Monday, October 16, 2017

Overdue film review: "Spectre"

Here's a good rule of thumb for the James Bond producers: If your tropes are parodied in "Austin Powers" movies, stop using the trope. Just stop.

This occurred to me during the scene where Spectre gets together around a big table, a member admits a failure and is promptly killed. And the viewer is not surprised at all.

I know, templates must be followed, but "Casino Royale" found new ways to tell an old story. "Spectre" finds old ways to tell an old story.

The pre-credits sequence features the same fight-in-a-helicopter scene we saw in "For You Eyes Only." Bond is beating on the pilot, why is he beating on the pilot of an airborne helicopter! This is the Indiana Jones problem of always having a fight in a moving vehicle. Why doesn't the driver just pull over and continue the fight?

Then after destroying Mexico City, Bond is called into the boss's office for the "The Prime Minister" wants my guts for garters," speech, which we've seen in the Daniel Craig Bond movies and every "Dirty Harry" movie.

No, no more!

Once again, this was parodied in the "Naked Gun" movies where Leslie Nielsen is dressed down for shooting up a Playhouse in the Park production of "West Side Story."

OK, Bond then gets a shot of technology so they can keep track of him. Umm, what happened to the chip he got in "Casino Royale" for the same reason?

Let's just ignore the making love to the widow of the man he just killed scene. We'll give them that.

Then he's using a biplane to chase the bad guys' cars, one of which has the kidnapped heroine. He destroys the cars randomly, fortunately, not the one with the damsel in it. But really, isn't using a biplane the worst way to chase cars in a mountainous forest?

Later we finally meet the villain. Hey everybody, MGM finally regained the rights to Spectre and Blofeld. Woo hoo. This is just like making a Star Trek movie with Khan because, um, you know, the fans will like it. Yeah, Bond and Star Trek have this in common: Recasting an old villain with a new actor with none of the charm of the original actor (or actors) doesn't mean it's going to be good, it just pretty much means you've run out of ideas.

The Daniel Craig films have two innovations for better or worse, they work as as running story arc, (a Bond girl gets killed and it still haunts him; she hasn't been forgotten, the stories kind of tie in together), and they're working to give Bond a backstory. Admirable, but unnecessary. It's like all fan fiction. The writer finds a single sentence from the original source material and thinks, "I can write an entire book (or make a movie) about this."

Remember that sentence from "Star Wars: A New Hope."? "Many rebels lost their lives to steal these plans." Ta-dah! We get "Rogue One." An entire movie based on one sentence.

They do the same thing here. In the novels, it's mentioned James Bond's parents were killed in a skiing accident. "Spectre" takes it from there. What if Blofeld's dad adopted James, so James and Blofeld were practically brothers?! Genius!, No, not really, first of all, they stole this from the Austin Powers movie that proposed that he and Dr. Evil were brothers. See my rule of thumb up top warning against stealing from your parody. Secondly, did I mention this is all unnecessary?

(There's also some bad photoshopping of young Daniel Craig and young Christopher Waltz).

There's also a scene where they're riding the Istanbul Express (or some kind of luxury train,) and she gets a evening gown from nowhere, and he gets a tuxedo from nowhere.

At the end of the movie, Blofeld is captured, but does not die a horrible death as all Bond villains do. I'm mixed about this. I've been faulting this movie for copying from all the others, so it would be wrong for me now to complain when they don't follow the template.

Also, after not killing Blofeld, we have M on one side of the bridge they're standing on, and the damsel on the other side, giving Bond a clear choice, the service, or the girl. He chooses the girl, but this rings hollow because by the next film, she'll be forgotten, or worse yet, they'll do like they did in the second Jason Bourne movie and just kill her in the first five minutes.

It would have meant something if this were Daniel Craig's last film as Bond, but it's already known he's coming back.

Also, M sends him a video from the grave to find a terrorist and kill him!? Why didn't she just ask him to do it while she was alive?

Bringing back Spectre was a terrible idea. They were never that good to begin with. Let's think about it, a super secret society of evil where all members get identifying rings (or tattoos), psss, if you want to keep your society secret, don't all wear matching rings.

It's so disappointing, Casino Royale was so good, the rest of the Daniel Craig films have been awful, and speaking of Daniel Craig, has he ever looked more bored in this film. He shows no emotion the entire film.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

I liked it, my 10-year-old liked it, what more do you need in a summer blockbuster?

This is a dialed-back Marvel film, Spider-Man isn't saving the world, just catching a bad guy. Most importantly, even though it's a reboot, we skip the whole origin story. The radioactive spider is mentioned, but that's it. And not a word about Uncle Ben.

Thank you for skipping all that; no one needs it anymore. The only thing missing that's important to the canon is J. Jonah Jameson. But I didn't miss him until my 10 year old pointed out his absence after the film.

Tom Holland (another Brit to play the role) plays it as an awkward teenager very anxious to get in the game, but is told to "keep to the ground" by (on-loan-from-Disney) Tony Stark. You don't believe he's 15, but still, he is good enough to make you forget the other Spider-Men.

This is another winner for Michael Keaton, who is less a genius super villain, and more a mob guy who's just doing business. He's not trying to  conquer the world, he's just running a black market for weapons. They're alien-enhanced weapons, but hey, business is business.

A third-act twist turned this good movie into a really good movie. There's a scene where you watch the gears turn in Keaton's head as he figures out Spider-Man's secret identity that's just as suspenseful as anything you'd see in a Hitchcock film.

There's just enough Avengers crossover to keep things interesting in the Marvel Universe, without it overshadowing the main star. (There's a funny running gag about Captain America doing all-purpose PSA's for Peter Parker's high school).

Marisa Tomei is the hottest Aunt Mae ever, but I'm not complaining.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A good Blondie

A bad Blondie is when they try to combine modern technology and Dagwood's eating. Dagwood finds an app that shows him where the best hamburgers are, or whatever. It always feels forced and is never funny.

Every once in a while though,  it goes back to basics, throws a curve, catches me off guard, and I laugh out loud. This is one of those strips.

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.