Playing Catch-Up — Tomb Raider; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Red Sparrow

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Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug, 2018).  I saw both films that cast Angelina Jolie as adventurer Lara Croft at the time of their original releases, and I don’t remember a second of either one. I suspect the same fate awaits Tomb Raider, the recent attempt to launch one of the most famous video characters into a sustained movie franchise. With an antsy, trite back story about mysterious parental abandonment helping to drive her, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) sets forth on a series on tests with the promised prize of the magical riches to be found in the final resting place of an ancient queen feared for her command of magic. With laughable ease, Lara bests all manner of puzzling contraptions meant to be elaborate guards against interlopers. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug galumphs his way through the material, bringing a level of craft that rarely rises above the level of blandly serviceable.

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J.A. Bayona, 2018). Although I acknowledge it’s the faintest of praise, I moderately enjoyed the much-maligned 2015 Colin Trevorrow film that revived the popcorn entertainment franchise about cloned prehistoric creatures teaching modern man a bloody lesson about hubris. The eager dopiness of the Jurassic World made it play like a nice throwback to the heyday of summer movie season (as opposed to the current release calendar that accommodates high concept blockbuster wannabes year-round). Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom doubles up the stupidity and drains the compensating joyous verve. Director J.A. Bayona has a strong visual sense, but his creativity is blunted by the machine he’s climbed into. There are clever twists on the theme here and there, but the film also indulges in off-putting gimmickry and narrative sleight of hand meant to boost tension. The whole endeavor is numbing.

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Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence, 2018). Jennifer Lawrence reunites with the director of three-fourths of her Hunger Games money presses for this adaptation of a 2013 spy novel that was the first of a trilogy. Red Sparrow follows a Russian ballet dancer named Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) who sustains an injury that ends her performing career, but still allows her to transition to a new career in sex-soaked espionage. The novel was released the same year that The Americans debuted, but the film suffers from a timing that makes it seem like a weak echo of the exemplary television series. Where The Americans boldly and intelligently examined the psychological wounds sustained by those who turn their whole beings over to clandestine service for the state, Red Sparrow sits immersed in the fetid salaciousness without stirring the waters in the slightest. This comparison is especially true — and especially damnable — in the depiction of sexual manipulation of the part of the agents, which comes across as painfully naive in its blithe disregard for consequences. Lawrence still flashes a charisma that’s hard to deny, especially in those moments when contempt flares in her eyes. Even she can’t elevate a film this dreadful and dull.

From the Archive — The Squid and the Whale

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I’m entirely sincere when I note it’s pleasing that so many media outlets reported on the surprise arrival of the first child of a movie biz power couple by neglecting the papa. In a culture that still routinely refers to an incredibly accomplished human rights lawyer and activity as as “George Clooney’s wife,” it’s heartening to see Greta Gerwig given top billing and her partner shunted off to the side of the spotlight. It’s okay, Noah Baumbach. We know you make movies, too. This was written for my former online home, upon the covered film’s initial release.

It’s been ten years since his debut Kicking and Screaming, so it’s a little jarring to realize how few films writer-director Noah Baumbach has had his name on since then. Until he replaced Owen Wilson as Wes Anderson’s duly appointed writing partner (beginning with last year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Baumbach hadn’t been heard from since 1997’s widely unloved Mr. Jealousy.

Baumbach clearly prospers when he traffics in the highly personal. Kicking and Screaming felt like a brutally honest (and quite funny) self-portrait, capturing that time right after college when the sudden absence of a school-dictated game plan leaves one lost and wandering, unable to face a future that, for the first time, needs to be created rather than met. Anything is fodder to forestall the decision-making and forward progress, even, in a favorite moment from the film, a laundry detergent commercial.

His fine new film, The Squid and the Whale, takes place in 1986. Jesse Eisenberg (from Roger Dodger) plays Walt, our Noah Baumbach stand-in. Walt and his younger brother Frank struggle to endure their parents’ messy divorce, complete with power-play custody arrangements, poorly thought out décor in new second bedrooms, and awkward rebound romances. There is a lot of humor here, but Baumbach doesn’t shy away from raw emotions, either. These characters make rash decisions and lash out forcefully at one another. The laughter tempers it, but there’s some real pain onscreen.

The broken marriage at the center of film is perhaps explained in an observation delivered by the mother of the family, played by Laura Linney. Pressed to explain why she’d married in the first place, she reminisces about discovering this intellectual man when they both lived in Ohio. She gets a distant, appreciative look in her eye as she talked about how different he was. It’s easier to stand out as a bohemian in Columbus than in New York City, where college students and high school administrators sing the praises of New Yorker articles. Sometimes it’s not people that change, but the contexts in which they live. Of course, there’s ample cause for disillusionment in the relationship, regardless of mailing address. To that end, Jeff Daniels plays the father with a fearless command of the man’s poisonous self-regard.

The film itself is a fast 80 minutes. Some scenes come and go so quickly that it sometimes feels like glancing at a film rather than watching it. This can give the film a satisfying feeling of memories captured and conveyed, but on occasion it just makes the whole endeavor feel a little disjointed. After all those years between films, Baumbach clearly has a lot to say. When the movie moves by so quickly, it can feel like he’s not giving himself quite enough time in which to say it.

This Week’s Model — An Horse, “This is a Song”

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(source)

In my music fandom, I have a few clear weaknesses, sounds and conceits before which I am utterly helpless. One of chief bits that gets me almost every time is a song that is about being a song, calling attention to the fact that it’s a song in the lyrics. Nifty meta maneuvering is appreciated in all its forms, but there’s something especially satisfying about it when it clicks into place properly in a rock songs, especially if it has a little bit of a punk edge. Taking the subtextual expression of defiance and making it explicit has a shivery power for me.

“This is a Song,” the new track from Australian duo An Horse, makes the intent plain in the very title, and the lyrics make matters better: “And this is a song/ For all the times you didn’t belong/ And this is a song/ For all the times they got you wrong.” That’s what many of the best punk songs feel like, so why be coy about it? “Say what you mean” is pretty good advice, and it remains just as pertinent when applied to rhyming couplets back up by bruising guitar and crackling drums. Actually, maybe it’s more pertinent.

Laughing Matters — Key and Peele, “Non-Scary Movie”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

As Jordan Peele continues apace in his emergence as today’s preeminent impresario of visual horror storytelling, I’m glad his past has little nuggets of his sensibility to mine.

Playing Catch-Up — Skyscraper; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

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Skyscraper (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2018). A combat veteran and former hostage rescue team operative, Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is working as a security expert when he’s recruited to identify the shortcomings in a state of the art building in Hong Kong that towers over two hundred stories. Will’s family is in building when a terrorist action demolishes the structure’s defenses and set the building ablaze. And thus our hero springs into action, accomplishing the most brilliantly ludicrous physical feats on his was to rescuing those in peril and dispatching the snarling bad guys. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber stages the action with workmanlike clarity if not much invention. The bigger problem is that he lacks a taste for the kind of bright outlandishness that might have pushed the film into the giddy stratosphere of snapping bubblegum delight. Skyscraper should be far more fun than it is.

 

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville, 2018). Largely a straightforward recounting of the career and influence of television icon Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? emulates its subject by gently making the case for kindness and understanding. Documentarian Neville has enviable access to key collaborators and loved ones in Rogers’s life, as well as miles of footage from various television programs, including some of his earliest efforts. That is largely enough, even if there’s a pesky sense that Neville feels obligated to introduce some more prickly elements to Rogers persona (an early lack of support for a gay colleague, a later stubbornness in his work) without having the stomach to properly explore the contradictions raised. But if there’s any person from the latter half of the American century who deserves the generosity of a hagiography, it’s Rogers. Neville’s film makes it clear that the world would be a better place if a wider swath of the population were living his lessons.

 

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Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, 2018). The time is right for a movie spoofing superheroes, and this big screen version of the popular Cartoon Network series (which is based on a long-running and regularly revived comic book team) has a cheeky energy that keeps the momentum up. In the film’s best moments, co-directors Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath tap into a spirit reminiscent of the heyday of The Powerpuff Girls, which is impressive indeed. There’s no reason to expect Teen Titans Go! To the Movies would approach high genius in is deconstruction of  genre tropes. but so many of the jokes are mostly notable for their pronounced mildness. The film also has a remarkable fascination with butts. I guess that’s what make kids laugh.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #756 to #753

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756. Malcolm McLaren, Fans (1984)

Malcolm McLaren’s career as a musical provocateur took a strange turn in the nineteen-eighties, when he moved from behind the scenes promotional manipulations for the likes of the Sex Pistols, Adam Ant, and Bow Wow Wow into releasing albums under his own name. In some ways, that was entirely reasonable. McLaren’s touch might not have been entirely golden, but it certainly had a shimmer to it. And among the British music press, he was at least as famous as the artists he championed. There was, however, a significant argument against McLaren moving from management to performing.

“I’m not a musician,” McLaren told Billboard upon the release of his sophomore album, Fans. “I can’t play a bloody thing. I’m only on this record for contractual reasons.”

As was almost always the case with McLaren’s projects, Fans is an impudent testing of limits. McLaren takes a cockeyed notion — in this case, merging classic opera with post-disco pop sounds — and cavorts forward with it, craning his neck around to see if anyone is going to rush in and stop him. As was consistently the case, no one did, and McLaren winds up with a decidedly odd album. Opening track “Madam Butterfly” is wholly representative, borrowing from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, adding pop pieces reminiscent of Deniece Williams’s nonthreatening R&B, and dropping in McLaren reciting lines like a kid doing a mediocre job of pretending he doesn’t like reading aloud in class.

McLaren’s innate impresario nature means the album is never boring, even as it pirouettes into the outer atmosphere of confusion. “Boy’s Chorus (Là Sui Monti Dell’Est)” is like Pink Floyd’s The Wall as adapted by Yahoo Serious, and the bizarro hip hop hybrid “Carmen” is the kind of think Baz Luhrmann might have cooked up for Moulin Rouge! II while on a five-day bender. None of that means the material is good, exactly. But it’s definitely attention-getting.

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755. Danny Elfman, So-Lo (1984)

According to billing, So-Lo is the first album by Danny Elfman. In its true derivation, it’s the fourth full-length from Oingo Boingo, the Los Angeles band in which Elfman made his name. When the album was recorded, the band was in the midst of a prolonged and messy process of extricating themselves from obligations to A&M Records, in large part because their new manager — former A&M executive Mike Gormley — wanted to get them into a better deal with MCA Records. Contracts were signed, but there was evidently enough lingering legal uncertainty that it was deemed prudent to set aside the band’s name. Releasing the new music as an Elfman solo record was the simplest option.

Accordingly, So-Lo exhibits and the strengths and weaknesses found across the Oingo Boingo discography. It is dulled down party music. All the individual elements are performed capable — even skillfully — but they rarely cohere, as if plucked from random out of a bin of track and laid atop one another until it sounded thick enough to fill a groove. Sometimes that yields fine results, as on “Lightning,” which is so busy that it becomes admirably colossal. More often, it’s plainly wearying. The caffeinated “Sucker for Mystery” might as well be static, and “Gratitude” is typical leaden funk further damaged by Elfman’s mistaken notion that singing louder is the same as heightening emotional expression. The latter track wound up in millions of record collections because of its place right in the middle of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack.

In the final analysis, So-Lo is filled with sonic ambition, but short on the sort of insight and inspiration that can elevate the work. “Tough as Nails” is like a Talking Heads discard with surface-level exploration of ugly masculinity in the lyrics (“Now it’s time for football and a bout with heavy drinking/ Holding so much liquor makes him feel like a man/ As he drifts out on the sea on a ship that’s slowly sinking/ Quietly salutes himself and the courage he once had, he once had”). It offers the briefest jolt of excitement before settling into a deadening sameness. It doesn’t really matter whose name is on it.

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754. Doctor and the Medics, Laughing at the Pieces (1986)

Officially named on the record as “The Doctor,” London-based DJ Clive Jackson pulled together several cohorts in the early nineteen-eighties to form a band that took a big, theatrical approach to their music-making and performances. If the trend of the day was about creating pop music that was lean and icy, Doctor and the Medics were resolutely committed to a different approach. By the time of their debut album, Laughing at the Pieces, the band was delivering bazooka blasts of glitter-dappled molasses in song form. The material on the album is neither intricate nor refined, but it’s occasionally irresistible.

The band had a chart-topping hit in the U.K. with remarkably faithful version of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” which is probably the least distinctive cut on the album. It’s far more energizing when Doctor and the Medics follow their own loopy groove. “Fried Egg Bad Monday” plays like a more roughly hewn version of the Madchester sound that emerged a few years later, and “Moon Song” is what might have resulted if INXS had gone down a sixties psychedelia path. At their very best, the band hints that they could really pull off any style they’d like, setting expectations only to quickly dash them. “Smallness of the Mustard Pot” opens with the tinkling gentleness of a Cat Stevens song before being overtaken by a crashing wave of Redd Kross-style punked-up glam rock.

Laughing at the Pieces is probably too freewheeling to be unassailable. “Watermelon Runaway” proves the limits of the group’s wackadoodle free association in crafting lyrics (“Swimming sea green/ Dead sardine/ Acrobatic teen”), as does the almost indecipherable tepid tap water funk number “No-One Loves You When You’ve Got No Shoes.” In those passages, the music of Doctor and the Medics can seem like a mere put-on, a mischievous masquerade of rock band excess. Maybe it is that, maybe it’s sincere, or maybe it’s both.

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753. Motels, Motels (1979)

Led by Martha Davis, Motels were fixtures on a Los Angeles music scene that was just starting to boom as the nineteen-seventies gave way to the eighties. They were sharing rehearsal space with the Go-Go’s and playing local clubs with such regularity they were practically full-time employees of certain venues. Labels were were happy to mine the veins of talent found closest to the West Coast offices, and Motels were handed a handsome contract by Capitol Records. John Carter, the A&R man who signed them, was so committed to the band that he personally produced their self-titled debut album, a hand on approach he also took with acts such as Sammy Hagar and Bob Welch.

Motels is a fine pop album, spotlighting a band with sensibilities perhaps a little soft for the disco and punk era, but redolent of classic song structures that recurred on the charts for good reason.  The enviable trick of Davis’s songwriting and performance style was to sound retro and fiercely modern at the same time. The jazzy shuffle “Love Don’t Help” or the slinky pop of “Closets and Bullets” feel like they could have come from Chess Records sessions one studio down from Etta James, but also as if 1979 was the only conceivable copyright date for the tracks. There’s an atypical comfort in slowing down, which makes the spare “Celia” notably gripping. And the band knows when some reinforcement is needed, as with the thick rhythm giving more heft to ballad “Total Control.”

The cheerily wild “Kix” echoes a Bye Bye Birdie number, and “Porn Reggae” features the one of the slowest Caribbean beats ever committed to record. These cuts are prime examples of a band finding ways to explore within a clearly formulated sound. Motels and its singles might have performed mediocrely on the U.S. charts, but there were indications all across the album’s two sides that the band was capable of a major breakthrough given enough time and attention.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

From the Archive — Transamerica

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I’m not sure I’ve watched more than a couple minutes of Transamerica since my first viewing, and I’m skeptical about how well it holds up. If nothing else, it’s clearer by now that casting a cisgendered actress in a transgendered role is a problematic choice. At the time, though, it was a major step forward to simply afford a character such as Bree dignity and agency. I might write this piece differently now. This is how I wrote it then. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Felicity Huffman is terrific in Transamerica. She plays Bree, a transgender woman days away from the operation that will provide her with the biological sex that matches the one already firmly established in her heart, mind, and soul. In presentation, the role holds an element of stunt to it. We watch, at least initially, to see how Huffman will tackle the contours of the character’s conflicted nature. What cues of body language will she employ to illustrate the dueling genders beneath the surface of Bree? How will she shade her voice? It is the actor as magician and we’re watching a little more intently to discover how the trick is done.

To her credit, Huffman avoids this trap. She quickly settles on some simple, effective bits of physicality that help define Bree: a certain stiffness in her comportment, a simple series of body language cues to keep others at length, all the better to prevent close inspections. With these elements sketched into place, Huffman concentrates on finding and relaying Bree as a person impacted by her trans identity but not defined by it. The impact is deep, of course, but, as opposed to what other good actors might do, Huffman uses it as an entry into fully understanding the whole character. Bree is shaped by her nature, an existence in which many of her external expressions of self are contradicted by her own physical features. In a way she is engages in an ongoing masquerade of her own future, who she is announced in a mixture of hope and personal definition by force of will. Huffman uses these things as a means to key in to Bree’s frustration, self-reliance, loneliness, and caution.

She fares better than the film that serves as her vehicle. First-time feature director Duncan Tucker is clearly well-intentioned, and he deserves credit for his part in the collaboration with Huffman that created so rich a character as Bree, but he has also constructed a weak product built on that hoariest of filmic frameworks: road movie with two mis-matched travelers. The plot is set in motion when Bree journeys from California to New York City to meet the son she unknowingly fathered some two decades earlier. She buys a car there and the pair begin a cross-country trek back to Los Angeles, with the son unaware of the family connection between the two of them. The stops along the way lead to situations that are didactically manipulative, broadly comic, and, by the time they get to Arizona, a muscle-tensing combination of both.

It’s significantly better when the film stays in the car with Bree and her son (played well enough by Kevin Zegers, who has apparently logged several cinematic hours with a highly athletic golden pooch) because then we focus on the characters rather than watch them flounder around in the constructed conflicts of uninspired screenwriting. Tucker has created some interesting people, but his strained story keeps getting in their way. It certainly doesn’t stop Felicity Huffman from turning in an inspired, committed performance, but it makes you wish the film itself had come somewhere near her level of accomplishment.