Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Fish

OK, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it really isn't even fair to include another movie in this post, much less a "meh" sort of one, but them's the breaks. Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea (aka "Thor vs. the Giant Fish") wants to be so much more than it is and it's a shame. The actual story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex and the horrific aftermath is compelling on its own; there was really no need to embellish. (And the actual facts are more gruesome that the film feels comfortable discussing.) Liam Hemsworth is a fine actor; I truly believe that, but in this film, neither he nor anyone else on Nantucket can settle on an accent. I'm willing to forgive a good bit due to Owen Chase being a seafaring man, but it got a bit silly at one point. Not at all a bad film, but it could have been so much better.

Now to the main attraction. I'm a Star Wars nut and have been since I was the tender age of nine. That said, the second trilogy saddened me and the revolving door of "new and improved" editions left me cold. (Confession - I still have the original trilogy on Laserdisc. And yes, I have the player. Think on that for a moment.) And J. J. Abrams still owes me for the wreck that was Into Darkness. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see a showing of SW: TFA at the unlikely hour of 10:30. That's A.M., by the way - usually too early for popcorn, but hey, it was a special occasion.

Is the poster too crowded? Yes. Is it a perfect movie? Nope. Do I care? Not a whit. This film makes me happy. Yes, there are plot holes and don't even get caught up in the non-science. This is myth, not science fiction. And it's got throwbacks to the things that made the original trilogy "Joseph Campbell in space," including heroes, redemption, father-figures, conflicted villains, wise elders, and more besides. (Like lightsabers.) Young unknowns are going to be huge stars - get ready for that, John Boyega, Adam Driver, and Daisy Ridley.

Go see this. Just - go. Now.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

This Is An Emergency

With those words, Spike Lee's re-telling of Lysistrata begins. We're told to "Wake up!" at the beginning and at the very end of this brutal satire - just as Lee did 25+ years ago with Do the Right Thing and it seems logical to use that phrase as a set of cinematic bookends, since it appears we haven't learned a damn thing since then.

Yes - go see Chi-Raq. Go see it on the big screen and take your neighbors who are old enough to be frightened by the fact that gun violence in our country has reached levels that seem to only have one direction - up - and that many, many citizens seem to have thrown in the towel, insisting that the only solution to this plague is yet more guns in yet more places. (Oh, and bulletproof sleeping mats for napping kindergartners.)

Before I go into specifics about why you ought to carve time out of this cheery holiday season to see a film about gangs, senseless violence, sex, and the power of women (with nary a reindeer in sight), let's clear one thing up right now. Lee is taking a great deal of heat for this film - in part, due to some odd interviews he's given after the release of the film. But a lot of the pearl-clutching criticism comes from people shooting off their mouths about the film being "exploitative" and "disrespectful." He's been called the equivalent of a carpetbagger - that Brooklyn so-and-so coming in to Chicago to tell us what our problems are!

So - a quick lesson on Lysistrata and satire. To begin with, I was thrilled when one review mentioned that the source material is a play "that you’ve probably never heard about unless you’ve taken some (perhaps advanced) literature courses in college." I teach about that play in my first-year, open-to-folks-with-no-prerequisite intro to theatre course. Now - satire versus parody. Think of "parody" as mimicking something (or someone) specifically in order to create a humorous effect. It has no other purpose but to entertain. "Satire" is broader, involving mimicking something general in order to comment on something broader, with the intent of commenting on the society that created the subject, often with the idea of changing it. Parody wants you simply to laugh; satire wants you to think. The Scary Movie franchise (and its assorted ilk) is a parody on the genre of teen horror movies (and you need to understand the specific references to "get" the jokes), while Mel Brooks' hilarious Blazing Saddles is a satire on racism. 

Lysistrata is a satire - and a biting one. No, of course withholding sex isn't going to end war - for one thing, if the men are all off at war, who's around to be affected by the sex strike? But nevermind - it's a play, and as Shakespeare reminds us in Hamlet, the play's the thing. With Chi-Raq, Lee keeps the broad framework and the Greek flavor - the warring gangs are the "Trojans" and the "Spartans" (standing in for the Crips and the Bloods), there's a coffeehouse called the "Deus Ex Machina," the women await the peace talks in a fortified location, plus you've got Cyclops, Oedipus, and a very wise "Miss Helen." Most importantly, Lee kept the fact that the sex strike is undertaken by the women because it's the only power they have. These women feel helpless in their own community and want to end the bloodshed. In ancient Greece, women had very little power - political or otherwise. In our society, women have more power, but often don't claim it. And until you claim that power, it's very easy to think men just want One Thing.

Oh, and did I mention that Lee keeps the whole thing in rhyming couplets? Greek comic plays were known for rhyming structure and broad, coarse language (many weren't translated into English until the 19th century - it was felt that if you could read them in the original Greek, you were too sophisticated to be sullied by jokes about impotence, randy men, and hot-to-trot women. The Victorians were weird). Lee co-wrote the screenplay with film academic Kevin Willmott, who wrote the devastating satire C.S.A. - The Confederate States of America in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War. (Do check that one out.) And do not forget that satire is intended to be funny and Chi-Raq has laugh-out-loud points. I think that's probably what's confusing people - the situation is serious; how can you find humor in it? (Well, rewatch Blazing Saddles and ask yourself that question again.) Hearing Dave Chappell play an upset club owner whose "talent" has joined the striking women shout that "the situation's out of control/'Cause I'm in front of an empty stripper pole!" makes that point rather eloquently.

Go see this movie. Angela Basset as Miss Helen will move your heart, John Cusack as a liberal Catholic priest who grew up in the neighborhood (and is based on real-life Father Michael Pfleger) will stir up your outraged sense of justice, Jennifer Hudson will make you weep (oh, there's one scene that just her and the swish-swish of a scrub brush that will stay with me for a long time). As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is transcendent and Nick Cannon as Chi-Raq (the title isn't about him as a person, though - he took that nom de street from the location) astonished me. And there's a sniggering Wesley Snipes and don't forget Samuel L. Jackson as the honest-to-Zeus Greek chorus, guiding us through the action. (And keep an eye on his canes.)

Chi-Raq is a harsh movie. But the fact that more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the last few years than were killed in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars is harsher. Lee's never been afraid to take on the troubling topic of black-on-black violence and in Chi-Raq, he's created a movie you ought to look straight in the eye.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Catching Up!

I've got several items to bring to your attention in this post - as well as another separate one on Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, but this is already going to get long, so look for that one early this week.

First, Jennifer Lawrence wrapped up her run as Katniss Everdeen with the release of Mockingjay, Part 2. There's not much to say about this one - if you liked the others, you'll like seeing the ending. If you haven't seen the others, this is not the place to jump in! Donald Sutherland's performance as President Snow is well worth singling out, especially for a scene toward the end where he lays out some hard truths to Katniss who, in many ways, is still a pawn, just for another side. She's got choices to make and none of them are easy ones. The world of The Hunger Games is a dystopia and those never fix themselves just because people want them to. Keep an eye on Julianne Moore's Alma Coin - she and Snow aren't as different as we'd like to think they are. (Two sides of the same Coin? Hmm.)

Next, Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan (trying desperately to make people forget the reeking mess that was Fantastic 4) hand the Rocky Balboa tale off to a new generation with Creed, which is the 7th (seventh!) film in the Rocky franchise. I was amazed at how solid a movie this was. I must admit a certain guilty pleasure in some of the less-likely of the Rocky movies (I'm looking at you, Clubber Lang! Oh, and Ivan Drago! You Soviet machine!), but underneath the bluster was a thoroughly American tale of the underdog who won't be counted out. Creed is a solid picture, with much to say about legacies, hard work, and (interestingly) disability. A good film and definitely a feel-good one.

Netflix has released the first season of Marvel's Jessica Jones and, while I don't recommend it for anyone who thought Daredevil was too dark (there are spots in Jessica that make DD look like a Sunday-school picnic), it is astonishingly good. They went full-out film noir here, with Jessica as the hard-boiled, world-weary, hard-drinking private eye who's seen too much of this world to feel much of anything for it, but still has that tiny spark in her that want to do right in the world. Krysten Ritter (Jane from Breaking Bad) carries off the role with aplomb and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) is frightening as Kilgrave, who has powers of mind control and no conscience. To him, people are furniture and he likes to decorate. The entire season can be easily read as an extended rape/consent analogy - in sometimes quite a literal way. For every woman who's ever been told to "smile, baby" while going about her business during the day, Jessica Jones will make you shudder and want to take a shower. The supporting cast is also strong and some seeds have been planted that will certainly come to flower in the next few Marvel projects.

Last for this catch-up post is the new release Spotlight, which tells the story of the Boston Globe's dogged investigative reporting to break the scandalous story of sexual abuse by priests and the shuffling around of pedophile priests by the Catholic hierarchy. It's a difficult film to watch in places, especially as the film progresses and you are faced with hard, cold evidence that higher-ups knew (not suspected, KNEW) that they were placing children in danger, yet continued business as usual. It's a quiet movie; one that's content to let solid performances work without being flashy. Michael Keaton, for my money, is better in this that in the over-praised Birdman and Liev Schreiber handles the role of outsider-in-Boston who has the responsibility of running with a story many would prefer to keep buried. But the standout may well be Stanley Tucci, whose role as a crusading lawyer who is patiently building an airtight case is in sharp contrast to his Hunger Games role as the brash TV host Caesar Flickerman. (How's that for bringing this post full circle?) You might have to drive a bit to find Spotlight and yes, the subject matter is upsetting, but the film never lapses into the lurid. This is a film about the power of an independent press and - in an age when too many of us get our news fast, furious, and often not fact-checked in the rush to be first - it's a reminder that accuracy takes time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

International Flair!

The last few days have been hard. The icy talons of terrorism have attempted to rip Paris asunder and that's caught the attention of the US in ways that other attacks have not. What action to take and when and how are questions that have yet to be answered, but I suspect that we've entered a whole new chapter in the "War on Terror" and wars are never clean-cut and upright as we'd like to think.

So, in the meantime, three movies to consider.

First up, the new James Bond action flick, SPECTRE. James Bond has always been about undeclared wars - espionage as a less-bloody substitute for Flanders Field. I've enjoyed Daniel Craig as Bond - he's brought a certain weariness to the role and, if his Bond isn't quite as superhuman as previous models, he's also more realistic while still retaining elements of the "gee, wow!" variety. For me, Skyfall is still the high-water mark of the Bond films, but SPECTRE is quite respectable. (Should that be "re-spectre-ble"?? No. That won't do.)

I have a suspicion that pre-production on a Bond film must involve a meeting of the higher-ups who say, "All right, then. Where do we want to visit under the guise of filming this time?" SPECTRE has some lovely scenery in it, beginning with a massive Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. All sorts of hijinks ensue and Bond winds up saving the day. Honestly, if you like Bond films, you'll love this one. If you don't, you won't.

Next, the "didn't we see this happen live?" movie The 33. This dramatization of the 2010 Chilean miner rescue had a number of hurdles to overcome. The world watched this happen (it's estimated that one billion - yes, with a "b" - watched at least part of this event), so the director was going to have to make us forget that we knew the outcome. It's an international cast and Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen insisted the actors speak English as well as Spanish with a Chilean accent. The real-life leader of the trapped miners, Mario Sepulveda (played with intensity by Antonio Banderas) served as supervisor of the extras on the film and several other miners had production roles as well. The film features and international cast including American James Brolin (it's a small role, but he plays it with relish), Frenchwoman Juliette Binoche (who plays Maria Segovia, whose kid brother is one of the trapped miners), and Irish Gabriel Byrne as the chief engineer trying to free the miners. This is a movie that gets faith right - I've complained loudly about the low-quality of many "faith-based" movies in which nonbelievers as well as the faithful are cardboard cutouts. In The 33, faith is an integral part of the miners' lives - you see it in the shrine at the mouth of the mining shaft, the rosaries most of the men wear, the prayers that are offered up by family members, and so on. It's just there, so it doesn't have to be remarked upon. While the film takes dramatic license with a number of events (and people!) to fit 69 days into 2 hours, it contains some lovely scenes, including one in which the trapped miners hallucinate eating their favorite foods with their loved ones as a Bellini aria soars upward. The 33 says some wonderful, lyrical things about family, love, and tough times drawing people closer. I say go see it. If for no other reason, it was the last complete film James Horner (Avatar, Titanic, Braveheart, Aliens and more than 150 more) scored prior to his death earlier this year.

And it contains this bit of wisdom: "You're going to hug her and cry like a baby. You'll forgive her for everything she's ever done and you'll pray to God that she forgives you."

Last, one from the vaults. Jean Renoir's (yes, the son of the Impressionist painter who liked pretty places and prettier people) anti-war film from 1937, La Grande Illusion. So much has been written about this film that I'm only going to hit the highlights. It's a war film without combat. It's the first film selected to be part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. It was the first foreign film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. It indirectly caused the Cannes Film Festival to come into existence. (Really. When the film had to share top prize at the Venice Film Festival with Reifenstahl's hymn to Nazism Olympia, organizers thought there had to be a better way. Oh, and the film didn't get the original top prize at the Venice festival, since the Mussolini Cup (what?!?!) couldn't very well be given to a film that was banned in Italy.)

La Grande Illusion takes on the notions of class and a vanishing way of combat. Fighter pilots tended to be officers and officers tended to be aristocrats, so there are touches of civility in the decidedly uncivil occupation of war - for instance, the Germans send a lush memorial wreath to the French in a gesture of honoring a fallen enemy that is downright Klingon in its heart, if not its tone. What characters have in common has far more to do with their calling and class than their nationality. It's truly a film that film lovers should see, for La Grande Illusion is the beginning of what can be called humanist cinema.

And I think we could all use a little humanity right about now.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Oscar Bait - Round One

During the last quarter of the year, studios begin bringing out their "prestige" pictures, which are films designed to catch the fancy of the awards-granting community. Often, these films are more serious in tone, anchored by A-list performances, and intended to be far more "arty" than the summer blockbuster season.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

 From the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking that Guillermo del Toro's gothic Crimson Peak is a horror movie. Indeed, there is gore and scare here, but this film is far more melodrama than horror - and I mean that in a good way. If you're expecting Pan's Labyrinth 2, you'll be disappointed. (Then again, why would you expect that? Del Toro doesn't repeat himself.) Peak is delightfully over-the-top in terms of taking stock characters - the blonde damsel, the penniless cad, the raven-haired spinster sister, the honest doctor, etc. - and giving them dark, dark twists. Melodrama is characterized by moremoreMORE! and Peak has that in bundles. The decrepit mansion hiding a sinister secret! The isolated countryside! And more Georgia clay that you'll find in Gone with the Wind. If you go into Peak knowing that you're going to see something that is far more Grimm fairytale crossed with Wuthering Heights than straight-up horror decked in lace, you'll  probably find yourself enjoying it tremendously. Marvel at the inability of homeowners to patch a hole in the roof! Cringe at the combination of open flame and waist-length tresses! Speculate on the sheer amount of yardage in the costumes! And be on the lookout for butterflies and moths! I say catch this on the big screen just for the visual feast that del Toro has provided to you - Peak is lush, rich, and unlike anything else you're likely to see this year. Featuring Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, left me a bit confused. Michael Fassbender does a fine Job here (sorry - bad puns sometimes sneak in), Kate Winslet is having fun as his long-suffering (funny how everyone in Jobs' inner circle can be described as "long suffering." The man may have been an obsessive visionary, but he was also an ass), talk-him-down-from-a-ledge, right hand Joanna Hoffman, and Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels turn in solid performances, yet the film just doesn't seem to really go anywhere. The film, which is based off Walter Isaacson's 2011 book, covers the period from 1984, when the highly-touted Macintosh was launched (which nearly destroyed the company) to 1998, when the iMac was launched. This gives the audience ample time to see Jobs be a jerk to his co-founder and best friend, his CEO, his engineers, his assistant, and his daughter. The use of product launches to frame the events of the film is interesting, but ultimately, it doesn't help the film progress in any way other than marking time. Truly a puzzlement. Rent it if you like, but it's also fine to pass on this one. Directed by Danny Boyle.

Burnt - ah, this is a fun one! My co-host and I have been agreeing too often lately and Burnt breaks that streak decisively. Everything I enjoyed about this film, Ensley hated. Not disliked - actively hated. (Which should at least make for an interesting show when we review it!) No doubt about it, Burnt is Oscar bait for Bradley Cooper, an incredible actor who has been nominated for three consecutive acting Oscars but has yet to take the award home. Here, he plays a superstar chef (Adam Jones) who has thrown away his opportunities through addiction (far more common in the restaurant world than you might think, by the way - it can be a hard-partying life when your work ends after midnight) and general bad-boy behavior. He's burned every bridge he had and done a sort of self-imposed penance (also, he fled to avoid some bad debts) and wants back into the world of Michelin-starred, incredibly high-end restaurants. His addictions are under control (and he's blood-tested weekly to make sure of that), but he's still a raging jerk to others around him. The behavior is tolerated for the sake of that elusive third Michelin star and people will overlook a lot when they think you're pursuing perfection. I thoroughly enjoyed Cooper's performance; Ensley wanted to walk out. I agree that Burnt celebrates the bad-boy chef (sort of like Steve Jobs does, only here Adam Jones actually makes the things he's obsessing about) and there is a romantic subplot that feels terribly tacked on and is a waste of Sienna Miller, but I can't help it - it's fun seeing Cooper rip things up. Who knew the American Sniper would get so upset over an overdone scallop? Oscar loves a redemption story, and Burnt has it in ten-foot letters, complete with a buffet. However, Oscar also loves a winner, and this film is not doing well at the box office. It's a rental - there's really nothing here that demands to be seen on the big screen - but I say give it a try. Directed by John Wells.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Scary Things

Somehow, I've gotten terribly behind with the blog, so I have to double up a bit in this post. I want to briefly discuss two new releases and one that's available outside of theaters. What all three films have in common is a certain "scare" factor.

 First, Ridley Scott's The Martian, which focuses on the triple fears of isolation, abandonment, and impending doom. Based on Andy Weir's captivating 2011 novel of the same name, Scott assembles a star-studded cast (Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, among others) to tell the story of Mark Watney, an American astronaut who gets left behind when a Mars mission goes terribly wrong. I think Matt Damon captures Watney's wry wit - there's a bit about Watney being a "space pirate" that's laugh-out-loud funny, for example. However, the film cuts out a good deal of the problem-solving that made the novel so compelling and, in a few places, just gets things flat-out wrong. (No, you can't use a teensy hole in your spacesuit to guide you toward your rescue ship, mostly because you'd have a bad case of the deads.) Weir likes science - in fact, he claims science makes a wonderful plot device - and it's a bit of a shame to see that serious thinking watered-down to a basic thrills-and-adventure plot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film and would love to see it spark interest in manned space missions again. Seriously, why don't we have a moon base yet?

Second, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, which deals with the fear of trickery, war, and back-door deals. Okay, look - you pretty much can't go wrong with the combination of Tom Hanks, Spielberg, and American can-do attitude. In addition to working with Hanks on a number of other projects as producer, Spielberg has directed Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (where we also had to rescue Matt Damon - between that and Interstellar, Damon ought to just stay home by the fire), Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal. Here, Hanks is in full Jimmy Stewart mode and by that, I mean he's playing a solid, honest, decent man (James Donovan) who is convinced that the rule of law will lead to the light. When called upon to defend a Soviet national accused of espionage at the height of the Cold War, he takes the unwelcome assignment (he's an insurance attorney, not a high-powered government lawyer, which is an interesting story in itself) because he truly believes that the Constitution's guarantee of a competent defense is a cornerstone of our legal system. (He's right, by the way.) His client is guilty as original sin, but Donovan's arguments spare his client the death penalty. A few years later, the pilot of one of our super-duper-top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down and Donovan is called into service to arrange for a prisoner exchange. Bridge of Spies is a compelling movie and it's at its absolute best detailing Donovan's tense days in Berlin arranging the spy swap at the very time the Berlin Wall is going up. Sure, the film takes a few liberties with the story (and there's far too little smoking for the time period!), but an amazing film and one well worth seeing in these cynical times.

Lastly, the 2014 Australian horror-thriller The Babadook. I can't say much about this without worrying about giving something important away, so I'll be brief. This film, the first major release by Jennifer Kent, scared the bejeezus out of me. There's a bit of gore, but it's mostly "head scare" and reality gets very, very warped in the hour and a half run time. One thing this film does masterfully is set you off-kilter. My allegiances changed as I started the film sympathizing with one character and found myself moving to viewing that character as the Evil of the film. What's real? What's the mind capable of believing? And how much can untreated traumas manifest in our world? The Babadook is a film that made me cringe, jump, and actually think - and many others agree with me. Don't miss this one.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Let the Grown-Ups Work

Two new films deal - in very different ways - with grown men who are at odds with the world around them. In Black Mass, small-time gangster James "Whitey" Bulger sees opportunity and ruthlessly moves to expand his sphere of influence while in The Intern, retired phone book manufacturer Ben Whittaker seeks to fill his days by working at an internet start-up.

 Black Mass purports to be the story of how far loyalty can stretch when one boy grows up to become an FBI agent and another grows up to become a gangster with his fingers in the criminal pies of extortion, loan sharking, drugs, and everything else an FBI agent is supposed to stop. (I say "purports" because there's some question about how much is true - a common problem with biopics.) Wanting to bring down the Italian mob more than wanting to bust an old friend from Southie, Agent John Connolly convinces his onetime friend, James Bulger, to become an informant. He won't be a rat, you understand - rats are bad - but he'll be able to clean out the old neighborhood.

Bulger understands very well. Nature, and crime, abhor a vacuum, so as the Italians go away, Bulger takes over. Played by Johnny Depp is one of his most compelling performances ever, Bulger is the picture of the neighborhood gangster. He's kind to little old ladies and probably tells kids to stay in school, but he's absolutely ruthless when crossed and he doesn't bother to ask anyone else to do his dirty work - Bulger's fine killing with his bare hands. It's an astonishing performance and the supporting cast (which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Jesse Plemons) is very strong. In fact, the performances are probably a shade better than the story, which can seem choppy in places. However, Black Mass is well worth seeing, even if it just to remind you that behind Depp's campy romps is an actor who has honed his craft to a fine edge.

In another generation, The Intern would have been a Cary Grant movie.* Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) answers an ad seeking senior citizens to be interns at "About the Fit," an internet clothing company that was established by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). The company isn't even two years old and Jules has over 200 employees, as well as a husband and daughter. She's trying to juggle her responsibilities in all these areas of her life and, while she means well, she's making a hash of it all. Ben might not be familiar with the technological whosits, but he's the voice of calm reason and picture of style. (Side note - yes, men should carry handkerchiefs - I married a man who does and it certainly does get noticed!) This film doesn't really have any sharp edges; it's a throwback to a quieter sort of comedy and while not all of it quite holds together (I think writer/director Nancy Meyers lets Jules' husband off too easily and the film praises overwork more than I think it ought to), The Intern will become a late-night movie staple. See it in the theaters first.

*One of the later ones - maybe Walk Don't Run.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Company Manners

This weekend, I went to see M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, The Visit. The movie is fine - with a PG-13 rating, it's filled with jump-scares rather than actual gore and the two young actors playing the leads (Olivia DeJonge as Becca and Ed Oxenbould as her younger brother Tyler) are certainly actors to watch. Although Shyamalan has an interesting idea in having Becca be a film-obsessed teen making a documentary of her experiences, it means far, FAR too much shaky-cam for my taste. (Then again, it provides an excellent way to cheat actually seeing gore and build the dread, plus it provides a few lovely moments about the nature of filmmaking.) Plus, you really could just tell the ticket window that you want a ticket to see "Scary Grandparents," and they'll know exactly what movie you mean. As with all of Shyamalan's movies, the "twist" (the twist! THE TWIST!) is centered in the hard reality that strange things have a reasonable explanation, albeit one that's dark.

Honestly, when it comes to The Visit, I think it's probably a rental rather than a big-screen must-see, and if you're one of those who keeps giving Shyamalan a chance based on his being crowned "the next Steven Spielberg" ten years ago (and wondering when that's going to happen), fine, go see it.

My real focus here is on something I never thought I'd need to spell out. But here goes - ahem. A tutorial for people attending movies in 2015.

1. The people on the screen can't actually hear you. I get it. Part of the fun of seeing a scary movie is being scared. Presumably, you've paid your money based on that premise and haven't wandered into the wrong theater. Jumping, yelping, and (yes) the occasional "Don't go there!" are perfectly acceptable - and can add to the overall experience (the audience helped me immensely during The Conjuring - they were having such fun that I let loose and enjoyed myself more than I normally would have. Honestly, it's just not a good movie.) However, during my daytime viewing of The Visit, the audience was loudly commenting on the behavior and appearance of every character onscreen. This means they were forgetting a basic point of movie-watching . . .

2. That little ticket in your hand means you're not in your living room. I cannot adequately express my grief and rage at this lack of courtesy. As a fan of MST3K and its progeny, yes, I've been known to snark my way through movies I watch at home. Yes, I've even been known to comment on Beach Blanket Bingo and Jason & the Argonauts when shown to small groups. I don't squawk during films shown in my classes, nor do I yap during movies I - and the people around me - have paid good coin to see as a general practice. (I'm looking at you, Transformers 4 and Star Trek: Into Darkness - you pushed me off the path of righteousness). It's a basic rule - if you're not part of the show, you're there to be entertained. You're not part of the entertainment itself, so shut up. (Sorry to be so blunt.) I've paid good money to watch the shenanigans onscreen, not to listen to you and you're not there to listen to me. Let's agree on that point and eat popcorn together in a show of unity.

3. For two hours, really - it's okay to NOT check your phone. I can't believe I even have to say this, but I do. Cell phones are both marvels of the modern age and a curse that may undo us all. They also come with a light-up screen which carries far, far further than you think it does in a darkened theater. No, don't text, tweet, Instagram, Facebook, or whatever else you're doing once the "Enjoy this digital feature presentation" comes on the screen - and even that's later than you should be electronically available. Once they remind you to cut off your phone, CUT OFF YOUR PHONE!

4. If you're not going to watch the credits, move along. I'm one of those oddballs who watches the credits. For me, a movie isn't over until I've seen the cast (including "3d Solider from the Left"), the crew (including "Junior Assistant Accountant"), songs (really? That was from Tosca?), caught the weird credits ("Cockroach Wrangler" is still a favorite of mine), and seen the IATSE logo. I get that many other viewers don't want to sit through the credits (I don't understand it, but I get it. Me, I'm watching every frame I paid for), but I can't tell you the number of times I've had people just stop and chat with their equally rude brethren in front of my seat, thus blocking the screen for me. Keep it moving, folks, and chat in the hallway once you're out of the theater.

I swear, I'm becoming more of a curmudgeon each day. But really - movie watching in a theater should be a shared experience with the other people in the audience and that requires a certain level  of respect and a willingness to form that community with the people there.

So - to recap. The characters can't hear you, hush, and turn off your phone. That way, you'll have far more to talk about after the credits roll.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Over Labor Day weekend, I took my mother to see A Walk in the Woods, the movie version of Bill Bryson's 1998 travelogue of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I first read the book about ten years ago and it remains one of my all-time favorite examples of travel writing. The movie version makes (of course) some changes from the book, one of the biggest of which is the casting of the leads. When Bryson set out to hike the AT, he was 47. In the film, he's played by Robert Redford, who is in his late 70s. That alone changes the story considerably - Bryson is no longer facing a mid-life crisis; rather, he's being influenced by funerals and a TV interview that suggests he doesn't have anything left in him to write about.

Since seeing the film, I've heard some criticism that it's "grumpy men on the trail" and some sniffs of derision from purists, but I say ignore that and go see this film - on the big screen, please. The Appalachian Trail is one of the most thrilling monuments to the wilderness that we have here in America, and it's within a day's drive of half the country's population. It's also heart-stoppingly beautiful and Ken Kwapis's film doesn't stint on that, even if Georgia is standing in for large chunks of the trail that are actually located further north.

Originally, Redford wanted Walk to be a joint project with Paul Newman, and we can only wonder at what that might have been like, especially back in the day when Redford and Newman were at the height of their masculine beauty and sharp wit. However, Nick Nolte as the out-of-shape, possibly on the run, lecherous Katz is a marvel. Nolte is one of those actors whose personal life overtook his talents for a time, but here he's a force to be reckoned with. 

Neither Katz nor Bryson truly understand what they've gotten themselves into, although they're better prepared that Cheryl Strayed was in Wild (also - the Pacific Crest Trail is far wilder than the older AT, which is generally pretty close to civilization and boasts an impressive chain of rustic shelters). There are threats on the trail, including annoying, much younger, hikers and bears, but also having so much time to think. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to tell you that my mother is the woman who instilled a love of the outdoors in me. I was riding a pony on my own before I could write my name in cursive and I hiked Mt. LeConte several times before I was ten, including one time when an early winter storm left the balance cables coated in ice. I think people who behave like the wilderness is their own personal playroom are morons of the first order and people who are disappointed that the bears in Yellowstone aren't Yogi probably shouldn't be allowed to roam around unsupervised. We have so few wild places left that it would do us all good to get out and spend some time in them and feel small when standing in the middle of it all. Until you can plan that, go see A Walk in the Woods - and mourn the passing of the American chestnut and rejoice that science may yet bring it back from the brink.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Violence & People

Sorry - due to the start of the semester at my college, I fell a bit behind, so this is a double post. It works out, though, since there's a theme to the three movies I want to discuss. While all three take different paths, Straight Outta Compton, '71, and No Escape all have one thing in common - all three focus on how normal, everyday people react to living in a violent environment.

 Straight Outta Compton is the biopic of the influential hip-hop group N.W.A. The film is doing (pardon the pun) gangbusters at the box office and rests squarely at the intersection of reconstructed history and marketing. Compton is an uncomfortable movie to watch as it doesn't shy away from showing the casual racism toward and everyday degradation of people who happen to live in a high-crime zip code. N.W.A. raised some interesting questions about the limits of free speech in performance and how much of a performer's stage persona could be counted on as being real. Plus, the album was the one of the first to sport the "Parental Advisory" sticker that is the basis of the movie poster.

The cast is amazingly strong, including both Ice Cube's son (who had to repeatedly audition for the role) and seasoned Broadway actors. The movie has come under fire for both the seemingly nit-picky and the "Really? You left that out?" I get conflicted on these points - biopics are not documentaries, but carefully constructed narratives (the director has said the the Dee Barnes "incident" [which most of us would call "felonious battery"] was left out because it "didn't serve the narrative"), but some of this smacks of dishonesty. The members of N.W.A. saw money as power and freedom and they got an awful lot of it terribly young and lacked wise guidance. Maybe Jerry Heller wasn't as bad as he's portrayed in this film and maybe he was. Maybe Dr. Dre's 25-years-too-late apology for abusing women is sincere or maybe the timing has a lot to do with the multi-billion dollar sale of Beats (ironic name for a product hawked by an abuser of women, right?) to Apple, who wants very much to have a clean image while using Dre's street cred. None of this changes the fact that Compton is a movie well worth seeing. The #BlackLivesMatter movement didn't spring up out of Ferguson without roots and some of those roots were formed in the late 1980s in Compton.

'71 deals with a city under another kind of siege. In 1971, the Northern Ireland city of Belfast was sharply divided not by skin color, but by religion. The "Troubles" have tangled roots that are far more complex than a disagreement over belief in transubstantiation and young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is thrust into the middle of it without so much as a map. Separated from his overwhelmed unit, Hook has to survive in a strange city where friend and foe can both be disguised. This film didn't come near me, but the reviews were so strong (plus, I have an interest in Irish history) that Ensley and I sought it out on Netflix. You won't necessarily understand the Troubles any better at the end of the movie - but neither does Hook. You will, however, have an additional sympathy for anyone - man, woman, or child - who had to find a way to live in such a tumultuous world with any semblance of normalcy.

Last, the Owen Wilson adventure movie No Escape opened this weekend. The film focuses on a picture-perfect American family (husband, wife, two adorable little girls) who are seeking a fresh start in an unknown East Asian country. (It's made clear that the country borders Vietnam, but no specific identification is made.) Just before they arrive, the country undergoes a violent coup and the Americans are distinctly unsafe. The film is a taut thriller that has received a number of complaints for xenophobia, a claim I don't think is warranted. From a storytelling point of view, the coup had to happen somewhere (and I'm not sure I can name the last film I saw in which the Vietnamese were the good guys!) and it adds to the tension that the American family can't understand the language. (I'm also glad the filmmakers resisted the impulse to add subtitles so the audience members are also unsure of what's being said.) No Escape is a by-the-numbers thriller, but for me, the thrills worked, as did the father's desperate attempts at humor to distract his scared-out-of-their-minds daughters. And don't discount the wife (Lake Bell), who may be frightened out of her wits, but by God, no one's hurting her little girls. It's a rental, but a good popcorn movie - and yes, it turns out there is an escape.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dark & Gritty & Wrong

It's no secret that I love comic books. (I still bristle at the term "graphic novel" - it just seems a little high-horse to me, as if "comic book" is a filthy term. But I digress.) There is a strain of comics that are most definitely not for children (Sandman, Preacher, Last Man, etc.), just as there is a segment of animation that is not intended for children (Boondocks, Family Guy, and oh, God - Grave of the Fireflies, for example). And that's as it should be. (By the way, Grave of the Fireflies is fantastic and amazing. I will also never watch it again if I can help it.)

But there seems to be a trend to homogenize comic book movies to make them all "realistic," meaning "dark and gritty." For some properties, such as Batman, this can work. For others, this insistence of making storylines grim does a disservice to the material.

So let's talk about Fantastic Four

There is so much wrong with this movie that it's shocking that the film is only 100 minutes long. The arguments and tales of bad behavior on the set are taking on legendary status and it is entirely possible that director Josh Trank (who seems to have gotten the gig on the basis of his film Chronicle, which also dealt with teens acquiring superpowers) may have torpedoed his career. The actors will (probably) recover, but this stinker will come up in interviews for years to come, unless the topic is put off-limits by a careful publicist.

Trank's not totally to blame, although he can't escape responsibility here, either. The film is a hot mess - to the point that Our Heroes don't get their powers until halfway through the film, and then we quickly jump to "one year later." Time jumps like that are always a bad sign. The story is disjointed, the characters act irrationally, Reed Richards is no longer a super-genius, Dr. Doom is a lovesick outcast, Ben Grimm is just sort of there, Sue Storm is stripped of all agency (she doesn't even get to go to the "other dimension," instead being relegated to running the controls. She gets her powers - which include supremely bad wigs from the studio-mandated re-shoots and the ability to project impenetrable human hamster balls - as a sort of drive-by) and Johnny Storm - well, he's the Human Torch. Fox doesn't like the movie much and Marvel allowed likenesses of the actors to be used in Punisher #14 and blew them up.

Yep, that's Teller, Bell, and Mara.
In short, this film feels like Fox rushed production in order to keep the rights from reverting to Marvel Studios and handed the film - which needed to succeed in order to reboot the franchise - to an inexperienced director and then didn't provide necessary support, oversight, and marketing.

Oh, wait. That's all true.

And the largest flaw? There's no joy here. The Fantastic Four are Marvel's original team and they were created by Lee and Kirby when characters didn't need to be realistic. They were often silly and downright ridiculous - cheaply printed on low-quality paper, they certainly had no pretensions of being literary. They paved the way for other, deeper stories; this cannot be denied - but the comic books of that time were aimed at a different audience and had different goals from the darker tales now being penned for older audiences. (I've surely rolled my eyes at the portrayal of both "Invisible Girl"[#4 in this link] and "Marvel Girl" in those early runs - wow!) I mean, look at that cover at the top of the post. This is not an angsty, brooding team.

Honestly, this Fantastic Four is one to skip. Don't see it - not now, not on demand, not as a rental. Not as free. You've got better things to do with your time.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Hunt & Holmes

So another installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise is out. I don't have a lot to say on this one - if you liked the four previous ones, you'll like this one. It's not the best place to jump into the franchise, but if you choose to do so in order to go with your friends to the movies, you'll be fine - we're not talking about a film franchise that has all that many nuances to begin with, after all.

MI is big, colorful, silly, summer popcorn fun. There are gadgets galore, a motorcycle chase that looks so much like the speeder bike scene from Return of the Jedi that I was looking for Ewoks, and some improbable plot points. (Trust me - a CIA black op in broad daylight in Havana would get noticed. Cuba is a tad sensitive about such things.) Some of the dialogue is lazy - "I'm not ready!" "Get ready!" - but that's probably nit-picking. I don't think it's nit-picking, however, to point out that the soundtrack is a textbook example of "Due to a hackneyed storyline, I don't think the audience will know what to feel, so cue them with the soundtrack, would you?" Gak.

Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt can clamber around a fly system with the agility of a spider monkey, although I spent enough time backstage to know that none of that scene - NONE of it - could happen in any competent professional theatre, much less the Vienna State Opera.  While there is some criticism of the film, most filmgoers and critics are loving it. Me, I think it's too much cotton candy - a fun treat, but if you try to make a meal out of it, you'll wind up with an aching tummy.

On the other end of the spectrum is the new BBC Films Mr. Holmes, featuring Sir Ian McKellen as an elderly Sherlock Holmes. (He also plays a younger Sherlock and the difference between the versions reminds me again of just how amazing and subtle an actor McKellen is.) This Sherlock is 93 and has long since retired from Baker Street to the Sussex countryside to tend bees (Not wasps! Very different things, wasps) and live a quiet life. He's trying to solve the case that drove him to retirement, and it's very difficult, as his memory is fading. For someone who lives on pure intellect to the degree that Holmes does, this is nothing short of terrifying. The criminally-underrated Laura Linney plays his long-suffering housekeeper who was widowed by WW2 and Milo Parker is extraordinary as her son Roger. Mr. Holmes is a movie that is comfortable with taking its own sweet time to unfold and the story is a rich one. This is a film that deserves to be seen. It may take a little searching to find it, but - trust me - this lush, thoughtful film is worth a road trip if you prefer nourishment to cotton candy.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Paper Thin

Sigh. The teen years are filled with angst, adventure, fear, and uncertainty. The film version of John Green's award-winning novel Paper Towns wants to capture all of that, but falls short of the mark, settling instead for being teen melodramatic claptrap.

There's just nothing here - and it's not that it's awful (remember, our standard for eye-gouging awfulness remains Bay's Transformers 4), but it's just meh. The cinematography is nothing special, the acting is fairly bland, the script has some plot holes Quentin could drive his mom's minivan through - it's simply not good. I can't comment on how closely the movie hews to the source material (although others have), but the film seems overwrought and unrealistic, both in motivation for characters' behavior and in its treatment of time (really - you can't take a bus from New York to Orlando and arrive in time for your prom. You just can't). Oh, and Margo Roth Spiegelman isn't a "mystery;" she's a whack job who is only fit company for the creepy whatisname Cullen from Twilight. Remember? The guy who watches his crush sleeping without her knowing about it and refers to her as my "own brand of heroin." Yeah. That guy. Margo is portrayed here as a budding hipster - look, she collects vinyl records! Her room is decorated whimsically! She's so alternative! No - she isn't. She's screaming for attention and apparently has unlimited funds to skip town and live comfortably.

That being said, I also have to realize and appreciate that I'm not the audience Paper Towns is trying to capture. Teens might love it and I refuse to say they're wrong. I have several films that I adored as a teen that I now look back on and gently shake my head. To me, Paper Towns is thin and ridiculous, but I'm not a teen who thinks (as 98% of teens do) that my life sucks and my town is boring. John Green is a force to be reckoned with in the YA demographic, so maybe to his target audience, Paper Towns captures some of that roiling teen whiplash experience.

For my money, if you truly want to see the high school experience, you should check out the Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Season Three episode "Earshot." Really - the writing's better and the story, even if it does involve demons, is more compelling. It's available free from Hulu!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fathers, Daughters, Ants, & Trainwrecks

 There's a new act under the tent holding the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("MCU") and Ant-Man is a worthy addition. While Ant-Man is a (let's face it) far less well-known character than Iron Man, Thor, or Hulk, he's been around since 1962, when he was introduced in Tales to Astonish #27. (There's actually a lovely shout-out to that title, if you listen carefully.) Now, the MCU has not been shy about tinkering with the backstories of their characters and I try not to get too incensed about that (Iron Man 3's complete mangling of the Mandarin character aside - Shane Black still owes me an apology fruit basket for that howling mess), but let's just get one thing straight. The original Ant-Man, along with Janet Van Dyne (Wasp), co-founded the Avengers, so he's a rather big deal. (The original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, is also frequently a terrible person in the comics. Let's leave it at that.) So for the movie version, the decision was made to focus on Scott Lang, who became the second Ant-Man. I've been fortunate enough to meet and correspond with the generous David Michelinie, who co-created Scott Lang with John Byrne in the late 70s, and I was glad to see his name in the film's credits. (Michelinie also created one of my all-time favorite storylines involving Tony Stark, which was carefully set up in the first two Iron Man films, only to be cast aside by the aforementioned Shane Black. Still waiting, apparently fruitlessly, for the also-aforementioned basket.)

But I don't want to catch up on years of back issues, you say. Fair enough. No need to - Ant-Man holds its own in the MCU and, as an extra treat, adds to the growing movie lore. There are several references to the events in Age of Ultron, which is fitting for the film that ends Phase 2 of the MCU. Again - watch carefully. Paul Rudd hits the right mix of funny and determined in Scott Lang, Michael Douglas carries off Hank Pym with aplomb, Evangeline Lilly nails Hope Van Dyne (although this certainly does seem to be the Summer of Women with Severe Haircuts), and Michael Pena steals Every Single Scene he appears in. It's a fun popcorn flick that also nudges the MCU along. And yes, there are "credit scenes" that you don't want to miss, so don't leave until you see the Teamsters logo.

While Ant-Man involves the often-complicated relationship between fathers and daughters (both Scott Lang and Hank Pym have issues with that), Trainwreck puts it front and center and is definitely for the adults in your movie-going group. Written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (his first film to direct without also writing), Trainwreck is a four-letter rom-com. While it's usual in that genre for the man to be a cad who is tamed by the Love of a Good Woman, Trainwreck shows the gentle, refined touch of a lady. Amy Schumer's lead character (also named Amy - her real-life sister's name, her father's name and struggle with multiple sclerosis are also based in reality, so the film has more than a passing personal touch for her) is not interested in anything more than a hook-up, until (per the formula) she meets The Right Guy, played here by Bill Hader.

Make no mistake - this Amy is a mess. She drinks too much, smokes too much pot, cusses too much, has a complicated relationship with her family, mocks commitment, is not exactly discerning about who she hooks up with, and is really just a mess. It's also ridiculously refreshing to see a woman who is independent (to a fault, true), successful, and shown to be comfortable with her appearance and her sexuality, even though she's not movie star thin. And it's a rom-com, so it all works out in the end. You'll develop a new appreciation for the physical exertion of professional cheerleaders, as well.

Plus - LeBron James is funny. Who knew? Then again, Schumer gave him fantastic lines to work with.

Please remember that you can keep up with the latest episode of Meet Me at the Movies (new episodes every Friday!) whenever you want through streaming! You can either subscribe to the show through Livestream, or simply go the the Cleveland Community College webpage, select C19TV at the top of the screen and select the show from the broadcast options. Tell your friends!

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Small & the Large

Two good films have crossed my path this past week. One is getting all the buzz you would expect from a follow-up/prequel to the successful Despicable Me movies, but the other is not only flying under the radar, it's getting swatted by critics - I think unfairly. So let's talk Minions but let's also chat about Self/Less.

 First - Minions. Narrated by Geoffrey Rush, this film purports to explain how the minions first crossed paths with Gru. To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much from this one, figuring it was a quick cash cow for Universal. But as soon as the iconic studio logo was given the minion gibberish-language treatment, I decided that this might be a fun ride. True, Minions isn't ground-breaking, but it's entertaining for kids (our almost-teenage god-daughter might be a touch old for it, although she declared it "adorable" and seemed to have a fine time. Then again, she was with me and FryDaddy and we're just delights) and for adults. In fact, there are some great gags in here that will resonate far more with the adults than with the young 'uns. Given that the film is set in "swinging London" of 1968, you have a fantastic soundtrack and some great visual jokes (be on the look out for the Abbey Road one in particular). Vocal talent is strong, with Sandra Bullock as the supervillain Scarlet Overkill (I love that name!), the incomparable Jon Hamm as her gadget-building husband, Allison Janney and Michael Keaton as a lovely family teaching their children how to best climb the villain ladder of evil, and Jennifer Saunders (from Absolutely Fabulous) as the Queen of England, who's a tough broad. Go. Have fun. It's a lovely summer popcorn flick, with some sly things to say about the infamous "Hall H" at the world's largest pop culture gathering that is the San Diego Comic Con.

Self/Less is not getting much love from the critics, which is a shame. Starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley, what you have here is a solid science fiction body-swap movie. (Plus, for fans of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, there's a nice bit in here about whether or not a slate can ever truly be "clean.") More psychological thriller and less CGI shoot-em-up, this is a film that summer just doesn't know what to do with. It's not an early Oscar showcase picture and it's not intended to be a summer blockbuster. Honestly, it's the sort of movie Hollywood used to turn out regularly - workmanlike, well-structured, and entertaining, but making no pretense of reinventing the genre. Sadly, that's not enough these days. Studios would rather churn out expensive 3D dreck that has a chance of making boatloads of money with the international market (which is more and more important - especially China) than risk far less money on a well-crafted, albeit smaller, picture. It's worth checking out - why, this film even made me forgive Kingsley for the mega-mess of his portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Summer Movie Catch-Up!

Summer is a time when studios release, release, release and it's hard to stay on top of everything. For that reason, you need to tune in to Meet Me at the Movies to get the recap on the new Terminator movie. (Hey, we're available through streaming! Go to, pick C19TV at the top of the screen - we're the first show on the top row of programming! Watch at your leisure - and there's a new show beginning each Friday morning!) See, this week Ensley and I split the viewing - he took Terminator and I took Magic Mike XXL. Who got the better end of the deal? Read on.

To complete the "catch up" portion of the blog, let me highly recommend - for two different audiences - both Inside Out and Dope

 Inside Out is the latest offering from Pixar and it's a winner. Not quite as transcendent as Up, but a cracking good view. The detail-oriented folks at Pixar consulted a number of actual brain scientists to get things right about how memories are formed and stored, and that attention to detail makes for a movie that will appeal to tweens and adults. At the heart of Inside Out is young Riley, who is dealing with being uprooted from her life in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents. It's a huge change for her and she has some trouble adjusting to the change. Plus - she's eleven, which can be the start of some hard years. To help her through every day, she's got an internal "board of directors" made up of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. (Well, we all do - stay 'til the end and you'll see what I mean.) The vocal talent is great - casting perpetually-angry Lewis Black as the personification of Anger was genius - and the story is captivating. Plus, Bing Bong. Fun on the big screen and definitely a rental afterward.

Dope seems to be this year's "independent film that could." After screening at Sundance, it was picked up for distribution by Open Road Films (interestingly, a company formed by two movie theatre chains - AMC and Regal). Dope centers on three high school seniors living in a rough area of Los Angeles who are joined together by their geeky outsider love for '90s hip-hop culture. Over the course of the film, we see Malcolm and his friends attempt to navigate staying on the straight and narrow while still being curious teenagers who want things. Deeply moving, laugh-out-loud funny, and uncomfortably questioning some notions of race and culture, Dope is worth seeking out. Please do.

Magic Mike XXL - well. First off, let me admit that I missed the original, although there's no need to have seen that to make sense of this sequel. The plot's thin - basically, it's a buddy-road movie with a lot of cussing and thongs. That I was expecting. What threw me were two things - first, the sheer level of raunch in this film, and I certainly don't consider myself to be a pearl-clutching prude. Let's just say that the dancing scenes are highly - interactive - with the onscreen female audience. This ain't your mama's Chippendales show. While attending such an evening's entertainment would not be my particular suggestive exploding bottle of water, I have to admit that women who do go know what they're getting into, which brings up my next, far more puzzling, point. Strangely, Magic Mike XXL is a celebration of the female. There is much talk about honoring and cherishing women and their desires - and let's face it, most movies see women only as a collection of parts and there's an entire (particularly icky) subgenre of horror films that seeks to punish women for even having sexuality. In this film, not only is desire accepted as natural, it's not limited to skinny white women - sadly unusual in mainstream films.  The lust in Magic Mike XXL is clearly depicted as being all in good fun, and the strippers are both profane and contemplative in turns. Yeah, it's nice to have a thousand women screaming to touch your well-oiled body, but there's nobody to go home to, which pains several of the "male entertainers." Plus, Myrtle Beach on the Fourth of July is apparently all yearning strippers and American flags. Weird, but just maybe worth a rental.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sigh. Unnecessary Sequels & Reboots

Hollywood is a business - and a costly business. Movies are expensive to make, distribute, and market. Therefore, when a studio hits a home run, they want to repeat the experience. Sometimes the "repeat" is in the form of a sequel; a continuation of the original story, often with the same actors playing the roles. Other times, studios dust off an old success and try to freshen it up for a new generation. Every now and then, it pays off - the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise has been both commercially and critically successful and big plans are in the works there - and sometimes it doesn't - by the end of the original Planet of the Apes franchise, things were looking pretty shabby.

And ever since Spielberg launched the modern summer blockbuster with Jaws, studios have looked to summer as the season to make moneymoneymoney.

Put those notions together and you get Jurassic World and (heaven help us) Ted 2. Let's take a brief look at both of these efforts.

Jurassic World is trying to cash in on the success of the Jurassic Park movies, which started 22 (!) years ago. There's a whole new generation of viewers out there and dinosaurs are always popular, so why not make them bigger, toothier, and moremoremore? Because it doesn't work and playing John Williams' soaring theme music over shots of the park, rather than shots of these incredible creatures sort of - well, underscores that point. I like Chris Pratt just fine and Dallas Bryce Howard deserves better than the cardboard cutout, severe-business-woman character she's given to play in this one. (She's paid for The Village by now.) There's still a message in here - but it's watered down and honestly, the movie isn't a big screen requirement. It goes back to the old saying from The Critic - "If a movie is a remake of a classic, rent the classic." It's not that Jurassic World is awful, it's just dull, which is nigh-unforgivable in a movie about giant man-eating lizards. But it does feature a Jimmy Buffett cameo, so there's that. He's not in the recut, fan-made, trailer, but it's still worth a watch.

Ted 2 is a bear of a different color. The original Ted was profane, lewd, and hilarious because it was such an original idea (but is this just Macfarlane speculating on the nature of Stewie and Rupert from Family Guy? Hmmm). This second outing just feels tired - and that's not just my opinion. The audience in the theatre when I saw it was trying to laugh, but it was just too much effort. Some chuckles, but really - no surprising, "hey, did you catch that?" belly laughs are in this one. It's still profane and lewd, but sadly - it's not funny. Well, there is one funny, totally random cameo from Liam Neeson (who was also in Macfarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West), but aside from that - I'm not even comfortable recommending it as a rental.

Both films will make money - in fact, Jurassic World is breaking box office records, but trust me, that's no guarantee of quality.

Advice worth taking!

Monday, June 29, 2015

It's Been a While!

Sorry - my intention was to be back in mid-June, but between a family crisis (now thankfully under control and on the upswing!) and preparing for the second Joss in June conference, I've been away longer than I ever intended.

Don't worry - I've seen plenty of movies I want to chat with you about, as well as what's looking like an absolutely astonishing TV series. I'll be catching up on my postings this week and I appreciate your patience, but boyhowdy! getting ready for that conference took every spare moment I had (plus a few!).

I had been invited to deliver the keynote address at this conference - keynotes are big deals. You're given more time to present your ideas, so they need to be tightly structured and well-supported. Since I was presenting on Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was only so much I could do prior to early May and I had no way of knowing if what I thought would fit, would actually fit until I'd seen the film. (It's more than a little nerve-wracking writing that way, to be sure!) It all worked out - and I even worked in a puppet, since the presentation was about Ultron's links to Disney's Pinocchio and the evolution of artificial intelligence. Sounds crazy, but I think it works.

But I'm back now - check back in a day for my first "catch up" summer movie post!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Better Tomorrow

OK, I'm beginning to notice an actual trend and it's a shocking one - girls are saving the world! As a delicious counterpoint to the undeniable game-changer that is Mad Max: Fury Road (click here for my post about that film, although there's muchmuchmuch more to write about it!), I recommend Tomorrowland. Reception for this film has been rather meh, which is a shame, so go see it.

Without giving too much away (and the film isn't perfect), Tomorrowland is the bookend to Mad Max in just about every way. It's also crammed full of Easter eggs, since it's a Disney film and Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars. Look around the "Blast from the Past" store and you'll catch a lot, including toys from director Brad Bird's magnificent Iron Giant film and John Williams' unmistakable triumphant score from Star Wars. George Clooney is disillusioned, Hugh Laurie is chewing the scenery, and newcomers Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy shine. Plus - jet packs!

Tomorrowland is all about hope in the here and now, not in some desolate dystopian wasteland. That doesn't have to be our future; we can change it if we only have the will. Yes, it's a film with a moral and that moral is telegraphed and underlined. Yes, some sequences feel like they really should have been animated (ask and ye shall receive - Pixar created an animated sequence for the film, but Bird thought it hurt the pacing of the overall movie, so it was cut. But the Internet saves everything.) But for me, it works. I read some commentary on the film after I watched it, and one line in particular stood out - "When did it become cool to not care?" Tomorrowland asks us to dream bigger and to do better, and even if it's corny, I just don't think that's such a bad idea these days.

This blog is taking a brief vacation break, but I'll be back mid-June with news and thoughts about all sorts of summer movies at that point. And be sure to keep up with Meet Me at the Movies through the new streaming service! Click here for the latest! And if that link doesn't work for you, go to the Cleveland Community College website at and click on the C19TV link at the top, then pick Meet Me at the Movies from the available options!