Thursday, September 01, 2016

Film Week

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

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION (2015)
I really enjoy these movies (the first two notwithstanding). This one isn't quite as good as Ghost Protocol, but it's shot really well and has some great, tense sequences. There's something of a draggy patch in there, which cuts the tension a little too much in the third act, but I still really enjoyed it. ***1/2

MATCH (2014)
Patrick Stewart is very, very good in this movie as ballet teacher whose past walks into his life one day and demands recognition. It's predictable in all of its twists and plot points, which is a disappointing, and Matthew Lillard is saddled with a character who's underwritten. But there's a lovely middle section which is just a two-hander between Stewart and Carla Gugino, who complements his emotions gracefully. I like that middle section. But the first and third acts are just sort of there and don't do much for the story. **1/2

SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)
Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie are a couple of sex addicts who meet in college, lose their respective virginities to one another, and then meet years later and form a friendship. Their mutual attraction is obvious to everyone else (and the audience), but what follows is kind of an interesting, unexpected story of a healing friendship. It has the structure of a romantic comedy, and the tropes you would expect, but not the tone. I found that an interesting way to tell the story, even if the story wasn't always engaging. Written and directed by Leslye Hedland, who made the similarly toned (but more engaging) Bachelorette. I read some other reviews of this movie and there were a lot of people who clocked this one for not "earning its romantic comedy moments" or never really catching fire as a satire of rom-com conventions, but I'm not sure it's attempting either of those things. It's not really any kind of satire or deconstruction, as much as it's told in a dramatic manner. I don't know, I liked a lot of what it did, and the lead performances were good. ***

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)
Maybe I expected something a little more involving because it was directed by David Gordon Green, but this political comedy is a hot bowl of nothing. Sandra Bullock is good, but it's just her falling apart and crossing moral lines without much drama while Billy Bob Thornton aggressively mumbles sexual abuse at her and everyone else just kind of sets her up for moments that don't land. I mean, Anthony Mackie is likable because, come on, he's Anthony Mackie, but he doesn't really have anything to do other than react to what Bullock does. And like I said, she's good, but it's a good performance wasted on a nothing movie. **

THE 5TH WAVE (2016)
I didn't realize how tired I was of these YA dystopias until I caught this one. It's never a good sign when you start rewriting the movie in your mind right in the first scene. Chloe Moretz clearly knows this material is beneath her and defaults to a lot of cartoony kiddie acting. No one else really registers, although Liev Schreiber has the right amount of menace. So, yeah, the Earth is invaded, it focuses on kids who can't act (Maika Monroe's big intro/barracks speech is embarrassing), and it sets us up for a trilogy that isn't necessary. It's basically Red Dawn with aliens but a thousand times more boring (and I don't like Red Dawn already). **

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2014)
Mark Ruffalo as a bipolar dad who agrees to take care of his two daughters in Boston for a year--after having a nervous breakdown--so that their mother (Zoe Saldana) can attend business school in New York and get her degree. Ruffalo is very good at portraying the bipolar swing. It's an autobiographical for writer-director Maya Forbes, whose own daughter portrays Forbes as a child. It's a well-made movie, and it's interesting to see a movie that takes place in the late seventies where the struggle is between Ruffalo's character and his mental illness (and how his daughters are affected by it) rather than the old "How the heck is a MAN going to do all the housework???" trope. ***

AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)
This is the movie David Gordon Green should have directed. This one... damn, the wasted potential is so real. This could have been like a stoner Hitchcock movie, or a pot-laced Bourne Identity, if the script had been handled differently. The problem, I think, is that we know what's going on right away, even before the protagonist does, so it really cuts down on the suspense. Basically, Jesse Eisenberg is a small town stoner getting ready to propose to his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). He's prone to panic attacks and isn't really going anywhere, but he's happy. It turns out (and this is spelled out way too early) that he's a CIA asset, but when he gets activated things start coming back slowly because of his years of marijuana use. I wish we hadn't spent any time with the government for the first half of the movie--the whole thing starts as a power struggle between two CIA suits--because just sticking with Eisenberg's point of view the whole time would've put us into a whole North by Northwest mystery situation that would've made me care more about the characters. What a waste of a set-up. I liked Eisenberg in the movie; I usually don't care for him, because he comes across so hostile, but he works here. And Stewart I always find utterly adorable. I like so much of what's in this movie (particularly the fight scene in the department store), but it's a disappointment that it goes for the most conventional, straightforward method of telling what could have been something really, really good. **1/2

FREEHELD (2015)
Based on the true story of Laurel Hester, a lesbian cop who, in 2005, had to fight Ocean City, New Jersey's board of freeholders in order to have her pension benefits passed on to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. From the director of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and the writer of Philadelphia. There are some problems with this movie, most of which are that it really means well but settles for TV movie drama moments instead of really getting into the characters. Julianne Moore is never bad in the lead, but you don't walk away feeling like you ever got to know her. I like Ellen Page, who plays Stacie, but again, there's just a remoteness to these two and their relationship that never lets you in. The most memorable character--and the movie's best performance--is Laurel's police partner, Dane Wells. Even he is mostly just supportive, but Michael Shannon's performance is so strong that the character becomes magnetic, and the movie's moral center. Which... well, it seems like a problem that the real center of this movie about lesbians fighting for equal rights is a straight man. **1/2

THE SALVATION (2014)
Bleak Danish film about a former soldier (Mads Mikkelsen) living in the American West in 1871. The town he lives outside of is being ruled by a former soldier (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, full of congenial, focused menace) who is running everyone out in order to collect as much oil-rich land as he can. It's a pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns and not... particularly good. Mikkelsen is great, as is Morgan, and the cinematography is very good, but it's generic and slow, and the brutality just becomes too much. The film seems to be making a point about the West as the real beginning of American civilization, which explains why everyone acts like a barbarian, but it's never really done in an enlightening or interesting way. **

LOVE & BASKETBALL (2000)
Very enjoyable, insightful, well-acted film about two next door neighbors (Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan) who love basketball, and each other. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood balances the typical sports biopic plot with an emotional perception and some real points--shown and not told--about the disparity between resources and attention in men's sports vs. women's sports. I think the film falters a bit in its third act, but I'm glad it wasn't cliches, and I liked the film's sort of "old-fashioned" sensibility; this reminded me of a dramatic film from the early 1960s, told with a prettiness and a heightened movie sensibility, but with truths to tell about life, love, pressure and the very real possibility of going through life unfulfilled. ***1/2

THE GIFT (2015)
Taut film that's paced like a thriller, but isn't exactly that. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall star as a yuppie couple moving into a new neighborhood (the Mid-Century home they move into is absolutely stunning) just as Bateman's career is taking off. At a store, the two run into someone Bateman went to high school with (Joel Edgerton, who wrote and directed), and who tries to begin a rather one-sided friendship. His interest in the couple seems creepy and overwhelming at first, but then... well, it begins to become something else, and I really don't want to tell you any of the twists in this thing, because I really recommend you see it for yourselves. But be warned: the twists are pretty brutal. A bizarre, gripping flick that challenges expectations and is pretty damn dark in a way that I'm impressed everyone committed to. (Though it is a Blumhouse flick, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.) Great casting: Jason Bateman comes across as a smarmy, phony dick in everything he's ever in, but it's really used well here, and this is literally the first time I've ever liked Rebecca Hall in a movie. ****

Monday, August 29, 2016

Muppet Monday

A bit of a cheat today, as I heard the sad news that Gene Wilder passed away and I wanted to put something here. Unfortunately, he never worked with the Muppets, but he did appear in the 1999 Hallmark TV movie Alice in Wonderland. It was as varying and inconsistent in quality as literally every version of Alice in Wonderland I've ever seen, but I like this little bit with Wilder as the Mock Turtle, singing with a Griffin. The creatures were by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, so it's tangentially Muppety. Wilder was a fantastic comic actor, and Young Frankenstein is forever in my heart, but I first knew him from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I always love him best playing these touching weirdos in children's entertainment. So will you, won't you, join the dance?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Autobiography of a Frog, Part III: The Rest of 1976

It's mid-August 1976, and the world is chugging along. I'm still developing, however, as I've only been alive for six weeks. According to my baby book, August 27 was the first day I laughed. (Laugh not pictured above.) I don't know why I was laughing; the day before, August 26, was the first recorded Ebola outbreak (in Yambuku, Zaire--now the Democratic Republic of Congo). A few days later, on August 31, a court ruled that George Harrison had "subconsciously" plagiarized the song "He's So Fine" on his hit single "My Sweet Lord." And Caitlyn Jenner (then Bruce) was becoming a star after setting a world record at the Olympics in the decathlon. Just some other interesting stuff going on around the world while I'm laughing and wearing diapers.

Last time, I said I read tons of books about UFOs, but I also read tons of books about space exploration as a kid. This is the first picture Viking 2 took after landing on Mars on September 3. I remember seeing this historic photo a lot in the space books, but didn't realize it was only within my lifetime that the picture had been taken.

This is me at seven or eight weeks old, mid-September. In mid-September, China's Mao Zedong died, Argentina began a violent crackdown on students and intellectuals, and Patty Hearst was sentenced to 7 years in prison (of which she served 22 months). But I don't have a care in the world. I look so much like my grandpa, Shorty Davis, in this picture. I feel like I'm channeling some kind of Sydney Greenstreet villain, only with headache-inducing pants and a giraffe sweater. My Mom seems to have put me in red a lot, which is kind of bizarre, as it's a color I don't like wearing very much. Not because of any childhood association, but because I worked at Target when I was 18 and it was an awful company to work for. Now I never buy red shirts.

Look how happy I am, though! You can tell the internet didn't exist back then.

That's comedian Jack Eagle in this classic Xerox ad. It was a Super Bowl ad, but I stuck it here because I like it.

On September 17, the Space Shuttle Enterprise was unveiled, with Gene Roddenberry and most of the cast of Star Trek in attendance. I enjoy the fact that I was born just as the Space Shuttle program was just getting going. Space Shuttle launches were always events for me when I was a kid.

What's up, ladies? Here I am, looking like one suave baby, on September 19, in my baptism portrait. I was baptized at Luther Memorial Church in Des Moines, Iowa. I guess as far as God is concerned, I'm a Lutheran. (I'm actually an agnostic and ordained in the Church of the Latter Day Dude. Look it up.)

Another important event in my life happened on September 27: The Muppet Show premiered in the US in syndication. I can't even recall how old I was when I first saw it. It was on for five years, and I just have a memory of watching the show with my parents and it having been something we always watched. I cannot overstate the amount with the Muppets have been a part of my life and how much they influenced me, from my love of comedy to my love of performing arts to my love of music to my love of creatures. I don't think there's anything in pop culture that has been more a part of my life.

The Muppets are so important to me, it seems like they deserve more. They came into my life at a formative stage and influenced my emotions, my sense of humor, even the way I've always thought you should treat people with understanding and kindness.

Hey, I see my Dad found a shirt! Must be why I look confused and scared; I clearly don't recognize him. At some point soon, my Dad will join the US Army, but I don't remember exactly when it happened.

October 19: The Ford Fiesta went into production. I just mention it because it was a random fact I came across and the first car I remember us having is a Ford Fiesta, I believe a 1977. It was the kind of beige color my Mom always likes because she's so boring and likes things to be the physical manifestation of bland. We had it for some time, too, I think until around 1983 or something, when we got a station wagon. Sitting in the Ford Fiesta was somehow hard and uncomfortable.

Also on this day: the Chimpanzee was added to the Endangered Species List. It currently remains there.

Cover-dated October 1976 is X-Men #101, the first appearance of Jean Grey as Phoenix. I just mention it because I this run of X-Men is still what I think of as *the* X-Men. Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Banshee are my team. When I first got into the main Marvel Universe, these stories were being reprinted in Classic X-Men, which was my intro to the team, and which immediately captured my imagination, much more so than any team that followed.

On October 25, 1976, my amazing wife Becca, the love of my life, was born. We wouldn't meet each other until we were both 18, in November 1994.

Here I am on my very first Halloween! And I'm with a pumpkin, which is amazing, because you know I love me some Jack O'Lanterns. What's really trippy here is that two of the pictures on that chest are in this very entry of The Autobiography of a Frog. There are also two round pictures that I assume are high school graduation portraits of my parents, and their wedding picture, which I remember seeing all the time when I was a kid. I wonder who has that now, if anyone. That chest is my Mom's hope chest.

And since you know I savor Halloween commercials, here's a classic from 1976.


That's John Fielder in the supermarket, with Tom Bosley narrating. Don't know who plays the Monster/Igor, but I dig the makeup. I remember drinking orange Shasta as a kid. Do they still make it? Jewel used to make a generic that had a very similar taste.

November 2 was the election of Jimmy Carter, his first and only term as President of the United States. I admire the man, but I have no memory of him as President. I was just too young to remember.

If you're looking for a pop song from November 1976, I highly recommend ABBA's "Dancing Queen." It's one of my favorites. It's one of a number of ABBA songs that spins in my life's soundtrack. Probably the happiest one. It's cheesy, sure, but really... who the fuck cares?

Want something not cheesy? Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" came on while I was shaving this morning, and that's another in my personal canon of music. Endlessly listenable. This is the kind of stuff that sits comfortably together in my Spotify library. Maybe it's the ADHD, but I like wild tone shifts in what I'm listening to. Keeps my attention.

My baby book records November 10 as the day I first turned over on my own. This isn't me doing it in the picture, but it's the only picture I have from November, so here you go. (Most of the pictures I'm using to mention milestones just happen to be from the same month. It seemed obvious to me, but for some reason, it was extremely important to my Mom that I mention that.)

On November 13, Rowlf the Dog sang "Cottleston Pie" on The Muppet Show. I just mention it because it's my single favorite moment on The Muppet Show.

On November 15, the megamouth shark, a species previously unknown to science, was discovered. It's an elusive creature, one we still know very little about. Sharks were another of my obsessions as a kid, and something else I devoured books about.

November 21: Rocky was released in theaters. I love the Rocky movies. Hell, I was just trying to watch Rocky II on IFC last weekend. (I say "trying" because IFC's policy of a commercial break every 10 minutes no matter what is very, very irritating.) Sylvester Stallone’s uneven movie career will always get a pass from me because of this film. It’s gotten a lot of flack ever since it came out for being some kind of phony wish fulfillment fairy tale, but I’ve never felt that way. It’s a passionate movie that works for the ending it gets. Sure, it spawned a series of films that get progressively worse, but hey. (Incidentally, Bill Conti's score from Rocky is one of my all-time favorite film scores, too. If you're in the mood, here's my favorite track, "Going the Distance." Those bells always grab me.)

November 25: The Band played their final concert.

November 26: Microsoft is officially registered. Without them, you might not be reading this. (I’ll leave you to decide if that’s good or bad.)

And on November 27, Garrett Morris sang "The King Kong Dirge" on the Jodie Foster-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. I used to watch the short, half-hour version of SNL on Nick at Nite, which was another important comedy influence, and that thing really grabbed my attention. I've always loved it. Can't watch King Kong and hear the music without thinking about it.

I don't have another commercial to share, so why not a Queen video?

"Somebody to Love" is an all-time favorite, and definitely my favorite Queen song. That’s how you use sound layering to make a personal, soulful song sound like it’s performed by a 100 voice gospel choir. You know what’s good? Listen to this song at night, in the dark, with no other sound. Turn the volume up. This song will move right through you, from the vocal backing to the piercing guitar solo. It’s amazing. Hell, you know. This song's 40 years old.

I guess nothing much happened to me personally that was of real interest in November, because I have no pictures from the rest of November, not even from Thanksgiving. The next picture I have is from December.

What up, world? My baby book records that the first time I ever sat up on my own was December 16, which--coincidentally?--is the date written on the back of this, yet another portrait from my first year of life. I don't actually have a picture of me from Christmas this year. That seems weird. Where did my first Christmas go?

The next day, December 17, TBS began broadcasting. No word if it was already "Very Funny." Not that it actually is now...

On December 20, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley died. Though I was born in Iowa, I would spend most of my life in the west suburbs of Chicago.

I wasn't watching it, I imagine, but December 25, 1976, was the airdate for what became one of my favorite episodes of my favorite shows: the All in the Family episode "The Draft Dodger." This is the episode where Archie invites a friend of his to Christmas dinner; the friend’s son has died in Vietnam. Mike, meanwhile, invites a friend who dodged the draft. I eventually realized that the entertainment that hits me the hardest always revolves around understanding and acceptance. This one hit me hard when I first saw it, and I try to catch it if it's on around Christmas.

You know I love Christmas commercials as well, so here's on for McDonald's starring a very young Corey Feldman.


I always liked getting those McDonald's gift certificates in my stocking. I don't know why it seemed so special. Maybe because, as a kid, McDonald's was a treat and not a lifestyle.

So here I am, December 1976, five months old. and ready to face a new calendar year!

(Naked is probably the best way to start a new year, right?)

Song of the Week: "Shapes of Things"

Roger had a post up a couple of weeks ago about the Yardbirds song "Shape of Things," which reminded me that I dug this David Bowie cover from the 1973 album Pin-Ups. (Don't know why the subtle difference in title, but this glam take on psychedelic is one of the tracks I like better on what can be an inconsistent album.)