(1) Mon Oct 02 2017 16:57 September Film Roundup:
Here we go. I'm sick right now so who knows what kind of weird opinions I'm going to have. Blaaah! Roll camera!
- Baby Driver (2017): This film serves as the counterpoint to Paul (2012): it shows the downsides of letting Edgar Wright direct a film without having Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to weigh it down with likeable characters. It's formally impressive but I didn't care about any of the characters. If you don't like Scott Pilgrim you could say the same thing about that movie, but... I do like Scott Pilgrim.
I caught a lot of hype for this movie and I always expect a lot of Wright, so I was psyched up, but it falls into the familiar territory of popcorn noir. It was fun to watch, but its "innocent pulled in life of crime" plot is right out of the black-and-white era and hasn't been spruced up much.
- The Teacher (2016): A.k.a. Ucitelka. An effective horror movie where nobody dies. By horror movie standards, the things that happen aren't even that bad. But it's creepy as hell. I would compare this to Get Out in the way it exploits an underused fuel source for its horror.
IMDB classifies this as "Comedy, Drama" but based on the poster and the final scene I'm comfortable with my opinion that it's intended to read as a horror movie.
- Run Lola Run (1998): A lot of fun, lots of eyeball kicks. I thought there were going to be four runthroughs, but three works better. I'm always pleasantly surprised when a movie is shorter than I predicted. Has some of the same problems as Baby Driver but I'll cut it more slack because it was made twenty years earlier and it's a half-hour shorter. Come to think of it, my favorite part of Baby Driver was the scene where he had to get out of the car and run.
- Jaws (1975): I absolutely loved the first two acts of this movie about a society so focused on short-term economic gain that it jumps through hoops to rationalize away an ecological threat. Then act three was a couple guys on a boat and I fell asleep. If I were this film's hotshot young director, I would have spent about ten minutes on that boat and then come back to shore to focus on the mayor's ass-covering, trying to hang the fiasco around the necks of the people who noticed the problem and did something about it.
Overall this is a fine film and I recommend it, but with one big asterisk: I believe Jaws is the movie that caused Hollywood execs to say "we found it!" and pull the lever that eventually stopped all that lovely 1970s experimentation. (c.f. my Die Hard review) So watch it with a pretentious tear in your eye.
Old-computer watch: includes an outdoor arcade that features the Sega mechanical arcade game "Killer Shark" and, more relevantly, a Computer Space cabinet. You can see the arcade in the trailer. Tragically no Shark JAWS.
D'you suppose that Computer Space cabinet was there at the beach where they filmed, or did they bring it in as a prop? They were so expensive, it's hard to imagine sticking one outside to get salt-crusted.
- Logan Lucky (2017): This film is the king of fridge logic but it's really, really fun. I try to tell stories about people who are more or less ordinary, no special societal status, so I'll always be there for a movie about NASCAR fans over a movie about NASCAR drivers. There are little bits of this movie where you see Talladega Nights sort of happening in the background, and although both movies are really funny, Logan Lucky's focus on its characters' real concerns puts Talladega Nights to shame, the way the second half of Sullivan's Travels shames the first half.
Basically, this movie over Baby Driver any time. For me, a super-complicated heist with a normal drive home will always beat a smash-and-grab that ends in a car chase.
- I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (2014): A surprise tear-jerker, and I say that as someone who isn't moved by Spinney in costume singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service. (I'm sure it's what he wanted.) There's a couple stories in here that hit me right in the gut. Definitely the most depressing documentary I've ever seen about a happy, successful person. The Norman Lear doc wasn't like this. Recommended??
This month the Television Spotlight completes its examination of Angels in America (2003). Overall this was a fine production but the Mormon stuff was really a mess. I think I can trace the problem back to the event described in this IMDB trivia item:
In a 2008 interview, Tony Kushner said that the idea to entwine Mormonism into the plot of "Angels in America" started when he saw some young, ignored Mormon missionaries near his home in Brooklyn: "There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that."
Not touched enough to talk to any Mormons, apparently, because the Mormon characters' dialogue doesn't ring true and all the imagery looks like it was taken from a book that didn't have diagrams. The angels aren't Mormon angels, they've got a Gnostic thing going on, which is cool, but Gnostic angels shouldn't be giving out golden plates. It feels like someone tried to put Mormonism into their preexisting D&D campaign to make the new player feel welcome.
The casting of Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt is spot-on, and he does have the Mormon body language down pat. But when you show a Mormon character in 1985 drinking a Coke and I have to wonder "Is this a shocking, subtle piece of foreshadowing, or did someone not do their homework?", I'm going to err on the side of undone homework.
On the plus side, Emma Thompson's barely-keeping-it-together angel is great, and captures the "this is no way to run a railroad!" attitude I associate with Gnosticism. I'm aware that my knowledge of Gnosticism is approximately on the level of Tony Kushner's knowledge of Mormonism, but ever since I saw those hot Gnostic angels at the subway stop I've wanted to watch a play about them.
As a bonus, let's also Spotlight The Bronson Pinchot Project (2012-2013): I don't know if I'd recommend this, but it is the most interesting home improvement show I've ever seen. Actor Bronson Pinchot has bought a bunch of properties in a small Pennsylvania town and he spends his time restoring them according to his vision. Said vision is charming when it comes to designing relaxing spaces to chill out and hang with friends or read, but vague and handwavy when it comes to taking a shower, or storing dry pasta or more than twenty books.
When Pinchot revealed that he uses the properties he's not currently renovating to store antiques and reclaimed materials for the renovations, Sumana uttered the line that summed it up: "He's running a Ponzi scheme on himself!" This turned out truer than I knew; in 2015 Pinchot filed bankruptcy and all the properties seen in the show were reposessed by creditors. Seems like he's still making good money as an audiobook narrator, though.
Fri Sep 01 2017 18:49 August Television Roundup:
Yes, here is is, the monthly accounting of all the television I watch. I sure do watch a lot of television.
- Comrade Detective (2017): The smart parts of this faux-80s Romanian cop show are not smart enough and the stupid parts are... well, they're fine. A valiant effort, but this would have been a lot better if they'd had the Romanians write the first treatment.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (2017): Does a great job of recapturing the original show, by which I mean the Joel show. It's laid-back, more often enjoying the cheesiness of the movie than ripping into it. That is, it's clearly on the Cinematic Titanic branch of the phylogenetic tree as opposed to the RiffTrax branch. I'd actually rate these riffs higher than the Joel-era riffs. There was a lot of Baby Boomer nostalgia in the old shows, and most of the new show's riffs take the present day as their jumping-off point.
No real problems, but I frequently got confused who was talking in the theater because the voices are kind of similar. Thank goodness for closed captions!
I'd like to see some fan discussion about the little weird things they show you and don't really remark upon. Who is the alternate host you see on screen for like a second? What's the significance of the spacewalk, given the other thing that happens in that episode? I guess the disadvantage of releasing the whole season at once is the Internet doesn't have time to obsess over the little details you've carefully snuck in. Steven Universe is taking this to the unhealthy other extreme, I think.
Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter so my name is in the credits with thousands of others. I'm the only "Leonard"!
- The Great British Baking Show (2013????-2015????): I don't even know which seasons of this show we watched. PBS renamed the show and renumbered the seasons, and the IMDB episode guide just says "Pie", "Cake", "Biscuits" over and over for each year. Anyway, I've never watched a reality show before, and I wouldn't have watched this one except I was promised there's no yelling and the contestants are all nice to each other. And it's great! Really soothes my nerves after a long day of whatever I do all day.
My fave: contestants who use idiosyncratic slang like "get a wiggle on".
- Angels In America (2003): We're in the middle of this one so no review yet, but a) it's really heavy, b) the Mormon stuff is extremely inaccurate, c) it looks like Meryl Streep is going to play a different character in every episode and I'm not sure what that does, dramatically speaking.
Tune in next month, when we'll have the new Twin Peaks, maybe?
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Every month, Television Roundup presents the Film Spotlight, a listing of the films I saw that month. Of course, films, with their 98-minute running times, cannot compete with the many hours of entertainment that television provides. After all, one of your puny Earth "films" is but a single episode of MST3K. Nevertheless, we honor these bite-sized morsels of entertainment below.
- Trafic (1971): I'm glad that at the 2000 Academy Awards this film finally got the recognition it deserved. It's a goofy ride, doesn't drag like Playtime sometimes does, but also never feels like it's saying something Important.
- The Enchanted Desna (1964): a.k.a. "Zacharovannaya Desna". Lots of really beautiful photography and the kind of episodic, slow-moving plot that lulls me to sleep. Some nice Tom Sawyer bits in the flashback. There was some audience tittering at the Commie propaganda at the end, but I'm stunned by the scale of it and still trying to figure out what it was saying. That's a lot of concrete, comrade. We're damming up the river you grew up on? And that's a good thing? I'm overwhelmed by man's totally non-hubristic ambition! Maybe I should ask my doctor if communism is right for me. It's a weird mix of "I had to put this in" and "I'm being ironic" and "I really believe this" and "I'm a filmmaker from a different culture from Leonard and I use emotional cues differently".
- Cherry 2000 (1987): I went into this movie knowing nothing except it was by the director of Miracle Mile, and it seemed kinda sleazy. And... both of these are true. It's got the beautiful 80s L.A. aesthetic of Miracle Mile, science fictionified into little oases of yuppie or suburbanite heaven, surrounded by very drivable desert. Tons of cool eyeball kicks, especially in the first thirty minutes.
It's also sleazy, and meta-sleazy in how comfortable it is in its sleaziness. The relationship between human and sexbot could have been done a lot better. In fact, I think I did it better, in Constellation Games. Making Cherry into a real character could have made Cherry 2000 really good. When she's a toaster, the movie is real predictable.
In Miracle Mile you think you know what kind of movie you're watching, and then you are WRONG. That jolt disorients you, and you never recover because the movie keeps throwing you smaller twists. In Cherry 2000 I knew the major plot points as soon as the secondary lead was introduced, and throughout the movie I generally knew what scene was going to happen next. Events and characters happen because they're what happens in this kind of movie. You could cut this movie into a Macgyver episode and hit the same points.
Overall, a missed opportunity. Also, you stick a memory chip into an abandoned robot and it powers up? Shouldn't it also need... power? Lots of hardware/software problems in this movie, is what I'm saying. It's nitpicky, sure, but those details are where the better screenplay could have come from.
Tue Aug 29 2017 09:22 Nashville 'Clipse:
Howdy, y'all. Leonard here, recording our experience of traveling to Nashville, Tennessee to see the solar eclipse. Sumana and I stayed at the home of Joe Hills (here's his take) and greatly enjoyed his family's hospitality.
The eclipse itself was amazing! We had a convenient watching spot and good weather, and it was fun to experience the wonders of celestrial alignment through the eyes of Joe's young child, who probably now thinks eclipses will drop into her lap on a regular basis.
We lost AN ENTIRE DAY off the trip, and thus a visit to Chattanooga, because our flight to Nashville was cancelled. This was very annoying (though less annoying than dying in a thunderstorm). Imagine trying to book a trip to Eclipse Central just before the eclipse, like a chump who just heard about the sun and wants to get front row center on the Greatest Hits tour. That was our position. Amazingly, a very diligent United rep ("The only place in the United States I can get you tonight is Cleveland") eventually found us a Sunday flight through Atlanta. As we made our sad way back from Newark (only to return the next day) I thought: "when this is all over, I'll remember the awesome eclipse and this will just be a footnote." Well, here's the footnote.0
Some of the great experiences of our vacation:
- You ever try to get your luggage to Newark for a 6AM flight on a Sunday when all of your local subways are undergoing maintenance? Fuhgeddaboudit. NJ Transit to Newark doesn't even start running until, like, five. So we spent Saturday night in an airport hotel (cost: competitive with a cab ride to the airport). I never grasped this aspect of airport hotels; I thought they were just for business conferences. It was surprisingly great! We relaxed in a hotel room and instead of early morning stress we just got up real early and took the shuttle to the airport. It was like having a really square vacation before the actual, cool vacation.
- In Nasvhille, we took a fun tour of the Nashville Craft distillery. Unlike most tourist things we experienced in Nashville, this was reasonably priced ($10 for tour plus cocktail). Very focused on the chemistry. "This is what I wanted Breaking Bad to be like."--Sumana
- The Ryman Theater -- overpriced self-guided tour, interesting history and where we thankfully discovered:
- Hatch Show Print, an amazing old-fashioned press that does prints for many of the shows and events in town.
- Johnny Cash Museum - another pricy tourist trap but lots of fun and what the hell, we're on vacation. I don't like how stingy my dad always was on our vacations, even when we weren't poor, and the flip side is you end up spending more money than you'd like on a fun experience.
- At the museum we struck up a conversation with an academic who specializes in the history of spy fiction. He said the earliest known "secret agent" type novel (where the spy is being run by an intelligence agency as opposed to just kinda stumbling on a German plot while on vacation) is 1934's Secret Service Operator 13. Caution: it's got problems!
- Joe's spouse gave us a fun walking tour of the lovely Vanderbilt campus.
- Hot chicken sandwich! Very tasty. They have 'em at Shake Shack now, too.
- The Farm House, a nice farm-to-table place in the city center.
- We didn't spend a lot of time in the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, but we were there long enough to appreciate what a nice space it is.
- Overall we had a good experience with Nashville's public transit, except for one bus stop that stopped existing due to construction. No signage, no alternate stop, just... the bus went right past us.
- We took private cars five times, and two of our five drivers volunteered the information that they have side gigs as music producers. I think the longstanding estimate of 1352 guitar pickers in Nashville may need revision.
0 It was awful.
Thu Aug 03 2017 21:16 July Film Roundup:
July's always a good month for movies, in quality if not quantity. This July, News You Can Bruise Presents Film Roundup is proud to present... wait, what was I saying?
- The Big Sick (2017): Sumana's a big Kumail Nanjiani fan so we couldn't miss this pretty fun rom-com...? My romcometer isn't finely calibrated but this seems more towards the "rom-dram" region than most. On the plus side, that means not as much "awkward" humor (of which I'm not a fan) as I feared. I think cutting has a lot to do with it. As I recall, in this movie Nanjiani would have an awkward moment with (e.g.) a family member but they'd mercifully cut to something else, even if just another shot of the same scene. Proving, once and for all, that you don't have to let it linger.
- In Transit (2015): A soothing documentary about being on a train. Filmed up north where (according to the movie) Amtrak is the primary form of public transit. Lots of guys in their early twenties working in the fracking boom, trying to figure their lives out.
- Lincoln (2012): This movie has its cheesy Spielberg moments but it makes the minutiae of politics super compelling, as they should be presented. I dislike the ending. Totally unnecessary. But I understand that if Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and doesn't do the Second Inaugural, a lot of people are going to want their money back. So I take it in stride.
- A Man For All Seasons (1966): Sumana and I enjoyed this tale of a civil servant who carries "If you can't say anything nice..." to the extreme. Is there a lesson in here for our time? Unfortunately, as a 501(3)(c) registered nonprofit, Film Roundup cannot take a stand on the relevance of a work of art to any partisan issue. But if you put together the first letter of every review this month, you'll find my answer. Psst, while they're piecing together the first letters, check this out: RELEVANT.
- Becket (1964): The last gasp of old-timey boring Hollywood spectacle. So many long, ponderous dialogue-free scenes with trumpets tooting away while someone walks up some stairs in the distance. Four years later, the same actor's playing the same character, and it's squalid and grimy and close-up with a deliberate lack of grandeur. Skip this one and move right to...
- The Lion in Winter (1968): Here we go, late-sixties Hollywood. They're still adapting plays
rather than having Robert de Niro improvise for ninety minutes, but they're tackling "adult" topics and it's super Freudian. I saw this film in high school (like, in class) for some reason and I don't think it's boasting to say that I now understand it on a much deeper level. Lots of creepy scenes where O'Toole is interacting with people not as a human being but as the State personified. Katharine Hepburn is brassy as always. "They don't call her Hep-BURN for nothing!"—The Sumana Daily Herald
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): Apparently all movies whose titles end in "One Two Three" are awesome. I'll have to test this hypothesis using this Armenian film. Anyway, this is great stuff. Constant tension without constant violence, 70s New York stereotypes, cranky Walter Matthau, subway system behind-the-scenes... it's crime-and-grime cinema gold! It didn't hurt that I saw this at Film Forum on a sweaty July afternoon with a bunch of New Yorkers who'd gotten there on the subway. Lots of camaraderie in the theater, lots of laughs at hyper-specific New York in-jokes.
- Across 110th Street (1972): My high hopes for this film were not met. The first scene had me primed for a power struggle between the black mob and the Italian mob, but instead the two mobs teamed up to take out some small-timers, in an act of serious overkill. There are also some cops I didn't really care about. The small-timers were believably down-on-their-luck. I rate the "grime" in this one highly, and the "crime"... lowly.
- The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965): I'd read the book a long time ago, but in the interim I got The Spy Who Came In From The Cold mixed up with another le Carré novel, so I was confused and accidentally found it suspenseful. Good intrigue, not as much out-and-out spycraft as I like to see in these movies. I'd been expecting more, but it turns out I'd gotten this movie mixed up with the Alec Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Is there no end to this hall of mirrors???
Today the Television Spotlight announces the entrance of anime favorite Yuri!!! On Ice (2016). After Steven Universe took its turn in the Spotlight last month, I was 100% down for more queer animation, but I'd forgotten about a little thing called "reversion to the mean". Yuri!!! On Ice is more on the level of the restaurant that doesn't punch you in the face. I did not have a good time watching slight variants on figure skating routines I'd seen two or three times previously in earlier episodes. Gimme a brittle caste-based alien monoculture any day.
Sat Jul 01 2017 20:14 June Film Roundup:
Welcome to July! Here's June:
- Wonder Woman (2017): You know me, I'm not big into superhero movies. But I do like women, and wondering, so Sumana and I saw this together. It was all right! Cool stunts, funny comic relief, mostly good action scenes. But we talked about it afterwards and agreed that this movie doesn't really make its argument.
Wonder Woman is the story of Diana learning that horrible things like wars have complex historical causes and it's not just anthropomorphized concepts running around causing trouble. But what are superheroes and supervillains but anthropomorphized concepts? And what is a superhero movie without a big fight at the end between two of 'em and the world at stake? So that's what happens. The form of the movie is at odds with its content, and given Zack Snyder's "story by" credit I don't believe it even knows it.
In a Film Roundup first, I'm proud to link to a review of this film by my sister, WWI scholar Rachel Richardson: “I’m the men who can”: Wonder Woman as a First World War heroine.
- Jurassic Park (1993): Sumana and I both love this movie. I remembered nearly every scene even though I don't think I've seen it since 1993. It's not super deep, but it's got layers I didn't see when I was a kid. Notably Muldoon's respect for the dinosaurs and Hammond's attitude as the thing he's built crumbles during the test that was supposed to demonstrate it was safe. Such a joy to watch. It seems trite to say that the most successful, highest paid people in show biz were able to provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, but... they nailed it.
PS: This is more a fact about the book than the movie, but Jurassic Park has one of the cleverest science fiction premises I've ever seen. Love it.
- Kelly's Heroes (1970): The second museum movie I've walked out of. Not because it was horrible or offensive, but because serious technical problems threatened to interfere with my bedtime. I ended up watching about an hour of the movie proper, plus fifteen minutes of the movie with out-of-sync audio, a repeated viewing of the same footage, and about a reel of Where Eagles Dare (1968), a completely different movie. How did that happen? Did they torrent the whole Clint Eastwood war pack and click on the wrong file?
According to film scientists, Kelly's Heroes uses an earlier war as a way to talk about the then-current Vietnam War! This movie has a good look, and since there are no women characters, it avoids the sexism of similarly situated M.A.S.H. (1972). But I can't give it a strong recommendation. Don Rickles is believable as the hustling supply sergeant, but The Americanization of Emily did that better back in 1964. Anachronistic hippies in my WWII movie? That's pretty cool, I must admit.
- Kamikaze '89 (1982)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director of well-regarded-by-Film-Roundup film
The Marriage of Maria Braun and eternal MST3K reference Berlin Alexanderplatz, does what I can only describe as "an Alphaville thing". It doesn't work out great. Alphaville has the cold smoothness of the 1960s Paris business district, a period look also exploited effectively by Playtime. Kamikaze '89 has the cheesy look of a 1980s West Berlin dance club. I'm sure everyone had a great time making this movie, and I don't want to begrudge serious European directors having their sci-fi Alphaville flings, but... not great.
Uh, I should make it clear that Fassbinder isn't the director of this film, he's the star. Wolf Gremm is the director. So maybe it's Wolf Gremm's Alphaville fantasy, but Fassbinder is the one in the tacky outfit running around firing guns, so I suspect he's the one who wanted this to happen.
- Miracle Mile (1988): I'm about do something I've never done before on Film Roundup. I think you should see this movie, but I'm not going to tell you anything about it. I went in knowing basically what happens in this movie, and I absolutely loved it, but I think I would have loved it even more if I'd followed the directions I'm going to lay out below.
It's pretty simple. You can rent this movie on Amazon. Don't read the description, don't even look at the poster. Just start watching and see what happens.
I don't want you to have a bad time so I will tell you that this is a very dark horror movie. It's not wall-to-wall graphic violence, but don't watch it on a day when you need something light.
I do have a lot to say about Miracle Mile, but I'm going to wait a while in case anyone wants to see it as recommended above. For now I will say that Kurt Fuller's presence in this movie provides an additional data point for what I call The Fuller Conundrum. See, Kurt Fuller is in Ghostbusters II, where he's not funny at all, but he's hilarious in Psych, and in Miracle Mile he's right down the middle. Apparently he was in Wayne's World but I don't even remember him in that movie. In a character actor, is this variability a weakness, or a sign of versatility?
Finally, this month, the Television Spotlight shines its television spotlight on Steven Universe. This is really good! It gives us the same worldbuilding experience we got from The Legend of Korra, but it's all new stuff, it's not that there was a prequel show we didn't see. We started watching around the time of the last Film Roundup and now we're just about caught up. Fun characters who get more complex over time. That's all I need from a show, I think.