Friday, August 4, 2017

Film review: Despicable Me 3

The original Despicable Me was just jam-packed with inventiveness and crazy ideas all at a head- spinning pace. Its premise was that the world was so full of James Bondian villains that they were often tripping over one another.

The film's best gag typifies its anarchic-spirit: "THE BANK OF EVIL - Formerly Lehman Brothers."

By the second film, the producers decided Gru should be a good guy, thereby sucking out all the joy found in the first film.

There's a segment in DM3 where Gru's minions are telling him how much more interesting his life was when he was a villain. And it's hard to argue with them.

And it goes down hill from there. His wife is just a scold really. The villain is stuck in the 80s. He dresses like it's the 80s, he listens to music from the 80s. This joke gets tired real fast.

The leader of the Anti-Villain League shows up long enough to step down and be replaced by a woman with a ..get this ... a really big nose! Her nose is supposed to be hilarious. It isn't. She's just another unnecessary character.

The story is Gru finds his long-unknown about twin, Dru, who, craving a life of excitement, wants Gru to return to a life of crime. This character is voiced by Steve Carrell modifying his voice for Gru. And this role really calls out for stunt casting: Was Stephen Colbert busy?

Either way, Gru takes Dru on a heist, he nearly screws everything up and I couldn't help but think about how Kate Capshaw's helpless character sucked all the fun out of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

There's also three subplots that sit there limply. The minions revolt and wind up taking over a prison, which is actually a little funny, and Gru's oldest daughter inadvertently misleads a  little boy into thinking she likes him. This goes NOWHERE. The third subplot is his youngest daughter goes on a unicorn hunt which has a cute conclusion, but these subplot feel really detached from the main film.

The first film was more Tex Avery than Walt Disney. The series now is like those watered-down Disney movies from the 70s that were sleeping pills for parents.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Overdue review of criminally underrated album: "Armchair Theatre" by Jeff Lynne

Definitely the greatest rock and roll album you never heard of.

It bewilders me that this album really didn't register. By 1990 had classic rock stations given up on Jeff Lynne? Was it too classic rock-sounding during the onset of grunge?

This is a lost classic. It's an album about lost love and the resulting hope for redemption.

The standout (and should-have-been single) is "Now You're Gone,"  a haunting song about the grief and memories resulting from the loss of a loved one (Wikipedia says it's about his late mother, but you can apply it to any breakup).   This is carried by a driving piano line, Beatles harmonies and some unexpected Indian backing vocals at its climax. It's a natural progression from "Within Without You," and the reason to buy the album.

"What would it take?" is another driving rocker about trying to save a dying relationship. You'd think repeating the title in the verse and chorus would be a losing proposition, but Lynne makes it work. The chorus serves to make the pleas more dire.

"Blown Away" is a Beatles-esque anthem (the piano intro is borrowed from McCartney's "Hold Me Tight" from the "Red Rose Speedway" medley (and a couple  hundred other sources) but it becomes its own touching song. Then the coda comes along as a whole new inspiring anthem on its own. You might cry. Tom Petty co-wrote this and it really should have become Lynne's "Let It Be."

Lynne pays tribute to his pre-rock and roll influences with covers of  "Stormy Weather,"  "September Song and the pre-rockabilly "Don't Let Go," "Stormy Weather" and "September Song" get an up tempo treatment. "September Song" becomes a skiffle. "Don't Let Go," turns a semi-forgotten blues number into a Elvis Presley-Chuck Berry hybrid.

If you're a fan of the Beatles, The Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, ELO or any blues-inspired rock band, there's no reason this album isn't on your iPod.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Philadelphia Theatre review: The Light Princess

In a magical kingdom, an aggrieved witch/aunt bestows upon a newborn princess the curse of no gravity. Both literally (she floats away if not tethered) and metaphorically: She takes nothing serious and it gets annoying after a while, especially all the fart sounds.

This is what's going on in the upstairs, intimate theater at the Arden. The show is a slightly more serious musical for children, especially if they had seen the charming "A Year with Frog and Toad," at the Arden just a few months earlier.

I brought my 9-year-old, and I thought he was too mature for the first act, but during the second act when a character decides to sacrifice his life for the good of the kingdom, I was thinking he wasn't mature enough. The second act does take a serious shift and a lot of heinies of 6 and 7 year olds got squirmy.

You might think of "Into the Woods," another fairy tale with a light first act and a consequence-laden second act.

Composer Alex Bechtel plays the handsome prince, and wicked aunt, and plays the piano.  His prince is textbook, but his witch channels Dame Edna via Charles Nelson Reilly. Kinda funny but kinda scary, too.

Brett Ashley Robinson has a tough job making a girl without empathy a sympathetic character. Her obnoxious princess is reminiscent of Gildna Radnor's Lisa Loobner. She can also flip the switch to be the nice princess (whenever she's in the water for reasons I wasn't sure of), and she's a whole new, more likable character.

 Lyricist, Philly stage veteran  Tony Lawton plays narrator and some smaller fill-in parts. A funny running gag is when the king (Rob Tucker) keeps asking him who he's talking to.

Tucker and the queen Emily Gardner Xu Hall, play the loving parents trying to figure out what to do with their special child, while making up the rest of the orchestra. Between the two of of them they played piano, viola, guitar and in the q-and-a session after the show, they admitted to learning the accordion for this production.

The show has been extended through June 4, and really, the Arden can do no wrong. So if you have a child ready to make the next step from "Frog and Toad," this is your chance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Big epiphanies

In yesterday's post I made the 
sweeping, near-blasphemous statement that all one-camera sitcoms are terrible and unwatchable. (there's a couple exceptions).

It just insults me that Darren yells, "Sam!" , Sam winces and says, "Well." and the laugh track laughs hysterically. I grew up watching this stuff, it took me years to realize not only isn't this funny, but it's terrible!

The catalyst was a visit to my high school journalism class by Joan Dinerstein, a Philly news personality. Far from being the smiling news anchor we saw on TV every night, she was a little more blunt about TV and TV news.

One of the things she said that stuck with me was, "Watch your family watch TV; are they laughing at the comedies?"

And she was right, no one was laughing at the comedies, we just sat like zombies.

Joan Dinerstein pretty much ruined TV for me. But in a good way.

The first time I actually burst out laughing at a TV show was that scene in the Simpsons where Homer skateboards into a canyon, gets pulled up by stretcher, banging his head on every crevice, and all in the space of 20 seconds, he is loaded into an ambulance, the ambulance hits a tree, the back doors pop open and Homer's gurney comes flying out of the back of the ambulance and back down the canyon!


So it took about 30 years of watching TV before I laughed out loud.

I'm talking about the sitcoms of the '60s and 70s, and though single-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks are pretty rare nowadays, the three-camera sitcoms in front of live audiences are guilty of being lazy and sweetening the laughter. Watch "Friends,"  or even "Big Bang Theory," for that matter. It's all set-up, punchline, hysterical laughter, set-up, punchline, hysterical laughter. Compare this to "Modern Family or "Kimmy Schmdt." These are single-camera sitcoms with no laugh track. We're not told when to laugh, we have to figure it out ourselves. The writers have to work for the laughs, they just can't have Ed O'Neill say to Sofia Vergara "Gloria!!" and Gloria says, "well."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Flash review, third season finale (spoilers)

As the Internet figured out weeks ago, Iris wasn't killed by  by Savitar, it was HR who switched places with her using a previously established illusion-maker. This was revealed pretty quickly though, which served to not insult the viewers.

Barry's plan to appeal to Savitar's nice-Barry side, and offering to fix things if Savitar would turn nice and come to STAR labs was also a little misguided. He's spent thousands of years planning Iris' murder and he wants to rule all time, and he's suddenly going to turn nice when reminded of a happy memory? Nah.

Savitar's plan to have Cisco fix the speed force bazooka was also misguided, of course he was going to sabotage it.

Oh but screw all that, it was all worth it for a great climax featuring three Flashes, Killer Frost, and Gypsy. And Barry knocking Savitar out of his costume was pretty cool (as was the illusion effect with  Iris and HR).

All in all a satisfying ending to a pretty enjoyable season...If you don't think too hard about it.

The ending though ... what was that? The Speed Force sends earthquakes until Barry sacrifices himself, and Barry just walks in voluntarily. He gives everyone a hug goodbye? I didn't buy any of it.

Lost opportunities in television Part 2: Bewitched cast

Though I grew up watching them I can no longer watch one-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks. They're unwatchable, and worse never funny. (some exceptions below)

Let's think with our heads and not with our hearts. "Bewitched" was a terrible show.

Use the below variables to make your own episode.
Sam's Mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, daughter....
casts a spell on Darrin and turns him into a monkey, dog, zebra, someone who can't lie, someone with polka dots, etc....
on the same day the big client is coming for a presentation. Fortunately the client mistakes the curse for the advertising campaign and thinks the idea is brilliant!

This was every episode. (except for that one weird one where Sam helps a local boy build a soap box car which appeared to be an unsold pilot script for a totally different show)

In fairness, here's some bright spots: Bernard Fox's unhinged doctor, and I have to give them credit for Maurice Evans' and Agnes Moorehead's characters relationship to each other. On TV, no one ever was divorced, yet here was a couple who were separated for years apparently, but still had  a fondness for one another. This was unique for TV in the 60s.

(and for the record, Dick York was a better Darrin than Dick Sargent. York could easily switch from flustered to  loving, whereas Sargent always just seemed pissed.)

So here's my point, the show was terrible, the cast was actually pretty good, and here's my lost opportunity: Picture the same cast in an MTM-style 1970s sitcom for grownups.

An office comedy, full of slightly damaged, yet optimistic characters trying to get their jobs done, making mistakes, having differences, but still getting along.  It could have been done.

Picture the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Montgomery in a comedy written for grown-ups! With old Shakespearean Maurice Evans, Orson Welles vet Agnes Moorehead, the unhinged Bernard Fox! It would have been wonderful.

There  is precedent for this. Bob Crane, star of the morally indefensible "Hogan's Heroes," starred in the "Bob Crane Show" for MTM where he played a middle aged man who trades in his comfortable life to follow his dream to go to medical school. Or Bill Daly, who went from playing the wacky best friend in the terrible Bewitched rip-off "I Dream of Jeanie" to play the wacky neighbor in MTM's immeasurably more sophisticated "Bob Newhart Show."

(Gavin MacLeod is some weird exception to this, he was in the terrible one-camera with laugh track "McHale's Navy," then moved onto "Mary Tyler Moore," arguably the best sitcom of all time, then slid backward into the terrible one-camera laugh track "Love Boat.").

(some exceptions to the one-camera laugh track sitcoms are terrible rule: "That Girl" and "Get Smart")