Movie Review: Bruce Almighty (2003)


TitleBruce Almighty
Release Date: 12 February 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

I didn’t choose this movie, but I gave it a fair shake.  Jim Carrey plays Buffalo tv reporter Bruce Nolan who seeks to move away from fluffy segments to an anchor position.  But after a day of miserable bad luck – and learning that his rival was promoted to anchor instead of him – Bruce takes his anger out on God.  And so God (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) decides to let Bruce take over His work while he goes on vacation.

Bruce starts off by causing mischief and doing pervy things like making a woman’s skirt fly up (although I’ll have to confess that I chuckled when Bruce literally made a monkey fly out of a bully’s butt).  Then he uses his powers to create dramatic news events that he is onsite to cover for the local news thus enabling himself to move into the coveted anchor spot.  But his increasing self-centered behavior drives away his long-suffering girlfriend (played by Jennifer Aniston) and he’s overwhelmed by trying to answer prayers.  This leads to the formulaic part of this movie where Bruce learns a Very Valuable Lesson about life and love.

I find myself kind of surprised that this movie came out as recently as 2003.  For one thing, it feels like a mid-90s screwball comedy built to capitalize on the popularity of Groundhog Day (complete with an selfish tv reporter gaining superhuman powers and then Learning a Very Valuable Lesson).  For another, I thought after more nuanced, comedy-drama performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon (and soon to come in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that Jim Carrey had moved on from broad dreck like this.  I guess not.

This is obviously not my kind of movie, but I think Carrey and the rest of the cast can do better. Despite a handful of good laughs, this movie wasn’t worth watching.

Rating: *1/2

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Movie Review: Pandas (2018)


Title: Pandas
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Director: David Douglas and Drew Fellman
Production Company: IMAX
Summary/Review:

The world’s cutest animals get the IMAX 3D treatment so audiences can enjoy seeing the big balls of fluff from China larger than life and right there in front of you.  The documentary is narrated by Kristen Bell, herself and icon of cuteness, and has cheerful soundtrack composed by Mark Mothersbaugh.  That is when there aren’t pop songs playing, such as the musical cue when a trio of panda cubs toddle around to ZZ Top’s “Sharped Dressed Man” (I guess because their black & white patterns resemble a tuxedo?).

But beneath all of this cuteness there is a more serious story here.  The habitat of the giant panda is shrinking and the species is endangered.  At the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding we meet the scientist Rong Hou, known as the Panda Mother, who has lead efforts to successfully breed giant pandas with over 200 cubs born. The next step is reintroducing pandas to the wild so Rong Hou visits New Hampshire where Ben Kilham takes in orphaned black bears and cares for them until they can survive in the wild on their own.

Adapting Kilham’s methods to the panda cubs at Chengdu involves bringing in another American, Jacob Owens, and Chinese scientist Wen Lei Bi to work with the cubs.  One cub named Qian Qian is determined to be a good candidate for introduction the wild, and Owens forms a close bond with her over a year spend in a 50-acre, protected reserve.  Finally, Qian Qian is ready, and a small gate is opened to allow her into the true wilderness.

A dramatic moment occurs when Owens is visiting family in America and the signal from Qian Qian’s collar shows that she hasn’t moved in 24 hours.  Wen Lei Bi leads a team that hikes deep into the forest where they find Qian Qian trapped in a tree, and they have to spend several days giving her food and water until she’s healthy enough to return to the reserve for care.  The film ends on a moment of uncertainty as a lot of effort went into introducing Qian Qian into the wild but it’s unclear if she will ever be able to survive there or if this approach will work with other great panda cubs.  But it’s good to know that there are people trying.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 18


This is a particularly fruitful week for podcasts with a bumper crop of excellent episodes!

Afropop Worldwide :: Skippy White: A Vinyl Life

Checking in with a legendary soul & R&B record shop owner and entrepreneur, Skippy White.  His shop is located in Boston’s Egleston Square, not far from where I live, but this is the first I’ve heard of him!

Code Switch :: Behind the Lies My Teacher Told Me

An interview with James Loewen, author of the seminal critique of American history education, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Hub History :: Folk Magic and Mysteries at the Fairbanks House

Daniel Neff, curator of the Fairbanks House museum in Dedham, talks about the house build by Puritan colonists that contains hidden charms and hex marks meant to ward off evil.

99% Invisible :: It’s Chinatown

The stories behind the origins of the distinctive architectural styles of American Chinatowns and the fortune cookie, neither of which actually originated in China.

Snap Judgment :: Talk of the Town

A local salesman, a fixture of his Oakland neighborhood, goes missing and is believed dead leading to an outpouring of remembrance in the community.  But one journalist digs deeper to find out what actually happened to the mystery man.

Tiny Desk Concerts :: Yo-Yo Ma

The famed cellist performs pieces of Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, and talks about learning to play the instrument.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Loop Groups

The work of the hidden actors who perform the background sounds of crowd scenes in movies.

 

Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)


TitleEighth Grade
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
Production Company: A24
Summary/Review:

More than any movie I’ve seen before, Eighth Grade captures the reality of the insecurities and search for identity of a young teacher.  Set in the last week of 8th grade, 13-year-old Kayla records advice videos to post online which act as narration as we see her attempt to build her confidence and try new things. Kayla is voted “most quiet” in her class and doesn’t have any close friends. With high school looming she has to navigate going to a popular girl’s pool party (only because she was invited by the girl’s mother) and trying to talk to her crush, awkwardly during an active shooter drill.  Shadowing a genuinely kind high school girl boosts her confidence but then she endures an awkward come-on from a creepy high school boy.

This movie is carried by Elsie Fisher, who as a young actor has the unenviable task of having the camera on her at almost all times. Even when other people are talking, the audience sees the small but telling reactions in Fisher’s eyes and face, which is actually a really good representation of how a shy person experiences a lot of social situations.  When using social media – which Kayla does often – the camera catches the reflection of her face on the screen. And while Hollywood loves to have “perfect” people in the movies, Fisher looks like a real kid with pimples and crooked teeth. Kayla’s description of having the scared feeling of waiting to go on a roller coaster without ever getting the good feeling of getting off a roller coaster is the best analogy for constant anxiety I’ve ever heard.

I see a lot of my younger self in Kayla, but all the more so, I get a glimpse of my future self in Kayla’s dad, Mark, portrayed by Josh Hamilton.  Hamilton captures all the dorky awkwardness, anxiety, and pride of being a dad when one doesn’t quite know how to connect with the child changing before one’s eyes.  This is brilliant movie and it honestly captures life experiences that many people will relate too, albeit not without cringing, because it cuts so close.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)


TitleUp in the Air
Release Date: December 4, 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Dreamworks Pictures
Summary/Review:

Ryan Cunningham (George Clooney) is a frequent business traveler who has become an expert in the ins and outs of air travel and enjoys the perks of loyalty reward programs [NOTE: this means lots of product placement for air carriers, hotel chains, and rental car companies]. His job is to work as a consultant who does the face to face work of firing employees and preparing them for their new job search, a job that is unspeakably awful although Ryan has a strong ethic for doing it as sympathetically as possible. Along his travels he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flier, and they agree to meet up for casual romance when their itineraries cross.

Back at the home office in Omaha, Ryan’s boss informs him that a new young hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has come up with an idea to fire people through videoconferencing thus eliminating travel costs.  Before the transition, Ryan takes Natalie out on the road to mentor her in his way of doing things.  Having to travel together makes each of them begin to question their life choices.  Ryan also goes to his sister’s wedding despite being distant from his family, and brings Alex along as his guest and begins considering a more committed lifestyle.

This movie goes to pains to show that Ryan’s live as a frequent traveler is bad, although I’m not quite convinced that someone could not be happy enjoying that life if they chose to.  Obviously they make it bad by having Ryan doing a terrible job, never keeping in touch with his sisters, and when he finally realizes he has feelings for Alex, making her a philanderer (the most unbelievable part of this movie is that any woman would agree to go as a date to a family wedding and not mention that she has a husband and children).  Despite this central flaw, this is still an entertaining movie with some funny bits and some touching bits.  Cooney, Farmiga, and Kendrick are all talented and charming actors, so they really make the movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)


TitleDeadpool
Release Date: February 12, 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Production Company: Marvel Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Deadpool is the eighth movie in the X-Men series and the first one (and possibly the last one) I’ve watched.  The titular characters, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, is a former special forces operative who becomes a mercenary.  His shtick is to constantly make crude jokes while carrying out his vengeance for hire.  He meets Vanessa, and they fall in love over their shared outsider status and crude sense of humor.  But when he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer he leaves Vanessa under the mistaken belief he’d be a burden to her.

Wilson is recruited to undergo treatment with a serum designed to activate mutant genes and also cure his cancer.  The secret lab is run by the sadistic Francis who tortures the test subjects to trigger the mutations, and plans to use the mutated humans as a slave army.  Wilson’s mutations give him super healing but also disfigure his body. He escapes and becomes Deadpool to avenge himself against Francis and his cronies.

All of this back story is told in flashbacks after an opening scene with Deadpool attacking Francis’ motorcade on a freeway. The effects of a car crashing in the midst of a gun battle in slow motion makes for a stunning opening.  Deadpool’s wisecracks and breaking the fourth wall do a great job at sending up superhero story conventions and Marvel movies in particular.  The characters of the overly sincere Collosus and the moody Negasonic Teenage Warhead are particularly hilarious (I’d pay to see a Negasonic Teenage Warhead solo film).

But the crude wisecracks lose their effect after a while, much like Howard Stern or South Park, it’s just stops being funny.  And after the great opening, Deadpool becomes more of a run-of-the-mill action/adventure superhero story with a lot of unquestioned macho BS to boot.  I’m also not much of one for excessive gore and violence.  So, I’ll give this a nice effort, but not for me.

Rating: **

TV Review: American Experience: Walt Disney


TitleAmerican Experience: Walt Disney
Release Date: September 14, 2015
Director: Sarah Colt
Production Company: WGBH Educational Foundation
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary attempts to unravel the man behind the myth of Walt Disney.  It begins rather ominously with a series of quotes showing people who knew Disney describing him as autocratic.  Yet, the first half is largely a positive appraisal of Disney as a man with a great imagination who found ways to make his dreams come true and share them with an appreciative audience.  Time and again, Disney makes a daring risk – to move to Los Angeles to start an animation studio, to create a feature-length animated film, to build a large & state of the art new studio, and later on to invent a theme park where guests could enter into stories. Walt’s brother Roy is the financial wizard who generally disapproves of Walt’s ambitious dreams but knowing he can’t stop his brother from pursuing his dreams finds the means of funding them.

Despite Disney’s belief that his company is like a family – and insisting on his employees calling him Walt instead of Mr. Disney – he seems to have an inability to see the negative effect he has by micromanaging and seemingly taking credit for all the studio’s work.  In the 1920s, almost all his animators leave him for another company and in 1941, the Disney Studio goes on strike due to low pay and inequitable conditions for many of the employees.  Disney seems totally blindsided by each of these events and years later testifies before HUAC that the strike was motivated by Communist infiltrators rather than recognize that his management had failed in any way.

Another theme of the movie is how much of an innovator and outlier Disney was in Hollywood in the 20s to 40s, but by the 50s & 60s, Disney had become a representation of conservative, middle-class white values (or a source of those values by some estimations). A story about The Song of the South is telling, as the studio sought advice from Black leaders on how to adapt the Uncle Remus tales, but Walt chose to ignore it.  Disney also hosted the premier in the same Atlanta movie theater where Gone With the Wind debuted a few years earlier, meaning that the star of the movie James Baskett could not attend the premier due to segregation.

Peeling back the layers of the real Disney is hard to do, and I don’t think that this documentary is able to achieve it. Disney may be a tyrant but he also was an innovator and entertainer.  Even Walt admitted that charming, avuncular individual hosting the Disneyland program was a character rather than a real expression of himself, but in many ways that is who Disney wanted to be, which also says a lot.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (2001)


TitleThe Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Release Date: July 11, 2001
Director: ?
Production Company: HBO Sports
Summary/Review:

This documentary goes back in time to when New York City was the capital of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers fans hated the New York Giants, and the Giants fans hated the Dodgers, and they both hated the Yankees.  The 1951 season was pivotal in that the Dodgers took a huge lead in the National League and went on cruise control.  Late in the season the Giants went on a hot streak and tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season, leading to a best-of-three playoff.

In addition to the heated rivalry among players and fans of the teams, the documentary focuses on the Giants’ elaborate plot to steal signs during home games in the latter half of the season.  The jury is still out on how much this gamesmanship helped them catch the Dodgers since statistics show that their batting average dropped, pitching improved, and they won more games on the road than at home after it began.

The three game playoff is analyzed from several angles.  Many involved seem to point to Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen as the real goat for his poor decisions in game.  Special attention is given to the life stories and game experiences of the two pivotal figures of the final playoff game, Bobby Thompson who hit the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Ralph Branca, the Dodgers’ relief pitcher who surrendered the home run on his second pitch in the game.

Interviewees include ballplayers like Branca, Thompson, Willie Mays and Duke Snider as well as a number of fans including celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Larry King.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)


TitleWon’t You Be My Neighbor?
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Director: Morgan Neville
Production Company: Tremolo Productions
Summary/Review:

I was born into the first generation of children who got to know the friendly, calm, and soothing presence of Mister Rogers through our television sets. As a teenager, I grew to find the show cheezy and a bit trippy.  As an adult, I learned more and more that Fred Rogers was one of the most genuinely good and kind human beings ever to grace the earth.  This documentary reinforces that notion (in case you were worried that this is a “tell-all” documentary that would expose Mister Rogers’ dark side, it can’t because it doesn’t exist) by showing that the Mister Rogers we saw on tv was an authentic expression of the man himself.

The documentary only touches upon Rogers’ personal life, with hints of his childhood explored through dreamlike animated segments featuring his alter ego Daniel Striped Tiger.  The bulk of the movie is interviews with Rogers’ family and work colleagues and lots of spectacular archival film.  We see clips from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” behind the scenes footage, public appearances, and interviews.

Through the interviews Rogers narrates his own story.  He explains how he was called to use the new medium of television to minister to children (which he did for more than 30 years without ever mentioning God or Jesus).  One interviewee notes regarding his ministry, “He didn’t wear a collar he wore a sweater.” Rogers himself discusses the “holy ground between the tv and someone receiving it.” One of his sons notes that it was “Tough for me to have the second Christ as a dad.” He also talks about the influence of child psychologist Margaret McFarland on his work as well as other leaders in child development of the era such as Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton.

The history of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” shows how from the very beginning he addressed children directly on dealing with difficult subjects.  The very first week of the show talked about war by showing King Friday building a wall around his kingdom to keep people out (UM, THAT’S A LITTLE BIT TOO ON POINT!).  A few months later he created a special episode for children and their parents to deal with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. When segregationists poured acid into a swimming pool where black people were swimming, Rogers responded with a segment showing him soaking his feet in a wading pool with François Clemens.  By the 1980s the show would spend an entire week on topics such as divorce, bullying, and death. In one episode he finds that one of his fish has died and shows him gently removing the fish, wrapping it, and burying it in the yard behind his tv home.
In the real world, Rogers testified before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in favor of funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and through his gentle but persuasive explanation, encouraged tough guy Senator John Pastore to award the funding. The film also shows the parodies of  Mister Rogers – such as Eddie Murphy’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” – and what Rogers thought of them.  Starting in the 1990s, there was also right wing critique of Mister Rogers’ philosophy of recognizing children for the uniqueness and loving them for who they are as being a cause of children to grow up to be selfish and unmotivated.  Most heartbreaking is the appearance of “Christian” protesters at Rogers’ funeral, some of them bringing their own children to shout hatred at the man who lived a life based in love.  Even Rogers’ loses hope as seen in clips where PBS brought him in to make PSAs after the September 11th attacks and he questions whether anything he can say would make a difference.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for me in watching this documentary, and I’m particularly pleased to remember things I loved like Mister Rogers’ fish, the traffic light next to the aquarium, and characters like Trolley and Daniel Striped Tiger.  On the other hand, I have absolutely no recollection of Lady Aberlin, the only human character who interacts with the puppets in the Land of Make Believe, so it was nice to become reacquainted with her through clips from the show and interviews with Betty Aberlin.  This was a very emotional movie to watch for me, and I know I’m not alone, so if you do go see it I recommend bringing a box of tissues.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Incredibles (2004)


Title: The Incredibles
Release Date: November 5, 2004
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

On the flight home from our honeymoon in Italy, my bride and were separated by Alitalia and seated at opposite ends of the economy cabin.  My loss was assuaged a bit by being able to stretch my legs under the curtain into first class, dining on wine and cheese, and watching The Incredibles on tv.   With a sequel released this summer, I thought it worthwhile to watch again. Probably relaxation and wine were my chief accomplishments of that flight because I didn’t remember the movie all that well.

Set in a stylized 1960s, The Incredibles recreates the golden era of superhero comics, but asks the question of what it would be like if superheroes married, raised a family, and tried to live a normal life.  The drama of the movie is inaugurated by Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis which draws him back into the superhero game behind Elastigirls’ back.  When he gets in above his head, she has to come bail him out and their children Violet and Dash get to use their powers to fight crime for the first time.  It’s a great movie that works on many levels, and in typical Pixar fashion has a lot of humor and a lot of heart.

For all the retro design of The Incredibles, I find it interesting how much it presaged the boom of superhero comic movies of the past decade and a half. In the interim between The Incredibles and The Incredibles II there has been 3 Spider-Man films (one finishing a trilogy and two from a reboot), 3 Fantastic Four films (including a reboot), Superman Returns, Christoper Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 9 X-Men films, 5 DC Extended Universe films, the entire 19 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and others I’m forgetting.  The Incredibles‘ focus on interpersonal relationships within the family, a villain inadvertently created by the hero’s actions, and a society that seeks to reign in rather than celebrate people with powers are all facets that make it a forerunner of contemporary superhero movies.

Rating: ****