Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Lagniappe!

I'm still ramping back up to my usual level of go-go-go, but I haven't been totally sloth-like. This column is a lagnaippe for you - a little bonus to go with your usual reading, since this blog has been a little off its feed as I travel through my convalescent stage.  Ensley and I just finished an episode of our weekly movie show "Meet Me at the Movies" (soon to be available through streaming, which has us both excited) that centered on one of the Grand Dames of American cinema, Katharine Hepburn.

So much to discuss there - 4 Oscars, all for Best Leading Actress (Morning Glory [1933], Guess Who's Coming to Dinner [1967, when she tied with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl], The Lion in Winter [1968, making her one of the rare back-to-back winners], and On Golden Pond [1981]). Her insistence on living by her own lights, even when that got her deemed "box office poison" for her tailored slacks and unvarnished opinions.

And her 25-year love affair with Spencer Tracy, with whom she did nine films, including Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat & Mike (1952) which featured Hepburn's athleticism. Tracy was a good Catholic and he never divorced his wife. Hepburn respected that relationship, and did not attend Tracy's funeral, instead spending the day at a friend's house. The friend protected her privacy and screened Tracy's Oscar-winning film Captains Courageous (1937) for her.

There's also The Philadelphia Story in 1940. She made that one after her lover, Howard Hughes, bought her the film rights as a present. There's The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart in 1951 and there's the film she viewed as her crowning triumph, 1962's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's shattering Long Day's Journey into Night.

Kate Hepburn - what a dame! Treat yourself to one or a half dozen of her films, won't you? If you're feeling silly, start with Bringing Up Baby - Cary Grant, Kate, a leopard, and hey - a dinosaur!

Also, I picked up my responsibilities with BiffBamPop and put out a column about radiation and bug movies. Seemed like a suitable topic, given the last five months or so. It refers to a truly bad movie called The Killer Shrews which starred a very young James Best, who went out to fame as Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. Mr. Best was a gentleman of the first order and he took his final bow on this earthly stage a few days ago.

Lastly, I've been breathlessly watching Better Call Saul, which has been renewed for another season. I wasn't sure about this show at first - spinoffs are a tricky business. For every Maude or Frasier, there is an AfterMASH or The Ropers. 


I can report with complete delight that Better Call Saul is a gem. Watching Jimmy McGill try so hard to stay on the straight and narrow and run into wall after wall, you develop a sort of sympathy for him. I don't want to spoil it - really, this is one you should watch - but Bob Odenkirk is a find whose talents go beyond being the outlandish Saul Goodman we saw in Breaking Bad and the supporting cast is likewise fantastic. Both shows have some similarity in themes - both Walter and Jimmy want respect for their efforts and talents - but BCS is no mere copy of BrBa.

There now - I've given you plenty to go explore!  Back soon!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Still Here!

Faithful readers, you can be forgiven for wondering just where I've been and I thank you heartily for not giving up on me. To briefly catch you up, for the last six months or so, I've been dealing with the fallout of a medical exam that had the doctors going, "Hmmm." Sparing you the gory details, early detection is the bomb, although surgery followed by radiation treatments aren't a carousel of fun. I had excellent medical care and a wide-ranging circle of well-wishers who helped me through all of this, but the last couple of weeks of treatment were just draining to the point of me putting this blog on the back burner taking this blog off the stove altogether. But treatment has concluded and, while it'll still take me a few weeks to heal and get my energy level back to where it ought to be, I'm going to come back from all of this healthier, heartier, and brimming over with vim and vigor!

And just because I haven't been posting, don't think I haven't been watching! A quick rundown of some highlights:

Neill Blomkamp's Chappie is worth a rental when it comes out. The film wants to do more than it actually achieves and is muddled in places, but once again, Blomkamp (of the stellar District 9) shows he's willing to ask the Big Questions, even if he's not sure of the math to get the answers.

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel is quirky, funny, stylish, and just a little heartbreaking in places. Rent it now and see why the film picked up 4 Oscars this year, including costume design, hair/makeup, and production design.

Speaking of heartbreaking, along with anger-inducing, one night when you can stand it, watch The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the U.S. military. If it doesn't make your blood boil, there's something not quite right about you.

I've also ripped through both Season 3 of House of Cards (serious and filled with ambitious, awful characters who you just have to keep watching) and the first season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (hilarious and filled with quirky, funny characters who you just have to keep watching, plus one of the catchiest theme songs in recent memory). Clearly, I recommend them both. Further, if you can stand to not binge-watch, you need to check out The Americans, which continues to be one of the best shows on television today.

And yes, "Third Age Thursday" will be starting up again soon!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cross-Country & Cross Cultures

Disney has just released McFarland USA, a feel-good film about the power of sports to transform not only the participants, but also an entire town. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a disgraced football coach who takes the only job he can find after his temper gets him fired - teaching at the high school in a predominantly Mexican-American agricultural town in central California. His students are indifferent to education, knowing that their future - and their present - lies in the fields that surround the dusty town. They pick from dawn until the school bell rings and return to the fields as soon as school lets out for the day - and they have tremendous stamina, speed, and (yes) grit developed from years of such a back-breaking schedule. White (yes, the name is both accurate and ironic, as the White family appears to be just about the only Caucasians in the entire town) sees an opportunity in the fleet-footed students and gets approval to start a cross-country team.

It would have been easy to make McFarland a tale of the Great White Savior rescuing the youth of a dead-end town through the power of sports. Fortunately, McFarland is more nuanced that that, although it takes some liberties with the truth, as these types of films so often do. White's got problems of his own and the film does a nice job of showing White's own missteps as he learns to swim in these unfamiliar waters. The culture of this town is so unlike anything the White family knows, but that in no way means it's inferior. Two lovely scenes illustrate my point here - first, when Jim White receives a housewarming gift of a chicken and later, a gorgeous scene in which the community (primarily the women) come together to throw Julie White a quinceanera with all the trimmings after Jim admits that he sort of forgot to even pick up a birthday cake for his daughter. The residents of McFarland are proud, hardworking people and it's good to see those values celebrated instead of disintegrating into a shouting match about immigrants and just who counts as a "real" American (a discussion I feel the Cherokee and Sioux [among others] might have some rather strong opinions on).

McFarland is a feel-good sports movie in the best tradition of the genre (I'm looking at you, Hoosiers and Remember the Titans). I found myself muttering, "Dig! Dig!" to cheer on the runners during the race scenes and I so wanted a happy ending for these kids. It's a solid effort - Costner inhabits the role of Jim White with ease and grace while both Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles and Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz are particular standouts. McFarland is a lovely reminder that sports really can be a true source of character-building and justifiable pride. Go see this one. It'll make you want to lace up your sneakers and go for a run, even if it's just around the block. And whatever you do, don't leave before the epilogue.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

50 Shades of Grey - Why Crying "Red" Won't Help

I'm still churning from this movie. 50 Shades of Grey, which is E. L. James' all-growed-up Twilight fanfic, complete with the Edward character being even more of an insufferable jerk, hit theaters just in time for Valentine's Day, and wow! is our society in trouble.

Let's be clear - no matter what anyone writes or says, this movie is going to make tons of money, which means the next two books will also lurch onto the screen. There is no safe word that can save us from that, but let me try anyway.

First off, contemporary American society has a nearly completely screwed-up attitude towards sex. We use it to sell everything from clothing to beer to tires, yet we're oddly puritanical. We fuss over what information about their own bodies should be given to high schoolers yet hard-core porn is available in the privacy of our own homes with a few mouse clicks. Romance is a gigantic genre and 50 Shades tapped into a huge segment of the population who hungered for the escape of steamy fiction that came with tasteful, non-bodice-ripped covers and the perceived privacy of e-readers. So a story about a virginal English lit major who trips over her own feet and a self-assured, powerful tycoon with a playroom outfitted in the style of Early London Bordello crossed with Churchill Downs sold upwards of a hundred million copies.

50 Shades is not the worst or most damaging movie I've ever seen. That being said, this is not a good movie (it contains dialogue wooden enough to carve), nor does it depict a healthy relationship. And that's what I really got upset about. I got aggravated at the Twilight books for their depiction of obsession as a sign of love, 50 Shades does the same thing. Christian Grey is an emotionally-damaged man. That's sad, but it's no reason to fall into the trap of thinking that the love of a good woman can change him. He engages in the obsessive, controlling behavior of a stalker and that doesn't change based on his material wealth. Girls and ladies - hear me well on this. Men who show up without warning and insinuate themselves into your life through their personal presence or the giving of outrageously expensive gifts are not showing you affection and love - they're exhibiting control and disdain. (Selling your car without asking you if you'd like him to do that is another whole level, by the way.)  Ana Steele is a virgin when she first meets this man, whom I'm willing to bet is described in the books as "intense" or maybe "smoldering." Amazed, he sets out to "rectify this situation." Run.  Just - run.

The sex scenes? Quite frankly, they're a bit boring. Lots of lingering shots of writhing female body parts and Dakota Johnson biting her full lower lip in what may be another homage to Twilight, where Kristen Stewart seemed completely incapable of doing much else. Also, please do not think that you understand dominant/submissive relationships from watching 50 Shades. It's another thing the movie gets wrong, wrong, wrong. Honestly, if you want sexy scenes in a bad relationship that should never be emulated, go with another "Gray" and watch 9 1/2 Weeks.*

In short, 50 Shades is not hot, sexy, or a romance. It's a supporting narrative for a restraining order. The fact that we, as a society, seem to have trouble distinguishing between the two scares me to my core.



*Seriously, Mickey Rourke's character in that movie, which features one scene that I remember lo, these many years later, is named "John Gray."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Of Space and Sea

Two new releases this week that, at first glance, couldn't be more different, but upon deeper reflection, actually have a funky commonality - both Jupiter Ascending and Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water address the issue of (ready for it?) - capitalism. Both, by the way, are also well worth seeing.

 First up, Jupiter Ascending. Brought to us by the Wachowski siblings, Jupiter is as visually-stunning as anything this daring pair of filmmakers has ever brought to the big screen. While I haven't always loved everything the Wachowskis do, I've always admired their willingness to take on huge-scale, original projects and take no prisoners in their efforts to translate Big Questions onto the screen. The first Matrix movie was ground-breaking in its depiction of a world in which reality cannot be trusted and in Cloud Atlas (I wrote about that one back here), they created a world in which lives and storylines crossed repeatedly without being restricted by race or gender. I think Jupiter is a stunning film and I predict it'll be one that gets bashed out of the gate and re-visited with much kindness later. Jupiter asks its audience to think - to actually ponder and consider some things that are fantastical, amazing, and downright weird in a few places. The cast is strong - Channing Tatum has a role he can sink his teeth into and Mila Kunis does a credible job in bring to life Jupiter Jones, who was born with a destiny but doesn't seem willing to do anything to make it happen. There is so much going on in this film and some will find that too challenging; I found it refreshing.

The universe is this film is ruled by simple supply and demand - most commodities are no longer in demand; the only thing left is - time. And human essence can be harvested and packaged to provide that time to the very few wealthy and powerful enough to pay for it. In the universe of this film, Earth is nothing more than a farm and we're the herd. When the population reaches the point beyond which the planet can sustain it, it's time to be harvested. This is space opera at its finest - big, big, BIG! and not afraid to go even bigger. The film's release was pushed back to give more time to post-production and, quite frankly, I don't think the studio quite knows what to do with this film, but I'll tell you this much - if you enjoy seeing a movie that'll make you think while taking your breath away with its lush visuals - go see this one. (Plus, there's a scene that'll make you realize that bureaucracy is with us until the ends of the earth.)

And completely on the other end of things - Spongebob. I'll admit that I went into this nearly totally unaware of the Spongebob world. But the theater was PACKED (I had to sit in the second row, which is really closer to the screen than I prefer, but what can you do?) and the audience loved this. I was right there with them, too. The plot doesn't really matter, but I'll tell you that seeing Antonio Banderas playing a diabolical pirate bent of becoming the most successful food-truck proprietor on the beach is probably worth the price of admission alone. When the secret formula (again, supply and demand) is stolen, the hi-jinks begin. The film has a breakneck pace and groan-worthy puns are interspersed with so many allusions (the use of "The Ecstasy of Gold" is especially nice) that I'd have to put this film up in my personal list of "whoa, this movie is trippy" films - and that's without even getting into Bubbles the Dolphin. The humor is kid-friendly (a few gross jokes about seagull poop is about as raunchy as it gets) and the film is just flat-out fun. February is grey and dreary - let go of your sensible, late-winter self and go see this one.