a freelancer, so it's likely these guys didn't have health insurance and god knows how they paid for their trips. I would have liked to more about that. There are two women interviewed who were on the front lines with Foley--what was it like for them? At no time is anyone interviewed who identifies as a girlfriend of Foley's--did he have a personal life?

This film was made with full cooperation of the Foley family, you can tell. They even, in their answers, refer to "Brian" by name. So while this film has interest, it doesn't take a very tough stand or go more deeply into the psychology of why people are drawn to conflict. And the song is pretty good.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Peter Pan (2003)

You might think that there have been many film adaptations of Peter Pan, but in reality, they are mostly spins on the story: a prequel (Pan), a sequel (Hook), or a psychological investigation of the author's motives (Finding Neverland). In fact, there have only been two films that have told the actual story by J.M. Barrie in the post-World War II era: the Disney animated musical version from 1953 and P.J. Hogan's unjustly forgotten 2003 version.

I showed this film to my students as part of their unit on fantasy, and I had completely forgotten about it (it was a huge bomb). I hadn't seen it before, but it is a lovely, sumptuous telling of the story of the one boy who doesn't grow up. It manages to be funny, exciting, and insightful on just what growing up means.

The film stars Jeremy Sumpter as the boy who peeks into the Darling's nursery (a stalker, he is) to hear Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) tell stories. He loses his shadow, she helps him get it back, and makes his fairy, Tinker Bell, jealous. She and her brothers Michael and John, enticed by promises of pirates and Indians, head off with him to his home, Never Land, where no one grows up. Of course, Never Land has dangers--a crew of pirates, led by Captain Hook, who has a score to settle with Peter while also being chased by a crocodile who swallowed a clock.

This film works as both an introduction to the story for children, and a bit of nostalgia for those who grew up reading it or watching the Disney version or the TV musical starring Mary Martin. It has great special effects, particularly in the rendering of Tink (Ludovine Sagnier) and the flying characters, who swoop and soar and make us all want to fly. Since it is a film, the "Do you believe in fairies" bit, which is done with audience participation live, is handled differently, but is none the less just as emotionally fulfilling.

Jason Isaacs plays the dual roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, and in the latter he really lets his inner villain shine (Isaacs has specialized in villainy, especially as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films). He gives Hook some depth--he's lonely. I also liked the comic relief of Richard Briers as Smee.

I haven't read the original play or book (although I have seen the play, I just don't remember it very well), but Sumpter gives Peter a kind of leering quality whenever he looks at Wendy. I fear that the poor boy is starting to go through puberty, and if he never ages, he will never get to satisfy it. Not unless he and Princess Tiger Lily hook up.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Stop Making Sense

The sad news of Jonathan Demme's death hit the film world this week, and while his most famous film, Silence of the Lambs, for which he won an Oscar, is probably his most lasting legacy, he was an amazingly eclectic director. He started in the Roger Corman school; his first film was a women-in-prison flick, Caged Heat.

I think to the cognoscenti, Demme is remembered for his documentaries and concert films. So last night, in his honor, I watched Stop Making Sense, his 1984 film of Talking Heads at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. I saw the film upon its release, when Talking Heads were arguably at their peak, after their best album, Speaking in Tongues, came out.

Stop Making Sense is called by some, including Pauline Kael, the best concert movie ever made. I can't argue with that--I suppose some may say Woodstock, or others The Last Waltz--but it's an hour and a half of jubilation. David Byrne and his band mates, whether you like their music or not, will get you feeling good. It's almost like a religious revival.

By this time Byrne, along with Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison, had moved from punk/new wave to incorporate funk and Afro-Caribbean music. In this film, the band is joined by funk musicians Bernie Worrell (who was in Parliament, the greatest funk band of them all), Alex Weir, and Steve Scales, a percussionist who has his own stockpile of instruments in the back of the stage. The back-up singers, wearing what look like school jumpers, are Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt.

The film actually has something of a narrative. One by one the band comes out. First it's only Byrne, strumming a guitar and singing "Psycho Killer," accompanied by a boom box. Then he's joined by Weymouth, on the bass, with "Heaven." Frantz, the drummer, comes out for "Thank You For Sending Me an Angel," and Harrison, who plays both guitar and keyboards, completes the foursome with "Found a Job." The entire band is on stage for the incendiary "Burning Down the House," which should get you moving or pumped, unless you are comatose.

Now the band is complete, and it rolls through several recognizable hits, such as "Life During Wartime," when the band, and Byrne, jog in unison, before he can't seem to help himself and does laps around the stage. "Once in a Lifetime," which I believe introduced the band to the mainstream via their trippy MTV video ("Same as it ever was") is another motion motivator, while "This Must Be the Place," my favorite of their songs, a moving, slower song, is sung by Byrne next to a floor lamp.

Weymouth and Frantz's side project, The Tom Tom Club, is given a song, "Genius of Love," which is great as ever, and the finale is Al Green's "Take Me to the River," which was my introduction to the band way back in '78. The encore is "Crosseyed and Painless," and Byrne is matted in sweat. He's always been a thin guy, but he must lose weight at each show.

Probably the most famous part of the film is when, after "Genius of Love," which Byrne does not participate in, he comes out wearing the "big suit," a white suit that is several times too big for him, making his head look minuscule. He sings "Girlfriend Is Better," a cynical song about relationships, that also contains the line that makes the title--"Stop making sense."

I saw Talking Heads in concert in 1979, on their "Fear of Music" tour. I don't remember much about it, but they were only edging into funk in those days, and I think the only musicians were the four of them. By '84 they were a joyous, raucous explosion of happiness. What Demme and Byrne, who conceived the staging, do here  is make the viewer feel not only that they are in the audience, but also on stage (Byrne at times interacts with the camera people, letting one sing a line).

I've always thought A Hard Day's Night could cure anyone of the blues, at least temporarily. Add Stop Making Sense to that list.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Whiteout Conditions

The New Pornographers, a kind of collective that has a been a side act for many artists, have released their seventh album, Whiteout Conditions, and it contains some very good power pop, which is their strength. But I wonder if I would be all that interested if it weren't that Neko Case is one of the vocalists.

The songs are all written by A.C. Newman, and in an annoying trend, there is no lyric sheet, so I had to go online to find them (I wouldn't mind at least a link to the band's Web site to see them). I mean, if you're going to write a lyric with an internal rhyme like: "Just like the Mayans took all their science/And dumped it all in the drink and went silent" you might want people to actually know what you're singing.

What this album reminds me of are the days when their used to be a thing called "college rock" (not sure it exists anymore, rock seems to have been blurred and trivialized into only a few genres--alternative and metal), with driving melodies, nice beats, and smart, undergraduate lyrics. The songs that lyric above comes from is one of the better ones, "High Ticket Attractions" (the video shows high school students destroying a science lab). I very much enjoyed "Colosseums," which speaks of "Colosseums of the mind," and though I don't know precisely what that means, it's a vivid image. I also liked "This Is the World of the Theater" even though the lyric doesn't make any sense, I like the concept.

My favorite track is the one that puts Case's voice to best use, "We've Been Here Before." I think they use multiple tracks of her voice harmonizing with herself, but I'm not sure. They also employ an echo effect, and since Case sings very loud it has an unearthly sound to it, as if the heavens had opened.

The New Pornographers have not matched their best album, which was their first, Mass Romantic, but Whiteout Conditions is considerably better than Twin Cinema. For fans of the band and for Case, it's worth a pick-up.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon is a good, if low-aiming, flick that offers a nice long tease before delivering solid action until the climax. To my relief, it also suggests the BP and it's employees were fully responsible for the disaster in 2010 that killed 11 crewmen and led to the largest oil spill in world history.

The focal point of the story is Mark Walhberg as a crew member of the titular rig. What I knew about oil drilling could have filled a thimble and left plenty of room, so there's a lot of technical jargon to try and process. They seem to have a three-week-on, and then a long time off, as they live on the rig. He arrives along with the boss, called Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, enjoyingly gruff). But they don't work for BP, they work for Transocean, who drills the hole and finds the oil so BP can come take it away.

The film's structure is a bit like Titanic, but without the romance. BP's head man, a charmingly oily John Malkovich, wants to get things moving, as they are behind schedule. Russell thinks the cement needs testing. They run a test that's inconclusive, so Malkovich orders the flow to start. At least I think that's what happened. The script is highly detailed with the kind of things most of us need never know about.

Of course Malkovich is wrong, Russell was right, and mud and oil starts shooting into the rig. This happens about an hour into the film, so at least the wait was worth it, as for the rest of the film considerable damage will be done, especially when the oil catches fire. Wahlberg and Russell attempt to rescue everyone using lifeboats. A scene that is very reminiscent of Titanic is when Malkovich, covered in mud and oil and in a lifeboat, silently escapes while some of his men will die because of his foolishness.

Clearly BP had no say in the making of this film, as they are the almost cartoon villains. Wahlberg and Russell make good heroes, and even the perfunctory scenes of Wahlberg's wife (Kate Hudson) waiting worriedly at home are tolerable. Usually these kind of roles (like Laura Linney in Sully) are thankless, but Hudson makes hers work a little more.

The film was directed by Peter Berg, who usually makes dreck, but I give Deepwater Horizon a thumbs-up. It certainly makes for a good Friday-night rental. It was nominated for two Oscars: Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects. There were no extras on the DVD, but I'd love to know how they recreated the burning rig because it looks exactly like a burning rig--did they actually build one and burn it up?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Lost City of Z (2017)

I wanted to see The Lost City of Z for two reasons: I love stories about explorers going into uncharted lands, and I read the book. The film, written and directed by James Gray from David Grann's book, is a solid effort, but it's like a dish that smells good but is missing an ingredient.

There had long been a legend among European explorers of South America about El Dorado, the city of gold. It was pretty much a fairy tale by the twentieth century, but a British officer, Percy Fawcett, hired by the Royal Geographical Society to settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil, came to believe that somewhere deep in the jungle there was a lost civilization, which he called Z (Zed in the British). Over the course of three expeditions, he pushed farther into the Amazon, but never found it.

Gray is dutiful to the facts of the book, though Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, really isn't a character as much as a means to an end. Grann's book spelled out more of his eccentricities, but here he's just a guy on a mission. The only really interesting character is James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a polar explorer who believes in Fawcett and joins him on his second mission, but does not fare well.

On Fawcett's third expedition, over a decade after his previous one, his son (Tom Holland) joins him on the search for the lost civilization, but they disappeared and were never found.

All of this is what might be called a pretty good yarn, with indigenous people throwing spears and dangerous rivers and snakes and infected wounds (the book is full of descriptions of things that can kill you or make your life miserable) but there is a sense of incompleteneness, probably because Fawcett did not succeed and Gray can only guess at what happened to him (it's one of the reasons I had a problem with Zodiac--a movie that doesn't catch the killer is missing an ending). He was ahead of his time in believing that the so-called savages of Amazonia were not backward and capable of a civilization, and believe that women (including his wife, ably played by Sienna Miller) were intellectual equals.

The movie is more interesting than entertaining, and probably would have been served better as a Ken Burns-style documentary. In the book, Grann writes participatory journalism, as he covers some of the ground that Fawcett did, but this is completely cut from the film.

So, a near-miss for James Gray, who finally made a movie set outside New York. Maybe he was a little out of his depth.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Plot Against America

When the nightmare known as the Trump presidency began, many pointed out the novels that have foreseen this, among them 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (an adaptation of which is available for viewing on Wednesday on Hulu) and Philip Roth's 2004 alternative history, The Plot Against America. I've read all three, and there are more to read (such as Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, which I plan on reading shortly).

Since Roth is my favorite author, and I read the book before I began this blog, I decided to read it again, and boy howdy does it echo Trump's election. The gimmick is this; Franklin Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 election by aviator Charles Lindbergh, who is a known anti-Semite and isolationist. He keeps America out of the war, and cozies up to the Third Reich. Jews everywhere are scared and threatened.

This is unusual territory for Roth, but not really, as the book is seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth, seven years old in 1940, and his family, living in Newark, New Jersey. Everything that happens worldwide is filtered through their eyes, especially the brimming hatred for Lindbergh and all the appeasers by his father, Herman. He also has a brother, Sandy, who is wooed to Lindbergh's cause, and an aunt who is an outright collaborator, marrying the famous rabbi who is a useful idiot to Lindbergh's appeal to Jewry.

What's true and false is mingled, but recognizable to any student of American history. Lindbergh did not really run for president, but some radical Republicans urged him to. Even by 1938 he was already hated by many Americans for accepting a medal from Hitler. Young Philip says: "Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate—just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love—and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world."

I think Trump's nomination and election have assaulted many of our endowments of personal security, who never believed such a catastrophe could occurred.

Oh, but there's more. The book outlines perfectly the conspiracy theory that Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin and the Russians, as Roth outlines in his fiction that Lindbergh was a tool of the Nazis. In the book, though, Lindbergh is vanquished, and Roosevelt is restored to the White House. We can't get Obama back, but we can hope that Trump is finally undone.

As alternative history, the book is scarily prescient, but it is also fantastic writing. We get Roth's usual picaresque descriptions of the old Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, such as this gem describing the area's morons: "To most of us they were known, if at all, only by the hoodlum magic of their supercharged nicknames—Leo “the Lion” Nusbaum, Knuckles Kimmelman, Big Gerry Schwartz, Dummy Breitbart, Duke “Duke-it-out” Glick— and by their double-digit IQ scores."

A section that has the Roth's visiting Washington, D.C., after Lindbergh's election, and Herman Roth's detections of anti-Semetism is brilliant, as is the the subplot of Walter Winchell, who was a very popular newspaper columnist and radio host who was devoutly anti-Nazi. In the book, he is the last voice against Lindbergh, runs for President, and is assassinated (in reality he lived until 1972).

The rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and other assaults have risen since Trump's election, and of course it is no coincidence. We have an AirBNB operator defying the law and refusing to rent to an Asian, because she thinks, Trump has been elected. Stories like this are all around. In The Plot Against America, Roth firmly posits that an election by Lindbergh, a Jew-hater, raises the specter of Nazism in America, while Trump's election, he too a self-evident bigot, has increased racist assaults of all stripe in America. It's eerie.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Benghazi! was the cry of conservatives during the presidential campaign, a story so over-worked that it seemed a movie would be superfluous. And, indeed, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, is a routine patriotic shoot-em-up from Michael Bay. It has six he-men actors, all of them white, all looking vaguely alike, rescuing a CIA outpost in that Libyan city against insurgents.

Michael Bay's strength is action, and this movie, which is almost two-and-a-half hours, has it. There is a very high body count, most of it consisting of the faceless Libyans who are killed video-game style. I certainly don't sympathize with their politics, as they did set out to and succeed killing the U.S. ambassador, but I've had it with movies that have one American soldier dying as a huge tragedy while they die by the dozens and no one cares.

This film seemed to be trying to cash in on the American Sniper phenomenon of conservatives going to see movies, but it didn't work, as 13 Hours is Michael Bay's lowest grosser ever. Maybe it's because Americans had become so sick of hearing of the place.

The script, by Chuck Hogan, is pretty dreadful. John Kasinski, who I will forever associate with Jim from The Office, never feels right as an ex-Navy Seal, no matter how much work he did in the gym. He's a contracted soldier, hired to protect the CIA outpost, which is run by a dick (Dave Constable) who seems to be representing the Obama administration in the great scheme of things, while James Badge Dale, as "Rone," is the man of action who doesn't cotton to following orders. There are some of those heartfelt conversations about being away from family, and fighting for a country where they are not wanted, and the dialogue is amateurish.

When the embassy is over run by Libyan baddies, Constable tells the security force, who are at the CIA annex a mile away, not to move. This is disputed by those who were there. Also disputed is that there was a refusal to send air support. In any event, most of the film is like watching someone else play a video game, and for Americans to take satisfaction in their toughness and superior firepower wiping out Muslims by the dozen.

The six men involved were certainly brave, as was anyone who was in that situation, but this movie doesn't honor them, it honors jingoism and Islamophobia. In less vainglorious hands, it might have made a good, insightful action film.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

There have been many adaptations of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, but the most faithful may be the 1933 Paramount film, directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The film was chock full of the stars from Paramount, yet it was an expensive flop. It remains the only live-action film directly based on the books (the others, including Tim Burton's successful 2010 film, use the characters but have completely different plots).

For 1933, this film is very weird, almost grotesque. The weirdness captured the flavor of Lewis Carroll, but the grotesqueness has to do with primitive makeup effects. For example, the Duchess (Alison Skipworth) is made to look like her John Tenniel drawing, with massive jowls. It could scare small children. Perhaps the most notable actor in the film is W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty (it's my favorite scene) but he is just voicing a puppet (I think) and it's not cute and cuddly at all.

The script is by heavies Joseph L. Manckiewicz and William Cameron Menzies, and they merge the two books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Instead of beginning with the white rabbit, they start with the opening of Looking Glass and Alice passes through the mirror and then sees the rabbit. This works fine, and manages to incorporate most of the characters (unlike the Disney version). The only major piece that is missing is Alice's trial, which ends the first book, instead they end with her reaching the end of the chessboard in the second board and being proclaimed queen.

The star was Charlotte Henry, who got typecast into playing innocent fantasy characters (her other famous role is as Bo Peep in Babes in Toyland). Other stars were a very young Cary Grant, who you don't see as the Mock Turtle under his costume, but the recognizable voice is there, and Gary Cooper, very much out of type, as the accident-prone White Knight. Edna May Oliver is perfect as the Red Queen because she looks exactly like the drawings. I also enjoyed Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, also in hideous makeup, who recite "The Walrus and the Carpenter"(which is animated).

We have not yet seen the perfect film of Alice, but I suggest that they take this script and remake it, updating the special effects (the low may be the raggedly old mouse costume). It's the most faithful, and is quite engaging. Just get all the new makeup whizzes (and, of course, CGI) involved. It would be very good.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Bill O'Reilly

The media news this week has been all about Bill O'Reilly losing his gig at Fox News, which he's had for over twenty years. It seems that Bill has some antediluvian ideas about treating women in the workplace, which cost the network millions of dollars in settlements with women suing for sexual harassment. O'Reilly claims they have no merit, but settled anyway. Advertisers left in droves, and women picketed the offices. His only supporter seemed to be Donald Trump, who thinks he's a swell guy.

We shouldn't weep for Bill O'Reilly. He somehow gets 25 million in severance, and he will probably continue to make millions from those books ghost written for him And some other conservative niche place, like InfoWars or The Blaze, will hire him. He won't go away completely. But at least he's been shamed.

Of course I don't watch Bill O'Reilly. I'm aware of him, like one is aware of flesh-eating virus, without actually experiencing it. Most of what I've seen was on the old MSNBC Keith Olbermann show, when he was regularly one of Keith's "Worst Persons in the World," and clips on The Daily Show, used for comic effect. The most lasting image I have of him, other than his temper tantrum when he was a news reader, is featured on the film Outfoxed, when he has the son of a 9/11 victim on his show and tells him to shut up.

O'Reilly is perhaps the person most responsible for the current discourse on "news" channels. He bullies his guests, ignores facts, and his opinions are formed by the viewers of his show. Once I read a question posed by someone who asked, if they were offered twice the money, would they go 180 degrees from their current position. Limbaugh probably wouldn't, Glenn Beck would do it in a heartbeat, and Sean Hannity wouldn't understand the proposition. O'Reilly would also spin in a minute. Maybe MSNBC will hire him to follow Rachel Maddow.

It's both easy and hard to understand O'Reilly's success. Easy, because he speaks to white Americans who feel disenfranchised by minorities and poor people who are supposedly getting something for nothing. That was his stance when Obama won his second term--people want things for free. It's difficult to understand how such a repugnant man could be so popular--clearly he's the kind of guy no one would want to be friends with, but conservatives are full of people like that, such as Ann Coulter and Alex Jones (who has now revealed it's all an act). Conservatives just seem to like nasty, ill-informed people.

So, Bill O'Reilly, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. May more women come against you, so you can settle more lawsuits that don't have merit. Maybe Donald Trump will make you ambassador to Ireland. Just please go.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

In the not-too-distant past, there was a show on the TV set that made everyone who watched it happy, and that was Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K for short. It was the brainchild of Joel Hodgson, who, for a UHF station in Minnesota, put on bad movies and he and a couple of puppet robots made fun of them.

This simple idea went to 197 episodes over several years and a variety of networks, including Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi channel (or however it's spelled now). The cast changed, but the premise was the same--a lug had been kidnapped, shot into space, and forced to watch bad movies as an experiment run by a mad scientist. To keep his sanity, he made the robots as friends.

The show ran its course, and has been off the air for eighteen years, and Hodgson and half of the cast toured as Cinematic Titanic, doing bad movie "riffs" live, while the rest of the cast, including Hodgson's replacement, Mike Nelson, started RiffTrax, which enabled you to synchronize their riffs with legitimate movies that they didn't need to by the rights to. They've taken lately to have live events broadcast in movie theaters.

Hodgson, now a man in his late '50s who is beloved by comedians and connoisseurs, wasn't done with the idea. In the most successful Kickstarter fundraising ever, they raised enough money to bring the show back, and Netflix, fast becoming the best content producer on television (or whatever you watch your stuff on) picked it up. The first new 14 shows are available for viewing, and I've seen two. It was like reuniting with an old friend.

The cast is completely changed--Hodgson pointed out he's too old. so baby-faced Jonah Ray, certainly living out a childhood dream, is the new "mug in a yellow jumpsuit," playing Jonah Heston (certainly a tribute to Charlton). He still has the robots Crow and Tom Servo, who are voiced by new actors who sound strangely like the old ones (especially Crow, who sounds more like Trace Beaulieu then Billy Corbett did). The "mads" are Felicia Day, as Kinga Forrester, Clayton Forrester's daughter, and Patton Oswalt, as Max, TV's Son of TV's Frank.

The format is the same. There are host segments, including an invention exchange (which was done away with in the Nelson years) and then Day tells captives what their film is. The hapless Ray and his puppets then watch a horrible movie, while they, in silhouette, make fun of it. So far the movies have been very, very bad. First was Reptilicus, a Danish (?) monster movie, and then Cry Wilderness, a hideously bad film about Bigfoot.

The new cast didn't miss a beat. The spectacular pop culture references are still there, and sometimes they go way back, indicating there must be some old-timers on the writing staff. I mean, a reference to Rat Patrol? To the actor Frank Baker, whose catch-phrase was "EEE-Yyyyyessss?" They go by so fast it's tough to remember them all. I particularly liked one that was the closeup of an actor and one of them said, "Slugworth," a reference to a small character in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The host segments were never my favorite--they seem kind of unnecessary now that there are no commercials, but Ray did a very funny rap about how every country has a monster. The best thing about it is the way Crow's head moves when he makes a riff. He reminds me of an old friend of mine.

That MST3K is back indicates we're not really in dystopian times.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Earth vs. the Spider

This is one of those movies I added on my Netflix queue about fifteen years ago, and has patiently moved up the ladder, so I can't say why exactly I chose it. It has gotten only a little over one star from Netflix viewers, so figured it would be some crappy horror film from the Ed Wood school. I was pleasantly surprised. This wasn't bad at all, and was almost good.

Back in 2001 Cinemax was using old American International titles and making new films, though just using the titles and not the plots. This film was produced by the interesting trio of Stan Winston (a great FX guy), Lou Arkoff, son of the great B-film maker Samuel Z. (who is an executive producer) and actress Colleen Camp, probably best known as one of the dancing Playmates in Apocalypse Now.

The old film, from 1956 was about a giant spider terrorizing, presumably, the Earth. This one is much more character-driven, with a screenplay by three authors that make some interesting choices. The director is Scott Ziehl, who manages to create suspense and atmosphere on presumably a small budget.

The film stars Devon Gummersall as a security guard and comic-book fanatic. His favorite hero is The Arachnid Avenger, a man who is part spider (I don't know how they escaped a lawsuit from Marvel). Gummersall is in love with the woman next door (Amelia Heinle), a nursing student who you know is innocent because she wears socks with her high-heel sandals.

Gummersall works at a chem lab, where they are doing experiments with tarantulas. Unlike Peter Parker, though, he chooses to be injected with super spider venom to gain superpowers. After a few days of feeling very strange, he starts showing great strength. He really knows something is up when he shoots web out of his chest. Problem: tarantulas don't spin webs, and spiders make web out of their asses.

Anyhoo, also unlike Peter Parker, he can't control it, and the spider is taking over the man, like in the remake of The Fly. There's also a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality, as he has to feed his hunger and starts a collection of bodies in the basement, while understanding he is doing wrong.

A subplot involves Dan Aykroyd as the detective on the case (Gummersall leaves one of his husked victims in a convenience store). Aykroyd is married to Theresa Russell, who has fallen out of love with him after he froze during a shooting. Their relationship and scenes together are very touching. Aykroyd is perhaps the most talented man with the biggest wasted career. After Ghostbusters (and even then, he was the bland guy) he has made one disastrous choice after another, from Dr. Detroit to My Stepmother Is an Alien). Here he incorporates some of his Joe Friday impersonation, but it's not for laughs. It's a very good performance.

Earth vs. the Spider is a parable on what bad things can happen when you mess with nature and want to be something you're not. It's thought-provoking and heartbreaking. I have no idea why it gets such a low rating on Netflix. I'd give it at least three stars.

Monday, April 17, 2017

An American In Paris (Smith Center)

The latest production of the Smith Center's Broadway series is An American in Paris, based on the fim of the same name from 1951, which appeared on the real Broadway in 2015-2016. In my review of the film I mentioned problems I had with it. I have problems with the stage musical, but they're different.

The core of the story is the same. A young G.I., Jerry Mulligan, stays in Paris after the war. He takes up painting and attracts the eye of a patron, Milo Davenport, an older woman who likes more than his brushstrokes. But Mulligan falls in love with a ballerina, Lise Dassin. But she's being pursed by the scion of a rich family, who is also Jerry's friend, but they don't know they're in love with the same woman until halfway through the show.

The major difference between the film and the play is the character played in the film by Oscar Levant, who was asexual comic relief. Here he is Adam Hochberg, much more debonair, a composer with a war wound who is also in love with Lise. So we add another angle and go from love triangle to love quadrangle. It makes for a confusing evening, as all three men look vaguely the same and except for Hochberg, played by Etai Benson, none of them exhibit much personality.

The play, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, is really about two things: dancing and the songs of George and Ira Gershwin (and, of course, the title concert piece by George Gershwin). As long as one focuses on those things this show is enjoyable, but when it isn't featuring either of those things is pretty dull. That's kind of amazing, as the book is by estimable playwright Craig Lucas, but the characters and their situation just aren't that interesting.

Notably, the show tries to be more realistic about post-war Paris. The musical opens with Gershwin's Concerto in F, while dancers show the miseries of the destroyed city, such as breadlines and what happened to collaborators. It's realistic, but it's not exactly a peppy opening.

The highlight of the film, as well as the play, is the very long ballet set to "An American in Paris," which is, aside from "Rhapsody in Blue," is George Gershwin's greatest creation. It's spectacular. The closing, "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is also good, but highlights the similarity of the three men, as they take the front of the stage. The songs cut from the film are sacrilegious--they add the beautiful "But Not For Me," but gone are "Embraceable You" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay."

I can see why this didn't last more than a year on Broadway. It just misses the spark of the film, even for guys like me who didn't like it much. Maybe it just lacks Gene Kelly.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


Jim Jarmusch's latest film is about a bus driver with the soul of a poet, but really it's about a city. It's certainly not coincidence is that Paterson, set in Paterson, New Jersey, has a main character named Paterson (we never even learn his first name). Because Paterson the character is Paterson the city and vice versa. After all, two great poets--William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, came from Paterson.

The film is also about the beauty that can be found in routine. Paterson is set over seven days, and each begins with our hero, Adam Driver, in bed with his wife, Golshifteh Farahani. He eats cereal for breakfast, walks from his small house to the bus depot. He starts out every morning after greeting his boss, the kind of guy when you ask "how are things going" tells you the truth.

Driver drives his route, occasionally listening in on passengers' conversations. He has lunch in a park overlooking Paterson's waterfall, jotting down lines in his notebook. He comes home, rights the listing mailbox, has dinner, and takes his dog for a walk. While on the walk he stops in at the local bar for a beer. The next day it starts all over again.

But I didn't find this boring nor do I think the characters did. It's not a film about a character facing a life of quiet desperation. Driver, as Paterson, is perfectly happy with his life. His marriage seems good, though Farahani, who does not work, is wrapped up in many projects, from cupcakes to country music, which she describes as her dreams (all feature black and white color schemes). Driver sometimes speaks to her like a child--"Oh, that's great"--and that sort of thing, but she never senses any patronization.

There are recurring themes, such as the frequency of twins, and who is the most famous resident of Paterson (in addition to the poets, we hear about Hurricane Carter and Lou Costello, and an anarchist named Gaetano Bresci). A running subplot in the bar is a young man who pines for a woman who will not go back to him. He provides the only major drama when he pulls out a gun, which turns out to be a toy.

I started wondering if this film would have a conflict, but really the conflict is Driver's refusal to share his poetry with anyone, despite his wife's insistence. This reluctance leads to the climax of the film, to which Driver reacts stoically, though any writer would be horrified. The film has a lovely coda when he meets with a Japanese tourist, who has come to Paterson just because William Carlos Williams lived there.

This film is certainly not for everyone, especially those who need explosions or raging arguments. I don't believe Driver raises his voice the entire film. Another actor and director might have created a blank character, but despite his placidity Driver's Paterson seems very deep. How many bus drivers write poetry?

I should add that in order for the film to work, the poems have to be good, and they are, written by Ron Padgett.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Paper Girls

Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaugh, art by Cliff Chiang, is a wonderful comic that will remind you a bit of Stranger Things, Super 8, or any of the great sci-fi adventures featuring kids. What's special about this one is it's all girls, and it's about time. Literally.

Four female newspaper deliverers in a suburb of Cleveland are out before dawn on the night following Halloween, 1988. There are still some kids out in their costumes, but a couple looking like mummies have stolen one of the girls' walkie-talkies. They chase them and find, in the basement of an abandoned house, some kind of spaceship.

This leads to a dizzying adventure, complete with giant, dragon-like birds and futuristic people who are dressed like superheroes (these, we learn, are called "the old ones.") The girls end up transported to 2016, where one of the girls, Erin, meets her future self. That was the end of Volume 1, so of course I had to buy Volume 2.

That was just more of the same, only more dizzying. The girls are involved in some kind of time-traveling warfare, and an old hippie is behind it all. They come across a massive flying machine that looks like a steampunk dirigible, and Mac, the tough-talking, smoking girl, learns she will die of leukemia. And should they trust yet another Erin, who comes from far in the future and brings with her giant tardigrades?

Any comic that has giant tardigrades does it for me, and unfortunately Volume 3 is not out yet. But I do have to find out what happens next. This would make a great movie, if Hollywood can realize that action movies about girls can make money. Maybe HBO or Netflix can make it.

There's just something appealing about kids riding their bicycles, which Steven Spielberg knew way back in E.T. To kids from a certain era, before they could drive, bicycles represented freedom, and often adventure, I used to have some pretty goofy made-up adventures on my bike, as they can be motorcycles, rocketships, or any other mode of transportation. I'm not sure if kids ride bikes they like used to--now they are probably inside playing video games. Incidentally, in 1988 a gadget with an Apple logo on it appears threatening, as maybe it should.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


I keep watching Dario Argento movies and I keep being disappointed by them. He has certain attributes that are worthy, such as being able to create a sense of dread, but they are undone by amateurish editing, absurd use of music, and incoherent storytelling. But now I find I need to watch at least one more.

Inferno is the second of a trilogy known as "The Three Mothers," which started with Suspiria. Released in 1980, it is set in New York mostly, but also in Rome. It is most reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby, as the building in the film harbors dark secrets and evil entities. The resemblance ends there.

Reading about the films I got more information than actually watching them. Apparently there is a legend, or religious myth, of three mothers who are witches, Tears, Darkness, and Sighs. The Mother of Sighs was defeated in Suspiria, and this film deals with the Mother of Darkness, so why it's called Inferno is anybody's guess-maybe because, like Suspiria, Argento ends the film with everything burning up.

The main character is played by Leigh McCloskey. He's a music student in Rome, and one of his classmates is killed by someone with a knife. He receives a letter from his sister (Irene Miracle), who is experiencing weird things in her apartment in New York. I was a little confused at this point because the two actresses look so similar that I didn't realize it was Miracle who was in an earlier scene in an antique store, looking for a key. She encounters a room completely underwater, which I thought was neat, but is not visited or referred to again.

The body count is high and gruesome, especially a man eaten by rats (he drowns kittens in a sack, so you know he's going to come to a bad end--cinematic karma). Much of the film is too dark to see, and has people just running from one room to another. The score is by rock star Keith Emerson, and it isn't bad, but it just bursts out without warning. One very heavy, jazzy section plays while a woman is sitting in the back of a cab, totally incongruous with the situation.

Argento took another 27 years to finish the trilogy, casting his daughter Asia in the final film, The Mother of Tears. I suppose I'll check it out sooner or later.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Introvert

The picture of this book appeared in a Facebook meme, proclaimed as the "saddest book" ever written. I haven't read it, and I don't own it, because it still looks like too much trouble. Boiling a couple of hot dogs is more my speed. But the import behind it--that there is a market for the solitary, is accurate.

I am introvert, and I live alone, except for a dog. On the Meyers-Briggs scale, there are four parts of the personality with two sides each. One is introvert/extrovert, so most of us are one of these two (people can score in the middle). I am profoundly introverted, and have been as long as I can remember. Basically, an extrovert is someone who likes and needs to be around people--they grow stronger with their association with people. Introverts, while not necessarily misanthropes, are wearied by people and need to be left alone a lot.

I write this not with any particular pride--there are now introvert advocacy groups who try to explain themselves to people. They will say that they are not necessarily aloof or not shy, however, I am shy. I think this stems from my very early childhood, when I was living with my parents in college housing. There were no other small children around. I was comfortable with adults, and indeed, as long as they were alive, I enjoyed spending time with my grandparents and would have rather listened to their stories than play with other kids.

As I grew up I enjoyed being by myself. My mother recalls that I could be put in a room with some toys and I would be quite happy. I made up games with baseball cards and had my own adventures with army men. I recall one time that a kid came to the door and I ran outside to get away from them. My father, who is a very sociable man (but also an introvert) thought something was wrong with me and pushed me into things like Cub Scouts and Little League, but while I was not tortured by it I didn't particularly enjoy it, either.

It didn't help that we moved around. Not as much as army brats, but enough that each time we moved I retreated further into my shell. To make friends I had to be approached. When I moved to New Jersey in the middle of tenth grade one of my first friends was a kid named Dennis. I sat behind him in English class. He said to me, only a bit jokingly, I think, that the first time he noticed me was when I sneezed.

I fell into a group of theater kids my senior year and was fairly social. I got over a fear of speaking and took to the stage, and now I have no problem addressing a crowd. I even did improvisational comedy while in college, and had a circle of friends, and got along with my roommates okay. But ask me to speak to a stranger and I'll think of a million excuses not to.

I've been in therapy a few times, and the therapist I'm seeing now is encouraging me to join groups and things like that. It's a bit like my father all over again. But I'm wondering if I'm just one of those people that is happiest when alone. Like many introverts, I'm secretly happy when plans are cancelled. I don't go to parties. I don't go to clubs. When I have an evening when I have absolutely nothing to do I am enthralled. I can read, watch a movie, talk to the dog, anything. I don't have to deal with people.

Of course this has interfered with having a love life. I haven't really had one. The only relationships I've had have been long distance or with someone who is already involved with someone or both. The girl I've sort of been seeing while her in Las Vegas lives with her ex-husband, and we've finally come to the conclusion that we're better off as friends. I joined a dating service, eHarmony, and realized once again why I don't like them--they put me in the position of rejecting someone, when I hate it so much. I have communicated with a woman who seems very nice and she gave me her phone number but I'm afraid to call it.

I'm not a hermit, nor do I have any interest in being one, but when I have fantasies they usually involve me in some remote place--I've written before about living on a private island--but I think I need some contact with people, at least a little bit. I just need a few friends every once in a while to maintain contact with the human race. But if I analyze it fully, I'm happiest when I'm by myself.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


A high pedigree doesn't save Allied, a glacially-paced World War II romantic thriller without many thrills and a couple with no chemistry. The screenplay, by Steven Knight, even dares to set part of it in Casablanca. I'm surprised the characters didn't visit Rick's Cafe Americain.

Brad Pitt plays a Canadian intelligence officer who is parachuted into Morocco to assassinate the German ambassador. He is teamed with French resistance agent Marion Cotillard, and they pose as husband and wife. After they successfully complete the mission, they marry for real and have a child and live happily in London.

A year later, Pitt is told that his wife is an impostor and is suspected of being a German spy. They will give her false information and if it ends up being given to the Germans (I guess the Allies had Enigma by then) they will know she is guilty. Pitt sets out, against orders, to prove them wrong.

First of all, the film Casablanca forever ends any other World War II film being set there. It just does. If that weren't enough, we do not see but hear about a woman playing "La Marseilles" on the piano in a room full of German officers, so Knight seems to be toying with us. Secondly, Pitt is completely wooden, and it's hard to know why Cotillard falls for him, other than the obvious reasons (and such are the obvious reasons for Pitt falling in love with her, but at least she's more animated).

And despite what's at stake--Pitt will have to execute her himself if she's guilty--there is little tension in this film. It's as crisp as a wet cardboard box. A few scenes stand out, as when Pitt visits a colleague that knew the woman who Pitt married before she was supposedly killed, and there's a nice twist at the end (that soldier is played by Matthew Goode in a searing cameo). Also, Lizzy Caplan plays Pitt's sister in a lesbian relationship--that might have been a better movie, and is left hanging there.

The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who hasn't had a stand out film since Forrest Gump, unless you count Cast Away (I can go either way on that one). He's been busy with animated films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, all in a style that has left some creeped out. Allied might have been better as an animated film.

Monday, April 10, 2017


Moana is yet another lovely to look at Disney animated film, and I appreciate the diversity--this film looks at the customs and myths of the people of Oceania--but lordy it was tough to sit through yet another Disney film that tells us that we are destined to be who we are. Enough already!

In this case it's the title character, who from a very young age feels a call to set sail and explore the ocean. She is warned by her father never to go beyond the reef--it's kind of the like the worried father in The Croods--but of course she will, once their paradise starts going bad. She will team up with a demi-god, Maui (an actual Polynesian deity, which is I guess where the Hawaiian island gets its name) who is a narcissist and part-time coward, to save their world.

All this is well and good and if I never saw another Disney film I would be fine with it, but couldn't the many writes come up with another plot? It's strictly Joseph Campbell stuff, the hero's journey, but with that treacly "be yourself" crap that we've been hearing for years. The Disney writers probably have the words "Follow Your Destiny" in huge letters in their writing room. This makes the character arcs predictable and boring. There are absolutely no surprises in this story.

That's too bad, because the depiction of Pacific islands is beautiful. There is some clever stuff, particularly with Maui's tattoos--one of whom acts as a sort of conscience, a la Jiminy Cricket. We are missing the standard sidekick, unless you count a very stupid chicken, and the villains are a bunch of hostile coconuts and a lava monster that is nicely rendered.

The voice talent is fine also. Kudos especially to Auli'i Cravalho, the teenager who speaks and sings Moana. Dwayne Johnson, who voices Maui, is a fine wise cracker, and there's a nice turn by Jermaine Clement as a greedy giant crab.

But none of this adds up to anything with such a weak, manufactured story.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

As regular readers may know, I'm fascinated by the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, but I had never before seen the Walt Disney version, released in 1951. As Alice adaptations go, it's not bad, but though it's only 75 minutes, it does drag.

The problem with adaptations of Alice is that the book itself does not really have a plot, just a series of episodes. Here, they give Alice a big of a conflict--she wants to get home (in the book I don't believe she ever expresses that, so this movie is a bit more like The Wizard of Oz, minus sidekicks).

She is drowsily studying history on the banks of a river, when she awakens to see the rabbit running by, shouting "I'm late! I'm late!" She follows him down the rabbit hole and we get many of the familiar characters, though in a different order. For example, she meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, when in actuality they don't appear until the second book. She meets the caterpillar and Cheshire Cat much later. But this is the niggling of scholars. The important thing is that they are there in the firsr place.

So we do get part of The Walrus and the Carpenter, the Mad Tea Party (even with my favorite line--"Why is a raven like a writing desk?") and the climax with the Queen of Hearts. What's odd is the long middle section with talking flowers. They should have given us Humpty Dumpty or the Mock Turtle or the White Knight instead.

This film did not do well upon release. Disney had tried to make it for years, and at one of his first animation jobs, Laugh-o-Grams, he made a series of shorts with Alice. He was set to make it in the '30s but Paramount made a live action version.

The film's popularity has been resuscitated somewhat, mosty for its animation, which is quite beautiful, but, being for small children, it leaves an adult wanting, figuring there must be more somewhere. And there is, if you read the books.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Navigator

I raved about Hurray for the Riff Raff's previous album, Small Town Heroes, and am equally impressed with their new one, The Navigator. The brainchild of front woman Alynda Segarra, it's a song cycle about life in the Puerto Rican section of the Bronx.

The album's liner notes are in the format of a Playbill, as if The Navigator were a stage musical. There is an introduction, "Entrance" with an a capella group singing the main theme: "One for the navigator, oh my Lord. Two for the navigator, get on board."

Segarra "stars" as Navita Milagros Negron, a "daughter of the city." The songs reflect on growing up in a Nuyarican culture. Unlike the folk stylings and New Orleans influence of Small Town Heroes, these songs are more rock, tinged with Latin and African rhythms. Songs like "Living in the City" and "Hungry Ghost" are fairly straight-forward rock numbers, while the "11 o'clock number," "Pa'lante," is a rousing epic (I had to Google the word--it's a Puerto Rican abbreviation for the words "go forward").

Of course, if it weren't for the record packaging I might have never picked up that this is a concept album--there is no lyric sheet--and while Segarra's voice enunciates very clearly, it wouldn't have occurred to me to pick up on the nuances. Now all she needs is a book and she can put it on stage, where I would love to see it.

Friday, April 07, 2017

The Hike

Drew Magary is a very funny columnist for the sports website Deadspin, where he comments on sports as well as almost anything--once he ranked the quality of different crackers. Therefore when I picked up his novel The Hike I didn't expect a kind of, well, I don't know what to call it. It's a fantasy, a sort of suburban Lord of the Rings, with as much imagination as can be squeezed into 300 pages. It's certainly unlike anything I've ever read before.

The narrator is Ben, a typical suburban guy from Maryland. He's in Pennsylvania for a business meeting and checks into a moldy old bed and breakfast. He wants to take a walk before dinner and finds a path. All goes well until, suddenly: "And then he saw the man: a big, hulking man wearing a denim shirt and cheap jeans, dragging a body out of the shed. The corpse was small and clad in a little cupcake nightgown. Her feet were gone. Her hair was bloody and tangled. Her hands were limp and Ben could see the chipped blue nail polish on her fingernails. The legs were just a couple of stumps dragging along the ground. He saw the red, like the butchered deer parts on the side of the road. Saw it. Then the man turned to him and their eyes met and fuck."

The man is actually wearing a Rottweiler mask made from a real dog, so Ben runs. By the time he escapes, he's completely lost and in some netherworld. He is told to "stay on the path" (perhaps an homage to Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder") and encounters many unusual things. A giant cricket. A crab that talks. A giantess who eats humans. Clouds with eyes. Beings that have mouths all over their bodies.

Ben goes through a lot on his journey, and through it all he misses his family. And through it all the Magary voice from Deadspin, a kind of average Schmo, comes through. I liked this book less for the writing, which is solid but is at times pretty plain for what is going on, then for what weird thing the protagonist will face next.

I'm not sure who the ideal audience would be for this. Guys who like Magary for his profane depiction of quotidian life may be put off by the fantasy (although Ben does get to have sex) and fantasy people may not like the vulgarity and the overall goofiness of it (a crab that calls Ben shithead is funny, but not exactly up there with the Gollum).

But I liked it, and think if both of those groups give it a chance they'll like it, too.

Thursday, April 06, 2017


Passengers laid a big egg this past holiday season, and after watching it I could see why. Mostly a two-character drama, it's not a bad film, and has some genuine tension toward the end. The major problem is that the whole plot is set up by a dick move.

The premise is that interstellar travel is possible, with crew and passengers going into hibernation, so they can survive a 120-year trip to another planet (problem: even 120 years, going half of light speed as stated, wouldn't get them even near the next star system). Anyhoo, something goes wrong and the hibernation pod of Chris Pratt, a mechanic, is opened. He's awake, but alone, and will be for ninety years.

He tries to fix things, broods, grows a shaggy beard, and talks to the android bartender (Michael Sheen, in scenes that reminded me of Jack Nicholson and the bartender in The Shining). Then he finds a desirable woman in a pod and tortures himself contemplating whether he should wake her up or not. He does. Dick move.

I suppose screenwriter John Spaihts was trying to tackle an ethical dilemma, but it doesn't work. If the film had simply removed that aspect of the plot, and simply had the woman (Jennifer Lawrence) wake up from a malfunction, it would have been much better. Why turn your hero into a heel who has to earn back Lawrence's (and the audience's) respect? Or, better yet, I was hoping for an ending where Pratt gets killed, and Lawrence, left alone, wakes up some hunk, just to show that anyone would do the same thing.

But that would be a different movie. As it is, Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum, is a moderately okay time-waster that recalls other, better movies, especially Silent Running or The Martian (it seems that the first thing a man does when he is marooned is not shave). I also liked the gag that corporations have bought planets for relocations, and named them like housing projects--Homestead II is where our characters are going. Why not Del Boca Vista?

There isn't a lot of chemistry between Lawrence and Pratt, and at times it feels like they are acting in different movies. This was her first movie with a love scene, and you can sense she's not that into it. Pratt had to dial down the goofy charm that made him a star in Guardians of the Galaxy--he's better at comedy than straight drama (I will always cherish his idiocy on Parks and Recreation).

Passengers was a noble effort, but a swing and a miss. I'm sure Pratt, Lawrence, and Tylden will be back in better projects shortly.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Once Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out in 2005, an argument erupted that I think will be eternal--which film is the better: Burton's or Mel Stuart's Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, from 1971? I like both of them, but there's something about Burton's film that hits me on a deeper level.

The basic story is the same: reclusive candy maker sends out five golden tickets, the winners getting a tour of the mysterious factory. The ulterior motive: candy man wants an heir. The source: Roald Dahl's book, which if you look at it a certain way is an angry old man's ranting against behaviors of types of children: gluttons, gum chewers, spoiled brats, and TV addicts. But Burton's film is more faithful to the book, and is much darker in tone, which I get a kick out of.

The key difference is the character of Wonka himself. Gene Wilder played him as strange, but essentially lovable. Like in the book, Wilder does nothing to help the kids when they get in trouble, and in that film we don't really know if they live (I preferred to think they don't). But he gets all soft and squishy when Charlie wins the prize, which many people like, and I do, too (I get a little teary at the end) but Burton thought it was too sentimental. What do you do when you don't like a movie? Make your own.

Interestingly, the film called Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is about Charlie Bucket, and the film called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about Willy Wonka. This may be because they had a mega-star in the role, and if you're going to pay someone twenty million dollars you're going to use him (we don't see Wilder in the other film until halfway through). The conflict in the first film is whether Charlie will give Slugworth the Everlasting Gobstopper. This isn't even a plot point in the Burton film. Instead, the conflict is whether Wonka will reconcile with his father, the dentist (played by Christopher Lee). This backstory is not in the book, but seems like it should be.

Of course, Depp dominates the Burton film. He makes Wonka much more eccentric that Wilder, playing him like an idiot savant. But Depp gives the character many slight touches that I've come to appreciate (this played during my year as an usher, and when we had it I ducked into it constantly). Consider the look he gives James Fox as Mr. Salt when he lets him into the nut-sorting room to go after Veruca. Or the way he says, "That's just weird." Depp's Wonka is really a kind of a dick, which makes the whole thing much more menacing.

I also liked the musical numbers. Deep Roy plays every single Oompa-Loompa, and he's great in the dance numbers. The lyrics are straight from Dahl, and I can't decide if I like the Bollywood song for Violet Beauregard or the psychedelic one for Veruca Salt: "Veruca Salt, the little brute, just went down the garbage chute."

While I like both films, if I had to only watch one for the rest of my days I'd pick the Burton one. It's richer, more nuanced, and Depp is really amazing. No offense, Mr. Wilder, who does have a great scene when he tells Charlie, "You get nothing! You lose!"

Monday, April 03, 2017

Personal Shopper

For his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas cast Kristen Stewart as a personal assistant, and at the time I wrote about what a strange job that must be. Essentially, you're an extension of someone, but you do the less glamorous things. You're around someone rich and glamorous, but only get to orbit in their world, not take part in it.

In his follow-up film, the even better Personal Shopper, he again has Stewart in a job that destroys the identity, that of the title. She is a moorless American living in Paris and working for a socialite, going to fancy stores and picking clothing and accessories for her. It's not a hard job, but it certainly isn't rewarding in a sense of personal satisfaction.

The film is also a ghost story. Stewart had a twin brother who died of a congenital heart defect, one that she shares but is under close supervision for. Before her sister-in-law sells the house, Stewart attempts to see, or feel, if her brother is still there.

This makes for some creepy viewing, as Stewart seems to attract ghosts wherever she goes. She also gets involved in a murder (I won't say of who) and a mysterious person who texts her as she goes to London and back. This scene is both fraught with suspense and a gamble--in this day and age, texts are a common form of communication, but if you would told me watching someone text for ten minutes would be exciting I would have been dubious.

Stewart is Assayas' muse. You get the feeling he wrote the film for her. She is a big star, and did the star routine backwards--she started with the mega-hit and then went to independent films. She has made many small and interesting films, and the more I see of her the more I realize how talented she is. If you judge her talent by the Twilight films you're making a mistake, even though she does seem to take roles that are sullen and emotionally locked people. But in Personal Shopper Assayas brings more out of her than any director I've seen. She is a sad person, yes. Maybe she should do a screwball comedy.

As with all of Assayas' films (and I've seen seven of them, I think) they are not always easily deciphered. In Clouds of Sils Maria Stewart's character disappears and is not seen again with no explanation. In Personal Shopper, there is a scene late in the film when she meets someone in a hotel. We don't know what happens, though it would seem to be a key scene. It's almost like someone cut the scene out and forgot to put it back in. You never leave an Assayas film with all the answers.

Personal Shopper, I think, is ultimately about identity. A twin has lost her other half, and is the eyes of another person though she can never wear her clothes (or her skin). She frequently says she wants to be someone else, and there is an electrifying though quiet moment when she tries on her boss's clothes (which is forbidden, which makes it even more exciting for her). Does she envy her boss being rich and famous? Not really, I think she just envies that she is someone else.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist, one of the major figures of pop art, died on Friday. He was 83. He may not have been as well known as Andy Warhol (who shamelessly self-promoted himself) or Roy Liechtenstein, but he was key member of artists who, in the 1960s, used commercial art, such as advertising and comic books, as a basis for serious art.

Rosenquist painted on a grand scale. He started as a billboard painter, and kept the dimensions. One of his best known works, "F-111," takes up two walls of a gallery. Frequently his works are larger than people, They are painted on panels, in enamel, in bright colors that almost explode. He favored red, and in more than one painting he uses lipstick tubes with fire-engine red. "Fahrenheit 1982 Degrees" has lipstick tubes thrust toward the viewer, along with a female fingernail, also painted bright red.

What his paintings actually mean is up for grabs. "F-111," with the picture of a jet plane and then a little girl under a hair-dryer that looks like a bomb, was anti-military. But paintings like "I Love You With My Ford," which is three horizontal panels, one with a car grill, another with a woman's face, and the third with spaghetti, are anybody's guess.

This leads me to my brush with greatness. I was at the Whitney Museum sometime in the '80s for a Rosenquist show. I was on my own, but fell in with a tour group. The tour guide was standing in front of one of Rosenquist's massive paintings, "Star Thief," which has bacon in outer space. She was giving her interpretation, and a hand went up.

"Excuse me, I'm James Rosenquist," he introduced himself. "And that is incorrect," or some such words. The tour guide must have known he was in her group and this is what she probably dreaded. The tour was full of old people. One of them immediately asked him what his name meant (Swedish for "rose stick") and another consoled the tour guide. She was okay, and said something like, "Every interpretation is correct." Here, here.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Fire at Sea

Inexplicably, Fire at Sea was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the last Oscars. It is, mostly, a look at life on Lampedusa, an island roughly equidistant from Africa and Sicily, and therefore a sort of weigh station for refugees. An opening title card tells us 400,000 refugees came through there, and that 15,000 died.

Here's the problem--the movie gives us those facts, but then doesn't show us the impact on the island. There are basically two narrative threads. One shows refugees being rescued (many of them are from African countries: Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, etc.) and treated very kindly. The other follows a kind of Tom Sawyer-like kid, Samuele, as he leads his ordinary life. He makes a slingshot. He goes to the eye doctor. He shares a spaghetti meal with his father and grandmother.

At no time does Samuele or his family make any commentary on the refugee situation. It's as if their footage was shot on a different island. The only person who appears in both threads is a humane doctor who treats both refugees (he takes an ultrasound of a pregnant woman, who is having twins, and tries to determine the sex of the babies) and Samuele's difficulty breathing (we never do find out what his problem is).

None of the refugees are given an identity, so it's difficult to get involved in their story. The closest is one man who sings a song in English about how he and his people left Nigeria and made their way across the desert in Libya, and many of them were imprisoned there. Lesson: don't end up in a Libyan prison.

The director is Gianfranco Rosi, and I would hate to see what he left on the cutting room floor, because frankly, Fire at Sea is a snooze.