Saturday, July 8, 2017

My Life as a Zucchini

Year 9, Day 189 - 7/8/17 - Movie #2,683

BEFORE: See, back to animated films again - and Nick Offerman carries over from "Danny Collins", umm, I think.  This stop-motion film that was nominated for best animated feature is also known as "Ma Vie de Courgette" or "My Life as a Courgette", and knowing that "Courgette" is just the French word for "zucchini" doesn't really help me out very much.  But since this film was available to me on an Academy screener, it seems like I should check it out.


THE PLOT: After losing his mother, a young boy is sent to a foster home with other orphans, where he begins to learn the meaning of trust and true love.

AFTER: Well, my mistake today was not fully checking out the DVD before borrowing it from the office, and it turns out there's an English version of the film with voices by Hollywood actors, and the original French version with English subtitles.  I borrowed the latter, and the reason the French version was mailed out to Academy members was so that the film could also qualify for Best Foreign Language Film (it was Switzerland's official entry), in addition to the Best Animated Feature Category.  But by the time I realized this, I already had the film playing and I was sitting in my recliner with a beverage and a cat on my lap.  So I figured, the film's just over an hour long, let it play and if I need to discount it later, I can do that.

But the orphanage theme is right in line with my theme for the week, which is a stroke of luck, and it seems incorrect to remove this from my list, so I'm going to proceed - as penance for my mistake I watched clips on-line of Nick Offerman's character, so I can get a feel for what his performance was like in the English-dubbed version, and my chain can continue.  And it was very clear which character he voiced, obviously it would be Raymond, the policeman (authority figure) with the prominent mustache.

It's a quick film, but also a bit of an odd film, and not just because the stop-motion depiction is a little unusual, Zucchini for example has blue hair and those blue circles around his eyes and a very orange nose, I think each character has something a little odd about the way they look in fact.  Which leads to some questions, like why did Icare's mother call him "Zucchini", and not, for example, "blueberry" or "carrot"?  But anyway...

It's not that important how Zucchini ends up in the orphanage - I wasn't really sure how his mother died, but apparently it was in a way that left him feeling partially responsible and therefore guilty, in addition to being depressed about her demise.  We do get some other clues about her from the fact that Zucchini's memento of her is an empty beer can, and he also had a depiction of his father on a kite, with a drawing of a chicken on the other side, because his mother said he liked "chicks", but I have a feeling this was a play on words.

Some of the other jokes didn't seem to land, however, and I wonder if this was due to cultural differences between Europe and America.  While on a ski trip to the mountains, for example, the orphan kids see a young boy with his mother, and after noting that the woman is pretty, one kid says, "Maybe she's not his mother..." and the moment hangs there for a long time after, with no explanation.  So, do the kids think she's his aunt, older sister, nanny or what?  A little help here, guys.

Zucchini also endures some bullying at first, mostly from a fellow orphan named Simon, who seems to be the toughest one in their little group, but after he steals Zucchini's kite and both boys get in trouble for fighting, Zucchini won't tattle on Simon, and this leads to them becoming friends.  I'm not sure that's the best way to deal with a bully, by letting him slide for his misdeeds - it's not exactly the best message to send out to the kids in the audience, because there are bullies out there that just don't want to be friends.  Not all bullies are secretly pushovers, in other words, who'll befriend you if you do them a solid - some are genuinely nasty people who could probably use some punishment.  (I guess Zucchini did pick a fight with the biggest toughest kid, which is what they say you should do if you go to prison - but I have a feeling that's actually horrible advice too.).

Life changes again when a new girl, Camille, comes to the orphanage, and Zucchini is smitten for the first time.  Camille's backstory is just as tragic as the other kids' stories, if not more so, and she has an aunt that is trying to gain custody of her, but who mistreats her and yells at her in private, and is only trying to gain custody so she can get money from the government.  The kids work together to try and discredit the aunt, so that Camille can stay at the orphanage - I get where they're going with this, but it also seems a little odd to root for a kid to stay in an orphanage.  Fortunately there's another long-term solution for both Zucchini and Camille's living situation.   You may see it coming from a mile away, but at least it's a positive, uplifting ending.

Also starring the voices of Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Will Forte (last seen in "Around the World in 80 Days"), Ellen Page (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Amy Sedaris (last seen in "Chef"), Susanne Blakeslee, Ness Krell, Finn Robbins, Olivia Bucknor, Barry Mitchell - and in the French version, Gaspard Schlatter, Michel Vuillermoz (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Paulin Jaccoud, Sixtine Murat, Paul Ribera, Estelle Hennard, Elliot Sanchez, Lou Wick.

RATING: 5 out of 10 water balloons

Friday, July 7, 2017

Danny Collins

Year 9, Day 188 - 7/7/17 - Movie #2,682

BEFORE: I know, this seems like an odd detour from the animation chain - I'll be back on animation tomorrow.   Bobby Cannavale carries over from "Chef". 

As a preface to tonight's film about an older rockstar, I want to mention that I saw an episode of a show on cable called "Urban Myths", which related the (possibly true, who knows) story about Bob Dylan flying to London at the invitation of his friend, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.  Only, as the story goes, Dylan lost the address, or mixed up the address, or got turned around on the streets of London, and accidentally buzzed the wrong flat, as they say.  He asked if Dave was home, and Dave's wife said that he'd just stepped out, but invited his "friend Bob" in for tea, without recognizing the identity of the man with the fuzzy hair and the dark sunglasses. 

The "Dave" who lived there was a different Dave (possibly a different Dave Stewart, after all the name's not that uncommon) and so the wrong Dave came home to find Bob Dylan sitting in his living room, playing some of his records and drinking tea with his wife.   You should try to catch this show, with actor Eddie Marsan really nailing the role of Dylan, the ambiguous way he tends to not really answer questions, and the way it portrays the totally British way of being embarrassed about things, and therefore avoiding delicate subject matter - so nobody involved talks about how odd it is that Bob Dylan just turned up in someone's apartment one day and just made himself at home. 

It probably never happened, at least not that way, but it does make for a good story. (This is the TV series that sparked controversy by casting a white actor as Michael Jackson, in the story about him going on a road trip with Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando, but don't hold that against this series.)


FOLLOW-UP TO: "Ricki and the Flash" (Movie #2,441)

THE PLOT: An aging rock star decides to change his life when he discovers a 40-year-old letter written to him from John Lennon. 

AFTER: I picked this film for the linking, but damn if it doesn't share at least two themes with "Chef", namely a successful person losing their creative mojo and going on a road trip to try and get it back, and then there's the motif of an absent father trying to re-connect with his son - only in this case the father hasn't ever met his adult son before, or his wife or daughter for that matter.  Anyway, the overarching theme this week seems to be something about redemption, or perhaps reconciliation with lost family.  We had Robin looking for an adoptive father in the "Lego Batman Movie", then Kubo searching for his father in "Kubo and the Two Strings", and Mowgli trying to re-join the village of men in "The Jungle Book".  Now an older rock star wants to connect with his son for the first time.  I'm considering this a follow-up to "Ricki and the Flash" because I remember seeing previews for both films at the same screening, and thinking they looked quite similar.

But Pacino's character, Danny Collins, is more in line with Barry Manilow, it seems, than a rocker like Mick Jagger.  (His song, "Hey Baby Doll" sounds an awful lot like "Sweet Caroline"...)  And therein lies another thematic connection to "Chef" - namely the question over whether a rock-star should just sing his greatest hits, or perform something different from the new album, which is very similar to a chef debating whether he should serve the expected food that everyone likes, or try to push his new, more creative cuisine.  As a concert-goer, my feeling is that a performer should only play the greatest hits, because who cares about the new stuff, but my thoughts on the matter may be a little biased, since I don't like much music made after 1990.  What usually results in concert, and perhaps in the food world also, is about 90% greatest hits and 10% new material. (Hey, we all need bathroom breaks every so often...)

The catalyst for changing a man's life here is this letter from John Lennon, supposedly written in 1971 and then sent to Collins in care of a magazine editor, who decided to keep the letter as a collector's item.  This happened in real life to a man named Steve Tilston, who mentioned Lennon in an interview in ZigZag magazine, and also expressed a fear that wealth and fame might hurt his songwriting skills.  Lennon's letter was intended to assure him that being rich doesn't change the way one thinks, and that the only advantage to being rich is that you don't have to worry about money. Umm, yeah, thanks for clearing that up, John Lennon - thankfully the fictional letter in the film is a little more insightful, as fictional Lennon goes on to say that a person's music can't be corrupted by others, only Danny could do that to himself.  (OK, mission accomplished.) Bear in mind that Lennon was fairly rich when he sang "Imagine no possessions."  Yeah, that's probably easier for someone with Beatles money.

But the letter does start Danny thinking about his life, and what he could have been, if only he'd received these words of wisdom 40 years earlier, when he should have. (Damn post office!)  Yeah, and Andrew Jackson wouldn't have fought the battle of New Orleans if they'd had text messaging back then.  There are no do-overs in life, you just have to make the best choices that you can and then live with the consequences.  But Danny decides to use his great wealth and resources to work his way into his son's life for the first time, and it does not go well at first.  (I think someone once sang that money "Can't Buy Me Love", but I'll be damned if I can remember who.)

Before long, Danny's living indefinitely at a Hilton hotel in New Jersey, composing songs again for the first time in years, trying to woo the hotel manager, and making continual attempts to win over his newfound family, most of which involve spending large amounts of money.  I'm not even sure that he should be allowed to succeed, because what does it say if he does?  That everyone has their price, and you can make up for a lifetime of neglect with enough cash and prizes?  Wouldn't it have sent a stronger message here if he learned that money doesn't solve everything, and sincerity and honesty and being a good grandpa went a lot further in the long run?  Yeah, I guess that does sound a bit ridiculous, but it would have been nice. 

Also starring Al Pacino (last seen in "Two for the Money"), Annette Bening (last seen in "Regarding Henry"), Jennifer Garner (last seen in "Mother's Day"), Christopher Plummer (last seen in "The Forger"), Katarina Cas (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Giselle Eisenberg (last seen in "Sex Tape"), Melissa Benoist (last seen in "Patriots Day"), Josh Peck (last heard in "Ice Age: Collision Course"), Nick Offerman (last heard in "Sing"), Brian Thomas Smith, Scott Lawrence, Eric Michael Roy, Eric Lange, Don Was.

RATING: 5 out of 10 billboards

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Chef

Year 9, Day 187 - 7/6/17 - Movie #2,681

BEFORE: I'm back on Netflix, but I'm going to take a break from animated films for a few days.  Yes, originally this was conceived as a straight block of just animated films, but that was a block that got me CLOSE to reaching "Spider-Man: Homecoming", and close just isn't good enough.  Then I decided to flip around part of the chain to work in both "The Lego Batman" movie and "Free State of Jones", and suddenly my animated block wasn't so animated any more.  I still think I've done quite well, with 7 animated films watched in the last 10 days, and I'm still going to get to 8 more before my Comic-Con trip, but it's a couple of live-action (there's that derogatory word again) films that are going to make the next few links in the chain possible.

This film has been on my radar for some time, I can't really say it's been on my Watchlist, because that's really for films I buy on DVD or that run on cable, and this one's been conspicuously absent from cable.  Why, I don't know - I'm not responsible for programming movie channels, but since I had access to it via an Academy screener, I put it on my "eventual add" list.  Then I realized that it's been available on Netflix, and that made it linkable and watchable.  It's funny, by moving films from the "eventual add" list directly to my "Seen already" list, skipping the watchlist altogether, it almost feels like I'm cheating, or at least subverting the process.  It means my watchlist is not shrinking at all, but at least I'm keeping the chain going.

Scarlett Johansson carries over from "The Jungle Book", and so do THREE other actors.  That's a linking opportunity that I just can't ignore.  You might also notice that two of these actors are also going to be in the new "Spider-Man" movie - this film was a back-up way to link to that film, and if I were planning to fight the crowds tomorrow and see the film on Opening Day, I had that option.  But I've got other ways to link there, one that will allow me to see the film next Monday and post the review the next day.


FOLLOW-UP TO: "Burnt" (Movie #2,624)

THE PLOT: A head chef quits his restaurant job and buys a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing his estranged family back together.

AFTER: This is a movie I can really get behind - a character who is motivated to produce great food at his restaurant, it's a noble cause I can support.  Though things get complicated when the restaurant's owner gets involved in the process, and a conflict arises between putting out food that's creative and daring, and food that's safe and expected, but makes people happy.  The unstated question here concerns whether food has to shock and surprise in order to delight, which might be more of what reviewers want to see, or whether it just needs to satisfy the public and keep putting asses in the seats.

I hate the term "foodie", but I am something of an expert - I've been eating for practically my whole life, after all.  And people often ask me where to eat, so often that I've determined that I must project either an air of intelligence, or a demeanor based on my consistent panda-bear shape that lets people know that I both enjoy food, and know where to find it. The combination means, even to strangers, "Hey, let's ask THAT guy where to get food, because clearly he knows something."  My own personal tastes have a large range, meaning I'm equally at home in a fine-dining establishment (especially if they're hosting a food & beer pairing event) as I am eating from a food truck.  I got really excited last week when a friend pointed out some new food stands a few blocks from my office, with all kinds of food, ranging from sushi burritos and Japanese tater tots to brisket sandwiches from one of my fave BBQ restaurants (name withheld here to keep more people from learning about it...)  More about brisket later on...

So the film creates a conflict between the restaurant's owner, who feels that as long as people are filling up the tables, they should keep the menu the same, because it's working, and the chef, who not only wants to stretch himself creatively, but he feels that he HAS to keep the menu cutting-edge in order to get good reviews.  If the cooking game is anything like the filmmaking business, then I realized right off this is a fool's errand, because if you're making movies for the critics, then you're compromising yourself, and you're not making the movie that you want/need to make.  According to this analogy, the chef is both right AND wrong - yes, he should keep challenging himself, and trying new dishes, but at the same time, he should realize that the basic menu is drawing people in and making them happy, and that's a good thing.

The answer, to me at least, would be to have a core menu that doesn't change, to satisfy the regulars, AND to have a special menu that's constantly rotating or changing.  Why can't he do both of these things, as lots of restaurants do?  Ah, but then we wouldn't have this triangle of conflict between the chef, the owner and the critic.  Another solution would be to have a special tasting menu just for the critic, feed him something that wows him - but then I suppose this would result in a skewed review, he's probably honor-bound to review the menu that an average person would encounter during their dining experience.

Instead the chef accidentally starts a flame-war on Twitter after the review gets posted, and his tweets not only "go viral" (this was a big thing way back in 2014, I assume) but he also loses it in the middle of the restaurant, and dozens of diners catch his meltdown on their cameraphones.  The critic remains above it all, and comments on the chef's downfall, and although there is a path given here for surviving negative publicity, the chef here chooses to quit and spend some time re-evaluating.  This involves a trip to Miami with his ex-wife and son, which introduces the possibility of getting his mojo back through a food truck.  Now, I've seen every episode of Food Network's "Great Food Truck Race", which is a bit like American Idol for food trucks - the winner gets a truck and some national exposure - and I approve of a character taking this track to success.

Now, it's a little hokey that having success with the food truck seems to solve ALL of the chef's problems - it fulfills his need to be creative, it allows him to cook what he wants again, he starts to have good publicity instead of bad, and he begins to have better relationships with his son and ex-wife.  The food truck is the (literal) vehicle for all of these good things, but I'm going to allow it, because a good business model has that potential, and the uplifting end sort of justifies the means.  But you know I'm going to find something to complain about...

NITPICK POINT: I'm not sure that Twitter is that hard to figure out, even for an older person.  I mean, our president can do it, and he's 71.  (I'm not saying he uses it WELL, but he does use it.)  But hey, maybe our chef character here is a total luddite, I know some people like that, who still have flip phones, but since they're in the film business of course they know how to tweet to publicize their projects, or they have people who tweet for them.  Either way, the concept is not alien to them - the only people I know who don't know how to tweet or text at all are my parents, who are 76.  I just can't buy that a 40-something chef would need to be taught how to tweet by his son, or that he wouldn't realize that everyone on Twitter could see his tweets.

Then again, Twitter hasn't exactly made it easy to distinguish between a public tweet, a private tweet, and a direct message tweet.  I know that it sort of involves where you put the handle of the person you're tweeting at, and whether you use a dot or something before it, but even I get confused by it at times.  For safety's sake, I just assume that every tweet is readable by all, and I don't say things that other people shouldn't hear.

NITPICK POINT #2: From what little I understand about food trucks, the cost of renovating and cleaning an old one is probably not much less than designing a new one, especially when you factor in the value of all that sweat equity.  But the food truck here is basically a metaphor for the chef's career and attitude toward food - like the truck, he's got to be stripped down to his basics, he's got to re-design his cooking style and also clean up his attitude in order to drive down the long road toward redemption.  A tangential N.P. is the fact that a used food truck would be much less likely to survive a cross-country drive without breaking down in some way.  I was waiting for the inevitable "we're stranded in the New Mexico desert" scene that never came - maybe they just got lucky?

NITPICK POINT #3: After relating to his son the glories of beignets in New Orleans, especially the ones from Cafe du Monde, Chef Carl treats his son to the famous treat, then they return to their food truck, where beignets are on his own menu.  What the what?  If he could make beignets on the truck, then why did they have to go out to Cafe du Monde to get them?  OK, maybe the ones at the cafe are better, but if that's the case, why is he serving inferior beignets from the truck?  Those won't sell very well in New Orleans, especially if people can get better ones a few blocks away.  Selling these in New Orleans doesn't make much sense, and for that matter, selling Cubano sandwiches in Miami isn't advisable, either, unless they're freaking spectacular.  But Chef Carl does this, plus he sells brisket sandwiches in Austin - where I'm guessing you can probably get great brisket on every corner.

It would have made more sense on this food truck road trip if they had taken the cuisine of each city and brought it to the next one, where it would be less common.  Perfect the Cubano sandwich in Miami, then drive to New Orleans.  While selling Cubanos in NOLA, learn how to make great beignets, and then drive to Austin, where beignets are less common.  Pick up the brisket in Austin and drive to, I don't know, Santa Fe or Phoenix to sell brisket sandwiches there.  And then by the time they arrive back in L.A., the food truck is serving a wide variety of foods that are uncommon in that city - now that's a recipe for success.

Also starring Jon Favreau (also carrying over from "The Jungle Book"), John Leguizamo (last heard in "Ice Age: Collision Course"), Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "Daddy's Home"), Dustin Hoffman (last seen in "Moonlight Mile"), Emjay Anthony (carrying over from "The Jungle Book"), Sofia Vergara (last seen in "Hot Pursuit"), Oliver Platt (last seen in "A Merry Friggin' Christmas"), Amy Sedaris (last seen in "Maid in Manhattan"), Robert Downey Jr. (last seen in "Captain America: Civil War"), Russell Peters (also carrying over from "The Jungle Book"), Jose C. Hernandez, Gloria Sandoval, with cameos from chefs Aaron Franklin and Roy Choi.

RATING: 6 out of 10 trips to the Farmer's Market

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Jungle Book (2016)

Year 9, Day 186 - 7/5/17 - Movie #2,680

BEFORE: I forgot to mention that I watched "Sing" on iTunes, because it wasn't available anywhere else just yet, and it would have seemed silly to try and catch up on animated films from the last year and not include that one.  But today I'm back on Netflix, for what I'm treating as another animated film with talking animals.  What's weird is that reviewers referred to this as the "live-action" version of "The Jungle Book", which is a very strange description for a film that I think was about 90% animated.  Sure, it's not cel animation like the classic Disney version of this story, and there's some live-action in it, but the animals are all CGI, right? 

"Live-action" is a term that comes from people who work in the world of animation and effects, and it's often used as a derogatory term for a movie without either of those, or the elements shot with real people that they then need to enhance with animation.  Most people don't use it when referring to regular movies, because they just call them "movies".  And most audiences probably don't care which elements of the film they're watching are real and which aren't, they just want to see a good story and believe what's on the screen.  But a "live-action" version of "The Jungle Book", which this isn't, would be impossible, because that would involve allowing a small child to interact with wolves, a panther, a bear and a tiger - you'd probably go through a lot of kids that way - and getting real animals to talk. 

I noticed the same thing with that recent remake of "Beauty and the Beast" - everyone called it the "live-action" version, to distinguish it from the cel-animated one, but there's probably so much animation and CGI effects in it, that nothing could be further from the truth. 

Scarlett Johansson carries over from voicing Rosita the pig in "Sing" to voice Kaa the snake in today's film. 

THE PLOT: After a threat from the tiger Shere Khan forces him to flee the jungle, a man-cub named Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery with the help of panther Bagheera and bear Baloo.

AFTER: I remember watching the first Disney version of this story when I was a little kid, Mom brought me to all the Disney films, and their re-releases over the years (Disney was the first true recycler, hauling out all the old animated features back out to theaters every decade or so, because there was always a new batch of kids that hadn't seen them yet - this was before VHS.).  I knew the voice of Sebastian Cabot because of his role as butler Mr. French on the TV show "Family Affair", and I later learned who Phil Harris was through his novelty records, but the other voice actors (Louis Prima, George Sanders) were just voices to me, maybe if I was hip I recognized Sterling Holloway from the "Fractured Fairy Tales" cartoons that ran during the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" show, I'm not sure.

But the 2016 version went for it with an all-star voice cast.  Ben Kingsley sort of mirrors the choice of Cabot, another British actor, for the Bagheera role, and I can allow the casting of Bill Murray in place of Phil Harris as Baloo, the goal I think is to contrast the upper-class voice of the panther with the lower-class voice of the bear.  Giving the seductive snake the voice of a woman is an interesting choice, and casting Christopher Walken as King Louie seemed a little odd, but turned out to be an inspired choice.  When we first see the King of the Monkeys, who was an orangutan in the 1967 but claims to be an (extinct) gigantopithecus here, the way he appears in shadow and runs his hands over his head seems to be a clear reference to Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now", and Walken's voice manages to drive that point home.  (Brando's character was also large, slighty loopy and almost like a cult leader in an Asian temple..) 

I had to go back and review the plot of the 1967 Disney film, to see where this one deviated.  Really, I should say that the first Disney film deviated quite a bit from Kipling's novel, where Mowgli's story was told in a series of non-connected episodes, each with its own moral lesson, and Walt Disney reportedly handed Kipling's book to a screenwriter and told him, "The first thing I want you to do is to not read this."  Instead they wove some of those story elements into one longer narrative tale, and that story is repeated here.  The credits say that this 2016 was "based on the Kipling novel and inspired by the 1967 Disney film", but I'll wager that it's really the other way around.  It seems more like they kept the "one long narrative" from the first Disney version, and if something didn't seem to work, like the elephant march with Colonel Hathi, then they dropped it and replaced it with something else, possibly from the original book, that served the same purpose - to forge a connection between Mowgli and the elephants.

And they only kept three of the Disney songs, namely "The Bare Necessities", "Trust in Me" and "I Wanna Be Like You" - the first of these is sung "bearly" by Baloo and "barely" by the kid.  Seriously, they cast a kid who could run, jump and interact with animals that weren't there, but he can't carry a tune?  And how come they can make animals appear to talk, but they can't dub in a good singing voice for Mowgli, what gives?  But honestly, the songs just seem silly when set against the seriousness of the storyline about predatory animals, the laws of the jungle and the dangers of dealing with fire...why did we need the musical numbers at all? 

I keep focusing on the 2 Disney versions, but all in all, "The Jungle Book" has been made into a movie at least 7 times - and surprisingly, another version is planned for 2018, made by Warner Bros., not Disney.  Disney was first to get their "live-action" (CGI) version released, but the competition started working on one that's all motion-capture/CGI, and despite this version's success, they haven't changed their plans.  Meanwhile a sequel to this one is also in the works, and the same director (Jon Favreau) is also planning a "live-action" (CGI) adaptation of "The Lion King".  Hey, if a movie makes money, leave it to Hollywood to keep making different versions of it. 

Also starring Neel Sethi and the voices of Ben Kingsley (last seen in "Self/Less"), Bill Murray (last seen in "Ghostbusters" (2016)), Idris Elba (last heard in "Zootopia"), Lupita Nyong'o (last heard in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"), Giancarlo Esposito (last seen in "Money Monster"), Christopher Walken (last seen in "Eddie the Eagle"), Garry Shandling (last seen in "The Dictator"), Jon Favreau (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Sam Raimi (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Russell Peters, Brighton Rose, Emjay Anthony.

RATING: 6 out of 10 honeycombs

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sing

Year 9, Day 185 - 7/4/17 - Movie #2,679

BEFORE: I dealt with the majority of Matthew McConaughey's films in 2015, with a chain of 9 films in a row, so these three films, with him carrying over from "Free State of Jones", are basically a bit of clean-up work.  Since I incorrectly anticipated being done with the project by now, even if I clear an actor's filmography, given time, more films are going to pop up, especially true for a high-profile actor.  But what a range, thanks to animation he can play both a beetle-shaped samurai and a play-producing koala bear...


THE PLOT: In a city of animals, a theater impresario's attempt to save his theater with a singing competition becomes grander than he plans, as the finalists find that their lives will never be the same.

AFTER: The competition is fierce, and I don't mean the singing competition depicted here - I'm referring to the competition between animation studios, as evidenced by two of them releasing similar films in the same calendar year.  Remember "Antz" and "A Bug's Life"?  "Despicable Me" and "Megamind"?  "Madagascar" and "The Wild"?  "Finding Nemo" and "A Shark Tale"?  Someday they're going to figure out who the spies are at the studios who are leaking plot information to the competition, and then look out.

So it's no surprise that two studios released films during 2016, both with fictional cities where all the animals live together and interact.  One's got the twist of adding in the popular reality-show singing competition plot, so it's very tempting to refer to this film as "Zootopia's Got Talent" or maybe "Zootopian Idol".  But while this opens up new plot possibilities and complications for our furry friends, I've got a few reservations.  (A good dose of "The Producers" is thrown in here, with the theater producer who's basically a scam artist, only here he's genuinely trying to put on a good show.).

First off, the singing competition here doesn't bear any resemblance to the way that the most popular ones in real life genuinely, you know, work.  Who holds such a competition in a live theater, when it's usually presented in the popular television format?  Secondly, the hundreds of animals that show up to audition are narrowed down to 6 or 7 quite quickly.  Wait, what happened to callbacks, or the semi-finals?  We seemed to go straight from the open call to the finals.  (I'm reminded of the "Pitch Perfect" films, where someone believes that a cappella competitions have commentators, and they just don't.). It's called research, writers, and I expect you to do a little bit of it before you write your screenplay.

Who knows, maybe the writers did their research and chose to ignore reality (and reality TV), maybe they just couldn't resist the possibility of adding in the old "Let's save our theater!" plot-line, which goes back to, I'm guessing, the decline of vaudeville.  And while we're talking about throwbacks, how were the songs chosen for this film?  Some of them are older than I am, and I'm at the age where I shouldn't even be watching children's films, not without kids present anyway.  (My wife wondered how I went to see an animated film by myself in the theater last week and didn't get arrested...).  I mean, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is old, but it's become a movie soundtrack staple.  But "My Way"?  Come on, Sinatra's version of that song came out in 1969!  "Carry That Weight" by the Beatles is just about as old, and "Gimme Some Lovin'" from the Spencer Davis Group is even older, it was released in 1966!  How hip can songs be when they're nearly 50 years old!

To be fair, "Carry That Weight" is seen performed in flashback, and the animal that sings "My Way" is a throwback act, a mouse that channels Sinatra in his clothing and demeanor, but still - or were these songs thrown in to appeal to the parents (or grandparents), who will no doubt be forced to watch this with their kids?  By contrast, "I'm Still Standing" and "Under Pressure" come from the 1980's (my music decade) and then you've got Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and Katy Perry's "Firework" to appeal to the younger generation.  (And "Firework" being sung justifies me watching this film on July 4.  Sort of.)

Also, if I'm being fair, there are substantial differences between "Zootopia" and "Sing", even though they could be set in the same animal-heavy city.  For starters, in "Zootopia" there's a family of bunnies with dozens of kids, and in "Sing", there's a large litter of pigs.  You know, because when you think of animals that breed a lot, naturally you think about pigs?  The messages of the films also seem to run parallel but not exactly overlapping - "Zootopia" says that with hard work you can overcome your nature and be whatever you want, while "Sing" says that with practice you can overcome your stage fright, or lack of dancing skills or piano-playing skills and become a performer.  But the latter message, even though we see it all the time on these competition shows, isn't as healthy by comparison in the long run.  Should we continue to glorify the easy road to fame, the chance of being discovered in a talent show, and display it to children as a valid career choice?  After all, the world needs cops, doctors and ditch-diggers too, and kids could easily be made to feel "less than" if they don't have this hidden natural singing ability, and let's face it, most of them won't.

A couple of other things are a bit off-message, too.  Since everything (naturally) works out for the best, does that mean that Buster Moon was right to pull all his hustling impresario moves in the first place?  Bialystock and Bloom ended up in jail in "The Producers", comically getting exactly what they deserved for their scam, but Buster Moon skates?  Similarly, the mouse cheats at cards and also super-extends his credit limit, but ends up keeping the car AND his girlfriend?  Where's the karmic balance?  Worst of all, Rosita the pig sneaks off to rehearsal every day, leaving an admittedly-clever Rube Goldberg-type machine to feed her piglets and clean up the breakfast dishes.  While it's a creative solution that allows her to chase her dream, it's also parental neglect.  There was a teachable moment that was missed here, something like, "Hey, kids, if you want to be a famous singer when you grow up, maybe don't have 25 kids."

I could go on - Johnny the gorilla is a getaway driver for his Dad's gang of bank robbers, but when there's a conflict between the heist and rehearsal, he chooses poorly (or does he? That's a matter of some debate.). But my point is that he's an accessory to a crime, but never gets punished for it - another wrong message to send the kids.  His father (once he gets over the shock of hearing that his son wants to be a singer) breaks out of jail to watch him perform, and this is shown as a positive thing, so he can accept his son.  Yeah, but he broke out of jail!  Can we pay some attention to the examples these characters are setting for the kids?

The other main difference between "Zootopia" and "Sing" is that Disney's film took greater advantage of the individual nature of each animal species - the fox acted like the stereotypical crafty fox, the lion was in a position of power, the sloths conducted business very slowly, etc. - or they were comically diametrically opposed in some cases.  In "Sing" there's very little relation to who each animal is and what they do - the roles are virtually interchangeable.  Are koalas noted for their hustling abilities, or elephants noted for stage fright?  Not that I'm aware of.  The sole exceptions were that the gorillas were thugs, the bears were Russian thugs, and the sheep character was something of a follower, but that last one almost feels accidental.

I'd really like to know which stars did their own singing, and more to the point, which ones didn't.  It's not that big of a deal, I mean, who cares if an animal's singing and speaking voices were provided by the same people?  I just want to know - and the fact that the "sung by" credits are missing at the end of the film on some songs makes me even more curious.  (Hmm, according to the soundtrack, all of the actors did their own singing.  Let's just say I still have some doubts.)

Also starring the voices of Reese Witherspoon (last seen in "Hot Pursuit"), Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "Don Jon"), Seth MacFarlane (last heard in "Ted 2"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "The Anniversary Party"), Taron Egerton (last seen in "Eddie the Eagle"), Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders (last heard in "Minions"), Jennifer Hudson (last seen in "Dreamgirls"), Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz (last seen in "Spy"), Nick Kroll (last heard in "Sausage Party"), Beck Bennett (last seen in "Zoolander 2"), Nick Offerman (last heard in "Ice Age: Collision Course"), Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones (last seen in "Ghostbusters"), Rhea Perlman (last seen in "The Sessions"), Laraine Newman (last heard in "The Boxtrolls"), Bill Farmer, with vocal cameos from Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bio-luminescent squid

Monday, July 3, 2017

Free State of Jones

Year 9, Day 184 - 7/3/17 - Movie #2,678

BEFORE: I'm taking a break from the Netflix Animation Raid for a little American history lesson.  I know, it's only July 3, but this is as close as I could get my acknowledgement of the holiday to the 4th.  (Sure, I could just delay this posting and date it tomorrow, but I'd only be fooling myself.). Matthew McConaughey carries over from "Kubo and the Two Strings" and he'll also be my link back to animation tomorrow.  Hey, when a film doesn't present many linking opportunities, sometimes I've got to sandwich it between two films starring its most prominent actor.  Mmm....sandwich...

So I set out today to have the most American (sorry, 'Murican) day I could have.  I'm on the third day of a four-day weekend, that's a good start.  (Of course, working on the holiday weekend is also very 'Murican, gots to get the double overtime and pay them bills.).  So I slept in and then went out for a bacon cheeseburger (muy 'Murican) and some sweet potato fries - think about it, French fries are European, Belgian to be exact (not French, ironically) but sweet potato fries are uniquely American.  People came here from distant lands and found corn, squash and sweet potatoes - tons and tons of sweet potatoes - and how can we make them appetizing?  Fry them, of course.  'Murica.  Washed it down with a Coca-Cola (check) and then went grocery shopping.  Consumerism.   And when my wife gets home, we'll probably go out to eat - buying groceries and then dining out seems so American I can't stand myself.  Maybe later I'll watch a baseball game, have a slice of apple pie and explode in a firework of patriotism.  Hey, you celebrate the Fourth of July your way, and I'll do it mine.

And every TV station seems to have a different way to celebrate July 4, too.  One is running all the "Rocky" movies, another all the "Rambo" films, while other patriotic films screening include "Forrest Gump", "Independence Day", "Armageddon" and the first two "Captain America" films.  Turner Classic Movies probably has the easiest time of all, since they've got almost 100 years of patriotic movies to choose from - they're going with "West Side Story" (for the song "America", of course), "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", and the triumvirate of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "1776" and "The Music Man".  Damn, they've shown me up once again.


THE PLOT: A disillusioned Confederate army deserter returns to Mississippi and leads a militia of fellow deserters and women in an uprising against the corrupt local Confederate government.

AFTER: Of course, I was hard pressed to find a film about the Revolutionary War, because I've already seen "The Patriot" and "1776" and other films set near to that period, like "Amistad".  I had to settle for a film set during the Civil War, but we work with what we have (another very 'Murican concept).  This can also be seen in the story of Newton Knight, founder of the Free State of Jones.  Now, was he a renegade survivalist outlaw, or just a free-thinking man ahead of his time?  The debate rages.

There's another American concept that Knight exemplifies - one that's not explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence, but it's implied somewhere after "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", and it's as follows: "If you don't like the game, then change the rules."  You could say our whole country was founded on that premise.  We could have continued on as a British colony, but we didn't like paying taxes without representation, so we rebelled and changed the rules.  And then the first thing we did after writing a Constitution was to make amendments to it, so that future generations would get that concept as well - "If things aren't working well, change the rules."

Knight wasn't happy working with the medical corps on the Civil War battlefields, especially after learning that the Confederacy had passed a rule exempting men from plantation owners' families from military service, based on how many slaves they owned.  So the richest people were being allowed to not serve in the war, and the poorest people were dying to defend the property of the rich.  Meanwhile, the Confederate troops were taking livestock and supplies from farms as needed, calling them "taxes".  So after teaching some women-folk how to fire guns and defend their land, he escaped into the Mississippi swamps with a party of escaped slaves.  After the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863, more deserters joined him in the swamp and they formed their own ongoing revolt, calling a section of southeast Mississippi the "Free State of Jones" and living according to their own moral code.  It seems only fair, if the southern states were allowed to secede from the U.S. that if someone should disagree with them, they should be allowed to secede from the Confederacy....

They didn't get much help from the Union army, but they were able to hold out until the end of the war, possibly because the Confederate Army couldn't split their resources and fight a war on two fronts.  Plus, nobody wanted to go into the swamps and fight the deserters, even if they had a good barbecue pit going, with whole roasted hogs.  Mmm....whole hog....

After the war, the difficult Reconstruction era is depicted here, with Newton Knight acting like Mark Wahlberg's police officer in "Patriots Day" - he's everywhere important that he needs to be, in order to tell this story.  When slavery is revived with the "apprenticeship" laws, he's there to fight it.  When former slaves need to be rallied to vote in the election of 1876, Knight and his band of freedmen are there.  And despite the laws against miscegenation, Knight lived (openly?) with a former slave as his common-law wife and even had his first wife and son living in another house on his land.

There's some time-jumping here as we also see a court case, where a Knight's great-grandson is ruled to be "one-eighth" black in a Mississippi courtroom in 1948, and therefore not allowed to marry his white girlfriend.  His heritage is uncertain until the family bible clears up who his great-grandmother was, and (presumably) Newton's story inspires his descendant to take a stand against the unfair laws.  Again, if you don't like the game, change the rules.  (And the game has changed - back in 1876 it was the Democrats trying to keep African-Americans from being able to vote, and these days, that's the Republican's game...)

I said I was going to try and be more political here at the Movie Year, and I think I'm succeeding.  With films like "Reds", "1984", "Snowden", "Weiner", and "Our Brand Is Crisis", I think maybe I'm all around it, without specifically being about it.  (I even found a way to tie the depiction of Julius Caesar in "Cleopatra" in with our current political situation...)  But let's be clear, here, if you didn't vote in the 2016 election then you gave up the right to complain about the result.  But it seems like the majority of the populace is having buyer's remorse in one form or another over the actions of our current administration.  The answer is simple, and we don't even need to openly revolt like Newton Knight did - "if you don't like the game, change the rules".  Vote in the midterm elections, for the people who you feel will enact the social change that you want to see, and while we won't get a do-over for the Trump debacle, eventually, with a little effort, the game can be changed.

Also starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (last seen in "Concussion"), Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell (last seen in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), Christopher Berry (last seen in "Get Hard"), Sean Bridgers (last seen in "Room"), Thomas Francis Murphy (last seen in "Self/Less"), Brian Lee Franklin, Bill Tangradi (last seen in "Argo"), Donald Watkins, Wayne Pere, Kerry Cahill (last seen in "Midnight Special"), Artrial Clark, Gary Grubbs (also last seen in "Concussion"), David Jensen (last seen in "I Love You Phillip Morris").

RATING: 5 out of 10 times McConaughey says the "N-word"

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

Year 9, Day 183 - 7/2/17 - Movie #2,677

BEFORE: Back to Netflix tonight - I admit I can see no pattern to when some films debut on cable, and why some are on Netflix but not cable - or perhaps they're available On Demand, but why should I pay for them there when I can piggy-back on my wife's Netflix account and watch them for free?  (Essentially...I realize nothing's free in the long run.).  Why should I wait until these films are on premium cable, which might take months, and some may never get there at all?  Like "The Boxtrolls" which never played on the premium channels, it (eventually) went straight to a channel that aired it with commercials.  So I've got to be on Netflix now, change with the times, if I want to see these recent animated films the way they were meant to be seen, without ads.  Though I've got issues with the way Netflix reduced the credits to a little corner of the screen so they can pimp another film on my list with the majority of the screen.  Hey, you know, some of us like to read the credits - and people worked hard to make these films, you shouldn't shrink their names down to microscopic size.  Why doesn't the actors union, or DGA or PGA, step in and tell Netflix (and Starz channel) that they need to run the full credits at full size, or they'll pull the best films off their system?  No respect.

I bring this up tonight because I used to work for the studio that made "Kubo" and "The Boxtrolls", so I probably know some people who worked on this film, and it's a damn shame I won't see their names, thanks to Netflix's shrinking of the credits to a teeny tiny box - even on my giant screen TV,  I won't be able to read them.

Ralph Fiennes carries over from "Lego Batman" (where he played Alfred, and oddly another actor voiced Voldemort instead of him...) and here's how the linking's going to play out in July, leading up to Comic-Con - after tonight there will be 2 more McConaughey films, 3 with Scarlet Johansson, 2 with Bobby Cannavale, 4 with Nick Offerman, 3 with Michael Keaton, 2 with Liev Schreiber, 2 with Rachel McAdams, 3 with Albert Brooks, 3 with John Ratzenberger, and 2 with Cristela Alonso.   But wait, that adds up to 26 films and only 18 slots left until the break.  Ah, but the linkings overlap, so it's all going to work out.  Oh, and they won't all be animated, only 10 out of 18 will be, but that's still a healthy ratio, and hopefully it won't be too jarring to go back and forth between animation and live-action.


THE PLOT: A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.

AFTER: Damn, but there was a lot of work done to make this film - not just because it was made primarily in stop-motion, which most animators recognize as the most time-consuming of all possible formats, but because it seems to be an original story, not based on any specific Japanese legends, but still maintaining that feel, that it could have been.

Thematically it seems I've been on an orphan kick for the last few days, the girl in "The BFG" was an orphan, then we had Dick Grayson in "Lego Batman", then today we have Kubo.  We see him with his mother, Sariatu, at the start of the story, but she seems to be mentally not all there, and losing a bit more of her awareness every day.   She tells stories to Kubo about his father, Hanzo, when she's coherent, and he retells these stories, casting his absent father as a samurai-style hero, in the marketplace each day - where his guitar playing somehow causes paper to fold itself, origami style, and do fantastic things.  The next part of the story, presumably, was going to be about how his mother's father, the Moon King, and her sisters (some kind of Japanese witches) were going to battle Kubo's father, but somehow instead Hanzo fell in love with Kubo's mother, and that somehow defeated the evil power but cost Hanzo his life.

On the day when the Japanese remember/communicate with their dead relatives, the Bon Festival (which seems to be a variation on the Mexican Day of the Dead), Kubo is upset that he gets no message from his father, but then the Sisters (his aunts) attack and it seems that all of his mother's stories are true.  His mother uses the last of her magic to transport him to a distant land, where he must fulfill the quest from her stories, and obtain the magic sword, helmet and armor breastplate, guided only by a monkey, brought to life from a charm, and a beetle warrior who seems to remember being Hanzo's student.

There are a lot of parallels to "Moana" here - young teen, traveling across strange lands and seas with magical demigod(s), fighting what look like level bosses from a video-game to get the mystical objects and defeat the evil power.  Both heroes also travel under the sea (or the equivalent) and face a giant monster (a crab in one case, giant eyes in the other) - in a sense, these films are all following the Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" formula, descend into the underworld, fight the nether beast, defeat the evil power and complete the seemingly-impossible task.

Things got a little confusing here when I realized there were really three strings, not two, on Kubo's guitar, and a different sort of magic resulted from him breaking the strings, rather than the magic that came from plucking them.  I'm still not really sure what happened, there was no time to fully explain it, I guess, before the final battle with the Moon King.  And then Kubo had to re-string his guitar, I had to read the re-cap on Wikipedia to determine how he did this, what materials he used, and what that all meant.  A little more explanation here would have gone a long way, maybe it's me and I just need to watch it again to completely follow it.

Also starring the voices of Charlize Theron (last seen in "Mad Max; Fury Road"), Art Parkinson (last seen in "Dracula Untold"), Matthew McConaughey (last seen in "Bernie"), Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara (last seen in "Pan"), George Takei (last heard in "Mulan"), Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa (last seen in "License to Kill"), Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto.

RATING: 7 out of 10 floating lanterns