May 28, 2015

My Barenaked Ladies Phase

Between 1999 and 2003, I placed
eleven different Barenaked Ladies
songs on twelve mix CDs. It was an
intense but short-lived affair: I saw
BNL live in concert twice, and even
had a BNL sticker on my car bumper.
The turn of the century was a exciting
time to be ALIVE! I suppose this list
makes a de facto Nat's Best Of BNL?

April 28, 2015

The Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker Miscasting Awards

I love Keanu Reeves and Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula because Reeves is so great in The Matrix, so great in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and so bad you have to laugh at him and his ridiculous English accent as he helps Dracula buy a house. There's plenty of movies with untalented actors. But there's a special category of miscasting full of talented actors who just don't fit the character or the movie. Sometimes it makes the movie worse, sometimes the movie is better but different than it was originally written, and sometimes the movie is better. Take a step back from the movie and cast a critical eye (pun intended) on the casting of these movies...

Gene Wilder as the Oklahoma Kid in Blazing Saddles

61-year-old Hollywood veteran Gig Young was originally cast as the Oklahoma Kid, but his active alcoholism forced Mel Brooks to fire Young and his friend Gene Wilder flew cross-country to take over the part. An actual aging sharpshooter would have made more sense (Wilder was only 40 when he made the movie) but Wilder is so supremely funny, he's only "miscast" in that he doesn't look the part. When Brooks originally cast Young, perhaps he had lost sight of the humor of the role while pursuing the authenticity of the role?

James Caan as Santino Corleone in The Godfather

He has the energy and the attitude, but he's the least Sicilian-looking actor ever, especially in a movie stocked with terrific Italian-American actors. He looks like the one adopted by Vito Corelone, not Tom!

Anna Camp & Brittany Snow as Aubrey & Chloe in Pitch Perfect

Perhaps the strategy was to cast older-looking upperclassmen to make the freshman recruits look younger, but Camp and Snow were age 30 and 26 when they played, presumably, college seniors (who are typically 22 years old.) Note: Anna Kendrick is actually older than Brittany Snow, and Rebel Wilson was older than all of them!

Freddy Rodriguez as El Wray in Planet Terror

Freddy RodrĂ­guez was badly miscast in the lead role, the badass with a mysterious past "El Wray". When you're looking for a Snake Plissken type, you don't cast a guy who measures 5 foot 6. The entire cast towered over him, and when he stripped off his shirt to reveal his scarred, tattooed body, I almost laughed out loud at his sunken chest. He looks like a "before" photo in a Charles Atlas ad in the back of MAD Magazine.

Matt Damon as Max in Elysium

Despite his performance as Will Hunting back in the 1990s, Matt Damon is unconvincing as a street rat gangster ex-con, reformed onto the straight-and-narrow. The movie justifies his whiteness within an all-minority community by explaining he's adopted, but it would have made much more sense to cast a Latino actor. Big-budget movies require movie stars, so...

Amy Poehler as Angie in Baby Mama

The good news is, Baby Mama is hilarious and I would never wish Poehler and Fey not make a movie together! But take a step back from the comedy genius and consider the cold hard numbers: Fey and Poehler were 38 and 37 when this movie came out. It would have made a hell of a lot more sense if Poehler's character were 10 or 15 years younger than Fey's character.
Re-watching Baby Mama in 2015, I found it hilarious that the actress Poehler was so fit with a very flat belly while playing a pregnant lady in Baby Mama, but beginning a year later, Poehler would have to hide her new mom body while carrying two children as the child-free Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation.

Jennifer Lawrence & Christian Bale as Rosalyn & Irving in American Hustle

It makes no sense to cast Christian Bale as a over-the-hill, fat, bald, Jewish con man from Long Island. To his credit, he lives and breathes the part. Every moment is genuine. It just makes no sense coming from this actor!
Jennifer Lawrence is supremely talented, very funny, but 15 or 20 years too young to play a faded beauty desperately clinging to Bale's character as her last chance to maintain her way of life. She just turned 23, she's one of the best-looking women on Earth- why is she so desperate to hang onto this dissolute con man when there are scores of men who'd love to marry her and support her? My wife pointed out that another Jennifer would be much better cast in this role - Jennifer Aniston was 45 years old when this movie was made and she'd bring a great combination of faded beauty and comic timing to the part.

Jessica Alba as Susan Storm in Fantastic Four

You had one job, casting director: cast a blonde woman with blue eyes who looks good in a super suit to play the Invisible Woman Susan Storm. Jessica Alba looks great in the super suit, but her wig and colored contact lenses convinced exactly no one that Alba has blue eyes and blond hair. While we're talking about regrettable colored contact lenses, it's bad enough miscasting a famous and established fictional character; miscasting a famous real person is worse. Johnny Depp's eyes look bizarre in the trailers for Black Mass. Depp's complexion is a poor match for the real Whitey Bulger already, but making him wear phony-looking contact lenses was a mistake.

Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond The Sea

This film could not have been made without Kevin Spacey, yet at the same time it is doomed to failure because of Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey's devotion to Bobby Darin's life story, and his talent for performing Darin's songs, make for a fascinating movie with great musical performances. The problem is, Spacey has been too old to play the part for at least 15 years. Spacey turned 45 in 2004. It is ridiculous to watch Spacey play a 25-year old Darin romancing a 17-year old Sandra Dee, played by age-appropriate Kate Bosworth. Spacey (who directed and co-wrote the movie) opens his film with a lame, paranoid device showing the middle-aged Darin filming his own autobiography, as if we can suspend our disbelief as the 45-year old Spacey, jowls and all, romances a teenager? It simply doesn't hold together.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining

I love The Shining, it's a terrifically scary movie, but (and I am not alone here) there's no drama in the transformation of Jack Torrance from family man to possessed killer. At best he's a detached prick at the start of the movie, and at worst, he's already crazy before they even move in. There's no tragedy of the Torrance Family falling apart because we never see any love between them to begin with.

Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Like Jack Torrance, Roy Neary seems kind of manic and crazy before his close encounter, so his journey from middle-American, corn-fed electric company worker and family man to obsessed loner is not so dramatic. When he melts down, crying in the shower, it doesn't seem so weird for a bag of neuroses like Dreyfuss. According to the IMDb, director Steven Spielberg approached Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman for the Neary part, and either would have been amazing- to see these earnest dramatic, serious actors totally melt down would have been a much more dramatic journey.

Penelope Ann Miller as Tina Sabatini in The Freshman

Aren't there a hundred Italian-American actresses who would play a Mafia princess more convincingly than Miller? A thousand?

Patrick Swayze as Sam Wheat in Ghost

Now bear with me- Swayze is all heart and soul after he dies, but he seems an odd fit as the cold fish stock broker at the beginning of the movie, the closed-off husband who says "ditto" instead of "I love you too."

Tim Robbins as Nuke Laloosh in Bull Durham

Tim Robbins turns in a terrific performance as "Nuke" Laloosh, a rookie pitcher with a million-dollar arm but a 5-cent head, but I noticed a line in the movie which reveals what writer/director Ron Shelton might have had in mind when creating the character. When Crash Davis and Annie Savoy take some swings at the batting cages, Davis complains to Savoy "What'you see in that guy? He's a dim pretty boy. A young, wild..."
The words "pretty boy" stuck out in my brain this time. Shelton cast the talented and hilarious Tim Robbins as Laloosh, and he's convincing as young, wild, and dim, but I suspect Shelton imagined Nuke to be pretty too- the locker room sex scene with Millie makes more sense if Laloosh were good looking too.
I feel like I'm really piling on now, and remember that I love this movie, but Robbins was 29 years old- only three years younger than Costner- when he played a rookie in his first season in rookie "A" ball, a league normally filled with kids in in their early 20s.

March 22, 2015

John Wick

Flawlessly executed gun battles and hand-to-hand combat scenes highlight a deadly serious revenge thriller. The story is dead simple- John Wick is a retired professional contract killer, torn from his retirement when the son of a mob kingpin invades his home, beats him to a pulp, kills his dog and steals his 1969 Mustang. Wick digs up his past (literally- his guns are buried in his basement) and re-enters the criminal underworld on the most calm and restrained deadly rampage ever, all to kill the man who killed his dog.

John Wick got a lot of press for being directed by a former stunt man and stunt director- in fact, it was directed by Keanu Reeves' former stunt double.
The movie feels like the answer to the question "What if a movie production was only concerned with staging the best gun battles and fight scenes possible, and all other considerations must come second?"
The action is flawlessly executed, the choreography is exacting but not flashy, the cinematography, sound design, and gun effects are all precise and effective. Wick's combination of ruthless efficiency and improvisation was breathtaking to watch.

The story itself could not be more simple - Retired killer-for-hire goes on one last mission for himself to avenge a terrible crime- but it's a compliment to Derek Kolstad's original screenplay that the movie's richness of detail gives John Wick the feel of a graphic novel.
The criminal underworld is fully realized with plenty of colorful detail. Wick is greeted by the community of criminals that populate the movie as a well-respected former colleague. The criminal underworld includes a hitman's hotel, a work-free zone where killers can unwind; a monetary system based on gold coins; an unbreakable honor among thieves code, and all sorts of rules for "open" and "exclusive" contracts that can be issued and withdrawn.

The cast is chock full of terrific character actors, many much better than their roles deserve:

  • Willem Dafoe has a few meaty scenes as an honorable sniper;
  • John Leguizamo has one scene as a chop-shop owner;
  • Ian McShane is another former colleague who grants one last favor to Wick;
  • Dean Winters (30 Rock, those insurance commercials, Battle Creek) is a mob lieutenant;
  • Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights, Agents of SHIELD, About A Boy, that failed Wonder Woman pilot) is a ruthless, dishonorable hit-woman?
  • Michael Nyqvist (the original Dragon Tattoo trilogy) is the mob kingpin whose spineless, d-bag son sets the story in motion. I remember Nyqvist for his uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.
  • Alfie Allen is the d-bag. Best known for his role as Reek on Game of Thrones, he is no stranger to playing spineless d-bags.
  • My old pal David Patrick Kelly, whom I love in Commando and 48 Hrs makes an appearance too!

What about the star of the movie? I don't have much to say about Reeves- he is excellent in certain roles, and he serves the part well. He must really enjoy the nuts and bolts of action choreography - and shooting at night - because that's all he does in John Wick.

My primary complaints: the music had a passe industrial rock vibe that felt at least 10 years out of fashion; I am completely over helicopter shots of cityscapes where the camera is pointed nearly straight down.

The unflinching, humorless violence is not everyone's bag, but what it sets out to do it does well. My Stub Hubby Grade: B (Amazon Instant Video with baby Sweetie sleeping in my arms)

January 16, 2015

Foxcatcher

There is no normal life for the ultra rich. What happens when you're raised in a universe where no human relationship is not tainted with unlimited wealth?
Steve Carell's John du Pont is a pathetic, creepy, and terrifying character.
Born and raised without attachment to other people and denied simple friendship and affection between human beings, John du Pont is like one of those fish that live at the bottom of the sea. His entire persona is malformed by his environment. All he wants is for his mother to respect him and for genuine kindness from his fellow man, but he's utterly incapable of connecting with anyone, and he lives in a world where his unlimited wealth insulates him from honest human relationships.

What an incredible performance from Steve Carell. I have seen him act in 138 episodes of The Office and a handful of movies, but none of that is onscreen in this movie. Not only is John du Pont a radically different man than any he's played before; it's as if Carell has put aside his toolbox and has opened a whole new toolbox for this performance. He's spellbinding. Not a false moment in the whole thing.
Landmark Embassy Cinema, with Adam

January 1, 2015

150 Pretzelvania

This playlist is named for the punchline of a joke my son made! I finished this mix around the end of the year. Sometimes you don't know you're not going to futz with a playlist anymore until long after you last futzed.
By weird coincidence, this playlist shares two songs* with a CD mix of mine from 13 years ago: Idolatrous
  1. "All Down The Line" The Rolling Stones are one of those bands where I'm not always 100% sure which guitarist is playing which parts. I appreciate that Keith has a distinct style, but I'm not always certain.
  2. "Gardening At Night" (Different Vocal Mix) I used to think R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry was the most boring drummer of any band I really liked, but my taste has evolved over the last few years, and I appreciate him much more than I used to.
  3. "Fix This" The Colourist
  4. "Crosseyed And Painless" Talking Heads live, from Stop Making Sense.
  5. "The Love You Love" The Walkmen
  6. "What's The World Got In Store" Wilco
  7. "Junior's Farm" Steve Miller and Paul McCartney have been buddies for a long time, so it makes great sense for Miller to sing a Wings song from the same era (and style) as those classic Steve Miller Band songs.
  8. "Alex Chilton" (outtake)* The Replacements
  9. "Shake Some Action" The Flamin' Groovies; I think I first heard this song when Cracker covered it?
  10. "When The Levee Breaks" Led Zeppelin; I bought myself the remastered Led Zeppelin IV for myself for Christmas.
  11. "Hide and Seek" Imogen Heap
  12. "Listen To What The Man Said" Owl City; I love it when a band covers a song from more than one generation earlier.
  13. "Even Better Than The Real Thing" U2
  14. "King For A Day" (Versailles Mix)* XTC
  15. "Sun Goze Down" Robin Loxley & Jay Hawke; heard on the TV broadcast of the Red Bull Signature Series super-cross racing event Romaniacs.
  16. "Congratulations" Traveling Wilburys; Bob Dylan singing a comically pathetic and passive-aggressive lament.
  17. "Slip Kid" From The Who By Numbers.
  18. "Cindy" Tammany Hall NYC; heard on the tv show Scrubs, I think.
  19. "My Little Drum" Vince Guaraldi Trio

Birdman

or, the Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance

Birdman was excellent, fun, inventive, meaningful, and only a skosh self-important. Michael Keaton & Ed Norton are hilarious, Emma Stone was great.
Keaton is a aging movie star searching for relevance and definition by directing, financing, starring in, and adapting Raymond Carver for the Broadway stage. Can he keep his rickety play and incestuous cast together through previews until opening night?
Most of the movie takes place in real time, and no "cuts" from angle to angle or scene to scene. Far from being a gimmick for its own sake, it was easy to become immersed in the movie's style. I'm not sure if this style could work for any genre, it works great for a movie with only six principal actors that takes place in one building.

I also liked the percussion score- mostly performed on a drum kit, it works better than I expected. I would totally go see it again. What fun. My Stub Hubby Grade: A.
TRAILER NOTES: I didn't read the book, but the Fifty Shades Of Grey trailer is laugh-out-loud funny. The trailer makes the most ordinary sex play look so dangerous and forbidden. I've never used whips, blindfolds, or candlewax, or had a special sex dungeon in my penthouse, but this trailer made kinky sex between consenting adults look as debauched as cannibalism.

THEATER NOTES: The small Screen 2 at Embassy Waltham was sold out, and the crowd was mostly 50 and older, but thankfully remained completely silent throughout the movie. Actually it was kind of weird how silent it was. I laughed out loud a few times - not very loudly, but no one else was laughing!
Because I never listen to my instincts, I hung my eyeglasses on the front of my shirt during the trailers. I thought "this is not a smart place to put these" but did I listen? NO! ...and almost immediately they fell on the floor...but I didn't know it at the time. I figured it out two hours later, after the movie was over, while putting my hat on in the lobby. I rushed back into the theater, and voila, my glasses were sitting lenses-up on the floor under the seat in front of me, completely undamaged. Another moviegoer called out "that's a good sign for luck in the new year!" and I hope to remember that for all of 2015.

December 17, 2014

149 Threatens Millions

  1. "YYZ" • A prog-rock instrumental, and as with so many instrumentals, the band (Rush*) struggled to name the song, so they used the airport code for Toronto?
  2. "West End Girls" • Pet Shop Boys*
  3. "Frank & Ava" • Suzanne Vega
  4. "If I Had A Boat" • Lyle Lovett*
  5. "Sussudio" • I only put this Phil Collins on this mix because of a wonderful pun my wife told this month.
  6. "The Boys Of Summer" • Don Henley
  7. "Dead And Gone" • The Black Keys
  8. "Weeds Or Wildflowers" • Poor Old Shine
  9. "Low" • R.E.M.
  10. "Dreams" • I recenly discovered two different covers of this Fleetwood Mac song, but I couldn't use the Killers version because it was too scary, so here's Whiskeytown! Believe it or not, I discovered this cover when I pressed pause on my TiVo: a character on the rom-sit-com A to Z had it on their playlist!
  11. "Heartbeat [remix]" • The Psychedelic Furs
  12. "Adult Education (Special Rock Mix)" • Daryl Hall & John Oates
  13. "Mad About You" • Sting
  14. "Mad" • Anthony Hamilton
  15. "Riding With The King" • Eric Clapton & B.B. King
  16. "Night Still Comes" • Neko Case
  17. "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad [Live]" • Lucinda Williams
  18. "I Saw Her Again Last Night" • The Mamas & The Papas
  19. "You Won't See Me" • The Beatles
  20. "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town" • One of the best rock concerts I've ever been to was recorded! Woot! This is Pearl Jam at the height of their powers and popularity, April 12, 1994 at the Orpheum, closing their set with my favorite song from the new album.
*Tracks 1, 2, & 4 from the "Karen scrounged from the Goodwill for me" Collection

December 15, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014!

I love creating playlists of Christmas music as much as I love creating playlists the other 11 months of the year.
The best Christmas playlist I ever heard was the three-hour Christmas special on WBLM in Portland, Maine. The special consisted of many of the "Christmas songs by rock bands" we hear so often in December, mixed together with pop-culture tidbits from our favorite TV shows and movies, and an ongoing news report from NORAD, tracking Santa's progress from the North Pole by radar.
A year or two after I first heard that special, I was hired at WBLM as a DJ and producer, and I got to meet and thank the Production Director who created it (damnit I forget his name!) Thankfully for me, I managed to make a cassette copy of the whole three-hour special off his master tape...where are those cassettes?
Since then I've been creating my own Christmas playlist. It's not 3 hours long, but its in that same spirit. Unlike my other 150+ playlists on this blog, each time I create a new Christmas playlist, the song selection only evolves, I don't turn over the whole lists for 20 new songs each time. Here's my playlist for 2014:

1.      "Sleigh Ride" Fun.
2.      "Valley Winter Song" Fountains Of Wayne
3.      "Jingle Bells" Ella Fitzgerald
4.      "The Evil Santa" Bill Murray & Gilda Radner*
5.      "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" U2
6.      "I'll Be Home For Christmas" Aimee Mann
7.      "Christmas Wrapping" The Waitresses
8.      "Rod Serling Explains Christmas" Christopher Guest*
9.      "Winter Wonderland" Ray Charles
10.   The Beatles Christmas Fan Club Record 1963
11.  "Hang Yourself Now" Mashup By DJ BC
12.  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" Diahann Carroll
13.  "The Littlest Christmas Tree" Brian Doyle-Murray*
14.  "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
15.  "White Christmas" Michael BublĂ© & Shania Twain
16.  "Christmas Time Is Here" Tony Bennett
17.  "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" She & Him
18.   The Birth Of Santa? Produced by Nat Woodward**
19.  "All I Want For Christmas Is You" Idina Menzel
20.  "Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)" Elvis Presley
21.   Chrisssssmassss! Produced by Nat Woodward**
22.  "Wonderful Christmastime" The Shins
23.  "The Christmas Song" Paul McCartney
24.  "Auld Lang Syne" Guy Lombardo
25.  "Skating" Vince Guaraldi Trio
*Tracks 4, 8, and 13 are from the National Lampoon Radio Hour, an early 70s syndicated radio show/precursor to Saturday Night Live.
**Tracks 18 and 21 are radio "sweepers" I produced for a now-defunct radio station.

November 16, 2014

148 Reboot

If I don't make a playlist in a long time, I like to catch up by making two at once...

  1. Bach Minuet In G (Bonus Track) | Willie Nelson
  2. Red Tide | Neko Case
  3. Subdivisions | Rush
  4. Dumb | Nirvana
  5. Counting Stars | OneRepublic
  6. Summerfling | k.d. lang FUN FACT: Ace session drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. plays on this track and is a co-writer; I know him better as Paul McCartney's touring drummer since 2001.
  7. Black Lagoon | Dave Edmunds; my son's favorite rock song!
  8. Belay | The Never Land Pirate Band; my favorite children's song, it sounds like the members of every defunct 1990s ska band took refuge in Neverland.
  9. Rox In The Box | The Decemberists
  10. Coming of Age | Foster The People has perfectly captured that late 80s sound I love oh so much.
  11. Mystify | I kinda forgot this INXS song until I heard it again in 2014. The album KICK was very big way back when.
  12. Underground | Ben Folds Five
  13. Foolin' | Def Leppard
  14. Wave Of Mutilation [live on the BBC] | Pixies
  15. Walls (Circus) | Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
  16. Charmer | Aimee Mann
  17. Suedehead | Morrissey
  18. A Little Bit Of Everything | Dawes; is this a Jackson Browne soundalike parody, or a real song? When I heard their first single "If I Needed Someone", I joked that the lead singer sounded like Daryl Hall. I guess he's just a chameleon?
  19. Say It Isn't So | Everyone knows the Outfield's hit single "Your Love" ("Janie's on a vacation far away...") but this was the other single from that LP. I heard it while waiting for my car to be fixed at the Honda dealership.
  20. Given To Fly | Pearl Jam
  21. Feel It All Around | Washed Out (the theme song to Portlandia)

November 15, 2014

147 Rebirth

After nearly a year off, I've finally bought a new computer and resurrected my iTunes! I finished this playlist sometime in November.

  1. "Down Yonder" Willie Nelson; from Red Headed Stranger [1975]
  2. "The Way You Make Me Feel" Michael Jackson; from Bad [1987]
  3. "Stages" ZZ Top; from Afterburner [1985] Purists would say this album is where ZZ Top capitalized on their breakthrough success on Eliminator [1983] by totally selling out. Afterburner completely departs from their formula with thick synthesizers, drum machines, and pedestrian pop-rock songs like "Rough Boy" and "Stages".
  4. "Sirens" Pearl Jam; from Lightning Bolt [2013] lovely song from Mike McCready.
  5. "Done" The Band Perry; from Pioneer [2013] I discovered this song in the Target commercial/music video that aired during the 2014 Super Bowl. Yes, I am cutting edge.
  6. "Dare" Gorillaz; from Demon Days [2005]
  7. "The National Anthem" Radiohead; from Kid A [2008]
  8. "Twilight World (Superb, Superb Mix)" Swing Out Sister; from It's Better To Travel [1987]
  9. "Beautiful Way" Beck; from Midnite Vultures [1999]
  10. "Crazytown" Aimee Mann; from Charmer [2012]
  11. "New" Paul McCartney; from New [2013] I love the silly a capella coda- song fragment codas that don't really match the rest of the song have been a McCartney trademark since the "Aloha" coda on "Hello Goodbye".
  12. "You Can't Do Me" Madeleine Peyroux; from Bare Bones [2009]
  13. "Gone" John Hiatt; from Crossing Muddy Waters [2000] You don't want to cross Muddy Waters - he will seek VENGEANCE!
  14. "Dance, Dance, Dance" Steve Miller Band; from Fly Like An Eagle [1976]
  15. "We Are Each Other" The Beautiful South; from 0898 [1992]
  16. "Turn It Around" Lucius; from Wildewoman [2013] aka "Wrong End Of The Telescope"
  17. "Don't Carry It All" The Decemberists; from The King Is Dead [2011] Every once in awhile you find a band whose lead singer has the exact same singing register as you.
  18. "A Long December"  Counting Crows Live At The Hammerstein Ballroom NYC [1997] Adam Duritz is one of those singers who doesn't like to sing the melody of his hit songs in concert. He sings the song, but varies the melody, presumably out of boredom.
  19. "Bandera" Willie Nelson; from Red Headed Stranger [1975]


November 7, 2014

Interstellar

Director Christopher Nolan is in a sweet spot where he has unlimited resources to make his movies and he has grand ambitions and epic vision to match. Other directors are given hundreds of millions of dollars, only seek to blow shit up in an amazing way, and possibly make us tear up a little at the end. That's the limit of their ambition.

Interstellar is not based on an old movie, an old TV show, or a comic book.
It's not a "reboot" of an existing franchise.
There are no weapons, two explosions, one car chase, and one brief and deeply lame wrestling match.
There will be no sequels.
So it pains me to criticize the movie.

I am deeply conflicted to say bad things about the only movie I've ever seen that so thoroughly explores the nuts and bolts of real "hard" science fiction.
How many movies can you name that deal with relativity, hibernation, air braking, slingshot trajectories, and both kinds of holes (black and worm?) I love that stuff!
The spaceships, and the wormhole travel, and the alien worlds all look just different enough from Earth to be both believable and eerie at the same time.
This is not a "saving the world" movie where saving the world means pressing a red button with 1 second remaining. This is a "find another world for humanity to live on, and do it quickly before we all asphyxiate and starve to death."
I appreciate the harsh truth of a mission to find another planet to colonize on a mission with zero margin for error, but the problem is, Nolan also wants to make a movie about fathers and children, the survival instinct, and the duty parents have to their children. His goal is to stitch that powerful parental instinct and stitch it together with saving all of mankind, not just his daughter, and there he falls short.
There is fat that could be trimmed. Long sequences early in the movie could be cut out. After they revive an earlier scientist/explorer, I'm not sure why his character, or the events surrounding him, are even in the movie?
Maybe this is an artifact of two brothers writing the screenplay. Sometimes a shorter movie is a better movie. Interstellar is 11 minutes short of 3 hours.
I have truly enjoyed three of his movies (Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight) and liked but not loved four others (Insomnia, Memento, Inception, and Dark Knight Rises) and I will continue to hold him to a high standard.
My Stub Hubby grade: A-minus

Notes: The 35mm film print looked AMAZING. I have been mostly indifferent to digital projection, but upon watching a movie meticulously made on 35mm, I can really appreciate the deep dark colors, especially in a space movie. There have been complaints about the "muddy" sound mix, and I can attest that there were several scenes where I could not follow all the dialog, but I think Nolan knows this and writes accordingly. Early in the movie Matthew McConaughey and his kids spot an "Indian drone" flying over their midwest cornfields, hack into its guidance system, and take it for themselves. Which kind of Indians are they? Why are they spying on cornfields? What the heck is going on here? I don't know, but it doesn't really matter- I know plenty enough to understand the movie.
Somerville Theater Screen 1 With Adam

October 18, 2014

Red Dawn (1984)

Amazon Prime Instant Video Presents: RED DAWN (1984)

I have gone on at length about my love for the pop culture of 1984, it seemed necessary to finally watch a semi-iconic movie from '84 that I had never seen. So one Saturday night while my wife was putting the boy to bed, I started RED DAWN.

(Side Note: What is it about movies with less than eight letters in the title that encourages me to always spell them in ALL CAPS?)

RED DAWN surprised me. It wasn't what I was expecting at all. It wasn't a great movie, but it has a lot to recommend it, maybe even more than it did when it was new. Going into it, I knew it was about a cadre of scrappy high school students who fight back against a Soviet invasion of the Midwest. I knew it had a proto-Brat Pack cast, and it does not have a serious reputation.

With that image in my mind, I was surprised to discover RED DAWN is actually a completely serious war movie, from the sole perspective of a small prairie town in Colorado. The opening image is sobering: a high school history teacher interrupted mid-lecture by Cuban paratroopers silently landing in the football field outside.
Until halfway through the film, our teen rebel force, led by reluctant alpha Patrick Swayze, have no idea of the full scale of the war. Most of the big "global catastrophe" movies of the 1980s and 90s flit from city to city, continent to continent. RED DAWN dramatizes what it would be like if you were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world, not knowing what happened to your parents, never mind the rest of the country. If the nukes dropped on Washington DC, you wouldn't get a Breaking News flash on CNN.
The screenplay (by director John Milius and Kevin Reynolds) takes a real-world hypothetical and brings it to life: Circumstances force the Soviets and the Cubans into invading the USA. they launch a sneak mini-nuclear attack (on only several small cities) through bombers disguised as passenger jets flying from Mexico. RED DAWN dramatizes the political and strategic reality of a Cuban/Soviet alliance, and will remind any viewer just how seriously America took their threats to our safety. There are moments when Soviet-occupied small-town Colorado seems almost a satire: red-and-gold signs for the Soviet-American Cooperation Office, the co-opted mayor's office has a portrait of Stalin on the wall, the local theater shows Russian propaganda for free, while all the suspected insurgents are held in a concentration camp...at the drive-in theater.
The Cuban and Soviet leaders of the occupation offer a surprising perspective: the Soviets are completely unilateral in their response to the rebel "Wolverine" attacks, while the Cuban leader recognizes the insurgency from his own experiences overthrowing the imperial regime in his native Cuba.
A pleasant surprise, as it turns out. I'd recommend RED DAWN as a serious war movie, as a time capsule of America's view of the Cold War in 1984, and solid performances from a Brat Pack cast asked to step up their game and perform outside their comfort zone (and literally outside- almost the whole movie is shot outside on location)

August 29, 2014

Ghostbusters 30th Anniversary

I have seen Ghostbusters dozens of times on television over the last 30 years, and at least once in a movie theater in 1984- we were on summer vacation in the Lakes region of Maine and I immediately fell in love with the movie (my mom not so much- she walked out around the time the roof blew off the firehouse.)
I have watched it on a taped-off-broadcast-television tape many times, then I bought the two-disc Criterion Collection Laser Disc (with a badass cover image) around 1994, then on DVD (bundled with Ghostbusters 2) in the last decade.
So, what's the difference? Why spend $13 to see a movie I can watch for free at home? I have already bought this movie twice, why keep paying for it?
Seeing Ghostbusters on a very big screen again was a special treat for two reasons:

Details, Details, Details

One of the advantages of seeing a good movie over and over, you can enjoy the little background details because you don't have to focus on the plot and dialog. The massive movie screen makes it possible to see so much detail that's really impossible to discern even on a LCD television with a DVD player. I can't imagine now, how blurry and incomplete my old pan-and-scan VHS taped off the TV copy was. I really appreciated all the little touches, the production design, and the background action.
The special effects look amazing. Ghostbusters was one of the first comedies of its era to actually spend money on effects- go watch Caddyshack or Animal House and you can see how cheap they were to produce, but Ghostbusters features terrific state-of-the-art effects. Thirty years later, only a few shots of the Terror Dog chasing Rick Moranis look phony.

The Audience

Watching a favorite movie, a movie you've only really seen at home is totally different and rewarding when seen with an audience. Where do the laughs come? This crowd was terrific, and they laughed in places I never noticed were funny, or even places that I didn't notice were jokes- When the mayor is considering believing the Ghostbusters story, Venkman reminds him that he has an opportunity to save the lives of "millions of registered voters." The movie cuts to the Archbishop who smiles and nods. This got a big laugh where I had never thought of it as more than a nice aside.

Theater Notes

AMC Boston Common, with George, Angus, and, sitting in a different row, Erin, Willy, et al. I go to the big movie chains so rarely I forget how nice it is to go to the Somerville Theater. AMC showed 20 minutes of trailers and commercials before the movie. The movie was scheduled for 9:05pm, but the movie didn't actually start until 9:25pm thanks to all this filler. I dislike this more and more the later and later the screening.
I wasn't sure whether the Friday of Labor Day weekend in Boston would be overrun with college kids and families, it turns out the town was very quiet. I drove from work in Lexington, and into a free parking space on Charles Street in 30 minutes. It was also easy to get a table for dinner at Fajitas & Ritas, and the AMC multiplex was very quiet at 8:45pm.

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

Robin Williams is famous for his silly, nonstop, stream-of consciousness comedy, his wonderful voices, his loudness, but the dark edge has always been there. I had heard that Williams had been sober for decades when he relapsed a few years back, but I didn't really appreciate how low his life had gotten until I heard this interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast in 2010. (I haven't re-listened to it yet, but I will shortly.)
Comics are not happy or normal people. Anyone who is compelled to get onstage and tell stories is working some shit out. I think it was Jim Gaffigan who said "what people don't appreciate is, if we weren't paid, we'd still have to get up onstage every night and talk. We have to do it."
I am deeply saddened that Williams is gone. When I was a kid, Robin Williams was the definition of funny. The Garry Marshall TV empire ruled the airwaves. Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy defined and dominated TV comedy, and Williams' Mork from Ork character was on all of them. His brand of childlike, yet edgy zaniness was everywhere.
Stand-up comedians have been trying to act in feature films since they were invented, but Williams was the TV and standup superstar who made that move when I was a kid. My five favorite Williams performances:

  • Williams starred in The World According To Garp during the Mork & Mindy years, and it could not be more different. It's a quirky drama, or an especially dark comedy, or a little of both. It's a challenging story (based on the John Irving novel) but Williams is terrific, especially when seen in the context of the pure silliness of his day job on television.
  • Good Morning Vietnam is remembered for Williams' on-air monologues - I bought the soundtrack album for the monologues AND the 1960s pop music - but also I remember how Adrian Cronauer grows restless with the sanitized "news" he's required to broadcast as he comes to know the country and it's people, mirroring America's disillusionment with the war.
  • Williams won over a whole new generation of fans who never heard of Mork with a perfectly distilled dose of his comic genius as the Genie in Aladdin, the first Disney animated movie where a movie star voiced a character. Williams paved the way for many comic actors animated alter egos, most directly Mike Myers' Shrek.
  • The following year Williams starred in and co-produced Mrs Doubtfire- a perfectly executed high-concept family comedy by Chris Columbus.
  • Robin Williams is amazing in The Birdcage, mainly because he's playing the straight man to the equally brilliant Nathan Lane as his comedic spouse. It's a testament to his acting chops that he lets Nathan Lane (and everyone else in the cast) get most of the laughs while his Armand underplays the comedy.

August 9, 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy

A colorful and funny space adventure, GotG delivers an inventive and slightly oddball take on very familiar plot and characters.
The plot and characters could not be more familiar: five outlaws are bound together by circumstance to save the world by retrieving a powerful object from an evil overlord. The five Guardians are (from left):

  • A smooth-talking Butch Cassidy leader type
  • A gentle giant
  • An amoral thief
  • A man avenging the murder of his wife and child (think Inigo Montoya or Mason Storm)
  • A heartless assassin
[UPDATE: I've been thinking about GotG for a few days, and I suddenly realized that the Rocket & Groot pair are just like Han Solo & Chewbacca- the fast-talking amoral thief and the gentle giant whom only Rocket (Solo) understands. Except, here's the wild part- Rocket & Groot do it better! Groot is a more interesting and better partner than Chewbacca. Chewbacca is less expressive and contributes less to their adventures! Am I crazy or does Groot make Chewbacca really look like a "walking carpet"? PS: Please save the "Rocket & Groot in the comics predate Star Wars" emails- it doesn't matter which duo was invented first, it's just two variations on the same partnership. We could compare them both to Inigo Montoya & Fezzik from The Princess Bride if we wanted to...]

These five bouncing off each other creates lots of fun sparks. The dialog is sharp, five completely different body types leads to dynamic and inventive fight scenes, and their five different motivations are all illustrated and leveraged for interesting plot twists.
The production design also made the movie worth watching. Normally I prefer "hard science fiction" where the filmmakers attempt to be faithful to the way the universe really works. But GotG is more of a "soft sci fi" movie in the vein of the Star Wars prequels, where characters are blue, green, and magenta skinned, where the humanoids are weird looking for its own sake. The second act takes place at a mining colony inside the massive head of some space giant that died centuries ago, now the skull is floating in space, completely encrusted inside and out with an lawless scavenging mining encampment, kind of like Deadwood but with more alien goo. All this color is wonderful, but I was especially reminded of Star Wars (in a bad way) on the aseptic capital home world, that's all white and futuristic plainness and fountains and skyways for no reason. For a movie that's otherwise so inventive, this one planet was too underdesigned.

Fun Moments: Earthling Peter Quill uses the 'finger across the neck' motion as the symbol for 'kill', but the alien he's talking to doesn't know what that means "Why would I put my finger on his neck?"
The soundtrack is great - not my favorite 1970s music, but still, the silly glam and bubblegum pop is emblematic of the whole movie's lack of pretense in the sci-fi genre. Besides, who doesn't want to see spaceships flying set to the Runaways "Cherry Bomb"?
Theater Notes: My audience was completely dialed in- all the best punchlines were followed by that brand of laughter that drowns out the next few lines of dialog. The crowd included a cadre of comic book fans who were especially tuned into the parts that connected to the comic book the most closely.
(Arlington Capitol Theater, Screen 1, with Shiner Bock on draft!)

August 8, 2014

Stub Hubby On Demand Reviews Divergent

A novel variation on the oppressive tyrannical dystopia, spliced with a Harry Potter-style private school coming-of-age story, and custom-tailored for teen audiences, Divergent offers enough novelty to keep the project from feeling entirely derivative, with only the occasional pander to teen drama.
My grade: B
Teenager grade: A
Shailene Woodley offers plenty of organic empathy, passion, and courage. She's occasionally a little one-note with the constant worry line between her eyebrows, but there's plenty of raw talent there, and I am sure the kids just love her.
Her hair was distracting. Her long, thick, glowing, lustrous hair looks so beautiful throughout the movie- she's so busy being indoctrinated into a facist army, when does she find time to brush her hair 100 times before bedtime?
I liked the production design for the future society that has walled off what's left of Chicago. I appreciated how they don't really use the buildings that remain, but huddle in between them and below them, as if the past civilization's leftovers should be shunned. At the same time that the Divergent world seems to be a subsistence society, they have a working elevated train system, and someone's manufacturing brand new cars, weapons, computers, and chemical weapons.
I also didn't understand the tyrannical aspect of the society. Isn't there supposed to be a class of people who benefit from oppressing the other classes? It's obvious that some of the classes in this community are living a deprived life, but are the others benefiting from their status? It wasn't obvious what the bad guys are gaining in this world.
Also, as far as I can tell, this is one city with a couple thousand inhabitants, max. The stakes seem a little small. The powers that be say the city must remain walled off because "the rest of the world did not recover from the war" but what's really going on out there? Maybe the sequels will answer these questions. (On Demand with Emily and Sara)

July 28, 2014

Guys Movie Night: JAWS

What a treat to see JAWS on the big screen again (for only the second time ever- the first was at the Wang Center in 1995), and this time we saw it while on summer vacation in Chatham, MA, on the same Nantucket Sound that the movie was filmed on.
Our vacation spot at Hardings Beach in Chatham
looks exactly like the beach where Crissy Watkins
went skinny dipping in the opening scenes of the movie.
It was surreal to spend the day on the beach, then step into a movie theater and watch a nearly identical beach get savaged by a killer shark.
I've read some new reviews of JAWS lately on The Dissolve, and I really noticed the Altmanesque overlapping dialog, but mostly the style seems dictated by his restrictions of time, budget, and creative control (he didn't have much).
The movie still scares audiences- I love the moment when Ben Gardener's severed head floats out of the hole in the boat - I knew it was coming and I savored the audience reaction. I honestly could not tell if there was a shriek on the movie's score, or if someone screamed when the head floated into frame. The audience was relief-laughing and murmuring about it halfway through the following scene (the billboard vandalism, see below).
Love the nautical sports coat!
I keep all my ticket stubs, but I
don't usually take photos of them!
Theater Notes: The newly-restored Orpheum Theater in Chatham is very pleasant. The picture and sound were fine, the seats and theater were comfortable, and the audience was totally locked in. My only complaint? The bathroom only had two urinals and a toilet, so there was a line after the movie.
(with George, Adam, and three 1975 throwback 'Gansetts- it was fun crushing my can in stereo with Quint in the movie!)
ALSO on Stub Hubby: See JAWS as one of the Top 20 finalists in my Best Picture Deathmatch

July 11, 2014

Caddyshack

The guys all have lots of hair in 1980!
It was a treat to see Caddyshack in a theater, all the way through. I really appreciated how great Ted Knight is: his unique flavor of asshole WASP is impossible to describe and perhaps hasn't been equaled until Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development.
Chevy Chase is only his average charming self, and Bill Murray delivers a tiny gem of a weirdo, thankfully never repeated or exploited beyond these few little scenes.
Rodney Dangerfield never holds still long enough for the camera to focus on him- he bounces around like those wind sock guys at used car dealerships.
Let's not forget the lead character- we root for Danny the caddy (Michael O'Keefe), but why? He's a completely directionless loser who openly cheats on his girlfriend! In 1980, I think this was seen as a preferable alternative to all the motivated "winners" in this movie: not to get too intellectual, but all the country club members - the ones with jobs and ambition - are portrayed as corrupt, out-of-touch boors. A slacker with no prospects doesn't seem so bad by comparison.
Stub Hubby Grade: B-plus
Gen X Note: The distance between Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) is huge for a mid-Generation Xer like me. I was only 8 when Caddyshack came out, but 12 for Ghostbusters, so I have seen Caddyshack on VHS, but never all the way through in one sitting, whereas I saw Ghostbusters in the theater during the best summer of my life, and 30 years later every frame is encoded in my DNA.
Part of the "Bill Murr-a-thon" at the Arlington Capitol, with George

July 10, 2014

Snowpiercer

A terrific dystopian class warfare action movie. If Terry Gilliam had directed Total Recall, it might have looked something like this. Or, take Gilliam's Brazil, remove most of the black comedy, and replace it with grim cruelty and hatchet fights, and you're close. Chris Evans is good, and Tilda Swinton, again, is hilarious. Jamie Bell adds some lightness. Civilization has been condensed down to a few hundred souls, stratified into two classes and packed into a train. The 99% are unwashed and subsisting in the tail section, while the one percenters enjoy a life of decadence at their expense. Curtis (Chris Evans, bearded) is the reluctant working-class hero who leads the revolt, advancing forward, literally and figuratively, towards the engine where the unseen dictator rules.
The metaphor is a little too on-the-nose, and Snowpiercer is a little too brutal for my taste, but it was still a exciting, inventive, and thought-provoking ride. The ending is a little thematically sloppy. Reminiscent of Total Recall's ending, and Neo's scenes with The Architect in The Matrix, the ending raises as many questions as it answers, and leaves us with plenty to think about. Maybe I'm thinking too "American" when I want Curtis to deliver a snappy one-liner and vanquish his enemy at the end, but this movie is too enigmatic for that. The whole film has a "world cinema" flair to it, another great movie with an international cast, not set in America: the past few years I've enjoyed Pacific Rim, Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Wolverine too, with barely one foot in the U. S. of A.
I can see why Harvey Weinstein didn't want to spend millions to promote this movie- sure it stars Captain America, but the movie does not spare the brutality, and it's not exactly fun, but it's leagues better than the latest Transformers movie.
Stub Hubby Grade: A-minus (for excessive hatchet brutality and children in peril)
Sold-out show at the Brattle Theater, with Adam

June 21, 2014

Edge Of Tomorrow

I love time travel movies, and this time travel movie takes the tested-and-true Groundhog Day blueprint and applies it, beat-for-beat, to an alien battle movie. Starship Troopers-meets-Groundhog Day would be the shortest and most accurate description.
In Edge of Tomorrow, the goal is not to become a better person and win the love of Andie McDowell (thank God, that's happened in enough movies) but to kill the queen bee of an alien invasion force, and do it in one "life", first-person-shooter style. If Cruise were a decorated and respected war hero, he could probably muster enough troops, weapons, and support to blow up the moon on the first try, so to make it interesting, Lt. Col. William Cage is a coward and a deserter who has been stripped of his rank and kicked down to the lowest of the grunts.
Once Cage gets his bearings, he allies himself with Rita Vrataski, an English soldier who has lived this time loop before, and has been catapulted to heroic supersolider status as a result of her success on the battlefield. What's fascinating about the middle third of the movie, is that Cage and Vrataski attempt their near-impossible mission possibly dozens of times...but it's always the first time for Vrataski.
Doug Liman's direction, and an airtight screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth exploits every interesting angle of time travel, and living the same day over and over again, even going farther than Groundhog Day. Andie McDowell never really realizes that Bill Murray has spent weeks and weeks with her, falling in love with her- she only mostly believes his story once the movie is nearly complete.
On the other hand, Liman gives the movie a soft touch too, there's plenty of humor (and a priceless Bill Paxton as a DI) to make the grim action go down easier. My Stub Hubby grade: A-minus for derivative aliens and yet another movie with soliders in exo-skeleton suits.
Writer Notes: Christopher McQuarrie most famously wrote The Usual Suspects, but he's also more recently written two Tom Cruise movies, Valkyie (reteaming with director Bryan Singer) and Jack Reacher (which McQuarrie also directed).

June 1, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Spoilers Ahead...
In the not-too-distant future, the war between humans and mutants escalates beyond human control until the whole world is enslaved by mutant-hunting robots. The mutants are all but wiped out, so in a desperate ploy, the X-Men send Wolverine back in time to the tipping point where the course of history, and civilization's demise, can be changed.
It makes little sense for Mystique to revert to her pretty blonde image
in this scene. It felt like over-explaining her character to me.
This apocalyptic future serves as a framing device for the post-Vietnam storyline- imagine if Morpheus and Trinity sent Neo to 1973 instead of 1999, and that's the structure of the movie, including the idea that Wolverine must complete his mission in the past before the bad robots kill him in the present.
The mutant-killing robots - the Sentinels - are truly intimidating and unstoppable. It's pretty grim watching the X-Men, whose strengths are teamwork and versatility of attack, overcome by ruthless robots that adapt and counter their attacks using their same powers.
Meanwhile, the other X-Men story picks up in 1973, 11 years after X-Men: First Class [2011]. Wolverine must recruit the young Xavier and Magneto to intervene in the course of world events and prevent the Sentinels from being invented, but changing the course of human history is harder than they realize. Xavier believes that one assassination triggers the development of the Sentinels, and therefore, the destruction of the mutant and human races, but preventing one assassination cannot alter mankind's latent fear of mutants.
The idea that altering the past with good intentions can produce unexpected, and catastrophic results, is artfully shown when Wolverine, Beast, Xavier, and Magneto successfully prevent the assassination...and then proceed to accidentally scare the hell out of humanity with the fallout. Instead of pulling the Sentinel program back from the tipping point, they shove it forward, and must clean up their own mess.
The massive finale doesn't completely work for me. It was unclear what Magneto and Mystique's intentions were, and it was not clear how the unfolding events of the third act were affecting the fate of the planet: why did the events in the third act cause the Sentinel program to be shelved?
The new, better future Wolverine returns to included some nice touches, including one moment that literally made me gasp, and tear up a little.
On the whole, Future Past was an ambitious epic endeavor, and director Bryan mostly succeeds, even if the resolution was a little muddy. Stub Hubby's Grade: B-plus
Sequel Notes
What's that? You don't remember how First Class ended, and you're confused over what's happened between that movie and the events of 1974? You're not alone. Singer does not orient us to our new surroundings very well. Why is the X-Men school closed? Was it open in the last movie? Why is Dr Xavier walking? I thought he was paralyzed by a bullet in the last movie? Have Wolverine and Xavier met? Where's Magneto? Behind me in the theater, some truly boring and dumb moviegoers were totally lost by these questions, and I can't blame them. I saw First Class three years ago, I've seen all the X-Men movies, but I was also confused.

Stub Hubby Sees The X-Men Movies


May 26, 2014

Godzilla [2014]

What a weird Godzilla movie. First of all, Godzilla does not even appear until 60 minutes into the film. The lead characters are two MUTOs, flying monster mosquitoes, basically, that get a lot more screen time than Godzilla himself.
Some critics have complained that the humans are totally sidelined and secondary to the monsters. I don't have a problem with that, but I do have a problem with the wooden acting from the "lead" Aaron Taylor-Johnson (worst action leading man since Sam Worthington; pairing him with Emmy and Tony winner Bryan Cranston as his dad seems like a cruel prank) and the illogical and foolish choices the humans make.
I am happy to ignore the impossibility of a 600' tall animal - it's bones would break under their own weight - and I expect action movies to stretch and break the bounds of the real world you and I live in, but Godzilla ignores, flouts, and breaks the laws of physics, geography, reality, and time so frequently I was actively distracted.
When Godzilla finally arrived, his action scenes battling the other monsters were good, but why was I subjected to these MUTOs for the first 45 minutes?
Sorry my review is not more interestingly critical; I saw this movie a month ago and all my fresh criticisms have evaporated. C-plus. (Arlington Capitol, in glorious 2D)

Also On Memorial Day, Through The Years

I have been to the movies on Memorial Day Monday 13 times in 24 years, but it's not a great track record. 

May 23, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Solider

I wasn't expecting much from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I gave Cap's "wholesome and workmanlike" origin story a B grade in 2011, but the runaway success of the epic-scale Avengers movie in 2012 sets audience's expectations higher for the films that follow it, while also making a bigger budget Captain America movie a safer bet.
So instead of another modestly budgeted film with a limited horizon, Steve Rogers' second leading adventure looks and feels like a huge budget summer movie, and the plot is an essential-viewing game-changer for the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The plot bones are similar to the first Mission Impossible movie (and the Ghost Protocol movie too) - SHIELD operatives Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff are branded traitors, then become hunted by their own people. Also like MI, there's a MacGuffin data thumbdrive (with an adorable SHIELD logo on it).

This movie convincingly answers the question "how do you make a boring do-gooder like Captain America interesting in 2014?" (Maybe the Man Of Steel writers could learn from this movie.) Good and evil aren't as black-and-white as they were in Nazi Germany, or when you're fighting evil aliens in midtown Manhattan either. There's tons of "gray area" in the modern world, and watching Rogers grapple with it is incredibly relevant.
Thoroughly entertaining, relevant, action-packed, and bold in its scope, Winter Soldier is very different, but at least as good as its predecessor. If you enjoy the Marvel family of superhero movies, you don't have to see all of them (I barely saw the first Thor movie and skipped the second one) but this one is more essential than you might think, and certainly better than Iron Man 3. My Grade: B-plus
Alamo Drafthouse Village, Austin TX, while on Daddy Spring Getaway


March 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I've had a mixed relationship with director Wes Anderson. My wife is a big fan of all his movies, so I saw (and mostly liked) Rushmore and The Royal Tenembaums, but I hated The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Zissou felt like the "Apocalypse Now" school play at the end of Rushmore: A nerd invites all his best friends to dress up in silly costumes, in front of fake cardboard sets, and deliver ridiculous dialog badly. Zissou completely failed to create characters, interactions, or events that simulated real life.
I skipped The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
In January 2010, we went to see The Fantastic Mr. Fox at a Mom-Friendly Matinee screening - we had a newborn baby and I would have agreed to go to any movie after three months of newborn parenting. What a pleasant surprise Mr Fox turned out to be! The stop-motion animation, little handcrafted characters, sets,
costumes, and props turned out to be ideal for Anderson's sensibilities. Would Zissou be better produced in this fashion? I think so.
I skipped Moonrise Kingdom (2012) but my wife talked me into seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel, and again, what a treat. Based on the poster and the TV commercials jam-packed with A-list acting talent, I assumed this would be a "hotel full of misadventures/every room holds a new wacky adventure" type movie, but that's not the case at all- it's a wrongly-accused chase caper, and everyone in the commercials has only a few lines, and only Ralph Fiennes has a lead role. I love Ralph Fiennes, ever since the one-two-three punch of Quiz Show, Strange Days, and The English Patient twenty years ago.
The whole endeavor is charming, Ralph Fiennes is splendid as a legendary concierge for a fading hotel, whose affair with a wealthy matron leads to a classic missing will inheritance adventure. Fiennes is ideally suited for Anderson's rapid-fire baroquely-crafted dialog. Newcomer Tony Revolori is perfect as his young apprentice.

It was light and inconsequential, only 100 minutes long, and I quite enjoyed it. My Grade: B (Landmark Embassy Waltham; very well-behaved senior crowd)

February 9, 2014

The Lego Movie

Legos are meant to be assembled according to their instructions but also assembled according to your imagination. It's this conformity/freedom dynamic that powers the story "the people of Legoland must be liberated - is our everyman The One destined to set them free?"
The LEGO Movie was simply wonderful. Inventive, hysterically funny, energetic, and a real treat for LEGO fans. I laughed, I cried. It is so perfectly executed, it's a lock for a Best Picture nomination and will win Best Animated Feature for sure. My Grade: A-plus.

February 5, 2014

American Hustle

Wonderful performances from the whole cast, in this shaggy, super 70s long con gone wrong.
If you toss out any interest in snappy dialog, sound plotting, and practical casting, David O. Russell's repertory cast has a great time working their improv muscles.
Everyone plays against type, and several of these award-worthy performances are from actors who should have never been cast in their roles:
  • It makes no sense to cast Christian Bale as a over-the-hill, fat, bald, Jewish con man from Long Island. To his credit, he lives and breathes the part. Every moment is genuine. It just makes no sense coming from this actor!
  • I have a ton of respect for Amy Adams, who looks like a quintessential America's Sweetheart. She's so frickin' adorable, she looks like a cheerleader or librarian, but she has no interest in playing those roles. OK, yes, she did make Leap Year and Enchanted, but she'll be remembered for powerful roles in The Master, The Fighter, Doubt, and Sunshine Cleaning.
  • Bradley Cooper is So. Funny. He looks half ridiculous with his pin curls, full beard, and G-man suits.
  • Jennifer Lawrence is supremely talented, very funny, but 15 or 20 years too young to play a faded beauty desperately clinging to Bale's character as her last chance to maintain her way of life. She turned 23 last summer, she's one of the best-looking women on Earth- why is she so desperate to hang onto this dissolute con man when there are scores of men who'd love to marry her and support her? My wife pointed out that another Jennifer would be much better cast in this role - Jennifer Aniston turns 45 this week and she'd bring a great combination of faded beauty and comic timing to the part.
  • My wife and I owe an apology to Jeremy Renner. We had him pegged as a humorless loner. He plays such intense, violent characters - sometimes sociopathic - in The Hurt Locker, The Town, Mission: Impossible, The Avengers, and The Bourne Legacy, that his performance as a sweet, earnest family man is a wonderful surprise.
Didn't even recognize Elisabeth Rohm (Law & Order) as Renner's wife!
I wish I'd seen American Hustle in a crowded theater- the funny scenes would have landed better. As it is, I saw it shortly after a 12-inch snowstorm with a dozen other people, but it was still good. My Stub Hubby Grade: A. (Somerville Theater downstairs)

January 31, 2014

Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett is spectacular, as a woman desperately clinging to sanity and order as her world collapses around her ears. When her Bernie Madoff-type husband's Ponzi scheme finally evaporates, Jasmine's carefully constructed personality crumbles, and we discover that her life was a well-dressed shambles even before the money was gone. It's a work of art to make us feel sorrow and pity for a woman so repellent and complicit in her own demise.
The makeup crew did a great job with Blanchett's anxious sweat
and deteriorating eye makeup throughout the movie.
I found the structure and screenplay surprisingly flimsy- a key moment brings Jasmine together with her sister's ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) on a streetcorner by completely unbelievable coincidence- I could almost see Woody Allen pushing Clay into the shot to deliver his monologue.
A real pleasure to watch Blanchett at work. She gets an A grade, the rest of the movie, a B-minus. (Amazon Instant Video)